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Inside the CDC’s Campaign to Police COVID Speech

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Inside the CDC's Campaign to Police COVID Speech

For years, various branches and levels of the federal government tried their darndest to grab more control of what could be said on social media. Sex trafficking, election integrity, hate speech, Chinese influence—all served as fodder for legislation, regulation, or executive action geared toward seizing the means of content moderation, with some degree of success.

But it was the COVID-19 pandemic that really did the trick—as my colleague Robby Soave details in Reason‘s March 2023 cover story.

During peak pandemic times, “the federal government shaped the rules of online discussion in unprecedented and unnerving ways,” Soave writes. Some of this was confirmed recently by documents that Twitter CEO Elon Musk shared with journalists. Soave uncovered evidence of similar shenanigans at Facebook:

According to a trove of confidential documents obtained by Reason, health advisers at the CDC had significant input on pandemic-era social media policies at Facebook as well. They were consulted frequently, at times daily. They were actively involved in the affairs of content moderators, providing constant and ever-evolving guidance. They requested frequent updates about which topics were trending on the platforms, and they recommended what kinds of content should be deemed false or misleading. “Here are two issues we are seeing a great deal of misinfo on that we wanted to flag for you all,” reads one note from a CDC official. Another email with sample Facebook posts attached begins: “BOLO for a small but growing area of misinfo.”

These Facebook Files show that the platform responded with incredible deference. Facebook routinely asked the government to vet specific claims, including whether the virus was “man-made” rather than zoonotic in origin. (The CDC responded that a man-made origin was “technically possible” but “extremely unlikely.”) In other emails, Facebook asked: “For each of the following claims, which we’ve recently identified on the platform, can you please tell us if: the claim is false; and, if believed, could this claim contribute to vaccine refusals?”

Facebook, Twitter, and other tech companies were under extreme pressure to acquiesce to government demands on this front. In July 2021, President Joe Biden accused social media platforms of “killing people” by not stopping the spread of COVID-19 misinformation. And he was far from alone in using this sort of rhetoric.

All of this followed years of political leaders excoriating tech companies for not stopping the spread of everything from sex ads to Russian memes to white nationalist rhetoric. Throughout 2020 and 2021, tech executives were routinely hauled before Congress to answer absurd questions about their processes. Bill after bill sought to take away their protection from civil liability for things that users posted, to micromanage their algorithms and the way they handled specific sorts of content, to modify antitrust laws in ways that would cut into their business, etc. Facebook and Google both faced federal lawsuits.

So even if Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) authorities didn’t directly order Twitter and Facebook to do their bidding, you can imagine how tech executives might have felt they had little choice.

“If you look at it in isolation, it looks like [the CDC and the tech companies] are working together,” Jenin Younes, litigation counsel for the New Civil Liberties Alliance, told Reason. “But you have to view it in light of the threats.”

More from Soave:

Facebook is a private entity, and thus is within its rights to moderate content in any fashion it sees fit. But the federal government’s efforts to pressure social media companies cannot be waved away. A private company may choose to exclude certain perspectives, but if the company only takes such action after politicians and bureaucrats threaten it, reasonable people might conclude the choice was an illusion. Such an arrangement—whereby private entities, at the behest of the government, become ideological enforcers—is unacceptable. And it may be illegal.

Read the whole piece—”How the CDC Became the Speech Police”—here.


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Federal appeals court judges seemed skeptical of the government’s claims regarding FOSTA. The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), passed in 2018, criminalizes owning, managing, or operating an “interactive computer service” with “the intent to promote or facilitate the prostitution of another person.” U.S. attorneys say this doesn’t target protected speech, but illegal conduct—that it is essentially a law against aiding and abetting prostitution or sex trafficking. But at a hearing last week, judges with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit didn’t seem to be buying the government’s logic:

“In my mind, it’s not an aiding-and-abetting law. We know how to write ’em when we want to,” Harry Edwards, one of the three judges on the panel, said during the hearing. “This doesn’t look like anything that I understand to be an aiding-and-abetting law.”

