From Alex Jones to alleged Russian trolls, major internet companies are increasingly policing content on their platforms. Max Blumenthal of the Grayzone Project says the partnership between Facebook and the Atlantic Council highlights “the merger of the national security state and Silicon Valley.”
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.
From Alex Jones to alleged Russian trolls, Silicon Valley is cracking down on the content across its platforms. Facebook recently shut down several pages it says were part of a coordinated, inauthentic campaign to spread misinformation. Facebook says it doesn’t know who is behind the pages, but strongly suggested it comes from Russia. There’s one problem, however: the shattered accounts include real, actual people. One of the pages was for organizing a counterprotest against the white supremacists this weekend in Washington, D.C. They are some of the latest people to be swept up in a political climate that makes dire warnings of a Russian influence campaign, and then links that to domestic dissent.
Here, for example, is Sen. Richard Burr.
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RICHARD BURR: The Russians conducted a structured influence campaign using U.S.-based social media platforms and others to target the American people using divisive issues such as race, immigration, and sexual orientation. That campaign is still active today. They didn’t do it because they have political leanings to the right or to the left, but because they- or because they care about our elections. But rather because a weak America is good for Russia. Some feel that we as society are sitting in a burning room calmly drinking a cup of coffee, telling ourselves this is fine. That’s not fine. And that’s not the case.
AARON MATE: Joining U.S. government officials and powerful tech companies in this crackdown on supposed foreign influence is none other than the Atlantic Council. It’s a powerful Washington think tank whose funders include weapons manufacturers, oil companies, NATO, the UAE, and even Facebook itself. The Atlantic Council’s so-called digital forensics lab has an official partnership with Facebook for this effort.
Joining me is Max Blumenthal, journalist, bestselling author, senior editor of The Grayzone Project. Max, welcome. Alex Jones has taken up a lot of the controversy on this issue this week. But in this segment I want to focus especially on the impact of the Silicon Valley policing of its content on the left. Now I want to start actually with Facebook’s partner the Atlantic Council and its so-called digital forensics lab. Can you explain who they are, and what they’ve uncovered in this latest round of them shuttering these so-called fake accounts?
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well. What we are seeing here with the partnership between Facebook and the Digital Forensics Lab, or the DFRL lab of the Atlantic Council, is the merger of the national security state and Silicon Valley during the peak outrage of Russiagate theatre. Basically, after the election of Donald Trump, I think Hillary Clinton in her first public appearance after she emerged from their ignominious defeat, she denounced fake news. She was kind of told to come out and make this denunciation of fake news. We have this very vague definition of what fake news is. But it’s another thing you can kind of blame your loss on. Fake news as I understood it were these kind of clickbait websites that used, that kind of had, were branded to look like they were ABC or trusted news sites, and sold literal fake news to drive ad revenue to people in middle America, who weren’t really the most savvy news consumers.
But now fake news is taken to be anything that deviates from that kind of centrist bipartisan consensus, whether it’s Alex Jones, or you know, something on the left that might even be factual reporting on Syria or Ukraine. You know, two kind of hotspots where the mainstream media has maintained this kind of consensus narrative that supports Washington’s imperatives.
So basically, along comes the Digital Forensics Lab. It’s an initiative of NATO’s unofficial think tank in Washington, which as you mentioned is also funded by the Gulf states and by the arms industry. The Atlantic Council is one of the most militaristic think tanks in Washington. It opposes any effort at the Minsk accords in Ukraine. It’s been rallying for U.S. military intervention in Syria. It’s been heavily involved in pushing all of the different pseudo experts who, you know, are the hyper-interventionists. And you know, it’s not a group that I would trust to set the agenda in forums like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, which we depend on, those of us who are in alternative media and independent media, to actually have an audience. These are the digital commons, unfortunately, and they’re controlled by Silicon Valley.
So Facebook has now partnered with the Digital Forensics Lab of this militaristic think tank, the Atlantic Council, to censor its site and purge it of what can be considered fake news, which is just this ill-defined concept. The partnership between Facebook and the Digital Forensics Lab was announced as kind of an election watch, election integrity partnership, to protect our elections from Russian meddling.
So last week we saw Facebook take down a number of pages. Twenty-four hours before it took down the pages it alerted the Digital Forensics Lab and the bot hunter, the kind of person who is appointed by the Atlantic Council with hunting down Russian bots. It alerted them with its findings, and basically told them to go out and market these findings and link these pages to Russia, although there was no clear evidence of a Russian link. The bot hunter is named Ben Nimmo. He’s previously identified two people, a Ukrainian concert pianist and a British pensioner, as Russian bots when they were actually real people. His work should have been discredited by now. And he proceeded to link a number of Facebook pages to Russia based on the grammar that was used in these pages.
