On Christmas Eve, Steven Brandenburg, a Milwaukee-area pharmacist, attempted to destroy more than 500 doses of coronavirus vaccine, because, he admitted, he feared the Moderna drug would “alter the recipient’s DNA.” Described in law-enforcement documents as a “conspiracy theorist,” Brandenburg, 46, had reportedly warned his wife that “the world is crashing down around us” and that “the government is planning cyberattacks and plans to shut down the power grid,” according to divorce-court documents.
If you’re surprised that a scientifically educated medical professional, trusted with dispensing lifesaving medicine, could suffer a rebellion against reason and give himself over to discredited conspiracy theories, you haven’t been paying attention. In the America of the 2020s, respectable men and women surrender to this kind of unreal thinking every day. (Brandenburg pleaded guilty to federal tampering charges in January; his lawyer would not discuss Brandenburg’s conspiratorial beliefs.) The phenomenon is known as “red-pilling” — a reference to a scene in The Matrix where Keanu Reeves’ character chooses to take a red pill and discover the hidden truths of the world — and it affects those whose once-rational skepticism swallows them whole, pulling them into a networked community of like-minded conspiracy theorists. While the public record does not indicate Brandenburg traveled this far, many find a home in the big-tent conspiracy of QAnon, whose members increasingly see vaccination as part of a diabolical plot by the “deep state” to enslave humanity.
Why has the nation become gripped with conspiracy theories — including so many revolving around the shots that could end this devastating pandemic? “It’s precisely because we’ve had 450,000 deaths, and so much uncertainty and so much fear, that there’s fertile ground for this stuff to take hold,” says Ashish Jha, a physician and dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health. The pandemic is also occurring in the context of a 20-year decline of American trust in institutions, says Ethan Zuckerman, who formerly directed the Center for Civic Media at MIT. He describes the QAnon cult as a reservoir at the bottom of that slippery slope. “Q is what happens when you take that mistrust in a really damaging direction,” he says. “It’s usually people who lost trust in one institution and then found a coherent worldview that says, ‘Don’t just mistrust this one institution — mistrust all the institutions. All of them are in it together.’ ” This full rejection of confidence in doctors and drug companies, in media and philanthropy, in politicians and government agencies, Zuckerman says, is “how the anti-vax movement underwent almost a merger with QAnon.”
For most Americans still grounded in reality, the arrival of safe, effective inoculations against Covid-19 has sparked hope. The nine-month dash to design, test, and begin to administer inoculations against the devastating pandemic was an unprecedented medical triumph. The rollout of these drugs has already delivered protection for millions of the elderly and medically vulnerable. For younger, healthier people awaiting their shots, vaccination promises a -ticket out of social isolation and back to a life of packed concerts, subway trains, restaurants, and nightclubs.
At present, America’s great challenge is ramping up supply to meet overwhelming demand. But experts caution the country will, sooner than later, confront a formidable wall of vaccine resistance that could block our return to “life as normal.” A Pew poll in December found that only 60 percent of Americans intend to vaccinate and nearly 20 percent — or roughly 50 million adults — are dead set against it.
If that many Americans abstain from vaccination, the coronavirus will continue to circulate, and to mutate, posing a grave ongoing threat to public health.
Vaccine hesitance can be rooted in reasonable concerns, says Jha. Were the new vaccines rushed to market too quickly? Did the Trump administration’s overt politicization corrupt the approval process? Are side effects severe? Will our notoriously racist health system prioritize and safeguard communities of color that have been hardest hit by the pandemic? “We win no battles by minimizing” these worries, Jha says, “or suggesting that those people are being unreasonable or anti-science or anti-vaxxers. They’re raising legitimate concerns that should be addressed.”
But for millions of others, dread about vaccines defies logic or reason, and bleeds instead into belief systems of what Zuckerman has dubbed “the unreal” — that we’re pawns in a diabolical global game run by ruthless elites and that vaccines are somehow not medicine but poison. “Concerns about -safety have been absorbed into this other way of viewing the world,” says Jack Bratich, a Rutgers professor and author of Conspiracy Panics. “It’s about a plan to inject people with controlling substances. That’s where QAnon overlaps with the anti-vax movement.”
