During the pandemic, Twitter and other social networks censored dissidents and suppressed factually true stories to reinforce government propaganda and the interests of multi-billion-dollar companies with respect to SARS-CoV-2 and vaccines to combat it.
Once again I find myself in the clutches of an overbearing workload and encroaching social life, so I have to squeeze out time wherever possible to get episodes of this podcast out to you. Which is why the release schedule is all over the place at the moment and I can’t do any live streams of the show recordings either. I once again apologise for this.
Finally continuing my series of episodes on the Twitter File revelations, we will today look at how the US government and associated organisations influenced the public discourse around SARS-CoV-2 by hiding facts that were inconvenient to the prevailing narrative.
Twitter Reinforced Government Propaganda during the Pandemic
In The Free Press, David Zweig explains how Twitter rigged the SARS-CoV-2 debate:
I had always thought a primary job of the press was to be skeptical of power – especially the power of the government. But during the Covid-19 pandemic, I and so many others found that the legacy media had shown itself to largely operate as a messaging platform for our public health institutions. Those institutions operated in near total lockstep, in part by purging internal dissidents and discrediting outside experts.
Twitter became an essential alternative. It was a place where those with public health expertise and perspectives at odds with official policy could air their views – and where curious citizens could find such information. This often included other countries’ responses to Covid that differed dramatically from our own. But it quickly became clear that Twitter also seemed to promote content that reinforced the establishment narrative, and to suppress views and even scientific evidence that ran to the contrary.
This is a completely bipartisan issues. Both US governments during the pandemic, Trump and Biden, employed censorship to reinforce the official government line:
Internal emails that I viewed at Twitter showed that both the Trump and Biden administrations directly pressed Twitter executives to moderate the platform’s content according to their wishes. One area of so-called misinformation: “runs on grocery stores.” The trouble is that it wasn’t misinformation: There actually were runs on goods. And it wasn’t just Twitter. The meetings with the Trump White House were also attended by Google, Facebook, Microsoft and others.
When the Biden administration took over, its agenda for the American people can be summed up as: Be very afraid of Covid and do exactly what we say to stay safe.
Twitter suppressed tweets by journalists that were critical of the government’s policies around SARS-CoV-2 and vaccines. It also suppressed contrarian viewpoints by health professionals:
By the summer of 2021, Biden announced publicly that social media companies were “killing people” by allowing misinformation about vaccines. Just hours later, Twitter locked [journalist and vaccine sceptic Alex] Berenson out of his account, and then permanently suspended him the next month. Berenson sued Twitter. He ultimately settled with the company, and is now back on the platform. As part of the lawsuit, Twitter was compelled to provide certain internal communications. They revealed that the White House had directly met with Twitter employees and pressured them to take action on Berenson.
But Twitter did suppress views – and not just those of journalists like Berenson. Many medical and public health professionals who expressed perspectives or even cited findings from accredited academic journals that conflicted with official positions were also targeted. As a result, legitimate findings and questions about our Covid policies and their consequences went missing.
Aside from the obvious moral implications of censoring this information, David Zweig identifies three technical reasons why Twitter’s process was a problem:
- Much of the content moderation on Covid, to say nothing of other contentious subjects, was conducted by bots trained on machine learning and AI. Though impressive in their engineering, the bots would prove too crude for such nuanced work. When you drag a digital trawler across a social media platform, you’re not just catching cheap fish, you’re going to snag dolphins along the way.
- Contractors operating in places like the Philippines were also moderating content. They were given decision trees to aid in their process, but tasking non-experts to adjudicate tweets on complex topics like myocarditis and mask efficacy data was destined for a significant error rate. The notion that remote workers, sitting in distant cube farms, were going to police medical information to this granular degree is absurd on its face.
- Most importantly, the buck stopped with higher level employees at Twitter. They chose the inputs for the bots and decision trees. They determined suspensions. And as is the case with all people and institutions, there was both individual and collective bias.
