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How the Department of Homeland Security Created a Deceptive Tale of Russia Hacking US Voter Sites

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The narrative of Russian intelligence attacking state and local election boards and threatening the integrity of U.S. elections has achieved near-universal acceptance by media and political elites.  And now it has been accepted by the Trump administration’s intelligence chief, Dan Coats, as well. 

But the real story behind that narrative, recounted here for the first time, reveals that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) created and nurtured an account that was grossly and deliberately deceptive.

DHS compiled an intelligence report suggesting hackers linked to the Russian government could have targeted voter-related websites in many states and then leaked a sensational story of Russian attacks on those sites without the qualifications that would have revealed a different story. When state election officials began asking questions, they discovered that the DHS claims were false and, in at least one case, laughable.

The National Security Agency and special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigating team have also claimed evidence that Russian military intelligence was behind election infrastructure hacking, but on closer examination, those claims turn out to be speculative and misleading as well. Mueller’s indictment of 12 GRU military intelligence officers does not cite any violations of U.S. election laws though it claims Russia interfered with the 2016 election.

A Sensational Story 

On Sept. 29, 2016, a few weeks after the hacking of election-related websites in Illinois and Arizona, ABC News carried a sensational headline: “Russian Hackers Targeted Nearly Half of States’ Voter Registration Systems, Successfully Infiltrated 4.” The story itself reported that “more than 20 state election systems” had been hacked, and four states had been “breached” by hackers suspected of working for the Russian government. The story cited only sources “knowledgeable” about the matter, indicating that those who were pushing the story were eager to hide the institutional origins of the information.

Behind that sensational story was a federal agency seeking to establish its leadership within the national security state apparatus on cybersecurity, despite its limited resources for such responsibility. In late summer and fall 2016, the Department of Homeland Security was maneuvering politically to designate state and local voter registration databases and voting systems as “critical infrastructure.” Such a designation would make voter-related networks and websites under the protection a “priority sub-sector” in the DHS “National Infrastructure Protection Plan, which already included 16 such sub-sectors.

DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson and other senior DHS officials consulted with many state election officials in the hope of getting their approval for such a designation. Meanwhile, the DHS was finishing an intelligence report that would both highlight the Russian threat to U.S. election infrastructure and the role DHS could play in protecting it, thus creating political impetus to the designation. But several secretaries of state—the officials in charge of the election infrastructure in their state—strongly opposed the designation that Johnson wanted.

On Jan. 6, 2017—the same day three intelligence agencies released a joint “assessment” on Russian interference in the election—Johnson announced the designation anyway.

Media stories continued to reflect the official assumption that cyber attacks on state election websites were Russian-sponsored. Stunningly, The Wall Street Journal reported in December 2016 that DHS was itself behind hacking attempts of Georgia’s election database.

The facts surrounding the two actual breaches of state websites in Illinois and Arizona, as well as the broader context of cyberattacks on state websites, didn’t support that premise at all.

In July, Illinois discovered an intrusion into its voter registration website and the theft of personal information on as many as 200,000 registered voters. (The 2018 Mueller indictments of GRU officers would unaccountably put the figure at 500,000.) Significantly, however, the hackers only had copied the information and had left it unchanged in the database.

That was a crucial clue to the motive behind the hack. DHS Assistant Secretary for Cyber Security and Communications Andy Ozment told a Congressional committee in late September 2016 that the fact hackers hadn’t tampered with the voter data indicated that the aim of the theft was not to influence the electoral process. Instead, it was “possibly for the purpose of selling personal information.” Ozment was contradicting the line that already was being taken on the Illinois and Arizona hacks by the National Protection and Programs Directorate and other senior DHS officials.

In an interview with me last year, Ken Menzel, the legal adviser to the Illinois secretary of state, confirmed what Ozment had testified.

“Hackers have been trying constantly to get into it since 2006,” Menzel said, adding that they had been probing every other official Illinois database with such personal data for vulnerabilities as well.  “Every governmental database—driver’s licenses, health care, you name it—has people trying to get into it,” said Menzel.

In the other successful cyberattack on an electoral website, hackers had acquired the username and password for the voter database Arizona used during the summer, as Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan learned from the FBI. But the reason that it had become known, according to Reagan in an interview with Mother Jones, was that the login and password had shown up for sale on the dark web—the network of websites used by cyber criminals to sell stolen data and other illicit wares.

Furthermore, the FBI had told her that the effort to penetrate the database was the work of a “known hacker” whom the FBI had monitored “frequently” in the past. Thus, there were reasons to believe that both Illinois and Arizona hacking incidents were linked to criminal hackers seeking information they could sell for profit.

Meanwhile, the FBI was unable to come up with any theory about what Russia might have intended to do with voter registration data such as what was taken in the Illinois hack.  When FBI Counterintelligence official Bill Priestap was asked in a June 2017 hearing how Moscow might use such data, his answer revealed that he had no clue:

“They took the data to understand what it consisted of,” said the struggling Priestap, “so they can affect better understanding and plan accordingly in regards to possibly impacting future elections by knowing what is there and studying it.”

The inability to think of any plausible way for the Russian government to use such data explains why DHS and the intelligence community adopted the argument, as senior DHS officials Samuel Liles and Jeanette Manfra (image on the right) put it, that the hacks “could be intended or used to undermine public confidence in electoral processes and potentially the outcome.” But such a strategy could not have had any effect without a decision by DHS and the U.S. intelligence community to assert publicly that the intrusions and other scanning and probing were Russian operations, despite the absence of hard evidence. So DHS and other agencies were consciously sowing public doubts about U.S. elections that they were attributing to Russia.

DHS Reveals Its Self-Serving Methodology

In June 2017, Liles and Manfra testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee that an October 2016 DHS intelligence report had listed election systems in 21 states that were “potentially targeted by Russian government cyber actors.”  They revealed that the sensational story leaked to the press in late September 2016 had been based on a draft of the DHS report. And more importantly, their use of the phrase “potentially targeted” showed that they were arguing only that the cyber incidents it listed were possible indications of a Russian attack on election infrastructure.

Furthermore, Liles and Manfra said the DHS report had “catalogued suspicious activity we observed on state government networks across the country,” which had been “largely based on suspected malicious tactics and infrastructure.” They were referring to a list of eight IP addresses an August 2016 FBI “flash alert” had obtained from the Illinois and Arizona intrusions, which DHS and FBI had not been able to  attribute to the Russian government.

The DHS officials recalled that the DHS began to “receive reports of cyber-enabled scanning and probing of election-related infrastructure in some states, some of which appeared to originate from servers operated by a Russian company.” Six of the eight IP addresses in the FBI alert were indeed traced to King Servers, owned by a young Russian living in Siberia. But as DHS cyber specialists knew well, the country of ownership of the server doesn’t prove anything about who was responsible for hacking: As cybersecurity expert Jeffrey Carr pointed out, the Russian hackers who coordinated the Russian attack on Georgian government websites in 2008 used a Texas-based company as the hosting provider.

The cybersecurity firm ThreatConnect noted in 2016 that one of the other two IP addresses had hosted a Russian criminal market for five months in 2015. But that was not a serious indicator, either. Private IP addresses are reassigned frequently by server companies, so there is not a necessary connection between users of the same IP address at different times.

The DHS methodology of selecting reports of cyber incidents involving election-related websites as “potentially targeted” by Russian government-sponsored hackers was based on no objective evidence whatever. The resulting list appears to have included any one of the eight addresses as well as any attack or “scan” on a public website that could be linked in any way to elections.

This methodology conveniently ignored the fact that criminal hackers were constantly trying to get access to every database in those same state, country and municipal systems. Not only for Illinois and Arizona officials, but state electoral officials.

In fact, 14 of the 21 states on the list experienced nothing more than the routine scanning that occurs every day, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee. Only six involved what was referred to as a “malicious access attempt,” meaning an effort to penetrate the site. One of them was in Ohio, where the attempt to find a weakness lasted less than a second and was considered by DHS’s internet security contractor a “non-event” at the time.

State Officials Force DHS to Tell the Truth

For a year, DHS did not inform the 21 states on its list that their election boards or other election-related sites had been attacked in a presumed Russian-sponsored operation. The excuse DHS officials cited was that it could not reveal such sensitive intelligence to state officials without security clearances. But the reluctance to reveal the details about each case was certainly related to the reasonable expectation that states would publicly challenge their claims, creating a potential serious embarrassment.

On Sept. 22, 2017, DHS notified 21 states about the cyber incidents that had been included in the October 2016 report. The public announcement of the notifications said DHS had notified each chief election officer of “any potential targeting we were aware of in their state leading up to the 2016 election.” The phrase “potential targeting” again telegraphed the broad and vague criterion DHS had adopted, but it was ignored in media stories.

