Twitter owner Elon Musk turned over access to internal company documents to a top source of vaccine misinformation who’s been giving out bunk public health advice for years, the latest in a far-right shift on one of the most influential social media sites in the world.
Alex Berenson, a former New York Times reporter — whom The Atlantic called “The Pandemic’s Wrongest Man” in 2021 — published a Substack article Monday as part of the so-called “Twitter Files,” or Musk’s effort to turn over certain internal Twitter records to select writers and journalists.
Berenson has been frequently and flagrantly wrong about the pandemic. For example, he questioned in October 2020 why anyone would believe a prediction of 500,000 U.S. COVID deaths by the following spring — only for the death toll to pass that number by February, and then double it by May 2022.
But worse than simply being wrong, he has, on several occasions, presented misleading information about vaccines to his readers. In one telling example, Berenson in November 2021 cited British mortality data for people aged 10-59 and wrote, “Vaccinated English adults under 60 are dying at twice the rate of unvaccinated people the same age … I don’t know how to explain this other than vaccine-caused mortality.” Within eight days, according to Berenson, the link to his post had been shared 800,000 times, and screenshots had been spread by the millions around the web. But he was wrong, and dramatically so.
Fact-checkers and British officials identified his fundamental misunderstanding: Berenson had written “age” but was referring to an age range, lumping together everyone aged 10-59. Older Brits in that range had been prioritized for the vaccine, so more of them were vaccinated than the younger people. And older people, vaccinated and not, are generally more likely to die than younger people. As a spokesperson for the British Office for National Statistics told PolitiFact, “Vaccinated people are more likely to be older and unvaccinated people more likely to be younger, therefore increasing the all-cause mortality rates for the vaccinated.”
“All of this is somewhat complicated, I’ll admit,” Berenson said in a follow-up post, asserting nonetheless that the chart he’d misinterpreted “uses real data to raise a crucial issue.”
Berenson was banned from Twitter in 2021 for “repeated violations of our COVID-19 misinformation rules,” but he sued the company and was allowed back on as part of a settlement. He subsequently pledged to sue the Biden administration after Twitter’s internal corporate chatter described Biden administration officials fingering him as “the epicenter of disinfo,” as Andy Slavitt, then a Biden COVID-19 adviser, was said to have described Berenson. (Slavitt has denied that he asked Twitter to censor Berenson.)
You get the picture: As The Atlantic noted, Berenson’s cherry-picked and incorrect interpretations of pandemic data have sown doubt about vaccine efficacy statistics, immune response to vaccines, Israel’s vaccine strategy, and even the age-appropriateness of getting vaccinated. (Berenson suggested a cut-off for healthy people under 70. According to CDC data analyzing 99% of reported COVID deaths, at least 166,858 Americans aged 50-64 have died of COVID, as have 38,151 Americans in their 40s, and that’s to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands who’ve been hospitalized with the disease and face long-term effects.)
Recently, Berenson has taken to Twitter to imply without evidence that the death of soccer journalist Grant Wahl and the on-field collapse of NFL player Damar Hamlin were tied to the COVID-19 vaccine.
A ‘Sweeping Conclusion’
Berenson’s “Twitter Files” report is fairly straightforward. In it, he reprints emails to Twitter’s team from Scott Gottlieb, who served as Food and Drug Administration Commissioner in the Trump administration and subsequently joined Pfizer’s board in 2019. Gottlieb has long been a Berenson target, and Berenson has announced his intent to sue Gottlieb and others he alleges conspired to have him kicked off of Twitter.
The records show Gottlieb emailing Twitter regarding a post from Brett Giroir, who served as assistant secretary for health in the Trump administration and, briefly, the acting FDA commissioner. Giroir wrote in August 2021 that natural immunity from a prior COVID infection was “superior” to immunity derived from a vaccine “by ALOT.” Those who’d been infected needn’t get the jab, Giroir wrote.
After Gottlieb’s email — which called Giroir’s tweet “corrosive” and said it drew a “sweeping conclusion” based on a single study — the company affixed a “misleading” tag to Giroir’s tweet, Berenson reported.
Berenson relished his access, repeatedly implying Gottlieb was acting on behalf of Pfizer’s financial interests and concluding his story, “So how will Pfizer react to the black-and-white proof from Twitter’s records that one of its most powerful board members secretly tried to suppress debate on the mRNA jabs that have has been by far its best-selling product since 2020?”
But as virologist Angela Rasmussen pointed out on Twitter, “the only problem is that the tweet from Dr. Giroir *is* incorrect by A LOT. ‘Natural immunity’ is variable & NOT superior to vaccine-induced immunity. Even in 2021, we knew that infection-acquired immunity is at best comparable to vaccine-induced immunity.” Giroir, for his part, wrote, “My tweet was accurate then, and it remains so now.” Gottlieb responded by posting several emails he’d sent to Twitter that Berenson decided not to reprint — tweets he’d flagged that he considered a threat to his safety.
Twitter Ditches Its COVID Misinfo Policy
Musk, who has interacted with Berenson on Twitter since the pandemic’s early months, has his own terrible track record on COVID commentary: He infamously predicted in March 2020 that there would be “close to zero new cases in US” by the end of the following month. What actually happened was more than a million Americans died.
That hasn’t stopped Musk’s embrace of COVID skeptics and conspiracy theorists on Twitter: In November, Twitter quietly updated a webpage to state that it was “no longer enforcing the COVID-19 misleading information policy” as of Nov. 23.
At around that time, coinciding with the release of the anti-vaccine film “Died Suddenly,” the number of tweets with keywords associated with conspiracy theories — such as “Covid AND hoax” or “Fauci AND lied” — spiked dramatically, an Australian researcher found.
Musk’s introduction of paid “verification” badges — even if there appears to be no verification occurring — has also resulted in the distinct blue badges being affixed to several anti-vaccine accounts with tens of thousands of followers each, The Guardian reported.
In his blog post on Monday, Berenson noted that he was planning “more reporting on the files in the weeks to come.”