Thom Hartmann: The America I Knew Has Almost Disappeared

HUMAN RIGHTS
What’s left of our democratic institutions are under siege.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com / kasha_malasha

Like an alcoholic family that won’t discuss alcoholism (proving Don Quixote’s warning never to mention rope in the home of a man who’s been hanged), far too many Americans are unwilling to acknowledge or even discuss the ongoing collapse of democracy in the United States.

President Jimmy Carter took it head on when he told me on my radio program that the Citizen’s United decision:

“[V]iolates the essence of what made America a great country in its political system. Now it’s just an oligarchy, with unlimited political bribery being the essence of getting the nominations for president or to elect the president. And the same thing applies to governors and U.S. senators and congress members. So now we’ve just seen a complete subversion of our political system as a payoff to major contributors, who want and expect and sometimes get favors for themselves after the election’s over.”

This “complete subversion of our political system” grew, in large part, out of Richard Nixon’s 1972 appointment of Lewis Powell to the Supreme Court.  Powell, in 1971, had authored the infamous Powell Memo to the US Chamber of Commerce, strongly suggesting that corporate leaders needed to get politically involved and, essentially, take over everything from academia to our court system to our political system.

In 1976, in the Buckley case, Powell began the final destruction of American democracy by declaring that when rich people or corporations own politicians, all that money that got transferred to the politicians wasn’t bribery but, instead, was Constitutionally-protected First Amendment-defined “Free Speech.”  The Court radically expanded that in 2010 with Citizens United.

As a result, there’s really very little democracy left in our democracy.  Our votes are handled in secret by private, unaccountable for-profit corporations.  Our laws are written, more often than not, by corporate lawyers/lobbyists or representatives of billionaire-level wealth.  And our media is owned by the same class of investors/stockholders, so it’s a stretch to expect them to do much critical reporting on the situation.

In his book The Decline of the West, first published in German in 1918 and then in English in 1926, Oswald Spengler suggested that what we call Western civilization was then beginning to enter a “hardening” or “classical” phase in which all the nurturing and supportive structures of culture would become, instead, instruments of the exploitation of a growing peasant class to feed the wealth of a new and strengthening aristocracy.

Culture would become a parody of itself, average people’s expectations would decline while their wants would grow, and a new peasantry would emerge, which would cause the culture to stabilize in a “classic form” that, while Spengler doesn’t use the term, seems very much like feudalism—the medieval system in which the lord owned the land and everyone else was a vassal (a tenant who owed loyalty to the landlord).

Or its more modern incarnation: fascism.

Spengler, considering himself an aristocrat, didn’t see this as a bad thing. In 1926 he prophesied that once the boom of the Roaring Twenties was over, a great bust would wash over the Western world. While this bust had the potential to create chaos, its most likely outcome would be a return to the classic, stable form of social organization, what Spengler calls “high culture” and I call neofeudalism and/or fascism.

He wrote:

In all high Cultures, therefore, there is a peasantry, which is breed stock, in the broad sense (and thus to a certain extent nature herself), and a society which is assertively and emphatically “in form.” It is a set of classes or Estates, and no doubt artificial and transitory. But the history of these classes and estates is world history at highest potential.

Twentieth and 21st century cultural observers, ranging from billionaire George Soros in his book The Crisis of Global Capitalism, to professor Noreena Hertz in The Silent Takeover: Global Capitalism and the Death of Democracy, have pointed to deep cracks in the foundational structure of Western civilization, traceable in part to the current legal status of corporations versus humans.

Most recently, Jane Mayer has laid out in painful detail how the Koch Network and a few other political-minded billionaires have essentially taken over the entire Republican Party in her book Dark Money as has Nancy MacLean with her new book Democracy in Chains.  The extent of the problems within our political and economic structures are laid bare with startling and sometimes frightening clarity.

As a result, Princeton scholars Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page famously foundthat the odds of average Americans’ political desires being translated into policy are about the same as random noise, whereas what they referred to as “economic elites” frequently get everything they want from the political class.

They wrote that we still have the “features” of democracy like elections, but ended their paper with this cautionary note: “[W]e believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.”

It seems that America has arrived at the point Spengler saw in early 20th century Europe, and, indeed, there are some concerning parallels, particularly with the late 1920s and early 1930s.  Italy, Germany, and Spain all lost their democracies and moved to fascism, while many of Spengler’s acolytes cheered.

