On October 11, I was one of the hundreds of individuals and pages “unperson-ed” from some of the biggest social media platforms in the world.
Poof. Disappeared. Deleted.
The news organization I work for was “unpublished,” along with its more than two million Facebook followers. Hours later, it was also wiped from Twitter. So was my personal Twitter account, along with the accounts of our Twitter handler and our chief creative executive. The double-pronged purge, which was far more extensive on Facebook, created the appearance of at least some level of coordination between the two sites, neither of which had ever suspended or unpublished us before.
“Specifically for?” you might be wondering. Specifically for: nothing, at least according to Twitter.
More than a month later, Twitter responded to my appeal for my personal account (not my news outlet), vaguely suggesting I had engaged in behavior intended to artificially amply or suppress information or manipulate or disrupt Twitter users’ experiences on the platform. I never did that, and if I did, I was unaware of it and received no warning. However, because Twitter provided no examples of this alleged behavior and advised me not to contact them again, I am indefinitely suspended from the platform without any substantive explanation. So is my company.
A Product of the Ron Paul Revolution
I started writing for the Anti-Media in September 2014, after one of their journalists interviewed me about a YouTube video I made where I blow-torched my old Obama shirt after coming to terms with the reality that his “hope and change” rhetoric amounted to nothing more than brilliant political doublespeak for “maintaining the status quo.”
That’s the kind of approach the Anti-Media, where I’m currently editor-in-chief, has always taken: loudly challenge unjust government corruption, oppression, and authority—no matter who is in power.
Our two founders, Nick Bernabe and Scott Gibson, were, like me, drawn to activism after discovering the Ron Paul revolution. As members of the millennial generation, which came of age in the post-9/11 era, we felt we had good reason to push back against the ever-encroaching political system that has heavily indebted us and increasingly infringed on our rights while expanding its reach and power.
We have spent the last four-plus years growing Anti-Media and working to awaken people from their passive subservience to big government and corporatism. We have done so by offering information that runs counter to the often pro-government narratives of traditional media outlets. I think it’s safe to say people want that information considering the number of followers we amassed before our removal. At our height in 2016 (before our reach began to rapidly decline amid algorithm changes following the election), we were reaching tens of millions of people per week.
Because we have built a dedication to factual reporting without sensationalism into our founding principles—we believe the confirmable truth is bad enough—I assumed we’d be safe from social media bans even when it became clear in August, when controversial commentator Alex Jones was purged, that crackdowns were likely coming. We don’t promote “hate speech,” nor do we spread disinformation, which is why, on the morning of October 11 when Nick first notified me the page had been unpublished, I assumed it was a glitch. (Facebook tends to have a lot of those.)
I didn’t start to worry until I read a couple of reports from mainstream outlets.
Unsurprisingly, the same media we often critique hardly reported on the purge of more than 800 Facebook accounts. Media that did cover it mostly repeated the official statement from the company’s press release, explaining that Facebook had simply taken action to remove “spam” and “fake accounts” that targeted users with the intent of misleading them with “inauthentic” behavior and driving them to ad farms to profit. But we didn’t do any of that, and many other pages, which are political in nature like ours, are also denying they employed such practices.
Along with Anti-Media, where we have been outspoken critics of President Trump and publish articles focused almost exclusively on government corruption, surveillance, the warfare state, police accountability, the failed war on drugs, and market solutions to government-created problems, dozens of pro-freedom libertarian pages were deleted. Pages like “Police the Police,” “Hemp,” and the popular libertarian news page The Free Thought Project, which boasted more than three million followers, were all taken down without warning. A few hours later, the Anti-Media was removed from Twitter, and so was I. It seemed apparent that the reason for my removal was my association with the Anti-Media.
To be fair, left-wing pages and pro-Trump pages were also removed, at least according to reporting from the likes of the LA Times. But as Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi, who investigated the recent developments in the December 2018 issue of the magazine, observed on Twitter, one common thread seemed less about ideology and more about themes:
Of course, Facebook denies removing any accounts over their content, and it’s safe to presume that at least some of the banned accounts were violating their policies. While the Anti-Media maintains we did not violate those standards with “spam” or by tricking users into visiting ad farms, many pages that have employed similar social media strategies to ours—but more or less toe the mainstream line, like the popular left-wing establishment page Occupy Democrats—remain intact.
