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Missouri Attorney General's social media lawsuit is amplifying anti-vaccine activists

Andrew Bailey, newly appointed Missouri Attorney General, gives remarks after being sworn in on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, at the Missouri Supreme Court in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Andrew Bailey, newly appointed Missouri Attorney General, gives remarks after being sworn in on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, at the Missouri Supreme Court in Jefferson City.

Former Attorney General Eric Schmitt sued the federal government last year claiming it was colluding with social media companies to suppress misinformation. The lawsuit has become a cause célèbre for some of the country’s most prolific anti-vaccine activists, and now Andrew Bailey is picking up the fight.

Days after the death of baseball legend Hank Aaron in January 2021, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. went on social media to seemingly suggest — without evidence — that his passing could be connected to the COVID-19 vaccine.

Kennedy, the nephew of the former president, has been a major figure in the anti-vaccine movement for more than a decade.

And like many vaccine skeptics, he latched on to Aaron’s death at a time when public health officials were working overtime to get as many Americans — especially older Americans — to take the coronavirus shot.

“Hank Aaron’s tragic death is part of a wave of suspicious deaths among elderly closely following administration of COVID vaccines,” Kennedy tweeted.

Aaron died in his sleep a little over two weeks after he and other prominent civil rights figures publicly received the COVID vaccine to encourage other Black Americans to do the same. Medical examiners said there was nothing to suggest he had an allergic or anaphylactic reaction related to the vaccine.

Facing public criticism, Kennedy would later write that he “never said that the Moderna shot caused Aaron’s death.”

Kennedy’s 2-year-old tweet reemerged over the weekend, after Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey shared a screenshot on Twitter of a 2021 email — obtained by his office as part of a lawsuit against the federal government filed with Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry — showing a White House official urging Twitter to remove it from the site.

It’s unclear if Kennedy’s tweet was ever removed. It’s live on the platform today.

Bailey went on to tweet screenshots of other emails from White House officials asking social media executives about steps being taken to deal with vaccine misinformation and complaining about posts featuring right-wing personalities arguing the COVID vaccine didn’t work.

“We now have hard evidence that President Biden’s administration colluded with social media companies to censor differing viewpoints and silence ‘misinformation’ that was later deemed true,” Bailey tweeted late Friday night.

The new attorney general’s decision to cast his lot with vaccine skeptics follows the lead of the man he replaced in the office, Eric Schmitt, who resigned last week after being elected to the U.S. Senate.

Schmitt sued the federal government last year claiming it was colluding with social media companies to suppress free speech. In August, his office added a smattering of plaintiffs to the case, many of whom are longtime vaccine skeptics. In the months since, the lawsuit has become a cause célèbre for some of the country’s most prolific anti-vaccine activists.

That includes Kennedy, who along with three others accused of being major purveyors of online medical misinformation — Dr. Joseph Mercola and Ty and Charlene Bollinger — attempted to intervene in the lawsuit late last year.

Schmitt’s office filed a brief opposing their efforts to officially join the lawsuit, arguing that they are already “adequately represented” in the litigation.

Asked about his opinion on Kennedy’s anti-vaccine activism, as well as whether he believes vaccines are dangerous, Bailey said through his spokeswoman that the lawsuit is “not about vaccines, it’s about the defense of our constitution.”

“I’ve said from day one that I will always fight back against unelected bureaucrats or anyone else seeking to violate the constitution, or indoctrinate us without access to free and open debate,” he said, “and that’s exactly what we’re doing here.”

Missouri’s attorney general is playing a dangerous game by cozying up with the anti-vaccine movement, said state Rep. LaDonna Appelbaum, the ranking Democrat on the Missouri House health and mental health policy committee.

“It’s disgraceful, to be quite honest,” she said. “The ripple effects this could have, with our attorney general normalizing these people spreading lies, it’s petrifying.”

Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said contrary to what the attorney general says, the issue isn’t free speech. It’s “anti-vaccine aggression,” he said, being sold as “health freedom.”

“It’s a phony concept of what they call health freedom or medical freedom,” he said. “The anti-vaccine activists were losing the argument about vaccines and autism because so many of us had debunked all that, and they needed something new and fresh.”

Anti-vaccine messaging on social media may seem like “a tempest in a teapot,” Hotez said, but in reality it has helped fuel mistrust that led people not to get vaccinated.

“We saw Americans needlessly lose their lives,” he said, “because of the anti-vaccine aggression that was basically sanctioned by elected officials and Fox News and pseudo intellectuals.”

Missouri’s attorney general is “using health freedom propaganda for his own political advantage,” Hotez said, “but to the detriment of the people that he’s supposed to be serving, who have lost their lives by the thousands.”

