TikTok users are falsely claiming that vaccinated people will soon die, leaving them to inherit the earth. The videos—which represent a fraction of the misinformation spread unchecked by the platform, most of it less obviously ridiculous—will surely be studied by furrowed-brow scientists in 100 years, when we really will all be dead, not from vaccines but through a combination of pernicious ignorance and sheer exhaustion.
Using audio from the 2007 film version of The Transformers, the TikTok users are picturing themselves climbing atop or striding toward various things, facing away from the camera. “I am Optimus Prime,” the voiceover intones, “and I send this message to any surviving Autobots taking refuge among the stars. We are here. We are waiting.” The videos are hashtagged with a mixture of anti-vaccine hashtags like “#unvaccinated” and others, in a bid to have them appear on users’ “For You” pages and get more views. The most-viewed video has nearly half a million likes thus far.
Since the start of the pandemic, TikTok has done a notably terrible job stemming coronavirus-related misinformation, from a hoax video about “Patient Zero blood” way back in January 2020 to incredibly racist skits about its spread to, now, the #unvaccinated hashtag. While TikTok now links to a fact-based Q&A on some coronavirus-related videos, there’s little evidence it’s doing much to stem the tide, and is in fact notably bad at doing so: Many of these videos were promoted into my editor’s For You page. Other kinds of misinformation are more or less unchecked on the platform, including videos spreading extremist content and hoaxes like National Rape Day. While Facebook has made gestures at stemming COVID misinformation—although those gestures have largely failed—TikTok's algorithm is more actively feeding this content to its users.
There are actually two ways to read the Optimus Prime videos, and it’s not totally clear which one any given TikTok user believes. The first option is that they’re saying the vaccine will soon kill everyone who takes it (many of the videos’ text boxes refer to “unvaccinated survivors”). Some versions of the claim state that each person who has received the vaccine will die in “three years, as a generous estimate,” per one video making the rounds on TikTok. That messaging isn’t just confined to TikTok, of course: The conspiracy theory that Bill Gates and other elites are trying to depopulate the world through vaccines has been spreading in anti-vax circles practically since the pandemic started. Before that, vaccines were often falsely held out as part of a depopulation scheme or a “death plan.” The Nation of Islam, for instance, has urged its members since the 1960s not to accept vaccinations; Minister Louis Farrakhan and other top NOI leaders have renewed that claim around the COVID vaccines. Needless to say, the world’s population has not been decimated by any previous vaccine and this one isn’t any different; COVID, though, has thus far killed a staggering 3 million people worldwide.
The other way to read the Optimus Prime TikToks is that people are trying to position themselves as lone, courageous holdouts in a world full of vaccinated sheeple. The Optimus Prime videos are part of a larger genre: Other users have depicted themselves duck-lipping for the camera as Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” plays in the background, in what appears to be a bit of an online singles bar for people who hate vaccines and love Under Armour, Trump hats, pro-police T-shirts, and abundant self-tanner. Those videos are often hashtagged “#experiment” or #eua (“emergency use authorization”). They’re playing into the false claim that COVID vaccines aren’t “real” vaccines, but “experimental treatments” granted an emergency use authorization by the FDA, the reasons for which are easy to find the moment you click away from TikTok. The false claim that COVID vaccines are rushed, “experimental,” or somehow unsafe has been promoted by everyone from anti-vax social media influencers to state legislators like influential Texas State Senator Bob Hall.
Confidence in COVID vaccines has risen rapidly since their rollout, but the number of people who plan to be vaccinated may be reaching a plateau, and misplaced concerns that the vaccines are somehow unsafe, rushed, or different than previous vaccines is a major driver in vaccine hesitancy. Both Moderna and Pfizer are currently seeking full FDA approval for their COVID vaccines.