This Sketchy New Company Wants to Help Anti-Vaxxers Travel
There’s been a lot of hubbub about a new startup claiming it will be developing an ecosystem of anti-vaxxer-friendly travel options.
James Corbett, the self-styled “independent, listener-supported alternative” journalist behind The Corbett Report, a hub for content on topics like “9/11 Truth and false flag terror” that has been a mainstay of the digital conspiracy world for over a decade and receives over 750,000 views per day, is unsurprisingly not a fan of what he calls “COVID-1984” control measures. But because he is “not going to get masked up and tested and vaccinated and whatever else is coming along as requirements for international travel,” he worries that, as a Canadian living in Japan, he might not be able to see most of his family in person for quite some time. “I know I am not the only person in this boat,” he told his viewers in a video released on his site and its YouTube channel in mid-January.
That, he explained, is part of why he wanted to do a feature on the Freedom Airway & Freedom Travel Alliance (FAFTA), a company founded in late 2020 to help its (paying) members travel around the world without observing any masking, quarantining, vaccination, or other pandemic control measures—or any other public health regulations they don’t want to follow. They frame this as an effort to protect people from “injurious regulation and discriminatory policy” that infringes on their “natural health rights.” Their tagline: “Are you ready to travel freely again?”
If this sounds like an impractical mission in light of the stringent COVID-19 control restrictions the vast majority of nations and airlines have enacted in recent months, that’s because it is. When interested parties on FAFTA’s Facebook page have asked how they will get around these laws and rules, the company usually responds with some variation on the vague assurance “there are always loopholes,” if it responds at all. But as Lawrence Gostin, an expert on global health laws at Georgetown University, told The Daily Beast, “No company can guarantee that there will be no testing or contact tracing or any other requirements” for its travel customers.
“There are so many things about this company that jump out as red flags,” added John Breyault of the National Consumer League’s Fraud.org project, ranging from its mixture of improbable claims and vague offerings to its founders’ lack of apparent relevant industry experience. “It screams fishy at best, scammy at worst… Regardless of how you feel about mask mandates or vaccines, I would say steering clear of this company is the smartest course to take.”
However, despite its questionable qualities, FAFTA has garnered a fair amount of attention in pandemic skeptical communities. Corbett’s uncritical coverage in particular was picked up by a number of other conspiratorial sites, and shared and praised widely in COVID truther circles on social media. Other prominent critics of pandemic control measures, like Monica Smit of the virulently anti-lockdown, anti-mask, anti-vaccination group Reignite Democracy Australia, which claims it has over 50,000 members and an even wider social media reach, have put a spotlight on FAFTA as well. Credulous posts about the company have started to spread on mainstream social media platforms, like Instagram and Twitter. And while FAFTA declined to give The Daily Beast any information about its current membership numbers, its Facebook page has garnered over 4,500 followers in just over a month, and its public materials claim that the company already has paying members in over 40 nations.
This is hardly the first dubious business targeted at and eagerly embraced by science- and public health regulation-skeptical communities. David Gorski, a doctor who has followed and critiqued alternative medicine and anti-vax communities for over 20 years, noted that there is, for example, an established market for “seminars, books, and videos on how to evade school vaccine mandates in states that have eliminated religious and personal belief exemptions.” Over the last year, Gorski added, a number of sites have cropped up hawking advice and tools they promise will help people evade COVID-19 restrictions they don’t want to follow. “The most prominent examples are generally anti-mask sites that provide cards that claim the bearer has a medical condition that precludes their wearing a mask and claims that business owners can’t ask them why because of HIPAA.” (HIPAA only regulates how doctors, insurers, and other health-care actors handle patient information; it has no relevance to store owners asking why someone won’t mask up.)
However, these hustles are usually small operations, noted Mark Alfano, a Macquarie University researcher who studies anti-vax bubbles on social media. Most also deliver something tangible, added Naomi Smith, a Federation University researcher who studies these bubbles as well—although the supplements or classes customers receive certainly may not do all of the magical health- and freedom-improving things they claim to.
