Moderna's "disinformation department" partnered with an industry-backed nonprofit, the Public Good Projects (PGP), to monitor and suppress dissenting voices on COVID-19 vaccine policy, according to a new report by investigative journalists Lee Fang and Jack Poulson published Monday in UnHerd.
Over the last year, the "Twitter Files," two lawsuits against the Biden administration and other investigations have exposed instances of collusion among government, social media and universities to suppress dissenting speech about COVID-19 policies, election fraud allegations and other topics.
This new report sheds light on Moderna's behind-the-scenes strategy within this new media landscape. It exposes key actors and how they worked to monitor 150 million websites for the purpose of censoring speech that undermines the company's COVID-19 vaccine narrative and actively shaping public discourse to benefit Moderna's bottom line.
Great Barrington Declaration co-author and Stanford University professor Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, who was blacklisted by Twitter, praised the new report in a tweet:
Moderna had never successfully advanced any product to market prior to the COVID-19 mRNA vaccine and was teetering on the edge of collapse when the pandemic was announced.
Its mRNA COVID-19 vaccine transformed the drugmaker into a $100 billion company almost overnight and turned its CEO, chairman and co-founders into billionaires.
Today, as public interest in taking yet another booster shot tanks and federal subsidies for the shot are disappearing, so are profits, leading the company to invest in new strategies — like a flashy marketing campaign — to stay afloat, Fang and Poulson reported.
Moderna also is doubling down on work started during the pandemic to attack dissent about vaccines and to direct vaccination policy, they found.
In fact, Moderna today employs former law enforcement agents, like Nikki Rutman, a 20-year FBI veteran who worked for the agency in Boston during Operation Warp Speed where her job was to conduct weekly cybersecurity meetings with Moderna.
Now she runs Moderna's global intelligence division — part of the department spearheading Moderna's work to stop "disinformation" — producing reports that flag "anti-vaccine narratives" online and recommending whether and how to address them, they wrote.
The department works with the PGP, largely funded through a $1.27 million donation from the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, a biotech lobbying group that represents Pfizer and Moderna.
Through PGP and Talkwalker, a "social listening" company, Moderna's team monitors everything from mainstream news outlets to gaming sites, deploying artificial intelligence to monitor 150 million websites across the world for vaccine-related conversation.
The team issues reports to Moderna staff that color-code the "anti-vaccine narratives" by level of risk. Low-risk narratives "don't currently warrant any action." For the higher-risk narratives, the team "will notify the appropriate stakeholders with recommendations," Lee and Poulson wrote.
Analyzing sample reports, the journalists discovered that examples of "high-risk" posts included a video posted by Elon Musk mocking myriad claims that the vaccines were "100% effective" along with a number of posts made by comedian and political commentator Russell Brand, whom they flagged in September for his "anti-vaccine" beliefs.
The Moderna team also raised concerns over the optics when tennis star Novak Djokovic, who refused the COVID-19 vaccine, won the Moderna-sponsored U.S. Open.
Comment: So, when Moderna sponsors a sport event it is PR campaign with a target. mRNA vaccines are good for the heath of sporty people, as if we did not know already.
Lee and Paulson reported that Moderna was unconcerned with the truth of any of the claims made in the posts it flagged, only with their effects.
"None of the reports that we have seen makes any attempt to dispute the claims made," they wrote. "Rather the claims are automatically deemed 'misinformation' if they encourage vaccine hesitancy."
Moderna first began working with PGP in 2021-2022 on a program called "Stronger," where the nonprofit "identified misinformation and shaped content decisions on social media."
PGP could do this effectively because it had "backdoor access" to Twitter data, through a "firehose," which provides real-time access to all tweets on the platform for large-scale data analysis and data mining.
PGP, which worked directly with Twitter to develop its policies around the pandemic, would send Twitter lists of accounts to amplify or censor.
Twitter's general counsel also advised the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's task force on combating misinformation to work with PGP on COVID-19 speech-related issues.
Lee and Poulson also found that PGP distributed talking points and advice on how to respond to vaccine misinformation to a network of 45,000 healthcare professionals.
"[Moderna's] intention, as we have gleaned from the emails exchanged, was not only to combat misinformation, but also to affect the content and tenor of public debate," Fang and Paulson wrote.
This year, as the COVID-19 booster uptake numbers have collapsed, Moderna and PGP launched a new collaboration, this time working with the American Board of Internal Medicine, to develop a training program called the "Infodemic Training Program," to train healthcare workers to identify "medical misinformation."
Despite public outrage regarding social media censorship, a clear lack of interest in continuing to take booster shots and the official end of the pandemic announced in May by the Biden administration, Moderna continues to grow its surveillance operation.
Internal alerts analyzed by Fang and Poulson reveal the company is closely monitoring laws and politicians seeking to restrict vaccine mandates and that it continues to flag messages posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, by Musk, who Moderna notes, "increasingly uses that platform to elevate fringe vaccine opponents and conspiracy theorists."
The authors wrote:
"The network of fact-checking nonprofits has grown at an industrial pace, providing opaque opportunities for private and public interests to take subtle control over the public discourse. Such sophistication in blending public-health messaging and corporate advertising should concern anyone with an interest in how government controls free speech."
Brenda Baletti, Ph.D.
Brenda Baletti Ph.D. is a reporter for The Defender. She wrote and taught about capitalism and politics for 10 years in the writing program at Duke University. She holds a Ph.D. in human geography from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a master's from the University of Texas at Austin.