Back in February, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned about an anticipated “infodemic” of COVID-19 misinformation. Unsurprisingly, the "infodemic" has become a reality just three months later, with mundane misinformation and more outlandish conspiracy theories about COVID-19 spreading as fast as, or faster than, SARS-CoV-2 itself.
The growing “infodemic” has allowed us to witness the genesis and evolution of COVID-19 conspiracy theories in real-time. They first sprang up in the form of speculations about the manmade origins of SARS-CoV-2 that have been largely debunked but still not laid to rest, and have quickly become interwoven with other pre-existing conspiracy theory themes related to 5G networks and vaccines. This is also unsurprising, since research has demonstrated that belief in one conspiracy predicts belief in others, even if they happen to contradict each other.1 The convergence of COVID-19 and anti-vaccination conspiracy theories seems both natural and predictable, but also particularly dangerous.
Last year, I wrote about vaccine conspiracy theories and the so-called “anti-vax” or anti-vaccination movement in a post entitled, “Antivaxxers and the Plague of Science Denial.” Over the past decade, the stakes of “vaccine hesitancy,” encompassing those generally concerned about vaccine safety and “just asking questions” to those with more congealed and conspiratorial anti-vaccine beliefs (e.g., the false belief that the government knows but is deliberately hiding the fact that vaccines cause autism), have risen dramatically. Misbeliefs and conspiracy theories about vaccines have played a potent role in the loss of herd immunity for measles and the resulting re-emergence of the communicable disease around the world, including here in the U.S. where it had been previously eradicated in 2000.
With COVID-19 claiming some 300,000 lives worldwide and almost 90,000 in the U.S. and counting at the time of this writing, and the WHO speculating that COVID-19 might stay around for years to come, the stakes of vaccine hesitancy are now higher than ever. As most of the world eagerly awaits the development of a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 and hopes that eventual production will meet demands, winning the fight against COVID-19 won’t happen if a significant number of people refuse to be vaccinated. And yet that’s exactly what as many as a quarter of the U.S. population is already threatening and it’s becoming increasingly apparent that believers of COVID-19 conspiracy theories are joining forces with believers of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories within a rapidly growing movement intent on mounting a full-scale misinformation war against vaccines.
Just this month, the conspiracy theory video Plandemic promoted previously debunked claims that SARS-CoV-2 was manmade and that Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates and/or director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and voice of reason on the White House Coronavirus Task Force Dr. Anthony Fauci deliberately orchestrated COVID-19 in order to profit from a future vaccine. It was watched by millions before being removed by social medial platforms like YouTube and Facebook as false and potentially dangerous misinformation, but it continues to circulate online, with conspiratorially-minded people taking its removal from the mainstream as paradoxical proof that it must be true.
While Gates has been a consistent target of COVID-19 conspiracy theories for months, Fauci has more recently been sucked into the conspiracy theory vortex. For example, some conspiracy theories now falsely claim that Fauci owns patents on a protein that forms part of SARS-CoV-2, implying that he might have some motive for creation of the virus.
While institutions like the WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have attempted to counter the medical “infodemic” with reliable and accurate information about vaccines and now COVID-19, recent evidence suggests they're fighting a losing battle. New research published this week found that anti-vaccine Facebook pages outnumber pro-vaccine pages more than 2:1 with followers growing more rapidly and interacting to other groups with potential ideological overlap, such as groups focused on “wellness” or more generalized safety concerns.2 The research authors liken this sprawl of anti-vaccine group followers into other groups, recruiting and converting people to their ideology in the process, as an ongoing “battle for the ‘hearts and minds’ of individuals in insurgent warfare.” Meanwhile, followers of pro-vaccine groups tend to be static, without evidence of nearly as much interaction or ideological conversion of vaccine “fence-sitters.”
In other words, the vaccine information war is a direct reflection of the larger battle against infectious disease where the online spread of anti-vaccine disinformation is a contagion and the informational vaccine used to inoculate against it isn’t working all that well. And as is so often the case, the “medicine” isn’t working very well because people aren’t taking it.
In order to understand why this informational battle is being lost, at least online, it must be first understood that the anti-vaccination movement is not just a rag-tag group of people worried about vaccines, but a highly organized and strategically coordinated political campaign. And while its members are indeed comprised of parents from both sides of the political divide who are worried for their children, there are larger, dare we say conspiratorial forces operating behind the scenes of the movement.
Conspiracy theory proponents often suggest that one should “follow the money” in order to reveal the hidden machinations of the conspiratorial forces that are pulling the strings of the world. Indeed, last year, researchers determined that most of the anti-vaccination ads on Facebook were funded by just two organizations, the World Mercury Project run by Robert Kennedy Jr. and the Stop Mandatory Vaccinations campaign run by Larry Cook.3 Meanwhile, a Washington Post article reported that the Selz Foundation was a major funder of the Informed Consent Action Network that in turn sponsored anti-vaccination campaigns and demonstrations amidst the US measles outbreak of 2019.
