How American COVID misinformation energized the global anti-vaccine conspiracy movement

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Protests against compulsory COVID-19 vaccinations in Ukraine. Credit: Stepan Franko/EPA

The coronavirus crisis is energizing America’s anti-vaccine movement and expanding its reach.

Even as countries and companies race to develop a safe and effective vaccine, U.S. activists and influencers are working to undermine it, seizing on the legitimate fear that the vaccine might be rushed and leveraging that to further a broader anti-vaccine — even anti-science — agenda.

It is a campaign that is primarily playing out on U.S.-owned social networks such as Facebook and YouTube, where misinformation about a potential coronavirus vaccine is flooding hate networks, neighborhood groups and “wellness” communities focused on food or yoga.

In these digital spaces, vaccine hesitancy is mixing with coronavirus denial and merging with far-right American conspiracy theories, including QAnon, which claims that President Trump is secretly fighting a cabal of Satanist pedophiles embedded in the so-called “deep state.”

Related article:  Viewpoint: Fears grow that Trump’s anti-science extremism could fuel rise in creationism

What’s emerging is a sprawling, international movement that opposes basic public health measures such as vaccines and masks, denies or downplays the reality of the pandemic, and is increasingly, though not always, linked to the politics of the far right.

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Some of the loudest voices coming out of the United States these days are sophisticated, well-funded anti-vaccine “proselytizers,” said Imran Ahmed, chief executive officer at the Center for Countering Digital Hate and an expert on malignant online behavior.

“The digital anti-vaccine movement is an American disease,” he said, “and it is spreading around the world.”

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