While incumbent Joe Biden is the favoured Democratic pick for the 2024 US presidential nomination, another more controversial candidate is gaining popular support in the polls. Robert F. Kennedy Jr, a self-described vaccine sceptic, announced his candidacy to run for president as a Democrat in April.
Our new study on the rhetorical techniques used to spread vaccine disinformation partly explains Kennedy’s appeal to voters. We examined the strategies of RFK Jr and American osteopath Joseph Mercola, two prominent members of the “disinformation dozen”.
These 12 anti-vaccine advocates, according to research conducted by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, were responsible for nearly two-thirds of anti-vaccine content posted to Facebook and Twitter during the pandemic.
We analysed their social media profiles, books, documentaries, websites and newsletters from 2021-22, and identified the techniques that comprise what we call the “truther playbook”. These take the form of four enticing promises which figures like Kennedy and Mercola use to give their claims legitimacy and build a loyal following.
These techniques – promising identity and belonging, revealing “true” knowledge, providing meaning and purpose, as well as promising leadership and guidance – feature prominently in Kennedy’s 2024 presidential campaign.
1. Identity and belonging
COVID truthers offer their followers access to an exclusive in-group identity. They adhere to a dualistic belief system that divides the world into good and bad actors, light and dark forces. For COVID truthers, it is not simply that their opponents have acted through ignorance or error – they frame them as corrupt and evil.
Kennedy’s and Mercola’s social media posts, newsletters and publications frequently frame prominent public figures such as Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates as evil elites, or “dark forces” allegedly conspiring against ordinary people.
Kennedy, for example, refers to himself as a resolute “defender” of children and the public. His anti-vaccine activism is framed as a noble pursuit aligned with the public good. Similarly, his presidential pledge of honest government is pitched as being “for the people”.
2. True knowledge and enlightenment
The spread of disinformation about COVID vaccines has occurred in a society characterised by low institutional trust. Figures such as Kennedy and Mercola capitalise on this, appealing to those disillusioned with the government’s official narrative. They present themselves as having access to privileged knowledge and understanding.
They do this by revealing alternative “facts” that contradict the official narrative, and that they claim have been concealed from the public. Some researchers refer to such information as “stigmatised knowledge”, meaning claims that are not accepted by mainstream institutions.
COVID truthers, as the name suggests, promise to expose, release and reveal the truth, which they claim has been censored by powerful, corrupt organisations.
Kennedy’s presidential bid exists in opposition to what he has described as “an incredibly sophisticated system of information control”. He refers to himself as a “truth teller”, and promises to establish an honest government that will earn back the trust of the public.
3. Meaning and purpose
COVID truthers provide their followers with meaning, offering a reason to believe in a greater purpose. This can take the form of New Age spirituality, suggesting that humanity is undergoing a “shift in consciousness”, or a more secular commitment to truth, freedom and justice.
Kennedy frequently deploys the language of social justice in his posts and newsletters, as a rallying call to unite his followers. Most of his early anti-vaccine messaging focused on protecting pregnant women and children from harmful ingredients in vaccines.
During the pandemic, Kennedy shifted to the topic of medical racism – situating the opposition to vaccine mandates in a broader civil rights agenda. He compared racial segregation to non-vaccination, or what he refers to as “the new apartheid”.
In a direct call to action, Kennedy’s newsletters invited followers to “unite to create a better world”, and reminded them of the importance of “seeking justice and spreading the truth”. He made explicit analogies to the civil rights movement, telling supporters: “We won a revolution before, we can win it again.”
Similar messaging appears in his presidential campaign, which calls on supporters to “join the movement”, “spread the word”, and “restore our rights”.
4. Leadership and guidance
COVID truthers proffer order and security in a world that feels disorderly and insecure. They speak to the institutional distrust many people feel towards “the establishment”.
Kennedy’s campaign contrasts the power of corrupt government institutions, corporate cronyism and nefarious media elites with the powerlessness that the disenfranchised public feels. As a consequence, he positions himself as an incorruptible leader with the capacity to “clean up government”, restore civil liberties, and speak truth to power.
Why this matters
The success of the truther playbook in spreading anti-vaccine discourse during the pandemic demonstrates the popular appeal of belief and emotion in the current political climate. Filings with charity regulators show that revenue for Kennedy’s organisation more than doubled in 2020, to US$6.8 million.
And, as Kennedy’s campaign is now demonstrating, these rhetorical techniques can be used to promote populist politics just as much as anti-vaccine content.
This article by Eugene McLaughin, Professor of Criminology, Chris Rojek, Professor of Sociology, and Dr Stephanie Alice Baker, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at City, University of London was originally published in The Conversation.