There is a case to be made that the most important part of any propaganda campaign is the drive to ensure that certain voices, claims and arguments either never see the light of day or otherwise remain contained within “fringe” or “alternative” circles.
by Dr Piers Robinson
Also published in Propaganda in Focus
Since the start of the COVID event, authorities around the world have sought to implement quite extraordinary policies including the so-called “locking down” of entire populations, compulsory masking and coercion through, for example, the mandating of multiple ‘vaccine’ injections. Many of these policies fly in the face of long-established and well-evidenced public health approaches to dealing with respiratory viruses whilst the scientific cogency of these measures – including lockdowns, community masking and “vaccine” injections – is coming under increased scrutiny. At the same time, the catastrophic consequences, the so-called “collateral damage” (a military euphemism for wartime civilian casualties), of these extreme policies for populations around the world is becoming well-established. Randomised controlled trials of the injections to date have not shown net overall benefit, while accumulating evidence from passive reporting suggests they may be a cause of significant levels of harm. A central part of selling these extreme, and ultimately highly destructive, policies has involved the use of propaganda.
One of the problems with researching and writing about propaganda is that many people believe it to be alien to democratic states. However, as Edward Bernays, considered by many to be a key figure in the development of 20th century propaganda techniques, explained and promoted, “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society”. At least to an extent, this belief in propaganda rests upon an assumption or belief that people are ultimately selfish, egotistical, power-hungry and hedonistic beings who require guidance and incentive; it therefore follows that propaganda is required by powerful actors in order to provide a degree of structure, order and purpose to a given society. In contrast, if one assumes that humans are ultimately good and well-inclined towards each other and to the natural world, and that they are capable of great things if conditions permit, propaganda emerging from self-interested and powerful actors equates to a parasite within the human mind that seeks to lead humans away from their better instincts. To this one might add the propensity of those with power to define themselves as the arbiters of truth and morality:
“The moral attitudes of dominant and privileged groups are characterised by universal self-deception and hypocrisy. The unconscious and conscious identification of their special interests with general interests and universal values […]. […] the intelligence of privileged groups is usually applied to the task of inventing specious proofs for the theory that universal values spring from, and that general interests are served by, the special privileges which they hold.”
Whatever one’s position on the justifiability of propaganda, and although we usually call these techniques by different names today, employing euphemisms such as “public relations” or “strategic communication”, it is a fact that techniques of manipulation are part and parcel of contemporary liberal democracies.
Promoting the Narrative
In the case of the COVID-19 event, propaganda has been deployed across democracies on an unprecedented scale. In order to gain compliance with the unorthodox and intrusive measures adopted during the COVID-19 event many forms of “non-consensual persuasion” have been employed, ranging from manipulated messaging designed to increase “fear levels” through to coercion. Indeed, very early on it came to light that behavioural scientists were providing advice to the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). UKColumn reported that this group, named the “Scientific Pandemic Influenza group on Behaviour (SPI-B)”, was (re)convened on 13 February 2020. One document produced by this group identified “options for increasing adherence to social distancing measures” which include persuasion, incentivization and coercion. In the section on “persuasion” it states that the “perceived level of personal threat needs to be increased among those who are complacent, using hard-hitting emotional messaging”. The document also referred to using “media to increase sense of personal threat”. Many of these “behavioural science” approaches to manipulation used in the UK context have been documented in Laura Dodsworth’s influential work State of Fear whilst Dr Gary Sidley has written about the remarkable reluctance of anyone in authority to accept responsibility for the deliberate manipulation of the public. Dr Colin Alexander has, for some time, been tracking the propaganda output across the UK public sphere.
More widely, and as described by Iain Davis, these approaches have been paralleled at the global level. In February 2020, according to Davis, the World Health Organization (WHO) had established the Technical Advisory Group on Behavioural Insights and Sciences for Health (TAG); “The group is chaired by Prof. Cass Sunstein and its members include behavioural change experts from the World Bank, the World Economic Forum, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Professor Susan Michie, from the UK, is also a TAG participant”. Since then, Susan Michie has taken over as chair.
