Editor’s note: I’m pleased to introduce Ghion Journal readers to Helen Buyniski, who I’ve been reading with great interest for some time. Known in particular for her investigations into the ideological underpinnings of Wikipedia and its propagating of various kinds of misinformation, Helen conducts her research in depth and pens her words with bite. I hope you’ll give her inaugural piece your undue attention.
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The neoliberal establishment is wringing its hands in the wake of European Union parliamentary elections that proved a resounding victory for populist parties across the continent. (For readers unfamiliar with what Member of the European Parliament do, here’s a quick primer). Almost immediately, the establishment has been casting around for someone to blame, but appears utterly incapable of realizing it’s their own interference with public discourse that has doomed them. Instead, they’ve doubled down on the censorship they’ve already been engaging in, and seem determined to provoke a catastrophe that could allow them to make free speech a thing of the past.
The Non-Governmental Organization (NGO)-industrial complex was operating at maximum capacity in the weeks leading up to the election, shutting down hundreds of Facebook pages they deemed “fake” or “hate speech” in the hope of controlling the messages reaching voters (before they made the terrible mistake of voting for candidates who actually represent their interests).
Led by the organization Avaaz, which claims to be a “global citizens’ movement that monitors election freedom and disinformation,” this well-heeled fifth column whipped the press into paranoid frenzies with reports like “Fakewatch,” which breathlessly documented 500 “suspicious” pages and groups it claims are “spreading massive disinformation.”
Avaaz, founded by a U.S. State Department alumnus and a former pro-war congressman, has consistently provided humanitarian cover to U.S. imperialism, supporting no-fly zones in Syria and Libya and pushing for “people-power” regime change in Iran and Venezuela; while the group’s attacks on corporate malefactors like Monsanto are laudable, they are mere window-dressing for its primary aim of advancing a (kinder, gentler) neoliberal hegemony. The groups targeted in Avaaz’s Fakewatch report have little in common other than their alleged “link[s] to right wing and anti-EU organizations,” a capital offense for the promoters of “democracy,” which can only be permitted where it doesn’t stray from the center-left path of most #Resistance.
“Far-right and anti-EU groups are weaponizing social media at scale to spread false and hateful content,” the study warns, gloating that after sharing its findings with Facebook, the company shut down an “unprecedented” number of pages on the eve of the election, 77 out of the 500, according to VentureBeat (which has credulously signal-boosted every utterance of Avaaz as if it’s divine truth from the Oracle of Delphi). Avaaz’s reports frame the problem as an affliction of the right wing only, even though disinformation is second nature to political operatives at both ends of the spectrum and, more importantly, the establishment sanctified center.
The Computational Propaganda Project, an Oxford-based research group, made no secret of its elitist leanings, declaiming that:
“On Facebook, while many more users interact with mainstream content overall, individual junk news stories can still hugely outperform even the best, most important, professionally produced stories.”
This positions the entire public discourse as if users have only a binary choice to consume either “professionally-produced” Oxford-approved material OR wallow in junk content. Mind you, it’s not that junk accounts don’t proliferate. Facebook’s own statistics do bear out the hypothesis that coordinated inauthentic behavior has surged. The site removed almost 3.4 billion “fake” accounts from October 2018 to March 2019, more than the number of actual real-life users.
But Facebook is not simply targeting fake accounts for takedown. Last Sunday, as Europeans prepared to head to the polls, Facebook froze the largest FB group used by the Yellow Vests to organize protests and share information, silencing its 350,000+ members at a critical moment in French politics. More than one group member, reduced to merely being able to comment on existing posts, pointed out that President Emmanuel Macron met with Facebook chief executive android Mark Zuckerberg three weeks earlier to discuss a first-of-its-kind collaboration in which French government officials are being given access to material censored from users’ newsfeeds.
This essentially permits the government to have direct control over what French citizens are allowed to see on social media. Facebook, then, is providing France with the same techno-authoritarian services it provides the U.S. government, in which Facebook will take on the burden of actually censoring dissent, thus skirting any pesky free-speech laws that might otherwise trip up a government that attempted to do the same.
Indeed, Avaaz focused on the Yellow Vests in its coverage of the French elections, complaining that RT France was getting huge quantities of views compared to native French media. Is it not plausible that this is because native French media have been doing Macron’s bidding and attempting to minimize these immensely popular protests? By framing RT as a perpetrator of “information warfare,” Avaaz was making a deliberate effort to have it de-platformed under one of Macron’s controversial police-state laws passed in 2018, by which any outlet spreading so-called “false information” can be gagged for three months leading up to an election. Yet Macron’s own interior minister, Christophe Castaner, lied on Twitter when he claimed the Yellow Vests had attacked the Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, and RT was in fact the first outlet to publish the truth about the incident. Who, then, is the disinfo agent?
