Google escalates blacklisting of left-wing web sites and journalists

By Andre Damon
20 October 2017

In a sweeping expansion of its moves to censor the Internet, Google has removed leading left-wing websites and journalists from its popular news aggregation platform, Google News.

At the time of publication, a search for “World Socialist Web Site” on news.google.com does not return a single article published on the WSWS. A search for the exact title of any of the articles published during that period likewise returns no results.

Over the past seven days, news.google.com has referred only 53 people to the World Socialist Web Site, a 92 percent decline from the weekly average of over 650 during the past year.

A Google News search for an article from Thursday’s edition of the WSWS returns no results

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Chris Hedges informed the WSWS Wednesday that his articles had ceased appearing on Google News. Hedges said the change occurred after the publication of his interview with the World Socialist Web Site in which he spoke out against Google’s censorship of left-wing sites.

“Sometime after I gave that interview, they blacklisted me,” said Hedges. “If you go into Google News and type my name, there are six stories, none of which have anything to do with me.”

A Google News search for Chris Hedges returns no relevant results

“I write constantly. Previously, Google News listed my columns for Truthdig and my contributions to Common Dreams and Alternet, as well as references to my books,” Hedges said. “But now it’s all gone. And I’m certain it’s because I spoke out against the Google censorship.”

Google appears to have kept an older version of its news aggregator available online, accessible by visiting google.com and clicking the “news” link below the search bar. That version of the news aggregator, which appears to be in the process of being phased out, lists 254,000 results for the search “World Socialist Web Site.”

A similar search returns 89,600 entries for “Chris Hedges.”

The changes to Google News mark a new stage in a systematic campaign of censorship and blacklisting that has been underway at least since April, when Ben Gomes, the company’s VP of engineering, said Google was seeking to promote “authoritative” news outlets over “alternative” news sources.

Since then, thirteen leading left-wing web sites have had their search traffic from Google collapse by 55 percent, with the World Socialist Web Site having had its search traffic plunge by 74 percent.

“Just speaking as a journalist, it’s terrifying,” Hedges said. “Those people who still try and do journalism, they’re the ones getting hit; especially those journalists that attempt to grapple with issues of power and the corporate state.

“This shows not only how bankrupt the state is, but how frightened it is,” Hedges said.

“Google is developing ever more intensive methods of targeting, aimed at blocking any dissenting critical voices,” said David North, the chairperson of the International Editorial Board of the World Socialist Web Site.

“This is an unprecedented attack on free speech. In the history of the United States, censorship on this scale has never been imposed outside of wartime,” he added, pointing to the blocking of Trotskyist publications during World War II.

Hedges noted the precedent of political repression during World War I. “In the name of national security, for the duration of the war they shut down The Masses,” a left-wing, antiwar journal.

The intensification of Google’s crackdown on left-wing sites takes place against the backdrop of a sharp acceleration of the anti-Russian campaign led by congressional Democrats, together with sections of the Republican Party, the US intelligence agencies and leading news outlets.

On Thursday, Democratic Party senators Mark Warner and Amy Klobuchar introduced the first piece of legislation to come out of the campaign surrounding the claim that Russia sought to “meddle” in the 2016 election by “sowing divisions” within American society, an unproven conspiracy theory aimed at creating a justification for Internet censorship.

A summary of the bill obtained by Axios stated that it requires “online platforms to make reasonable efforts to ensure that foreign individuals and entities are not purchasing political advertisements in order to influence the American electorate,” and to maintain a database of political advertisements supposedly bought by foreigners.

In his remarks announcing the bill, Warner made clear that his aim was to use it as the starting point for more aggressive restrictions on free speech on the Internet. “What we want to try to do is start with a light touch,” Warner said.

Commenting on the step-by-step nature of the censorship regime being created in the United States, Hedges said, “If you look at any totalitarian system, their assault on the press is incremental. So even in Nazi Germany, when Hitler took power, he would ban the Social Democrats’ publications for a week and then let them get back up. He wouldn’t go in and shut it all down at once.”

“Google is involved in an out-and-out political conspiracy, in coordination with the government,” North said. “A secret censorship program has been created that is directed against opponents of American foreign policy. This is an illegal assault on constitutionally protected rights.”

Hedges added, “I can tell you from having lived in and covered despotic regimes, I think we’ve got to ring all of the alarm bells while we still have the chance, because they’re not going to stop.”

WSWS

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The conspiracy to censor the Internet

18 October 2017

The political representatives of the American ruling class are engaged in a conspiracy to suppress free speech. Under the guise of combating “trolls” and “fake news” supposedly controlled by Russia, the most basic constitutional rights enumerated in the First Amendment are under direct attack.

The leading political force in this campaign is the Democratic Party, working in collaboration with sections of the Republican Party, the mass media and the military-intelligence establishment.

The Trump administration is threatening nuclear war against North Korea, escalating the assault on health care, demanding new tax cuts for the rich, waging war on immigrant workers, and eviscerating corporate and environmental regulations. This reactionary agenda is not, however, the focus of the Democratic Party. It is concentrating instead on increasingly hysterical claims that Russia is “sowing divisions” within the United States.

In the media, one report follows another, each more ludicrous than the last. The claim that Russia shifted the US election by means of $100,000 in advertisements on Facebook and Twitter has been followed by breathless reports of the Putin government’s manipulation of other forms of communication.

An “exclusive” report from CNN last week proclaimed that one organization, “Don’t Shoot Us,” which it alleges without substantiation is connected to Russia, sought to “exploit racial tensions and sow discord” on Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr and even Pokémon Go, a reality game played on cell phones.

