Forever Hold Your Peace

pirate wires #47 // anti-vaxx hysteria, redefining truth, a year of speech policing in review, and the steady path to censorship

State of the union. For years now we’ve been told the greatest threat we face is people speaking to each other on the internet, and last week, with the Biden administration’s entrance into that conversation, the belief finally began its inevitable shaping of our politics. Combatting hate speech, as defined broadly enough to include disagreement on sensitive cultural issues, curtailing “conspiracies” about the virus, including its possible origin in a Wuhan Lab, stemming a fascist coup against the government, led by one presumes the shroomer starseed self-defined shaman who took the internet by storm last January 6th in a giant, horned helmet: there are no shortage of reasons to finally “fetter” America’s most dangerous conversations. Presently, we’re told the country has been terrified into a state of anti-vaxx hysteria due to a massive, coordinated disinformation campaign led by a handful of should-be criminal actors on Facebook. President Biden accused Mark Zuckerberg of murder, his press secretary requested a coordinated, cross-platform cancellation of every influential wrongthinker on her list (???), and I was left rather confused by the relative silence concerning the alarming admission, denied by neither Facebook nor the Biden administration in later clarification, that the White House is now coordinating with private companies on the topic of what information is and is not “true.” Meanwhile, in Congress, Biden’s colleagues in the Democratic Party are presently — and entirely separately, I’m sure! — discussing the topic of whether or not these same private companies should be dismantled.  

Okay, before we get into the relationship between Facebook and the White House, let’s take a breath and parse the implicit first question in this most recent push for speech controls: are we all about to die from Covid (again)? Vaccination edition.

As of today, NPR reports around 161 million Americans have been fully vaccinated — or 48.6 percent of the population, they’re quick to add. Less than half! But that’s 48.6 percent of the entire population, deceptively including children who aren’t eligible for vaccination, and every healthy person under the age of 40 who isn’t obese, which is to say tens of millions of people who aren’t currently at any meaningful statistical risk of dying from Covid. In ten-year brackets over the age of 50, vaccinations range in the 75% to 90% range, with the elderly in our most densely-populated states ranging between 90% and 100% vaccinated. Now, the Delta variant is on the rise, and it’s far more communicable than OG Covid, but there’s no consensus it’s more dangerous.

Let’s consider the recent Covid cases and deaths across America.

While it’s true vaccinated individuals appear to be more likely to contract the Delta variant than the original virus, they’re still at close to negligible risk of serious illness once infected. It’s also true we’ve seen a recent bump in Covid cases, but the incredibly good news is that spike in cases does not appear to be correlating with a spike in deaths. This could change. But, at least for now, available data seems to imply we have vaccinated a meaningful majority of our highest-risk Americans, and the vaccines are working. This is usually around the time people invoke “the children!” And yes, we should always be mindful of our youngest. Emily Oster recently wrote an excellent review of recent studies on Delta and children that does a good job with the topic. I can’t imagine how scary this pandemic must be for any parent, but statistically speaking our kids are safe.

Still, data be damned, I’m told we’re in the middle of a nationwide, information-induced second plague.

Misinformation on Facebook is responsible for the mass casualties that don’t exist, we’re told, therefore we need draconian speech controls. President Biden is at least not wrong that many people aren’t vaccinating, and I agree this is a problem — if not at all a crisis. But are we really looking at 150 million Alex Jones stans?

I respectfully ask for the evidence. 

Doctor Boyd’s plea we speak to unvaccinated adults like adults echoes a piece Stefanie Friedhoff wrote back in April. There’s not much evidence of widespread, hardened anti-vaxx sentiment. Yes, there is a minority of anti-vaxxers who will never, under any circumstances, change their mind. But provided access to medical care, respectful, open dialogue, and patient answers to what are typically reasonable questions, available evidence indicates most people will vaccinate. It’s also worth mentioning the FDA has still not approved the vaccines. It’s not unreasonable to ask why, nor is it unreasonable to expect a respectful answer to this question.

Nonetheless, the unhelpful histrionics of our media and government have not been quelled.

If we’re in the middle of a crisis (we’re not), and the nature of the crisis is misinformation (it’s not), certainly something must be done about untrue things on the internet! Here, we’re finally getting to the good stuff. How are the censorship fetishists defining “misinformation”?

Ah yes, in the most insidious possible way. 

This week, NPR helpfully provided a primer on what is and is not true by way of a takedown of Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire. Is that company sharing anything demonstrably untrue? No, but that’s not what misinformation means anymore. Misinformation, as described by NPR’s “expert” mouthpiece Jaime Settle, is literally any opinion. She says:

“… by only covering specific stories that bolster the conservative agenda (such as negative reports about socialist countries and polarizing ones about race and sexuality issues) and only including certain facts, readers still come away from The Daily Wire's content with the impression that Republican politicians can do little wrong and cancel culture is among the nation's greatest threats.”

With especially:

"They tend to not provide very much context for the information that they are providing," Settle said. "If you've stripped enough context away, any piece of truth can become a piece of misinformation."

As Axios’ Lachlan Markay pointed out on Twitter, this is an absolutely insane standard of misinformation.

