Tinfoil Greenwald: Glenn goes full truther on COVID-19 and social media sensationalism

Jornalista Glenn Greenwald, do The Guardian,  participa de audiência pública

Conspiracy theorists don't always show up with a few teeth missing and wearing a tinfoil hat. Instead, these days, they often prefer to go on serious-sounding, spiffy (but still conspiratorial) YouTube shows to promote "dissent" from what they call the "orthodoxy" of mainstream opinion.

Such is the case of Glenn Greenwald, alt-left crusader and now a regular guest on Tucker Carlson's Fox show promoting conspiracies of voter fraud, who on Monday showed up on "Lockdown TV", a fringle show promoting crackpot herd immunity against COVID-19 by a UK-based organization of by the name of "UnHerd." Greenwald has shown his pro-Trump, Kremlinist, COVID-denying, conspiracy theorist color for a while now, but this interview may have been his final leap into a serious claim for the tinfoil crown.

Greenwald appeared with UnHerd's host Freddie Sayers, and together they had a grand time playing victim to entities from western liberals to social media giants to science itself. Among their topics of "discussion" were assertions strikingly similar to Donald Trump's talking points:

  • Grievances about how social media companies are trying to keep people informed about COVID with information from reliable, expert sources,
  • Grievances about these reliable and expert sources being considered reliable and experts at all,
  • Some incohesive argument about free speech, and, of course... 
  • Tidbits about how the "elite" is on a mission to keep both the masses and the scientific community under a spell of some 'orthodoxy.'
Greenwald and Sayers start off by accusing social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube of trying to be the arbiters of what is and isn't reliable health information, especially in the context of COVID-19. Greenwald ghastly exclaims that nothing about the business model, core competencies, or aptitudes of what it takes to run a successful technology company confers on those who run those companies any expertise in medicine or in public health.

But of course, the truth is that tech companies and social media giants are in fact not deciding on what is and is not reliable health information. They are, however, beginning to do for their users the rudimentary work we should all have learned in third grade: in order for information to be reliable, its source must be reliable. In order for people to learn the truth, they must rely on someone with both the ability to decipher the truth and the willingness to tell it. In order for people to be able to differentiate information from propaganda, there must be sources that are relatively objective.

So what the tech companies are only beginning to do - and need to be doing a far better job of - is elevating sources with both the capacity and the willingness to investigate and report scientific facts, not snake oil. For health information, those sources are the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control, state and local public health agencies, and medical research institutions, not people who fancy themselves medical dissidents but refuse to present scientific, peer-reviewable data for their own claims.

Even Greenwald realizes the importance of proper sourcing for the validity of information, which, I assume, is why he hedges his bets by attacking the credibility of these institutions, particularly Donald Trump's favorite scapegoat on COVID, the World Health Organization. Like the expert propagandist that he is, Greenwald points to the fact that WHO's recommendations on COVID safety have changed on universal mask-wearing over time as evidence that its information is just as unreliable as those coming from COVID-truthers.

On the contrary, the very fact that WHO and other public health agencies have changed their guidelines on mask-wearing by the general public actually serves as evidence that scientists at these agencies are giving us reliable information rather than adhering to any "orthodoxy," as Greenwald charges.

It is true that in February of 2020, WHO, CDC, and other public health guidelines recommended that face-coverings be commonplace only among medical professionals, caregivers, and people who may be symptomatic. Those recommendations were based on two assumptions that were properly based on the information available at the time but later turned out to be in error.

First, it was thought by the scientific and medical communities that only symptomatic individuals could be sources of significant transmission of the novel coronavirus that causes the disease known as COVID-19. This understanding was based on the scientific understanding of how flu viruses are transmitted, given that the influenza viruses can also be coronaviruses (just not the ones that cause COVID-19). The second assumption was that wearing a mask only helps prevent the spread from an infected individual to others; in other words, there was no significant benefit to wearing a face-covering for an individual who was not already infected. Masks were thought to be mainly effective in preventing the respiratory droplets of a wearer from traveling out, rather than being effective in preventing those droplets from traveling in.

It was not until June and July of 2020 that scientific studies showed both of those assumptions to be incorrect. 

In July, a study published in the mSphere magazine of the American Society of Microbiology found that infected individuals who are asymptomatic are still capable, and likely, to transmit the virus, just one of the ways in which COVID-19 is much more contagious than the flu. Around the same time, another study published by the University of California at San Francisco demonstrated that face-coverings could, in fact, protect a wearer from catching - rather than simply spreading - the virus.

What rich irony that Glenn Greenwald, who began questioning the competency of others to decipher the reliability of public health information, ends up exposing himself as one who has none.

So yes, public health guidelines on mask-wearing have evolved significantly over time, but it has evolved based on the best and most current scientific information available. That flexibility represents the openness of public health experts to listen and adjust to new evidence rather than the sanctions of any ruling authority, and it's exactly why we should listen to them rather than to hack journalists who aim to propagandize the public against them.

But orthodoxy or no orthodoxy, Tinfoil Greenwald argues that Silicon Valley's social media companies never aimed to pick and choose what content to show in the first place, leaving that entirely up to those who use the platforms instead. They only became interested in moderating content, Tinfoil Greenwald says, when they became inextricably linked to the dreaded "Democratic establishment," who, he asserts in a familiar, fact-free refrain, 'rigged' the 2016 Democratic primaries against Bernie Sanders, causing Sanders to run and lose in 2020 as a much more milquetoast Democrat.

As I have shown before, the idea that social media platforms were ever content-neutral is a fantastical lie. Tech and social media companies have always manipulated content for the benefit of their bottom lines. Our social media feeds are not organized by a dumb, chronological timeline of the content produced by people we "follow" or are "friends" with on a given platform. Rather, they are tailored to content we are most likely to be interested in and click on with an unfathomable degree of precision. Artificial intelligence and modern algorithms that make this possible lend a bias to our preconceived worldviews and sensational stories, but not to science and facts. It is because of these algorithms that Donald Trump got a significantly cheaper rate to advertise on Facebook than Joe Biden did during the 2020 presidential campaign.

Social media platforms have always been heavily involved in what their users see on their platforms. It's their very business model - one of their core competencies, as Tinfoil Greenwald may put it. The only difference between sensationalism bias and elevation of expertise is how what you see is controlled by the platforms (or content that is allowed), not whether what you see is controlled.

I doubt this is something Greenwald, an expert at writing clickbait headlines for his mostly fact-free attacks on the liberal world order, is unaware of. In fact, the very propaganda he is using to go after social media companies is likely to get him more views because of the sensationalist social media algorithms, and both Greenwald and his host, I suspect, are well aware.

What about free speech? The absolute freedom of speech is something government cannot legislate against, but the Supreme Court has held that no private party is forbidden by the First Amendment from regulating or moderating speech on its own platforms or property. In fact, no Constitutional right is that unlimited. The Second Amendment guarantees individuals the right to bear arms, but Starbucks can still refuse to serve you if you walk in brandishing an AK-47.

In the end, none of Tinfoil Greenwald's concern-trolling about social media, free speech, or COVID-19 truthing hold up to scrutiny. Instead, he comes off as every bit the anti-fact, anti-science, unstable tinfoil-wearing grifter that he is.