Since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, promoters of the pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy theory have helped fuel a variety of falsehoods about the coronavirus and the efforts to contain it. But over the past few weeks, amid rapid advancements in the race to inoculate the public against COVID-19, the misinformation has begun to coalesce around a new narrative: the supposed risks of the coronavirus vaccines.
The fact that President Trump, QAnon’s hero, claims credit for developing the vaccines hasn’t impeded the spread of rumors that they are unnecessary at best, and dangerous at worst.
The latest round of conspiracy theories are especially pernicious, experts say, because they come from sources who purport to be — or in some cases actually are — physicians or researchers, albeit with views far outside the mainstream. Ahead of the U.S. vaccine rollout on Monday, Melanie Smith, head of analysis at the social media research firm Graphika, told Yahoo News that much of current QAnon conversation around covid vaccines seemed to be driven by scientists and doctors, including former employees of the pharmaceutical companies involved in developing the vaccines.
“We’re seeing a whole host of influencers emerge that have scientific backgrounds, claiming to be former epidemiologists and microbiologists, who seem to be consistently some of the most mentioned accounts by QAnon supporters over the past few weeks,” Smith said.
Vaccine protesters join a “Stop the Steal” rally in support of President Donald Trump in Lansing, Mich., in November. (Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images)
Smith pointed in particular to two former Pfizer employees who co-authored a petition earlier this month calling for the European Medicines Agency to stop clinical trials of the Pfizer vaccine in the European Union. The petition, which raised concerns about the potential for COVID-19 vaccine to cause infertility in women, was cited in a since-deleted blog post under the dangerously misleading and inaccurate headline: “Head of Pfizer research: Covid vaccine is female sterilization.”
Though the post has been removed and thoroughly debunked, the sterilization rumor has persisted, circulated by QAnon and anti-vaccine accounts on social media and promoted by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, along with other baseless claims about the vaccine.
According to Smith, articles and blog posts about the claims put forth by the former Pfizer employees “are consistently the top shared, most popular articles among QAnon supporters.”
This is not the first time adherents of the cultlike QAnon movement, which was founded on the myth that Donald Trump was battling a “deep state” cabal of satanic pedophiles but has since morphed into an all-purpose vehicle for paranoid conspiracy theories, have dabbled in disinformation about the coronavirus or a future vaccine. Early on in the pandemic, QAnon-related social media accounts helped promote anti-lockdown protests and undermine trust in public health officials, who they claimed had either created the coronavirus or were overstating its severity as a means of population control.
One of the early COVID vaccine conspiracy theories embraced by many QAnon believers involved Bill Gates, Dr. Anthony Fauci and an alleged deep-state plot to use mandatory vaccines to inject the public with microchip tracking devices.
Over the last several months, QAnon has become increasingly entangled with the established anti-vaccination community online. Late last month, Facebook removed the largest anti-vaccine group for promoting QAnon content.
A demonstrator in a QAnon shirt holds a sign during an August rally in Boston against mandatory flu vaccines. (Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
In recent weeks, though, the spread of anti-vaccine propaganda has led to a logical problem for QAnon followers who are also fervid Trump supporters and believe his insistent claims the election was stolen from him. Trump has claimed the rapid development of a vaccine, supported by his administration’s “Warp Speed” initiative, as one of his signature achievements in office.
Some, like Q conspiracy theorist and InfoWars host DeAnna Lorraine have criticized Trump’s promotion of the vaccine, vowing not to get vaccinated even “if Jesus takes it.” Others have sought to rationalize the two seemingly conflicting interests.
“Since QAnon is essentially a choose-your-own-adventure, followers are cherrypicking false vaccine narratives as they wish, resulting in multiple interpretations of and explanations for President Trump’s support of the vaccine,” said Cindy Otis, Vice of President for Analysis at Alethea Group, a disinformation investigations and remediation firm. “Some claim that his comments around the vaccine are actually code for other ‘plans’ coming to fruition. Others have announced a willingness to take the vaccine should Trump overturn the election results and take the vaccine himself. Like most conspiracy theorists, QAnon followers can hold completely contradictory ideas and believe them all to be true.”
Otis described the continued proliferation of vaccine disinformation online as “dangerous,” warning that “The prevalence of COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation risks disrupting the vaccine’s rollout, threatening American lives and delaying our economic recovery.”
“Government agencies, health experts, and media outlets must prioritize providing accurate information about the vaccine to inform citizens whose social media feeds are filled with anything but,” she said.
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