Creating Deafening Silences
One aspect of the COVID-19 event propaganda has been the aggressive promotion of official narratives; but just as important has been the suppression and censorship of those questioning authorities. Indeed, there is a case to be made that the most important part of any propaganda campaign is the drive to ensure that certain voices, claims and arguments either never see the light of day or otherwise remain contained within “fringe” or “alternative” circles.
Part of this process of suppressing arguments and opinion involves superficially well-meaning attempts to manage what has been increasingly labelled as “misinformation” and “disinformation”. Elizabeth Woodworth documents the emergence of the so-called Trusted News Initiative (TNI) prior to the 2020 COVID-19 event and which involved a coalition of mainstream/legacy media establishing a network that would serve to combat “misinformation” and “bias”. She quotes the then BBC Director-General Tony Hall:
“Last month I convened, behind closed doors, a Trusted News Summit at the BBC, which brought together global tech platforms and publishers. The goal was to arrive at a practical set of actions we can take together, right now, to tackle the rise of misinformation and bias … I’m determined that we use that [BBC] unique reach and trusted voice to lead the way – to create a global alliance for integrity in news. We’re ready to do even more to help promote freedom and democracy worldwide”
By 2020, according to Woodworth, the TNI had incorporated “Twitter, Microsoft, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Reuters, and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism” and, predictably, adopted the role of tackling “harmful coronavirus disinformation”.
In the UK at least, there has also been military involvement with the 77th Brigade operating as part of the COVID-19 communication strategy. 77th Brigade activities include information warfare and “supporting counter-adversarial information activity” which includes “creating and disseminating digital and wider media content in support of designated tasks”.
Tobias Ellwood, who is both a Member of Parliament and Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, is, remarkably, a reservist with 77th Brigade. In an answer to a written question in parliament it was confirmed that “members of the Army’s 77th Brigade” are “currently supporting the UK government’s Rapid Response Unit in the Cabinet Office and are working to counter dis-information about COVID-19”. The Rapid Response Unit itself was established in 2018 in order to, according to its head Fiona Bartosch, counter “misinformation” and “disinformation”, and “reclaim a fact-based public debate”.
The WHO has also followed a similar tack cautioning the public about “misinformation” and “disinformation”. In a release titled “Let’s flatten the infodemic curve”, they advise people to refer to “fact-checkers” and legacy media: “When in doubt, consult trusted fact-checking organizations, such as the International Fact-Checking Network and global news outlets focused on debunking misinformation, including the Associated Press and Reuters”. The WHO describes in detail its involvement with social media and “big tech:
“WHO has been working closely with more than 50 digital companies and social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, TikTok, Twitch, Snapchat, Pinterest, Google, Viber, WhatsApp and YouTube, to ensure that science-based health messages from the organization or other official sources appear first when people search for information related to COVID-19. WHO has also partnered with the Government of the United Kingdom on a digital campaign to raise awareness of misinformation around COVID-19 and encourage individuals to report false or misleading content online. In addition, WHO is creating tools to amplify public health messages – including its WHO Health Alert chatbot, available on WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Viber – to provide the latest news and information on how individuals can protect themselves and others from COVID-19.”
An Institutionalised Culture of Censorship and Suppression of “Wrong Think”
These developments, along with others to be documented in due course via work at PANDA, would appear to have had major consequences in terms of suppression of debate. A preliminary examination of events over the last 2.5 years indicates this suppression has operated in at least three different ways: direct censorship through removal of content and deplatforming, sponsoring of hostile coverage designed to smear and intimidate anyone raising critical questions regarding the COVID-19 narrative, and coercive approaches involving threats to livelihood and employment. I shall deal with each in turn.
