President Joe Biden’s recent announcement of new vaccine and testing requirements for federal workers and large businesses spurred outrage from right-leaning media, with conservative figures and outlets raising false alarm that the president’s latest actions to fight the pandemic are tyrannical and unconstitutional.
Biden announced new federal vaccine requirements on September 9, mandating vaccines for federal government employees and contractors and also requiring that companies with more than 100 employees ensure their workers are either vaccinated or tested for COVID-19 once a week. The U.S. government’s use of vaccine mandates goes back to 1777 and has been repeatedly upheld by the Supreme Court and federal courts over many decades of American history.
Right-wing media covering Biden’s announcement questioned the legitimacy of the new mandates and often suggested, among other claims, that the requirements would lead to a catastrophic future of government tyranny.
- The September 10 edition of Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle covered the announcement with a chyron that warned of “Biden’s constitutionally-questionable vax mandates.” Ingraham’s guest Mississippi Republican Gov. Tate Reeves compared the vaccine mandate to something we’d expect from “communist China or North Korea.”
- The same day, Fox News’ website published a piece titled “Republicans in Congress, Statehouses decry Biden vaccine mandate.” The article featured multiple quotes from Republican Party figures attacking the new announcement, including repeated false claims that Biden’s action is “unconstitutional.”
- On September 13, Fox & Friends Weekend co-host Rachel Campos-Duffy asserted that vaccine mandates are the “beginning of the communist-style social credit system,” adding, “This is the beginning of that system where if you're a dissident, if you don't agree with the party in power, you will be punished.”
- RedState published an article titled “Joe Biden Threatens the Unvaccinated and Announces His Unconstitutional Vaccine Mandate in Disturbing, Dictatorial Speech,” which claimed, “The president [is] trashing the unvaccinated in a way that sounds like he’s trying to foment a civil war.” The article contained tweets from right-wing media personalities that framed the act as divisive, including a tweet from NewsBusters' Curtis Houck praising a clip of Fox News host Greg Gutfeld asserting that Biden had “showed more anger” toward the 80 million Americans who remain unvaccinated “than the orderly and kind Taliban.”
- Multiple right-wing media outlets repeated a story, first reported by a Washington Post reporter, misleadingly claiming that members of the U.S. Postal Service union would be exempt from the mandate. (In reality, those workers will still be covered by orders from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.) A Fox article corrected the misinformation, but the claim also appeared on Laura Ingraham’s prime-time show without correction.
- The Daily Caller published an article quoting Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, who said, “President Biden is now taking federal overreach to unheard of levels by dictating vaccine mandates,” and called the president’s actions “outrageous.”
- The Daily Wire has published an assortment of headlines that misleadingly frame the vaccine mandate as an example of government overreach, including: “Daily Wire Co-CEO On Vax Mandate: ‘We’re Prepared’ To End Biden’s ‘Unconstitutional Bullsh*t’” and “Crenshaw Hammers Biden Over Vaccine Threat: ‘Are You People Trying To Start A Full On Revolt?’”
- Fox News posted an article trying to spark fear that the federal government could now somehow take Americans’ firearms, an idea Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) recently linked to door-to-door vaccination efforts.
Right-wing figures also took to social media to post about Biden’s announcements of vaccine mandates, and many encouraged some form of resistance.
- The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro decried the new mandates as an example of government “authoritarianism”:
- Right-wing YouTuber Tim Pool simultaneously mocked comments about abortion access from Vice President Kamala Harris and criticized vaccine requirements.
- Right-wing podcaster Candace Owens suggested federal workers respond to the mandate with mass resistance and denounced the president as “Dictator Biden”:
- Former Trump White House adviser, frequent Fox News guest, and white nationalist Stephen Miller tweeted, “Like all failed leaders, Biden is resorting to brute government force."
- Russian state-controlled global news network RT also tweeted remarks from a Glasgow professor that vaccine mandates were part of “clear and intended pressure to make young people, in particular, be administered the vaccine against their will,” and linked to an article about the “illiberal actions of Western nations over Covid.”
- Chinese state-affiliated outlet The Global Times posted an opinion that the vaccine mandate won’t work in the U.S. and that it would “aggravate social division.”
- Trending hashtags like “#DoNotComply,” “#DictatorBiden,” and “#Unvaccinated” followed the fiery commentary on Twitter.
- Some Facebook groups and pages that publish vaccine mis- and disinformation also spread criticism of Biden’s announcement. A group called “Freedom of Choice - employees” was apparently formed on September 9 in response to the vaccination requirements. It was quickly shared in a “health freedom” group with over 42,000 members.
Influencers on far-right platforms like Gab and Patriots.win took even more extreme stances. Adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory, in particular, used terms like “terrorist” to describe Biden and called on anyone available to “organize rallies on the busiest freeway overpasses. Have the banners hang over the freeways for all passing traffic to see,” as part of a planned protest with the hashtag “#TheGreatAmericanWalkOut.”
QAnon influencers on Telegram shared a flyer for the event that called on followers to “stand against forced vaccinations.” The flyer originated from the channel belonging to Ron Watkins, the former administrator of 8kun and another election conspiracy theorist.
Andrew Torba, the CEO of Gab, told his followers to “call their bluff” and to “make them kick millions of us out of college.” He also suggested people refuse to pay fines for noncompliance, adding, “Flood the zone with lawsuits.”
Perhaps the most worrisome type of anti-mandate messaging occurred on Patriots.win, formerly associated with the banned pro-Trump subreddit “The_Donald,” where a user claimed the vaccine mandate announcement meant that “Biden declares WAR on the unvaccinated.” Another user responded, “WE HAVE A SECOND AMENDMENT FOR THIS EXACT REASON. USE IT.”
Mainstream media have adopted some of this misleading framing from right-wing outlets, illustrating how a false balance can expose the public to exponentially more misinformation. Even if someone doesn’t believe the false claims, they might still be affected.
- CNN’s At This Hour with Kate Bolduan on September 10 spoke with the network’s disgraced chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, who raised questions about the legality and procedure behind Biden’s mandate. Toobin stated, “It is a simple question of presidential authority. Does the president have the right under the Constitution and under the laws of the Labor Department and OSHA, does he have the authority to impose this requirement? That is an unsettled question. That is -- this has never come up before. I mean, it is certainly true that vaccine requirements are legal in many circumstances.”
- An article on NBC News’ website framed this story in part as an assault on Republicans, with the headline “Biden vaccination mandates are an attack on both Covid and the GOP.”