DC anti-mandate rally leveraged to broaden audience for anti-vax narratives

January 23 anti-vax rally softened messaging and utilized support from anti-mandate doctors to reach broader audiences

@DFRLab
DFRLab

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A person wears a yellow arm band with a Star of David during a protest of vaccine mandates at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on January 23, 2022. Anti-vaccine protesters have worn yellow arm bands to compare their current treatment in the United States to the treatment of Jewish people in Germany during the holocaust. (Source: Matthew Rodier/Sipa USA via Reuters)

By Max Rizzuto and Jared Holt

Organizers of an anti-vaccine mandate rally in Washington on the weekend of January 22–23, 2022 drew thousands of attendees and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in part by soliciting the help of social media influencers. Despite organizers’ assurances that the rally was meant to represent a bipartisan and moderate anti-mandate message, the DFRLab found that the methods used to plan and promote the event online involved the engagement of hyperpartisan and conspiratorial anti-vax audiences.

The playbook used to draw the event together demonstrated the usefulness for fringe communities to leverage the credibility of authoritative voices, especially when not directly aligned with their most fringe beliefs, to broadcast their conspiratorial messaging to wider audiences. Given its relative success, it is possible the same playbook will be leveraged again.

The DFRLab monitored and tracked the rally’s formation and growth in the weeks leading up to it after detecting a large presence of logistical organizing conversations in a Facebook group created for the event. Following anti-mandate activist Dr. Robert Malone’s appearance on comedian and misinformation purveyor Joe Rogan’s podcast, we observed the Facebook group’s rapid growth in size and coordination. Though the DFRLab did not observe any threats to commit violent or illegal activity at the event, at least two Telegram channels operated by chapters of violent domestic extremist group the Proud Boys shared promotional images for the rally among their chapters and followers.

This online organizing successfully produced on-the-ground organizing in the nation’s capital, where rallygoers would go on to harass local businesses complying with the city’s COVID-19 mandates. Some attendees carried signs with violent messages, such as one that depicted National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease Director Dr. Anthony Fauci and Microsoft founder Bill Gates being hanged, and small groups of Proud Boys and white nationalist movement supporters attended.

Rally tied closely to anti-vaccine movement, despite claims to the contrary

The event’s organizers insisted before the rally that they sought to represent opposition to vaccine mandates rather than vaccines themselves. “We link arms, Vaccinated and Unvaccinated,” a declaration on the event website stated. “Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.”

Anna Merlan, a senior staff writer at Vice, aptly pushed back on the organizer’s framing of the rally, pointing to the array of planned speakers who hailed from the anti-vaccine movement and its pandemic-long speaking circuit. Merlan described the moderated message as a potential “entry point” for vaccine-hesitant individuals into the harder anti-vaccine movement, “placing them at the top of the slide before giving them a hard push down.”

Merlan’s pushback proved warranted. Though the event’s website listed several organizations as partners and sponsors, coordination sessions on Clubhouse directed prospective volunteers to the Vaccines Safety Research Foundation (VRSF). Founded and operated by tech entrepreneur Steve Kirsch, VRSF creates materials advancing claims that COVID-19 vaccines cause injuries. Much of its claims, however, are attributed to the controversial VAERS dataset, into which anyone can input data. The event’s permit application, made public by a FOIA request to the US National Park Service, listed Children’s Health Defense as the official organizers.

Children’s Health Defense (CHD) is a nonprofit organization founded and chaired by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has championed conspiracy theories about supposed dangers of 5G broadband and drinking-water fluoridation, attempted to connect childhood vaccinations to autism, and spread enough COVID-19 falsehoods to land among the Center for Countering Digital Hate’s “disinformation dozen”: the twelve anti-vaccine activists found to be distributing a majority of the anti-vaccine misinformation online. Promotional materials for the event did not include CHD branding, though the event was promoted though the organization’s channels and broadcast by its media arm.

When Robert F. Kennedy Jr. took the stage at the January 23 event, his address turned toward broader conspiracies that he and his organization routinely espouse. At one point, Kennedy told the crowd that 5G and satellite technology would lead to inescapable horrors. Kennedy compared this apocalyptic vision to Nazi Germany but told the crowd that “even in Hitler’s Germany […] you could hide in the attic like Anne Frank did.” (Kennedy later apologized for his remark in a tweet.)