At Twitter, Covid-related bias bent heavily toward establishment dogmas. Inevitably, dissident yet legitimate content was labeled as misinformation, and the accounts of doctors and others were suspended both for tweeting opinions and demonstrably true information.
Data that was factual, but contradicted the CDC, was classes as “misinformation”. Moderators flagged tweets with information that was correct, because they themselves were biased towards certain kinds of misinformation.
A tweet by @KelleyKga, a self-proclaimed public health fact checker with more than 18,000 followers, was flagged as “misleading,” and replies and likes disabled, for showing that Covid was not the leading cause of death in children, even though it cited the CDC’s own data.
Internal records showed that a bot had flagged the tweet, and that it received many “tattles” (what the system amusingly called reports from users). That triggered a manual review by a human who—despite the tweet showing actual CDC data—nevertheless labeled it “misleading.” Tellingly, the tweet by @KelleyKga that was labeled “misleading” was a reply to a tweet that contained actual misinformation.
This tweet by @KelleyKga was labelled “misleading” (image source: The Free Press)
Even not being sufficiently afraid of the virus was seen as a potentially actionable misstep by some people at Twitter:
In a surreal exchange, Jim Baker, at the time Twitter’s Deputy General Counsel, asks why telling people to not be afraid wasn’t a violation of Twitter’s Covid-19 misinformation policy. In his reply, Yoel Roth, Twitter’s former head of Trust & Safety, had to explain that optimism wasn’t misinformation.
Trump’s dangerously fearless tweet (image source: The Free Press)
The bottom line of Twitter’s response during the pandemic:
Throughout the pandemic, Twitter repeatedly propped up the official government line that prioritizing mitigation over other concerns was the best approach to the pandemic. Information that challenged that view – for example, that pointed out the low risk children faced from the virus, or that raised questions about vaccine safety or effectiveness – was subject to moderation and suppression.
If that isn’t the very definition of being an unofficial propaganda department of the government, then I don’t know what is.
Twitter Manipulated the Discourse around Vaccines at the Behest of Companies
What is even worse than Twitter doing the government’s propaganda work, though, is when they started doing the same for multi-billion-dollar private companies. This is the aforementioned Alex Berenson, reporting on how Pfizer manipulated the public discourse on Twitter around their vaccines:
On August 27, 2021, Dr. Scott Gottlieb - a Pfizer director with over 550,000 Twitter followers - saw a tweet he didn’t like, a tweet that might hurt sales of Pfizer’s mRNA vaccines. The tweet explained correctly that natural immunity after Covid infection was superior to vaccine protection. It called on the White House to “follow the science” and exempt people with natural immunity from upcoming vaccine mandates. It came not from an “anti-vaxxer” like Robert F. Kennedy Jr., but from Dr. Brett Giroir, a physician who had briefly followed Gottlieb as the head of the Food & Drug Administration. Further, the tweet actually encouraged people who did not have natural immunity to “Get vaccinated!”
By suggesting some people might not need Covid vaccinations, the tweet could raise questions about the shots. Besides being former FDA commissioner, a CNBC contributor, and a prominent voice on Covid public policy, Gottlieb was a senior board member at Pfizer, which depended on mRNA jabs for almost half its $81 billion in sales in 2021. Pfizer paid Gottlieb $365,000 for his work that year.
For reference: Pfizer made $36.8 billion in 2021 and $37.8 billion in 2022 from their SARS-CoV-2 vaccine.
Gottlieb stepped in, emailing Todd O’Boyle, a top lobbyist in Twitter’s Washington office who was also Twitter’s point of contact with the White House. The post was “corrosive,” Gottlieb wrote. He worried it would “end up going viral and driving news coverage.”
Through Jira, an internal system Twitter used for managing complaints, O’Boyle forwarded Gottlieb’s email to the Twitter “Strategic Response” team. That group was responsible for handling concerns from the company’s most important employees and users. “Please see this report from the former FDA commissioner,” O’Boyle wrote - failing to mention that Gottlieb was a Pfizer board member with a financial interest in pushing mRNA shots.
