The results of the autopsy on 6-year-old Anastasia Weaver could take weeks. But online anti-vaccine activists were quick to baselessly blame the COVID-19 vaccine just hours after her funeral this week.
A prolific Twitter account posted Anastasia’s name and smiling dance pic in a tweet, along with a syringe emoji. A Facebook user sent a message to her mother, Jessica De-Weaver, calling her a “murderer” for vaccinating her child.
In fact, the Ohio kindergartner had experienced lifelong health problems since his premature birth, including epilepsy, asthma and repeated hospitalizations with respiratory viruses. “The doctors haven’t given us any information other than all of her preexisting conditions. … It was never thought that it could be from the vaccine,” De-Weaver said of her daughter’s death.
But those facts didn’t seem to matter online, where Anastasia was quickly added to a growing list of hundreds of children, teens, athletes and celebrities whose unexpected deaths and injuries were wrongly blamed on COVID-19 shots. Using the hashtag #diedsuddenly, online conspiracy theorists have flooded social media in recent months with news reports, obituaries and GoFundMe pages, inundating grieving families with lies.
The 37-year-old is a Brazilian television host who collapsed on air due to a congenital heart problem. 18 year old unvaccinated bull rider who died of a rare disease. The 32-year-old actress died of complications from a bacterial infection.
“Died suddenly” — or a misspelled version of it — has increased more than 740% in tweets about vaccines over the past two months compared to the previous two months, an analysis by media intelligence firm Jignal Labs found. associated Press. The phrase’s explosion began in late November with the debut of an online “documentary” by the same name, which experts say is a new and harmful shorthand.
“It’s a kind of in-group language, a kind of wink wink, nudge nudge,” said Renee Diresta, technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory. “They’re taking something that’s a relatively routine way of describing something—people dying really unexpectedly—and then by assigning a hashtag to it, they aggregate all these events in one place.”
Epidemiologist Dr. Caitlin Jetlina said the campaign does harm beyond just the internet.
“The real danger is that this eventually leads to real-world actions like not getting vaccinated,” said Jaitlina, who tracks and breaks down COVID data for her blog “Your Local Epidemiologist.”
Rigorous studies and real-world evidence from millions of shots administered prove that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. Vaccination-related deaths are extremely rare and the risks associated with vaccination far outweigh the risks of vaccination itself. But that hasn’t stopped conspiracy theorists from pegging a variety of false accusations on vaccines.
One of the headlines found on Google on the movie “Died Suddenly” falsely suggest that they prove that sudden deaths have “never happened so far.” The film has collected more than 20 million views on an alternative video-sharing website, and its companion Twitter account posts about 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 vaccine-related were largely unsubstantiated and, in some cases, contrary to public information. Some of the people depicted died from genetic disorders, drug overdoses, complications of 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 that referred to an “increase in sudden deaths” and a “certified rate of excess deaths” without providing data.
The total number of deaths in the US from the virus, overdoses and other causes has been higher than expected since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 vaccines prevented nearly 2 million US deaths in their first year of use.
Some of the deaths exploited in the film happened before the pandemic. California writer Dolores Cruz published an essay in 2022 about her grief for her son, who died in a car accident in 2017.
Cruz said in an interview, “Without my permission, someone has taken her story to show one side, and I don’t appreciate it.” “His legacy and memory are being tarnished.”
Others featured in the film survived – but were forced to watch clips of their medical emergencies misrepresented around the world. For Brazilian TV presenter Rafael Silva, who collapsed while reporting on air because of a congenital heart abnormality, online misinformation prompted a wave of harassment even before footage from the movie “Died Suddenly” was used.
Silva said, “I got messages saying I should have died to serve as an example to other people who were still thinking about getting vaccinated.”
According to Jetelina, many posts online provide no evidence except that the person who died was vaccinated at some point in the past, using a common misinformation strategy known as the post hoc fallacy.
“People tend to believe that one thing causes the other because the first thing preceded the other,” she said.
Some claims about people suffering from heart problems also have a grain of truth – that COVID-19 vaccines can cause rare heart inflammatory issues, myocarditis or pericarditis, especially in young men. Medical experts say these cases are generally mild and the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks.
The narrative also takes advantage of high-profile moments such as the fall of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin as he suffered a cardiac arrest after taking a vicious blow to his chest during a game the previous month. But sudden cardiac arrest has long been a leading cause of death in the US — and medical experts agree that the vaccine did not cause Hamlin’s injury.
For some families, the misinformation represents a sideline to their real focus: understanding why their loved ones died and preventing similar tragedies.
Clint Erickson’s son, Tyler, died in September just before his 18th birthday while golfing near his Florida home. The family knows his heart stopped but still don’t know exactly why. Tyler was not vaccinated, but his story nevertheless appeared in the film “Died Suddenly”.
“It bothers me that he is being used like this,” Eriksson said. But “the biggest personal issue I have is trying to find the answer or what caused it.”
De-Weaver said it was troubling to see people exploit her daughter’s death when they knew nothing about her. They didn’t know whether she loved people so much that she’d hug strangers at Walmart, or that she’d just learned to snap.
Still, de-Weaver said, “I would not wish for anyone to be the loss of a child. them too.
Natalia Scarabotto in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.