Meet the new thought police: the ‘Orwellian’ researchers working to pathologise dissent

A research group funded by the Government are warning that people critical of the Government are a danger to society. Is it 1933, 1984 or 2022?

Credit: Bob Moran

‘Dangerous speech’, especially speech from those opposed to or negatively affected by the Government’s covid response who protested at Parliament earlier this year, is a threat to us all, a group of government funded researchers warn.

A paper called The Murmuration of Information Disorders produced by The Disinformation Project, Te Pūnaha Matatini, Centre for Science in Society and Te Herenga Waka makes this assertion.

Te Pūnaha Matatini (TPM) is a research group that receives Centre of Research Excellence government funding that published an earlier paper called Evaluating the Infodemic in 2020, that introduced the idea that censorship and information control should be employed to limit discussion that does not fit the Government narrative around covid-19 and stated that a computational methodology and process for monitoring mis-and-disinformation and conspiracy narratives in New Zealand had been established.

One of the authors of the TPM paper Kate Hannah also heads up The Disinformation Project, which does not declare funding sources. Hannah is a principle investigator with TPM and the TDP’s work appears to be a continuation of the work that began with the 2020 Infodemic paper.

Both the Disinformation Project and Covid-19 Modelling Aotearoa have published papers on TPM letterhead, indicating a close working relationship.

Incidentally, the Government’s covid modelling unit, Covid-19 Modelling Aotearoa, which is funded directly by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and was used to justify emergency powers in 2020 that have had a devastating impact on civil liberties, the economy and the social contract is also closely tied to TPM. It’s work began in January 2020 under the leadership of Te Pūnaha Matatini investigators and it has been a standalone project since January 2021 – but all their 2021 reports cite or refer to TPM intensively. 

It is troubling that papers like two mentioned above, warning that people critical of the government are a danger to our individual and collective safety, have been produced at least in part with Government money. We still don’t know who funds TDP.

I imagine if you are the government, speech that questions state actions is indeed a danger – that is one of the reasons why its freedom has traditionally been safeguarded.

In the new ‘murmuration’ report generated by TDP, the broad-based grassroots protest movement that emerged from the oppressive environment created by covid-19 restrictions, is cast as the creation of a “complex meta-level scaffolding of disinformation operations, including Russian disinformation”.

But this pseudo-academic word salad is not necessary to explain why a large section of society is unhappy with the Government and its covid response.

Clear, logical, relatable, human explanations have been communicated by activists themselves, many times over: they are unhappy about covid restrictions that breach civil and political rights, medical mandates that unethically force people to decide between bodily autonomy and the ability to earn a living, doubts about the truth of the official covid narrative due to its many inconsistencies, the suspected corruption of science and regulators, swathes of people seriously injured by the Pfizer product they were coerced to take, the lack of informed consent, and a media environment that is heavily biased making open debate near impossible.

The Government did mandate injections, people have lost their livelihoods, people have suffered life changing injury – this is not misinformation, these are the direct experiences of a huge number of New Zealanders. Protest seems a perfectly logical response. What is not logical is the purported alarm from The Disinformation Project (TDP) and Te Pūnaha Matatini that this section of society is finding a way to voice it concerns when nobody in the mainstream will permit them to.

For two years the Government and media ignored the voices of those sacrificed to the covid response, refusing them a voice and treating them as acceptable collateral damage. Not only have they been ignored, they have been vilified as letting the ‘team of five million’ down and scapegoated unscientifically as vectors of disease.

In a two page summary , the authors state: “Everyone deserves to be talked about in ways that uphold their dignity. The Parliament Protest, and the language that emerged from it, challenge this.”

On almost every level, the protest was about upholding human dignity – under the Government’s medical mandates, people’s were reduced to their vaccination status. Where is the dignity in that?

A tender moment between a policeman and protester at Camp Freedom in February 2022. Media and Government cast the protesters as ‘extreme and violent’, but those who attended either to camp or to lend support say there was little if any evidence of these claims, which were used to portray the protest in negative light.

The report, The murmuration of information disorders: Aotearoa New Zealand’s mis- and disinformation ecologies and the Parliament Protest, begins with a quote from the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

“One day it will be our job to try and understand how a group of people could succumb to such wild and dangerous mis- and disinformation. And while many of us have seen that disinformation and dismissed it as conspiracy theory, a small portion of our society have not only believed it, they have acted upon it in an extreme and violent way that cannot stand. We have a difficult journey in front of us to address the underlying cause of what we have seen here today.”(emphasis mine).

