Discover more from Infonomena by Bret Swanson
Censorship at Scale
At least 45 government officials collaborated with Big Tech to push bogus narratives, smear good doctors, and stifle life-saving information.
On Thursday, the attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana produced stunning evidence of the broadest American censorship scheme of the Internet era, and possibly in the nation’s history.
With their fellow plaintiffs, Drs. Jay Bhattacharya, Martin Kulldorff, and Aaron Kheriaty, the AGs published initial discovery in a lawsuit against the U.S. government, showing at least 45 government officials in a dozen agencies colluded with social media firms to manipulate the discourse over Covid-19. These were no mere public service announcements (PSAs). They were requests and demands, delivered in weekly and monthly meetings, to warn against, downrank, and erase third-party voices and information they didn’t like.
The newly discovered documents elevate an already worrisome pattern of censorious behavior into an historically grave assault on the First Amendment.
Remember that on August 5, we covered a smaller batch of CDC documents which confirmed the U.S. government is coercing and colluding with social media to censor users and information. We were responding to a new essay which asserted free speech worries are overblown because there is no government-social media nexus.
A week later, journalist Alex Berenson released emails and texts, obtained through his lawsuit against Twitter, showing the White House explicitly (and successfully) urged Twitter to shut down his popular account. Then, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg told podcaster Joe Rogan that in the weeks leading up to the 2020 election, the FBI warned Facebook to lookout for, and to suppress, explosive derogatory “disinformation” about one of the candidates. The information was true, but Facebook, Twitter, and others blocked it anyway, citing the authority of 50 former intelligence officials – yet another quasi-government nexus.
Now, we are learning these numerous examples of message-control are not isolated. They have metastasized into what the AGs, citing the Secretary of Homeland Security’s own words, are calling a government-wide “Censorship Enterprise.”
Secretary Mayorkas of DHS commented that the federal Government’s efforts to police private speech on social media are occurring “across the federal enterprise.”
Dr. Kheriaty, a plaintiff in the case who was fired from the University of California for questioning its incoherent Covid policies, sums up the bombshell legal brief and discovery documents here.
I suspected all this was happening but didn’t imagine the sheer scope — the breadth, depth, and coordination….To see this evidence on the page, which we know is just the tip of the iceberg, is simply shocking — and I’m not an easy person to shock.
This is no mere partisan game. In the last several years, censorship and propaganda have eroded the ability of citizens to discuss and understand the world, and to make sound decisions, both individually and collectively.
The Great American Firewall
Wasn’t the Internet supposed to have just the opposite effect? How did the Internet turn so quickly from an open platform of liberation to one of stifling conformity (at least on some topics)? I think the exponential power of billions of always-on, hyper-connected smartphones was too much for governments to handle. The Internet’s ability to circumvent the narrative comfort of legacy media was, as Martin Gurri persuasively argues, a dire threat to authorities everywhere. Too many voices, too much chaos. Brexit, Trump – these threats were unpredictable and thus unacceptable. Authorities cracked down on dissonant messages and dissident voices using the very technologies that promised decentralized speech.
During last century’s world wars, thousands of ‘censors’ read the mail of soldiers for sensitive information. The government of course nudged newspapers and TV broadcasters to publish this or avoid that. Yet, most large cities had two or more opposing newspapers, and a thousand periodicals filled in many gaps of interest and viewpoint. As Big Media calcified and old newspapers evaporated, the Internet exploded with new voices on blogs, and then on social media – YouTube, Twitter, Facebook. Low quality content proliferated, but so did ultra-high-quality content. And subversive content. Online outlets became our chief sources of news. Thousands of new experts emerged to illuminate and entertain on every topic imaginable. This was great for content consumers and new creators, but terrible for authorities and legacy content producers.
