As pundits and politicos spar over whether Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s presidential campaign will factor into the outcome of the 2024 election, one thing is clear: Kennedy’s political following is built on a movement that seeks to legitimize conspiracy theories.
His claims decrying vaccines have roiled scientists and medical experts and stoked anger over whether his work harms children. He has made suggestions about the cause of covid-19 that he acknowledges sound racist and antisemitic.
Bolstered by his famous name and family’s legacy, his campaign of conspiracy theories has gained an electoral and financial foothold. He is running as an independent — having abandoned his pursuit of the Democratic Party nomination — and raised more than $15 million. A political action committee pledged to spend between $10 million and $15 million to get his name on the ballot in 10 states.
Even though he spent the past two decades as a prominent leader of the anti-vaccine movement, Kennedy rejects a blanket “anti-vax” label that he told Fox News in July makes him “look crazy, like a conspiracy theorist.”
But Kennedy draws bogus conclusions from scientific work. He employs “circumstantial evidence” as if it is proof. In TV, podcast, and political appearances for his campaign in 2023, Kennedy steadfastly maintained:
- Vaccines cause autism.
- No childhood vaccines “have ever been tested in a safety study pre-licensing.”
- There is “tremendous circumstantial evidence” that psychiatric drugs cause mass shootings, and the National Institutes of Health refuses to research the link out of deference to pharmaceutical companies.
- Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine were discredited as covid-19 treatments so covid vaccines could be granted emergency use authorization, a win for Big Pharma.
- Exposure to the pesticide atrazine contributes to gender dysphoria in children.
- Covid-19 is “targeted to attack Caucasians and Black people. The people who are most immune are Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese.”
For Kennedy, the conspiracies aren’t limited to public health. He claims “members of the CIA” were involved in the assassination of his uncle, John F. Kennedy. He doesn’t “believe that (Sirhan) Sirhan’s bullets ever hit my father,” former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. He insists the 2004 presidential election was stolen from Democratic candidate John Kerry.
Kennedy has sat for numerous interviews and dismissed the critics, not with the grievance and bluster of former President Donald Trump, but with a calm demeanor. He amplifies the alleged plot and repeats dubious scientific evidence and historical detail.
Will his approach translate to votes? In polls since November of a three-way matchup between President Joe Biden, Trump, and Kennedy, Kennedy pulled 16% to 22% of respondents.
Kennedy’s movement exemplifies the resonance of conspiratorial views. Misinformers with organized efforts are rewarded with money and loyalty. But that doesn’t make the claims true.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s campaign based on false theories is PolitiFact’s 2023 Lie of the Year.
How an Environmental Fighter Took Up Vaccines
Kennedy, the third of 11 children, was 9 when he was picked up on Nov. 22, 1963, from Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., because Lee Harvey Oswald had shot and killed Uncle Jack. He was 14 when he learned that his father had been shot by Sirhan Sirhan following a victory speech after the California Democratic presidential primary.
RFK Jr., who turns 70 in January, wouldn’t begin to publicly doubt the government’s findings about the assassinations until later in his adulthood.
As a teenager, he used drugs. He was expelled from two boarding schools and arrested at 16 for marijuana possession. None of that slowed an elite path through higher education, including Harvard University for his bachelor’s degree and the University of Virginia for his law degree.
He was hired as an assistant district attorney in Manhattan in 1982 but failed the bar exam and resigned the next year. Two months later, he was arrested for heroin possession after falling ill on a flight. His guilty plea involved a drug treatment program, a year of probation, and volunteer work with a local anglers’ association that patrolled the Hudson River for evidence of pollution that could lead to lawsuits.
Kennedy’s involvement with Hudson Riverkeeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council ushered in a long chapter of environmental litigation and advocacy.
An outdoorsman and falconer, Kennedy sued companies and government agencies over pollution in the Hudson River and its watershed. (He joined the New York bar in 1985.) He earned a master’s degree in environmental law at Pace University, where he started a law clinic to primarily assist Riverkeeper’s legal work. He helped negotiate a 1997 agreement that protected upstate New York reservoirs supplying New York City’s drinking water.
In 1999, Kennedy founded the Waterkeeper Alliance, an international group of local river and bay-keeper organizations that act as their “community’s coast guard,” he told Vanity Fair in 2016. He stayed with the group until 2020, when he left “to devote himself, full-time, to other issues.”
On Joe Rogan’s podcast in June, Kennedy said that virtually all of his litigation involved “some scientific controversy. And so, I’m comfortable with reading science and I know how to read it critically.”
PolitiFact did not receive a response from Kennedy’s campaign for this story.
He became concerned about mercury pollution from coal-burning power plants; methylmercury can build up in fish, posing a risk to humans and wildlife. As he traveled around the country, he said, women started appearing in the front rows of his mercury lectures.
