Infected by doubt

A 26-year-old film editor’s descent into coronavirus vaccine conspiracy theories
Micah Conrad, 26, in Los Angeles this summer. (Jenna Schoenefeld for The Washington Post)

It began as a freelance job. Micah Conrad would wake up midmorning, check his email and begin downloading videos that had arrived while he slept. He would brew coffee, drinking it on the narrow patio of the small apartment he shares with his wife in a sun-bleached building near the intersection of Hollywood and Sunset boulevards in Los Angeles. Then it was back inside, where he would edit footage for the next 10 hours at a standing desk in the corner of their bedroom.

A 26-year-old aspiring filmmaker clinging to the lowest rungs of Hollywood’s hierarchy, Conrad often took work as it came. The virtual conference whose presentations he was now polishing provided at least a week of steady employment at a time when the coronavirus pandemic had cut off many of his regular sources of income.

Then, on a Sunday night in late April, he went on Facebook to announce that the conference was providing him with something else: a revelation that challenged his understanding of his body, his government and — above all — the infection that was ending and changing lives across the country.

Conrad had been editing videos for an event called the Health Freedom Summit. The faces he was studying for so many hours on his computer screen belonged to some of the world’s most influential anti-vaccine activists and coronavirus skeptics.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks at a rally in Olympia, Wash., in 2019. (AP/Ted S. Warren)
Andrew Wakefield addresses a gathering hosted by the American Rally for Personal Rights in Chicago in 2010. (AP/Charles Rex Arbogas)
Judy Mikovits, outside the Whittemore Peterson Institute in Reno, Nev., in 2011. (David Calvert for AP Images)
TOP: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks at a rally in Olympia, Wash., in 2019. (AP/Ted S. Warren) BOTTOM LEFT: Andrew Wakefield addresses a gathering hosted by the American Rally for Personal Rights in Chicago in 2010. (AP/Charles Rex Arbogas) BOTTOM RIGHT: Judy Mikovits, outside the Whittemore Peterson Institute in Reno, Nev., in 2011. (David Calvert for AP Images)

There was Andrew Wakefield, the British ex-doctor behind a fraudulent study linking autism to the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine; Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose transformation from crusading litigator to anti-vaccination firebrand had outraged other members of one of America’s most storied political dynasties; Judy Mikovits, a disgraced virologist who would soon become famous for her starring role in “Plandemic,” a video that promoted conspiracy theories about the pandemic while attacking Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert.

Conrad was unsure what to make of these speakers, he told his 600 Facebook friends. But he believed they deserved a fair hearing.

“I’ve had countless moments where I completely stopped work, and just listened to what these people had to say about topics like COVID-19, the government setting America up for mandatory Vaccinations, and how we are so brainwashed by what the mass media is telling us day in and day out,” he wrote, including a link to the summit’s Facebook page. “Before you make a potential life changing decision about your health and personal freedoms, ask yourself WHO and WHAT ultimately convinced you. Challenge your own facts and reasoning.”

For the past week, I've been working with a group of people on a Health Freedom Summit, featuring people like Dr....

Posted by Micah Conrad on Sunday, April 26, 2020

The reaction from his online social circle was swift — and divided.

“Yeah boii! Lots of people waking up,” one friend enthused in a comment on his post.

“This is not ‘health freedom,’ this is stoking paranoia for the purpose of political gain,” another warned. “These people do NOT have your best interest at heart.”

Conrad had never given much thought to politics or public policy. But he had stumbled into a debate that could reshape a country reeling from the worst pandemic in a century. When he wrote his Facebook post, covid-19 had killed at least 52,000 people in the United States. Since then, the death toll has more than tripled and almost 6 million Americans have become infected. Amid inconsistent, incomplete or incompetent state and federal efforts to contain the virus, many Americans have placed their hopes in the breakneck quest for a vaccine.

But even if a safe and effective vaccine is developed, its universal embrace is not assured. The haste with which vaccines are being pursued, bungled messaging by public health officials and President Trump’s politicization of the science surrounding the virus have all contributed to doubts about inoculation against covid-19.

Those doubts are also being fueled by anti-vaccination activists, who are seeking an unprecedented victory for their movement by undermining confidence in a drug that could end the pandemic.

For months, they have spread messages rejected by an overwhelming majority of scientists and doctors. Among them are the ideas that common vaccines are inherently dangerous, that the coronavirus can be conquered by spending time in the sun and taking vitamin supplements, that Gates is plotting to profit from the pandemic and even that covid-19 symptoms are caused by plutonium from exploding satellites.

Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during a House subcommittee hearing on July 31 in Washington. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool via AP)
Bill Gates speaks during the International Conference on Agriculture Statistics in New Delhi in 2019. (Money Sharma/AFP via Getty Images)
LEFT: Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during a House subcommittee hearing on July 31 in Washington. (Kevin Dietsch/Pool via AP) RIGHT: Bill Gates speaks during the International Conference on Agriculture Statistics in New Delhi in 2019. (Money Sharma/AFP via Getty Images)

Scientists don’t agree on the threshold for herd immunity, the percentage of the population that must become resistant to the virus in order to halt its spread. But most do agree that a vaccine will have greater odds of success if large numbers of people are immunized — and that outcome is in doubt.

A CNN poll in mid-August found that 40 percent of Americans said they would not try to get a coronavirus vaccine if it were widely available at a low cost. In a literal sense, the fate of the virus and the country it has crippled hang on American public opinion — on the opinions of people like Micah Conrad.

Before he began work on the Health Freedom Summit, Conrad had accepted health officials’ warnings about the threat of the coronavirus and their advice for reducing the risk of contracting it. But he had also been raised, like many Americans, to question authority. Behind the heavy curtains that blocked Southern California’s sunlight from his bedroom-cum-office, that skepticism was being stoked. Here were men and women whose names were followed by PhD and MD, saying that face mask recommendations were the first step toward a new age of tyranny and that the coronavirus was no more dangerous than the common cold.

“These are knowledgeable people,” Conrad said, “and they’re saying stuff that’s very, very different than what’s in the media right now.”

When Conrad wrote his Facebook post in the spring, he was still sorting out whether he would get a coronavirus vaccine. But the simple fact of his uncertainty posed a challenge for the doctors, scientists and politicians trying to beat back the pandemic.

Conrad had received his early childhood vaccinations. He had little exposure to the fringe figures who for decades have promoted anti-vaccine ideology. In 2016, he voted for Hillary Clinton.

If someone like him could be persuaded to reject a coronavirus vaccine, how many others might follow?

‘Every dude can be a hero’

Tanned, tall and lean, Conrad blends in among the aspiring creative types drawn to his adopted city. He lives in Los Feliz, a fashionable neighborhood north of downtown L.A., where young people can be found at odd hours of the work day picking at pastries alfresco along Hillhurst Avenue or testing their legs against the hills of Griffith Park.

But he passed his formative years in a very different environment. Conrad grew up on the rural western shore of Michigan’s lower peninsula. His family home was on several forested acres above a ravine; a creek running across the property empties a half-mile west into Lake Michigan. His dad was a salesman. His mom, an art teacher, left her job to care for and eventually home-school Conrad and his sister. Life was insular and could feel remote.

Conrad loved it.

Conrad, 6, dressed as Batman at his home in Fennville, Mich., in 2000. (Family photo)

“It was just a boy’s heaven,” he said. Like many home-schoolers, the Conrads found that lessons could often be completed by lunchtime, allowing Micah to wander the woods by afternoon. He hunted deer and fished in the backyard creek for steelhead trout. But Micah was not a budding Marlboro Man, according to his mother, Sue Conrad.

“When he saw his dad clean a fish for the first time, he just about lost it,” she recalled.

Gentle and inquisitive, Micah — along with his sister, who would go on to become a professional ballerina — also showed artistic tendencies from an early age. A pivotal moment in his life-defining obsession with film came when he and his dad watched a movie not universally hailed as high art: “Rambo III.”

Action and superhero stories would remain Micah’s preferred genre. Beneath the explosions and schlock one-liners, he believed, these movies revolved around timeless and important themes: the power and consequences of individual choices, the possibility for even the most ordinary person to do something extraordinary. A Batman poster adorns the walls of Micah’s apartment today.

“What I love about him is that he’s just a normal guy like everyone else. He’s just a dude,” Micah said. “But he reminds us that every dude can be a hero.”

Conrad as a boy in Michigan. (Family photo)
Conrad, when he was 16, with his mother Sue at a performance of “Annie the Musical” in 2010. (Family photo)
LEFT: Conrad as a boy in Michigan. (Family photo) RIGHT: Conrad, when he was 16, with his mother Sue at a performance of “Annie the Musical” in 2010. (Family photo)

Another powerful influence shaped Micah’s life from an early age: religion. The family regularly attended a nondenominational Christian church in the nearby town of Holland, and he remains a believer. His mother said she sought to instill in him a desire to understand God’s will and to follow his conscience when making decisions.

