A subset of the country is living in an alternate universe built on conspiracy theories fed to them by an out-of-control political movement.
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At his June 20 appearance before Rep. Jim Jordan’s (R-OH) Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — fresh off appropriately bad press for promoting an antisemitic COVID-19 conspiracy theory and then claiming he didn’t, video footage be damned — lashed out at the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH).
He accused the organization of being funded by “dark money” and presented himself as a victim of censorship in relation to being named on CCDH’s March 2021 Disinformation Dozen report calling out the leading sources of online COVID-19 disinformation.
An April 2022 study published in Nature found that Kennedy’s Children’s Health Defense was responsible for roughly 1 of every 4 anti-vax tweets. In August 2022 Children’s Health Defense was removed from Facebook and Instagram. Kennedy was previously banned from Instagram in February 2021 for spreading COVID-19 misinformation; he was re-platformed, however, following the launch of his presidential campaign.
The same day as the House hearing, former Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller’s America First Legal announced on both Twitter and its own website that it was launching a “multi-front investigation” into the CCDH, which it called a “government collusion with pro-censorship UK-based nonprofit [sic].” The investigation specifically focused on CCDH’s treatment of Kennedy and placed a target on CCDH Founder and CEO Imran Ahmed.
On the website for America First Legal, Miller describes his organization as “the long-awaited answer to the ACLU,” and boasts of using “relentless litigation and oversight” in order to “protect America First, Last, and Always.” Miller has been fiercely supportive of Jordan on Twitter.
Despite running as a Democrat, Kennedy has been deeply involved with the far Right during the pandemic — including work with Dr. Simone Gold of the pro-hydroxychloroquine, anti-vax physician organization America’s Frontline Doctors (AFLDS), a group formed to hawk that bogus COVID-19 cure and so to succor Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign by downplaying the perceived risk of the pandemic.
Pandemic disinformation has proven deadly, especially for registered Republicans, but profitable for both AFLDS and Kennedy’s Children’s Health Defense. The CCDH included Kennedy on its June 2021 Pandemic Profiteers list, in addition to his place of dishonor in the Disinformation Dozen.
A Retaliatory “Disinformation” Dozen
On June 27 insurrectionist Gold and AFLDS hosted their third White Coat Summit, billed as “The Reckoning,” wherein they alleged “crimes against humanity” had been committed by public health officials and put out a video of their own, retaliatory, “Deadly Disinformation Dozen,” featuring:
- Dr. Anthony Fauci, former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and former chief medical adviser to President Trump
- Dr. Rochelle Walensky, former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- The Biden administration
- Dr. Ashish Jha, former Biden White House COVID-19 response coordinator
- Dr. Peter Hotez, vaccine scientist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee
- Dr. Francis Collins, former director of the National Institutes of Health
- Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna
- Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer
- Dr. Deborah Birx, former Trump White House COVID-19 response coordinator
- Bill Gates
- Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization
- Klaus Schwab, chairman of the World Economic Forum
The AFLDS list unsurprisingly begins with Fauci, who was made MAGA public enemy No. 1 over his pushback to Trump’s downplaying of the risk of the pandemic. Kennedy penned a 492-page conspiratorial manifesto, The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health, villainizing the doctor, whose family has required security for death threats.
Meanwhile, Kennedy has cashed in, with the Amazon listing for his book claiming to have sold “over 1,000,000 copies despite censorship” — leading an author colleague of mine to quip, “With censorship like that, who needs PR?”
More recently, Kennedy has set his crosshairs on Baylor College of Medicine’s Hotez, attempting to bully the scientist who made patent-free vaccines for the developing world into a “debate” on Joe Rogan’s popular Spotify podcast. This pile-on of the Nobel Peace Prize nominee took place on Twitter, with Elon Musk amplifying and Gold donating to the debate fee pot — the idea being to up the pressure on Hotez to agree to debate one radically biased, misinformation-spewing nonexpert on a show hosted by another.
Hotez did not cave to the pressure to participate in this spectacle — which had obviously been ginned up to boost the platform for Kennedy’s conspiracies — and subsequently had an anti-vaccine fanatic stalk and film him at his home on Father’s Day as well as an ammunition manufacturer tweet a picture of a bag of bullets saying “‘Dr.’ Hotez is a war criminal.” This attack came a week after former Trump adviser Steve Bannon — said to have encouraged Kennedy’s candidacy — called Hotez a “criminal” on Truth Social.
