Facebook and YouTube may have tried to ban them, but Covid’s conspiracy kings tell ‘Rolling Stone’ that vaccine-denying NBA players have re-empowered the far right
By Matt Sullivan | RollingStone Magazine | October 8, 2021
Kyrie Irving is living in the shadows of vaccine denial. The Brooklyn Nets superstar has also vanished from the opening of his team’s run at the NBA championship, apparently because he refuses to comply with a New York City law requiring proof of vaccination against Covid-19 at indoor sporting events, players included. He is banned from practice in Brooklyn; on the injury report for Friday night’s first preseason home game at Barclays Center, Irving was simply listed as “ineligible to play.”
Several NBA stars have gone viral this month for speaking out against vaccination mandates, emerging from a progressive sports league as unlikely heroes of personal freedom for the vaccine skeptics, Fox News, and the vampirous troll Ted Cruz. The public stances of these players, however, have spawned what researchers call a desperate and dangerous network effect: Several of the most prominent figures from the anti-vaccination community suggested to Rolling Stone this week that they’ve discovered a roster of replacement influencers from the sports world.
By co-opting players’ likenesses and DM-ing them junk science, the anti-fact fringe is actively transforming pro athletes into parasitic hosts for misinformation to go mainstream. Despite efforts from leading social media platforms to restrict what Facebook calls “misinformation superspreaders,” these Covid conspiracy kings may find in NBA players their new faces of the franchise.
“Most people who are saying what he’s saying would not be allowed to speak,” the longtime anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. tells Rolling Stone, of Irving. “They would be de-platformed from Facebook, from Instagram. They would be silenced. They would be vilified, marginalized, and gaslighted. And these guys, it’s harder for them to do that.” (Full disclosure: In 2005, Rolling Stone published an article by Kennedy that pushed an incorrect theory that some childhood vaccines cause autism; the story has since been debunked and is no longer on Rolling Stone’s website.)
An analysis conducted this week for Rolling Stone by the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) found consistently increased engagement on social posts in support of vaccine-denying athletes from accounts linked to what researchers call the Disinformation Dozen. The nonprofit estimated in March that these influencers, including Kennedy, accounted for 73 percent of all anti-vax content on Facebook; the social network responded by shutting down their main accounts and penalizing their other ones, but Silicon Valley’s Covid police haven’t stopped the anti-vaxxers from reemerging to ally themselves with celebrities.
“The Disinformation Dozen are sort of saying, ‘They’ve got Biden, we’ve got Kyrie Irving,’ and they’re trying to see if they can use it to access Black audiences, young audiences, and basketball fans,” says CCDH chief executive Imram Ahmed. “This cancer is seeking to replicate itself in another organ of society. The hope is that it can be contained and doesn’t metastasize from there. But the worst thing that can happen is for players to react to nonsense — if they’re wrong, the price is paid in life.”
Before last week’s annual preseason NBA press conferences, Rolling Stone reported that a vocal minority of players had successfully resisted league mandates for vaccines, off-day testing, and clubbing without a jab, as a satanic conspiracy theory pervaded locker rooms. At the mic, Washington Wizards superstar Bradley Beal questioned the efficacy of the vaccine, which sent Ted Cruz straight for the hashtag dumpster fire of #YourBodyYourChoice. The Denver Nuggets star Michael Porter Jr., who had agreed to a contract worth up to $207 million two days earlier, said he’d had Covid twice and felt uncomfortable about getting a shot because of what he claimed was “a chance that you could have a bad reaction to it.”
Dr. Joseph Mercola, who tops the Disinformation Dozen, tweeted his applause to more than 325,000 followers this week for Golden State Warriors superstar Draymond Green’s rant against vaccine mandates as “very courageous” and for an appearance on Fox News by the Orlando Magic forward Jonathan Isaac — who told Rolling Stone that he didn’t know why vaccinated people wear masks indoors — as “a refreshing voice of reason.” An article on Kennedy’s website about these and other NBA vaccine deniers outperformed its usual posts on Facebook, according to data from the social-tracking tools CrowdTangle and NewsWhip.
The NBA league office has maintained its 100-percent support of the vaccine for all staffers, and says that 95 percent of players have received at least one dose amid training-camp pressure from teammates, executives, and updated Covid protocols clamping down on the lifestyles of the unvaccinated.
Mercola, the anti-vax godfather, tells Rolling Stone that NBA officials “are ignorant and lying about natural immunity — just as the federal government is doing.” (In fact: The CDC says previously infected people without vaccines are more than doubly at risk of reinfection than those who have been vaccinated, while Dr. Anthony Fauci says the U.S. government will “discuss seriously” a widely misrepresented study tracking natural protection for those who have already gotten Covid.) “The mandates are not about immunity,” Mercola continues in an email. “They are about control and obedience.”
Since vaccines started becoming widely available in February, Rizza Islam had been up to five Instagram accounts and counting. It was the posts about Bill Gates infecting people with viruses and Satan masterminding the Covid vaccine that led Facebook to ban him earlier this year. That and the other misrepresentations about how vaccines make women infertile and cause autism at a higher rate in people of color. (Which they do not.)
