The internet watchdog Stanford Internet Observatory launched a wide-scale effort during the pandemic to scrub social media platforms of disfavored COVID-related views regardless of whether the posts were true, according to the latest installment of the “Twitter Files.”
Internal emails unveiled on Friday by journalist Matt Taibbi show how the Stanford Internet Observatory’s Virality Project coordinated with several other academic institutions and government-funded non-profits to conduct a massive operation monitoring vaccine disinformation and shaping platform policy to rid the web of views that went against the liberal mainstream.
Mr. Taibbi said Twitter was one of six social media platforms that partnered with the Virality Project to monitor COVID-related posts during the pandemic.
In addition to a direct line to flag posts, the collaboration also included a periodic wrap-up of vaccine misinformation spreading across platforms, lists of repeat offenders and lists of “true content which might promote vaccine hesitancy.”
Included in the bucket of true information that the Virality Project wanted to be banned were “viral posts of individuals expressing vaccine hesitancy” and or “stories of true vaccine side effects.”
The watchdog also targeted discussions about vaccine passports, warning that such posts “have driven a larger anti-vaccination narrative about the loss of rights and freedoms.”
Mr. Taibbi said the project amounted to an “Orwellian proof-of-concept” that “accelerated the evolution of digital censorship, moving it from judging truth/untruth to a new, scarier model, openly focused on political narrative at the expense of fact.”
The Stanford Internet Observatory pushed back against the characterization, saying that the Virality Project “provided public factual findings to multiple entities, including government agencies and social media platforms, but had no control over content moderation, censorship, or labeling posts.”
“Emails released in the Twitter Files demonstrate that Twitter’s staff examined any reports sent to them to see if the content was violative of their policies and took no action in cases where they felt that Twitter’s existing policies were not violated,” the group said in a statement.
The Twitter Files is the product of Elon Musk opening up the company’s email vault to select journalists after he took over Twitter in October 2022. It has revealed the company’s politically biased conduct and partnership with federal officials during the 2020 presidential campaign and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
In February 2021, the Virality Project emailed Twitter executives announcing the newly formed partnership and to open up a conversation on “how we can best collaborate with the Twitter team in this work.”
“Our goal would be to have a line of communication with your team, by which we can raise vaccine-related disinformation narratives we are noting either on Twitter or across other platforms,” a representative from the Virality Project wrote in an email to company executives.
The Virality Project was given access to Twitter’s internal ticketing system to flag posts, and in a March 2021 email announced that it was “beginning to ramp” its notification process across other platforms.
Appearing before the House Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government last week, Mr. Taibbi and fellow Twitter Files journalist Michael Shellenberger warned of a “censorship industrial complex” eroding Americans’ freedom of speech.
In December, the two journalists began exposing the extent to which the federal government worked with Twitter company executives to moderate content on the platform.
The Twitter files have also revealed what Mr. Taibbi describes as a vast web of censorship that included online speech monitoring programs spearheaded by nongovernmental organizations to squelch speech that fell outside the mainstream.
“This is a grave threat to people of all political persuasions,” Mr. Taibbi said. “The First Amendment and the American population accustomed to the right to speak is the best defense left against the censorship industrial complex. If there’s anything that Twitter Files show is that we’re in danger of losing this most precious right, without which all democratic rights are impossible.”