How a Small Team of Journalists Overcame Facebook Censorship

By Alexander Rubenstein

(MPN— Facebook seemed to have outdone itself again in its ongoing suppression of independent media when, earlier this month in coordination with CNN, it banned four pages belonging to a company that was not even accused of breaking any of the platform’s rules.

The genesis of In The Now’s ban is striking as it has never concealed its funding and it had been reported on years ago. Nonetheless, a U.S. government-funded neoconservative think tank saw a problem with In The Now and partnered with CNN to expose it. CNN identified the owners of In The Now to Facebook and used yet another neoconservative think tank, which has been partnering closely with Facebook for the past few years, to scaremonger in its article about Russian meddling in American politics.

Now, Facebook is reversing its decision following outcry from the public.

Facebook’s advertising ban against RT — which was accused in a January 2017 Office of the Director of National Intelligence report of seeking to sow “radical discontent” in the United States during the presidential election, including with TV shows that did not air during the race — became a powder keg, leading to a new era of heightened hostilities in the U.S. establishment’s social-media information war. The measly 12-page document gave tech giants like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter carte blanche justification to intervene against alternative media publications that were growing in popularity on their platform.

What followed has been a series of carpet bombings against “coordinated inauthentic behavior” and precision strikes against independent outlets like The Free Thought Project and The Anti-Media, and conspiracy showman Alex Jones’ InfoWars. In those cases, however, Facebook has accused the outlets of crossing red lines as a pretext for the bans.

In the Now, a small viral-video unit, and three of its offshoots, all owned by a company called Maffick, however, were not even accused of a red line before they were sent to Facebook prison in mid-February. Earlier this week, the pages were set free and allowed to continue promoting their journalists’ material on Facebook.

When CNN broke the story of the ban, they even admitted that it was an “unusual” step, writing:

The move was an unusual one for Facebook. The company does not require users to provide information about parent companies, but it is rolling out ways to try to increase transparency about who runs popular Facebook pages, and it has been taking aggressive steps to tackle covert government-backed information operations on its service.

While In the Now’s Rania Khalek, in interviews with MintPress News, characterized the Facebook ban as discriminatory against an outlet for its affiliation with RT, In the Now’s production is cutting edge, a rarity for its brand of anti-establishment reporting. The videos take a nod from a style popularized by the Qatar-owned AJ+, with hosts talking about the news with a critical, progressive angle, animated text, quick cuts and b-roll.

In contrast to similar video shops like AJ+ and Now This News, which give a progressive spin on domestic issues in the U.S., In the Now under Khalek and other hosts, like the previous iteration of the show under RT, has taken up anti-imperialist causes and has been critical of media hysteria around Russiagate. The host of the RT program, American journalist Anissa Naouai, went on to become the CEO of Maffick.

Of Maffick’s other outlets, Soapbox voices similar criticisms of empire, while BackThen takes a similar look at history, and its Waste-Ed focuses on environmental issues.

Since the January 2017 ODNI report, Facebook’s ban reversal on Maffick’s outlets has been one of the few victories for alternative media in the fight against mounting censorship online. Therefore, both how the ban came to fruition, how Maffick fought it, and where we go next are all worth examining.

CNN colluded with USAID-funded think tank

“CNN was digging around for dirt on Maffick, the holding company for In The Now,” Khalek told MintPress News. “Some of CNN’s correspondents were contacting freelance employees in LA, asking them about the company,” she said. Questions like “if they had anything negative to say, if the Russian government dictates our stories, etc.” Khalek continued:

Eventually this got back to us and we contacted CNN and offered to give them access to us by giving them an interview. Drew Griffin, the lead reporter on the story, interviewed me and J Ray Sparks, the COO of Maffick. It actually felt more like a police interrogation, it lasted 45 minutes and the questions were incredibly invasive about our business structure. We were totally open about who funds us and about the fact that we have editorial control over the content.

CNN even sent reporters to the homes of “people who work with us,” according to Naouai.

Griffin’s style of interrogation was previously laid bare by an absurd confrontation he had with an elderly woman named Florine Gruen Goldfarb outside of her home in February 2018. The grilling, captured in a video which is less than two minutes long, is one of the more bizarre data points in a saga that has included allegations that Russia used coloring books featuring a buff Bernie Sanders, hired 12 trolls to pose as a hacker that exchanged naked photographs with a former James Bond actress, and memes about masturbating with Jesus, in its quest to sow discord in the United States.

CNN admitted in its article that it was tipped off by the German Marshall Fund to the fact that Maffick is owned by Ruptly, an RT subsidiary (51 percent), and by Naouai (49 percent). The think tank is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Readers of MintPress News may be familiar with the dark history and cynical ambitions of the State Department’s “humanitarian” agency USAID. The German Marshall Fund, for its part, is among a handful of think tanks working overtime to combat supposed “disinformation” online.

The final version of the interview was published on CNN. But — as Kevin Gosztola, Shadowproof managing editor and co-host of a podcast with Khalek, noted — several discrepancies exist between CNN’s initial account of what happened and what can be heard in an unedited recording of the interview. Maffick COO Sparks was misquoted by CNN “twice,” Gosztola pointed out. Following the Shadowproof report, CNN issued a correction.

“Just the beginning”

Following an 800-page purge on Facebook in October 2018 that included independent media outlets with millions of followers like The Free Thought Project and The Anti-Media, German Marshall Fund senior fellow Jamie Fly told journalist Jeb Sprague with the Grayzone that they were “just starting to push back. Just this last week Facebook began starting to take down sites. So this is just the beginning.”

