She resembles the girl you went to high school with who (unsuccessfully) tried to recruit you for her essential oil pyramid scheme. In her IGTV videos, she speaks softly of chakras, juice cleanses, and naturopathic remedies. Her story highlights, however, tell a different narrative: she’s in the streets of Toronto protesting masks and the COVID-19 vaccine. “Freedom is essential,” she writes. “The media is the virus. My body, my choice.”
He’s a QAnon proponent and die-hard Trump supporter. He has his Parler account linked in his Instagram bio, and he tweets in all caps about why lockdowns and vaccine policies violate his God-given right to liberty.
These are the protagonists of the anti-vaccine movement.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve bookmarked a host of social media accounts and posts created by anti-vaxxers. They range vastly, from holistic mommy bloggers to QAnon conspiracy theorists (spoiler alert: they’re not mutually exclusive). I’ve witnessed pseudoscience being disseminated via fear-mongering, Boomer-style video clips. I’ve also seen it dressed up in a pastel Instagram theme, smushed between a swarm of baby photos and vinyasa yoga sequences.
Diverse doesn’t seem a fitting word, but their informal membership has certainly attracted a lot of different characters.
And yet, the anti-vaccine movement is more than just an eye-roll-worthy subculture fueled by pseudoscience and conspiracy theories—it’s a significant public health risk. To achieve herd immunity against COVID-19, it is estimated that at least 75-85% of Americans need to be vaccinated. If more Americans begin to latch onto these anti-vax beliefs, the consequences could be fatal.
When the initial 21st-century wave of anti-vaxxers erupted, it largely consisted of minivan-driving-PTA-granola moms who fear-mongered over a pseudo-study conducted by Dr. Andrew Wakefield that claimed vaccines caused autism. Now, at a time when a vaccine could save millions of lives and drastically improve the livelihood of people around the world, a new, more heterogeneous flock of anti-vaxxers has emerged.
While the current strain of anti-vaxxers possesses some similarities to those of the past, it’s quite distinctive. The group’s vast range begs the question: what binds the alt right and mommy bloggers ideologically?
One way to look at this is through empirical data. In a study on the moral values of anti-vaxxers published in 2017, vaccine-hesitant parents were likely to rate two values particularly higher than non-hesitant parents: purity and liberty.
Despite the study being published pre-COVID, one can easily see the links between these values and the current push against vaccines; slogans like “freedom is essential” have become commonplace on social media platforms and on the frontlines of anti-vaxxer protests.
Even more interesting is their spontaneous co-opting of rhetoric traditionally used in pro-choice circles: “my body, my choice.” To the average anti-vaxxer, perhaps it would make sense to apply this language; it appeals to the individual, which is a crucial part of their ideology.
Yet there’s a stark distinction between pro-choice advocates and anti-vaxxers: the former deals with the bodily autonomy of the individual, while the latter’s ideology directly impacts their neighbors, communities, and on a much larger scale, the world.
This treads into another territory of anti-vaccine ideology: a strange, aggressive sense of individualism.
Sovereign citizen. Lightworker. These bizarre titles are a trend among many anti-vaccine wellness influencers. Diving into anti-vaccine blogs will show you that this language is a hallmark of the movement. It’s also connected to something even more sinister: QAnon conspiracies.
In an article for Mother Jones, Ali Breland investigated how QAnon conspiracies have infiltrated online wellness communities, leading to their blatant promotion by self-proclaimed influencers. There’s a number of leading figures promoting these conspiracies, including Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai, who holds a Ph.D. in biology and also claims to have invented email (which has been disputed).
The common theme between these accounts is a distrust of the so-called “elite.” In this case, the elite includes top scientists, public health experts, and policymakers such as Dr. Anthony Fauci. According to QAnon proponents, the efforts of this “deep-state” elite are all attempting to cover up a child-trafficking ring.
Still, the QAnon ideological terrain extends far beyond this idea; one of their latest targets, of course, is the vaccine-hesitant.