Along with Kate Hannah The Disinformation Project is comprised of Sanjana Hattotuwa and Kayli Taylor. Notably, its work began in February 2020, one month after the modelling until was created and just as covid hysteria hit, and mere weeks before the first national lockdown.

The timing suggests a government getting prepared for an information war following the inevitable backlash to nonsensical and unscientific covid policies from the sector of the population more prone to questioning authority.

Sociologist Jodie Bruning notes in her research paper, Covid-19 Emergency Powers: The New Zealand State, Medical Capture & the Role of Strategic Ignorance, that the TDPs establishment was a way of foreshadowing arguments that contest government covid messaging, given the significant gap between the scientific literature and what the public has been told. “The Disinformation Project appeared to be installed within Te Pūnaha Matatini for this purpose.”

The authors describe their role as helping social media companies, journalists, academia, policymakers and civil society to identify, understand and respond to the “information disorders” plaguing the country and threatening its “democratic fabric and electoral integrity”.

The information disorder they refer to is free and frank discussion challenging all aspects of the covid response and the rollout of the Pfizer product, which they seek to censor.

The new report, which does not declare its funding and was not peer reviewed is publicised as an expose on New Zealand’s ‘disinformation dozen’, which is a curious choice as we’ll see.

“On the protest’s final day, 73 per cent of interactions in the mis/disinformation networks was generated by just a dozen Facebook accounts,” the report states.

The paper itself does not name the offending ‘misinformation’ spreaders. A footnote refers us to this Spinoff article, which in the most unflattering terms possible describes a number of groups and people involved in the protest – more than a dozen, so we never learn which exact people and accounts are being accused.

News items about the research take an uncritical view, and simply amplify these claims, which seek to pathologise rational thought and the vaccine risk aware, as unhinged. It is taken for granted that the vaccine is safe and effective, as has been repeated ad nauseum, despite all medicines carrying risk – even those that are extensively studied, unlike the covid injection, which has no long term safety data at all. Who is being irrational?

The Disinformation Dozen report was launched by The Centre for Countering Digital Hate in an attempt to coerce social media platforms to deplatform 12 people considered leaders in the health freedom movement. Now the same tactic appears to have been taken up by New Zealand’s The Disinformation Project.

The original ‘Disinformation Dozen’

The “Disinformation Dozen” refers to a campaign run by the UK based Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH). Some reports have speculated it is funded by “dark money” and has links to intelligence agencies, formed as a front group to launch political attacks on the vaccine sceptic movement, as it appeared as if from nowhere and has significant resources. These facts ought to stir scepticism in journalists, but instead the report was widely and uncritically reported as truth.

However, the original Disinformation Dozen report, which accused 12 advocates of natural health and health freedom, of being ‘vaccine misinformation super-spreaders’ on Facebook, was later discredited by Facebook itself.

Facebook vice president of content policy, Monica Bikert said:

“There isn’t any evidence to support this claim … In fact, these 12 people are responsible for about just 0.05% of all views of vaccine-related content on Facebook. This includes all vaccine-related posts they’ve shared, whether true or false, as well as URLs associated with these people.

“They are in no way representative of the hundreds of millions of posts that people have shared about covid-19 vaccines in the past months on Facebook.”

This hasn’t stopped it being repeated. The irony that they are spreading real disinformation is generally lost in the media chaos – they can’t seriously be unaware of Facebook’s rebuttal.

Shoot the messenger, ignore the message

Parents and concerned citizens all over the country have watched in horror as the Pfizer product was approved for use in children. It was well known by many that during the FDA approval in the US, a large amount of expert testimony opposed approval for 5-to-11 year olds because of clear safety signals. It was also widely reported in new media that one of the FDA voting members openly stated, “We’re never gonna learn about how safe the vaccine is until we start giving it.”

But TDP implies that it is obscene to question vaccinating kids for covid, and worrying that people began to express their concern online.

In its report TDP noted that months before the protest, following Medsafe’s provisional approval for the paediatric dose on 20 December, they observed “levels of volatility online”, which intensified when the roll-out began on 17 January.  

“The vaccine was described as “poison”, compared to D-Day, and heavily resisted. This resistance was based upon mis- and disinformation and Covid-19 denialism … One misinformation super-spreader alleged that five children had collapsed at a vaccination site – something that was debunked by health professionals. Nevertheless, the lie went viral across the mis- and disinformation ecologies studied by TDP, fuelling fear and tension surrounding the Covid-19 vaccine for children,” the report states.

