Legitimate journalists are again being caught in the wash of internet cleanups
By Matt Taibbi
Published on Rollingstone, June 7, 2019
If you turned on cable news this week, or read our own coverage in Rolling Stone, you might have heard about YouTube’s decision to demonetize well-known conservative commentator Steven Crowder.
Crowder’s offense involved calling Vox journalist Carlos Maza a “lispy queer” and a “gay Vox sprite,” leading, says Maza, to further harassment. Much press commentary either cheered YouTube’s move or called it belated.
Simultaneously, YouTube announced it would ban whole genres of videos that fell under a hate/conspiracy label. From a Yahoo news summary:
“YouTube announced Wednesday it would ban videos promoting or glorifying racism and discrimination as well as those denying well-documented violent events, like the Holocaust or the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting.”
Yahoo quoted a YouTube announcement:
“Channels that repeatedly brush up against our hate speech policies will be suspended under our YouTube Partner Program.”
Many greeted these stories with a shrug. If blue-state audiences even know who Steven Crowder is, they think he’s a jerk. And what could be wrong with removing videos “denying well-documented violent events”?
At least two big things, as it turns out:
1. Platforms may not distinguish between reporting on hate speech, and promoting it
A site called News2Share, run by journalist Ford Fischer, was removed by YouTube this week under the new plan. Fischer received a notice:
“We found that a significant portion of your channel is not in line with our YouTube Partner Program policies.”
Fischer was one of the first people I spoke with for a Rolling Stone story about Internet censorship published last year. His site acts as a kind of clearing house for political footage of all kinds, including demonstrations, marches, police misconduct and even flash mobs.
News2Share content spans the spectrum: the site currently contains everything from a protest against the “Barr Coverup” of the Mueller report, to pro-Assange protests in Britain, to a square-off between gun militias and Antifa in Ohio.
It’s valuable, original journalism, not aggregated clickbait.
“Almost the entire channel is video shot by me, or someone I hire,” Fischer says.
Two videos apparently determined his fate under the new program. One involved a pro-Israel activist and pro-Palestine activist arguing with a Holocaust denier. The second was video of a speech given by white nationalist Mike “Enoch” Peinovich.
Fischer says that “while unpleasant,” the footage is “essential research for history.” It was even used as part of a PBS documentary called “Charlottesville.” Fischer was listed as an executive producer in the film.
His work regularly appears in documentaries about subcultures of all types, including the Frontline series “Documenting Hate” (you can see him credited just above Getty Images at the end). Fischer’s videos have even appeared in Vox.
Now his work has been removed because the new policy does not distinguish between showing a Holocaust denier or a white supremacist, and being one. Fischer describes the first video that got him in trouble, which showed Antifa protesters arguing with a Holocaust denier: “While it’s true that the Holocaust denier says Holocaust-denier stuff,” he says, “this is raw vid documenting him being shut down.”
Being demonetized on YouTube will deal a blow to Fischer’s business. He says YouTube ad revenue is “about half of my reliable, baseline income,” the rest coming from Patreon.
The Fischer case speaks to the inherent inanity of asking nameless, faceless Silicon Valley overlords to weigh things like journalistic intent. While there’s an argument to be had about clamping down on the purveyors of hate speech, what social or journalistic purpose is served by concealing the existence of such people? And what possible rationale could there be for allowing PBS or a commercial news network to publish such videos, but not smaller shooters like Fischer?
As part of the new program, YouTube also pulled down a video published by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In it, journalist Max Blumenthal interviewed Holocaust denier David Irving. Blumenthal quickly said the removal program had “gone beyond its stated aim” to “carpet-bombing style censorship.”
Blumenthal, like many of the people targeted in removal campaigns, is a controversial figure who has been a consistent critic of U.S. policy. He worried that such deletions are “just a test balloon for a much wider campaign to suppress content by dissenting voices.”
YouTube in his case seemed to acknowledge throwing the baby out with bathwater.
“We know that this might be disappointing,” it told the L.A. Times, “but it’s important to us that YouTube is a safe place for all.”
YouTube has not responded to a request for comment about why Fischer remains removed.
