The real fight against fake news
Project Censored reveals the 10 most under-reported stories of 2018
Fake news is not a new thing. With the return of its annual list of censored stories in Censored 2019: Fighting the Fake News Invasion, Project Censored’s vivid cover art recalls H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. The situation today may feel as desolate as the cover art suggests.
“But Censored 2019 is a book about fighting fake news,” editors Andy Lee Roth and Mickey Huff observed in the book’s introduction.
They wrote that “critical media education—rather than censorship, blacklists, privatized fact-checkers or legislative bans—is the best weapon for fighting the ongoing fake news invasion.”
The list of censored stories is central to Project Censored’s mission, which, the editors point out, can be read in two different ways, “as a critique of the shortcomings of U.S. corporate news media for their failure to adequately cover these stories, or as a celebration of independent news media, without which we would remain either uninformed or misinformed about these crucial stories and issues.”
With all that in mind, here is Project Censored’s annual Top 10 list of under-reported stories.
1. Declining rule of law, human rights
According to the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index 2017-2018, released in January 2018, a striking worldwide decline in basic human rights has driven an overall decline in the rule of law since October 2016, the month before Trump’s election. Fundamental rights—one of eight categories measured—declined in 71 out of 113 nations surveyed. Overall, 34 percent of countries’ scores declined, while just 29 percent improved. The United States ranked 19th, down one from 2016, with declines in checks on government powers and deepening discrimination.
Fundamental rights include absence of discrimination, right to life and security, due process, freedom of expression and religion, right to privacy, freedom of association and labor rights.
Constraints on government powers, which measures the extent to which those who govern are bound by law, saw the second greatest declines (64 countries out of 113 dropped). This is where the United States saw the greatest deterioration, the World Justice Project said in a press release. “While all sub-factors in this dimension declined at least slightly from 2016, the score for lawful transition of power—based on responses to survey questions on confidence in national and local election processes and procedures—declined most markedly,” the press release said.
The United States also scored notably poorly on several measurements of discrimination.
“With scores of .50 for equal treatment and absence of discrimination (on a scale of 0 to 1), .48 for discrimination in the civil justice system, and .37 for discrimination in the criminal justice system, the U.S. finds itself ranked 78 out of 113 countries on all three subfactors,” the World Justice Project stated.
The four Nordic countries—Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden—remained in the top four positions.
2. Secrets sold to highest bidders
In March 2017, WikiLeaks released Vault 7, a trove of 8,761 leaked confidential CIA files about its global hacking programs, which it described as the “largest ever publication of confidential documents on the agency.” It drew media attention. But almost no one noticed what George Eliason of OpEdNews pointed out: “Sure, the CIA has all these tools available. Yes, they are used on the public. The important part is [that] it’s not the CIA that’s using them.” Eliason explained, the CIA’s mission prevents it from using the tools, especially on Americans.
“All the tools are unclassified, open-source, and can be used by anyone,” Eliason explained. “It makes them not exactly usable for secret agent work.”
Drawing heavily on more than a decade of reporting by Tim Shorrock for Mother Jones and the Nation, Eliason’s OpEdNews series reported on the explosive growth of private contractors in the intelligence community, which allows the CIA and other agencies to gain access to intelligence gathered by methods they’re prohibited from using.
In a 2016 report for the Nation, Shorrock estimated that 80 percent of around 58,000 private intelligence contractors worked for the five largest companies. He concluded that “not only has intelligence been privatized to an unimaginable degree, but an unprecedented consolidation of corporate power inside U.S. intelligence has left the country dangerously dependent on a handful of companies for its spying and surveillance needs.”
Eliason reported how private contractors pioneered open-source intelligence by circulating or selling the information they gathered before the agency employing them had reviewed and classified it. Therefore, “no one broke any laws.” As a result, he wrote, “People with no security clearances and radical political agendas have state-sized cyber tools at their disposal.”
3. Richest 1 percent get richer
In November 2017, financial services company Credit Suisse released its eighth annual Global Wealth Report, which The Guardian reported on under the headline “Richest 1 percent own half the world’s wealth, study finds.”
