To protect its own lie machines, the GOP is launching an all-out war against online disinformation research.
Listen To This Story
If there is a leitmotif of the Trumpocene, it is the American Right’s serial exploitation of social media — the direct-to-you pumping of misinformation, disinformation, and demagoguery — to achieve its political ends.
Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign utilized a targeted social media strategy, powered by Facebook data scraped by Cambridge Analytica, to help engineer the victory that propelled him to the office he would disgrace.
His second campaign is notorious for his Big Lie that he won but his “sacred landslide” was stolen, and for a multistep effort to overthrow democracy, culminating in an insurrection that was organized online. The campaign began by pushing deadly lies to downplay the then-emerging pandemic and gave way to both the ongoing Stop the Steal circus and radical anti-vax movement currently thriving on social media platforms.
Now, ahead of Trump’s third run and with consequences for at least a few of his lies and acts finally beginning to catch up to him, the GOP is launching an all-out war against online disinformation research — the collective endeavors of scientists, journalists, and fact-checkers to monitor the online spew of disinformation and hate — with the twin goal of both protecting its own lie machines and distracting from a politically ruinous focus on those consequences.
Disinformers Running Defense
Central to this effort is Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), who, ironically in light of his involvement in the effort to overturn the 2020 election for Trump, now chairs the House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. He has been, according to a June report in The Washington Post, abusing his position of political power to harass and silence disinformation researchers with “a flurry of records requests, subpoenas and lawsuits.”
Jordan joined in on the far-Right attack on the independent Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), declaring that his subcommittee was expanding its “censorship” investigation to include that organization. He has also announced subcommittee Republicans’ backing of the Missouri v. Biden lawsuit accusing the president of partaking in online censorship, and their filing of an amicus brief in the case.
While there has been plenty of money both funding and being made in the spread of disinformation impacting public health, there is very little in countering it, and this sandbagged NIH program was a vital opportunity to fund life-saving scholarship.
This suit appears already to have led to the suspension of the landmark $154.3 million Advancing Health Communication Science and Practice program of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as the American Medical Association’s JAMA Medical News recently reported. Approved in September 2022 and set to launch this summer, the five-year program was aimed at improving science communication online in the wake of rampant misinformation that has made the COVID-19 pandemic so needlessly deadly. The plan was to partner with “technology/social media platforms, marketing experts, and communicators of health information” for this effort.
While there has been plenty of money both funding and being made in the spread of disinformation impacting public health, there is very little in countering it, and this sandbagged NIH program was a vital opportunity to fund life-saving scholarship. In announcing the halting of their program, NIH posted a brief, vague statement hinting at the legal pressure:
NIH has decided to pause moving forward with the development of the program to reconsider its scope and aims in the context of the current regulatory and legal landscape around communication platforms. (emphasis added)
The Missouri v. Biden suit, initially filed by two Republican state attorneys general just ahead of the NIH program’s May 2022 workshop, accuses the Biden administration of colluding with tech companies to “suppress disfavored speakers, viewpoints, and content on social-media platforms under the Orwellian guise of halting so-called ‘disinformation,’ ‘misinformation,’ and ‘malinformation.’” (In addition to claiming suppression of “free speech” about lockdowns, face masks, and vaccines during the pandemic, the suit accuses Biden’s administration of silencing speech about the 2020 election’s integrity.)
In August of last year, the Koch-funded New Civil Liberties Alliance (NCLA) joined the suit on behalf of individuals claiming to have been victimized. Two of the plaintiffs are Dr. Martin Kulldorff and Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, each of whom signed the COVID-minimizing, Koch-funded Great Barrington Declaration (GBD), touted by a panicking Trump administration driven to embrace magical thinking.
Kulldorff and Bhattacharya’s GBD argued against lockdowns early in the pandemic and — as a June 2022 report by the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis (HSSCC) concluded — pushed a “dangerous and discredited herd immunity via mass infection strategy” in the Trump White House behind the back of Trump’s coronavirus response coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx. This is further discussed in Dr. Jonathan Howard’s new book on the GBD, We Want Them Infected: How the failed quest for herd immunity led doctors to embrace the anti-vaccine movement and blinded Americans to the threat of COVID.
The GBD — which prioritized the economy, on which Donald Trump’s reelection campaign hinged, over public health during the emerging crisis — was called “unethical” by Director-General of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Dr. Anthony Fauci, then-director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to Trump, accurately warned that adherence to the GBD’s “total nonsense” guidelines would “lead to hospitalizations and deaths.”