“The scale and ambition of the FAFTA project is really unusual,” said Smith, and it strikes her as “more dubious” than most ventures in this space. Beyond that, extremism experts tell The Daily Beast that FAFTA appears to be adopting elements of pseudo-legal language and tactics from the fringes of the far right—crossover they’ve seen before in science-skeptical circles, but not to this extent. All of this makes FAFTA, as Alfano put it, “really interesting—and a bit disturbing.”
Over the last month, Dolores Cahill, a professor of medicine at University College Dublin (UCD), has become the de facto public face of FAFTA—the one doing interviews with folks like Corbett and Smit. Until relatively recently a widely cited and respected authority on topics like medical diagnostics, Cahill starts many appearances by touting her mainstream credentials. However Eamonn, an Irish activist pushing back on the rise of far-right groups in his nation, pointed out that she has seemingly been “research-inactive” for about five years. (Eamonn asked The Daily Beast to use his first name only to protect his privacy and limit his exposure to the sort of far-right actors he tries to monitor and disrupt.) Her last major academic article was retracted, per the journal that published it, “due to the discovery of significant errors relating to methods and presentation of results.”
Cahill did not reply to a request for comment, but she told Corbett that she’s been skeptical of mainstream medical responses to pandemics for over 20 years, and has come to believe they are all about “fearmongering… to try and push certain agendas.” Last spring, she went full-on mainstream science denialist, making what the Dublin-based The Journal called “Ireland’s Plandemic” and kicking off a tour of Europe on which she spread a torrent of misinformation about COVID-19 and encouraged anti-lockdown protests. Her antics got her kicked off of a European Union committee. UCD has also distanced itself from her, and she is reportedly not teaching this term.
“Information about her probably hasn’t spread in the United States,” Eamonn explained, “but already before the FAFTA thing she had a lot of traction internationally in the COVID denier world.” She touts herself as “the most censored Irish citizen,” a badge of honor in pandemic truther circles—right above a massive list of uncensored alternative media appearances on her own highly visible website. Those credentials have certainly bolstered FAFTA’s image.
But it is not clear if Cahill is the one who came up with FAFTA initially. The company claims it was co-founded by Cahill, Kevin Jenkins, Susan Standfield, Susan Sweetin, and Tara Thorton.
Jenkins runs the northern U.S.-based Urban Global Health Alliance, a seemingly innocuous venture that calls for general action to advance “nonpartisan policies” that will promote health and wellness in urban centers—but that seems to spend much of its efforts on anti-vax advocacy. Jenkins has also been involved with America’s Frontline Doctors, the COVID misinformation outfit that gave us Stella “Demon Sperm” Immanuel. Thorton is one of the co-founders of the Freedom Angels, a California group formed in 2019 to lead highly visible protests against pro-vaccination laws, pivoted towards anti-pandemic control measure activism in 2020, and got so involved in far-right pro-Trump agitation after the U.S. presidential elections that one of its members turned up at the Jan. 6 Capitol Insurrection. Although they are not the most prominent anti-vaxxers, Erica DeWald of the pro-vaccination advocacy group Vaccinate Your Family says that they are known entities to most who monitor the space, “sort of up-and-comers” within the niche culture.
Standfield is apparently heavily involved in anti-lockdown protests in Vancouver, Canada—and seems intent on monetizing the movement, selling Health Justice Tees bearing slogans like “COVID 19 is Canada’s Second Genocide,” “antivaxxer AF,” and “defund the media” for $45 to $70 a pop. No one The Daily Beast spoke to knew much about Sweetin’s background, though.
Sherry Sabety, a third-party publicist who responded on FAFTA’s behalf when The Daily Beast reached out to the company, said these individuals created the venture to serve what they see as “a need in a rapidly growing, unserved market, using a lean startup business model.” It is clear why they might believe this market exists, given their backgrounds. But it is not clear why they decided to try to serve it themselves. “Nothing in the background of any of these founders suggests to me that they are at all qualified to run a travel business,” Breyault of Fraud.org noted.
When asked to respond to concerns that no one on the FAFTA team appears to have relevant travel industry work experience, Sabety told The Daily Beast: “FAFTA is comprised of a robust group of forward thinkers and leaders from a variety of verticals—which, in fact, also bring experience in travel to the table.” She did not specify what experience in travel means.
