Ghouling, a trend of unspeakable cruelty
#DiedSuddenly was the most popular hashtag globally for vaccine-related tweets between May 11 and 17. We need to talk about the unspeakably cruel practice of "ghouling."
The recent social media analysis from Hoaxlines Lab drove home how pervasive the #DiedSuddenly claims are. Worse still, they have become a potential threat to anyone who loses a loved one and discloses it publicly.
When we examine the tactics used to target bereaved families, perhaps unsurprisingly, they resemble those used in the #DiedSuddenly mockumentary. In an interview with the BBC, Stew Peters, the driving force behind the film, stated that he did not intend for people to be targeted. While one cannot argue with intent, effect is another aspect entirely.
Hoaxlines research shows that the activity of some of the biggest accounts claiming people died of vaccines without evidence began the same month Died Suddenly was released.
Ghouling, the Unthinkable Trend in Targeted Harassment
Ghouling is the practice of “targeting”— intentionally or not—bereaved people online and linking virtually any death or illness to vaccination, regardless of the cause of death and regardless of if the person was vaccinated. The families of deceased people can face a barrage of messages asserting their loved one died from the vaccine. The families’ wishes and distress appear to matter little.
In some cases, the person hasn't died or was only injured, but images are circulated with stories and comments that attribute the injuries to vaccines. One person dies in the U.S. of a blood clot every six minutes, and that was the case before COVID. Simply counting the number of athletes who died shows there hasn’t been an increase in sudden athlete deaths. Totals are the same or less than in 2018 and 2019. Evidence supporting the claims is rarely provided, but that also makes it harder to debunk.
An example of this can be seen in the tweet below. The woman’s cause of death has not been disclosed by the family, and multiple newspapers report plans for an autopsy to determine the cause of her long-term illness. Despite the family and healthcare providers not knowing what caused her death, her image is being shared with the hashtag #diedsuddenly.
The Twitter user who shared her image with a hashtag has a popular Substack, COVID intel, with over 16,000 subscribers and nearly 50,000 followers on Twitter. His publication catalogs sudden deaths. Many of the people listed have an unknown cause of death or have a cause that isn’t vaccine-related. The lists of people who “died suddenly” frequently contain information that could encourage or be used to target families.
Another Substack, COVID News, which has 35,000 subscribers, re-published a piece from COVID Intel about doctors who “died suddenly.” When the list only contained around 80 people, someone debunked it reporting that families indicated that their loved ones had died from things like heart attacks, cancer, or suicide. The COVID Intel author claims Canadian doctors “push the toxic” vaccines, “presumably in exchange for a few pieces of silver.”
Important Context News reported earlier in 2023 on Alexander’s connections to the partisan think-tank Brownstone. The outlet stated that Alexander “called to hang former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci, former White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, and other public health officials in a post on his Substack.”
This was not the only author from Brownstone that seemed to call for violence.
In a Dec. 2021 Brownstone article by the group’s founder, Jeffrey Tucker, which featured an image of a guillotine and called for “consequences” for public health officials and policymakers who had sought to limit the spread of COVID.
The Tactics of Ghouls
In some cases, people look for evidence of a person's vaccination status. Although this does not show any connection or even a reason to suspect a connection, it is a potentially implied meaning when these people are listed as dead with a post showing they were vaccinated.
There are two distinct types of ghouls: those who create the propaganda and those who are manipulated by it and take part in the harassment. Helping the public understand the tactics used to manipulate perception is one way we can help potential victims. Here are some tactics commonly used:
Baseless accusations: These groups make unfounded claims linking the death or injury of a loved one to a specific cause, such as a COVID-19 vaccine. They exploit the lack of concrete information surrounding the cause of death to push their own narrative, disregarding the actual medical facts. Sometimes the family doesn't know the cause of death themselves when the targeting starts.
Online harassment and verbal threats: Bereaved families are often subjected to extremely disturbing and distressing accusations. One woman reported she received messages that said she had killed her significant other because she encouraged vaccination. She reported that some even stated that she deserved her grief because of that encouragement.
Lying by omission: These groups cherry-pick cases of deaths or injuries that align with their agenda and falsely present the evidence to portray them as vaccine-related. Ghouls deny the underlying causes of death, such as pre-existing health conditions like cancer, accidents, or unrelated medical events. In some cases, the subject of the conspiracy theories hasn't even died, as with Damar Hamlin.
Manipulation of emotions: The stories and emotional trauma of the bereaved families are put on display in online propaganda. The grieving families become the material for creating ideological propaganda. How effective the false claims are isn't known, but we have cause for concern. Disinformation that is partially true is more effective. The parts that are true lend credibility to the false claims.
On top of that, the increased familiarity with these claims from the repetitive campaigns online will likely increase the subjective impression of truth. Sound science is often disregarded in favor of terrifying, emotional stories. All of this works to cast doubt on the safety and efficacy of vaccines or other medical interventions.
Leveraging social media platforms: These groups take advantage of social media platforms to disseminate their misinformation and reach a wider audience. They may use hashtags, create viral posts, or share videos to amplify their message and attract more followers who are susceptible to their narratives.
Exploiting gaps in knowledge: These groups exploit the general public's limited understanding of complex medical issues and scientific research. They rely on misinformation, pseudo-science, and anecdotal evidence to fill these gaps and cast doubt on established medical facts. We call these data voids—it’s the absence of information. It’s easy to make an outlandish false claim about a virus or vaccine production when very few people have the knowledge needed to understand what’s wrong with the claim.
Post hoc fallacy: They employ fallacious reasoning by attributing causality to the COVID-19 vaccine simply because a person had been vaccinated at some point. They ignore the extensive scientific evidence and rigorous studies that demonstrate the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.
Discrediting reliable sources: These groups often try to undermine the credibility of reputable sources, such as medical experts, scientists, and health organizations, by spreading conspiracy theories, questioning motives, or highlighting isolated instances of alleged wrongdoing.
Approaching the situation simply as false claims to debunk will not solve this. No one likes to be wrong. What people like even less is being manipulated.
For a debunking message to truly hit its mark, it should start by laying out the facts in an easy-to-understand and unforgettable manner. Following this, caution the audience about the misconception, being careful not to reiterate the myth more than once. It's then crucial to pinpoint and unveil the deceptive tactics employed to misguide people. Conclude by echoing the truth once again.
References and Recommended Reads
Listen to the BBC Podcast for a more in-depth look: BBC Podcast: Ghouling.
For more about the Brownstone Institute, see this network analysis from Misinformation Kills.