The 11-year-old girl’s mother saw the Facebook message first. It came from a profile that looked like it belonged to the girl’s beloved aunt, but the words didn’t sound like her.
“Your mother is a fat ugly lazy piece of shit who tried to kill you,” the message read. “She is a bully and suffers from mental problems. She is under investigation for the hate groups and illegal computer crimes she’s committing. I hope you like your new home. You can thank me when you’re older.”
But this message wasn’t from the child’s aunt. It came from someone the child had never met, part of a controversy she knows nothing about. The child had fallen in the vaccine war’s widening social warpath: one in which anti-vaxxers actively seek to interfere with and smear the families, jobs, and children of the people who fall on the other side of the line.
To understand how the message appeared in the little girl’s inbox, you first have to know that her mother belonged to Anti-Vax Wall of Shame, a Facebook group of around 3,700 users dedicated to making fun of the anti-vaccination movement.
“We all know that AVers tend to say the stupidest shit,” the group’s description reads. (AVers is a shorthand for anti-vaccination activists.) “This group is a way that we can catalogue it and then mock it into the dust for all of Facebook to see.”
The rules of the group are pretty clear: no doxxing, no threats, no calling anybody a “retard:”
7. Block out names and avatars of any screenshots you take of comments from individuals. The use of identifying information gives the Facebook reporting algorithms justification to see fraudulent reports by the vaccine denialist cult members as valid. Public pages are less problematic in this regard.
8. We do not allow the of the word “retard” here (I apologize for spelling that out, but some people will not know what the r-word means), or any word that uses the ‘tard’ suffix. Yes, yes, we know - your First Amendment rights are being censored trampled upon come see the violence inherent in the system blah blah blah. We don’t care.
9. We do not tolerate threats of violence or wishing death on people. Saying “AVers need to all contract Ebola and die” or similar things is not allowed, and those will be deleted.
On the other side of the fight, there’s Anti-Vax Wall of Shame - The Fall of the Wall, which was set up by a group of anti-vaxxers who have made it their mission to “expose” the people behind the Anti-Vax Wall of Shame.
Fall of the Wall tends to skew a little less snarky than the Wall of Shame, and a little weirder. It uses an image of someone in a Guy Fawkes mask, clearly taken from a screengrab of an Anonymous video, and makes some wild claims, including that the Anti-Vax Wall of Shame folks are cleverly infecting anti-vaccination activists with computer viruses embedded in photos and links.
The page warns:
• Do not click on any links or photos posted by members of the AVWOS. Some photos and links posted previously were actually embedded with a virus to retrieve your IP address.
• We ask that members of the current AVWOS DO NOT post these links or pictures. It will result in your being REPORTED AND BANNED from this page.
• Whether you are pro-vax or anti-vax, the perpetrators of these crimes will infect your computer.
Anyone found to be contributing to illegal activity will be REPORTED AND BANNED from this page permanently. Ban is lifted. Keep it clean.
We suggest that when you are not using your computer, you disconnect it from the Internet. Unplug your wireless router to ensure the safety of your computer.
To all victims, please message this page with any incriminating information.
Thank you and enjoy the new revelations.
As you might imagine, the members of the two Facebook pages frequently trade insults. But things are more heated than usual these days: on Thursday, the California assembly voted to approve SB 277, a bill that will make it far harder for schools or day cares to admit students who haven’t been fully vaccinated against common communicable disease like measles, pertussis, mumps, rubella, chicken pox and poliovirus, by ending exemptions granted to parents who cite personal or religious reasons. (Medical exemptions will still be allowed.)
For some anti-vaccination activists, the bill represents a deep threat to themselves, their children and society at large. California law has historically made room for a very broad “personal belief” exemption for parents who don’t want to vaccinate their kids, and a growing number of people have used it over the years to opt out of vaccinating.
But state lawmakers started rethinking that stance after the massive measles outbreak at Disneyland, which has been linked to low vaccination rates across the state. “If we had higher levels of immunity in the community, this outbreak would not have happened,” Dr. Gil Chavez, California’s state epidemiologist, told the L.A. Times.
