Republicans on the House select subcommittee chaired by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) announced Wednesday that their next hearing, scheduled for July 20, will feature testimony from Robert F. Kennedy Jr., anti-vaccine activist and long-shot challenger for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2024.
It seems clear based on previous hearings that the subcommittee, ostensibly predicated on the “weaponization” of the federal government, will use Kennedy’s testimony to suggest an unacceptable relationship between federal actors and social media companies. But the inclusion of Kennedy more immediately serves a different purpose: giving oxygen to someone the political right sees as a useful mechanism for inflicting political damage on President Biden.
Kennedy has come up during at least one previous hearing convened by the subcommittee. Its mandate, you will recall, is to consider how the government collects data on U.S. citizens or might “facilitate action against” them. That’s the heart of it: The subcommittee exists to provide fuel for right-wing agitation about things such as censorship on Twitter or investigations into conservatives including a certain former president.
So, in March, Jordan seized upon an incident involving Kennedy as a way to rebut Democratic criticism about the subcommittee’s purpose. Jordan entered into the record a message sent from a Biden administration staffer to Twitter in January 2021. In it, the staffer said he “wanted to flag” a tweet from Kennedy so that Twitter could “get moving on the process for having it removed ASAP.” This was evidence, Jordan trumpeted, of the White House’s direct efforts to censor the public.
If we stop the story there, you can see why Jordan’s committee might want to hear from Kennedy. How did this effort at censorship affect him? What was his response to the administration’s request?
But, of course, the story goes much further than that.
The tweet at issue was posted by Kennedy on Jan. 22, 2021. In it, he uses the death of baseball great Hank Aaron to raise his virtual eyebrows at “a wave of suspicious deaths among elderly closely following administration of #COVID #vaccines.” It was a message very much in keeping with Kennedy’s long-standing and misinformed opposition to the safety of vaccines.
It was also quickly debunked. Aaron was 86 years old, an age at which dying is, unfortunately, not terribly uncommon. The medical examiner made clear that there was no evidence of the coronavirus vaccine playing a role in Aaron’s demise. Not that Kennedy had any evidence to the contrary; he was just asking questions, as the skeptics say — an infinitely easier endeavor than actually trying to answer them.
It’s not clear that the tweet had any effect but, if it were to do so, it would obviously be to disincline older Americans and Black Americans to receive doses to protect themselves against the coronavirus. That’s particularly damaging given that covid-19 proved to be far deadlier among older people and given lower vaccination rates among Black people in the United States.
By January 2021, Twitter had a well-established policy aimed at slowing the spread of vaccine misinformation. In May 2020, well before vaccines began being rolled out, it detailed how it would do so in general.
In December, it expanded its guidelines to include vaccine misinformation, stating that it would consider removing tweets that made “[f]alse claims which have been widely debunked about the adverse impacts or effects of receiving vaccinations.” Kennedy would later try to lawyer-talk his way around criticism of his tweet, but it’s clear that his intent was precisely in line with that prohibition.
Then the Biden administration moved into the White House and Kennedy did his tweet and the White House flagged it for Twitter. And then … Twitter didn’t remove it.
You can see the tweet in the Internet Archive at multiple points after the note from the White House. There are no news stories about the tweet being removed; there is a story about how Twitter in March 2021 was weighing whether it would join Instagram in removing Kennedy from its platform. The tweet just sat there, implying that Hank Aaron died because of the coronavirus vaccine.
Remember, the entire point of the subcommittee is to suggest that the government leveraged its power to censor speech. The example Jordan used of the White House specifically asking for a tweet to be removed, though, did not result in the removal of the tweet. Even if the tweet had come down, it would have been in line with Twitter’s standards (which, of course, is almost certainly why the White House suggested it should come down in the first place). But it didn’t.
That’s just one example of how Kennedy’s insistence on sharing false or unproven claims about vaccines led to social media ramifications. Other platforms, such as Instagram, banned him or removed his posts, which, as private companies, they have the right to do. That they did so is not inherently the purview of Jordan’s government-behaving-badly subcommittee, though.
So why prioritize Kennedy as a witness? A cynic might suggest that perhaps it is because Kennedy is challenging Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Kennedy has been a hot ticket in right-wing media since declaring his nomination, a public relations glut that has done wonders for improving his favorability ratings … among Republicans. His position in Democratic primary polling hasn’t improved much over the past few months but it certainly makes sense that giving a platform for a Democrat to criticize the Democratic president doesn’t hurt Republicans.
One might be inclined to offer a more charitable explanation for Kennedy’s appearance before the committee if the committee weren’t so obviously predicated on scoring political points and if its past hearings weren’t so obviously focused on bolstering a broad range of right-wing complaints about the government.
It would also be more difficult to assume that politics was a motivation for inviting Kennedy if it weren’t the case that prominent Republicans (including, in the past, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)) hadn’t celebrated the damage their putatively nonpartisan probes had done to the approval ratings of Democrats.
So next week we’ll get Kennedy sitting in a hearing room, fielding generous questions from Republican legislators and critical ones from Democrats. We’re unlikely to learn about a government effort to silence wrong-thinkers, at least if the past hearings are any indication. But, thanks to Jordan and his committee, Kennedy will get camera time in which he can complain about the administration of his primary opponent, President Biden.
Talk about weaponization of government.