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Donald Trump, Elon Musk, COVID misinformation
Donald Trump and Elon Musk spread COVID-19 misinformation. Photo credit: Illustration by WhoWhatWhy from ACD/ChemSketch 8.0 and Inkscape / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED), Artoria2e5 / Wikimedia (CC0 1.0 DEED), iXimus / Pixabay, and The White House / Wikimedia.

The spread of viral disinformation via social media would prove a vital tool for the right-wing assault on public health throughout the pandemic.

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When the pandemic hit American soil, the country faced a tragic lack of leadership in President Donald Trump, a man who famously did not bother to read his daily briefs. He also spent a lot of time on Twitter, and not only religiously watched Fox News but took policy cues from it. In the emerging crisis — which happened to coincide with Trump’s reelection campaign gearing up — while scientific experts couldn’t get the ear of the president, social media and right-wing media very much could and did. 

Trump, who had promised the pandemic would simply disappear, came to embrace a too-good-to-be-true pandemic “solution” in the form of hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), which had captured the excitement of Silicon Valley — and the attention of Elon Musk on Twitter. Though the repurposing of existing drugs is not inherently a bad idea, Team Trump was not interested in engaging in the scientific process to test for safety and efficacy. And it certainly wasn’t the only time Musk or Trump recklessly took off with an idea because they wanted it to be true. 

Encouraged by dubious sources, MAGA jumped all-in on the early promise of HCQ, which would quickly prove ineffective against the virus. In so doing, they would cause a devastating shortage of the medication for those, such as lupus patients, who actually needed it; a scramble for data and shoddy studies to back up a big and empty promise; a lucrative telehealth grift for physicians who took a free ride on the hype; and a chaotic and deadly political war on science and vaccines. 

The spread of viral disinformation via social media would prove a vital tool for the right-wing assault on public health throughout the pandemic. Twitter had assumed an important role in the way modern journalism is conducted and, as the pandemic would demonstrate, joined an existing right-wing media-to-policy pipeline laid down by the opinion engineers at Fox News and its ilk. The Fox-led media system that fed Trump policy ideas and talking points was also a well-oiled machine for promoting viewpoints supporting — evidence optional — that very agenda it did so much to create. An agenda that proved disastrous in the pandemic.

This situation has only become more dire under Musk’s Twitter/X ownership, as the MAGA-but-worse anti-vaxxer cranked open the conspiracy floodgates, turning a one-time marketplace of ideas into something more akin to Trump’s Truth Social. Musk’s embrace of HCQ and disdain for early mitigation measures would put him on a path toward alignment during the pandemic with the most extreme of the Far Right in politics and online. In the process he would create an opportunity — and a platform — for newer denizens of polarized MAGA politics. 

The Google Doc Heard Round the World

Musk — who began the pandemic by railing against the “fascist” lockdowns, which he skirted in the US, for getting in the way of his own mission at Tesla (despite having followed lockdown orders for his Chinese factory) — played a key role in building the hype around HCQ for COVID-19. On March 16, 2020, he tweeted out a Google Doc “paper” touting the drug, written by Dr. James Todaro, a physician turned block chain investor, and Gregory Rigano, a lawyer later called out for misrepresenting his status as an adviser to Stanford University’s School of Medicine. 

The “paper” — picked up by the influential Silicon Valley blog Stratechery — had been “published” on March 13, 2020 — the day Trump declared a national emergency. Musk followed up his tweet containing this Google Doc publication with a claim that it was consistent with “what I’m hearing from a lot of smart people.” 

As Wired reported, “The original Google Doc made a good case for chloroquine being of interest — attempted use in prior pandemics, studies in cells and in animals, preliminary results from China.” However, it crucially lacked clinical trials. As Media Manipulation noted, Todaro and Rigano’s sole COVID-19-specific citation came from controversial French researcher Dr. Didier Raoult, who had published an article on HCQ earlier that month.

