Counter Disinformation Project
(English-VersioN)

Raising awareness about (inter-)national disinformation actors’ influence on public health

British journalist Karam Bales is making his research – on globally connected disinformation groups and individuals – available for journalists and the public at large. Bales played an integral part in reporting on the so called “HARTleaks”, exposing the Health Advisory & Recovery Team’s (HART) lobby influence on the United Kingdom’s policy making. Together, Bales and I talked about his motivation for the project, global links between disinformation groups, and had a comparative look on the public discourse on COVID-19 in the United Kingdom and Germany.

This is the English version of this article. The German-language version has been published here.

* Titelbild: Hintergrundbild des Netzwerks von Karam Bales, Counter Desinformation Project. Weiteres Hintergrundbild von Pixabay.com. Bearbeitung durch Gunnar Hamann, Ostprog.de.

Karam Bales may be best known for his journalistic work for Byline Times, exposing the influence of anti-vax groups like UsForThem and HART on the United Kingdom’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s (JCVI) advisory panel. This somewhat mirrors Germany, where a member of the Ständige Impfkommission (STIKO) – comparable to the United Kingdom’s JCVI – has been supporting three separate open letters by a group called Initiative Familien. A group, having proven its close ties to and interactions with members of the anti-vax and ‘lateral thinkers’ movement – called ’Querdenken’ in Germany – on multiple different occasions.

Having already discussed parallels between UsForThem and the Initiative Familien in the past, Bales was was also having a deeper look into those similarities in April 2022 on Twitter.

But Bales’ work isn’t over yet, given that these groups are continuing to operate. On July 5, he opened the Counter Disinformation Project. A project with similarities to doctor Allison Neitzel’s journalistic project – focused on the United States – Misinformation Kills.

A school teacher, teaching the public

Der Journalist Karam Bales arbeitet seit Jahren zu verschiedensten Corona-Desinformationsakteuren. Nicht nur im Vereinigten Königreich. Er befindet sich im Austausch mit zahlreichen Journalist:innen aus der ganzen Welt. Foto: privat.
The journalist Karam Bales has been working on various corona disinformation actors for years. Not just in the UK. He is in contact with numerous journalists from all over the world. Photo: private

Karam Bales has only become a journalist during the course of the pandemic. But he is also an active teacher and former executive member for the National Education Union (NEU). His main drive for his journalistic work has been to uncover misinformation groups on COVID-19, having seen their impact on public health policies and thereby daily life in the United Kingdom.

Bales told me, that after his work for the Byline Times, he was “providing a lot of his background research to investigative journalists”. This includes reports, being currently discussed by authorities in the United States, Bales added.

A main concern and driver for this new project has been the complexity of the issue. “Trying to explain all of the connections to a decent standard is very difficult when you are facing a word limit for an article.” Even though most of the information is already publicly available on Twitter, it can sometimes be hard to follow for newcomers, he admits.

If you want people to know what is really going on, sending them some complex thread with threads inside threads doesn’t work. You really need to go back to basic. We have been talking to various journalists and it is quite surprising how little they knew.

Putting out these reports, Bales made the decision to publish the information in a format, which was easier to digest for the public at large as well as for journalists. His report on the disinformation group Pandata – established in April 2020 and linked to HART – has found its way to various journalists. “I was talking to a writer for one of the major UK papers today. They found that really helpful, because it sets everything out in bite-sized sections.

The international network of COVID-19 denialism

Eine Netzwerkkarte, die einige der bekannten Verbindungen von Pandata-Mitgliedern zeigt. Es ist nur ein kleiner Ausschnitt des gesamten Netzwerks. Quelle: Counter Desinformation Project, Karam Bales.
A network map, showing some of the known links of Pandata members. It only shows a small part of the whole network. Source: Counter Disinformation Project, Karam Bales.

In a globalised and digitalised world, COVID disinformation groups were forming informal as well as more formalised connections, even from the outset of the pandemic. German investigative journalists of Correctiv did report on parts of such an international network in April 2022, pointing inter alia to know German COVID-19 deniers as Sucharit Bhakdi, Markus Haintz and Reiner Fuellmich.

Bales’ report points to another connection in this network. Pandata. Bhakdi was – and possibly still is – a member of Pandata’s Scientific Advisory Board. And yet, there are even more known Germans, who appear in the report. Lateral thinkers Wolfgang Wodarg and Andreas Sönnichsen have been in contact with Pandata founding member Michael Yeadon, whose name also showed up in the membership files of HART.

