Facebookâs Mark Zuckerberg is in the spotlight for âdining with far-right figures,â and their influence over the information that appears in your feed is apparent. However, Facebook isnât the only Silicon Valley firm thatâs masquerading as nonpartisan as it curates the âfactsâ 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.Â
Walter Lippmannâs groundbreaking 1922 study of the news media, âPublic Opinion,â begins with a chapter titled, âThe World Outside and the Pictures in our Heads,â 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 âthe world outsideâ â the âmanufacturing of consent,â as Lippmann originally described it.
The depth of information about the world made available by the internetÂ seemsÂ to remove the bottleneck about which Lippmann frettedÂ âÂ indeed, a generation of techie evangelists tried to present it in just such a mannerÂ â but the truth is that it only further obscured both the bottlenecks and the crucibles that distill information for our consumption.Â
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 ânewsâ 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 isnât a new perversion of a previously free internet, though â in fact, it is the internetâs raison dâÃªtre in the first place.
Itâs 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 Pentagonâs attempt to model whole societies for the purposes of improving counterinsurgency warfare in Southeast Asia.
Facebook has been under fire, most memorably from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, sinceÂ news brokeÂ fromÂ PoliticoÂ that Mark Zuckerberg, the great Facebook wunderkind, has been palling around with right-wing figures for quite some time.Â PoliticoÂ documented how Zuckerbergâs private dinners have fed a whos-who of conservative talking heads and hosts from across the corporate media, including Foxâs Tucker Carlson,Â Washington Free BeaconÂ editor Matt Continetti, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, and Byron York,Â The Washington ExaminerâsÂ chief political correspondent, and others. Thereâs no word on whether Zuckerberg made themÂ slaughterÂ their own meat, however.
One Silicon Valley cybersecurity researcher and former government official is quoted as saying âthe fear is that Zuckerberg is trying to appease the Trump administration by not cracking down on right-wing propaganda.â
âFor years, Mark Zuckerberg has met with elected officials and thought leaders all across the political spectrum,â a Facebook spokesperson said. Yet whenÂ The InterceptÂ put that claim to the test, they couldnât find a single left-wing figure invited to his private California estate for one of these wine and dine symposia on free speech.
Zuckerbergâs 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 siteÂ Breitbart, once described by co-founder Steve Bannon, Trumpâs former top adviser, as âthe platform for the alt-right.â
Zuckerberg reassured journalists at a âfireside chatâ that Facebook has âobjective standardsâ for news, calling the new tab âa space that is dedicated to high-quality and curated news.â
Breitbart, mind you, hasÂ defendedÂ the âglorious heritageâ of the Confederate flag, arguing that the banner of a rebel state founded on the basis of protecting the enslavement of Black people wasnât racist. Some otherÂ heinouslyÂ incendiaryÂ headlines include âThe Solution to Online âHarassmentâ is Simple: Women Should Log Offâ;Â âWorld Health Organization Report: Tr*nnies 49xs Higher HIV Rateâ; and âGabby Giffords: The Gun Control Movementâs Human Shield.â Thatâs in addition to its more mundanely inaccurate reporting, suchÂ mistakingÂ German soccer star Lucas Podolski for the leader of a Spanish human trafficking ring. Itâs also where Trumpâs immigration war chief Stephen MillerÂ traffickedÂ white nationalism to a mainstream audience
Russiagate creates the âtroll armyâ 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 Trumpâs 2016 election victory was the work of Russian meddling rather than the United Statesâ outdated Electoral College system that was created as a progressive roadblock by the countryâs 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 Committeeâs servers and stealÂ damning emailsÂ exposing the corrupt inner workings of the DNCÂ âÂ particularly how it cooked the books for Hillary Clinton in the primary raceÂ âÂ to whom the DNC had become deeply financiallyÂ 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.
