Robert Kennedy Jr’s transformation from hero environmentalist to anti-vaxx superstar
In 2014, Robert F. Kennedy Jr had a problem. No-one was listening to him.
Despite being the nephew of the 35th president and part of America’s most famous family, Kennedy Jr couldn’t persuade US senators to take seriously his concerns about thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative once used widely in childhood vaccines.
Some, like Bernie Sanders, took his meetings. But ultimately the politicians brushed off his claims that thimerosal caused autism. “I’m completely fucking alone on this,” the 66-year-old told a reporter from the Washington Post that year.
RFK Jr – as he is known – is isolated no longer. The anti-vaxxer, once lauded as a hero thanks to his decades-long work as an environmental lawyer, has amassed a groundswell of support on social media and is one of the world’s top “super-spreaders” of medical misinformation.
An analysis by Tortoise of more than 145,000 Facebook and Instagram posts containing examples of verified misinformation shows that on both platforms Kennedy Jr’s posts have achieved a greater level of impact than anyone else’s.
Like other conspiracy theorists, he has gained popularity during the Covid-19 pandemic by adapting his anti-vaccine messages to fit the crisis, firing off false allegations against Microsoft founder Bill Gates and about the safety of 5G telecoms networks. Since February, Kennedy Jr’s social media support has tripled from 229,000 followers to 665,000 today.
In a rare interview, Kennedy Jr was combative. Speaking from his home in LA, he accused Facebook and Instagram of censoring him. He attacked the fact-checking platforms that have found many of his posts to be untrue, claiming that they act to protect the interests of big pharma. He was resolute in his position that he was protecting public health. “Does it trouble me that people are angry at me? No, it does not. That’s what I signed on for,” he said.
Kennedy’s transformation is symbolic of a broader shift in contemporary America. Once fringe ideas have been promoted to millions of Americans by a President who has given a warm reception to conspiracy theories and is intent on sowing mistrust and confusion. Donald Trump himself used to be an enthusiastic supporter of the disproven claim that vaccines are linked to autism, and during the pandemic, he has been derided by the medical and scientific community for advocating the use of bleach and UV light as a cure for coronavirus. Last week, President Trump and his son, Don Jr, tweeted a video of a doctor claiming falsely that hydroxychloroquine is the cure for Covid-19. By some estimates, the video was viewed by 20 million people.
These claims are having a measurable effect on public health. Last year, America suffered its worst US measles outbreak in a generation due to a drop in the number of children receiving the MMR vaccine. The same year, the World Health Organisation listed vaccine hesitancy as one of the top ten threats to global health. Now, as 150,000 have lost their lives to coronavirus in America, a study by two academics has found that 23 per cent of Americans would not be willing to get vaccinated against Covid 19.
During the worst public health emergency in a century, the stakes could not be higher.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr lives in Los Angeles with his third wife, Hollywood actor Cheryl Hines. He is at the heart of a group of vaccine-sceptical celebrities, environmentalists and natural health proponents who have found common cause with libertarians who harbour deep suspicions about corporate power and America’s “deep state”.
These include former doctor Andrew Wakefield, the discredited British anti-vaxxer now dating supermodel Elle MacPherson, as well as actors such as Robert de Niro and Jim Carrey. All have helped Kennedy and others to undermine America’s vaccination programmes, critics say, often with great success. But Kennedy is the jewel in the crown, his name and platform offering legitimacy to a movement that was stuck on the fringes.
“Kennedy Jr is one of the main anti-vaxx voices out there,” Tim Caulfield, professor of health law & science policy at Alberta university, told us. “He comes with some credibility with his name and the work he’s done in the environmental space. He’s more likely to get a seat at the table and be viewed as a credible voice.”
Kennedy and his networks have grown better organised in recent years, fueled by social media. In July, the UK-based nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate found that anti-vaxx social media accounts attracted 58 million followers. As with our data, the group identified RFK Jr as leading this trend, particularly on Instagram, where he added more than 336,000 followers in a matter of months.
“The anti-vaccine movement has started connecting with groups and individuals protesting against government interference and social distancing,” Paul Offit, a professor of pediatrics and vaccine expert who has repeatedly clashed with Kennedy Jr, wrote recently. “This is an extension of the anti-vaccine movement’s earlier pivot to the political far right based on choice or health freedom.”
