PRINCETON, NEW JERSEY (Scheerpost) — The ruling class, made up of the traditional elites that run the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, is employing draconian forms of censorship on its right-wing and left-wing critics in a desperate effort to cling to power. The traditional elites were discredited for pushing through a series of corporate assaults on workers, from deindustrialization to trade deals. They were unable to stem rising inflation, the looming economic crisis and the ecological emergency. They were incapable of carrying out significant social and political reform to ameliorate widespread suffering and refused to accept responsibility for two decades of military fiascos in the Middle East. And now they have launched a new and sophisticated McCarthyism. Character assassination. Algorithms. Shadowbanning. De-platforming.
Censorship is the last resort of desperate and unpopular regimes. It magically appears to make a crisis go away. It comforts the powerful with the narrative they want to hear, one fed back to them by courtiers in the media, government agencies, think tanks, and academia. The problem of Donald Trump is solved by censoring Donald Trump. The problem of left-wing critics, such as myself, is solved by censoring us. The result is a world of make-believe.
YouTube disappeared six years of my RT show, “On Contact,” although not one episode dealt with Russia. It is not a secret as to why my show vanished. It gave a voice to writers and dissidents, including Noam Chomsky and Cornel West, as well as activists from Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter, third parties, and the prison abolitionist movement. It called out the Democratic Party for its subservience to corporate power. It excoriated the crimes of the apartheid state of Israel. It covered Julian Assange in numerous episodes. It gave a voice to military critics, many of them combat veterans, who condemned US war crimes.
It no longer matters how prominent you are or how big a following you have. If you challenge power, you are at risk of being censored. Former British MP George Galloway detailed a similar experience during an April 15 panel organized by Consortium News in which I took part:
I have been threatened with travel restrictions were I to continue the television broadcast I had been doing for almost an entire decade. I have been stamped by the false label ‘Russian State Media,’ which I never had, by the way, when I was presenting a show on Russian state media. It was only given after I ceased to have a show on Russian state media, ceased because the government made it a crime for me to do so.
My 417,000 Twitter followers had been gaining a thousand a day, going like a runaway train, then suddenly it hit the buffers when the Elon Musk story emerged. I expressed the view that oligarch that he no doubt is, I prefer Elon Musk to the kings of Saudi Arabia, who it turns out are presently major shareholders in the Twitter company. As soon as I joined that fight, my numbers literally crashed to a halt, with shadow bans and all the rest of it…
All of this is happening before the consequences of the economic crash brought about by western policy and our misnamed leaders has really hit yet. When economies begin to not just slow down, not just hiccup, not just experience levels of inflation not seen for years, or decades, but becomes a crash, as well it might, there will be even more for the state to suppress, especially any alternative analysis as to how we got here and what we must do to get out of it.”
Scott Ritter, a former UN weapons inspector in Iraq and Marine Corp intelligence officer, called out the lie about weapons of mass destruction prior to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Recently, he was banned from Twitter for offering a counter-narrative about dozens of killings in the Kyiv western suburb of Bucha. Many of the victims in Bucha were found with gunshot wounds to the head and with their hands tied behind their back. International observers and eyewitnesses have blamed Russia for the killings. Ritter’s alternative analysis, right or wrong, saw him silenced.
Ritter lamented the Twitter ban at the forum:
It took me three years to get 4,000 followers on Twitter. I thought that was a big deal. Then this Ukraine thing comes up. It exploded. When I got suspended for the first time for questioning the narrative in Bucha my account had just gotten over 14,000. By the time my suspension was lifted I was up to 60,000. By the time they suspended me again I was close to 100,000. It was out of control, which is why I am convinced the algorithm said: You must delete. You must delete. And they did. The excuse they gave was absurd. I was abusive and I was harassing by telling what I thought was the truth.
