By Whitney Webb
MINNEAPOLIS — Soon after the social media “purge” of independent media sites and pages this past October, a top neoconservative insider — Jamie Fly — was caught stating that the mass deletion of anti-establishment and anti-war pages on Facebook and Twitter was “just the beginning” of a concerted effort by the U.S. government and powerful corporations to silence online dissent within the United States and beyond.
While a few, relatively uneventful months in the online news sphere have come and gone since Fly made this ominous warning, it appears that the neoconservatives and other standard bearers of the military-industrial complex and the U.S. oligarchy are now poised to let loose their latest digital offensive against independent media outlets that seek to expose wrongdoing in both the private and public sectors.
As MintPress News Editor-in-Chief Mnar Muhawesh recently wrote, MintPress was informed that it was under review by an organization called Newsguard Technologies, which described itself to MintPress as simply a “news rating agency” and asked Muhawesh to comment on a series of allegations, several of which were blatantly untrue. However, further examination of this organization reveals that it is funded by and deeply connected to the U.S. government, neo-conservatives, and powerful monied interests, all of whom have been working overtime since the 2016 election to silence dissent to American forever-wars and corporate-led oligarchy.
More troubling still, Newsguard — by virtue of its deep connections to government and Silicon Valley — is lobbying to have its rankings of news sites installed by default on computers in U.S. public libraries, schools, and universities as well as on all smartphones and computers sold in the United States.
In other words, as Newsguard’s project advances, it will soon become almost impossible to avoid this neocon-approved news site’s ranking systems on any technological device sold in the United States. Worse still, if its efforts to quash dissenting voices in the U.S. are successful, Newsguard promises that its next move will be to take its system global.
Red light, green light . . .
Newsguard has received considerable attention in the mainstream media of late, having been the subject of a slew of articles in the Washington Post, the Hill, the Boston Globe, Politico, Bloomberg, Wired, and many others just over the past few months. Those articles portray Newsguard as using “old-school journalism” to fight “fake news” through its reliance on nine criteria allegedly intended to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to online news.
Newsguard separates sites it deems worthy and sites it considers unreliable by using a color-coded rating — green, yellow, or red — and more detailed “nutrition labels” regarding a site’s credibility or lack thereof. Rankings are created by Newsguard’s team of “trained analysts.” The color-coding system may remind some readers of the color-coded terror threat-level warning system that was created after 9/11, making it worth noting that Tom Ridge, the former secretary of Homeland Security who oversaw the implementation of that system under George W. Bush, is on Newsguard’s advisory board.
According to its website, Newsguard has rated more than 2,000 news and information sites. However, it plans to take its ranking efforts much farther by eventually reviewing “the 7,500 most-read news and information websites in the U.S.—about 98 percent of news and information people read and share online” in the United States in English.
A recent Gallup study, which was supported and funded by Newsguard as well as the Knight Foundation (itself a major investor in Newsguard), stated that a green rating increased users likelihood to share and read content while a red rating decreased that likelihood. Specifically, it found 63 percent would be less likely to share news stories from red-rated websites, and 56 percent would be more likely to share news from green-rated websites, though the fact that Newsguard and one of its top investors funded the poll makes it necessary to take these findings with a grain of salt.
However, some of the rankings Newsguard itself has publicized show that it is manifestly uninterested in fighting “misinformation.” How else to explain the fact that the Washington Post and CNN both received high scores even though both have written stories or made statements that later proved to be entirely false? For example, CNN falsely claimed in 2016 that it was illegal for Americans to read WikiLeaks releases and illegally colluded with the DNC to craft presidential debate questions.
In addition, in 2017, CNN published a fake story that a Russian bank linked to a close ally of President Donald Trump was under Senate investigation. That same year, CNN was forced to retract a report that the Trump campaign had been tipped off early about WikiLeaks documents damaging to Hillary Clinton when it later learned the alert was about material already publicly available.
The Washington Post, whose $600 million conflict of interest with the CIA goes unnoted by Newsguard, has also published false stories since the 2016 election, including one article that falsely claimed that “Russian hackers” had tapped into Vermont’s electrical grid. It was later found that the grid itself was never breached and the “hack” was only an isolated laptop with a minor malware problem. Yet, such acts of journalistic malpractice are apparently of little concern to Newsguard when those committing such acts are big-name corporate media outlets.
Keeping the conversation safe for the corporatocracy
Newsguard describes itself as an organization dedicated to “restoring trust and accountability” and using “journalism to fight false news, misinformation and disinformation.” While it repeatedly claims on its website that its employees “have no political axes to grind” and “care deeply about reliable journalism’s pivotal role in democracy,” a quick look at its co-founders, top funders and advisory board make it clear that Newsguard is aimed at curbing voices that hold the powerful — in both government and the private sector — to account.
Newsguard is the latest venture to result from the partnership between Steven Brill and Louis Gordon Crovitz, who currently serve as co-CEOs of the group. Brill is a long-time journalist — published in TIME and The New Yorker, among others — who most recently founded the Yale Journalism Initiative, which aims to encourage Yale students who “aspire to contribute to democracy in the United States and around the world” to become journalists at top U.S. and international media organizations. He first teamed up with Crovitz in 2009 to create Journalism Online, which sought to make the online presence of top American newspapers and other publishers profitable, and was also the CEO of the company that partnered up with the TSA to offer “registered” travelers the ability to move more quickly through airport security — for a price, of course.
While Brill’s past does not in itself raise red flags, Crovitz — his partner in founding Journalism Online, then Press+, and now Newsguard — is the last person one would expect to find promoting any legitimate effort to “restore trust and accountability” in journalism. In the early 1980s. Crovitz held a number of positions at Dow Jones and at the Wall Street Journal, eventually becoming executive vice president of the former and the publisher of the latter before both were sold to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp in 2007. He is also a board member of Business Insider, which has received over $30 million from Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos in recent years.