It was obvious early on that SB 277 would very likely pass. Now that it has, the bill could encourage substantially tougher exemption rules across the United States (only West Virginia and Mississippi have similarly tough laws that don’t allow for an exemption to vaccination based on religious or philosophical beliefs).
In the lead-up to the vote, the anti-vaccination movement began to vocally freak out.
In California, some of them voiced their opposition to vaccination by calling their Senate and Assembly members, or leading protests, or testifying at public hearings. They joined Facebook groups like Vaccine News, where they trade stories about children they believe have been “vaccine-injured,” compared vaccinations to Auschwitz, and speculate that the bill is a plot between the medical lobby and government officials to sell more vaccines.
“We ALL know this has nothing to do with safety,” one woman wrote in Vaccine News. “It’s about selling drugs!!!!” Their paranoia was given some basis by the fact that the pharmaceutical lobby has donated millions to California lawmakers, although they deny having any sway over the bill. “We aren’t pushing this bill behind the scenes,” Priscilla VanderVeer, a senior director for communications for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, an industry trade group, told the Sacramento Bee.
According to pro-vaccination groups, other opponents of SB 277 resorted to harassment, threats, doxxing and nasty impersonation. The mother of the 11-year-old girl—who asked that her name and her daughter’s name be withheld to protect their privacy and safety—told Jezebel that she’s a frequent commenter on Anti-Vax Wall of Shame, and that her daughter was contacted after a Fall of the Wall commenter started combing through her own public Facebook photos.
“She made it clear she was going through my pictures, making remarks about my husband having AIDS and how ugly my children are,” the woman says. “That their teeth are rotting out and they look retarded.”
Next, she says, came the message to her daughter (she provided a screenshot of the message to Jezebel, saying that it came from a sock puppet account impersonating her sister, which has since been taken down). She’s not sure whether the intention was to frighten her child, make her angry, or just show that she could find the woman’s family, but in any case, she’s furious.
“I am beyond pissed off that they tried to contact her,” she writes in a email. “It doesn’t bother me when they try to write comments about how ugly my kids are, because they are exceptionally beautiful and anyone can see that. But pulling her into this game they are playing is way too far.”
The anti-vaccination movement got its start in the ‘60s and ‘70s, according to Emory University historian Elena Conis, who told the Los Angeles Times it was a natural outgrowth of the environmentalist movement and an increasing engagement among women in their children’s medical decisions. Combine that with post-Watergate wariness about the government’s hidden motives, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for vaccine paranoia. (Update: That’s not really correct; the modern American anti-vax movement traces its roots from there, but as this excellent piece by Stassa Edwards points out, the roots of anti-vaccination beliefs are much, much older.)
“Women were doing what health feminists were doing when they looked at risks of birth control pills that they said doctors had known about and hidden,” Conis told the newspaper. “It made perfect sense that they would use the same questions with respect to their children’s healthcare. They were also using the language of environmentalism, [which] illustrated that only after we had used new technologies did we realize they had risks”—technologies, here, being used in reference to DDT and asbestos.
DDT has been proven to cause cancer, infertility, nervous system and liver damage, miscarriages, and developmental delays. Asbestos is linked to a wide array of lung diseases, including asbestosis, mesothelioma, and lung cancer. Vaccination, on the other hand, is scientifically linked to no disease or defect. Though there’s a slightly increased chance of fever, minor illness or arm ache immediately after vaccination, the CDC states firmly that there’s “no evidence whatsoever they cause any long-term health issues.”
However, the purported link between vaccination and autism remains, irrationally, a major part of the public conversation. The connection has been repeatedly debunked; much of the purported link between vaccination and autism came from one 1998 study, since labeled an “elaborate fraud.” Recent studies have reiterated and proven the need to vaccinate kids, and the news has provided some unfortunate and disturbing real-world examples of what happens when you don’t: the Disneyland outbreak was a simple demonstration of how unvaccinated children put everyone at higher risk by damaging herd immunity.
The people who still believe that vaccines will kill or injure their children, then, are a particularly stubborn and fairly small bunch. In California, they’re clustered mainly in five wealthy areas. In Los Angeles County, the L.A. Times found, vaccine refusal was highest in the areas with high median incomes. A study last year found that vaccination rates at some wealthy Los Angeles schools were as low or lower than in many developing countries.
