A March report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) found that most COVID-19 disinformation online is being spread by just 12 people. A Facebook analysis found that 73% of 689,000 anti-coronavirus vaccinations posts shared between February and mid-March came from this group.
Among the 12 are Robert F Kennedy Jr, the nephew of former President John F Kennedy, who has been an anti-vaxxer long before the pandemic. In the 1990s, Kennedy Jr began to spread disinformation that some vaccines given in childhood were connected to autism diagnoses and the development of allergies.
More recently, in a letter addressed to President Biden, Kennedy Jr. claimed that the CDC is administering propaganda and that “the sad reality is vaccines cause injuries and death.” Later in the same letter, however, he also wrote that it’d be impossible for autopsies determine if death was caused by a “vaccine adverse event.”
But beating Robert F Kennedy Jr to the No. 1 spot in the ‘disinformation dozen’ is Joseph Mercola, a natural health doctor based in Cape Coral, Florida.
Mercola is no newcomer to the anti-vaxx movement
According to the New York Times, Mercola has built his career on far-fetched health notions, including claims that spring mattresses amplify radiation and that tanning beds can reduce the chance of getting cancer. Cashing in on his followers, he sold them at-home tanning beds that cost between $1,200 and $4,000. He was then sued by the Federal Trading Commission and agreed to pay his customers refunds totaling $5.3 million, according to a 2016 report from the Chicago Tribune.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Mercola has focused his zeal against COVID vaccines.
Articles published on his website include “Thyme Extract Helps Treat COVID-19” and another titled “Could Hydrogen Peroxide Treat Coronavirus?” which was published in April and shared on Facebook 4,600 times, according to screenshots in the CCDH’s report.
Mercola later removed the hydrogen peroxide article, and others, from his site, due to what he called the “fearmongering media and corrupt politicians” censoring his content, which he alleges have led to personal threats.
With an audience of 3.6 million over Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, the CCDH report found that Mercola has been the most far-reaching spreader of COVID disinformation.
In an emailed response to the Times, Mercola said it was “quite peculiar to me that I am named as the #1 superspreader of misinformation.”
While some social media platforms have taken steps to identify and remove disinformation, many of the 12 people’s accounts are still active, including Mercola’s, where he often shared multiple posts a day.
Early in the pandemic, data scientists at Facebook asked for resources to monitor COVID-19 misinformation on the platform, but were ignored by leadership, according to a report from The New York Times.
The Times spoke to two people who were present at a meeting where data scientists asked for resources to study the spread of COVID-19 misinformation. The data scientists asked for new hires and to assign some current employees to the project, but management never approved it, and never gave an explanation, the people told The Times.
White House officials and experts have urged Facebook to share its own data about the spread and prevalence of misinformation.
It is not clear whether Facebook packages that data so it can be usefully studied.
One source told The Times that Facebook has the raw data, but hasn’t put resources towards defining and labeling misinformation.
A Facebook spokeswoman told The Times: “The suggestion we haven’t put resources toward combating Covid misinformation and supporting the vaccine rollout is just not supported by the facts.
“With no standard definition for vaccine misinformation, and with both false and even true content (often shared by mainstream media outlets) potentially discouraging vaccine acceptance, we focus on the outcomes – measuring whether people who use Facebook are accepting of COVID-19 vaccines.”
Facebook did not immediately respond when contacted by Insider for comment on The Times’ report.
It’s the latest example of the deadly effect of the modern anti-vax movement.
Vaccine resistance has grown since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.
At the time, former President Donald Trump downplayed the danger of the virus for political reasons, fearing – rightly – that the economic shock from the lockdowns would be politically damaging. Meanwhile, media figures on Fox News and other right-wing outlets dove headfirst into spreading doubts about the efficacy of vaccinations.
Since then, Republican lawmakers and their allies in the media have driven the movement’s growth. Anti-mask and anti-lockdown protests have combined with the existing anti-vax movement over the past 15 months, creating a Frankenstein’s monster of well-intentioned skepticism of the pharmaceutical industry, various pseudo-sciences, and the far right.