A Strategic Response analyst quickly found the tweet did not violate any of the company’s misinformation rules. Yet Twitter wound up flagging Giroir’s tweet anyway, putting a misleading tag on it and preventing almost anyone from seeing it. It remains tagged even though several large studies have confirmed the truth of Giroir’s words.
Since it worked the first time, the Pfizer man tried again:
A week later, on Sept. 3, 2021, Gottlieb tried to strike again, complaining to O’Boyle about a tweet from Justin Hart. Hart is a lockdown and Covid vaccine skeptic with more than 100,000 Twitter followers. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but a viral pathogen with a child mortality rate of <>0% has cost our children nearly three years of schooling,” Hart had written.
Why Gottlieb objected to Hart’s words is not clear, but the Pfizer shot would soon be approved for children 5 to 11, representing another massive market for Pfizer, if parents could be convinced Covid was a real threat to their kids. O’Boyle referred to “former FDA Commissioner Gottlieb” when he forwarded the report, again ignoring Gottlieb’s current work for Pfizer.
At least Twitter resisted this second attempt.
This time, though, Gottlieb’s complaint was so far afield that Twitter refused to act.
This kind of corruption is very much on-brand for Pfizer, of course. But the whole episode has gone pretty much unnoticed in the legacy press and thus, much of the public is not aware of it. Thanks to the mainstream press' resistance to covering The Twitter Files, companies like Pfizer and dirty deeds like this are protected from public scrutiny.
Gottlieb is not just a Pfizer board member. He is one of seven members of the board’s executive committee and the head of its regulatory and compliance committee, which oversees “compliance with laws, regulations, and internal procedures applicable to pharmaceutical sales and marketing activities.”
Pfizer has a long history of violating drug industry laws and ethics rules. In 2009, it agreed to pay $2.3 billion, the largest health care fraud settlement in American history, for fraudulently marketing several drugs. In 1996, it conducted a clinical trial of an antibiotic in Nigeria in which 11 children died and which became the inspiration for John le Carre’s novel The Constant Gardner.
→ See also: The Constant Gardner, novel by John le Carré.
Censoring True Stories Because They Are Inconvenient
In a more recent Twitter Files thread, Matt Taibbi elaborated on the organised social media censorship of stories that were actually true and were reported by reliable sources.
To understand what is actually going on here, one has to first understand the twisted language that is employed by the people engaged in this censorship effort. Three terms, and the distinctions between them, are most important.
- Disinformation is false information that is deliberately spread to deceive people. Which means the information is wrong and the people who are spreading it are doing it on purpose.
- Misinformation is incorrect or misleading information that isn’t necessarily deliberately deceptive. This means the information in itself can be correct or wrong or simply unverified and/or unverifiable. It can be spread originally by people who believe it to be true or don’t care whether it is true or not.
- Malinformation is information that is true and factual, but it is intentionally conveyed in order to inflict actual harm or cause the imminent threat of actual harm. This is what Al Gore might have called an inconvenient truth.
The third term is the actual cracker here. It is a bullshit term created to blend in with the first two and designed to negate the impact of facts that are inconvenient to a propaganda story. The whole idea that factual information can cause harm is idiotic. People who argue things like that are in themselves an actual threat to democracy. Only unjust governments, totalitarian regimes and corrupt despots fear the truth.
But as Taibbi discovered, Twitter and other social networks censored a hell of a lot of malinformation on the behest of the US government and associated organisations, initially under the guise of fighting disinformation. Funnily enough, they stopped pretending at some point (right around when the pandemic hit) and freely admitted they were censoring the truth because powerful people and organisations found it to run against their interests. This in itself is quite mind boggling.
It all centres around the story of the, ironically named, Virality Project.
