2. Think Tank Partnerships Establish Facebook as Tool of US Foreign Policy

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

Under the guise of fighting “fake news” and protecting US democracy from “foreign influence,” in 2018 social media giant Facebook established partnerships with the Atlantic Council, a NATO-sponsored think tank, and with two US government creations from the Cold War era, the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute. As a number of independent news organizations reported, despite lofty rhetoric about safeguarding Western democracies, these partnerships have resulted in what amounts to state censorship, with Facebook serving as a tool of US foreign policy.

On May 17, 2018, Facebook announced that it would join forces with the Atlantic Council in order to “identify emerging threats and disinformation campaigns around the world” and to “fight abuse on our platform.” According to Facebook’s director of global politics and government outreach, Katie Harbath, the partnership with the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab would “increase the number of ‘eyes and ears’ we have working to spot potential abuse on our service—enabling us to more effectively identify gaps in our systems, preempt obstacles, and ensure that Facebook plays a positive role during elections all around the world.”

As Jake Johnson reported for Common Dreams, “While Facebook’s statement fawned over the Atlantic Council’s ‘stellar reputation,’ critics argued that the organization’s reliance on donations from foreign oil monarchies and American plutocrats puts the lie to the project’s stated mission of shielding the democratic process from manipulation and abuse.”

The Atlantic Council is a Washington, DC–based think tank funded by the US Department of State, the US Navy, Army, and Air Force, and major multinational corporations—including Chevron, ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, global asset management firms and banks, and top military contractors. According to a 2014 New York Times article, between 2008 and 2013 “at least 25 countries” donated tens of millions of dollars to the council. Its conservative-leaning board of directors includes former CIA directors, retired US generals, and hawkish former State Department officials like Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice. In a May 2018 article, FAIR’s Adam Johnson noted that, although there is “some diversity of opinion” within the Atlantic Council, “it is within a very limited pro-Western ideological framework—a framework that debates how much and where US military and soft power influence should be wielded, not if it should in the first place.”

As Johnson wrote, it is troubling that Facebook would rely on advice from an organization that has advocated on behalf of Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, one of its previous funders, and which presented former President George W. Bush—who was directly responsible for “the illegal invasion of Iraq that killed between 500,000 and a million people”—a Distinguished International Leadership award.

In the name of fighting the scourge of “fake news,” Facebook altered its proprietary algorithms in ways that significantly reduced traffic to progressive websites such as Common Dreams and Slate. Without formal warning, Facebook shut down left-wing, Venezuela-linked Facebook pages such as teleSUR English and Venezuelanalysis (although both were reinstituted after protests about their removal). In October 2018, numerous independent news outlets reported on what Jonathan Sigrist, writing for Global Research, described as “one of the greatest Facebook account and page purges” in the platform’s troubled history. In total, Sigrist reported, 559 pages and 251 personal accounts were “instantly removed” in the name of fighting “fake news” and “Russian propaganda.” Many of the pages and accounts that Facebook took down, Sigrist wrote, were “political (often leftist), anti-war, independent journalists and media outlets” that had been targeted in 2016 by PropOrNot, the website endorsed by the Washington Post but subsequently discredited.

In September 2018, FAIR’s Alan MacLeod detailed how Facebook planned to join forces with “two propaganda organizations founded and funded by the US government: the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI),” allegedly in an effort to combat “fake news.”

The NDI and the IRI were both established under an umbrella organization called the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a nonprofit created by the US Congress in 1983 to influence politics and elections in developing countries. Facebook’s collaboration with these organizations is especially concerning because, as MacLeod wrote, both organizations have “aggressively pursued regime change against leftist governments overseas.” In the 1980s, the NDI worked to destabilize the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, and the IRI supported the attempted 2002 coup d’état against Venezuela’s socialist president Hugo Chávez.

As MacLeod reported in September 2018, Facebook had also been “anxious to better curate what Brazilians saw on their feeds in the run-up to their presidential elections.” Fifty-two percent of Brazilians get their news from Facebook, MacLeod noted. The company’s new partnerships with the Atlantic Council and the two NED propaganda outfits gives the US government—which has a long history of meddling in Brazilian politics—yet another means of exerting influence over Brazil’s democracy.

There has been very little corporate news coverage of Facebook’s partnerships with US government propaganda organizations. As of January 31, 2019, one of the only articles on the topic in the establishment press was a Reuters report that MacLeod referenced in his piece. That article briefly discussed the history of the IRI and the NDI but made no mention of either the blackouts of teleSUR English and Venezuelanalysis, or how Facebook’s new algorithms have reduced traffic to leftist and progressive news sites. CNN, Fox News, and NBC News have provided offhand coverage, with only the most basic information, but none have framed Facebook’s actions in terms of censorship. Reports by FAIR and independent news outlets, including Common Dreams, MintPress News, and Global Research, address the core issue: In partnership with Facebook, powerful organizations are working to control the flow of information to best reflect their interests, with little in the way of public scrutiny.

