Friends in Strange Places

A bizarre alliance of anti-vaxxers, 9/11 truthers, creationists and atrocity deniers spans — and blurs — left-right boundaries

Friends in Strange Places
Illustrated by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

The International Journal of Vaccine Theory, Practice, and Research could easily be mistaken for a respectable publication. Its stated aim is to “bring rigorous independent and unbiased research to the subject of vaccine safety and analysis.” All 18 members of its editorial board have university degrees, though that doesn’t make them relevant authorities. The editor-in-chief, for example, is neither a scientist nor a medical doctor but a retired professor of linguistics. Its senior editor, meanwhile, is a Canadian neuroscientist with a long history of spreading scare stories about vaccines. In short, the International Journal of Vaccine Theory, Practice, and Research is not the publisher of rigorous and unbiased research that it purports to be.

Curiously, the anti-vax journal has ties with a non-medical publication in a seemingly unrelated field. No fewer than four of its authors have also written articles for Propaganda in Focus, a website that claims to be “a forum for expert opinion and analysis about propaganda and its consequences.” One of the four — Daniel Broudy, professor of rhetoric and applied linguistics at Okinawa Christian University in Japan — is not only a member of the journal’s editorial board but also a co-editor of Propaganda in Focus.

Broudy co-edits Propaganda in Focus with Piers Robinson, formerly a professor in the journalism department at Sheffield University in Britain. Robinson is best known as the convenor of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, a cohort of conspiracy theorists who became notorious for claiming that rebel groups were faking chemical attacks in Syria, despite abundant evidence that the Bashar al-Assad regime was responsible for them.

In his university work, Robinson’s main research area was “organized persuasive communication and contemporary propaganda.” He published several academic papers on deception in the media, particularly in relation to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But his quest for examples of such deception led him into strange territory. In one university lecture, posted on YouTube, he railed against “attempts to manipulate our minds” and, by way of illustration, cited the famous news photo of President George W. Bush after the fall of Saddam Hussein, standing on an aircraft carrier in front of a banner reading “Mission Accomplished.” Astonishingly, Robinson informed his audience that the banner “wasn’t actually there” but had been “imposed” on the image.

Robinson also became a dabbler in 9/11 trutherism. In 2018, he wrote a positive review of a book disputing the “official narrative” of the infamous attacks. The book, he said, was a “diligent and painstaking” work. Robinson’s name also appeared on the back cover, endorsing it as “authoritative and carefully argued.

Anti-vax campaigners, 9/11 truthers and defenders of a Middle Eastern dictatorship might seem unlikely partners but, whatever their differences, they are all in the business of promoting fringe views that challenge “mainstream” narratives. In their desire to be taken seriously, they dress up their activism as scholarly research.

Robinson’s Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media, for example, claimed to be responding to “an urgent need for rigorous academic analysis” of media coverage of the Syrian war and the role played by propaganda. Yet their analysis was far from rigorous. Their aim was to promote an “anti-imperialist” view of the conflict, in which Syria’s President Assad was not a murderous oppressor of his own people but a hapless victim of plotting by Western powers. Making highly selective use of the available evidence, they criticized media reports that ran counter to their favored narrative while uncritically praising a handful of journalists whose work supported their claims — regardless of factual accuracy.

The Syrian conflict began with a popular uprising in 2011. After decades of oppression and misrule, pent-up frustrations suddenly boiled over, bringing demands for change. Mass demonstrations called for an end to Assad’s rule. The regime responded brutally and, within months, what had begun as political unrest turned into a full-scale war between government forces and a variety of armed groups. In the midst of that turmoil, the regime began using chemical weapons — banned under international law.

It was well-known that Western governments had used false claims about weapons of mass destruction to create a pretext for going to war in Iraq in 2003. On that basis, Robinson and other self-styled anti-imperialists assumed the chemical attacks in Syria were similarly fabricated. They sought to portray the Syrian conflict as part of a long-standing Western plan for regime change in the Middle East, claiming the chemical attacks were faked in order to provide a suitable pretext.

