Two decades before he was a candidate for the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was just starting to make a name for himself as an anti-vaccine activist. In 2005, he stormed onto the scene with “Deadly Immunity,” a 4,700-word piece co-published by Salon and Rolling Stone that, within days, had racked up numerous corrections.
In the piece, through a mix of bad science, bad math and spliced-together quotes from a meeting of public health officials, Kennedy wrote a tantalizing ― but false ― story about the medical establishment allegedly seeking to cover up evidence that vaccines were harmful to children. After reviewing the evidence concerning thimerosal, an ethylmercury-containing preservative that was once used in childhood vaccines, “I became convinced that the link between thimerosal and the epidemic of childhood neurological disorders is real,” Kennedy wrote.
In the years since, Kennedy has become one of the most influential anti-vaccine voices in the world, along with since-discredited physician and researcher Andrew Wakefield. (HuffPost helped in that effort, publishing blogs that denigrated vaccines from Kennedy and others on its unpaid contributor platform. Those posts, along with others spreading misinformation about vaccines, have since been removed from the site.)
The “link” that Kennedy promoted in “Deadly Immunity” isn’t real. Studies have repeatedly found no connection between thimerosal and autism. Notably, aside from some flu vaccines, thimerosal hasn’t been used as an ingredient in childhood vaccines in the United States since 2001 ― and there’s been no correlating drop in autism diagnoses.
Still, for years, Kennedy’s article remained available online to Salon and Rolling Stone readers. That changed in 2011, with the publication of “The Panic Virus,” in which journalist Seth Mnookin explored the falsehoods and misdirections that fueled the anti-vaccine movement. Mnookin’s book included an entire chapter on Kennedy.
Rolling Stone removed Kennedy’s article. Salon published an interview with Mnookin, and wrote in a retraction notice that his book “further eroded any faith we had in the story’s value.” A few weeks ago, Joan Walsh, Salon’s former editor-in-chief, credited Mnookin again, writing in The Nation that his book “ultimately helped convince us to retract the piece entirely.”
Kennedy hasn’t forgotten, either. In June, as part of a response to another critic of his claims, he told the editors of National Review that Mnookin’s book is “a lengthy recitation of Pharma/CDC patently erroneous talking points, devoid of serious scientific analysis,” and that it contains “an overheated and venomous pop-psychological screed against vaccine safety advocates.”
Kennedy has ultimately maintained his stance against vaccines, describing criticisms as “censorship” and his opponents as “big shots” and “bullies” who “believe that they can get away with anything, including destroying the lives of our children.” After Kennedy was banned from Instagram in 2021 for sharing anti-vaccine misinformation, he wrote: “Facebook, the pharmaceutical industry and its captive regulators use the term ‘vaccine misinformation’ as a euphemism for any factual assertion that departs from official pronouncements about vaccine health and safety, whether true or not. This kind of censorship is counterproductive if our objective is a safe and effective vaccine supply.” (He’s since gotten his account back.)
With relatively poor poll numbers, Kennedy is likely not a serious threat to Joe Biden’s renomination. But he’s also probably not quitting any time soon. And with conservative outlets like Fox News willing to give him tons of free media, Kennedy has a larger microphone than ever.
These days, Mnookin is the director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. With Kennedy using his presidential candidacy to reach new audiences, HuffPost spoke to Mnookin about how it feels to see Kennedy’s resurgence, how the political leanings of anti-vaccine activism have changed over the years, and why Mnookin doesn’t think there’s a responsible way to debate such activists.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I wonder if you feel a sense of deja vu now that RFK Jr. is getting so much attention. How are you feeling these days about your book, and where it stands 12 years later?
Yeah, I mean, it’s pretty depressing. What Joan [Walsh] described, accurately, back in 2011, was the fact that when you looked at the evidence, and when you looked at what RFK Jr. was claiming, it clearly didn’t add up. His original piece in Rolling Stone and Salon was almost a textbook example of how you can technically fact-check something and say, ‘Oh, yes, these words actually do exist in this transcript,’ but by taking words and moving quotes around and to make it seem like one sentence was said before another when it was not, by removing context, you take a nuanced, responsible conversation, and make it seem like this incredible conspiracy.
