Well before the novel coronavirus swept across the globe in 2020, vaccines had long been a hot topic among swaths of America’s far-right, who debated over the veracity of outbreaks like SARS in the early 2000s and the push for HPV vaccinations.
Much has been written recently about how the far-right has used hesitancy and anger around COVID to recruit support from mainstream conservatives and bolster its own platforms, conspiracies and anti-vaccine protests, which provide cover for all manner of extremist networking and rhetoric. In the same way that QAnon leaders used a fake moral panic around saving children to foment anti-government rhetoric and portray white America as under attack, we’ve seen a melange of neo-Nazis, white nationalists and fringe conservative politicians working to paint a portrait of America being oppressed by vaccine mandates.
And yet, as a new study in the journal Social Science & Medicine found by examining two decades of anti-vaxxer posts on the neo-Nazi forum Stormfront, it’s ironically pro-vaccine neo-Nazis who spread the most explicitly hateful, white supremacist logic, making for quite the ethical conundrum for anyone who wants to change hearts and minds in America’s fringe right.
The study, conducted by researchers from four different U.S. universities, reviewed Stormfront posts related to vaccines between 2001 and 2017. In this period, they found four distinct “themes” of rhetoric being used in the vaccine debate: Science, race, conspiracies and “white innovation.”
What’s immediately clear is that the fringe far-right was paranoid of vaccines long before it became a popular mainstream conservative stance, especially in the aftermath of the 1998 fraudulent report linking vaccines to autism. But despite the overt potential for violent or racist takes to bloom on a literal neo-Nazi forum, the study researchers noticed that “most anti-vaccine posts relied on common anti-vaccine tropes and not on white nationalist conspiracy theories.” In practice, this meant a focus on (pseudo)scientific evidence and arguments about human biology, evolution and bodily resistance, especially with regard to the (hoax) autism threat and the vulnerability of children especially.
“It should be up to parents to make informed decisions regarding their children’s health and bodies. We do not vaccinate because vaccines are full of poisons and we also believe them to be ineffective,” one representative post from 2012 reads.
Elsewhere, critical voices cast doubt on whether the flu vaccine was merely a profit gambit for Big Pharma, suggested HPV shots were killing young women and blamed scientific institutions for unethical behavior (“The CDC obviously those w the money will not pay for accurate studies to be done,” one person wrote in 2011).
The next most common theme dealt with race, with some people suggesting that vaccines were helping nefarious leaders “replace” whites with other demographics: “Bill Gates is trying to boost the population of the Third World. … Bill and Melinda Gates donate million [sic] to malaria vaccine initiative,” one Stormfront post from 2014 reads.
In a distant third and fourth were the themes of conspiracy (often fixating on Jewish people or contemporary liberal leaders, such as Barack Obama) and “white innovation,” the latter of which frames vaccines as a great achievement of white thinkers and pioneers. The study concludes that, despite all of these arguments happening on an explicitly white nationalist website, the vast majority use talking points that are “common staples of the anti-vaccine movement repertoire, and do not have to do with race or nationalism.”
We’ve seen this play out in real life, with an explosion in the number of purportedly anti-vaccine protests that are spread and attended by former QAnon influencers, Proud Boys, militia members and white supremacist groups like Patriot Front. In so many cases, their presence is justified as a form of soft allyship with anyone who fears government overreach. This is happening despite, as the study firmly notes, the anti-vaccine movement and the white nationalist movements relying on “vastly different sets of values, ideologies and worldviews.”
And nothing illustrates that divide quite like the (nearly) silent minority of pro-vaccine white nationalists, who celebrate the jab as the apotheosis of white innovation, suggest vaccines can help shield white people from the unhygenic dangers of non-whites and claim that spreading fake news around vaccines is a dumb way to make white supremacists, as a movement, look stupid and illogical.
“When posts expressed a neutral or positive sentiment toward vaccines, they often focused on white superiority … protesting the distribution of white innovations to non-whites, who are often portrayed as responsible for the spread of diseases,” the study observes.
It’s strange to consider that, in a parallel universe close to our own, the far-right has leveraged a more explicit form of white nationalism to portray vaccines as the Great White Hope amid a time of unprecedented mass mortality. More white people have died from COVID than any other racial group, even though inequities and imbalances persist for minorities in America. Instead, in our own timeline, an argument about “freedom” rages on, bolstered by all manner of right-wing voices. Even the emergence of pro-vaccine takes from right-wing ideologues like Donald Trump and Ben Shapiro have failed to make a dent.
The study of pre-pandemic debates around vaccines on Stormfront suggests that this ugly mix of politics, identity and pseudoscience parading as “independent thought” was a long time coming. It reflects the growing mistrust of governments and institutions in liberal democracies around the world, especially under the pressures of corporate capitalism. The far-right both exists because of this mistrust, but also leverages this anti-government energy to propel its own violent agenda.
How ironic that in the meantime, the pro-vaccine voices standing in their way are extremists who think the jab is proof that white supremacy is for real.