Overall, though, California’s overall rates of vaccination are still high for children entering kindergarten—about the same as everywhere else in the United States. But while vaccine refusers are a tiny minority, their numbers have been growing steadily over the past decade: the Washington Post reported that in 2000, only 0.77 percent of California parents whose children were entering kindergarten had applied for a “personal belief exception from vaccines. By 2013, the percentage had quadrupled to 3.15 percent.
That’s the backdrop to the debate around SB 277. It helps explain—in part, but not all the way—the extreme fervor of anti-vaccination activists, the depth of their belief (in the face of all good evidence) that vaccines are harmful.
But it doesn’t explain the harassment and threats SB 277 supporters say they’ve faced.
One woman who’s testified in favor of the bill—who also asked not to be named, for fear of drawing more troll attention—said that photos of her, her husband and her baby have been tweeted by anti-vaxxers. The day after she spoke in favor of the bill at a public hearing, she saw groups on Facebook speculating that she was affiliated with Merck, the drug company.
“I went home and they’d started posting all my stuff to their Facebook group,” she says. “Things like, ‘She’s an investor paid by Merck. I’ve never met anybody from Merck in my entire life.’”
In an email sent to Jezebel in May, the same woman said the group also speculated about whether someone needed to call Child Protective Services on her.
“Today the anti-vaxxers were discussing calling CPS on me because they think I have ‘mental health problems,’’ she wrote. “They think if they file a case report someone will come to my house and discover that my son is in danger, and then I will leave them alone. They have no fucking boundaries.”
Many people involved in the debate agree that the anti-vax movement is increasingly veering off the rails. Sacramento Bee columnist Shawn Hubler outlined the ways that Jodi Hicks, a lobbyist who advocated successfully for SB 277 to pass the Senate Education Committee, has been harassed by anti-vaxxers who suspect she’s the “evil genius” who got the bill passed through committee. According to Hubler, she’s been physically followed and threatened, even told there’s a “special place in Hell” for her:
“Hey, Jodi!” someone yelled as she crossed the street. When she turned, a bevy of red-shirted “No on SB 277” women snapped her picture. Moments later, it was up on Twitter.
“#wheresJodi,” the caption sneered. “#DevilWithTheBlueDress.”
“There’s a special place in hell for you, just waiting,” warned the mean tweets.
Hicks’ husband told the Bee that “People were on blogs saying, if somebody shoots my kids with needles, maybe we should shoot these lobbyists. And here’s the president of this association, actually inciting people to stalk my wife.”
The man Hicks refers to is Brian Stenzler, president of the California Chiropractic Association, who was seen on a video telling two anti-vaccination protesters to follow Hicks and another lobbyist “all day long.” Last month, the California Medical Association sent Stenzler a warning letter. From the Sacramento Bee:
“Your video instructing people to stalk the lobbyists has the potential to turn an already volatile situation into an explosive one with very grave consequences,” the CMA’s letter to Stenzler says, directing him to halt “all activities that could incite, lead to, or result in harm to CMA employees or others involved in the SB 277 debate and to send a strong message to your members and your constituents to do the same.” The letter from the doctors group warns it will take “all necessary action to protect our employees and representatives.”
Meanwhile, Senator Richard Pan, the co-author of SB 277, has received death threats at work, been subjected to memes depicting him as Hitler and had photos of his house posted in anti-vax Facebook groups. After the bill passed, someone in an anti-vaccination Facebook group said she hoped he’d hire security for life—to avoid, she hinted, getting murdered by women whose children had been vaccine-injured:
At anti-vaccination rallies in California, protesters compared the state to Nazi Germany. An Assembly member who opposes the bill, Rep. Jim Patterson, suggested that requiring children to be vaccinated is like sending them to a concentration camp or an internment camp. (He later apologized for that word choice, but reiterated that the believes the bill is “excessively punitive). On InfoWars, a repository for every paranoid conspiracy theory of the last twenty years or so, Alex Jones claimed California was “following in Nazi footsteps” and “pushing mandatory vaccines—practically at gunpoint!”
