Children's Health Defense is an American 501(c)(3) nonprofit activist group mainly known for anti-vaccine propaganda and has been identified as one of the main sources of misinformation on vaccines. Founded under the name World Mercury Project in 2011, it is chaired by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The group has been campaigning against various public health programs, such as vaccination and fluoridation of drinking water. The group has been contributing to vaccine hesitancy in the United States, encouraging citizens and legislators to support anti-vaccine regulations and legislation. Arguments against vaccination are contradicted by overwhelming scientific consensus about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.
|Founder||Robert F. Kennedy Jr.|
|Founded at||Washington, D.C.|
|Robert F. Kennedy Jr.|
|Brian Hooker, Katie Wright, Mary Holland, Terena Thyne Eisner|
|World Mercury Project|
Children's Health Defense alleges that a large proportion of American children have conditions as diverse as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, food allergies, cancer, and autoimmune diseases due to exposure to a variety of chemicals and radiation. The chemicals and radiation that Children's Health Defense has blamed and campaigned against include vaccines, pesticides, fluoridation of drinking water, paracetamol (acetaminophen), aluminum, wireless communications, and others. It has brought lawsuits targeting pesticides in food and agriculture.
Named the World Mercury Project until 2018, the Children's Health Defense is an influential anti-vaccine organization due to the prominence of its chairman, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. From almost nothing, the group's annual revenues jumped to almost half a million dollars when Kennedy got involved in 2015, then 1 million in 2018. With the group becoming a major disinformation hub during the COVID-19 pandemic, its revenue reached $6.8 million in 2020, more than doubling its revenue from the previous year. The organization receives a portion of the sales of Ty Bollinger's anti-vaccination video series, which it promotes. Despite its messaging impeding the government's efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19, Children's Health Defense received $145,400 in federally backed small business loans through the Paycheck Protection Program from JPMorgan Chase in 2020. The 2019 tax return for Children's Health Defense indicates that Kennedy was paid $255,000 for his services as chairman and chief counsel for the organization.
On February 15, 2017, with other anti-vaccination activists and actor Robert De Niro at his side, Kennedy challenged anybody to prove the use of thimerosal is safe "in the amounts contained in vaccines currently being administered to American children and pregnant women", ignoring a 1999 Food and Drug Administration study doing just that. Although the use of thimerosal in vaccines was phased out by 2001 (with one exception), this mercury compound is still often referred to by anti-vaccination groups. Overwhelming evidence indicates that vaccines are safe and effective.
Kennedy met with Donald Trump in January 2017. While Kennedy claimed the President agreed to establish a commission to study the risks allegedly associated with vaccines, government officials denied any decision was taken and nothing subsequently came of it.
Alleging widespread corruption within health care research and collusion by multiple governments, the group endorsed a recent edition of the book Judy Mikovits wrote about her discredited theories, with Kennedy writing the foreword. Kennedy's book The Real Anthony Fauci, published in 2021, repeats several discredited myths about the COVID-19 pandemic, notably about the effectiveness of ivermectin. During the pandemic, the group accused the United States government of supporting research on a vaccine as part of a plan to increase revenues for the pharmaceutical industry.
The growth of the group during the pandemic gave rise to international chapters, notably in Canada, Europe and Australia.
Children's Health Defense is using social media and internet advertising to propagate anti-vaccination messages, targeting young parents and minorities in the United States. During the COVID-19 pandemic, those communications attempted to downplay the risk posed by the virus, to argue the new vaccines are dangerous, and to undermine public health authorities. The Center for Countering Digital Hate identifies the group as one of the leaders of the anti-vaccination movement online.
The organization also organized rallies against public health measures aiming at mitigating the impact of the pandemic, such as the one in Washington on January 23, 2022. This particular demonstration featured other leaders of the American anti-vaccination movement such as Del Bigtree; both Kennedy and Bigtree compared vaccine mandates to oppression inNazi-occupied countries during World War II. The demonstration was also attended by a group from neo-fascist organization Proud Boys.
CHD targets Black Americans with messaging linking COVID-19 vaccination with the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and other instances when ethical violations have been committed against minorities as part of medical studies. Such interventions are likely to hurt the Black community by increasing vaccine hesitancy within that vulnerable population. Echoing other actors in the anti-vaccination movement and Nation of Islam, Children's Health Defense claims that the United States government seeks to harm ethnic minorities by prioritizing them for COVID vaccines. The conspiracy theory is elaborated upon in an hour-long video production released in March 2021 by Children's Health Defense and Kennedy, along with recycled anti-vaccination stories about autism, Bill Gates and the Centers for Disease Control. Like other such conspiracy theory videos, it inserts true historical events into its narrative to make its fantastic claims appear more believable.