When the European election results came in, Avaaz and its political allies in the neoliberal center could only gape in disbelief. Surely they had wiped far-right organizations like Italy’s La Liga and France’s Front National (now National Rally) from social media, salting the earth in their wake? How had these parties won? And what happened in Germany, where Angela Merkel’s centrist CDU performed worse than ever in European election history? Merkel could follow establishment suit and blame YouTube. 70 influential video stars put out a call to their followers to shun her coalition, after all, but the creators also called for shunning the far-right AfD, so the platform couldn’t credibly be demonized as a tool of what has histrionically become the ever-present Nazi Threat. That didn’t stop Merkel’s party from trying, of course. In the wake of their defeat, CDU party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer complained about online “propaganda” and promised to “tackle this discussion quite aggressively.”
But no, the populist parties won in large part because of the establishment’s unseemly embrace of fascist tactics, from the UK’s totalitarian information warfare, disguised as “protecting citizens”, or France’s visceral police violence, currently maiming protesters as if for sport. Europeans voted out of disgust for an establishment so insecure in its control of the narrative that it has sought to annihilate all signs of dissent, dismissing euro-skepticism as Russian astro-turfing and xenophobia, and plugging its ears to the legitimate grievances of its subjects.
While the far-right National Rally may have beaten Macron’s own version of jackbooted thugs, who in the past two months have hauled half a dozen journalists in for questioning by intelligence agencies for doing their jobs and publishing stories that embarrassed the regime, it should also be noted and underlined in neon that nearly half of French voters refused to vote for anyone at all, according to an Ipsos poll, and Germany’s leftist Green party mopped the floor with Merkel’s coalition among young voters.
Turning to look at the UK, the triumph of Nigel Farage’s Brexit party is similarly the product of a populace wrestling with cognitive dissonance, forced to realize that the “constitutional monarchy” they believed they lived in isn’t so constitutional after all, having jettisoned its democratic mask to cling to the EU under the guise of good old British pragmatism (as well as a terribly convenient gridlock). Even passionate Remainers are happy to see “Theresa Maybe” go, though it remains to be seen whether her successor will be any more inclined to honor the result of 2016’s referendum and actually take the UK out of the EU.
Meanwhile, the Guardian’s embarrassing attempt to shame Farage over a handful of appearances on the Alex Jones show (the paper claimed any reference to “globalists” and “new world order” were dog whistles for the dreaded “antisemitic conspiracy theories”) is an indication that establishment media is never likely to regain narrative primacy as long as alternatives exist, even bad ones. Jones, for all his flaws (and they are legion), has a massive audience; the Guardian, despite being propped up by the UK government’s Operation Mockingbird-esque “Integrity Initiative” (and the award for most ironic name ever goes to…), does not.
With the vast American election-fraud apparatus scrambling to prepare itself for 2020, now enabled by Pentagon-funded, Unit-8200-approved Microsoft “election security” software from the makers of the wrongthink-babysitter browser plugin NewsGuard, the U.S. ruling class seems poised to make the same mistakes as its global peers. Facebook, working hand in hand with the Atlantic Council, has banned and shadow-banned legions of anti-neoliberal activists over the past year, selectively applying (and inventing) new rules in an effort to keep popular content creators jumping through hoops instead of influencing the discourse. Facebook has been allowed its place of privilege because as a “private corporation” it is legally permitted to violate users’ free speech rights in ways the US government cannot. But if Facebook can’t deliver a victory for the “right guys” this time around, it will be punished. Indeed, a massive anti-trust probe appears to be in the offing, 14 years of Zuckerberg apologies notwithstanding.
The site learned back when it tried to roll out a “disputed” tag for “wrongthink” stories that people were actually more likely to click on those stories; it learned the lesson again when its hugely expensive Facebook Watch news show featuring Anderson Cooper flopped last year. Zuckerberg is on the record begging for government regulation; will Facebook and Twitter use the outcome of this round of elections as a springboard for further crackdowns?
YouTube already has. Thousands of creators found their channels demonetized and riddled with takedown notices this week in what has been dubbed the #VoxAdpocalypse after a pathologically whiny Vox blogger became the face of the mass de-platforming, but the censorship appears to be more of a response to Macron’s Orwellian post-New Zealand massacre “Christchurch call” to censor “extremism”, that ill-defined conveniently variable catch-all whose borders are perpetually expanding to engulf all inconvenient speech. Going further, this effort to police “extremist content” has been aided and abetted by the Anti Defamation League (ADL) as well, not merely by YouTube taking pity on a thin-skinned professional “victim”.
A sinister coalition of Members of European Parliament (MEPs), “civil society” groups, and the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity—a who’s who of war criminals, psychopaths, and oligarchs that includes Homeland Security ghoul Michael Chertoff, John “death squad” Negroponte, Ukrainian billionaire and media magnate Victor Pinchuk, and former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen—has already demanded “parliamentary inquiries into the impact of the use and abuse of technology platforms on democracy and elections.”