In addition to the America First Legal and AFLDS attacks on the CCDH, Musk has recently made Goliath-sues-David headlines for filing a lawsuit against the nonprofit working to hold his platform accountable for the spread of hate speech. The world’s richest man is putting his vast wealth to work to fund litigation to stifle the free speech of CCDH, an independent organization, while still somehow claiming to be fighting for free speech.
In addition to buzzy misinformation and hate speech being beneficial to the Twitter/X owner’s bottom line, Musk’s money is tied to COVID-19 disinformation. Musk invested in COVID-19 early-treatment research prior to buying Twitter, dropping its COVID-19 misinformation policy, and re-platforming major spreaders of disinformation and hate.
While Musk’s initial involvement in the search for pharma cures for the pandemic may have been well-intentioned, Musk-funded Steve Kirsch has become one of the most dangerous spreaders of vaccine disinformation — working with Bannon, doxxing physicians, and having had the cops called on him for stalking a doctor on the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices at her home for the anti-vax conspiracy film Died Suddenly. In addition to spearheading a retaliatory, right-wing “tidal wave” of lawsuits, Kirsch started a super PAC for Kennedy’s presidential campaign.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate @CCDHate is a foreign-funded dark money hate group that works with U.S. government agencies to defame and censor critics of the corrupt collusion between Big Pharma and its captive regulators.
— Robert F. Kennedy Jr (@RobertKennedyJr) August 1, 2023
Far-Right Friends in Government
The video announcing AFLDS’s “Deadly Disinformation Dozen” includes clips of MAGA allies Jordan and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) both grilling members of the list.
Jordan is featured questioning Birx, who testified against Trump before the Democrat-led House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, on which Jordan served. The subcommittee called out AFLDS in its final report and member Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) warned of the formation of Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R-FL) Public Health Integrity Committee at their final hearing in December 2022. DeSantis’s Florida Health Department is helmed by AFLDS founding member Dr. Joseph Ladapo, who was recently caught editing a vaccine study to show harm that did not exist.
Paul is featured in the AFLDS video grilling Fauci, against whom he filed a criminal complaint with the Department of Justice last week. A practicing ophthalmologist prior to entering politics, Paul is a member of the right-wing splinter group American Association of Physicians & Surgeons (AAPS), which supported Gold through her fight to avoid accountability for her insurrection involvement. As the full Bannon leaks reported by Mother Jones showed, ousting Fauci was part of the plan of the insurrectionists on January 6, 2021.
Accusations of Nazism as Accountability Deflection
The “Deadly Disinformation Dozen” video is far from the first time Gold, who’s appeared on the QAnon ReAwaken America touring rally series, has targeted Fauci. AFLDS featured Fauci alongside Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA), Biden, Ghebreyesus, and then-President of the California Medical Board Kristina Lawson on the poster of their film “Lawson’s Hunt.” AFLDS’s Dr. Christopher Rake and a cameraman ambushed and filmed Lawson in the parking structure of her office for the deeply conspiratorial and disturbing movie, which features her as a Nazi with a whip, thanks to some deft and shameless editing.
As I have previously discussed, Gold, who was a practicing emergency medicine doctor and Beverly Hills resident prior to her post-arrest relocation to Florida, still holds an active California medical license. Her allies at the AAPS lobbied against California’s first-in-the-nation COVID-19 disinformation physician accountability bill, AB 2098, signed into law by Newsom in the fall of 2022. AFLDS affiliate Bret Barker’s Nuremberg 2.0 LTD was listed in formal opposition to the bill at the California Assembly level, where the hearing featured an anti-vax fanatic making threats of “Nuremberg” to supporters of the bill, which included the California Medical Association. Kennedy is involved in one of four lawsuits brought against AB 2098, for which arguments were recently heard in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Threats of “Nuremberg 2.0” for supposed crimes against humanity, which AFLDS is recklessly charging, have been lobbed at those promoting vaccines online and off and are a gross misapplication of World War II history. The implication is of public hangings — not entirely abstract, given the chants aimed at Vice President Mike Pence on January 6, 2021 — and is a terrifying tactic used to dissuade those who would speak out against this movement’s lies.
Plaskett: "If MAGA Republicans agree with you, you're given a a platform to spread conspiracy theories, no matter how harmful. And if they disagree with you, you get death threats until you have to go away." pic.twitter.com/K6gj1McAt2
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) July 20, 2023
The reality is that, as Hotez has been assailed for continuing to call out, vaccine disinformation led to hundreds of thousands of preventable American deaths. As Ranking Member Rep. Stacey Plaskett (D-VI) stated during the June 20 Weaponization Subcommittee hearing, “If MAGA Republicans agree with you, you’re given a platform to spread any conspiracy theories, no matter how harmful. And if they disagree with you, you get death threats until you have to go away.”