One of these pages was knownas, was called Resisters. It was a sort of a page promoting radical feminist anti-fascism. It had one high-performing post out of lots of posts that went nowhere. That high-performing post was advertising a product, I don’t know if it exists, by a South African doctor that was a vaginal tube that women could insert in order to prevent rape, because it contained sharp barbs that would mangle a man’s penis if he raped them. And this post did really well. I don’t know what it has to do with elections, but this page, Resisters, was singled out and taken down, along with another page which, according to Nimmo, was promoting discontent and sowing chaos in America’s elections by, in his words, celebrating the beauty of African women and black pride. This page had a total of zero followers. There was another page which promoted holistic living which had a total of seven followers, and warned people in one meme, low-performing meme, that linking yourself up with Twitter and social media and spending all your life in front of a screen was actually dangerous.
So that, I don’t understand how that actually advances Putin’s 13-dimensional chess. But when you look at the Medium post that the Digital Forensics Lab produced to promote Facebook’s findings and justify its takedown of these Facebook pages, it’s just patently absurd. It’s ridiculous. The idea that this is influencing our elections in any way is ridiculous. And Facebook has now become the number one donor to the Digital Forensics Lab to do this kind of work.
And then, as you mentioned, there was another page taken down, which was one of the main pages mobilizing resistance to a neo-Nazi march, Unite the Right, that will take place in D.C. this weekend. And it was run by real activists. And this page was identified, many mainstream media outlets, as a Russian propaganda front. So I’ve said it all along, and you’ve said it, Aaron, that this Russiagate hysteria will blow back on the left. And here it is. A page run by real activists has been taken down, and it’s been a boon for the neo-Nazis who want to rampage through Washington this weekend that their opponents have been somehow identified by this sham initiative of NATO’s Atlantic Council as Russian bots.
AARON MATE: And you mentioned Alex Jones. So I mean, my problem with the Alex Jones case is that I think there are legitimate grounds to question whether he is protected by free speech rights. You know, when he advances this conspiracy theory about Sandy Hook being a false flag, and he calls the kids crisis actors, and even publishes the addresses of people linked to the members of the families, I think there’s grounds there to crack down on that.
What concerns me about seeing that case, though, is just how widely it gets automatically accepted without fully thinking through the consequences of, you know, usually when these things happen, as people have pointed out, they start with the most extreme cases. But then that becomes a pretext to then, you know, move towards the left, move towards sites that are challenging the mainstream consensus. I’m wondering, Max, your thoughts on the Alex Jones situation.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: It’s, it’s a shocking situation. But I would first of all agree that we don’t have free speech rights under the First Amendment on private outlets like Facebook or Twitter or YouTube. They’re private, and that’s the problem. These are our digital commons, but they’re private. They should be publicly controlled and publicly regulated as a, you know, telephone company is. These are the telephone companies of today. So there is that problem.
What I think about Alex Jones is that he has always served establishment priorities, first by taking the 9/11 truth movement, which did have a wing of it that was dedicated to sort of legitimate questioning of 9/11 and discussing things like the Saudi role, discussing blowback for U.S. foreign policy, asking real serious questions, and diverting it into a conspiratorial crank convention. And then moving the people he was able to mobilize around the 9/11 truth movement into the right by pumping anti-immigrant propaganda. A lot of people don’t remember, but Alex Jones was one of the original promoters of the Minutemen border vigilantes in the early 2000s, and he has continued to serve establishment goals by propping himself up as the easiest target for the fake news purge of the privatized digital commons.
My problem here is the same problem that you outlined, which is that there is a slippery slope. But also that Alex Jones, as Twitter found, did not clearly violate the terms of service on these Web sites. It wasn’t like they just simply conducted a review on YouTube or Pinterest and found that Alex Jones violated their terms of service and they took him down. This was a coordinated purge carried out with government pressure, and as a result of the merger of the national security state and the Silicon Valley companies that pretty much now control everything we see and hear online. That’s incredibly dangerous. And I don’t understand why so many people who identify themselves as lefties are so easily going along with it when Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat, has said that purging Infowars is not enough, and more sites need to be taken offline, although he didn’t identify which sites need to be taken down.
Just as someone who has been targeted for my own factual reporting, and has seen people come after me in a way where, ever since I started covering Israel from a critical perspective, there have been attempts to purge my own work, my own reporting, my own videos, my own factual reporting from these same sites, I have to worry about what’s happening, what’s what’s going to happen next. And we have to, everyone has to worry about the merger between the National Security State and Silicon Valley.
AARON MATE: All right. We’re going to pause there. And when we come back we’re going to look at where this slippery slope that Max mentioned is taking us. Because one of the latest casualties of this Silicon Valley policing of its content is the website Venezuelanalysis, which was founded by a Real News colleague, Greg Wilpert. It was taken- its Facebook page was taken down without explanation for several hours today before it was reinstalled. And Greg is going to join us to talk about what he knows. My guest is Max Blumenthal; join us in Part 2.