From the Brownstone Institute
Laws to ban disinformation and misinformation are being introduced across the West, with the partial exception being the US, which has the First Amendment so the techniques to censor have had to be more clandestine.
In Europe, the UK, and Australia, where free speech is not as overtly protected, governments have legislated directly. The EU Commission is now applying the ‘Digital Services Act’ (DSA), a thinly disguised censorship law.
In Australia the government is seeking to provide the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) with “new powers to hold digital platforms to account and improve efforts to combat harmful misinformation and disinformation.”
One effective response to these oppressive laws may come from a surprising source: literary criticism. The words being used, which are prefixes added to the word “information,” are a sly misdirection. Information, whether in a book, article or post is a passive artefact. It cannot do anything, so it cannot break a law. The Nazis burned books, but they didn’t arrest them and put them in jail. So when legislators seek to ban “disinformation,” they cannot mean the information itself. Rather, they are targeting the creation of meaning.
The authorities use variants of the word “information” to create the impression that what is at issue is objective truth but that is not the focus. Do these laws, for example, apply to the forecasts of economists or financial analysts, who routinely make predictions that are wrong? Of course not. Yet economic or financial forecasts, if believed, could be quite harmful to people.
The laws are instead designed to attack the intent of the writers to create meanings that are not congruent with the governments’ official position. ‘Disinformation’ is defined in dictionaries as information that is intended to mislead and to cause harm. ‘Misinformation’ has no such intent and is just an error, but even then that means determining what is in the author’s mind. ‘Mal-information’ is considered to be something that is true, but that there is an intention to cause harm.
Determining a writer’s intent is extremely problematic because we cannot get into another person’s mind; we can only speculate on the basis of their behaviour. That is largely why in literary criticism there is a notion called the Intentional Fallacy, which says that the meaning of a text cannot be limited to the intention of the author, nor is it possible to know definitively what that intention is from the work. The meanings derived from Shakespeare’s works, for example, are so multifarious that many of them cannot possibly have been in the Bard’s mind when he wrote the plays 400 years ago.
How do we know, for example, that there is no irony, double meaning, pretence or other artifice in a social media post or article? My former supervisor, a world expert on irony, used to walk around the university campus wearing a T-shirt saying: “How do you know I am being ironic?” The point was that you can never know what is actually in a person’s mind, which is why intent is so difficult to prove in a court of law.
That is the first problem. The second one is that, if the creation of meaning is the target of the proposed law – to proscribe meanings considered unacceptable by the authorities – how do we know what meaning the recipients will get? A literary theory, broadly under the umbrella term ‘deconstructionism,’ claims that there are as many meanings from a text as there are readers and that “the author is dead.”
While this is an exaggeration, it is indisputable that different readers get different meanings from the same texts. Some people reading this article, for example, might be persuaded while others might consider it evidence of a sinister agenda. As a career journalist I have always been shocked at the variability of reader’s responses to even the most simple of articles. Glance at the comments on social media posts and you will see an extreme array of views, ranging from positive to intense hostility.
To state the obvious, we all think for ourselves and inevitably form different views, and see different meanings. Anti-disinformation legislation, which is justified as protecting people from bad influences for the common good, is not merely patronising and infantilising, it treats citizens as mere machines ingesting data – robots, not humans. That is simply wrong.
Governments often make incorrect claims, and made many during Covid.
In Australia the authorities said lockdowns would only last a few weeks to “flatten the curve.” In the event they were imposed for over a year and there never was a “curve.” According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics 2020 and 2021 had the lowest levels of deaths from respiratory illness since records have been kept.
Governments will not apply the same standards to themselves, though, because governments always intend well (that comment may or may not be intended to be ironic; I leave it up to the reader to decide).
There is reason to think these laws will fail to achieve the desired result. The censorship regimes have a quantitative bias. They operate on the assumption that if a sufficient proportion of social media and other types of “information” is skewed towards pushing state propaganda, then the audience will inevitably be persuaded to believe the authorities.
But what is at issue is meaning, not the amount of messaging. Repetitious expressions of the government’s preferred narrative, especially ad hominem attacks like accusing anyone asking questions of being a conspiracy theorist, eventually become meaningless.
By contrast just one well-researched and well-argued post or article can permanently persuade readers to an anti-government view because it is more meaningful. I can recall reading pieces about Covid, including on Brownstone, that led inexorably to the conclusion that the authorities were lying and that something was very wrong. As a consequence the voluminous, mass media coverage supporting the government line just appeared to be meaningless noise. It was only of interest in exposing how the authorities were trying to manipulate the “narrative” – a debased word was once mainly used in a literary context – to cover their malfeasance.
