Censorship is the new normal.
Something very wrong is happening with how information is controlled in our society. The ruling oligarchy used to be comfortable with merely monopolizing the world’s media sources while sometimes censoring voices of dissent. This kept up the balance that’s needed for convincing people that they live in a free and open society when discourse is in fact tightly policed by the centers of power. But in recent years, the elites have decided to abandon this illusion of freedom so that they can more aggressively clamp down against dissent.
And who exactly do I mean by the “elites?” There are a lot of specific individuals and institutions that I can point to, because they’ve pretty explicitly presented themselves as the orchestrators of an establishment campaign to throttle free discourse.
The most notable of these figures is Bill Kristol. The neoconservative thought leader has been getting a lot of good publicity lately, with his dislike for Trump having recently made him into an ally for many mainstream liberals. And, he’s used this to give legitimacy to his efforts to censor the Internet, which are incidentally presented as efforts to “defend democracy” by fighting “fake news.”
But when we look at exactly what Kristol and his colleagues have been doing, we can see that it’s just the opposite. Kristol is the editor-at-large for The Weekly Standard, the publication that Facebook last year made into its official “fact checker” for content that the Standard judges to be inaccurate. Given the Standard’s strong right-wing bias, the problems with this arrangement were immediately clear. And when Facebook censored a Think Progress article last month at the Standard’s request, it was widely admitted that Facebook’s anti-“fake news” program is being used to push an ideological agenda.
And, while media reports about that incident tried to defend Facebook’s overall use of “fake news” fact checkers, we have every reason to be uncomfortable with these and the other recent attempts to police online information. Since 2016, when Facebook started relying on known propaganda sources like Snopes and PolitiFact to tell which content it should suppress, the viewership of all the major alternative media sites has dropped massively.
Though to be fair, this and Facebook’s many other recent authoritarian censorship actions are just one part of how governments and corporations have been attacking the free press. YouTube has been systematically demonetizing independent news channels; Google has been manipulating its search algorithms to stop alternative media sites from showing up in the results; Twitter has been attacking alt media journalists like Jimmy Dore by shadow banning them and by deliberately unsubscribing people who follow their tweets.
These attacks on unapproved speech have been supported by the passage of 2016’s Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act, which created a State Department-run agency that has the goal of “proactively advancing fact-based narratives.” This year, the EU created its own program to “crack down” on “disinformation.” Then there have also been the German government’s actions this year to remove massive amounts of legitimate social media content, the Israeli government’s colluding with Facebook to delete Palestinian accounts, and the other cases of expanding censorship by states around the world.
All of this should disturb anyone who cares about protecting democratic rights.
And the structure of this censorship regime is laid out for everyone to see. For example, Kristol and The Weekly Standard are closely tied to the Atlantic Council, a powerful neoconservative think tank whose board includes ex-CIA and Homeland Security officials. The Atlantic Council is also funded by large corporations and banks, Gulf monarchies, Western governments, and NATO.
Facebook is directly tied to the Atlantic Council, with the council having set up a four-person advisory board in May to decide which content Facebook should censor. Facebook and the other social media companies are also going to censor content on behalf of the CIA; Facebook, Twitter, Google, and YouTube are known to be tied to the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies.
The consequences of this massive collusion between corporation and state were shown this August, when the Atlantic Council had Facebook shut down 32 pages for “inauthentic” content. This move was authoritarian and clearly illegitimate, and it caused Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi to conclude that a “bizarre alliance of Internet news distributors and quasi-government censors” had formed.
Since then, the censorship has massively escalated. Later in August, Facebook temporarily shut down the pages of Telesur and Venezuela Analysis, two prominent left-wing news sources. And this month, Facebook deleted over 800 pages for “political spam” when these pages included legitimate and important outlets like The Anti-Media and Police the Police. When Alex Jones was removed from multiple platforms in August, we were told that no one else would be targeted. But it’s set an undeniable precedent for purging disfavored journalists and outlets.
And what do these censors want to put in place of the alt media? The “reliable sources” that these entities promote have shown us that we’re moving towards a totalitarian paradigm, where state propaganda is pushed onto the population while dissenting ideas are suppressed.
If this sounds hyperbolic, just look at the sources that the perpetrators of the censorship have already promoted. The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, despite its scientific veneer, has been recently spreading unproven and inflammatory claims about Russia. Since Facebook started a program this year to promote “trusted sources” in its timeline algorithms, the benefactors have included outlets like The New York Times-the same paper that recently printed false Iraq WMD claims to create support for a war that’s killed over half a million people. And Bellingcat, which is tied to the Atlantic Council through Bellingcat’s founder Eliot Higgins, has been repeatedly shown to fabricate claims in order to advance pro-war narratives.
Bellingcat is maybe the worst of these. As Catte Black assessed last month in an article about Bellingcat’s dubious recent claim that the Skripal poisoning suspects are GRU agents:
“Whether or not Higgins himself knows it, his outfit is almost certainly a front run by various intel agencies for the purpose of disseminating low-grade, and often fake or corrupted, data that the agencies and associated governments do not want to be associated with directly. The stuff they put out is generally so bad it clearly isn’t intended to last very long under scrutiny. Its function is apparently to provide a compliant and unquestioning media with disposable headlines that serve to create realities in the minds of equally compliant readers and consumers of “news” for long enough to push through short-term foreign policy objectives, generally involving ramping up hostilities with designated “enemy nations.”
In short, the “fact-based” worldview that people like Kristol and Higgins want to protect is the ideology of the ruling class. It always says that there’s an enemy, and uses this to justify endless war. It uses the false logic of austerity and the anti-democratic worldview of neoliberalism to justify a global corporate oligarchy. And it marginalizes the opponents of this system as terrorists and foreign propagandists.
As Orwell said, “All rulers in all ages have tried to impose a false view of the world upon their followers.” When our rulers ask us to hand over total control of the narrative, we should automatically reject them.