Sönnichsen also appears on a publicly available list as a supporter for the German lobbying campaign Corona Strategie. This campaign has been founded by Klaus Stöhr and Jonas Schmidt-Chanasitz. Both of which have been suspected as supporters of the Great Barrington Declaration, due to their interactions as well as statements made in the past.

Yeadon has since then been active in the United States, resuming his activity there with a former Pandata colleague and advising the disinformation group America’s Frontline Doctors (AFD). A founding member of AFD – Simone Gold – has recently been sentenced to prison for her role in the Capitol riot on January 6 2021.

Bales’ work is based on a leak of internal information, called “HARTleaks”. A gold mine for Bales and other journalists. “What the membership files showed was that a lot of those members have never publicly associated with Pandata. They never had their name on that website.

Yeadon is one such example. Neither did his name show up on Pandata’s, nor HART’s website. Even though he played a key role in those groups, says Bales. “When HART was set up, it was set up with the help of a member of the House of Lords and a couple of other people. And the initial group they got joining HART, were mainly members already in Pandata.” One of those initial members: Michael Yeadon.

Martin Kulldorff, Sunetra Gupta and Jay Bhattacharya (from left to right) jointly wrote the Great Barrington Declaration. The meeting took place with support from the libertarian think tank American Institute for Economic Research (AIER). Source: gbdeclaration.org.

Pandata’s Scientific Advisory Board is also manned with Martin Kulldorff, Sunetra Gupta and Jay Bhattacharya. Those are also the authors of the infamous Great Barrington Declaration (GBD). A declaration pushing for a natural herd immunity strategy, rejected by the majority of the scientific community.

Kulldorff has been showing support for different protests on measures against the pandemic around the world, even tweeting out in direct support of Canada’s trucker convoy. Kulldorff is also a member of the GBD-aligned Brownstone Institute, located in the United States. In the December 2021 he shared an article by its founder –Jeffrey Tucker – making accusations against, what he calls, a “ruling class terrified of being found out”, while drawing comparisons to World War I and the rise of Adolf Hitler. Tucker asks: “Who will be held responsible for this devastation?”, showing a Guillotine as a cover photo.

Jeffrey Tucker also spread misinformation on the effectiveness on the vaccines in Uganda around January 2022, according to public service journalism platform The Citizens.

The journalist Annette Bulut pointed out that there is evidence of support and even direct exchange between local German lateral thinking groups such as Kinderrechte Jetzt as well as AllesAufDenTisch and Pandata. In September 2021, Pandata co-founder Nick Hudson has been interviewed by AllesAufDenTisch.

Networking against Public Health

Behind the scenes, Bales has collected evidence for those groups and individuals to share information and arrange their campaigns accordingly. Leaked information has unveiled that there has been manoeuvring about which group would be best fitted to publish papers.

Bales paraphrases this internal conversation in this way: “This isn’t quite right for UsForThem or HART, however we will put this out through the UK Medical Freedom Alliance, which doesn’t get mainstream publicity and is more kind of feeding information, leaflets and flyers to street level protesters. The main collaboration between HART and those other groups is through Michael Yeadon. Yeadon is also active for Doctors for Covid Ethics, which does have some members of UsForThem.

With Pandata, the major concern is the influence they had over policy. For instance in the United States, the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis has stated that the efforts of former Trump advisor Scott Atlas and his colleagues – quite a few of which have been in Pandata, including Atlas himself – were responsible for preventable loss of life in the United States.

The Subcommittee has not called Pandata by name, but Bales and other journalists are currently in the process of getting into contact with some of those involved, to “inform them, that they are not just looking at a handful of errant fringe scientists, but something far more systematic and far more organised.

This is something which is kind of difficult for people to wrap their head around. Because you start talking about a committee of scientists, academics and republican politicians, working together across borders in all kinds of organisations. It sounds far fetched that you got such a group, trying to manipulate the pandemic response across northern America and the whole of Europe. Without providing all of the evidence it sounds crazy.”

But Bales is confident. The internal logs, membership database and internal structure gathered by the HARTleaks shows “without a shadow of a doubt”, that this network is real and had a meaningful impact on policies in the fight against the pandemic, Bales told me.

Financing disinformation

Some of these groups have been levelling legal challenges against public health measures. “What we are finding: In most of these cases, they are raising four or five times more funding than is required to pay for the court fees. Some of these crowd funders we have looked at are stating that any excess funds are used for their campaigning. There is a lot of profiteering going on.

