Opinion

The ivermectin saga exposes the dishonesty of the internet's professional contrarians

Howling about censorship is a cynical ploy to increase their own followings

For a day or so last week, the liberal media was afire with a story about how Oklahoma hospitals were supposedly overflowing with people overdosing on ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug often used in veterinary medicine. It turns out this particular story was mistaken, which led some famous media contrarians to pounce. Matt Taibbi, the former Rolling Stone writer turned tedious Ron Fournier-esque media critic, called this "just the latest in a string of moral mania mishaps," while Glenn Greenwald, a journalist who famously helped report the Snowden documents but now spends his days closely monitoring the @GarbageApe Twitter account, hectored MSNBC's Rachel Maddow for "mindlessly spreading unconfirmed stories about ivermectin poisoning overrunning hospitals in Oklahoma[.]"

Yet this overheated posturing obscures the contrarians' own grave misdeeds in their coverage of ivermectin.

In the grand scheme of media failures, the Oklahoma mistake was small potatoes. Partisan (or lazy, or understaffed) press outlets seized on a too-good-to-check story, and uncritically repeated it. That is embarrassing, but also something Greenwald's friends at Fox News are guilty of on an hourly basis. The only people harmed in this case were the reporters who dented their own reputations.

Screeching about Rachel Maddow obscures the broader context, particularly the incredibly irresponsible behavior from the contrarian crew over the past couple months. Back in June, Taibbi praised the ex-biologist Bret Weinstein and his wife Heather Heying, after some of their podcast videos were removed by Youtube, for "provid[ing] a forum for discussions about COVID-19 that live outside the narrow realm of allowable debate on commercial media," and claimed that "independents like Weinstein have a virtual monopoly on content about a whole range of effectively banned topics," especially the medicine ivermectin.

Greenwald similarly portrayed Weinstein as a victim of "centralized corporate and state power." In an interview on Fox News, host Will Cain suggested to Greenwald that Weinstein "had his podcast almost kicked off of YouTube for even considering that ivermectin could be a good potential therapeutic … why can we not even consider what I guess is endorsed by Big Pharma?"

"I think you've put your finger on exactly the point," replied Greenwald. "When you say that some people say this is a potentially effective treatment, by 'some people' what you're referring to are medical doctors and scientists as credentialed as anyone."

But this is a complete crock. Weinstein was not demonetized or censored by YouTube for calmly discussing the latest research on coronavirus treatments. He's also not a practicing research scientist or a medical doctor, and he has no special training in epidemiology. They punished him and removed some of his videos because he was spreading dangerous lies about the coronavirus vaccines — interviewing a nut who falsely alleged that the "spike protein" in the mRNA vaccines would somehow cause illness, claiming that ivermectin "shows itself to be about 86 percent effective at preventing contraction of COVID," making clumsily wrong claims about how meta-analyses work, and on and on. As Dr. William F. Paulo writes,

The striking thing to note, in the case of Dr. Weinstein, is how his reasoning shifts depending on whether ivermectin is being discussed or the mRNA COVID vaccines. Large, well-conducted mRNA trials are dismissed out of hand whereas anecdotes or wild speculation and false claims are elevated to the level of meaningful data. The role of systematic reviews and meta-analysis are overstated and misunderstood whereas false claims by misleading "experts" are passed off as evidence contradicting his earlier assertions regarding evidentiary hierarchies. [Science-Based Medicine]

YouTube has a hair trigger about copyright infringement, but it is exceptionally reluctant to punish right-wing conspiracy lunatics. The company told Motherboard in a statement that they don't allow medical misinformation "that poses a serious risk of egregious harm," which Weinstein's repeated ivermectin recommendations inarguably did. (Tons of other ivermectin boosters are still on the platform.)

Snake oil salesmen from time immemorial have used this same formula — casting some treatment or other as a miracle cure just newly discovered, or somehow suppressed by the medical establishment; pandering to people's self-regard by saying you're just allowing them to "do the research;" and raising fears about conventional treatments by falsely alleging that they cause some terrible side effects. But in order for this cheap rhetorical trick to work, the miracle cure has to be outside normal medicine — meaning it basically can't work by definition, because otherwise mainstream institutions would be recommending it, and bottom-feeding charlatans couldn't plug it into their grift machine.

Moreover, the entire contrarian argument about ivermectin was self-evidently preposterous from the start. Nobody is "suppressing" legitimate research on coronavirus treatments. The world's medical research establishment has been cranking out studies at top speed since February 2020, trying desperately to deal with the worst medical crisis in a century. Coronavirus research is probably rivaled only by climate science in quantity of research performed and the level of international collaboration.

While Weinstein was getting his videos deleted for spreading vaccine misinformation, real scientists were doing real research on ivermectin. Sure enough, they recently found that a big study supposedly showing it works against COVID-19 had been faked, and the drug probably has little or no positive effect — and certainly nothing even close to the protection afforded by the vaccines. Still, follow-up studies are being done, just in case.

If somebody wants to make a podcast or a YouTube show where they discuss the latest coronavirus science with legitimate experts who know what they are talking about (including ivermectin data), they would be fine. People do this all the time! But it's a lot easier to get attention and subscribers if you pretend like murderously irresponsible cranks are the victims of Big Tech censorship, and cover your behind by claiming you're just asking questions you never bother to actually answer. That is the reason Weinstein and all the other anti-vaccine conservative crackpots are pushing ivermectin, and it's the reason there was a similar frenzy about hydroxychloroquine last year.

One liberal media story about ivermectin poisoning may have been mistaken. But ivermectin prescriptions really are soaring, and people really have made themselves seriously ill with overdoses of horse paste. Weinstein really is an anti-vaccine quack who was completely wrong about ivermectin being either a good preventative or treatment for COVID-19. The right-wing media really has been pushing this bogus treatment as part of a deliberate strategy to cast doubt on the coronavirus vaccines.

And — at the risk of belaboring the bleeding obvious — America really is in the middle of the worst pandemic in a century. Fifteen hundred people have died every day for the last week, almost all of them unvaccinated, and certainly at least a few of them convinced that ivermectin would save them. Say what you want about Rachel Maddow, at least she doesn't kill her own viewers.

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