Antivaxxers are sometimes violent, often abusive, and always wrong. A leading anti-vaxxer is presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. He has repeatedly compared vaccine mandates to the Holocaust. Rolling Stone and Salon retracted an RFK article linking vaccines to autism.
Debra Sheldon, 48, a Democrat from New York State, campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008. But when she had a child, she said, Mr. Kennedy’s Children’s Health Defense — a nonprofit group he formed that has campaigned against vaccines — “really helped inform me, as a new mom, about what was good for my kid.”
Children’s Health Defense has been widely criticized for spreading disinformation about vaccines, included discredited claims linking them to autism.
Ms. Sheldon is now a volunteer for Mr. Kennedy’s campaign, and was in New Hampshire selling his books and other materials about autism at the libertarian retreat, the Porcupine Freedom Festival. She described her mission in almost spiritual terms: “We are here to protect the soul of America.”
Some of Mr. Kennedy’s newer supporters said they were drawn to what they saw as his message of unity and fairness, an almost nostalgic perspective he often anchors in stories of his childhood in one of America’s most famous political families. But others described feeling “awakened” during the pandemic by questions Mr. Kennedy posed about vaccines, masks and school lockdowns, issues they felt were ignored — or, worse, stifled — by the mainstream media.
“All of those people watched over many years where Bobby was censored in every mainstream venue,” said Tony Lyons, whose company, Skyhorse Publishing, has picked up authors deemed unsavory or risky by other presses, including the filmmaker Woody Allen, the former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, and Mr. Kennedy. Mr. Lyons is a co-chair of a PAC supporting Mr. Kennedy.
“Every TV show, venue — they just wouldn’t let him on to talk about his views on what Big Pharma companies were doing to the American public,” Mr. Lyons said. “He then kind of became a hero of the freedom of speech people,” a group that includes many political identities, he said.
Mr. Kennedy was kicked off social media platforms during the pandemic on the grounds that he had spread debunked claims about the virus. Instagram lifted its suspension in June, citing his presidential candidacy, after Mr. Kennedy complained about the suspension on Twitter. The complaint prompted Elon Musk — who calls himself a free speech absolutist — to invite him to a discussion on Twitter Spaces.
The single biggest change that I’m going to make in my assessment of how to recognize an antivaxxer now as compared to 2012 grows from a revelation that I came to a few years after my post on recognizing what makes an antivaxxer, namely that all antivaccine beliefs are rooted in conspiracy theories, specifically what I have called the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement. In 2014, that conspiracy theory was simple. Basically, repeating and believing antivaccine conspiracy theories is arguably the strongest indicator that you are dealing with an antivaxxer, so much so that if you see someone spewing antivax conspiracy theories and being utterly resistant to questioning them, that in and of itself is enough to identify an antivaxxer. Indeed, all antivax conspiracy theories tend to be variations on a theme, namely that “They” know that vaccines don’t work/are harmful, but “They” covered it up. It’s the same conspiracy theory at the heart of, for example, Kevin Trudeau’s famous book Natural Cures “They” Don’t Want You to Know About. In the US this central conspiracy theory posits that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “knew” that vaccines cause autism. In fact, if you believe these conspiracy theories, the CDC itself has demonstrated that vaccines cause autism but has assiduously covered up all evidence, the first and most notable example being the Simpsonwood conspiracy theory.