RFK Jr. campaign tests limits of speech and censorship in 2024 elections

011017 Trump RFK meeting pic
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and President-elect Trump have expressed concern that vaccines cause autism. (Photo by John Salangsang/Invision/AP) John Salangsang

RFK Jr. campaign tests limits of speech and censorship in 2024 elections

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Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s presence on social media and in the presidential race is set to challenge platforms’ policies regarding speech and elevate the topic of censorship due to his vaccine skepticism and conspiracy theorizing.

His candidacy has already created a number of difficult situations for media outlets and tech platforms that feel pressure not to air his more controversial statements but also do not want to censor a politician.

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“The tech companies are being more careful with their censorship now that Mr. Kennedy is running for office,” a representative for Kennedy’s campaign told the Washington Examiner. “However, he is still being censored by YouTube and perhaps more subtly on other platforms, though it is hard to tell since their algorithms are not transparent.”

The representative specifically noted YouTube taking down an interview between psychologist Jordan Peterson and Kennedy. Google, which owns YouTube, said the interview had been removed for violated its rules against alleging that vaccines cause chronic side effects beyond those acknowledged by health authorities. Other interviews with Kennedy are still available on the video hosting platform.

Kennedy has long faced censorship on multiple platforms because of his commentary on vaccines. But his new candidacy has made it more complicated for social media to ban him or remove his content.

Most notably, Kennedy had been banned from Instagram in 2021 for spreading vaccine misinformation. But when he declared his candidacy in May, his account was reinstated in May, because Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook, maintains a policy of not fact-checking political candidates and allowing candidates an equal platform. This policy became relevant earlier this year when former President Donald Trump was reinstated to Facebook after being banned for inciting violence at the Jan. 6 riots.

At the same time, Kennedy has found a welcome on Twitter, now owned by Elon Musk, who has sought to portray himself as a defender of free speech. The billionaire hosted a Twitter Space on June 5 with Kennedy.

Still, Kennedy has faced censorship as a candidate, especially for his views on vaccines.

ABC News, for example, took the unusual step of cutting out several segments of an interview with Kennedy in which he discussed his views on vaccines, citing “editorial judgment.”

Controversy over Kennedy’s commentary on vaccines exploded over the weekend after he appeared on the podcast of Joe Rogan, the popular interviewer who frequently criticizes the public health establishment. Amid the debate, Dr. Peter Hotez, a vaccine scientist, was pressured by Rogan to debate Kennedy on his podcast. Hotez declined, arguing that his appearance alongside Kennedy would legitimize his views.

“Anti-vaccine disinformation … is now a lethal force in the United States. I offered to go on Joe Rogan but not to turn it into the Jerry Springer show with having RFK Jr. on,” Hotez told MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan.

As Kennedy has clashed with social media and the news media, he has found an embrace among some conservatives who also have long complained about censorship and bias.

“Never before has a Kennedy been treated with such disrespect by media outlets, including when Ted Kennedy challenged Jimmy Carter in the 1980 primary,” Dan Schneider, the vice president of the Media Research Center’s Free Speech America, told the Washington Examiner. “Today’s liberal-dominated platforms are working overtime to help Joe Biden secure a second term.”

The media’s representation of Kennedy is “superficial and lazy, resorting to easy slanders like ‘conspiracy theorist,'” Kennedy’s representative said.

Kennedy has consistently promoted anti-vaccine arguments through his organization Children’s Health Defense, which publishes articles and newsletters against vaccination and was accused by researchers at the Observatory on Social Media at Indiana University of being the most prominent source of vaccine misinformation.

“Having a presidential candidate that’s basically anti-vaccination and that’s putting out potential misinformation could do a lot of damage,” Dr. Davidson Hamer, a professor of global health at Boston University, told the Washington Examiner. “And not just to programs like COVID control but to routine childhood and adult immunizations.”

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Hamer said Kennedy’s claims need to be “handled cautiously” and that social media and news outlets need to provide context to Kennedy’s claims while covering him.

Kennedy, in contrast, said his knowledge gives him an edge over those covering him. “It’s almost impossible for anyone to interview me on vaccines,” he claimed in an interview with CNN host Michael Smerconish, noting that he has spent many years writing and researching the subject compared to the reporters who may cover him.

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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