Freedom for Julian Assange and Navigating our Digital Democracy

Featuring Kevin Gosztola, Kate Horgan, Reagan Haynie, and Shealeigh Voitl

by Kate Horgan
Published: Updated:
The Project Censored Show
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Freedom for Julian Assange and Navigating our Digital Democracy
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Independent journalist Kevin Gosztola, author of Guilty of Journalism: The Political Case Against Julian Assange, rejoins the program to discuss Julian Assange’s plea bargain with the US Department of Justice that finally frees the WikiLeaks founder from Britain’s Belmarsh Prison. Assange, who was detained there for more than five years, was returned home to Australia a free man. The Assange legal case may be over, but Gosztola discusses the ongoing implications for press freedom, especially given the details of the deal where Assange was basically found…guilty of journalism? Then Mickey speaks with Project Censored’s Kate Horgan, Reagan Haynie, and Shealeigh Voitl, authors of a new article in the special media literacy issue of The Progressive magazine. The piece, “Navigating the Digital Democracy,” outlines the efforts of government and Big Tech to control or censor social media platforms (often without users’ knowledge), and the countermeasures employed by online communities to maintain open and uncensored communications. The guests discuss how social media can influence the 2024 election and how critically media literate citizens can be more meaningfully, civically engaged.

 

Notes:

Kevin Gosztola is an independent journalist. He has covered the Julian Assange legal proceedings in the UK from their beginning, as well as other press-freedom and whistleblower cases, and has been a frequent guest on the Project Censored Show. His book on the Assange case, Guilty of Journalism, was published in 2023. Gosztola is also the editor of the Dissenter newsletter. Kate Horgan is Website Design & Media Assistant at Project Censored; Reagan Haynie is Social-Media Manager at Project Censored; and Shealeigh Voitl is Digital & Print Editor at Project Censored. Their article, “Navigating the Digital Democracy,” appears in the June/July issue of The Progressive magazine.

 

Video of the Interview with Kate Horgan, Reagan Haynie and Shealeigh Voitl

Video of the Interview with Kevin Gosztola

Below is a Rough Transcript of the Interview with Kevin Gosztola

Mickey Huff: Welcome to the Project Censored Show on Pacifica Radio. I’m your host, Mickey Huff. Today on the program in this first segment, we are excited to bring back Kevin Gosztola, independent reporter at The Dissenter, also author of Guilty of Journalism, The Political Case Against Julian Assange.

And we are delighted to have Kevin on the program today to celebrate the fact that Julian Assange, believe it or not, is a free man. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t costs and consequences. That doesn’t mean that the future of journalism is preserved. We have to be ever vigilant, but Kevin Gosztola has been on this case since its inception.

Kevin has been our go to expert on this, and of course, we’re not alone in this. The late great Daniel Ellsberg said of Kevin and his work that he is a rare journalist who understands the abominable threat that the case against Assange poses to press freedom. Ellsberg said he relied on Kevin’s indispensable reporting not only to stay informed about Assange but to follow developments in the wider war on whistleblowers.

And Kevin Gosztola welcome back to the Project Censored Show for a rare occasion when the two of us can have something good to say about the Julian Assange case, and that’s that it’s come to an end, but not without costs and consequences, not without him apparently pleading guilty to journalism. Kevin Gosztola welcome back to the program.

Kevin Gosztola: Yeah, it’s good to be with you, and let me take a moment to say what I’ve said on multiple shows, which is, It’s unfortunate that Daniel Ellsberg did not live for this moment so he could share in the cheer. There’s so many people who have contacted Julian Assange. And I do want to say up top that the mood is jubilant on the part of the Assange camp, that this is a victory for them.

And in fact, Jeremy Corbyn, who we know as a leading politician in the UK and had contacted Julian Assange and congratulated him on the victory. And Julian Assange said, no, it’s everyone’s victory. And we all share in this. Stella Assange, his lawyers, everyone, they’ve made clear that this was a global movement that created space for plea deal negotiations.

Mickey Huff: Which is absolutely important, very important to remember, and of course, Kevin, you can give us more of a background, too, to remind folks of this long and twisted, torturous case in many ways, but also, you know, let’s just, let’s talk about what, the right now, let’s talk about what, what also just happened, and I know that off air, you and I were talking, we had a clip that we want to share, folks, of Julian Assange, yeah, basically saying that he, he, he’s, he’s in a, in a, in a way disagreeing, of course with the interpretation, but also simultaneously noting that he is in fact guilty of journalism.

Is that, is that an accurate assessment?

Kevin Gosztola: Yeah. And as, as the author of the book, Guilty of Journalism. Mm-Hmm. , I would like to tell you, I had no idea he would sit in a US court one day and say when he was asked to describe his quote unquote crime. That he would say basically he was guilty of journalism.

And so wh- let’s play the clip right here.

Mickey Huff: Right? So let’s play the clip of Assange in the courtroom. Here we go.

Unidentified: At this time, I’m asking you to explain to me what is it that you did that will constitute the crime charge?

Julian Assange: Working as a journalist, I encouraged my source to provide information that was said to be classified in order to publish that information. I believe that the First Amendment protected that activity, but I accept that as written.

It’s a violation of the Espionage Act statute.

Unidentified: So you had certain belief, but you understand what the law actually says as well.

Julian Assange: I believe the First Amendment and the Espionage Act are in contrcontradiction with other. But I accept that that it would be difficult to win such a case in given all the circumstances.

Mickey Huff: and so there’s the voice of Julian Assange in court, essentially, noting that he, he does not see he sees as incongruous or incongruent, the Espionage Act and the First Amendment, but was not prepared to move forward to argue the case, given the circumstances. Kevin Gosztola.

Kevin Gosztola: Oh, exactly. That’s something that, beyond Julian Assange’s freedom, we all have to grapple with.

Anybody who cares about freedom of expression and the standards that the United States tries to set globally, what is being said there accepted by a U. S. judge, and supported by the U. S. prosecutor who’s in the room is that the espionage act and the first amendment are basically incompatible. I mean, essentially under the espionage act, there are no first amendment rights.

