If there’s one thing that antivaxers crave, it’s respect and being taken seriously. Of course, it’s incredibly difficult for people who understand science and medicine to take antivax arguments seriously, because the are so laden with misinformation, pseudoscience, and logical fallacies. Unfortunately, antivaccine misinformation has, like many other forms of misinformation, found a tool to reach more people over more of the globe than ever before, thanks to the rise of the Internet, World Wide Web, and especially most recently social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Similarly, until recently, the algorithms behind Google searches were based primarily on the number of incoming links, which meant that search results were too much a popularity contest, in which quality of information didn’t play nearly as much of a role as it should have. The same became true of YouTube as well after Google acquired it. Not surprisingly (at least in retrospect), just as political extremists and all manner of other cranks have done, antivaxers like Sayer Ji (whom I will discuss more in a moment) have used social media and Google to spread their message through posts, Tweets, and video going viral. Even better for antivaxers, Facebook, Google, and YouTube allowed antivaccine quacks to monetize their content. Worse for those trying to counter this flood of misinformation, Secret Facebook groups, for instance, have served as the organizing nidus for antivaxers to harass vaccine advocates, hammer their Facebook pages with antivaccine misinformation, and post fake negative online reviews of doctors advocating for vaccines.
Given the rise of misinformation about, well, just about everything on Facebook, Google, YouTube, and other social media, the big tech and social media companies have finally been prodded to do something about it. In terms of health misinformation that cause harm, like antivaccine pseudoscience, these companies have been approaching this problem from two angles. First, they’ve been trying to adjust their algorithms to deprioritize harmful misinformation. Google has done so, as has Facebook. So has YouTube. Whether these changes to search and recommended content algorithms will make a huge difference is too early to say, although Joe Mercola and other “alternative health” entrepreneurs have complained about huge declines in search traffic since Google rolled out a revised algorithm in June. Tech companies haven’t stopped there, though. Earlier this year, über-quack Mike Adams and his Natural News website were banned from YouTube and in June was banned from Facebook, while more recently Facebook appears to be on the verge of taking down Larry Cook’s “Stop Mandatory Vaccination” group, one of the largest antivaccine Facebook groups, if not the largest. Again, whether deplatforming antivaccine quacks will make a huge difference remains to be seen. Finally, even streaming platforms have sought to remove antivaccine propaganda films disguised as documentaries, like VAXXED.
Against this background, I couldn’t help but laugh at an article I found on Sayer Ji’s GreenMedInfo site. You remember Sayer Ji, don’t you? He’s been a not infrequent topic on this blog for his mangling of science in the service of quackery. The entire premise of his site is that it’s a repository of the “science” supporting alternative medicine. In reality, it’s a lot of cherry picked studies without context. Sayer Ji’s original content is even worse. For instance, he’s willfully misunderstood the concept of overdiagnosis. Other offenses against science and reason by Sayer Ji included his gleefully abusing the science of genetics to argue that Angelina Jolie and other carriers of deleterious cancer-causing mutations don’t need prophylactic surgery because lifestyle interventions will save them through epigenetics, which to “natural health” enthusiasts like Mr. Ji seems to mean the magical ability to prevent any disease. Most recently, he has appeared on the deeply dishonest “documentary” about alternative medicine cancer cures, The Truth About Cancer, to expound on how chemotherapy is evil. A reliable source of information on anything having to do with medicine, Sayer Ji is not.
That’s why I laughed out loud when I read the title of his post from the other day, BREAKING: Leaked Google Documents Link Holocaust Denial, Vatican-Alien Conspiracy, Etc. with Vaccine Safety Questions. After I finished laughing, Even before I read the post, I thought: This is the most epic self-own ever! Why? Simple. It’s because, even if these “leaked documents” are real and Sayer Ji represented their contents accurately (neither of which I take for granted), then Google got it exactly right! “Vaccine safety questions”—a term that, when used by antivaxers, really means antivaccine fear mongering, quackery, and misinformation—are indeed very much like the Vatican-alien conspiracy theory and Holocaust denial in that it is basically a conspiracy theory based on pseudoscience, just as Holocaust denial is a conspiracy theory based on pseudohistory. (And, no, I’m not saying that antivaxers are Nazis, just that Holocaust denial is a pseudohistorical conspiracy theory, much as vaccine science denial is a pseudoscientific conspiracy theory that uses similar deceptive arguments and logical fallacies.) Come to think of it, “vaccine safety questions” are also akin to the moon landing hoax, alternative medicine like homeopathy, Bigfoot, chemtrails, creationism, and all manner of other conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and pseudohistory that, not coincidentally, have also spread virally on social media. These were my thoughts before I ever read a single sentence, thanks to the title of the post.
