This article accompanies NewColdWar’s dossier on internet and media censorship, providing background material for readers seeking to understand this new phenomenon. It shows that this has reached new and serious levels, details the techniques being employed, analyses their material causes, and suggests appropriate responses
Alan Freeman and Radhika Desai, editors, NewColdWar.org, 27 May 2018
What is internet censorship?
Internet censorship has arrived like the biblical thief in the night. Many did not see it coming and many even still treat it as a friendly visitor, welcome in the name of suppressing ‘Russian interference’, ‘trolls’ or simply ‘terrorist sympathisers’.
The substance of the trumpeted ‘regulation’ of social media is however becoming clearer by the day: it constitutes the unregulated, and unaccountable removal of entire, legal accounts with the social media giants (Google, Facebook, YouTube etc) at the behest of state authorities, without legal procedure or redress, combined with denial to readers of access these accounts, by either blocking users in entire regions from reading them or manipulating the secret and proprietary search algorithms through which internet users look for information and sources that they wish to find.
In parallel, mechanisms are being established to collaborate with mass media outlets in identifying, and suppressing, news that is arbitrarily designated ‘fake’, by means of the above devices and others.
These same mass media outlets are, however, identifiably themselves the source of highly dubious news, whose principal function is to defend state narratives that justify war and military intervention. What is being suppressed is, therefore, the public’s access to information that could obstruct the ease with which Western states can engage in war. As Hiram W Johnson, U.S. Senator for California (1917 – 1945) first said, the first casualty of war is always the truth.
Self-censorship – that is to say, compliance with censorship norms externally imposed – has also become widespread: journalistic standards are being abandoned to such an extent that political editors in the mainstream outlets do not even correct falsehoods when their own regulatory bodies call them out for it, while mainstream media cease to engage in or respect critical or investigative journalism as they once did, reducing their function to a simple repetition of the authorized establishment line.
Finally, the phenomenon is paralleled by the witch-hunting and demonization of sources, and political figures or movements who criticise, or provide an alternative to, these state and other establishment narratives.
Why is internet censorship wrong?
The fundamental drift and purpose of these developments has to be clearly recognised, because it is often misrepresented as an attack on freedom of speech – or even worse, welcomed as an attack on ‘fake news’.
The journalists and commentators whose accounts are censored are not being prevented from publishing what they have to say, since their websites as such are usually still standing. They are being prevented from reaching their readers. It is the readers’ rights that are being infringed, and since there are greatly more readers than writers, the scale of the threat to democracy is proportionately the greater. Internet censorship is an attack on the freedom of information. This right is enshrined in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights: of which Article 19 states that:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. (our emphasis: editors)
Thus, if a social media platform deliberately obstructs the ability of its users to seek information, literally by manipulating the search methods used to find it, this is a violation of their fundamental democratic right to be informed.
This manipulation has always been implicit in the social media business model; the platform gets its income from advertising, and the primary purpose of its algorithms is therefore to ensure that paying clients get their messages to the users, not to ensure that users get access to the information they want.
What is new is that this new technology is being handed on a plate, and without legal regulation, redress, rights of appeal, transparency or accountability, to state and political actors whose motives for messaging are qualitatively more sinister. Goebbels at least had to seize the mass media of his day; the new social media are voluntarily offering their masters a sophisticated and perfected new instrument for social manipulation.
Democracy depends on informed choice. A country which holds elections, but prevents its citizens from accessing information they need to make up their minds, is not a democracy. While the tradition of classifying and rationing information has always constituted a derogation of democracy, with internet censorship, these practices are reaching new levels.
The distinction between freedom of information and freedom of speech is rarely articulated, yet it is critical. Thus, while freedom of speech does need to be restricted on occasion – there is no universal human right to incite violent acts against innocent citizens, for example – freedom of information does not. Racists have no unrestricted right to disseminate messages and ideas whose effect or intention is to deprive citizens of their rights, yet these same citizens also have every right to know what the racists stand for and what their organisations intend to do. Indeed, this may well include the right to know things these organizations may try to keep secret. The state is no exception; the state has no general right to secrecy.
