In the two decades that I’ve been following and deconstructing antivaccine propaganda, one thing that’s always struck me is how much antivaxxers love a rally. The first one that I took note of in a big way was organized by Jenny McCarthy and her then-boyfriend Jim Carrey in 2008. At the time, she had become the biggest name in the antivaccine movement on the strength of her “mother warrior” schtick in which her autistic son was her “science” and her connections with Oprah Winfrey. The result was a rally called Green Our Vaccines, a slogan that I had first noticed bubbling up in the darker corners of the antivaccine Internet four months before the rally. The result was the biggest antivax rally that I’ve yet seen, although, truth be told, even then it wasn’t that big. Without the star power of Hollywood celebrities, subsequent attempts to “recreate the magic” foundered into rather pathetic displays. Memories of these “rallies” were in my head as I learned of another rally, announced on The Joe Rogan Experience a month ago by Dr. Robert “inventor of mRNA vaccines” Malone, who’s turned full antivax conspiracy theorists, called Defeat the Mandates:
Defeat the Mandates: Echoes of Green Our Vaccines
Just as Jenny McCarthy used to do constantly back in the days of her being the face of the antivaccine movement and was chanting her mantra, “I’m not ‘antivaccine’ but pro-safe vaccine,” Dr. Malone goes out of his way to assure Rogan that this really, truly—no, really truly—is “not about being antivaccine” but rather about “being anti-mandates.” He also apparently hopes to “bring people together,” all while obviously flattering Rogan by adding that he knows that that’s Rogan’s message too. I will, however, give the organizers of this antivax rally credit though. Although video shown on Rogan’s show is cringe-inducingly treacly, full of swelling music and images of healthcare workers, first responders, and other people designed to make obvious appeals to emotion, the message is clever, namely that the “vaccinated” and “unvaccinated” are “coming together,” not because they are antivaccine but because they all love freedom so much, which is why they hate “mandates” so much,” at least, if you believe the messaging, as reported by Anna Merlan:
This time around, the usual faces are teaming up with a few new allies and attempting a slightly shifted set of talking points. The Defeat the Mandates march is claiming not to be an anti-vaccine march at all, but instead a unified group of people, “vaccinated and unvaccinated,” coming together to Reclaim America from unjust vaccine mandates. “We’re coming home,” the site declares. “Americans of every class and color. Democrats and Republicans. Vaccinated and unvaccinated. United we stand. In peace we march.”
In his appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience last month, Dr. Malone himself echoed the message that this rally is about opposition to mandates, but he couldn’t resist throwing in some classic antivax tropes:
Our objective is to end the vaccine mandates, and, also: no vaccine passports, no vaccination for healthy children, no to censorship, no to limits on reasonable debate and this censorship and propaganda that we’re constantly bombarded with. We believe in the power of natural immunity. We believe and insist on informed consent, and we insist on doctors and patients making decisions without interference together.
Let’s see. How many antivax tropes did Dr. Malone use? “No vaccination for healthy children”? That’s an old one going back to antivaxxers refusing MMR and varicella vaccines for their children, who are—antivaxxers claim—at such low risk of serious complications from measles and chickenpox that vaccination isn’t unnecessary. (Sound familiar?) “We believe in the power of natural immunity?” That sounds more religious than scientific, and, in fact, it is. (How’s that “natural immunity” working out with all the repeat infections being observed?) Then there’s the “informed consent” trope. As I’ve said many times before, when antivaxxers use this term, my translation of this Newspeak is “misinformed refusal“—which I used to call “misinformed consent“—given the misinformation and conspiracy theories promoted by antivaxxers about how horrible and ineffective the vaccines supposedly are which, if believed, would lead a reasonable person to conclude that the risk-benefit ratio of vaccinating is not favorable. It’s the same damned tactic that Jenny McCarthy used to use.
In an apparent bid to appeal to aging Baby Boomers, the organizers have even come up with a logo that harkens back to the late 1960s, with peace, love, and Woodstock implied:
Then there’s the lineup of speakers to consider. Before I get to them, I can’t help but note that Merlan also recently reported that longtime antivaccine leader Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. thought that Joe Rogan himself would make an appearance:
Kennedy’s anti-vaccine organization, Children’s Health Defense, claimed in January that Rogan would also attend the rally; three days later, it issued a correction, writing, “Mr. Rogan is not on the scheduled list of speakers.”