The wealth share of the world’s richest people increased “from 42.5 percent at the height of the 2008 financial crisis to 50.1 percent in 2017, or $140tn (£106tn),” The Guardian reported, adding that “The biggest losers … are young people who should not expect to become as rich as their parents.”
Despite being more educated than their parents, “millennials are doing less well than their parents at the same age, especially in relation to income, home ownership and other dimensions of well-being assessed in this report,” Credit Suisse Chairman Urs Rohner said. “We expect only a minority of high achievers and those in high demand sectors such as technology or finance to effectively overcome the ‘millennial disadvantage.'”
“No other part of the wealth pyramid has been transformed as much since 2000 as the millionaire and ultra-high net worth individual (known as UHNWI) segments,” according to the report. “The number of millionaires has increased by 170 percent, while the number of UHNWIs (individuals with net worth of USD 50 million or more) has risen five-fold, making them by far the fastest-growing group of wealth holders.”
There were 2.3 million new millionaires this year, taking the total to 36 million.
“At the other end of the spectrum, the world’s 3.5 billion poorest adults each have assets of less than $10,000,” The Guardian reported. “Collectively, these people, who account for 70 percent of the world’s working-age population, account for just 2.7 percent of global wealth.”
“Tremendous concentration of wealth and the extreme poverty that results from it are problems that affect everyone in the world, but wealth inequalities do not receive nearly as much attention as they should in the establishment press,” Project Censored noted. “The few corporate news reports that have addressed this issue—including an August 2017 Bloomberg article and a July 2016 report for CBS-MoneyWatch—focused exclusively on wealth inequality within the United States. As Project Censored has previously reported, corporate news consistently covers the world’s billionaires while ignoring millions of humans who live in poverty.”
4. Wireless companies and cellphone safety
Are cellphones and other wireless devices as safe as we’ve been led to believe? Don’t bet on it, according to decades of buried research reviewed in a March 2018 investigation for the Nation by Mark Hertsgaard and Mark Dowie.
“The wireless industry not only made the same moral choices that the tobacco and fossil-fuel industries did, it also borrowed from the same public relations playbook those industries pioneered,” Hertsgaard and Dowie reported. “Like their tobacco and fossil-fuel brethren, wireless executives have chosen not to publicize what their own scientists have said about the risks of their products. … On the contrary, the industry—in America, Europe and Asia—has spent untold millions of dollars in the past 25 years proclaiming that science is on its side, that the critics are quacks, and that consumers have nothing to fear.”
A Kaiser Permanente study (published December 2017 in Scientific Reports) found much higher risks of miscarriage. A study in the October 2017 American Journal of Epidemiology, found increased risk for glioma (a type of brain tumor), and a disclosure by the National Frequency Agency of France found that nine out of 10 cellphones exceed government radiation safety limits when tested in the way they are actually used, next to the human body.
As the Nation reported, George Carlo was a scientist hired by the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association in 1993 to research cellphone safety and allay public fears, heading up the industry-financed Wireless Technology Research project. But he was fired and publicly attacked by the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association in 1999, after uncovering disturbing evidence of danger.
Carlo sent letters to each of the industry’s chieftains on Oct. 7, 1999, reiterating that the Wireless Technology Research project had found the following:
“The risk of rare neuro-epithelial tumors on the outside of the brain was more than doubled … in cellphone users,” there was an apparent “correlation between brain tumors occurring on the right side of the head and the use of the phone on the right side of the head;” and “the ability of radiation from a phone’s antenna to cause functional genetic damage [was] definitely positive.”
The Kaiser Permanente study involved exposure to magnetic field nonionizing radiation associated with wireless devices as well as cellphones and found a 2.72 times higher risk of miscarriage for those with higher versus lower exposure. Lead investigator De-Kun Li warned that the possible effects of this radiation have been controversial because, “from a public health point of view, everybody is exposed. If there is any health effect, the potential impact is huge.”
