Stephen Donnolly has confirmed, in response to a parliamentary question by Deputy Carol Nolan, that the anti-disinformation firm Kinzen is no longer working with the Department of Health. Neither Donnolly nor the HSE, which was responding to a similar PQ, explained why the “partnership” with Kinzen had ended. Donnolly’s response to Deputy Nolan also noted that the “partnership with Kinzen” was procured “outside of normal tendering processing” due to the “extreme urgency” of the situation
Whilst we do not know why the partnership ended, we do know it ended on Friday the 8th of October, four days after Gript published a story showing that the HSE misinformation programme, which used data provided by Kinzen, had grossly overstepped its bounds, either deliberately or negligently. We’ve reached out to the HSE, the Department of Health, and Kinzen themselves, with questions about why, and how, the partnership ended but we have, so far, received no responses.
Donnolly says that Department of Health paid Kinzen 78,000 to “monitor the online dissemination of mis and disinformation relating to COVID-19 and COVID-Vaccines.” However, Gript has seen a number of the reports Kinzen made to the Department of Health, and it does not seem to be the case that those reports were limited to vaccine mis and disinformation.
The image above is from a “Vaccination Disinformation Digest”, sent to the Department of Health by Kinzen in late February. As can be seen in the image Kinzen appears to have been actively monitoring both “COVID-sekptic [sic]” and “anti-lockdown commentators.” The Gript article referenced, which I wrote and which you can read HERE, does not relate to the HSE, vaccine rollouts, or anything more than tangentially related to Covid-19 mis or disinformation. Rather it was an expose of the internal communications of ISAG, the zero-covid advocacy group.
There are two issues with the snippet of the digest shown in the image above. One is that it contains a factual error – the article did not say that ISAG “was following the advice in Saul Alinsky’s book Rules for Radicals,” but rather that the group had been instructed to “review and internalise” the advice laid out within the book. At no point did we claim that ISAG had actually acted upon that advice, largely as the instruction to do so had only been made very shortly before we broke our first story on ISAG. This may seen like a minor error, but it was one that should have been immediately obvious when the piece was read and if your specialty is countering misinformation one would hope you wouldn’t make even minor errors, particularly when those failures could go on to influence the behavior of state, or state-backed, entities.
The second issue relates to the line that Alinsky’s work “has long been a symbol of fear in Anglosphere far-right groups.” It may be fair to say that Alinsky’s work is unpopular with far-right groups, although “symbol of fear” is an overly flowery and largely nonsensical term, but Alinsky’s work has been both widely criticised, and lauded, by those on the right, centrists, and those on the left and far-left. Anarchist groups, for instance, tend to dislike the work due to Alinsky’s focus on hierarchies and forcing organic, local organisations under the control of an “expert.”
In this instance to refer purely to the opinions of far-right groups gives a distorted image of the work, and its critics, which acts to delegitimise those critics and so limit the impact of the story. It may not be wrong to say far-right groups don’t like him, although I would suspect that a surprising number of far-right groups think Alinsky was fundamentally right about the need for social conflict, but it is very much incomplete. It could even be argued that the framing of that point indicates that Kinzen has some internal biases which are influencing their output.
That point leads to one of the major concerns with companies like Kinzen, although it should be noted that Kinzen is a very small fish in that particular ocean. These companies are being given increasing amounts of influence over public discourse, but they have no obligation to explain to the public what they are doing or to act in a transparent manner, as can be seen in Kinzen’s repeated failures to answer any questions we have asked them about their work.
These means that it can be immensely difficult, if not practically impossible, to gather enough information to show that any biases which may be influencing Kinzen’s work, be they political, ideological, or personal, are both real and are impacting on the companies output.
In certain instances, and with certain companies, we may be able to highlight potential conflicts of interest or sources of bias which are obvious, such as the marriage of Aine Kerr, one of Kinzen’s three co-founders, to Labour TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, but we simply don’t know enough about the internal workings of these organisations to know what biases influence them and if they have taken the necessary steps to mitigate those biases.
These companies function as black boxes, producing work which is held up as objective despite the lack of compelling evidence that that is an accurate assessment, and there are legitimate questions to be asked as to how we can be sure that the interests of these companies align with the interests of the public.