According to founder Nick Bernabe, the main administrator of our Facebook page:
Groups within Facebook’s realm of acceptable opinion have long used similar “inauthentic” tactics that the Anti-Media used, namely Occupy Democrats and their consortium of partner pages, which all drove traffic to their website, washingtonpress.com, a liberal clickbait site. Since the October 11 purge, it appears they have discontinued these practices, but their Facebook page, which has 7.5 million followers, is still active.
It’s also worth noting that later in October, Facebook removed the libertarian page Liberty Memes, which had more than half a million followers, this time asserting their content violated community standards. They swiftly removed Liberty Memes 2.0, the page administrators’ attempts to relaunch.
If Anti-Media was engaging in activities that violated their policies, no one told us, and you’d think they probably would have, considering that in July, Facebook assigned us a representative as part of their “Publisher Solutions” program. Through that program, they gave us $500 in free ad credit to help us promote our work. It’s hard to imagine they would do that for an organization in violation of their standards.
In another instance of potentially ill-advised business practices, in the same swath of removals Facebook unpublished Right Wing News, whose administrator claims he had invested $300,000 in advertisements on the platform. It’s worth noting that Right Wing News has been accused of circulating fake news. Anti-Media, however, has not been hit with such allegations—aside from a shoddy piece of journalism published by the Washington Post shortly after the 2016 election, which journalists such as Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi and The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald quickly debunked, leading the outlet to issue a clarification.
It has been over four months since Anti-Media was banned, and all we can do is wait for Facebook and Twitter to address our appeals, which we filed the day we were removed. However, my personal Twitter account and Scott’s multiple personal Twitter accounts have been confirmed as indefinitely suspended. The justification? One account, @AntiMediaRadio, was allegedly “violating [Twitter] rules against evading permanent suspension,” but it had been inactive for several years (this account was Anti-Media’s original Twitter, but Gibson changed the handle to represent our radio show and made zero tweets following that switch). The other account, @AntiMediaUK, was permanently removed over claims it violated “Twitter Rules against managing multiple Twitter accounts for abusive purposes.”
Our former Twitter handler, Patti Beers, had her suspended account reinstated the same day the LA Times wrote an article about her experience.
“Facebook and Twitter Are Private Companies”
When it comes down it, Facebook and Twitter are private companies, and they have every right to curate their users and content as they see fit. They can also partner with whatever organizations they choose.
For example, in May, Facebook announced a partnership with the Atlantic Council, a NATO-linked think tank, with the express purpose of combating threats to elections and democracy that have apparently emerged as a result of activity on social media. Some members of the independent news circuit have expressed near-certainty that the new partnership is the reason behind our October bans, but this is impossible to prove. While the optics of a powerful group linked to an international governing body conspiring with massive platforms to censor anti-government content may make for a sensational, attention-grabbing narrative, there is no direct evidence that this is the case. If anything, it appears Facebook has partnered with the Council in an effort to add authoritative legitimacy to its post-2016 election efforts to clean up the platform.
Matt Taibbi noted the “official” influence on social media in his recent piece on the October purge (he interviewed me over the phone while working on this investigation):
Facebook recently began working with a comical cross section of shadowy officialdom: meeting with the Foreign Influence Task Force at the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security; partnering with the Atlantic Council, a NATO-connected organization featuring at least six former CIA heads on its board; and working with a pair of nonprofits associated with the major political parties, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute.
Often described by critics as the unofficial lobby group of NATO, the council is a bipartisan rogues’ gallery of senior military leaders, neocons and ex-spies. Former heads of the CIA on its board include Michael Hayden, R. James Woolsey, Leon Panetta and Michael Morell, who was in line to be Hillary Clinton’s CIA chief.