Will Witt, a commentator for conservative digital media project PragerU, was introduced in a Fox News interview and quoted in a Fox News web article as the organizer of the rally, though Witt is named only as a rally speaker in official event promotional materials. (Witt clarified in one Fox News interview ahead of the rally that he was “not the main organizer” and was “mostly speaking” at the rally.)

Organizers of Defeat the Mandates also associated their event with World Wide Rally for Freedom, a periodic and loosely coordinated campaign meant to inspire same-day protests around the world opposing pandemic public health measures. Flyers circulated online for the Washington event mirrored branding and formatting from World Wide Rally for Freedom’s prior events.

In May 2021, Joe Ondrak and Jordan Wildon reported at Logically.ai that World Wide Rally for Freedom events had spawned from a small, conspiracy-espousing German group. Their reporting found that the group had used social media to seed hundreds of proposed rallies, often before finding administrators and organizers to make them happen. It is unclear the degree to which the organizers of the Washington rally were aware of World Wide Rally for Freedom’s background.

And though rally organizers claimed to represent a more nuanced position against the government’s pandemic response, public faces of the rally like anti-vaccine mandate advocate Robert Malone have appeared frequently in digital media programs that spread outright misinformation and falsehoods about vaccines.

Despite these ties to harder anti-vaccine figures and organizations, some speakers at the rally attempted to maintain the event’s softer preface. Malone and Kennedy Jr. invoked historical racial justice causes to rile crowds. Both alluded to Martin Luther King Jr., who delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech from the same steps of the Lincoln Memorial, to suggest anti-mandate demonstrators were walking in King’s footsteps.

Notably, pushing forward an anti-mandate message rather than an anti-vaccine one also enabled the rally and its organizers to remain on mainstream platforms like Facebook. As a Meta spokesperson explained to NBC News, “Voicing opposition to government mandates is not against Meta’s policies.”

Hyperpartisan, right-wing, and conspiratorial media outlets and figures helped promote rally online

Though the permit filed for the rally was submitted in early December, the event only entered broader public consciousness after Malone promoted it at the end of his New Year’s Eve Day appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast. Malone was not the first event organizer to promote the rally on the program: cardiologist Peter McCullough also mentioned the rally during his interview with Rogan weeks prior to Malone, but to much less effect.

Malone’s appearance on the program was aggressively promoted by conservative social media personalities and media outlets for Malone’s evocation of mass formation psychosis, as well as the rise of Nazi Germany, to describe why people were getting vaccinated and taking precautions during the pandemic. After Twitter and YouTube removed videos of Malone’s interview with Joe Rogan from their platforms, Malone was presented as a martyred truth-teller to hyperpartisan Republican audiences. US Representative Troy Nehls (R-TX) entered a transcript of Malone’s podcast appearance into the congressional record.

Malone, who says he is vaccinated but opposed to mandated vaccinations, acted with his newly enhanced profile as the event’s primary poster boy in partisan media. Malone was featured during several primetime Fox News appearances with hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, and sat for a 45-minute interview with Carlson on Fox Nation’s “Tucker Today.” Among the doctors who spoke at the Defeat the Mandates event, Malone and McCullough appeared on cable news more than any others, and exclusively appeared on Fox News.

Line graph showing the weekly mentions of doctors billed to speak at the Defeat the Mandates event on Fox News between December 1, 2021 and January 24, 2022. Most mentions shown correspond with the guest being introduced in a televised interview. The DFRLab also ran queries of the list of names of experts who appeared on MSNBC and CNN. The former producing several results for Robert Malone in the context of disinformation reporting from Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins, with one false attribution to Dr. Paul Alexander. The latter returned zero matches. (Source: Stanford Cable TV News Analyzer)

Online, the rally found its primary support from partisan and conspiratorial sources. The DFRLab used social media monitoring tool BuzzSumo to find and rank content links mentioning the event that were shared on social media and found that hyperpartisan right-wing outlets were the most circulated sources, ahead of expressly conspiratorial outlets. Top-ranking links detected by the BuzzSumo query included blogs with reputations for publishing dubious or misleading information such as The Daily Caller and World Net Daily.

