The Real Fight Against Fake News: The Top 10 underreported stories of 2017-18

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Fake news isn’t new. With the return of its annual list of underreported news stories published in Censored 2019: Fighting the Fake News Invasion, Project Censored’s vivid cover art (also this week’s Indy cover) recalls H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. The situation today may feel as desolate as the image suggests.

The cover art works on two levels: First, the famous Orson Welles radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds on Oct. 30, 1938, used a number of dramatic devices to present the story as though it were an actual crisis in progress — “This is the end now… black smoke, drifting over the city. People in the streets see it now. They’re running towards the East River… thousands of them, dropping in like rats. Now the smoke’s spreading faster… People trying to run away from it, but it’s no use.”

It became an example of the potential power of fake news in the radio media era. “The broadcast became legendary for allegedly leading to widespread panic throughout the United States,” Project Censored’s editors note.

But that “widespread panic” narrative is actually fake news, as researchers Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow have documented. The broadcast took place at a time when radio had begun to compete with print for audience and ad revenue, and newspaper editors sensationalized the panic hoping to undermine trust in radio.

And here we are, 80 years later, still fighting fake news.

Confronted by proprietary algorithms that covertly shape our news feeds, disingenuous pundits such as Alex Jones, and opportunistic political leaders including a president who consistently villainizes the press as “the enemy of the people,” many of us may conclude that “it’s no use” trying to find news worth trusting. Pervasive distrust of formerly respected information sources is paralleled by a glut of disinformation and propaganda that threatens, much like Martian black smoke, to suffocate our democracy.

“But Censored 2019 is a book about fighting fake news,” editors Andy Lee Roth and Mickey Huff observe in the book’s introduction. In the end, they argue that “critical media education — rather than censorship, blacklists, privatized fact-checkers, or legislative bans — is the best weapon for fighting the ongoing fake news invasion.”

The annual list of underreported stories remains central to Project Censored’s mission, which, the editors point out, can be read in two different ways: “as a critique of the shortcomings of U.S. corporate news media for their failure to adequately cover these stories, or as a celebration of independent news media, without which we would remain either uninformed or misinformed about these crucial stories and issues.”

Below, Paul Rosenberg highlights this past year’s Top 10 from Project Censored’s 25 most underreported stories. You can read about the rest at projectcensored.org.

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Global decline in rule of law as basic human rights diminish

According to the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index 2017-2018, a striking worldwide decline in basic human rights has driven an overall decline in the rule of law since October 2016, the month before Trump’s election. Fundamental rights, one of eight categories measured, declined in 71 out of 113 nations surveyed. Overall, 34 percent of countries’ scores declined, while just 29 percent improved. The U.S. ranked 19th, down one from 2016, with declines in checks on government powers, plus deepening discrimination.

Fundamental rights include absence of discrimination, right to life and security, due process, freedom of expression and religion, right to privacy, freedom of association and labor rights. “All signs point to a crisis not just for human rights, but for the human rights movement,” Yale professor of history and law Samuel Moyn told The Guardian. “Within many nations, these fundamental rights are falling prey to the backlash against a globalizing economy in which the rich are winning. But human rights movements have not historically set out to name or shame inequality.” This reflects the thesis of Moyn’s most recent book, Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World.

Constraints on government powers, which measures the extent to which those who govern are bound by law, saw the second greatest declines (64 countries out of 113 dropped). This is where the U.S. saw the greatest deterioration, World Justice Project stated in a press release. “While all sub-factors in this dimension declined at least slightly from 2016, the score for lawful transition of power — based on responses to survey questions on confidence in national and local election processes and procedures — declined most markedly.”

The U.S. also scored notably poorly on several measurements of discrimination. “With scores of .50 for equal treatment and absence of discrimination (on a scale of 0 to 1), .48 for discrimination in the civil justice system, and .37 for discrimination in the criminal justice system, the U.S. finds itself ranked 78 out of 113 countries on all three subfactors,” World Justice Project stated.

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The four Nordic countries — Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden — remained in the top four positions. New Zealand, Canada and Australia were the only top 10 countries outside of Europe.

“The WJP’s 2017-2018 Rule of Law Index received scant attention from U.S. corporate media,” Project Censored notes. The only coverage they found was a Newsweek article drawing on The Guardian‘s coverage. This pattern of ignoring international comparisons, across all subject matter, pervades corporate media. It severely cripples our capacity for objective self-reflection and self-improvement as a nation.

