‘Suddenly Died’ Posts Twisted Tragedies to Push Vaccine Lies
Autopsy results for 6-year-old Anastasia Weaver can take weeks. But anti-vaccine campaigners online needed only hours after his funeral this week to baseless blame on the COVID-19 vaccine.
A prolific Twitter account posted Anastasia’s name and a smiling dancing portrait in a tweet with a syringe emoji. A Facebook user has messaged his mother, Jessica Day-Weaver, calling her a “murderer” for having her child vaccinated.
In reality, the Ohio kindergartener had experienced lifelong health issues since her premature birth, including epilepsy, asthma and frequent hospitalizations with respiratory viruses. “The doctors gave us no other information other than this was due to all his chronic illnesses. … We never thought it could be from the vaccine,” Day-Weaver said of her daughter’s death.
But those facts didn’t matter online, where Anastasia was quickly added to a growing list of hundreds of children, teenagers, athletes and celebrities whose unexpected deaths and injuries have been blamed on wrong to the blows of COVID-19. Using the hashtag #diedsuddenly, online conspiracy theorists have flooded social media with news stories, obituaries and GoFundMe pages in recent months, leaving grieving families to grapple with the lies.
There’s the 37-year-old Brazilian TV host who collapsed live due to a congenital heart condition. The 18-year-old unvaccinated bull rider died of a rare disease. The 32-year-old actress who died of a bacterial infection.
The use of “sudden death” — or some misspelled version of it — jumped more than 740% in tweets about vaccines in the past two months compared to the previous two months, the company found. Zignal Labs media intelligence in an analysis conducted for The Associated Press. The explosion of expression began with the late November launch of an online “documentary” of the same name, giving power to what experts say is damaging new shorthand.
“It’s kind of a group talk, kind of a wink, a nudge,” said Renee DiResta, head of technical research at Stanford’s Internet Observatory. “They take something that’s a relatively common way of describing something – people die, in fact, unexpectedly – and then, by giving it a hashtag, they put all those incidents together in one place.”
The campaign is causing damage beyond the internet, said epidemiologist Dr Katelyn Jetelina.
“The real danger is that it ultimately leads to real-world actions like not being vaccinated,” said Jetelina, who tracks and breaks down COVID data for her blog, “Your Local Epidemiologist.”
Rigorous study and concrete evidence from hundreds of millions of vaccines given prove that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. Deaths caused by vaccination are extremely rare and the risks associated with non-vaccination are far greater than the risks of vaccination. But that hasn’t stopped conspiracy theorists from making various false accusations against vaccines.
The film “Suddenly Death” features a montage of titles found on Google to erroneously suggest that they prove sudden deaths “never happened like this until now”. The film has amassed more than 20 million views on an alternative video-sharing website, and its companion Twitter account posts more deaths and injuries daily.
An AP review of more than 100 tweets from the account in December and January found claims that the cases were linked to the vaccine were largely unsubstantiated and, in some cases, contradicted by public information. Some of those featured have died of genetic disorders, drug overdoses, complications from the flu, or suicide. One died in a surfing accident.
The filmmakers did not respond to specific questions from the AP, but instead released a statement referring to an “increase in sudden deaths” and a “PROVEN excess death rate,” without providing data.
The total number of deaths in the United States has been higher than one would expect since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, in part due to the virus, overdoses and other causes. COVID-19 vaccines averted nearly 2 million deaths in the United States in their first year of use.
Some deaths exploited in the film predate the pandemic. Californian writer Dolores Cruz published a 2022 essay about grieving her son, who died in a car crash in 2017. “Suddenly Died” used a screenshot of the film’s title, describing his death as related to the vaccine.
“Without my permission, someone took her story to show a side, and I don’t appreciate that,” Cruz said in an interview. “His legacy and his memory are tarnished.”
Others featured in the film survived, but were forced to watch clips of their distorted medical emergencies around the world. For Brazilian TV presenter Rafael Silva, who collapsed during an on-air report due to a congenital heart defect, online misinformation sparked a wave of harassment even before the film ‘Suddenly Died’ ” does not use images.
“I got messages saying I should have died to set an example for other people who were still thinking about getting vaccinated,” Silva said.
Many posts online cite no evidence except that the deceased had been vaccinated at some point in the past, using a common misinformation strategy known as post hoc error, according to Jetelina.
“People assume that one thing caused another just because the first thing preceded the other,” she said.
Some claims about those who have suffered from heart problems also weaponize a kernel of truth – that COVID-19 vaccines can cause rare problems of heart inflammation, myocarditis or pericarditis, especially in young men. Medical experts say these cases are usually mild and the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks.
The narrative also drew on high-profile moments like the collapse of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin as he suffered cardiac arrest during a game last month after a fierce blow to the chest. But sudden cardiac arrest has long been a significant cause of death in the United States – and medical experts agree the vaccine did not cause Hamlin’s injury.