But the notifications, which took the form of phone calls lasting only a few minutes, provided a minimum of information and failed to convey the significant qualification that DHS was only suggesting targeting as a possibility. “It was a couple of guys from DHS reading from a script,” recalled one state election official who asked not to be identified. “They said [our state] was targeted by Russian government cyber actors.”

A number of state election officials recognized that this information conflicted with what they knew. And if they complained, they got a more accurate picture from DHS. After Wisconsin Secretary of State Michael Haas demanded further clarification, he got an email response from a DHS official  with a different account.

“[B]ased on our external analysis,” the official wrote, “the WI [Wisconsin] IP address affected belongs to the WI Department of Workforce Development, not the Elections Commission.”

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said DHS initially had notified his office “that Russian cyber actors ‘scanned’ California’s Internet-facing systems in 2016, including Secretary of State websites.” But under further questioning, DHS admitted to Padilla that what the hackers had targeted was the California Department of Technology’s network.

Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos and Oklahoma Election Board spokesman Byron Dean also denied that any state website with voter- or election-related information had been targeted, and Pablos demanded that DHS “correct its erroneous notification.”

Despite these embarrassing admissions, a statement issued by DHS spokesman Scott McConnell on Sept. 28, 2017 said the DHS “stood by” its assessment that 21 states “were the target of Russian government cyber actors seeking vulnerabilities and access to U.S. election infrastructure.” The statement retreated from the previous admission that the notifications involved “potential targeting,” but it also revealed for the first time that DHS had defined “targeting” very broadly indeed.

It said the category included “some cases” involving “direct scanning of targeted systems” but also cases in which “malicious actors scanned for vulnerabilities in networks that may be connected to those systems or have similar characteristics in order to gain information about how to later penetrate their target.”

It is true that hackers may scan one website in the hope of learning something that could be useful for penetrating another website, as cybersecurity expert Prof. Herbert S. Lin of Stanford University explained to me in an interview. But including any incident in which that motive was theoretical meant that any state website could be included on the DHS list, without any evidence it was related to a political motive.

Arizona’s further exchanges with DHS revealed just how far DHS had gone in exploiting that escape clause in order to add more states to its “targeted” list. Arizona Secretary of State Michele Reagan tweeted that DHS had informed her that “the Russian government targeted our voter registration systems in 2016.” After meeting with DHS officials in early October 2017, however, Reagan wrote in a blog post that DHS “could not confirm that any attempted Russian government hack occurred whatsoever to any election-related system in Arizona, much less the statewide voter registration database.”

What the DHS said in that meeting, as Reagan’s spokesman Matt Roberts recounted to me, is even more shocking.

“When we pressed DHS on what exactly was actually targeted, they said it was the Phoenix public library’s computers system,” Roberts recalled.

Image below: National Security Agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Md. (Wikimedia)

In April 2018, a CBS News “60 Minutes” segment reported that the October 2016 DHS intelligence report had included the Russian government hacking of a “county database in Arizona.” Responding to that CBS report, an unidentified “senior Trump administration official” who was well-briefed on the DHS report told Reuters that “media reports” on the issue had sometimes “conflated criminal hacking with Russian government activity,” and that the cyberattack on the target in Arizona “was not perpetrated by the Russian government.”

NSA Finds a GRU Election Plot

NSA intelligence analysts claimed in a May 2017 analysis to have documented an effort by Russian military intelligence (GRU) to hack into U.S. electoral institutions. In an intelligence analysis obtained by The Intercept and reported in June 2017, NSA analysts wrote that the GRU had sent a spear-phishing email—one with an attachment designed to look exactly like one from a trusted institution but that contains malware design to get control of the computer—to a vendor of voting machine technology in Florida. The hackers then designed a fake web page that looked like that of the vendor. They sent it to a list of 122 email addresses NSA believed to be local government organizations that probably were “involved in the management of voter registration systems.” The objective of the new spear-phishing campaign, the NSA suggested, was to get control of their computers through malware to carry out the exfiltration of voter-related data.

But the authors of The Intercept story failed to notice crucial details in the NSA report that should have tipped them off that the attribution of the spear-phishing campaign to the GRU was based merely on the analysts’ own judgment—and that their judgment was faulty.

The Intercept article included a color-coded chart from the original NSA report that provides crucial information missing from the text of the NSA analysis itself as well as The Intercept’s account. The chart clearly distinguishes between the elements of the NSA’s account of the alleged Russian scheme that were based on “Confirmed Information” (shown in green) and those that were based on “Analyst Judgment” (shown in yellow). The connection between the “operator” of the spear-phishing campaign the report describes and an unidentified entity confirmed to be under the authority of the GRU is shown as a yellow line, meaning that it is based on “Analyst Judgment” and labeled “probably.”

A major criterion for any attribution of a hacking incident is whether there are strong similarities to previous hacks identified with a specific actor. But the chart concedes that “several characteristics” of the campaign depicted in the report distinguish it from “another major GRU spear-phishing program,” the identity of which has been redacted from the report.

The NSA chart refers to evidence that the same operator also had launched spear-phishing campaigns on other web-based mail applications, including the Russian company “Mail.ru.”  Those targets suggest that the actors were more likely Russian criminal hackers rather than Russian military intelligence.

Even more damaging to its case, the NSA reports that the same operator who had sent the spear-phishing emails also had sent a test email to the “American Samoa Election Office.” Criminal hackers could have been interested in personal information from the database associated with that office. But the idea that Russian military intelligence was planning to hack the voter rolls in American Samoa, an unincorporated U.S. territory with 56,000 inhabitants who can’t even vote in U.S. presidential elections, is plainly risible.

The Mueller Indictment’s Sleight of Hand

The Mueller indictment of GRU officers released on July 13 appeared at first reading to offer new evidence of Russian government responsibility for the hacking of Illinois and other state voter-related websites. A close analysis of the relevant paragraphs, however, confirms the lack of any real intelligence supporting that claim.

Mueller accused two GRU officers of working with unidentified “co-conspirators” on those hacks. But the only alleged evidence linking the GRU to the operators in the hacking incidents is the claim that a GRU official named Anatoly Kovalev and “co-conspirators” deleted search history related to the preparation for the hack after the FBI issued its alert on the hacking identifying the IP address associated with it in August 2016.

A careful reading of the relevant paragraphs shows that the claim is spurious. The first sentence in Paragraph 71 says that both Kovalev and his “co-conspirators” researched domains used by U.S. state boards of elections and other entities “for website vulnerabilities.”  The second says Kovalev and “co-conspirators” had searched for “state political party email addresses, including filtered queries for email addresses listed on state Republican Party websites.”

Searching for website vulnerabilities would be evidence of intent to hack them, of course, but searching Republican Party websites for email addresses is hardly evidence of any hacking plan. And Paragraph 74 states that Kovalev “deleted his search history”—not the search histories of any “co-conspirator”—thus revealing that there were no joint searches and suggesting that the subject Kovalev had searched was Republican Party emails. So any deletion by Kovalev of his search history after the FBI alert would not be evidence of his involvement in the hacking of the Illinois election board website.

With this rhetorical misdirection unraveled, it becomes clear that the repetition in every paragraph of the section of the phrase “Kovalev and his co-conspirators” was aimed at giving the reader the impression the accusation is based on hard intelligence about possible collusion that doesn’t exist.

The Need for Critical Scrutiny of DHS Cyberattack Claims

The DHS campaign to establish its role as the protector of U.S. electoral institutions is not the only case in which that agency has used a devious means to sow fear of Russian cyberattacks. In December 2016, DHS and the FBI published a long list of IP addresses as indicators of possible Russian cyberattacks. But most of the addresses on the list had no connection with Russian intelligence, as former U.S. government cyber-warfare officer Rob Lee found on close examination.

When someone at the Burlington, Vt., Electric Company spotted one of those IP addresses on one of its computers, the company reported it to DHS. But instead of quietly investigating the address to verify that it was indeed an indicator of Russian intrusion, DHS immediately informed The Washington Post. The result was a sensational story that Russian hackers had penetrated the U.S. power grid. In fact, the IP address in question was merely Yahoo’s email server, as Rob Lee told me, and the computer had not even been connected to the power grid. The threat to the power grid was a tall tale created by a DHS official, which the Post had to embarrassingly retract.

Since May 2017, DHS, in partnership with the FBI, has begun an even more ambitious campaign to focus public attention on what it says are Russian “targeting” and “intrusions” into “major, high value assets that operate components of our Nation’s critical infrastructure”, including energy, nuclear, water, aviation and critical manufacturing sectors.  Any evidence of such an intrusion must be taken seriously by the U.S. government and reported by news media. But in light of the DHS record on alleged threats to election infrastructure and the Burlington power grid, and its well-known ambition to assume leadership over cyber protection, the public interest demands that the news media examine DHS claims about Russian cyber threats far more critically than they have up to now.