So let’s dig in. Here’s the video:
We’ll get to James O’Keefe more in a moment. I suspect he’s known to a lot of readers of this blog, and, for now, suffice to say that he’s a major crank who’s into QAnon. He’s also responsible for something called Project Veritas, which is purported to be a large trove of leaked Google documents.
Sayer Ji, however, is quite taken with O’Keefe:
A new investigative report reveals that Google has been classifying searches such as “do vaccines cause autism” as “fringe queries” alongside searches that include Holocaust denial, Pizzagate, the Vatican’s knowledge of aliens, and so-called “false flag” shootings.
A new report by James O’ Keefe features the video testimony of a Google insider by the name of Zachary Vorhies who reveals that Google has been actively censoring certain search queries and websites that contain information that run counter to Google’s singular narrative of Truth.
You know, if these documents are real, they would give me more confidence that Google is finally “getting it” when it comes to antivaccine views, because antivaccine pseudoscience, such as the belief that vaccines cause autism, is every bit as much fringe as Holocaust denial, Pizzagate, “false flag” shootings, and the like. Sayer Ji continues:
In the leaked screenshot below, Google identifies the search query “do vaccines cause autism” to be targeted for algorithmic censorship, alongside seemingly more outlandish queries such as “vatican knows about aliens,” which strangely appears to be true, based on a Podesta email leak that received mainstream media coverage.
Here’s the screenshot:
I don’t have a problem with including the question “Do vaccines cause autism?” with any of those other questions and statements.
Ji also goes on about how Google knowingly uses this information to adjust its algorithms as though this were a bad thing. Sadly, I have my doubts about a lot of this. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m as uneasy about the power Google has because of near-monopoly power over Internet searches. However, there are a lot of reasons to doubt this story.
First of all, James O’Keefe is a crank par excellence, as this story in The Daily Beast shows:
Right-wing provocateur James O’Keefe published his latest video on tech giants on Wednesday, touting an interview with former YouTube software engineer and self-proclaimed “whistleblower” Zach Vorhies. In the video, Vorhies claims that Google’s search algorithms are riddled with political bias, and touted a cache of internal Google files he alleges prove his case.
Vorhies complains that Google doesn’t surface conspiracy theory websites like InfoWars in one of its news search algorithms. He insists that his information is so valuable that he has a credible fear that Google could be “trying to off me.”
Here we go again. Just as the conspiracy theories about the death of wealthy pedophile Jeffrey Epstein in prison by suicide that blame Bill and Hillary Clinton for supposedly killing him and making it look like a suicide lead to the question: If the Clintons were so powerful, why is it that Donald Trump is President and Hillary Clinton is not? Why are any of the conspiracy theorists blaming the Clintons for Epstein’s “murder” not all dead or destroyed, but instead are free to post their “suspicions” on social media. The same applies here. If Google is so all-powerful, why is this former YouTube software engineer named Zach Voorhies still alive? Why is he able to make these accusations all over social media and in video? Why is he able to set up a website called Project Veritas that contains a “Google document dump”? I even did a Google search for “Project Veritas,” and O’Keefe’s website was at the top of the search list. Search for “James O’Keefe,” and O’Keefe’s Twitter feed, Wikipedia entry, and Project Veritas website show up at the top of search results. Searching for “Zach Vorhies,” I got his Twitter feed and an article on Project Veritas about him at the top of the search list. Damned careless of Google not to make sure its algorithm didn’t suppress Project Veritas and all those allegedly leaked Google documents, I’d say! Indeed, I did a search for “leaked Google documents,” and the “Google Document Dump” on the Project Veritas website was number one in the search results.
