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RFK Jr. divides social media platforms with vaccine misinformation

Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is dividing platforms along the lines of their moderation policies.
RFK Jr Announces Presidential Bid

Boston, MA - April 19: Robert F. Kennedy Jr. announces his candidacy for President of the United States in a speech at Boston Park Plaza. (Photo by David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in Boston, on April 19.David L. Ryan / Boston Globe via Getty Images file

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his presidential campaign have flourished online, and that’s putting some tech platforms in a difficult position as they manage a shifting landscape of how misinformation is handled on social media.

Kennedy, a once-fringe anti-vaccine activist, has received a warm embrace from some of the most popular alternative media figures. In just a little over two months, he’s appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast, the “All-In Podcast” hosted by influential tech investors, the Jordan B. Peterson Podcast and more. 

Videos of those appearances have racked up millions of views on YouTube and tend to be relatively consistent — Kennedy espouses a wide variety of conspiracy theories and outlandish claims, most of which are either backed by little evidence or have been fully debunked, mixed in with other observations, stories and opinions. 

Some of those videos have been taken down by YouTube, while others remain online. 

An NBC News review found nine videos posted on YouTube this year that are still up in which Kennedy shares medical misinformation related to vaccines and the Covid-19 pandemic. On Spotify, NBC News found 14 podcast episodes where Kennedy appeared to share medical misinformation. Kennedy also publishes his own podcast on the platform. And on platforms like Twitter and Rumble, both of which have fostered communities of conspiracy theorists, Kennedy has been able to freely post and livestream without the concern of any moderation.

The appearances have added to a perception of some growing momentum around Kennedy’s campaign. He has at times sought to downplay his anti-vaccine past, but still routinely discusses his views in different media outlets.

Kennedy's appearances also come as many platforms have rolled back some of their pandemic-era policies around Covid misinformation. 

Soon after Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter late last year, the social media site stopped enforcing its Covid-19 misinformation policy. And last week, Meta announced it would unwind its Covid-19 misinformation policy globally, saying it would continue to enforce it in countries with a declared Covid-19 public health emergency. 

Under YouTube’s vaccine misinformation policy, the platform removes content that includes “harmful misinformation about currently approved and administered vaccines.” YouTube has a separate Covid-19 misinformation policy against content that contradicts local health authorities or the World Health Organization's guidance on Covid-19. 

WHO said Covid-19 vaccines are highly effective and called for countries to vaccinate at least 70% of their populations. 

YouTube has removed at least three videos that featured Kennedy. On Monday, it took down a video of Kennedy and Peterson for violating its general vaccine misinformation policy, according to a company statement. It also removed an interview that Kennedy did with boxer Mike Tyson’s podcast in May.

In all nine videos reviewed by NBC News, Kennedy made debunked claims, such as linking a rise in autism to vaccines.

On Facebook, Kennedy appeared in multiple videos in 2020 and 2021 where he shared his skeptical views on vaccines, including baselessly linking vaccines to diseases. He spoke of these views on podcaster Theo Von’s show in 2021, which has 993,000 views on Facebook. Earlier this month, Von shared on Twitter a clip from the episode, which he said was taken down on other platforms.  

Meta took some action against Kennedy on Instagram at the time. In 2021, Meta removed Kennedy from Instagram for sharing vaccine and Covid-19 misinformation. His account was reinstated this month since he is an active presidential candidate.

The Instagram and Facebook accounts of Kennedy’s anti-vaccine organization, Children’s Health Defense, which were suspended last year, remain unavailable on both sites. The nonprofit has an active profile on Twitter and recently shared Kennedy’s appearance on Joe Rogan’s Spotify podcast.

On Spotify, podcasts that feature Kennedy discussing his views on vaccines include the platform’s Covid-19 advisory banner.  

Spotify doesn’t have a clear policy on Covid-19 misinformation but its platform rules prohibit content that asserts Covid-19 was a hoax. Spotify places the advisory “Learn about COVID-19” on episodes that mention the subject, but the streaming platform has come under fire over the past few years for allowing episodes spreading vaccine misinformation on Joe Rogan’s podcast. 

Spotify did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Amid YouTube’s actions against Kennedy, he’s found support from some in the alternative and conservative media, especially on Twitter, a platform that stopped enforcing its Covid-19 misinformation rules. 

Conservative commentator Tucker Carlson defended Kennedy’s anti-vaccine rhetoric on his June 22 Twitter show

The video platform Rumble, which positions itself as a competitor to YouTube, criticized YouTube for removing the video of Kennedy and Peterson. “YouTube, you are on the wrong side of history,” Rumble wrote on Twitter. Kennedy posted his first video on Rumble this week. The platform has no policies against misinformation.

Meanwhile, Musk responded to a tweet about YouTube’s removal of the Kennedy and Peterson video with, “Illustrates why YT needs competition.” 

Musk spoke with Kennedy in a Twitter Space titled “Reclaiming Democracy” on June 5. In the conversation, Kennedy criticized an effort by Rep. Adam Schiff in 2019 demanding sites like Google and Facebook fight Covid-19 misinformation.