Another report from CNN on Monday asserted that a Russian “troll factory” was involved in posting comments critical of Hillary Clinton as “part of President Vladimir Putin’s campaign to influence the 2016 election.” All of the negative commentary in news media and other publications directed at Clinton, it implied, were the product of Russian agents or people duped by Russian agents.

As during the period of Cold War McCarthyism, the absurdity of the charges goes unchallenged. They are picked up and repeated by other media outlets and by politicians to demonstrate just how far-reaching the actions of the nefarious “foreign enemy” really are.

While one aim has been to continue and escalate an anti-Russia foreign policy, the more basic purpose is emerging ever more clearly: to criminalize political dissent within the United States.

The most direct expression to date of this conspiracy against free speech was given by the anticommunist ideologue Anne Applebaum in a column published Monday in the Washington Post, “If Russia can create fake ‘Black Lives Matter’ accounts, who will next?”

Her answer: the American people. “I can imagine multiple groups, many of them proudly American, who might well want to manipulate a range of fake accounts during a riot or disaster to increase anxiety or fear,” she writes. She warns that “political groups—on the left, the right, you name it—will quickly figure out” how to use social media to spread “disinformation” and “demoralization.”

Applebaum rails against all those who seek to hide their identity online. “There is a better case than ever against anonymity, at least against anonymity in the public forums of social media and comment sections,” she writes. She continues: “The right to free speech is something that is granted to humans, not bits of computer code.” Her target, however, is not “bots” operating “fake accounts,” but anyone who seeks, fearing state repression or unjust punishment by his or her employer, to make an anonymous statement online. And that is only the opening shot in a drive to silence political dissent.

Applebaum is closely connected to the highest echelons of the capitalist state. She is a member of key foreign policy think tanks and sits on the board of directors of the CIA-linked National Endowment for Democracy. Married to the former foreign minister of Poland, she is a ferocious war hawk. Following the Russian annexation of Crimea, she authored a column in the Washington Postin which she called for “total war” against nuclear-armed Russia. She embodies the connection between militarism and political repression.

The implications of Applebaum’s arguments are made clear in an extraordinary article published on the front page of Tuesday’s New York Times, “As US Confronts Internet’s Disruptions, China Feels Vindicated,” which takes a favorable view of China’s aggressive censorship of the Internet and implies that the United States is moving toward just such a regime.

“For years, the United States and others saw” China’s “heavy-handed censorship as a sign of political vulnerability and a barrier to China’s economic development,” the Times writes. “But as countries in the West discuss potential Internet restrictions and wring their hands over fake news, hacking and foreign meddling, some in China see a powerful affirmation of the country’s vision for the internet.”

The article goes on to assert that while “few would argue that China’s Internet control serves as a model for democratic societies… At the same time, China anticipated many of the questions now flummoxing governments from the United States to Germany to Indonesia.”

Glaringly absent from the Times article, Applebaum’s commentary and all of the endless demands for a crackdown on social media is any reference to democratic rights, free speech or the First Amendment.

The First Amendment, which asserts that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech,” is the broadest amendment in the US Constitution. Contrary to Applebaum, there is no caveat exempting anonymous speech from Constitutional protection. It is a historical fact that leaders of the American Revolution and drafters of the Constitution wrote articles under pseudonyms to avoid repression by the British authorities.

The Constitution does not give the government or powerful corporations the right to proclaim what is “fake” and what is not, what is a “conspiracy theory” and what is “authoritative.” The same arguments now being employed to crack down on social media could just as well have been used to suppress books and mass circulation newspapers that emerged with the development of the printing press.

The drive toward Internet censorship in the United States is already far advanced. Since Google announced plans to bury “alternative viewpoints” in search results earlier this year, leading left-wing sites have seen their search traffic plunge by more than 50 percent. The World Socialist Web Site’s search traffic from Google has fallen by 75 percent.

Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms have introduced similar measures. The campaign being whipped up over Russian online activity will be used to justify even more far-reaching measures.

This is taking place as universities implement policies to give police the authority to vet campus events. There are ongoing efforts to abolish “net neutrality” so as to give giant corporations the ability to regulate Internet traffic. The intelligence agencies have demanded the ability to circumvent encryption after having been exposed for illegally monitoring the phone communications and Internet activity of the entire population.

In one “democratic” country after another governments are turning to police-state forms of rule, from France, with its permanent state of emergency, to Germany, which last month shut down a subsidiary of the left-wing political site Indymedia, to Spain, with its violent crackdown on the separatist referendum in Catalonia and arrest of separatist leaders.

The destruction of democratic rights is the political response of the corporate and financial aristocracy to the growth of working class discontent bound up with record levels of social inequality. It is intimately linked to preparations for a major escalation of imperialist violence around the world. The greatest concern of the ruling elite is the emergence of an independent movement of the working class, and the state is taking actions to prevent it.

Andre Damon and Joseph Kishore

WSWS

Are social media bots a threat to democracy?

Ryan de Laureal analyzes the push to get Silicon Valley to clamp down on promoters of “fake news”–and argues that the solution isn’t censorship, but transparency.

Are social media bots a threat to democracy? (Eric Ruder | SW)

TECH GIANTS Facebook, Google and Twitter have found themselves under fire as the latest details have emerged about the use of fake Russian social media accounts and political ads in last year’s presidential election.

The furor over various attempts to manipulate public opinion by spreading “fake news” during the 2016 campaign began almost immediately after Donald Trump’s shocking victory, resulting in a storm of criticism toward companies like Facebook, which were accused of failing to crack down on the abuse of their platforms by Russian fakesters.

