Looking Back on the Sadism of the Covid-19 Shaming Campaign

by Matt Taibbi and Matt Orfalea | May 21, 2023

There’s a scene in videographer Matt Orfalea’s arresting new “Nobody is Safe!” compilation in which Jeff Van Gundy — one of the sharpest basketball announcers alive, and one of my favorites to watch — leans back and says, “I don’t even understand what means, ‘I’m doing my own research.’”

The whole quote, from a preseason Heat-Rockets game Van Gundy called in October of 2021:

What does that look like, you doing your own research? Are you doing studies yourself? Are you in a lab on a nightly basis? What are you doing? I don’t understand what that means, ‘I’m doing my own research.’


How about this: we’ve got really smart people… who’ve already done the research.

The subtext of Van Gundy’s quote was one of the many stages of the Covid-19 messaging campaign, a collective roar against “asking questions” or “doing your own research.” Just a few weeks earlier, Brian Stelter on CNN hosted a panel about “four little words that are hurting America’s pandemic response.” He showed evil always-villain Sean Hannity repeatedly uttering the “seemingly innocent” phrase, “Do your own research.” He then rolled tape of comic Trevor Noah saying, “Nobody who’s saying that is getting in a lab and doing tests.”

In hindsight, who knows, that might have been where Van Gundy got the idea. Make no mistake, however, there was and is an active campaign against people who do their “own research.” This was a mostly unexplored theme in the #TwitterFiles material, as we did repeatedly see anti-disinformation “experts” identifying people who didn’t quickly accept official messaging without question as already, in a way, spreaders of mis- or disinformation.

We touched on this a little in a report about the Stanford Virality Project, which advised that “just asking questions” was a tactic “commonly used by spreaders of misinformation.” We also saw it in an Aspen Institute report on misinformation, which recommended “strikes” against people they called “savvy spreaders,” i.e. those who used phrases like “just asking questions,” evading censors by “couching” misinformation as mere “uncertainty”:

Covid-19 Shaming Campaign


I got the shot and never advised people not to get vaccinated. I couldn’t imagine an area where I was less qualified to give advice. But this is the point: the same people Orf shows picking up torches and railing with bloodcurdling certainty against “the unvaccinated” are nearly all people who knew as little as me, and whose beliefs about the vaccine were at best secondhand.

You’re disgusted at those who “do their own research”? What do you think journalism is? None of us do lab experiments. The job is always an imperfect effort to figure out which sources are most trustworthy, and because even the most credentialed often screw up, we always need to leave room for consensus proving wrong.

In this case one didn’t need a microbiology degree to recognize something about Covid-19 messaging was off. From flip-flops about masks (an “evolving situation,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said) to unwillingness to be frank in discussing natural immunity or risks to children, even casual news-readers saw confusion in the ranks of senior officials. Later, a series of reversals on key questions — first about whether the vaccine prevented contraction, then about whether it prevented transmission — left even people who wanted to follow official advice unsure of what to do.

I hope Matt’s video survives as a warning. There is still a lot of investigation to be done, in particular about the origins of the pandemic — certain segments of the national audience may still be in for a shock or two there — but as Matt shows, we already see a cautionary tale about faulty information being used to gin up real hatred.

People who once prided themselves on empathy, patience, and forgiveness in recent years have embraced public displays of sadism. In the video it starts with little things, like profanity: “Grow the fuck up and get the vaccine!” “Screw your freedom!” “Fuck their freedom!” Then it was displays of anger at people trying to engage in calm tones, e.g. The View hosts Joy Behar and Sunny Hostin railing against former colleague Jededia Bila for saying true things about natural immunity.

From there there were suggestions the unvaccinated shouldn’t be allowed to travel, or receive medical care (Jimmy Kimmel cheerfully sending “wheezy” to the afterlife in a hypothetical E.R. scene was choice), and bizarre stories like Jennifer Anniston announcing the cutoff of unvaccinated friends from her “weekly routine.” There were ever-more extreme campaigns describing those who didn’t get the shot as being another, dumber species (residents of “Earth Two,” as Ali Velshi put it). All this was propped up at each stage by corresponding campaigns of absolutist official messaging: “The only pandemic is among the unvaccinated,” “When you get the vaccine, you will not die,” and my favorite, from Fauci: “If you’re vaccinated, you don’t have a risk. It’s as simple as black and white.”

I thought all this was crazy even before many revelations about the limits of the vaccine. I remember Kimmel running his har-har video about “anti-vax Barbie” sitting at her laptop, saying, “It sez here Moderna terns yer teeth Jewish!”:

This would have been an insane way of approaching the issue if the vaccine actually worked as advertised. It was Heathers meets public health messaging, guaranteed to alienate the people they were ostensibly trying to reach.

Now that the Bidens, Faucis, and Rochelle Walenskys turned out to be wrong about so many questions, the lack of apology about the sadism is glaring. Perhaps that’s because this campaign worked as intended. In the #TwitterFiles we saw anti-disinformation “experts” appearing to consciously blur lines between genuine disinfo (“garlic, ginger, honey, and lemon” cure Covid-19) and healthy skepticism (vaccines do not prevent infection). We also saw efforts to describe what the Stanford project called the “vaccine passport narrative” as anti-vaxxer propaganda-by-proxy. Once people accepted the emotional imperative of hating and shunning, officials found all sorts of uses for the emotion, including fury at resistance to authoritarian measures.

Orf’s video is a warning. The topic is irrelevant. He’s showing the template of how one segment of the population can be trained to despise and shun another as official policy. We’ve seen this before, including after 9/11, but I don’t remember any official/media campaign being quite so visceral. Unless there are apologies, this will continue to feel like a dry-run for something even worse that may still be coming. Aren’t these behaviors we want to un-learn?

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