While some local media have covered the findings of a few selected studies, Project Censored notes, “the norm for corporate media is to report the telecom industry line—that is, that evidence linking Wi-Fi and cellphone radiation to health issues, including cancer and other medical problems, is either inconclusive or disputed. … As Hertsgaard and Dowie’s Nation report suggested, corporate coverage of this sort is partly how the telecom industry remains successful in avoiding the consequences of [its] actions.”
5. WaPo suppresses employees’ criticism
On May 1, 2017, the Washington Post introduced a policy prohibiting its employees from criticizing its advertisers and business partners and encouraging them to snitch on one another.
“A new social-media policy at The Washington Post prohibits conduct on social media that ‘adversely affects The Post’s customers, advertisers, subscribers, vendors, suppliers or partners,” Andrew Beaujon reported in The Washingtonian the next month. “In such cases, Post management reserves the right to take disciplinary action ‘up to and including termination of employment.'” Beaujon also cited “A clause that encourages employees to snitch on one another: ‘If you have any reason to believe that an employee may be in violation of The Post’s Social Media Policy … you should contact The Post’s Human Resources Department.'”
At the time, the Washington-Baltimore News Guild, which represents the Post’s employees, was protesting the policy and was seeking removal of the controversial parts in a new labor agreement.
A follow-up report by Whitney Webb for MintPress News highlighted the broader possible censorship effects, as prohibiting social media criticism could spill over into reporting as well.
“Among The Washington Post’s advertisers are corporate giants like GlaxoSmithKline, Bank of America and Koch Industries,” Webb wrote. “With the new policy, social media posts criticizing GlaxoSmithKline’s habit of making false and misleading claims about its products, inflating prices and withholding crucial drug safety information from the government will no longer be made by Post employees.”
Beyond that, Webb suggested it could protect the CIA, which has $600 million contract with Amazon Web Services. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos purchased The Post four months after that contract was signed.
“While criticism of the CIA is not technically prohibited by the new policy, former Post reporters have suggested that making such criticisms could endanger one’s career,” Webb noted.
He added that in 2013, former Post writer John Hanrahan told Alternet, “Post reporters and editors are aware that Bezos, as majority owner of Amazon, has a financial stake in maintaining good relations with the CIA—and this sends a clear message to even the hardest-nosed journalist that making the CIA look bad might not be a good career move.”
“Corporate news coverage of the Washington Post’s social media policy has been extremely limited,” Project Censored noted.
It’s part of a much broader problem, identified in Jeremy Iggers’ 1998 book, Good News, Bad News: Journalism Ethics and the Public Interest. Iggers argued that journalism ethics focused on individual reporters completely missed the larger issue of corporate conflicts whose systemic effects fundamentally undermined journalism’s role in a democracy.
6. Russiagate: the two-headed monster
This entry seems to reflect a well-intentioned effort to critically examine fake news-related issues within a “censored story” framework.
What Project Censored calls attention to is important: “Corporate media coverage of Russiagate has created a two-headed monster of propaganda and censorship. By saturating news coverage with a sensationalized narrative, Russiagate has superseded other important, newsworthy stories.”
In April 2017, Aaron Maté reported for the Intercept on a quantitative study of MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show from Feb. 20 to March 31, 2017, which found that “Russia-focused segments accounted for 53 percent of these broadcasts.” Maté wrote: “Maddow’s Russia coverage has dwarfed the time devoted to other top issues, including Trump’s escalating crackdown on undocumented immigrants (1.3 percent of coverage); Obamacare repeal (3.8 percent); the legal battle over Trump’s Muslim ban (5.6 percent), a surge of anti-GOP activism and town halls since Trump took office (5.8 percent), and Trump administration scandals and stumbles (11 percent).”
In a report for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Robin Andersen examined Russiagate-inspired censorship moves by Twitter, Google and others. A key initial target was RT (the television network formerly known as Russia Today).
“RT’s reporting bears striking similarities to alternative and independent media content, and that is why letting the charges against RT stand unexamined is so dangerous,” Andersen noted.
