Censorship

Climate Change Scepticism in Line For Censorship

Enjoy the Daily Sceptic while you can. A powerful network of climate change activists are working on “stamping out climate change misinformation once and for all”. And by “climate change misinformation” they don’t mean things like claiming that we have 18 months to save the planet. (See this piece by the BBC’s Environment Correspondent.) They mean anything that challenges the prevailing orthodoxy about climate change, however well-evidenced.

A reader received this email today, inviting him to attend a Censors’ Conference organised by the Institute of Government and Public Policy.

Dear XXX,

I wanted to get in touch with you this morning as we have received a small pot of funding for the Tackling Online Misinformation and Disinformation virtual conference which has allowed us to allocate X part-funded tickets to attend on January 18th. Would this be of interest to you or your colleagues?

View the event agenda and keynote speakers here.

Major U.K. brands including Virgin Media O2, Sky, British Gas, Ben & Jerry’s and SSE have signed an open letter calling on Cop26 decision-makers and technology platforms to take immediate action on stamping out climate change misinformation once and for all. Led by the Conscious Advertising Network, a voluntary coalition of organisations on a mission to prevent advertisers from inadvertently funding harmful content online, the letter says climate change has reached a “crisis point”. Recent research from Stop Funding Heat also found 113 ads on Facebook with messages like “climate change is a hoax” between January and October 2021, with an estimated spend of between £42,000 and £55,000.

This timely event will explore the emerging threat landscape of misinformation and disinformation online, and provide actionable insights into tackling this pressing issue.

Hear from Sterling Rippy, Strategic Lead Behavioural Insights, Public Health, London Borough of Hounslow as he discusses addressing vaccine misinformation by using the messenger principle and providing insight on how to best launch information campaigns.

Why attend?

* Discover effective strategies and software which can help to identify and counter disinformation online
* Discuss and debate the impact of the Online Harms Whitepaper with regards to digital disinformation
* Increasing media literacy as a defence against disinformation
* Assess the potential role of AI in the counter-disinformation framework
* Hear the ways in which Ofcom will balance upholding freedom of expression whilst providing a duty of care
* Improving the Social Media Landscape – dismantling incentivisation

We hope to see you at the event.

Sinister, or what?

YouTube Censors Conservative Ex-Minister David Davis For Criticising Vaccine Passports

YouTube removed a video of a speech made by David Davis at a Conservative Party Conference fringe meeting in which he argued against the introduction of vaccine passports in the U.K. The Independent has more.

Senior Conservative MP David Davis has accused YouTube of censoring him after the platform removed his speech criticising the use of domestic vaccine passports in Britain.

The video of the former cabinet minister – speaking on the fringes of the Tory party’s annual conference last week – was uploaded by the civil liberties campaign group, Big Brother Watch.

In a notification email, the platform told the organisation: “YouTube doesn’t allow claims about Covid-19 vaccinations that contradict expert consensus from local health authorities or the World Health Organisation (WHO).”

During the speech, Mr. Davis hit out at the use of domestic vaccine passports, decrying them as “illiberal, demanding that we an ordinary British citizens produce our papers to do something which is normal in our daily lives”.

The Conservative MP suggested the use of vaccine passports was about “trying to push a policy by covert coercion, about pressurising people to get vaccinated”.

Just last month, the U.K. Government dramatically shelved proposals to the [sic] enforce the mandatory use of vaccine passports at crowded venues such as nightclubs, but has kept the policy option in reserve.

Reacting angrily to the move to remove the video, which has now been reinstated on YouTube, Mr. Davis labelled it an “outrageous attack on free speech”.

“Throughout the pandemic, we have seen blatant attempts by big tech to silence opposition voices challenging the conventional wisdom,” he said.

Mr. Davis added: “My speech at conference was carefully researched, wholly accurate and backed up with the latest scientific fact.

“This unambiguous attempt by YouTube to censor by speech is a warning. If YouTube is happy to attempt to silence elected Members of Parliament, then they are also happy to censor anyone uploading content to their speech.”

Worth reading in full.

Let’s hope this is a wake up call to MPs about the threat posed to free speech by the Online Safety Bill, which will encourage social media platforms to be even more censorious.

