The recent “deplatforming” of Alex Jones and InfoWars from a number of social media sites is just the tip of a much larger iceberg. It is not hard to see that we are entering a future in which the removal of social media and other internet content will be influenced and carried out, not only by big tech firms such as YouTube and Facebook, but by politicians, foreign and domestic governments and social media users, as well as other private interests.
Although the simultaneous removal of Alex Jones from multiple platforms has grabbed headlines in both the mainstream press and independent media, in truth these moves have been underway for some time. As pointed out in the article below, the current movement to censor the internet can be partly traced back to events in Congress last November, when the Senate Judiciary Committee held hearings targeting “Extremist Content and Russian Disinformation Online.”
In this sense, it is not only the social media companies themselves which are participating in this censorship; the hand of the state is also present to instigate it, pressuring the platforms to do it so that politicians are at least somewhat insulated from accusations of censorship.
There is also an international dimension to these moves, as various attempts to control internet content have taken place in countries as diverse as China, Israel and the Great Britain. In the UK, Prime Minister Theresa May has been pressuring Silicon Valley to control content since even before the London Bridge attack in June 2017 when she declared war on online extremism.
Even here at 21WIRE we are not immune from this type of pressure and control. As we reported last year, changes to Google’s search algorithms caused a substantial and ongoing decrease in traffic coming to this website, and hundreds of others like it. Many sites in the independent/alternative media are suffering a similar fate — on both the left and the right. This is well documented now. The common factor among them seems to be their dissent from establishment narratives.
The Rolling Stone article reposted below does a good job of drawing attention to a number of these issues. However, as The Intercept‘s Glenn Greenwald highlights in the following tweets responding to the piece, the future may be grim. Not only will we see rival camps competing to censor their rivals’ content, but we are now on a course toward Chinese-style control and censorship, which unabashedly and directly silences political opposition.
Exactly, @mtaibbi: pic.twitter.com/lDsnO3NS5P
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) August 14, 2018
The last thing Greenwald highlights from the Rolling Stone piece is that Americans “have lost the ability to distinguish between general principles and political outcomes.” In other words, freedom of speech is in grave danger, if it isn’t already gone. As is often stated, popular speech needs no protection. Therefore if we as a society do not protect unpopular speech, then we do not have free speech at all.
More on this from Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi…
Silicon Valley is changing its mind about censorship.
Two weeks ago, we learned about a new campaign against “inauthentic” content, conducted by Facebook in consultation with Congress and the secretive think tank Atlantic Council — whose board includes an array of ex-CIA and Homeland Security officials — in the name of cracking down on alleged Russian disinformation efforts. As part of the bizarre alliance of Internet news distributors and quasi-government censors, the social network zapped 32 accounts and pages, including an ad for a real “No Unite the Right 2” anti-racist counter-rally in D.C. this past weekend.
“This is a real protest in Washington, D.C. It is not George Soros. It is not Russia. It is just us,” said the event’s organizers, a coalition of easily located Americans, in a statement.
Last week, we saw another flurry of censorship news. Facebook apparently suspended VenezuelaAnalysis.com, a site critical of U.S. policy toward Venezuela. (It was reinstated Thursday.) Twitter suspended a pair of libertarians, including @DanielLMcAdams of the Ron Paul Institute and @ScottHortonShow of Antiwar.com, for using the word “bitch” (directed toward a man) in a silly political argument. They, too, were later re-instated.
More significantly: Google’s former head of free expression issues in Asia, Lokman Tsui, blasted the tech giant’s plan to develop a search engine that would help the Chinese government censor content.
First reported by The Intercept, the plan was called “a stupid, stupid move” by Tsui, who added: “I can’t see a way to operate Google search in China without violating widely held international human rights standards.” This came on the heels of news that the Israeli Knesset passed a second reading of a “Facebook bill,” authorizing courts to delete content on security grounds.
Few Americans heard these stories, because the big “censorship” news last week surrounded the widely hated Alex Jones. After surviving halting actions by Facebook and YouTube the week before, the screeching InfoWars lunatic was hit decisively, removed from Apple, Facebook, Google and Spotify.
Jones is the media equivalent of a trench-coated stalker who jumps out from behind a mailbox and starts whacking it in an intersection. His “speech” is on that level: less an idea than a gross physical provocation. InfoWars defines everything reporters are taught not to do.
Were I Alex Jones, I would think Alex Jones was a false-flag operation, cooked up to discredit the idea of a free press.
Moreover, Jones probably does violate all of those platforms’ Terms of Service. I personally don’t believe his Sandy Hook rants — in which he accused grieving parents of being actors in an anti-gun conspiracy — are protected speech, at least not according to current libel and defamation law. Even some conservative speech activists seem to agree.
And yet: I didn’t celebrate when Jones was banned. Collectively, all these stories represent a revolutionary moment in media. Jones is an incidental player in a much larger narrative.
Both the Jones situation and the Facebook-Atlantic Council deletions seem an effort to fulfill a request made last year by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Last October, Facebook, Google and Twitter were asked by Hawaii Senator Mazie Hizono to draw up a “mission statement” to “prevent the foment of discord.”
Companies like Facebook might have balked before. They have long taken a position that’s very Star Trek, very Prime-Directive: We do not interfere. Mark Zuckerberg, as late as 2016, was saying, “editing content… that’s not us.”
Part of this reluctance was probably ideological, but the main thing was the sheer logistical quandary of monitoring published content on the scale of a firm like Facebook. The company now has 2.23 billion users, and experts estimate that’s more than a billion new entries to monitor daily.
Although it might have seemed minor, undertaking what Facebook did prior to 2016 — keeping porn and beheading videos out of your news feed — was an extraordinarily involved technical process.
This was underscored by fiascoes like the “Napalm Girl” incident in 2016, when the firm deleted a picture of Kim Phúc, the nine-year-old Vietnamese girl photographed running from napalm in 1972. The iconic picture helped reverse global opinion about the Vietnam War.
Facebook ultimately put the photo back up after being ripped for “abusing its power.” This was absurd: The photo had been flagged by mostly automated processes, designed to keep naked pictures of pre-teens off the site.
As a former Facebook exec tells Rolling Stone: “Knowing that ‘Napalm Girl’ is one of the icons of international journalism isn’t part of the fucking algo.”
It would seem like madness to ask companies to expand that vast automated process to make far more difficult intellectual distinctions about journalistic quality. But that has happened.
After Trump’s shocking win in 2016, everyone turned to Facebook and Google to fix “fake news.” But nobody had a coherent definition of what constitutes it.
Many on the left lamented the Wikileaks releases of Democratic Party emails, but those documents were real news, and the complaint there was more about the motives of sources, and editorial emphasis, rather than accuracy.