21.12.16

Poisoned Fruit in the Walled Garden - Part III


This is the third post in a 3- part series on the rise of extreme right hate speech on the internet. You can find the first post here and the second post here.


Addicted to sales? The Nazis helped Coke "open up" new markets in Europe in WWII
A third group that has been co-opting online discussions on a grand scale - possibly grander than any other group mentioned in this series - is the big business. Big business has been drowning out voices of opposition for so long, its efforts just sort of blend into the background now. And  its aggressive online tactics also extend to real world acts of aggression, assassination and even all-out warfare. 

In their essay, ‘Coca Cola goes to War’ Eleanor Jones and Florian Ritzmann trace the path to success taken by Max Keith, the German boss of drinks giant Coca-Cola, during World War II.  He tagged along with the Nazis everywhere they went in Europe, planting his soft drink bottles in their wake like sweet, fizzy, cocaine-flavoured bombs. Keith's ambition to place a bottle of coke in the hands of every member of their captive audience (literally captive, as was the case for concentration camp prisoners who were forced to work on Coca Cola's production lines) was seemingly as relentless as the fascist campaign itself. And it was just as heedless of human health and safety. 

Regardless of Keith's desired ends, his means lined up perfectly with the Fascists: both were chasing after total market domination, and both believed that success could be measured in superficial criteria alone. For the fascists, that superficial criteria was skin or eye colour whereas for Coca Cola, it was a soft drink brand. But their means to those separate ends were often one and the same: invasion, domination and even enslavement. 

According to Jones and Ritzman,'Coke's situation was so secure that Max Keith could get himself appointed to the Office of Enemy Property to supervise all soft drink plants, both in Germany and the captured teritory. As German troops overran Europe, Keith and Oppenhof followed, assisting and taking over the Coca-Cola businesses in Italy, France, Holland, Luxembourg, Belgium and Norway.'

Coca Cola was in so deep with the Nazis that it was only saved from becoming an official brand of the Third Reich by Keith’s adamant refusal to sign the brand over to the fascists. Far from being evidence that Coca-Cola's German boss cared about the company's American roots, though, this detail only emphasizes the psychopathic nature of his priorities. Employing slave labour was all right by him, but he was ready to put his life on the line just to avoid changing the name of his brand. 


'The meeting closed with a "ceremonial pledge" to Coca-Cola and a ringing, three-fold "Sieg-Heil" to Hitler.’ - From Coca Cola Goes to War.
But it may have been these exact priorities that endeared Keith to the Nazi regime, with its equally extreme fixation on appearances. The same priorities were definitely shared by many American corporations operating in Germany at the time, at any rate: they too, aimed to secure new markets at any cost and achieve success, no matter how superficial, for the glory of the brand. Many of the corporations that helped the Nazis still exist today, and can  still lay claim to vast, global markets. The inescapable nature of participation in those markets has survived well beyond the end of World War II into times of peace, and it may be fascism's most enduring legacy.  Is it any wonder that a planet dominated by them has given rise to fascism once again?

Some apologists have said that the allure of the captive European markets was just too ‘tempting’ for the likes of Coca Cola, Dow, Manhattan Chase, IBM, General Motors to resist… but taking advantage of them required a pathologically high regard for material gratification, and a pathologically low one for human health, life, liberty and justice. Just like the Nazis (and now the neo-Nazis) American corporations in WWII Europe availed themselves of any means necessary to outdo the competition... even if that meant trampling over masses of people.

Start as you mean to go on, so the old adage says: if the consumer base doesn't want the product or can't afford it, make them want it by whatever means necessary - even aggression and fear, a lesson learned by Coca-Cola in the Second World War. 

These same priorities can often be observed in the way that big business behaves online.  AOL Online, a subsidiary of Dow Chemical, has been embroiled in small-scale control freakery such as censoring a group that criticized it (alt.aol-sucks) or 'accidentally' blocking users' email accounts when they protested a new fee. And it's participated in much larger-scale control freakery too, like helping the NSA in its data-collection programs, according to leaked PRISM documents.  The authoritarian legacy that fascism has left on corporate culture is clear; big business is all too often willing to enact any kind of restriction, as long as it ensures a better standing, image or profit for the company. There is no consensus between big business and people nowadays; for the most part it's all co-option.