Censorship and Deplatforming
Formal approaches to censorship via state-backed action were seen early on in the UK context with the regulatory body OFCOM issuing guidelines to broadcasters. Dodsworth (p.31) reports that broadcasters were instructed to be alert to “health claims related to the virus which may be harmful; medical advice which may be harmful: accuracy or material misleadingness in programmes in relation to the virus or public policy regarding it” (Dodsworth p. 31). One possible manifestation of this policy was the remarkable instruction issued to Oxford professor Sunetra Gupta. On October 14, 2020, she appeared on BBC News to talk about the lockdowns imposed in the north of England. It is claimed that just before she went on air, one of the producers told her not to mention the Great Barrington Declaration, a document signed by eminent scientists setting out an alternative policy that would avoid lockdowns and other unorthodox measures.
Across social media, from almost day one of the COVID-19 event, tech giants (“big tech”) were willingly signing up to a strategy of censorship. In April 2020 it was reported that YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki had declared that it would act to remove anything going “against World Health Organization” recommendations. Notable removals from YouTube included interviews with Dr John Ioannidis of Stanford University and British physician Professor Karol Sikora whilst US Senator Rand Paul’s speech questioning the efficacy of facemasks in August 2021 was removed by YouTube. Dr Robert Malone, inventor of part of the MRnA technology used in the COVID-19 injections, and who has become a notable critic of official policies and narratives, was also removed from Twitter. A large part of the policing of debate across social media platforms has involved issuance of warnings that a given post violates “community standards” in some way and some, such as LinkedIn, state that content at variance with authorities can lead to censoring. As Dr David Thunder has documented, the exact wording of Linkedin’s policy on “misinformation” states: “Do not share content that directly contradicts guidance from leading global health organizations and public health authorities.“ Thunder notes:
“What does this actually mean, in practice? It means that some select persons, just because they got nominated to a “public health authority” or a “leading global health organization,” are protected by Linkedin from any robust criticism from the public or from other scientists.”
Furthermore, censorship and suppression of academic debate has been reported with respect to academic journals whereby articles and research running against the so-called scientific consensus appear to have been unfairly removed or blocked. For example Dr Peter McCullough reports unjustified censorship of a peer reviewed and published article relating to COVID-19 whilst, more broadly, undue suppression of legitimate research findings was reported by Dr Tess Lawrie with respect to Ivermectin trials. All of these are worrying indications that academic processes themselves have become subject to nefarious censorship and control.
The censorship continues unabated and it might even be intensifying. Whilst detailed and systematic research should be conducted in order to identify the scale and range of the censorship that has been occurring, it is reasonably clear now that, relative to pre-2020, the levels are unprecedented and represent a normalization, or routinization, of censorship.
Character Assassination through Smearing
Suppression of debate is achieved not only through formal censorship, but also through indirect tactics whereby attempts are made to destroy the reputation of those challenging power. Although perhaps not widely appreciated, the tactic of character assassination appears to have become more prevalent in recent years and it appears to be an important feature of contemporary propaganda and our ‘democratic’ landscape. Broadly speaking, smear campaigns are designed to avoid substantive rational debate and instead denigrate the person making the argument – ‘playing the man rather than the ball’ or ‘shooting the messenger’. A feature of smear campaigns is the use of identity politics sensibilities such as concern (legitimate) over racism and the deployment of pejorative and tendentious labels. For example, those questioning COVID-19 policies have sometimes been described as far right or fascist whilst pejorative use of the term “conspiracy theorist” is frequently employed to describe those questioning official narratives.
