United States: Anti-vaxxers revive and instrumentalize African-American trauma

·3-min read
Some anti-vaxxers are reviving the specter of past medical racism to fight vaccination campaigns.

In the United States, one of the new strategies of anti-vax campaigners is to insinuate that the government's vaccination campaign is racist. Their technique? Mobilize the African-American community by infiltrating it, and summon the memory of medical atrocities committed by the American state on Black people to discourage them from getting vaccinated.

On March 11, 2021, the Children's Health Defense association, chaired by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., posted the documentary "Medical Racism: The New Apartheid" on its website. The feature-length film, just under an hour long, was aimed at a specific population, African-Americans, to discourage them from getting vaccinated. In particular, the film reviews the Tuskegee scandal, during which the U.S. Public Health Service sought to learn about the course of syphilis when left untreated. The study, which was originally intended to last 6 months, actually ran from 1932 to 1972. The participants, 400 black men, believed they were being treated for their "bad blood" (the term used at the time for syphilis), even though the study leaders let them live with the disease, to the point of dying, even after a treatment was found.

The episode left its mark on many memories, and is part of the basis for the African-American community's distrust of the American health care system. In March 2021, in the city of Tuskegee, Alabama, only 13% of vaccines were administered to African Americans, although they represent 27% of the state's population.

Infiltration of the African American community via 'digital blackface'
"In the Black communities, there is something very sinister going on. The same thing happened in the 1930s during the eugenics movement," said Kennedy Jr. It is with along these sensitive lines, and against a backdrop of racism, that a group of anti-vaxers have orchestrated anti-vaccination efforts. As reported by Émilie Echaroux for French magazine Usbek&Rica, a vast disinformation campaign was organized in early August on the anonymous discussion forum 4Chan. For users, the strategy would be to make people believe that discrimination related to vaccines is actually systemic racism in disguise. In other words, they would try to disseminate the view that vaccine passes are simply a legal excuse for the government to limit the freedoms of the African-American community, which is statistically less vaccinated than the rest of the population.

The approach is beyond questionable. Anti-vax users have infiltrated African-American communities on social networks, posing as users from the community. Everything is imitated, from profile pictures to particular language, expressing themselves in AAVE ('African-American Vernacular English'), and reusing the hashtags of civil rights struggles. This practice is akin to "digital blackface," which is "using images to claim black identity when you don't identify as a black person," according to Jardin Dogan, a doctor of psychology at the University of Kentucky. These accounts posted images meant to make the African-American community believe that vaccines are a new tool of segregation. While the accounts have since been deleted, their posts have already been shared on other platforms.

So there is a 4chan op to try to convince black people not to get vaccinated??? Make being vaccinated into being against BLM? It isn't clear. But if you see #askmewhy you'll find lots of these posters. pic.twitter.com/aKouPcgckO

— Sea Creature (@ambientshitpost) August 6, 2021

In the U.S., where coronavirus kills four times as many blacks as whites, the consequences of misinformation are deadly, when only 10% of African Americans had received their first dose, compared to 59% of white Americans, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the Center for Countering Digital Hate, the ideal strategy to stop the spread of misinformation online would be to automatically block these accounts to prevent visibility. Imran Ahmed, director of CCHR, laments the lack of responsiveness of social networks to misleading information: "In this case, the best tactic is to try to 'immunize' people against false and misleading claims."

Mattias Corrasco

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