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Covid19: criminalising & pathologising dissent

Catte Black

Let’s start with a little thought experiment.

It’s the 14th century. The Black Death is surging through Europe. One third of the total population is dead or dying.

One in three people. Dead or dying.

Everyone knows someone who is sick. Everyone has lost someone. Whole families have been wiped out. There are not enough living and healthy to get in the harvest, which rots in the fields.

One morning, as you leave your cottage to get some water from the well for you and your one surviving child you see a stranger in the middle of the village green, robed in tawdry rags and speaking to anyone who will listen.

“This plague is a lie”, he says, “it’s nothing but the normal winter fever, and you have nothing to fear”.

“Don’t be a fool”, you reply. “The winter fever doesn’t carry off a third of my village and all but one of my children. The winter fever doesn’t cause strange swellings and festerings and a cough that no one can live through”.

And you walk on to the well, get your water and go home, ignoring him.

And everyone else in the village ignores him too. As does the Lord of the Manor.

Because this man is obviously crazed. Let him babble his nonsense for as long as he pleases, it can’t change the experiential reality of your lives. You know the Black Death is real and new and something to be uniquely feared. You have seen it with your own eyes.

Now suppose it’s some other time or place or dimension. And the Lord of the Manor conceives some poorly formed idea that the people he rules are out of control, too numerous, too lax – it doesn’t matter what his reasoning is. He wants them under tighter control, he wants them more reliant on him for food and hope. He sees profit for himself, or increased power. Or he truly believes he is saving the people from themselves.

So he announces that this year’s winter fever is something new and deadly that will kill a third of the population if people don’t do as he says.

Maybe he’s lying. Maybe he believes it. Maybe that part doesn’t matter.

Stay home, he says, let the harvest rot in the fields. If you go out you will die. I will send you food from my granary. I will save you.

So people stay home and let the harvest rot and get their allowance of food from the Lord’s granary, which turns out not to be quite enough actually.

One day you go out to get water for your seven healthy, but quite hungry, children, and you see a stranger on the village green.

“This plague is a lie”, he says, “it’s nothing but the normal winter fever, and you have nothing to fear”.

You pause, and listen. And you think…wait a minute, I haven’t seen anyone die of this plague, except old Master Wyvern, who was eight and eighty, and sick with consumption…

Now what do you do?

More importantly, what does the Lord of the Manor do?

I suggest the Lord of the Manor will send his men to remove the stranger ASAP. And if you say a word about the doubt seeded in your mind, you will soon be removed too.

A tawdry stranger claiming the plague is a lie can be safely ignored while the plague is obviously real. But once the plague is or even might be a lie that stranger becomes a threat, and he has to be silenced before too many people hear him.

With that in mind, let’s think about the rash of government action to silence or criminalise those spreading ‘misinformation’ about SARS-COV2 and its effect.

What exactly are they trying to silence, and why?

Here’s what the UK government says about that, in their bulletin reassuringly titled Government cracks down on spread of false coronavirus information online

The Rapid Response Unit, operating from within the Cabinet Office and No10, is tackling a range of harmful narratives online – from purported ‘experts’ issuing dangerous misinformation to criminal fraudsters running phishing scams.

Well, that’s quite a broad spectrum isn’t it. We could probably do with some more detail. What, for example, do they mean by “purported experts”?

Sadly, the bulletin doesn’t go into much detail, or offer any examples to clarify who or what they mean. Here it is in full so you can judge for yourselves:

Specialist units across government are working at pace to combat false and misleading narratives about coronavirus, ensuring the public has the right information to protect themselves and save lives.

The Rapid Response Unit, operating from within the Cabinet Office and No10, is tackling a range of harmful narratives online – from purported ‘experts’ issuing dangerous misinformation to criminal fraudsters running phishing scams.

Up to 70 incidents a week, often false narratives containing multiple misleading claims, are being identified and resolved. The successful ‘Don’t Feed the Beast’ public information campaign will also relaunch next week, to empower people to question what they read online.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said:

We need people to follow expert medical advice and stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives. It is vital that this message hits home and that misinformation and disinformation which undermines it is knocked down quickly.

