Del Bigtree’s Better Way conference seeks to turn Covid conspiracists into full-on anti-vaxxers,Aaron Rabinowitz,The Skeptic

Thanks to the patron supporters of this magazine, I was able to virtually attend the first ever Better Way conference, organised by the World Council for Health (WCH) in Bath, England. Over the weekend, I watched as demographically and ideologically diverse panels attacked the capitalist systems that profit from spreading misinformation and fear. I heard righteous anger and lucid criticisms on the past and present abuses of marginalised communities by “Western” colonialism. It felt like a community of fellow travellers, except for the constant refrain of antivaxxer conspiracism.

Covering a conference like Better Way presents significant challenges. Every topic is a rabbit hole worthy of its own article. A sufficiently sourced account of the vast ecosystem of organisations and participants can look a lot like a digital conspiracy wall.

There’s a constant feeling that you’re turning into the demon you’re trying to fight.

How do you productively summarise 25 hours of content, divided across seven “conversations”, when the content is simultaneously frenetic and dull, tragic and terrifying? For example, 3.5 hours into the 5.5 hour long “conversation one”, Dr Maria Hubmer-Mogg, an Austrian herbalist, antivaxxer, and WCH steering committee member, quoted Nietzsche’s line that “those who were dancing were thought to seem insane by the ones who couldn’t hear the music”. In the face such clichés, it’s tempting to go full gonzo journalist. Even sitting safely at home, part of me wanted to break out my Hunter S. Thompson approved briefcase of drugs, just to see if I could tune into the conference’s cosmic frequency. Why not bail on the depressing topic of antivaxxer conspiracism and just revel in talk of faecal transplants and vibe-based products like this one:

For the avoidance of doubt, I didn’t add the caption – the advert itself cheerfully explained that it did not know how its own product worked.

While conspiracy tourism might provide some comfort, making fun of the epistemically unlucky is not a healthy coping mechanism, and is only likely to make the problem worse. Equally, we can’t simply avoid discussing the event, even though our coverage contributes to the Streisand effect that conference organiser Del Bigtree cited as essential to the movement’s success. We can’t ignore the problem, because the underlying causes that are radicalising antivaxxers are quite real, and likely to worsen in the foreseeable future. The harms caused by that radicalisation are also real, and extend far beyond self-harms caused by personal choice. So, over the next several articles I’m going to cover significant parts of the conference, starting with an account of the messaging, the organisers, and what I feel was the most telling moment of the weekend.

A better way to what?

Better Way is an antivaxxer conference, focused on exposing conspiracies involving big pharma, national governments, and international organisations. Based on their comments over the course of the conference, I believe the organisers would agree with that description.

Vice gave Better Way the trollish title “the Davos of COVID conspiracy theorists”, a nod to the yearly meeting of (((globalists))) hosted by Klaus Schwab and his World Economic Forum (WEF). Schwab’s WEF is one of the most frequently invoked baddies in the conspiracism world. Vice’s nickname for the conference is misleading, though, because it still buys into the organiser’s own framing. I believe that Better Way was only masquerading as a Covid conspiracism conference, and that the true goal was converting Covid antivaxxers to full-on antivaxxers. I realise that sounds like conspiracism, but the reality is that sometimes orgs hide their power levels to pull in new members.

Unfortunately, just using terms like “conspiracism” and “conspiracy theory” marks me to some as part of the establishment. One speaker at the conference even referenced the conspiracy theory that the CIA invented the term “conspiracy theory” as a way to socially ostracise legitimate critics. As with many of the conspiracy theories discussed at the conference, this ‘conspiracy theory’ conspiracy theory is driven by the well documented history of American intelligence organisations infiltrating and disrupting “subversive” communities. I don’t mean these terms as pejoratives, and I use ‘conspiracism’ as a synonym for clusters of conspiracy theories as well as modes of conspiratorial thinking, without implying pathological paranoia. I’ll dive into the philosophical debates about the terms ‘conspiracy theory’ and ‘conspiracism’ in a future column.

