Rebekah Jones, Fired Data Scientist and Conspiracy Theorist, Given Platform at Journalism Conference

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

If you have not heard the name “Rebekah Jones,” you have probably at least heard of the “data scientist” who claimed she was fired for not changing COVID-19 data for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Jones was given a voice in the national press, which was already highly critical of the Republican governor.

It did not take too long, however, for Jones’ story to collapse. She was not, in fact, fired for refusing to change data, as she implied in her very public statements. She was fired for consistently ignoring her supervisors’ requests that she stop releasing information on the state’s COVID dashboard and adding political commentary to them.

Jones’ claims to the national press, when she was finally forced to stop dancing around them, really didn’t amount to anything.

She said the state made changes in April to support its initial reopening May 4, for example by altering the way it reports the positivity rate of testing in a way she disagreed with. Instead of showing the rate of all positive tests, it began showing the rate of new positive tests — filtering out people who previously tested positive.

This was not a behind-the-scenes change. DeSantis announced it at an April 24 news conference, arguing it was the better figure for assessing trends in testing and control of the outbreak.

Jones also said she opposed how health officials decided to exempt rural counties below 75,000 population from more stringent criteria for reopening — such as showing a downward trajectory of new cases or case positivity in the past 14 days.

However, federal guidelines allow states to compute criteria at the state level or to tailor a regional approach that takes into account the severity of outbreak in regions. Florida’s small rural counties have had fewer cases and deaths — 21 of them have had no deaths. In such counties, a favorable 14-day trend could easily be upended by a small — but containable — spike in cases.

For the most part, the Florida press ignored Jones. It was only national outlets, those that came across as having a vested interest in DeSantis being wrong in the way he was handling things, that gave her coverage. Eventually, the spotlight faded away after she falsely claimed DeSantis sent police to raid her home.

As it turned out, they were tracking a “hack” into a Florida health department system. She had gained access to an emergency alert system after she had been fired.

Since then, Jones has been vocal on social media, but her claims have become more unhinged as she tries to reclaim the spotlight that brought her to fame over the summer. Again, she was largely ignored… until the nonprofit group, Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE), and their annual National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR) conference, invited Jones to be in one of the featured sessions.

Since this tweet was live, the event title has changed. It is now, according to the event site, simply titled “A Conversation with Rebekah Jones.”

There was a bit of pushback online when word got out that Jones would be on the agenda, especially if the talk was going to be about “when doing the right thing gets you fired,” given that Jones did not do the right thing. She sought to discredit the state’s governor and health department over issues she disagreed with politically. She then ignored her employer’s demand that she stop sharing behind-the-scenes information with political commentary attached, and she was fired for it.

Oh, and there is a matter of her criminal record that involves sexual cyberstalking, revenge porn, and a restraining order.

The IRE is a pretty respected conference in the world of journalism. Investigative journalism is important to the field, and to have an organization that supports and pushes it forward is a good thing. But if they are going to give a platform to a discredited “whistleblower” with a political agenda and a criminal record that suggests some emotional issues, what good are they actually doing for investigative journalism or computer-assisted reporting?

It seems like this does more to hurt the cause than help. Media figures like Jake Tapper have spoken out against some of the things Jones has claimed/pushed, and she is constantly attacking anyone who is critical with the usual claims of sexism, etc. That is not someone you want to be representing your values at one of your biggest events of the year, but the IRE seems set on having her (even if public pushback has forced them to change the name of the event online).

This is an easily-avoidable embarrassment, and it provides ample opportunity for critics of the media to gesture and say, “See what we’re talking about? They’re all corrupt and out to get us!” Her event should be canceled, and her claims given no more airtime.