The original January 12 press release from RFK Jr.’s antivax organization Children’s Health Defense, however, did make it clear that RFK Jr. himself views this rally as an antivaccine rally, given that RFK Jr. couldn’t resist including this common antivax claim derived from a misinterpretation of the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) database:
In addition to objecting to COVID vaccine mandates on democratic principle, many are also expressing concern about the safety of these shots citing that as yet another reason to protest mandates. The latest data from the U.S. government’s Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) reveals 995,619 adverse events following COVID vaccination including 21,282 deaths.
I’ve discussed RFK Jr.’s dishonest use of VAERS beginning many months ago; so I won’t dwell on it here, other than to note that the number of deaths that he falsely attributes to the vaccines based on VAERS seems to be nearly plateauing. In any event, I rather suspect that Rogan, slick disinformation peddler that he is, realizes that it would be bad for his brand to appear with so many antivaxxers. What do I mean? Just look at the current scheduled lineup for the rally, recently Tweeted by its organizers:
As a friend of the blog put it on Twitter:
As I perused this list, several thoughts came to mind, the first of which involves my fellow physicians and scientists, such as evolutionary biologist turned COVID-19 crank Bret Weinstein, Dr. Peter McCullough, and Dr. Robert Malone: If you are given top billing at a rally like Defeat the Mandates with antivaccine activists like Del Bigtree and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (and even appear before them, like Weinstein), you’ll forgive me if I don’t take your protestations that you are really “very provaccine” very seriously at all. In fact, if you appear on the same bill, period, with antivaxxers like this, I cannot take your protestations that you are provaccine in the least bit seriously. After all, RFK Jr. himself loves to proclaim that he is “fiercely provaccine.” Saying it doesn’t make it so. Your actions and other words matter more than denials of being antivaccine.
A second thought that came to me as I perused the list was: Poor Drs. Pierre Kory, Ryan Cole, and Paul Marik! You guys used to be the tops among COVID-19 cranks in 2020, but now you’re just relegated to the second tier of speakers at this antivaccine rally. Even Christina Parks, a local Michigan antivaxxer whom I hadn’t even heard of until recently and who really wasn’t very well known in the movement, is ahead of you! As for Steve Kirsch, the tech bro turned antivaxxer and ivermectin pusher? He’s in the last group.
Not “antivaccine” but “pro-freedom”?
Like Jenny McCarthy’s rally 14 years ago, Defeat the Mandates claims so very, very strenuously and piously not to be “antivaccine,” but, now as then, that claim is belied by the list of speakers. I hardly need to mention that RFK Jr. has been a leader in the antivaccine movement since at least 2005 and is known for likening vaccine mandates to the Holocaust. More recently, he’s ceased to be embarrassed by comparisons of vaccines to the “final solution.” It seems unnecessary to emphasize that Del Bigtree, too, is very antivaccine, having produced the 2016 antivaccine conspiracy film disguised as a documentary, VAXXED, with the originator of the 21st century antivaccine movement Andrew Wakefield. One thing Bigtree does share with many of the right wing grifters and Joe Rogan guests and fans assembled for this rally is an overly dramatic sense of his own importance in fighting for “freedom,” having likened himself to the Founding Fathers and openly told Second Amendment aficionados that “now’s the time” for their guns—all years before the pandemic. As for the doctors and scientists, a quick perusal shows those who have been promoting antivaccine conspiracy theories (Robert Malone, Peter McCullough, Christina Parks, Ryan Cole, Richard Urso, and Bret Weinstein) and unproven (and “suppressed”) “early treatment protocols” including ivermectin (Peter McCullough, Pierre Kory, Paul Marik, and others).
As always, whenever I see a list of speakers like this, I always like to look into the ones whom I hadn’t heard of before. Enter Dr. Angelina Farella, as reported last summer:
Anti-vaccination doctor Angelina Farella made the remarks, along with a series of misleading comments about the virus and its treatment, on Newsmax on Thursday. She appeared alongside Dr William Schaffner of Vanderbilt University Medical Center, who is pro-vaccine, reports Mediaite .
Discussing how to beat the virus, Dr Schaffner said: “If the unvaccinated people would just line up and get vaccinated, we could turn this off in a couple of months.”
Dr Farella responded with the suggestion that Covid-19 patients aren’t being treated for the virus, saying: “You know how you fight a pandemic, and you know how you fight disease? You treat it. What don’t we try treating early? Why don’t we do that? This is the first time ever that we don’t have guidelines. Where are the guidelines from Mayo Clinic. Where are the guidelines from [Johns] Hopkins? Where are the guidelines from your esteemed place, Dr. Schaffner? Where are they? What are we supposed to do? Why are we not treating these patients?”
