The YouTube Ban Is Un-American, Wrong, and Will Backfire
Silicon Valley couldn't have designed a better way to further radicalize Trump voters
|Matt Taibbi||Dec 11, 2020|| 614||1,298|
Start with the headline: Supporting the 2020 U.S. Election. YouTube in its company blog can’t even say, “Banning Election Conspiracy Theories.” They have to employ the Orwellian language of politicians — Healthy Forests, Clear Skies, “Supported” Elections — because Google and YouTube are now political actors, who can’t speak plainly any more than a drunk can walk in a straight line.
The company wrote Wednesday:
Yesterday was the safe-harbor deadline for the U.S. Presidential election and enough states have certified their election results to determine a President-elect. Given that, we will start removing any piece of content uploaded today (or anytime after) that misleads people by alleging that widespread fraud or errors changed the outcome of the 2020 U.S. Presidential election... For example, we will remove videos claiming that a Presidential candidate won the election due to widespread software glitches or counting errors.
This announcement came down at roughly the same time Hunter Biden was announcing that his “tax affairs” were under investigation by the U.S. Attorney in Delaware. Part of that investigation concerned whether or not he had violated tax and money laundering laws in, as CNN put it, “foreign countries, principally China.” Information suggestive of money-laundering and tax issues in China and other countries was in the cache of emails reported in the New York Post story blocked by Twitter and Facebook.
That news was denounced as Russian disinformation by virtually everyone in “reputable” media, who often dismissed the story with an aristocratic snort, a la Christiane Amanpour:
That tale was not Russian disinformation, however, and Biden’s announcement this week strongly suggests Twitter and Facebook suppressed a real story of legitimate public interest just before a presidential election.
How important was that Hunter Biden story? That’s debatable, but the fact that tech companies blocked it, and professional journalists gleefully lied about it, has a direct bearing on YouTube’s decision now to bar Trumpist freakouts over the election results.
If you want a population of people to stop thinking an election was stolen from them, it’s hard to think of a worse method than ordering a news blackout after it’s just been demonstrated that the last major blackout was a fraud. Close your eyes and imagine what would have happened if Facebook and Google had banned 9/11 Truth on the advice of intelligence officials in the Bush years, and it will start to make sense that Trump voters in Guy Fawkes masks are now roaming the continent like buffalo.
The YouTube decision also came on the same day that former CIA officer Evan McMullin tweeted this:
McMullin was the Never-Trump conservative who ran for president in 2016 and received glowing coverage from The Washington Post and other outlets as the man who “stands a fair chance of stealing the red state of Utah from GOP nominee Donald Trump.” The same outlet that blasted Jill Stein’s “fairy tale candidacy” had Josh Rogin write a slobbering blowjob profile of McMullin just before the 2016 election, hailing his “steady personality, honesty, and work ethic” and gushing at the possibility that he might become the first third-party candidate to win a state since 1968. “That,” Rogin noted without irony, “might be his most successful covert operation.”
Intelligence officers like McMullin have spent much of the last four years conditioning the public to accept the idea that aggressive steps need to be taken to stop “foreign disinformation” or “foreign interference,” in the media landscape most of all. A move to stop “domestic anti-democracy disinformation” on “both the supply and demand sides” (wtf!?) is a serious escalation of that idea.
Signs pointed to this moment coming. This past August, the office of the Director of National Intelligence released an assessment that foreign countries were seeking to spread “disinformation” in the run-up to the election. In October, Virginia Democrat (and former CIA official) Abigail Spanberger piggybacked on that report and introduced a bill designed to cut down on “foreign disinformation.”
The law among other things would require that political ads or content produced by foreign governments be marked by disclaimers, and that companies should remove any such content appearing without disclaimers. It would also expand language in the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requiring that any content intended to influence U.S. citizens politically be reported to the Department of Justice.
Stipulate that this is all above board, that there’s nothing odd about the Department of Justice monitoring political ads, or registering content creators, or permanent bureaucrats in intelligence agencies publishing their takes on which presidential candidate is preferred by conniving foreign adversary nations. The United States has survived a long time without such procedures, but sure: an argument can be made that any country has an interest in alerting its citizens to foreign messaging.
Where it gets weird is when the effort to stamp out “foreign interference” is transferred to the domestic media landscape. Intelligence agencies, think tanks, and mainstream news agencies have been preparing us for this concept for years as well. This dates back to the infamous 2016 Washington Post story hyping PropOrNot, a shadowy organization that identified a long list of homegrown American news sites like Consortium, TruthDig, Naked Capitalism, and Antiwar.Com as vehicles for “Russian propaganda.”
Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal two years ago insisted the Russians in attempting to disrupt our lives “will use American voices. No longer the broken English, no longer the payment in rubles. They will become ever more astute in their attacks.” Think-tanks began hyping ideas about “domestic-origin disinformation” and foreign countries “co-opting authentic American voices.”
As time passed in the Trump years, we started reading on a regular basis that Russian propaganda efforts would be harder to detect, because they would be routed through people appearing on the outside, like Nexus 6 replicants, to be ordinary human Americans. In late February earlier this year, at the peak of the preposterous campaign to depict Bernie Sanders as a favorite of the Kremlin, David Sanger of the New York Times warned that Russians were purposefully sending messages through “everyday Americans” because “it is much harder to ban the words of real Americans.”
When The Bulwark, basically the reanimated corpse of Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard, wrote some weeks back about Donald Trump holding a “maskless anti-democracy disinformation rally straight out of Vladimir Putin’s dreams,” that language wasn’t accidental. This was part of a P.R. campaign, years in the making, preparing us for the idea that domestic voices can be just as dangerous as foreign ones, and similarly need to be stamped out.
