Conspiracies and misinformation have played a central role in much of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s life.
On Thursday environmental activist, lawyer, and vaccine "skeptic" Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was banned from Instagram as part of parent-company Facebook's ongoing fight against misinformation on their platforms.
A spokesperson for Facebook reported that they had cut off his account for "repeatedly sharing debunked claims about the coronavirus or vaccines." This comes just a few months after Kennedy's group, Children's Health Defesne, filed suit against Facebook for rejecting their ads and fact-checking posts about vaccines and 5G. But to truly understand how we got to this point, it's worth taking a look back at the history of misinformation that has swirled around Kennedy's family.
The tumultuous political era of the 1960s in the US was marked by a string of high-profile assassinations. In addition to civil rights activists — Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Fred Hampton — there were two prominent politicians: the Kennedy brothers.
Charismatic and attractive young leaders, both seen as the future of the Democratic party: shot dead in their prime. One a popular president who helped to guide the country away from the brink of nuclear war, the other a Senator and heavy favorite for the Democratic nomination to the presidency.
RFK Jr. reflects on his father's assassination www.youtube.com
Is it any wonder that so many conspiracy theories have cropped up around these events? In 1963 and in 1968 the shock of their murders shook the nation and left a traumatic impact on a generation trying to make sense of an often senseless world. Likely none more so than the nephew and son of these two men — Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
How many people whose formative years were rocked by the unfathomable deaths of these inspiring figures resorted to conspiracy theories to explain the tragedy? In times of uncertainty and disruption, people often look in strange places for answers.
RFK Jr. — the third of Robert Kennedy's 11 children with wife Ethel Kennedy — was just 9 years old in November of 1963 when his uncle was assassinated by former Marine and Soviet defector Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas. He was 14 when his father was fatally wounded by Palestinian Christian militant Sirhan Sirhan in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in June of 1968. At least, those are the official stories. Kennedy is not so sure.
In the effort to understand events that seem to strain comprehension, it's tempting to scrutinize every detail, looking for patterns to weave a narrative out of chaos. And few moments in history have produced as many details to pore over and dissect as the November afternoon in Dallas when John F. Kennedy was shot.
From the so-called "magic-bullet theory" to the supposed second gunman on the grassy knoll and the subsequent murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby — not to mention the fact that some CIA files related to the killing are still classified — people continue to question: What are they hiding? Was the mafia involved? Cuba or the soviets? Did a Secret Service agent misfire at just the wrong moment — leading to a cover-up?
Or was it something more nefarious still? Did Vice President Lyndon Johnson conspire with government agents to take Kennedy out before he could shift his stance on the Vietnam war?
Was that the first sign of a Deep State stranglehold on American democracy? Did powerful figures see President Kennedy and his powerful political family — who supported the civil rights movement and other progressive causes — as a threat to established structures of power?
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Does Not Agree Lee Harvey Oswald Acted Alone www.youtube.com
There's no denying that the Kennedys were — and continue to be — a political force to be reckoned with. With four congressional representatives, two senators, an attorney general, a lieutenant governor, and a president, the Kennedys are a political dynasty whose only rivals in American politics are the Bushes — who have produced one congressional representative, one senator, a CIA director, two governors, a vice president, and two presidents. But maybe that rivalry is more contentious than it seems...
Is it possible that George H.W. Bush — who was at an undisclosed location in Texas that day and had secretive and longstanding ties to the CIA (where he would later take over as director)— was already involved in a secret agency plot to control political power within the United States?
Would that be so different than the way the CIA has operated in a dozen other nations? Surely that makes more sense than one disaffected and violent young man changing the tide of history.
Well, not really... While it's certainly possible that there were sinister machination behind the scenes, what the numerous conflicting theories around JFK's assassination really prove is that it's remarkably easy to fall down any number of rabbit holes of conspiratorial thinking.
Now imagine that you're a teenager and that it's not just the country's politics that have been disrupted by a lone assassin — your family has been torn apart. Imagine being there while your father dies.
How much does the doubt and distrust around the event inform your worldview? Because the narrative around the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy — shortly after winning the primary in California — is just as complex and contested as that around his brother's killing.
A medical examination in the aftermath concluded that all three bullets that struck Senator Kennedy were fired from directly behind him. But wasn't his supposed assassin — Sirhan Sirhan — tackled after taking just two shots? A further forensic investigation concluded that the bullets that killed Kennedy didn't even match Sirhan's gun.
Two men wrestling Sirhan Sirhan's gun from his hand moments after he shot at Robert F. Kennedy.
And what about Thane Eugene Cesar — the Lockheed plumber who was moonlighting that night as a security guard? Isn't it suspicious that he sold a .22 caliber pistol — the same as the gun that killed RFK — shortly after the assassination? Or that he moved back to the Philippines not long after?
Perhaps — as RFK Jr. has suggested — Cesar was a bigot who hated Robert Kennedy's views on civil rights. Perhaps the CIA was, again, somehow involved in the whole operation, destroyed evidence to protect Cesar in the course of the investigation.
RFK Jr. is not the only one of his siblings who has pushed this theory. And it may even be true. Unfortunately, once you start pulling at these threads — questioning the established "truth" of a particular event and constructing your own with incomplete facts — it's easy to get carried away and for everything to get wrapped up in the same evil plot.
That's how a faction of QAnon conspiracists have convinced themselves that John F. Kennedy Jr. faked his death in a 1999 plane crash in order to work under cover — exposing the Satanic deep-state pedophiles. And — in a slightly less unhinged instance — it's how Robert F. Kennedy Jr. became a crusader against vaccines.
When his son Conor Kennedy — Taylor Swift's former boyfriend — developed a dangerous peanut allergy at a young age, another parent might have just attributed it to bad luck. But RFK Jr. already had a mind for conspiracy theories and for finding patterns to explain misfortune — whether or not those patterns truly exist.
Isn't it suspicious that food allergies are often discovered shortly after children undergo the trauma of receiving vaccines? Likewise for autism Spectrum Disorder.
Why are parents pushed so hard to vaccinate their children, with no acknowledgment of these associations? Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was so motivated to find out that he ended up contributing to a discredited book on these issues and producing a sequel to disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield's misinformation movie Vaxxed.
Why the anti-vaccination movement is wrong - BBC Newsnight www.youtube.com
In reality the answer is that vaccines are a vital tool for the health of society as a whole and for vulnerable populations — who are sometimes unable to be vaccinated themselves. More importantly, issues that are first recognized in early childhood — like food allergies and ASD — could as easily be associated with Crayola crayons or safety scissors.
Vaccines are just as ubiquitous at that age and only garner more attention because the crying and screaming they tend to provoke leaves an impression on many parents. There is no evidence whatsoever of a connection between vaccines and autism, nor any of the various enduring conditions that vaccine skeptics like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. attribute to them.
In other words, there is no massive cover up of the evidence — as Kennedy and his allies contend — because there's nothing to cover up. Vaccines are overwhelmingly safe and effective.
Vaccine denial, on the other hand, is far more deadly. As three of Kennedy's siblings said in a joint statement in 2019, he has "spread dangerous misinformation over social media and is complicit in sowing distrust of the science behind vaccines."
While it's clear how he likely developed the distrust of authority that led him to push this false narrative, the fact that Instagram banned him is for the best. Right now — as we work to rein in a deadly pandemic — it's of the utmost importance that we don't allow vaccine denial to spread.
Vaccines can save us, but only if the lies about them — about autism, allergies, and Bill Gates microchips — are treated as the dangerous misinformation they are.