On MSNBC, Angelo Carusone and Julián Castro discuss how far-right figures are using Damar Hamlin's injury to spread vaccine misinformation

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Citation From the January 8. 2022, edition of MSNBC's American Voices

JULIÁN CASTRO (GUEST HOST): Tributes pouring in today at the first Buffalo Bills game since safety Damar Hamlin's onfield collapse. As you know, Hamlin's heart stopped due to a freak accident during a play at last week's game. His recovery, though, has been nothing short of a miracle. No signs of neurological damage. He's talking and breathing on his own. And Hamlin, for a second straight day, is also tweeting. Today, he posted before the Bills game saying, quote, "Nothing I want more than to be running out that tunnel with my brothers. God using me in a different way today. Tell someone you love them. Let's go. Bills."

What we must talk about tonight, however, are the bogus claims circulating about Hamlin's collapse. Right-wing conspiracy theorists are taking to the web, claiming COVID-19 vaccines caused Hamlin's collapse. Now, that is clearly not true. Yet the disinformation continues. Why and how? Let's ask Media Matters president Angelo Carusone, who joins me now. Angelo, thank you for joining us. Walk us through where this conspiracy theory originated.

ANGELO CARUSONE (MEDIA MATTERS PRESIDENT AND CHAIR): So this goes all the way back to when COVID vaccines first came out. In fact, the birthplace of this was sort of a series of targeted attacks in the Latino information ecosystem, Spanish language, all the way back into the winter of 2021, where it basically said vaccines will cause sudden death.

So it wasn't pushing these really insane conspiracies like it's going to open up a time portal or that Bill Gates was monitoring you; it was more like, slow down, be scared, be cautious. And that one idea that somehow it would create sudden death was designed to manipulate the cost calculus. And that slowly morphed into this very specific narrative around heart; and what was being claimed and as that conspiracy grew, and it mostly stayed in conspiracy circles and sort of the far right, was this idea that the vaccine was causing this series of hard problems and very much focused on young athletic men.

So they even so they sort of took out that category and it's really focused on young athletes. So you should not give your boys the vaccines because they're the ones that are going to be most targeted by this. And that conspiracy theory basically percolated for all of 2021.

And every once in a while something would spill over and the right would capitalize on it. So, for example, when DMX died, there was a small uptick in sort of the right wing trying to exploit that and say, oh, there we go. It was because of the vaccine, it caused the heart failure.

And so that's how it happened. It was that narrative had been built for a while. And then you have this incident and immediately the right-wing fever swamp activates and then you have two factors that make it part of the reason we're talking about it today. One was that it was plucked from the fever swamps by more prominent figures like Tucker Carlson, who promoted it on air, along with some other Fox News hosts, and then also Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who validated the conspiracy theory by basically saying there's an epidemic targeting our young athletes and that he needed to launch an investigation.

So that's how it sort of grew and then how it sort of spilled over into something much more mainstream now.

CASTRO: Well, yeah, Another example of that was sports journalist Grant Wahl died after he collapsed from a heart issue last month covering the World Cup. And right after that happened, disinformation was spewed about his death as well. His wife, infectious disease expert Celine Gounder, says about this, quote, "The vaccine disinformation playbook includes the use of fake experts, logical fallacies, impossible expectations, cherry-picked data and conspiracy theories. Not a single qualified medical or public health expert has supported the claim that my husband died from COVID vaccination."

And so, Angelo, elaborate on what she's talking about on this vaccine disinformation playbook and why so many people seem to be susceptible to it.

CARUSONE: I think that's a really good point that she raises, because there's an ecosystem that is designed to validate and reinforce – sort of buttress – these conspiracy theories. So you have experts or supposed experts that spin up these nonprofit sort of sounding organizations. And then what they do is they write letters to the editor that get published, right, with mostly just opinion.

But then those letters to the editor get cited weeks or months later saying, you know, that publication claimed that this was happening. So what they do is they take misinformation. They launder it essentially through the news media, through these letters to the editor, through other opinion pieces. And then then they reference back to it months later, so it seems like it's a credible or semi-legitimate opinion.

And unless somebody is going through and doing that breadcrumb analysis, what it basically looks like similar to other debates and fights that we have around policy, say climate change or other things, is that it's like, well, it's uncertain. Let me just hold off. Let me wait.

And so that's what she's referring to, is that there has been this industry that's always existed, but it really obviously scaled during COVID that basically props up and manufacturers and launders this misinformation, but then gets referenced back to.

And it's all designed to essentially create this idea that if it can't convince people to become fully anti-vax, at best what they're trying to do is convince people that the science isn't entirely settled. You should hold off, maybe you should wait, maybe you should ask some questions. And they're really appealing to a lot of people's intuition and just general nervousness and concerns. 


That's what they're doing. They're exploiting that vulnerability.

And then you have new policies that Elon Musk puts in place at Twitter, for example – just recently, right this last week – hat says that a whole bunch of other things that were not credible that would have been banned because they were treated as disinformation, a way to sort of slow down the effects of that ecosystem.

He's going to let them back on. Those things now are going to see an increased boost because they previously weren't going to be allowed to be platformed because they were demonstrated to be disreputable and disingenuous and dangerous. Now they're going to proliferate and it's going to create and intensify that already existing cloud of confusion.

CASTRO: Absolutely. It's another powerful reminder of the need for better digital literacy and a lot of vigilance. Angelo, thank you.