March 16, 2021 -- President Joe Biden announced in his prime-time address last week that he wants to make all Americans eligible for the coronavirus vaccine by May 1. More than 107 million people, or 21% of the country’s population, have gotten at least one vaccine dose, and 38 million, or 11.5%, have been fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.
But not everyone is lining up to get a coronavirus vaccine. A poll released last week shows that while 73% of Black people and 70% of white people said that they either planned to get a coronavirus vaccine or had done so already, 25% of Black respondents and 28% of white respondents said they did not plan to get a shot, according to the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey of 1,227 adults that took place March 3-8.
Research by Neil Johnson, PhD, a physicist at George Washington University who studies online extremism on social media, has suggested that the anti-vaccination movement, despite its small size, may be better at spreading its message online to vaccine-hesitant people than pro-vaccine advocates.
And the number of groups and accounts spreading much of the misinformation is relatively small.
Facebook is doing a massive study of doubts expressed by U.S. users about vaccines. Early findings in documents obtained by The Washington Post show that just 111 users contributed half of all vaccine-hesitant content.
Del Bigtree, founder of the nonprofit Informed Consent Action Network and host of the talk show The HighWire, has been questioning the safety of vaccines for the past 5 years, starting with children’s vaccines in the documentary film he produced called Vaxxed: from Cover-Up to Catastrophe.
Bigtree says he is not anti-vaccine, but “anti any product that has not been properly safety tested.”
He also says he is pro-science and that the government ignored a phenomenon called “immune enhancement or antibody enhancement.”
“I have a serious problem with an issue that could kill or maim countless people, and we won’t have an answer until tens of millions of people have received this product,” says Bigtree.
He notes that researchers have been trying to develop a coronavirus vaccine for years. The current virus, known officially as SARS-CoV-2, is only the latest in a long line of coronaviruses to emerge.
“Every attempt at a coronavirus vaccine in every animal trial for the past 20 years has been catastrophic. When challenge studies were done where animals are injected with the coronavirus, what happened was shocking. Instead of antibodies protecting animals, they appeared to help the virus proliferate through cells -- they spread faster and cause a cytokine storm, a complete immune system meltdown,” Bigtree says.
He mentioned research presented by Peter Hotez, MD, a professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, to a congressional committee in March 2020.
Hotez testified that “when we started developing coronavirus vaccines, we noticed in laboratory animals that they started to show some of the same immune pathology that resembled what had happened 50 years earlier, so we said, this is going to be problematic.”
But Bigtree does not mention that Hotez went on to testify that researchers figured out how to solve the problem. “So, we were really excited about that, and we proposed this to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). They funded it, and we wound up actually making and manufacturing, in collaboration with Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, a first-generation SARS vaccine,” according to a congressional transcript of the hearing.
Skewing the Science and Other Themes
Bigtree has critics. He “consistently picks experts and data he likes rather than looking at a full picture,” Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, PhD, a professor of law at the University of California Hastings College of Law, said in the journal Elsevier.
She and a colleague watched weekly episodes of The Highwire with Del Bigtree from Jan. 30, 2020, to April 2, 2020. They identified six consistent themes and compared them to the anti-vaccine movement.
Anti-vaccine activists also skew the science by rejecting studies that do not fit their views and by latching onto studies and experts that support them, says Reiss.
Bigtree also criticized the government for not funding more COVID-19 treatments like the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine, “which would have been the fastest way out of this.”
But results from the interim SOLIDARITY study, published last October, show that hydroxychloroquine and lopinavir/ritonavir had little to no reduction in the deaths of hospitalized COVID-19 patients, compared to the standard of care.
Bigtree claimed that that the global trial used a lethal dose of 2,400 milligrams total daily of hydroxychloroquine, rather than the standard dose clinicians use of 400-600 daily. The loading dose was 1,600 milligrams (two doses of 800 milligrams, 6 hours apart) followed by 400 milligrams daily. The researchers said they chose the higher dose that’s used to treat amoebic liver abscess, which is caused by an intestinal infection, rather than the lower dose for malaria.
Despite their concern that the higher dose might be toxic, they said the higher dose did not lead to any extra deaths during the first few days.
Another theme that runs through the HighWire show is the claim that “government and the media are lying to you.”
Bigtree singled out Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for “going out of his way to pooh-pooh this and say that I don’t trust or believe in that. NIH should have immediately begun trials of a [hydroxychloroquine] that thousands of doctors around the world were having success with.”
Statements like that are proof “Bigtree both does not respect expertise, and sees experts as not doing their job, ignoring that in a new situation, new information comes up, and knowledge has to develop,” Reiss and her colleague say.
Bigtree disputes that he’s cherry-picking research to support his positions. "I think that’s dangerous. But I tell my audience I don’t want you to trust me any more than CNN or MSNBC. I want you to think for yourself and do your own research,” he says.
Bigtree also claims that he’s not spreading misinformation. “I source everything I do on show -- I have the most transparent news show in the world. Every Monday after Thursday show, I send out links to everyone on our newsletter who watches the show. Every study and article I reference so people can read it in its entirety.”
Moving to the Right
This month’s NPR poll on vaccine hesitancy also found a split in attitudes toward the vaccines based on political ideology. It found that half of Republican men and 47% of those who supported then-President Donald Trump in the 2020 election said they would not choose to be vaccinated, even if they had access to coronavirus vaccines.
