Debunking McGill's "Dirty Dozen" Hit Piece: Flawed Sources, Pharma Ties, and Biased Reporting

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A McGill University article accusing 12 individuals of driving the majority of online anti-vaccine misinformation has come under fire after the study it relied on was directly refuted by Meta. The debacle raises serious questions about academic integrity, industry influence, and the politicization of the misinfo debate.

McGill's Disinformation Debacle: Debunking the "Disinformation Dozen"

In March 2021, McGill University's Office for Science and Society published an article by Jonathan Jarry titled "A Dozen Misguided Influencers Spread Most of the Anti-Vaccination Content on Social Media."1 Citing a report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), Jarry claimed that "two-thirds of anti-vaccine content shared or posted on Facebook and Twitter between February 1 and March 16, 2021, can be attributed to just twelve individuals."1,2

Among those named in this so-called "Disinformation Dozen" was Sayer Ji, founder of the natural health website GreenMedInfo.com. Jarry painted Ji and the others as dangerous spreaders of "blatant and harmful misinformation" with outsized influence.1

However, a bombshell statement from Meta (formerly Facebook) has revealed fatal flaws in the CCDH report, calling into question McGill's uncritical endorsement of its claims and the legitimacy of Jarry's attacks on Ji and the other named individuals.

Debunked Data, Baseless Accusations

In August 2021, Meta's VP of Content Policy Monika Bickert directly refuted the CCDH's central claim, stating: "There isn't any evidence to support this claim. Moreover, focusing on such a small group of people distracts from the complex challenges we all face in addressing misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines."3

Bickert revealed that the CCDH report "analyzed only a narrow set of 483 pieces of content over six weeks from only 30 groups," arguing that this cherry-picked sample was "in no way representative of the hundreds of millions of posts that people have shared about COVID-19 vaccines in the past months on Facebook."3 She also highlighted the CCDH's lack of transparency in how it categorized content as "anti-vax" and selected the groups it analyzed.3

Despite relying heavily on the CCDH report, Jarry's article failed to critically examine these serious methodological issues, instead presenting the disinfo dozen narrative as established fact. This raises troubling questions about McGill's academic rigor and editorial standards.

Pharma Funding, Ideological Bias?

It's also worth scrutinizing McGill's own potential biases and conflicts of interest. The university has come under fire for accepting millions in funding from major pharmaceutical companies like Merck and Pfizer,4 while the OSS itself has disclosed taking money from drug industry giants.5

While McGill insists this funding doesn't influence its content, it's fair to ask whether the university's attacks on alternative health advocates like Ji - who often criticize Big Pharma and promote natural treatments - may reflect an ideological slant that aligns with its financial incentives.

Ji has argued that his site serves as an important counterweight to what he sees as the pharmaceutical industry's corrupting influence on medical research and information.6 In light of Meta's debunking of the CCDH report, McGill's hit piece appears to validate Ji's concerns about industry-backed attempts to smear dissenters.

Defamation in the Name of Fighting Disinfo?

Perhaps most troublingly, by uncritically promoting the CCDH's claims, McGill laundered unsubstantiated accusations against the Disinformation Dozen, implicitly tarring them as culpable for harms like vaccine hesitancy and COVID deaths.1,2

As Meta's response makes clear, the CCDH's data is far too flimsy to support such explosive charges.3 In amplifying these spurious claims, Jarry and McGill engaged in precisely the sort of reckless dissemination of misinformation they accuse others of - with potentially defamatory consequences.

This underscores the dangers of a politicized misinfo discourse in which academics, journalists, and activists feel emboldened to level inflammatory allegations against perceived opponents without due diligence or regard for truth.7

It also illustrates how the campaign against "anti-vax misinfo" can perversely fuel conspiratorial narratives, vindicate skeptics' perception of establishment bias, and erode good-faith debate - outcomes directly counter to the effort to shore up trust in institutions and improve public understanding.8,9

Getting It Right Matters

None of this is to deny the realities of misinfo or wholly endorse the views of Ji and others. But when influential bodies like universities proffer debunked data and biased reporting to defame dissenting voices, it only deepens the crisis of credibility that allows false beliefs to fester.

If we are to make real progress in the fight against misinformation, we must hold agencies like the CCDH and their scientific partners like McGill to the same high standards of accuracy, transparency, and integrity we expect of others. Only by eschewing political agendas and ethically pursuing truth can we begin to restore a baseline of trust.

After all, getting it right matters. In an information ecosystem as polluted as ours, we simply cannot afford to further muddy the waters by laundering misinfo in the name of combating it. If even our misinfo discourse is corrupted by bad-faith actors and flawed data, the already daunting challenge of repairing our fractured epistemic landscape may well become insurmountable.

We can and must do better.


References

1. Jarry, J. (2021, March 31). A Dozen Misguided Influencers Spread Most of the Anti-Vaccination Content on Social Media. McGill Office for Science and Society. https://www.mcgill.ca/oss/article/covid-19/dozen-misguided-influencers-spread-most-anti-vaccination-content-social-media

2. Center for Countering Digital Hate. (2021). The Disinformation Dozen. https://www.counterhate.com/disinformationdozen

3. Bickert, M. (2021, August 18). How We're Taking Action Against Vaccine Misinformation Superspreaders. Meta. https://about.fb.com/news/2021/08/taking-action-against-vaccine-misinformation-superspreaders/

4. PharmedOut. (n.d.). Industry Payments to McGill University. https://pharmedout.org/industry-payments-mcgill-university/

5. Hensley, L. (2019, August 12). Big pharma pours millions into medical schools -- here's how it can impact education. Global News. https://globalnews.ca/news/5734529/big-pharma-donations-medical-schools/

6. Ji, S. (2024, June 2). Debunking the CCDH's "Disinformation Dozen" Report: How Flawed Methodology and Misleading Claims Fuel Misinformation. GreenMedInfo. https://www.greenmedinfo.com/blog/debunking-ccdhs-disinformation-dozen-report

7. Leetaru, K. (2021, July 20). Should Social Media Companies Be The Arbiters Of Truth? Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/kalevleetaru/2021/07/20/should-social-media-companies-be-the-arbiters-of-truth/

8. Greenwald, G. (2022, April 29). The White House's New Disinformation Czar Has A History Of Perpetuating Left-Wing Propaganda. Substack. https://greenwald.substack.com/p/the-white-houses-new-disinformation

9. Rauch, J. (2021). The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth. Brookings Institution Press.

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of GreenMedInfo or its staff.

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