It was her own conscience that led Sue Conrad to embrace alternative diets and health care. She believed that a healthy, well-nourished immune system was often more important than the interventions of modern medicine. Although she vaccinated both her children, Micah received fewer inoculations than his older sister. The last was a tetanus booster after he cut himself playing outside at age 5. Vitamin supplements accompanied a family diet that revolved around wild game and fresh fruits and vegetables.

“I’m not going to say we didn’t run through Taco Bell when we needed some fast food when we were out,” Sue said. “But by and large, their food was as natural as we could get it.”

It was this idiosyncratic mix of influences — sermons and Stallone, venison and Taco Bell — that Micah brought with him to L.A. in 2013 after completing an associate degree at a film school in Grand Rapids, Mich. He worked as a production assistant, a visual-effects artist, a teleprompter operator. He fell in love and married. He both embraced and distrusted the profoundly secular, liberal culture that held sway in Hollywood.

So when a series of speakers appeared on his computer screen challenging that culture’s received truths, Micah sat up and listened.

‘The dark side’

As the pandemic worsened this spring, some health experts believed it would spell the end of the anti-vaccine movement by showing the danger of a virus for which no inoculation is available.

Tara C. Smith, an epidemiologist and professor at the Kent State University College of Public Health, knew that optimism betrayed unfamiliarity with the tactics of those who challenge vaccine safety. And she knew that far from crippling the movement, the pandemic provided it with a rare opportunity.

The same public-health establishment long reviled by anti-vaccination activists was now urging strict limitations on Americans’ freedom to shop, eat in restaurants or gather for religious worship. Vaccine opponents rushed to join forces with Trump supporters holding demonstrations to reopen the economy in defiance of expert advice.

“I’m not surprised at all that these combined into a new flavor of science denial,” Smith said.

Demonstrators participate in a caravan calling on California officials to reopen the economy in Los Angeles on April 22. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Anti-vaccine messages have at least tripled from their pre-pandemic level, said Joe Smyser of the Public Good Projects, a health policy nonprofit that tracks vaccine information in social media, blogs, online news publications and other sources through an initiative called Project VCTR.

“Just from a research point of view, it’s fascinating to watch,” Smyser said. “Whereas public health is very disorganized in our approach to the pandemic, anti-vaxxers are extremely organized and are hosting online summits and doing advocacy training.”

One effort that caught Smyser’s attention was the Health Freedom Summit. Released online in late April, it ultimately drew approximately 35,000 registrants, said Alana Newman, one of the organizers.

Newman, who lives in Louisiana, praised Conrad’s editing work for the summit, which included sepia graphics and an ominous soundtrack that begins and ends the presentations. “Any idea he suggested, he implemented it, and went beyond my wildest dreams as to how beautiful the results were,” she said.

The conference’s recurring message was that government officials were exaggerating the threat of the coronavirus in an attempt to violate individual liberties, culminating in a program of forced, universal vaccination that was possibly tied to a plan for worldwide population surveillance.

“We are seeing a destruction of the economy, a destruction of people and families . . . and unprecedented violations of health freedom,” Wakefield said. “And it’s all based upon a fallacy. ”

Mikovits — who would reach millions in “Plandemic,” which was removed by Facebook, YouTube and others for misinformation that could put people at risk — warned that wearing masks would actually make people sick.

“Viruses don’t float through the air,” she said. “You can’t spread it the way they’re saying it’s spreading, so the masks are hurting the people wearing them, and I can’t say that enough.”

Such statements are contradicted by data and broad scientific consensus. Not only is the coronavirus airborne; many researchers now believe that it spreads even more easily through air than initially known. Since reopening its economy, the United States has experienced an explosion of infections and deaths.

In Florida, one of the states that has been ravaged by covid-19 since efforts to contain the virus were relaxed, Michael Green was dumbfounded by Conrad’s tentative endorsement of the Health Freedom Summit speakers on his Facebook page. Green, a 31-year-old visual effects artist and film editor who worked with Conrad in California before moving to Tampa, was among those who pushed back in the comments section of Conrad’s April post.

