PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Robert F. Kennedy Jr. strode onto the stage at a Southern California church, radiating Kennedy confidence and surveying the standing ovation crowd with his piercing blue Bobby Kennedy eyes. Then, he launched into an anti-vaccine rant. Democrats “drank the Kool-Aid,” he told people assembled for a far right conference, branded as standing for “health and freedom.”
“It is criminal medical malpractice to give a child one of these vaccines,” Kennedy contended, according to a video of the event, one of his many assertions that ignored or went against legal, scientific and public health consensus.
Then, Kennedy hawked his book. If just 300 attendees preordered it on Amazon that night, he told the crowd, it would land on the bestseller list and they could “stick it to Amazon and Jeff Bezos.”
All profits, he said, would go to his charity, Children’s Health Defense.
While many nonprofits and businesses have struggled during the pandemic, Kennedy’s anti-vaccine group has thrived. An investigation by The Associated Press finds that Children’s Health Defense has raked in funding and followers as Kennedy used his star power as a member of one of America’s most famous families to open doors, raise money and lend his group credibility. Filings with charity regulators show revenue more than doubled in 2020, to $6.8 million.
Since the pandemic started, Children’s Health Defense has expanded the reach of its newsletter, which uses slanted information, cherry-picked facts and conspiracy theories to spread distrust of the COVID-19 vaccines. The group has also launched an internet TV channel and started a movie studio. CHD has global ambitions. In addition to opening new U.S. branches, it now boasts outposts in Canada, Europe and, most recently, Australia. It’s translating articles into French, German, Italian and Spanish, and it’s on a hiring spree.
According to data from Similarweb, a digital intelligence company that analyzes web traffic and search, Children’s Health Defense has become one of the most popular “alternative and natural medicine sites” in the world, reaching a peak of nearly 4.7 million visits per month. That’s up from less than 150,000 monthly visits before the pandemic.
As Children’s Health Defense has worked to expand its influence, experts said, it has targeted its false claims at groups that may be more prone to distrust the vaccine, including mothers and Black Americans. It’s a strategy that experts worry has deadly consequences during a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people, when misinformation has been deemed a threat to public health. The death toll in the United States hit 800,000 this week, and nearly a third of those people have died since vaccines became available to all adults in the U.S. Unvaccinated people are 14 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than those who get the shot, according to the CDC.
As vaccines have become a wedge political issue, Kennedy’s opposition to the shot has at times brought him close to anti-democracy forces on the right who have made common cause with the anti-vaccine movement. The scion of the country’s most prominent Democratic family has appeared at events that pushed the lie that the 2020 election was stolen and associated with people who have celebrated or downplayed the violent Jan. 6. attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Kennedy has been a key part of the anti-vaccine movement for years, but doctors and public health advocates told the AP that COVID-19 launched him to a new level.
“With the pandemic, he’s been turbocharged,” said Dr. David Gorski, a cancer surgeon at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit and a critic of the anti-vaccine movement.
Dr. Richard Allen Williams, a cardiologist, professor of medicine at UCLA and founder of the Minority Health Institute, said Kennedy is leading “a propaganda movement,” and “absolutely a racist operation” that is particularly dangerous to the Black community.
“He’s really the ringleader of the misinformation campaign,” said Williams, who has written several books about race and medicine. “So many people, even those in scientific circles, don’t realize what Kennedy is doing.”
Even Kennedy’s own family members call his work “dangerous.”
Kennedy, 67, is a nephew of President John F. Kennedy and the son of his slain brother. He carved out a career as a bestselling author and top environmental lawyer fighting for important public health priorities such as clean water.
His work as a leading voice in that movement likely would have been his legacy, but more than 15 years ago, he became fixated on a belief that vaccines are not safe. While there are rare instances when people have severe reactions to vaccines, the billions of doses administered globally provide real world evidence that they are safe. The World Health Organization says vaccines prevent as many as 5 million deaths each year.
During the pandemic, Kennedy has become a near-ubiquitous source of false information about COVID-19 and vaccines. Earlier this year, Kennedy was named one of the “Disinformation Dozen” by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which says he and the Children’s Health Defense website are among the top spreaders of false information about vaccines online.
Kennedy’s spokeswoman, Rita Shreffler, told the AP on Dec. 6 that he was not available for an interview for this story.
On Dec. 2, however, she had written to AP complaining of a “complete blackout by mainstream media” about Kennedy’s book, and offering him for interviews.
An AP reporter responded within 20 minutes and sent multiple follow-up emails. When Shreffler finally responded, she asked for “your list of interview questions to be approved prior to scheduling an interview by the team.” AP declined that restriction, and Shreffler then said Kennedy would not speak with AP.
More than 200 million Americans have been given a COVID-19 vaccine, and serious side effects are extremely rare, according to government safety tracking. That tracking and testing in tens of thousands of people has shown that the vaccines are safe and effective at reducing the risk of serious disease and death and that any health risks posed by the vaccine are far lower than the risks posed by the virus.
Children’s Health Defense and its followers, seeking to undermine that message, use canny techniques to bring anti-vaccine misinformation even to those not looking for it.
The AP found links to Children’s Health Defense articles all over Facebook. While many were shared as posts on the pages of fellow anti-vaccine activists, many more could be found in the comments sections on pages that people turn to for reliable information, including official government Facebook pages in all 50 states, and in health departments in nearly every state.