Comparing everyone—not just elected officials—to Hitler is exceedingly popular. A video of a woman angrily testifying in favor of the bill—“These people are making my public school options progressively worse and more dangerous”—was interspersed with videos of Hitler speaking at a rally:
At an Assembly hearing on the bill in early June, a woman was reportedly removed from the room after screaming at lawmakers about seeing her child “on the floor, seizing.” One anonymous pro-vaccination Twitter account said the woman had been screaming that her child was “more important” than other people’s:
Another anonymous pro-vaccination account has repeatedly posted screenshots from a private anti-vax Facebook group called AWAKE California. In the group, one woman seemed to indicate that she’d been the person removed for screaming:
And at a rally after the bill passed, a reporter for a local TV station in Sacramento reported she’d been sprayed with an unknown substance by an anti-vaccination protester:
The bonkers rhetoric and threatening behavior isn’t limited to California, or to politicians sponsoring the bill: it’s touched academics and ordinary people all over the country who’ve made the mistake of talking or writing about vaccination as a social good.
Allison Hagood is a professor of psychology in Colorado and co-author of a book about childhood vaccinations called Your Baby’s Best Shot: Why Vaccines are Safe and Save Lives. She’s also an administrator for aforementioned Anti-Vax Wall of Shame. She claims her address has been posted in anti-vax Facebook groups, along with well wishes like “Have fun, you stupid whore.”
“They’ve posted my email address at work on that same page as well as my phone number,” she says. Her employer started getting emails, complaining that she shouldn’t be allowed to teach. She forwarded a few of them to Jezebel:
After their address was posted, Hagood says, she and her boyfriend purchased extra flood lights for their front yard, so they could see intruders more easily, and asked police to increase patrols through their neighborhood.
“I think it’s very important for people to understand that the nature of the anti-vax movement is not just parents who have concerns about vaccine or have heard things and are hesitant,” she says. “There’s a core group that are irrational to the point of dangerousness.”
The situation is perhaps stranger for the fact that this core group is united only in terms of their singular belief about vaccination. Opposition to SB 277 has created the weirdest of bedfellows: There are left-leaning, neo-hippie “natural health” enthusiast groups like the Thinking Moms Revolution, who are joining forces with Save California, an anti-gay, anti-abortion group that’s recently decided vaccines are also in their wheelhouse. (Their founder Randy Thomasson frequently fulminates against the “LGBT agenda” and claims that California children are being taught to be gay by their godless, immoral teachers; he calls SB 277 “tyrannical” and “anti-family.”) California Tea Party groups are also opposing the bill, joining together with a group calling themselves the Canary Party, who say they are “a movement created to stand up for the victims of medical injury, environmental toxins and industrial foods by restoring balance to our free and civil society and empowering consumers to make health and nutrition decisions that promote wellness.”
And there’s more: California members of the Nation of Islam are also against SB 277, with Minister Tony Muhammad claiming it’s similar to the Tuskegee experiments, where black men with syphilis were left untreated by federal researchers. The Church of Scientology is also against the bill; they’ve held at least one joint town hall meeting with the Nation of Islam at their community center in Los Angeles. Scientologist actress Jenna Elfman also participated in an anti-SB 277 rally in May outside the California Democratic Convention in Anaheim. Elfman told conservative news site Breitbart that the bill infringed on parental rights.
“If you say no to this bill,” she said, “the senators that are really pushing for this bill and the arguers for this bill think you’re against vaccinations. To vaccinate or not vaccinate is actually not the question. It’s a parental rights question. With this bill you have no choice as parents... In our country, we always have safety in our Constitution. And there’s like six Supreme Court cases in the last decade that honor parents rights to do what’s best for their child. We are not in a state of emergency on our immunizations.”
The large groups opposing SB 277 are joined by hundreds of tiny Facebook groups and mini Twitter cliques, many tweeting under hashtags like #CDCwhistleblower, which claims “vaccine scientists” are covering up evidence that vaccines cause autism and other diseases, and #vaccinemovement, where the vaccination bill is pointed to as evidence that California has become a “police state.”