And, indeed, it was one of FDR’s biggest challenges in the early 1930s – steering America through a “middle course” between communism (which was then growingly popular) and fascism (also growingly popular).  He pulled it off with small (compared to Europe) nods to democratic socialism, instituting programs like Social Security, the minimum wage, and establishing the right to unionize (among other things).

Mark Twain is often quoted as saying that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.  Many look at the all-out war being waged against American government right now by the hard right, from Trump and his cronies to the billionaire networks funding right-wing propaganda and lobbying outlets, and think “it can’t happen here.”

They’re wrong.  It can happen here.

We now have police intervening in electionsprivatized corporate votingsystems, and a massive voter suppression campaign to prevent elderly, young, and non-white Americans from being able to vote.

Meanwhile, as Lee Fong reported, Republican politicians and the billionaires who own them are now dropping any pretense at all to caring about the fate and future of our country’s fiscal health, so long as they get their tax cuts NOW.

In summary, what’s left of our democratic institutions are under siege.

Add to that a largely billionaire-funded/owned right-wing media machine that’s willing to regularly and openly deceive American voters (documented daily by Media Matters and Newshounds), and you have the perfect setup for a neofeudalist/fascist takeover of our government.

Or, as President Carter so correctly called it, oligarchy.

 

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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

Mounting political crisis in Washington amidst talk of removal of Trump

By Patrick Martin
12 October 2017

The conflict within the American state apparatus reached a new level of intensity this week, after a leading Senate Republican, Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, warned that President Trump was risking “World War III,” and Trump responded to media reports about internal conflict within his administration by suggesting that NBC could have its broadcast license revoked.

The recriminations between the White House and Congress and within the Trump administration itself are particularly explosive since they take place amid rising tensions between the US government and North Korea, in the wake of Trump’s repeated threats of nuclear war against the regime of Kim Jong-un.

Corker made the warning about Trump’s foreign policy producing World War III, and he has previously criticized what he called the lack of stability and competence in the Trump presidency. Trump responded with vulgar insults on Twitter, while White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders falsely claimed that Corker was responsible for the US nuclear agreement with Iran, which Trump appears ready to revoke as early as today.

Insider accounts of seemingly uncontrolled rages and wild mood swings on the part of the “commander in chief” have fueled a new round of discussion in the corporate media about the possibility of removing Trump from office, either through impeachment, which requires a majority vote in the House and a two-thirds vote in the Senate, or through invoking the 25th Amendment, under which the vice president and a majority of the cabinet can declare the president incompetent to continue in office.

An extraordinary editorial published Tuesday in the Post was run under the headline, “What to do with an unfit president.”

The editorial concluded that impeachment was not likely, and urged congressional action to counteract Trump’s policies in a range of areas (all important to corporate interests), including reinforcing US trade deals like NAFTA, and maintaining foreign aid programs that spread US political influence abroad.

That the leading newspaper in the country’s capital—read by everyone in Congress and the Trump administration—proclaimed the president “unfit” for office reflects the extraordinarily sharp divisions within the ruling class, only hinted at in the Post editorial.

The corporate media has been targeting the Trump White House, in part because of concerns over his expressions of sympathy for Russian President Vladimir Putin and professed reluctance to continue the Obama administration’s campaign of confronting Russia in Syria, Eastern Europe and the Baltic.

But there is a deeper concern that the policies and methods of the Trump administration, and particularly its increasing appeals to ultra-right, racist and fascistic forces, such as those which rioted in Charlottesville, Virginia two months ago, risk destabilizing the United States politically.

There is particular concern in corporate and banking circles that Trump’s deteriorating relations with top Senate Republicans like Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker may hamper efforts to push through a huge tax cut for corporations and the wealthy, the main item on the agenda of the Republican-controlled Congress this fall.

On Wednesday a group of six right-wing lobbies allied to the White House, including the Tea Party Patriots, the Senate Conservatives Fund, FreedomWorks, the Media Research Center and ConservativeHQ.com, called for McConnell to step down due to the failure to repeal Obamacare or enact other right-wing measures, and threatened campaigns against incumbent Republicans in primary elections next year.

They were echoing former White House counselor Steve Bannon, who is threatening to back anti-McConnell candidates in the Republican primaries, and who called Tuesday for Corker’s immediate resignation.