In their push to cancel unapproved content, out-of-control governments are seeking to penalise what George Orwell called “thought crimes.” But they will never be able to truly stop people thinking for themselves, nor will they ever definitively know either the writer’s intent or what meaning people will ultimately derive. It is bad law, and it will eventually fail because it is, in itself, predicated on disinformation.
Witnessing the Media’s Covid Coverage from the Inside
From the Brownstone Institute
If right-leaning outlets wanted my words and left-leaning ones did not, my Occam’s razor landed on ideology as the explanatory factor. So-called progressive media had a story to uphold and rejected any plot twist that threatened the cohesion of its narrative.
In the movie An Education, the main character gets sidetracked from her studies by a smooth-talking art dealer who turns out to be a criminal—and married. Our protagonist learns more from that experience than from all the medieval literature books she cracked open before. I have similar feelings about my own education. While I’ve been earning my living as a writer for the past 29 years, it’s only during the Covid era that I learned what the writing business is really about.
I wear two hats in my professional life: medical writer, creating materials for doctors and the healthcare industry, and feature-article journalist for consumer magazines. It wasn’t until Covid that I began pitching essays and op-eds for publication.
I started with a piece called “A Tale of Two Pandemic Cities,” which grew out of my short trip to Amsterdam and Stockholm in the summer of 2020, when the European Union opened its doors to “well-behaved” countries like Canada. The Covid hysteria in my country had made me desperate to visit more balanced parts of the world, and my trip didn’t disappoint. The article found a home at a Canadian outlet called Healthy Debate, though the editor asked me to temper my enthusiasm for the Swedish strategy with an acknowledgement of its risks. Happy to find a legit publisher for my first Covid piece, I capitulated, sort of. (You can judge for yourself.)
Thus began a feverish outpouring of essays, each one motivated by the same bewildered questions: What the hell is happening to the world, and why? Has everyone else gone mad, or is it me? I had written a few controversial articles throughout my career, but never before had I held a “dissenting view” about an issue that affected the whole world—or felt such an urgent need to express it.
The Great Divide
I quickly learned that certain news outlets were less open to my pieces than others. Salon, fuggedaboutit. Spiked Online, bull’s eye on the first try. Washington Post, not a chance. Wall Street Journal, a couple of “close, but no cigar” efforts and then finally a yes. It boiled down to this: the further left a publication leaned, the less likely it would publish my pieces (or even respond to my inquiries). I’m sure a statistician could write an equation to capture the trend.
So why the radio silence from left-wing publications? I doubted I was tripping their “Covid disinformation” radars, as my pieces had less to do with scientific facts than with social philosophy: the balance between safety and freedom, the perils of top-down collectivism, the abuse of the precautionary principle, that sort of thing. If right-leaning outlets wanted my words and left-leaning ones did not, my Occam’s razor landed on ideology as the explanatory factor. So-called progressive media had a story to uphold and rejected any plot twist that threatened the cohesion of its narrative. (Not that right-wing media behaved much differently. Such is the age of advocacy journalism.)
Most nerve-wracking of all were the publishers who accepted my articles but, like that first Healthy Debate editor, insisted I make substantive changes. Should I concede or push back? I did a bit of both. The most important thing, I told myself, was to make people reflect on the topsy-turvy policies that had freeze-framed the world. If I had to soften a few sentences to get the word out, so be it. I have the utmost respect for writers who refuse to yield on such matters, but 29 years of paying the bills from my writing have tipped my internal compass toward pragmatism.
I did stand my ground with an article on the mask wars. My thesis was that the endless and pointless disputes on social media—masks work, no they don’t, yes they do, no they don’t—had less to do with science than with worldview: irrespective of the data, social collectivists would find a way to defend masks, while my freedom-first compatriots would never countenance a perma-masked world.
One editor agreed to publish the piece if I mentioned that some studies favor masking, but I argued that quoting studies would undercut my central argument: that the forces powering the mask wars have little to do with how well they block viruses. He wouldn’t budge, so we parted ways and I found a more congenial home for the piece at the Ottawa Citizen.
The process of pitching counternarrative essays, while arduous at times, led me to a smorgasbord of lesser-known, high-quality publications I never would have discovered otherwise. Topping the list was the glorious UnHerd, a UK news and opinion website with such daring thinkers as Mary Harrington and Kathleen Stock on its roster of contributors. The US-based Tablet magazine offered consistently fresh takes on Covid and never took the easy road in its analyses. In its pages I found one of the most powerful Covid essays I have ever read. The author, Ann Bauer (no relation), teased out the common threads between the “settled science” about the virus and the litany of quack theories about autism, which fed into her son’s death by suicide.