A study found Children's Health Defense was one of major buyers of anti-vaccine Facebook advertising in December 2018 and February 2019, the other being Stop Mandatory Vaccination. Heavily targeting women and young couples, the advertising highlighted the alleged risks of vaccines and asked for donations. According to an analysis by NBC News, the group is one of three major sources of false claims on vaccination shared on the internet, the other two being the fake news site Natural News and the website Stop Mandatory Vaccination. Facebook subsequently refused to carry anti-vaccination advertising from the group.
Children's Health Defense said that the efficacy of its non-advertising Facebook campaigns has been greatly affected by the platform taking additional measures against misinformation in 2019. In a lawsuit filed with the United States District Court for the Northern District of California in August 2020, against Facebook and four fact-checking services, the group said the viewership of some of its posts on vaccination and 5G wireless was reduced by 95% after they were labelled as misinformation. Even though those messages were allowed to be posted by the group and shared by users, Children Health Defense argues that labelling them as misinformation amounts to censorship; they allege their messages are presented merely as opinions rather than information and as such, cannot be characterized as misinformation. The organization is seeking $5 million in damages.
Despite Kennedy's claims that he is in fact not against vaccines, several critics point out he and his organization spread common anti-vaccine arguments as part of their core messages. According to David Gorski, the World Mercury project was "a group dedicated to fear mongering over mercury in vaccines as a cause of autism and health problems". Kennedy has stated the media and governments are engaged in a conspiracy to deny that vaccines cause autism.
Other misinformation promoted by Children's Health Defense is a conspiracy theory in relation to the Great Reset that claims that elites, including Bill Gates, plan to take over the United States and establish a Marxist high-control regime.
On May 8, 2019, while some areas in the United States were struggling with a resurgence of measles due to low vaccination rates, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Joseph P. Kennedy and Maeve Kennedy McKean publicly stated that while their relative Robert has championed many admirable causes, he "has helped to spread dangerous misinformation over social media and is complicit in sowing distrust of the science behind vaccines."
In August of 2022, the organization's accounts on Meta platforms, Facebook and Instagram, were terminated for repeatedly breaching the platforms' policies. While Instagram had removed Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s account from its platform in February 2021, it had yet to take any measure against the Children's Health Defense account. Between Instagram and Facebook, the organization had a reach of 300,000 subscribers in 2021.
New York City measles lawsuit
On April 19, 2019, the Kings County Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit in which Robert Krakow, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Patricia Finn of Children's Health Defense represented five parents of unvaccinated children protesting the decision by New York City authorities to impose mandatory measles-mumps-rubella vaccinations for residents in parts of Williamsburg, as a response to the epidemic of measles in that area. The lawsuit was filed four days earlier against the New York City Department of Health and Human Hygiene and its commissioner.
In his ruling, Judge Lawrence Knipel indicated that the arguments presented by the plaintiffs amounted to little more than "unsupported, bald faced opinion". Responding to Children's Health Defense's claims that the city's reaction to a "garden-variety annual measles outbreak" was excessive, the judge pointed out that the documents filed as evidence in fact demonstrated otherwise. He concluded that "the unvarnished truth is that these diagnoses represent the most significant spike in incidences of measles in the United States in many years and that the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn is at its epicenter. It has already begun to spread to remote locations."
- Weir, Keziah (May 13, 2021). "How Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Became the Anti-vaxxer Icon of America's Nightmares". Vanity Fair. Archived from the original on July 4, 2021. Retrieved July 7, 2021.
- Sun, Lena H. (November 15, 2019). "Majority of anti-vaccine ads on Facebook were funded by two groups". Washington Post. Archived from the original on November 17, 2019. Retrieved November 16, 2019.
- "The Anti-Vaxx Playbook" (PDF). Center for Countering Digital Hate. Center for Countering Digital Hate. 2020. Archived (PDF) from the original on December 30, 2020. Retrieved January 3, 2021.
- Zadrozny, Brandy (December 29, 2019). "Social media hosted a lot of fake health news this year. Here's what went most viral". NBC News. Archived from the original on January 3, 2020. Retrieved January 3, 2020.
