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Big Tech's Battle to Erase a Movement and Subvert Democracy
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Uncover the hidden systems created by the most powerful tech companies in the world that are determined to stop Donald Trump.Journalist Allum Bokhari has spent four years investigating the tech giants that dominate the Internet: Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter. He has discovered a dark plot to seize control of the flow of information, and utilize that power to its full extent—to censor, manipulate, and ultimately sway the outcome of democratic elections. His network of whistleblowers inside Google, Facebook and other companies explain how the tech giants now see themselves as "good censors," benevolent commissars controlling the information we receive to "protect" us from "dangerous" speech.
They reveal secret methods to covertly manipulate online information without us ever being aware of it, explaining how tech companies can use big data to target undecided voters. They lift the lid on a plot four years in the making—a plot to use the power of technology to stop Donald Trump's re-election.
By the moderation team of r/The_Donald and thedonald.win
As the United States approaches the 2020 election, President Trump’s supporters find themselves in the crosshairs of all major social media platforms.
Whether from the rabidly left-wing Twitter Trust and Safety Council, an activist Facebook administrator, or a political operative overseeing Reddit communities, Trump allies and voters are at risk of censorship in the digital world by simply voicing their beliefs. These companies enjoy protection under federal law, but their actions toward conservatives clearly undermine their standing as neutral platforms and lend credence to the belief that they have become publishers with clear political agendas. So why do they continue to enjoy the special federal protections reserved for such platforms?
We are the creators and moderators of r/The_Donald, the largest community of Trump supporters on Reddit, the wildly popular message board that calls itself “the front page of the internet.” For five years, Reddit—the nineteenth-most-popular site on the web—has been home to our nearly eight hundred thousand users and has become one of the most influential sources of pro-Trump content on the web. A 2018 study by computer scientists at King’s College London, University College London, Boston University, the University of Alabama, and the Cyprus University of Technology found that we were far and away the top distributor of memes on the internet.1
But our position is in peril. Since r/The_Donald was created, Reddit has consistently targeted it with restrictions that are not equally imposed upon other subreddits on the site. Even before President Trump’s stunning victory in 2016, Reddit and its CEO, Steve Huffman, aka “spez,” began displaying hostility toward us and taking actions to diminish our reach and suppress our message. Reddit’s suppression of r/The_Donald only grew when George Soros acolyte Jessica Ashooh joined Reddit as director of policy and de facto manager of Reddit communities.
Our major issues with Reddit began with the Pulse nightclub shooting, during which radical Islamist Omar Mateen slaughtered forty-nine gay people and wounded an additional fifty-three. Upon learning of the Muslim faith of the attacker, default subreddits, those with the most subscribers, began a campaign of censorship and oppression of speech, going so far as to remove comments directing users to locations to donate blood. As Redditors were unable to receive updates on the shooting elsewhere, users began flocking to r/The_Donald and significantly boosted our subscriber count. In response, Reddit began a long history of capricious actions aimed at removing the voices of President Trump’s supporters from the Reddit public forum.
Four days after the shooting, Huffman, the Reddit CEO, stated the following concerning the reactionary changes to their website: “Many people will ask if this is related to r/the_donald. The short answer is no, we have been working on this change for a while, but I cannot deny their behavior hastened its deployment. We have seen many communities like r/the_donald over the years—ones that attempt to dominate the conversation on Reddit at the expense of everyone else. This undermines Reddit, and we are not going to allow it.”2
At the time of Huffman’s statement, r/The_Donald enjoyed a place atop Reddit’s most active communities, thanks to our devoted user base and the energy they expended in their support of President Trump’s 2020 campaign.
While Huffman accused us of dominating the conversation, topics of interest to progressives, such as support for net neutrality and the failed presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders, routinely made the front page, often originating from subreddits where the user counts do not even remotely match the large number of upvotes (Reddit’s rough equivalent of Facebook “likes”) they received. Clearly, “dominating the conversation” on Reddit is perfectly fine if you’re a progressive.
In November 2016, shortly after Trump’s election, Reddit’s CEO revealed his true colors. Frustrated by our users continually mocking him, Huffman used his database access to edit user comments in r/The_Donald, something unheard of on any social media website and calling the integrity of Reddit as a whole into question. He offered a halfhearted apology and continued as CEO despite the severe damage to the reputation of his site.3 Imagine Mark Zuckerberg using his powers to edit your grandma’s Facebook post because she made fun of him. That’s the equivalent of what Huffman did.
