Anti-vaccine ministry uses Facebook to promote dangerous COVID-19 and vaccine falsehoods to millions followers
Update (3/19/21): Following the publication of this article, Facebook removed several Daystar Television videos that pushed dangerous COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation.
A right-wing Christian ministry with a massive following has been using Facebook to promote dangerous misinformation about COVID-19 and about the vaccines that could end the pandemic if enough people receive them.
Daystar Television has repeatedly hosted notorious medical misinformers Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Del Bigtree, and Simone Gold on its flagship broadcast Ministry Now to tell viewers that COVID-19 vaccines could kill half of their recipients, to claim that vaccines would implant a tracking microchip, and to exhort people with the potentially deadly advice that the drug hydroxychloroquine, an ineffective and potentially dangerous COVID-19 treatment, is the best alternative to a COVID-19 vaccine.
Daystar Television was launched in 1997 by Marcus and Joni Lamb. The online, cable, and broadcast network features evangelical Christian programming commonly called televangelism. The material broadcast by Daystar is often in the vein of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” which sometimes posits that by making monetary donations -- which often vastly enrichen church leaders -- donors will earn God’s favor.
The IRS considers Daystar Television a church, making it a tax-exempt nonprofit for tax purposes. In 2014, NPR reported that Daystar receives an average of $35 million in donations each year. But former Daystar employees told NPR that the organization was not operating as a church and rather is a “business” that does not actually conduct marriages, funerals, baptisms or communions, have a Sunday sermon, or put on other traditional church activities.
Though Daystar Television spreads dangerous COVID-19 misinformation, it applied for and received a $3.9 million Paycheck Protection Program loan in 2020. PPP is a federal government initiative that “provides loans to help businesses keep their workforce employed during the Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis.” Marcus Lamb directed Daystar to repay the loan after questions were raised about Daystar’s purchase of a luxury private jet two weeks after the loan’s approval.
Daystar also earns revenue through deals with televangelists who, in turn, use the network’s broadcast slots to earn money for themselves. Among them are Robert Jeffress, an anti-LGBT and anti-Semitic pastor and Fox News contributor who operates a Dallas, Texas, megachurch, and Kenneth Copeland, a televangelist and owner of multiple private jets who told followers to continue to donate to him even if they lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Copeland has also falsely claimed he has the ability to heal people stricken by the disease.
According to promotional material released by Daystar Television, the network reached 104 million homes in the United States in 2013 and 600 million households in total around the world. Daystar also operates a Facebook page, where it broadcasts its dangerous misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines to more than 2.6 million followers.
Daystar’s leaders, Marcus and Joni Lamb, are supporters of former President Donald Trump and participated in Trump 2020 presidential campaign events that were promoted on the Daystar Television Facebook page. Daystar Television pushed an online petition that gave credence to Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him due to widespread voter fraud. After Joni Lamb publicly supported Trump’s false election claims, commentator Roland Martin called on Black pastors to boycott the Daystar network.
What makes Daystar’s association with Trump especially concerning is that recent polling indicates 47 percent of supporters of the former president say they will not get a vaccination against COVID-19. This reluctance could have deadly consequences: Increased COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy will slow down -- and at worst, foreclose the possibility of -- the development of herd immunity against the disease in the U.S. through vaccination rather than through natural infection, which could cause millions of unnecessary deaths.
Daystar Television often promotes falsehoods about COVID-19 vaccines and other life-saving inoculations, including devoting a special section of its website to sharing anti-vaccine nonsense. The network often enlists two of the most notorious United States anti-vaccine activists -- Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Del Bigtree -- to spread the untruths.
Though Facebook recently announced it would remove anti-vaccine misinformation from its platform, the company seems more interested in generating positive press coverage about its supposed policy change than in actually enforcing it. Kennedy continues to use Facebook to spread lies discouraging people from getting the COVID-19 vaccines. After Facebook deleted a page associated with Del Bigtree in 2020 for pushing dangerous medical misinformation about COVID-19, he simply switched to posting similar information on another Facebook page he operates.
Daystar Television largely uses its massively followed Facebook page to promote its flagship program Ministry Now, which is hosted by Joni and Marcus Lamb. The show features uplifting music and testimonials mixed with conservative media fare and anti-vaccine falsehoods. (For example, Daystar Television broadcasts gushed over the confirmation of right-wing Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett and urged people to vote for Trump in the 2020 election.)
Programming posted to the Daystar Television Facebook page has also promoted a claim associated with the QAnon conspiracy theory. A December 2020 episode of Ministry Now featured QAnon-originated claims that a cabal of global elites is ritualistically sacrificing children in order to harvest a secretion from their pituitary glands.
