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As Facebook and Twitter are purging alternative media outlets, a neoconservative operative at a US government-funded think tank says more censorship is on its way. Max Blumenthal and Jeb Sprague discuss how scaremongering over Russia and China is being exploited to silence dissent on social media

Story Transcript

It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Ben Norton.

Corporate social media giants have begun purging huge alternative media outlets as part of a larger crackdown on political views that challenged mainstream politics and media. In early October, Facebook removed 800 pages and accounts targeting left-wing media outlets, libertarian pages, police transparency pages that monitored police brutality, and also antiwar pages. Some of these pages, like the Free Thought Project and [Chapala] had millions of likes. A new report at the Grayzone Project, which is, reveals how an influential neoconservative operative in Washington, D.C. has actually claimed at least partial credit for this unprecedented social media censorship by Facebook.

Jamie Fly, who is a neoconservative in DC who has worked for Senator Marco Rubio, and also previously was at the Defense Department under George W. Bush, Jamie Fly made these remarks in which he claimed partial credit in an interview published by the Grayzone Project. He said, quote: “So we’re just starting to push back. Just this last week, Facebook began starting to take down sites. So this is just the beginning.” That is a quote from Jamie Fly, a neoconservative in DC. He is a senior fellow and director of the Asia Program at the influential D.C.-based think tank the German Marshall Fund. The German Marshall Fund was created during the Cold War as a West German organization that worked with the United States. And actually, it is funded by the U.S. government and the German government. It also receives funding from NATO.

And Fly, who is a neoconservative fellow at this think tank, said that they are working with the Atlantic Council- the Atlantic Council is also a U.S., EU, and NATO-funded think tank- working together with Facebook to purge alternative media outlets. As an excuse, Jamie Fly claimed that Russia and China are using social media like Facebook to spread supposed disinformation, and he complained that social media outlets are too open.

So joining us to discuss this, and the unprecedented crackdown on alternative media outlets by Facebook and Twitter which was coordinated with it, are the two authors of this story. The first is Max Blumenthal, who’s an award-winning journalist. And he is the editor of the Grayzone Project, which published this report. And we’re also joined by Jeb Sprague, who is a visiting faculty member in sociology at the University of California Santa Barbara, and he is also the author of several books, including Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti. Thanks for joining us, guys.

So there are a lot of layers to discuss here. This is a kind of complex story. There are different think tanks involved. There’s Jamie Fly, who is this neoconservative who worked in the Bush administration. But before we dive into all of this, because it can be kind of confusing for people who might not know all these names, let’s just start with you, Max. Let’s talk about what is going on here with the social media purge, and specifically talk about the Alliance for Securing Democracy. This is a an initiative launched by the German Marshall Fund which, as I mentioned, is a major D.C. think tank that is funded by the U.S. government and NATO, and its Alliance for Securing Democracy has pushed a lot of the social media scare vis a vis so-called Russian disinformation. Can you start us there?

I can try. I think your intro is- you did a really good job in the intro. But this is necessary context for understanding why Jamie Fly’s comments were so significant. I’m sure everyone watching this, or most people, are familiar with the fact that for the better part of the last two years, mainstream corporate media has been obsessing over Trump-Russia collusion; and more specifically, over Russian interference in America’s political system. And they’ve probably heard a lot about Russian bots. It’s my view that a lot of this hype, this fear and hype, is manufactured by powerful elements within the national security infrastructure who are working behind civil society NGOs to kind of give themselves a grassroots patina. And Jamie Fly embodies that perfectly.

Now, before we talk about the Alliance for Securing Democracy, we need to kind of go back to the days after Hillary Clinton’s shocking defeat, when she and her campaign resolved to blame that defeat on Russian interference. And a few weeks after that, the Washington Post published a really dubiously sourced, I thought really offensive and McCarthyite, article hyping up a shadowy anonymous initiative called PropOrNot. No one knew who was behind it. The Washington Post was giving it very favorable coverage. The headline was something about, you know, Kremlin interference has filled America’s media bloodstream with fake news. And PropOrNot basically had introduced a McCarthyite blacklist of something like 80 alternative websites, and a few Russian-backed sites like RT and Sputnik, that it described as Kremlin influence accounts.