*

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. His latest book is Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.

Can We Be Saved From Facebook?

Zuckerberg

Mark Zuckerberg. (photo: B&T)

By Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone

03 April 18

The social media giant has swallowed up the free press, become an unstoppable private spying operation and undermined democracy. Is it too late to stop it?

e shouldn’t be asking Facebook to fix the problem. We should be fixing Facebook. It’s our collective misfortune that this perhaps silliest-in-history supercorporation – a tossed-off hookup site turned international cat-video vault turned Orwellian surveillance megavillain – has dragged us all to the very cliff edge of modern technological capitalism.

We’ve reached a moment in history where many companies are more powerful than even major industrialized nations, and in some cases have essentially replaced governments as de facto regulators and overseers. But some of those companies suck just a little too badly at the governing part, leaving us staring into a paradox.

The Russians call this situation a sobaka na sene, a dog on the hay. Asleep in the manger, the dog itself won’t eat the hay. But it won’t let you eat it either.

We’ve got to get the dog off the hay.

For much of the past year and a half, the Social Network has been everywhere in the news. It’s ubiquitous in a bad way for the first time in its existence. The blithely addictive social media site bathed in unthreatening baby-blue graphics that one tech columnist derided as “the place where you check to see who married Jill the cheerleader” has found itself at the center of an exploding international controversy.

A recent Wired cover story is a typical press treatment. Legions of current and former employees whispered to the mag about Facebook’s toxic culture. The firm was said to have overreacted to conservative criticism some years back and gone too far the other way in an ill-fated search for “balance,” inadvertently handing Trump the White House in the process.

Facebook was also rocked by recent revelations that Cambridge Analytica, a firm partly owned by the same conservative Mercer family that became a primary sponsor of Donald Trump’s foundering campaign in the summer of 2016, may have used personal information from 50 million Facebook users to deliver targeted ads to likely Trump voters.

Cambridge Analytica has since been revealed to be a con’s con – in 2015, it was selling Ted Cruz on “secret sauce” intelligence services it hadn’t even finished designing yet. The story created instant worldwide panic, despite the fact that manipulating private information is the sort of service Facebook has long provided as a matter of routine. Any third-party app built on the site, not just those created by arch-conservatives, would be able to perform the same data-sucking trick. As former Facebook adviser Dipayan Ghosh puts it, “The problem goes far beyond the scope of the current controversies. The story here is about sheer market power.”

The headlines are scary, but the pathology behind them is actually the most alarming and unreported aspect of the Facebook story. The world seems simultaneously to be denouncing the company for having meddled with an election, and demanding that it meddle more responsibly in the future. From senators to members of the media to security officials, the solution to the problem of “fake news” and foreign intervention in our elections has been absurdly simplistic: Just have Facebook fix it.

All this outside pressure is hitting home. After years of resistance, Facebook’s polarizing supergeek CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, is suddenly accepting the challenge of reforming an industry he knows nothing about, i.e., the press. Ominously, he recently vowed to spend 2018 working on “these important issues.”

It’s a seismic change. As recently as November 2016, Zuckerberg, who exudes all the warmth of a talking parking meter, could be heard lashing out at people who “insist we call ourselves a news or media company.” He later scoffed at the idea his firm played a significant role in the election, and refused to discuss the possibility that Facebook had responsibility for reversing the declining quality of news reporting.

But by the beginning of 2018, Facebook began a sharp – and subtly frightening – turnaround. No longer denying its outsize media role, the company announced one initiative designed to create a trustworthiness measurement for news, and another to increase the content you get from close friends and family, presumably as opposed to evil (and possibly foreign) strangers.

The goal, said Facebook News Feed chief Adam Mosseri, was to “make sure the news people see, while less overall, is high-quality.” Mosseri, who’s been with the company since its earlier days, tells Rolling Stone that Facebook’s original developers never imagined being in the position the firm is in now. “I don’t think anyone foresaw the scale that we got to,” Mosseri admits.

Now, he claims, Facebook is just trying to do the right thing. “We take our responsibilities seriously,” he says, explaining the thinking behind the new initiatives. “In a world where the Internet exists, how can we make the world better?”

Facebook’s decision to accept “responsibilities” in the news realm, even in this rudimentary and characteristically disingenuous way, has mind-blowing implications for a country that has functioned without a true media regulator for most of its history.

That’s because all of these horror-movie headlines about fake news and “meddling” gloss over the giant preceding catastrophe implicit in all of these tales. For Facebook to be both the cause of and the solution to so many informational ills, the design mechanism built into our democracy to prevent such problems – a free press – had to have been severely disabled well before we got here.

And it was. Long before 2016 had a chance to happen, the news media in the United States was effectively destroyed. For those of us in the business, the manner of conquest has been the most galling part. The CliffsNotes version? Facebook ate us.

Internet platforms like Zuck’s broke the back of the working press first by gutting our distribution networks, and then by using advanced data-mining techniques to create hypertargeted advertising with which no honest media outlet could compete. This wipeout of the press left Facebook in possession of power it neither wanted nor understood.

It was all an insane accident. Facebook never wanted to be editor-in-chief of the universe, and the relatively vibrant free press that toppled the likes of McCarthy and Nixon never imagined it could be swallowed by a pet-meme distributor.

But it happened. As a result, we’re now facing a problem potentially worse than either a Trump election or a Russian cyber-incursion: a world in which the informational landscape for billions of people is controlled more or less entirely by a pair of advanced private spying operations, Google and Facebook – and Facebook especially.

The Facebook mess is really the final chapter in a decades-long collision of the news media with the Internet. Many smart people expected this tale to end well. It hasn’t. The creators of the Internet sold their invention as inherently democratizing. Instead, information is now so concentrated that a 1984 scenario is just a few clicks away.

***

This may sound obvious, but since even Facebook appears not to have understood this issue, here’s a brief reminder: The media business has always been first and foremost about distribution.

News consumers once had direct and powerful relationships with publishers, before the technological changes that made Facebook possible. “People identified with the fact that they read the local newspaper,” says Jim Moroney, former publisher of The Dallas Morning News. “They connected with being readers of The Dallas Morning News, The Boston Globe, The New York Times and so on.” Newspapers developed those relationships over long periods of time via the hardcore brick-and-mortar process of building distribution networks.

“Your major advantage as a media business rested in your distribution system,” says David Chavern, director of the News Media Alliance. “Everything from your printing press, to the people loading papers into trucks, to the trucks themselves, to the stores, to the kids delivering papers to subscribers’ doorsteps.”

The physicality of the distribution system lent credibility to both news and ads. Moreover, the difficulty and expense in building those systems meant that few people could do it, and newspapers earned for themselves built-in revenue streams from services like employment and real-estate ads, where they were usually the only game in town.

This model allowed newspapers to be remarkably free of government regulation. The same wasn’t exactly true of radio and TV stations, which had to answer to the Federal Communications Commission. But TV and radio also once enjoyed enormous advantages that no longer exist.

“TV and radio, those were scarcity businesses,” says Moroney. “There were only so many licenses in a market, which meant only so many stations in a market. And beyond that, there were only so many 30-second ad spots you could sell. You couldn’t have a whole hour be ads. If you were good at managing your scarce inventory, you could make a lot of money.”

In the early part of the 20th Century, it wasn’t considered necessary for the government to meddle in news licensing. But in an ancient preview of the Internet, there was by the 1920s an explosion of new radio stations, resulting in a “cacophony of signal interference” that, much like today, made a mush of the news-following experience.

This led then-Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover and others to explore the question of how to weigh “spectrum scarcity” with the needs of a democratic society. The result was a pair of landmark federal laws, the Radio Act of 1927 and the Communications Act of 1934. It was a trade-off. Companies that licensed airwaves had to agree to operate in the “public interest, convenience and necessity.”

Of course, the federal government, with its high-minded “public interest” standard that supposedly pushed broadcasters to serve “all substantial groups,” somehow managed to keep in place a brutal system of racial apartheid, among other huge misses. It also denied the viewpoints of anti-war activists, capitalist critics and a host of others. But the core idea, that a news media in the broad public interest must exist, has been in place almost from the start. Even the likes of Washington and Jefferson helped institute the practice of giving cheap or even free postage rates to newspapers.

“Abolitionist newspapers were sent to the South thanks to these policies,” notes University of Illinois professor Robert McChesney. “Even back then there was this idea of subsidizing reporting.”

With each new expansion of communications technology, Americans almost always came up with guidelines for how to sync up the citizenry’s informational needs to the new invention.

Then the Internet came along.

***

In many ways, the Facebook controversy is a canard. It’s less a real crisis about Russians, the Trump election or scamsters like Cambridge Analytica than a long-overdue reckoning. Americans who for decades have been clinging to reassuring myths about the origins and purpose of the Internet are finally beginning to ask important questions about this awesome Pentagon-designed surveillance tool they’ve enthusiastically welcomed into their homes, bedrooms, purses and pockets.