In addition to being a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Crovitz proudly notes in his bio, available on Newsguard’s website, that he has been an “editor or contributor to books published by the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation.” Though many MintPress readers are likely familiar with these two institutions, for those who are not, it is worth pointing out that the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) is one of the most influential neoconservative think tanks in the country and its “scholars,” directors and fellows have included neoconservative figures like Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, John Bolton and Frederick Kagan.
During the George W. Bush administration, AEI was instrumental in promoting the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq and has since advocated for militaristic solutions to U.S. foreign policy objectives and the expansion of the U.S.’ military empire as well as the “War on Terror.” During the Bush years, AEI was also closely associated with the now defunct and controversial neoconservative organization known as the Project for a New American Century (PNAC), which presciently called, four years before 9/11, for a “new Pearl Harbor” as needed to rally support behind American military adventurism.
The Heritage Foundation, like AEI, was also supportive of the war in Iraq and has pushed for the expansion of the War on Terror and U.S. missile defense and military empire. Its corporate donors over the years have included Procter & Gamble, Chase Manhattan Bank, Dow Chemical, and Exxon Mobil, among others.
Crovitz’s associations with AEI and the Heritage Foundation, as well as his ties to Wall Street and the upper echelons of corporate media, are enough to make any thinking person question his commitment to being a fair watchdog of “legitimate journalism.” Yet, beyond his innumerable connections to neoconservatives and powerful monied interest, Crovitz has repeatedly been accused of inserting misinformation into his Wall Street Journal columns, with groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation accusing him of “repeatedly getting his facts wrong” on NSA surveillance and other issues. Some of the blatant falsehoods that have appeared in Crovitz’s work have never been corrected, even when his own sources called him out for misinformation.
For example, in a WSJ opinion piece that was written by Crovitz in 2012, Crovitz was accused of making “fantastically false claims” about the history of the internet by the very people he had cited to support those claims.
As TechDirt wrote at the time:
Almost everyone he [Crovitz] sourced or credited to support his argument that the internet was invented entirely privately at Xerox PARC and when Vint Cerf helped create TCP/IP, has spoken out to say he’s wrong. And that list includes both Vint Cerf, himself, and Xerox. Other sources, including Robert Taylor (who was there when the internet was invented) and Michael Hiltzik, have rejected Crovitz’s spinning of their own stories.”
The oligarch team’s deep bench
While Brill and Crovitz’s connections alone should be enough cause for alarm, a cursory examination of Newsguard’s advisory board makes it clear that Newsguard was created to serve the interests of American oligarchy. Chief among Newsguard’s advisors are Tom Ridge, the first Secretary of Homeland Security under George W. Bush and Ret. General Michael Hayden, a former CIA director, a former NSA director and principal at the Chertoff Group, a security consultancy seeking to “advise corporate clients and governments, including foreign governments” on security matters that was co-founded by former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who also currently serves as the board chairman of major weapons manufacturer BAE systems.
Another Newsguard advisor of note is Richard Stengel, former editor of Time magazine, a “distinguished fellow” at the Atlantic Council and Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy under President Barack Obama. At a panel discussion hosted last May by the Council on Foreign Relations, Stengel describedhis past position at the State Department as “chief propagandist” and also stated that he is “not against propaganda. Every country does it and they have to do it to their own population and I don’t necessarily think it’s that awful.”
At a Council on Foreign Relations forum about “fake news,” former Editor at Time Magazine Richard Stengel directly states that he supports the use of propaganda on American citizens – then shuts the session down when challenged about how propaganda is used against the third world1,668 people are talking about this
A look at Newguard’s investors further illustrates the multifarious connections between this organization and the American political and corporate elite. While Brill and Crovitz themselves are the company’s top investors, one of Newsguard’s most important investors is the Publicis Groupe. Publicis is the third largest global communications company in the world, with more than 80,000 employees in over 100 countries and an annual revenue of over €9.6 billion ($10.98 billion) in 2017. It is no stranger to controversy, as one of its subsidiaries, Qorvis, recently came under fire for exploiting U.S. veterans at the behest of the Saudi government and also helped the Saudi government to “whitewash” its human rights record and its genocidal war in Yemen after receiving $6 million from the Gulf Kingdom in 2017.
Furthermore, given its size and influence, it is unsurprising that the Publicis Groupe counts many powerful corporations and governments among its clientele. Some of its top clients in 2018 included pharmaceutical giants Eli Lilly, Merck, Pfizer and Bayer/Monsanto as well as Starbucks, Procter & Gamble, McDonalds, Kraft Heinz, Burger King, and the governments of Australia and Saudi Arabia. Given its influential role in funding Newsguard, it is reasonable to point out the potential conflict of interest posed by the fact that sites that accurately report on Publicis’ powerful clients — but generate bad publicity — could be targeted for such reports in Newsguard’s ranking.
In addition to the Publicis Groupe, another major investor in Newsguard is the Blue Haven Initiative, which is the venture capital “impact investment” fund of the wealthy Pritzker family — one of the top 10 wealthiest families in the U.S., best known as the owners of the Hyatt Hotel chain and for being the second largest financial contributors to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Other top investors include John McCarter, a long-time executive at U.S. government contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, as well as Thomas Glocer, former CEO of Reuters and a member of the boards of pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co., financial behemoth Morgan Stanley, and the Council on Foreign Relations, as well as a member of the Atlantic Council’s International Advisory Board.
