The rapid spread of coronavirus is beginning to look a lot like a pandemic, and besides its often deadly effects on human health, it’s also having a serious effect on the global economy, raising the prospect that everyday life could be disrupted all over the world. But anti-vaccine corners of the internet are worried about something else: that the government might develop—or even “enforce”—a coronavirus vaccine.
For most people, the news that a vaccine had been developed against the disease would come as a relief, but for anti-vaxxers it ties together two things. The first is, naturally, an overwhelming fear and distrust of vaccines; the second is a terrified certainty that some day the government will find a convenient excuse to enforce Orwellian degrees of control.
This is a common theme in the anti-vax world, and conspiracy theorist communities more broadly: that every disease outbreak is a pretext to enforce a secret, frequently sinister agenda. (Conspiracy theorists of all stripes have already seized on that idea; almost as soon as the disease started to spread, they were busily peddling paranoia alongside xenophobia and bullshit treatments.) In this case, they have a real-world data point to draw on: the way the Chinese government is furiously cracking down on dissenting voices who criticize its response to the outbreak.
Meanwhile, the specific claims around vaccines and coronavirus are starting to change form. In January, false claims circulated that Bill Gates owns the patent on the coronavirus or on a vaccine curing it. In fact, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are one of the funders of the Pirbright Institute, which does research on viral disease prevention. Pirbright doesn’t hold a patent on anything relating to any strain of coronavirus affecting human beings. “The Institute holds Patent no. 10130701 which covers the development of an attenuated (weakened) form of the coronavirus,” it wrote recently, in a post aimed at stemming what they gently called “misinformation.” The attenuated coronavirus, it added, “could potentially be used as a vaccine to prevent respiratory diseases in birds and other animals,” not human beings.
Undaunted, the rumors, at least in anti-vax communities on social media, began to shift. The consensus now seems to be that while there’s no coronavirus vaccine yet, it’ll soon be impressed on an unwilling population, along with other vaccines.
“Of course, they will enforce another vaccination,” wrote Mark Elkin, who holds himself out on Facebook as an author and “Earth change analyst,” and who has 16,000 followers. “It’s a double sided agenda. Cull the nations and form more control. However, the ‘order out of chaos’ card will be in full effect due to this virus. The infrastructure of the world is in serious trouble and with that comes medical martial law.” (Facebook has pledged to curtail coronavirus misinformation and "harmful content," instead prioritizing what it calls "accurate information and helpful resources" in their search results.)
Elkin’s message speedily made its way through Facebook’s still ultra-effective anti-vax grapevine -- despite Facebook's stated goal, beginning in March 2019, of stemming the tide of anti-vaccine misinformation. (Among other things, Facebook said they would reduce the rankings of "groups and Pages that spread misinformation about vaccinations in News Feed and Search," as well as remove them from the predictive results when searching the site.) Nonetheless, the groups and pages that do exist still communicate effectively with one another: Elkin's post was shared by a woman named Mary Elizabeth, who heads an anti-vaccine (and anti-ultrasound) page called Chem Free Kids. (She has also suggested that the spread of coronavirus is somehow linked to the rollout of 5G technology. Some of her posts have been flagged as misinformation, as part of Facebook’s fitful efforts to stem the tide of fake news on their platform, but others, for whatever reason, are not. A Facebook-created banner at the top of Chem Free Kids also notes “This page posts about vaccines,” and directs users to CDC.gov for “information that can help answer questions you may have about vaccines.”)
Elizabeth’s post, in turn, was shared by Larry Cook, the founder of the massive anti-vaccine Facebook page Stop Mandatory Vaccination. Cook is one of the biggest single sources of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media, and the coronavirus has made him busy. Besides sharing other people’s rumors and false speculation virtually nonstop, he’s also creating his own, opining on Thursday that Someone wants to shut down information spread through social media to ensure “an agenda is played out,” in this case “lots of deaths from a pandemic.”
Cook is also resharing old rumor-mongering posts from Stop Mandatory Vaccination, lightly updated for the coronavirus crisis—for instance, claiming that the CDC will impose “indefinite detainment, forced vaccination and unlimited surveillance.”
“Make no mistake, the purpose of the Coronavirus is to help usher in vaccine mandates,” Cook wrote in yet another post. “Be Woke. Know the Plan. Prepare. Resist.”
A Facebook spokesperson tells us, “We are connecting people with authoritative information from regional and global health organizations, as well as from our third-party fact-checking partners." Referring to Stop Mandatory Vaccination and Chem Free Kids, they add, "Both of these Pages have educational pop-ups that direct people to credible information from the CDC and posts rated false by fact-checkers.”
“This idea that only a vaccine or a drug could save you, we wouldn’t exist if that was true,” Del Bigtree proclaimed on a conspiracy-oriented YouTube channel Press For Truth. Bigtree is one of the filmmakers behind the anti-vaccine movie Vaxxed, on which he worked with Andrew Wakefield, the now discredited former gastroenterologist who first suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Bigtree, on his radio show The Highwire, also promoted claims that coronavirus was made in lab. This idea was so exciting that The Highwire sent out a press release, which is currently being hosted on the Associated Press site for press releases, lending it a thin but shiny veneer of respectability.
All of this fearmongering, of course, is also great for promoting “natural” cures for the disease. Claims that massive doses of vitamin C, sesame oil, garlic, or bleach can cure coronavirus are all still spreading through anti-vax and conspiracy groups; Chem Free Kids, for instance, promoted a purported vitamin C treatment that can be made at home. The page did not claim directly that it would cure coronavirus, but claimed it would “Cur[e] the Incurable, Vitamin C, Infectious Diseases and Toxins‼️” (Facebook recently announced it would ban ads for fake coronavirus cures, which, of course, does nothing to address posts that are not ads.)
The claims that “Miracle Mineral Solution” can kill coronavirus have gotten so loud that the FDA has had to warn people, repeatedly, that it is still just bleach.
If that’s not all bad enough, a chaotic news environment might be making things worse. Conspiracy theorists of all stripes, for instance, were handed a big boost this week from CNN’s Philippines affiliate, which reported that coconut oil was being “eyed” as a possible “treatment” for coronavirus—a claim which was then shared by several anti-vaccine groups, including one of the oldest, A Voice for Choice. (That’s not as noxious, though, as some conspiracy theories being shared in far more mainstream places, like Tucker Carlson positing that “wokeness” and “diversity” were spreading coronavirus.)
The state of rising global panic is good for social media engagement, and good for peddling bogus cures. But vaccine opponents in the U.S. are also clearly hoping it’ll do something else: enlist future warriors in their fight against vaccines at the legislative level.
“Right now there are laws trying to be passed in New Jersey that are going to take away your right to opt out of a future coronavirus vaccine,” Bigtree proclaimed on Press For Truth, apparently referring to a recent bill that would have ended religious exemptions for vaccines, but which died in January. “Laws are being dropped in states all across this country. That’s what you have to get involved with. That’s what you have to worry about.”