- Dr. Sherri Tenpenny was named as one of the 12 most prolific sources of anti-vax misinformation.
- Earlier this year she told Ohio lawmakers that COVID-19 vaccines could make people magnetic.
- But her influence runs deeper, reaching a vast audience and earning her money.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Dr. Sherri Tenpenny had just returned from the Ohio Statehouse late on June 9, 2021.
She told lawmakers there – who were considering a bill against vaccine mandates – that the COVID-19 vaccine could potentially make people both magnetic and connective to 5G mobile data networks.
The testimony – which was demonstrably false – garnered global headlines and its own PolitiFact fact check.
It inspired a nurse at the same hearing to make a comical failed attempt at proving she was now magnetic.
That evening, talking to her Bible study group, Tenpenny was pleased with herself. “If the goal was to make them look stupid … I think I did a pretty good job with that,” she said in a video that has since been removed from Instagram.
“You knocked it out of the park,” one follower commented.
The incident illustrates the chasm of perception between anti-vaxxers and mainstream science in understanding the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Tenpenny told Insider that she had spoken for more than an hour, and that news reports cherry-picked and twisted her words. She stuck to her claim that the Ohio hearing went well.)
In March, the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) named Tenpenny among 12 anti-vaxxers responsible for spreading 65% of all false information about vaccines, dubbing them the “Disinformation Dozen.”
The report has been influential, and was name-checked by President Joe Biden in July, who said: “These 12 people are out there giving misinformation. Anyone listening to it is getting hurt by it.” The remark came after his explosive comment that anti-vax claims on Facebook were “killing people.”
But even censure from the most powerful person in the world can only do so much. Anti-vaccine disinformation has crept up on the Biden administration’s COVID-19 response, complicating the rapid rollout of free, life-saving vaccines.
Tenpenny’s limited following of around 115,000 people across conventional social-media platforms (she was recently banned from Twitter) obscures her true reach.
Between her podcast, appearances on Infowars, and speeches at right-wing rallies, she’s had more than 1.5 million streams.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials are now saying that vaccine misinformation is contributing to the “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” In the Ohio Statehouse, Tenpenny knew that Democrats, who opposed the bill against vaccine mandates, would confront her with the “Disinformation Dozen” label.
“I said, ‘yeah! I’m kind of proud of that, that’s pretty cool, isn’t it?'” she told her Bible study group. “I just, like, pivoted it.”
She chuckled. “Idiots.”
Weeks before any COVID-19 vaccine trials were completed, Tenpenny was sure of the outcome.
“They’re being led like sheep to the slaughter, Alex,” she told the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on Infowars in September. “What’s coming in this vaccine is going to be horrific.”
Tenpenny is a doctor, but her specialism is osteopathy. She has no qualifications in epidemiology. Despite this, she has spent years making unproven or exaggerated claims about vaccines. She regularly talks about the 40,000 hours she has spent researching the topic.
Tenpenny gave an initial interview to Insider followed by an email exchange, in which she partly responded to several detailed requests for comment.
Speaking to Insider, she explained why she produces no research herself, and instead presents her conclusions based on reading scientific papers. They are often, though not always, peer-reviewed materials.
“I quote what I quote and I use references so people can read the material themselves, so that they can see that I don’t take things out of context,” she said.
But the material is often taken out of context.
Tenpenny sells a suite of four educational courses on COVID-19, priced at $79 a module, though currently discounted to $24.95.
In course materials viewed by Insider from the “Social Distancing and Contact Tracing” module, Tenpenny cited the leading atmospherics researcher Professor Lidia Morawska from Queensland University of Technology, Australia.
Morawska had written an influential paper about the methodology of assessing airborne infection, calling for a more nuanced understanding, as Insider’s Hilary Brueck reported. She had referred to the “dogma” of older science, saying it needed refreshing.
Tenpenny presented the quote with little further context, framing it as part of an argument that social distancing is useless in preventing infection.
“Dr. Tenpenny completely misrepresents what I say,” Morawska told Insider. “I never said that distancing is useless, quite to the contrary.”
