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Dr. Robert Malone was banned from Twitter for violating the platform's COVID-19 misinformation policies. Soon after, YouTube removed videos of a controversial interview he did with Spotify podcast host Joe Rogan, according to reports.
Leaning on his early contributions to research around the mRNA vaccine technology now used in the COVID-19 vaccines, Malone has billed himself as the “inventor” of mRNA vaccines. In reality, the development of the vaccines and the technology they rely on involved countless scientists and several other breakthroughs.
Malone has promoted several false and misleading claims about the COVID-19 vaccines and pandemic. His claim of being the mRNA vaccine inventor and his ability to speak fluidly in scientific terms have given him great appeal to anti-vaccine audiences.
Video of Spotify host Joe Rogan’s controversial interview with a doctor known for making false claims about the COVID-19 vaccines was removed from YouTube, just days after Twitter banned the doctor’s account for violating its COVID-19 misinformation policies.
Dr. Robert Malone, who gained hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers in recent months as he promoted anti-vaccine falsehoods, drew a comparison in the interview between COVID-19 vaccination efforts in the U.S. and the environment in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, when the Nazi party rose to power.
The platforms’ actions against Malone represent the latest efforts from Silicon Valley to crack down on harmful COVID-19 misinformation. Days earlier, Twitter suspended the personal account belonging to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., on the same grounds.
But unlike Greene, Malone has a medical degree. He bills himself as the "inventor" of mRNA vaccines and has leveraged that title to push one false claim after another.
"He’s a legitimate scientist, or at least was until he started to make these false claims," said Dr. Paul Offit, chair of vaccinology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.
Malone’s rise to right-wing stardom and subsequent fall into social media purgatory underscore how accomplished doctors can exploit their credentials to spread harmful misinformation. They also show the limits of platforms’ whack-a-mole policing approach.
"Like all people, scientists can be flawed, can make mistakes, can be misguided, and can even spread misinformation on purpose," said Yotam Ophir, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Buffalo who has researched misinformation in health, science and politics.
Even as Twitter and YouTube sought to stem the spread of Malone’s claims, videos highlighting various segments from the doctor’s hours-long conversation with Rogan continued to circulate on both platforms and others such as Facebook and TikTok. They’ve been shared by the likes of Seb Gorka, a radio host and former Trump adviser, and Dr. Simone Gold, the founder of America’s Frontline Doctors, a group that has fought restrictions to curb the virus’ spread. Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas, entered a full transcript of the interview into the congressional record.
Concerned about being deplatformed, Rogan created an account on Gettr, a pro-Trump alternative social media platform, and told his followers to join him there. Malone went on Fox News host Laura Ingraham’s primetime TV show Jan. 3 to react to what he framed as an attempt to "suppress" him.
Who is Malone, and why has he become so controversial? Here's what you need to know.
Malone, who did not respond to an emailed request for comment, received a medical degree from Northwestern University in 1991 and specializes in immunology, according to his license with the Maryland Board of Physicians. As then-chief medical officer for a Florida pharmaceutical company called Alchem Laboratories Corp., he was involved during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic in research looking into Pepcid, the heartburn medicine, as a potential COVID-19 treatment.
Malone markets himself as the "inventor" of mRNA and DNA vaccines on his website and LinkedIn profile. His Twitter account, before it was suspended, said the same thing.
There’s some merit to that claim, as several reporters and fact-checkers have documented.
Malone contributed to important early research. A pair of papers he coauthored with two other researchers in 1989 and six other researchers in 1990 showed that mRNA could be delivered into cells using lipids, and that doing so with mice could trigger the production of new proteins. The two papers were the first reference in a 2019 history of the mRNA vaccine technology.
But development of today’s COVID-19 vaccines was built on the work of many scientists and would not have been possible without other discoveries that cleared major hurdles. An early 2000s breakthrough from the University of Pennsylvania’s Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó, for example, uncovered a way to keep the immune system from attacking injected mRNA.
"That problem had to be solved," Offit said. "You can take the first step in the technology, but that doesn't mean that you invented the technology. All those other steps had to occur."
The Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, photographed here in Jackson, Miss., on Sept. 21, 2021, resulted from decades of research involving countless researchers. (AP)
Malone admitted to Logically in July that he did not invent the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines of today, and instead claimed credit for creating the "vaccine technology platform." But in an Atlantic profile published a month later, Malone lamented the plaudits awarded to Karikó, who is also a senior vice president at BioNTech, saying he was "written out of the history."
Slowly, Malone has written himself back in — but as someone who has made inaccurate claims that cast doubt about the very vaccines he insists would not exist without him.
"On the one hand, he argues, ‘I’m the inventor of this technology.’ On the other hand, he's telling you that the technology is doing an enormous amount of harm," Offit said.
Malone’s background has lent a level of credibility to his claims among anti-vaccine audiences and landed him a platform with influencers like Rogan, whose show was Spotify’s most popular podcast in 2021. He speaks the language of science, cites studies and explains things clearly.
"He comes across as very knowledgeable," said Dr. Davidson Hamer, a professor of global health and medicine at Boston University.