Facebook has also partnered with establishment news organizations in efforts to discredit independent news outlets and ban their social media pages. In February 2019, CNN published a report on Facebook’s decision to ban the “In the Now” video channel and three of its offshoots, “Soapbox,” “BackThen,” and “Waste-Ed”—each of which is run by or associated with Maffick Media—because, according to CNN’s report, “the pages pushing the videos do not disclose that they are backed by the Russian government.” CNN told a tale of videos intended to undermine American democracy, targeted to millennials on Facebook.

However, as Kevin Gosztola of Shadowproof and Alexander Rubinstein of MintPress News subsequently disclosed, what CNN’s article failed to report was that CNN misreported the facts, using its manufactured version of the story as a pretext for calling on Facebook to remove the pages used to share those videos. CNN’s own report conceded that the banned pages “appear to have fallen into a gray area for Facebook.” Although the pages sharing the videos “do not include information about their links to the Russian government,” CNN reported, Facebook pages “were not previously required” to do so.

As Gosztola and Rubinstein reported, CNN sought to substantiate its story by enlisting the support of the Atlantic Council and the German Marshall Fund. The CNN story quoted Ben Nimmo of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. Nimmo—whose credibility has been called into question—told CNN that Russian-affiliated outlets claim to be editorially independent, but nonetheless routinely “boost Kremlin narratives, especially those which portray the West negatively.” Maffick, Nimmo told CNN, “may technically be independent, but their tone certainly matches the broader Kremlin family.” (On Nimmo’s questionable record as a reliable source, see Jeb Sprague and Max Blumenthal, “Facebook Censorship of Alternative Media ‘Just the Beginning,’ Says Top Neocon Insider,” MintPress News, October 24, 2018, https://www.mintpressnews.com/facebook-censorship-of-alternative-media-just-the-beginning-says-top-neocon-insider/250967/. Sprague and Blumenthal noted that 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.”)

The German Marshall Fund had identified Maffick as a potential foreign news outlet, due to its connection with the Russian media organization RT (formerly Russia Today), and registered concerns about Maffick Media to CNN. In turn, CNN began to investigate by contacting Maffick employees, and were granted a lengthy interview with “In the Now” journalist Rania Khalek and Maffick Media’s chief operating officer, J. Ray Sparks. Despite being provided with evidence of editorial independence and transparent funding sources, CNN contacted Facebook about Maffick Media; and despite finding no rulebreaking on Maffick’s part, Facebook quickly removed the pages in question, in what MintPress News described as “indirect government censorship.”

Facebook eventually reinstated the banned Maffick pages, Rubinstein reported. But Maffick employees believe that Facebook still needs to be more transparent, and they have called for the social media platform to establish consistent requirements that apply to all pages for disclosing funding sources.

Adam Johnson, “Media Ignore Government Influence on Facebook’s Plan to Fight Government Influence,” Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), May 21, 2018, https://fair.org/home/media-ignore-government-influence-on-facebooks-plan-to-fight-government-influence/.

Elliott Gabriel, “Facebook Partners with Hawkish Atlantic Council, a NATO Lobby Group, to ‘Protect Democracy,’” MintPress News, May 22, 2018, https://www.mintpressnews.com/facebook-partners-hawkish-atlantic-council-nato-lobby-group-protect-democracy/242289/.

Jake Johnson, “‘Alarming’: Facebook Teams Up with Think-Tank Funded by Saudi Arabia and Military Contractors to ‘Protect’ Democracy,” Common Dreams, May 18, 2018, https://www.commondreams.org/news/2018/05/18/alarming-facebook-teams-think-tank-funded-saudi-arabia-and-military-contractors.

Jonathan Sigrist, “Facebook Censorship and the Atlantic Council,” Global Research, October 14, 2018, https://www.globalresearch.ca/facebook-censorship-and-the-atlantic-council/5656896.

Kevin Reed, “Facebook’s Partnership with the Atlantic Council,” World Socialist Web Site, September 8, 2018, https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2018/09/08/atla-s08.html.

Alan MacLeod, “That Facebook Will Turn to Censoring the Left Isn’t a Worry—It’s a Reality,” Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), August 22, 2018, https://fair.org/home/that-facebook-will-turn-to-censoring-the-left-isnt-a-worry-its-a-reality/.

Alan MacLeod, “Facebook’s New Propaganda Partners,” Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), September 25, 2018, https://fair.org/home/facebooks-new-propaganda-partners/.

Kevin Gosztola, “How CNN Led Facebook to Censor Pages of Russia-Backed Video Company and Manufactured News Story,” Shadowproof, February 16, 2019, https://shadowproof.com/2019/02/16/cnn-manufactured-story-about-russia-video-company-facebook-censorship/.

Alexander Rubinstein, “How a Small Team of Journalists Overcame Neocon-Cheered Facebook Censorship,” MintPress News, March 1, 2019, https://www.mintpressnews.com/how-a-small-team-of-journalists-overcame-neocon-cheered-facebook-censorship/255789/.

Student Researchers: Mikhaela Alcasabas (Sonoma State University), Cem Ismail Addemir (North Central College), and Troy Patton (Diablo Valley College)

Faculty Evaluators: Peter Phillips (Sonoma State University), Steve Macek (North Central College), and Mickey Huff (Diablo Valley College)