NBC triggered the latest round of internecine warfare with a report last week that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had called Trump a “moron” after a high-level discussion of foreign policy and nuclear strategy on July 20 at the Pentagon. This was followed by a series of denials by Tillerson and tirades by Trump, culminating in his remark Tuesday, in an interview with Forbesmagazine, that if IQ tests were administered to the two men, he would come out on top.

On Wednesday the network added further details, reporting that Tillerson was provoked to an explosion of frustration by Trump’s suggestion that the US should reverse 50 years of declining numbers in its nuclear weapons stockpile, and revert to the level of weaponry amassed in the 1960s, which would require a ten-fold increase.

Trump then launched into a diatribe against NBC, claiming that it was fabricating “fake news” about his administration, and calling for the network’s broadcast license to be revoked, apparently ignorant of the fact that there are no licenses for the networks and the federal government has no such legal authority.

This was not merely a manifestation of Trump’s authoritarian proclivities. The White House is in deep internal crisis, with top officials leaking unflattering and alarmed comments about Trump’s state of mind, inability to maintain a coherent policy, and tendency to fly off the handle over any public criticism.

The NBC report was based, according to the network, on three officials who attended the top-secret Pentagon meeting in the war room, and heard both Trump’s remarks about nuclear weapons and Tillerson’s “moron” comment.

The Washington Post reported Tuesday, in a remarkable front-page article, on the president “lashing out, rupturing alliances and imperiling his legislative agenda,” citing “numerous White House officials and outside advisers.

“Trump in recent days has shown flashes of fury and left his aides, including White House chief of staff John F. Kelly, scrambling to manage his outbursts,” the Post reported. “One Trump confidant likened the president to a whistling teapot, saying that when he does not blow off steam, he can turn into a pressure cooker and explode. ‘I think we are in pressure cooker territory,’ said this person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly.”

At least one of the “18 White House officials, outside advisers and other Trump associates” interviewed for this highly unflattering portrait was identified the following day as Thomas Barrack, a real-estate multi-millionaire and longtime Trump crony and adviser, who chaired the fundraising committee for his inauguration, but now describes himself as “appalled” by the tone of Trump’s tweetstorms.

WSWS

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

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

The Silencing of Dissent

Mr. Fish

 

The ruling elites, who grasp that the reigning ideology of global corporate capitalism and imperial expansion no longer has moral or intellectual credibility, have mounted a campaign to shut down the platforms given to their critics. The attacks within this campaign include blacklisting, censorship and slandering dissidents as foreign agents for Russia and purveyors of “fake news.”

No dominant class can long retain control when the credibility of the ideas that justify its existence evaporates. It is forced, at that point, to resort to crude forms of coercion, intimidation and censorship. This ideological collapse in the United States has transformed those of us who attack the corporate state into a potent threat, not because we reach large numbers of people, and certainly not because we spread Russian propaganda, but because the elites no longer have a plausible counterargument.

The elites face an unpleasant choice. They could impose harsh controls to protect the status quo or veer leftward toward socialism to ameliorate the mounting economic and political injustices endured by most of the population. But a move leftward, essentially reinstating and expanding the New Deal programs they have destroyed, would impede corporate power and corporate profits. So instead the elites, including the Democratic Party leadership, have decided to quash public debate. The tactic they are using is as old as the nation-state—smearing critics as traitors who are in the service of a hostile foreign power. Tens of thousands of people of conscience were blacklisted in this way during the Red Scares of the 1920s and 1950s. The current hyperbolic and relentless focus on Russia, embraced with gusto by “liberal” media outlets such as The New York Times and MSNBC, has unleashed what some have called a virulent “New McCarthyism.”

The corporate elites do not fear Russia. There is no publicly disclosed evidence that Russia swung the election to Donald Trump. Nor does Russia appear to be intent on a military confrontation with the United States. I am certain Russia tries to meddle in U.S. affairs to its advantage, as we do and did in Russia—including our clandestine bankrolling of Boris Yeltsin, whose successful 1996 campaign for re-election as president is estimated to have cost up to $2.5 billion, much of that money coming indirectly from the American government. In today’s media environment Russia is the foil. The corporate state is unnerved by the media outlets that give a voice to critics of corporate capitalism, the security and surveillance state and imperialism, including the network RT America.

