On September 1, 2020, I received a direct message (DM) on Twitter from a reporter working with a mainstream outlet requesting comment. After a brief chat on the phone, I was informed that I was unwittingly caught up in a Russian-backed media operation, for a “publication” that had recently offered a writing opportunity.
The “outlet” — PeaceData — reached out to me through one of their “associate editors” (@Alex_Lacusta) via DM on July 8, writing, “we’re a young, progressive global news outlet that is seeking young and aspiring writers.” I was told that the “editors” liked my writing and views, and was initially offered $200 to $250 per piece.
I went back and forth with Alex, while in the meantime I checked out the editors’ social media pages on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, the pieces that were published (which generally aligned with my values), and contributors — which included some Twitter “blue checks” and leftist journalists, adding to the operation’s legitimacy. After exercising due diligence and expressing interest in the opportunity, Alex dropped the rate to $100 to $150 per piece, with the hook that I could write a regular column. Alex informed me I could choose the topics so long as they focused on “anti-war, anti-corruption, and environmentalism.” I accepted and was excited to have a home and compensation for my work.
After talking to the reporter who DMed me, I was sent a report detailing how the Russian oligarch-sponsored troll farm — Internet Research Agency — was behind the PeaceData front. I was initially shocked and confused, but in retrospect, the red flags added up.
On July 22, I noticed the first red flag. Alex and Albert Popescu, another “associate editor” for PeaceData — had eerily similar profile pictures — which turned out to be digitally generated fake images. Popescu’s account was also recently created in May 2020. The second odd occurrence happened in email exchanges with Alex. Prepositions were sometimes omitted and verbiage would be singular rather than plural, or vice versa. Yet, I had been in contact with busy editors for legitimate publications that would make grammatical mistakes here and there. I was also paid by three separate Paypal accounts, which seemed suspicious.
The last red flag was the most egregious and led me to distance myself. I had been notified that my first article — arguing that U.S. sanctions and the embargo against Venezuela were not about enforcing human rights — was republished in Global Research Centre, a conspiracy blog that I was unfamiliar with at the time. I looked briefly on their home page and saw articles that were critical of U.S. foreign policy, the U.S. government response to the dismal state of current affairs, and capitalist hegemony. About a week later, I was scrolling through mind-numbing QAnon posts on Twitter and noticed that the Q accounts were sharing hydroxychloroquine propaganda that was linked from Global Research.
I was disturbed and didn’t want my thorough, well-sourced work to be associated with a conspiracy blog. I started digging. Along with hydroxychloroquine conspiracies, I found 9/11 truther articles and pro-Putin content. I started diving through the PeaceData archive and found some vaguely pro-Putin content, notably one article defending Belarussian authoritarian Alexander Lukashenko’s state violence on demonstrators. I then decided that I didn’t want to be associated with PeaceData any longer. Unfortunately, I had already submitted my final piece by this point.
In the days and weeks following September 1, I was (and still am) constantly inundated with requests for comment from outlets. I initially talked to reporters off the record, as I thought this experience would ruin aspirations of becoming more frequently published. As a journalist committed to transparency and as a Socialist, I lost sleep over my involvement with a reactionary regime that I have been previously critical of. After mulling it over for a night, I opted for transparency and went on the record. I turned over my emails and PayPal receipts to reporters and provided statements to those who reached out. I was never contacted by law enforcement.
In the time between my final piece being submitted and then later published, Twitter and then Facebook suspended all PeaceData linked accounts, following a tip from the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigations. I was caught up in the fallout. Twitter blanket suspended every single account I ever had access to, relaying that I was manipulating the platform for accessing multiple accounts.
My account, my former employer’s accounts, and a Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) linked account were all suspended due to their association with my digital footprint. I had not used my former employer’s account since April 2019 and I hadn’t posted anything on the DSA associated account since about March 2019. None of these accounts, except my account, had any relation with PeaceData.
After I noticed that every account I ever had access to was suspended, I reached out to two reporters who had been following the story and I had been speaking with. I trusted them, as they were among most of (but not all) the journalists who didn’t misquote me or editorialize in their write-ups.
I flagged the account suspensions and they requested comment from Twitter. At first, a spokesperson failed to respond to either. It wasn’t until one of the reporters tweeted about it, highlighting that Twitter had suspended a journalist’s account along with other associated accounts, calling it “ridiculous.” Following the reporter’s post to get the accounts reinstated, all were reactivated about three hours after the tweet. Twitter’s spokespeople then responded to one of the requests for comment, stating, “we suspended these accounts out of an abundance of caution.”
I was told candidly that had the reporter not posted about it, my account and those associated would likely have been suspended longer or permanently banned. Fortunately, my former employer didn’t notice or at least didn’t reach out. On the other hand, DSA comrades were quick to notice and didn’t seem pleased with my involvement in getting one of their accounts suspended. I was deeply apologetic, offered an honest account on the situation, and elected to remove myself immediately when the account was reinstated.
