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Is “Fake News” Scare Being Used to Stifle Dissent?

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JULIANNE TVETEN, jctveten at gmail.com, @juliannetveten
Tveten, who covers the intersection of the technology industry and socioeconomic issues, just wrote the piece “How the ‘Fake News’ Scare Is Marginalizing the Left” for In These Times magazine.

Tveten writes: “In the wake of the 2016 election, pundits pointed their fingers at Facebook, Google and Twitter, accusing them of spreading misinformation about political issues and figures to the U.S. voting citizenry. A circuitous, concern-trolling tactic, the Fake News scare soon gained momentum among corporate media outlets and politicians seeking to find palatable scapegoats for the stunning election of Donald Trump.

“When the pressure grew too high to ignore the calls for Fake News containment, the Internet giants took action. Google began to stymie ads it deemed dubious. Facebook floated features to flag Fake News and tweaked its ad policy. Months later, Twitter joined the chorus, essentially echoing Facebook’s approach.

“These adjustments, however, haven’t stifled propaganda. On the contrary, they may have stifled dissent. Since Google’s algorithmic updates in April, a number of left-wing sites have seen their search traffic plummet. The World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) reported a 67 percent dip in traffic between April and July of this year, with a total decrease of 85 percent since Google implemented changes. (Its editorial chairman David North recently spoke about this to The New York Times.) Left-leaning sites AlterNet, ‘Democracy Now,’ Common Dreams, Global Research and Truthout have suffered similar declines, WSWS reported, ranging from 49 to 71 percent. AlterNet and Global Research have issued additional laments, the former claiming to have lost an average of 1.2 million of the 2.7 million unique visitors the site receives from search traffic each month since June. …

“Such developments underscore the perils of relying on private technology companies to regulate political content. In March, Eric Schmidt, the billionaire chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, assured the Fox Business viewership that technology could indeed detect Fake News, suggesting that the best methods would be a matter of companies’ furtive discretion. ‘It should be possible for computers to detect malicious, misleading, and incorrect information and essentially have you not see it,’ Schmidt said. ‘We’re not arguing for censorship. We’re arguing, just take it off the page.’ Google-styled censorship is acceptable, Schmidt implied, as long as it’s preemptive. …

“The U.S. public has never quite learned the criteria of Fake News, nor has it received a coherent, conclusive explanation of exactly what Russia did. The U.S. public has, however, been given a crash course in corporate, centrist boosterism. Anxieties over the roles of Facebook, Google and Twitter in disseminating of Russian-engineered Fake News have merely posited the corporate state’s centrism as gospel and antagonized the Left in increasingly sophisticated ways. Furthermore, the proposed technocratic solution of relying on these unaccountable megacompanies to determine what information they broadcast will only exacerbate the problem.

“As tech companies prepare to cooperate with intelligence agencies, and their owners inch closer to steering corporate media both indirectly and directly, it becomes ever more urgent to recognize the irony of it all: Centrist alarmism doesn’t destroy harmful propaganda — it creates it.”