Smear campaigns can be justifiably seen as underhand and disreputable approaches to challenging dissenting voices and they frequently pass off without observers or even the victims being fully aware that they are being targeted: those ordering or enabling the smears have good reason to avoid being uncovered whilst those executing the smears, i.e. the journalists, will defend their hit pieces as legitimate critique. In the case of the COVID-19 event, however, at least one high level smear campaign has been identified. At the time of the release of the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) during autumn 2020, the authors were only aware of a barrage of hostile media attention such as the above noted instruction by the BBC to Professor Sunetra Gupta to not mention the Declaration during an interview. But at least some of the hostile coverage was not simply a spontaneous reaction by journalists but had been initiated by high-level officials. When the GBD was published, leaked emails showed Anthony Fauci and National Institute of Health director Francis Collins discussing the need to swiftly shut it down. Collins wrote in an email that this “proposal from the three fringe epidemiologists … seems to be getting a lot of attention … There needs to be a quick and devastating published takedown of its premises”. Rather than a civilised and robust scientific debate, a smear campaign followed.
Other prominent instances, unproven but which bear the hallmarks of a directed smear campaign include repeated attacks on the popular US podcaster Joe Rogan. In the European sphere, Professor Bhakdi, an early and prominent critic of COVID-19 policies has been repeatedly accused of anti-semitism and is now being prosecuted by the German authorities for inciting hatred. None of the accusations made in these attacks appear to be reasonable. Rogan, for example, was chastised for promoting the use of Ivermectin with many journalists referring to it, misleadingly, as “horse dewormer”. The vast bulk of Bhakdi’s work and output concerns the COVID-19 policies and, relatively speaking, his references to any issue related to Judaism is at most vanishingly small. A subtle and arguably more widespread form of smearing involves the routine labelling of information by social media companies as harmful; for example the independent UK-based outlet OffGuardian has its tweets subject to a blanket warning suggesting their output might be ‘unsafe’ and contain ‘violent or misleading content that could lead to real-world harm’. Such labelling is, arguably, defamatory.
Suppression of inconvenient opinions works through both the realm of information – censoring a person’s voice or ad hominem attacks – but also through action in the real, “material”, world via coercion. This could be the creation of conditions that deter people from speaking their mind by offering material incentives or, alternatively, threatening to deplete someone’s material circumstances. Put simply, the threat of loss of earnings. In the case of the COVID-19 event the role of coercion can be seen through the threats to employment experienced by those challenging the narrative.
For example, Professor Julie Ponesse was forced from her position at Western University in Canada because of her refusal to receive the COVID-19 injection following the issuing of “vaccine” mandate there whilst a similar fate was suffered by Dr Aaron Kheriarty (Professor at University of California Irvine, School of Medicine and director of the Medical Ethics Program). Other academics have cited lack of institutional support with respect to their academic freedom, such as Professor Martin Kuldorff.
The coercive nature of mandates is particularly pernicious in that their implementation in universities forces ‘dissident’ academics to either go against their beliefs and opinions and comply or otherwise leave their posts. The disciplining effect is, of course, much more widely felt across the academy: the few who lose their posts serve as a warning to everyone else to reconsider their beliefs and actions. In particular, younger academics and those completing their PhDs will come to understand that compliance with the dominant narrative is the only realistic option if they are to realise their goal of an academic career.
The tactics of censorship, smearing and coercion are synergistic and help construct an environment in which self censorship becomes ubiquitous: Deplatforming of dissident scientists sends a clear warning as to the subject matter and issues that are off limits whilst examples of smearing highlight the potential unpleasant consequences of discussing such issues. Coercion acts as a final hardstop for anyone entertaining the possibility of risking talking about censored issues and riding out the smears that will result: loss of job and income is simply too much to bear. Overall, the role of authorities in enabling censorship and coercion results in, broadly speaking, an institutionalised culture in which suppression of opinions and debate becomes the norm.
The Dangers to Democracy and Rational Debate: Online Harm Legislation and Dis/misinformation ‘Fact-checkers’
Clearly this situation has deleterious consequences for rational debate and democracy. John Stuart Mill explained that silencing the expression of an opinion robs us all of the opportunity to either hear an argument that might turn out to be true, or refine or reject an opinion that is faulty. There are very good reasons for this, as Mill notes:
“First: the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. … All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.”
