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Taxpayer-funded researchers are perfecting schemes to stealthily regulate speech and control sensitive narratives online: Report

Photo Illustration by Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Under the Biden administration, federally funded researchers are using millions of social media posts they claimed amounted to "misinformation" during the 2020 election in order to develop better ways of regulating speech, according to a digital free-speech watchdog.

Just the News reported that work by a research group at the University of Washington in Seattle, executed in part with taxpayer grants and previewed in an article last year in Nature Human Behavior, points to how various existing censorship strategies could be combined to create an invisible administrative hand with which to better throttle ideas in the cradle and crush undesirable content without leaving easy-to-see fingerprints.

In June 2023, the research group comprising members of the university's Center for an Informed Public detailed possible "solutions" to the purported threats that so-called "misinformation" poses — to democratic processes and public health measures in particular.

The researchers derived a "generative model of viral misinformation spread, inspired by research on infectious disease," then applied that model to 10.5 million tweets "of misinformation events that occurred during the 2020 US election."

They subsequently determined that "commonly proposed interventions are unlikely to be effective in isolation."

To achieve a "substantial reduction in the prevalence of misinformation" — which at one time or another has been a label assigned by big tech and big government to legitimate claims about the Hunter Biden laptop, COVID-19 vaccine side effects, and the Wuhan lab-leak theory — the researchers recommended that censorship and narrative controls be used in combination.

Some of the tactics they noted could be used effectively in combination include:

  • the removal or obfuscation of "all content matching search terms related to an emerging misinformation incident";
  • labeling content as "misinformation";
  • account banning and a strict adherence to a "three-strikes" rule;
  • hard-to-detect "'virality circuit breakers', which seek to reduce the spread of a trending misinformation topic without explicitly removing content," in part by suspending algorithmic amplification; and
  • "nudge-based approaches," whereby users are prompted to doubt a post's accuracy even if it has not been proven to be false or misleading.

The researchers claimed that "we urgently need a path forward that goes beyond trial and error or inaction," recognizing their proposals might serve as practical short-term alternatives to "large-scale censorship or major advances in cognitive psychology and machine learning."

Two of the researchers on the projected penned a piece in Nature Medicine last month calling for the use of "every point of leverage available" to combat "misinformation and disinformation."

Mike Benz, executive director at censorship watchdog Foundation for Freedom Online, told the "Just the News, No Noise" show Monday that the researchers' 2022 study is a road map on "how to censor people using secret methods so that they wouldn't know they're being censored, so that it wouldn't generate an outrage cycle, and so that it'd be more palatable for the tech platforms who wouldn't get blowback because people wouldn't know they're being censored."

Jevin West, a researcher on the project, contends that concerns like Benz's are much ado about nothing, telling Just the News that the fears about his research possibly impacting free speech relied upon a "fundamental misunderstanding of the paper that appears to be based on non-factual distortion and falsehoods."

Just the News took this to mean that "he considered criticism of the work to be disinformation."

"The paper made no policy or tactical recommendation to social media platforms or the federal government," added West. "There was no follow-up from them and we have no idea what, if anything, any of those entities did with the learnings from our paper."

Although West's suggested that this work is theoretical and apolitical, the censorship researchers nevertheless appear eager to see their work put into practice, having noted in their 2022 paper, "Our results highlight a practical path forward as misinformation online continues to threaten vaccination efforts, equity and democratic processes around the globe."

The FFO previously indicated that this censorship study is just the tip of the iceberg.

TheBlaze previously detailed the FFO's findings that in the first two years of the Biden administration, the National Science Foundation had spent nearly $40 million on government grants and contracts primarily through its Convergence Accelerator to combat "misinformation."

Over 64 censorship grants made their way to 42 colleges and universities, with some grants "explicitly target[ting] 'populist politicians' and 'populist communications' to scientifically determine 'how best to counter populist narratives,'" according to the FFO.

West's center at the University of Washington was among the recipients, nabbing a five-year, $2.25 million grant from the NSF for "Rapid-Response Frameworks for Mitigating Online Disinformation."

Benz insists that the purpose of these efforts to disguise censorship amid congressional probes and court challenges is to produce an "information purgatory to place largely conservative, populist or heterodox opinions and to stop them from going viral."

Responding to the researchers' stated ambitions, the FFO director said, "So they want to be able to control and prevent all opposition to election procedures that they want in place, to vaccination campaigns and to what appears to be racial and climate equity initiatives."

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