Through these investors, Newsguard managed to raise $6 million to begin its ranking efforts in March of 2018. Newsguard’s actual revenues and financing, however, have not been disclosed despite the fact that it requires the sites it ranks to disclose their funding. In a display of pure hypocrisy, Newsguard’s United States Securities and Exchange Commission Form D — which was filed March 5, 2018 — states that the company “declined to disclose” the size of its total revenue.
Why give folks a choice?
While even a quick glance at its advisory board alone would be enough for many Americans to decline to install Newsguard’s browser extension on their devices, the danger of Newsguard is the fact that it is diligently working to make the adoption of its app involuntary. Indeed, if voluntary adoption of Newsguard’s app were the case, there would likely be little cause for concern, given that its website attracts barely more than 300 visits per month and its social-media following is relatively small, with just over 2,000 Twitter followers and barely 500 Facebook likes at the time of this article’s publication.
To illustrate its slip-it-under-the-radar strategy, Newsguard has gone directly to state governments to push its browser extension onto entire state public library systems, even though its website suggests that individual public libraries are welcome to install the extension if they so choose. The first state to install Newsguard on all of its public library computers across its 51 branches was the state of Hawaii — which was the first to partner with Newsguard’s “news literacy initiative,” just last month.
Aloha, Hawaiian libraries! The state has added the NewsGuard extension to the computers patrons use in all its public libraries. Thanks to #Microsoft for sponsoring news literacy. http://bigislandnow.com/2018/12/17/libraries-join-newsguard-in-news-literacy-partnership/ …
Libraries Join NewsGuard in News Literacy Partnership
According to local media, Newsguard “now works with library systems representing public libraries across the country, and is also partnering with middle schools, high schools, universities, and educational organizations to support their news literacy efforts,” suggesting that these Newsguard services targeting libraries and schools are soon to become a compulsory component of the American library and education system, despite Newsguard’s glaring conflicts of interest with massive multinational corporations and powerful government power-brokers.
Notably, Newsguard has a powerful partner that has allowed it to start finding its way into public library and school computers throughout the country. As part of its new “Defending Democracy” initiative, Microsoft announced last August that it would be partnering with Newsguard to actively market the company’s ranking app and other services to libraries and schools throughout the country. Microsoft’s press release regarding the partnership states that Newsguard “will empower voters by providing them with high-quality information about the integrity and transparency of online news sites.”
Since then, Microsoft has now added the Newsguard app as a built-in feature of Microsoft Edge, its browser for iOS and Android mobile devices, and is unlikely to stop there. Indeed, as a recent report in favor of Microsoft’s partnership with Newsguard noted, “we could hope that this new partnership will allow Microsoft to add NewsGuard to Edge on Windows 10 [operating system for computers] as well.”
Newsguard, for its part, seems confident that its app will soon be added by default to all mobile devices. On its website, the organization notes that“NewsGuard will be available on mobile devices when the digital platforms such as social media sites and search engines or mobile operating systems add our ratings and Nutrition Labels directly.” This shows that Newsguard isn’t expecting its rating systems to be offered as a downloadable application for mobile devices but something that social media sites like Facebook, search engines like Google, and mobile device operating systems that are dominated by Apple and Google will “directly” integrate into nearly every smartphone and tablet sold in the United States.
A Boston Globe article on Newsguard from this past October makes this plan even more clear. The Globe wrote at the time:
Microsoft has already agreed to make NewsGuard a built-in feature in future products, and [Newsguard co-CEO] Brill said he’s in talks with other online titans. The goal is to have NewsGuard running by default on our computers and phones whenever we scan the Web for news.”
This eventuality is made all the more likely given the fact that, in addition to Microsoft, Newsguard is also closely connected to Google, as Google has been a partner of the Publicis Groupe since 2014, when the two massive companies joined Condé Nast to create a new marketing service called La Maison that is “focused on producing engaging content for marketers in the luxury space.” Given Google’s power in the digital sphere as the dominant search engine, the creator of the Android mobile operating system, and the owner of YouTube, its partnership with Publicis means that Newsguard’s rating system will soon see itself being promoted by yet another of Silicon Valley’s most powerful companies.
Furthermore, there is an effort underway to integrate Newsguard into social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, as Newsguard was launched, co-CEO Brill stated that he planned to sell the company’s ratings of news sites to Facebook and Twitter. Last March, Brill told CNN that “We’re asking them [Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and Google] to pay a fraction of what they pay their P.R. people and their lobbyists to talk about the problem.”
On Wednesday, Gallup released a poll that will likely be used as a major selling point to social media giants. The poll — funded by Newsguard and the Knight Foundation, which is a top investor in Newsguard and has recently funded a series of Gallup polls relating to online news — seems to have been created with the intention of manufacturing consent for the integration of Newsguard with top social media sites.
This is because the promoted findings from the study are as follows:“89% of users of social media sites and 83% overall want social media sites and search engines to integrate NewsGuard ratings and reviews into their news feeds and search results” and “69% would trust social media and search companies more if they took the simple step of including NewsGuard in their products.” However, a disclaimer at the end of the poll states that the results, which were based on the responses of 706 people each of whom received $2 to participate, “may not be reflective of attitudes of the broader U.S adult population.”
With trust at Facebook nose-diving and Facebook’s censorship of independent media already well underway, the findings of this poll could well be used to justify its integration into Facebook’s platform. The connections of both Newsguard and Facebook to the Atlantic Council make this seem a given.
Another Newsguard service shows that this organization is also seeking to harm independent media financially by targeting online revenue. Through a service called “Brandguard,” which it describes as a “brand safety tool aimed at helping advertisers keep their brands off of unreliable news and information sites while giving them the assurance they need to support thousands of Green-rated [i.e., Newsguard-approved] news and information sites, big and small.”
