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Wake up, Mr. West: Kanye's anti-vax conspiracies are dangerous and ill-informed

Commentary: The rapper says "they want to put chips inside of us" and is "extremely cautious" about a COVID-19 vaccine. He shouldn't be.

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You shouldn't listen to Kanye about vaccines.

Saul Loeb/Getty

Kanye West appears to be serious about a tilt at the US presidency. After the billionaire rap mogul announced his intention to run via Twitter on July 4, West made it clear, during a far-reaching interview with Forbes' Randall Lane on Wednesday, he was in the race "to win." He also insinuated he was anti-vaccination and suggested humans with "the Devil inside them" want to "put chips inside of us." 

West's run for President has been met with derision, ridiculed by other celebrities and on social media. There are questions over whether he can overcome the technical obstacles he faces, such as the expired deadlines for registering in several states, to actually be on the ballot in November. 

Still, there's a fervor for more Kanye right now and his face is everywhere again -- just in time for his new album.  

A recent Forbes interview has garnered great publicity, with major publications detailing West's "policy platforms" based on a few rambling quotes. In particular, West takes an anti-vaccination stance not supported by scientific evidence, but coverage of his views has mostly amplified comments made during the interview, as opposed to critically evaluating them. 

Election analysts believe West has missed his opportunity to have a meaningful impact in the 2020 race. But even if he isn't a serious contender, his "policies" based on falsehoods should be debunked.

Especially when those falsehoods are being propagated during the coronavirus pandemic -- the worst public health crisis in a century -- and during a time when over three million cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in the US. While some may look at Kanye's comments, groan and move on, real damage can be done here. 

"People who are on the fence about vaccination could be swayed by celebrities spreading misinformation," says Sacha Stelzer-Braid, a virologist at the University of New South Wales in Australia. 

Wake up Mr. West

Here's Kanye's quote from the Forbes article on June 8:

"It's so many of our children that are being vaccinated and paralyzed… So when they say the way we're going to fix Covid is with a vaccine, I'm extremely cautious. That's the mark of the beast. They want to put chips inside of us, they want to do all kinds of things, to make it where we can't cross the gates of heaven. I'm sorry when I say they, the humans that have the Devil inside them. And the sad thing is that, the saddest thing is that we all won't make it to heaven, that there'll be some of us that do not make it. Next question."

West says he is "extremely cautious" about fixing the coronavirus pandemic with a vaccine, although most experts agree we will be living with some lockdown restrictions and social distancing measures until a vaccine becomes available. Vaccines are the most obvious way out of the pandemic because they've been shown to be one of the most effective ways to prevent disease via thousands of peer-reviewed papers

But West appears to be leaning into conspiracy theories instead.

"It's so many of our children that are being vaccinated and paralyzed… So when they say the way we're going to fix Covid is with a vaccine, I'm extremely cautious," he said.

It's unclear what West is referring to here, but it's likely he's referring to the influenza vaccine. The weight of scientific evidence shows severe side effects from the vaccine are extremely rare, although around one in a million people may experience muscle weakness or paralysis -- a condition known as Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS). This is a condition that can be caused by surgery or other viruses, too. This is not a revelation or a surprise: It's well established in the scientific literature. The risks exist and are known, but are considered minimal.

"The benefits of vaccination clearly outweigh the very small chance of adverse effects," says Stelzer-Braid.

"So many of our children" are not being "paralyzed." This statement is not based on fact and should be called out as such.

CNET contacted West but did not receive a response prior to publication.

Perhaps more concerning is West's apparent swing towards the idea vaccination is associated with implanting chips in the populace. 

"They want to put chips inside of us, they want to do all kinds of things, to make it where we can't cross the gates of heaven," he told Forbes. 

Either West is rambling about something unrelated to vaccines, was misquoted, or he's said something embarrassing, ill-informed, dangerous and stupid. The notion that vaccination involves microchips potentially stems from various conspiracy theories that have arisen during the pandemic claiming Bill Gates is trying to implant microchips in people via vaccination. This conspiracy theory has been routinely debunked and shown to be completely false

It's important to listen to those who may be hesitant to vaccinate and allay any legitimate concerns -- but West's stance appears extreme.

Runaway

Vaccine hesitancy was cited as one of the WHO's chief global health concerns in 2019. The last thing we need is one of the world's most famous artists tacitly endorsing it. In addition, if a vaccine does become available, anti-vaccination sentiment may hamper efforts to effectively control the pandemic and bring it to an end. 

And as the pandemic has become overly politicized, we've seen how this can negatively affect messaging -- just look at the heated debate that has erupted around the use of face masks across the US. There's a clear partisan divide as to whether someone believes masks should be worn. 

Just like we don't turn to Ja Rule during a national tragedy, we shouldn't look to Kanye West to comment on vaccination unchecked, even if we're telling the story of his potential policy platforms. He's not a scientist or a virologist or an epidemiologist or a public health expert. His ideas about vaccination, COVID-19 and chips aren't opinions: They're demonstrably untrue.

It could just be that West has played us, the public and the media (and even Elon Musk), like a fiddle. It could be that he knows these extreme, ill-informed takes will get people talking about him again. Maybe there's something in this plan that can foil an election. Maybe it's just good publicity -- he's got form in this space. And just by writing this, I'm probably contributing to it all. I get that. It's the catch-22 of the misinformation era. In rebuking misinformation, you also help spread it.

But sparks of misinformation and disinformation need to be hosed down before they turn into conflagrations. I hope this is all just for album number 10. I hope Kanye is playing us.