It may have come as a surprise to many that the bulk of vaccine misinformation online is perpetuated by a mere 12 people.
That finding was unveiled by the Center for Countering Digital Hate in May 2021.
“According to our recent report, anti-vaccine activists on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter reach more than 59 million followers, making these the largest and most important social media platforms for anti-vaxxers,” wrote CEO Imran Ahmed.
Among the “Disinformation Dozen” was a name that may also have come a surprise: Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Kennedy, son of JFK’s brother Bobby Kennedy, is an environmental lawyer who gained notoriety for his dogged pursuit of polluters.
But in the summer of 2005, after being hounded by the parent of an autistic child who demanded he read her “research,” he took up a torch against vaccines and refuses to let go.
In a recent article for McGill’s Office for Science and Society, author Jonathan Jarry describes Kennedy as “one of the princes of the anti-vaccination movement, if not its king.”
Kennedy usually manages to dodge social media censorship by promoting articles on his Children’s Health Defense website without being overly specific. His organization was one of two buyers last year accounting for 54 per cent of anti-vaccine advertising content on Facebook.
Trying to understand what makes people like Kennedy tick is a daunting prospect.
“It could be argued that a career spent exposing corporations that carelessly dump toxic chemicals into the world might bias you to imagine harmful plots wherever industry is involved,” Jarry suggested.
Some of it comes from the appeal of being a lone crusader. Some of it may just be arrogance.
Over time, however, anti-vaxxers usually end up believing their own lies, even when they have to conjure elaborate conspiracy theories to explain why mainstream science rejects them.
Kennedy may be king, but Andrew Wakefield is considered by many to be the founder of the modern anti-vaccine movement.
In 1998, he and some co-authors got a paper published in the British Medical Journal, The Lancet, that purported to show a link between the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and autism.
It lit a fuse for parents, many of whom believed all along there was a connection. With mainstream media blindly sounding the alarm, vaccinations waned and measles outbreaks made an unwelcome return throughout Britain and North America.
Except there was no connection.
British journalist Brian Deer, tasked at first to simply report on the findings for his employer, grew suspicious when he talked to parents of one of only 12 children tracked in the study.
Over the span of several years, Deer cracked the scam wide open, revealing how medical records were distorted and even falsified, lab results were botched or faked, and how Wakefield, a gastroenterologist at the time, was mired in financial conflicts that included a plan to patent dubious new treatments to protect against childhood diseases.
The Lancet retracted the paper in 2010, giving Deer the rare privilege of writing an editorial about his investigation, and Britain’s General Medical Council stripped Wakefield of his licence, citing gross professional misconduct.
In 2004, a meta-study came to the conclusion there was no evidence of a link between MMR vaccine and autism. The authors analyzed five cohort studies involving 1,256,407 children, and five case-control studies involving 9,920 children.
No study since has found any connection either.
But Wakefield, who subsequently fled to the United States where post-truth conspiracies thrive like weeds, continues to peddle his nonsense.
And his fans apparently have no qualms about accepting the doctored data from 12 hand-picked research subjects as gospel.
What’s perhaps most disturbing about anti-vaccine tactics is that its proponents will shamelessly target some of the most vulnerable communities.
Kennedy exploited a tendency in the American black community to distrust the medical establishment when he funded a pseudo-documentary released in March 2021 called “Medical Racism: The New Apartheid.”
Among other things, the film made references to the Tuskagee study — an unethical survey of untreated syphilis in black men from decades ago — to help stoke paranoia about vaccines.
In essence, the film uses fear to discourage a population that needs the vaccine more than most not to get it.
About 10 years ago, Wakefield was invited to talk to the Somali community in Minnesota, where he repeated his infamous lie that the MMR vaccine causes autism.
The result? Minnesota soon experienced its largest outbreak of measles in nearly three decades as immunizations plummeted.
Brian Deer says Wakefield’s continued motivation, like those of many anti-vaxxers, can be reduced to narcissism and financial gain.
“The thing about Wakefield is it’s all about himself. I think he’ll say anything he believes will win applause and income from the coronavirus pandemic, just as he did when he claimed to find that vaccines cause autism,” Deer wrote in an email Thursday when contacted by The Telegram.
Deer said no court or tribunal would accept anything that comes out of his mouth, since he’s clearly lost all credibility as an expert.
“He shrugs off what he’s called ‘Wuflu’ (a reference to Wuhan, China) and even denies the COVID vaccines are vaccines. But now he’s an Englishman in America: and that works.”
Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram