Last week, Facebook axed the biggest anti-vaccine group on its platform. “Stop Mandatory Vaccination,” which at one point had more than 200,000 followers, was a cesspool of anti-vaccine propaganda, where members regularly peddled and profited off “natural remedies” while discouraging each other from seeking traditional medical care.
But the group hadn’t violated a policy against spreading dangerous health misinformation, or pushing vaccine falsehoods, or hawking unproven “cures” when it suddenly disappeared last Tuesday night — no such rules exist on Facebook. It was shut down for promoting QAnon.
QAnon rhetoric has been seeping into anti-vax pages all over social media in recent months. Devoted adherents of the conspiracy theory have weathered tech giants’ sweeping crackdowns by infiltrating other communities that exist on the platforms, then poisoning them with disinformation. This has transformed the large ecosystem of anti-vax communities online into radicalization pipelines for QAnon.
“The purpose of vaccination is to literally slaughter the population and dumb everyone down and render them helpless,” Larry Cook, the creator of “Stop Mandatory Vaccination,” warned in his final Facebook Live video. “It is a global plan to literally enslave every human on the planet.”
Over Cook’s right shoulder was an image of the American flag atop the QAnon slogan, #WWG1WGA. Over his left was the letter Q, decorated in stars and stripes. Comments poured in from viewers thanking him for “awakening” them to the “truth.”
Like Cook, other leaders of the anti-vaccine movement including Ty and Charlene Bollinger as well as David Wolfe have introduced their followings to QAnon via their various anti-vax social channels, where content is less likely to be moderated. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube fail to remove 95% of the posts containing anti-vax misinformation that are flagged to them, according to a report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate.
Inside the sprawling network of anti-vaccination accounts on Instagram, which is one of the worst platforms for such content, you’re now about as likely to see a post baselessly claiming that Democrats rigged the election against President Donald Trump, or that COVID-19 was a pre-planned disaster, or that President-elect Joe Biden is a pedophile, as you are to see one exclusively disputing vaccine science.
To members of anti-vax communities, which are often filled with new mothers seeking information about vaccines, the transition has been pretty smooth. Unfounded vaccination fears have melded with QAnon propaganda to form a unified theory of elite malevolence. Vaccines are no longer simply a supposed health risk (note: vaccines are safe and rigorously tested) — they’re now part of a “deep-state” agenda to brainwash and control humanity.
“The virus is engineered. The pandemic is engineered. The second wave is engineered. The need for a vaccine is engineered,” Laura Muhl, one of Instagram’s most prominent anti-vax influencers and a mother of five, told her followers in a post earlier this year, between others floating similarly unsubstantiated nonsense (and advertising various “wellness” products).
Vaccination paranoia fits into the QAnon conspiracy theory quite neatly: As QAnon adherents tell it, Trump has for years been battling a deep-state cabal of liberal pedophiles inside the government who are trying to take over the world. As he grew more powerful, the cabal unleashed the coronavirus to exert control over the population by enforcing lockdowns and, eventually, by mandating a vaccine that will secretly be used to subdue people en masse. The removal of social media pages such as Cook’s is evidence of Big Tech’s involvement in this scheme, just as the lack of news coverage is proof of the mainstream media’s complicity.
None of this is true, of course, but as these conspiracy theories compound and gain momentum, they’re still causing serious damage, and have the potential to cause much more as a COVID-19 vaccine appears to be on track for release next year. For it to be maximally effective, it has to be widely administered. But more than a third of Americans say they would not get a free, Food and Drug Administration-approved coronavirus vaccine if one were available, according to recent Gallup polling — even as the death toll in the U.S. soars past a quarter-million people, and as health care officials stress that a vaccine could save countless lives.
This mass reluctance is fueled at least in part by the pandemic’s parallel infodemic of false and groundless vaccine-related claims circulating online. Conspiratorial narratives about the supposedly nefarious interests of key figures and institutions surrounding vaccines are now causing just as much vaccine skepticism as safety concerns are, according to a new report from First Draft, a global nonprofit that researches misinformation.
Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates became a coronavirus supervillain in anti-vax circles and beyond as a result of QAnon supporters’ viral, ludicrous claims that he will somehow use a COVID-19 vaccine to implant microchips into people’s brains to track their activities. A staggering 44% of Republicans believe this is true, a Yahoo News/YouGov poll found.
Similar QAnon conspiracy theories have emerged concerning the motivations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and leading infectious diseases specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci, at times with reinforcement from the president himself. The news that vaccines from U.S. drugmakers Pfizer and Moderna may soon be authorized for widespread use — a landmark milestone that could mark the beginning of the end of the pandemic — has ignited even more unhinged speculation in this realm.
This is where one might expect to see a blunt divide between the QAnon and anti-vax crowds. Trump is both a hero to QAnon believers and a major promoter of Operation Warp Speed, his administration’s program to rapidly develop and distribute COVID-19 vaccines. But like members of so many other hyperpartisan communities, conspiratorial anti-vaxxers are quick to twist facts and bend reality to fit their worldview. They believe Trump’s pro-vaccine talk is just a ruse to keep his critics at bay while he focuses on dismantling the deep state. Or as a commenter on one of Cook’s recent Instagram posts put it, he’s simply appeasing the “sheep.”
Even before the pandemic, social media platforms were rife with anti-vax propaganda. Most of it centered around strictly health-related concerns, such as the debunked myth that vaccines cause autism. This kind of misinformation had already reached dangerous levels. In early February, members of Cook’s Facebook group urged a mother not to give her ill, unvaccinated 4-year-old son his doctor-prescribed antiviral medication, suggesting that she try thyme and elderberry instead, NBC News reported. She followed their advice; the boy died four days later.
Now, as QAnon’s COVID-19 conspiracy theories abound, the information ecosystem around vaccines is drastically worse. The constantly evolving nature of the crisis has produced “data deficits” in which the “demand for information about a topic is high, but the supply of credible information is low,” as First Draft noted in its report.
QAnon has eagerly swooped in to fill the void, pushing its far-right, fact-free narratives in front of anxious parents and other people desperately searching for answers about the virus and the nation’s efforts to contain it.
The result is a raging information war that is pitting facts against fiction and swiftly eroding trust in vaccines at a dire moment in American history.