So I mean, here we’re talking about Truthdig, which I contribute to, and was founded by Bob Scheer, who is one of the most renowned progressive journalists in the country. Counterpunch, very well-known left-wing alternative site. Black Commentator. We all know Glenn Ford, and he’s been a frequent guest on The Real News. And sites like the Free Thought Project and Antimedia, which were recently purged by Facebook. These are not Kremlin influence accounts. They have no connection to Russia. These are what we know of as our alternative media that we are part of.

And, so you know, PropOrNot kind of got laughed at. People were like, you know, this is ridiculous. They’re calling all these websites Russian. Even the New Yorker kind of took a stab at it. And It kind of went away. And at the same time the idea behind it, which is that Russia is somehow involved with alternative media, and alternative media is a threat to our democracy, flourished.

Then a few months later a new very similar initiative cropped up under the auspices of the German Marshall Fund, which you described in the intro, Ben. Supposedly German, but funded by the U.S., and basically exists to foster the special relationship between the U.S. and Germany, and really push NATO’s line in Washington. This new initiative is called the Alliance for Securing Democracy. It operated in the open, although it didn’t say who its donors were. Its advisory board was a who’s who of neocons and liberal interventionists. And one of its leaders was Jamie Fly, who is a second-generation neocon adviser to Marco Rubio, neocon pet project and poster child. And he was working alongside Laura Rosenberger, who had been a key foreign policy hand on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign to give this kind of bipartisan veneer.

And their main issue was Russian bots. They were claiming that Russian bots were actually dividing the country by infecting Twitter and Facebook with their narratives. And so they cooked up with a team of researchers from George Washington University, who are basically a bunch of spooks who work with the FBI and the military, who I think may have had something to do with PropOrNot, to create this dashboard called Hamilton 68. And many people watching this may remember that dashboard, because if you go on Twitter, you know, all kinds of centrists will screenshot the dashboard from day to day and claim that, oh, the Russians are pushing the narrative that- they’re pushing the Take a Knee narrative in the NFL. This site literally accused Colin Kaepernick and the black American NFL players who were taking a knee to protest police brutality of being a Kremlin influence operation. And Senator James Lankford from Oklahoma actually went on the Senate floor and said Russia is dividing us along racial lines by pushing the Take a Knee protests.

The thing is, this website and their dashboard, it’s a complete sham. They refuse to name what accounts they’re monitoring. And Clint Watts, one of those spooky researchers who I named before who helped create this dashboard on behalf of Jamie Fly and the German Marshall Fund, actually admitted that they weren’t tracking bots; that the accounts they were tracking may not have even been Russian, and that they were real people who simply dissented from the Washington consensus on foreign policy.

So it’s basically a giant sham. But the idea behind the sham is you hype up the fear of Russian interference to carry out the real goal, which Jeb is going to talk about a little bit, which is taking place right now in real time before our eyes, which is to multiply American power and consolidate control of the national security state, the bipartisan national security state, over these social media platforms- Facebook, Twitter, even Instagram- which represent our digital commons, and to drive off the evildoers who are challenging American state violence, like the websites that were recently purged by Facebook.

So as I said from the beginning of Russiagate, people are like, why are you defending Putin? You’re a Putin apologist. No, I was talking about how Russiagate was going to create blowback. That it was going to make this country less democratic. It’s another manufactured campaign of fear ginned up by neoconservatives, as they did during the war on terror after 9/11, in order to de-democratize us and control what we see and hear. And that’s what’s taking place on social media. And it was really important for Jeb to have this conversation with Jamie Fly and to bring it to our attention. I think it was a brave act for him to make this public and to recognize the stakes here.

Yeah, Jeb, let’s go to you. This is a good segue. Can you talk about where you met with with this neoconservative operative Fly, and talk about what he told you, and what you think his goals are behind a lot of this?