Popular pressure on social media companies to prune usersâ news feeds grew dramatically in the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In January 2017, aÂ reportÂ 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 âRussian influence campaign,â 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 towardÂ âgreat power competitionâ with Russia and China, saying that âInter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in US national security.â
Facebook first outlined their response in an April 2017Â white paperÂ on combating âfalse news,â recognizing that bots and spam accounts could spread a particular narrative quickly across the platform. The white paper didnât 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.
âSocial media trolls,â and the âdisinformation campaignsâ 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 â 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 Alabamaâs 2017 special election, which it then sought to blame on Russian actors.
New knowledge, old tactics
A key December 2018Â reportÂ that claimed to lay out the âtactics & tropesâ of the IRA, and blasted Facebook and Google for their lack of cooperation with the Russiagate probe, was prepared by New Knowledge, a cybersecurity companyÂ revealedÂ just weeks later to have helped orchestrate massive election meddling in Alabamaâs 2017 special election.Â
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 weeksâ time, New KnowledgeÂ spentÂ 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 byÂ paintingÂ the disinformation op as the work of âRussian trolls.â
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, itâs not just Russians any more: some of the voices silenced in the semi-regular sweeping round of bans includeÂ 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 âinauthentic contentâ to come from one of two places: the Atlantic Councilâs 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 âcoordinated inauthentic behavior,âÂ according toÂ Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebookâs tsar of Cybersecurity Policy and former neocon think tanker. FireEyeÂ expressedÂ âmoderate confidenceâ in its findings, withÂ TechCrunchÂ notingÂ at the time that âthe 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.â
The U.S. State Departmentâs Iran Action Group later cited the Facebook and Twitter takedowns in a September 2018Â reportÂ titled âOutlaw Regime: A Chronicle of Iranâs Destructive Activities,â in which it attempted to lay out the ideological groundwork for its present offensive against Iran. Curiously, the State Departmentâs report didnât mention FireEyeâs report.
The sweeps soon became regular, following a standard pattern. Another takedown in May 2019 saw Twitter and Facebook cooperate to cull âmore than 2,800 inauthentic accounts originating in Iran,â according to Twitter Site Integrity ChiefÂ Yoel Roth, as well as 51 accounts, 36 pages, seven groups and three Instagram accounts on Facebook, according toÂ Gleicher. The tip came from FireEye.Â Sputnik NewsÂ noted the shady nature of the move, with Facebook admitting it never looked at the FireEye report before acting â a report that expressed low confidence in the researchersâ findings.
In a previousÂ takedownÂ in February, Facebook and Twitter again shared intel, this time from the DFRL, showing the accounts were involved in âattempted influence campaignsâ by Iran, Venezuela and Russia. However, on a conference call with reporters, Gleicher wasÂ forced to admitÂ that Facebook couldnât actually tie any of the activity to the Iranian government, saying only âwe can prove and feel confidentâ in their origins, without providing further evidence.
FireEye and DRFL
FireEye isnât just some well-meaning cybersecurity startup, though: since 2009, FireEye has collected venture capital funding from In-Q-Tel, the CIAâs investment arm. In aÂ statementÂ at the time, In-Q-Tel said it would maintain a âstrategic partnershipâ with FireEye, calling it a âcritical addition to our strategic investment portfolio for security technologies.â
StartedÂ as In-Q-It in 1999Â with CIA seed money, In-Q-Telâs 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.Â
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 executiveÂ Rob Painter, who sat on Keyholeâs board of directors and provided a new link between Google and the U.S. intelligence and defense contracting spheres.
The other tip source, the Digital Forensic Research Lab, is a division of the Atlantic Council which, while a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit, is only proforma independent of the U.S. state as one of the preeminent Washington think tanks influencing foreign policy.
In itsÂ About UsÂ section, DFRL says its mission is to âidentify, expose, and explain disinformation where and when it occurs using open source research; to promote objective truth as a foundation of government for and by people; to protect democratic institutions and norms from those who would seek to undermine them in the digital engagement space.â Lofty goals, were they not voiced by a think tank thatâs funded by a bevy of defense contractors, Gulf monarchies, and even the NATO alliance itself.