Stop Press: YouTube has now reinstated the video, which you can watch here. As UnHerd’s Freddie Sayers says: “If you have a megaphone you get attention and the censorship is reversed, but if you don’t…”

YouTube to Advance its Crack-Down on Vaccine “Misinformation”

YouTube says it will soon remove any content that argues the Covid vaccine can cause serious side-effects and is unsafe to use. Matt Halprin, the Global Head of Trust and Safety at the Google-owned company, is alarmed by the presence of “vaccine misinformation” across the world. For example, vaccine scepticism relating to concerns over infertility will be struck from the platform. Guardian has the story.

From Wednesday, the video streaming site, which has already banned Covid jab falsehoods, will take down content that claims any approved vaccine is dangerous and causes chronic health defects. Under previous guidelines, the platform demoted – effectively hiding from view – videos that spread misinformation about non-Covid vaccines or promoted vaccine hesitancy.

Last year, YouTube implemented a ban on Covid vaccine misinformation videos, which has led to 130,000 pieces of content being taken down since then. YouTube, which is owned by Google, has removed a total of 1m videos for spreading general Covid falsehoods since the pandemic broke out.

Matt Halprin… said vaccine misinformation was a global problem and had spilled over from the spreading of falsehoods about Covid jabs.

“Vaccine misinformation appears globally, it appears in all countries and cultures,” he said.

Halprin added that falsehoods around the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, which has been wrongly attributed to causing autism, were an example of the misinformation YouTube will target.

“There is still a lot of challenges around MMR and people arguing whether that causes autism. And as we know, the science is very stable that vaccines do not cause autism,” he said.

Worth reading in full.

The Bots That Are Not

Since 2016 automated Twitter accounts have been blamed for Donald Trump and Brexit (many times), Brazilian politics, Venezuelan politics, skepticism of climatology, cannabis misinformation, anti-immigration sentiment, vaping, and, inevitably, distrust of COVID vaccines. News articles about bots are backed by a surprisingly large amount of academic research. Google Scholar alone indexes nearly 10,000 papers on the topic. Some of these papers received widespread coverage:

Unfortunately there’s a problem with this narrative: it is itself misinformation. Bizarrely and ironically, universities are propagating an untrue conspiracy theory while simultaneously claiming to be defending the world from the very same.

The visualization above comes from “The Rise and Fall of Social Bot Research” (also available in talk form). It was quietly uploaded to a preprint server in March by Gallwitz and Kreil, two German investigators, and has received little attention since. Yet their work completely destroys the academic field of bot research to such an extreme extent that it’s possible there are no true scientific papers on the topic at all.

The authors identify a simple problem that crops up in every study they looked at. Unable to directly detect bots because they don’t work for Twitter, academics come up with proxy signals that are asserted to imply automation but which actually don’t. For example, Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project – responsible for the first paper in the diagram above – defined a bot as any account that tweets more than 50 times per day. That’s a lot of tweeting but easily achieved by heavy users, like the famous journalist Glenn Greenwald, the slightly less famous member of German Parliament Johannes Kahrs – who has in the past managed to rack up an astounding 300 tweets per day – or indeed Donald Trump, who exceeded this threshold on six different days during 2020. Bot papers typically don’t provide examples of the bot accounts they claimed to identify, but in this case four were presented. Of those, three were trivially identifiable as (legitimate) bots because they actually said they were bots in their account metadata, and one was an apparently human account claimed to be a bot with no evidence. On this basis the authors generated 27 news stories and 323 citations, although the paper was never peer reviewed.

In 2017 I investigated the Berkley/Swansea paper and found that it was doing something very similar, but using an even laxer definition. Any account that regularly tweeted more than five times after midnight from a smartphone was classed as a bot. Obviously, this is not a valid way to detect automation. Despite being built on nonsensical premises, invalid modelling, mis-characterisations of its own data and once again not being peer reviewed, the authors were able to successfully influence the British Parliament. Damian Collins, the Tory MP who chaired the DCMS Select Committee at the time, said: “This is the most significant evidence yet of interference by Russian-backed social media accounts around the Brexit referendum. The content published and promoted by these accounts is clearly designed to increase tensions throughout the country and undermine our democratic process. I fear that this may well be just the tip of the iceberg.”

But since 2019 the vast majority of papers about social bots rely on a machine learning model called ‘Botometer’. The Botometer is available online and claims to measure the probability of any Twitter account being a bot. Created by a pair of academics in the USA, it has been cited nearly 700 times and generates a continual stream of news stories. The model is frequently described as a “state of the art bot detection method” with “95% accuracy”.

