By: sam doak
February 7 2023
The crowdfunding site GoFundMe has funneled over $330,000 in donations to unverified COVID "vaccine injury" campaigns, Logically can reveal. Many of these campaigns amplify misinformation, claiming that the vaccines are deadly, or pledge the money towards unscientific medical interventions, such as "heavy metals blood detoxing."
COVID-19 misinformation is not a new problem for the crowdfunding site. In 2019, a spokesperson for the company responded to mounting criticism concerning fundraisers at odds with public health efforts, stating, "campaigns raising money to promote misinformation about vaccines violate GoFundMe's terms of service and will be removed from the platform."
In the years since this announcement, GoFundMe has been repeatedly called out for hosting fundraisers violating this policy. As recently as early December 2021, The Times reported that the site had enabled over €300,000 in donations to anti-vax campaigns and challenges to vaccination certificates.
To determine the number of fundraisers concerning alleged vaccine-related harms, Logically searched GoFundMe's site for content that included the terms "vaccine" and "injury." While this returned a large amount of unrelated content, 103 fundraisers across varying regions – although most appear to have been organized in the U.S. – were found to be soliciting donations to address injuries alleged to have been caused by COVID-19 vaccines.
Logically reviewed each campaign and converted amounts given in local currencies to U.S. dollars. Using this methodology, we discovered that GoFundMe facilitated $334,848.27 in donations to such causes. While the donated quantities across individual fundraisers varied greatly, a significant number of them raised over $1,000, with the highest garnering over $54,000 in support.
Of these campaigns, 70 were listed in U.S. dollars, 16 were recorded in Canadian dollars, seven in pounds sterling, six in Australian dollars, and four in other currencies.
Conspiracy theorists throughout the pandemic have amplified false claims about the side effects of vaccination. Most recently, they have shared photos and videos of athletes or celebrities "dying suddenly." This has partially been driven by the Died Suddenly documentary, which attributes numerous deaths without evidence to COVID vaccination. An investigation from Wired found that Twitter amplified these claims after Elon Musk's takeover. The BBC found that some people who shared stories of loved ones dying from cardiac arrest received a torrent of online abuse.
As part of this discourse, a number of individuals have created viral videos showing symptoms they claimed resulted from vaccination, such as violent tremors or sudden magnetism. While the validity of the statements made in these videos often ranges from dubious to provably false, this has not deterred opponents of vaccination efforts from sharing them widely.
One of the more well-known cases is that of Shawn Skelton, who posted videos claiming that vaccines had resulted in uncontrollable tremors – without evidence. These videos concerning her purported side effects went viral: Wired reported that Skelton's videos received millions of views on Facebook, finding that Skelton's content, alongside similar posts alleging vaccine-related injury, was "shared by Facebook groups that push natural and alternative medicines, anti-vaxxers, 5G conspiracy theorists, and by the far right."
Medical professionals have outlined certain factors that may be causing individuals to mistakenly believe COVID-19 vaccines have harmed them. Responding to viral social media posts showing individuals exhibiting tremors and other symptoms, the Functional Neurological Disorder Society released the following statement in early 2021:
"We have become aware of a very small number of high-profile social media videos suggesting major neurological complications following vaccination against COVID-19. Whilst we do not wish to comment specifically on any case, we would state, as a general comment, that many of the clinical features reported and observed on video in some cases are those of functional neurological disorder (FND). FND can be diagnosed with good accuracy from videos on social media, where they are often confused with other neurological conditions."
As Logically has previously reported, FND can result in a range of real neurological symptoms. These include ailments frequently attributed online to vaccines, such as tremors. Crucially, vaccination does not cause these symptoms.
While Logically cannot individually verify the integrity of claims concerning medical conditions discussed in GoFundMe fundraisers, nor their alleged connections to COVID-19 vaccines, a significant amount of the campaigns contain questionable details. For example, many of the campaigns reviewed were appealing for money to fund scientifically ungrounded medical interventions, including herbal remedies, heavy metal blood detoxing, infrared therapy, and other treatment from alternative medicine practitioners. Some of these treatments are based on medical misinformation, such as the idea that COVID vaccines contain metals or graphene.
Several of the fundraisers we looked at make clearly false statements concerning COVID-19 vaccines. These falsehoods include claims that the vaccines are experimental and untested; a danger to children; and more likely to cause side effects than reported. In addition to this, numerous campaigns claim the existence of discredited side effects, such as regurgitation of large blood clots, "viral shedding," and cancer-like activity in the body.
Governments and pharmaceutical companies thoroughly test medicines before they're released to the market, and continue to monitor them after they're made available. COVID-19 vaccines cause a number of common side effects, such as pain around the vaccination site, fatigue, headaches, or fever.
In rare cases, COVID-19 vaccines can cause serious harmful side effects. With this in mind, numerous countries, including the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Australia, have publicly funded programs to compensate those suffering from such symptoms. Each of those cases is thoroughly investigated to attribute causality. According to Reuters, the U.S. scheme has received 7,084 claims "alleging injuries or death from the COVID-19 vaccines," of which 42 have been rejected and three accepted for compensation.
While GoFundMe does not appear to have a policy that expressly prohibits COVID-19 misinformation on its platform, its terms of service prohibit "fundraisers that are fraudulent, misleading, inaccurate, dishonest or impossible." While there may be challenges when verifying claims relating to vaccine-related harms, it is unclear whether the company has attempted to do this.
Of its fee structure, the company says that "2.9 percent + 25p is automatically deducted from each donation for personal fundraisers."
It is therefore possible that GoFundMe has received thousands of dollars in revenue from the fundraisers reviewed by Logically. While this is a small amount compared to the approximately $65 million in fundraising GoFundMe states it facilitated in the last financial year; it appears that the company has directly profited from fundraisers that make dubious claims concerning the safety of vaccines, and in some cases appear to contravene their stated policies.
When contacted by Logically, a spokesperson for GoFundMe stated:
"Fundraisers raising money to promote misinformation about vaccines violate GoFundMe’s terms of service and will be removed from the platform. The team interacts with organizers directly, vetting and verifying the intended use of funds.
We will thoroughly investigate claims of misinformation. At the early stages of the pandemic GoFundMe instituted a fact box, which points users to the latest expert WHO, CDC, or NHS guidance about COVID-19 on top of fundraisers making any claims about vaccines.
As a general point, we have a dedicated team working to ensure that we offer a safe place for people to give and receive help online. GoFundMe also has the first and only donor protection guarantee in the fundraising industry – which means that in the rare case that something isn't right, donors can be refunded."
When reaching out for comment, Logically provided GoFundMe with examples of crowdfunders making false claims concerning COVID-19 vaccines. At the time of publishing, all but one of these remain on the company's site.