The Great Barrington Declaration is the latest fringe evidence conservatives are using to bolster the argument that the U.S. just needs to embrace getting infected with covid-19. On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that White House officials are now citing the declaration, which calls for a brutal form of herd immunity, when speaking with reporters. And before we’ve had a chance to process this craven lunacy, right-wing pundits are already pivoting to cries of censorship.
The pompously named declaration is a product of a meeting held by the American Institute for Economic Research, a libertarian think tank that has, at least in the past, been partially funded by Charles Koch. The document claims that lockdowns and school closings are “producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health” and argues for a rebranding of herd immunity as something the authors call “Focused Protection.” This would prioritize isolation for “vulnerable” groups like the elderly while encouraging groups that are “at minimal risk of death” to live their lives with the goal of building up immunity to the virus “through natural infection.”
The petition first gained notice last week and was presented as having been signed by 15,000 scientists and medical practitioners. The primary authors work in epidemiology at prestigious universities. Sky News later found that many of those signatories had fake names like “Dr. Person Fakename” and “Dr. Johnny Bananas.” But even when the names aren’t fake, the list of medical professionals includes experts in fields like massage therapy and hypnotherapy. One doctor, a UK general practitioner named Harold Shipman, “killed more than 200 of his patients before he was arrested in 1998,” according to Sky News.
Thousands of people from the general public have also signed the petition, and it’s become a cause celebre in conservative circles that never wanted to do anything to stop the virus’s spread anyway. In recent days, numerous pundits from the conservative blogosphere have published pieces claiming that Google is suppressing links to The Great Barrington Declaration. I would provide links to the blogs, but there’s no reason to make the clicks easy for them, you can just run the search term “Google is censoring The Great Barrington Declaration” on Google and you’ll find everything right at the top. These articles are from conservative bottom feeders, but this morning, Ben Shapiro tweeted a link to one that is headlined “Why has Google censored the Great Barrington Declaration?”
Shapiro commented on the link saying, “Social media censorship of the Great Barrington Declaration is just more evidence that many of our supposed cultural superiors aren’t interested in scientific debate. They’re interested in cramdowns.” While Shapiro could also reasonably be referred to as a conservative bottom feeder he has a huge audience for his show and 3.2 million Twitter followers. The guy has influence.
But if you try to search for the petition, its main homepage is either the first result or one of the top three results. We tried this in different browsers and using incognito mode. The results varied between tests, but the petition’s website itself was always a top-ranking option. There are also claims going around that the problem is in English language countries outside the U.S., so we asked Google for confirmation on whether they’ve taken any actions to de-rank or game results for the petition. A spokesperson for the company told us that search results, in this case, aren’t the product of a particular policy, but “it can take a little time for our automated systems to learn enough about new pages like this for them to rank better for relevant terms.” The spokesperson pointed to the fact that Joe Biden’s website took some time to make it onto the first page of results and said, “As with that case, this case or any case, we’ll look to see how we can improve freshness for such navigational queries.”
Google’s black-box approach to its algorithms probably won’t give any peace of mind to its critics, but we can say there’s no explicit censorship that we can see going on right now.
Which brings us to the pundits’ second primary accusation: Google is crowding search results for the petition with links to negative articles about it.
Most of the articles written about the declaration present it in either a negative light or present it alongside the information that most experts in epidemiology and viral disease disagree with the herd immunity approach, in general, as well as many of the claims in the letter itself. I won’t go into all the particulars because plenty of others have covered why the petition is either wrong or misguided. But I will point out that the noise around the subject has grown to the point that the WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus felt compelled to tell reporters at a press briefing on Monday that a herd immunity strategy is “scientifically and ethically problematic.”
“Herd immunity is achieved by protecting people from a virus, not by exposing them to it,” the director-general said. “Never in the history of public health has herd immunity been used as a strategy for responding to an outbreak.”
Conservative operatives want people to believe that the powers that be don’t want you to read the petition for yourself. But the reality is that the grievance around phantom censorship is intended to make the information in the document seem like forbidden knowledge while obscuring any close reading. The same scenario is playing out in the last few hours as a New York Post report on whatever drug deal Rudy Guiliani has been cooking up has rapidly morphed into a story of Facebook censorship.
The point of these complaints isn’t to have a debate about the upsides or downsides of lockdowns. It’s to hide the debate behind claims of victimhood. And a few trolls going off on social media wouldn’t be a big deal if they weren’t perfectly aligned with the president of the United States.
Researchers at Cornell University recently concluded a study finding that President Trump has been “the single largest driver of misinformation around Covid.” Back on the campaign trail, Trump has allegedly recovered from the covid-19 diagnosis that landed him in the best hospital with the best treatments available to mankind. His doctors say he isn’t contagious, but their withholding of information has destroyed their credibility. And the recovery has led Trump to say multiple times that he’s now “immune” to covid-19 despite the fact that we’ve seen many people can become reinfected with the virus.
It’s clear that the Trump administration doesn’t want to take the virus, which has killed more than 216,000 people in the U.S. and nearly 1.1 million people worldwide, seriously; what’s becoming more apparent is that the administration actually wants people to get infected. The sooner the better, seems to be the attitude. And they may point to the idea of “Focused Protection” as a figleaf to hide the goal of killing off the “weak” (people without tons of money and state of the art healthcare) in order to get back to the grind of making the richest among us even richer.
The petition raises several points about trade-offs we’re making with lockdowns such as the negative impact it could have on the learning development of children. No one knows if those trade-offs will be worth it, but lockdowns and social distancing are the clearest methods to prevent deaths that we have right now. The petition offers no viable plan for isolating the most vulnerable from the rest of the puddle-licking horde that needs to get infected. When the White House can’t even protect itself from a superspreader outbreak, why should we believe there’s any targeted way to pull off this fantasy approach?