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

Advertisements

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

6 Ways We Can Begin to Rein in Facebook’s Immense Power Over Media and Our Society

How can we protect ourselves from Zuckerberg’s algorithms?

Photo Credit: Frederic Legrand – COMEO / Shutterstock.com

Mark Zuckerberg is really, really sorry.

Last year he dismissed as “crazy” the critics who said “fake news” delivered by Facebook might have given the election to Donald Trump. Last week he said he regretted it.

On Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, he apologized for what Facebook has wrought.

On Monday, a senior Facebook executive repented some more, reporting that $100,000 from Russian-sponsored troll farms bought 4.4 million page viewsbefore the 2016 election. “We understand more about how our service was abused and we will continue to investigate to learn all we can,” said vice president Elliot Schrage.

The Facebook leadership, like the U.S. government and the rest of us, is belatedly facing up to what Zuckerberg once denied: the social harms that can be inflicted by digital platform monopolies. The contrition and the voluntary remedies, notes Quartz, are “designed to head off looming regulations.”

What Is To Be Done

Facebook came to dominate social media with an ingenious interface that enables users to escape the Wild West of the open internet and join a sentimental community of family and friends, knitted together by likes, links, timelines, photos and videos.

Along the way, the company employed a scalable and amoral business model: use alogorithms of people’ personal data to mix messges of “promoted posts” with family messages and friendly momentos. Its an automated system that is profitable because it requires relatively little human intervention and can be used by anyone who wants to influence the behavior of Facebook users.

When the Russia government wanted to use the platform to confused and demoralize Democratic voters and promote favorite son Donald Trump, Facebook was ready, willing and able to monetize the opportunity. As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has explained, “Facebook’s Ad Scandal Isn’t a ‘Fail,’ It’s a Feature.”

The question is, what can government and civil society do to protect the public interest from a $300 billion monopoly with 2 billion users? “Facebook is so gargantuan,” says Siva Vaidhyanathan, director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia, “it’s exceeded our capability to manage it.”

One tool is traditional antitrust laws, created in the late 19th century and early 20th century to control railroads, the oil industry and electrical utilities. The reformers, in the Progressive era and the New Deal, passed legislation like the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and the Glass-Steagall Act to prevent and break up concentrations of economic power.

The problem is that since the 1970s, antitrust law has been interpreted through the lens of University of Chicago “free-market” economics. In this view, the test of a monopoly is the short-term harm it does to consumers; i.e., does it raise prices?

If a monopoly doesn’t raise prices, the Chicago School claims, it’s not doing any harm. As a result, most of the legal precedents in antitrust law, developed over the last 40 years, are ideologically hostile to the notion of a “public interest.”

To deal with 21st-century platform monopolies, antitrust law needs to be revitalized or reinvented. A host of new monopoly critics, including economist Barry Lynn, journalist Matt Stoller, law professors Jonathan Zittrain and Frank Pasquale, and elected officials such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), propose to do just that.

As Pasquale, a law professor at the University of Maryland, said, “We need to have institutions that guarantee algorithmic accountability.”

Six Remedies

1. FCC regulation

Jeff John Roberts of Fortune compares Facebook to the highly regulated TV broadcast networks, “at a time when Facebook has become the equivalent of a single TV channel showing a slew of violence and propaganda, the time may have come to treat Facebook as the broadcaster it is.”

In the immediate aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting, a Facebook search yielded a page created by a chronic hoaxer who calls himself an investigative journalist for Alex Jones’ Infowars. “To Facebook’s algorithms, it’s just a fast-growing group with an engaged community,” notes Alex Madrigal of the Atlantic.

Roberts:

“Just imagine if CBS inadvertently sold secret political ads to the Chinese or broadcast a gang rape—the FCC, which punished the network over a Super Bowl nipple incident, would come down like a ton of bricks.”

This would require rewriting the Federal Communications Act to include platform monopolies. Not impossible, but not likely, and probably not the right regulator regime to diminish Facebook’s monopoly power over information.

2. Mandatory FEC Disclosure

One solution is to use existing institutions to force full disclosure of buyers of political ads, a requirement Facebook successfully resisted in 2011.

Last week, Democrats in the House and Senate sent a letter to the Federal Election Commission urging it to “develop new guidance” on how to prevent illicit foreign spending in U.S. elections.” The letter was signed by all of the possible 2020 Democratic presidential aspirants in the Senate, including Warren, Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Cory Booker (N.J.), and Kamala Harris (Calif.).

Another Democratic proposal floated in Congress would require digital platforms with more than 1 million users to publicly log any “electioneering communications” purchased by anyone who spends more than $10,000 in political ads online. The FEC defines electioneering communications as ads “that refer to a federal candidate, are targeted to voters and appear within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election.”