Confronted with this, Tenpenny said that Morawska was “backpedaling” from the conclusions of her own research.
Needless to say, Morawska disagreed.
Tenpenny sent Insider extensive materials, including a document about the COVID-19 vaccine named “20 mechanisms of injury,” many of which have already been extensively debunked, as Reuters reported.
Insider asked Professor Raymond Tellier, a microbiologist with specialisms in coronaviruses, pandemics, and medical microbiology at McGill University, to review the document.
Tellier said: “To paraphrase Luke Skywalker: ‘Amazing. Almost everything she said is wrong.'”
He sent Insider a point-by-point rebuttal of her assertions on spike proteins, mRNA, human DNA, adenoviruses, and anaphylaxis, all of which Tenpenny uses to falsely claim that the vaccine is harmful.
“It is quite clear that she does not understand (or willfully misrepresents) the articles she is reading, and is incapable of appreciating them correctly,” he said.
Insider sent Tenpenny Tellier’s detailed critique. Tenpenny responded by saying “other scientists and medical doctors” agree with her conclusions, without addressing Tellier’s conclusions.
How inflated numbers and falsehoods entered the discussion
Speaking of the vaccine, Tenpenny asked Insider: “Can you think of any product in any industry that could have contributed to at least 45,000 deaths in the first eight months of use?”
There is no official report of the vaccine causing, or even being connected to, 45,000 deaths. The CDC’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) has logged, to date, 6,340 deaths in people who have had the shot, or 0.0019% of all recipients.
This doesn’t mean the vaccine killed 6,340 people, since the system does not record – or even aim to record – whether a vaccine caused a death or if it is merely a coincidence.
Reports can be submitted by anyone, and no connection between the vaccine and ill effects needs to be proven.
The figure of 45,000 vaccine deaths comes from the calculations, based on VAERS data, of an anonymous computer programmer in a lawsuit filed by America’s Frontline Doctors. The group is known for spreading vaccine disinformation, The New York Times reported.
The case has not been tested in court, but it has gone straight into Tenpenny’s arsenal. So, too, has the fact that the COVID-19 vaccine has not undergone long-term trials – which Tenpenny embellished to a rightwing rally in Tampa in July.
“This shot has never been tested in humans before, ever,” she said, adding: “There are no long-term studies.” The follow-up did little to undo the main falsehood, given that the vaccine was tested on around 75,000 volunteers.
To “pass” Tenpenny’s anti-social distancing course, users must answer 10 true-or-false questions showing they accept the main conclusions of the course: that social distancing has no benefit in a pandemic, and that masks are a form of mind control. (Insider scored 70%.)
In a June 2021 report on the Disinformation Dozen, titled “Pandemic Profiteers,” the CCDH estimated that Tenpenny earned up to $353,925 from a single webinar titled “How Covid-19 Injections Can Make You Sick … Even Kill You.”
This income is on top of sales from Tenpenny’s pre-recorded training courses, her line of supplements, as well as her fees for appearing in multiple vaccine-injury cases. And each webinar produces more customers.
“My job is to teach the 400 of you in the class … so each one of you go out and teach 1,000,” she told her $623-a-head “Mastering Vaccine Info Boot Camp” in March, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported.
Judges have called her vaccine-injury fees exorbitant. In a long-running case, a federal court official in 2009 “expressed serious concern” over the $25,800 Tenpenny billed a client, noting she had claimed to have spent 260 hours preparing for a single day’s hearing. She also had billed two meals for a total of $139.19, the judge said.
The vaccine-injured client, Michael Shaw, eventually won his case with testimony from a neurologist. But Tenpenny’s testimony was criticized as scientifically illiterate.
The official said it had likely slowed Shaw’s access to justice.
From vaccine hesitancy to conspiracy theories
Tenpenny’s “Vaxxter” Facebook page description said it was dedicated to exposing “problems associated with Big Pharma.”
“We support fully informed consent and support your right to refuse vaccines and mandatory medications,” it said.
After Insider highlighted the content of the page, Facebook removed it, along with a slew of other pages linked to Tenpenny.