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“Open-source” intelligence secrets sold to highest bidders

In March 2017, WikiLeaks released Vault 7, a trove of 8,761 leaked confidential CIA files about its global hacking programs, which WikiLeaks described as the “largest ever publication of confidential documents on the agency.” It drew significant media attention. But almost no one noticed what George Eliason of OpEdNews pointed out. “Sure, the CIA has all these tools available,” Eliason said. “Yes, they are used on the public. The important part is [that] it’s not the CIA that’s using them. That’s the part that needs to frighten you.”

As Eliason explained, the CIA’s mission prevents it from using the tools, especially on Americans.

“All the tools are unclassified, open-source, and can be used by anyone,” Eliason noted. “It makes them not exactly usable for secret agent work. That’s what makes it impossible for them to use Vault 7 tools directly.”

Drawing heavily on more than a decade of reporting by Tim Shorrock for Mother Jones and The Nation, Eliason’s OpEdNews series reported on the explosive growth of private contractors in the intelligence community, which allows the CIA and other agencies to gain access to intelligence gathered by methods they’re prohibited from using.

In a 2016 report for The Nation, Shorrock estimated that 80 percent of an estimated 58,000 private intelligence contractors worked for the five largest companies. He concluded that “not only has intelligence been privatized to an unimaginable degree, but an unprecedented consolidation of corporate power inside U.S. intelligence has left the country dangerously dependent on a handful of companies for its spying and surveillance needs.”

Eliason reported how private contractors pioneered open-source intelligence by circulating or selling the information they gathered before the agency employing them had reviewed and classified it, therefore, “no one broke any laws.” As a result, according to Eliason’s second article, “People with no security clearances and radical political agendas have state-sized cyber tools at their disposal, [which they can use] for their own political agendas, private business, and personal vendettas.”

Corporate media reporting on Vault 7 sometimes noted — but failed to focus on — the dangerous role of private contractors, with the notable exception of a Washington Post op-ed in which Shorrock reviewed his previous reporting and concluded that overreliance on private intelligence contractors was “a liability built into our system that intelligence officials have long known about and done nothing to correct.”

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World’s richest 1 percent continue to become wealthier

In November 2017, Credit Suisse released its Eighth Annual Global Wealth Report which The Guardian reported on under the headline, “Richest 1% own half the world’s wealth, study finds.”

The wealth share of the world’s richest people increased “from 42.5% at the height of the 2008 financial crisis to 50.1% in 2017, or $140tn,” The Guardian reported, adding: “The biggest losers … are young people who should not expect to become as rich as their parents.”

“[Despite being more educated than their parents,] millennials are doing less well than their parents at the same age, especially in relation to income, homeownership and other dimensions of well-being assessed in this report,” Rohner Credit Suisse Chairman Urs Rohner said. “We expect only a minority of high achievers and those in high demand sectors such as technology or finance to effectively overcome the ‘millennial disadvantage.'”

“No other part of the wealth pyramid has been transformed as much since 2000 as the millionaire and ultra-high net worth individual (known as UHNWI) segments,” the report said. “The number of millionaires has increased by 170%, while the number of UHNWIs (individuals with net worth of $50 million or more) has risen five-fold, making them by far the fastest-growing group of wealth holders.”

There were 2.3 million new millionaires this year, taking the total to 36 million.

“At the other end of the spectrum, the world’s 3.5 billion poorest adults each have assets of less than $10,000,” The Guardian reported. “Collectively these people, who account for 70% of the world’s working age population, account for just 2.7% of global wealth.”

“Tremendous concentration of wealth and the extreme poverty that results from it are problems that affect everyone in the world, but wealth inequalities do not receive nearly as much attention as they should in the establishment press,” Project Censored notes. “The few corporate news reports that have addressed this issue — including an August 2017 Bloomberg article and a July 2016 report for CBS’s MoneyWatch — focused exclusively on wealth inequality within the United States. As Project Censored has previously reported, corporate news consistently covers the world’s billionaires while ignoring millions of humans who live in poverty.”

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How Big Wireless convinced us cell phones and wi-fi are safe

Are cell phones and other wireless devices really safe? Don’t bet on it, according to decades of buried research reviewed in a March 2018 investigation for The Nation by Mark Hertsgaard and Mark Dowie.

“The wireless industry not only made the same moral choices that the tobacco and fossil-fuel industries did, it also borrowed from the same public relations playbook those industries pioneered,” they report. “… wireless executives have chosen not to publicize what their own scientists have said about the risks of their products… . The industry — in America, Europe, and Asia — has spent untold millions of dollars in the past 25 years proclaiming that science is on its side, that the critics are quacks, and that consumers have nothing to fear.”

