An Anti-Vaccine Film Targeted To Black Americans Spreads False Information

Jun 8, 2021
Originally published on June 9, 2021 5:06 am

When a filmmaker asked medical historian Naomi Rogers to appear in a new documentary, the Yale professor didn't blink. She had done these "talking head" interviews many times before.

She assumed her comments would end up in a straightforward documentary that addressed some of the most pressing concerns of the pandemic, such as the legacy of racism in medicine and how that plays into current mistrust in some communities of color. The subject of vaccines was also mentioned, but the focus wasn't clear to Rogers.

The director wanted something more polished than a Zoom call, so a well-outfitted camera crew arrived at Rogers' home in Connecticut in the fall. They showed up wearing masks and gloves. Before the interview, crew members cleaned the room thoroughly. Then they spent about an hour interviewing Rogers. She discussed her research and in particular controversial figures such as Dr. James Marion Sims, who was influential in the field of gynecology but who performed experimental surgery on enslaved Black women during the 1800s without anesthesia.

"We were talking about issues of racism and experimentation, and they seemed to be handled appropriately," Rogers recalls. At the time, there were few indications that anything was out of the ordinary — except one. During a short break, she asked who else was being interviewed for the film. The producer's response struck Rogers as curiously vague.

"They said, 'Well, there's 'a guy' in New York, and we talked to 'somebody in New Jersey, and California,' " Rogers told NPR. "I thought it's so odd that they wouldn't tell me who these people were."

It wasn't until this March that Rogers would stumble upon the answer.

She received an email from a group called Children's Health Defense — prominent in the anti-vaccine movement — promoting its new film, Medical Racism: The New Apartheid.

When she clicked on the link and began watching the 57-minute film, she was shocked to discover this was the movie she had sat down for back in October.

"I was naive, certainly, in assuming that this was actually a documentary, which I would say it is not. I think that it is an advocacy piece for anti-vaxxers," Rogers says. "I'm still very angry. I feel that I was used."

The free, online film is the latest effort by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the founder of Children's Health Defense. (He's the son of the former U.S. Attorney General Robert "Bobby" Kennedy and nephew of President John F. Kennedy.) With this film, Kennedy and his allies in the anti-vaccine movement resurface and promote disproven claims about the dangers of vaccines, but it's aimed squarely at a specific demographic: Black Americans.

The film draws a line from the real and disturbing history of racism and atrocities in the medical field — such as the Tuskegee syphilis study — to interviews with anti-vaccine activists who warn communities of color to be suspicious of modern-day vaccines.

At one point in Medical Racism, viewers are warned that "in black communities something is very sinister" and "the same thing that happened in the 1930s during the eugenics movement" is happening again.

There is lengthy discussion of the thoroughly disproven link between autism and vaccines. For example, the film references a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism rates as evidence that African American children are being particularly harmed, but in reality the study did not conclude that African Americans are at increased risk of autism because of vaccination.

The movie then displays a chart claiming to use that same CDC data — obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request — to make a connection between vaccinating Black children and autism risk. The findings in the chart closely resemble another study sometimes mentioned by anti-vaccine activists, but the medical journal later retracted the study, because of "undeclared competing interests on the part of the author" and "concerns about the validity of the methods and statistical analysis." (That study's author was also a paid independent contractor for Kennedy's group as of 2020 and sits on its board of directors.)

The film also brings up a 2014 study from the Mayo Clinic that showed Somali Americans and African Americans have a more robust immune response to the rubella vaccine than Caucasians and Hispanic Americans. One of those interviewed in Kennedy's film then asks, "So if you have that process that could be caused by vaccines, why wouldn't there be a link between vaccines and developmental delays?"

But the study's own author and leading vaccine researcher, Dr. Gregory Poland, says this conjecture is not accurate.

According to a statement provided to NPR by the Mayo Clinic, the study demonstrated "higher protective immune responses in African-American subjects with no evidence of increased vaccine side effects" and that any claim of " 'increased vulnerability' among African-Americans who receive the rubella vaccine is simply not supported by either this study or the science."

For her part, Rogers, the Yale professor, only appears for about 14 seconds in the film. Her quotes are accurate. But her remarks are embedded in a wider narrative that she had "enormous problems with" — namely that the anti-vaccine movement is heroically engaged in a new civil rights campaign, one meant to stop experimentation on the Black community.

Rogers says the film uses many of the ideas that she holds "passionately, like health disparities, fighting racism in health, working against discrimination, and it's been twisted for the purposes of this anti-vax movement."

Another credible expert from mainstream medicine also appears in the film: Dr. Oliver Brooks, the immediate past president of the National Medical Association. The group is the largest organization representing African American physicians in the United States.