For the moment, let me reiterate that I’m sympathetic to concerns about the denigration of marginalised individuals and I’m strongly opposed to the downplaying of legitimate problems as an approach to suppressing conspiratorial thinking. To that end, here is a partial list of legitimate concerns raise at the conference:

American pharmaceutical companies can legally advertise directly to consumers across all mediums, contributing to problems like the opioid epidemic.Survivors of abuse often have little recourse because corporations are heavily insulated against liability.Indigenous communities and their practices continue to be violently suppressed by exploitative colonial governments.There are well documented conspiracies involving governments and pharmaceutical companies that have substantially harmed marginalised communities.Medicine is rationed either monetarily or through bureaucracy, both of which can feel dehumanising and lead to inadequate care.The personal experiences of marginalised individuals are often dismissed by medical experts as unreliable.Academic disciplines can be too siloed to address real world problems.Our education system is soul crushing and leads to burnout.

It’s essential to foreground these concerns for several reasons. I believe many of the people involved in this movement are genuinely motivated by these concerns, though their concerns lead them to false conclusions and illegitimate conspiracism. These concerns were repeated frequently throughout the conference, and my hope is that recognising and addressing them could help undercut the conspiracism claims, as well as make the world better for all involved. I’ll return to this list and the strangely disconnected solutions presented at the conference in a future article.

Unfortunately, these legitimate concerns were swamped by the conspiracy theories that dominated the conference. Here’s a partial list of claims I would classify as either conspiracy theories or debunked empirical claims that contribute to those conspiracy theories:

Anthony Fauci, Bill Gates, and Klaus Schwab are using the CDC, WHO, and WEF, respectively, to control every other government and organisation on the planet, with the goal of either killing humanity or enslaving us into a transhuman dystopia.Klaus Schwab’s “great reset” is a blueprint for creating a world of stakeholder capitalism, which makes us all slaves to corporations.The WHO passed a new rule allowing them to declare pandemics whenever they want to, as a way to overrule state sovereignty and ensure endless lockdowns.Covid is a bioweapon developed in a lab in Wuhan, and Monkeypox will be the next ‘manufactured’ crisis.“Big pharma” is hiding the evidence that vaccines are ineffective and have a higher likelihood of harmful side effects, including autism.“Big pharma” is hiding the evidence for safe and effective alternative COVID-19 treatments, such as Ivermectin.Transhumanist globalists are trying to “hack” us and control our behaviour through gene editing, neural implants, AI, chemtrails, and 5GVaccines, either in general or during a pandemic, lead to dangerous new variants that could kill off the entire human race.Mass shootings and other violent crimes are caused by SSRIs and other medications pushed by big pharma.Modern pharmaceuticals are causing humans to devolve, making us less intelligent so that we’ll be better consumer slaves.Mainstream media is using hypnosis techniques to cause mass formation psychosis.Social credit scores will be tracked using implanted chips and will determine our level of personal freedom.The government is setting up a “strawman” legal “person” in your name to exploit through weird financial transactions, and other Sovereign Citizen pseudo-legal claims.Fluoridation is harmful and unnecessary as long as parents teach their children proper oral hygiene.The Better Way community is engaged in an existential struggle and the peaceful ways to resolve that struggle have failed or are rapidly failing.

There’s significant overlap between this list and the one I compiled in my previous article about Bill Cooper, Alex Jones, and Hoteps. In fact, during the same weekend as the conference, Jones was also promoting fear of the WHO’s new unilateral pandemic declaration power, and warning that they’re going to use monkeypox to keep us locked down while they get richer. Here’s Knowledge Fight’s analysis of the episode; the language is indistinguishable. To further highlight the overlaps between these forms of conspiracism, I’ll now introduce just a few of the main characters from the conference.

Who’s leading the way?

As is often the case with these sorts of events and the organisations involved, the Better Way homepage is devoid of any details about concrete topics. They opt instead for broad questions like “How can the law serve human rights and be a lighthouse for sovereignty?”. This use of “sovereignty”, as well as the list of conference participants, are unlikely to raise red flags for folks who are unfamiliar with conspiracism content.