It’s unfortunate it took six years to retract “Deadly Immunity,” but my feeling at the time was, ‘This is pretty definitive.’ But my feeling at the time was also ― within those two years [2010-2011], Andrew Wakefield, who had initially published a lot of the bogus claims about vaccines, his paper was retracted by The Lancet, and he lost his medical license in the U.K. My feeling at the time was, ‘All right, we can move past this.’ And I think we’ve seen both of those cases, that obviously isn’t true, that I was more optimistic than I should have been.
“My feeling at the time was, ‘All right, we can move past this’ … I was more optimistic than I should have been.”
– Seth Mnookin, author of “The Panic Virus”
So how do you understand Kennedy’s support these days compared to where he stood in 2005 or 2011? Some people say it’s just a matter of Republicans supporting a challenger to Joe Biden. Do you believe that? Is this maybe reflective of a surge in anti-vaccine beliefs?
I guess I would say that it’s neither just a surge in anti-vaccine beliefs nor just Republicans propping up an opponent of Biden. On the Democratic side, there’s clearly an interest in someone besides Biden. How that will ultimately shake out in the election is hard to say. While RFK Jr. is appearing on a lot of conspiracy-minded, right-wing troll podcasts and websites, he clearly does have some appeal beyond just that group of the electorate.
One of the things that I’ve frequently found confusing is that, if you look at the numbers nationally for vaccine uptake, they’re consistently high. The uptake rates for the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine are well over 90%. The uptake for even the COVID vaccine is very high, and so what you see is a sort of disconnect. I wouldn’t attribute the interest in his campaign to just anti-vaccine sentiment, so much as I would attribute it to a general sense that, writ large, quote, ‘the fix is in’ ― that there’s some nefarious force that is controlling people’s lives. And he speaks to that conspiracy-minded belief.
When you see the audience that someone like Joe Rogan has, when you see the appeal that Donald Trump has ― and the significant portions of the GOP electorate that continue to not only support him, but say that they believe that there was a massive conspiracy in the 2020 election ― there clearly is a deeper sentiment in the country, and in the world right now, that there are forces that we don’t understand that are controlling society. I think that’s one of the things that he taps into.
My feeling about the vaccine controversies that started in the late ’90s surrounding thimerosal and the MMR vaccine was that there were a number of bad actors, but ultimately, that really it was the media that was responsible for that, because the media treated what was a settled scientific issue as if it was an ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ debate, when it wasn’t. And I think that’s hugely irresponsible, and coverage like that now is one of the reasons why, at this point, Kennedy has some of the support that he has.
My hope, and my suspicion, is that that support is pretty squishy ― that once people start looking into his views a little bit more, that will sort of crater. But that’s also dependent on coverage of him being more responsible than it has been in many cases so far.
Describing his views as ‘controversial,’ I think, is dishonest. They’re not controversial. They’re false. He’s not spreading controversial views, he’s spreading lies. And so the framing matters enormously, and that’s something that I foresee being a huge, huge issue in the 2024 campaign.
The media coverage makes up a large part of your book, and reading back, the examples of the type of coverage that Andrew Wakefield got were pretty egregious. HuffPost played a big role in what I would call very generous coverage of the anti-vaccine movement, and we’ve since removed a lot of those articles and replaced them with editors’ notes. I wonder, 12 years later, have journalists gotten better at not taking anti-vaccine activists at their word?
What we saw in the decade after 2011 was much more responsible coverage, generally, of vaccines. I should emphasize, when I cite 2011, I’m not at all saying that that’s a demarcation line because of my book, by any stretch of the imagination. I’m saying that, in that two-year period, 2010-2011, Wakefield’s paper was retracted, RFK Jr.’s piece was retracted, Wakefield lost his medical license. There were these other events that happened. From that point on, when you saw coverage of childhood vaccines, the coverage was ― not all the time, but in general ― much more responsible. If there was going to be any discussion of these conspiracy claims about childhood vaccines being harmful, the framing was almost always that those were disproven, and that was the way that the article was presented.
