Andrew Lowenthal: Breaking the Censorship Consensus-My Time in the Twitter Files

A strange shift has overcome NGOs, academia and philanthropy working in the digital politics and culture spheres – a long held commitment to freedom of expression has been overtaken by a new consensus that accepts actively shaping and removing ‘unacceptable’ ideas and information. What is unacceptable or untrue tends to change weekly, if not more often.

This ‘shaping’ is often done under the guise of combating ‘disinformation’, an overfunded industry that has spawned hundreds of “Centers for the study of x,y, and z”. Huge amounts of money have been piped in from the foundation world, and even more, has come from government. The justification is ‘public health’ or ‘safety’, however, the Twitter files reveal that scaled, this approach has the exact opposite effect. It is Orwellian, to be kind.

I have spent the last several weeks supporting journalist Matt Taibbi to develop Twitter Files releases #18 and #19.

Twitter Files #18 and #19 focus on the Virality Project, an “anti-vaccine misinformation” effort led by the Stanford Internet Observatory that brought together elite academia, NGOs, government, and experts in AI and social media monitoring, with six of the biggest social media companies on the planet. They went far beyond their “misinformation” remit. Twitter Files show the Virality Project pushed platforms to censor “stories of true vaccine side effects”.

Partnered in the effort were Facebook/Instagram, Google/YouTube, TikTok, Pinterest, Medium, and Twitter. In partnership with Pentagon and DARPA funded companies, the Virality Project was able to surveil all these platforms using machine learning systems.

The academic ethics of this should always have been dubious.

The result was an approach that sought to control narrative rather highlight untruths. For example, reporting side effects of the now-pulled Johnson & Johnson vaccine would have been labelled “misinformation”. Had Kerryn Phelps (the first female president of the Australian Medical Association) taken to Twitter to describe her and her wife’s vaccine injuries, these too would have been labelled misinformation. German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach would have also been censored for admitting that as a result of the vaccines “there are severe disabilities, and some of them will be permanent”. (Video)

Rather than listening out for safety signals to protect the public, leaders in the “anti-disinformation” field ran cover to protect BigPharma.

The Virality Project, however, is just part of a broader cultural shift that reverses long-standing liberal/left commitments to free expression and allows censorship in the name of protection and safety. However in suppressing “stories of true vaccine side effects” the Virality Project put people in danger.

The centrality of censorship ideology to the digital rights field is illustrated in former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden opening RightsCon 2022, the sector’s biggest civil society event. Ardern claims that “weapons of war” and “disinformation” are one and the same. EngageMedia (of which I was previously Executive Director) co-organised RightsCon in 2015 in the Philippines.

RightsCon 2022 also heavily promoted US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. Blinken oversees the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, one of the most egregious US government promoters of “anti-disinformation” as censorship. (See Twitter Files #17)

Western leaders that advocate for censorship in the name of “disinformation” severely undermine those fighting authoritarian regimes around the world. Those regimes frequently evoke the threat of “fake news” to justify their crackdowns.

I encourage you to read both releases in full and hold what you have been told about Elon Musk just for a moment. Musk is neither hero nor demon. The Twitter Files however are a critical catalyst to challenge the new censorship regime we now live under and reinvigorate the movement for free expression.

(Note that I am a paid consultant for Matt Taibbi and have no relation whatsoever to Musk).

If you can walk and chew gum you’ll know that uncovering liberal/left corruption doesn’t imply support for the reactionary right.

Free speech and expression protect us from the most powerful actors on the planet; corporations, the State, and a growing plethora of international bodies. Ultimately we need radically decentralised social media that is more immune to their capture.

Some amount of ‘disinformation’ studies is legitimate, however, the Twitter Files demonstrate that a major part has been weaponised to censor and smear political opposition. A kind of digital McCarthyism.

Academia and NGOs need to take a good look at their ‘disinformation’ programs and evaluate to what degree they are being weaponised to censor unpopular ideas from people deemed worthy of being censored.

The frequent missed calls by government and the media during the pandemic should make it clear that no one has a monopoly on truth. If we cannot re-open conversation (however difficult) as our primary method of truth-seeking we will continue our march into an epistemological totalitarianism.

Andrew Lowenthal is a Research Affiliate at the Institute of Network Cultures. He is the co-founder and former Executive Director of EngageMedia, former fellow of Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, and MIT’s Open Documentary Lab.