One week later, messages were leaked from Slack, an instant messaging service, that clearly displayed collusion between site administrators and non-r/The_Donald moderators in an attempt to ban r/The_Donald. Again, Huffman found himself in the middle of the controversy. The leaked messages showed him saying, “I think we need to figure out T_D without banning them. [Because] there will be another.”
As part of a new advertising campaign, Reddit created a site for prospective advertisers to view user counts in subreddits so that they might select where to run their ads. While all other subreddits displayed numbers similar to what Reddit states, r/The_Donald showed a number of 6 million users—far beyond the nearly eight hundred thousand Reddit currently displays. Administrators attempted to explain the discrepancy as an error, but together with our own website metrics, it cast doubt over the reliability of the site’s numbers. Is Reddit hiding the true number of Trump supporters on its platform?
Reddit’s anti-Trump users often parroted the leftist media line that Trump supporters are Russian bots and foreign operatives, but Reddit itself dispelled this lie in March 2018. It released a security report stating that 14,000 posts during the 2016 election may have originated from Russia. Of those, only 316 originated from r/The_Donald, by far the most active political subreddit during the election cycle.
June 2019 saw Reddit hit r/The_Donald with a deathblow, by putting us in “quarantine.” This made our subreddit invisible to anyone not subscribed to r/The_Donald, the majority of Reddit’s user base.4 The justification given was violent comments aimed toward government officials, posted by anonymous users. This quarantine occurred only after a Media Matters article and a campaign by censor extraordinaire and spoiled rich child Carlos Maza. In response, we conducted a review of other subreddits and compiled a twenty-five-page report on violent comments directed at government officials. Of particular note was the fact that the far-left r/politics subreddit contained twenty-nine violent comments in a post about the same exact story, a standoff between Republicans and Democrats in Oregon, each one of which far exceeded the ferocity of the seven that resulted in our quarantine.5
We unsuccessfully tried to appeal our quarantine by preparing an in-depth report demonstrating the changes we made and the accompanying data. We complied with all requests from administrators. Reddit responded by notifying us that the quarantine would remain in place because we failed to meet a metric that they would not share with us and because our users supposedly upvoted content that violated their intentionally broad rules, something over which we had no control. Even after condemnation from a member of Congress, Representative Jim Banks (R-IN), Reddit wouldn’t budge.6
On February 25, 2020, Reddit hammered the final nail into the coffin of r/The_Donald. With no prior warning, they gutted our moderation team by removing our sixteen most active moderators.7 Over subsequent days, Jessica Ashooh, author of such articles as “What the Rise of the Islamic State Tells Us About Donald Trump: And How to Take Them Both Down,” and her community team removed several more, leaving us unable to properly run the web’s largest hub for Trump supporters. Thankfully, we prepared for this eventuality by creating a site for our user base without the activist interference of Reddit, thedonald.win, which we now call home.
A common phrase uttered by the liberal-outrage mob is “If you don’t like it, build your own platform.” We did and our host was immediately targeted by the same people whose goal in life is to silence dissenting opinions. After a few bumps in the road, we now find that traffic exceeds that of r/The_Donald, and we will only continue to grow the community. Our time on Reddit is over, but our next phase of online Trump support is only beginning. We look forward to the day when we may discuss the actions of Reddit’s leadership team with members of Congress and prepare them for any hearings.
We only hope that other Trump supporters, spread out across leftist-owned platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, will find a way to escape the grip of Silicon Valley censors before the next election. As you’ll find out in the rest of this book, our experience dealing with Big Tech censorship is not unique to Reddit—the same story is being played out across the entire internet.
The Typewriter That Talked Back
The year is 1968. The internet is nothing but a glint in the eye of a scientist working for the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. Computers are the size of large rooms and are used mainly by NASA scientists and the military. “Internet” isn’t even a word, and the pocket calculator has yet to achieve mass-market appeal.
There’s still some technology, though—typewriters are nearly ubiquitous, which means the public has an easy and inexpensive way to communicate.
It just so happens that typing is exactly what you’re doing. You sit at your desk; your fingers skate across the keys of your typewriter. But something’s wrong.
The typewriter has stopped working. It’s not broken. Everything seems to be working fine. It’s just that no words are coming out.
You give the typewriter a few prods. Nothing happens. You take the paper out of the paper roll and replace it with a new one. Still nothing. You try once more to type a few words. Nothing.
