Almost as soon as news of actor Matthew Perry’s death broke last week, anti-vaccine activists began speculating that a Covid shot had caused his untimely passing (the cause of death is still undetermined). This was just the latest example of a trend that began last year, with the advent of the hashtag #DiedSuddenly. The origin of this phrase, as I wrote, was an eponymous film produced by far-right livestreamer Stew Peters:
The film has been widely debunked, even by some people within the anti-vaccine movement, but that hasn’t stopped it from going viral. By late December, the phrase “died suddenly” was surging on Twitter, with an average of nearly 4,000 mentions per day. Then, on January 2, NFL player Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field from cardiac arrest after a relatively routine tackle. Experts believe the most likely cause was a rare phenomenon called commotio cordis, which can happen if a person receives a blow to the chest between beats of the heart. According to an analysis by the online extremism watchdog group Center for Countering Digital Hate, the morning after the game, the number of mentions skyrocketed to nearly 17,000—an increase of 328 percent. Hamlin did not die—after a week in the hospital, he was discharged—and neither did the hashtag: Months after Hamlin’s collapse, it’s still trending on Twitter. As of February, the phrase was getting a baseline of a couple thousand mentions every day, with spikes every time the internet started speculating about a celebrity death.
The 16 million people who have watched the film Died Suddenly on the far-right platform Rumble may have been expecting more of what they saw on social media: titillating speculation about Covid vaccines’ role in celebrity deaths. Yet viewers of Died Suddenly encounter much more than just a tired and repeatedly discredited strain of medical misinformation. Its premise is that the vaccines are a tool of global elites who want to “depopulate” the world—a variation on the “Great Reset” narrative that “globalists” like George Soros and Bill Gates orchestrated the pandemic in order to reprogram people to accept a new age of Marxism. This conspiracy theory gained traction in neo-Nazi and white nationalist groups, which are increasingly intermingling with the anti-vaccine movement.
But Peters, a former bounty hunter, isn’t restricting his work to anti-vaccine advocacy. His 448,000 followers on X and his 546,000 viewers on the far-right platform Rumble also tune in for his anti-LGBTQ anti-immigrant hate speech, as well as his endorsements of the spiraling QAnon conspiracy theory. His anti-vaccine hashtag may be having a resurgence, but since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war, Peters has focused on producing a steady stream of content that appears to be in support of the people of Palestine—but really has more to do with his long history of antisemitism. On Tuesday, for example, he posted this on X:
I’ll take “the Jews” for $1000, Alex. https://t.co/rX01ivhbv5
— Stew Peters (@realstewpeters) October 31, 2023
Earlier this week he appears to have expanded his repertoire still further. Media Matters reported, Peters called for the execution of nonprofit workers advocating for immigrants at the southern border. Last Saturday, at a conference called the Stew Peters Fall Freedom Fest that he organized in Vero Beach, Florida, he thundered, “These people cross into Mexico and coach illegals on how to get admitted here…These are these, you know, not-for-profit charities. Catholic Charities is a very good example.” He continued: “We need troops on the border that will shoot people that are trying to invade our country. That’d be a good first step. But you know what a better second step would be? Shooting everyone involved with these fake charities.”
For some, Peters’ remarks were an upsetting reminder of the 2018 Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, in which 11 people were killed. Part of what motivated the shooter, reporting at the time showed, was a conspiracy theory about a Jewish aid group that was helping immigrants. “When you have someone like Stew Peters promoting this belief that white people are being ‘replaced’ and actively calling for violence against those who are trying to help migrants, it’s incredibly worrisome,” wrote Katie McCarthy, an extremism researcher at the Anti-Defamation League, in an email to Mother Jones. “You don’t know who’s listening to his show and how they might interpret his message.”
Kevin Brennan, vice president for media relations at Catholic Charities USA called Peters’ comments “deeply disturbing” in an email to Mother Jones, noting that his words “could endanger Catholic Charities staff members and volunteers, who on a daily basis selflessly serve people in need in every corner of this country.”
In the same speech, Peters also described killing physicians who provide gender-affirming care as “a great idea.”
After Media Matters reported on Peters’ remarks at the conference, he fired back on X on Monday that he considered the outlet “enemy combatants who are facilitating the invasion and overthrow of our country.” He added, “They should be treated accordingly.” Peters didn’t respond to a request for comment from Mother Jones.
The escalation of Peters’ expressions of antisemitism and calls for violence in recent months might be simply because interest in his pandemic-era obsession with vaccine conspiracy theories, at least before Perry’s death, had been waning. As Devin Burghart, executive director of the anti-extremism think tank Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights, put it last week, Peters appears to be trying to “carve out some space to differentiate himself from a now crowded far-right media sphere.” Companies like X and Rumble seem all too eager to allow him to help make that happen.