Jun 19, 2023

Is this anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist the next Alex Jones?

May 4, 2023

Stew Peters is the man behind a viral anti-vaccine film

Rachel Schraer & Mike Wendling
BBC News

A film promoting an anti-vaccine conspiracy theory has been accused of helping to drive the harassment of bereaved families. In a rare interview with the BBC, the man behind it says he is "happy" about its influence - and believes the people responsible for Covid vaccinations should be executed.

We met the film's creator, Stew Peters, in a warehouse he had rented for the occasion, on an industrial estate in Vero Beach, Florida. His crew had set up a makeshift studio and were filming us as we filmed him - to get their own message out.

Mr Peters is a former bounty hunter and rapper from Minnesota who built an influential podcast and social media network through the pandemic.

His film, called Died Suddenly, portrays a striking but false narrative - claiming that swathes of people are suddenly and suspiciously dropping dead in large numbers, and that Covid vaccines are to blame.

The film misuses images and manipulates data to paint a persuasive picture that the vaccines are very unsafe - contrary to vast amounts of scientific research.

We asked Mr Peters about the fabricated evidence within the film, including clips of blood clots and birth defects which the BBC and other researchers have traced back to medical training materials pre-dating the pandemic. But he refused to answer direct questions.

"This is an attempt to try to discredit me or the film rather than talking about the millions of people that are dying," he told us, going on to describe Covid vaccines as a "bio-weapon…[that's] killed unprecedented, record-smashing numbers of people".

These are huge claims and so they need strong evidence to back them up - but the weight of scientific evidence is against such claims.

There have been rare cases of serious Covid-19 vaccine side effects including deaths, which deserve careful investigation. But on a population level, vast amounts of data from different teams of independent scientists around the world suggest that overall, the vaccines have saved millions of lives.

We asked Mr Peters why he'd included examples of people supposedly "dying suddenly" from Covid vaccines which were easy to disprove - including clips filmed before the pandemic or before the vaccines were available.

"I'm on a very specific mission, and that is to expose lies that are killing people," was his response.

While the film might contradict the best evidence we have, it's super-charged a trend. Now online trolls use the keywords "died suddenly" to search for stories of personal tragedies and link them without evidence to Covid vaccines, often bombarding family members with unpleasant messages in the process.

Look at virtually any announcement of a sudden celebrity death online and you'll now see strange messages appearing underneath, linking their passing to Covid vaccines and often using the hashtag #DiedSuddenly.

Perhaps one of the most surreal moments of our interview came when we asked Mr Peters about the on-field collapse of American football player Damar Hamlin. The Died Suddenly Twitter account jumped on the news in early January, using the #DiedSuddenly hashtag and linking the player's injury to Covid vaccines.

Mr Hamlin is still alive, and said recently that his doctor has put his injury down to commotio cordis - a rare condition where a blow to the chest causes cardiac arrest.

But Mr Peters continues to insist Mr Hamlin "died suddenly".

When we point out the player's multiple public appearances since his collapse, Mr Peters said: "You ever heard of CPR? That's a thing that when somebody dies you do to save their life. They're dead. Damar Hamlin died suddenly."

He went on: "I don't know if he's dead. I know he died on that field. We all watched it… Why else would they have to give him CPR?"

When we point out that death is usually irreversible, he accused us of trying to "explain away CPR", before suggesting Mr Hamlin was indeed dead and his public appearances had been faked.

It's a world where facts don't matter and anything can be spun to support your existing worldview. Mr Peters also contends that the Ukraine war and the moon landings are "fake".

He follows the American conspiracy playbook of people like Alex Jones, who denies the reality of grieving people while promoting his own message - and products for sale.

Bankrupt Alex Jones spends nearly $100,000 a month
Is this the end of the line for Alex Jones?
No, Damar Hamlin was not replaced by a body double
After decades of spreading conspiracy theories, Mr Jones has now been ordered to pay more than $1bn in damages for falsely claiming the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax.

But Mr Peters' audience has so far grown with little hindrance - even attracting influential political figures to his programme. Guests have included Kelli Ward, the head of the Republican Party in Arizona and Mark Meadows, a former White House chief of staff under Donald Trump.

Died Suddenly has now been watched at least 18 million times on Rumble following its release in November last year, while the film's accompanying Twitter account has more than 350,000 followers.

In November of last year, Twitter stopped taking action against tweets spreading Covid misinformation. The company declined to comment.

Trisha Hickman, a former army analyst, scientist and teacher, is one of the bereaved people who had her grief appropriated by Mr Peters' conspiracy theory.

When she posted on Twitter last November that her husband had died unexpectedly, "those words really opened up floodgates for people telling us what horrible people we were for getting vaccinated and how it was our fault," she says.

She describes one of the messages she received: "The vaccine killed your spouse. It's all your fault. You murderer".

"It can put you down some dark holes after a while," she said.

But when we ask Mr Peters whether he regrets the effect of his film, he shows little remorse.

"You want to know if I care that somebody got their feelings hurt? No, I don't give a damn!"

"All we're doing is saving more lives. I think that's awesome. And I'm happy to hear you report that," he says.

Part of what seems to make the film so seductive is, within his through-the-looking-glass logic, Mr Peters spins his far out claims around a small kernel of truth.

It's true there has been a rise in the numbers of people dying in many countries across the world since Covid-19 emerged. But it's unlikely to be for the reason Mr Peters claims. Data, including that produced by the Office for National Statistics in the UK, suggests vaccinated people are dying at lower rates than unvaccinated people.

When we ask him why he trusts official data when it tells us there are excess deaths, but doesn't trust the same data when it tells us those deaths are happening at a higher rate in unvaccinated people, he simply describes it as "total nonsense".

A willingness to discard facts and pick out only the scraps of information that support a narrative has been a winning formula for attracting thousands of listeners and viewers. The tactic allows people like Stew Peters to create an alluring world view where everything can be doubted - even bereaved people's accounts of their own loved ones' deaths.


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