Where Del Bigtree’s Anti-Vaccine Conspiracy Theories Come From
The biggest crusader in the anti-vaccine movement isn't a kook, he's a man moved by heart-wrenching stories of loss. That's what makes him dangerous.
Del Bigtree may be the most connected node in the anti-vaccine activist network. With his crown of barely tamed grey curls, bright blue eyes and California tan, the 49-year-old Bigtree is the perfect spokesperson. He’s also a fighter. As the founder of the non-profit Informed Consent Action Network, Bigtree fights Big Pharma and Big Government with Freedom of Information Act requests and lawsuits. As a producer of the anti-vaccine film Vaxxed, Bigtree tells the stories of children purportedly harmed by vaccines and documents the sorrow of their grieving parents. As the energetic and charismatic host of The HighWire on YouTube, Bigtree offers Alex Jones-ian revelations as he tracks the vaccine conspiracy back to its source.
Wherever Del Bigtree goes, he is celebrated for this work. Parents tearfully embrace him or respectfully shake his hand. They cheer for him when he tells them what they wish to hear. At a recent rally in Austin attended by some 300 anti-vaxxers, Bigtree faced a strong Texas wind and proclaimed, “We have won the scientific argument. Your medical establishment is not here. They will not stand up and address us. They will not talk science because they have no science.” The crowd went nuts. Then, towards the end of the speech Bigtree, who is not Jewish, pinned a yellow star of David to his lapel, casting public health professionals working to halt a measles outbreak in Hasidic Brooklyn as Nazis. The crowd cheered. The moment went viral, which was precisely the point.
This is Del Bigtree’s job and he’s good at it. In front of crowds and in online videos, he has a natural P.T. Barnum-esque charisma. “He told me his acting coach said he wasn’t great at pretending to be someone else,” says HighWire executive producer Jenn Sherry Parry. “He said Del was the best when it was coming from inside of him and he was being himself.” This seems to be correct and works well in the YouTube era. Like many online activists, Bigtree has a significant following and almost no name recognition with the general public. That said, some medical professionals are figuring out who he is.
“He is a conspiracy theorist,” says Dr. Paul A. Offit, Director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “He believes the pharmaceutical industry is controlling the government and the medical profession.” While Bigtree might bristle at the label, he probably wouldn’t quibble with the characterization of his views.
Coverage of the far from cohesive anti-vaccine movement often gets lodged on what activists like Del Bigtree believe because those beliefs are at odds with accepted science and, in some cases, amusingly implausible. However, that coverage also fails to delve into the emotions that churn within the movement. But talk to Del Bigtree and his collaborators and it becomes very clear that they have been radicalized by parents’ grief. This is far from from a semantic point. It’s easy to view the Del Bigtrees of the world and the vaccine-averse as hopelessly stupid. But doing so discounts the strong emotions that keep good, smart people from acting rationally. If those of us who have watched the anti-vax movement with concern and confusion for years can understand what motivates Del Bigtree, perhaps we can understand what motivates the credulous people to whom he has connected.
Talking to Bigtree requires some amount of patience. When Bigtree spoke to me on the phone from his Malibu home, he was personable and cheery — if prone to steer off conversational course. His father was a minister and there’s the sense, when he’s on one of his jags, that something was passed down. He is both reassuring and totally confident even when giving voice to ideas that exist beyond the fringes of medical science. He is funny and confident when he talks about himself.
When Bigtree tells his story, he casts himself as a dogged journalist in search of the truth who happened upon the scandal of the century, namely that vaccines are causing a global health crisis. The problem with this version of events is twofold. First, it discounts the complexity of Del Bigtree. Second, it discounts the simplicity of the science. The scientific community has shown that vaccines are safe and do not cause autism with 18 high-profile studies. That includes a study, released this year, of some 650,000 Danish children, which found no connection between the MMR vaccine and an increased risk of autism. Del Bigtree, who has no medical credentials, believes the data from these studies is uniformly suspect.
Why does Del Bigtree believe that? It would be convenient if he was simply a kook. He’s not. He’s a man who has had a very specific experience and, as a filmmaker and television producer, was taught to see the world through a particular lens. Bigtree’s first big gig as a video journalist was on Dr. Phil, where he discovered the compelling power of real-life human drama. Bigtree’s job as a field producer required he tease out the most intimate details of the guest’s most sensitive problems for introductory and interstitial videos.
“I would go out by myself and interview these families and get their stories on camera,” Bigtree says “You got a different look at humanity. The show is extreme. It looks for big stories that are a little more vivid than your average story and you’d meet very interesting people.”
Extreme is an apt descriptor. So is exploitative. Dr. Phil was, in the early 2000s when Bigtree worked there, disaster porn on a human level. Consider shows like “I Want To Give Up My Car-Stealing, Knife-Wielding, Twerking 13-Year-Old Daughter Who Tried To Frame Me For A Crime,” which introduced the world to Danielle Bregoli (a young woman now better known as Bhad Bhabie. Bregoli, who once tried to beat up a teen Instagram influencer). Her tale was tame in comparison to the teen whose mother wanted her to get into exotic dancing, or the young woman who believed she was pregnant with baby Jesus despite not being pregnant at all, or an unhinged personality who called himself simply “Sexy Vegan.”
