Matt Taibbi’s TK News Joins the List of Media Outlets Alarmed at Facebook Censorship
Fact checkers don’t check facts, they check inconvenient narratives. Former FDA criminal investigator says FDA "complicit in fraud" by Pfizer.
9 minute read
Last week I did an extensive interview with Matt Taibbi on Facebook’s censorship of an investigation I wrote for The BMJ. That investigation required me to spend dozens of hours reading internal corporate documents, emails, and secret recordings provided by Brook Jackson, who was working for Ventavia, a contracting group that helped conduct a clinical trial for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. All that work can be rewarding, but it’s also a grind.
This investigation of Pfizer has now been picked up by media outlets across the world, including a recent Channel 4 Dispatches program“Vaccine Wars: Truth About Pfizer.”
A few days before I spoke with Taibbi, UnHerd posted an essay about the matter (BMJ fights back against Facebook fact-checkers: The medical journal was censored for 'misinformation' by the tech giant), while my two editors at The BMJ wrote for The New Statesman on how Facebook’s fact checkers found no errors in the investigation but are now playing moral police (In trying to tackle fake news, Facebook is cracking down on real science).
Taibbi has spent several years covering American cancel culture and the ongoing censorship by social media outlets, but Facebook’s blatant attack on a medical journal that based a story off internal documents and peer review by medical experts got him riled. Here’s how he explained it:
The significance of the British Medical Journal story is that it showed how easily reporting that is true can be made to look untrue or conspiratorial. The growing bureaucracy of “fact-checking” sites that help platforms like Facebook decide what to flag is now taking into account issues like: the political beliefs of your sources, the presence of people of ill repute among your readers, and the tendency of audiences to draw unwanted inferences from the reported facts.
Taibbi also discussed records I relied on for The BMJ, but which we didn’t have space to write about, as articles only run around 2,000 words. For example, I gave him a recording that Jackson made of officials at Ventavia, in which one executive described the problems conducting Pfizer’s clinical trial as a “cleanup on aisle five. And we know that it’s significant.”
I also sent Taibbi Ventavia’s internal emails, previously published by The DisInformation Chronicle, in which Ventavia officials were panicking that the FDA might show up and discover the mess. With such a deep pile of evidence concluding that there were problems with Pfizer’s clinical trial, editors at The BMJ sent Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg an Open Letter describing the fact check as “inaccurate, incompetent and irresponsible.”
Here's how I described Facebook’s fact check to Taibbi:
Taibbi: When did you first hear about a potential problem with the “fact check”?
Thacker: I was ignoring it at first. I thought, “How are they going to fact check this?” I’ve dealt with this before. The smartest people in terms of finding error are the fucking lawyers working for the drug companies. There’s an army of those people who will go through and find anything that’s out of order and throw it up in the air. And they couldn’t find anything here. So what issue could there possibly be?
Then I went to the “fact check,” and it was just insane. It looked like it’d been written by high school students. It describes the British Medical Journal as a “blog.” I was joking with my editors about how they work. They pick some proposition out of the blue and then they debunk it, and it’s like, “Aha, win!” Bullshit. It’s like, “Did the BMJ prove that the vaccine kills Martians? No! Fact check: wrong.” And you’re thinking, “Wait, what?”
Here’s what they do. They’re not fact checking facts. What they’re doing is checking narratives. They can’t say that your facts are wrong, so it’s like, “Aha, there’s no context.” Or, “It’s misleading.” But that’s not a fact check. You just don’t like the story.
Readers should also know that, in a previous BMJ investigation I documented mistakes the science media made while covering the pandemic’s origins and a possible lab leak in Wuhan, China. For that investigation, I found that several fact check sites had messed up fact checks:
Prominent outlets such as PolitiFact and FactCheck.org have added editor’s notes to pieces that previously “debunked” the idea that the virus was created in a lab or could have been bioengineered—softening their position to one of an open question that is “in dispute.” For almost a year Facebook sought to control misinformation by banning stories suggesting that the coronavirus was man made. After renewed interest in the virus’s origin, Facebook lifted the ban.
So it’s well documented that these fact check sites for Facebook have a spotty and dishonorable history. Thankfully, more and more reporters are starting to recognize this. To be super clear: reporters are beginning to understand this, but not the science writers.
As I told Taibbi:
The people we have, I don’t call reporters. I call them science writers. The people who write for Science, Nature, Scientific American, these are people who write for science, not on science. They see their job as telling you how fucking awesome science is. That’s what they do for a living.
Send in Team Science for a scicomm debunk!
