Disinformation: Anti-WHO Convoy Heads to Geneva for World Health Assembly
Anti-vaxxers protesting against COVID-19 measures in London in 2022.

Some of the most vocal global right-wing conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers are heading to Geneva at the end of this month (May) to agitate against the World Health Organization (WHO) and its pandemic agreement – including a Trump loyalist linked to the 6 January 2021 storming of the US Capitol.

An alliance of right-wing groups, conspiracy theorists and alternative health practitioners calling itself “The Geneva Project” has planned a closed meeting on 31 May, while on 1 June it hosts a 150-minute invitation-only press conference and a public protest to coincide with the end of the World Health Assembly (WHA).

The protest outside the United Nations headquarters aims to “declare independence from global institutions such as the World Health Organization and World Economic Forum while celebrating cultural and individual sovereignty”, according to a press release from the group.

One of their key – and false – claims against the pandemic agreement and the amended International Health Regulations (IHR) is that they will give WHO the power to supersede domestic laws and declare lockdowns and other measures during pandemics and public health emergencies.

Protest speakers include Trump campaigner Dr Kat Lindley, UK anti-vaxxer Dr Aseem Malhotra, biologist and author Bret Weinstein, and Swiss lawyer Philipp Kruse.

Lindley is Texas president of the far-right Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. She was in Washington DC in 2021 during the 6 January assault on the US Capitol, using her Twitter account to call on “patriots” to “answer the call” and “#StopTheSteal”, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Malhotra is a cardiologist who has campaigned against COVID-19 vaccines globally, including in South Africa, where he supported a court bid by an anti-vaxx group, the Freedom Alliance of South Africa (FASA), to stop the government from administering the Pfizer vaccine.

Weinstein hosts a podcast in the US that promotes anti-vaxxers and has steadily promoted the animal anti-parasite medicine, Ivermectin, as an effective treatment against COVID-19.

Recently, he was part of perpetuating an astonishing conspiracy linking the attempted assassination of Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico with that country’s “courageous rejection of the WHO’s audacious Pandemic Preparedness Treaty and International Health Regulations”.

This conspiracy has been repeated by Republican far-right Member of Congress Marjorie Taylor Greene. Meanwhile, Meryl Nass, a US doctor who had her license suspended for COVID-19 misinformation, intimated in a webinar hosted by Robert F Kennedy’s Children’s Health Defense that WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was linked to the assassination. 

The Geneva Project mainly consists of far-right groups from the US, including the Brownstone Institute, which claims its “motive force” was policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, and “a willingness on the part of the public and officials to relinquish freedom and fundamental human rights in the name of managing a public health crisis”.

Brownstone president Jeffrey Tucker is also a senior economics columnist for Epoch Times, an international media company founded in the US by supporters of the Chinese dissident group, Falun Gong.

Epoch Times “has become a key media source for COVID-sceptic and anti-vaccine movements in France, Italy and Spain,” according to openDemocracy. It was the major funder of Trump advertisements over six months in 2019 outside of his presidential election campaign, NBC found.

Other supporters include a chiropractic practice, a group called Treehouse Living, the Alliance for Natural Health and Freiheitstrychler, the Swiss nationalists who made themselves known during the pandemic for ringing cow bells in protest against COVID-19 laws.

Some of the members of ‘The Geneva Project’.

‘Political opportunism’

Dis- and misinformation exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic, and has gathered momentum as the deadline for negotiating a pandemic agreement at the WHO has approached.

As previously reported by Health Policy Watch, African anti-rights groups and anti-vaxxers met in Uganda earlier this month where there were calls by speakers to reject the pandemic agreement and disinformation that the agreement was a WHO power grab that would undermine member states’ national sovereignty.

Even mainstream media outlets such as the UK’s Daily Telegraph, Newsweek and Sky TV Australia have given prominence to anti-pandemic agreement views in the past few weeks.

Sky News Australia’s recent focus on the WHO pandemic agreement featured a single guest who called on his country to reject the agreement.

Eloise Todd, the executive director and a co-founder of Pandemic Action Network (PAN), says that “some of the recent spikes in disinformation have come about through political opportunism from electioneering politicians”, and that the truth about the pandemic agreement needs more coverage.

“It was national leaders – prime ministers and presidents – of many political stripes that first suggested an international pandemic agreement in late 2020. Even at the height of COVID-19, leaders recognized they needed a roadmap towards better cooperation for future crises,” says Todd.

“Much of the recent disinformation has been around national sovereignty, and yet the wording of the pandemic agreement could not be clearer: ‘Nothing in the WHO Pandemic Agreement’ can be used to ‘direct, order, alter or otherwise prescribe the national and/or domestic laws….such as ban or accept travelers, impose vaccination mandates or therapeutic or diagnostic measures, or implement lockdowns’, ” said Todd, quoting from the draft agreement.

She adds that those responsible for disinformation need to be “held to account: the individuals, those that back them and the companies that enable the spread”. 

Fakes news and disinformation flourished during COVID-19

‘Treat disinformation like organised crime’

Justin Arenstein, CEO of Code for Africa, argues that the best defence against disinformation is to target covert actors and deliberately deceptive behaviour.

“Rather than pumping billions of dollars into endless literacy initiatives that have questionable or partial impacts at best, let’s also put resources behind following the money so that we can better identify covert and criminal behaviour, and the shadowy bad actors who are pulling the strings,” Arenstein told a recent United Nations Information Committee meeting on information integrity.

“What we should instead be doing is treating disinformation and other coordinated info-manipulation for what it is: organised crime. The ‘digital mercenaries’ who offer info-manipulation, surveillance and trolling as a commercial service all operate covertly, and their core service is to mislead and subvert the public. That’s a criminal enterprise,” says Arenstein, who has worked to combat the “infodemic” in Africa for the past few years.

He also calls for positive initiatives to strengthen online trust, such as investing in “the champions who are creating trustworthy, credible content” such as Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, and transparency tools like CrowdTangle that help people to understand who the hidden puppet masters are.

Fake news and disinformation continue to undermine public health and trust in vaccines, with consequences such as outbreaks measles in middle-class areas in the US and Europe where vaccination rates have dropped.

These occurences are likely to become more widespread and harder to manage unless global health organisations and governments take far bolder steps to address the infodemic.

This is the second in our two-part focus on disinformation.

See PART 1: African Anti-rights Groups and Anti-Vaxxers Unite in Global Campaign Against WHO

Image Credits: Sarah le Guen/ Unsplash, Jorge Franganillo/ Unsplash.

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