The issue was revived again on September 6, when Facebook announced it had discovered that about $100,000 worth of political ads that were purchased from June 2015 to May 2017 by accounts with potential links to the Russian government, many of them posing as fake American users.

In the following weeks, the company handed over thousands of these ads to Congressional investigators and announced steps to limit the impact of such content in the future.

After Facebook, Twitter and Google were the next ones to be caught up in the investigation.

In Twitter’s case, a primary focus was on the use of so-called “bots”–automated accounts that can be programmed to post and share content, and can often be made to appear indistinguishable from real users. Hundreds of such bots were apparently used by Russian actors to spread propaganda during the election.

The alarm being raised by Democrats about this Russian influence campaign should be taken looked at skeptically. Rather than being a smoking gun, the ad spending uncovered thus far by Facebook raises serious doubts about how extensive and impactful this campaign really was.

To begin with, $100,000 is an almost laughably minuscule amount of money compared to what presidential campaigns typically spend on political propaganda. While it is possible that more Russian ad spending may come to light, the fact remains that the Trump and Clinton campaigns each spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the 2016 presidential race, large portions of which were dedicated to advertising.

Even if an extra $100,000 bump for the Trump campaign by Russian actors is taken into account, Clinton still outspent Trump by over $200 million, and even Green Party candidate Jill Stein outspent the Russians 50 times over.

If the claim that Russian propaganda activity cost the Democrats the election is taken seriously, it reveals either superhuman ability on the part of the Russians or total ineptitude on the part of the Democrats, who failed to defeat Trump despite burning through buckets of money in their attempt to do so.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THAT ISN’T to say that there aren’t genuine concerns raised by the issue of Twitter bots and fake accounts.

Though certain bot functions–such as liking posts, following users en masse and sending direct messages–technically violate Twitter’s terms of service, the company still encourages the use of automated accounts, and there are a proliferation of services available online that allow for abuse of the platform even by those who are not tech-savvy.

Certain products allow customers to create and control thousands of bot accounts in an instant, and Twitter’s low standards for account verification (little more than an e-mail address is needed to create an account) have made bots desirable tools for anybody wishing to influence public opinion, Russians or not–which is precisely why the current concern among Democrats about their use falls short.

Allowing anonymous users to create thousands of fake accounts at the click of a button and use them to impersonate real people and spread lies certainly is something that should be of public concern. This is especially true when–as was the case with many of the pro-Trump Russian bots and fake accounts active during the campaign–they are used to incite xenophobia and bolster society’s racist, far-right fringe.

But thus far, the Democrats’ only apparent concern is the use of bots and fake accounts by the Russians–even though bots have become a fairly regular feature of U.S. political campaigns over the past few years, with Republicans and Democrats alike investing in automated Twitter traffic to spread their campaign propaganda, alongside more traditional advertising routes.

An analysis of selected Twitter traffic during the 2016 election by the Oxford Internet Institute’s Computational Propaganda Project found that over 10 percent of users tweeting election-related hashtags were potential bots–and it’s likely that most of them weren’t Russian.

Though the concentration of bot activity was stronger for accounts tweeting pro-Trump content, bots were also used to spread pro-Clinton content in 2016.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

DESPITE THE often narrow, jingoistic focus of the current frenzy over “fake news,” and its obvious use for Democrats as a political tool in their ongoing Russia inquiry, there are clear problems posed by bots and other forms of modern technological propaganda that should be taken seriously.

Addressing these problems must go hand in hand with the fight to defend the Internet as a free and open form of communication.

The ease and anonymity with which platforms such as Twitter can be abused make them attractive venues for wealthy and powerful actors–from dictatorial regimes to corporate interest groups–to manipulate public opinion, sow confusion and quell dissent.

In addition to their use by multiple players in the 2016 U.S. election, bots have been used extensively by the widely despised Institutional Revolutionary Party of Mexico to manufacture fake support for its candidates and silence criticism online. Pro-government bots have also been used by repressive regimes in Syria and Turkey to spread propaganda in support of the Assad and Erdoğan dictatorships.

A number of solutions have been proposed by the government and by companies such as Twitter and Facebook in response to the current Russia scandal, including tighter regulation and greater transparency in online political advertising, more aggressive enforcement of terms of service rules by social media companies, and greater collaboration between Silicon Valley and the national security state.

While some proposals, such as greater transparency around online ads and automated accounts, could be welcomed, many of these are quite dangerous. Of particular concern are measures that would lead to greater control over the Internet or censorship powers against online speech by either the state or corporations or both.

One example of these dangers can be found in the debate over the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, or SESTA, which is currently gaining traction in the Senate.

While the bill has the ostensible purpose of cracking down on sex trafficking, it has been criticized by Internet advocacy groups for its proposal to limit the application of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

Section 230 has been described as “the law that built the modern Internet” by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF):

Section 230 says that for purposes of enforcing certain laws affecting speech online, an intermediary”–such as a company, website, or organization that provides a platform for others to share speech and content–“cannot be held legally responsible for any content created by others. The law thus protects intermediaries against a range of laws that might otherwise be used to hold them liable for what others say and do on their platforms.

It’s thanks to Section 230 that social media exists in the way that we know it today. The proposal to limit it, which could make companies like Facebook or Twitter open to lawsuits for illegal content posted by users, means that any organization providing an online platform for speech would be incentivized to more heavily police and censor content.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THIS DEMAND to be more vigilant in finding and removing malicious content is essentially what many have been making of Facebook and Twitter in the current Russian hacking scandal.

