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How Zeynep Tufekci and Jeremy Howard Masked America
Zeynep Tufekci and Jeremy Howard played a decisive role in shifting CDC guidance and ushering in mask mandates across America. Zeynep’s role in the COVID story goes far deeper than most realize.
After three years of speculation, an authoritative study has finally confirmed what humanity gained from all those mask advisories during COVID: approximately Zero. That was the verdict of a recent Cochrane review, often referred to as the “gold standard” in evidence-based medicine, which included results from 78 peer-reviewed RCTs with over 6,000 participants. Across the populations studied, masks, regardless of type, had made “little to no difference” in preventing COVID or flu.
The Cochrane review seemed to settle the matter once and for all. Mask opponents had their trump card. But alas, the pro-mask establishment responded with a trump card of their own: a New York Times op-ed by sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, Here’s Why the Science Is Clear That Masks Work, highlighting a statement of clarification from Cochrane’s editor-in-chief, Karla Soares-Weiser, that the review’s conclusion had been “open to misinterpretation, for which we apologize.”
This new trump card was a disaster for mask opponents—the proverbial queen of spades—and it quickly went viral among mask devotees, newly reassured in the righteousness of their talismans. Though the title was a lie—and contradicted by the text of the op-ed itself—as was widely known in the age of “the science,” an op-ed from Zeynep, with her preternatural charisma, was worth decades of scientific evidence. Soon, news about the Cochrane review, and the years of meticulously-collected data and evidence it represented, was drowned out by mainstream headlines about Soares-Weiser’s little statement of clarification.
Yet Zeynep’s op-ed brought new attention to a question that’s been a bit of a mystery since COVID began. Where exactly did all these mask mandates come from? Why did the US CDC suddenly reverse its longstanding guidance and begin recommending masks for the first time in modern history in April 2020?
As it turns out, in a role that Zeynep failed to disclose in her op-ed, it was Zeynep herself and her colleague Jeremy Howard who’d been the deciding factor in initiating that reversal in the CDC’s longstanding guidance on masking. The story of how they did it, and of Zeynep’s larger role in the COVID saga, goes much deeper than her recent op-ed.
Jeremy Howard is a computer scientist and artificial intelligence expert. Something of a Sinophile, Howard is proficient in Chinese and repeatedly advocated for the use of information and expertise from China during COVID. Howard was part of the China-friendly WEF Young Global Leaders program for six years and a member of the WEF’s Global AI Council for three years.
Zeynep Tufekci was born and raised and worked as a programmer in Turkey before beginning an academic career in the United States, where she soon became something of a celebrity writer in the fields of sociology and technology.
Zeynep was consistently ahead on the hot-button topics among the global elite. When Donald Trump won the election in 2016 and the American political class became terrified of Russian disinformation online, Zeynep had already been writing on that topic for years; long before COVID, Zeynep had also been writing about pandemics.
Pandemics and censorship—those were Zeynep’s fields. Both involved tough questions about the suspension of citizens’ rights, a subject from which Zeynep didn’t shy. As she wrote in Wired in 2018, “It's the (Democracy-Poisoning) Golden Age of Free Speech.” In Zeynep’s view, social media “invalidates much of what we think about free speech—conceptually, legally, and ethically”:
The most effective forms of censorship today involve meddling with trust and attention, not muzzling speech itself. As a result, they don’t look much like the old forms of censorship at all. They look like viral or coordinated harassment campaigns…
Even when the big platforms themselves suspend or boot someone off their networks for violating “community standards”—an act that does look to many people like old-fashioned censorship—it’s not technically an infringement on free speech, even if it is a display of immense platform power. Anyone in the world can still read what the far-right troll Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet has to say on the internet. What Twitter has denied him, by kicking him off, is attention.