The future consequences of the movement’s rise in popularity were always clear. Maryland is the first state to show so starkly the deadly effect of the lies of the anti-vax movement, but it won’t be the last.
Conservative media is enabling fringe conspiracies
Anti-vax hysteria has largely taken over conservative media. Reviews of segments on Fox News’ Laura Ingraham Show show the host and her guests promoting all manner of unsubstantiated theories about the effects of the vaccination, from brain bleeds to suggesting the push to get people vaccinated is part of a shadowy plot to control people’s health choices.
Ingraham’s Fox cohort Tucker Carlson, the extremist host of the most watched cable news primetime program, has told his audience that the vaccine is the first step on the path to eugenics. He’s welcomed guests like Charlie Kirk who call vaccines “apartheid” and notorious conspiracy theorist Naomi Wolf, who was banned from Twitter for spreading dangerous misinformation about COVID and the vaccine.
I reported on Wolf’s anti-vax activism last month: she was the keynote speaker at a tone-deaf “Juneteenth” event in upstate New York, and people involved in the event referred to vaccination efforts as the first step on the way to the Holocaust, likening their fight to that of Black people in chattel slavery. They weren’t even sure if COVID itself was real: “I’m not 100% convinced that the germ theory, as typically described, is true,” Leland Lehrman, an anti-vax advocate in the area, told me.
But while people like Wolf once were on the extreme fringe edge, they’re becoming more and more likely to be platformed by more moderate right-wing media figures. That’s led in turn to the Republican rank and file being mistrustful of vaccines and resisting using them.
As FiveThirtyEight reported in an analysis of vaccine hesitancy trends on July 8, 29% of GOP voters who watch Fox are unlikely to get vaccinated. The number jumps to 37% when applied to those who watch OANN and fellow far right outlet Newsmax. As bad as Fox is, it’s not even the worst thing conservatives could be watching with respect to their vaccine hesitancy.
Vaccine conspiracies are dangerous – and illogical
Far right figures, New Age grifters, and the modern GOP all coming together around vaccine resistance shows the strange bedfellows that the conspiracy theory has created. But at a closer look, they’re not so dissimilar.
Conspiracy theories rely on simplistic explanations for complex systems and events. Whether it’s the fear of a cabal of elites controlling your every move whose actions determine the course of history, or the belief that vaccine developers aim to rewrite your DNA, these fear-based approaches to explaining the world have their appeal.
Simple logic dispels conspiratorial fears around vaccines. Mass producing medicine that hurts consumers, when consumers are the vast majority of the population, is just not a viable approach to treating people for the pharmaceutical industry. And if the claims around vaccine danger, from causing autism to dangerous mercury levels to implanting tracking chips into your body, were remotely true, they would be easily provable and would result in swift justice, either meted out by the state or the people.
But the fact that the claims about vaccines are logically unbelievable hasn’t stopped figures on the far right and, increasingly, in mainstream conservatism from amping up those fears at the expense of the health of their audience and the public at large. At its root, vaccine resistance is a fundamentally selfish and uncaring act which places individual choice over the good of the community – so it already has a home in the right’s guiding ideological principles. Combined with the American conservative movement’s penchant for conspiracy, it’s a good match.
In Pennsylvania and Arizona, GOP lawmakers are fighting against schools requiring proof of vaccination – despite the fact that such mandates do not at present exist – citing over-regulation and the security of medical records as the reason for pre-emptive legislation against it.
“We’re all being used as guinea pigs,” Arizona state Senator Sonny Borelli said in May.
And a suggestion by President Joe Biden that government officials “need to go to community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood, and oftentimes, door to door – literally knocking on doors – to get help to the remaining people protected from the virus” was met with resistance from Republicans, with Reps. Marjorie Taylor-Greene and Lauren Boebert describing the proposal as a strategy only Nazis would use.