Broadly speaking, the Better Way organisers and participants fit into two categories: Full-on Antivaxxers, which I’ll generally refer to as antivaxxers, and Covid antivaxxers. That doesn’t mean every talk focused on one of those two positions; the latter half of the conference in particular was more like an open mic night for alternative medicine content. It’s likely, though, that the vast majority of attendees fit into one of those two groups. As I’ll discuss, the behaviour of the organisers strongly suggests the goal of this conference was to shift people from Covid antivaxxer to full-on antivaxxer.

The Better Way conference was created by the World Council for Health, a “non-profit organization” founded in 2021 by Dr Tess Lawrie. The WCH homepage also fails to mention concrete topics; it’s only when you click on their video selection that you learn they’re concerned about issues like 5G, WHO overreach, and the suppression of “alternative” medicines. Every member of the WCH steering committee except one was a host or speaker at the conference.

Superficially, Lawrie presents as the Better Way organiser more associated with the Covid antivaxxer faction. Lawrie doesn’t appear to have a history of conspiracism prior to the pandemic. Since 2013, she has worked primarily as director of The Evidence-Based Medicine Consultancy Ltd, a research facilitation organisation that assists guideline panels in making decisions about treatment. Her published work focuses on pregnancy research that appears unrelated to vaccines. In 2021, she created the non-profit community interest company EbMCsquared CiC, which is listed as one of the top sponsors of the Better Way conference.

Lawrie has received substantial criticism for claiming that Covid vaccines are unsafe, and for pushing ivermectin as a proven alternative. She appeared on Bret Weinstein’s Dark Horse podcast in July of 2021 to discuss ivermectin research, and they both advanced a conspiracy hypothesis that powerful forces are suppressing the overwhelming evidence that ivermectin is safe and that COVID-19 vaccines are not. As I’ll discuss, though, Lawrie made it clear at the conference that her concerns are not limited to COVID-19 vaccines and ivermectin.

Del Bigtree was the other main conference organiser and lead the out-and-proud antivaxxer faction. Bigtree is an American TV and film producer famous for producing Andrew Wakefield’s pseudoscience propaganda film Vaxxed: From Cover Up to Catastrophe. Bigtree has been described as “maybe the most connected node in the anti-vaccine activist network”, and he absolutely dominated the conference. Lawrie’s name and that of the WCH were the nonthreatening names on the Better Way tent, but inside it was Bigtree’s masks-off circus.

Bigtree gave both the opening and closing statements at the conference, as well as hosting key parts of the first conversation. In his talk on day two of the conference, Bigtree praised Wakefield as “possibly the greatest scientist of his generation”, and claimed credit for convincing Robert De Nero to get Vaxxed shown at the Tribeca film festival. Bigtree claims that Tribeca’s choice to later pull Vaxxed from the festival made it the most famous piece of antivaxxer content, and he’s probably right.

The publicity around Vaxxed made Bigtree a leading figure in the antivaxxer movement. He now runs the Informed Consent Action Network (ICAN) and its content platform The Highwire, which was removed from YouTube in 2020. Bigtree and The Highwire official account are both still active on Twitter, and the latter tweeted antivaxxer conspiracism clips from the Better Way conference. The site is full of content like this:

Bigtree has significant ties to American right-wing conspiracism. He spoke at an antivaxxer event that was organised alongside the January 6th “stop the steal” protests that exploded into a violent insurrection.

Other speakers at the same event included the conspiracy theorist Roger Stone, a long-time compatriot of Alex Jones and Donald Trump. Speaking to protesters, Bigtree said:

I wish I could tell you that Tony Fauci cares about your safety…I wish I could believe that voting machines worked…but none of this is happening.

Bigtree also claimed that “innocent people are being lined up, walking to their potential death”. This sort of language, which was also widespread at the Better Way conference, increases the risk of stochastic terrorism: if you convince people that the systems of accountability have failed and that evil people are coming for their children, they will (not un-reasonably) resort to violence. In a future article, I’ll discuss how the conference mirrors recent reporting on the increasing convergence between QAnon, right wing extremism, and pandemic conspiracism.

