Obama adviser Samantha Power calls for crackdown on social media

Internet censorship and government war plans

21 September 2017

The meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in New York is taking place under the shadow of the accelerating drive of the major powers, spearheaded by the United States, toward World War III. This found its most noxious expression in the fascistic speech delivered to the assembly on Tuesday by Donald Trump, in which the US president threatened to “destroy North Korea” and attack Iran and Venezuela.

Trump devoted a significant portion of his tirade to a denunciation of socialism and communism, reflecting the fear within the US ruling elite of the growth of social opposition and rise of anti-capitalist and socialist sentiment in the working class.

Another major focus of the assembly is the mounting campaign of the US and European governments to crack down on the exchange of information and views on the Internet. British Prime Minister Theresa May, French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni all used the pretext of fighting terrorism and “fake news” to call for more drastic measures by the major technology firms to censor the Internet, which Gentiloni called a “battlefield for hearts and minds.”

This attack on free speech is a central part of the response of the crisis-ridden capitalist ruling elites to the growth of global geo-political tensions and economic instability, and the political radicalization of broad masses of workers and youth.

In the US, the drive for Internet censorship has been spearheaded by the so-called “liberal” wing of the political establishment, concentrated in the Democratic Party, whose chief media organ is the New York Times. On the eve of the UN assembly, the Times published an unambiguous brief for censorship of the Internet in the form of an op-ed column by the ambassador to the UN under Barack Obama, Samantha Power.

Under the headline “Why Foreign Propaganda Is More Dangerous Now,” and on the pretext of combating Russian disinformation and subversion, Power calls for the use of “professional gatekeepers” to police public discourse on the Internet.

Power, a leading proponent of “human rights” imperialism, looks back nostalgically at the Cold War as a golden age of news dissemination, when “most Americans received their news and information via mediated platforms.” She continues: “Reporters and editors serving in the role of professional gatekeepers had almost full control over what appeared in the media. A foreign adversary seeking to reach American audiences did not have great options for bypassing these umpires, and Russian disinformation rarely penetrated.”

It is worth considering who is writing these lines. First as a key policy advisor to Obama, then as Washington’s representative to the United Nations, Power was a leading architect of the disastrous US-led destabilization operation in Libya that shattered that country’s society. She is a key propagandist of the American-instigated civil war in Syria, which has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War.

Power longs for the time when, as was the case during the Korean War and the earlier part of the Vietnam War, the monopoly of the major broadcasters over public discourse could be used to keep the criminal policies of US imperialism under wraps.

She is bitter and resentful over the fact that, despite the best efforts of the corporate-controlled media to sell US operations in the Middle East to the public as anti-terrorist and humanitarian efforts, organizations such as Wikileaks and journalists such as Seymour Hersh have exposed the fact that the United States has cultivated alliances with forces linked to Al Qaeda and ISIS to pursue regime-change in Libya and Syria, totally undercutting the narrative of the “war on terror” that has been used to justify US imperialist policy since 2001.

If Power had her way, Chelsea Manning’s exposure of the murder of journalists and Iraqi civilians by the US military and Edward Snowden’s exposure illegal dragnet surveillance by the NSA would be branded as “fake news” and blocked by technology giants such as Google, Apple and Facebook.

In her Times column, she mourns the passing of the overarching—and thoroughly repressive—anti-communist ideological framework of the Cold War period, writing: “During the Cold War, the larger struggle against communism created a mainstream consensus about what America stood for and against. Today, our society appears to be defined by a particularly vicious form of ‘partyism’ affecting Democrats and Republicans alike.”

Power presents the rise of the Internet, and consequent weakening of control over the flow of information and opinion by state-sanctioned and allied corporate media outlets such as the Times, as an altogether dangerous and negative development. Under conditions where the establishment media is increasingly discredited—“60 percent believe news stories today are ‘often inaccurate,’ according to Gallup”—Power notes, the fact that “two thirds of Americans are getting at least some of their news through social media” is a matter of the gravest concern.

The “growing reliance on new media—and the absence of real umpires,” she writes, have opened up the US to disinformation and subversion at the hands of a demonic Russia, with its all-powerful media outlets RT and Sputnik, and its “trolls, bots and thousands of fake Twitter and Facebook accounts that amplified damaging stories on Hillary Clinton.”

