The Worst Charlatans of the Covid-19 Pandemic

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Robert Kennedy

For decades, the Kennedy family was one of the most powerful political dynasties in the country, the most famous of which need no introduction: President John F. Kennedy, his brothers Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Senator Ted Kennedy, and his son, JFK Jr.

Then there’s Robert Kennedy Jr., JFK’s nephew, who has spent his career both as an environmental activist and as one of the nation’s most prominent anti-vax conspiracy theorists via his role as the chair of Children’s Health Defense. For years, that group has launched scientifically baseless accusations that vaccines, fluoridated drinking water, acetaminophen, aluminum, wireless technology, and other chemicals and technologies are responsible for autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, cancer, allergies, autoimmune conditions, and basically any other condition that pops up in children. Other members of the Kennedy clan famously wrote a letter in 2019 saying that while RFK Jr. was “one of the great champions of the environment,” he has “helped to spread dangerous misinformation over social media and is complicit in sowing distrust of the science behind vaccines.”

The coronavirus pandemic presented a golden opportunity for RFK Jr. to continue promoting anti-vax causes, which he did with relish. In May 2021, a report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) and Anti-Vax Watch named Kennedy as one of the 12 individuals with massive online followings who were disproportionately responsible for the spread of anti-vax conspiracy theories on Facebook and Twitter. According to Vanity Fair, groups like Anti-Vax Watch say that Kennedy is particularly dangerous among the “Disinformation Dozen” because he is the only one with widespread name recognition outside of preexisting anti-vax circles.

As Vanity Fair noted, RFK Jr. is, surprisingly, “spectacularly educated,” with an undergrad degree from Harvard, London School of Economics classes, a University of Virginia law degree, and a master’s in environmental law from Pace University. Yet he has no scientific background whatsoever.

Via “The Defender,” Children’s Health Defense’s blog, RFK Jr. has misinterpreted Centers for Disease Control (CDC) statistics to insist that coronavirus vaccines have resulted in mass injury and death, rattled off debunked claims that the CDC wildly inflated coronavirus death counts, and speculated that baseball legend Hank Aaron’s death was caused by the Moderna MRNA vaccine. (RFK Jr. claims that his remarks on Aaron were misinterpreted as asserting a conclusive link and that he merely meant to suggest that his death was “part of a wave of suspicious deaths among elderly closely following administration of COVID vaccines.”) His group also released a documentary in March 2021 called Medical Racism: The New Apartheid, which splices the sordid history of racist medical atrocities like the Tuskegee syphilis experiment with interviews of Black Americans about coronavirus vaccines.

NPR reported that the film is laden with misinformation, expounding on the non-existent link between vaccines and autism, misinterpreting scientific studies (at least one of which was retracted) to claim Black individuals are particularly at risk for vaccine injury, and asserting that covid-19 pandemic is “propaganda.” Two credible experts, Yale medical historian Naomi Rogers and past National Medical Association president Dr. Oliver Brooks, told NPR they regretted appearing in the film. (CHD denies the film contains misinformation, telling NPR it contains “peer reviewed sources and historical data.)

Rogers told the news agency she felt misled and “used,” had “enormous problems” with the film’s narrative, and that it had taken many of the ideas she feels for “passionately, like health disparities, fighting racism in health, working against discrimination, and it’s been twisted for the purposes of this anti-vax movement.” The overall intent of the film, according to the McGill Office for Science and Society, is to convince Black people they are being used as guinea pigs for coronavirus vaccines, despite the fact they have experienced disproportionately low access to vaccines for much of the pandemic.

According to Vanity Fair, RFK Jr. has held lavish fundraisers for anti-vax causes, such as a $150-a-head event at California’s Malibu Fig Ranch in September 2020, and later this year he is scheduled to release a book titled The Real Anthony Fauci: Big Pharma’s Global War on Democracy, Humanity, and Public Health. Seemingly the only real pushback he’s received from social media firms was his February 2021 ban on Instagram. RFK Jr. still has nearly 235,000 followers on Facebook and nearly 270,000 on Twitter. Children’s Health Defense has nearly 149,000 followers on Facebook, nearly 70,000 on Twitter, and over 45,000 on YouTube, with over 2.7 million video views.

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