On Monday, Fox News host Dan Bongino opened his daily podcast on a topic that seemed like old news: Covid-19 vaccines. He brought them up after first complaining that fellow conservatives had gotten “bogged down” in the story about classified documents seized from President Biden‘s Delaware home and former Washington, D.C., office, “because the left are absolute experts at misdirection,” he said.
Instead, Bongino wanted to focus on what he sees as a growing sense of distrust among those who had received vaccines and boosters. “I’m sensing an enormous cultural shift here, folks,” he said, arguing that even Democrats were having second thoughts. The centerpiece of the segment was a clip from the podcast of Dilbert creator Scott Adams, in which the cartoonist expressed regret over his decision to get vaccinated. “I’m going to tell you that the anti-vaxxers appear to be right,” he said.
Elon Musk had replied on Friday to Adams’ statement on Twitter, noting that he felt like he “was dying” for days after his own second booster shot and adding: “Hopefully, no permanent damage, but I dunno.” He also alleged that a cousin of his had to be hospitalized for heart inflammation because of the vaccine. Bongino — who is also vaccinated but has been permanently suspended by YouTube for trying to evade a suspension he received for Covid misinformation — said on his Monday show that he hoped comments like Adams’ would make people more “skeptical of government” in the future.
“There are a lot of people living in fear right now,” he concluded. “Again, you know, I’m one of them. I don’t mean to keep harping on this, but I’d be lying to you if I said that two to three hours of my day aren’t spent trying to think of how much damage may have been done to my heart.”
As the anti-vaccine movement welcomes ostensibly pro-science types like Musk and Adams into their camp, it’s also reinvesting in the notion that the pharmaceuticals are causing long-term harm, up to and including death. By early 2022, after the fights over vaccine mandates had died down somewhat, conspiracy theorists were falsely claiming that celebrities including Betty White and Bob Saget had died from the drugs. The end of the year brought the premiere of Died Suddenly, a bogus yet popular “documentary” that “revives several debunked claims and repackages them to allege that Covid-19 vaccines are part of a depopulation scheme by global elites who want to establish a global regime,” according to PolitiFact.
No sooner had 2023 begun than Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed from cardiac arrest during an NFL game against the Cincinnati Bengals — a terrifying moment witnessed by millions and quickly used by anti-vax conspiracists to misleadingly suggest that the availability of the shots has coincided with trend of medical emergencies among young athletes. Then came the unexpected death of Lynette “Diamond” Hardaway, of the MAGA-world sister duo Diamond and Silk. On Saturday, at Hardaway’s memorial, Rochelle “Silk” Richardson appeared to draw a connection between the vaccine and her sister’s death, though it’s unclear whether either had gotten the jab.
“In the wild, when they want to depopulate and sterilize a large group of animals, they usually inject one animal, and then that one animal infect the rest of the animals,” Silk said at the event. “So technically and according to the science, it doesn’t matter if you’re vaxxed or not.” She also alluded to the narrative put forward by Died Suddenly — that there is a plot afoot to kill off a large segment of the population. “Many call it a conspiracy theory. I call it murder,” she said. Her comments, heavily laden with the new anti-vax dogwhistle word “suddenly,” led Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene to call for an investigation into vaccines as potentially life-threatening. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that “Covid-19 vaccines are safe and effective and severe reactions after vaccination are rare,” and that “benefits of Covid-19 vaccination continue to outweigh any potential risks.”)
Alongside these episodes, social media has lately seen a resurgence of videos purporting to show vaccine recipients suffering tremors or seizures. Similar content dates back to 2021 and went especially viral in May 2022, when Twitter user Angelia Desselle posted footage of her feet shaking, with the caption “Thanks Pfizer.” (Spasms are not a proven side effect of the vaccines; these claims have been widely mocked and parodied.)
