Matt Taibbi Media Criticism Pandemic

Matt Taibbi: The Folly of Pandemic Censorship

As the latest anti-Substack campaign shows, more and more people are forgetting why free speech works

By Matt Taibbi / Substack

Earlier this week, in the latest in a series of scolding campaigns, a Britain-based group called the Center for Countering Digital Hate gave a sneak peek at a research report on Substack to The Guardian and The Washington Post. Both outlets came out with their scare pieces this morning. From The Guardian:

A group of vaccine-skeptic writers are generating revenues of at least $2.5m (£1.85m) a year from publishing newsletters for tens of thousands of followers on the online publishing platform Substack, according to new research…

Imran Ahmed, chief executive of CCDH, said companies like Substack were under “no obligation” to amplify vaccine skepticism and make money from it. “They could just say no…”

The Post, citing “some misinformation experts” — the pandemic version of “people familiar with the matter” — added:

These newer platforms cater to subscribers who seek out specific content that accommodates their viewpoints — potentially making the services less responsible for spreading harmful views, some misinformation experts say.

If these stories sound familiar, it’s because this same Center for Countering Digital Hate two years ago tried to pull the same stunt with The Federalist, using NBC to ask Google to crack down on them. Humorously, and typically — this happens a lot with these stories — that effort ended in fiasco. The piece NBC ended up writing boasting of the success of its “Verification Unit” in getting the site demonetized, entitled, “Google bans two websites from its ad platform over protest articles,” turned out to itself be misinformation. The Federalist was never banned, only warned, and the issue was its comments section, not its articles. Google had to issue a statement:

Substack is home to tens of thousands of writers and over a million paying subscribers, quadruple last year’s total of 250,000. The sites range from newsletters for comics enthusiasts to crypto news to recipe ideas. Like the Internet as a whole, it’s basically a catalogue of everything.

Still, panic campaigns in legacy press consistently focus on handfuls of sites, and with impressive dishonesty describe them as representative. I was particularly struck by a recent Mashable article that talked about a supposed “backlash” against Substack’s “growing collection of anti-trans writers,” which seemed to refer to Jesse Singal (who is no such thing) and Graham Linehan and — that’s it. Substack is actually home to more trans writers than any other outlet, but to the Scolding Class, that’s not the point. The company’s real crime is that it refuses to submit to pressure campaigns and strike off Wrongthinkers.

Substack is designed to be difficult to censor. Because content is sent by email, it’s not easy to pressure platforms to zap offending material. It doesn’t depend on advertisers, so you can’t lean on them, either. The only real pressure points are company executives like Hamish McKenzie and Chris Best, who are now regular targets of these ham-fisted campaigns demanding they discipline writers.

The latest presents Substack as a place where, as Mashable put it, “COVID misinformation is allowed to flourish.” The objections mainly center around Joseph Mercola, Alex Berenson, and Robert Malone. There are issues with the specific critiques of each, but those aren’t the point. Every one of these campaigns revolves around the same larger problem: would-be censors misunderstanding the basic calculus of the freedom of speech.

Even in a society with fairly robust protections, as ours once was, the most dangerous misinformation is always, without exception, official. 

Whether it’s WMDs or the Gulf of Tonkin fiasco or the missile gap or the red scare or the twenty-year occupation of Afghanistan, the worst real-world disasters always turn out to be driven or enabled by official falsehoods. In the case of Afghanistan (and Iraq, and Vietnam before both), the cycle of war disaster was perpetuated by a sweeping, organized, and intricate system of official lying, about everything from the success of missions to the efficacy of weaponry to the political devotion of supposed allies. The only defense against these most dangerous types of deceptions is an absolutely free press. 

People know authorities lie, which is why the more they clamp down, the bigger their trust problem usually becomes. Unfortunately, censors by nature can’t help themselves. Our official liars are always trying to learn from their errors. For instance, film of wounded, suffering, or dead American boys, as well as of the atrocities we committed, not only resulted in pressure to end the Vietnam War, but probably prevented future invasions of countries like Nicaragua, as voters recalled the sickening “quagmire.” 