As demonstrated by the January 6th storming of the Capitol, perpetrated by many Americans immersed in the QAnon cult, this red-pilling can have deadly, destabilizing consequences, and not just for conspiracy-theory believers. “This may be the most important public-health issue of our time — misinformation, disinformation,” Jha insists. And unlike the coronavirus, the contagion of conspiracy theory is one against which we’re largely defenseless. “We have been blindsided,” he says. “We as public-health people have to figure out how to counter it in a way that’s effective. And we don’t have the tools.”
Exploring conspiracy theories and mass delusion can inadvertently popularize misinformation. So inoculate yourself with facts: The novel vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna are revolutionary and take advantage of our own cellular machinery to safeguard recipients against future coronavirus infection.
If you’ve seen computer renderings of the coronavirus, you know its surface is covered by spike proteins that create the “crown” that gives coronaviruses their name. Humans get infected with Covid-19 when these spike proteins pierce healthy cells, allowing the virus to invade, infect, and begin replicating.
Traditional vaccines have relied on exposing people to an inactivated (killed) or attenuated (weakened) virus. As the immune system reacts to a non-threatening inoculation, it gains the ability to fight off infection from the real pathogen. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines don’t include any virus at all. Instead, they use genetic code — messenger RNA or mRNA — to activate a few of our own cells to become spike-protein factories. The vaccine consists of tiny strands of mRNA encased in fat — a lipid particle — that allows them to slip inside a cell without being attacked. Once inside, the mRNA functions roughly like computer code, instructing cells to begin assembling coronavirus spike proteins out of amino-acid building blocks already in our bodies.
The presence of these strange proteins triggers our immune systems to create antibodies to neutralize them. Our immune system also summons T-cells to attack and shut down cells that were coded to produce spike proteins. Together, these immune responses prepare the body to fight off a real potential coronavirus infection. “It’s very elegant,” says Jha of the vaccine design. “It’s also de-risked it a lot. There’s no physical way to get Covid from this thing.” As for the conspiracy theory that an mRNA vaccine alters your own genes? “It literally doesn’t,” he says. “It doesn’t become part of your DNA.”
Taming the pandemic will require both individual immunity — as produced by the vaccines — and community-level “herd immunity” created when a critical mass of individuals are resistant to infection. Herd immunity is like a firewall in public health; a localized flare-up of infection among a few individuals will be unable to spread broadly, instead burning itself out.
So far, the drugs appear to be living up to their billed efficacy of 95 percent protection from infection. And apart from some rare (and treatable) allergic reactions, the side effects seem well tolerated. But vaccine avoidance is already emerging as a troubling trend, particularly among health care and nursing-home workers on the front lines of the pandemic. Through mid-January, the CDC reported that only 32 percent of eligible nursing-home workers nationwide had chosen to get vaccinated.
Distrust of the vaccine is also high among communities of color. The reasons for this, while complex, are not difficult to understand. American public-health history is marred by institutional racism, including the horrific 40-year “Tuskegee Experiment,” in which hundreds of black men with syphilis were promised treatment that was, in fact, deceptively withheld, leading to 128 deaths. Our current health care system produces wildly disparate outcomes for people of color, including a maternal death rate that’s 2.5 times higher for black women than for white women. In the pandemic, communities of color have been hardest hit. These Americans disproportionately work in frontline positions, live in more crowded housing, have poorer access to doctors, and higher incidence of comorbidities. Meanwhile, crucial technologies like pulse oximeters, which use light to measure blood oxygenation and guide treatment, have been found to routinely malfunction on dark skin.
The hard truth is that returning to the point where Americans can go back to work or enjoy a night out at a crowded bar and be confident no one is going to get sick will require persuading millions to overcome their fear of vaccination and take a jab for the team. The 60 percent of Americans currently intending to get vaccinated is simply not good enough to establish herd immunity. “We’ve got to address the issues that help us get closer to 80 percent vaccination,” Jha says. “I’d love to get up to like 90, 95 percent.”
The larger the group of unvaccinated individuals, the more chance the virus can mutate to pose a danger, even to the already vaccinated. “Large outbreaks anywhere can give rise to variants that can escape vaccines everywhere,” Jha writes. “It’s the nightmare scenario of a never-ending pandemic.”
