Falling Over Themselves

The US government has threatened digital media corporations with anti-trust actions if they did not act quickly to censor the speech the government wants them to. And they have complied. Facebook boasted that it was working hand-in-hand with the Atlantic Council, an elite-funded US imperialist propaganda organisation, to “fact check” posts. [ Katie Harbarth, “Announcing New Election Partnership With the Atlantic Council,” Facebook, May 17, 2018].

Executives from numerous digital and social media organisations have been dragged to Washington, D.C., multiple times and raked by senators and members of Congress wo/men insisting they censor more blatantly and aggressively. Senator Dianne Feinstein did this in 2017, threatening social media companies with retaliation if they did not do something about “Russian interference.” [Maya Kosoff, “‘This Is A Big Deal’: Feinstein Lights Into Big Tech Over Russian Meddling,” Vanity Fair, November 1, 2017].

In another session, held later that year, representatives put further pressure on these companies to increase their monitoring and censorship of what these representatives deemed “problematic content.” [Andre Damon, “Former FBI agent says tech companies must ‘silence’ sources of ‘rebellion,’” World Socialist Web Site (WSWS.org), November 1, 2017]. Former FBI operatives–not lovers of free speech–spoke at this event and warned, “Stopping the false information artillery barrage landing on social media users comes only when those outlets distributing bogus stories are silenced—silence the guns, and the barrage will end.” [Andre Damon, “Former FBI agent says tech companies must ‘silence’ sources of ‘rebellion,’” World Socialist Web Site (WSWS.org), November 1, 2017].

Dianne Feinstein wrote a letter to Twitter’s CEO demanding that the corporation hand over profile information on “Russia-linked accounts.” [Andre Damon, “Former FBI agent says tech companies must ‘silence’ sources of ‘rebellion,’” World Socialist Web Site (WSWS.org), November 1, 2017]. Their close coordination with the government is now public knowledge.“Facebook, Google and other major tech companies said on Wednesday that they had added new partners and met with government agencies to secure the November election.”  [Mike Isaac and Kate Conger, “Google, Facebook and Others Broaden Group to Secure U.S. Election,” New York Times, April 12, 2020].

Our democratic institutions have been made safe.

Today, social media corporate executives are sitting inside the US government. Jeff Zients, a former Facebook board member, has been asked to co-chair Biden’s transition team. Another former board member is an adviser. Two others–one who was a Facebook director and another a company lobbyist–have taken leadership roles. [Nancy Scola and Alex Thompson, “Former Facebook leaders are now transition insiders,” Politico, November 16, 2020]. The liberal Left in the US has increasingly pressured social media corporations to censor what it deems to be the wrong type of information. Scola and Thompson reported that “Democrats have been angry with Facebook since 2016 when they thought that the company let both Russian disinformation artists and conservatives run amok and post falsehoods, happy to run a right-wing echo chamber.” [Nancy Scola and Alex Thompson, “Former Facebook leaders are now transition insiders,” Politico, November 16, 2020].

The liberal commitment to free speech and freedom of the press is relatively shallow. “They’re allowing these fake news stories to run rampant,” Megan Clasen, a senior paid media advisor to the Biden campaign, complained. “And people are seeing those and not seeing real information.” [ Nancy Scola and Alex Thompson, “Former Facebook leaders are now transition insiders,” Politico, November 16, 2020].

Apparently, “real information” is only what Clasen feeds to Facebook. 

On the other hand, firms like Google, Apple, and Amazon exploit their monopoly positions to push their products and services while locking out others. In the last two decades, Google has acquired nearly 270 companies, including competitors and potential competitors. Facebook has acquired almost 100 companies since 2007, including many competitors. It has shut down at least 29 of these acquisitions. [Tim Wu and Stuart A. Thompson, “The Roots of Big Tech Run Disturbingly Deep,” New York Times, June 7, 2019].

The government has yet to challenge one of these acquisitions, although there is increasing scrutiny.

However, the European Union (EU) hit Google with a $1.7 Billion fine for placing “exclusivity contracts on website owners, stopping them from including search results from Google’s rivals.” [David Reid, “EU regulators hit Google with $1.7 billion fine for blocking ad rivals,” CNBC, March 20, 2019]. Another $5 billion fine followed over unfair practices related to Google’s Android™ mobile operating system. [Ryan Browne, “Google’s smaller rivals say it’s not playing fair after record EU antitrust fine,” CNBC, September 29, 2020].

The penalties are not making a significant difference; Google was fined $2.7 billion for breaching antitrust rules around its online shopping service back in 2017. [Mark Scott, “Google Fined Record $2.7 Billion in EU Antitrust Ruling,” New York Times, June 27, 2017]. It was also fined $5.1 billion for using its Android mobile operating system to cement its search engine’s dominance. [Adam Satariano and Jack Nicas, “EU Fines Google $5.1 Billion in Android Antitrust Case,” New York Times, July 18, 2018]. As the core platform for the internet, Google privileges its services, reviews, images, maps, book searches, and so on while excluding other service providers and exploiting its powerful monopoly position. [Jennifer Elias, “Google ‘overwhelmingly’ dominates search market, antitrust committee states,” CNBC, October 6, 2020].

Facebook remains the other behemoth on the internet. It has repeatedly mishandled user data, abused its access to user devices, exploited its monopoly position to disseminate questionable information, and collaborated with those looking to interfere in political processes. Today, nearly 70% of US adults use Facebook, with almost 43% using it as their source of news and information. Most do not even understand how Facebook exploits their personal and user data or how its algorithms influence what they see. [John Gramlich, “10 facts about Americans and Facebook,” Pew Research Center, May 16, 2019].