Here we see the coming together of the hysterical, neo-McCarthyite campaign against Russia that has been used by the intelligence agencies, the Democratic Party and their media allies to attempt to whip up a war fever and pressure Trump to take a more bellicose posture toward Moscow with a growing attack on public access to anti-war, progressive and socialist web sites.

Power’s demands for state-sponsored censorship have already been put into practice by Internet giant Google. In the name of combating “fake news” and promoting “authoritative content” over “alternative viewpoints,” Google has implemented changes to its search engine that have slashed traffic to leading left-wing and alternative news web sites by 55 percent. The central target of this attack is the World Socialist Web Site, whose Google referrals have fallen by 75 percent.

By “gatekeepers,” Power means the thoroughly vetted and subservient editorial boards of newspapers such as the Times, which dutifully hide from the American people whatever the CIA and State Department do not want them to know, while dispensing state lies and propaganda in the guise of “news.”

In 2010, then-New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller spelled out the policy of such “mediated” news outlets with unusual bluntness when he declared that “transparency is not an absolute good.” He added, “Freedom of the press includes freedom not to publish, and that is a freedom we exercise with some regularity.”

More than a quarter century after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, all factions of the US ruling elite are haunted by the realization that socialist politics are, as Hillary Clinton put it in her recently published book, tapping “into powerful emotional currents” within the population. The fact that in the 2016 Democratic primaries, 12 million Americans, mostly young people and workers, voted for a candidate, Bernie Sanders, who called himself a socialist, shocked and unnerved the ruling class.

Unable to advance any policies to address the social grievances of working people or turn away from its foreign agenda of militarism and war, the ruling elite responds to the growth of opposition by recourse to police methods. The escalating corporate-state attack on freedom of speech on the Internet makes all the more urgent the campaign of the World Socialist Web Site against Google censorship. We call on all of our readers and supporters to sign our petition demanding an end to the censorship, send statements of support for our campaign, and actively work to distribute WSWS articles as widely as possible via Facebook and other social media outlets.

Andre Damon

WSWS

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The Rise of the Violent Left

Antifa’s activists say they’re battling burgeoning authoritarianism on the American right. Are they fueling it instead?

Edmon de Haro

PETER BEINART

SEPTEMBER 2017 ISSUE

 

Since 1907, portland, oregon, has hosted an annual Rose Festival. Since 2007, the festival had included a parade down 82nd Avenue. Since 2013, the Republican Party of Multnomah County, which includes Portland, had taken part. This April, all of that changed.

In the days leading up to the planned parade, a group called the Direct Action Alliance declared, “Fascists plan to march through the streets,” and warned, “Nazis will not march through Portland unopposed.” The alliance said it didn’t object to the Multnomah GOP itself, but to “fascists” who planned to infiltrate its ranks. Yet it also denounced marchers with “Trump flags” and “red maga hats” who could “normalize support for an orange man who bragged about sexually harassing women and who is waging a war of hate, racism and prejudice.” A second group, Oregon Students Empowered, created a Facebook page called “Shut down fascism! No nazis in Portland!”

Next, the parade’s organizers received an anonymous email warning that if “Trump supporters” and others who promote “hateful rhetoric” marched, “we will have two hundred or more people rush into the parade … and drag and push those people out.” When Portland police said they lacked the resources to provide adequate security, the organizers canceled the parade. It was a sign of things to come.

For progressives, Donald Trump is not just another Republican president. Seventy-six percent of Democrats, according to a Suffolk poll from last September, consider him a racist. Last March, according to a YouGov survey, 71 percent of Democrats agreed that his campaign contained “fascist undertones.” All of which raises a question that is likely to bedevil progressives for years to come: If you believe the president of the United States is leading a racist, fascist movement that threatens the rights, if not the lives, of vulnerable minorities, how far are you willing to go to stop it?

In Washington, D.C., the response to that question centers on how members of Congress can oppose Trump’s agenda, on how Democrats can retake the House of Representatives, and on how and when to push for impeachment. But in the country at large, some militant leftists are offering a very different answer. On Inauguration Day, a masked activist punched the white-supremacist leader Richard Spencer. In February, protesters violently disrupted UC Berkeley’s plans to host a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, a former Breitbart.com editor. In March, protesters pushed and shoved the controversial conservative political scientist Charles Murray when he spoke at Middlebury College, in Vermont.

As far-flung as these incidents were, they have something crucial in common. Like the organizations that opposed the Multnomah County Republican Party’s participation in the 82nd Avenue of Roses Parade, these activists appear to be linked to a movement called “antifa,” which is short for antifascist or Anti-Fascist Action. The movement’s secrecy makes definitively cataloging its activities difficult, but this much is certain: Antifa’s power is growing. And how the rest of the activist left responds will help define its moral character in the Trump age.

