On January 5, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tweeted about the unexpected passing of Quentin Williams, a Democratic member of the Connecticut House of Representatives. “Terrible news today of Q Williams sudden death,” he wrote. “I’m sending every good thought I have to his family and friends today.” Most of the replies to Murphy’s tweet echoed the senator’s sentiments; many commented that it was especially sad to lose someone so young—Williams was just 39 when he died. But some of the commenters seemed determined to take the conversation in an entirely different direction. “Vaccine related?” asked one. “How many shots did he get?” wrote another. “Let me guess he has taken the Covid vaccine,” speculated a third. At least one tweeter added a hashtag you may have seen popping up: #diedsuddenly.
Williams’ vaccination status had nothing to do with his death—he was one of two people killed in a head-on collision. But the commenters on Murphy’s tweet reflect an increasingly popular conspiracy theory that healthy people are dying shortly after receiving the vaccine. Indeed, in the last two months, every time a celebrity dies—from former NFL player Ahmaad Galloway to Lisa Marie Presley—adherents of this theory have swarmed social media to blame the shots. Despite no evidence that such a correlation exists, this myth is remarkably persistent, especially since the November 2022 release of a slickly produced documentary called Died Suddenly, which baselessly claims that many people who take the vaccines develop potentially fatal blood clots.
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. Nearly a month after Hamlin’s collapse, it’s still trending on Twitter.
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.
One of the leaders in combining these two movements is Stew Peters, the 42-year-old producer of Died Suddenly. Although his name may not be as well-known as Alex Jones or Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., his influence is considerable. He didn’t start out as an anti-vaccine crusader. Rather, Peters launched his far-right media career several years ago, when he began posting videos of himself monologuing about his work as a bounty hunter in Minneapolis. Imran Ahmed, founder and CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, suggests that Peters has discovered that vaccine skepticism is a powerful way to mobilize new followers. “This is a guy from the far right who sees an opportunity to weaponize the pandemic, to increase distrust in the government,” he says. “Even among otherwise hostile, non-aligned groups, if they can find a point of mutual interest, they will coalesce around it.”
Katie McCarthy, an extremism researcher with the Anti-Defamation League who has followed Peters’ rise to stardom, worries that the impact of Died Suddenly will have a kind of ripple effect. The film, she says, “not only can deter people from getting the Covid vaccines, it’s also hurtful to the families of the people whose deaths or illnesses are being co-opted by these people to promote that false narrative.” McCarthy compares Peters to the radio shock jock who urged his followers to harass the parents of the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre. “Stew Peters to me,” she says, “is sort of the new Alex Jones.”
After growing up in Minnesota, Stew Peters went to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. By the time he was 20, though, he was back in Minnesota, and in 2000, he befriended then-governor and former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura’s son, the filmmaker Tyrel Ventura, in an effort to land a part in a short film that he was working on. Stewart was welcomed into the governor’s inner circle—in fact, according to a 2002 AP report, he lived in the governor’s mansion until a background check revealed that Stewart wasn’t the Hollywood insider he claimed to be.
Undeterred, Peters continued to try to make it as a performer, reinventing himself as a rapper named Fokiss. But after that career fizzled (he tells the story in his song “I Never Made It”), in the mid-aughts, he started working in the Twin Cities as a bail bondsman; according to his Yelp page, he set up shop in 2009. By 2015, he had started a bounty-hunting business called US Fugitive Recovery and Extradition, which contracted with bail firms to go after bail jumpers. According to a 2015 AP article, Minnesota passed a law that forbade bounty hunters from impersonating police because of Peters, who, the article said, was routinely mistaken for law enforcement. A photo from the time shows him posing in front of his car with his dog in a K-9 unit uniform, wearing a badge. “Anybody would think this guy is a cop,” Goodhue County Sheriff Scott McNurlin told the AP. “He’s very much crowding or blurring the line with impersonating.” (Peters told the reporter that wasn’t his intent.) When Peters filmed his bounty-hunting jobs and posted them on Facebook, he discovered another route to renown—according to a 2019 profile in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, he had 30,000 followers at the time.
