Part of the reason that misinformation about vaccines is so intractable is that it can be very lucrative. For years anti-vaccine figures have made money publishing books and giving speeches, and only in the past couple of years have major sites like YouTube started preventing anti-vaxxers from directly earning revenue from advertising. During the pandemic, as the coronavirus created new markets for health hoaxes, conspiracy theorists have been able to make money online by using the misinformation that they publicize on major sites like Facebook to sell supplements and books to followers via e-commerce shops. Now, vaccine skeptics with large followings are turning to crowdfunding platforms—both the relatively obscure GiveSendGo and the decidedly mainstream GoFundMe—to monetize their activities, often to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Vaccine hesitancy may be the most potent force choking off the country’s attempts to escape the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. finally hit the Biden administration’s goal of getting at least the first dose to 70 percent of Americans on Monday, a little less than a month after its July 4 target date, but this milestone still isn’t enough for the country to fend off the highly contagious Delta variant that’s now bowling over the population—and the vast majority of people now dying from COVID-19 are unvaccinated.
On GiveSendGo and GoFundMe, vaccine truthers often portray themselves as little guys in a fight against the pro-vaccine tyranny of big pharma, big tech, and big government, and in doing so rake in money from thousands of sympathetic donors. They’re able to do it in part because of lax standards and moderation blind spots, and in part by operating in gray areas.
Start with GiveSendGo, a Christian crowdfunding platform that launched in 2015 as a site that was mainly intended to raise money for missionary trips and children needing medical treatment. There’s plenty of that on GiveSendGo, but it’s also become the preferred tool for far-right figures to raise cash for fringe causes, and not entirely by accident. By 2017, the site was casting itself as a safe haven for people who weren’t welcome on its much larger competitor. “Gofundme has taken a stance against Christians and has been taking down campaigns that they did not agree with,” a GiveSendGo blog post from around that time read. As mainstream crowdfunding sites became stricter about banning people spreading misinformation and hate, and explicitly far-right alternatives like “Hatreon” proved to be poorly designed, GiveSendGo emerged as an attractive option for extremists. It became notorious this January when members of the Proud Boys and other extremist groups used the site to fund travel and supplies for the Capitol riot, and then to raise money to cover legal fees after many of them were arrested. PayPal cut ties with GiveSendGo a few days after Jan. 6. GiveSendGo claimed that it did not want to “take sides” on the issue. (The site now says it uses “a variety of payment processing companies” but does not identify them by name.)
Over the past few months, GiveSendGo has been hosting fundraisers for causes casting doubt on vaccines that have racked up huge sums.
A crowdfunding campaign for “independent journalist” Ivory Hecker, for instance, has raised nearly $200,000 to support her “true journalism.” It’s not entirely clear what the money is being spent on, but Hecker achieved infamy in June when she was working as a local reporter for Fox 26 Houston and interrupted a weather report to allege that the network was “muzzling” her. She then announced on-air that she was providing “behind-the-scenes” recordings from Fox to conservative gotcha artist James O’Keefe and his group Project Veritas. Hecker had a number of grievances with the network, but chief among them was its coverage of COVID-19 and the vaccines. She alleged that Fox 26 didn’t want to give the vaccines “negative press” and that it was suppressing her coverage of hydroxychloroquine, a discredited cure for COVID-19. Hecker also accused the network of stifling her reporting promoting Stella Immanuel, a prominent anti-vax doctor who’s claimed that some medical treatments secretly use DNA from “reptilians.” Since Fox 26 fired her, Hecker has struck out on her own, trumpeting other phony cures like Ivermectin and amplifying fears about the vaccines on social media.
Former Facebook employee and self-styled “whistleblower” Morgan Kahmann has enjoyed even more success on GiveSendGo, raising more than $508,000. Kahmann became something of a martyr in conservative circles after he also went to Project Veritas with internal documents detailing how Facebook demotes “vaccine hesitancy” content. His leaks didn’t really amount to a bombshell since Facebook has aggressively publicized its efforts to suppress vaccine misinformation, which includes reducing the visibility of misleading COVID-19 content; the documents Kahmann released more or less go into the minutiae of how the platform is implementing its policy. However, he’s now done interviews with Tucker Carlson on Fox News and Alex Jones on Infowars purporting that Facebook is running a shadow operation to hide the truth about the vaccines, which lends itself to anti-vax narratives. Infowars and Project Veritas have both promoted links to Kahmann’s GiveSendGo page.
