Monday 8 January 2024

Presentation notes for Cybermobs for online academic bullying - a new censorship option to protect The Science™ ’s status-quo

Written for viewers of the Slideshare presentation.

Here is the transcript of the talk that accompanied For more on its background, click here.


Slide #1
Thanks for the joining this talk on how academic cybermobs can serve as a new censorship option for protecting scientific orthodoxy. Mobs that seek to silence dissenters are a small part of a much greater concern regarding the censorship of legitimate disagreement… and scientific truths online.

You can all read faster than I can speak, so please do for this organizer of my presentation. After introducing yours truly and The Noakes Foundation (TNF), I am going to define the key concepts of The Science, scientific suppression, undone science, digital voice and online censorship

And how digital voice in the Fifth Estate is useful for working around scientific suppression, changing science and guidelines. Dissidents who succeed in gaining public attention can face hard and soft forms of censorship, which include the distinctive actions of an academic cybermobs, plus facing as a myriad of forms of censorship on digital platforms. The talk closes with the challenges of researching academic cybermobs and a brief intro into celebrity cybermobbing research that TNF assists.

My doctorate was in Media Studies and my research is qualitative and highly interdisciplinary. It spans the fields of culture, digital media, education and the health sciences. A common thread is exploring how individual’s communicative agency relates to social structure. I am an Adjunct Scholar at CPUT, whilst also volunteering at The Noakes Foundation (TNF) for its brand development as evidenced via its new website, plus you’ll see emoji sticker designs from my Create With business in this presentation too.

TNF largely supports research into low-carbohydrate lifestyles as Big Food and Big Pharma generally don’t. I lead TNF’s Academic Free Speech and Digital Voices research project to explore how dissident researchers use digital voice for promoting their research, whilst negotiating scientific suppression and censorship from supporters of The (Current) Science™. The Science™️ is a phenomenon in Higher Education whereby tenured staff must defend the correct science of their time, arguing against alternate explanations. It has a religious overtone, as orthodox scientists strive to protect their life-long contribution of “correct beliefs” against questioning from heretical outsiders. Measures to protect The Science™️’s body of knowledge can include suppression and even “legitimate” censorship of “harmful” counter-opinions and interpretations. The Science™️ is unscientific as it does not encourage dissent’s radically different interpretations of the data.

It’s important to recognise that scientific censorship of differing opinions may only be a last-resort, because the formal assimilation of what is considered prestigious research is so powerful. Therefor before my presentation tackles academic cybermobs, the ‘safe’, incremental knowledge that Higher Education’s funders and leadership support must be critiqued: In media, a few powerful social agents can effectively control research capacity by only funding research directions that serve their business interests. At the same time, false ethical concerns can be used to delimit what’s good to research in a field. TNF’s research beneficiaries have plenty of experience with submitting research proposals that are repeatedly blocked because of dogma that “Eating fat is harmful”, so participants who are urged to do so (and eat less “healthy” sugar in highly processed foods) WILL BE harmed. Ethical compliance in academia can serve unethical ends in slowing, if not preventing, competition between paradigms. Another concern is that conflicts of interest in supporting the silent long-term interests of third-party funders are often undisclosed. Mr Bill Gates is much wealthier now that when he promised to give away his fortune… In part, thanks to the BMGF’s philanthropic support for genetic vaccine research and Mr Gates’ investments in the companies that sell this product. At worst, academic research can be likened to a buyer’s market for real-estate in which the funders as buyers strongly dictate the agenda. In the Health Sciences, huge competition exists between many researchers keen to secure scarce funding from the few large funders who might provide it.

Such public critical reflection on how funders impact academic freedom is disincentivized as career-limiting for most academics. For PANDA, TNF and any research beneficiary, Bourdieusian epistemic reflexivity can provides a vital tool to interrogate their scientific interrogation. The concept of reflexivity helps to spotlight how scholars make judgements of which research problems to focus on and what gets excluded… Perhaps a dominant paradigm can be identified that is a restrictive gatekeeper to new challengers, or a relativist ‘anything goes’ approach is missing the woods for the trees? Pierre Bourdieu’s relational critique helps us fit how our and other scholars’ interpretations link not just to disciplinary fields as agents, but are structured in relation to broader, dynamic social patterns and causalities.

