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Corporate-State Media: Lies and Propaganda
How Tech Monopolies, Legacy Media Corporations and the Government collude to censor the truth, spread misinformation and manipulate the population in the Twenty-First Century
The following work was submitted under a different title as a working paper for a PhD seminar three years ago after Facebook and Google orchestrated a coordinated campaign of mass censorship for the 2018 U.S. mid-term elections. The Marxist Professor leading that seminar called this working paper, “A nice piece of fiction.” Time has a way of always revealing the truth, but decide for yourselves Good Citizens. (Internal footnotes removed)
FROM LIBERATING INFORMATION TO INFORMATION ECHO CHAMBERS
In the 1990s the promise of the Internet in part was more ‘openness’ and its potential to ‘liberate information’, because engineers argued the Internet treats all websites equally. Over the subsequent decades a number of technological and legal factors proved the opposite to be true. Today the concentration of wealth, power and consumer attention with a handful of big tech monopolies means the promise of greater information and knowledge sharing is being drastically undermined as learning-algorithms that power recommendation-engines trap individuals in echo chambers, feeding them news and information that plays to their confirmation biases. Content platforms with news feeds and news aggregators like Google News rely on these algorithms for their ‘stickiness’ or ability to attract user attention and hold their attention for long periods by offering them information they will find appealing based on past recorded behavior.
For political news and information, this means content that users most likely agree with, or that agrees with their already-held views. Researchers found through A/B testing that users are less likely to click or engage content that challenges their views or forces them to question their already-held beliefs. These information silos, filter bubbles or algorithmic echo chambers lead to social conflict and unrest, as individuals are ideologically entrenched and rarely exposed to alternative view points or ideas. They become certain that the version of news and information they have been digitally fed is the truth, so terms like “fake news” take on different meaning for different echo chambers. Individuals, accustomed to living in a friction-less digital world that caters to their every whim become increasingly indolent at honing their media literacy skills by questioning sources or seeking out information that challenges them. When faced with other individuals, sometimes family or friends entrenched in different information echo chambers who challenge their version of news and events, they become befuddled, unstable or even hostile. This present-day method of news and information consumption, increases conflict and poses a threat to social and political stability.
Perhaps a greater threat to political and social stability comes from big tech monopolies, legacy corporate media and state-funded councils censoring news and information through blacklisting and banning individuals and groups deemed “dangerous” or “extremists” to protect the public from “harmful content” or “misinformation”. The irony seems lost on these self-appointed arbiters of truth: un-elected, unaccountable corporate monopolies and state-funded interest groups taking control of political debates happening in the digital public sphere is the real danger. The defense of big tech censorship is often delivered by ideological allies, happy to see Alex Jones systematically purged from all social media in a coordinated effort on the exact same morning. It also flows from free-market evangelicals, conservative or libertarian who argue that a private company has the right to censor and ban whomever they want. They argue that the first amendment protects Americans from government censorship which does not apply to private companies. All that may be true, however in a climate of monopolies there simply is no free-market or free-market conditions from which viable competitors can emerge, and only a handful of monopolies control the online public square where the majority of speech and expression occurs today. The story of how these powerful monopolies emerged to dominate the once “open” and “liberating” Internet is important to understand why they’re allowed free reign.
CREATING BIG TECH: ANTI ANTI-TRUST LEGAL HISTORY
In 1890 the United States Congress passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act to protect the marketplace and consumers from unfair business practices of industrial-age monopolies like Standard Oil. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act laid the foundation for U.S. government to investigate company business practices, block mergers, and generally impose regulations and economic protections for the American people. Though it took several more decades before it was common practice.
From the 1930s to the 1970s, when a major national problem presented itself, the federal government tried to solve it. That included reducing unemployment in the 1930s, winning the war in the 1940s, building the national infrastructure in the 1950s, fighting poverty in the 1960s, and confronting environmental and energy threats in the 1970s. It was taken for granted that major economic problems required policy leadership and federal engagement.