Following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, many of those who denied chemical attacks in Syria (Robinson included) turned to denouncing lockdowns, face masks and vaccines. This wasn’t quite as big a shift as it sounds, since they construed efforts to control the virus as yet another example of governments seeking to deceive and manipulate the public. Referring to “the Covid-19 narrative” in 2021, Robinson’s co-editor Broudy wrote: “Over the past year, we have observed virtually identical patterns of public messaging to those appearing in the wake of 9/11 and the subsequent ʽregime-change wars.’”

Given that view of the pandemic, hooking up with the anti-vaxxers became a logical next step. The incongruity of their position — defending some of the world’s most brutal regimes while treating measures to protect people’s health as a step toward totalitarianism — did not appear to trouble them.

The two key figures at the International Journal of Vaccine Theory, Practice, and Research are editor-in-chief John Oller and senior editor Christopher Shaw.

Oller, a former professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, has a doctorate in applied linguistics. His opposition to vaccines appears to have developed through an interest in autism and its possible causes.

Together with his son — a professor at Texas A&M University — Oller wrote a book on autism, published in 2009. It contained a foreword by Andrew Wakefield, a British doctor who wrongly claimed to have found a connection between autism and the MMR vaccine, which is used to protect against measles, mumps and rubella. Embarrassingly, a few months after their book appeared, Wakefield was struck off the medical register in Britain for falsifying his research.

Oller is also active in the creationist movement, which claims the Bible’s account of the origins of the universe is factually accurate. He has written articles for the Institute for Creation Research (where he is listed as a member of the technical advisory board) and for Answers in Genesis, an organization that seeks to “expose the bankruptcy of evolutionary ideas” and claims the Earth is only about 6,000 years old.

In 2011, Oller sued university colleagues, claiming he had been marginalized and discriminated against because of his views on both creationism and a supposed connection between vaccines and autism. His claim was rejected.

Shaw, the other key figure at the journal, is a professor in the department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at the University of British Columbia. In 2011, together with colleague Lucija Tomljenovic, he authored two highly controversial papers (here and here) questioning the safety of aluminum adjuvants which, since the 1930s, have been added to many vaccines to increase their effectiveness. Shaw’s papers caused enough of a stir for the World Health Organization’s Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety to review them. It concluded that they were seriously flawed.

Shaw has also caused trouble for several publishers, as a search of the Retraction Watch Database reveals. One of his articles about adjuvants in vaccines was retracted after publication by the Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry. The Vaccine journal retracted another, citing concerns about its “seriously flawed” methodology. In 2017, the journal Toxicology published — and later withdrew — a letter from Shaw and others that accused two fellow scientists of lying.

Also in 2017, the Open Access Library Journal published an article co-authored by Oller, Shaw and others that suggested the WHO had operated a secret birth-control program in Kenya a few years earlier. Tetanus vaccines given to women were said to have been laced with a hormone, hCG, in order to cause miscarriages and infertility.

Their article was basically a scare story. Rumors about the vaccine — repeatedly denied by the WHO — had circulated in various countries since the 1990s. In Kenya’s case, they were spread mainly by the Catholic Church. A scientist named John Broughall called for the article to be retracted, saying its contents “could best be described as a disproven conspiracy theory.” Oller, Shaw and the other authors then withdrew it but published it again in the same journal later. They continued to defend it in an “addendum” published by their own journal in 2020.

In 2022, Shaw and other anti-vaxxers joined forces with Assad’s defenders to produce a collection of articles about COVID-19 for Propaganda in Focus. These portrayed efforts to control the virus as a sinister ploy to deceive and manipulate the public. One of the articles, co-authored by Broudy and Valerie Kyrie (described as a psychologist and “independent researcher”), refers to the pandemic as “a manufactured global health emergency with pseudo-medical martial law.” It continues: “The deployment of the Covid-19 crisis has served as the means by which to manufacture consent to a new social, economic, political and religious order, known variously as the Great Reset, Fourth Industrial Revolution (or New World Order).”

In a separate article, Shaw claims that “most of the world’s population” has been harmed by this, or soon will be. Humanity, he writes, “has become poorer and immeasurably less free, not to mention that those who have been ‘fully’ vaccinated and even required to take ‘booster’ shots may suffer life-long health consequences.”

In an article titled “Never Let a Good Crisis go to Waste,” Robinson asserts that “any concern with respect to the necessity of propaganda to save lives was either secondary to, or otherwise entirely irrelevant to, the promotion of political and economic agendas entirely disconnected to any substantive public health concerns.”