Breyalt added that he’s not even sure “travel business” is the right label, as “it’s all very vague and unclear to me what they’re actually trying to do.” FAFTA’s website and Facebook page do not offer many specifics about what they company will actually offer its paid members.
Notably, FAFTA currently offers three membership tiers. The first entitles members to news on travel restrictions, advice and support in asserting “your right to travel without discriminatory medical restrictions,” and invitations to register for “FREEDOM travel packages,” in exchange for $100 per year. They do not list any additional benefits for their $200 and $500 per year tiers, but claim they will figure them out soon. As of now, members can sign up for supposedly restriction-free trips to Florida, originally planned for this month but pushed to sometime in the spring, for $499; to Ireland sometime this spring for $750; and to Brazil at some point this summer for $999. They do not give any information about what is included in these packages. They do note, in the fine print of the bottom of their site, that they do not own or operate any aircraft, though.
“The only thing that’s clear at this point is that, whatever tier you choose, the only thing you’re really getting is a sign-up for a Zoom call about FAFTA,” Breyault noted. That call took place on Feb. 2 and some people on FAFTA’s Facebook page said they had trouble getting into it.
When asked about this and other reported communications problems, Sabety only told The Daily Beast that, as a “lean startup,” FAFTA will inevitably experience technical issues. She added that they “have added a new customer experience manager” to their team as of mid-February.
“For $100, they’re essentially offering more information in the future—if it becomes available,” said Jonathan Berman, a doctor at the New York Institute of Technology who studies anti-vaxxer and wider science-skeptical communities and the businesses that crop up around them. He suggests that they are using vague buzzwords like “health freedom” so that their “target audience can read between the lines and decide what they think they’re offering” and get excited for that.
When The Daily Beast asked why FAFTA decided to launch seemingly without a clear business plan and if they would be willing to clarify what they will offer, publicist Sabety demurred that they are “a first quarter travel company” and “as such, we are working through our processes.”
Sabety also said FAFTA has “not issued any press releases or made public announcements to recruit members.” That claim stands in contrast to all the outreach Cahill and others have done, leading people back to a site that invites them to become members, and to FAFTA’s solicitations for “five angel investors” to help it grow.
In recent interviews about FAFTA, however, Cahill has offered a more concrete vision for what she at least seems to believe they will offer: They plan to educate people about “natural law” and their “inalienable right to travel” without any restrictions under this ostensibly universal legal doctrine. “If you come to a passport or immigration [checkpoint], the idea would be that you either have something printed out to say ‘you cannot force me to do a test,’ or we would ideally like to have hotlines of lawyers” to help people talk their way out of restrictions, she told Corbett. She added that they will use some member fees to sue over restrictions, and then their lawyers will mobilize precedents from the cases, which she seems to assume they will inevitably win.
Their trips, she explained, currently depend on people giving them money up front that they can use to entice or pressure extant airlines and other businesses to work with them, restriction-free. Then they will talk their way over borders if they go to nations with COVID travel restrictions. But, someday they hope to buy their own airplanes, maybe even terminals, she told Corbett. “Because the globalists have decimated this industry… it’s actually the best time to start considering buying.”
Cahill’s rhetoric about the inalienable right to travel and the seemingly magical power of core legal concepts to override onerous regulations seems to borrow heavily from Sovereign Citizen, Freemen of the Land, and other “pseudo-legal” ideologies, explained Caesar Kalinowski IV, a lawyer who has explored the history and tactics of these movements. (Kalinowski’s firm, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, represents The Daily Beast as outside counsel.) These ideologies are dense and malleable, but at their core hold that most laws worldwide are illegitimate, as they infringe a on supposed fundamental right to individual sovereignty. Every strain of these ideologies believes it has found magical words or tactics, like signing your name in red crayon (yes, really), that will exempt its acolytes from any laws they don’t want to follow.