Bigtree moved from Dr. Phil to the spin-off show The Doctors, hosted by Dr. Travis Stork and pediatrician Dr. Jim Sears among others. It was there that he first encountered devastated parents who blamed vaccines for paralysis, seizure conditions, and autism. But these stories were not allowed on The Doctors by the show’s executive producers due to an embarrassing appearance in 2009 by Jenny McCarthy, who was promoting Generation Rescue, a nonprofit founded by J.B. Handley dedicated to curing autism. Handley, famous for promoting quackish autism cures like hyperbaric chambers was in the audience too. Both were happy to push their belief vaccines caused their kids’ autism. The McCarthy episode became legendary for the tearful shouting match that erupted between host Dr. Travis Stork and Handley.
“I’m so sick of doctors who don’t read the studies and don’t know the details sitting here and reassuring parents that vaccines don’t cause autism,” Handley ranted, jabbing his finger at Stork. “It is irresponsible!”
“All you’re doing is antagonizing the medical community that wants to help these kids!” Stork blustered, red-faced, as he trembled in his trademark blue scrubs. “You’re antagonizing me!”
Though the episode aired before Bigtree was hired at The Doctors, it cast a shadow over the show. Viewers continued to write the show about their own experiences, flooding Bigtree’s inbox with notes from parents claiming their child’s life had been ruined by vaccines. But he couldn’t pursue those stories. After the trainwreck of McCarthy and Handley, the producers wouldn’t allow it. If Bigtree wanted to chase the unqualified leads in his email, he would need to do so outside the building.
Then Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced British gastroenterologist widely credited with starting the vaccine-autism hoax, arrived in Los Angeles with an incomplete documentary called Vaxxed. His film centered around a CDC scientist who claimed his agency covered up evidence that vaccines caused autism. When Bigtree learned Wakefield was in town to pitch the outrageous story, he was primed to jump.
Make no mistake, the story was outrageous. Even Bigtree is quick to admit this — though he believes it to be true. Vaxxed documents an alleged government coverup of a study that found a wildly implausible 340-percent increased risk of autism in African American children after MMR vaccinations and its subsequent “reanalysis,” which seemed to confirm the initial findings. That reanalysis published by an activist doctor in the journal Translational Neurodegeneration was later retracted due to both incorrect statistical analysis and claims of competing interests which it did not explicate in detail. The CDC whistleblower, William Thompson, would later release a statement apologizing for omitting statistically significant data in his work and for fueling conspiracy claims.
“I want to be absolutely clear that I believe vaccines have saved and continue to save countless lives,” Thompson wrote. “I would never suggest that any parent avoid vaccinating children of any race.”
But that happened after the film released. Prior to that, there was nothing but excitement. At an event in a backyard in the Hollywood Hills, Del Bigtree met Andrew Wakefield and was, like Jenny McCarthy, Robert DeNiro and model Elle Macpherson who is his current girlfriend, taken in. The California legislature was poised to pass SB 277 which removed vaccine exemptions for children attending public school and Wakefield was using the bill to raise funds for his film. Bigtree came away from the event full of righteous fury. “It means a parent doesn’t actually have dominion over their own children, the state government does,” Bigtree recalls thinking. “That sounded like communism. It was troubling. It planted a seed.”
He offered to help Wakefield with his project.
“He was on fire at the Doctors, producing the top-rated shows and it was going great,” remembers Jenn Sherry Parry, who was then working with Bigtree at The Doctors. But everything changed after he met Wakefield. “He said, ‘Jenn, I don’t think I’m going to come back. I think I gotta pursue this.’ I think it was scary for him. He wasn’t making money doing this documentary. But it was a perfect combination of the filmmaker in him and the journalist in him and he couldn’t turn back.”
Bigtree was right to be scared. The decision to follow the gastroenterologist seems to have been the decision on which his life pivoted. Wakefield was once described by The New York Times Magazine as “one of the most reviled doctors of his generation.” He paid children at his son’s birthday party for blood samples and then based his research on said samples. His papers seeking to prove a connection between autism and vaccines have been retracted or withdrawn from journals including The Lancet and The American Journal of Gastroenterology and Neurotoxicology. The editors of the British Medical Journal labeled Wakefield a fraud.
“I’ll be honest,” Bigtree says when he recalls making the leap. “I had wished that anybody else in the world had put this documentary together. Because to work with Andy Wakefield was a career ender. I had to really come to terms with that.”
So why make the leap? There was nothing in the project to suggest it would make him much money. And he was not yet fully radicalized into the larger than life anti-vax hero seen on The HighWire. What Vaxxed did allow was for Bigtree to get in front of the camera and exert the creative control he didn’t have on The Doctors. He quickly inserted himself into the film as a guide and storyteller.