Long before the coronavirus hit, America had been gripped by a fierce anti-vaccine movement, which had itself become increasingly unmoored from scientific critique and drifted into conspiratorial waters.
Vaccines have always inspired popular fear. Decades ago, it was justified: The rollout of the polio inoculation in the 1950s tragically infected 40,000 children, paralyzing hundreds, and killing 10, because of botched manufacturing that failed to disable the live virus. Even with modern safety advances, vaccination campaigns expose a particularly American tension between personal choice and public safety. “In the U.S., there’s this suspicion or refusal around bodily sovereignty,” Bratich says. “People don’t like stuff stuck in them.”
Contemporary anti-vax culture took root in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when a startling rise in autism was hypothesized to be connected to childhood vaccinations. Robust science has since debunked any relationship between vaccination and autism. But at the time, the specter of vaccine injury sparked real concern among reasonable people.
In 1998, the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet published an article purporting to link the measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccine to “developmental regression in a group of previously normal children.” In the U.S. a year later, a federal review of mercury in drugs highlighted that a mercury-based preservative in childhood vaccines could expose infants, over the first six months of life, to a potentially harmful quantity of the neurotoxic metal. Out of an abundance of caution, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that the preservative, thimerosal, be phased out of vaccines. In 2005, Rolling Stone and Salon co-published a Robert F. Kennedy Jr. piece, “Deadly Immunity,” that helped push the provocative hypothesis that thimerosal triggered autism into wider circulation. The piece drew swift criticism and required significant corrections, including to a key statistic about childhood mercury exposure.
By the turn of the decade, both hypotheses had collapsed under the weight of scientific evidence. In 2009, a paper in Clinical Infectious Diseases cited “20 epidemiologic studies” to conclude that “neither thimerosal nor MMR vaccine causes autism.” The Lancet retracted its MMR paper in 2010, with the journal’s editor saying he felt he’d been deceived, while calling the paper “utterly false.” In 2011, Salon retracted the Kennedy piece, writing, “The best reader service is to delete the piece entirely.” The story no longer appears on Rolling Stone’s website.
Fear of vaccination, however, didn’t disappear because scientists said it should. Instead, anti-vax beliefs spread widely, popularized by celebrities like actress Jenny McCarthy and then-Apprentice star Donald Trump, who infamously tweeted in 2014: “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes — AUTISM. Many such cases!” In a 2016 survey, 77 percent of parents who chose not to vaccinate their children cited a feared link to autism, and 71 percent cited fear of vaccine additives.
That same year, faced with a public-health threat from schools where up to 40 percent of kids were unvaccinated, California eliminated a “personal exemption” to vaccination, effectively requiring shots for all kids to attend public school. Measles had been eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, but declining vaccination rates contributed to outbreaks infecting more than 1,200 across dozens of states in 2019. That year, the World Health Organization listed vaccine hesitance as one of its top “10 threats to public health.”
Today’s anti-vax movement has grown increasingly cozy with theories about dark agendas, ruthless profit motives, and powerful enemies, reserving peculiar animus for billionaire Bill Gates, whose foundation promotes vaccination globally. For his part, Kennedy continues to promote unfounded links between vaccines and autism, even though thimerosal has been phased out of childhood vaccines: “They replaced it with aluminum,” he says, “which is almost as bad.” (Aluminum salts have been safely used in vaccines for more than seven decades, according to the CDC.) “People like me get vilified and ridiculed,” he says, “but I will debate anybody about this.”
Kennedy now runs the nonprofit Children’s Health Defense, where last April he published an article titled “Gates’ Globalist Vaccine Agenda: A Win-Win for Pharma and Mandatory Vaccination.” The piece purports to be grounded in science, but Kennedy gets the facts twisted. He claims, for example, that a 2010 Gates Foundation-funded trial of a malaria vaccine was responsible for “killing 151 African infants and causing serious adverse effects, including paralysis, seizure, and febrile convulsions, to 1,048 of the 5,949 children.” In reality, the trial was not implicated in the death of any child, and only 13 malaria-vaccine recipients had significant side effects. The trial was conducted in a region of Africa with high child morbidity and mortality, and the terrifying numbers Kennedy touts come from tallying up every health crisis experienced by the kids in the trial — both malaria-vaccine recipients and those in control groups — and brazenly attributing every dark outcome to the jabs. This includes deaths from head injury, HIV, malnutrition, and drowning. (Confronted with these facts, Kennedy admits error: “One can never definitively say that a particular death was or was not caused by a vaccine,” he says. But he adds without evidence that every death was “plausibly attributed to the vaccines,” while also baselessly alleging that the use of different vaccines, rather than placebos, in the control groups was “an act of fraud that appears designed . . . to mask death rates in the study cohort.”)