To the consternation of public health officials, Kennedy Jr and other high profile anti-vaxxers are increasingly refocusing their attention on Covid-19, seizing on the anxiety and social unrest generated by the virus.
In an online health conference in April, attended by Kennedy Jr, Wakefield suggested that the public had reached a point where they were now “sufficiently sceptical of vaccines”. He suggested Covid-19 was “a fallacy”, that people’s health freedoms were being violated, and that coronavirus was no worse than seasonal flu.
These ideas were going viral. A month later, a 26-minute video called Plandemic falsely claimed that a cabal of elites was using the virus to profit and gain power. It was viewed more than eight million times, according to the New York Times.
“While the number of hardcore anti-vaxxers is relatively small, because of social media that small group can have a huge impact,” Caulfield said. “They are incredibly nimble, and know how to move platform to platform.”
On his own media platforms, Kennedy has implied that Bill Gates and Dr Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious diseases expert, have an economic interest in promoting vaccines for Covid-19. Alongside one image of Gates, Kennedy Jr posted an Albert Camus quote: “The welfare of Humanity is always the alibi of tyrants.”
In another Instagram image, Kennedy depicts Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Gates as Dr Evil and Mini-Me from Austin Powers. “We have a vaccine to save the world,” the image runs. “It’s going to cost you $6 trillion dollars.” Elle MacPherson liked the post.
In a YouTube video which has attracted almost one million views, Kennedy Jr accuses Gates of developing an “injectable chip” to enable the tracking of human movements. He muses on a dark future where Microsoft will be able to follow anyone through biometrics – and he has suggested that police would be able to use the technology to track recent movements, criminal records and recent purchases.
When we put it to Kennedy that multiple leading fact-checking websites had found these claims to be untrue, he said: “Are you saying to me that Bill Gates has not invested in technologies for sub-dermal chipping? … I think it is $23 million in the last two years that Gates has invested in an MIT project to microchip people to track their medical records. And, you know, I can go back to my article and show you the names of the investments which are sourced from Gates’ own materials. I have written extensively about this. Every statement that I make is fact-checked.”
Joseph Uscinski, associate professor of political science at the university of Miami and the author of two books on conspiracy theories, has been tracking the real-time reception of new claims during the pandemic. His most recent polling suggests 13% of Americans believe that Bill Gates is “behind the coronavirus pandemic”, and 17% said they thought the coronavirus was being used as a cover to install tracking devices inside our bodies. Around 30% said they believed that the pandemic was being exaggerated for political purposes.
Our data shows that – for Kennedy Jr – posts about Gates and 5G technology are a relatively new phenomenon.
He only started posting claims against 5G, the new telecoms technology, in October 2019, for instance. Now. however, Kennedy posts anti-5G content once every seven days. These posts include claims that 5G damages human DNA, causes cancer and is being installed in order to carry out mass surveillance. It’s easy to see a motivation behind his sudden interest: 5G related posts have garnered him more than 400,000 likes or other interactions.
Similarly, Kennedy only posted about Bill Gates twice prior to December 2019, but since then has mentioned Gates once every five days. His highest-ever performing post was about Gates, and was flagged by Politifact as false: it claimed that the Gates Foundation paralysed 496,000 children in India when they tested a polio vaccine. He has also accused Gates of profiting from the pandemic, of wanting to ‘genetically modify’ humanity and of controlling not only the WHO but also “the flow of global information”. So far, Kennedy’s posts about Bill Gates have achieved more than one million likes, shares and clicks.
When asked about the diversification of his messaging, Kennedy Jr forcefully defended his claims about 5G. “Show me a study that says 5G is safe,” he said. “Show me one, because I can show you 10,000. That’s not hyperbole 10,000, including a $28 million study. It causes cancer. It causes DNA dysfunction. It penetrates the blood brain barrier. It’s making our children stupider and sicker.”
Tortoise has already reported upon the panic around 5G, which saw vandals attack phone masts in the UK. While some people are concerned about the potential health effects of 5G, there is no evidence to support concerns about cancer fears or damage to immune systems The electromagnetic technology has been used in older technologies like television signals, and many studies have been done into the safe limits of electromagnetic radiation and exposure to radio frequency pulses. As Sophie Scott, the director of cognitive neuroscience at University College London told us, by the time you are a floor below a phone mast on the roof of a building, the power of that signal has dropped away and you are not being exposed to anything like the levels of radio frequency pulses of a hospital MRI scanner.
