Earlier this week, I wrote about how an investigation by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) had revealed how antivaccine groups, including the most prominent ones like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense and Barbara Loe Fisher’s National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), had received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the federal government through the Paycheck Protection Program. It turns out that that investigation by the Center was not its only one. Thanks to Scott Gavura, I learned that the CCDH also investigated a meeting by antivaxxers held virtually in October with the express purpose of developing strategies, a playbook if you will, to sow fear, uncertainty, and doubt about the COVID-19 vaccines whose release through Emergency Use Authorization was imminent. In the US, those were primarily the vaccines by Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, both of which were RNA-based vaccines. The result is a report by the CCDH called The Anti-Vaxx Playbook. The meeting was, unsurprisingly, hosted by the NVIC.
Regular readers will not be the least bit surprised at the tactics outlined in the playbook, nor will they be surprised that the NVIC conference was called the Fifth International Public Conference on Vaccination, with a theme given the Orwellian name Protecting Health and Autonomy in the 21st Century. Perusing the virtual conference website, I see that the NVIC had presented a veritable cornucopia of antivaccine disinformation, including antivaccine propaganda films disguised as documentaries, such as The Greater Good (reviewed by yours truly here) and Andrew Wakefield’s new epic designed to demonize the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 and the Vaccine Court created by that act, 1986: The Act (reviewed here).
The keynote speakers at the conference were a veritable rogues’ gallery of antivaccine propagandists and grifters, all of whom I’ve written about at one time or another. The CCDH describes them thusly, although I’ve taken the liberty of adding links from this blog to previous discussions of their antivax grift:
- Barbara Loe Fisher is the co-founder and president of the NVIC, which itself maintains a Facebook page with 209,000 followers.
- Joseph Mercola is an “alternative medicine entrepreneur” and a funder of the NVIC.5 Social media accounts operated by Mercola and his wife have 3.6 million followers.
- Del Bigtree is the founder of Informed Consent Action Network (ICAN) and produces an online anti-vaccine news show called The HighWire with 343,000 followers.
- Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is the founder of Children’s Health Defence, another leading anti-vaccine charity. Kennedy commands a social media following of 1.3 million.
- Sherri Tenpenny operates a number of “alternative health” and anti-vaccine business ventures, supported by a network of social media accounts with 414,000 followers.
- Andrew Wakefield is the disgraced physician who “stood to profit” from claims linking the MMR jab to autism.9 Wakefield has since been struck off the UK General Medical Council’s medical register on charges of serious professional misconduct and produces anti-vaccine films that have proved to be influential on social media.
Yes, these are all names very familiar to regular readers of the antivaccine movement. It’s thus not surprising that they featured so prominently in this meeting. Heck, these are the glitterati, the most antivax of the antivaxxers, the veritable leaders of the antivaccine movement, and they all came together to give fellow antivaxxers strategies and talking points preemptively in order to scare people into not accepting COVID-19 vaccines.
Given the players, regular readers won’t be surprised by the rhetoric used to promote the meeting (and, no doubt, extensively in the meeting itself). Just look at the titles of the talks, coming from the keynote speakers and a grand total of 50 speakers:
- Aluminum Toxicity and Human Health
- Redefining Vaccine Reactions to Erase Evidence Of Harm
- From Masking to Mortality Rates: COVID-19 and What the Science Tells Us
- The New Technologies Driving the Creation of COVID-10 Vaccines
- The Top Five Reasons You Might Not want a COVID-19 Vaccine
- From Anthrax Vaccine to COVID-19: What You Need to Know About One Company Making a Coronavirus Vaccine
- Risks & Failures of HPV Vaccine for Cervical Cancer Prevention
- Consensus is Not Science and Science, Never Settled
- Manipulating Science to Endorse Policy and Market Products (Doctoring Data)
- Using Human Fetal Cells to Make Vaccines
- The Immune System, Vital Interference and Adverse Events
- Why and How Vaccine Mandates Violate the Ethical and Legal Right to Informed Consent
- Inflammation, Epigenetics and Autism: Lessons for COVID-19 Vaccines
- Why the Microbiome Matters
- What Veterinary Science Tells Us About Animal Vaccines
- Electronic Health Care Records: Tracking You From Birth to Death
- Battlefield America: Locking Down Civil Liberties in the Name of Public Health
- Why Homeschooling Is Under Attack and What You Can Do
- Respecting Life and Guarding Your Life and Your Soul
- Rejecting the Culture of Death to Embrace the Sanctity of Life
- The Role of Conscience for Martin Luther and the Protestant Religion
- The Moral Right to Exercise the Certain Judgment of Conscience
- The Shrinking Medical Vaccine Exemption Handcuffs Doctors & Increases Vaccine Risks
- The Physician’s Duty to First, Do No Harm
- When Public Policy Invalidates Professional Judgment
- Since When Did it Become A Crime To Support the Immune System?
