This is a story about Rebekah Jones, a former dashboard manager at the Florida Department of Health (FDOH), who has single-handedly managed to convince millions of Americans that Governor Ron DeSantis has been fudging the state’s COVID-19 data.
When I write “single-handedly,” I mean it, for Jones is not one of the people who have advanced this conspiracy theory but rather is the person who has advanced this conspiracy theory. It has been repeated by others, sure: by partisans across the Internet, by unscrupulous Florida Democrats such as Nikki Fried and Charlie Crist, and on television, by MSNBC in particular. But it flows from a single place: Rebekah Jones. To understand that is to understand the whole game. This is about Jones, and Jones alone. If she falls, it falls.
And boy does it deserve to fall.
Jones’s central claim is nothing less dramatic than that she has uncovered a massive conspiracy in the third most populous state in the nation, and that, having done so, she has been ruthlessly persecuted by the governor and his “Gestapo.” Specifically, Jones claims that, while she was working at the FDOH last year, she was instructed by her superiors to alter the “raw” data so that Florida’s COVID response would look better, and that, having refused, she was fired. Were this charge true, it would reflect one of the most breathtaking political scandals in all of American history.
But it’s not true. Indeed, it’s nonsense from start to finish. Jones isn’t a martyr; she’s a myth-peddler. She isn’t a scientist; she’s a fabulist. She’s not a whistleblower; she’s a good old-fashioned confidence trickster. And, like any confidence trickster, she understands her marks better than they understand themselves. On Twitter, on cable news, in Cosmopolitan, and beyond, Jones knows exactly which buttons to push in order to rally the gullible and get out her message. Sober Democrats have tried to inform their party about her: “You may see a conspiracy theory and you want it to be true and you believe it to be true and you forward it to try to make it be true, but that doesn’t make it true,” warns Jared Moskowitz, the progressive Democrat who has led Florida’s fight against COVID. But his warnings have fallen on deaf ears. Since she first made her claims a little under a year ago, Jones has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars through multiple GoFundMe accounts (and, once she realized that she was losing a percentage to credit-card fees, through paper checks); she has become a darling of the online Left; and, by pointing to her own, privately run dashboard, which shows numbers that make Florida’s COVID response look worse than it has been, she has caused millions of people to believe quite sincerely that the state’s many successes during the pandemic have been built atop fraud. Stephen Glass, the famous writer-turned-liar who spent years inventing stories but got caught when he pushed it too far, could only have dreamed of such a result.
Jones’s journey began on May 18, 2020, on which day she was dismissed by the Florida Department of Health. Today, she claims that she was fired because she had refused to take part in a massive cover-up. But as her personnel file shows, not only was there no cover-up but the agency did everything it could to de-escalate the situation around this employee before it eventually became untenable. Indeed, as the records clearly show, indulging Jones had been its approach from the outset. At the time she was hired, the state government knew from its background check that Jones had completed a pre-trial intervention program in Louisiana in 2018, thereby securing a “no conviction” record for “battery of a police officer,” and it knew that she had entered into a deferred-prosecution agreement with the State of Florida in 2017 after being charged with “criminal mischief.” And yet it hired her anyway. Had she applied for a more important role, the forest of red flags that Jones leaves wherever she goes might well have prevented this mistake—especially given that she did not mention any of them in her application. But Jones wasn’t there to fill an important role. She was there to run a website.
That matters, for, with the enthusiastic help of the press, Rebekah Jones has unremittingly inflated the prominence of the position she held. And yet when one reads through the FDOH documents that chronicle the affair, one is struck by how dull and unheroic the whole thing really was. There are no “whistleblowers” anywhere in this story. There is no scandal. There is no grand fight for truth or justice. There is just a replacement-level government employee who repeatedly breaks the rules, who is repeatedly mollycoddled while doing so, and who is fired only when she eventually renders herself unworthy of the department’s considerable grace.