At the time the service was announced last November, Newsguard co-CEO Brill stated that the company was “in discussions with the ad tech firms, leading agencies, and major advertisers” eager to adopt a blacklist of news sites deemed “unreliable” by Newsguard. This is unsurprising given the leading role of the Publicis Groupe, one of the world’s largest advertising and PR firms, has in funding Newsguard. As a consequence, it seems likely that many, if not all, of Publicis’ client companies will choose to adopt this blacklist to help crush many of the news sites that are unafraid to hold them accountable.
It is also important to note here that Google’s connection to Publicis and thus Newsguard could spell trouble for independent news pages that rely on Google Adsense for some or all of their ad-based revenue. Google Adsense has long been targeting sites like MintPress by demonetizing articles for information or photographs it deemed controversial, including demonetizing one article for including a photo showing U.S. soldiers involved in torturing Iraqi detainees at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison.
Since then, Google — a U.S. military contractor — has repeatedly tried to shutter ad access to MintPress articles that involve reporting that is critical of U.S. empire and military expansion. One article that has been repeatedly flagged by Google details how many African-Americans have questioned whether the Women’s March has aided or harmed the advancement of African-Americans in the United States. Google has repeatedly claimed that the article, which was written by African-American author and former Washington Post bureau chief Jon Jeter, contains “dangerous content.”
Given Google’s already established practice of targeting factual reporting it deemed controversial through Adsense, Brandguard will likely offer the tech giant just the excuse it needs to cut off sites like MintPress, and other pages equally critical of empire, altogether.
An action plan for the genuine protection of journalism
Though it is just getting started, Newsguard’s plan to insert its app into every device and major social-media network is a threat to any news site that regularly publishes information that rubs any of Newsguard’s investors, partners or advisors the wrong way. Given its plan to rank the English-language U.S. news sites that account for 98 percent of U.S. digital news consumption, Newsguard’s agenda is of the utmost concern to every independent media page active in the United States and beyond — given Newsguard’s promise to take its project global.
By linking up with former CIA and NSA directors, Silicon Valley Giants, and massive PR firms working for some of the most controversial governments and corporations in the world, Newsguard has betrayed the fact that it is not actually seeking to “restore trust and accountability” in journalism, but to “restore trust and accountability” in news outlets that protect the existing power structure and help shield the corporate-led oligarchy and military-industrial complex from criticism.
Not only is it trying to tank the reputations of independent media through its biased ranking system, Newsguard is also seeking to attack these alternative voices financially and by slipping its ranking system by default onto all computers and phones sold in the U.S.
However, Newsguard and it agenda of guarding the establishment from criticism can be stopped. By supporting independent media and unplugging from social media sites committed to censorship, like Facebook and Twitter, we can strengthen the independent media community and keep it afloat despite the unprecedented nature of these attacks on free speech and watchdog journalism.
Beyond that, a key way to keep Newsguard and those behind it on their toes is to hold them to account by pointing out their clear conflicts of interest and hypocrisy and by derailing the narrative they are carefully crafting that Newsguard is “non-partisan,” “trustworthy,” and true guardians against the scourge of “fake news.”
While this report has sought to be a starting point for such work, anyone concerned about Newsguard and its connections to the war machine and corrupt corporations should feel encouraged to point out the organization’s own conflicts of interests and shady connections via its Twitter and Facebook pages and the feedback section on Newsguard’s website. The best way to defeat this new tool of the neocons is to put them on notice and to continue to expose Newsguard as a guardian of empire, not a guardian of journalism.
Top Photo | This photo, edited by MintPress News, shows Primedia chairman and CEO Tom Rogers, left, talking with Newsguard CEO Steven Brill after a New York news conference announcing Brill as the chariman and CEO of Media Central, Jan. 4, 2001. Ed Bailey | AP
Whitney Webb is a staff writer for MintPress News and a contributor to Ben Swann’s Truth in Media. Her work has appeared on Global Research, the Ron Paul Institute and 21st Century Wire, among others. She has also made radio and TV appearances on RT and Sputnik. She currently lives with her family in southern Chile.
RT – NewsGuard: Who’s behind yet another anti ‘fake news’ crusade?
How Israel and its partisans work to censor the Internet
YouTube’s email claimed we had somehow violated their long list of guidelines but did not tell us which one, or how. It simply stated:
“Your video ‘Ahmad Nasser Jarrar’ was flagged for review. Upon review, we’ve determined that it violates our guidelines. We’ve removed it from YouTube and assigned a Community Guidelines strike, or temporary penalty, to your account.”
Such a penalty is not public and does not terminate the channel.
Three days later, before we’d even had a chance to appeal this strike, YouTube suddenly took down our entire channel. This was done with no additional warnings or explanation.
This violated YouTube’s published policies.
YouTube policies say there is a “three-strike” system by which it warns people of alleged violations three times before terminating a channel. If a channel is eventually terminated, the policies statethat YouTube will send an email “detailing the reason for the suspension.”
None of this happened in our case.
We submitted appeals on YouTube’s online form, but received no response. Attempts to find a phone number for YouTube and/or email addresses by which we could communicate with a human being were futile.
YouTube’s power to shut down content without explanation whenever it chooses was acutely apparent. While there are other excellent video hosting sites, YouTube is the largest one, with nearly ten times more views than its closest competitors. It is therefore enormously powerful in shaping which information is available to the public–and which is not.
We spent days working to upload our videos elsewhere, update links to the videos, etc. Finally, having received no response or even acknowledgment of our appeal from YouTube, we decided to write an article about the situation. We emailed YouTube’s press department a list of questions about its process. We have yet to receive any answers.
Finally that evening we received an email with good news:
“After a review of your account, we have confirmed that your YouTube account is not in violation of our Terms of Service. As such, we have unsuspended your account. This means your account is once again active and operational.”