Bar chart using BuzzSumo data showing the the media outlets’ ranking in terms of total shares on social media when circulating information about the event. (Source: DFRLab via BuzzSumo)

Using the Meta-owned monitoring tool CrowdTangle, the DFRLab found that the top engaged-with Facebook page content containing links to the rally’s website were posted by conspiracy site We Are Change and its founder Luke Rudkowski, CHD, dermatologist Jon Ward, and right-wing pundit Ivory Hecker. Many of these pages also ranked highest in post interactions on content containing the words “defeat the mandates dc.” A CrowdTangle query indicated that the top 10 engaged-with posts containing the title of the rally occurred on pages belonging to anti-vaccine comedian JP Sears, partisan media outlets The Daily Caller and Washington Examiner, Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance, Australian senator Malcolm Roberts, and “pizzagate” conspiracy theorist Ben Swann.

An analysis of Twitter conducted with the monitoring tool Meltwater found that the rally’s most prolific promoters on the platform included notable far-right Twitter influencer Jack Posobiec, far-right news channel One America News, and contrarian podcaster Bret Weinstein. Posobiec received the highest number of retweets on a post containing “defeat the mandates” prior to the event, followed by comedian Sears and Weinstein. A manual search for links to the rally’s fundraiser page on Twitter found that links posted by the event’s Twitter account and retweeted by Posobiec were among the most retweeted examples.

Bar chart showing a distribution of Twitter profiles that received the highest amounts of retweets on posts containing “defeat the mandates” prior to the event . (Source: DFRLab via Meltwater)

Event coordination on Facebook

Logistics for the event were coordinated in part on Facebook in a group sharing the name of the rally. Of the group’s almost 21,000 members at the time of writing, the overwhelming majority joined after Malone’s appearance on Rogan’s podcast and the resulting partisan media blitz.

To facilitate online coordination, administrators created a media gallery of state highway signs and encouraged group members to connect with others from their home states in the comments sections of corresponding images. Administrators encouraged members to use Facebook’s hashtag feature to find others from their areas. They also asked members to solicit money via links to rally merchandise and a fundraiser page on GiveSendGo that had received more than $250,000 at the time of writing.

Screenshot taken January 20 of the highway signs that administrators of the Defeat the Mandates DC Facebook group created as a means of helping group members connect with others in the states of residence. (Source: Facebook)

Inside the group, the overlapping effect of mixing anti-mandate believers with harder anti-vax activists was evident. Between the posts from self-identified liberals and vaccine-recipients calling for a unified anti-mandate message were posts containing blatant vaccine misinformation and extreme rhetoric. Participants advertised group buses traveling to DC for the event and smaller satellite events in states including Florida and Illinois.

Screenshot, taken January 14, 2022, of a post in the Defeat the Mandates DC Facebook group, in which the user shared photos of anti-vaccine armbands meant to replicate armbands that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany. The post no longer appears in the group. It is unclear if administrators or the user deleted the post. (Source: Facebook)

Though Sunday’s rally fell short of the 20,000 attendees that organizers estimated on the event’s permit application, its manifestation mirrored its related activity online. By keeping Children’s Health Defense and other known peddlers of vaccine disinformation out of the event’s center spotlight and instead delegating promotion to notionally credible voices like Malone and McCullough, the extremes of the anti-vax movement were able to capitalize on the common ground they shared with more mainstream voices and draw participants from beyond their standard audiences.

The framing of the event, despite its thin veil, softened the rally’s image enough that organizers were able to lean on mainstream social media platforms to organize, but not so much that conspiratorial supporters shied away from attendance.

Max Rizzuto is a Research Assistant with the DFRLab.

Jared Holt is Resident Fellow with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Cite this case study:

Max Rizzuto and Jared Holt, “DC anti-mandate rally leveraged to broaden audience for anti-vax messaging,” Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), February 2, 2022, https://medium.com/dfrlab/dc-anti-mandate-rally-leveraged-to-broaden-audience-for-anti-vax-narratives-f6074f29b845.

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@DFRLab
DFRLab

@AtlanticCouncil's Digital Forensic Research Lab. Catalyzing a global network of digital forensic researchers, following conflicts in real time.