But what counts as malicious is subjective–whether there are human moderators on the other end screening ads and content and deciding what gets approved, and even more especially, when the moderators themselves are bots.

The enormous amount of advertising that is bought and sold on platforms like Facebook makes it impossible for a human to review and approve every ad purchase. An attractive alternative for tech companies is bots, programmed with an algorithm that allows them to automatically review and flag content as potentially troublesome.

If Internet companies censor content more heavily, it won’t be humans doing the moderating. Instead, as the EFF argues, increased sanctioning for online platforms will actually lead to a greater automation of this function.

A number of programs like this already exist, such as Google’s recently rolled out Perspective, a programming interface designed to fight online trolls by automatically moderating comment threads and flagging posts based on their “toxicity.”

The danger posed to free speech by programs like Perspective isn’t hard to see. After its rollout, users experimenting with it discovered a discriminatory streak in the kinds of statements flagged as toxic.

A statement such as “I am a man” is flagged as 20 percent likely to be seen as toxic, while “I am a Black man” is flagged at 80 percent. “I am a woman” is 41 percent, and “I am a gay Black woman” is flagged as 87 percent.

The problem is that algorithms can’t understand things like human intent. They can search posts for key words–like “Black” or “Jew”–that might be used by racist online trolls, but they have trouble distinguishing between actually racist posts containing these words from ones that aren’t racist.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

SPAMBOTS AND fake news are legitimate problems. They muddy the waters of online speech and are ripe for abuse. Governments, including the U.S., use them for psychological operations to spread false ideas and silence dissent, and they can also be used by hackers to spread malware.

But sanctioning Internet companies for the actions of their users and giving them more power to censor content online is a route that could chill the Internet as a venue for free speech.

There are better ways to handle bots. If Twitter were simply to disclose which of its user accounts were automated–in the same way that it has been proposed to create greater transparency around Facebook ads by disclosing who bought them–it would go a long way toward eliminating the ability to disguise bots as real users.

There are trickier Internet questions out there, such as how to handle the epidemic of online harassment. But when it comes to bots, increased transparency may not be the best solution for Silicon Valley’s profit margins, but it would make for a better Internet for the rest of us.

https://socialistworker.org/2017/10/12/are-social-media-bots-a-threat-to-democracy

The New York Times and the criminalization of dissent

11 October 2017

The campaign within the American media and political establishment over allegations of Russian “hacking” and manipulation of the US elections is being transformed into an increasingly frenzied demand for the criminalization of dissent.

During the first months of the Trump administration, the charges of Russian interference in US politics were primarily used to prosecute a struggle within the American ruling class centered on issues of foreign policy. The anti-Russian campaign has now developed into an effort to associate all opposition within the United States to the actions of a “foreign enemy.”

A series of increasingly ludicrous articles have appeared in the US press, channeling information supposedly gathered by the Senate Intelligence Committee from social media companies. The latest appeared on Tuesday in the New York Times, which has played the central role in the media campaign. The front-page article (“Russians Spun American Rage Into a Weapon: Facebook Posts in US Fueled Propaganda”) is a piece of pure political propaganda, filled with unsubstantiated statements, wild speculation and unsupported conclusions.

Social media posts from Americans, the Times asserts, have become “grist for a network of Facebook pages linked to a shadowy Russian company that carried out propaganda campaigns for the Kremlin.” The newspaper claims to have reviewed hundreds of these posts, concluding, “One of the most powerful weapons that Russian agents used to reshape American politics was the anger, passion and misinformation that real Americans were broadcasting across social media platforms.”

The article names several Facebook pages that it baldly asserts, without proof, were owned and controlled by the unnamed Russian company, including United Muslims of America, Being Patriotic, Secured Borders, and Blacktivist.

The entire premise of the Times article is absurd. Pages associated with Russia, it is claimed, are reporting and sharing expressions of anger, sowing discontent and divisions. United Muslims of America, for example, “frequently posted content highlighting discrimination against Muslims.” This, somehow, is criminal activity. Those who originally produced the content or shared the posts are acting, at best, as Russian patsies, and, at worst, as co-conspirators. The Times cites one Trump supporter who shared a post from the Being Patriotic group, characterizing him as “not bothered…by becoming an unwitting cog in the Russian propaganda machine.”

The claims of Russian manipulation read like the ravings of individuals suffering from paranoid delusions. According to an earlier statement from Republican Senator James Lankford, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Russian “trolls” are responsible for pushing the controversy over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to protest police violence. Russian “troll farms,” he claimed, were working to “raise the noise level in America.”

Clint Watts, a former top FBI agent who has testified at Senate Intelligence Committee hearings on Russian intervention in the elections and has been frequently quoted in the media, replied to Lankford’s comments by declaring, “The Russians can just sit back and say: ‘Amplify on both sides. Make people angry.’ And it works, man, God, it works.”

Such claims reproduce the worst tactics used during the period of McCarthyite redbaiting. What used to be called “Commie dupes” are now “Russian dupes.” (Unconcerned by the fact that the Soviet Union was dissolved over a quarter century ago, GQ magazine recently posted an article that featured a graphic replacing the “G” in “Google” with a hammer and sickle). Dissent and opposition, according to this line, are to be interpreted not as the product of internal divisions and social tensions, but the nefarious workings of a foreign power.

The Times article includes lines that read like they came straight from the proclamations of Senator Joe McCarthy or the files of J. Edgar Hoover. “The Russians,” it states, “appear to have insinuated themselves across American social media platforms and used the same promotional tools that people employ to share cat videos, airline complaints, and personal rants.” The article speaks of the need to “purge social media networks of foreign influence.”

