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Taibbi writes: "While there's an argument to be had about clamping down on the purveyors of hate speech, what social or journalistic purpose is served by concealing the existence of such people?"

Right-wing hate speech on YouTube. (photo: Daily Beast)
Right-wing hate speech on YouTube. (photo: Daily Beast)

Facebook Purges Are More Extensive Than You Think

By Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone

09 June 19

Legitimate journalists are again being caught in the wash of internet cleanups

f you turned on cable news this week, or read our own coverage in Rolling Stone, you might have heard about YouTube’s decision to demonetize well-known conservative commentator Steven Crowder.

Crowder’s offense involved calling Vox journalist Carlos Maza a “lispy queer” and a “gay Vox sprite,” leading, says Maza, to further harassment. Much press commentary either cheered YouTube’s move or called it belated.

Simultaneously, YouTube announced it would ban whole genres of videos that fell under a hate/conspiracy label. From a Yahoo news summary:

“YouTube announced Wednesday it would ban videos promoting or glorifying racism and discrimination as well as those denying well-documented violent events, like the Holocaust or the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting.”

Yahoo quoted a YouTube announcement:

Channels that repeatedly brush up against our hate speech policies will be suspended under our YouTube Partner Program.”

Many greeted these stories with a shrug. If blue-state audiences even know who Steven Crowder is, they think he’s a jerk. And what could be wrong with removing videos “denying well-documented violent events”?

At least two big things, as it turns out:

1. Platforms may not distinguish between reporting on hate speech, and promoting it

A site called News2Share, run by journalist Ford Fischer, was removed by YouTube this week under the new plan. Fischer received a notice:

“We found that a significant portion of your channel is not in line with our YouTube Partner Program policies.”

Fischer was one of the first people I spoke with for a Rolling Stone story about Internet censorship published last year. His site acts as a kind of clearing house for political footage of all kinds, including demonstrations, marches, police misconduct and even flash mobs.

News2Share content spans the spectrum: the site currently contains everything from a protest against the “Barr Coverup” of the Mueller report, to pro-Assange protests in Britain, to a square-off between gun militias and Antifa in Ohio.

It’s valuable, original journalism, not aggregated clickbait.

“Almost the entire channel is video shot by me, or someone I hire,” Fischer says.

Two videos apparently determined his fate under the new program. One involved a pro-Israel activist and pro-Palestine activist arguing with a Holocaust denier. The second was video of a speech given by white nationalist Mike “Enoch” Peinovich.

Fischer says that “while unpleasant,” the footage is “essential research for history.” It was even used as part of a PBS documentary called “Charlottesville.” Fischer was listed as an executive producer in the film.

His work regularly appears in documentaries about subcultures of all types, including the Frontline series “Documenting Hate” (you can see him credited just above Getty Images at the end). Fischer’s videos have even appeared in Vox.

Now his work has been removed because the new policy does not distinguish between showing a Holocaust denier or a white supremacist, and being one. Fischer describes the first video that got him in trouble, which showed Antifa protesters arguing with a Holocaust denier: “While it’s true that the Holocaust denier says Holocaust-denier stuff,” he says, “this is raw vid documenting him being shut down.”

Being demonetized on YouTube will deal a blow to Fischer’s business. He says YouTube ad revenue is “about half of my reliable, baseline income,” the rest coming from Patreon.

The Fischer case speaks to the inherent inanity of asking nameless, faceless Silicon Valley overlords to weigh things like journalistic intent. While there’s an argument to be had about clamping down on the purveyors of hate speech, what social or journalistic purpose is served by concealing the existence of such people? And what possible rationale could there be for allowing PBS or a commercial news network to publish such videos, but not smaller shooters like Fischer?

As part of the new program, YouTube also pulled down a video published by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In it, journalist Max Blumenthal interviewed Holocaust denier David Irving. Blumenthal quickly said the removal program had “gone beyond its stated aim” to “carpet-bombing style censorship.”

Blumenthal, like many of the people targeted in removal campaigns, is a controversial figure who has been a consistent critic of U.S. policy. He worried that such deletions are “just a test balloon for a much wider campaign to suppress content by dissenting voices.”

YouTube in his case seemed to acknowledge throwing the baby out with bathwater.

“We know that this might be disappointing,” it told the L.A. Times, “but it’s important to us that YouTube is a safe place for all.”