Suddenly, and entirely of its own accord, the typewriter jumps into action. Your hands are nowhere near it, yet there it is, typing out a message, all on its own:
We regret to inform you that your last letter violated our terms of service (Rule 32: Abusive & Offensive Content). We have suspended access to your typewriter for 24 hours.
Twit Typewriters Co.
Bemused, you go to the phone. The last letter you wrote was to your friend Pat O’Reilly. Maybe you wrote one too many Irish jokes? You dial Pat’s number, preparing to tell him about the strange turn of events.
But Pat doesn’t pick up. Instead, your ears are greeted by the brisk tone of an operator, who delivers the following message:
“Good morning. Our systems detected that, in your last call, you told a joke beginning with the line ‘An Englishman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman walk into a bar…’ We regret to inform you that this violated our policies on offensive stereotypes. You are banned from using your phone for forty-eight hours. Warm wishes, Bell Telephones Co.”
Outraged, you grab your pen and begin scribbling a letter to the telephone company. Who the hell do they think they are? You’re a paying customer, goddammit! And you’re Irish—you feel it’s your right to poke fun at your countrymen! You spend several minutes furiously jotting down your thoughts about Bell Telephones Co., going so far as to suggest that it’s a monopoly and ought to be broken up. A radical idea like that ought to get their attention!
You seal the envelope and head for the post office. It’s a cool, brisk December day. On your way, you decide to stop at the newsstand—you want to pick up a copy of Peace Now. It’s a fringe, far-left magazine, but with so much government propaganda about the escalating war in Vietnam, it’s the only information source you trust.
The last time you visited the newsstand, you could find no copies of Peace Now. It’s not entirely surprising, because the mag is known for its fascination with outlandish stories like the alleged military cover-up of an attack that never happened in the Gulf of Tonkin, and a secret CIA mind-control project called MKUltra. State sources have rubbished both stories as conspiracy theories—but you still don’t appreciate newsstand owners not giving you a wide range of reading options.
Maybe Peace Now is too kooky to read, but that should be your decision to make. After all, if the stories have even a grain of truth behind them, they’re of huge public importance.
Still, the newsstand must surely have the Bugler, a highly popular newspaper that’s both antiwar and antiestablishment. The paper’s editorial board reluctantly backed Richard Nixon prior to the 1968 presidential election as a result of his pledge to pull out of Vietnam.
But at the newsstand, you receive yet another surprise. The New York Times is there, the Washington Post is there, even the National Enquirer is there. However, in place of the Bugler, there’s only this short notice:
This newsstand no longer stocks the Bugler, which has been categorized as “fake news” by third-party watchdogs. Thank you.
Marvin Suckerberg, Newsstands Inc.
The ban on one of your favorite newspapers is a huge problem, not least because Suckerberg’s Newsstands Inc. recently bought out every competing newsstand in your city. There are no alternatives.
“What’s going on?” you ask. “How come you’ve dropped the Bugler?”
The owner of the newsstand, his nose buried in a copy of the New Yorker, puts down the magazine and peers at you curiously.
“The Bugler is fake news, according to several reputable fact-checkers. Several of my employees petitioned me to drop it, and I agreed with their position. So, it’s gone, that’s that. If you’re determined to read it, you can get it directly from their printing facility. It’s about five hours’ drive away, mind you.”
The vendor returns to his reading material—but you aren’t satisfied with his explanation. “Who are these fact-checkers?” you demand. “Millions of people read the Bugler! It’s the most popular paper in the state!”
Once again, the newsstand owner puts down his magazine.
“Well, of course it’s popular. That’s the whole problem. We can’t allow misinformation to spread, can we?
“Say…,” he continues, now eyeing you suspiciously. “You didn’t vote for Nixon, did you? I heard that most Bugler readers voted for Nixon.”
You’re about to retort, but a glance at your watch tells you the post office will close in twenty minutes. Still annoyed, you turn and walk away.
The vendor yells after you: “You should be ashamed of yourself! Nixon’s a radical! His ‘Silent Majority’ slogan is code for fascism! He’s literally Hitl—”
The postal clerk greets you with a smile, clearly in a much better mood than the newsstand owner. And why shouldn’t he be? It’s 1968, and it’ll be decades before his job becomes threatened by robots and mass immigration.
“Hello, sir,” he says cheerily. “We were expecting you!”
“Expecting me?” you reply. “You knew I was writing a complaint to Bell Telephones?”
“Oh no, sir. We thought you’d be wondering why we returned all the mail you sent out last week. About six letters, I think it was. Should have been sent back to your address earlier this morning.”
