City Research Online

Simple Solutions to Wicked Problems: cultivating true believers of anti-vaccine conspiracies during the COVID-19 pandemic

Baker, S.A. ORCID: 0000-0002-4921-2456, McLaughlin, E. ORCID: 0000-0003-4003-3272 & Rojek, C. ORCID: 0000-0003-0196-8892 (2023). Simple Solutions to Wicked Problems: cultivating true believers of anti-vaccine conspiracies during the COVID-19 pandemic. European Journal of Cultural Studies, doi: 10.1177/13675494231173536


The pandemic has produced an abundance of medical misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories about the safety and efficacy of vaccines. Many of these narratives appear impervious to scientific evidence and indifferent to the authority of the state. This has resulted in ‘true believers’ being cast as paranoid and irrational. In this article, we take a different approach by exploring the cultural appeal of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories about COVID-19. Drawing on qualitative analysis of two leading figures of the anti-vaccination movement – Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Joseph Mercola – we demonstrate how these influencers establish authority by staging indignation against a corrupt scientific establishment and positioning themselves as Truthers offering simple solutions to complex (wicked) problems. By conceptualising what we refer to as the Truther Playbook, we examine how anti-vaccine Truthers capitalise on existing grievances and conditions of low institutional trust to further solidify people’s troubled relationship with institutional expertise while drawing attention to the structural conditions and social inequalities that facilitate belief in conspiracy theories. We contend that conspiracy theories offer not only offer alternative facts and narratives but are predicated on identification and in-group membership, highlighting the limits of debunking as a strategy to tackle disinformation.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License ( which permits any use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access pages (
Publisher Keywords: Alternative beliefs, anti-vaccination movement, conspiracy theories, COVID-19 pandemic, disinformation, expertise, medical misinformation, trust, truthers, wicked problem
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HM Sociology
H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
Q Science > QR Microbiology > QR180 Immunology
R Medicine > RA Public aspects of medicine > RA0421 Public health. Hygiene. Preventive Medicine
Departments: School of Policy & Global Affairs > Sociology & Criminology
SWORD Depositor:
[thumbnail of baker-et-al-2023-simple-solutions-to-wicked-problems-cultivating-true-believers-of-anti-vaccine-conspiracies-during-the.pdf]
Text - Published Version
Available under License Creative Commons: Attribution International Public License 4.0.

Download (206kB) | Preview
[thumbnail of Draft_EJCS (07 02 23)  ).pdf] Text - Accepted Version
This document is not freely accessible due to copyright restrictions.


Add to AnyAdd to TwitterAdd to FacebookAdd to LinkedinAdd to PinterestAdd to Email


Downloads per month over past year

View more statistics

Actions (login required)

Admin Login Admin Login