These moves send a message to the public that vaccines are a danger in more ways than one and that they’re to be resisted – turning public health into another culture war battle. The Republican Party and its media apparatchiks tend to fall back on emotional issues when faced with Democratic control of the government, using its base’s passion and conspiratorial thinking to its advantage in the following election.
The trend has led to a more radically right-wing party base which in turn has demanded far more extreme positions from their leaders. By turning against vaccines and public health, they’re endangering all of us.
In the wake of the January 6 Capitol riot, so-called militia groups such as the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers were in disarray.
Their members, dressed for war, were on the front line of the violence that rocked the seat of US democracy that day.
But involvement in the attack brought intense pressure on the groups from US law enforcement. Six members of the Three Percenters were in June charged with conspiring to attack the Capitol, following a slew of similar charges against Oath Keepers members.
But they are far from defeated, instead regrouping and rallying round a new cause: anti-vaccine conspiracy theories.
Members of the groups use apps such as Telegram to evade scrutiny and plot their next moves, experts told Insider.
On mainstream platforms such as Facebook they are seeking to pull in new recruits under the anti-vaccine cause.
The development marked a new intertwining of two dangerous conspiracy-theory movements, according to Jason Blazakis, Director of Center on Terrorism, Extremism, and Counterterrorism at California’s Middlebury Institute of International Studies.
“Anti-vaccine conspiracy theories are certainly being used as a recruitment tool by these organizations to try to increase the number of individuals included in the fold. It’s one of their primary narratives,” he told Insider.
Insider has seen proof of this happening on Facebook.
Katie Paul is director of the Tech Transparency Project, a nonprofit that monitors the spread of violent propaganda and disinformation on major tech platforms.
She told Insider that militias have an extensive Facebook presence despite policies to ban both them and anti-vaccine disinformation more broadly.
She said that militias on the platform aim to convert people’s anger into “this belief that any kind of government action… is either tyranny or some sort of infringement.”
She shared screenshots from several public militia groups promoting anti-vaccination conspiracy theories.
One page, Mike’s Corner, has nearly half a million followers. Its profile picture features the logo of the Three Percenters militia group.
The screenshot showed a merchandise page selling t-shirts with anti-vaxx slogans. Paul said that Facebook was likely profiting from the sales.
Another militia group, The West Texas Minutemen which has more than 1,000 members, is almost entirely focussed on anti-vaxx propaganda, said Paul.
“It gives them opportunities to recruit new people who may not have otherwise been interested in militia, but they’re following vaccine disinformation that they’re buying into,” said Paul.
In response to a request for comment from Insider, Facebook said it was removing Mike’s Corner for violating its policies. As of July 13, the page was inaccessible.
A statement from Facebook said: “Since August, we’ve removed 3,400 Pages, 19,500 groups, and 7,500 Instagram accounts representing militarized social movements, and more than 18 million pieces of content on Facebook and Instagram that violate our COVID-19 and vaccine policies since the pandemic began.
“Since we know that these groups are always evolving, we adjust how we enforce our rules against them to keep people safe.”
Militia groups plotting attacks on government targets, warns US intelligence
Some of the best-known militia groups included disillusioned former US military personnel.
In a report issued in February, US intelligence agencies warned of the ongoing threat posed by far-right extremists, singling out white supremacist and militia groups. Militia groups, they said, were plotting attacks on government targets, both buildings and people.
Blazakis said that he feared that vaccination clinics of those seeking inoculation could soon be the targets of violent plots by an individual or individuals radicalised by militia propaganda.
As the Delta variant continues nationwide, Dr. Anthony Fauci is urging Americans – and anti-vaxxers in particular – to protect themselves against the coronavirus.
Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in an interview that aired Sunday, Fauci called the coronavirus pandemic a “formidable enemy” that’s “tragically really disrupted our planet now for about a year and a half.”