For example the sociology of scientific knowledge helps us understand why economic capital is foundation to developing the other academic capitals shown here. Economic capital from donors (or long-term knowledge investors like Mr Gates) not only support the fieldwork, outputs, academic relationships and prestige in different types of capital exchange within the Higher Educaton field, but contribute to the ongoing development of academic fields and what’s considered legitimate and most valuable in them. Likewise, what is neglected or ignored as shown in the example on the right. That may range from low-cost COVID-19 treatments… to the related deprioritisation of other major health concerns, such as HIV, TB and Malaria in Africa, as described by Dr David Bell. Capital exchange also helps situate whether symbolic recognition for research is high (such for mRNA innovation), low or non-existent.

Clearly, a complex inter-relationship of extant (and future) capitals is at work in Higher Education (HE) relationships. They typically underpin a “safety first” knowledge landscape where the ideas on the right are endorsed as unquestionably “beneficial”. It is in the interest of The Science™’s business funders to maintain such a beneficient impression with HE experts serving as a bulwark of talking heads versus “science deniers”. The Science™ favors an absence of scientific controversy in HE. This absence suggests universal, expert consensus, and that there is no no need to consider new explanations as the truth is settled. Where debates do occur, Scientific Controversy research methods {such as Venturini and Munk’s ‘Controversy Mapping’ (2022)} can be applied. These help scholars frame the actors, their networks and alliances, plus the debates themselves. However, an economic focus on how capacity for which viewpoints receive funding and develop the strongest capacity would seem the most useful avenue for a sociology of scientific knowledge to develop an holistic picture for what scientific explanations are routinely supported in Higher Education… Conversely, which promising ones receive no support (or are incapacitated) as Undone Science... These evidence potential areas of scientific suppression.

There is important research that could be done, but is not encouraged by the dominant orthodoxy of The Science™. Undone Science exists where research projects’ potential findings may be counter to The Science™’s funders publicity and other interests. For example, international health organisations are unlikely to fund communication studies into how the guidelines they endorsed and paid to amplify caused harms that outweighed overstated risks and inflated benefits. Similarly, multinational genetic vaccine manufacturers will not fund research regarding personal responsibility and low-cost treatments… Related findings may pose an existential threat to Big Pharma’s businesses- especially those that profits from experimental drugs being mandated and tested on so-called “patients” at their own risk.

In contrast to ‘undone science’, scientific suppression speaks to impedance of research that is unfair, unjust and counter to academic standards of behaviour. In theory, academics should enjoy the right to context the prescribed orthodoxy in their academic work and lives. This right seeks to protect academics from the vested interests of other parties, giving those who’ve earned the right an opportunity to speak their truth. It’s a foundational right that should support scholars with advancing and expanding knowledge, for example by accommodating diverse voices. Without strong support for this right, scientific autonomy is unsustainable where funders’ and administrators’ needs subsume any independent scholarship.

True scientific autonomy poses a risk to the powerful, especially where its findings suggest an improved, alternative way of doing things (such as eating low-carb diets for controlling diabetes, versus solely injecting Insulin meds daily). So, in our contemporary marketized universities, which increasingly rely on corporate funding, the on-the-ground financial realities of pleasing long-term funders will contradict the ideals of autonomy, objectivity and free speech. Powerful internal and external groups do not support building capacity for risky research or controversial debates that might upset powerful funders. Rather they fund incrementalistic research in support of more-of-the-same. ‘Revolutionary technology’ mRNA products simply boost Big Pharma’s existing business models. Embedded academics are keen to create debates on the importance of mandatory vaccination, rather than whether the mRNA platform is sufficiently tested to merit being termed a ‘vaccine’. Aware that there is no equal treatment or due process, especially for dissidents with a public following, skeptics protect their reputations and career trajectories by self-censoring, avoiding the time-drain of debating The Science™’s truth. If academics or students have challenging conversations, these may be policed for “wrongthink” leading to career cancelation, especially if their pursuit of objective scientific truth conflicts with the “current thing”. A university may promote “safe spaces”, but these seldom include research into controversial ideas that must confront complex ethical challenges.