And what was supposedly involved in this major “covert propaganda campaign?” According to US Senate investigators, Russian companies spent a total of $100,000 on Facebook advertisements to promote messages like those cited by the Times.

Another article appearing in the Times on Tuesday (“Google Inquiry Connects Election Ads to Russians”) asserts that “accounts believed to be connected to the Russian government” purchased a grand total of $4,700 worth of ads, while “a separate $53,000 worth of ads with political material…were purchased from Russian internet addresses, building addresses or with Russian currency…”

This is an infinitesimal fraction of what is spent by political campaigns awash in money from corporate executives and American plutocrats. Some $2.65 billion was spent by the Clinton and Trump campaigns and organizations supporting them during the presidential race. Nearly $7 billion was spent on all US federal elections last year. Yet the Russian government’s supposedly massive campaign of subversion and propaganda amounts to a few tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on Facebook, Twitter and Google!

The conclusions would be laughable if the consequence were not so serious.

The New York Times, in close coordination with the Democratic Party and the US intelligence agencies, is engaged in a campaign that is nothing less than criminal. It is engaged in a political conspiracy to outlaw dissent in the United States and justify state efforts to prohibit, blacklist and suppress speech, particularly on the Internet. If the Russian government is merely amplifying content produced by others—including videos depicting police violence and other crimes—then the logical conclusion is that this original content must be proscribed.

Any content or article, including from the Times itself, that examines social discontent in the United States is susceptible to being picked up by the Russians and promoted. Halting such “foreign intervention” requires a regime of censorship and self-censorship of and by all media outlets—precisely what exists in a dictatorship.

The basic target of the lying campaign over Russian manipulation of US public opinion is not Russia, but the American population. The state institutions and the two parties, Democratic and Republican, are deeply discredited and broadly hated. The working class does not need the Russian or Chinese governments to know that American society is massively unequal, that the political system is controlled by the rich, and that the police engage in brutal acts of violence on a daily basis.

Control of the Internet and the suppression of free speech online is a basic strategic issue for the American ruling class. The emergence of online communication and Internet platforms broke the control of the major media conglomerates over the distribution of information. Under conditions of growing popular opposition to social inequality and war, and deepening political crisis, establishing state control over the Internet is seen as a matter of the greatest urgency.

This is what Google has already begun to do. As the World Socialist Web Site has documented, changes to Google’s search algorithm in April, introduced under the pretext of combating “fake news” and promoting “authoritative content,” have resulted in a fall in referrals from Google to the WSWS by nearly 70 percent, and to 13 other left-wing sites by between 19 and 63 percent.

The actions of Google are only the beginning. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other platforms are preparing or have already begun to implement similar measures. The US Justice Department has demanded that staff at the American branch of Russian news agency RT register as foreign agents by October 17 or face possible arrest. This action will be used as a precedent for targeting left-wing and antiwar websites and organizations as agencies of a “foreign enemy” that must be shut down or censored.

It is necessary to organize the working class and youth against this neo-McCarthyite assault on free speech and the Internet, connecting the defense of democratic rights to opposition to social inequality, war, dictatorship and the capitalist system. Meetings must be organized throughout the country and internationally to expose what is taking place and mobilize opposition. The WSWS urges all its readers to sign the petition against Internet censorship and contact the Socialist Equality Party today.

Joseph Kishore

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/10/11/pers-o11.html

Was Facebook Fooled by the Russians, or Did It Know All Along?

ELECTION 2016
Facebook’s role in influencing the 2016 election is only now being understood.

Photo Credit: YouTube.com

Facebook’s political troubles do not appear to be anywhere near ending, despite mea culpas by founder Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg that the global social media giant now recognizes its platform was used by Russian troll accounts to influence the 2016 election and its automated advertising platform can be gamed to foment racist messaging.

The past two weeks’ media revelations about how, as one New York Times piece put it, Zuckerberg created a 21st-century Frankenstein, a behemoth he cannot control, read like a screenplay from the latest Netflix political thriller. Last weekend, the Washington Post reported that Facebook discovered a Russian-based operation “as it was getting underway” in June 2016, using its platform to spread anti-Democratic Party propaganda. Facebook alerted the FBI. After Facebook traced “a series of shadowy accounts” that were promoting the stolen emails and other Democratic campaign documents, it “once again contacted the FBI.”

But Facebook “did not find clear evidence of Russian disinformation or ad purchases by Russian-linked accounts,” the Post reported. “Nor did any U.S. law enforcement or intelligence officials visit the company to lay out what they knew.” Instead, it was preoccupied with a rash of highly propagandistic partisan pages, both left and right, that came out of nowhere in 2016, the Post reported. These websites stole content from real news sites and twisted it into incendiary claims, drawing readers and shares that exploited Facebook’s royalty-producing business model. “The company found that most of the groups behind the problematic pages had clear financial motives, which suggested that they weren’t working for a foreign government,” the Post said.

This messaging fog prompted Zuckerberg to say it was “crazy” for anyone to suggest that fake news on Facebook played a role in Trump’s electoral victory and the GOP triumph. The Post’s biggest scoop—after noting that Facebook was telling federal agencies during the election about Russian trolling activities, even if it misread them—was President Obama pulling Zuckerberg aside at an international conference, where “Obama made a personal appeal to Zuckerberg to take the threat of fake news and political disinformation seriously… [or] it would only get worse in the next presidential race.”

