By covertly recruiting popular YouTube influencer Abigail Thorn to counter growing opposition to UK gov’t Covid restrictions, psy-ops pros are bringing home the tactics they honed in the Syrian dirty war.
Leaked documents have revealed a state-sponsored influence operation designed to undermine critics of the British government’s coronavirus policies by astroturfing a prominent founder of the BreadTube clique of “anti-fascist” YouTube influencers.
The project aims to conduct psychological profiling on British citizens dissenting against policies such as mandatory vaccination and lockdowns, then leverage the data to establish a YouTube channel that portrays these critics as dangerous “superspreaders” of “disinformation.”
Designed “to curb the influence of pseudoscience material online, with specific emphasis on Coronavirus-related ‘anti-vaxxing’ sentiment,” the operation is run by the UK’s Royal Institution, and dubbed “Challenging Pseudoscience.”
Its top patron is Charles, the Prince of Wales, next in line to the British throne, who recently hit out at supposed “conspiracy theories” surrounding COVID-19 vaccines. The organization received a substantial cash injection in 2020 from the UK government’s Culture Recovery Fund earmarked for video production.
Leaked files obtained by The Grayzone indicate that the Royal Institution has enlisted the services of Valent Projects, a “social change” communications firm founded by a public relations operative previously involved in the UK Foreign Office’s campaign for violent regime change in Syria. Valent has also been sponsored by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), a US intelligence cut-out, for a project aimed at “investigating disinformation.”
Valent’s central role in the operation highlights the trend of information warfare specialists bringing the techniques they honed against targets like the Syrian government back home to the West, where increasingly unpopular governments confront masses of citizens ever-bristling at coronavirus restrictions.
As in Syria, where communications firms like Valent created, trained and instrumentalized media organizations to further regime change objectives, they have covertly recruited a famed British YouTube influencer to lend their carefully calculated messaging campaign an authentic flavor.
According to internal documents, Valent plans to design a “mass appeal social media campaign fronted and owned by prominent social media figure Abigail Thorn,” the founder of Philosophy Tube. Valent’s research on British citizens who reject official policy on COVID-19 “will be used to devise a campaign that utilises YouTuber Abigail Thorn’s existing platform to achieve a measurable cognitive shift in the target audience,” the files state.
Boasting over one million subscribers to her YouTube channel and more than 7000 Patreon supporters, Thorn has established a potent vehicle for any communications campaign. She is also a core member of BreadTube, an assortment of left-branded social media influencers that has attracted intense establishment interest for its purported ability “to pop YouTube’s political bubbles to create space for deradicalisation.”
While top BreadTubers are best known for employing memes and theatrical ploys to counter right-wing narratives, they have also dedicated intense energy to attacking the anti-imperialist left as “tankies” engaged in a secret “red-brown alliance” with right-wing extremists.
In his book, “BreadTube Serves Imperialism: Examining the New Brand of Internet Pseudo-Socialism,” socialist organizer Caleb Maupin likened BreadTube to the “counter-gangs” deployed by British and US intelligence to infiltrate and dismantle insurgent forces from Kenya to Southeast Asia.
BreadTube “speaks in the name of left-wing sounding ideals. In reality, it is likely serving one section of the American ruling elite and the intelligence agencies,” Maupin wrote.
The covert relationship between BreadTube’s Abigail Thorn, Valent Projects, and the Royal Institute appears to validate Maupin’s thesis.
“It does not surprise me at all to find out there is documented evidence that the British Royal Family and an intelligence contractor is bankrolling the work of Abigail Thorn,” Maupin told The Grayzone. “It lines up with everything I have observed about her and the BreadTube trend overall.”
Maupin continued, “BreadTube’s ‘socialism’ is not really socialism, it is mobilizing young liberals to keep dissident elements in line. It’s securing the rule of British and American corporations over the planet by trying to silence those who get in its way.”
