Meet Josiah Zayner, America's Most Censored Person
Scientist Josiah Zayner is brilliant, daring, and may have incurred the wrath of more internet platforms than any person alive. Is America's most interesting person also its most censored?
Five years ago, on The Verge ESP Podcast, a pair of journalists discussed and debated a story called “A Bitter Pill,” about a young scientist named Josiah Zayner, who’d performed — this will take some explaining — a DIY fecal transplant.
Zayner, who has a PhD from the University of Chicago, worked for NASA researching the terraforming of Mars, and is the inventor of a musical instrument called the Chromocord that creates sound when light reacts with bacteria, was and is one of the world’s leading “biohackers.” He defines the term to mean “constantly pushing the boundaries of science outside traditional environments,” which he certainly did in this case, taking a radical approach to combating longstanding intestinal troubles. In layman’s terms, his plan was to nuke his natural bacteria with antibiotics, and replace them with bacteria from the feces of others.
“I wanted to see if, by transplanting different bacteria in my body, they would change the way my gastrointestinal system was functioning,” is how he explains it now. “Because, at the time, it wasn't functioning very well.”
On that May, 2016 podcast, neither science reporter Liz Lopatto nor Arielle Duhaime-Ross, who wrote the story for The Verge, had much that was positive to say about either Josiah or his experiment. In fact, in an eerie preview of the anger of self-proclaimed “experts” that would become ubiquitous among pundits after the arrival of Covid-19, they sounded downright furious.
“Extremely dangerous, possibly stupid,” said Lopatto, of Josiah’s gambit.
“In his mind, it made sense to tell people about it, and inspire them to take their health into their own hands,” said Duhaime-Ross. “The risk of copycats is really real with this.”
“This is one of the things that does bug me about biohackers,” agreed a put-out Lopatto. “I don’t want people playing with pathogens in their bedrooms. Like, I’m not interested in that, personally, as a person who lives in this society.”
A less judgmental New York Times later produced a short film about the episode called Gut Hack:
Whether it’s Zayner gulping down a massive antibiotic cocktail in a WU-TANG FOREVER t-shirt, or repeatedly grimacing as he swallows home-crafted feces capsules in a hotel room, the short documentary is a parade of scenes make your eyeballs pop out in shock and amazement, cartoon-style. Zayner, by any measure, is an extraordinarily interesting character. He has a mind almost perfectly engineered against obedience: brilliant, fearless, and not accepting every assumption but checking the validity of each. He alternately bristles at or ignores judgment, seeming to draw inspiration from it in either case. At the end of Gut Hack, we see him standing on a subway platform, shaking his head as he listens to the two Verge journalists denounce him. We hear their audio:
“Not putting your life in danger unnecessarily is pretty basic,” they complain, adding that his experiment was “not even a blip in the scientific radar.”
“There’s a fine line,” Zayner later sighs to the Times, “between being crazy and knowledgeable.” He goes on to talk about growing up poor, and different, in the Midwest. “When you grow up on a farm, you have all this freedom,” he says. “We don’t have any neighbors or anyone to interact with, so we’re used to just doing what we want. And when you get to this environment were people don’t do that, you’re immediately pegged as, you know, a weirdo.”
Some weeks after, he’s shown feeling better, but he wants more than a placebo result. The film ends with him receiving the results of genetic sequencing tests that appear to show his “gut hack” experiment worked. He bursts into tears. The Times reporter asks, “Do you feel vindicated?”
He seems surprised by the question. No, he says, it’s not about that. “It’s one of those things,” he says, “where you’re so moved and impressed by how science works.”
Zayner went on to claim his battle with irritable bowel syndrome had been won, only to be replaced by a new malady. “My physical signs of IBS were gone,” he said recently. “But so was my privacy. This is when the deplatforming began.”
Around the same time Gut Hack was being made, Zayner founded ODIN, which he describes as “a company that sells science and genetic engineering supplies to people so that they can do science experiments in their homes.”
ODIN’s product line, which includes CRISPR gene-editing kits, seems designed to give ordinary people the tools to experience science as Zayner does, almost more as artistic expression than means to any end. He describes his Chromacord, for instance, as “something more purely inspirational, just outside the average notion of what science even is. In a manner of speaking, it was simply magic.” Or, as he said in another interview, “People having access to this technology allows them to do crazy and cool shit.”