He alluded to anti-vaxxers who have been at best hesitant to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.
“Whatever the reasons,” he said, “some of them are ideological, some of them are just fundamentally anti-vax or anti-science or what have you. But, you know, we just need to put that aside now. We’re dealing with a historic situation with this pandemic. And we do have the tools to counter it. So for goodness’ sakes, put aside all of those differences and realize that the common enemy is the virus.”
The variant has been detected in all 50 states, and health officials all over – including Fauci and others across city, state, and federal levels – continue to urge Americans to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.
More than 605,000 people have died from the coronavirus since its inception in the United States, according to the latest data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. About 47% of the total US population is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, JHU data says.
President Joe Biden said he hoped at least 70% of all adults in the country would receive at least one dose by the Fourth of July holiday this year. Twenty states have already hit the 70% partial vaccination rate among their adult populations. But nationwide, the White House conceded Biden’s goal would likely fall short.
In the same interview, Fauci said deaths from the coronavirus are at this point “avoidable and preventable.”
“The overwhelming proportion of people who get into trouble are the unvaccinated,” Fauci said. “Which is the reason why we say this is really entirely avoidable and preventable.”
People who don’t get vaccinated against the coronavirus are increasing the likelihood of Delta variant spikes across the country, Dr. Anthony Fauci said.
In an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” that aired Sunday, Fauci, the nation’s leading coronavirus expert, said the Delta variant could spike in different regions, even as overall vaccination rates go up and new COVID-19 cases go down.
There’s a “disparity in the willingness to be vaccinated,” Fauci said. “So there are some states where the level of vaccination of individuals is 35% or less. Under those circumstances, you might expect to see spikes in certain regions, in certain states, cities, or counties.”
“And in some places, some states, some cities, some areas where the level of vaccination is low and the level of virus dissemination is high – that’s where you’re going to see the spikes,” he said.
Already, the variant has been detected in all 50 states, and health officials all over continue to urge Americans to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.
In some states, specific counties are seeing drastically higher rates of confirmed coronavirus cases. Health officials there attribute the spike to the Delta variant.
Colorado, for example, is overall seeing a decrease in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases. But regionally, the Delta variant is causing spikes. Mesa County in Colorado has had a 34% increase in the number of positive coronavirus cases within the last two weeks, according to a COVID-19 tracker from The New York Times.
The Delta variant “is more effective and efficient in its ability to transmit from person to person,” Fauci said Sunday. “It’s clear that it appears to be more lethal in the sense of more serious – allow you to get more serious disease leading to hospitalization, and in some cases leading to deaths.”
More than 605,000 people have died from the coronavirus in the United States, according to the latest data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. About 47% of the total US population is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, JHU data say.
“I don’t think you’re going to be seeing anything nationwide,” Fauci said of Delta variant spikes. “Because fortunately, we have a substantial proportion of the population vaccinated. So it’s going to be regional. And that’s the thing that will be confusing when people look at what we do. We’re going to see, and I’ve said, almost two types of America.”
The sheriff’s deputy had also captioned a TikTok post, which he shared on his Facebook profile, with a vaccine-hesitant message.”I’ll get it later on after y’all start growing apendages [sic] out of y’alls foreheads,” he wrote.
Trujillo shared an Instagram post in July 2020 that suggested he refused to wear masks, according to a screenshot shared by MailOnline. “Before you shame me in public for not having a mask, ask yourself one simple question,” the post said. “Will this mask stop an uppercut?”
Denver Sheriff Elisa Diggins announced that Trujillo’s passing would be considered a “line of duty” death on Thursday evening, The Denver Channel reported.
Trujillo is the second Denver Sheriff Department deputy to die of COVID-19 complications this month, the local media outlet said. Deputy James Herrera also died from the coronavirus on May 16.
Both had been eligible for a vaccine since January, Denver Sheriff Department spokeswoman Daria Serna told Canoncitydailtrecord.com.