Category Archives: Censorship

Zuckerberg’s So-Called Shift Toward Privacy

Cardboard cutouts of Zuckerberg

Cardboard cutouts of Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, were placed outside the Capitol by protesters when he testified there in April 2018. Credit Saul Loeb/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Opinion: Zeynep Tufekci NYT

I was tempted to roll my eyes on Wednesday when Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, posted a manifesto outlining his plan to make social networking more “privacy-focused” and less about the public disclosure of information.

Why take seriously someone who has repeatedly promised — but seldom delivered — improvements to Facebook’s privacy practices? This is a company, after all, that signed a consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission agreeing to improve how it handles the personal information of its users, after federal regulators filed charges against it for deceiving consumers about their privacy. That was about seven years ago, and it has been one scandal after another since.

But I don’t believe in cynicism: Things can get better if we want them to — through regulatory oversight and political pressure. That said, I also don’t believe in being a sucker. So I read Mr. Zuckerberg’s plan with a keen eye on distinguishing meaningful changes from mere platitudes and evasions.

The platitudes were there, as I expected, but the evasions were worse than I anticipated: The plan, in effect, is to entrench Facebook’s interests while sidestepping all the important issues.

Here are four pressing questions about privacy that Mr. Zuckerberg conspicuously did not address: Will Facebook stop collecting data about people’s browsing behavior, which it does extensively? Will it stop purchasing information from data brokers who collect or “scrape” vast amounts of data about billions of people, often including information related to our health and finances? Will it stop creating “shadow profiles” — collections of data about people who aren’t even on Facebook? And most important: Will it change its fundamental business model, which is based on charging advertisers to take advantage of this widespread surveillance to “micro-target” consumers?

Until Mr. Zuckerberg gives us satisfying answers to those questions, any effort to make Facebook truly “privacy-focused” is sure to disappoint.

Most of Mr. Zuckerberg’s post was devoted to acknowledging familiar realities about social media and citing familiar solutions. He noted that Facebook’s users don’t want to be pushed to be so public; they mostly want to keep in touch with people close to them, often using several of the company’s other services: Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger. He also noted that users are hungry for less permanent communication features devised by other companies. So Facebook will continue to emulate Snapchat’s ephemeral messaging.

To be fair, there were some genuinely new announcements. For instance, Mr. Zuckerberg said that the company would expand end-to-end encryption of messaging, which prevents Facebook — or anyone other than the participants in a conversation — from seeing the content of messages. I’m certainly in favor of messaging privacy: It is a cornerstone of the effort to push back against the cloud of surveillance that has descended over the globe.

But what we really need — and it is not clear what Facebook has in mind — is privacy for true person-to-person messaging apps, not messaging apps that also allow for secure mass messaging.

At the moment, critics can (and have) held Facebook accountable for its failure to adequately moderate the content it disseminates — allowing for hate speech, vaccine misinformation, fake news and so on. Once end-to-end encryption is put in place, Facebook can wash its hands of the content. We don’t want to end up with all the same problems we now have with viral content online — only with less visibility and nobody to hold responsible for it.

It’s also worth noting that encrypted messaging, in addition to releasing Facebook from the obligation to moderate content, wouldn’t interfere with the surveillance that Facebook conducts for the benefit of advertisers. As Mr. Zuckerberg admitted in an interview after he posted his plan, Facebook isn’t “really using the content of messages to target ads today anyway.” In other words, he is happy to bolster privacy when doing so would decrease Facebook’s responsibilities, but not when doing so would decrease its advertising revenue.

Another point that Mr. Zuckerberg emphasized in his post was his intention to make Facebook’s messaging platforms, Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram, “interoperable.” He described this decision as part of his “privacy-focused vision,” though it is not clear how doing so — which would presumably involve sharing user data — would serve privacy interests.

Merging those apps just might, however, serve Facebook’s interest in avoiding antitrust remedies. Just as regulators are realizing that allowing Facebook to gobble up all its competitors (including WhatsApp and Instagram) may have been a mistake, Mr. Zuckerberg decides to scramble the eggs to make them harder to separate into independent entities. What a coincidence.

In short, the few genuinely new steps that Mr. Zuckerberg announced on Wednesday seem all too conveniently aligned with Facebook’s needs, whether they concern government regulation, public scandal or profitability. This supposed shift toward a “privacy-focused vision” looks more to me like shrewd competitive positioning, dressed up in privacy rhetoric.

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, likes to say that the company’s problem is that it has been “way too idealistic.” I think the problem is the invasive way it makes its money and its lack of meaningful oversight. Until those things change, I don’t expect any shift by the company toward privacy to matter much.

Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep) is an associate professor at the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina, the author of “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest” and a contributing opinion writer.

Zeynap’s page: The Internet, technology, politics and society

© 2019 The New York Times Company

Comment: Hoping that regulation of Facebook will happen with this President and Congress is in vain. The right wing will not let it happen so that capitalism and money-making is unfettered. The left wing believe in their meritocracy, that they know better than the rest of us what is fake and what is truth. They do not, and thereby lies the impasse. Big money finances both sides.

 

How Israel spies meddle in elections and hack activists with impunity

Hackers for sale AP_17033705484928_edited

Need an Election Meddled With or an Activist Doxxed? Call on These Israeli Spies

Israel’s special relationship with the United States has given it a free pass for atrocities in Gaza. But, beyond this, in an era of legal gray zones in the area of online disinformation operations, the country’s private spy community has been given carte blanche to covertly meddle in a host of nations.

By Alexander Rubinstein Mint Press News

Private Israeli spy companies have been meddling in other countries, including their elections, at previously unknown levels. The private intelligence firm Psy-Group went to great lengths to pitch the Trump presidential campaign on its services and nakedly meddled in a small-town California election, according to a new report published in the latest issue of The New Yorker. Meanwhile, a number of people associated with lawsuits against NSO Group, infamous for its Pegasus spyware, have become targets of another spying group, according to an AP exclusive.

Hacking and meddling: those are two of the terms underpinning allegations against Russia that have captivated American audiences and lawmakers alike for the past two years. But while Russian hacking has not been conclusively linked to the leak of emails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) servers, nor is there any evidence, or indictments, that the “Russian troll farm” operated by the private Internet Research Agency is secretly run by the Kremlin, there is ample evidence that bands of self-styled spies for hire have used such tactics to undermine American institutions.

Israel’s special relationship with the United States has given it a free pass for atrocities in Gaza. But, beyond this, in an era of legal gray zones in the area of online disinformation operations, the country’s private spy community — which is comprised mostly of former Mossad and former military intelligence officers — has also been given carte blanche to covertly meddle and engage in black-ops missions in a host of nations.

Psy-Group, which is legally based in Cyprus, was stacked with former Israeli intelligence agents. The company expanded on the tactics pioneered by Terrogence, the first major private Israeli spying company, which disrupted alleged terrorist networks with fake online personas.
But Terrogence’s success inspired new companies, staffed similarly with former Mossad agents, that were “less risk-averse,” according to The New Yorker. Such companies include Black Cube, a firm that boasts about its ties to Mossad and Israeli military intelligence and recently worked on behalf of serial sexual abuser and movie mogul Harvey Weinstein to spy on his accusers. Black Cube also compiled dossiers of “dirt” on Obama officials who had worked on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or Iran Nuclear Deal) and their spouses, on behalf of President Donald Trump’s aides in order to undermine the agreement.
Terrogence’s Vice President for Business and Development, Royi Burstien, wanted to use the fake online personas, or avatars, in situations beyond counter-terrorism, including on behalf of commercial clients. But after less than a year at the company, with it refusing to budge on taking on such clients, Burstien went back to join Israel’s military intelligence. Come 2014, he founded Psy-Group alongside owner Joel Zamel, an Australian native whose father made a fortune in mining.
Before it closed, Psy-Group used oppositional research, doxxing, sockpuppet accounts, fake companies and think tanks, and “honey traps” to secure its objectives. Honey traps refer to the use of sexually attractive agents to butter up sources so they release information.

Pitching the Trump Team

In early 2016, Rick Gates, a deputy to former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, was put in touch with Psy-Group, prompting Burstien to draft a plan for a covert influence campaign to promote Trump’s candidacy, counter other Republican challengers, and furnish opposition research on Hillary Clinton.

In May 2016, Zamel emailed GOP heavyweight Newt Gingrich, telling him that he could provide the Trump campaign with powerful social media tools. Gingrich forwarded the email to Jared Kushner. The Trump campaign says it did not hire the company then, either. But Zamel was resolute, and wound up getting a meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and Blackwater founder Erik Prince at Trump Tower. That pitch also failed, according to the parties involved.

However, George Nader — a Lebanese American, consultant to Erik Prince, and adviser to United Arab Emirates Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan — sings a different tune. Nader was at the Trump Tower meeting with Prince, Zamel and Trump Jr. A spokesperson for Nader told The New Yorker “that [Zamel] had conducted a secret campaign that had been influential in Trump’s victory.”

“Here’s the work that we did to help get Trump elected,” Zamel allegedly told Nader.

Nader is a major negotiator for Washington and Israel on Middle East affairs. He is also convicted of sexually abusing 10 boys in the Czech Republic and on child pornography charges in Virginia — charges that were put under seal “due to the extremely sensitive nature of Mr. Nader’s work in the Middle East.”

Black Cube | Israel Hackers

A Psy-Group presentation, which some employees called the “If we had done it” slide deck, “appeared similar” to the document Nader saw that allegedly detailed Psy-Group’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

After Nader and Zamel fell into the crosshairs of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating allegations of collusion between members of the Trump campaign and officials of the Russian Federation, the FBI came knocking at Psy-Group’s door. “The FBI seemed genuinely surprised that this shit [we were doing] wasn’t illegal,” a former Psy-Group employee told The New Yorker.

