Category Archives: Current events

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

Never Ever Forget The Guardian-Politico Psyop Against WikiLeaks

The Guardian

From: Caitlin Johnstone

For the first few hours after any new “bombshell” Russiagate story comes out, my social media notifications always light up with poorly written posts by liberal establishment loyalists saying things like “HAHAHA @caitoz this proves you wrong now will you FINALLY stop denying Russian collusion???” Then, when people start actually analyzing that story and noting that it comes nowhere remotely close to proving that Donald Trump colluded with the Russian government to steal the 2016 election, those same people always forget to come back afterward and admit to me that they were wrong again.

This happens every single time, including this past Tuesday when the Guardian published a new “bombshell” report saying that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort had had secret meetings with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. When experts all across the political spectrum began pointing out that the story contained no evidence for its nonsensical claims and was entirely anonymously sourced, nobody ever came back and said “Hey sorry for calling you a Russian propagandist, Caitlin; turns out that story wasn’t as fact-based as I’d thought!” When evidence for a single one of the article’s claims failed to turn up for a day, then two days, then three days, nobody came back and said “Gosh Caitlin, I owe you an apology for mocking you and calling you Assange’s bitch; turns out WikiLeaks and Manafort are suing that publication and its claims remain completely unproven.”

And of course they didn’t. They weren’t meant to. They were meant to absorb the Guardian‘s false claims as fact, add it to their Gish gallop mountain of false evidence for Trump-Russia-WikiLeaks collusion, and then be shuffled onward by the relentless news churn of the corporate propaganda matrix like always. But I’m never going to let them forget that this happened, and neither should you.

Politico publishes article by CIA officer using pen name. Carl Bernstein wrote about CIA using US media in 1977:
“…400 US journalists who in the past 25 yrs have secretly carried out assignments for the CIA.”
“…full-time CIA employees masquerading as journalists abroad.” pic.twitter.com/MLJnTkihj5
— J Pierpont Morgan (@pierpont_morgan) November 29, 2018

If it wasn’t obvious to you last week that there is an unelected power establishment which needs above all else to control the public narrative about what’s going on in the world, it should certainly be obvious to you this week. The Guardian hit piece was so spectacularly desperate in its over-reaching to advance a narrative which has been used to manufacture support for longtime CIA/MI6 agendas like arresting Julian Assange, stopping WikiLeaks, censoring the internet and subverting Russia that it completely exposed itself as the establishment psyop firm that it is.

If that wasn’t evidence enough, in the wake of the Guardian controversy Politico took the downright shocking step of allowing an anonymous former CIA officer to publish a lie-filled article speculating, on no evidence whatsoever, that if the story proves untrue it will be because false information was fed to the Guardian by Russia-linked operatives. The article’s anonymous author claims that there are exactly two main possibilities here: (1) that the article is 100% true and will be vindicated, or (2) that the article is based on disinformation which was planted in “an attempt to make [Guardian author Luke] Harding look bad.”

This is obviously absurd for two reasons. The first reason is because no Kremlin operative could possibly make Luke Harding look worse than Luke Harding did in his pathetic, fumbling attempts to argue his case for collusion while promoting his book Collusion to a less-than-sycophantic interviewer in December of last year, in which Harding grew frustrated and hung up on his own interview. The second reason is that there is another far more likely possibility than the two offered by Politico‘s anonymous spook.

My latest: The Guardian’s latest vilifying of Julian Assange without offering a shred of evidence for its claims was no mistake. It fits a pattern by the paper of damaging those who threaten to disrupt the entrenchment of the existing neoliberal order https://t.co/YiMjfOHxEh
— Jonathan Cook (@Jonathan_K_Cook) November 28, 2018

Former Guardian employee Jonathan Cook explains that from what he learned while working at the outlet, the most likely explanation is that the editors permitted the article to be published because its anonymous sources came from within an intelligence or defense agency. As we’ve seen time and time again, from the Iraq WMD narrative to the Russian hacking narrative, western mass media outlets have a ubiquitous standing policy of printing assertions by opaque, dishonest, unaccountable government agencies as objective fact. When asked why she unquestioningly printed a false assertion that real social media users who deny any connection to Russia were Russian “bots”, the Guardian’s own political editor Heather Stewart unapologetically stated, “It’s not my analysis – as the piece makes quite clear – it’s the government’s.” As long as it comes from the government, the mass media stenographers will print what they’re told to print. But tell me more about how awful RT is because it’s “state media”.

