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Brownstone Institute

The EU Files: What Elon Musk Is Not Telling You About Twitter Censorship

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From the Brownstone Institute

BY Robert KogonROBERT KOGON

The “Twitter Files” have exposed numerous contacts between US government officials and Twitter and requests for suppression of accounts or content: notably, in the context of alleged Covid-19 “disinformation.” But what they have not revealed is that there was in fact a formal government program explicitly dedicated to “Fighting Covid-19 Disinformation” in which Twitter, as well as all other major social media platforms, were enrolled.

As part of this program, the platforms were submitting monthly (later bi-monthly) reports to the government on their censorship efforts. Below is a picture of an archive of the “Fighting Covid-19 Disinformation” reports.

I did not have to hack into the intranet of the US government to find them. All I had to do was look on the public website of the European Commission. For the government in question is not, after all, the US government, but the European Commission.

The reports are available here. Lest there be any doubt that what is at issue in “Fighting Covid-19 Disinformation” is censorship – but how could there be any doubt? – the Commission website specifies that the reports include information on “demoted and removed content containing false and/or misleading information likely to cause physical harm or impair public health policies” (author’s emphasis).

Indeed, the Twitter reports, in particular, include data not only on removed content, but also on outright account suspensions. It is thanks precisely to the data that Twitter was gathering to satisfy the EU’s expectations that we know that 11,230 accounts were suspended under Twitter’s recently discontinued Covid-19 Misleading Information Policy. The below chart, for instance, is taken from Twitter’s last (March-April 2022) report to the EU. Note that the data is “global,” i.e. Twitter was reporting back to the European Commission on its censorship of content and accounts all over the world, not just in the EU.

To be clear then: It is strictly impossible that Twitter has not had contact with EU officials about censoring Covid-19 dissent, because the EU had a program specifically dedicated to the latter and Twitter was part of it. Furthermore, it is strictly impossible that Twitter is not continuing to have contact with EU officials about censoring online content and speech more generally.

This is because the EU’s “Fighting Covid-19 Disinformation” program was launched within the framework of its more general so-called Code of Practice on Disinformation. Under the Code, Twitter and other online platforms and search engines have assumed commitments to combat – i.e. suppress – what the European Commission deems to be “misinformation” or “disinformation.”

In June of last year, a “strengthened” Code of Practice on Disinformation was adopted, which created formalized reporting requirements for Code signatories like Twitter. Other major signatories of the Code include Google/YouTube, Meta/Facebook, Microsoft – which is notably the owner of LinkedIn – and TikTok.

Furthermore, the strengthened Code also created a “permanent task force” on disinformation, in which all code signatories are required to participate and which is chaired by none other than the European Commission itself. The “task force” also includes representatives of the EU’s foreign service. (For more details, see Section IX of the Code, titled “Permanent Task-Force.”)

And if this were not enough, in September of last year, the EU opened a “digital embassy” in San Francisco, in order precisely to be close to Twitter and other leading American tech companies. For the moment, the embassy reportedly shares office space with the Irish consulate: meaning, per Google maps, that it is around a 10-minute drive from Twitter headquarters.

So, it is strictly impossible that Twitter has not had and is not continuing to have contact – indeed extensive and regular contact – with EU officials about censoring content and accounts that the European Commission deems “mis-” or “disinformation.” But we have heard absolutely nothing about this in the “Twitter Files.”

Why? The answer is: because EU censorship really is government censorship, i.e. censorship that Twitter is required to carry out on pain of sanction. This is the difference between the EU censorship and what Elon Musk himself has denounced as “US government censorship.” The latter has amounted to nudges and requests, but was never obligatory and could never be obligatory, thanks to the First Amendment and the fact that there has never been any enforcement mechanism. Any law creating such an enforcement mechanism would be obviously unconstitutional. Hence, Twitter could always simply say no.

But so long as it wants to remain on the EU market, Twitter cannot say no to the demands of the European Commission. As discussed in my previous article here, the enforcement mechanism that renders the Code of Practice obligatory is the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA). The DSA gives the European Commission power to impose fines of up to 6% percent of global turnover on platforms that it finds to be in violation of the Code: n.b. global turnover, not just turnover on the EU market!

The Commission has not been shy about reminding Twitter and the other tech companies of this threat, thus posting the below tweet last June on the very day that the “strengthened” Code of Practice was announced.

This was before the DSA had even been adopted by the European Parliament! But the DSA has been the sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of Twitter and the other online platforms for the last two years, and it is now law. Once designated a “very large online platform” by the Commission – which is inevitable in its case – Twitter will have 4 months to demonstrate compliance, as the below “DSA Timeline” makes clear.

