Influencers Are Running Wild With Monkeypox Conspiracy Theories

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Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

Though little is understood about the mysterious outbreaks of the monkeypox virus in Europe and North America, scientists agree on one thing: It’s nothing like COVID. But that doesn’t seem to have stopped some influencers in the alternative health and wellness community from repurposing COVID misinformation and using this new public health crisis to further their own agendas.

In the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, alt-health and wellness online influencers—from yoga teachers to fitness instructors—became some of the most active propagators of conspiracy theories about COVID-19. With cases now on the decline in much of the West—thanks in no small part to widespread vaccination campaigns—monkeypox has provided new material to rehash the narratives that brought these influencers attention in the early days of COVID, including claims that monkeypox is a plot engineered by global elites to profit from diseases and restrict individual freedoms.

One of the top 12 influencers responsible for most of the anti-vaccine content in the early months of the pandemic, according to research by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), is alt-health practitioner Sayer Ji, the founder of alternative medicine website GreenMedInfo. Sayer Ji has dedicated his social media channels to making repeated unproven claims about nightmarish vaccine side effects, including death, and that COVID vaccination is a plot masterminded by big pharma and “the global government.”

And now, with monkeypox on the rise, Sayer Ji has taken to his Telegram channel and Twitter to spread ludicrous claims that monkeypox is the mainstream media’s way of covering up side-effects caused by COVID vaccines to his roughly 50,000 and 11.5k followers respectively. His Telegram channel includes multiple posts claiming that cases of monkeypox have coincided with the purchase of vaccines by the U.S., among other bizarre theories. Sayer Ji has also promoted a talk by Dr. Andrew Kaufman—a psychiatrist who denied the existence of COVID in the early days of the pandemic—titled “No More Monkey Business,” in which he claims to expose “monkeyplot fear agitators” for manufacturing a so-called fake crisis. On Twitter, Sayer Ji has claimed that the “Gates Foundation, WHO, Pharma Execs Took Part in [the] Monkeypox Pandemic 'Simulation.’”

<div class="inline-image__credit">Telegram</div>
Telegram

Hiighhopess is a wellness influencer with some 27,000 followers who sells food supplements and “natural” beauty products via her social media accounts. Her Instagram account is a mix of inspirational quotes interspersed with posts about what she describes as a “New World Order.” She recently used her Instagram stories to describe monkeypox as a profiteering ploy manufactured by Bill Gates, and shared claims that the U.S. government is stockpiling vaccines and planning to impose vaccination against monkeypox. Before that, throughout the COVID pandemic, she used her Instagram channel to share anti-vaccine and anti-mask content, including posts depicting vaccination as a plot by elites to manipulate the public into submission.

Self-styled “spiritual reiki healer” Starseed Angel Healings, an active supporter of QAnon with a 15.5k following on Twitter, has also retweeted conspiracy theories claiming that monkeypox outbreaks are caused by the Pfizer vaccine. Before posting content denouncing the “monkeypox hysteria” as a hoax allegedly whipped up by mainstream media to cover up vaccine side effects, she was sharing a wide range of claims inspired by the QAnon conspiracy theory, including posts about how the “Deep State” is comprised of blood-drinking demons and likened suggestions that children could receive the COVID vaccine to the promotion of “genocide.”

<div class="inline-image__credit">Instagram</div>
Instagram

Starseed Angel Healings, Hiighhopess, and Sayer Ji did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Daily Beast.

This repurposing of the COVID playbook by alternative health and wellness gurus should come as no surprise. COVID has provided a blueprint for conspiracy theories, allowing influencers to develop broad-ranging anti-elite and anti-institutional narratives that can be adapted to emerging public health crises. It has also allowed conspiracy-spreaders to use various techniques, including decontextualizing scientific data and cherry-picking facts to give themselves a veneer of credibility.

It’s now become clear that alt-health influencers’ COVID narrative playbook can be infinitely adapted to any new health crisis and new events can be used to fit an “everything is connected” narrative. “It isn’t really about the content and nature of the crisis,” Matthew Remski, cult survivor and co-founder of the Conspirituality podcast told The Daily Beast.

More than any online community, exploiting new crises and manufacturing distrust of institutions is a matter of necessity for some alt-health and wellness representatives. “To maintain their visibility and status, influencers need to stay relevant,” Stephanie Baker, a sociologist at City University in London and author of Lifestyle Gurus, a book about online lifestyle influencers, told The Daily Beast. “Many of the influencers who profited from promoting COVID-19 conspiracy theories are using the same symbols and narratives to interpret current issues, such as monkeypox. This isn’t surprising,” she said, noting similarities “with the Trucker Convoy and the Ukraine War.”

What Scientists Need You to Know About the Monkeypox Hysteria

Influencers’ success in selling their products—be it food supplements, “healing” programs, spiritual content or ‘detoxification’ pills—depends on their ability to fuel distrust in conventional medical institutions and offer alternative products to mainstream medicine. “Repurposing the conspiracy playbook is about profit, but it is also about maintaining an online following and interest in their brand,” Baker said. Wellness influencers who previously shared misinformation about COVID also have an interest in feeding their followers’ anxieties and presenting their content and products as the solution. “The New Age influencer needs to maintain their followers’ anxiety. What’s continuous between COVID and monkeypox is influencers telling their followers that everything is terrible,” Remski said.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Telegram</div>
Telegram

The early months of the pandemic marked a shift for wellness practitioners. Increased internet usage allowed many to boost their profile and use social media to their advantage in ways they previously couldn’t. Marketing research has shown that “micro-influencers”—those who have been 10,000 and 50,000 followers—are most likely to have an impact on their followers, since they seem relatable. This relatability factor helped yoga teachers, spiritual healers and other alt-health practitioners to build trust with their audiences and make a profit at a time when pandemic lockdowns affected thousands of wellness and fitness workers, forcing them to look for new sources of income.

As COVID starts to recede, alt-health figures are capitalizing on new health crises with similar rhetoric. How the monkeypox outbreaks will develop remains uncertain, but if cases continue to increase, misinformation should act as a cautionary tale: Without efforts to address their underlying causes, health-related conspiracy theories are here to stay.

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