And for exactly the same reason, the citizen has the right to know what facts the state seeks to conceal, and which falsehoods it seeks to peddle, when it is inciting its citizens to commit violent acts, or endorse the commitment of violent acts, such as armed attacks on the populations of other countries, or when it is illegitimately promoting undeclared vested interests, such as those of arms manufacturers, financiers, extractive industries or producers of advanced technology, by wantonly inciting international tension, or demonising countries that legitimately seek sovereignty over their resources and their economies.
Censorship and demonization: two sides of the same coin
Stated in this manner, the right of access to information should be beyond denial in any power claiming to embody or advance democracy. Certainly, one would expect it to be vigorously defended by champions of liberal values.
Yet – and this is in a sense, more alarming than the direct action of state or corporate institutions – it is precisely liberal opinion that has been in the vanguard of promoting both media and internet censorship, as the articles in this dossier convincingly demonstrate.
This is done in two interlinked ways. The first comprises direct attempts to restrict access to the works of writers, researchers and political leaders whose views run counter to the interests of the state, especially as regards its desire to promote and defend narratives justifying war. The second consists of the demonization of those who question these narratives.
The articles in our dossier therefore also chart the illegitimate methods in widespread use among commentators to ‘rule out of court’ the testimony of writers with a large and substantial readership (in the case of @PartisanGirl, a reach of 60 million readers) by claiming that they are robots, Russian trolls, members of fanatical cults, supporters of terrorism or dictators, conspiracy theorists, or ‘useful idiots’.
The techniques include all those perfected under Senator McCarthy: guilt by association or denunciation, ascribing views not held (for example claiming or implying that anyone opposed to the April 22 missile strike on Syria is a supporter of Assad) and many more. The Mueller enquiry has provided ample scope for such further techniques as indictment for secondary offenses and extracting testimony through plea-bargaining. The common feature of all techniques is to discredit an individual, or more generally an entire body of people, so that to repeat, share, or disseminate what they say is to invite at best derision and social exclusion – and at worst, real material penalties such as job loss or exclusion.
The method has peaked most notably in the media treatment of Jeremy Corbyn but also especially evident in two worldwide discussions of claims that have directly or indirectly furnished the justification for war: that the Assad regime conducted a chemical attack in Douma on April 17, and the that the Russian state poisoned the Skripals in Salisbury earlier in the same month.
Interestingly, the main difficulty confronting such attempts at demonization comes from the increasingly open divisions in Western military, diplomatic and intelligence institutions at the highest levels. They were evident, for instance, in the doubts about the Douma evidence expressed by Lord West, Britain’s ‘First Sealord’ and hardly a Russian agent, or in the testimony offered by ‘Veterans and Intelligence Professionals for Sanity’ whose open letter questioning the Douma evidence is signed by a list of senior military and intelligence dignitaries which reads like a Congressional roll of Honour.
This has led to a third and final technique, which is the simple assertion of contested assertions as facts without even admitting that alternative views exist. When journalists routinely state that ‘Assad conducted a chemical attack in Douma’, or that ‘The Russians poisoned the Skripals’ or, indeed that ‘the Russian state interfered with the US elections’, they depart from all normal standards of journalism, because they portray unproven and legitimately challenged assertions as proven facts. In this way, the citizen is denied not merely the right to access alternative or critical viewpoints, but knowledge of the very fact that such alternatives exist.
The issue is not whether the claims are true or not, but whether the citizen is granted the means and the right to judge for herself – a further offence against both democracy and logic being the increasingly common assertion that even questioning evidence constitutes denial, and thereby support for the enemies of the state.
This is a truly Orwellian state of affairs; as Craig Murray (himself a former professional diplomat) notes:
For the FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office], I lived and worked in several actual dictatorships. The open bias of their media presenters and the tone of their propaganda operations was – always – less hysterical than the current output of the BBC. The facade is not crumbling, it’s tumbling.
Collapse of an imaginary world order: behind the drive to censorship
This concerted onslaught on liberal values is puzzling to many because of the central role of self-proclaimed liberals within it. The command centre of the attack on Jeremy Corbyn during the run-up to the election was not so much the right-wing press as the liberal Guardian newspaper in the UK. In the US, the demonization of all things Russian was spearheaded by the Democratic National Caucus and the allegedly liberal New York Times. In Canada, the liberal Globe and Mail could not even bring itself to admit the truth of the correct charge that Chrysta Freeland’s grandfather was a Nazi collaborator, let alone question the rationale for country’s military support to the Kiev regime.
