“A Fake Pandemic”: Anti-Vaxxers Are Spreading Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories

Facebook is full of COVID-19 misinformation from groups that oppose mandatory vaccines.

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In recent weeks, Facebook groups that oppose mandatory vaccination have turned their attention to the coronavirus. Their feeds are full of posts that downplay the risks of the COVID-19, promote discredited conspiracy theories, and criticize efforts to control the spread of the virus. Here are a few of the ideas they’ve been spreading:

Criticizing social-distancing campaigns and warning of “police state” tactics. “It is a fact that fear and stress compromise the immune system,” the account Michigan for Vaccine Choice posted on March 21. “Can we keep this mass quarantine up? What about our quality of life?” On March 15, Californians for Vaccine Choice posted:

What is about to unfold over the next few weeks is a test to see how well we have assimilated the government’s lessons in compliance, fear, and police state tactics; a test to see how quickly we’ll march in lockstep with the government’s dictates, no questions asked; and a test to see how little resistance we offer up to the government’s power grabs when made in the name of national security.

Claiming the virus might not exist at all. “If you’re still thinking it’s coincidental that a pandemic erupted in the midst of a state by state sweep to REMOVE your right to refuse vaccination, it’s time to get your head out of the sand,” the group Oregonians for Healthcare Choice posted on March 20. Also that day, it posted a link to a piece on a site called Green Med Info titled, “Op-Ed: Does the 2019 Coronavirus Exist?” The piece argues that “the coronavirus panic is just that, an irrational panic, based on an unproven RNA test, that has never been connected to a virus.” On March 19, the group published a long and rambling post titled, “How to create a fake pandemic 101.” Here’s step 5:

STEP 5 – Make sure the media goes all in on over hyping and fear mongering. Get most of the sellout alternative media on board too and make them hype it up even more. Focus on areas of the world with lots of old people and active 5G, like Northern Italy… And cruise ships. Convince people that where they live will end up just as bad and worse. Make people so paranoid that they overwhelm hospitals by coming in with the first sign of the sniffles. This zombie rush of paranoid idiots will make it appear that entire countries are getting sicker when mostly they are just getting increasingly paranoid. As a bonus, some people will become susceptible to sickness just by remaining in non-stop sleep deprived active adrenal paranoia. Even many practicing doctors and nurses may be fooled by the zombie onslaught, especially those in 5G areas.

(That last bit refers to a particularly out-there conspiracy theory that because the coronavirus emerged in China around the same time that the country introduced 5G cell phone networks, it was actually the 5G networks that caused the virus.)

Arguing the coronavirus isn’t as bad as the media claims. Several groups link to an article from the website The Vaccine Reaction—titled “Mortality Rate for Covid-19 May Be Closer to Influenza” —which quotes researchers downplaying the death toll. Other groups link to pieces that argue that Italy’s outbreak would be considered mild were it not for the vulnerability of the elderly and people with preexisting conditions. “Serious doubts about the accuracy of COVID-19 testing methods, results, mortality rates, and the supposedly unique and extreme lethality of this virus are starting to emerge, even within mainstream media and government reporting,” reads one oft-cited piece.

Telling readers to stop washing their hands so much. Many of the groups link to an article on the website of the Weston A. Price Foundation, a group that promotes diets rich in animal fats. Titled “How to Protect Yourself from Coronavirus or Any Virus,” the article argues that “extreme handwashing,” cleaning surfaces with bleach, and avoiding physical contact with others is overkill:

The worst part of all the hullaballoo is the bad advice that fills the newspaper reports. People are engaging in extreme handwashing, disinfecting their houses with clorox, refusing handshakes and wearing masks. (Remember that viruses are extremely tiny, so wearing a mask is like building a chain link fence to keep out mice.) We don’t read anything in the papers about building immunity—to all diseases, from coronavirus to TB.  In fact, the Washington Post has admonished its readers that you can’t build immunity to the coronavirus.

This is nonsense.  Like any virus, coronavirus is no match for someone with a strong immune system.

Slamming Anthony Fauci and the CDC. Dr. Anthony Fauci—the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and one of the most visible public faces of the federal government’s coronavirus response—is a particular target of many of the posts. On March 16, the Indiana Coalition for Vaccination Choice posted a long tirade against Fauci. “Fauci is all over the media, serving up outright falsehoods to stir up even more panic,” the group wrote. “If anything, what people like Fauci and the other fearmongers are demanding will likely make the disease worse. The martial law they dream about will leave people hunkered down inside their homes instead of going outdoors or to the beach where the sunshine and fresh air would help boost immunity.” Others have excoriated the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On March 22, Oregonians for Healthcare Choice posted a meme reading, “The real virus threatening America: CDC,” along with the comment: “CDC=Corona disinformation center.”

So what’s Facebook doing to combat this misinformation? On anti-vaccine groups’ pages, it posts a banner that reads, “This page posts about vaccines. When it comes to health, everyone wants reliable, up-to-date information. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has information that can help answer questions you may have about vaccines.” But it doesn’t give any warnings about coronavirus misinformation.

Update, March 24, 9 a.m: We asked Facebook what it planned to do about these claims, and a spokesperson wrote back: “We’re focused on connecting people with accurate information and removing harmful misinformation related to COVID-19, including in Groups. Anyone who searches for – or joins – COVID-19 related groups is directed to credible information from health organizations. We already reduce the distribution of any groups that repeatedly share false news and we remove coronavirus related groups and pages from the recommendations we show people.”

The spokesperson didn’t say Facebook planned to add a warning about coronavirus misinformation to the antivaccine groups’ pages, and as of Tuesday morning, the groups remained unchanged.      

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We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

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