On June 19, Dr. Jeff Bradstreet, a Georgia doctor and controversial alternative health researcher who claimed vaccines caused autism, died in an apparent suicide in North Carolina, not long after his office was reportedly raided by the Food and Drug Administration. The #CDCwhistleblower hashtag quickly erupted with thinly-veiled speculation that he’d been murdered by the government; a GoFundMe campaign to find out the “truth” about his death has raised almost $20,000 in four days.
“One of the big tropes [in the anti-vaccination movement] is that [pro-vaccination forces] are trying to silence their opponents,” says Dorit Reiss. She’s a law professor at UC Hastings who’s written extensively on the legal issues surrounding vaccination, including the personal exemption fight. “Remember, we’re talking about a movement who is persisting in their beliefs—and I think they’re very sincere in those beliefs—in the face of abundant data. The only way they can explain it all away is if there’s a grand conspiracy to hide the truth, and everyone who goes agains them is part of that conspiracy.”
That includes Reiss, of course. The popular anti-vaccination blog Age of Autism has implied that she’s a paid shill for Big Pharma. (Reiss says she is not paid by anyone other than UC Hastings, where she teaches.) Other SB 277 opponents have gone the Hitler route:
“There’s always been an ‘everyone is a shill approach’ among anti-vaxxers,” Reiss says, “as well as hostility, in my experience. But right now they’re feeling especially threatened. There’s legislation for vaccination requirements in multiple states. For someone who really believes that either that vaccines are poison or that vaccines injured their kids, it’s scary.”
But the doxxing, harassment, and unhinged Hitler comparisons have SB 277 supporters feeling frightened too. While Jezebel spoke with several supporters who said they’d been threatened, doxxed, harassed, or Twitter-mobbed by anti-vax groups, only Reiss and Hagood, the Colorado professor, would allow us to use their names. Both women are tenured, and both of them said it’s made it easier for them to continue talking and writing about vaccines in the face of so much increasingly delusional opposition.
In the end, Hagood says, “there are legitimately parents who have concerns” about vaccines. That’s one of the reasons she co-authored Your Baby’s Best Shot, “to address those concerns in a gentle way. But there are more irrational beliefs, she says, that just don’t seem to budge: “You have people who believe vaccines contain RFID chips, or people who believe jet contrails in the sky are chemtrails that are really aerosole vaccinations.”
That’s the type of delusional thinking that should get more attention, Hagood adds. “This is what most people are unaware of about the anti-vaccination movement. It’s those kind of dangerous and irrational beliefs that we try to bring to light, in a way that shows what’s under the public claims.”
At its heart, the anti-vaccination movement claims to be about freedom, safety, and health, especially the health of children. But in fight around SB 277, the reality has revealed itself to be much more about paranoia, aggression, and harassment. The cloud of terror that anti-vaccination activists live in is almost unimaginable, the suspicion they feel towards their neighbors, their towns, their government. But because that fear is self-created and self-sustaining, there’s simply no way to dispel it, and the endless echo chamber of the Internet to keep it fed and growing.
On the Facebook page of Shannon Grove, a Republican Assembly Member who’s opposed the bill on religious liberty grounds, furious people are leaving comments claiming that soon their children will be taken from them:
It’s heartbreaking! THANK YOU for defending medical freedom and health choice! I’m soo scared for the genetically vulnerable children in a post#SB277 CA where vaccine injuries are disregarded, ignored, omitted and accepted by MDs, RNs, health departments, medical boards and politicians that favor one-size-fits all medicine. Parents will no longer be able to decide what is the best health interventions for the individual child—medical dictators now have authority and control over our children’s bodies. We will be flagged for CPS when we advocate for our children and have our loving families terrorized by medical tyranny. God help us! Kaiser is the worst offender! Thank You for being a REAL Patriot!
The bill returns to the Senate today for a final, procedural vote before heading to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk to be signed. Groups like Californians for Vaccine Choice are calling on Brown to veto the bill, and promising to picket him if he does not.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that black soldiers in the Tuskagee experiments were purposefully infected with syphilis without their knowledge and were left untreated; it has been updated. The men in the study were black sharecroppers; they were told they were being treated for “bad blood.”
Illustration by Jim Cooke