Even as they weather crackdowns on mainstream social-media sites, purveyors of misinformation and conspiracies about the COVID-19 vaccine are still running rampant on GoFundMe, a top crowdfunding site in America, thanks to some creative messaging.
But these campaigns are not just raising money. They’re also using GoFundMe as a means of spreading lies about the life-saving drugs at a time when inoculation rates are slowing across the U.S. and the highly contagious Delta variant is circulating rapidly among unvaccinated Americans, advocates and experts say.
Take the GoFundMe page for the “Pennsylvania Informed Consent Advocates,” which was ostensibly founded by employees of the University of Pennsylvania Health System, and is raising money for legal fees to fight a COVID-19 vaccine mandate there.
Fundraisers intended to pay for legal fees are allowed per GoFundMe policy. But those that spread misinformation about vaccines and support traditional anti-vaxx activism—which before COVID was focused on disputing the efficacy and safety of children’s vaccines—are not.
Some campaigns against COVID vaccine mandates appear to have maneuvered around this ban by raising money for legal action in support of “medical freedom” and “informed consent.” These appear to be little more than dog whistles to the larger anti-vaxxer movement.
Groups like Pennsylvania Informed Consent Advocates are trying to thread the needle.
A representative for the the group claims it “is not anti-vaxx,” yet spoke favorably of dubious COVID treatments, including hydroxychloroquine, and blasted “big tech and mainstream media” that have “buckled down on speech regarding several therapeutics to treat and prevent” COVID.
“Even the vaccine clinics, they’re not giving the full information on what the potential side effects are to people. It’s just the most bizarre thing in the world,” Becky Casey, a nurse who is acting as a spokesperson for the group, told The Daily Beast, misleadingly.
“We’re not saying nobody should take [the vaccine] who wants to take it,” she added. “It’s your choice to take it. That’s fine. We’re not going to blackball you and call you crazy.”
Still, the group’s GoFundMe page is rife with fearmongering about the use of fetal cell lines in the testing phase for the safe and effective Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and also alludes to the debunked claim that the vaccines can somehow alter human DNA.
The fundraiser has brought in $28,500 from 354 donors as of Thursday afternoon, and has been shared on other social-media and text-message channels more than 2,000 times.
The Pennsylvania campaign is one of several GoFundMes that, together, have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to wage legal battles against vaccine mandates at schools and workplaces, pointing to the limits of purported crackdowns on misinformation.
“Make no mistake—these crowdfunding efforts are directly supporting harmful anti-vaxx agendas, and they should be removed immediately,” said Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a watchdog group. “Companies have the right to stop powering those spreading disease and death. Some people, including their other clients, might argue they in fact have a moral duty to do so.”
A GoFundMe spokeswoman defended the company’s practices, pointing to past crackdowns.
“Fundraisers for medical bills or the legal challenges do not violate our terms of service,” she said. “With that said, we will continue to monitor the platform 24/7 and remove any fundraiser attempting to spread misinformation about vaccines.
“As we’ve said in the past, fundraisers raising money to promote misinformation about vaccines violate GoFundMe’s terms of service and will be removed from the platform,” the spokeswoman, Monica Corbett, added.
GoFundMe is hardly unique in both promising to rein in misinformation and letting it slip through anyway.
Facebook vowed in February to remove false claims about COVID-19 from its platform after years of half-measures, and the Pennsylvania group is among those whose Facebook pages have been taken down. A link on its GoFundMe page directs followers to its profile on the extremist-friendly Telegram app, one of a host of platforms where far-right zealots and disinformationists have migrated in recent years
Twitter now labels tweets that include misleading information about the vaccine, and in some cases, has removed accounts altogether. Author Naomi Wolf was suspended from the platform in June. She previously falsely suggested the vaccines are a “software platform... that can receive uploads,” and that “vaccinated people’s urine/feces” need to be separated from general sewage until further research was done to establish how the drinking water of unvaccinated people might be impacted.
Instagram has taken similar steps, banning JFK nephew and anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. from the platform in February. He is still active on Twitter.
“These cases show that tech platforms and the public have to be constantly vigilant to anti-vaxxers’ constantly-evolving strategies to exploit people’s fears for a quick buck,” Ahmed told The Daily Beast.
GoFundMe points to its own ban on traditional anti-vaxxers in 2019, and said it has removed more than 250 fundraisers that violate that policy since.
