Government penetration and control over media of little interest to those who are subject to it
A recent investigation from independent news outlet Middle East Eye (9/30/19) uncovered that a senior Twitter executive is, in fact, an officer in the British Army’s 77th Brigade, a unit dedicated to psychological operations (psyops), propaganda and online warfare. Gordon MacMillan, who joined the social media company in 2013, is its head of editorial for the Middle East and North Africa. While both Twitter and the British Army attempted to distance themselves from the implications of the report, it is unclear why MacMillan would have this role if not to manipulate and propagandize the public. (The British Ministry of Defense describes psyops as a way of getting “the enemy, or other target audience, to think and act in a way which will be to our advantage”—BBC, 6/20/08.)
For media so committed to covering news of foreign interference with US public opinion online (see FAIR.org, 8/24/16, 12/13/17, 7/27/18), the response was distinctly muted. The story did not appear at all in the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, CNBC, MSNBC, Fox News or virtually any other mainstream national outlet. In fact, the only corporate US outlet of any note covering the news that a person deciding what you see in your Twitter feed is a foreign psyops officer was Newsweek, which published a detailed analysis from Tareq Haddad (10/1/19). When asked by FAIR why he believed this was, Haddad agreed it was major news, but downplayed the idea of media malevolence, suggesting that because it was a small British outlet breaking news involving a British officer, US media may have overlooked it.
Yet the bombshell was also largely downplayed in the UK press as well, with only the Independent, (9/30/19), the London Times (10/2/19) and the Financial Times (9/30/19) producing reports on the news, bland and even-toned as they were. There was no other reporting of it in the national press, including in the BBC or the Guardian, the latter having already “gotten rid of everyone who seemed to cover the security services and military in an adversarial way,” according to one current employee.
Furthermore, the news was the focus of alarmed reports in alternative media (Moon of Alabama, 9/30/19; Consortium News, 10/2/19), as well as from foreign government-owned outlets that have been labeled propaganda mills, and have been demoted or deleted from social media platforms like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. Turkey’s TRT World (10/1/19), Venezuela’s TeleSur English (10/1/19), Iran’s Press TV (9/30/19), and Russia’s Sputnik (9/30/19) and RT (9/30/19) all immediately covered the scandal, suggesting the lack of Western coverage was a political rather than a journalistic choice.
Deep State and Fourth Estate
Haddad also noted that “governments have a long history of trying to manipulate the media,” and are steadily moving into the realm of social media. Regular FAIR readers will already know this. Last year Facebook announced that, in its fight against “fake news,” it had started working with the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, two organizations involved in covertly assisting the overthrow of foreign governments through propaganda campaigns, among other methods (FAIR.org, 9/25/18). It also began partnering with the Atlantic Council (FAIR.org, 5/21/18), a NATO-funded think tank, whose board of directors is a who’s who of ex-CIA chiefs, army generals and Bush-era neocon politicians. That the likes of Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice and David Petraeus are deciding what Facebook’s 2.4 billion worldwide users see in their news feed is tantamount to state censorship on a global scale (FAIR.org, 8/22/18).
Facebook’s gigantic user base and its design make it an enormously influential media organization, one that can make or break politicians’ chances. Media (e.g., New York Times, 11/1/17; Buzzfeed News, 4/18/19; USA Today, 4/22/19) have consistently implied that a relatively small Russian ad campaign on the platform swung the 2016 election in favor of Donald Trump. Less well known is that an American advertising team met with far-right party Alternative für Deutschland at Facebook headquarters in Berlin to devise a campaign of micro-targeting ads on the platform that led to a massive increase in their vote, the strongest fascist showing in Germany since the 1940s (FAIR.org, 6/19/19).
A Fact-Free Zone
Facebook has rules against accepting advertisements containing “deceptive, false or misleading content.” Yet earlier this month, it announced it was rescinding these rules for political ads, allowing politicians who pay them to lie to its users. Referencing the long run-up to the 2020 election, where it is sure to cash in on both sides, a spokesperson justified the decision on the grounds of free speech: “We don’t believe that it’s an appropriate role for us to referee political debates.” It did note, however, that it would continue to ban ads by non-politicians that “include claims debunked by third-party factcheckers, or, in certain circumstances, claims debunked by organizations with particular expertise.”
Yet fact checking organizations are not neutral arbiters of truth, but part of an increasingly elite class of people with their own biases and preconceptions. In practice, they have tended to espouse a “centrist” ideology—a word with its own problems (FAIR.org, 3/23/19)—and are hostile to anyone challenging the status quo from either right or left. Fact checkers have been carrying out something of a war against Bernie Sanders’ campaign, constantly rating the Vermont Senator’s statements as misleading or untrue without due reason.
Furthermore, the choice of who gets to decide what is true and what is false is an important one. Facebook has already partnered with conservative magazine the Weekly Standard, a publication that was crucial in pushing arguably the greatest fake news stories of the 21st century: those of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s links to 9/11 (Extra!, 9/09). “There is no debate about the facts” that “the Iraqi threat” to the US is “enormous” and that Saddam’s henchmen helped Osama Bin Laden, it wrote in 2002 (1/21/02). Yet Facebook picked this organization to help it gauge the veracity of viral stories across its platform.
Silencing Dissent Online
In September, Twitter suspended multiple accounts belonging to Cuban state media. And along with Facebook and YouTube, it also suspended hundreds of Chinese accounts it claimed were attempting to “sow political discord in Hong Kong” by “undermining the legitimacy” of the protest movement. These social media giants have already deleted thousands of Venezuelan, Russian and Iranian accounts and pages that were, in their own words, “in line with” those governments’ positions. The message is clear: Sharing opinions that do not fall in line with official US doctrine will not be tolerated online.
In contrast, Western politicians can continually flout Twitter’s terms of service with no consequences. Sen. Marco Rubio threatened Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro with torture and execution, sharing a video of Moammar Gadhafi being tortured and killed in a not-so-subtle message that broke multiple Twitter rules. Meanwhile, Donald Trump announced that we would “totally destroy” North Korea with “fire and fury,” and promised he would bring about the “official end” of Iran if it angered him again. Twitter has continually refused to delete tweets like that on the grounds that this would “hamper necessary discussion,” although it later saw fit to delete those from Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Decisions like these highlight how there is one rule for the powerful and quite another for the rest of us, and how the big social media platforms are increasingly acting like arms of Western governments, adopting their perspectives on what are and are not acceptable political viewpoints.