But such measures probably would not have prevented—or called attention to—the Russian intervention in 2016, because the Russian-sponsored ads usually played on social divisions without referencing a federal candidate, and buyers could have evaded the reporting requirement with smaller payments.

Such measures address the symptoms of Facebook’s dominance, not the causes.

3. Empower Users

Luigi Zingales and Guy Rolnik, professors at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, have a market solution: empower Facebook users to take their friends and their “likes” elsewhere. They propose giving Facebook users something they do not now possess: “ownership of all the digital connections” that they create, or a “social graph.”

Right now Facebook owns your social graph, but that is not inevitable.

“If we owned our own social graph, we could sign into a Facebook competitor — call it MyBook — and, through that network, instantly reroute all our Facebook friends’ messages to MyBook, as we reroute a phone call.”

The idea is to foster the emergence of new social networks and diminish the power of Facebook’s monopoly.

Such a reform alone isn’t going to undermine Facebook. In conjunction with other measures to create competition, it could be helpful.

4. Make Data Ephemeral                        

Facebook’s data collection is a form of surveillance that endangers dissent, says internet entrepreneuer Maciej Ceglowski.

Last January, opponents of President Trump organized the Women’s March on Facebook, and several million people participated.

“The list of those who RSVP’d is now stored on Facebook servers and will be until the end of time, or until Facebook goes bankrupt, or gets hacked, or bought by a hedge fund, or some rogue sysadmin decides that list needs to be made public.”

To ensure privacy and protect dissent, Ceglowski says, “There should be a user-configurable time horizon after which messages and membership lists in these places evaporate.”

Again, this is a small but worthwhile step. If Facebook won’t implement it voluntarily, it could be compelled to do so.

5. Break up Facebook

But Ceglowski has a more audacious idea: break up Facebook into different companies for social interaction and news consumption.

The problem, he said in an April 2017 talk, is the algorithms Facebook deploys to maximize engagement and thus ad revenue.

“The algorithms have learned that users interested in politics respond more if they’re provoked more, so they provoke. Nobody programmed the behavior into the algorithm; it made a correct observation about human nature and acted on it.”

When a monopoly controls the algorithms of engagement, commercial power is converted into political power.

“Decisions like what is promoted to the top of a news feed can swing elections. Small changes in UI can drive big changes in user behavior. There are no democratic checks or controls on this power, and the people who exercise it are trying to pretend it doesn’t exist.”

So government has to step in, he says.

“Just like banks have a regulatory ‘Chinese wall’ between investment and brokerage, and newspapers have a wall between news and editorial, there must be a separation between social network features and news delivery.”

Just as the government broke up the Standard Oil monopoly in the early 20th century and the Bell telephone monopoly in the 1970s and 1980s, splitting up a monopoly firm to reduce its power is a time-tested remedy.

6. Think Big

Most important is political imagination. The ascendancy of free-market thinking since the heyday of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher has transformed citizens into consumers and failed civil society in the process. The rise of income inequality is one result. The emergence of unaccountable platform monopolies is another.

Facebook, the website, is the creation of Zuckerberg and clever programmers. But their enormous power is the result of a selfish and short-sighted ideology that privatizes public space at the expense of most people.

With the Democrats incorporating anti-monopoly ideas into their “Better Deal” platform and right-wing nationalists such as Steve Bannon talking about regulating internet giants “like utilities,” the free-market ideology has lost credibility and there is a growing demand for action. As the Roosevelt Institute puts it, “Let’s Reimagine the Rules.”

The urgency of reining in Facebook is that if the public does not control its surveillance and engagement technologies, those techniques will be used to secretly manipulate, if not control, the public sphere, as they were in the 2016 election.

“Either we work with government to regulate algorithmic systems,” says Pasquale of the University of Maryland, “or we will see partnerships with governments and those running algorithmic systems to regulate and control us.”

Controlling Facebook, in other words, is a matter of self-protection.

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

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,…

Trump Damaged Democracy, Silicon Valley Will Finish It Off

‘BRAIN HACKING’

Donald Trump’s rise is, in a sense, just one symptom of the damage the tech oligarchs are doing to America.

When Democrats made their post-election populist “Better Deal” pitch, they took a strong stance against pharmaceutical and financial monopolies. But they conspicuously left out the most profound antitrust challenge of our time—the tech oligarchy.

The information sector, notes The Economist, is now the most consolidated sector of the American economy.

The Silicon Valley and its Puget Sound annex dominated by Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft increasingly resemble the pre-gas crisis Detroit of the Big Three. Tech’s Big Five all enjoy overwhelming market shares—for example Google controls upwards of 80 percent of global search—and the capital to either acquire or crush any newcomers. They are bringing us a hardly gilded age of prosperity but depressed competition, economic stagnation, and, increasingly, a chilling desire to control the national conversation.

