Media Matters / Andrea Austria

Research/Study Research/Study

Facebook remains a source for anti-vaccine conspiracy theories

Media Matters identified 79 active anti-vaccine Facebook groups dedicated to claims of “sudden death” or “vaccine injury,” which have nearly 340,000 members collectively

Meta is allowing conspiracy theories and misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine to proliferate across Facebook groups, despite the platform’s policies banning such content. Media Matters identified 79 active anti-vaccine Facebook groups — with nearly 340,000 total members — that are seemingly dedicated to claims of “sudden death” or “vaccine injury.” What’s more, right-wing Facebook pages earned nearly 1.3 million total interactions on posts about supposed vaccine-related injury or “sudden death” between November 1, 2022, and March 1, 2023.

  • In recent months, social media platforms have helped "supercharge" the spread of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, including Facebook allowing users to organize in groups dedicated to baseless claims of “sudden death” or “injury” from vaccines — particularly COVID-19 vaccines. On Twitter, anti-vaccine content has increased under its new CEO Elon Musk, “with the average volume of hourly ‘died suddenly’ tweets at least doubling since the start of December last year.”

    Facebook's parent company Meta has clear policies against vaccine misinformation on its platforms, but across Facebook groups, users have promoted the pernicious myth that COVID-19 vaccines are causing “a surge in sudden deaths and injuries,” particularly among athletes and young people. (As numerous medical experts and public health professionals have repeatedly explained, COVID-19 vaccines are not causing a surge of sudden deaths.)

    Right-wing news and politics Facebook pages are also helping spread the false anti-vaccine conspiracy theories related to “sudden death” and “vaccine injury.” Right-leaning news and politics pages earned nearly 1.3 million total interactions on 1,300 posts that contained those terms and were posted between November 1, 2022, and March 1, 2023.

    Facebook has historically struggled to address the way people use groups and other features on the platform to spread and organize around dangerous misinformation, and Media Matters has previously reported on Facebook's failures with COVID-19 misinformation and with anti-vaccine groups specifically.

  • Media Matters identified 79 active anti-vaccine Facebook groups dedicated to claims of “sudden death” or “vaccine injury,” which have nearly 340,000 combined members

  • Media Matters previously identified 117 anti-vaccine Facebook groups that were active on the platform in April 2021, demonstrating the platforms’ inadequate enforcement against them over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic. While Facebook has now removed a number of these groups, some have remained active and even grown since then, while many new ones have formed. At the time of publication, there are 79 active anti-vaccine groups that are specifically dedicated to claims of “sudden death” or “vaccine injury.” These groups have nearly 340,000 members collectively.

    Users in these groups frequently use code words or manipulated spelling in an effort to avoid detection and moderation of their posts – a longstanding tactic that Facebook has struggled to address. Facebook users in these groups often refer to vaccines as “pokes,” “jabs,” “v@ccines,” “cupcakes,” “cookies,” or “cake.” Users also refer to getting vaccinated as “getting waxed,” “going to the buffet," “going to the parade,” or “drinking the juice.” 

  • anti-vax codewords in fb groups
  • A private Facebook group named “MTHFR Connections: Tongue Ties, Autism, V@xynes, Leaky Gut” had 27,700 members at the time of our last reporting, and now has roughly 29,700 members. The group remains dedicated to pushing the baseless claim that the MTHFR gene causes a harmful reaction to the vaccine, preventing carriers from being able to “detox the toxins from the vaccines.” Users in the group continue to share recommendations for unproven treatments to “detox” from vaccines, which medical experts have explained is both unnecessary and impossible.

  • MTHFR Collage
  • A private Facebook group named Died Suddenly Worldwide was created on August 31, 2022, and currently has over 68,000 members, and another named Injured & Died Suddenly News was created on October 25, 2022, and has over 8,000 members. Both of these groups are replete with posts from users who are convinced that their loved ones and neighbors have died because they received a COVID-19 vaccine, or that the health problems they are experiencing may have been caused by the COVID-19 vaccine.