In addition to the COPS-like bust videos, Peters also filmed himself pontificating about the “shitbags” he apprehended as he drove around Minneapolis. In a laconic and profane rant in 2016, he denounced welfare recipients. “I watch motherfuckers come in here with their EBT cards and buy shit that they’re not supposed to be buying,” he said. “The police run into those same people in probable cause arrests.” In another video from that year, he ranted about Black Lives Matter protests. “All of those lives that are being taken out here are being taken at the hands of Black people,” he said.
Peters hasn’t posted many bounty-hunting videos in the last few years—possibly because as the Daily Beast reported, he was arrested in 2021 after his wife called the police, saying he had come home drunk and had thrown things around the house. When an officer arrived, according to the police report, Peters “appeared to be agitated and intoxicated.” He claimed that his wife had thrown a phone at him. But when the officer asked to see the phone, Peters resisted, telling them, “Yes I mind if you go in my room and take a picture. Come on bro. Look, I arrest people for a living, too.” As he was being arrested, he berated the officers, accusing them of ruining his bounty-hunting career. He was later convicted of disorderly conduct and sentenced to probation.
So it was time for a professional reset. Seeing the roiling discontent around the coronavirus pandemic, Peters reinvented himself as the host of a livestream series called The Stew Peters Show. It was there that he first dabbled in anti-vaccine activism, hosting prominent pandemic conspiracy theorists like Del Bigtree, who produced the film Vaxxed, and Plandemic creator Judy Mikovits. His Covid rants resonated with his listeners. In a January 2022 episode, he accused a Minnesota hospital of discriminating against an unvaccinated Covid patient on a ventilator by refusing to treat him with ivermectin, which hasn’t been shown to help Covid patients. Peters urged his viewers to flood the hospital’s phone lines with complaints—in the days following, a hospital spokesperson confirmed to Mother Jones, the hospital received tens of thousands of calls about the case. A few weeks later, he pulled a similar stunt, encouraging his audience members to call a Virginia hospital that he claimed had intubated and treated a Covid patient without the patient’s consent.
Peters’ show devotes a fair amount of time to Covid outrage, but Peters slips in other topics, too: dire warnings about urban crime, the persecution of Christians, and pervasive discrimination against white people, to name a few. Recent segment titles include “Elites Prep to Exterminate Christianity,” “New Yorkers Resort to Eating RATS,” and “Anti-White Professor Drives Students to Suicide.” In a September episode, he held forth about high rates of crimes committed by Black people. “Some of it’s probably cultural,” he said. “Some of it’s probably genetic. The people who say that’s impossible or racist are lying to you.” He accused Democrats of going after “law-abiding white gun owners” and accused them of ignoring “the truth that most gun murders are committed by Black men.”
At the same time that he launched his podcast, Peters also helped launch Red Voice Media, a far-right news organization that went on to host a raft of other conspiracy content. Some of it was explicitly antisemitic. In 2022, Red Voice Media displayed an image depicting CNN executives with stars of David photoshopped into the background, unsubtly alluding to the old trope about Jews controlling the media. Last year, Peters moved his podcast to his own Stew Peters Network on Rumble, but he appears to maintain his connections to Red Voice Media; his articles still appear on the site. (A Red Voice Media spokesperson noted that the antisemitic image was from the manifesto written by the perpetrator of the mass shooting in Buffalo, which was mentioned in the accompanying story. He wrote in an email, “Stew worked with us early and does not anymore.”)
The producer on Peters’ show is Lauren Witzke, a far-right activist known for promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory. Witzke, who won the Republican primary in Delaware’s 2020 US Senate race but was then soundly defeated by Democrat Chris Coons, has close ties to the white nationalist Groyper movement led by livestreamer Nick Fuentes, who endorsed her campaign. In the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, Witzke speculated that the storm could have been created by “the elites” to punish Florida governor Ron DeSantis for lifting Covid vaccine mandates and “getting rid of child grooming.” (In an emailed response to questions from Mother Jones, Witzke clarified her stance on QAnon, stating, “QAnon was a psyop, but pedophile rings, human trafficking, and the victims of satanic ritual abuse are very real.”)