Military officials saw this, and when they finally got to go to war again, they banned the filming of coffins and instituted an embed system that closed off the bulk of adversarial reporting. Of course, that was not enough, because organizations like Wikileaks found ways to sneak out forbidden pictures. So, the powers that be imposed much tougher penalties on whistleblowers going forward. Instead of letting the Daniel Ellsbergs of the world write books and give lectures, the new reality for people like Julian Assange or Edward Snowden is permanent exile or imprisonment. The jailers seem quite proud of this, but the unofficial pseudo-ban on Assange coverage has only added to the impression of a not-free, certainly not trustworthy system of media.

Instead of seeing the root causes of this atmosphere of rapidly declining trust, officials keep pushing for even more sweeping campaigns of control, most recently seeking to make platforms like Google and Twitter arbiters of speech. 

I’ve used Substack to show the amazingly diverse range of speech deemed unallowable on private platforms, from raw footage of both anti-Trump protests and the January 6th riots, to satirical videos no one had even seen yet, to advocates and detractors of the medication Ivermectin, to a Jewish tweeter’s pictorial account of Hitler’s life, to a now proven-true expose about the president’s son. The latter case is on point, because the widely distributed story that the New York Post’s Hunter Biden report was Russian disinformation was the actual disinformation. If the fact-checkers are themselves untrustworthy, and you can’t get around the fact-checkers, that’s when you’re really screwed. 

This puts the issue of the reliability of authorities front and center, which is the main problem with pandemic messaging. One does not need to be a medical expert to see that the FDA, CDC, the NIH, as well as the White House (both under Biden and Trump) have all been untruthful, or wrong, or inconsistent, about a spectacular range of issues in the last two years.

NIAID director Anthony Fauci has told three different stories about masks, including an episode in which he essentially claimed to have lied to us for our own good, in order to preserve masks for frontline workers — what Slate called one of the “Noble lies about Covid-19.” Officials turned out to be wrong about cloth masks anyway. Here is Fauci again on the issue of what to tell the public about how many people would need to be vaccinated to achieve “herd immunity,” casually explaining the logic of lying to the public for its sake:

When polls said only about half of all Americans would take a vaccine, I was saying herd immunity would take 70 to 75 percent. Then, when newer surveys said 60 percent or more would take it, I thought, “I can nudge this up a bit,” so I went to 80, 85.

We’ve seen sudden changes in official positions on the efficacy of ventilators and lockdowns, on the dangers (or lack thereof) of opening schools, and on the risks, however small, of vaccine side effects like myocarditis. The CDC also just released data showing natural immunity to be more effective in preventing hospitalization and in preventing infection than vaccination. The government had previously said, over and over, that vaccination is preferable to natural immunity (here’s NIH director Francis Collins telling that to Bret Baier unequivocally in August). This was apparently another “noble lie,” designed to inspire people to get vaccinated, that mostly just convinced people to wonder if any official statements can be trusted. 

To me, the story most illustrative of the problem inherent in policing “Covid misinformation” involves a town hall by Joe Biden from July 21 of last year. In it, the president said bluntly, “You’re not going to get COVID if you have these vaccinations,” pretty much the definition of Covid misinformation:

It was bad enough when, a month later, the CDC released figures showing 25% of a sample of 43,000 Covid cases involved fully vaccinated people. Far worse was a fact-check by Politifact, which judged Biden’s clearly wrong statement “half true.”

“It is rare for people who are fully vaccinated to contract COVID-19, but it does happen,” the site wrote. They then cited CDC data as backup. “The data that the CDC collected before May 1 show that, of 101 million people vaccinated in the U.S., 10,262 (0.01%) experienced breakthrough cases.” Politifact’s “bottom line”: Biden “exaggerated,” but “cases are rare.” 

Anyone paying attention to that story will now distrust the president, the CDC, and “reputable” mainstream fact-checkers like the Pew Center’s Politifact. These are the exact sort of authorities whose guidance sites like the Center for Countering Digital Hate will rely upon when trying to pressure companies like Substack to remove certain voices.

