Coronavirus misinformation from longtime anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is raising questions about why several tech giants have failed to block his accounts despite pledges to crack down on false COVID-19 claims.
Critics say the slow response by some of the country’s biggest social media platforms to block such a high-profile user is all the more concerning because it comes as the U.S. is about to transition to widespread distribution of coronavirus vaccines.
The inaction against Kennedy, experts say, risks even further danger in spreading false information due to his family name and elevated status as a public figure.
“The name makes a big difference, and it doesn't get much bigger than the Kennedy name in the United States,” said Darrell West, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation.
Kennedy, 67, is the son of the late senator and U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and nephew of President Kennedy. He has more than 300,000 followers on Facebook and more than 216,000 on Twitter — two platforms where he has consistently spread unsubstantiated claims discrediting the efficacy of vaccines.
He had around 800,000 followers on Instagram before his account was shut down on Wednesday.
Instagram said Kennedy was removed for “repeatedly sharing debunked claims about the coronavirus or vaccines,” but his account remains active on Instagram’s parent company, Facebook, where he continues to spread false vaccination claims.
A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment as to why the posts on his page don’t violate the platform’s policies.
On Monday, the social media giant announced it would expand its policy to remove posts that spread false information about “vaccines in general,” adding to the platform’s policy put in place in December to remove posts spreading misinformation specifically about the coronavirus vaccine.
Twitter also announced in December, shortly after Facebook, that it would remove posts spreading false information about the coronavirus vaccine, but has yet to expand the policy to apply more broadly to vaccines.
Based on the platforms’ policies, it’s unclear why Kennedy’s posts remain.
“Their actions clearly are too weak because there’s still too much false information on social media sites,” West said of Facebook and Twitter.
“They need to get much tougher. They should understand the national and international stakes are very high. This is misinformation that will have dramatic consequences for people's health,” he added.
A Twitter spokesperson said Friday that the company is prioritizing the removal of content "when it has a clear call to action that could potentially cause real-world harm," and will take enforcement action if a tweet violates its rules.
The spokesperson's statement did not address why Kennedy's posts have not been removed.
Kennedy released a statement Thursday evening defending his posts and accusing Instagram of “imposing a totalitarian censorship.”
“None of my posts were false. 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,” Kennedy said in a statement released through the Children’s Health Defense organization.
The nonprofit, known for boosting anti-vaccination content, was founded by Kennedy and he serves as president of the group's board of directors.
Facebook and Twitter’s handling of coronavirus misinformation has come under increasing scrutiny as government officials navigate the hurdles surrounding the vaccine rollout.
Rep. Jimmy GomezJimmy GomezDemocrats steamroll toward showdown on House floor Warren, Bush offer bill to give HHS power to impose eviction moratorium Eviction ruling puts new pressure on Congress MORE (D-Calif.) blasted Facebook in a letter last week demanding answers on why anti-vaccination pages were spreading misinformation after demonstrators temporarily forced a shutdown of Dodgers Stadium in Los Angeles, one of the nation’s largest vaccination centers.
Gomez told The Hill on Thursday that Kennedy’s social media posts show that platforms aren’t following through on their commitments to remove vaccine misinformation.
“It is irresponsible to let a lot of that information just fester on these social media platforms where, oftentimes, it spreads quickly, it has a bigger reach, it actually goes deeper. It's something that I think is really concerning,” he said.
He also pushed back on the argument that removing such content is censorship, likening it to not being able to yell “fire” in a crowded theater.
“If you create a situation where people doubt and don't get the vaccine based on lies and misinformation. And people don't take it and they get sick and they die. That's just as bad, or even worse,” Gomez said.
The lead organizer of the Dodger Stadium demonstration told The New York Times the catalyst for the protest was the death of baseball legend Hank Aaron, following social media posts falsely linking his death to the coronavirus vaccine.
Kennedy, in a Jan. 22 post on Twitter and Facebook, amplified false claims about Aaron’s death earlier that day. Facebook labeled the post as “missing context,” but it remains on the platform and has been shared more than 4,000 times as of Thursday afternoon. The post remains unlabeled on Twitter, and has been retweeted more than 8,000 times.
Georgia Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey said there is no evidence that Aaron’s death was related to his COVID-19 vaccination, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. The cause of death was listed as natural causes by the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s office, according to the newspaper.
Kennedy’s post about Aaron is just one of many anti-vaccination claims he has spread on Facebook and Twitter. Such posts from Kennedy pre-date the coronavirus pandemic. His actions discrediting vaccines drew nationwide attention amid a measles outbreak in 2019, but he’s reportedly been pushing anti-vaccination claims for about a decade.
Some of Kennedy’s influential family members and relatives pushed back against his anti-vaccine misinformation during the measles outbreak in a May 2019 piece published by Politico.
“We love Bobby. He is one of the great champions of the environment ... We stand behind him in his ongoing fight to protect our environment. However, on vaccines he is wrong,” Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Joseph P. Kennedy II and Maeve Kennedy McKean wrote.
“And his and others’ work against vaccines is having heartbreaking consequences,” they added.
Concerns about vaccine misinformation have only increased since the coronavirus pandemic took hold.
“We are very concerned by such false information, disinformation,” said Christian Bréchot, president of the Global Virus Network, a coalition of leading virologists across 34 countries.
“We are at a period of time where massive … vaccination against COVID-19 is a major challenge if we want to win the fight against to COVID-19 and, I would say, the race against new variants spreading. And at the same time we know that we have efficient and safe vaccines,” he said.
Public health experts warn that vaccine hesitancy is a major obstacle to the COVID-19 vaccination campaign in the U.S.
A December survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that while the percentage of Americans planning to get vaccinated against COVID-19 is growing, only about half of respondents between the ages of 18 and 64 said they were very likely to get vaccinated.
Among those who said they don’t intend to get vaccinated, nearly 30 percent said they were worried about side effects and safety, up 23 percent who said the same in a September survey.
“The problem with this false information that goes to really perturb those who are hesitating,” Bréchot said. “This is very dangerous.”
Updated at 11:40 a.m.