Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., does not want you to think of him as an anti-vaxxer. I have yet to meet an anti-vaxxer—someone who spreads misinformation about all vaccines being harmful—who is comfortable with the label. Kennedy is not just anti-vaccine; by many recent accounts, he is one of the princes of the anti-vaccination movement, if not its king. The website Media Bias/Fact Check calls Kennedy’s corporation, Children’s Health Defense, “a strong conspiracy and quackery level advocacy group.” An academic paper published in January 2020 reported that Children’s Health Defense was one of two buyers accounting for 54% of anti-vaccine advertising content on Facebook. Kennedy himself is part of the Disinformation Dozen, a gaggle of influencers generating two-thirds of anti-vaccination content on Facebook and Twitter, according to a recent assessment. Instagram banned him from their platform earlier this year, although his corporation’s account remains active.
As Kennedy releases a new “documentary” that uses medical failures toward Black people to sow distrust in the COVID-19 vaccines, I asked myself: how did one of John F. Kennedy’s nephews rise to infamy as one of the loudest voices of the modern anti-vaccination movement?
Like a mind virus
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., grew up to be an environmental lawyer. The people frequently in his sights? Polluters.
When corporations and governments would skirt environmental laws, Kennedy would bring them to justice. Some of these cases involved contamination of waterways with mercury, a theme that would translate to his anti-vaccination crusade. But I think it is also important to highlight that the work we do helps shape our view of the world. My coverage of misinformation biases me to think it is more prevalent than it might be; likewise, it could be argued that a career spent exposing corporations that carelessly dump toxic chemicals into the world might bias you to imagine harmful plots wherever industry is involved.
While Kennedy was bringing corporate corruption to light, the anti-vaccination movement was re-energized thanks to Andrew Wakefield’s infamous Lancet paper, now retracted. Wakefield was interested in linking inflammatory bowel conditions to the clogging of blood vessels in the wall of the gut. In the early 1990s, after reading through an old virology textbook, he became obsessed with the idea that the measles virus was behind it all, for the simple reason that it had been shown to sometimes cause ulcers, which were seen in the stomach of some people with inflammatory bowel disease. Wakefield then turned his attention to the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and tried to link it to a “leaky gut” hypothesis where molecules escaped digestion and impacted the brain. In 1998, he would publish his notorious paper and hold a press conference in London in which he claimed that the vaccine could very well be responsible for the rise in the rates of autism. It wasn’t, but Wakefield had developed an idée fixe—an obsession of the mind—and it would go on to infect Kennedy’s own thoughts a few years later.
In the summer of 2005, a psychologist from Minnesota by the name of Sarah Bridges went over to Kennedy’s house with a stack of papers. Her son had been diagnosed with autism and she blamed the mercury in the vaccines. Said mercury was part of a molecule called thimerosal, a preservative used since the 1940s in multi-dose vaccines to prevent bacterial growth. By Kennedy’s own account, Sarah Bridges would not leave Kennedy’s front porch until he had read these studies alleging a link between thimerosal and autism. Kennedy, who was already familiar with mercury’s effect on ecosystems, was alarmed and started calling regulators. He became convinced they either did not understand what vaccine science was allegedly saying or they were lying.
His public crusade began that very summer with the publication of a highly disingenuous article, prepared with the help of an anti-vaccination activist, in both the print version of Rolling Stone magazine and the website Salon.com. Its name was “Deadly Immunity” and it was riddled with mistakes, distorted quotes, and unsubstantiated fearmongering. Salon soon appended a number of corrections to it and, five and a half years later, finally retracted it.
As Dr. David Gorski pointed out at the time, Kennedy read a 260-page transcript from a vaccine safety meeting and quote-mined it to wring fear juice out of it. Whereby one vaccine advisor at the meeting had expressed warranted concerns that lawyers might use preliminary study results on vaccine safety for their own ends, Kennedy, himself a lawyer, trimmed the quote to make the advisor sound conspiratorial. Reading “Deadly Immunity,” you were led to believe that the doctors and scientists sitting on vaccine safety committees secretly argue that vaccines should not be tested for safety and that if studies are conducted, their results need to be “handled” to prevent the truth from leaking out to the public.
Over the years, Kennedy’s misguided idée fixe has snowballed and gained impressive momentum. He has propagated numerous falsehoods about the COVID-19 pandemic. He has been a mainstay at the AutismOne conference, which attracts fake experts convinced that vaccines cause autism. In his last appearance as keynote speaker, he incited attendees to evangelize for the anti-vaccination movement, concluding that he would see them “on the barricades.” Kennedy was asked to chair a “vaccine safety task force” for the Trump administration in 2017. (The task force would end up never materializing.) He also served as executive producer for the anti-vaccination “documentary” Vaxxed II: The People’s Truth. Now, his own corporation has released an anti-vaccine movie, one which is directed toward people of colour.