“That immediately tells me the government’s got great concern that the statute, as actually written, has problems—so let’s make it something that it’s not,” Edwards continued. He characterized U.S. attorneys’ reasoning as “let’s call it aiding and abetting, and maybe we can cause the court to believe that the reach of the statute is limited because we’ve called it something that it’s not.”

(“We disagree with the position you just laid out, that this is not an aiding-and-abetting statute,” a lawyer for the government responded.)…

Judge Patricia Millett pushed back on the government’s claims that FOSTA didn’t criminalize advocating for legal prostitution.

“If someone actively promotes on their website the legalization of prostitution…how is that not [promoting prostitution]?” she asked.

“Because it’s just promoting prostitution in general, as a concept,” a U.S. attorney replied.

“No, it’s not,” Millett interrupted. “It says, I want—here’s all my friends who are prostitutes…here’s 20 of them, I want to make it legal for them to engage in prostitution.…How does that not promote the prostitution [of another person]?”

Reason talked last week to one of the lawyers for the team challenging FOSTA in court. Read more from that interview here.


FREE MARKETS

An emergency hearing yesterday sought to stop Illinois’ ban on assault weapons from taking effect. More from WLS Chicago:

At least three lawsuits have already been filed, with the latest one from the Illinois State Rifle Association. They are the first legal oppositions to Illinois’ new ban on assault weapons.

The first two suits were filed in state court. This latest challenge to the state’s assault weapons ban was filed in federal court by the Illinois State Rifle Association.

In the Effingham County case, the attorney said his lawsuit is more so about the way this law was adopted, saying it is unconstitutional

The suit was filed by Tom DeVore, last year’s Republican nominee for Illinois attorney general, on behalf of hundreds of plaintiffs.

He’s also seeking an immediate temporary restraining order.

The hearing yesterday was in the DeVore case.


QUICK HITS

• “The U.S. is gearing up to announce a major new weapons package for Ukraine on Friday,” Politico reports. “While the next tranche will include additional artillery, ammunition and armor — likely Stryker armored combat vehicles — the U.S. is not expected to sign off on American M1 Abrams tanks, said the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the talks ahead of an announcement.”

• A measure under consideration in Montana “would interpret the state’s constitutional right to privacy to mean that it does not protect the right to an abortion, a move that would echo others in several states to severely restrict or ban abortion.”

• “Can the Fourth Amendment survive digital surveillance?” TechFreedom’s Corbin Barthold asks.

Mother Jones looks at “how a notorious jail failed a disabled transgender inmate.”

• “Whether a person is a ‘noncitizen’ will now be printed on driver’s licenses and state IDs under a controversial law that was just signed by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine,” reports the Ohio Capital Journal.

• On taking detransitioners seriously.



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[OPINION] The promise of technology is the promise of people

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[OPINION] The promise of technology is the promise of people

I would like for you to imagine the promise of technology. Facebook promises to be the gateway to your friends and family, ridesharing and delivery apps efficiency and connection against the grueling commute, your internet service provider cutting-edge reliability and speed. Sometimes, they even give you the promise of the world. When we strip away the allure of technology, what are we left with? A world of disconnect fueled by antagonism and shock that is filtered by content moderators, a non-solution to a systemic transportation crisis that leave us stories of drivers exploited, and aggravated calls on your internet plan. You haven’t quite been given the world — you can’t even connect to your meeting. 

I would like for you to imagine who is behind technology. These promises, delivered or not, are given to us by tech CEOs and eagerly embraced across the world. We hunger for solutions to age-old problems from communication, transportation, news, education, energy, and love — and are eager to receive engineered solutions to these. In turn, those wielding technology offer endless streams to support new entrepreneurs, startups, and products to move us towards wealth and prosperity, each one supposedly more innovative than the last.