Malone has said he got both doses of the Moderna vaccine, although he has also claimed the shots worsened the prolonged symptoms he experienced from a previous COVID-19 infection. But he has emerged as one of several anti-vaccine voices who, touting their medical credentials, have gained online attention amid the pandemic. Besides Gold, PolitiFact has fact-checked problematic claims by Florida osteopathic physician Dr. Joseph Mercola, Minnesota family physician Dr. Scott Jensen and Ohio osteopath Dr. Sherry Tenpenny, all of whom have become often-cited "experts" in anti-vaccination circles.
But the role physicians can play in promoting vaccine hesitancy predates COVID-19. In 1998, Andrew Wakefield, a physician later stripped of his medical license, falsified research that wrongly claimed a link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism. The paper, published in a prestigious medical journal that took years to retract it, fueled the kind of vaccine hesitancy that experts believe laid the groundwork for today’s anti-vaccine movement.
In addition to appearing with Rogan, who has made and played host to several inaccurate claims about the COVID-19 vaccines, Malone has given interviews to Fox News host Tucker Carlson, InfoWars reporter Kristi Leigh, and former Trump adviser Steve Bannon — all of whom have captured audiences while spreading misinformation about the vaccines.
Joe Rogan, host of Spotify's popular podcast, "The Joe Rogan Experience," is seen during a weigh-in before a UFC event on May 12, 2017, in Dallas. (AP)
When Malone appeared on Bannon’s podcast in August, Bannon described him as "the opposite of an anti-vaxxer," according to the Atlantic.
Hamer said the vaccines went through a rigorous review process and have been repeatedly proven to be safe and effective, despite Malone’s commentary suggesting otherwise.
Though a spokesperson for Twitter did not say which of Malone’s tweets were in violation of the platform’s policies, archives of Malone’s page show it was littered with vaccine skepticism.
In June, he tweeted that a study showed that for every three lives the vaccines saved, they caused two deaths. But the journal that published the study later appended a note to it calling its main conclusion incorrect, and then retracted it entirely.
The same month, PolitiFact rated False a video featuring Malone that claimed the spike proteins generated after vaccination are toxic to cells. Other fact-checkers debunked his related claim in another video that the spike proteins often cause irreparable damage to children’s vital organs.
Malone has also suggested that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines might actually be making the coronavirus more dangerous and that the Pfizer vaccine was not fully approved.
And he said on Fox News host Sean Hannity’s radio show that the vaccines "created a whole huge bunch of super spreaders. So the truth is, it's the unvaccinated that are at risk from the vaccinated." That’s False.
Speaking to Rogan, Malone said it’s "nucking futs" for people who have had COVID-19 to get vaccinated. He cited the federal Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, an unverified database that cannot be used to assess causality, and claimed that it shows an "explosion of vaccine-associated deaths." (It does not.) He said hospitals are so financially incentivized to claim COVID-19 as the cause of patient deaths that a hypothetical patient "with a bullet hole to the head" would be ruled as a COVID-19 fatality if they tested positive. (This is wrong; if anything, research indicates that COVID-19 deaths have been undercounted.) He said a state in India, Uttar Pradesh, "crushed COVID" using an early treatment package featuring ivermectin but resolved with the U.S. not to disclose that. (There’s no scientific basis for that assertion.) He said vaccine mandates are illegal. He said vaccinated people are more likely to be infected with the highly contagious omicron variant than unvaccinated people. (This is missing key context.) He wondered aloud whether the vaccine President Joe Biden took on live TV was "really a vaccine." (There’s no evidence to back that.)
And in the comment that has generated the most attention online, Malone likened the U.S. to Nazi Germany and said Americans are trapped in a "mass formation psychosis," in which "anybody who questions" the prevailing narrative is attacked.
"When you have a society that has become decoupled from each other, and has free-floating anxiety, in a sense that things don’t make sense, we can’t understand it. And then their attention gets focused by a leader or series of events on one small point, just like hypnosis, they literally become hypnotized and can be led anywhere," Malone said.
Speaking to Ingraham after the reports of YouTube’s actions against videos of those comments, Malone asserted that the social media penalties imposed against him "absolutely validated" that hypothesis.
Yet videos and video excerpts of those remarks and some of Malone’s past comments have continued to circulate elsewhere, including on Facebook, where they were flagged as part of the platform’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.) They were also spreading on sites that have fewer regulations against misinformation, like Rumble.
"Those banned from mainstream social media can go elsewhere, and still have huge stages to spread their messages," said Ophir, the University of Buffalo professor of communication.
Malone’s messages carry strong appeal for people who are scared about getting the vaccines.
"He offers you a reason not to get it," Offit said. "It's all wrong. But it's what people want to hear."
CORRECTION (Jan. 10, 2022): Andrew Wakefield in 1998 falsified research that wrongly claimed a link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism. An earlier version of this story had the year wrong.
CORRECTION (March 6, 2022): Joseph Mercola is a Florida osteopathic physician. An earlier version of this story had his first name wrong.
