In 2021, the bond between QAnon and anti-vaxxers grew even stronger
This is the second installment of “Beyond ‘Q,’” a series examining QAnon's evolution in 2021 after its central figure stopped posting and the conspiracy theory grew into a lasting movement. Read the first installment here and the third installment here.
As the world struggled with the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, the QAnon conspiracy theory experienced rapid platform growth and a breakthrough year in 2020, a turnaround from a bit of a rut the conspiracy theory faced after “Q” -- the central figure of QAnon -- was knocked offline in mid-2019. Studies found that traffic for and consumption of QAnon content on social media platforms boomed during 2020. As this content boomed, so did false conspiracy theories about COVID-19. Q even joined in on the community’s conspiracy theories.
That focus on COVID-19 continued into 2021, as the QAnon and anti-vaccine communities became increasingly intertwined.
One notable example of the connection came in July, when Jeffrey Pedersen and Shannon Townsend — the co-hosts of the QAnon-promoting MatrixxxGrooove Show, who are known online as “intheMatrixxx” and “ShadyGrooove,” respectively — interviewed Andrew Wakefield, the godfather of the modern anti-vaccination movement. During the interview, Wakefield even said part of the QAnon slogan -- “Where we go one, we go all.”
This all unfolded months after Q’s last post on December 8, 2020 -- signaling the spread of the conspiracy theory beyond its central figure.
As the QAnon community attacked vaccines, anti-vax figures saw allies
By the beginning of 2021, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and TikTok had finally announced crackdowns on QAnon. But it was not enough to extensively hamper the growth of QAnon. The QAnon community remained engaged throughout the year, in part because of the emergence of what they called “the death jab” -- safe and effective coronavirus vaccines.
The QAnon community is notably anti-vax, with polling in July finding a significant percentage of the unvaccinated had QAnon beliefs. And when coronavirus vaccines were released to the American public in early 2021, the community turned its attacks on the shots.
In January, QAnon supporters -- some of whom were radicalized during the pandemic -- were able to temporarily shut down a Los Angeles vaccination site. A QAnon influencer, Terpsichore Maras-Lindeman (known online as “Tore”), organized anti-vaccine mandate lawsuits in every state in the country, seeking to file a lawsuit with the Supreme Court -- which she now claims to have done. Multiple QAnon influencers shared schemes to get people religious exemptions from the vaccines, and others got their followers to harass hospitals about COVID-19 treatments. QAnon supporters participated in anti-vaccine events, including protesting at places with vaccine mandates.
Meanwhile, anti-vax influencers saw the QAnon community as a friendly platform. Throughout the year, numerous anti-vax figures, including Wakefield, went on QAnon shows to undermine vaccination efforts. The founder of a group that opposes vaccine mandates in the transportation industry even went on multiple QAnon shows to promote his group.
Some anti-vax figures even lauded QAnon shows, telling the hosts of one that they were providing “hope and solutions” for listeners. Multiple members of the “Disinformation Dozen” — influencers identified in a Center for Countering Digital Hate report as the originators of an estimated 65% of vaccine misinformation spread on Facebook and Twitter — praised or appeared on QAnon shows.
Some anti-vax figures went on QAnon shows multiple times. Kate Shemirani, one of Britain’s biggest anti-vaxxers, made repeat appearances on the British QAnon show The Charlie Ward Show, where she lauded the host as a “legend.”
Anti-vax influencers also used the QAnon community to bolster their own fundraising efforts. When Karen Kingston, an anti-vax Pfizer “whistleblower,” made multiple appearances on MatrixxxGrooove Show to attack vaccines, the hosts showed her fundraising page and encouraged people to donate $17 -- a reference to Q, the 17th letter of the alphabet. Viewers of the show did donate, including Jo Rae Perkins, a QAnon-supporting congressional candidate. (Kingston also received a donation tied to SGT Report, another QAnon show.) In another example, anti-vax “whistleblowers” promoted by Project Veritas shared links where people could donate to them during their speeches at a QAnon conference.
Several anti-vax figures also went on QAnon shows to promote bogus COVID-19 cures in lieu of vaccines. Andreas Kalcker, “one of the leading figures in the bleach ‘cure’ movement,” went on The Charlie Ward Show to push it. And Vladimir Zelenko, a doctor who claimed he had an experimental treatment for COVID-19, appeared on QAnon show X22 Report multiple times to promote his “Zelenko protocol.”
QAnon influencer and congressional candidate Ron Watkins has also claimed that he is working with Zelenko to form an anti-vaccine “coalition” in Congress, adding that he “work[s] a lot with him behind the scenes.”