Sure enough, several people on social media sent me Tweets by members of the illustrious #scicomm community flacking Facebook’s fake fact check. Some of this seems to be driven by Team Science love of any vaccine research Big Pharma spits out. However, some of their support for Facebook is caused by their slavish devotion to the NIH’s Anthony Fauci, who is leading the pandemic response and advises President Biden.
Let’s take a look at Team Science and the Fauci Fan Club.
Attention Wal-Mart shoppers, this tweet is 2-4-1 scicomm special, with science writer Emily Willingham playing off of Amy Maxmen. Both writers are solid members of Team Science, with Maxmen working at Nature and Willingham writing for Scientific American and having been awarded the John Maddox Prize by Sense About Science, a corporate-friendly nonprofit and good friend of Monsanto.
Maxmen’s zeal to protect virologists from any hint that the pandemic might have started in Wuhan has pushed her to write awkward stories with factual errors that Nature’s editors never bother to correct. As others have written, Maxmen’s nonreporting reporting to undermine narratives that discuss dangerous virus research in Wuhan might be explained by Nature’s financial ties to the Chinese government.
But the most bizarre Amy Maxmen incident involved her trying to pretend that she never appeared on a panel with Peter Daszak, who has long been at the center of controversy regarding his funding of research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. When people tweeted a photo of Maxmen on a panel with Daszak, she claimed it was a doctored photo. Maxmen then deleted her tweet, after others began directing her to the C-Span episode…where Maxmen appeared alongside Daszak.
In the hot fever swamps of Maxmen’s mind, any facts she doesn’t like are proof of a right-wing conspiracy by Breitbart, not proof that Maxmen doesn’t always know what the hell she’s talking about.
In an article titled “The Groupthink That Produced the Lab-Leak Failure Should Scare Liberals” New York Magazine highlighted one of Maxmen’s more infamous and silly, fact-stretching pieces in Nature:
An article in Nature warns against a “divisive” investigation into the virus’s origins. Remarkably enough, given that it comes from a scientific journal, the article does not directly question the possibility that COVID did escape from a lab. Instead, it warns that the investigation is “fueling online bullying of scientists and anti-Asian harassment in the United States, as well as offending researchers and authorities in China whose cooperation is needed.” One scientist who reports this “bullying” is Canadian virologist Angela Rasmussen, who in 2020 had developed a high-profile Twitter presence laced with confident dismissals of lab-leak hypothesis as a “conspiracy theory” that was “steeped in racist stereotypes.”
Maxmen continues her record of nonreporting reporting in a co-authored piece at Nature that gently applauds the Biden administration for “following the science” and safeguarding research integrity. Not mentioned in the article: Two FDA officials resigned over the Biden administration's COVID-19 booster shot plan, because the White House insisted on the policy before the FDA approved it. Also not mentioned: STAT News reported that the FDA approved vaccine boosters without consulting its independent vaccine advisers, and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky “sidestepped CDC’s independent vaccine experts, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, or ACIP — an unusual move that is already drawing criticism.”
But hey, this is Nature Magazine. The job is to cheerlead for science, praise the NIH, and give the Biden administration air kisses. Not do real some actual reporting and criticize policies like pushing out FDA vaccine experts—unless those policies are championed by Republicans.
Maxmen’s Twitter side kick, Emily Willingham, is even less inclined to commit the dangerous act of journalism—something like filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to dig up dirt that takes the shine off science. Of course Willingham wouldn’t do such a terrible, harmful thing. She’s a science writer, dammit! #SCICOMM!!!
Some years back, I wrote a piece explaining how important FOIA request are for holding scientists accountable, causing Willingham to jump in on a subject she has zero experience understanding. Willingham’s response was this addled piece in Forbes: “Is The Freedom Of Information Act Stifling Intellectual Freedom?”
In the essay, Willingham cites a Wired piece by Alan Levinovitz, to make the case that FOIA can be used to harm scientists. Unfortunately for Willingham, emails later became public (through FOIA, ironically!) showing that Levinovitz orchestrated his Wired piece with Kevin Folta and Bruce Chassy— two scientists who had been secretly working with Monsanto.
Willingham’s other example for her essay was UC-Davis professor Alison Van Eenennaam, another researcher who was aggrieved about FOIA requests. But here’s what Willingham left out: Van Eenennaam was a spokesperson for GMO Answers, a public relations website launched by Monsanto and Bayer. In 2012, Van Eenennaam partnered with the Competitive Enterprise Institute to promote GMO technology to Congress. The Competitive Enterprise Institute is a corporate financed nonprofit with a long history of misleading the public on the dangers of smoking and climate change.