Cook writes as follows:

“I worked for the Guardian for a number of years, and know well the layers of checks that any highly sensitive story has to go through before publication. In that lengthy process, a variety of commissioning editors, lawyers, backbench editors and the editor herself, Kath Viner, would normally insist on cuts to anything that could not be rigorously defended and corroborated.

“And yet this piece seems to have been casually waved through, given a green light even though its profound shortcomings were evident to a range of well-placed analysts and journalists from the outset.

“That at the very least hints that the Guardian thought they had ‘insurance’ on this story. And the only people who could have promised that kind of insurance are the security and intelligence services – presumably of Britain, the United States and / or Ecuador.

“It appears the Guardian has simply taken this story, provided by spooks, at face value.”


It’s not my analysis – as the piece makes quite clear – it’s the government’s. https://t.co/50C7Ozhv8m
— Heather Stewart (@GuardianHeather) April 20, 2018

The claims made by Luke Harding and the Guardian will never be proven true, and they know it. They knowingly printed claims that they were one hundred percent aware they’d never be able to provide proof of, and the clicks their viral story generated rewarded them with a shower of cash. Their fake story was then passed along by news outlets everywhere, including an MSNBC panel which hilariously kept informing its readers that if this Guardian report is confirmed it would be the first ever actual evidence linking Trump to WikiLeaks in a meaningful way.

We must never forget that this was done. We must keep bringing up the undeniable fact that the Guardian published false claims about a longtime target of western intelligence and defense agencies, then was backed up by a longtime insider from one of those agencies who was permitted to publish anonymously in an ostensibly unrelated outlet. This is one of those jaw-dropping glimpses behind the puppet stage we must never permit the world to forget, much like the time CNN knowingly staged a fake interview with a Syrian girl reciting scripted war propaganda. We must keep bringing this up at every opportunity in our efforts to give people glimpses behind the propaganda curtain, continuing to remind them next week, next month, next year, and ten years from now.

Forgiveness is overrated. Forgiveness is a key foundational element in most abusive relationships, wherein the abusee is manipulated or bullied into forgiving the abuser again and again, without ever holding a grudge. This is true of a battered spouse, and it is true of an oppressed populace. The ability to hold a grudge is therefore of paramount importance in fighting the propaganda machine on which our rulers have built their oppressive empire. Otherwise we will be shuffled forward in the news churn, just like the goldfish-brained Russiagaters who are moved along from one false story to the next into the amnesia of the endlessly spewing news churn.


Forgiveness Is Overrated
“From the Pope down, we’ve been anesthetized with this mind-virus that in order to be good people we just put our head down, work hard, die poor, and let God do the judging. How convenient for power is that story?”https://t.co/8ONzKpc2BM
— Caitlin Johnstone ⏳ (@caitoz) October 6, 2018

Don’t forget. Remember this one. Remember it, and keep bringing it up.

Lula lawyer says Judge Moro’s acceptance as Justice Minister in Bolsonaro government is ‘lawfare in its essence’

zanin-moro
Cristiano Zanin Martins and Sergio Moro. Photos: Reproduction/Facebook and Agência Brasil

The lawyer Cristiano Zanin Martins who defends ex-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva said the acceptance of Judge  Sérgio Moro to be Minister of Justice in the Jair Bolsonaro government is “lawfare in its essence”.

In a press release, Zanin said the act proved definitively what Lula’s defence had always denounced. “Lula was processed, condemned and imprisoned without having committed a crime, with the clear objective of impeding him politically. This is lawfare in its essence, as Lula suffered intense political persecution by means of abuse and misuse of the laws and legal proceedings”, he said.

