The authoritative playbook for political propaganda was most famously perfected in Nazi Germany and remains the general practice for autocrats today. Society needs an authoritative counter-attack plan that can survive the test of time and be applied in a new media world.
I want to understand the networks and methods used to spread disinformation in an academic context, produce materials on the subject that are accessible to the general public, and develop evidence-based tactics to combat the rising tide of propaganda in politics, science and our democracy.
Continuing the interdisciplinary spirit of my previous degrees (dual majors in physical earth science and mass communication), I'm seeking an interdisciplinary approach for this massive undertaking. This type of project naturally crosses several fields: information and technology, communication and media, geography/geopolitics, and political science.
When I began my academic journey 15 years ago, I sought to become a truth-teller, to serve as a voice for the voiceless, and cover topics ranging from war to climate change. Life intervened, and I found myself a single parent at just 20 years old - midway through my junior year at Syracuse University.
Shipping off to famine-struck Yemen or war-torn Syria with an infant in tow no longer seemed appropriate, so I threw myself into my second major: Earth science. Rather than report on the problems of the world, I decided to be a part of the solutions. I graduated cum laude from Syracuse despite my setbacks and went on to earn my Master of Science degree from Louisiana State University, and later finished my doctoral coursework at Florida State University, studying both climate science and mass communication at each. I understood the importance of effectively communicating science with the public, and kept that emphasis throughout my academic and professional careers.
As a scientist focused on issues of climate change and natural disasters, I took courses on the sociology of disaster, health and science communication, political journalism, c
ommunication of risk and hazards. I taught practices of propaganda in the context of statistics and science at Florida State University. I worked alongside Dr. Lynne Carter, United Nations Chief of Party in Kampala, during which time we authored three chapters of the National Climate Assessment and produced climate change materials for the general public. I won one of the most prestigious academic award in my field for my thesis – the Gilbert F. White Award – beating out doctoral candidates and becoming only the second master’s level student to win the award.
I left my Ph.D. program after two years to start working at the Florida Department of Health in 2018. I took over as manager of my division less than nine months later. In January 2020, I developed and managed Florida’s COVID-19 data and surveillance system, including its public-facing dashboard. My work was praised by both Presidential administrations (Trump and Biden) and set the example with which every state followed.
In May 2020, I was thrust into the public spotlight by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, having been fired from my position for refusing to publish false and otherwise misleading data on the public dashboard when the state wanted to prematurely reopen.
The following years provided me with unique experience and insight into media operations, public science, and digital disinformation campaigns.
During the first year of the pandemic, I was among the most prominent sources of COVID information across all social media. I became the de-facto champion for truth and transparency in Florida during this time- a role that came with a heavy price. Governor DeSantis sought to intimidate me and my family by personally ordering state police to raid my home with guns drawn, offering as an excuse that I had illegally used the Florida State computer system. I had not. But the raid certainly sent a dark message to me and my family.
I also became the target of a vicious, methodical disinformation campaign, led mostly on social media but also bleeding into more mainstream media outlets. I watched Florida spiral into darkness, making reckless and dangerous choices that led to the preventable deaths of tens of thousands of residents, all whilst the state's leaders were lying to the public, hiding data, and falsely claiming pandemic success.
I would ask the you to simply Google my history with the state. You will see thousands of different versions of what happened – some by the Miami Herald which are quite accurate and some by the National Review which are wildly false and defamatory.
Or mention my name in a positive light on Twitter and within minutes a hoard of single-purpose hate attacks will descend upon you with links to propaganda websites and false narratives. For more than two years, this flock of psyops accounts have been dedicated solely to harassing anyone who mentions me on social media, harassing my supporters, posting defamatory and altered stories and documents, and berating people into silence.
While I won some of the highest honors in my academic field prior to COVID-19, in 2020 I began receiving awards I never imagined I'd be in the running for; I was named Forbes' first-ever Technology Person of the Year, one of Fortune's 40 Under 40 in Healthcare, a John Maddox Prize Finalist, Whistleblower of the Year, one of Elemental’s 50 Experts to Trust, Samuel Lawrence Prize winner and more.