“They would say to me in kind of a respectful but vaguely scolding way, ‘If you’re really interested in mercury contamination exposure to children, you need to look at the vaccines,’” Kennedy told Rogan, whose show averages 11 million listeners an episode.
Kennedy said the women sounded “rational” as they explained a link between their children’s autism and vaccines. “They weren’t excitable,” he said. “And they had done their research, and I was like, ‘I should be listening to these people, even if they’re wrong.’”
He did more than listen. In June 2005, Rolling Stone and Salon co-published Kennedy’s article “Deadly Immunity.” Kennedy told an alarming story about a study that revealed a mercury-based additive once used in vaccines, thimerosal, “may have caused autism in thousands of kids.” Kennedy alleged that preeminent health agencies — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization — had colluded with vaccine manufacturers “to conceal the data.”
Kennedy’s premise was decried as inaccurate and missing context. He left out the ultimate conclusion of the 2003 study, by Thomas Verstraeten, which said “no consistent significant associations were found between [thimerosal-containing vaccines] and neurodevelopmental outcomes.”
Kennedy didn’t clearly state that, as a precaution, thimerosal was not being used in childhood vaccines when his article was published. He also misrepresented the comments of health agency leaders at a June 2000 meeting, pulling certain portions of a 286-page transcript that appeared to support Kennedy’s collusion narrative.
Scientists who have studied thimerosal have found no evidence that the additive, used to prevent germ growth, causes harm, according to a CDC FAQ about thimerosal. Unlike the mercury in some fish, the CDC says, thimerosal “doesn’t stay in the body, and is unlikely to make us sick.” Continued research has not established a link between thimerosal and autism.
Salon’s retraction was part of a broader conspiracy of caving “under pressure from the pharmaceutical industry,” Kennedy told Rogan. The then-Salon editor rejected this, saying they “caved to pressure from the incontrovertible truth and our journalistic consciences.”
Kennedy has not wavered in his belief: “Well, I do believe that autism does come from vaccines,” he told Fox News’ Jesse Watters in July.
David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, interviewed Kennedy for a July story. Noting that Kennedy was focusing more on vaccine testing rather than outright opposition, Remnick asked him whether he was having second thoughts.
“I’ve read the science on autism and I can tell you, if you want to know,” Kennedy said. “David, you’ve got to answer this question: If it didn’t come from the vaccines, then where is it coming from?”
How Covid-19 Helped RFK Jr.’s Vaccine-Skeptical Crusade
In 2016, Kennedy launched the World Mercury Project to address mercury in fish, medicines, and vaccines. In 2018, he created Children’s Health Defense, a legal advocacy group that works “aggressively to eliminate harmful exposures,” its website says.
Since at least 2019, Children’s Health Defense has supported and filed lawsuits challenging vaccination requirements, mask mandates, and social media companies’ misinformation policies (including a related lawsuit against Facebook and The Poynter Institute, which owns PolitiFact).
From the beginning, the group has solicited stories about children “injured” by environmental toxins or vaccines. This year, it launched a national bus tour to collect testimonials. The organization also produces documentary-style films and books, including Kennedy’s “The Wuhan Cover-Up and the Terrifying Bioweapons Arms Race” and “The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health.”
In 2020, Children’s Health Defense and the anti-vaccine movement turned attention to the emerging public health crisis.
Kolina Koltai, a senior researcher at Bellingcat, an investigative journalism group, had seen anti-vaccine groups try to seize on Zika and Ebola outbreaks, with little success. But the covid-19 pandemic provided “the exact scenario” needed to create mass dissent: widespread fear and an information vacuum.
Children’s Health Defense published articles in March and April 2020 claiming the “viral terror” was an attempt to enact the “global immunization agenda” and a “dream come true” for dictators. The group echoed these points in ads and social media posts and grew its audience, including in Europe.
On X, then known as Twitter, Children’s Health Defense outperformed news outlets that met NewsGuard’s criteria for trustworthiness from the third quarter of 2020 to the fourth quarter of 2021, according to a report by the German Marshall Fund think tank, even as Children’s Health Defense published debunked information about covid-19 and vaccines.
In 2019, Children’s Health Defense reported it had $2.94 million in revenue, and paid Kennedy a $255,000 salary. Its revenue grew 440% through 2021, according to IRS filings, hitting $15.99 million. Kennedy’s salary increased to $497,013. (Its 2022 form 990 for tax disclosure is not yet public. Kennedy has been on leave from the organization since he entered the presidential race in April.)
On social media, the message had limits. Meta removed Kennedy’s personal Instagram account in February 2021 for spreading false claims about covid-19 and vaccines, the company said, but left his Facebook account active. A year and a half later, Meta banned Children’s Health Defense’s main Facebook and Instagram accounts for “repeatedly” violating its medical misinformation policies. Several state chapters still have accounts.