Antifa traces its roots to the 1920s and ’30s, when militant leftists battled fascists in the streets of Germany, Italy, and Spain. When fascism withered after World War II, antifa did too. But in the ’70s and ’80s, neo-Nazi skinheads began to infiltrate Britain’s punk scene. After the Berlin Wall fell, neo-Nazism also gained prominence in Germany. In response, a cadre of young leftists, including many anarchists and punk fans, revived the tradition of street-level antifascism.

In the late ’80s, left-wing punk fans in the United States began following suit, though they initially called their groups Anti-Racist Action, on the theory that Americans would be more familiar with fighting racism than fascism. According to Mark Bray, the author of the forthcoming Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, these activists toured with popular alternative bands in the ’90s, trying to ensure that neo-Nazis did not recruit their fans. In 2002, they disrupted a speech by the head of the World Church of the Creator, a white-supremacist group in Pennsylvania; 25 people were arrested in the resulting brawl.

By the 2000s, as the internet facilitated more transatlantic dialogue, some American activists had adopted the name antifa. But even on the militant left, the movement didn’t occupy the spotlight. To most left-wing activists during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years, deregulated global capitalism seemed like a greater threat than fascism.

Trump has changed that. For antifa, the result has been explosive growth. According to NYC Antifa, the group’s Twitter following nearly quadrupled in the first three weeks of January alone. (By summer, it exceeded 15,000.) Trump’s rise has also bred a new sympathy for antifa among some on the mainstream left. “Suddenly,” noted the antifa-aligned journal It’s Going Down, “anarchists and antifa, who have been demonized and sidelined by the wider Left have been hearing from liberals and Leftists, ‘you’ve been right all along.’ ” An article in The Nation argued that “to call Trumpism fascist” is to realize that it is “not well combated or contained by standard liberal appeals to reason.” The radical left, it said, offers “practical and serious responses in this political moment.”

Those responses sometimes spill blood. Since antifa is heavily composed of anarchists, its activists place little faith in the state, which they consider complicit in fascism and racism. They prefer direct action: They pressure venues to deny white supremacists space to meet. They pressure employers to fire them and landlords to evict them. And when people they deem racists and fascists manage to assemble, antifa’s partisans try to break up their gatherings, including by force.

Such tactics have elicited substantial support from the mainstream left. When the masked antifa activist was filmed assaulting Spencer on Inauguration Day, another piece in The Nation described his punch as an act of “kinetic beauty.” Slate ran an approving article about a humorous piano ballad that glorified the assault. Twitter was inundated with viral versions of the video set to different songs, prompting the former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau to tweet, “I don’t care how many different songs you set Richard Spencer being punched to, I’ll laugh at every one.”

The violence is not directed only at avowed racists like Spencer: In June of last year, demonstrators—at least some of whom were associated with antifa—punched and threw eggs at people exiting a Trump rally in San Jose, California. An article in It’s Going Down celebrated the “righteous beatings.”

Antifascists call such actions defensive. Hate speech against vulnerable minorities, they argue, leads to violence against vulnerable minorities. But Trump supporters and white nationalists see antifa’s attacks as an assault on their right to freely assemble, which they in turn seek to reassert. The result is a level of sustained political street warfare not seen in the U.S. since the 1960s. A few weeks after the attacks in San Jose, for instance, a white-supremacist leader announced that he would host a march in Sacramento to protest the attacks at Trump rallies. Anti-Fascist Action Sacramento called for a counterdemonstration; in the end, at least 10 people were stabbed.

A similar cycle has played out at UC Berkeley. In February, masked antifascists broke store windows and hurled Molotov cocktails and rocks at police during a rally against the planned speech by Yiannopoulos. After the university canceled the speech out of what it called “concern for public safety,” white nationalists announced a “March on Berkeley” in support of “free speech.” At that rally, a 41-year-old man named Kyle Chapman, who was wearing a baseball helmet, ski goggles, shin guards, and a mask, smashed an antifa activist over the head with a wooden post. Suddenly, Trump supporters had a viral video of their own. A far-right crowdfunding site soon raised more than $80,000 for Chapman’s legal defense. (In January, the same site had offered a substantial reward for the identity of the antifascist who had punched Spencer.) A politicized fight culture is emerging, fueled by cheerleaders on both sides. As James Anderson, an editor at It’s Going Down, told Vice, “This shit is fun.”

