Formed by ordinary citizens at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, PANDA’s founders believed that decision-makers could be persuaded by proper research. We underestimated the extent to which freedom of speech is under attack today.
The Fauci emails are a set of emails (many of which are redacted) sent and received by Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and chief medical adviser to President Biden, which were released under a Freedom of Information Act application. Remarkably, these emails have received very little critical press attention in South Africa with Daily Maverick’s statement that the controversy is “A lot of fuss about nothing,” being typical.
After watching Congressman Jim Jordan’s presentation, no objective journalist could say that there is nothing in the Fauci emails to report. The Fauci emails raise important, newsworthy questions that a responsible press, whose primary role is to report and not editorialise, should be investigating. Illegal research, lab leaks and cover-ups aside, there is a much more fundamental reason why the Fauci emails matter. The Fauci emails prove that public health authorities have been regularly lying to the public and the Press and tech companies actively propagate those lies. Whatever you think about Fauci, democracy is clearly under attack.
It’s OK to Lie
As Davis notes in her article, from January to April 2020, the official line was that masks don’t work. Apologists explain that this was in fact a kind of white lie propagated by Fauci, the WHO, the CDC and others for good reason – in order to avoid a run on surgical masks. Leaving aside the inconvenient truths that the mandated masks are cloth masks and not surgical masks and the fact that all pre-Covid science confirmed that masks don’t work for respiratory epidemics, there is a controversial ethical question to be posed – is it ever okay for health authorities to lie and is it wise?
At the start of the outbreak, academics produced models that grossly overstated the risks that COVID-19 poses to society. In South Africa, Professor Juliet Pulliam of Stellenbosch University produced a model that predicted up to 351,000 deaths in the first wave of infections in South Africa and hospital admissions in the first wave that would exceed available beds by many multiples irrespective of measures employed. This is the model that government referred to when implementing the 21 days of lockdown that South Africa is still experiencing over 400 days later. When they write, academics and institutions like Groundup rarely disclose the fact that they receive funding from controversial organisations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or the Open Society Foundation, but many of them do.
Even when Pulliam’s model was replaced by one under the custodianship of Prof. Harry Moultrie that predicted 40,000 deaths in the first wave in South Africa by November 2020, or a later model that finally aligned with PANDA’s prediction of 20,000 deaths in the first wave, the modelling of hospitalisations was never close to what actually transpired or what PANDA accurately forecast.
Apologists again excuse this exaggeration on the basis that it is okay to overstate the impact of a virus if it results in the behaviour you want from the public. Of course, this perspective only holds as long as the lie does not cause more loss of life – as lockdowns are wont to do. And this is the reason why academics continue desperately to defend their models – misrepresenting the predictions they made, inflating the death statistics and refusing to calculate the cost of lockdowns themselves or acknowledge the expectation that they will cause COVID-19 deaths to increase or the collateral damage estimated by others.
Few people are aware of the extent to which the message is being controlled or the interest groups who wield influence. Readers can themselves follow the money that funds South African universities and organisations like Groundup (George Soros’ Open Society Foundation) and Real411 (Google, Facebook) – which is in a partnership with the Press Ombud. These groups not only control what is said, but they also engage in cancel culture by undermining dissenting voices and calling for the de-platforming of groups that dare to criticise.
Turning back to masks, there was enough science saying that they did not work for other respiratory viruses, but none specifically relating to COVID-19. PANDA discovered that a comprehensive trial had been conducted in Denmark in April and May 2020, but scientists were battling to get the paper published. Mask-wearing had become a political hot potato. The “Danmask” study was finally published in a respected scientific journal in November 2020. PANDA prepared a Facebook post linking to the paper for scheduled publication at a later date. Before the post was even published, PANDA received a warning from Facebook that their rules had been breached and further breaches would result in PANDA’s account being suspended. To be clear, PANDA was merely posting a link to a respected medical journal publishing a scientific paper by respected scientists. Here is what YouTube currently won’t let you see:
What this means is that if you had posted, in March 2020, that masks do work, you were liable to be cancelled from YouTube and if you posted, in August 2020, that masks don’t work, you were also liable to be cancelled. Not because the science had changed, but because the politics had changed. It gets worse – in June 2021, tech platforms even started censoring the WHO and linking to the WHO website regarding the vaccination of children was deemed unacceptable.
Twitter recently deleted the following tweet by Luigi Warren, one of the inventors of mRNA technology, despite the fact that Mr Warren has demonstrably more knowledge about the subject than anyone at Twitter and that he was in fact defending the technology.