Conventional wisdom sees the Internet as an invention that, yes, was designed for narrow military uses, but unexpectedly blossomed into a powerful democratizer. “The Internet was viewed as a force for good, supporting inclusion and democracy,” says Dr. Lawrence Landweber, a member of the Internet Hall of Fame and former president of the Internet Society. “This view was widely held in the industry as well as among political leaders,” he says. “Remember Google’s motto around 2000 was ‘Don’t be evil.’ ”

There are, however, less-flattering histories of the Internet, which began as a defense project in the Sixties. Some critics, like Surveillance Valley author Yasha Levine, will tell you that keeping tabs on domestic and foreign resistance movements was one of the net’s original design goals, which is one reason it’s no surprise most of the big Internet-based firms today – Facebook, Google, Amazon – also contract with the military and/or security services.

In his book, Levine points to the fact that from the very start, the proto-Web banked info collected by the likes of the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. “Surveillance was baked into the original mission of the Internet,” Levine says.

No matter what the intent behind the invention, it seems that little thought was given to how the Internet would impact the existing commercial news business. Landweber, for instance, says Internet developers never conceived of a world where Internet platforms would acquire hegemonic power in this sphere. “Getting most of one’s news via the Internet, as well as the notion that social media companies would manipulate one’s personal data for commercial or political benefit, was not anticipated,” he says. He adds, “The current situation would have shocked early Internet developers.”

Which brings us back to Facebook, which to this day seems at best to dimly understand how the news business works, as is evident in its longstanding insistence that it’s not a media company. Wired was even inspired to publish a sarcastic self-help quiz for Facebook execs on “How to tell if you’re a media company.” It included such questions as “Are you the country’s largest source of news?”

The answer is a resounding yes. An astonishing 45 percent of Americans get their news from this single source. Add Google, and above 70 percent of Americans get their news from a pair of outlets. The two firms also ate up about 89 percent of the digital-advertising growth last year, underscoring their monopolistic power in this industry.

Facebook’s cluelessness on this front makes the ease with which it took over the press that much more bizarre to contemplate. Of course, the entire history of Facebook is pretty weird, even by Silicon Valley standards, beginning with the fact that the firm thinks of itself as a movement and not a giant money-sucking machine.

This is how Zuckerberg described Facebook in Initial Public Offering (IPO) documents from 2012:

Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission – to make the world more open and connected.

“The great myth” about the company, says former Facebook ad manager Antonio García Martínez, “is that Zuck gives a shit about money.”

Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission – to make the world more open and connected.

“The great myth” about the company, says former Facebook ad manager Antonio García Martínez, “is that Zuck gives a shit about money.”

García Martínez, whose absurdist memoir about his time at Facebook, called Chaos Monkeys, may be the funniest business book since Liar’s Poker, laughs as he recalls his time at the firm.”It’s more like a messianic cult,” he says. García Martínez is the most interesting and damaging defector to have ever left the ranks of Facebook. An iconoclastic combination of Travis McGee and Michael Lewis, he is a former physics Ph.D. candidate from Berkeley who worked at Goldman Sachs before his two years at Facebook, and now spends much of his time writing and sailing. He has lifted the curtain on ruthless profit-hoovering practices he helped design. His main gripe with Facebook seems to be its total lack of self-awareness about its own ambition.

García Martínez continually describes the company’s corporate atmosphere as an oddball religion where Zuckerberg is worshipped as an infallible deity – sort of like Scientology, but without Tom Cruise or space invaders.

“You can tell your value in the company by where you’re seated in relation to Zuck,” he says.

The Facebook religion doesn’t involve a virgin birth. It does, however, feature an asexual creation myth, glamorized by fictionalized accounts like The Social Network, in which Zuckerberg is shown one-upping God by creating the future in fewer than seven days of nerdly transcendence.

From there, Zuckerberg legendarily grew the company to fantastic dimensions. To this end, he had the help of Silicon Valley hotshots like Napster’s Sean Parker and early investment from the likes of PayPal founder, libertarian icon, future Trump supporter and Gawker-smashing press critic Peter Thiel.

Facebook ballooned in size at a spectacular rate – it’s gone from 100 million users in 2008 to more than 2.1 billion today, consistently adding 50 to 100 million users per quarter, steadily making itself into the town square of the world. And it boasts awesome revenues: a staggering $40.7 billion in 2017 alone.

That Facebook saw meteoric rises without ever experiencing a big dip in users might have something to do with the fact that the site was consciously designed to be addictive, as early founder Parker recently noted at a conference in Philadelphia.

Facebook is full of features such as “likes” that dot your surfing experience with neuro-rushes of micro-approval – a “little dopamine hit,” as Parker put it. The hits might come with getting a like when you post a picture of yourself thumbs-upping the world’s third-largest cheese wheel, or flashing the “Live Long and Prosper” sign on International Star Trek day, or whatever the hell it is you do in your cyber-time. “It’s a social-validation feedback loop,” Parker explained. “Exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

This echoes what García Martínez says about Facebook. “It isn’t a media company internally,” he says. “It’s a hacker company internally.”

Viewing Facebook through the hacker lens makes it a lot easier to understand. The firm’s overwhelming dependence on free or found content is one thing. Another is its casual rerouting of taxpaying responsibility through supposed “headquarters” in tax havens like Ireland. The company, like most of the modern tech giants, seems to pay almost nothing in taxes in the countries where it is most popular, for example paying just £4,327 in British taxes in 2014.

All of this smacks of a particular brand of piracy unique to the new generation of tech firms, whose leaders tend to celebrate the “move fast and break things” libertarian ethos. The Thiels and Zuckerbergs represent a new class of CEO who, like the wealthy self-financed superheroes in comic-book movies, could get the job done by themselves if only the pesky government toe-draggers would get the fuck out of the way. Rules, like paywalls and taxes, are for suckers: We reward people who can get past them.

Zuckerberg, on his profile in the days of “thefacebook.com,” even listed himself as “Enemy of the State.”

In his book, García Martínez describes a scene in which a college kid named Chris Putnam developed a virus that made your Facebook profile look like MySpace, and deleted user content to boot. Instead of taking legal action, Facebook hired him. “The hacker ethos prevailed above all,” García Martínez noted.

It’s a misconception that Facebook sells the personal data of its users. What it sells is its hackerish expertise in snatching and analyzing your personal info from everywhere – on the site and outside it. Facebook keeps tabs on who has an anniversary coming up, who’s in a long-distance relationship, who uses credit cards, who likes baseball and who likes cricket, who observes Ramadan, who’s participated in a time-share, and countless other things.

That such data is collected mainly to more efficiently shove ads in your face is widely understood today. What’s less well-understood is that monetizing user info was a key element of Facebook’s business model going back to its first days.

“We were always using the data,” says Mosseri, who runs the News Feed. “We did it to improve the user experience.”

Mosseri’s take – which whitewashes out the role data-powered ads played in the company’s early growth – is typical of Facebook defenders. Ironically, not unlike traditional media companies, whose editorial chiefs have always pissed on their own sales reps as lower life-forms and refused to admit their influence on news-coverage decisions, Facebook from its first years had a schizoid, embarrassed attitude toward its own ad department.

In the beginning, the company featured no ads. Zuckerberg, when he talked publicly about ads back then, said only that he might offer them in the “future” for purely utilitarian reasons, i.e., to “offset the cost of the servers.”

Not $40 billion or anything, just a few pennies here and there.

Facebook quickly established a pattern within the firm in which surrogates and partners developed the powerful money-making technology, while the Christ-complexing Zuckerberg focused on expanding the cloud of flatulent self-congratulation that began to hover over Facebook’s ballooning global presence.

Time after time, Facebook would make a move that publicly highlighted its “social mission,” while really it was just growing its economic footprint and increasingly monopolistic market share.

One of Facebook’s early problems, for instance, was that the novelty of people sharing pictures of their kids’ soccer trophies soon started to wear off. Without content with a little more heft, Facebook was what one snickering industry writer called “a stupid site, AOL for adults.”

That changed with the introduction of the News Feed in September 2006. This move revolutionized both social networking and the news business. Back then, the feed was clearly designed to be more in tune with the site’s toxic never-ending-high-school vibe than an actual news source.

“News Feed highlights what’s happening in your social circles on Facebook,” then-product manager Ruchi Sangvi wrote. “So you’ll know when Mark adds Britney Spears to his Favorites or when your crush is single again.”

In between finding out that Zuck likes Britney Spears or a prior stalking target had changed his or her relationship status, you might now also receive links to – news! Such simultaneously ridiculous and horrifying milestones litter the road to the Great Media Disaster of 2016.

