WASHINGTON – Far-right extremist influencers and leaders have increasingly jumped onto the anti-vaccination bandwagon since COVID-19 took a deadly grip on the U.S. in the past two years.
From anti-immigration livestreamer Nick Fuentes, to onetime Proud Boy leader Enrique Tarrio, to conspiracy theory champion Alex Jones, they post memes, breathy disinformation videos and false statistics about vaccines daily on social media. They call the public health crisis a "scamdemic" and spread lies vilifying prominent scientists such as Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser.
On Sunday, thousands of protesters descended on the nation's capital in near-freezing temperatures for a "Defeat the Mandates" rally, listening to right-wing standard-bearers hawk their philosophies. A few young men wore Proud Boys insignias, and many in the crowd donned MAGA shirts and carried flags emblazoned with messages against Biden.
There was "Defeat the Mandates" gear available, too – including masks, a nod to the pandemic that has taken the lives of more than 860,000 Americans.
Organizers said the goal of the rally was to "stop the mass firings. Stop segregating by vaccination status. Stop calling Americans 'unpatriotic' for making a personal medical choice."
Anti-mandate protesters say extremists not welcome
Sunday's march rolled from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial, where the crowd listened to musical performances and passionate speeches.
Numerous speakers made broad comparisons between their activism and the civil rights movement, calling back to Martin Luther King Jr.'s messages of love, unity and freedom. At one point, a speaker asked the crowd to turn to their neighbors and give them a hug.
Interviewed as he walked to his speech, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., one of the headliners of the event and a leader in the anti-vaccine movement, pushed back against the idea that extremists are latching on to anti-vaccine messaging and using it to draw in new recruits.
"That's not my experience," Kennedy said. "My experience is that there are labor unions here, there are students here, there are people of every political orientation here."
Del Bigtree, another headliner of the Defeat the Mandates march and CEO of the anti-vaccination group Informed Consent Action Network, said any groups that base their views on hate are unwelcome in his movement.
"This is a movement of unity," Bigtree said. "If you believe in division of any kind, if you have any problems with race, or religion, or sexual preference then I don't think you're truly representing this movement."
That was echoed by Brian Willcutts, a health care worker who attended the rally from central Virginia.
“I’m sure this movement will distance itself from any group that tries to co-opt our message in order to communicate a message that goes beyond what we’re after," Willcutts said. "Certainly anything that would be violent, we are opposed to.”
Drawing in the disenchanted
The move to draw in the anti-vaccine crowd is part of a concerted effort by the extremist right to appeal to an expanding and credible audience that has little faith in the “mainstream media,” medical science or statistics, experts said.
“The far right has certainly seized on anti-vaccine ideology as an important new front in their ideological and cultural struggle,” said Brian Hughes, associate director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University. “They see anti-vaccine sentiment and COVID denialism as a market that they can exploit for views, for clicks and for merchandise sales.”
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In its modern form, the anti-vaccine movement emerged in the late-1990s and early 2000s, primarily in opposition to the Measles Mumps and Rubella vaccine, which conspiracy theorists claimed had led to an increase in autism. This disproved claim persisted throughout the 2000s, attracting a considerable following but remaining largely apolitical until 2010, said Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and an outspoken critic of anti-vaccine protesters.
By 2010, the anti-vaccine movement had begun to get political and had aligned itself with the tea party and other far-right politicians. Opponents of vaccines formed political action committees that pushed for religious exemptions and other legislation to hamper the spread of vaccines.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Around the time of COVID, the wheels really came off and it became a full blown political movement,” said Hotez, whose activism has made him a target of the anti-vaccine movement. “Now, some of the nongovernmental groups that were anti-vaccine, have also fallen in line with political extremists.”
Hotez describes this alliance as nothing short of an attack on science itself. While doctors are trained to be apolitical, he said the COVID-19 pandemic and the corresponding anti-vaccine rhetoric have driven some doctors to make a stand against disinformation that is killing people.
"200,000 Americans since last summer, who are unvaccinated have lost their lives to COVID out of this defiance and far-right wing, anti-science aggression," Hotez said. “It's killing far more Americans than global terrorism or nuclear proliferation, or cyber attacks or all the other stuff that we build infrastructure to combat. The refrain I use is: ‘Anti-science kills.’”
Far-right thrives off conspiracies
Researchers say the coalescing of far-right extremists around vaccine conspiracy theories is unsurprising. The extremist movement has always thrived off conspiracy theories, especially ones that point fingers at complex, far-reaching actions by the federal government, said Jared Holt, a fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab.
“This is an issue that hyper-partisan, far-right groups and movements have certainly sought to capitalize on to advance anti-government sentiment,” Holt said.
Holt said the anti-vaccine talking points now being pushed by extremists come after months of support from that camp for other anti-government claims such as the “Stop The Steal” campaign that wrongly claims the election was illegitimate and the fight against ordering businesses to cease in-person trading to stem the spread of COVID-19.
This glomming onto controversial new talking points is what the extremist movement does, Holt said. It’s all about recruiting new members by finding “soft” issues that resonate with mainstream conservatives. The aim: Finding ever-larger pools of recruits for more extremist ideas, he said.
“That’s the bread and butter of extremist movements – to find developing issues and try to capitalize on them,” Holt said. “It's the salesman tactic. You find a point of agreement and take it from there.”
A 'national security crisis'
Hotez describes the current threat from anti-vaccine activists as a “triple-headed monster,” consisting of anti-science disinformation promoters, particularly in conservative media, nongovernmental anti-science nonprofits that provide false statistics and talking points to pundits and state actors such as the Russian government, which has flooded America with disinformation about vaccines.
Hotez sees the issue as nothing short of a national security crisis. As conspiracy theories about vaccines spread, he said, more people will die as a result.
The Biden administration's response to this threat has been frustratingly tepid, Hotez said. Given the scale of the vaccine disinformation problem, and the number of casualties resulting from it, this should be a major priority for the federal government, he said.
Not least, the increasingly hostile environment for vaccine scientists, who find themselves under attack from political activists and extremists, is detrimental to science as a whole, Hotez said.
"I'm concerned about the fact that this is having a chilling effect on science and scientists," he said. "We're a nation built on our research universities, and and so we're the real patriots, not not these chuckleheads."
Contributing: Ella Lee, Jasper Colt and John Bacon
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Anti-vaccination ideas increasingly shared by extremists