Skepticism

I Got Grifted: the Whistleblower Who Wasn’t

This post contains a video, which you can also view here. To support more videos like this, head to patreon.com/rebecca!

The other day I was idly thinking about grifters who focus on one side or another of the political spectrum. Trump really boosted the market for rightwing grifters, like the guys who crowdfunded “the wall” along the US/Mexico border. Former Trump aide Steve Bannon helped run the grift, collecting more than $25 million from credulous conservatives contributing to the GoFundMe, building about 3 miles of fencing, and then just fucking off with the rest of the money instead of constructing an $11 billion fence. Obviously.

There are dozens of high profile stories like that but the left also has its grifters — it seems like they’re not quite as successful or as brash as the rightwing’s, but people like Shaun King are out there collecting money from liberals who want to solve racism or whatever and then quietly just not doing anything. I think I followed Shaun King on Twitter for a few weeks before it became obvious that he was a con artist. “How could anyone fall for such an obvious scammer,” I thought.

Well.

Folks, allow me to make a confession: I fell for an obvious scammer. And I made a video in which I asked you to fall for it, too. So this video is my official mea culpa: I was the credulous dumb dumb.

Last December, I made a video about Rebekah Jones, a data scientist in charge of updating Florida’s COVID dashboard. I was SHOCKED to see footage of armed agents charging into Jones’s home to secure her computers under the accusation that she had used her government login to access data after she was fired. Jones claimed that she was fired for refusing to rearrange the data to make it look like Florida was doing better than they were when it came to COVID infection, hospitalizations, and deaths after Governor Ron DeSantis reopened the state against the advice of immunologists and doctors.

Jones set up a GoFundMe that I linked to, and that GoFundMe made her $312,128 of her $350,000 goal. Apparently she also had several other successful crowdfunding endeavours.

In May of this year, Charles CW Cooke published an article claiming that Jones was, in fact, a Grade A Grifter. I saw that post and I ignored it because it was published on The National Review, a conservative magazine that has published racist tirades from the likes of Ann Coulter and Dinesh D’Souza, plus a long history of denying the science of climate change (one particular highlight being when they tweeted this hilariously bad chart to show there’s been no global temperature increase).

In a debate, this would be known as “poisoning the well” (more on that in another video!), or just keeping to an echo chamber, but in day-to-day reality it’s just valuing my own time and not wasting it reading something that has a good chance of being garbage.

But last week, a Twitter account I follow and enjoy, Bad COVID-19 Takes, posted screenshots of Jones first answering a pointed question from biostatistician Natalie E. Dean — Jones said that false negative antibody tests were a concern. Dean asked why, and Jones replied “Because then you’re not aware that you have and can spread the virus,” which is wrong. A false negative PCR test would be concerning, but an antibody test doesn’t look for an active infection — it looks for a past infection, and so a false negative would simply not inform the person that they had an infection days, weeks, or months ago. A false POSITIVE is more dangerous in that case because the subject may assume that they’re now immune and take bigger risks. But that single question apparently caused JOnes to immediately turn around and accuse Dean of harassing her, tagging Dean’s employer in the accusation.

I stopped in my tracks when I saw that exchange, because I immediately recognized Jones from the Florida to-do. Here she was not only misunderstanding a really basic medical concept but also completely overreacting to an actual scientist who knew more than her. That was enough to finally convince me to go back and read that National Review article, and hooooo boy.

First, here’s what is true, as far as I can determine: Jones was not a data scientist, she was a website developer; she was never asked to actually delete any data, only to change the way it was displayed (possibly to be misleading in making Florida look better than they were); Jones was not fired for refusing to comply with data manipulation but because she went bonkers releasing personnel data to the media; Florida’s COVID dashboard didn’t crash due to the government’s actions but because Jones moved a ton of data to a separate file; she then made herself the sole administrator of the database and emailed everyone in the department implying that she had been fired for refusing to manipulate data; and armed police officers DID enter her home while children were present, but only after she refused 30 minutes of attempts to get her to come outside peacefully so the cops could collect the computers she had that contained private personnel data of 19,000 employees, for which she has since been arrested and is now awaiting trial. I still don’t think cops needed to go anywhere with guns but, yeah, she definitely had the means to protect her kids from even seeing the cops, and bodycam footage shows that no one, in fact, pointed a gun in her or her kids’ faces.

Oh, also this isn’t her first brush with the law: she previously was charged with “criminal mischief” in 2017, “battery of a police officer” in 2018, and misdemeanor stalking in 2019 related to an affair she had with a student at Florida State University when she taught there. According to the now ex-boyfriend “The two had sex in a classroom in 2017 when Jones was his married professor at Florida State University” and “She was fired from the university after threatening to give a failing grade to his roommate as revenge.” According to Jones, “the two had a six-month affair until October 2017, and the man is the father of her daughter born in July 2018.”

And after all of this, at the end of the day, Florida didn’t suddenly see a bunch of unexplained deaths from 2020. They’re just hanging out there in the middle of the pack of states that fucked up their response to a pandemic in one way or another. A little worse than Delaware, a little better than Texas.

So yeah, this is my mea culpa — I fell for a really obvious trashfire of a person because she was telling a story I believed — wanted to believe, even. “Republican governor goes against the advice of scientists and then tries to cover up his big fucking mistake.” It didn’t happen. Well, the first bit happened. And there have been repeated efforts on the part of many politicians to make things look rosier than they are. It’s just not as obviously evil as Jones made it sound. It’s more like this: when cases started decreasing, some states, including Florida, switched from daily to weekly updates for the general public. But in the past month cases have been skyrocketing once again, but the weekly updates are still quietly coming out on Friday, climbing from 23,000 to 45,000 and then 73,000, leading people who are used to relying on daily updates believing it’s not as bad as it is, leading to more reckless behavior. But states point out that the weekly figures smooth out daily bumps to show a clearer trend, plus they use up fewer resources. Is it evil? Nope, it’s just a different way to do things that might be good or bad depending on how you look at it.

Please keep all this in mind the next time you see a viral story centered around one charismatic person. We can all fall for the occasional grifter. Even me.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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