My show on RT America, “On Contact,” like my columns at Truthdig, amplifies the voices of these dissidents—Tariq Ali, Kshama Sawant, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Medea Benjamin, Ajamu Baraka, Noam Chomsky, Dr. Margaret Flowers, Rania Khalek, Amira Hass, Miko Peled, Abby Martin, Glen Ford, Max Blumenthal, Pam Africa, Linh Dinh, Ben Norton, Eugene Puryear, Allan Nairn, Jill Stein, Kevin Zeese and others. These dissidents, if we had a functioning public broadcasting system or a commercial press free of corporate control, would be included in the mainstream discourse. They are not bought and paid for. They have integrity, courage and often brilliance. They are honest. For these reasons, in the eyes of the corporate state, they are very dangerous.

The first and deadliest salvo in the war on dissent came in 1971 when Lewis Powell, a corporate attorney and later a Supreme Court justice, wrote and circulated a memo among business leaders called “Attack on American Free Enterprise System.” It became the blueprint for the corporate coup d’état. Corporations, as Powell recommended in the document, poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the assault, financing pro-business political candidates, mounting campaigns against the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and the press and creating institutions such as the Business Roundtable, The Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Cato Institute, Citizens for a Sound Economy, the Federalist Society and Accuracy in Academia. The memo argued that corporations had to fund sustained campaigns to marginalize or silence those who in “the college campus, the pulpit, the media, and the intellectual and literary journals” were hostile to corporate interests.

Powell attacked Ralph Nader by name. Lobbyists flooded Washington and state capitals. Regulatory controls were abolished. Massive tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy were implemented, culminating in a de facto tax boycott. Trade barriers were lifted and the country’s manufacturing base was destroyed. Social programs were slashed and funds for infrastructure, from roads and bridges to public libraries and schools, were cut. Protections for workers were gutted. Wages declined or stagnated. The military budget, along with the organs of internal security, became ever more bloated. A de facto blacklist, especially in universities and the press, was used to discredit intellectuals, radicals and activists who decried the idea of the nation prostrating itself before the dictates of the marketplace and condemned the crimes of imperialism, some of the best known being Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Sheldon Wolin, Ward Churchill, Nader, Angela Davis and Edward Said. These critics were permitted to exist only on the margins of society, often outside of institutions, and many had trouble making a living.

The financial meltdown of 2008 not only devastated the global economy, it exposed the lies propagated by those advocating globalization. Among these lies: that salaries of workers would rise, democracy would spread across the globe, the tech industry would replace manufacturing as a source of worker income, the middle class would flourish, and global communities would prosper. After 2008 it became clear that the “free market” is a scam, a zombie ideology by which workers and communities are ravaged by predatory capitalists and assets are funneled upward into the hands of the global 1 percent. The endless wars, fought largely to enrich the arms industry and swell the power of the military, are futile and counterproductive to national interests. Deindustrialization and austerity programs have impoverished the working class and fatally damaged the economy.

The establishment politicians in the two leading parties, each in service to corporate power and responsible for the assault on civil liberties and impoverishment of the country, are no longer able to use identity politics and the culture wars to whip up support. This led in the last presidential campaign to an insurgency by Bernie Sanders, which the Democratic Party crushed, and the election of Donald Trump.

Barack Obama rode a wave of bipartisan resentment into office in 2008, then spent eight years betraying the public. Obama’s assault on civil liberties, including his use of the Espionage Act to prosecute whistleblowers, was worse than those carried out by George W. Bush. He accelerated the war on public education by privatizing schools, expanded the wars in the Middle East, including the use of militarized drone attacks, provided little meaningful environmental reform, ignored the plight of the working class, deported more undocumented people than any other president, imposed a corporate-sponsored health care program that was the brainchild of the right-wing Heritage Foundation, and prohibited the Justice Department from prosecuting the bankers and financial firms that carried out derivatives scams and inflated the housing and real estate market, a condition that led to the 2008 financial meltdown. He epitomized, like Bill Clinton, the bankruptcy of the Democratic Party. Clinton, outdoing Obama’s later actions, gave us the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the dismantling of the welfare system, the deregulation of the financial services industry and the huge expansion of mass incarceration. Clinton also oversaw deregulation of the Federal Communications Commission, a change that allowed a handful of corporations to buy up the airwaves.

The corporate state was in crisis at the end of the Obama presidency. It was widely hated. It became vulnerable to attacks by the critics it had pushed to the fringes. Most vulnerable was the Democratic Party establishment, which claims to defend the rights of working men and women and protect civil liberties. This is why the Democratic Party is so zealous in its efforts to discredit its critics as stooges for Moscow and to charge that Russian interference caused its election defeat.