Before all that, Psy-Group also reportedly pitched the U.S. State Department and had a partnership with the Trump campaign’s main social media advisor — Cambridge Analytica, the company that rocked Facebook with one of its biggest scandals to date after it harvested 50 million Facebook users’ private information without permission to improve its political ad targeting.

Currently, Psy-Group’s only verifiable success with the administration is through Elliot Abrams, who is listed on Psy-Group’s board of directors and was recently appointed by the Trump administration as Special Envoy for Venezuela to oversee its coup policy. Abrams is also on the Advisory Council of Wikistrat, another company owned by Zamel that is in Mueller’s crosshairs.

Small-Town Election Meddling

While it is in question whether Psy-Group meddled in the 2016 presidential elections, it certainly did in a small town’s hospital board election, giving the corrupt doctor in charge of a local hospital in Tulare enough covert influence tools to conduct a regime-change operation in a small- to medium-sized nation.

In 2014, the doctor, Yorai Benzeevi, bragged that the hospital could generate $9 million a year in revenue on top of his $225,000 a month of income from it. When Benzeevi was eventually ousted, it was discovered that he had run the facility into more than $36 million in debt, according to The New Yorker.

Benzevi maintained his hold on the hospital through a sympathetic board, but only one member needed to be unseated to turn the tide. A young activist, Alex Gutiérrez, asked his mother, Senovia, to run against Benzeevi’s main backer. When she did, shady websites started popping up: TulareLeaks.com, TulareSpeaks.com, DrainTulareSwamp.com. The websites “directed visitors to articles that smeared Senovia Gutiérrez,” a Mexican immigrant who had been working full-time since she was 16 but eventually earned a bachelor’s degree and became a social worker.

While Senovia and her son were seeking small contributions from their neighbors, Benzeevi was in Israel meeting with Psy-Group to listen to proposals on how to take them down. Quickly, fake online personas, or “sock puppet” accounts posing as residents, smeared Senovia on social media, questioned whether she was an American citizen, and accused her of taking bribes.

On one occasion, a blond woman knocked on Senovia’s door. Her other son, Richard, answered it and was then given an envelope. Across the street, a man was standing around and taking photographs. Later, he returned taking more photographs. Those pictures started appearing on DrainTulareSwamp.com in a post that asked ““Who Is Pulling Senovia’s Strings?”

Insinuating that she had taken a bribe, the post said “the public should be watching … Senovia closely. This past week a very expensive black car was seen parked in front of the home of Mrs. Senovia [sic] in addition to several other unidentified cars.” Then flyers directing people to visit TulareSpeaks.com started popping up on door handles in the town.

PsyGroup paid a small businessman who distributes fliers in cash under a pseudonym.

And on the eve of the election, Senovia’s son Alex saw his house burn down. While he thought it was related to the election, the local fire department found no evidence of arson and a former Psy-Group official told The New Yorker he “never initiated any physical fire on any project whatsoever.”

Ultimately, the campaign backfired, as residents believed Senovia was being harassed, leading her to a landslide victory. Psy-Group reportedly billed Benzeevi a mere $230,000 for these services.

Covert on Campus

While Psy-Group’s meddling in small-town politics may have backfired, its interference with university politics was likely more effective. Psy-Group worked on behalf of wealthy Jewish American donors in New York, conducting a campaign called Project Butterfly to “destabilize and disrupt anti-Israel movements from within.”

They were referring to pro-Boycott, DIvestment and Sanction (BDS) groups on 10 college campuses. The BDS movement seeks to economically pressure Israel into ending its apartheid policies and respecting Palestinian human rights.

Psy-Group would compile dossiers on activists and lecturers, scouring the dark web, social media, and other resources for dirt. Then, they would “dox” their targets — releasing personally identifiable information about them to the world. Psy-Group was given research on BDS targets by the neoconservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank. Meanwhile, a former deputy director of Mossad was recruited to help with the project, and a former national security advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was made an advisor.

Project Butterfly seems to operate similarly to the more widely known Canary Mission, which compiles blacklists of BDS activists and doxxes them online. In late 2018, the Canary Mission was revealed to be bankrolled by at least two Jewish-American charities.

Hacking Away

Psy-Group closed shop in 2018 after it fell into Mueller’s crosshairs. But, another shady Israeli company — similarly based out of Cyprus and with a similar name — continues to conduct its business. The outfit, called NSO Group, manufactures a hacking tool called Pegasus, which gives hackers the ability to look at text messages, detect calls, collect passwords, pinpoint GPS locations, and suck up information from applications like Gmail, Facebook, Skype, WhatsApp and more.

NSO Group hawks its product to governments supposedly for counter-terrorism purposes, but more often than not the victims of Pegasus spyware turn out to be journalists and human rights workers.

Alaa Mahajna | NSO Group

NSO lets its clients hack 10 Android phones for $650,000 in addition to a $500,000 installation fee. The company also cuts deals with governments, allowing them to hack 100 phones for just $800,000, according to internal documents viewed by The New York Times. Commercial proposals for Pegasus tout its ability to gain “unlimited access to a target’s mobile devices” and that it “leaves no traces whatsoever.”

NSO Group’s spyware is suspected to have been used in Israel, Turkey, Thailand, Qatar, Kenya, Uzbekistan, Mozambique, Morocco, Yemen, Hungary, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Bahrain. NSO also sold Pegasus to Panama in 2015.

Pegasus | Israel hackers

The following year, it was revealed that Pegasus was used to target a Saudi national and employee of Amnesty International. It was also used to spy on a human-rights activist in the UAE named Ahmed Mansoor, who was the target of a spear phishing campaign promising him details on torture committed in the country. Emirati officials sought to spy on the Saudi prince in charge of the monarchy’s National Guard and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, as well as the Qataris — and did so.

At one point, when they were offered a more expensive deal, the Emiratis wanted proof of product. So NSO Group hacked the editor of a London-based Arab newspaper, Abdulaziz Alkhamis, whose cell phone call recordings were forwarded to the UAE officials.

Because the Israeli government considers Pegasus a weapon, the NSO Group needed the approval of the Israeli Defense Ministry in order to sell it to the Emirates, a lawsuit against NSO Group notes.

Pegasus spyware was also used by the Saudis to spy on slain columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

And another journalist in Mexico, as well as human-rights activists, have also become targets of NSO Group’s surveillance technology. In 2017, when a coalition formed to investigate the 2014 disappearance of 43 students in Ayotzinapa, Mexico, its members started receiving spear phishing messages that, if clicked, would install Pegasus on their phones.

Hiring a spy team to smear hacker detractors

These revelations have spawned a number of lawsuits against NSO Group. But since then, six people associated with the litigation have found themselves the target of spies who appear to be with Black Cube, despite previous denials by Black Cube. The only identified individual who participated in the campaign has previous ties to the company. He was, however, “one of many.”

Black Cube has been described by people familiar with its work as the “almost privatized wing of Mossad,” and it is staffed, like NSO Group and Psy-Group, with ex-agents.

Earlier this year, two cybersecurity researchers were lured by agents into meetings at luxury hotels in an effort to discredit their research on NSO Group. Then, on Monday, AP revealed the existence of four other victims, three of whom were lawyers working on lawsuits against NSO, in addition to a journalist based in London who has been writing about the cases.

AP Exclusive: Spy exposed in NYC is one of many

“The targets told the AP that the covert agents tried to goad them into making racist and anti-Israel remarks or revealing sensitive information about their work in connection with the lawsuits,” the outlet reports.

As AP was “preparing to publish” its story, doctored and de-contextualized footage of two of the targets — the journalist and one of the lawyers — meeting with undercover agents was broadcast on Israeli television. Almost comically, if not so tragically, that report claimed the lawsuits against NSO Group were part of a “smear campaign” against the private spy shop.

Top Photo | An Israeli student attending a class how to investigate a computer network that has been hacked in Beit Shemesh, Israel. In its quest to become a world leader in cybersecurity and technology, Israel invests heavily in tech education. Daniel Estrin | AP

Alexander Rubinstein is a staff writer for MintPress News based in Washington, DC. He reports on police, prisons and protests in the United States and the United States’ policing of the world. He previously reported for RT and Sputnik News

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How a NeoCon-Backed “Fact Checker” Plans to Wage War on Independent Media

Newsguard Exposed

As Newsguard’s project advances, it will soon become almost impossible to avoid this neocon-approved news site’s ranking systems on any technological device sold in the United States.

Soon after the social media “purge” of independent media sites and pages this past October, a top neoconservative insider — Jamie Fly — was caught stating that the mass deletion of anti-establishment and anti-war pages on Facebook and Twitter was “just the beginning” of a concerted effort by the U.S. government and powerful corporations to silence online dissent within the United States and beyond.

While a few, relatively uneventful months in the online news sphere have come and gone since Fly made this ominous warning, it appears that the neoconservatives and other standard bearers of the military-industrial complex and the U.S. oligarchy are now poised to let loose their latest digital offensive against independent media outlets that seek to expose wrongdoing in both the private and public sectors.

As MintPress News Editor-in-Chief Mnar Muhawesh recently wrote, MintPress was informed that it was under review by an organization called Newsguard Technologies, which described itself to MintPress as simply a “news rating agency” and asked Muhawesh to comment on a series of allegations, several of which were blatantly untrue. However, further examination of this organization reveals that it is funded by and deeply connected to the U.S. government, neo-conservatives, and powerful monied interests, all of whom have been working overtime since the 2016 election to silence dissent to American forever-wars and corporate-led oligarchy.

More troubling still, Newsguard — by virtue of its deep connections to government and Silicon Valley — is lobbying to have its rankings of news sites installed by default on computers in U.S. public libraries, schools, and universities as well as on all smartphones and computers sold in the United States.

In other words, as Newsguard’s project advances, it will soon become almost impossible to avoid this neocon-approved news site’s ranking systems on any technological device sold in the United States. Worse still, if its efforts to quash dissenting voices in the U.S. are successful, Newsguard promises that its next move will be to take its system global.

Red light, green light . . .