The rest of Kennedy’s piece paints Gates as a reckless and unaccountable billionaire pulling the strings of global institutions. He points to a TED Talk that Gates delivered boasting that expanded vaccine use “could reduce population.” This is meant to sound nefarious, but Gates has long spoken of reducing childhood mortality as a key to stabilizing populations in the developing world. As the conspiracy-debunking site Snopes explains: “Gates is not interested in using vaccines to reduce the population by using them as an agent of death or a tool to sterilize unsuspecting masses. Rather, Gates is interested in keeping more children alive in order to reduce the need for parents to have more children, thus limiting the overall population growth rate.”
If Kennedy dabbles in the Bill Gates conspiracy waters — writing that the coronavirus has given Gates “an opportunity to force his dictatorial vaccine programs” on all Americans — millions of others are performing cannonballs. A gee-whiz proposal, supported by the Gates Foundation, to use tiny subdermal markers for patients in the developing world to track their vaccination history, without needing a clinic to keep the paperwork, has morphed into a widely embraced conspiracy theory that Gates wants to microchip the citizens of the world. A YouGov poll last May found that 28 percent of Americans believed Gates wants “to use a mass vaccination campaign against Covid-19 to implant microchips in people that would be used to track people with a digital ID.” The belief rose to 44 percent of Republicans and to 50 percent of dedicated viewers of Fox News.
Conspiracy theories have been part of the lifeblood of American politics for centuries. In the 1820s, so many Americans were convinced that a shadowy and perhaps satanic cabal threatened the republic that they formed the Anti-Masonic Party and elected dozens of members to Congress. In the Red Scare of the 1950s, the far-right John Birch Society accused President Dwight Eisenhower of being “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.”
Trump rose to political dominance promoting the birther conspiracy theory that Barack Obama had been ineligible to hold office. And he won and sustained the presidency by encouraging his white, working-class supporters to blame their social woes on the merciless “globalists” of the “deep state.” Conspiratorial thinking, academic research shows, often takes root in groups, like many in Trump’s base, that are experiencing economic or social dislocation. “People often turn to conspiracy theories when bad things are happening around them,” says Karen Douglas, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent in England. “They are looking for ways to cope, people to blame,” she says. “If people believe that powerful, secret forces are responsible, then it isn’t their fault that things are bad for them,” and they can make themselves feel better without having to “tease apart the complex reasons for their disadvantage.”
The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 created a “perfect storm” for new conspiracy theories to take root, says Bratich, the Rutgers professor. The pandemic overwhelmed government institutions, creating enormous fear and economic uncertainty. Lockdown life also created super-spreader conditions for paranoia, with Americans searching for answers in online forums where unreal ideas circulated unchecked. New converts were then able to spread these ideas, in real life, to their pods of close family and friends under lockdown.
Eric Oliver is a political-science professor at the University of Chicago who has studied conspiracy theories since the 1990s. He argues that conspiracy belief helps conquer anxiety by giving people a feeling of “I understand what’s happening in the world. I have a narrative that explains things.” They also root free-floating fear in something that feels solid: “ ‘The reason I’m feeling anxious is there’s a secret cabal doing something terrible. And now I’ve identified it.’ ” A reinforcing factor is “a certain narcissism,” he says. “The conspiracy theory gives them a sense of special knowledge: ‘I know something that’s going on that nobody else does.’ It feels empowering to them.”