This idea that foreign disinformation justified the censorship of American citizens was always an intellectual sleight of hand. “Putin’s regime helped Trump in the 2016 election. Therefore, we need to censor Tim, a ‘far-right’ American citizen.” This conclusion does not logically follow from the premise. Yet we saw this logical fallacy driving the federal government’s “anti-disinformation” activities increasingly in the coming years, and especially during COVID, as has now been evidenced extensively in Missouri v. Biden and the Twitter Files. Commentators have generally attributed this domestic censorship regime to groupthink and bureaucratic excess. It’s thus somewhat rare to see someone spell out this Orwellian sleight of hand so clearly and in so few words, as early as 2018, as Zeynep did here.
Like Deborah Birx, Zeynep says she first became alarmed about the new coronavirus when she saw Xi Jinping shut down Wuhan, China. Zeynep’s first article on COVID appeared on February 27, 2020, in which she stressed the importance of getting ready for major disruptions during COVID in order to “flatten the curve.” She was among the first individuals to ever use the term “flatten the curve” with regard to COVID, though the term had occasionally been used during prior virus scares. At the time, Zeynep’s advice on masks followed that of the public health establishment:
However, don’t worry if you cannot find masks; those are most important for health care workers… For non–health care people, washing your hands often, using alcohol-based hand-sanitizer liberally and learning not to touch your face are the most important clinically-proven interventions there are.
Over the next few days, Zeynep’s views on masking appear to have changed quite dramatically, and this seemingly whimsical about-face would have a profound impact on the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans and their children for the next three years. As the New York Times later wrote:
Dr. Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Information and Library Science with no obvious qualifications in epidemiology, came out against the CDC recommendation in a March 1 tweetstorm before expanding on her criticism in a March 17 Op-Ed article for The New York Times.
The CDC changed its tune in April, advising all Americans above the age of 2 to wear masks to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Michael Basso, a senior health scientist at the agency who had been pushing internally to recommend masks, told me Dr. Tufekci’s public criticism of the agency was the “tipping point.”
Around this time, Zeynep began working with Howard, who founded the American branch of the movement #Masks4All.
It’s not entirely clear how Zeynep and Howard began working together. There’s no evidence of their publicly deliberating these subjects, though they’d interacted in prior years. Zeynep and Howard’s first public interaction with regard to COVID was when Howard cited Zeynep as a contributor to his viral March 9, 2020 article, in which he encouraged readers to shut down their institutions and cancel events based on China’s apparent success “flattening the curve” in Wuhan.
But as Howard tells the story of his initial foray into the subject of masking:
We had a new deep learning course to teach. I needed a case study for how to interpret complex evidence, and on a whim, I picked masks. I had no interest in masks, and assumed the evidence wouldn't show anything much. In Feb, no-one was wearing masks in the West, except for a few Asian expat communities. We were told clearly that they didn’t work and weren’t recommended. When I started studying the data on masks, I was absolutely stunned. It seemed that masks could be our best tool to slow the spread of COVID-19 - but no-one was talking about it! … except for zeynep, who wrote a brilliant piece in the NYTimes [on March 17].
Howard says he’d been inspired by a viral video posted on March 14, 2020, by Petr Ludwig, a founder of the original #Masks4All movement in the Czech Republic, in which Ludwig encouraged everyone to wear homemade masks.
The internationalization of the #Masks4All movement was based on the story that the universal adoption of homemade masks in the Czech Republic had “slowed the spread” of COVID cases there, preventing them from “growing exponentially” as they had in the rest of the world. This story was always false, if not a lie—COVID cases continued to rise throughout this period in the Czech Republic. Today, the Czech Republic is among the 10 worst countries in the world in terms of its recorded number of “COVID deaths.”
Yet this falsehood, that masks had stopped the spread in the Czech Republic, became the original impetus for the global #Masks4All movement and soon a basis for the imposition of mask mandates across the world.
Howard posted his own #Masks4All video. According to Howard, he was then contacted by an editor at the Washington Post: “Imagine my surprise when a washingtonpost editor contacted me, told me they’d seen the video, and wanted me to write an article about it for them!” The WEF Young Global Leaders helped Howard edit the article, which was titled Simple DIY masks could help flatten the curve. We should all wear them in public.