Newsguard has received considerable attention in the mainstream media of late, having been the subject of a slew of articles in the Washington Post, the Hill, the Boston Globe, Politico, Bloomberg, Wired, and many others just over the past few months. Those articles portray Newsguard as using “old-school journalism” to fight “fake news” through its reliance on nine criteria allegedly intended to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to online news.

Newsguard separates sites it deems worthy and sites it considers unreliable by using a color-coded rating — green, yellow, or red — and more detailed “nutrition labels” regarding a site’s credibility or lack thereof. Rankings are created by Newsguard’s team of “trained analysts.” The color-coding system may remind some readers of the color-coded terror threat-level warning system that was created after 9/11, making it worth noting that Tom Ridge, the former secretary of Homeland Security who oversaw the implementation of that system under George W. Bush, is on Newsguard’s advisory board.

newsguard-foxnews_editedNewsguard gives Fox News high marks for accuracy.

As Newsguard releases a new rating of a site, that rating automatically spreads to all computers that have installed its news ranking browser plug-in. That plug-in is currently available for free for the most commonly used internet browsers. NewsGuard directly markets the browser plug-in to libraries, schools and internet users in general.

According to its website, Newsguard has rated more than 2,000 news and information sites. However, it plans to take its ranking efforts much farther by eventually reviewing “the 7,500 most-read news and information websites in the U.S.—about 98 percent of news and information people read and share online” in the United States in English.

A recent Gallup study, which was supported and funded by Newsguard as well as the Knight Foundation (itself a major investor in Newsguard), stated that a green rating increased users likelihood to share and read content while a red rating decreased that likelihood. Specifically, it found 63 percent would be less likely to share news stories from red-rated websites, and 56 percent would be more likely to share news from green-rated websites, though the fact that Newsguard and one of its top investors funded the poll makes it necessary to take these findings with a grain of salt.

However, some of the rankings Newsguard itself has publicized show that it is manifestly uninterested in fighting “misinformation.” How else to explain the fact that the Washington Post and CNN both received high scores even though both have written stories or made statements that later proved to be entirely false? For example, CNN falsely claimed in 2016 that it was illegal for Americans to read WikiLeaks releases and unethically colluded with the DNC to craft presidential debate questions to favor Hillary Clinton’s campaign that same year.

In addition, in 2017, CNN published a fake story that a Russian bank linked to a close ally of President Donald Trump was under Senate investigation. That same year, CNN was forced to retract a report that the Trump campaign had been tipped off early about WikiLeaks documents damaging to Hillary Clinton when it later learned the alert was about material already publicly available.

The Washington Post, whose $600 million conflict of interest with the CIA goes unnoted by Newsguard, has also published false stories since the 2016 election, including one article that falsely claimed that “Russian hackers” had tapped into Vermont’s electrical grid. It was later found that the grid itself was never breached and the “hack” was only an isolated laptop with a minor malware problem. Yet, such acts of journalistic malpractice are apparently of little concern to Newsguard when those committing such acts are big-name corporate media outlets.

Furthermore, Newsguard gives a high rating to Voice of America, the U.S. state-funded media outlet, even though its former acting associate director said that the outlet produces “fluff journalism” and despite the fact that it was recently reformed to “provide news that supports our [U.S.] national security objectives.” However, RT receives a low “red” rating for being funded by the Russian government and for “raising doubts about other countries and their institutions” (i.e., including reporting critical of the institutions and governments of the U.S. and its allies).

Keeping the conversation safe for the corporatocracy

Newsguard describes itself as an organization dedicated to “restoring trust and accountability” and using “journalism to fight false news, misinformation and disinformation.” While it repeatedly claims on its website that its employees “have no political axes to grind” and “care deeply about reliable journalism’s pivotal role in democracy,” a quick look at its co-founders, top funders and advisory board make it clear that Newsguard is aimed at curbing voices that hold the powerful — in both government and the private sector — to account.

Newsguard is the latest venture to result from the partnership between Steven Brill and Louis Gordon Crovitz, who currently serve as co-CEOs of the group. Brill is a long-time journalist —  published in TIME and The New Yorker, among others — who most recently founded the Yale Journalism Initiative, which aims to encourage Yale students who “aspire to contribute to democracy in the United States and around the world” to become journalists at top U.S. and international media organizations. He first teamed up with Crovitz in 2009 to create Journalism Online, which sought to make the online presence of top American newspapers and other publishers profitable, and was also the CEO of the company that partnered up with the TSA to offer “registered” travelers the ability to move more quickly through airport security — for a price, of course.

While Brill’s past does not in itself raise red flags, Crovitz — his partner in founding Journalism Online, then Press+, and now Newsguard — is the last person one would expect to find promoting any legitimate effort to “restore trust and accountability” in journalism. In the early 1980s. Crovitz held a number of positions at Dow Jones and at the Wall Street Journal, eventually becoming executive vice president of the former and the publisher of the latter before both were sold to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp in 2007. He is also a board member of Business Insider, which has received over $30 million from Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos in recent years.

Gordon CrovitzGordon Crovitz, then-publisher of The Wall Street Journal, introduces the redesign of the newspaper, Dec. 4, 2006 in New York. Mark Lennihan | AP

In addition to being a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Crovitz proudly notes in his bio, available on Newsguard’s website, that he has been an “editor or contributor to books published by the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation.” Though many MintPress readers are likely familiar with these two institutions, for those who are not, it is worth pointing out that the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) is one of the most influential neoconservative think tanks in the country and its “scholars,” directors and fellows have included neoconservative figures like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, John Bolton and Frederick Kagan.

During the George W. Bush administration, AEI was instrumental in promoting the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq and has since advocated for militaristic solutions to U.S. foreign policy objectives and the expansion of the U.S.’ military empire as well as the “War on Terror.” During the Bush years, AEI was also closely associated with the now defunct and controversial neoconservative organization known as the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), which presciently called, four years before 9/11, for a “new Pearl Harbor” as needed to rally support behind American military adventurism.

The Heritage Foundation, like AEI, was also supportive of the war in Iraq and has pushed for the expansion of the War on Terror and U.S. missile defense and military empire. Its corporate donors over the years have included Procter & Gamble, Chase Manhattan Bank, Dow Chemical, and Exxon Mobil, among others.

Crovitz’s associations with AEI and the Heritage Foundation, as well as his ties to Wall Street and the upper echelons of corporate media, are enough to make any thinking person question his commitment to being a fair watchdog of “legitimate journalism.” Yet, beyond his innumerable connections to neoconservatives and powerful monied interest, Crovitz has repeatedly been accused of inserting misinformation into his Wall Street Journal columns, with groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation accusing him of “repeatedly getting his facts wrong” on NSA surveillance and other issues. Some of the blatant falsehoods that have appeared in Crovitz’s work have never been corrected, even when his own sources called him out for misinformation.

For example, in a WSJ opinion piece that was written by Crovitz in 2012, Crovitz was accused of making “fantastically false claims” about the history of the internet by the very people he had cited to support those claims.

As TechDirt wrote at the time:

“Almost everyone he [Crovitz] sourced or credited to support his argument that the internet was invented entirely privately at Xerox PARC and when Vint Cerf helped create TCP/IP, has spoken out to say he’s wrong. And that list includes both Vint Cerf, himself, and Xerox. Other sources, including Robert Taylor (who was there when the internet was invented) and Michael Hiltzik, have rejected Crovitz’s spinning of their own stories.”

The oligarch team’s deep bench

While Brill and Crovitz’s connections alone should be enough cause for alarm, a cursory examination of Newsguard’s advisory board makes it clear that Newsguard was created to serve the interests of American oligarchy. Chief among Newsguard’s advisors are Tom Ridge, the first Secretary of Homeland Security under George W. Bush and Ret. General Michael Hayden, a former CIA director, a former NSA director and principal at the Chertoff Group, a security consultancy seeking to “advise corporate clients and governments, including foreign governments” on security matters that was co-founded by former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who also currently serves as the board chairman of major weapons manufacturer BAE systems.

FireShot-Capture-025-Our-Advisory-Board-–-New_-https___www.newsguardtech.com_our-advisory-board_Another Newsguard advisor of note is Richard Stengel, former editor of Time magazine, a “distinguished fellow” at the Atlantic Council and Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy under President Barack Obama. At a panel discussion hosted last May by the Council on Foreign Relations, Stengel described his past position at the State Department as “chief propagandist” and also stated that he is “not against propaganda. Every country does it and they have to do it to their own population and I don’t necessarily think it’s that awful.”

Other Newsguard advisors include Don Baer, former White House communications director and advisor to Bill Clinton and current chairman of both PBS and the influential PR firm Burson Cohn & Wolfe as well as Elise Jordan, former communications director for the National Security Council and former speech-writer for Condoleezza Rice, as well as the widow of slain journalist Michael Hastings — who was writing an exposé on former CIA director John Brennan at the time of his suspicious death.

A look at Newguard’s investors further illustrates the multifarious connections between this organization and the American political and corporate elite. While Brill and Crovitz themselves are the company’s top investors, one of Newsguard’s most important investors is the Publicis Groupe. Publicis is the third largest global communications company in the world, with more than 80,000 employees in over 100 countries and an annual revenue of over €9.6 billion ($10.98 billion) in 2017. It is no stranger to controversy, as one of its subsidiaries, Qorvis, recently came under fire for exploiting U.S. veterans at the behest of the Saudi government and also helped the Saudi government to “whitewash” its human rights record and its genocidal war in Yemen after receiving $6 million from the Gulf Kingdom in 2017.

Furthermore, given its size and influence, it is unsurprising that the Publicis Groupe counts many powerful corporations and governments among its clientele. Some of its top clients in 2018 included pharmaceutical giants Eli Lilly, Merck, Pfizer and Bayer/Monsanto as well as Starbucks, Procter & Gamble, McDonalds, Kraft Heinz, Burger King, and the governments of Australia and Saudi Arabia. Given its influential role in funding Newsguard, it is reasonable to point out the potential conflict of interest posed by the fact that sites that accurately report on Publicis’ powerful clients — but generate bad publicity — could be targeted for such reports in Newsguard’s ranking.

