Some viewpoints about COVID-19 are being censored, especially by tech companies such as Facebook and Google. Some of those being censored are calling foul. To understand more about struggles over information about Covid, it is useful to look at tactics used to either reduce or increase outrage over censorship.  … [please read below the rest of the article].
Martin, Brian. 2021. “Covid Information Struggles.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 10 (7): 16-26. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-60H.
🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.
The advent of Covid has led to a proliferation of disputes over knowledge claims. These include disagreements about the origin of the new coronavirus, treatments of the disease, the effectiveness and risks of vaccines, and the effectiveness and politics of control measures such as lockdowns and masks. However, these disputes have not been carried out on a level playing field due to censorship of views contrary to those supported by medical and government authorities.
Censorship has a long history. What is new in the Covid era is the prominent role played by information technology companies such as Facebook and Google. Traditionally, the focus in analyses of censorship has been government, with industry attempts to control the information environment given less attention (Jansen 1988). But the role of big tech is hard to ignore in any examination of struggles over availability of information about Covid.
There are various rationales for restricting access to information, for example national security, public health, privacy and defamation. In contrast, those favouring greater access cite the benefits of learning from open debate and of enhanced citizen participation in policy-relevant issues.
Here, in relation to Covid, my focus is on tactics used in struggles over information access, without making a prior judgement about whether censorship is a good idea. Specific attention is given to how players try to institute or resist censorship.
To draw attention to censorship is not to endorse the views being censored, nor to shield them from vigorous criticism. The usual alternative to censorship is open discussion and debate, under the assumption that many audience members are intelligent enough to make reasonable judgements.
In the next section, I give an overview of a framework for understanding tactics for reducing or increasing public outrage over censorship. After this, I give examples of censorship of claims about Covid and then examine a particular front in the censorship arena, that concerning the so-called “Disinformation Dozen.” This analysis points to effective and ineffective tactics for both censors and their opponents. In conclusion, I offer a few reflections on epistemology.
Tactics of Censorship Outrage Management
When a powerful group does something that people perceive as harmful, unjust or inappropriate, this can trigger public outrage. Examples include sexual harassment, police beatings, oil spills and massacres. Perpetrators can try to prevent or reduce this outrage using a range of methods, which can be classified into five types.
• Cover up the action.
• Devalue the target.
• Reinterpret what happened, including by lying, minimising, blaming and framing.
• Use official channels to give an appearance of justice.
• Intimidate or reward people involved.
These techniques have been documented in a wide range of injustices, from dismissals of academics to warfare (Martin 2007).
Because censorship is widely seen negatively, those who undertake it may use these techniques to reduce concern (Jansen and Martin 2003, 2004, 2015). Consider for example the legal action taken by McDonald’s against five members of the activist group London Greenpeace over the group’s leaflet “What’s wrong with McDonald’s? Everything they don’t want you to know” (Vidal 1997).
• McDonald’s hid its infiltration of London Greenpeace. It did not publicise its threat to sue five members of the group. However, after its legal action for defamation was made public, it used other methods to reduce outrage.
• McDonald’s framed the legal action as defence of its reputation.
• McDonald’s used a formal channel, the legal system, to mount its attack on the authors of the leaflet.
• McDonald’s’ threat to sue was intimidating and caused three of the five members to give in.
McDonald’s had a long history of threatening legal action against anyone who came in its way, and most of its targets acquiesced (Donson 2000). This history was little known to the general public. Thus, cover-up and intimidation usually served to limit public outrage from heavy-handed legal behaviour. However, two of the members of London Greenpeace, Helen Steel and Dave Morris, decided to fight McDonald’s in court, changing the usual dynamic.
To counter the five techniques for reducing outrage, targets can use five counter-techniques.
• Expose the action.
• Validate the target.
• Interpret the action as an injustice.
• Avoid official channels; instead, mobilise public support.
• Resist intimidation and rewards.
To counter McDonald’s’ tactics for reducing outrage, Steel, Morris and their many supporters used all of these counter-tactics. They publicised the legal action, called the defamation action censorship and organised a huge campaign. Steel and Morris were hard to discredit because they were ordinary workers with nothing to gain from the case.
McDonald’s offered to drop the legal action if Steel and Morris would accept a silencing agreement, but they refused. This is an example of McDonald’s trying to cover up and Steel and Morris preferring exposure rather than a reward.
The legal case was the longest running in British history. McDonald’s won in court—the official channel—but it was a massive public relations disaster and became a warning to other companies to beware of legal action that could backfire.