So once you violate it, you do not get the claim that the first amendment protects you from prosecution. And so the first amendment says one thing about what’s allowed in the publication of news, and then the espionage act says another, and there’s no settled law. And we live in this kind of actually lawless state at this point until some court actually settles this matter.

The sad part is the only way to settle this matter is to have a case where a journalist is punished for journalism. It won’t be Julian Assange, but there will be a case in the future because the Justice Department will try this again.

Mickey Huff: Well, and we’ve talked about this for years, unfortunately, because the case had gone on for so long, and we’ll talk a little bit more about that, in this segment, but Kevin Gosztola, the punishment was in the process, I mean, and that’s part even, that’s even come out now, he, Assange was, was, agreed to plead guilty to one count, is that right, under the Espionage Act, which was basically five years time served when he got to Australia, So essentially he’s gonna be a convicted He’s convicted of this felony, right?

Yeah. It’ll be on the record, but he is also a free person after many, many years of being tortured, being imprisoned, being surveilled, harassed, and even the subject of a potential CIA assassination campaign. Kevin Gosztola.

Kevin Gosztola: Yeah, though he was welcomed back to his home in Australia as a hero, he got on the phone with the Australian Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, who has been fighting for his release, lobbying the Biden White House to, end this case.

It’s important for me to note here about the way this plea deal happened, that Julian Assange was released on bail from Belmarsh Prison, which was known as, and still is, known as Britain’s Guantanamo, after enduring harsh confinement conditions in which his health and, his physical and mental health deteriorated significantly.

He hopped on a charter flight. And the Australian High Commissioner. It’s the most senior diplomat in Australia flew with him to, they just had a layover in Bangkok and then they flew onward to a U S territory. I kind of think it’s a colony, but they went to, North Mariana islands in, the Pacific ocean.

And they went into this small courtroom and had this proceeding where it all happened very fast, lightning fast. This typically does unfold over like two or three months. They did the guilty plea and the sentencing all in about an hour and a half. And then he went onward to Australia, where he could rejoin his family, finally.

And, you know, in the, in the, in this hearing, what we heard was that the U. S. could not identify a single victim of these leaks. Oftentimes the government, and they did this in Chelsea Manning’s case, I believe, they’ll seek restitution for individuals who were harmed by the crime. They did not name a single person that Julian Assange had affected.

That tells you that there are zero, and it confirms zero, and it’s a message to the news media that they should stop talking about how WikiLeaks has blood on its hands, and, and, and repeating U. S. propaganda, because even the U. S. government itself could not go before a judge. and prove harm.

Mickey Huff: The establishment press in the U. S. has had they’ve had a real double standard. They’ve been very hypocritical about the Assange case, WikiLeaks case, with major newspapers, both simultaneously using this information to win Pulitzer awards, prizes, but then simultaneously throwing him under the bus or having a real tepid relationship with the support for his case. And you just mentioned that the U. S. government has no case where they were talking about known victims of the leaks of the information. They basically exposed heinous war crimes committed by the United States. Among many other things but still the press has a twisted relationship with Assange, you know some still saying that he should still be punished more. I mean, can you comment on this bizarre, you know kind of state of affairs between the establishment perhaps the fourth estate in the United States and their, their very problematic relationship with whistleblowers, leaks, and Assange in particular. Kevin Gosztola.

Kevin Gosztola: To me, the best way to illustrate the twisted relationship is how, even today, the New York Times will say and claim that Julian Assange was a source and not a partner in working on these documents that came to WikiLeaks from Chelsea Manning. And that was because they wanted to try and insulate themselves from being prosecuted by the U. S. government or else they wanted to act like they were better and different than Julian Assange. But it is a distinction without a difference.

The U. S. Justice Department does not see any difference between Julian Assange and a New York Times editor or reporter who works on previously classified documents from the U. S. government and publishes them. So, it’s on them to recognize that this precedent is severe for the future of journalism, and it’s going to be up to us to reckon with it while Julian Assange is healing, we’re going to have to reform the Espionage Act, get a public interest defense for journalists, or pass a reporter’s shield law that could exist in this country to protect journalists from subpoenas that might offer some kind of, protection from or deterrence from the Justice Department trying to have their way with media organizations.

But I do think I appreciate the bittersweetness of this, you know, on one hand. We can celebrate that this is a massive defeat, in my view, for the CIA, for the FBI, for the Justice Department’s National Security Division, which I think would have been perfectly comfortable if, through the punishment by process, Julian Assange wound up being pronounced dead at some point in Belmarsh Prison.

They didn’t get that. Instead, he walked out free and boarded an airplane and came home to Australia. On the other hand, Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom of the Press Foundation, various civil liberties organizations, all of us are looking at this going, what happens next?

And, and, and that’s really disturbing.

Mickey Huff: Well, what does happen next? I mean, let’s talk a little bit about some of what, what, what’s been going on here, even just, and I’m speaking with you on Thursday, June 27, the program will air next week. Across the U. S., Kevin Gosztola. It’s also, I believe I learned recently that the U.S. was charging Assange for chartering the plane that took him back to Australia? To the tune of half a million pounds?

Kevin Gosztola: So what it sounds like is they had the Australia government pay for the flight. And then the Australia government said, we’ll get Julian Assange to pay us for the charter flight. I don’t know why they’re putting an ally in that position to begin with.

I would like to just be an anti imperialist for a moment and say the U. S. arrested and charged Julian. They kept him in prison. They’re the ones that lost confidence in their case. They no longer wanted to be as aggressive as they had been and bring him to the U. S. for trial. They got tired. They didn’t want to continue to put up with this fight because Julian Assange did not give up and was actually in a winning position because there was an appeal hearing coming where they were going to argue over the First Amendment and say that if Julian Assange came to the US for a trial, he would ,be prejudiced due to his nationality. Since non us citizens have no first amendment rights.

That was something the high court of justice was taking seriously. It brought the US government back to the negotiating table for a plea deal. And so they should be paying for the flight. They should be putting Julian Assange on the plane, bringing him to a US courtroom and then securing their guilty plea.