Out of concern for harm to public safety, Fauci and then-Director of the NIH Dr. Francis Collins made efforts to discredit the GBD and keep it from spreading. This led to accusations of censorship that Bhattacharya and Kulldorff are still running with. Their strategy — in the face of their lack of transparency around the GBD’s funding and support, as well as public questioning over lack of accountability for their failed COVID-19 strategy, pushed disastrously by the Trump administration — seems to be that the best defense is a good offense.
Kulldorff’s Cambridge Analytica Connection
Discussing the infodemic in Nature, Collins said, “I wish we had more insights from behavioral social science research into how this has come to pass, and why it could have gotten so completely widespread.” A UK colleague of Kulldorff would be able to provide some insight there.
As Byline Times reported, Kulldorff served, alongside former Cambridge Analytica lead psychologist Patrick Fagan, as an adviser to “COVID-19 Assembly,” described as a “centre point for all anti-lockdown groups worldwide.” While Cambridge Analytica closed its operations in 2018 following its implication in the Facebook data scandal, Fagan has gone on to create his own behavioral science consulting firm, Capuchin.
Fagan was active in another UK-based COVID-19 disinformation group, the Health Advisory & Recovery Team (HART), which was revealed, when the secretive group suffered a leak of their internal messaging system, to be coordinating anti-public health messaging directly with right-wing government and media. The leaked messages from Fagan, reported by Daily Dot, are particularly damning.
Early in the leaked HART chat log Fagan posted a paper called “Pushing Back Against the Nudges” — explaining nudging as “the idea of using psychological principles to give people a gentle bump in the right direction, rather than forcing compliance” — and launched chat rooms with names like “Nudge” and “Psych ops.”
Fagan pushed over-the-top conspiratorial messages in the chat log, including comparing mask policies to forced labor camps:
This is something lockdown fanatics don’t understand. They cannot see how, “Just wear the face mask, it’s only a piece of cloth,” becomes, “Just skip Christmas, it’s only one year,” becomes, “Just go to the internment camp, it’s only for a week.”
Elsewhere in the chat, the idea that medical professionals around the world would face “Nuremberg” (the reference being to post-WWII hangings of top Nazi war criminals) for “crimes against humanity” is discussed — to this day a favorite threat of the extreme anti-vax movement at rallies and online.
Kulldorff has echoed Fagan’s frighteningly vengeful sentiments openly — tweeting an article, with an image of a guillotine; questioning when there would be accountability for the devastation caused by public health officials; and so “nudging” violence. The article was from Jeffrey Tucker, the far-Right economist who oversaw the signing of the GBD and who now runs their spin-off anti-science outlet The Brownstone Institute — for which Kulldorff and Bhattacharya have written, including against Fauci and vaccine mandates.
In the most troubling leaked private HART message, Fagan admits that pushing of anti-vax messaging targeting kids and teens on social media was “abhorrent,” that “the eyes of the sleeping public” would see them as “child murderers,” and that they would have to proceed with caution. But, horrifyingly, he ends with “I’m up for it — let’s discuss!”
Moving beyond the pandemic, both Fagan and Brownstone have been using the anti-science aggression they’ve fomented from their anti-vaccine work to target climate science — which in turn serves GBD backer Charles Koch’s perpetual anti-regulation crusade.
Laura Dodsworth & Patrick Fagan join Dan Wootton to discuss their new book "Free Your Mind: The New World of Manipulation and How to Resist It" which details how the chilling forms of propaganda utilised during Covid are now being used to push an extreme climate change narrative. pic.twitter.com/Ddu4GPMIa2
— GB News (@GBNEWS) July 19, 2023
Bhattacharya and Big Tech
It is Stanford professor Bhattacharya — a senior fellow at the university’s Hoover Institute, which lists Charles Koch as a “guest contributor” and has received financial support from his foundation — who really provides the key links among the leading players in this drama. They reveal how entangled the worlds of tech, academia, politics, and the super-rich became in advancing the far-Right, anti-vax, pro-business, pro-Trump agenda.
Bhattacharya benefited from having deep-pocketed, influential friends in Big Tech in addition to Big Oil, starting with fellow Stanford alum and old college friend, libertarian tech tycoon Peter Thiel. In a 2021 speech to the second National Conservatism Conference, Thiel amplified his friend’s discredited COVID-19 policy, called for sympathy over his poor treatment in the backlash to the GBD, and referred to the following of science as “dogmatism.”
