The 'Florida Covid-19 whistleblower' saga Is a big lie

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  • 06/04/2023

At first glance, the story of Rebekah Jones—a brave “COVID-19 scientist” standing up to a corrupt right-wing machine—looks like a bombshell. When the Florida Department of Health (DoH) fired her last May, Jones claimed she had been terminated for refusing to falsify case numbers to support Governor Ron DeSantis’ plans to reopen the economy. Overnight, she became a heroine. She launched her own COVID-19 dashboard, raised half a million dollars, and gathered a Twitter army of 378,000.

To liberal intelligentsia, the idea that DeSantis could handle COVID-19 better than mask-mandating lockdown enthusiasts like Andrew Cuomo or Gavin Newsom was unthinkable.

Jones shot to stardom because she lent a fresh face to a “Narrative.” According to The Narrative, Florida wasn’t supposed to be winning the fight against the pandemic. It’s full of high-risk seniors, teeming with tourists, and run by a Republican who is an unapologetic ally of former President Donald Trump. To liberal intelligentsia, the idea that DeSantis could handle COVID-19 better than mask-mandating lockdown enthusiasts like Andrew Cuomo or Gavin Newsom was unthinkable.

But by May, the facts had begun contradicting The Narrative. While blue states like New York and California were devastated by COVID-19 despite draconian lockdowns, Florida did relatively well. Per capita, New York has nearly double Florida’s COVID-19 fatalities—and unlike New York, Florida has been open for months.

For journalists struggling to explain this deviation from The Narrative, Jones’ tale was irresistible. She confirmed their unspoken suspicions: Florida’s relative success in fighting COVID-19 was an illusion crafted by a mendacious Trumpian governor and his flunkies, who fudged statistics to justify their homicidal reopening drive. DeSantis’ categorical rejection of Jones’ allegations only gave them momentum.

Eight months later, however, Jones is making headlines again, this time facing a felony charge for breaching a government computer system. In interviews with MSNBC’s Joy Reid and Ali Velshi, CNN’s Erin Burnett, and other opinion-makers, Jones casts herself as the target of a vast right-wing conspiracy orchestrated by the governor, his loyalist judges, and his “Gestapo,” the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The media continues lauding her. Fortune named her to its 40 Under 40. Forbes awarded her “Technology Person of the Year” for “step[ping] up to fill the vacuum left by governments during COVID-19.” She’s started another lucrative GoFundMe to “defend science.”

Jones’ story sounds impressive. There’s just one problem: It’s not true.


NPR describes Jones as a “top scientist” leading Florida’s pandemic response. In fact, Jones has held three jobs in her field; all three have ended in her being terminated and criminally charged. She has a Master’s in geography from Louisiana State University, where she worked until she was fired. She was arrested in 2016 while, reportedly, trespassing on campus and attempting to steal computer equipment from her former workplace. She then lectured at Florida State University (FSU) and began researching tropical storms for a dissertation, but never earned a Ph.D. as she was suspended and fired in 2018 after her former student accused her of sexual cyberharassment. Before her termination from the DoH, she was a geographic information systems manager, overseeing the COVID-19 web portal.

Dr. Roberson deserves the recognition the media has lavished on her ex-employee. But according to The Narrative, serving in a conservative administration disqualifies her.

It’s therefore misleading to imply Jones has specialized knowledge of infectious disease. Florida’s top Democratic official calls her “Dr. Rebekah Jones,” but Jones is no doctor. Nor is she an epidemiologist, virologist, statistician, or public health professional; the DoH has a highly qualified team of those. A technical manager, Jones didn’t have the authority or expertise to decide unilaterally how to visualize data. But when experts disagreed with her, she assumed they were wrong—or deliberately deceiving the public.

After she was fired from the DoH for a pattern of insubordination, Jones claimed that Deputy Secretary for Health Shamarial Roberson had asked her to “manipulate data to mislead the public” about the safety of reopening rural counties. According to Dr. Roberson, this is “patently false.” Emails show a state epidemiologist told Jones to temporarily disable data export from the dashboard to verify dates against other official sources. The data was aggregated from local public health authorities in 67 counties; it couldn’t be falsified or hidden. In other words, Jones is no “whistleblower.” She’s a conspiracy theorist.