But I’ll tell you, in addition to that, one of the things that stunned me is just picking up on little details. I looked at the press release from the justice department that announced this plea deal with Julian Assange and how they had secured a guilty plea to the conspiracy charge under the espionage act.

And I was stunned because there are no statements from any high ranking official celebrating the outcome. Nothing from attorney general Merrick Garland, nothing from the U S attorney in the, Eastern district of Virginia. Nothing from anyone who worked on this case. And it’s also very sloppy and wordy.

It’s a closing argument, basically, like the kind that you would give before you get a verdict from the jury and not a statement of victory. So even today, the announcement of the plea deal, they’re still trying to persuade the world that their actions weren’t corrupt.

Mickey Huff: Yeah, this was pretty amazing. Pretty amazing developments.

Chief among them, of course, is that Julian Assange has been released from Belmarsh prison, pled guilty to one charge under the Espionage Act, but is a free person in, in, now in Australia. . Kevin Gosztola, it’s an election year in the United States. Trump is the one that helped really ramp up charges under the Espionage Act, of Assange.

Biden, of course, and the Democrats, you know, going back to Biden, Obama, you know, they, they persecuted, prosecuted more whistleblowers than any other presidents combined. The Biden administration has not really been friendly to Assange or the Assange case. And look, as much as you and I might like to think, that the Assange case is so important that it’s a burning issue for many Americans.

The reality is, is that it really wasn’t. Many Americans don’t even recall much of who he was and most of what Americans knew seemed to be based on the propaganda and misinformation that kept floating around from our own press, distorting the case, which is again why your book is, really, it’s just fundamental to understanding the case.

If anybody wants to understand the backstory of what happened in this case and what, what, what we were up against in terms of press freedoms, not just the case against Assange, but the press itself. Your book is a primer on this. Your book is a, is a one stop shop, The Guilty of Journalism, Political Case Against Julian Assange.

But Kevin, how much of this do you think was, that this is an election year? I’m, I’m leaning towards not much of it, although it may be some crumbs for some of the First Amendment people on, on some side, on some fence somewhere regarding election 2024, but it seems like that there were other issues that maybe led the government to play this hand.Kevin Gosztola.

Kevin Gosztola: I don’t think that the upcoming election mattered too much. Right. I could see officials in the Biden White House or the wider administration being uncomfortable with the idea of putting a journalist on trial or a publisher on trial. However, Biden called Julian Assange a high tech terrorist when he was vice president.

Yes. And Donald Trump, his only use for WikiLeaks was when he could reference emails from her campaign from Hillary Clinton’s campaign and attack his opponent. But he doesn’t have anything from WikiLeaks to attack Joe Biden this round, he didn’t in 2020, and he had no interest in seeing it through. He told, he apparently told Judge Andrew Napolitano.

That he was going to pardon Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, in the final days of his presidency before Joe Biden was inaugurated. That would have been January, 2021. And then he let people like GOP Senator Marco Rubio and Mitch McConnell get to him and frighten the bejesus out of him that they were going to vote for impeachment.

So then he would have to deal with that. And both Assange and Snowden did not get their pardons. So I don’t believe electoral politics had anything to do with this. It is the appeal hearing. It’s also the pressure of a close ally, Australia, that ultimately gets this done. Kevin Rudd is a former prime minister for Australia, and he traveled to Washington D.

C. not long ago, this is according to Jen Robinson, who was Julian Assange’s Australia attorney, and he was there aggressively demanding that the Biden White House end this case.

Mickey Huff: So that’s extraordinary. Australia, the Australian government ended up playing a pretty key role. I know that there was criticism, Over the years of various parties not seeming to do enough, but a lot of this stuff to Kevin Gstola, happens behind closed doors, right?

And we don’t always get to see or hear the things that are happening. One thing that we, we, we do know is that, the many committed folks, journalists, people who are First Amendment enthusiasts in reality, not just abstractly, People that support for us, press freedoms. I know we had Project Censored have been unwavering in our support for Assange going all the way back to Chelsea Manning days.

And you’ve been covering these issues since then. Kevin Gosztola. What do you think is next for these discussions around the Assange case? Obviously, there needs to be a lot of personal healing and he needs time to be with, with family and reintegrate he’s, he’s suffered immensely over the last five years, Justin Belmarsh, let alone prior to that, what can you say, do you think, moving forward here?

What, what might we see coming, in, in the next month, month or two over summer? And of course, our press freedom groups, you know, really going to rally around this and maybe use some of this momentum. There are there are other journalists and other people and other publishers around the world less high profile than Assange that need need help and support and need need a bigger platform.

So Kevin Gosztola, maybe your thoughts on things moving forward about what we might see out of this case. Positive news.

Kevin Gosztola: Absolutely. Very quickly here, looking ahead, part of the plea deal was the U. S. government making a commitment, and they put this in writing, that there will be no charges brought against Julian Assange going forward for any publications before this plea deal.

So that’s gold. And it means he can’t get in trouble for the Vault 7 materials from the CIA, and it means he also can’t get in trouble for any of the campaign emails the DNC or the Clinton campaign emails that were published if they wanted to say that was a crime. So what I think people should, be focused on is ensuring everyone knows about this history.

I’m pleased to say that I wrote a book that will now be a history book. It’s not something I need to go around waving and warning people of what’s to come. It’s the past. And so people will have to educate themselves on this history and then find a way to use it in a manner that can help prevent a future Assange case, a similar Assange case type case because we need Espionage Act reform.

We need a reporter’s shield law. And I’ll just conclude here. I know I only have like a few seconds, but I just want to quickly roll call and thank the people who gave me a platform regularly to discuss this Assange case. Breakthrough news, Scott Horton’s radio show, status coup with Jordan Sheraton, Project Censored.

And these shows were spaces that I could turn to. There were a lot of progressive media shows that didn’t invite me or welcome me, but these were shows that cared about Assange support, independent media like these shows.