Sadly, I wasn’t the only one affected in the PeaceData mess. Others were also thrown under the bus by a social media corporation not exercising due diligence and overreacting. Over 200 independent journalists were implicated, including Jacinda Chan, a person with a complex disability, whose account was temporarily purged from Facebook.
Chan told the Daily Beast that after her suspension she was unable to find a caregiver in assisting her daily living, as she used Facebook to find home health aides. When pressed for comment, Facebook cited her posts as advertisements, telling the Daily Beast, “it’s against company policy for users to either attempt to or successfully sell, buy or exchange site privileges or Facebook product features, including attempting to complete the U.S. authorizations process on behalf of another individual.” Public relations spin aside, a spokesperson for the networking site later stated that the moderators planned to reinstate Chan’s account.
While understandable that Twitter and Facebook were attempting to mitigate the influence of a Russian oligarch-sponsored media campaign that targeted leftist journalists and independent media, like CounterPunch, the blanket suspension demonstrates how tech giants keep their procedures under tight wraps. Ultimately, big tech and social media platforms aren’t transparent and are only accountable to negative press and revenue streams, rather than serving the public interest. The motivating rationale driving their irresponsibility and unaccountable actions: profit and consolidating market share.
Social Media And Tech Giants Aren’t Accountable To The Public
The tech oligopolies and monopolies — and particularly social media corporations — are not accountable to the public and lack meaningful regulation. The industry creates corrosive environments for democratic societies. The result allows for users and workers to be manipulated and exploited so that the industry can secure market share and profits.
The proliferation of conspiracy across the ideological spectrum has seeped into the mainstream through social media. The most flagrant pushing of conspiratorial dogmatism is through QAnon, which evolved from a fringe online conspiracy to being embraced by Trump, far-right popular media, and now propelled into the mainstream, giving it cult-like status.
As of October 2, 2020, 75 Republicans, two Democrats, one Libertarian, and three independent candidates are espousing sympathies for Q in the election season. There are now millions of users and thousands of groups across social networking sites that are dedicated true-believers to Q. The delayed measures from social media platforms have resulted in the conspiracy metastasizing, causing Q to spread and adherents committing acts of fascist terrorism in the name of stopping the “cabal” and those that oppose Trumpian autocracy.
Outlandish online conspiracy isn’t limited to the fringes or far-right: liberals have also fallen prey to false realities. In the U.K.’s Prime Minister runoff, Socialist Labourite Jeremy Corbyn was the center of a conspiracy that smeared the former anti-apartheid activist as an anti-semite and terrorist sympathizer. While the British and American press abetted this narrative, social media users on the right and center endlessly shared this “fake news” to discredit Corbyn.
During the 2020 Democratic Primary, prominent liberals promoted conspiracy that U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders was a witting Russian asset, while also likening his supporters to Nazi brownshirts. Given his background and prior statements denouncing Putin’s far-right regime, like the smears Corbyn faced, these claims were completely beyond the pale.
Even the left dabbles in conspiracy on social media, with some elements outright dismissing the Trump-Russia connection or the reactionary tendencies of Putin’s regime as U.S. intelligence propaganda. Yet given the long history of the intelligence and foreign policy apparatus outright lying (remember the Gulf of Tonkin charade or the WMDs in Iraq or James Clapper’s testimony before Congress?), the skepticism is more understandable. Furthermore, the corporate media obsession and Democratic Party reductionism of blaming the entirety of the U.S.’s failures on a Russian “Manchurian candidate” and Putin “hacking the election” also dissuades the left in realizing that far-right governments like Russia, Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have an interest in influencing U.S. politics.
Social media platforms, along with corporate media, have allowed nefarious actors to push narratives to audiences while either under- or overreacting in their responses depending on the ideological underpinnings from foreign-linked information. For example, reactionary propaganda from Israel and Saudi Arabia — client states of the U.S. — mostly go unchallenged and critical views are met with censorship. Conversely, some credible reports citing the U.S. government’s incompetence or imperialist brutality from outlets like TeleSur (essentially Venezuelan state media) are more frequently censored. With that said, censorship of Russian information is more nuanced, and appears that its ideological framework resembles the Cold War tactics of yesteryear, rather than overt ideological or economic biases.
Twitter and Facebook have only recently started labeling content as manipulated media or removing posts, mostly opting for the former. While the platforms have started issuing this tag, posts are still visible to users. Facebook has recently moved to remove users and groups promoting QAnon. While likely for the best, this should be approached with careful skepticism and challenged as the removal of content and accounts could ultimately be used (it already has been) against the left and independent media. It’s a bit of a catch-22. Free speech and press freedoms should be vigilantly protected, yet it’s no question that allowing conspiracy dissemination on social media is pushing segments of the public into mythological existences. The environment is a threat to democratic societies.
