One chilly afternoon this previous January, Kennedy took the microphone in entrance of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, earlier than a crowd of perhaps a number of hundred individuals, a few of whom carried indicators studying, “We won’t comply,” “Resist medical tyranny” (accompanied by a swastika) and “Land of the free you’ll be able to’t mandate me.” A march earlier that day, involving a number of thousand individuals, included members of the far-right nationalist group the Proud Boys, firefighters sporting helmets and even a number of Buddhist monks from New England. They’d gathered for a rally billed as Defeat the Mandates: An American Homecoming. Its audio system included lots of the nation’s best-known vaccine skeptics: the vaccine researcher Robert Malone; the activist Del Bigtree; and, after all, Kennedy.

“What we’re seeing at the moment is what I name turnkey totalitarianism,” he instructed his viewers. “They’re placing into place all these technological mechanisms for management that we’ve by no means seen earlier than.” He continued: “Even in Hitler’s Germany you possibly can cross the Alps into Switzerland. You can cover in an attic like Anne Frank did.” However now not, he instructed: “The mechanisms are being put in place that can make it in order that none of us can run and none of us can cover.”

Response was swift, together with from his personal spouse, the actress Cheryl Hines. On Twitter, she called the Anne Frank reference “reprehensible and insensitive.” However outrage over the allusion to Frank belied the deeper concern, which is just how influential Kennedy and different figures within the anti-vaccine motion have develop into. Kennedy is chairman of a corporation named Youngsters’s Well being Protection; it utilized for the allow to carry the Washington rally. The nonprofit group, which says it goals to “finish childhood well being epidemics by working aggressively to get rid of dangerous exposures,” churns out on-line articles that sow doubt about vaccine security. And it has expanded aggressively in the course of the pandemic. In January 2020, the Youngsters’s Well being Protection web site acquired slightly below 84,000 month-to-month visits from the USA, in accordance with the monitoring agency Similarweb. As of this March, that quantity had reached greater than 1.4 million month-to-month visits, a 17-fold enhance in site visitors. (Income, coming from donations and fund-raising occasions, was already surging earlier than the pandemic, in accordance with the group’s tax filings, to $6.8 million in 2020 from slightly below $1.1 million in 2018.)

By one measure, C.H.D.’s attain now sometimes outstrips that of bona fide information retailers. Indiana College’s Observatory on Social Media, whose CoVaxxy Project follows how vaccine-related content material is shared on Twitter, has discovered that the group’s vaccine-related posts — these would possibly falsely declare that 1000’s of individuals have died from being vaccinated, for instance, or that the dangers of Covid-19 boosters outweigh the advantages — are regularly shared extra broadly than vaccine-related objects from CNN, NPR and the Facilities for Illness Management. In some weeks, the vaccine-related content material of the Youngsters’s Well being Protection was shared extra broadly than that of The New York Instances or The Washington Submit.

Kennedy, who didn’t reply to questions submitted by his writer, embodies a seeming contradiction of the anti-vaccine motion that presents a very troublesome problem for lay individuals. He has completed essential work as an environmental lawyer, and although different members of his household have publicly criticized his anti-vaccine campaign, he nonetheless bears the identify of one of many nation’s finest recognized Democratic political households. He brings a specific amount of credibility to his trigger. Many different figures who routinely query the protection and utility of vaccines have credentials that may appear spectacular. They embody Wakefield; Malone, the researcher who claims to have invented the mRNA vaccine (35 years in the past, he and a number of other colleagues printed an essential paper within the subject, however different scientists say that he didn’t “invent” the know-how, which a whole lot of scientists have since labored on); and Judy Mikovits, a researcher whose 2009 paper linking power fatigue syndrome to a viral an infection was retracted from the journal Science. Mikovits, who was fired from her job as analysis director of the Whittemore Peterson Institute for Neuro-Immune Illness in Reno, Nev., has printed a best-selling e-book about supposed malfeasance in science titled “Plague of Corruption.”

Quite a few consultants instructed me that a great way to know what motivates many gamers within the anti-vaccine motion is thru the lens of revenue. There are a number of ranges of profiteering. The primary entails social media corporations. Traditionally, the algorithms that drive their platforms, some argue, have fed customers increasingly more of what they reply to with out regard for whether or not it’s true. “It’s not some subtle know-how,” says Hany Farid, a professor on the College of California, Berkeley, who research misinformation on social media. “It seems we’re primitive jerks. And probably the most outrageous stuff, we click on on it.”

Fb and different social media corporations have, they declare, taken steps to counter the proliferation of vaccine-related misinformation on their websites. Fb now says that it’s serving to to “hold individuals wholesome and secure” by offering dependable info on vaccines. However Farid and others doubt that Fb, specifically, will ever rid itself solely of such materials as a result of attention-grabbing content material is, within the consideration financial system, immensely helpful. “The enterprise mannequin, that’s actually the core poison right here,” Farid says. A partial answer, he thinks, can be modifications to regulatory legal guidelines permitting people to carry social media corporations legally accountable — by lawsuits — for hurt related to content material they promote: “You have to be held accountable for what you’re selling, notably as a result of they’re getting cash from it.” Aaron Simpson, a spokesman for Meta, the guardian firm of Fb, instructed me in an e-mail that the corporate has “each incentive” to purge misinformation from its platforms as a result of it makes cash from advertisements, and advertisers have repeatedly mentioned they don’t need their advertisements showing subsequent to misinformation. And but, up to now, distinguished anti-vaccine activists have themselves been advertisers on Fb.