By Paul D. Thacker
Source: The Disinformation Chonicle
The COVID-19 pandemic saw the greatest acceleration of online censorship in the short history of the internet. In response, the field dedicated to upholding human rights online—the digital rights movement—remained near silent to this massive government and corporate over-reach. Worse, digital rights activists sometimes even collaborated with censors in the name of protecting the public from “disinformation.”
I’ve spent more than 20 years in digital rights, freedom of expression and open technology communities, and co-founded an organisation dedicated to these ideas: EngageMedia. Over the 17 years I ran Engage Media, we built a team that stretched across 10 countries, from India to Australia—one of the biggest digital rights organisations in the Asia-Pacific, hosting hundreds of workshops and large events, and leading multiple international networks. In short, I’m not a newbie or outsider in this field.
But during the pandemic, I watched the digital rights movement lose its voice as champions of online freedom of expression. Instead, they began to echo the positions of governments and companies with far from stellar records on human rights and corporate integrity. This recasting of governments and corporations as allies, rather than institutions to be held to account, has perverted the mission of digital rights and harmed public health.
The Digital Rights Movement
Digital Rights is an umbrella term that captures multiple concepts from “internet freedom” to “open technology” to “digital public policy.” Over the past several decades, it has become a major force in advocating for online rights and freedoms. Hundreds of universities, institutes, and non-profit organizations work in this arena on every corner of the planet. Whilst I know of no exact calculations, funding for the field is surely in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually—sourced from a mix of liberal foundations, governments, and Big Tech itself.
Core to this fundamentally left-leaning field was anti-censorship and a libertarian ethos. If the movement has a founding document, it is the 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, which begins:
Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.
We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.
Left-libertarianism and techno-utopianism dominated Internet culture in the 90s and 2000s, yet withered rapidly in the Trump era, as it was unable to move quickly enough to address issues of online discrimination and harassment. In response, a new wing took root that was less hippy, more helicopter parent.
Internet parentalism, with its emphasis on safety over freedom, addressed concerns about the dark side of the Internet, but it did so with top-down regulation and control. And just as the former left-libertarianism created an imperfect system, so has the current left-parentalism. This became quite clear during the pandemic. During COVID, general skepticism of authority was replaced by respect for authority. Once suspect governments and businesses were now to be shielded from critique.
Content moderation is key to the new left-parentalism, and the pandemic radically accelerated and solidified a new digital authoritarianism. It is worth revisiting Hillary Clinton’s seminal 2010 “internet freedom” speech, to see how far thinking has shifted:
Now, all societies recognise that free expression has its limits. We do not tolerate those who incite others to violence… And hate speech that targets individuals on the basis of their race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation is reprehensible… But these challenges must not become an excuse for governments to systematically violate the rights and privacy of those who use the internet for peaceful political purposes.
How different content moderation is today, where comments deemed “offensive” might be censored. In those days liberals even thought about balancing safety and freedom when dealing with terrorists, yet this was not the case with COVID. With Musk now taking over Twitter, the Internet-parentalism wing may be on its back-foot but it has made headway in altering culture, so much so that supporting the left-libertarian approach (or the 2010 Clintonian position) is now considered “right-wing.”
New Zealand Prime minister Jacinda Arden personifies the progressive authoritarian shift. In her recent UN speech she compared “disinformation” to “weapons of war,” expressing a deep frustration with those who stray from the “consensus” and emphasising strong government control for “disinformation.” The Arden approach is now the default setting in the digital rights field where government and corporate censorship have replaced debate and persuasion as the answer to “wrong” ideas. For example, Ardern gave the opening speech at the 2022 RightsCon, the biggest digital rights conference on the calendar (EngageMedia co-hosted the 2015 edition).
That government determines truth to protect citizens is a boom to authoritarians everywhere – from the Philippines, to Ethiopia, to Russia—while also limiting government and corporate accountability. To be clear, both Clinton’s and Ardern’s policy served the needs of power. The difference is that Clinton was largely in step with the previous 200 years of liberal theory, while Arden returns society to levels of government authority and control that people have struggled to overcome for centuries.
Growth and change of “anti-disinformation”
Disinformation was already an established sector prior to the pandemic. But it focused on top level malfeasance: for example, Myanmar military social media accounts promoting violence against the Rohingya or former Philippine President Duterte’s use of bots to attack dissidents. Advocacy took a mostly Clintonian approach to counter such state power—minimising overt censorship, while educating the public and notifying Big Tech of egregious incidents of disinformation (mostly by government).
The Trump election and Cambridge Analytica scandal changed these rules as many blamed social media greed and wilful ignorance for the election loss. Claims of Russian disinformation compounded these problems. Big Tech’s alleged lack of action put it at odds with its core, liberal constituencies. Anger and disillusionment allowed the speech control wing of the digital rights movement to ascend, shifting the movement’s mission from watching the powerful to policing the fringe.
Newer disinformation initiatives also sought to rebuild trust in Big Media, legacy organisations whose legitimacy crumbled for a variety of reasons: from supporting the Iraq war, to failing to predict Trump and Brexit. To recapture authority, elites made themselves the adults who discern the truth, as the rest of society cannot be trusted make competent decisions.