She then listed some drugs, along with vitamin D and zinc, which she said could treat the disease.
It’s not the first time Dr Farella has made untrue claims about Covid-19. In May she testified before a Texas State Senate committee, stating that “we have in excess of 4,000 deaths and this [vaccine] has not been pulled yet,” indicating the vaccine had been the cause of deaths. This was not the case. Since the vaccines were rolled out to the oldest and most vulnerable Americans first, it was to be expected that some of them died in the months after receiving the vaccine.
Dr. Farella is a member of America’s Frontline Doctors, the group of not-frontline doctors who have been grifting by running a prescription mill for ivermectin, after having made their first splash in 2020 promoting hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 (which doesn’t work.) So of course she was misusing VAERS, as antivaxxers have been doing since the vaccines were first made available in December 2020. Does anyone want to guess what she’ll say at Defeat the Mandates?
Then there’s Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, a former professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the medical school and director of the medical ethics program at UC-Irvine Health, who was fired from posts at the medical school for refusing to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Naturally, he’s on Substack, which, like so many other Substack blogs, is full of rants about “coercion” and support for bad science like the Great Barrington Declaration. He also appeared on an episode of The Highwire with Del Bigtree entitled “Natural Immunity” Is Our Way Out of the Pandemic. Let’s just say that, if even UC-Irvine (home of homeopathy-loving “integrative medicine“) can’t stomach you, you’re probably really bad at science. Finally, Dr. Paul Alexander was notorious as a “scientific advisor” to Michael Caputo, who was for a time the spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services during the Trump administration and known for pressuring the CDC to retroactively alter MMWR reports to downplay the risk of COVID-19 to children. Worse, he even said of children “we want them infected” about “infants, kids, teens, young people, young adults, middle aged with no conditions etc.” These days, he, too, is on Substack, where he’s promoting antivaccine nonsense about spike protein being deadly (it isn’t) and other COVID-19 disinformation.
Does anyone want to guess what these doctors will say at the Defeat the Mandates rally?
Before I finish by comparing and contrasting this rally with Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey’s rally 14 years ago, I can’t help but note that JP Sears is now getting top billing. (He’s also one of the march’s sponsors.) I mention this because there was a time when I used to find JP Sears, who at the time billed himself as a “holistic life coach,” rather amusing when he was making videos poking fun at New Age woo. Even then, though, I got the feeling that there was something “off” about him and his pleasantly clueless New Age guru persona in his videos. I should have listened to my gut back then, because now he’s full on antivax and COVID-19 crank. I wasn’t alone, either. Jonathan Jarry admits that he was fooled too:
There is a man on the Internet known for satirizing wellness trends who was recently censored on YouTube for spreading unfounded conspiracy theories. JP Sears made a name for himself by gently mocking essential oils and the unbearable demands made on friends by rule-abiding diet enthusiasts. You may remember him from his purple T-shirts, long red hair, and earnest sarcasm.
It may come as a shock to find out that not only has he become the very thing that he once ridiculed, JP Sears is now using his massive online platforms to discredit public health measures against COVID-19 and to open the door to grand conspiracy theories. Distrust is the name of the game, and he does it with comedic flair.
Just as JP Sears saw poking fun at New Age nonsense as a good strategy to sell his own brand of New Age nonsense, he saw the pandemic as a business opportunity:
Since the pandemic began, the object of JP Sears’ sarcasm has abruptly shifted. He calls masks “face suffocators.” He sows distrust in journalists. He mentions 5G in the context of the coronavirus and ironically wishes he could get two microchips instead of just the one. (He has escaped YouTube’s haphazard crackdown on COVID-19 misinformation, he thinks, because the artificial intelligence that scans video transcripts can’t detect sarcasm yet.) And when he soberly comments on the public health measures against the pandemic, his language is loaded with war imagery. He talks of people wanting to be “on the battlefield,” frequently makes comparisons to Braveheart, and calls his freedom-touting friends “warriors” and “crusaders,” friends like Mikki Willis, the director of the conspiracy-mongering Plandemic, and Brian Rose, the London Real founder whose own freedom-of-speech crusade has led him to interview über conspiracy theorist David Icke not just once but five times so far.