In the article, Howard urged Americans to ignore current CDC guidance and to instead adopt universal masking. Howard gushed about a new law in the Czech Republic “making it illegal to go out in public without a mask,” and he cited Chinese CDC Director George Gao—a participant at Event 201—who’d advocated masks to stop COVID based on the prevention of “droplets”:
George Gao, director general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, stated, “Many people have asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others.”…
The most important message shared in the Czech Republic has been this: “My mask protects you; your mask protects me.” Wearing a mask there is now considered a prosocial behavior. Going outside without one is frowned on as an antisocial action that puts your community at risk. In fact, the community reaction has been so strong that the government has responded by making it illegal to go out in public without a mask…
Given the weight of evidence, it seems likely that universal mask wearing should be a part of the solution. Every single one of us can make it happen — starting today.
We see Gao’s emphasis on “droplets” reflected throughout Howard and Zeynep’s work. For example, the “sources” section of the official #Masks4All website prominently features another quote on droplets from Gao:
The big mistake in the U.S. and Europe, in my opinion, is that people aren’t wearing masks. This virus is transmitted by droplets and close contact. Droplets play a very important role—you’ve got to wear a mask, because when you speak, there are always droplets coming out of your mouth. Many people have asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others. – George Gao, director-general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention
This emphasis on “droplets” is later reiterated in Howard’s falsely-titled article To help stop coronavirus, everyone should be wearing face masks. The science is clear in the Guardian, as well as Zeynep and Howard’s article Don’t Wear a Mask for Yourself in the Atlantic. Howard then went on a media blitz similar to that of Tomás Pueyo, and he was booked on ABC’s Good Morning America.
As Howard tells it, this GMA interview, in which he was joined by NIAID Director Anthony Fauci, was monumental in that it was the first time Fauci had ever come to advise mask use by the American public. GMA also repeated the quote on masks’ utility in preventing “droplets” from Chinese CDC Director George Gao.
Howard then discussed masking with Senator Pat Toomey, who briefed the CDC and President Trump. The next day, Trump announced that universal masking might be needed.
Howard then began making inroads at the CDC, which was still reluctant to reverse its longstanding guidance on masks because “the science wasn’t strong enough.” So Howard “tried to ratchet up the public pressure.”
I realized that the biggest thing stopping progress on community mask use in the US was the CDC wasn’t recommending them. So I focused on that, and tried to ratchet up the public pressure. I was lucky enough to know folks that had first hand knowledge of what was happening in the CDC, and was told there was a concern that the science wasn’t strong enough. So I reached out to some of the world's top scientists & asked for help reviewing the evidence. They said yes!
Zeynep, Howard, and their coauthors then submitted their preprint, an “interdisciplinary narrative review of the literature on the role of face masks in reducing COVID-19 transmission,” which quickly became the most-viewed paper of all time on preprints.org. Their narrative review begins:
Wu Lien Teh’s work to control the 1910 Manchurian Plague has been acclaimed as “a milestone in the systematic practice of epidemiological principles in disease control,” in which Wu identified the cloth mask as “the principal means of personal protection.”… Masks have continued to be widely used to control transmission of respiratory infections in East Asia through to the present day, including for the COVID-19 pandemic.
In their paper, Zeynep and Howard argued that “everyone, adults and children, should wear masks,” citing as a major benefit masks’ potential to “shape new societal behaviors” as “symbols of altruism and solidarity” serving as “a visible signal and reminder of the pandemic.”
Creating New Symbolism around Wearing a Mask.
