Astroturf and think tanks manufacturing doubt about COVID-19 and vaccines - 2021-09-15
This particular topic serves as an excellent followup to my post from Monday about how the Republican Party has now gone completely over to the Dark Side and undeniably become the antivaccine party. I didn't plan it this way. However, in a nice bit of timing, late Monday The BMJ published an op-ed by Gavin Yamey, Professor of Global Health and Public Policy, Duke University; Director, Center for Policy Impact in Global Health, Duke Global Health Institute, and a certain author who should be familiar to readers of this blog. It's entitled Covid-19 and the new merchants of doubt, and it's about how certain right wing think tanks and astroturf groups have done their best to cast doubt on the science behind public health interventions being employed by governments to slow the spread of COVID-19 and mitigate the damage from it. Some readers might view it as shameless self-promotion for me to write about this op-ed, but what is a personal blog for, if not for the occasional lapse into shameless self-promotion, particularly when it fits in so well with a recent post on a related topic?
AstroTurf is, of course, a brand of artificial sod frequently used instead of real grass in sports stadiums, particularly indoor stadiums, where maintaining a real grass playing field would very challenging, if not impossible. Used in the context that I'm using it in now, astroturf refers to a fake grassroots campaign designed to promote a political idea. More specifically, astroturf "refers to apparently grassroots-based citizen groups or coalitions that are primarily conceived, created and/or funded by corporations, industry trade associations, political interests or public relations firms" or, as Campaigns & Elections magazine defines it, a "grassroots program that involves the instant manufacturing of public support for a point of view in which either uninformed activists are recruited or means of deception are used to recruit them." These are campaigns designed to appear to be "grassroots" campaigns but in reality are funded and promoted by individuals, companies, and groups that try to remain in the shadows. In fairness, it is true that there are gray areas, in which real grassroots campaigns receive funding from such interests because their aims align, but in general astroturf groups try to make it difficult for anyone to determine who a political activist organizations real sponsors are.
Then there are the think tanks, a whole ecosystem of right wing think tanks. I've discussed a few of them before. Arguably, the most prominent and influential of them, at least in terms of influencing COVID-19 policy goes, has to be the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), which was behind the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD). You remember the GBD, don't you? Almost a year ago now, the AIER gathered three academics, Dr. Sunetra Gupta of the University of Oxford, Dr. Martin Kulldorff of Harvard and Dr. Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford, to write a "declaration" named after the town in which AIER is based. That declaration called for the US and the UK to end their lockdowns and promoted allowing the virus to spread among young people in order to build "natural herd immunity." Of course, in October 2020 there were as yet no vaccines approved, either under an emergency use approval (EUA) or regular approval, which ties into the GBD's advocacy of "focused protection" of the "vulnerable"; i.e, the elderly, those with chronic health conditions that made them susceptible to much more severe disease and even death from COVID-19.