That changed a little bit with the COVID vaccine. Some of that was understandable, because you had a new vaccine on the market that had not gone through the types of testing that most vaccines have gone through, because of the direness of the situation. So it was understandable that some of that coverage was not as immediately accepting of the efficacy and safety of those vaccines.
What we saw, then, start to creep into the coverage, and what I found so disturbing, was not the raising of legitimate questions, but really, the same type of BS, disproven, bogus studies or case series that you saw in the late ’90s and 2000s, trying to show that childhood vaccines weren’t safe. You saw some of those same types of really shoddy studies getting attention around the COVID vaccine. I think a more responsible way to cover that would have been to say, ’All of the research we had so far says that these vaccines that have been developed are safe. However, they have not been on the market for long, et cetera, et cetera.’ As opposed to saying, ‘Well, there’s this concern that’s being raised, and maybe that’s true.’ That’s the type of coverage that I always think is really wildly irresponsible.
There was a campaign last month that Joe Rogan tried to put together, to pressure the vaccine scientist Peter Hotez to debate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on Rogan’s show. Hotez declined. Is there a version of engaging with those arguments in a debate that can be productive?
No, I don’t think so. It’s the same reason that I refused to debate Andrew Wakefield when my book came out, and the same reason I wouldn’t debate RFK Jr.
When you’re dealing with someone who is completely divorced from facts, it’s impossible to win a debate. If you are committed to reality, and if you are committed to evidence, it’s impossible to win a debate with someone who isn’t. One of the reasons is because no matter how much evidence you come prepared with, if you’re debating someone who is willing to say anything and willing to make any claim, they can then just make up some new claim in the debate, and if you are responsible and only relying on evidence, you will have to say, ‘I don’t know, I don’t have the answer to that, that’s something that has just come up for the first time.’ And in a debate, what that sounds like is, ‘Aha, we got you. See, we knew that you couldn’t show that this was X, Y or Z.’ It becomes a game of whack-a-mole, and the reason that you can never win a game of whack-a-mole is, no matter how many moles you knock down, they keep popping up.
Another reason is because I think it’s important for people who do depend on evidence, and on data, to hold the people that they come in contact with to that same standard. So if Peter Hotez said, ‘Yes, I’m going to debate RFK Jr.,’ then essentially it’s saying, ‘Here are two people on two different sides of this issue, and we’re going to listen to both of their views.’ When the reality is, one of those is a respected scientist with decades and decades of experience, and the other is a wing nut who has been pulling claims out of his ass for decades, and whenever he’s shown to be wrong, just moves on to the next crazy claim.
“When you’re dealing with someone who is completely divorced from facts, it’s impossible to win a debate.”
– Seth Mnookin
You mentioned that the uptake of most pediatric vaccines is at or near 90%, and you’ve said before that most parents would be surprised at how infrequently parents decline recommended vaccines. Has the media over-inflated the level of popularity that the so-called anti-vaccine movement has?
You raise a really excellent point, which is that the tenor of the coverage of the anti-vaccine movement gives the impression that it’s a huge portion of the population. I think a lot of people would feel more comfortable with their decisions around vaccines if they learned the reality of the situation, which is that is not true. Even the uptake for the first dose of the COVID vaccine was over 80%, and that was for a new vaccine where there was a ton of politicization of it, and a lot of people on the GOP side saying that it was a mistake to get it. The degree of anti-vaccine sentiment is exaggerated by the coverage of the anti-vaccine movement, and it’s a problem in the media more broadly.
When you wrote your book, you wrote about progressive enclaves like Brooklyn and Marin County, California. It seems like the Trump years and COVID-19 have scrambled the partisan balance of folks who might pass on vaccines, either pediatric or COVID-19. Have you found that to be the case? And if so, where do you think Kennedy fits in this new landscape?
When I wrote in my book that there were these enclaves of seemingly liberal-minded parents where vaccine uptake was lower than it was in the country as a whole, I didn’t mean to imply that that also was not true in some areas that were more conservative. One thing that is interesting about the anti-vaccine movement ― and was more true then, I think, than it is now ― is that you found anti-vaccine pockets on both the right and the left, which was somewhat uncommon in terms of hot-button political issues.
