On Wednesday night, a group of people who believe themselves to have been unfairly silenced gathered to tell a large and raucous Zoom audience all about it.
“Thank God I’m not in jail,” declared Ivory Hecker, a former Fox 26 reporter who’s accused her ex-employers of muzzling her for not letting her cover Bitcoin and hydroxychloroquine. During a highly publicized on-air tirade several weeks ago, Hecker blasted her bosses, and also revealed that she’d provided secret recordings to James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas to prove the censorship she said was endemic at her station; she was fired soon after the televised outburst.
The coverage extended also to ivermectin, Hecker claimed, the anti-parasitic drug that several fringe doctors and less-fringe media personalities are claiming is a miracle preventative and cure for COVID-19. That claim has now led Hecker, post-firing, into the company of a new set of friends: the Front-Line Critical Care COVID-19 Alliance (FLCCC), a group of ivermectin-promoting doctors and their allies. On a weekly conference call, which was free and open to the public, Drs. Pierre Kory and Joseph Varon, two of the FLCCC’s founders, lightly interviewed Hecker and heavily implied that all three of them are under the same oppressive thumb of censorship, being silenced by the forces of media, Big Pharma, and their unnamed co-conspirators.
“I’ve left two jobs” in medicine, Kory said, shortly after Hecker declared her gratitude that she’s not in jail for her beliefs. “I was attacked and harassed by two different employers and I left.” What was happening to all of them, he said, was a signal of how oppressive the public sphere has become for people who speak out: “In a certain sense, I’d like to believe it’s gotten so absurd that we now have to pay attention and do something and fix it. This can’t go on.”
Ivermectin advocates believe themselves to be fighting against the forces of censorship to promote a suppressed cure for COVID-19. (Asked during a question and answer session how many people had been killed by social media censorship against ivermectin, Kory and Varon offered estimates in the six figures.) Despite the fact that the drug’s effectiveness at treating any kind of viral infection is far from clear, their holy war has taken on new vigor over the past several weeks, as prominent members of the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web” have begun advocating for the drug—and have found themselves running afoul of policies meant to prevent platforms being used for the advocacy of unproven medical claims.
One prominent ivermectin advocate is Bret Weinstein. A former evolutionary biology professor turned podcast host and passionate promoter of ivermectin, he has appeared on Joe Rogan's podcast with Kory to discuss the drug, which he and wife/co-host Heather Heying have repeatedly claimed on their podcast can prevent or treat COVID-19. Recently, after receiving "strikes" from Youtube, the couple moved their podcast to the fringe platform Odysee and put their claims about the suppression of science at the center of discussion, alongside speculation about whether powerful institutions want the pandemic to continue. Prominent media figures have rallied around them in support, a cast of characters ranging from Ben Shapiro to Matt Taibbi to Bill Maher to Rod Dreher to Bari Weiss to Glenn Greenwald, citing them as victims of either Big Tech censorship or else what Shapiro called the “increasingly censorious Left.”
Meanwhile, what this group sees as a free-speech battle rages on. On Monday, Weinstein tweeted, “YouTube just demonetized both DarkHorse channels, wiping out more than half our family income. Their message: Drop the science and stick to the narrative—or else.” (Heying didn’t respond to an email from Motherboard requesting comment.)
In a statement to Motherboard, YouTube confirmed that it has demonetized both Weinstein’s main channel and a secondary one, DarkHorse Podcast Clips, which between them have over 600,000 subscribers and have racked up millions of views. YouTube said it doesn’t allow medical misinformation about COVID-19 “that poses a serious risk of egregious harm in contradiction with local and global health authorities’ guidance about COVID-19 treatment, prevention, transmission, and social distancing.” The company specifically cited recommendations of ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine for the treatment or prevention of COVID-19 and claims that these drugs are safe and effective COVID treatments as prohibited.
“We have demonetized Bret Weinstein’s channel and affiliated channels and suspended them from the YouTube Partner Program,” a statement read. “All channels on YouTube need to comply with our Community Guidelines and in order to monetize, channels must comply with the YouTube Partner Program policies, which include our Advertiser-Friendly Guidelines. Channels that repeatedly violate these policies are suspended from our partner program. Channels removed from the partner program are able to appeal the decision or reapply once the underlying issues that led to suspension have been addressed.”
Weinstein’s tweets called the YouTube decision an assault on science, but according to YouTube, even materials that advocate for the use of unproven COVID treatments like ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine would be allowed, so long as there’s some nod to the fact that medical and health authorities worldwide don’t currently recommend them as a COVID treatment. (Ivermectin is an anti-parasitic, and has been widely and safely used in both humans and animals for that purpose for decades; among other things, it’s used to treat river blindness, a previously devastating disease.) As an example, the company pointed to a January video from Dr. Mike Hansen, an internist and pulmonologist who said he was “cautiously optimistic” about ivermectin as a treatment option, but acknowledged that the studies conducted on it up to that point weren’t numerous or necessarily high-quality.