A demand for “context” from journalists has been levied by outraged ideologues against probably every media company that exists, from Vox and Fox to the New York Times. But this demand for “context” is really and obviously just a demand for “the other side” to be told on some contentious issue. People look for themselves in what they read, and when they don’t find themselves they feel marginalized. In all of this, we are nowhere near the realm of facts and fake news. We are talking openly now of a writer’s perspective, how it may or may not shape the perspective of others, and how to control this relationship. The implication is always that journalists from places like NPR have no perspective, they are simply truth-reporting holy men beyond reproach. But every journalist has bias. There is in fact no way to do the job of journalism without bias. Perspective is how a journalist decides what even constitutes a story worth telling, and as Lachlan further pointed out:

The nature of our speech has not changed. Our cultural norms surrounding speech have changed, and over the last year an informal alliance between the technology industry, the media, and the American political party presently in power has catalyzed a reshaping of our information landscape. The ongoing push for a centralized censorship apparatus loosely informed by the media and government, and administered, with no transparency, by the technology industry is not new, nor does it have anything to do with vaccines. This is just about control.

Last October, in Zen and the Art of Political Censorship, I wrote about the Hunter Biden laptop fiasco. In a moment of extreme hysteria, we were told a story in the New York Post, perhaps the entirely-fabricated work of Russians, posed a risk so grave to our election it needed to be removed from social media. The DNC signaled to the press, the press erupted across the internet, and tech acquiesced. The piece was made broadly inaccessible by what are meant to be neutral platforms, and the offending New York Post — again, in the middle of an election — was frozen out of Twitter for weeks. The Hunter Biden laptop story was not verifiably untrue. In fact, consensus has now mostly settled on the laptop at the center of the story having probably once belonged to Hunter. But the Post story included speculation on corruption that wasn’t popular among people with institutional power. Therefore, it was “fake,” and fake stories, now defined as opinions powerful people don’t like, need to be stopped.

The following January, in Insurrection as a Service, I wrote about the Capitol riot. Here, the specter of actual fascist revolution was invoked. The DNC signaled to the press, the press again erupted across the internet, and a sitting president was erased from social media. Far more alarming, the single, tiny social media company that refused to deplatform the president was targeted by the rest of the technology industry. Ostensibly, this was all to stop a coup.

Folks, NOBODY BELIEVES THERE WAS A COUP.

Over the last year, the left-wing media has become more open with its push for formal speech controls. I’ve written about this often, but especially in Policy of Truth and Unfettered Conversations. The institution of a federal “Reality Czar” has been requested not ironically. The phrase “If Xi Jinping’s administration isn’t ignoring Clubhouse, why should fact checkers?” has been used not unseriously. This is textbook authoritarian language, and it’s already shaping politics across the English-speaking world.

In June, Australia granted broad censorship powers to the government. In Canada, an ambiguously-defined “hate speech” is a criminal offense now carrying fines between ten and fifty thousand dollars. The United States’ First Amendment provides a robust defense against such legislation at home, but with tech, media, and our ruling political power in total alignment, it’s not really clear the constitution matters. We’ve already seen considerable, constitutionally-protected censorship, and now incredibly at the behest of the government, a fact institutionalists are presently trying to erase from the conversation. When Facebook responded to Biden’s accusation, Matt Yglesias was quick to muddy the conversation:

But the notion Facebook declined to do what the administration asked is absolutely false, and has nothing to do with Yglesias’ above quote. Per Jen Psaki, Facebook is receiving cues from the White House on what should be censored, and company leadership is cooperating. It just seems Zuckerberg disagrees with the president’s public assertion that he’s killing people. Today, the crisis worthy of censorship is vaccination hysteria. But this is not where the story ends. We can expect such crises to never stop coming, and for the grip of censorship to tighten. Our “experts” will be the final word on what is true, and dissenters will be erased. Biden’s press secretary Jen Psaki just explicitly called for such erasure. The language has not been softened.

Last year, then-U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams was very clear on the topic of masks. More specifically, and famously: we should not wear them.

Over the weekend, Adams tried to move the goal posts here, and to absolve himself of what was clearly misinformation:

But this is another lie. Our “experts” told us not to wear masks because they feared a PPE shortage in our hospitals. Rather than telling us that, and allowing us to help, they lied about the science. Facebook spent the past year blocking the “conspiracy theory” that Covid-19 may have originated in the Wuhan Lab, which is presently the leading theory of its origin. We were told closing the border to China at the top of the pandemic was racist. We were told Covid could be contracted at the beach, but not in the middle of our fun and flirty summer riots. We were told there would never be a vaccine by December 2020, which almost certainly impacted the election. It’s not for an abundance of misinformation we distrust the “experts.” We distrust the experts because they have proven themselves unworthy of our trust.

From manufactured crisis to hysteria, our information ecosystem grows darker by the media cycle. Ten years ago, the internet was relatively free. Today, we navigate a shadowy, nebulous fact-checking culture with no accountability, and an unhealthy relationship between the White House and our dominant communication platforms. Criticizing this relationship, while certainly unfashionable, is still possible. But tomorrow? Freedom is slavery, war is peace, and this push for censorship is unrelenting. Without a firm correction, the New York Times will have its Reality Czar.

Speak now, or forever hold your peace.

-SOLANA