“Today Berlin is again the front against totalitarianism,” Robert F. Kennedy crowed on a warm and surreal August day in Berlin. The longtime environmental activist turned vaccine critic regarded a crowd of around 38,000 —which he’d previously claimed would number a million or more—and regaled them with dubious claims. Governments “love” pandemics, he assured the crowd, because they’re used to impose tools of global control “that the populace would otherwise never accept.” The COVID-19 pandemic, he claimed, was being used as a cover to get the populace to accept both 5G technology, which Kennedy regards as a tool of the nefarious global surveillance state, and digital currency, “which is the beginning of slavery.”
None of that is provably true or falls anywhere other than on the distant fringes of the kingdom of reality. But as Kennedy spoke before a crowd of tens of thousands of Berliners, they were on the front lines of something both new and disturbing.
In the immediate sense, the rally was protesting lockdown measures meant to fight the spread of COVID-19. But Kennedy and other campaigners have also been busy building international coalitions for another, even bigger cause: opposing a COVID-19 vaccine before it ever appears. Worse, they’ve been inadvertently aided by a complicated mix of factors, including religious and political instability, that have made people in many countries more distrustful of vaccines than ever, at precisely the wrong time. Two recent studies have found anti-vaccine sentiment has been on the rise in many countries since 2015, at the same time that anti-vaccine social media groups have been coalescing around a single, highly persuasive argument. Taken together, those forces look like an energetic, growing, and incredibly dangerous global anti-vaccine movement, at the exact time when the world needs to be persuaded to accept a new vaccine.
According to Kennedy, that summer Saturday represented a day of “peaceful, high energy” rallies around the world, devoted to high-flown concepts like “medical freedom” and bodily autonomy. (The same weekend, he also announced the launch of Children’s Health Defense Europe, a new arm of his American anti-vaccine organization.) The two most highly publicized rallies were also conspiracy theory bonanzas. As the Daily Beast reported, Kennedy was in Berlin at the behest of Querdenken 711, a German group that appears to support QAnon. The rally was also backed by far-right extremists; while the larger rally was largely peaceful, a small group of those extremists attempted to push through a police cordon later in the day and storm the Reichstag.(In a jawdropping Instagram post, Kennedy dismissed that incident as “a staged incident where 100 riot police colluded in a false flag show with some 50 agents provocateurs in Nazi regalia.”)
Meanwhile, protesters in London’s Trafalgar Square also called for lockdown restrictions to be lifted and protested; among the speakers was conspiracy star David Icke, best known for his belief that a shapeshifting reptilian elite race known as the Anunnaki dominates world affairs. Icke spoke about the dangers of “fascism,” as he called the COVID-19 lockdown measures, alongside Piers Corbyn, brother of former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Piers has claimed that COVID-19 is a cover for “enforced vaccination and seizing of you and your property.”
But while the London and Berlin rallies and their colorful personalities dominated the headlines, the real face of the anti-coronavirus vaccine movement might better be found in South Africa, where anti-vaccine protesters marched through Johannesburg in July. They were protesting something far more earthbound than reptilians or the hidden dangers of 5G: a clinical trial in South Africa of the COVID-19 vaccine being developed by Oxford University. It’s one of two clinical trials for potential coronavirus vaccines currently underway in Africa, part of a broad effort to make sure vaccines are made available to Africans, who are often last in line for life-saving medical innovations. Researchers have said that the tests will, in the words of the Lancet, provide important information “on how the vaccine performs in populations that have the most need of protection from COVID-19.” South Africa has the highest rate of infections on the continent and the tenth highest in the world; deaths there have now exceeded 17,000.
The trials have tapped into a lingering unease about the long, sordid history of medical experimentation on Black people, particularly in Africa. Earlier this year, a French doctor named Jean-Paul Mira, the head of the urgent care unit at Paris’ Cochin Hospital, said in a television interview, ““If I could be provocative, shouldn’t we do this study in Africa where there are no masks, treatment, or intensive care, a little bit like we did in certain AIDS studies or with prostitutes?” He added, “We tried things on prostitutes because they are highly exposed and do not protect themselves.”