“With natural law… everyone knows right from wrong,” Cahill told Smit. “You know if you don’t want to wear a mask, or if you don’t want someone to tell you, ‘You can’t travel.’ You know it’s wrong what they’re doing… Then someone has to force you to do what you don’t want to do. Then you just use the words, ‘I do not consent,’ right? And, you know, we know that if someone does anything to you that you don’t consent to, generally, that’s a crime, right?”
“The internet and social media have created an environment where many conspiracy theories, denialist movements, and organizations with seemingly different ideologies blend together and overlap in unpredictable ways,” explained Calum Matheson, a University of Pittsburgh scholar who studies Sovereign, Freemen, and other radical far right communities. So there has always been some overlap between these ideologies and public health skeptics who may believe pseudo-legal ideas offers an easy out from things like vaccination laws they’re already trying to evade. It may be especially easy for people like anti-vaxxers to adopt this language because it doesn’t sound particularly fringe like a lot of far right rhetoric. Instead, it just sounds to many casual ears like standard arcane and inaccessible—and by that token moderately impressive—legalese.
No one knows for sure how FAFTA specifically got steeped in this sort of pseudo-legal babble. Sabety did not respond to a question about this, and about the group’s possible ties to Sovereign or similar groups. In fact, FAFTA did not respond to the vast majority of questions The Daily Beast posed. When pressed on its non-responses, Sabety replied, “we did, in fact, respond—and in an all-encompassing manner.” This is only true if you consider active evasion a fulsome reply.
Eamonn suggested it might be a result of Cahill’s involvement, since 2018, in the Irish Freedom Party (IFP), an offshoot of the Brexit movement that wants the Republic of Ireland to leave the European Union and pushes racist conspiracy theories like the Great Replacement, the idea that there is a plot to breed ethnic Irish citizens out of their nation and replace them with foreigners. However, DeWald says some of Thorton’s associates have deployed Sovereign-like language in the past in social media posts they claimed would allow them to evade local vaccination laws. And Standfield does sell shirts via Health Justice Tees bearing the slogans “#iamsovereign in Canada” or “Sovereign AF.” (Neither Standfield nor Thorton relied to requests for comment.)
Sovereign Citizen “gurus,” as they often style themselves, have a long history of creating for-profit ventures to teach people their supposed foolproof tricks for getting out of paying taxes, escaping debt or foreclosure, or any other number of painful obligations, Matthew Sweeney, a researcher who studies Sovereign Citizens and other far right movements, explained. They often hype up their services by pointing to isolated instances in which their tactics supposedly worked.
Notably, Cahill has told stories in interviews about how she’s traveled internationally throughout the pandemic without ever masking, quarantining, or testing for COVID-19. In one particularly detailed account, she claimed she refused to sign a public health passenger-locator form, required upon entry to Ireland since the summer. She said was forced to wait over an hour for authorities who made to “arrest or detain” her for her non-compliance, but that these officials eventually let her go because of her deft legal maneuvering and her threats to unilaterally form a contract with them and charge each of them €4,000 an hour each for the time they kept her detained.
A spokesperson for the Dublin Airport would not comment on Cahill specifically, but told The Daily Beast that no one can come into the facility without a face mask on without a valid medical exemption; Cahill did not claim she had one in her accounts. Colm Daly of the Irish Department of Justice, which handles pandemic restriction enforcement at the Airport and beyond, told The Daily Beast the agency would not comment on Cahill’s claims specifically either, but explained that Ireland does not turn people away or immediately arrest them for failing to comply with its regulations. So, Cahill could have walked through customs even without her arcane pseudo-legal mantras. However, Daly noted that the Department will prosecute people who do not comply with pandemic restrictions in the coming weeks and months, and that they will face fines and/or jail time for their non-compliance. Cahill has claimed she will contest any fines or jail time, and insisted that she will win any such cases using her superior understanding of core legal concepts.
However, isolated tales of pseudo-legal successes are usually not the result of the validity of a group or guru’s arguments, experts on these ideologies told The Daily Beast. They’re the result of law enforcement officials who’re too baffled when encountering this rhetoric for the first time and do not want to deal with wild bullshit over a relatively minor issue, like a speeding ticket. (Sovereign Citizens often get exceptionally hung up on traffic laws.) Or of a prosecutor deciding it is not worth the pain of pursuing a minor case against one person, because pseudo-legalists tend to file reams of nonsense in cases that take tons of time, and often tax dollars, to address.