A paradox of conspiracy theories is that they’re not full flights of fancy. They involve imagined and invented connections between real people, phenomena, and events. There’s a structure to the irrational belief. “Conspiracy theories are not the product of a disordered mind; they’re the product of an overly ordered mind,” insists Zuckerman. “Conspiracy theories happen when you have an enormous need for order in a disordered universe.” Zuckerman quit his post at MIT in protest of the university’s links to disgraced sex-criminal financier Jeffrey Epstein and now teaches at University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “I do not subscribe to the theory that Epstein was killed in prison,” he says, but points to the myriad conspiracy theories surrounding Epstein as a case in point: “Having a genuine villain out there is really important for conspiracies to root themselves sufficiently in reality so that we continue to pay attention to them.”
This search for order has taken millions of Americans to a dark place — the nihilistic worldview of QAnon. The QAnon belief system is a crossover between a conspiracy theory and a religious cult, and its ideology takes strands of many past conspiracies and weaves them into a big tent where priors are welcome and almost any theory can find safe harbor.
The core of Q is familiar. It posits that the surface world of respectable politicians, well-intentioned government institutions, and a media seeking to hold them accountable, is an illusion. The real power in the world is wielded by shadowy power brokers in the government, Hollywood, and the media called “the cabal” or the “deep state.” QAnon takes this conspiratorial boilerplate to wild extremes. The “deep state” is alleged to be insatiable in its thirst for power, and willing to do anything — from launching wars to spreading pestilence — to move closer to global domination. The Q ideology has no room for subtlety. The conspirators are believed to be the embodiment of evil, actual “luciferians” and pedophiles.
The theory may sound lunatic, but QAnon is no longer relegated to the fringe: A Civiqs tracking poll finds that even after the attack on the Capitol, 10 percent of Republicans describe themselves as “supporters” of QAnon. Tenets of the Q belief system are even more widely held: An NPR poll released at the end of 2020 found 17 percent of Americans rated as “true” the statement that: “A group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media.”
In the Q mythology, the heroes fighting to expose the deep state include an alleged intelligence officer, known as Q, for the “Q-level” clearance he or she is alleged to hold. The conspiracy has elements of a massive role-playing game. For years, the anonymous “Q” dropped cryptic hints or “crumbs” on message boards like 8chan and 8kun, which QAnon adherents then sought to “bake” into coherent narratives about coming events. The community also revered Donald Trump as a lonely fighter, seeking to undermine, arrest, and vanquish the deep state.
How did the anti-vax movement — which thrives in far-left communities like Portland, L.A., and Marin County, California, — get mixed up with a quasi-religious cult that held up Donald Trump as its savior? “It was very surprising to see the anti-vax community cross the streams” with QAnon, says Zuckerman. “Anti-vaxxers are people who often identify as leaning politically left. They often come to this stance because they’re anti–corporate, and they’re really concerned about Big Pharma making money.”
American political ideology is most often conceptualized as a straight line running from left to right. But an alternate visualization presents the spectrum instead as a horseshoe, where the left and right extremes bend back toward one another. Conspiracy theories can bridge these far ends like a powerful electric spark.
Oliver’s research has shown that openness to conspiracy theory is correlated to intuitive thinking over evidence-based thinking. Conspiratorial beliefs take hold in people who make gut-level decisions and place disproportionate weight on symbolic costs. He offers a questionnaire that helps tease out the personality trait.
- Would you rather: Stab a photograph of your family five times with a sharp knife? Or stick your hand in a bowl of live cockroaches?
- Would you rather: Sleep in laundered pajamas once worn by Charles Manson? Or pick a nickel off the ground and put it in your mouth?
- Would you rather: Grind your heels into an unmarked grave? Or stand in line for three hours at the DMV?
A person avoiding actions with high symbolic costs (stabbing a family photo, sleeping in Manson’s PJs), he says, “is a very strong predictor of believing in conspiracy theories — regardless of where they are on the ideological spectrum.”
Oliver points out that conservative religious Americans — “evangelical or orthodox communities” — tend to have very high intuitionism scores, and receptivity to conspiracy theory. But so do New Age communities associated with the American left. “People who believe in conspiracy theories also believe that GMOs are bad,” he says. “They tend to like organic food or natural health remedies.”