I don’t have the same insight in the Ukraine I had in Iraq. Iraq, I was on the ground doing the job. But the techniques of observation and evaluation that you are trained as an intelligence officer to apply to any given set apply to Ukraine today. Simply looking at the available data set, you cannot help but draw the conclusion that it was Ukrainian national police, mainly because you have all the elements. You have motive. They don’t like Russian collaborators. How do I know? They said so on their website. You have the commander of the national police ordering his people to shoot people in Bucha on the day in question. You have the evidence. The dead bodies on the street with white armbands carrying Russian food packets. Could I be wrong? Absolutely. Could there be data out there I am not aware of? Absolutely. But it is not there. As an intelligence officer I take the available data. I access the available data. I provide assessments based on that available data. And Twitter found that objectionable.”
Two pivotal incidents contributed to this censorship. The first was the publication of classified documents by Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. The second was the election of Donald Trump. The ruling class was unprepared. The exposure of their war crimes, corruption, callous indifference to the plight of those they ruled, and extreme concentration of wealth shredded their credibility. The election of Trump, which they did not expect, made them afraid they would be supplanted. The Republican Party establishment and the Democratic Party establishment joined forces to demand greater and greater censorship from social media.
Even marginal critics suddenly became dangerous. They had to be silenced. Dr. Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate in 2016, lost about half her social media following after mysteriously going offline for 12 hours during the campaign. The discredited Steele dossier, paid for by the Hillary Clinton campaign, charged Stein, along with Trump, with being a Russian asset. The Senate Intelligence Committee spent three years investigating Stein, issuing five different reports before exonerating her.
Stein spoke of the threat to freedom of speech during the forum:
We are in an incredibly perilous moment.It’s not only freedom of the press and freedom of speech, but it is really democracy in all its dimensions that is under threat. There are all these draconian laws now against protest. There are 36 that have been passed that are as bad as a 10-year prison sentence for demonstrating on a sidewalk without a permit. They differ state by state. You need to know the laws in your state if you protest. Drivers have been given license to kill you if you are out in the street in some states as part of a protest.
The first indication that we were not only being marginalized – one accepts that if you defy established power and practice independent journalism, you will be marginalized – but censored came in November 2016. Craig Timberg, a technology reporter for the Washington Post, published a story headlined “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say.” It referred to some 200 websites, including Truthdig where I wrote a weekly column, as “routine peddlers of Russian propaganda.”
Unnamed analysts, described as “a collection of researchers with foreign policy, military and technology backgrounds” from the anonymous “organization” PropOrNot, made the charges in the story. PropOrNot’s report drew up “the list” of 200 offending sites that included WikiLeaks, Truthout, Black Agenda Report, Naked Capitalism, Counterpunch, AntiWar.com, LewRockwell.com and the Ron Paul Institute. All these sites, they said, either wittingly or unwittingly functioned as Russian assets. No evidence was offered for the charges, since of course there was none. The only common denominator was that all were critics of the Democratic Party leadership.
When we challenged the story, PropOrNot tweeted out: “Awww, wook at all the angwy Putinists, trying to change the subject – they’re so vewwy angwy!!”
We were blacklisted by anonymous trolls who sent out Twitter messages, later deleted, that sounded as if they were written by a gamer living in his parent’s basement.
Timberg did not contact any of us beforehand. He and the paper refused to reveal the identity of those behind PropOrNot. I taught at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. If one of my students had turned in Timberg’s story as a class assignment, he or she would have failed.
The established elites desperately needed a narrative to explain the defeat of Hillary Clinton and their own growing unpopularity. Russia fit. Fake news stories, they said, had been planted by Russians in social media to elect Trump. All critics, on the left and the right, became Russian Assets. Then the fun began.
The outliers many of us find repugnant began to disappear. In 2018, Facebook, Apple, YouTube and Spotify deleted the podcasts, pages and channels of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars website from their platforms. The precedent was set. Once they could do it to Jones, they could do it to anyone.
Twitter, Google, Facebook and Youtube used the charge of foreign influence to start employing algorithms and shadow banning to silence critics. Saudi Prince Al Waleed bin Talal Al Saud, chair of the Kingdom Holding Company, which dismissed Elon Musk’s recent offer to buy the social media platform, has a large stake in Twitter. It is hard to find a more despotic regime than Saudi Arabia, or one more hostile to the press, but I digress.