That all changed by the 1970s and 1980s with free market evangelicals rising to power during the Reagan revolution, where “government was declared the problem and not the solution to America’s economic ills,” and ushered in an era of mass deregulation and privatization of important industries while allowing corporate-funded special interest groups a seat at the legislative table to write policies, and regulate themselves.
The precise story of Big Tech monopolies precedes the Reagan revolution and can be traced back to legal scholar and Judge Robert Bork. “Robert Bork did more than any individual in the twentieth century to embed the libertarian free-market principals of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman into the heart of the American economic and judicial system.” During Bork’s term as solicitor general of the United States under Presidents Nixon and Ford, anti-trust filings against companies dropped substantially. After his tenure at the Justice Department Bork published a book that has shaped anti-trust law for the past thirty years: The Antitrust Paradox: A Policy at War with Itself. For Bork, the only issue that should ever concern regulators is whether consumer prices were falling. Jonathan Taplin argues that “Google, Amazon and Facebook are all monopolies that would be prosecuted under antitrust statutes if it hadn’t been for Robert Bork. From the Ford administration all the way through to the Obama White House, Bork’s principles as expressed in The Antitrust Paradox, encouraging mergers and calling for less regulation, have ruled the antitrust division of the Justice Department.”
With the continued climate of anti-antitrust ruling government and the system of lobbyists and corporate-funded elections, there is little hope that things will change. One of President’s Trumps few tech industry allies is venture capitalist and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who has stated that the goal of any tech startup should be to grow into a “unicorn”, a company valued at $1 Billion or more, and once a company reaches that goal they should endeavor to become a “creative monopoly” like Facebook or Google. For Thiel marketplace competition “...means no profits for anybody, no meaningful differentiation, and a struggle for survival” and “...it’s an ideology – the ideology – that pervades our society and distorts our thinking.”
LEGACY MEDIA CONGLOMERATES AND BIG TECH COLLUSION
The story of legacy media’s collusion with government is decades-old and well documented in Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. At the time one of their great concern was the concentration of information into fewer and fewer media companies, down to twenty-four by the early 1990s from several hundred two-decades prior. That concentration accelerated in the wake of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, signed into law by President Clinton. The act effectively “..undid the remaining barriers to media concentration in TV and radio and unleashed a wave of corporate mergers, creating the mega-media companies.” This century the number of media conglomerates controlling all news and information in the United States has stood at a mere five to six. At present there are five corporations that own and control the information that flows from all magazines, publishing houses, newspapers, radio stations and television networks.
Walt Disney Corp.
AT&T (Formerly Time Warner)
Information today is still filtered through Herman and Chomsky’s “propaganda model” of information dissemination by government and corporate powers and is still influenced by three of their five filters:
1) the size, concentrated ownership, owner wealth and profit orientation of dominant mass-media firms;
2) advertising as the primary income source of the mass media;
3) the reliance of the media on information provided by government, business and “experts” funded and approved by these primary sources and agents of power
The legacy media and their corporate allies in big tech are now officially self-appointed arbiters of truthful news and information. They have taken it upon themselves to determine what is “harmful” content, “fake news” or “dangerous” for the masses to consume. This self-appointment as information gatekeepers comes after a period where corporate media networks like CNN, MSNBC and establishment darlings The Washington Post and The New York Times have perpetrated some of the biggest conspiracy theories and lies, from Iraqi “Weapons of Mass Destruction” (WMDs) and more recently related to Trump-Russian election “collusion”. Their disinformation campaigns and outright smears are well documented. For three years they were happy to peddle conspiracies and propaganda as long is it fit their Russian “puppet” anti-Trump narrative and kept ratings high. In the wake of the Mueller report and its findings that the Trump campaign did not “collude” with the Russian government, viewers jumped ship and network ratings collapsed.