Then there was Quillette, whose contempt for the sacred cows of wokeism gave me a special thrill. True confession: I blew my chances with Quillette and it’s my own damned fault. Like many working writers, I sometimes pitch a piece to more than one outlet at the same time, a practice known as simultaneous submissions. This goes against protocol—we’re supposed to wait until an editor declines our pitch before approaching the next one—but the reality is that many editors never respond. With the deck thus stacked against us, we writers sometimes push the envelope, figuring the odds of getting multiple acceptances (and thus pissing off editors) are low enough to take the risk.
On this particular occasion, I submitted an article called “Lessons from my Half-Vaxxed Daughter” to three publications. Medpage Today responded right away, and I accepted their offer to publish it. (This was while Marty Makary, the dissident-lite physician who called out people’s distorted perception of Covid risk in mainstream media, led the editorial team.) A few hours later, Quillette’s Canadian editor sent me a slightly reworked version of my piece and told me when he planned to run it. I had no choice but to proffer a red-faced apology and admit I had already placed the article elsewhere. He never responded to my email or to a follow-up mea culpa a few weeks later—and has ignored everything I’ve submitted since then. I guess I’ll have to wait until he retires.
Earlier this year, Brownstone Institute published my book Blindsight Is 2020, which critiques the pandemic response through the lens of 46 dissident thinkers. By all standards a moderate book, it stays clear of any “conspiratorial” speculations about the origins of the pandemic or the political response to it. Instead, it focuses on the philosophical and ethical issues that kept me awake at night during the peak Covid years—the same themes I explore in my essays, but in greater depth. I wrote the book not just for “my team,” but for those who vehemently opposed my views—perhaps especially for them. I didn’t expect to change their minds as much as to help them understand why some of us objected so strenuously to the policies they cheered on.
After the book came out, a few podcasters invited me to their shows. I appeared on a Libertarian Institute podcast in which the host puffed on his hand-rolled cigarettes while we talked. I spoke to an amiable ex-con podcaster who made it his mission to share Ayn Rand’s ideas with the world. I bonded with Rupa Subramanya—a brilliant Canadian conservative journalist and podcaster featured in my book—over the Freedom Convoy we had both supported.
All told I’ve appeared on 22 podcasts to date, each of them hosted by a right-leaning or libertarian host. Crickets from the left. Not one to accept defeat, I’ve begun reaching out to left-leaning podcasters on my own. Perhaps one day I’ll hear back from them.
Covid media, like so much else in modern life, has become hopelessly fractured: the tall, left-facing trees dominate the landscape, telling the story of a deadly virus that we “did the best we could” to manage. Below the tree canopy lies the tangle of weeds that sway in the wind, whispering songs of freedom and warning against the totalitarian impulses that all too readily emerge during crises. While I’ll continue to throw my essays at those unyielding trees, the messy underbrush is where I’ve found my journalistic home.
Why So Many Countries Followed China’s Lockdown Example
From the Brownstone Institute
The answer to why countries followed China’s lockdowns is simple. They were told to do so by the World Health Organization (WHO). Why did the WHO tell them to do that? You might want to ask Dr. Bruce Aylward
A novel coronavirus that was 10 times deadlier than the flu had gripped the world in 2019. Without a compass to navigate the Covid-19 pandemic, all lessons learned from previous viral pandemics were thrown out the window. The World Health Organization was adamant, “This is not the flu.” Tony Fauci terrified the US House of Representatives with forecasts of disaster. Global populations were defenseless without a vaccine for the novel coronavirus that no one had ever seen before. The only viable defense at the time was to shut down the world.
China took the lead in lockdowns. Media exported from China showed people dropping dead in the streets. Caskets were piling up. Doors to buildings were sealed to lock in tenants. Throughout the panic, all reasonable alternative assessments of risks from the viral outbreak were ignored, censored, or rejected.
Nevertheless, I wondered whether a video of a person falling down in the street was really representative of the entire population. Were caskets piling up largely due to families fearing to claim them because of contamination with the virus? I noticed that the front doors to my local mall in Ontario, Canada had also been sealed, just like in China apartment buildings, but this was only to control access through a single entrance to the building, not to seal in customers.
My first clue that the emergency response to the outbreak of the coronavirus didn’t seem to make sense was when I heard Fauci tell television audiences that if our response seems to be overreacting, then we are probably doing the right thing. What? Since when is overreacting ever the right thing to do? Do generals win wars by overreacting?
I looked at the numbers that Fauci had presented to the US House of Representatives concerning case and infection fatalities of the coronavirus. They were backwards! His 10-times deadlier prediction was simply a made-up number! This was in March 2020. By May 2020 it was obvious that people were NOT dying at the inflated rate Fauci had predicted.