These corporations have long had close, deep, and close working relationships with institutions like the National Security Association (NSA), the CIA, and other federal agencies. [Jason Leopold, “Exclusive: Emails reveal close Google relationship with NSA,” Al-Jazeera America, May 6, 2014]. Today, there are no boundaries between corporate media organisations and the state and intelligence apparatus of power. 

The hysterical and unreasonable calls to ban and block Trump and his supporters from social media platforms fail to address the fundamental failures of governance and capitalist overreach that have left us in the current news media mess. They only feed an already censorious news environment, where political allegiances increasingly influence people’s ideas of what constitutes reasonable and unreasonable speech. Calls to silence opponents now come from both sides of the aisle, and our newspapers, journalists, and corporations are unashamed to fly colours celebrating their political party allegiance. [Daniel Oberhaus, “Silicon Valley Opens Its Wallet for Joe Biden,” Wired, October 6, 2020].

As journalist and writer Glenn Greenwald pointed out, posturing as a “democratic” and “antagonistic” press by declaring:

That Donald Trump is a fascist-like dictator threatening the previously sturdy foundations of US democracy has been a virtual requirement over the last four years to obtain entrance to cable news Green Rooms, sinecures as mainstream newspaper columnists, and popularity in faculty lounges. Yet it has proven to be a preposterous farce.

Glenn Greenwald, “The Threat of Authoritarianism in the US is Very Real, and Has Nothing To Do With Trump,” Substack: Greenwald, December 28, 2020

The same people who expressed “outrage” at Trump’s practices and policies remained silent or offered justifications when politicians of their choice carried out the same procedures. 

Our current predicaments result from political “choices that enabled the rise of these toxic but wildly lucrative business models.” [Matt Stoller and Sarah Miller, “Donald Trump being banned from social media is a dangerous distraction,” The Guardian, January 11, 2021].

Since the 1970s, policymakers have been enamoured with libertarian and “free market” mythologies, altered advertising, publishing, and information distribution rules, including killing critical protections like the Fairness Doctrine. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was perhaps the most radical move, removing all media ownership restrictions and creating the merger mania that has left us with a highly concentrated media ecosystem. [Matt Stoller and Sarah Miller, “Donald Trump being banned from social media is a dangerous distraction,” The Guardian, January 11, 2021].

Artist and writer Victor Burgin pointed out that “more than any other textual system, the photograph presents itself as ‘an offer you can’t refuse.’” [Victor Burgin, “Looking at Photographs,” In Victor Burgin (Ed), Thinking Photography, MacMillan Press, 1982:145-146].

As viewers of photographs, we do not critically read them but passively accept them as truth. Similarly, journalism is a textual form that gives its readers “an offer they cannot refuse.” Readers assume journalistic articles, essays, and commentary to be unambiguous in their meaning and transparent in depicting truth and the world. But, as John Tagg argued when speaking about “realism” in journalism:

It is the product that is stressed, and production that is repressed. All that matters is the illusion; just as in the capitalist economy all that matters is the value of the commodity measured against the general medium of exchange–money. Production is entirely elided.

John Tagg, “A Means of Surveillance: The Photograph as Evidence in Law,” In Barry Smart (Ed), Michel Foucault: Critical Assessments, Volume 7, Routledge, 1995:51-52

People often forget what lies behind producing news and news photography. Instead, they willingly accept journalism’s offer of truth, objectivity, neutrality, and transparency. But what lies ‘behind’ has undergone radical changes as private, corporate, and political interests have transformed journalism’s ownership, business, and political structure.

The concentration in media ownership, the powerful influence of private capital, the unthinking pursuit of consumers through eyeballs, clicks, likes, and followers, the singular commitment to profit, the frantic rhythms of a 24×7 new media cycle, and the furthering of the marriage between the Fourth Estate, the hegemonic power of Internet gateways and their close relationship to political power have changed the news game in unrecognisable ways. Yet the journalist’s deep entrenchment in a global corporate media machine is elided and veiled. 

Journalists perpetuate independence and individual agency claims because it helps distance them from their apparent allegiance to political, national, political, and ethnic institutional structures and allows them to construct the facade of objectivity, neutrality, and balance. Victor Pickard reminds us that “material and structural factors–including how media institutions and information systems are owned and organised–dramatically impact a media system’s openness and diversity.” [Victor Pickard, Democracy Without Journalism? Confronting the Misinformation Society, Oxford University Press, 2020: 105-106].

The increasing commercialisation of US media has distorted almost every myth we once believed about the discipline. The irony is that newspapers, digital news, and broadcast media remain essential and influential determinants of social, political, and cultural ideas and values. Their influence and reach are more significant today than ever before. 

Commercialisation has led to a growing concern for advertiser interests and the censorship that ensures a thoughtless pursuit of profit over the content. It has meant employment precarity, increasing dependence on consumer feedback and trends, a reduction in coverage of issues important to the working class, jingoistic exploitation of nationalist and patriotic ideologies, increasing reliance on rumour, innuendo, misinformation, political talking points, anonymous sources to save costs and avoid controversies. 

And yet, curators, editors, journalists, and photographers speak of themselves, their works, and their role in the world as individual practitioners, as heroes in a fantasy of their own making, devoted to a fetishism that disavows the material realities of production processes.