Ritual and solidarity are important in human societies and can combine with visible signals to shape new societal behaviors. Universal mask wearing could serve as a visible signal and reminder of the pandemic. Signaling participation in health behaviors by wearing a mask as well as visible enforcement can increase compliance with public mask wearing, but also other important preventative behaviors. Historically, epidemics are a time of fear, confusion, and helplessness. Mask wearing, and even mask making or distribution, can provide feelings of empowerment and self-efficacy. Health is a form of public good in that everyone else’s health behaviors improve the health odds of everyone else. This can make masks symbols of altruism and solidarity. Viewing masks as a social practice, governed by sociocultural norms, instead of a medical intervention, has also been proposed to enhance longer-term uptake.
Zeynep and Howard conclude their paper by recommending mask “mandates” as a means of “shaping new societal norms.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries have utilized mask mandates as implementation strategy… Although the use of mandates has been a polarizing measure, it appears to be highly effective in shaping new societal norms.
The CDC officially reversed its masking guidance on April 3, 2020, and insiders reported that Zeynep and Howard’s preprint had been a factor.
Having laid the foundation for shaping these “new societal norms,” Zeynep and Howard then turned their focus toward getting governments to mandate them. As Howard recalls:
Meanwhile, in the US, it was clear that CDCgov just “recommending” masks wasn’t enough. People still weren’t wearing them… We decided to try and write a letter and get lots of scientists to sign it. I wrote the first draft of the letter, and Vincent got to work finding signatories. He knows just about everyone, so he quickly had sent a request off to nearly a hundred medical experts to sign our letter. About 95% of the recipients said YES right away! We wanted to make sure that people actually saw this letter, so zeynep and I decided to write an OpEd about it. USATODAY were kind enough to agree to run it.
USA Today published Zeynep and Howard’s op-ed, titled Over 100 health leaders to governors: Require masks to help contain the coronavirus, in which they wrote that it was necessary to have “80% of the population wearing masks to stop the spread of the virus,” and in order to make that happen, masks had to be mandated:
Getting acceptance for public health actions has historically been difficult. For example, during the 1910 Manchurian Plague, Dr. Wu Lien Teh realized the microbe spread by air and that a simple cotton mask could reduce transmission. But many doctors didn't believe him…
But to be truly effective, they need to be worn by almost everyone. Recent modeling suggests that we need at least 80% of the population wearing masks to stop the spread of the virus.
To make that happen, just “urging” their use is not enough. We can see this in recent survey results showing that in the majority of states that do not require masks, fewer than half the population are using them.
Over the next three years, mask use exceeded 80% of the population in countless states and countries, but in no instance did it “stop the spread” of COVID.
Throughout his advocacy, Howard didn’t merely convince governments to mandate masks; he proclaimed the “science” on masking to be clear—and this false claim was repeated by pundits. Further, given Howard had no relevant credentials in the field, he was forceful. When virologist Angela Rasmussen questioned his analysis, Howard went so far as to email her boss to demand a “public retraction” of her critique.
In July 2020, Zeynep and Howard were invited to present their masking preprint and to advise the World Health Organization; after this point, Howard largely retired from COVID advocacy. When WHO officials expressed concern that people wearing masks might start behaving recklessly, Zeynep advised them, “No, listen, I’m a sociologist, I know that’s not true.”
Zeynep’s COVID Career
Throughout Zeynep’s work, we see this repeated insistence that masks have no “plausible” downsides, harms, or risks. Zeynep claimed that the WHO’s list of potential downsides to masking was “not a good list” and argued that the WHO “just went out of their way to inflate a harms list.” In a later article, she complained that people were “looking for harms and finding them even when no major ones plausibly exist,” and decried doctors who were focused on “all sorts of alleged ‘harms’ from masks” which she believed to be “nonsense” and “ridiculous.” She boasted multiple times about being credited with changing the CDC’s masking guidance.
Though it’s been well known since COVID’s earliest days that the virus poses virtually no risk to schoolchildren, Zeynep repeatedly advocated child masking, arguing in her original op-ed which was the “tipping point” in changing CDC guidance that “everyone should use masks” due to “increasing evidence of asymptomatic transmission, especially through younger people.” In their preprint, Zeynep and Howard argued that “everyone, adults and children, should wear masks.”