Brooks says he agreed to be in the film because he wanted to provide balance, but, after seeing it, he now regrets doing the interview.

"The crux of the documentary is generally don't get vaccinated," Brooks told NPR in a recent interview. "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."

Kennedy's group released the film in early March, just as the COVID-19 vaccine was becoming widely available to the American public.

The movie begins with a string of ominous news clips about the pandemic and the COVID-19 vaccines and includes short interviews with people of color who talk about COVID-19 being "propaganda" and why they don't trust the vaccine. Kennedy also appears to offer a warning to viewers about vaccines: "Don't listen to me. Don't listen to Tony Fauci. Hey, and don't listen to your doctor."

In addition to Kennedy, other producers helped make and market the film, including a prominent figure in the Nation of Islam, and a wealthy entrepreneur who recently made headlines when a private school he co-founded in Miami prohibited teachers who got the COVID-19 vaccine from returning to the classroom.

Children's Health Defense made one of the film's co-producers, Curtis Cost, available to talk with NPR. He is a longtime anti-vaccine activist, who has previously claimed that "viruses do not cause anything, it's a hoax, it's a myth ... whether you are talking about HIV virus, the flu virus or any other virus."

Cost says the film does not explicitly tell people to refuse the COVID-19 vaccine, but it "goes all the way to the present experimentations and bad things have been done by the medical establishment in America and in Africa and other parts of the world."

"The film basically wants people to recognize this history that leads right into the present, and especially when they're facing decisions about whether they should take any vaccine, including COVID," he says.

In an email statement, a spokesperson for Children's Health Defense denies that the film is misinformation and says it contains "peer reviewed science and historical data."

The movie is "a classic example of the anti-vaccine industry with a highly targeted message using sophisticated marketing techniques and building alliances with affiliate organizations," says Imran Ahmed, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate, which has extensively researched figures such as Kennedy.

"They've seen the opportunity to target a specifically African American audience," he says, during a particular moment of heightened national attention on racial injustices and health disparities.

Black Americans have twice the risk of dying from COVID-19 compared with white Americans. Racial disparities in vaccination uptake persist across the United States.

While there are efforts to improve access to the vaccine, media coverage has also focused heavily on historical reasons for vaccine skepticism — too much, some scholars argue, when the focus should be on how Black Americans experience the impact of systemic racism in health care today — and how to fix those problems and improve trust.

"We're in this moment where we're having some necessary discussions about health equity," says Victor Agbafe, a medical student at the University of Michigan. "It's not a good thing to sort of exploit that as a means to undermine trust in the vaccine today, instead of focusing on how we can make the vaccine more accessible for all communities."

Agbafe, who helps lead his school's Black medical student association, was surprised to get an email from Children's Health Defense asking him to promote the movie among his peers.

When it was released, the film did not seem to gain much traction on major social media platforms such as Twitter, although tracking how often this kind of video is being shared privately can be difficult, says Kolina Koltai, a University of Washington researcher who studies the anti-vaccine movement online.

But Kennedy's anti-vaccine activities during the pandemic involve more than this movie.

In February, he was banned from Instagram for posting misinformation on vaccines, but he still has a home on Facebook and Twitter. Ahmed's organization has labeled Kennedy one of the "disinformation dozen" — a group of people responsible for 65% of the shares of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms.

In a recent webinar about the film, Kennedy said those who agree with the film need to use "the tools of advocacy that Martin Luther King Jr. talked about" and promote it "guerilla-style" against the "darkening cloud of totalitarianism."

Although more than half of American adults have gotten the COVID-19 vaccine, demand is falling fast, and polls show almost one-third of adults still either want to "wait and see" or do not want to get the shot. When asked why, many say the vaccine is unsafe, based on false conspiracy theories.

"I see the downstream ripple effects of disinformation every day in practice, every day in the patient's lives I treat," says Dr. Atul Nakhasi with the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services and co-founder of the online campaign #ThisIsOurShot, which aims to encourage trust in the COVID-19 vaccine.

"We know people have uncertainties, and we need to acknowledge that and have humble, respectful conversations, but for someone to actively subvert that trust is unconscionable," Nakhasi says.

According to the Center for Countering Digital Hate, the ideal strategy for stopping the spread of online misinformation is to cut it off at the source: meaning "deplatform" the most notorious spreaders of that information so they can't gain a following on social media in the first place. But Ahmed says that all too often, tech companies don't take those steps themselves. In that case, the next best tactic is to try to "inoculate" people against false and misleading claims.

"You tell people in advance, 'Hey, something terrible is happening, be careful, they're targeting you,' " Ahmed says.

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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.


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.


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.

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