The national security establishment’s favorite socialists
Since launching Philosophy Tube in 2013, Abigail Thorn’s YouTube channel boasts over 7000 paying Patreon fans and well over one million YouTube subscribers. By probing complex philosophical and political issues in a highly accessible, engaging manner and deploying elaborate, artisanal audio and visual effects, she has emerged as a social media celebrity. A lengthy profile video produced by the BBC refers to her as “one of the most high-profile transgender figures in the UK.”
Thorn is among the most prominent figures within the loosely knit collective of YouTube influencers known as BreadTube. Inspired by the title of anarchist Peter Kropotkin’s tract, The Conquest of Bread, BreadTube advances a hyper-identitarian, imperialism-friendly interpretation of socialist politics that has earned its creators enthusiastic promotion from establishment interests.
The New York Times, for example, published a lengthy 2019 profile of a young man named Caleb Cain who supposedly “fell down the alt-right rabbit hole” on YouTube. Cain claimed he was de-radicalized through exposure to videos by Thorn and other popular BreadTubers like Natalie Wynn of Contrapoints. During the Trump era, as the Google-owned YouTube implemented a raft of stringent speech codes, it began amplifying BreadTube influencers through its algorithm.
Other popular BreadTube figures include Vaush, a video gamer from Beverly Hills, California named Ian Koshinski. Known for his superficial understanding of Marxism, crude invective against Trump supporters (“they disappear, or we all do”), female high school athletes who complain about being forced to compete against biological males (“sorry you fucking suck, dumb bitch”), and imprisoned journalist Julian Assange (“I want Assange to die in a CIA black site just because it would trigger all the worst people on Twitter”), the self-described “libertarian socialist” has earned the moniker “Vaush Limbaugh” from his critics.
Small brain pro CIA @VaushV advocates for the torture of #JulianAssange in a sad attempt to hurt those who support him.
Please donate to and disseminate @wikileaks documents. pic.twitter.com/vyF0yD6oBa
— Properganda Live (@QuinnPetersen14) December 13, 2021
Then there is Shaun, a British BreadTuber whose recent attack on left-wing political comedian Jimmy Dore’s criticisms of government Covid restrictions contained echoes of the “Challenging Pseudoscience” project prepared for Thorn by intelligence-related outfits. Shaun’s arguments relied heavily on statements by official experts and US government bodies like the FDA and CDC. While Dore has been limited by YouTube’s sweeping speech codes, Shaun’s viral video appears to have benefited from an algorithmic boost.
“All the key signs of infiltration are there,” Caleb Maupin said of BreadTube. “Since when does US mainstream media highlight the work of Marxist revolutionaries? Why are people who seem so unfamiliar with basic elements of socialist ideology suddenly elevated to the position of respected experts by the algorithms? Why do their foreign policy views seem to line up so closely with the US State Department? I have had no doubt they were being covertly supported by powerful entities with goals other than overthrowing capitalism.”
Unlike some fellow BreadTubers, Thorn comes across as amiable and trustworthy, fostering a personal bond with her viewers and regularly publishing thank you notes to patrons, listing them each by name. These qualities have attracted support for Philosophy Tube by both public and private backers.
Thorn’s April 2021 dismantling of the politics of right-wing culture warrior Jordan Peterson has racked up almost two million views and was sponsored by Curiosity Stream, a US media streaming service. The video opens with a black screen disclosing the support provided by the company and claiming Thorn would donate her fee to the feminist campaign group, Sisters Uncut. The video is also emblazoned with YouTube’s “paid promotion” logo.
Yet no such disclaimer referring to support from the Royal Institution can be found on any of her other uploads. And that may be because the Covid campaign was intended to be covert.
Astroturf campaign seeks to achieve ‘measurable cognitive shift’
The “Challenging Pseudoscience” operation designed for Thorn was launched in February 2021 by liberal science journalist Angela Saini. The author of several popular titles and a forthcoming book on “the origins of patriarchy,” she is also part of The Lancet Covid-19 Commission’s Task Force on Global Health Diplomacy.