While Bhattacharya brought his let-them-get-COVID credo to his post in the Trump White House, playing a significant role in its disastrously sluggish pandemic response, Thiel’s company Palantir worked the other side of the street, securing lucrative government contracts for COVID-19 data and the vaccine rollout.
Palantir, whose early contracts were to build tools for the US intelligence community, was also reportedly involved with Cambridge Analytica. Thiel, Facebook’s first outside investor, claimed that Mark Zuckerberg agreed, at a 2019 meeting they took with Trump, not to fact-check “political posts” if Trump’s administration avoided “heavy-handed regulations” — a claim the notoriously unforthcoming Zuckerberg has denied. As The New York Times reported, Zuckerberg took then-Meta board member Thiel’s advice to “withstand the public pressure” and not remove political ads containing lies in early 2020.
Zuckerberg, who has denied that Facebook is a “right-wing echo chamber,” declined to remove anti-vax posts later in 2020 as part of the platform’s purported “crackdown” on pandemic misinformation, despite documents from whistleblower Frances Haugen showing internal researchers “had deep knowledge of how coronavirus and vaccine misinformation moved through the company’s apps.” Thiel served on Facebook parent company Meta’s board of directors until February 2022, when he stepped down to focus on electing MAGA candidates for the 2022 midterms.
Aside from being a Trump mega-donor and openly funding Trump-aligned candidates, Thiel has, on the sly, donated millions to DonorsTrust, one of the largest funding streams for right-wing groups and a long-time recipient of Koch dollars. In addition to funding the Hoover Institute and the NCLA, DonorsTrust has been active in funding COVID-19 misinformation and anti-public health efforts. In 2020 they set up their own program called the “Growth and Resilience Project,” which funded groups arguing to reopen the economy and against regulations and pushing out messaging to “ensure the American citizen sees government intrusion into our lives and livelihoods as counterproductive and harmful.”
I spent the afternoon yesterday at Twitter HQ at the invitation of @elonmusk to find out more about the trend "blacklist" that twitter placed on me & more. A short thread on what I found out follows.
— Jay Bhattacharya (@DrJBhattacharya) December 11, 2022
In addition to his relationship with Thiel, Bhattacharya was involved in Thiel’s former PayPal colleague and fellow “free speech absolutist” Elon Musk’s Twitter Files flop. Musk had given exclusive access to the files to a small group of ideologically-aligned journalists including David Zweig, who had initially covered the GBD’s signing. Shortly after dropping Twitter’s COVID-19 misinformation policy in November 2022 following his takeover, Musk invited Bhattacharya for a meeting at Twitter HQ to discuss the “blacklist” on which prior platform leadership had put his content. The day after his meeting with Bhattacharya, Musk tweeted for Fauci’s prosecution.
My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 11, 2022
Earlier this summer, Musk participated in an online pile-on of lauded vaccine scientist Dr. Peter Hotez with podcaster Joe Rogan and “Democratic” presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., leading to a tidal wave of harassment both online and off for the Nobel Peace Prize nominee. More recently, Musk filed a lawsuit against the CCDH, which has called out Kennedy as a leading purveyor of and profiteer from online COVID-19 disinformation, and Musk for the rise in hate speech on the platform he owns.
While Bhattacharya had hoped the Twitter Files hearings before Congress would validate his victim complex, they became most remembered for the revelation that then-President Trump had called for the removal of a Trump-disparaging tweet, and the investigation failed to deliver the censorship smoking gun promised, despite all of Musk’s online hype. And yet, Missouri v. Biden plaintiff Bhattacharya continues his charges of censorship regularly on Twitter/X — to his 450K followers.
Friends in Far-Right Politics
Following their work in the Trump White House, Kulldorff and Bhattacharya have gone on to membership in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) Public Health Integrity Committee, announced at the end of last year. Despite his embrace of the GBD ethos and anti-vax policies that ballooned the COVID-19 death toll in his state, DeSantis is running his 2024 presidential campaign on the supposed success of the state’s “health freedom.” His controversial surgeon general, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, also on the Integrity Committee, was recently caught altering a vaccine study to show harm that did not exist.
A picture from Scott Atlas' book of his secret meeting with the President, Jay Bhattacharya & Martin Kulldorff (Great Barrington Declaration), Cody Meissner, & Joe Ladapo (now Florida's Surgeon General) in August 2020.
