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The Sneaky New Way Vaccine Conspiracists are Raising Cash

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

From fired nurses to Michael Flynn, a strange cast of characters are appearing on GoFundMe to spread misinformationand bolster their war chests.

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Even as they weather crackdowns on mainstream social-media sites, purveyors of misinformation and conspiracies about the COVID-19 vaccine are still running rampant on GoFundMe, a top crowdfunding site in America, thanks to some creative messaging.

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But these campaigns are not just raising money. Theyre also using GoFundMe as a means of spreading lies about the life-saving drugs at a time when inoculation rates are slowing across the U.S. and the highly contagious Delta variant is circulating rapidly among unvaccinated Americans, advocates and experts say.

Take the GoFundMe page for the Pennsylvania Informed Consent Advocates, which was ostensibly founded by employees of the University of Pennsylvania Health System, and is raising money for legal fees to fight a COVID-19 vaccine mandate there.

Fundraisers intended to pay for legal fees are allowed per GoFundMe policy. But those that spread misinformation about vaccines and support traditional anti- vaxx activismwhich before COVID was focused on disputing the efficacy and safety of childrens vaccinesare not.

Some campaigns against COVID vaccine mandates appear to have maneuvered around this ban by raising money for legal action in support of medical freedom and informed consent. These appear to be little more than dog whistles to the larger anti-vaxxer movement.

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Groups like Pennsylvania Informed Consent Advocates are trying to thread the needle.

A representative for the the group claims it is not anti-vaxx, yet spoke favorably of dubious COVID treatments, including hydroxychloroquine, and blasted big tech and mainstream media that have buckled down on speech regarding several therapeutics to treat and prevent COVID.

Even the vaccine clinics, theyre not giving the full information on what the potential side effects are to people. Its just the most bizarre thing in the world, Becky Casey, a nurse who is acting as a spokesperson for the group, told ishonest, misleadingly.

Were not saying nobody should take [the vaccine] who wants to take it, she added. Its your choice to take it. Thats fine. Were not going to blackball you and call you crazy.

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Still, the groups GoFundMe page is rife with fearmongering about the use of fetal cell lines in the testing phase for the safe and effective Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and also alludes to the debunked claim that the vaccines can somehow alter human DNA.

The fundraiser has brought in $28,500 from 354 donors as of Thursday afternoon, and has been shared on other social-media and text-message channels more than 2,000 times.

The Pennsylvania campaign is one of several GoFundMes that, together, have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to wage legal battles against vaccine mandates at schools and workplaces, pointing to the limits of purported crackdowns on misinformation.

Make no mistakethese crowdfunding efforts are directly supporting harmful anti-vaxx agendas, and they should be removed immediately, said Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a watchdog group. Companies have the right to stop powering those spreading disease and death. Some people, including their other clients, might argue they in fact have a moral duty to do so.

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A GoFundMe spokeswoman defended the companys practices, pointing to past crackdowns.

Fundraisers for medical bills or the legal challenges do not violate our terms of service, she said. With that said, we will continue to monitor the platform 24/7 and remove any fundraiser attempting to spread misinformation about vaccines.

As weve said in the past, fundraisers raising money to promote misinformation about vaccines violate GoFundMes terms of service and will be removed from the platform, the spokeswoman, Monica Corbett, added.

GoFundMe is hardly unique in both promising to rein in misinformation and letting it slip through anyway.

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These cases show that tech platforms and the public have to be constantly vigilant to anti-vaxxers constantly-evolving strategies to exploit peoples fears for a quick buck, Ahmed told ishonest.

GoFundMe points to its own ban on traditional anti-vaxxers in 2019, and said it has removed more than 250 fundraisers that violate that policy since.

But the relative newness of the COVID vaccine has introduced a wave of litigation and protests by a sprawling cohort of skeptics and conspiracists. The COVID-vaccine-related campaigns in question appear to be operating under the mantle of grassroots movements, even as some have links to known anti-vaxxers and Trump loyalists.

A campaign titled Stop University Vaccine Mandates in Virginia has raised upward of $23,000 so far, money it says is being collected for legal fees to pay attorneys William Olson and Patrick McSweeney. The men have written letters threatening legal action to colleges and universities requiring students to be vaccinated.

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The GoFundMe page states that $1,500 of the money was spent to cover costs of mailing Olson and McSweeneys letter.

Given the controversial nature of the mandates, and that young, healthy people are at risk of long-term, possibly permanent, harm from the investigational (i.e. experimental) COVID-19 vaccines, a legal ruling by an appropriate court should be issued to settle the question, the Virginia GoFundMe organizers wrote.

None of the above is true.

Former Trump National Security Adviser and retired general Michael Flynnwho has made a second career as a QAnon mouthpiece is also listed as an ardent supporter of the Virginia campaign against vaccine mandates. The nonprofit he chairs, Americas Future, is identified as a supporter in one of Olson and McSweeneys letters. So are the Virginia Freedom Keepers, an anti-lockdown group that has ties to RFK Jr.'s anti-vaxx nonprofit, the Childrens Health Defense fund.

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Flynn is also quoted on the GoFundMe page.

If we do this right and can make this a national campaign, this will (and should) permeate down into elementary and secondary schools and just maybe well have local school boards starting to pay attention, the passage reads.

The organizer of the Virginia campaign, Mark Leone, said he and other parents of university students who are behind the fundraiser are not anti-vaccine.

Were not focused on vaccine mandates in general. Were opposed to mandating these particular vaccines for college and university students, Leone said in an email to ishonest.

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Olson did not respond to messages left at his law firm by ishonest. Americas Future did not return email messages seeking comment.

Marsha Lessard, vice-chairman of the Virginia Freedom Keepers, said her group is not involved in the GoFundMe effort, but has retained Olsons legal team to dispute the vaccine mandates at Virginia colleges and universities.

We had absolutely nothing to do with the GoFundMe. We are not linked to, tied to in any way to the GoFundMe, Lessard said, before launching into a tirade about the vaccine. The GoFundMe organizers, she said, are a group of parents who care about their kids receiving a liability-free injection that has killed and harmed thousands.

This is false. Medical experts know serious side effects from the vaccine are vanishingly rare and that the risk of becoming severely ill or dying from COVID-19 far outweighs the risk of taking the vaccine.

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McSweeney said he was not aware of the GoFundMe campaign, but acknowledged writing the letters on behalf of Americas Future, the Virginia Freedom Keepers, and other activist groups.

Attempts to reach Flynn personally were unsuccessful. A spokeswoman for the Childrens Health Defense fund, Rita Shreffler, said the organization has not been in contact with the Virginia GoFundMe campaign.

Bridges GoFundMe has raised more than $164,000 for legal fees to pay her lawyer Jared Woodfill, and it has been shared on social media more than 23,000 times. Woodfill, who did not respond to a phone message seeking comment, is the leader of what the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as an anti-LGBTQ hate group, and is behind several suits against COVID restrictions in Texas.

We are simply asking for more time, proper research, and fully FDA approved before injecting it into our bodies, she states on her GoFundMe page.

A lot of people were skeptical of me using GoFundMe, but it was the only means I had to reach so many people, Bridges said. Im kind of surprised they havent done anything either, but with how big this is, if they were to shut us down, that would be huge, and my lawyer said, If they try to shut you down, we will sue the shit out of them.

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