The YouTube announcement is the latest salvo in the fight against “domestic anti-democracy information,” and the first of many problems with it is its hypocrisy. Do I personally believe the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump? No. However, I also didn’t believe the election was stolen from Hillary Clinton in 2016, when the Internet was bursting at the seams with conspiracy theories nearly identical to the ones now being propagated by Trump fans:
Unrestrained speculation about the illegitimacy of the 2016 election had a major impact on the public. Surveys showed 50 percent of Clinton voters by December of 2016 believed the Russians actually hacked vote tallies in states, something no official agency ever alleged even at the peak of the Russiagate madness. Two years later, one in three Americans believed a foreign power would change vote tallies in the 2018 midterm elections.
These beliefs were turbo-charged by countless “reputable” news reports and statements by politicians that were either factually incorrect or misleading, from the notion that there was “more than circumstantial” evidence of collusion to false alarms about Russians hacking everything from Vermont’s energy grid to C-SPAN.
What makes the current situation particularly grotesque is that the DNI warning about this summer stated plainly that a major goal of foreign disruptors was to “undermine the public’s confidence in the Democratic process” by “calling into question the validity of the election results.”
Our own domestic intelligence agencies have been doing exactly that for years now. On nearly a daily basis in the leadup to this past Election Day, they were issuing warnings in the corporate press that you might have reason to mistrust the coming results:
Amazing how those stories vanished after Election Day! If you opened any of those pre-vote reports, you’d find law enforcement and intelligence officials warning that everything from state and local governments to “aviation networks” was under attack.
In fact, go back across the last four years and you’ll find a consistent feature of warnings about foreign or domestic “disinformation”: the stern scare quote from a bona fide All-Star ex-spook or State official, from Clint Watts to Victoria Nuland to Frank Figliuzzi to John Brennan to McMullan’s former boss and buddy, ex-CIA chief Michael Hayden. A great many of these figures are now paid contributors to major corporate news organizations.
What do we think the storylines would be right now if Trump had won? What would those aforementioned figures be saying on channels like MSNBC and CNN, about what would they be speculating? Does anyone for a moment imagine that YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook would block efforts from those people to raise doubts about that hypothetical election result?
We know the answer to that question, because all of those actors spent the last four years questioning the legitimacy of Trump’s election without any repercussions. The Atlantic, quoting the likes of Hayden, ran a piece weeks after Trump’s election arguing that it was the duty of members of the Electoral College to defy voters and elect Hillary Clinton on national security grounds. Mass protests were held to disrupt the Electoral College vote in late December 2016, and YouTube cheerfully broadcast videos from those events. When Electoral vote tallies were finally read out in congress, ironically by Joe Biden, House members from at least six states balked, with people like Barbara Lee objecting on the grounds of “overwhelming evidence of Russian interference in our election.”
In sum, it’s okay to stoke public paranoia, encourage voters to protest legal election results, spread conspiracy theories about stolen elections, refuse to endorse legal election tallies, and even to file lawsuits challenging the validity of presidential results, so long as all of this activity is sanctified by officials in the right party, or by intelligence vets, or by friendlies at CNN, NBC, the New York Times, etc.
If, however, the theories are coming from Donald Trump or some other disreputable species of un-credentialed American, then it’s time for companies like YouTube to move in and wipe out 8000+ videos and nudge people to channels like CBS and NBC, as well as to the home page of the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. This is a process YouTube calls “connecting people to authoritative information.”
Cutting down the public’s ability to flip out removes one of the only real checks on the most dangerous kind of fake news, the official lie. Imagine if these mechanisms had been in place in the past. Would we disallow published claims that the Missile Gap was a fake? That the Gulf of Tonkin incident was staged? How about Watergate, a wild theory about cheating in a presidential election that was universally disbelieved by “reputable” news agencies, until it wasn’t? It’s not hard to imagine a future where authorities would ask tech platforms to quell “conspiracy theories” about everything from poisoned water systems to war crimes.
There’s no such thing as a technocratic approach to truth. There are official truths, but those are political rather than scientific determinations, and therefore almost always wrong on some level. The people who created the American free press understood this, even knowing the tendency of newspapers to be idiotic and full of lies. They weighed that against the larger potential evil of a despotic government that relies upon what Thomas Jefferson called a “standing army of newswriters” ready to print whatever ministers want, “without any regard for truth.”
We allow freedom of religion not because we want people believing in silly religions, but because it’s the only defense against someone establishing one officially mandated silly religion. With the press, we put up with gossip and errors and lies not because we think those things are socially beneficial, but because we don’t want an aristocratic political establishment having a monopoly on those abuses. By allowing some conspiracy theories but not others, that’s exactly the system we’re building.
Most of blue-state America is looking aghast at news stories about 17 states joining in a lawsuit to challenge the election results. Conventional wisdom says that half the country has been taken over by a dangerous conspiracist movement that must be tamed by any means necessary. Acts like the YouTube ban not only don’t accomplish this, they’ll almost certainly further radicalize this population. This is especially true in light of the ongoing implication that Trump’s followers are either actual or unwitting confederates of foreign enemies.
That insult is bad enough when it’s leveled in words only, but when it’s backed up by concrete actions to change a group’s status, like reducing an ability to air grievances, now you’re removing some of the last incentives to behave like citizens. Do you want 70 million Trump voters in the streets with guns and go-bags? Tell them you consider them the same as foreign enemies, and start treating them accordingly. This is a stupid, dangerous, wrong policy, guaranteed to make things worse.