The British Medical Journal Story That Exposed Politicized 'Fact-Checking'

by | Feb 2, 2022

Paul Thacker

In February of 2010, the New York Times released a front-page story entitled, “Research Ties Diabetes Drug to Heart Woes.” The lede read:

Hundreds of people taking Avandia, a controversial diabetes medicine, needlessly suffer heart attacks and heart failure each month, according to confidential government reports that recommend the drug be removed from the market.

The Times piece quoted an internal F.D.A. report that said the GlaxoSmithKline diabetes drug Avandia, also known as Rosiglitazone, was “linked” to 304 deaths in 2009, adding the conclusion of the two doctors who authored the report: “Rosiglitazone should be removed from the market.” The story was released in advance of a Senate Finance Committee study that produced a series of damning internal documents, including one in which an FDA safety officer expressed concern that Avandia presented such serious cardiovascular risks that “the safety of the study itself cannot be assured, and is not acceptable.”

One of the chief investigators on that study was Paul Thacker, at the time a committee aide under Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley. Multi-year document hauls like the Avandia report were Thacker’s stock in trade. I first met him around then because his committee frequently dealt with financial crisis issues I covered. Thacker, who went on to contribute to a number of commercial and academic journals, was trained in a tradition of bipartisan committee reporting that relies heavily on documents and on-the-record testimony, i.e. the indisputable stuff both sides are comfortable backing.

Thacker has an in-your-face style and a dark sense of humor, and talking to him can feel like being lost in a Bill Hicks routine, but his information is good. In his years in the Senate, his job was publicizing damaging information about the world’s most litigious companies. Certain Washington jobs require a healthy fear of the $1000-an-hour lawyers that every Fortune 500 company has on speed dial, and Thacker has always retained the Beltway investigator’s usefully paranoid approach to publishing.

“I know how to do these things,” he says. “I know how to work with whistleblowers.”

It was more than a little surprising, then, when Thacker’s name appeared in the middle of a bizarre international fact-checking controversy. In an article for one of the world’s oldest academic outlets, the British Medical Journal, Thacker wrote a piece entitled, “Covid-19: Researcher blows the whistle on data integrity issues in Pfizer’s vaccine trial.” He did what he’d done countless times, shepherding into print the tale of an apparent whistleblower with an unsettling story. Brook Jackson worked for a Texas firm called Ventavia that conducted a portion of the research trials for Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine. This is the same vaccine that Thacker himself, who now lives in Spain and is married to a physician, had taken.

After going through both legal and peer review, but without contacting Ventavia — apparently, they feared an injunction — the BMJ published Thacker’s piece on November 2nd, 2021. The money passage read:

A regional director who was employed at the research organization Ventavia Research Group has told The BMJ that the company falsified data, unblinded patients, employed inadequately trained vaccinators, and was slow to follow up on adverse events reported in Pfizer’s pivotal phase III trial.

Beginning on November 10th, 2021, the editors began receiving complaints from readers, who said they were having difficulty sharing it. As editors Fiona Godlee and Kamran Abbassi later wrote in an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg:

Some reported being unable to share it. Many others reported having their posts flagged with a warning about ‘Missing context … Independent fact-checkers say this information could mislead people.’ Those trying to post the article were informed by Facebook that people who repeatedly share ‘false information’ might have their posts moved lower in Facebook’s News Feed. Group administrators where the article was shared received messages from Facebook informing them that such posts were ‘partly false.’

Facebook has yet to respond to queries about this piece. Meanwhile, the site that conducted Facebook’s “fact check,” Lead Stories, ran a piece dated November 10th whose URL used the term “hoax alert” (Lead Stories denies they called the BMJ piece a hoax). Moreover, they deployed a rhetorical device that such “checking” sites now use with regularity, repeatedly correcting assertions Thacker and the British Medical Journal never made. This began with the title: “The British Medical Journal Did NOT Reveal Disqualifying And Ignored Reports Of Flaws In Pfizer COVID-19 Vaccine Trials.”

The British Medical Journal never said Jackson’s story revealed “disqualifying flaws” in the vaccine. Nor did it claim the negative information “calls into question the results of the Pfizer clinical trial.” It also didn’t claim that the story is “serious enough to discredit data from the clinical trials.” The BMJ’s actual language said Jackson’s story could “raise questions about data integrity and regulatory oversight,” which is true.

The real issue with Thacker’s piece is that it went viral and was retweeted by the wrong people. As Lead Stories noted with marked disapproval, some of those sharers included the likes of Dr. Robert Malone and Robert F. Kennedy. To them, this clearly showed that the article was bad somehow, but the problem was, there was nothing to say the story was untrue.

In a remarkable correspondence with BMJ editors, Lead Stories editor Alan Duke explained that the term “missing context” was invented by Facebook:

To deal with content that could mislead without additional context but which was otherwise true or real… Sometimes Facebook’s messaging about the fact checking labels can sound overly aggressive and scary. If you have an issue with their messaging you should indeed take it up with them as we are unable to change any of it.

“Missing context” has become a term to disparage reporting that is true but inconvenient. As Thacker notes in the Q&A below, “They’re checking narrative, not fact.”

The significance of the British Medical Journal story is that it showed how easily reporting that is true can be made to look untrue or conspiratorial. The growing bureaucracy of “fact-checking” sites that help platforms like Facebook decide what to flag is now taking into account issues like: the political beliefs of your sources, the presence of people of ill repute among your readers, and the tendency of audiences to draw unwanted inferences from the reported facts. All of this can now become part of how authorities do or do not define reporting as factual.

“But that’s not a fact check,” says Thacker. “You just don’t like the story.”

Fair Use Excerpt. Read the whole article here.


  • Matt Taibbi

    Matt Taibbi is an American author, journalist, and podcaster. He has reported on finance, media, politics, and sports. He is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, author of several books, co-host of Useful Idiots, and publisher of a newsletter on Substack.

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