Mickey Huff: Yeah. Thanks. Kevin Gosztola. That’s very important to note because it wasn’t just the establishment press that had a bizarre hypocritical stance on a lot with what’s happening with Assange.

There were even some press freedom groups and there were even progressive outlets that just couldn’t be bothered with Assange because they believe the misinformation. They believed the smear campaigns against him and they wanted to distance themselves from it. But, you know, I think, I think that, the lot of us that supported the First Amendment, that supported press freedom, and supported Julian Assange, I think that we’ve been vindicated here by, by this recent outcome.

And it came at a high cost and a high price. And I want people to know that when we sit here and celebrate, The fact that Julian Assange has been freed from Belmarsh prison and is in Australia and back in his home country. That came at a very steep price. And Kevin, you write about that in your book, Guilty of Journalism.

You write about the many things that Assange endured. And again, without, you know, getting too listy, maybe you can remind, and we have a couple minutes left here, maybe you can remind some of our listeners of, of exactly some of the kind of treatment that Assange, you really withstood. And, and I wanted to end by reminding our listeners about a few really, really important cases and things that we know about because of Julian Assange, Kevin Gosztola.

Kevin Gosztola: Well, yeah. So, Julian Assange was in some form of arbitrary detention for the last 14 years. He spent around seven years in, nearly seven years in the, in prison. London Embassy, Ecuador’s London Embassy, and then he was in Belmarsh prison for five years, and he was in solitary confinement conditions for like 23 hours a day.

He’s had sunlight deprivation, sensory deprivation, essentially. This has done incredible damage to Julian Assange. But then you look, you look at some of the examples of what WikiLeaks brought to us. And it’s, I believe, I’ll just focus on one incredible example that people will understand right now as the United States protects the Israeli government from accountability.

You find in the WikiLeaks cables Examples of the Bush administration and the Obama administration interfering in European courts so that CIA agents and U. S. soldiers are not prosecuted for war crimes, you find cover ups, blocking of investigations into the deaths of people who are journalists or, individuals who were tortured.

And so, that’s something we should take away, is that WikiLeaks was about accountability and justice. I don’t know if WikiLeaks will be functioning again now that Julian Assange is free, if we’ll be seeing more leaks. Leaks on the war on Gaza, leaks on the war in Ukraine, I would love to see those. But whatever might happenyou know, there were these shows like yours that invited me to discuss this case, if I could quickly one, there’s a couple I left out.

So Lee camp has had me on, I need to give credit and, Katie helper and some other people out there were good, at inviting me on their shows. And I just, I just want people who have listened to me, give these updates to know other colleagues of ours that did care about giving space to this regularly.

There’s a lot of progressive media shows that did not follow this case or care what was happening to Julia and Assange.

Mickey Huff: Yeah. And that’s the part that is very unfortunate, but, I think it’s right to call, you know, to call attention to the sources, to the spaces that really were dedicated to this issue, including people at Mint Press News and Menard Adly and Alan McLeod and Loki, obviously to Consortium News, Jolaria, of course, your colleague, John Curiaco.

And others. I mean, there’s there’s a long list of people that supported, Assange. But to me, it’s, it’s again, it was mystifying to see how many were afraid of the case or didn’t get the case. Well, it’s good for us, Kevin, and it’s good for Julian Assange that he is now a free person and the U. S.

government has, has basically, I mean, look, let’s just say it. The, the U. S. government didn’t come out looking great in this case. And, I think they took, they, they took a defeat. They, they, they, they really didn’t win this case. I mean, I know that a lot of damage is done, but it is also true, Kevin Gosztola, that, that the U.

S. government didn’t win this case.

We’ve got an internet connection hiccup, but I’ll let it work itself out. So it is true that the U. S. government is conceding defeat in this case. They did not win this case.

Kevin Gosztola: Yeah, I’ll just quickly say, I don’t think there’s any winners. Yeah. Other than the fact that Julian Assange wins because he still has his life, you know?

He’s not dead. But beyond that, there are no winners. And so perhaps that’s why they were able to reach a plea deal, because in the end, you know, they, they both had a shared interest of finding a way out. You had, you had basically Julian Assange is going to fight for press freedom. United States government is going to fight for the national security agencies that want revenge.

And in the end, they, they basically looked and said, well, for either of us to get those things, it’s going to probably be four or five years from now before we reach that point. So let’s just settle. Let’s just accept that, you know, it was almost like you get to the end of a match and they go, All right, good game.

Let’s just be done here. And then they go their separate ways.

Mickey Huff: Yeah, except they’re playing with people’s lives. They’re playing with major press freedom principles, things that we really, really live by. Kevin Gosztola, it’s always, wonderful to have you on the program for your updates and your great reporting.

And in this case, it was actually, great to have you on to celebrate the freedom of Julian Assange. And I, I know that, I know of few other folks that were as invested in this case as you. And so I know that you’re really. You’re, you’re delighted. I know that he is now free and of course we’ll still be following the case and following what’s going on with Assange.

The chilling effect, Kevin Gosztola, is still out there, right? The chilling effect against people who are leakers and whistleblowers. Even though Assange has now walked free, he paid a heavy price. And I think that people will think that the people will not be ignorant to that. Kevin Gosztola.

Kevin Gosztola: Yeah, this chilling effect is real and people should look at examples that are going to come here in the future of the US government trying to define who is and is not a journalist.

I maintain that it does matter. Julian Assange is a journalist. I open my book, those are the first words. Julian Assange is a journalist. I hear from the civil liberties crowd that it doesn’t matter because the first amendment just protects acts of journalism. But to me, conceding that the US government has some kind of a point that he is not a journalist that he exists in some gray area opened us up to this case in the first place, because we were then pulled into this area where they could claim that their prosecution under the espionage act.

Somehow doesn’t threaten the first amendment because Julian Assange is not a journalist. And so if we had just all agreed that he was a journalist from the beginning, we would have been in a stronger position to fight for Julian Assange. Anyways, we’re here and I’m very pleased and proud that this comes to an end that the saga of 14 years it it ends a chapter in my life But we’re talking about Julian Assange who is the important person here and it brings an important Chapter of his life to an end and now as the judge said to him who I was actually astounded wished him a happy birthday You don’t get that from us judges usually but yeah, she also said I hope peace is restored for you.