Of course, when he’s called out for spreading misinformation, JP Sears retreats back to the claim that he’s just “joking.” Yes, Sears is a typical New Age grifter who saw a business opportunity and “victim shames” those who get sick:
At the core of Sears’ reasoning is the twisted philosophy of “extreme self-responsibility.” (This is also the title of an episode of his podcast in which he interviews Ryan Moran, who runs the website Capitalism.com and who wrote a book called 12 Months to $1 Million.) Sears places the onus of being ill on a person’s behaviour.
No wonder he and Del Bigtree are so perfect together on the same stage. Early in the pandemic, Bigtree similarly blamed those at the highest risk for severe disease for having made themselves high risk by eating, smoking, and drinking too much, all while asking why he (presumably healthy) should have to sacrifice so that they are safe. One notes that Bigtree also almost bled to death from hemorrhoids last summer because he refused to accept transfusions of “vaccinated blood.” Instead, his fans flew him to a quack clinic in Mexico to get some “unvaccinated blood.” That’s some big ironic JP Sears energy there! Indeed, I doubt that JP Sears could have come up with a sketch as ridiculous as the actual truth of what Bigtree did, risking his life because he believed the antivaccine “pureblood” myth.
Defeat the Mandates vs. Green Our Vaccines: Compare and contrast
Let’s circle back to Jenny McCarthy’s “Green Our Vaccines” rally, which is very similar to this crankfest, but also different in much the way our times have changed in 14 years. The first, and most notable, difference is the environmentalist message of McCarthy’s rally. Although antivaxxers in the age of COVID-19 still love to use the “toxins gambit” to demonize COVID-19 vaccines, just as antivaxxers have always done, in 2022 an environmentalist slogan or name like “Green Our Vaccines” would have been seen as far too left-wing for such a rally. That’s not to say that I don’t expect to see a lot of signs about COVID-19 vaccines that are updated versions of signs like these, from the Green Our Vaccines rally in 2008:
Then there’s this sign:
Here’s a little exercise. Take a look at these photos and this list of slogans from the Green Our Vaccines rally and see how many would not be out of place on Sunday during the Defeat the Mandates rally. A lot of the slogans don’t make the 14 year jump because they were specific to the claim that vaccines cause autism a claim that does not apply to COVID-19 vaccines yet (but likely will once they are approved for children under 5). However, a lot of them do make the time jump quite well, either unchanged entirely or with very minimal changes to reflect the COVID-19 pandemic, for example:
- “New Jersey needs vaccination choice.”
- “It’s time for the CDC to come clean with the American public. We are not anti-vaccine, we are anti-toxins.”
- “Hey reporters, do your homework.”
- “Protect, not poison.”
- “Support informed consent. First do no harm.”
- “Center for Deception and Corruption.”
- “Julie Gerberding must go. Cover up, Deceive, Conceal. Resign now!” (Substitute the name of current CDC director Rochelle Wolensky for Julie Gerberding.)
- “Antifreeze is for cars, not children.” (Substitute “people” for “children.”)
You get the idea.
Anna Merlan put it very well:
Since nearly the start of the pandemic, anti-mask, anti-vaccine events have been thick on the ground. There have been rallies, marches and conferences, whose speakers tend to be the same small group, over and over again: Bigtree and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. most often featured among them. And the so-called Defeat the Mandates march is, to be sure, more or less the same group of people; among them are Bigtree, Kennedy, Dr. Pierre Kory (best known for his advocacy of ivermectin, a discredited COVID treatment), and anti-vaccine comedian JP Sears, who said in an email newsletter that he’s sponsoring the march.
Basically, Defeat the Mandates is nothing more than Jenny McCarthy’s Green Our Vaccines rally updated for 2022. Like McCarthy’s rally, Defeat the Mandates features the same ol’ same ol’, when it comes to speakers, the difference being that a new crop of regulars on the antivax speakers’ circuit has arisen since 2008, although a lot of the old ones are still there. RFK Jr., for instance, spoke Green Our Vaccines and will speak at Defeat the Mandates.
The politics might be different in that the the antivaccine movement has shifted very much rightward politically since Green Our Vaccines, which is why what was a secondary message at Green Our Vaccines (no school vaccine mandates) has become the primary message of Defeat the Mandates. There are no celebrities with Jim Carrey’s star power at this rally, given that Joe Rogan has declined to attend, suggesting that he is more canny than McCarthy and Carrey were and knows that associating himself too explicitly with such a rally could be bad for his brand. Similarly, there was, as far as I can tell, no alignment with dubious astroturf groups that have been behind the antivaccine movement, as evidenced by the list of sponsors, which includes the Frontline COVID Critical Care Alliance (FLCCC), RFK Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense (which will be bussing people in), and the World Council for Health, among others. Generation Rescue and the like were small potatoes compared to the dark money going into astroturf efforts to oppose COVID-19 public health measures.
