One chilly afternoon this past January, Kennedy took the microphone in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, before a crowd of maybe a few hundred people, some of whom carried signs reading, “We will not comply,” “Resist medical tyranny” (accompanied by a swastika) and “Land of the free you can’t mandate me.” A march earlier that day, involving several thousand people, included members of the far-right nationalist group the Proud Boys, firefighters wearing helmets and even a few Buddhist monks from New England. They had gathered for a rally billed as Defeat the Mandates: An American Homecoming. Its speakers included many of the country’s best-known vaccine skeptics: the vaccine researcher Robert Malone; the activist Del Bigtree; and, of course, Kennedy.
“What we’re seeing today is what I call turnkey totalitarianism,” he told his audience. “They are putting into place all these technological mechanisms for control that we’ve never seen before.” He continued: “Even in Hitler’s Germany you could cross the Alps into Switzerland. You could hide in an attic like Anne Frank did.” But no longer, he suggested: “The mechanisms are being put in place that will make it so that none of us can run and none of us can hide.”
Reaction was swift, including from his own wife, the actress Cheryl Hines. On Twitter, she called the Anne Frank reference “reprehensible and insensitive.” But outrage over the allusion to Frank believed the deeper issue, which is just how influential Kennedy and other figures in the anti-vaccine movement have become. Kennedy is chairman of an organization named Children’s Health Defense; it applied for the permit to hold the Washington rally. The nonprofit group, which says it aims to “end childhood health epidemics by working aggressively to eliminate harmful exposures,” churns out online articles that sow doubt about vaccine safety. And it has expanded aggressively during the pandemic. In January 2020, the Children’s Health Defense website received just under 84,000 monthly visits from the United States, according to the tracking firm Similarweb. As of this March, that number had reached more than 1.4 million monthly visits, a 17-fold increase in traffic. (Revenue, coming from donations and fund-raising events, was already surging before the pandemic, according to the group’s tax filings, to $6.8 million in 2020 from just under $1.1 million in 2018.)
By one measure, CHD’s reach now occasionally outstrips that of bona fide news outlets. Indiana University’s Observatory on Social Media, whose CoVaxxy Project follows how vaccine-related content is shared on Twitter, has found that the organization’s vaccine-related posts — these might falsely claim that thousands of people have died from being vaccinated, for example, or that the risks of Covid-19 boosters outweigh the benefits — are frequently shared more widely than vaccine-related items from CNN, NPR and the Centers for Disease Control. In some weeks, the vaccine-related content of the Children’s Health Defense was shared more widely than that of The New York Times or The Washington Post.
Kennedy, who did not respond to questions submitted through his publisher, embodies a seeming contradiction of the anti-vaccine movement that presents a particularly difficult challenge for lay people. He has done important work as an environmental lawyer, and though other members of his family have publicly criticized his anti-vaccine crusade, he still bears the name of one of the country’s best known Democratic political families. He brings a certain amount of credibility to his cause. Many other figures who routinely question the safety and utility of vaccines have credentials that can seem impressive. They include Wakefield; Malone, the researcher who claims to have invented the mRNA vaccine (35 years ago, he and several colleagues published an important paper in the field, but other scientists say that he didn’t “invent” the technology, which hundreds of scientists have since worked on); and Judy Mikovits, a researcher whose 2009 paper linking chronic fatigue syndrome to a viral infection was retracted from the journal Science. Mikovits, who was fired from her job as research director of the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease in Reno, Nev., has published a best-selling book about supposed malfeasance in science titled “Plague of Corruption.”
Numerous experts told me that a good way to understand what motivates many players in the anti-vaccine movement is through the lens of profit. There are several levels of profiteering. The first involves social media companies. Historically, the algorithms that drive their platforms, some argue, have fed users more and more of what they respond to without regard for whether it’s true. “It’s not some sophisticated technology,” says Hany Farid, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies misinformation on social media. “It turns out we’re primitive jerks. And the most outrageous stuff, we click on it.”
Facebook and other social media companies have, they claim, taken steps to counter the proliferation of vaccine-related misinformation on their sites. Facebook now says that it is helping to “keep people healthy and safe” by providing reliable information on vaccines. But Farid and others doubt that Facebook, in particular, will ever rid itself entirely of such material because attention-grabbing content is, in the attention economy, immensely valuable. “The business model, that’s really the core poison here,” Farid says. A partial solution, he thinks, would be changes to regulatory laws allowing individuals to hold social media companies legally responsible — through lawsuits — for harm connected to content they promote: “You should be held accountable for what you’re promoting, particularly because they ‘re making money from it. Aaron Simpson, a spokesman for Meta, the parent company of Facebook, told me in an email that the company has “every incentive” to purge misinformation from its platforms because it makes money from ads, and advertisers have repeatedly said they don’t want their ads appearing next to misinformation. And yet, in the past, prominent anti-vaccine activists have themselves been advertisers on Facebook.