Category Archives: Internet

The Attack on Facebook is not for our Benefit

It’s some achievement to get me sympathising with Mark Zuckerberg. But denunciations from a powerful combination of a parliamentary committee in the UK and self-appointed watchdogs of the new media like the Guardian almost managed it.

The digital, culture, media and sport select committee finally published a damning report into Facebook after an 18-month investigation, as reported today by the Guardian.

The solutions demanded by the committee, however, are intended not to make Facebook and new media more accountable, as the report claims, but to reassert the dominance of the British state in surveilling the public and revive the declining fortunes of the more trusted old media corporations, the Guardian very much included.

And lurking behind it all is the terror of the political-media class at the spread of a new kind of political insurgency – a rejection of the current status quo for war and neoliberal pillage – given voice on new media platforms that is readily dismissed, by both the committee and the Guardian, as “fake news”.

What is really at issue becomes clear the moment one starts to unpick the report. It intentionally conflates three entirely different problems, muddling them together to win support for all three.

The aim is to hammer Facebook into submission, not for our benefit – as is desperately needed – but so that the state and media establishment can “take back control”.

Let’s look at the report’s conclusions.

First, it rightly accuses Facebook of being “digital gangsters”, harvesting private information so that it can be sold. Facebook, the committee warns, has been monetising our private lives.

“Facebook continues to choose profit over data security, taking risks in order to prioritise their aim of making money from user data,” the report states.

It hardly needs pointing out that Facebook is a for-profit company that specialises in accumulating information, the details of our lives we willingly hand over.

It was inevitable that a global company providing a digital platform for sharing information between friends would get greedy and share that same information privately with those who wish to exploit us, whether commercially or politically.

Until data-sharing companies arose, the state and its security services had a near-monopoly on such covert surveillance. Think of all those CCTV cameras dotted along the high street. Or watch an episode of TV show The Hunted, where former police officers quickly hunt down members of the public on the run.

The parliamentary report sounds much less like a clarion call for our privacy to be respected than a threat to Facebook from the establishment over such information being spread around too much.

Because when this kind of data becomes too accessible, you risk unpredictable outcomes, like a Dominic Cummings using it to engineer victory in the Brexit referendum. And who knows, if this carries on, one day the Scottish nationalists might find a way to win independence from London rule.

Second, the committee is exercised by the fact that Facebook has created “market dominance” for itself to “crush rivals” and is “shutting them out of its systems to prevent them from competing with Facebook or its subsidiaries”.

Hmm, doesn’t that sound exactly like what companies are supposed to do in our neoliberal capitalist societies? After all, if we turn our attention to the old media for a moment, hasn’t Rupert Murdoch been allowed to create “market dominance”? Doesn’t he seek to “crush rivals”? Don’t all large companies try to “shut out” competitors? Why is it so bad only when Zuckerberg, does it?

Or is this not really about “market dominance”, but about a young upstart social media corporation replicating the economic models of the old media giants and nudging them into the long grass?

The problem is not that Facebook has market dominance, but that our economies are nowadays premised solely on the idea that a tiny number of corporations gain market dominance. Let’s challenge that idea, not single out Facebook.

Third, we get to the nub of what this is all about. The giveaway is in the report’s remit, as explained by the Guardian: it was set up in response to concerns “about the influence of false information and its ability to spread unscrutinised on social media”. Or as the paper describes it more pithily elsewhere, the committee was investigating “disinformation and fake news”.

The goal here is not just to ensure that the state regains control over our private information and that the old media regain their commercial  advantage.

More importantly still, the goal is that both get to control the political agenda, the ideological narrative. All that fearmongering about “Kremlin bots” and “fake news” on social media is designed to curtail dissidents voices, those who demur from the centrist – warmongering, planet-destroying, neoliberal – consensus.

The critical left – anything to the left of the Blairites, including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – are being presented as politically toxic as the white-supremacist right. Both are viewed as equally a threat, as evidence of a dangerous populism, as the wild weeds sown by “fake news”.

The committee report is simply the latest hammer blow against the new media, with Facebook most prominent, to bring it into line, to fully subordinate it to the traditional political and media class.

Tom Watson, the Labour party’s deputy leader, and the man best placed to stab Corbyn in the back should the right moment arrive, is not even shy of making that clear: “If one thing is uniting politicians of all colours during this difficult time for our country, it is our determination to bring him [Zuckerberg] and his company into line.”

Facebook, of course, has no ideological objections to complying. It does not care about freedom of speech, or pluralism, only about its image and market position.

Karim Palant, the company’s UK public policy manager, happily responded: “We are open to meaningful regulation and support the committee’s recommendation for electoral law reform.”

What holds it back from full compliance is not the damage that will be inflicted on our political freedoms from a crackdown on dissident views, or “fake news”, but the the economic pain it will incur if it hands back control of the digital data it has amassed.

GDPR and Big Tech: The Cookie Monster Versus Joe Public

Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation which was implemented last summer has far-reaching privacy rules. Commonly referred as the , this is now the standard which has forced most tech companies to rethink not only data collection practices but also how data is collected or they risk high fines. Where the US lacks a similar regulation to protect privacy of Internet users, many characterize Europe’s GDPR as hurting privacy instead of protecting it while others accuse the EU of policing across its own borders.

The Washington Post announced last week that France has fined Google almost $57 million for the first major violation of the GDPR and tech companies in Silicon Valley and beyond are paying close attention. Accused of  failing to disclose the collection and use of personal information to users, Google also failed to obtain permission from these users to do things such as to expose them to personalized advertisements. To most North Americans, such regulation are almost joke-worthy, but that is because most internet users are completely unaware as to how Google harvests the information it uses, which does involve accessing private data. Yet, there is cause for concern when Android users set up a new mobile phone and followed Android’s setup process.

Two nonprofit organizations, None Of Your Business (noyb) and La Quadrature du Net originally filed a complaint back in May 2018 but noyb filed its complaint against Google and Facebook. Under the GDPR regulations, complaints must first be transferred to local data protection watchdogs so France’s top data-privacy agency, CNIL (Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés), took the case in hand and started its investigation 1 June, 2018. Concluding that Google did not comply with the consent and transparent aspects of the privacy law, it pointed to specific areas of non-compliance such as how information is not easily accessible and that information is not clear or comprehensive. Of particular note is how data is processed:

Users are not able to fully understand the extent of the processing operations carried out by GOOGLE. But the processing operations are particularly massive and intrusive because of the number of services offered (about twenty), the amount and the nature of the data processed and combined. The restricted committee observes in particular that the purposes of processing are described in a too generic and vague manner, and so are the categories of data processed for these various purposes. Similarly, the information communicated is not clear enough so that the user can understand that the legal basis of processing operations for the ads personalization is the consent, and not the legitimate interest of the company. Finally, the restricted committee notices that the information about the retention period is not provided for some data.

So what is the information that can be accessed by Google and other tech companies? Take browser cookies, for instance. While “cookies” sounds like a cute word, these small files store a lot of private data: where you have browsed, information you have filled in online forms, even information you have entered into highly personal online financial sites, free website builders, and basically everything you have done on your browser, everywhere you have browsed.  Tracking cookies are used for advertising purposes, specifically involving what is called retargeting, a tactic that depends upon tracking cookies to show ads to people who have previously visited a specific site or shown interest in a particular product. If you’ve ever looked up something on Google or on Amazon and then saw it or a similar item on a popup advertisement while browsing, this is no coincidence. You’ve simply been retargeted.