That claim is false. The Botometer’s false positive rate is so high it is practically a random number generator. A simple demonstration of the problem was the distribution of scores given to verified members of U.S. Congress:

Why is Ofcom Suppressing Covid Information Based on the Advice of a Biased ‘Fact-Checker’ Funded by Google, Facebook and George Soros?

Broadcasting regulator Ofcom has come under fire this week for labelling scepticism of official statistics and statements as “misinformation” during the Covid crisis. The Telegraph has the story.

The broadcasting regulator has been accused of stifling “rational criticism” of the response to Covid by labelling scepticism about Britain’s approach to the pandemic as “misinformation”. 

Amid major controversy over whether official statistics were overstating the prevalence of coronavirus, Ofcom described the idea that there were “a lower number of cases in reality than is being reported” as a “common piece of misinformation”.

It also emerged that the regulator warned broadcasters in the early days of the pandemic that it was prioritising investigations into programmes or news reports featuring advice which “discourages the audience from following official rules and guidance”.

The disclosure will lead to renewed concerns about the approach of the regulator, as the Government seeks a new chairman who can “provide proper scrutiny and challenge”.

Conservative MP Steve Baker described the approach as “dangerous”, stating: “To label any kind of rational criticism as misinformation is unscientific, and a frank rejection of enlightenment values which would catapult us into a new dark age.”

According to the Telegraph, Ofcom has prepared dozens of papers detailing surveys it has carried out relating to Covid, each of which includes a section titled “Misinformation related to Covid”.

The Collapse of the Attempt to Censor the Lab Leak Theory Shows Why it’s Dangerous to Suppress Free Enquiry

We’re publishing a new piece today by retired lawyer Cephas Alain (a pseudonym) about the lab leak theory, subtitled “Who Suppressed It? Who Uncovered It? And What Should We Do About It?

Here’s how he begins:

A crucial, and often overlooked, event in the story of the pandemic and its associated narratives, including that of the supposed natural origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, was the Press Conference of WHO-China Joint Mission on COVID-19 Epidemic Prevention and Control in China. It took place at The Presidential Hotel in Beijing on the evening of February 24th 2020. The transcript of Press Conference and the forty-page Report issued by the Joint Mission on the same date The China Report are available as follows:

The WHO Press Conference Transcript: February 24th 2020
The Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) (The China Report)

The WHO Press Conference was briefed by the Team Leaders of the Joint Mission: Dr. Bruce Aylward (a former Assistant Director-General of the WHO and senior advisor to WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus) and Dr. Liang Wannian (Head of Expert Panel of COVID-19 Response of China National Health Commission (NHC).

Dr Wannian suggested that the source of the outbreak “…according to the currently available data in China, bats may be its host, and pangolin may also be one of the intermediate hosts [i.e., between bats and humans] of this virus”. The China Report added that: “At some point early in the outbreak, some cases generated human-to-human transmission chains that seeded the subsequent community outbreak prior to the implementation of the comprehensive control measures that were rolled out in Wuhan.” (China Report page 10) The ‘best guess’ of the WHO Team was therefore that the SARS-CoV-2 virus originated in bats which jumped species to infect humans, possibly via pangolins.

Cephas gathers together some of the key events and articles to tell the story of the censorship and how it collapsed and what that means.

Worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Douglas Murray has delivered one of his most sceptical pieces to date, lambasting the media for its skewed coverage of the pandemic, starting with the disgraceful silence over the mass protests and then taking aim at the “kidults” who run tech companies for their censorship of the lab leak theory.

Stop Press 2: Katherine Eban in Vanity Fair notes that researchers at the U.S. National Security Council had spotted that the engineered mice with humanised lungs that the WIV used for experiments with SARS-CoV-2 in early 2020 must have been engineered before the pandemic in the summer of 2019, leading to questions about the reason they were created – and how dangerous were the experiments being done on them.

Stop Press 3: The Daily Mail‘s Sian Boyle has carried out an investigation in Dr Peter Daszak, who, as President of EcoHealth Alliance, helped to fund gain-of-function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology then did his best to rubbish the lab leak theory.

Facebook Condemned For Trying to Ingratiate Itself With China by Censoring of Lab Leak Theory

Facebook was today accused by a Conservative MP of “showing its true and ugly colours” and smothering free speech to cosy up to China as it did a U-turn on its ban on posts debating whether Covid-19 could be man-made. Following Joe Biden’s call for further investigation of the theory, such speculation is no longer deemed to be “harmful misinformation” by the social media giant. MailOnline has more.

