If there’s one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has made crystal clear, it’s that the antivaccine movement is at its heart driven by a conspiracy theory—multiple conspiracy theories, actually. The primary conspiracy theory behind the antivaccine movement is that “they” (“they” being the CDC, big pharma, the government, the medical profession) “know” that vaccines cause autism, autoimmune diseases, and all the other conditions and diseases attributed to vaccines by antivaxxers but that “they” are keeping the data and evidence showing the links between vaccines and these conditions from you. Most antivaccine conspiracy theories are variants of this kind of conspiracy theory, which I like to call the “central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement“. The two main examples are the Simpsonwood conspiracy theory popularized by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. in 2005, which claimed that the CDC “knew” that the mercury in the thimerosal preservative that was used in several childhood vaccines until 2001 was the cause of “autism” but massaged the data to make the link go away, and the “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory popularized by Del Bigtree and Andrew Wakefield in their conspiracy movie disguised as a documentary VAXXED in 2016, which claimed that the CDC “knew” that the MMR vaccine causes autism in African-American boys but massaged the data—you guessed it!—to make the link go away. Which brings us to something called AMPFest
Early in the pandemic, there were naïve people who thought that the possibility of a deadly infectious disease for which there was no preexisting immunity would make antivaxxers reconsider their views on vaccines, if only out of self-interest to avoid death or the debilitating aftereffects due to COVID-19 infections. There was also some hope that this was the chance for antivaxxers to “put their money where their mouth is” when it came to their claim that, instead of vaccines, they could simply quarantine and avoid others if their children got measles, by actually supporting and following public health measures designed to slow the spread of COVID-19. So when COVID-19 denial became widespread, along with numerous conspiracy theories about, for example how the causative virus SARS-CoV-2 was “engineered” in a laboratory, how 5G is the real cause of the pandemic, how the whole pandemic is a “plandemic“, how the flu vaccine supposedly increases your chances of getting COVID-19 (it doesn’t), and a wide variety of other medical conspiracy theories (in particular Bill Gates conspiracy theories), it was no surprise that by April the antivaccine movement had thoroughly allied itself with COVID-19 deniers. COVID-19 deniers were soon using language reminiscent of the antivaccine movement (such as “I do not consent; I do not comply”) while antivaxxers were launching a pre-emptive disinformation war against COVID-19 vaccines that hadn’t yet been approved (and still aren’t). Meanwhile, antivaccine quacks are taking full advantage to peddle their quackery. Soon antivaxxers were fully involved in peddling unproven treatments for COVID-19, such as hydroxychloroquine and bleach.
What spurred me to write about this topic again was a reminder sent to me of just how deeply antivaxxers have embedded themselves into the conspiracy world. Later this week, Donald Trump’s Doral Hotel will host a conference of Trump supporters, QAnon conspiracy theorists, and antivaxxers:
But next month, as the COVID-19 virus could very well be entering an expected second wave, one of Trump’s hotels will become a hub for anti-vaccine activism. Some of the most notorious figures in the anti-vaccine movement are set to converge on the president’s Trump National Doral Miami resort in early October for a MAGA-world conference.
The anti-vaccine figures won’t be the only fringe GOP movement represented at Trump’s property during the American Priority Conference or “AMPFest”, which runs from October 8-11. They’ll be joined by top QAnon conspiracy theory promoters, including one with a history of anti-Semitic remarks.
There’s even a pool party.
Anti-vaccine heavyweights Robert Kennedy Jr. and Del Bigtree are scheduled to appear in early October at Doral Miami for the MAGA-heavy AMPFest, a conglomeration of Trumpworld personalities now in its third year that was started by a handful of conservative internet activists as a more explicitly pro-Trump alternative to the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Del Bigtree and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. are two of the heaviest heavyweights in the antivaccine movement at the moment, up there with Andrew Wakefield himself. In antivax world, it doesn’t get much bigger than them, and we’ve written about them here on many occasions. You might recall Del Bigtree. He produced the antivax conspiracyfest of a movie VAXXED, donned a yellow Star of David to liken the “plight” of antivaxxers to that of Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, and, most recently, was urging everyone to “catch this cold” (COVID-19) to reach herd immunity because, according to him, it’s only deadly to the old and sick. Meanwhile, RFK Jr. has been a leader of the antivaccine movement since 2005, when he popularized the Simpsonwood conspiracy theory. In more recent years, he’s been trying to recruit African-Americans to the antivax cause, claiming that vaccines and glyphosate are responsible for the obesity epidemic, labeling the current generation of children the “sickest generation” (because of vaccines, of course), and (also of course) going all-in on COVID-19 conspiracy theories.