Robinson, Shaw, Broudy and their hangers-on are nothing if not persistent. The same crew can be found in various roles at Synaesthesia, a journal funded by the Okinawa Christian Institute (the university’s parent body) through its budget for “scholarly activities.” Synaesthesia publishes articles in English and Japanese offering “critical perspectives on communications and exercises of power.” Once again, Broudy is listed as a co-editor. Mark Crispin Miller (a New York University professor and member of Robinson’s Working Group on Syria who regards the “official” version of 9/11 as “ludicrous” and “preposterous”) is on the advisory board, while Robinson and Florian Zollman (another Working Group member) are on the international review board.

Synaesthesia also hosts an “International Corona Research Cohort,” whose 20 members include Broudy and Robinson plus Shaw from the anti-vax journal and David Hughes, a contributor to both the journal and Propaganda in Focus. Hughes lectures at the University of Lincoln and can be seen in a video on the conspiracy theory website UK Column describing the “official” version of 9/11 as “absurd.”

According to Broudy, the “corona cohort” project was inspired by a German campaign to prosecute the WHO for crimes against humanity. He announced the cohort’s formation in a post on the website Global Research, inviting the site’s readers to take part. This was an odd way to recruit participants because Global Research — contrary to what its name might suggest — is a notorious hornet’s nest of conspiracism. In 2017, it was investigated by information warfare specialists at NATO’s StratCom, who identified it as “a key accelerant” in circulating false stories that happened to fit narratives being pushed by Russia and Syria. In StratCom’s view, Global Research was part of a network that sought to improve the Google ranking of untrue stories through reposting in order to create “the illusion of multisource verification.” Several articles by Broudy seem to have been given that treatment: Five of them can be found on Global Research, cross-posted with other websites.

So far, though, Synaesthesia appears to have published only one anti-vax article. It’s in Japanese and is actually a translation of an article by Broudy and Kyrie previously published by the International Journal of Vaccine Theory, Practice, and Research. Its abstract begins:

“Incontrovertible evidence has now made clear that much of what has been perceived publicly about the story of SARS-CoV-2 and the pharmaceutical remedies offered (then mandated) was/is part of a sophisticated international fabrication of unprecedented proportion, depth, and deception.

“The origins of the virus, the approved testing regime, the flawed predictive models of spread and mortality, associated social-distancing mandates, and so-called vaccines and their claimed efficacy and safety, all point to a coordinated effort to manufacture public fear and hysteria so as to propagate and normalize transhumanist interventions in healthcare and human biology.”

The article then goes on to raise fears about adjuvants, graphene, nanomaterials and other “foreign bodies” in vaccines.

Despite the unreliability of its articles, the International Journal of Vaccine Theory, Practice, and Research seeks to assure readers that it has high editorial standards. Its guidelines say all submissions should include “empirical research grounded in sound theoretical reasoning” and “cite the most relevant, and most up-to-date references from the best qualified peer-reviewed sources.” Writers must “provide adequate evidence of their own qualifications” and declare any conflicts of interest, “even if they only seem to resemble potential conflicts of interest.” Articles are peer reviewed, normally by two members of the editorial board, but “technically complex and abstract theory and research may involve multiple back and forth interactions asking for detailed revisions, clarifications, and the like with three to seven reviewers examining and critiquing the work.”

The journal even claims superiority over more prestigious publications, which Oller regards as in thrall to powerful corporate and governmental interests. Mainstream medical journals, he writes, “often pre-censor submissions that directly or indirectly challenge the products of the industry, particularly vaccines, which are at its financial foundation, and are at the core of the industry’s governmental power base. The same journals often seem to recoil in fear at legitimate research showing undesirable outcomes of some product or procedure deployed by the vast world-wide medical and pharmaceutical complex.”

There are certainly grounds for concern about these influences but anti-vaxxers tend to blame them automatically when articles are rejected, even when the actual reason is poor-quality research.