Facebook has also buttressed its State Department line-towing credentials by adding to their staff figures like Gleicher, Facebookâs chief of Cybersecurity Policy, who is also aÂ senior associateÂ at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), another hawkish think tank with major influence on U.S. foreign policy thatâs funded by many of the same actors as the Atlantic Council. Likewise, Facebookâs new Public Policy Manager for Ukraine,Â Kateryna Kruk, is a rabid Russophobe who participated in the 2014 U.S.-backed coup dâetat that brought the fascist Svoboda party to power in Ukraine, turning that countryâs government against not only Moscow but their own Russian-speaking Ukrainian minorities.
Guarding you from the news
In August 2018, Microsoft rolled out the NewsGuard app, which vets news outlets according to a list of highly subjective standards presented as the siteâs âNutrition Facts,â which include âgathers and presents information responsiblyâ and âdoes not repeatedly publish false content,â among some more mundane items.
TheÂ advisory boardÂ that oversees NewsGuard is a whos-who of security state figures, including Tom Ridge, the first Secretary of Homeland Security under George W. Bush; Ret. General Michael Hayden, who has headed both the NSA and CIA; and Richard Stengel, a formerÂ TIMEÂ editor who served as Barack Obamaâs Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy. In other words, the power over determining what is true and false about U.S. foreign policy falls on central figures who helped craft it.
Naturally, NewsGuardÂ has givenÂ conservative outletÂ Fox NewsÂ a green checkmark of authenticity and WikiLeaks a red exclamation mark advising caution because, in their words, âthis website generally fails to maintain basic standards of accuracy and accountability.â This, despite the fact that NewsGuard later states that âWikiLeaks does not appear to run corrections,â something it faults the site for, âalthough it almost exclusively publishes primary source documents, which have never been shown to be fake.â
The third-largest investor in NewsGuard is Publicis Groupe, which also owns Qorvis Communications, a consulting firm hired by the Saudi Embassy in Washington âto shape the media coverage of Saudi Arabiaâ since early 2002,Â The InterceptÂ reported. Qorvis has provided vital PR coverage for Riyadhâs brutal war in Yemen, about which there was an almost total blackout in the Western media until a U.S.-made bomb dropped from a Saudi plane killed dozens of school children in August 2018. The Intercept noted that in the six months following the outbreak of war, Qorvis billed the Saudi government nearly $7 million for its PR services.
The Saudi monarchy are also major investors in some of the most powerful think tanks in Washington, including the Atlantic Council, which has a seat at the table of Facebookâs anti-fake news campaign.
NewsGuard is alsoÂ backedÂ by the Knight Foundation, a group that receives funding from theÂ Omidyar NetworkÂ andÂ Democracy Fund, both part of the agglomeration of institutions managed and supported by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.
Facebookâs Expanding Media Empire
This clique of far-right figures is really johnny-come-lately to Facebookâs plot to influence your worldview by pruning the information you access on their platform. Casting the initiative as a fulfillment of its responsibility as one of the largest distributors of information on the planet, Facebook began launching in 2017 a slew of ventures that partnered with the worldâs leading consent manufacturers to ensure their platform didnât interfere with the carefully manicured information landscape crafted by billionaire string-pullers like Omidyar and the Saudi Royal family.
By May 2018, Columbia Journalism Review was able toÂ hailÂ Facebook and Google for having sunk more than half a billion dollars into journalism initiatives, making them two of its largest funders on the planet.
