- The news website HuffPost published dozens of articles and blog posts by anti-vaccine activists and vaccine skeptics under its former editor-in-chief, Arianna Huffington.
- Most of the articles were written by unpaid contributors, including a number of professional writers, while others were written by celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey.
- Huffington personally recruited at least one writer who claims vaccines may be harmful to children.
- Health authorities have blamed the most recent outbreak of measles on anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, but none of the articles on HuffPost have been updated with a disclaimer about their accuracy.
- Two days after INSIDER asked HuffPost about the posts on its platform, the site’s editor-in-chief announced that the site would begin removing them.
YouTube, Facebook, and Amazon have recently come under withering criticism from journalists and lawmakers for their role in amplifying unfounded and occasionally dangerous conspiracy theories, including the false but persistent belief that vaccines cause autism. The uproar caused Facebook to pledge to make it harder to find vaccine conspiracies on its platform, and Amazon has removed misleading documentaries from its video streaming service. But as false beliefs continue to fuel an unprecedented outbreak of measles, it’s not just social media platforms that bear responsibility for keeping the conspiracy alive.
HuffPost, the left-leaning internet news site owned by Verizon, currently positions itself squarely against vaccine conspiracy theories. But it continues to host dozens of articles that either falsely allege a link between childhood vaccines and autism or misrepresent scientific research on the subject, almost all of which were published between 2005 and 2011, when the site’s co-founder and namesake, Arianna Huffington, served as editor-in-chief. While many were written by contributors to the site’s defunct community blog, others were written by household names like Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
Under Huffington’s leadership in the 2000s, the site was one of the largest platforms for the then-novel allegation that vaccines, or certain ingredients used in vaccines, could trigger autism in young children. It was in part through their frequent posts on the site, then known as the Huffington Post, that McCarthy and Kennedy became so publicly associated with the discredited theory. But it wasn’t just by virtue of HuffPost’s status as an open platform for celebrities that the conspiracy theory took hold there; INSIDER has learned that Huffington actively recruited at least one writer who questioned the safety of vaccines to air his views on her site.
Here are just a few examples of misleading anti-vaccine conspiracies from the Huffington era that remain available on HuffPost, without any correction or editor’s note indicating their falsehood:
- In 2006, Kennedy, a vocal critic of vaccines, wrote: “Thimerosal is the mercury-based vaccine preservative that has been linked to epidemics of neurological disorders, including autism, in American children born after 1989.” (Thimerosal is indeed a “mercury-based vaccine preservative,” but no scientific study has shown its use in vaccines causes “neurological disorders,” including autism.)
- In 2007, Kennedy wrote: “Thimerosal-based vaccines continue to sicken millions of children around the world.”
- In 2010, McCarthy, another vocal anti-vaccinationist, wrote: “With so many kids with autism, the environment has to be to blame, and vaccines are an obvious culprit.”
- In 2011, McCarthy wrote: “I know children regress”-i.e., begin to exhibit symptoms associated with autism-“after vaccination because it happened to my own son.”
You can find comparable efforts from other writers here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. It’s unclear exactly how many articles HuffPost has published since 2005 that link vaccines to autism or misrepresent existing research on the subject.
INSIDER reached out to HuffPost on Wednesday, and received a reply from a spokesperson for Verizon Media, who asked for additional time to respond to our questions because certain employees were returning from the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. The spokesperson did not respond to follow-up emails or phone calls.
On Friday morning, HuffPost editor-in-chief Lydia Polgreen asked an editor at INSIDER for an hour to respond to our questions. Several minutes later, she announced on HuffPost that, “After a monthslong review, HuffPost has decided to remove dozens of blogs that perpetuate the unfounded opinion that vaccines pose a health risk to the public.” The Verizon spokesperson then emailed INSIDER a link to the announcement. The posts appear to remain up at the moment.
HuffPost launched as a platform for celebrity opinions
When The Huffington Post launched in 2005, the news site envisioned itself as an unfettered forum for public figures to write about virtually any subject. “Picture a nonstop, ever-changing group conversation,” co-founder Arianna Huffington told potential contributors, “with input from 100 of the most interesting people from the worlds of politics, entertainment, business, and publishing.”
The plan worked out and then some. Huffington and co-founder Ken Lerer sold the venture to AOL for $315 million, and the site has managed to win a Pulitzer Prize and recruit a prominent New York Times editor to oversee their growing newsroom. It now draws more than 115 million readers per month.