This is the central problem of any “content moderation” scheme: somebody has to do the judging. The only thing worse than a landscape that contains misinformation is a landscape where misinformation is mandatory, and the only antidote for the latter is allowing all criticism, mistakes included. This is especially the case in a situation like the present, where the two-year clown show of lies and shifting positions by officials and media scolds has created a groundswell of mistrust that’s a far bigger threat to public health than a literal handful of Substack writers. 

About that: here’s the lede of a BBC report about an incident that took place in December, called “Australia police arrest quarantine escapees”:

Australian police have arrested three people who broke out of a Covid quarantine compound in the middle of the night.

The Howard Springs centre near Darwin in the Northern Territory is one of Australia’s main quarantine facilities for people returning to the country.

Police said the trio scaled a fence to break out of the facility.

Officers found them after a manhunt on Wednesday. All had tested negative to Covid the day before.

Although I’m very much not a fan of Dr. Joseph Mercola’s, the fact that the CCDH wants to shut down articles like his “The Unvaxxed May Soon Be Shipped to Quarantine Camps” — which among other things contains passages about the Australian program — shows how little they understand about how media audiences think.

As is the case with the Assange story, the paucity of information in mainstream press about the serious draconian measures in places like Australia and Germany has already massively heightened distrust in those outlets and in official reassurances. The “nothing to see here” attitude about the potential downsides of authoritarian policies has reached sick joke status (see Russell Brand’s hilarious but depressing take on the Australia situation here). As the Substack folks themselves pointed out today, our society has a trust problem, and attempts to sweep it under a rug only make things worse.

Censors have a fantasy that if they get rid of all the Berensons and Mercolas and Malones, and rein in people like Joe Rogan, that all the holdouts will suddenly rush to get vaccinated. The opposite is true. If you wipe out critics, people will immediately default to higher levels of suspicion. They will now be sure there’s something wrong with the vaccine. If you want to convince audiences, you have to allow everyone to talk, even the ones you disagree with. You have to make a better case. The Substack people, thank God, still get this, but the censor’s disease of thinking there are shortcuts to trust is spreading. 

Lastly, while the Post certainly has its own problems in this area, the Guardian editors should puke with shame for even thinking about condemning anyone else’s “misinformation,” while their own fake story about Assange’s “secret talks” with Paul Manafort in the Ecuadorian embassy remains up. Leaving an obvious hoax uncorrected will tend to create a credibility problem, and you compound it by pointing a finger elsewhere. This is a lesson in this for health authorities, too. Clean your own houses, and maybe you won’t have such a hard time being believed.

Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi, author of the New York Times bestsellers The Divide, Griftopia, and The Great Derangement, is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and winner of the 2007 National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary.

19 comments

  1. Brilliant article on misinformation! This is the kind of information we are hungry for. We’re starving out here. I wish corporate media would pick this up. Thanks for your hard work.

    1. The depth and span of Taibbi’s reporting has to do with the breadth and span of his language, of his mind. As another citizen thirsty for the truth, I am utterly grateful for the work of this one-of-a-kind journalist.

    2. Candac, corporate media will *never* pick this up. We are all witnessing the serious decline of our civilization. At the end of every empire, the wealthy and those who govern _for them_ begin to loot, plunder and otherwise rape the society of everything that has otherwise been deemed valuable as a saleable commodity. America’s biggest legacy, i.e., if humanity were to survive given that this is all called the 6th mass extinction for no other reason that ‘we’ are in it and ‘we’ caused it, will be it’s censored ability to sell capitalism as the only economic means of exchange to the vast majority of the E-air-th’s populated countries.

  2. Pro-corporate types have been peddling Libertarian lies for decades, but the Facebooks, Twitters, and Googles don’t censor them. Indeed, corporate censorship and power are used to further narrow corporate interests.

  3. The greater the threat to their power the tighter the control will become. The tighter the control the quicker their power will slip through their fingers. That is of course supposes they don’t kill us all in furnace of nuclear hellfire first. It also doesn’t take into account what might ultimately replace our currently utterly corrupted system might end up being even worse.

    Given the level of ignorance and social programming wherever this is leading won’t be pretty. More likely some kind of horror.

