“Anyone who refuses to be injected with experimental poisons will be prohibited from travel, education, and work,” Larry Cook declared recently on a fringe social media site. “No, this is not a synopsis for a new horror movie. This is our current reality.”
Cook is an anti-vaccine activist and a QAnon fan; he was one of the single biggest sources of anti-vaccine misinformation on Facebook before his banning in November. As usual, he was, on a broad level, wrong: People who refuse COVID-19 vaccines are not necessarily going to be prohibited from “travel, education, and work,” nor are those vaccines “experimental poisons.” But Cook was correct in one way: He and other conspiracy theorist “health freedom” advocates are closer than they were before to living in a world they would find to be a nightmarish dystopia. What none of them have acknowledged, though, is that their relentless flood of misinformation helped us get here. By fighting the most commonsense public health measures at every turn, the health conspiracy theorists helped create a climate where more restrictive ones are looking more and more necessary.
For years, Cook and a host of other people who make a living selling vaccine skepticism, snake oil, and a heaping dose of anti-government suspicion have traded on the idea that someday vaccines will be mandatory and the government will track citizens or control our entry into public spaces. (Cook’s Facebook group, before it was deleted, was called “Stop Mandatory Vaccination.”) Today, as the country and the world continue to try to get control of the coronavirus pandemic, some of those ideas are being discussed—albeit not quite in the nightmarish ways the health conspiracy theorists envisioned.
Vaccine passports will not be introduced on a federal level. New York is so far the only state to introduce a standardized proof of vaccination, the Excelsior Pass, which will be used to gain entry to places like Madison Square Garden, though more states may follow suit. While they haven’t yet, businesses like airlines and schools could very much decide to require proof of vaccination. The Supreme Court ruled in Jacobson v. Massachusetts in 1905 that states can enforce mandatory vaccination laws. And many countries are only reopening to American travelers if they’re fully vaccinated. Some of the same dynamics are playing out outside of the United States: in the United Kingdom, the BBC reported, organizers of large-scale trial events are being harassed and threatened by anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown protesters for requiring attendees to show a negative COVID test. The demonstrators believe, without evidence, that the events are a trial balloon for an eventual vaccine passport.
The fact that these discussions and restrictions are happening at all is also proof of how far and fast anti-vaccine, anti-mask, and anti-science ideas spread during the pandemic. Public health experts said last week that community or “herd” immunity against COVID-19 will likely never be achieved in the United States, due to a virulent combination of more transmissible variants and persistent vaccine hesitancy across broad swaths of the country. The best we can do, instead, is live with COVID-19 as a hopefully manageable but ongoing threat. Meanwhile, an article in the medical publication PLOS-One found that several major strands of COVID denalism have gained a foothold worldwide, including the idea that COVID was “planned,” that it was deliberately engineered “bioweapon,” and that wearing a mask to protect against it can cause “hypoxia” or other health problems. (There is no proof of any of those things.) I have a Google Alert set up for the names of a few prominent anti-vaccine advocates, and nearly every day, I see the ideas of one of them, the disgraced scientist Judy Mikovits, being cited in letters to the editor in small newspapers across the country as a reason not to trust COVID vaccines or as a justification for not wearing a mask, which she frequently and falsely claims will make you sick.
There was little chance that any of the most virulent anti-vaccine COVID denialists would ever buy into basic public health measures, of course. Most of them had decided from the beginning that the virus spelled the end of humanity, and pivoted their messaging and business models accordingly. In January 2020, when COVID had killed just under 100 people worldwide, Mike Adams was already making a dark prediction. “It’s over for humanity,” he declared, speaking to Alex Jones and the InfoWars audience. “There will only be lone survivors. The strategy must now shift. You can be a survivor. We can help you survive.”
