2020-11-26

On Internet Censorship and Mainstream Propaganda, Substance and Image in Domestic and International Political Power

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by Neil Godfrey

I still recall those early days of the internet when it was said to be in some sort of “wild west” stage of development, when we could talk about it being a great democratizing medium . . . but now, in this interview with Glenn Greenwald, the focus is on the new reality of censorship and the forces behind that censorship.

Also of interest: the role of progressives like Bernie Sanders and AOC in the Democratic Party; looking beyond styles to a comparison of what was actually done by the Obama-Biden administration in contrast with Trump’s term; how the different styles have real significance for US power relationships in the world and the perpetuation of wars and harsh treatment of refugees; . . . .

 

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Neil Godfrey

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15 thoughts on “On Internet Censorship and Mainstream Propaganda, Substance and Image in Domestic and International Political Power”

    1. A Man for All Seasons (1966 film)

      [Thomas More>>>] And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast- man’s laws, not God’s- and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

    2. Also: All the weapons marshaled to stamp out ‘fake news’ are very handy for and for spoon feeding propaganda to the masses.

      • LaFrance, Adrienne (December 2020). “Facebook Is a Doomsday Machine”. The Atlantic.

      The website that’s perhaps best known for encouraging mass violence is the image board 4chan—which was followed by 8chan, which then became 8kun. These boards are infamous for being the sites where multiple mass-shooting suspects have shared manifestos before homicide sprees. The few people who are willing to defend these sites unconditionally do so from a position of free-speech absolutism. That argument is worthy of consideration. But there’s something architectural about the site that merits attention, too: There are no algorithms on 8kun, only a community of users who post what they want. People use 8kun to publish abhorrent ideas, but at least the community isn’t pretending to be something it’s not. The biggest social platforms claim to be similarly neutral and pro–free speech when in fact no two people see the same feed. Algorithmically tweaked environments feed on user data and manipulate user experience, and not ultimately for the purpose of serving the user. Evidence of real-world violence can be easily traced back to both Facebook and 8kun. But 8kun doesn’t manipulate its users or the informational environment they’re in. Both sites are harmful. But Facebook might actually be worse for humanity.

  1. I like the academic title here.

    Just being able to write such a title, is half the game.

    Though in academic language – as in religion – there is that element of deliberate, self protective obscurity?

    1. Though in academic language – as in religion – there is that element of deliberate, self protective obscurity?

      Okay, I’ll bite. Elaborate.

      (Sorry about the title — it was a very rushed thought.)

      1. Well, academic articles don’t take sides, so I guess that’s good. Though I’ve been in politics lately. And admit to backing a liberal program pretty openly these days.

        Though both sides might almost be accused of “propaganda,” I see Trump as much worse. As you at times hint?

        1. Ah yes. The interview raised several questions that challenged some of the views I had been leaning towards. It is one of those interviews that invites me to listen to it over again and then follow up with more reading that explores “side-issues” I had not thought through very deeply before, or had dismissed for one reason or another. Not living in America makes it harder for me to know just how skewed my perspective is, too. I thank Greg for his comments disagreeing with some parts of what emerged in the interview. I am still unsure where I will finally settle on some of the ideas raised. (Though if I were going to “finally settle” on anything I think I would have done so long before now.)

  2. I think I have a disagreement here. What is being called censorship on Facebook is other words for moderation. I do not see it obviously morally to be condemned nor illegal for a private internet entity to exercise moderation or editorship over what it permits to be published on its platform, provided there is internet neutrality and access to internet infrastructure itself by any who choose to use it. As a personal preference, on balance I prefer some moderation in the internet entities with which I engage. There is no legal or moral right to demand a private internet entity, any more than a print newspaper, to publish any letter or article submitted no matter how offensive. One can call that–editorial discretion or moderation–censorship, but that is not censorship in the American First Amendment sense which would be state suppression or control over an alternative newspaper’s or website’s publication. I think the issue with Facebook is complicated in that two other factors are at work aside from that basic issue: as Greenwald says Facebook began with a vision of being content-neutral (no moderation) and has changed, and the change in itself of expectations and practice is part of the flashpoint, even though it is in principle both legal and justifiable. The other issue is Facebook’s (and other corporate media behemoths’) size, privately-owned and huge, but that is a distinct issue, perhaps to be addressed by antitrust legislation. The notion of keeping Facebook at its huge size and then somehow having state regulation prohibit Facebook from exercising internal moderation policies over what its owners deem offensive or unwanted (in the name of prohibiting censorship aka editorial discretion/moderation)–THAT would be a slippery slope toward actual state regulation/censorship/control of content of a free press and free websites, it seems to me.