Anti-disinformation amid the pandemic
I went into the pandemic with a wide variety of doubts, but was among the majority in supporting government restrictions, though never on access to information. Banning discussion of a possible lab accident at the pandemic’s beginning triggered me to reevaluate. My own Australian government and the former CDC Director Robert Redfield both considered the lab-leak a plausible reason for how the pandemic started. Meanwhile, leading anti-disinformation organisations labelled it a conspiracy theory, and suggested that journalists not amplify it.
After the lab leak theory became mainstream, I saw no reconsideration of facts among the anti-disinformation and digital rights sectors, as any straying meant being called far-right. Unfortunately, silence only shields the powerful, and civil liberties and human rights groups went AWOL on their duties, or even swapped sides. Witness the ACLU advocating for the violation of bodily autonomy and in favour of widespread vaccine mandates.
The digital rights field seem oblivious to how much information is now controlled. Despite all the changes during COVID, the 2022 iteration of RightsCon had no sessions on the pandemic and disinformation. The digital rights community has also ignored news of the White House directing Twitter to deplatform journalists, and of Harvard and Stanford Professors suing the White House for social media related free speech violations.
Other few key examples of how pandemic censorship protected the powerful:
- Vaccines were widely claimed to stop infection or transmission. A sterilising vaccine was the core rationale behind mandates and exclusionary passport systems. Yet, in a November 2020 article in Business Insider the Moderna COO disclosed the vaccine does not stop transmission, as was admitted by a senior Pfizer executive in October 2022 during an EU hearing. Despite that, suggesting the vaccine did not prevent transmission could get you banned from several platforms.
- Facebook still bans “questioning the efficacy of vaccines” and Youtube also bans some discussions. Yet, there is now a modest acknowledgement of vaccine side effects, and some government have age restricted some vaccines due to risks. The German government acknowledged that 1 in 5000 mRNA doses results in a “serious reaction” (that’s 1 in every 1667 people with 3 shots). Still, leading health podcasters constantly operate with the fear of being shut down for discussing side effects.
- Natural immunity from prior infection was one of the many “conspiracies” although the CDC now considers it equal to vaccination, stating “it really makes the most sense to not differentiate”.
Questioning of lockdowns was once banned, yet it is now widely acknowledged that lockdowns resulted in serious harm including delays in childhood learning, lack of early treatment for serious illness, a rise in domestic abuse, as well as inflation and a massive transfer of wealth to the rich.
Across the board social media sought to disallow information that is “inconsistent with health authorities’ guidance”. But authorities are not all-knowing and this policy blew away previously held norms around open scientific debate and went against the crowd-sourcing ethos of progressives.
Why the conformity?
Some level of conformity is to be expected; however, it reached uncanny levels during the pandemic. Public relations campaigns hid how information controls have worked, as many aren’t even aware of policies and repeated “fact check” failures. PR campaigns also succeeded in associating those seeking to limit pandemic controls as being right-wing and therefore selfish, or worse, racist and misogynist—even as vaccine hesitancy was highest among communities of colour.
Second, the “anti-disinformation” and digital rights field maintains rigorous class solidarity and is overwhelmingly upper-middle and middle class. The upper and middle classes have a higher trust in institutions because they run those institutions and those institutions have worked for them. The field is also the ultimate laptop class, along with others working in tech. Work from home and other lockdown policies benefited them, even as it harmed others.
Third, digital rights melted into the “follow the science” movement. Populism dented the prestige of the expert and professional managerial class, while COVID energized their authority with “science” and gave them back power. Questioning “the science” and acknowledging mistakes means re-diminishing that power.
Finally, Big Tech has compromised the field with tens of millions of dollars (possibly hundreds) annually, yet this funding bias is rarely discussed. Imagine if Shell, BP, and ExxonMobil were core funders of the climate change movement. Added to this financial influence is a revolving door between Big Tech and those meant to hold it to account
Allegations of “disinformation” have become a tool to delegitimize opposition to orthodoxy and power, and have been weaponised to shield government and Big Pharma from scrutiny. Just as criticism of the automobile industry in the 60s and 70s led to improved car safety, today’s public fora must hold the powerful to account.
By aligning with Big Tech and Big Pharma, the “anti-disinformation” and digital rights sectors have neglected their responsibilities, and have come to serve power rather than people, contributing to a broader chilling effect.
To improve digital rights, we must:
- Ensure funders, non-profits, journalists, and media organisations more clearly stand up for free speech and invite dissenting views;
- Remain courageous while suffering the slings and arrows of nasty online criticism. And support those who speak out;
- Highlight bullying that closes down conversation and benefits institutional interests;
- Generate greater public awareness of government and corporate manipulation on social media;
- Refuse Big Tech and Big Pharma funding for work that is meant to keep these same industries accountable;
- Create more watchers to watch the “anti-disinformation” watchers;
- Develop alternative media platforms so the conversation can’t be so easily controlled;
- ·Ensure regulation that protects free speech;
- Break up Big Tech and Big Media to limit government and corporate control of public discourse and increase diversity of opinion.
Pandemic information controls and restrictions on free speech had real world consequences that contributed to poorer, not better, public health outcomes. By neglecting to address corporate and government pandemic censorship, the digital rights movement failed in its core mission of securing online freedom of expression.