Publicis GroupMaurice Lévy (center), the Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Publicis Groupe, appears with a cadre of high-level politicians and corporate executives at an event for Rabbi Arthur Schneier’s “Appeal of Conscience Foundation,” Sept. 26, 2018. Brian Ach | AP Images for Appeal of Conscience Foundation

In addition to the Publicis Groupe, another major investor in Newsguard is the Blue Haven Initiative, which is the venture capital “impact investment” fund of the wealthy Pritzker family — one of the top 10 wealthiest families in the U.S., best known as the owners of the Hyatt Hotel chain and for being the second largest financial contributors to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Other top investors include John McCarter, a long-time executive at U.S. government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, as well as Thomas Glocer, former CEO of Reuters and a member of the boards of pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., financial behemoth Morgan Stanley, and the Council on Foreign Relations, as well as a member of the Atlantic Council’s International Advisory Board.

Through these investors, Newsguard managed to raise $6 million to begin its ranking efforts in March of 2018. Newsguard’s actual revenues and financing, however, have not been disclosed despite the fact that it requires the sites it ranks to disclose their funding. In a display of pure hypocrisy, Newsguard’s United States Securities and Exchange Commission Form D — which was filed March 5, 2018 — states that the company “declined to disclose” the size of its total revenue.

Why give folks a choice?

While even a quick glance at its advisory board alone would be enough for many Americans to decline to install Newsguard’s browser extension on their devices, the danger of Newsguard is the fact that it is diligently working to make the adoption of its app involuntary. Indeed, if voluntary adoption of Newsguard’s app were the case, there would likely be little cause for concern, given that its website attracts barely more than 300 visits per month and its social-media following is relatively small, with just over 2,000 Twitter followers and barely 500 Facebook likes at the time of this article’s publication.

To illustrate its slip-it-under-the-radar strategy, Newsguard has gone directly to state governments to push its browser extension onto entire state public library systems, even though its website suggests that individual public libraries are welcome to install the extension if they so choose. The first state to install Newsguard on all of its public library computers across its 51 branches was the state of Hawaii — which was the first to partner with Newsguard’s “news literacy initiative,” just last month.

According to local media, Newsguard “now works with library systems representing public libraries across the country, and is also partnering with middle schools, high schools, universities, and educational organizations to support their news literacy efforts,” suggesting that these Newsguard services targeting libraries and schools are soon to become a compulsory component of the American library and education system, despite Newsguard’s glaring conflicts of interest with massive multinational corporations and powerful government power-brokers.

Notably, Newsguard has a powerful partner that has allowed it to start finding its way into public library and school computers throughout the country. As part of its new “Defending Democracy” initiative, Microsoft announced last August that it would be partnering with Newsguard to actively market the company’s ranking app and other services to libraries and schools throughout the country. Microsoft’s press release regarding the partnership states that Newsguard “will empower voters by providing them with high-quality information about the integrity and transparency of online news sites.”

Since then, Microsoft has now added the Newsguard app as a built-in feature of Microsoft Edge, its browser for iOS and Android mobile devices, and is unlikely to stop there. Indeed, as a recent report in favor of Microsoft’s partnership with Newsguard noted, “we could hope that this new partnership will allow Microsoft to add NewsGuard to Edge on Windows 10 [operating system for computers] as well.”

Newsguard, for its part, seems confident that its app will soon be added by default to all mobile devices. On its website, the organization notes that “NewsGuard will be available on mobile devices when the digital platforms such as social media sites and search engines or mobile operating systems add our ratings and Nutrition Labels directly.” This shows that Newsguard isn’t expecting its rating systems to be offered as a downloadable application for mobile devices but something that social media sites like Facebook, search engines like Google, and mobile device operating systems that are dominated by Apple and Google will “directly” integrate into nearly every smartphone and tablet sold in the United States.

A Boston Globe article on Newsguard from this past October makes this plan even more clear. The Globe wrote at the time:

“Microsoft has already agreed to make NewsGuard a built-in feature in future products, and [Newsguard co-CEO] Brill said he’s in talks with other online titans. The goal is to have NewsGuard running by default on our computers and phones whenever we scan the Web for news.”

This eventuality is made all the more likely given the fact that, in addition to Microsoft, Newsguard is also closely connected to Google, as Google has been a partner of the Publicis Groupe since 2014, when the two massive companies joined Condé Nast to create a new marketing service called La Maison that is “focused on producing engaging content for marketers in the luxury space.” Given Google’s power in the digital sphere as the dominant search engine, the creator of the Android mobile operating system, and the owner of YouTube, its partnership with Publicis means that Newsguard’s rating system will soon see itself being promoted by yet another of Silicon Valley’s most powerful companies.

Furthermore, there is an effort underway to integrate Newsguard into social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, as Newsguard was launched, co-CEO Brill stated that he planned to sell the company’s ratings of news sites to Facebook and Twitter. Last March, Brill told CNN that “We’re asking them [Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and Google] to pay a fraction of what they pay their P.R. people and their lobbyists to talk about the problem.”

On Wednesday, Gallup released a poll that will likely be used as a major selling point to social media giants. The poll — funded by Newsguard and the Knight Foundation, which is a top investor in Newsguard and has recently funded a series of Gallup polls relating to online news — seems to have been created with the intention of manufacturing consent for the integration of Newsguard with top social media sites.

This is because the promoted findings from the study are as follows:“89% of users of social media sites and 83% overall want social media sites and search engines to integrate NewsGuard ratings and reviews into their news feeds and search results” and “69% would trust social media and search companies more if they took the simple step of including NewsGuard in their products.” However, a disclaimer at the end of the poll states that the results, which were based on the responses of 706 people each of whom received $2 to participate, “may not be reflective of attitudes of the broader U.S adult population.”

With trust at Facebook nose-diving and Facebook’s censorship of independent media already well underway, the findings of this poll could well be used to justify its integration into Facebook’s platform. The connections of both Newsguard and Facebook to the Atlantic Council make this seem a given.

Financial censorship

Another Newsguard service shows that this organization is also seeking to harm independent media financially by targeting online revenue. Through a service called “Brandguard,” which it describes as a “brand safety tool aimed at helping advertisers keep their brands off of unreliable news and information sites while giving them the assurance they need to support thousands of Green-rated [i.e., Newsguard-approved] news and information sites, big and small.”

At the time the service was announced last November, Newsguard co-CEO Brill stated that the company was “in discussions with the ad tech firms, leading agencies, and major advertisers” eager to adopt a blacklist of news sites deemed “unreliable” by Newsguard. This is unsurprising given the leading role of the Publicis Groupe, one of the world’s largest advertising and PR firms, has in funding Newsguard. As a consequence, it seems likely that many, if not all, of Publicis’ client companies will choose to adopt this blacklist to help crush many of the news sites that are unafraid to hold them accountable.

It is also important to note here that Google’s connection to Publicis and thus Newsguard could spell trouble for independent news pages that rely on Google Adsense for some or all of their ad-based revenue. Google Adsense has long been targeting sites like MintPress by demonetizing articles for information or photographs it deemed controversial, including demonetizing one article for including a photo showing U.S. soldiers involved in torturing Iraqi detainees at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison.

Since then, Google — a U.S. military contractor — has repeatedly tried to shutter ad access to MintPress articles that involve reporting that is critical of U.S. empire and military expansion. One article that has been repeatedly flagged by Google details how many African-Americans have questioned whether the Women’s March has aided or harmed the advancement of African-Americans in the United States. Google has repeatedly claimed that the article, which was written by African-American author and former Washington Post bureau chief Jon Jeter, contains “dangerous content.”

Given Google’s already established practice of targeting factual reporting it deemed controversial through Adsense, Brandguard will likely offer the tech giant just the excuse it needs to cut off sites like MintPress, and other pages equally critical of empire, altogether.

An action plan for the genuine protection of journalism

Though it is just getting started, Newsguard’s plan to insert its app into every device and major social-media network is a threat to any news site that regularly publishes information that rubs any of Newsguard’s investors, partners or advisors the wrong way. Given its plan to rank the English-language U.S. news sites that account for 98 percent of U.S. digital news consumption, Newsguard’s agenda is of the utmost concern to every independent media page active in the United States and beyond — given Newsguard’s promise to take its project global.

By linking up with former CIA and NSA directors, Silicon Valley Giants, and massive PR firms working for some of the most controversial governments and corporations in the world, Newsguard has betrayed the fact that it is not actually seeking to “restore trust and accountability” in journalism, but to “restore trust and accountability” in news outlets that protect the existing power structure and help shield the corporate-led oligarchy and military-industrial complex from criticism.

Not only is it trying to tank the reputations of independent media through its biased ranking system, Newsguard is also seeking to attack these alternative voices financially and by slipping its ranking system by default onto all computers and phones sold in the U.S.

However, Newsguard and it agenda of guarding the establishment from criticism can be stopped. By supporting independent media and unplugging from social media sites committed to censorship, like Facebook and Twitter, we can strengthen the independent media community and keep it afloat despite the unprecedented nature of these attacks on free speech and watchdog journalism.

Beyond that, a key way to keep Newsguard and those behind it on their toes is to hold them to account by pointing out their clear conflicts of interest and hypocrisy and by derailing the narrative they are carefully crafting that Newsguard is “non-partisan,” “trustworthy,” and true guardians against the scourge of “fake news.”

While this report has sought to be a starting point for such work, anyone concerned about Newsguard and its connections to the war machine and corrupt corporations should feel encouraged to point out the organization’s own conflicts of interests and shady connections via its Twitter and Facebook pages and the feedback section on Newsguard’s website. The best way to defeat this new tool of the neocons is to put them on notice and to continue to expose Newsguard as a guardian of empire, not a guardian of journalism.