I published a paper on Fauci’s coronavirus mortality overestimations: Public Health Lessons Learned From Biases in Coronavirus Mortality Overestimation. But when I mentioned all this to my friends, they responded that the lower than predicted deaths just proved the lockdowns were working. Fauci was off the hook. Back to China.
WHO/China Joint Mission on Covid-19
The answer to why countries followed China’s lockdowns is simple. They were told to do so by the World Health Organization (WHO). Why did the WHO tell them to do that? You might want to ask Dr. Bruce Aylward, the Director of the WHO/China Joint Mission on Covid-19 investigating the coronavirus outbreak.
Aylward noticed a precipitous drop in novel coronavirus pneumonia (NCP) in China during February 2020. This was before China adopted WHO’s name of coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19). Upon seeing China’s surveillance data, Aylward announced the spectacular findings to the world and told the world to do what China has done and lock down. But he appeared to make a fundamental epidemiological error by wrongly assuming that the association of China’s lockdowns with lower deaths proved the lockdowns were working (just like my friends had told me).
Soon after in March 2020, China published its latest case definitions for NCP (Covid-19). In a nutshell, the definitions showed that no one could be declared to have died of the disease unless they had viral pneumonia (a severe acute respiratory illness), and only if no other virus normally associated with viral pneumonia was present, except SARS-CoV-2.
Coinfections with the coronavirus were not acceptable criteria, and what should have been a broad surveillance case definition with high sensitivity to monitor the spread of the virus within the population narrowed down considerably into an overly specific diagnostic case definition. That pretty much sealed the deal to declare Covid-19 deaths in only single digits for many months during the pandemic throughout China. This super-low outcome impressed Dr. Bruce Aylward enough in February 2020 to implore the world to lock down. Did we ever!
In the meantime, other countries used case and death definitions that went to the opposite extreme of China’s narrow diagnostic definitions, disseminating overinflated surveillance numbers without adjusting the numbers to remove bias. Even Fauci eventually admitted that reported cases and deaths counted WITH the coronavirus are much higher than cases and deaths counted FROM the coronavirus. Ironically, the WHO had previously published material on the correct use and interpretation of surveillance and diagnostic definitions in infectious disease outbreaks. Aylward didn’t appear to get the memo.
There is more to the story. Was this even really a novel coronavirus, or just a novel genetic sequence of the coronavirus showing greater detail than previously available? China supposedly received updated genetic sequencing technology in late 2019. They had abandoned surveillance of SARS in 2003 for lack of technology.
Now they were back in business again by the end of 2019. The team of virologists that reported the genetic sequence of the virus in Wuhan noted that it would be necessary to investigate the epidemiological evidence to guide infection control responses. Who has time for that? Shut it down!
If the novel coronavirus isn’t really so novel, this would explain why the lockdowns didn’t work. We had already known that lockdowns don’t work in other viral pandemics. Even China eventually gave up its Zero Covid Policy after it was obvious that lockdowns weren’t working. My friends owe me some explanations to justify their lockdown views. Maybe Fauci isn’t off the hook after all.
For more information on biases in Covid-19 case and death definitions, see my peer-reviewed article with cited references: Biases in COVID-19 Case and Death Definitions: Potential Causes and Consequences.
Canadian gov’t accepted risks of COVID shots’ unknown safety and efficacy, Pfizer contract reveals
No evidence of Freedom Convoy leaders conspiring to stir up protesters, attorneys argue
New Photo Radar rules will move radar sites from freeways to school zones
Political Football: The Always-Barking Dog of Bilingualism
Danielle Smith blasts Trudeau gov’t as ‘lawless’ for pushing climate policies despite court rulings
Help Us Preserve Alberta’s Sport History
Ontario policeman fights conviction, penalty for donating to the Freedom Convoy
Brownstone Institute2 days ago
Why So Many Countries Followed China’s Lockdown Example
COVID-192 days ago
Freedom Convoy leaders’ lawyers ask court to dismiss ‘weak’ case over lack of evidence
Community2 days ago
Giving Hope on Giving Tuesday
Business2 days ago
China likely to escape scot-free in persecution of two Canadians
Bruce Dowbiggin20 hours ago
Could AI Make Yesterday Into Today For Culture, Sports & Politics?
Canadian Energy Centre19 hours ago
Reality check: Global emissions from coal plants
Alberta19 hours ago
$6.5 billion investment! World’s first ‘net-zero’ ethyelene plant announced for Fort Saskatchewan
Uncategorized2 days ago
Trudeau signs partnership with EU to promote digital IDs, counter ‘disinformation’