Nevertheless, this Google Doc briefly made a right-wing star out of Rigano, who appeared on Laura Ingraham’s Fox News program the same day Musk tweeted about it. Two days later, Ingraham emailed Trump adviser Jared Kushner about HCQ; and another two days after that, she was on air, stating “the FDA needs to hop onto this pronto.” As The Washington Post reported, Ingraham would go on to take a meeting with Trump to promote the drug a couple of weeks later in early April. A 2021 study of the propagation of HCQ misinformation on Twitter found Ingraham’s handle to be “the most central node in the [misinformation] network.” 

Days after his appearance on The Ingraham Angle, Rigano appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program as well as Glenn Beck’s podcast. The lawyer boldly told Carlson, “What we’re here to announce is the second cure to a virus of all time,” and echoed Raoult’s false claim of “a 100 percent cure rate against coronavirus.” As HuffPost reported

Rigano told Beck that he and Todaro were in “active discussions with Elon Musk on Twitter.” He also claimed to have a “direct line” to the White House and said “we know that President Trump received our white paper within 24 hours after it being [sic] published.” Rigano asked for the government’s support “both financially and scientifically.”  

On March 19, Trump declared the drug a “game changer.” At a task force briefing the following day, the then-director of the National Institutes for Infectious Diseases and Trump’s chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, stated the promise of HCQ was based on “anecdotal evidence” and correctly indicated it was not an effective treatment for COVID-19. Trump interjected, saying, “But I’m a big fan, and we’ll see what happens. I feel good about it. That’s all it is, just a feeling, you know.” 

If the Google Doc promoted on Twitter and Fox News was responsible for Trump’s good feeling about the drug, it shouldn’t have been. It was a sloppy mess — aside from being a non-peer-reviewed Google Doc. In addition to their misrepresentation of their own credentials, Todaro and Rigano initially listed another co-author, a virologist with a Ph.D. from Stanford and affiliated with the University of Alabama, who claimed to have no idea he was included in the paper and was later removed from it at his request. 

The Google Doc authors omitted one person who apparently was involved in the genesis of their quick-fix report, a “philosopher” by the name of Adrian Bye, who tipped them off about early HCQ research out of China on Twitter just prior to the drafting of their document. Bye’s exclusion might have had to do with his lack of relevant credentials — or his history of open antisemitism on the platform (now a regular feature of the Musk-owned app). HuffPost described Bye as “a fan of white nationalists,” who “tweets antisemitic rhetoric and calls chloroquine ‘a Nazi drug that is here to teach a lesson to leftists about bias.’” 

Rigano would include Bye in his thank you on Twitter, referring to the philosopher and his cited physician-bitcoin investor collaborator Todaro as “next level humans” just prior to publishing the Google Doc that catapulted him to the top of the right-wing media pyramid. 

Issues with the paper and its authors and inspiration aside, its wild journey across the landfill of Twitter and the blogosphere to Musk, Fox News, and Trump was alarming. Such a fantastical narrative — something beyond even the lore of Silicon Valley unicorn startups — is unheard of in the boring world of medical research and stands in sharp contrast to the more realistic decades-long efforts of Nobel Prize winner Dr. Katalin Karikó, whose tireless work brought us the mRNA technology behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Which, unlike HCQ, would prove effective against COVID-19. 

In addition to Silicon Valley and right-wing media, the Google Doc caught the attention of its cited scientist, Raoult, who used its online momentum for his own self-promotion. In a classic example of the proverbial club where members gather in a circle to pat each other on the back, he shared the results of his forthcoming preprint on the drug with Todaro and Rigano (also in Google Doc format) two days prior to posting them, results that Todaro then tweeted out to give credibility to his own white paper. Raoult’s paper was eventually retracted for not meeting the “expected standard.”

The disgraced scientist was later revealed to have engaged in decades of unethical research and has subsequently suffered retractions of his pre-COVID work. Independent researcher Dr. Elisabeth Bik — who pointed out the issues with Raoult’s work, both with HCQ and pre-pandemic — unsurprisingly faced legal backlash and doxxing from him and a colleague of his aimed, in Trumpian fashion, at silencing her.  

