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An academic researcher with a background in communication, political science and American studies — but no science or medical background — played a key advisory role in the Biden administration, federal agencies, social media platforms and Ivy League institutions as they sought to censor content that ran counter to the government’s COVID-19 narrative.

In documents publicized last week as part of the ongoing release of the “Twitter Files,” investigative journalist Paul D. Thacker revealed that Claire Wardle, Ph.D., a professor of the practice of Health Services, Policy and Practice at Brown University, advised the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), which operates under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

In November 2020, just two days after Pfizer-BioNTech released data from their COVID-19 Phase 3 clinical trials, Wardle also drafted a report on “problematic and damaging” narratives concerning “individual liberty arguments” relating to the COVID-19 vaccines.

According to Wardle’s curriculum vitae, she completed her Ph.D. in communication in 2004 at the University of Pennsylvania, a master’s degree in political science from the same university in 2000, and a bachelor’s degree in American studies from the U.K.’s Hull University in 1998.

According to Thacker, Wardle played a leading role in censoring vaccine-related content on Twitter and other social media platforms that allegedly were spreading “misinformation” and “disinformation.”

In an interview with The Defender, Thacker said, “What you see is people who like to do this pretense that what they’re doing is academic work. To some degree, what she’s doing is academic research and trying to understand issues and explain them,” Thacker said. “But what she’s doing is also censorship.”

Thacker told The Defender he noticed that “a lot of these ‘disinfo’ researchers [who] are suddenly jumping into the conversation about vaccines … are all talking about these things as if they have double Ph.D.s in epidemiology and in statistics. They don’t.”

An ‘industrial-scale censorship machine’

In a Substack post — “Twitter Files: Brown University’s Claire Wardle Aids Censorship” — Thacker elaborated on his findings and drew connections to a web of organizations that have worked with the federal government and social media platforms to censor non-establishment narratives pertaining to COVID-19 and vaccines.

One such entity is CISA, which was established within DHS by Congress in 2018, to defend critical U.S. infrastructure, such as election systems, from “foreign attacks.”

Referencing prior releases of the “Twitter Files,” Thacker said researchers from Stanford University and the University of Washington worked with CISA “to fill the gap of the things the government could not do themselves.” Thacker said this is an admission “that academics served as a cutout for federal censoring of Americans.”

For instance, the Virality Project, based out of the Stanford Internet Observatory, began working with the Biden administration in February 2021. Within a year, the Virality Project proposed the establishment of a “rumor-control mechanism” and a “Misinformation and Disinformation Center of Excellence” at the federal level.

The Biden administration went on to announce the formation of a “Disinformation Governance Board,” to be housed within DHS, while federal agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration launched “Rumor Control” initiatives as part of efforts to counter COVID-19 and vaccine “misinformation” and “disinformation.”

Chris Krebs, the founder of CISA, was one of the co-authors of a November 2021 Aspen InstituteInformation Disorder” report, whose “taxpayer-backed conclusions” included the placement of “speech offenders” in a “holding area” and the governmental restriction of “disinformation,” “even if it means losing freedom.”

And according to an investigation by Tablet magazine, CISA in 2021 transformed its “Countering Foreign Influence Task Force” to “promote more flexibility to focus on general MDM” — referring to “misinformation, disinformation and malinformation.”

According to Tablet:

“The new domestic-focused task force was staffed by 15 employees dedicated to finding ‘all types of disinformation’ — but specifically that which related to ‘elections and critical infrastructure’ — and being ‘responsive to current events,’ a euphemism for promoting the official line of divisive issues, as was the case with the ‘COVID-19 Disinformation Toolkit’ released to ‘raise awareness related to the pandemic.’”

“Together they operated an industrial-scale censorship machine in which the government and NGOs sent tickets to the tech companies that flagged objectionable content they wanted scrubbed,” Tablet reported. This allowed DHS to outsource its work to the Election Integrity Project, later known as the Stanford Internet Observatory.