I worked with every media outlet from small Florida papers and TV stations to the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, USA Today, CNN, MSNBC, TIME, NPR, The Young Turks, and everything in between. I founded the only national tracking database for COVID-19 cases in K12 schools with Google, became a 'Cosmogirl,' gave the keynote address during my field's largest annual conference, and ran for Congress in Florida. I out-performed every statewide democratic candidate by six points, on average, in my first run for any public office, against a three-term incumbent in an Cook-rated R+30 district. I lost that race but knew someone with a national profile had to take on Matt Gaetz and so I stepped up.
My education and experience in journalism, health/scicom and crisis communication enabled me to navigate the pandemic communication world more artfully than most who found themselves suddenly famous.
If Steve Bannon can weaponize social and non-traditional media to install Donald Trump and cause civil discord, a free democratic society needs the tools, methods, and theory to successfully counter-balance those efforts.
Our very democracy hangs in the balance. I know the stakes, have survived the machine, and want to put my mind, time, and passion to good use for the betterment of our world.
April 9, 2020; Florida Politics, “Dr. Deborah Birx highlights Florida Department of Health COVID-19 website.” https://floridapolitics.com/archives/328990-dr-deborah-birx-highlights-florida-department-of-health-covid-19-website/
April 20, 2020: ESRI Press, “Dedicated Scientist in Florida Made Quick Moves to Map the Disease." https://www.esri.com/about/newsroom/blog/scientist-maps-florida-covid19-cases/
June 12, 2020: The Miami Herald, “A Number’s Game.” https://www.miamiherald.com/topics/a-numbers-game
June 15, 2020: TIME, “Fired Florida Data Scientist Creates Competing COVID-19 Tracking Site and Suggests State Is Hiding Important Information.”
July 17, 2020: The Palm Beach Post, “Ousted Florida scientist Rebekah Jones’ whistleblower complaint takes aim at DeSantis”
July 22, 2020: Yahoo! News, “A public health employee predicted Florida's coronavirus catastrophe — then she was fired: 'This is everything I was trying to warn people about’.” https://news.yahoo.com/a-public-health-employee-predicted-floridas-coronavirus-catastrophe-then-she-was-fired-this-is-everything-i-was-trying-to-warn-184810565.html
August 24, 2020: The Daily Beast, “Ron Desantis’ Worst Nightmare has a New Target: Schools.” https://www.thedailybeast.com/rebekah-jones-fired-florida-data-scientist-and-ron-desantis-worst-nightmare-goes-after-covid-in-schools
September 2, 2020: FORETUNE 40 Under 40 in Healthcare: Rebekah Jones, https://fortune.com/40-under-40/2020/rebekah-jones/
September 18, 2020: 50 Experts to Trust in a Pandemic: Rebekah Jones, https://elemental.medium.com/50-experts-to-trust-in-a-pandemic-fe58932950e7
December 26, 2020: Forbes names Rebekah Jones its first-ever “Technology Person of the Year.” https://www.forbes.com/sites/helenpopkin/2020/12/26/forbes-technology-awards-2020-geeks-step-up-when-governments-fail/?sh=2c29c2237088
March 1, 2021: MIT, “The Data Visualizations Behind COVID-19 Skepticism.” http://vis.mit.edu/covid-story/
March 10, 2021: Cosmopolitan Magazine, “Rebekah Jones Tried to Warn Us About COVID-19. Now Her Freedom Is on the Line.” https://www.cosmopolitan.com/politics/a35714647/rebekah-jones-florida-covid-19-data-whistleblower-arrest/
May 29, 2021: The Miami Herald, “Opinion: Rebekah Jones’ whistleblower win against DeSantis administration could be a win for all of us.” https://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/editorials/article251781273.html
June 4, 2021: The Miami Herald, “Whistleblower: What Rebekah Jones saw behind the scenes at the Florida Department of Health.” https://www.miamiherald.com/news/politics-government/state-politics/article251838913.html
August 6, 2021: Yahoo! News, “Data scientist who clashed with DeSantis returns to Florida, preparing to run against Matt Gaetz.” https://news.yahoo.com/data-scientist-who-clashed-with-de-santis-returns-to-florida-as-covid-surges-preparing-to-run-against-matt-gaetz-162223028.html