“The release of Dr. Anthony Fauci’s Spring 2020 emails… has been used to exacerbate distrust in Dr. Fauci. Increased distrust in Fauci’s expert guidance. Reports of vaccinated individuals contracting Covid-19 anyway”; “natural immunity”; suggesting Covid-19 “leaked from a lab”; even “worrisome jokes” – All were characterized as “potential violations” or disinformation “events” by the Virality Project, a sweeping, cross-platform effort to monitor billons of social media posts by Stanford University, federal agencies, and a slew of (often state-funded) NGOs.
Just before Michael Shellenberger and I testified in the House last week, Virality Project emails were found in the #TwitterFiles describing “stories of true vaccine side effects” as actionable content. We’ve since learned the Virality Project in 2021 worked with government to launch a pan-industry monitoring plan for Covid-related content. At least six major Internet platforms were “onboarded” to the same JIRA ticketing system, daily sending millions of items for review.
I will look at this central censorship JIRA in a dedicated future episode of the podcast.
Though the Virality Project reviewed content on a mass scale for Twitter, Google/YouTube, Facebook/Instagram, Medium, TikTok, and Pinterest, it knowingly targeted true material and legitimate political opinion, while often being factually wrong itself.
This story is important for two reasons. One, as Orwellian proof-of-concept, the Virality Project was a smash success. Government, academia, and an oligopoly of would-be corporate competitors organized quickly behind a secret, unified effort to control political messaging. Two, it accelerated the evolution of digital censorship, moving it from judging truth/untruth to a new, scarier model, openly focused on political narrative at the expense of fact.
What amazes me the most about this story is that universities like Stanford are involved in this effort to censor facts on behalf of the government. That is precisely the opposite of what the goals of a university should be. A university is supposed to promote science and learning, not to actively fight it. Up until now, such behaviour has only been exhibited by religious institutions masking as actual universities and only on matters of religion. Now, it seems, propaganda in academia has become a political project and much more commonplace.
On February 5, 2021, just after Joe Biden took office, Stanford wrote to Twitter to discuss the Virality Project. By the 17th, Twitter agreed to join and got its first weekly report on “anti-vax disinformation,” which contained numerous true stories. On February 22, 2021, Stanford welcomed Twitter veterans like Yoel Roth and Brian Clarke, instructing them on how to join the group JIRA system.
March 2, 2021: “We are beginning to ramp up our notification process to platforms.” In addition to the top-7 platforms, VP soon gained “visibility” to “alternative platforms such as Gab, Parler, Telegram, and Gettr” – near-total surveillance of the social media landscape.
Through July of 2020, Twitter’s internal guidance on Covid-19 required a story be “demonstrably false” or contain an “assertion of fact” to be actioned. But the Virality Project, in partnership with the CDC, pushed different standards. It told Twitter that “true stories that could fuel hesitancy,” including things like “celebrity deaths after vaccine” or the closure of a central NY school due to reports of post-vaccine illness, should be considered “Standard Vaccine Misinformation on Your Platform.”
In one email to Twitter, VP addressed what it called the “vaccine passport narrative,” saying “concerns” over such programs “have driven a larger anti-vaccination narrative about the loss of rights and freedoms.” This was framed as a “misinformation” event. VP routinely framed real testimonials about side effects as misinformation, from “true stories” of blood clots from AstraZeneca vaccines to a New York Times story about vaccine recipients who contracted the blood disorder thrombocytopenia.
By March of 2021, Twitter personnel were aping VP language, describing “campaigns against vaccine passports,” “fear of mandatory immunizations,” and “misuse of official reporting tools” as “potential violations.”
But the censorship wasn’t only driven by what was actually posted. These people also censored tweets based on how they were received.
The Virality Project helped pioneer the gauging of “disinformation” by audience response. If the post-vaccine death of a black woman named Drene Keyes in Virginia went unnoticed and inspired mostly “anti-vaccine” comments on local media, it became a “disinformation” event.
Even asking questions is bad now. Because people who ask questions might be “spreaders of misinformation.”