Tablet quoted Alex Stamos, a cybersecurity expert who once served as Facebook’s chief security officer and became director of the Stanford Internet Observatory — which operated the Virality Project — who said this structure operated as a workaround for the government, which “lacked both kinda the funding and the legal authorizations.”

Stamos also runs the Krebs Stamos Group, a private consulting firm he founded with Chris Krebs,” Thacker noted.

According to Thacker, Wardle enters the picture as “a central figure in the disinformation industry” in part through her selection as one of the individuals “chosen to brief CISA’s advisory committee.”

“Largely unknown to most Americans, Wardle … helped organize many of today’s campus disinformation groups in 2015 with funding from Google,” Thacker wrote. That same year, “Wardle collaborated with multiple organizations to start First Draft as a means to study and address trust and truth in the media.”

“First Draft later became a project of Harvard University, and claimed to be ‘the world’s foremost non-profit organisation focused on research and practice to tackle misinformation and disinformation,’” Thacker added.

Wardle has no training or background in science, yet “she has long sought to define herself as an expert on vaccines,” Thacker said, and has “managed to stake out a position as the media’s expert on disinformation.”

Wardle has taught courses and given talks on “what journalists need to know about the new and evolving field of disinformation.” In a talk in 2022 on the future of journalism, she said, “We need to think strategically about how we cover disinformation.”

Wardle’s ties to Twitter date back to 2019

Thacker revealed that Wardle also worked with Twitter on vaccine-related issues at least as far back as 2019. Referencing an internal Twitter corporate email, Thacker wrote, “Wardle tried to involve the company’s executives in a TED Talk event that would define ‘credible sources’ and ‘quality information around vaccines’” that year.

“While serving as a TED Research Fellow in 2019, Wardle tried to interest Twitter executives in joining an event to promote vaccines,” Thacker wrote. “The invite to Twitter was sent by Alexios Mantzarlis. A former fact checker, Mantzarlis has since joined Google where he focuses on misinformation.”

“‘This is too important a topic to not share lessons,’ Mantzarlis wrote in his reply, stating that the event’s goals were to create a list of relevant information on vaccines that could be converted into advice for social media platforms.”

Thacker said “a spokesperson from TED disputed the content of emails, stating that Wardle was involved in a project spearheaded by TED called CIVIC (‘Coalition to Integrate Values Into the Information Commons.’). CIVIC used digital crowdsourcing to combat all online misinformation and was not specific to vaccines.”

However, in the internal Twitter emails released by Thacker, Wardle told a company official the talk “ended up being a really great conversation, with real emphasis on quality information around vaccines.”

In 2020, Wardle was again in contact with Twitter, after emailing Twitter executives a report she wrote on “anti-vaccine conspiracies and narratives found on social media.”

The report, “Under the surface: COVID-19 vaccine narratives, misinformation and data deficits on social media,” claimed that it “demonstrates the complexity of the vaccine information ecosystem, where a cacophony of voices and narratives have coalesced to create an environment of extreme uncertainty.”

Wardle wrote:

“Narratives challenging the safety of vaccines have been perennial players in the online vaccine debate. Yet this research shows that narratives related to mistrust in the intentions of institutions and key figures surrounding vaccines are now driving as much of the online conversation and vaccine skepticism as safety concerns.

“When people can’t easily access reliable information around vaccines and when mistrust in actors and institutions related to vaccines is high, misinformation narratives rush in to fill the vacuum. The findings should act as a wake-up call as the world waits for a COVID-19 vaccine and sees routine immunization rates drop.”

“Hello my lovely friends,” Wardle wrote in her email to Twitter announcing the report. “I had hoped this week would be full of relaxing massages and cupcakes. Instead it’s more election nonsense and a Pfizer announcement that forced us to push up our planned release of new research on online vaccine narratives.”

“Uncovering these narratives, both positive and negative, is critical to assisting journalists, researchers, and public communications experts wishing to report and act on potentially problematic and damaging vaccine discourse,” she added.

