ORINDA, Calif. — They waved signs that read “Defeat the mandates” and “No vaccines.” They chanted “Protect our children” and “Our children, our alternative.”
Almost everyone in the gang of greater than three dozen was a parent. And as they protested on a recent Friday within the Bay Area suburb of Orinda, Calif., that they had the identical refrain: They were there for his or her children.
Most had never been to a political rally before. But after seeing their children isolated and despondent early within the coronavirus pandemic, they despaired, they said. On Facebook, they found other frightened parents who sympathized with them. They shared notes and online articles — lots of them misleading — concerning the reopening of faculties and the efficacy of vaccines and masks. Soon, those issues crowded out other concerns.
“I wish I’d woken as much as this cause sooner,” said one protester, Lisa Longnecker, 54, who has a 17-year-old son. “But I can’t consider a single more vital issue. It’s going to determine how I vote.”
Ms. Longnecker and her fellow objectors are a part of a potentially destabilizing latest movement: parents who joined the anti-vaccine and anti-mask cause through the pandemic, narrowing their political views to a single-minded obsession over those issues. Their considering hardened at the same time as Covid-19 restrictions and mandates were eased and lifted, cementing in some cases right into a skepticism of all vaccines.
Nearly half of Americans oppose masking and an identical share is against vaccine mandates for schoolchildren, polls show. But what’s obscured in those numbers is the intensity with which some parents have embraced these views. While they once described themselves as Republicans or Democrats, they now discover as independents who plan to vote based solely on vaccine policies.
Their transformation injects an unpredictable element into November’s midterm elections. Fueled by a way of righteousness after Covid vaccine and mask mandates ended, lots of these parents have turn into increasingly dogmatic, convinced that unless they act, latest mandates will probably be passed after the midterms.
To back up their beliefs, some have organized rallies and disrupted local school board meetings. Others are raising money for anti-mask and anti-vaccine candidates like J.D. Vance, the Republican nominee for Senate in Ohio; Reinette Senum, an independent running for governor in California; and Rob Astorino, a Republican gubernatorial candidate in Recent York.
In interviews, 27 parents who called themselves anti-vaccine and anti-mask voters described strikingly similar paths to their latest views. They said that they had experienced alarm about their children during pandemic quarantines. They pushed to reopen schools and craved normalcy. They became indignant, blaming lawmakers for the disruption to their children’s lives.
Many congregated in Facebook groups that originally focused on advocating in-person education. Those groups soon latched onto other issues, comparable to anti-mask and anti-vaccine messaging. While some parents left the net groups when schools reopened, others took more extreme positions over time, burrowing into private anti-vaccine channels on messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram.
Eventually, some began questioning vaccines for measles and other diseases, where inoculations have long been proven effective. Activists who oppose all vaccines further enticed them by joining online parent groups and posting inaccurate medical studies and falsehoods.
“So many individuals, but especially young parents, have come to this cause within the last yr,” said Janine Pera, 65, a longtime activist against all vaccines who attended the Orinda protest. “It’s been an enormous gift to the movement.”
The extent of activity is obvious on Facebook. Since 2020, greater than 200 Facebook groups geared toward reopening schools or opposing closings have been created in states including Texas, Florida and Ohio, with greater than 300,000 members, in response to a review by The Recent York Times. One other 100 anti-mask Facebook groups dedicated to ending masking in schools have also sprung up in states including Recent Jersey, Recent York and Connecticut, some with tens of hundreds of members.
Renée DiResta, a research manager on the Stanford Web Observatory who has studied anti-vaccine activism, said the movement had indoctrinated parents into feeling “like they’re a part of their community, and that community supports specific candidates or policies.”
Their emergence has confounded Republican and Democratic strategists, who frightened they were losing voters to candidates willing to take absolute positions on vaccines and masks.
“A number of Democrats might think these voters at the moment are unreachable, even in the event that they voted for the party recently,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a Democratic political adviser to former President Barack Obama.
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Nathan Leamer, who worked on the Federal Communications Commission through the Trump administration and is now vp of public affairs on the firm Targeted Victory, said Republican candidates — a few of whom have publicly been against Covid vaccine mandates — were higher positioned to draw these voters. He pointed to last yr’s surprise win in Virginia of Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, after he gained the support of young parents by invoking their frustration over Covid-driven school closures.