As the group’s face, Kennedy became a leader of a movement opposed to masks and stay-at-home orders, said David H. Gorski, managing editor of Science-Based Medicine and a professor of surgery and oncology at the Wayne State University School of Medicine.
“The pandemic produced a new generation of anti-vaxxers who had either not been prominent before or who were not really anti-vax before,” Gorski said. “But none of them had the same cultural cachet that comes with being a Kennedy that RFK Jr. has.”
Rallying a crowd before the Lincoln Memorial on Jan. 23, 2022, Kennedy protested covid-19 countermeasures alongside commentator Lara Logan and anti-vaccine activist Robert Malone. The crowd held signs reading “Nuremberg Trials 2.0” and “free choice, no masks, no tests, no vax.” When Kennedy took the stage, mention of his role with Children’s Health Defense prompted an exuberant cheer.
In his speech, Kennedy invoked the Holocaust to denounce the “turnkey totalitarianism” of a society that requires vaccinations to travel, uses digital currency and 5G, and is monitored by Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates’ satellites: “Even in Hitler’s Germany, you could cross the Alps into Switzerland. You could hide in an attic like Anne Frank did.”
Asked about his wife’s comment on Dec. 15 on CNN, he said his remarks were taken out of context but that he had to apologize because of his family.
Recycle. Repeat. Repeat.
When he’s asked about his views, Kennedy calmly searches his rhetorical laboratory for recycled talking points, selective research findings, the impression of voluminous valid studies, speculation, and inarguable authority from his experience. He refers to institutions, researchers, and reports, by name, in quick succession, shifting points before interviewers can note what was misleading or cherry-picked.
There is power in repetition. Take his persistent claim that vaccines are not safety-tested.
- In July, he told “Fox & Friends,” “Vaccines are the only medical product that is not safety-tested prior to licensure.”
- On Nov. 7 on PBS NewsHour, Kennedy said vaccines are “the only medical product or medical device that is allowed to get a license without engaging in safety tests.”
- On Dec. 15, he told CNN’s Kasie Hunt that no childhood vaccines have “ever been tested in a safety study pre-licensing.”
This is false. Vaccines, including the covid-19 vaccines, are tested for safety and effectiveness before they are licensed. Researchers gather initial safety data and information about side effects during phase 1 clinical trials on groups of 20 to 100 people. If no safety concerns are identified, subsequent phases rely on studies of larger numbers of volunteers to evaluate a vaccine’s effectiveness and monitor side effects.
Kennedy sometimes says that some vaccines weren’t tested against inactive injections or placebos. That has an element of truth: If using a placebo would disadvantage or potentially endanger a patient, researchers might test new vaccines against older versions with known side effects.
But vaccines are among “the most tested and vetted” pharmaceutical products given to children, said Patricia Stinchfield, a pediatric nurse practitioner and the president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
Kennedy encourages parents to research questions on their own, saying doctors and other experts are invariably compromised.
“They are taking as gospel what the CDC tells them,” Kennedy said on Bari Weiss’ “Honestly” podcast in June.
Public health agencies have been “serving the mercantile interests of the pharmaceutical companies, and you cannot believe anything that they say,” Kennedy said.
Experts fret that the Kennedy name carries weight.
“When he steps forward and he says the government’s lying to you, the FDA is lying to you, the CDC is lying to you, he has credence, because he’s seen as someone who is a product of the government,” said Paul Offit, a pediatrics professor in the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s infectious diseases division and the director of the hospital’s Vaccine Education Center. “He’s like a whistleblower in that sense. He’s been behind the scenes, so he knows what it looks like, and he’s telling you that you’re being lied to.”
Kennedy name-drops studies that don’t support his commentary. When speaking with Rogan, Kennedy encouraged the podcaster’s staff to show a particular 2010 study that found that exposure to the herbicide atrazine caused some male frogs to develop female sex organs and become infertile.
Kennedy has repeatedly invoked that frog study to support his position that “we should all be looking at” atrazine and its impact on human beings. The researcher behind the study told PolitiFact in June that Kennedy’s atrazine claims were “speculation” given the vast differences between humans and amphibians. No scientific studies in humans link atrazine exposure to gender dysphoria.
In July, Kennedy floated the idea that covid-19 could have been “ethnically targeted” to “attack Caucasians and Black people. The people who are most immune are Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese.” The claim was ridiculously wrong, but Kennedy insisted that it was backed by a July 2020 study by Chinese researchers. That study didn’t find that Chinese people were less affected by the virus. It said one of the virus’s receptors seemed to be absent in the Amish and in Ashkenazi Jews and theorized that genetic factors might increase covid-19 severity.
