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There's a famous New Yorker cartoon from the early days of the World Wide Web with a canny canine sitting at a desk in front of a computer. He says (barks? whines?) "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog."
It was funny, but it's getting to a point where I'm not laughing about any of this anymore. Over the past couple weeks, it's seemed to me that the online war to control the conversation—at best influence and at worst manipulate, the minds of Americans—has gone DEFCON 3.
Bots and shills are all over social media, from Facebook to Twitter to LinkedIn to (probably) Instagram (I don't spend a lot of time on that one). Shadow banning and selective shadow banning on news sites. Censorship on so-called "progressive" websites like DailyKos. Reddit deleting genuine news posts like a shooting gallery of inconvenient truths.
It's pretty scary, actually. Let's run the gamut of what I've experienced since my last column.
First, shadow banning: A shadow ban is when you leave a comment on a website, but the people who run the site ding the comment so you can see it but no one else can. This makes you think that you're engaging with an online community and thus continue to click and give them page views, when actually you're just screaming into the void.
There's a particularly insidious version of shadow banning through Facebook Identification verification, where you sign into a site like, say, Huffington Post. HuffPo can then selectively shadow ban you, where you can see your comments and your Facebook friends can see your comments, but no one else can see the comments.
I know this personally because I got shadow banned on Huffington Post. But you can see for yourself: Go to a Huffington Post story with a bunch of comments. Follow one of the comment threads. When you get to the end, there will be something that says "Show XX more comments." When you click, those comments aren't there. They've been shadow banned. Only the person who made those comments and his or her Facebook friends can see them.
I also got a confirmation that is happening from someone in the PR department at Facebook, who would only confirm it "on background," so you know it's a touchy subject.
What's the big deal, you ask? Well, if you're trying to create a false consensus, one way to do that is selectively censor any comments or opinions that go against that consensus. Meanwhile, you let people think their voice is being heard, but maybe they also have doubts about their own position.
Or, in a particularly insidious way this can play out, you could experience what happened to me when I dared comment on the "Ready for Warren" Facebook page—I group I belonged to for more than a year—that I was displeased with the senator's endorsement of Wall Street fave Hillary Clinton. My comment was deleted and I was blocked from commenting or rejoining the page.
Worse, when another Ready for Warren member on that thread sent me an IM to ask if I deleted my comment and I told her no, she followed up with the peeps who run the page who told her I was a bot account that had made numerous SPAM comments all throughout the group, and that's why I was deleted. It was a total lie, though when I tracked down the people who run the page and told them I was writing about this for publication, they claimed it was just an honest mistake. They also didn't want to give me their name for publication.
How about the morning I got up and immediately saw the news about the horrific massacre in Orlando, so I went to Reddit? It was early, and there was lots of speculation that the killer was a rabid fundamentalist Christian nut who hated gays. There were threads about it everywhere.
But later, when it turned out that the killer was a rabid fundamentalist Muslim nut who hated gays (or so the media narrative now claims), the moderators on Reddit were deleting posts as fast as they appeared. A new Reddit narrative, full of posts that it was the guns or mental illness and not all Muslims are like this at all took hold. It was both fascinating and sickening to see it happen in real time.
On Twitter, I was attacked by a troll using the handle BillyT_202, who created his Twitter persona around the time Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy and has spent every single day making every single tweet about how great she is and how terrible everyone else is. As I began to chase him down and put him on the spot about his anonymity and date of joining, his attacks became uglier and refused to address any of my questions. Then he blocked me, and, suddenly, the attacks were picked up by another big Clinton fan, @JenniferTidd. She, too, refused to engage on any substantive issues, and would only mock and insult, before disappearing when asked to confirm her identity for this article.
On YouTube, comments for the video where President Obama endorsed Clinton didn't load for days. Now there are none at all. On inquisitr.com, I tried to leave a comment several times after a story mocking anyone who wasn't buying the Official Government Story on the Orlando shooting, asking why the State of Florida was refusing to release public records of the event to the Miami Herald . The comment was deleted repeatedly, and the publication's editor, when contacted via email, expressed mystification.
When I see this happening, I'm reminded of two things:
First, in 2012, in a late night session of Congress, a rider was added to a defense authorization bill at the last minute that made government propaganda to the American people legal. As reported by Buzzfeed reporter Michael Hastings—who died in an explosive, single-vehicle car crash a couple weeks later—the tweak to the bill neutralized two previous acts, the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 and Foreign Relations Authorization Act in 1987(that had been passed to protect U.S. audiences from our own government's misinformation campaigns). Google Michael Hastings Buzzfeed Propaganda. You'll find it.
Second, one of the big reveals in the Edward Snowden leaks was that the government employs thousands— literally thousands —of people who do nothing but sit on the Internet all day to influence conversations and create consensus. Or false consensus. Again, you can Google Glenn Greenwald Intercept Edward Snowden. You'll find it easily.
What is apparently happening is that this shit is out of control. It's a free for all out there, a wild, wild World Wide Web of the West, where truth and fiction and grassroots and Astroturf and propaganda and secrets and lies are all being blended into one big horrible blob of broken narratives and brainwashed confusion.