Jones’s bad behavior was first formally reported on May 6, 2020, when the IT director at the FDOH, Craig Curry, emailed the department’s labor-relations consultant, Tiffany Hicks, “looking for guidance” on “properly documenting actions of one of my employees and to get guidance on proper preparation in case action needs to be taken.” Among the “actions” that Curry sought to “document” were that the employee—Rebekah Jones—had written “posts on website [sic] and social media regarding data and web product owned by the Department that she works on without permission of management or communications”; that she had released infographics that “should have been identical to data published by our communication department” but were not; and, most seriously, that she had possibly exposed “personnel data” in the process. Asked to clarify the problem by Hicks, Curry confirmed that between April 9 and April 30, 2020, he had verbally told Jones to stop talking to the press without permission, and, more specifically, that he had told her to stop releasing health-department data or representing her employer without consent.
In her response to Curry, sent later that day, Hicks proposed one of two actions: that Jones should either be “separated” (i.e., fired) or else be put through a “Management Counseling” procedure that would “address and document the recent incidents.” The latter process, Hicks explained, “would be informal and would not be placed in the employee’s personnel file.” But “if similar behavior continues,” she added, “it is a [sic] management’s decision to move forward with termination.” Apparently, the department chose the second action, because, by the end of the day, Jones was still working at the FDOH, albeit in a slightly altered role. In his notes, Curry records that, having been “instructed by management to replace Ms. Jones as primary on the COVID Dashboard,” he called her “to notify her that she was being removed from her duties as primary GIS [geographic information system] developer on the department’s COVID-19 dashboard.” Again: This was not a termination. As Curry explicitly noted, Jones “was informed that she was maintaining her role as GIS team manager and was to resume normal day to day responsibilities, but she was to cease any duties and administrative roles associated with the COVID-19 GIS dashboard.”
The next day, on May 7, 2020, Jones crashed the dashboard.
Without telling a single person what she was doing, Jones created a new account within the GIS system and moved a tranche of data into it. This both broke the setup and sincerely confused the department’s IT staff. “Because the team was not informed,” Curry wrote, it “began troubleshooting the issue as if it were a system issue”—which, of course, it was not. In the process, the FDOH asked Chris Duclos, a GIS manager and the only other person besides Jones who had “full administrative right [sic] in our system[,] to help.” This Duclos did, primarily “by modifying ownership of objects to return the process to the previous state”—that is, to roll back the system to how it had been when it was working. At 1:00 p.m. that day, aware that Duclos was reversing her power grab, Jones locked Duclos out of his account.
By 1:35 p.m. on the same day, Jones had been instructed to restore Duclos’s full administrative access. Six and a half hours later, at 8:08, she responded by saying that she would, and then, at 8:28, added that she intended to leave Florida to spend some time with her family in Mississippi. Except . . . she didn’t. Instead, as Curry recorded, Jones set Duclos’s permissions to a lower level than administrator, and left herself as the sole person within the FDOH who had administrator status. In response, Duclos emailed the state’s GIS vendor and requested that his full permissions be restored. This was done.
Then came a lull. Having been asked what on earth she was doing, Jones claimed that she had set herself up as the sole administrator as the result of “security concerns,” and, under the impression that this excuse had been accepted by the department, she started playing nice. Two days later, Curry reported, “the entire team seemed to be getting along and moving forward.” At 9:30 a.m. on May 15, encouraged by the improvement in Jones’s behavior, and having got the dashboard back up and running, the FDOH decided that “Management Counseling was still the correct option for previous occurrences.” That decision would last for only a few hours: At 1:46 p.m., Jones sent a mass email to everyone who used the dashboard—many of whom were external to the department—explaining that she was no longer assigned to the dashboard and suggesting that she had been removed because she had refused to manipulate data. Within minutes, the press began crawling all over the story. Three days later, Jones was fired.
From that moment on, Jones has sought relentlessly to portray herself as a martyr who was dismissed for telling “the truth.” Having waffled a little in the first few days, she quickly hit upon a specific claim to bolster this overall impression: that she was instructed by Dr. Shamarial Roberson—the well-respected chronic-disease epidemiologist who is currently serving as Florida’s deputy secretary of health, and is the first African American to hold that post—to “delete cases and deaths” in order to present a rosier version of what was happening in the state. Absurdly accusing this official of being a “liar, fraud, murderer,” Jones now says that Roberson “asked me to go into the raw data and manually alter figures.”