Our lives continuously cede to these platforms: our memories live in Facebook albums or the cloud, the rise and fall of political movements can be witnessed online — sometimes excusing us from on-the-grounds participation, developments in artificial intelligence offer us quicker answers, and we favor the simplicity offered a tap away. A hyper-efficient world aided by machines seems to solve society’s ills, until it becomes a sickness in itself.

The invisible laborers behind technology

In truth, our technological futures are built atop of obscured human labor. A phenomenon termed as “ghost work” by anthropologist Mary L. Gray refers to “work performed by a human which a customer believes is being performed by an automated process.”

Take ChatGPT, a general-purpose chatbot released in November 2022 that provides text responses near-instantaneously. It can help you with anything: writing emails, synthesizing data, or even programming itself. 

No machine thinks for itself. Models like ChatGPT are only able to impress us because they build on the breadth of human work, and thus carry the constraints and failures that accompany it. This begins a questioning of this “breadth” in the first place: who designs these models (and their intent), the data these models are trained on, and how this data is classified — of which all steps involve humans.

Widely lauded, universities are rushing to find solutions to potential cheating aided by ChatGPT. College-educated workers, even programmers themselves, begin to worry about employment as their labor seems increasingly replaceable by machines, even if it’s just new labor under the hood that we’re bending towards. 

ChatGPT’s success can largely be attributed to its palatability. While chatbots are not new, the lack of obscenity and profanity in one is. Human input is present at every step of design. The best and worst of humanity is fed into language models (hence the previous issues with obscenity and extremism). Human-aided supervision and reinforcement learning guide these model’s outputs. To ensure ChatGPT was unlike its predecessors, OpenAI recruited an outsourcing firm in Kenya to help design a safer model. The process? To have these outsourced workers manually label examples of profanity, violence, and hate speech to be filtered out, in exchange for pay about $2 (P108) an hour.

This is not a far cry. The Global South has long endured these roles, becoming the invisible army that powers every impressive technology.

Take Facebook for instance, ubiquitous enough that there are countries that understand it as the internet itself. A study conducted by Helani Galpaya showed that more respondents across several countries (including the Philippines) self-reported being “Facebook users” than “internet users.” Meanwhile, Filipino content moderators under intensely-surveilled working conditions screen reports, exposing themselves to graphic sexual content, violence, and extremism on a daily basis. It is incredibly dehumanizing, mentally taxing work that many of us cannot fathom because we’ve never seen it. It is of our best interest to only see the light. It appears that those who gate the internet are often the most gated from the internet themselves.

Who gets to be called a technologist?

Millions of Filipinos enter Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), data-labeling, or content moderation jobs to support the technological infrastructure and rapid pace of “innovation.” Enticed with decent pay, often posted with little to no qualifications necessary, and done in recruitment hub hiring sprees, it’s hard to deny the opportunity to join the workforce and indulge in the industry’s economic promise. Silicon Valley startups (or even the Filipino “Sinigang Valley”) use the excuse of economic opportunity to justify remote outsourcing.

Even those not literally invisible are devalued with this mindset. Underexploited laborers act as the on-demand service providers beneath the shiny interfaces on our phones: our food delivery drivers, content moderators that clean our TikTok feeds, and support staff. Technology is something that can be summoned and controlled, people cannot be — or shouldn’t be.

After all, for technology to be consumable, it has to be palatable. Palatability involves shrouding the violent, intensive human labor needed to maintain technologies. This is why we are moved when we see the Facebook post of a delivery driver left to bear the brunt of canceled orders, wading through weather. Or with “older” technologies: how we turn a blind eye to ruthless production factories that power the fast fashion industry. It reminds us, for a brief moment, of the humanity in everything around us. Instead, companies continue to express technology as the stuff of magic. Perfectly cheap, efficient, and convenient. Then we are moved to hit checkout.

Even Silicon Valley’s model of classically educated laborers are no longer safe themselves. Microsoft has begun talks to invest $10 billion into OpenAI, while at the same time announcing layoffs for 10,000 workers. They are joined by Google and Amazon among others, all companies previously touted to push the boundaries of innovation. As we head towards a global economic downturn, it appears that this at-will treatment previously reserved for the global south now spares no one.

