When Seth Mnookin, Director of the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing, published his book The Panic Virus in 2011, he couldn’t have imagined that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.—an anti-vaccine activist Mnookin devoted an entire chapter to in his book—would be running for President more than a decade later. The Panic Virus explores the roots and mechanisms of the anti-vaccine movement as well as the media personalities and activists, RFK, Jr. among them, who perpetuate it.
Twelve years after The Panic Virus hit shelves, RFK, Jr. is currently campaigning for the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination and polling at roughly 15 percent. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Mnookin spoke about how the landscape of vaccine misinformation, and media coverage of it, has changed since 2011, and why it’s impossible to debate people acting in bad faith.
“The American media has still not figured out how to responsibly cover someone with really dangerous views,” Mnookin said. “…there’s a pretty well-established body of research showing that all you need to do is say something for a certain percentage of people to come away thinking that it’s true. It becomes a real problem when you have fringe characters who then figure out that, ‘Oh, I can get attention for these views just by announcing that I’m going to throw my hat into the political ring.’ It’s a dangerous combination.”