Berenson is by now a professional contrarian. Most of his prior books are spy thrillers, a genre that overlaps nicely with his current insistence that the government is conspiring to impose unjustified burdens on the public for unclear reasons. Before the pandemic, he published a book centered on the purported dangers of marijuana consumption — a book that earned grim reviews and condemnation from experts for its rampant alarmism and cherry-picking. So it was natural that, when the pandemic emerged, Berenson would stake out his current position.
In April, the Atlantic reviewed Berenson’s positions on the pandemic and the coronavirus vaccines, finding that he was broadly and unapologetically incorrect. “In a crowded field of wrongness,” the article’s subhead read, “one person stands out: Alex Berenson.”
But Berenson was hardly cowed by either the label or the debunking. Instead, amplified by people like Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, he’s continued to insist that the coronavirus vaccines don’t work as advertised (despite the evidence that they do) and that the best way to combat the virus is simply to become infected by it — which 1) introduces a risk of death, 2) introduces a risk of long-term effects and 3) probably offers immunity to the virus for a shorter period of time than the vaccines. He has repeatedly misrepresented medical studies and has been a leading proponent of amplifying unverified claims from a public database of vaccine side effects as evidence of dangers.
As he encourages people to buy his book, he tweets things like this.
The gate to Auschwitz bore the motto “arbeit macht frei” — work makes you free. “Impfung” is German for “vaccine.”
It’s really not hard to figure out what’s happening here. Berenson, like many before him, has figured out that telling people what they want to hear in a way that makes them feel smarter than everyone else is a good way to stoke the reward system of social media. That’s not to say that Berenson isn’t being sincere in his efforts to impugn vaccinations and cast the government as devious, erroneous or overreaching. It is, instead, to say that he’s carved out a successful and potentially lucrative niche in telling people the sorts of things they want to hear.
The conflation of contrarianism and individualism that Berenson exemplifies is a powerful force in politics at the moment. Social media allows for the creation of self-reinforcing groups that convince one another that they have the true insights and everyone else is misled or naive. We see it with things like QAnon; we see it in the much larger universe of people who actively reject recommendations aimed at curtailing the pandemic, like wearing masks or getting vaccinated. To object to the country’s top infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci not only signals partisan status but is hailed as an indicator of unwavering individualism.
Berenson added another of these anti-establishment validators over the weekend when he was suspended from Twitter. The tweet that spurred the suspension suggested that a Pfizer study proved its vaccine didn’t reduce deaths from covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. But the study didn’t show that and, in fact, wasn’t intended to evaluate that question. In fact, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that vaccinated people are 24 times less likely to die from covid than the unvaccinated.
But, again, Berenson’s identity is centered less on what he claims than who he’s opposing. So just as other efforts from social media companies to uproot abuse and misinformation have been cast as fearful efforts to mute truth-tellers — generally conservatives — Berenson’s ban has been framed in the same way.
Including by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).
Berenson has obviously not been suspended for being a “courageous voice of reason.” Quite the opposite. But for Johnson — who has himself been criticized for his own misinformation, like downplaying the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6 and questioning the need for broad vaccination — Berenson is a champion, someone standing athwart the status quo.
Again, that’s the root of all of this. That the pandemic has spurred a need for collective action (from distancing efforts last year to vaccines now) presented a chance for lots of huffy posturing about individual toughness. Wearing a mask is described not as a minor annoyance that everyone would prefer not to do but instead as an unacceptable step toward totalitarianism. In other words, people who ostentatiously oppose mask-wearing are converted from being selfish into being champions of the nation’s core values. Part of it is unquestionably rooted in an underestimation of the risks posed by the virus, a misunderstanding specifically bolstered by Berenson and Fox News. But when the government suggests that maybe you should be vaccinated against a virus that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, it’s also more fun to cast your position as being deeply rooted in opposition to overbearing authoritarians than it is to suggest that you just don’t think it’s a big deal or that you simply like to feel as though you’re battling authoritarians.
None of this survives much scrutiny. Berenson was suspended for being a “voice of reason”? Why? What’s in it for Twitter to block someone from presenting an accurate, reasoned case against vaccination? The often-unstated implication is that there’s some massive conspiracy between government and big tech and the left to terrify the population so that they can [mumbles] socialism. Or perhaps vaccination is effective at curtailing new infections and at keeping people alive and perhaps offering misleading information about the vaccines as you try to sell a book is something that Twitter would rather have happen off its platform.
It is certainly the case that Americans should and do celebrate our ability to speak freely without censorship. But it is also the case that we all recognize that some assertions and statements should not be handed large audiences. Social media companies have struggled to find the proper line; over the weekend, Twitter decided that Berenson crossed theirs.
In an interview over the weekend, Fauci flipped the script on the idea that asking people to wear masks was a dire infringement on personal rights.
“The fact is if you get infected, even if you are without symptoms, you very well may infect another person who may be vulnerable, who may get seriously ill,” he said in an interview on ABC News’s “This Week.” “So in essence, you are encroaching on their individual rights because you’re making them vulnerable. So you could argue that situation both ways.”
That argument won’t find much uptake, it’s safe to assume, since many of the complaints are rationalizations. But it is certainly true that individual decisions about the pandemic affect those around us. Including the decisions made by senators looking to score points with their partisan base and including the decisions of people trying to sell their books.