Yeah, and so that’s the great thing here that peace has been restored for Julian Assange And he can have whatever life he would like after this it begins with recovery It begins with taking care of his own health and then we’ll see what comes from that I look forward to whatever Julian Assange still has to offer this world

Mickey Huff: That’s the voice of Kevin Gosztola at thedissenter.org, author of Guilty of Journalism, the Political Case Against Julian Assange. Kevin Gosztola, always wonderful to have you on and a pleasure to celebrate Julian Assange’s freedom with you today. Thanks for all of your important work.

Below is a Rough Transcript of the Interview with Kate Horgan, Reagan Haynie, and Shealeigh Voitl

Mickey Huff: Welcome back to the Project Censored Show on Pacifica Radio. I’m your host, Mickey Huff. In this segment of the program, we welcome three authors from Project Censored that have recently contributed to the summer issue of The Progressive magazine. Last week we had on Norman Stockwell, Andy Lee Roth, Mischa Geracoulis.

We talked a lot about the special contents here. It’s really something that such a prominent, political and historical magazine like The Progressive took on the issue of media literacy in the summer of this election year. As you know, folks that listen to this program, we’re always harping about critical media literacy education and what we can do to be more informed, to work, to be more meaningfully, civically engaged.

And, the three people that I have joining me right now pen to stellar piece on “Navigating the Digital Democracy.” We are joined by Kate Horgan website design and media assistant at Project Censored and a member of the Media Revolution Collective co authoring The Media and Me: A Guide to Critical Media Literacy for Young People.

We are also joined by Reagan Haynie Project Censored social media manager. Her work has been featured in the Project’s State of the Free Press Top 25 Censored News Stories list and in the Junk Food News chapters. And last but certainly not least, we’re joined by Shealeigh Voitl again. Welcome back to the program.

Shealeigh is the digital and print editor at Project Censored and her writing has been featured in Truthout, The Progressive, Ms. Magazine, and more. Kate, Reagan, Shealeigh, welcome to the Project Censored Show. Thanks for having us.

Reagan Haynie: Yeah, happy to be here.

Mickey Huff: It’s a delight to have the three of you on. And in addition to having the pleasure of working with you all at the Project on critical media literacy issues, social media issues, so many different things.

You three collaborated for a wonderful piece, a very important piece, called “Navigating the Digital Democracy: Social Media has Power to Influence Voters.” And of course you can learn more at progressive. org, but let’s start with you, Kate Horgan. Maybe, maybe you can give us a little overview, of what this article is about and what some of the main concepts are.

And we’ll, we’ll go around and hear from, from all of you, repeatedly throughout the segment. Kate Horgan.

Kate Horgan: Yeah, absolutely. I think first and foremost, we were really just honored and excited to be a part of this collaboration with the, with The Progressive. You know, I think a lot of this stemmed from a series that we’ve been able to start at Project Censored called Critical Media Literacy in Action, which is a great social media series that kind of takes a critical media literacy lens at headlines and, you know, current media content for, for young people.

That’s where a lot of people are getting their information nowadays. And yeah, we kind of used it as a, a segue to, to write this article. I think Reagan was kind of the mastermind behind critical media literacy in action series, if you want to talk about it a little.

Reagan Haynie: Yeah, so, yeah, as Mickey mentioned, I’m the social media manager at Project Censored, and I really wanted all three of us really wanted to focus our efforts on helping people be able to engage with social media and news in a more productive manner, in a more critical manner, so instead of just interacting with the news through a normal media literacy lens, like enacting with it, through a critical lens.

So, being able to, you know, decipher between good news sources and bad news sources, you know, look beyond just what they’re reporting on, like who is reporting on it, where are they getting their funding, things like that. And, so yeah, since we’ve started the series, we’ve worked with journalists like Alan MacLeod, Kevin Gosztola is going to be in an upcoming episode, but we just, we focus on framing, language, the issue of passive voice, things like that.

And all of that can be found on our social media accounts. So yeah, check it out if you want.

Mickey Huff: And so Shealeigh let’s bring you into the conversation here too. This is an interesting approach. So we, it’s not a protectionist approach to media literacy where we’re fear mongering or finger wagging at the youth, right?

Facebook is dangerous. X is dangerous. It’s a cesspool for hatred. You know, and again, many things can be simultaneously true. The technologies that we have, our tools, they can be used for good. They can be used for not so good. But again, some of the things that you all point out in the article, while, while, while pointing out some of the downsides.

Some of the censorship, things like shadow banning, you all can talk a little bit more about that. You also do focus on the fact that, yeah, well, guess what, particularly among young people, social media platforms are a place where, well, people are getting news and information. I mean, that’s just the reality.

That’s, that’s what’s happening. Those are the behaviors. And so, rather than finger wag and shame people for these practices, maybe it’s a better idea to educate them about how things are happening, why maybe they’re happening, maybe clue people into some of the things that they’re missing that might really matter to them so they understand that media literacy is an issue for them, too.

It’s something for everyone. We need to be teaching everyone these kinds of skills. Shealeigh, talk a little bit about some of that.

Shealeigh Voitl: Yeah, I mean, we use, you know, these apps every day, multiple times a day. But I think many of us don’t even realize why we’re seeing the content we’re seeing, and that’s coming from three digital natives who have used the internet, like, practically our whole lives, so we’re sort of, you know, intuitive about it, so we feel as though, you know, we have full control over the curation of our for you page or our discover page. And, you know, that’s not necessarily the case. You know, social media algorithms are specifically designed to prioritize user engagement to boost advertising revenue. And that means that, you know, extreme political content or sort of controversial topics are more likely to be amplified.

And so when we’re coming up on any election, you know, it’s important that, you know, everyone participating in that system understands why they’re seeing the content they’re seeing on their feeds, and how to make sense of all of that. And, you know, not everything on social media, you know, is inherently untrustworthy, but, there’s always something more to consider, when you’re coming across political content anywhere, but especially on these social media platforms.

