Anti-Vaxxers Are Cozying Up to the Far Right Online
They’re anti-science and conspiratorial. Together, they’re building a right-wing populist, measle-stricken future.
Often, sometimes multiple times a day, users in an anti-vaccination Facebook group post a link to a 2017 article about vaccine laws in Sweden.
“Nice!” one group member captioned the article last week.
“Amazing,” “interesting,” wrote two people who shared the article in the 150,000-member group on the same late January day.
The article wasn’t from a medical news source, though, or even another anti-vaccine group. It came from a white supremacist website, Red Ice.
The anti-vaxxer movement, comprised of people who falsely believe vaccines are dangerous, is ascendant. In 2019, the World Health Organization named “vaccine hesitancy” one of the top 10 threats to global health, the first time it made the list. The movement is credited with contributing to ongoing measles outbreaks worldwide, including an outbreak of approximately 70 people in Washington state. But that’s not all it’s spreading. Like other conspiracy movements, the anti-vaxxer movement has rubbed shoulders with the far right.
New studies reveal vaccine skepticism to be a strong predictor for populist politics in Europe, where many populist candidates run on a hard-right line. And fringe media outlets are seizing on the sympathy from the anti-vax movement, pushing even more extreme conspiracy theories under the guise of vaccine skepticism.
White supremacist website Red Ice has churned out at least 100 articles and radio clips bashing vaccines in recent years. Links to those articles appear regularly in closed anti-vaxxer Facebook groups, a number of which boast more than 150,000 members. Unlike Facebook pages, which any user can read, these closed groups can be hotbeds of political activity and harassment, in which members coordinate attacks on pro-vaccine doctors and activists, as the Guardian reported.
Far-right news sites can find a serious audience in these highly active conspiracy communities. One 2017 Red Ice article has repeatedly made the rounds in large anti-vax groups, sometimes racking up more than 1,000 likes. Although the article skews right wing (it lauds a clip from the Tucker Carlson’s show) and alarmist (vaccines “can seriously injure your child”), it isn’t overtly white supremacist. But should anti-vaxxers chose to explore the rest of the site, they would find a white supremacist swamp, full of anti-immigrant and Islamophobic fear-mongering.
Most anti-vaxxers are not white supremacists, far from it. But the overlap can send some well-meaning parents down the rabbit hole. Far-right groups frequently engage in “entryism,” a tactic that involves seeding a sympathetic mainstream group with extremist ideology, then slowly radicalizing its members. The tactic works well in groups like the anti-vax community.
At their surface level, anti-vax claims tap into populist grievances with bipartisan support; in the U.S., where health care can be prohibitively expensive, vaccines are sometimes seen as an extension of well-moneyed pharmaceutical companies. But the world of conservative-leaning conspiracy sites take the claims further. Red Ice, Infowars, and their ilk build on the mistrust of pharmaceutical companies to claim vaccines are part of a world-domination scheme by a shadowy global elite. As these claims typically go, the conspiracy theory gets anti-Semitic, with white supremacists interpreting “elite” to mean Jewish people.
As anti-vax spreads into the internet’s fringes, it mingles with other far-right conspiracy theories.
Natural News, a right-wing conspiracy site with 2.9 million likes on Facebook, is one of the primary sources of anti-vaxxer content, according to The Atlantic. A recent anti-abortion article on Natural News accuses “the political Left in America” of advocating for child murder, and warns that government “vaccine enforcer” teams are about to start vaccinating children at gunpoint. In a 10,000-member Facebook group for those who believe certain people (usually blonde or red-headed) are a superior race unrelated to the rest of humanity, members offered a series of arguments against vaccination, including the claim that vaccinations constitute race-mixing.
But entryist techniques aren’t entirely to blame for the anti-vax movement’s right-wing streak. A pair of recent studies suggests anti-vaxxers tend to hold worldviews compatible with right-wing populism.
A March study by Australian researchers used a theory that tests for five character traits, including a person’s respect for “purity,” and their deference to authority. Anti-vax parents tested high for belief in purity (defined by researchers as “an abhorrence for impurity of body”) and low on respect for authority.
Conservatives typically score high on respect for purity and authority, while liberals score lower. But populist movements, including Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, borrow some of the left’s anti-authority language, casting themselves as anti-elite. On Facebook, anti-vaxxers might rage against the authority of pharmaceutical companies or school vaccination policies, but Trump is a less common target. (Trump has promoted anti-vax conspiracies, too, falsely claiming in 2014 that vaccines cause autism.)
Other conservatives have painted their anti-vax stances as anti-authoritarian by claiming vaccinations are communist. “The idea that we force someone to give up their liberty for the sake of the collective is not based on American values but rather, Communist,” Kelly Townsend, a Republican anti-vaxxer in Arizona’s state House, wrote in a Thursday Facebook post.
The trend is even clearer in Europe, where a study published in February in the European Journal of Public Health suggests “a connection between the rise of political populism and vaccine hesitancy.”
The study found an overlap between measles outbreaks in France, Greece, and Italy, and the rise of populist parties in those regions. In all three, more than 15 percent of respondents said they did not believe vaccines are effective. (Vaccination programs are most effective when at least 95 percent of the population is vaccinated.)
“It seems likely that scientific populism is driven by similar feelings to political populism – ie profound distrust of elites and experts by disenfranchised and marginalised parts of the population,” the study’s author wrote, according to the Guardian. A December 2018 investigation by the Guardian found similar overlap between populist votes and anti-vaxxers in the U.S. and Poland.
In Ireland, the merger of anti-vaxxer conspiracy and right-wing populism marches in the streets. Participants in Dublin “Yellow Vest” protests in January shouted anti-immigrant slogans while simultaneously protesting vaccines, Ireland’s Journal reported. The Yellow Vests, initially a French protest movement with support from the populist left and right, has taken on a more conspiratorial right-wing tone abroad, with Canadian and British Yellow Vests using the movement to push anti-immigrant rhetoric and the QAnon conspiracy theory. Members of right-wing extremist groups have marched in the Canadian and British demonstrations.
Some Facebook groups for Ireland’s Yellow Vest movement were “dominated by fringe conspiracy theory views and share debunked articles from untrustworthy news sources,” including false health claims about fluoride, the Journal reported.
Some of those health claims linked back to Awareness Act, a conspiracy site currently pushing the bogus claim about blondes and redheads belonging to a master race unrelated to the rest of humanity.
Eventually, all of it—the conspiracy theories, the skepticism of some unseen authority, the right-wing populism—coalesces. On Natural News, the American anti-vaxxer site with nearly 3 million likes, an article claims the government will start forcefully vaccinating children against their parents’ will.
The article, which argues against gun laws, has spent the past two days at the top of the Natural News site with a provocative title:
“A serious question: When will the first ‘vaccine enforcers’ be shot by parents defending their children against the felony assault of forced immunizations?”