The full text of the press release is below:

PRESS RELEASE FROM PRESIDENT LULA’S DEFENCE

The formalization of the entry of Judge Sérgio Moro into politics and the revelation of conversations held during the presidential election campaign with the President elect’s campaign prove definitively what we always argued in appeals filed in the Brazilian courts and also with the UN Human Rights Committee: Lula was processed, condemned and imprisoned without having committed a crime, with the clear objective of impeding him politically. This is lawfare in its essence, as Lula suffered intense political persecution by means of abuse and misuse of the laws and legal proceedings.

The defence will take all due measures at the national and international levels to argue Lula’s right to a fair, impartial and independent judgement.

Cristiano Zanin Martinse

A matemática do Brasil do Bolsonaro

Bolsonaro e Lula

Foto: huffpostbrasil.com

O que os números e a resolução de equações pode dizer para nós sobre a situação no Brasil? Vejamos os números e os fatores que podem entrar numa equação. Geralmente, o passado tem uma influência no presente e o presente pode nos dizer algo sobre o futuro, mas estes dois aspectos sobre o tempo, o passado e o futuro, talvez terão de ser reavaliadas enquanto movemos através do nosso exame.

Numa equação, temos duas partes, cada uma de um lado de um sinal = ou igual, e temos que alcançar um equilíbrio para assegurar que não tenha erro.

Quais fatores devemos ter em conta nas equações? Números absolutos de cada lado; por exemplo, o montante de dinheiro levado à situação por cada lado, usando um sinal + para fatores positivos e um sinal – para fatores negativos. Os sinais + estão usados para o que sabemos que é real e sinais – para equilibrar o que sabemos que é falso.

Sabemos que no lado direito temos mais dinheiro e que a sociedade acredita que isso é importante. Sabemos que o lado esquerdo está  falando que não tem justiça e portanto que a conta, a votação, está inválida.

O lado direito, geralmente acredita que o dinheiro ou o poder é um direito divino, e que nem todos têm tal direito.

O conselho do lado esquerdo é que devemos nos unir, que temos que lutar, que devemos nos organizar. O conselho do lado direito é que temos que lutar, que temos que nos defender, que devemos destruir e eliminar para sempre as pessoas barulhentas da esquerda.

Até que aqueles na esquerda e na direita possam ouvir o que está sendo dito de ambos os pontos de vista, não teremos paz.

Aquele que está recebendo o conselho, Lula, nunca diz que era da esquerda e sempre escutou os dois lados.

O número 13 é o número que o Partido dos Trabalhadores usa em suas campanhas. Há um mito ou lenda que o número 13 é que dar azar. Não é verdade. Na minha tradição, os padeiros assaram 13 pães em vez de 12 para suprir a necessidade se qualquer situação  desafortunada acontecer, tal como a perda de um ou a queda acidental de um e assim por adiante.

Da mesma tradição, o Partido dos Trabalhadores do Reino Unido sempre buscou a harmonia entre as classes em vez de guerra de classes. Aqueles que ainda acreditam em guerra de classes,  de qualquer lado, estão propagando o que dizem estar contra, desequilíbrio e desigualdade.

Há uma abreviação interessante no português brasileiro sobre o PT. Pode significar ou o Partido dos Trabalhadores ou a Perda Total, que é um termo de seguros para quando um carro está dado como não valendo a pena de reparar depois de um acidente de carro. Este termo entrou na cultura popular com a frase, ‘Vai dar PT’ ou na piada invertida como ‘Não vai dar PT’.

Qualquer um que se considere um trabalhador, ou não trabalhador, também deve pensar sobre o motivo pelo qual um trabalhador se considere excluído ou incluído nessa categoria, e o porquê de qualquer outra pessoa não ser um trabalhador.

Neste tempo,  os brasileiros têm que pensar em perda, em quem ganhou e o que está perdido ou ganho.