This, of course, is preposterous—not least because it flies directly in the face of Jones’s initial story. Today, Jones insists that the members of an ever-growing cast within the government of Florida ordered her to “fudge” the numbers. Back in May 2020, however, the Associated Press reported that she had not alleged “any tampering with data on deaths, hospital symptom surveillance, hospitalizations for COVID-19, numbers of new confirmed cases, or overall testing rates,” and that she had acknowledged that “Florida has been relatively transparent.” Why did Jones initially decline to make such allegations? Because, as she knew full well, she had not been in a sufficiently senior position to have been able to do such a thing, even if she had been asked. In her role as the manager of the dashboard, Jones did not have the ability to edit the raw data. Only a handful of people in Florida are permitted to touch that information, and Jones was not among them. Instead, each day she was given a copy of the data and charged with uploading it into the system in a manner determined by the epidemiological team. Had she for some reason decided to alter that copy, it would have been obvious to everyone within seconds of its being compared with the original.
There is an extremely good reason that nobody in the Florida Department of Health has sided with Jones. It’s the same reason that there has been no devastating New York Times exposé about Florida’s “real” numbers. That reason? There is simply no story here. By all accounts, Rebekah Jones is a talented developer of GIS dashboards. But that’s all she is. She’s not a data scientist. She’s not an epidemiologist. She’s not a doctor. She didn’t “build” the “data system,” as she now claims, nor is she a “data manager.” Her role at the FDOH was to serve as one of the people who export other people’s work—from sets over which she had no control—and to present it nicely on the state’s dashboard. To understand just how far removed Jones really is from the actual data, consider that even now—even as she rakes in cash from the gullible to support her own independent dashboard—she is using precisely the same FDOH data used by everyone else in the world. Yes, you read that right: Jones’s “rebel” dashboard is hooked up directly to the same FDOH that she pretends daily is engaged in a conspiracy. As Jones herself confirmed on Twitter: “I use DOH’s data. If you access the data from both sources, you’ll see that it is identical.” She just displays them differently.
Or, to put it more bluntly, she displays them badly. When you get past all of the nonsense, what Jones is ultimately saying is that the State of Florida—and, by extension, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—has not processed its data in the same way that she would if she were in charge. But, frankly, why would it? Again, Jones isn’t an epidemiologist, and her objections, while compelling to the sort of low-information political obsessive she is so good at attracting, betray a considerable ignorance of the material issues. In order to increase the numbers in Florida’s case count, Jones counts positive antibody tests as cases. But that’s unsound, given that (a) those positives include people who have already had COVID-19 or who have had the vaccine, and (b) Jones is unable to avoid double-counting people who have taken both an antibody test and a COVID test that came back positive, because the state correctly refuses to publish the names of the people who have taken those tests. Likewise, Jones claims that Florida is hiding deaths because it does not include nonresidents in its headline numbers. But Florida does report nonresident deaths; it just reports them separately, as every state does, and as the CDC’s guidelines demand. Jones’s most recent claim is that Florida’s “excess death” number is suspicious. But that, too, has been rigorously debunked by pretty much everyone who understands what “excess deaths” means in an epidemiological context—including by the CDC; by Daniel Weinberger, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health; by Lauren Rossen, a statistician at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics; and, most notably, by Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida, who, having gone to the trouble of making a video explaining calmly why the talking point was false, was then bullied off Twitter by Jones and her followers.