A fan of Louis Farrakhan and basketball alike, the 31-year-old Islam considers himself an occasional point guard for the type of NBA player who wants to do his own research — except the fake-news superspreader does it for them. Islam claimed in an interview Rolling Stone on Wednesday, though he could not corroborate, that he has direct-messaged on Instagram with “almost 10” NBA players seeking him out with questions ranging from (three) vaccine-related deaths to the (low) risk of a post-vaccine heart inflammation known as myocarditis. He alleges to have responded to these curious pro athletes with links to discredited doctors and context-free science that have been deleted from YouTube. His direct influence, Islam says, is to resuscitate misinformation from far-right conspiracy video sites like BitChute and Rumble: “That way, they don’t have to do too much searching, because they don’t have too much time. They have family. They have training. So I just do my best to assist.”
Following his four bans for repeated offenses of Facebook policy, Islam had gotten a new Instagram account back above 150,000 followers this week when he spotted a meme:
Kyrie Irving Reportedly Risks Losing $381K Per Game If He Remains Unvaccinated
Islam slapped his own face and the words “CONTINUE STANDING ON INTEGRITY BROTHER” next to Irving. That support from Islam’s flock — along with its purported “MOUNTAINS of evidence, data, facts, science and proof to justice your stance” — was enough to speak to the fringe in place of Irving’s silence, the anti-vax influencer figured, and he pressed share.
“He has an honorary jersey,” the conspiracy theorist tells Rolling Stone, of Irving’s place in his community. “He’s a great team member. Standing on integrity definitely makes one a hero, and it definitely makes one a revolutionary — of the likes of a Colin Kaepernick or Simone Biles.”
Islam says he has never interacted with Irving. Nonetheless, his followers interacted with the misinformation attached to Irving more than any of his posts all week … besides an undercover video from a Pfizer scientist eating brunch, and Summer Walker announcing her new album outside the BET Awards, from which she was uninvited for being unvaccinated.
This month, Islam also posted a CNN interview with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was doubling down on his pro-vaccine comments made to Rolling Stone. “What I find especially disingenuous about the vaccine deniers is their arrogance at disbelieving immunology and other medical experts,” Abdul-Jabbar had told Rolling Stone. In Islam’s caption, he grouped the basketball legend with the NBA, police, and hospitals as “devils” that “need to be removed” for “being pressured and/or PAID OFF by pharmaceutical companies to push segregation.” Nonetheless, Islam tells Rolling Stone, he tries to hold celebrities accountable for data and reality — even Kyrie Irving, who notoriously once said the Earth was not round. “Any information you get has to be based in facts,” he says. “Whether it’s a flat Earth or vaccine, just make sure it’s right.”
Facebook says it holds professional conspiracy theorists and athletes who post about conspiracy theories to an equal standard. “Our policies apply to celebrities in the same way they apply to everybody else,” a representative told Rolling Stone. YouTube banned Mercola, Kennedy, and other prominent activists last week in a sweeping new policy against vaccine misinformation; warnings on Twitter and stickers with Covid context abound on Instagram and TikTok.
Kennedy was kicked off Instagram in February “for repeatedly sharing debunked claims,” including that the baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron passed away two-and-a-half-weeks after his vaccination as “part of a mysterious wave of deaths,” at 86 years old. But Kennedy tells Rolling Stone that his Children’s Defense Fund organization has received inbound requests from players in the NFL, NHL, and professional tennis. He claims to have counseled these athletes with his own brand of scientific information — and, Kennedy says, he has recommended specific attorneys to advise NFL players seeking medical and religious exemptions to get around potential team protocols and local mandates. (An NFL representative clarified that vaccine requirements in San Francisco and Los Angeles do not apply to players, who are not required to be vaccinated, although 94 percent of them are.)
None of what Kennedy calls a “new medical technocracy and their Silicon Valley allies” has stopped him from branding an anti-establishment hooper as one of his own: “Anybody with a large platform is putting their career on the line when they talk about this difficult issue,“ Kennedy tells Rolling Stone. “I think Instagram will silence Kyrie Irving as soon as they perceive him as a threat to the orthodoxy.”
Irving’s representative did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and his manager hung up the phone, as the Brooklyn superstar’s strategy continues to be a silence. But local mandates in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles require pro athletes to be vaccinated indoors this fall, and the Knicks, Warriors, Clippers, and Lakers are preparing for fully vaxxed rosters as the NBA season begins later this month.
Even invisible defiance from Irving will speak volumes. Either that, or the real conspiracy theorists will speak for him. Try, anyway: Shortly after Rolling Stone alerted a Facebook representative to Rizza Islam’s post about Irving late on Thursday evening, Islam’s account — @gotcensored — got deactivated.
“Ironically in this instance, them trying to use Kyrie Irving backfired because his channel got shut down,” says Ahmed of the Center for Countering Digital Hate. “The anti-vax industry is essentially dying now, because the platforms have started to take action, and the Disinformation Dozen are terrified.”
Matt Sullivan is the author of Can’t Knock the Hustle: Inside the Season of Protest, Pandemic and Progress with the Brooklyn Nets’ Superstars of Tomorrow. He has been an editor at The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Esquire and Bleacher Report.