Portland offers perhaps the clearest glimpse of where all of this can lead. The Pacific Northwest has long attracted white supremacists, who have seen it as a haven from America’s multiracial East and South. In 1857, Oregon (then a federal territory) banned African Americans from living there. By the 1920s, it boasted the highest Ku Klux Klan membership rate of any state.

In 1988, neo-Nazis in Portland killed an Ethiopian immigrant with a baseball bat. Shortly thereafter, notes Alex Reid Ross, a lecturer at Portland State University and the author of Against the Fascist Creep, anti-Nazi skinheads formed a chapter of Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice. Before long, the city also had an Anti-Racist Action group.

Now, in the Trump era, Portland has become a bastion of antifascist militancy. Masked protesters smashed store windows during multiday demonstrations following Trump’s election. In early April, antifa activists threw smoke bombs into a “Rally for Trump and Freedom” in the Portland suburb of Vancouver, Washington. A local paper said the ensuing melee resembled a mosh pit.

When antifascists forced the cancellation of the 82nd Avenue of Roses Parade, Trump supporters responded with a “March for Free Speech.” Among those who attended was Jeremy Christian, a burly ex-con draped in an American flag, who uttered racial slurs and made Nazi salutes. A few weeks later, on May 25, a man believed to be Christian was filmed calling antifa “a bunch of punk bitches.”

The next day, Christian boarded a light-rail train and began yelling that “colored people” were ruining the city. He fixed his attention on two teenage girls, one African American and the other wearing a hijab, and told them “to go back to Saudi Arabia” or “kill themselves.” As the girls retreated to the back of the train, three men interposed themselves between Christian and his targets. “Please,” one said, “get off this train.” Christian stabbed all three. One bled to death on the train. One was declared dead at a local hospital. One survived.

The cycle continued. Nine days after the attack, on June 4, Trump supporters hosted another Portland rally, this one featuring Chapman, who had gained fame with his assault on the antifascist in Berkeley. Antifa activists threw bricks until the police dispersed them with stun grenades and tear gas.

What’s eroding in Portland is the quality Max Weber considered essential to a functioning state: a monopoly on legitimate violence. As members of a largely anarchist movement, antifascists don’t want the government to stop white supremacists from gathering. They want to do so themselves, rendering the government impotent. With help from other left-wing activists, they’re already having some success at disrupting government. Demonstrators have interrupted so many city-council meetings that in February, the council met behind locked doors. In February and March, activists protesting police violence and the city’s investments in the Dakota Access Pipeline hounded Mayor Ted Wheeler so persistently at his home that he took refuge in a hotel. The fateful email to parade organizers warned, “The police cannot stop us from shutting down roads.”

All of this fuels the fears of Trump supporters, who suspect that liberal bastions are refusing to protect their right to free speech. Joey Gibson, a Trump supporter who organized the June 4 Portland rally, told me that his “biggest pet peeve is when mayors have police stand down … They don’t want conservatives to be coming together and speaking.” To provide security at the rally, Gibson brought in a far-right militia called the Oath Keepers. In late June, James Buchal, the chair of the Multnomah County Republican Party, announced that it too would use militia members for security, because “volunteers don’t feel safe on the streets of Portland.”

Antifa believes it is pursuing the opposite of authoritarianism. Many of its activists oppose the very notion of a centralized state. But in the name of protecting the vulnerable, antifascists have granted themselves the authority to decide which Americans may publicly assemble and which may not. That authority rests on no democratic foundation. Unlike the politicians they revile, the men and women of antifa cannot be voted out of office. Generally, they don’t even disclose their names.

Antifa’s perceived legitimacy is inversely correlated with the government’s. Which is why, in the Trump era, the movement is growing like never before. As the president derides and subverts liberal-democratic norms, progressives face a choice. They can recommit to the rules of fair play, and try to limit the president’s corrosive effect, though they will often fail. Or they can, in revulsion or fear or righteous rage, try to deny racists and Trump supporters their political rights. From Middlebury to Berkeley to Portland, the latter approach is on the rise, especially among young people.

Revulsion, fear, and rage are understandable. But one thing is clear. The people preventing Republicans from safely assembling on the streets of Portland may consider themselves fierce opponents of the authoritarianism growing on the American right. In truth, however, they are its unlikeliest allies.

PETER BEINART is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York.