In fact, the government’s intelligence report on RT included its reporting on the dangers of fracking as part of its suspect activity. Beyond that, the spill-over suppression was dramatic:
“Yet in the battle against fake news, much of the best, most accurate independent reporting is disappearing from Google searches,” Anderson said. “The World Socialist Web Site (8/2/17) reported that Google’s new search protocol is restricting access to leading independent, left-wing, progressive, anti-war and democratic rights websites. The estimated declines in traffic generated by Google searches for news sites are striking.”
There were declines for AlterNet.org (63 percent), DemocracyNow.org (36 percent), CounterPunch.org (21 percent), ConsortiumNews.com (47 percent), MediaMatters.org (42 percent), and TheIntercept.com (19 percent), among others.
7. Regenerative agriculture
The world’s agricultural and degraded soils have the capacity to recover 50 percent to 66 percent of the historic carbon loss to the atmosphere, according to a 2004 paper in Science, actually reversing the processes driving global warming. A set of practices known as “regenerative agriculture” could play a major role in accomplishing that, while substantially increasing crop yields as well, according to information compiled and published by Ronnie Cummins, founder and director of the Organic Consumers Association, in May 2017.
“For thousands of years, we grew food by depleting soil carbon and, in the last hundred or so, the carbon in fossil fuel as well,” food and farming writer Michael Pollan wrote. “But now we know how to grow even more food while at the same time returning carbon and fertility and water to the soil”
Cummins, who’s also a founding member of Regeneration International, wrote that regenerative agriculture offers a “world-changing paradigm” that can help solve many of today’s environmental and public health problems. As The Guardian explained:
“Regenerative agriculture comprises an array of techniques that rebuild soil and, in the process, sequester carbon. Typically, it uses cover crops and perennials so that bare soil is never exposed, and grazes animals in ways that mimic animals in nature. It also offers ecological benefits far beyond carbon storage: it stops soil erosion, re-mineralizes soil, protects the purity of groundwater and reduces damaging pesticide and fertilizer runoff.”
“We can’t really solve the climate crisis (and the related soil, environmental and public health crisis) without simultaneously solving the food and farming crisis,” Cummins wrote. “We need to stop putting greenhouse gas pollution into the atmosphere (by moving to 100 percent renewable energy), but we also need to move away from chemical-intensive, energy-intensive food, factory farming and land use, as soon as possible.”
In addition to global warming, there are profound economic and social justice concerns involved.
“Out-of-touch and out-of-control governments of the world now take our tax money and spend $500 billion … a year mainly subsidizing 50 million industrial farmers to do the wrong thing,” Cummins wrote. “Meanwhile, 700 million small family farms and herders, comprising the 3 billion people who produce 70 percent of the world’s food on just 25 percent of the world’s acreage, struggle to make ends meet.”
8. Congress passes data-sharing law
On March 21, House Republicans released a 2,232-page omnibus spending bill. It passed both houses and was signed into law in two days. Attached to the spending provisions that made it urgent, “must-pass” legislation was the completely unrelated Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data Act of 2018, also known as the CLOUD Act.
“The CLOUD Act enables the U.S. government to acquire data across international borders regardless of other nations’ data privacy laws and without the need for warrants,” Project Censored summarized.
It also significantly weakens protections against foreign government actions.
“It was never reviewed or marked up by any committee in either the House or the Senate,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s David Ruiz wrote. “It never received a hearing. … It was robbed of a stand-alone floor vote because Congressional leadership decided, behind closed doors, to attach this unvetted, unrelated data bill to the $1.3 trillion government spending bill.” Congressional leadership failed to listen to citizen concerns, Ruiz wrote, with devastating consequences:
“Because of this failure, U.S. and foreign police will have new mechanisms to seize data across the globe. Because of this failure, your private emails, your online chats, your Facebook, Google, Flickr photos, your Snapchat videos, your private lives online, your moments shared digitally between only those you trust, will be open to foreign law enforcement without a warrant and with few restrictions on using and sharing your information, privacy and human rights,” concluded Robyn Greene, who reported for Just Security.