Unfortunately, after the notoriety he gained from Gut Hack, bringing the “magic” of genetic engineering to the layperson suddenly proved a little beyond what science-journalism scolds or the faceless executives at tech platforms felt comfortable allowing.
Amazon and Facebook began delisting his products, and Patreon, PayPal, and Square all shut him down in short order. Sometimes he was told why, sometimes he wasn’t. He was forced to move on, and doesn’t want to jinx his relationship with his current payment processor by mentioning their name.
In between, the State of California brought a case against him on the somewhat preposterous charge of practicing medicine without a license. He won, but California state authorities were so peeved that they passed a law appearing to target his company alone, declaring that firms must append their wares with labels announcing “not for self-administration,” if they’re in the business of selling home “gene-therapy kits.”
In a piece called “Don’t Change Your DNA At Home,” the MIT Technology Review noted with amusement that, even if one includes ODIN, “We’re not sure any such kit exists.” The sponsor of the law, Republican State Senator Ling Ling Chang, appeared to think ODIN’s products were a lot more Frankensteinian and terrifying than they are.
“It was really weird,” Josiah says now. “It’d be like, I don’t know, labeling a computer: ‘You shouldn’t eat this computer.’ I mean, obviously.” Regarding ODIN’s home experimentation kits, he adds, “How would you use it on humans? I don’t even understand. I guess somebody crazy enough could just take some of the DNA that we sell and try to inject it into their body, but it wouldn’t even work in humans because it was meant for other organisms.”
Zayner didn’t comply with the law, and instead just moved to Austin, Texas (“Land of the free, home of the brave,” he laughs) and set up shop there. Then Covid-19 arrived, and Zayner’s biohacking got him in trouble again.
In May, 2020, he read a scientific paper that claimed a DNA-based vaccine against Covid-19 had been successfully developed and tested on macaques.
“I was like, ‘Why isn’t anybody working on this or trying this?’ Why don’t I go and order up the same DNA vaccine, have the company produce it for me and actually test it and see if it works on humans?” he said. “It worked on monkeys.”
Zayner followed through on his idea, contracting with a company to make the vaccine described in the paper. Then he and two other scientists/bio-hackers live-streamed the process of injecting themselves with it. He claims they all had antibody responses, but even at the time — his experiment was covered by Bloomberg — he said, “I’m very suspicious of my own data.” Here is how he describes the results, and his thinking, in a recent essay:
I’m hesitant to say it worked because vaccines are complicated and we’d need further testing to confirm our results. But, even if it didn't work, the fact that someone could have designed a vaccine, and contracted a company to manufacture that vaccine in June 2020 for under $5k is fucking profound — and that is what, at the time of releasing our video, I felt people needed to know.
At the time, there was no action taken against him. But just as mRNA vaccines began to be distributed across America and other parts of the world, he abruptly received notice from YouTube that he’d been banned for “severe or repeated violations of our community guidelines.”
He appealed, but lost his appeal. In none of these communications with YouTube was Zayner told exactly why he’d been shut down.
Contacted for this story, YouTube spokesperson Ivy Choi did, however, elaborate, seeming to echo the complaints from The Verge journalists years ago about the risks of copycats:
We terminated the Josiah Zayner channel following repeated violations of our sale of regulated goods policy, which prohibits content intended to facilitate the use or sale of unapproved or homemade COVID-19 vaccines. We enforce this policy equally for everyone, and channels that repeatedly violate or are dedicated to violative content are terminated.
“It's just a little sad and heartbreaking,” Zayner says, in response. “I want to believe we have evolved as a culture since Galileo was a proclaimed a heretic but it doesn't appear so.” He adds, “When science is outlawed only outlaws will do science.”
By the time Zayner received his YouTube ban, he’d won the Triple Crown of Internet censorship many times over. He’s been shut down by retail distributors, payment processors, and media platforms alike, and his case speaks to issues far beyond the ordinary speech restrictions typically covered in this column. In modern capitalism, a whole galaxy of decisions that once upon a time would have rested solely with regulatory agencies, licensing boards, or the courts may now be addressed in one stroke by the inaccessible executives of tech oligopolies.
A larger question has to do with an issue increasingly on the minds of people of all political persuasions in America. Who should have access to knowledge? Should things that are true be withheld from people for their own good? A growing movement of what ABC correspondent Jon Karl described as “serious people” has decided that, yes, Americans are generally too stupid to be trusted with knowledge about everything from politics to science, that the dangers of allowing the moron hordes access to the fire of Prometheus are too great.
