RFK Jr.’s presidential marketing campaign is pushed by conspiracy theories : NPR


Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the newest member of the Kennedy dynasty to run for president, recurrently shares a dizzying vary of falsehoods and conspiracy theories.

Joseph Prezioso/AFP through Getty Pictures


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Joseph Prezioso/AFP through Getty Pictures


Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the newest member of the Kennedy dynasty to run for president, recurrently shares a dizzying vary of falsehoods and conspiracy theories.

Joseph Prezioso/AFP through Getty Pictures

Since Robert F. Kennedy Jr. launched his marketing campaign difficult President Biden for the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination, he has given hours of interviews to podcasts, magazines and TV networks. He paints a darkish, conspiratorial image of the world, bristling with debunked theories, deceptive claims and outright falsehoods.

Wi-Fi causes most cancers and “leaky mind,” Kennedy final month. Antidepressants are in charge for college shootings, he with Twitter CEO Elon Musk. Chemical compounds within the water provide may flip youngsters transgender, he , echoing a made by serial fabulist . AIDS might not be attributable to HIV, he has .

There isn’t any credible proof for any of those assertions or for Kennedy’s longest-running false claims: that and are extra dangerous than the ailments they’re designed to guard in opposition to.

But Kennedy is constructing a marketing campaign for the best workplace round these conspiracy theories and the concept fact-checking or criticizing them quantities to censorship. His throughline is the bedrock conspiratorial premise that “they” (the federal government, pharmaceutical firms, the media) are mendacity to you — however that he’s telling the reality.

It is an obvious guess that the political, cultural and media dynamics that elevated Kennedy and the throughout the COVID-19 pandemic can equally propel him to the White Home.

The Kennedy marketing campaign didn’t reply to NPR’s questions for this story.

Allegations of censorship and collusion

Kennedy is not the primary American politician to actively advance conspiracy theories. Donald Trump promoted and, later, the that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Richard Nixon for orchestrating communist plots and .

However what stands out in Kennedy’s case is the sheer quantity of what he has asserted over time, from his insistence that Republicans stole the to his claims that are getting used for mass surveillance to his perception that the his uncle.

In 2021, he was named one of many prime spreaders of on social media. He was kicked off Instagram, alongside along with his group, Kids’s Well being Protection, which was additionally faraway from Fb (Instagram reinstated Kennedy after he introduced his presidential bid).

He advised NPR that 12 months that the social media bans had value him “a whole lot of 1000’s of {dollars}” in donations. However federal present in any other case: throughout the pandemic, from $3 million in 2019 to $7 million in 2020 to $16 million in 2021.

together with The Related Press, The Washington Publish, the BBC and Reuters for alleged censorship.

For Kennedy, his conviction that he is being censored is one other instance of the collusion between authorities companies and firms that he believes is the foundation of america’ issues.

“My mission over the following 18 months of this marketing campaign and all through my presidency shall be to finish the corrupt merger of state and company energy that’s threatening now to impose a brand new sort of company feudalism on our nation,” he mentioned in his April marketing campaign announcement.

Claims of censorship have additionally change into a core grievance of many conservatives and disaffected liberals, who see the rise of social media insurance policies to fight dangerous misinformation, conspiracy theories and election interference as .

From political scion to anti-vaccine crusader

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is the son of the late U.S. lawyer common, New York senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy, in addition to the nephew of former President John F. Kennedy. For years, he was greatest often known as a wayward member of a well-known, tragedy-stricken household and as a crusading environmental lawyer who helped clear up the Hudson River and launched a worldwide motion to guard waterways.

It was his work combating mercury air pollution that led him into the world of vaccine skepticism. As he tells it, after listening to from moms satisfied their youngsters had been harmed by a mercury-based preservative in routine vaccines, he turned a convert to their trigger. (The in query was faraway from most childhood vaccines in 2001 out of an abundance of warning and was by no means used within the measles, mumps and rubella vaccines that had been the point of interest for considerations about autism.)

by errors and selective use of proof and was ultimately .

Regardless of examine after examine discovering no connection between vaccines and autism, Kennedy has solely dug in deeper to his discredited beliefs. For years, they put him on the perimeter of American public discourse — till COVID-19.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks throughout a rally on the Nationwide Mall in Washington, D.C., following a march in opposition to COVID-19 mandates on Jan. 23, 2022.

Tom Brenner/Reuters


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Tom Brenner/Reuters


Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks throughout a rally on the Nationwide Mall in Washington, D.C., following a march in opposition to COVID-19 mandates on Jan. 23, 2022.

Tom Brenner/Reuters

How the pandemic united anti-vaccine and anti-government teams

The pandemic gave anti-vaccination activists new prominence and traction by providing straightforward solutions to a public struggling to know a fast-moving illness about which little was identified.

“There was nothing else that occurred on the earth that would have globally made anti-vaccine ideology and content material so mainstream,” mentioned Kolina Koltai, a researcher who research the anti-vaccine motion. “The worldwide pandemic made vaccines and illness the dialog.”

