The mass migration into full-time internet existence caused by the COVID-19 quarantines should remove any lingering doubts that online is real life—and any pretense that there’s an impermeable wall separating the two is a dangerous and quite possibly deadly illusion.
How could it be otherwise? The drama of our lives plays out on the internet; our physical well-being and that of our families depend on access to goods and information that exist only within a digital infrastructure. The internet is less an arena of pure fantasy than an alternate dimension, connected to our own but governed by different laws. It is imperative to learn what those laws are and follow them back to their source. There are digital methods to encode and verify one’s identity so that you can be yourself online, talk to your friends and pay your bills. For the most part these methods work well and consistently so that we cease to question the rules by which the translation between online and offline occurs, and often lose track of the difference.
However, in moments of crisis and conflict, these buried operations and laws can suddenly become critical. To what extent is the self you inhabit on Facebook actually yours to control—never mind the question of whether it’s actually you. Are your emails your property? Could Google come along like a digital repo man and reclaim possession of documents you created, but turn out to just be on loan to you like a piece of furniture in layaway?
In response to the present state of emergency, which shows no signs of lifting anytime soon, the large technology platforms and monopolists that control much of the world’s information flow and dictate the ways that Americans meet, interact, and engage in politics, have significantly—and likely, irreversibly—expanded their authority and influence into domains where it cannot be checked.
In the name of public safety, but without any public referendum or accountability, Google, Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook, are taking active steps to censor information and tweak the underlying algorithms that determine the picture of reality on our screens and newsfeeds. In doing so they have claimed to be acting, as governments once did, on behalf of the common good. But what happens when the actions taken by companies like Google make the public less safe, and spread misleading and downright false information?
The reality of monopoly tech platforms acting to censor public availability of information and viewpoints is already with us, in ways that few people seem to acknowledge or understand. On March 23, for example, in the early weeks of the pandemic, Google removed a public Google document containing what it apparently considered to be dangerous misinformation about the efficacy of the drug hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus treatment. The company issued no formal warning to the document’s creator and offered no explanation for its action. Were you even aware that such a thing was possible? The document simply went poof and disappeared.
No controversy ensued over Google’s actions, of course, because what was there to show for it but a dead link. With so many other injustices going on in the world, who had time to get worked up over something as abstract as a digital deletion—how can there be a controversy over a simulacrum of nothing? And also, because by the time Google undertook its purge, the drug hydroxychloroquine had become associated with President Trump—who is himself commonly presented as a danger to public health—and labeled a dangerous snake oil pushed only by quacks and right-wing charlatans.
The paper that Google disappeared was co-created and posted on Twitter by a cryptocurrency investor and doctor with a degree from Columbia medical school named James Todaro. On March 13, Todaro tweeted, “There is growing evidence of Chloroquine as a highly effective treatment for COVID-19. In a collaborative effort,@RiganoESQ (Johns Hopkins), Thomas Broker, PhD (Stanford) & I explore Chloroquine as a treatment/prophylactic to treat & prevent coronavirus,” along with a link to a Google document detailing their findings.
From there, things moved quickly. On March 16, Tesla owner and tech billionaire Elon Musk tweeted, “Maybe worth considering chloroquine for C19” with a link to the paper. On March 19, Todaro’s co-author, Gregory Rigano, appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show touting a new study that he claimed showed the drug to be a 100% effective treatment against coronavirus.
While technically true, that was not the full story. Rigano was billed as an adviser to Stanford University medical school, a claim Stanford says is false. The study Rigano championed as 100% effective, conducted by the famed and iconoclastic French doctor Didier Raoult, was widely criticized in the medical field for breaking with standard protocol, not being double blind or randomized, and involving only 20 patients.
Still, enthusiasm quickly spread to the White House. On the same day as Rigano’s Carlson appearance, at a coronavirus task force press briefing, President Trump announced: “So you have remdesivir [another drug considered a potential treatment for COVID-19—ed.] and you have chloroquine and hydro- —hydroxychloroquine. So those are two that are out now, essentially approved for prescribed use. And I think it’s going to be very exciting. I think it could be a game changer and maybe not. And maybe not. But I think it could be, based on what I see, it could be a game changer. Very powerful.”
There you had it, chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine was very powerful and could be a game changer; maybe or maybe not. On March 21, Trump tweeted: “HYDROXYCHLOROQUINE & AZITHROMYCIN, taken together, have a real chance to be one of the biggest game changers in the history of medicine. The FDA has moved mountains - Thank You!”
However, the FDA and other federal medical officials routinely contradicted or attempted to caveat the president’s increasingly full-throated endorsements of the drug, which triggered a quick backlash from the media—and led to the rapid application of new kinds of censorship by monopoly speech platforms. On March 23, Google purged the original white paper posted by Todaro, replacing it with a single line: “We’re sorry. You can’t access this item because it is in violation of our Terms of Service.” No details about the nature of that violation were provided either publicly or, according to Todaro, privately to him as the creator of the document. For its part, Twitter placed warnings on tweets linking to the paper.
Dozens of subsequent news stories turned the drug’s efficacy, or lack thereof, into a political litmus test. A headline of an article published days after Trump’s tweet in the British Tabloid The Daily Mail read: “EXCLUSIVE: ‘Gift from God’ coronavirus ‘cure’ touted by Donald Trump is promoted by a FAKE Stanford University ‘researcher’ who is actually a cryptocurrency-hustling Long Island lawyer whose bogus science paper was removed by Google.” Headlines in the American media were relatively restrained by comparison. The Huffington Post wrote: “The Hucksters Pushing A Coronavirus ‘Cure’ With The Help Of Fox News And Elon Musk: Tucker Carlson, Glenn Beck and more have given a giant platform to a sketchy paper touting chloroquine.”