Having given up pretty quickly on humanity, Adams, who runs a conspiracy site called Natural News and has dubbed himself The Health Ranger, re-dedicated himself to making sure his audience are “lone survivors” by providing the worst possible information about both COVID-19 and potential treatments for it. He’s decried what he calls “worthless Communist masks,” for example, while relentlessly promoting debunked treatments like hydroxychloroquine. Larry Cook, too, fought against masks: In June 2020 he wrote that he had filed complaints with the FBI and the Department of Justice and sent a letter to then-President Trump over Los Angeles’ requirement to wear a mask in public places: “If you do not want to be forcibly masked and treated like a slave under the color of law, I highly recommend you file a complaint as well,” he wrote.
Now that vaccines are being broadly administered, the health conspiracy theorists are, naturally, fighting those too, using a broad mix of fear-mongering tactics. One of the more recent is falsely claiming that people who have been vaccinated are “shedding” either COVID or something more exotic and dangerous, in a move that author and Conspirituality host Matthew Remski dubbed “Reverse Contagion Anxiety.” (Most infamously, this led to a Miami school declaring that it will refuse to hire vaccinated teachers; most amusingly, some anti-maskers are now declaring themselves ready to mask up to protect themselves from the vaccinated.)
While it’s extreme, in a way, none of this is new: Anti-mask protests took place during the 1918 flu pandemic, of course. More broadly, the United States has a long history of groups who insist that any community-level action against public health problems is an infringement on human liberty. That attitude creates disastrous—or at least extremely stupid—results.
Take, for instance, the water fluoridation debate. The anti-Communist John Birch Society in the 1950s, was either, depending on who you talk to, morbidly afraid that Communists would contaminate the drinking water supply of the United States through fluoride, or merely opposed any fluoride being added to the water because it believed it was an impingement on the rights of Americans to choose what medication they took. As a result of its efforts, and those of other anti-fluoride groups, what would have been a basic public health measure turned into a pitched 75-year battle that’s still being fought one municipal water district at time. (For what it’s worth, the John Birch Society denies today that it ever opposed fluoridation on Communist mind control grounds, writing on its website, “While the JBS doesn’t agree with water fluoridation because it is a form of government mass medication of citizens in violation of their individual right to choose which medicines they ingest, it was never opposed as a mind-control plot.”)
And even before COVID, we’ve seen this same pattern before much more recently: The suspicion and refusal of basic public health measures leading an increasingly strict government response, thus heightening the original underlying suspicion. In 2018 and 2019, two severe measles outbreaks among New York’s Orthodox Jewish communities, one in Brooklyn and one in Rockland County in upstate New York, led to a series of increasingly heightened government actions. But public health officials were battling against a disinformation campaign by Orthodox anti-vaccine activists, and when measles continued to spread, unvaccinated children were briefly banned from being in public in Rockland County March 2019. The ban was overturned by the New York State Supreme Court, but by then, bigger anti-vaccine activists had alighted on the state’s Orthodox community. (Anti-vaccine celebrity Del Bigtree, for instance, pinned a yellow Star of David on himself in a speech, and then sent out a press release to make sure no one had missed it.) While the measles outbreak subsided, anti-vaccine suspicions—fueled, in part, by the memory of the government restrictions—have continued, and remain a factor in how Orthodox communities have responded to COVID vaccines.
Today, the audiences of “health freedom” and anti-vaccine advocates are constantly told that they only need to do what will ensure the survival of themselves and their families. In a neat trick, that attitude also allows virtually all of these people to make money: Cook has started a new social network for COVID vaccine “refusers,” as he calls them, and is marketing numerous supplements there. (One of them claims to provide “Better sleep, less stuttering, better eye tracking, better bowels, anger dissipated, better mood and better speech,” which is certainly a collection of things.) Mikovits has appeared at numerous anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown conferences across the country this year, as has anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who’s also made headlines internationally, appearing at an enormous anti-lockdown protest in Berlin; later in the day, some 300 of the demonstrators were arrested after attempting to storm the Reichstag.