Five months later, Kennedy invoked the study and insisted he was right: “I can understand why people were disturbed by those remarks. They certainly weren’t antisemitic. … I was talking about a true study, an NIH-funded study.”
“I wish I hadn’t said them, but, you know, what I said was true.”
Kennedy answered using scientific terms (“furin cleave,” “ACE2 receptor”), but he ignored explanations found in the study. He didn’t account for how the original virus has evolved since 2020, or how the study emphasized these potential mutations were rare and would have little to no public health impact.
Public health experts say that racial disparities in covid-19 infection and mortality — in the U.S., Black and Hispanic people often faced more severe covid-19 outcomes — resulted from social and economic inequities, not genetics.
Kennedy says “circumstantial evidence” is enough.
Antidepressants are linked to school shootings, he told listeners on a livestream hosted by Elon Musk. The government should have begun studying the issue years ago, he said, because “there’s tremendous circumstantial evidence that those, like SSRIs and benzos and other drugs, are doing this.”
Experts in psychiatry have told PolitiFact and other fact-checkers that there is no causal relationship between antidepressants and shootings. With 13% of the adult population using antidepressants, experts say that if the link were true they would expect higher rates of violence. Also, the available data on U.S. school shootings shows most shooters were not using psychiatric medicines, which have an anti-violence effect.
Conspiracy Theories, Consequences, and a Presidential Campaign
The anti-censorship candidate frames his first bid for public office as a response to “18 years” of being shunned for his views — partly by the government, but also by private companies.
“You’re protected so much from censorship if you’re running for president,” Kennedy told conservative Canadian podcaster and psychologist Jordan Peterson in June.
In June, Kennedy’s Instagram account was reinstated — with a verified badge noting he is a public figure. Meta’s rules on misinformation do not apply to active political candidates. (PolitiFact is a partner of Meta’s Third Party Fact-Checking Program, which seeks to reduce false content on the platform.)
In July, he was invited to testify before the Republican-led House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. He repeated that he had “never been anti-vax,” and railed against the Biden White House for asking Twitter to remove his January 2021 tweet that said Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron’s death was “part of a wave of suspicious deaths among elderly,” weeks after Aaron, 86, received a covid-19 vaccine. The medical examiner’s office said Aaron died from unrelated natural causes.
“You’re like, ‘But you’re talking right now. I’m listening to you. I hear your words. You’re not being censored,’” said Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon who researches how news media covers conspiracy theories and their proponents. “But a person can believe they’re being censored because they’ve internalized that they’re going to be,” or they know making the claim will land with their audience.
Time will tell whether his message resonates with voters.
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said Kennedy may be a “placeholder” for voters who are dissatisfied with Trump and Biden and will take a third option when offered by pollsters.
The only 2024 candidate whose favorability ratings are more positive than negative? It’s Kennedy, according to FiveThirtyEight. However, a much higher percentage of voters are unfamiliar with him than they are with Trump or Biden — about a quarter — and Kennedy’s favorability edge has decreased as his campaign has gone on.
Nevertheless, third-party candidates historically finish with a fraction of their polling, Kondik said, and voters will likely have more names and parties on their fall ballots, including philosopher Cornel West, physician Jill Stein, and a potential slate from the No Labels movement.
Kennedy was popular with conservative commentators before he became an independent, and he has avoided pointedly criticizing Trump, except on covid-19 lockdowns. When NBC News asked Kennedy in August what he thought of Trump’s 2020 election lies, Kennedy said he believed Trump lost, but that, in general, people who believe elections were stolen “should be listened to.” Kennedy is one of them. He still says that the 2004 presidential election was “stolen” from Kerry in favor of Republican George W. Bush, though it wasn’t.
American Values 2024 will spend up to $15 million to get Kennedy’s name on the ballot in 10 states including Arizona, California, Indiana, New York, and Texas. Those are five of the toughest states for ballot access, said Richard Winger, co-editor of Ballot Access News.
Four of Kennedy’s siblings called Kennedy’s decision to run as an independent “dangerous” and “perilous” to the nation. “Bobby might share the same name as our father, but he does not share the same values, vision or judgment,” the group wrote in a joint statement.
Kennedy brushes it off when asked, saying he has a large family and some members support him.
On her podcast, Weiss asked whether Kennedy worried his position on autism and vaccines would cloud his other positions and cost him votes. His answer ignored his history.
“Show me where I got it wrong,” he said, “and I’ll change.”
In a campaign constructed by lies, that might be the biggest one.
PolitiFact researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
PolitiFact’s source list can be found here.
The article RFK Jr.’s Campaign of Conspiracy Theories Is PolitiFact’s 2023 Lie of the Year by Madison Czopek, PolitiFact and Katie Sanders, PolitiFact was published on 27/12/2023 by kffhealthnews.org