As documented below, other Daystar Television programming shared on Facebook -- often with the assistance of Kennedy and Bigtree -- contains myriad anti-vaccine claims. In recent months, the anti-vaccine Daystar messaging has focused on falsehoods about shots to prevent COVID-19, which need to be widely taken to end the pandemic:
Daystar Television hosted notorious anti-vaccine activist Del Bigtree to falsely claim COVID-19 vaccines would contain tracking microchips
Prior to the release of COVID-19 vaccines, which passed safety trials and have now been safely administered to millions of people, Daystar Television ran a promotional video on its Facebook page in May 2020 in which Kennedy and notorious anti-vaccine activist Del Bigtree baselessly speculated that the vaccines would be unsafe. (Update: This video has been removed from Facebook.) Bigtree also claimed that the development of COVID-19 vaccines would allow pharmaceutical companies to “take over the governments of the world.” He also pushed the conspiracy theory that COVID-19 vaccines would contain tracking microchips.
Bigtree’s microchip conspiracy theory also appeared in a separate May 2020 clip posted by Daystar Television. (Update: This video has been removed from Facebook.)
Daystar Television hosted Del Bigtree for an extended appearance and he told a litany of vaccine lies, including that COVID-19 vaccines contain fetal tissue
On October 27, 2020, Bigtree appeared on Ministry Now, which is Daystar Television’s flagship program, regularly hosted by Daystar founders Marcus and Joni Lamb and sometimes guest-hosted by their daughter and son-in-law. Bigtree made a number of false statements about vaccines including:
- Falsely linking vaccines to autism in children.
- Falsely claiming COVID-19 vaccines contain fetal tissue and human DNA; they do not, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has urged people to get the vaccines.
- Falsely claiming aluminum salts and other adjuvants in some vaccines are dangerous.
(Update: This video has been removed from Facebook.)
Daystar Television aired the notorious “America’s Frontline Doctors” press conference, which featured dangerous medical misinformation, and Marcus Lamb instructed viewers how to buy hydroxychloroquine online
On July 27, 2020, a group calling itself “America’s Frontline Doctors” delivered a press conference in Washington, D.C., in which its members pushed dangerous medical misinformation about COVID-19, including the false claim that the disease can be cured by anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine. A video of the press conference published by the far-right Breitbart News went viral on Facebook and other major social media platforms, leading those platforms to adopt a policy of removing the video.
Facebook’s enforcement, however, was spotty, as evidenced by the July 30 broadcast of Ministry Now. (Update: This video has been removed from Facebook.) The program played much of the press conference in a series of clips, with Joni Lamb saying Daystar Television was airing it because it had been removed from Facebook and other social media platforms. Marcus Lamb added that the removal of the video from social media platforms was like “going back to the days of Hitler” and said that Gold told him “lives will be saved” by airing the press conference.
After playing the final clip of the press conference, Marcus Lamb offered advice to viewers on how to purchase hydroxychloroquine online. He went on to blame “liberals” who want a “New World Order” for the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated consequences. Lamb also offered his tips for sharing the “America’s Frontline Doctors” video on social media platforms and evading removal efforts, such as labeling it “Doctors discussing proven treatments” for COVID-19.
Daystar Television hosted accused U.S. Capitol insurrectionist Simone Gold to push dangerous medical misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines
Simone Gold, a member of “America’s Frontline Doctors” was arrested on January 30 and charged with allegedly participating in the failed pro-Trump insurrection that took place January 6 at the U.S. Capitol.
On February 18, Ministry Now aired a speech Gold gave to a Daystar Television studio audience. (Update: This video has been removed from Facebook.) Promotional footage shown prior to Gold’s speech depicted her in a medical coat with black tape over her mouth and her hands cuffed behind her back.
During her appearance, Gold pushed numerous false claims about COVID-19 and vaccines while promoting risky behavior, including:
- Falsely claiming hydroxychloroquine is an effective treatment for COVID-19.
- Promoting not wearing a mask in defiance of public health orders in order to “push up against tyranny” and to make you “stronger.”
- Falsely claiming it is impossible to create a safe coronavirus vaccine.
- Falsely claiming there is a legitimate reason to think COVID-19 vaccines could cause fertility issues.
- Falsely claiming there is no evidence COVID-19 vaccines stop transmission of the disease. Gold said, “It’s like the punchline to a joke. Let’s take a vaccine, and by the way, it doesn’t actually stop transmission.” In fact, the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines do stop transmission to a highly significant degree, and it appears the Johnson & Johnson vaccine does as well, though research to confirm that is still underway.