The council is backed financially by weapons-makers like Raytheon, energy titans like Exxon-Mobil and banks like JPMorgan Chase. It also accepts funds from multiple foreign countries, some of them with less-than-sterling reputations for human rights and — notably — press freedoms.
Asked about “the apparent contradiction of advising Facebook on press practices when it is funded by numerous speech-squelching foreign governments,” the council told Rolling Stone that “donors must submit in writing to strict terms.”
Their statement read:
[The] Atlantic Council is accepting the contribution on condition that the Atlantic Council retains intellectual independence and control over any content funded in whole or in part by the contribution.
Taibbi also noted that Facebook recently became one of the Atlantic Council’s biggest donors around the same time it announced their partnership in May. “The social media behemoth could easily have funded its own team of ex-spooks and media experts for the fake-news project,” Taibbi observed.
But Facebook employees have whispered to reporters that the council was brought in so that Facebook could “outsource many of the most sensitive political decisions.” In other words, Facebook wanted someone else to take the political hit for removing pages.
While there is no evidence Facebook is working directly with the board of directors, the company boasted that the Council’s “network of leaders is uniquely situated to help all of us think through the challenges we will face in the near and long-term.” More directly, Facebook is working with the organization’s Digital Forensic Research Lab to “help prevent abuse while also ensuring people have a voice during elections.”
Twitter, too, has partnered with the Digital Forensic Research Lab, as well as the National Democratic Institute, another think tank. This one is chaired by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright and funded by the US government and numerous foreign governments.
But connections cannot be conflated with causation, and despite social media companies’ cooperation not only with government-linked organizations but also government agencies themselves, I have no way to prove we were removed for our anti-government views.
Even if we were removed for our views, which is not confirmable, again, Facebook and Twitter are private companies, and private companies didn’t create the problem we’re currently facing. Their behavior is a reflection of a society plagued with an increasingly pervasive mentality of political intolerance, suppression, and authoritarianism.
Facebook and Twitter are unfortunately responding to market demand.
Regulating Speech to…Save Democracy?
In the wake of the “fake news” and “Russian bot” narratives that emerged after the 2016 election, ‘Democracy is at risk’ emerged as the rallying cry in favor of suppressing and regulating information on these platforms.
Facebook and Twitter have been removing accounts and posts for months, citing political reasons and the need to maintain the integrity of elections. In one example, Facebook removed 32 accounts at the end of July, citing “inauthentic” and “misleading” behavior largely revolving around political discussion. They shared their findings with Congress, the Atlantic Council, and US law enforcement agencies, affirming the growing precedent for government involvement. As Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, said:
Today’s disclosure is further evidence that the Kremlin continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to sow division and spread disinformation… I also expect Facebook, along with other platform companies, will continue to identify Russian troll activity and to work with Congress…
In another example of the intersection of social media and government influence, Facebook’s partnership with the Atlantic Council was announced after Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress and took a national flogging for his alleged role in handing the presidency to Trump. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, too, testified before Congress. Considering the relentless media narrative claiming that the Russians, exploiting social media, elected Trump, it’s not a stretch to consider the possibility that their purges have been attempts to avoid extensive government intervention.
This is another example of big government’s influence over these platforms’ recent behavior; because of much of the political establishment’s refusal to accept Donald Trump as president, calls for government intervention have grown louder, and Facebook and Twitter’s shifts toward working with government are quite conceivably attempts to show good will toward those in power.
This threat of government crackdowns is very real. Democratic Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island recently tweeted that “Facebook cannot be trusted to regulate itself,” also claiming “it is long past time for us to take action.” Given this chronic, looming threat, it is unsurprising these social media platforms feel compelled to take preemptive action to avoid more stringent government control in the future.
In another example of the current political paradigm affecting Facebook and Twitter’s evolving policies, it is worth noting the personal political ideologies of those in charge of Facebook and Twitter. Zuckerberg has historically donated campaign funds to Democrats, as has Sheryl Sandberg. Facebook’s COO. Facebook’s head of cybersecurity is none other than Nathaniel Gleichner, former Director for Cybersecurity Policy on the National Security Council in President Obama’s White House. As a company, Twitter harbors left-wing sentiments to the point where, by some accounts, conservative employees feel intimidated, and CEO Jack Dorsey admitted in September that his platform’s algorithm ‘unfairly filtered 600,000 accounts.’