The commission’s chief, Peter Daszak, a zoologist who serves as president of the US-based NGO known as EcoHealth Alliance, was forced to resign in June over conflict of interest issues.
In the years leading up to the outbreak of Covid-19, Daszak worked extensively on bat coronaviruses and gain of function research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. His organization received tens of millions in funding from the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency, a division “[countering] weapons of mass destruction and improvised threat networks.” In December 2019, Daszak warned that coronaviruses can “get into human cells,” one can “manipulate them in the lab pretty easily,” and “you can’t vaccinate against them.”
The host of Saini’s project, the Royal Institute, was founded in 1799 by British scientists of the day “with the aim of introducing new technologies and teaching science to the general public.” Landed gentry and royalty have always occupied the Institution’s highest levels. Queen Elizabeth II’s cousin, Field Marshal Prince Edward, the Duke of Kent, has served as president since 1976.
The files indicate that the Royal Institution enlisted the services of Valent Projects, a communications firm “[working] with clients in the UK and all over the world to counter disinformation and strengthen the bonds between people.”
Valent was founded by Amil Khan, a former Reuters and BBC reporter who officially left journalism “to help good causes navigate the new information landscape.”
From February, Valent Projects proposed a “two-phase” project to “develop an understanding of the psychological drivers behind the generation and spread of anti-vaxxer narratives.” It planned to exploit this data “to develop and test public messaging responses.”
The findings would “inform other programming by Challenging Pseudoscience…as well as other stakeholders including the science community and concerned governments and public health bodies.”
In the campaign’s first phase, extensive online interviews were to be conducted, along with “ethnographic research” to secure “comprehensive understanding of the key online audiences driving anti-vaxxing mis/disinformation around the Coronavirus pandemic.”
Valent Projects then planned to “draw together insights” from these findings, developing “comprehensive audience profiles” – including “demographic information” – to design a “mass appeal social media campaign fronted and owned by prominent social media figure Abigail Thorn,” who runs online channel Philosophy Tube.
Valent indicated its intent to exploit Philosophy Tube’s sizable platform to “achieve a measurable cognitive shift [emphasis added] in the target audience.”
Reaching the intended viewers was forecast to be a significant task in itself, however. Valent noted most Philosophy Tube viewers are within the 18 to 35 age range, but “existing research” suggested the “most prolific consumers of pseudoscience material” were over the age of 45.
The firm felt the “best topic to address this issue is probably along the lines of ‘the thing about expertise’ [sic].” Fittingly, in August 2020 Thorn uploaded a video, “Who’s afraid of the experts?” Featuring comedian Adam Conover of the popular show, “Adam Ruins Everything,” the 45 minute-long defense of the scientific consensus on the HIV/AIDS debate is the first result in any search for the term “vaccine” on Philosophy Tube’s channel.
The leaked documents thus expose what had long suspected by critics of BreadTube: the popular social media collective has been instrumentalized by powerful interests with connections to Western intelligence agencies.
An astroturfed information warfare campaign hiding in plain sight
Multiple requests for comment from The Grayzone to Abigail Thorn’s agent and Angela Saini have gone unanswered.
When quizzed about the leaked files on Twitter, Valent Projects CEO Amil Khan flew into a rage, angrily asserting they were “obtained through hacking and then doctored,” in the manner of “classic doxing,” and threatened legal action against this journalist for publicizing them.
Khan later pumped out a series of tweets aimed at controlling the damage of his imminent exposure. In one, he falsely claimed that a co-author of this piece would publish their reporting in “Russian state affiliated media.”
Russian info ops arent what they used to be. Someone going by the name @KitKlarenberg is about to publish an article in [insert Russian state-affiliated media] accusing me of being a terrorist propandist etc etc. So far, so yawn. Heres a short #thread on why I expected better 1/:
— Amil Khan (@Londonstani) December 17, 2021
Yet when challenged about his claim of doctoring, Khan did not respond.