Moreover, the power to apply financial sanction is not the only extraordinary enforcement power that the DSA gives the Commission. The Commission is also given the power to conduct warrantless inspections of company premises, sealing the premises for the duration of the inspection, and gaining access to whatever “books or records” it pleases. (See Article 69 of the DSA here.) Such inspections, which have been previously used in the context of EU competition law, are quaintly known in the literature as “dawn raids.” (See here, for example.)

This is why Elon Musk and the “Twitter Files” are so verbose about alleged “US government censorship” and so willing to “out” the private communications of US government officials, but have remained suitably mum about EU censorship demands and have not outed the private communications of any EU officials or representatives. Elon Musk is being held hostage by the European Union, and no hostage in his or her right mind is going to do anything to irritate the hostage-takers.

Far from any sign of defiance of the Code and the DSA, what we get from Elon Musk is repeated pledges of fealty: like the below tweet that he posted after meeting with EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton in January. (For an earlier such pledge in the form of a joint video message with Breton, see here.)

And if Musk should ever have any doubts about what he needs to do to satisfy the EU’s requirements, help is always close at hand – indeed a mere 10 minutes aways. For the EU’s “digital ambassador” to Silicon Valley, Gerard de Graaf, is one of the authors of the DSA.

But if Elon Musk is so fearful about crossing the EU, then why has he restored so many Covid-19 dissident accounts? Wasn’t that an act of defiance of the EU and notably of its “Fighting Covid-19 Disinformation” program?

Well, no, it was not.

Firstly, it should be recalled that Musk had originally promised a “general amnesty” of all suspended accounts. As discussed in my earlier article here, this quickly drew a stern and public rebuke from none other than Thierry Breton, and Musk failed to follow through. Instead, in accordance with Breton’s demands, there has been a case-by-case restoration of selected accounts, which has recently slowed down to a trickle.

@OpenVaet, whose own Twitter account remains suspended, has been maintaining a partial inventory of suspended Twitter accounts. As of this writing, only 99 of the 215 accounts in the sample, or roughly 46% percent, have been restored. (See @OpenVaet’s spreadsheet of still banned and restored accounts here.) Assuming the sample is representative, this would mean that over 6,000 accounts in all are still suspended.

And this is to say nothing of the more insidious form of censorship that is “visibility filtering” or “shadow-banning.” Per the motto “Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach,” Elon Musk has never denied that Twitter would continue to engage in the latter. Many of the returning Covid-19 dissidents have noticed a curious lack of engagement, leading them to wonder if their accounts are not in fact still subjected to unannounced special measures.

But, secondly, and more to the point, have another look at the archive of the “Fighting Covid-19 Disinformation” reports shown above. That is the completearchive. The March-April 2022 reports are the final set of reports. Last June, as noted here, the European Commission discontinued the program, folding the reporting on Covid-19 “disinformation” into the more general reporting requirements established under the “strengthened” Code of Practice on Disinformation.

By this time, most of the most onerous Covid-19 measures in the EU, including “vaccine passports,” had already been ended, and most of the remainder have been gradually rolled back since. Elon Musk thus allowed (some) Covid-19 dissent back onto Twitter when, at least in the EU, there was hardly any public policy to dissent from anymore.

But the EU’s censorship regime as such is still very much in place, and censorship has by no means come to end on Twitter. Thus, on the very night of the Brazilian elections on October 30, Twitter was already censoring local reports of electoral fraud. The famous “misleading” warning labels that had once been used to quarantine reports of Covid-19 vaccine harm now made a reappearance, insisting that according to unnamed “experts,” Brazil’s elections were “safe and secure.” (For examples, see my thread here.)

Whether electoral integrity/fraud in countries of interest, the war in Ukraine or the “next pandemic” for which the EU is already reserving mRNA “vaccine” capacity, you may rest assured that the EU will not lack new subjects of “disinformation” requiring censorship and that Elon Musk and Twitter will oblige.

Whether this censorship takes the form of outright suspensions and content removals or content “demotion” and account “visibility filtering” is a secondary matter. The European Commission will be able to work out such details with Twitter and the other platforms.

Indeed, the DSA further requires the platforms to grant the Commission access to their back offices, including, as Thierry Breton triumphantly notes in a blog post here, “the ‘black box’ of algorithms that are at the heart of platforms’ systems.” As noted on the Commission website, the Commission is even setting up a European Centre for Algorithmic Transparency, in order to be able to better fulfill its “supervisory” role in this regard.

Needless to say, such “transparency” does not extend to mere users such as you or me. For us, the algorithmic functioning of the platforms will remain a “black box.” But the Commission will be able to know everything about it and to demand modifications to ensure compliance with the EU’s requirements.

Author

  • Robert Kogon

    Robert Kogon is a pen name for a widely-published financial journalist, a translator, and researcher working in Europe.Follow him at Twitter here. He writes at edv1694.substack.com.

