Elon Musk's New Twitter Files Reporter Has Ties to Great Barrington Declaration
The writer at the center of Musk’s latest dump promoted a controversial herd immunity document
(David Zweig at the American Institute For Economic Research)
A few years ago, David Zweig was a fairly typical liberal voice on Twitter. The independent writer, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Harry Potter professor Severus Snape, was offering up standard Democratic fare — Donald Trump bad, pragmatic voting good.
Today, however, Zweig says he defies political identification.
“I'm not interested in labeling myself politically or otherwise,” he told Important Context. “I have a diverse range of views on a diverse range of topics.”
Zweig is at the center of the COVID-19 Twitter Files dump — a job he says he got through former New York Times editor turned conservative activist Bari Weiss.
In recent years, Zweig has made a name for himself as a COVID contrarian adopting positions that have brought him into alignment with powerful business interests and the political right, which have been waging a war on public health measures. He even assisted a libertarian think tank with ties to billionaire industrialist Charles Koch in the promotion of The Great Barrington Declaration, a controversial open letter proposing a herd immunity strategy based around mass infection and minimal government intervention. The ideas in the document helped inform the disastrous U.S. COVID response, which has seen limited governmental action and staggeringly high death and long COVID numbers.
A New Beat
Before the pandemic, Zweig, a former musician and Conde Nast fact-checker, had been published in a number of mainstream outlets on a range of topics. He wrote about sports, television, comedy, and business for The Atlantic, opined about relocating out of Brooklyn to the suburbs for The New York Times, criticized NYT columnist David Brooks for The New Republic, and mused about the impact of Twitter metrics on our collective psyche The New Yorker.
But when the COVID pandemic struck, Zweig found a new beat. In May 2020, the writer emerged as an early advocate for school reopenings, making his case in Wired. Zweig insisted that children were “largely unaffected by Covid-19 and minimally contagious when they get infected.” Like many white parents, he was fed up with closures.
As time went on, Zweig’s skepticism of public health measures expanded in scope. Before long, he was writing polemics for New York Magazine not only against school closures but social distancing, remote learning options, and school masking as well. His triumphal return to The Atlantic, after a seven-year absence, came in December 2021 with an article opposing school mask mandates.
The next month, Zweig argued against the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration approving COVID boosters for children as young as 12 over concerns about the risk of myocarditis. To make his argument, Zweig pointed out that other nations had not made similar recommendations. He also interviewed Dr. Monica Gandhi, a San Francisco-based physician who has become notorious for her wrong predictions about the pandemic.
“We have demanded that young people bear the heaviest burden of our policies for the sake of those who are more vulnerable,” Zweig wrote. “Now we risk asking them to sacrifice even more.”
Reviewing Zweig’s anti-booster article for Important Context, Dr. Dan Wilson, a molecular biologist who has done vaccine research and hosts a YouTube channel dedicated to exposing junk science, expressed concerns.
“Adverse events for COVID vaccines are most[ly] rare in children [ages] 11 and under, and generally rare in adolescents. The vast majority of the time, these adverse events are self-resolving,” Wilson explained. “Meanwhile, we know that COVID carries a much larger risk on multiple levels and we know that 3 doses of the ancestral mRNA vaccine…offers protection broad enough to better encompass omicron variants. So whether or not to recommend 3 doses to all who are eligible is not the fight that these people who claim to care about the science should be fighting.”
More recently, Zweig penned an op-ed for The Boston Globe defending CNN medical analyst Dr. Leana Wen against “an absurd and disturbing cancel campaign” after more than 500 public health experts published a letter calling to drop her from the list of speakers at the annual American Public Health Association’s conference this past November. The experts objected to Wen’s about-face on COVID mitigations like masking and her embrace of a corporate-backed push to return to normal.
“The letter reads like a parody of woke righteousness,” Zweig chided. “Yet it has been signed by epidemiologists, physicians, researchers, administrators, and PhD candidates and postdocs in public health, at Harvard, Yale, Brown, Johns Hopkins, UC Berkeley, and Emory, among other institutions.”
The Great Barrington Declaration
At some point in 2020, Zweig’s work caught the attention of then-Harvard Medical School professor Dr. Martin Kulldorff, at the time a biostatistician and Harvard Medical School professor who opposed COVID mitigation measures.
Kulldorff invited the journalist to a conference he had been planning on the subject of herd immunity. Aiding him in the endeavor was Jeffrey Tucker, an advocate for a return of child labor and founding member of the neo-Confederate group, League of the South. Tucker, the editorial director of the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), a libertarian think tank that receives some funding from Koch, offered up his group’s headquarters in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to host the multi-day event.