Subsequent requests for clarity on which elements of the documents were maliciously altered and how that might have taken place have also gone unanswered. But evidence of the secret project’s existence was hiding in plain sight.
For example, Valent Projects lists the Royal Institution on its website as a client. An accompanying writeup notes it “developed and implemented a data-led behaviour change campaign [emphasis added] aimed at understanding and working with the psychological drivers behind anti-vaxer sentiment in the UK” for the organization.
Similarly, a post on the company’s official LinkedIn page refers to an “analysis of tens of thousands of UK-based social media users “posting/sharing anti-vax content online” it conducted for Countering Pseudoscience, which would “be used to inform ethnographic research designed to understand ‘why’ people hold these views.” In other words, a specific programming strand outlined in the documents.
Moreover, none other than Abigail Thorn was guest-of-honor at Challenging Pseudoscience’s launch event in February, “Vaccines: Warriors and Worriers,” which featured a debate on “how vaccines work, why people are skeptical despite the evidence, and how disinformation about vaccines spreads online.”
Also on the event’s panel were an immunologist named Zania Stamataki and Marianna Spring, the BBC’s first “specialist disinformation reporter.” She has repeatedly perpetuated falsehoods about the size of anti-lockdown protests in 2020 and nature of their participants. In a bizarre experiment, she furthermore personally set up numerous “fake troll” accounts on assorted online platforms that “engaged” with “misogynistic” content, allegedly for academic purposes.
In May, Thorn published a characteristically ornate video, “Ignorance & Censorship,” which touched on the topic of “disinformation” and vaccines. The next month, Challenging Pseudoscience convened a similarly named panel discussion, “Misinformation or Censorship.”
Then, the newly-launched Challenging Pseudoscience podcast shared two prior Royal Institution debates – the aforementioned Vaccines: Warriors and worriers, and “Disinformation and how to counter it,” which featured none other than Amil Khan as a speaker. It would be entirely unsurprising if this deluge was a coordinated effort.
A wide-ranging, long-running, cross-platform propaganda campaign involving multiple actors requires substantial resources. Until 2020, however, the Royal Institution struggled financially despite its royal patronage and elite trustees.
The organization has been forced to rent out its grand central London headquarters for conferences, corporate bashes and weddings. To plug a multimillion pound budget deficit in late 2015, the Royal Institution auctioned off treasured first editions of works by Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton and other eminent scientists. The fire sale prompted the BBC to ask whether the organization was on the verge of collapse.
Miraculously though, in October 2020, the Institution received hundreds of thousands of pounds from the UK government’s £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund “to help face the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic and ensure it has a sustainable future.”
An accompanying press release noted the Royal Institution had over the course of the pandemic “[developed] a successful programme of weekly science talks online” broadcast via its “well-established” YouTube channel, which today boasts 1.11 million subscribers. The cash injection would “increase the number of livestreamed science talks” hosted by the organization, and help it develop “new digital content.”
Valent Projects staffer Hamish Falconer has disclosed that the “exciting” Challenging Pseudoscience campaign has also received “generous support” from the Open Society Foundations of CIA-adjacent billionaire George Soros.
As the Washington Post’s David Ignatius reported in 1991, Soros was at the heart of a network of “overt operators” helping US intelligence carry out “spyless coups” against former Soviet satellite states.
In July 2021, Soros teamed up with fellow billionaire Bill Gates to purchase a UK-based Covid-19 test developer for $41 million.
Three months later, as Alex Rubinstein documented for The Grayzone, Soros partnered with tech oligarch Reid Hoffmann to found Good Information Inc, a social media censorship operation marketed under the aegis of “countering disinformation.”