Tech workers, whether working as ride-share drivers, content moderators, or BS Computer Science-educated software engineers — must come together in solidarity with consumers against an industry that has historically erased its people. 

We need to call into question who the “technologists” that drive innovation are, especially when this innovation is at the expense of people. We need to recognize the breadth of forms that a technologist takes, and the truth that the massive forces of labor that write code, serve content, and protect us are continuously exploited. We need to know that maintaining a myopic view of the role of a “technologist” glorifies “technology” alone, detaching it from the human workforce that powers it. Without these laborers, these technologies would effectively be nothing. 

At the end of the day, technology is nothing but a tool. Technology is shaped by people, for people.

I’m not discounting technology’s potential for economic empowerment; I disparage how technology has been used as an exploitative force rather than a transformative one. It is time to reclaim technology and look towards its potential for hope — where this act of reclamation begins with power placed on all tech workers rather than the few.

I want a world where technology is used to put us in dialogue with one another, breaking down barriers instead of enacting more walls that hide us from one another. I want a world where machines don’t replace artists, but instead help more people make more art. I believe in a world where technology is a tool rather than the solution, where we have agency to use it as we please. I believe in a world where we think of people, first and foremost, not over-optimization and hyper-efficiency. I believe in a world where technology is a communal medium in which we can imagine better futures, where everyone is a technologist and engineer, not a tool wielded by the few. 

As technology is a tool, it is time for us to take it back. The truly magical part about technology is that it might be the most human thing about us. It is shaped by people, for people. – Rappler.com

Chia Amisola is Product Designer based in San Francisco, California who graduated with a BA in Computing and the Arts from Yale University in 2022. They are the founder of Developh and the Philippine Internet Archive.

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How a meme gave Khe Huy Quan his most significant role

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How a meme gave Khe Huy Quan his most significant role

(Credits: Far Out / Press / A24)

Film

Oscar nominee Ke Huy Quan’s acting career has come in two parts, several decades distanced from one another. Having played Short Round in 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and also performed in The GooniesEncino Man and Head of the Class, Quan took the decision to quit acting in 1992 as he struggled to make the significant progress he was hoping for.

Fast forward to 2021, and Quan secured the role in one of the most celebrated films of last year, Everything Everywhere All at Once, for which he won a Golden Globe and was this week nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Asked how the two Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) came to cast Quan in Everything Everywhere All at Once during a Hollywood Reporter Actor’s Roundtable, Quan responded: “I decided to get back to acting. It was when the Daniels saw somebody did a joke on Facebook, and it was a picture of Andrew Yang running for President. The caption said Short Round is all grown up and he’s running for President, which triggered him to go, ‘Oh, I wonder what Khe is doing?’”

Thankfully for Quan, somebody online made that stupid meme. He added: “[Daniel] started searching, and he was doing the calculations, ‘Oh, he’s about the same age as his character’. It was at the same time that I called an agent friend of mine – I didn’t have an agent for decades – so I was practically begging him to represent me. He said yes.”

Fortunately, the two Daniels were looking for someone of Quan’s ilk just as he had decided to give acting another shot – some 30 years later. Quan went on: “Literally two weeks later, I got a call about the script, and I read it, and I was blown away by the script. Not only was it beautifully written, but it was a script I wanted to read. I was so hungry, so eager for a script like this, for a role like this.”

In fact, the script was so good that Quan remembers staying up all night “reading it until like 5am”. He added: “I sat there, and in my head, I had all these ideas that I wanted to do with this role, and I was watching out the window, the sun was rising, and I said, ‘Oh, I have to go to sleep’, because my audition was in the afternoon.”

However, despite his desire to secure the part, a wave of doubt overcame Quan. “Right before I went to bed, I go, ‘There’s no way they would offer me this.’ It was like impossible; it stars Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis,” he said. But Quan’s wife reassured him of his abilities and “kept encouraging” him.