The Facebook Journalism Project (FJP), launched in collaboration with the Comcast-dominatedÂ Vox MediaÂ and the Jeff Bezos-ownedÂ Washington Post, aimed to train journalists in what it called ânews literacy.â InÂ describingÂ FJPâs mission, theÂ New York TimesÂ effectively laid out a blueprint for social control:Â
The effort calls for the company to forge deeper ties with publishers by collaborating on publishing tools and features before they are released. Facebook will also develop training programs and tools for journalists to teach them how to better search its site to report on news and events. And Facebook wants to help train members of the public to find news sources they trust, while fighting the spread of fake news across its site.âÂ
FJPâs partnershipsÂ include the Knight Foundation, Poynter Institute, the American Journalism Project, and News Integrity Initiative, all of which are financially tied to the vast Omidyar media empire. Journalists Alexander Rubinstein and Max Blumenthal documentedÂ in atomic detail how through this media empire, Omidyar has directed an information war around the world to further U.S. foreign policy.
News integrity initiative
In April 2017, around the same time Facebook was laying out its plans to address the CIAâs claims that Russian bots were spreading election-spoiling disinformation on their platform, FacebookÂ joined upÂ with the Omidyar-backed Democracy Fund, the Ford Foundation,Â and othersÂ to launch News Integrity Initiative, a $14 million consortium rooted in the CUNY School of Journalism thatÂ aimedÂ to âadvance news literacy, to increase trust in journalism around the world and to better inform the public conversation.â To accomplish this, it would âcombat media manipulationâ through a network of âjournalists, technologists, academic institutions, non-profits, and other organizations.â
Some of NewsiIntegrity Initiativeâs projects haveÂ includedÂ helping to fund the Maastricht-based European Journalism Centre, another journalism training and funding outfit, as well asÂ Internews, a media outlet that gets four-fifths of its overall funding from the U.S. government to nakedlyÂ forwardÂ U.S. foreign policy from the Middle East to former Soviet republics.
Facebook was also a major funder of a British intelligence media front ironically named âIntegrity Initiative,â which made it their primary business to push stories hyping up the âRussian threatâ to Western Europe. The outfitÂ got its fundingÂ from the U.S. government via the State Department, the British government via the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the NATO alliance, and Facebook. The tech giant gave one of Integrity Initiativeâs parent organizations, the Smith Richardson Foundation, Â£100,000 for research and education activities â a scale of funding only outpaced by the US State Department and NATOâs Public Headquarters Division, which gave the group Â£250,000 and Â£168,000, respectively.
Integrity Initiative, like so many of the other outfits discussed here, served as a network for journalists and experts, through whom the funders were able to organize vast disinformation campaigns under the aegis of themselves fighting disinformation. The organization was essentially forced to shutter its operations following a damning expose by Anonymous and persistent investigative journalists in late 2018 and early 2019, but it had worked on an international scale under the direction of the Scottish think tank, The Institute for Statecraft, a group masquerading as a charity but actually cooperating closely with British intelligence.
In some cases, Integrity Initiative milled out its employees to ostensibly independent reporting outfits, such as the National Endowment for Democracy-funded Bellingcat; in others, it simply formed media disinformation hubs, such as the Open Information Partnership (OIP). SputnikâsÂ Kit KlarenbergÂ revealedÂ that the OIP partnered with the Atlantic Councilâs Digital Forensic Lab and others to combat âKremlin disinformation activitiesâ by protecting âvulnerable audiencesâ with a slew of ostensible corrections. However, betweenÂ peddlingÂ stories about the mysterious Skripal poisoning and amplifying al-Qaedaâs narrative on alleged Syrian government chemical attacks, the real disinformation activities were clearly the workings of the Integrity Initiative network itself.
Foxes in the henhouse: fact-checking at Facebook
Direct right-wing influence over Facebookâs newsfeed arrived in April 2018, when the site began using machine learning to hunt down disinformation previously identified by humans as such, enlisting artificial intelligence in its bid to curate the information you access. However, asÂ theÂ VergeÂ noted at the time, when Zuckerberg goes before Congress and says Facebookâs harmful content problems are being solved by AI, lawmakers think SkyNet or C3-PO, when really itâs more like a Google search.