Correction | An earlier version of this story wrote that CNN’s collusion with the Clinton campaign was illegal. However, upon further investigation, MintPress News could not corroborate that such a move was, in fact, illegal, though it is clearly in breach of journalistic ethics. As a consequence, the sentence in question was changed to say that CNN “unethically colluded” with the Clinton campaign. MintPress apologizes for the error and thanks its readers for bringing this oversight to our attention.

Whitney Webb is a staff writer for MintPress News and a contributor to Ben Swann’s Truth in Media. Her work has appeared on Global Research, the Ron Paul Institute and 21st Century Wire, among others. She has also made radio and TV appearances on RT and Sputnik. She currently lives with her family in southern Chile.

Republish! MintPress News is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 International License.

© 2019 Copyright Mint Press, LLC

Fake news front group “NewsGuard” exposed as a massive protection racket to promote fake narratives from official sources while censoring indy media

newsguard-microsoft-reporting-hoaxes-fake-news-credible-epic-fail-jennie-kamin-john-gregory-933x445

Image credit: Nowtheendbegins

Vicki Batts

NewsGuard Technologies promotes itself as a company bent on fighting “fake news” and allowing truth to prevail. The website claims the company will restore “trust and accountability” through its human-driven rating system. But as many critics have suspected, the onslaught of pro-NewsGuard propaganda is a ploy to deceive the public and normalize censorship. NewsGuard doesn’t care about the truthfulness of reporting; it is a shell company with the explicit purpose of silencing the independent media and securing the establishment’s place at the top of the journalism food chain.

In a new partnership with Microsoft, NewsGuard will be installed automatically with Microsoft’s web browser, Edge. And according to reports, NewsGuard wants to see its “technology” applied to every device sold in the United States. Mass censorship is on our doorsteps, and virtually every major news outlet in the U.S. is promoting it.

NewsGuard or NewsGoon?

NewsGuard is promoted as using “old school” journalism to fight fake news. The trained “analysts” who are also “experienced journalists” use a red light-green light rating system to flag news sites as “bad” or”good,” depending on the content. The “analysts” don’t just peruse web sites; NewsGuard, has reportedly contacted many sites for deeper conversation.

Steven Brill, NewsGuard co-founder, recently stated the U.K.’s Daily Mail, a well-known publication, received a “red” rating because an associate didn’t want to answer questions. This has prompted substantial concerns about NewsGuard’s integrity as a company.

NewsGuard can use all kinds of strong-arm tactics to attempt to silence their opposition. If a company tries to take a stand against censorship and refuses to cooperate with NewsGuard, they’ll simply be blacklisted themselves.

While NewsGuard has removed Daily Mail from the blacklist after much controversy, the company has made their position clear: Play ball, or kick rocks.

The NewsGuard system is patently flawed, being susceptible to both bias and corruption. For example, it was recently reported that a tee shirt sold by the Breitbart News Store was flagged as “fake news.”

Rating merchandise should be outside the scope of an organization that purportedly only targets news. But, perhaps that’s not really what NewsGuard is after.

News-Guard-Censorship
Image credit: 21stcenturywire.com

Suppress truth, promote propaganda

Writing for Breitbart, senior correspondent Allum Bokhari reports that NewsGuard has given all the major news agencies a “green rating,” — even in light of the reprehensible Covington Catholic incident, which saw dozens of innocent high school students victimized by the corrupt and deeply biased mainstream media.

In contrast, most of the independent media has received “red” ratings.

The “criteria” that NewsGuard reportedly uses to issue its rating are inherently weighed at the analyst’s discretion. For example, any one of the mainstream media’s headlines on the Covington Catholic case could be seen as “misleading,” — but if that headline conforms to your bias as an individual, you are probably less likely to perceive it as such.

This theory can be applied to the rating system across the board. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but perception is in the mind of the reader. And under NewsGuard, the perceptions of the few will rule the many.

As Mint Press News reports, NewsGuard is already campaigning to ” have its rankings of news sites installed by default on computers in U.S. public libraries, schools, and universities as well as on all smartphones and computers sold in the United States.”

NewsGuard is not designed to protect the public from fake news, but rather, to instill obedience to the mainstream media propaganda machine and begin the normalization of censorship. This isn’t just a war on free speech, it is a war on your right to think for yourself.

See more coverage of the latest acts of censorship at Censored.news.

Sources for this article include:

Breitbart.com

MintPressNews.com

Researchers find that Facebook is actually run by the Deep State

A new report from The Free Thought Project exposes the truth about what many independent media outlets have been saying for years: The world’s most popular social media platform, Facebook, is a hotbed of deep state corruption and public manipulation.

While the baby of Mark Zuckerberg is often described as a “private company,” the fact of the matter is that Facebook is actually a massive government psy-op run by various deep state swamp creatures – many of whom previously worked within the Obama administration.

For instance, Facebook’s censorship head, also known as “Head of Cybersecurity Policy,” is a man named Nathaniel Gleicher who previously prosecuted cybercrimes at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Gleicher also worked as Director for Cybersecurity Policy at the National Security Council under Obama.

Joel Benenson, a former top adviser to Obama and chief strategist for failed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, also now works at Facebook – as does Aneesh Raman, Obama’s former speechwriter who’s now in charge of Facebook’s “economic impact programming.”

There are many others as well, including:

• Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s Vice President of Public Policy, who worked for George W. Bush as the White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy

• Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operations Officer, who used to work in the United States Treasury Department under Bill Clinton

• Kate Patchen, Facebook’s Litigation Counsel, who previously worked in the Department of Justice

• Meredith Carden, head of Facebook’s “News Integrity Team,” who worked in the Office of the First Lady under Obama

• Sarah Feinberg, head of Facebook’s Communication Team, who was Special Assistant to the President under Obama

• Joe Lockhart, Vice President of Global Communications at Facebook, who worked as Press Secretary under Bill Clinton

In essence, Facebook has become a who’s-who of government swamp creatures, most of whom were Obama’s cronies previously – and these are the people deciding what constitutes “real” versus “fake” news.

“It appears the government is using Facebook – the world’s largest social media company – to sway public opinion,” writes Jeff Charles for Liberty Nation.

“The company has employed a significant number of former officials in positions that grant them influence over what content is allowed on the platform.”

Facebook is also now run by “neocon” war hawks pushing a globalist agenda

In case you didn’t know, Facebook also recently formed a partnership with a neoconservative “think tank” known as the Atlantic Council, which is tied to the pharmaceutical industry, the military-industrial complex, and to the federal government itself.

The Atlantic Council, The Free Thought Project discovered, plays a major role in deciding what content is allowed to be published and shared on Facebook, and what content isn’t. And the Atlantic Council is funded in large part by the United States government, it’s important to note.

“It is a telltale sign of a corrupt industry or company when they create a revolving door between themselves and the state,” writes Matt Agorist for The Free Thought Project.

“Just like Monsanto has former employees on the Supreme Court and Pharmaceutical industry insiders move back and fourth from the FDA to their companies, we found that Facebook is doing the same thing.”

David Recordon has similarly reported on the revolving door between the federal government and Facebook, emphasizing the incredible amount of political influence that’s wrapped up into the day-to-day functionality of Facebook.

“… there are dozens of former Obama staffers, advisers, and campaign associates who quite literally fill Facebook’s ranks,” Agorist adds. “It is no wonder the platform has taken such a political shift over the past few years.”

For more news about deep state influence over social media, be sure to check out Corruption.news and MarkZuckerberg.news.

Sources for this article include:

TheFreeThoughtProject.com

LibertyNation.com

NaturalNews.com

Who Will Fix Facebook?

facebook-fakebook4By Matt Taibbi (Rolling Stone)

James Reader tried to do everything right. No fake news, no sloppiness, no spam. The 54-year-old teamster and San Diego resident with a progressive bent had a history of activism, but itched to get more involved. So a few years ago he tinkered with a blog called the Everlasting GOP Stoppers, and it did well enough to persuade some friends and investors to take a bigger step.

In its effort to clamp down on fake news, Russian trolls and Nazis, the social media giant has also started banning innocent people, proving again it can’t be trusted to regulate itself

“We got together and became Reverb Press,” he recalls. “I didn’t start it for the money. I did it because I care about my country.”

In 2014, he launched Reverb, a site that shared news from a pro-Democratic stance but also, Reader says, took great care to be correct and factual. The independent watchdog site mediabiasfactcheck.com would declare it strongly slanted left but rated it “high for factual reporting, as all news is sourced to credible media outlets.”

The site took off, especially during the 2015-16 election season. “We had 30 writers contributing, four full-time editors and an IT worker,” Reader says. “At our peak, we had 4 million to 5 million unique visitors a month.”

Through Facebook and social media, Reader estimates, as many as 13 million people a week were seeing Reverb stories. Much of the content was aggregated or had titles like “36 Scariest Quotes From the 2015 GOP Presidential Debates.”But Reverb also did original reporting, like a first-person account of Catholic Church abuse in New Jersey that was picked up by mainstream outlets.

Like most independent publishers, he relied heavily on a Facebook page to drive traffic and used Facebook tools to help boost his readership. “We were pouring between $2,000 and $6,000 a month into Facebook, to grow the page,” Reader says. “We tried to do everything they suggested.”

Publishers like Reader jumped to it every time Facebook sent hints about changes to its algorithm. When it emphasized video, he moved to develop video content. Reader viewed Facebook as an essential tool for independent media. “Small blogs cannot exist without Facebook,” he says. “At the same time, it was really small blogs that helped Facebook explode in the first place.”

But Reader began noticing a problem. Starting with the 2016 election, he would post articles that would end up in right-wing Facebook groups, whose followers would pelt his material with negative comments. He also suspected they were mass-reporting his stories to Facebook as spam.