That has not stopped people hangign all manner of conspiracies on 5G. “It’s fascinating how long-standing conspiracy theories have morphed to fit the coronavirus crisis,” Caulfield told us. “Telecoms has long been associated with conspiracy theories; as has big pharma. Whatever the crisis is they’ll massage existing conspiracy theories to fit it.”
Kennedy Jr’s famous name and legitimate background makes his messaging particularly effective, experts said. “The anti-vaccine movement pride themselves on bucking authority, but are also desperate for legitimacy,” Dorit Reiss, a professor at the University of California, told us. “Robert Kennedy gives them both.”
Caulfield agrees. “I get a lot of hate mail,” he says. “In those email streams, Kennedy is the most common voice. These people hold him up as a ‘mic drop’ quote.’”
Offit, who has been called an “OG gangster” and an industry shill by Kennedy Jr, said he had been physically accosted and received three legitimate death threats as a result of his support for vaccines. (There is no suggestion that Kennedy provoked any of the attacks).
How did this member of America’s most famous political dynasty transform from a well-respected environmental lawyer and activist to become a proponent of theories which have seen him isolated from the establishment he once came to represent?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr was just nine when his uncle, the 35th President, was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald. He was 14 when his father, attorney general Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated by a Palestinian man called Sirhan Sirhan while running for president in the 1968 Democratic presidential primaries.
Kennedy was a pallbearer in his father’s funeral, and read excerpts from his father’s speeches at the mass commemorating his death. But he quickly went off the rails.
“That year I began a decade of self-medicating,” he wrote in his memoir: American Values: Lessons I Learned From My family. “Drugs, it turned out, helped me sit still and focus.”
In 1983, that came to a head when Kennedy Jr was charged with possession of heroin. “I’m genetically hardwired to drink and drug myself to death,” he recalled.
Despite his background of tragedy and addiction, Kennedy Jr thrived professionally. After cleaning up he embarked on a successful career as an environmental lawyer, becoming a professor of environmental law at Pace University in New York state. For decades he worked for Riverkeeper, an organisation set up to save the Hudson river from pollution and neglect.
In this role at Riverkeeper, Kennedy recorded significant victories against corporate polluters and coal fired power plants, forcing them to either abandon development plans or contribute to clean up efforts. He helped negotiate an agreement to provide reservoirs for New York City’s drinking water, now regarded as a model in sustainable development.
“Kennedy’s early work with Hudson Riverkeeper set lasting standards for environmental law and inspired the creation of similar organisations throughout the United States,” an article in Vanity Fair said in 2016.
He won numerous awards, and was named one of Time Magazine’s Heroes for the Planet for his success in helping returning the Hudson river to its pre-industrial age splendour. In 2009 he was named one of Rolling Stone’s 100 agents of change. In railing against many right-wing figures during this period, including the Koch brothers and big oil lobbyists, he became a hero to many progressives.
It was during this professional purple patch that Kennedy became interested in vaccines. He was touring the country speaking about, among other things, the dangers of mercury emissions in US rivers. After one of these appearances, a psychologist called Sarah Bridges contacted him, asking if he thought that mercury in a vaccine could have contributed to her son’s autism.
“I’d always been pro-vaccine,” Kennedy Jr recalled a few years ago. “I had all my kids vaccinated and my annual flu shot every year. But when I started reading about thimerosal, I was dumbstruck by the gulf between scientific reality and the media consensus.”
Kennedy Jr became obsessed with the idea that no study had shown that thimerosal was unsafe. He wrote a book called Thimerosal – Let the Science Speak, summarising the studies that he said showed it was harmful.
During this period, Kennedy Jr’s vaccine concerns appear to have been carefully moderated. He declined to say he was against vaccines, merely that he was pro safe vaccines. And he did not launch personal attacks against vaccine proponents such as Bill Gates.
“At first people said, ‘if Robert Kennedy said it there must be something there’,” Dorit Reiss said. “Then the corrections started coming in.”