Bigtree and Lawrie aren’t the reason the Better Way conference is newsworthy. That dubious honour goes to the superstar headliners from the Intellectual Dark Web: Maajid Nawaz, Bret Weinstein, Dr Robert Malone, Dr Peter McCullough, and Dr Geert Vanden Bossche. Generally speaking, these figures are Covid antivaxxers who’ve mainstreamed medical conspiracism through new media platforms, especially podcasting, YouTube, and Substack. Indeed, it’s disturbing how many of the speakers at the conference have Substack accounts and how lucrative those blogs can be for everyone involved.

I covered Nawaz and Weinstein’s conspiracism spirals in my article on cheap talk skepticism, and since then they’ve both bought into a wide range of conspiracy theories. At the conference, Nawaz expressed concerns about both gene hacking and brain implants. He claimed that leaders should be held accountable for crimes committed during the pandemic. Weinstein argued that science is irreparably broken and can’t be reclaimed. Decoding the Gurus podcast has thoroughly covered Malone and McCullough’s promotion of Covid conspiracism. Bossche drew attention for claiming that Covid vaccines put us at high risk of extinction from vaccine resistant variants, an argument that Dr David Gorski describes as “almost exactly the same” as Wakefield’s antivaxxer arguments. By headlining an antivaxxer conference, these Covid antivaxxers are providing the movement with a veneer of scientific and social legitimacy akin to the period before Wakefield’s fraudulent research practices were exposed.

This list of key figures would be incomplete without the most frequently thanked person not attending the conference: Joe Rogan. Rogan was treated as the tip of the new media spear that is finally cutting through mainstream censorship. The first day of the conference was front loaded with IDW headliners, and saint Rogan was invoked early and often. The host introduced Nawaz using a clip from The Rogan Experience where Nawaz claimed that WEF operatives are infiltrating national governments to push digital IDs and social credit scores as part of the great reset into endless authoritarian dystopia. While Rogan sounds skeptical at the beginning of the clip, he takes a long pause after Nawaz presents his case and concludes that “people have to realize this, right? This is important.” Rogan also expresses confusion why Schwab would name his WEF event after the great reset conspiracy theory, because Rogan mistakenly believes the conspiracy theory existed prior to Schwab’s use of the term for his conference and book.

The clip perfectly encapsulates how Rogan’s wilful ignorance and credulity towards conspiracism contribute to the veneer of legitimacy these theories now enjoy in some circles. Malone and McCullough both got major attention from appearing on Rogan, and Malone opened his Better Way talk by crediting Rogan’s episodes with Bret as the inciting incident that pushed Malone to become a Covid activist. Malone also credits Nawaz for blowing up the WHO conspiracy during that Rogan episode. Bret cites Rogan’s protection as the reason Dark Horse is still on YouTube. McCullough, who attended the conference via zoom, opened his talk by explaining that he had just visited Rogan’s studio to drop off a copy of his new book, The Courage to Face Covid-19: Preventing Hospitalization and Death while Battling the Bio-Pharmaceutical Complex.

It’s clear these “superstars” see Rogan as the lynchpin of their whole project. Geert is the only one who hasn’t appeared on Rogan, but Weinstein has that covered since he promoted Geert’s Covid variants theory on Rogan’s show.

Joe Rogan, Alex Jones, and other conspiracism content producers often cultivate a brand of “curious observer”, simply following the public discourse along with their listeners. They’ll uncritically promote dangerous conspiracy theories and respond to demands for higher standards by claiming they’re just entertainers. In my opinion, Rogan has surpassed Bigtree as the most important figure in the antivaxxer movement, because he provides antivaxxers with an audience and a degree of legitimacy that allows them to demand equal time on other platforms.

Rogan also does not seem to have learned any lessons from the pushback he received for promoting Covid antivaxxer content, since he recently hosted Hotep Jesus, one of the antivaxxer Hoteps I discussed in my Hotep article. All of these conspiracism communities are increasingly overlapping, and Rogan is the largest nexus point.

Covid Antivaxxer vs. Full-on Antivaxxers.