The market university is just one site of knowledge production in which social groups try to dominate the development of educational knowledge. Professor Henry Kwok et al. argues that the global health crisis of COVID-19 presents…a fertile ground for exploring the complex division of knowledge labour in a ‘post-truth’ era. In contrast to post-truth which has many definitions and a broad conceptualisation, knowledge production is positioned as a narrow concept well suited for exploring the social conditions of knowledge. This slide’s example shows three ‘fields’ under Rules- Each transformation of knowledge takes place in a particular field (see Table 1), within which different expert agents work. Discourse is produced in HE by a range of agents; A process of Pedagogisation then occurs in which specialist medical knowledge that is inaccessible to the public is recontextualized. Knowledge becomes translated into novel forms that non-specialist audiences might access and understand more readily. What counts as ‘valid’ knowledge and practice in the division of knowledge labour is determined by evaluative rules. Here government officials decide how COVID-19 policy should impact the public in response to guidance from experts. This analysis clarifies that researchers should explore the relations between and within each division’s fields. Such analysis reveals areas of contradiction and conflict between fields, and even agents within them.

Contradictions occur between agents and agencies with different interests, which are directed by and reflected in their divergent goals. An analysis of these contradictions is helpful for broadening our understanding of where ‘post-truth’ moments lie… In this example for the WHO’s infodemic research agenda, it can illustrate examples of disinformation that the WHO’s infodemic research agenda might miss or neglect. As Dr David Bell, my father and I wrote, the WHO leads the infodemic research agenda and positions itself and its international health organisation partners to be evaluators of what “misinformation” is.  This has the potential to create an intragroup contradiction, when infodemic scholars at universities research the WHO’s decisions but learn that these and related guidance have shifted dramatically, sometimes with no clear justification!

For example, Abir Balan’s work here lists the key guidelines provided by the WHO for ‘mitigating the risk and impact of epidemic and pandemic influenza’. However, a cursory glance shows that the public health measures applied in 2019 would be radically altered just months later. Scholars who are dependent on research funding from the WHO (or those whose funding sustains it, such as BMGF) would seem unlikely to criticise such sudden and unexplained shifts in guidance.

Conventional division of knowledge labour diagrams place the tertiary academic field as the leader of discourse production. By contrast, the division for mRNA vaccine research (see Table 3) highlights how companies manufacturing vaccines drive contemporary research and the distributive rules in knowledge labour. Only wealthy pharmaceutical companies have the financial and other resources to drive mRNA research at scale and at warp speed. This of course creates a massive conflict of interest because whether the company producing these therapies will ultimately benefit financially from the future sales of these therapies depends entirely on the published efficacy and safety results from their own research! Another contradiction exists between the deliberation and recontextualisation fields, where vaccine-manufacturing pharmaceutical companies can use their large online advertising budgets to influence content on digital platforms and fact-checking. For example, dissident health professionals and academic scholars who promoted personal responsibility faced censorship, not just on campus and by medical authorities, but also on the most popular social media platforms (such as Facebook and Twitter).

Such censorship of digital platforms is an important concern, since social media platforms have enabled dissident experts to network their expertise and launch conventional science projects that evolved from anecdotes into published research. As Holmberg’s scholarship shows, online low carb high fat diet advocacy was very important for contesting the flawed nutritional guidelines of the National Swedish Food Agency. This raised political awareness around low carb diets and provided vital opportunities to contest the nutritional authorities with academic research that helped to change Sweden’s nutritional guidelines.

Professor William H Dutton argues in his recent The Fifth Estate book that social media platforms now form part of a Fifth Estate. In a recent email to the Association of Internet Researchers he describes how his book ‘makes a case for the internet and related media and communication technologies enabling the most important power shift of the digital age. A network power shift has been driven by enabling ordinary people to search, originate, network, collaborate, and leak information in ways than enhance their informational and communicative power. In such ways, the internet is empowering many ordinary individuals to form a more independent collectivity of networked individuals—a Fifth Estate. This network power shift enables greater democratic accountability, whilst empowering networked individuals in their everyday life and work. Suggesting these platforms importance in how digital content creators generate and share news that digital publics amplify via networked affordances.'