Sites that once attracted tens or hundreds of thousands of followers suddenly saw their numbers nosedive. Google’s “Project Owl,” designed to eradicate “fake news,” employed “algorithmic updates to surface more authoritative content” and downgrade “offensive” material. Traffic fell for sites such as Alternet by 63%, Democracy Now by 36 %, Common Dreams by 37 %, Truthout by 25 %, The Intercept by 19% and Counterpunch by 21%. The World Socialist Web site saw its traffic fall by two-thirds. Julian Assange and WikiLeaks were all but erased. Mother Jones editors in 2019 wrote that they suffered a sharp decline in its Facebook audience, which translated to an estimated loss of $600,000 over 18 months.
The IT people at Truthdig, where I had a weekly column at the time, found that impressions – specific words such as “imperialism” typed into Google that bring up recent stories including mine – now did not include my stories. Referrals to the site from impressions for my stories fell from over 700,000 to below 200,000 in a 12-month period.
But pushing us to the sidelines was not enough, especially with Democrats’ looming loss of Congress in the midterm elections and Joe Biden’s abysmal poll numbers. Now we must be erased. Dozens of lesser-known sites, writers and videographers are disappearing. Facebook, for example, removed a “No Unite The Right 2-DC” event connected to a page called “Resisters,” appearing to advertise a counter-rally on the anniversary of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Paul Jay, who runs a site called The Analysis, ran a video essay on February 7, 2021 called, “A Failed Coup Inside a Failed Coup.” YouTube banned the piece, saying it was “content that advances false claims that widespread fraud, errors, or glitches changed the outcome of the U.S presidential election is not allowed on YouTube.” Tulsi Gabbard, after posting on March 13 that the US funded bio labs in Ukraine and blaming the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Biden’s foreign policy, said she was shadowbanned on Twitter. The “Russians with Attitude” podcast account was suspended on Twitter. It covered the information war in Ukraine and “cried foul” on the Ghost of Kiev. Social media platforms have been especially harsh on those questioning Covid policy, blocking websites and forcing users, social media platforms, or online outlets to delete posts.
These sites make billions of dollars by selling our personal information to corporations, advertising agencies and political public relations firms. They know everything about us. We know nothing about them. They cater to our proclivities, fears, habits and prejudices. And they will silence our voices if we do not conform.
Censorship will not halt America’s march towards Christian fascism. Weimar Germany attempted to thwart Nazi fascism by enforcing rigorous hate-speech laws. In the 1920s, it banned the Nazi party. Nazi leaders, including Joseph Goebbels, were prosecuted for hate speech. Julius Streicher, who ran the virulently anti-Semitic tabloid The Stormer (Der Stürmer), was fired from his teaching post, repeatedly fined and had his newspapers confiscated. He was taken to court numerous times for libel and served a series of jail sentences.
But like those serving sentences for the assault on the Capitol on January 6, or like Trump, the persecution of Nazi leaders only enhanced their stature the longer the German ruling class failed to address the economic and social misery.
There are many similarities to the 1930s, including the power of predatory international banks to consolidate wealth into the hands of a few oligarchs and impose punishing austerity measures on the global working class.
“More than anything else, the Nazis were a nationalist protest movement against globalization,” notes Benjamin Carter Hett in “The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and The Downfall of the Weimar Republic.”
Shutting down critics in a decayed and corrupt society is equivalent to turning off the oxygen on a seriously ill patient. It hastens mortality rather than delaying or preventing it. The convergence of a looming economic crisis, fear by a bankrupt ruling class that they will soon be banished from power, the growing ecological catastrophe and the inability to thwart self-destructive military adventurism against Russia and China, have set the stage for an American implosion.
Those of us who see it coming, and who desperately seek to prevent it, have become the enemy.
Feature photo | Original illustration by Mr. Fish
Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for fifteen years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East Bureau Chief and Balkan Bureau Chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of show The Chris Hedges Report.