As MintPress News recently reported, Fly was a protege of neoconservative grandaddy Bill Kristol and was a member of his old think tank, the Foreign Policy Initiative. Later, Fly would oversee the German Marshall Fund’s Alliance for Securing Democracy, a project in which Kristol was also involved. The group, as MintPress News reported, played a critical role in hyping up the threat in the media of “Russian bots” following the 2016 election with its fake troll tracker the Hamilton 68 Dashboard.

Months after the October purge, the German Marshall Fund seems to have began targeting Maffick. German Marshall Fund social-media analyst Bret Shafer stated, “It should be clearly labeled” and “when they don’t label them, they need to be called out on that.”

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In a press release, Maffick had the following to say:

None of The German Marshall Fund’s financial backers are displayed on their own Facebook Page. [Yet] CNN continued to pursue a conspiratorial narrative, seeking and finding support from NATO member-based think tank The German Marshall Fund, ironically financed through a consortium of public-private entities led by government-owned German banking giant KfW.

CNN’s Drew Griffin interviewed recent intern with the U.S. State Department in Moscow Bret Schafer, who assured for the camera, ‘Oh they’re definitely state funded, I mean, you can pull the German registration data,’ conveniently restating facts of which CNN had already been informed in writing by Maffick themselves. Thus CNN engineered the false impression that there was potentially a sensational new Russian secret, perhaps even one Facebook should fear and one on which it should urgently take action.

CNN also sought the expertise of serial smear artist Ben Nimmo of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Laboratory (DFRL). The Atlantic Council is funded by NATO, gulf monarchies and defense contractors, while its DFRL branch has partnered with Facebook in its bid to “identify” and “expose” supposed “disinformation” on its platform. As journalists Max Blumenthal and Jeb Sprague noted:

[Nimmo] embarked on an embarrassing witch hunt this year that saw him misidentify several living, breathing individuals as Russian bots or Kremlin ‘influence accounts.’ Nimmo’s victims included Mariam Susli, a well-known Syrian-Australian social media personality, the famed Ukrainian concert pianist Valentina Lisitsa, and a British pensioner named Ian Shilling.

In potentially one of the most bizarre interviews on mainstream media in 2018, you can watch mainstream media hosts with Sky News ask Shilling whether he is really a “Russian bot.”

Indirect government censorship

After CNN contacted Facebook, and even though Facebook found no rule-breaking on Maffick’s part, the social-media behemoth banned the pages. It was only then that CNN had found a news peg worthy of publishing its story, which had four CNN reporters signed onto it. Khalek told MintPress News:

Basically CNN manufactured a story: They investigated us, then got Facebook to censor us due to our funding source and then boom, they had a story about a Russian-funded outlet getting banned by Facebook. And the fact that they did it at the behest of a U.S. government-funded outfit makes it even more alarming, because it means the U.S. government is using intermediaries to censor content it doesn’t like, in this case videos that challenge destructive U.S. government policies related to war and corporations.

Discussing the piece on-air, CNN’s reporters didn’t exactly tout their investigative accomplishment. One of the reporters on the story, Donnie O’Sullivan, told CNN’s Brian Stelter, “Look, as much as I’d like to say we did a ton of digging on this, if you were to, you know, start googling these pages, you could quickly sort of work it back.”

As to the content, O’Sullivan said, “You watch these videos; a lot of the points they are making are points that will resonate with real Americans, but we know that is what RT does.”

In a statement, Maffick said:

The problem with Facebook’s response to CNN’s narrative is that it singles out Russian publicly funded media while falling short of publishing a clear public policy that would apply to a long list of other media Pages on Facebook. Facebook policies currently make such disclosure voluntary and few if any of the scores of publicly financed media outlets do so on their Facebook Pages.

Maffick’s public media industry peers, such as AJ+, BBC, CBC and others, have remained online throughout Facebook’s blackout of Maffick. By singling out Russia, especially the type of mainstream human-interest content produced by Maffick, Facebook risks setting a dangerous precedent on censorship that could inadvertently reinforce the xenophobic paranoia surrounding the controversy over alleged Russian involvement in U.S. politics.

Towards a fair, consistent, comprehensive policy

While Facebook has lifted the ban on In the Now, the page contains a disclaimer about the funding of the parent organization. Facebook has offered wishy-washy responses as to whether other pages will be forced to make similar disclosures — telling Maffick, “It’s possible that’s there’s no other page” that will be made to but that it was also in the process of rolling out the policy.

In the interim, Maffick is calling on Facebook to be more transparent, stating in its press release:

Facebook needs to publish policy that comprehensively applies to all businesses that are more than ten percent financed, either directly or indirectly, by any type of government funding, be it via direct tax, mandatory media fees or other transactional devices.

Americans and media consumers across the rest of the world deserve to have full transparency regarding who pays for the relentless stream of content with which they are daily presented. If they single out Russia, in the case of Maffick, Facebook will become political activists in the way they choose to selectively apply such policies, now and in the future.

Khalek added:

While it’s important that Facebook put our pages back up, they should release a clear policy about funding disclosures that applies to everyone. So far In The Now is being singled out. No other outlet that receives government funding is being required by Facebook to disclose it on their page. As it stands now, this behavior is discriminatory.

Despite the victory for In The Now, Khalek thinks that the “conversation should be expanded to include corporate media outlets. It’s important that consumers know the forces funding the media they are consuming and that includes corporate forces, not just governments.” As MintPress News explored in its three-part investigation into eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, billionaires are able to leverage their cash to prop up scores of media outlets — an issue that has been ignored in the hysteria that the threat of fake news has spawned. In Omidyar’s case, experts believe one of his outlets has even withheld from publication documents that could hurt eBay.

By Alexander Rubinstein / Creative Commons / MintPress News / Report a typo


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