The person they are referring to, Liz Gunn, was reporting at a large Auckland vaccination site on the first day of the roll out to young children. While there, she heard reports from the crowd that five children had collapsed directly following injection. Unable to enter to verify the claims herself, when she encountered a TV1 news crew leaving the scene, she asked them if they had heard the claims and whether they were investigating.

This turned into Gunn ‘lying’ and spreading ‘misinformation’ in subsequent news reports, which was uncritically repeated in the TDP paper. Watch the confrontation here and judge for yourself if Gunn was spreading lies or trying to establish the facts.

Gunn’s real crime is reporting on vaccine injury and the effect of mandates, giving a voice to Kiwis shunned by legacy media, a practice TDP implies is dangerous for democracy. You can view her rebuttal to claims by Newsroom that she was spreading rumours here.

The TDP report goes on to describe the ad hoc citizen journalism that emerged around the convoy and protest at parliament, of which Gunn was a part:

“The convoy was the most significant domestic event studied by TDP to date – including new irrigation patterns around the seed and spread of content, the pace of production, various vectors used for content production, virality, cross-pollination within and between social media ecologies, and levels of engagement …

“On multiple occasions mis- and disinformation pages studied on Facebook received greater engagement than mainstream media – with serious implications for how people understood the protest and what took place.”

One conclusion that was not reached by TDP is that trust in legacy media is at an all-time low, and new media is springing up to inform people of the grassroots views and perspectives that major outlets won’t touch. It’s no exaggeration to say that the vast majority of media reports completely misrepresented the protesters. Interested members of the public could tune into multiple livestreams to get an unbiased view of what was happening at parliament, which differed starkly from news reports and government claims that it was a “river of filth”. The ”implications’ for Government of the public learning this was not true, are unquestionably threatening.

All the usual slurs were employed throughout the report: anti-vax, conspiracy theory, mis-and-disinformation, covid denialism, far-right, lies etc.

“Our warning in November 2021 that anti-vaccination and Covid-19 mis- and disinformation were being used as a Trojan Horse for the norm-setting of far-right ideals was fully realised during the Parliament protest,” the report states.

Like many others that were there, I saw no sign of far-right activism of any sort. My experience was a spontaneous coming together of people of different political stripes, by and large people who voted Labour, Green and National – centre left and right voters – who generally adhered to the basic liberal values of individual rights, free speech and bodily autonomy and who treated one another in the main with great love and respect. It’s hard to describe how positive, comforting, supportive and uplifting the energy of the protest was, and impossible to reconcile with the paranoid and alarmist descriptions laid out in this report and news coverage.

The bogus disinformation industry

Uppsala University propaganda expert Greg Simons reviewed the TDP report and said it was “Orwellian in every sense”, and defensive in nature. There is heavy use of different propaganda techniques like glittering generalities, assertions and card stacking.

“The project is run in a classic front-group style of information operation and influence activity. They attempt credibility by not disclosing their financial and political conflicts of interest. The underlying reason is that they want to be seen as being more credible at a time when the New Zealand government is increasingly (and rightly) seen as being less trustworthy and credible. This report is written in a pseudo-academic format that is intended to make it seem more credible than it actually is – form over substance. 

“This Disinformation Project is likely to be a pre-election information operation intended to engineer public perception and consent ahead of the next parliamentary election – there is a lot of work to be done in order to persuade and influence the public with the possible aim of facilitating Jacinda Ardern’s re-election, given her dismal – for obvious reasons – performance in the polls,” Simons says.

While propaganda studies has a long academic history, disinformation scholarship is entirely new, created with the distinct purpose of defining the boundaries of what can and cannot be legitimately discussed, and always in the name of safety.

In response to news that US President Joe Biden has created a Disinformation Governance Board, effectively a Ministry of Truth, journalist Glen Greenwald says a well-financed industry of ‘anti-disinformation scholars’ have been promoted to rationalise and ennoble censorship, since most Americans have been educated to view censorship sceptically, associating it with tyranny. He rightly asks, “Which credentials constitute “expertise” in disinformation?”

“They have thus created a litany of neutral-sounding groups with benign names — The Atlantic Council, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, various ‘fact-checking’ outfits controlled by corporate media outlets — that claim to employ ‘anti-disinformation experts’ to identify and combat fake news. Just as media corporations re-branded their partisan pundits as ‘fact-checkers’ … the term ‘disinformation expert’ is designed to disguise ideological views on behalf of state and corporate power centres as Official Truth …

“Indeed, the concept of ‘anti-disinformation expert’ is itself completely fraudulent. This is not a real expertise but rather a concocted title bestowed on propagandists to make them appear more scholarly and apolitical than they are. But the function of this well-funded industry is … to discredit dissent and justify its censorship by infusing its condemnation with the pretense of institutional authority.”