In amplifying Jones’ story, the media has all but ignored Dr. Roberson, who has impressive experience in epidemiology and a doctorate in public health. As a Black woman from a disadvantaged background, she has risen to the forefront of Florida’s pandemic response. Dr. Roberson deserves the recognition the media has lavished on her ex-employee. But according to The Narrative, serving in a conservative administration disqualifies her.

Unless you think a data manager is more qualified than an epidemiologist to handle a pandemic, Jones’ critique of Dr. Roberson is unconvincing. Those who believe it presume that the epidemiologist would risk her career, and Floridians’ lives, for DeSantis’ ostensibly murderous agenda. Emboldened by credulous media, Jones is now accusing Dr. Roberson of trying to conceal fatalities. “The woman who told me to delete cases and deaths is now blaming DOCTORS for the death backlog,” Jones wrote in a recent social media post accompanying an article about Dr. Roberson. “She's the most corrupt, lying, incompetent and ignorant person that could be ever be put in charge.”

Since her termination from the DoH, Jones has doubled down on her criticism of prominent epidemiologists—and in doing so, she has revealed serious gaps in her own knowledge of COVID-19. In July, Jones asserted that false negative antibody tests are “worrisome” because “you’re not aware that you have and can spread the virus.” Dr. Natalie Dean, an infectious disease expert, explained that false negative antibody tests carry no public health risk, but false negative antigen tests do. (Antibody tests show past infection, while antigen tests detect active infections that can be spread). Instead of admitting her mistake, Jones blocked Dr. Dean and contacted the epidemiologist’s employer to complain. Yet even after this incident, the Washington Post referred to Jones as a “COVID-19 data scientist.”

What distinguishes “whistleblowers” from “disgruntled ex-employees” is credibility, and here Jones has a problem.

Fortunately, a handful of local outlets like Tallahassee’s The Capitolist, Alachua Chronicle, and University of Florida’s Fresh Take have investigated Jones’ claims instead of boosting agitprop. For example, Jones said “at least 1,200 cases” were “deleted” in July under pressure from DoH leadership. According to Fresh Take, Jones later admitted that those cases were out-of-state visitors, recorded separately on Florida’s dashboard. Like other COVID-19 hoaxes, Jones’ conspiracy fantasy poses a real threat to public safety by sowing distrust in public health authorities.

What distinguishes “whistleblowers” from “disgruntled ex-employees” is credibility, and here Jones has a problem. Tabloids have reported on her past encounters with the law, which include arrests for trespassing, theft, and resisting arrest. She has also faced sexual harassment and stalking charges, stemming from an extramarital affair with her former student. Jones’ mainstream media defenders, of course, consider her troubled past irrelevant to the COVID-19 conspiracy. But in the #MeToo era, it’s unusual to ignore sexual misconduct allegations against public figures.

Case files allege Jones stalked and robbed her former student, sent explicit photos to his family and employer, and trespassed on his property. Some charges were dropped; the stalking case remains open. In a 342-page manifesto, Jones describes how her victim’s misdeeds—chiefly, ending a relationship with his married lecturer—enraged her enough to harass his mother, violate a no-contact order, vandalize his car, and threaten to fail his roommate in revenge. Jones, in her mind, was the real victim.

Jones’ skewed perception of reality goes beyond her manifesto. Not only does she continue to portray herself as an innocent victim, but she also insists that entire state agencies are now coordinating with Florida’s governor to oppress her.


In December of last year, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) executed a search warrant for her latest felony charge. In Jones’ version of events, “Gestapo” raided her home, stole her electronics, and menaced her children with firearms. The governor himself had commandeered the raid to silence a dissident scientist. “DeSantis thought pointing a gun in my face was a good way to get me to shut up,” she Tweeted.

But Rebekah Jones is hardly Andrei Sakharov. The message that prompted the investigation, sent via Florida’s emergency notification service, read in part: "It's time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead." This is neither whistleblowing nor a harmless prank. It’s hijacking an official public health communications platform to spread disinformation and fear. Furthermore, the warrant alleges Jones downloaded confidential information about 19,182 employees, including their emergency contacts, personal phone numbers and addresses. Jones denies sending the message and stealing the data, but the search warrant affidavit explains how police traced the IP address behind the criminal activity to her residence.

