PPP loan kept anti-vaxxer Bigtree’s outfit afloat long enough to make millions from misinformation

Del Bigtree is what”;s known as a “;conflict entrepreneur”;: someone who makes their living by concocting controversies out of thin air, usually with a heavy diet of conspiracy theories and misinformation. NBC News”; Brandy Zadrozny reports that in fact Bigtree, like many anti-vaxxers, has made some very tidy profits from spreading COVID vaccine misinformation–;some $5.5 million in 2020 for his organization, Informed Consent Action Network (ICAN).

What distinguishes scam artists like Bigtree is their utter in-your-face shamelessness. As The Washington Post recently reported, ICAN–;which began denouncing the vaccines in 2020 even before they were produced–;was in fact kept afloat during the pandemic by the government”;s Paycheck Protection Program, one of several anti-vaccination groups to do so.

“;The federal loan definitely came at a critical time. We might not have made it without the government”;s support,”; Bigtree told Zadrozny of his $165,000 loan. He said the government had “;forgiven the loan in full.”;

A number of other anti-vaccination profiteers similarly were bailed out by federal largesse, totaling $850,000. Robert F. Kennedy Jr.”;s Children”;s Health Defense and the National Vaccine Information Center, both among the most prolific anti-vaccination propagandists whose existence revolves around opposing federal efforts to vaccinate children, received loans. The largest loan, $350,000, went to Joseph Mercola”;s anti-vaccination business.

At the “;Defeat the Mandates”; rally in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 23–;which turned into a major radicalization vector as white nationalists and QAnon conspiracists openly commingled–;Bigtree sounded a distinctly threatening note as he (like other speakers that day, notably Kennedy) compared COVID vaccination to the Holocaust.

“Unlike the Nuremberg Trials that only tried those doctors that destroyed the lives of those human beings, we’re going to come after the press, that lied to the world, that worked as a propaganda machine,”; Bigtree told the crowd.

From the outset of the pandemic, Bigtree–;who already was fully engaged in the anti-vaccination-misinformation business even before the arrival of COVID-19–;engaged in denialism about COVID-19, claiming it was no worse than the common cold. He was one of the earliest leaders of the anti-vaccination bandwagon, even before any was produced: In May 2020, at the same time he was swinging that PPP loan, he was revving up the engines of his anti-vaccination campaign along with Kennedy. Among other claims, Bigtree argued in March that actions by the Centers for Disease Control implied that COVID-19 wasn”;t even a real illness: “;If they are …; removing whatever lockdown they had it really sort of defies to me any idea that this was an infectious disease …; it just defies reason doesn”;t it?”;

Bigtree recommended that his viewers refuse the vaccine when it was developed. He argued instead that they should make efforts to actually infect themselves with the virus, favoring natural selection rather than herd immunity. He contended that society should let weaker humans die, just as the “sick get eaten by the wolves. That’s how we’ve thrived.”

His extremism only intensified as the pandemic progressed, and grew to include his rabid support for Donald Trump and the “;Stop the Steal”; movement. At the Jan. 6, 2021, rally that turned into an insurrection, Bigtree had spoken to the crowd, telling them:

We”;re being led off a cliff. …; I wish I could tell you that Tony Fauci cares about your safety. I wish I could believe that voting machines worked …; None of this happening.

Bigtree has been one of the most popular purveyors of COVID misinformation, particularly on Facebook, which banned him in 2020 as part of its effort to drive such misinformation off of its platform. In the interim, he has turned to the less restrictive platform Rumble, where his videos claiming that vaccination will make the pandemic worse have racked up tens of thousands of views. (Bigtree has claimed that each episode of his show The HighWire has about 6 million viewers, but there is no evidence that this is accurate. Data from Similarweb, a digital analytics tool, indicates that The Highwire”;s website reaches just over 1 million visits per month.)

Bigtree has similarly claimed that “;there’s a possibility to have a vaccine that makes you more sick or even kills you. This is the history of the coronavirus vaccine.”; He also stated that “;children are virtually unaffected by Covid-19.”; He claims that there is a “;global agenda”; to force the vaccine on everyone led by Fauci, and argued that “;quarantine is not a safe approach. It is a deadly one”; that presents “;grave risk to the destruction of our economy.”;

Zadrozny examined Bigtree”;s tax filings and found that ICAN reported a 60% increase over the previous year, with $5.5 million in revenue in 2020. Similarly, Kennedy”;s Children”;s Health Defense, as the Associated Press reported, reeled in $6.8 million the same year, which more than doubled its annual revenue.

Most of Bigtree”;s donations have come from private individuals, which in 2020 included fundraisers he organized on Facebook. Before the pandemic, ICAN relied heavily on large mega-donors to maintain his operations, but since 2020 most of those funds faded away, and Bigtree began aggressively fundraising, punctuating his videos with pleas for contributions.

The anti-vaccination movement, by coalescing with far-right conspiracists and white-nationalist ideologues, has fully morphed into a right-wing extremist phenomenon, one with a global reach and violent consequences. But as the Center for Countering Digital Hate observed in its study of these disinformation profiteers, combating their toxic spread is not a simple matter of contradicting their propaganda with facts, since doing that often reinforces the false claims:

Even well-meaning attempts to fact-check or myth-bust anti-vaccine misinformation can actually help spread it further. Leading anti-vaxxers examined by this report such as Del Bigtree have said they welcome the extra exposure that fact-checks and mainstream media criticism bring, while research has shown that showing corrective information to people already concerned about vaccines can actually significantly reduce their intent to vaccinate.

Instead, the CCDH recommends that people should simply refuse to engage with anti-vaccine disinformation, and spread pro-vaccine messages instead, especially by announcing their own vaccinations. Keep in mind that most people trust vaccines; if you see someone you know sharing misinformation, instead of engaging them in debate, contact them privately out of public view.

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