“PANDA are not COVID deniers. We believe that COVID-19 is a serious disease that requires urgent attention. PANDA are not anti-vaxxers. We believe that vaccines have great potential in a focused protection strategy. PANDA is politically agnostic. Our view that a holistic solution must be sought to the challenges this virus poses is one that finds favour with people of varying political persuasions.”
Nafeez Ahmed is a very busy man. He is part of a global crusade against the enemies of truth and democracy. He is also using wild conspiracy theories to fight it. This week, an article appeared, in which he collaborated with Daily Maverick author and Rhodes Scholar Rebecca Davis, to smear the South African independent research group Pandemic Data Analysis (PANDA) by insinuating that they are deliberate liars pushing a far right agenda.
Of course, his case is absolutely stark raving mad, and so thin that he is afraid to state his case openly, hiding behind oblique and ambiguous insinuations. It’s rather weak sauce.
But first let’s tackle the most hilarious errors. Most glaringly, he quotes the statistics for COVID deaths in SA at over 140 000. Uh… the official figures are 50 300, sunshine. Can he Google? Can Rebecca Davis Google? Is Branko Brkič sleeping on the job? In his original hitpiece for the Byline Times, Ahmed claimed the work by PANDA was so dangerously influential that it was responsible for Ramaphosa instituting a lenient policy (pause for laughter).
Then, he directly engaged in libel: he accused PANDA not of misinformation, which is simply incorrect information, but of disinformation, which is the spreading of deliberate lies. As a man who works in this particular area, Ahmed knows he is being libellous. Which makes him rather dumb. But then, he did go on Alex Jones’s channel back in 2006 to talk 9/11 conspiracies, and got fired from the Guardian for this piece, in which he argues that the Jews are murdering Arabs to steal their mineral wealth.
Most amusingly, his business partner at INSURGE Intelligence, Benn Swann, is guilty of spreading the conspiracy theory that the stats are all fake and COVID is no deadlier than the flu. I may have my doubts about the current hysteria, but I wouldn’t go that far. What’s more, Ahmed wrote a book about how the world will come to an end if we don’t get those nasty 3rd world birth rates down and build a totalitarian world government, and that climate science can be dismissed because it isn’t apocalyptic enough.
Six Degrees of Separation
So if that’s all perfectly fine, why bother with PANDA? Well, because Mr Ahmed has a conspiracy theory. See, all the dastardly denialists in the world form this big sticky international right wing cabal, and they’re all secretly funded by Russia. Or maybe they aren’t – Ahmed certainly doesn’t claim it out loud, but isn’t it awfully suspicious how I can draw a connection from this guy to this guy if a use several intervening social connections? Why, right in the centre, they’re all connected to Kevin Bacon! The evil genius!
Conspiracy theories are an interesting field. The definition is quite simple. A conspiracy is when two or more parties cooperate in a covert way to pursue a hidden agenda. All corruption, for example, is conspiracy. Conspiracies are frightfully common – one might say they are what politics is made of. Nor need they be seen as inherently pernicious - in fact, the covert negotiations between the NP and the ANC could be classed as a conspiracy.
I am not saying, therefore, that Mr Ahmed’s conspiracy theory is merely false for being a conspiracy theory. I am saying it is false because it happens to be false, and that he appears to know it is false. But what conspiracy is being claimed to be operating behind PANDA? Well it isn’t exactly clear.
Ahmed points out that other, less unprofessional organisations (Covid19 Assembly and PCRclaims) have found their research useful, and linked to it on their website. He also points out, quoting the routinely hysterical Anti-Defamation League (who will accuse just about anybody of some kind of hatecrime if it is politically expedient) helpfully pointing out that one of these groups hosted a video on a site that does not employ censorship to avoid YouTube’s content policy on permissible opinions. Therefore, they are abso-defi-lutely all the handmaiden of the 4th Reich, because there are some nazis using this free, uncensored video-sharing service.
