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Vaccine Denialism Is the Right Wing’s Favorite New Conspiracy Theory

As officials urge vaccination, the disinformation wars have entered a dangerous new phase. Call it the right-wing conspiracy singularity.

Protesters march with a poster during a protest linked to the QAnon conspiracy-theory
Hollie Adams/Getty Images

Right-wing movements ranging from QAnon to the Plandemic, Stop the Steal to the Boogaloo Bois, have always drunk from the same toxic wellspring of paranoid alienation, even as they sometimes differ in the particulars of their ideologies. With the passing of Donald Trump from the political and Twitter scenes—for now—these movements have struggled to find focus, with some Q adherents revising the prophecy to predict final victory down the road while others now reject the movement entirely. But these various belief systems, all of them bound up in highly elastic conspiracy theories and violent anti-government resentment, seem to have recently coalesced around the anti-Covid-19 vaccination movement. It’s both a highly targeted campaign against vaccines and government control and a mishmash of contradictory theories and right-wing grievances. Call it the right-wing conspiracy singularity.

“Extremist organizations are now adopting a new agenda from the anti-vaccination campaign to try to undermine the government,” Neil MacFarquhar at The New York Times reported on Friday. “Apocalyptic warnings about the vaccine feed into the far-right narrative that the government cannot be trusted.”

A study out this month from the Network Contagion Research Institute describes “the emergence of a broad, anti-government conspiracy theory that has ‘Big Brother’ elements.” The report finds, for example, that an anti-vaccine protest that disrupted a vaccination program at Dodger Stadium inspired online reactions that cited the New World Order—a classic bit of globalist fearmongering—and the more recently invented “scamdemic,” a theory that the pandemic is essentially a hoax. The report concluded, perhaps stating the problem mildly, “we find that an increase in anti-government and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories accompany recent protests, which appear to feed on widespread institutional distrust.”

Claiming variously that the vaccine is a magic potion, a way to implant a tracking chip, prelude to more oppressive lockdown measures, or a way to alter one’s DNA, extreme vaccine skepticism has migrated from popular platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to apps like Telegram, Parler, and Rumble. The banning of popular conspiracies has in some cases stymied their spread, but it has also served to make them seem forbidden, to cast tech companies and governments as partners in censoring hidden truths. Some scholars have also remarked that these movements—and their nexus with potential violence—may be more difficult to track as they turn to lesser-studied or encrypted platforms.

The overriding concern about this dramatic convergence of anti-vaccine skepticism is that it may impact public health by discouraging vaccine uptake. It also could inspire violent attacks similar to the recent incident in West Texas, where an armed man forced a National Guard convoy off the road and held it at gunpoint. The man reportedly believed that the convoy had kidnapped children—a popular concern in Pizzagate and QAnon worlds—when it in fact was transporting vaccines.

On Friday, the lead story on Infowars, the truth-averse media outfit led by Alex Jones that bills itself as “the most censored news broadcast in the world,” was about a supposed European Union report claiming that Covid vaccines had killed almost 4,000 people and injured 162,000. The link appeared next to a video in which Jones advertised a spate of unproven supplements and cleaning products, and near another story that warned of an “epic” human smuggling ring. Infowars in turn linked to a website called Health Impact News, which cited EudraVigilance, a European database that tracks adverse vaccine effects. American health authorities maintain a similar database called VAERS, and both have been used by vaccine skeptics to exaggerate and distort the effects of Covid vaccines.“The raw, incomplete VAERS statistics are meant for scientists and medical professionals, but are widely used among extremist groups to try to undermine confidence in the vaccine,” the Times reported. “One video consisted of a person reading the details from the chart aloud barking ‘Murder’ where the chart said ‘Death.’”

This manipulation of open-source information—information meant to educate experts and members of the public—points to the problems with tackling vaccine disinformation, which depends as much on a deliberate misreading of the scientific literature as it does on the spread of samizdat texts. Fixing the issue is not as easy as simply banning topics or hashtags or even so-called disinformation super-spreaders. More than that, it is not always easy to distinguish—especially at scale—between misinformation, in which someone spreads inaccurate information that they believe to be true, and disinformation, in which someone spreads inaccurate information that they know not to be true, often with a plan to distort public perception. Should these be considered equivalent violations?

Like many issues surrounding disinformation, the issues are both rooted in the platforms on which these lies spread and in the political and social system in which they took root. The Covid disinformation crisis owes much to a crisis in leadership tracing back to the Trump administration. It is about a government that, when it wasn’t indifferent to people’s fate, actively spread wrong information about the severity and nature of the problem and did little to help people who had gotten sick. In line with typical Republican rhetoric, the federal government was portrayed as an impediment to solving the crisis, which was better left to the states—or no one at all. (A disastrous idea to encourage herd immunity may have been the half-baked plan from the beginning.)

Fueled by spite and demonstrating little relationship with the truth, Trump and his coterie encouraged the very kind of anger and anti-government resentment that allowed a number of conspiracies to flourish—and that now has condensed into a vigorous anti-vaccine movement. None of which stopped the president himself from undergoing extensive treatment in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and getting an early dose of the vaccine. (There’s also some grotesque symmetry here: Trump, after all, has long been a vaccine truther.) That is not to exonerate our tech overlords, who have options besides deplatforming to encourage the spread of accurate information, nor does it absolve the Biden administration from needing to wage a strong campaign to prove the efficacy and urgency of the vaccine. But the next time a pharmacist intentionally destroys a batch of vaccines or a mob tries to disrupt a mass vaccination event, we can have some sense of where they came from. They derive from the confused remnants of Trump-era cults, conspiracy-mongers, and militants. And now, they’re reconstituting themselves around a belief system that may be just as dangerous.