A Failure of Leadership

The failure of our institutions to create an adequate strategy to fight back against disinformation and misinformation has already had and will continue to have devastating consequences for healthcare and public health for generations.

Taylor Nichols, MD
4 min readJan 7, 2024

I was reading this exceptional piece by Natalia Solenkova in Science Based Medicine in which she cites a quote by Dr. Ashish Jha from during his tenure as the White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator for the Biden Administration.

“What we have seen is the widespread propagation of misinformation and disinformation. And the reason it has taken root is because there was an information vacuum. I come back to our role as physicians. It is critical that we fill that vacuum because if we don’t, others will.”

- Ashish Jha, MD — March 31, 2023

Natalia and I have both significantly involved as physicians on the front lines of treating patients with COVID and monitoring developments in the science and scientific consensus around COVID throughout the pandemic, and this quote appears to have elicited a similar response for both of us.

While his statement is both correct and aspirational, what Dr. Jha neglected to include is how he was part of the institutional failure to do literally anything about the spread of disinformation and misinformation, how he neglected to support the physicians who WERE actually doing that work he is describing her, leaving us abandoned, unsupported, and at threat of losing jobs. We needed a national coordinated strategy to address disinformation and misinformation and support for those of us doing the work. Instead, many of us received threats or even lost jobs from trying to do this work entirely unsupported and unprotected. All the while, those intentionally spreading disinformation and most egregiously spreading misinformation continued to be actively incentivized to the tune of millions of dollars by their grifting and didn’t need to exercise caution, require support, or have any shame.

What he neglects to include is how disinformation has been weaponized as a political weapon for the right in an effort to get Trump re-elected, as well as part of a larger effort involving the Council for National Policy to create an alternative reality devoid of facts, to diminish social trust, and to break institutions — including healthcare. This is not conjecture or politicking, this is based simply on the facts that exist about these large, well-coordinated, and well-funded networks spreading such disinformation and propaganda. Those networks include credentialed people including physicians to launder their propaganda and even turn that laundered propaganda into policy (see Florida and multiple court cases in which these folks have been included as “experts.”)

Simone Gold, a noted insurrectionist and co-founder of the disinformation spreading political student group of grifting physicians called America’s Frontline Doctors, who never actually went near any “front lines” or actual COVID patients.

Additionally, with the propaganda sufficiently laundered to be somehow acceptably viewed as “contrarian thinking,” those outside of these networks but who may latch onto contrarian ideas either out of clout-chasing narcissism and their own Galileo complex, support from these well funded groups or disinformation networks, or simply for their own financial incentives of their own attention-based closed-loop environments (podcasts, YouTube, Substack, etc), weaponized their own credentials to further perpetuate the disinformation machines — often without their knowledge of or understanding of any of this larger scale effort.

In fact, when I simply mentioned facts about some of these particular folks involvement in perpetuating disinformation initially spread by well-coordinated disinformation networks, I was bullied, blocked, or threatened with lawsuits. Where were these institutions then? If you’re literally leading those institutions and you’re going to complain about those not doing enough, I would think supporting those who are would be critical. What happened? The break down of leadership and institutional support was critical to the unabated spread of disinformation. On July 29, 2021 the Federation of State Medical Boards stated “Physicians who generate and spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation or disinformation are risking disciplinary action by state medical boards, including the suspension or revocation of their medical license. Due to their specialized knowledge and training, licensed physicians possess a high degree of public trust and therefore have a powerful platform in society, whether they recognize it or not. They also have an ethical and professional responsibility to practice medicine in the best interests of their patients and must share information that is factual, scientifically grounded and consensus-driven for the betterment of public health.”

Why was nothing ever done? Where was your leadership then? What happened?

I can tell you: the fundamental lack of understanding of the issue at even the highest levels and/or unwillingness to actually do anything and the subsequent breakdown of leadership and institutional support was critical to the unabated spread of disinformation. That should ACTUALLY be the takeaway here.



Taylor Nichols, MD

Humanist. Emergency Medicine and AddictiEmergency + Addiction Medicine | Health policy and advocacy | Health tech and innovation