Professor Holmberg is one of very few scholars who have written how dissident scientists have successfully exercised digital voice to change both science and government guidelines. There is a large research gap concerning empirical research into scientific censorship. We do know that it has two forms: hard and soft. Authorities try to prevent dissemination with the former… or pressurize dissidents with threats of reputational damage and exclusion from their fields of knowledge production. With dissenters’ digital voices emerging as as potent force for creating social movements via the powerful Fifth Estate
authorities’ desires to exercise censorship via Big Tech’s social media platforms is an emergent reality.

Naim and Bennett (2014) proposed this 21st century censorship matrix for government influence on the production and dissemination of information and opinion. Such censorship can be obvious, in being direct and visible. In contrast, it may be hard to sport as stealthy and/or indirect.

This is a similar matrix for what has been evidenced against low-carb scholars, from Australasia to South Africa, the USA onto Scandinavia. Various roleplayers aim to prevent research and teaching into the insulin resistance model inside Academia, and to create the perception amongst online audiences that the science behind LCHF is illegitimate, unscientific and promoted by self-serving charlatans.

Senior scientific dissidents with a public following will be a lightning rod for such attacks, since their position highlights that the science is not settled. My father, Emeritus Professor Noakes, has made this major contribution to his institutional employer over a long academic career. He shifted to a low carb, or Banting lifestyle in 2011 and shared the benefits of a low-carb lifestyle which supported the reversal of diabetes.

Heavily processed, Big Food industries and insulin-pushing Big Pharma businesses want to limit the public’s attention to low-carb science as it threatens their profits. Such powerful companies can support these strategies for breaking the causal chain between Prof Noakes’ information dissemination and individuals’ willingness to act. In Prof Noakes’ case, they could support critics who sought to delegitimate his research journal publications and books he wrote on low carb; pseudo-skeptics questioned his credibility and that of "Tim Hoax"’s associates in a myriad of publications. Their attacks could involve many forms of cyber harassment.

Daniel Citron’s excellent book, ‘Hate Crimes in Cyberspace’, provides this common definition for harassment on page 124- ‘Harassment is typically understood as a willful and malicious ‘course of conduct’ directed at a person that would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress and that does cause the person to suffer distress.’

The term ‘cyber harassment’ is necessary, as Citron points out, for describing how the reach and pervasiveness of the internet can exacerbate the injuries that targets suffer; In cyber harassment, there is an interesting paradox between how the texts, images, sounds and videos shared by cyber harassers seem banal and trivial BUT the impact of this content can actually threaten families, careers and lives! Repeated privacy invasions, threats of violence and attacks on a target’s reputation may sabotage their professional and family lives, future opportunities…and even lead to suicide or its recipient “going postal”.

Fortunately, Professor Noakes is very tough and has survived nearly a decade of such cyber harassment with such experiences shared in this partially pseudonymized case.

There are many activities that the perpetrators of cyber harassment can follow… All should be regarded seriously as they can result in emotional, physical and professional harm to their targets. Using Tim’s example, I’ll talk through two threats that you may be unfamiliar with: The first is ‘Google bombing’ in which a search engine page is gamed to elevate the rankings of negative and destructive pages… in this case, if you search for Prof’s ‘Lore of Nutrition’ book, but what first appears is a biased, negative review from a pediatrician… versus the many positive reviews that this book earned. A technical explanation for this high-ranking of the review is certainly not its quality… rather that it is cited on Wikipedia, which Google deems a credible source. The second threat are “digital pariah” profiles created by Wikipedia’s and Rationalwiki’s editors’ choices. Such “crowdsourced” profiles are strongly shaped by an anti-dissident editorial bias. Remember that when next you are asked to donate by the “independent” Wikipedia.

Digital pariah profiles and Google Bombs are digital extensions of academic workplace mobbing techniques. Academic mobbing seeks to eject scholars from academia, involving aggressive techniques for ostracization. Recontextualising an A1 rated scientist’s career and books as flawed are clearly an example of this. Unlike organic trolling from complete strangers, colleagues in an academic cybermob can launch concerted attacks. This makes academic cybermobbing a distinct, emergent threat.

Dissidents voicing pro Insulin Resistance model and offering low carbohydrate advice communicate in diverse issue arenas, ranging from the model’s science to the lifestyle’s impact on agriculture. These are PR areas that corporations, institutions and their employees have high stakes in. Dissidents may attract direct and indirect criticism from any of these agents concerned about such issues.

What was notable in Prof Noakes’ case was the vast number of South African and International bodies who had stakes in challenging his opinions. Health organisations and academic institutions may also become involved in correspondence.

The criticisms from work colleagues here would seem unethical and unacceptable in most workplaces. They also create a problem for the recipient in how to respond appropriately to such criticism with no germane successful examples to follow. Here we see the types of slurs used on Twitter and elsewhere  that hypercritical interlocutors used in arguing that Professor Tim Noakes had morphed into a dangerous “anti-science” hack. 

Academic cybermobbing differs from workplace mobbing which is defined as an embodied covert process inside a university employee’s faculty’s department. Here are 16 key points covering the ways in which academic cybermobbing can be worse. In particular, the network of attacking groups and individuals is often visible, making it easy to jump on the bandwagon. Sensationalist criticism is encouraged by digital platform algorithms that reward controversy with attention - cyber mobs drive circles of outrage that contribute to spiraling cyber harassment. A dissident can easily exhaust him or herself trying to respond to many phases of criticism from different groups on many platforms across different timezones. And there may well be no institutional recourse against colleagues whose freedom of speech ironically undermines the aforesaid for dissidents. Overall there is complete asymmetry between a dissident’s capabilities to respond, and critics myriad of opportunities for attack. 

The agents in an academic cybermobbing can also differ to those in academic mobbing, While the latter will have private orchestrators and supporters who are all academics in a shared field, an academic cybermobbing can involve recontexualisers from other fields. For example, public criticism from trolls keen to syphon off a dissident’s public views. As a public spectacle, it is also concerning for dissidents when their colleagues simply act as witnesses and bystanders to cyber harassment.

Participating in criticism of dissidents can also be used for capital exchange. Pseudo-skeptics can gain hypervisibility as thought leaders, that they cannot achieve without holding PhDs and making real contributions to academia. Likewise, reaping symbolic capital in terms of the numbers of followers they attract. Dogmatists can earn social capital bridging them with to new groups, plus their defence of the orthodoxy may reap rewards ranging from content payments to securing better academic positions.

While I use negative terms such as dogmatist and pseudo-skeptic, it is important to keep in mind that the academic defenders of The Science™ do readily justify their censorship activities as well-meaning,  benevolent for their peers and the public, and pro-social overall for human wellbeing.

Overt censorship tactics are not only applied by platforms, but can be requested and applied by defenders of the Science™ in certain instances. For example, mobs can launch matrix attacks for deplatforming their targets. Dissidents can be reported for being in breach of platform safety… such as Twitter’s pre-Musk COVID-19 communication policy.

Digital platforms have many covert censorship mechanisms that can be used for stifling free speech. Around 24 of them are listed on this slide and the next…

While academic cybermobs may not be responsible for such tactics, they certainly may take actions to promote systematic censorship against the misinformation from dissidents to prevent its assumed harms. This itself may have a serious harm in serving as scientific censorship that will suppress accurate information, such as supporting a fake consensus for dysfunctional interventions.

It is hard to research such censorship and there are many obstacles to researching academic cybermobs even if you can find scarce funding. These include: there not being a strong rationale or examples one can follow. One must access data under highly restrictive research user agreements. There can be much missing data (cyber harassment from private, deleted or banned accounts is not provided via APIs). Data is provided in structures that can make it hard to track key analytical foci (e.g. conversation threads on X (healthy conversations). There are challenges in cleaning the data and representing the original users’ experience (spreadsheet data vs multimodal tweets). There are also important ethical challenges in researching colleagues’ anti-social activities and producing research outputs from them! 

One challenging, but less ethically difficult proposition is to explore the activity of cybermobs outside academia. For example, The Noakes Foundation, Younglings Africa and the SMILR lab support PhD candidate Pinky Motshware with studying celebrity cybermobs. Their attacks led to life changing outcomes for local black male celebrities, which Pinky is preparing case studies for.

Thank you for your attention and continued support.

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