Their report comes as several new developments are bringing the issue to the fore, including a Kaiser Permanente study (published December 2017 in Scientific Reports) finding much higher risks of miscarriage; a study in the October 2017 American Journal of Epidemiology, finding increased risk for glioma (a type of brain tumor); and a disclosure by the National Frequency Agency of France that 9 out of 10 cell phones exceed government radiation safety limits when tested in the way they are actually used, next to the human body.

As The Nation reported, George Carlo was a scientist hired by the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association in 1993 to research cell-phone safety and allay public fears, heading up the industry-financed Wireless Technology Research project. But he was unceremoniously fired and publicly attacked by that association in 1999, after uncovering disturbing evidence of danger. Carlo sent letters to each of the industry’s chieftains on Oct. 7, 1999, reiterating that the Wireless Technology Research project had found the following:

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“The risk of rare neuro-epithelial tumors on the outside of the brain was more than doubled… in cell phone users”; there was an apparent “correlation between brain tumors occurring on the right side of the head and the use of the phone on the right side of the head”; and “the ability of radiation from a phone’s antenna to cause functional genetic damage [was] definitely positive.” Carlo urged the CEOs to do the right thing and give consumers the information they need to make an informed judgment about how much of this unknown risk they wished to assume.

The Kaiser Permanente study involved exposure to magnetic field non-ionizing radiation associated with wireless devices as well as cell phones and found a 2.72 times higher risk of miscarriage for those with higher exposure. Lead investigator De-Kun Li warned that the possible effects of this radiation have been controversial because, “from a public health point of view, everybody is exposed. If there is any health effect, the potential impact is huge.”

“The wireless industry has ‘war-gamed’ science by playing offense as well as defense, actively sponsoring studies that result in published findings supportive of the industry, while aiming to discredit competing research that raises questions about the safety of cellular devices and other wireless technologies,” Project Censored summarizes. “When studies have linked wireless radiation to cancer or genetic damage, industry spokespeople have pointed out that the findings are disputed by other researchers.”

This is the exact same strategy used by the tobacco and fossil fuel industries described in the 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.

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The Washington Post bans employees from using social media to criticize sponsors

On May 1, 2017, The Washington Post introduced a new social-media policy that “prohibits conduct on social media that ‘adversely affects The Post‘s customers, advertisers, subscribers, vendors, suppliers or partners,” Andrew Beaujon reported in The Washingtonian the following month.

“In such cases, Post management reserves the right to take disciplinary action ‘up to and including termination of employment.'” Beaujon also cited a clause “that encourages employees to snitch on one another: ‘If you have any reason to believe that an employee may be in violation of The Post‘s Social Media Policy … you should contact The Post‘s Human Resources Department.'”

At the time, the Washington-Baltimore News Guild, which represents The Post‘s employees, was protesting the policy and was seeking removal of the controversial parts in a new labor agreement. A follow-up report by Whitney Webb for MintPress News highlighted the broader possible censorship effects, as prohibiting social media criticism could spill over into reporting as well.

“Among The Washington Post‘s advertisers are corporate giants like GlaxoSmithKline, Bank of America and Koch Industries,” Webb wrote. “With the new policy, social media posts criticizing GlaxoSmithKline’s habit of making false and misleading claims about its products, inflating prices and withholding crucial drug safety information from the government will no longer be made by Post employees.”

Beyond that, Webb suggested it could protect the CIA, which has a $600 million contract with Amazon Web Services. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos purchased The Post four months after that contract was signed.

“While criticism of the CIA is not technically prohibited by the new policy, former Post reporters have suggested that making such criticisms could endanger one’s career,” Webb noted.

He added that in 2013, former Post writer John Hanrahan told Alternet: “Post reporters and editors are aware that Bezos, as majority owner of Amazon, has a financial stake in maintaining good relations with the CIA — and this sends a clear message to even the hardest-nosed journalist that making the CIA look bad might not be a good career move.”

“Corporate news coverage of The Washington Post‘s social media policy has been extremely limited,” Project Censored notes. It’s part of a much broader problem, identified in Jeremy Iggers’ 1998 book, Good News, Bad News: Journalism Ethics and the Public Interest. Iggers argues that journalism ethics focused on individual reporters completely missed the larger issue of corporate conflicts whose systemic effects fundamentally undermined journalism’s role in a democracy.

