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Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Convinced People To Distrust Vaccines. Now He’s Running For President.

One of the most influential anti-vaccine activists of the past two decades is seeking an even bigger platform: Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of a former U.S. attorney general and senator and the nephew of a former president, is running for the White House himself. 

Kennedy filed candidacy paperwork Wednesday and is planning a kickoff speech in Boston on April 19. 

Prior to his anti-vaccine activism, Kennedy had a reputation mostly as an environmental lawyer. But since the early 2000s, Kennedy has been an integral piece of the anti-vaccine ecosystem in the United States, trading on his family name and high-profile connections to give a sheen of legitimacy to bunk science — which critics say has led to needless deaths and a wave of anti-science, anti-government paranoia that is now a defining feature of American politics. 

His work has prompted criticism from his family, most notably a 2019 Politico article in which two siblings and one niece wrote that by spreading misinformation and distrust of the science behind vaccines, Kennedy was part of a “campaign to attack the institutions committed to reducing the tragedy of preventable infectious diseases.” 

One of the authors of that piece, Kennedy’s sister Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, declined HuffPost’s request to comment on his candidacy. Former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), the son of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), told HuffPost in a statement that he was supporting President Joe Biden’s reelection bid.

The COVID-19 pandemic gave Kennedy  a new platform for his false medical views. Kennedy’s anti-vaccine group, Children’s Health Defense, more than doubled its annual fundraising to $6.8 million in 2020 and notched millions of website visits monthly, The Associated Press reported

The following year, an analysis from the anti-misinformation group Center for Countering Digital Hate found that Kennedy was the source of the most anti-vaccine content shared or posted on Facebook or Twitter, behind only Joseph Mercola, who has influenced millions with “natural” cures.

“What makes him particularly difficult is his name. His family is one that stood up for the underdog, that represented the underdog, that spoke truth to power, so when he stands up and says, ‘These vaccines are doing an enormous amount of harm,’ that has a special influence,” said Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a longtime Kennedy critic who believes him to be the country’s most influential anti-vaccine voice.

Kennedy, Offit added, “lies and lies and lies about vaccine safety.” 

He lies and lies and lies about vaccine safety.Paul Offit, referring to Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Children’s Health Defense was kicked off of Facebook and Instagram — both under parent company Meta — last year for “repeatedly violating our policies,” a Meta spokesperson said. But it remains on Twitter; archives of the page show the group has increased its Twitter “follower” count by nearly 25% since January alone. Kennedy personally was banned from Instagram in February 2021, but he has 868,000 followers on Twitter and 352,000 on Facebook.

Notably, the landing page of Kennedy’s campaign website doesn’t explicitly mention vaccines but rather that the candidate “has battled against corporate greed and government corruption to protect our children, our health, our livelihoods, our environment, and above all, our freedom.”

Children’s Health Defense on Thursday referred HuffPost’s questions to Kennedy’s campaign, which said it would not be scheduling interviews with the candidate until after his campaign kickoff.

Decades Of False Claims

Kennedy entered the anti-vaccine universe with a bang: In 2005, Salon and Rolling Stone published his article “Deadly Immunity.” Salon issued a retraction years later, and Rolling Stone deleted the article from its site. At its heart, the piece used misleading and incorrect information to claim vaccines cause autism. As journalist Seth Mnookin pointed out, the article spliced together quotes to make them appear sinister and made basic mistakes about vaccine chemistry.

Among other serious errors, the article misstated the amount of ethylmercury infants received from vaccines in their first six months; it was “40 percent, not 187 times, greater than the EPA’s limit for daily exposure to methylmercury,” a correction note by Salon states. Days after that correction, Kennedy falsely claimed, “We are injecting our children with 400 times the amount of mercury that FDA or EPA considers safe.” (Numerous studies have established no link between vaccines and autism.)

The same lack of scientific scrutiny applied to Kennedy’s COVID-19 vaccine claims: The Kennedy scion told a Louisiana House committee that the COVID-19 vaccine was “the deadliest vaccine ever made.”