The Post’s account is a remarkable example of Washington-based reporting. Sources inside Facebook, law enforcement and intelligence agencies are saying that they held in their hands the dots that are only being connected today—much like the federal agents who were tracking some of the 9/11 hijackers before the terrorist attack. Facebook has since changed its tune, giving special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russia-Trump campaign collusion and congressional inquests 3,000 Facebook ads placed by one Russian front group. Zuckerberg also issued an online video last week, in which he said, “I don’t want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy,” and pledged Facebook would now disclose the names of businesses that place political ads.

Meanwhile, after ProPublica this month reported it could use Facebook’s automated ad placement service to target people describing themselves as “Jew haters” or who used terms like “how to burn Jews,” Sandberg announced the colossus had badly erred, and would revamp its ad filtering and targeting system. “The fact that hateful terms were even offered as options was totally inappropriate and a fail on our part,” she said. “Hate has no place on Facebook, and as a Jew, as a mother and as a human being, I know the damage that can come from hate.”

But even as Zuckerberg makes public commitments about supporting American democracy, and Sandberg makes heartfelt declarations against enabling hate, top technology writers and editorial pages aren’t quite buying Facebook’s mea culpas. The most sympathetic pieces say there was no willful malice on Facebook’s part. They add that when Facebook asked the feds to help them figure out the Russia puzzle, they were met with silence from federal law enforcement agencies. That deer-in-the-headlights narrative has led to characterizing its trials as “Facebook’s Frankenstein moment.” As New York Times business writer Kevin Roose quoted a former Facebook advertising executive, “The reality is that if you’re at the help of a machine that has two billion screaming, whiny humans, it’s basically impossible to predict each and every nefarious use case… It’s a whack-a-mole problem.”

The Times editorial page was less forgiving, calling Zuckerberg and Sandberg’s awakening “belated,” noting that Facebook has opposed federal regulation of online political messaging, and that Zuckerberg’s remedy of disclosing names of businesses that place ads is easily evaded by campaign operatives. “Disclosing the name of Facebook business accounts placing political ads, for instance, will be of little value if purchasers can disguise their real identity—calling themselves, say, Americans for Motherhood and Apple Pie,” the Times said. “Further, even if Facebook succeeds in driving away foreign propaganda, the same material could pop up on Twitter or other social media sites.”

Actually, the Post reported that Facebook has recently deployed software that was able to “disable 30,000 fake accounts” in May’s French national election, and that software was successfully used last weekend in Germany’s national election. That disclosure by the Post, and other investigative reporting by the Times about how Facebook has worked with foreign governments to censor posts by critics and posted pro-regime propaganda, suggests Facebook is not quite the innocent bystander it professes to be.

The Times ran an extensive piece on how Facebook’s future lies with finding hundreds of millions of new users overseas, including in countries where governments want to control the media. Part of trying to access markets like China, where Facebook has been banned, include allowing Chinese state media outlets to buy pro-government ads targeting Facebook’s Hong Kong users. In other words, its ad sales business model has looked past political propaganda to cash in, which Russia adroitly exploited in 2016. Of course, there is a double-standard here. Russia was using Facebook to aim at U.S. elections, upsetting America’s political establishment; whereas when China and other nations used Facebook for political purposes, it’s apparently okay.

Last week Jim Rutenberg, the Times’ “Mediator” columnist, wrote there’s a veritable mountain of detail that still has not been made public by Facebook concerning 2016’s election. This goes far beyond releasing the 3,000 ads bought by a single Russian troll account it shared with Mueller and congressional committees. So far, we know the ads amplified “divisive social and political messages,” that the users who bought the ads were fabricated, and that some ads targeted specific states and voter segments. But what we don’t know, Rutenberg noted, is what those ads looked like, what they specifically said, whose accounts sent them, how many people saw and shared them, which states and counties were targeted, and what actions the ads urged people to take. The Daily Beast reported that at least one ad organized an anti-refugee rally in Idaho, and another report said Russian trolls promoted 17 Trump rallies in Florida.

On Monday afternoon, the Post reported it had spoken to congressional sources familiar with the contents of the 3,000 ads, who said they used references to groups like Black Lives Matter to incite different blocs of voters. “The Russian campaign—taking advantage of Facebook’s ability to simultaneously send contrary messages to different groups of users based on their political and demographic characteristics—also sought to sow discord among religious groups. Other ads highlighted support for Democrat Hillary Clinton among Muslim women,” the Post said.

For these reasons and others, Facebook’s political troubles do not appear to be ending soon. Predictably, some Democratic lawmakers are saying it’s time to require anyone who buys an online political ad to disclose it. But that notion, apart from going nowhere in a GOP-majority Congress, only scratches the surface of what’s going on. Campaign finance laws have proven to be utterly incapable of stopping so-called dark money in recent years, such as front groups created by the Koch brothers or state chambers of commerce. These laws can only regulate explicit political speech, such as ads telling people to vote for or against a certain candidate. How are they going to prevent innuendo-filled messaging, from fake messengers, on a deregulated internet?

Companies like Facebook, which track and parse the behavior of multi-millions of Americans online and sell ads based on those metrics, have embraced all the benefits of its business model. But they have avoided taking the lead to prevent nefarious uses of their platforms, until they’re shamed in public, such as ProPublica’s recent outing of Facebook’s automated ad platform that can be gamed by anti-Semites, or disclosures like the Post report that Obama tried to give Zuckerberg a wakeup call last November.