While Robert Kennedy Jr., Larry Cook, Bernard and Lisa Selz, and Andrew Wakefield are heralded icons of the anti-vaccination movement, it’s curious to see how heroes and villains are variably crowned or demonized within the vaccine information wars. For those drawn to conspiracy theories, what is it that makes Bill Gates and Dr. Anthony Fauci chosen villains, but a multi-millionaire Kennedy heir, a hedge-fund manager, a self-proclaimed “natural living advocate” who profits from anti-vaccination messaging, and a defrocked physician who fabricated data in order to profit from the development of his own vaccine the Messiahs of the anti-vaccination movement?
Psychology tells us that one answer, and perhaps the best answer, is “motivated reasoning.” We select our preferred political champions based on perceptions—whether accurate or not—of shared ideology and identity, routinely turning a blind eye to their blemishes, blights, and conflicts of interest in a way that our political opposites can’t fathom and find infuriating.
But another important answer goes back to the reality that the anti-vaccination movement isn’t merely the grass-roots organization of concerned parents that it presents itself to be, but is also a multi-millionaire-financed “astroturfing” campaign, similar to the ones that have been funding COVID-19 protests demanding to “open up the country” despite broad public support against doing so. And so, it may be that ironically, anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists are themselves victims of a vast conspiracy, one in which powerful millionaires are attempting to control their behavior, putting themselves at risk in the process.
This is a crucial, but under-appreciated irony about conspiracy theories. Those drawn to them often start from a place of mistrust in experts and institutions of authority, whether earned or not. This mistrust in turn leaves them vulnerable to misinformation and being manipulated by deliberate disinformation.
During COVID-19, the more pervasive online spread of anti-vaccine misinformation is being fueled by the coalition of those “looking for answers” about vaccine safety and those growing restless over stay-at-home orders and being out of work. The convergence of conspiracy theories related to COVID-19 and conspiracy theories related to vaccines seems to be resulting in the union of two unlikely bedfellows—liberals who identify with the anti-vaccination movement and conservatives and libertarians who see vaccines and masks as symbols of government oppression. And it appears that this coalescence may be a deliberate strategy of those orchestrating the movements, for whatever larger purpose.
Research over the past several years has also revealed that it’s not only a few wealthy American financiers with vested interests who are providing fuel for the anti-vaccination movement and the COVID-19 “open the country” protests. International disinformation campaigns are also stoking the flames of online vaccine debates to their own ends. It’s now clear that Twitter “bots” and Russian “trolls” operated by the Kremlin’s propaganda machine are a significant source of anti-vaccine and pro-vaccine messaging alike, often using fake social media accounts carefully crafted to masquerade as American citizens passionate about various causes.4-6 The apparent goal hasn’t been so much to advance a specific political agenda like that of the anti-vaccination movement as to foment discord and further split the widening political chasm in our country. In that sense, such campaigns have proven wildly successful, at least inasmuch as life on social media is an accurate reflection of real life and real people.
The convergence of COVID-19 and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories represents a kind of “perfect storm” for anti-vaccine misinformation to take root. Our best hope of inoculating ourselves against such misinformation and winning the vaccine information war is to first be aware and then spread the word that there are hidden forces trying to guide our hands, gain our votes, and get us to take to the streets. Indeed, regardless of who’s trying to manipulate us—whether “big business," wealthy financiers, or Russian trolls—what’s become increasingly apparent in the internet era is that people have become a commodity. Social media is widely used to sway public opinion in the war over hearts and minds—that is, over beliefs—for whatever cause or commercial profit, with most of us oblivious that it’s happening. A more conspiratorially-minded person might even argue that this is social media’s very goal.
By definition, people who believe in conspiracy theories are convinced that would-be conspirators are people in political power or other influential targets of mistrust. But while that may be true on occasion, “conspiracist ideation” often leaves a blind spot in our fields of vision so that the real conspiracists—the opportunists that swoop in to capitalize on our mistrust—are unseen or even revered. With the anti-vaccination movement using COVID-19 as an opportunity to exploit our collective vulnerabilities, and with lives on the line, the stakes of that blindness are immense.
To read more about conspiracy theories during COVID-19 and the anti-vaccination movement:
1. Wood MJ, Douglas KM, Sutton RM. Dead and alive: Beliefs in contradictory conspiracy theories. Social Psychology Personality Science 2012; 3, 767-773.
2.Johnson NF, Velasquez N, Restrepo NJ, et al. The online competition between pro- and anti-vaccinations views. Nature, 13 May 2020. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2281-1
3. Jamison AM, Brontiakowski DA, Dredze M, et al. Vaccine-related advertising in the Facebook Ad Archive. Vaccine 2020; 38:512-520.
4. Brontiakowski DA, Jamison AM, Qi S, et al. Weaponized health communication: Twitter bots and Russian trolls amplify the vaccine debate. American Journal of Public Health 2018; 108:1378-1384.
5. Brontiakowski DA, Quinn SC, Dredze M, Jamison AM. Vaccine communication as weaponized identity politics. American Journal of Public Health 2018; 110:617-618.
6. Walter D, Ophir Y, Jameison KH. Russian Twitter accounts and the partisan polarization of vaccine discourse, 2015-2017. American Journal of Public Health 2020; 110:718-724.