Dr. Simone Gold, a convicted U.S. Capitol insurrectionist and the founder of the vaccine disinformation group America’s Frontline Doctors, has offered to help Elon Musk assemble a team of doctors to fact-check medical information on Twitter.
“If you would like to put together a group of honest, brilliant, courageous doctors to ‘fact check,’ then I would be glad to assist you,” wrote Gold in a December 5 letter to Musk that she shared with her 587,000 Twitter followers and over 1 million email subscribers. “Medicine will not advance unless unbiased scientists are able to resist special interest groups and the media.”
Gold is the ringleader of a network of right-wing health-care providers that have made millions selling so-called alternatives to vaccines, like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, which have been repeatedly discredited as treatments for Covid. Gold has referred to Covid-19 vaccines as “experimental biological agents.” She’s also currently in a legal fight with AFLDS and its board chair who are suing her, alleging extravagant spending and that she lives rent-free in a $3.6 million house bought with AFLDS charity funds.
Gold’s appeal to Twitter’s owner was not in response to any public plans to create a medical fact-checking team — Musk hasn’t said anything along those lines. Rather, billionaire Mark Cuban tweeted a suggestion to Musk, and a cryptocurrency influencer who noticed that Musk liked that tweet announced it as breaking news.
Cuban suggested that Musk compile a Twitter list of doctors to participate in public polls on issues like vaccine safety and masking. Musk liked Cuban’s tweet. Cuban did not advocate for fact-checking medical information being shared on Twitter. But Matt Wallace, who charges between $19.99 and $299.99 a month to teach “the art of crypto trading,” then posted “breaking” news that Musk “is considering putting together a team of medical experts to fact check all the false things government officials have been saying!” When asked by a Twitter user whether the information was verified, Wallace cited Musk’s like of Cuban’s tweet. Wallace’s tweet has gotten almost 200,000 likes.
Yes, he liked this Tweet pic.twitter.com/Vg4vnALND6
— Matt Wallace (@MattWallace888) December 5, 2022
Misinformation Run Amok
While there’s little evidence that Musk plans to convene the fact-checking team, he has already made decisions that enable the spread of Covid misinformation on Twitter. In fact, one of Musk’s first changes after taking over Twitter was to scrap the site’s Covid misinformation policy — essentially removing Twitter’s existing fact-checking system for medical information. Twitter’s Trust and Safety team, which is responsible for moderating misinformation, has also been depleted by layoffs and mass resignations.
Musk also immediately restored accounts that were banned for Covid misinformation, including Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s personal account. Throughout the pandemic, the Republican lawmaker repeatedly posted false information to her hundreds of thousands of followers, including that Covid vaccines are deadly and that ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug primarily used to treat livestock, is a miracle cure for Covid-19.
On Monday, Musk’s Twitter restored the accounts of prominent doctors known for spreading Covid misinformation. One was Peter McCullough, a doctor whose former employer sued him for claiming to represent them while giving interviews encouraging people not to get vaccinated and falsely claiming that 50,000 people had died from Covid-19 vaccines. The other is Robert Malone, a doctor who participated in early mRNA vaccine research 30 years ago, but more recently falsely claimed that the vaccines are “causing a form of AIDS.” After Malone did an interview on Joe Rogan’s podcast, 270 physicians, scientists, and academics wrote an open letter to Spotify, which exclusively hosts the podcast, demanding that the audio streaming service “immediately establish a clear and public policy to moderate misinformation.”
Since being reinstated, McCullough, who has 640,000 followers, and Malone, who has 686,000 followers, are both already back to spreading discredited conspiracy theories about Covid.
Musk himself has also frequently tweeted Covid misinformation and antagonized evidence-based health-care professionals. Over the weekend, Musk flirted with the anti-vaccine crowd by tweeting, “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci” — an apparent call to prosecute the chief medical adviser to the president, Anthony Fauci, mixed with some transphobia for good measure. The refrain to take Fauci to court for how he managed the pandemic is popular on the far right.
Musk’s spread of false information goes back to the beginning of the pandemic. On March 19, 2020, he predicted that “based on current trends, probably close to zero new cases in US too by end of April” and falsely claimed that “kids are essentially immune.” According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, by the end of April 2020, there were nearly 200,000 weekly new cases and more than 64,000 Americans had died from Covid. Over a million more Americans have died from Covid since then.
Musk has also promoted hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug, as a miracle cure for Covid-19. Like ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine is ineffective at preventing or treating Covid-19.
This brings us back to Gold and America’s Frontline Doctors. In September 2021, The Intercept obtained hacked data revealing that AFLDS and a small network of telehealth companies convinced tens of thousands of people to spend at least $15 million on phone consultations and prescriptions for ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine. This reporting contributed to a congressional investigation into AFLDS.
In Gold’s letter to Musk, she says she works with “freedom physicians across the nation and world.” Gold launched AFLDS with a July 2020 press conference on the steps of the Supreme Court, where she and other “freedom physicians,” wearing white lab coats, promoted fake remedies for Covid and opposed public health measures like masking and lockdowns. Then-President Donald Trump shared videos of the event, which were viewed millions of times before Twitter and Facebook took them down for violating Covid misinformation policies.
One of the doctors at Gold’s side, Stella Immanuel, has claimed that people develop gynecological problems like cysts and endometriosis after having sex in their dreams with demons and witches.
Also at the event was Dr. Joseph Lapado, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s surgeon general. Lapado has been accused of misrepresenting his experience treating Covid patients at UCLA, argued for “herd immunity” by letting Covid spread completely unchecked, and falsely claimed that Covid-19 vaccines are dangerous. Lapado’s anti-science op-eds for the Wall Street Journal caught the attention of DeSantis, who subsequently hired him as Florida’s top health-care official, according to the Washington Post. In March, Florida became the first state to defy CDC guidance when Lapado said that healthy kids don’t need to get vaccinated for Covid.
In addition to running an organization dedicated to medical disinformation, Gold faces allegations from her own organization over a misuse of funds. While Gold served two months in prison for storming the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, AFLDS’s board audited her use of its funds. A lawsuit filed last month alleges that she lives rent-free in a $3.6 million mansion purchased using AFLDS charity funds in Naples, Florida. Her boyfriend, John Strand, a former underwear model who hosts misinformation videos for AFLDS and is facing 24 years in prison for his role in the insurrection, lives with her. The lawsuit accuses Gold of using AFLDS’s money to spend $12,000 a month on a bodyguard, $5,600 a month for a housekeeper, and $50,000 a month on credit card expenses, as well as purchasing three cars, including a Mercedes-Benz, and taking unauthorized flights on private jets, including a single trip that cost $100,000.
“Just as the mother lioness will not let her baby lion be murdered, neither will I,” Gold wrote in an email demanding that three AFLDS board members resign, which was made public as an exhibit in the lawsuit.
On December 6, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit for lack of jurisdiction, making it clear that the court didn’t consider the accusations. Neither side could make a convincing argument for whether AFLDS is based in Florida or Nevada.
Since taking over Twitter, Musk has dismantled the infrastructure that prevented users from lying about vaccine safety or profiting off fake treatments for Covid-19 — things that Gold has built her recent career doing. If Musk put her in charge of a new medical fact-checking team, it would be like putting a lioness in charge of protecting gazelles.
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