“Sent back?” you ask. “What do you mean, ‘sent back’? Hold on…”
You put two and two together.
“Have I been banned from using the mail?”
“That’s right, sir!” The clerk beams, still blissfully unaware of immigrants and robots. “It’ll last for precisely two weeks. Just long enough for you to learn the error of your ways!”
You close your eyes for several seconds, attempting to contain your anger.
“It’s quite simple,” replies the clerk. “When we read your mail two weeks ago, we found a couple of jokes about Irishmen. They were hilarious—and so true. I’m Irish. But they violated our code of—”
“You read my mail?!” you exclaim. “Why the hell are you reading my mail?!”
“Well, of course we read your mail, sir,” says the clerk hurriedly. “Otherwise we wouldn’t know what advertisements to send you! You see, we wouldn’t want your letterbox to be bombarded with pointless ads for the Ford Falcon when your last few letters have all been about how happy you are with your brand-new Chevy Chevelle. This way, we can send you ads for spare tires and accessories instead. Really, it’s just so we can improve your user experience! There’s nothing to worry about!”
“Stop it! You stop it right now!” you bellow. “I never signed up for that!”
“Ah, but you did, sir. Here, take a look.”
The clerk hands you a one-inch-by-one-inch postage stamp.
“This is just a stamp. What am I looking at?”
“Take a closer look, sir.”
You bring the stamp up to your face and squint at it. Scrawled in tiny writing across the bottom is a message:
TERMS OF SERVICE: ALL MAIL WILL BE MONITORED AND REVIEWED TO IMPROVE USER EXPERIENCE AND ENSURE COMPLIANCE WITH OUR CODE OF CONDUCT. FOR A FULL LIST OF PROHIBITED COMMUNICATIONS, PLEASE SEE ONE OF OUR STORE CLERKS.
You are now quite convinced that the world has gone mad. You read the message three times, just to be sure. You’re barely paying attention to the clerk as he explains your suspension.
“So, because of the offensive jokes about Irish people, who are a protected group after facing considerable discrimination—”
“Hold on a second,” you interrupt. “I’m part Irish. And so is my friend, whom I wrote those letters to. How can you suspend my service for something that neither of us found offensive?”
“Well, I sympathize, sir, but Lena McDunham and Kathy McGriffin might not see it that way,” replies the clerk. “If they got wind of this—”
“I don’t care! They’re not even funny!” you declare.
“Keep your voice down!” hisses the clerk. “Their talent agency represents half the stars in Hollywood. Do you know how much fan mail their clients get on a weekly basis? That’s a huge chunk of our revenues! We can’t risk that for one man’s right to tell a joke!”
You’ve finally had enough.
“That’s it, to hell with the post office,” you declare, heading toward the door. “I’m taking my business to FedEx.”
“Good luck!” yells the clerk as you leave. “They won’t be founded until 1971!”
It occurred to the clerk that his very angry customer wouldn’t have much luck in 1971 either.
After all, if FedEx were to carry hate speech in its mail trucks, it’d only be a matter of time before it was banned from using the roads.
Stranger Than Fiction
Sometimes, the only way to understand the weirdness of the present is by comparing it to the past. But as time goes on, such an exercise becomes difficult. Many of those reading this book have little, if any, experience with typewriters. Sending a letter through the mail seems archaic, unless it’s a Valentine’s Day or Christmas card. If we’re not careful, the generation born today will have to ask their grandparents what it was like to communicate without feeling that a giant corporation was listening to what they said and reading what they wrote.
Many commentators have warned that the unchecked power of Big Tech corporations means that dystopia is just around the corner. This book reveals a far more unsettling truth: the dystopia is already here. We’re just desensitized to it.
Google Docs is a typewriter that talks back. It has terms of service, and one of its terms is that you don’t engage in “abuse.” If you violate its terms, it will kick you off. That’s exactly what happened in October 2017, when a number of writers working on documents about innocuous topics like wildlife crime and the multiplayer role-playing computer game RuneScape were unceremoniously locked out of their work.1 It was an accident—Google later admitted that they had been erroneously censored for “abusive content” and quickly restored their access. But the incident showed how much power the company has given itself. Even your private projects can be taken away from you if Google deems them “abusive.”
