The article you are about to read is 100% pure Russian propaganda, written by some shill to deliberately mislead you with false information on what is obviously a fake news site. That, at least, is the story being used to foment mistrust of divergent views and discredit independent news-media, educators, and journalists. Thanks to the normalization of xenophobic slurs by the mainstream outlets, terms like ‘Russian troll’ and ‘Russian bot’ have been weaponized to dismiss non-corporate news and perspectives. Whether democrats’ repressive McCarthyism or the right-wing’s equally absurd censure of ‘fake news’ with ‘alternative facts,’ the result is an identical silence of dissent. Meanwhile, big social media now openly curates billions of newsfeeds at the request of governments in the US, Israel, and who knows where else and — as of April 23rd, Monday this week — the FCC’s unilateral decision to trash net-neutrality was set in motion.
Before this constellation of repression and censorship revises history beyond repair, it is important to remember how all of this happened.
Russian Bots, Anti Social Media,
& the Bleak Rise of Internet Censorship
“the Russians, who typically, almost genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, gain favor, whatever, which is a typical Russian technique”
— James Clapper, former director of national intelligence
In January of 2017 (as this site reported), US intelligence’s assessment of foreign meddling in the 2016 election seemed to define Russian propaganda as anything critical of US policy. Content that “described the current US political system as corrupt,” characterized the US as “a surveillance state,” or voiced “criticism of the US economic system” is presented as proof of a Russian influence-campaign. The report came a month after congress had passed the NDAA for 2017 that appropriated funds for a “Global Engagement Center,” which sounds far nicer than “US Department of Propaganda.” Section 1259C authorized the center to covertly fund journalists, NGOs, scientific research, academic institutions, and “private companies” to counteract foreign influence on “the policies and social and political stability of the United States.”
Good thing that never resulted in state-censorship or the widespread persecution of dissenting views.
The Hunt for Russian Influence Continues in 2018
Anoa Changa — a Black activist, attorney, and podcast-host — was recently smeared by Atlanta NPR affiliate WABE after discussing issues like police violence on a radio station owned by Russian outlet Sputnik. This attack came un-ironically from an affiliate of NPR, founded and funded by the US government. As the actual journalists at FAIR.org explain:
“…instead of using this opportunity to highlight the causes they’re fighting for, or the injustices that brought them to become activists, WABE used its considerable resources and influence to talk about, you guessed, Russian influence”
In response to the hit-piece, Changa writes:
”There’s nothing new about American institutions attacking and delegitimizing the work of Black activists and organizers. What’s new is that in the age of Russian election interference, journalists at establishment media companies are now using the Russia investigation as an excuse to mainstream these smear tactics. And it’s an affront to the activism of people of color that must be identified for what it is.”
Why Are So Many Russian Bots Also Journalists?
“[‘Russians’] try to get individuals, including U.S. persons, to act on their behalf either wittingly or unwittingly. Individuals going on a treasonous path often do not realize it until it is too late” — John Brennan, former director of the CIA
Anoa Changa is not the only one who has been targeted by the neo-McCarthyists. YouTube now imposes a big warning beneath the videos of comedian and host of Redacted Tonight, Lee Camp. This is not because he was exposed as a Kremlin operative poisoning the country with nefarious Russian propaganda — no, the reason we must be warned about Camp is that his insightful comedy and commentary airs on RT — a Russian outlet! Eugene Puryear, Abby Martin, Julian Assange, John Pilger, Chris Hedges — the list goes on.
From Social Media to State Media
“You created these platforms… and now they’re being misused. And you have to be the ones who do something about it — or we will”
— Sen. Diane Feinstein, to Facebook, Google, & Twitter Executives
In October ’17, Twitter’s spokesperson told congress they had hidden 1/2 of all tweets about the leaks that revealed collusion by the media with DNC officials during the primaries. But it was no confession — Twitter was bragging about censoring the voices of tens of thousands to repress a news story. To congress. This is what “normal” is now. Part of the statement reads:
“With respect to #DNCLeak, approximately 23,000 users posted around 140,000 unique Tweets with that hashtag in the relevant period. Of those Tweets, roughly 2% were from Russian-linked accounts. As noted above, our automated systems at the time detected, labeled, and hid just under half (48%) of all the original Tweets with #DNCLeak.”
Facebook also accommodates the US government by removing profiles, ostensibly to fight fake news or Russian trolls. The social-media giant not only overhauled its newsfeed to favor content from large news-corporations over independent media but it has also granted 95% of requests by Israeli authorities to censor content in Palestinian territories. Considering that Facebook alone is the gatekeeper to 45% of news traffic (and social media altogether for 67%), the idea that US and Israeli politicians are able to act as its chief editors should be terrifying.
