On Monday, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer released early analysis that suggested its COVID-19 vaccine was 90 percent effective. The announcement, while no guarantee of a vaccine, was a ray of hope for Americans awaiting an end to the pandemic at a time when new cases are setting records nationally by the day. But a vocal crowd—which has drawn support from the anti-lockdown movement and other conspiratorial scenes—is already voicing its opposition to a coronavirus vaccine.
Adding to the doubt is at least one member of the First Family, who cast suspicion about the vaccine following President Donald Trump’s re-election defeat.
Hours after Pfizer’s Monday announcement, conspiratorial social media channels lit up with baseless claims. Some warned, without evidence, that the COVID-19 vaccine would come with ghastly side effects. This despite Pfizer indicating its candidate had produced no serious safety issues, at least so far, and an array of independent boards and other safeguards in place to prevent dangerous vaccines from reaching the public.
Others alleged, also without evidence, that the vaccine was actually a secret microchip and that Microsoft founder Bill Gates was going to use the microchips for nefarious (if somewhat unclear) purposes. Maybe mind-control, or depopulation.
Another set of critics opposed the very principle of getting a vaccine, claiming the not-yet-available shot amounted to a violation of their personal freedoms.
If these claims sound familiar, it’s because they’ve flooded the internet since COVID-19 swept the planet early this year. The anti-vaccination movement was already loud and troubling before the pandemic, with the World Health Organization naming “vaccine hesitancy” as a top-10 threat to global health in 2019. But COVID, and its associated mask mandates and lockdowns, has turbocharged a new conspiratorial attitude that embraces anti-vaxx.
The closer a COVID-19 vaccine gets, the more bellicose those attitudes become.
Claire Wardle, co-founder of the disinfo-busting nonprofit First Draft, said vaccine opposition has bled over into other conspiratorial movements during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a forthcoming report on the state of the anti-vaccination movement, she and other researchers found anti-lockdown Facebook pages to be a hotbed for vaccine resistance.
“It’s the same arguments being used about masks, it’s the same arguments being used about excessive quarantine that fits into that broader movement,” Wardle told The Daily Beast.
She noted that, in the past, anti-vaxxers tended to focus on debunked claims that vaccines cause autism. “This time last year, if you and I were having this conversation, there wouldn’t be such a natural home for these narratives to live,” Wardle said.
Now, she explained, anti-vaxxers are talking less about science and more about their “freedom” to refuse immunization. Blame a year full of lockdown opponents who claimed coronavirus protections, like masks and social distancing, were the pinnacle of government tyranny.
Wardle pointed to a convergence of conspiratorial tendencies around anti-lockdown Facebook pages, where members can now find anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, QAnoners, and anti-government militia members in one easy location. “The excessive quarantine Facebook groups have really become this umbrella space,” she said. (Facebook did not immediately return a request for comment.)
Conspiratorial websites also took this tack shortly after Pfizer’s announcement on Monday. Infowars didn’t immediately publish any articles accusing Pfizer of trying to pump Americans full of microchips. But it did prominently feature an article falsely suggesting that New York was on the cusp of mandating COVID-19 vaccines for all residents. Natural News, a loonier-than-Infowars hotspot for conspiratorial panic and dubious health advice, did not immediately pounce on the Pfizer news, but did publish two faux-news articles claiming that COVID vaccines might be ineffective and that child predators were going to coax children into vaccination in a bid to legally steal them from their parents.
Vaccine opposition has historically drawn from isolated, conspiratorial communities. One of the earliest anti-vaxx icons was Wilbur Glenn Voliva, a self-proclaimed theocrat who ran a dictatorial, Flat Earth-believing Illinois religious community in the early 1900s. Voliva, who ran newspaper advertisements for sermons against vaccination, also claimed that he would live to 120 because he lived on a strict diet of Brazil nuts and buttermilk. (He died of heart and kidney diseases considerably before reaching 120. He was nearly blind and also had diabetes.)
More recently, other fringe movements have taken up anti-vaccination sentiments. White supremacist news sites now promote anti-vaccination content, which gets shared across more innocuous anti-vaxx Facebook groups.
Wardle noted that other narratives that discredit a vaccine are no longer even fringe. Her forthcoming study examines some 40 million social media posts that reference vaccines, from June to September. About half of the top-performing posts that referenced vaccines were about a hypothetical COVID vaccine, many of them negative.
“A lot of the posts are about undermining the institutions and people we need to trust in order to take the vaccine: so of course [Bill] Gates and [Dr. Anthony] Fauci, the CDC, and WHO,” she said.
Some of the loudest criticisms of Fauci and the WHO have not come from obscure Facebook pages, but from the White House. Outgoing President Donald Trump has led a prolonged onslaught against public health institutions, variously accusing them of overreacting or of being the real cause of America’s COVID crisis.
Even if Pfizer releases an effective vaccine, the mainstream conspiracy theorizing might be here to stay. Shortly after Pfizer’s announcement, Donald Trump Jr. took to Twitter to imply, without evidence, that Pfizer had withheld its announcement until after Joe Biden was declared the victor of the presidential election. Trump Jr.’s claims—as well as their attendant distrust of Pfizer—quickly rippled across the internet.
Wardle said her research showed that vaccine disinformation was no longer limited to hardcore anti-vaxxers, but had spread through a constellation of right-wing movements.
“These conspiratorial narratives provide an explanatory framework for their lives,” she said. “The truth is very hard and complex and messy right now, so it’s easier to be in a space where people are telling you that there are powerful elites trying to control your body and your life.”