The data in favor of ivermectin haven’t gotten much stronger in the meantime (although a very large clinical trial conducted by Oxford University is expected to shed much more light on ivermectin as a COVID-19 treatment, when concluded). This week, a meta-analysis and systematic review was published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, on the same day Weinstein’s channels were dinged. The paper combined data from all the published and preprint randomized controlled trials—the gold standard for reducing bias when analyzing a new treatment—involving ivermectin. The authors concluded that these trials showed that the drug “did not reduce all-cause mortality, length of stay or viral clearance in RCTs in COVID-19 patients with mostly mild disease.” Ivermectin, the authors added, “is not a viable option to treat COVID-19 patients.”
The study’s authors—a group of MDs and PhDs in public health working in Peru, Brazil, and the United States—also gently raised questions about the studies that have found ivermectin to be an effective COVID treatment. “Several websites published systematic reviews and meta-analyses about IVM in COVID-19 patients with unclear or absent methodology and reporting guidelines,” they wrote, adding that those websites failed to include basic information about how the studies were conducted, or what the authors called “relevant omissions such as inclusion criteria, searched databases, study quality assessment, meta-analysis methods, and heterogeneity definition.” They added: “In a context of misinformation infodemic, the dissemination of these results caused confusion for patients, clinicians (in particular those without training in critical reading of scientific literature), and decision-makers, who may manipulate the information with political interests.” (A good review of some of the issues with many supposedly miraculous ivermectin studies was also recently published by the epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz.) For its part, the FLCCC has denounced the new meta-analysis and systematic review as “seriously flawed,” because it “selectively excluded positive studies.”
In reality, two parallel and increasingly divergent conversations are taking place around ivermectin. One involves the routine workings of science. The other, holding that social media platforms are engaged in censorship, suppression of free speech, or even perhaps a sinister conspiracy, has only gotten louder in recent days. That’s been aided by media personalities like Weinstein and Heying and their supporters as well as the FLCCC. Joyce Kamen, the group’s “VP of Public Information,” wrote a deeply conspiratorial blog post on Medium claiming that ivermectin is being suppressed by a vast global cabal, titled “The Bigge$t Lie, Perhaps Ever.” (Kamen, for her part, is not a doctor; according to her LinkedIn page, she studied journalism and worked as a broadcast producer in the 1980s, and now works on communications for nonprofit organizations.)
“Tell everyone in your sphere of influence that it’s been known for MONTHS that ivermectin could bring an end to this pandemic,” Kamen wrote in the piece, “but media, Big Tech, Big Pharma and your government tried as hard as they could to keep it quiet. And who could blame them? Pockets had not yet been lined off the pandemic. More time…and more opportunity was needed to get the job done. I mean, how often does a pandemic come around to fling the door wide open to unimaginable riches?”
Their claims of suppression are also making ivermectin’s biggest promoters ever more famous. Kory announced this week that he'll be following up on his appearance on Joe Rogan’s podcast, where he preached the gospel of ivermectin to millions, with an appearance on Dr. Drew. But on their weekly Zoom call, Varon and Kory agreed with Hecker, the fired reporter they were interviewing, that something truly sinister was taking place. Kory hinted at a new theory that may begin to take shape in the ivermectin sphere, asserting that something called the “Trusted News Initiative” may be to blame for ivermectin’s lukewarm reputation in the mainstream media.
“A large part of the major mass media have made a decision that they’ll only allow discussion on what’s determined to be correct and efficacious by the WHO and the NIH,” he said. That decision seemed be linked, he implied, to the Trusted News Initiative, an project begun in 2019 involving a group of news organizations trying to agree on new standards and technologies to combat disinformation, most recently around elections and vaccines, and to provide continuing education resources to help journalists learn how to identify things like manipulated images.
“We’re trying to learn more about it, who started it, and how well-enforced it is,” Kory said, ominously. (The Trusted News Initiative was created by the BBC; as of December 2020, as is easily findable online, other partner organizations included the Associated Press, Agence France Presse, CBC/Radio-Canada, the European Broadcasting Union, the Financial Times, First Draft, The Hindu, Microsoft, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, and the Washington Post.) Kory appeared to be taking his talking points, however, from a conspiratorial article on the website Trial Site News, which employed the heavy use of scare quotes to imply that the TNI is a global force for censorship.
All of this signaled that a long and exhausting war, focused less on science than on the purported workings of a powerful elite manipulating events just out of sight, is only beginning. But Kory told the audience he’d found a bright spot in all the health agencies around the world who were beginning to listen to the FLCCC, listing health departments in Argentina, Malaysia, India, and Mexico, or what he called “a critical mass of non-captured health agencies from around the world.”
“We really think the truth is going to win out,” he said, serenely. “And the data is going to be insurmountable.”