“if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”
Scientific and scholarly research demands such openness to questioning and critique and, behind concepts such as tenure, is the core grounding for the academy that scholars need to be allowed to present what might appear to be controversial and even offensive (to some) opinions.
Of course, there are well argued and established limits to freedom of expression – incitement to violence for example – but we are not talking about the usual areas of debate and controversy that lie at the limits of permissible speech. Rather, we are talking about the right of people to raise questions and concerns about policies that directly affect them, such as lockdown, masking and ‘vaccinations’, and, moreover, the right of credentialed experts to raise such questions in the public sphere. That the censorship, smearing and coercion of such people has come to be tolerated is a clear indicator of how far our democracies have slipped into an authoritarian abyss.
And things are, potentially, about to become even worse with the pushing through of so-called ‘online harm bills’ including in the UK, Europe and Canada. In the UK, the proposed bill creates a category of legal but ‘harmful’ speech: as described by the pressure group Big Brother Watch:
“Under the threat of penalties, the legislation will compel online intermediaries to censor swathes of online discussion including in matters of general discourse and public policy. Harmful content is defined entirely by the Secretary of State who is also granted a host of executive powers throughout the legislation.”
Liberty has explained further the potential dangers of such developments:
“We are concerned that the ‘legal but harmful’ category set out in the OSB is inadequately prescribed by law and risks disproportionately infringing on individuals’ right to freedom of expression and privacy. In particular, we are concerned about the wide definition of online harm as meaning “physical or psychological harm” (clause 187). This is an extremely low threshold, and encompasses innumerable kinds of harm, the extent of which in our view far exceeds the qualifications on Article 10 provided by the ECHR and HRA.”
And, as Lord Sumption points out regarding the proposed UK online harm bill:
“The real vice of the bill is that its provisions are not limited to material capable of being defined and identified. It creates a new category of speech which is legal but ‘harmful’. The range of material covered is almost infinite, the only limitation being that it must be liable to cause ‘harm’ to some people. Unfortunately, that is not much of a limitation. Harm is defined in the bill in circular language of stratospheric vagueness. It means any ‘physical or psychological harm’. As if that were not general enough, ‘harm’ also extends to anything that may increase the likelihood of someone acting in a way that is harmful to themselves, either because they have encountered it on the internet or because someone has told them about it.”
It is likely that such legislative developments will operate in tandem with so-called “fact checking” entities and algorithms that work to define and then exclude what is defined as “misinformation”, “disinformation”, and now “malinformation”. The latter two are being defined now as, respectively, false information spread in order to mislead or cause harm and accurate information which is used out of context in order to harm or mislead. These terms are so nebulous that they will enable authorities to proscribe virtually any serious debate or criticism in the public sphere. Here we see the continuing development and entrenchment of the mis/disinformation fact checking industry noted earlier. During the COVID-19 event the United Nations itself started working with the public relations entity Purpose to “combat the growing scourge of COVID-19 misinformation” which is described as a “virus spread by people”. Purpose states “[t]hrough Verified, we are leveraging the UN brand, as well as popular brands that connect audiences online and offline: from Cartoon Network in Brazil to Flipkart in India”. UNESCO, similarly, is promoting education about so-called “conspiracy theories”. Remarkably, and in apparent contradiction to rhetoric regarding inclusiveness and community-driven decisionmaking, the WHO actually asks people to report on people spreading “misinformation”: As such, an un-elected international organization is actively advocating for the suppression of free speech in democratic societies.