The mathematics of Bolsonaro’s Brazil

Bolsonaro e LulaPhoto: huffpostbrasil.com

What can the numbers and resolving the equations tell us about the situation in Brazil? Let us look at the numbers and the factors we can put into an equation.

Generally the past has an influence on the present and the present can tell us something about the future, but these two time aspects, past and future, may have to be reassessed as we move through our examination.

In an equation, we have two sides either side of an equals sign, and we have to achieve a balance to be sure there is no error.

What factors should we take into account in any equations? Absolute numbers on any side, the amount of money brought to bear by either side, using a plus sign for positive factors and a negative sign for negative ones.

Plus signs are used for what we know to be real and negative ones to balance anything we know to be false.

We know the side on the right have more money and that society believes this is important. We know the left side are saying this is not fair and therefore that the count, the vote, is invalid.

The side on the right, generally believe that money or power is a divine right, and that others do not have that right.

The counsel from the left side is we must unite, we must fight, we must organize. The counsel from the right is we must fight, we must defend, we must destroy and eliminate for ever those noisy non-persons on the left.

Until those on the left and on the right can hear what is being said from both points of view, we shall not have peace.

The one receiving the counsel, Lula, never said he was on the left and would always listen to those on both sides.

The number 13 is the number the Worker’s Party uses in their campaigns. There is a myth or legend that the number 13 is unlucky. This is not true. In my tradition, bakers used to bake 13 loaves of bread rather than 12 so as to have a spare for any misfortune that should befall, such as loss of one or the accidentally dropping of one and so forth. It is called a baker’s dozen.

From that same tradition, the Labour Party in England always sought to bring about harmony between the classes rather than class warfare. Those who still believe in class warfare, of either side, are propagating what they claim to be against, imbalance and inequality.

There is an interesting abbreviation in Brazilian Portuguese about the PT. It can either mean Partido dos Trabalhadores or Perda Total (Complete Loss), which is an insurance term for when a car is written off after an accident as not worth repairing. This term has entered the popular culture with the phrase, ‘Vai dar PT’ (It will be a total loss) or the joke inverted as ‘Não vai dar PT’ (It will not be a total loss).

The number 13 is used the Worker’s Party in their campaigns and is a prime number. The number Bolsonaro used in this campaign for the presidency is 17, also a prime number, one that is indivisible by any other number other than itself or the number one.

Anyone who considers himself a worker or not a worker must also think about why he considers himself as excluded or included in this category, and why anyone else is considered not a worker.

This is the time when all Brazilians should be thinking about loss, who has won and what was lost or won.

 

Companies pay for campaign against Worker’s Party through WhatsApp

bolsonaro_whatsappContracts worth US$ 3 million break the law on undeclared political donations

Patrícia Campos Mello

FOLHA DE SÃO PAULO

Companies have bought packages of mass dispersal of messages against the Worker’s Party (PT) using WhatsApp and are preparing a big operation in the week before the final round.

The practice is illegal, as it consists of campaign donation by companies, which is forbidden under the electoral legislation, and was undeclared.

The Folha newspaper found that each contract is worth up to US$ 3 million, and that among the companies buying are Havan. The contracts are for the dispersal of hundreds of millions of messages.

The companies supporting the candidacy of Jair Bolsonaro (PSL) bought a service called “mass dispersal”, using the user database of the candidate or databases sold by digital strategy agencies. This is also illegal, as the electoral legislation forbids buying the database from third parties, only allowing the use of lists of supporters of the candidate themselves (numbers given voluntarily).

When they use a third party database, these agencies offer segmentation by geographical region, and sometimes by income. The client is then sent delivery reports containing the date, time and content sent.

Among the agencies providing this type of services are Quickmobile, a Yacows, Croc Services and SMS Market.

Prices vary from R$ 0.08 to R$ 0.12 for dispersal of a message to the database of the candidate and from R$ 0.30 to R$ 0.40 when the database is supplied by the agency.

The user databases are often supplied illegally by credit companies or by staff from telephone companies.