“The little corporate news coverage that the CLOUD Act received tended to put a positive spin on it,” Project Censored noted.
Because of this failure, U.S. laws will be bypassed on U.S. soil. Greene noted that the CLOUD Act negates protections of two interrelated existing laws. It creates an exception to the Stored Communications Act that allows certified foreign governments to request personal data directly from U.S. companies.
“This exception enables those countries to bypass the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty process, which protects human rights by requiring foreign governments to work with the Department of Justice to obtain warrants from U.S. judges before they can access that data for their criminal investigations,” Greene explained.
9. Legal rights for nature
In March 2017, the government of New Zealand ended a 140-year dispute with an indigenous Maori tribe by enacting a law that officially recognized the Whanganui River, which the tribe considers its ancestor, as a living entity with rights.
The tribe’s perspective was explained to the Guardian by its lead negotiator, Gerrard Albert.
“We consider the river an ancestor and always have,” Albert said. “We have fought to find an approximation in law so that all others can understand that from our perspective, treating the river as a living entity is the correct way to approach it, as in indivisible whole, instead of the traditional model for the last 100 years of treating it from a perspective of ownership and management.”
But that could be just the beginning. “It is a critical precedent for acknowledging the Rights of Nature in legal systems around the world,” Kayla DeVault reported for YES! Magazine. Others are advancing this perspective, DeVault wrote:
“In response to the Standing Rock Sioux battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin amended its constitution to include the Rights of Nature. This is the first time a North American tribe has used a Western legal framework to adopt such laws. Some American municipalities have protected their watersheds against fracking by invoking Rights of Nature.”
"[If the New Zealand Whanganui River settlement] was able to correct the gap in Western and indigenous paradigms in New Zealand, surely a similar effort to protect the Missouri River could be produced for the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River nations by the American government,” DeVault wrote.
The same could be done with a wide range of other environmental justice disputes.
Mihnea Tanasescu, writing for The Conversation, described the broader sweep of recent developments in the “Rights of Nature,” noting that significant problems have resulted from the lack of specific guardianship provisions, which are integral to the Whanganui River law.
“By granting natural entities personhood one by one and assigning them specific guardians, over time, New Zealand could drastically change an ossified legal system that still sees oceans, mountains and forests primarily as property, guaranteeing nature its day in court,” Tanasescu concluded.
10. FBI’s racial profiling
At the same time that white supremacists were preparing for the “Unite the Right” demonstration in Charlottesville, which resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer in August 2017, the FBI Counterterrorism Division produced an intelligence assessment warning of a very different, though actually nonexistent, threat: “Black Identity Extremists.” The report appeared to be the first time the term had been used to identify a movement, according to Foreign Policy magazine, which broke the story.
“But former government officials and legal experts said no such movement exists, and some expressed concern that the term is part of a politically motivated effort to find an equivalent threat to white supremacists,” Foreign Policy reported.
“The use of terms like ‘black identity extremists’ is part of a long-standing FBI attempt to define a movement where none exists,” said former FBI agent Mike German, who now works for the Brennan Center for Justice. “Basically, it’s black people who scare them.”
“It’s classic Hoover-style labeling with a little bit of maliciousness and euphemism wrapped up together,” said William Maxwell, a Washington University professor working on a book about FBI monitoring of black writers. “The language, ‘black identity extremist, strikes me as weird and really a continuation of the worst of Hoover’s past.”
“There is a long tradition of the FBI targeting black activists and this is not surprising,” Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson told Foreign Policy.
A former homeland security official told them that carelessly connecting unrelated groups will make it harder for law enforcement to identify real threats. “It’s so convoluted—it’s compromising officer safety,” the former official said.
“The corporate media [has] covered the FBI report on ‘black identity extremists’ in narrow or misleading ways,” Project Censored noted, citing examples from The New York Times, Fox News and NBC News. “Coverage like this both draws focus away from the active white supremacist movement and feeds the hate and fear on which such a movement thrives.”