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Brownstone Institute

Conspiracy Theory Debunker Finds Real Conspiracies

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From the Brownstone Institute

BY Doran HowittDORAN HOWITT  

The first genuine conspiracy he describes involved the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) manipulating data in the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS). The second involved a newspaper editor-in-chief refusing to report about vaccine side effects observed by a hospital

The 2023 book Misbelief by Dan Ariely belongs to a genre I would label “debunking Covid conspiracy theories.” The book is meant to explore the thought process of people who subscribe to conspiracy theories, especially about Covid and the Covid vaccines.

Thus I was surprised to encounter in the book two stories in which the author uncovered real conspiracies to hide information about Covid from the public.

Ariely, a professor of psychology at Duke University, played a bit part in promoting Covid lockdowns around the world. By his own description, he worked

…on projects related to Covid-19 with the Israeli government and a bit with the British, Dutch, and Brazilian governments as well…I was mostly working to try to get the police to use rewards to incentivize good mask-wearing behavior and observance of social distancing instead of using fines… (p. 4)

The first genuine conspiracy he describes involved the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) manipulating data in the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS). The second involved a newspaper editor-in-chief refusing to report about vaccine side effects observed by a hospital. The author reports these situations matter-of-factly, and even gives the conspirators the benefit of the doubt, saying maybe they did the right thing!

Let’s look at the VAERS conspiracy (recounted on pp. 274-276). Ariely says he got this information directly from a person who works “in the information technology department of the FDA.” The agency, according to the story, determined that:

…foreign powers, mostly Russian and Iranian, had found a way to spread disinformation using VAERS. So when the FDA identified cases that had clearly come from such sources, it removed them from the system…

Not only did it delete this data, but it did so silently. Ariely only found out by accident: Parents of vaccine-injured children maintained their own copy of the VAERS data, downloaded from the FDA site. They noticed that cases appearing in their downloaded data later disappeared from the government copy of the database, and they told Ariely about this.

Supposedly the FDA tried to keep these actions secret because it “did not want to announce to the foreign powers that it was onto them,” the FDA employee told him. But to anyone reasonably well-versed in information technology, keeping such acts secret is an obvious mistake. The bad guys will figure out what is going on; the folks we are trying to protect are left in the dark about possible mischief affecting data they rely on. And that’s the most charitable assessment of their actions. It could be worse: the FDA might have removed valid information inadvertently (putting aside possible nefarious intentions at this point). How might that come about?

Since we don’t have details as to how the FDA found this bad data, we need to speculate. Here is the easiest scenario to imagine. A straightforward way to detect computer sessions originating in Russia or Iran is by IP (internet protocol) address. Did the FDA personnel identify the supposedly bogus entries by this method?

But there’s a flaw in that approach. Many computer users obfuscate their IP address for privacy reasons. Some popular browsers such as Tor and Brave do that automatically: each browser page gets detoured through servers in different locations. Those servers are located worldwide, including in Russia. Thus if a US-based individual using the Tor browser added an entry to VAERS, and the session was routed through Russia, the FDA might well have identified this incorrectly as misinformation.

Compare how the world of open-source software deals with malware. These software publishers routinely make information about vulnerabilities public, so that user organizations can both protect themselves and evaluate what damage might have been done. A publisher may wait a few days or weeks while they fix a bug and get it distributed, but then they disseminate the details.

A variety of US laws and regulations even require corporations to promptly reveal data breaches that happen to them. For example, the Securities and Exchange Commission mandates that public companies report “cybersecurity incidents” within four days of determining that the incident has a “material” effect on a company’s business.

VAERS is supposed to be a public resource. If FDA has a policy to remove entries, it should be transparent about its criteria, and make the data available for audit. Or it could just as easily have flagged the entries as “suspicious origin” and left them in the database. Then others could review their judgment and either confirm or dispute the classifications.

Let’s look at the second conspiracy Ariely recounts (pp. 277-280):

I was speaking with a doctor from a large health care organization…I couldn’t resist asking her what she thought about all the online chatter about unreported vaccine side effects. To my surprise, she agreed there was a problem. She said that she had observed a lot of side effects in her clinic that had not been reported and had been collecting such data from her patients…

Ariely at that point decided this was newsworthy. He met with the editor-in-chief of “a large newspaper,” told the editor about the situation, and suggested the editor get the doctor’s data and report about it. The reaction:

The editor told me he suspected that I was correct about the underreported side effects. However, he had no intention of publishing anything about them…because he suspected that the misbelievers would use the published information in an unethical way and distort it…I was disappointed that he did not publish the story, but I could see his point.

Ariely spends a few sentences philosophizing about what is the true responsibility of a newspaper – is it just to publish true information, or is it “to do this cost-benefit analysis for the society…?” But apparently he let the matter lie, acquiescing in real censorship of real information.

