The Folly of Pandemic Censorship
As the latest anti-Substack campaign shows, more and more people are forgetting why free speech works
Earlier this week, in the latest in a series of scolding campaigns, a Britain-based group called the Center for Countering Digital Hate gave a sneak peek at a research report on Substack to The Guardian and The Washington Post. Both outlets came out with their scare pieces this morning. From The Guardian:
A group of vaccine-skeptic writers are generating revenues of at least $2.5m (£1.85m) a year from publishing newsletters for tens of thousands of followers on the online publishing platform Substack, according to new research…
Imran Ahmed, chief executive of CCDH, said companies like Substack were under “no obligation” to amplify vaccine skepticism and make money from it. “They could just say no…”
The Post, citing “some misinformation experts” — the pandemic version of “people familiar with the matter” — added:
These newer platforms cater to subscribers who seek out specific content that accommodates their viewpoints — potentially making the services less responsible for spreading harmful views, some misinformation experts say.
If these stories sound familiar, it’s because this same Center for Countering Digital Hate two years ago tried to pull the same stunt with The Federalist, using NBC to ask Google to crack down on them. Humorously, and typically — this happens a lot with these stories — that effort ended in fiasco. The piece NBC ended up writing boasting of the success of its “Verification Unit” in getting the site demonetized, entitled, “Google bans two websites from its ad platform over protest articles,” turned out to itself be misinformation. The Federalist was never banned, only warned, and the issue was its comments section, not its articles. Google had to issue a statement:
Substack is home to tens of thousands of writers and over a million paying subscribers, quadruple last year’s total of 250,000. The sites range from newsletters for comics enthusiasts to crypto news to recipe ideas. Like the Internet as a whole, it’s basically a catalogue of everything.
Still, panic campaigns in legacy press consistently focus on handfuls of sites, and with impressive dishonesty describe them as representative. I was particularly struck by a recent Mashable article that talked about a supposed “backlash” against Substack’s “growing collection of anti-trans writers,” which seemed to refer to Jesse Singal (who is no such thing) and Graham Linehan and — that’s it. Substack is actually home to more trans writers than any other outlet, but to the Scolding Class, that’s not the point. The company’s real crime is that it refuses to submit to pressure campaigns and strike off Wrongthinkers.
Substack is designed to be difficult to censor. Because content is sent by email, it’s not easy to pressure platforms to zap offending material. It doesn’t depend on advertisers, so you can’t lean on them, either. The only real pressure points are company executives like Hamish McKenzie and Chris Best, who are now regular targets of these ham-fisted campaigns demanding they discipline writers.
The latest presents Substack as a place where, as Mashable put it, “COVID misinformation is allowed to flourish.” The objections mainly center around Joseph Mercola, Alex Berenson, and Robert Malone. There are issues with the specific critiques of each, but those aren’t the point. Every one of these campaigns revolves around the same larger problem: would-be censors misunderstanding the basic calculus of the freedom of speech.
Even in a society with fairly robust protections, as ours once was, the most dangerous misinformation is always, without exception, official.
Whether it’s WMDs or the Gulf of Tonkin fiasco or the missile gap or the red scare or the twenty-year occupation of Afghanistan, the worst real-world disasters always turn out to be driven or enabled by official falsehoods. In the case of Afghanistan (and Iraq, and Vietnam before both), the cycle of war disaster was perpetuated by a sweeping, organized, and intricate system of official lying, about everything from the success of missions to the efficacy of weaponry to the political devotion of supposed allies. The only defense against these most dangerous types of deceptions is an absolutely free press.
People know authorities lie, which is why the more they clamp down, the bigger their trust problem usually becomes. Unfortunately, censors by nature can’t help themselves. Our official liars are always trying to learn from their errors. For instance, film of wounded, suffering, or dead American boys, as well as of the atrocities we committed, not only resulted in pressure to end the Vietnam War, but probably prevented future invasions of countries like Nicaragua, as voters recalled the sickening “quagmire.”
Military officials saw this, and when they finally got to go to war again, they banned the filming of coffins and instituted an embed system that closed off the bulk of adversarial reporting. Of course, that was not enough, because organizations like Wikileaks found ways to sneak out forbidden pictures. So, the powers that be imposed much tougher penalties on whistleblowers going forward. Instead of letting the Daniel Ellsbergs of the world write books and give lectures, the new reality for people like Julian Assange or Edward Snowden is permanent exile or imprisonment. The jailers seem quite proud of this, but the unofficial pseudo-ban on Assange coverage has only added to the impression of a not-free, certainly not trustworthy system of media.
Instead of seeing the root causes of this atmosphere of rapidly declining trust, officials keep pushing for even more sweeping campaigns of control, most recently seeking to make platforms like Google and Twitter arbiters of speech.
I’ve used Substack to show the amazingly diverse range of speech deemed unallowable on private platforms, from raw footage of both anti-Trump protests and the January 6th riots, to satirical videos no one had even seen yet, to advocates and detractors of the medication Ivermectin, to a Jewish tweeter’s pictorial account of Hitler’s life, to a now proven-true expose about the president’s son. The latter case is on point, because the widely distributed story that the New York Post’s Hunter Biden report was Russian disinformation was the actual disinformation. If the fact-checkers are themselves untrustworthy, and you can’t get around the fact-checkers, that’s when you’re really screwed.