The collaboration of big social with governments, the fake news invective, the McCarthyist witch-hunts, the FCC’s unilateral demolition of net neutrality — is altogether a threat to any meaningfully free press and to online political organization. As grave as this assault may be, it is not unprecedented and — by adding a bit of historical context — it may be less hopeless than it first seems.
From the Printing Press to the Internet
(& From the Inquisition to Online Censorship)
“Printing […] is the art of arts, the science of sciences. Thanks to its rapid diffusion the world is endowed with a treasure house of wisdom and knowledge, till now hidden from view. An infinite number of works […] are now translated into all languages and scattered abroad among all the nations of the world”
— Werner Rolewinck 1474
The invention of movable-type made it possible to cheaply imprint information onto paper, resulting in a mass-production of written material and expanded access to knowledge for unprecedented numbers of people. Before the printing press,† hand-copied manuscripts were so costly that access to education and specialized knowledge was mostly limited to the wealthy. The spread of printed media not only changed how people shared information but who and how many shared it. Because of this democratization of knowledge, printing technology’s impact on human civilization has often been compared to that of writing itself and, more recently, to the internet.
For the most part, comparisons of the rise of online media to printing have emphasized the internet’s potential to change things for the better. But this ignores the fact that the democratic tendencies of printed media met heavy repression. The worst inquisitions and witch-hunts arose alongside the printing press during the period of Europe’s Renaissance that culminated in the Protestant Reformation and ended the political reign of the medieval Church.
The Historical Democratization of Knowledge
Technology has a strong tendency to tip the scales against power. The printing press ultimately led to a profound redistribution of access to knowledge — but not without upheaval. Before the victory, there were the accusations, the book burnings, and the witch-trials. Prior to printed media, the Church had been the major producer of manuscripts in Europe and that gave them a lot of power over what kinds of knowledge were copied and circulated. Naturally, they wanted to keep that power and — facing the spread of printed media that criticized the Church doctrines — power fought tooth and nail against the heretics to the bitter end.
Online News-Media & Today’s Inquisition
“The heresy of one age becomes the orthodoxy of the next”
— Helen Keller
The Internet — like the printing press — increased the velocity of information to such a degree that there was a qualitative change in how knowledge was created and distributed in societies. Just as small printing presses disrupted the Church’s centralized production of manuscripts in Europe, the Internet has eroded the centralized information-regime of the TV news networks, Hollywood, and the print industry. Instead of popes or archbishops, there are the Murdochs, Turners, and celebrity show-hosts from Rachel Maddow to Sean Hannity who — much like the medieval dogmatists Church before them — propagate the doctrines of wealth and power.
Old English Fake News
As Dan Bricklin has already noted, there seem to be many parallels between today’s popular news-bloggers and pamphleteers who agitated for revolution during the early modern era. The first pamphleteers — like Martin Luther who challenged the establishment’s narrative in his day — were smeared as “heretics,” a word‡ that described people who believed the wrong ideas. Pamphlets were so effective at undermining religious and political authorities that they were banned in many times and places throughout the 1500s. In 1590’s A Treatise Against Witchcraft, Henry Holland writes, “many fabulous pamphletes are published, which give little light and lesse proofe,” which is basically translates to “fake news” in ye Olde English.
Considering the historical repression that followed the rise of the printing press, the attack on the informational democracy of the Internet can be viewed in a totally different light.
Toward a New Narrative & a New Media
During the 2016 election cycle, polls showed that US media’s credibility had hit rock-bottom. The popular need for a relevant and informed social discourse led to the formation of decentralized, independent media, journalists, news-hubs, and grassroots distribution through social-media. In contrast to the packaged politics of the name brands, the improvised press was able to deliver a range of differing or even contradictory views by embracing the web’s participatory framework.
By the time the media realized how many had quit listening, a critical mass had rejected the narrative that the democratic candidate would unite the nation for an inspiring landslide against a clown supported by deplorable racist trash. That is the story that was being presented by the mainstream, celebrity-obsessed US media and it was rejected — not because people had been confused by Kremlin propagandists or duped by Macedonan teenagers’ fake news — but because it was horse-shit. Better, more compelling, more plausible, nuanced stories were being told in the new press and that successful act of heresy is what became the basis for the inquisitions today.
The ‘Russian Meddling’ Narrative Is Absurd
Each time pundits repeat this narrative that today’s problems are a result of Russian meddling, remember how US intelligence’s assessment defined “Russian propaganda.” By saying that Kremlin propagandists influenced the results, they are really saying that online media’s “criticism of US policy” is the problem and that reporting on US “infringements of civil liberties and police brutality” harms democracy. How dare they? By claiming Trump’s election was due to Russian propaganda, the anchors are saying that those who didn’t support the bipartisan consensus for endless war, mass-incarceration, and environmental destruction must have been fooled by the Kremlin. To accept this is to think that choosing between the status quo and a literal dumpster-fire was meaningful and that feeling uninspired by this choice is Russian propaganda.