In the age of twitter journalism where the race to be first is fierce and costly to accuracy, corporate media takes a ‘shoot first, correct later’ approach to information dissemination. When they get a story wrong it’s usually too late for their target, often Trump or his supporters. Corrections or retractions, apologies or clarifications never get the traction and coverage as the original accusation or smear.
In 2018 the largest video sharing platform YouTube altered their search algorithm to only delivery legacy media results for searches related to news and politics. Hundreds of millions of people around the world who turned to YouTube for alternative news and information are now only receiving the same establishment filtered corporate news they canceled their home cable TV subscriptions to avoid. The first several pages of results will only return establishment-approved content produced by legacy TV networks, or any company owned by the big five media conglomerates. Due to a lack of public trust in legacy media this search algorithm change may have contributed to losses for parent company Alphabet of over $70 Billion in market capitalization.2 That’s the extent of loss these monopolies are willing to endure to keep information control in the hands of legacy media propagandists.
In mid-2018 Microsoft announced the addition of ‘NewsGuard’ as a browser extension for their edge browser. The product warns users when they are visiting the wrong news sites. For Microsoft the wrong sites include alternative media sources like conservative news outlets Breitbart, The Drudge Report and The Daily Mail, while progressive anti-establishment sites ShareBlue and The Daily Kos also get tagged. A red sign pops up warning users they might be exposed to information the corporate-state doesn’t approve. CNN, The New York Times and millennial-favorite cat blog BuzzFeed are given the green light as corporate-state approved. Interestingly the green vs red line is not ideological, conservative or liberal, but rather establishment and anti-establishment. Conservative National Review, a publication known for taking an anti-Trump stance by refusing to endorse his 2016 campaign, gets the green light from Microsoft.
On April 10, 2019 Facebook launched a new metric called Click-Gap to judge news pages on its platform. Facebook’s news feed algorithm will use external click data to judge where news stories will be ranked on its site. Along with YouTube, Facebook insist this will help fight “fake news” by giving higher ranking to “authoritative” news content that attracts high click traffic off of Facebook. “Authoritative” is big tech speak for corporate legacy media outlets. Critics of this new tool accuse Facebook of intentionally pushing corporate media sites with high traffic to undermine alternative media sources and to limit the possibility of upstart news sites from gaining any viable traffic on the social media giant, effectively destroying corporate media’s competitors in the womb.
GOVERNMENT AND CORPORATE-FUNDED COUNCILS
The Atlantic Council is a well known corporate-state funded organization with deep ties to the U.S. military industrial complex. Sources of their funding include nearly all branches of U.S. military, the State Department, numerous defense contractors, NATO, The EU, British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and more recently a top donor includes Facebook. Top-level employees at The Atlantic Council include former corporate executives, former high-level government officials and politicians. It’s a revolving door institution for corporate-state power brokers, agenda setters and policy makers.
On May 17, 2018 Facebook announced a partnership with The Atlantic Council’s ‘Digital Forensic Research Lab’ in order to “...prevent our service from being abused during elections” and to “protect free and fair elections around the world.” Those “protection” efforts were unleashed three weeks prior to the mid-term U.S. elections of the same year, when Facebook purged over 800 sites and pages from its platform on a single night. This followed a similar size purge of sites and pages in August. The October purge included many political sites, both left and right leaning, but all sharing one common attribute – they were anti-establishment alternative media pages that included the ‘Free Thought Project’ which had amassed over 3.1 million followers over the previous five years. Others included the progressive site ‘Anti-Media’ with 2.1 million followers and multiple conservative sites of triple amputee veteran Brian Kolfage who had amassed over 10 million followers through all his pages, one of which was his coffee company ‘Military-Grade Coffee’ that donated 10% of profits to veterans’ groups. In response to the mass censorship Anti-Media tweeted, “The purge of alt-media is upon us.”
