In a new three-part series, FactCheck.org’s science fact-checking project, SciCheck, examines the trail of false and misleading claims on health topics such as vaccines, autism, and Covid-19 made by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a longtime anti-vaccine advocate who is running for president.*
Unlike many press accounts that have individually fact-checked Kennedy on different issues, this series examines his history as a purveyor of health misinformation and fact-checks his recent claims as a candidate in that historical context. Kennedy has been opposed to vaccines since at least 2005, when he published an error-laden story in Rolling Stone and Salon that pushed the false idea that certain vaccine ingredients cause autism. The story was later retracted by Salon and deleted by Rolling Stone.
The series on Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
Available in both English and Spanish, the series consists of three stories, all documented and linked to source material:
FactChecking Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: Written by FactCheck.org Science Editor Jessica McDonald, the first article in the series examines Kennedy’s views on vaccination. As the story says, “Kennedy insists he’s not ‘anti-vaccine,’ but many of his debunked arguments are straight from the anti-vaccine playbook, which he and his nonprofit have helped write.” The article also notes:
Kennedy also played a part in one of the worst measles outbreaks in recent memory. In 2018, two infants in American Samoa died when nurses accidentally prepared the combined measles, mumps and rubella, or MMR, vaccine with expired muscle relaxant rather than water. The Samoan government temporarily suspended the vaccination program, and anti-vaccine advocates — including Kennedy and his nonprofit — flooded the area with misinformation. The vaccination rate dropped to a dangerously low level. The next year, when a traveler brought measles to the islands, the disease tore through the population, sickening more than 5,700 people and killing 83, most of them young children.
What RFK Jr. Gets Wrong About Autism: In the second article in the series, FactCheck.org Staff Writer Kate Yandell details Kennedy’s false or misleading claims linking vaccines with autism. One autism researcher told FactCheck.org that “there is absolutely no evidence that vaccines cause autism.”
RFK Jr.’s COVID-19 Deceptions: In the final installment, Staff Writers Catalina Jaramillo and Yandell examine Kennedy’s unwarranted claims and misrepresentations about Covid-19 vaccination and the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), a part of the national vaccine-safety reporting system:
In December 2021, Kennedy falsely called the COVID-19 vaccine “the deadliest vaccine ever made,” citing deaths reported to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, which is part of the nation’s vaccine safety monitoring systems. But as we have explained, the reports are unverified and, as the VAERS website warns, any report “to VAERS is not documentation that a vaccine caused the event.” Expanded reporting requirements and intense scrutiny of the widely given COVID-19 vaccines did increase reporting to VAERS, but this doesn’t mean the shots are unsafe.
FactCheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) of the University of Pennsylvania. It was co-founded in 2003 by journalist Brooks Jackson, who previously worked for the Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, and CNN, and communication scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of APPC and the Elizabeth Ware Packard Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication at Penn.
When founded, FactCheck.org was one of the earliest stand-alone fact-checking organizations. A nonpartisan “consumer advocate for voters,” it originally focused on political claims made during the 2004 presidential campaign cycle. Over the years, its focus has grown to include a SciCheck program of science and health fact-checking, and since the onset of the pandemic it has debunked claims about Covid-19, vaccination, flu, conspiracy theories, maternal health, and other consequential topics involving health.
The site continues to fact-check claims made by politicians of all stripes, including President Joe Biden, former President Donald Trump, Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, and many others.
The Annenberg Public Policy Center was established in 1993 to educate the public and policy makers about communication’s role in advancing public understanding of political, science, and health issues at the local, state, and federal levels.
* Updated October 13, 2023, following Kennedy’s Oct. 9 announcement he was running as an independent, not for the Democratic nomination for president.