The humans directing this âDisinformation Google Searchâ across Facebook are determined by Full Fact, part of the International Fact Checking Network (IFCN), which provides third-party vetting of myriad institutions it deems worthy to verify the factuality of news â although ironically, some fact-checkers apparently werenât evenÂ awareÂ they were supposed to be verifying advertisements, too.Â
The IFCNâs choices areÂ sometimes questionable, as when the group approved Check Your Fact, a subsidiary of The Daily Caller Foundation, a far-right associated spin site known for hiringÂ white supremacists, as an impartial judge.
But IFCN isnât the only group thatâs partnered with Facebook to sort through mountains of data: while the Cambridge Analytica scandal is well-known, still outside of public awareness is FacebookâsÂ partnershipÂ with the Omidyar-connected Knight Foundation as well as the Charles Koch Foundation, part of the network of nonprofits funded by the billionaire industrialists, the arch-conservative Koch Brothers.
Through this partnership, Facebook provided the foundations with a colossal amount of user data in the interests of preventing disinformation campaigns that might influence elections. However, these groups are themselves part of vast billionaire-directed electioneering networks thatÂ push the newsÂ in their own direction; that Omidyar and Koch are at opposite sides of the truncated US political spectrum is irrelevant, they have the same material interests and utilize ostensibly neutral public policy and objectivity-promoting groups to forward that.
Facebook dragging its feet in handing over enough user data to them has led to threats ofÂ withdrawalÂ from the program. The groupÂ Social Science One, which has managed the question for Facebook since the AI sorting began in April 2018, has been hesitant to âokayâ data divulgence with Knight and Koch after what happened with Cambridge Analytica.
A March 2018Â exposeÂ by a company whistleblower revealed that political data firm Cambridge Analytica had gained access to the private information ofÂ 87 millionÂ Americans via Facebook apps that collected data not only on the appâs users, but on their friends as well. Funded primarily by Trumpâs fascistic former adviser Steve Bannon and infamous Republican moneyman Robert Mercer, Cambridge Analytica was hired by Trumpâs 2016 election campaign to crunch numbers on voters.
According to theÂ New York Times, the firmâs goal was to âmap personality traits based on what people had liked on Facebook, and then use that information to target audiences with digital ads.â However, Facebook for years attempted to cover up its complacency with this operation, a very obvious violation of usersâ privacy, and even after the expose, continued to claim it wasnât a data breach because users had consented to divulge the information when they downloaded the apps in question.
At its core, Facebook, like all social media as well as Google, is a huge vacuum for personal information and behavioral data to be used by advertisers and other actors. Thatâs their business model:Â selling your informationÂ to corporations in order to market you products more effectively, and providing information to the U.S. intelligence community that can help it identify threats before they appear. In this way, social media are the true torch-carriers of ARPANET, the first internet, crafted by the Pentagonâs Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, now called DARPA) to provide intricate social models for combating communist insurgencies in Southeast Asia.
ARPANET: counterinsurgency computing
In the wake of the Soviet Union launching the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957, the U.S. government rushed to close the technological gap by sponsoring a greater educational focus on the STEM fields on the one hand, but also the development of a secretive emerging technologies R&D bureau to imagine, create, and test the high-tech weapons of the future for the Pentagon to use â what journalist Sharon Weinberger in her history of (D)ARPA called âthe imagineers of war.â
ARPA was created the following year and quickly enlisted in defense of anti-communist U.S. puppet NgÃ´ ÄÃ¬nh Diá»m, whose government in South Vietnam was quickly failing amid a burgeoning communist insurgency led by the National Liberation Front. ARPAâs first big operation, Project AGILE, began in 1961 with the goal of enlisting computers, then clunky machines used primarily for census-counting and artillery trajectory calculations, into helping sort through huge amounts of personal data on citizens in order to better determine when, where, and by whom a rebellion is likely to occur. AGILEâs mission statement, as noted in a 1971 General Accounting OfficeÂ report, described the programâs goals in part as âResearch and development supporting the DODâs operations in remote areas, associated with the problems of actual or potential limited or subversive wars involving allied or friendly nations in such areas.âÂ Â
Project AGILE created one of the worldâs first predictive behavior models, tested on Thai hill tribes and perfected in Vietnamâs Mekong Delta, where the Pentagon used AGILEâs methods in a deadly new pacification offensive.
