During the COVID pandemic, scientists seemed to be in rare agreement about the source of the virus; its lethality; the need for universal lockdowns, masks, and social distancing; the inefficacy of certain treatment options; and the near-miraculous efficacy of the vaccine.
A few dissenting voices came through. Remember John Ioannidis, the Stanford scientist who warned in March 2020 that we didn’t have enough data to know whether NPI measures were doing more harm than good? Remember Dan Erickson and Artin Massihi, the two doctors from Bakersfield, California, who argued in an hour-long video, released in April 2020, that COVID’s fatality rate was similar to that of the flu? Five million people watched them before YouTube yanked the video. Remember Michael Yeadon, erstwhile VP at Pfizer, who claimed the PCR test overestimated the incidence of COVID by a factor of ten? Remember the Great Barrington Declaration, which rejected general lockdowns and argued for “focused protection” for the elderly and immuno-compromised who are especially vulnerable to COVID? Remember Gov. DeSantis’s roundtable discussion with the three principal Great Barrington scientists? Remember Scott Atlas? Joe Rogan hosted Robert Malone and Peter McCullough, and the redoubtable Freddie Sayers of UnHerd released a steady stream of patient, challenging, informative interviews with the likes of Carl Heneghan, Sweden’s Anders Tegnell, and Bret Weinstein.
You could find all these eccentric sources during the pandemic, and, as the surfeit of hyperlinks in the previous paragraph indicates, they’re still available somewhere or other. But establishment scientific journals and scientists, including American public health officials at NIH, the CDC, and other agencies, ignored the contrarians or dismissed them as kooks, cranks, and conspiracy theorists (e.g., here and here), even though some of the kooks are specialists in immunology and epidemiology employed by Stanford, Oxford, and Harvard. You could find seams of dissent if you dug deep enough, but why bother? Science knew what it was doing and would tell us what to do. Problem is, Science earned its commanding capital letter only by demonizing dissenting scientists (lower-case).
Eager to do their public service, eager to suppress disinformation, eager not to kill grandma and not to help Trump, social media companies largely reinforced the manufactured scientific consensus by removing nonconforming videos, tweets, and podcasts. On Twitter, the most offensive offender was Alex Berenson, a former New York Times reporter who amassed hundreds of thousands of followers with derisive tweets mocking the official COVID narrative and public health officials. Twitter permanently banned Berenson in August 2021 after he tweeted that the COVID shot isn’t a vaccine: “Think of it—at best—as a therapeutic with a limited window of efficacy and terrible side effect profile that must be dosed IN ADVANCE OF ILLNESS.”
Berenson sued Twitter and was restored to the platform in August 2022, the first time a social media company has lost such a suit. The rationale has always been: As private companies, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube can make whatever rules they want and are solely responsible for determining when the rules have been violated. Berenson’s victory doesn’t undermine that argument. According to The Atlantic, the judge threw out Berenson’s First Amendment claim, and Twitter settled because one of its executives violated Twitter policy by communicating directly with Berenson about his account.
But the ball game is changing, bigly. The president and other officials have publicly remonstrated with media companies to do more to suppress misinformation—most dramatically in Biden’s “they’re killing people” comment about Facebook in July 2021. Biden’s statement was hastily withdrawn, but it was part of a pattern. Kate Bedingfield, White House communications director, hinted that social media companies should be held legally liable for distributing misinformation, and Jen Psaki, former White House press secretary, called on platforms to collaborate to silence “harmful” voices.
Since the beginning of the Biden administration, there have been rumblings that the White House and federal agencies have also privately pressured social media companies to squelch dissent. Now several lawsuits have begun to pull back the curtain. Berenson is suing Biden, alleging that members of the administration pressed Twitter to deplatform him. Lawyers representing plaintiffs in Missouri v. Biden recently filed an amended complaint showing that eighty officials from nearly a dozen federal agencies were in contact with social media executives concerning climate change, Hunter Biden’s laptop, election fraud, and COVID. If it turns out that government officials leaned on media companies to remove individual users, plaintiffs have a highly plausible First Amendment case. Censorship mediated through media is still censorship.
On COVID, there appear to be smoking guns, a small arsenal of them. We now know Mark Zuckerberg gave Anthony Fauci his personal phone number. In July 2021, a Meta executive reported to Surgeon General Vivek Murthy on the company’s effort to “address the ‘disinfo dozen’” problem, a reference to the dozen figures considered the most dangerous sources of disinformation (quoted here). On his Substack, Berenson posted a screenshot of an internal Twitter Slack chat from April 2021, in which an employee refers to a “really tough question” from the White House “about why Alex Berenson hasn’t been kicked off the platform.” In another message, a Twitter employee refers to Biden COVID adviser Andy Slavitt’s claim that Berenson was the “epicenter of disinfo.” More disclosures are coming. On September 6, a judge ordered Fauci to turn over any communications between his office and social media companies.
Jenin Younes of the New Civil Liberties Alliance, whose clients have joined the Missouri suit, points out that, whatever the outcome, the case will establish legal guidelines for social media companies. These cases will determine whether or not Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube morph into state media (or, more precisely, Democratic Party media). The suits will decide whether or not federal bureaucrats control the dissemination of scientific information, and so will affect the integrity of science and public confidence in scientific expertise. No matter how you look at it, the stakes are extremely high.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.
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