Internet “companies act as if they own our data. There’s no reason why that should be the case…That data is an x-ray of our soul,” Franklin Foer, author of the new book, World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, told KQED-FM in San Francisco on Monday. But these companies aren’t regulated in the U.S. The firms own vast files on virtually anyone who is likely to vote, let alone shop. And their automated systems rolled out the red carpet to anyone seeking to target 2016’s voters, from the presidential campaigns to Russian trolls.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

http://www.alternet.org/election-2016/was-facebook-taken-ride-russia-2016s-election?akid=16125.265072.uT5l_Y&rd=1&src=newsletter1083038&t=4

Trump makes an appeal to the fascistic right

4 August 2017

As the political warfare in Washington escalated, President Trump went to Huntington, West Virginia Thursday night for a campaign-style rally bringing together the fascistic themes that the White House has been developing over the past several weeks.

Posturing as the defender of coal miners and other working people against immigrants, environmentalists and unnamed “special interests,” Trump welcomed the Democratic governor of West Virginia, billionaire coal boss Jim Justice, who announced his switch to the Republican Party at the rally.

Trump invited other Democrats to support his right-wing policies and drop their campaign, backed by the military-intelligence apparatus, over alleged Russian interference in the 2016 elections. “The reason why Democrats only talk about the totally made up Russia story is because they have no message, no agenda and no vision,” he said.

This characterization of the Democratic Party is accurate as far as it goes. The maniacal focus of the Democrats on the Russia investigation leaves a political vacuum in which there is no opposition within the official political system to Trump’s right-wing rampage against democratic rights and the social gains of working people.

Trump seeks to exploit this rhetorically with demagogic boasting about the (nonexistent) revival of the coal industry and the (fictitious) growth of manufacturing jobs. The real content of his economic program is revealed in the “achievement” to which he gave first place in his litany of supposed successes: “the all-time-high stock market,” which enriches billionaires like Trump and Justice, but comes at the expense of the jobs and living standards of workers.

Trump combines bogus claims to stand up for working people with vicious law-and-order and anti-immigrant demagogy, featuring the usual list of villains: “radical Islamic terrorists,” “drug smugglers,” “human traffickers” and “vicious, violent gangs.” Of those actually responsible for the terrible conditions of life in areas like West Virginia—the giant corporations and banks overseeing mass layoffs, wage-cutting and the opioid plague that has ensued—Trump said not a word.

The visit to Huntington is the latest in a series of public appearances through which the White House has carried out a step-by-step campaign to mobilize support from the police, the military, Christian fundamentalists, white racists and outright fascists.

While there has been an authoritarian thrust to the Trump administration going back to his inaugural address, what has unfolded over the past two weeks is a calculated political maneuver, beginning with Trump’s July 22 speech to a naval audience at the christening of the new aircraft carrier USS Gerald Ford.

Trump spoke last week before an audience of uniformed police on Long Island and urged them to be “rough” in treating people they arrested, particularly those involved in Latino immigrant gangs.

There have been open appeals to racism and anti-gay bigotry: Trump tweeted his decision that transgendered individuals will not be “permitted to serve in any capacity in the US military.” The Justice Department has taken the position that anti-gay discrimination by employers does not violate civil rights laws, and there are reports that it is preparing to charge that universities with affirmative action programs are engaged in “anti-white” discrimination.

On Monday, the new White House chief of staff, retired Marine General John F. Kelly, was sworn into office, replacing Reince Priebus, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, and putting a military man in the top White House job for the first time in nearly half a century.

And on Wednesday, Trump policy adviser Stephen Miller appeared at the White House press briefing to announce Trump’s support for legislation that would cut the number of legal immigrants by 50 percent while enacting an openly racist standard favoring speakers of English and those desired by corporate employers, rather than family members.

Increasingly, the administration’s political appeals are separated from any legislative or electoral agenda. The focus is on the persona of Trump himself and the building of a political movement around him.

Miller’s re-emergence Wednesday, after being sidelined for several months due to the initial debacle of Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban, brought the most openly authoritarian of Trump’s top aides before the public and the press once more. He engaged in a widely publicized clash with Jim Acosta of CNN, in the course of which Miller inadvertently revealed the direct connection between the Trump White House and the fascist right.

In an exchange involving the famous poem by Emma Lazarus, embossed on the Statue of Liberty (which includes the line, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”), Miller declared that the poem “was added later, is not actually a part of the original Statue of Liberty.” As both the Washington Post and the Jewish Daily Forward have pointed out, Miller’s remark was not original to him, but reproduces positions circulating in the fascist and neo-Nazi right, voiced at different times this year by Rush Limbaugh of talk radio, Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, and white supremacist Richard Spencer.

Trump and his closest aides are seeking to exploit the widespread hostility to the Democratic Party as the party of the liberal economic elite, including large sections of Wall Street, with an entirely bogus posture as the advocate of the “forgotten man”, as Trump put it during the election campaign and again on Thursday night. But Trump lacks even the semblance of an economic program to address the spread of mass impoverishment and social misery.

The Democrats are saying nothing about Trump’s fascistic appeals. Instead, they are doubling down on their anti-Russia campaign. There were reports Thursday that independent counsel Robert Mueller has convened a special grand jury in his investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 elections and Trump campaign collusion with Moscow.

Leaks from within the White House and the intelligence agencies continue at an unprecedented level; most recently, the Washington Post published transcripts of Trump phone conversations with leaders of Mexico and Australia, giving an embarrassing glimpse of the president’s bullying and double-dealing approach to his foreign counterparts.

These attacks are motivated by differences within the ruling elite over foreign policy. While Trump has sought to accommodate his critics, most recently by signing a stringent new sanctions bill directed against Russia, he is also seeking to mobilize his ultra-right base and push back against his ruling class opponents.

