It would have been a dangerous assertion in the middle of a deadly pandemic no matter where it came from: that wearing masks has “little to no medical value” and could do more “harm” than wearing no mask at all.
But it was especially remarkable given the source. Published on the right-wing website RedState, it turned out to have been written under a pseudonym by William B. Crews, a public affairs officer at the National Institutes of Health, promoting the same type of discredited information about dealing with the virus that his employer was working aggressively to beat back.
Mr. Crews abruptly retired from the N.I.H. as The Daily Beast prepared to expose his clandestine role as purveyor of misinformation. But by that point, writing for RedState under the name Streiff, Mr. Crews had published a slew of incorrect claims about this virus this year, some even directly attacking his boss, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Mr. Crews was especially focused on undermining efforts to persuade the public to wear masks, saying that “math tells you the diameter of the virus is orders of magnitude smaller than the smallest opening between mask fibers.”
Numerous studies have shown that while the virus itself is small enough to pass through cloth, it travels within particles and respiratory droplets that masks can catch, helping to reduce community spread.
In another post in April, Mr. Crews pointed to Sweden, which initially had a low death rate despite minimal regulations, writing that lockdowns and social distancing rules imposed in other countries had severe economic consequences without any public health benefit.
“While we are assured that it is essential to bring our lives to a screeching halt in order to prevent the spread of Wuhan virus, there is actually no real evidence of the measurable kind that backs up that supposition,” he wrote.
Since then, researchers at Columbia have estimated that delays in imposing lockdowns in the United States most likely resulted in tens of thousands of preventable deaths, and Sweden went through a significant surge in deaths, far more severe than in neighboring countries that imposed lockdowns earlier on.
While working within the N.I.H., Mr. Crews continued to contribute heavily to RedState at a time when the site was transforming itself from a fairly typical conservative platform to one aimed at bringing in a far-right readership. In 2018, the site laid off a number of its most prominent writers who had previously been critical of President Trump.
Since the coronavirus arrived in the United States, combating misinformation has been a challenge for social media companies and public health officials. Misleading and even maliciously false narratives about the coronavirus have been shared widely across online networks, including such things as the viral “plandemic” video and Russia-sponsored misinformation campaigns.
After it was reported that Mr. Crews was the voice behind Streiff, Erick Erickson, who served as the editor in chief of RedState for 10 years, said on Twitter that while he disagreed with Mr. Crews’s outlandish takes on the pandemic, his work had nonetheless helped the site bolster its readership.
“He has grown RedState’s traffic far more than I ever did,” Mr. Erickson wrote, adding, “They should boost his profile now that he is not shackled to anonymity.”
Mr. Crews did not respond to messages seeking comment.