    Cheers.

  4. You forgot one key point. The Pfizer application to the FDA for certification became public information the moment it was submitted. Yet, a group of doctors and medical scientists had to sue the FDA to get access to a document that was supposed to be available to the public.

    In a subsequent law suit to get the data on the children’s vaccine application, the FDA told the court it would release the data over a period of fifty years.

    The court gave them seven months to turnover the documents.

    There may be nothing suspicious in the documents, although a Canadian group of doctors has already published a scathing critique of the material.

    But why would the federal government collude with a major corporation to keep the safety review process secrete?

    I won’t attempt an answer because that because it would be called a conspiracy theory, which by definition will get you censored.

    But the actions of our federal watchdog, the FDA are all factual and this goes beyond the censorship that we see throughout the media.

    If you have nothing to hide, why keep trying to hide it?

  5. Thank you for writing another great article. I just started looking into Substack and now I’m even more convinced about going to it and maybe doing some of my own opinion pieces. I’ve written several “Letters to the Editor” of my then local paper The Island’s Sounder against war mostly but we moved to Mt. Vernon in July because after 35 years, Island Living became impossible financially, with my Wife and I on fixed senior incomes.

  6. Showing what was really happening in Vietnam helped end it. The day they show angry patients being intubated without sedation (out of meds) sitting on the ER floor (out of beds) after waiting till they are blue (out of staff) and then dying anyway while infecting the staff, I bet it’ll help end COVID.
    I understand anger at the medical profession, but this isn’t the time to attack docs for not giving you whatever crackpot treatment you’ve decided you need. They’re quitting. Regardless, people are currently dying from car crashes, heart attacks, & appendicitis that’s easily treated right now because there’s nowhere to go. Why not write about that? Public service. Help encourage slowing the spread so people with cancer can keep getting their treatment. Those stats aren’t even included in COVID deaths, and they should be. After this is over, we will need and want some
    healthcare professionals.
    In countries that have free press, in countries that don’t, in countries with democracy & without, COVID has been MUCH better managed than in the US. Here, we are more concerned with personal rights than collective responsibilities to the tune of about a million dead. Wear any mask regardless of vaccination status, get any shot. Hold government & corporations responsible, but don’t confuse exposing corruption with destroying public health and/or splitting hairs. I could go on and on being a former physician and married to former physician and medical examiner, but I know better than to think anyone is interested in experience and knowledge. I do understand about agency corruption, personal corruption, etc. Life is not simple. I think we can present reality in a way that helps people protect themselves and others. Do better. Disappointed.

    1. My mom was an RN, and I enjoy reading her PDR’s. Manufacturer data in the 1975 book covers the topic of the mercury poisoning that results from Merthiolate (Thymerisol) usage- a vaccine preservative. PDR data is the gold standard. How can I vaccinate a child in good faith knowing this?

      1. Good and reasonable question. That’s a very old reference. PDR sends updates to be added to the big book-not kidding-sometimes weekly or monthly. Not official advice of course. Methylmercury is the most common form of mercury causing disease in humans & it comes from eating fish. Mercury poisoning has other possible routes. When exposure is inorganic or metallic, it builds in the body permanently. The organic preservative thimerosal or merthiolate is broken down and excreted from the body. Multi vial vaccines need a preservative to stay sterile for safe use. However, just to be safe, many years ago it was phased out in children’s vaccines as children are more sensitive to mercury than adults. Vaccines do not cause autism. If you are worried about heavy metal poisoning, I’d get all the vaccines and instead check your tap water for lead. Thousands of communities throughout the US are being exposed to lead and need plumbing replaced. Damage is permanent.
        The diseases that are prevented by vaccines are more likely to cause not only your child but many other people serious damage if you don’t vaccinate than any preservative in the vaccine. Talk to some people who lived through a polio outbreak before we had a vaccine for it and get their perspective on this.
        Very rich people are profiting massively off the distribution of misinformation and being allowed to harm others. Please vaccinate. It’s safe, it saves lives; it might save yours or someone you love or many people you don’t even know.

