Freedom Rider: Social media’s danger to the black left

Of course Black Agenda Report utilizes social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to communicate with readers. Any individual or organization who needs to connect with large groups of people does so as well. But our adversaries know that, too, and have embarked on unprecedented efforts to diminish black and left voices or silence them altogether. The change was announced quite publicly in November 2016 when the Jeff Bezos owned Washington Post presented the infamous Propornot list. This anonymous group claimed that some 200 sites, including Black Agenda Report, were susceptible to Russian propaganda, hence the propaganda or not label.

Now the attack is a bit more subtle but quite effective. Individuals and groups find themselves “ghost banned,” unable to post on social media platforms but never given a reason why. YouTube subscribers find themselves unsubscribed. YouTube channels are demonetized and unable to earn revenue if they cover left leaning political issues. The search engine reach of organizations like Black Agenda Report have been diminished on Google.

There is also an old school frontal assault reminiscent of the FBI’s infamous Counter Intelligence Program, COINTELPRO. The police department in Memphis, Tennessee, used Facebook to spy on Black Lives Matter activists. They even invented a persona, Bob Smith, who was able to “friend” individuals with a fake story of activism and then monitor their movements, plans and announcements. Any event that attracted a black audience was targeted, private information was collected and shared with law enforcement across the country, public utilities and private corporations such as FedEx.

The benefits of social media are obvious. But left activists must rethink how or even whether to use platforms which are both useful and dangerous. We may find new comrades and associates on Facebook and Twitter but we can also find the Bob Smiths of the world. We must remember that mass movements existed long before the invention of the world wide web. The internet was in its infancy when the Million Man March took place in 1995. Somehow more than 1 million people knew they were to be in Washington on a specific date and time. We don’t have to relegate ourselves to a problematic enterprise in order to make ourselves known and heard.

It is time to take a serious look at our dependence on Facebook, which Julian Assange called, “The most appalling spy machine ever invented.” Every serious activist should take a look at how they contact other people. It isn’t necessary to give up social media altogether but it is essential to have phone numbers, email and written addresses for anyone we may wish to contact. Old fashioned address books gathering dust need to be resurrected.

The system that we critique so assiduously is quite serious about limiting our effectiveness when it can’t do away with our organizations altogether. An accusation of being a Russian bot or a fake news site is enough to consign one to social media oblivion and the inability to communicate at all.

In short, they are coming after us and they will use many ruses to do it. Right wing pundit Alex Jones was recently kicked off of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for violations of terms of service. There is nothing new about Jones antics. He has been violating those terms for years without consequence. The sudden concern for what he has done for years is highly suspect. Some observers believe that he is in fact a United States intelligence asset.

There is no reason for anyone on the left to cheer Jones being censored. The move against him will be used to defend further censoring of left-wing voices. There will always be Alex Jones like characters on social media. His absence helps no one except the intelligence apparatus who will find new ways to use our words and activities against us.

We are living in an era when every person on the planet is under surveillance, regardless of their ideology or political activity. The National Security Agency (NSA) has records of every email and every phone call made in the country. The Boston Globe recently revealed the existence of a program called Quiet Skies, which has the power to put any air traveler under direct, physical surveillance from federal air marshals. Behavior such as “reversing or changing direction and/or stopping in transit in an airport, boarding last, or observing the boarding gate from afar,” can guarantee that a traveler will unknowingly be accompanied by an air marshal on their next flight.

Social media is dangerous precisely because we use it voluntarily. We voluntarily provide personal information to strangers on Facebook, which is seen as harmless and even benign. But Facebook recently decided that planned demonstrations against white supremacists in Washington were created on orders from the Kremlin and removed their information from the site which everyone uses to promote their activity.

The dystopian world of the novel 1984 is here but in an even worse way than Orwell imagined. In his imagination, Big Brother interposed himself into the lives of ordinary people. But in 2018 the people are giving their enemies information that may be used to harm them. Humans are loathe to go backwards but that is what we must start considering. We may well have to time travel to the days of rotary phones and pieces of paper. Otherwise we are giving our enemies ammunition that they will surely use.

Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR, and is widely reprinted elsewhere. She maintains a frequently updated blog as well as at freedomrider.blogspot.com. Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)BlackAgendaReport.com.

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