An example, Bales is providing: “Simone Gold had been raising 430.000 US-Dollar for her court case at the January 6th hearing, which has been more than needed for her legal defence. This money goes directly to the American Frontline Doctors and paying her own salary for running the organisation.” Gold’s own attorney distanced himself from her, telling others that she had been paying the legal defence out of her own pocket and that the sum required was nowhere near the expenses.

Bales says, that is unclear where the money for the United Kingdom’s disinformation groups’ legal challenges is coming from. Donations under 500 Pounds are allowed to be made anonymously in the United Kingdom. This limits any possibility of tracking the origins and reminds Bales of campaign groups in the past, advertising for Brexit.

This is one of the things we are looking at, as the project is progressing. We are planning on lobbying for a change in regulation on how crowd funders are operated. It is too opaque. Governments need to take action and change their rules.

Gaslighting and silencing techniques

We have had a lot of attempts to silence people as well as threating and abusive behaviour. I know quite a lot of people I’ve used to work with, who have taken a step back, due to the constant onslaught of abuse that they get. Another thing that we see is allegations made to workplaces as well. Unfounded allegations or misrepresentations of what somebody said.

Particularly academics are finding themselves under pressure, says Bales. Some of those attacks, he adds, are also coming from other academics, being aligned to the spectrum of COVID-19 skeptics who lobby for herd immunity. “They are not willing to speak up or are more afraid of calling out such people if they speak up.” Having spoken with friends in the United States, they face abuse on an even more concerning scale, Bales told me.

In December 2021, the head of the California medical board – Kristina Lawson – was allegedly stalked by a group associated with the AFD. Members, she reported on Twitter, had been observing her house, following her to her workplace and flew a drone over her house.

Bales adds: “Those friends of mine had their names been put out online with pictures of nooses.” Messages they got, according to Bales, include: “Nuremberg 2.0”and “You will be the first ones hung, when justice comes.

This is making it harder, because there are less voices, willing to speak up. In the United Kingdom, we are seeing a very hostile debate as well. The people who get the least abuse, are the skeptic herd immunity lobbyists. They don’t try to engage with anybody. They really curate their Social Media timelines. Anyone that disagrees with them, they just block.

In 2020, Bales had to contact the police, after getting death threats. He has been harassed online as well as via telephone. As time has gone on, he himself has been facing less abuse. The most acute threats had been made during school closures, due to the pandemic, Bales told me. He is blaming right-wing media campaigns against Education Unions.

Having gained insights into internal communication of HART, it was also evident, which strategy members were discussing in engaging with the leaks and journalists themselves. This was possible, since hackers had still access to their platform, even after the leaks dropped. “Then we could see their conversations about what we were posting. There was a conversation about me and they made the decision that the easier way of dealing with me was to refuse to engage. In the sense of: ‘Do not engage with him. If you engage with him, you will give more publicity to the story.’

Mitglieder von HART reden nach der Bekanntmachung des Leaks über den Journalisten Karam Bales. Unkenntlichmachung durch Gunnar Hamann, Ostprog.de. Bereitsgestellt von Karam Bales.
HART members talk about journalist Karam Bales after the leak was announced. Defacement by Gunnar Hamann, Ostprog.de. Provided by Karam Bales

Thereafter, Bales was blocked by a lot of accounts. Some of those, he didn’t even attach to HART prior. Including United Kingdom government advisors. “It can not be guaranteed, but it makes me slightly suspicious.” Nevertheless, academics in the United Kingdom have faced “horrendous abuse”, brought upon them by bigger accounts marking their “targets”, says Bales.

The suicide of Austrian doctor Lisa-Marie Kellermayr – following death threats by anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists who targeted her for an extended period of time – has made the public once again aware of the dangers of such behaviour as well as a need to supply more support to victims of such harassment. In the meantime, many academics from Germany have left the platform, facing similar attacks.

Another method of silencing has been the so-called Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP). Chan-jo Jun – a famous lawyer from Germany, known for his commitment against lateral thinkers, recently left the Social Media network as well, following a series of such lawsuits. In a recent article for his project, Bales collected similar cases under the title of ‘Lawfare’.