Early Treatment to Extremism

In addition to tweeting about the promise of HCQ, Musk invested in early treatment research, with his foundation donating to wealthy tech entrepreneur Steve Kirsch’s Covid Early Treatment Fund (CETF). As noted, research into drug repurposing was not a bad idea at the time — given the early promise of HCQ and lack of effective tools against the deadly virus — but jumping to claim it as a cure was. Larger trials were warranted and in need of funding, and there was plenty of money floating around in the tech world. 

However, Kirsch — a philanthropist and cryptocurrency enthusiast who made his fortune off of the optical mouse — had no medical experience or history with running clinical trials and would go on to struggle with the failure that is commonplace in medical research and experimentation. Initially, however, he had a strong team around him and they set off on an optimistic quest for a pandemic cure. One of the initial CETF-funded efforts was an HCQ randomized control trial performed by Dr. David Boulware of the University of Minnesota, which began enrolling patients the same week Todaro and Rigano posted their Google Doc. 

A few months later, this study would conclude that the drug was ineffective against preventing COVID-19 infection after exposure to a sick person and did not lessen symptoms of a COVID-19 infection better than a placebo. 

Boulware would be demonized for these results, attacked by Kirsch — who became convinced a “correct” interpretation of the data would show HCQ worked — and other far-right individuals

In a sign of just how politicized science was getting, Trump adviser Peter Navarro — who, to this day, is still arguing for HCQ on Twitter/X and blaming the Food and Drug Administration for its “suppression” — co-authored a lengthy pro-HCQ document that attempted to undermine the results out of Minnesota that stood at odds with the president’s lofty claims.

Online, shortly after Boulware e-published his HCQ results in early June 2020, a website called c19early.org, frequently cited by anti-vaxxers, appeared and directly attacked his conclusions. In fact, the first tweet from the organization’s Twitter handle @CovidAnalysis — on June 6, 2020 — linked to their website’s article against Boulware’s study. 

The website currently listed in Rigano’s Twitter bio, c19hcq.org, also links to the @CovidAnalysis Twitter/X account. And other websites, such as c19ivm.org, have emerged with a similar interface, also linking to @CovidAnalysis and aggregating the small studies whose results failed to stand up to larger, more rigorous studies. 

While it is unclear who runs this network of websites, Rigano had previously run the site covidtrial.io, to which he instructed people to go during his Tucker Carlson appearance. He continues to tout his “research published by Elon Musk” in his Twitter bio, claim he was right about HCQ, and blame Fauci for suppressing the drug for COVID-19. 

Like Rigano’s co-author Todaro, Kirsch would transition from arguing for HCQ to raging against vaccines, though he would make himself much more of a central figure in the far-right anti-vax political crusade, eventually appearing on the vaccine-misinformation-spewing War Room podcast of Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, as well as on Fox News. 

Despite his exit from the Trump administration years earlier, Bannon — along with Navarro, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI), and a few doctors aligned with their politics — was revealed in the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis’s (HSSCC) report, “A ‘Knife Fight’ With the FDA,” to have been involved in the MAGA effort to continue pushing for Trump’s HCQ elixir after it had already proven ineffective and lost its emergency use authorization (EUA) status in mid-June 2020. 

And, as the report discusses, it was a former War Room co-host who linked Navarro’s office with a researcher in Brazil to continue studying the drug in July 2020 in the hunt for a “good HCQ paper.” (As the report also notes, their Brazilian virologist colleague — an ally of then-Presdient Jair Bolsonaro — was “recommended [to] be charged criminally for promoting false coronavirus cures” by the Brazilian Senate.)

In the US — after his entire CETF board walked out on him, citing his increasingly erratic behavior following the failure of their trials to produce a miracle cure — Kirsch launched the Vaccine Safety Research Fund (VSRF). The VSRF sponsored, per the event’s website, the January 2022 Defeat the Mandates rally, where Kirsch spoke alongside big-name anti-vax doctors like Robert Malone and Peter McCullough (both listed as VSRF experts). 