I think what we’ve seen over the last three or four years with COVID is that there is more appetite for anti-vaccine rhetoric on the right than there is on the left. If you look at vaccine uptake rates around the country, that seems to bear out: Democrat-voting states have, for instance, significantly higher COVID vaccine uptake rates than Republican-voting states.
That said, I’m not sure that it has scrambled what we were seeing a decade ago as much as it has expanded the numbers of people willing to identify as being skeptical of vaccines, and expanded it more in one direction than the other.
If I picture Kennedy’s supporters, it’s kind of a conglomeration of the pre-COVID anti-vaccine movement, and the post-COVID, expanded anti-vaccine movement. That is, people from liberal areas ― he’s swum in those same circles for a long time ― as well as, maybe, Trump supporters who want to see someone like Kennedy elevated politically. Do you think he is the anti-vaccine candidate across the political spectrum? Because it seems from the outside that that’s who he’s aiming for.
Trump, obviously, has the support of a fair number of people who are anti-vaccine. But I think one mistake that we make as political observers is assuming that voting is a rational act, as opposed to an emotional act. And so I think whatever percentage of people end up voting for RFK Jr., there will probably be a significant portion of them that do not identify as anti-vaccine, but for some reason for another, feel like they like him, or feel like they don’t like Biden, or feel like Biden is too old, or have fond memories of the Kennedy dynasty, or something else that doesn’t have to do with vaccines. I think we’re seeing a lot of that, a lot of sort of vague, ‘Well, I don’t know if I want Biden. Plus, oh yeah, Kennedys.’ All of that thrown in together with some fervent anti-vaccine stuff as well. Ultimately, the number of people who vote for him will be much smaller, but it will not be just anti-vaccine people.
You saw that with [former U.S. Rep.] Dennis Kucinich, who’s now helping Kennedy in his campaign. Kucinich, when he ran, had some pretty out-there opinions. I don’t think that the percentage of people who voted for him all shared those opinions, so much as some people just felt like it was time for someone to get in and change the system. They needed new voices. They need someone willing to speak truth to power. So I think when you see fringe candidates, it’s a mistake to interpret their support as support for all of those views.
Kennedy has rejected the label ‘anti-vaccine,’ even though, as NBC’s Brandy Zadrozny pointed out, he’s on record telling people that when he goes on hikes and he sees somebody with a newborn baby, he says, ‘Better not get them vaccinated.’ Why do you think it is important to him that he not be stuck with this ‘anti-vaxxer’ label?
That same sort of rhetorical sleight of hand is what anti-vaccine activists have been doing literally for as long as there have been anti-vaccine activists. They insist that they’re just in favor of ‘safe’ vaccines, or ‘safer’ vaccines, or they’re in favor of different types of testing. His whole point is that he’s not dogmatic about this, he’s just following the research, and viewing someone as pro- or anti-anything is essentially saying that you’re dogmatic. So I think that’s why it’s important to him.
Also, as evidenced by the over 90% of parents who vaccinate their kids, most of the country is in favor of vaccines and do not want to get vaccine-preventable illnesses. In some ways, that denial serves as cover, both for him and for his potential voters. But it’s completely ridiculous and false. He clearly is anti-vaccine. He’s shown [that] with literally everything he’s ever said about vaccines since that Rolling Stone-Salon story came out, and with his absolute steadfast refusal to ever accept evidence that contradicts what he feels like is true. That’s sort of the definition of someone being dogmatic.
Earlier this month, Kennedy claimed during a press event that there’s an argument that COVID-19 “is ethnically targeted,” that it “attacks certain races disproportionally,” that it’s “targeted to attack Caucasians and Black people,” and that Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese people are “most immune” to the virus. (In a tweet after the New York Post published a recording of his remarks, Kennedy denied suggesting “that the COVID-19 virus was targeted to spare Jews.”) What did you make of that?