- Censoring Freedom of Speech: If It Can Happen to Me, It Can Happen to Anyone
- Vitalism and Chiropractic on the Front Lines
- Grassroots Rising
- How to Take Back Control of Your Health
- Defending Life & Liberty In the Vaccine Culture War
- Pharmaceutical Companies Must Be Held Legally Accountable for Vaccine Injuries & Deaths
- What has Happened to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System?
- Adult Vaccine Mandates: They’re Coming for You Next
- Psychological Warfare During the COVID-19 Era
- Under the Influence: The Vaccine Mandate Lobby Influencing State Legislatures
- Knowledge is Power
- Past is Prologue: What the History of the 1986 Act Reveals
- Tyranny of the Experts: Who’s Fact Checking the Fact Checkers?
- When Mother Are Silenced, Children Suffer
- Doctors Guilty of Medical Atrocities: Aushwitz, Tuskeegee, Willowbrook and Beyond
- US Vaccine Legislation and Vaccine Freedom of Choice Advocacy
- Raising Healthy Families the 100 Year Lifestyle Way
- The European experience with Mandatory Vaccination
- Preserving Vaccine Choice in Canada
- Vaccine Legislation and Grassroots Advocacy in Florida
- The Challenge of Virginia’s Changing Vaccine Laws
- A Victory and A Loss for Vaccine Informed Consent Rights in Colorado
- Federal Vaccine Advisory Committees and Failure to Fulfill the 1986 Congressional Mandate
- The European experience with Mandatory Vaccination
- Preserving Vaccine Choice in Canada
All of these are very common sorts of tropes and topics that one might expect in an antivaccine conference. By way of background to give you an idea of how important this conference was to antivaxxers, just consider this. The NVIC had not held a conference like it since 2009. Indeed, its last conference was held during the last pandemic to hit the US, a pandemic that, as feared as it was at the time, ultimately pales in comparison to the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of disease, devastation to the economy, and the sheer number of deaths. (I’m referring to the H1N1 influenza pandemic, of course.) It was a conference at which, for example, Peter Doshi (whom I wrote about last week) spoke. COVID-19 has been an opportunity for the antivaccine movement far greater than anything they’ve ever seen before, and back in 2009 social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like were up-and-coming. They were nowhere near the juggernauts of misinformation and disinformation that they are today.
Don’t believe me? Read what CCDH had to say about the content of the conference:
A number of speakers at the NVIC conference presented the Covid pandemic as an historic opportunity to popularise anti-vaccine sentiment. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. told activists listening to the conference “All of the truths that we’ve been trying to broadcast for many, many years. There are people hearing it and the impact and those seeds are landing on very fertile ground.”
The disgraced physician Andrew Wakefield echoed these sentiments, saying “The population who are aware of these issues has grown dramatically in the face of coronavirus, Covid-19. It is now an issue for discussion by everyone.”
Other anti-vaxxers such as Sherri Tenpenny highlighted the Covid pandemic as an opportunity to build a wider movement with campaigners against masks and lockdowns: “We need everyone to get politically active, get behind this cause, get behind Hugs Over Masks, get behind MAD, Mothers Against Distancing, get behind the NVIC, the National Vaccine Information Center, get behind the things that we’re doing over at vaxxter.com, and Courses for Mastery, and our boot camp course that open enrolment is coming up again, the end of September. All the things that we’re doing, we need all hands on deck. We need everybody to release their fear from their brains, get rid of their masks, go hug people and absolutely say no. Wake up your community.”
