The anti-vax movement is killing people, and the right-wing media is egging it on

·6 min read
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A Fox News logo is seen displayed on a smartphone. Mateusz Slodkowski/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
  • Every person who died of COVID in Maryland this June was unvaccinated - a testament to the dangers of not getting inoculated against the disease.

  • Right-wing commentators and lawmakers are egging on anti-vax fears for political gain despite the human cost.

  • Vaccine conspiracy theories aren't based in science, but that hasn't stopped conservatives from indulging them.

  • Eoin Higgins is a journalist in New England.

  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Over 100 people in Maryland died of COVID in June - and they were all unvaccinated.

It's the latest example of the deadly effect of the modern anti-vax movement.

Vaccine resistance has grown since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.

At the time, former President Donald Trump downplayed the danger of the virus for political reasons, fearing - rightly - that the economic shock from the lockdowns would be politically damaging. Meanwhile, media figures on Fox News and other right-wing outlets dove headfirst into spreading doubts about the efficacy of vaccinations.

Since then, Republican lawmakers and their allies in the media have driven the movement's growth. Anti-mask and anti-lockdown protests have combined with the existing anti-vax movement over the past 15 months, creating a Frankenstein's monster of well-intentioned skepticism of the pharmaceutical industry, various pseudo-sciences, and the far right.

The future consequences of the movement's rise in popularity were always clear. Maryland is the first state to show so starkly the deadly effect of the lies of the anti-vax movement, but it won't be the last.

Conservative media is enabling fringe conspiracies

Anti-vax hysteria has largely taken over conservative media. Reviews of segments on Fox News' Laura Ingraham Show show the host and her guests promoting all manner of unsubstantiated theories about the effects of the vaccination, from brain bleeds to suggesting the push to get people vaccinated is part of a shadowy plot to control people's health choices.

Ingraham's Fox cohort Tucker Carlson, the extremist host of the most watched cable news primetime program, has told his audience that the vaccine is the first step on the path to eugenics. He's welcomed guests like Charlie Kirk who call vaccines "apartheid" and notorious conspiracy theorist Naomi Wolf, who was banned from Twitter for spreading dangerous misinformation about COVID and the vaccine.

I reported on Wolf's anti-vax activism last month: she was the keynote speaker at a tone-deaf "Juneteenth" event in upstate New York, and people involved in the event referred to vaccination efforts as the first step on the way to the Holocaust, likening their fight to that of Black people in chattel slavery. They weren't even sure if COVID itself was real: "I'm not 100% convinced that the germ theory, as typically described, is true," Leland Lehrman, an anti-vax advocate in the area, told me.

But while people like Wolf once were on the extreme fringe edge, they're becoming more and more likely to be platformed by more moderate right-wing media figures. That's led in turn to the Republican rank and file being mistrustful of vaccines and resisting using them.

As FiveThirtyEight reported in an analysis of vaccine hesitancy trends on July 8, 29% of GOP voters who watch Fox are unlikely to get vaccinated. The number jumps to 37% when applied to those who watch OANN and fellow far right outlet Newsmax. As bad as Fox is, it's not even the worst thing conservatives could be watching with respect to their vaccine hesitancy.

Vaccine conspiracies are dangerous - and illogical

Far right figures, New Age grifters, and the modern GOP all coming together around vaccine resistance shows the strange bedfellows that the conspiracy theory has created. But at a closer look, they're not so dissimilar.

Conspiracy theories rely on simplistic explanations for complex systems and events. Whether it's the fear of a cabal of elites controlling your every move whose actions determine the course of history, or the belief that vaccine developers aim to rewrite your DNA, these fear-based approaches to explaining the world have their appeal.

Simple logic dispels conspiratorial fears around vaccines. Mass producing medicine that hurts consumers, when consumers are the vast majority of the population, is just not a viable approach to treating people for the pharmaceutical industry. And if the claims around vaccine danger, from causing autism to dangerous mercury levels to implanting tracking chips into your body, were remotely true, they would be easily provable and would result in swift justice, either meted out by the state or the people.

But the fact that the claims about vaccines are logically unbelievable hasn't stopped figures on the far right and, increasingly, in mainstream conservatism from amping up those fears at the expense of the health of their audience and the public at large. At its root, vaccine resistance is a fundamentally selfish and uncaring act which places individual choice over the good of the community - so it already has a home in the right's guiding ideological principles. Combined with the American conservative movement's penchant for conspiracy, it's a good match.

Deadly effect

The push is having real world effects, and not just in Maryland. Tennessee lawmakers have pressured the state's Department of Health to stop aiming vaccine efforts at adolescents after a right-wing pressure campaign - only 37% of the state's eligible residents are fully inoculated.

In Pennsylvania and Arizona, GOP lawmakers are fighting against schools requiring proof of vaccination - despite the fact that such mandates do not at present exist - citing over-regulation and the security of medical records as the reason for pre-emptive legislation against it.

"We're all being used as guinea pigs," Arizona state Senator Sonny Borelli said in May.

In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has already signed a ban on such mandates into law, reversing a move by Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale to require students to get the vaccine.

And a suggestion by President Joe Biden that government officials "need to go to community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood, and oftentimes, door to door - literally knocking on doors - to get help to the remaining people protected from the virus" was met with resistance from Republicans, with Reps. Marjorie Taylor-Greene and Lauren Boebert describing the proposal as a strategy only Nazis would use.

These moves send a message to the public that vaccines are a danger in more ways than one and that they're to be resisted - turning public health into another culture war battle. The Republican Party and its media apparatchiks tend to fall back on emotional issues when faced with Democratic control of the government, using its base's passion and conspiratorial thinking to its advantage in the following election.

The trend has led to a more radically right-wing party base which in turn has demanded far more extreme positions from their leaders. By turning against vaccines and public health, they're endangering all of us.

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