VP warned against people “just asking questions,” implying it was a tactic “commonly used by spreaders of misinformation.” It also described a “Worldwide Rally for Freedom planned over Telegram” as a disinformation event. It encouraged platforms to target people, not posts, using Minority Report-style “pre-crime” logic. Describing “repeat offenders” like Robert Kennedy, Jr., it spoke of a “large volume of content that is almost always reportable.”
VP was repeatedly, extravagantly wrong. In one email to Twitter on “misinformation,” it spoke of wanting to “hone in” on an “increasingly popular narrative about natural immunity.” The VP in April 2021 mistakenly described “breakthrough” infections as “extremely rare events” that should not be inferred to mean “vaccines are ineffective.” Later, when “the CDC changed its methodology for counting Covid-19 cases among vaccinated people,” only counting those resulting in hospitalization or death, VP complained that “anti-vaccine” accounts RFK Jr. and “WhatsHerFace” retweeted the story to suggest “hypocrisy.” A few months later: “Breakthrough cases are happening.”
These people even censored absolutely true suspicions from social media users who, correctly, suspected what was going on.
In a chilling irony, the VP ran searches for the term “surveillance state.” As an unaccountable state-partnered bureaucracy secretly searched it out, the idea that “vaccines are part of a surveillance state” won its own thoughtcrime bucket: “conspiracy.”
Obviously, the spies had to be involved.
After about a year, on April 26, 2022, the VP issued a report calling for a “rumor-control mechanism to address nationally trending narratives,” and a “Misinformation and Disinformation Center of Excellence” to be housed within CISA, at the Department of Homeland Security.
As Taibbi always points out, CISA is a hilarious acronym because it has the word “security” in there twice: Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
Even in its final report, VP claimed it was misinformation to suggest the vaccine does not prevent transmission, or that governments are planning to introduce vaccine passports. Both things turned out to be true. The Virality Project was specifically not based on “assertions of fact,” but public submission to authority, acceptance of narrative, and pronouncements by figures like Anthony Fauci. The project’s central/animating concept was, “You can’t handle the truth.”
All of this is an outgrowth of a disgustingly patronising attitude shared by certain bureaucrats and people on Twitter who are convinced they are more intelligent than the rest of the world. It’s actively hostile to democracy in its corrosiveness. After all, democracy is founded on the very idea that adult citizens make informed decisions about who is to lead them.
One of the Virality Project’s four core partners, Pentagon-funded Graphika, explained in a report about “Fauxi” that because the public cannot be trusted to make judgements on its own, it must be shielded from truths that might undermine its faith in authority.
“This continual process of seeding doubt and uncertainty in authoritative voices,” Graphika wrote, in a report sent to Twitter, “leads to a society that finds it too challenging to identify what’s true or false.” For this reason, the CDC-partnered project focused often on disinformation “events” involving Fauci, saying “release of Fauci’s emails foments distrust,” and deriding assertions he “misled the public.”
The Virality Project communications mirror those produced in the recent court case Louisiana vs Biden, which showed Facebook admitting to the WHO that it, too, was censoring true content.
Maybe, just maybe, the public finds it too challenging to identify what’s true or false because people like you keep censoring the actual truth!
VP’s partners: DOD-funded Graphika, the National Science Foundation funded Center for an Informed Public (CIP), the GEC-funded DFRLab, and the NYU Center for Social Media and Politics, or CSMaP. VP would later say it partnered with “several government agencies,” including the Office of the Surgeon General and the CDC. It reportedly also worked with DHS’s CISA (Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency) and GEC, among others.
To recap: America’s information mission went from counterterrorism abroad, to stopping “foreign interference” from reaching domestic audiences, to 80% domestic content, much of it true. The “Disinformation Governance Board” is out; but truth-policing is not.
In future episodes, I will continue to cover The Twitter Files and this new censorship-industrial complex that emerged after the election of Donald Trump.
As this episode is pre-recorded and pretty long already, I will cover your feedback in the next episode.
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