Though Mira later apologized for his remarks, they contributed to a strong sense that the rest of the world treats Africa as a “dumping crowd,” in the words of the Johannesburg protest organizer Phapano Pasha. “The people chosen as volunteers for the vaccination, they look as if they’re from poor backgrounds, not qualified enough to understand” she told the Associated Press. “We believe they are manipulating the vulnerable.” The Johannesburg protesters carried placards reading “We are not guinea pigs,” according to Reuters, and one suggested that the vaccine be “tested first on members of parliament and ministers’ children, not on poor people." (The same sentiment was shared by a Black tenant in a public housing complex in Pittsburgh recently, according to the New York Times: “I won’t be used as a guinea pig for white people,” they said.)
Pasha, who didn’t respond to a Facebook message from VICE News, has written that she distrusts the role the Gates Foundation plays in South Africa. “Bill Gates Foundation & Clinton Foundation have been in the country for decades. Call me crazy but I don't think the upsurge of young black boys becoming gays is innocent,” she wrote in August. “Scientists just like politicians can be bought & pharmaceutical companies have created more diseases than cures.. We don't know the side effects of the vaccines, medicine and food we eat.”
Pasha is connecting two arguments, both equally false but highly persuasive: the idea that vaccines are broadly unsafe or often have unknown side effects, and the idea that they are forced through manipulation—or outright force—onto an unwitting populace. That sense of distrust means that any attempt to get a large number of people vaccinated, either through a mandate or through clinical trials, will likely be met with extreme suspicion.
The argument that vaccines infringe on people’s civil liberties and right to self-determination is one that’s been pushed with increasing success on Facebook, one of the biggest and most effective sources on the internet for anti-vaccine misinformation. It also predates COVID-19 by several years, meaning it's had time to gain strength and footing.
“Certain arguments are more plausible to some audiences than others,” says David Broniatowski, a researcher and associate professor at George Washington University, and a lead author on a new study published on October 1 in the American Journal of Public Health. The researchers found that Facebook groups discussing vaccines as a civil liberties violation have ballooned massively in the past few years, especially after a 2015 measles outbreak at Disneyland, the release of the influential anti-vaccine film Vaxxed in 2016, and a global measles outbreak in 2019. After each event, the researchers saw anti-vaccine discourse coalescing more and more around the idea that refusing to vaccinate is a civil right.
The strength of a civil liberties-based argument, Broniatowski said, “is that you don’t have to argue the scientific facts.” Instead, the conversation becomes about both personal agency and trust. “The debate is about, if you’re free to choose, do you really trust this person? It gets right to the core of what vaccination is all about for most people"—the choice, he argues, to trust medical experts and vaccine science itself.
“Even extremely educated people who aren’t trained in immunology wouldn’t know how vaccines work or read the papers or reviewed the data," he said. "So much of it comes down to what’s your perception of the expertise of the person who says these are safe. The only way this works is you have to trust the institutions.”
Trust in institutions is, of course, in short supply across much of the world right now: The surge in populism is also explicitly positioned as a movement against elites and elite institutions. All of that dovetails together with the argument that vaccines are a tool of the elite, being forced onto the people. After the global 2019 measles outbreaks, Broniatowski said, all forms of anti-vaccine content on Facebook saw an uptick, “but civil liberties content has a huge spike. It massively increases. People started to talk about and get scared of vaccine mandates.”
While they were tracking Facebook pages in English and focused on the U.S., he said, they also monitored impassioned discussions about vaccine mandates in many different countries, including Australia, the U.K., and Italy. “All these things play together, they’re all feeding off each other,” he says. Vaccine mandates and controversies in different countries are eagerly showcased to show What Could Happen Here.
“It also builds on decades of propaganda,” Broniatowski adds. “For example, Soviet propaganda like Operation INFEKTION was based on the idea that the US was trying to unleash viruses on unsuspecting underdeveloped countries at some point. So I think that all of this plays together. There’s absolutely a history here.”
That history continues to inform the present. Another large retrospective study recently published in The Lancet mapped confidence in vaccines across 149 countries. Between November 2015 and December 2019, the authors wrote, “ we estimate that confidence in the importance, safety, and effectiveness of vaccines fell in Afghanistan, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, and South Korea. We found significant increases in respondents strongly disagreeing that vaccines are safe between 2015 and 2019 in six countries.” All of them are politically unstable and facing rising tides of religious extremism: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Serbia. In August, a particularly significant tidbit of fake news began to spread on social media, claiming that COVID-19 vaccinations were being made mandatory in Serbia for children, and falsely claiming that the mass protests were underway.