The conferences themselves have become a burgeoning industry in the U.S., with names like “Truth Over Fear,” held this past weekend by a fringe media personality and meant as a response to a Vatican-led health conference at which Dr. Anthony Fauci appeared, or the “Health and Freedom Conference” in Oklahoma, which drew thousands of people into a cramped indoor space to hear COVID conspiracy theories and declamations on liberty from pro-Trump figures like Lin Wood. The author and conspiracy theorist Naomi Wolf, meanwhile, appeared this past week at a conference in Michigan dubbed “United We Stand for Freedom,” and has become a much-lauded figure in the anti-vaccine world over the past few months. (Her anti-vaccine beliefs have managed to paper over the last time she was in the news, for making a series of staggering errors in a 2019 book that led to its release being canceled.)
The claims of vaccine “shedding,” too, have predictably led to new products being marketed, new bids for a little more market share. In a recent article, Mike Adams claimed that pine needle tea could help protect against the so-called shedding, while another popular health conspiracy theorist, Sayer Ji of the site Green Med Info, at the end of an apocalyptic video about vaccine shedding, urged people not to “freak out,” but simply to subscribe to all his content to stay informed. “Tell 100 of your friends,” he urged, to create “a grassroots army of health-loving, freedom-loving individuals.” Another popular anti-vaccine influencer named Ashley Everly, who claims to be a “freelance toxicologist” and who has more than 80,000 followers on Instagram, has been disseminating unconfirmed reports of “shedding” injuries for weeks, while urging her followers to download an anti-vaccine guide she’s written and subscribe to her Patreon.
There’s evidence that some of the people promoting the shedding theories are ultimately trying to funnel their audiences towards even more bizarre and toxic ideas. America’s Frontline Doctors has promoted the “shedding” theory; it's an extremely questionable group of physicians and backers who had an alarming hold on both the Trump White House and have more recently been influencing state-level politics. At a small fringe health conference this weekend, Dr. Lee Merritt, a member of the group, claimed that the pandemic is a form of “uncharacteristic, unrestricted stealth warfare” and approvingly quoted infamous British conspiracy theorist David Icke in claiming that everyone who controls the world could fit in one room with “room left over.” (Icke is frequently and credibly accused of anti-Semitism, often implying that the people in that room are “Rothschild” Jews, as he puts it. He also believes that most world leaders belong to a race of evil and omnipotent 12-foot lizard beings.) “This isn’t just about a virus,” she told her audience, in a taped lecture. “There’s no set battlefield … your warfare extends to your own brain, and that’s what a lot of this right now is a psychological operation.”
It’s tempting to think that these fringe figures are only talking to themselves and their pre-existing audiences. But an article published in Nature in May 2020 found that anti-vaccination clusters of Facebook users were more likely to “become highly entangled with undecided clusters in the main online network,” as the authors put it, while pro-vaccine viewpoints were more peripheral. There’s good evidence, in other words, that for people who were already dubious about vaccines—or perhaps, things like the efficacy of masks or social distancing—exposure to bad information proved to be a kind of tipping point.
But the frenzied level of fear and paranoia that the health conspiracy theorists are stoking is affecting some of them, too. Recently, Everly, the "toxicologist,” began claiming that she, too, is suffering symptoms that she believes are the result of being around vaccinated people and might need to post less content on social media.
“Hopefully with a bit of time ‘away,’ (not completely) I can jump back into this,” she wrote. “Every now and then I get a bit overwhelmed and start to burn out.”
Most of the health conspiracy theorists, though, seem energized by the new hellish dystopia that they believe they’re living in. By exhorting their audiences not to get vaccinated, social distance, adhere to contact tracing or take even the most minor of public health steps, they helped get us to this hellish place, but they won’t necessarily be the ones who suffer. Instead, as Adams exhorted back in January 2020, they’ll be focused on being the “lone survivors”—and leaving the rest of us to fend for ourselves.