TALLAHASSEE — When Gov. Ron DeSantis needed to hire a data analyst, his staff picked a little-known Ohio sports blogger and Uber driver whose only relevant experience is spreading harmful conspiracy theories about COVID-19 on the Internet.
In his own words, Kyle Lamb has few qualifications for the job at the state’s Office of Policy and Budget, which pays $40,000 per year.
“Fact is, I’m not an ‘expert.’ I’m not a doctor, epidemiologist, virologist or scientist,” Lamb, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, wrote on a website for a subscribers-only podcast he hosts about the coronavirus. “I also don’t need to be. Experts don’t have all the answers, and we’ve learned that the hard way.”
Plucked from the obscurity of the blogosphere, Lamb, 40, broadcasts his lack of scientific training in his theories about the pandemic.
In frequent posts on Twitter and sports message boards, Lamb has said that masks don’t prevent the coronavirus from spreading; that lockdowns are ineffective; that hydroxychloroquine, a drug touted by President Donald Trump, can treat the virus; that COVID-19, which he said might be part of a Chinese “biowar,” is not more deadly than the flu; and that the virus isn’t dangerous for children to contract.
“I have no qualms about being a ‘sports guy’ moonlighting as a COVID-19 analyst,” Lamb wrote on his podcast website.
In Twitter direct messages obtained by the Miami Herald, Lamb said he began studying the virus in January and that his “livelihood” as an Uber driver was “based on society maintaining some level of restrained normalcy.” Then, on Nov. 6, he tweeted that he had “officially accepted an offer to go work for Gov. Ron DeSantis ... doing data analysis on several fronts for them including but not limited to COVID-19 research and other projects.”
Fred Piccolo, a spokesman for DeSantis, said that Lamb would not work in the governor’s suite or focus “exclusively” on COVID-19, and that any analysis he does would pass “through about 10 hands” before it gets to DeSantis. Piccolo did not say when Lamb will start what he called an “entry-level” job. “It’s not a COVID-19 hire,” Piccolo said. Lamb did not respond to requests for comment.
Sports writers from Ohio were floored the governor would hire Lamb for any position, calling the blogger “unhinged,” a “crackpot” and an “amateur, basement epidemiologist” in interviews with the Herald.
Lamb has consistently praised DeSantis' pandemic policies on social media and cheered along as the governor has refused to issue a statewide mask mandate, said that young people are at “incredibly low” risk from the coronavirus, and secured one million doses of hydroxychloroquine for Florida hospitals. Although the drugs came free of charge to the state, some 980,000 doses of the drug went unused for weeks after their shipment.
And late last month, someone at the Capitol leaked COVID-19 death certificates to a blogger at a website where Lamb has frequently written, even as the Florida Department of Health won’t release those same public records to academics and journalists. Lamb’s colleague, Jennifer Cabrera, used the records to write a post that falsely suggested the health department was overcounting the number of COVID-19 deaths.
Vish Viswanath, a professor of health communication at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said the theories advanced by Lamb are “laughable.”
“It’s extremely disconcerting that you appoint somebody that has very limited technical qualifications and has made his agenda very clear,” Viswanath said. “At the end of the day, the price will be paid by the residents of Florida to these steps. So my question is, what is the end game here? Who is going to benefit from this?”
Still, he said he was “not completely taken aback” by the fact that DeSantis hired an untrained blogger to do COVID-19 data analysis because Florida has repeatedly gone against the scientific consensus throughout the course of the pandemic.
The Times/Herald requested Lamb’s application materials, but the governor’s office has not yet provided them. It did provide a job description showing that much of Lamb’s role will involve helping the governor’s team craft DeSantis' budget and legislative proposals.
While Lamb was able to get hired at the Capitol, he sometimes struggled to find work as a sports reporter, according to other writers.
Jeff Svoboda ran an Ohio sports blog in 2013 when he says Lamb, a frequent poster on Ohio State University college football message boards, approached him for a staff job. The answer was no.
“He just seemed like another Internet weirdo. He’d been around the [Ohio State sports] ecosystem for a long time,” Svoboda said. “It just seemed like if no one before us would hire him, there was a reason. ... He’s a crackpot, frankly. His Twitter University graduate degree is paying dividends.”
From Columbus to the Capitol
It’s not clear how or why DeSantis hired Lamb.
“I don’t know exactly who first spotted him,” said Piccolo, who often cites the blog Lamb wrote for while explaining the governor’s pandemic policies on Twitter. “But he’s done some work for the online publications, the blogs, that do this kind of data analysis.”
Last week, Piccolo said that DeSantis first heard of Cabrera, who published the misleading post about COVID-19 deaths, on Twitter.
One clue to Lamb’s surprising ascent may lie in Fox News, which like Twitter has been a catalyst for misinformation throughout the pandemic.