Even so, Mr. Leamer said, these parents were a wild card in November. “The reality is that we don’t really know what these voters will do,” he said.
‘I Found My People’
Natalya Murakhver, 50, once considered herself a Democrat who prioritized environmental and food sustainability issues. Sam James, 41, said he was a Democrat who frightened about climate change. Sarah Levy, 37, was an independent who believed in social justice causes.
That was before the pandemic. In 2020, when the coronavirus swept in and led to lockdowns, Ms. Murakhver’s two daughters — Violet, 5, and Clementine, 9 — climbed the partitions of the family’s Manhattan apartment, complaining of boredom and crying that they missed their friends.
In Chicago, Mr. James’s two toddlers developed social anxiety after their preschool shuttered, he said. Ms. Levy said her autistic 7-year-old son watched TV for hours and stopped speaking in full sentences.
“We were seeing real trauma happening because programs for kids were shut down,” said Ms. Levy, a stay-at-home mother in Miami.
But once they posted concerning the fears for his or her children on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, they were told to stop complaining, they said. Other parents called them “selfish” and “whiny.” Alienated, they sought other like-minded parents online.
Many found a community on Facebook. Recent groups, mostly began by parents, were rapidly appearing on the social network, with people pushing for schools to reopen. In California, 62 Facebook groups dedicated to reopening or keeping elementary schools open popped up late last yr, in response to a review by The Times. There have been 21 such groups in Ohio and 37 in Recent York. Most ranged in size from under 100 members to greater than 150,000.
Facebook, which is owned by Meta, declined to comment.The corporate has removed groups that spread misinformation about Covid-19 and vaccines.
Ms. Murakhver joined some Facebook groups and have become particularly energetic in a single called “Keep NYC Schools Open,” which petitioned town to open schools and keep them open through Covid surges. Last yr, she became a bunch administrator, helping to confess latest members and moderating discussions. The group swelled to 2,500 members.
“We had the identical cause to rally behind,” Ms. Murakhver said. “We couldn’t stand by and watch our kids suffer without their friends and teachers.”
In Chicago, Mr. James joined two Facebook groups pushing Chicago schools to reopen. In Miami, Ms. Levy jumped into national Facebook groups and discussed the right way to force the federal government to mandate that schools in all places reopen.
“I discovered my people,” Ms. Levy said. While she had been an independent, she said she found common ground with Republicans “who understood that for us, worse than the virus, was having our kid trapped at home and out of faculty.”
Into the Online Rabbit Hole
The Facebook groups were just the start of an internet journey that took some parents from more mainstream views of reopening schools toward a single-issue position.
In Chico, Calif., Kim Snyder, 36, who has a 7-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son, said she was a longtime Republican. After her children had to remain home within the pandemic, she helped create a Facebook group in 2020 for Chico parents committed to reopening schools full-time.
On the time, her local schools had partially reopened and kids were learning each online and in-person, Ms. Snyder said. But frustration over hybrid learning was mounting, and schools were repeatedly shut down when Covid surged.
By mid-2021, Ms. Snyder’s Facebook group had splintered. Some parents were satisfied with the security measures and hybrid learning and stopped participating in online discussions, she said. Others were indignant that that they had not returned to a prepandemic way of life.
Ms. Snyder counted herself within the latter category. She channeled her discontent by attending in-person protests against mask requirements at public schools. On the rallies, she met activists who opposed all sorts of vaccines. She invited some to hitch her Facebook group, she said, “because we were all fighting for a similar thing. We wanted a return to normalcy.”
The main focus of her Facebook group soon morphed from reopening schools to standing against masks in schools. By late last yr, more content decrying every vaccine had also began appearing within the Facebook group.
“I began to read more about how masks and vaccines were causing all this damage to our children,” Ms. Snyder said.
Scientific advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna coronavirus vaccine shots are considered protected for young children. But Ms. Snyder said she became convinced they were fallacious. She browsed other Facebook groups too, to fulfill more parents with similar beliefs.