The Democratic Party will do nothing to oppose Trump’s effort to mobilize ultra-right and fascistic elements to attack the working class and destroy democratic rights. Their criticism of Trump is entirely within the framework set by the national-security establishment: he is soft on Russia, erratic overall, and preoccupied with his family’s personal financial interests rather than the interests of Wall Street and American imperialism as a whole.

At the same time, the Democrats are leaving open the possibility of working with Trump, particularly on a “tax reform” that will lead to a new windfall for the corporate and financial elite.

The struggle against the ultra-right and in defense of democratic rights is a struggle to unite all sections of the working class—black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American and immigrant—on the basis of common class interests, to defend jobs and living standards and oppose the growing danger of imperialist war. This is possible only through the independent mobilization of working people against the two big business parties, the Democrats and Republicans, to fight for a socialist and internationalist program.

Patrick Martin

White House shakeup: A further step toward authoritarian rule

31 July 2017

Friday’s announcement by President Trump removing White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and replacing him with retired Gen. John F. Kelly marks a further stage in the emergence of the military brass as the decisive political power in the Trump administration.

With General Kelly as White House chief of staff, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, an active duty officer, as national security adviser, and retired Gen. James Mattis as secretary of defense, military men hold three of the top four appointed positions in the executive branch.

Press coverage of the White House transition has focused almost entirely on the Twitter antics by Trump and the vulgar ranting by his new communications director, former hedge fund boss Anthony Scaramucci. A sober assessment of the actual political implications of the White House reshuffle reveals, however, that the events of the past week mark a major turning point for the Trump administration and the crisis-ridden US political system as a whole.

Trump fired Priebus, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, whom he chose as chief of staff to act as a conduit to the Republican congressional leadership and the party establishment. He has replaced him with a retired Marine general with no political record and an avowed and well-publicized contempt for civilian oversight of the military—one, moreover, who, as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, has overseen the administration’s program of mass arrests and deportations of undocumented immigrants.

The president coupled the removal of Priebus with a public blast against Senate Republicans, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, over their failure last week to enact any version of a repeal of the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act.

Trump responded with a series of tweets saying Senate Republicans “look like fools” and demanding that McConnell trample on minority rights in the Senate and proceed immediately to push through White House proposals for slashing taxes on the wealthy and gutting social programs such as Medicaid.

Trump presents himself more and more as a ruler above the two capitalist political parties, while seeking to surround himself with uniformed audiences. He addressed 40,000 Boy Scouts assembled at a jamboree in West Virginia, then gave a speech Friday to police on Long Island in which he endorsed “rough” treatment for immigrants and others under arrest, touching off chants of “USA, USA” from the assembled cops.

While inciting police violence, Trump made direct appeals to ultra-right bigotry with a tweet calling for the expulsion of transgendered people from the military and new legal steps by the Justice Department directed against the democratic rights of homosexuals.

Added to this is the rancid atmosphere of palace intrigue in the White House. It is widely reported that Trump family members played a key role in the firing of Priebus, with son-in-law Jared Kushner, daughter Ivanka Trump and First Lady Melania Trump all weighing in.

In all of this there is the stench of dictatorship. Trump is pursuing a definite political strategy. He is seeking to carve out for himself, as the representative of the financial oligarchy, a position of power independent of the apparatuses of the establishment political parties and the traditional institutions of bourgeois rule such as Congress, the courts and the so-called mainstream media.

Like all would-be Bonapartist autocrats, he seeks to establish a personalist regime based on the military and police. His use of Twitter is an essential component of this effort. He bypasses the establishment media and makes his appeal directly to the military and police while seeking to whip up national chauvinism and all forms of social and political backwardness. He seeks in this way to establish a base he can mobilize independently of the political parties.

But Trump is not some aberration or accident, an interloper into the otherwise pristine precincts of American democracy. He is the product of decades of uninterrupted war, reaction and decay of political culture within the ruling class and all official institutions, including academia—a process that has been presided over by both big-business parties. This has coincided with the rise of a criminal financial oligarchy and a staggering growth of social inequality to levels incompatible with democratic norms.

The Democratic Party for its part welcomes the appointment of Kelly. Its opposition to Trump continues to be centered on demands for an escalation of the confrontation with Russia. It welcomes any sign that this is being done, such as the White House’s announcement that Trump will sign the bill passed last week with virtual bipartisan unanimity imposing new sanctions on Russia, as well as Iran and North Korea.

It fears no less than the Republicans the growth of social opposition and anticapitalist sentiment in the working class and supports the domination of the military over the political system as insurance against the threat of social revolution.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi praised General Kelly during an appearance on Fox News Sunday, while expressing the hope that he would improve the functioning of the Trump White House. “I will be speaking with him today and look forward to working with him,” she said.

On another Sunday interview program, CNN’s “State of the Union,” Democratic Representative Barbara Lee was grilled for remarking that by putting General Kelly in charge, “President Trump is militarizing the White House and putting our executive branch in the hands of an extremist.” Lee backpedaled from the suggestion that she was antimilitary, declaring, “Let me first say, I have come from a military family… And so I respect and honor the military and recognize the sacrifices that all of our military men and women make as well as General Kelly and his history and his sacrifices.”

Senator Bernie Sanders appeared on the same program and did not even make reference to the White House shakeup.

The concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny financial oligarchy, personified by social criminals like Trump and Scaramucci, is completely incompatible with democratic rights. The defense of democratic rights falls to the working class, as a central element in its struggle for the abolition of the profit system and the socialist reorganization of society.

Patrick Martin

WSWS