I had a couple reactions to that. One was, [the idea that] ‘they’re designed to target certain people’ is right in line with this notion of there being some big, bad, evil force that is trying to control the population. Why he felt compelled to then make that extra racist, by saying that it was not targeting Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese people, is beyond me. I have no idea what his possible motivations for that could have been, apart from maybe thinking that there’s some upside to appealing to antisemites and people who have anti-Asian sentiment.
I found that to be incredibly bizarre, and again, I think it shows that if you put a microphone in front of him, he will say anything, just spout all sorts of incredibly dangerous nonsense. During a period where hate crimes are on the rise, for any political figure to stand up and essentially borrow antisemitic and anti-Asian tropes is just so insanely irresponsible. And it speaks to someone who is both not a serious person, but is also completely willing to burn things down around him for who knows what reason.
Rebecca Traister, in her story in New York magazine, did a good job of getting to some of this. She wrote that he “either has no idea what kind of fire he’s playing with, or does and is therefore an arsonist.” I think that’s spot on. Either he’s irresponsible because he doesn’t realize that making statements that can be perceived as antisemitic and anti-Asian is not only irresponsible but potentially dangerous ― or he does know what he’s doing, and is trying to light a fire.
What has changed over the years that Kennedy, who was maybe at one point more of a fringe figure, is now polling pretty substantially, if not enough to be a real threat?
I definitely do not think he has changed. Really the only thing that has changed is that he announced that he’s running for president, and I think what we’re seeing is that the American media has still not figured out how to responsibly cover someone with really dangerous views. We saw this, obviously, in 2016, with Trump. Right before RFK Jr. announced that he was running for president, he was still pretty widely considered to be an incredibly fringe character with completely debunked ideas, and if he’d had a press conference announcing ‘I’ve decided X about vaccines,’ he would have gotten very little coverage.
What he perceived, correctly, is that all he has to do is announce that he’s running for president, and then those same views that would not have gotten any attention previously are all of a sudden getting major coverage. That’s the big thing that has changed.
What I mean when I say ‘I don’t think the American media has learned how to deal with this,’ is there’s a pretty well-established body of research showing that all you need to do is say something for a certain percentage of people to come away thinking that it’s true. It becomes a real problem when you have fringe characters who then figure out that, ‘Oh, I can get attention for these views just by announcing that I’m going to throw my hat into the political ring.’ It’s a dangerous combination.
“I think what we’re seeing is that the American media has still not figured out how to responsibly cover someone with really dangerous views.”
– Seth Mnookin
What should our readers keep in mind as they read that coverage of him, wherever it may be coming from? Do you have any advice on how to absorb media coverage of a candidacy like his, without getting sucked into the narratives he’s trying to push out there?
I think there has been some responsible coverage of him. Rebecca Traister’s piece. Jake Tapper, I thought, wrote a very good piece on CNN because RFK Jr. was really almost hilariously misrepresenting an interaction that he’d had with Jake a while back. I guess this is more what I think media outlets should do.
It’s tough, because when you’re asking that question, what I’m thinking is, ‘If you’re already listening to Joe Rogan’s podcast, what would I recommend that you do?’ I guess my recommendation would be, ‘Don’t listen to Joe Rogan’s podcast and expect responsible coverage of political or medical issues.’ But that’s not going to fly, obviously, for his fans. So I think being a proactive consumer of news is an important step. Instead of just taking whatever comes across your feed, if you’re curious about someone like RFK Jr., find news outlets that you respect and trust and look up what their coverage of him is. I think, not just around this issue but in general, being proactive news consumers, as opposed to passive news consumers, is a really important step.
We have seen, in American public life, how difficult it is to keep a conspiracy hidden, right? The tobacco companies were not able to do it. The Catholic Church was not able to do it. The FBI was not able to do it when they were spying on American citizens. And those were all groups that are much more closed than the massive conspiracy that would need to be taking place for one hundredth of what someone like RFK Jr. claims to be true.
You would need to have a conspiracy between world governments, between multiple different pharmaceutical companies, between public health officials at multiple different agencies. It would be the type of vast conspiracy that the world has never seen. To imagine both that that is what’s happening, and also that somehow it has been kept secret all of this time, is kind of the definition of insanity.