Our channel was visible once more. And YouTube had now officially confirmed that our content doesn’t violate its guidelines.
Ultimately, the YouTube system seems to have worked, in our case. Inappropriate censorship was overruled, perhaps by saner or less biased heads. In fact, we felt that there might at least be one positive result of the situation—additional YouTube employees had viewed our videos and perhaps learned much about Israel-Palestine they had not previously known.
But the whole experience was a wakeup call that YouTube can censor information critical of powerful parties at any time, with no explanation or accountability.
Israeli soldiers paid to “Tweet, Share, Like and more”
Israel and partisans of Israel have long had a significant presence on the Internet, working to promote the Israel narrative and block facts about Palestine, the Israel lobby, and other subject matter they wish covered up.
Opinionated proponents of Israel post comments, flag content, accuse critics of “antisemitism,” and disseminate misinformation about Palestine and Palestine solidarity activists. Many of these actions are by individuals acting alone who work independently, voluntarily, and relentlessly.
In addition to these, however, a number of orchestrated, often well-funded projects sponsored by the Israeli government and others have come to light. These projects work to place pro-Israel content throughout the Internet, and to remove information Israel doesn’t wish people to know.
One such Israeli project targeting the Internet came to light when it was lauded in an article by Arutz Sheva, an Israeli news organization headquartered in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank.
The report described a new project by Israel’s “New Media desk” that focused on YouTube and other social media sites. The article reported that Israeli soldiers were being employed to “Tweet, Share, Like and more.”
The article noted, “It is well known nowadays that what happens on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube has great influence on events as they occur on the ground. The Internet, too, is a battleground.” It was “comforting,” the article stated, to learn that the IDF was employing soldiers whose job was specifically to do battle on it.
Israeli students paid to promote Israel on social media
Another project to do battle on the Internet was initiated in 2011 by the 300,000-strong National Union of Israeli Students (NUIS). The goal was “to deepen and expand hasbara [state propaganda] activities of students in the State of Israel.”
Under this program, Israeli students are paid $2,000 to work five hours per week to “lead the battle against hostile websites.”
An announcement for the program (translated here into English) noted that “many students in Israel master the Internet and are proficient at using the Internet and social networking and various sites and are required to write and express themselves in English.” Students can work from the comfort of their own homes, points out the announcement.
“Students work in four teams: Content, Wikipedia, Monitoring and New Media,” according to the program description. It details the responsibilities for each team:
The content team is responsible for creating original content in a news format.
The monitoring team is responsible for “monitoring efforts while reporting and removing anti-Semitic [sic] content from social networks in a variety of languages.” (The program conflates criticism of Israel with antisemitism; see below.)
The New Media team is responsible for social media channels, “including Facebook accounts in English, French and Portuguese, Twitter, YouTube channels, and so on.”
The Wikipedia team is “responsible for writing new entries and translating them into languages that operate in the program, updating the values of current and relevant information, tracking and preventing bias in the program’s areas of activity.”
This program sometimes claims it is working against antisemitism, but it conflates antisemitism with criticism of the state of Israel. This is in line with an Israel-backed initiative to legally define “antisemitism” to include discussing negative facts about Israel and its treatment of Palestinians.
Campaign to infiltrate Wikipedia
Several years ago, another project came to light that targeted Wikipedia. While manipulating Wikipedia entries doesn’t directly impact YouTube, it provides a window into some of these efforts to manipulate online content.
A 2008 exposé in the Electronic Intifada revealed: “A pro-Israel pressure group is orchestrating a secret, long-term campaign to infiltrate the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia.”
While it is common and appropriate for individuals to edit Wikipedia entries to add factual information and remove inaccurate statements, this project was the antithesis of such editing. As EI, reported, its purpose was “to rewrite Palestinian history, pass off crude propaganda as fact, and take over Wikipedia administrative structures to ensure these changes go either undetected or unchallenged.”
Author Ali Abunimah reported that a source had provided EI with a series of emails from members and associates of the pro-Israel group CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) that showed the group “was engaged in what one activist termed a ‘war’ on Wikipedia.”
CAMERA called for volunteers to secretly work on editing Wikipedia entries. It emphasized the importance of keeping the project secret. Volunteers were schooled in ways to elude detection. After they signed up as editors, they were to “avoid editing Israel-related articles for a short period of time.”
They were also told to “avoid, for obvious reasons, picking a username that marks you as pro-Israel, or that lets people know your real name.”
CAMERA also warned them: “Don’t forget to always log in… If you make changes while not logged in, Wikipedia will record your computer’s IP address.”
A Wikipedia editor known as Zeq helped in the effort, telling volunteers: “Edit articles at random, make friends not enemies—we will need them later on. This is a marathon not a sprint.” He emphasized the importance of secrecy: “You don’t want to be precived [sic] as a ‘CAMERA’ defender’ on wikipedia that is for sure.”
Zeq recommended that they work with and learn from an independent, pro-Israel Wikipedia editor known as Jayjg, but directed them to keep the project secret even from him.
When this all came to light, Wikipedia took measures against such manipulation of its system and the CAMERA program may have ended.
If it did, others stepped into the breach. In 2010 two Israeli groups began offering a course in “Zionist editing” of Wikipedia entries. The aim was “to make sure that information in the online encyclopedia reflects the worldview of Zionist groups.” A course organizer explained that the use of the word “occupied” in Wikipedia entries “was just the kind of problem she hoped a new team of editors could help fix.”
Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper reported: “The organizers’ aim was twofold: to affect Israeli public opinion by having people who share their ideological viewpoint take part in writing and editing for the Hebrew version, and to write in English so Israel’s image can be bolstered abroad.”