It’s no coincidence that several of these “election integrity” enthusiasts sit on the board of NewsGuard, which is currently trying to weasel into the EU’s Internet regulatory framework by playing up the “disinformation” threat. The blue-check intelligentsia has been trying for years to convince the hoi polloi that “conspiratorial” thinking is somehow detrimental to democracy. Former Obama labor secretary Robert Reich told Buzzfeed exactly that when he said:
“If we become a conspiracy society, we all carry around a degree of paranoia and that’s not healthy for democracy.”
But this divorces cause from effect, as if “conspiracy theorists” have formulated their theories out of whole cloth. As if there isn’t evidence for these theories piled knee-deep. As if once-trusted institutions haven’t proven themselves time and again to be as trustworthy as tabloid tales of Elvis risen from the grave. If paranoia is unhealthy for democracy, how is a media incentivized to lie, misdirect and obfuscate any better?
The current populist wave has been conflated with an uptick in “hate” in an attempt to delegitimize and demonize populist mobilization itself. Outside of groups like the ADL, whose statistics are easily debunked, there is, despite big public news events of hate-driven violence, no credible evidence bigotry is on the rise, but as an actual Nazi once said, tell a big enough lie often enough, and it might as well be real.
In some cases, it can even be argued that exacerbating hate is a genuine goal of establishment forces. Beginning around 2012, corporate media suddenly began a relentless flogging of the “white privilege” narrative in a seeming effort to fan the flames of interracial conflict. Political science doctoral student Zach Goldberg performed an analysis of several terms using the LexisNexis database and found evidence of heavy narrative manipulation—“whiteness” was mentioned in four times as many news articles in 2017 as in 2012, “white privilege” was mentioned ten times as often in 2017 as in 2012, and “racism” was mentioned ten times as often in the New York Times alone in 2017 as in 2012.
Yet even as the media has talked of little else, actual prejudice—by whites against non-whites, at least—has declined since 2008, according to a University of Pennsylvania study published last month. The FBI’s own statistics show hate crimes against most minority groups are on the decline. Because few European governments separate “hate crimes” from “normal” crime statistics, information on bigotry in Europe often comes solely from NGOs and “civil society” groups that rely for their funding on the perception that identity-based hate is on the march. While populists are capable of prejudice like anyone else, it is their defining characteristic—a prejudice against oligarchy—that motivates the exaggeration of hate churned out by the media.
Like many American voters who backed Donald Trump less out of sympathy with his reactionary nostalgia than out of disgust with a system that had used and abused them, many who backed Brexit and the European populists were similarly casting protest votes. And, ultimately, protest votes are cries for help from a disenfranchised populace.
These protest voters are motivated. The European elections boasted the highest turnout in decades, and the ruling class ignores the results at its peril. When the election ritual no longer satisfies a population’s need to feel it’s exerting its free will on society, we get such things as public hexings of political figures, with people reasoning that black magic may be more likely to solve their problems than voting. This is the same desperation that led someone like Arnav Gupta to set himself on fire in front of the White House.
Europeans have demonstrated unequivocally that they are sick of unaccountable dictatorship from Brussels, where European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, never one for sympathy with the little guy, sneers at the “populist, nationalists, stupid nationalists” who are “in love with their own countries.” The truth is, these voters are sick of being displaced from their homes by a seemingly endless tide of migrants, just as those migrants themselves are sick of being displaced from their homes by a seemingly endless tide of American wars and dominance over their economies. In turn, both groups are victimized by the IMF’s neoliberal austerity policies, epitomized by Juncker, who has done more than perhaps any one person to help Europe’s corporate “citizens” dodge taxes while nickel-and-diming actual human beings.
Instead of addressing these legitimate grievances, those in power on both sides of the Atlantic tighten the screws on online discourse (keep dissent out of sight, keep it out of mind). YouTube declares conspiracy theorizing to be a form of hate speech and even plays whack-a-mole with a documentary confirming everyone’s long-standing suspicions that “save-the-migrants” NGOs care a lot less about migrants than about exploiting ways to cash in on the desperate human tide. Big Tech promises to work even more closely with Big Brother to crack down on dissident speech, tarring its victims as Nazis while hoping no one will point out such collusion between state and corporations is one of the defining characteristics of fascism.
These measures are guaranteed to further radicalize the discontented. Deleting social media accounts does not delete the people behind them, and France has already proven that starving a protest movement of media attention only makes it angrier. The ruling class may welcome their rage, aiming to use the inevitable outbreak of violence to choke off the last avenues of free expression, but once the guillotines come out, it isn’t the masses’ heads that will be rolling in the streets.
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