sovereign citizens
Lockdown protesters outside Parliament House in Melbourne (Image: AAP/Scott Barbour)

It’s bracing but perhaps not surprising to see that Donald Trump was fanning the false link between vaccination and autism back in 2014.

Saint Louis University Assistant Professor of Law Ana Santos Rutschman has reported on an increase in anti-vaxxer misinformation from 2014, with some of that rise traced back to automated messaging, or bots, generated from Russia.

In Australia, Christine Baynes, who is part of a loose alliance of “active skeptics” with an interest in the anti-vax movement, told Inq that 2015 marked the time when anti-vaxxer messaging which had been prevalent for well over a decade became fused with an overarching anti-science and anti-government narrative, eventually linking up with the 5G conspiracy theory which ties the 5G network to the spread of coronavirus and holds that Bill Gates is behind a plan to control the world through vaccination.

Yet despite an explosion in misinformation — in some cases led by high profile social media entrepreneurs — Inq’s investigation shows Australian regulators have failed to stop false medical claims which have a direct impact on public health.

“The remnants of the Occupy movement in Australia met up with the conspiratorial fringe of the anti-vax movement and changed the landscape significantly,” Baynes explained. “It was quite a shift.”

The Australian offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement had attracted a cross-section of established political campaigners, anarchists, Marxists and libertarian economists, united around a core message that the system was broken and the rules were rigged.

According to Baynes, the catalyst for the coming together of the groups was the federal government’s “no jab, no pay” social security legislation — interpreted by the groups as state overreach in the decisions of private citizens.

“What I call the ‘irrational anti-science’ of the anti-vaccination movement became stupid and extreme,” Baynes said.

The fused movement grew bigger and meaner. It came to stand for freedom in the face of a government apparently controlled by unseen forces. The newly powerful conspiracy movement was carried along by the old anti-vaxxer call to “trust your own research” — a call to rise up against the tyranny of the expert.

Inq’s investigation reveals that whatever the ideological motives of some, others have made good money from the misinformation and conspiracy business.

Internationally, British doctor Andrew Wakefield remains the most prominent anti-vaccination activist, more than 20 years after his flawed study linking the MMR vaccine to autism was published — and later withdrawn — by medical journal The Lancet. British journalist Brian Deer disclosed that Wakefield had been paid over £435,000 through a company owned by his wife as an expert witness in lawsuits alleging vaccine-linked autism. 

“Unlike expert witnesses, who give professional advice and opinions,” Deer reported, “Wakefield had negotiated an unprecedented contract with [a British solicitor] to conduct clinical and scientific research. The goal was to find evidence of what the two men claimed to be a ‘new syndrome’, intended to be the centrepiece of (later failed) litigation on behalf of an eventual 1600 British families.”

Wakefield was separately paid £55,000 start-up funding for hospital-based research.

As serious questions were raised about his research Wakefield left the UK for the United States, where he has joined forces with the wealthy anti-vaccination proponent Robert F Kennedy Jr, son of Robert Kennedy and nephew of president John F Kennedy.

Kennedy junior was last year revealed to have paid — along with “healthy lifestyle” advocate Larry Cook — for more than half the anti-vaccination advertisements appearing on Facebook, which itself has profited from the anti-vaxxer/5G conspiracy industry by way of paid ads.

Since 2018 Wakefield has been in a romantic relationship with Australian one-time supermodel Elle Macpherson, co-founder of natural health business WelleCo, a major player in the international wellness industry. Inq has asked McPherson, through her company, if she endorses Wakefield’s anti-vaccination position. We have received no reply, though the wellness and natural remedies industry clearly profits from the anti-vax movement.

Corporately, America’s biggest business Amazon has been selling anti-vaccination books and videos and only reined in its sales after a feature in Wired magazine exposed that it was selling “autism cure” books that suggest children drink toxic, bleach-like substances.

The doTerra company, based in Utah, sells essential oils using a multi-level marketing model, akin to pyramid selling. The privately-owned company is one of the biggest in the multi-billion essential oils sector. There is evidence that doTerra distributors have used an anti-vax message to sell products and develop distribution chains.

A New Yorker feature reported on one doTerra representative who held an “essential oils 101 class” at a barbecue restaurant in Waco, Texas. There she told her audience that her interest in oils was due to her three-year-old son showing “symptoms of autism after receiving the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine”. Another doTerra representative begins his anti-vax spiel with the words, “I already know I’m going to catch criticism because I’m not a doctor or qualified in any type of medicine study”.

Here an American woman called Season Johnson, an “independent wellness advocate”, markets doTerra oils to help “detoxify” from a vaccination.

In 2014 the US Federal Drug Administration sent doTerrra an official warning for allowing its distributors to market its products as possible cures for cancer, Ebola and autism. DoTerra Australia failed to respond to Inq’s questions on whether or not the company warned its distributors against making false claims linking vaccination and autism.

In Australia the conspiracy economy’s most prominent figure is television celebrity Pete Evans. While Evans says he is not an anti-vaxxer, his claims have now veered into the lurid territory populated by 5G and QAnon conspiracy theorists.

Evans allegedly spruiked the benefits of a $15,000 device, the “BioCharger”, during a Facebook live stream in April to his more than 1.4 million followers, claiming that it could be used in relation to “Wuhan coronavirus”. The Therapeutic Goods Administration found Evans’ claims had “no apparent foundation”, issued two infringement notices and fined Evans $25,200. Evans has denied the claims.

Samoan-Australian influencer Taylor Winterstein, whose husband Frank is a former NRL star, has built a brand called “Tay’s Way Movement” based on her rejection of the science of vaccination, which she has linked with Bill Gates and his supposed role in the spread of COVID-19. 

“In order to understand the corruption, conflicts of interest and collateral damage that comes with the 2020 coronavirus PLANdemic… we have to start with BILL GATES,” she wrote on Instagram in April.

Winterstein is selling $200 tickets for her 2020 Australian tour. Alternatively you can pay $1499 (with a payment plan available) to attend an “8 WEEK ONLINE PROGRAM that will break mainstream consciousness!!!” for people who are “ready to say goodbye to a fear-mongering, disempowering system and hello to freedom, to liberation”.

Joining Winterstein in the online program is a collection of anti-vaccination figures including a chiropractor, a nutritionist, a naturopath and a midwife.

Another entrepreneur, Therese Kerr, mother of supermodel Miranda Kerr, presents “research” questioning MMR, polio and HPV/cervical cancer vaccination, side by side with a link to a “wellness shop” selling everything from detox programs to linen to organic wine.

And underpinning it all are the chiropractors, some of whom profit on a business model which relies on rejecting mainstream medicine and embracing anti-vaccination as a symbol of alternative therapy and way of life. It was, after all, two chiropractors who formed Australia’s longest running anti-vaccination group, the Australian Vaccination-risks Network, in the early 1990s and which still has a solid foothold in mainstream rejectionist communities in northern NSW.

Part two: a failure to regulate…