How an anti-vaccine juggernaut was built by Kennedy amid COVID-19

PROVIDENCE (RI) -- Robert F. Kennedy Jr. walked onto the stage of a Southern California church and exuded Kennedy confidence.

How an anti-vaccine juggernaut was built by Kennedy amid COVID-19


He surveyed the standing ovation crowd, admiring his blue Bobby Kennedy eyes. He then launched into an antivaccine rant. He said that Democrats had "drank the Kool-Aid" and told those gathered for a far-right conference, which was branded as representing "health and freedom."

Kennedy claimed that giving a child one or more of these vaccines is medical malpractice. According to a video, Kennedy was making one of many assertions that went against scientific, legal and public health consensus.

Kennedy then promoted his book. Kennedy told the crowd that if 300 people preordered the book on Amazon that night it would be on the bestsellers list. They could also "stick it to Jeff Bezos and Amazon."

He stated that all profits would be donated to Children's Health Defense.

Kennedy's antivaccine group, unlike many other businesses and nonprofits that have suffered during the pandemic has prospered. The Associated Press investigates and finds that Children's Health Defense has raked money in and gained followers. Kennedy, a member one of America's most prominent families, used his celebrity to open doors, raise funds and give his group credibility. According to filings with charities regulators, revenue has more than doubled to $6.8million in 2020.

Children's Health Defense expanded its reach since the pandemic. It uses biased information, cherry-picked facts, and conspiracy theories in order to spread distrust about the COVID-19 vaccines. CHD has also started an internet TV channel, and a movie studio. CHD has international ambitions. CHD has opened new U.S. offices and boasts outposts across Canada, Europe, and most recently Australia. It is currently translating articles into French and German, Italian, Spanish and Spanish.

Similarweb, a digital intelligence company that analyses web traffic, has shown that Children's Health Defense is now one of the most visited "alternative and natural medicines sites" worldwide, with nearly 4.7 million visitors per month. This is an increase of less than 150,000 visits per month before the pandemic.

Experts said that Children's Health Defense worked hard to increase its influence. It has targeted false claims at groups more likely to doubt the vaccine, such as mothers and Black Americans. Experts worry that this strategy could have devastating consequences in a pandemic that has claimed more than 5,000,000 people.

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Kennedy's opposition against vaccines has sometimes brought him closer to right-leaning anti-democracy forces who are aligned with the antivaccine movement. Kennedy, the son of one of the most prominent Democratic families in the country, has been associated with those who celebrate or downplay the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Kennedy has been a central part of the antivaccine movement for many years. But doctors and advocates for public health told the AP that COVID-19 elevated Kennedy to a new level.

"With the pandemic he's been turbocharged," Dr. David Gorski, a Wayne State University School of Medicine cancer surgeon and critic of the antivaccine movement, said.

Dr. Richard Allen Williams is a cardiologist, professor at UCLA, and founder of Minority Health Institute. He said Kennedy is leading a "propaganda movement" and "absolutely an racist operation" that is especially dangerous for the Black community.

Williams, who is the author of several books on race and medicine, said that Kennedy is the real ringleader in the misinformation campaign. Kennedy's actions are not being understood by many, even scientists.

Kennedy's family even calls his work "dangerous".

This image is taken from a video posted to the Children's Health Defense website, Sunday, December 12, 2021. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. talks about anti-vaccine stickers that he's encouraging supporters to use. (AP Photo)

This image is taken from a video posted to the Children's Health Defense website, Sunday, December 12, 2021. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. talks about anti-vaccine stickers that he's encouraging supporters to use. (AP Photo)

MISINFORMATION PIPLINE

Kennedy, 67 is the nephew of President John F. Kennedy. He also happens to be the brother of his murdered brother. He is a best-selling author and a top environmental lawyer who fights for public health priorities like clean water.

He was a leader in the movement and that would have been his legacy. However, more than 15 years ago he began to believe that vaccines were not safe. Although there are rare cases of severe reactions, vaccines are widely used worldwide and have been administered in billions of doses. According to the World Health Organization, vaccines can prevent up to 5 million deaths annually.

Kennedy was a source of false information about COVID-19, vaccines, during the pandemic. Kennedy was recently named by the Center for Countering Digital Hate one of the "Disinformation Dough", which states that he and Children's Health Defense website are amongst the most prolific online spreaders of false information regarding vaccines.

Rita Shreffler was Kennedy's spokesperson and told the AP Dec. 6 that he wasn't available for interview for this story.

However, on Dec. 2, she wrote to AP complaining about a "complete lack of coverage by mainstream media" regarding Kennedy's book and offered him interviews.

Within 20 minutes, an AP reporter replied and sent several follow-up emails. Shreffler finally replied and asked for the approval of "your list interview questions prior to scheduling an interview with the team." AP declined this restriction. Shreffler said that Kennedy would not talk to AP.

