The Nation of Islam and anti-vaccine rhetoric
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The Nation of Islam and anti-vaccine rhetoric

Image: First Draft Montage / Photography: Pexels (Nataliya Vaitkevich)

How the extremist organization disseminates vaccine misinformation through social media

Background on the Nation of Islam

Established in 1930, the Nation of Islam (NOI) is a Black nationalist and religious organization that was initially built to uplift Black people through programs and community builiding. The group saw a boom in national attention in the 1950s when prominent civil rights leader Malcolm X joined its ranks, promoting the NOI’s teachings until he left the organization in 1964. Over time, anti-white theology, antisemitism and homophobia took hold over its ideology, primarily because of views expressed by leader Louis Farrakhan. 

Currently, the organization is labeled an extremist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Following the rollout of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines in the United States, prominent figures within the NOI have taken to social media to spread Covid-19 vaccine misinformation. False cures, antisemitic rhetoric about the origin of the virus, and conspiracy theories about public figures have all received significant engagement on Instagram, Facebook Pages and YouTube channels.

NOI and mainstream Islam are not the same

Although many of the NOI’s teachings draw on elements from mainstream Muslim religious beliefs, the theological beliefs between the two religions do not align. Indian American and Muslim writer Muzammil H. Siddiqi writes in the Los Angeles Times that “the Nation of Islam has nothing to do with Islam.” What sets the groups apart most politically is that NOI’s race-based beliefs are anathema to mainstream Islam.

NOI leaders use their platforms to spread misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines

The SPLC has labeled NOI leader Farrakhan an extremist and an “antisemite who routinely accuses Jews of manipulating the U.S. government and controlling the levers of world power.” Farrakhan regularly disseminates misinformation about the pandemic and Covid-19 vaccines, through third parties, as he was banned from Facebook and Instagram in May 2019. In a December 2020 video posted to YouTube from the “National Black Leadership Summit,” Farrakhan makes several inaccurate and unfounded claims about vaccines, including that Black people do not need a vaccine, that the government is offering cash payments to Black people who are willing to take the vaccine, and that the entirety of the Caribbean saw only 15 deaths from Covid-19 because of vitamins, among many other false claims. The video was reposted on Instagram, where it received significant engagement. Separately, Farrakhan has referred to vaccines as the “white man’s death plan.”

Author and NOI minister Dr. Wesley Muhammad frequently posts misinformation surrounding vaccines to his Facebook Page, and often cohosts podcasts and headlines anti-vaccine-related webcast events such as “Beyond Tuskegee.” Most recently, Muhammad has spread conspiracy theories surrounding the death of baseball player Hank Aaron, suggesting that his death was linked to the vaccine. Muhammad also alleges that thousands of Israelis and Americans have contracted Covid-19 after being inoculated with Pfizer’s vaccine, and stated that a “vaccine mafia” is targeting the Black community with an experimental military technology disguised as a vaccine. 

Leaders and members refer to Covid-19 vaccines as “experimental”

Calling the Covid-19 vaccine “experimental” is a talking point for many members of the NOI. On the NOI website, text below a graphic composite image reads, “WARNING: Do Not Take the Experimental COVID-19 Vaccine.” The website also features a subsection titled “The COVID-19 vaccine is experimental and not safe. Do Not Take It!” 

In early January, Muhammad posted the video “Beyond Tuskegee: Why Black People Must Not Take the Experimental COVID-19 Vaccine” on his Facebook Page. In the video, he makes unfounded claims about Covid-19 vaccines, including that former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the coronavirus was made in a Wuhan lab, antisemitic claims that the virus was called down by the “sins of Israel,” that coronavirus is a “Jewish disease” and that the pandemic is a conspiracy to depopulate the Black community. Activist and member of the NOI Rizza Islam, who also frequently shares coronavirus conspiracy theories, posted a clip of Dr. Anthony Fauci discussing the vaccine on CNN, with the caption, “So what does this experimental vaccine actually do?”

On the NOI website, “depopulation” is a main talking point

On the vaccine portion of its website, NOI makes several unfounded claims about Covid-19 vaccines, but the most prominent is its belief that several billionaires seek to depopulate the Black population in the United States. There is another claim that in 1993, the World Health Organization, backed by Bill Gates, produced a tetanus vaccine that was later found to sterilize women in Kenya. This sterilization claim has been labeled as false information by AFP Fact Check. The website also claims that Gates met with Warren Buffett, Ted Turner, George Soros and David Rockefeller Jr. to discuss depopulation and “gave billions to the Gates Foundation population control efforts.” The group did gather in 2009 to discuss a variety of issues, including overpopulation and disease. Gates has been tied to depopulation claims by many conspiracy theorists and anti- vaccination groups; the 2009 meeting is often the “evidence” used to support that claim. Narratives about Soros are routine for groups rooted in antisemitism.

Black celebrities who take the vaccine are targets for misinformation

In late January, director Tyler Perry announced that he had received both doses of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine, and in an effort to reduce vaccine skepticism in the Black community, he received his inoculation during a special that aired on BET. Perry’s announcement was met with criticism by influencers from the NOI who frequently express anti-vaccine sentiment online. Rizza Islam criticized Perry on Instagram. In a video posted to his Facebook Page, Islam claims that celebrities are being paid either to take the vaccine or say that they have taken the vaccine, even if they have not. A video posted to the YouTube channel of influencer Vicki Dillard titled “The REAL reason the RX industry contacted Tyler Perry about that sh0t” also makes several unsubstantiated claims about Perry, including that he is a willing pawn for white supremacist institutions and systems. 

Rumors that allege former baseball player Hank Aaron’s death was attributed to a Covid-19 vaccine have been declared false information by several fact-checking and news websites, but this does not stop key members of the NOI from spreading this narrative on social media. Muhammad has frequently posted about the death of Aaron. In one Facebook post, he encourages readers to “do the math” on the circumstances of Aaron’s death. Islam also alleges on Instagram that Aaron’s death was attributed to a Covid-19 vaccine.

Following an announcement that the Rev. Jesse Jackson had taken the Pfizer vaccine in early January, only to be hospitalized a few weeks later for unrelated minor surgery, Islam once again used Instagram to spread falsehoods about Covid-19 vaccines that he claimed caused someone to die.

Historical traumas are used to drive anti-vaccine misinformation

Rizza Islam frequently uses his platform to post coronavirus conspiracy theories about the Black community that include the phrase “Not Another Tuskegee Experiment.” In a separate Instagram page by the same name, the bio reads, “We do not CONSENT to be experimented on by way of vaccines or any other means that are proven to be UNSAFE! We are human beings! Treat us as such.” This links to a website where T-shirts and other items featuring the phrase can be purchased. The official NOI website also features a subsection titled U.S. healthcare practices have historically abused & killed people of color, which cites medical atrocities committed against Black Americans as reasons not to trust Covid-19 vaccines. The Tuskegee experiments are often invoked when speaking generally about medical mistrust in the Black community. As a consequence, the Black community — beyond the NOI — can often have a difficult time accepting new vaccines and treatments, even as it has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic.

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