A case study in fake news: Did the FBI raid the CDC based on the CDC whistleblower’s allegations?

[Note: The proprietor of the website has responded by e-mail. See Comment #37.]

Now that the unreal has become real, I was just thinking how weird it is that I’ve never actually blogged about a phenomenon that directly contributed to the election of Donald Trump. I’m referring to the phenomenon known now as “fake news.” Now, by “fake news,” I do not mean sloppy reporting. I do not mean biased reporting. I do not even mean a type of article that many crank websites publish in which a real news story (often with other news stories) is used as jumping-off point for pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. I’ve discussed more of this latter form of misinformation over the years than I care to remember. No, I’m referring to news stories that are made up out of whole cloth, either as clickbait (i.e., to make money) or for political advantage (the form that contributed to the rise of Donald Trump).

Basically, fake news sites publish hoaxes, propaganda, and disinformation in the hopes of these articles going viral to amplify their effect. Unlike satire sites, the goal of a fake news site is not to entertain, but rather to mislead. Oddly enough, for the most part, even NaturalNews.com probably isn’t really a fake news site, unless fake news is designed as extreme distortion of the news and using a mixture of news and crank sources to promote conspiracy theories. On the other hand, maybe that’s enough. Of course, fake news exists on a continuum, as Steve Novella helpfully lays out; with fake news at the extreme. It’s that bit of ambiguity that will make it very difficult for social media outlets like Facebook to crack down on fake news. Finally, fake news does not equal “information I don’t like or that I disagree with,” but that is how the term is increasingly being used: To delegitimize mainstream news outlets reporting facts that conflict with a person’s pre-existing beliefs. I’m getting tired of this already tired trope, but it shows no sign of abating and every sign of continuing to be the preferred retort of believers in fake news stories to dismiss disconfirmatory information.

Be that as it may, believe it or not, most antivaccine blogs and sites are not fake news sites. They tend to use legitimate news articles and scientific studies to draw the wrong conclusions, or they promote bogus scientific studies designed to bolster their pseudoscientific belief that vaccines cause autism. However, antivaccinationists are very prone to fake news, and yesterday I saw a doozy of an example. The dooziest! It started on the Facebook page of an antivaccine loon, Jim Meehan:

Elsewhere, I saw an article by William Mount entitled FBI Raid on CDC HQ Atlanta – Confirmed.

Obviously, I was intrigued. If this story were true, why hadn’t I heard of it? It would, after all, be big news. Of course, believers in fake news and antivaccine pseudoscience would say that it’s because the mainstream media is covering it up or refusing to report on it, but, really, there’s now way such a raid could be kept a secret in the age of social media. Someone would have seen. Someone would have talked. Someone would have Tweeted. There would have been someone, somewhere, who revealed something, even if, as these reports claimed, the raid took place at 3 AM yesterday.

It didn’t take me long to find the source of the story on a website called WhatDoesItMean.com, allegedly by someone named Sorcha Faal, “as reported to her Western Subscribers.” It also didn’t take long to figure out that Sorcha Faal is the pseudonym of a conspiracy writer who might or might not be David Booth, owner of the website. RationalWiki notes that Faal’s stories are of such poor quality that not even fellow conspiracy theorists think much of them. There’s no doubt that the story that got Meehan and Mount all worked up, President Trump Orders FBI To Conduct Massive Raid On CDC Headquarters, is not very good, but it does reveal a pretty in-depth knowledge of some aspects of antivaccine conspiracy theories while revealing ignorance in others, and I can see how a certain type of antivaccine conspiracy theorist might find it compelling. There’s even a video:

Note the framing of the story as that of a foreign intelligence report circulating in the Kremlin and somehow leaked, complete with a disclaimer that some “words and/or phrases appearing in quotes in this report are English language approximations of Russian words/phrases having no exact counterpart” added for extra faux authenticity and conspiracy:

A stunning Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) report circulating in the Kremlin today states that just hours after President Donald Trump and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James Comey “warmly embraced” in the White House yesterday, FBI agents conducted a massive early morning raid on the headquarters of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) based in Atlanta, Georgia, accompanied by Doctor-Scientist William Thompson—who is one of the most feared government whistleblowers in the United States for his exposing the vaccine-to-autism link cover-up.

See what I mean? There’s no way a “massive raid” wouldn’t be noticed and reported on by someone. However, Faal, whoever he/she/it is, clearly has some familiarity with the whole “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory. It’s one that I’ve blogged about more times than I can remember; so I’ll provide the CliffsNotes version with links. The “CDC whistleblower,” as you might recall, is a psychologist named William Thompson who works for the CDC and was involved in planning and carrying out some pivotal studies that failed to find a correlation between vaccination and autism, including a 2004 study whose lead author was Frank DeStefano (henceforth referred to as DeStefano et al). Beginning in November 2013, for reasons known only to himself, Thompson somehow became chummy with Brian Hooker, someone whom I like to refer to as a biochemical engineer turned incompetent antivaccine epidemiologist because that’s exactly what he is. Not realizing that his conversations were being recorded, Thompson spoke to Hooker in several telephone calls in which, apparently racked with guilt over his role in DeStefano et al examining MMR vaccine uptake as a risk factor for autism, he unburdened himself, kvetched about his CDC colleagues, and basically accused the CDC of covering up a finding that MMR vaccination correlated with autism in African American boys. Even if one were to take that finding at face value, it actually was a study that showed that Andrew Wakefield was basically wrong in that no such correlation was found in Caucasians, male or female, African American girls, or any other racial group. That right away should have suggested to Thompson that it’s a spurious finding due to small numbers in the subgroup. It was, of course, a finding that disappeared when proper statistical correction was made for confounders.

