known as the pandemic’s wrongest man, Alex Berenson has managed to
become one of the most cited and influential anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists
and COVID-19 denialists operating in the US today. Berenson used to be a
reporter for The New York Times as well as a novelist, although his
latest fiction book, the hilariously deranged 2019 fantasy screed Tell Your
Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence, somehow
ended up being marketed as having anything to do with reality; it most certainly
does not. At present, Berenson is a
mainstay feature of Snopes.com articles, who has fortunately taken upon
themselves the arduous task of trying to clean up some of the toxic waste of
delusional, pseudoscientific nonsense Berenson vomits all over the internet.
coronavirus pandemic, Berenson made frequent appearances in right-wing media to spread false claims about the
disease and the vaccines (despite, of course, having absolutely no background
or competence in any remotely relevant subject matter). Much of his efforts during
the earlier stages of the pandemic were devoted to asserting that the
seriousness of COVID-19 was overblown and attacking face masks, but he shifted his focus to
conspiracy theories and disinformation about the effectiveness and safety of
the vaccines once they started being rolled out.
particular, his early 2020 rants focused on expressing his belief that COVID-19
posed little risk and warning of alleged mainstream media alarmism and how the
latter was used as a cover for government overreach. Predictably, Berenson falsely
asserted that masks were a useless measure to curb the transmission of COVID –
indeed, Berenson has been shown to be one of the core anchors in the
anti-mask disinformation networks in the US, and probably internationally. In
May 2020, Fox News even announced that Berenson would get to host a TV show called
‘COVID Contrarian’ on its online platform Fox Nation; by July, however, the
number of COVID deaths made even Fox uncomfortable, and they removed the
announcement from their website.
2021 and early 2022, Berenson carefully “mischaracterized just about every detail regarding the vaccines” in a concerted effort to get people
to avoid them, having in the effort “proved himself the Secretariat of being
wrong”. For instance:
- he blamed the vaccines for causing
spikes in severe illness, by pointing to data that actually demonstrate their
safety and effectiveness.
- he asserted that in country after
country, “cases rise after vaccination campaigns begin,” in obvious
contradiction with available evidence at the time, citing studies that showed absolutely no such thing. It is emphatically not the only
time Berenson has misunderstood and distorted studies to promote antivaccine
- In particular, he accused vaccine
manufacturers of foul play by failing to include “suspected but unconfirmed”
COVID-19 cases in their final efficacy conclusions, with reference to cases of suspected COVID that
were tested negative. (In fairness, Berenson presumably
didn’t actually try to lie here; he misunderstood the reports because he is
stupid, arrogant and completely incompetent at reading such reports.)
- he blamed the vaccines for
suppressing our immune systems, by misrepresenting normal immune-system
behavior; Berenson argued that “the first dose of the mRNA vaccine
temporarily suppresses the immune system” and “transiently suppress
lymphocytes,” which to anyone who knows how vaccines and immune systems
work is close to a world record of silly – the closest analogy is claiming
that workouts are dangerous because they ruin your muscles, except that muscles
do indeed tear at the gym whereas lymphocytes aren’t destroyed by
- he suggested that countries such as
Israel suffered from their early vaccine rollout, in direct contradiction with
the facts, easily available at the time, showing
that deaths and hospitalizations among vaccinated groups in Israel plummeted.
(Berenson linked to a news article in Hebrew that didn’t remotely say anything
resembling what he claimed it said; most of his followers presumably don’t read
- he promoted the conspiracy theory
that a Danish soccer star who suffered
cardiac arrest during a game had received the COVID vaccine just prior to
collapsing, which was completely false, of course, but you probably know how
antivaxx disinformation works by now. It was, needless to say, not the only
Berenson has cited unfounded rumors to promote antivaxx nonsense.
- he implied that for most
non-seniors, the side effects of the vaccines are worse than having COVID-19
itself, in direct contradiction with the fact that the pandemic already by
April 2021 had killed tens of thousands of people under 50 and the vaccines not conclusively killed anybody.
course, if anything makes its rounds in antivaxx circles, you can be more or
less sure that Berenson will pick it up and use it to spread antivaccine
disinformation, such as a Salk Institute study on spike proteins that he cited,
even though obviously didn’t read or at least didn’t remotely understand. (The alleged deadliness of spike
proteins has been a mainstay in antivaxx circles, despite the utter nonsense and lack of scientific support for the claims – studies that say the opposite of
what you claim they say aren’t scientific support for your claim) In
2021, Berenson also tweeted that COVID-19 vaccinations had led to 50 times more
adverse effects than flu vaccines based on comparing absolute numbers of
vaccines given – and still getting it wrong.
2021, Berenson spoke at CPAC, prompting loud cheers from the crowd when he
boasted that “the government was hoping that
they could sort of sucker 90 percent of the population into getting vaccinated,
and it isn’t happening.” Yes, it’s worth a moment of reflection. In August,
2021, he was permanently suspended from Twitter for repeated violations of its
policy on COVID-19 misinformation.
2022, Berenson appeared on Tucker Carlson’s show (but of course) repeating his
claim that existing mRNA vaccines are “dangerous and ineffective”
against COVID-19 and demanding that they be withdrawn from the market
immediately. (Carlson, who has a famously proven track record of COVID
misinformation himself, of course left Berenson’s assertions unchallenged.)
2019 screed Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness and Violence is an alarmist piece of conspiracyranting characterized by numerous false
assertions based on misrepresenting research, inferring causation from correlation (and directly contradicting the research he cites in the process), cherry picking and selection bias, relying mostly on (distorted)
anecdotes to back its points. The book
garnered consistent criticism from those who actually
have any idea what they are talking about, like these people. (You can watch what is more or
less the documentary version of Berenson’s book here). Since Berenson was not a household name at
time, some commentators even wondered whether the whole book was a trollingeffort. It wasn’t, of course. But it does
display Berenson’s combination of utter lack of integrity with incompetence in
the service of FUD tactics aimed at the scientifically
illiterate but paranoid, on which he would capitalize in the upcoming pandemic.
Despite the claim having been shown to be false, Berenson continues to claim
that “cannabis causes psychosis causes violence”.
pot legalization movement is, according to Berenson, really a conspiracy that
has managed to get the media onboard (“it’s a lot of the elite media that’s
bought into this”, said Berenson on Fox; note the insertion of ‘elite’).
And who’s really behind it all? Why, Soros, of course: “The number one
group that’s encouraged legalization over the last 20 years is the Drug Policy
Alliance, which is a well-funded group – actually, George Soros is its largest
backer.” At least he understands his audience.
Berenson knows very little and is generally incompetent at fact gathering, but
we admit that he is something of an expert at sowing fear, uncertainty and
doubt among scientifically illiterate and paranoid groups already prone to view
anything they see through the lens of politics. It’s relatively easy, given
sufficient confidence and the sort of staggering lack of integrity Berenson
evinces, and it has made him one of the most influential sources of
disinformation in the world today.
Derek Thomspon @TheAtlantic