MISINFORMATIONThe ‘Truther Playbook’: Tactics That Explain Vaccine Conspiracy Theorist RFK Jr’s Presidential Momentum

By Stephanie Alice Baker, Chris Rojek, and Eugene McLaughlin

Published 16 June 2023

Polls show that Robert Kennedy’s Jr., promoting anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, has been drawing surprising early support in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Kennedy is using the “truther playbook” - – promising identity and belonging, revealing “true” knowledge, providing meaning and purpose, and promising leadership and guidance – which prove to be appealing in our current post-truth era, in which opinions often triumph over facts, and in which charlatans can achieve authority by framing their opponents as corrupt and evil and claiming to expose this corruption. These rhetorical techniques can be used to promote populist politics just as much as anti-vaccine content.

While incumbent Joe Biden is the favored Democratic pick for the 2024 US presidential nomination, another more controversial candidate is gaining popular support in the polls. Robert F. Kennedy Jr, a self-described vaccine sceptic, announced his candidacy to run for president as a Democrat in April.

Our new study on the rhetorical techniques used to spread vaccine disinformation partly explains Kennedy’s appeal to voters. We examined the strategies of RFK Jr and American osteopath Joseph Mercola, two prominent members of the “disinformation dozen”.

These 12 anti-vaccine advocates, according to research conducted by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, were responsible for nearly two-thirds of anti-vaccine content posted to Facebook and Twitter during the pandemic.

We analyzed their social media profiles, books, documentaries, websites and newsletters from 2021-22, and identified the techniques that comprise what we call the “truther playbook”. These take the form of four enticing promises which figures like Kennedy and Mercola use to give their claims legitimacy and build a loyal following.

These techniques – promising identity and belonging, revealing “true” knowledge, providing meaning and purpose, as well as promising leadership and guidance – feature prominently in Kennedy’s 2024 presidential campaign.

1. Identity and Belonging
COVID truthers offer their followers access to an exclusive in-group identity. They adhere to a dualistic belief system that divides the world into good and bad actors, light and dark forces. For COVID truthers, it is not simply that their opponents have acted through ignorance or error – they frame them as corrupt and evil.

Kennedy’s and Mercola’s social media posts, newsletters and publications frequently frame prominent public figures such as Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates as evil elites, or “dark forces” allegedly conspiring against ordinary people.

COVID truthers present themselves in opposition to these corrupt corporations and government institutions. They offer a promising invitation to their followers: join me, and be part of the movement fighting “the system”.

Kennedy, for example, refers to himself as a resolute “defender” of children and the public. His anti-vaccine activism is framed as a noble pursuit aligned with the public good. Similarly, his presidential pledge of honest government is pitched as being “for the people”.

2. True Knowledge and Enlightenment
The spread of disinformation about COVID vaccines has occurred in a society characterized by low institutional trust. Figures such as Kennedy and Mercola capitalize on this, appealing to those disillusioned with the government’s official narrative. They present themselves as having access to privileged knowledge and understanding.