The information cookies contain is set and accessed by the servers of the websites that you visit and cookies allow servers to identify you and remember things about you.  So, while a cookie might be considered to be no big deal by some people, imagine that any website having access to your cookies would potentially have access to anything you have typed into your web browser. Silktide founder, Oliver Emberton explains cookies like this:  “The problem is that those same cookies can also be used to track people, and do things that many people don’t like, like deliver targeted ads. And this has got a lot of people understandably concerned.” The GDPR means that users are to be asked for consent before cookies can be accessed. You can read the CNIL summary of their report here.

Google is now fined for violating France’s General Data Protection Regulations to the tune of US$57 million. When the GDPR was first announced, many claimed that this would be bad for business. But on the other side of the argument, privacy groups have firmly stood behind the necessary privacy measures to be observed by all companies to include tech giants like Facebook and Google which have come under scrutiny in recent months.  And earlier this week, Poland, the UK and Ireland were implicated in not safeguarding users with regard to “how ad auction companies, including Google, unlawfully profile Internet users’ religious beliefs, ethnicities, diseases, disabilities, and sexual orientation.”

Ultimately, there is a clear contradiction between what’s good for big business and what is good for privacy protections of individual. The real question is what will give in first–our human right to privacy or big business’ desire for profit?

“Instagram Helped Kill My Daughter”: Censorship Tendencies in Social Media

It is all a rather sorry tale.  Molly Russell, another teenager gorged on social media content, sharing and darkly revelling, took her own life in 2017 supposedly after viewing what the BBC described as “disturbing content about suicide on social media.”  Causation is presumed, and the platform hosting the content is saddled with blame.

Molly’s father was not so much seeking answers as attributing culpability.  Instagram, claimed Ian Russell, “helped kill my daughter”.  He was also spoiling to challenge other platforms: “Pininterest has a huge amount to answer for.”  These platforms do, but not in quite the same way suggested by the aggrieved father.

The political classes were also quick to jump the gun.  Here was a chance to score a few moral points as a distraction from the messiness of Brexit negotiations.  UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock was in combative mood on the Andrew Marr show: “If we think they need to do things they are refusing to do, then we can and we must legislate.”  Material dealing with self-harm and suicide would have to be purged.  As has become popular in this instance, the purging element would have to come from technology platforms themselves, helped along by the kindly legislators.

Any time the censor steps in as defender of morality, safety and whatever tawdry assertions of social control, citizens should be alarmed.  Such attitudes are precisely the sorts of things that empty libraries and lead to the burning of books, even if they host the nasty and the unfortunate.  Content deemed undesirable must be removed; offensive content must be expunged to make us safe.  The alarming thing here is that compelling the tech behemoths to undertake such a task has the effect of granting them even more powers of social control than before. Don’t they exert enough control as it is?

While social media giants can be accused, on a certain level, of faux humanitarianism and their own variant of sublimated sociopathic control (surveillance capitalism is alive and well), they are merely being hectored for the logical consequence of sharing information and content. This is set to become more concentrated, with Facebook, as Zak Doffman writes, planning to integrate Instagram and WhatsApp further to enable users “across all three platforms to share messages and information more easily”.  Given Facebook’s insatiable quest for advertising revenue, Instagram is being tasked with being the dominant force behind it.

The onus on production and exchange is on customers: the customers supply the material, and spectacle.  They are the users and the exploited.  This, in turn, enables the social media tech groups to monetise data, trading it, exploiting it and tanking privacy measures in the process.  The social media junkie is a modern, unreflective drone.

In doing so, an illusion of independent thinking is created, where debates can supposedly be had, and ideas formed.  The grand peripatetic walk can be pursued.  Often, the opposite takes place: groups assemble along lines of similar thought; material of like vein is bounced around under the impression it advances discussion when it merely provides filling for a cork-lined room or chamber of near-identical thinking.  All of this is assisted by the algorithmic functions performed by the social media entities, all in the name of making the “experience” you have a richer one.  Far be it in their interest to make sure you juggle two contradictory ideas at the same time.

Instagram’s own “Community Guidelines” have the aim of fostering and protecting “this amazing community” of users.  It suggests that photos and videos that are shared should only be done by those with a right to do so.  Featured photos and videos should be directed towards “a diverse audience”.  A reminder that the tech giant is already keen on promoting a degree of control is evident in restrictions on nudity – a point that landed the platform in some hot water last year.  “This includes photos, videos, and some digitally-created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks.”  That’s many an art period banished from viewing and discussion.

The suicide fraternity is evidently wide enough to garner interest, even if the cult of self-harm takes much ethical punishment from the safety lobby.  Material is still shared.  Self-harm advisories are distributed through the appropriate channels.

Instagram’s response to this is to try to nudge such individuals towards content and groups that might just as equally sport reassuring materials to discourage suicide and self-harm.  Facebook, through its recently appointed Vice-President of Global Affairs, Sir Nick Clegg, was even happy to point out that the company had prevented suicides: “Over the last year, 3,500 people who were displaying behaviour liable to lead to the taking of their own lives on Facebook were saved by early responders being pointed to those and people and intervening at the right time.”

This is all to the good, but such views fail in not understanding that social media is not used or engaged in to change ideas so much as create communities who only worship a select few.  The tyranny of the algorithm is a hard one to dislodge.

In engaging such content, we are dealing with narcotised dragoons of users, the unquestioning creating content for the unchallenged. That might prove to be the greatest social crime of all, the paradox of nipping curiosity rather than nurturing it, but instead of dealing with the complexities of information from this perspective, governments are going to make technology companies the chief censors.  It might well be argued that enough of that is already taking place as it is, this being the age of deplatforming.  Whether it be a government or a social media giant, the same shoddy principle is the same: others know better than you do, and you should be protected from yourself.

Free Speech, Hassan Nasrallah, and Other Victims of Internet Censorship

The fact that we live in a world in which the distribution of information is largely under the control of private corporations (and of governments overwhelmingly influenced by corporations) is itself a sufficient indictment of our civilization. Even if, impossibly, no other crimes ever occurred anywhere and systems of power were by and large benevolent, private control and distribution of information would justify attempts to reconstruct society on a new foundation. Such control is simply too contrary to the principles of free expression and free access to information to be tolerated by a people who value democracy, truth, and rational, unimpeded communication. How much worse is it, though, when corporate control of information is an essential precondition for the non-stop commission of systematic crimes against humanity by these very corporations and governments. If the public knew everything that’s going on, it is unlikely they would tolerate it for long.

As it is, we’re living in a planetary practical joke, victims of some malevolent cosmic intelligence with a sick sense of humor: in order to organize political dissent, struggle for social progress, and spread knowledge of corporate and government crimes. We’re dependent in large part on networks that are run and policed by these criminals themselves. We function at the mercy of their good will. Internet service providers can, whenever they feel like it, deny service to some “dangerous” individual or group; media platforms like Facebook and YouTube can suspend a user as soon as they decide they don’t like what he’s saying, or if he runs afoul of some algorithm; Google can steer traffic away from particular websites, as it has lately been doing with regard to left-wing sites like the World Socialist Website, AlterNet, Democracy Now, and CounterPunch. And the victims of this censorship have, in effect, no recourse, except to appeal to the public to pressure the censors.