According to government safety tracking, more than 200 million Americans have received the COVID-19 vaccine. Serious side effects are very rare. This tracking and testing on tens of thousands has proven that vaccines are safe, effective and reduce the risk of serious diseases and death. The vaccines also pose far less health risks than the viruses.

Children's Health Defense and its supporters, who seek to undermine this message, use canny methods to spread anti-vaccine misinformation to even those who are not interested.

The Associated Press found links to articles on Children's Health Defense all over Facebook. Many were shared on anti-vaccine activists' pages, but many more could be found on comments sections of pages people use to get reliable information. These include official government pages in all 50 US states and health departments in almost every state.

"The vaccine wasn't created to save us from a pandemic. One person commented below a February North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services post on Facebook that the pandemic was meant to make people take the vaccine and more.

They then linked to a January Children's Health Defense Article that claimed 329 deaths after the COVID-19 shot. This article had been reported to VAERS (a federal vaccine safety monitoring system which has been misused and abused by anti-vaccine activists).

Robert F Kennedy Jr., the true American hero, pulls data from the VAERS every Friday. The commenter added that the most recent data was up to 1/22. Another user responded that the comment was reported as dishonesty but that it was still up ten months later.

CHD links were also shared by people under posts made to Facebook by governors, schools and hospitals, military outposts as well as universities and news outlets. Since March, at least four Alaska state senators have shared CHD links via her Facebook page. These links were also shared on Facebook pages outside of the United States, in countries like Canada, Norway, and Greece.

Kennedy has thousands of Twitter and Facebook followers, but he was removed from the Instagram platform by Facebook earlier this year. Children's Health Defense is still available on all three platforms.

According to Indiana University's Observatory on Social Media which monitors COVID-19-related content on Twitter, Children's Health Defense's COVID-19-related posts have been shared more often on Twitter since January than links to vaccine content on mainstream websites like CNN, Fox News and NPR. It found that CHD COVID-19 vaccine content was more shared than The New York Times or The Washington Post over a few weeks.

Another research team discovered that Kennedy's group and Stop Mandatory Vaccination bought more than half the anti-vaccine ads on Facebook before the pandemic. David Broniatowski from George Washington University was a member of the team. He said that groups had used demographic data to target Facebook ads to reach women in childbearing years.

He said, "They're more effective than our public healthcare infrastructure." "That's partly because they have a central foundation that has a clear understanding of what they want to accomplish."

CHD's effectiveness can be attributed to its centrality to anti-vaccine websites. These links to and amplify each other, creating an echo chamber of disinformation that reinforces false narratives. This creates false narratives that downplay COVID-19's dangers while exaggerating their risks. CHD and Kennedy falsely claimed that the licensed vaccine was not the one available the day after Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccination was approved by the FDA. Dorit Reiss, a professor and expert in vaccine law at UC Hastings College of the Law, stated that this was the case.

Reiss stated that it began with CHD one day after licensure, and was then picked up by right-wing outlets.

This idea circulated on fringe media outlets of the far right. After the article had been published, Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show and reiterated the false belief that the vaccine was not available in the United States.

CrowdTangle, an app that tracks material on Facebook, said it was one of CHD’s most popular articles in the past year. It received approximately 40,000 interactions.

People expressed anger, fear, and called for action in comments posted to CHD's website. One wrote, "You know what? The more I read the news, the bigger my stomach gets into a little ball." Another said, "And they wonder why they don't trust us and why people won’t get the ‘jab’." One person suggested that people march on Washington to mark the 20th anniversary the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. He wrote, "Make January 6 look like a picnic."

CHD's website also saw an increase in traffic, in addition to its popularity on social media. Similarweb reports that Children's Health Defense had received 119,000 visits in November 2019, just a few months prior to the outbreak. After peaking at almost 4.7 million in August, it had risen to 3 million visits last month.

According to CHD's fundraising appeal, the CHD sought $1 million in funding by Nov. 30. The claim was not independently verified by AP.

Kennedy published his book "The Real Anthony Fauci" in November. In it, he accuses the nation’s top infectious disease doctor of orchestrating "a historic coup against Western democracy." Fauci's spokesperson did not comment.

Kennedy also makes use of the book to promote unproven COVID-19 treatments, such as ivermectin which is used to treat parasites and anti-malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine. He claims that vaccines for children are not adequately safety tested. The FDA requires three phases that involve hundreds of thousands of people to approve vaccines for children.

Kerry Kennedy, his sister and the director of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights (the international rights organization founded by Ethel Kennedy), told AP it was irresponsible for doctors and scientists to attack him. Fauci is one of many who have been threatened with death, which can discourage people from entering this profession.

