Since it was introduced in the book and movie franchise The Hunger Games, the three-finger salute has become a prominent symbol of pro-democracy movements in Asia, uniting young protesters from Hong Kong, Thailand and Myanmar under the banner of the so-called Milk Tea Alliance.
But in a bizarre turn of events, the salute used to defy Asia’s lurch towards authoritarianism has recently attracted an unlikely group of fans on the other side of the world: American anti-vaxxers on TikTok.
These videos all take a similar format: The creator does the three-finger salute over an audio clip of the four-note whistle from The Hunger Games movies. It is accompanied by a line of text “calling out” to other unvaccinated Americans and often asking them to weigh in with the state that they’re from.
“The salute to us signals freedom, and standing up for things you don’t agree with. It shows that we don’t have to follow the crowd,” Amanda Berry, a 34-year-old business assistant from Kentucky who posted one such TikTok video, told VICE World News.
“I would say it is in reference of the Hunger Games movies because Katniss did stand up for what she believed in,” said Berry. “The statement she made with the three-finger salute was [an] action that was made loud and clear that she wasn’t going to conform to what society wanted her to.”
While some, like Berry, see the TikTok videos as a nod to The Hunger Games, Ryan Bowman, a 48-year-old realtor from Ohio who also participated in the TikTok trend, told VICE World News that the three-finger salute is simply his way of showing of solidarity with other anti-vaxxers.
“As with any trend it starts with an idea one person had and it caught on quickly,” he said.
There are currently over 12,000 TikTok videos using the whistle track, many of which involve anti-vaccine sentiments. They have amassed thousands of likes. Besides the whistle, an audio clip from the 2007 movie Transformers has also gained popularity among anti-vaxx TikTok users.
“At TikTok, we prioritize the safety of our users and while we encourage our users to have respectful conversations about the subjects that matter to them, we remove misinformation that could cause harm to an individual's health or wider public safety,” a TikTok spokesperson told VICE World News in an email statement, in response to enquiries about whether the anti-vaxx videos are within TikTok’s regulations.
“Our Community Guidelines prohibit content that's false or misleading, including medical misinformation related to COVID-19, and anti-vaccine disinformation. We continue to update our safeguards as we work to keep TikTok a safe and authentic place for our community,” the statement added.
As of this writing, the anti-vaxx videos seen by VICE World News are not attached with the banner “'Learn more about COVID-19 vaccines” that typically accompanies COVID-related videos. Introduced in December 2020, the banner feature was meant to redirect users to authoritative sources of information regarding COVID-19 vaccines.
The pandemic and vaccine rollout have drawn comparisons to the fight for survival in the dystopian book and film series before, so it may seem fitting for anti-vaxxers to double down on the pop culture reference.
But vaccine advocates—including the creator of the audio clip before it was appropriated as the soundtrack for anti-vaxxers—are hitting back, using the same TikTok sound to encourage people to get vaccinated in the hopes of countering anti-vaccination voices on the platform.
The whistle audio clip attached to many of the videos opposing vaccines is now titled “SCREW ANTIVAXXERS AND GET YOUR VACCINE” and advocates are making their own salutes.
Judging by TikTok videos seen by VICE World News, there is no indication that the anti-vaxx TikTokers are intentionally linking their three-finger salute to pro-democracy movements in Asia; they may not even know the gesture’s political significance in the region.
This was the case for Bowman.
“To be honest I wasn’t aware of the gesture being used in the pro-democracy movement in Asia,” he said.
“I think it does make sense though,” Bowman added. “The anti-vaxx movement is just that, pro-democracy. The ability to choose and make our own decisions.”
Similarly, Berry thinks that the three-finger salute represents a shared belief between anti-vaxxers and the protesters in Asia. “As far as using the same hand gesture to represent the pro-democracy movement in Asia, I think it sends a message that people should stand for what they believe in and that freedom is important for everyone. And by using that symbol they are saying we deserve to be heard,” she said.
But the odd overlap has drawn some criticism from pro-democracy supporters in the region.
“People in Asia are using the three-finger salute in protest of junta military regimes,” said a Twitter user. “To reappropriate this for anti-vaxxing is offensive.”
The three-finger salute was first embraced by pro-democracy protesters in Thailand after the military seized power in a 2014 coup. The hand gesture gained renewed relevance in the country during the massive youth-led pro-democracy movement in 2020. It has also been adopted by protesters in Hong Kong and Myanmar, whose democratic government was toppled in a Feb. 1 coup.
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