By the late 1960s, the disastrous U.S. war in Vietnam and the upheavals of the struggles by Black people for civil rights had helped catapult the U.S. into an unprecedented social crisis. ARPA, too, had expanded dramatically, and just like anti-war and other social justice organizers were looking to the NLF for ideas, so too was ARPA, tasked with crushing the insurgency in South Vietnam and increasingly being enlisted to crush potential insurgency back home in the U.S. as well. The network of computers at various college campuses where ARPA research programs supporting AGILE and other like programs wasÂ first connectedÂ in 1969. Dubbed the ARPANET, the network soonÂ matched up with law enforcement to create shared dossiers on activists from the Black Panthers to the Redstockings.
But if the first internet was such a naked, if not secretive, weapon of class warfare, how come itâs not seen that way today? Only in the 1980s did the internet acquire its present-day image of a facilitator of freedom amid governmentsâ attempts at control, as a furious rebranding effort sought to convince Americans that computer networks werenât the harbingers of a technocratic dystopia, but rather a cybernetic utopia â a dynamic that journalist Yasha Levine recounted in his 2018 book âSurveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet.â Hierarchies would be a thing of the past, once the average person could plug into the total knowledge of humanity at will. This kind of sentiment appealed especially to hardcore libertarians, especially young techies like Steve Jobs, whose powerful Macintosh personal computers promised just such a link, complete with innovative new features like a graphic-user interface and mouse.
ARPANET and other similarly-named networks may have been spun off in privatization schemes during the 1990s dot-com boom, but despite the public image makeover, the relationship between internet-based tech firms and the Pentagon was scarcely different from the early days of ARPA.
For example, Facebookâs Building 8 research lab, which lasted from 2016 through 2018, was started up and headed for nearly all of that time byÂ Regina Dugan, a former director of DARPA. One of the most significant products of Building 8âs work on AI and VR was the Oculus virtual reality headset, which DARPAâs Plan X program manager Frank Pound once toldÂ WiredÂ was âlike youâre swimming in the internet.â Oculus went to DARPA, which in 2017 turned the VR headset developed by Facebook over to U.S. Cyber Command.
The cyber network became a social network, too. Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin met at Stanford Universityâs computer science Ph.D. program in the 1990s â one of the anchors for ARPANET, where they studied under some of its progenitors. The search engine they produced was a catalog for searching through sites on the emerging public internet, but its utility in tracking the connections made by the Google engine between people and the items they searched and predicting what someone might search in the future harkened back to ARPAâs original purpose.
Ok Google, track me
Today, Googleâs power over how we gather information about the world and make our subsequent determinations about it is truly massive.
The work of behavioral research psychologist Dr. Robert Epstein has helped expose the power Google holds over public opinion: in 2015, he first described the Search Engine Manipulation Effect in aÂ paperÂ published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and he has continued to polish the theory ever since.
Epstein wrote in aÂ PoliticoÂ article at the time titled, âHow Google Could Rig the 2016 Election: Google has the ability to drive millions of votes to a candidate with no one the wiser,â that âGoogleâs search algorithm can easily shift the voting preferences of undecided voters by 20 percent or more â up to 80 percent in some demographic groups â with virtually no one knowing they are being manipulated.â
Google ranks searches according to what it thinks users want to find, resulting in what the company calls âthe 10 blue links,â i.e., the first page of search results that pop up after hitting the Enter key. According to a 2014Â study, 90 percent of users donât advance to page 2 of search results, and a 2019Â studyÂ found that the first 5 links account for two thirds of page 1 clicks. As a result, high placement grants a much greater likelihood of being found and clicked on. With GoogleÂ accountingÂ for more than 79 percent of all global desktop search traffic, thatâs immense power.