“We’re working with social media companies, and I’ll be pressing them this week for further action to stem the spread of falsehoods and rumours which could cost lives.

When false narratives are identified, the government’s Rapid Response Unit coordinates with departments across Whitehall to deploy the appropriate response. This can include a direct rebuttal on social media, working with platforms to remove harmful content and ensuring public health campaigns are promoted through reliable sources.

The unit is one of the teams feeding into the wider Counter Disinformation Cell led by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, made up of experts from across government and in the tech sector.

The Cell is engaging with social media platforms and with disinformation specialists from civil society and academia, to establish a comprehensive overview of the extent, scope and impact of disinformation related to coronavirus.

The Culture Secretary will be contacting social media companies this week to thank them for their good efforts to date, assess the progress made and discuss what other potential measures can be put in place to ensure accurate, honest information consistently reaches users of their platforms.

Penny Mordaunt, Paymaster General said:

“Holding your breath for ten seconds is not a test for coronavirus and gargling water for 15 seconds is not a cure – this is the kind of false advice we have seen coming from sources claiming to be medical experts.

“That is why government communicators are working in tandem with health bodies to promote official medical advice, rebut false narratives and clamp down on criminals seeking to exploit public concern during this pandemic.

“But the public can also help with this effort, so today we implore them to take some simple steps before sharing information online, such as always reading beyond the headline and scrutinising the source.

The public can help stop the spread of potentially dangerous or false stories circulating online by following official government guidance – the ‘SHARE’ checklist (see further information). This includes basic but essential advice such as checking the source of a story and analysing the facts before sharing.

Certain states routinely use disinformation as a policy tool, so the government is also stepping up its efforts to share its assessments on coronavirus disinformation with international partners. Working collaboratively has already helped make the UK safer, providing ourselves and our allies with a better understanding of how different techniques are used as part of malicious information operations – and how to protect against those techniques more effectively.

These measures follow recent advice from the National Cyber Security Centre, which revealed a range of attacks being perpetrated online by cyber criminals seeking to exploit coronavirus earlier this month.

This included guidance on how to spot and deal with suspicious emails related to coronavirus, as well as mitigate and defend against malware and ransomware.

A similarly vague and non-specific claim of ‘malicious’ misinformation and opportunistic scammers is referred to in the article linked in this tweet:

Apparently, in all this mass of Newspeak, the only actual piece of ‘misinformation’ anyone can find to refute is some alleged claim that ‘holding your breath for 10 seconds’ is a test for the coronavirus, and gargling water for fifteen minutes is a cure. Do they really need a whole unit to contain a few bits of nonsense like that?

What are they even trying to combat? Their own data and public statements which say covid19 is mild to harmless for most people? Real (not “purported”) experts such as Ioannidis who have offered rational analyses of that data?

No one denies SARS-COV2 is symptomless or produces a mild cold-like illness in 80% of infected people (some estimates put that number as high as 99%).

No-one denies it. Quite the contrary. They all say it. If you know where to look.

The WHO says it. The BBC says it. Most government websites say it, over and over and over again.

They have to admit this, even while they simultaneously promote panic memes in defiance of these facts. Because it is overwhelmingly and obviously true.

So, they say it, quietly, while simultaneously shrieking “be afraid!” in hopes the screaming will blind us all to the facts.

This is the fundamental weakness that needs to be protected by deterring people from questioning the fear.

So far this strategy has worked well, to the extent most people seem convinced the “science” supports the panic memes, and anyone taking up our position on this issue is described as ‘doubting the science’.

Let’s dispel this.

We are questioning the rationale for the panic. And we are doing that with science and expert opinion.

We remind our readers repeatedly that the data is what supports or refutes the panic memes, not our opinions, or those of any other non-qualified commentators.

The anti-science is coming from those uncritically promoting irrational and poorly sourced fear of this coronavirus.

Major real world physical threats don’t need PR departments and censorship to convince people of their danger. They don’t need falsely inflated fatality stats achieved by flagrant manipulation of the data.

The Lord of the Manor only feels the need to lock up the stranger on the village green if the plague is more lie than truth.

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