Sudden death posts twisted tragedy to spread message about vaccinations

The results of the autopsy on 6-year-old Anastasia Weaver could be weeks away. But within hours of this week’s funeral, anti-vaccine activists online were making baseless accusations against COVID-19 vaccines.

A prolific Twitter account tweeted Anastasia’s name and a smiling dancing portrait in a tweet with a splash emoji. A Facebook user sent a message to her mother, Jessica Day-Weaver, calling her a “killer” for getting her kids vaccinated.

In fact, the Ohio kindergarten teacher has had health problems since giving birth prematurely, including epilepsy, asthma and frequent hospitalizations for respiratory viruses. “The doctors didn’t give us any information, just said it was because of all her chronic illnesses. … It never occurred to me that it could be from the vaccine,” Day-Weaver said of her daughter’s death.

But those facts didn’t matter online, and Anastasia was quickly added to a growing list of hundreds of children, teens, athletes and celebrities whose unintentional casualties were wrongly attributed to COVID -19 shooting incidents. Under the hashtag #diedsuddenly, online conspiracy theorists have flooded social media with news, obituaries and GoFundMe pages over the past few months, leaving grieving families to battle the lies.

A 37-year-old Brazilian TV presenter collapsed on-air due to a congenital heart disease. An 18-year-old unvaccinated bull rider has died from a rare disease. The 32-year-old actress died of complications from a bacterial infection.

The use of “sudden death” (or the misspelled version) in tweets about vaccines has increased by more than 740% in the past two months compared to the previous two months, media scouting firm Zignal Labs said in a report. Analysis conducted by the Associated Press. The expression’s explosion began in late November with the debut of an online “documentary” of the same name, which explored a new, disruptive acronym that experts say is Has great power.

“It’s a collective language, a wink, a nudge,” said Renee DiResta, technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory. “They describe something in a relatively conventional way. — people do die unexpectedly — and then bring all those events together in one place by assigning a label.”

Epidemiologist Dr. says the campaign isn’t just hurting the internet. Caitlyn Jeterina.

“The real danger is that this ends up leading to real-world actions like B. Don’t get vaccinated,” said Jetelina, who tracks and analyzes COVID data on her blog, Your Local Epidemiologist.

Rigorous research and real-world evidence from hundreds of millions of vaccinations proves that COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective. Deaths due to vaccination are extremely rare, and the risks associated with not being vaccinated far outweigh those of getting vaccinated. But that hasn’t stopped conspiracy theorists from making all kinds of false claims about vaccines.

The movie “Sudden Death” features a montage of headlines found on Google, falsely suggesting that sudden death “has never happened before”. The film has been viewed more than 20 million times on another video-sharing site, and its companion Twitter account is posting daily numbers of casualties.

An AP review of more than 100 tweets from the account in December and January found that claims about the cases being vaccine related were largely unsubstantiated and, in some cases, contradicted by public information. Some of the people featured died of genetic disorders, drug overdoses, flu complications or suicide. One died in a surfing accident.

The filmmakers did not respond to specific questions from the AP, but instead issued a statement that referenced a “surge in sudden deaths” and a “PROVEN rate of excess deaths,” without providing data.

The number of overall deaths in the U.S. has been higher than what would be expected since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, in part because of the virus, overdoses and other causes. COVID-19 vaccines prevented nearly 2 million U.S. deaths in just their first year of use.

Some deaths exploited in the film predate the pandemic. California writer Dolores Cruz published an essay in 2022 about grieving for her son, who died in a car crash in 2017. “Died Suddenly” used a screenshot of the headline in the film, portraying his death as vaccine related.

“Without my permission, someone has taken his story to show one side, and I don’t appreciate that,” Cruz said in an interview. “His legacy and memory are being tarnished.”

Others featured in the film survived — but have been forced to watch clips of their medical emergencies misrepresented around the world. For Brazilian TV presenter Rafael Silva, who collapsed while reporting on air because of a congenital heart abnormality, online disinformation prompted a wave of harassment even before the “Died Suddenly” film used the footage.

“I received messages saying that I should have died to serve as an example for other people who were still thinking about getting the vaccine,” Silva said.

Many of the posts online cite no evidence except that the person who died had been vaccinated at some point in the past, using a common disinformation strategy known as post hoc fallacy, according to Jetelina.

“People assume that one thing caused another merely because the first thing preceded the other,” she said.

Some claims about those who’ve suffered heart issues also weaponize a kernel of truth — that COVID-19 vaccines can cause rare heart inflammation issues, myocarditis or pericarditis, especially in young men. Medical experts say these cases are typically mild and the benefits of immunization far outweigh the risks.

The narrative also has leveraged high-profile moments like the collapse of Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin as he suffered cardiac arrest during a game last month after a fierce blow to his chest. But sudden cardiac arrest has long been a prominent cause of death in the U.S. — and medical experts agree the vaccine didn’t cause Hamlin’s injury.

For some families, the misinformation represents a sideshow to their real focus: understanding why their loved ones died and preventing similar tragedies.

Clint Erickson’s son, Tyler, died in September just before his 18th birthday while golfing near their home in Florida. The family knows his heart stopped but still doesn’t know exactly why. Tyler wasn’t vaccinated, but his story appeared in the “Died Suddenly” film nonetheless.

“It bothers me, him being used in that way,” Erickson said. But “the biggest personal issue I have is trying to find an answer or a closure to what caused this.”

Day-Weaver said it was upsetting to see people exploiting her daughter’s death when they knew nothing about her. They didn’t know that she loved people so much she would hug strangers at Walmart, or that she had just learned how to snap.

Still, Day-Weaver said, “I wouldn’t wish the loss of a child on anybody. Even them.”