It is tempting to conclude that the onslaught is itself an imperialist conspiracy, with links stretching down all the way from the heads of the US ‘Deep State’ to the newsrooms of the media, dictating what is said. Many critical bloggers and commentators – mistakenly, we believe – portray it this way. This has quite negative consequences in that it forces readers to judge between two rival conspiracies, neither of which can possibly be true. It adds to confusion, rather than dispelling it.
There are undoubtedly many mechanisms of state control of what the media does, and more general of the conduct of public intellectuals. However, to assign these a primary causal status is to make the same, and opposite mistake, as the demonizers of Putin. The central problem with the ‘demon Putin’ explanation, as ably explained by Boris Kagarlitsky, is that no single individual, least of all one whose function is to mediate many conflicting interests, has the power to animate the kind of conspiracy for which he is held responsible. ‘Putin did it’ narratives are, ironically, simply state-manufactured conspiracy theories with almost no explanatory value, because they ascribe, to an individual powers, that no individual can have, completely omitting the role of classes, corporate entities, elites, and bureaucracies. But equally, no single individual or group of ‘Deep State’ conspirators has the power to conduct or even orchestrate the process now under way among the liberal intelligentsia.
A more materialist explanation is required which understand the real historical forces at work.
A second, more plausible account rests on the valid point that liberalism has never truly been liberal: that it consists essentially and historically of a private club based on the defence of property, more savage in its responses to plebeian threats than radical in its challenge to corporate or state power. Domenico Lusordo’s masterful dissection of liberalism elaborates this masterfully.
This point, though valid, does not answer the fundamental question ‘why now?’ Why at this particular point in history, do we not find the type of courageous opposition to the Vietnam war that contributed in no small measure to the US public’s awareness of the moral outrage behind US involvement in that country? Why do we now find nominally ‘left-wing’ and ‘revolutionary’ groups whose origins lie in the anti-war mobilizations of the 1960s, gleefully egging on the most violent and reactionary state in the world to employ any and every means to pursue its national ends and impose its will on the world?
The answer, we suggest, lies in the weakness, not the strength, of the current imperial system. As Radhika Desai points out in Geopolitical Economy, the allegedly world-girdling hegemony of the United States – the idea that the ‘exceptional’ US state willing and able to run the world – is not ‘crumbling’ but never really existed. It was always more a myth and a desire of the ruling classes, akin to, indeed, descended from many older and longstanding illusions such as the Frontier Thesis or Manifest Destiny, rooted ultimately in the genocidal settler origins of the US state.
Ironically, such myths came to be promoted all the more vigorously after the alleged hegemony had ended in the 1970s with the closing of the gold window, defeat in Vietnam, rapprochement with China and Détente with the Soviet Union, and reached a peak under George Bush Jr. For those who subscribe to these myths, US actions take on a special and almost mystical character: they are intended to hold together, and effective at it, some kind of unified world order beyond nations which is the best of all possible worlds. This same vision is shared throughout the world by those sections of the intelligentsia in each nation that are most beholden to US material interests, and whose actual size and influence depends on the precise circumstances of their host nation – hence being especially virulent in the UK, for example, greeted with increasing unease in Germany, contested in a seesaw manner in Latin America, and more reduced in China or Russia.
Not only was the US never ‘hegemonic’, its relative power has been visible declining ever since it peaked when the world wars boosted the US economy while destroying those of its competitors and today it stands at its lowest ebb. The long economic stagnation of the US and the West in comparison with China, and the military setbacks to US plans in many regions of the world, have created a near existential crisis among the believers of the myth of US hegemony.
The more manifest US weakness becomes, the more bewildered the believers become. Their completely inability to predict, or understand, the Trump phenomenon, immediately followed by Jeremy Corbyn’s success, was perhaps the most obvious expression but many other things ‘went dreadfully wrong’.