This culmination of a distrust of the elite and a hatred of the establishment is what binds the alt-right and your average alternative wellness influencer in their shared anti-vax rhetoric. In fact, when browsing these Instagram accounts and Reddit threads, there’s almost a hint of awareness of their position within the socioeconomic structures that govern society.
Once a hallmark of the Occupy Wall Street movement, the hashtag #wearethe99percent has been infiltrated by a slew of anti-vaxxers eager to spread the “higher truth.” Like the Occupy movement, their beliefs rest on a harsh critique of the inequities between the elite 1% and everyone else. On the surface, their anti-establishment rhetoric reads similar to many critiques of capitalism. The difference, however, is that while genuine anti-capitalist movements aim to organize toward a collective good, the anti-vaccine movement focuses solely on individual rights while completely ignoring the effects of one’s actions on others.
Just as the vaccine-weary reach the brink of social awareness, they fall into a rabbit hole of logical fallacies, baseless conjectures, and pseudoscience. What could’ve potentially been a path toward collective action depletes into an alienating, false echo chamber of anti-science narratives and conspiracy theories.
This pattern isn’t that unique at all; to a less extreme extent, this type of ideological framework is present in right-wing populism. It appeals to “the people” by mobilizing anti-elitist rhetoric that villainizes the big Other, which encompasses groups from refugees to academics.
Of course, many politicians who adopt right-wing populism as a political strategy are often in an elite group themselves—Donald Trump being the most infamous example. Fear-mongering, scapegoating, and pretending to appeal to “the people” are textbook tactics in far-right populism. Now in the hands of QAnon purveyors, these same strategies are being used to mobilize opposition against the COVID-19 vaccine.
This reveals an even harsher truth about these self-proclaimed “truth-seekers”: despite anti-vaxxers being decidedly anti-elite and anti-establishment, they ultimately miss the mark. In the end, by stifling any genuine attempts at collective, anti-capitalist action, these alt-right-esque movements end up serving the elite through politics of alienation. Just like the right-wing populism that fueled much of the Trump presidential victory in 2016, the goal is to isolate oneself in an ideology that reeks of individualism.
What surprised me the most while doing research about these groups were the small, subtle echoes of class consciousness that arose in their language; to recognize the inherent inequities that exist in a capitalist society and the dangers of wealth-hoarding can be a path toward further awareness and engagement. Unfortunately, many anti-vaxxers become so entrenched in their beliefs that a way out seems dismally challenging. It’s no wonder that “organizations” that fuel anti-vaccine discourse like QAnon have been accused of mirroring cult behavior.
Anti-vaxxers brand themselves as purveyors of a higher truth, and in turn, are able to claim conspiracy theories and pseudoscientific remarks about vaccinations as somehow extending beyond fact. If you don’t believe these claims, you’re just another cog in the sheeple machine. If you do believe them, you’re welcomed into an informal online community of “truth-seekers” and “lightworkers” who provide a sense of validation for one another.
It is important and necessary to think critically about the COVID-19 vaccine. But refusing to be immunized when American health and safety depends on the willingness of at least 75-85% of the population to be vaccinated is not beneficial, nor logical.
History and hard science prove that vaccinations have saved the lives of many. They’ll prove the same of the COVID-19 vaccine one day, too.
The real problem with the anti-vaccine movement is that it isolates the individual from their community, failing to depict individual actions as being deeply interconnected with the well-being of many. The things that have helped those struggling throughout the pandemic—mutual aid, grassroots organizing, and other forms of community-building—are in direct opposition to the values that the anti-vaccine movement promotes. Their ideology rests on an alienating individualism that vastly overemphasizes freedom, liberty, and individual rights over collective regard for one another.
Changing the mind of an anti-vaxxer is no easy feat. Perhaps the best we can do is have meaningful conversations about the importance of vaccines not only for ourselves but for our loved ones, communities, and greater society. Pseudoscience and conspiracy theories are in no way unique to COVID-19—but in this case, their traction is not only alarming but deadly. For the foreseeable future, anti-vaxxers aren’t going away. They’re here to stay—and the more leverage they get, the more fatal the consequences could be.
By Cierra Bettens
Illustration by Seb Westcott