Still, issues with accuracy have dogged HuffPost since its beginning. This was partly because Huffington’s desire for “authentic” and “unfiltered” opinions meant refusing to “censor” or “edit” the site’s famous contributors. Another culprit, as Salon noted in 2009, was Huffington’s habit of hiring editors based on her personal connection to them, rather than their training or experience in journalism.
Huffington is famous for experimenting with controversial remedies and unproven procedures to treat various ailments. In her 2006 memoir, “On Becoming Fearless . . . in Love, Work, and Life,” she claimed to regularly undergo “mercury detoxes,” an unproven method alleged to offer mental and physical benefits. (Some opponents of vaccines, including Jenny McCarthy, have touted the procedure as a potential cure for symptoms of autism.) Huffington’s affinity for alternative medicine almost certainly influenced her site’s early identity.
David Kirby, an author and former New York Times freelancer who began contributing to HuffPost in 2005, recalled attending a dinner party in Los Angeles shortly after the publication of his book, “Evidence of Harm,” which drew criticism and praise for documenting the efforts of parents who suspected trace amounts of mercury in vaccines had caused autism in their children.
“Arianna Huffington showed up, much to my surprise,” Kirby told INSIDER. “The subject of my book came up and she said, ‘David, I’m starting a new blog. I would like you to write for me.’ And I said, fine. And I did.” While Kirby doesn’t describe himself as “anti-vaccine,” he repeatedly wrote stories for Huffington that questioned their safety, including one he co-wrote with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. in 2009.
Kirby said the dinner was organized by Jay Gordon, a Santa Monica doctor known for treating Jenny McCarthy’s son, who was diagnosed with autism in 2007. Gordon has downplayed the risks of measles and approved a large number of “personal belief exemptions” for mandatory vaccinations. He is also a former contributor to HuffPost. In one 2009 article, he wrote in bolded, italicized, and underlined text: “Let me state very simply, vaccines can cause autism.” (Gordon did not return a request for comment.)
“Back then, there was not even editorial vetting – there was nothing,” Kirby added. “You just wrote your post, you hit send, and it appeared immediately, you know, basically on the front page of the Huffington Post because back then that’s all that there was.”
The site received criticism in the past for publishing writers like Kirby, and editors have defended their willingness to lend space to the views of anti-vaccinationists. “I think it’s important to present as many viewpoints as possible,” a former Wellness editor told Salon in 2009. Another told Forbes in 2011 that every health-related article is vetted by a “Medical Review Board.”
HuffPost has a complicated relationship with its past
The site has made efforts to transcend its free-for-all legacy, mainly by rebranding as HuffPost and winding down its blogging platform. But just as with YouTube and Facebook, HuffPost’s sizable archive of false anti-vaccine posts remain available to curious readers, uncorrected and bearing the HuffPost brand.
The pieces show up on internal HuffPost tag pages and continue to crop up in search results, thanks in part to the site’s mastery of Google’s algorithm. Searching for “vaccines autism huffington post,” for instance, returns as the third result the aforementioned Jenny McCarthy post from 2011 in which she writes, “I know children regress after vaccination because it happened to my own son.”
Some bear a disclaimer in small, light-grey lettering: “This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site.” But other articles lack the disclaimer, and appear to have belonged to a curated section known as “The Blog.”
HuffPost’s archive illustrates the shifting landscape around vaccines
HuffPost continues to make these articles available to readers, without any corrections or editors’ notes, in the midst of the worst measles outbreak in 25 years – one driven almost entirely by the baseless claims of the anti-vaccination movement. Its decision to do so is noteworthy given the site’s recent coverage of the role played by social media platforms and the news media in fomenting baseless fears about vaccines. Earlier this month, when the Today show’s Twitter account posed the question, “Are vaccines safe?”, HuffPost called the message “dreadfully irresponsible” and “sensationalist” given the “current nationwide measles outbreak.”
Arianna Huffington declined to comment on the specifics of this article. “Arianna has never commented on HuffPost articles or any other HuffPost issues since she’s left,” said Monica Lee, a spokesperson for Thrive Global, a wellness company Huffington launched in 2016. “Thrive Global is 100% based on the latest science. Since the science on vaccines is crystal clear, we do not allow anti-vaccine posts on our contributor platform. The importance of vaccines for public health is not up for debate.”
Huffington’s business partner and former Huffington Post chairman Ken Lerer also declined to comment.
A spokesperson for Child’s Health Defense, a non-profit established by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., told INSIDER that Kennedy wanted to comment but later said he changed his mind.
Representatives for Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey did not return requests for comment.