How a Kennedy built an anti-vaccine juggernaut amid COVID-19

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.

<p>FILE - Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. speaks at a rally outside the Albany County Courthouse Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, in Albany, N.Y., following a hearing about vaccine religious exemptions. An investigation by The Associated Press finds that Children’s Health Defense has raked in money 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. </p>

AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File

FILE - Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. speaks at a rally outside the Albany County Courthouse Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, in Albany, N.Y., following a hearing about vaccine religious exemptions. An investigation by The Associated Press finds that Children’s Health Defense has raked in money 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. 

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.

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.”

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<p>In this image from video posted on the Children's Health Defense website on Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., talks about anti-vaccine stickers he's urging supporters to use.</p>

AP

In this image from video posted on the Children's Health Defense website on Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., talks about anti-vaccine stickers he's urging supporters to use.

MISINFORMATION PIPELINE

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.

<p>FILE - Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., is arrested in Washington on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013, as prominent environmental leaders tied themselves to the White House gate to protest the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Kennedy carved out a career as a bestselling author and top environmental lawyer before becoming a leader in the anti-vaccine movement. </p>

AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt, File

FILE - Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., is arrested in Washington on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013, as prominent environmental leaders tied themselves to the White House gate to protest the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Kennedy carved out a career as a bestselling author and top environmental lawyer before becoming a leader in the anti-vaccine movement. 

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.

<p>FILE - Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. arrives for a hearing about whether stricter vaccine requirements were constitutional at the Albany County Courthouse Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, in Albany, N.Y. 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. </p>

AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File

FILE - Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. arrives for a hearing about whether stricter vaccine requirements were constitutional at the Albany County Courthouse Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, in Albany, N.Y. 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. 

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.

<p>This photo posted on Instagram on July 18, 2021 shows Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., second left, with former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, left, anti-vaccine profiteer Charlene Bollinger and former President Donald Trump ally Roger Stone, right. The account, run by Bollinger, has since been removed.</p>

AP file

This photo posted on Instagram on July 18, 2021 shows Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., second left, with former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, left, anti-vaccine profiteer Charlene Bollinger and former President Donald Trump ally Roger Stone, right. The account, run by Bollinger, has since been removed.

Kennedy has appeared at multiple events with Bollinger and her husband, even after their Super PAC sponsored an anti-vaccine, pro-Trump rally near the Capitol on Jan. 6, when, as AP previously reported, Bollinger celebrated the attack and her husband tried to enter the Capitol. Kennedy filmed a video conversation for their Super PAC in the spring.

He has also courted major GOP donors including Leila and David Centner, who were listed as CHD board members for 2021 on a filing the group made in August with Georgia charity regulators, and which AP obtained in a public records request. The couple are best known for the private school they established in Miami, Centner Academy, which put in place anti-vaccine policies for children and teachers.

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BUILDING A POWERHOUSE

Kennedy often says he started looking at vaccines after a mother told him she believed her son developed autism from exposure to mercury in a vaccine. The theory has been thoroughly debunked. The form of mercury, thimerosal, was removed from childhood vaccines years ago with no effect on the levels of autism. Still, Kennedy and others continue to argue, against the scientific consensus, that vaccines are linked to autism, food allergies and a host of other medical problems. Among the ingredients he tells people to watch out for are common substances such as aluminum, acetaminophen, fluoride and food additives.

In 2015, Kennedy joined up with Eric Gladen, who in 2007 had founded a group called World Mercury Project in Southern California. Gladen believes he got mercury poisoning from a tetanus shot and had made a film called Trace Amounts.

Gladen told AP that Kennedy family members urged him to distance himself from the group after they screened the movie at Kennedy’s sister’s house in Malibu. The next morning, Gladen recalled, Kennedy called him at 6 a.m. to say he was in.

World Mercury Project had been struggling to stay afloat, but everything changed when Kennedy joined. He was “a machine,” doing research, writing op-eds, delivering speeches and connecting with well-placed people, Gladen said. There was “almost no limit” to who they could reach.

World Mercury Project, which reported just $13,114 in revenue on its 2014 tax filings, brought in $467,443 in revenue the following year, when Kennedy came on board.

Gladen stepped down for health reasons in August 2016, but continues to support its work.

Kennedy became board chairman and chief legal counsel. The group rebranded with the name Children’s Health Defense in 2018, removing the word “mercury” from its name and announcing an expanded mission. A press release emphasized autism, ADHD and other “health epidemics” affecting children. It mentioned vaccines only once, almost as an afterthought.

Kennedy told Tucker Carlson in a July 2017 appearance that his vaccine work was “probably the worst career move that I’ve ever made.” When the Fox News host asked him if he was “getting paid for this,” Kennedy replied, “No, I’m not. In fact, I’m getting unpaid for this.”

According to tax filings, Kennedy was paid $131,250 by Children’s Health Defense in 2017. In 2018, he was paid $184,375. By 2019, the most recent year available, his compensation had risen to $255,000.

Kennedy told the conspiracy site InfoWars this month that he had “the opposite of a profit motive.”

“Probably I’ve lost 80 percent of my income because of what I’m doing, along with a lot of friendships and, you know, and damaged relationships even with people in my family,” Kennedy said.

Still, CHD’s fundraising success has only grown with Kennedy’s involvement, and no year was more successful than 2020.

Filings the group made with charity regulators in California show that in 2018, CHD reported $1.1 million in gross revenue. That grew to nearly $3 million in 2019. By 2020, the most recent year available, revenue had more than doubled to $6.8 million. It reported that it spent more than $3.5 million on program expenses last year, the first year of the pandemic. That includes producing 49 “educational videos” and six eBooks, CHD reported to Guidestar.