Thanks, Ben. And Max did an excellent job of laying that out, and the context. And I think that what Max was talking about is really also just the tip of the iceberg, is really what I got from my conversation with Jamie Fly. Is that this is like- this is just the beginning. They’re rolling this out. And they see this as very much of a global struggle, because the strategy of promoting censorship in social media, they’re going to- you know, this is like a country by country basis. They’re looking at this and how to affect, how to be influential across social media.

You know, if you go back and look at Yasha Levine’s book Surveillance Valley, he talks about how the Internet has, it’s always been about surveillance; its military, its government roots. But what they’re trying to do now is they need to figure out also how to promote influence and have influence in their construction of consent through social media.

So to give you a little context of my connection to this, interest in this, so, I do research on globalization, on socioeconomic dynamics, changing social relationships with the rise of a globalized economy. And I do these different regional studies. I’ve done a lot of work in the Caribbean, and recently doing some work on East Asia.

And so I was invited to speak at this think tank in Berlin, which is called the- I’m going to butcher German- Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, which is the Foundation of Science and Politics. A think tank in Berlin that- it’s a little bit different than think tanks in D.C., where there’s complete ideological uniformity right along the sort of military-industrial intelligence apparatuses. But this group in Berlin, sometimes they allow a few eclectic views in there, they are. I think they value debate a little bit. But it’s still connected to large government funders and these different institutions.

And so I was invited to give a talk there on some of my research that I’ve done on East Asia; wrote a paper for them. And so they have a conference. And it’s rare, you know, in my line of work that I’m able to rub elbows with a leading neoconservative policymaker. They probably would not- you know, wouldn’t even be able to speak to them. So I was able to have lunch with him and to really pick his brain about the German Marshall Fund, and their involvement with the Atlantic Council. And you know, his thoughts on Russiagate and the different mechanisms that they’ve been working on developing with Facebook.

And so in the article- in the article, then, we go deeper into that. It was just a fascinating discussion with them, where he, you know, at the beginning you have this quote, they “can invent stories that get repeated and spread through different sites. So we are just starting to push back. Just this last week Facebook began starting to take down sites. So this is just the beginning.” And so what we see now is rather than pages that are operated by groups funded by the Russian government or something, we’re seeing just wholecloth groups that are critical of U.S. foreign policy dissident groups, that are opposed to police brutality in the United States. Hundreds of American accounts and individuals deplatformed. I’ve contributed some in the past to a group called Haitianalysis. Their Facebook page was shut down. Venezuelanalysis, another group, was briefly shut down.

So we see this whole ongoing targeting campaign of groups that are critical of U.S. state violence. And another interesting thing in the discussion with him is that the next big thing- because this is only, this is, like I said, this is only beginning. This is growing. And the next big thing, I think, is really going to be Chinagate. And I normally don’t like to make predictions. But he was- he seemed, you know, he seemed to be very much watching this. Now you have Trump talking about China carrying out influence operations to support the Democrats. And so it’s this, you know, back and forth partisan rhetoric that we see playing out.

And the whole thing, like Max said, it’s just so- it’s so ridiculous. So you know, it’s been documented that the memes and the articles and things put out by groups connected to Russia, a very small number of Americans actually see those- these, like, these- there’s things looking, like, troll farms in Russia that produce cartoons, you know, like of Bernie and some other people a few hundred or few thousand people saw. Yeah. And a lot of these people even saw them after the election.

So I wonder what’s next. We’re going to have, like, Teletubby memes that are manufactured, like, in a bunker in Beijing that threaten American democracy? You know, it’s just like, the next- you know, what is the next story that they’re going to concoct? And so-

Well, on that note, Jeb, I’m going to take a brief pause here. I’m going to continue our discussion.

I’m joined by Max Blumenthal, who’s a journalist and the editor of The Grayzone project, and also Jeb Sprague, who is an academic and a scholar who researches globalization. And join us in part two. We’re going to continue the discussion of how social media is being censored and propaganda is being weaponized to demonize the two big U.S. bogeyman of today; of course, China and Russia. Join us in part two here at The Real News Network.

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Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author whose articles and video documentaries have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, The Nation, The Guardian, The Independent Film Channel, The Huffington Post,, Al Jazeera English and many other publications. His book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside The Movement That Shattered The Party, is a New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller.