Update (7/30/20): Following Media Matters reporting on Del Bigtree using Facebook and YouTube to spread dangerous medical misinformation, YouTube terminated his account for violating the platform’s policies. His account on Facebook, where he shares the same misinformation, remains active.
Update (7/24/20): Three of Del Bigtree’s videos have been removed from Facebook -- including a video where he encouraged people to intentionally contract COVID-19, a video where his guests advised people who think they have COVID-19 to take vitamin C until they have diarrhea, and a video where he falsely claimed wearing a mask lowers your blood-oxygen levels. Separate videos where Bigtree encourages people to intentionally contract COVID-19 and attacks mask-wearing with the same medical falsehoods are still available on Facebook.
Facebook and YouTube have given prominent anti-vaccine figure Del Bigtree near-impunity to spread dangerous medical misinformation about the novel coronavirus and the development of a vaccine for the COVID-19 disease on their platforms.
During broadcasts of his online show The HighWire, which are available for live streaming and playback at Facebook and YouTube, Bigtree has:
- falsely characterized COVID-19 as a common cold and labeled it “one of the most mild illnesses there is” ;
- repeatedly falsely claimed wearing a mask poses a serious health hazard;
- repeatedly suggested that people intentionally expose themselves to the coronavirus in order to build herd immunity;
- hosted guests who advised viewers who think they have the coronavirus to take vitamin C until they have diarrhea and then to take more vitamin C; and
- declared the coronavirus outbreak is over on March 27 and encouraged people to go outside to celebrate (more than 140,000 Americans have died of the disease since that date).
Viewers who listen to Bigtree's advice could easily contract COVID-19 and suffer serious medical consequences, including death.
Bigtree is a conspiracy theorist who has alleged the coronavirus outbreak may have started because of a vaccine development accident and that the U.S. coronavirus death toll is artificially inflated. He has made numerous unfounded attacks to warn people off a forthcoming coronavirus vaccine, including telling Black Americans that getting the vaccine would be like forced participation in the infamous Tuskegee study. He has also attempted to convince people not to get flu shots, falsely claiming the shots contain the coronavirus and that people who have received flu shots are more susceptible to developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.
Bigtree, who has no medical credentials, is a leading figure in the anti-vaccination movement through his anti-vaccine non-profit organization Informed Consent Action Network and as the host of The HighWire. A 2019 profile of Bigtree in online magazine Fatherly labeled him “dangerous” and said he “may be the most connected node in the anti-vaccine activist network.” According to the piece, “With his crown of barely tamed grey curls, bright blue eyes and California tan, the 49-year-old Bigtree is the perfect spokesperson” for the anti-vaccine movement.
Bigtree made national headlines in 2019 when he interfered with efforts to contain a measles outbreak in a predominantly Orthodox Jewish community. As the outbreak was ongoing, Bigtree led rallies in heavily impacted areas where he encouraged people to resist calls for vaccination and spread anti-vaccine misinformation, including the false claim vaccines cause autism in children. The Washington Post identified Bigtree as one of the best-funded leaders in the anti-vaccine movement and reported on his claim outside of a Brooklyn anti-vaccination rally that “they should be allowed to have the measles if they want the measles. It’s crazy that there’s this level of intensity around a trivial childhood illness.” Bigtree also received attention -- and condemnation -- in 2019 for placing a yellow Star of David badge on his coat during an anti-vaccine speech, referencing Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews.
Bigtree has now turned his attention to the novel coronavirus outbreak, and he is deploying similar tactics -- primarily through The HighWire program he hosts -- which aim to downplay the seriousness of the disease to support his argument against the development of a vaccine. Medical experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, have warned that widespread rejection of the coronavirus vaccine could destroy efforts to get the disease under control in the U.S. and that attitudes toward a potential vaccine are already souring. This warning comes as anti-vaccine misinformation runs rampant on social media platforms, including on Facebook where anti-vaccination figures reportedly have a following of more than 58 million people.
Bigtree’s YouTube channel for The HighWire, which was created in 2017, has grown from around 60,000 subscribers at the beginning of 2020 to more than 200,000 subscribers, according to social media analytics website Social Blade. The channel has more than 15.1 million views, and Social Blade indicates view counts have spiked in recent months. The HighWire has nearly 320,000 followers on Facebook, where full programs and clips are also available for viewing. The HighWire also maintains an account on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, with 155,000 followers.
While Facebook and YouTube theoretically have policies to remove dangerous misinformation about the coronavirus from their platforms, the spotty enforcement of those rules is highlighted by how Bigtree has been able to use both platforms to spread potentially deadly medical misinformation with little impediment.
Below is a summary of Bigtree’s claims about the novel coronavirus and vaccine development in recent months. YouTube and Facebook have only taken minimal action regarding these videos. Two of the more than dozen videos discussed below have been flagged by Facebook’s fact-checking program to include a disclaimer that they include false information. YouTube sometimes affixes a header to Bigtree’s videos with a link to U.S. Centers for Disease Control information about COVID-19.
Timeline of Bigtree's coronavirus and vaccine misinformation
January 30: Bigtree baselessly floated a theory that the coronavirus outbreak started with a vaccine development accident at a lab. He also suggested it is a bio-weapon.
During the January 30 broadcast of The HighWire, Bigtree baselessly speculated about the origin of the novel coronavirus, variously suggesting “there’s a vaccine that was created that they were testing and somehow maybe the virus came back to life, or it didn’t work the way we thought, or there is a bio-weapon that has been released on people for some reason we don’t know.” Bigtree said of his theory that the disease was spread through a mishap during vaccine development, “I could argue that vaccines actually in this situation just killed people, that the development of vaccines is actually a dangerous process that is putting the world at risk.” Bigtree went on to argue specifically against the development of a vaccine for COVID-19, dumping a bag of rice on his desk and saying that the coronavirus represented just a single grain in the universe of diseases, so therefore it would be supposedly pointless to pursue a vaccine. Bigtree claimed his demonstration “proves the CDC and our scientific medical establishment are a bunch of morons.” Facebook applied a “false information” disclaimer to the video to note that there is “no evidence indicating it is a man-made virus.” The broadcast video has more than 34,000 views on YouTube and more than 113,000 views on Facebook.
February 27: Bigtree baselessly suggested that severe coronavirus cases are caused if people have received a SARS vaccine and that vaccines can be weapons used to target people on the basis of race, religion, or sexual orientation.
During the February 27 broadcast of The HighWire, Bigtree suggested at length that severe cases of the coronavirus observed in China, including cases involving cytokine storms, were the result of the patient previously receiving a vaccination. Bigtree speculated without evidence that everyone in China may have received a vaccination for SARS, which instead of immunizing people, made them “deadly ill” when exposed to the novel coronavirus. (A SARS vaccine does not exist.) Bigtree claimed that if this scenario was true, the CDC and the World Health Organization would cover it up. Bigtree also claimed “we now know that a vaccine could be used as a weapon somehow, … which makes one wonder why would you ever give any government agency in the world power to inject you with products that could be used as weapons against perhaps your race, against perhaps your sexual preference, or against perhaps your religion.” The broadcast has more than 138,000 views on YouTube and more than 155,000 views on Facebook.
March 5: Bigtree falsely characterized the novel coronavirus as a “common cold” and suggested it could be cured with vitamin C.