Kennedy’s group has also lobbied over vaccine legislation in the states, collected large sums of money from special interests such as chiropractors, and filed multiple lawsuits, including a $5 million lawsuit last year against Facebook. Among its claims is that Facebook deactivated the “donate button” on its page, hurting CHD’s efforts to raise money. In May 2019 alone, according to its lawsuit, Children’s Health Defense said it received $24,872 in user donations from its Facebook page. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in June, but CHD is appealing.

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CAPITALIZING ON THE KENNEDY NAME

Children’s Health Defense’s new movie studio released a film earlier this year, called “Medical Racism.” Doctors and public health advocates said it was aimed at spreading misinformation and fear of vaccines within the Black community, which has been disproportionately hit by coronavirus.

The movie brings up racist abuses in medicine, such as the Tuskegee experiment, when hundreds of Black men in Alabama with syphilis were left untreated, to question whether the vaccine can be trusted or is necessary. Examples of racist medical practices have contributed to distrust and hesitation about vaccines among some members of the Black community.

Williams, of the Minority Health Institute, pointed out that in the Tuskegee study, people were denied medication to treat a disease. In the case of the COVID-19 vaccine, medication is available – but anti-vaccine activists are trying to persuade people not to take it. He said the film is “totally slanted.”

“It is not only harmful, but it is deadly,” he said.

Kennedy has also made hay from the deaths of prominent people. Baseball legend Hank Aaron got his shot as a way to show other Black Americans that the vaccine was safe. A few weeks later, the 86-year-old died in his sleep. Kennedy posted on Facebook and Twitter calling it “part of a wave of suspicious deaths among elderly closely following administration of COVID vaccines,” but provided no evidence of a connection. Kennedy’s Jan. 22 posts are both still up and have been shared, commented on and liked thousands of times, although the Facebook post now carries a warning that it is missing context and “could mislead people.”

In the movie, Kennedy and others also invoke the legacy of his family and its involvement in causes such as civil rights, Special Olympics and health care advocacy.

Dr. Oni Blackstock, who founded the racial and health equity consulting group Health Justice and who is a former assistant commissioner in the New York City Health Department, said the Kennedy name adds “heft” to the anti-vaccine movement among people who have positive associations with the Kennedys’ legacy as advocates for civil rights.

“It may make people more willing to listen and to consider what’s being said,” Blackstock said.

Kennedy also uses his family name and legacy to raise money. On multiple occasions, he has offered a trip to the Kennedy compound on Cape Cod as a lure to drum up donations for Children’s Health Defense. As family photos and images of people including President Kennedy flashed on screen of one Facebook appeal, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., said the winner would meet Kennedy family members on the visit.

<p>FILE - In this March 17, 1984 file photo, Robert Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Emily, get into a car as they are escorted by private investigator Don Wiley outside the courthouse in Rapid City, S.D</p>

AP file

FILE - In this March 17, 1984 file photo, Robert Kennedy Jr. and his wife, Emily, get into a car as they are escorted by private investigator Don Wiley outside the courthouse in Rapid City, S.D

“There’s always plenty of people and good conversation,” he said in one video posted in 2020. “If my mom decides to come, adventure is guaranteed.”

Kerry Kennedy said her brother had taken down some family-related content at her request. Still, she noted, he continues to reference President Kennedy’s name to advance his anti-vaccine stance.

“Anyone who believes this does not know their history. Vaccinations were a major effort of John F. Kennedy, both as a senator and later as president,” she said.

“I love Bobby, I think he’s just completely wrong on this issue and very dangerous,” she said. “Failure to take vaccines puts people’s lives at risk. It not only impacts the person who refuses the jab but imperils the community at large.”

But that hasn’t deterred him. He often name-drops the top government officials and scientists that he has had access to, including Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.

“Part of the benefit of being part of my family is that I could get these people on the phone almost instantaneously,” Kennedy said at Centner Academy.

Collins told AP he was “very disappointed” in Kennedy.

“With his name recognition, with his remarkable heritage and a family that has done so much for America — that he’s using that to spread lies without somehow having some sense, looking in the mirror, that he’s doing harms,” Collins said, adding, “Shame on him.”

In a speech to the Ron Paul Institute in October, Kennedy told a receptive crowd that his children have sometimes questioned him.

“They say, well this is going to kill people. And I say to them, there’s a lot worse things than dying,” he said, before evoking the “generation of Americans in 1776” who fought the Revolutionary War and then likening their cause to a “second American Revolution.”

During his speech, he referenced Nazis multiple times, obliquely comparing public health measures put in place by multiple governments around the world to Nazi propaganda meant to scare people into abandoning critical thinking.

On Sunday, Kennedy again raised the specter of Nazis as he put out a video asking followers to take part in an international campaign to “wallpaper your community legally” with anti-vaccine stickers. The stickers popped up next to his face as he spoke, including one that showed a picture of Fauci with a Hitler mustache, and another that read “IF YOU’RE NOT AN ANTI-VAXXER YOU AREN’T PAYING ATTENTION.”

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INTERNATIONAL AMBITIONS

The pandemic has allowed Kennedy to take Children’s Health Defense’s anti-vaccine message global.

In August 2020, CHD launched a Europe branch, and Kennedy attended a huge rally in Berlin against coronavirus restrictions. Last month, Kennedy appeared before thousands of people at protests on successive days in Switzerland and Italy. He complained of conspiracies by government officials and Big Pharma operatives and claimed falsely that the Pfizer COVID-19 shot kills more people than it saves. Kennedy promised that he would “see you all on the barricades” and that “I and many others are ready to die with our boots on for liberty.”

It has become something of a stump speech for Kennedy, one delivered not to win political office but to persuade as many people as possible not to get vaccinated.