The McLibel case, as it is known, can be considered an instance of censorship backfire. It illustrates the techniques available to powerful censors and the counter-techniques available to their targets. The same techniques and counter-techniques can be found in the struggle over expression of heterodox views about Covid.
Censorship of Covid-Related Information
For some years, online advocates of “natural health” and “holistic medicine” have been complaining about censorship by tech companies. Sayer Ji (2019a), founder of GreenMedInfo, reported on a series of issues, including deleting accounts and bans from websites. Ji (2019b) claimed that Google was manipulating its search results. He noted that his site, plus others with related content, lost a large fraction of their usual traffic due to Google searches and inferred that Google had changed its algorithm with this intent.
Another facet of his analysis was that Google manipulated its auto-complete function. When a user starts typing in characters for a search, Google suggests possible options, supposedly based on what users search for most commonly. According to Ji (2019c), these auto-complete suggestions sometimes came up with strings that, according to Google’s own statistics, were hardly ever used. Ji’s inference was that Google was intervening to reduce traffic to his and other sites whose content was deemed unwelcome.
What is important to note here is that Google did not announce changing its search and auto-complete algorithms in order to make certain sites less visible. If there is some version of censorship involved, Google has done what it can to hide its role.
These complaints about censorship preceded the pandemic. They provide a useful background for appreciating censorship of information about Covid.
Beginning in early 2020, there was an upsurge of complaints by groups presenting heterodox views that they have been censored, with even more complaints in 2021 following Covid vaccine rollouts. Many instances involve removal of accounts (“deplatforming”) or blocking visibility of a user’s content without informing them (“shadow banning”).
Many scientists and doctors signed the Great Barrington Declaration, supporting an alternative strategy for dealing with Covid. According to Myers (2020), Google altered its search algorithm to downrank the declaration. In February 2021, Facebook deleted a page set up by a group of scientists involved with the declaration (Rankovic 2021). In March 2021 Facebook removed the longstanding page of the National Vaccine Information Center (Attkisson 2021a, b). Facebook deleted a group whose members told of adverse reactions to vaccines (Parker 2021). Twitter deleted the account of GreenMedInfo (Ji 2021). Instagram removed the account of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. for sharing claims about vaccines or the coronavirus (Iyengar 2021). In 2020, the research-networking site ResearchGate removed physicist Denis Rancourt’s heavily-downloaded article about facemasks (Rancourt 2020); in 2021, it banned him entirely (Jones 2021). Twitter locked Doctors for Covid Ethics (2021) out of its account until specific tweets were deleted. These are just some of the many examples where public information is available; there are also others that are not publicised.
Facebook did announce its plan to remove false claims about Covid (Rosen 2021). However, in most cases neither Facebook nor other companies have publicised their actions against specific groups. This can be classified as using the technique of cover-up to reduce outrage from censorship. It has been left to those whose accounts are cancelled to object and complain. As a rule, the tech companies have not offered groups an opportunity to respond to concerns about their material. Rather, without warning, entire accounts are closed.
There are reports that two Facebook employees anonymously reported on Facebook’s plan to censor information that might contribute to vaccine hesitancy (Bunyan 2021). Whistleblowing is commonly used to expose information that organisation managers would prefer to keep secret.
Although the companies are the main ones taking down accounts, they may be acting under pressure, or perhaps anticipating pressure. The US government has liaised with Facebook, Twitter and Google to limit visibility of vaccine-critical social media (Bose 2021; O’Neill 2021).
Given that it is relatively easy for tech companies to hide or downplay their censoring activities, they may not feel it necessary to use other techniques to reduce outrage. Therefore, to get a better sense of the full range of tactics in this domain, it is useful to turn to an example in which the attempt to censor was more overt.
“The Disinformation Dozen”
On 24 March 2021, a group called the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), in conjunction with Anti-Vax Watch, published a 40-page document titled “The Disinformation Dozen.” According to the document, “The Disinformation Dozen are twelve anti-vaxxers who play leading roles in spreading digital misinformation about Covid vaccines” (CCDH 2021a, 5). The authors say that Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are not doing enough to remove the accounts of these “anti-vaxxers.” They say that “The most effective and efficient way to stop the dissemination of harmful information is to deplatform the most highly visible repeat offenders, who we term the Disinformation Dozen.” (See also CCDH 2021b.)
This call led to some media coverage (Bond 2021; Smith and Reiss 2021). It also led some of those targeted by the CCDH to respond. The call to deplatform groups provides a revealing example of outrage-management tactics used in relation to Covid.
