Lawmakers promised to explore solutions to online COVID scams and online misinformation. But Republicans on the subcommittee had other plans.
A congressional hearing aimed at addressing the issue of pandemic misinformation morphed into an opportunity for some lawmakers to spread it, as Republicans committee members used their time to promote unproven COVID-19 cures and rail against social media "censorship."
On Wednesday afternoon, the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis convened a hearing titled "Combating Coronavirus Cons And The Monetization Of Misinformation," which promised not only to examine the harm caused by online COVID scams but also to consider the steps Congress could take to respond to pandemic misinformation more broadly, an issue Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently described as an "urgent threat" to U.S. efforts to get the pandemic under control.
"Since the pandemic began, Americans across the country have been targeted by an unprecedented level of misinformation about the coronavirus," subcommittee Chair Jim Clyburn began. "Bad actors have promoted false and even dangerous products as coronavirus treatments, and have pushed lies disputing the safety and effectiveness of coronavirus vaccines. ... We must find ways to stop those who seek to profit by sowing doubt, spreading falsehoods, and exploiting fears amongst the American people."
Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), the ranking member of the subcommittee, opened his remarks by noting his agreement with Clyburn (D-SC).
"We all denounce attempts to spread COVID disinformation," Scalise said, "and we condemn groups and individuals who sell or promote counterfeit PPE or otherwise profit from unregulated and potentially dangerous treatments that put individuals' health and safety at risk."
But Scalise's tone soon changed as he decried Democrats who "label anything they disagree with or find inconvenient or off their message as 'misinformation or disinformation.'"
Noting rightly that scientists and public health leaders have changed or updated their recommendations as their understanding of the virus has evolved, Scalise concluded that "questioning the evidence and opinions of these same scientists and policymakers is necessary to identify and correct potential errors and enable better policymaking and intellectual diversity."
The existence of disagreements among scientists about how best to respond to COVID became a central focus of Republicans on the subcommittee.
One witness, Dr. Jeffrey Aeschlimann, recalled a recent example of an interaction he had with a patient who'd been admitted to the hospital with COVID symptoms.
An infectious disease pharmacist at the University of Connecticut who treats individuals with COVID-19, Aeschlimann soon discovered his patient had not been vaccinated but had received prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, drugs promoted by anti-vaccine activists despite no conclusive evidence they have benefits for those infected with the virus.
In his testimony, Aeschlimann detailed how false information about the drugs' supposed benefits can circulate online, enticing vulnerable individuals to spend money in shady online pharmacies for treatments significantly less effective than vaccines.
Moments later, Scalise began touting some of those very same unproven drugs, suggesting the issue of their effectiveness was unsettled.
"We've heard directly from doctors who have treated people successfully with hydroxychloroquine," Scalise said. "We have doctors who said their treatments with hydroxy weren't as successful. Does that automatically mean one scientist is right and the other is not?"
Republicans' interest in alternative science was epitomized by the witness they invited to participate in the hearing. While each of the other witnesses used their opening statements to offer reflections on the impacts of misinformation and recommendations for how to combat it, Dr. Jay Bhattacharya began his remarks by condemning fact-checkers and social media companies, whom he dubbed the "Ministry of Truth."
Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine and economics at Stanford University, is among the creators of the Great Barrington Declaration, a document circulated in October of 2020 that argued against lockdowns and promoted a return to normalcy in the midst of the pandemic whereby only the most vulnerable were sheltered and all others encouraged to build up natural immunity to the virus by infection.
Along with other contentious figures like radiologist Dr. Scott Atlas, Bhattacharya reportedly briefed President Donald Trump on that strategy, though numerous public health experts and epidemiologists have spoken out forcefully against it. Dr. Deborah Birx, Trump's COVID-19 response coordinator, recently told the select subcommittee that she viewed the "natural immunity" strategy as "dangerous" and "reckless" and said over 130,000 American lives could have been saved had Trump instituted science-backed mitigation measures.
Despite this, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), when he took the mic, asked Bhattacharya about his views on infection-acquired immunity. Bhattacharya responded that so-called "natural immunity" was "at least as good" as the protection acquired by vaccine. In fact, a CDC study published in late October found vaccines provided over five times the protection of natural infection.
The remainder of Jordan's time was used to ask witnesses whether they believed the subcommittee should hold a hearing exploring the origins of the coronavirus, an issue which was similarly highlighted by every other Republican speaker.
"Did it start in the lab? Did it come from a bat to a penguin to a hippopotamus to people or whatever they say, do you think we need to figure that out?" Jordan asked.
Dr. Jay Kennedy, a professor at Michigan State University's School of Criminal Justice and expert in online counterfeiting, had been asked by the subcommittee to attend the hearing to detail his research into the proliferation of fraudulent products online — ineffective PPE, snake-oil cures, fake vaccine cards. In his opening remarks, he listed some specific steps Congress could take to counteract this, recommending lawmakers increase support for public-private partnerships to combat fraud and prioritize the protection of vulnerable populations.
In an interview earlier this fall with the American Independent Foundation, Kennedy detailed how online fraudsters had taken to the promotion of ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug used in human and animal populations, to treat COVID-19.
"So long as those individuals stay within the confines of the law, there's very little that can be done" to address it, Kennedy said.
Rather than being asked about what could be done, however, Kennedy in the hearing was peppered with questions about the origins of the coronavirus, the benefits of natural immunity, and whether it was legitimate for social media companies to "censor" conservatives — issues all outside his area of expertise.
"It is an incredible honor to be asked to testify, yet it was frustrating to see that the hearing was used to advance discussion about partisan views on what is information versus misinformation, as well as disagreements about the committee's agenda, rather than focusing on the nonpartisan issue of fraud risks facing Americans," Kennedy told the American Independent Foundation in an email following his testimony.
"Recognizing the need to address the frauds that live off of misinformation and alternative narratives does not mean that we have to agree on the subjective 'rightness' or 'wrongness' of said information," he added. "I believe that more discussion on this problem needs to be undertaken."
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.