Maybe explaining Van Eenennaam’s ties to Monsanto could have helped Willingham’s readers make smarter decisions about the validity of what Willingham was spitting out in her misleading Forbes opinion? Or how about the time Van Eenennaam partnered with Monsanto’s Eric Sachs to debate GMO critics in a public forum? Should Willingham have informed readers that emails showed that FleishmanHillard, a Monsanto PR firm, edited Van Eenennaam’s remarks and helped her coordinate with Sachs and other Monsanto executives.
In several instances, information became public documenting bad behavior by scientists because of FOIA requests, the very issue that Willingham was complaining about in order to “protect science.”
Willingham’s willingness to ignore inconvenient facts when she is protecting science likely explains why Sense About Science awarded her their John Maddox Prize for “standing up for science.” Since you’re realizing that Willingham is not the most trustworthy source of information, you’re probably wondering, “Who the hell is Sense About Science?”
In a deep dive look at Sense About Science, The Intercept wrote that the group uses the “sound science” phrase to tip the scales of scientific controversies in favor of industry. Meanwhile, court documents show that Monsanto appears to have coordinated on messaging with Sense About Science to attack cancer experts who found a Monsanto pesticide was harming people.
So it should come as no surprise that the other science writer promoting Facebook’s fake fact check shared the Sense About Science’s John Maddox Prize with Willingham: David Robert Grimes,. (These people sure know how to find each other, don’t they?)
As Grimes has tweeted, he tried to submit a letter to The BMJ to complain about the investigation of Pfizer, but his letter was rejected. (Surprise! Grimes doesn’t know anything about clinical trials or FDA regulations, so editors don’t care what he thinks.) This forced Grimes to begin ranting on Twitter.
Grimes is noted for his ability to argue that anyone who disagrees with him is a “conspiracy theorist” and for appearing in a commercial for Vodafone where he downplayed scientific research on the ill health effects of ionizing radiation. However, Grimes recently lit himself on fire, by republishing the statements for Vodafone’s commercial in an inaccurate medical journal essay.
In a letter signed by Yale Adjunct Professor Linda S. Birnbaum, the former Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), experts in toxicology and epidemiology have called for Grimes’ essay to be retracted:
[T]he review inaccurately presents the current state of science, cherry-picks studies, misrepresents study findings, and entirely omits key research studies indicating that cell phone radiation can, and does, cause cancer.
The point is that readers should be aware that many of the people you encounter on social media—like Maxmen, Willingham, and Grimes—will promote a “pro science” message that can drift outside the universe of factual reality while repeating corporate PR.
Relying on real experts and real facts
As previously stated, The BMJ could not present all the emails, recordings, and internal documents we have in the investigation. Pfizer’s army of lawyers likely know this, likely understand that we are sitting on a trove of records, and so they have not bothered to complain. Arguing would only bring Pfizer more scrutiny and more problems.
Instead, Pfizer has left it up to Facebook’s “inaccurate, incompetent and irresponsible” fact checkers to swarm around and make crazy claims.
One more bit of evidence might be worth viewing. Jackson has considered taking legal action and had an expert examine the evidence she gathered on problems in the Pfizer clinical trial. That expert is a former federal investigator who spent decades working at the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigations (OCI) examining healthcare fraud. Here’s what that person said:
Having worked at FDA, I see it as surprising, for many reasons, that the agency turned a blind eye to a company's knowing submission of fraudulent data. That said, I can also imagine the agency's scientists weighing the risk/benefit ratio and determining that it serves the public health far better to approve a vaccine with much greater efficacy than that which they were ready to approve, during a public health crisis, than make an issue of the Ventavia data. They likely feared the criticism they undoubtedly would have received for holding up a vaccine (which they knew they would eventually approve anyway) at the expense of untold lives lost. Maybe other, more personal considerations were at play here as well?
Later in the examination of Brook Jackson’s claims, the former official in the FDA’s Office of Criminal Investigation added:
My point here is that instead of the regulators protecting the public, in our case, they were complicit in a fraud. At the time, they may have been doing what they believed to be the right thing under extraordinary circumstances. But now they may soon have some explaining to do.
Something really weird happened with Pfizer’s vaccine clinical trial. The FDA knew something was wrong with some of the data and chose to do nothing. And that’s a fact that Facebook cannot hide from the public with fake fact checks.
Comedian Russel Brand has waded in on Facebook’s checking of narratives, not facts. “That’s amazing,” Brand says. “That’s an amazing distinction. It’s ‘everything in here is true, but we would like to look at it in this way.” That’s an invitation to change your perception of reality.”