The results of the autopsy on Anastasia Weaver, who was 6 years old, could take weeks. But this week, online anti-vaccine activists didn’t wait long after her funeral to blame the COVID-19 vaccine for nothing.
In a tweet with a syringe emoji, a popular Twitter account put Anastasia’s name and a picture of her dancing and smiling. Jessica Day-mother Weaver’s got a message on Facebook from a person who called her a “murderer” for getting her child vaccinated.
In reality, the Ohio kindergartener had been sick since she was born early. She had epilepsy, asthma, and often went to the hospital with respiratory viruses. “The doctors haven’t told us anything except that it was because of all of her long-term health problems…. Day-Weaver said that no one ever thought that her daughter’s death could have been caused by the vaccine.
But those facts didn’t matter online, where Anastasia was quickly added to a growing list of hundreds of children, teens, athletes, and celebrities whose sudden 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 stories, obituaries, and GoFundMe pages, leaving grieving families to deal with the lies.
There’s the 37-year-old Brazilian TV host who passed out on air because of a heart defect that was present at birth. The 18-year-old bull rider who died from a rare disease because he hadn’t had his shots. The 32-year-old actress who died because of complications from a bacterial infection.
The use of “died suddenly” or a misspelled version of it in tweets about vaccines has increased by more than 740% in the last two months compared to the two months before, according to an analysis done for The Associated Press by the media intelligence firm Zignal Labs. In late November, an online “documentary” with the same name came out. This helped spread the phrase, which experts say is a new and harmful shorthand.
“It’s kind of a wink-wink, nudge-nudge language,” said Renee DiResta, who is in charge of technical research at the Stanford Internet Observatory. “They’re using a fairly common way to describe something—people do die unexpectedly—and then putting all the information about these deaths in one place by giving it a hashtag.”
Epidemiologist Dr. Katelyn Jetelina said that the campaign hurts more than just the internet.
“The real danger is that it will lead to real-world actions like not getting vaccinated,” said Jetelina, whose blog, “Your Local Epidemiologist,” tracks and analyzes COVID data.
COVID-19 vaccines are safe and work because they have been studied in depth and given to hundreds of millions of people. Very few people die because of a vaccination, and the risks of not getting vaccinated are much higher than the risks of vaccination. But that hasn’t stopped people who believe in conspiracies from making a lot of false claims about vaccines.
In the movie “Died Suddenly,” a montage of headlines from Google is used to make it seem like they prove that sudden deaths have “never happened like this until now.” The movie has been watched more than 20 million times on an alternative video-sharing site, and the Twitter account that goes with it posts every day about more people who have died or been hurt.
The AP looked at more than 100 tweets from the account in December and January and found that most of the claims that the cases were caused by the vaccine were not true and, in some cases, went against what the public knew. Some of the people in the story died from genetic diseases, drug overdoses, complications from the flu, or they killed themselves. One of the surfers died in an accident.
The filmmakers didn’t answer the AP’s specific questions, but they did make a statement about a “surge in sudden deaths” and a “PROVEN rate of excess deaths” without giving any numbers.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the number of deaths in the U.S. has been higher than expected. This is partly because of the virus, overdoses, and other things. In the United States, COVID-19 vaccines stopped almost 2 million deaths in their first year of use.
Some of the deaths used in the movie happened before the pandemic. Dolores Cruz, a writer from California, wrote an essay in 2022 about her grief after her son died in a car accident in 2017. The movie “Died Suddenly” used a screenshot of the headline to show that his death was caused by a vaccine.
“Someone has used his story to show only one side without my permission, and I don’t like that,” Cruz said in an interview. “His name and reputation are being hurt.”
Others who were in the film died, but clips of their medical emergencies have been shown around the world in the wrong way. Before the “Died Suddenly” movie used the footage, online rumors about Rafael Silva, a Brazilian TV host who collapsed while on air because he was born with a heart defect, caused a wave of harassment.
“I got messages saying I should have died to show other people who were still thinking about getting the vaccine that it was a bad idea,” Silva said.
Jetelina says that many of the online posts give no evidence except that the person who died had been vaccinated at some point in the past. This is a common way to spread false information called the “post hoc fallacy.”
“People think that something caused something else just because it came before it,” she said.
Some claims about people who have had heart problems use a small bit of truth as a weapon. For example, COVID-19 vaccines can cause rare heart inflammation problems, like myocarditis or pericarditis, especially in young men. Experts in medicine say that most of these cases are mild and that the benefits of getting vaccinated far outweigh the risks.
The story has also used well-known events, like when Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin collapsed during a game last month after taking a hard hit to the chest and going into cardiac arrest. But sudden cardiac arrest has been a major cause of death in the U.S. for a long time, and doctors agree that Hamlin’s injury was not caused by the vaccine.
Some families see the false information as a distraction from their main goal, which is to find out why their loved ones died and stop other tragedies from happening.
Tyler Erickson, Clint Erickson’s son, died while playing golf near their Florida home in September, just before he turned 18. Even though his heart stopped, his family still doesn’t know why. Tyler didn’t get a shot, but his story was still in the movie “Died Suddenly.”
“I don’t like how he is being used,” Erickson said. But “my biggest personal problem is that I don’t know what caused this and I can’t seem to figure it out.”
Day-Weaver said it upset her to see people use her daughter’s death for their own gain when they didn’t know anything about her. They didn’t know that she loved people so much that she would hug strangers at Walmart or that she had just learned how to snap.
Day-Weaver still said, “I wouldn’t want anyone to lose a child. “Even those.”