The movie’s title is sensational click-bait. Medical Racism: The New Apartheid. It is a project of CHD Films, a division of Kennedy’s Children’s Health Defense (formerly known as the World Mercury Project). As NBC News reported when the movie was released a month ago, its producers include the founder of a private school that boasts of not enforcing vaccination mandates; a Nation of Islam minister who falsely claimed that childhood vaccines are genetically modified to harm children of colour; and a nonprofit CEO who promoted the misinformation campaign of America’s Frontline Doctors.
Kennedy himself bookends the narrative by asking the viewers to do their own research and come to their own conclusion, affording him plausible deniability. Black people are interviewed on the street and not one of them says they want the COVID-19 vaccine. They don’t believe in it, they don’t think it’s necessary, they don’t think it’s safe. One man tells the camera he has heard of Tuskegee. The government wants to study you, he says. “I’m not gonna be their guinea pig.”
These off-the-cuff remarks are bolstered by the usual sprinkling of family testimonials. The recipe is simple: a mother says her child was fine until they got the vaccine, and then “they shut down.” Photos of a smiling baby and a happy family are followed by B-roll of the child with autism and the mother fighting back tears. These emotional appeals were the meat of the anti-vaccine movie Vaxxed II: The People’s Truth and they return here with Black families.
To provide more legitimacy, Medical Racism turns to experts and pundits: medical doctors, historians, and professors, but also activists, integrative health practitioners and even a minister, to recount real violations committed against Black people, questionable allegations, and debunked falsehoods until the facts end up coating the lies with legitimacy.
One of the falsehoods is the CDC whistleblower story. In this 2021 movie, two talking heads repeat a story that was known to be false in 2014. The claim is that William Thompson of the Centers for Disease Control confessed that he and others had hidden data that the MMR vaccine put Black children at a much-increased risk to develop autism. This is not true. The full story (covered by Dr. Gorski and by Snopes). can be summarized thusly. It was a reanalysis of a 2004 study. The reanalysis was removed from the public domain because of a) undisclosed competing interests compromising its peer review and b) questionable statistical analyses. The original study can be tortured to yield a slight increase in autism rates among Black vaccinated boys, but it ignores a) the fact that the more categories of people you look at, the more likely you are to get a positive result by chance alone, b) the slight increase is probably tied to the immunization requirements for preschool special education for children with autism in the sample, and c) many more studies, some much larger, failed to find a link. Yet this story, with its conspiracy theme and its turncoat hero, is still flogged by anti-vaxxers because they need it to be true.
Not content with fearmongering about vaccines and medicine as a whole, Medical Racism also subtly implies that Black people simply do not need vaccines. We are told that Black people have a very powerful immune system and that vaccines overstimulate it. Besides, vitamin D, the movie claims, is a potent solution for COVID-19, one that is being suppressed. And the kicker is when an African gynecologist tells us that, with regards to viral infections, “Africa has been protected by our interactions with environment [sic]. And we are, actually, quite immune to some of these things, and I say this as a doctor! COVID does not belong to Africa.” The through line is clear: the coronavirus, the movie harmfully argues, is no threat to Black people. The real menace are the vaccines.
The website that hosts the movie offers viewers a collection of memes, shareable images with pithy statements from the film. Just like astroturf organizations can furnish protesters with professional placards, Children’s Health Defense has manufactured vivid memes for its followers to spread on social media. “Our bodies, our choice,” mentions one featuring a smiling group of Black people next to the movie’s logo and URL. “Find out how you can combat government coercion,” reads another one, “and medical abuse of people of color.” The website also offers text-based social media posts, pre-packaged, that anti-vaccine slacktivists can copy and paste onto Facebook.
It is clear to me, from watching Medical Racism and being familiar with Kennedy’s campaign against vaccines, that this is not about medical atrocities committed against Black people. This is propaganda. This is the stomach-churning exploitation of historical abuse and contemporary failings, peppered with falsehoods, to convince a marginalized audience already at increased risk for COVID-19 that safe and effective vaccines are poisonous. A real empathic appeal for dialogue on this issue would look like what Drs. Sandra Quinn and Michele Andrasik recently published in The New England Journal of Medicine. Kennedy’s Medical Racism by comparison is crass, manipulative miseducation.
As the end credits roll, we hear a song called “Save the Children” by Gil Scott-Heron. I couldn’t help but think of QAnon’s call-to-arms, which was trumpeted by wellness influencers on Instagram. Children were being sacrificed on the altar of Satanic Deep State pedophiles, they said. In Kennedy’s world, these same children need to be defended from the ritualistic abuses of pharmaceutical companies. “We’ve got to do something, yeah, to save the children,” the man sings over the scrolling text. But who will save the children’s parents from this harmful propaganda?
-Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., is one of the main activists of the modern anti-vaccination movement.
-The movie his corporation recently produced, Medical Racism: The New Apartheid, mixes real examples of racism in healthcare and vaccine misinformation to push an anti-vaccine agenda on marginalized communities of colour