This month, news of NFL player Damar Hamlin’s non-fatal cardiac arrest, which saw him collapse on the field mid-game, along with that of of Lisa Maria Presley’s fatal heart attack—quickly became politicized as it was subsumed into the new, wild west world of Twitter.
Trending for days, the #DiedSuddenlyVaccine and #suddendeath hashtags lead users down a rabbit hole of tales about other recent cardiac episodes: a factory worker seems to seize and fall over and his co-workers attempt to revive him; in a video, a child running down the street suddenly collapses face-first on the ground; a post refers to the unvaccinated as “unjabbed purebloods.” These hashtagged tweets, some with grainy videos of supposed deaths, along with others reported in the media, show no evidence that these individuals were vaccinated, nor do they that being vaccinated played any role in what is dubiously presented as footage of a person dying. Yet the hashtags indicate they’re the deadly result of the vaccine.
A spate of news of high-profile individuals having heart attacks, coupled with other potentially suspicious—to conspiracy theorists, at least—deaths in recent months (like Terry Hall of The Specials and Van Conner of alt-rock band Screaming Trees) has morphed into a movement wherein anti-vaccine falsely claim an emergence of deaths and cardiac episodes brought on by the vaccine and its booster doses.
Yes, sure, conspiracy theories have permeated the internet since its inception, but the Twitter effect on this particular falsehood is louder and stronger than most. Since Elon Musk took over the platform in October, misinformation about Covid has swelled as the Twitter staff who would be monitoring misinformation about the virus has been halted, as they were shown the door during Musk’s haphazard gutting of staff following his purchase of the company. Meanwhile, under its new management, Twitter has restored thousands of previously banned accounts, according to Wired.
According to data compiled by disinformation expert Timothy Graham, as Wired reports, the average volume of hourly #diedsuddenly tweets has at least doubled since the beginning of December—just around when Musk took the wheel at Twitter.
— Antonio Sabato Jr (@AntonioSabatoJr) January 13, 2023
Hamlin isn’t the first person to whom anti-Covid vaxxers have pinned their “athletes are dying” narrative; this sort of on-field tragedy has been witnessed for years. Citing sports medicine experts, Factcheck.org debunked the notion that there has been any surge in athlete deaths since 2020 when the Covid vaccines were introduced. Dr. Jonathan Drezner, director of the UW Medicine Center for Sports Cardiology and team physician for the Seattle Seahawks, called the idea “total misinformation.”
But some facts can’t be disputed, and it’s true that in recent years, the U.S. has seen an uptick in heart attacks, especially among young people 25-44. In October, new data analysis from the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai published in the Journal of Medical Virology found that heart attack deaths rose significantly during pandemic surges, reversing a trend over the prior 10 years of generally healthier hearts.
The link seems to be to surges in Covid cases from certain strains, like Omicron, and not the vaccines, according to the research out of Cedars-Sinai.
In 2019, the year before the pandemic began, there were 143,787 heart attack deaths; within 2020, this grew by 14% to 164,096. And by 2021, the observed compared to “predicted” rates of heart attack death had increased by 29.9% for adults ages 25-44, by 19.6% for adults ages 45-64, and by 13.7% for adults ages 65 and older.
While all the reasons for this increase remain unclear, researchers posit that this marked rise in cardiac disease includes pandemic stress, acute amounts of pressure like job loss, and overall feelings of financial insecurity taking their toll on the body. And an Associated Press fact-check points out that cardiac arrest can impact anyone, whether they’re vaccinated or not.
What’s true here—and could be what launched this dangerous theory—is that in unusual cases, some people who received the mRNA Covid-19 vaccines have experienced myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart. However, the chance of developing myocarditis is even higher with a viral infection like Covid—so, if you want to protect your heart, doctors say, you’re better off vaccinating. This rare, yet real, link between mRNA Covid vaccines and myocarditis may be the kernel of truth that lies at the heart, if you will, of the #suddendeath theory vortex.
All of this is to say that conspiracy theories follow similar anatomy, according to Dr. Kathryn Olmsted, a professor, and Ph.D. in History at U.C. Davis.
Conspiracy theories can be broadly defined as “an assumption about a plot that hasn’t been proven to be true,” Olmsted told LAMag.
Any COVID vaccine conspiracy theory, Olmsted said, is easily broken down. It draws “on suspicious of vaccinations that goes back to the 70s; definitely by the 90s there were a lot of anti-vaxxers in the U.S. It goes along with the decline and faith in government, [which has been happening] since the ’70s but really since 2008.”
Olmsted notes that there’s often an amount of Astroturfing to the conspiracy game; usually, “somebody has something to gain by spreading [conspiracy theories], whether it’s more clicks to earn more money or for political purposes.”
One of the things that makes conspiracy theories so easy to spread online is the same thing that gets tweens addicted to TikTok: It provides some good old-fashioned popularity. The more likes, hearts, retweets, and general affirmations an idea has, the more acceptable the theory becomes—even in the absence of evidence.
“Social media can be critical in the spread of conspiracy theories because of what’s known as the bandwagon heuristic,” Dr. Joanne Gray, a research director at the University of Sydney, tells LAMag.
“When something is shared online and people engage with it, for example through re-tweeting, sharing or liking a post, that engagement can be taken as a collective endorsement and validation of that piece of information,” Gray adds. “Someone might think, ‘That post has hundreds of likes, there must be something going on.’”
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