She said, "Our family knows that there is a death threat,"

Fauci was awarded the "Ripple Of Hope Award" by the group, which supports mandatory vaccinations by government agencies and other steps like requiring proof of vaccination.

Kennedy Jr., on the other hand, has spent months extolling his book. He even spoke at the extreme right Reawaken America conference held in Southern California in July. CHD encouraged supporters to purchase the book immediately last month in order for it to make the New York Times bestsellers list. CHD's website has some commenters who said that they purchased multiple copies to increase sales. One commenter said that they bought nine copies and planned to purchase more in order to "help boost the book's popularity to the top of the New York Times bestsellers list".

Kennedy got his wish. "The Real Anthony Fauci", reached No. 5 on the Times's list last month, and No. Amazon.com: 1 According to NPD BookScan (which tracks 85 percent of print sales), it sold almost 166,000 copies by December 1.

Kennedy's antivaccine message has drawn him near to leading figures who have attacked the nation’s democratic norms. An Instagram photo, taken backstage at Reawaken America, July 18, shows Kennedy with Roger Stone, Charlene Bollinger, Michael Flynn and Charlene Bollinger, who all believe that the 2020 election was stolen.

Kennedy was present at numerous events with Bollinger and her spouse, even though their Super PAC sponsored an antivaccine, proTrump rally near Capitol Hill on Jan. 6. The attack was celebrated by Bollinger, and Bollinger tried to enter the Capitol. Kennedy filmed a video conversation with their Super PAC in spring.

He also sought out major GOP donors, including Leila Centner and David Centner. They were listed as CHD board member for 2021 in a filing that the group filed in August with Georgia charity regulators. AP obtained this file through a public records request. Centner Academy is a private school that the couple established in Miami. It was anti-vaccine and has become a household name.

BUILDING A POWERHOUSE

Kennedy frequently claims that he began looking into vaccines after his mother said to him that her son had autism as a result of mercury exposure in vaccines. This theory has been completely disproven. Thimerosal, a form of mercury, was eliminated from childhood vaccines many years ago without any effect on autism levels. Kennedy and others argue that vaccines can cause autism and food allergies, among other medical conditions, despite the scientific consensus. He warns people to be aware of common ingredients like aluminum, acetaminophen and fluoride as well as food additives.

Kennedy joined Eric Gladen in 2015, who had in 2007 founded the group World Mercury Project in Southern California. Gladen believes that he was mercury poisoned after a tetanus shot. He had also made a film called Trace Amounts.

Gladen said to AP that Kennedy family members urged Gladen to distance himself form the group following screenings at Kennedy's Malibu sister's house. Gladen recalls Kennedy calling Gladen at 6 a.m. the next morning to inform him that he was in.

World Mercury Project was struggling to stay afloat. But everything changed when Kennedy joined. Gladen stated that Kennedy was "a machine", doing research, writing opinion pieces, giving speeches, and connecting with people who were well-placed. Their reach was almost limitless.

World Mercury Project reported only $13,114 in tax revenue in 2014. Kennedy joined the board to bring in $467,443 revenue in the next year.

Gladen, who was ill in August 2016, resigned but continues to support the organization's work.

Kennedy was elected chief legal counsel and board chairman. In 2018, the group was rebranded as Children's Health Defense, removing the word "mercury", and announcing a new mission. In a press release, the group highlighted autism, ADHD, and other "health epidemics" that affect children. It mentions vaccines once, almost like an afterthought.

In a July 2017 interview, Kennedy stated to Tucker Carlson that his work with vaccines was "probably one of the most disastrous career moves that I have ever made." Kennedy responded, "No, not for this." Actually, I'm not getting paid for this.

According to tax filings Kennedy received $131,250 from Children's Health Defense in 2017. He was paid $184375 in 2018. His compensation was $284,375 in 2018, the most recent available year. In 2019, it had reached $255,000.

Kennedy said to InfoWars this month that Kennedy had "the opposite of a motive for profit."

Kennedy stated that "probably I've lost 80 per cent of my income due to what I'm doing," Kennedy added.

Kennedy's involvement has made CHD more successful in fundraising, with 2020 being the most successful year.

According to California charity regulators, CHD had filed filings indicating that CHD earned $1.1 million in gross revenues in 2018. This grew to almost $3 million in 2019. In 2020, the latest year available, revenue had nearly doubled to $6.8million. It said that it spent over $3.5 million on program expenses in the first year of the pandemic. Guidestar was informed by CHD that this included the production of 49 educational videos and six eBooks.

Kennedy's group also lobby for vaccine legislation in the US, has collected large amounts of money from special interest such as chiropractors and filed numerous lawsuits against Facebook, including a $5 Million lawsuit last year. CHD claims that Facebook removed the "donate" button from its page. This hurt CHD's fundraising efforts. According to the lawsuit, Children's Health Defense claimed that it received $24,872 from users through its Facebook page in May 2019. CHD appealed after the lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge in June.