In 2005 he authored a story for Rolling Stone magazine and Salon called “Deadly immunity”, which alleged that thimerosal, contained in some vaccines, was dangerous, and that the government was hiding its links to autism. At first he attracted praise: including from big name liberals such as Jon Stewart on the Daily Show.
But then critics accused Kennedy Jr of quoting material out of context. Rolling Stone had to issue a number of corrections. It got so bad that Salon eventually retracted the story.
“When the errors were pointed out he doubled down rather than correcting them,” Reiss told us. Another person who’d spent time with Kennedy Jr described him as “relentless”.
In 2017, following a meeting with then President-elect Donald Trump in New York, Kennedy Jr announced that he had been asked to chair a commission to review vaccine safety. The move alarmed doctors, epidemiologists and public health experts, who pointed out that Trump had previously raised concerns that vaccines cause autism.
Even though the commission never materialised, to Kennedy Jr’s bitter disappointment, the fact that the meeting took place at all signals how closely conspiracy theories and misinformation have been interwoven in everyday politics.
Trump has long been invested in the murky world of conspiracies and misinformation:
from his early claims that Barack Obama was not born in the US, known as the birtherism conspiracy; to his declaration that climate change is a hoax created by China; and during the pandemic, repeating the false assertion that the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine is helpful in preventing and treating coronavirus.
“To some extent, conspiracy theories rule the day,” Professor Offit told us. “You have [US Republican senator] Lindsey Graham talking about the deep state; you could argue the President was elected around conspiracy theories. So Kennedy’s well placed to fit into that trend. He appeals to the notion that there are dark forces working against us.”
Larry Sabato, one of America’s leading political scientists, believes the confusion created by the president will find its denouement on 3 November, presidential election day, when “we’ll find out whether the truth matters in American politics”. Sabato said: “What is disturbing is that for tens of millions, it doesn’t matter anymore. We are in the post-factual era, not just in America, but around the world. This is to some degree a new experience for the United States. And that’s why not just Democrats, but many Republicans are working very hard to make sure that Donald Trump doesn’t just lose, but that he is repudiated.”
Sabato recalled the election campaign of Lyndon Johnson in 1964: “And what was his slogan at the end of every one of his advertisements to vote? ‘The stakes are too high for you to stay home.’”
It is clear that Kennedy Jr sees the shift in focus from environmental health to anti-vaxx messaging as part of the same campaign against big corporations. When we put it to him that many observers believed he had become a danger to public health, that his claims were putting people at risk in the middle of a deadly global pandemic, he responded with characteristic combativeness.
“Of course I have people that don’t like me. I’m used to that when I was an environmentalist, which I still am. Throughout my whole career people have been angry at me,” he said. “I’m suing the pharmaceutical industry. I’m suing all the big vaccine makers. I’m suing FCC [Federal Communications Commission] on 5G and these products that are injuring people, and they all do this and then they create phoney science. They take advertising and the press and they compromise journalists like yourself and, you know, they get people on their side.”
But there is also something predictable about the claims made by Kennedy and the many celebrities and natural health influencers around him: they follow a well-worn format that Uscinski, from the University of Miami, has been studying for years. “Almost all of these theories are pretty, pretty darn boring. And I hate to complain about my job. It’s the same crap over and over again. Same theories, different nouns. There’s nothing to even QAnon, which people look at and say, ‘Oh my God, that’s so wacky’. Well, the idea of a pedophile deep state working against the president is the plot of Oliver Stone’s JFK movie that came out 30 years ago. [..] The idea that your enemies are pedophiles and Satanists and sex traffickers goes back millennia. So there’s really even nothing new there.”
But so concerned were Kennedy Jr’s wider family about his stance on vaccines that in May 2019 they called him out on it, accusing him publicly of being “complicit” in a misinformation campaign.
Kennedy’s siblings Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and former congressman Joseph P Kennedy, as well as niece Maeve Kennedy McKean, published an excoriating article in Politico claiming that “he has helped to spread dangerous misinformation over social media and is complicit in sowing distrust of the science behind vaccines”.
“We love Bobby,” they said, and praised his record on environmental issues. “However, on vaccines he is wrong.”
Additional reporting: Basia Cummings
Photographs by Getty Images