Mickey Huff: Yeah, so we need again, I don’t get the quote Ronald Reagan very often, but the trust, but verify, sentiment springs to springs to mind, you know, when even he was seeing things happening in his administration that he didn’t realize or want to acknowledge were true. But in fact, were. Rare, rare instance of presidential apologies around those things, but it has been 40 years.

So, but we have our work cut out for us. Because we have more and more people, particularly young people, getting information on these social media platforms. They’re owned by these private big tech companies for profit that also have contracts with the government for other things, other reasons.

And of course, with the whole lap around fake news and during the Trump years and how that all got off leash and weaponized and, you know, mis and disinformation became a sort of a rallying cry among Democrats again, having these issues being turned into partisan issues is even more problematic.

Right, where one party’s claiming that it has the truth on its side and everything else is fake news. I mean, we can get into some of that. But maybe Kate, we can go to you. We can certainly go go around. What are some of the ways that that that whole fake news moral panic was used to usher in these Trojan horses as they might be called ways to curate the ways to curate the information?

We want to squelch disinformation. We want to prevent people from seeing bad information before it goes viral around the world kind of thing, right? So what are some effort, what are some ways that social media companies were surreptitiously trying to squelch in this kind of, these kinds of posts? I know we, you talk about shadow banning and I know you talk about algo speak, you know, algorithmic speak.

Kate, maybe you can talk a little bit about this and we can go around.

Kate Horgan: Yeah, absolutely, Mickey. I think you brought up a great point at, you know, in the era of Trump in the era of misinformation, disinformation, it did ramp up a lot of content moderation online. There’s, you know, all of a sudden a huge volume of content circulating that was spreading a lot of , you know, what was co opted is like fake news in some ways. But this brought about this kind of push for automated content by, moderation, because this is a way for social media platforms to, they don’t have to rely on human beings. They can deal with a large amount of content relatively quickly.

But, you know, this, this is pointing to a lot of different problems because when you have an automated system, that’s owned by big private corporations, they’re dictating what is deemed appropriate or not appropriate, what’s allowed and not allowed online. And we, when we put that power in the hands of a few large private corporations, I think history has shown us that that doesn’t end up very well.

And not only that, but automated content moderation, These are AI. These are, you know, digital technologies that are flawed. They’re made by, they’re made by people, and they’re reflecting the flaws of society at large, and you know, they’re not perfect in detecting what’s appropriate, what’s deemed harmful, you know, they, they have a hard time understanding nuance, they’re, they can be flawed, they’re not always consistent, so, when we’re looking at it in the scope of an election year, that makes it very kind of dicey, for what are we seeing online, this is heavily influenced by, imperfect technology.

Mickey Huff: Yeah, Reagan, you wanted to come in here, Reagan Haynie.

Reagan Haynie: Yeah. I also just wanted to point out that, it’s not just AI that’s monitoring like the disinformation and misinformation. I know the, The Intercept came out a few years ago and reported on the DHS leaks, talking about how the government has direct access to filter what they deemed to be misinformation and disinformation.

And, we also have like Alan MacLeod reported on at, at MintPress, the, the involvement, the direct involvement of, you know, former CIA and Mossad agents at big tech companies like Meta, like Google. So there’s really, there’s, there’s a whole plethora of reasons why, the monitoring of disinformation happens and how it happens.

And yeah, our, our government is certainly involved in that too.

Mickey Huff: And the devil is of course in the details and you all right here. Shealeigh Voitl, you can, maybe you can come in too, and, or anyone, but you also, you specifically write about something, and we’ve done, you know, we’ve covered this at The Project in the past, in 2023, GLAAD, the activist group gave TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram, YouTube and X, formerly Twitter, low or failing scores in its social media safety index, right?

And saying that the platform’s content moderation practices don’t do enough to keep users safe from hate speech or harassment, particularly around LGBTQ plus users. Shealeigh, do you want to jump in here and then we’ll go to Kate?

Shealeigh Voitl: Yeah, you know, I think, yeah, I think that this is where critical media literacy plays a very big, you know, role.

These things are so important to understand how social media platforms are, deliberately sort of, you know, influencing how we interpret not only news stories, but all kinds of information that we see online. So as much as a cool resource as you know, these apps can be for, building community and learning and engaging with things that you may not have previously been exposed to.

It can also fight against that in many ways. And have the opposite effect and I know Kate, has something that she wanted to share as well.

Kate Horgan: Yeah, I mean, I think I was just going to elaborate on that in that we’re seeing a lot of social justice movements, political content. It’s being reflected online, from what we’re seeing in the streets around us.

And that has particular importance when it has to do with marginalized groups. LGBTQ community being one of them. There has been numerous different studies that have come out, the Conversation, put out a piece when they were talking about, automated content moderation disproportionately affects marginalized communities, during the Black Lives Matter movement, there was, TikTok was flagging people for having the word black in their bios or in their content, and the same goes for people in the LGBTQ community, And this kind of this speaks to something that we talked about in the article, I think you mentioned earlier, Mickey of shadow banning, which is this kind of covert way for social media companies to hide pretty much information.

It’s less of an explicit, active censorship, but it’s a way for these organizations to have plausible deniability that they didn’t explicitly delete. But they’re still deeming this content sensitive in a way that is not explicitly violating their con their content violations, but enough for them to kind of push it away.

So, you know, if someone’s scrolling on their For You page, you’re expecting that the algorithm’s going to show you people you’re following, issues that you’re interested in, but the reality is you’re not getting the full picture painted for you from your For You page because there are things that are not explicitly being communicated that they are censoring, in a lot of different ways.

And that does disproportionately affect marginalized communities and marginalized social justice issues.