Ironically, Reader, whose site regularly covered Russia-gate stories, suspected his business was being impacted by everyone from Republican operatives to MAGA-hat wearers and Russian trolls anxious to dent his pro-Democratic content. “It could have been Russians,” he says. “It could have been domestic groups. But it really seemed to be some kind of manipulation.”

Reader saw drops in traffic. Soon, ad sales declined and he couldn’t afford to invest in Facebook’s boosting tools anymore, and even when he did, they weren’t working in the same way. “It was like crack-dealing,” he says. “The first hits are free, but pretty soon you have to spend more and more just to keep from losing ground.”

 He went to Facebook to complain, but Reader had a difficult time finding a human being at the company to discuss his problems. Many sources contacted for this story describe a similar Kafka’s Castle-type experience of dealing with Facebook. After months of no response, Reader finally reached an acquaintance at Facebook and was told the best he could do was fill out another form. “The guy says to me,‘It’s about scale, bro,’ ” he recalls. In other words, in a Facebook ecosystem with more than 2 billion users, if you’re too small, you don’t matter enough for individual attention.

After all this, on October 11th this year, Reader was hit with a shock. “I was driving home in San Diego when people started to call with bad news,” he says. They said Reverb had been taken offline. He got home and clicked on his computer:

“Facebook Purged Over 800 Accounts and Pages for Pushing Political Spam,” a Washington Post headline read.

The story described an ongoing effort against “coordinated inauthentic behavior” and specifically named just a few sites, including Reverb, that were being removed.The Facebook announcement mentioned “timing ahead of the U.S. midterm elections,” implying that the deletions had been undertaken to preserve the integrity of American democracy — from people like James Reader.

Reader wasn’t alone. He was one of hundreds of small publishers to get the ax in Facebook’s October 11th sweep, which quickly became known as “the Purge” in alternative-media circles. After more minor sweeps of ostensibly fake foreign accounts over the summer, the October 11th deletions represented something new:the removal of demonstrably real American media figures with significant followings. Another round of such sites would be removed in the days before the midterms, this time without an announcement. Many of these sites would also be removed from other platforms like Twitter virtually simultaneously.

“All this happens on the same day?” Reader asks. “There’s no way it’s not connected.”

The sites were all over the map politically. Some, like the Trump-supporting Nation in Distress, had claimed Obama would declare martial law if Trump won in 2016. Others, like Reverb and Blue State Daily, were straight-up, Democrat-talking-point sites that ripped Trump and cheered the blues.

Many others, like the L.A.-based Free Thought Project and Anti-Media, were anti-war, focused on police brutality or drug laws, and dismissive of establishment politics in general. Targeting the latter sites to prevent election meddling seemed odd, since they were openly disinterested in elections. “If anything, we try to get people to think beyond the two parties,” says Jason Bassler, a 37-year-old activist who runs the Free Thought Project.

James Reader sits at his home in San Diego, CA on Friday, November 2, 2018. Reader, the publisher of online news site Reverb Press, found his page unpublished by Facebook in October, but he’s never been told why. Photograph by Sandy Huffaker for Rolling Stone

Reader tried to access his sites. The Facebook page for Reverb had been unpublished. Same for his old Everlasting GOP Stoppers blog. Even a newer page of his called America Against Trump, with 225,000 followers, was unpublished. “Everything I’d worked for all those years was dead,” he says.

Reader seethed about being lumped in with Russian election meddlers. But somehow worse was Facebook’s public description of his site as being among “largely domestic actors using click bait headlines and other spam tactics to drive users to websites where they could target them with ads.”

This grated, since he felt that Facebook’s programs were themselves designed to make sure that news audiences stayed in-house to consume Facebook advertising.

“This is all about money,” Reader says. “It’s a giant company trying to monopolize all behavior on the Internet. Anything that can happen, they only want it to happen on Facebook.”

AFTER DONALD TRUMP was elected in 2016, Facebook — and Silicon Valley in general — faced a lot of heat. There was understandable panic that fake news — be it the work of Russian ad farms, or false stories spread about Barack Obama by Macedonian trolls, or insane conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton and “Pizzagate” — was having a destructive impact, responsible for everything from Brexit to the election of our Mad Hatter president.

Everyone from journalism professors to sociologists to former Facebook employees blamed the social network for rises in conspiracism, Russian meddling and hate speech.“News feed optimizes engagement,” said former Facebook designer Bobby Goodlatte. “ Bullshit is highly engaging.”

Politicians began calling for increased regulation, but Facebook scoffed at the idea that it was responsible for Trump, or anything else. Moreover, at least publicly,the firm had always been resistant to sifting out more than porn, threats and beheading videos. Its leaders insisted they were about “bringing people together,” not editing content. “We are a tech company, not a media company,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in 2016, after visiting with the pope.

Facebook’s touchy-feely vibing about togetherness and “friends” was probably part true,part thin veil for a voracious business plan: get as many humans herded in-site as possible, so they can have truckloads of ads shoved through their eyeballs. Restricting speech was a problem because it meant restricting speakers, which meant restricting cash flow.

To keep regulatory wolves at bay, Facebook had one thing to bargain with: its own unused political might. By 2017, 45 percent of Americans were getting news from Facebook, making it by far the largest social media news source in the country. A handful of executives could now offer governments (including our own) a devil’s bargain: increased control over information flow in exchange for free rein to do their booming eyeball-selling business.

We could have responded to the fake-news problem in a hundred different ways. We could have used European-style laws to go after Silicon Valley’s rapacious data-collection schemes that incentivize click bait and hyper-partisanship. We could have used anti-trust laws to tackle monopolistic companies that wield too much electoral influence. We could have recognized de facto mega-distributors as public utilities, making algorithms for things like Google searches and Facebook news feeds transparent, allowing legitimate media outlets to know how they’re being regulated, and why.

Instead, this story may be turning into one of the oldest narratives in politics: the misuse of a public emergency to suspend civil rights and concentrate power. One recurring theme of the fake-news controversy has been a willingness of those in power to use the influence of platforms like Facebook, rather than curtail or correct them. Accused of being an irresponsible steward of information, Facebook is now being asked to exercise potentially vast and opaque new powers.

The accumulation of all these scandals has taken a toll on the company. A recent Pew survey found that 44 percent of users between ages 18 and 29 deleted Facebook from their phones in the past year.

Now there’s this. You thought you didn’t like Facebook before? Wait until you see it in its new role as Big Brother.

THE IRONY IS, Facebook’s business model once rested on partisanship, divisiveness and clickbait. One of the many reasons Trump won, as former Facebook product manager Antonio García Martínez described in Wired, was the campaign’s expert use of Facebook’s ads auction, which rewarded ad developers for efficiently stoking lizard-brain responses. The company, García Martínez wrote, “uses a complex model that considers both the dollar value of each bid as well as how good apiece of clickbait . . . the corresponding ad is.”

A canny marketer, García Martínez wrote, could “goose” purchasing power if Facebook’s estimation of its “clickbaitness” was high. The Trump campaign’s superior grip on this dynamic allowed it to buy choice ad space at bargain prices, while the reverse was true for Clinton.

In other words, the same company that rewarded the red-meatiest content and hyperpartisan drivel that political lunatics like alleged MAGA Bomber Cesar Sayoc devoured was now publicly denouncing sites like Reverb News for . . . clickbait.

Reader wondered why his site had been chosen. He admits to using multiple backup profiles, which is a technical violation, but he insists this would have previously earned a slap on the wrist. Several of the other deleted sites were right-wing or libertarian (although Facebook hasn’t released a full list of the purged sites). Reader wondered if Facebook — as it reportedly did after a Gizmodo piece in 2016 claimed Facebook suppressed conservatives — was attempting to over compensate by targeting a blue-leaning operation.

Tiffany Willis Clark, whose page for her site Liberal America was taken down on November 2nd, is similarly baffled as to why. A self-described “Christian left” publisher from Texas who pushes a Democratic line, she says Liberal America, with its 750,000 followers, is a“lifestyle site” about “raising conscious kids who are aware of the suffering of others.” She insists she’s never engaged in any banned Facebook behaviors and is careful to source everything to reputable news organizations. An example of her content is a listicle, “87 Things Only Poor Kids Know and ConservativesCouldn’t Care Less About,” that contains lines like “We go to the doctor when we’re sick, but mom doesn’t.”

Clark created the site for political and spiritual reasons, and believes she has helped reach people with her down-to-earth approach. “I’ve had people tell me they’ve switched parties because of us,” Clark says. “We didn’t do this for the money. That was a happy accident.”

She was surprised to see traffic take off after launching in 2013, and began investing in the site as a business. Clark estimates that she has spent $150,000 on Facebook boosting tools since 2014. “I basically put my life savings into this, and it’s gone,” she says. Like many of the people contacted for this story, she regrets having built a business around an Internet platform with a constantly shifting set of standards.

“Facebook seems to be redefining its mission minute to minute,” she says. “They started with fake news, moved to Alex Jones, and now it seems to be anything that’s not mainstream media.”

The belief that the recent deletions represent the start of a campaign against alternative media in general have been stoked by the fact that in its efforts to police fake news, Facebook recently began working with a comical cross section of shadowy officialdom: meeting with the Foreign Influence Task Force at the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security; partnering with the Atlantic Council, a NATO-connected organization featuring at least six former CIA heads on its board; and working with a pair of nonprofits associated with the major political parties, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute.

“It’s a blatant attack on independent media in advance of the election,” says Sean Conners of Blue State Daily.

 Professional Journalists and an admin to more than a hundred social media accounts for independent media and charity sites. “Lots of people I know have been affected. And not enough reporters are paying attention.”

 NEWSFLASH: There’s always been weird shit on the Internet. Not long ago,that’s even what a lot of us liked about the medium. Everything was on the Net, from goat sex to “Thirteen Bizarre Stipulations in Wills” to all the evidence you needed if you wanted to prove Sasquatch is real. None of this was ever regulated in any serious way, in keeping with a historically very permissive attitude toward speech.