- In a bizarre moment, Gold laughed while saying of COVID-19, “You certainly can’t say that this affects Black people worse.” More than 50,000 Black Americans have died from COVID-19, 1.7 times the rate of white Americans, as a consequence of systematic racism in the health care system and other aspects of American society.
Gold also suggested without evidence that COVID-19 vaccines could cause a mass calamity event, killing 30 million of 100 million vaccinated people, with the event worsened by the fact that frontline workers were the first to be vaccinated. She went on to say that her America’s Frontline Doctors organization has issued a recommendation against the vaccine for most people and instead touted hydroxychloroquine as a better alternative. Following Gold’s speech, Joni Lamb pushed the conspiracy theory that anti-Trump provocateurs were responsible for the deadly January 6 insurrection in an attempt to explain away Gold’s pending criminal case.
Daystar Television promoted a potentially deadly drug as a COVID-19 preventative
During the February 3, 2021, broadcast of Ministry Now, Daystar Television touted anti-parasite drug ivermectin as a treatment and preventative for COVID-19. (Update: This video has been removed from Facebook.) According to a warning issued by the Food and Drug Administration because people are using ivermectin as a COVID-19 preventative, unauthorized use of the medication “can cause serious harm,” including “seizures, coma and even death.” The agency has “received multiple reports of patients who have required medical support and been hospitalized after self-medicating with ivermectin intended for horses.”
There are numerous dangers connected to the promotion of unapproved COVID-19 treatments. False claims about effectiveness may give people a false sense of security, leading them to engage in behavior that makes it more likely they will acquire and potentially die from the disease. As is the case with ivermectin, misuse of unapproved medications can have serious medical consequences. And even if the user of an unapproved treatment suffers no ill effects from the medications, their reliance on an unapproved and unproven treatment may mean they do not seek out legitimate treatment protocols that could help them.
Marcus Lamb said during the broadcast that he is taking ivermectin and connected that to the fact he says he has not had COVID-19. Joni Lamb added that ivermectin is supposedly an “effective” COVID-19 treatment. Ministry Now’s guest on February 3 was ivermectin proponent Dr. Pierre Kory, and the show played a clip of Kory claiming the drug is “miraculous” in its effect on COVID-19 patients. Kory claimed during his interview that ivermectin is “one of the safest drugs known to man” while encouraging people to ask their doctors to prescribe the drug to them. Marcus Lamb added, “What’s so cool about this drug, it’s low-cost, 4 billion times it’s been administered, but it also will work as a -- the healing part. So even if you get COVID, and you haven’t had ivermectin, you can take it and get well from it.”
Previewing Kory’s upcoming appearance on Ministry Now on February 2, Marcus Lamb called ivermectin a “cure” for COVID-19. (Update: This video has been removed from Facebook.)
Daystar Television hosted a trio of anti-vaxxers, including one who suggested COVID-19 vaccines will kill half the people who receive them
The December 15 broadcast of Ministry Now featured three of the most prominent individuals spreading dangerous misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines: Del Bigtree, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and Simone Gold. During the broadcast:
- Bigtree baselessly suggested COVID-19 vaccines may kill half of the people who receive them.
- Kennedy falsely claimed mRNA vaccines alter “the function of your genes” and that COVID-19 can be cured by hydroxychloroquine.
- Gold pushed the baseless claim that COVID-19 vaccines can cause infertility.
- Marcus Lamb also suggested receiving a COVID-19 vaccine poses a significant risk of death.
Daystar Television put anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on the cover of its newsletter
The October 2020 edition of Daystar Television’s newsletter Daystar News featured anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on its cover. The television network’s Facebook page promoted the edition by claiming Kennedy offers “reliable information” about vaccines.
Daystar Television cited anti-vaxxer to claim there are “dangerous consequences of wearing a mask”
In August 2020, Daystar Television promoted the anti-mask advocacy of Del Bigtree, claiming that there are “dangerous consequences of wearing a mask.” (Update: This video has been removed from Facebook.) The YouTube video Daystar Television linked to has been removed for “violating YouTube’s Terms of Service.”
Daystar Television ran an anti-vaccine promotional video featuring Robert F. Kennedy falsely claiming the HPV vaccine actually causes cervical cancer
On June 7, 2020, Daystar Television ran a promotional video on its Facebook page featuring anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist Robert F. Kennedy. (Update: This video has been removed from Facebook.) Kennedy falsely linked the vaccine Gardasil to cervical cancer, autoimmune diseases, and suicide among recipients. In fact, Gardasil helps prevent the occurrence of several different types of cancers that are connected to the human papillomavirus.