“The vaccine was not created to save us all from a pandemic. The pandemic was created to get us to take the vaccine and more,” one person wrote in February below a North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Facebook post.
Then, they linked to a January Children’s Health Defense article that claimed 329 deaths following the COVID-19 shot had been reported to VAERS, a federal vaccine safety surveillance system that has been misused by anti-vaccine activists.
“Every Friday, the true American hero Robert F Kennedy Jr. pulls the data from the VAERS report. Here is the latest up until 1/22,” the commenter wrote. Another user replied that the comment had been reported for dishonesty, but it was still up 10 months later.
People also shared CHD links under posts made by governors, schools, hospitals, military outposts, universities, news outlets, even a major league soccer team. One state senator from Alaska has shared CHD links on her Facebook page at least four times since March. They were also shared outside the United States, on Facebook pages in places such as Canada, Norway and Greece.
Kennedy has hundreds of thousands of followers on Facebook and Twitter, although he was kicked off Facebook’s Instagram platform earlier this year. Children’s Health Defense remains on all three platforms.
Since January, Children’s Health Defense’s COVID-19 vaccine-related posts were shared more frequently on Twitter than links to vaccine content on mainstream sites including CNN, Fox News, NPR and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to Indiana University’s Observatory on Social Media, which tracks COVID-19 vaccine-related content on Twitter. In some weeks, it found, CHD COVID-19 vaccine content was shared more often than that of The New York Times and The Washington Post.
A different research team found Kennedy’s group, along with the now-removed group called Stop Mandatory Vaccination, bought more than half of the anti-vaccine advertising on Facebook prior to the pandemic. A member of that team, David Broniatowski, of George Washington University, said the groups had targeted Facebook ads to reach women of childbearing age using demographic data.
“They’re much more effective at it than our public health infrastructure,” he said. “That’s in part because they just have a centralized foundation with a very clear sense of what it is they want to do.”
CHD’s effectiveness is in part because it’s central to a network of anti-vaccine websites that link to and amplify each other, creating a disinformation echo chamber that reinforces false narratives that downplay the dangers of COVID-19 while exaggerating the risks of the vaccine. For example, the day after the FDA granted full approval to Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, Kennedy and CHD sent out an article falsely claiming that the vaccine that was licensed was not the one that was available, said Dorit Reiss, a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law and an expert in vaccine law.
“It started with CHD the day after the licensure and then was picked up by right wing outlets,” Reiss said.
The idea circulated on fringe media outlets on the far right. Then, more than a month after the article was published, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin went on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News and repeated the incorrect idea that the approved vaccine was not available in the United States.
It became one of CHD’s biggest articles of the past year, with about 40,000 interactions on Facebook, according to CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned tool that helps track material on the platforms.
In comments on CHD’s website, people expressed anger, fear and calls to action. “You know, the more I read the news the more my stomach tightens up into a little ball,” one wrote. “And they wonder why we don’t trust them and why people won’t get the ‘jab,’” said another. One suggested people march on Washington on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, writing, “Make Jan 6 look like a picnic.”
In addition to its rise on social media, CHD’s website has also seen an explosion in traffic. According to Similarweb, in November 2019, a few months before the pandemic began, Children’s Health Defense received 119,000 visits. That had grown to around 3 million visits last month, after peaking in August at nearly 4.7 million.
And its daily newsletter reaches more than 8 million people a month via email, according to a CHD fundraising appeal that sought to raise $1 million by Nov. 30. AP was not able to independently verify the claim.
In November, Kennedy released his book, “The Real Anthony Fauci,” in which he accuses the nation’s leading infectious disease doctor of helping orchestrate “a historic coup d’etat against Western democracy.” A spokesperson for Fauci did not comment.
Kennedy also uses the book to push unproven COVID-19 treatments such as ivermectin, which is meant to treat parasites, and the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, and he contends that childhood vaccines are not properly safety tested, even though the FDA requires three phases of testing that involves hundreds of thousands of people before approving a childhood vaccine.
His sister, Kerry Kennedy, who runs Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the international rights group founded by their mother, Ethel, told AP that it was irresponsible to attack doctors and scientists. Many, including Fauci, have received death threats, which can deter people from entering the profession.
“Our family knows that a death threat should be taken seriously,” she said.
The group, which supports government-mandated vaccinations and steps such as requiring proof of vaccination, awarded Fauci its “Ripple of Hope Award” last year.
Kennedy Jr. by contrast has spent months hyping his book, including at the far right Reawaken America conference in Southern California in July. Last month, CHD urged supporters to buy the book right away so it would make the New York Times bestseller list. Some commenters on CHD’s site said they bought multiple copies to drive sales. One said they had bought nine and were planning to buy more to put in neighborhood book exchange boxes “to help boost the book to number one on the New York Times bestseller list.”
Kennedy’s wish was granted. “The Real Anthony Fauci” reached No. 5 on the Times’ list last month and hit No. 1 at Amazon. It sold nearly 166,000 copies through the beginning of December, according to NPD BookScan, which tracks around 85 percent of print sales.
Kennedy’s anti-vaccine message has brought him close to many leading figures who have attacked the nation’s democratic norms and institutions. A photo posted on Instagram July 18 and apparently taken backstage at the Reawaken America event, shows Kennedy alongside former President Donald Trump’s ally Roger Stone, anti-vaccine profiteer Charlene Bollinger and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, all of whom have pushed the lie that the 2020 election was stolen.