We’ve traditionally tolerated fakes (the 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds reportedly scared one in 12 listeners into believing Earth had been invaded by Mars) and conspiracy kooks like the LaRouchians. In modern history,we’ve mostly relied upon libel laws, market forces and occasional interventions from the Federal Communications Commission to regulate speech.

Obviously, no one has a constitutional right to a Facebook page or a Twitter account. As ACLU lawyer Ben Wizner points out, there’s no First Amendment issue here. “To the extent First Amendment rights figure in at all, they’re enjoyed by the companies, who get to decide what does and does not go on their platforms,” he says. But the fact that removals are probably legal does not mean they’re not worrisome. If a handful of companies are making coordinated decisions about content, especially in conjunction with official or quasi-official bodies, this has far-reaching implications for the press.

Eric Goldman of the Santa Clara University School of Law calls the problem “soft censorship,” adding, “We’re seeing removal of content that isn’t illegal but the government doesn’t like. It’s a backdoor form of censorship.”

Mark Zuckerberg before Congress in April. “We are a tech company, not a media company,” he has insisted, and denied Facebook’s role in the 2016 presidential election. Photograph by Stephen Voss/Redux

Once viewed as a revolutionary tool for democratization and personal empowerment,the Internet always had awesome potential as a lever for social control, as we’ve already seen overseas.

When it comes to Internet companies working with governments, there are two main dangers.

In the first, a repressive government uses an Internet platform to accelerate human-rights abuses. The worst example of this is in Myanmar, where the U.N. recently concluded Facebook may have been key in helping incite government-sponsored genocide against that nation’s Rohingya Muslim minority.

The campaign against the Rohingya led to mass murder, arson and rape, and caused 700,000 to flee abroad and left thousands dead. The attackers were egged on by Myanmar officials and descended upon Rohingya settlements in a murderous rage.

A series of posts on Facebook in the Buddhist-majority country called Muslim minorities maggots, dogs and rapists, and said things like, “We must fight them the way Hitler did the Jews.” Facebook at the time had only a handful of Burmese speakers on staff reviewing this content, and the U.N. concluded that the platform had “turned into a beast.”

Facebook has since deleted accounts of Myanmar military figures accused of inciting violence, citing the same offense it applied to the likes of James Reader: “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”

The flip side of being too little engaged is to have intimate relationships between foreign governments and companies involved in speech regulation.

In March this year, for instance, after the company had unknowingly helped spread a campaign of murder, rape and arson in Myanmar, Facebook unpublished the popular Palestinian news site SAFA, which had 1.3 million followers.

SAFA had something like official status, an online answer to the Palestine Authority’s WAFA news agency. (SAFA has been reported to be sympathetic to Hamas, which the publication denies.) Its operators say they also weren’t given any reason for the removal. “They didn’t even send us a message,” says Anas Malek, SAFA’s social media coordinator. “We were shocked.”

The yanking of SAFA took place just ahead of a much-publicized protest in the region: the March 30th March of the Great Return, in which Gaza Strip residents were to try to return to their home villages in Israel; it resulted in six months of violent conflict. Malek and his colleagues felt certain SAFA’s removal from Facebook was timed to the march. “This is a direct targeting of an effective Palestinian social media voice at a very critical time,” he says.

Israel has one of the most openly cooperative relationships with Facebook: The Justice Ministry in 2016 boasted that Facebook had fulfilled “95 percent” of its requests to delete content. The ministry even proposed a “Facebook bill” that would give the government power to remove content from Internet platforms under the broad umbrella of “incitement.” Although it ultimately failed, an informal arrangement already exists, as became clear this October.

That month, Israel’s National Cyber Directorate announced that Facebook was removing “thousands” of accounts ahead of municipal elections. Jordana Cutler, Facebook’s head of policy in Israel— and a former adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — said the company was merely following suggestions. “We receive requests from the government but are not committed to them,” Cutler said.

This template should worry Americans. The First Amendment prevents the government from ordering platforms to take down content. But as is clear in places like Israel,sometimes a suggestion is more than just a suggestion. “If they say they’re ‘not obligated,’ that should come with an asterisk,” says Goldman.

The most troubling example of private-public cooperation is probably the relationship between Google and China.The company whose motto was once “Don’t Be Evil” is reportedly going ahead with plans for a censor-friendly “Dragonfly” search engine. The site could eliminate search terms like “human rights” and “Nobel prize” for more than a billion people.

The lack of press interest here is remarkable. Had an American company on the scale of Google helped the Soviets develop a censorship tool, the story would have dominated the press, but it has barely made headlines in the States.

Somewhere between the Myanmar and Israel models is the experience of Germany, which last year passed a broad Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) requiring deletion of illegal content that violates German law against incitement to crime, hatred or the use of banned political symbols. Facebook tried to keep up with the NetzDG by hiring thousands to work in “deletion centers” in Essen and Berlin.But this year a German court ruled Facebook cannot take down content that is not illegal, which some believe may force the company to allow things like nude pictures. “This will get really interesting,” is how one European tech-policy researcher put it.

If content removal is messy in Germany,which has clear and coherent laws against certain kinds of speech, how would such an effort play out in America, which has a far more permissive legal tradition?

We would soon find out.

Just more than a year ago, on October 31st, a subcommittee of U.S. senators held a hearing to question representatives of Google, Facebook and Twitter. The subject was“Extremist Content and Russian Disinformation Online: Working With Tech to Find Solutions.” The grilling took place during the peak of public outrage about fake news. Facebook had just announced it would be turning over about 3,000 ads created by a Russian “Internet Research Agency.”

For the hearing, the tech firms sent lawyers to take abuse. The two chief counsels present — Colin Stretch of Facebook and Sean Edgett of Twitter, plus Richard Salgado, law enforcement director at Google — looked pained throughout, as though awaiting colonoscopies.

Although the ostensible purpose of the event was to ask the platforms to help prevent foreign interference in elections, it soon became clear that Senate partisans were bent on pushing pet concerns.

Republican Chuck Grassley, for instance, pointed to ads targeting Baltimore,Cleveland and Ferguson, Missouri,which he said “spread stories about abuse of black Americans by law enforcement. These ads are clearly intended to worsen racial tensions.”

Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono insisted that the Russian ads had affected the election and asked the Silicon Valley reps to come up with a “mission statement” to “prevent the fomenting of discord.”

When Stretch tried to offer a hedging answer about Facebook’s mission being the promotion of community (translation: “We already have a good enough mission”), Hirono cut him off and reminded him of a word he had used earlier.“Authenticity,” she said. “I kind of like that as a mission statement.”

Even if one stipulates every concern about foreign meddling is true, Hirono was playing with fire. Tightening oversight to clamp down on illegal foreign propaganda is one thing. Asking the world’s most powerful media companies to create vague new missions in search of “authenticity” and the prevention of “discord” is something else.

So how would the Senate make Facebook bend the knee? We got a clue in July, when Sen.Mark Warner released a white paper waving a regulatory leash at Silicon Valley. Warner proposed legislation requiring “first-party consent for data collection,” which would cut back on the unwanted use of personal data. This was a gun to the head of the industry, given that most of the platforms depend on the insatiable collection of such data for advertising sales.

The companies by then had already made dramatic changes. Google made tweaks to its normal, non-Chinese search engine in April 2017. Dubbed “Project Owl,” the changes were designed to prevent fake news — Holocaust-denial sites were cited as an example — from scoring too high in search results.

Although the campaign against fake news has often been described as necessary to combat far-right disinformation, hate speech and, often, Trump’s own false statements, some of the first sites to feel the sting of the new search environment seemed to be of the opposite persuasion. And this is where it becomes easy to wonder about the good faith of American efforts to rein in the Internet.

After Google revised its search tool in 2017, a range of alternative news operations— from the Intercept to Common Dreams to Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! — began experiencing precipitous drops in traffic.

One of the first was the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS). According to reporter Andre Damon, the agency performed tests to see how the site fared under the new Google search. It found that in the old search, WSWS stories popped up very high. A few months later, they were nowhere to be found. “If you entered‘social inequality,’ we were the number-two story in April 2017,” says Damon.“By August, we were out of the top 100 for the same search.”

Damon and other sat WSWS, using data from the marketing analytic company SEMRush and Google Webmaster, ran tests on a dozen other anti-war, progressive-leaning sites. They found their own search traffic had dropped 67 percent, and estimated Alternet was down 63 percent, Wikileaks down 30 percent. Every site they measured was down at least 19 percent. “Google pioneered this,” says Damon. (Google stressed that rankings shift with any algorithmic update, and the company says it does not single out sites by name.)

Facebook had also already made dramatic changes to its algorithm, and it wasn’t just left-wing sites that were seeing the crunch. Kevin Roose of The New York Times recently featured a Pennsylvania-based right-wing site called Mad World News that, like Reader, had spent enormous sums on Facebook tools tobuild an audience — a staggering half-million dollars, the site’s founders claimed. But starting in 2017, the site’s traffic dropped from 20 million views a month to almost nothing, especially after Facebook implemented its “Trusted Sources” algorithm, which de-emphasized commercial sites in favor of more-familiar “local” content.

“Have some integrity, give the money back” is what the Mad World founders told Roose.

But soon, mere algorithmic changes wouldn’t be enough, and the age of outright bans began. On May 17th, Facebook announced it would be working with the Atlantic Council.

Often described by critics as the unofficial lobby group of NATO, the council is a bipartisan rogues’ gallery of senior military leaders, neocons and ex-spies. Former heads of the CIA on its board include Michael Hayden, R. James Woolsey, Leon Panetta and Michael Morell, who was in line to be Hillary Clinton’s CIAchief.

The council is backed financially by weapons-makers like Raytheon, energy titans like Exxon-Mobil and banks like JP Morgan Chase. It also accepts funds from multiple foreign countries, some of them with less-than-sterling reputations for human rights and — notably — press freedoms.