In January there was a report on Russia by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The report devoted seven of its 25 pages to RT America and its influence on the presidential election. It claimed “Russian media made increasingly favorable comments about President-elect Trump as the 2016 US general and primary election campaigns progressed while consistently offering negative coverage of Secretary [Hillary] Clinton.” This might seem true if you did not watch my RT broadcasts, which relentlessly attacked Trump as well as Clinton, or watch Ed Schultz, who now has a program on RT after having been the host of an MSNBC commentary program. The report also attempted to present RT America as having a vast media footprint and influence it does not possess.

“In an effort to highlight the alleged ‘lack of democracy’ in the United States, RT broadcast, hosted, and advertised third party candidate debates and ran reporting supportive of the political agenda of these candidates,” the report read, correctly summing up themes on my show. “The RT hosts asserted that the US two-party system does not represent the views of at least one-third of the population and is a ‘sham.’ ”

It went on:

RT’s reports often characterize the United States as a ‘surveillance state’ and allege widespread infringements of civil liberties, police brutality, and drone use.

RT has also focused on criticism of the US economic system, US currency policy, alleged Wall Street greed, and the US national debt. Some of RT’s hosts have compared the United States to Imperial Rome and have predicted that government corruption and “corporate greed” will lead to US financial collapse.

Is the corporate state so obtuse it thinks the American public has not, on its own, reached these conclusions about the condition of the nation? Is this what it defines as “fake news”? But most important, isn’t this the truth that the courtiers in the mainstream press and public broadcasting, dependent on their funding from sources such as the Koch brothers, refuse to present? And isn’t it, in the end, the truth that frightens them the most? Abby Martin and Ben Norton ripped apart the mendacity of the report and the complicity of the corporate media in my “On Contact” show titled “Real purpose of intel report on Russian hacking with Abby Martin & Ben Norton.”

In November 2016, The Washington Post reported on a blacklist published by the shadowy and anonymous site PropOrNot. The blacklist was composed of 199 sites PropOrNot alleged, with no evidence, “reliably echo Russian propaganda.” More than half of those sites were far-right, conspiracy-driven ones. But about 20 of the sites were major left-wing outlets including AlterNet, Black Agenda Report, Democracy Now!, Naked Capitalism, Truthdig, Truthout, CounterPunch and the World Socialist Web Site. The blacklist and the spurious accusations that these sites disseminated “fake news” on behalf of Russia were given prominent play in the Post in a story headlined “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during the election, experts say.” The reporter, Craig Timberg, wrote that the goal of the Russian propaganda effort, according to “independent researchers who have tracked the operation,” was “punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy.” Last December, Truthdig columnist Bill Boyarsky wrote a good piece about PropOrNot, which to this day remains essentially a secret organization.

The owner of The Washington Post, Jeff Bezos, also the founder and CEO of Amazon, has a $600 million contract with the CIA. Google, likewise, is deeply embedded within the security and surveillance state and aligned with the ruling elites. Amazon recently purged over 1,000 negative reviews of Hillary Clinton’s new book, “What Happened.” The effect was that the book’s Amazon rating jumped from 2 1/2 stars to five stars. Do corporations such as Google and Amazon carry out such censorship on behalf of the U.S. government? Or is this censorship their independent contribution to protect the corporate state?

In the name of combating Russia-inspired “fake news,” Google, Facebook, Twitter, The New York Times, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed News, Agence France-Presse and CNN in April imposed algorithms or filters, overseen by “evaluators,” that hunt for key words such as “U.S. military,” “inequality” and “socialism,” along with personal names such as Julian Assange and Laura Poitras, the filmmaker. Ben Gomes, Google’s vice president for search engineering, says Google has amassed some 10,000 “evaluators” to determine the “quality” and veracity of websites. Internet users doing searches on Google, since the algorithms were put in place, are diverted from sites such as Truthdig and directed to mainstream publications such as The New York Times. The news organizations and corporations that are imposing this censorship have strong links to the Democratic Party. They are cheerleaders for American imperial projects and global capitalism. Because they are struggling in the new media environment for profitability, they have an economic incentive to be part of the witch hunt.