Anti-vaccination activists have broadened their reach during the pandemic by campaigning with far-right groups against public health measures, which they claim are trampling their civil liberties.
“Coalition building allows them to gain a foothold into the broader world of government over-reach. Making allies with other [like-minded] people gives them a bigger voice, bigger reach, and more resources,” says Richard Carpiano, PhD, a professor of public policy and sociology at the University of California, Riverside, who has followed the anti-vaccine movement.
Several anti-vaccine activists and vaccine conspiracy theorists spoke at a Health Freedom Rally on Jan. 6 on Capitol Hill to coincide with the Trump “Stop the Steal” rally. Bigtree spoke at the rally but says he did not take part in the subsequent Capitol Building insurrection.
“I was not there to stop the steal or support Donald Trump; I was there because I will appear anywhere large audiences are because I believe my message is important.”
However, Bigtree was quoted by CNN as saying, “I wish I could tell you that Tony Fauci cares about your safety ... I wish I could believe that voting machines worked ... but none of this is happening."
Simone Gold, MD, also spoke at the Health Freedom Rally the day before, warning people not to get the coronavirus vaccine. “You must not comply if you do not want to take an experimental biological agent deceptively named a vaccine; you must not allow yourself to be coerced.”
She organized a group last year called America’s Frontline Doctors that promotes a similar anti-vaccine message while failing to mention the safety trials and large phase III efficacy trials, along with the fact that no vaccine mandate exists.
Gold was photographed inside the Capitol Building on Jan. 6 carrying her bullhorn. She was later arrested by the FBI, accused of entering a restricted building, violent entry, and disorderly conduct.
A leading anti-vaccine group called the Freedom Angels also took part in the national rally in Washington and has organized local protests against public health measures, including lockdowns in California, Florida, Texas, and Wisconsin, says Carpiano.
“We are here to recruit you,” Denise Aguilar, one of the group’s leaders, said in a video recorded in front of the Supreme Court and posted on social media. “We are done with bills. We are done with newsletters. We’re done with emails. We are boots on the ground, and it’s our responsibility to take our government back,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
In California, Freedom Angels members have posted pictures of themselves online holding guns, and its founders have offered firearm safety training and advice on circumventing lockdown orders.
Another speaker at the January Health Freedom Rally was Mikki Willis, the filmmaker behind Plandemic, which falsely suggests Fauci was responsible for the creation of the coronavirus and a vast deception to sell vaccines.
Leading anti-vaccine activists have felt comfortable referring to grand conspiracies such as those in Plandemic or “The Great Reset,” which is a mash-up of conspiracy theories based on the idea that the pandemic has created such a state of shock that the world will be turned into a high-tech dictatorship that will take away your freedom forever.
Larry Cook, the leader of one of the largest anti-vaccine groups, Stop Mandatory Vaccination, frequently posted about the conspiracy theory group QAnon last year before Facebook and Twitter suspended his accounts in October and removed the group. One post called on followers to “shoot” what he called “Antifa thugs.” Cook, who operates at least two other websites, including one called Medical Freedom Patriots, has moved onto other social media sites.
“It’s notable that people who spouted anti-vaccine rhetoric years ago are flirting now with QAnon. Their conspiracy theory fits into a broader conspiratorial worldview and general idea that shadowy elites are manipulating our institutions and attempting to undermine people’s freedom,” says Kate Bitz, a program manager and organizer/trainer at the Western States Center in Portland, OR, where she focuses on exposing and counteracting far-right groups.
QAnon espouses a baseless conspiracy theory that a network of pedophile Satan-worshipping elites is operating throughout society, including in the "deep state" of U.S. government. It also placed Trump as a heroic figurehead of the movement, claiming he was working from within the government to root out and bring the cabal to justice.
“If everything from local public health agencies to the federal government is controlled by dark forces or the deep state by Satan-worshipping pedophiles, then you can’t trust those institutions or hold them accountable,” says Bitz.
Social Media Cracking Down
Social media giants Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram have cracked down on anti-vaccine information in the past 6 months by removing accounts belonging to influential figures like Cook and Bigtree.
Facebook recently kicked The HighWire off the platform. “We were just told we broke their community guidelines. But, after kicking me and more people off, what they have been saying is that anyone disagrees with the WHO [World Health Organization] perspective, we will limit their visibility on social media platforms,” says Bigtree.
“I find that disconcerting because the WHO is not a U.S. agency or has the U.S. population at the top of their list of importance. In many ways, national interests are being mitigated or manipulated by foreign agencies,” he says.
Some QAnon and anti-vaccine posts still can be found on major social media sites, but there are far fewer than even a few months ago, according to independent researchers. Advance Democracy, a nonpartisan research group, found QAnon content on Twitter shrank dramatically after the company purged 70,000 accounts following the Capitol siege.
While Facebook has banned outright false and misleading statements about coronavirus vaccines, it has not removed content that is in the gray area of vaccine hesitancy.
Facebook didn’t remove Bigtree’s personal account, which has 64,117 followers, or his nonprofit ICAN’s page, which has 46,344 followers.
Another issue is that users can migrate to other platforms. Bigtree says when The HighWire was removed from YouTube, they told their followers to come watch the show on their website. “We had 60,000 live views on YouTube and another 10,000 live views on Facebook. They all came to the website to watch it, which crashed a few times. When we looked at the website analytics 3 days later, 230,000 people were attempting to watch the show live at the same time.”