  7. You surely understand that science evolves and recommendations change over time; therefore, stoking fear, controversy, to bring in readers for profit? In the case of COVID, innocent lives hang in the balance. Please consider carefully. I need care I can’t get and could die, because of of the number of unvaccinated where I live. How many journalists are covering that issue? I’m quite certain I’ve saved enough lives, and discounted or free, & do enough good deeds, to justify my continued existence if I need to. Besides the fact I believe people have inherent worth. Thanks.

  8. From the Guardian article:
    The platform bars content that “promotes harmful or illegal activities” but also expects writers to moderate and manage their own communities.

    Not being entirely in favor of free speech is how that reads to me.

    If people want to pay to read crap they should have the right, although there is plenty of it out there for free. I guess if you’re paying for it you somehow feel a sense of intellectual superiority.

  9. Mark my words, at some point in the future we are going to learn that we have been lied to about virtually everything from Space, to Science and History, Education-everything especially since JFK was assassinated and the CIA turned up the mis-dis info campaign in the States and abroad. As we become an enlightened and knowledgeable public, all of the governmental agencies will appear more and more criminal in nature and as committing crimes against humanity. Hitler was right, you tell a big lie often enough and it becomes reality. A very sick reality.

  10. Brilliant stuff as per usual from Matt. I have one devil’s advocacy point, which is not a vote in favor of censorship by any stretch, but an observation. Take Robert Malone as an example, who in one Substack post expressed skepticism about WEF conspiracy theories among his followers and less than two weeks later was nakedly reproducing that rhetoric as if he never held any skepticism about it. Or Glenn Greenwald’s obsession with coloring every move by Democrats these days as totalitarian evil and giving the GOP far too much of a pass for their own shenanigans (in his defense, he usually gets a sentence or two to say “the GOP are not angels” but it’s clear he knows the bulk of the persuasion on substack who are feeding his adopted dogs).

    These exerted biases (which can more aggressively be called ‘pandering to a paying audience’) are undoubtedly a problem if we want to treat information that challenges biases rather than invisibly embedding them as assumptions as ‘wrong’ or ‘mis’-information. I don’t see how we can look at the information landscape these days as anything but infotainment or bubble re-enforcement. And where we are headed is that if you want to have a narrative out there you’ll need to own the platform (see GETTR and the myriad contenders that will no doubt be surfacing in the near term).

    ‘Choose your own reality’ of the metaverse is already here. Unfortunately in a pandemic the untruths people are picking like cereal boxes from the shopping aisles have the potential to end lives and upend society.

    Inform yourself by helping others, is my suggestion. Maybe–just maybe–if we all spent less time idly re-enforcing our opinions and physically acting to do good in own own communities–the marvels of the internet age can connect us in unprecedented ways to do actual good. We need to put mutual aid before our own infotainment if we are going to understand the world better (or at least the potential of it).

  11. The ‘pandemic’ may end – or, since there never was one, the propaganda narrative may change, again, perhaps easing up on the panic porn and scariants to lull people into false comfort and forgetfulness. But the plandemic, meaning the global war strategies to move societies into the New (ab)Normal, Great Reset, 4IR, etc., will continue, building upon the significant structural gains already achieved by the biosecurity state.

    Accordingly, complementary means of moving us along to such goals as digital dictatorship or depopulation and other final solutions, from manufactured crises of supply chains and financial markets to lockdown politics of cyberterrorism and climate change emergency, are all on standby for ruling class coup plotters and the institutions at their command. Perhaps the second pandemic, the one which Gates has said will really get our attention, will soon enough be visited upon us with vengeance, with the longer-term lethal effects of the bioweaponized ‘vaccines,’ particularly in conjunction with 5G rollout (?).

    The evolutionary paradigm shift in which we are implicated will be stopped only when we rise up and resist in revolutionary ways, and build a new humanity beyond the wreckage and waste we have become, long before this endgame of plagues of corruption and criminality from class rule, which have coursed throughout the history of ‘civilization’ with their death-dealing powers.