For a year now, pretty much everyone who has criticized Jones has met the same fate as did Salemi. It doesn’t matter who they are, or what they have been arguing, the play is always the same. First, they are called a sexist or a racist or a member of the “alt-right.” Next, it is implied that they are working with Ron DeSantis or with Vladimir Putin—or, sometimes, with both. Then they are told that they hate “science”—or, if they disagree with her or expose a given lie or confirm that she does not have the qualifications or experience she claims, that they have sold out. And, finally, they are added to Jones’s “enemies” list (she really has one, and used to publish it online), and an attempt begins to get them kicked off Twitter or Substack or whatever portion of the Internet they are using to explain the ruse. Because a good number of the people Jones has targeted are not journalists or public figures, but scientists and public servants, such attacks work pretty well. If your career is in epidemiology, and your employer is a public university, there is little to be gained by attracting scandal.
One is almost left impressed by the strange alchemy with which Jones manages to transmute her own bad behavior into lucrative victimhood. A 342-page “manifesto” that Jones penned in 2019 gives example after example of this tendency. She manages to cast herself as the injured party in the passages in which she describes violating a no-contact order to engage with an ex-boyfriend, damaging his car, and harassing his mother. She also manages to cast herself as the victim in the parts in which she records being fired from Florida State University for having sex with a student in her office and for lying to her employer about her criminal record. She even presents herself in defensive terms in a now-removed part of the document that contains explicit text messages between her and her ex-boyfriend, as well as close-up photographs of the man’s genitals. (A misdemeanor stalking case against Jones, filed by Florida in 2019, is ongoing, although the cyber-harassment and cyber-stalking charges have been dropped or narrowed, as were earlier charges, relating to the same individual, of trespass, felony robbery, and contempt of court.) Everywhere Jones goes—whether it’s Louisiana State University (where she got her master’s), Florida State, or the Florida Department of Health—she seems always to leave a trail of wreckage. And somehow, it’s always someone else’s fault.
This tendency continues today. Much of the national attention that Jones has received is the result of her insisting that, having learned about her “whistleblowing,” Governor DeSantis used his “Gestapo” and “raided” her house, putting her children in danger. But this, too, is a ridiculous lie. Late last year, the police did indeed execute a search warrant on Jones. But they did so because a data breach at the FDOH—in which the personal information of 19,000 employees was stolen—was traced back to the IPv6 address that Comcast had assigned to Jones’s house. Governor DeSantis had nothing to do with it. The search warrant—which alleges that Jones committed a felony by not only temporarily accessing personnel data she had no right to access but permanently stealing it—was initially signed by Judge Joshua Hawkes, a Republican appointee, but subsequently upheld by Judge John Cooper, an elected judge in heavily Democratic Leon County. (Florida does not have explicitly partisan judicial elections.)
Jones now claims that she was “terrified” by the police’s visit. But even this seems to be highly questionable. Not only did she prepare for the visit by creating a made-for-the-cameras sign that read “Biden hire me!”—hardly the instantaneous work of someone who is surprised that the cops are at the door—but she subsequently spread a host of extraordinary claims about the conduct of the police that, after festering online for a while and spawning a swiftly dropped lawsuit from Jones, were flatly disproven by the release of the body-camera footage. As the Tampa Bay Times recently noted, despite Jones’s having “claimed on Twitter that the agents ‘pointed a gun in my face. They pointed guns at my kids,’” the bodycam video “does not appear to show police pointing their guns at anyone in the house.” On the contrary: It shows the police waiting outside patiently for 22 minutes; it shows them trying to minimize the disruption to her children by encouraging her to come and talk to them at the door; and it shows them repeatedly calling Jones to find out why she wasn’t cooperating. After the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) had released the footage, a spokesman confirmed what anyone who watches it can see: that at no point during the search did the agents point their guns at anyone in the house.
They did, however, find enough of what they were looking for in Jones’s home for another Leon County judge, Nina Ashenafi Richardson, to sign a warrant for her arrest. In January, Jones turned herself in. She is currently awaiting trial. Thus did her stint at the FDOH end as her stints elsewhere seem to have ended: in disgrace, in termination, with the cops showing up at the door, and, eventually, in the filing of charges. Until now, Jones has got away with it every single time. Eventually, though, her luck is going to run out. And when it does, no amount of flailing or distraction is going to prevent the bills from coming due.
— This article appears in the June 1, 2021, issue of National Review.