Facebook has censored countless users who didn’t deserve it, as when disproportionately targeting activists of color, suspending livestreams of police shootings, temporarily deleting TeleSur’s English page, and deleting VenezuelAnalysis’s page (until the ensuing public outcry got that decision reversed). Its army of content reviewers is constantly censoring individual posts in accordance with a 27-page set of rules, resulting in the suppression of posts about, e.g., Indian atrocities in Kashmir, Geronimo and Zapata as heroes in the “500-year war against colonialism,” and a left-wing counter-rally on the anniversary of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The political censorship (of both the left and, sometimes, the right) is out of control: this past year, hundreds of accounts and pages have been deleted on the pretext that they’re fake or “inauthentic.” Or, as always, “extremist.” Not surprisingly, many have been quite legitimate, run by real people who were using pseudonyms for the sake of safety, or whose perspectives are just designated as unacceptable because they’re contrary to official narratives. After deleting dozens of “inauthentic” accounts and pages last summer, Facebook stated that the culprits had “sought to inflame social and political tensions in the United States, and said their activity was similar—and in some cases connected—to that of Russian accounts during the 2016 election.” In other words, users are now forbidden to “inflame tensions” or to act “similarly” to Russian accounts.

At least we’re still allowed to share cat memes and baby photos.

But the main victim of this creeping McCarthyism has been, of course, the cause of the Palestinians, and more generally anyone who objects to Israel’s decades-long orgy of bloodlust. Whether on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, or other platforms, entities resisting Israel are regularly denied a voice. Hamas’s armed wing isn’t permitted an account on Twitter, while the Israeli army is. Facebook blocks Palestinian groups so often—including Fatah and leading media outlets in the West Bank—that they have their own hashtag, #FBcensorsPalestine. Given that these media near-monopolies are an essential means of reaching followers and spreading a message, such censorship has a very destructive effect.

Recent outrages concern suppression of the voice of Hezbollah’s Secretary-General, Hassan Nasrallah. A year ago YouTube suspended a popular channel that broadcast, and provided translations of, speeches of Hassan Nasrallah, among other “anti-American” leaders (Putin, Assad, etc.). The channel, which had over 400 videos, had 10,000 subscribers and had racked up more than six million views, and was growing in popularity. YouTube’s pretext for its suspension was “violation of the rules concerning graphic or violent content.” More specifically, three videos of Nasrallah’s speeches were deemed offensive: one was titled “ISIS is Israel’s ally and aims [at] Mecca and Medina,” the second was titled “We are about to liberate Al-Quds (Jerusalem) and all of Palestine,” and the third was called “The next war will change the face of the region.” It would be hard to argue that anything in these speeches was particularly “graphic or violent,” for they contain little but sensible political analysis and exhortations to resist a brutally violent neighboring state.

The owner of the channel then created a Facebook page to post similar content, called Resistance News Unfiltered. A year later, just a few weeks ago, it was deleted. With no explanation. It had over 6,000 subscribers and was providing an important service by translating the speeches of a highly perceptive political analyst. Norman Finkelstein recently released a statement on all this censorship of Nasrallah:

It is a scandal that the speeches of Hassan Nasrallah are banned on youtube. Whatever one thinks of his politics, it cannot be doubted that Nasrallah is among the shrewdest and most serious political observers in the world today. Israeli leaders carefully scrutinize Nasrallah’s every word. Why are the rest of us denied this right? One cannot help but wonder whether Nasrallah’s speeches are censored because he doesn’t fit the stereotype of the degenerate, ignorant, blowhard Arab leader. It appears that Western social media aren’t yet ready for an Arab leader of dignified mind and person.

The New York Times has reported that “Israeli security agencies monitor Facebook and send the company posts they consider incitement. Facebook has responded by removing most of them.” In fact, typically over 90 percent of them. Meanwhile, as Glenn Greenwald notes, “Israelis have virtually free rein to post whatever they want about Palestinians,” including calls for genocide and the most grotesque celebrations of the torture and murder of Palestinian children.

All this is perfectly predictable, for the economically powerful will always cooperate with the politically powerful to suppress dissent. Companies like Facebook and Google (which owns YouTube) will always be inclined to do the bidding of the U.S. government and its allies. This fact nevertheless constitutes a terrible, proto-fascist danger to free speech that ought to be resisted as energetically as any crime against humanity concealed by such corporatist collaboration.

Only if we flood Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the others with complaints is there a chance for necessary voices like Hassan Nasrallah’s to be heard. Our endgame should be to eliminate these corporations themselves and transfer the media infrastructure they own to the public, but on the way to that goal we have to keep poking holes in the corporate blackout to let in some sunlight.

Caught In The Cross Hairs: Media Lens And The Mystery Of The Wikipedia Editor

In June, the BBC reported that someone operating under the name ‘Philip Cross’ had been extraordinarily active in editing Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit:

“Philip Cross” has made hundreds of thousands of edits to Wikipedia pages. But in the process he’s angered anti-war activists and critics of British and Western foreign policy, who claim he’s been biased against them.

Political analyst and former UK British ambassador Craig Murray described the scale of Cross’s activities:

“Philip Cross” has not had one single day off from editing Wikipedia in almost five years. “He” has edited every single day from 29 August 2013 to 14 May 2018. Including five Christmas Days. That’s 1,721 consecutive days of editing.

133,612 edits to Wikipedia have been made in the name of “Philip Cross” over 14 years. That’s over 30 edits per day, seven days a week. And I do not use that figuratively: Wikipedia edits are timed, and if you plot them, the timecard for “Philip Cross’s” Wikipedia activity is astonishing if it is one individual.

So who is Philip Cross? The BBC commented:

BBC Trending has been able to establish that he lives in England, and that Philip Cross is not the name he normally goes by outside of Wikipedia.

The excellent Five Filters website looked deeply into these issues and noted of the person writing as Cross:

After George Galloway, Media Lens is his second most edited article on the site. Cross is responsible for almost 80% of all content on the Media Lens entry.

This is deeply flattering for a two-man organisation run on donations facing some pretty heavyweight competition:

Cross calls his Wikipedia targets “goons”. The list includes anti-war politician George Galloway, former MP Matthew Gordon-Banks, historian, human rights activist and former UK ambassador Craig Murray, investigative journalist Dr Nafeez Ahmed, Edinburgh University professor Tim Hayward, Sheffield University professor Piers Robinson, and media analysis group Media Lens.

The Canary website reported of Media Lens:

Its Wikipedia page has had 851 edits by Cross (57.27% of page total) and is the editor’s second most active page.

The Canary has itself fallen under Cross’s cross hairs. The website’s Wikipedia page was created on 2 June 2016 at 11:41pm. Cross made his first edit at 8:55am the next morning.

Is Cross offering a neutral, impartial view of our work? In May 2018, he tweeted:

@medialens is two blokes called David who the mainstream usually ignore with good reason, but are of interest because they are so catastrophically wrongheaded. (Tweet, May 7, 2018; since deleted)

In the Sunday Herald, Ron McKay noted that Cross’s targets tend to have two characteristics in common:

You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see that there are common threads here. All of those [targeted] are… prominent campaigners on social media and in the mainstream media vigorously questioning our foreign policy. All have also clashed with Oliver Kamm, a former hedge-fund manager and now Times leader writer and columnist. All have been edited on Wikipedia by Andrew Philip Cross whom the complainants believe, without conclusive evidence, to be Kamm after dark. He denies it.

Professor Tim Hayward of Edinburgh University asked:

Does Oliver Kamm have Wikipedia editor Philip Cross doing his bidding in amplifying smears and vendettas? Evidence coming to light suggests serious questions concerning possible misuse of media influence and unethical conduct.’