It’s delusional to suspect all three judges, two of whom predate the DeSantis administration by over a decade, of colluding with the governor to plot a Stalinist show trial.

Jones also challenges the warrant’s legitimacy. Her implication, not lost on the media, is that DeSantis ordered the “raid” and put his crony on the bench to rubber-stamp it. The judge who signed the warrant, Joshua Hawkes, is indeed a recent DeSantis appointee. But that doesn’t prove DeSantis weaponized Florida’s judiciary to persecute a whistleblower, especially because Hawkes isn’t the only judge involved. Judge John Cooper, elected in 2002, affirmed the search warrant’s validity and denied a request from Jones’ attorneys to return electronics seized by police. Judge Nina Ashenafi-Richardson, elected in 2008, signed Jones’ arrest warrant. Like Cooper, Ashenafi-Richardson has no connection to DeSantis. It’s delusional to suspect all three judges, two of whom predate the DeSantis administration by over a decade, of colluding with the governor to plot a Stalinist show trial.

In Jones’ latest tale of oppression—one echoed by media enablers—she’s a victim of “police violence.” On January 16, she announced that she would turn herself in to the authorities “to protect my family from continued police violence, and to show that I'm ready to fight whatever they throw at me.” However, FDLE has released full body camera footage that refutes Jones’ allegations of “violence.”

When officers arrived with a warrant, Jones—whose arrest record includes battery on a police officer—refused to answer the door for 22 minutes. After she finally let them in, FDLE conducted the search with restraint and professionalism. To characterize this as “police violence” is insulting, both to FDLE and to actual victims of police brutality. Such claims from Jones aren’t new. In 2017, she accused police of “kidnapp[ing]” her after being detained under the Baker Act, an involuntary psychiatric hold for people who pose a danger to themselves or others.

Today, Jones awaits trial at her new home in an upmarket DC suburb. She invested part of her crowdfunding proceeds in a for-profit corporation, Florida COVID Action LLC. Its website states: “Reporting data fairly, completely and transparently is of the upmost [sic] importance.” Jones vows to campaign for DeSantis’ 2022 Democratic challenger. “If I could have run for office in Florida and not have to worry about my family's safety, I absolutely would have,” she Tweeted. “But the governor would never let that happen.” She says she’s using donors’ funds “to fight DeSantis, and anything else he throws at me.”

Opposing the Governor’s free-market policies, light-touch COVID-19 response, or alignment with former President Trump is fair game.

Jones has a platform most politicians would envy. But her “whistleblowing” is a flimsy foundation for a political career. She knew all along there was no cover-up. After her firing, she insisted she “never suggested any conspiracy involving the Governor.” In one mask-off moment, Jones even admitted to CNN that Florida had done “better than expected” controlling the pandemic. She had the right to criticize DeSantis, but not to defame him. Opposing the Governor’s free-market policies, light-touch COVID-19 response, or alignment with former President Trump is fair game. Smearing thousands of dedicated public servants to push a conspiracy theory is unjustifiable.

Those desperate to see DeSantis fail, and Florida become America’s cautionary COVID-19 tale, want to believe Jones. This includes mainstream media acolytes, whose numbers are dwindling: An Edelman poll released in January by Axios found that 56% of Americans think “reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations.” With the next Rebekah Jones, that proportion will grow.

If Jones is an activist disguised as a scientist, the fawning treatment of her plight is advocacy masquerading as journalism. The left sees Jones as the eye of a perfect storm: the GOP’s war on science, a corrupt Trumpian governor, the foolhardiness of any COVID-19 policy short of Chairman Xi-style lockdowns—and a telegenic “whistleblower” to reinforce these tropes. Reality never stood a chance.

For liberal thought leaders sympathetic to Jones, The Narrative doesn’t merely overpower facts. It supersedes principles. Listen to experts, unless they serve under a conservative governor. Believe survivors, unless they accuse your ideological ally. Trust science, unless it contradicts your political biases.

And above all, never, ever admit you’re wrong.

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