I perused the list of speakers for AMPFest 2020 and was not so much surprised that there were antivaxxers on the bill, but how many there are. First of all, RFK Jr. is not just a speaker at the conference, he’s a headliner, which is rather amusing given how long he’s been a liberal icon and that AMPFest is a full MAGAfest of a conference, organized by Trump supporters to lionize Trump. Notice how he’s featured in the advertising:
He’s right up there with Roger Stone, Matt Gaetz, and Cory Lewandowski! Interestingly, though, this ad was from over two weeks ago, and I no longer see his name on the list of speakers on the AMP website itself, which makes me wonder if he’s still on there. Del Bigtree is still on the bill, complete with a photo, but I don’t see RFK Jr.’s name.
Be that as it may, other antivaxxers include Shannon Kroner, who’s known for having organized an antivax discussion full of false balance; Theresa Deisher, who came up with the idea that fetal DNA in Gardasil gets into the brain and causes neuroinflammation, resulting in autism; Mikki Willis, a director who made the COVID-19 conspiracy film masquerading as a documentary Plandemic and its sequel; and James Neuenschwander, a physician into alternative medicine who runs something called the Bio Energy Medical Center, who was originally going to be on Shannon Kroner’s antivaccine panel but ended up not being on it. Unsurprisingly, all the docs on this speakers’ bill are quacks; indeed Dr. Neuenschwander offers CEASE therapy for autism, a therapy based on homeopathy, and IV vitamin C and chelation therapy.
I’m guessing that there are other antivaxxers in the lineup as well, just that I’m not familiar with them. Most of them are a variety of Trump supporters, QAnon conspiracy theory adherents, and a variety of other science denialists and COVID-19 conspiracy theorists and grifters. It’s a new thing for AMPFest to feature so many antivaxxers, too:
The prominence of anti-vaccine figures on the AMPFest program marks a change for American Priority, whose earlier conferences didn’t prominently feature vaccine opponents. And it comes amid a flood of medical disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic. AMPFest’s 2019 iteration became briefly infamous after the conference played an edited video from 2014 action movie Kingsman: The Secret Service that showed Trump massacring his political critics and media figures in a church.
The Trump Organization didn’t respond to a request for comment about the anti-vaccine figures appearing at Doral Miami. American Priority president Alex Phillips didn’t address the new prominence of anti-vaccine figures on this year’s program in an email to The Daily Beast, writing instead that AMPFest doesn’t have “ideological purity tests” for speakers.
“We as an organization respect the sanctity of free speech and free association as a cornerstone of the American constitution,” Phillips wrote in an email to The Daily Beast.
There are also antimaskers, such as Tina Forte, and, unsurprisingly, most of the antivaxxers appearing at the conference have also glommed on to COVID-19 denialism and grift, which is why they fit in so well with this group:
Speakers scheduled to appear at the conference include Robert F. Kennedy Jr., known for spreading misinformation about vaccinations, and Dr. Simone Gold, who in July appeared in a viral video, later tweeted by Trump, in which she claimed hydroxychloroquine cures Covid-19, among other misleading assertions. (Gold appeared in the video with Dr. Stella Immanuel, who gained notice for claiming elsewhere that sex with demons in dreams causes illness.) The conference bills Gold, who says she met in July with Vice President Mike Pence, as “censored,” in an apparent reference to social media companies removing the video for promoting coronavirus misinformation.
Stone has gone further than Gold in that regard. In an April 13 radio interview with Joe Piscopo on New York City’s AM970, Stone floated a bizarre and false theory that Bill Gates helped to create coronavirus so that he can plant microchips in people’s heads. “He and other globalists are using it for mandatory vaccinations and microchipping people so we know if they’ve been tested,” Stone said, summarizing a theory he described as “open for vigorous debate.”
Given that COVID-19 deniers and conspiracy theorists often consort with QAnon believers, it’s not surprising that antivaxxers are speaking at AMPFest with QAnon promoters:
The speaker’s line-up also includes Matt Couch, an internet conspiracy theorist being sued by the brother of murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich.
QAnon conspiracy theory promoters are also set to appear at Doral Miami. Tracy Diaz, who uses the alias “Tracy Beanz” online, was one of the first QAnon promoters and is scheduled to speak at AMPFest. So is DeAnna Lorraine Tesoriero, a failed GOP congressional candidate and QAnon supporter who was recently hired at conspiracy theory outlet InfoWars.
AMPFest’s line-up also includes Zach Vorhies, a conspiracy theorist with a history of anti-Semitic remarks. Vorhies initially earned some fame on the right after serving as a “whistleblower” for undercover conservative operative James O’Keefe. But Vorhies has a long record of anti-Semitic remarks, once alleging that “Zionists” killed Andrew Breitbart and that Israel planned 9/11.
QAnon, remember, is a conspiracy theory that claims that there is a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are plotting against President Trump while running a global sex trafficking ring. Many of them also believe that, in addition to molesting children, members of this group kill and eat their victims in order to extract a life-extending chemical from their blood. Basically, QAnon is the very old antisemitic conspiracy known as the Blood Libel, rebranded and revamped for the Facebook century. For those not familiar with it, the Blood Libel is:
A secret cabal is taking over the world. They kidnap children, slaughter, and eat them to gain power from their blood. They control high positions in government, banks, international finance, the news media, and the church. They want to disarm the police. They promote homosexuality and pedophilia. They plan to mongrelize the white race so it will lose its essential power.
Does this conspiracy theory sound familiar? It is. The same narrative has been repackaged by QAnon.
I have studied and worked to prevent genocide for forty years. Genocide Watch and the Alliance Against Genocide, the first international anti-genocide coalition, see such hate-filled conspiracy theories as early warning signs of deadly genocidal violence.
The plot, described above, was the conspiracy “revealed” in the most influential anti-Jewish pamphlet of all time. It was called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was written by Russian anti-Jewish propagandists around 1902. It collected myths about a Jewish plot to take over the world that had existed for hundreds of years. Central to its mythology was the Blood Libel, which claimed that Jews kidnapped and slaughtered Christian children and drained their blood to mix in the dough for matzos consumed on Jewish holidays.
The Nazis published a children’s book of the Protocols that they required in the curriculum of every primary school in Germany. The Nazi newspaper, Der Stürmer (derived from the German word for “Storm”) spread the Blood Libel. Hitler’s Mein Kampf, his narcissistic autobiography and manifesto for his battle against the Jewish plot to rule the world, copied his conspiracy theories from the Protocols.
I’ve mentioned before that my primary gateway into conspiracy theories and pseudoscience was while refuting online Holocaust denial in the late 1990s. Then my interest widened to medical quackery and the antivaccine movement, then to more general skepticism. During that time, I learned a lot about the far right, fascism, neo-Nazi movements, and antisemitic conspiracy theories, of which Holocaust denial is among the most vile. I never thought that, 20 years later, my knowledge of these topics would be so useful. I should have realized, though, that knowledge of conspiracy theories is always useful for a skeptic. The reason is that conspiracy theories are at the heart of pretty much every form of science denial that there is.
I once coined a term, the central dogma of alternative medicine, to describe the belief that we have near-total control over our health through lifestyle, such as diet, activity, exercise, and a Secret-like belief that wishing makes it so. Antivaxxers and COVID-19 deniers share that mystical, magical belief system in which they are healthy entirely because of their choices, and they (and their children) are not at risk of horrible outcomes due to infectious disease because of their choices. It never occurs to them that age is a major risk factor for death from COVID-19 and that people can’t do anything about how old they were when the pandemic hit. Similarly, it never seems to trouble antivaxxers like Bigtree or COVID-19 deniers, the vast majority of whom are white and at least middle class if not affluent, that COVID-19 has exacted a much worse toll on African-Americans and other people of color, who are far more likely to suffer severe disease and die. It should thus not be surprising that antivaxxers are so at home among antisemitic conspiracy theories.
But why are conspiracy theories so important to science denial? I’ve always thought that it was because, when you don’t have facts or science on your side, you need to have a reason to explain why the entire medical, scientific, or history establishment believes something different than you do and considers your beliefs to be quackery, pseudoscience, or pseudohistory. So you construct a conspiracy theory that makes you the hero, someone who, with only a few others, shares hidden knowledge that is being suppressed by dark and powerful forces. If, for example, you’re a creationist, then it’s a cabal of dogmatic atheist Darwinists preventing your knowledge from being accepted. If you’re a 9/11 Truther, it must be the cabal in the government that, according to your conspiracy theory, was actually responsible for the attacks who must be responsible for the “official narrative”. If you’re a cancer quack, it’s a cabal of big pharma, the FDA, and the oncology establishment preventing your cancer “cure” from being accepted as mainstream. If you’re a QAnon believer, it’s a cabal of powerful people (nearly all liberal and/or Democrats) suppressing the “truth”. If you’re a Holocaust denier, it’s obviously the Jews keeping your knowledge from being accepted. If you’re a climate science denier, it obviously must be a cabal of climate scientists and liberals who want to impose government control of industry. If you’re an antivaxxer, then of course it’s a cabal consisting of the CDC, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the medical profession, big pharma, and Bill Gates. And if you’re a COVID-19 denier, it must be the CDC, big pharma, pro-vaxxers who want a vaccine (enter Bill Gates again!), the government (who wants to control you), and others suppressing the “truth”.
No wonder antivaxxers fit in so well at AMPFest. No wonder antivaxxers rapidly allied themselves with COVID-19 conspiracy theorists and became leaders in the movement opposing public health interventions for COVID-19 that includes antimaskers, lockdown protesters, and the like.
Unfortunately, too many people discount conspiracy theories as obvious nonsense, fit only for ridicule:
While ridicule is an appropriate response to many conspiracy theories, AMPFest and other developments let us know that it’s a mistake not to take conspiracy theories seriously. Much of the harm in the world is based on conspiracy theories, and many genocides have conspiracy theories at their heart. Conspiracy theories are also a major impediment to controlling childhood disease, addressing climate change, and, right now, remain one of the most intractable barriers, if not the most intractable barrier, to controlling the COVID-19 pandemic.