How could China possibly be challenging and outclassing US economic growth? How could their chosen proxies possibly be losing in Syria? How on earth did the Donbass irregulars outclass and inflict a crushing defeat on the Ukrainian armed forces? How did North Korea, supposed to be a hopeless basket-case proof of Communism’s irrelevance, suddenly acquire nuclear capability? How did ‘obscurantist terrorist’ Iran become a competent modern regional state power? What on earth is happening in Venezuela?
Equally, how have the world champions of freedom and democracy ended up backing, funding, and utilizing as principal proxy a country like Saudi Arabia, in which there are no national elections, where beheading is the standard (and often employed) method of execution, which treats its internal enemies with savage barbarism and accords women almost no rights at all? What kind of state treats its citizens as the Israeli state does the Palestinians?
To those who grew up with, were nurtured on, or even accepted without ever really questioning it, the doctrine of western moral, economic and military supremacy, the world no longer has any rational explanation. Their entire way of thinking is crumbling. The liberal vision has turned upside down and its imaginary world has turned upside down.
What then is the answer? Conspiracy. This has become the near universal explanator in Western narratives. Since we, ourselves, cannot possibly be responsible for what is going wrong, the failures must be the fault of some nefarious demonic force. It is the work of terrorists, Putin trolls, lunatics, cultists, Islamic extremists or even simply the ‘stupids’.
Viewed in this light, the connective tissue joining the apparently disconnected acts of military threat, censorship, and the demonization of all critical opposition can be clarified. The opposition – those who question – are not merely ‘wrong’ but actively dangerous, either innocently as ‘useful idiots’ being manipulated by the evil trolls, or in more recent accounts as malicious in their own right, to be removed from discourse, excommunicated, silenced.
Rogue client states
Into this toxic brew, a third and decisive further element is now entering: the role of states such as Saudi Arabia, Ukraine and Israel, which the US and its European allies have either courted, established, or seized, to provide them with the means – or the excuse – to maintain their political or military domination over contested regions of the world, especially those in which the flames of resistance are being fanned by the chronic and now acute incapacity of the US state to support its clients economically. A. J. P. Taylor, in his masterly ‘History of Europe since 1848’ makes the astute remark that small client state can dominate the agenda of apparently larger and more powerful patrons because they can threaten the patron with collapse.
This accounts, for example, for the leverage of the ‘Israel lobby’ in the US or the far right Ukraine lobby in Canada, and before its overturn, of the abominable Apartheid regime in South Africa. It explains even to this day, the fact that the bigoted and antiquarian Orange parties of the North of Ireland still have the power to hold the British Conservative to ransom in its Brexit negotiations.
To be sure, the lobbies are helped in obtaining access to the media and the state by extensive émigré populations. But as many studies show, the majority of these populations actually oppose the policies conducted in their name – support for Israel among American Jews has fallen below 38% whilst there is no real love for the likes of the openly fascist Parubiy – feted by all Canadian parties as patriot and a national hero – among all but a small vociferous lobby in Canada.
The real explanation for the power of these lobbies is that the countries concerned are the weakest flank of US and European domination, and their collapse would leave a power vacuum into which contender influence would inevitably flow. Were Ukraine’s president – whose popular support at 6% must rank as one of the lowest in European history for a serving head of state – to fall, not only would the US lose one of its prize captures, but a chilling message would be sent to all its clients throughout the world: the US no longer has the strength to keep you afloat.
This not only lies behind some of the most virulent and dangerous attacks on freedom of information, but threatens to spin out of control because it allows a lunatic tail to wag an already rabid dog. The fact that the Ukraine economy is a basket case, and its government a kind of holiday campsite for the most openly Hitlerite forces seen in Europe since the last war, has to be repackaged as a story of heroic national resistance to the Russian invader; the massacre of thousands of unarmed Palestinians must be retold as a story of heroic little Israel’s defence against terrorism and the world anti-Zionist conspiracy, in ever more Orwellian inversions of reality.
The more tenuous the story, the more effort must go into suppressing or discrediting its critics,: countries still (as yet) a long way from fascism themselves are driven by the needs of their clients into the embarrassing position of whitewashing fascist forces and activities, covering up for those associated with them, and witchhunting those who threaten to expose the truth.