The DC rally, promoted on Joe Rogan’s podcast as well as Bannon’s, featured portrayals of Fauci as a criminal killer; a comparison of the plight of the unvaccinated to that of Anne Frank from Robert F. Kennedy Jr.; and a call, by Del Bigtree, the gentleman recently announced as the Kennedy campaign’s director of communications, for “Nuremberg 2.0” (read: hangings of top Nazi officials post-WWII) for pro-vax doctors and journalists — a threat hurled frequently online. 

Canadian, trucker rally, Toronto

Trucks blocked the intersection at University Avenue and Bloor Street on February 5, 2022 in Toronto, Canada. Photo credit: michael_swan / Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0 DEED)

While not involved in Defeat the Mandates, Musk used his mega platform to lend vocal support to the Canadian trucker rally against vaccine mandates, which occurred during the same deadly omicron BA.1 winter, going so far as to compare Justin Trudeau to Hitler over the Canadian prime minister’s cracking down on cryptocurrency being sent to the protesters. This “People’s Convoy” movement had a US arm that featured speeches from the likes of the VSRF’s Malone and scored a visit with far-right future chairman of the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), as well as Sens. Johnson and Ted Cruz (R-TX).    

The VSRF hosts a variety of disinformation doctors and anti-democracy agitators like Johnson and Bannon’s ally Jack Posobeic on its weekly calls, which are promoted on Kirsch’s popular substack. Kirsch was featured in the November 2022 Died Suddenly conspiracy film and was an organizer of the March 2023 Covid Litigation Conference to plan “a tidal wave” of anti-vax lawsuits. He also is a staunch supporter of anti-vaxxer, HCQ-promoter, Defeat the Mandates-contributor Kennedy’s Bannon-encouraged presidential campaign. 

While previously banned from Twitter, Kirsch was welcomed back on the platform following Musk’s takeover and claims to have a direct line to Musk, boasting in May that the world’s richest man responded to him via email “within three minutes.” 

Both Musk and Kirsch have used Twitter to target pro-vax doctors, with the former tweeting for the prosecution of Fauci shortly after taking over the platform and the latter doxxing and disingenuously demanding “debates” with doctors on the platform. Offline, Kirsch had the cops called on him for stalking a doctor on the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices at her home for intended inclusion in the Died Suddenly film. 

This past summer, Kirsch and Musk joined in on the Twitter/X dog-pile of Dr. Peter Hotez — who makes patent-free vaccines for the developing world — using their big bank accounts to try to lure him into a “debate” with Kennedy on Joe Rogan’s podcast. This online attack — which followed Bannon calling Hotez a “criminal” on Truth Social the week prior — resulted in the stalking of the Nobel Peace Prize nominee at his home by a far-right YouTuber. 

On October 3, the day Karikó and Dr. Drew Weissman were announced Nobel Prize winners for the life-saving mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, Musk posted a bizarre tweet of an image from The Twilight Zone with the text, “Imagine a vaccine so safe you have to be threatened to take it” and the caption “Imagination Land!” 

This sneer stands in contrast with a gung-ho summer-2020 Musk, who announced Tesla was getting in on the mRNA vaccine development space via CureVac — which unfortunately failed to produce a product comparable to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines and make a hero out of the tech tycoon. Musk, joining a procession of similarly motivated left-turned-far-right-wingers, would turn his back on mRNA science out of hurt ego, political opportunism, or perhaps a mix of the two. 

An estimated 232,000 American COVID-19 deaths could have been prevented with at least a primary series of the vaccines, as Hotez frequently discusses and has reminded Musk directly on Twitter/X.

Recently, Musk appeared on Rogan’s podcast — streamed on Twitter/X — where they made the false claim that ventilators were responsible for the deaths of patients critically ill with COVID-19, the virus they have been downplaying for years now. Musk’s use of the term “intubated ventilators” received appropriate mocking from actual doctors online. This bit of nonsense from the man who promised Tesla would be donating ventilators to US hospitals early in the pandemic, when what hospitals actually received were far less costly BiPAP machines commonly used for sleep apnea — with Tesla stickers slapped on the boxes for PR. 