Mark Zuckerberg’s global policy chief Nick Clegg, the former British MP and Liberal Democrat leader, has also been branded “feeble” for allowing months of censorship on the social network.

Critics branded Facebook’s behaviour had been ‘contemptible’ and begged them to respect free speech rather than “ingratiating” themselves with states such as China, which has banned the website but remains a $5billion-a-year ad market.

British Conservative MP Peter Bone told MailOnline: “It does seem to me that Facebook is not an open platform for people to put their views on. It is an open platform for people to put their views on as long as they agree with Facebook.

“Their decisions are based on politics not on principle… if it is fashionable with the liberal elite it can go down. If it is liberal elite say it it must be OK, if it’s President Trump that says it it must be awful.

“The thing that Trump was saying is exactly the same as Biden is saying, but Trump was according to Facebook not allowed to say that. Whereas everyone loves Biden from Facebook therefore it must be right. It is one rule for one political view and another for another.”

And the liberal media in the US, who lampooned Donald Trump when he said a year ago said he had “a high degree of confidence” that the virus escaped from a lab, have finally conceded that he may have been right – after a year ridiculing the suggestion.

Facebook ruled in February it would “remove” any posts that claimed that coronavirus was “man-made” or that the virus was “created by an individual, government or country” – branding it “misinformation” and a “debunked claim” that required “aggressive action” from moderators.

But today the tech giant reversed its ban on its users discussing the theory, just hours after President Biden ordered his intelligence agencies to launch a probe into whether it was man-made after all – and report back in 90 days.

Worth reading in full.

Professor Denis Rancourt Banned From ResearchGate For Warning of Harms of Masks

Professor Denis Rancourt has been banned from academic pre-print publishing site ResearchGate for publishing research evidence suggesting masks can cause harm to the wearer.

He announced the news on Twitter: “ResearchGate today has permanently locked my account, which I have had since 2015. Their reasons graphically show the nature of their attack against democracy, and their corruption of science. … By their obscene non-logic, a scientific review of science articles reporting on harms caused by face masks has a ‘potential to cause harm’. No criticism of the psychological device (face masks) is tolerated, if the said criticism shows potential to influence public policy.”

Prof Rancourt, whose paper reviewing research on the harms of masks had been viewed more than 200,000 times, tweeted screenshots of emails he had received from the website warning him of his breaches of their terms of service, one of which stated:

In our view, those reports, among other things, discouraged the use of face masks, which contradicts the public health advice and/or legal requirements of credible agencies and governments. We, therefore, concluded that under our policies the reports had potential to cause harm. Posting content that has potential to cause harm is a violation of our Terms of Service.

Dr Clare Craig of HART tweeted: “We are in full witch hunt mode now. Science – which by definition requires debate – cannot exist in this environment.”

ResearchGate, as a privately owned website, is fully within its rights to have whatever terms of service it wishes and refuse to host whatever content it wants. But that doesn’t mean its decisions aren’t harmful to scientific debate or don’t constitute misplaced censorship of evidence that is inconvenient to governments or supportive of unfashionable views. ResearchGate may be entitled, under its Terms of Service, to censor evidence that runs counter to the policies of Western governments, but that doesn’t make it good for advancing scientific understanding.

Prof Rancourt’s articles are still available here.

We Cannot Afford to Censor Lockdown Sceptics – Professor Martin Kulldorff

We’re publishing an interview today with Martin Kulldorff, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and one of the three original signatories of the Great Barrington Declaration. Among other things, he warns of the dangers of censoring dissenting voices during a pandemic, following his own run-in with Twitter a couple of weeks ago.

The media has been very reluctant to report reliable scientific and public health information about the pandemic. Instead they have broadcast unverified information such as the model predictions from Imperial College, they have spread unwarranted fear that undermine people’s trust in public health and they have promoted naïve and inefficient counter measures such as lockdowns, masks and contact tracing.

While I wished that neither SAGE nor anyone else would argue against long-standing principles of public health, the media should not censor such information. During a pandemic, it is more important than ever that media can report freely. There are two major reasons for this: (i) While similar to existing coronaviruses, SARS-CoV-2 is a new virus that we are constantly learning more about and because of that, it takes time to reach scientific conclusions. With censorship it takes longer and we cannot afford that during a pandemic. (ii) In order to maintain trust in public health, it is important that any thoughts and ideas about the pandemic can be voiced, debated and either confirmed or debunked.

This is a great interview done by the same journalist who interviewed Jay Bhattacharya for Lockdown Sceptics last week.

Worth reading in full.