The leap from anti-vax theories to QAnon is less mysterious, Zuckerman says, when you “think about how lonely it is to be an anti-vaxxer. You have the small group of friends who are willing to listen to you talk about mercury in vaccines,” he says. “But suddenly you have a whole group of people” in QAnon adherents “who say, ‘Oh, yeah, not just this, but did you know about this?’ You may be willing to go further, and say, ‘Sure I’ll buy this next part of the conspiracy.’ ” Finding such affirmation and community in the unreal, he says, makes it easy to surrender your hold on fact-based beliefs. “Red-pilling,” he says, “is when you move from your origin conspiracy theory to this full-conspiracy worldview.”
The anti-vax and Q movements began to merge with the release of a viral video last May. “We saw it in earnest around Plandemic,” says Zuckerman. Plandemic is the project of Mikki Wills, a 53-year-old self-described “investigative filmmaker” with piercing blue eyes and a salt-and-pepper goatee, who works from the coastal California enclave of Ojai, halfway between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles.
Willis is politically liberal and his bio touts him as “a virtuoso of positive energy.” He tells Rolling Stone that he was inspired to shoot Plandemic because of his concern over the Trump administration’s Operation Warp Speed. “The idea that [the] administration was going to rush an experimental vaccine to market, then have it distributed to the masses by way of the U.S. military,” Willis says, “felt insane and reckless at best. I felt compelled to shine a little light on it.”
The slickly produced 26-minute video centers on discredited former federal scientist Judy Mikovits, whom Willis platforms as an Erin Brokovich-style whistleblower. Mikovits claims without evidence that her career was derailed by a federal conspiracy directed by Anthony Fauci. And she makes myriad wild, false, and unsubstantiated claims, including that the coronavirus was released from a lab and that mask wearing causes illness. The film baselessly insinuates that Fauci, Gates, and others have enormous financial interests in the pandemic. In one key exchange, Willis poses to Mikovits: “If we activate mandatory vaccines globally, I imagine these people stand to make hundreds of billions of dollars that own the vaccines.”
The film was roundly debunked, including by Science, which said in part: “Science fact-checked the video. None of these claims are true.” Major social media companies banned the video, but not before it was viewed millions of times. Willis insists he’s “absolutely not” a conspiracy theorist and knows “very little” about QAnon. But his video became a cause célèbre among the Q set. “In many ways, Plandemic is much more of an anti-vax video than it is a QAnon video,” Zuckerman says. But it fits with the nihilistic Q worldview that elites are not simply misguided or incompetent, but so evil as to unleash a global pandemic and then seek to profit from a vaccine. “The Q community loves it. Right?”
The film hit the bull’s-eye of what Bratich describes as the overlapping “Venn diagram of the antivax movement and QAnon.” At the margins, he says, anti-vaxxers have long feared there exists a dark agenda behind inoculations, and these people have found in QAnon a “ready-made, tight narrative — it’s about the great reset, it’s about a new world order, it’s about Bill Gates — that explains the vaccinations.”
The full convergence of the anti-vax movement and QAnon belief can be seen in the trajectory of Larry D. Cook — a onetime healthy-lifestyle guru who became a high-profile anti-vaccine activist before he red-pilled, choosing to anchor his beliefs in the open harbor of QAnon.
Cook is 56 but looks perhaps a decade younger. He has a lanky runner’s build and an open, calm, somewhat flat affect when he speaks. He has made his home in Los Angeles for the past 15 years, and a profile picture on his personal website shows him beaming at a farmers market, holding aloft a bunch of kale in each hand.
In 2005, Cook wrote The Beginner’s Guide to Natural Living, touting the optimal conditions to express “the divine intelligence flowing through us.” He describes having become a vegan in 1990 and preaches the virtues of organic food, yoga, and alternative healing. There are seeds of distrust in Cook’s writing: He encourages readers to “question toxic medicine” that “makes more money by keeping us slightly sick.” But little in Cook’s rhetoric would have been out of place in a left-coast magazine like Mother Jones from the same era. He urges caution of “mainstream media . . . owned and controlled by its advertisers,” and of a government that can be “hoodwinked into allowing harmful products onto the market.”
Cook’s career path is nontraditional. He jumped from “being a sound guy in Hollywood” to a gig as executive director of the California Naturopathic Doctors Association. Cook did not respond to interview requests but told a radio interviewer that his fear of vaccines took root when he was researching a book about attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and “came across some information that mercury in vaccines cause autism.” As a side gig around 2010, he started creating YouTube videos interviewing doctors who pushed the thimerosal hypothesis and parents whose children were allegedly harmed by vaccines.