China was already grappling with the the same dilemma. Over the last two decades the Great Chinese Firewall offered a glimpse of censorship possibilities in the hyperlinked digital age – banning access to words, themes, voices, and historical events on ubiquitous handheld information machines. Hyper-connected platforms can let a billion flowers bloom, but they are also vulnerable to a central actor who flips a single switch. As I argued in the Wall Street Journal last summer,
In the past, large firms might have exerted market power. But today, hyperscale digital and financial platforms have access to, and can manipulate, information at governmental scale. They can also impose rules in a broader way than ever before.
For many years, we criticized China’s draconian info-crackdown. Now, for the first time, a Western government is turning potentially liberating information technologies against its own citizens. We are emulating China. This is censorship at scale.
There may have been an unintended side effect, however: I’ve argued these practices boomeranged on the censors and other members of the illiberal fantasy class in government, media, academia, and big business, causing a dysinformation disorder of ignorance and delusional certitude among our supposed leaders. Washington D.C. has become one of the planet’s most malinformed locales.
Catastrophically bad management of the Covid-19 pandemic is in large part the result of censorship. Drs. Fauci, Birx, Walensky, and hundreds of other public health officials failed to do any science. In the most charitable reading, they didn’t learn as new data and better analysis suggested different courses of action. Their own censorship blinded them. They either weren’t exposed to, or could easily ignore, alternative views. The result was higher all-cause mortality in 2021, and in the first half of 2022, compared to the pandemic year of 2020, not to mention an inflationary economic meltdown.
(A new column in Slate, excerpted by the Wall Street Journal editorial page, repeats the common criticism of Dr. Fauci that he was a flip-flopper. I think that gets it backward. If only Fauci had reversed course on more bad policies sooner – lockdowns, early treatment denial, vaccine mandates – we’d all be better off. Ironically, in his two most famous early takes – masks don’t work and the virus was likely engineered – he was probably right the first time! His initial flips were right and his later flops were wrong.)
Even if the Covid managers’ mistakes were the result of ideology or avarice, instead of ignorance, there’s usually another error-correcting solution. In an open society, broadly distributed information and robust discussion would have highlighted better options for organizational leaders and voters and allowed them to change direction. Instead, without that free-flowing discussion, we got hubris among public health officials and politicians and fearful paralysis everywhere else.
You can see White House officials boasting publicly of their bullying behavior in real time. Here’s former Covid coordinator Andy Slavitt, for example, in August 2021, when the government was ramping up pressure on vaccine mandates.
Slavitt’s private communications with Big Tech appear in both the Berenson and AG discovery documents.
A few weeks before, on July 16, 2021, President Biden complained that social media firms were “killing people” by not enforcing vaccine message orthodoxy. Facebook immediately asked the White House how they could do better, and soon after, Twitter suspended Berenson’s account.
One year later, Berenson is finally back on Twitter, but his reinstatement via legal settlement has not chastened Big Tech. They are still banning experts and posting moronic warning labels. Recently, social media censored two mild-mannered British physicians; Twitter suspended Dr. Clare Craig, and YouTube removed two videos of Dr. John Campbell. Watch a few videos of Dr. Craig or Dr. Campbell, and tell me if you think they are threats or gifted, even-handed medical educators.
Even if courts force the government to halt its clear-cut censorship, Big Tech and their non-governmental collaborators are unlikely to relent. They will continue enforcing approved storylines without explicit government collaboration. They will always stay two or three steps ahead of any efforts to sue or regulate our way to fair play and free speech. Aggressive expansion of alternatives to Big Media, Big Tech, network infrastructure, and basic economic platforms is thus imperative.
See more analysis of censorship and Covid policy:
New CDC Documents Amplify the Social Dilemma – Infonomena – August 5, 2022
Social Media Malpractice: Replying to Caplan on misinformation – Infonomena – May 31, 2022
Dysinformation: How the exaflood caused an information sickness – Infonomena – May 13, 2022
How the war on ‘misinformation’ propelled the Covid cataclysm – RealClearMarkets – February 4, 2022
As rationale for total vaccination sputters, censorship soars – RealClearMarkets – September 20, 2021
Our series of articles on Free Speech and Disinformation going back to 2018.