This is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the censorship that has become de rigeur. The problem with lying to the public and co-opting the media into your lies should be evident from the story of the boy who cried wolf. When the public realises that you’ve been lying and hiding the truth, they stop trusting you – whether you are a member of the Press or a public health authority. That is incredibly dangerous because the day will come when we face a virus with a higher infection fatality rate than SARS-CoV-2’s mean rate of 0.15%.
The Origins Theory
Early on in the outbreak, a theory began to circulate that the virus had leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, an institute conducting “gain of function” research. Gain of function involves engineering viruses to make them more deadly and infectious. This research was banned in the United States under the Obama Presidency after lab leaks in the US highlighted the dangers.
The Fauci emails confirm that in early 2020, Fauci knew that: (1) there was a lethal virus on the loose in Wuhan; (2) American taxpayers had funded gain of function research in Wuhan; (3) the research grant that funded this research had not been approved by the proper oversight board in the US; (4) his scientists had told him that the virus looked engineered rather than natural; and (5) he had ties to the work done in China. And yet, Fauci and other US officials actively sought to suppress the lab origin theory and stood by as the media and tech industries rolled out their censorship machines.
Anyone who tried to discuss the theory was labelled Trumpist – silenced and ostracised. In January and February 2020, Twitter and Facebook announced that they would censor “false” and “debunked” claims such as that “COVID-19 is man-made or manufactured,” and prominent Twitter, YouTube and FaceBook accounts were suspended for suggesting that COVID-19 may have escaped from a Wuhan lab. In May 2021, Facebook finally reversed its decision but doctors in the US have testified that the lack of transparency caused lives to be lost.
We do not yet know definitively what the origin of this virus was, but we know that lab origin is plausible and the attempts to suppress that possibility caused harm. No matter what the outcome of the lab leak theory is, the Fauci emails highlight the extent to which the Media is complicit in the attempts by governments and interest groups to control the narrative. In South Africa, PANDA has brought many access to information applications and there is a long list of applications that have simply been ignored by government and remain outstanding months after the law required a response. What else is being covered up and what further harm will be caused?
The PANDA Conspiracy Theory
There are many examples of cancel culture in South Africa. In February of this year, Daily Maverick published an article written by Davis and a controversial writer, Nafeez Ahmed, stating that PANDA was part of a global conspiracy to disseminate disinformation about COVID-19. Disinformation is information the author knows to be false spread deliberately in order to deceive. Think about the implications of that allegation and you will understand why PANDA took Daily Maverick to the Press Council. The spreading of disinformation around COVID-19 is a crime in South Africa and what the Press Ombud, Pippa Green, refused to acknowledge is that PANDA, and specific individual members, had effectively been labelled murderers.
Ahmed is a known peddler of conspiracy theories, having been fired from previous positions for propagating anti-Semitic and 9/11 lies. He has recently added online vigilantism to his repertoire. Before writing in the Daily Maverick, Ahmed made the main allegations against PANDA in another article on a digital platform based in the UK. This insulated Daily Maverick from criticism by Green, who found that because Ahmed was quoting himself, Daily Maverick had not made the ridiculous statements about PANDA, but merely reported the news published elsewhere. In other words, you can avoid the provisions of the Press Code by simply publishing your lies outside South Africa first.
There was no factual basis to any of the key allegations. No attempt was made, in the articles or in Daily Maverick’s response to the Press Council complaint, to show that any of the organisations that PANDA was apparently conspiring with, or indeed PANDA itself, had ever produced any disinformation. Any criticism of lockdown was simply taken to be false and Davis and Ahmed then used exaggeration to apply the “disinformation” label. Only laughable evidence was provided for the allegation that the organisations were working together. Perhaps most notable was the suggestion that anyone who links to a video on a public video hosting platform is linked to anyone else using that platform. So, if you have ever whatsapped a link to a cat video on a given video platform, Daily Maverick considers that you are linked to any racist who also posted a video on that platform.
Daily Maverick Lies
Green found the Daily Maverick guilty of the offence of misleading readers. In an effort to smear PANDA by association, Davis and Ahmed had misrepresented an article from the journal Nature saying that it was published in 2020 and related to COVID-19, when it was in fact from 2010 and related to H1N1. This was not an innocent mistake. In the Press Council proceedings, PANDA highlighted the misrepresentation and in response Daily Maverick doubled down on the lie. PANDA was forced to disclose the Nature article and Green had little choice but to make the finding against Daily Maverick. The irony should not be lost that in an article accusing PANDA of disinformation, it was Daily Maverick that was found guilty of misleading the public.
In the Complaint, PANDA also noted that Davis had admitted on her CapeTalk radio show to having been “hurt” and “saddened” by a scientific report proving that the beach bans she supported were in fact irrational. Davis’ commitment to science was short-lived. Even though there was no scientific basis for the beach closures that devastated the economy, she retained her support for them because some people still took public transport to the beach. Green stated, in her original judgement, that if true, such statements would be “odd … given the significant impact the lockdown has had on poorer people’s livelihoods.”
