Leaders of the anti-vaccine movement used 'Stop the Steal' crusade to advance their own conspiracy theories
Posted February 4, 2021 6:29 p.m. EST
CNN — As the Trump faithful gathered around the Capitol on January 6, two conspiracy theories peddling in government mistrust converged: The fraudulent belief that the election was stolen, and the dangerous narrative that Covid-19 vaccinations are wildly unsafe.
"We're being led off of a cliff," Del Bigtree, an anti-vaccine activist, told the crowd at the "MAGA Freedom Rally D.C." about a block from the Capitol.
"I wish I could tell you that Tony Fauci cares about your safety..." he said. "I wish I could believe that voting machines worked... but none of this is happening."
In the wake of Trump's electoral defeat, some leaders of the anti-vaccine movement latched onto the "Stop the Steal" crusade, advancing their own conspiratorial claims and, in some cases, promoting private business ventures, CNN has found. Some prominent anti-vaxxers say they directly coordinated with organizers of the DC rallies in January and pushed their message at other MAGA demonstrations, and on pro-Trump podcasts and social media platforms.
The anti-vaccine message may have found a particularly receptive audience among some fervent Trump supporters, many of whom flaunt wearing masks and contend the lethalness of the virus is overblown.
"It's marketing at a basic sales level," said Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which has analyzed the strategies of anti-vaccine advocates. "Conspiracism that allows you to connect anything together if you want to, because it doesn't require fact."
Contrary to the statements of vaccine critics, the two vaccines authorized for emergency use by the US Food and Drug Administration have been shown to be safe and effective.
But public health experts warn that anti-vaccine messages now pose a unique threat to the nation's health given the urgency for widespread coronavirus vaccination.
"One of our big concerns is that because people are seeing this anti-vaccine rhetoric we may not be able to reach levels of herd immunity we really need to stop virus proliferation," Tara C. Smith, an epidemiology professor at Kent State University, told CNN.
A national poll published this week from Monmouth University found 24% of people in the US will avoid getting the coronavirus vaccine if they can help it. The poll also found that willingness is driven more by political leanings than demographics.
The rally at the US Capitol featuring Bigtree, advertised as "The MAGA Health Freedom Event of the Century," included other notable vaccine conspiracy theorists such as Mikki Willis, the filmmaker behind "Plandemic," which falsely suggests Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was responsible for the creation of the coronavirus.
Bigtree, who says he's "not anti-vaccine" but rather "pro-science" and neither a Republican nor a Democrat, told CNN he did not speak at the rally to promote or benefit from "Stop The Steal" but rather to share his own message. "Wherever there is an audience, I want to get the message across that our bodies are ours. We should be in control of what's injected into them," he said.
The event was organized in part by a political action committee run by Ty and Charlene Bollinger, a married couple who run websites and sell documentaries that claim to reveal "the truth about vaccines" and range in price from $199 to $499. They also market alternative health books and other products.
The Bollingers have engaged for years in what they describe as health-freedom activism. But in recent months they took up another cause.
In early November, they co-authored a post about "voter fraud and election meddling" for the website of political operative Roger Stone, who has taken credit for coining the phrase "Stop the Steal" to help then-candidate Donald Trump in 2016. Last November, Stone wrote in a webpost that he "strategized" with the Bollingers.
Blending conspiracy theories
On November 21, the Bollingers spoke at a "Stop the Steal" rally in Nashville and blended election conspiracy theories with claims that then President-elect Joe Biden planned to force vaccinations.
"There is no pandemic. It's all BS," Ty Bollinger told onlookers.
In a video posted on January 4, Charlene Bollinger said she was working with other organizers on plans for the January 6th protests including "Ali" -- an apparent reference to Ali Alexander, a leader of the broader "Stop the Steal" movement.
Two days later, Charlene Bollinger introduced the speakers at her group's rally near the US Capitol, plugged her documentaries and blasted what she called, "the forced Covid vaccine, such a scam." She also told attendees that her husband Ty wasn't with her because he had gone to join the siege.
"I told him... they are storming the Capitol, and he looked at me and said, 'Do I need to stay here?' I knew he wanted to go. I said, 'Honey go,' so he did," she said.
Charlene Bollinger added that Ty texted her and said he was "outside" the Capitol. She then prayed "for the patriots that are there now inside. They're trying to get inside that Capitol. Lord, use these people to eradicate this evil, these swamp creatures."
The Bollingers did not respond to CNN's phone calls and emails that requested comment.
While outlandish claims of a stolen election may appear disjointed with vaccine fearmongering, their union at recent political rallies does not surprise Ahmed, of the Center for Countering Digital Hate.