Kennedy vs. His Own Speech
Kennedy’s latest gaffe was not the first time he’s interwoven anti-vaxxism with antisemitism. Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL) read Kennedy’s statements from the January 2022 Defeat the Mandates rally — comparing the plight of the unvaccinated to that of Anne Frank — back to him, causing the now-presidential candidate to squirm uncomfortably.
RFK Jr gets mad as Wasserman Schultz quotes a number of his outrageous comments pic.twitter.com/EpfPEKdutR
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) July 20, 2023
Kennedy sponsored the Defeat the Mandates rally alongside former Stop the Steal speaker Del Bigtree — included with Kennedy on the CCDH Pandemic Profiteer list — who used his time at the mic to call for “Nuremberg 2.0” for pro-vax doctors and journalists.
Del Bigtree once again invoking the Holocaust at the antivaxx rally in D.C., using it to threaten journalists and Dr. Fauci.
"Unlike the Nuremberg Trials that only tried those doctors that destroyed the lives of those human beings, we're going to come after the press." pic.twitter.com/sH3qZNuSoE
— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) January 23, 2022
While Kennedy has marketed himself as a crusader for free speech and a censorship victim, he has been attempting, per Public Citizen, to sue a blogger who wrote about his appearance at a 2020 Berlin “anti-corona” rally with a group that has since been under investigation by German authorities for ties to neo-Nazis.
Anonymous Daily Kos user “DowneastDem” has been threatened with a lawsuit over a 2020 post about Kennedy’s appearance at the rally. Once again, as with his ethnically-targeted-COVID-19 musings, there is video, and Kennedy can be seen on stage with Michael Ballweg, founder of the German anti-science, anti-democracy, violence-prone extremist organization Querdenken.
Kennedy was brazen enough to claim at the Weaponization Subcommittee hearing that he is not anti-vax, despite having built his lucrative career — and now presidential campaign — off of just that. The day before June’s AFLDS White Coat Summit, the man who doesn’t like being reminded of his own words tweeted about how COVID-19 vaccines were a failure and how he, a profiteering nonexpert, would have better handled the situation.
In reality, the vaccines have prevented millions of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths — despite rampant disinformation leading to less than ideal compliance.
What Is Actually Going On?
Jim Jordan made a mistake in trying to bill Kennedy as a victim of censorship and himself as a champion of free speech. As Democratic members of his Weaponization Subcommittee reminded Jordan at the hearing, he has abused his own position of political power to bully disinformation researchers who investigate Trump’s lies, using harassing records requests, subpoenas, and lawsuit threats.
The hearing served as an attempt to distract from the ever-growing legal trouble the MAGA king finds himself in as a result of his own actions. Trump did not act alone and there are plenty, including Jordan himself, deserving of overdue accountability.
MAGA allies originally pushed COVID-19 disinformation to downplay the threat of the virus, their concern directed not to the endangered health of the public but to the endangered health of Trump’s reelection prospects. They’ve continued to peddle it as an ongoing financial grift and to sow political division in the spirit of Bannonism. Trump’s absence of leadership and failure to listen to public health experts in the crucial early days of the pandemic has had devastating consequences that reverberate to the present day. And COVID-19 disinformation continues to prop up his quest to reclaim the office he disgraced with those failings among many others.
The MAGA movement’s ongoing demonization of public health experts puts their safety at risk. Beyond that, it puts the collective health of the nation and democracy at risk. A subset of the country is living in an alternate universe built on conspiracy theories fed to them by an out-of-control political movement. It is a shameless attack on truth for political gain, in the wake of an insurrection and the sacrificing of American lives by a once-rogue, now-dominant faction of the Republican Party — and it must be called out.
To be clear, it is not just the CCDH that has been raising the alarm on the risks of COVID-19 disinformation being deadly and begetting hate. The United Nations’ June 2023 “Information Integrity on Digital Platforms” policy brief calls this out as not just an American problem but an international one.
The beauty of social media is how it connects the world, but this does not come without risk and there must be appropriate oversight of content given global reach. As the majority of political vaccine opposition is originating in the US, we owe it not only to our country but to the world to commit to pushing back hard on this dangerous disinformation and hate speech.
Allison Neitzel, MD, is a physician-researcher and founder of the independent research group MisinformationKills, which has investigated the dark money and politics behind public health disinformation with a focus on the pandemic. Her book on the topic, Misinformation Kills: How Politics and Dark Money Hijacked Covid, is due for publication later this year.