One thing about the CCDH report that struck me is how it delineates how, with respect to the antivaccine movement and COVID-19, everything old is new again. There is nothing in the report that describes a new tactic of antivaxxers that I’ve never seen before; at most, there are tactics and tropes that have been modified and updated for COVID-19. CCDH identified three main overarching messages coming from the meeting that the NVIC conference rebranded and updated for the COVID-19 pandemic:
- COVID-19 is not dangerous. Antivaxxers have long claimed that the diseases being vaccinated against are not dangerous. Indeed, I once referred to this trope applied to measles as “The Brady Bunch gambit” because during the Disneyland measles outbreak, antivaxxers came up with the talking point that people didn’t think measles was a big deal 50 years ago, based on a 1969 episode of The Brady Bunch in which the entire family caught the measles and it was played for laughs. It is thus not surprising that antivaxxers have tried to argue that COVID-19 is harmless and that the pandemic is a “casedemic” caused by false positive PCR tests for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19. In this case, the two main talking points emphasized were: 1. COVID deaths are exaggerated (e.g., they’re falsely attributed to COVID and the death rate is no higher than seasonal flu, both of which are lies); and 2. COVID can be addressed without vaccines (e.g., “natural herd immunity” or various therapeutics, such as hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin). Again, as the CCDH reports shows, everything old is new again.
- COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous. Again, the idea that vaccines are somehow dangerous (and ineffective) is the raison d’être of the antivaccine movement. After all, how long have I been writing about false claims that vaccines cause autism, sudden infant death syndrome (or just plain death), autoimmune disease, and a variety of other conditions? While it is an amazing feat of pharmacology and science that we have effective vaccines against COVID-19 after less than a year, that “newness” of the COVID-19 vaccines make them easy to spread fear about. The overarching antivaccine messages here include: 1. It’s too soon to tell if the vaccine is safe (i.e., to cast doubt on the long-term safety); 2. clinical trial participants have died or been seriously injured (i.e., coincidental adverse events portrayed as definitely caused by the vaccine, such as Bell’s palsy, syncope and death). Old antivax messages abound, too, such as the “toxins gambit,” and the old favorite about “fetal cells” used to make the vaccine and the claim that the vaccines will “permanently alter your DNA“; and others.
- Vaccine advocates cannot be trusted. This message should also surprise no one. Antivaxxers have demonized pro-vaccine advocates for decades. Dr. Paul Offit, for instance, has been libeled as “Dr. Proffit,” the implication being that he’s only in it for the money. The same gambit has been aimed at every vaccine advocated that I know of, myself included. Similarly, the message that vaccine manufacturers and advocates are unaccountable because of the Vaccine Court has also been repurposed for COVID-10.
Some key passages cited include Del Bigtree’s “words of wisdom” on “Operation Warp Speed”:
Rushing the science is the most dangerous thing you can do. Yet that is the headline in every newspaper around the world referencing the Covid-19 vaccine. In fact, Donald Trump has discussed a warp speed approach that will attempt to get hundreds of millions of vaccines available to the public before they even get through the safety trials. This should be alarming to everybody
This is unsurprising. Of course, what Bigtree neglects to mention is that, for example, mRNA vaccines like the ones made by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna built upon technology that had been under development for at least a decade. mRNA vaccines were viewed as promising because of how rapidly they could be developed and deployed, not requiring the culturing of huge quantities of virus stock to use as killed virus or to isolate protein from to make vaccine. Indeed, once you develop a good lipid nanoparticle delivery system, all it takes to develop a new vaccine is to insert a different mRNA into the system and test that. Moreover, scientists have been studying coronaviruses like SARS-CoV-2 since the first SARS epidemic in 2002; this is not new technology.
Then CCDH quotes RFK Jr. on big pharma:
Remember, these companies have nothing to lose. They’re playing with house money. The government is giving the money to do these experiments. In the Moderna case, they gave them the patent for the vaccine. And then they guarantee that they’re going to buy two billion doses even if the vaccine doesn’t work. The Company is going to make money no matter what. And if they injured people, they’re protected completely against liability. No matter how grievous your injury you cannot sue them. That company has zero incentive, number one, to make it safe, and number two, to do anything to make it safe. Because if it works, they’re going to get rich, if it doesn’t work, they’re going to get rich, either way
One more time, the Vaccine Court and the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Compensation Program are not “get out of jail free” laws for the vaccine industry. They are funded by a tax on vaccines, and it is, if anything, easier for parents to be compensated, given the wider leeway generally given for complainants’ expert witnesses and how all that is required is a plausible scientific explanation for an injury. Even better, win or lose, complainants get their reasonable legal costs covered by the Court.
