How the Trumps Helped Anti-Vaxxers Spread Lies About the COVID Vaccine

Trumpworld figures, including the president, supercharged anti-vaxx disinformation.
November 11, 2020, 1:49pm
President Donald Trump speaks at the White House, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining where it came from, the harm it's causing, and what we should do about it.

In the middle of an unprecedented global pandemic and election chaos, the news Monday that Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine was up to 90% effective was a much-needed beacon of hope.

Predictably, anti-vaxxers jumped on the news to make wild, baseless claims about the dangers of the vaccine, using social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to spread their conspiracies, despite efforts to eradicate them from the platforms. 

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But before the anti-vaxxers even began to think about spreading lies about Pfizer’s vaccine, President Donald Trump and his allies were already undermining and weaponizing Pfizer’s announcement. 

Initially, it seemed like Trump might just welcome the news. On Monday morning he all-caps tweeted about the announcement and the impact it would have on the stock market. 

But at the same time his son, Don Jr. was raising conspiratorial questions about the timing of the announcement, suggesting without evidence that Pfizer had withheld the news until after the election to harm Trump’s campaign.

By Tuesday morning, the president was fully on board the conspiracy train, adding unfounded claims that the Food and Drug Administration — whose commissioner was appointed by the Trump administration — had somehow colluded with the Democrats to delay the announcement from a private company that had not taken any U.S. government money to develop its vaccine.

Trump’s vaccine misinformation efforts were just one strand of a much broader effort to undermine the integrity of last week’s election. But for the anti-vaxxer community, which has been preparing for this moment for months, it simply added more credence to their already well-established conspiracy theories — from a figure who they count as one of their own.

As president, Trump has not questioned the benefits of vaccines, but he is an anti-vaxxer from way back, as tweets like this clearly show:

“When I was growing up, autism wasn’t really a factor,” Trump said during a press conference at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida in 2007. “And now all of a sudden, it’s an epidemic. Everybody has their theory. My theory and I study it because I have young children, my theory is the shots. We’re giving these massive injections at one time, and I really think it does something to the children.”

Trump repeated this claim almost verbatim during a Republican presidential debate in 2015.

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With Trump willingly undermining the credibility of the Pfizer announcement, it was no surprise that anti-vaxx comments spread quickly and widely on social media.

The posts typically centered on baseless claims that the vaccine will be made mandatory, that the vaccine would result in horrific side effects, and of course, cthat the vaccine is simply a ruse by Microsoft founder Bill Gates to implant microchips in everyone to conduct mind-control experiments.

Many of these claims are simply rehashes of conspiracies that have been spreading on social media since the pandemic began and the race to create a vaccine kicked off.

Social media companies like Facebook and Twitter had attempted to clamp down on anti-vaxxer communities, but in recent months anti-vaxxers have infiltrated anti-lockdown, QAnon, anti-5G, and anti-masks groups, where they have found an eager audience for their misinformation. 

And as well as questioning the timing of the Pfizer announcement, anti-vaxxers are following Trump’s lead in questioning statements from health agencies and public health figures, at a time when roughly one third of Americans say they would not take a new coronavirus vaccine.

“A lot of the posts are about undermining the institutions and people we need to trust in order to take the vaccine: so of course [Bill] Gates and [Dr. Anthony] Fauci, the CDC, and WHO,” Claire Wardle, co-founder of nonprofit First Draft, told the Daily Beast.

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Here’s what else is happening in the world of disinformation.

How Trump’s tweets helped shape people’s opinions ahead of the election

A new study from a Stanford University political science researcher, alongside five researchers at other U.S. universities, found that Trump’s tweets undermining the integrity of the election ahead of last week’s vote had a two-fold impact.

The first is that the messages helped shape his own supporters’ beliefs and at times reduced their trust in a peaceful transfer of power. On the other hand, for Trump’s detractors, the tweets worked to reinforce their confidence in the electoral process.

Parler is having a moment

Parler, which describes itself as “unbiased social media,” has seen a huge spike in interest in recent days, with the app being downloaded two million times since election day as people react to Twitter and Facebook’s more stringent enforcement of their policies against election misinformation.

On Facebook, a “mass exit” event is scheduled to take place on Friday, with 460,000 people already registering their interest in leaving the social network for Parler, or one of the many other niche networks that have gained popularity in recent days, including Gab and MeWe.

Much of this interest in Parler is being pushed by influential figures like Mark Levin, Sean Hannity and Dan Bongino (an investor in Parler) who are urging followers to leave Facebook and join these alternatives. 

But, despite advocating against mainstream platforms, these same individuals rely almost entirely on Facebook to maintain a connection with their audience — so while they will continue to use other platforms, it is ludicrous to think they would leave Facebook completely.