“It should be possible for computers to detect malicious, misleading, and incorrect information and essentially have you not see it. We’re not arguing for censorship. We’re arguing, just take it off the page, put it somewhere else.” Eric Schmidt, Google
In the summer of 2014, Buzzfeed published “Documents Show How Russia’s Troll Army Hit America,” which exposed the Internet Research Agency through a group of leaked e-mails. “Definitively proving the authenticity of the documents and their authors’ ties to the Kremlin is, by the nature of the subject, not easy.” is a direct quote from the article. A year later, Google transferred Steve Grove from its You Tube division to start Google News Lab, because “We believe in Google’s capacity to be a positive force in helping journalists strengthen digital storytelling and produce more in-depth reporting.” News Lab sees itself “as the voice for journalism inside Google — to ensure that the interests, needs and concerns of journalists are surfaces and reflected in the products and services we offer as a company.” News Lab intends to help fuel innovation in journalism through research and training in four areas: trust and verification, data journalism, immersive storytelling, and inclusive storytelling. Steve Grove, the director, worked for ABC before Google, and Matt Cooke, News Lab Lead, UK, Ireland & Nordics, is from the BBC. Other leaders and managers come from NPR, CBS, China Daily and many other mainstream news organizations and were educated mostly at U.S. journalism and engineering schools. Currently there are a number of training sessions and tools offered by News Lab and it is partnered with most of the mainstream news outlets including CNN, ABC, MSNBC, BBC, NY Times, Reuters, AP, etc., etc., and several journalism schools like the University of Pittsburgh, CUNY, University of Colorado, and the University of Texas at Austin. Google was described in a recent article as the world’s largest surveillance organization, which I believe is accurate.
The “truth and verification” part of the mission is handled by the First Draft Coalition “started in 2015 with seven social media verification organizations to create standards and best practices in the news industry for verifying eyewitness media content and combating fake news.” The seven social media verification organizations include one that offers tools like an image checker that apparently can show when the image first appeared on social media and a tool that can detect if an image has been edited, and one organization that offers translation services, but most seem to offer “user generated content.” They search social media for photos, videos and comments that mainstream media and advertisers can use. It looks to me like the main verification they do is to verify the ability of commercial use with no liability. Storyful, for example, is proudly “contextualizing social data and content to deliver opportunities for media and brand partners.” Its director is the former head of sales for Australia News Corp, and the head of news was formerly at AOL’s Huffington Post. Paired with its global team of journalists, research analysts and content strategists are partners Coca Cola, ABC News, AT&T, The Sun, and NHK, among many others. One of First Draft Coalition’s founding partners is Emergent, which claims to be devoted to crowdsourcing the fact-checking of fake news, though its logo says it is a real-time rumor tracker. I saw nothing on the site that didn’t fit the description of rumor, or that did fit the description of news, fake or otherwise. The founder and head of Emergent is Craig Silverman, who is also media editor for the website BuzzFeed mentioned in the previous paragraph. Using documents which, by the nature of the subject, are not easy to authenticate as the source for an article with a headline that purports to show anything, much less the existence of a Russian Troll Army, is hardly my idea of innovative journalism. It is, rather, boldly introducing to digital storytelling the same bullshit we’ve been getting in the analog realm since Mr. Hearst was alive, at least.
Right after the Democratic convention Twitter began “hiding” tweets related to the Podesta e-mails and the DNC e-mails. According to their recent congressional testimony, they were successful at hiding about 25% of the Podesta related and 48% of the DNC related tweets. Many of the tweets were automated from Wikileaks’ account and Twitter justified their removal as automatic spam detection filtering, though the testimony gives examples of beneficial automated tweets that Twitter itself uses. Other tweets from the Wikileaks account were also blocked. If the leaked (oops, hacked) e-mails were as influential as Mrs. Clinton claims, does the fact that Twitter hid them mean that Twitter interfered in our election and cost Trump his landslide ?