Facebook posts, Jan. 1, 2022
The Joe Rogan Experience on Spotify, "#1757 - Dr. Robert Malone, MD," Dec. 31, 2021
Robert Malone on Twitter (archived), accessed Jan. 5, 2022
Robert Malone’s website, accessed Jan. 5, 2022
Fox News, "Dr. Robert Malone on Joe Rogan interview censorship, Twitter ban: 'You can't suppress information,'" Jan. 4, 2022
Fox News, "The Ingraham Angle," Jan. 3, 2022
Congressman Troy Nehls, "Joe Rogan Experience #1757 – Dr. Robert Malone, MD Full Transcript," Jan. 3, 2022
The Independent, "YouTube takes down antivaxx Joe Rogan interview with Dr Robert Malone which likened vaccines to mass psychosis," Jan. 3, 2022
InfoWars, "Great Reset Exposed By Dr. Robert Malone In Powerful Infowars Interview," Jan. 1, 2022
USA Today, "Uncounted: Inaccurate death certificates across the country hide the true toll of COVID-19," Dec. 26, 2021
AFP Fact Check, "Video makes inaccurate claims about Covid-19 shots harming children," Dec. 23, 2021
AAP Fact Check, "Child vaccination video fails screen test for truth," Dec. 23, 2021
Health Feedback, "The benefits of mRNA COVID-19 vaccines for children outweigh the low risks, unlike what Robert Malone claimed," Dec. 20, 2021
Media Matters for America, "Hannity continues radio campaign to undermine COVID-19 vaccines, hosts guest who claims unvaccinated Americans 'are at risk from the vaccinated,'" Sept. 24, 2021
Nature, "The tangled history of mRNA vaccines," Sept. 14, 2021
FactCheck.org, "Researcher Distorts Facts on COVID-19 Vaccine Approval, Liability," Aug. 30, 2021
Health Feedback, "The development of mRNA vaccines was a collaborative effort; Robert Malone contributed to their development, but he is not their inventor," Aug. 26, 2021
The Atlantic, "The Vaccine Scientist Spreading Vaccine Misinformation," Aug. 12, 2021
Health Feedback, "COVID-19 vaccines effectively prevent severe disease; haven’t shown signs of antibody-dependent enhancement as claimed by Robert Malone," July 31, 2021
AFP Fact Check, "Flawed study misrepresents Covid-19 vaccination fatality rate," July 13, 2021
Logically, "Dr. Robert Malone invented mRNA vaccines," July 8, 2021
Fox News, "mRNA vaccine inventor speaks out on 'Tucker' after YouTube deletes video of him discussing risks," June 23, 2021
Stat News, "The story of mRNA: How a once-dismissed idea became a leading technology in the Covid vaccine race," Nov. 10, 2020
Science, "Direct Gene Transfer into Mouse Muscle in Vivo," March 23, 1990
PNAS, "Cationic liposome-mediated RNA transfection," May 12, 1989
PolitiFact, "Claim about omicron risk for the vaccinated is missing key context," Jan. 4, 2022
PolitiFact, "No scientific basis for claims of ivermectin’s success in Uttar Pradesh, India," Nov. 12, 2021
PolitiFact, "COVID-19 death rate in England much higher among unvaccinated than vaccinated," Oct. 29, 2021
PolitiFact, "Key threat to unvaccinated people is other unvaccinated people," Oct. 27, 2021
PolitiFact, "No, White House didn’t create fake set just for Joe Biden’s booster shot," Sept. 30, 2021
PolitiFact, "Licensed doctors who spread COVID-19 disinformation face no consequences, report shows," Sept. 22, 2021
PolitiFact, "Joe Rogan falsely says mRNA vaccines are ‘gene therapy,'" Aug. 31, 2021
PolitiFact, "Here’s why experts say people who had COVID-19 should be vaccinated," July 27, 2021
PolitiFact, "Journal discredits study it published claiming a COVID-19 vaccine causes deaths," July 2, 2021
PolitiFact, "No sign that the COVID-19 vaccines’ spike protein is toxic or ‘cytotoxic,'" June 16, 2021
PolitiFact, "Tucker Carlson’s misleading claim about deaths after COVID-19 vaccine," May 6, 2021
PolitiFact, "Federal VAERS database is a critical tool for researchers, but a breeding ground for misinformation,' May 3, 2021
PolitiFact, "‘Youth is not invincible’: 9 experts dispute Joe Rogan’s vaccine advice for healthy 21-year-olds," April 28, 2021
PolitiFact, "How COVID-19 death counts become the stuff of conspiracy theories," Nov. 2, 2020
PolitiFact, "Donald Trump’s false claim that doctors inflate COVID-19 deaths to make more money," Nov. 1, 2020
PolitiFact, "Fact-check: Hospitals and COVID-19 payments," April 21, 2020
PolitiFact, "5 facts about vaccines," Nov. 1, 2019
Phone interview with Dr. Davidson Hamer, professor of global health and medicine at Boston University School of Public Health and School of Medicine, Jan. 5, 2022
Phone interview with Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and chair of vaccinology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, Jan. 5, 2022
Email interview with Yotam Ophir, assistant professor of communication at Buffalo University, Jan. 5, 2022
Email correspondence with Twitter, Jan. 4, 2022