2. Internet platforms have neither the ability nor the resources to sort out good reporting from bad — and may even perpetuate the latter
On May 28th, the New York Times ran a piece by Choe Sang-Hun that talked about tourists in South Korea now being allowed to visit sites of atrocities perpetuated under past dictatorial rule. In particular, the piece mentioned tour groups being able to visit Jeju Island, where 30,000 people lost their lives. The Times wrote:
“These so-called ‘dark tours’ reflect a growing freedom under the government of President Moon Jae-in to revisit the abuses perpetrated when South Korea was governed under a dictatorship…”
Investigative reporter Tim Shorrock, frequently published in The Nation, found the article a mixed bag. Well-known among other things as an Asia expert (he was raised in Japan and Korea) and an iconoclastic exposer of intelligence community misbehavior, Shorrock was bothered by the Times failing to mention the American role in Jeju atrocities.
He posted a series of tweets that included photos from a museum at Jeju, exhibits that included the headline, “U.S. Military Decides on Tough Crackdown Operation.” Shorrock wrote:
“This is what you see at the Jeju museum: photos and documentation of US military officers overseeing the brutal crackdown, which took place when South Korea was ruled by the US military government. Why no mention of this, NYT?”
When Shorrock recently posted this same content on Facebook, it was removed. He had no idea why. He was told only that his posts “violated community standards.”
“I’ve asked for an appeal but have not heard back,” Shorrock said early Friday. “The post remains down and people on FB cannot link to it when it’s been reposted by me and others.”
Shorrock is familiar and respected in the journalistic community. He often takes tough stances on other reporters and has been critical of outlets like MSNBC for a variety of reasons, usually having to do with failing to question American foreign policy. His comments may be uncomfortable to some, but they don’t cross lines.
“What’s astonishing to me is that my post is a critique of a newspaper’s coverage and uses no inflammatory or crude language,” he says.
On Friday afternoon, in response to a query by Rolling Stone, a Facebook spokesperson said the issue had been corrected:
“We mistakenly removed a post for violating our spam policy but this decision was appealed and we identified our error. The post has since been restored to Facebook because it does not violate our Community Standards.”
Despite the fix, Facebook at press time still hadn’t contacted Shorrock (and the post still wasn’t up). “So far, no response to me,” he said. “They didn’t act until press asked.”
Is this algorithmic error or something else? The opacity of the platforms’ review systems makes it impossible to know.
What happened to Shorrock highlights another problem: the biggest deniers of “well-documented violent events” are often not small-time conspiracy theorists, but governments, especially our own. Moreover, some of the worst spreaders of conspiratorial news are not Twitter geeks, but America’s biggest media organizations. Moreover, some of the worst spreaders of conspiratorial news are not little Twitter geeks, but America’s biggest media organizations.
In late May, Shorrock was one of just a few reporters who cried foul when mainstream news outlets made what may have been a serious factual error.
Beginning with Bloomberg on May 30th, and including the Daily Beast, the Wall Street Journal and a long list of other major Western outlets, it was reported that North Korean official Kim Hyok Chol — who headlined a group of nuclear arms negotiators who met with Trump officials last year — was “executed” as part of a “purge of officials.”
The story was based upon a single unnamed source in the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo.
A few days later, Chol was supposedly seen with Kim Jong Un and his wife at an “amateur art performance.” This was according to North Korean media. Multiple news outlets have since reported the development, including Reuters, the Times, and the Washington Post. The Post headline read: “The rumor of Kim Jong Un’s purge: Why it matters even if it’s wrong.”
The Post led off by pointing the finger not at big news organizations, but “social media,” which it said “was ablaze last week with reports” about the purges. The paper noted that a mistake would be unfortunate, but, “even a false purge story doesn’t justify ignoring the larger trend in North Korea’s authoritarian regime.”
It’s worth pointing out that nothing seems to have been proven one way or another in this tale. Still, Shorrock’s original comment on Twitter — which criticized Bloomberg for running a report based on one unnamed source in a paper he said has a “history of false stories” — seems salient. What happens when mainstream platforms get things wrong en masse? Do small-timers get yanked, while big organizations get to make mistakes?
From WMD to inaccurate reports about drone strikes to things like the attitude of South Koreans toward a peace process, the most troublingly conspiratorial reporting often comes with an official imprimatur. A frequent theme is overhype of villainous news about targets of American “regime change” plans. Especially if people believe “fake news” is being carefully rooted out, they will now be even more susceptible to such official deceptions.
This speech-regulation issue — with its vast potential for misuse — is bigger than Alex Jones or Stephen Crowder. This is Brave New World territory, and people should realize that a few deletions here and there could quickly snowball into something far worse, if it hasn’t already.
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