Debates around medical freedoms have been enormously re-energized in right-wing politics during the pandemic, whether they be about mask-wearing, lockdowns, or vaccine use. Indeed, it was Ohio House Rep. Jennifer Gross who invited Tenpenny to testify in the statehouse about the anti-vaccine mandate bill in June, as the Cincinnati Enquirer reported. Gross didn’t respond to Insider’s request for comment.
While Tenpenny takes that increasingly mainstream position on Facebook, she often directs her followers to more niche material elsewhere. Tenpenny told Insider it was a “given” that she tones down how she talks on mainstream social media platforms.
“Everybody modifies their language these days if they want to say what they really think because the censorship spiders, and reporters, will come along and take it out of context or take it down,” she said.
Which is why over on Infowars, the story goes far beyond the reasonable questions a vaccine-hesitant person might have.
There, the shot is – apparently – part of a big pharma plot to sicken people with vaccines in order to create a bigger medical customer base. “These shots are designed to make you sick and even kill you,” she told Alex Jones on July 1.
“The people at the top of this ladder, they’re eugenicists and I believe many of them are satanists,” she told him last September.
Tenpenny’s worldview has strayed into antisemitism, as The Jewish Chronicle first reported.
The CCDH provided Insider with several antisemitic Telegram posts from Tenpenny, which variously mention Jewish figures such as the Rothschild family and George Soros. In some cases, they allege ambitions of world domination, which is considered antisemitic by the American Jewish Committee.
She also shared an interview in which Bishop Richard Williamson claimed that no Jews were gassed in Nazi concentration camps during what he called “the quote-unquote Holocaust.” The post was accompanied by a note that “posting and forwarding are not an endorsement.”
“Many people share things on different channels,” Tenpenny told Insider of the post, saying she had no idea who Williamson is. “This is his interpretation … I could challenge and debate everyone of his statements with other studies.”
“‘His studies’ vs ‘my studies’ … that’s what scientific debate is about,” she added.
Asked about a post in which she said that “the CEOs of the major vaccine manufacturers are Jews,” Tenpenny said it had been posted by a member of her social-media team, and that they had held a meeting about it after it received attention.
She did not take the post down, however, tellling Insider: “Then the next time somebody gets upset about something, do we take that out? Or do we just say, suck it up, buttercup, move on? It’s not that big a deal.”
Sluggish reaction from social-media companies
Instagram has taken little action on Tenpenny’s “@happyhourwithDrT” Bible study account, which often veers into anti-vaccine disinformation.
Facebook has been sporadic in how it responds to her posts. Until Insider contacted the company, her “Vaxxter” page remained live, with some posts marked with a link to a fact-check and others offering links to accurate COVID-19 information.
After questions from Insider, Facebook and Instagram took down five pages linked to Tenpenny, including “Vaxxter,” and two Instagram accounts, citing breaches of its coronavirus misinformation policies.
While she rarely posted written vaccine disinformation on Facebook, Tenpenny used the “Vaxxter” page to direct its 27,000 followers to her podcast, which is hosted on Podbean.
The whack-a-mole system is deeply frustrating to Imran Ahmed, CEO of CCDH.
“People are looking for big answers to big problems, and that’s where conspiracist-thinking stuff can go in,” he told Insider.
“We know that these are bad actors,” he said, speaking of the Disinformation Dozen. “And that’s been our argument with the social media companies.”
‘No bottom line beyond the bottom line’
Tenpenny’s social media presence is warm, world-weary, and comforting. In her cozy Instagram chats, she seems completely sincere in her beliefs.
But for Ahmed, the Disinformation Dozen have one prime motivation: Money. “There is no true self” with them, he said. “There’s no bottom line beyond the bottom line.”
He said CCDH’s researchers had infiltrated a meeting of the National Vaccine Information Center, a group identified by NewsGuard as spreading “false and unsubstantiated claims about vaccination.”
There, anti-vaxxers including Tenpenny “were arguing in secret over how they were going to take advantage of COVID.”
“They were bubbling over with glee at the opportunity that COVID presents to them for market growth,” he said.