The sheer hassle of dealing with pseudo-legal ideas like the ones Cahill espouses has led officials in the US justice system to label these movements major legal threats. Many experts refer to their court tactics as “paper terrorism,” a barrage of bullshit filings that abuse the legal system to the point that it grinds to a halting crawl. Some of Cahill’s ideas—like filing so many civil suits against doctors she doesn’t like that they can’t clear them all before renewing their insurance, forcing insurers to up their premiums due to all their outstanding cases, and eventually hopefully driving them out of practice—are arguably more flagrantly abusive and cynical than most Sovereign or Freeman legal tactics.
However, Sweeney pointed out that in every recorded instance of people trying to employ the same legal befuddlement and harassment tactics en mass—as Cahill proposes FAFTA would help its members do—authorities eventually cracked down. Pseudo-legalists then almost invariably lose their court cases, because their ideas about natural law just are not based in sound historical or legal fact or reasoning.
FAFTA told The Daily Beast it would “welcome a more detailed conversation” about its business practices and observers’ concerns that it is a take the money and run scam—but only “once we come through our first quarter financing stage.”
Yet many pandemic skeptics not only seem to embrace FAFTA wholeheartedly, they also shout down anyone in its site or Facebook page’s comments sections who dares to critique the venture. This, most experts The Daily Beast consulted agreed, reflects the underlying mentality of much of the pandemic skeptical movement: Adherents tend to believe anything that supports their worldview, and to extend the benefit of the doubt to their perceived allies, while maligning anyone who questions their sources or projects.
“You have to think about the science skeptical movement as a cult,” DeWald argued. “When you put that label on it, you start to understand people’s behavior” with respect to things like FAFTA.
All of the experts The Daily Beast spoke to are incredibly suspicious of FAFTA. But most noted it is impossible to tell whether the FAFTA team is composed partially or fully of true believers who actually think this is a brilliant idea that will enrich them while helping their community, or of opportunists preying on true believers’ desperation to escape what they genuinely see as a tyrannical New World Order. Berman noted that grifters flock to the alternative medicine and science skepticism world because believers tend to be attractive, easily-manipulated scam marks.
This uncertainty is a problem. As Dorit Reiss, a health law expert at the University of California Hastings Law School, explained, “there is nothing illegal in creating a company and trying to get it off the ground if you think there’s a market niche for it,” even if you do bumble and flub it. So, FAFTA can operate with relative impunity now, even if it is fact an opportunistic, cynical hustle.
The experts The Daily Beast consulted all suspect that FAFTA will attract a healthy membership base, although it is hard to say how many individuals will join in total or how much money the company will raise in the coming months because FAFTA is a fairly unique venture. Most believe that even a failure to deliver on promised products will not deter members. “There’s always an excuse for things not materializing in this world,” DeWald explained. “The government did this. Lawyers did that.” And there’s always a willingness to buy the excuses.
Even if FAFTA just up and vanishes with everyone’s money, there is a good chance members will just write off their losses as a worthwhile gamble that failed. Some may even take failure as a sign that sinister forces would not allow a good and wholesome project like this to succeed, as it should have under true, natural law. Failure, in other words, may only be more radicalizing.
This is why FAFTA concerns many observers. While it is still a fairly small project, it packages pandemic misinformation and pseudo-legal extremism together in new and disturbing ways to encourage people to break public health protocols and endanger others. That alone, Gostin, the health law expert, said, “worries me a great deal. It is utterly irresponsible and dangerous.”
Moreover, it may be able to do so with no consequences. By avoiding consequences, Breyault suspects, its likely success-in-failure will only invite more ventures of similar if not greater scale, some of them explicitly scams meant to prey upon misguided and desperate populations.
“I would hope that, if they aren’t already paying attention to this venture, putting some light on FAFTA will get the Federal Trade Commission or other authorities attentions,” Breyault added.