After the election Jeff Bezos’ personal spokesperson, The Washington Post, ran an article that sparked the fake news furor. It was mostly sourced to Prop Or Not, a website run by anonymous “experts” with a blacklist of some 200 sites the experts had determined were involved in fake news. The lack of any description of its methodology makes it very difficult to understand why particular sites were chosen, but almost every site I rely on regularly for news and political opinion was on the list. The front page article had just two sources, the anonymous Prop Or Not and Clint Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute who has become the star of Russiagate testimony lately and who I wrote about in part 3 of this epistle. March of this year saw the announcement by Google’s First Draft Coalition that it was funding a new project called “A Field Guide To Fake News.” According to First Draft’s director, Claire Wardell, late of Storyful, “Next week the team are bringing together multiple researchers to collaborate on mapping the misinformation ecosystems across Europe, with a particular focus on the Netherlands, France and Germany, because of upcoming elections.” Just as an aside, I think it’s interesting to note that neither French or German intelligence were able to find any evidence of “meddling” in the elections.”As the researchers stated in their proposal to us, they want to: enhance public understanding of the scope, nature and composition of fake news phenomena in multiple European language spheres; generate lists of actors and sources making up fake news ecosystems in multiple European language spheres; and equip journalists, researchers and activists with techniques to trace these phenomena using leading digital tools and methods.” This sounds like crowdsourcing blacklists to me, especially considering how the groundbreaking work of the previously mentioned Craig Silverman and Buzzfeed are praised in the announcement.
From an article in Fortune this April, “Google announced changes to its search algorithm Tuesday that will combat the dissemination of “fake news” and conspiracy theories through new ways to report inaccurate information.The technology giant will change its search rankings to “help surface more authoritative pages and demote low-quality content,” a company executive said in a blog post. This feature aims to prevent issues like the Holocaust denial results that Google saw in December — which placed an article from a neo-Nazi white supremacist website at the top of search results.” Almost immediately, websites from the Prop Or Not website blacklist began noticing precipitous drops in their viewers, ironically thanks to Google’s own statistical tools. Truthdig, which hosts Chris Hedges, is run by Robert Scheer who became famous for editing Ramparts magazine during the Vietnam era, and is a professor at the Annenberg school of journalism at USC. Scheer received the 2010 Distinguished Work in New Media Award from the Society of Professional Journalists, and in 2011 Ithaca College named Scheer the winner of the Izzy Award for outstanding achievement in independent media. Truthdig is also winner of multiple awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Los Angeles Press Club; its viewers dropped by about 55% after the Google algorithms were changed. Hedges has recently claimed that Google is shifting inquiries from sites like Truthdig and The Real News Network to sites like the New York Times and CNN; in the name of fighting fake news and fascism.
On June 15, Facebook published “Hard Questions: How We Counter Terrorism,” in which Facebook explains how it uses artificial intelligence to keep terrorist content off Facebook, and how it works with partners outside the company. Artificial intelligence is used for image matching (I imagine evidence like Chelsea Manning leaked), language understanding (Snowden, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo), and removing terrorist clusters — accounts linked to known terrorist accounts (Wikileaks has been called a hostile intelligence service and has millions of followers.) “Human expertise” includes “Our community — that’s the people on Facebook — helps us by reporting accounts or content that may violate our policies — including the small fraction that may be related to terrorism; “Terrorism and safety specialists” presumably the likes of Clint Watts and the gang from the Alliance for Securing Democracy; “Industry cooperation: In order to more quickly identify and slow the spread of terrorist content online, we joined with Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube six months ago to announce a shared industry database of “hashes” — unique digital fingerprints for photos and videos — for content produced by or in support of terrorist organizations.”; Governments; Encryption (targeting people who don’t want their information swallowed); and Counterspeech training — “we’ve partnered with NGOs and community groups to empower the voices that matter most.” NGOs like Reporters Without Borders, no doubt, who recently pressured the Swiss Press Club to cancel a presentation critical of the controversial (though not in the mainstream media) White Helmets.
