October 15, 2020 Reading Time: 4 minutes

Since its launch on October 5th, the Great Barrington Declaration website’s success has exceeded anything we could have imagined. The primary signatories include dozens of leading epidemiologists and professors of medicine, Nobel Prize winner (Chemistry) Michael Levitt, and of course the three co-authors Martin Kulldorff of Harvard, Sunetra Gupta of Oxford, and Jay Bhattacharya of Stanford. As of this writing, over 9,000 health scientists and 25,000 medical practitioners have also signed.

From its original conception, the authors of the Declaration wanted to include the general public in this initiative as well. The Covid-19 response is an unprecedented public health issue, affecting human beings from all corners of the globe. We are proud to announce that in only 10 days, the petition garnered over 500,000 signatures, with representation from almost every country. The people have spoken, and they’ve judged the heavy-handed lockdown approach to the pandemic to be a complete disaster.

Not all are happy with this stunning display of both scientific and popular support though. Instead of engaging the Great Barrington Declaration’s arguments, a small group of pro-lockdown activists from the ranks of the public health profession and journalism have chosen to wage an aggressive name-calling campaign against the petition on Twitter and social media. Their behavior to date is both juvenile and self-discrediting, yet they have also ventured into the territory of outright professional misconduct.

You may have seen the results of the lockdowners’ smear campaign in the tabloid press, with articles asserting that the Declaration was signed by obviously fraudulent names such as “Mickey Mouse” and “Dr. Johnny Banana.” While some hoax signatures are an unavoidable feature of any public petition, no matter the safeguard, in this case they derive from an intentional lockdowner campaign to manufacture embarrassing news stories about the Declaration without having to engage its scientific merit or its widespread public support.

The hoax campaign began in earnest on the morning of October 9th, largely the result of a Twitter campaign by a self-described London “journalist” named Nafeez Ahmed. Ahmed, who writes for a fringe political blog called the “Byline Times,” has spent the last several days circulating a flurry of conspiracist posts about the Great Barrington Declaration, including patently false claims about AIER and our funding.

On the morning of the 9th he attempted a new tactic, urging his Twitter followers in a viral thread to flood the signature page with fraudulent names. Ahmed submitted a fake signature himself, impersonating a doctor from Harvard Medical School, and boasted of the same in several tweets. His followers copied him, suddenly swarming the website with hundreds of signatures from “Donald Duck,” “Dr. Corona Virus,” “Boaty McBoatface,” and a number of vulgarities, racial slurs, and similarly trollish submissions.

In a few moments’ time the hoaxers had created a “controversy” of their own initiative, which they then pushed to lockdown-supporting journalists as a story about the very same signatures they added. The result was a completely manufactured “news story,” intended to discredit the Declaration’s actual signers.

Curiously, none of those stories mentioned the fact that hoax signatures were almost immediately flagged and removed from the Declaration. Ahmed’s fake submission lasted only an hour or so before being removed, and the site’s web team immediately went to work at blocking the flurry of false signatures. Over the next several days our web staff went to work individually authenticating signatures, as well as identifying and deleting the hoax submissions.

The statistics from that effort are now in. We estimate that only 0.1% of online signature submissions up until that point were fake. All of these have been removed, and the majority were pre-flagged for deletion without ever appearing on the list. This involved the deletion of fake “signatures” from such luminaries as President Donald Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, pro-lockdown physicist-epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, and the noted nuclear scientists Bruce Banner and Dr. Strangelove. While a few of the hoax submissions raised a good laugh, these also became casualties of the authentication process. Perhaps saddest of all, we had to decline the support of the legendary 1980s rock star neurosurgeon, Dr. Buckaroo Banzai. But the vetting process worked exactly as intended, the hoax signatures are no more, and most never even made it through in the first place.

When we analyzed the data from the hoax signatures however, a clear pattern emerged. Ahmed’s juvenile Twitter activities produced a noticeable surge in hoax submissions, which had only accrued at a trickling pace up until that point. In total we found that some 415 out of some 943 hoax signature submissions up to that point appeared within 24 hours after Ahmed’s call to flood the petition with fraudulent names.

As the chart below shows, the hoax submissions sharply spiked on October 9th and have since reverted to the previous pattern.

These fake signatures have all been removed, and continued attempts to hoax the site are now automatically flagged for review and deletion.

As the data show, the lockdowners’ troll campaign accounted for almost half of the fake submissions – the very definition of an attempt to manufacture a news story. While they likely thought they scored an internet victory of some sort by cynically deflecting attention away from the disastrous public health effects of their own botched pandemic response, all they achieved was putting their own increasingly desperate tactics on full public display.

Phillip W. Magness

Phil Magness

Phillip W. Magness works at the Independent Institute. He was formerly the Senior Research Faculty and F.A. Hayek Chair in Economics and Economic History at the American Institute for Economic Research. He holds a PhD and MPP from George Mason University’s School of Public Policy, and a BA from the University of St. Thomas (Houston). Prior to joining AIER, Dr. Magness spent over a decade teaching public policy, economics, and international trade at institutions including American University, George Mason University, and Berry College. Magness’s work encompasses the economic history of the United States and Atlantic world, with specializations in the economic dimensions of slavery and racial discrimination, the history of taxation, and measurements of economic inequality over time. He also maintains an active research interest in higher education policy and the history of economic thought. His work has appeared in scholarly outlets including the Journal of Political Economy, the Economic Journal, Economic Inquiry, and the Journal of Business Ethics. In addition to his scholarship, Magness’s popular writings have appeared in numerous venues including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Newsweek, Politico, Reason, National Review, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Get notified of new articles from Phillip W. Magness and AIER.