The disaster additionally supplied Kennedy, by then one of the distinguished figures in anti-vaccination circles, a broader set of targets within the type of altering public well being tips, faculty and enterprise shutdowns, and vaccine and masks mandates.

He wrote a e-book accusing Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s prime infectious illness skilled and previously a White Home adviser throughout the pandemic, of “assist[ing] orchestrate and execute 2020’s historic coup d’etat in opposition to Western democracy.”

He in contrast vaccine mandates to and promoted a about vaccines to Black Individuals. He touted the choice remedies and , which haven’t been discovered to be efficient at treating COVID-19. He appeared on the Christian nationalist alongside MAGA stars Roger Stone and Michael Flynn and QAnon conspiracy theorists.

“There was this coalescing of various teams that would not actually have crossed paths earlier than the pandemic,” mentioned Aoife Gallagher, a analysis analyst on the nonprofit Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which research extremism and disinformation. “What this allowed teams like Kids’s Well being Protection and Robert F. Kennedy to do was to achieve a a lot wider viewers.”

Kennedy’s public trajectory echoed the rising that emerged throughout the pandemic.

Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Schooling Heart on the Kids’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a longtime antagonist of Kennedy, says that earlier than COVID-19, the anti-vaccine motion did not map onto conventional political divides.

“When vaccines got here alongside in December 2020, I assumed folks would simply rush to get it and 100% of this inhabitants can be vaccinated and that the anti-vaccine motion can be neutered,” he mentioned. “Mistaken.”

.”

Why vaccine security is commonly a rallying cry for anti-vaccine activists

Whereas Kennedy is working as a Democrat, promising to “heal the divide” in American politics, lots of his views are out of step with the mainstream. Individuals of each events resoundingly .

His extraordinarily isolationist positions on immigration and overseas coverage sound extra like a candidate within the Republican main. He says he would “seal the [U.S.-Mexico] border completely” and blames the U.S. for , saying Moscow acted in “good religion.”

At his April marketing campaign launch, Kennedy solely obliquely nodded to his considerations about vaccines, as an alternative referring to a “power illness epidemic” hurting Individuals. He often tells that he is not anti-vaccine however as an alternative an advocate for elevated security — whereas persevering with to repeat disproven claims.

Vaccines undergo , in america. However the security framing utilized by Kennedy and different vaccine skeptics makes their message “approachable,” Koltai mentioned. “They’re … degrading the belief and security we’ve in institutional organizations just like the CDC or the FDA and attempting to govern information to make it look like vaccines are much less secure than they’re,” she mentioned.

“Everybody desires secure vaccines. Nobody is saying we wish much less secure vaccines,” she mentioned. “They could body this in a approach that appears very interesting to everybody. However in actuality, they’re utilizing the identical type of tropes and arguments and narratives that folks in conspiratorial communities use.”

Nonetheless, Kennedy’s message has discovered fertile floor amongst an odd-bedfellows coalition of supporters, from vaccine opponents to far-right conspiracy theorists similar to Jones, Stone and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, to deep-pocketed Silicon Valley magnates together with Musk, Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey and enterprise capitalist David Sacks, who maintain Kennedy up as a contrarian free-thinker.

for holding vaccine misinformation.

In his prolonged podcast appearances, Kennedy is commonly given free rein to query the security of vaccines and spout a bunch of different deceptive or false claims — topics that he prevented in his two-hour kickoff speech in April and that get no point out on his official marketing campaign web site.

Kennedy is a very well-suited podcast visitor. Regardless of a medical situation that makes his voice hoarse and choked, as soon as he will get going he can converse fluently and at size about any method of topics, from his authorized victories to U.S. overseas coverage historical past to colourful, emotional anecdotes of rising up in America’s most storied political household.

. “Not solely is it an area the place you may actually say no matter you need with little or no repercussions or little or no type of pushback — it is also an area the place people who find themselves listening are inclined to consider something that you just say.”

Kennedy’s marketing campaign has given him a platform that has lengthy been denied him, with profiles in seemingly each media outlet. However he stays a long-shot candidate, and his marketing campaign seems to be than the Democrats who will vote within the main.

Amongst Democrats, Kennedy’s vary from 8% to twenty%. To what diploma that represents precise assist versus affection for the Kennedy household identify, urge for food for a candidate who is just not Biden and the very early levels of the presidential contest is up within the air.

What’s not up for debate for scientists, researchers and public well being officers is Kennedy’s lengthy observe report of undermining science and spreading doubtful claims.

“He has an infinite platform. He’s going to, over the following many months, do a sequence of city corridor conferences the place he’ll proceed to place dangerous info on the market that can trigger folks to make dangerous selections for themselves and their households, once more placing youngsters in danger and inflicting youngsters to undergo,” Offit mentioned. “As a result of it is all the time essentially the most weak amongst us that suffer our ignorance.”

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