One of the recipients of Wardle’s email was Yoel Roth, then Twitter’s head of Trust and Safety. Previous “Twitter Files” documents revealed more than 150 emails between Roth and the FBI, including the bureau’s San Francisco agent, Elvis Chan, with many of these communications involving the removal or flagging of content on the platform.

“The dominant vaccine narrative is designed to undermine confidence in institutions and scientific sources,” Wardle alleged in her email to Twitter. Wardle claimed in her report that vaccine mandates are “one of the prominent anti-vaccination narratives,” Wardle also wrote in her email to Twitter.

This “narrative … proved to be accurate when U.S. companies as well as state and federal agencies began mandating COVID vaccines,” Thacker wrote.

Writing on Twitter, Thacker said:

Thacker told The Defender:

“Wardle puts out a report that’s supposed to explain ‘disinformation,’ and what’s in there? Disinformation. They say explicitly that one of these disinformation narratives they are seeing is that there’s going to be vaccine mandates … and then there were vaccine mandates.”

Thacker also questioned the ethics of a university researcher promoting “a corporate product” such as vaccines. Writing on Twitter, he said:

“How often do academics put out white papers like this to promote a corporate product? Does this seem scholarly?”

And despite claiming that fears COVID-19 vaccines would be mandated were “misinformation,” Thacker said that “Once vaccine mandates come out, they pivoted into supporting them.”

“Ignoring their own misstep, Wardle’s First Draft simply lurched forward in support of vaccine mandates,” Thacker wrote, “by publishing blog posts with headlines that described discussions around mandated vaccinations as ‘disinformation.’”

For instance, in one such blog post, in a section titled “Highly adaptive disinformation: The chameleon effect,” similar claims were made that fears concerning possible vaccine mandates were examples of “misinformation narratives.” The post stated, in part:

“The highly adaptive nature of anti-vaccination networks proved particularly noticeable through the adaptation of old misinformation narratives to the current context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“ … one of the prominent anti-vaccination narratives based on individual liberty arguments in North American communities referenced the imposition of mask-wearing rules in public spaces to suggest the same will soon be applied to vaccine uptake.”

‘None of these misinformation experts have ever found any misinformation from the pharma industry’

Thacker described this fusion of academic researchers with corporate and governmental interests as “blatant.” He told The Defender:

“The one who is most blatant about this, who is not even trying at all, is Alex Stamos. He says flat-out, ‘our goal is to operationalize our work.’ He says the quiet part out loud. He then says, ‘and then we will do our academic research.”

Thacker was referring to remarks Stamos made during a 2020 talk with New York Times reporter Sheera Frenkel, where he said:

“Our goal is to operationalize our work … And then we will still do our academic research. We’ll still be able to publish our findings.

“But hopefully when we do so, we can say we were able to find and to mitigate the impact, before it ever happened.”

Thacker said people like Wardle and Stamos “create a false idea of a consensus, by simply censoring people. Not a discussion, but shutting people down, labeling them.”

Thacker described this trend as “concerning” and one that “doesn’t have to do just with vaccines.”

“They know the power of what they do by labeling,” Thacker added, noting that such people may go along with prevailing narratives to avoid being labeled themselves.

Thacker also noted that “fact-checkers” and others in the ecosystem of researchers and organizations purporting to combat “misinformation” and “disinformation” have never once fact-checked Big Pharma:

“None of these ‘misinformation’ experts have ever found any misinformation from the pharma industry, which has a history of misinformation. They’re the most dishonest industry in the history of the U.S., having paid more fines than any other industry, if you exclude the BP oil disaster [in the Gulf of Mexico].

“They never pause for a moment to think, ‘why have we never criticized a pharma company?’ That’s very weird. These people are supposedly so smart. Do they not stop to think that by doing what they are doing, it is essentially PR for the pharma industry?”

Thacker wrote that The Washington Post, in a recent “awkward, bumbling article,” criticized members of Congress requesting university documents regarding collaborations with the federal government, claiming they are “harassing academics.”

“Can we just have an honest discussion about the issue? Thacker said. “We’re not having honest discussions. We’re having consensus built around censorship surrounding many of these topics.”