The fight against fake news
Top 10 censored 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, ($18.95, Seven Stories Press), Project Censored’s vivid cover art recalls H.G. Wells’ 1897 book, War of the Worlds.
The situation today may feel as desolate as that vintage art suggests.
“But Censored 2019 is a book about fighting fake news,” editors Andy Lee Roth and Mickey Huff write in the book’s introduction.
They argue 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 remains 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.”
Read on for Project Censored’s 10 most under-reported—and all-too-real—stories of 2018.
1. Rule of law is threatened as basic human rights diminish
According to the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index 2017–2018, a striking worldwide decline in basic human rights has driven an overall decline in the rule of law since October 2016, the month before President Donald 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.
“All signs point to a crisis not just for human rights, but for the human rights movement,” Yale professor of history and law Samuel Moyn told The Guardian. “Within many nations, these fundamental rights are falling prey to the backlash against a globalizing economy in which the rich are winning. But human rights movements have not historically set out to name or shame inequality.”
The category on 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 U.S. saw the greatest deterioration, World Justice Project said.
The United States also scored poorly on several measurements of discrimination, including in the justice system, and was ranked 78 out of 113 countries.
The four Nordic countries—Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden—remained in the top four. New Zealand, Canada and Australia were the only top 10 countries outside of Europe.
2. “Open-source” 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 WikiLeaks described as the “largest ever publication of confidential documents on the agency.” It drew significant media attention. But almost no one noticed what George Eliason of OpEdNews pointed out.
“Sure, the CIA has all these tools available,” Eliason wrote “Yes, they are used on the public. The important part is [that] it’s not the CIA that’s using them. That’s the part that needs to frighten you.”
The CIA’s mission prevents it from using the tools, especially on Americans, Eliason explained. “All the tools are unclassified, open-source, and can be used by anyone,” he wrote. “It makes them not exactly usable for secret agent work. That’s what makes it impossible for them to use Vault 7 tools directly.”
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 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, according to Eliason, “People with no security clearances and radical political agendas have state sized cyber tools at their disposal, [which they can use] for their own political agendas, private business, and personal vendettas.”
3. The very rich get a whole lot richer
In November 2017, Credit Suisse released its 8th annual Global Wealth Report, which The Guardian reported on under the headline, “Richest 1% 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,” The Guardian reported, adding that “the biggest losers … are young people who should not expect to become as rich as their parents.”
Conversely, the number of millionaires has increased by 170 percent, while the number of individuals worth more than $50 million has risen five-fold—making them by far the fastest-growing group of wealth holders, according to the report.
“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. “As Project Censored has previously reported, corporate news consistently covers the world’s billionaires while ignoring millions of humans who live in poverty.”
4. Big wireless convinced us cellphones are safe
Are cellphones and other wireless devices really as safe 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.”
Rather, the industry—in the U.S. as well as in Europe and Asia—has spent untold millions of dollars in the past 25 years to proclaim that science is on its side and that critics are wrong.
The Nation report comes as several new developments are bringing the issue to light, including a Kaiser Permanente study published in December 2017 that found much higher risks of miscarriage, a study in the October 2017 American Journal of Epidemiology that found increased risk for glioma (a type of brain tumor) and a disclosure by the National Frequency Agency of France 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 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 association in 1999, after uncovering 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 cell phone 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 non-ionizing radiation associated with wireless devices as well as cellphones and found a 2.72 times higher risk of miscarriage for those with higher exposure.
“The wireless industry has ’war-gamed’ science by playing offense as well as defense, actively sponsoring studies that result in published findings supportive of the industry, while aiming to discredit competing research that raises questions about the safety of cellular devices and other wireless technologies,” Project Censored summarized.
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 cell phone radiation to health issues, including cancer and other medical problems, is either inconclusive or disputed.”
5. Washington Post bans employees’ social media criticisms
On May 1, 2017, The Washington Post introduced a policy prohibiting employees from criticizing its advertisers and business partners.
“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. “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, protested the policy and sought 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 a $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.
6. Russiagate: a 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.”
As a frustrated journalist, I heartily concur—but what’s involved is too complex to simply be labeled “propaganda.” On the other hand, the censorship of alternative journalistic voices is a classic, well-defined Project Censored story, which suffers from the attempt to fit both together.
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).”
But is this propaganda?
At Truthdig, Norman Solomon wrote: “As the cable news network most trusted by Democrats as a liberal beacon, MSNBC plays a special role in fueling rage among progressive-minded viewers toward Russia’s ’attack on our democracy’ that is somehow deemed more sinister and newsworthy than corporate dominance of American politics (including Democrats), racist voter suppression, gerrymandering and many other U.S. electoral defects all put together.”
Also true. But not so much propaganda as Project Censored’s broader category of “news abuse,” which includes propaganda and spin, among other forms of “distraction to direct our attention away from what we really need to know.”
To fully grasp what’s involved requires a more complex analysis. On the other hand, the censorship of alternative journalistic voices is far more clear-cut and straightforward.
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.
Beyond RT, the spill-over suppression was dramatic:
“Much of the best, most accurate independent reporting is disappearing from Google searches,” Anderson said. “The World Socialist Web Site 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 is civilization’s “next stage”
The world’s agricultural and degraded soils have the capacity to recover 50 to 66 percent of the historic carbon loss to the atmosphere, actually reversing the processes driving global warming, according to a 2004 paper in Science.
A set of practices known as “regenerative agriculture” could play a major role in accomplishing that, while also substantially increasing crop yields, according to information compiled and published by Ronnie Cummins, 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,” agricultural 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.
“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,” Cummings 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 sneaks in data-sharing law
On March 21, House Republicans released an 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 leaders failed to listen to citizens’ 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 Greene Robyn Greene, who reported for Just Security.
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. Indigenous communities help win 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 Guardian reported it as “a world-first,” although the surrounding Te Urewera National Park had been similarly recognized in a 2014 law, and the U.S. Supreme Court came within on vote of potentially recognizing such a right in the 1972 case Sierra Club v. Morton. In addition, the broader idea of “rights of nature” has been adopted in Ecuador, Bolivia and by some American communities, noted Mihnea Tanasescu, writing for The Conversation.
The tribe’s perspective was explained to The Guardian by its lead negotiator, Gerrard Albert.
“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,” Albert said.
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, including Native American tribes trying to protect the Missouri River. 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.”
The same could be done with a wide range of other environmental justice disputes involving Native American tribes.
Tanasescu 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, Virginia, which resulted in the murder of Heather Heyer in August 2017, the FBI’s 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 longstanding 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 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.
“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 the magazine that carelessly connecting unrelated groups will make it harder for law enforcement to identify real threats.
“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.”