But, like many other anti-vaccine voices, Kennedy relied on numbers from the government’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERs, a notoriously unreliable database because reports aren’t verified. In the same way that bunk films like “Died Suddenly” claim that numerous deaths are the result of vaccination, so too do VAERs entries ― even without any evidence supporting the claim or with evidence contradicting it.

‘The Boss At My Own House’

More than any other anti-vaccine crusader, Kennedy’s name gave him instant credibility with much of the country, particularly in wealthy liberal circles. Over the years, Kennedy has shared stages and lobbied against vaccine legislation with the likes of Robert De Niro and Jessica Biel.

But although he became known for anti-vaccine work, Kennedy also had a reputation as an environmental lawyer and progressive activist ― roles in which heauthored blogs and was thesubject ofmultiplearticlespublished by HuffPost. (Before HuffPost shuttered its contributor platform in 2017, Kennedy also wrote some blogs denigrating vaccines; those posts, along with others spreading misinformation about vaccines, have since been removed from the site.)

The combination of his family name and liberal bona fides gives Kennedy a unique position in politics and certainly within the anti-vaccine movement, which has tilted far right in recent years.

Among other things, Kennedy has the distinction of being discussed for roles in both the Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations: in the Obama administration as a potential EPA official, though never a very serious contender, and in the Trump White House, at least accordingtoKennedy, as the head of a vaccine safety board. (Infectious disease specialist Paul E. Sax wrote that news of the supposed Trump appointment reminded him of “when Elvis Presley received an official Federal Narcotics Bureau badge from Richard Nixon, this just a few years before Presley died of a drug overdose.”)

Recently, Kennedy’s views have put him at odds with his wife, Cheryl Hines, the actor known for her role on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”: In one instance, in late 2021, Hines instructed guests invited to a family holiday party to be vaccinated or tested for COVID-19 ― prompting Kennedy to tell a reporter, “I guess I’m not always the boss at my own house.”

A month later, Kennedy lamented during a speech that “even in Hitler’s Germany, you could hide in the attic like Anne Frank did.” Hines distanced herself from the remark, and Kennedy apologized.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and actor Cheryl Hines attend the 2018 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights' Ripple of Hope Awards in New York City. Their views on vaccines diverged.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and actor Cheryl Hines attend the 2018 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights' Ripple of Hope Awards in New York City. Their views on vaccines diverged.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and actor Cheryl Hines attend the 2018 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights' Ripple of Hope Awards in New York City. Their views on vaccines diverged.

A Libertarian Shift

Kennedy’s Anne Frank comment points to a broader shift in his rhetoric since the beginning of the pandemic: Whereas before he may have focused more on claims about vaccine safety, these days he’s equally focused on the supposed tyrannical ambitions of drugmakers and governments ― a much trickier charge for scientists and public health officials to combat.

“The minute they hand you that vaccine passport, every right that you have is transformed into a privilege contingent upon your obedience to arbitrary government dictates,” Kennedy said during the same speech, part of an anti-vaccine rally staged at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

That tone has brought him support from far-right Trump acolytes like Roger Stone and Steve Bannon. Bannon had “encouraged this for months,” CBS News’ Robert Costa reported, citing several unnamed people familiar with the matter.

In an interview this week, Stone called Kennedy “right on the entire question on the safety and effectiveness of vaccinations.”

For Offit, that reputation will mark history’s remembrance of Kennedy ― a sharp departure from the civil rights and political work of his father and uncle.

In 2020, prior to the COVID-19 vaccine, Offit recalled, the children’s hospital at which he worked was “overwhelmed” with the virus. Children struggled to breathe, required oxygen and intensive care, and occasionally died. By 2021, despite the vaccine eventually being made available for children, some parents distrusted the shot. Their kids paid the price.

“In part because of people like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who sowed doubts about the safety of vaccines ― or supported the notion that this was government overreach ― you had to watch children suffer and occasionally die,” Offit said. “That is Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s legacy.”

Igor Bobic and Kevin Robillard contributed reporting.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this piece misstated what a correction of Kennedy’s 2005 article “Deadly Immunity” determined about exposure to ethylmercury.