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‘The Great Covid-19 Lie Machine’: Stanford University Project Colluded With Feds, Social Media to Censor ‘Misinformation’

By  Michael Nevradakis, Ph.D.

A project run by Stanford University served as a “dry run” for President Biden’s “disinformation” board, according to journalist Matt Taibbi’s latest “Twitter files” release, which he dubbed, “The Great Covid-19 Lie Machine: Stanford, the Virality Project, and the Censorship of ‘True Stories.’”

According to Taibbi, the Virality Project, an initiative of the Stanford Internet Observatory, called for the creation of a disinformation board just one day before Biden announced plans to launch his government-run Disinformation Governance Board.

Taibbi discussed the two main takeaways from his March 17 “Twitter files” release during the “America This Week” podcast, co-hosted by novelist Walter Kirn.

According to Taibbi:

“Stanford, with the backing of a number of partners and some government agencies, had created a cross-platform single digital ticketing system that was processing censorship requests for all of them: Facebook, Google, TikTok, YouTube, Pinterest, Medium, Twitter.”

Also, Taibbi said, the Virality Project was “defining true things as disinformation or misinformation or malformation,” which he said signifies “a new evolution of the disinformation process away from trying to figure out what’s true and what’s not and just going directly to political narrative.”

Taibbi, along with author Michael Shellenberger, who contributed to prior “Twitter files” releases, testified March 9 at the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, revealing some of what he had discovered about the Virality Project.

Taibbi and his team of researchers discovered a tranche of Virality Project emails just an hour before his scheduled House testimony March 9, revealing the monitoring of “billions of social media posts by Stanford University, federal agencies, and a slew of (often state-funded) NGOs [non-governmental organizations].”

Calls for a government-run ‘rumor control’ mechanism

As previously reported by The Defender, the Virality Project claimed its objective “is to detect, analyze, and respond to incidents of false and misleading narratives related to COVID-19 vaccines across online ecosystems.”

Formerly known as the Election Integrity Partnership, it was directed by Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and a “cybersecurity expert” who once served as Facebook’s chief security officer.

The project says it provides “actionable situational awareness and response capabilities for public health officials and other partners on the front lines of providing accurate vaccine-related information to the public.”

But behind this rhetoric lay a vast network of high-level interactions with the federal government and social media platforms — which included proposals, ultimately adopted, for the U.S. government to establish its own “disinformation” board.

According to Taibbi, the partnership between the Virality Project and the government began in earnest in February 2021, days after Biden took office.

The relationship blossomed quickly. Within a year, on April 26, 2022, the Virality Project proposed a “rumor-control mechanism” and a “Misinformation and Disinformation Center of Excellence” be established at the federal level.

The next day, Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced the formation of the “Disinformation Governance Board.”

Taibbi tweeted:

The “Center of Excellence” proposal, which remains on the Virality Project’s website, states:

“Because of the dynamic threat that mis- and disinformation poses to national security, we recommend the creation of a federal Center of Excellence for mis- and disinformation housed in the Department of Homeland Security’s CISA [Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency].”

The center would be charged with pursuing “three main goals”:

  1. To serve as a single federal center for the expertise and capabilities necessary lead mis- and disinformation resilience and countering efforts;
  2. To coordinate mis- and disinformation countering efforts at the federal level and in support of state and local government efforts as well as the private sector; and
  3. To play a leading role in building capacity inside government, as well as in civil society and the private sector, to increase resilience to mis- and disinformation.

According to the proposal, “The evolution of mis- and disinformation demonstrates that further coordinated and decisive action must be taken by all levels of government in partnership with academia, nonprofits and the private sector to build resilience among the American people against weaponized falsehoods online.”

The Virality Project’s final report, published Feb. 18, 2022, also contained a proposal for a “Center of Excellence.” There, it recommends the federal government “Implement a Misinformation and Disinformation Center of Excellence housed within the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.”

Contained within the same final report is a proposal for the government to “Establish a rumor-control mechanism to address nationally trending narratives.”

A separate Feb. 18, 2022, document — “White House COVID-19 Vaccine Communication Plan: Analysis and Recommendations” — also detailed plans for a center of excellence and a “centralized rumor control page.”

The project’s proposal drew from lessons apparently learned from the 2020 U.S. presidential election, and called for pro-vaccine narratives to be tailored for specific communities:

“In the 2020 election, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) demonstrated that a centralized rumor control page could counter online misinformation. That page can be replicated for vaccine misinformation.

“Local health communicators can then adapt this centralized public messaging to the needs of their specific communities.”

At least one U.S. government agency appears to have adopted the Virality Project’s recommendation regarding the establishment of a “rumor control” initiative.

As previously reported by The Defender, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inaugurated its own “Rumor Control” initiative Aug. 5, 2022, as part of its broader efforts to counter “misinformation” and “disinformation.”

“The growing spread of rumors, misinformation and disinformation about science, medicine, and the FDA, is putting patients and consumers at risk,” according to the FDA’s Rumor Control webpage. “We’re here to provide the facts.”

On the Virality Project’s website, a dedicated page on “Rumor Control” states:

“This approach to debunking misinformation draws on literature suggesting that debunking messages coming from rumor control centers can help prevent rumor spread.

Psychologists have concluded that messengers that are perceived as having high trustworthiness and expertise are most effective at debunking falsehoods, meaning a debunking approach that aggregates facts from trusted subject matter experts could be ideal.”

The Virality Project also states that, “Strong partnerships with community-specific subject matter experts and liaisons are critical to this workflow. Partners can include state and local government offices, civil society members, NGOs, and individual organizers” who “will also be the core amplifiers of Rumor Control postings to each target audiences.”

Targeting vaccine narratives to specific communities closely mirrors the efforts of a Rockefeller and National Science Foundation initiative, the Mercury Project.

This initiative will issue three-year research grants to estimate “the causal impacts of mis- and disinformation on online and offline outcomes in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic,” including “differential impacts across socio-demographic groups.”

The Virality Project also focused on targeting specific groups. It recommended strategies to public health communicators for overcoming vaccine hesitancy, including “working with community leaders in minority and immigrant communities to increase awareness of how to get the vaccine and why.”

The coordinated reporting of ‘misinformation’ across multiple platforms

Friday’s “Twitter files” release also focused on how the Virality Project helped bring multiple social media sites into a common ticketing system, where content and users could be reported and those reports shared across multiple platforms.

According to Taibbi, the Virality Project “encouraged platforms to target people, not posts, using “Minority Report”-style “pre-crime logic,” and described “repeat offenders” such as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., chairman and chief litigation counsel of Children’s Health Defense (CHD), who post a “large volume of content that is almost always reportable.”




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