An Anti-Vaccine Film Targeted To Black Americans Spreads False Information
A recent movie produced by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s anti-vaccine group tries to capitalize on the COVID-19 pandemic, the racial justice movement and renewed interest in the history of medical racism.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Although more than half of American adults have gotten a COVID-19 vaccine, demand is falling fast. Polls show about one-third of adults still want to wait and see, or they've outright decided not to get the shot. When asked why, many say the vaccine is unsafe, and they base that on false conspiracy theories. So today we're going to look closely at an anti-vaccine movie, and we're going to do that with reporter Will Stone. Together, we're going to peer under the hood, try to see exactly how this piece of misinformation is put together and what it seems like it's trying to accomplish.
Hey there, Will.
WILL STONE, BYLINE: Glad to be here. Hi.
KELLY: Hi. OK, so you have been investigating this movie. It is circulating online. It is circulating for free. What is it? And where did it come from?
STONE: It's called "Medical Racism: The New Apartheid." And from that title, you wouldn't guess it's about vaccines at all. That's the first misleading thing about this movie. It's produced by a group called Children's Health Defense, and the founder of that is Robert F. Kennedy Jr. He is the son of the former U.S. Attorney General Bobby Kennedy and the nephew of President John F. Kennedy. And RFK Jr. is actually a lawyer who has done work on environmental issues but is now considered a major figure in the anti-vaccine movement. And there's research showing that his group back before the pandemic helped fund the majority of anti-vaccine ads on Facebook. And as NPR recently reported, he's part of what researchers call the Disinformation Dozen. Those are 12 people researchers say are responsible for 65% of the shares of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms.
KELLY: Well, including this film - and I know you have been reporting. You've been talking to some of the folks who got caught up in this film. Let's listen to what you found, and then I want to ask you a couple questions.
STONE: Yale Professor Naomi Rogers assumed she'd end up in a straightforward documentary. Rogers is a well-known medical historian. A filmmaker had approached her in the fall about an interview. The focus wasn't entirely clear. To her, it seemed to be about the pandemic, the legacy of racism in medicine and how history plays into current mistrust among Black Americans. Here's Rogers.
NAOMI ROGERS: I was naive, certainly, in assuming that this was actually a documentary, which I would say it is not.
STONE: She says the director mentioned vaccines, but that didn't really stand out to her.
ROGERS: In no way did I read it as anti-vaccine, but I didn't even read it as necessarily just about vaccines.
STONE: A camera crew came to Rogers' home, and she was impressed.
ROGERS: There was definitely money there.
STONE: It was a wide-ranging interview. One major topic was Dr. James Marion Sims. He was an influential figure in gynecology in the 1800s, but he performed painful, experimental surgeries on enslaved Black women without anesthesia.
ROGERS: We were talking about issues of racism and experimentation, and I am very passionate about that as a topic. I think it's really important.
STONE: At one point, Rogers asked the crew members, who else were they interviewing?
ROGERS: They said, well, there's a guy in New York, and we talked to somebody in New Jersey and California. And I thought, it's so odd that they wouldn't tell me who these people were.
STONE: It wasn't until months later in March that Rogers would find her answer. She received an email from a group she'd never heard of called Children's Health Defense.
ROGERS: It was then that I discovered that they had this movie I was in.
STONE: The movie was done, and it was online. It's about an hour long, and Professor Rogers only appears for about 14 seconds. She's talking about Sims, and her quotes were accurate.
ROGERS: It's just that it was placed in part of an argument that I have enormous problems with - that the anti-vax movement needs to have a very strong relationship to civil rights activists because it's all about exploiting Black children and other children of color.
STONE: This appears to be a strategic distortion of the film. It draws a line from the very real history of racism and atrocities in medicine, like the Tuskegee syphilis study, to interviews with anti-vaccine activists who traffic in familiar claims, like the thoroughly disproven link between autism and vaccines. In one example, the film relies on misinterpreted CDC data to make a connection between vaccinating Black children and autism risk. The end result is a false equivalence that vaccines today are another example of historical harm against Black people. This takes place against the backdrop of COVID-19.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MEDICAL RACISM: THE NEW APARTHEID")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I don't really think the vaccine is necessary.
STONE: There are clips of people of color whose names aren't given.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MEDICAL RACISM: THE NEW APARTHEID")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I don't know if it's all a propaganda.
STONE: And Robert F. Kennedy Jr. shows up to warn viewers not to trust their doctors or Anthony Fauci when it comes to vaccines. The storyline disturbed someone else who ended up in the movie - Dr. Oliver Brooks.
OLIVER BROOKS: I do believe that there can be danger in a documentary such as this. The crux of the documentary is generally, don't get vaccinated.
STONE: When the filmmakers asked him to do an interview, Brooks was the president of the National Medical Association, which represents African American doctors across the U.S.
BROOKS: There is an understandable concern in the African American community regarding vaccines. However, in the end, my position is you look past those, have an understanding of those and still get vaccinated. That nuance was not felt or presented in the documentary.
STONE: Brooks says he agreed to be in the film because he wanted to provide some balance. But now he wonders, did his appearance give more oxygen and credibility to a piece of misinformation?
KELLY: That's Will Stone reporting there, and Will is still with us. I'm curious. I'm sure you asked the filmmakers to respond to what doctors are saying, like Dr. Brooks there saying that this is a dangerous film. What do they say?
STONE: Yes, we did reach out to Children's Health Defense. A spokesperson there says they reject that this is misinformation. She says the movie was thoroughly fact-checked. I did also speak to one of the film's producers. He's a longtime anti-vaccine activist. He points out the film never explicitly tells people to say no to the COVID vaccine, just to do their research.
KELLY: So, Will, let's step back. What does this tell us about the anti-vaccine movement today, at this moment where officials in the U.S. are trying to encourage more people to get the COVID vaccine, not fewer?
STONE: Yeah. First, it shows they have money to churn out well-produced content like this - second, that the anti-vaccine movement is now clearly targeting the Black community and that they're doing this by tapping into big, important conversations we're having as a country about social justice and health disparities. And those who study misinformation say ideally, this type of movie doesn't find a major platform on the internet and social media at all. But that's generally not realistic. So they say the next best thing is to - and I'm going to use a vaccine metaphor here - to essentially inoculate people against it. You tell them who these anti-vaccine groups are, what they're saying, how they will say it and why it's not true.
KELLY: OK. And I want to end by noting a fact, a piece of fact-checked information, which is that more than 300 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have now been administered in the U.S., and daily cases of COVID have dropped to what is now their lowest point since last March, March of 2020. That's according to the CDC. NPR reporter Will Stone sharing his investigation there of an anti-vaccine movie.
Will, thanks so much.
STONE: Good to be here. Thanks.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROYKSOPP'S "DEAD TO THE WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.