- Mnookin,STAT, Seth. "How Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Distorted Vaccine Science". Scientific American. Retrieved April 15, 2020.
- "Profile". Guidestar. Archived from the original on July 13, 2019. Retrieved July 13, 2019.
- "Board of Directors". Children's Health Defense. Archived from the original on April 16, 2019. Retrieved July 13, 2019.
- Smith, Michelle R. (December 15, 2021). "How a Kennedy built an anti-vaccine juggernaut amid COVID-19". Associated Press. Archived from the original on December 15, 2021. Retrieved December 15, 2021.
- Radford, Benjamin (September 24, 2020). "Covert Anti-Vaccination In 'Children's Health Defense'". Center for Inquiry. Archived from the original on September 25, 2020. Retrieved September 25, 2020.
- Hotez, Peter (January 3, 2019). "Global disease risk worsening as anti-vaccination campaigns spread". Axios. Retrieved February 27, 2019.
- Plater, Roz (January 22, 2019). "The World Health Organization says the refusal to get vaccinated threatens to disrupt progress made against deadly diseases". Healthline. Archived from the original on March 1, 2019. Retrieved March 1, 2019.
- Scott, Katie (February 16, 2017). "Robert De Niro, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. offer $100K to anyone who can provide proof vaccines are safe". Global TV. Archived from the original on March 3, 2019. Retrieved March 3, 2019.
- "Communicating science-based messages on vaccines". Bulletin of the World Health Organization. 95 (10): 670–71. October 2017. doi:10.2471/BLT.17.021017. PMC 5689193. PMID 29147039.
- "Why do some people oppose vaccination?". Vox. Retrieved November 26, 2018.
- Ceccarelli L. "Defending science: How the art of rhetoric can help". The Conversation. Retrieved November 26, 2018.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "Vaccines.gov". Vaccines.gov. Retrieved August 5, 2018.
- Gammon, Katarine (April 16, 2020). "How the anti-vaccine community is responding to COVID-19". Ars Technica. Archived from the original on April 18, 2020. Retrieved April 18, 2020.
- "The Children's Health Defense Team: Fluoridation Must End". PRNewswire. January 10, 2019. Archived from the original on March 3, 2019. Retrieved March 3, 2019.
- "U.S. Water Fluoridation: A Forced Experiment that Needs to End". Children's Health Defense. January 9, 2019. Archived from the original on March 3, 2019. Retrieved March 3, 2019.
- "Robert F. Kennedy Jr. - Baum Hedlund Co-Counsel". Baum Hedlund Law. Archived from the original on July 5, 2019. Retrieved July 13, 2019.
- Senapathy, Kavin (December 27, 2019). "The Top 10 Woo of 2018 [Part I]". Skeptical Inquirer. CFI. Archived from the original on February 24, 2020.
- "Pandemic Profiteers" (PDF). Center for Countering Digital Hate. Center for Countering Digital Hate. June 1, 2021. Archived (PDF) from the original on June 2, 2021. Retrieved June 3, 2021.
- Dwoskin, Elizabeth; Gregg, Aaron (January 18, 2021). "The Trump administration bailed out prominent anti-vaccine groups during a pandemic". The Washington Post. Retrieved January 18, 2021.
- "FederalPay.org PPP Loan Data — Children's Health Defense Co., Peachtree City, GA". FederalPay.org. Archived from the original on January 19, 2021. Retrieved January 18, 2021.
- Stacy Cowley (January 18, 2021). "Vaccine Critics Received More Than $1 Million in Pandemic Relief Loans". The New York Times. Retrieved January 19, 2021.
- Gorski, David (April 30, 2018). "Autism prevalence increases to 1 in 59, and antivaxers lose it…yet again". Science-Based medicine. Archived from the original on February 27, 2019. Retrieved February 27, 2019.
- Smith, David (February 21, 2018). "Trump appears to abandon vaccine sceptic group denounced by scientists". The Guardian. Archived from the original on March 10, 2019. Retrieved March 10, 2019.
- Branswell, Helen (August 21, 2017). "As White House appoints pro-vaccine officials, plan for safety commission appears stalled". STAT news. Archived from the original on March 10, 2019. Retrieved March 10, 2019.
- Voght, Kara (January 23, 2022). "'I'm a Full Anti-Vaxxer Now': How the Conspiracists Are Winning Over Fresh Converts". Rolling Stone. Retrieved July 13, 2022.