The plans would come together in October 2020 and spawn the Great Barrington Declaration, authored by Kulldorff and two other scientists from prominent universities: Dr. Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford University, and then of Harvard Medical School, and Dr. Sunetra Gupta of Oxford University.
The document gave the veneer of academic legitimacy to an idea that had been circulating on the capital-aligned right for some time — namely targeting pandemic interventions to the vulnerable only— and gave it a name: “focused protection.” Several months earlier, the Heritage Foundation had released a reopening plan containing similar proposals.
While his work earned him praise from Tucker, Zweig told Important Context he was not compensated for this work.
“🔥’Keeping students out of school is a grave injustice’🔥,” Zweig tweeted, complete with fire emojis. “The Great Barrington Declaration, by renowned epidemiologists from Harvard, Oxford and Stanford. Co-Signed by health experts, including Nobel Laureates, from top institutions across the globe.”
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A “Rigged” Debate
In his Twitter Files thread, Zweig claimed that the social media company, acting under pressure from federal agencies, had "rigged" the COVID debate. Zweig alleged that Twitter had censored factual dissent against the public health establishment and federal policy — though his subsequent reporting revealed that the company had actually been resistant to governmental pressure.
“Inevitably, dissident yet legitimate content was labeled as misinformation, and the accounts of doctors and others were suspended both for tweeting opinions and demonstrably true information,” he tweeted.
To make his case, Zweig highlighted several incidents where the company took action against accounts challenging “the establishment.” One example Zweig chose was Twitter flagging as misinformation a tweet from Martin Kulldorff claiming COVID vaccines were only necessary for older people and that natural immunity would suffice for younger people, especially children.
“Kulldorff’s statement was an expert’s opinion—one which also happened to be in line with vaccine policies in numerous other countries,” Zweig tweeted. “Yet it was deemed ‘false information’ by Twitter moderators merely because it differed from CDC guidelines.”
In a statement from August, the World Health Organization (WHO) noted that “benefit-risk assessments clearly underpin the benefit of vaccinating all age groups, including children and adolescents to reduce the number of infections, hospitalizations, deaths and long-COVID.”
There are numerous examples of credentialed experts spreading misinformation throughout the pandemic. America’s Frontline Doctors, a Trump-supporting physicians’ group, sold quack COVID cures while promoting vaccine skepticism.
Kulldorff has been a prolific misinformer. The biostatistician has suggested that the harms of widespread testing and vaccination for young people outweigh the benefits. He has even cast doubt on the well-established safety and efficacy of the mRNA COVID jabs. Ironically, Kulldorff blames “vaccine fanatics” for anti-vaccine skepticism.
Although resistance to the vaccines has fueled excess deaths. Zweig also took umbrage at the Biden administration’s early efforts to get anti-vaccine Twitter accounts taken down, including that of former New York Times writer Alex Berenson.
Berenson has been called “the pandemic’s wrongest man” and is notorious for making false and misleading anti-vaccine statements. He was one of many voices suggesting without evidence that the recently deceased sports journalist Grant Wahl had been a victim of vaccine injury. When Wahl’s family pushed back on these claims, Bereson criticized them on Twitter.
In July, Berenson was famously banned from Twitter for repeated violations of the platform’s COVID misinformation policy. A month later, his account was restored. The Atlantic reported that he had “sued his way back.”
“Two Things Can Be True At Once”
Dissenting perspectives against public health measures have had more than a fair hearing throughout the pandemic thanks to support from powerful interests, lawmakers, and a willing media.
The Great Barrington Declaration itself arose out of cooperation between right-wing dark money and Trump world.
Trump coronavirus czar and neuroradiologist Dr. Scott Atlas was involved in early discussions that led to the AIER conference, according to his 2021 book, “A Plague Upon Our House.” He also helped secure UK-based co-author Gupta’s passage to the U.S., which AIER ultimately paid for. Atlas scheduled a public meeting — with press attendance — on October 5, 2020, between the Declaration authors and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. That meeting, which occurred on the same day the Declaration was published, allowed Gupta to get clearance to circumvent the administration’s travel restrictions.
Afterward, Azar tweeted that he had received strong “reinforcement” of the White House’s strategy of pushing to reopen schools and businesses.
While mainstream public health experts denounced the herd immunity strategy proposed in the Declaration — WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called its infection-based strategy “unethical" — the document and its authors nonetheless proved highly influential. They were embraced by capital-aligned, right-wing groups — particularly those tied to Koch — and Republican lawmakers as part of a larger campaign against public health measures.