This is hilariously stupid if you know how the game works, but most people don’t spend as much time online as I do. But the real stale baguette here is that these clunky little groups have members who have have in the past worked for a PR firm called Cambridge Analytica, who have been employed by a couple of conservative political campaigns. Again, this apparently means nazis. How is this psychotic level of pareidolia even possible?
All Nick Hudson did was talk to these guys once and get linked on their website. I am struggling to see what the crime here is supposed to be – should Nick Hudson and his team have called Mr Ahmed up to beg for absolution for the crime of making their website accessible on the open web?
The most dastardly figures in this game of 6-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon played by Mr Ahmed are, while conservative, not particularly sinister at all. The “hard right” in the UK Conservative party are still left-liberals, albeit with a bit of an eye for frugality.
Nigel Farage is no more than a common or garden liberal with a bee in his bonnet for arbitrary technocratic government by policy written in foreign nations, and a stance against unrestricted mass immigration (which happens to be the majority attitude in almost every nation on earth). You can call him a dinosaur or an Alan Partridge impersonator, but he isn’t exactly Mussolini.
What about Cambridge Analytica? Well, what about them? How sinister – a company who deployed targeted advertising in a political campaign. Golly gosh, I’ve never heard of that. It’s not like literally every single modern marketing campaign in the world looks exactly like that. They spread falsehoods? Well, we all know that the politicians never ever tell fibs, and certainly not on the campaign trail. The reality is that CA’s tactics were already deployed in a far more sophisticated manner by Obama’s election campaign years before, and for which they were roundly praised.
But because Trump was a customer, we are supposed to think CA and anybody who touches them as “right deviationists”. This is amusing.
If I wanted to play this game, I could point out that Deepti Gurdasani, one of Ahmed’s expert sources, studies the genetic material of rural Africans for the Sanger Institute, named for its founder, a white supremacist eugenicist called Margaret Sanger, who developed the birth control pill by performing unpaid medial experiments on black women, and hoped it could be used to sterilise the race eventually.
But in all seriousness, I have no reason to question Gurdasani’s morality, and neither do you. It’s stupid to play this game.
The Credentials Game
PANDA of course had to publish their response on their own website, since the Daily Maverick were a bit timid to allow an alleged source of disinformation anywhere near their hallowed pages. They also gave the poor sods no more than 4 hours notice to respond to the list of questions, meaning they had no time to confer with colleagues. That’s a rather gratuitous display of disrespect, don’t you think? They also edited the responses down rather uncharitably.
At any rate, Nick Hudson responds rather neatly to all of the scientific claims, and if you have made it this far, click on the link and read the short section for their take on the scientific claims. They deserve a fair hearing. I can’t defend the science all that well. But I do have a firm grasp of the glaringly obvious. For example, Ahmed quotes PANDA as forecasting 10 000 deaths overall. PANDA actually forecast 20 000 deaths in just the first wave, on the 5th of May. Just what is happening there at the DM? Too long stuck indoors?
While Ahmed has consulted several illustrious names, in an attempt to suggest that the most reputable folk will always side with the establishment. But resorting to just one expert quoting “consensus” is a poor strategy to any but the most cursory of glances. Take for example the case of Dr Gurdasani, who said the research from PANDA “would not pass peer review”.
This statement really cannot be taken seriously. PANDA has many extremely senior published academics from all the relevant fields, from fine and illustrious places like Oxford. Fraudulent work passes peer review all the time, provided the peers like its findings. Every member of the scientific profession knows that mendacious techniques are the norm. Reams and tomes and miles of verbiage have been spewed about the replication crisis, p-hacking, selective publication, political censorship, and other deep systemic issues with the peer review system.
Hell, several papers used to justify official narratives have been based on fraud, published in the most prestigious journals in the world no less. The WHO recently admitted that their guidelines for PCR test procedure are to a great extent not being followed, which throws a whole year’s worth of data into doubt at a global level. However, systemic bias in institutions where anyone with a critical thought is petrified of being targeted by a media storm, or now, as in Belgium, where doctors are threatened with losing their medical license for questioning policy decisions.