— Mallory Harris (@malar0ne) February 19, 2022
Additionally, Kulldorff and Bhattacharya are members of the Norfolk Group, organized by The Brownstone Institute to “present a blueprint containing key public health questions for a COVID-19 commission.” The group has been sending their right-wing “experts” to the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Pandemic (HSSCP) — the Republican-led answer to the Democrat-led HSSCC following the GOP takeover of the House in the 2022 midterms. The HSSCP launched with a February 2023 hearing on governmental pandemic failures featuring Kulldorff and Bhattacharya — who, given their prominent political platform, are clearly not silenced.
Congress’ covid select committee, now under GOP control, announces its first convening: a roundtable next Tuesday with @DrJBhattacharya, @MartinKulldorff, @MartyMakary “to thoroughly examine the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.” pic.twitter.com/BFT0MROf63
— Dan Diamond (@ddiamond) February 23, 2023
The citing of George Orwell, in the Missouri v. Biden lawsuit alleging censorship, echoes Bhattacharya’s earlier appearance before the Democrat-led HSSCC, wherein he repeatedly joked about the fictitious “Ministry of Truth,” from Orwell’s 1984, being out to get him, to the bewilderment of Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL).
Of note, at an October 2021 event hosted by a conservative tech group, Bhattacharya’s old friend Thiel, an ally of Steve Bannon and an investor in extremist-friendly video service Rumble, mused, “I will take QAnon and Pizzagate conspiracy theories any day over a Ministry of Truth.”
In addition to allies on the GOP’s HSSCP, Kulldorff and Bhattacharya have congressional point-man Jordan. Following the failure of the Twitter Files gambit, Jordan is now pushing the “Facebook Files.” This latest stunt takes aim at Biden for pressuring Meta to clamp down on deadly COVID-19 misinformation — which the president did openly, saying the platform was “killing people” by not acting to curb vaccine misinformation — and accuses him of colluding with the CCDH. The COVID-19 death rate has correlated with political leaning since 2022 because the GOP seized upon vaccination status as a political wedge issue, spreading vaccine disinformation and conspiracy theories as needed.
The Complicit Are Fighting Accountability
COVID-19 disinformation was used to bolster Trump’s reelection campaign and it has been allowed to continue on to the present day, to the benefit of divisive MAGA politics and the detriment of public health. This MAGA movement — part of a larger anti-government effort — runs on lies fed to the public that have been catastrophic, especially given their ability to go viral on social media.
Those deliberately spreading disinformation — while crying censorship — must be forthcoming about their funding, methods, and agenda. Instead, their deep-pocketed movement resorts to lawfare, intimidation, and compounding conspiracy theories.
Physicians aligned with an extremist agenda — given large platforms, like Missouri v. Biden plaintiffs Kulldorff and Bhattacharya and the pro-Trump, direct-to-internet, GBD follow-up effort America’s Frontline Doctors — have been instrumental in the COVID-19 anti-vax movement becoming as dangerous as it is. A recently published JAMA study showed that on social media, physician-propagated COVID-19 misinformation in the US was largely carried out by just 52 doctors, 16 of whom “were affiliated with groups with a history of propagating medical misinformation, such as America’s Frontline Doctors.” Tellingly, the NCLA is also involved in litigation fighting medical licensing accountability for disinformation doctors and Bhattacharya has been particularly vocal on this topic.
Online misinformation impacts real life behavior — such as making voting decisions and inciting or participating in an insurrection, causing deadly vaccine hesitancy, and creating radical anti-vax hate that puts the safety of public health officials at risk. Those deliberately spreading disinformation — while crying censorship — must be forthcoming about their funding, methods, and agenda. Instead, their deep-pocketed movement resorts to lawfare, intimidation, and compounding conspiracy theories.
This hostile “legal landscape” — to return to the NIH statement about its shelved program — aims to stop efforts to unearth the root cause of this infodemic and draws attention away from its devastation. And it is being fomented by compromised individuals who have been complicit in creating this monster. There has been enough damage and it is high time that this ugly truth is allowed to come out so that we may start the process of holding accountable those in politics, medicine, and big business who have acted with callous disregard toward American lives and democracy.
A strong commitment to factuality and transparency — online and off — is necessary to begin healing as a nation in the wake of the Trump presidency, the Capitol attack, and a devastatingly politicized public health crisis. It is already overdue, but it is absolutely vital before the 2024 election — lest the powers of disinformation and demagoguery be once again, and even more disastrously, harnessed to the powers of the state.
Allison Neitzel, MD, is physician-researcher and founder of the independent research group MisinformationKills, which has investigated the dark money and politics behind public health disinformation with a focus on the pandemic. She is currently working on a book on the topic: Misinformation Kills: How Politics and Dark Money Hijacked Covid.