In yet another disturbing move demonstrating the power of the current big government paradigm, Twitter recently decided to ban users who host hacked materials on the platform, and Facebook may follow suit. For an idea of what might constitute “hacked” materials, think of Wikileaks’ releases of emails from Clinton and her campaign staff that flooded the news cycle in 2016. These leaks have been accused of throwing the election to Trump, and Twitter’s decision to ban users hosting such content shows not only a reaction to Clinton’s loss but also submission to the notion that government authority should never be defied—that the people do not have a right to know what their government does behind closed doors.
Intolerance Is Polarizing—and Increasingly Popular
Though some of the purged pages have been quick to blame their dissenting points of view as cause for their removal, at this point it is impossible to prove. As our production of original articles remains suspended in light of decreased revenue (independent media as a whole has long been heavily dependent on Facebook for traffic), I’m still hoping against hope that we were accidentally caught up in a well-intended operation and will have our page restored.
What is clear either way, however, is that the actions stem from an overarching influence of government and politics in our day-to-day lives, as well as the population’s fading commitment to free expression.
When the loathed Alex Jones was removed from YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms in early August, many cheered because of his use of “hate speech,” which companies should obviously be free to remove. But the lack of foresight and the extreme enthusiasm with which proponents of his purge celebrated the bans were disturbing. Unsurprisingly, there was little outrage surrounding the October 11 purge. On the other side, a recent poll showed nearly half of Republicans believe the president should have the right to shut down news organizations for “bad behavior.” This is hardly in the spirit of America’s founding principles.
“To preserve the freedom of the human mind then and freedom of the press, every spirit should be ready to devote itself to martyrdom,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1799, “for as long as we may think as we will, and speak as we think, the condition of man will proceed in improvement.”
Today, on both sides of the political spectrum, many seem more concerned with securing power (for themselves or their favored political faction) than advocating the free flow of information.
At the time of Jones’ removal, I suggested that Americans’ mounting intolerance for differing opinions in their snowballing craving for control of the government would lead to wider purges. I just didn’t think I’d be part of them.
However, considering that suppression of free speech rarely stops with expressions deemed “bad,” the recent imposition of censorship is unsurprising. Though the recent trend of censorship started with Alex Jones, who is undeniably fringe and on many counts detestable, the lack of public resistance indicated there would be tolerance for further bans.
Sure enough, alternative media has become the next target in the expanding wave of silencing speech. Martin Niemöller, a former German soldier who spent seven years in a concentration camp after his support for the Nazi regime turned to opposition, famously recalled his refusal to speak up for victimized groups. “First they came for the socialists—and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist,” he said, going on to reference trade unionists and Jews. “Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me,” he concluded. A variation of that sentiment has emerged amid the recent bouts of censorship: “First they came for the journalists. We don’t know what happened after that.”
While these private companies may be working with government-linked organizations in their increasingly systemic removals of political content, the deeper problem is not ‘private companies imposing censorship’ but the far-reaching effects that the public’s adherence to the current political paradigm has on creating demand for such censorship. It’s not just the government and government-linked groups—it’s the people who believe in them.
As platforms like Twitter and Facebook continue to respond to the Russia narrative, which is ultimately a product of intolerance of Trump and the Republicans’ current control over political system (in favor, of course, of the Left’s control of the system), it becomes ever more apparent that they are simply responding to the political climate—not the other way around.
As Bernabe said, “If these actions go unchecked, we’ll be ushering in a new era of privatized censorship by companies fearing political backlash in an effort to protect the state.”
It is evident that the recent behavior of these private companies cannot be separated from our current political climate. Facebook and Twitter may be private companies that can do what they like, but in the free market, consumers are also free to express their preferences, and I’m hoping that some may choose to disapprove of the recent purges.
By Carey Wedler / Creative Commons / FEE.org