They said the election of Donald Trump would usher in an era of political repression in which the First Amendment would come under attack – and they were right, although not in the way they meant it:
“Federal investigators are examining whether far-right news sites played any role last year in a Russian cyber operation that dramatically widened the reach of news stories – some fictional – that favored Donald Trump’s presidential bid, two people familiar with the inquiry say.
“Operatives for Russia appear to have strategically timed the computer commands, known as ‘bots,’ to blitz social media with links to the pro-Trump stories at times when the billionaire businessman was on the defensive in his race against Democrat Hillary Clinton, these sources said.”
Aside from sites run by the Russian government, like Russia Today and Sputnik,
the targets of the investigation are Breitbart.com, the pro-Trump web site formerly
managed by Steve Bannon – now an advisor to the President – and Infowars.com,
the “conspiracy” site made famous by entertainer Alex Jones, although the purview
witch hunt “investigation” is bound to broaden.
Those “bots” – automated programs that broadcast links, tweets, Facebook posts, etc. – were supposedly launched at key times during the presidential campaign, and were disproportionately anti-Clinton — are supposedly the key link in a Vast Russian Conspiracy. The FBI leakers tell McClatchy News that “investigators examining the bot attacks are exploring whether the far-right news operations took any actions to assist Russia’s operatives. Their participation, however, wasn’t necessary for the bots to amplify their news through Twitter and Facebook.”
So this is how the smear campaign scores points: you don’t have to be on the Russian payroll – you can be a “useful idiot” just because of your political views, which condemn you as an “unwitting” agent, as former CIA director Mike Morell described Trump. This is how the parameters of “respectable” opinion are policed: this is how the War Party criminalizes those who think that the cold war is over and shouldn’t be revived.
“’This may be one of the most highly impactful information operations in the history of intelligence,’ said one former U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.”
Ah yes, there’s yet another one of those “former intelligence officials” leaking the details of an ongoing FBI inquiry – but, hey, there’s no Deep State campaign to undermine the Trump administration! And he’s right, if “impactful” means that what we’re witnessing is a wave of anti-Russian hysteria backed by government coercion the likes of which we haven’t seen in this country since the 1950s.
Because you can bet that Rep. Adam Schiff (D-California), the chief ringmaster of the House hearings on “Russian influence” in the election, is going to jump on this. And so we’re going to be treated to the spectacle of web site editors hauled up before his committee and harangued about their “Russian connections” – just like accused “Communists” were dragged before the House Un-American Activities Committee and interrogated, smeared, and threatened with prison time if they refused to answer questions.
That’s the practice – here’s the theory:
“As for the bots, they carried links not only to news stories but also to Democratic emails posted on WikiLeaks, especially those hacked from Podesta and made public in October, said Philip Howard, a professor at the Oxford University Internet Institute who has researched the bot attacks.”
Prof. Howard’s research tells us that “misinformation” (i.e. opinions Howard doesn’t agree with) is being spread via “computational propaganda,” and that this is a Bad Thing since it creates “distrust among voters.” And it isn’t just Trump-bots the Professor is “concerned” about: in the run up to the Brexit referendum (and guess which side he was on!) he warned that Brexit-bots were spreading similar “misinformation.” Howard and other concern-trolls from academia moan that these automated bots could “sway” elections – but, then again, so could other “automated” means of persuasion, say, Internet ads that pop up on your computer, or, indeed, any other form of “computational propaganda” that utilizes advanced technology (television ads) to make the case for a candidate or cause. What these people are edging toward, but don’t dare say openly, is that they advocate censorship of opinions they don’t like.
Yet they come very close to saying it. Here’s an approving article on the Oxford University web site that hardly masks Howard’s agenda:
“A form of mass propaganda more insidious than anything used in the 20th century is being used to manipulate global politics, according to the latest research. The culprit is social media and the lax regulation that allows voters to be bombarded with politically slanted misinformation – fake news.”
Insidious! Manipulative! “The culprit”! And what’s the solution? Regulation. The piece goes on to cite Howard:
“Ruling elites have often used propaganda to sustain their power, but this latest wave is different,’ says Professor Philip Howard, Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute and a Fellow of Balliol College. ‘Targeted messaging over social media is deeply personalized compared to the messaging that ‘all communists are evil’ that used to be distributed by mass films. It’s much more difficult to source who’s generating the content. Users think the messaging may be coming from their family and friends; it’s about particular issues the programmer knows you care about. And it appears to be pretty effective.’”
So it’s okay for “ruling elites” to use propaganda, “but this latest wave is different.” Well, yes, its goal is apparently to oppose the current ruling elites, which is what Howard objects to.
Despite the fact that “it’s more difficult to source who’s generating the content,” however, Howard has a pretty good idea of who are the “culprits”:
“‘We know that the Russians have spent money on propaganda efforts to improve Trump’s profile over Twitter,’ says Howard, ‘and that seems to have included creating bots that follow Trump and re-tweet a lot of what he says, as well as news from Russia. They often tweet stories about Democrats, western elites and corruption.’ There are links between propagandists for Brexit and for Trump, he adds. ‘My speculation would be that Russia would like to see the EU smaller and further from consensus. There’s a handful of accounts that were passionate about getting the UK to leave Europe and then they suddenly became interested in American politics.’”
“Links between propagandists for Brexit and for Trump” – somebody please call the FBI! And apparently somebody has.
Howard hails from Canada, where they don’t have a First Amendment, and where “hate speech” – another alleged “problem” with social media, according to the Professor – is illegal. Here in the United States, people like Howard, who want to regulate speech, have to hide their real agenda. Thus we have the Adam Schiffs of this world, and their media camarilla, pushing an “investigation” into pro-Trump web sites on the pretext that they’re part of a Vast Russian Conspiracy to take over America. If “hate speech” doesn’t work, then try invoking “national security” – that’s a sure bet.
Howard goes on to target those he sneeringly dubs “patriotic programmers” – Americans – who are guilty of spreading pro-Trump “misinformation,” slyly implying that they, too, are part of the Vast Russian Conspiracy. Which conjures visions of ordinary American citizens being hauled up before Schiff’s Inquisition and being asked “Are you or have you ever been …?”
It would be comical if it didn’t represent such a serious threat to our liberties.
McCarthyism started out as a partisan campaign to tar the Democrats as the Kremlin’s party. But at least there was some evidence that the reds had indeed infiltrated the highest reaches of FDR’s administration. In the case of the neo-McCarthyites, their “evidence” consists of sheer assertions by anonymous spooks, cries of “it’s classified, we can’t give you the evidence,” and a case made by profit-making cyber-“security” companies like CrowdStrike that is fast coming unglued.
In an effort to explain away their stunning election loss, the Democrats – in league with their Deep State and media allies – are embarked on a campaign of vilification that will end the way these things always end: the use of State power to discredit, smear, and ultimately outlaw dissenting opinions.
What this latest outbreak of politically-motivated moral panic reminds me of is the “Satanic sex ritual” craze of some years ago, where children were brought in to be interviewed by psychiatrists and social workers and asked: “Show me on this doll where the evil Satanists touched you.”
Yes, they told us that if Trump took the White House the First Amendment would be crushed underfoot and the dark shadow of authoritarianism would be cast across the crumbling remnants of our republic – and they were right!
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.