While Google CEO Sundar PichaiÂ sworeÂ before Congress in December 2018 that Google doesnât make manual adjustments to the content it shows people, claiming that whatâs instead responsible is a complex algorithm that takes into account the search result sitesâ traffic, relevant terms searched, and other items, internal company documents leaked toÂ theÂ Daily CallerÂ in April 2019 showed that humans do still manually prune the search engineâs blacklists across multiple features on the site.
One such blacklist, the XPA news blacklist, covers nearly every feature except for the 10 blue links and is governed in part by a âmisrepresentation policy,â which is supposed to involve protecting users from sites that try to trick you into clicking on links on accident, but which was revealed by theÂ CallerÂ to include a host of conservative media outlets.
Google fist-in-glove with the Democrats
This is unsurprising, given Googleâs extensive liberal leanings.Â BetweenÂ 2004 and 2017, 90 percent of political donations from Google employees went to Democrats and in the 2018 and 2020Â election cycles, Googleâs parent holding company, Alphabet, Inc., gave 73 percent and 81 percent of its political contributions, respectively, to Democrats.
Several of Googleâs top figures flocked to Clintonâs 2016 campaign as well, includingÂ Stephanie Hannon, who went from being Googleâs director of product management for civic innovation and social impact to being the Clinton campaignâs Chief Technology Officer, andÂ Osi Imeokparia, who was Googleâs Product Management Director before becoming Clintonâs Chief Product Officer.
Eric Schmidt, then Alphabetâs Executive Chairman, helpedÂ organize and fundÂ Civis Analytics and The Groundwork, two firms that crunched poll numbers and other data analytics for Team Clinton during the 2016 campaign.
Further, in the runup to the 2016 U.S. election, Google pushed its users towards Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Epsteinâs research,Â publishedÂ in March 2017, found that in the six months from May to November 2016, Google search results were biased towards Clinton in ways that âcould not be accounted for by the bias in the search terms themselves,â Epstein wrote.Â
The popular YouTube pop culture channel SourceFed providedÂ further evidenceÂ when it published a video demonstrating that Googleâs suggested search completions favored Democrats and hurt Republicans. For example, typing âHillary Clinton crimâ into Google would yield the suggested autocomplete âHillary Clinton crime bill 1994,â while other search engines like Yahoo and Bing would show âHillary Clinton crimes.â Meanwhile, if you had typed âlyingâ into Google, the autocomplete suggestion would be âLying Ted Cruz,â then-candidate Donald Trumpâs derisive nickname for the Republican competitor. A comparable search of âCrooked Hillary,â Trumpâs nickname for the former secretary of state, gave no similar suggestion.
Assembling Google News Initiative
In 2015, Google launched its own media pruning organs, First Draft and the Google News Lab, inÂ conjunctionÂ with Facebook, Twitter, the George Soros-funded Open Society Foundations, the Omidyar-funded Knight Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and Craig Newmark Philanthropies, another billionaire philanthropist known for founding the website Craigslist. The two projectsâ goals will by now sound familiar: aiming to coordinate âefforts between newsrooms, fact-checking organizations, and academic institutions to combat mis- and disinformation.â
That same year, Google launched its Digital News Innovation Fund, which was later folded into the much larger Google News Initiative along with Google News Lab. Through DNI, GoogleÂ funneledÂ â¬115 million to 447 European media outlets in every single European Union member state toÂ âsupport high-quality journalism through technology and innovation.â However, with a majority of the funds going to media establishment staples like The Thomson Reuters Foundation and Telegraph Media Group, the move was widely interpretedÂ as Googleâs attempt to woo European media into a more friendly disposition.