Later, once vaccines were introduced, Zeynep again advocated in the New York Times for schools to “mandate masks for all elementary school children” on the false basis that “even the vaccinated may pose a danger to unvaccinated children.”
In three obscure tweets, Zeynep opposed masking toddlers, a practice the CDC advised and which became mandatory in some states. But it’s hard to square her argument that masks have no “plausible” downsides with this stance against masking toddlers. And for someone who’s written about masks frequently in America’s most prestigious media outlets, one might expect a bit more vocal opposition to toddler masking, especially given her decisive role in the CDC’s guidance.
Zeynep’s indifference to harms during the response to COVID wasn’t limited to masking. Though the policy had no precedent in the modern western world until Xi Jinping’s lockdown of Wuhan and wasn’t part of any democratic country’s pandemic plan, in a since-deleted tweet, Zeynep argued that the United States “should be in full lockdown” in spring 2020.
Later, Zeynep wrote in the Atlantic about Three Ways the Pandemic Has Made the World Better, citing “mRNA vaccines,” new “digital infrastructure,” and the fact that we’d “unleashed the true spirit of peer review and open science” as reasons to be thankful for COVID.
Like Matt Pottinger, Zeynep pushed for more COVID interventions in part based on information from China, though she simultaneously fashions herself as something of a China hawk and supports the “lab leak theory” of COVID’s origins. In debating the lab leak theory, Zeynep noted, “No journalist or scientist in China can operate truly freely,” and “We know people are compelled in China on sensitive topics, including threats to family,” and she joked darkly that Chinese scientists face a risk their “loved ones will be jailed for a decade on trumped up charges.”
Yet despite knowing that “no scientist in China can operate truly freely,” when it came to arguing in favor of more COVID interventions, Zeynep repeatedly advocated the use of information from Chinese scientists, apparently without questioning any of it.
For example, Zeynep advocated for increased ventilator use in early March 2020 based on information from Chinese scientists, noting in a widely-shared tweet that “Chinese scientists” had advised “many COVID-19 patients need to stay on mechanical ventilators as long as four weeks.”
Indeed, in journal articles, “Chinese expert consensus” had advised ventilators as the “first choice” for COVID patients with respiratory distress. This advice was slurped up by the WHO and spat out all over the world in the WHO’s initial guidance on ventilators for COVID patients.
As one doctor later told the Wall Street Journal, “We were intubating sick patients very early. Not for the patients’ benefit, but in order to control the epidemic… That felt awful.”
This guidance proved extremely deadly. A study in JAMA later revealed a 97.2% mortality rate among those over age 65 who’d been put on mechanical ventilators in accordance with this initial guidance before the practice was largely stopped after spring 2020. To put these results in perspective, patients over age 65 were more than 26 times as likely to survive if they were not placed on mechanical ventilators. Overall, mortality among COVID patients in New York hospitals fell by over two-thirds between spring 2020 and summer 2020.
The initial guidance from Chinese scientists advising early intubation led to the deaths of countless thousands of COVID patients. Yet despite having specifically advised that “many COVID-19 patients need to stay on mechanical ventilators as long as four weeks” based on information from “Chinese scientists”—and despite her knowing that “no scientist in China can operate truly freely”—no apology or admission of error was ever forthcoming from Zeynep Tufekci.
The Cochrane Review
So far, not so good. Despite having no relevant epidemiological expertise, Zeynep had played a decisive role in railroading the CDC and the WHO into changing their longstanding guidance on masking; convinced state governments to mandate masks for “everyone, adults and children,” in part as a means of “shaping new societal norms”; advocated the “old-fashioned censorship” of American citizens for legal speech; encouraged doctors to downplay potential harms of masking; argued that America “should be in full lockdown” when the policy had no precedent other than Xi’s lockdown of Wuhan; wrote falsely that schoolchildren were at risk from vaccinated adults; celebrated “ways the pandemic made the world better”; and explicitly advised early mechanical intubation based on information from Chinese scientists, despite knowing Chinese scientists cannot “operate truly freely,” with no acknowledgment or apology after this guidance proved extremely deadly. It’s like she was just so darn charismatic that no one paid attention to what she was actually doing.