***

Although it seemed frivolous on its face, the Facebook News Feed made a consumer mockery of the 24-hour cable-news channel, which was really just a repeating loop of a handful of daily reports. Facebook made it possible for users to see more than 1,000 news stories per day, and on average a user actually did see, in between all that other stuff, about 200. This was hacker culture writ large again, in that the feed was built around content grabbed for free out of the Internet ether.

“Media brands are diluted when people say things like, ‘I read this on Facebook,’ ” says Chavern.

This was more than a branding problem for media firms. It was a profound issue that spoke to how the decision-making processes of modern news consumers were being warped.

Once upon a time, a person had to make a conscious decision to pick up a newspaper, turn on the evening news or buy a magazine. Now, news came to you – was even offered to you, suggested in the way a magician offers a card – as part of an artificial entertainment experience that skewed consumer expectations in a highly specific way.

“I read this on Facebook” soon came to mean something like “I read this in a highly individualized intellectual masturbation session.” News became a thing that only made it through if it fit into those constant, round-the-clock sorties Facebook was flying straight to your personal pleasure center. Simultaneously, the news stopped being a broadcast program designed to be digested, for good or ill, by a group, as families had once done over their nightly meatloaf.

Most problematic of all, however, was the combination of algorithmic data analysis and free news content, which accelerated junk news trends that had already begun to poison the media business. TV stations like Fox had long ago ditched what you might call “eat your vegetables” media, i.e., news, often investigative, that either requires significant mental effort to understand, some willingness to question one’s own beliefs, or both.

To hear old newshounds tell it, there was allegedly a time when we media vermin didn’t sling junk out of pure shame. Old-timers even tell tales, probably apocryphal, of days when ad executives weren’t even allowed on the same floor as editorial staff.

But by the Eighties and Nineties, everyone in media was realizing that audiences cared more about seeing graphics, panda births and newscasters withstanding hurricane winds than they cared about news. The innovation of stations like Fox was to sell xenophobia and racism in addition to the sensationalist crap.

But even Fox couldn’t compete with future titans like Facebook when it came to delivering news tailored strictly for the laziest, meanest, least intellectually tolerant version of you. Facebook knew more about you personally, what you might like and also what might tickle your hate center, than any TV, radio station or newspaper ever had.

Ben Scott, who with Ghosh co-wrote a paper on Facebook called “Digital Deceit” for the New America Foundation, says the power of Internet platforms to match people to mental junk was unprecedented.

“Forget about ever seeing eat-your-vegetables media again,” says Scott. “In the new world, not only will you only see sugar media, but you’ll only see your favorite brand of sugar media. Other information, you won’t even know it exists.”

Dr. Ofir Turel of California State University-Fullerton, who’s written extensively about Facebook, says use of the site has a lot of the features of an addictive activity, like ease of use, variable rewards and feelings of anxiety when we’re not engaged with it.

“All addictions operate on the variable-reward system,” says Turel, who estimates that about five to 10 percent of the population could now meet the criteria of being at risk for social media addiction. Chronic users spend hours staring glassy-eyed at screens in search of the tiny rushes that come with likes or with the reading of articles validating their views. Mental horizons are narrowed. A study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (yes, the acronym is PNAS) concluded, “Facebook users were more likely to interact with a limited number of news sources.”

Additionally, they posited, “The main driver of misinformation diffusion is the polarization of users on specific narratives rather than the lack of fact-checked certifications.” Translation: Lazy thinking and sheltered mental environs lead to more misinformation than fake news does.

Facebook’s News Feed was a big part of the reward system designed to keep people coming back. “The interest is not to inform you,” Turel says. “The interest is to get you to stay on the site.”

Peter Eckersley, chief computer scientist of the Electronic- Frontier Foundation, describes the News Feed in even starker terms. “It’s designed to match people to information that will reinforce their existing prejudices, whatever those are,” he says.

Facebook advocates justify basically all of their practices on the premise that connecting people is inherently a net plus for the world. A recent memo leaked to Buzzfeed showed one company exec conceding that terrorists may eventually use the site to successfully coordinate attacks, but so what because “we connect people. Period. That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified.”

Moreover, company officers say using data collection to make both the ads you see and the news you’re exposed to more tailored to you personally is actually a good thing. Mosseri points out that Facebook is not a news program but an online community in which people talk about everything under the sun with their friends. And most people have so many friends that living in a bubble of endlessly automated stupidity, he says, is impossible.

“It’s hard to have hundreds of like-minded friends,” he says. “Broadly, it balances things out.”

Another thing that balances out? Age. There’s some evidence that the very young, as they often do, are rejecting a bad habit from their parents’ generation. About 100 million Facebook users in America are age 25-44 in 2018, but it gets dicey after that, with just 6.8 million users between the ages of 13 and 17.

Tech billionaire and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who has been a heavy critic of Facebook, says time may reckon with the firm. “I think they are losing impact domestically, with zero influence on millennials and younger,” he says. “But [they have] overwhelming influence on boomers and Gen X’ers.”

***

As late as 2013, just before Facebook went public, executives tried to convince Zuckerberg to own his company’s basic nature and push the firm past a crucial ethical and financial Rubicon. The debate was over changing Facebook’s terms of service so that users would have to agree to allow data gleaned from the famed “like” button to be used for commercial purposes.

The company had at least superficially resisted this idea, and even with the IPO approaching, Zuckerberg balked. “Don’t use the like button,” he reportedly told García Martínez and others in early 2012.

A lot of Facebook’s value was in the like button. When users liked something, particularly in voluntary product reviews and surveys, it generated intelligence about how to effectively target those people with advertising. Moreover, users who see their friends liking a product are more likely to try that product themselves.

In any case, on May 18th, 2013, the company held its IPO, and launched with a market capitalization of $104 billion. But the IPO was considered a fiasco on Wall Street. It also caused a mild stir when the company’s first 10-K report was released, showing that the firm took advantage of stock-option loopholes to make more than a billion in profits without paying a dime in state or federal taxes – in fact, Facebook in 2013 received a $429 million tax rebate.

The big public rollout was also marred by lawsuits, and the stock price began declining in the wake of disappointing revenues. The shares originally sold at $38, and dropped to a low of $17.55 later that year.

As it had done consistently in its history, the firm, when faced with financial pressure, moved ever further in the direction of monetizing users’ personal data. In this case, it finally went after the like button.

A little over a year after the IPO, on June 12th, 2014, Facebook quietly announced a change to its terms of service. “Starting soon in the U.S., we will also include information from some of the websites and apps you use,” the company wrote. “This is a type of interest-based advertising, and many companies already do this.”

Facebook didn’t just use its data to help advertisers place targeted ads. It also used AI-enhanced technology and tools like GPS to track users’ information in order to learn more and more about them, all while constantly improving the reach and power of the company’s advertising capabilities. In perhaps the creepiest example, Facebook applied for (and received, last year) a patent for a tool called Techniques, for emotion detection and content delivery. It would use the camera in your phone to take pictures of you as you scroll through content. Facebook would then use facial analysis to measure how much you did or did not like the content in question, so as to determine what kind of stuff to send your way. Ideas like this are what make Facebook, at times, feel like a giant blood-engorged tick hanging off your frontal lobe.

Ghosh, who worked on global privacy and public-policy issues at Facebook, says that the company’s technology very quickly became effective beyond anyone’s imagination, and wasn’t limited to the placing of ads.

He points, for instance, to the “audience networks” program, where an advertiser might ask Facebook to not only put ads in front of the users most likely to respond to them, but to go after eyeballs on other sites.

“Maybe the advertiser is Nike and they’re looking to sell the new Air Jordans to men aged 18 to 35 in the D.C. metro area,” says Ghosh. “So they’ll put ads in front of 100,000 Facebook users, then leverage their own audience to place the ad in front of a similarly sized audience on other networks – maybe NBA.com or a sports site or whatever.”

Every time it places an ad in a campaign like this, a platform like Facebook learns more and more about how to most effectively interpret data, not just about its own users but about other sites and the users of other sites.

In Europe and in other parts of the world, these practices sometimes inspired protests and regulatory action. In 2015, Belgium demanded that Facebook stop tracking user data once the user has left the site, which it’s reportedly been doing since at least 2014.

This is what people don’t understand about the “fake news” problem. This isn’t a crack in the system. It is the system. The new age of targeted information distribution is designed to make campaigns of manipulation not just possible but inevitable. It is what the product was designed for.

Moreover, it’s all grounded in wholly legal advertising techniques. Scott, who co-wrote “Digital Deceit,” gives the example of fake-news campaigns deployed by European far-right parties.