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Russiagate: Two-headed monster of propaganda and censorship

Is Russiagate a censored story? Not exactly. This entry seems to reflect a well-intentioned effort to critically examine fake news-related issues within a “censored story” framework. It’s important that these issues be raised. What Project Censored calls attention to: “Corporate media coverage of Russiagate has created a two-headed monster of propaganda and censorship. By saturating news coverage with a sensationalized narrative, Russiagate has superseded other important, newsworthy stories.” As a frustrated journalist with omnivorous interests, I heartily concur — but what’s involved is too complex to simply be labeled “propaganda.” On the other hand, the censorship of alternative journalistic voices remains a classic, well-defined Project Censored story, which suffers from the attempt to fit both together.

In April 2017, Aaron Maté reported for The Intercept on a quantitative study of MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show from Feb. 20 to March 31, 2017, which found that “Russia-focused segments accounted for 53 percent of these broadcasts.” Maté wrote: “Maddow’s Russia coverage has dwarfed the time devoted to other top issues, including Trump’s escalating crackdown on undocumented immigrants (1.3 percent of coverage); Obamacare repeal (3.8 percent); the legal battle over Trump’s Muslim ban (5.6 percent); a surge of anti-GOP activism and town halls since Trump took office (5.8 percent); and Trump administration scandals and stumbles (11 percent).”

Well and good. But is this propaganda? At Truthdig, Norman Solomon wrote: “As the cable news network most trusted by Democrats as a liberal beacon, MSNBC plays a special role in fueling rage among progressive-minded viewers toward Russia’s ‘attack on our democracy’ that’s somehow deemed more sinister and newsworthy than corporate dominance of American politics (including Democrats), racist voter suppression, gerrymandering and many other U.S. electoral defects all put together.”

Also true. On the other hand, the censorship of alternative journalistic voices is far more clear-cut and straightforward. In a report for Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, Robin Andersen examined Russiagate-inspired censorship moves by Twitter, Google and others. A key initial target was the Russian International TV network RT: “RT’s reporting bears striking similarities to alternative and independent media content, and that is why letting the charges against RT stand unexamined is so dangerous,” Andersen notes.

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In fact, the government’s intelligence report on RT included its reporting on the dangers of fracking as part of its suspect activity. Beyond that, the spill-over suppression was dramatic: “Yet in the battle against fake news, much of the best, most accurate independent reporting is disappearing from Google searches,” Anderson said. “The World Socialist Web Site (Aug. 2, 2017) reported that Google’s new search protocol is restricting access to leading independent, left-wing, progressive, anti-war and democratic rights websites. The estimated declines in traffic generated by Google searches for news sites are striking.”

There were declines for AlterNet.org (63 percent), DemocracyNow.org (36 percent), CounterPunch.org (21 percent), ConsortiumNews.com (47 percent), MediaMatters.org (42 percent) and TheIntercept.com (19 percent), among others.

On top of that, in Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi pointed to much broader stifling of alternative views. “Two years ago, remember, the American political establishment was on the ropes… . From Trump to Bernie Sanders to Brexit to Catalonia, voter repudiation of the status quo was the story of the day. The sense of panic among political elites was palpable… . Two years later, the narrative has completely shifted. By an extraordinary coincidence, virtually all the ‘anti-system’ movements and candidates that so terrified the political establishment two years ago have since been identified as covert or overt Russian destabilization initiatives… . We’ve jumped straight past debating the efficacy of democracy to just reflexively identifying most anti-establishment sentiment as illegitimate, treasonous and foreign in nature.”

Project Censored notes: “Many people suffer when lies are reported as facts, but it seems that corporate media are the only ones that profit when they reinforce blind hostility — against not only Russia but also legitimate domestic dissent.”

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Regenerative agriculture as “next stage” of civilization

The world’s agricultural and degraded soils have the capacity to recover 50 to 66 percent of the historic carbon loss to the atmosphere, according to a 2004 paper in Science, actually reversing the processes driving global warming. A set of practices known as “regenerative agriculture” could play a major role in accomplishing that, while substantially increasing crop yields as well, according to information compiled and published by Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association, in May 2017.

“For thousands of years we grew food by depleting soil carbon and, in the last hundred or so, the carbon in fossil fuel as well,” food activist and writer Michael Pollan wrote. “But now we know how to grow even more food while at the same time returning carbon and fertility and water to the soil.”