Cross did not appreciate this and other interventions from Professor Hayward. Two weeks earlier, Cross had sent him this disturbing comment:

You may be having an uncomfortable conversation with one of your Associate Deans/Deans in the near future & his wife. Pity you blocked me before you had a close look at my followers. (Tweet, May 12, 2018; since deleted)

As part of its investigation, the BBC interviewed a highly experienced Wikipedia administrator known as Orange Mike, who specialises in dealing with conflicts of interest, asking him:

One of the people whose pages he [Cross] has been editing, and has edited over 1800 times, is George Galloway, and he says he knows that Philip Cross is being paid to do this. Do you think that’s likely?

Orange Mike replied:

I would not even be remotely surprised. The people who hate Galloway the most are often powerful and often rich. And the idea that they could find someone to use as their tool would not surprise me in the least. But I have no evidence to prove it and therefore would reserve judgement.

That is also our position. A tweeter, Malone (now called Read JFK), commented to us on the coincidence that Cross has often edited our Wikipedia page on the same day that Kamm has mentioned us on Twitter:

kamm’s tweets crossreferenced with cross’s medialens wiki edits. 82 edits on the exact same days kamm tweeted about you! at least 243 including surrounding days (243 is a severe underestimate).

We are not alone. Tweeter RLM noted the people Kamm has tweeted about on the same day Cross has edited their page:

Chris Hedges, Max Mosley, Mark Wadsworth, Peter Oborne, LabourLeave, David Ward, Ken Loach, Nick Timothy, Alex Salmond, Nafeez Ahmed, Owen Jones, Diane Abbott, Tim Hayward, Piers Robinson, Craig Murray, Alex Nunns, Glenn Greenwald, Media Lens, “Douma Chemical Attack”, Robert Fisk (edited a day before, not the same day), George Galloway, Jeremy Corbyn, Media Lens, Seumas Milne, Edward S. Herman, Paul Flynn, Afshin Rattansi, Mo Ansar, John Pilger, Andrew Murray, Jim Fetzer (tweeted the day before, not the same day).

Former UK ambassador Craig Murray described what happened to his Wikipedia entry after he strongly criticised Kamm:

The very next day, 8 February, my Wikipedia page came under obsessive attack from somebody called Philip Cross who made an astonishing 107 changes over the course of the next three days. Many were very minor, but the overall effect was undoubtedly derogatory. He even removed my photo on the extraordinary grounds that it was “not typical” of me.

We noted on Twitter:

The word “Kamm” appears in the @Wikipedia entry for Media Lens twelve times. “Media Lens” appears in Oliver Kamm’s entry… zero times.

The thoroughness of Cross’s campaign against us has been impressive. In 2005, then BBC Newsnight editor Peter Barron wrote of how Media Lens had ‘prolifically let us know what they think of our coverage, mainly on Iraq, George Bush and the Middle East, from a Chomskyist perspective’. He added graciously:

In fact I rather like them. David Cromwell and David Edwards, who run the site, are unfailingly polite, their points are well-argued and sometimes they’re plain right.

These were remarkable and important comments. A senior editor who had himself come under intense criticism from us and hundreds of our readers was nevertheless able to recognise that our points were reasonable and well-intentioned, that we were not nasty people pursuing some dark agenda. Quite reasonably, someone added Barron’s comments to our Wikipedia page. The addition was noticed by Cross, who replaced the quotation with this:

Peter Barron, the former editor of the BBC’s ”Newsnight” commented in November 2005 that although Cromwell and Edwards “are unfailingly polite”, he had received “hundreds of e-mails from sometimes less-than-polite hommes engages – they’re almost always men – most of whom don’t appear to have watched the programme” as a result of complaints instigated by Media Lens.

Notice that in editing the Newsnight editor’s quote, Cross had to carefully read through Barron’s original article to find less positive comments to patch in. This was meticulous work to remove a positive opinion about us, not a rush job.

The Five Filters website tweeted on a similar intervention:

This made me laugh. Cross, who is obsessed with Media Lens, removes David Edwards’ (Media Lens co-editor) book from Chomsky’s Wikipedia bibliography section because “obscure book by obscure writer” https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?diff=721546372 … Unbelievable! @medialens’

Tweeter Leftworks commented on edits made to the Wikipedia page for the Iraq Body Count (IBC) website:

Guess who’s been looking after the IBC page on Wikipedia and removing all references to @MediaLens? The one and only Philip Cross!

As some of our readers will know, we did a lot of work explaining how media favourite, Iraq Body Count, was recording perhaps ten per cent of the Iraqi death toll. Philip Cross has seen to it that our work on this issue has been completely erased from Wikipedia history.

‘Absolutely No Evidence’

Apart from Cross, in the 17 years we have been working on Media Lens, only one other person has subjected us to a relentlessly negative campaign that is in any way comparable. Almost ten years ago, we documented how Oliver Kamm had been pursuing us relentlessly across the internet – writing blogs about us, posting grisly comments about our genocide ‘denial’ under online interviews with us, and often warning journalists who mentioned our work – or who, god forbid, praised our work – or who interacted with us in any way, that we were blood-drenched ‘genocide deniers’ and/or seedy ‘misogynists’.

In 2013, Mehdi Hasan, formerly senior political editor at the New Statesman, now a columnist with The Intercept, commented to Kamm on Twitter:

I cant help but be amused at the way you swoop down in at any mention of MediaLens. Got ’em on an alert?

Despite continuing to seek out and attack us online, Kamm has shown admirable restraint in not extending his campaign to Wikipedia. We are not aware that he has added a single edit to either of our individual pages, nor to our Media Lens page. It seems that, for Kamm, when it comes to Wikipedia, it is always the Christmas truce.

And by the way, we have never edited Kamm’s page on Wikipedia. In fact, we have never made any political edits on Wikipedia at all.

Daniel Finkelstein, Baron Finkelstein of Pinner, Kamm’s colleague and friend at The Times, sent a flurry of tweets strongly rejecting the idea that anyone was using Cross to target political enemies:

But literally so far there is absolutely no evidence. My ears are wide open. My fingers aren’t in my ears. I am ready, waiting, willing to see or hear this evidence. But there isn’t any. Just a bloke called Philip Cross making some edits.

When Five Filters responded by sending serious evidence relating to Cross’s edits, Lord Finkelstein replied:

I appreciate your interest but really I just haven’t got time for studying some blokes Wikipedia edits.

The Root of the Internet’s Disrepute

In all the mounting media coverage of problems with the Internet, such as invasion of privacy, vulnerability to hacking, political manipulation, and user addiction, there is one constant: online advertising. Online advertising is the lifeblood of Google, Facebook, and many other Internet enterprises that profit by providing personal data to various vendors. Moreover, the move of tens of billions of dollars from conventional print and broadcast media continues, with devastating impacts, especially on print newspapers and magazines.

But does online advertising work for consumers? The Internet was once considered a less commercial medium. But today consumers are inundated with targeted ads, reviews, comments, friends’ reactions, and other digital data.  Unfortunately for advertisers, consumers are not intentionally clicking on online ads in big numbers.

Google’s search ads tackle people when they search for a product or service. A controlled study by eBay research labs in 2014 concluded that Google was greatly exaggerating the effectiveness of such ads—at least those bought by eBay. eBay’s researchers concluded that “More frequent users whose purchasing behavior is not influenced by ads account for most of the advertising expenses, resulting in average returns that are negative.” This is the “I-was-gonna-buy-it-anyway problem,” says an article in the Atlantic.