#UnmaskUsForThem

UsForThem has recently promoted the book of “proper conspiracy theorist”, according to Bales. “One of her favourite ones is that two years before the pandemic she overheard Apple employees talking about time traveling nano particles being put into vaccines.” Molly Kingsley and Liz Cole – both prominent members of UsForThem – have also written an article for the Brownstone Institute. Kingsley has now officially gone on record, saying about child vaccinations: “[T]he continued roll-out to kids looks less and less like a legitimate public health decision and more and more like an act deserving of a prison sentence.

A rhetoric, not unlike usual anti-vaxxers and a development towards a more radicalised approach. Something akin – though not nearly as openly anti-vax – as I have been observing with the latest statement by the Initiative Familien.

We are still watching the further development. It was only recently, that UsForThem has stepped up a gear and we are hoping that more politicians will stop supporting them as well, because it is quite clear, where they are heading.” A member of the group even offered to work with Bales on campaigning against the privatisation of children’s care, if he stopped criticising their opposition to child vaccination, he explained. “I see this as an attempt to pacify me. Therein also lies the idea of buying people out.

Members of UsForThem have also been involved in the United Kingdom’s COVID-19 Inquiry. “The change they wanted made to the terms of the inquiry have found their way into the final terms of reference. It is almost word for word.” In Germany, Andrea Knipp-Selke, – member of the Initiative Familien – has also found her way into the so called Sachverständigenausschuss. Yet, her contribution to the final result is not as obvious as in the case of UsForThem.

And Bales is making another point regarding the group: “Their long-term aim was turning schools into essential infrastructure.” Something also called for by the Initiative Familien, despite arguments to the contrary made by experts. Germany’s Federal Research Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger (FDP) has also repeatedly called for schools to become essential infrastructure and brought up eerily similar talking points about alleged disadvantages of masks for the language acquisition of pupils, without being challenged on that notion by journalists.

Bales is criticising such steps, arguing that it is careless to keep open schools at all costs, be it in future pandemics or other catastrophes, for which the term ‘essential infrastructures’ has been designed in the first place.

Comparing public discourse on COVID-19 between the United Kingdom and Germany

Asking for his own outlook on the influence of the Great Barrington Declaration and the individuals involved on the debate, Bales answered: “What the Great Barrington Declaration did: It took all these disparate groups and pulled them together into one unified movement, which then allowed them to form lots of new organisations. This enabled them to do more effective fundraising and legal cases against mandates. Some of them – like HART – were founded shortly after the Declaration was published. Others came into existence in Spring 2021. The Telegraph, the Daily Express and the Spectator were pushing these people and supporting the Declaration.”

In Germany, it was the WELT, among others, that downplayed Kulldorff and his positions. Kulldorff was even invited to an interview in April 2021. In November 2021, WELT journalist Tim Röhn asked in an opinion piece: „Why do you think you know that the virologist Christian Drosten has more expertise in fighting pandemics than Kulldorff or Ioannadis?Ioannidis has ties to an author of the declaration and defended it in the past, even though he rejected to sign it.

Concerned with the situation on the ground, Bales addressed that there are currently a lot of cancelled classes, due to staff getting infected with COVID-19. These are impacting morale of school children and teachers as well. Yet, without mandatory masking, neither parents, children nor staff are taking necessary steps to protect themselves, he says, adding that there is a lot of trust in the government’s actions, even though these are having “disastrous effects” and contradicting the government’s goal to keep schools open. “I can’t even get people to wear masks in my school, when we got ten people who are already off sick.

Karam Bales im Gespräch mit Gunnar Hamann (Ostprog.de).
Karam Bales has been in contact with me since around November. Back then we talked about parallels between UsForThem and the Initiative Familien. Image: Gunnar Hamann, Ostprog.de

There have been similar reports of cancelled lessons in German schools, were mandates to wear masks have been abolished as well, adding to the concerning teacher shortage in the country.

But COVID-19 is over in the United Kingdom. Everybody, from the BBC down to Sky. Whenever you switch on to television, they now refer to this as the ‘post-COVID-era’. One thousand people died this week”, he emphasised, shaking his head.

What is identical between Germany and the United Kingdom, is the use – or misuse, depending on political affiliations – of the term ‘individual responsibilty’. (“Eigenverantwortung” in German). On the contrary, discourse in the United Kingdom is avoiding the word ‘normality’, which has become another staple of the debate in Germany. “We didn’t really go with the word ‘normality’. We went with ‘living with the virus’, because it sounds like we are still doing things. ‘Normality’ is what they use in the United States. Take for example the group Urgency of Normal.