There are two other disturbing differences. First, this rally is likely to be far larger than any previous “march on Washington”-style antivaccine rally (or, indeed, any previous antivaccine rally ever held in the US) by many-fold, given its promotion by a number of popular right-wing influencers. The second is that there was no intimation of violence that I can recall from Green Our Vaccines, which, for all its antivaccine nature and the anger expressed by participants, occurred before the antivaccine movement began to align itself with right wing neofascist and militia groups in 2019.
Not so with Defeat the Mandates, as Merlan reports:
The only slightly jarring note is the organizers’ repeated intimations that someone will use the rally to do harm or commit violence, but that it’s unsanctioned by them. “Organizers have contracted out comprehensive private security who will work in concert with local and federal law enforcement in keeping this March peaceful and in the spirit of Dr. King,” FitzGibbon wrote in his press release. “Participants in the March are asked to please report any suspicious or threatening activity to law enforcement which will be on hand at the march.” In an FAQ, the Defeat the Mandates website also instructed marchers not to veer off course—towards the Capitol, for instance. “If a group seems to be heading off the direction of the march, don’t follow them,” the site instructs. Additionally, it adds, “If anybody seems to be agitating for violence or is trying to encourage racist or violent acts, DO NOT ENGAGE, break out the camera and start video recording and calmly back away.”
Beginning before the pandemic, antivaxxers have been increasingly associating with far right wing militias, a development that’s gotten even worse with antivax rallies having lately featured the neo-fascist Proud Boys descending into violence. Clearly, the organizers are aware of this phenomenon.
Even so, a lot is the same besides the speakers and the location. Now, as then, there is the same attempt to hide the rally’s antivaccine message behind messages of being “against mandates” and for “freedom,” although there is an added twist of trying to make the 2022 rally about bringing the “vaccinated and unvaccinated together” (not a great idea, given the potential for breakthrough infections) to oppose mandates. The idea is very clearly to get some who might be susceptible to antivaccine messaging to watch a bill of antivaccine and antimask activists spewing the usual conspiracy theories, in order to lure them in.
There’s even a political component. On Monday, Senator Ron Johnson will hold another COVID-19 panel like the one he held a few months ago in which he platformed Peter Doshi and Great Barrington Declaration-aligned COVID-19 cranks. Guess what? Several of the speakers at Defeat the Mandates will be participating in Sen. Johnson’s disinformation panel the next day, including Bret Weinstein, who will be joined by fellow Defeat the Mandates speakers Drs. Peter McCullough, Ryan Cole, Pierre Kory, Richard Urso, Paul Marik, Robert Malone, and Aaron Kheriaty, bolstered by other COVID-19 cranks and antivaxxers like Jay Bhattacharya, signatory on the Great Barrington Declaration. It’s almost as though antivaxxers coordinated with Sen. Johnson to set this up. (Actually, scratch the “almost.”)
Joe “Broprah” Rogan and platforming disinformation
I’ve heard Joe Rogan referred to as “Broprah” or “Bro-Oprah” because he appears to be “Oprah for men.” Jenny McCarthy’s connection to Oprah Winfrey before the Green Our Vaccines rally was more explicit than just a meme, with Oprah even having at one time been rumored to be producing a daytime talk show featuring McCarthy and McCarthy having launched her antivaccine persona by pulling her “mother warrior” shtick on Oprah’s show. The similarity is more than just passing, given how Oprah used to platform pseudoscience, New Age mysticism, and quackery back in her heyday and now Rogan does the same, but a lot worse, even to the point of Dr. Malone’s likening COVID-19 reactions on his show to “mass formation psychosis,” all while defending it as “letting all sides” have a say.
While there is a lot that is different about Defeat the Mandates, that is more a reflection of changing times rather than antivaccine messaging and tactics, which have remained disturbingly constant, such that everything old is new again. Defeat the Mandates is just further evidence of that, as a new generation of fans of Joe Rogan repeat the mistakes of the fans of a prior popular figure Oprah and Rogan amplifies the misinformation that fuels a rally like Defeat the Mandates in much the same way Oprah amplified the antivaccine misinformation that led to the rise of Jenny McCarthy as an antivaccine activist and fueled Green Our Vaccines.