There was to be a prize for the “Best Zionist Editor”—the person who over the next four years incorporated the most “Zionist” changes in the encyclopedia. The winner would receive a trip in a hot-air balloon over Israel.
High tech millionaire Naftali Bennett, a right-wing minister close to the settler movement, describes the program:
The UK Guardian reports: “One Jerusalem-based Wikipedia editor, who doesn’t want to be named, said that publicising the initiative might not be such a good idea. ‘Going public in the past has had a bad effect,’ she says. ‘There is a war going on and unfortunately the way to fight it has to be underground.’”
Again in 2013, there was evidence of pro-Israel tampering with Wikipedia. Israel’s Ha’aretz reported that a social-media employee of NGO Monitor edited articles about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an allegedly biased manner. “Draiman concealed the facts that he was an employee of NGO Monitor, often described as a right-wing group, and that he was using a second username, which is forbidden under Wikipedia’s rules,” according to the paper.
Such actions have had an impact. A website critical of Wikipedia said in 2014 that there were “almost ten times as many articles about murdered Israeli children as there are articles about murdered Palestinian children,” even though at least 10 times more Palestinian children had been killed.
If YouTube reviewers and others use Wikipedia in their determination about whether content should be removed or not, these efforts to censor Wikipedia could adversely affect their decisions.
Social Media Missions for Israel
In 2017 yet another project to target Internet platforms was launched. Known as Act.il, the project uses a software application that “leverages the power of communities to support Israel through organized online activity.”
The software is a joint venture of three groups: Israel’s IDC University; the Israeli American Council, which works to “organize and activate” the half million Israeli-Americans who live in the U.S.; and another American group called the Maccabee Task Force, created to combat the international boycott of Israel, which it terms “an anti-Semitic movement.” Maccabee says it is “laser focused on one core mission—to ensure that those who seek to delegitimize Israel and demonize the Jewish people are confronted, combatted and defeated.”
In addition, the project is supported by Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry and Israel’s intelligence community. Its CEO is an eight-year veteran of Israeli army intelligence.
Israel’s Jerusalem Post reports that Act.IL is “a wide-ranging grassroots campaign app that lets individuals combat BDS in the palm of their hand” or, as we will see, from public computers in the US.
“Act.IL is more than just an app,” the Post article explains. “It is a campaign that taps into the collective knowledge of IDC students who together speak 35 languages, hail from 86 countries and have connections to the pro-Israel community all over the world.”
The article claims: “A platform like Act.IL offers world Jewry an opportunity to fight for one thing the majority can rally behind: Israel.” (This ignores the fact that there are many Jewish individuals who oppose Israeli policies.)
Israel partisans around the world download the app, and then “in this virtual situation room of experts, they detect instances where Israel is being assailed online and they program the app to find missions that can be carried out with a push of a button.”
An organizer notes: “When you work together, with the same goals and values, you can be incredibly powerful in the social media landscape.”
Some missions ask users to report videos. Israeli government officials say that the Act.il app “is more effective than official government requests at getting those videos removed from online platforms.”
The project is led by former Israeli intelligence officers and has close ties to American casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Another funder is the Paul R. Singer Foundation, funded by the Republican hedge fund billionaire.
The Forward calls Act.IL a new entry into the “online propaganda war” that “has thousands of mostly U.S.-based volunteers who can be directed from Israel into a social media swarm.”
According to the Forward, “Its work so far offers a startling glimpse of how it could shape the online conversations about Israel without ever showing its hand.”
The Forward reports: “Act.il says that its app has 12,000 sign-ups so far, and 6,000 regular users. The users are located all over the world, though the majority of them appear to be in the United States. Users get ‘points’ for completed missions; top-ranked users complete five or six missions a day. Top users win prizes: a congratulatory letter from a government minister, or a doll of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister.”
Act.IL’s CEO, a veteran Israeli army intelligence officer, said the Israeli military and its domestic intelligence service “‘request’ Act.il’s help in getting services like Facebook to remove specific videos that call for violence against Jews or Israelis.” This according to the Forward report.
The officer later tried to walk back his statement, “saying that the Shin Bet [intelligence service] and the army don’t request help on specific videos but are in regular informal contact with Act.il. He said that Act.il’s staff is largely made up of former Israeli intelligence officers.”
Teens in American JCCs carry out missions assigned from Israel
The project recruits Jewish teens and adults and sometimes operates out of local Jewish community centers, the Forward says. The paper describes one example:
“The dozen or so Israelis sitting around a conference table at a Jewish community center in Tenafly, New Jersey, on a recent Wednesday night didn’t look like the leading edge of a new Israeli government-linked crowdsourced online propaganda campaign.
“Tapping on laptops, the group of high school students and adult mentors completed social media ‘missions’ assigned out of a headquarters in Herzliya, Israel.”
In addition to the Tenafly “media room” another operates in Boston in cooperation with the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston. There are also regular Act.il advocacy-training sessions at The Frisch School, a Jewish day school in Paramas, New Jersey. Other media rooms are reportedly in the works, with one in Manhattan, hosted by The Paul R. Singer Foundation, scheduled to open soon.
The Forward reports: “In November, the Boston media room created a mission for the app that asked users to email a Boston-area church to complain about a screening there of a documentary that is critical of Israel. The proposed text of the email likens the screening of the film to the white supremacist riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, and calls the film’s narrator, Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, a ‘well-known anti-Semite.’”
According to the Forward, Act.il also produces “pro-Israel web content that carries no logo. It distributes that content to other pro-Israel groups, including the Adelson-funded Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi and The Israel Project, which push them out on their own social media feeds.”
The Forward predicts: “Initiatives in cyberspace seem likely to increase.”