For two years corporate-state power brokers incessantly warned about “Russian interference” and “Russian meddling” in the 2016 presidential election, while simultaneous targeting domestic alternative media sites and individuals to purge from social media prior to the mid-term elections.
Facebook deems these purged pages guilty of “coordinated inauthentic behavior”. This is the new all-encompassing Orwellian term many big tech monopolies have adopted to justify purges and censorship. It’s clear it doesn’t matter what that term means despite attempts to understand and interpret it from their statement. What is clear is that it’s an intentionally bizarre and subjective term invented so they can, as with their terms and conditions and “safety policy”, selectively apply it when and where they’re told by their corporate-state partners like The Atlantic Council.
Across the Atlantic Ocean online censorship has become a matter of deliberate legal policy in many EU nations where first amendment protections are non-existent. The EU has implemented several misguided laws including the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) law of 2016 which led to massive blackouts of foreign websites inside the EU, including the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, who simply refused to reform their business paradigm of data collection for advertisement targeting. The arrogance and ignorance of EU bureaucrats is on full display anytime they attempt to regulate the Internet.
Articles 11 and 13 of the 2019 EU Copyright Directive are even more misguided and harmful. Both will lead to more censorship and less transparency and give more power to already dominant tech monopolies like Google and Facebook who can afford limitless transgressions by simply paying fines or programming algorithms to identify and remove potentially infringing content without close examination to context or purpose. Taking an overly-cautious approach to copyright infringement will effect individual social media users and alternative media companies who will find their content blocked, banned or wiped clear of their platforms.
BREAKING THE CYCLE OF CENSORSHIP AND INFORMATION CONTROL
Looking to western governments to solve these numerous issues of censorship and corporate-state information control may be a fool’s errand, but what might meaningful government intervention look like? In the United States it would require the end of complete and open corporate-political corruption for starters. Politicians would have to come to the realization that these monopolies of information and digital content could adversely effect their re-election chances, swinging the vote in one direction only. Legislative changes would require amending Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act so big tech companies have the same liabilities as publishers and are no longer free from legal immunity.
A more preferable legislative solution would be the passing of an Online Bill of Rights Act that protects the speech and published content of all online platform users. The law would force social tech platforms large and small to permit all speech and news and information without being subject to arbitrary and selective “hateful speech” or “hateful conduct” policies. Individual users can already hit the mute or block button on individuals they might find “hateful” or choose not to navigate to offensive or “hateful” content. An open and free field of expression and ideas would be the ideal for all users. Penalties would have to be severe for violating this law, including the forced shutdown of any social media platforms that engage in censorship or blacklisting, or even algorithmic shadow banning. Fines would not suffice, as the EU has resorted to this tactic and it shows no sign of affecting change. That big tech’s control of the online marketplace of ideas and information is so vast and powerful should be impetus enough for legislatures to act and pass an online bill of rights. Big tech companies intentionally choosing the path of censorship and blacklisting should have already been the final straw. That legislatures have done nothing, shows the levels of deep-rooted corruption, and the climate of zero regulations permeating in the halls of American power.
The most promising solutions to the problems of data-veillance and censorship may come from new and emerging technologies such as decentralised and distributed networks which have great promise in giving users complete control and ownership of their data and in the case of social media activity, their private lives. Without centralised actors like governments, boards of directors or corporate executives, decentralised or blockchain-based networks built upon emerging network development technologies like Ethereum, Cardano or Tezos to name just a few of the more popular and expanding companies and foundations of the day, may hold the key to restoring the original promise of the Internet – to allow the free flow of information without gate keepers and “eliminate hierarchy in communications.” They will certainly draw the ire, contempt and retribution of governments and centralized Silicon Valley competitors, and that only solidifies their likelihood of leading us out from the shadows of the present Internet dark age.
*Original internal footnotes have been removed. Several left-leaning sources were intentionally chosen over others in an attempt to appeal to the Professor’s ideological disposition…to no avail.
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