Quan noted that it had been 25 years since he last auditioned for a part, so naturally, he was nervous. However, he was made comfortable by the Daniels and the film’s casting director, whom he called “amazing” and “so sweet”. Yet he must have feared the worst when he did not hear back for two months. I auditioned and didn’t hear from them for two months. 

The long wait left Quan feeling “miserable” because he “wanted this role so bad.” Then, the call suddenly came in. “I went in to audition for the second time,” he said, which laid the foundations for one of the most important phone calls Quan would ever receive. He added: “You hear those three words, ‘We want you’, and I was screaming so loud, I was jumping up so high, and to this day, I cannot believe how everything came to be.

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Mystery shaking, rumbling felt along Jersey Shore again. No earthquakes reported.

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Mystery shaking, rumbling felt along Jersey Shore again. No earthquakes reported.

For the second time this month, residents across southern New Jersey have been reporting long periods of shaking inside their homes Thursday afternoon, with windows and walls rattling. And just like before, there have been no earthquakes reported anywhere in the eastern United States.

There also have been no thunderstorms reported in or near New Jersey on Thursday, but some residents are speculating the rattling inside their homes — along with some reports of loud booms — may be linked to military planes and helicopters flying over the Garden State.

Naval Air Station Patuxent River, a U.S. naval station based in St. Mary’s County in Maryland, issued a noise advisory on its Facebook page Tuesday, saying it would be conducting “noise-generating testing events” between Tuesday and Friday.

“Pilots at NAS Patuxent River will be conducting Field Carrier Landing Practices (FCLPs). FCLPs are simulated carrier landings conducted to prepare the pilot to land safely on an aircraft carrier,” the agency said in its Facebook post.

“The practices consist of series of touch-and-go maneuvers, called ‘bounces.’ Airspeed, altitude and power are all precisely choreographed in order for a pilot to approach the ship within an acceptable window to land on the deck safely,” the post added.

“Residents may notice increased noise levels due to these operations,” the post said.

It wasn’t immediately known how far away the noise would carry. But Facebook has been packed with reports of shaking in homes and businesses across South Jersey Thursday afternoon. The first was around 11 a.m. and the second about two hours later.

Several residents noted they have felt some shaking or heard some loud booms in the past, but they said they never felt the rattling become as intense as it was on Thursday.

Among the towns or sections of towns where rattling was reported were Erma, Cape May, Galloway, Middle Township, North Cape May, Rio Grande and Smithville. Some residents said they felt their houses shake but heard no booms, while others said they heard loud booms.

“My whole house shook. Windows rattle(d), bed moved back and forth. And it was long,” one resident wrote on the Facebook page of South Jersey weather forecaster “Nor’easter Nick” Pittman. “I do hear the jets as I’m in Galloway near the airport, but this just seemed different. No boom, just steady shaking. At first I thought it was the wind but it got stronger.”

Another Facebook user in Atlantic County said: “In Smithville we just shook for a good 45-60 seconds with a small pause, but the dog and cats did not like it, this time was more than the sonic boom or break that we feel at 2 p.m. It was freaky!!”

On Friday, Jan. 13, residents from as far south as Cape May and up to Manahawkin along the coast and as far west as Glassboro in Gloucester County reported feeling shaking in their homes. They said the rattling lasted at least 10 seconds.

A supersonic military airplane was flying a few miles off the coast that day, and could have been the cause of the rumbling, the Press of Atlantic City reported at the time. The military has an Atlantic test track for flights about 3 miles off the eastern seaboard, and a sonic boom would occur if a plane was flying fast enough to break the sound barrier.

South Jersey isn’t alone when it comes to feeling and hearing loud noises. In early January, a loud boom — which some described as being as loud as an explosion — was reported by many people in northern New Jersey and northeastern Pennsylvania.

The cause of that boom was not immediately determined.

___

© 2023 Advance Local Media LLC

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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