Social Media and Social Control: How Silicon Valley Serves the US State Department

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from MintPress News:

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is in the spotlight for “dining with far-right figures,” and their influence over the information that appears in your feed is apparent. However, Facebook isn’t the only Silicon Valley firm that’s masquerading as nonpartisan as it curates the “facts” you see in ads, posts, or searches: Google, Twitter, Microsoft, and others are deeply wedded to the U.S. security state and the billionaires it upholds.

Walter Lippmann’s groundbreaking 1922 study of the news media, “Public Opinion,” begins with a chapter titled, “The World Outside and the Pictures in our Heads,” in which he presents the media as a bottleneck through which information about the world beyond the perception of our senses must pass. Aside from the question of which stories get passed through that bottleneck, which information about an event that survives the crucible of condensation into an article, news bulletin or wire is determined by the biases of the writer and editor. In turn, control over that information bottleneck gives the controller incredible power to shape the consciousness of readers about “the world outside” – the “manufacturing of consent,” as Lippmann originally described it.

The depth of information about the world made available by the internet seems to remove the bottleneck about which Lippmann fretted — indeed, a generation of techie evangelists tried to present it in just such a manner — but the truth is that it only further obscured both the bottlenecks and the crucibles that distill information for our consumption.

The media giants that control our access to information, from search engines like Google to social media like Facebook, have turned themselves into portals to the world and present themselves as impartial in that role. However, behind a facade of separateness, strong connecting links bind the tech giants to the oligarchy and security state on which they rely, giving the interests of the elite determinative influence over which information we access.

This article will expose and discuss some of the many ways this shady web of influence and oversight operates.

The revolving door between these tech companies and intelligence agencies, think tanks, defense contractors and security companies is constantly revolving, especially at the higher echelons of important departments, like cybersecurity. Notably, many of these companies cater along partisan lines depending on the political proclivities of their owners, in a bid to tip the scales toward their point of view.

They have embraced this role as an information portal, offering special “news” sections on their platforms. They are rolling out new apps to judge the trustworthiness of news sources. Facebook and Google, in particular, have also become two of the largest funders of journalism around the world, helping to further entrench State Department-approved models of truth in key hotspots of geopolitical interest.

This cyberpunk dystopia isn’t a new perversion of a previously free internet, though – in fact, it is the internet’s raison d’être in the first place.

It’s astory so old, it goes back to the very origins of computing, as a tool for census counting in pursuit of racist immigration policies, and the internet, born of the Pentagon’s attempt to model whole societies for the purposes of improving counterinsurgency warfare in Southeast Asia.

Right hook

Facebook has been under fire, most memorably from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, since news broke from Politico that Mark Zuckerberg, the great Facebook wunderkind, has been palling around with right-wing figures for quite some time. Politico documented how Zuckerberg’s private dinners have fed a whos-who of conservative talking heads and hosts from across the corporate media, including Fox’s Tucker Carlson, Washington Free Beacon editor Matt Continetti, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, and Byron York, The Washington Examiners chief political correspondent, and others. There’s no word on whether Zuckerberg made them slaughter their own meat, however.

One Silicon Valley cybersecurity researcher and former government official is quoted as saying “the fear is that Zuckerberg is trying to appease the Trump administration by not cracking down on right-wing propaganda.”

“For years, Mark Zuckerberg has met with elected officials and thought leaders all across the political spectrum,” a Facebook spokesperson said. Yet when The Intercept put that claim to the test, they couldn’t find a single left-wing figure invited to his private California estate for one of these wine and dine symposia on free speech.

Facebook News

Zuckerberg’s swearing off a right-wing bias rang hollower still when Facebook debuted a specialized news tab on its app later in October 2019 that included stories from the right-wing site Breitbart, once described by co-founder Steve Bannon, Trump’s former top adviser, as “the platform for the alt-right.”

Zuckerberg reassured journalists at a “fireside chat” that Facebook has “objective standards” for news, calling the new tab “a space that is dedicated to high-quality and curated news.”

Breitbart, mind you, has defended the “glorious heritage” of the Confederate flag, arguing that the banner of a rebel state founded on the basis of protecting the enslavement of Black people wasn’t racist. Some other heinously incendiary headlines include “The Solution to Online ‘Harassment’ is Simple: Women Should Log Off”;  “World Health Organization Report: Tr*nnies 49xs Higher HIV Rate”; and “Gabby Giffords: The Gun Control Movement’s Human Shield.” That’s in addition to its more mundanely inaccurate reporting, such mistaking German soccer star Lucas Podolski for the leader of a Spanish human trafficking ring. It’s also where Trump’s immigration war chief Stephen Miller trafficked white nationalism to a mainstream audience

Russiagate creates the ‘troll army’ narrative

For the social media giants, a new opportunity to double down on methods of social control came from the rise of the Russiagate conspiracy, promulgated by a growing corporate media-Democratic Party-intelligence community rallying cry that Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory was the work of Russian meddling rather than the United States’ outdated Electoral College system that was created as a progressive roadblock by the country’s founders.

The opening shot of this information war was the accusation by U.S. intelligence that hacker Guccifer 2.0 had worked on behalf of Russia to hack the Democratic National Committee’s servers and steal damning emails exposing the corrupt inner workings of the DNC — particularly how it cooked the books for Hillary Clinton in the primary race — to whom the DNC had become deeply financially indebted. When the emails were published by WikiLeaks in the summer and fall of 2016, U.S. intelligence claimed the site was also controlled by the Kremlin.

Further fuel for the Russiagate fire came in the form of accusations that the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) had flooded U.S. social media with trolls, sinking hundreds of thousands of dollars into advertisements intended to sway voters toward Trump and away from Clinton, as well as more generally sow social chaos by promoting discussion of divisive topics such as racial, gender, and class inequalities.