Green’s original findings recorded the fact that Davis had denied these quotes and since, mysteriously, the recordings of the relevant episode of Davis’ show (but neither the earlier or later shows) had been deleted from the CapeTalk website and seemingly all other podcast hosting platforms, Green decided to accept Davis’ denial (and to reject PANDA’s version). Consistently throughout the process, Green placed the burden of proof on PANDA. Green was, however, promptly presented with a recording of the show proving the quotes PANDA had supplied. In an extraordinary about-face, Green recalled the original findings and replaced them. However, no mention was made in the amended findings of the fact that Davis had been caught lying to the Press Council or of the controversy of the disappearing podcasts.
All PANDA had sought from the Complaint was a right of reply against the accusations of criminal activity made against it. This is a right that all civilised countries offer to defend oneself against public criticism in the same venue where it was published and with the same prominence to give the person who is attacked a remedy against the publication of information that constitutes an intrusion in private life, or an attack on dignity, honour or reputation. It is also, of course, a good way of making sure that the Press gets their facts straight. The Press Council procedures reference such a right as a remedy and it has been granted in similar cases to PANDA’s (including recently against Daily Maverick). In this case, however, Green decided that PANDA should not have an opportunity to defend itself.
The Role of the Press According to Daily Maverick
Daily Maverick was the only member of the mainstream media that saw fit to publish this global disinformation conspiracy drivel. Why, you may ask, did Daily Maverick consider it important to reproduce this hit piece? Daily Maverick’s words are so extraordinary that they deserve quotation:
“Panda appeared to be a lobby group granted a powerful voice to amplify many of the dangerous views … that government was calling on a responsible media to help correct.”
In other words, the reason Davis and Ahmed went after PANDA was that government told them to silence those who say things government deems dangerous. Correcting dangerous views did not mean explaining errors in PANDA’s data, but rather attacking the organisation and its individual members using conspiracy theory techniques. The result is something PANDA thought South Africa had grown out of in the 80’s – hit-piece journalism deployed to undermine citizen-led, non-profit organisations that hold government to account.
Davis and Ahmed’s approach to journalism (now endorsed by Green) is one seen across the world. It is a patriarchal view of the Media’s role that Fox News pioneered. It posits that the public cannot be trusted with the facts, that instead of telling us what is happening, the Media has to interpret the facts for its poor, dumb readers, alternatively give them the interpretation of the facts that readers demand to feel more comfortable in their political bubble. Over time, this approach forces the Media to subvert facts that don’t accord with their agenda.
Telling You What to Think
In a recent opinion in the New York Times, Ross Douthat notes that, “One key change to mainstream journalism in the Trump era was the impulse to tell the reader exactly what to think, lest by leaving anything ambiguous you gave an inch to right-wing demagogy. It was not enough to simply report, ‘Republican politician X said conspiratorial-sounding thing Y.’ You also had to specifically describe the conspiratorial thing as false or debunked misinformation, in a way that once would have been considered editorializing, so as to leave no doubt in the vulnerable reader’s mind.”
Davis and Ahmed chose to use the word “disinformation” in relation to PANDA and others knowing this was an exaggeration to make sure vulnerable readers were in no doubt. As if writing to Douthat’s script, elsewhere Davis pounds her editorial fist, “Yet every single claim made by Nell is false,” after trying to label anyone holding contrarian views on lockdown as a Trump supporter. She goes on to wield her cancel culture sword on that tiny corner of the media that still subscribes to the idea of balanced reporting: “cartoonist Jeremy Nell was given a platform by BizNews to share his laughably inaccurate “analysis” of the Fauci emails.”
The lab origin debacle reveals the problems with mainstream journalism’s impulse to tell the reader exactly what to think. “People need to consider how this plays out in other areas where the Press might wish to control the narrative,” Douthat notes. “An expansive pressure has been created to describe more and more things without any ambiguity and to judge more and more claims pre-emptively. That is the antithesis of what a truth-seeking profession is supposed to do.”
If it is found that a handful of scientists are responsible for one of the greatest human catastrophes in generations, that will of course be newsworthy and there will be a reckoning for those who were complicit in the cover-up. But even before it is known precisely what the origins of the virus were, the Fauci emails have revealed the tip of the censorship iceberg. They show us the dangers of censorship and they should wake every South African up to the extent to which we are being kept in the dark. The Press, Academia and our public institutions are hiding important information about this crisis from us based on a patriarchal idea that they know what is best for us and because so many of them have deep-seated conflicts of interest, it is going to be very difficult to win back what we have lost.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash