While COVID still rages, anti-vaccine activists will gather for a big conference
The coronavirus pandemic continues to claim thousands of lives a week — mostly people who aren't vaccinated. But that's not stopping a major gathering of anti-vaccine advocates and conspiracy theorists in Nashville, Tenn., this weekend.
The event is being orchestrated by Tennessee couple Ty and Charlene Bollinger. They have been labeled as some of the nation's biggest vaccine misinformation superspreaders.
"If we're superspreaders, we're superspreaders of the truth," Charlene Bollinger says. "We have countless testimonies of people that are alive today because of our work, and this is straight from heaven. God has put us on this Earth for such a time as this."
The Bollingers got their start by promoting unproven alternatives to chemotherapy. Then they cashed in on their DVDs that push falsehoods about vaccines.
Charlene Bollinger calls Tennessee an ideal place to host an event like this one. She says the state has recently become home to many conservative pundits who have questioned aspects of the COVID-19 vaccine, as well as vaccine mandates.
"Right here in Tennessee, now we've got Candace Owens, we've got Ben Shapiro, Tomi Lahren," she says. "A lot of local freedom fighters."
While the event is called The Truth About Cancer, it will cover much more than that — from vaccine conspiracy theories to falsehoods about the 2020 election.
The Bollingers are political — they even hosted a rally in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 to support efforts to overturn the election.
The event's lineup will reflect those political views and feature Donald Trump's son Eric and longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone.
"In a lot of ways they're forming this community of belief," says Lisa Fazio, a misinformation researcher with Vanderbilt University. "'People like us, believe these things.'"
Fazio says some people may show up to this conference for one conspiracy theory and learn about another, giving misinformation the opportunity to cross-pollinate.
"You can't believe some of it and not others," Fazio says. "If you're part of this community, you believe the entire pot."
While the gathering is taking place in a state with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the U.S., Nashville's mayor downplayed the possible public health impacts, calling the event an echo chamber. Plus, the city's vaccination rate is higher than the state's overall rate.
But Dr. Alex Jahangir, who leads the city's coronavirus task force, says it could still be harmful.
"What worries me is people who really want to learn about the vaccine, want to learn about this disease, who are going to an event that they think will give them factual information," Jahangir says.
The event is taking place at Nashville's Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center. The resort asks workers to wear masks if they're not vaccinated and encourages guests to do the same. But that's unlikely to work on this crowd. The conference's website advertises that the in-person event won't require any masks or social distancing.