    The other matter upon which I disagree with the interviewer and Greenwald (who has been so admirable otherwise) is the criticism of Bernie Sanders for working within the Democratic Party. Although I was a passionate Nader voter in 2000 I have changed perspective since then on this issue. In one-party states typically the most opportunity for democratic processes occurs in the party’s internal nominating process. America is not one-party but two-party (not formally and legally but in overwhelming momentum and tradition and reality), which is only slightly less monolithic. In America real democratic processes, such as exist on the national level, occur in the primaries. If one’s values and candidates cannot succeed in the nomination process in the primaries, that is where battles are won or lost and after that, there is nothing left to do but pick the relatively better or less-bad of the two candidates/parties in the general. Third parties in my view should by policy not run candidates in elections which are not winnable, which means only selectively going local and building up, not running national candidates at all until such time as it is viable and winnable. Third parties on the national stage in competition with the major parties, which always has the completely predictable outcome of peeling off vote totals from the one of the two parties which is closest to, rather than farthest from, the positions advocated by the third party (which in the domestic sphere has real consequences, as Chomsky says, small differences domestically have large consequences for millions of people)–I see now as kamikaze logic. The interviewer’s logic of opposing or not voting Democratic in an election against Trump comes across to me as left Germans ca. 1930 focusing on criticisms of the Weimar Social Democratic Party so should be sympathetic to voting for insurgent National Socialists since it is the voice of the people and “serves them [e.g. hated Clinton Democratic establishment] right”. Social Democrats who saw their party as corrupt should work as hard as possible to fix their party (unless there was a quantum-mass level of support to all at once form an instantly leading new party, which is rarely on the horizon as doable)–not give aid and comfort to insurgent National Socialists. I also disagree with another notion sometimes encountered on the left, that things have to get worse before they get better, and therefore voting for the worse of two parties is a good thing to more rapidly bring about a better world. That is a secular equivalent of fundamentalist Christian apocalyptic logic and equally disastrous as I see it.

    But back to Facebook. I don’t have a problem with Facebook exercising moderation of content over what goes out over its platform in principle. I have problems with non-public-interest corporate behemoths’ size, but that is a distinct issue.

    On issues of actual hate speech and incitement toward horrible things with words, that should not have unlimited freedom even in alternative press and websites either as I see it, but should not be controlled by the state either; there I see no other less-bad alternative than on analogy with how “offensive porn” has traditionally been regulated–by juries who know what is offensive when they see it, community standards. That has its own problems but I see no other alternative in principle to genuine issues of hate speech that is not worse.

    The interviewer also kept repeating a claim that was just puzzling–that the CARES Act (the covid stimulus relief package passed in the US last spring) was a massive transfer of wealth upward and he criticized progressives such as Bernie for voting for it. It seems to me the CARES Act may have been creation of more wealth at the top end than at the low end but it also did much and was significant in the direction of a “guaranteed national income” idea at the bottom end, so I do not see it in the obviously negative terms that the interviewer does. The interviewer’s claim that people on the bottom level who are suffering–which is major and real in America at this time–are there BECAUSE of the CARES Act strikes me as nonsensical. It is like saying hunger issues in America have been caused by the Food Stamp program, or by local Food Banks. It just makes no sense. This interview did not strike me as one of the more rational presentations, frankly.

    1. Greenwald says Facebook began with a vision of being content-neutral (no moderation) and has changed…

      In a “free market system” people can choose a different vendor.

      “Parler: the social network that’s winning conservative recruits”. the Guardian. 13 November 2020.

      Parler is a Twitter-like social media app launched in 2018 by John Matze, who is still its chief executive officer. A user can post text or images, which other users can then comment on, give a vote of approval, or “echo”, which appears to be the Parler version of a retweet.

      Unlike Twitter, it appears to not offer a “discover” page or “trending topics” – instead you have to seek out and search for the accounts you want to follow.

      There are supposedly only two rules on Parler: first, no posting anything unlawful and two, no spam. Parler “does not remove content based on politics or ideology”, the company said in a statement, and is “dedicated to free speech”. . . . The content posted primarily leans to the right, with many users stating they joined because Twitter would not allow them “free speech”…

      “Conservatives are flocking to a new ‘free speech’ social media app that has started banning liberal users”. NBC News. 3 July 2020.

      Parler’s free speech stance goes only so far. The platform has been banning many people [i.e. liberal users] who joined…

    2. Thanks for the feedback. Questions are raised that I am still in the process of thinking through.

      One thought: for a platform to be a “content-neutral” public service then it must be publicly funded and answerable to the public, usually through an accountable statutory authority.

      1. for a platform to be a “content-neutral”

        As I understand this concept needs to be split into two categories:
        1) Bandwidth vendors.
        2) Content providers.

        • Bandwidth vendors should be neutral about the contents of data packets they transmit. No distinction should be made between transmitting a data packet from Netflix or Hulu or Skype server.

        • Content providers of interactive computer services (including social media providers) who are typically immunized (https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R45650.pdf p.2), both for certain decisions to host content created by others and for actions taken “voluntarily” and “in good faith” to restrict access to “objectionable” material —should be neutral about the content of hosted user content.

        1. The 1) internet overall might be neutral. But 2) as its own business, somewhat like a newspaper editorial, Facebook might not need to be.

          Especially 3) when facing someone many consider a neo-Nazi racist president?

          1. The concept of Facebook as a newspaper editorial is false.

            Rather Facebook would prefer to claim that they are a neutral platform that enables every user to publish their own newspaper editorial.

            1. Interestingly, 1) Trump himself insisted on internet censorship, monitoring. In his very biased attempt to allow or create more pro-Trump content.

              But 2) in ironic compliance, recent Twitter practice , in answer, has been to restrict anyone – especially a president – who spreads objectively or scientifically false and dangerous misinformation. Particularly during a plague.

              So if we HAVE to restrict Internet things somewhat, as Trump suggests, which of these two programs seems best?

  3. Another cautionary tale: What if Recep Tayyip Erdoğan demands from Facebook and Twitter a list of users who have criticized him and then purges them?

    • “Turkey sacks 15,000 education workers in purge after failed coup”. The Guardian. 20 July 2016.

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