Robert F. Kennedy Jr., nephew of the former President John F. Kennedy and scion of the Kennedy political dynasty, has developed a following online — not because of his family name, but because of his opinions on the coronavirus and skepticism towards the COVID-19 vaccine.
Kennedy joins a group of individuals dubbed the “Disinformation Dozen” by the Center for Counter Digital Hate (CCDH), an NGO based in Washington and London. A CCDH report from earlier this year found that this group of people is responsible for 65 percent of all anti-vaccine content on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram worldwide, and 73 percent of the anti-vaccine content on Facebook alone. The report calls on social media platforms to take down the accounts responsible for spreading false claims, noting their widespread influence.
The report garnered extensive attention after US President Joe Biden quoted its findings and claimed social media platforms that allow the spread of misinformation are “killing people,” a statement he later walked back.
Despite the irrefutable scientific data about the benefits and safety of COVID vaccines, people like Kennedy use their influence on social media and beyond to sow doubt. At a time when vaccination stagnation is influenced by a lack of vaccine acceptance, their online presence raises concerns.
Beyond the confines of social media
At one time, according to the CCDH, Kennedy had more than 1 million followers on social media. He has since lost hundreds of thousands of them after being removed from Instagram.
Joseph Mercola, a prominent anti-vaccine advocate and the first individual named in the Disinformation Dozen report, once had more than 4 million followers across social media platforms. Anti-vaccine activists combined to reach more than 59 million followers online, according to the CCDH.
Like others labeled in the Disinformation Dozen, Kennedy sits behind a large organization that promotes his false claims. A longtime environmental activist, he is the founder, chairman of the board, and legal counsel of the Children’s Health Defense, an organization he founded in 2018 whose mission is ending childhood health epidemics.
The group has published newsletters and promoted books that share anti-vaccine sentiments, often containing false information. It also produced a controversial movie aimed at people of color that manipulated racial issues to spread vaccine skepticism.
Similarly, Mercola uses his organization, Mercola.com, to not only raise hesitancy about the vaccine but also lure users into buying his own natural health supplements.
A separate report from the CCDH found that the online anti-vaccine movement generates annual revenues of at least $36 million. Mercola has earned more than $7 million from the movement and Kennedy nearly $3 million.
The businesses and charities behind individuals like Kennedy and Mercola contribute to the dissemination of misinformation on a mass scale and have widespread influence both online and offline. By sharing content on their websites, they are shielded from social media regulations.
Imran Ahmed, chief executive director of the CCDH, brands Mercola’s tactics a “marketing push.” He believes that posting misinformation is the first step to luring users from outside social media and having them fall into Mercola’s business.
“These are the people who have refined their processes over time,” he said of the Disinformation Dozen, whom he also referred to as “sophisticated groomers.”
“Sophisticated groomers”: how skeptics present false information
Anti-vaccine activists bend narratives of COVID and its vaccines by citing debunked rumors, manipulating government-provided information, and omitting key data. These tactics allow them to mostly skirt social media regulations.
Medical doctors and public health experts have repeatedly assured the public of the COVID vaccine’s safety and efficacy but warn that false claims stand in the way of achieving higher vaccination rates.
“Misinformation has been a really big challenge for us getting enough people vaccinated so that we can all get back to the ‘new normal’,” said Sabrina Assoumou, an infectious disease physician at the Boston Medical Center.
Assoumou raises concerns that accurate information is often sidelined by scary and false data. Kennedy, for example, repeatedly declares the COVID vaccine is responsible for 12,000 deaths. Several public health experts refuted that claim.
“There definitely are side effects — short-term side effects, fevers, achiness, things like that — but not death, not fatal side effects from the COVID vaccines,” said Howard Heller, an infectious disease specialist at the Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.
To refute the idea that the COVID vaccine is effective, Kennedy often cites data from a government monitoring program. The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System is co-managed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration — reputable government agencies that Kennedy has previously criticized. Users can report side effects and injuries from vaccines, but the data given to VAERS is unverified by the agencies, meaning the symptoms are not necessarily caused by vaccines.
Skeptics also claim the vaccine is unsafe for pregnant women. Facebook flagged one of Kennedy’s posts as false information when he said there are reports of miscarriages caused by the vaccine.
For proof, Kennedy’s team pointed NHK to data by VAERS. But, in fact, the data provided was routed through a site known for its anti-vaccine sentiments. The cases Kennedy’s team offered came from people whose self-reported symptoms were allegedly caused by the COVID vaccine. In several cases, a positive pregnancy test was used to describe a miscarriage from the vaccine.
Assoumou, who treats women of childbearing age, is concerned that false information about the vaccine’s impact on fertility is confusing her patients.
“When we look at the mechanisms of how these vaccines work, there's no plausible mechanism to explain this,” she said.
Cleaning up the mess: a burden on social media companies
The blame for allowing the spread of misinformation has fallen on social media companies. Biden initially said that platforms which allow the spread of misinformation were “killing people.” He later walked back that comment and blamed the individuals who spread misinformation. He still directed Facebook to take action on misinformation “instead of taking it personally.”
Facebook has since announced action against the Disinformation Dozen. The company, which owns Instagram, removed 36 pages, groups and accounts, and imposed penalties on additional pages, groups or accounts linked to the Disinformation Dozen.
In a larger effort to curb health misinformation, Twitter announced that users would be able to report tweets that appear misleading with the ability to categorize content under COVID-19.
“We're not saying silence [the Disinformation Dozen]. We're not saying put them in prison,” said Ahmed, who authored the Disinformation Dozen report. “We're saying close the accounts they have on your private platform. Don't give them access to the world’s most powerful megaphone in human history — a way of connecting to billions of people and sending messages for zero cost. That is a privilege.”