While allowing users to be constantly bombarded with conspiratorial misinformation, manipulated media, or “fake news”, social networking corporations have gobbled up the competition, creating a consolidated market for consumers. Facebook has swallowed up WhatsApp, Instagram, Oculus, and have been exploring the prospect of acquiring other tech-based services, while Twitter has acquired Periscope, Tweetdeck, and other platforms. Consolidation isn’t exclusive to Facebook and Twitter. Other tech corporations are acquiring competitors and skirting antitrust laws while remaining mostly unregulated and unaccountable to the public.
Uber has ignored pressure for improved screening processes for gig workers and ensuring that riders (especially women) are kept safe. The ride-sharing tech duopoly (along with Lyft) has been accused of ripping off working-class drivers and threatened capital strikes.
Tesla and SpaceX founder, Elon Musk, has violated labor laws after issuing statements intimidating workers that wished to unionize, while the Securities and Exchange Commission has cited the South African billionaire for blatant fraud.
Apple has been caught dodging taxes and working with the exploitative Taiwanese manufacturer, Foxconn, which installed nets to prevent suicides after 14 workers took their own lives due to the conditions. Apple’s manufacturer has also made workers sign agreements that they won’t take their own lives due to the abysmal environment.
Tech’s top firm, Amazon, has been widely documented violating federal labor laws and engaging in exploitative practices: firing and smearing pro-union workers, denying safe and appropriate accommodations, and forcing workers to dedicate uncompensated time to being frisked at the end of shifts. Jeff Bezos’s monopoly has also recently donated to a QAnon-supporting GOP candidate for the Tennessee House of Representatives.
As the tech industry now becomes evermore consolidated and shady business practices mostly go unpunished, profits and executive salaries are reaching an all-time high. According to Fortune — Uber, Facebook, Dell, Comcast, Microsoft, Tesla, Alphabet (Google), AT&T, Samsung, Verizon, Apple, and Amazon are among the 300 most profitable corporations in the world.
The tech executives, including social media moguls Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg, have made out like bandits. According to Forbes, Dorsey’s net worth is now up to $8.4 billion, while Zuckerberg has become the third richest person in the world, amassing a net worth of $92 billion. Similarly, while Amazon escapes tax obligations, Jeff Bezos — now the world’s wealthiest individual — has acquired his very own media outfit, The Washington Post, while his net worth skyrockets to an absurd $181.7 billion.
The industry and their robber baron executives are unaccountable and uninterested in protecting a democratic society — the result amounts to users and the public paying the price for big tech’s consolidation, profits, and salaries.
Democratic Ownership Creates Accountability
Tech behemoths have transformed into public (although privately held) services that virtually every American interacts with regularly. Over a third of Westerners look to social media for their news consumption, now with more young people turning to online platforms to get their media fix. 69 percent of Americans are Facebook users, while 73 percent consistently consume content on Youtube (owned by Google). Close to two-thirds of the U.S. use Amazon, while more than 40 percent use the site monthly. 36 percent of Americans use ride-sharing platforms like Uber and Lyft, while every American with a computer or cellphone (a necessity in this era) mostly relies on a binary choice. In a world where the masses are increasingly reliant on tech platforms, it’s time they serve public transparency and are held accountable under democratic ownership.
Under democratic ownership, speech can be better protected from corporate censorship, and responsiveness to manipulated media or “fake news” can be better addressed through independent procedural transparency. It’s noteworthy that as media and information channels progress, some Western governments have created editorially independent outlets, like BBC and CBC. Although these institutions are far from perfect and certainly possess a bias towards the status quo, their creation didn’t deliver an authoritarian blow to free speech. The same can be applied to social media corporations.
In an oligopolistic — or arguably monopolistic — environment, big tech and social media monoliths have become too large to manage and hold accountable. Tech giants have increasing political, economic, and social power over the public, while the working-class people become growingly reliant on the platforms. It should be recognized that big tech’s jumping-off point was created and is now sustained through public funding. Public investments should serve the public, not shareholders, executives, and market consolidation.
Nationalization would also curtail overly exploitative labor practices from big tech and their contractors. While under democratic ownership, labor standards could be more strictly enforced and dignified, high-paying jobs can be promoted. Simultaneously, users and consumers wouldn’t be manipulated for profit, personal data could be better secured and protected, and the public could have an independent arbiter to rely on for information. Public ownership serves to protect democratic societies, workers, and users.
At its heart, the profit motive doesn’t serve the public’s interest and it’s time that tech giants are nationalized and placed under democratic control. While conspiracies run wild, tech consolidates, users are manipulated, and data is unsecured and auctioned off, democratic societies are at a precipice. Big tech and social media corporations must be placed under democratic ownership for the sake of accountability and transparency to the public.