Israeli media report that the Israeli military “has begun scouring Jewish communities abroad for young computer prodigies” to recruit for its ranks.
An Israeli official described the process: “Our first order of business is to search Jewish communities abroad for teens who could qualify, Our representatives will then travel to the communities and begin the screening process there.”
Israeli Government Ministry backs secret online campaigns
Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry, which is behind this and similar projects, has mobilized substantial resources for online activities.
Israel’s Ynet news reports that the Ministry’s director “sees it as a war for all intents and purposes. ‘The delegitimization against the State of Israel can be curbed and contained through public diplomacy and soft tools,’ she says. ‘In order to win, however, we must use tricks and craftiness.’”
The director, General Sima Vaknin-Gil, told a forum of Israeli tech developers at a forum: “I want to create a community of fighters.” The objective is to “curb the activities of anti-Israel activists,” and “flood the Internet” with pro-Israel content.
An Israeli report in December stated that the ministry has acquired a budget of roughly $70 million to “stand at the forefront of the battle against delegitimization, adopting methods from the fields of intelligence and technology. There is a reason why ministry officials define it as ‘a war on consciousness terrorism.’” [‘Delegitimization’ is a common Israeli term for criticism of Israel. See here for a discussion of the term.]
A Ha’aretz article reports: “The Strategic Affairs Ministry’s leaders see themselves as the heads of a commando unit, gathering and disseminating information about ‘supporters of the delegitimization of Israel’—and they prefer their actions be kept secret.”
The article reports that the Ministry includes a job role entitled “Senior official—new-media realm,” responsible for surveillance and activities “in the digital realm.”
This individual head is responsible for analyzing social media and formulating a social media campaign against sites and activists who are deemed a threat to Israel.
Among the job’s responsibilities are:
“Analysis of the world of social media, in terms of content, technology and network structure, emphasizing centers of gravity and focuses of influence, methods, messages, organizations, sites and key activists, studying their characteristics, areas, realms and key patterns of activities of the rival campaign and formulating a strategy for an awareness campaign against them in this realm and managing crises on social media. That is, surveilling of activities mainly in the digital arena.”
Officials at the ministry are charged with “construction and promotion of creative and suitable programs for new media.”
The unit works to keep its activities secret from the public. For example, a program to train young Israelis for activities on social media was exempted from publishing a public bid for funding. Similarly, the ministry’s special unit against delegitimization, “Hama’aracha” (The Battle), is excluded from Israel’s Freedom of Information Law.
Its activities reportedly include a “24/7 operations room monitoring all the delegitimization activities against Israel: Protests, conferences, publications calling for an anti-Israel boycott and international bodies’ boycott initiatives. The operations room will transfer the information to the relevant people to provide a proper response to these activities, whether through a counter-protest or through moves to thwart the initiative behind the scenes.”
Other programs include a 22-million-shekel project to work among labor unions and professional associations abroad “to root out the ability of BDS entities to influence the unions,” and a 16-million-shekel program focused on student activities throughout the world.
Israel’s UNIT 8200
Another Israeli entity that plays a role in covert Internet activity is the Israeli military’s legendary high-tech spy branch, Unit 8200. This unit is composed of thousands of “cyber warriors” primarily 18 to 21 years of age; some even younger. A number of its graduates have gone on to top positions at tech companies operating in the U.S., such as Check Point Software (where the spouse of the Jewish Voice for Peace head is employed as a solutions architect).
In 2015 Israel’s Foreign Ministry announced plans “to establish a special command to combat anti-Israel incitement on social media.” The command would operate under the foreign ministry’s hasbara [propaganda] department and would especially recruit from graduates of Unit 8200.
An article in the Jewish Press about the new command reports that Unit 8200 “has developed a great reputation for effectiveness in intelligence gathering, including operating a massive global spy network. Several alumni of 8200 have gone on to establish leading Israeli IT companies, including Check Point, ICQ, Palo Alto Networks, NICE, AudioCodes, Gilat, Leadspace, EZchip, Onavo, Singular and CyberArk.”
Numerous Israeli tech companies, many of them headed by former military intelligence officers, assist in these online spying efforts, sometimes receiving Israeli government funding “for digital initiatives aimed at gathering intelligence on activist groups and countering their efforts.”
According to the ministry’s statement, among the Command’s activities is “finding videos with inflammatory content and issuing complaints to the relevant websites.”
To be clear, this is an occupying military working covertly to achieve censorship of reporting on its atrocities.
YouTube & Google officials meet with Israeli Minister
Major Internet companies have reportedly been cooperating in this effort.
In 2015 Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely announced that she had visited Silicon Valley and met with YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki and Google’s Director of Public Policy (it is unclear whether this was was Jennifer Oztzistzki or Juniper Downs; Hotovely’s announcementreferred to “Jennifer Downs”).
“At the end of the meeting,” Israeli media reported, “it was agreed that Google would strengthen bilateral relations with the Foreign Ministry and build a collaborative work apparatus.”
Another Israeli news report about the meeting states: “…it was agreed that the companies would strengthen ties with the Foreign Ministry and build a regular mechanism of control to prevent the distribution of those incendiary materials on the network.”
Google, which owns YouTube, denied the Foreign Ministry’s report. The Ministry accordingly “clarified” its statement somewhat, but continued to say that Israeli officials would be in “regular contact with Google’s employees in Israel who deal with the problematic materials.”
Such officials often have close ties to Israel. For example, Facebook’s Head of Policy in Israel,Jordana Cutler, had previously been employed for many years by the Israeli government. (More about Facebook can be found here.)
The meetings seem to have had a significant effect.
In 2016 Fortune magazine reported: “Facebook, Google, and YouTube are complying with up to 95% of Israeli requests to delete content that the government says incites Palestinian violence, Israel’s Justice Minister said on Monday.”