Bigtree falsely claimed that COVID-19 “is the common cold” and therefore no vaccine or cure could be made for it during the March 5 edition of The HighWire. Bigtree then hyped the prospect of a coronavirus vaccine causing 90% of people who receive it “get even sicker.” He then contradicted himself, suggesting that vitamin C could have been used to stop the coronavirus outbreak in its initial stages. Bigtree said, “How many cases would we have if all the people that were infected had been given high doses of vitamin C. We don’t know what that stat is. And I doubt you’ll hear it because they never talk about it.” Then, while framing the coronavirus vaccine development as a cash grab, he added, “Can you imagine if vitamin C just cured this thing? Do you know how cheap that would be?” (Vitamin C does not cure COVID-19.) Facebook applied a fact check to the video to say that it contains “false information” but the disclaimer does not seem to specify the information or appear for all users. The broadcast has more than 86,000 views on YouTube and more than 114,000 views on Facebook.
March 12: Bigtree pushed a Bill Gates vaccine depopulation conspiracy theory.
Bigtree floated the conspiracy theory that former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates is involved in vaccination efforts as part of a global depopulation plot during the March 12 broadcast of The HighWire. Bigtree again pushed the evidence-free claim that past vaccinations make people more likely to have severe cases of COVID-19 and discouraged viewers from getting the flu shot, saying it “may be the worst mistake you can make.” The broadcast has more than 93,000 views on YouTube and more than 166,000 views on Facebook.
March 27: Bigtree declared the coronavirus outbreak over and said “people should be charging out in the streets.”
Bigtree declared the “breaking news” that the coronavirus pandemic is over in a video he posted on March 27, saying, “Should we all be jumping up and down? I feel like people should be charging out in the streets and screaming ‘Hooray, it’s over, it’s over.’ This thing really was either a hoax or a fraud or one of the biggest mistakes the medical establishment has ever made.” The basis of Bigtree’s claim was a misleading characterization of a coronavirus death toll model that was revised on March 26 as some countries implemented measures to stop the spread of the disease. More than 140,000 Americans have lost their lives to COVID-19 since Bigtree made the declaration that the outbreak was “over.” The video has more than 207,000 views on YouTube and more than 215,000 views on Facebook.
April 6: After the death toll soared, Bigtree pivoted to questioning the coronavirus death reports.
With the coronavirus outbreak still continuing, Bigtree pivoted in an April 6 video posted on YouTube and Facebook under the title “COVID Death Toll In Question?” Bigtree falsely suggested that the spike in cases and deaths seen in late March was because of a “backlog” of deaths that had not been coded and other data collection changes. Novel coronavirus deaths are actually being undercounted, as shown by the amount of total excess death that is occurring in the U.S. The video has more than 56,000 views on YouTube and more than 61,000 views on Facebook.
April 17: Bigtree hosted holistic medicine practitioners who told viewers suspecting they have the coronavirus to take vitamin C until they have diarrhea.
Bigtree hosted two practitioners of holistic medicine on his show who claimed that they had been having great success treating coronavirus patients with vitamins, iodine, and hydrogen peroxide. Dr. David Brownstein described his practice’s treatment as “almost miraculous” and claimed it worked to treat even severe cases. On May 13, the Federal Trade Commission sent Brownstein a warning letter that told him to stop violating the law by advertising sham coronavirus cures on the holistic practice’s website. During The HighWire appearance on April 17, Bigtree asked Dr. Richard Ng and Brownstein about “proper” vitamin dosing for viewers who think they might have the coronavirus. Ng suggested taking “vitamin C every 30 to 60 minutes till bowel tolerance,” which he explained meant “take it until you get diarrhea.” When Bigtree asked if getting diarrhea meant you should be “done for the day” with vitamin C, and Ng said, “No. … If you start feeling lousy, this is a sign that your vitamin C levels are dropping; step it up again.” The broadcast has more than 79,000 views on YouTube and more than 142,000 views on Facebook.
April 23: While hosting a physician who is now under investigation by the Minnesota state medical board, Bigtree suggested healthy people should intentionally expose themselves to the coronavirus.
