Craig Egan said it happened by accident.
Becoming an internet troll, that is.
And not just any internet troll.
Operating within the loud, often hostile and meme-filled recesses of the internet, the Tacoma resident is perhaps the most prolific and well-known troll of the anti-vaccination movement.
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Now — thanks to an online fund-raising effort that brought in roughly $7,500 in just four days — he’s going on tour.
What you make of Egan’s message — and its delivery — is up to you, of course. Great change rarely comes from a Facebook comment thread, and discourse is not often improved in the process of trying.
Still, in Egan’s chosen battle, he deserves credit for relentlessly speaking truth to nonsense.
Online, his approach is textbook trolling, which is defined by the Urban Dictionary as posting a “deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument.”
That’s exactly what he does, needling staunch, conspiratorial anti-vaccine types to an uncomfortable point of hilarity or harassment, depending on your point of view.
He has a certain skill set, and he’s not shy about using it, employing take-down-style arguments based in science and medicine in a bizarre digital realm that largely seeks to discredit both.
Online, his many foes know him well. He’s routinely referred to as a bully, or worse.
Egan targets those who believe immunizations are responsible for a host of medical conditions, ailments and disabilities, and that there’s a widespread cover-up orchestrated by the government and large pharmaceutical companies to keep the truth hidden.
Specifically, Egan specializes in making online life miserable for the handful of doctors and authors who deal in this junk science.
He prods them. He harangues them. He operates a Facebook page titled “Embarrassed Cousins of Proud Parents of Unvaccinated Children” that has nearly 5,000 followers. (The name itself is a swipe at the original Facebook group, “Proud Parents of Unvaccinated Children.”)
For Egan, it’s all in a day’s work.
It just clicked. I hate to say it like this, but I was good at it.
Craig Egan, on becoming an online troll of the anti-vaccine movement
“It just clicked,” he explained of finding his online calling nearly five years ago. “I hate to say it like this, but I was good at it.”
“Don’t doubt my sincerity,” he continued. “I think it’s an important cause. It’s necessary that people stand up against it, and just don’t tolerate this. I really wish people would call out (malarkey) more often.”
Last week brought a new wrinkle to Egan’s modus operandi.
When the tour bus promoting the controversial and widely panned “documentary” Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe showed up in Tacoma, Egan was there. The event and others scheduled across the country are designed to hype a film that alleges a link between vaccinations and autism and a vast Centers for Disease Control coverup. It’s largely based on the work of the film’s director, a discredited former British doctor, and his entirely debunked 1998 study.
Easy picking for Egan, in other words.
He stood off to the side, carrying a sign that read, “vaccines save lives,” and the smile of a man who seems to take an unusual and perhaps even unnatural delight in such things.
This foray into real-life trolling sparked an idea, which was mostly a joke at first, Egan says:
If he had the financial backing, he could travel from city to city with the bus, taking his pro-vaccination, anti-misinformation message along with him.
Four days later, thanks to small donations from about 200 supporters, Egan had raised enough to hit the road.
So far, he’s attended Vaxxed events in Tacoma, Bellingham and Kirkland.
On Wednesday, he’s scheduled to be in Spokane, and he plans to travel to Kansas City, Missouri, in late August.
Egan said he’ll donate a third of what he’s raised to Voices for Vaccines, a nonprofit that supports vaccinations and the reduction of preventable diseases.
“I really want to avoid anyone thinking I’m trying to get rich off this,” said Egan, an Uber driver with children of his own. “I don’t have the money to go do this on my own. But I have the time.”
Which raises a question: Is any of this a good use of Egan’s time — or anyone’s?
Or, is it merely childish, and maybe kind of mean?
It’s a delicate question, if you ponder it. Egan says he has.
In Washington, nearly 5 percent of kindergartners weren’t immunized for the 2016-17 school year, either because of medical reasons or the beliefs of parents. That’s double the national average, according to the state Department of Health.
That’s scary. Health officials believe it might have contributed to a mumps outbreak this year.
But for those with strong-held beliefs, it doesn’t always matter — especially when it comes to the safety of their children. And it can make conversations tricky to navigate, especially in person, for someone like Egan.
I’m a parent. And that’ why I’m out there. Nobody’s being served by misinformation.
Part of the purpose of the Vaxxed tour — besides promoting a film that’s already earned far more attention than it deserves — is to collect stories from parents and families who believe their children have been injured by vaccines. (No medical procedure is completely without risk, it’s worth noting, though severe reactions are extremely rare and currently the CDC says the country has the “safest vaccine supply in its history.”)
These parents show up, and the names of their children are signed on the side of the bus.
There’s an emotional weight there that Egan acknowledges. There’s a big difference, he says, between a “hardcore anti-vaxxer” who actively peddles misinformation, especially for profit, and a parent who “is scared, and kind of buying into it.”
Online, he’s able to take a “two-pronged approach,” he says. He tries to “expose the hardcore,” while “being real soft with the people on the fence.” Occasionally, he’s able to change someone’s mind.
But in real life, when he’s face to face with an actual parent who believes — for whatever reason — that their child was harmed by a vaccine?
“You’re never going to win arguing with a parent about their kid. It’s not cool, and it’s not going to get anywhere. It’s painful for everyone,” Egan said. “I’m a parent. And that’s why I’m out there.
“Nobody’s being served by misinformation. I’m out there for the truth, and I’m out there for them, too.”