A government-linked entity recommended an “Orwellian” crackdown on “vaccine disinformation,” the journalist reported
A government-linked academic group pushed Twitter to censor factually correct stories about Covid-19 if they risked “fueling hesitancy” about vaccines, according to the latest batch of internal documents released by the platform’s new owner, Elon Musk.
Published by journalist Matt Taibbi on Friday, the documents show that from February 2021 onwards, senior Twitter management – including former trust and safety chief Yoel Roth – signed up to a Stanford University initiative that would alert them to the latest “vaccine-related disinformation narratives” spreading on the platform.
Titled ‘The Virality Project,’ the initiative was led by a former CIA employee and comprised academics from several universities, as well as researchers from organizations funded by the Pentagon, the National Science Foundation, and the US State Department. The Virality Project also stated on its website that it “built strong ties” with the Office of the Surgeon General, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Homeland Security, among other agencies and departments.
43.VP would later say it partnered with “several government agencies,” including the Office of the Surgeon General and the CDC. It reportedly also worked with DHS’s CISA (Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency) and GEC, among others. pic.twitter.com/WUlrkFk7JX
— Matt Taibbi (@mtaibbi) March 17, 2023
In its briefings to Twitter, the Virality Project recommended that “true content which might promote vaccine hesitancy” – such as stories of side effects and certain vaccines being banned abroad – be censored. Posts raising concern about vaccine mandates were viewed as “anti-vax” misinformation, while “just asking questions” was deemed “a tactic commonly used by spreaders of misinformation,” and posting about the “surveillance state” was deemed a bannable “conspiracy” theory.
It is unclear how often Twitter acceded to the Virality Project’s demands, though Taibbi said that within a month, the platform’s staff began using the project’s recommendations when evaluating content to censor.
At the time, Twitter’s rules on Covid-19 “misinformation” required a specific post to be “demonstrably false,” while permitting “strong commentary,” opinion writing, and satire. The Virality Project, however, urged Twitter management to ban “repeat offenders” before they even made new posts.
Sharing the leaked emails of White House coronavirus czar Anthony Fauci could “exacerbate distrust in Dr. Fauci and in US public health institutions,” the Virality Project warned in a June 2021 briefing, while a follow-up report highlighted the spread of “worrisome jokes” about harassing the door-to-door vaccine promoters deployed by the administration of US President Joe Biden.
“As Orwellian proof-of-concept, the Virality Project was a smash success,” Taibbi wrote on Friday. “Government, academia, and an oligopoly of would-be corporate competitors organized quickly behind a secret, unified effort to control political messaging.”
Since purchasing Twitter in October and installing himself as the platform’s new CEO, Musk has been releasing regular batches of internal documents and communications in a bid to shed light on its previously opaque censorship policies. A tranche of files released in December revealed that Twitter censored “legitimate content” on Covid-19 at the direct request of the White House.