Activists posted statistics about Covid vaccines in those Facebook groups. Often that information got here from the Vaccine Antagonistic Event Reporting System, a database maintained by the C.D.C. and the Food and Drug Administration, which allows anyone to submit data. The C.D.C. has warned that the database “cannot prove that a vaccine caused an issue.”
Yet in a September 2021 post in Ms. Snyder’s Facebook group, parents pointed to VAERS figures that they said showed hundreds of vaccine-induced deaths.
“This is completely dangerous!” one parent wrote. “This hasn’t been really tested and is NOT NECESSARY….OMG!”
One other post titled “If you must really know what is occurring, read this” linked to an article that falsely claimed vaccines could leave children sterile. The article was originally posted to a Facebook group named Children’s Health Defense, which supports a corporation founded and chaired by the anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
That tipped some parents into repudiating every vaccine, from chickenpox to hepatitis, and against vaccine mandates of any kind. A right to self-determination so that oldsters could determine what vaccines their children took was paramount.
“For the primary time, I started to have a look at the statistics and questioned whether all of the vaccines I had previously given my kids made sense,” Ms. Snyder said.
Soon she joined explicitly anti-vaccine Facebook groups that activists linked to, including ones supporting Children’s Health Defense. In those forums, parents seethed on the authorities, arguing that they had no right to inform them what to do with their children’s bodies. Activists posted other links to Twitter and Telegram and urged parents to hitch them there, warning that Facebook often removed their content for misinformation.
One link led to a Telegram channel run by Denise Aguilar, an anti-vaccine activist in Stockton, Calif. Ms. Aguilar, who speaks about her experiences as a mother on social media and on conservative podcasts, also runs a survivalist organization called Mamalitia, a self-described mom militia. She has greater than 100,000 followers across her TikTok and Telegram channels.
Early within the pandemic, Ms. Aguilar posted conspiracy theories concerning the coronavirus’s origins and questioned the effectiveness of masking. Now her messaging has modified to concentrate on political activism for the midterms.
In June, Ms. Aguilar encouraged her Telegram followers to vote for Carlos Villapudua, a Democrat running for California State Assembly who voted against a bill that might let children aged 12 and older get vaccinated without parental consent.
“Patriots unite!” wrote Ms. Aguilar, who didn’t reply to a request for comment. “We want to support freedom loving Americans.”
From Refer to Motion
By late last yr, the talk amongst parent groups on Facebook, Telegram and Instagram had shifted from vaccine dangers to taking motion within the midterms.
Ms. Snyder said her involvement against vaccines would “100% determine” whom she voted for in November. She said she was disillusioned in Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, a Democrat who encouraged masking and promoted the coronavirus vaccines.
In Recent York, Ms. Murakhaver, who previously supported candidates who favored strong environmental protection laws, said she would vote based solely on a candidate’s position on mandates on all children’s vaccines.
The Facebook group she helped operate, Keep NYC Schools Open, has shut down. But Ms. Murakhaver stays close with activists she met through the group, chatting with them on Signal and WhatsApp. While her children were vaccinated against measles and other diseases once they were babies, she now opposes any mandate that might force other parents to inoculate their children.
“I’m a single-issue voter now, and I can’t see myself supporting Democratic Party candidates unless they show they fought to maintain our children in class and let parents make decisions about masks and vaccines,” she said, adding that she prefers Mr. Astorino for Recent York governor over the Democratic incumbent, Kathy Hochul.
While states including California have deferred bills requiring Covid-19 vaccines for college students attending public schools, many parents said they frightened the mandates can be passed after the midterms.
“If we don’t show up and vote, these bills could come back in the longer term,” Ms. Snyder said.
On the Orinda demonstration in April, greater than 50 people gathered outside the office of Steve Glazer, a Democratic state senator to oppose coronavirus vaccine mandates.
One was Jessica Barsotti, 56, who has two teenagers and was at her first rally. Previously a Democrat, Ms. Barsotti said elected officials had let her family down through the pandemic and planned to solid her ballot in November for candidates who were against vaccine mandates.
“If that’s Republicans so be it. Whether it is independents, high quality,” she said. “I’m not their party affiliation but how they fall on this one issue. It’s modified me as an individual and as a voter.”