I watched Died Suddenly, an hour-long anti-vaccination “documentary” percolating through social media since November, so you don’t have to. A cacophonous, almost gleeful montage of out-of-context, pseudo-scientific, conspiratorial hooey, it resembles a bad, blurry parody of Michael Moore’s lesser efforts, filled with people speaking with conviction and authority who are either unidentified or labeled with uninspiring credentials (“funeral director,” “embalmer”) and replete with hackneyed film techniques and bad, possibly lifted background music (the first minute is set to the bridge from Pink Floyd’s “Sheep”— get it?). Some sequences are so downright bizarre (people literally falling down on camera, none of whom are identified or have the cause of their sudden incapacity sourced or corroborated) you can almost hear its creators smirking.
The central theme is that the COVID-19 vaccines caused an untoward, undisclosed large number of people to “die suddenly,” of stroke, pulmonary embolism, or something else, and you—yes you, dear viewer—can verify this by Googling the words “died suddenly,” and gaze with horror upon all the hits that appear. Lots of unidentified people wearing glasses and suits claim to have found physical evidence of icky wormlike “growths” within the body that allegedly caused these events.
This is a world made up in large part by gullible, ignorant people eager for certitude in a very confusing time, and this type of conspiracy junk caked over with a thin scientific veneer is all that is necessary to confirm their preconceptions.
It’s not just stupid, it’s appallingly stupid in a dull, malevolent way. But in social media it’s all about eyeballs, and there’s a huge market for this stuff. It would be wonderful if people had the necessary critical skills to evaluate it for what it is, but unfortunately, that’s not the society we live in.
The consequences of abolishing any serious constraints or regulation of content on the social media platform known as Twitter were predictable when Elon Musk took over the company. Yet the remarkable speed at which deliberately harmful, disinformative, and malicious content is supplanting the platform’s legitimate uses continues to exceed the dismal expectations that proliferated when the Tesla CEO took over.
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Still, the nature of social media discourse (if you can call it that) has always been its evanescence, its shapeshifting, constant impermanence as old ideas and statements give way to newer, more topical ones. Even the most harmful and destructive of lies are understood to have a limited shelf life. The world changes and people move on … normally. So, the idea that a destructive piece of contrived propaganda masquerading as “free speech” might wreak deadly havoc year after year, broadcast to millions in a recurring feedback loop, is yet another feature of this digital age we as a species aren’t really prepared or equipped to deal with.
As explained by Kaitlyn Tiffany, writing for The Atlantic, this is but a small preliminary taste of what is likely to ensue on broad-based social media platforms should they, like Twitter, abandon content moderation. Such content has always been available on the web, but never before has it been afforded an opportunity for mass, continuous consumption—the kind of consumption that can actually harm people for years, if not decades, through normalization.
Died Suddenly has been viewed nearly 20 million times and cheered on by far-right personalities such as Marjorie Taylor Greene and Candace Owens. It was released by the Stew Peters Network, whose other videos on Rumble have titles like “Obama Formed Shadow Government BEFORE Plandemic” and “AIRPORTS SHUT DOWN FOR EVERYONE BUT JEWS!” And its creators are already asking for donations to fund a sequel, Died Suddenly 2, which promises to explore “deeper rabbit holes.” (Nicholas Stumphauzer, one of the film’s directors, did not respond to questions, other than to say that the production team was motivated by a desire to "stop the globalist death cult.")
As a meme, “died suddenly” could last a long time—possibly indefinitely. People will always be dying suddenly, so it will always be possible to redeploy it and capture further attention. What’s more, there is a thriving alt-tech ecosystem that can circulate the meme; a whole cohort of right-wing, anti-vaccine influencers and celebrities who can amplify it; and, crucially, a basically unmoderated mainstream social-media platform that can put it in front of hundreds of millions of users—some of whom will make fun of it, but others of whom will start to see something unsettling and credible in its repetitions.
In a November tweet directed to Musk, the film’s creators proudly note that Died Suddenly is “the first movie to premiere on Twitter since your friendly takeover.” Initially labeled as misinformation by then-existing Twitter guidelines, the film now comes with no such warning. The film’s Twitter account has 250,000 “alleged” followers but, as Tiffany explains, it has garnered a larger presence throughout social media, especially Facebook and Instagram. The authors of the account have exploited the recent death of Lisa Marie Presley and the on-field collapse of Buffalo Bills’ safety Damar Hamlin to further promote the film.
As Tiffany notes:
”[D]ied suddenly” thrives on Twitter. Tweets referencing news stories about unexpected deaths can be flooded with replies trumpeting the conspiracy theory, which go unmoderated. It’s a radical change from the earlier years of the pandemic, during which Twitter implemented new policies against health misinformation and updated them regularly, gradually finessing the wording and clarifying how the company assessed misleading information. These policies and the tactics used to enforce them tightened as the pandemic went on. According to a transparency report the company published in July 2022, Twitter suspended significantly more accounts and removed far more content during the vaccine rollout than during the earliest months of the pandemic, when various groups first expressed concern about dangerous misinformation spreading online.
The danger here is not simply the emergence of another crackpot conspiracy film, but the fact that it will continue to engender doubt and resistance to lifesaving vaccines in an unprecedented health emergency that shows no sign of tiring itself out in the coming years. As observed by Sheila McClear, writing for Los Angeles Magazine, the real “link” (if any) between COVID-19 and sudden deaths is most likely due to illness caused by the virus itself and its mutations, not by the vaccines designed to prevent or ameliorate its symptoms.
The link seems to be to surges in Covid cases from certain strains, like Omicron, and not the vaccines, according to the research out of Cedars-Sinai.
In 2019, the year before the pandemic began, there were 143,787 heart attack deaths; within 2020, this grew by 14% to 164,096. And by 2021, the observed compared to “predicted” rates of heart attack death had increased by 29.9% for adults ages 25-44, by 19.6% for adults ages 45-64, and by 13.7% for adults ages 65 and older.
While all the reasons for this increase remain unclear, researchers posit that this marked rise in cardiac disease includes pandemic stress, acute amounts of pressure like job loss, and overall feelings of financial insecurity taking their toll on the body. And an Associated Press fact-check points out that cardiac arrest can impact anyone, whether they’re vaccinated or not.
As McClear points out, even to the extent recipients of the mRNA vaccines might (rarely) experience cardiac inflammation, the risk of such inflammation to unvaccinated people who contract COVID-19 is far higher.
But the implicit sanction of such disinformation by Twitter and other platforms (Facebook removed its Died Suddenly group—which had boasted 34,000 members—only after The Atlantic’s Tiffany inquired about it) means that, quite literally, thousands of people may suffer and die unnecessarily simply because the Musk-led Twitter behemoth used to amplify such vaccine denialism deems it to be “free speech,” despite its patent falsity and malignancy. And that fact doesn’t even begin to implicate the consequences of other vaccine rejection fostered by this kind of pseudo-scientific garbage.
Still, as Tiffany writes:
… Twitter is backsliding, led by a CEO who has delighted in sharing company documents with critics who held the old COVID-19 policies in disdain. In the “Died Suddenly” Facebook group I joined, commenters praised Musk’s version of the site. “Sign up for Twitter,” one wrote. Those questioning the vaccines used to be “censored earlier by the old Twitter nazis,” but now there is “FREE SPEECH.” “If you want TRUE information … get off Facebook and get on Twitter,” another posted before the group was shut down.
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Again, this is just one example of what can happen when monolithic companies, which have effectively ensnared the human population with their convenience and familiarity, completely abandon any serious moderation of their content.
There will, no doubt, be many other examples to come.