The Atlantic notes:

Whether all advertising—online and off—is losing its persuasive punch…Think about how much you can learn about products today before seeing an ad. Comments, user reviews, friends’ opinions, price-comparison tools…they’re much more powerful than advertising because we consider them information rather than marketing. The difference is enormous: We seek information, so we’re more likely to trust it; marketing seeks us, so we’re more likely to distrust it.

Some companies like Coca-Cola have cooled on using online advertising. But advertising revenues keep growing for Google, Facebook, and the other giants of the Internet. These companies are racing to innovate, connecting ads to more tailored audiences, which tantalize and keeps hope springing eternal for the advertisers. The Internet ad sellers also provide detailed data to advertise themselves to the advertisers staying one step ahead of growing skepticism. This is especially a problem when there is inadequate government regulation of deceptive advertising. It is the Wild West! Online advertising revenues are the Achilles’ heel of these big Internet companies. Any decline will deflate them immensely; more than public and Congressional criticism of their intrusiveness, their massive allowed fakeries, their broken promises to reform, and their openings to unsavory political and commercial users. If they lose advertising revenue, a major revenue bubble will burst and there goes their business model, along with their funding for ventures from video hosting to global mapping.

After reviewing the many major negatives attributed to the Internet, the New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo writes, “So who is the central villain in this story, the driving force behind much of the chaos and disrepute online?… It’s the advertising business, stupid.” He adds, perhaps optimistically, “If you want to fix much of what ails the internet right now, the ad business would be the perfect perp to handcuff and restrain.”

Randall Rothenberg, who heads a trade association of companies in the digital ad business, urges advertisers “to take civic responsibility for our effect on the world.” Then he shows his frustration by saying that, “Technology has largely been outpacing the ability of individual companies to understand what is actually going on.”  All of this even before artificial intelligence (AI) takes root. Meanwhile, Facebook, Google, and Twitter keep announcing new tools to make their ads “safe and civil” (Facebook), open and protective of privacy. At the same time matters keep getting worse for consumers. The backers and abusers keep getting more skilled too (see Youtube Kids ).

In a recent report titled “Digital Deceit,” authors Dipayan Ghosh and Ben Scott wrote:

The Central problem of disinformation corrupting American political culture is not Russian spies or a particular media platform. The central problem is that the entire industry is built to leverage sophisticated technology to aggregate user attention and sell advertising.

If so, why isn’t more public attention being paid to this root cause? Not by the mass media which is obviously too compromised by the Congress, by academia, or by more of US before “We the People” become the conditioned responders that Ivan Pavlov warned about so many years ago.

Terrorist Methods in Ukrainian Foreign Policy?

The Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary Péter Szijjártó was added to the database of the Ukrainian doxing site “Mirotvorets” (Peacekeeper). This has come as a reaction from Kiev to the alleged attempts of the Hungarian top diplomat “[to undermine] Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity: direct threats of an armed attack on Ukraine”.

Shortly before the publication of his profile on the extremist website Mr. Szijjártó held a press conference in Budapest on September 23, 2018. Talking on the agenda of the upcoming bilateral meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart on the sidelines of the 73rd session of the UN General assembly he said that not only the rights of the Hungarian national community in Ukraine are in danger, but the community itself is in a state of disenfranchisement. He explained that its members had been stripped of the right to study in their native language, to hold Hungarian cultural events and the operations of Hungarian language media had also been made impossible.

According to the Hungarian minister the Ukrainian secret services have begun pestering certain members of the Hungarian national community, calls for action against people with dual citizenship are now openly appearing on various websites, Hungarian diplomats are suffering regular insults, and people who are linked to the foundation that is involved in the economic development program being financed by the Hungarian government have been “invited for questioning” on several occasions. Moreover, Ukraine went further than ever before in contravention of all of the existing rules of diplomacy, a secret service operation was conducted at one of Hungary’s consulates in Ukraine, at the representation of a NATO member state and on Hungarian territory.

On September 30, 2018 Tamás Menczer, the spokesperson at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, told at a press conference that anti-Hungarian attacks in Ukraine are occurring with the involvement of the administration and state. He pointed out that the head of the foreign minister’s security team had been informed of Mr. Szijjártó’s inclusion on the list on the Ukrainian extremist website, and the required measures had been taken.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin (L) and Hungary’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary Péter Szijjártó

It couldn’t have been otherwise. The “Mirotvorets” website, linked with Ukrainian parliament member, Interior Ministry adviser Anton Gerashchenko, was created in 2014 for searching the identities of Donbass militiamen and their supporters. According to Benjamin Moreau, the deputy head of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission, the website violates the right to privacy and the presumption of innocence. The website blacklists all those suspected of what its editors regard as crimes against Ukraine’s national security.

Speaking at a panel discussion titled “Threats to Freedom of Speech in Ukraine” held by Ukraine’s National Union of Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists in Kiev in March this year Moreau noted that some banks refuse to provide financial services to the people who have been added to “Mirotvorets”. Moreau emphasized that the mission had been monitoring the investigation into the murder of two journalists, Pavel Sheremet and Oles Buzina. The Ukrainian journalist and writer Oles Buzina was killed in Kiev right after his profile was published on the extremist website. Moreau also noted that the presence of a large group of extremists at the trial on Buzina’s murder had made a very negative impression on the mission’s members and urged the law enforcement agencies to take measures to ensure the judicial independence.

On September 25, 2018 “Mirotvorets” published personal data of Metropolitan Onufry of Kiev and All Ukraine, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Now the time has come for the Hungarian minister. Is it a kind of a new line in the Ukrainian foreign policy? It seems that the Kiev authorities think that their methods work or they believe in their impunity.

Augmenting Brains: Google Turns Twenty

Eventually you’ll have the implant, where if you think about a fact, it will just tell you an answer.

— Larry Page, co-founder of Google

The Verge starts with a statement that has become commonplace, the compulsory nod to power one has come to expect when engaged with that whole mammoth enterprise known as Google.  “No technology company is arguably more responsible for shaping the modern internet, the modern life, than Google.”

The story of Google is all minted Silicon Valley: the modest research project birthed in computer lingo and networking, the serendipitous meeting of graduate students, and the finding of auspicious and enormously productive garage locations.  The names tell a story: fresh, childish but hopeful.  Alphabet spawned Google, and so forth.  These were the products of scorned Jonathan Taplin in his sharp Move Fast and Break Things, spoiled, ignorant brats.

In a sense, the Google experiment is all homage to behavioural tendencies writ large, an attempt on the part of the founders less to control than predict. (This distinction, it must be said, has been lost.)  How do people search for what is important?  Who tells them?  The PageRank algorithm of Google is moderate blessing and heavily laden curse, reducing the conduct of human searches to a dimension of repetition and faux enlargement of knowledge.  But the paradox of such behaviour is not so much a broadening of mind as a reconfirmation of its narrowing. You are fed results you expect; in time, you are delivered the results you expect.  Variety is stifled within the very system that supposedly promotes a world of seamless access.

But there it is. The Google search engine commodifies and controls choice, thereby leaving you with little.  The impression of a world with abundance is essential, and draws out the curse of plenty:  your choice is pre-empted, and typing in a search term generates terms you might wish to pursue.  Even the traditional library is hard to retreat to in certain respects given that librarians are becoming allergic to matters of paper, covers and book spines, a catalogue outsourced beyond its walls. The modern library has become the product of such market management fetish as knowledge centres, which is far more in line with Google speak.