Jeff Bezos harrumphs through his chosen megaphone, The Washington Post, about how “democracy dies in the dark.” But if Bezos—the world’s third richest man, who used the Post first to undermine Bernie Sanders and then to wage ceaseless war on the admittedly heinous Donald Trump—really wants to identify the biggest long-term threat to individual and community autonomy, he should turn on the lights and look in the mirror.

Trump’s election and volatile presidency may pose a more immediate menace, but when he is gone, or neutered by lack of support, the oligarchs’ damage to our democracy and culture will continue to metastasize.

Killing the Old Silicon Valley

Americans justifiably take pride in the creative and entrepreneurial genius of Silicon Valley. The tech sector has been, along with culture, agriculture, and energy, one of our most competitive industries, one defined by risk-taking and intense competition between firms in the Valley, and elsewhere.

This old model is fading. All but shielded from antitrust laws, the new Silicon Valley is losing its entrepreneurial yeastiness—which, ironically enough, was in part spawned by government efforts against old-line monopolists such as ATT and IBM. While the industry still promotes the myth of the stalwart tinkerers in their garages seeking to build the next great company, the model now is to get funding so that their company can be acquired by Facebook or one of the other titans. As one recent paper demonstrates, these “super platforms” depress competition, squeeze suppliers and reduce opportunities for potential rivals, much as the monopolists of the late 19th century did (PDF). The rush toward artificial intelligence, requiring vast reservoirs of both money and talent, may accelerate this consolidation. A few firms may join the oligarchy over time, such as Tesla or Uber, but these are all controlled by the same investors on the current Big Five.

This new hierarchy is narrowing the path to riches, or even the middle class. Rather than expand opportunity, the Valley increasingly creates jobs in the “gig economy” that promises not a way to the middle class, much less riches, but into the rising precariat—part-time, conditional workers. This emerging “gig economy” will likely expand with the digitization of retail, which could cost millions of working-class jobs.

For most Americans, the once promising “New Economy,” has meant a descent, as MIT’s Peter Temin recently put it, toward a precarious position usually associated with developing nations. Workers in the “gig economy,” unlike the old middle- and working-class, have little chance, for example, of buying a house—once a sure sign of upward mobility, something that is depressingly evident in the Bay Area, along the California coast, and parts of the Northeast.

Certainly the chances of striking out on one’s own have diminished. Sergei Brin, Google’s co-founder, recently suggested that startups would be better off moving from Silicon Valley to areas that are less expensive and highly regulated, and where the competition for talent is not dominated by a few behemoths who can gobble up potential competitors—Instagram, WhatsApp, Skype, LinkedIn, Oculus—or slowly crush them, as may be happening to Snap, a firm that followed the old model and refused to be swallowed by Facebook but went through with its own public offering. Now the Los Angeles-based company is under assault by the social media giant which is using technologies at its Instagram unit, itself an acquisition, that duplicate Snap’s trademark technologies and features.

Snap’s problems are not an isolated case. The result is that the number of high-tech startups is down by almost half from just two years ago; overall National Venture Capital Association reports that the number of deals is now at the lowest level since 2010. Outsiders, the supposed lifeblood of entrepreneurial development, are increasingly irrelevant in an increasingly closed system.

The New Hierarchy

For all its talk about “disruption,” Silicon Valley is increasingly about three things: money, hierarchy, and conformity. Tech entrepreneurs long have enjoyed financial success, but their dominance in the ranks of the ultra-rich has never been so profound. They now account for three of world’s five richest people—Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg—and dominate the list of billionaires under 40.

Unlike their often ruthless and unpleasant 20th century moguls, the Silicon Valley elite has done relatively little for the country’s lagging productivity or to create broad-based opportunity. The information sector has overall been a poor source of new jobs—roughly 70,000 since 2010—with the gains concentrated in just a few places. This as the number of generally more middle-class jobs tied to producing equipment has fallen by half since 1990 and most new employment opportunities have been in low-wage sectors like hospitality, medical care, and food preparation.

The rich, that is, have gotten richer, in part by taking pains to minimize their tax exposure. Now they are talking grandly about having the government provide all the now “excess” humans with a guaranteed minimum income. The titans who have shared or spread so little of their own wealth are increasingly united in the idea that the government—i.e., middle-class taxpayers—should spread more around.

Not at all coincidentally, the Bay Area itself—once a fertile place of grassroots and middle-class opportunity—now boasts an increasingly bifurcated economy. San Francisco, the Valley’s northern annex, regularly clocks in as among the most unequal cities in the country, with both extraordinary wealth and a vast homeless population.