YouTube has not responded to a request for comment about why Fischer remains removed.

2. Internet platforms have neither the ability nor the resources to sort out good reporting from bad — and may even perpetuate the latter

On May 28th, the New York Times ran a piece by Choe Sang-Hun that talked about tourists in South Korea now being allowed to visit sites of atrocities perpetuated under past dictatorial rule. In particular, the piece mentioned tour groups being able to visit Jeju Island, where 30,000 people lost their lives. The Times wrote:

“These so-called ‘dark tours’ reflect a growing freedom under the government of President Moon Jae-in to revisit the abuses perpetrated when South Korea was governed under a dictatorship…”

Investigative reporter Tim Shorrock, frequently published in The Nation, found the article a mixed bag. Well-known among other things as an Asia expert (he was raised in Japan and Korea) and an iconoclastic exposer of intelligence community misbehavior, Shorrock was bothered by the Times failing to mention the American role in Jeju atrocities.

He posted a series of tweets that included photos from a museum at Jeju, exhibits that included the headline, “U.S. Military Decides on Tough Crackdown Operation.” Shorrock wrote:

“This is what you see at the Jeju museum: photos and documentation of US military officers overseeing the brutal crackdown, which took place when South Korea was ruled by the US military government. Why no mention of this, NYT?”

When Shorrock recently posted this same content on Facebook, it was removed. He had no idea why. He was told only that his posts “violated community standards.”

“I’ve asked for an appeal but have not heard back,” Shorrock said early Friday. “The post remains down and people on FB cannot link to it when it’s been reposted by me and others.”

Shorrock is familiar and respected in the journalistic community. He often takes tough stances on other reporters and has been critical of outlets like MSNBC for a variety of reasons, usually having to do with failing to question American foreign policy. His comments may be uncomfortable to some, but they don’t cross lines.

“What’s astonishing to me is that my post is a critique of a newspaper’s coverage and uses no inflammatory or crude language,” he says.

On Friday afternoon, in response to a query by Rolling Stone, a Facebook spokesperson said the issue had been corrected:

“We mistakenly removed a post for violating our spam policy but this decision was appealed and we identified our error. The post has since been restored to Facebook because it does not violate our Community Standards.”

Despite the fix, Facebook at press time still hadn’t contacted Shorrock (and the post still wasn’t up). “So far, no response to me,” he said. “They didn’t act until press asked.”

Is this algorithmic error or something else? The opacity of the platforms’ review systems makes it impossible to know.

What happened to Shorrock highlights another problem: the biggest deniers of “well-documented violent events” are often not small-time conspiracy theorists, but governments, especially our own. Moreover, some of the worst spreaders of conspiratorial news are not Twitter geeks, but America’s biggest media organizations.  Moreover, some of the worst spreaders of conspiratorial news are not little Twitter geeks, but America’s biggest media organizations.

In late May, Shorrock was one of just a few reporters who cried foul when mainstream news outlets made what may have been a serious factual error.

Beginning with Bloomberg on May 30th, and including the Daily Beast, the Wall Street Journal and a long list of other major Western outlets, it was reported that North Korean official Kim Hyok Chol — who headlined a group of nuclear arms negotiators who met with Trump officials last year — was “executed” as part of a “purge of officials.”

The story was based upon a single unnamed source in the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo.

A few days later, Chol was supposedly seen with Kim Jong Un and his wife at an “amateur art performance.” This was according to North Korean media. Multiple news outlets have since reported the development, including Reuters, the Times, and the Washington Post. The Post headline read: “The rumor of Kim Jong Un’s purge: Why it matters even if it’s wrong.”

The Post led off by pointing the finger not at big news organizations, but “social media,” which it said “was ablaze last week with reports” about the purges. The paper noted that a mistake would be unfortunate, but, “even a false purge story doesn’t justify ignoring the larger trend in North Korea’s authoritarian regime.”

It’s worth pointing out that nothing seems to have been proven one way or another in this tale. Still, Shorrock’s original comment on Twitter — which criticized Bloomberg for running a report based on one unnamed source in a paper he said has a “history of false stories” — seems salient. What happens when mainstream platforms get things wrong en masse? Do small-timers get yanked, while big organizations get to make mistakes?