As a result of these conversations and the data supplied to him by Thompson, Brian Hooker did an epically incompetent “reanalysis” of DeStefano et al. What this reanalysis claimed to find was that DeStefano et al had done some statistical prestidigitation to eliminate a statistically significant difference in African American males correlating with age of MMR vaccination. Of course, as I discussed at the time (as did many others), Hooker, in his love of “simplicity,” had neglected to control for important confounders and imputed way too much significance to a spurious correlation that disappeared when proper correction for confounders was made. As I’ve put it many times, simplicity in statistical analyses of epidemiological data is not a virtue. In any case, so incredibly incompetent was Hooker’s analysis that the journal actually retracted the paper. Because Thompson’s allegations appeared to confirm the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement (that the CDC knew vaccines cause autism but were hiding it from the public), the antivaccine movement has been beating this dead horse of a scandal for over 15 months now. The believers in that conspiracy theory fervently wish for the FBI or other law enforcement to raid the CDC and arrest all those whom they consider responsible for the “vaccine-induced autism epidemic.” It is their number one fantasy.

I was there to observe the birth of this conspiracy theory in August 2014, and I know it quite well. It was a very educational experience, and, unfortunately, this conspiracy theory has been going strong for two and a half years. It spawned two antivaccine “CDCTruth” demonstrations at the CDC, one in 2015 and one in 2016. It also spawned VAXXED: From Conspiracy to Catastrophe, an antivaccine propaganda movie inspired by the CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory so heavy-handed that Leni Reifenstahl, were she still alive, would have told the director Andrew Wakefield and the producer Del Bigtree to tone it down a bit. Wakefield, of course, is familiar to my readers as an icon of the antivaccine movement, the disgraced doctor who published a fraudulent case series in 1998 purporting to find an association between vaccination with the MMR vaccine and autistic enterocolitis. It was a study that launched thousands of antivaccine quacks, and it was ultimately retracted. Unfortunately, President Trump’s antivaccine views led him to meet with Andrew Wakefield in August and led Wakefield to attend the Inaugural Ball with Gary Kompothecras, the wealthy Florida chiropractor, long time big money donor to the Republican causes, and Donald Trump supporter who had arranged the meeting in the first place:

Andrew Wakefield and company at the Trump  Inaugural Ball

So, right in the first paragraph you can see Faal basically writing an antivaccine crank’s wet dream of a story: The FBI, under President Trump (whom antivaccine activists perceive as a friend), raiding the hated CDC less than three days after Trump’s inauguration, with the CDC whistleblower himself showing them the way! It’s the “happy ending” to the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement! There’s even this background:

According to this report (and as we’ve previously reported on), almost a fortnight ago, President Trump appointed anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to become the Chairman of the Golden Vaccine Safety Task Force, and whose scathing manifesto titled MERCURY & VACCINES shocked the liberal elites in America who have for decades deliberately poisoned millions of children, while at the same time, in 1986, President Clinton signed a law called the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 that eliminated any liability to pharmaceutical manufacturers for their complicity in this crime against humanity.

No, not exactly. While it’s true that Trump did meet with RFK Jr., it’s entirely unclear whether he actually appointed RFK Jr. to anything. The whole storyline could just as easily been typical RFK Jr. Self-aggrandizement.

So what exactly happened with this “raid”? The fake news knows:

Nearly immediately after President Trump appointed Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to head this vaccine-autism task force, this report continues, he then requested that Sally Yates become the Acting Attorney General of the Department of Justice (DOJ) on 20 January when he took power—which she accepted, and then nearly immediately afterwards returned to her home city of Atlanta where she empanelled a secret Grand Jury.

Oooh. Sneaky. But that’s not all:

Raising the suspicions that Dr. Thompson was not being protected by the Obama regime, this report explains, was that right before the 2016 US presidential election that brought President Trump to power, CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden blocked Dr. Thompson from testifying on scientific fraud and destruction of evidence by senior CDC officials in critical vaccine safety studies regarding the causative relationship between childhood vaccines and autism.

Immediately upon taking power on 20 January, however, this report notes, President Trump fired Dr. Tom Frieden and installed Rear Admiral Dr. Anne Schuchat as the acting head of the CDC—who along with Dr. Thompson were the only two witnesses presented on Saturday (21 January) before the Atlanta secret Grand Jury called into session by Acting Attorney General Yates.