Oller also blames malign forces for what he sees as unnecessary retractions of articles after publication. He complains of “an increasing number of coerced involuntary and unjustified retractions” in mainstream journals, insisting that the International Journal of Vaccine Theory, Practice, and Research will return the retraction tool to “its proper historical use.” Once an article is accepted, he says, it “will be safe from hostile attempts to force gratuitous repeated reviews after publication not to mention the extreme of intimidation tactics aiming to force an injurious retraction.”

This will no doubt come as a relief to Shaw, in view of his previous history with retractions.

The grievances voiced by Oller have parallels in other fringe movements. Whether the issue is vaccines, 9/11, Syria or something else, they accuse governments, corporations and institutions of conspiring to deceive the public, with assistance from compliant media. This helps to explain why people who espouse one fringe belief often end up espousing others. They are all sustained by the idea of an overarching conspiracy to prevent such beliefs from spreading. For believers, that creates a perverse sense of validation: The imagined scale of the effort to marginalize their views can be interpreted as a sign that they are on the right track.

Believers can, of course, point to known examples where governments have engaged in mass deception — WMD in Iraq was one — so healthy skepticism is entirely warranted. The problems start, though, when alleged conspiracies of governments and others become the explanation of choice, based on supposition rather than evidence, before more mundane explanations have even been considered, let alone eliminated.

Knee-jerk denials of the generally accepted version of events are not in themselves new. Mass killings by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia during the 1970s and the 1995 Srebrenica massacre in former Yugoslavia were earlier examples. Although reports of the atrocities were well documented, dismissing them as propaganda supported the deniers’ political narrative of Western imperialism and media complicity.

Various authors and academics suggested the death toll in Cambodia had been inflated so as to demonize the Khmer Rouge and distract from the consequences of U.S. meddling in the region. Among them were American scholars Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, who wrote that the allegations of genocide had been used “to whitewash western imperialism” and pave the way for “further intervention and oppression.” Herman took a similar line on the conflict in former Yugoslavia, describing the story of the Srebrenica massacre as “the greatest triumph of propaganda to emerge from the Balkan wars.” Herman and Chomsky later proposed a theoretical framework to explain biases in the mainstream media. Known as the Propaganda Model, it is frequently cited today in support of “anti-imperialist” claims that mainstream news reports of atrocities are likely to be untrue.

While the nature and language of the “anti-imperialist” camp remain fairly constant (since they are readily applicable to new situations), one major change is that the internet now makes them accessible to a much larger audience. Anyone who feels alienated, isolated and suspicious of the authorities can find a welcome among online communities eager to reinforce their suspicions. The allure is not difficult to see. Tales of intrigue and deception are intrinsically more compelling than straightforward narratives — even if the latter are more likely to be true.

Conspiracy theories have some of the same appeal as detective stories, albeit in a more politicized way. The basic plot line is that powerful forces are trying to deceive the public. The technique is to present a series of clues that supposedly reveal the truth. It’s easy to get hooked on detective stories and the same applies to conspiracy theories. There is clearly a demand for them, at least among some sections of the public. Numerous websites serve as one-stop conspiracy shops.

A list of the most popular items on the Global Research site in early October 2022, for example, shows several articles warning about the “dangers” of vaccines. Another informs readers that, during the last 100 years, “every major financial market collapse has been deliberately triggered for political motives by the central bank.” An “incisive historical analysis” claims Hitler was funded by the Federal Reserve and the Bank of England. Other articles warn that QR codes are part of a move toward “digital tyranny” and accuse U.S. forces not only of sabotaging the Nord Stream pipeline in September but also of controlling the weather.

The world of conspiracy theories is one where elements from both extremes of the political spectrum — left and right — can cohabit and cross-fertilize, apparently without much difficulty. In 2012, a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the United States resulted in the deaths of 20 children and six teachers. The attack brought renewed calls for stricter gun controls. Far-right elements responded by denying that a real attack had occurred, claiming instead that it was “staged” using paid actors in order to create a pretext for tightening gun laws. This became known as the “crisis actors” conspiracy theory. It resurfaced eight months later when leftist “anti-imperialists” claimed that a BBC documentary about an incendiary bomb hitting a school in Syria had also been faked using actors.

The overall effect of this propagandizing is to spread distrust of institutions. It fuels populist trends that work to the benefit of the far right, often with assistance from the far left. What exactly the leftists get out of this is far from clear.

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