More recently, the Israeli Ministry of Justice said that its cyber unit handled 2,241 cases of online content and succeeded in getting 70 percent of it removed.
According to a 2017 report, Google, in its capacity as the operator of Youtube, announced that it was updating the steps it was already taking on this score.
Among other things, Google said it would increase the number of members of the “Trusted Flagger program,” which enables certain organizations and government agencies to report content. It also said it would “increase support for NGOs and organizations working to present a ‘corrective voice.’”
Given the record of infiltration and orchestrated activities described above—many financed by a combination of certain influential billionaires and the Israeli government itself—it’s hard to imagine that Israeli organizations and partisans are not thoroughly embedded in this program. In fact, one of the NGOs already working with YouTube as a “trusted flagger” is the Anti-Defamation League, whose mission includes ‘standing up for Israel.’
A leaked secret January 2017 ADL strategy paper detailed how to counter the pro-Palestine movement. Among its many strategies were some focused on the importance of efforts in cyber space.
The paper was produced in collaboration with the Reut Institute, an Israeli think tank, and included an endorsement by Sima Vaknin-Gil, who stated that “the correlation between the Ministry’s mode of operation and what comes out of this document is very high, and has already proven effective… ”
The document’s executive summary noted: “Cyberspace, broadly defined, stands out as a crucially important arena (for monitoring and counter and pro-active strategies) which requires more resources and attention due to its current influence, rapid growth and growing complexity.”
The paper called for “a mix of policy advocacy and industry engagement with corporations such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter in a manner consistent with the ADL Center for Technology and Society and its Anti-Cyberhate Working Group.”
The paper also recommended: “‘Bottom-up efforts’ of crowd-sourcing to enhance the adaptive capacity of the pro-Israel network.”
At the same time, it urged:
“Strengthening pro-Israel organizations that mobilize and coordinate a network of ‘nodes’ e.g. Jewish Community Public Affairs (JCPA) and its network of Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRCs) in the USA; Hillel, which is present in nearly five hundred locations in the U.S. and globally; the Israel Action Network (IAN) that reaches nearly 160 federations in the U.S.; or the Jewish Congress (WJC) that represents dozens of Jewish communities around the world.”
The detailed, 32-page document reported that in recent years “a massive investment of resources and talent” had been directed against the pro-Palestine movement. One of the results, the paper said, was to create a “world-wide pro-Israel network.” It was this network that the report wished to mobilize. One of the paper’s concerns was that since Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza “a growing number of Jews have become more critical of Israel.”
The document recommended a degree of stealth, noting: “high-visibility response by the pro-Israel side can be counterproductive.”
What this means
Nevertheless, despite all these forces arrayed against information about Palestine reaching the American public, our channel is back up on YouTube. In fact, we’ve just uploaded a new video:
This one is about the death of a nine-year-old boy. [Perhaps the Israeli government would consider this incitement to Palestinians to rebel against occupation; we see it as incitement to the world in general, and Americans in particular, to care.]
In other words, Israel’s efforts at censorship don’t always succeed.
But sometimes they do, and other YouTube users have not always been so fortunate. For example, YouTube has terminated several Palestinian news organizations.
One was the al-Quds network, which, according to a report in Middle East Eye, “relies on young reporters and volunteers using phones and other digital devices to cover local news across the Palestinian territories.” They would often report Israeli soldiers committing various human rights violations.
Its YouTube channel was terminated in 2011, and its editor says they had to “to create a new channel from scratch.” By 2017 its new channel had gained almost 10 million views before it was suddenly suspended without warning again last October. It now, however, appears to have a YouTube channel in operation.
According to the MEE report, YouTube also suspended the Filisten al-Youm TV channel last August, and in 2013, apparently following complaints by the Anti-Defamation League, YouTube closed down Iran’s PressTV channel. (A Press TV YouTube channel now also appears to be available again.)
Palestinian social media users risk even greater consequences.
The Israeli government has arrested Palestinians for videos, poems, and other posts it dislikes. A 2016 report estimated that “more than 150 arrests took place between October and February 2016 based on Facebook posts expressing opinions on the uprising. A recent video posted on social media led to the imprisonment of a 16 year old girl, her mother and cousin.
In addition, Palestinian access to social media is somewhat controlled by Israel. As a Huffington Post article reports, ”Palestinians’ digital rights and access to the Internet are compromised in very basic ways, because Israel controls the infrastructure and services of Palestinian telecommunication companies in the West Bank.”
While the situation has greatly improved in recent years – the Israeli government finally announced in 2016 that it would allow Palestinians in the West Bank to access 3G wireless networks, making this one of the last regions in the world with such access after years of Israeli restrictions – it is important to remember the enormous power Israel wields over this largely captive population.
While Israel is able to organize entire campaigns to filter and flood social media, its immense control over Palestinians impedes their access to the same media.
Given these facts, it is extremely important for people to search out information for themselves, go directly to our websites and others, subscribe to diverse email lists, and not rely on social media for information. [Please subscribe to our news posts here.]
Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and others are private companies. In the end, they have the power to censor information, and they periodically do so. For a few days, we felt acutely what that was like. If Facebook had joined the ban, as has happened with others, we would have been even more cut off from what is essentially today’s “public square.”
The Internet and social media give us far more access to information and tools for communication and activism than ever before, but they, too, can be controlled—and they are.
It is up to us, as always, to overcome.
Alison Weir is executive director of If Americans Knew, president of the Council for the National Interest, and author of “Against Our Better Judgment: The Hidden History of How the U.S. Was Used to Create Israel.”
The section on the ADL was expanded on March 9. The ADL-Reut is posted here.