Desselle shared another such clip in response to the Twitter discussion between Scott Adams and Elon Musk, and yet another video of her was just reshared on the Twitter feed of James Cintolo, who bills himself as a medical and nutritional expert. His year-old account, followed by some 62,000 people and bearing a verification mark thanks to his Twitter Blue subscription, is a mix of anti-vax horror stories, memes, and quips like: “Having an immune system is a conspiracy theory.” In recent days, he has pushed several videos of supposed tremor symptoms caused by vaccines.
Cintolo — who did not respond to a request for comment as to his training, his current position in the medical field, or whether he had personally diagnosed any of the individuals shown in the clips he’s posting — also trumpeted Adams’ reversal on the vaccine and an anti-vax street protest this weekend in the U.K. The “Truth Be Told” rally, held at the BBC’s London headquarters on Saturday, was intended to mark “Covid Vaccine Victim Awareness Month,” supporting people allegedly injured by the drugs and memorializing those believed to have died at the hands of the government and Big Pharma.
Speakers listed for the event included prominent anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who either did not attend or address the crowd as planned, and Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen, suspended by his party days prior for tweeting that mass vaccination against Covid-19 was “the biggest crime since the Holocaust.” He told the assembled protesters: “We were told ‘safe’. It was a lie.” The group also directed shouts of “Shame on you” at the BBC and chanted, “Take down the BBC.”
The U.S. could soon witness organized action along these lines. Right now, a collection of lawyers representing various firms around the country — as well as general counsel for Kennedy’s anti-vax nonprofit Children’s Defense Fund — are selling tickets to a Covid Litigation Conference, to be held March 25-26 in Atlanta. David Sunfellow, an anti-vax author with a following of 30,000 on Rumble, summarized the focus of the meetup in a tweet: “Legal strategies to compensate vaccine injured and hold government and corporations accountable.”
“Over the next 10 years, Covid lawsuits are projected to experience tremendous growth,” the event page observes. “The conference will offer networking opportunities and panel discussions led by attorneys engaged in Covid-19 litigation. The conference is designed for an attorney audience; however, the public is also welcome to purchase tickets.” Early-bird admission costs $445, while tickets that include bonus events over the weekend are priced up to $570.
The conference is hosted by the Vaccine Safety Research Foundation (VSRF), an anti-vax organization founded in October 2021 by Steve Kirsch, a wealthy tech entrepreneur. Kirsch had in April 2020 founded the Covid-19 Early Treatment Fund, which sought to test already FDA-approved drugs as treatments for the disease, then grown impatient with its advisory board after disagreeing on the efficacy of fluvoxamine and hydroxychloroquine, which he viewed as promising. The whole board resigned, and soon Kirsch was a major vector of misinformation about vaccines, falsely claiming at a public FDA forum that they “kill more than they save.” He also had to resign as CEO and board member of his latest startup, M10.
Another Twitter user who has run an anti-vax account, @C19VaxInjured, since June 2022, appeared to be inspired by Saturday’s protest in London. They floated the idea of a similar protest at CNN headquarters in Atlanta — the same weekend that lawyers will convene to discuss plans for suing those they deem responsible for vaccine harm. A request for comment on these plans went unanswered.
It all goes to show that anti-vax sentiment hasn’t gone away in the past year — it’s just evolving, with chief architects and influencers looking for new ways to mobilize the movement. What’s especially insidious is how much of their narrative is driven by implication: any nod to “sudden” or “excess” deaths, which are in fact mostly attributable to Covid-19 infections, is taken as a sign that the vaccines are killing people, with the CDC and medical experts part of a vast coverup.
With President Biden saying that the pandemic is “over,” efforts to combat this kind of misinformation could lapse as quickly as Americans ditched masking. It sure doesn’t help that Twitter is doing less on that front since Elon Musk took over, while other conspiracists are finding safe haven and significant audiences on alt-tech platforms. For those who want to capitalize on paranoia amid a never-ending health crisis, the sky is still the limit.