  • Died Suddenly FB Groups Collage 1
  • Died Suddenly FB Groups Collage 2
  • Users in anti-vaccine and right-leaning Facebook groups spread various false and dangerous claims about COVID-19 vaccines

  • Users in anti-vaccine and other right-wing Facebook groups have shared numerous posts attributing the deaths of young people to COVID-19 vaccines, expressing confusion or alleging wider conspiracy theories, such as claiming that the COVID-19 vaccines are part of an effort by billionaire Bill Gates to “depopulate the world” or that the media is covering up the supposed “staggering daily body count” from the vaccine. Some posts claim that these young people experienced cardiac arrest, while others emphasize that these victims were previously healthy and physically fit

  • Anti-vax Facebook Groups Post young people embed
  • Users are also sharing posts emphasizing that celebrities who recently died have also received the COVID-19 vaccine, often implying causation. After musician Lisa Marie Presley died from a cardiac arrest in January, many users in these Facebook groups claimed that her death further proved that people are dying suddenly from COVID-19 vaccines. (Although a coroner initially deferred releasing an official cause of death last month until toxicology reports were completed, it has been widely reported that Presley’s family had a history of heart disease.)

  • Anti-vax Facebook Groups Post Lisa Marie Presley embed
  • Across Facebook groups, users are also sharing anti-vaccine videos from the right-wing video-sharing platform Rumble, including a video of Died Suddenly — a film released by conspiracy theorist Stew Peters in November 2022 that currently has over 17.7 million views.

  • Anti-vax Facebook Groups Post Rumble embed
  • Users also accuse Democrats of lying to the American people and “hiding the truth” about vaccine safety, falsely attributing a range of illnesses to the vaccines, referring to them as a “bioweapon,” and citing unfounded statistics about the number of people supposedly dying from COVID-19 vaccines. One user baselessly claimed that “Europe has recorded a 552% increase in children who have ‘died suddenly’” and another user shared an article from the far-right conspiracy theory outlet American Media Group with the headline, “Study Finds Number of Athletes Who Have ‘Died Suddenly’ Has Increased by 1700% Since COVID Vaccination Began. Full List of Athlete Deaths.” 

  • Networks of right-wing Facebook pages are also helping spread fear around COVID-19 vaccines

  • Facebook pages that post about U.S. news and politics shared at least 1,985 posts between November 1, 2022, and March 1, 2023, using “sudden death” language, and earning nearly 1.8 million total interactions on the posts. Right-leaning pages accounted for the majority of the posts with “sudden death” language from all news and politics pages, posting 1,300 of them, or nearly 65%, and earning nearly 1.3 million total interactions, or roughly 72% of total interactions earned on related posts. In fact, 9 of the 10 such posts with the most interactions were from right-wing pages.

    Right-wing outlet The Western Journal operates a network of Facebook pages that shared at least 359 posts using “sudden death” language during the time studied, earning over 77,000 total interactions. Many of these posts link to articles from the outlet, some of which allude to a trend of people dying suddenly in connection with the COVID-19 vaccines.

  • Western Journal Antivax Embed
  • Right-wing outlet TheBlaze also operates a network of Facebook pages that shared at least 163 posts with “sudden death” language during the same time frame, earning over 341,000 total interactions.

  • TheBlaze antivax collage
  • Methodology

  • Using CrowdTangle, Media Matters compiled a list of 1,773 Facebook pages that frequently posted about U.S. politics from January 1 to August 25, 2020.

    For an explanation of how we compiled pages and identified them as right-leaning, left-leaning, or ideologically nonaligned, see the methodology here.

    The resulting list consisted of 771 right-leaning pages, 497 ideologically nonaligned pages, and 505 left-leaning pages.

    Every day, Media Matters also uses Facebook's CrowdTangle tool and this methodology to identify and share the 10 posts with the most interactions from top political and news-related Facebook pages.

    Using CrowdTangle, Media Matters compiled all posts for the pages on this list that were posted between November 1, 2022, at 3 a.m. ET and March 1, 2023, at 11:59 p.m. ET, and used “sudden death” or “vaccine injury” language. We reviewed data for these posts, including total interactions (reactions, comments, and shares). 

    We defined posts as using “sudden death” or “vaccine injury” language if they had any of the following terms in the message or in the included link, article headline, or article description: “died suddenly,” “#diedsuddenly,” “sudden death,” “#suddendeath,” “died unexpectedly,” “vaccine injury,” “vax injury,” “dying suddenly,” “dying unexpectedly,” “unexpectedly dying,” “unexpectedly died,” “suddenly died,” “dead suddenly,” “dead unexpectedly,” “unexpectedly dead,” or “suddenly dead.”