In his statements opening the conference, Bigtree promised it would not be a heavily scripted affair, and that science can sometimes get messy. I suspect he said this because he was planning to ambush the Covid antivaxxers later that day. At the end of day one, Bigtree asked all the speakers who were still available to come back onstage for a final panel. At this point they were already an hour and a half over the scheduled three-hour runtime, but Bigtree clearly had a plan. Claiming that he felt moved to go off script, Bigtree launched into a series of loaded questions aimed to pressure the Covid antivaxxers into declaring their support for larger antivaxxer projects.

Bigtree framed his first loaded question by claiming that reasonable people could see what’s happened with Covid and infer that vaccines have no place in this movement going forward. He then asked directly:

Show of hands, how many of you think vaccines have a place in Better Way going forward?

Weinstein, Malone, and Bossche raised their hands, while Lawrie did not. She explained that we should “stop the injections” and adopt the precautionary principle towards all vaccines until we have double blind, placebo-controlled studies prove they’re completely safe. Robert Kennedy Jr., a long time antivaxxer conspiracy theorist, has popularised this “softer” form of antivaxxerism, commonly expressed as “I’m not anti-vaccine, I’m pro safe vaccines”. While this might sound less extreme than Bigtree claiming we already know the vaccines are harmful, in practice these positions have the same harmful effects. So, in practice, both the organisers of this conference were full-on antivaxxers.

Bigtree didn’t stop with one awkward question. He launched into a series of “did you know?” questions about issues like liability, designed to paint the Covid antivaxxers as either ignorant or callous. Bigtree even singled out Bossche by name when asking these questions. Any reasonable observer could see that Bossche was deeply uncomfortable as he repeatedly tried to deflect Bigtree’s questions.

Bossche explained that Bigtree’s approach is too binary and that the situation in a pandemic is different from normal vaccines given in childhood. While Bossche’s science is suspect, it was clear that Bossche was against the slide from Covid antivaxxer to full-on antivaxxer. At one point, Bossche interrupted Bigtree’s pitch by almost shouting “guys, I’m having a big problem here”.

Bossche also seemed ignorant of Bigtree’s history of activism, since he accused Bigtree of risking another measles epidemic, and tried to explain how that’s vastly worse than even underreported vaccine side effects. Bigtree responded with his stock doubt about the virulence of measles. Bossche seemed to be realising in real time that he was contributing to an extremely dangerous movement, though he doesn’t appear to have spoken out about his concerns after the fact. Conversely, Bigtree released this video, suggesting he got what he wanted from the exchange, though it remains to be seen how successful the antivaxxers will be in co-opting Covid antivaxxers more broadly.

A perfect storm of conspiracism

After watching the conference, I’m more convinced than ever that it’s crucial to avoid platforming the people involved, and to demonetise their content using more sophisticated approaches for assessing when content creators are hiding their power levels and serving as on-ramps into these communities. If a journalist feels compelled to write about or interview someone like Lawrie, they need to drill down on her full-on antivaxxerism, not just her Covid antivaxxerism. They also need to be aware there’s a significant risk that even negative attention still helps the movement. Moderating content will always generate some energy for the movement, but quarantining the content and cutting off revenue streams is essential to stopping the spread of misinformation. Ideally, platforms need to avoid Tribeca’s mistake and refuse to allow antivaxxer content in the first place.

Journalistic ethics and content moderation only address symptoms, though, they don’t really get at the underlying disease. Curing the disease would require resolving the genuine problems I listed earlier, which may not be possible. We need to redouble our efforts to meet fear and anger with compassion and understanding, while holding strong against the harmful conspiracism offered to people in crisis. I realise that’s a tall order in this time of profound empathy burnout, but I don’t see another effective option.

It may be easier to feel compassion if we remember that antivaxxers suffer from being an epistemically unlucky community. The only reason I’m able to write articles like this is because I can draw on my own community of experts to double check each piece of this immensely complex puzzle. If those experts turned out to be unreliable, I could also end up in a bad place, and that risk of trusting fake experts seems much higher in our current epistemic crisis. The more it feels reasonable to folks to look infer that events are influenced by powerful forces with immoral motivations, the more people are going to need help avoiding a full-on conspiracism spiral.

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Described by some as the “Davos of COVID conspiracy theorists”, the Better Way conference clearly had its sights set on undermining confidence in all vaccines
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