The latter is known for providing misinformation about the pandemic on multiple occasions as well as having ties to the Brownstone Institute. It is even being promoted by the German Initiative Familien.

Focused protection’ – a main argument of the Great Barrington Declaration – has muddied the public debate, so Bales told me. Groups at risks were promised antiviral drugs, but it turned out, that the government failed in providing sufficient access to those drugs, according to Bales. “Risk groups are mainly identified with the elderly, notwithstanding the fact that people at risk are not bound to a specific age group. Their arguments and measures don’t add up to the claim that they can provide protection.

Addressing the situation on the ground, it becomes quite clear, why public discourse in the United Kingdom is avoiding the term ‘normality’. “They are just ignoring the fact that hospitals are collapsing and nearly every single emergency ward is on the highest level of alert. There are people having strokes or heart attacks, waiting twelve hours for an ambulance. I heard this story on the radio of someone driving to the hospital himself, after having a stroke. Our excess death rates are going up, because of people dying in ambulances. But there is no talk of it.

Der britische Premierminister Boris Johnson und ehemalige Präsident der Vereinigten Staaten – Donald Trump – schütteln die Hände bei einem Treffen der Generalversammlung der Vereinten Nationen im Jahr 2017. Trumps Coronapolitik war maßgeblich von Personen aus dem Umfeld der Great Barrington Declaration beeinflusst worden. Auch bei Johnson gibt es Anzeichen für einen solche Einflussnahme. Bild: Weißes Haus, Public Domain.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and former United States President Donald Trump shake hands at a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in 2017. Trump's corona policy was significantly influenced by people associated with the Great Barrington Declaration. Regarding Johnson, there are signs of such influence as well. Image: White House, public domain.

For Bales, the ongoing conservative leadership election, following the announced departure of current Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has led to a situation of silence on issues on the ground level. “COVID-19 has not been mentioned once as an issue we need dealing with. It has only been mentioned as an issue that we dealt with.

My own life is being impacted. Why should I have to put up with this for a couple of months to protect people? The talk about focused protection, as long as they don’t have to do anything”, Bales is paraphrasing the idea of UsForThem and similar disinformation groups. He is hoping for more collective responsibility.

As the societal and political climate is not showing any signs of taking this empathetic approach to public health during a pandemic in the United Kingdom, Karam Bales will continue his work. Unmasking those that know of no harm, while doing it to others.

* Cover image: Background network image by Karam Bales, Counter Desinformation Project. Other backgorund image from Pixabay.com. Edit by Gunnar Hamann, Ostprog.de.

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Titelbild: Logo der Initiative Familien via Homepage der Initiative. Schattenumriss via Pixabay.com. Bearbeitung / Montage: Gunnar Hamann, Ostprog.de.

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* Titelbild: Hintergrundbild des Netzwerks von Karam Bales, Counter Desinformation Project. Weiteres Hintergrundbild von Pixabay.com. Bearbeitung durch Gunnar Hamann, Ostprog.de.

Counter Disinformation Project

British journalist Karam Bales is making his research – on globally connected disinformation groups and individuals – available for journalists and the public at large. Bales played an integral part in reporting on the so called “HARTleaks”, exposing the Health Advisory & Recovery Team’s (HART) lobby influence on the United Kingdom’s policy making. Together, Bales and I talked about his motivation for the project, global links between disinformation groups, and had a comparative look on the public discourse on COVID-19 in the United Kingdom and Germany.

Fortschreiten »
* Titelbild: Hintergrundbild des Netzwerks von Karam Bales, Counter Desinformation Project. Weiteres Hintergrundbild von Pixabay.com. Bearbeitung durch Gunnar Hamann, Ostprog.de.

Counter Disinformation Project

Der britische Journalist Karam Bales stellt seine Recherchen – zu global vernetzten Desinformationsgruppen und deren Mitglieder – bereit für Journalist:innen und Öffentlichkeit. Bales nahm eine wichtige Rolle in der Berichterstattung zu den sogenannten „HARTleaks“ ein. Mit seiner Arbeit offenbarte er den Einfluss des Health Advisory & Recovery Teams (HART) auf politische Entscheidungen im Vereinigten Königreich. Bales und ich sprachen über seine Motivation für das neue Projekt, globale Verbindungen zwischen Desinformationsgruppen und verglichen die öffentliche Coronadebatte im Vereinigten Königreich mit der in Deutschland vorherrschenden Debatte.

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