One of its biggest foreign donors is the United Arab Emirates, which this year fell nine spots down, from 119th to 128th place, out of 180 countries listed in the World Press Freedom Index.

When Rolling Stone asked the Atlantic Council about the apparent contradiction of advising Facebook on press practices when it is funded by numerous speech-squelching foreign governments,it replied that donors must submit in writing to strict terms. The statement reads:

“[The] Atlantic Council is accepting the contribution on condition that the Atlantic Council retains intellectual independence and control over any content funded in whole or in part by the contribution.”

Around the same time the partnership was announced, Facebook made a donation to the Atlantic Council between $500,000 and $999,000, placing it among the biggest donors to the think tank.

The social media behemoth could easily have funded its own team of ex-spooks and media experts for the fake-news project. But Facebook employees have whispered to reporters that the council was brought in so that Facebook could “outsource many of the most sensitive political decisions.” In other words, Facebook wanted someone else to take the political hit for removing pages.

(Facebook did not respond to a question about having outsourced sensitive political decisions, but it said it chose the Atlantic Council because the council has “uniquely qualified experts on the issue of foreign interference.”)

Facebook announced its first round of deletions on July 31st, a day after Warner’s whitepaper was made public. In this first incident, Facebook unpublished 32 sites for “inauthentic behavior.” The accounts looked like someone’s idea of a parody of agitprop. One, Black Elevation, shows the famous photo of Huey Newton in a chair, holding a spear. Significantly, one event page — announcing a counterprotest to an upcoming Unite the Right 2 neo-Nazi march — turned out to be run by areal grassroots protest group called the Shut It Down DC Coalition. These people were peeved to be described as “inauthentic” in the news.

“This is a real protest in Washington, D.C.,” said spokeswoman Michelle Styczynski. “It is not George Soros. It is not Russia. It is just us.”

But the news headlines did not read “Facebook Removes Some Clearly Bogus Memes and One Real Domestic Protest Page.” Instead, the headlines were all gravitas: “Facebook Pulls Fake Accounts That Mimicked Russian Tactics,” wrote The Wall Street Journal; “Facebook Grapples With a Maturing Adversary in Election Meddling” was the unironic New York Times headline.

About a week later, on August 6th, one of the biggest jackasses in American public life was quieted. Four major tech firms — Apple, YouTube, Facebook and Spotify —decided to either completely or partially remove Infowars conspiracy lunatic Alex Jones. Twitter would soon follow suit.

Jones was infamous for, among other things, claiming the child victims of the Sandy Hook shooting were fakes, and his ongoing trolling of grieving Sandy Hook parents is one of the most revolting episodes in modern media. Jones is a favorite of Trump, who once gave Infowars a White House press pass.

The axing of Jones by the tech platforms was cheered by almost everyone in the mainstream press in “Ding-dong! The witch is dead” fashion.

“Finally,”exhaled Slate. “It’s about time,” said Media Matters. Even the right-wing Weekly Standard saluted the move, saying, “There’s no reason for conservatives to be defending this guy.”

Few observers raised an eyebrow at the implications of the Jones episode. The objections were more about the “how?” — not the “who?”

“Nobody complains about Alex Jones [being removed], which you can understand,” says David Chavern of the News Media Alliance. “But what rule did he violate? How does what he did compare to what other people saying similar things did? Nobody really knows.”

“I hate Alex Jones, I hate Infowars,” says the Georgia-based alternative journalist Rodrigo. “But we all saw what was coming.”

Reverb’s James Reader was one of the voices cheering the demise of Jones. Now conservatives are gloating over Reader’s removal from Facebook. “I have to take my lumps on that,” he says. “I still contend we don’t make incitements to violence or any of the bad things Jones does. But I should have been paying attention to the larger story. We all should have.”

AFTER THE REMOVAL of Jones, media and tech-industry types alike wondered about the“what next?” question. What about people who didn’t incite hate or commit libel but were merely someone’s idea of “misleading” or “divisive”?

The Atlantic Council in September put out a paper insisting media producers had a“duty of care” to not “carry the virus” of misinformation. Noting bitterly “the democratization of technology has given individuals capabilities on par with corporations,” the council warned that even domestic content that lacked“context” or “undermines beliefs” could threaten “sovereignty.”

Healing could accelerate, the council argued, by pressuring the market “gatekeepers” to better “filter the quality” of content. “This does not need to be government driven,” it wrote. “Indeed it is better if it is not.”

What does it look like when corporate “gatekeepers” try to “filter” social malcontents? Bassler of the Free Thought Project already had a pretty good idea. Bassler is controversial. On the one hand, he’s one of the most extensive recorders of law-enforcement misbehavior in America.His sites are essentially a giant archive of police-brutality videos. But he has a clear fringe streak. Sift through Free Thought headlines and you’ll find stories about everything from chemtrails to studies that question the efficacy of vaccines.

Overall, the Free Thought Project is a bit like a more politicized, Internet-era version of In Search Of: a mix of real news and the conspiratorial. It aims to fill clear gaps in mainstream-media coverage but also dabbles in themes that would make the Columbia Journalism Review cringe.

Like Reader, Bassler, he says, tried to comply with every Facebook request over the years,because his business depended on it. “I’m not interested in just building a circle jerk of people who agree with me,” says Bassler. “I’m trying to make a difference,so I need Facebook. That’s where the normies are, you know? That’s where you reach people.”

After 2016, Facebook made reaching the “normies” harder for smaller producers. Long before it brought in partners like the Atlantic Council and the International Republican Institute, Facebook invited mainstream-media partners to help fact-check sites. Those included the Associated Press, PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, Snopes and even The Weekly Standard.

Jason Bassler’s more radical page was also shut down with no explanation.
Photo credit: Birch Studio Photography


Bassler did not do well in this process. Four Free Thought Project stories came up factually wanting under reviews. This caused traffic to plummet in the past two years, under a new Facebook policy algorithmically demoting “false news.” The Free Thought Project may not be ProPublica, but Bassler is no Alex Jones. In two cases, his “false” ratings were later overturned by PolitiFact and AP. But his business still took the hit.

The panel-review system poses serious issues. There’s the obvious problem of established media possibly being offered money from Facebook (reportedly as much as $100,000 annually) to directly reduce the business of smaller competitors.

A story by the Columbia Journalism Review about this process quoted unnamed checkers who professed to be unsure of how Facebook was picking sites for review. Some wondered why mainstream-media stories, like from Fox or MSNBC, were being filtered out. Others wondered why Facebook wasn’t fact-checking paid content.

Conspiracy theories aren’t always wrong, and people who have a conspiratorial bent are for this reason often the first to see real problems. Some important early reporting about the 2008 financial crisis, for instance, came from Zero Hedge,a site now routinely dismissed as conspiratorial.

If the question of whether reporting of this type is or is not legit is left up to panels of corporate media — who are often the targets of criticism from such sites — then even legitimate journalism that “undermines beliefs” will soon become rare. Especially when one considers that “reputable” media is often itself an actor in larger political deceptions (the Iraq-WMD episode being the most recent famous example of how terrible and lasting the consequences of disinformation can be), there’s tremendous danger in removing sites willing to play that challenging role.

Bassler’s Free Thought Project was eventually removed on October 11th. We can’t make any assumptions about why. But the opacity of the sifting process makes it hard not to wonder if such sites were chosen for something other than legitimate reasons.

“Unless they make their methodology transparent, we can’t give them the benefit of the doubt,” says Chavern. “Eventually, ‘Trust us’ isn’t going to be good enough.”

THE NEW ERA of “content regulation” has been a mixed bag. Along with bans of neo-Nazi Daily Stormer content from sites like Google, we’ve seen removals of content like a picture of two women kissing or the banning of Arab-language atheist pages in Muslim countries. Venezuela-based left-wing sites like TeleSUR and VenezuelaAnalysis.com have been suspended or deleted from Facebook, feminist cartoonists have seen content removed in India, and videos of self-immolating Tibetan monks have been found to have violated Facebook“community standards.”

Meanwhile,in smaller incidents, libertarians like Daniel Mac Adams of the Ron Paul Institute, progressive organizations like Occupy London and controversial writers such as Australian Caitlin Johnstone — among numerous others — have all been suspended from Twitter and other platforms.

Many of these cases involved suspensions triggered by user complaints, another potential problem area. Since the scale of Internet operations is so vast —billions of pieces of content a day are introduced on platforms like Facebook —companies will always be forced to rely on users to flag problems. As the motives for bans expand, we’ll see more and more people trying to mass-report their online foes into suspensions or bans. Rolling Stone found examples on both the left and the right. For Wizner of the ACLU, this feels key. “If you’re going to have billions of users,” he says, “it’s always going to be Whac-A-Mole. You can’t do it to scale.”

Whatever the democratic cure for what ails us, what we’re doing now is surely the opposite of it. We’ve empowered a small cadre of ex-spooks, tech executives, Senate advisers, autocratic foreign donors and mainstream-media panels to create an unaccountable system of star-chamber content reviews — which unsurprisingly seem so far to have mostly targeted their harshest critics.

“What government doesn’t want to control what news you see?” says Goldman, the law professor.

This is power that would tempt the best and most honest politicians. We’ve already proved that we’re capable of electing the worst and least-honest politicians imaginable. Is this a tool we want such people to have?

On his run to the White House, Donald Trump mined public anxiety and defamed our democracy, but that was just a prelude to selling authoritarianism. On some level, he understood that people make bad decisions when they’re afraid. And he’s succeeded in his short reign in bringing everyone down to his level of nonthinking.

This secretive campaign against fake news may not be Trump’s idea. But it’s a Trump-like idea, something we would never contemplate in a less-frenzied era.We’re scared. We’re not thinking. And this could go wrong in so many ways. For some, it has already.

“It’s Reverb Press today,” says Reader.  “It could be you tomorrow.”

©2018 Penske Media Corporation

Taibbi: Censorship Does Not End Well

How America learned to stop worrying and put Mark Zuckerberg in charge of everything