Mickey Huff: So this is clearly a media literacy, a critical media literacy issue. It’s clearly a teachable moment. Seemingly, we were talking a little bit about shadow banning, excuse me, as one of the ways in which these, tech companies, big tech companies, social media companies, Meta, for example, that owns Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, how they’re able to, well, sort of throttle down things that people are posting, and the interesting thing about shadow banning is that you may be posting things to social media accounts and be unaware that because of what you’re posting and because of the content that you are algorithmically being Sort of disappeared or rendered more invisible or your reach into that digital space is extraordinarily curtailed unbeknownst to you, right?

That’s the shadow. The shadow part of the banning. Is that many people are unaware that this is happening. And I know Reagan Haynie, you wanted to come in there at the, at the end of the last segment and, and chime in. So please feel free to come in there. And we also want to talk a little bit more about algorithms, algospeak, and, we also want to talk about, well, a few other things. You’ve got quite a number of things in the article. So Reagan, let’s go to you.

Reagan Haynie: Yeah, no, just on the issue of algorithms and the issue of, you know, suppressing information. This issue got so much worse recently this year, right as we were beginning to draft this piece, Meta updated its newsworthy allowance policy, which some of our listeners might remember.

But this was essentially an automatic rollout of this policy where users were not notified. But Meta had automatically adjusted user settings, everybody’s settings, to limit political content from accounts that you were not following. And if anyone uses Instagram or Facebook, you probably know that, you know,

This affects a big percentage of the information that you’re consuming. And again, the timing is not, you know, it’s, it’s particularly suspicious given what’s going on in Gaza and the way in which young people are being radicalized through social media and through learning about what’s happening on the ground in Palestine.

So, and also what’s happening with TikTok. So there’s definitely, it seems like there’s like some underlying intentions and reasoning behind this, this policy. Yeah,

Mickey Huff: You mentioned TikTok and we’re talking about shadow banning and so TikTok has been getting some special attention, right? This year, it’s, it’s owned by a Chinese company, ByteDance.

It was part of legislation that was actually funding arms, to, to some hotspots around the world, where it would be banned by the end of the year if it, if it didn’t divest. The specific attention to TikTok was curious because even as Mitt Romney and others said out loud, the reason they were targeting TikTok was because they couldn’t curate the content about Gaza.

Shealeigh, Shealeigh Voitl, do you want to come in here or Kate have a few things to say about some of that?

Shealeigh Voitl: Yeah, I think this is why, you know, young people are frustrated with the system, you know, we’re getting these messages, and, you know, immediately contradicting these messages, you know, obviously the Biden administration was all for, this bill, but still continues to use TikTok to promote, you know, the campaign, so it’s, you know, it’s frustrating, I think, when you’re getting that content and you feel talked down to in a lot of ways, you know, this is, you know, your connection to, you know, as, as, as, as Kate was mentioning, communities that maybe you aren’t a part of in your real life, that, you know, online spaces are so sacred in that way.

And so being, you know, TikTok being maybe stripped away from you, it’s frustrating because it’s an issue of censorship, but it’s also frustrating when leaders are like, okay, well, you know, in the meantime, we can use it to, you know, promote our, you know, messages that maybe you don’t necessarily agree with anyway.

So, it’s a tricky thing, but, I think, you know, having that you know, where we don’t get that transparency from people, where hopefully with CML in action with this article trying to allow people, the young people, especially the tools to, kind of discern, be discerning consumers of that information.

Mickey Huff: Yeah. And there’s, there’s also certain topics. And again, back to the LGBT community. Q plus, issue, issues. We have a couple, there’s a couple specific things that you write about, you all write about in the article. One is KOSA, the Kids Online Safety Act and the other, of course, we’ve covered the project before the Cyber Security and Infrastructure Security Agency Act or CISA, right?

Can any of you speak a little bit to those? Because again, it’s another effort to seemingly keep people safe or to address safety issues that maybe ends up backfiring or has other consequences? Unintended? Can any of you speak to that?

Reagan Haynie: Yeah, ealeighey also might have something to say about this too. But KOSA is the Kids Online Safety Act.

And, Mickey, you pretty much, described it well. It’s, it was disguised as a policy or a piece of legislation that was being implemented to protect kids online, and to protect them from certain kinds of information, but what that piece of legislation did was, really did was it suppressed content online that was discussing, issue or content related to abortion, LGBTQIA issues, mental health issues, sex education issues.

So, you know, when you hear that, it’s really hard to understand, like, what, what are we protecting kids from? Like, none of this is dangerous information. So yeah, I mean, there’s clearly something else going on here.

Mickey Huff: And you also cite a professor at UCLA Sarah Roberts, basically saying that this this kind of automated content moderation misses nuances.

Right? And so, again, let’s even pretend that there’s noble effort or intent behind protection, right, of, of kids and so forth. That’s, that’s not a, that’s not a light issue. But look, it’s also inadvertently, let’s, I’m, I’m being pretty diplomatic there, but it is having negative consequences. It is having a censorious effect.

The degree to which that people have figured out online that they don’t talk about, they don’t talk about sex work in the way, they don’t call people sex workers, they call them accountants, something. And, and, and Kate, I know you might want to maybe talk to this too. This, this algo speak or algorithm speak, a means by which people try to circumvent the automated sensors or shadow bands.

Kate, can you maybe talk about that? Or, and Shealeigh, you might want to chime in, but go ahead, Kate.

Kate Horgan: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s really reflective of, you know, also some powerful organizing that’s happened by young people through online communities, currently. I mean, algo speak is really a way to circumvent, like you said, Mickey, these algorithms and words, phrases, topics that might be otherwise flagged, whether they’re told explicitly that they’re flagged or not explicitly.

This is kind of relating back to shadow banning where people might not know if they’re getting, you know, pushed off the algorithm. So they’ve developed ways to communicate with each other and communicate these topics in ways that will actually reach each other. So for example, in the pro Palestine movement currently, a lot of people are using the symbol of a watermelon to discuss Palestine.

And that is a way for them to not have their content censored or policed. If you were talking about sex work people will call themselves accountants, the word lesbian, le$bean was like a, it had like a dollar sign in it, and these are just different, like, phrases, words, ways for people to kind of get around this, but I think this is reflective too of something that’s been around for years, I mean, when we look at the history of the LGBTQ movement, there was a time in history where they had to speak, like, we had to speak to each other in a way of asking, are you a friend of Dorothy?