Joe Rogan, Elon Musk

Joe Rogan Experience #1169. Rogan interviews Elon Musk on September 6, 2018. Photo credit:
PowerfulJRE / YouTube

America’s Frontline Doctors: Direct-to-Internet Disinformation

As Media Manipulation reported, the same day Rigano was on Tucker Carlson and Glenn Beck’s programs, websites purporting to be local news sites, which were actually created by “Tea Party-connected conservative activists,” circulated the Google Doc. 

On social media, Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA tweeted out a video of Carlson’s coverage, telling his followers to “RT If President @realDonaldTrump should immediately move to make this [HCQ] available.” Kirk, who is extremely active on Twitter/X, is a member of the Council for National Policy, the dark money and media hub of the Far Right — with which Bannon was previously involved — adept at astroturfing campaigns.

To keep the HCQ hype alive ahead of Trump’s run, following less than ideal performance in clinical trials, the Tea Party Patriots, the CNP, and the Trump reelection campaign joined forces to create America’s Frontline Doctors (AFLDS) — with Todaro as a founding member and prominent participant. 

The group was fronted by future insurrectionist Dr. Simone Gold who, like Todaro, would gain CNP membership. Founding AFLDS member Dr. Joseph Ladapo, who worked behind the scenes in the Trump White House to undermine the efforts of coronavirus response coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, would go on to serve as Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R-FL) deceitful but well paid anti-vax state surgeon general. 

On July 27, 2020, they all burst onto the scene with a press conference in front of the Supreme Court hawking HCQ — which had lost its EUA status weeks prior — and arguing against masks and lockdowns. Their event was livestreamed by Brietbart and a video of it was tweeted out by Trump and his eldest son. In the lead up to this “White Coat Summit,” Gold had made appearances on the programs of both Kirk and Bannon. Following the removal of the video of their event from social media as misinformation, Gold et al. would go on to cry censorship and victimhood, and further stoke public mistrust in scientific consensus and institutions. 

After the failure of HCQ, AFLDS would transition to pushing the next MAGA wonder drug, ivermectin, while some AFLDS members, such as Dr. Stella Immanuel, have moved on to hawking bogus supplements online. Though Todaro has kept a lower profile, Gold — who briefly went to prison over her insurrection involvement — has embraced the Far Right limelight and lavish lifestyle. She has sullied her credentials to promote the disturbingly extreme anti-vaccine rhetoric of the radical Far Right, on tour with the QAnon-friendly ReAwaken America traveling program — despite the millions of American lives saved by the vaccines.

In addition to having used the internet to hawk their bogus cures via telehealth to the tune of millions of dollars, AFLDS members continue to use social media to spread their deadly — and radicalizing — disinformation, creating chaos for public health officials in the still extremely politicized crisis. 

This summer, AFLDS joined in on Musk’s attack on the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) — creator of the oft-cited COVID-19 Disinformation Dozen list featuring Kennedy — contributing their own, retaliatory “Deadly Disinformation Dozen” list, which of course included Fauci and Hotez, as part of their third annual White Coat Summit (“The Reckoning”). 

What started under Trump’s presidency with the dangerous promotion of false narratives around COVID-19 cures turned to aggression against the scientific community and has become an all-out war on science under Musk’s “free speech absolutism” reign.

A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the majority of physician-propagated COVID-19 misinformation on social media was the work of just 52 doctors, with nearly a third of them “affiliated with groups with a history of propagating medical misinformation, such as America’s Frontline Doctors.” A more recent JAMA study showed belief in Trump and social media to be leading factors in having taken non-evidence-based COVID-19 treatments such as HCQ and ivermectin. 

Both studies show the outsized impact a small but vocal fringe minority can have on public health behaviors. This is especially dangerous on social media platforms with algorithms that prioritize buzzy misinformation over the far less exciting and appealing truth, a bias that was already a problem before Musk bought and ruined Twitter via moves like immediately removing its COVID-19 misinformation policy. 

