“I think we deserve to be vaccinated because we’re out here trying to get degrees, trying to go to school, trying to live our lives,” said Izzy, 17, watching a small anti-vaccination protest in her hometown of Plymouth in September.
In the pouring rain, the protesters – mostly people over 40 – blasted “Eye of the Tiger” and other Eighties hits from a speaker, holding bright yellow placards reading “teens dying of Covid is rare”.
Refusing the leaflets they offered her, 17-year-old Izzy told the Citizens that she worries about “people like these guys” influencing the media enough that people her age won’t get the Covid vaccine.
“I just think it’s really unfair. There are less people dying of Covid at our age, but some of my friends have been horrendously ill – a few of them have had to go into hospital. We’ve been put through hell the last few years with education and things like that,” she added.
From cartoon leaflets spreading disinformation and sending out emails containing fake NHS vaccine advice, to storming schools and discussing ways to fake a Covid test so their child can avoid both the vaccine and quarantine, these groups are on a mission to “save the children.’’
The ideologies of the vast network of anti-vaccination groups congregating on messaging app Telegram vary from followers of former Pfizer scientist Michael Yeadon, to people whose views come straight from the QAnon conspiracy network.
The earliest use of Save the Children as a campaign slogan comes directly from QAnon, an antisemitic conspiracy theory which posits that an “elite cabal” of celebrities are trafficking children in order to harvest their blood.
Inspired by disinformation and conspiracies, including the QAnon-fuelled idea of a global elite who run the world’s governments, anti-vaccination groups are using increasingly violent language as they organise online.
Earlier this month, an anti-vaccine organiser posted a photo of himself in police riot gear, writing “Let’s see how f****** brave they are when we come at them like this then” and “I will die for the children”.
In August, a Bristol tattooist and leader of the 37,000-person strong Telegram group “We the People Worldwide” released a video threatening NHS and council workers. “If you’re sticking this jab in our children then God help you ... we’re coming for every f****** one of you,” he said.
At a September protest outside buildings in central London such as News UK, Ash Bennett, 37, marched through the streets with a megaphone preaching about vaccine deaths and adverse reactions. “We must stand up as a nation and say enough is enough. Jabbed, unjabbed, it doesn’t matter. Protect the children at all costs,” he said.
Throughout the protest – which had a heavy police presence – Mr Bennett taunted officers, walking alongside them showing a photo on his phone of a baby born with a deformity, shouting “that’s what they’re doing to kids now, because the mother had the injection. Look, look! That’s what you’re protecting!”
According to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, data available shows that if a pregnant woman has the Covid vaccine she is not at an increased risk of having adverse pregnancy outcomes.
For Izzy, these actions in the name of saving children like her are frustrating and not representative of her views. But for other more vaccine hesitant adolescents, anti-vaccination material may have more of an impact.
A study published this week into vaccine hesitancy among schoolchildren in the UK found that 50.1 per cent would opt-in to take a vaccination, 37.0 per cent were undecided, and 12.9 per cent would opt-out.
The survey of nearly 28,000 students found that vaccine hesitant students were more likely to come from deprived socioeconomic contexts, smoke or vape, spend longer on social media, and feel that they did not belong in their school community – but had lower levels of anxiety and depression.
“I’ve seen stuff on social media for and against the vaccine,” said Luke, a 13-year-old from Bristol, who says he has seen people “doing conspiracy theories” online, as well as people making fun of anti-vaxxers. “Everyone has their own opinion about it, but if it’s just one person filming their own videos it’s not too convincing compared to thousands of people in the government.”
But not all are so trusting of the UK government, and not without reason. 15-year-old Fatima from southeast London is hesitant about getting the vaccine despite both her parents having it.
When asked whether she would get the jab as part of the government roll-out in schools, she told the Citizens she wants to do her own research first.
“I’m not trying to say anything bad about the government, it’s just that to me it seems like they’re making very bad decisions lately,” explained Fatima. “With Covid, when things start to get good, they allow everything to open again and then Covid cases rise again, and it’s just kind of going in a pattern.”
Conspiracy theories are often only able to take root because real government wrongdoing has eroded public trust. The revelations that senior ministers had handed lucrative personal protective equipment (PPE) contracts to friends, combined with past pharmaceutical industry failings such as Thalidomide causing birth-defects are two of many real-life examples cited by anti-vaccine groups.
Matt and Sadie Single, (a couple from Brighton aged 49 and 42 respectively) who are key players in many of the anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine protests, told the Citizens the movement is “neither right nor left”.
Ex-British National Party (BNP) member Matt describes himself as “completely removed from all politics” because it aims to “create division”. His wife has similar views, leading them to remove their children from mainstream education in order to homeschool them.
For Sadie, a qualified teacher, this was partly influenced by her desire to spend more time with her children who she now teaches. For Matt, the decision came after his twin boys were playing football and a teacher told them not to pick up their ball because “it might have Covid on it”.
Describing this as part of the “toxified” environment that is mainstream schooling, he added that nurses going into schools to “inject children with a toxin” was the final straw. The Singles’ four children are central in much of their decision-making and often accompany them to protests; Matt describes them as “seasoned campaigners.”
While there is legitimate concern about what impact the UK’s increasingly extreme anti-vaccination networks could have on adults and children alike, most teenagers just want to get on with being teenagers. Luke, who struggled with doing school work in the pandemic and experienced Long Covid symptoms for nearly a year, told the Citizens that “I think the sooner everyone gets the vaccine, the sooner it’s over.”
Fatima also struggled during lockdown and is enjoying being back with her friends, but because she’s “heard many complaints from people who say they aren’t sure about it and they don’t know what’s in it” on the news and on Instagram, she won’t get the vaccine until she feels better informed.
This story was published in collaboration with media non-profit the Citizens
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