“MILLIONS OF SERBIANS Took to the streets of Belgrade in protest!” one post read. “They will NOT be forced into a bullshit vaccination!”
Marginalized groups, including religious minorities, “tend to be less trustful of institutions,” Clarissa Simas told VICE News. She’s a psychologist and research fellow for the Vaccine Confidence Project, an interdisciplinary group of researchers who study trends in vaccine confidence worldwide. She’s also one of the authors on the Lancet study. The irony is that in many countries, “the populations suffering the heftiest burdens” from COVID-19 and other health challenges “are the ones least likely to trust institutions.”
In Simas’ perception, the dipping rates in vaccine confidence in many countries can be best countered not by stressing how safe vaccines are, but by building a broader kind of trust.
“As humans, the way that we perceive risk and danger isn’t necessarily attuned to what real risk and danger is,” she said. Telling someone that a vaccine is safe or well-tested doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll perceive it as safe. As a psychologist, Simas thinks there’s more value in helping build broader trust in health institutions. “What does make a difference is people knowing that a health institution is for the greater good and not for self-interest. That’s more worthy of investing, but trickier at the same time.”
Restoring confidence in health and government institutions will require a massive investment in grassroots work, she adds, and will require governments and health professionals to listen as much as they talk. “Attention to community engagement, and listening in every part of the world, is going to be fundamental.”
That’s going to be especially important to counter the message that anti-vaccine groups have been so diligently building: that vaccines are being forced on populations by the government, or by some hostile outside group. Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation, for instance, are the focus of intense amounts of conspiracy theorizing because of their investment in vaccine research. Even clearly fake videos implicating Gates in a vaccine conspiracy of some kind have gone mega-viral since the start of the pandemic.
That will need its own special attention, Simas said. “If it is a foreign vaccine or a Gates Foundation vaccine—an alien vaccine, let’s put it like that—the endorsement of a [local] government or public health authorities endorsement, as well as clear communication about that vaccine, can make a lot of difference.” (While the Gates Foundation isn’t developing a vaccine itself, Simas was referring to countries where Gates Foundation funding helps distribute vaccines.)
Looking at these two studies, it seems obvious that various shades of distrust are coalescing rapidly into a global movement of vaccine suspicion, precisely shaded in different countries to fit local and national concerns, at exactly the time we can least afford it. The situation, however, isn’t hopeless, according to Simas. “The main takeaway of the paper and what our findings show globally is we’re not in a downward spiral” she told VICE News. “What we’re seeing now is that confidence goes up and down.” Even the most worrisome trends, she argues, are reversible.
As of mid-September, though, a U.S.-based study has shown deep division in whether people say they’ll get a coronavirus vaccine, when one appears, and it’s reasonable to think the same will be true in many other places. Can we possibly build institutional trust globally fast enough to get most of the world to accept a COVID-19 vaccine, when one appears?
“That,” Simas said, “is the million dollar question.” While she doubts it’s even remotely possible to get the vaccine to everyone on the planet, “we want to have a good chance of having an optimal coverage. It’s fundamental to do this community and grassroots engagement. That means paying attention to the groups that are more vulnerable and might need some extra push.”
Building trust in health officials and governments isn’t easy at the best of times. It seems obvious that the challenges now will be exponentially greater in the face of a frighteningly uncertain illness and an increasingly organized and powerful anti-vaccine movement, especially with the world’s most powerful leaders sending bizarre and dangerous messages undercutting public health authorities' warnings about the dangers of the disease.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. seems to be banking on the power of a global movement, even as he’s begun claiming that his viewpoints are being “shadowbanned” or censored on social media. (Instagram recently began putting a content warning on some of his posts that contain false information.) A few weeks ago, he approvingly shared a mural by an Australian street artist: a leering Bill Gates, syringe in hand, next to the words “Time to install your update.” Australia, Kennedy wrote, was the new battleground to watch in the “global devolution from democracy to medical fascism.”
Follow Anna Merlan on Twitter.