It turns out that Sayer Ji didn’t acknowledge that Zach Voorhies is quite the all-purpose crank and conspiracy theorist:
What O’Keefe’s video leaves out, though, is that his much-hyped insider is not as credible as he claims. On social media, Vorhies is an avid promoter of anti-Semitic accusations that banks, the media, and the United States government are controlled by “Zionists.” He’s also pushed conspiracy theories like QAnon, Pizzagate, and the discredited claim that vaccines cause autism.
On his Twitter account, @Perpetualmaniac, Vorhies repeatedly attacks Jewish people and accuses them of a wide range of crimes. (Both O’Keefe and his group, Project Veritas, promoted Vorhies’s Twitter account in tweets on Monday.)
He even alleges that “Zionists” killed conservative publisher and O’Keefe mentor Andrew Breitbart, who died of heart failure in 2012.
Voorhies is also a 9/11 Truther:
In a May tweet, Vorhies accused Israel of plotting the 9/11 attacks, and encouraged Twitter users to look up 9/11-related conspiracy theory content, providing no evidence of his claims.
“Israel and the zionist cabal planned 9/11 and its going to all come out,” Vorhies wrote.
And at least sympathetic to white supremacists. Actually, he appears very much to be a white supremacist himself:
Vorhies also regularly uses symbols and language popular with white supremacists online. In multiple tweets, he referenced “ZOG” — long-time white supremacist abbreviation for the “Zionist Occupation Government,” the conspiracy theory that the U.S. government is controlled by Jewish interests. In one tweet, he used #ZOG and #Illuminati hashtags to allege that an election was being stolen in Florida. In another, he accused the public-interest group Free Press of being a front for a Jewish cabal.
There doesn’t seem to be a conspiracy theory Voorhies doesn’t subscribe to: Pizzagate, QAnon, antivaccine conspiracy theories, 9/11 Truth, and so much antisemitism that I bet he’s almost certainly a Holocaust denier too.
I also rather suspect that he’s taking a lot of what he has out of context. A story from late last year examined a previous “leak” of a Google presentation:
The slides are a rare and stark look at Google’s ongoing struggles, which are mirrored by many Silicon Valley tech platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, that now moderate a large swath of human conversation. Essentially, the company is asking itself whether it’s possible to protect against the negative aspects of free speech — violent threats, fake news, bots, trolling, propaganda, and election interference, to name just a few — while promoting a platform that gives everyone a voice.
The presentation concludes that tech companies “are performing a balancing act between two incompatible positions,” and that’s the reason why censorship is on the rise as companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter take more heavy-handed approaches to moderation in response to heightened criticism. The slides conclude that transparency, consistency, and responsiveness are paramount in addressing this ongoing imbalance, and that there is not a “right amount of censorship” that will please everyone and solve these issues.
Again, I don’t trust Google, given its track record. It has a lot to answer for. However, stung by its role in promoting misinformation, such as the recent revelation about how the “watch next” algorithm in YouTube leads to more radical content. Indeed, a recent New York Times report showed how YouTube’s tendency to keep serving up more radical and extreme content over time contributed to the radicalization of Brazilian politics. It’s not hard to see how the same sort of thing could have happened with quackery and pseudoscience, particularly antivaccine conspiracy theories.
That being said, at least Google appears to be struggling tentatively to do something about it, at least with respect to antivaccine misinformation. Voorhies is a total crank, and there’s good reason to doubt basically everything he claims, but I almost hope that he’s right about one thing. I hope that he’s right that Google now understands that antivaccine pseudoscience is a every bit as much of a fringe conspiracy theory as conspiracy theories about the Vatican and aliens, Bigfoot, Holocaust denial, 9/11 Truth, the Moon landing, QAnon, Pizzagate, and all the other myriad utterly bonkers conspiracy theories out there. That Sayer Ji is outraged about that simple observation tells you all you need to know about him and the observation.