Companies investigated by the report said they were unable to accept requests before 28th October, the date of the final round of the election, saying their services were booked for huge dispersal through WhatsApp in the week before bought by private companies.

Questioned whether he used mass dispersal, Luciano Hang, owner of Havan, said he “did not know what it was”, and that “We have no need. I did a ‘live’ broadcast here now. It was not boosted and already achieved 1.3 million people. What is the need to boost? Let’s say I have 2,000 friends. I send it to my friends and it goes viral.”

Asked for comment, the partner in QuickMobile, Peterson Rosa, said the company is not working in the political arena this year and that the focus is only on corporate media. He denied having signed a contract with political content dispersal companies.

Richard Papadimitriou, of Yacows said he would make no comment. SMS Market did not respond to requests for an interview.

The accounts for the candidate Jair Bolsonaro (PSL) show only that the company AM4 Brasil Inteligencia Digital as having received US$ 310,000  for digital media.

According to Marcos Aurelio Carvalho, one of the owners of the company, AM4 only has 20 people working on the campaign. “Those working on the campaign are the thousands of volunteer supporters throughout Brazil. The groups are set up and fed organically”, he said.

He said that AM4 only maintains groups on WhatsApp to denounce fake news, transmission lists and state groups called content committees.

However, the Folha newspaper found out from ex-members of staff and clients that the AM4 service is not restricted to that.

One of the tools used by the Bolsonaro campaign is the generation of overseas numbers automatically by sites such as TextNow.

Staff and volunteers have dozens of such numbers, which they use to administer groups or to take part in them. With area codes from other countries, these administrators escape the spam filters and the limitations imposed by WhatsApp — the maximum of 256 participants in each group and the automatic forwarding of a single message to up to 20 people or groups.

These administrators also use algorithms that segment the members of groups between supporters, detractors and neutral, and are thus able to customize the most efficient type of content sent.

Most of the content is not produced by the campaign but rather from supporters.

The administrators of Bolsonaro support groups also identify “influencers”: very active supporters who they contact to set up more groups and do other actions in favour of the candidate. This practice is not illegal.

There is no indication that AM4 signed contracts for mass dispersal; Carvalho denied that his company do user segmentation or manipulation of content.

Estimates of the number of people working in the sector on the number of WhatsApp anti-PT groups are very vague — between 20,000 and 300,000 — as it is impossible to calculate the closed groups.

Diogo Rais, Professor of electoral Law at the Mackenzie University, said the buying of WhatsApp dispersal services by companies to favour a candidate would be considered an undeclared campaign donation, which is forbidden.

He did not comment in specific cases, but reminds that this form could be qualified as a crime of abuse of economic power, and of judged to have influenced the election, lead to disqualification of the ticket.

IN MINAS GERAIS, ROMEU ZEMA HIRED A BOOSTER COMPANY

The candidate for governor of the Minas Gerais state of the Partido Novo, Romeu Zema, declared to the Superior Electoral  Court, payment of US$ 54,000 to Croc Services for diffusion of content. The state directorate of the party in Minas spent US$ 45,000 with the company.

The Folha newspaper had Access to the proposals and e-mail exchanges from the company with various campaigns offering mass dispersal using the database of third parties, which is illegal.

Questioned by Folha, Pedro Freitas, partner-director of Croc Services said: “The one who has to know the electoral legislation is the candidate, not me.”

Later, he back-pedalled and said he did not knowf his company provided services to Zema. Afterwards, he sent a message saying he had checked their records and that they had sold packages for mass dispersal over WhatsApp, but only to databases of the candidate himself, party members and Zema supporters —which is legal.

Asked for comment, the campaign said that they had “contracted the message service only for WhatsApp for the sending to party members, people registered to the web site and supporter mobilization events”.

The Folha newspaper found that voters in Minas received WhatsApp messages linking the vote for Zema to the vote for Jair Bolsonaro days before the first round. Zema, who was in third place in the polls, finished in first place.