Between the two of them, Bhattacahrya and Kulldorff have been called to testify before Congress, advised multiple states and the Trump White House on COVID response, and been showered with speaking engagements and interviews — Bhattacharya alone has done as many as 35 appearances on Fox News. They have been given column space at widely-read publications like The Wall Street Journal, and served as expert witnesses in court against pandemic mitigation measures.
Separate judges have criticized Bhattacharya’s testimony. U.S. District Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw notably called it “troubling” and “problematic,” adding that the Stanford professor had “offered opinions” involving “a discipline on which he admitted he was not qualified to speak.”
“His demeanor and tone while testifying suggest that he is advancing a personal agenda,” Crenshaw wrote.
Bhattacharya’s and Kulldorff’s anti-mitigation advocacy has netted them fellowships and scholar positions at right-wing institutions like the Koch-funded Hillsdale College or Jeffrey Tucker’s new Brownstone Institute. They have even gotten free legal representation. The pair are currently being represented pro bono by Koch-funded litigation outfit New Civil Liberties Alliance in a lawsuit against the Biden administration over its alleged role in their social media censorship. Dr. Anthony Fauci is listed as a defendant in the suit.
Most importantly, however, all three authors have had access to powerful lawmakers and public officials.
In August 2020, Bhattacharya and Kulldorff were hosted at two secret White House meetings organized by Atlas to discuss the pandemic. The first was with Trump followed by one with Vice President Pence. Shortly after the meetings, Atlas provided them with data for a September 2020 op-ed defending the White House’s scaling back of COVID testing.
Bhattacharya and Kulldorff are currently serving on Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ new Public Health Integrity Committee, which will “assess federal public health recommendations and guidance to ensure that Florida’s public health policies are tailored for Florida’s communities and priorities.”
Social epidemiologist Justin Feldman, a visiting scientist at Harvard’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, told Important Context that “two things can be true at once.”
“First, people who denied the harms of the virus and then cast doubt on vaccination were amplified by right-wing organizations and politicians,” he said. “Second, Twitter and big tech did try to limit the reach of people spreading medical misinformation.”
Feldman added that “the net result was that people like Kulldorff and Berenson were still far more visible than they would have been without organized efforts to promote their voices.”
“It gave the false impression that their opinions were widely held within the scientific community, much in the same way that efforts to promote climate denialists create the illusion that there is debate rather than consensus on the causes of climate change,” he explained.
One of the wealthiest men in the world, Elon Musk has been using his platform to downplay the seriousness of the pandemic from the outset. In the first week of March 2020, for example, Musk tweeted “the coronavirus panic is dumb.” Less than two weeks later, he predicted that the crisis would be over by the end of the next month. Musk has called public health restrictions “fascist” and required his employees to return to in-person work — even though in October, he himself declined to attend an in-person deposition due to the risk of COVID exposure.
Since taking over Twitter, the erratic billionaire has turned up the agitation. In November, he jettisoned Twitter’s COVID misinformation policy and subsequently reinstated accounts previously banned for violating it, including the likes of Drs. Peter McCullough and Robert Malone, both of whom have turned vaccine misinformation into brands.
Earlier this month, Musk began calling to prosecute Dr. Fauci after a Twitter files dump by Bari Weiss revealed that Bhattacharya’s account — with its hundreds of thousands of followers — had been placed on a trending ban list.
The day before tweeting that his pronouns were “Prosecute/Fauci,” Musk met with Bhattacharya, who blames the former National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director for the "censorship” of his social media and is currently suing him. According to Bhattacharya, Musk promised him access to figure out how he had been restricted.
Sharing Zweig’s Twitter Files thread, the billionaire announced: “Follow-up piece to come next week, featuring leading doctors & researchers from Harvard, Stanford & other institutions.” Since then, Musk has shared anti-vaccine memes and tweeted that following the science “necessarily includes reasoned questioning of the science.”
Feldman sees Musk’s actions and advocacy as a modern example of Social Darwinism, explaining that “people like Musk view themselves as self-made, they see certain individuals as strong, healthy, and exceptional, and that public health measures needlessly restrict the freedom of worthy people like them to protect those they deem unworthy.”
"He’s just another billionaire who doesn’t care if disabled people, old people, or workers die,” Feldman said.
This piece has been restored to its previous version. The previous update incorrectly placed Zweig at a summer meeting between Jeffrey Tucker and Martin Kulldorff ahead of the October 2020 AIER conference.