- Velasquez-Manoff, Moises (May 25, 2022). "The Anti-Vaccine Movement's New Frontier". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved July 14, 2022.
- Skolnik, Jon (January 24, 2022). "Proud Boys return to D.C. — this time for massive anti-vaccine rall". Salon. Retrieved July 14, 2022.
- Callaghan, Timothy; Moghtaderi, Ali; Lueck, Jennifer A.; Hotez, Peter; Strych, Ulrich; Dor, Avi; Franklin Fowler, Erika; Motta, Matthew (January 4, 2021). "Correlates and disparities of intention to vaccinate against COVID-19". Social Science & Medicine. 272: 113638. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2020.113638. PMC 7834845. PMID 33414032.
- Zadrozny, Brandy; Adams, Char (March 11, 2021). "Covid's devastation of Black community used as 'marketing' in new anti-vaccine film". NBC News. Archived from the original on March 14, 2021. Retrieved March 15, 2021.
- Jamison, A.M.; Broniatowski, D. A.; Dredze, M. (November 13, 2019). "Vaccine-related advertising in the Facebook Ad Archive". Vaccine. 38 (3): 512–520. doi:10.1016/j.vaccine.2019.10.066. PMC 6954281. PMID 31732327.
- Robertson, Adi (August 18, 2020). "Anti-vaccination group sues Facebook over fact-checking program". The Verge. Archived from the original on August 19, 2020. Retrieved August 20, 2020.
- Cox, Kate (August 18, 2020). "Anti-vaccine group sues Facebook, claims fact-checking is "censorship"". Ars Technica. Archived from the original on August 19, 2020. Retrieved August 20, 2020.
- "Verified complaint Children's Health Defense v. Facebook et al" (PDF). Ars Technica (PDF). August 17, 2020. Archived (PDF) from the original on August 18, 2020. Retrieved August 20, 2020.
- Rabin, Roni Caryn (May 8, 2019). "Brother and Sister of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Accuse Him of Spreading Misinformation on Vaccines". The New York Times. Archived from the original on June 21, 2019. Retrieved June 21, 2019.
- Golgowski, Nina (May 8, 2019). "Robert Kennedy Jr.'s Vaccine Views Slammed As 'Tragically Wrong' By Family". Huffington POst. Archived from the original on June 21, 2019. Retrieved June 21, 2019.
- Kennedy Townsend, Kathleen; Kennedy, Joseph P.; Kennedy McKean, Maeve (May 8, 2019). "RFK Jr. Is Our Brother and Uncle. He's Tragically Wrong About Vaccines". Politico. Archived from the original on May 8, 2019. Retrieved May 8, 2019.
- Belanger, Ashley (August 18, 2022). "Loathsome anti-vax group run by RFK Jr gets Meta permaban—finally". Ars Technica. Retrieved August 19, 2022.
- Robinson, Olga (February 11, 2021). "Instagram bans Robert F Kennedy Jr over Covid vaccine posts". BBC. Archived from the original on February 24, 2021. Retrieved March 7, 2021.
- Hamilton, Isobel Asher (February 17, 2021). "Facebook has launched another crackdown on anti-vax misinformation. Experts say it doesn't go far enough". Business Insider. Archived from the original on February 18, 2021. Retrieved March 7, 2021.
- Frenkel, Sheera (February 11, 2021). "Instagram barred Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s account. Anti-vaccine accounts remain". The New York Times. Archived from the original on March 4, 2021. Retrieved March 7, 2021.
- Enman, Scott (April 16, 2019). "Anti-vaxxers sue city over mandatory measles vaccination". Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Archived from the original on April 24, 2019. Retrieved April 24, 2019.
- Enman, Scott (April 19, 2019). "Measles outbreak: Brooklyn judge dismisses anti-vaxxer lawsuit against the city". Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Archived from the original on April 24, 2019. Retrieved April 24, 2019.
- C.F., on her own behalf and on behalf of her minor children; M.F., on her own behalf and on behalf of her minor children; B.D., on her own behalf and on behalf of her minor children; M.N., on her own behalf and on behalf of her minor child; and A.L., on her own behalf and on behalf of her minor child (Petitioners) vs. The New York City City Department of Health and Human Hygiene, and Dr. Oxisris Barbot, in her official capacity as Commissioner of the New York City City Department of Health and Human Hygiene (Respondents)., 508356/19 (Supreme Court of the State of New York April 18, 2019).