Nonetheless, we were ready to let bygones by bygones. “Mistakes were made” as they say. But then, after scientists spent years meticulously collecting data on masking from countless RCTs all over the world, Zeynep wrote her op-ed on the Cochrane review.
The op-ed is about what one might expect. The title, Here’s Why the Science Is Clear That Masks Work, is a lie; Zeynep calls for scientists to “continue to collect data on mask wearing,” which wouldn’t be necessary if the science were in fact clear that masks worked. Zeynep relies on a selection of clinical studies, none of which are RCTs; this same level of evidence would show that any number of silly things work against COVID, from ginseng to magnesium to melatonin to fish oil. Zeynep cites a trial from Bangladesh which found an 11% reduction in COVID cases when villagers were given masks, without disclosing a re-analysis that found no benefit and attributed that finding to bias.
Zeynep specifically names the Cochrane review’s lead author, Tom Jefferson, several times. But in an email, Cochrane’s editor-in-chief, Karla Soares-Weiser, with whom Zeynep spoke, said she specifically took personal responsibility for the wording of the conclusion and that she’d been “blindsided” by Zeynep.
Perhaps most glaringly, Zeynep appears not to have disclosed her own conflicting narrative review which concluded that “everyone, adults and children,” should wear masks—or her past advocacy for mask mandates—when she contacted Soares-Weiser, eliciting Soares-Weiser’s clarification statement about the wording of the review’s conclusion. In short, Zeynep’s op-ed may have been an exercise in disinformation.
With regard to Zeynep and Howard’s masking of America, there are only two possibilities—neither good—and the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. The first is that their advocacy was essentially scripted theater, a pretext for seemingly-spontaneous actions that a network of institutional leaders was actually planning to take anyway, unbeknownst to the public. In that case, the existence of such a “script” is antithetical to our democratic principles, and it’s imperative that we determine how such a plan came to be and who was behind it.
The second possibility is that it really was this easy for ambitious activists with no relevant expertise to convince institutional leaders to reverse longstanding public health guidance in the early days of COVID—these being the same leaders who then spent years closing their eyes and ears to any evidence that their interventions weren’t working, even from some of the world’s most-qualified scientists. For example, years later, when asked if the CDC would consider revising its guidance to mandate masks in schools in light of the Cochrane review, CDC Director Walensky told Congress, astonishingly, that the CDC’s “masking guidance doesn’t really change with time.”
The CDC arguably bears the lion’s share of the blame in this story for being so malleable. Furthermore, Zeynep and Howard were not the only ones advocating for masks in the initial weeks of COVID. Matt Pottinger had simultaneously launched his own pro-mask crusade in the White House based on information from his connections in China; others such as Scott Gottlieb and academics and affiliates of the #Masks4All movement had pushed for universal masking as well.
Nonetheless, Zeynep and Howard played a decisive role in affecting this vast shift in scientific guidance that so intimately affected the lives of every American, which the Cochrane review has now shown to have afforded no benefit at the population level, for dubious reasons such as “shaping new societal norms.” Throughout COVID, Zeynep pushed false information and harmful policies that were far afield of her expertise based on information from China, despite knowing such information was unreliable, without ever admitting or apologizing for the errors once the harms became manifest.
Innocent in the ways of information warfare, Soares-Weiser may have issued her clarification statement as an attempt to appease opponents of the Cochrane review. But as the above record makes clear, these are not the kinds of people one should ever try to appease. History teaches that this kind of moral cowardice by institutional leaders can indelibly affect millions of lives.
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