Google has also reduced us to phone-reaching idiocy, an impulsive dive into the creature of all knowing answers that lies in the pocket and is procured at a moment’s notice.  Few conversations go by these days without that nasty God of the search engine making its celebrated entry to dispel doubts and right wrongs.  Not knowing a “fact” is intrinsically linked to the rescue of finding out what Google will tell you.

Larry Page has made little secret of its all-conquering, cerebral mission manifested through the all-powerful search engine.  It verges on the creepily totalitarian, but more in the fashion of Brave New World seductiveness than 1984 torture and stomping.  “It will be included in people’s brains,” he explained to a veteran observer of the company, Steven Levy.  “When you think about something and don’t really know much about it, you will automatically get information.”  Similarly for fellow founder Sergey Brin, Google is viewed “as a way to augment your brain with the knowledge of the world.”

There is the other side: company concentration, exquisitely vast power that has wooed critics, and a self-assumed omniscience that crushes competition.  It is such characteristics that determine Google as a sovereign exception that seems to trounce the prerogative of many states: there are regulations made by elected officials, but these can, and will be subverted, if needed. But there is another side of the Google phenomenon: calculated compliance, and collaboration verging on the obsequious.  Business remains business, and having such a concentrated entity exerting dominion over the Internet and the market is the very thing that should trouble anti-trust specialists.

This very fact struck the Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry as relevant. If Google was to be dealt with in any feasible way, it would have to be through the traditional weaponry of the anti-trust suit (think, he reminds us, of Standard Oil 1910).  “This can’t be fixed legislatively,” suggested Landry to Baton Rouge’s The Advocate. “We need to go to court with an antitrust suit.”

The European Union has already taken up the matter, fining Google $5 billion for antitrust violations relating to its Android market dominance, notably its bundling of the search engine and Chrome apps into the operating system while also making “payments to certain large manufacturers and mobile network operators” to exclusively bundle the Google search app on handsets.

The suggestion for some form of antitrust action against Google and other technological giants in the US itself is now being lost in the political opportunism of the Trump Whitehouse.  On Tuesday, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions convened a gathering of various officials to consider “a growing concern” about how certain companies might “be hurting competition and intentionally stifling the free exchange of ideas on their platforms”.

The problem here is not the premise Sessions is pursuing.  What matters is the reason he is taking such an interest, pressed by the sledgehammer approach advocated by President Donald J. Trump.  That ever sensitive leader of the confused free world claims that the search engine has developed a bias against him, yet another rigged entity in action.

Trump’s critics also have issues with social media sites and Google’s search engine.  Like Hillary Rodham Clinton, they argue, conversely, that such entities promoted the forces of reaction.  Had they not been so easily susceptible to those wicked Russians in spreading misinformation during the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump would never have gotten the keys to the White House.  That proposition has been given some academic ballast with Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President – What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know, though it remains qualified at best.

Reaching the age of 20 has certainly brought Google to the summit of criticism and a certain pervasive idolatry. There are those who feel erroneously slighted (Trump and Clinton); there are those who wish their records erased from the search engine in an effort to make their lives anew (the right to forget the foolish error); and then there are those who simply could not be bothered to do a bit more digging for something that is so effortlessly available.  “Google is the oracle of redirection,” claims James Gleick.  In due course, its own influence will, in time, require redirection, and the brats may have to be disciplined accordingly.

Empire of Lies: Are “We the People” Useful Idiots in the Digital Age?

Back in the heyday of the old Soviet Union, a phrase evolved to describe gullible western intellectuals who came to visit Russia and failed to notice the human and other costs of building a communist utopia. The phrase was “useful idiots” and it applied to a good many people who should have known better. I now propose a new, analogous term more appropriate for the age in which we live: useful hypocrites. That’s you and me, folks, and it’s how the masters of the digital universe see us. And they have pretty good reasons for seeing us that way. They hear us whingeing about privacy, security, surveillance, etc., but notice that despite our complaints and suspicions, we appear to do nothing about it. In other words, we say one thing and do another, which is as good a working definition of hypocrisy as one could hope for.

— John Naughton, The Guardian

“Who needs direct repression,” asked philosopher Slavoj Zizek, “when one can convince the chicken to walk freely into the slaughterhouse?”

In an Orwellian age where war equals peace, surveillance equals safety, and tolerance equals intolerance of uncomfortable truths and politically incorrect ideas, “we the people” have gotten very good at walking freely into the slaughterhouse, all the while convincing ourselves that the prison walls enclosing us within the American police state are there for our protection.

Call it doublespeak, call it hypocrisy, call it delusion, call it whatever you like, but the fact remains that while we claim to value freedom, privacy, individuality, equality, diversity, accountability, and government transparency, our actions and those of our government rulers contradict these much-vaunted principles at every turn.

For instance, we claim to disdain the jaded mindset of the Washington elite, and yet we continue to re-elect politicians who lie, cheat and steal.

We claim to disapprove of the endless wars that drain our resources and spread thin our military, and yet we repeatedly buy into the idea that patriotism equals supporting the military.

We claim to chafe at taxpayer-funded pork barrel legislation for roads to nowhere, documentaries on food fights, and studies of mountain lions running on treadmills, and yet we pay our taxes meekly and without raising a fuss of any kind.

We claim to object to the militarization of our local police forces and their increasingly battlefield mindset, and yet we do little more than shrug our shoulders over SWAT team raids and police shootings of unarmed citizens.

And then there’s our supposed love-hate affair with technology, which sees us bristling at the government’s efforts to monitor our internet activities, listen in on our phone calls, read our emails, track our every movement, and punish us for what we say on social media, and yet we keep using these very same technologies all the while doing nothing about the government’s encroachments on our rights.

This contradiction is backed up by a Pew Research Center study, which finds that “Americans say they are deeply concerned about privacy on the web and their cellphones. They say they do not trust Internet companies or the government to protect it. Yet they keep using the services and handing over their personal information.”

Let me get this straight: the government continues to betray our trust, invade our privacy, and abuse our rights, and we keep going back for more?

Sure we do.

After all, the alternative—taking a stand, raising a ruckus, demanding change, refusing to cooperate, engaging in civil disobedience—is not only a lot of work but can be downright dangerous.

What we fail to realize, however, is that by tacitly allowing these violations to continue, we not only empower the tyrant but we feed the monster.

In this way, what starts off as small, occasional encroachments on our rights, justified in the name of greater safety, becomes routine, wide-ranging abuses so entrenched as to make reform all but impossible.

We saw this happen with the police and their build-up of military arsenal, ostensibly to fight the war on drugs. The result: a transformation of America’s law enforcement agencies into extensions of the military, populated with battle-hardened soldiers who view “we the people” as enemy combatants.

The same thing happened with the government’s so-called efforts to get tough on crime by passing endless laws outlawing all manner of activities. The result: an explosion of laws criminalizing everything from parenting decisions and fishing to gardening and living off the grid.

And then there were the private prisons, marketed as a way to lower the government’s cost of locking up criminals. Only it turns out that private prisons actually cost the taxpayer more money and place profit incentives on jailing more Americans, resulting in the largest prison population in the world.

Are you starting to notice a pattern yet?

The government lures us in with a scheme to make our lives better, our families safer, and our communities more secure, and then once we buy into it, they slam the trap closed.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about red light cameras, DNA databases, surveillance cameras, or zero tolerance policies: they all result in “we the people” being turned into Enemy Number One.

In this way, the government campaign to spy on our phone calls, letters and emails was sold to the American people as a necessary tool in the war on terror.

