The Anti-Vaccine Movement’s New Frontier

One chilly afternoon This past January, Kennedy took the microphone in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, before a crowd of maybe a few hundred people, some of whom carried signs reading, “We will not comply,” “Resist medical tyranny” (collected by a swastika) and “Land of the free you can’t mandate.” A march earlier that day, involving several thousand people, included members of the far-right Nationalist group of Proud Boys, firefighters wearing helmets and even a few Buddhist monks from New England. They had gathered for a rally as Defeat the Mandates: An American Homecoming. Its speakers include many of the best-known vaccine skeptics: the vaccine researcher Robert Malone; the activist Del Bigtree; and, of course, Kennedy.

“What we are seeing today is what I call turnkey totalitarianism,” he told his audience. “They are putting in place all the controls for these technological mechanisms that we have never seen.” He continued: “Even in Hitler’s Germany you could cross the Alps into Switzerland. You could hide in an attic like Anne Frank did. ” But no longer, he suggested: “The mechanisms are being put in place that will make it so that none of us can run and none of us can hide.”

Reaction was swift, including from his own wife, the actress Cheryl Hines. On Twitter, she called The Anne Frank reference is “reprehensible and insensitive.” But outrage over the allusion to Frank belied the deeper issue, which is just how influential Kennedy and other figures in the anti-vaccine movement have become. Kennedy is president of an organization named Children’s Health Defense; It applied for the permit to hold the Washington rally. The nonprofit group, which says it aims to “end childhood health epidemics by working aggressively to eliminate harmful exposures,” churns out online articles that suspect that vaccine safety. And it has expanded aggressively during the pandemic. In January 2020, the Children’s Health Defense website received just under 84,000 monthly visits from the United States, according to the tracking firm Similarweb. As of this March, that number had reached more than 1.4 million monthly visits, a 17-fold increase in traffic. (Revenue, coming from donations and fund-raising events, was already surging before the pandemic, according to the group’s tax filings, to $ 6.8 million in 2020 from just under $ 1.1 million in 2018.)

By one measure, CHD’s reach now outstrips that of bona fide news outlets. Indiana University’s Observatory on Social Media, whose CoVaxxy project follows how vaccine-related content is shared on Twitter, has found that the organization’s vaccine-related posts – may falsely claim that thousands of people have died from being vaccinated, for example, or that The risks of Covid-19 boosters outweigh the benefits – often shared more widely than vaccine-related items from CNN, NPR and the Centers for Disease Control. In some weeks, vaccine-related content of the Children’s Health Defense was shared more widely than The New York Times or The Washington Post.

Kennedy, who did not respond to questions submitted by his publisher, embodies a seeming contradiction of the anti-vaccine movement that presents a particularly difficult challenge for lay people. He has done important work as an environmental lawyer, and although his family has publicly criticized his anti-vaccine crusade, he still bears one of the names of the best known Democratic political families. He brings a certain amount of credibility to his cause. There are many other figures who routinely question the safety and utility of vaccines that have credentials that can seem impressive. They include Wakefield; Malone, the researcher who claims to have invented the mRNA vaccine (35 years ago) and several colleagues published an important paper in the field, but other scientists say he has not “invented” the technology, which hundreds of scientists have since. worked on); and Judy Mikovits, a researcher whose 2009 paper linking chronic fatigue syndrome to a viral infection was retracted from the journal Science. Mikovits, who fired his job as the research director of the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Disease in Reno, Nev., Has published a best-selling book about supposed titled science in malfeasance “Plague of Corruption.”

Numerous experts have told me that a good way to understand what motivates many players is through the anti-vaccine movement through the lens of profit. There are several levels of profiteering. The first involves social media companies. Historically, the algorithms that drive their platforms, some argue, have fed users more and more of what they respond to without regard for whether it is true or not. “It’s not some sophisticated technology,” says Hany Farid, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who studies misinformation on social media. “It turns out we’re primitive jerks. And the most outrageous stuff, we clicked on it. “

Facebook and other social media companies have, they claim, taken steps to counter the proliferation of vaccine-related misinformation on their sites. Facebook now says it is helping “keep people healthy and safe” by providing reliable information on vaccines. But Farid and others doubt that Facebook, in particular, will ever rid itself of such material because attention-grabbing content is, in the attention economy, immensely valuable. “The business model, that’s really the core poison here,” says Farid. A partial solution, he thinks, would be to change regulatory laws allowing individuals to hold social media companies legally responsible – through lawsuits – for harm connected content they promote: “You should be held accountable for what you’re promoting, especially because they ‘re making money from it. ” Aaron Simpson, a spokesman for Meta, the parent company of Facebook, told me in an email that the company has “every incentive” to purge misinformation from its platform because it makes money from ads, and advertisers have repeatedly said they do not want to. Their ads appearing next to Misinformation. And yet, in the past, prominent anti-vaccine activists have been advertising themselves on Facebook.

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