Facebook Erases Hundreds of Alternative Media Pages in Mass Purge (1/2)

Facebook is erasing popular alternative media pages that had millions of likes and suspending anti-war and anti-police brutality accounts, in coordination with Twitter. Journalist Max Blumenthal says this is part of a larger political crackdown; EFF’s David Greene says the implications are dangerous

Facebook Erases Hundreds of Alternative Media Pages in Mass Purge (1/2)

Story Transcript

BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News Network, I’m Ben Norton.

Facebook has erased numerous alternative media pages that had millions of likes as the corporate social media giant cracks down on numerous pages and accounts. Twitter also apparently coordinated with Facebook and suspended some of the same accounts behind these alternative media pages. In just one day, Facebook removed 559 pages and 251 accounts in one fell swoop. Among the pages targeted in this mass purge were popular websites such as Anti-Media and The Free Thought Project, which had roughly three million likes.

Pages that monitored police brutality were also purged, including the page Cop Block and also Police the Police. Several antiwar pages were taken down as well, along with libertarian pages and left wing pages like Reasonable People Unite. Many of the personal Facebook accounts used by people who were admins for those pages were also removed. Facebook announced this purge in a blog post on its website on October 11. Facebook ambiguously accused the pages and accounts of “coordinated inauthentic behavior” and claimed the reason they were removed was based on behavior, not their content, supposedly.

Facebook implied the pages were posting clickbait and were ad farms and claimed the people behind the pages were creating numerous fake accounts in order to spread their material across Facebook. But for many of the pages, this is not true. For example, Facebook removed the antiwar page, The Naked Empire, which I know this is not true because this website has actually interviewed me and other journalists. The Naked Empire posted interviews with antiwar journalists and posted them online. It did not engage in any clickbait or ad farms. And the personal Facebook account of this page was also removed.

I know this also because the person behind this account personally reached out to me as someone who had been featured on her page and said that Facebook removed her page with interviews with me and others and her personal account. So, joining us to discuss this most recent crackdown by Facebook in which it removed hundreds of accounts of pages, are two guests. Max Blumenthal is one guest. He is the editor of The Grayzone Project. He’s also an award-winning journalist and the author of several books. And we’re also joined by David Greene. David Greene is the Senior Staff Attorney and Civil Liberties Director at Electronic Frontier Foundation, EFF. Thanks for joining us, guys.

DAVID GREENE: Thanks.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Good to be here.

BEN NORTON: All right, Max. Let’s start with you. Facebook has done this multiple times now. We’ve seen numerous pages that have been removed. We’ve also seen the scare of so-called fake news. And what’s troubling about this is that some of the partners Facebook has in its crackdown on so-called fake news, vetting pages like these that have been removed, one of the partners is The Atlantic Council. The Atlantic Council is essentially a kind of unofficial NATO, it’s is funded by the United States government and the European Union along with NATO. Among the other fact-checkers that have partnered with Facebook to screen so-called fake news is The Weekly Standard. The Weekly Standard is a neo-conservative website that itself published false information in the lead-up to the Iraq war, which it strongly supported.

So, given this most recent crackdown on alternative media websites and given the fact that Facebook has partnered with neo-conservative websites and also have actually published fake news in the past in the case of the Iraq war, you as a journalist, can you respond to what you feel about the situation and what you think it really could mean for journalists like you, who are not necessarily in the mainstream and who are challenging some of these mainstream narratives?

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Yeah. We’ve talked about this before on previous interviews, Ben, and we talked about VenezuelAnalysis being momentarily removed. There just seemed to be this arbitrary criteria and sites that were targeted tended to be the kind of sites that were challenging the Washington Consensus on foreign policy particularly. You mentioned the Atlantic Council. They are funded by NATO as well as Saudi Arabia, a bunch of Gulf States, arms manufacturers. They exist in Washington to really reinforce the consensus around permanent war.

And they have an internal operation called the Digital Forensics Lab, which was hired or kind of partnered in with Facebook in order to regulate material online as part of Facebook’s Election Watch. I don’t know what any of this has to do with the Election Watch, but the takedown of some 800 sites clearly was timed around the midterms. And what probably happened, what we can deduce from what’s happened since Donald Trump was elected, was there was a hysteria about Hillary Clinton’s loss. She personally blamed fake news and what she called Russian active measures for her defeat. There’s been a campaign to prove that Donald Trump colluded with Russia to subvert the election and to basically win by illegitimate means.

And Facebook executives, along with other Silicon Valley social media executives, have been dragged before the Senate Intelligence Committee as part of the Russia investigation and basically been forced to prostrate themselves before the Senate. So, Facebook has sort of been forced to take on the Atlantic Council. And to supposedly clean up its platform, the criteria for taking down sites is obviously arbitrary, but it’s all based around this idea of justifying it as Russian propaganda.