Instead of targeting terrorists, however, the government has turned us into potential terrorists, so that if we dare say the wrong thing in a phone call, letter, email or on the internet, especially social media, we end up investigated, charged and possibly jailed.

If you happen to be one of the 1.31 billion individuals who use Facebook or one of the 255 million who tweet their personal and political views on Twitter, you might want to pay close attention.

This criminalization of free speech, which is exactly what the government’s prosecution of those who say the “wrong” thing using an electronic medium amounts to, was at the heart of Elonis v. United States, a case that wrestled with where the government can draw the line when it comes to expressive speech that is protected and permissible versus speech that could be interpreted as connoting a criminal intent.

The case arose after Anthony Elonis, an aspiring rap artist, used personal material from his life as source material and inspiration for rap lyrics which he then shared on Facebook.

For instance, shortly after Elonis’ wife left him and he was fired from his job, his lyrics included references to killing his ex-wife, shooting a classroom of kindergarten children, and blowing up an FBI agent who had opened an investigation into his postings.

Despite the fact that Elonis routinely accompanied his Facebook posts with disclaimers that his lyrics were fictitious, and that he was using such writings as an outlet for his frustrations, he was charged with making unlawful threats (although it was never proven that he intended to threaten anyone) and sentenced to 44 months in jail.

Elonis is not the only Facebook user to be targeted for prosecution based on the content of his posts.

In a similar case that made its way through the courts only to be rebuffed by the Supreme Court, Brandon Raub, a decorated Marine, was arrested by a swarm of FBI, Secret Service agents and local police and forcibly detained in a psychiatric ward because of controversial song lyrics and political views posted on his Facebook page. He was eventually released after a circuit court judge dismissed the charges against him as unfounded.

Rapper Jamal Knox and Rashee Beasley were sentenced to jail terms of up to six years for a YouTube video calling on listeners to “kill these cops ‘cause they don’t do us no good.” Although the rapper contended that he had no intention of bringing harm to the police, he was convicted of making terroristic threats and intimidation of witnesses.

And then there was Franklin Delano Jeffries II, an Iraq war veteran, who, in the midst of a contentious custody battle for his daughter, shared a music video on YouTube and Facebook in which he sings about the judge in his case, “Take my child and I’ll take your life.” Despite his insistence that the lyrics were just a way for him to vent his frustrations with the legal battle, Jeffries was convicted of communicating threats and sentenced to 18 months in jail.

The common thread running through all of these cases is the use of social media to voice frustration, grievances, and anger, sometimes using language that is overtly violent.

The question the U.S. Supreme Court was asked to decide in Elonis is whether this activity, in the absence of any overt intention of committing a crime, rises to the level of a “true threat” or whether it is, as I would contend, protected First Amendment activity. (The Supreme Court has defined a “true threat” as “statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.”)

In an 8-1 decision that concerned itself more with “criminal-law principles concerning intent rather than the First Amendment’s protection of free speech,” the Court ruled that prosecutors had not proven that Elonis intended to harm anyone beyond the words he used and context.

That was three years ago.

Despite the Supreme Court’s ruling in Elonis, Corporate America has now taken the lead in policing expressive activity online, with social media giants such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube using their formidable dominance in the field to censor, penalize and regulate speech and behavior online by suspending and/or banning users whose content violated the companies’ so-called community standards for obscenity, violence, hate speech, discrimination, etc.

Make no mistake: this is fascism.

This is fascism with a smile.

As Bertram Gross, former presidential advisor, noted in his chilling book Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America:

Anyone looking for black shirts, mass parties, or men on horseback will miss the telltale clues of creeping fascism. . . . In America, it would be super modern and multi-ethnic—as American as Madison Avenue, executive luncheons, credit cards, and apple pie. It would be fascism with a smile. As a warning against its cosmetic façade, subtle manipulation, and velvet gloves, I call it friendly fascism. What scares me most is its subtle appeal.

The subtle appeal of this particular brand of fascism is its self-righteous claim to fighting the evils of our day (intolerance, hatred, violence) using the weapons of Corporate America.

Be warned, however: it is only a matter of time before these weapons are used more broadly, taking aim at anything that stands in its quest for greater profit, control and power.

This is what fascism looks like in a modern context, with corporations flexing their muscles to censor and silence expressive activity under the pretext that it is taking place within a private environment subject to corporate rules as opposed to activity that takes place within a public or government forum that might be subject to the First Amendment’s protection of “controversial” and/or politically incorrect speech.

Alex Jones was just the beginning.

Jones, the majordomo of conspiracy theorists who spawned an empire built on alternative news, was banned from Facebook for posting content that violates the social media site’s “Community Standards,” which prohibit posts that can be construed as bullying or hateful.

According to The Washington Post, Twitter suspended over 70 million accounts over the course of two months to “reduce the flow of misinformation on the platform.” Among those temporarily suspended was Daniel McAdams, Executive Director of the Ron Paul Institute.

Rightly contending that tech companies are just extensions of the government, former Texas congressman Ron Paul believes that social media networks under the control of Google, Apple, Twitter and Facebook are working with the U.S. government to silence dissent. “You get accused of treasonous activity and treasonous speech because in an empire of lies the truth is treason,” Paul declared. “Challenging the status quo is what they can’t stand and it unnerves them, so they have to silence people.”

Curiously enough, you know who has yet to be suspended? President Trump.

Twitter’s rationale for not suspending world leaders such as Trump, whom critics claim routinely violate the social media giant’s rules, is because “Blocking a world leader from Twitter or removing their controversial Tweets, would hide important information people should be able to see and debate. It would also not silence that leader, but it would certainly hamper necessary discussion around their words and actions.”

Frankly, all individuals, whether or not they are world leaders, should be entitled to have their thoughts and ideas aired openly, pitted against those who might disagree with them, and debated widely, especially in a forum like the internet.

Why does this matter?

The internet and social media have taken the place of the historic public square, which has slowly been crowded out by shopping malls and parking lots.

As such, these cyber “public squares” may be the only forum left for citizens to freely speak their minds and exercise their First Amendment rights, especially in the wake of legislation that limits access to our elected representatives.

Unfortunately, the internet has become a tool for the government—and its corporate partners—to monitor, control and punish the populace for behavior and speech that may be controversial but are far from criminal.

Indeed, the government, a master in the art of violence, intrusion, surveillance and criminalizing harmless activities, has repeatedly attempted to clamp down on First Amendment activity on the web and in social media under the various guises of fighting terrorism, discouraging cyberbullying, and combatting violence.

Police and prosecutors have also targeted “anonymous” postings and messages on forums and websites, arguing that such anonymity encourages everything from cyber-bullying to terrorism, and have attempted to prosecute those who use anonymity for commercial or personal purposes.

We would do well to tread cautiously in how much authority we give the Corporate Police State to criminalize free speech activities and chill what has become a vital free speech forum.

Not only are social media and the Internet critical forums for individuals to freely share information and express their ideas, but they also serve as release valves to those who may be angry, seething, alienated or otherwise discontented.

Without an outlet for their pent-up anger and frustration, these thoughts and emotions fester in secret, which is where most violent acts are born.

In the same way, free speech in the public square—whether it’s the internet, the plaza in front of the U.S. Supreme Court or a college campus—brings people together to express their grievances and challenge oppressive government regimes.

Without it, democracy becomes stagnant and atrophied.

Likewise, as I make clear in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, if free speech is not vigilantly protected, democracy is more likely to drift toward fear, repression, and violence. In such a scenario, we will find ourselves threatened with an even more pernicious injury than violence itself: the loss of liberty.

