Joe Rogan, Elon Musk Instigate Harassment Campaign Against Vaccine Scientist

A Twitter-wide, very intentional freakout over Dr. Peter Hotez sharing a link to a Motherboard story.
Kennedy microphone empty coffee cup finger wag
 Kennedy, Jr. speaks as Michael Smerconish hosts a SiriusXM Town Hall with Democratic Presidential Candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. at The Centre Theater on June 05, 2023 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo via Getty Images

In a series of events no more explicable if you happened to have a front-row seat to them, Joe Rogan and Elon Musk spent the holiday weekend fomenting a crusade against Dr. Peter Hotez, the pediatrician and vaccine expert. Hotez’s crime was tweeting approvingly about a story I wrote on Friday concerning Rogan’s recent, fawning interview with anti-vaccine activist and presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. In response, Rogan, Musk, Kennedy himself, a host of Twitter’s biggest anti-vaccine and right-wing personalities, rich investors, and people who paid for Twitter Blue spent the next day demanding that Hotez debate Kennedy on Rogan’s show. The brigading ultimately inspired a publicity-hungry YouTuber who’s dubbed himself a “predator poacher” to harass the 65-year-old Hotez at his Houston home. 


A critical piece of context here is that Hotez, who speaks often about vaccine safety, is a frequent target of not just the anti-vaccine movement, but the far right: Steve Bannon recently declared him a “criminal,” linking to a Zero Hedge repost of a story by Matt Taibbi and Matt Orfalea. (The article, accompanied by a video by Orfalea, was originally behind a paywall on Substack. The video accuses Hotez of hypocrisy and double-speak for issuing slightly different guidance about vaccines and booster doses at different points in the pandemic—for instance, saying two doses would be effective before later recommending a booster. It’s a strategy that’s been effective for the right before in undermining the credibility of public-health figures like Anthony Fauci, casting responses to evolving facts as inconsistency.) 

Hotez has spent a great deal of time undercutting Big Pharma; he helps lead a team at the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development at Baylor College of Medicine, which has worked to develop low-cost, patent-free vaccines that can be used in developing countries. Despite this, Hotez is often denounced as a functionary of the system he explicitly works outside, an irony he’s noted before; in 2021, he wrote a paper about what he called “mounting anti-science aggression.” 


On Friday, Hotez, who has himself been a guest on Rogan’s show, tweeted critically about the Kennedy episode, in which Kennedy recited a three-hour highlight reel of his anti-vaccine greatest hits, plus some questionable statements about 5G, wifi, and a variety of other topics. Linking to my piece, Hotez wrote, “It’s really true ⁦@annamerlan⁩ just awful. And from all the online attacks I’m receiving after this absurd podcast, it’s clear many actually believe this nonsense.” 

Rogan responded by offering Hotez “$100,000.00 to the charity of your choice if you’re willing to debate him on my show with no time limit.” He followed up by suggesting my article was “dogshit”—fair enough, matter of opinion, etc.—before insisting that Hotez was morally obligated to participate in the weird spectacle he’d just thought up.

“If you’re really serious about what you stand for, you now have a massive opportunity for a debate that will reach the largest audience a discussion like this has ever had,” he wrote. “If you think someone else is better qualified, suggest that person.”

(It wasn’t clear, mind you, what precisely Rogan wanted the debate to be about. Kennedy repeated a variety of claims that have been long debunked, like the notion that vaccines cause autism, at this point as old a lie as the anti-vaccine movement has ever promoted. Nor was it clear how a “winner” of such an absurd spectacle would be determined. Perhaps it was an inadvertent admission of Rogan’s credulousness, an implicit argument that since he tends to believe whoever the last guest on his show was, he would thus be a neutral, in a manner of speaking, judge.) 