But the relative newness of the COVID vaccine has introduced a wave of litigation and protests by a sprawling cohort of skeptics and conspiracists. The COVID-vaccine-related campaigns in question appear to be operating under the mantle of grassroots movements, even as some have links to known anti-vaxxers and Trump loyalists.
A campaign titled “Stop University Vaccine Mandates in Virginia” has raised upward of $23,000 so far, money it says is being collected for legal fees to pay attorneys William Olson and Patrick McSweeney. The men have written letters threatening legal action to colleges and universities requiring students to be vaccinated.
The GoFundMe page states that $1,500 of the money was spent to cover costs of mailing Olson and McSweeney’s letter.
“Given the controversial nature of the mandates, and that young, healthy people are at risk of long-term, possibly permanent, harm from the investigational (i.e. experimental) COVID-19 vaccines, a legal ruling by an appropriate court should be issued to settle the question,” the Virginia GoFundMe organizers wrote.
None of the above is true.
Former Trump National Security Adviser and retired general Michael Flynn—who has made a second career as a QAnon mouthpiece —is also listed as an ardent supporter of the Virginia campaign against vaccine mandates. The nonprofit he chairs, America’s Future, is identified as a supporter in one of Olson and McSweeney’s letters. So are the Virginia Freedom Keepers, an anti-lockdown group that has ties to RFK Jr.'s anti-vaxx nonprofit, the Children’s Health Defense fund.
Flynn is also quoted on the GoFundMe page.
“If we do this right and can make this a national campaign, this will (and should) permeate down into elementary and secondary schools and just maybe we’ll have local school boards starting to pay attention,” the passage reads.
The organizer of the Virginia campaign, Mark Leone, said he and other parents of university students who are behind the fundraiser “are not anti-vaccine.”
“We’re not focused on vaccine mandates in general. We’re opposed to mandating these particular vaccines for college and university students,” Leone said in an email to The Daily Beast.
Olson did not respond to messages left at his law firm by The Daily Beast. America’s Future did not return email messages seeking comment.
Marsha Lessard, vice-chairman of the Virginia Freedom Keepers, said her group is not involved in the GoFundMe effort, but has retained Olson’s legal team to dispute the vaccine mandates at Virginia colleges and universities.
“We had absolutely nothing to do with the GoFundMe. We are not linked to, tied to in any way to the GoFundMe,” Lessard said, before launching into a tirade about the vaccine. The GoFundMe organizers, she said, “are a group of parents who care about their kids receiving a liability-free injection that has killed and harmed thousands.”
This is false. Medical experts know serious side effects from the vaccine are vanishingly rare and that the risk of becoming severely ill or dying from COVID-19 far outweighs the risk of taking the vaccine.
McSweeney said he was not aware of the GoFundMe campaign, but acknowledged writing the letters on behalf of America’s Future, the Virginia Freedom Keepers, and other activist groups.
Attempts to reach Flynn personally were unsuccessful. A spokeswoman for the Children’s Health Defense fund, Rita Shreffler, said the organization has not been in contact with the Virginia GoFundMe campaign.
Another vaccine-lawsuit fundraiser on GoFundMe is intended to support litigation filed by nurse Jennifer Bridges and more than 100 other ex-employees of Houston Methodist hospital over its vaccine mandate. These hospital workers were either fired or resigned after being ordered to get shots, and their lawsuit was dismissed by a Texas federal court judge in June. The plaintiffs appealed the dismissal, and Bridges has vowed to take the case to the Supreme Court.
Bridges’ GoFundMe has raised more than $164,000 for legal fees to pay her lawyer Jared Woodfill, and it has been shared on social media more than 23,000 times. Woodfill, who did not respond to a phone message seeking comment, is the leader of what the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as an anti-LGBTQ hate group, and is behind several suits against COVID restrictions in Texas.
Bridges told The Daily Beast she is not an anti-vaxxer, but grew to distrust the medical establishment throughout the pandemic. Her lawsuit characterizes the vaccine as “experimental” because it was granted Emergency Use Authorization by the FDA, despite rigorous trials.
“We are simply asking for more time, proper research, and fully FDA approved before injecting it into our bodies,” she states on her GoFundMe page.
Bridges added in an interview that she has been “careful” about what she shares about her legal effort on Facebook, but feels protected by the magnitude of her GoFundMe campaign.
“A lot of people were skeptical of me using GoFundMe, but it was the only means I had to reach so many people,” Bridges said. “I’m kind of surprised they haven’t done anything either, but with how big this is, if they were to shut us down, that would be huge, and my lawyer said, ‘If they try to shut you down, we will sue the shit out of them.’”