What is the intelligentsia and why it is losing its grip
Before assessing what can be done, we caution against conspiratorial or despairing responses. We are not living through a repeat of McCarthyism. It is the censors, not the censored, who are on the defensive. The new censorship is a sign of weakness, not strength; however, it can be combatted only by means of superior intelligence and a superior moral ground. In the first instance, we must understand the material forces behind it, what drives them, and where their weaknesses lie. Then, we must chart a better way.
The term ‘intelligentsia’, in this article, has a precise meaning . It refers to those professionals who earn their living through the management of opinion. This is the actual function of journalists, media professionals in general, outward-facing civil servants, the PR industry and corporate PR departments. Whilst in general it excludes educationalists, we suspect that a careful time-use analysis of today’s corporate universities, not to mention the content of its products, would reveal that opinion management consumes a rather substantial part of the time of its employees.
The success of an opinion manager, in simplest terms, is measured by her or his success in convincing people. Of course, if the thing they are convinced of happens to be the truth, this also leads to the spread of knowledge. But in the ratio that the incentives to the pursuit of knowledge displace those of manipulating public perceptions, the function of propaganda displaces the function of discovery. Intellectuals are as adept at inculcating a belief in false things as in encouraging the enquiry after truth. They possess the generic abstract rhetorical skill of persuasion. That is their special function in the modern division of labour.
It is as available for hire as the skill of murder. In the war of information, the intelligentsia are no more nor less than disposable mercenaries.
Their crisis consists in the simple fact that what they say is decreasingly believed. This first became evident in relation to austerity and neoliberalism, which as a body was portrayed by media professionals, academic gurus and political leaders from all parties as the road to well-being. After twenty years of it, credulity has been stretched to breaking point. This is not to say that its critics are possessed of a natural grasp of the alternatives: the point is that their own personal experience convinces them that what they are being told is not true. They may turn to the left, as with Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders, or they may turn to the right, as with Donald Trump, or the right wing figures increasingly dominating Europe’s political landscape. What they will not do is believe what the papers tell them.
This is compounded, especially in states facing significant military setbacks, by a war-weariness to which almost no section of the intelligentsia gives voice. The experience of Tony Blair’s ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ convinced millions of British people that they simply could not trust the excuses for war that their political leaders offered; this became clear when systematic attempts to brand Corbyn as – not to mince words – a traitor, fell on deaf ears, facing the British establishment with that most dangerous of figures, an opponent of austerity who also stood his ground as an opponent of war.
The intelligentsia is, in short, losing its grip.
In this context, a further, technological threat emerged. Until the internet and web publishing became a widespread phenomenon, the intelligentsia could essentially be controlled by monopoly power. To get a job as a journalist, one has always had to bow to the power of the press barons. With the rise of the internet, however, it becomes possible to disseminate alternative or critical views to an audience which is in principle without limitations of cost.
This has led to a further crisis of the mass media, as the Trinity Group takeover shows, reflected in the declining circulation of the popular press. This has had a double effect. It has compressed the resources available for genuinely investigative journalism, reducing the jobbing journalist to the function of ‘creating stories’ – rewriting messages supplied by Press agencies or simply state and corporate media machines and this, incidentally, increasing the power of these agencies who can punish a non-compliant source by excluding it from privileges of access. But it has converted the independent blogger into a genuine rival – a competitor capable of attracting the attention of the audiences whose job it is the journalist’s to sustain.
At a certain level therefore, the turn to censorship is a simple survival tactic: a panicked attempt to outlaw the competition. At a different level, it has supplied state and corporate actors with a readily-manipulated tool. It has created an unprincipled bloc made up of military and intelligence operatives, political leaders, media corporates and the threatened professional classes, dedicated to simply suppressing the competition. The turn to social media censorship is simply a logical extension of the activities of this bloc, by luring the most prominent independent internet corporates into a web woven by the threatened classes.
This in turn accounts for the extraordinary elitism of these classes; it has become almost common coin that people voted for Trump because they are ‘stupid’ or ‘uneducated’. An archetypical example is the comment on Ellon Musk’s very reasonable proposal to establish an alternative news source in which readers would judge the credibility of journalists, editors and publications:
you are the perfect example why the general public should never be given to opportunity to vote on Journalists. Way to[sic] many uneducated, uninformed or plain mor0nic [sic] people out there. Even the ancient greeks new that they had to shut them out for democracy to work.