Collaborators: Joana Cunha and Walter Nunes

The Brazilian marketer who imported the Trump’s campaign method to use in 2018

Andre Torretta

Andre Torretta, at his office in São Paulo. Luís Simione

Andre Torretta associated himself to Cambridge Analytica, the controversial agency who worked for the Republican

“Am I fooling you? No, I am just giving you what you want to see”, he says about the strategy
El País, São Paulo 15 Oct 2017

“I bought a beach and I don’t want others to go there. What is the best sign to put in the sand?”, marketer Andre Torretta asked as he showed two photos in a PowerPoint presentation on his MacBook. “This one, saying the beach is private, or this one, warning of sharks? The one about sharks works better”, he said smiling, at his office, at a colourful coworking and ostensibly friendly building in a prime area in São Paulo. And if there’s no shark on the beach it would be a lie, right? “If there were no shark, then it’s fake news”, he conceded. “I won’t do that, but it exists, it’s possible and can be done, at the limit of ethics”.

The metaphor of the shark ” at the limit of ethics” is part of the material the 52 year old from Bahia state takes to introduce his new company, Cambridge Analytica Ponte, in the competitive Brazilian political marketing market. The agency is a mixture of his old consultancy specialized in class C Brazilians, Ponte Estrategia, with the British multinational Cambridge Analytica, a company that had promised to change, using psychology and big data, the behaviour of voters and consumers. In its portfolio, Cambridge Analytica has nothing less than the successful – and controversial – campaign of Donald Trump in the United States. The strategy used is to track the personality of the individuals on the basis of classic precepts of psychology and on the digital breadcrumbs we leave every day, such as social network profiles, GPS locations of places visited, data from the use of public services and online purchases. From there, they say they can produce messages moulded practically to the individual level, and they work to ensure they are delivered. To the target.

Ever since Trump won, Cambridge Analytica, which boasts of having read the minds of 210 million Americans, has not left the centre of controversy. It’s principal shareholder is the billionaire Robert Mercer, known for having changed Wall Street using big data and for being an important financier of conservative and far-right activists. There are academics in the USA and in the United Kingdom saying there are terrified about the company, a precisely targeting propaganda machine, and which if used without scruples, could be damaging. Others say a lot of it is self-marketing and are sceptical if whether, in fact, their method can deliver. “Cambridge did an ad in which it seems there is a monster behind it, but there isn’t. It is about making it more efficient”, says Torretta, who says he has adapted the strategy of the company because of the legal and technological differences between the two countries. “I tropicalized the methodology.”

If in the USA the fame of Cambridge is associated with CEO Alexander James Ashburner Nix, a 41 year old  Englishman who only appears wearing well-cut suits, branded glasses and well-combed hair, Andre Torretta is definitively more tropical. On the Friday he received EL PAIS, the marketer who has worked for 20 years in the field and on campaigns such as those for the Jose and Roseana Sarney from Maranhão and that of ex-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, did not wear a suit and wore a bright lilac coloured shirts. The thick lens glasses were not of any definable brand. He didn’t stop making jokes, many of them about himself. “My jokes are off the record, for the Love of God.” He said he couldn’t speak English and is far from the technological genius type. Even so, he guaranteed, it was the British sensation from the world of political marketing who sought him out, not the other way round.

According to Torreta, when they were working for the Trump campaign, Cambridge were also looking to the Brazilian 2018 elections. He says he was sought out a year and a half ago by a Spanish executive from SCL (Strategic Communication Laboratories), the mother company behind Cambridge Analytica. The envoy was looking for a partnership. That was when he heard for the first time of the Ocean methodology. “The guys were saying Ocean, Ocean. And I said, well, but tell me how and what it is. How do you get the egg to stand up?”, he said. The method (read further below) classifies people into five profiles in accordance the initial letters of the word – Openness (measures how open people are to new experiences), conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism (emotional instability or how neurotic the person may be) – to then customize the campaigns for each profile. “So I saw they had a methodology able to make the egg stand up”.