You know, you couldn’t outright come and come out and ask someone if, you know, they were gay. And so we see this in a lot of different social justice areas where we have to kind of work around these systems to get our messages across, but it’s definitely it’s taking a new form when it’s online and when it’s being, kind of controlled and co opted by these, these few private large organizations.

Mickey Huff: And then, of course, the another issue you bring up is, and again, I mentioned the professor from UCLA, the automated content moderation, she goes on to say that content moderation quote requires linguistic and cultural competencies that machines cannot achieve. That seems to be an extraordinary limitation that many of our tech overlords don’t want to talk about in the open.

You know, I’m reminded of the meme that’s all over online now of the person pressed against the wall with this big tuba, you know, like covering their face and it’s like companies and unwanted AI and they’re just blasting it in your face. It’s like everywhere you turn, you know, your AI is there to help.

You know, but, but again, again, and that’s not to say that there aren’t positive uses for AI. But the critical media literacy default is to be skeptical of some of these things. Shealeigh Voitl, maybe you want to come in and talk a little bit about some of these and related matters?

Shealeigh Voitl: Yeah, I mean, yes, optical is right.

I think that that that is, it’s deserving of our skepticism. And I think also, you know, like even just going back to some of the legislation that’s, you know, seeking to regulate content online, you know, the problem with it is that, you know, it’s vague. And it leads to, you know, censorship of perfectly legal and constitutionally protected speech.

So, so when you see, you know, sort of it getting growing and growing, growing in terms of, you know, what we’re not able to see online, perhaps in the near future, it’s scary. And I think it’s, you know, scary to people to whom obviously these spaces are. As I said before, very, sacred and important spaces for identity, for community, for education, all very, very important things to consider, but yeah, these, these, these, these pieces of legislation in particular are, are, are deliberately vague, and, and that’s a problem.

Mickey Huff: It certainly is and can be and we need to be alert to it. We have only a few minutes left in this segment. Now the time has flown by. So I just want to put it to each of you, Kate, Reagan, Shealeigh, your final thoughts based on some of your work on this article and anything particularly that you, you know, any advice or any particular things you want to point out as some of the things that you’re writing about really pertain to the election year.

I mean, we’re coming up here on another presidential election when people crawl out of the woodwork to pay attention, but the world keeps getting weirder and weirder. In between those presidential elections, and I’m not always sure people keep up in on the media literacy front. So, just here’s some some final thoughts from each of you.

Kate Horgan.

Kate Horgan: Yeah, absolutely. I think using social media as a tool is something that I think we can do more. You know, as we’ve said over and over again, critical media literacy is not about being critical. You know, you can use it also to spread messages. I think algo speak and the things we talked about.

These are great examples of ways that people are able to communicate their messages to spread awareness about political issues, social justice issues that matter. So, you know, just as much as social media and AI is scary. Don’t be afraid to also use it to your advantage to, to interact with your community to, you know, engage in political discourse and, you know, be civically engaged.

I think it’s a powerful tool. We have to recognize that as well.

Mickey Huff: And knowledge certainly is power, particularly the kind of knowledge that one gets from understanding critical media literacy and how these platforms actually work, for whom, which voices may be excluded. I mean, can really spur people to seek out, you know, other kinds of information.

Reagan Haynie, final thoughts from you in this segment?

Reagan Haynie: Yeah, I think, something that I just want to drill in is to just, I know things seem really bleak right now in the world and also online, and I think it’s really, I guess tempting to lose hope and to give up and, you know, there’s so many barriers put into place to prevent, progress and to prevent action, but I think, I think it’s really important that we all, like, hold strong and, and to continue voicing our opinions and to voice our frustrations, especially online, and I was actually just talking to Kate and Shealeigh about this, but I know that there’s a lot of limitations to online activism and that a lot of people feel, are afraid of, you know, the fear of virtue signaling or being performative or whatever, but I think, and there are limitations with online activism, but I also think that there’s so much potential to spread messages and to gain support for issues like, you know, two years ago, no one, no one talked about Palestine.

No one cared about Palestine and look where we are now. You know, people even like centrist people are supporters of Palestine and are frustrated and just seeing, seeing progress happen in real time for, for causes and issues that maybe didn’t have that support later down or earlier in time, I think is, is exciting, and I just hope that people continue to be active online and,, yeah, so.

Mickey Huff: Absolutely. Shealeigh Voitl, some final thoughts from you on the segment?

Shealeigh Voitl: Yeah. Well, I think, you know, both of my colleagues, Kate and Reagan, brought up amazing points about, you know, social media being very empowering. It is. It’s, it’s an amazingly power, empowering tool, that we can use to learn so much about the world around us.

And then on the other side of the coin there, you know, it’s also important to have the tools, additional tools at our disposal. You know, to allow us to see some things that may not be in our best interest. And that involves, you know, learning how these algorithms work and that is unique to each platform.

You know, they’re not all the same. And you know, knowing that you might be caught in these sort of echo chambers and the further you get into that, the harder it can be to get out. Not only to be open to new information, but to find it, you know, on your feeds, you’re just not being exposed to it.

So I think just understanding how that works makes social media even more empowering. And that’s what I think we would really love young people to achieve. And I think they’re already doing that, which I think is awesome and, very inspiring.

Mickey Huff: It is. And the three of you are equally awesome and inspiring.

Your article is “Navigating the Digital Democracy: Social Media has Power to Influence Voters.” Kate Horgan, Reagan Haynie, Shealeigh Voitl. Thank you so much for joining us on the Project Censored Show today. It’s been a delight to talk with you. This article can be found at progressive. org. It is in the special summer issue on media literacy of The Progressive magazine.

And to learn more about our project, Project Censored, and to learn more about critical media literacy in action and our critical media literacy pedagogy and curricula, you can learn more online for free at projectcensored. org. Kate, Reagan, Shealeigh, thanks again for joining us today.

Kate Horgan: Thank you so much.

Thanks, Mickey.