Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Specter of Fake News Creates Justification for Surveillance and Censorship

"Europe Combats a New Foe of Political Stability: Fake News," by Mark Scott and Melissa Eddy, provides an encapsulation of efforts underway in Europe and the United States to police the Fake News phenomenon.

Part and parcel of the New McCarythism sweeping Western capitals, Fake News, as conjured up by embattled government officials and their partners in the mainstream media, is a plot by Russia and its army of trolls to spread bogus -- often times titillatingly so -- stories in social media and the blogosphere that undermine support of and trust in the prestige press, centrist political parties and government. 

That's the official version of Fake News. What's really going on is a desperate, fumbling attempt by the elite to herd citizens who no longer believe in the dominant neoliberal paradigm. (When real examples of Fake News are provided it is usually something with a commercial motive, like the Fake News campaign 20th Century Fox launched to promote its feature film, A Cure For Wellness.) 

Erosion of support for the neoliberal center is branded fake and sourced to Russian hackers and trolls. That way the elites buy themselves a little time to see if they can figure things out. Maybe there's another avatar of the mainstream, like Barack Obama, waiting in the wings. Maybe there is a high-tech fix to filter and censor all that social media traffic.

Scott and Eddy describe rapid response team East Stratfor, established by the European Union, and its work to combat Fake News. It is clear, given the volume of online traffic, that it is a futile effort:
The East Stratcom team is the first to admit that it is outgunned: The task is overwhelming, the volume of reports immense, the support to combat them scant.
The team tries to debunk bogus items in real time on Facebook and Twitter and publishes daily reports and a weekly newsletter on fake stories to its more than 12,000 followers on social media.
But its list of 2,500 fake reports is small compared with the daily churn across social media. Catching every fake news story would be nearly impossible, and the fake reports the team does combat routinely get a lot more viewers than its myth-busting efforts.
East Stratcom is purely a communications exercise. Still, team members, most of whom speak Russian, have received death threats, and a Czech member of the team has twice been accused on Russian television of espionage.
The team in Brussels is not the only force in Europe fighting the problem. Similar groups are being created from Finland to the Czech Republic to disprove online hoaxes, state agencies are improving online security to counter potential hacking attacks and European news media outlets are expanding fact-checking teams to counter false reports.
Though the effort is futile, it does allow for the mainstream media to print and broadcast about the Fake News phenomenon. In the Scott-Eddy story Emmanuel Macron is singled out as a Fake News target, as is Angela Merkel:
In Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel is facing tough competition ahead of elections in September, the country’s domestic intelligence service already has reported a sharp rise in so-called phishing attacks in recent months aimed at political parties and members of the country’s Parliament. 
They attribute these efforts to the hacking group known as Fancy Bear, or APT 28, which American intelligence agencies linked to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee before the presidential election. Both American and German intelligence officials believe the group is operated by the G.R.U., the Russian military intelligence service.
It is always a good day for The New York Times when it can remind its readers that the DNC was hacked by Fancy Bear.

Besides performing an indispensable "public diplomacy" role by inflating an Oz-like Fake News specter, groups like East Strator are the camel's nose in the tent of the tech giants:
The German government is weighing potential hefty fines for tech giants like Google and Facebook, whose platforms allow false stories to be quickly circulated. The companies insist that they cannot be held responsible because they do not generate the stories.
Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence service, said that although there was no “smoking gun,” Russia was likely to be involved in the increase in online misinformation aimed at destabilizing German politics.
“What makes cyberattacks so sexy for foreign powers is that it is nearly impossible to find a smoking gun,” Mr. Maassen said in an interview with Phoenix TV Feb. 12. “It is always possible to cover your tracks and operate undercover.”
American tech giants also have stepped in after they were accused of not doing enough to counter false reports on their platforms, accusations that Facebook, Google and other companies deny. They are now funding initiatives in the United States, France and elsewhere to flag fake news online and remove posts if they are found to violate companies’ terms of use or local laws.
“This isn’t just about debunking falsehoods,” said Jenni Sargent, the managing director of First Draft News, a nonprofit that is partly funded by Google and expanding rapidly in France ahead of the country’s elections, as well as across Europe and beyond. “What we’re trying to do is to deal with the content as opposed to the source.”
Such efforts across Europe have gained momentum since the United States’ presidential election.
This of course is surveillance and censorship. It is an enormous task for the tech giants. Their censorship bots are going to have to get much more refined. But by that time it will too late. The neoliberal center is splintering faster than can be managed. What the elites need is something like the Chinese have, a Great Firewall. Can the deep state pull it off. Not under present circumstances.

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