    Authoritarian Madness: The Slippery Slope from Lockdowns to Concentration Camps
    https://r20.rs6.net/tn.jsp?f=001sFBEghWpBixaB2Jlzy-jvW3Zph2GJYc25XZtLeDPGFcfUzWgTx77qUmeysBA9c5N_Ffs_mw5DK1venD7B9vbON1xVZ4nEuEALDU7v6EaXEmgcDJ7J4GIyOffUWE56A43gqmANi2yIDqMyCa60R93hGNiKLn8ABljHgS07b0MgOsXfYhN695tUX2sEjDPeCuwZTcHkLxj3UzHNdgKh6cUVgAdRfxWzJBRB7p1oTsG5s6DcKbWsSNHQFPlLfT0Lwxc&c=Q69w1B899ATAL9j05UZ6fKkwh8LkrvwDrs8YOWg5-GiaGyLfaQ7n3Q==&ch=L0gvjpat9jyYuKhznTqKtM44odwCLBItl9H74tbmQnYB0VQoqe3E3Q==

    Holocaust Survivor: Never Again Is Now. Unless We All Resist
    https://default.salsalabs.org/T61cfd514-e923-4fcc-9197-98c679226fd5/6ed6d624-35e3-403c-b944-c1c61b3a596c

  12. Surprised Matt Taibbi didn’t run his piece by an epidemiologist to fact check it. The CDC report did not actually show conclusive evidence that immunity from infection is superior to vaccines. At the end of the report the authors list 7 limitations the most important being that there was no time stratification. So a vaccine that was last administered 6 months prior was being compared to a very recent Delta infection. Plus there is a survivorship bias in that those with severe outcomes from an infection were not included. Plus this was only an observational study that had no real controls on who was tested. Makes sense that a recent infection would provide more protection than a waning vaccine shot but the concern is that people may choose to not get vaccinated and then expose themselves and others to infection risks. So no, the CDC report did NOT prove infection is better than vaccines.

  13. Liars and snake-oil salesmen are more harmful to Freedom of Speech and Freedom of the Press than any attempt to curtail those hiding behind them to justify the bending of facts (either through the invention of ‘alternative facts’-as right leaning pundits do, or restricting sets of facts to only those which support a worldview-as left leaning demagogues habitually do).

    In addition, the freedoms mentioned are not an end in itself, but rather an instrument in the promotion of a dialog between the various worldviews that exist within any social context, a dialog that is rendered meaningless by lies even more than by any attempts to stop them or limit their publication.

    It is curious that Taibbi condemns ‘official’ lies while downplaying those in publications such as Substack. At least his double standards is consistent: while his defence of Substack pivots around the fact that “Substack is home to tens of thousands of writers”, officials who lie do not receive similar treatment; his treatment of the main stream media receive similar omission: while he condemns the articles attacking Substack, he also treat them as the rule rather than a regretful exception.

    While it is true that people read through politicized lenses, it is equally true that authors write and publish with similar attitudes. And while Taibbi is quick to identify and condemn other authors (and publications) for their bias, it seems he fails to apply similar standards to himself.

  14. Kudos to George and Democracy Gone Astray for deftly cutting through the crap, and highlighting the important issues. Taibbi compares articles in the Guardian and Post about people profiting from Covid misinformation with another article by the Center for Countering Digital Hate two years ago, calling it a “stunt.” So, pointing out the fact that people are profiting by disseminating potentially lethal misinformation is a stunt? He then launches into a litany of criticisms about the information disseminated from the CDC, NIH, etc. While Biden, Fauci et. al. have certainly committed messaging blunders, and have not always been honest, it is important to emphasize that most of these messaging changes are due to the fact that as the science evolves, the message necessarily changes – that’s how science works! Unfortunately, Malone, Mercola, Kory, and the rest rarely if ever change their message in response to the evolving science, and continue to cite unreliable observational studies, carefully cherry-picking only those scientific facts that support their narratives. As the science evolved on the Delta and Omicron variants, we’ve indeed learned that the vaccines are less effective in preventing breakthrough infections. At the same time, the unvaccinated are 10 times more likely to suffer serious illness, and 13 times more likely to die. It’s important that we keep our eye on the ball…

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