“You’d see some fake story on some little blog somewhere, maybe about immigrants rioting in a big city,” he says. “Next thing you know, some tabloid picks it up with a headline: ‘Alleged Riot in Munich!’ Then you’d see someone promote the hell out of that story using target marketing. Because the platforms know exactly which people to target for you, you can pay to get that promoted content to all those people. From there, the users share the story themselves, and it goes viral,” Scott continues. “And every time the platforms do one of these campaigns, they learn more about who’s susceptible to what messaging.”

This is exactly how the “Russian troll farm” ads were supposedly used. The trolls described in the Robert Mueller indictment simply made use of standard tools that Facebook offers to advertisers. They would take a piece of content – for instance, the ludicrous image of Hillary Clinton as Satan, arm-wrestling Jesus under the headline “If I Win, Clinton Wins” – and blast it out to a targeted audience via the News Feed. The only clue that the ad has been commercially pushed to you comes via a tiny faded notation reading “sponsored” under the name of the origin page.

Despite frantic warnings from Senate Democrats about how a few dozen trolls spending a handful of dollars on these ads managed to reach 126 million people, the far more serious issue is that players with far deeper pockets were using the same tactics. “Facebook will sell to anyone if there’s a pot of gold at the end,” is how one political source puts it.

“That’s why the whole Russia story was misunderstood,” says Scott. “People are trying to understand how $100,000 worth of ads could reach 126 million people, when what they should be thinking about is the impact of the Trump campaign spending tens of millions of dollars using the same technology.”

Brad Parscale, Trump’s digital director on the 2016 campaign, thinks the furor over Facebook being responsible for Trump’s election is misguided. They used a lot of Facebook ads, he says, because of the peculiar nature of Trump’s advertising needs.

Though The New York Times reported Parscale was persuaded to “try out the firm,” Parscale himself has scoffed at the role Cambridge Analytica played in the campaign and insisted that Facebook was just the natural choice for his candidate.

“Elections are identical to movies when it comes to advertising,” Parscale explained to me in an earlier interview. He talks about politicians with a kind of bemused detachment, like they’re no different from soaps or cereal brands. “You’ve got Rotten Tomatoes for movies, Real Clear Politics for elections, exact same thing. If it’s a completely new movie with new characters, then you go broad on TV to introduce the unknown new product. With Trump, the market knew him. It was a question of reaching a specific group of people in specific places who we needed to turn out. That happens to be exactly what Facebook is good for.”

But Facebook shouldn’t be blamed for being an effective advertiser. The problem is why it’s effective, beginning with its monopolistic scale.

Simply by growing so large that his firm ended up essentially standing between media publishers and media consumers, constantly creating rules about who saw what, Zuckerberg and Facebook have become a thing America has never had before: an entrenched, de facto media regulator. The universe in which most Americans get their news sifted through a giant filter has multiple major consequences.

“There’s the big economic effect,” says Chavern of the News Media Alliance. “We never had someone in the middle before. Now we do have someone in the middle, collecting all the dollars.”

The economics are the reason most newsrooms today look like post-nuclear wastelands. What sane person would buy ad space to sell cars on localnewspaper.com in the vague hope of catching the right eyeballs, when Facebook can instantly serve up 40,000 men age 18 to 54 who are likely to buy an automobile in the next six months?

Press outlets can only sell chunks of vaguely grouped audiences to advertisers. Facebook can bring merchants right to the individual buyer’s doorstep at almost the exact moment his hand is reaching for his wallet. There’s no comparison, which is why two companies – Google and Facebook – control 63.1 percent of all digital advertising and, as noted previously, nearly all of the growth in that business.

Market share is only one issue. The other problem – the presence of algorithms that effectively determine who gets to see what material – is much more serious.

“They’ve created rules about who gets to see which stuff,” says Chavern. “They also change the rules all the time. And they’re also secret rules.”

Talk to media executives about Facebook, and they’ll complain endlessly about two things: one, that they can never get a straight answer from the company about how the algorithm works (“You’re fucking lucky if you can even get someone on the phone,” hisses one publisher), and two, if they do get advice about how to optimize content, the advice changes constantly.

Media sites routinely shift their entire commercial strategies to try to reach more people through the Facebook News Feed – the latest mania was video content – only to have the algorithm change suddenly.

For a while, some media developers tried to build brands dedicated to gaming Facebook. But sites like Mashable and Upworthy are being sold or laying off workers after initial spikes of success. There’s just no way to build a consistent strategy around a constantly changing, secret system.

Still, Facebook’s recent move to re-weight the News Feed again, this time with unhelpfully euphemistic new values like “trusted sources” and “time well spent,” will likely put an end to the idea that news companies are not dependent upon Facebook to survive.

The latest changes will instead “serve as the final deathblow to almost two decades of delusional thinking,” as VentureBeat writer Chris O’Brien put it.

The arbitrariness of the algorithms has essentially forced media firms to lobby Facebook and Google the way other businesses would lobby government departments. A classic example is the battle over the so-called “first click free” rule.

For years, Google had a rule that gave greater visibility to media companies that offered at least some free content. Outlets complained about the rule, which they claimed shaped the industry early in the online age, forcing firms away from subscription-based models. Under pressure, Google finally scrapped the rule in October 2017, but the damage was already done.

About those subscription-based models: There are people out there who believe the media’s only hope is to organize, as a union would, and collectively enforce a giant paywall, denying Facebook and its hacker ethos the oceans of free content that are its lifeblood.

But one would be hard-pressed to find a media executive who believes such a strategy has a chance of working.

“You don’t call that play under normal circumstances, but it’s 4th and 30 for all of us,” says McChesney. “There is no commercial solution. There is no magical business model that will save the news business. It’s time we all faced reality.”

***

Whether Facebook is just a reflection of modern society or a key driver of it, the picture isn’t pretty. The company’s awesome data-mining tactics wedded to its relentless hyping of the culture of self has helped create a world where billions of people walk with bent heads, literally weighted down with their own bullshit, eyes glued to telescreen-style mobile devices that read us faster than we can read them.

Surveys show audiences trust the media less than ever but consume news more than ever. Those two deeply troubling data points suggest the Fourth Estate, which was designed to inform the public and provide a crucial check on power, is instead morphing into an entertainment product, which succeeds or doesn’t based on how quickly our brains ratify the information offered. This is the opposite of how news is supposed to work.

“Once, a citizen had a right to an opinion,” says García Martínez. “Now, they feel like they have a right to their own reality.”

Awful as that all is, it’s not even the most immediate emergency. Along with Google, Facebook is a clear duopoly, which simply has too much power in the fields of media distribution and digital advertising.

The recent controversies have inspired countless proposals for how to “improve” Facebook. Some have pressed for a tax that would kick Facebook revenues back to public-interest journalism. Others have called for a simple ban on new acquisitions, to prevent the firm from snatching up properties like Instagram and WhatsApp when it clearly can’t manage the ones it already has.

But when a tumor starts growing teeth and hair, you don’t comb the hair. You yank the thing. And it turns out we have a mechanism for just that.

We need to break up Facebook, the same way we broke up Standard Oil, AT&T and countless other less-terrifying overgrown corporate tyrants of the past. The moral if not legal reason is obvious: A functioning free press just can’t coexist with an unaccountable private regulator.

An antitrust action sounds extreme, but given the alternatives – different groups have proposed creating fact-checking star chambers either within government, Facebook or both – it may be the least-intrusive solution, one that moreover doesn’t create a “legitimacy” standard that could threaten alternative or dissenting media.

The question is, can we actually break up Facebook?

“It’s tough,” says former New York governor and attorney general Eliot Spitzer, who policed Wall Street for nearly a decade. “Because market size alone, unless gained through improper means, is not a basis for action.”

According to the stiff test the government must meet to file successful antitrust actions today, the state not only has to demonstrate the existence of monopoly, but that consumers are worse off under it, subject to “supernormal” prices. The case against Facebook is not a legal slam dunk.

But not all market harm is about raw numbers, and some of the more celebrated recent antitrust actions, like the breaking up of Ma Bell, have opened the door for the government to consider factors other than mere price.

“Under the traditional antitrust analysis, the issue is whether the consumer pays more,” says Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy, a corporate lawyer by profession. “But courts are beginning to look at other types of economic harm.” Kennedy, a Republican, says the “black box” nature of firms like Facebook, combined with their unprecedented influence, make it urgently necessary for the government to consider all options.

“We’re in a brave new world,” he says. “We’re waking up and realizing some of these companies aren’t companies – they’re countries.”

The real solution to this problem would be to dial back the use of the data-collection technologies that have turned companies like Facebook into modern-day versions of the “propaganda stations” the Federal Radio Commission was so bent on keeping off the airwaves a century ago.

The difference is Facebook doesn’t push Nazism or communism or anarchism, but something far more dangerous: 2 billion individually crafted echo chambers, a kind of precision-targeted mass church of self, of impatience with others, of not giving a shit.