In the United States, the ‘egg’ is ‘standing up’ thanks to around 7,000 data points that Cambridge, according to Torretta, is able to use on each individual. “The United States legislation is obscenely open. Thank God ours is not like that. It doesn’t allow me to go to Mastercard and buy all your data. It is forbidden both here and in England, in Germany it’s impossible. In the United States they even sell your soul”. In Brazil, Torretta calculates that this number of data points on everyone reaches 750 and that is where the tropicalization starts that he says he has done on the method. “The databases for Brazil are being built now. We have good well-stocked public databases. The government must have at least 500 to 700 data points on us, IBGE must have about 250 points, not personal, but of the micro-region where you live”, he explained. “So we already have 700 data points on each Brazilian. The credit rating agency, Serasa, must have another 40 data points”, he enthuses. He is convinced that, even if out data situation does not compare to the USA, his new company will work with much more information than any of his competitors. Not even private enterprise uses the potential of the data already available in Brazil, the marketer said.

The key, he argues, is going beyond the traditional stratifications of social class, place and sex to something much more specific. The campaigns in Brazil are already using some micro-targeting, but the bet has been made that the entry of big data and the consolidation of social networks changes the outlook profoundly. “Those going after Ivete Sangalo are the same as those going after Claudia Leite? No.” In other words, two women aged 35 from a prime area of Jardins, in São Paulo, may have completely different inclinations on the question of global warming and this can be decisive when buying a car or voting. In the calculations of the marketer,  if each presidential candidate, for example, has more or less 50 speeches on the programme for government, you only have to choose which is the most suitable for each one. Torretta goes back to the PowerPoint presentation to point out a slide with five photos of President Michel Temer in different circumstances. “I can tell you which photo is better, in accordance with the neighbourhood or social class or the psychographic trace [of the person]”, he said. “Am I fooling you? No, I am just giving you what you want to see.”

Ethical dilemmas and MBL

But can the production of speeches on demand not deepen ethical dilemmas already known in national political marketing? Up to what point can the technique go without manipulating or stealing elections? Torretta rejects the idea. “I am a professional of argument. I don’t need to lie. We talk about change of behaviour, behavioural communication”. He admits, however, that the example of the sign warning of supposed sharks at the beginning of the report, provoking or exacerbating the feeling of fear to induce the behaviour of not going to the beach, is already being used in Brazil. “There you have to have a change in the game that, for me, is more violent than technological. This type of communication, that MBL knows how to do very well, was used in war. It’s more deep-seated. Someone taught them this.”

Torretta said he would reject a proposal to work with the right-wing activists Movimento Brasil Livre, but praises the digital militancy expertise of the group, who he says have an excellent database. “I always highlighted their skill.” And with the candidate the group has supported up until now, the mayor of São Paulo, João Doria, Would he work with them? “I have already done lots of talks for Doria, for Lide [organization of companions set up by Doria]. That’s one conversation I cannot deny”.

With a lean “and well-paid” group of 12 people, the marketer says he has not yet closed a deal with any presidential campaign, but says he was sounded out by two of them in recent weeks. “And we are in two state pre-campaigns”, he adds, without revealing where or for whom. “The problem is that Cambridge is perhaps very sophisticated for the Brazilian regional market, because we don’t do any digital campaign well”, he said. “Now a breach has opened up for politicians to do boosting [to pay for publications to reach more people on Facebook).” Thus he believes that “Cambridge will be sexy” for the Brazilian market.

The change that allows paid political advertising on Facebook, approved in the Brazilian political reform, is at the centre of a scandal in the USA, with two revelations: that it was staff of the social network itself that had worked as consultants on the Trump campaign, which invested heavily in performance tests of different ads on the platform, and that Russia paid to broaden the sending of messages on the network to stimulate the political division in the USA. The centrality this discussion took on in the USA showed that this authorization of use in Facebook in Brazil could be crucial in 2018 both for companies such as Cambridge as well as the monitoring of social networks, which have been active in Brazilian campaigns since 2014. On one point, the tools of big data can mine the information of each voter. On another, the Facebook advertising machine which holds a much more complex map of the user inclinations will deliver the political campaign with precision.