There is a complication in this analysis of outrage management tactics: CCDH’s main complaint is about Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, castigating them for not removing the “Disinformation Dozen” from their platforms. CCDH thus is advocating censorship but is not directly a censor. The censorship tactics involved in the clash between CCDH and its nominated dozen individuals are easier to recognise than those involved in interactions between online platforms and those whose content is hosted or removed.
With that context, now consider tactics used by the CCDH and those who supported its call.
Cover-Up CCDH explicitly calls for censorship, so this is not hidden. However, not very much information is publicly available about CCDH itself, for example its members, their affiliations, and sources of funding. The call for censorship comes from a group about which there is less than full information.
Devaluation The label “Disinformation Dozen” is the most obvious derogatory label. “Disinformation” refers to conscious deception and is often associated with government covert operations. CCDH’s name, Center for Countering Digital Hate, implies that those called “The Disinformation Dozen” are involved in “digital hate,” again a derogatory label.
Reinterpretation The rationale given by CCDH is that “… researchers are increasingly connecting misinformation disseminated via social media to increased vaccine hesitancy, which will ultimately cause unnecessary deaths” due to Covid (CCDH 2021a, 4). This involves blaming, namely of the purveyors of “misinformation,” and reframing, namely seeing information control as a matter of public health.
Official Channels The CCDH does not mention appeal procedures nor any other way of redressing actions taken in response to its claims, should they be mistaken. Tech companies have processes for appealing against removal of accounts. Some observers believe these are deficient or just window dressing. (See Quinn 2017, 125–145) for a discussion in another context.)
Intimidation To post names of individuals and call for action to be taken against them is a type of intimidation, commonly called doxxing. It singles out individuals in a way that implicitly invites harassment by others.
Joseph Mercola, one of those listed among the “Disinformation Dozen”, later removed material from his website on specific topics. He wrote:
Unfortunately, threats have now become very personal and have intensified to the point I can no longer preserve much of the information and research I’ve provided to you thus far. These threats are not legal in nature, and I have limited ability to defend myself against them. If you can imagine what billionaires and their front groups are capable of, I can assure you they have been creative in deploying their assets to have this content removed (Mercola 2021).
In summary, CCDH’s effort to encourage censorship of the online presence of twelve individuals uses several types of methods to reduce public outrage: devaluation, reinterpretation and intimidation. The role of official channels is less clear, and only some aspects of CCDH’s initiative were hidden. The most striking divergence of CCDH’s effort from the frequently observed tactics to reduce outrage was its high visibility. This became its greatest vulnerability, as seen by a look at responses to CCDH.
Exposure The individuals singled out as the “Disinformation Dozen” immediately raised alarm about the attack on their online operations. Even Joseph Mercola, quoted above acquiescing to threats, continued to declaim against CCDH.
Validation Those subject to CCDH’s labelling responded by portraying themselves as superheroes who are “fighting the war against disinformation” (Dis-Information Dozen 2021). They portray themselves as presenting information and their critics, notably CCDH, as purveying disinformation. They regularly refer to their use of findings published in scientific journals, thus associating themselves with science, an esteemed enterprise.
Interpretation The individuals refer to CCDH’s efforts as censorship and refer to their own efforts to present factual material for interested readers.
Redirection To counter censorship, targets should be wary of official channels and instead mobilise support. The individuals targeted by CCDH coordinated a public response, seeking to mobilise their supporters. The attack may have brought these individuals into a stronger alliance than before: by giving them a shared interest in defence against attack, they are likely to be more willing to help each other in a common cause.
Resistance Most of the targeted individuals did not succumb, but openly stated their rejection of the claims about them.
In summary, the individuals targeted by CCDH took measures that countered all the tactics commonly used to reduce outrage from censorship. The upshot is that CCDH’s initiative may have backfired to some extent, generating greater interest in its targets and helping them to become more cohesive and active.
For many of those involved, information about Covid is seen as a precious resource, to be carefully curated or made widely available, depending on the information and the goals of those seeking to influence its distribution. My focus has been on the tactics used by various players to shape the information environment, more particularly to restrict certain material from reaching wider audiences or to enable its distribution. On a purely tactical level, those with the most power have greater opportunities to control the agenda but are limited in exercising this control by the persistence of their opponents—such as those seen as purveyors of “disinformation”—and the availability of many channels of online communication. If this information struggle occurred only in scientific journals and the mass media, it would be much more unbalanced, as can be seen for example in the mass media coverage of the lab-leak theory. The availability of online media means that views deviating from orthodoxy have outlets that are less subject to the traditional forms of gatekeeping by editors of journals and newspapers. This leads to the prominent role of tech companies such as Facebook and Google in enabling or restricting information flow. Because they can become censors, and often silent and effective ones, they become the target of pressure, sometimes insider pressure from governments and corporations and sometimes public pressure such as from the Center for Countering Digital Hate.