The World Socialist Web Site reported in July that its aggregate volume, or “impressions”—links displayed by Google in response to search requests—fell dramatically over a short period after the new algorithms were imposed. It also wrote that a number of sites “declared to be ‘fake news’ by the Washington Post’s discredited [PropOrNot] blacklist … had their global ranking fall. The average decline of the global reach of all of these sites is 25 percent. …”

Another article, “Google rigs searches to block access to World Socialist Web Site,” by the same website that month said:

During the month of May, Google searches including the word “war” produced 61,795 WSWS impressions. In July, WSWS impressions fell by approximately 90 percent, to 6,613.

Searches for the term “Korean war” produced 20,392 impressions in May. In July, searches using the same words produced zero WSWS impressions. Searches for “North Korea war” produced 4,626 impressions in May. In July, the result of the same search produced zero WSWS impressions. “India Pakistan war” produced 4,394 impressions in May. In July, the result, again, was zero. And “Nuclear war 2017” produced 2,319 impressions in May, and zero in July.

To cite some other searches: “WikiLeaks,” fell from 6,576 impressions to zero, “Julian Assange” fell from 3,701 impressions to zero, and “Laura Poitras” fell from 4,499 impressions to zero. A search for “Michael Hastings”—the reporter who died in 2013 under suspicious circumstances—produced 33,464 impressions in May, but only 5,227 impressions in July.

In addition to geopolitics, the WSWS regularly covers a broad range of social issues, many of which have seen precipitous drops in search results. Searches for “food stamps,” “Ford layoffs,” “Amazon warehouse,” and “secretary of education” all went down from more than 5,000 impressions in May to zero impressions in July.

The accusation that left-wing sites collude with Russia has made them theoretically subject, along with those who write for them, to the Espionage Act and the Foreign Agent Registration Act, which requires Americans who work on behalf of a foreign party to register as foreign agents.

The latest salvo came last week. It is the most ominous. The Department of Justice called on RT America and its “associates”—which may mean people like me—to register under the Foreign Agent Registration Act. No doubt, the corporate state knows that most of us will not register as foreign agents, meaning we will be banished from the airwaves. This, I expect, is the intent. The government will not stop with RT. The FBI has been handed the authority to determine who is a “legitimate” journalist and who is not. It will use this authority to decimate the left.

This is a war of ideas. The corporate state cannot compete honestly in this contest. It will do what all despotic regimes do—govern through wholesale surveillance, lies, blacklists, false accusations of treason, heavy-handed censorship and, eventually, violence.

Chris Hedges
Columnist
Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, New York Times best selling author, former professor at Princeton University, activist and ordained Presbyterian minister. He has written 11 books,…

What are journalists for in the age of Trump?

From the Uncharted Festival of Ideas in Berkeley, Jay Rosen in conversation with Kathy Kiely

 What are journalists for in the age of Trump?

(Credit: Getty/Drew Angerer)

The shortcomings of traditional political journalism have been visible for some time. But the unprecedented presidency of Donald Trump has graphically exposed journalism’s weaknesses. In 2016, before the November election, Jay Rosen, Professor of Journalism at New York University, sat down with journalist Kathy Kiely at the Uncharted Festival of Ideas in Berkeley to talk about the right frame for interpreting press coverage of the presidential campaign. Their conclusions hold just as true for journalists after the election, when the stakes have proven so much higher.

Jay Rosen is the author of PressThink, a blog about journalism’s ordeals in the age of the Web, which he launched in 2003. In 1999, Yale University Press published his book, “What Are Journalists For,” which was about the rise of the civic journalism movement. He was the co-publisher, with Arianna Huffington, of OfftheBus.Net, which allowed readers to participate in the Huffington Post’s election coverage in 2008. Rosen writes and speaks frequently about new media and the predicament of the press in a time of rapid transformation. He is also a frequent critic of the national press and its coverage of politics.

Kathy Kiely is a Washington-based journalist and journalism teacher with extensive experience in covering politics and in working across media platforms. She has served as an editor for Bloomberg Politics, the Sunlight Foundation, and at the National Journal, its website and for CBS News.

Listen to their conversation:

https://embed.radiopublic.com/e?if=berkeleyside-podcast-GMlael&ge=s1!b158ae3c1b7f1ad5769437d526433ac51c962f91

The Uncharted Festival is a production of Berkeleyside, Berkeley’s award-winning, independent news site. The annual two-day festival, launched in 2013, brings people together with some of the world’s great thinkers for two thrilling days of discussion, debate, and workshops designed to engage and inspire. Uncharted evolved out of the belief that the most intriguing ideas — and solutions to today’s big challenges — emerge from the collision of different visions and perspectives.