The American Institute for Economic Research hosted a gathering of critics of lockdowns and other government restrictions in response to the COVID pandemic on a warm weekend in October of 2020 at a Berkshires estate. Three highly credentialed epidemiologists, Jayanta Bhattacharya, Sunetra Gupta, and Martin Kulldorff, from Stanford, Oxford, and Harvard Universities, respectively, were among those in attendance. On Sunday morning, just before the guests left, the scientists summarised their thoughts in a joint communique they dubbed the “Great Barrington Declaration,” after the town where it was written. In it, they argued that lockdowns do more harm than good and that assets should be dedicated to protecting the susceptible rather than shutting down society.
The announcement quickly went viral on social media, gaining support from a wide range of experts in several fields. The announcement was strongly criticized by the majority of media outlets and the experts they cited. Drs. Anthony Fauci & Francis Collins of NIH openly and vehemently rejected the “hazardous” pronouncement when approached by reporters, branding the scientists, who are widely regarded as experts in their areas, as “fringe epidemiologists.” For the following several months, the scientist named became the target of widespread backlash: they were erroneously accused of being “Koch-funded” and of writing the proclamation for financial benefit, dubbed “eugenicists,” and more. Social media and print publications like The New York Times and The Guardian were rife with accusations of the Great Barrington signatories.
Emails uncovered via a Freedom of Information Act request, however, showed that these assaults were not the result of the objective, independent reporting that newspapers like The New York Times and Also the Guardian continue to claim credit for. Instead, they resulted from a concerted effort to manipulate the media by the very same government officials their policies these epidemiologists had opposed. Fauci and Collins’s emails showed that they coordinated a “takedown” of the announcement with several media sites, including Wired and The Nation.
The scientists were also attacked by those they had criticized indirectly: the bureaucrats. After making their proclamation, Bhattacharya, Gupta, & Kulldorff quickly discovered that their posts were being severely restricted on social media in an effort to silence their scientific voices. Kulldorff, who at the time was the most active of three online, quickly found that his own social networking postings were being removed or altered. When Kulldorff tweeted that “Thinking that everyone needs to be immunized is equally scientifically unsound as thinking no one should,” Twitter removed the comment. The elderly and those who care for them are among the most in need of protection against COVIDs. Those who have already been infected by nature do not need it. Not young people.” Kulldorff’s Twitter and LinkedIn posts that criticized mandatory mask and vaccination use were either deemed false or deleted. In March of 2021, YouTube removed a video showing Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida having a roundtable conversation with Bhattacharya, Gupta, Kulldorff, & Dr. Scott Atlas, during which the participants criticized mask and vaccination regulations.
As a result of this censoring, Bhattacharya and Kulldorff are now represented by the NCLA, together with Dr. Aaron Kheriaty and Jill Hines, in the lawsuit Missouri v. Biden, which was filed by the attorneys general of Missouri & Louisiana. As part of their lawsuit, the plaintiffs claim that the Biden administration and many federal agencies pressured social media companies to remove content that criticized the government’s COVID regulations. By doing so, the Biden administration or its agencies violated the First Amendment by treating ostensibly private behavior on the part of social media corporations as governmental action. That the government “cannot achieve by threats of unfavorable federal action what the Constitution prevents it from doing directly” is something the Supreme Court has known for a long time and Justice Thomas articulated in a concurring judgment only last year.
Recent instances in federal district courts have been rejected for the same reason, namely that the plaintiffs failed to provide sufficient evidence of state activity. Former White House press secretary Jennifer Psaki’s admissions that the Biden administration was ordering media companies to censor certain posts, together with statements from Psaki, President Biden, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, as well as DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas trying to intimidate them with regulatory or other legal action if they declined to do so, were not enough, in the opinion of those judges, to establish that the plaintiffs were censored on social media due to their political beliefs. To rephrase, the judges did not believe the government’s claims. In contrast, the Missouri court ruled that the plaintiffs should be allowed to conduct discovery at the summary judgment stage because there was sufficient evidence as in record to conclude that the government was engaging in social media censorship.
Documents obtained by Missouri, Berenson v. Twitter discovery, and a Freedom of Information Act request from America First Legal reveal the administration’s use of big tech to impose an unprecedented and sweeping regime of point of view censorship on the news and other content that the vast majority of Americans are exposed to. From COVID limits to the 2020 election to the Hunter Biden laptop affair, at least 11 government entities and over 80 government employees have been instructing social media firms to delete postings and specific accounts which violate the government’s own preferences and criteria for coverage.
Publicly available correspondence in the state of Missouri provides more support for the First Amendment assertion that the firms drastically escalated censorship in response to government pressure. For instance, a Facebook (Meta) official called the surgeons general to pacify the White House after Vice President Joe Biden claimed in July 2021 that Fb (Meta) was “killing people” by allowing “misinformation” about COVID vaccinations to circulate. While the executive wanted to “de-escalate and work together productively” with Murthy, he texted that the “FB team” was “feeling a bit offended” since “it’s not wonderful to be accused of murdering people.” These are not the statements of a free agent; rather, they reflect the attitude of one who sees himself as inferior to and punishable by a superior. Another communication reads: “Platforms have needed to grow more comfortable with gov’t.,” and was sent from CISA director Jen Easterly to a former CISA staffer who now works for Microsoft. It’s fascinating to see how wary they still are. This is more proof that social media platforms are restricting information because they are under government pressure, and not because of the directors’ own beliefs about what is best for the company or society as a whole.