UPDATE: Within an hour after we first published this story, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis unloaded on Rebekah Jones in a press conference with Vice President Mike Pence. The reporter attempted to ask Pence about Jones’ case, and DeSantis jumped in and underscored all the points we made below. Here’s the link to the video (go to the 12 minute mark of the video).
UPDATE 2: This article has been updated to correct our assertion that Rebekah Jones earned a Ph.D in geography at Florida State. She pursued the degree but never completed it.
Dozens of media outlets, both in Florida and nationally, published the sensational story of Rebekah Jones, a state Department of Health employee who was fired by the administration of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Trump ally, after – she says – she refused to manipulate data to support the governor’s plan to reopen the state.
But a deeper look at the underlying facts expose a less sensational, yet all-too-common narrative: a media feeding frenzy caused by a deep-seated desire to report on scandal and cover-ups, which Rebekah Jones’ claims delivered – if only they were true.
They are not.
Let’s pick through the individual pieces of wreckage from this crashed-and-burned narrative one by one:
Claim #1: Rebekah Jones was the “architect” of Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard.
The truth: Jones was more like the drywall hanger of the dashboard rather than the “architect.” The dashboard was built on the same visual mapping tool that Johns Hopkins University made famous at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis. In fact, Florida’s tool looks extremely similar. That’s because Johns Hopkins University is not the “architect” of the dashboard, either. The tool is actually built not on any of Florida’s many data servers, but using ready-made modules from a subscription service called ArcGIS. Jones’ job was to load data into those modules and decide how it appeared to visitors.
- Media outlets who published the false “architect” claim: Florida Today, The Daily Beast, New York Post, The Guardian, CBS 12 News, The Hill, Miami Herald, ClickOrlando, WEAR-TV
- Who got it right? The Tampa Bay Times described her as a “top Florida Department of Health data manager” and never ran with the “architect” claim. They even correctly pointed out that it was Jones herself who claimed to have built the site “from scratch.”
Claim #2: Rebekah Jones was a coronavirus “scientist”
The truth: Several media outlets (including this one) published the claim that she holds a doctorate degree in geography. It’s an easy mistake to make when looking at her resume. But a careful reading of it indicates she has not completed that portion of her education and apparently dropped out of the program in 2018:
So, her skill set, as applicable to COVID-19, was in mapping data, as we explained previously. That’s it. No special skills in epidemiology, biology, or even public health. Depending on the narrative a media outlet wants to convey, using the term “scientist” in headlines about coronavirus carries with it a very specific connotation, leading readers to believe Jones was involved in the front lines of coronavirus research. If media outlets insist on describing her as a “scientist,” they owe their readers a fuller explanation of her role, and should, at most, describe her as a “data scientist,” (Edit: or more accurately, an “environment scientist” or even more accurately, as her job title suggestions, an “Environmental Health Program Consultant”) though even those could be misleading and would still be misconstrued for political gain. Her job as it pertains to coronavirus was to display data using mapping software – data obtained by the Department of Health’s actual epidemiologists. She was not involved in the evaluation of that data or the recommendation to health experts as to a course of action.
Media outlets describing her as a “scientist” are doing so to give her more credibility regarding the state’s COVID-19 policy, where no such credibility exists.
- Media outlets who ran with the “scientist” narrative: National Public Radio, The Guardian, MSNBC, and many others.
Claim #3: Rebekah Jones was asked to manipulate data to support the governor’s plan to reopen Florida
The truth: Jones was asked to temporarily disable the ability to export data from the dashboard so that it could be verified that the data matched other sources.
We previously gave credit to the Tampa Bay Times for accurately describing Jones’ role in managing the COVID-19 dashboard. They also accurately describe events leading to Jones termination. Don’t misunderstand – the Times is still guilty of trying to make Jones a martyr. Take a look at how they describe what happened:
[On May 4th] the [EventDate] column vanished from the “Person Cases” data, which lists anonymized records for every confirmed case in Florida. The Palm Beach Post reported the disappearance the next day, May 5.
The Tampa Bay Times automatically checks for changes in the data and archives new updates. Shortly before 10:12 a.m on May 4., data still included the EventDate field, showing records with listed dates that people reported symptoms as early as January 1. By 3:02 p.m., the column was gone.
For much of the next day, May 5, the column was either missing or empty, with every row listing “None.” Finally, it returned shortly before 8:02 p.m.
If you’re struggling to see what all the fuss is about, you’re not alone. By the Times own account, a single column of data became temporarily unavailable for a day and a half. The only other item worthy of note in the Times’ story is that the state’s official epidemiologist (i.e. an actual medical scientist, not a data mapper, like Jones) asked to have the ability to export data from the dashboard temporarily disabled while health officials verify that the dates match other official sources.
This is critical. The Tampa Bay Times had the full explanation for why the data was temporarily unavailable, but they and other media outlets decided to run with “coronavirus conspiracy” instead. In fact, the Times headline claims Jones was asked to “delete” data. No where in the story itself does the word “delete” appear. It’s another clickbait headline.
- Media outlets who published the “manipulated or deleted data” conspiracy theory: National Public Radio, The Guardian, MSNBC, USA Today, Tampa Bay Times and many others.
Claim #4: Rebekah Jones was fired because she refused to comply with orders to hide the truth about COVID-19
The truth: The idea that Jones is somehow a martyr for truth about coronavirus and a victim of a DeSantis administration cover up is a narrative too many media outlets were willing to jump on.
She was fired for insubordination, according to the DeSantis Administration:
“Rebekah Jones exhibited a repeated course of insubordination during her time with the department, including her unilateral decisions to modify the department’s COVID-19 dashboard without input or approval from the epidemiological team or her supervisors,” DeSantis spokeswoman Helen Ferre said in a statement. “The blatant disrespect for the professionals who were working around the clock to provide the important information for the COVID-19 website was harmful to the team.”
Jones is no stranger to insubordination. In 2016, she was arrested on the campus of her employer, Louisiana State University, for refusing to obey the orders of a police officer:
On June 13, 26-year-old University staff member Rebekah Jones was booked on one count of battery on a police officer, one count of remaining after forbidden and two counts of resisting arrest, Scott said. Scott said officers arrived at the Sea Grant building when Jones refused to leave at the request of LSU Human Resources. Scott said Jones initiated physical contact against two LSUPD officers while resisting arrest and officers were forced to subdue her.
It’s not clear why LSU’s Human Resources department asked one of their own staff members to leave the area.
Jones also has an extensive criminal history in Leon County, where she’s been arrested and charged with three felonies, including one for robbery, and a handful of misdemeanor cases including “sexual cyberstalking,” a case where she created a website and used it to sexually harass her ex-boyfriend. The website has been taken down, but images from the case exist in Leon County court records.
Most of the charges filed against her came after she was hired by the Department of Health, so they would not have turned up in any background check.
The bottom line: Rebekah Jones was fired for performance issues, not for “refusing to manipulate data.” And her extensive criminal history, which predates her employment in Florida, lends credence to the DeSantis administration that she was just a troublesome employee who is now disgruntled and trying to get media attention about her firing. The easiest way to get media attention right now is to claim a Republican elected official is involved in a conspiracy to cover up COVID-19 data detrimental to reopening the state economy.
The media outlets listed above will not issue retractions. They will double down on the idea that DeSantis’s administration is withholding / manipulating / deleting / altering data. That, too is totally false. But mark these words, the embarrassment of touting Rebekah Jones as their coronavirus martyr will quickly fade into the mainstream media memory hole.