Michael Green, 31, outside his apartment in Riverview, Fla. (Edward Linsmier for The Washington Post)

“I wouldn’t say that I’m really good friends with Micah, but I’ve hung out with him on multiple occasions,” Green said in an interview. “To see somebody that you do care about end up being persuaded into this — whatever you want to call it — it’s frustrating. Because you want to just be, like, ‘No, dude, don’t do it. It’s the dark side.’ ”

Newman — whose interview with a Washington Post reporter was interrupted when a police officer confronted her at a store where she was shopping without a required mask — defended the views espoused in the conference, saying federal and state officials’ response to the pandemic had been excessive. Regardless of the merits of the arguments made at the summit, she said, people should be able to hear them and reach their own conclusions.

“What’s the threat,” Newman said, “of people considering ideas?”

The choice

A few days before the summit went live at the end of April, Conrad said, he was on a call with Newman and Stephanie Lind, the event’s co-host. Lind was a friend of Conrad’s who had brought him on board for the project. Conrad asked how publicity for the conference was going. Was word about the summit getting out?

There was a problem on that front, Lind admitted: Facebook had shut down their ads.

Conrad was confused. Was there a copyright problem?

No, Lind told him: The summit had been tagged as coronavirus misinformation. Facebook was in the midst of a crackdown on false or misleading material that could abet the spread of the virus.

“It took me a second to process that,” Conrad recalled. “I was like, ‘Wow. So Facebook is deciding to label what we’re doing as misinformation. Where are they getting that story from? And is that their right?’ ”

Amid those questions, Conrad felt sure about one thing: By helping to spread messages others were trying to suppress, he was doing the right thing.

“It didn’t make me concerned about what I was doing,” he said of the social media Goliath’s censorship. “It made me motivated to get it out.”

His conviction grew in the days and weeks after the summit during discussions with his 29-year-old wife, Dasha, an aspiring actress. The pair had met at church and married in 2018. Dasha Conrad, who immigrated from Kazakhstan to Texas with her mother as a child, had heard about the Illuminati, an 18th-century secret society founded in Bavaria that has been grist for countless conspiracy theories. The notion of a shadowy network of elites directing the course of history made sense to her. Assertions that powerful people had orchestrated the pandemic did not seem far-fetched.

“The whole system is corrupt,” she said. “I don’t know the whole answer. I just know that we have to be awakened to it.”

The Conrads talked about what was being said in the videos Micah edited. Why were social media companies and public health officials going to such lengths to stop those voices? Were they afraid of what might happen if people were allowed to decide for themselves what was true and what was false?

And so the Conrads made their own decision. They might not be able to verify all the Health Freedom Summit information. But they saw plenty of reasons to distrust the authorities pushing for a coronavirus vaccine.

A vaccine that Micah and Dasha Conrad would not be getting.

Conrad in Los Angeles. (Jenna Schoenefeld for The Washington Post)

“I don’t think it’s necessary to put that into our bodies,” Micah said. Instead, the couple would focus on boosting their immune systems through exercise and healthy food, with diets that include intermittent fasting and a regimen of homemade juices.

Micah said he is not opposed to all vaccines and acknowledges the benefits they have provided to many. He and Dasha weren’t rejecting every mainstream medical suggestion for combating the coronavirus. They continued to wear masks in public places out of respect for those around them.

But Micah’s trust in some of that guidance was continuing to erode. He was asking more questions and scouring the Internet for answers. On June 24, about 10 weeks after he had first urged his friends on social media not to trust what they were hearing about the pandemic from the government and the media, he again went on Facebook, quoting from a widely circulated post that cast doubt on the effectiveness of masks.

“Ooo, this is interesting,” Conrad wrote to his friends. “What are your thoughts?”

The debate did not get far. Facebook removed his post, telling him in a notification that it violated the company’s standards on “misinformation that could cause physical harm.”

Micah still believed he was just exercising his right to free speech, asking questions that encouraged people to think for themselves. But to those patrolling social media for coronavirus falsehoods, it was clear which side he was on.

A few weeks ago, I re-posted some stats from OSHA about various types of masks. I was enjoying having a convo with some...

Posted by Micah Conrad on Monday, July 20, 2020

Story editing by Lynda Robinson. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Video editing by Peter W. Stevenson. Design by Tara McCarty. Graphic by Emily Guskin. Copy editing by Emily Codik. Scott Clement and Emily Guskin contributed to this story.

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Anti-vaccination leaders seize on coronavirus to push resistance to inoculation

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