Anti-Vaxxers Are Cozying Up to the Far Right Online

Often, sometimes multiple times a day, users in an anti-vaccination Facebook group post a link to a 2017 article about vaccine laws in Sweden.

“Nice!” one group member captioned the article last week.

“Amazing,” “interesting,” wrote two people who shared the article in the 150,000-member group on the same late January day.

The article wasn’t from a medical news source, though, or even another anti-vaccine group. It came from a white supremacist website, Red Ice.

The anti-vaxxer movement, comprised of people who falsely believe vaccines are dangerous, is ascendant. In 2019, the World Health Organization named “vaccine hesitancy” one of the top 10 threats to global health, the first time it made the list. The movement is credited with contributing to ongoing measles outbreaks worldwide, including an outbreak of approximately 70 people in Washington state. But that’s not all it’s spreading. Like other conspiracy movements, the anti-vaxxer movement has rubbed shoulders with the far right.

New studies reveal vaccine skepticism to be a strong predictor for populist politics in Europe, where many populist candidates run on a hard-right line. And fringe media outlets are seizing on the sympathy from the anti-vax movement, pushing even more extreme conspiracy theories under the guise of vaccine skepticism.

White supremacist website Red Ice has churned out at least 100 articles and radio clips bashing vaccines in recent years. Links to those articles appear regularly in closed anti-vaxxer Facebook groups, a number of which boast more than 150,000 members. Unlike Facebook pages, which any user can read, these closed groups can be hotbeds of political activity and harassment, in which members coordinate attacks on pro-vaccine doctors and activists, as the Guardian reported.

Far-right news sites can find a serious audience in these highly active conspiracy communities. One 2017 Red Ice article has repeatedly made the rounds in large anti-vax groups, sometimes racking up more than 1,000 likes. Although the article skews right wing (it lauds a clip from the Tucker Carlson’s show) and alarmist (vaccines “can seriously injure your child”), it isn’t overtly white supremacist. But should anti-vaxxers chose to explore the rest of the site, they would find a white supremacist swamp, full of anti-immigrant and Islamophobic fear-mongering.

Most anti-vaxxers are not white supremacists, far from it. But the overlap can send some well-meaning parents down the rabbit hole. Far-right groups frequently engage in “entryism,” a tactic that involves seeding a sympathetic mainstream group with extremist ideology, then slowly radicalizing its members. The tactic works well in groups like the anti-vax community.

At their surface level, anti-vax claims tap into populist grievances with bipartisan support; in the U.S., where health care can be prohibitively expensive, vaccines are sometimes seen as an extension of well-moneyed pharmaceutical companies. But the world of conservative-leaning conspiracy sites take the claims further. Red Ice, Infowars, and their ilk build on the mistrust of pharmaceutical companies to claim vaccines are part of a world-domination scheme by a shadowy global elite. As these claims typically go, the conspiracy theory gets anti-Semitic, with white supremacists interpreting “elite” to mean Jewish people.