The mainstream medical community, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, have emphasized that the COVID vaccine is safe and effective.

‘Limit the spread’

Missouri Attorney General and Senate-hopeful Eric Schmitt speaks to potential voters on Saturday, July 23, 2022, during a campaign rally at Piazza Messina in Cottleville.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Attorney General and Senate-hopeful Eric Schmitt speaks to potential voters on Saturday, July 23, 2022, during a campaign rally at Piazza Messina in Cottleville.

Bailey inherited Schmitt’s lawsuit when he was sworn into office last week.

Most of the emails Bailey shared on Twitter involved Rob Flaherty, the White House’s director of digital strategy.

In one, Flaherty complains to a Facebook employee about popular posts on the platform involving Tucker Carlson saying the COVID vaccines don’t work.

“This is exactly why I want to know what ‘reduction’ actually looks like,” Flaherty wrote. “If ‘reduction’ means ‘pumping our most vaccine hesitant audience with Tucker Carlson saying it doesn’t work’ then … I’m not sure it’s reduction!”

In another, an employee at YouTube emails Flaherty reminding him that the company in 2019 began making changes to “limit the spread” of misinformation and will “continue our work to help people find authoritative health information on YouTube.”

In February 2021, a Facebook employee emails Flaherty answering questions about the platform’s policies, noting that the company works with leading health organizations to “continuously expand the list of false claims that we remove about COVID-19 and vaccines during the pandemic.”

The company assured Flaherty that it removes “vaccine misinformation” and “claims public health authorities tell us have been debunked or are unsupported by evidence.”

In April 2021, Flaherty emails a Facebook executive saying he’s interested in “what actions and changes you’re making to ensure you’re not making our country’s vaccine hesitancy problem worse.”

He went on in the email to compare the vaccine situation to election disinformation, noting that Facebook “tested and deployed an algorithmic shift that promoted quality news and information about the election.

“You did this, however, after an election you helped increase skepticism in, and an insurrection which was plotted, in large part, on your platform,” Flaherty wrote in April 2021. “And then you turned it back off. I want some assurances, based on data, that you aren’t doing the same thing here.”

In an email to Google executives, Flaherty said the White House recognizes “removing content that is unfavorable to the cause of increasing vaccine adoption is not a realistic — or even good — solution.”

But hopefully, he wrote, the company is interested in making the problem better.

“I want to protect Missourians and the freedoms they enjoy,” Bailey tweeted, “which is why as attorney general, I will always defend the constitution.”

‘Deep state’

The interest in Missouri’s social media lawsuit seemed to spike in early December, when the attorney general’s office released a nearly 450-page transcript of a deposition they conducted of Dr. Anthony Fauci, who recently retired as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

A popular far-right Twitch streamer named Zak Paine, who goes by Redpill78 and garnered national media attention for encouraging his viewers to drink a bleach solution that claims to cure cancer, celebrated Schmitt’s lawsuit soon after the Fauci deposition was released publicly.

“We have to reveal this criminality,” he said. “We have to reveal this deep state.”

According to the New York Times, Paine’s channel is “rife with conspiracy theories about vaccines and cancer.”

Tracy Diaz, a GOP official in South Carolina and far-right influencer who goes by “Tracy Beanz” online, was one of the first promoters of the QAnon conspiracy theory. She called Missouri’s social media lawsuit “the most important civil liberties case we have seen in years, and may be the most important ever.” She has also said publicly that she has “no confidence in vaccines period.”

Some of the country’s most notable vaccine skeptics are actively involved in Missouri’s litigation.

Mercola, an osteopathic physician in Florida who sought to intervene in Missouri’s lawsuit, referred to the COVID-19 vaccine as a “bioweapon” in a post praising Schmitt for attempting to combat “tyrannical and unconstitutional overreach” by the federal government.

One of the named plaintiffs in the case, added by the attorney general’s office in August, is Jim Hoft, whose website has spread debunked conspiracies for years on a range of topics, from vaccines to the Parkland school shooting.

Hoft’s site was banned from Twitter last year (it is now reinstated) after repeatedly promoting falsehoods about the 2020 presidential election. On Sunday, his website cheered the violence taking place Brazil, writing: “The people of Brazil know their recent election was stolen just like the two recent elections in the U.S.”

Jill Hines, another named plaintiff added to the litigation in August, is co-director of Health Freedom Louisiana, an anti-vaccine organization that, among other things, advances the theory soundly rejected by medical experts that vaccines are a cause of autism.

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent.

Jason Hancock has been writing about Missouri since 2011, most recently as lead political reporter for The Kansas City Star. He has spent nearly two decades covering politics and policy for news organizations across the Midwest, and has a track record of exposing government wrongdoing and holding elected officials accountable.
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