That expanded to a much larger $300 millionÂ commitmentÂ in April 2018, when Google News Initiative was launched, and included a program to mass-train tens of thousands of fact-checkers to âmonitor disinformationâ in elections around the world. This kind of talk is really code-speak for what in the minds of security state thought police has become the perennial bugbear of Western civilization: âRussian meddling.â
Alphabetâs Eric Schmidt, too, is connected to the U.S. security state as well as to the Democratic Party, again proving that a cross-party link is established where the material interests of the billionaire class are shared. A man who joined the Google team early-on in 2001, by 2011 Schmidt was able to step down from Googleâs Chief Executive Officer to be the Executive Chairman of its Board of Directors with a $100 million equity award. He maintained that position through the 2015 restructuring of Google into the holding company Alphabet, Inc., stepping down in 2017 only to becomeÂ chairmanÂ of the Pentagonâs Defense Innovation Board, an advisory committee to the Secretary of Defense.Â
However, he stayed on at Alphabet as its technical advisor, swearing toÂ Defense OneÂ that âthereâs a ruleâ that he wasnât allowed to be briefed on Googleâs ongoing bid for the massive JEDI cloud computing contract from the Pentagon. Google has in the past also worked directly with the Defense Department on the drone intel analysis AI dubbed âProject Maven,â as well as its present contract for theÂ AI Next projectÂ with DARPA, the Google Earth project mentioned previously, and a host of other projects. The $10 billion JEDI contract was eventually given to Microsoft last month.
Likewise, Alphabet has been happy to oblige the State Department in conducting content purges similar to Twitter and Facebook, disabling accounts and channels it claims are âcoordinated influence operations.â One incident in August 2019 saw YouTube disable 210 accounts for promoting content critical of the anti-Beijing protests in Hong Kong; the tech giant claimedÂ on shaky evidenceÂ that the accounts were operating from mainland China.
Shane Huntley heads up Googleâs Threat Analysis Group, which identified the âthreatâ and made the call to disable the accounts; before joining Google in 2010, he worked as a computer security research scientist for Australiaâs Defence Science and Technology Organisation and then for the Australian government directly as a security software engineer. One of the so-called âFive Eyesâ intelligence-sharing countries, Australian intelligence cooperates closely with New Zealand, the U.S., Canada and UK intelligence services, and has played a major role in forwarding the U.S.-led effort to underminecontinued Chinese development.
We donât need you to type at allâ¦
âOne of the things that eventually happens â¦ is that we donât need you to type at all because we know where you are,â Schmidt, Googleâs then-CEO, said of the company in a 2010 interview withÂ The Atlantic. âWe know where youâve been. We can more or less guess what youâre thinking about.â He later added, âOne day we had a conversation where we figured we could just try to predict the stock market. And then we decided it was illegal. So we stopped doing that.â
On the internet, as in the realm of foreign policy, the U.S. security state is bipartisan in its bid to control the boundaries of acceptable behavior and thought, shepherding them by hook or crook into compliance.
The security state has sought to master this craft for more than half a century by sweeping through massive amounts of sociological data, tracking the attitudes, movements, and demographics of vast numbers of people in a bid to better map the tendency toward rebellion before it occurs. Tracking how billions of people navigate the internet, innocent of the knowledge theyâre even being watched, has provided the security state with the greatest petri dish it could have asked for.
Facebook and Google have emerged as two of the leading access portals between users and the outside world, and far from the image of impartiality they project, this prominence had made them central figures in governing which information from that world we are able to access. The ties between these firms and the U.S. defense and intelligence spheres are myriad, not only harnessing for their own ends the high-tech R&D these firms develop for their own platforms, but also ensuring the manufacturing of consent over issues both at home and abroad that are favorable to the imperialist oligarchy and their security state.
Morgan ArtyukhinaÂ is a Washington DC-based journalist and activist covering imperialism and war for Sputnik News, Liberation News, and other outlets. Follow Morgan on TwitterÂ @LavenderNRed.
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