Early on the morning of August 31, the right-wing digital news outlet The Daily Caller posted an article on its X (Twitter) account about the death of Larissa Borges, a 33-year-old fitness influencer who had suffered a double heart attack and passed away earlier in the week. While the article stated that law enforcement had cited a “possible ingestion of narcotic substances” by Borges, all the social media post said was that “a fitness influencer died of cardiac arrest” — and that was enough for the Caller’s audience.
Almost every one of the 26 responses to the original Caller post suggested that the cause of Borges’ death was vaccination against COVID-19. “I'll say what everyone's thinking: death by rona jab,” replied one user. “Fully jabbed and boosted,” said another. “Maybe she watches Ben Shapiro and she followed his recommendation to get the vaccine,” added a third. Another simply posted three syringe emojis.
The Caller’s Borges article is part of an apparent strategy by right-wing media outlets to garner traffic by highlighting heart ailments suffered by celebrities and young athletes. Anti-vaxxers inevitably but dubiously attribute such injuries to the rare (and usually mild) COVID-19 vaccine side effect of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. Such claims spiked after Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest and collapsed after being hit in the chest during a January 2 NFL game (Hamlin’s doctors have since said that his cardiac arrest was a result of the blunt force trauma to the heart he sustained on the field).
The Daily Caller and its right-wing competitors Breitbart.com and The Daily Wire responded to Hamlin’s collapse by ramping up production of articles which the outlets tagged “cardiac arrest,” collectively publishing at least 45 such articles this year. The Daily Caller and The Daily Wire each appear to have created their “cardiac arrest” tags early this year (no later than January 12 for the former outlet and March 13 for the latter according to the Wayback Machine, though the first Daily Wire article with that tag was published January 6). Breitbart.com, meanwhile, dramatically increased the number of articles produced for its existing “cardiac arrest” tag. The creation and use of the tag points to a deliberate effort by editors at each outlet to produce more of the content and frame it in the same way.
Medical experts say the anti-vaxxer narrative is nonsense: Cardiac arrest is actually “the leading cause of death in young athletes” because strenuous physical exertion puts them at elevated risk; there is no evidence of an increase in such incidents since the deployment of the vaccine; cardiac arrest is usually caused by arrhythmia or cardiomyopathy, not myocarditis; and infection with COVID-19 poses a “substantially higher” risk factor for myocarditis than vaccination. Moreover, statistically improbable tragedies happen all the time given a U.S. population of more than 330 million people and a global population exceeding 8 billion.
But the right-wing outlets keep calling attention to such misfortunes at a time when their audiences are primed to see those events as caused by vaccines. This year, The Daily Caller has published 26 articles tagged “cardiac arrest,” Breitbart.com has published 11, and The Daily Wire, 8. Those articles have been shared at least 209 times on Facebook, and those posts received more than 160,000 interactions on the platform, according to a Media Matters review of CrowdTangle.
Roughly half of the “cardiac arrest” articles — including all of the Daily Wire pieces — focused on three famous people whose heart attacks were targeted by anti-vaxx conspiracy theorists, namely Hamlin, singer and songwriter Lisa Marie Pressley, who passed away in January, and Bronny James, the son of NBA star Lebron James, who collapsed during a college basketball practice in July.
But Breitbart.com and the Daily Caller each expanded their coverage by also writing up the heart attacks of significantly less famous, even obscure, individuals; 7 of Breitbart.com’s 11 “cardiac arrest” pieces in 2023 and 15 of the Daily Caller’s 26 focused on other people. Collectively, such stories create the impression that these tragedies are much more common than they actually are.
Breitbart.com headlines in this genre include “21-Year-Old College Student-Athlete Dies of Cardiac Arrest During Intramural Soccer Game,” “12-Year-Old New Jersey Boy Dies Suddenly During Football Practice,” and “‘His Heart Just Stopped’: NJ Family Mourns Rookie Officer Who Died Suddenly While Exercising.”
The Caller contributed stories including “16-Year-Old Cheerleader Dies After Suffering Sudden Cardiac Arrest,” “‘Dealing With The End’: 17-Year-Old High School Football Player Reportedly Collapses On Field After 'Cardiac Event',” and “Las Vegas High School Senior Dies After Suddenly Collapsing In Bathroom Days Earlier.”
Much of right-wing media discourse since the deployment of the COVID-19 vaccines has been characterized by an unwillingness to accept these outlets' moral responsibility and use their authority to try to convince recalcitrant audience members to take the life-saving shots. Their cowardice has helped ensure that a higher rate of Republicans refused to get vaccinated and have died of the virus. But even by the low standards the right has established, farming engagement from anti-vaxxers by highlighting the tragedies of obscure minors and young people represents a new low.