The Press Freedom Clock is TikToking

On World Press Freedom Day, we must recognize and support independent, public-interest journalism before it’s too late.

by Shealeigh

By Mickey Huff and Nolan Higdon

As we write for World Press Freedom Day, declared May 3, 1993, by the United Nations, Julian Assange of WikiLeaks languishes in Belmarsh prison awaiting possible extradition for trial in the US under the Espionage Act. His alleged crimes? Daring to publish evidence of American war crimes, information utilized by legacy press outlets to win prestigious awards while also calling for his punishment. If he is found “guilty of journalism,” it will have remarkably negative implications for press freedoms in the US and worldwide. 

Also, as we write, Gaza lies under siege not only from US-made bombs but a barrage of establishment media propaganda denying genocide taking place against Palestinian civilians in Israel’s attacks on Hamas. Meanwhile, the US recently enacted a law that not only sends more money and weapons to Israel and Ukraine, ensuring more carnage, but simultaneously targets the social media platform TikTok for potential banning or divestment due to its ownership by the Chinese company ByteDance.

Many Americans are turning to social media platforms for news more and more, which is not something we normally promote as journalism or sound media literate practice on the surface. However, it is also increasingly becoming a place where people can see different perspectives about what is happening in places that the establishment press spins, slants, distorts, or ignores altogether.

Young people particularly get news from social media, and while Facebook is still the most popular overall, TikTok is the favorite and fastest-growing platform among Gen Z. Ironically, in some instances, Big Tech platforms that are not journalistic outlets demonstrate more “press freedom” principles than exhibited by the New York Times and other stalwarts of the establishment press. To adopt the words of the late, great muckraker and media critic George Seldes, TikTok users tell the public “what is really going on”— from Columbia University to Gaza and beyond.

So, then, it’s not a surprise that the US government is going after a “foreign-owned” platform that undermines official control and narratives and is more difficult to censor by proxy, which is how RT America was memory-holed by YouTube and telecom companies in March 2022. This is also why the US government has ruthlessly persecuted Assange, an award-winning journalist and publisher who dared to expose US war crimes in the so-called “war on terrorism,” and why they attack and frame today’s protesters as “anti-Semitic” and “supporters of Hamas” when they call for a ceasefire in the Middle East.

This isn’t about TikTok any more than it was about RT in 2022. The end goal is to silence alternative views (especially anti-war voices), suppress dissent (including by physical force), and censor independent sources.

Press Freedom Principles vs. Dangerous Reality for Journalists

According to the United Nations, World Press Freedom Day is “dedicated to the importance of journalism and freedom of expression.” It serves as an occasion to “celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom; assess the state of press freedom throughout the world; defend the media from attacks on their independence; and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.”

These values and principles often seem at odds with the practice of establishment journalism in the United States. Indeed, in response to growing public opposition to US support for Israel, authorities have sought to beat, arrest, expel (if students), fire, and intimidate those who exercise their First Amendment rights to speak freely, peaceably assemble, and petition grievances against government policy and action.

Journalists have not been spared. Indeed, reporters in the US and around the world have been arrested and charged, attacked, and further intimidated in the crackdown on anti-war and anti-genocide demonstrators. In Gaza, far more than 100 journalists have been killed to date (including at least two Israeli ones). The Committee to Protect Journalists called the current war in Gaza more dangerous for journalists than any previous war. When journalists are targeted, death is the ultimate form of censorship.

Meanwhile, social media platforms—where many independent journalists share their work to reach a larger audience—silence and censor by proxy, with some users being totally banned when publishing content that represents the views of these pro-peace protesters.

In the US, where journalists are allegedly protected under the First Amendment, the “freedom of the press” clause doesn’t really apply to social media or other privately controlled entities. In fact, according to the 2023 Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders, the US ranked 45th worldwide, and Israel, which just moved to ban Al Jazeera as a security threat, was 97th.

Thus, it is no surprise that the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) currently labels the US a “flawed democracy” at 29th place in its Democracy Index 2023, just ahead of Israel in 30th place. Referring to global democracy in a worrying “backslide,” the EIU reported, “To reverse this worrying turn away from democracy, governments and political parties need to work hard to restore trust in representative democracy by delivering on the issues that matter to the electorate.” Having a free and vibrant independent press is one way to achieve that goal, but alas, there is work to do.

The Myth of a Free Press: Official Propaganda as Censorship and the “Paper of Record”

The challenges to press freedoms in the US are rooted in the political economy of mass media. As scholars Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky outlined in their seminal book Manufacturing Consent (1988), news media in the US operate for profit. They are thus not incentivized to cover stories that threaten their bottom lines, including the financial interests of their advertisers or shareholders. 

These so-called “mainstream” outlets decide who or what is newsworthy, meaning which voices are platformed and which are not. Even though more people are increasingly getting news from digital sources, most news stories still originate from a handful of corporations that own roughly 90 percent of the news media in the US. These news outlets rely on a hyper-partisan narrative approach (Republican versus Democrat, Team Red versus Team Blue) where MSNBC, CNN, New York Times, and Washington Post confirm the Democratic biases of their liberal audiences, while Fox News, Wall Street Journal, and New York Post do the same for the Republican biases of their conservative, MAGA audiences.

This for-profit, hyper-partisan approach to managing news media has resulted in censorship of varied and diverse viewpoints. Case in point—in April, The Intercept reported on a leaked memo, circulated initially to staff at the New York Times, often referred to as “the paper of record,” that put restrictions on the use of terms such as “genocide,” “ethnic cleansing,” and “occupied territory” in the newspapers’s coverage of the Israeli assault in Gaza.