The more suburban Silicon Valley now suffers a poverty rate of near 20 percent, above the national average. It also has its own large homeless population living in what KQED has described as “modern nomadic villages.” In recent years income gains in the region have flowed overwhelmingly to the top quintile of income-earners, who have seen their wages increase by over 25 percent since 1989, while income levels have declined for low-income households.

Despite endless prattling about diversity, African Americans and Hispanics who make up roughly one-third of the valley’s population, have barely 5 percent of jobs in the top Silicon Valley firms. Between 2009 and 2011, earnings dropped 18 percent for blacks in the Valley and by 5 percent for Latinos, according to a 2013 Joint Venture Silicon Valley report (PDF).

Similarly the share of women in the tech industry is barely half of their 47 percent share in the total workforce, and their ranks may even be shrinking. Stanford researcher Vivek Wadhwa describes the Valley still as “a boys’ club that regarded women as less capable than men and subjected them to negative stereotypes and abuse.”

While the industry hasn’t done much to actually employ women or minorities, it’s both self-righteously and opportunistically fed the outrage industry by booting right-wing voices from various platforms and pushing out people like former Google staffer James Damore, and before that Mozilla founder Brendan Eich after he made a small contribution to a 2014 measure banning gay marriage. Skepticism, once the benchmark of technology development, is now increasingly unwelcome in much of the Valley.

This marks a distinct change from the ’80s and ’90s, when the tech companies—then still involved in the manufacturing of physical products in the United States—tended toward libertarian political views. As late as the 1980s, moderate Republicans frequently won elections in places like San Mateo and Santa Clara. Now the area has evolved into one of the most one-sidedly progressive bastions in the nation. Over 70 percent of Bay Area residents are Democrats up from 55 percent in the 1970s. Today, the Calexit backers, many based in the Valley, even think that the country is too dunderheaded, and suggest they represent “different,” and morally superior, values than the rest of the country.

The Danger to Democracy

If these were policies adopted by an ice-cream chain, or a machine-tool maker, they might be annoying. But in the tech giants, with their vast and growing power to shape opinion, represent an existential threat. Mark Zuckerberg whose Facebook is now the largest source of media for younger people, has emerged, in the words of one European journalist (PDF), as “‘the world’s most powerful editor.” In the past they were the primary carriers of “fake news,” and have done as much as any institution to erode the old values (and economics) of journalism.

Both Facebook and Google now offer news “curated” by algorithms. Bans are increasingly used by Facebook and Twitter to keep out unpopular or incendiary views, and especially in the echo chamber of the Bay Area. This is sometimes directed at conservatives, such as Prager University, whose content may be offensive to some, but hardly subversive or “fake.” The real crime now is simply to question dominant ideology of Silicon Valley gentry progressivism.

Even at their most powerful the industrial age moguls could not control what people knew. They might back a newspaper, or later a radio or television station, but never secured absolute control of media. Competing interests still tussled in a highly regionalized and diverse media market. In contrast the digital universe, dominated by a handful of players located in just a few locales, threaten to make a pluralism of opinions a thing of the past. The former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris suggests that “a handful of tech leaders at Google and Facebook have built the most pervasive, centralized systems for steering human attention that has ever existed.”

Ultimately, particularly after the disasters associated with the Trump regime, the oligarchs seem certain to expand their efforts to control the one institution which could challenge their hegemony: government. Once seen as politically marginal, the oligarchs achieved a dominated role in the Democratic Party, in part by financing President Obama and later support for Hillary Clinton. In the Obama years Google operatives were in fact fairly ubiquitous, leading at least one magazine to label it “the Android Administration.” Since then a stream of Obama people have headed to Silicon Valley, working for firms such as Apple, Uber, and Airbnb. Obama himself has even mused about becoming a venture capitalist himself.

Of course with Trump in power, the oligarchs are mostly on the outs, although the twitterer in chief tried to recruit them. Now many of Silicon Valley power players are supporting the “resistance” and lending their expertise to Democratic campaigns. Unlike undocumented immigrants or other victims of Trumpism, they can count on many GOP politicians to watch their flank until the lunatic storm recedes.

In a future Democratic administration, as is already evident in places like California, the tech titans will use their money, savvy, and new dominance over our communications channels to steer and even dictate America’s political and cultural agendas to wield power in ways that even the likes of J.P. Morgan or John D. Rockefeller would envy.

What started as a brilliant, and profoundly non-political extension of the information revolution, notes early Google and Facebook investor Robert McNamee, now looms as “a menace,” part of a systematic “brain hacking” on a massive scale. We can choose to confront this reality—as the early 20th century progressives did—or stand aside and let the oligarchs chart our future without imposing any curbs on their seemingly inexorable hegemony.

http://www.thedailybeast.com/trump-damaged-democracy-silicon-valley-will-finish-it-off?via=newsletter&source=Weekend