CAPITALIZING ON THE KENNEDY NAME

Children's Health Defense's movie studio, "Medical Racism," released an earlier film. It was directed at the Black community which has been particularly affected by coronavirus.

Movie raises racism in medicine such as the Tuskegee Experiment, where hundreds of Black men with syphilis in Alabama were left untreated. This led to questions about whether or not the vaccine is safe and effective. Some members of the Black community have been hesitant to get vaccines because of racism in medical practices.

Williams from the Minority Health Institute pointed out that people were not given medication to treat their disease in the Tuskegee Study. The COVID-19 vaccine is an example of this. People have the option to get medication, but the anti-vaccine activists want to convince them not to. He claimed that the film was "totally biased."

He said, "It's not only dangerous, it's deadly."

Kennedy also makes a living from the deaths famous people. Hank Aaron, a baseball legend, got his shot to prove that the vaccine is safe. The 86-year old died in his sleep a few weeks later. Kennedy shared the post on Twitter and Facebook, calling it "part a wave of suspicious deaths in elderly closely following administration COVID vaccines," but he did not provide any evidence. Kennedy's Jan. 22 posts remain up and have been liked, commented on, and shared thousands of times. However, the Facebook post now warns that it lacks context and could mislead.

Kennedy, along with others, invokes the legacy of his family's involvement in causes like civil rights, Special Olympics, and health care advocacy.

Dr. Oni Schwarzstock, founder of the racial-health equity consulting firm Health Justice, and a former assistant commissioner at the New York City Health Department said that the Kennedy name gives "heft" to anti-vaccine movements among people who have positive associations for the Kennedys' civil rights advocacy legacy.

Blackstock stated that it may increase people's willingness to listen to and consider what is being said.

Kennedy uses his family's legacy and name to raise money. He has used multiple times the opportunity to lure donors to Children's Health Defense by offering a trip to Kennedy's Cape Cod compound. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said that the winner would be able to meet Kennedy family members during the visit, as family photos and images of President Kennedy were displayed on a Facebook appeal.

In a video posted in 2020, he stated that "There's always plenty people and good conversations." Adventure is guaranteed if my mom comes."

Kerry Kennedy stated that her brother had removed some family-related content upon her request. She noted that he still refers to President Kennedy to promote his anti-vaccine stance.

"Anyone who believes that this is true does not know their past. She said that John F. Kennedy's major efforts in vaccinating people were crucial, as both a senator and as president.

She said, "I love Bobby. I think he is just completely wrong about this issue and very dangerous." People's lives are at risk if they don't get vaccines. It affects not only the individual refusing the jab, but also the entire community.

He hasn't been stopped by that. He frequently names the top scientists and government officials he has met, including Francis Collins (director of the National Institutes of Health).

Kennedy, Centner Academy: "Part of the advantage of being part of family is that you could get these people on phone almost instantly."

Collins said to AP that Kennedy had disappointed him.

Collins stated, "With his name recognition and his remarkable heritage, and a family who has done so many for America -- that that he uses that to spread lies without somehow having any sense, looking in he mirror, that it's doing harms," adding, "Shame upon him."

Kennedy spoke to the Ron Paul Institute October in a speech where he told a wide audience that his children had sometimes questioned him.

They say that this is going to kill people. They say, "Well, this is going to kill people." He then spoke out, evoking the "generations of Americans in 1776", who fought the Revolutionary War, and then comparing their cause to a second American Revolution.

He made multiple references to Nazis during his speech. Obliquely, he compared public health measures implemented by different governments around the globe to Nazi propaganda to scare people from critical thinking.

Kennedy raised the fear of Nazis again on Sunday when he posted a video asking his followers to join an international campaign to "wallpaper their community legally" using anti-vaccine stickers. As Kennedy spoke, the stickers appeared right next to him. One featured Fauci's Hitler mustache and another said "IF YOU'RE AN ANTIVAXXER, YOU AREN'T PAYING ATTENTION."

INTERNATIONAL AMBITIONS

Kennedy has been able to spread the anti-vaccine message of Children's Health Defense through the pandemic.

CHD opened a Europe branch in August 2020. Kennedy was present at a large rally against the coronavirus restrictions in Berlin. Kennedy was seen in front of thousands at protests held in Italy and Switzerland last month. Kennedy complained about conspiracies by Big Pharma operatives, and said falsely that the Pfizer COVID-19 gun kills more people than it saves. Kennedy said he would see you all at the barricades and that he and others were ready to fight for freedom.

Kennedy has made it a sort of stump speech. He said it not to win political office, but to convince as many people not to get vaccinated.

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