When Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the anti-vaccine activist running a long-shot campaign for president, tried to warn about vaccine risks during a podcast interview in the early days of the pandemic, he used a rhetorical device known as data dumping that is commonly used by conspiracy theorists.
In a dizzying three-minute monologue, he offered a litany of acronyms, numbers and obscure methodologies to falsely conclude that vaccine injuries were remarkably common.
Kennedy often communicates with such flourishes, giving his misleading claims an air of authority, according to experts who study disinformation and language. That has helped him share his misleading views on vaccines, 5G cellular technology and global farming.
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The New York Times analyzed dozens of hours of interviews, including nearly 200 podcast transcripts collected by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, to uncover the rhetorical tricks Kennedy has often relied upon. Although his campaign has been fading in recent weeks, and he doesn’t appear to pose a threat to President Joe Biden, the findings show how a high-profile figure can spread false and misleading ideas at a large scale.
Kennedy’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Here are some of the rhetorical devices used by Kennedy that researchers helped identify:
In a podcast interview with “The Highwire With Del Bigtree” in the first summer of the pandemic, Kennedy argued that vaccine injury rates were far higher than officials suggested.
Kennedy’s data-dumping anecdote about vaccine risks appeared well researched. However, it relied on a misleading interpretation of a 2010 study, according to Michael Klompas, a doctor involved in the research.
Klompas said researchers were not examining the rate of vaccine injury, as Kennedy had claimed. Instead, they wanted to see if a tool that monitored changes in a patient’s medical condition after vaccination could improve the completeness of a vaccine event-reporting system. Nor, he said, did researchers use the techniques Kennedy described, such as machine learning or artificial intelligence.
The study’s ultimate finding: The tool showed that it was possible to boost vaccine event reporting by tracking health records but that most of the reports probably had nothing to do with vaccine injuries. Kennedy’s conclusion was wrong.
Kennedy tends to “dump a billion studies, footnotes and pieces of evidence in front of us,” said Stephanie Kelley-Romano, a professor of rhetoric at Bates College. “People aren’t fact-checking it, and so it feels true.”
Conspiracy theorists often play with the meaning of words to make their beliefs sound more in line with mainstream thinking, a technique called “semantic switching” or “equivocation.” Kennedy often misuses medical jargon in his anti-vaccine claims.
He has repeatedly claimed that vaccines are not tested using “placebo trials” — a type of study where some participants receive medication while others receive a substance that does not confer immunity, called a placebo.
Vaccine trials almost always use placebos, a fact that Kennedy disputes. The placebos can include water, salt and other ingredients found in vaccines that are unrelated to immunization. In cases where using a placebo instead of a proven vaccine would put a patient at a serious disadvantage, researchers may test newer vaccines against older versions whose side effects are known.
“It’s really disingenuous because their goal is to just scare people about vaccines and make them think that they’re unsafe, that they’re not properly tested,” said Dr. Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and an adviser to the Food and Drug Administration, in an interview.
It is also untrue that children are mandated to receive 72 vaccines, as Kennedy has claimed. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends administering closer to 17 vaccines, spread out over dozens of doses over 18 years.
“Like most conspiracy theories, it’s incredibly pernicious because there is a grain of truth,” Kelley-Romano said. “But it’s wrapped up in speculation, conjecture and hyperbole.”
Kennedy has risen to prominence as an anti-vaccine activist despite having no medical training. He has claimed in multiple interviews that he felt compelled to take up the fight after mothers who have said their children were injured by vaccines asked him to do so.
Positioning oneself as a “reluctant leader” is common among conspiracy theorists, who tend to present their group as underdogs in an existential battle between good and evil, according to Karen Schroeder Sorensen, an associate professor at Winona State University and the author of “Fringe Rhetorics: Conspiracy Theories and the Paranormal.”
Staking a position outside mainstream institutions lets them “claim that they have not been indoctrinated, that they are able to speak openly and truthfully about the topic,” Schroeder Sorensen said. “It’s the inverse of what would establish a voice of authority in traditional circles.”
The Mysterious ‘They’
Many of Kennedy’s views display patterns universally found in conspiracy theories. Central to many claims is a mysterious figure in the center — often described as “they” — who orchestrated a cover-up to hide their true intentions.
In podcast appearances, Kennedy has repeatedly made arguments about the dangers of vaccines and 5G cellular technology, blaming a mysterious figure in the middle.
Conspiracy theorists often build their narratives by connecting multiple plots into a larger master plan, a technique Kelley-Romano has called “webbing.”
In multiple media appearances, Kennedy has falsely claimed that Bill Gates, the billionaire tech mogul, was the mastermind of several projects divined by conspiracy theorists, including a global farming takeover, deadly vaccine production, weaponized medicine and spy technology powered by 5G cell towers. Gates was mentioned in nearly 15% of the podcasts reviewed by the Brookings Institution.
Technology surrounding 5G, the next generation of cellphone infrastructure, has become a target of conspiracy theorists who falsely believe that radiation emitted by 5G towers is dangerous or that governments are pursuing the technology for sinister motives.
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