Hamish is the son of Charlie Falconer, a longtime friend and former roommate of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. Following Blair’s May 1997 election victory, Falconer senior was elevated to the unelected House of Lords, and served in a series of high-ranking government posts throughout his pal’s tenure.
Along the way, he applied “huge pressure” to Attorney General Lord Goldsmith to change his view that invading Iraq would be illegal. His intervention may have played a decisive role in greenlighting the war of aggression.
Valent founder “embedded into terrorist organizations,” ran Syria psy-ops for armed extremists
Hamish Falconer’s hiring at Valent Projects in March 2021 highlights the firm’s deep ties to the UK’s intelligence apparatus. At the time, he was ostensibly on leave from the UK Foreign Office.
Khan trumpeted Falconer’s hire on LinkedIn, declaring that “he brings the action end to our work – experimenting and innovating with digital influence for good.” Having met in Pakistan “over a decade ago,” the pair “have not stopped talking and comparing notes since.”
Falconer’s spartan online résumé sheds little light on his professional history, noting only a spell at the UK government’s Department for International Development, followed by a seven-month gap, before he joined the Foreign Office as a ‘Diplomat’ until August 2020.
No detail is offered either on where Falconer has been posted, or what his role entailed at any point. He is a graduate of Yale University’s Maurice R. Greenberg World Fellows Program, named for the AIG founder who nearly became CIA director. The Greenberg fellows program identifies and grooms prospective future influencers, including no shortage of US-backed would-be coup leaders. Among the most famous alumni of the program is jailed Russian opposition figure Alexey Navalny.
This is a tactic the CIA tried unsuccessfully in Venezuela.
Incidentally, both Leonid Volkov and Navalny were fellows at Yale’s Maurice “Hank” Greenberg program.
— Max Blumenthal (@MaxBlumenthal) February 2, 2021
The Greenberg program’s profile of Falconer states, “he has led the Foreign Office’s Terrorism Response Team, UK efforts to start a peace process in Afghanistan and served in Pakistan and South Sudan,” and served a stint at the National Crime Agency – London’s equivalent of the FBI.
Counter-terror is not a stated Foreign Office purview, but just one of “three core areas of focus” for the UK foreign intelligence service MI6. It may just be a coincidence the agency’s spies typically pose as ‘diplomats’ overseas.
By contrast, Khan’s activities between December 2008, when he left his position as ‘hostile environments reporter’ for the BBC, and October 2017, when he joined elite UK national security think tank Chatham House as an ‘associate fellow’ – the next entry on his public CV – can be pieced together with much greater certitude, but still only approximately.
A leaked document indicates that he first crossed paths with Falconer while managing a ‘countering violent extremism’ propaganda campaign for the UK government in Islamabad. The file relates to a Foreign Office funded effort to train “articulate Syrian armed and civilian grassroots opposition entities,” and promote them to “Syrian and international audiences” as a credible alternative to the government of Bashar al-Assad.
The project was delivered by ARK, a shadowy intelligence contractor founded by the likely MI6 operative, Alistair Harris, which has raked in innumerable lucrative contracts from waging covert information warfare operations on behalf of the UK government.
Khan was heavily involved in ARK’s Syrian efforts. Another leaked file, outlining some of the company’s work inside Syria shows that it oversaw a “rebranding” of the CIA-armed Free Syrian Army to portray it as a moderate, secular force unconnected to the hardcore jihadist factions that dominated the armed opposition. Khan is named as one of three operatives managing the media office of the parallel Syrian National Coalition government controlled by London through intelligence cutouts like ARK.
This work placed Khan in extremely close quarters with members of violent ‘rebel’ factions implicated in hideous crimes against humanity. That he “[provided] political and media support to opposition political and military groups” in Syria has been openly confirmed. A scathing internal Whitehall review of the Foreign Office’s information warfare operations in the country concluded they were “poorly planned, probably illegal, and cost lives.”