Before long Elon Musk joined in, adding, “He’s afraid of a public debate because he knows he’s wrong,” though it wasn’t clear what he was claiming Hotez was wrong about. (Musk described himself in a subsequent tweet as “generally pro-vaccine” and said he saw promise in mRNA technology before adding, “That said, the world obviously went crazy with excess vaccination against ‘Covid-19’.”) 

By the end of the day, a host of Silicon Valley and anti-vaccine personalities had showily offered financial support for the debate, including hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, tech entrepreneur turned anti-vax personality Steve Kirsch, Tim Pool, and Andrew Tate, currently awaiting trial on human trafficking charges. (A self-proclaimed citizen journalist made a roundup of the money offers.) Right-wing personality Dave Rubin was exhilarated by the whole mess, tweeting that it was a “seminal moment,” adding, “Truth is a time release pill and it’s activating quicker these days. The Machine has relied on the lies sticking longer as it adjusted accordingly. Now with so many people going around mainstream media, we are all seeing behind the curtain.” 


It was unclear how a bunch of people demanding that a pediatrician and scientist engage in the equivalent of a debate over heliocentricity did any of that, but in any case, it did not succeed in goading Hotez. He explained in an appearance with MSNBC host Mehdi Hassan that he was simply not going to dance like a circus seal. As he put it, “I offered to go on Joe Rogan but not to turn it into the Jerry Springer show with having RFK Jr. on."

The entire incident—which remains ongoing—illustrates a growing and increasingly destructive alliance between tech billionaires, the anti-vaccine movement, and various self-proclaimed “heterodox” thinkers, who between them make up RFK’s most vocal base of support. These groups, which found a great deal of common ground during the earlier days of the pandemic, have been casting around for a new idea that will inflame and incite their audiences in profitable, attention-grabbing ways—not a few, for instance, have recently pivoted to overt transphobia—and now seem to have found one. 

RFK’s campaign is an enticing cause for actors with a variety of apparent motivations ranging from wanting to force Joe Biden to spend time and money on a primary campaign to sincere belief in disproven conspiracy theories. All of them have reason to try to get their preferred candidate into the spotlight and to get as much attention as possible for the pseudoscience he represents; many of them also have reason to want to see a politics of disingenuous trolling succeed, inserting right-wing YouTuber tactics into the presidential campaign. Hotez isn’t the only one Kennedy enthusiasts want to debate him, after all. Figures like the Musk-allied investor and podcaster Jason Calacanis want Biden to do so as well—a position that’s much more defensible than demanding a vaccine scientist do it.

How all of this will affect Kennedy’s campaign remains to be seen. Prior to some of the most popular and powerful figures in the U.S. strongly identifying him with unpopular anti-vaccine politics, there were clear signs that Kennedy’s preferred depiction of himself as a reasonable political moderate only interested in healthy debate was already taking hold. It could be seen in CNN’s Michael Smerconish handling him with kid gloves or political strategist Peter Daou—who once wrote a book about confronting “the far right menace”—taking Kennedy on his own, insincere terms to argue he’s a stronger candidate than Biden. (“Kennedy has said he's not anti-vaccine, he's pro-safety,” Daou tweeted. “And for millions of voters who distrust big pharma, his skepticism of the system is appealing.”) That said, Kennedy is now on a more typical track for a presidential candidate, with journalists deeply exploring his record, his depictions of himself, and the ways in which the two don’t quite line up. 

There’s already a clear track record of what happens when people take Kennedy’s advice: You only have to look to Samoa, which suffered a devastating and deadly measles outbreak after Kennedy and other anti-vaccine activists campaigned there. (In his recent interview with NBC’s Brandy Zadrozny, Kennedy claimed, against all available evidence, that the deaths in Samoa were caused by the MMR vaccine, telling her, “You need to question the narrative.”) The events of the past weekend proved, though, that as Kennedy launches a new campaign, premised on the same old bad ideas, he’ll have any number of eager foot soldiers willing to spread his version of the truth on his behalf—some of whom own the biggest megaphones in the land, and are all too willing to use them.