A generation of this kind of messaging is bound to have some pretty weird consequences, of which electing proudly ignorant bubble-thinker Donald Trump is probably just a gentle opener. Given that, we might be too late to fix Facebook – maybe we need to be saved from it instead.

Judicial warfare or Lawfare

By Oscar Laborde * from Pagina12

The constant persecution of ex-President Cristina Kirchner and the attempt to imprison Lula in Brazil are examples of a new tactic in the non-conventional war known as Lawfare.

The laws of our region have been adopted in recent years as the favoured mechanism to defeat popular governments and reviling the people running them, with the objective of replacing them in the government, imprisoning them or at least discrediting them cruelly. In this war there has been undue use of legal instruments for the purposes of political persecution, destruction of public image and disabling a political adversary. It combines apparently legal actions with wide press coverage to pressure the accused and those around them, including family members, in such a way that they are more vulnerable to the accusations without proof.

So what does Lawfare mean? The term describes “a mode of non-conventional war in which the law is used as a means to obtain a military objective” and is used in this sense in Unrestricted Warfare, a book from 1999 on military strategy. In 2001 the concept started to be used in places other than the U.S. armed forces after the publication of an article written by the Air Force General, Charles Dunlap of Duke Law School. The U.S. is one of the leading providers of assistance for the reform of the legal apparatus in Latin America and the U.S. Department of Justice has strengthened their ties with their equivalents in the region in recent years to combat corruption. One of the most important actions was the so-called “Bridges” project, which consisted of training courses for members of the judiciary of Brazil and other countries of the region. The star alumni is Judge Sergio Moro, behind the Lava Jato operation, who convicted Lula to nine years in prison.

This requires an obliging justice system and for the media to work in absolute agreement with the objective of breaking down the will of the people and politicians who take part in the attack, always propelled generously by the media and who then capitalize on the results of defeating, disqualifying and discrediting the usually left-wing representatives who confront the interests of big business

In recent years the judiciary in our countries has been converted into a powerful force where, almost without limits, destabilization and political persecution strategies are deployed, far from the republican principle of balance of powers. It is the only one which does not derive from the will of the people but rather from complex mechanisms of political designations and contests, added to the privileges which the other powers do not have. This allows them to operate politically under the institutional mantle. The one constant argument is corruption. Its base is that the State must be eliminated, appealing to the “good practices” of the private sector of efficiency and transparency, to displace the logic of the public, which is associated with the waste and mismanagement of politicians, to be replaced by apolitical technicians.

The activity of the mass media is more widely recognized and evident. In an outburst of unusual sincerity an editorial writer at Clarin characterized it as “war journalism”.

Politicians denounce corruption, the media echo it, politicians and media demanding swift justice, a mechanism of judicial power that discipline or exclude independent judges, who convict, without evidence and imprison without due process. This is what we are living under in Latin America. This is how Manuel Zelaya was ousted in Honduras, Fernando Lugo in Paraguay, Dilma Rousseff in Brazil and how the Vice-President of Ecuador, Jorge Glass and hundreds of supporters were imprisoned. This is to silence those representatives of the people by persecution and imprisonment who can intercede in their plan to undo the gains of recent years.

* Director Ideal-CTA. Parlasur representative.

What is called post-Truth is in fact lies

Post-Truth is a concept invented for these times, which is a euphemism for something which is uncomfortable for us to accept, a lie. This is uncomfortable because it means we have to perhaps put aside everything we think we know or have been taught and question what we hear every day through the media and from all those who repeat their incantations.

This stage we are going through, in that awful phrase of post-Truth, is the filtration of what is good or otherwise and what is Truth or otherwise.

This involves examining of our assumptions of what we are and of what is valuable, and is evident in the distaste of getting into political questions, such as equality between human beings, tolerance or its inverse, as well as the eternal questions of the absolute and what we are doing here.

Getting your head around this involves some mental flexibility which does not come easily to us. We have been fed all kinds of things, including things of varying value.

The mechanism used in furthering the idea of post-Truth is essentially one of laziness. Those who push this idea, not just those who use the words alone, but who actively advocate such ideas, are using their laziness to think, in order to say “Do not question our truths, because these simple answers are all you need. Why bother to think through the implications if we have already come up with the answers?”

Such people have rejected the idea, for whatever reason, that there is such a thing as Truth or anything real, using words which exist to communicate something of Truth to do the opposite, to lie. The most archetypal examples of this are in the mainstream media and some outlets of the social media.

Anyone who does question their simplistic truths is labelled crazy, idealistic, unrealistic, stupid, a Communist, a Russian bot, just plain weak, or any other convenient epithet available to hand.

However, not everyone who uses their ideas or words is necessarily a liar. Their ideas have percolated through society and become widespread, so just because someone uses the phrase does not mean they have swallowed the concept wholesale.

What it comes down to is that we are finally doing our laundry in public, finding both horrors and treasures, and though it may be uncomfortable to look in the mirror, the corrective measures, of truthfulness, must be applied. We are being forced to face and to adjust ourselves to what we see.

Post-Truthers are often believers in neo-liberalism. To cite a recent article by Henry A. Giroux, “Neo-liberal Fascism and the Echoes of History”:

At work here is a neo-liberal project to reduce people to human capital and redefine human agency beyond the bonds of sociality, equality, belonging and obligation. All problems and their solutions are now defined exclusively within the purview of the individual. This is a depoliticizing discourse that champions mythic notions of self-reliance and individual character to promote the tearing up of social solidarities and the public spheres that support them.

[…]

Neo-liberal fascism thrives on producing subjects that internalize its values, corroding their ability to imagine an alternative world. Under such conditions, not only is agency depoliticized, but the political is emptied of any real substance and unable to challenge neo-liberalism’s belief in extreme inequality and social abandonment. This fosters fascism’s deep-rooted investment ultra-nationalism, racial purity and the politics of terminal exclusion.

At its heart, neo-liberalism is based on lies.

How the Corporate Media Enslave Us to a World of Illusions

A great article on how the world actually works, originally published at Counterpunch,  however not all the views expressed in this are necessarily those of The Net Projection.

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Photo by Mohamed Nanabhay | CC BY 2.0

Nazareth.

For several years now, I have been writing regular posts on my blog with one end in mind: to help open a door for readers and encourage them to step through. I select issues, usually those that dominate western media coverage and represent a consensus that we might term the Great Western Narrative, and try to show how this narrative has been constructed not to inform and enlighten but to conceal and deceive.

It is not that I and the many other bloggers doing this are cleverer than everyone else. We have simply had a chance – an earlier one – to step through that door ourselves, because of a jarring life experience that the Great Western Narrative could not explain, or because someone held the door open for us, or more usually because of a combination of the two.

My personal awakening

It is easy for me to identify my own process of awakening. It began with the dislocation of moving to Nazareth and being immersed in someone else’s narrative – that of the Palestinians. Then, I faced for the first time in my career as a journalist an impenetrable wall of opposition, even from my own former newspaper, the Guardian, as I tried to explain that counter-narrative. In fact, I found that the Palestinian narrative was invariably misrepresented as anti-semitism. These were dark years of disillusionment and the loss of a professional and ideological compass.

It is in such a moment of bereavement – deprived of the consolation of the Great Western Narrative – that one searches for a door to enlightenment. It can be a long journey to find it. My door appeared while reading about the Propaganda Model of Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky in their book Manufacturing Consent, as well as stumbling across a website called Media Lens. They helped me understand that the narrative problem was not restricted to Israel-Palestine, but was a much more general one.

In fact, the Great Western Narrative has been developed and refined over centuries to preserve a tiny elite’s privileges and expand its power. The role of journalists like me was to keep feeding these illusions to readers so they would remain fearful, passive and deferential to this elite. It is not that journalists lie – or at least, not most of them – it is that they are as deeply wedded to the Great Western Narrative as everyone else.

Once one is prepared to step through the door, to discard the old script, the new narrative takes its hold because it is so helpful. It actually explains the world, and human behaviour, as it is experienced everywhere. It has genuine predictive power. And most importantly, it reveals a truth understood by all figures of spiritual and intellectual enlightenment throughout human history: that human beings are equally human, whether they are Americans, Europeans, Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, Russians, Venezuelans, or Iranians, whether they are North or South Koreans.

The term “human” is not meant simply as a description of us as a species, or a biological entity. It also describes who we are, what drives us, what makes us cry, what makes us laugh, what makes us angry, what elicits compassion. And the truth is that we are all essentially the same. The same things upset us, the same things amuse us. The same things inspire us, the same things outrage us. We want dignity, freedom, safety for us and our loved ones, and appreciate beauty and truth. We fear oppression, injustice, insecurity.