Russia Facebook ads

Facebook ads linked to a purported Russian campaign are displayed at a House Intelligence hearing, Nov. 1, 2017. Manuel Balce Ceneta | AP

Popular pressure on social media companies to prune users’ news feeds grew dramatically in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In January 2017, a report supposedly based on the conclusions of 17 intelligence agencies, but in reality, drafted almost exclusively by the fiercely anti-Trump CIA, presented the narrative of a “Russian influence campaign,” setting the stage for vetting the veracity of newsfeed information based on standards set out by the security state.

A year later, the Pentagon and White House announced a shift in global strategy toward “great power competition” with Russia and China, saying that “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in US national security.”

Facebook first outlined their response in an April 2017 white paper on combating “false news,” recognizing that bots and spam accounts could spread a particular narrative quickly across the platform. The white paper didn’t mention any countries, and Facebook initially denied that a Russian influence operation had taken place, but soon the social media giant stepped into line with the intelligence community by claiming later that year to have uncovered proof that a relative handful of ads bought with Russian rubles had tipped the scales in favor of Trump.

“Social media trolls,” and the “disinformation campaigns” they ostensibly waged, soon became the generalized tocsin for widening control over social media news feeds. The intelligence community, which has formed an anti-Trump faction of the U.S. security state, warned against future attempts to influence elections in 2018 and 2020 – attacks that have never materialized.

The irony was that some of the gamekeepers were already poaching, with cybersecurity firm New Knowledge launching a far more potent troll campaign in Alabama’s 2017 special election, which it then sought to blame on Russian actors.

New knowledge, old tactics

A key December 2018 report that claimed to lay out the “tactics & tropes” of the IRA, and blasted Facebook and Google for their lack of cooperation with the Russiagate probe, was prepared by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity company revealed just weeks later to have helped orchestrate massive election meddling in Alabama’s 2017 special election.

Facebook suspended the account of New Knowledge CEO Jonathon Morgan, who is also a former special adviser to the State Department, for having directed a crew of political functionaries who pushed story after fake news story, even posing as Alabama Republicans in order to tarnish their image, all in an effort to convince voters not to vote for Republican candidate and slavery and pedophilia defender Roy Moore.

In three weeks’ time, New Knowledge spent the same amount of money on ads that the IRA was supposed to have spent during several years of the U.S. presidential campaign: $100,000. Then on top of it all, New Knowledge turned around and tried to cover their tracks by painting the disinformation op as the work of “Russian trolls.”

Bad actors

Fast forward to August 2018: along with other social media platforms with whom it shares tips and information, Facebook has begun targeting voices from, and in defense of, nations targeted by the U.S. State Department for regime change. However, it’s not just Russians any more: some of the voices silenced in the semi-regular sweeping round of bans include Cubans, Venezuelans, Iranians, and Chinese as well. Frequently, these bans coincide with elections in the U.S., though Facebook typically avoids citing election interference in its press releases, giving the media free reign to speculate.

Standard fare is for tips on “inauthentic content” to come from one of two places: the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRL) or cybersecurity firm FireEye. These firms are anything but impartial and independent.

The first such tip came in August 2018 in a report by FireEye on Iranian and Russian “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” according to Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s tsar of Cybersecurity Policy and former neocon think tanker. FireEye expressed “moderate confidence” in its findings, with TechCrunch noting at the time that “the Iranian networks were not alleged to be necessarily the product of state-backed operations, but of course the implication is there and not at all unreasonable.”

FireEye Iran graph

A FireEye graphic purporting to show components of a suspected Iranian influence operation

The U.S. State Department’s Iran Action Group later cited the Facebook and Twitter takedowns in a September 2018 report titled “Outlaw Regime: A Chronicle of Iran’s Destructive Activities,” in which it attempted to lay out the ideological groundwork for its present offensive against Iran. Curiously, the State Department’s report didn’t mention FireEye’s report.

The sweeps soon became regular, following a standard pattern. Another takedown in May 2019 saw Twitter and Facebook cooperate to cull “more than 2,800 inauthentic accounts originating in Iran,” according to Twitter Site Integrity Chief Yoel Roth, as well as 51 accounts, 36 pages, seven groups and three Instagram accounts on Facebook, according to Gleicher. The tip came from FireEye. Sputnik News noted the shady nature of the move, with Facebook admitting it never looked at the FireEye report before acting – a report that expressed low confidence in the researchers’ findings.

In a previous takedown in February, Facebook and Twitter again shared intel, this time from the DFRL, showing the accounts were involved in “attempted influence campaigns” by Iran, Venezuela and Russia. However, on a conference call with reporters, Gleicher was forced to admit that Facebook couldn’t actually tie any of the activity to the Iranian government, saying only “we can prove and feel confident” in their origins, without providing further evidence.

FireEye and DRFL

FireEye isn’t just some well-meaning cybersecurity startup, though: since 2009, FireEye has collected venture capital funding from In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s investment arm. In a statement at the time, In-Q-Tel said it would maintain a “strategic partnership” with FireEye, calling it a “critical addition to our strategic investment portfolio for security technologies.”

Started as In-Q-It in 1999 with CIA seed money, In-Q-Tel’s investment has poured money into firms judged useful to the U.S. intelligence service, such as the failing company Keyhole, which it bought in 2003. Spun off from a video game outfit, Keyhole aimed to stitch together satellite images and aerial photographs of the planet to form a 3-D digital world that users could navigate.

Buttressed with CIA funds, Keyhole partnered with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to provide essential services for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Google bought the company the following year, redubbing it as Google Earth, and acquiring with it In-Q-Tel executive Rob Painter, who sat on Keyhole’s board of directors and provided a new link between Google and the U.S. intelligence and defense contracting spheres.

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