The debunker has debunked his own debunking project.

Author

  • Doran Howitt

    Doran Howitt is a semi-retired marketing executive and former financial journalist. He blogs as “Occasional Economist” on LinkedIn.

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Brownstone Institute

The WHO and Phony International Law

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From the Brownstone Institute

BY Bruce PardyBRUCE PARDY 

A new pandemic treaty is in the works. Countries are negotiating its terms, along with amendments to international health regulations. If ready in time, the World Health Assembly will approve them in May. The deal may give the WHO power to declare global health emergencies. Countries will promise to follow WHO directives. Lockdowns, vaccine mandates, travel restrictions, and more will be in the works. Critics say that the agreements will override national sovereignty because their provisions will be binding. But international law is the art of the Big Pretend.

You drive down Main Street. Cars are parked everywhere. The signs say “No Parking” but they also say, “The City does not enforce parking restrictions.” In effect there’s no rule against parking. Laws are commands imposed with the force of the state. Rules without sanctions are mere suggestions. Some people may honor the request, but others won’t. Those who disagree with the rule can safely ignore it. In domestic law, “enforceable” and “binding” are synonyms.

But not in international law, where promises are called “binding” even if they are unenforceable. In the international sphere, countries are the highest authority. Nothing stands above them with the power to enforce their promises. No such courts exist. The International Court of Justice depends on the consent of the countries involved. No international police enforce its orders. The UN is a sprawling bureaucracy, but in the end, it is merely a place for countries to gather. The WHO is a branch of the UN whose mandate countries negotiate amongst themselves.

In the proposed pandemic treaty, parties are to settle disputes through negotiation. They may agree to be subject to the International Court of Justice or to arbitration. But they cannot be required to.

Yet international law jurists insist that unenforceable treaty promises can be binding. “The binding character of a norm does not depend on whether there is any court or tribunal with jurisdiction to apply it,” Daniel Bodansky, a professor of international law at Arizona State University, wrote in a 2016 analysis of the Paris climate agreement. “Enforcement is not a necessary condition for an instrument or norm to be legally binding.” Without this Big Pretend, international law would collapse like a house of cards on a windy beach.

All countries are sovereign. They are free to retaliate against each other for perceived wrongs, including breaches of treaty promises. They can seek to have other countries censured or expelled from the international regime. They can impose trade sanctions. They can expel ambassadors. But retaliation is not “enforcement.” Moreover, international relations are a delicate business. Aggrieved countries are more likely to express their disappointment in carefully crafted diplomatic language than to burn bridges.

The threat from WHO proposals come not from outside but from within. We live in a managerial age, run by a technocratic elite. Over time, they have acquired for themselves the discretion to direct society for the common good, as they declare it to be.

As journalist David Samuels puts it, “Americans now find themselves living in an oligarchy administered day-to-day by institutional bureaucracies that move in lock-step with each other, enforcing a set of ideologically-driven top-down imperatives that seemingly change from week-to-week and cover nearly every subject under the sun.” These bureaucracies regulate, license, expropriate, subsidize, track, censor, prescribe, plan, incentivize, and inspect. Pandemics and public health are the most recent justifications for yet more control.

Domestic governments, not international bodies, will impose WHO recommendations on their citizens. They will pass laws and policies that incorporate those directives. Even an exasperated WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said so in a briefing this week. “There are those who claim that the pandemic agreement and [amended regulations] will cede sovereignty…and give the WHO Secretariat the power to impose lockdowns or vaccine mandates on countries…These claims are completely false…the agreement is negotiated by countries for countries and will be implemented in countries in accordance with your own national laws.”

Ghebreyesus is correct. Local and national authorities will not give up their powers. To what extent international commitments will be “binding” on a country depends not on international law but on that country’s own domestic laws and courts. Article VI of the US Constitution, for example, provides that the Constitution, federal laws, and treaties together “shall be the supreme Law of the Land.” That does not mean that treaties supersede the Constitution or federal laws. Domestic legislation and policy will be required for the proposed pandemic treaty and WHO directives to be enforced on American soil. Such legislation is an exercise of sovereignty, not a repudiation of it.

The proposals are not benign. Domestic authorities seek cover for their own autocratic measures. Their promises will be called “binding” even though they are not. Local officials will justify restrictions by citing international obligations. Binding WHO recommendations leave them no choice, they will say. The WHO will coordinate their imperatives as the face of global public health.

The WHO is not taking over. Instead, it will be the handmaiden for a coordinated global biomedical state. Managers hate straight lines. Diffuse, discretionary powers avoid accountability and the rule of law. The global health regime will be a tangled web. It is meant to be.

Author

  • Bruce Pardy

    Bruce Pardy is executive director of Rights Probe and professor of law at Queen’s University.

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