This puts the issue of the reliability of authorities front and center, which is the main problem with pandemic messaging. One does not need to be a medical expert to see that the FDA, CDC, the NIH, as well as the White House (both under Biden and Trump) have all been untruthful, or wrong, or inconsistent, about a spectacular range of issues in the last two years.
NIAID director Anthony Fauci has told three different stories about masks, including an episode in which he essentially claimed to have lied to us for our own good, in order to preserve masks for frontline workers — what Slate called one of the “Noble lies about Covid-19.” Officials turned out to be wrong about cloth masks anyway. Here is Fauci again on the issue of what to tell the public about how many people would need to be vaccinated to achieve “herd immunity,” casually explaining the logic of lying to the public for its sake:
When polls said only about half of all Americans would take a vaccine, I was saying herd immunity would take 70 to 75 percent. Then, when newer surveys said 60 percent or more would take it, I thought, “I can nudge this up a bit,” so I went to 80, 85.
We’ve seen sudden changes in official positions on the efficacy of ventilators and lockdowns, on the dangers (or lack thereof) of opening schools, and on the risks, however small, of vaccine side effects like myocarditis. The CDC also just released data showing natural immunity to be more effective in preventing hospitalization and in preventing infection than vaccination. The government had previously said, over and over, that vaccination is preferable to natural immunity (here’s NIH director Francis Collins telling that to Bret Baier unequivocally in August). This was apparently another “noble lie,” designed to inspire people to get vaccinated, that mostly just convinced people to wonder if any official statements can be trusted.
To me, the story most illustrative of the problem inherent in policing “Covid misinformation” involves a town hall by Joe Biden from July 21 of last year. In it, the president said bluntly, “You’re not going to get COVID if you have these vaccinations,” pretty much the definition of Covid misinformation:
It was bad enough when, a month later, the CDC released figures showing 25% of a sample of 43,000 Covid cases involved fully vaccinated people. Far worse was a fact-check by Politifact, which judged Biden’s clearly wrong statement “half true.”
“It is rare for people who are fully vaccinated to contract COVID-19, but it does happen,” the site wrote. They then cited CDC data as backup. “The data that the CDC collected before May 1 show that, of 101 million people vaccinated in the U.S., 10,262 (0.01%) experienced breakthrough cases.” Politifact’s “bottom line”: Biden “exaggerated,” but “cases are rare.”
Anyone paying attention to that story will now distrust the president, the CDC, and “reputable” mainstream fact-checkers like the Pew Center’s Politifact. These are the exact sort of authorities whose guidance sites like the Center for Countering Digital Hate will rely upon when trying to pressure companies like Substack to remove certain voices.
This is the central problem of any “content moderation” scheme: somebody has to do the judging. The only thing worse than a landscape that contains misinformation is a landscape where misinformation is mandatory, and the only antidote for the latter is allowing all criticism, mistakes included. This is especially the case in a situation like the present, where the two-year clown show of lies and shifting positions by officials and media scolds has created a groundswell of mistrust that’s a far bigger threat to public health than a handful of Substack writers.
About that: here’s the lede of a BBC report about an incident that took place in December, called “Australia police arrest quarantine escapees”:
Australian police have arrested three people who broke out of a Covid quarantine compound in the middle of the night.
The Howard Springs centre near Darwin in the Northern Territory is one of Australia’s main quarantine facilities for people returning to the country.
Police said the trio scaled a fence to break out of the facility.
Officers found them after a manhunt on Wednesday. All had tested negative to Covid the day before.
Although I’m very much not a fan of Dr. Joseph Mercola’s, the fact that the CCDH wants to shut down articles like his “The Unvaxxed May Soon Be Shipped to Quarantine Camps” — which among other things contains passages about the Australian program — shows how little they understand about how media audiences think.
As is the case with the Assange story, the paucity of information in mainstream press about the serious draconian measures in places like Australia and Germany has already massively heightened distrust in those outlets and in official reassurances. The “nothing to see here” attitude about the potential downsides of authoritarian policies has reached sick joke status (see Russell Brand’s hilarious but depressing take on the Australia situation here). As the Substack folks themselves pointed out today, our society has a trust problem, and attempts to sweep it under a rug only make things worse.
Censors have a fantasy that if they get rid of all the Berensons and Mercolas and Malones, and rein in people like Joe Rogan, that all the holdouts will suddenly rush to get vaccinated. The opposite is true. If you wipe out critics, people will immediately default to higher levels of suspicion. They will now be sure there’s something wrong with the vaccine. If you want to convince audiences, you have to allow everyone to talk, even the ones you disagree with. You have to make a better case. The Substack people, thank God, still get this, but the censor’s disease of thinking there are shortcuts to trust is spreading.
Lastly, while the Post certainly has its own problems in this area, the Guardian editors should puke with shame for even thinking about condemning anyone else’s “misinformation,” while their own fake story about Assange’s “secret talks” with Paul Manafort in the Ecuadorian embassy remains up. Leaving an obvious hoax uncorrected will tend to create a credibility problem, and you compound it by pointing a finger elsewhere. There is a lesson in this for health authorities, too. Clean your own houses, and maybe you won’t have such a hard time being believed.