Entities tasked with deciding what is true and what is false, as opposed to allowing ideas and arguments to be openly debated as Mill would suggest, are already creating the link between dis/misinformation and harm. For example, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a state-sponsored think tank, attacked the disparate groups questioning the COVID-19 response with a publication titled “Between Conspiracy and Extremism: A Long COVID Threat?” The institute tweeted:
“Today we launch a new series of reports on the global anti-lockdown movement, beginning with this paper examining how COVID restrictions have brought together a broad church of activists in a conspiracy-extremist movement we call a ‘hybrid threat’”
On the issue of coercive measures, the recent passing of a bill in California, that will enable doctors who spread ‘false information’ to be charged with ‘unprofessional conduct’ and have their licenses revoked, is a worrying sign of just how aggressive authorities are becoming.
The trajectory here is clear to discern and it entails the move to a world where the truth is defined by fact-checkers and authorities, and legislation provides the underlying coercive framework to ensure any deviance is punished. This is entirely at odds with basic principles of open debate, objective scholarship and freedom of expression and is not compatible with democracy.
The End of Democracy?
There is nothing new about censorship, smearing and coercion in western democracies. For some time now, those questioning, for example, western foreign policy have been subjected to such tactics whilst the broader 9/11 global war on terror spawned wide ranging examples of censorship, smearing and coercion in order to shore up official narratives and the belligerent wars that have been fought under its banner. Indeed, in the realm of foreign policy and war, the prevalence of propaganda and associated drives to marginalise dissent are well known to researchers in these fields. And, today, in 2022, we are witnessing a preeminent example of coercion as we see the Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, facing the prospect of deportation to the US and the rest of his life in prison. His crime was to reveal accurate information about the 9/11 wars especially those in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is little reason to doubt that authorities in the West are seeking to make a powerful example of Assange; a warning to the rest of us as to the price of questioning our governments when they commit illegal wars of aggression.
What is new with the COVID-19 event is a combination of the spread of these strategies of suppression and a sharp uptick in awareness amongst increasingly large swathes of the population as to the existence of propaganda in democracies. The spread can be seen in how it is now a large number of medical scientists who have been at the receiving end of drives to suppress debate, whereas before it was often just a handful of relatively unknown dissident social scientists researching foreign policy issues. Regarding public awareness, attempting to censor high profile researchers from the medical sciences alerts more of the public as to what is going on. And, of course, as we rapidly see the dissident scientists now being vindicated by the facts – lockdowns don’t work, the “vaccinations” can harm etc – more people become aware of the basic truth that the official COVID-19 response has been underpinned by ferocious propaganda campaigns designed to silence any experts speaking truth to power. It is also apparently the case that trust in mainstream, or legacy, media continues a sharp decline whilst, presumably, increasing numbers of people seek out the new independent media platforms and go to organisations such as PANDA and HART for reliable information on COVID-19 related issues and more widely.
And yet the broader trajectory for our public spheres looks ominous. Further legislative measures to redefine free speech, networks of sponsored factcheckers defining what is and what is not, resources poured into censoring, smearing and coercing dissident voices all parallel what some analysts argue is a wider drive to restructure Western societies. Ending any semblance of democracy may indeed be the goal, starting with the ending of freedom of expression. There are likely to be dark days ahead and it has never been so important for there to be a robust and uncompromising defence of freedom of expression.
- Thanks to Colin Alexander for comments on the justifiability of propaganda and to David Bell, Maryam Ebadi, Gary Sidley and David Thunder for other comments and feedback.
- Niebuhr, R., (1932), Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics. New York: Charles Scriber’s Sons.
- The array of new and independent media and organisations is vast; some of those, with which the author is most familiar, include media such as OffGuardian, Multipolar, the Grayzone, Unlimited Hangout, UKColumn; and Organisations such as Brownstone Institute, Would Council for Health, Children’s Health Defense, Global Collateral.
About the author
Dr Piers Robinson
Dr Piers Robinson is a co-director of the Organisation for Propaganda Studies and was Chair/Professor in Politics, Society and Political Journalism, University of Sheffield, 2016-2019, Senior Lecturer in International Politics (University of Manchester 2010-2016) and Lecturer in Political Communication (University of Liverpool, 1999-2005). He researches and writes on propaganda, media, international politics and conflict