Conspiracy Theories Spread by RFK Jr. Threaten Public Health and National Security

Kennedy’s baseless claims like his “ethnic weapon” theory, could potentially harm US public health and national security long term

public health

Information Epidemiology Lab

Johns Hopkins School of Public Health (2022)


July 23, 2023

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a long-shot candidate for the 2024 presidential election, has been propagating conspiracy theories that threaten public health, national security, and democratic societies. On July 15, 2023, he claimed in a video that COVID-19 could be “ethnically targeted” to spare Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese people. These unfounded claims, published in the New York Post, echo a Soviet-era disinformation campaign that aimed to sow distrust within the United States and among international partners. Kennedy’s recent interview, which he advertised in a now-deleted tweet, with disgraced UN weapons inspector turned Kremlin media personality Scott Ritter also drew criticism and concern.

Kennedy’s claims, like the “ethnic weapon” theory, could potentially harm US public health and national security in the long term. Continuous exposure to such outlandish claims can make them seem more believable over time, eroding confidence in reality-based recommendations. This is true regardless of whether the claims are valid. In the worst-case scenario, these claims could incite violence against minorities and healthcare institutions in the US, both of which have seen a surge in hate crimes, violent threats, and targeted harassment since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the past few years, Kennedy’s work has been highlighted by sanctioned Kremlin-associated outlets like the Strategic Culture Foundation and Global Research, which the State Departmentdescribed as a “Canadian website that has become deeply enmeshed in Russia’s broader disinformation and propaganda ecosystem.” These outlets have platformed and published content from his organization, Children’s Health Defense. This is not to say that he does not have organic popularity but that adversaries may also see the potential for harm. Kennedy’s conspiracy theories, debunked by numerous fact-checks, range from claiming Wi-Fi causes cancer to suggesting that chemicals in the water supply could turn children transgender.

The “ethnic weapon” theory is not new and is no more plausible than when the USSR claimed the US military was “conducting trials of ’ethnic viruses in California” in 1980. During the Cold War, the Soviets planted stories suggesting that the US was developing a weapon to harm specific racial or ethnic groups. An expert on the history of biological weapons, Milton Leitenberg, stated that by the 1980s, “disinformation produced by the KGB had also been describing US efforts to produce ‘ethnic weapons’ for years.”

These narratives aimed to portray the US as a nation controlled by White Supremacists intent on eliminating all other races. Kennedy has revived this narrative, and Russian officials are using it to justify their actions in Ukraine. At a March 2022 address, Russia’s representative at the UN claimed without evidence and despite scientific consensus to the contrary:

Several thousands of samples of blood serum of COVID-19 patients (most of them of Slavic ethnicity) were transported from Ukraine to Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in the United States – allegedly for trials of treatment and prevention of COVID-19.

Everyone knows how sensitive Western states are when it comes to transferring biological samples of their citizens abroad. And there is a good reason for that – theoretically, samples may be used to create bioagents capable of selectively targeting different ethnic populations.

The human genome overlaps between and among many ethnic groups, making the concept of a bacterial or viral weapon capable of selectively targeting specific ethnic groups nearly impossible. While race as a social concept and racism are real, biological reality does not underpin the arbitrary lines drawn between groups. The disparities in health outcomes related to race are more likely caused by well-documented disadvantages like unequal access to healthcare and environmental stressors.

Conspiracy theories, when believed by people in democratic societies, can wreak havoc by affecting policy support and healthcare choices and by potentially inciting violence. As a Professor of Military and Security Studies at the Air Command Staff College put it, disinformation about disease is a “relatively low-cost alternative for adversaries who wish to diminish US credibility and trust among allies and partners.”

False claims erode trust in public health institutions and the scientific community. Without this trust, we may be unable to respond to crises and even struggle to ensure peaceful transitions of power. Acknowledging that the spread of some conspiracy theories is not accidental but a tool capable of causing harm is crucial. Until we face the immense unappreciated cost of conspiracy theories and that some are spread intentionally, we will be unable to respond effectively to such threats.


BibTeX citation:
  author = {Li, E. Rosalie},
  publisher = {Information Epidemiology Lab},
  title = {Conspiracy {Theories} {Spread} by {RFK} {Jr.} {Threaten}
    {Public} {Health} and {National} {Security}},
  journal = {InfoEpi Lab},
  date = {2023-07-23},
  url = {},
  langid = {en}
For attribution, please cite this work as:
Li, E. Rosalie. 2023. “Conspiracy Theories Spread by RFK Jr. Threaten Public Health and National Security.” InfoEpi Lab, July.