From a tactical perspective, often the most effective tactic used by powerful censors to reduce outrage from their actions is cover-up: if people aren’t aware of censorship, they are not upset about it. Targets of censorship can counter cover-up by exposing it. To counter devaluation, they can also try to increase their status, for example by associating their claims with science. To counter reinterpretation, they can name actions taken against them as censorship. They should not rely on official channels such as complaint procedures but instead mobilise support. Finally, to counter intimidation, at least some of them need to resist rather than acquiesce.
This analysis of tactics only indirectly points to the interests involved in claims and counterclaims about Covid. Groups with interests include governments, scientists (including those doing research on treatments and vaccines), pharmaceutical companies, and businesses and individuals affected by control measures. How they affect struggles over Covid information is a much wider matter. So is the way that audiences seek and evaluate information about Covid.
From the point of view of generating and validating knowledge, does it really matter whether tech companies reduce the visibility of certain views? After all, it can be argued, this only affects public perceptions of knowledge processes taking place elsewhere. Therefore, it should be fine to manipulate the public understanding of medical science and medical advice in the interests of public health.
A contrary view is that struggles over Covid knowledge in the public domain, such as over the “Disinformation Dozen,” are an integral part of wider epistemological struggles. As shown by decades of research on the history, psychology, sociology and politics of science, the search for knowledge is not a purely rational and disinterested enterprise, but is shaped by all-too-human passions, biases and conflicts of interest, in a struggle with many facets. Facebook, Google and other tech companies are part of this struggle, and both reflect and affect pressures in other domains.
Consider for example the debates over the origin of Covid. Initially, the lab-leak hypothesis was condemned by leading scientists as scientifically implausible and was tainted through its association with Donald Trump. More than a year into the pandemic, a number of scientists and commentators asserted that the hypothesis had more credibility (e.g., Wade 2021). In response, Facebook stated that it was no longer removing or downgrading material about the hypothesis (Barrabi 2021). Facebook’s turnaround revealed its role in shaping perceptions of Covid-origin claims. It is plausible that if those concerned about the possibility of a lab leak had earlier gained more visibility, there might have been a timelier investigation, before information was destroyed or individuals were silenced. It might also have led to greater calls to end gain-of-function research on viruses, which has had and continues to hold the possibility of causing yet another pandemic.
Similar considerations apply to disputes over treatments, vaccines and control measures. With freer access to claims about non-orthodox treatments, there might have been pressure for more research into a wide variety of treatment regimes, including with nonpatentable substances. The tech companies might be said to have contributed to “undone science” (Hess 2016); namely, research that is not pursued or disseminated as much as it might be because the findings might be unwelcome to powerful groups. In relation to control measures, the silencing of scientists and citizens who object to the standard approaches adopted by most governments—such as the Great Barrington Declaration (Kulldorff, Gupta, and Bhattacharya 2020)—has contributed to what might be called “undone social science.” It is possible to imagine that early in the pandemic, different sorts of interventions could have been tested in control and experimental communities with the aim of obtaining data that could potentially protect the lives of billions of people worldwide. Instead, there seems to have been no attempt to experimentally test, on a significantly scale, the measures adopted by governments.
The investigation of censorship struggles over Covid-related information provides a convenient entry into the wider struggles over Covid knowledge and policy. There is much at stake. On the one side are those who argue that claims challenging government policies are dangerous and therefore censorship is justified to protect public health. On the other side are those who argue that government policies are flawed, or just that open availability of different viewpoints is needed to make better decisions. To complicate matters, there are often more than only two sides. Whether or not there is censorship, navigating through the constantly changing Covid information environment is not easy, unless you’re happy to trust experts—if you can decide which experts to trust.
Thanks to Suzzanne Gray, Julia LeMonde, Erin Twyford and Qinqing Xu for helpful textual suggestions and to Ety Elisha, Sue Curry Jansen and Susan Maret for many valuable comments on a draft.
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 I use “Covid” as an abbreviation of “COVID-19” which in turn is an abbreviation of “Coronavirus disease 2019,” and use “coronavirus” to refer to SARS-CoV-2, which stands for “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2.”