Ron Johnson was back at it last week, spreading misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines. At a media event in Milwaukee, the senior senator from Wisconsin raised doubts about the safety of vaccines by misrepresenting data in order to suggest that the shots tens of millions of Americans have received are more dangerous than physicians are telling us.
That’s false. Vaccine specialists, infectious disease experts, public health officials, and media fact-checkers have all explained that Johnson is not telling the truth. After the senator misrepresented information from a database for Americans to report reactions to vaccinations—the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System—the national Committee to Protect Health Care blasted him for attempting to “sow doubt about COVID-19 vaccines that could dissuade people from getting vaccinations and protecting themselves against the deadly disease.”
Making false claims about vaccines is always dangerous. But, at a time when the coronavirus is again spreading at alarming rates in some parts of the country, physicians and researchers say that the misinformation the increasingly high-profile Republican senator is spreading poses a deadly threat.
According to an analysis based on data from Johns Hopkins University, CNN reported on the eve of the July 4 holiday that “the seven-day average of new Covid-19 cases has been going up for six straight days.”
Why, at a point when it had seemed that the United States was turning the corner in the fight against the pandemic, are public health officials again raising the alarm? “Looking state by state and county by county, it is clear that communities where people remain unvaccinated are communities that remain vulnerable,” says Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “This is all true as we monitor the continued spread of the hyper-transmissible Delta variant.”
This is a time to get the facts about the safety of vaccines right. Unfortunately, Johnson is deliberately getting them wrong.
“Senator Ron Johnson is putting people’s lives at risk here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and nationwide with his unrelenting campaign to spread disinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccinations that protect people,” says Dr. Madelaine Tully, a Milwaukee-area family doctor who joined a number of Wisconsin physicians in calling Johnson out. “Instead of recklessly spreading lies, our senator should use his position and his platform to tell people the truth, and that’s that COVID-19 vaccines are safe, they are effective and they save lives.”
Johnson, who has publicly announced that he will not get vaccinated, is not going to do that. In fact, he’s fighting to amplify his false claims.
Johnson is furious with YouTube, the video sharing and social media platform, which last month removed a video in which the senator made wildly inaccurate claims about treatments for the virus and suggested that the Biden administration was “working against robust research” into drug therapies.
YouTube carries content that is often controversial. But the company is strict when it comes to videos that might cause people to endanger themselves. Specifically, it says, “YouTube doesn’t allow content that spreads medical misinformation that contradicts local health authorities’ or the World Health Organization’s (WHO) medical information about COVID-19.”
After viewing a speech Johnson delivered June 3 to the Milwaukee Press Club, a YouTube spokesperson said, the platform’s monitors determined the senator had violated its standards. “We removed the video in accordance with our COVID-19 medical misinformation policies, which don’t allow content that encourages people to use Hydroxychloroquine or Ivermectin to treat or prevent the virus.”
It’s no surprise that Johnson is in hot water for spreading medical misinformation. The senator embraces conspiracy theories regarding everything from the 2020 presidential election (which, despite what Johnson says, Donald Trump lost by 7 million votes) to the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol (which, despite what Johnson says, was a violent insurrection carried out by Trump supporters to overturn the results of the election Trump lost).
But his biggest lies have always been about the coronavirus pandemic.
Last fall, after Johnson presided over a series of Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearings that featured testimony from witnesses whom critics identified as “quacks,” The New York Times reported, “It is the latest example of how Mr. Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican who has used his powerful investigative panel to amplify groundless accusations pushed by President Trump, has now embraced the role of the Senate’s leading Covid contrarian.”
“Even as some of his Republican colleagues have sought to use their platforms to encourage Americans to take precautions against the spread of the virus and persuade the public that vaccines against it will be safe and vital,” the Times explained, “Mr. Johnson has suggested that the dangers of the coronavirus have been overblown and excessively regulated. And twice in the past three weeks, Mr. Johnson has used his gavel on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to elevate voices who public health experts say represent fringe beliefs.”
Now, as Johnson stirs more controversy by spreading misinformation about vaccines, a Democrat who is challenging the senator, Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson, says, “Ron Johnson lied yet again about the Covid vaccine. Sadly, this is nothing new—Sen. Ron Johnson has been spreading dangerous lies about Covid-19 since day one.”
Johnson gets angry when he is criticized for getting things wrong. And, of course, he plays the victim. “YouTube’s ongoing Covid censorship proves they have accumulated too much unaccountable power,” rants the senator.
It is true that YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms have accumulated too much unaccountable power. Monopolistic corporations, be they in the tech sector or any other section of the economy, need to be questioned, challenged, regulated, and where necessary and possible, broken up. And yes, we do need to worry about censorship.
At the same time, some standards have to apply when it comes to the spreading of what could turn out to be deadly lies. What to do? Nelson may have the answer.
After Johnson got called out by fact-checkers for his lies about vaccines, the Democrat said, “The CDC should label this guy a public health hazard.”
Perhaps YouTube doesn’t need to suspend Ron Johnson or remove his offensive videos. Perhaps the platform should simply attach a label that identifies the senator as the deadly threat to public health and safety that he has become.