For Zayner, the dangers lay in the other direction. “I want people to realize this technology is real and powerful and it’s available to them,” he once told Freethink. “But we can’t only put it in the hands of the rich and the powerful… I think that’s the scarier thing.”
Culturally, we’ve always been a people up to something in our garages that was none of your business. As the world’s great hothouse for growing crazy people, America produced masses of harmless quacks, surrounded on the edges by a few world-changing geniuses and a fair number also of Mansons, Meteskys, and Starkweathers. With the exception of the occasional Anti-Saloon League or Un-American Affairs Committee, the freedom of spirit at the heart of this equation has for most of our history been celebrated more or less uncontroversially as a core American value. Usually, a majority figured the odd Scientologist or laetrile dealer was worth tolerating if we also got flying machines, the telephone, and Star Wars out of the bargain.
That dynamic is changing, and the remote unsupervised farm is fast being replaced by a vast, searchable electronic grid. Before, if you wanted to gobble mushrooms and invent Mormonism, who could stop you? Now we’ve got a class of experts who think even enlightened self-abuse can’t be tolerated on their watch.
“That’s the other crazy thing,” Josiah says. “I have a PhD in this stuff from the University of Chicago. So it’s really weird when people point and say, the experts don’t like this. Technically, am I not one of the experts? Don’t I get a say?”
More from Zayner:
Matt Taibbi: Is the problem in your case one of companies intentionally targeting you because you’ve been in the news and controversial, or are you just repeatedly falling afoul of algorithmic censors?
Josiah Zayner: I don’t think necessarily anybody’s out there trying to be deliberately take me down, or is out to get me. Sometimes it feels that way, especially when my payment processors all go away at once, boom, boom, boom. I thought, who’s reporting it? How do you even find out if there’s coordination?
I think it’s just the system is designed so poorly that people are just getting caught up in a net, one that’s taking away completely legitimate stuff, and they don’t care because they would rather just take out as much of the bad as possible. It’s like the fraud detection for the banks. It’s terrible… They call and say, “You charged this thing for getting gas!” I’m like, ‘I get gas like once a week. How is that fraud?’
MT: You’re in a position where there are lots of videos about you on platforms like YouTube, and those are allowed, but the primary source is not. What’s that like?
Josiah Zayner: The information is totally being controlled. That’s what it is. It’s not even about politics. It’s just the information we are all experiencing is totally being manipulated and controlled. It’s hard for me. If I can’t even post something about my own life, everybody is only getting a weird, distorted filtered view from the media. They can’t even hear my own account. That’s really weird.
MT: What do you think the real objection to your vaccine videos was? Is it just the safety issue? They also imply that lives could have been saved by developing and releasing a vaccine more quickly, or by releasing a different kind of vaccine.
Josiah Zayner: The reasons they gave weren’t related to the vaccine or COVID necessarily. It was just dangerous stuff. So yeah, I don’t know. But I imagine — it’s a question, who’s correct? We say, “Well the FDA is correct.” But then you say, China has approved their own vaccine. They’re a country with a much bigger population. Over a billion people. Is China really going to be that wrong? Or India, or Brazil, or any of these other countries?
We’re right and everybody else is wrong? That doesn’t make any sense. Nobody is trying to kill their population. But only our vaccines are okay? Only the things that the CDC says is okay? It’s a distorted point of view. It’s very US-centric. The idea that we’re the only people who can make the correct decisions in the pandemic, when obviously we can’t — I don’t think anybody would say that we’ve done a good job in any way.
MT: What is it about this deplatforming movement that troubles you the most? Is any of it defensible?
Josiah Zayner: The crazy thing is that people can’t even see this stuff. It just gets totally removed from all public consciousness. But it’s super important, especially science information and knowledge. You’re basically dumbing down our population for the sake of trying to protect them, instead of just allowing them to look at the information, analyze the information, and make a choice. How do we ever expect people to be able to make this choice on their own, if we never give them the information, or access to the information and say, “Here, look. Decide based on the data what you want to do.”
Instead, it just becomes a system where you have to trust the experts and you have to trust the government. I’m like, who trusts the government? Let’s be honest. It doesn’t matter what political party you are part of. Come on!