“Abusive,” along with “dangerous” and “harmful,” is a word that has been weaponized by censors, because it can be stretched to cover virtually any expression they may wish to discredit. In the early days of tech, it referred to indisputable “abuses” of communication systems, like phishing, spam, and malware. Now it encompasses a huge variety of flexible terms that allow tech companies to censor at will—among them “fake news,” “misinformation,” “hate speech.” What do these words mean? Where did the words come from and who decides what is “fake”? Is there an agreed definition? More important, which definition is Google or Facebook or Twitter using?
We don’t know the answer to that last question, because much of the companies’ operations are hidden from view in an inscrutable black box—but we do know that it could change at any time. As we’ll see later in this book, many of Silicon Valley’s more militant censors would like to stretch terms like “abuse” and “misinformation” as far as they possibly can. So would politicians, who may want the terms to cover their opponents, and media organizations, whose managers want the terms to cover their competitors.
You might think that Microsoft Word is better than its primary competitor, Google Docs. After all, Word was originally an offline product—surely their terms of service can’t be too weird.
Wrong! Microsoft’s services agreement is, if anything, worse than Google’s.2 In addition to prohibiting the sharing of “inappropriate content” (was there ever a vaguer term?), Microsoft prohibits the communication of “hate speech,” a term that modern-day censors love even more than they love “abuse.” Users are warned that any transgression of the service agreement could result in a shutdown of their Microsoft account or their Skype account.
Yes, both your typewriter and your telephone now have minds of their own. And, if Microsoft’s service agreement is anything to go by, they also have their own set of moral values.
What about the other weird scenarios I mentioned, like the postal service reading your mail? By now, I would hope that everyone is aware that Google scans your inbox, both to personalize its services to its users and (until recently) to target ads. Is this any different from the post office opening your letters and reading them? If the U.S. Postal Service said it was doing so only to “improve our service,” would you trust them?
Newsstand bans on newspapers for “fake news” have also become a reality in the digital world. These occur through bans on “low-quality” or “fake-news” sources, or algorithm adjustments that make the labeled sources nearly impossible to find. It’s like your TV hiding channels from you—even the popular ones. Scan Apple’s recommended news sources and you’ll find plenty of establishment sources like The Economist, the Washington Post, and Time magazine, but you won’t find populist, dissident sources like Breitbart News on the right or the Intercept on the left. You can still add such sites to your feed, but only by searching for them manually. Google, meanwhile, has all but booted mainstream conservative sources like Conservative Tribune out of its news search results altogether and is under constant pressure from its activist employees to blacklist Breitbart, too. A study by Northwestern University found that more than 25 percent of the news stories Google delivers to its users via its “top stories” feature came from CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. You’re likely to find less variety in Google’s top news results than you would at a brick-and-mortar newsstand!
And what about the Irishman being banned for making jokes about Irishmen to another Irishman? Well, as the recent Newsweek headline “Why Are All the Conservative Loudmouths Irish-American?” suggests, Irish stereotypes are apparently acceptable today.3 Still, you should prepare to be banned for even the slightest hint of derogatory phrases, even if no one involved is offended. Facebook has repeatedly locked gay users out of their accounts for using the word “faggot,” even if they’re trying to reclaim the word from bigots by using it as a tongue-in-cheek reference to themselves and their friends.4 Unsurprisingly, the artificial intelligence (AI) systems trained by Silicon Valley to detect wrongspeech aren’t so intelligent after all, and don’t understand context. The very mechanisms designed to “protect” minorities end up censoring them instead.
The postal service that won’t let you send messages for fear of offending its lucrative celebrity clients? That’s Twitter, a platform of profound political importance that also appears to be highly dependent on the whims of thin-skinned celebrities and their influential talent agencies. This is common knowledge among current and former Twitter employees, some of whom have been interviewed for this book—in the strictest confidentiality for fear of being blacklisted across Silicon Valley.
Even without inside sources, we can see Twitter’s pro-celebrity bias. Former soccer star and TV host Gary Lineker is free to call anyone he likes a “d*ck,”5 but when a British political satirist fired back, calling him a “c*nt” (a far less offensive term in the United Kingdom than in Silicon Valley), he received a lifetime Twitter ban—a ridiculously disproportionate punishment.6 In other notorious cases, celebrity Twitter users have threatened violence against high school kids without even losing their verified checkmark, a de facto stamp of approval from the platform.7 According to a BuzzFeed report from 2016, major Hollywood agencies like CAA are prone to bullying Twitter into rule changes desired by their celebrity clients, threatening mass boycotts from high-profile celebrity Twitter users when they don’t get their way.8
- On Sale
- Sep 21, 2021
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Center Street