This is from Propublica writing about leaked rules Facebook uses: “While Facebook was credited during the 2010-2011 “Arab Spring” with facilitating uprisings against authoritarian regimes, the documents suggest that, at least in some instances, the company’s hate-speech rules tend to favor elites and governments over grassroots activists and racial minorities. In so doing, they serve the business interests of the global company, which relies on national governments not to block its service to their citizens.The company recently pledged to nearly double its army of censors to 7,500, up from 4,500, in response to criticism of a video posting of a murder. Their work amounts to what may well be the most far-reaching global censorship operation in history. It is also the least accountable: Facebook does not publish the rules it uses to determine what content to allow and what to delete.”
In August, YouTube (owned by Google) started deleting videos that purported to show evidence of war crimes in Syria. In November it deleted 50,000 videos by and about Anwar al-Awlaki, the muslim cleric killed by a US drone though never charged with any crime. Not much outcry over this violation of free speech from supporters of Charlie Hebdo, of course, and praised by the New York Times as a “watershed moment.” This month Google announced it was hiring 10,000 more censors for You Tube.
When Facebook and Twitter were being raked over the coals by congressional committees for not realizing sooner that their platforms were being used by Russian trolls, they both claimed that, even though initial investigations failed to find anything substantial, information provided by third parties helped them eventually identify the Russian propaganda. Considering that one of the advisers for the Alliance for Securing Democracy is Nicole Wong, chief technology officer in the Obama administration, Google’s vice president and deputy general counsel, Twitter’s legal director for products, and Democratic National Committee Cybersecurity advisory board member, I’d be happy to speculate on who the “third party” was.
In the last few weeks, CNN,CBS and MSNBC, who are all partners in the First Draft Coalition (and so coached and helped in truth and verification) published articles claiming that Wikileaks had sent Trump and members of his campaign e-mails with an encryption key and link to a web page with leaked DNC e-mails on September 4th, before they were made public. This was the smoking gun proving collusion between Trump and Wikileaks, and so, Russia. The e-mails were actually sent by Wikileaks on September 14th, after they were published. Bellingcat, “an award winning group of volunteers and full time investigators” and one of the founding partners of the First Draft Coalition, has pushed a number of stories about the alleged sarin attack by the Syrian government. “Did Russia Accidentally Provide the Best Evidence of the Syrian Government’s Involvement in Sarin Attacks?” from November 13 is an example. All of the stories rely heavily on the UN’s OPCW-UN-JIM report without ever mentioning that the report is highly controversial. Investigators didn’t actually visit the site, for example.
I don’t think we’re dealing with an attempt at truth and verification, but an attempt to enforce conformity.
From the World Socialist Web Site August 2017:
“A growing number of leading left-wing websites have confirmed that their search traffic from Google has plunged in recent months, adding to evidence that Google, under the cover of a fraudulent campaign against fake news, is implementing a program of systematic and widespread censorship. Truthout, a not-for-profit news website that focuses on political, social, and ecological developments from a left progressive standpoint, had its readership plunge by 35 percent since April. The Real News , a nonprofit video news and documentary service, has had its search traffic fall by 37 percent. Another site, Common Dreams , last week told the WSWS that its search traffic had fallen by up to 50 percent. As extreme as these sudden drops in search traffic are, they do not equal the nearly 70 percent drop in traffic from Google seen by the WSWS. “This is political censorship of the worst sort; it’s just an excuse to suppress political viewpoints,” said Robert Epstein, a former editor in chief of Psychology Today and noted expert on Google.”
From The Intercept:
“Shortly after news broke earlier this month of the agreement between the Israeli government and Facebook, Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said Tel Aviv had submitted 158 requests to the social media giant over the previous four months asking it to remove content it deemed “incitement.” She said Facebook had granted 95 percent of the requests.”