Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Deleted, Suspended, Demoted: Censorship, Silicon Valley-Style


truthdig |  Those who challenge the dominant corporate narrative already struggle on the margins of the media landscape. The handful of independent websites and news outlets, including this one, and a few foreign-run networks such as Al-Jazeera and RT America, on which I host a show, “On Contact,” are the few platforms left that examine corporate power and empire, the curtailment of our civil liberties, lethal police violence and the ecocide carried out by the fossil fuel and animal agriculture industries, as well as cover the war crimes committed by Israel and the U.S. military in the Middle East. Shutting down these venues would ensure that the critics who speak through them, and oppressed peoples such as the Palestinians, have no voice left.

I witnessed and was at times the victim of black propaganda campaigns when I was a foreign correspondent. False accusations are made anonymously and then amplified by a compliant press. The anonymous site PropOrNot, replicating this tactic, in 2016 published a blacklist of 199 sites that it 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 progressive, anti-war and left-wing. They included AlterNet, Black Agenda Report, Democracy Now!, Naked Capitalism, Truthdig, Truthout, CounterPunch and the World Socialist Web Site. PropOrNot charged that these sites disseminated “fake news” on behalf of Russia, and the allegations became front-page news in The Washington Post in a story headlined “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during the election, experts say.” Washington Post reporter Craig Timberg wrote in that article that the goal of “a sophisticated 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.”

To date, no one has exposed who operates PropOrNot or who is behind the website. But the damage done by this black propaganda campaign and the subsequent announcement by Google and other organizations such as Facebook last April that they had put in filters to elevate “more authoritative content” and marginalize “blatantly misleading, low quality, offensive or downright false information” have steadily diverted readers away from some sites. The Marxist World Socialist Web Site, for example, has seen its traffic decline by 75 percent. AlterNet’s search traffic is down 71 percent, Consortium News is down 72 percent, and Global Research and Truthdig have seen declines. And the situation appears to be growing worse as the algorithms are refined.

Jeff Bezos, the owner of The Washington Post and the founder and CEO of Amazon, has, like Google and some other major Silicon Valley corporations, close ties with the federal security and surveillance apparatus. Bezos has a $600 million contract with the CIA. The lines separating technology-based entities such as Google and Amazon and the government’s security and surveillance apparatus are often nonexistent. The goal of corporations such as Google and Facebook is profit, not the dissemination of truth. And when truth gets in the way of profit, truth is sacrificed.

Google, Facebook, Twitter, The New York Times, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed News, Agence France-Presse and CNN have all imposed or benefited from the algorithms or filters—overseen by human “evaluators.” When an internet user types a word in a Google search it is called an “impression” by the industry. These impressions direct the persons making the searches to websites that use the words or address the issues associated with them. Before the algorithms were put in place last April, searches for terms such as “imperialism” or “inequality” directed internet users mostly to left-wing, progressive and anti-war sites. Now they are directed primarily to mainstream sites such as The Washington Post. If you type in “World Socialist Web Site,” which has been hit especially hard by the algorithms, you will be directed to the site—but you have to ask for it by name. Searches for associated words such as “socialist” or “socialism” are unlikely to bring up a list in which the World Socialist Web Site appears near the top.

There are 10,000 “evaluators” at Google, many of them former employees at counterterrorism agencies, who determine the “quality” and veracity of websites. They have downgraded sites such as Truthdig, and with the abolition of net neutrality can further isolate those sites on the internet. The news organizations and corporations imposing and benefiting from this censorship have strong links to the corporate establishment and the Democratic Party. They do not question corporate capitalism, American imperialism or rising social inequality.