More speech, not less, is the remedy.

We Tried: Kind Of

I read an article a while ago somewhere on the web entitled something like “What Happened to My Country?” (referring to the US, but the same question could be asked by pretty much anyone anywhere the US has managed to colonise in one way or another) and while I agreed that there might be more than a few others asking themselves that same question, I had to admit that any reasonable appraisal of what our country might have been has been answered by any number of researchers and historical figures who have pointed out that the United States, in spite of its rhetoric, has never been a place of which one could be proud.

For most of its history, from the moment the first Europeans stepped ashore on what is now known as North America, it has represented the absolute worst tendencies of the human race. There is nothing revolutionary about genocide. Every empire, since time immemorial, has used this barbaric means of theft. You can give it any label you want, discuss the various “-isms” that may or may not have justified outright murder and theft, but it comes down to, in my opinion, something very simple: The Few against The Rest. And that isn’t very profound, nor should it be news to anyone.

The situation in the US, and ever more so in The West (or its vassal states, wherever they may be) in general, has become so toxic (in every sense of the word), and dangerous to The Few, that they no longer even attempt to hide their disdain for the rabble. Major crimes of all sorts go unpunished. They simply do what they want to. Right out in the open, as if to say, “Whatcha gonna do about it, huh?”

They’ve managed to divide what could be an international coalition of peace-loving people into distinct socio-political straight- jackets, fighting amongst themselves for the right to lead what’s left of The Left or The Right (there’s little difference these days), an exclusionary and divisive tactic that has largely succeeded.

A lot of people (most people, probably) think that the internet, and social media in general, have been a boon to society. I tend to disagree for a number of reasons.

(1) Speed kills. Whether you drive too fast or indulge in the chemical known under that name, there’s a good chance you’ll end up dead or physically or mentally handicapped.

With optic fibre and constant increases in the speed of wireless communications, we are inundated (overloaded?) with information. And I would reckon that most of it is pretty much useless. How many updates do we need, for example, on the lives of celebrities, on Trump’s latest mood, or even the suffering of the Palestinians or Yemenis?

In the first case, who cares what celebrities are up to? They don’t care what you think.

In the second case, it’s just The Donald being The Donald, even though now he’s President.

In the third case, we’ve known about the plight of the Palestinians since 1948 and no one seems to care. At least not enough people to inculpate/stop the Israeli slow genocide.

So what good has all this instantaneousness provided? I’d say not much. Since the inception of the internet, aside from an initial buzz in the public sphere, its monetisation has pretty much destroyed any hopes the same public had for the Net, and has gone the way of most “technological miracles”. Into the hands of a tiny elite, and their acolytes, their “good little Eichmanns”, whose only goal is to become rich.

If you think about “speed” in the mechanical sense, it’s the result of the compression of molecules which creates heat which creates “work”. It’s a desireable outcome if it eliminates arduous tasks. Or so they say. But at what price? Or cost, if you prefer. Economists refer to these costs as “externalities”. I refer to them as “collateral damage”. Neither the bankers nor the bombers give a rat’s ass about these externalities, the peripheral damage done by their choices. See Nick Davies about the bombers, Michael Hudson (or Paul Craig Roberts, the Galbraiths, Bill Black, or any other not bought, honest economist) about the bankers.

If you consider the idea of the compression of molecules relative to the number of people on the planet, you might get the idea that too many people in a finite place might cause the same kind of combustion that occurs when molecules are compressed in the cylinder of an automobile motor. It’s called an explosion. I don’t particularly want to be part of something like that. At least in the physical sense. Which leads to a second point.

(2) Continual or constant growth. The idea behind Ponzi schemes and a core tenet of capitalism.

Ponzi schemes are pretty simple. Promise investors above average returns, and as long as you attract a continued increase in investors, you can pay the previous investors the promised returns with the money coming from the new investors. Until the number of new investors declines or, in the vernacular, until the shit hits the fan. Ask Bernie Madoff.

Capitalism is a big subject, to say the least. The Canadian film, The Corporation, gives a pretty good idea of the psychopathic nature of capitalism, its total disregard for anything resembling a humane way of looking at, and participating in, the world. And it, too, is based on continual/constant growth: the very characteristics of a cancer.

*****

One of the reasons I’m writing this is that I’m finally coming to realise that I really no longer believe that all this speed, all this “stuff”, all this screen gazing is going anywhere good. I have the privilege, being retired and able to spend rather quite a bit of time in this hamlet, without TV, of having to face myself and the small things that affect my daily life.

For example, there are days when I don’t speak with anyone, except for an occasional word with the lizards who inhabit the cracks and crannies of the stone walls of this two hundred year old house and become less and less timorous as the season progresses. Or several kinds of birds who frequent the place, flying in and out of the open windows (mostly swallows), or the plants in the vegetable garden. Of course, there are no replies, except in the form of a strange complicity, or so I imagine. The lizards quickly gather at the stone sink on the terrace when I fill the slight depression with water. The birds nest and sing. The garden grows, the flowers bloom, the bees provide a humming background to it all.

The other day, as I sat in the shade of the open shed roof after lunch, I came across a passage in the book I was reading, Ma Provence d’heureuse rencontre, by Pierre Magnan, that struck me as being pretty appropriate in these times. I’ll cite the original, in French, then attempt a translation.

Venez respirer Forcalquier quand la nuit tombe. Vous y gagnerez à ses terrasses la vacuité de l’âme qui convient au repos et je crois qu’à partir d’ici vous serez à même de comprendre pourquoi ce pays me convient et pourquoi, y étant admis, je peux en toute quiétude être atteint d’incuriosité totale pour le reste du monde.

Come breathe Forcalquier at nightfall. Its terraces offer a sense of existential peace and quiet and I believe that from here you might be able to understand why this place appeals to me and why, once accepted, I can easily become infected by a total lack of curiosity for the rest of the world.
— Pierre Magnan, Ma Provence d’heureuse rencontre, Denoël, 2005

Now, if I could just convince Odette to lend me a couple of sheep to trim the grass.

*****

13 September 2018

That was three months ago, and Odette never agreed to lend me the sheep. Our veering out of control, make believe world had left me pretty much speechless until I came across the Beattie piece cited below, along with other stuff by Paul Haeder, John Steppling, Robert Hunziker, and Ed Curtin.

So as a post-scriptum, I added the following.

10 September 2018

Jeux

Missy Beattie had a piece this weekend about the frustration involved in writing just about anything having to do with the US these days, using the refrain “words get in the way”. And while I’m just another old guy with a need to scribble, I think I get what she means.

The opportunity for changing things has come and gone. Raised in a world divorced from reality, it took us way too long to realise that we’d been had, that too many of us were too comfortable to go beyond our feeble, non-threatening protests and demonstrations, or to join those who did put their lives on the line for a chance at change.

In other words, we blew it. Thus our frustration and anguish at what could have been had we been more courageous.

We can still send a message, however late it might be. We can create a huge BDS movement against the media and retail giants who are taking control of pretty much everything simply to let them know that we’re on to their game. But I sincerely wonder how many screen-gazers are inclined to go into detox. On the other hand, if Robert Hunziker isn’t crazy, we probably don’t have enough time remaining to do much of anything since our Planet is just about ready to get rid of us.

Thus our frustration and anguish at our own stupidity and cowardice. And yet here I sit in this fifty person hamlet, tapping away at this ecocidal device, trying to make sense of it all. It would probably be better to simply find a piece of paper and a pen or pencil and put a message in a bottle: “We tried. Kind of.”