“Standard Techniques”, A British Channel 4 documentary from 1985 about the CIAs approach to influencing news reporting.

The relationship between the media and the security state

Simon’s and Greenwald’s insights are particularly useful in the context of increased cosiness between journalists and security agencies. It’s far too common to find journalists uncritically repeating security agency talking points. The big one at the moment is aligning freedom protesters and ‘anti-vaxers’ with extremism, as Ardern did in her comment about the protesters. The new term coming from these agencies is ‘domestic extremism’.

Those who have studied history or thought about this messaging carefully can see the problem with it – that anyone who opposes the actions of the government can now be labelled an extremist. And that is exactly what is happening. The public is slowly being nudged, through outfits like TDP, to view covid sceptics and people who have chosen not take the jab as dangerous and prone to far right-wing ideologies and violence.

If you pay attention you will have noticed this terminology creeping into New Zealand news reporting since early 2022. There is a long history of journalists acting as an auxiliary arm of intelligence agencies, both knowingly and unknowingly – The CIAs Project Mockingbird is infamous. We should not deceive ourselves that this practice is over, when it is probably more common than ever.

For those interested in the history of security services influencing media, a restored Channel 4 documentary on CIA media influence from 1985, featuring whistleblowers John Stockwell and David MacMichael and Reuters war correspondent Fred Bridgland is a great watch. It describes how actual disinformation, convenient lies cooked up by the state in the ‘national interest’, are fed to reporters as truth. Thus the public come to widely believe a false version of events, swinging public support for certain policies or state actions in their favour. It’s available here on Swiss Policy Research. It is inconceivable that a documentary like this would be produced let alone aired by a legacy media outlet today.

Another theme to watch for is the need for increased censorship, which is ultimately what The Disinformation Project’s work is suggesting. As well as a pre-election tool, as Simons points out, it’s highly likely it is being deployed to soften the public up for planned legislation that will dramatically limit what can be said online, including legal speech. The New Zealand Government, like governments everywhere, is working on this now.

The Minister for Internal Affairs, Jan Tinetti is conducting a ‘Content Regulation Review’. The aim of the review is to “design and implement a new approach to content regulation that minimises the risk of harms caused by content to New Zealanders.”

The Free Speech Union is working to bring awareness to these plans. “From what we understand, this review is likely to suggest that all public material, including podcasts, blogs and social media posts, could be under the scrutiny of a censorship regime.”

That’s not to mention the proposed hate speech law, which if passed, carries every likelihood of being used to criminalise all kinds of viewpoints. Given the TDPs report and the media’s unquestioning coverage of it, do we really think anti-government sentiment or vaccine risk awareness will escape the label of ‘hate speech’? Bad actors can and will find a way to frame issues in this light – after all it is a ‘standard technique’.

‘Doublespeak and language manipulation’, an interview with William Lutz from 1989.

One way the public can defend themselves against the kind of duplicitous language used in reports like those produced by the TDP, is to learn about the use of doublespeak in politics, advertising, and increasingly in academia. An interview from the late 1980s covering this topic is a good primer – again, it’s hard to imagine a topic like this being discussed on any current affairs or news programme in New Zealand in 2022 – or even an audience that would demand such a high level of social critique.

Perhaps it’s time we as the public initiated a mature debate about these worrying developments – especially if we want our children to grow up with anything like the freedoms we have known ourselves.

As has been often remarked upon lately by astute observers, when George Orwell wrote his dystopian novel 1984, he intended it as a warning – not an instruction manual.

Note to readers: This article has been edited to clarify the relationship between Te Pūnaha Matatini, Covid-19 Modelling Aotearoa and The Disinformation Project. An earlier version of this story stated that they were part of TPM. The modelling unit was part of TPM until January 2021. It’s not clear if The Disinformation Project was formally a part of TPM early on or who funds it. However, both are headed up by TPM investigators. In the case of Covid-19 Modelling Aotearoa, it was only in February 2022 that their reports began to appear without TPM letterhead. The Disinformation Project’s papers have also prominently featured it’s logo until recently, but still cites TPM’s involvement. It’s clear that TPM works closely with both research units.

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