The banning of the informal research paper fit with a larger push by Google and other leading tech companies to actively regulate information in the name of “public safety”—a self-assigned brief that began with the coronavirus but seems unlikely to end there. In an appearance on CNN’s Reliable Sources, Susan Wojcicki, the CEO of YouTube—a subsidiary of Google—described how the platform’s publishing policy calls for “removing information that is problematic.” Examples of “problematic” information cited by Wojcicki included people advocating vitamin C and the spice turmeric as cures for the coronavirus and “anything that would go against World Health Organization recommendations”—a category which at various times during the pandemic would include wearing masks, travel bans, and asserting that the virus is highly contagious.
Hydroxychloroquine’s public profile reached a nadir on Friday May 22, when the prestigious medical journal The Lancet published a study based on data taken from more than 90,000 patients who had been administered the drug as a treatment for COVID-19. The study showed that the drug, far from being an effective treatment, actually led to increased mortality rates in patients. That Monday, WHO announced that it was immediately halting all trials of hydroxychloroquine, which was then being administered in countries around the world.
But there was a problem. A series of investigative reports in The Guardian as well as a lengthy exposition published on a website called Medicine (Un)censored, which is run by the deleted Google document’s co-author, Dr. James Todaro, showed that The Lancet paper was based on faked data.
Yes, that’s right. The supposedly authoritative study that led the world’s leading public health organization to ban all clinical trials of one of the only drugs suggested as a possible treatment for COVID-19 was based on fraudulent research carried out by Surgisphere—a fly-by-night company with barely any presence on the internet. Among the six employees listed on Surgisphere’s website, one was an apparent science fiction writer and another was an adult model/events hostess.
None of this back-and-forth, you may have noticed, actually tells us whether hydroxychloroquine is in any way an effective treatment for a disease that has already killed more than half a million people and may kill several million more. What it does show is that WHO—whose recommendations are as good as law on the YouTube, according to its CEO—was duped into changing world health policy by a shoddy con job; one that was exposed, in part, by someone whose own work was deleted by YouTube’s parent company, and who was widely derided by the press as a MAGA conman.
Perhaps the most messed-up thing about the case of the purged Google doc is that no one seems to care that it happened, aside from those publications that celebrated the monopolist’s censorship. And since no one cares, Google has zero incentive to answer questions about its actions or scrutinize the precedent it is setting. It’s a private company, right? And they’re on our side. And they own all our data anyway. Protest is futile. Besides, we want Google to censor us—meaning, we want Google to censor the views of people we disagree with, and not just their views, but any evidence they present that an activist and openly partisan press tells us is false.
There is a class of people who you might expect to take a professional interest in such matters: tech journalists. The problem is that tech journalism is not an autonomous, independently funded enterprise able to investigate the technology sector without fear or favor. Far from it.
All forms of business journalism have always included some degree of industry capture where the reporting serves as a form of advertising for Detroit’s coolest new cars or the five best laptops under $500. But the digital environment as a whole is fundamentally captive. Unlike the days in which the news industry was made up of a set of free-standing, self-financing institutions rooted in particular places, journalism now functions as an economically precarious subsidiary of the data monopolies for which they serve as sources of free content. This foundational shift has had all sorts of deleterious effects on journalism, not least of which is that it has eliminated much of the traditional beat reporting that once explained to Americans how large institutions actually function.
With the collapse of the journalism industry, much of the money and space that had once been devoted to a citizen-based approach to the operations of power now goes into the cheap manufacture of grand opinion narratives and status-anxious, in-group gossip. Often these two categories are intertwined, as is the case with tech journalism’s sneering commentary about “tech bros”—which, when you step back from it, sounds a lot like the pizza delivery guys bitching about the personalities of the managers at the local Pizza Hut. They may be right, but they are unlikely to give you much insight into the corporate operations of Pizza Hut or the nutritional value of their pizza.
Again, ask yourselves: Did you know that a Google doc you created can be deleted with no warning or explanation by Google? If the hydroxychloroquine white paper was so dangerous it had to be voided out of existence, shouldn’t Google educate the public about that danger—and take ownership of whatever process they used to make their determination? Does Google conduct its own research studies and clinical trials? Is Google an arm of the U.S. government with the power to censor speech, and on what laws does it base this authority?
Now ask yourself why you didn’t hear any outcry over any part of this. Part of the answer is that the journalists who might have been putting pressure on Google in fact work for Google and other monopoly speech platforms. Maybe not directly, but they depend on platforms like Google and Twitter and Facebook to subsidize and surface their work and to keep both individual journalists and corporate news brands in the public eye. So, while there is no shortage of journalism about tech, nearly all of it tends to focus attention away from the structural power of large monopolies and onto their political messaging or the personal, class and status-laced defects of particular tech personalities.
The question for many isn’t “did Google purge a Google document?” It’s whether it purged the right one, which is not how free societies are supposed to work.
But hey, clearly Google’s intentions were in the right place, and having the global surveillance operating data monopolies censor the internet beats depending on Donald Trump for information about science. That is, unless the next document that is disappeared contains information that you believe is vital to making decisions about the safety of your family—like the fact that the next WHO recommendation is a danger to public health, or the next Lancet study is a fake.
Jacob Siegel is Senior Editor of News and The Scroll, Tablet’s daily afternoon news digest, which you can subscribe to here.