Essentially, the power of the state is being wielded like never before to police online speech and to deplatform news websites to protect the interests of powerful corporations like Pfizer and other scandal-ridden pharmaceutical giants as well as the interests of the US and UK national-security states, which themselves are intimately involved in the Covid-19 vaccination endeavor.
UK Intelligence’s New Cyberwar Targeting “Anti-Vaccine Propaganda”
On Monday, the UK newspaper The Times reported that the UK’s GCHQ “has begun an offensive cyber-operation to disrupt anti-vaccine propaganda being spread by hostile states” and “is using a toolkit developed to tackle disinformation and recruitment material peddled by Islamic State” to do so. In addition, the UK government has ordered the British military’s 77th Brigade, which specializes in “information warfare,” to launch an online campaign to counter “deceptive narratives” about Covid-19 vaccine candidates.
The newly announced GCHQ “cyber war” will not only take down “anti-vaccine propaganda” but will also seek to “disrupt the operations of the cyberactors responsible for it, including encrypting their data so they cannot access it and blocking their communications with each other.” The effort will also involve GCHQ reaching out to other countries in the “Five Eyes” alliance (US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada) to alert their partner agencies in those countries to target such “propaganda” sites hosted within their borders.
The Times stated that “the government regards tackling false information about inoculation as a rising priority as the prospect of a reliable vaccine against the coronavirus draws closer,” suggesting that efforts will continue to ramp up as a vaccine candidate gets closer to approval.
It seems that, from the perspective of the UK national-security state, those who question corruption in the pharmaceutical industry and its possible impact on the leading experimental Covid-19 vaccine candidates (all of which use experimental vaccine technologies that have never before been approved for human use) should be targeted with tools originally designed to combat terrorist propaganda.
While The Times asserted that the effort would target content “that originated only from state adversaries” and would not target the sites of “ordinary citizens,” the newspaper suggested that the effort would rely on the US government for determining whether or not a site is part of a “foreign disinformation” operation.
This is highly troubling given that the US recently seized the domains of many sites, including the American Herald Tribune, which it erroneously labeled as “Iranian propaganda,” despite its editor in chief, Anthony Hall, being based in Canada. The US government made this claim about the American Herald Tribune after the cybersecurity firm FireEye, a US government contractor, stated that it had “moderate confidence” that the site had been “founded in Iran.”
In addition, the fact that GCHQ has alleged that most of the sites it plans to target are “linked to Moscow” gives further cause for concern given that the UK government was caught funding the Institute for Statecraft’s Integrity Initiative, which falsely labeled critics of the UK government’s actions as well as its narratives with respect to the Syria conflict as being related to “Russian disinformation” campaigns.
Given this precedent, it is certainly plausible that GCHQ could take the word of either an allied government, a government contractor, or perhaps even an allied media organization such as Bellingcat or the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab that a given site is “foreign propaganda” in order to launch a cyber offensive against it. Such concerns are only amplified when one of the main government sources for The Times article bluntly stated that “GCHQ has been told to take out antivaxers [sic] online and on social media. There are ways they have used to monitor and disrupt terrorist propaganda,” which suggests that the targets of GCHQ’s new cyber war will, in fact, be determined by the content itself rather than their suspected “foreign” origin. The “foreign” aspect instead appears to be a means of evading the prohibition in GCHQ’s operational mandate on targeting the speech or websites of ordinary citizens.
This larger pivot toward treating alleged “anti-vaxxers” as “national security threats” has been ongoing for much of this year, spearheaded in part by Imran Ahmed, the CEO of the UK-based Center for Countering Digital Hate, a member of the UK government’s Steering Committee on Countering Extremism Pilot Task Force, which is part of the UK government’s Commission for Countering Extremism.
Ahmed told the UK newspaper The Independent in July that “I would go beyond calling anti-vaxxers conspiracy theorists to say they are an extremist group that pose a national security risk.” He then stated that “once someone has been exposed to one type of conspiracy it’s easy to lead them down a path where they embrace more radical world views that can lead to violent extremism,” thereby implying that “anti-vaxxers” might engage in acts of violent extremism. Among the websites cited by Ahmed’s organization as promoting such “extremism” that poses a “national security risk” were Children’s Health Defense, the National Vaccine Information Center, Informed Consent Action Network, and Mercola.com, among others.
Similarly, a think tank tied to US intelligence—whose GCHQ equivalent, the National Security Agency, will take part in the newly announced “cyber war”—argued in a research paper published just months before the onset of the Covid-19 crisis that “the US ‘anti-vaxxer’ movement would pose a threat to national security in the event of a ‘pandemic with a novel organism.’”
InfraGard, “a partnership between the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and members of the private sector,” warned in the paper published last June that “the US anti-vaccine movement would also be connected with ‘social media misinformation and propaganda campaigns’ orchestrated by the Russian government,” as cited by The Guardian. The InfraGard paper further claimed that prominent “anti-vaxxers” are aligned “with other conspiracy movements including the far right . . . and social media misinformation and propaganda campaigns by many foreign and domestic actors. Included among these actors is the Internet Research Agency, the Russian government–aligned organization.”
An article published just last month by the Washington Post argued that “vaccine hesitancy is mixing with coronavirus denial and merging with far-right American conspiracy theories, including Qanon,” which the FBI named a potential domestic terror threat last year. The article quoted Peter Hotez, dean of the School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, as saying “The US anti-vaccination movement is globalizing and it’s going toward more-extremist tendencies.”