With the massive raid conducted by the FBI on the CDC headquarters just hours ago (3:00 am US East Coast time), this report continues, it is apparent that from her secret Grand Jury proceedings, Acting Attorney General Yates was able to secure a warrant for this to happen—though this SVR reports section on this subject is more highly classified than this general report allows mentioning.

Of course, the explanation for why Thompson was not allowed to testify is much less…ominous. Basically, the lawsuit above did not name the CDC as a party, and CDC policy regarding employees testifying in such lawsuits is one of impartiality and not allowing such testimony to disrupt the duties of CDC employees. While it is true that Rear Admiral Dr. Anne Schuchat is the acting head of the CDC, it’s not true that Trump fired Frieden. He turned in his resignation, as is the custom for presidential appointees when a new President takes over. As for the claim that yates got a grand jury together, got a warrant, and arranged a large raid in such a short period of time defies belief almost as much as the claim that such a raid occurred when no other sources have reported it other than sources citing this particular story. Also, there’s the little issue that the Attorney General doesn’t need a grand jury to get a warrant. He just has to get a judge to agree that there’s sufficient probable cause for a search and then get the warrant from the judge. A grand jury comes later, to determine if there is sufficient evidence of law breaking to go to trial.

Then there’s this:

And the many (and growing) rumors that President-elect Trump made his decision to run for president due to his youngest child, Barron, having been diagnosed with autism immediately after receiving a childhood vaccine shot in late 2013, and that his wife, Melania, has vowed to file lawsuits against anyone making such a claim—but who, nevertheless, will not be moving to the White House in order to keep her child out of the “media bubble” that surrounds all US presidents and their families.

First, I’ve never seen credible evidence that Barron is autistic. My position is that, no matter how much I detest Trump, Barron is off-limits, period. Leave the kid alone. It’s tough enough for him as it is. That’s been my position. Second, the timeline doesn’t even make sense. Barron is almost 11, which means he would have been seven in 2013. That’s a bit old for the usual “vaccines caused my child’s autism” story, most of which involve toddlers. Third, as I’ve documented, Trump has been spewing antivaccine nonsense since at least December 2007. Given that Barron was born March 2006, that timeline would make more sense. Be that as it may, it’s easy to see how this paragraph also feeds into the fantasies of the antivaccine cranks. Not only is Donald Trump antivaccine like they are, but he actually decided to run for President because he experienced an event like the ones that made them antivaccine!

It goes beyond this, though. Mount actually builds on Faal’s fake news story:

So this morning President Trump ordered a raid on the CDC Headquarters in Atlanta and the Intelligence Office below the CDC Headquarters.

The penalty for purposely murdering and crippling American’s is covered in USC 18 and is 20 years in jail to death.

The arrests begin today – the Tribunals (Trials) of these “Paid Terrorists” will begin in late March. They may be televised or they may be very quiet.

So not only was there a raid that no one heard of, but all the “paid terrorists” at the CDC will be put on trial, possibly in secret. It’s a lovely story, if you’re an antivaccinationist. Hilariously, Mount called the CDC and said that a receptionist told him that “they are not allowed to talk about the raid.” The comments after Meehan’s post are almost all credulous, along the lines of “Way to go!” Meanwhile everywhere I’ve seen this story, it’s admitted that the report is “unconfirmed,” but clearly everyone wants to believe it. That’s the key to an effective fake news story. It has to be something a certain population wants to believe. Indeed, on one page, one of the commenters even describes the “What Does it Mean?” website as ” sponsored and fed info by Russian intel that knows things the MSM does not- and of course it’s biased to meet Russia’s objectives if their intel services are indeed behind it.”

In fairness, not everyone’s buying it, though, at least not on Dr. Mount’s page. The reason? Mount shamelessly uses the story to sell his products. One of his commenters even says (quite accurately) that Mount is “playing with vaccine parents emotions to sell his product at the end.” Also in fairness, this fake news story hasn’t (yet) gone viral. Only a few sites have picked it up, although it is starting to get traction on Twitter. Will this fake news go any further? Who knows? It might not, because it makes the mistake of stating that something definitely happened at a specific time at a specific place. If another day goes by (or two), even the most die-hard believer is likely to start to question this. A better story would have been to say that a grand jury had been empaneled and was going to call, say, William Thompson to testify. Now that one could have had legs, because there’s no way to disprove it.

Fake news has obviously become an enormous problem. The example I chose, mainly because I found it interesting, is but a grain of sand on the beach of fake news, but it shows the anatomy of a fake news story. It’s sensational. It appeals to conspiracy theories. And it is something that a large number of people really, really want to believe, as believers in the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement want to believe that their prayers have finally been answered and justice (in their eyes) is being done to the hated CDC. It doesn’t matter that the cracks in the plausibility of the story are obvious. This one had all the hallmarks of an appealing fake news story for antivaxers. Unfortunately, there will be more, many more. There are always more.