Probably the most disturbing aspect of the conspiracist worldview is its deliberate callousness about the harm it inflicts on other people, its fanatical certainty that the cockamamie fantasies are somehow real, brushing aside any consideration of the possibility that they might be wrong, and thus heaping mountains of fresh grief on people who are often suffering the most unimaginable losses to begin with. Alex Jones’ treatment of the Sandy Hook victims and their families is, of course, the apotheosis of this.
But it’s also more than self-evident in the conspiracy theories currently being whipped into an alternative-universe half-life by the COVID-denialist antivaxxers—namely, the so-called “Died Suddenly” pseudo-documentary fraud being peddled by Stew Peters and his anti-vaccination cohorts. Their theory claims to list hundreds of people who have supposedly keeled over without warning because of the COVID vaccine—most of which are unsubstantiated, and including dozens of people who certifiably either died or were injured from other causes or are still living. The falsely identified and their families, as Matt Shuham reports for HuffPost, are starting to fight back.
According to Peters and other antivaxxers, the COVID vaccines contain agents that cause people who get them to develop unusual levels of blood clotting, leading to various ailments and sudden death from heart attacks. They claim that the vaccines are part of a global depopulation scheme by nefarious “globalist” elites.
To prove their claims, they latch onto the news of any sudden notable deaths around the world—from Lisa Marie Presley to soccer journalist Grant Wahl to ex-NFL player Ahmaad Galloway—and claim they are cases of vaccine poisoning. When Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest during a Monday Night Football game, the conspiracists began claiming the case proved their theories—although Hamlin’s collapse was attributed to the hit he had just absorbed on his torso.
Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor tweeted: “Before the covid vaccines we didn’t see athletes dropping dead on the playing field as we do now… Time to investigate the covid vaccines.” Tucker Carlson interviewed one of Peters’ frequent guests—Peter McCullough, a Texas doctor who was disavowed by Baylor Medical Center after he spread misinformation about the vaccines—who cited a bogus “study” to claim that hundreds of European athletes had died suddenly after being vaccinated.
There has been a litany of bogus claims by the “Died Suddenly” crowd that tries to exploit real people’s tragedies:
- A Florida COVID victim named Claire Bridges, a model who had both legs amputated as a result of her bout with the disease. Bridges, who flatlined three times, was born with a heart condition that made her particularly vulnerable to the ravages of the disease. “My legs were amputated due to COVID/Rhabdo, not the vaccine,” she asserted.
- Dolores Cruz, whose son Eric was killed in an auto accident in 2017, penned an essay for Huffpost’s Personal Section that was a meditation on her grief in the aftermath of his death. The a screen shot of the headline from her appears in Peters’ “Died Suddenly” film as yet another incident of vaccine-related death. “An article I wrote about my son was being used in a way that wasn’t true,” Cruz told HuffPost. “To me, it’s a way of creating fear.”
- An Ohio kindergartner named Anastasia Weaver, whose death from COVID was blamed on the vaccine. She had in fact suffered lifelong health problems after her premature birth, including asthma and frequent respiratory-related hospitalization. “The doctors haven’t given us any information other than it was due to all of her chronic conditions. … There was never a thought that it could be from the vaccine,” her mother, Jessica Day-Weaver, told the Associated Press. Nonetheless, a “Died Suddenly” fanatic on Facebook messaged her to label her a “murderer” for vaccinating her child.
- Rafael Silva, a 37-year-old Brazilian television host, became a “Died Suddenly” figure when he collapsed live on air. Silva survived, and attests that the problem was a congenital heart problem. That prompted a wave of harassment: “I received messages saying that I should have died to serve as an example for other people who were still thinking about getting the vaccine,” Silva said. Peters’ film used the footage anyway.
- Tyler Erickson, a Florida 17-year-old, died while golfing near his home in September. No one is sure why his heart stopped suddenly, but it couldn’t have been the vaccine: The teenager was unvaccinated. His story nonetheless appears in the “Died Suddenly” film. “It bothers me, him being used in that way,” his father, Clint Erickson, told the AP. But “the biggest personal issue I have is trying to find an answer or a closure to what caused this.”
- After renowned soccer journalist Grant Wahl collapsed and died while covering the World Cup in Qatar, the “#DiedSuddenly” hashtag went wild on social media—even though an autopsy revealed it was an aneurysm arising from conditions long predating COVID. His widow, Céline Gounder, found herself flooded with accusatory messages: “Now you understand that you killed your poor husband. Karma is a bitch,” one said.
That hashtag, or deliberately misspelled versions of it, has surged on Twitter more than 740% over the past two months compared to the previous two months, according to the AP and Zignal Labs, a media intelligence firm. It has been featured in a blizzards of tweets making a variety of unfounded claims about reported deaths being caused by vaccination.
The AP reports that it reviewed more than 100 of these tweets and “found that claims about the cases being vaccine related were largely unsubstantiated and, in some cases, contradicted by public information. Some of the people featured died of genetic disorders, drug overdoses, flu complications or suicide. One died in a surfing accident.”
For the people targeted—especially those still living, like Bridges, or the family members who find themselves accused of murdering their loved one because they got them vaccinated—the conspiracist deluge magnifies their initial trauma exponentially. When the Died Suddenly Twitter account posted its version of her story, it claimed that after Bridges “received the mRNA vaccine,” she “ended up having legs amputated due to blood clots, and now suffers from myocarditis & kidney failure. #diedsuddenly.” That tweet had been viewed nearly 2 million times three weeks after it was published.
“It’s frustrating to have your story stolen from you,” she said.
Debunkings of the false narrative abound, but that appears to have done little to stanch its spread. And while rigorous medical studies and the abundant data from the hundreds of millions of shots that have been administered globally have proven COVID-19 vaccines safe and effective—and the same data shows deaths or injuries caused by vaccination are extremely rare—that has had little effect on the antivaxxers’ alternative universe. Telling them that the risks associated with not getting vaccinated are far higher than the risks of vaccination only produces accusations of participating in the globalist conspiracy.
The role played by Twitter—particularly under Elon Musk’s ownership—cannot be underestimated in this spread. According to Lydia Morrish at Wired, information experts have found that since Musk restored thousands of banned accounts and the platform stopped policing COVID-19 misinformation at his direction, the “Died Suddenly” claims have become supercharged.
“It has opened the floodgates for conspiracy theorizing and misinformation,” says Timothy Graham, a misinformation expert at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia.
As always, there is a human cost to all this that cannot be calculated from data. Like the Sandy Hook parents, Jessica Day-Weaver said found the spectacle of strangers exploiting Anastasia’s death strangely traumatizing, especially in the way their lies dehumanized her daughter.
Nonetheless, Day-Weaver told AP: “I wouldn’t wish the loss of a child on anybody. Even them.”
We're chatting with one of our favorite fellow election analysts on this week's episode of The Downballot, Kyle Kondik of Sabato's Crystal Ball. Kyle helped call races last year for CBS and gives us a rare window inside a TV network's election night decision desk, which literally has a big button to call control of the House—that no one got to press. Kyle also dives into his new race ratings for the 2024 Senate map, including why he thinks Joe Manchin's unlikely tight-rope act might finally come to an end.
In their Weekly Hits, co-hosts David Nir and David Beard recap big developments in two Senate contests: Rep. Adam Schiff's entry into the race to succeed Dianne Feinstein, and the GOP's unexpected show of unity in the open-seat election in Indiana. They also dissect the first poll of this year's hotly contested race for governor in Kentucky and highlight another 2023 battle that shouldn't get overlooked: the race for a vacant seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.