Cummins, who’s also a founding member of Regeneration International, wrote that regenerative agriculture offers a “world-changing paradigm” that can help solve many of today’s environmental and public health problems. The Guardian explains: “Regenerative agriculture comprises an array of techniques that rebuild soil and, in the process, sequester carbon. Typically, it uses cover crops and perennials so that bare soil is never exposed, and grazes animals in ways that mimic animals in nature. It also offers ecological benefits far beyond carbon storage: It stops soil erosion, re-mineralizes soil, protects the purity of groundwater and reduces damaging pesticide and fertilizer runoff.”

“We can’t really solve the climate crisis (and the related soil, environmental, and public health crisis) without simultaneously solving the food and farming crisis,” Cummins wrote. “We need to stop putting greenhouse gas pollution into the atmosphere (by moving to 100% renewable energy), but we also need to move away from chemical-intensive, energy-intensive food, factory farming and land use, as soon as possible.”

In addition to global warming, there are profound economic and social justice concerns involved. “Out-of-touch and out-of-control governments of the world now take our tax money and spend $500 billion … a year mainly subsidizing 50 million industrial farmers to do the wrong thing,” Cummins wrote. “Meanwhile, 700 million small family farms and herders, comprising the 3 billion people who produce 70% of the world’s food on just 25% of the world’s acreage, struggle to make ends meet… . The basic menu for a Regeneration Revolution is to unite the world’s 3 billion rural farmers, ranchers and herders with several billion health, environmental and justice-minded consumers to overturn ‘business as usual’ and embark on a global campaign of cooperation, solidarity and regeneration.”

If you’ve never heard of it before, don’t be surprised. “Regenerative agriculture has received limited attention in the establishment press, highlighted by only two recent, substantive reports in The New York Times Magazine and Salon,” Project Censored notes.

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Congress passes intrusive data-sharing law under cover of spending bill

On March 21, House Republicans released a 2,232-page omnibus spending bill. It passed both houses and was signed into law in two days. Attached to the spending provisions that made it urgent “must-pass” legislation was the completely unrelated Clarifying Lawful Overseas Use of Data Act of 2018, also known as the CLOUD Act.

“The CLOUD Act enables the U.S. government to acquire data across international borders regardless of other nations’ data privacy laws and without the need for warrants,” Project Censored summarizes. It also significantly weakens protections against foreign government actions.

“It was never reviewed or marked up by any committee in either the House or the Senate,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s David Ruiz wrote. “It never received a hearing… . It was robbed of a stand-alone floor vote because Congressional leadership decided, behind closed doors, to attach this unvetted, unrelated data bill to the $1.3 trillion government spending bill.” Congressional leadership failed to listen to citizen concerns, Ruiz wrote, with devastating consequences: “Because of this failure, U.S. and foreign police will have new mechanisms to seize data across the globe. Because of this failure, your private emails, your online chats, your Facebook, Google, Flickr photos, your Snapchat videos, your private lives online, your moments shared digitally between only those you trust, will be open to foreign law enforcement without a warrant and with few restrictions on using and sharing your information, privacy and human rights,” concluded Robyn Greene, who reported for Just Security.

“The little corporate news coverage that the CLOUD Act received tended to put a positive spin on it,” Project Censored notes. “[A glowing Washington Post op-ed] made no mention of potential risks to the privacy of citizens’ personal data, [and a CNET report that] highlighted the liberties that the CLOUD Act would provide corporations by simplifying legal issues concerning overseas servers.”

Because of this failure, U.S. laws will be bypassed on U.S. soil. Greene noted that the CLOUD Act negates protections of two interrelated existing laws. It creates an exception to the Stored Communications Act that allows certified foreign governments to request personal data directly from U.S. companies.

“This exception enables those countries to bypass the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty process, which protects human rights by requiring foreign governments to work with the Department of Justice to obtain warrants from U.S. judges before they can access that data for their criminal investigations,” Greene explained. “The version of the bill that was included in the omnibus does include some improvements over the earlier version to help to mitigate the risks of bypassing the MLAT process … two changes [that] are important improvements … many of the other changes to the bill are only partial or ineffective fixes to problems privacy advocates, human rights advocates, and even a former high-ranking official at the U.S. State Department have raised. … Several other concerns have been left entirely unaddressed.”

“While the bill sponsors did try to address some of the concerns that have been raised, the improvements are not enough to shift the balance so that the CLOUD Act will be a boon, rather than a threat, to privacy and human rights,” Greene concluded.

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Indigenous communities worldwide helping win the legal rights of nature

In March 2017,