For more than a year, an increasingly bitter dispute has played out between one of the country’s highest-profile governors and an ex-state employee who has referred to herself as “a nobody.” It has unfolded in news stories, social media posts and the courts, the barbs often mixing the personal with the political.
Monday brought the latest chapter in the clash of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and Rebekah Jones, a fired health department worker who last month was recognized as a whistleblower under state law. Twitter suspended Jones’s account for violating rules against “spam and platform manipulation,” and DeSantis’s office repeatedly cheered the platform’s decision, criticizing Jones and accusing her of “purchasing followers.”
Jones dismissed the accusation as false and “conspiracy-laden,” and she cited the Florida state statutes that prohibit attempts to threaten or intimidate whistleblowers.
DeSantis, a potential 2024 Republican presidential contender, and Jones have been trading shots since May 2020, when Jones said she was asked to manipulate Florida’s coronavirus data while she maintained the state’s dashboard. After her dismissal, Jones went on to launch her own data portal and accuse the state of mismanaging the pandemic, which has infected more than 2.3 million residents and killed more than 37,700. The governor and other officials have denied Jones’s claims and have sought to discredit her. Police raided her home in December.
The latest dust-up over Jones’s Twitter account highlights the contentious and deeply polarized politics of the virus response in the country’s third-most-populous state, where DeSantis and his aides have repeatedly singled out a former public servant while defending the administration’s record.
In an email to The Washington Post, Jones said that the Twitter suspension was routine and “automated,” the result of her sharing a Miami Herald investigation about her time in the health department “a bit over-zealously and was auto-locked by Twitter’s spam detector.” She said she has appealed the suspension and shared an email from Twitter acknowledging her reply. Jones, who has more than 400,000 followers, said she expects her account to be restored within the next 48 hours.
A Twitter spokesperson confirmed the “spam and platform manipulation” violation but did not provide more specific details.
Christina Pushaw — DeSantis’s press secretary who was hired after she wrote an article calling Jones’s claims “a big lie” — responded to Twitter’s move with several posts of her own, saying it was “long overdue” and calling Jones “the Typhoid Mary of COVID-19 disinformation.”
Then, in a statement from the governor’s office, DeSantis’s communications director, Taryn Fenske, said Jones is “a super-spreader of COVID-19 disinformation” and accused her of “defamatory” statements against health department employees.
DeSantis’s office also pointed to an April Twitter thread from a prominent disinformation researcher alleging that an app has surreptitiously directed thousands of users to follow a number of accounts, including Jones’s.
Jones responded to the researcher, according to a screenshot, with a tweet saying: “This is insane.”
“I’ve never heard of this app,” she wrote.
The DeSantis office’s victory lap over Jones’s suspension comes two weeks after the governor signed legislation aiming to punish social media companies for their moderation decisions. The legislation, which has raised constitutional concerns, would prevent companies such as Facebook and Twitter from suspending political candidates in the run-up to elections, and it would make it easier for Florida and its residents to bring lawsuits against the platforms.
DeSantis is one of many prominent conservatives who have accused tech companies of censoring right-wing speech, a charge the companies deny.
“Today, Floridians are being guaranteed protection against the Silicon Valley power grab on speech, thought, and content,” DeSantis said in a tweet celebrating the announcement.
Now, after he applauded Jones’s suspension, DeSantis’s critics have called him hypocritical.
“So @GovRonDeSantis AGREES with Twitter suspending accounts but only when he agrees with them??” tweeted state Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Democrat from Miami. “¡Hipócrita!”
Jones, in her email to The Post, said she hopes she’s back on the platform soon because DeSantis’s allegations about her “continue to rage unabated across the very platform he demonized for suspending and banning voices of opposition.”
In her statement, Fenske said that “perhaps Twitter is finally enforcing the same rules for both sides of the aisle.”
Jones has alleged that she was fired from her job as a health department data analyst last year for rejecting requests to falsely inflate the number of coronavirus tests and decrease the count of daily infections. State officials disputed her allegations and countered that she was fired for repeated insubordination.
Several months later, Florida police officers raided Jones’s home with their weapons drawn, searching for her computer, phone and other hardware she used to operate her independent website. Officers alleged that she had hacked into the health department’s website to send a message to emergency personnel. She was charged with computer crimes and has denied the allegations.
In January, Jones turned herself in to police. After posting bail and being released from a Tallahassee jail, she said she had tested positive for the coronavirus while in custody.
Jones has remained a polarizing figure whose claims have come under fierce scrutiny. In May, the National Review, a conservative magazine, published a lengthy report based on documents from Jones’s health department personnel file that allege she crashed the covid-19 dashboard, didn’t inform her supervisors what she was doing and locked another administrator out of the system. The article — which also mentioned her past arrests that didn’t result in convictions — called her “a myth-peddler” and “a fabulist.”
But the Herald’s recent investigation found that in documents filed with the Florida Commission on Human Relations, the health department confirmed two core elements of her whistleblower complaint.
And late last month, the health department’s inspector general told Jones’s attorneys that she qualified for whistleblower protection, according to a copy of the communique obtained by the Herald. “The information disclosed does meet the criteria for whistleblower status,” the office wrote.
“This isn’t vindication,” Jones told the paper then, “but this is a start.”
Teo Armus contributed to this report.