Only ten days after the insurrection in Washington, DC, on January 16, 2021, Peters opened a channel on Telegram, where he posted his argument that Antifa and Black Lives Matter protesters were behind the attack on the Capitol and that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. “These people who have unlawfully and illegally inserted themselves into positions of power will be soon eradicated,” he wrote on January 30, 2021. “I am committed to assisting with that exposure.” Over the next two years, he amassed 279,000 followers on the channel. Today, his posts alternate between pandemic conspiracy content (“There was NEVER a virus. It’s a BIOWEAPON!”) and vitriolic rhetoric about Black people. He suggests that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was an early member of the global cabal at the center of the QAnon conspiracy theory; that Michelle Obama is secretly transgender; and that “Antifa” and child protective services are in cahoots, “targeting Trump supporters, Christians and Conservatives and stealing their kids for child trafficking!”
Peters hit his stride in 2022 when in addition to producing his podcast, he got into the documentary business. Before Died Suddenly, he produced These Little Ones, which promotes the QAnon conspiracy theory that a cabal of pedophile elites kidnap children and drink their blood. His other film, Watch the Water, alleges that there is snake venom in the virus that causes Covid. Peters isn’t the first right-wing influencer to dabble in documentaries. As my colleague Eamon Whalen reported, in the last few years, the conservative media outlet the Daily Wire has produced several of them, starring far-right luminaries like Candace Owens and Matt Walsh.
Peters initially aired all three of his films on the far-right video hosting platform Rumble, where his 500,000 followers then gave them a boost by sharing them on Twitter and Facebook. Devin Burghart, executive director of the anti-extremism think tank Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, notes that previous anti-vaccine documentaries like Plandemic and Vaxxed used Facebook and YouTube to gain followers. Meanwhile, Peters, “has figured out how to use the various new right-wing platforms to develop a buzz around his documentaries, and then introduce them into the mainstream,” Burghart says. “Because he has the kind of reach that he does, he can then use that to circumvent efforts to block him from the bigger platforms.”
It seems to be a lucrative business: On Telegram and Rumble, he has a robust roster of sponsors, including gold investment companies (“The Deep State Wants Your Finances. Don’t Let Them Win!”), survival gear manufacturers (“You wouldn’t expect to pass a test in school without first, PREPARING for it! The same goes for when the apocalypse hits!”), and supplement sellers (“How To Entirely Empty Your Bowels Every Morning”).
Then came Died Suddenly. Compared to the florid fever-dream quality of Peters’ first two films, the premise of Died Suddenly—that Covid vaccines cause deadly blood clots—comes off as being remotely plausible. Indeed, a tiny percentage of elderly vaccine recipients have suffered pulmonary embolisms, though there is no evidence that the shots actually caused the clots. That thin association with an actual medical issue, Burghart says, helped Peters’ documentary find broader mainstream appeal. The film has a veneer of polished professionalism, but the production team is composed of fringe-right media veterans: Lauren Witzke, Peters’ live stream producer, and Ed Szall, a former broadcaster at the far-right outlet Tru News. In his media appearances, Szall often uses racial epithets.
On his show and during his speaking engagements, Peters generally stops short of actual slurs, but he often uses racially charged language to foment the crowd. In a wide-ranging speech last year at Nick Fuentes’ America First Political Action Committee Conference, Peters went after Democrats, accusing them of “flooding our schools with blood libel against white people.” He called for the deportation of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.). And his grievances crossed party lines. While speaking at Fuentes’ event, Peters jeered at the 2,500 attendees of the oldest and most influential gathering of conservatives, the CPAC confab, which was being held next door. He referred to it as “queer pac” and “fudge pac.” He railed against Sen. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), saying her true motivation was an unserious crusade to “own the libs.” He called Black Republican Georgia gubernatorial hopeful Vernon Jones a “homosexual homewrecker.” By the end of his speech, Peters had energized and emboldened the audience. “Tony Fauci literally unleashed a bioweapon on the entire world,” he thundered. “Why is this man still running around free instead of hanging by the end of a noose somewhere?” The audience whooped and broke into a chant of “Hang him up! Hang him up!”