Now, if we go back to the weeks and months after Donald Trump was elected, the Washington Post ran a very suspicious story by Craig Timberg, who’s been kind of following the Russian meddling beat. And it was promoting a very shady website called PropOrNot. PropOrNot had introduced a McCarthyite blacklist of alternative sites that it accused of being Kremlin influence operations, including a site that I’ve written for, that I think you’ve contributed to, Ben, called Truthdig, which is run by Bob Scheer, one of the most reputable journalists in America. It’s a progressive website.

It also included Anti-Media, The Free Thought Project and some of the other anti-police brutality sites. So, there is a clear overlap between this shady, anonymous McCarthyite blacklist that was pumped out from the Washington Post, promoted on Twitter by Obama and Hillary Clinton insiders, and the takedown of these alternative sites by Facebook. We still don’t know who is behind that PropOrNot list, but the signs all point to a real attempt to suppress dissident media. And I know one of the people whose own personal Facebook pages, Rachel Blevins, she’s a former contributor to The Free Thought project, which is a libertarian site that has done a lot of anti-police brutality work.

Rachel Blevins is a real person. She has never spammed anyone. She hasn’t engaged in anything Facebook has accused any of these sites of, and she has lost 70,000 followers that she worked really hard for several years to amass. So, this is really the equivalent of taking a bone saw to alternative media, and we don’t know who’s going to get hit next. But it’s really disturbing, I think, for everyone I know who relies on these platforms to promote their alternative, independent sites.

BEN NORTON: David Greene, let’s go to you. You, as the Civil Liberties Director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have talked a lot about the attack on civil liberties, on media freedom in this country. And in the past several years, we’ve actually seen an increasing crackdown under the Obama administration. We saw the record imprisonment of whistleblowers. And then, under Donald Trump, we’ve seen the president himself call the media the enemy of the people, incite against journalists and even incite violence.

Facebook claims that these pages were not taken down because what they were posting, but rather because of their behavior, claiming that all of these pages and accounts were engaged in some kind of clickbait, ad farm to raise money instead of actually informing people. Many of the people behind these accounts, including someone who was actually interviewed by the Washington Post when he reported on this, said otherwise, said that they’re actually just trying to challenge mainstream narratives and voice their own political expression. Can you respond to what you think about this mass purge of personal accounts and pages on Facebook?

DAVID GREENE: Yeah and let me first say that I’m not an expert on this specific purge, but we do follow both Facebook and other platforms’ content moderation policies and their problems very closely. And I can say with great confidence that this is not an isolated problem, that this is a problem that’s inherent in their policies. I mean, we see it all over the world. We see dissident groups all over the world being removed from platforms. And usually, that’s done with pressure from a foreign government or from some other powerful force. I don’t know what the decision-making process here is by Facebook or any other platform. What we see is that they have set up systems for people to complain about content and for content to be removed. And those systems seem to be very easily gamed, again, by powerful forces, to target their detractors.

We’ve seen this in Morocco, we’ve seen this all over the Mideast, in parts of Europe as well. It’s very common in other parts of the world. So, what we have done in response to this is to really call on the platforms to adopt some set of standards by which they’re going to remove content and some standards that are consistent with international human rights standards. And very basically, these are things like transparency and due process, having people’s things not removed until they have an opportunity to respond to any challenges to them, just being very clear about what your standards are, why you remove people. Just really sort of basic structural reforms like that.

BEN NORTON: And David, several of the pages that were targeted were pages that monitored police brutality, such as Cop Block, pages that encourage citizen journalism to film the police. I’m wondering if you could talk, maybe it’s not just Facebook, but you could talk in general about how the crackdown on police transparency groups is part of this larger crackdown on alternative media.

DAVID GREENE: I mean, it’s really a great example of a group where there’s a powerful body on the other side and somewhat where I think the platforms feel a great amount of pressure to respond to. Because many times, they’re getting very legitimate complaints from law enforcement about illegal activity on the sites. And many times, and again, I don’t know if this is the case with any particular platform, but it’s fairly common for sites to have good relationships with law enforcement in order to respond to illegal activity happening on the site. And so, you see how that could very easily bleed over into other practices. And so, I’m not surprised.

One of the other things we see is that, as we have discussed, sort of the rush to try and respond to propaganda or false media reports has really led to some bad practices, at least bad from the human rights perspective, because sort of efforts that are being made to try and identify sort of reliable or established media sites are really going to lean heavily in favor of mainstream media, well-funded media, and lead against independent media people or non-mainstream organizations either that aren’t well-known outside of their specific subject matter, and also many who, because of what they do, need to report synonymously or anonymously. And that type of sort of anonymous reporting tends to be downgraded by metrics that try to identify reliability of media sites.

BEN NORTON: We’re going to take a brief pause in our discussion here and continue in part two. I’m joined by David Greene of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Max Blumenthal, an award winning journalist and the editor of The Grayzone project. We’re talking about social media crackdown on alternative media outlets and political expression and looking at Facebook’s mass purge of hundreds of accounts.

Join us here at The Real News Network for part two.