None of which is to say that COVID isn’t exactly the way the Ministry of Truth says it is, of course. However, there is a very real and decades-old set of techniques for suffocating alternative viewpoints, and the actors are very willing to play dirty. They will pick experts who have favourable views, and treat theirs as the final word, assuming something that is true in no crisis situation – a “scientific consensus”.
But Gurdasani’s primary accusation is based on an ignorance of PANDA’s methodology, largely because it is not in her area of expertise. To estimate long-term mortality rates, PANDA has relied predominantly on actuarial science.
Ahmed also quotes the Wits department on excess deaths (just a reminder, he quoted the death stats of the wrong country earlier), who in their methodology dismiss the notion of excess deaths caused by lockdown policy impeding access to medical care for non-covid patients (“collateral deaths”) by an interesting bit of handwaving and circular logic – the excess deaths simply can’t be due to collateral deaths because we’ve excluded that from the analysis, and anyway, it’s complicated, yeah?
In fact, the scientific community, particularly that associated with medical science, has always adopted a predatory strategy to those who disrupt their established assumptions. This is not the exception, but the norm. Tim Noakes was reduced to utter paranoia after years of unfounded persecution due to uncovering real legit conspiracy, and now has such a deep-rooted distrust of his colleagues that he lets himself entertain just about any anti-establishment theory that comes his way (not that I blame him). Gerta Keller faced threats and sabotage over a fight in the field of paleontology, for crying out loud – how much more vicious do you think it is when there are planetary-scale stakes at hand?
Tin foil for the whole family
Now it’s my turn to pull the conspiracy angle.
What Nafeez Ahmed is doing is a very well-rehearsed strategy that has been the mainstay of authoritarian regimes everywhere. Most people imagine that in authoritarian regimes, the participants do what they do because they have a gun to their heads. The reality is that political systems filter out dissidents from their hierarchies, and most of the propaganda is produced by choice by true believers.
But I am going to argue that Nafeez Ahmed is worse than this. He is a man of no principle, working for money and power alone. And I will use precisely his own tactics to do so. I mean, what could be more fun than a fun-house mirror? I can think just as conspiratorially as Mr Man here.
Nafeez Ahmed’s boss at the Byline Times, Stephen Colegrave, is a member of the British-American Project, a joint American-British intelligence operation run by Chatham House (an organisation run by a revolving door with US and UK intelligence services - eg director DeAnne Julius, formerly of the CIA) to influence left-wing British opinion on foreign policy in a pro-American neocon direction since 1985. It has helped push the Labour Party to join the Iraq War in 2003.
This is part of a broader pattern in American state’s use of a combination of weaponised social media and federally funded favourable coverage by major outlets (plus $1.5bln on propaganda) is far more dangerous than anything a piddling Facebook ad campaign using outdated strategies could ever hope for. The CIA has been peddling influence for decades. NATO does similar stuff too, through the Atlantic Council, and targets rhetorically weak sources of anti-Western counternarratives as enemy misinformation through the obsessive little public stalkers at DFRLabs.
Mainstream media outlets boast of how all their editorial policies are centrally coordinated with state officials who can switch nationwide riots on or off at will using a single 900-contact list zoom conference call, and silence news stories unfavourable to their chosen candidate after spending months kicking everybody off social media who so much as whispered this was the case. Social media has a single cooperative strategy of censorship, and service providers conspire to deplatform and deny services to any competitors who do not cohere with the censorship strategy.
So what’s more plausible? A planet-sized superpower with a history of violent hybrid warfare and sophisticated propaganda scaring people into consensus through proven institutions of control and influence more vast and comprehensive than any in history, who openly declare their strategies…
…or that the only way that anybody could differ from the preferred policies of this power and its permanent geopolitical allies, with whom they coordinate governance strategies, is if it was a conspiracy by its evil enemies, against whom they can still somehow find no hard evidence?
PANDA seem like nice guys. If the academic world don’t like their work, maybe they can organise a nice extended conversation, exchange resources, and everyone can have a thoroughly educational conversation about the balance of evidence for various governing policies and crisis management strategies. But all I see right now, while everybody points fingers and leers and jumps at shadows, is paranoia. And that’s not helping anybody.