Organized on Facebook, a ‘who’s who’ of anti-vaccine activists head to D.C.

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Thousands of protesters are expected to descend on Washington this weekend for a rally against Covid-19 vaccine mandates, a sign that the anti-vaccination movement that gained traction on social media during the pandemic is spilling even further into politics and real life.

The rally has been largely organized on Facebook and some extremist internet forums, and organizers have raised at least $200,000 on a crowdfunding site. Some nearby hotels in Virginia are sold out ahead of the event, according to the event’s organizers, who are arranging last-minute travel plans for latecomers.

The “Defeat the Mandates DC” Facebook group, in which much of the organizing has taken place, now has more than 11,000 members, gaining almost 3,000 in just the last week. Organizers of the rally, Defeat The Mandates: An American Homecoming, say they are expecting tens of thousands of attendees who will begin their protest at the Washington Monument at 10:30 a.m. ET Sunday.

The event adds momentum to activists who continue to find ways to spread false and misleading claims about the Covid vaccines, now often focusing on mandates as an entry point.

Among the scheduled speakers is Dr. Robert Malone, a virologist who has recently emerged as a new leader of the anti-vaccination movement after appearing on Joe Rogan’s podcast in December. Malone, who is president of the Pandemic Health Alliance, the organization soliciting donations for the rally, has pushed anti-Covid vaccine talking points, including tweeting a retracted study falsely claiming Covid vaccines caused a substantial number of deaths. He has instead repeatedly advocated for the use of ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug that the Food and Drug Administration does not consider an effective treatment against Covid.

On Rogan’s podcast, which is estimated to reach tens of millions of people and was the top podcast on Spotify in 2021, Malone insisted that Sunday’s event is an anti-mandate rally, and not an anti-vaccine rally. Rogan said he will not be attending the rally.

Malone did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Anti-vaccine groups on Telegram have also pushed local “Defeat the Mandates” rallies planned for Sunday in several cities, including Denver and Sacramento, California. Some of the events have been amplified on Telegram by members of extremist groups like the Proud Boys, with one account adding that the event in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, would feature a “mask burning.”

Kolina Koltai, a postdoctoral fellow who researches the anti-vaccine movement at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, said the D.C. event was bringing together some of the most high-profile anti-vaccine activists.

“It’s a who’s who of grifters and people who made a profit off the pandemic,” she said

Though the event has been mostly marketed as opposing vaccine mandates, organizers on Facebook have been quick to promote their links with anti-vaccine organizations, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense, with a group of doctors who recommended and prescribed treatments such as ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine instead of Covid vaccines in the last year.

Aaron Simpson, a spokesperson for Meta, the parent company of Facebook, said in an email: “Voicing opposition to government mandates is not against Meta’s policies. What we don’t allow is content that promotes harmful false claims about the vaccines themselves and we remove those posts — including in this group. We continue to focus on promoting vaccination, and the data shows that 86% of Facebook users in the US report having been or wanting to be vaccinated against COVID-19. We’ll continue monitoring our platform and will enforce against any content that violates our policies.”

The event is being organized by a hodgepodge of anti-vaccine groups. The self-described co-founders, Louisa Clary and Matthew Tune, appear to be relatively new to vaccine activism and have said they are only against mandates. Tune is a sales director at NBCUniversal in Chicago. (NBCUniversal is the parent company of NBC News.) Clary is the campaign manager for the Vaccine Safety Research Foundation, an anti-vaccine group founded in October by veteran Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Kirsch, who claims without evidence that Covid vaccines are “toxic.”

Tune declined to comment. Clary did not respond to requests for comment.

Image: Robert Malone (Steve Helber / AP file)
Image: Robert Malone (Steve Helber / AP file)

The permit for the rally was filed by the Children’s Health Defense Fund. Organizers expect 20,000 people, according to the permit, which also requires attendees to wear masks in crowded outdoor areas.

Koltai said that while most, if not all, of the speakers at Sunday’s rally oppose vaccines, referring to the rally as being against mandates is a way to drum up wider support and also evade bans from Facebook and Twitter, which frequently take down anti-vaccine misinformation.

“As policies have changed on Facebook, we’ve seen anti-vaccine groups rebrand to ‘pro-medical freedom’ or ‘pro-choice,’” she said. “They’re using terms that they know are not going to get censored.”

On the event’s Facebook group, users have spent the last week strategizing ways around Washington’s indoor vaccine mandate, which would prevent the unvaccinated from accessing most indoor public venues and restaurants.

The group has arranged buses, coordinated travel arrangements and have caused hotels across the Potomac River in Virginia to be sold out, where there is no vaccine mandate. Some users in the group have shared directions on how to forge vaccine cards to get into restaurants.

Administrators of the Facebook group did not respond to requests for comment.

According to Advance Democracy, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research group, several users on the extremist site Patriots.win, which hosted in-depth plans to attack the Capitol in the days before the Jan. 6 riot, plan to attend.

“Users on Patriots.win are talking about attending this rally after they talked about staying away from the Sept. 18 rally because they worried it was a false-flag event,” said Daniel Jones, a former FBI analyst and a longtime Senate investigator who is now president of Advance Democracy. The Sept. 18 rally, a “Justice for January 6” event in support of jailed rioters, fizzled after extremist groups and far-right forums warned one another to stay away.

CORRECTION (Jan. 23, 2022 7:10 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the status of Robert F. Kennedy’s Children Health Defense. It is a nonprofit organization, not a fund.

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