“He put himself in, explaining, breaking down what happened,” explains Polly Tommey who was a co-producer before Bigtree joined. “He really represents the public, making it much easier.”
Bigtree would deny the move was to nourish his ego, but the anti-vaccine community would be happy to feed it, regardless, in the form of overwhelming adoration. After being publicly booted from the Tribeca Film Festival after organizers showed it to scientists, Vaxxed found a home at the Angelika Theater in New York City where it premiered on April 1, 2016. There Bigtree saw just how overwhelming the grief and gratitude of the anti-vax community can be. After the film showed, Bigtree asked how many people in the audience had a vaccine injured child. Row upon row of parents stood up and started to cry and embrace
“It was extremely moving,” Tommey says. “Over half of the theatre stood up. It was clear that the people were going to carry this film. I didn’t matter what the media said.”
As the film toured the country, this played out again and again. Bigtree found a nascent following of parents of children affected by autism, many of whom would sit on the Vaxxed tour bus to tell their story on camera.
“Around 18 months we started noticing a decline in his overall health. We’d go in and get a vaccination and come back six-months later to get an antibiotic,” says a mother named Michelle from Savannah, Georgia, as she tells the story of her 16-year-old son Michael who is affected by autism. She fights back tears as she speaks. “The consequences right now is like having an angry two year old who has tantrums, that doesn’t sleep well at night, that punches walls, that becomes very aggressive.”
“He very quickly became overwhelmed by the parents and the severity of the injuries,” says Tommey. “It was intense.”
To be sure, vaccines can injure children. There are side effects, though they have been shown to be rare and most often occur in concert with other health conditions or certain genetic preconditions. Consider the potential of anaphylaxis. One recent study found that “among 7,644,049 doses of vaccination in children and adolescents, there were five possible cases of vaccine-associated anaphylaxis and none resulted in death.” Is it possible that some of the parents who approached Bigtree had children that had suffered from a vaccine side effect like Guillain–Barré Syndrome which may have caused paralysis in 38 of the millions of patients receiving the N1H1 vaccine between 2000 and 2008? Of course. But it’s far more likely that many of the children brought before Bigtree suffered one of several developmental disabilities that can emerge as children are receiving vaccines. But when confronted by a parent with a child affected by sickness or disabilities, humanity dictates you offer compassion, not debate.
Tommey suggests the parents saw in Del a charismatic leader and pushed him towards action. “There really wasn’t a way out for him,” she says.
Bigtree was further emboldened by the vitriol of outsiders. It feeds into his personal narrative that he’s a liberator and a fighter of tyranny. Critics make him happy because they provide assurance he is being seen. And this is what makes writing about him so hard. Bigtree does not seem to be bent on doing harm. But in catering to a constituency of grieving or terrified parents, his work is endangering the health of children. The 2019 measles outbreaks are historic and those there is not yet a death toll, children are being hospitalized. And that’s not something to shrug off. These are children who are in very real physical pain and very real physical danger.
Del Bigtree may be the most connected node in the anti-vaccine activist network and, for that reason, he is stuck. If he fails to speak up, the voices of the people who have asked him to tell them a specific story and call it the truth will go unheard. Their suffering will go unregistered by a medical community that understands the issue of vaccines largely in the non-human terms of percentages and risk. If he recants, he will not have a job or many prospects. So it isn’t merely the logic of conspiracy that animates Del Bigtree. It’s loss aversion. He went all in and became a crusader. And if he’s not that, he’s nothing. He’s alone.
“I’m really into being everybody’s friend,” Bigtree admits. And, in his circles, being everybody’s friend requires offering the soothing balm of a compelling narrative to soothe very real pain. It requires listening to stories told by parents of supposedly vaccine injured children and trying to really see them. But it also requires not seeing. It requires willful blindness to the innumerable lives saved by vaccines and the potential hazards of people avoiding them.
In 1991, nine children died of measles in Philadelphia. The anti-vaccine community did not watch that. Paul Offit did. Other doctors, the people that Bigtree’s conspiracy theory casts as pawns, did as well. “Vaccines have been a victim of their own success. People don’t fear the disease,” Dr. Paul Offit says. “I understand the reticence to vaccinate. Your asking parents to give children, in the first few years of life, as many 26 different inoculations, to prevent 14 different diseases most people don’t see, using biological fluids most people don’t understand.” It all makes sense. Doctors who see disease support vaccinations. Activists who see grief support a loose idea of freedom.
Del Bigtree wants America to see the grief he sees and to draw the same conclusions he’s drawn. This is why he’s delivering visceral and emotional stories exactly as he was trained to at Dr. Phil. The overwhelming message? We are in this together.
There’s truth in that. Del Bigtree represents less of a threat to individual children than he does to herd immunity, resistance to disease at the population level. His words won’t just affect those who seek them out; they will affect many others and none for the better. Truth won’t stop Bigtree, who is caught in a feedback loop of grief and misinformation, grief and misinformation, grief and misinformation. Grief and falsehood power the movement he hopes to lead.