It wasn’t the first time Khan been in such murderous company. At some point after leaving ARK in August 2014, he joined InCoStrat, another contractor that conducted destabilizing psy-ops on the UK government’s behalf throughout the Syrian crisis. InCoStrat delivered “strategic communications support” to a variety of armed groups on-the-ground, including the notoriously brutal, Saudi-backed militia known as Jaysh al-Islam.
Khan also played a central role in this dubious initiative. In a document discussing its ability to “[develop] contacts in Arabic-speaking conflict affected states,” InCoStrat bragged how, “in his previous career as a journalist,” Khan “established relationships with, and embedded himself into terrorist organizations in the UK and the Middle East,” gaining “unique insight into their narratives, communication methods, recruitment processes and management of networks” as a result.
InCoStrat was founded by ex-Foreign Office political officer Emma Winberg and UK military intelligence journeyman Paul Tilley, a former director of Strategic Communications for the UK Ministry of Defence in the Middle East and North Africa. Winberg left to join Mayday Rescue, parent ‘charity’ of the fraudulent humanitarian group known as the White Helmets. She later married its founder, James Le Mesurier, who died in mysterious circumstances in 2019 after damaging revelations of financial corruption came to light.
A broad landscape of state-backed Covid propaganda ops
It’s probable the “Countering Pseudoscience” project is just one part of a wider landscape of online astroturf initiatives designed to restore cratering public trust in authorities around Covid policy.
Valent Projects has also conducted work for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a neoconservative think tank, researching “violent actors using the ‘dark web’ to mobilise recruits and threaten public figures in Europe.” This initiative was likely also aimed at countering lockdown opposition.
Back in April 2020, Khan appeared on a panel discussion convened by the organization, “Countering Disinformation in a Time of COVID19.”
At the start of December, the Institute released a brief report, “Between conspiracy and extremism: A long COVID threat?”, which attempted to frame the “radicalization” of anti-lockdown protesters as a terrorist threat. What input Khan may have had in this publication was unclear.
Valent Projects is just one of an array of companies that have brought psy-ops techniques honed in Syria and other theaters of Western information warfare back home with them, like soldiers returning from battlefields marketing their deadly skills to private security and intelligence firms. And Abigail Thorn is just one YouTuber, at a time when the British state is known to be maliciously recruiting digital personalities to further its interests across the globe.
For example, Foreign Office contractor Zinc Network maintains a clandestine nexus of Russian-speaking social media influencers throughout the former Soviet Union, to promote “media integrity, democratic values [and] complex social issues,” a campaign so intensive its relationship with these individuals necessitates “daily management.” This squadron of undercover psy-ops warriors are supported by an expert “in-house team of Russian speaking producers, researchers and digital growth strategists” in London, helping them create, edit and promote their output.
Coincidentally, Zinc has been engaged in efforts since the onset of the pandemic to concoct a link between extremist activities and anti-lockdown, vaccine hesitant views. It has also published research on how to best market a test-and-trace app to UK citizens, “as part of a broader research project on public understanding of and support for Artificial Intelligence.”
It is simply inconceivable that similar operations have not been enacted elsewhere in the world, or that this phenomenon is exclusive to the UK. Further, it is impossible to know if the next slick viral video countering grassroots dissent of an official narrative is state or quasi-state propaganda, cleverly crafted to induce a “cognitive shift” in viewers, in which the star of the online show is effectively an intelligence asset rattling off a script drawn up by full-time spooks.
Kit Klarenberg is an investigative journalist exploring the role of intelligence services in shaping politics and perceptions.
The editor-in-chief of The Grayzone, Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and the author of several books, including best-selling Republican Gomorrah, Goliath, The Fifty One Day War, and The Management of Savagery. He has produced print articles for an array of publications, many video reports, and several documentaries, including Killing Gaza. Blumenthal founded The Grayzone in 2015 to shine a journalistic light on America’s state of perpetual war and its dangerous domestic repercussions.