While hosting Minnesota Republican State Sen. Scott Jensen, Bigtree promoted the notion that lockdowns should be ended so that healthy people can expose each other to the novel coronavirus to develop herd immunity. Bigtree said, “What you're saying is, you know, we got to develop antibodies ourselves. … Let’s continue this journey. Let’s take care of those that are at risk, right, this very small percentage that clearly are having an acute issue. Let’s make sure that they’re protected while the rest of us go back to work. Most of us [are] not going to have symptoms -- for others, very mild. And this idea of leaning on a vaccine somewhere in the future, we have seen problems with that before. It looks like we have a way out of this. The numbers are going to stay low.” Jensen, who is a physician, is reportedly under investigation by Minnesota’s state medical board for giving “reckless advice” about the novel coronavirus during media appearances. The April 23 broadcast of The HighWire has more than 94,000 views on YouTube and more than 201,000 views on Facebook.
May 4: Bigtree pushed the coronavirus vaccine microchip conspiracy theory and suggesting hugging and kissing may be made illegal.
Bigtree promoted several coronavirus-related conspiracy theories including the false claim the coronavirus vaccines will include a “microchip” for population tracking and that “hugging might be illegal, kissing might be illegal, your cell phones will help us know if that took place.” The video, which is titled “When Conspiracy Becomes Reality,” has more than 82,000 views on YouTube and more than 93,000 views on Facebook.
May 15: Bigtree promoted the false claim that face masks pose a health danger to wearers.
In a May 15 video posted to YouTube and Facebook, Bigtree promoted the false claim that wearing a face mask “poses serious risks to the healthy” by inducing low blood-oxygen levels and the false claim that face masks do not provide any benefit against the spread of the coronavirus. On July 8, YouTube removed a video Bigtree published on July 3 -- in which he claimed wearing a mask creates “a toxic environment” -- for violating community guidelines. Other videos in which Bigtree attacks mask-wearing remain on YouTube. The May 15 video has more than 142,000 views on YouTube and more than 144,000 views on Facebook.
May 19: Bigtree pushed the false claim that the flu shot contains the coronavirus.
Bigtree promoted the false claim that the flu shot contains the coronavirus in a video titled “Is Coronavirus In Your Flu Shot?” That claim was first popularized by discredited researcher Judy Mikovits in a conspiracy theory film called Plandemic that went viral in early May. Bigtree’s video has more than 31,000 views on YouTube and more than 27,000 views on Facebook.
May 22: Bigtree continued to attack mask wearing while repeating medical falsehoods.
Bigtree claimed that “masks are a joke” and repeated the false claim that wearing a mask lowers your blood oxygen level. The May 22 video has more than 37,000 views on YouTube and more than 62,000 views on Facebook.
June 19: Bigtree encouraged people to take off their masks and intentionally get infected with COVID-19.
In a video titled “We Need To Catch That Cold!,” Bigtree said that healthy people “may want to think about taking that mask off” in order to intentionally contract the novel coronavirus, which he called “just a common cold.” Bigtree said, “Let me be perfectly clear, this is not even a flu for 99.74% of us,” and he claimed that the novel coronavirus is “one of the most mild illnesses there is.” Bigtree said, “So here’s what we do. Let’s go outside, let’s take off our masks. We’re not on drugs and we don’t need to be on drugs. Let’s catch this cold. … Let’s give it a college try to catch this cold so that we can protect the pharmaceutical dependent amongst us. … They need us to establish herd immunity.” The video has more than 19,000 views on YouTube and more than 93,000 views on Facebook.
June 21: Bigtree told Black Americans that receiving a coronavirus vaccine might be the second coming of the Tuskegee experiment.
Speaking about the coronavirus vaccine development on June 21, Bigtree said, “For those of you that are African American, I would say, I would maybe tell you to go and look at the Tuskegee experiment and ask yourself are they lining up for another Tuskegee using African American citizens?” Bigtree was referencing the U.S. government experiment that it conducted on Black men for 40 years without obtaining proper consent or providing the men with treatment for their medical issues. The video has more than 34,000 views on YouTube and more than 86,000 views on Facebook.