In July, a guest on Laura Ingraham’s show referenced Lamb by name, calling him “a really good researcher on this [coronavirus] stuff.” The guest cited a tweet by Lamb that claimed one Ohio resident had tested positive for the virus 15 times and that the state had counted each test as a separate result, inflating its overall numbers.
Ohio’s health department said the tweet was false. Lamb later deleted it. (He has also deleted dozens of other tweets and online posts that ended up being proven wrong, according to a review of his Internet activity.)
Lamb’s Twitter following has more than doubled to nearly 24,000 people since the Fox News mention, according to Social Blade, a social media analytics website.
DeSantis appears on Fox frequently and is an avid Twitter user.
By all accounts, Lamb had limited success as a sports writer in Ohio.
He bounced around from podcasts to blogs, working for sites dedicated to Ohio State University football, including Buckeye Grove, Land of Ten and Eleven Warriors, and in at least one instance left under acrimonious circumstances, according to other sports writers.
He gained some Twitter prominence in late 2018 when he began defending former Ohio State University football coach Urban Meyer, a two-time national champion with the Florida Gators, for his handling of a scandal involving an assistant coach accused of abusing his then-wife.
“Kyle was a nobody, really,” said Gus Vogel, a fellow sports blogger from Ohio. “He had his own little podcast. But he turned himself into an authority on everything from NCAA laws to domestic violence cases. This is a reoccurring theme with Kyle: He thinks he’s an expert on everything.”
Vogel said that he believes Lamb latched onto COVID-19 conspiracy theories as a way to protect his own income. Lockdowns and social distancing led to college football nearly being canceled and ride-sharing taking a nose-dive.
“His only source of income is Uber driving and Ohio State football,” Vogel said.
According to Lamb’s LinkedIn, he graduated in 2001 from the Ohio Center for Broadcasting, which is an “on-air media school,” according to its website. His LinkedIn page does not state that he earned a college degree.
Others who know Lamb from Ohio expressed shock that he will now work for the governor of the nation’s third-biggest state.
“Do not trust Kyle Lamb. Do not take him seriously. He is an amateur, basement epidemiologist who likes to badmouth science,” said Ryan Donnelly, who worked with Lamb at an Ohio sports website in 2018. “He has no idea what he’s doing. He’s a rank conspiracy theorist who loves the attention.”
“I was absolutely stunned when he got hired to work at the statehouse,” said D.J. Byrnes, a former Ohio sports blogger and Democratic candidate for a seat in Ohio’s state Legislature who clashed with Lamb on social media. “For what? To sweep stairs. Because that’s all he’s qualified to do.”
Florida Republican lawmakers said they were not familiar with Lamb, but said they trusted DeSantis to do the right thing on the coronavirus.
“I don’t know what the governor has this gentleman doing, but I certainly don’t believe that there is anything that is not above board, 100 percent,” Senate President Wilton Simpson said.
‘On all that is holy’
On social media, Lamb’s critics have accused him of embracing other dangerous conspiracy theories.
Lamb has denied those allegations and the Herald could find no independent proof that he has expressed those views.
Reporters did, however, uncover a post from an Ohio State University sports messaging board where he claimed that United Nations troops were taking over a fairground in Ohio.
“I promise you on all that is holy this is not made up,” Lamb wrote in March of this year. “On Tuesday, two different friends said they heard from people that swore up and down they spotted UN troops at the Delaware County fairgrounds. I wrestled all night with whether to bring this to anyone’s attention because it seemed nutty but two different people saw the same thing so who am I to say it’s not true?”
Conspiracy theories have always been a part of daily life from witch hunts to the Red Scare, according to Joseph Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami who studies disinformation.
Those theories become especially dangerous when politicians start to repeat them and allow them to influence government policy, Uscinski said.
“If you are a Republican who lives in Florida, you’re going to listen to things the Republican governor says,” he said. “He’s not going to get you to jump off a bridge, it’s not a cult following. But if he says ‘X, Y or Z’ about policy, Republicans who trust him are going to listen.”
Uscinski’s research has shown that 29 percent of Americans believe the threat of COVID-19 was exaggerated to damage Trump and 31 percent think the virus was intentionally created and spread to hurt people.
Like other conspiracy theorists, Lamb has consistently been wrong on the pandemic.
On March 26, Lamb responded to a tweet by Gov. Mike DeWine warning Ohioans of a deadly coronavirus surge.
“We could be seeing 6,000 to 8,000 new cases a day,” the Republican governor said. “The more we can push that surge off, the better hospitals can prepare their systems.”
Lamb responded indignantly: “You want the public to believe Ohio, with ⅕ the population as Italy and only ⅓ the density, will have the same number (or more) of daily cases? Sir, this is flatly stupid.”