Meanwhile, scientists are leaving Twitter/X in droves, as it has become overrun with anti-science conspiracy theories and the hate that disinformation breeds, making much-needed scientific communication that much more difficult. What started under Trump’s presidency with the dangerous promotion of false narratives around COVID-19 cures turned to aggression against the scientific community and has become an all-out war on science under Musk’s “free speech absolutism” reign. 

All of which in turn serves the chaos-for-chaos’s-sake agenda of Bannon, who — well versed in the manipulation of social media for political ends — has been a central figure in the spread of pandemic disinformation, engaging in what Shock Doctrine author Naomi Klein has coined “disaster capitalism” at massive scale online from the comfort of his basement podcast bunker.

Please Donate to WhoWhatWhyChaos in the Aftermath

The knee-jerk embrace of a too-good-to-be-true simple solution to an immensely complex problem provides us with a tragic case study of the corrosive effects emanating from a terrible decision by terrible leadership driven by purely self-serving motives. 

The “move fast break things” ethos of Silicon Valley — picked up by an all-too-eager and -impressionable, anti-science egomaniac in control of a rogue political party — broke the pandemic response in its crucial early days. 

This assault on public health was carried out by people like Musk and Trump, grossly overconfident in their expertise while sorely lacking the humility required of those engaged in ethical scientific research. The lengths their allies went to trying to find “truth” to uphold their crumbling narrative, instead of simply acknowledging they were wrong, is astounding but not surprising given the pridefulness of those involved — a hubris that might bedevil nonscientists and scientists alike, but that raged, in this case, outside of all institutional bounds and beyond all standards of professional accountability. 

The vendetta the HCQ/Ivermectin movement took up against science and scientists, in the frustrating absence of data to support their simple solution, paved the way for the deadly COVID-19 anti-vax movement, which has only grown in strength online over the past few years, flinging gallons more fuel on the trust-nothing (except our lies), burn-it-all-down fires that have been enveloping our institutions.

Their terrifyingly successful demonization campaign against public health experts who were, and are, simply trying to fulfill their duty to protect the public from both the virus and an onslaught of disinformation, has been downright dystopian. It is not just the big names in public health like Fauci and Hotez who have become targets: A 2023 JAMA study discussed the surge in health care workers experiencing online hate, and news reports have discussed how online disinformation has given way to frightening in-person verbal and physical harassment

The vendetta the HCQ/Ivermectin movement took up against science and scientists, in the frustrating absence of data to support their simple solution, paved the way for the deadly COVID-19 anti-vax movement, which has only grown in strength online over the past few years, flinging gallons more fuel on the trust-nothing (except our lies), burn-it-all-down fires that have been enveloping our institutions. 

Ongoing poor leadership of platforms and in politics is drawn to use destructive chaos as a means to maintain power, regardless of the cost in lives. Politically-aligned hucksters shamelessly attempt to maintain the long-since-disproven legitimacy of the “early treatment” drugs and desperately cry censorship, which feeds into the “us vs. them” conspiracy narratives they rely on to keep their followers distracted from the truth. In reality, it is this rogue movement — constantly crying “censorship” — that continues to silence science and obscure facts for their own ends. 

While Musk, in Trumpian fashion, threatens with lawsuits those who call out his broken, hate-spewing platform, AFLDS is engaged in legal action to continue undermining science with their filing of an amicus brief in the controversial lawsuit against HHS and FDA over the agencies’ anti-ivermectin public messaging. Their far-right allies have been successful in abusing the legal system and the First Amendment to thwart attempts by the government and scientific community to counter disinformation online and get at the heart of this issue. 

Just last month, former Trump senior adviser Stephen Miller’s America First Legal announced on Twitter/X that they were launching yet another lawsuit against HHS and FDA “for illegally concealing government records related to the suppression of lifesaving drugs like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin to treat COVID.” This is despite the fact that Dr. Rick Bright — who filed a whistleblower complaint against the HHS in 2020 following his removal after urging caution on HCQ — claimed the Trump White House was putting “cronyism ahead of science.” 

