The new frontier of the anti-vaccine movement

A cool afternoon Last January, Kennedy took the microphone in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, in front of a crowd of maybe a few hundred people, some carrying signs reading “We Will Not Comply,” “Resist Medical Tyranny” (accompanied by a swastika) and “Land of the free, you cannot commission me.” A march earlier that day attended by several thousand people included members of the far-right nationalist group Proud Boys, helmeted firefighters and even some New England Buddhist monks part. They had gathered for a rally dubbed Defeat the Mandates: An American Homecoming. Speakers included many of the country’s most prominent vaccine skeptics: vaccine researcher Robert Malone; activist Del Bigtree; and of course Kennedy.

“What we’re seeing today is what I call turnkey totalitarianism,” he told his audience. “They’re using all these technological controls that we’ve never seen before.” He continued: “Even in Hitler’s Germany, you could get to Switzerland via the Alps. You could hide in an attic like Anne Frank.” But no more, he suggested: “Mechanisms will be put in place to ensure that none of us can run and hide.”

The reaction was quick, including from his own wife, actress Cheryl Hines. On twitter, she called the Anne Frank reference “reprehensible and insensitive”. But the outrage at the Frank allusion belied the deeper issue of how influential Kennedy and other figures have become in the anti-vaccine movement. Kennedy is chairman of an organization called Children’s Health Defense; it applied for permission to hold the rally in Washington. The nonprofit group, which it says aims to “end epidemics of disease in children by working aggressively to eliminate harmful exposures,” churned out articles online that cast doubt on the safety of vaccines. And it has expanded aggressively during the pandemic. As of January 2020, the Children’s Health Defense website had nearly 84,000 monthly visits from the United States, according to tracking company Similarweb. By March of this year, that number had reached more than 1.4 million monthly visits, a 17-fold increase in traffic. (Receipts from donations and fundraisers increased from just under $1.1 million in 2018 to $6.8 million in 2020 before the pandemic, according to the group’s tax returns.)

In a way, CHD’s reach now occasionally surpasses that of reputable news outlets. Indiana University’s Observatory on Social Media, whose CoVaxxy project tracks how vaccine-related content is shared on Twitter, has found that the organization’s vaccine-related posts could falsely claim that, for example, thousands of people have died from the vaccine or so the risks of Covid-19 boosters outweigh the benefits – they are often shared more widely than vaccine-related articles by CNN, NPR and the Centers for Disease Control. In a few weeks, Children’s Health Defense’s vaccine-related content was more widely shared than that of the New York Times or the Washington Post.

Kennedy, who has not responded to questions from his publisher, embodies an apparent contradiction in the anti-vaccine movement that poses a particularly difficult challenge for the lay public. He has done important work as an environmental advocate, and although 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 credibility to his cause. Many other figures who routinely question the safety and usefulness of vaccines have credentials that can seem impressive. These 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 he didn’t “invent” the technology, which hundreds of scientists have argued have since done worked on); and Judy Mikovits, a researcher whose 2009 paper linking chronic fatigue syndrome to viral infection was retracted from the journal Science. Mikovits, who was fired from her job as research director at the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease in Reno, Nevada, has published a bestselling book about alleged scientific misconduct called Plague of Corruption.

Numerous experts have told me that a good way to understand what motivates many players in the anti-vaccination movement is from a profit perspective. There are several levels of benefit. The first concerns social media companies. In the past, some argue, the algorithms that power their platforms have fed users more and more what they react to, regardless of whether it’s true. “It’s not sophisticated technology,” says Hany Farid, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley who studies social media misinformation. “Turns out we’re primitive idiots. And the most outrageous stuff, we click on it.”

Facebook and other social media companies said they have taken steps to curb the spread of vaccine-related misinformation on their websites. Facebook now says it helps “keep people healthy and safe” by providing reliable information on vaccines. But Farid and others doubt that Facebook in particular will ever bid farewell to such material entirely, because attention-grabbing content is immensely valuable in the attention economy. “The business model is really the core poison here,” says Farid. A partial solution, he says, would be changes to regulatory laws that would allow individuals to hold social media companies legally responsible — through lawsuits — for damages related to content they promote: “You should be accountable for what you promote being pulled, especially because they’re making money from it.” Aaron Simpson, a spokesman for Meta, Facebook’s parent company, told me in an email that the company has “every reason” to remove misinformation from its platforms, because it makes money from ads, and advertisers have repeatedly stated that they don’t want their ads to appear alongside misinformation. And yet, in the past, prominent opponents of vaccination were themselves advertisers on Facebook.

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