If the memo’s directives had the effect of sanitizing the Times’ coverage, this dovetailed neatly with the interests of the Biden Administration, which had been stalwart in its support for Israel. Indeed, the New York Times operates under economic and political pressures that align it with official US foreign policy. And, if they don’t, other “Team Blue” media are waiting to step up and take their place.

For example, earlier this year, when the New York Times noted that Biden’s speech on the economy was a combination of statements that were “false,” “misleading,” and in need of “context,” MSNBC’s Claire McCaskill, a former Democratic US Senator, called it “ridiculous” that the New York Times “fact-checked Joe Biden on something.” But isn’t that what journalists are supposed to do?

In another “paper of record” moment, the New York Times also published an early story about the horrific sexual assaults committed by Hamas on October 7, 2023, in Israel. However, the story, which was produced in part by a person who had never reported before, was soon contradicted by other reports that claimed there was insufficient evidence to verify that mass sexual assaults occurred. This may help explain why the New York Times canceled a podcast based on the first story, but it doesn’t explain why they did not offer a correction to the original report.

As a result, Team Blue–friendly press have taken to echoing Democratic Party talking points. For example, they have repeatedly mischaracterized the critics of US support for Israel as anti-Semitic or pro-Hamas, when in fact, they are actually pro-BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions), pro-peace, and anti-genocide.

The Team Blue press have also propounded false stories, including about how Hamas supposedly beheaded forty babies, reminiscent of earlier false US war propaganda themes about Germans ripping the arms off Belgian babies (in World War I) or the Iraqi Republican Guard throwing babies out of incubators (during the Gulf War). President Biden himself repeated some of the false stories about Hamas, as previous presidents repeated other noted false claims until they slowly faded into the background noise of the next atrocity propaganda campaign.

Meanwhile, not to be outdone, Team Red media outlets like Fox News amplify the voices of public officials such as GOP Senator Tom Cotton, who called for citizens to engage in vigilante justice by throwing protestors off bridges or having their skin ripped off if they glue themselves to property.

Many campus administrators have channeled that sentiment as they declared a fear for security, resulting in canceled commencements; censored speeches; arrested faculty, staff, and students; and police violently attacking protesters. Some, like GOP Speaker of the House Mike Johnson and Senator Josh Hawley, even called for the National Guard to be called out to quell unrest in Ohio, eerily echoing a potential past-as-prologue tragedy at Kent State University 54 years ago on May 4, 1970, when the Ohio National Guard killed four students and injured nine others during an anti-war protest.

A Tale of Two Platforms

The passage of the bipartisan ban on TikTok, expected to go into effect sometime in the next year, was enabled in part by legacy media critiques that such digital media spaces promote the spread of false information (aka fake news). Since October 7 of last year, the Biden Administration’s frustration with TikTok has grown as online users accessed content that purported to show Israeli soldiers committing human rights abuses and killing unarmed hostages, the ongoing humanitarian crisis for Palestinians, Israeli influencers mocking Palestinian suffering, and the Islamophobia of those connected to US leaders. 

Biden could rest assured that similar reports would not appear in legacy media outlets, evidenced by CNN filtering its reporting through its Jerusalem Bureau before it reached American audiences; MSNBC removing news personalities who were sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians; and, as previously mentioned, the New York Times publishing the disputed reports on sexual assaults and rape during the October 7 attacks.

Numerous reports demonstrate a history of the federal government pressuring social media companies to remove content that threatens their power. Indeed, the US can threaten regulations, raise taxes, or cancel lucrative contracts to influence social media companies to do their bidding. In this way, TikTok offered a unique threat as it is a foreign-owned company. As a result, it could ignore certain US government pressures.

In the meantime, polls show that social media users in general, and on TikTok in particular, are responding to Biden’s unwavering support for Israel by abandoning his campaign and, instead, refusing to vote at all, threatening to vote for Trump, or considering voting for a third-party candidate. In a particularly striking example of opposition to Biden, during the 2024 Democratic primary, thousands of registered Democrats voted “uncommitted” instead of for their party’s incumbent candidate. The response from Biden and the Democratic Party is censorship, whether banning a social media platform or suppressing legitimate and lawful political protest.

A Vibrant Independent Press—Not Censorship—Is the Antidote

Those who cheer the banning of TikTok as the first step in the larger goal of regulating Big Tech’s ability to spread false content, erase privacy, or engender mental and physical health problems should remember the values and principles enshrined in the UN’s World Press Freedom Day.

Rather than set a precedent for regulating a toxic industry by singling out a foreign scapegoat (as is our wont in foreign policy and war propaganda), these acts would codify the principle that when a government cannot influence outlets by proxy, they can ban any alternative platform that dares to threaten its power. From TikTok to WikiLeaks, efforts to control freedom of information will undoubtedly create chilling effects, with platforms and publishers choosing to adhere to the demands of power, directly or by proxy, rather than risk their own extinction.

While the travails of TikTok as a company may not excite one’s concerns about the freedom of the press the way the case of Julian Assange should, they are nonetheless further indicators of these grimly censorious times. We, the people, would not have to learn factual information about what’s happening around the world from TikTok if the principles of World Press Freedom Day were practiced by journalists every day. The “paper of record” and their ilk must clean up their act or be exposed as a failed Fourth Estate.

If we are to be a free people, if we are to be self-governing, then we need a free and independent press, reporting factually and transparently in the public interest—owners, shareholders, elected and appointed officials be damned. The state of our free press must be improved, its protected status exalted, as a means to resetting the moral compass of our republic and embarking on a path toward truth and social justice for all.