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Covid's devastation of Black community used as 'marketing' in new anti-vaccine film

A new video from anti-vaccination activists adds to what experts have called an effort to "weaponize" the outsize damage Covid-19 has done in communities of color.
Image: Nurse administers the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine to woman in Los Angeles
Registered nurse Angelo Bautista administers the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine to eligible people identified by homeless service agencies in the parking lot of the L.A. Mission in Los Angeles on Feb. 24.Frederic J. Brown / AFP - Getty Images file

As vaccine distribution in the U.S. has ramped up, so has the misinformation blitz targeting Black communities.

A new video from anti-vaccination activists released online Thursday adds to what experts have called an effort to "weaponize" the outsize damage Covid-19 has done in communities of color.

The video was released by anti-vaccination activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who was recently banned from Instagram for spreading Covid-19 vaccine conspiracy theories, and Republican megadonor David Centner. The hourlong film, which relies heavily on the U.S. Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee, promotes false claims that Covid-19 vaccination efforts are part of a larger, sinister experiment on Black communities.

A trailer for the video posted to Instagram had already been viewed more than 160,000 times by Thursday morning.

Brandi Collins-Dexter, a misinformation researcher and fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, said the notorious figures and false narratives in the documentary were recognizable. She said the film's incompatible narratives sought to take advantage of the pain felt by Black communities.

"They went from saying Covid is not an issue or problem to openly acknowledging that Black people are disproportionately impacted by it, then pivoting to fuzzy logic behind why you shouldn't vaccinate," she said.

Anti-vaccination activists have targeted marginalized groups for years — holding rallies at Black churches in Harlem, New York; Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn, New York; and Somali communities in Minnesota, even as a measles outbreak raged. Much of their messaging has invoked civil rights language, with mandatory school vaccinations being framed as an "injustice" for the Black community.

The video released Thursday is no different, Collins-Dexter said. She said the film's most obvious manipulation tactic was to liken vaccines to the Tuskegee Study — an unethical federal experiment that withheld a syphilis diagnosis from Black subjects and denied them treatment.

Among recycled false narratives from other anti-vaccine films, including one that asserts that childhood vaccinations cause autism, it offers up conspiracy theories about Bill Gates and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Interspersed with them, however, are reputable doctors and historians who talk about America's real history of medical racism as represented by the Tuskegee Study and early gynecological experimentation on enslaved Black women without anesthesia.

"The danger in disinformation isn't always just lies, but it's a warping of truth to get to a specific end," Collins-Dexter said. "And so when you say 'Tuskegee experiment' to Black people, that's automatically going to mean something that feels truthful, and that opens the door to a sort of manipulation that makes a viewer say: 'Oh, they've done this before. Obviously, they would do that again.' But they don't contextualize what it means."

Covid-19's impact on Black communities made headlines as the coronavirus ravaged the country. By all accounts, the illness and its economic fallout have affected Black people more than others through health, unemployment and education. Experts, however, have said the negative impact is due not to biology but to systemic racism.

Black communities have expressed hesitance about getting vaccinated because of the country's long history of medical racism. Black doctors and medical providers have been working for months to build trust in medicine in Black communities and to acknowledge the past harms that birthed the distrust in the first place.

Now, for Black people, the situation has begun to shift from a matter of trust to a question of access. Black people are, overall, less skeptical of the treatment, but scarce access has kept many from being vaccinated.

Recent polls show that vaccine hesitance among Black people is declining. A Civiqs poll found that white Americans say they are less likely to get vaccinated than Black and Latino Americans. The polling shows that vaccine hesitance is highest among white Republicans; still, in more than a dozen states, white people are getting vaccinated at much higher rates than Black people, according to Scientific American.

The video — the newest in a series of anti-vaccine propaganda films produced or promoted by Kennedy — was distributed through Kennedy's organization, Children's Health Defense, in the midst of a turbulent vaccine rollout and concerns over who will have access to the treatment and when. After people sign up for notification of the film's release, a message on the website urges visitors to donate to Children's Health Defense.

Centner, a Miami philanthropist who is the film's executive producer, isn't known for his involvement in anti-vaccination causes. He and his wife, Leila Centner, founded Centner Academy, a private school in Miami that boasts of not enforcing vaccination mandates. The school hosted two January talks at which Kennedy shared his misinformed anti-vaccination views with a private audience and met with children, according to posts shared on Leila Centner's Facebook page. The Centners didn't respond to a request for comment.

The Centners donated nearly $500,000 to the Republican National Committee and state Republican parties last year alone, and they donated $11,200 — the maximum allowed — to President Donald Trump's re-election campaign.

Other producers include Tony Muhammad, a Nation of Islam minister, who has falsely claimed that childhood vaccinations are "genetically modified" to harm children of color, and Kevin Jenkins, the CEO of the Urban Global Health Alliance, a New Jersey nonprofit, who has been a fixture at anti-vaccination rallies and promoted a Covid-19 misinformation campaign pushed by America's Frontline Doctors, a tea party-backed conservative group.

"The anti-vaxx industry views this pandemic, which has tragically taken millions of lives, as a market opportunity to grow their following," said Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit that tracks online misinformation. "They have developed a sophisticated communications strategy for creating distrust of the Covid vaccine and reaching new audiences, including tailoring their messaging to target ethnic minority communities."

A recent report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate laid out the anti-vaccination movement's Covid-19 "playbook," based on a conference where activists outlined their plans to undermine confidence in coming Covid-19 vaccines.

"Our latest report found anti-vaxxers are even using Facebook groups to train their activists in dissuading African Americans from getting vaccinated, and this film appears to be the latest example of this approach," Ahmed said. "Tech companies have a responsibility to deny their services to superspreaders of vaccine lies and not allow their platforms to be used to target African American and Hispanic audiences with life-threatening misinformation."