Next up, Barbara Loe Fisher:
The World Health Organization, governments and politically powerful nongovernmental organizations partnering with industry and governments like the Gates Foundation have given the pharmaceutical industry tens of billions of dollars to develop and fast track experimental coronavirus vaccines to licensure and promote their universal use. At the same time, governments have given pharmaceutical companies a liability shield from lawsuits whenever messenger RNA and DNA Covid-19 vaccines, which are being produced using technology never before licensed for humans, cause harm
One particularly fascinating aspect of the CCDH report is the story of how Bill Gates has become the all-purpose vaccine bogeyman in the era of COVID (more on that later). It is, of course, true that Bill Gates has been a frequent target of antivaccine conspiracy theories for a long time, ever since he and his wife founded the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to fund public health initiatives, in particular vaccination programs, but, if the CCDH report is accurate, COVID-19 has turned Bill Gates from a figure sometimes invoked as being a co-conspirator with a shadowy cabal of big pharma, government, and the World Health Organization to the Dark Lord Sauron, Lord Voldemort, and Darth Vader combined. It is, as CCDH states, a symbolic use of Bill Gates:
Anti-vaccine campaigners have collaborated with alternative health entrepreneurs and conspiracists to ensure that global health philanthropist Bill Gates has become a symbolic figure that represents all of their attacks on the trustworthiness of vaccine advocates.
These attacks are not aimed at influencing the ongoing debate over a Covid vaccine, in which the role of Bill Gates takes a back seat to more practical issues. The real utility of this campaign of vilification is to create a symbol and associated memes that aid the communication of interrelated beliefs about Covid, vaccines and conspiracies.
One factor in the rapid spread of the QAnon conspiracy theory was its ability to accommodate emerging conspiracy theories and symbolise them, as it proved to do with conspiracies around Covid-19.56 It was aided by a name, “QAnon”, and a set of symbols that were easily communicable and discoverable on social media. This allowed curious individuals to easily discover more QAnon content and provided a gateway through which existing conspiracy theorists could access a new audience.
Similarly, Bill Gates has come to represent a complex of anti-vaxxer talking points and conspiracy theories. Virtually every element of the online anti-vaxx movement has found ways of featuring him in their narratives, in a variety of contexts and tones. As a result, content featuring him is widespread, and the #billgates hashtag on Instagram allows users access to nearly 800,000 posts featuring anti-vaccine misinformation.57 Analysis performed by First Draft found that Bill Gates featured in 6 percent of social media posts about vaccines in their sample of 1,200.
The rest of the report points out how these three messages can be repackaged and customized for various audiences, such as alternative health advocates, grifters, young parents, conspiracy theorists, and the like. That might well be a topic for a second post, given that I had had something in mind related to this before I encountered the CCDH report. Personally, I’d rephrase the CCDH’s conclusions somewhat by representing the antivaccine cult as a conspiracy theory with protean forms that can be repackaged to appeal not just to alternative medicine grifters but to more reasonable people and understandably worried parents. (Again, that could well be a topic for another post.)
Indeed, it is useful to go back to an earlier CCDH report on the antivaccine movement and consider the four groups of antivaxxers identified:
- Campaigners are full-time activists working to popularise anti-vaxx ideas. This includes professional anti-vaxxers who earn a living from their activism, grassroots activists who use Facebook pages to share anti-vaxx misinformation and non-profit organisations that push anti-vaxx narratives.
- Entrepreneurs use their involvement in the anti-vaxx movement to promote a business. Typically entrepreneurs will employ a ‘marketing funnel’ leading users from freely accessible anti-vaxx content to paid-for products and services, from books to alternative medical treatments.
- Conspiracists approach the issue of vaccines from an interest in conspiracy theories more generally. Unlike campaigners, they do not focus on the issue of vaccines or health full-time, but like entrepreneurs they sometimes use their involvement in the issue to promote a business.
- Communities are people with an interest in anti-vaxx ideas who have formed groups in which to share and discuss those ideas. Communities are almost always Facebook groups or smaller Facebook pages, some of which are private. A minority of communities are run by entrepreneurs.
Personally, I have a better word for the “entrepreneurs” in the CCDH taxonomy: Grifters. I would also quibble with the part about how a minority of communities are run by entrepreneurs/grifters. This might be true on the surface, but if you look closer, there are often tight ties between the grifters and those running the Facebook groups, with the members of the groups being excellent marks to market the grifters’ wares to.
In the meantime, the CCDH report shows something that I and anyone who’s followed the antivaccine movement for any length of time is that it is organized and well-funded. Worse, it is very good at constructing compelling narratives based on simple points that can be customized to appeal to various groups. When COVID-19 first hit, a lot of people were surprised at how fast antivaxxers made common cause with COVID-19 deniers and cranks and then, ultimately, even with QAnon conspiracy theorists. They should not have been so surprised. The antivax ideology is rooted in what I like to call the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement, namely that vaccines don’t work and cause harm, but “they” are keeping that hidden knowledge from you.