With Trump out of the White House and President Biden sworn in, far-right extremists have pivoted from their “Stop the Steal” messaging to take aim at the COVID vaccine. Joining ranks with the anti-vaxxer movement, far-right extremists are weaponizing public concern over the vaccine to undermine the government’s efforts to help end the pandemic and save lives.
The lack of leadership from the White House, botched messaging on the pandemic beginning in March 2020, and access to social media, created a breeding ground for a slow drip campaign allowing anti-vaxxers to sow doubt about COVID vaccines in advance. Lies exploited confusion over public health messaging, mask wearing, and overall vaccine safety. These lies about COVID-19 were left unchecked by social media platforms and allowed to spread.
Far-right extremists linked to QAnon, the Proud Boys, and the Boogaloo movement found an opportunity to spread hate, xenophobia, and racism by partnering with the anti-vaxxer movement. This unlikely partnership created one of the broadest extremist coalitions America has seen in recent times. Leading the coalition are mostly women who are leveraging their social networks to sow distrust in the COVID vaccine and spread disinformation.
The content shared on social media and in chat apps, such as Telegram, regarding the vaccine has gone from beyond skepticism and has morphed into the creation of conspiracy theories and fear mongering. Social media has seen a 50% increase in anti-vaxxer accounts since 2019.
Anti-vaxxers are employing a dangerously sophisticated playbook by spreading disinformation about the COVID vaccine, converting vaccine-hesitant people into committed anti-vaxxers, and refusing to remove their disinformation.
The three key messaging points anti-vaxxers use are as follows:
1. COVID is not dangerous:
Anti-vaxxers will often underplay the severity of COVID by claiming the number of deaths is grossly exaggerated and that COVID is no worse than the flu. Another part of the anti-vaxxer message is that COVID can be prevented and cured without a vaccine. This is False.
COVID is deadly. To date, more than 556,000 Americans have died from the pandemic. Meanwhile, in 2020, 22,000 Americans died from the flu. The danger COVID poses to your health is very real, and safeguards should be taken to prevent the spread of the virus.
2. The vaccine is dangerous:
Anti-vaxxers are touting safety concerns about the vaccines and raising alarm about the speed at which the vaccines were rushed to market, as well as claiming the vaccine worsens COVID symptoms. This is False.
All of the authorized COVID-19 vaccines have been rigorously tested to meet the FDA’s standards for safety and effectiveness. Already, millions of people in the United States have received COVID-19 vaccines, and the vaccine has proven safe and effective at keeping people from getting COVID-19 as well as from getting seriously ill if they do happen to contract the virus. The development of COVID vaccines was executed quickly because it was well funded and used proven and new technology.
3. Vaccine advocates cannot be trusted:
Anti-vaxxers seek to discredit and question motives of vaccine advocates. This part of their playbook creates a big tent enemy for both far-right extremists and anti-vaxxers who take aim at politicians, big pharma, as well as vaccine advocates. Extremists claim vaccine advocates are not motivated to put safety first, since they are unable to be held directly accountable by those receiving the vaccines. The argument that vaccine advocates cannot be trusted seeks to tie politicians to big pharma saying they receive campaign donations from pharmaceutical companies making them untrustworthy. This is false.
Vaccine advocates are working to help end the pandemic, and with each new person vaccinated, we are one step closer to getting back to normal. Putting us one step closer to family reunions, one step closer to backyard barbecues, and one step closer to the lives we want for ourselves and for our children. Getting your vaccine isn’t just a way to help your country, it’s the best way to help yourself, your community, and your family.
As with all extremist agendas, the goal is to sow distrust in the government and experts. This is achieved through the use of fear mongering tactics by deploying disinformation campaigns as described above.
In a time when America is working to end a global pandemic, the anti-vaxxer agenda is the antithesis of helpful, and opens the door to a larger problem for democracy. America has already seen what happens when conspiracy theories are allowed to lurk in the recesses of the internet left unchecked. America fell victim to a domestic terror attack on the U.S. Capitol by far-right extremists. After months of Trump sharing false claims and conspiracy theories of the election being stolen, extremists bought into these bogus claims and brought their online upset into the real world action. The January 6th insurrection is a sobering reminder of the dangers conspiracy theories can have on our democracy.
The anti-vaxxer and far-right extremist coalition should be taken seriously as they pose a real threat to our society. As citizens, we have a duty to not fan the flames of this extremist coalition and we should refuse to participate in their fear mongering narrative.
How can you help?
To help combat the disinformation and fear mongering of anti-vaxx extremists, don’t engage with online anti-vaccine disinformation. By replying to a social media post – even if you are sharing facts, you are amplifying the disinformation. When a social media post receives a lot of engagement, the algorithm deems the post as important and shows the post to more people.
If you see a family member or friend sharing disinformation about the COVID vaccine, contact them privately about their anti-vaccine posts. Ask open-ended questions about their concerns surrounding the vaccine and where they received their information. Offer to share science based information with them. By reaching out privately, you aren’t risking the spread of their disinformation and oftentimes, your credibility as their friend or family member carries more weight than that of a stranger’s.
According to Tara Kirk Sell, PhD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, “the insidious spread of false health information has matched the spread of COVID-19 stride for stride.” The way to combat the spread of false information is to share pro-vaccine material on social media. Sharing pro-vaccine material is an important part of helping to combat the disinformation and conspiracies being shared about the COVID vaccine.
As America works to remove itself from the clutches of an ongoing global health crisis, it is our duty to not fan the flames of anti-vaxxers, and to have conversations with friends and family members about the safety and importance of getting vaccinated. Together we can take COVID down and end the pandemic. This is your chance, don’t throw away your shot.