Ahmed said fulltime anti-vaccine advocates often search for new audiences within other fringe movements with which they can build alliances. And he said it's not a coincidence that some of these professionals sell products like health supplements.
A July report by Ahmed's organization CCDH unpacked what it described as the "Anti-Vaxx Industry." The report noted that fulltime anti-vaccine campaigners expand their reach by appearing on conspiracy-theory-based YouTube channels and also lend their audiences to anti-vaccine entrepreneurs who seek to sell them products.
"What you're talking about is old fashioned snake-oil salesmen," Ahmed said.
Alex Jones and InfoWars
Another promoter of the stolen-election conspiracy theory is Alex Jones, who has long peddled falsehoods about vaccines and mainstream medicines on his show InfoWars. The show frequently advertises Jones' dietary supplements and survival products.
In April, the FDA warned Jones to take down a number of products marketed on his site as possible coronavirus treatments, such as "Superblue Fluoride Free Toothpaste." Those products no longer appear on his site.
Jones, who previously said a "form of psychosis" made him believe events like the Sandy Hook massacre were staged, has continued to promote other supplements next to segments on his show that stoke fears about coronavirus vaccines.
In recent months, he has woven in false allegations of widespread election meddling.
On January 3, Jones referenced "pure evidence of election fraud" just before a "news" alert about "forced inoculations" and other coronavirus claims. The video remains online next to an ad for "DNA Force Plus" supplements. The InfoWars Store includes a disclaimer that the products are "not intended for use in the cure, treatment, prevention or mitigation of any disease..."
Jones also traveled to Washington and spoke at a pro-Trump rally on the eve of the Capitol siege. There, he blasted what he falsely described as the "engineered virus that Bill Gates owns."
InfoWars did not respond to CNN's request for comment.
Spreading theories on social media
Other vaccine skeptics have promoted election conspiracy theories on social media.
Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, a physician, supplement salesperson and author of the books such as "Saying No To Vaccines," repeatedly promoted the January 6 Washington protests on Telegram. A January 5 post, for example, included a "call to action" and quoted the founder of the Oath Keepers extremist militant group as saying, "Get to DC and STAND!" Those posts were interspersed among her more usual anti-vaccine content.
Tenpenny also shared the "Stop the Steal" hashtag on Twitter in a quote tweet of a post about the DC rally from Dr. Simone Gold.
Gold, who founded the group America's Frontline Doctors, made headlines last summer for her appearance in a video that was later removed from social media for coronavirus misinformation. Trump retweeted the video, which also featured Stella Immanuel, who said in the past that DNA from space aliens is used in medicine.
On January 5, "Stop the Steal" organizer Ali Alexander introduced Gold at a Washington rally and reminded attendees that they weren't just fighting for the election but also against "medical tyranny."
Gold then took the stage and told the crowd, "If you don't want to take an experimental biological agent deceptively named a vaccine, you must not allow yourself to be coerced!"
The next day, Gold and her colleague entered the Capitol building during the siege, according to an affidavit for a criminal complaint against her. She was later arrested, according to the Department of Justice.
America's Frontline Doctors told CNN in a statement that Gold is not a political organizer and "did not participate in any incident that involved violence or vandalism and has categorically rebuked any such activity" by others. The statement added that America's Frontline Doctors' physicians have recommended vaccines to patients but said the organization believes "more study and greater transparency are needed with respect to COVID-19 vaccines."
Since the riot, she has continued to spread her message.
"Definitely you should not be calling this the Covid-19 vaccines. The reason is, whatever you call it, it's experimental. It's not been approved as a vaccine," Gold said in a video posted January 14 that showed a talk she gave at a Tampa, Florida-based church led by a pastor who has appeared on Alex Jones' show.
While some audiences may have concerns after hearing anti-vaccine messages that reference actual instances of allergic reactions or other anecdotes, context is key, says Smith of Kent State University.
"You've had a handful of allergic reactions as compared to 4,000 people dying a day from actual coronavirus infection," she said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that severe allergic reactions to Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech's vaccines are rare.
Smith said that when anti-vaccine activists' claims about coronavirus vaccines are put in the larger context of scientific literature, "all of those concerns are just dwarfed."
While the momentum of the "Stop the Steal" movement may have died down, vaccine skeptics and far-right political groups will likely continue to trade audiences and ideas, which could translate into more public demonstrations, says Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights.
Burghart, who tracks far-right groups, said he has watched these two movements develop an increasing symbiotic relationship during the coronavirus pandemic.
"There is a larger constituency that is mobilized and they have adopted a far more destructive view of vaccines than they had before, and they have united with far-right paramilitaries and others," he said.