While many nonprofits and businesses have struggled during the pandemic, Robert F. Kennedy Jr's anti-vaccine group has thrived.
An investigation by The Associated Press finds that Children's Health Defense has raked in funding and followers as Kennedy used his star power as a member of one of America's most famous families to open doors, raise money and lend his group credibility. Filings with charity regulators show revenue more than doubled in 2020, to US$6.8 million.
Since the pandemic started, Children's Health Defense has expanded the reach of its newsletter, launched an internet TV channel and started a movie studio. In addition to opening new US branches, it now boasts outposts in Canada, Europe and Australia and is translating articles into French, German, Italian and Spanish.
The group has become one of the most popular "alternative and natural medicine sites" in the world, according to data from digital intelligence company Similarweb. It now draws millions of monthly visitors to its articles — many of which sow doubt about the Covid vaccines — up from less than 150,000 before the pandemic.
As CHD has worked to expand its influence, experts said, it has targeted its false claims at groups that may be more prone to distrust the vaccine, including mothers and black Americans. It's a strategy that experts worry has deadly consequences during a pandemic that has killed more than five million people, when misinformation has been deemed a threat to public health.
Kennedy has been a key part of the anti-vaccine movement for years, but doctors and public health advocates told the AP that Covid-19 launched him to a new level.
"With the pandemic, he's been turbocharged," said Dr David Gorski, a cancer surgeon at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit and a critic of the anti-vaccine movement.
Dr Richard Allen Williams, a cardiologist and founder of the Minority Health Institute, said Kennedy is leading "a propaganda movement" and "absolutely a racist operation" that is particularly dangerous to the black community.
"He's really the ringleader of the misinformation campaign," said Williams.
Even Kennedy's own family members call his work "dangerous".
Kennedy, 67, is a nephew of President John F. Kennedy and the son of his slain brother. He carved out a career as a top environmental lawyer fighting for public health priorities such as clean water.
More than 15 years ago, he became fixated on a belief that vaccines are not safe. While there are rare instances when people have severe reactions to vaccines, the billions of doses administered globally provide real-world evidence that they are safe. The World Health Organisation says vaccines prevent as many as five million deaths each year.
A Kennedy spokesperson told the AP he was not available for an interview.
More than 200 million Americans have been given a Covid-19 vaccine, and serious side effects are extremely rare. Government safety tracking and testing have shown that any health risks posed by the vaccine are far lower than the risks posed by the virus.
Children's Health Defense and its followers, seeking to undermine that message, use canny techniques to bring anti-vaccine misinformation even to those not looking for it.
The AP found links to Children's Health Defense articles all over Facebook, with many posted in the comments sections on pages that people turn to for reliable information, including official government Facebook pages in all 50 US states. They were also shared outside the United States, on Facebook pages in places such as Canada, Norway and Greece.
Kennedy has hundreds of thousands of followers on Facebook and Twitter, although he was kicked off Facebook's Instagram platform earlier this year. Children's Health Defense remains on all three platforms.
CHD's website has seen an explosion in traffic. According to Similarweb, in November 2019, a few months before the pandemic began, Children's Health Defense received 119,000 visits. That had grown to around 3 million visits last month, after peaking in August at nearly 4.7 million.
According to tax filings, Kennedy was paid US$255,000 by Children's Health Defense in 2019.
Still, he told the conspiracy site InfoWars this month that he had "the opposite of a profit motive".
"Probably I've lost 80 per cent of my income because of what I'm doing, along with a lot of friendships and, you know, and damaged relationships even with people in my family," Kennedy said.
Still, CHD's fundraising success has only grown with Kennedy's involvement.
Filings the group made with charity regulators in California show that in 2018, CHD reported US$1.1 million in gross revenue. That grew to nearly US$3 million in 2019. By 2020, the most recent year available, revenue had more than doubled to US$6.8 million.
Children's Health Defence's new movie studio released a film this year, called "Medical Racism." Doctors and public health advocates said it was aimed at spreading misinformation and fear of vaccines within the black community, which has been disproportionately hit by the coronavirus.
The movie brings up racist abuses in medicine, such as the Tuskegee experiment, when hundreds of black men in Alabama with syphilis were left untreated, to question whether the vaccine can be trusted or is necessary.
Williams, of the Minority Health Institute, pointed out that in the Tuskegee study, people were denied medication to treat a disease. In the case of the Covid-19 vaccine, medication is available – but anti-vaccine activists are trying to persuade people not to take it. He said the film is "not only harmful, but it is deadly."
In the movie, Kennedy and others invoke the legacy of his family and its involvement in causes such as civil rights, the Special Olympics and health care advocacy. In fundraisers, he has offered a trip to the Kennedy compound on Cape Cod as a lure to drum up donations for Children's Health Defense.
"There's always plenty of people and good conversation," he said in one video posted in 2020. "If my mom decides to come, adventure is guaranteed."
His sister, Kerry Kennedy, who runs Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the international rights group founded by their mother, Ethel, told AP her brother had taken down some family-related content at her request. Still, she noted, he continues to reference President Kennedy to advance his anti-vaccine stance.
"Anyone who believes this does not know their history. Vaccinations were a major effort of John F. Kennedy, both as a senator and later as president," she said.
"I love Bobby, I think he's just completely wrong on this issue and very dangerous," she said. "Failure to take vaccines puts people's lives at risk. It not only impacts the person who refuses the jab but imperils the community at large."
Last month, Kennedy appeared at protests in Switzerland and Italy. He complained of conspiracies by government officials and Big Pharma operatives and claimed falsely that the Pfizer Covid-19 shot kills more people than it saves. Kennedy promised that he would "see you all on the barricades" and that "I and many others are ready to die with our boots on for liberty."
It has become something of a stump speech for Kennedy, one delivered not to win political office but to persuade as many people as possible not to get vaccinated.