The hobby would become a calling, and a conviction, for Cook in 2015, when California proposed ending the personal-belief exemption from public-school vaccination requirements. Cook started a site called Stop Mandatory Vaccination to oppose this and future legislation and describes how this anti-vax activism got him “fired” from his executive-director post and led to his becoming a full-time activist. “I found my voice,” he said. The deeper he dove into the anti-vax world, the more distrustful Cook became, decrying what he calls the “cover up” of children who die after being vaccinated as “a medical mafia conspiracy.” (No serious science suggests vaccination is secretly killing kids.) In 2016, Cook voted for Trump, he explains in a recent court document, because of Trump’s own claims that vaccines were linked to autism.
To popularize his anti-vax beliefs, Cook came up with a “system,” which involved raising money on GoFundMe to pay for alarming Facebook ads that he’d target at young mothers. “I was doing things in a certain way,” Cook explained. “Grabbing attention of parents and driving them into my Facebook group, where they could get their questions answered.” The idea was to spur the young moms to “go anti-vaccine. . . . Once they learn the truth,” he said, “they become activists.” A 2019 study by the journal Vaccine revealed that Cook was second only to Kennedy in promoting anti-vax sentiment on Facebook. “Many advertisements featured stories of infants allegedly harmed by vaccines,” the study reports, “using tag lines like, ‘Healthy 14 week old infant gets 8 vaccines and dies within 24 hours.’ ”
The social media giant didn’t have qualms about taking tens of thousands of dollars from Cook to promote the outrageous claim that vaccines kill babies until it was called out in a letter by Rep. Adam Schiff, who demanded information from Mark Zuckerberg in February 2019 about the company’s practice of monetizing and promoting misinformation about vaccines. Facebook soon tweaked its algorithms to stop recommending anti-vax content, which was instead downgraded on the platform. The move decimated Cook’s online reach from 2 million views a month to about 100,000. Facebook also turned off his ability to advertise on the site. YouTube likewise demonetized his channel.
This throttling by social media giants only appears to have pushed Cook further away from the mainstream. As he described his own conversion, in February 2020, Cook read a QAnon book titled Calm Before the Storm that opened his mind to the Q worldview. And he “red-pilled,” as he described in an hour-long video posted last July, in which he appears flanked by a giant Q in one corner and an American flag underscored with the hashtag #WWG1WGA — short for the Q battle cry of “Where We Go One We Go All!” — in the other.
Cook described how discovering QAnon suddenly gave him a context for his distrust of mainstream medicine and his sense of being persecuted and silenced by social media. “When you wrap your head around the idea that it’s the deep state that is facilitating the vaccine mandates,” he said, “all of a sudden it makes complete sense.”
Cook cast mandatory vaccinations as just one expression of the deep state’s “luciferian” agenda of “controlling everyone on the planet.” The mandates are “all part of the deep-state plan,” he claimed, because “when you inject poison into someone, you can incapacitate them very quickly, especially if you’re doing it at birth . . . as soon as a soul comes in — incarnates.” He called vaccination of children a “deliberate assault designed to suppress their consciousness, designed to shut off their connection to God.” But there’s hope, he insisted: “If you take the deep state down completely, we take down the vaccine mandates.”
Through the same jaundiced lens, Cook sees the coronavirus pandemic as part of the deep state’s sinister plot: “It’s a plandemic,” he said, borrowing Willis’ coinage. “It was planned, it’s a false flag. . . . Q would say these people are sick. They want complete control of our planet . . . And if that means killing . . . millions of people, they could care less.”
For Cook, as for most QAnon adherents, the fight is overtly political. “Democrats are lockstep with the deep state,” he insisted. “Our role is to educate the rest of humanity . . . who’s on the side of justice and truth and who’s on the side of God.” The good guys, for Cook, are Trump and the “Q Team.” And he celebrates the promise of redemption: “You shut down the deep state and we can have heaven on Earth,” he said, adding: “We are in the throes of the final battles.”
The attack on the Capitol on January 6th was a wake-up call for America that online conspiracy theories and QAnon’s nihilism are a serious threat not just to the mental health of individual believers but also to innocent life, not to mention the functioning of our democratic government.