The problem is not that readers are stupid; it is that they know sufficient, from their own long and frequently collective experience, that what they are being told is not true.
This does not, of course, mean that readers spontaneously know what the alternatives are. There is no basis for a kind of ‘people know best’ populism. However, first, the journalists certainly don’t know best, so the people are no worse judge than they; second, the ground basis of the elitism is the profoundly false notion that people are unfit to judge, when the alternative is properly presented. In this respect, the ‘people’ who voted for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the face of an press barrage of, essentially, mendacious lying, certainly did make better judgements than the media professionals.
There is thus no basis for the charge that the intelligentsia are failing because their audience is unfit to judge the. The actual material basis for the intelligentsia’s failure as a social function is this: always a mercenary caste, capitalism now presents them with the impossible task of persuading a large mass of people to believe things that are so contrary to experience and logic, that they are losing their power to convince.
It is against this background that the drive to censorship is taking place
Will it succeed?
Against the march of history, nothing prevails. This is a truism, since history is simply what happens. But it is important to recognise that great historical forces – the dissolution of the mystical US-run world order, the persistent economic failure of the advanced economies, the rise off China, and so on – are driving the processes we observe. They are a sign of weakness, not strength. This does not make them any less dangerous: Hitler, for example, was a product of weakness, a response to the rise of Communist influence in the face of the economic disaster that was postwar Germany in the last Great Depression.
And this indicates the key point: the measures being undertaken will not strengthen the hold of an enfeebled intelligentsia, or boost the waning hold of the traditional mass media. What it will do is strengthen the position of those with money against those without it. For anyone with the cash to set up a Fox News operation, or purchase the services of a Cambridge Analytica (of which there will be even more, since the algorithms, being secret, will leak and in so doing will become a very marketable commodity), it will be easy to present alternatives. These alternatives will be those that favour capital, and will add to the strength of far right forces. Ironically, though being promoted by liberalism as the answer to Trumpism, it is Trumpism that will benefit.
The key is therefore the capacity of the left to respond, and models of potential responses are already emerging. The most important and instructive response was that of the Corbyn election campaign, and many lessons are to be learned by studying its methods, which combined very effective social media techniques -in particular highly professional short videos and podcasts, oe-shot messaging, and so on – with the use of rather traditional but classically mass activities including, in particular, the spectacular mass rallies and meetings that punctuated the campaign, and above all with organised structures – both the constituency parties themselves, which were energised by the influx of over 400,000 people in a single year – and groups such as Momentum which captured this energy.
This demonstrates a second point, which space does not let us go into in detail: any systematic and effective counter to censorship requires organization. This is for future discussion.
The third point is the proliferation of informative and useful alternative internet sites – a very inadequate list is provided on our site and we will endeavour to keep it updated – which not only dissect, critically, the narratives of the official media but provide genuine news from sources, including sources on the ground, that contradict these narratives. This makes the censorship much harder and indeed, even increases the attention paid to alternative sources among people it provokes to think for themselves. This is why it is important to understand the present limits of the censorship as an attack on freedom of information and not principally (so far) freedom of speech. The alternative sites are not banned; they are prevented from being seen. If the left makes sure that they are seen, by sharing and promoting posts from each other, this will not succeed.
The fourth point is that the alternative news sources of state-financed media – RT, Telesur, Press-TV, Al-Jazeera, and others, do provide alternative accounts and importantly, also provide access to the official statements of the demonised. The significance of these sources is unfortunately misunderstood as a result of the success of the demonisers. Nobody sensible – and certainly not the Russian media – expects their readers to believe what Putin or Lavrov says, simply because Putin or Lavrov has said it. But anyone with an interest in truth should expect readers to take it seriously, judge it against its internal consistency and other sources of evidence, and make up their own mind, just as with any political or scientific proposition.
In order for this to take place, however, the readers must above all have access to the alternatives. The purpose of the censorship is to prevent them even hearing what is being said. The purpose of the left and of any defender of truth, must be to ensure that they do.