Over the last year, Peters has begun to leverage his growing influence in the political sphere. In 2022, he endorsed far-right Georgia gubernatorial candidate Kandiss Taylor (campaign slogan: “Jesus. Guns. Babies.”), who has included QAnon references in her speeches. In Idaho, he spoke at a May 2022 rally for former Lieutenant Governor Janice McGeachin, who posed for a photo with the 3 Percenters militia (though she later tried to distance herself from the group). On stage, he accused “RINOs (Republicans in name only) and liberal Democrats and communists” of planning to “steal and poison and groom and, yes, rape our children.” He added, “I think some of them are actually possessed by demons.”
He also stumped for Arizona far-right activist Wendy Rogers, who has connections with the far-right militia group Oath Keepers and the white nationalist Groyper movement. Unlike the other candidates Peters backed, Rogers won: She was reelected in 2022 as a member of the Arizona state Senate.
The pandemic became a kind of a lab for extremist influencers like Peters to hone their techniques, says Center for Countering Digital Hate’s Ahmed. They harnessed the uncertainty and anxiety of the early days of Covid to advance age-old conspiracy theories about nefarious government plots. Anti-vaccine activists, who had long courted followers on the political left with messages of a wholesome lifestyle untainted by chemicals, began to use libertarian messaging to convince conservatives that the government had no right to tell them to wear masks or get vaccinated. And the political crossover went both ways: Right-wing wannabe influencers seized the opportunity to reach people who found themselves confused and frightened as the government failed to control the pandemic. In this new “health freedom” movement, they found practically limitless moneymaking opportunities: Many positioned themselves as wellness gurus, selling supplements, detoxes, and manifestos on social media. Peters, whose behavior suggests that he had been craving the limelight for decades, found in this charged and chaotic social media environment an opportunity to establish a personal brand.
With Died Suddenly, Peters continues to make uncertainty work in his favor. He and his followers have figured out how to take advantage of “the few days between someone dying and an official report on the cause of death,” Ahmed says. “They realize they can weaponize that lacuna in knowledge.” Some platforms tried to prevent this from happening. Last year, Peters’ Twitter account was suspended. But in mid-December, it was reinstated—possibly as part of Elon Musk’s efforts to replatform far-right accounts that had been banned by previous management. Since then, according to an analysis by Center for Countering Digital Hate, Peters has tweeted 120 times about vaccines, resulting in more than 110,000 likes and 38,000 retweets. Though Spotify and iHeartRadio have both dropped Peters’ show, his podcast is still available on Rumble, as well as on Apple podcasts, where it enjoys more than 1,000 ratings with an average of 4.7 stars.
And even if more platforms block Peters, he has unleashed something that is much harder to control. The phrase “died suddenly” has taken on a life of its own. In late January, anti-vaccine activists began claiming that Damar Hamlin had died and that his death was being covered up. After Damar Hamlin made a public appearance and a video to assure the public that he was very much alive and recovering, Peters suggested on his show that the video was a “deep fake.” In his public appearance, Hamlin “never took his hood down, never took his mask off, never dropped the ugly rap video shades,” Peters said. “I’m just not buying it.” On January 27, Peters tweeted, “Everyone telling me to ‘lay off’ the Damar Hamlin FAKE ‘appearance’ at the playoff game is a victim of Fox News programming.” The tweet received more than 1,000 retweets.
Burghart worries that the explosive success of Died Suddenly will further cement the alliance between anti-vaccine activists and political extremists, from White nationalists to QAnon adherents. Peters’ “platform now provides the continual stream of far-right topics—and now he’s made the anti-vax stuff part of that core brand for him,” he says. “It’s a kind of symbiotic relationship.”
Indeed, Peters’ range of interests and obsessions is so vast, it’s hard to figure out exactly what he believes. While he didn’t respond to Mother Jones’ request for comment, his producer Lauren Witzke did. I asked her whether she still believed in QAnon. “No,” she replied. “There is no ‘plan,’ and nobody is coming to save us.”