Trump’s turning of his back on science is less surprising than Musk’s — science’s former star boy — but it has followed both of their descents into the conspiratorial Far Right. Anti-science is now baked into Musk’s extremist social media platform as well as the still-MAGA-helmed GOP’s anti-truth political platform. It undermines not only public health but democracy itself, as Hotez’s new book The Deadly Rise of Anti-Science details, pointing to a history of anti-science propaganda’s use in authoritarian regimes. While this politically-motivated legal action is a uniquely American problem, anti-vax extremism is not isolated to the US, which leads the world in the exportation of this dangerous disinformation.  

COVID-19, New Hospital Admissions, by Week

COVID-19 New Hospital Admissions, by Week, in The United States, Reported to CDC. Photo credit: CDC

As can be seen with the current uptick in COVID-19 cases, the virus was never just going to disappear. The lies of the early pandemic were merely smoke and mirrors from men like Trump, self-obsessed emperors with no clothes, desperate to maintain control and inconvenienced by human suffering. 

They will never admit they got it wrong and that they are not, in fact, gods above science. There is no remorse for the damage done in the chain reaction of lies they set off to cover for itself. 

This attack on science continues thanks to yes-men and -women of a radical, facts-averse political movement wholly lacking in individuals willing to call out the naked truth — as it plays out both online and in real life right before their eyes — for fear of overdue political consequences. No matter how many times Musk claims pre-Musk Twitter was censoring right-wing views on COVID-19 — as he has with the fumbled “Twitter Files” charges and on his most recent Rogan appearance — it nonetheless has been an extremely useful tool for the spread of harmful, political disinformation during the pandemic.

Unfortunately, silence from the Democrats across the aisle and from medical institutions allows the out-of-control anti-vax movement to continue apace into election 2024, where both democracy and science are on the ballot, with major consequences not just for the US but for the world.   

The devastating truth America must reckon with is that people suffered and died as a result of the early treatment movement both directly — AFLDS currently faces an HCQ wrongful death lawsuit in Nevada — and, far more so, indirectly via the anti-vaccine hysteria it spawned. Millions nationwide are suffering from the long-term effects of the virus — physical, mental, economical, societal. As FDA Commissioner Dr. Robert Califf stated this past spring, health misinformation is lowering the life expectancy in the US — the erstwhile world leader in science. 

Leaders cannot continue to ignore the extreme online anti-vax movement and just hope it will disappear either. That is its own form of magical thinking. In the US’s very recent history, plenty of people ignored online threats in the months leading up to the insurrection — which had ousting Fauci in addition to hanging Pence as part of the plan, per the full Bannon leaks — and this movement has had years to foment its radical hate. 

Last month, Raoult — who still maintains significant power in the academic publishing world — and McCullough published a pro-HCQ paper, despite the preprint version having been previously removed for ethical issues. While scientists are calling to have this paper retracted, it has been picked up by the @DiedSuddenly_ X account — a blue-check account with over 550K followers and really Raoult and McCollough’s target audience. The comments on their post include calls for revenge against scientists who “censored” this “cure” — including a video on how to tie a noose. 

Through successful and steady propaganda campaigns, this movement convinced a frighteningly large portion of the country that science — not the virus that has killed over a million of their fellow citizens — is the enemy. The same bad actors who brought about this movement will use more lies in their attempts to cover for previous lies as they move to regain power. For the health of both the public and its democracy — and not discounting implications beyond US borders — Americans must face this head on.

Entering 2024, the choice in how to proceed is between condoning, if not outright subscribing to, “red pill” conspiracy theories that threaten to destroy the fabric of American society, and facing the dark reality of what has actually transpired over the past few years and who is responsible. Acknowledging this dark reality will be a bitter pill for Americans to swallow, but it is the only true elixir for a nation seeking to restore the health of a body politic on life support.  

Karam Bales is a UK-based disinformation researcher and freelance journalist who writes regularly for the Byline Times as well as his own initiative, the Counter Disinformation Project. He is a former executive for the National Education Union, Europe’s largest education trade union.


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