Additionally, a business consultant named Clay Clark put together events around the country that regularly featured QAnon figures and anti-vax influencers pushing misinformation. Clark himself has repeatedly gone on QAnon shows and attacked vaccines, and has also discussed QAnon explicitly with the MatrixxxGrooove Show hosts. Other conferences that brought together QAnon and anti-vax figures popped up throughout the year.
Anti-vax influencers collaborated with some QAnon influencers -- and embraced parts of QAnon themselves
As anti-vax figures identified allies in the QAnon community, some went further, and partnered more actively with QAnon figures. Juan O. Savin, a QAnon influencer some in the community believe is actually John F. Kennedy Jr., promoted an initiative from Sherri Tenpenny, a member of the “Disinformation Dozen.” For her part, Tenpenny said Savin helped put together a Zoom session with her and other anti-vax figures to attack vaccines in August that was apparently streamed on multiple QAnon shows. Tenpenny has also reportedly collaborated with 1st Amendment Praetorian, a QAnon militia group.
Another anti-vax figure, Bryan Ardis, teamed up in a video with the MatrixxxGrooove Show co-hosts to promote a lawsuit from anti-vax attorney Thomas Renz, which falsely claimed that tens of thousands had died from the vaccines. Ardis and Renz also used the show to solicit donations for Renz’s legal efforts. Ardis praised the MatrixxxGrooove Show for “helping us get this out to hundreds of thousands of people,” and for “helping me reach an audience where we can educate, inspire, and warn.” Renz also promoted his legal efforts on other QAnon shows. One of the hosts, Zak Paine, a participant in part of the January 6 insurrection, called Renz a “good friend.” Another host claimed to have learned of Renz’s legal efforts from Tenpenny.
Elsewhere, multiple anti-vax figures joined events on a national tour organized by QAnon show host Scott McKay. Participants included Ardis; Judy Mikovits, star of the viral misinformation video Plandemic; “Disinformation Dozen” member Christiane Northrup; and Leigh Dundas, “one of the most prominent anti-vaccine activists in Southern California” who also attended and cheered on the Capitol insurrection. One of the anti-vax Project Veritas “whistleblowers” at a Las Vegas QAnon conference said that “friends of mine who are big fans of” certain QAnon influencers “led me to Project Veritas,” referring to influencers Savin and John Sabal, the event’s organizer who is known online as “QAnon John.”
Beyond using QAnon shows for self-promotion and collaborating with QAnon figures, some anti-vax figures seemingly embraced parts of the conspiracy theory itself. Christopher Rake, an anti-vax anesthesiologist in California, got a crowd to chant the QAnon slogan while speaking at an anti-vaccine rally.
In other cases, multiple anti-vax figures – while appearing with QAnon figures – endorsed a false QAnon conspiracy theory that elites harvest from the blood of children a substance known as adrenochrome. That included “Disinformation Dozen” member Charlene Bollinger and Stella Immanuel, a member of the medical misinformation group America’s Frontline Doctors who also has a promo code on her site for a QAnon show. (Another member of America’s Frontline Doctors, Lee Merritt, has also reportedly been connected with QAnon militia group 1st Amendment Praetorian.)
And Tenpenny, while appearing with the MatrixxxGrooove Show hosts in November, seemed to explicitly endorse tenets of QAnon, saying, “We talked about human trafficking and pedophilia and adrenochrome in kind of hushed language and only around people — like-minded friends. Now it’s like we just talk about it, because it’s so obvious.”
She made the claim again later that month when hosting the MatrixxxGrooove Show hosts on her own show, saying that they — along with other QAnon shows like “X22 Report and SGT Report” — were “playing this really important role.”
Even without Q, QAnon continued to give a boost to the anti-vaccine movement -- and that’s due to social media
Even though Q has gone silent and platforms have cracked down on related content, the links between the QAnon community and the anti-vaccine movement -- a trend that was already notable in 2020 -- grew even stronger in 2021. The trend was similar to a dynamic seen with political figures: Anti-vaccine influencers took advantage of the large, organized QAnon community to advance their agendas.
And that development occurred because of a critical error by the social media platforms: For nearly three years, they failed to take action on -- and even algorithmically promoted -- QAnon, including in the early months of the pandemic when there was a major increase in QAnon content consumption. Mainstream platform crackdowns did not stop that trend, and by the time they acted, it was too late. Now there is an increasing synergy between two dangerous groups, which is undoubtedly hampering efforts to get people vaccinated, harming the ability to end the pandemic, and hurting many people in the process.
Correction (1/12/22): The piece has been updated to correct the spelling of Christiane Northrup’s first name.