From WMD to inaccurate reports about drone strikes to things like the attitude of South Koreans toward a peace process, the most troublingly conspiratorial reporting often comes with an official imprimatur. A frequent theme is overhype of villainous news about targets of American “regime change” plans. Especially if people believe “fake news” is being carefully rooted out, they will now be even more susceptible to such official deceptions.

This speech-regulation issue — with its vast potential for misuse — is bigger than Alex Jones or Stephen Crowder. This is Brave New World territory, and people should realize that a few deletions here and there could quickly snowball into something far worse, if it hasn’t already.

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A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+22 # HenryS1 2019-06-09 14:27
This is what I really value. Taking an issue that can be set in "knee-jerk" mode in people's minds, and finding an entertaining way of unpacking it, and hence motivating people to think about it for a moment from a different angle.

Taibbi doesn't over-spice his prose. The "meat" is the focus. Bravo!

Belatedly, I agree 100% with his central assertion: it is genuinely hard to draw lines. Doctors have to play with bad germs to find cures. Academics need to fish in the gutter to study what is real. So antiseptics and street-sweepers sometimes clean up too much.

This is a statement of a difficult issue for which there is no simple situation, except awareness and avoiding summary judgement.

I hope civilization survives long enough for some future evolved humans to study the primitive history of the Internet, and the questions it posed as it became part of the infrastructure of human society.

Good job, Taibbi, I hope people read this, I am glad I did.

Free speech is and should always be something examined and struggled with. It will always be used as a loaded term to argue opposing conclusions. Let us develop a taste for thought and a distaste for hate, and keep fiddling with the recipe.
0 # Inspired Citizen 2019-06-09 19:26
Revolt Against Plutocracy has figured out how to promote to hundreds of Facebook groups and not land in Facebook jail or get purged from the platform (yet).

RAP has a PAC, but Facebook will not allow us to use it to boost posts. Facebook is closer to fascism than Trump is. #BernieOrBust
+4 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-06-10 06:20
One of the good things about the web is that it used to give everyone the power to express his or her views, no matter how good or terrible they were. The old world of corporate owned media was too filtered, refined, and cultivated to present only a sanitized picture of the US and world. The web exploded all of that. The worst of all could be found on the web.

I think people can be intelligent enough to make their own decisions about raw information. The horror of the mainstream media that real people may see raw footage is the problem.

There really is a lot of hateful and racist ideas out there. Trump is a good representative of all this. US foreign policy is hateful and racists. The neo-cons are hateful, murderous, and racist. But they won't be banned from any website because they have power and wealth. And as Matt says, the most dangerous news is the official stories that come out of news outlets like the NYTimes.

People can handle the truth and the reality of ugly view points. The efforts to suppress them don't really work at stopping them. I"m for an open web, even though there are many things I won't look at or would criticize heavily.
+1 # AldoJay69 2019-06-10 10:42
Omitted is the overriding question, what exactly is YouTube? Or Facebook? Are they "the press" of 1st amendment fame?

Whether yes or no, the answer will determine whose job it is to regulate. Self-censor? Censorship by government legislation?

Can "Highlights For Children" splash a hard-porn centerfold, legally?

The New York Times, The Washington Post, MSNBC, Fox, publish what they want and omit what they want.

Who's policing them?
Rules must apply equally.

Bezos and Murdoch and "nameless, faceless Silicon Valley overlords" have too much power, but they also have that pesky 1st amendment.

Break them up, then restore the FCC.
+1 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-06-12 07:53
aldo -- "Omitted is the overriding question, what exactly is YouTube? Or Facebook? Are they "the press" of 1st amendment fame?"

This is a really good question. YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest of the social media did not start out to be "the press." I think they started out to be gossip forums. But with the total collapse of the "formal or official press" into propaganda megaphones, people with real investigative skills and commitments began to use social media to publish real journalism.

For example, RT has pretty much been banned from broadcasting on US TV. It is on some cable channels but you have to have a big package to get it. So RT is the #1 most watched channel on YouTube. People want to see it and they can't get it on TV. So YouTube fills the vacuum.

Now social media is closing itself down to real journalism. In another 5 years or so, there will be no journalism in social media. It will be all propaganda, just like the old official press.

NYT, Washpo, MSNBC, and so on are policed by their owners and advertisers. They have NO commitment to real journalism or free press. They are advocacy operations for their owners and advertisers. CNN loses money every year but Time Warner wants the political influence it exerts.

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