Whatever the case, for Torretta, any strategy that only considers Facebook in Brazil will not be complete. “The big social network in Brazil is WhatsApp”, he says. And that is where the tropicalization of the method to which he referred will be complete, his preferred workaround. He intends to use all the databases within reach – the first one being that of the party for which he is working – to transform the WhatsApp users into digital activists. He says he merely wants to systematize what people are already doing on their own. “People are interested in politics, but the parties are not taking part in the discussion.” Torretta tells how he created an app similar to WhatsApp, which has to be downloaded by sympathizers to work as a channel with the campaign. With the app, one can Interact with voters and ask them to share the candidate’s content on all the social networks, and especially on WhatsApp itself. Even if the adherence is only 10%, the impact will be considerable, he believes.

To set up this distribution network the marketer plans to leave big data and the new tools and return to his experience as a consultant specialized in class C, accustomed to qualitative surveys and to explain to companies regional differences, especially in the north-east. The mine of his original company, Ponte, he argues, are the dozens of contacts that he calls antenna, which he gathered during years of trying to understand the level of consumption in poorer communities: a community leader, a rapper, a young person who has the most visited page on the extreme east zone in São Paulo, all could have been his antennas in some consultancy for private brands in the past.

It all sounds very ambitious, but the marketer says the workaround has been tested and is working. The laboratory was a image positioning campaign carried out for the state deputy at the beginning of the year in Amapa – he doesn’t reveal the name. His team went to the state in the north, mapped the antennas, distributed the application and started to send out material. “Brazil is like the jabuticaba fruit. No marketer from abroad has been successful here. Quite the contrary, we export marketers”, he says. “Something that works in New York may very well not work in Amapa. But something that works in Amapa works anywhere”, he laughs.

Besides the pilot in Amapa, the preparation for the 2018 campaigns also involved a classic research study, to monitor Brazilian humour and the principal matters of interest. One of the basic but essential discoveries, he says, is that the population wants to see empathy in politicians. Another, more surprising for him, is that the discomfort with the very high interest rates for consumers has come on to the agenda for once and for all, as a result of the majority of the electorate with at least secondary education. “I can elect a federal deputy Just talking about interest rates”, he says. Another of his conclusions is that the preaching for “smaller State” hasn’t yet got through to the class C population.

What are the chances of a radical candidate, from the left or the right? At this question, Torretta becomes serious. He says he doesn’t believe that radicals – without mentioning names – can win. “The intelligent radical is one who can fool the people and pretends to be in the centre. People do not like radical things”, he says. “And, thank God, our radicals are not very intelligent and society has not embraced their agendas. This is why they have only found an echo in their own groups “, he says, but adds with more humour than analysis: “I have faith. I go to church on Sunday, on Monday I go to umbanda and on Tuesday I go to the spirit centre”. And where are the white clothes of the candomble devotees if we on a Friday? Torretta turns in his chair and raises his leg up high, showing his white trousers. “Marketer and from Bahia. This is a profession with a very heavy karma.”

The Ocean method

Ocean is the initial of each word: Openness (measures how open people are to new experiences), Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism (emotional instability or how neurotic the person may be) – to then customize the campaigns for each profile

To apply this technique, the person has to respond to a questionnaire consisting of about 20 statements, whose responses are made into scales of how much they agree or disagree with a given statement. The phrases are simple and direct, for example such as, “I have a vivid imagination”, or “I believe in the importance of art”, and “I tend to vote for liberal politicians” or “I don’t like myself”, “I insult people”, or “I run away from my responsibilities”.

Before seeing the result, you have to leave your e-mail or log in to a Facebook account, obliging the user to leave another data point to fatten the agency database.

Torretta explains it is possible to construct an Ocean scale, as it would be impossible to have a questionnaire responded to by 100% of the population. “Of course Cambridge dreams of having 7 billion people in the whole world answer the questionnaire”.