Other vaccine-related campaigns on GiveSendGo have more to do with projects than particular people. A recent fundraiser for a documentary about the benefits of not vaccinating kids has raised nearly $30,000, while another to put up a Times Square billboard about vaccine injuries has raised about $2,300.
But it isn’t just GiveSendGo, though, that’s facilitating donations for efforts to resist coronavirus vaccines. GoFundMe is also providing services to these causes. There, however, skeptics have a workaround: They’re not raising money to oppose vaccines, per se, but to oppose vaccine mandates.
Indeed, GoFundMe has a host of similar campaigns. One fundraiser that has raised nearly $170,000 is financing a lawsuit against the Houston Methodist Hospital, which is requiring that its medical staff get a COVID-19 vaccine. According to the hospital, 99 percent of the staff ended up getting vaccinated. However, a former Houston Methodist nurse named Jennifer Bridges and more than 100 other employees are trying to take her case against the hospital to the Supreme Court. A district judge has already dismissed the suit. On her GoFundMe page, she posted about a protest that the group held against Houston Methodist in June and highlighted the fact that three people from America’s Frontline Doctors, a right-wing medical organization that has a long track record of spreading anti-vaccine disinformation, gave speeches. Stella Immanuel also spoke to the crowd.
GoFundMe is also hosting another fundraiser aimed at tearing down similar vaccine mandates for students at Virginia universities, which has raised more than $23,000. The campaign claims to be representing parents who want to mount a legal challenge against the state out of concern that the vaccines will cause “long-term, possibly permanent, harm” to their children attending these schools. (It’s long been standard practice for universities to require immunizations for diseases like measles and meningitis.) Part of the proceeds have gone to paying attorneys who have sent letters to schools such as the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary urging them to revoke the mandates “before your students are harmed or killed by these dangerous experimental inoculations.” Besides the fundraisers to fight the Virginia and Houston Methodist mandates, there are numerous other GoFundMe campaigns to support people who are choosing to leave their jobs instead of getting the vaccine. GoFundMe does, however, appear to be placing banners with links to information from the CDC and WHO on fundraising pages that promote vaccine hesitancy, unlike GiveSendGo.
“Fundraisers raising money to promote misinformation about vaccines violate GoFundMe’s terms of service and will be removed from the platform,” GoFundMe’s senior communication manager Monica Corbett wrote in an email. “Over the last several years, we have removed over 250 fundraisers attempting to promote misinformation related to vaccines. Fundraisers for legal challenges do not violate our terms of service. With that said, we will continue to monitor the platform 24/7 and remove any fundraiser attempting to spread misinformation about vaccines.” GiveSendGo, which did not respond to my request for comment, does not appear to have any such vaccine misinformation policies or monitoring practices, which is largely in step with the site’s previous inaction when it comes to extremist groups and election conspiracy theorists.
What’s tricky about these fundraisers, especially on GoFundMe, is that many of them couch their anti-vaccine goals in broader, lofty language—whether it’s about personal medical choices or battling a censorious tech industry or about practicing “true journalism” and telling the real truth. As the Daily Beast reported, users have in the past found ways to get around GoFundMe’s ban on vaccine misinformation by crafting their campaigns in the name of anti-vax dog whistles like “medical freedom” and “informed consent.” Since GoFundMe does explicitly encourage users to use its services to raise money for legal fees, these users often take pains to specify that their fundraisers are for legal battles. The anti-mandate fundraisers I highlighted to GoFundMe, which specify that the donations are for legal fees, are still up on the site. Their fundraising appeals, though, often contain fear-mongering language about the vaccines. At the same time, the platform has tried to crack down on vaccine misinformation, finding itself walking the content-moderation tightrope that other large social media platforms are familiar with, which inevitably leaves loopholes in place that purveyors of misinformation try to exploit. And GiveSendGo, which positions itself as a free speech alternative, has proven more than happy to take in people kicked off of GoFundme.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.