The mass delusion of conspiracy-theory belief also constitutes a public-health crisis. As the WHO put it last fall, an “infodemic” is “endangering countries’ ability to stop the pandemic,” adding that “misinformation costs lives,” and that a lack of trust in science will cause immunization campaigns to “not meet their targets, and the virus will continue to thrive.”
Public-health experts say the addictive appeal of conspiracy theories has left them exasperated, but with few solutions. “I really had this mental model,” Jha says, that “you get the evidence, you speak it in plain, simple terms, and share with people what is true — and that’s it. Like, you win the game,” he says. “I have learned very much the hard way, from April on, that that is just naive.”
In January, a mob of anti-vax protesters briefly shut down a mass inoculation site at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, holding up signs like “COVID=SCAM,” “Don’t be a lab rat,” and “Tell Bill Gates to Vaccinate Himself!” The inability to respond effectively to this kind of mass delusion, Jha says, is a “huge liability in the public-health community. We should try to engage with people,” he insists. “But it is not done by giving them facts. They’re not actually lacking in facts; they don’t believe.”
Zuckerman says the core obstacle with QAnon is that its doctrine of blanket distrust leaves few avenues for intervention: “ ‘Scientists? Oh, they’re all at universities; they’re all part of the deep state. What about the media? Oh, my God. The media actually run the deep state.’ That’s epistemic closure,” he says.
Social media companies that had profited from allowing such conspiracies to run riot have recently booted QAnon and anti-vaxxers from their platforms. But that also creates problems, says Bratich. “It’s just riled up the radical emerging right that sees themselves as being not just censored, but persecuted,” he says. This brings with it notions of a “dangerous self-sacrifice and martyrdom” and risks “more conflagrations before it subsides.”
Shortly after the election, Cook found himself completely de-platformed. In mid-November, he was kicked off Facebook as part of the social network’s purge of QAnon. Twitter shut down his account simultaneously. Cook has attempted to launch his own social media properties: Covid-19 Refusers — which features a 14-part video indoctrination on why to reject vaccination — as well as Medical Freedom Patriots: a $5-a-month, subscription-based group he touts as “Anti Vaccine, Pro Alternative Medicine, QAnon friendly.” Cook makes plain he’s seeking to spread the gospel of QAnon: “We are in an INFORMATION WAR,” he writes. “The first step is for us all to be informed — I am giving you the path to that — and then to share it yourself with others.”
As with many, many Q believers, Trump’s election loss has been hard for Cook to absorb. On December 7th, he posted on Parler that Americans should consider fleeing to “Republican held states” to avoid forced vaccination. “This is war,” he wrote. “We don’t need to be up front getting the kill shots when we know there’s Higher Ground.” In late January, he posted to Telegram his belief that the military would help Trump reseize control of America: “I have now seen enough pieces of the puzzle to believe that *THE PLAN* is in fact going EXACTLY as it was PLANNED to go for our US Military and President Trump to secure the United States of America and thereby *end* the Deep State’s rule over us once and for all,” he wrote. “In fact I do believe it will be BIBLICAL.”
Zuckerman argues that what’s required to reach the far edges of the anti-vax and QAnon communities resembles cult deprogramming. “The question that I think everyone would love to have a definitive answer to is, ‘Can people be unpilled?’ ” he says. He points with encouragement to forums on Reddit for people who have escaped Q and are trying to help others. “They talk about the incredible damage — that this is a belief system that ends marriages, ends friendships.” Bratich likens these groups to “QAnon recovery” and suggests that “the deprogramming that happens might be as networked and distributed as the way these people [originally] came together.”
But Bratich cautions that the pull of QAnon remains devilishly strong, and that the conspiracy theory has shown itself to be incredibly plastic and adaptable. He warns that as the notion of Trump as superhero fades, the fight against vaccination may well open up as the organizing battle in QAnon’s resistance against the deep state. “If Trump goes away or goes to the margins,” he says, “I think this will be the next thing that becomes front and center.” The far edge of the anti-vax movement, he says, “keeps talking about how the vaccine is ‘the beginning of the end.’ For QAnon there’s a code in there,” he warns. “It’s the beginning of the end of America, right?”