Big Tech censors criticism of government COVID policies, scientific research as pandemic fades

YouTube inexplicably reinstates discussion of lawsuit after denying appeal. Preprint servers take down research awaiting peer review that questions feds' COVID policies, study finds.

Published: August 3, 2023 11:40pm

Updated: August 4, 2023 8:08am

Americans appear to have moved on from COVID-19, with Pfizer considering cuts amid waning demand for its mRNA vaccines and few states with at least 25% of their population inoculated with "up to date" bivalent shots as of June 30, according to the CDC.

That hasn't stopped the misinformation police from continuing to target speech and scientific research that criticizes or counters federal government claims and policies regarding COVID.

YouTube took down a video last week posted by a public interest law firm representing censored doctors in litigation against the Biden administration, claiming it promoted "medical misinformation," before reversing the decision and allowing the video to be seen. YouTube provided no notice or explanation.

The removal notice said the New Civil Liberties Alliance's July 26 event about the lawsuit, which alleges unconstitutional coercion of social media platforms and is led by Missouri and Louisiana on behalf of their residents, "contradict[ed] expert consensus" on COVID vaccines from "local health authorities" or the World Health Organization. It was not more specific.

The event included former Missouri solicitor general John Sauer, who initially represented the state in the suit before returning to private practice and representing Louisiana.

NCLA showed Just the News YouTube's July 28 rejection of its appeal, which confirmed their claim that the video violates the medical misinformation policy and would not be reinstated, and the strike was issued to its channel, which previously had a spotless record.

The video was down for about two days, spokesperson Judy Pino said. NCLA then posted it on YouTube competitor Rumble. "No email or alert, they just quietly took the strike away and put the video back up," Pino said.

"The fear of reprisal from the current 'surveil and censor' Administrative State not only motivates companies like YouTube to remove discussion of inconvenient truths, but it also causes them to suppress mere reference to entire viewpoints unless the reference is in line with government-approved messaging," NCLA senior litigation counsel Zhonette Brown said in a statement on the reversal.

YouTube's owner Google has not responded to Just the News queries seeking an explanation of the reinstatement, but given that it has previously reinstated videos featuring government officials that were also removed as medical misinformation, Sauer's presence may have played a role.

Epidemiologist Vinay Prasad said two widely used preprint servers that accept scientific papers prior to peer review have "repeatedly censored" COVID research papers submitted by his lab at the University of California San Francisco, which are "critical of the CDC, mask and vaccine mandates, and the Biden administration’s health care policies."

"Preprint server[s] are not supposed to be journals— they are not supposed to reject articles merely because the people running them disagree with the arguments within," Prasad wrote in a post for the Sensible Medicine newsletter last week that explained his lab's new study on whether preprint servers are "acting fairly or playing politics."

"Not one of these articles has received any substantive rebuttal" before removal by Elsevier's Social Science Research Network and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's medRxiv, he said. "All are consistent with scientific practices and norms, and similar papers not critical of the CDC or Biden administration have been accepted."

Prasad's lab isn't the first to experience unusual scrutiny from preprint servers on COVID topics. ResearchGate pulled an international study that found self-reported hospitalizations of unvaccinated people were lower than the CDC's overall hospitalization rate during the Omicron variant wave, even though the authors emphasized the limitations of the data.

Some papers challenging COVID orthodoxy have made it through peer review before being pulled or red-flagged by the journals that published them following blowback.

Prasad's lab says it focuses on "drug policy, medical evidence, study design, and governmental regulation." It's sponsored by Arnold Ventures, a philanthropy that funds "evidence-based policy solutions that maximize opportunity and minimize injustice."

"The publication of scientific information on preprint servers is now considered part of the mainstream publishing process, especially as large medical journals integrate preprint posting as part of their journal’s submission process," according to Prasad's study of preprint review fairness.

"The utility and popularity of preprint servers was expedited during the COVID pandemic when the need for scientific understanding of a novel virus required faster communication than traditional avenues," Prasad's study says.

Prasad's lab submitted seven unique papers to SSRN and nine to medRxiv (pronounced "med archive"). The servers rejected or removed six of the 10 pertaining to COVID, including the lab's critical evaluation of a Boston school mask study, vaccine effectiveness in 5-11 year-olds, vaccine policy and the CDC's statistical and numerical errors. They accepted the rest — five on cancer and one on monkeypox. 

Both rejected the very study criticizing their review practices, which competitor Zenodo published. Interestingly, SSRN published the CDC review paper that medRxiv first removed, where it received 40,000 downloads. Removed papers published elsewhere actually got more downloads than remaining papers, the study found: a median of 4,142 versus 300. 

SSRN gave the same vague response for its four removals: "Given the need to be cautious about posting medical content, SSRN is selective on the papers we post." An Elsevier spokesperson told Just the News SSRN carries out "enhanced screening of medical preprints … for disclosure of ethics, declarations and potential conflicts of interest, funding and trial registration."

MedRxiv gave different explanations for its two removals. It claimed the CDC review is "not a systematic evaluation with reproducible methodology," even though it also published a paper Prasad's lab deemed "unlikely to be reproducible" based on a sample of nine COVID-positive people known to community healthcare workers. 

MedRxiv rejected the preprint server fairness report because it is not a "research" paper. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory did not respond to Just the News queries.

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