Hierarchies of virtue

The Great Western Narrative tells us something entirely different. It divides the world into a hierarchy of “peoples”, with different, even conflicting, virtues and vices. Some humans – westerners – are more rational, more caring, more sensitive, more fully human. And other humans – the rest – are more primitive, more emotional, more violent. In this system of classification, we are the Good Guys and they are the Bad Guys; we are Order, they are Chaos. They need a firm hand from us to control them and stop them doing too much damage to themselves and to our civilised part of the world.

The Great Western Narrative isn’t really new. It is simply a reformulation for a different era of the “white man’s burden”.

The reason the Great Western Narrative persists is because it is useful – to those in power. Humans may be essentially the same in our natures and in our drives, but we are very definitely divided by power and its modern corollary, wealth. A tiny number have it, and the vast majority do not. The Great Western Narrative is there to perpetuate power by legitimising it, by making its unbalanced and unjust distribution seem natural and immutable.

Once kings told us they had blue blood and a divine right. Today, we need a different kind of narrative, but one designed to achieve the same end. Just as kings and barons once owned everything, now a tiny corporate elite rule the world. They have to justify that to themselves and to us.

The king and the barons had their courtiers, the clergy and a wider circle of hanger-ons who most of the time benefited enough from the system not to disrupt it. The role of the clergy in particular was to sanction the gross imbalance of power, to argue that it was God’s will. Today, the media function like the clergy of old. God may be dead, as Nietzsche observed, but the corporate media has taken his place. In the unquestioned premises of every article, we are told who should rule and who should be ruled, who are the Good Guys and who the Bad.

To make this system more palatable, more democratic, to make us believe that there is equality of opportunity and that wealth trickles down, the western elite has had to allow a large domestic middle class to emerge, like the courtiers of old. The spoils from the rape and pillage of distant societies are shared sparingly with this class. Their consciences are rarely pricked because the corporate media’s function is to ensure they know little about the rest of the world and care even less, believing those foreigners to be less deserving, less human.

Nothing more than statistics

If western readers, for example, understood that a Palestinian is no different from an Israeli – apart from in opportunities and income – then they might feel sympathy for a grieving Palestinian family just as they do for an Israeli one. But the Great Western Narrative is there precisely to ensure readers won’t feel the same about the two cases. That is why Palestinian deaths are invariably reported as nothing more than statistics – because Palestinians die in large numbers, like cattle in an abbatoir. Israelis, by contrast, die much more rarely and their deaths are recorded individually. They are dignified with names, life stories and pictures.

Even when a moment arrives to single out a Palestinian from the mass of death, western corporate media show great reluctance to do so. Just take the case of Razan al-Najjar, the 21-year-old Palestinian medic executed by a sniper’s bullet as she tended to the unarmed demonstrators regularly being killed and wounded at the perimeter fence encaging them in the prison of Gaza.

Gaza is slowly sinking into the sea, but who cares? Those primitive Palestinians live like cavemen amid the rubble of homes Israel has repeatedly destroyed. Their women are hijabbed and they have too many children. They don’t look like us, they don’t speak like us. Doubtless, they don’t think like us. They cannot be us.

Even those young Palestinian demonstrators, with their faces covered with strange scarves, launching flaming kites and throwing the odd stone, look different. Can we imagine ourselves standing in front of a sniper to protest like that? Of course not. We cannot imagine what it is like to live in one of the most densely populated areas on the planet, in an open-air prison over which another nation serves as jailers, in which the water is becoming as saline as seawater and there is no electricity. So how can we put ourselves in the demonstrators’ shoes, how can we empathise? It is so much easier to imagine being the powerful sniper protecting the “border” and his home.

But al-Najjar undermined all that. A young, pretty woman with a beautiful smile – she could be our daughter. Selflessly tending to the wounded, thinking not of herself but of the welfare of others, we would be proud to have her as our daughter. We can identify with her much better than the sniper. She is a door beckoning us to step through and see the world from a different location, from a different perspective.

Which is why the corporate media has not invested al-Najjar’s death with the emotional, empathetic coverage it would if a pretty young Israeli female medic had been gunned down by a Palestinian. It was that double standard in his own newspaper, the Guardian, that outraged cartoonist Steve Bell last week. As he noted in correspondence with the editor, the paper had barely covered the story of al-Najjar. When he tried to redress the imbalance, his own cartoon highlighting her death – and its oversight – was censored.

The Guardian’s editors argued that his cartoon was anti-semitic. But the truth is that al-Najjar is dangerous. Because once you step through that door, you are unlikely to come back, you are unlikely ever again to believe the Great Western Narrative.

The true message of Israel

Israel-Palestine offered me that door, just as it has so many others. It is not, as Israel’s apologists – and the upholders of the Great Western Narrative – will tell you, because so many westerners are anti-semitic. It is because Israel lies in a grey zone of experience, one that is readily available to western tourists but at the same time gives them a chance to glimpse the dark underbelly of western privilege.

Israel is enthusiastically embraced by the Great Western Narrative: it is supposedly a liberal democracy, many of its inhabitants dress and sound like us, its cities look rather like our cities, its TV shows are given a makeover and become hits on our TV screens. If you don’t stand too close, Israel could be Britain or the US.

But there are clues galore, for those who bother to look a little beyond superficialities, that there is something profoundly amiss about Israel. A few miles from their homes, the sons of those western-looking families regularly train their gun sights on unarmed demonstrators, on children, on women, on journalists, on medics, and pull the trigger with barely any compunction.

They do so not because they are monsters, but because they are exactly like us, exactly like our sons. That is the true horror of Israel. We have a chance to see ourselves in Israel – because it is not exactly us, because most of us have some physical and emotional distance from it, because it still looks a little strange despite the best efforts of the western media, and because its own local narrative – justifying its actions – is even more extreme, even more entitled, even more racist towards the Other than the Great Western Narrative.

It is that shocking realisation – that we could be Israelis, that we could be those snipers – that both opens the door and prevents many from stepping through to see what is on the other side. Or, more troubling still, halting at the threshhold of the doorway, glimpsing a partial truth without understanding its full ramifications.

Equally human

To explain what I mean, let us digress for a moment and consider the allegorical film The Matrix.

Neo, the hero played by Keanu Reeves, starts to realise that the reality around him is not as solid as it once seemed. Things have become peculiar, inconsistent, inexplicable. He is shown the door to an entirely different reality with the help of a mentor, Morpheus. Neo discovers that in truth he exists in a dark world taken over by computer-generated life forms that feed off the consciousnesses of him and the rest of mankind. Until that point, he had been living in a dream world created to pacify him and other humans as they are exploited for their energy.

Neo and a small band of others who have liberated themselves from this false consciousness cannot hope to defeat their opponents directly. They must wage war through the Matrix, a digital world in which the computer life-forms always triumph. It is only when Neo finally grasps that the Matrix is an illusion too – that these life forms he is battling are simply binary code – that he becomes strong enough to triumph.

Back to us. On the other side of the door lies a truth that humans are all equally human. From this vantage point, it is possible to understand that a privileged westerner or Israeli would react exactly like a Palestinian if he had to endure the experiences of living in Gaza. From this location, it is possible to understand that my son might pull the trigger, just like most Israeli teenagers do, if he had been bombarded, like them, with brainwashing all his life from his media, school and politicians depicting Palestinians as primitive and violent.

From the other side of the door, Russia’s Vladimir Putin or Bashar al-Assad look as rational, or irrational, and as criminal as George W Bush, Tony Blair, Barack Obama, or Donald Trump. In fact, they look less criminal – not because they are better humans than their western counterparts, but simply because they enjoy less power and face more constraints in trying to impose their will. The issue is not about who is better. They are the same humans. It is about who has more force at their disposal – and more will to use it – to perpetuate their power.

Enslaved to power

The conclusion from this is that the way to change our societies fundamentally for the better depends on a change in our consciousness, on liberating ourselves from false perspective, on stepping through the door.

If we remain in a world of illusions, of false hierarchies of virtue, oblivious to the role of power, we will continue to be Neo living in his dream world.

And if we step only to the threshhold, glimpsing the shadows on the the other side, we will be equally in thrall to illusions, just as Neo took his battle back into the Matrix, fighting ghosts in the machine as though they were flesh-and-blood enemies.

This danger can be seen in the case of Israel-Palestine too, where the horrors that Israel inflicts on Palestinians justifiably radicalise many observers. But not all step fully through the door. They linger at the threshhold, angry with Israel and Israelis, and beatifying Palestinians as nothing more than victims. Some manage to find false consolation again, this time accepting readymade conspiracies that “the Jews” are pulling the levers that make such outrages – and western inaction – possible.

To stand in the doorway is as bad as refusing to step through. The illusions are as dangerous, the false consciousness as profound.

Our planet and our children’s futures depend on us liberating ourselves, seeing the ghosts in the machine for what they truly are. We have to begin rebuilding our societies on the basis that we share a common humanity. That other humans are not our enemies, only those who wish to enslave us to their power.

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is http://www.jonathan-cook.net/