And the trend is catching on online, too.  Facebook has overstepped its bounds many, many times now, in its efforts to expand and improve its brand profile. To name but a few scandals, it has been caught cutting conservative news items and even about Facebook itself from the Trending feed and censoring activist feeds at the behest of Turkish president Erdogan, and apparently, the behest of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) project too... the list goes on, expanding year by year.

Added to which, it has led the push to make advertising even more ubiquitous online than it is offline, by planting ads in users' personal space. Between Facebook and Google, one can find oneself being stalked around the internet by sales messages that flash in one's face as one chats privately with friends. The totalitarian new reality of corporate-controlled internet wears a friendlier mask - it pretends to serve people's needs - yet, at the end of the day, it's forcefully pushing internet users to take up its own ideology: the ideology of raking in more cash, whether it's beneficial or not.

From AOL through to Facebook, Google and Twitter, corporate presences on the Internet have conspired to turn it into a series of enclosed, informational bio-domes, in which every move (and even every thought) is being edged towards an invisible bottom line; towards making a sale so someone else can 'win'.  Indeed, 'we are winning' is one of the phrases that alt-right most likes to torture in its flame wars with the left wing.

At least internet users can see where ads are coming from, though. The same thing cannot be said for comments and reviews that are posted by corporate shills under pseudonymous sock puppet accounts. NPR journalist David Folkenflick, who used to work at Fox News, has written a book describing how the media giant asked its staff to troll the web.  “One former [Fox News] staffer recalled using twenty different aliases to post pro-Fox rants. Another had one hundred," he wrote.  These sock puppet-masters apparently targeted bloggers and other commentators who were critical of Fox’s reporting.

In other words, rather than modify its site's content to suit the community which criticized it, or even investigate its complaints, Fox preferred to reshape what that community should think by posing as a member of it. But stories of major corporate players hiring internet shills are all over the place these days. There are too many dodgy incidents like the one involving Fox to be described here. What seems certain is that, if they were all added up, these corporate trolls and shills would far outstrip the trolls of the alt-right.

The precedent the alt-right follows - of carpet-bombing the masses into submissive consumers of whatever they have to 'sell' - was set long ago, and it was set by big business, working hand in hand with despotic interests.  

Don't Fight The System, Be The System?
Groups like the Billboard Liberation Front understand the totalitarian nature of advertising
The corporate monopoly on so much of our virtual world is no less intrusive than the activities of the alt-right, yet its power is based on a similar premise: that might is right, and brute force is a valid means to achieve necessary change. The only difference is whether that brute force is enabled by an engineered mob rule, or by money.

Perhaps this is what the alt-right network means when it claims that it's just using the same tactics that others have used before it. And it is true that big business and the government have highjacked the public lens both online and offline, for far too long.  Yet, by employing those oppressive tactics instead of breaking the pattern, or inventing something new, the alt-right is alienating itself even further from its claim of being a bona fide activist movement. 
 
Activists who are fighting for social, environmental or economic justice usually try to inject their view into a contrived homogeneity of mainstream voices, like so many dabs of colour in a bucket of white paint. The alt-right on the other hand, aims to replace that monochrome shade of white with another monochrome shade that more closely resembles their own. They want to replace the whitewash with beige wash.  



The alt-right's obsession with winning rivals Coca-Cola's
As an activist group, the alt-right is trying to claim the anti-globalization mantle for itself.  In this respect it is a cuckoo cause, snatching many of the arguments that were formerly embraced by anti-WTO and anti-G20 protesters, and wielding them in a way that squeezes various minorities out of the anti-globalization ‘nest’... beginning, of course, with the Jews. 

Reading through its writings about globalization, one is struck by the fact that its authors have merely substituted “The Jews/Zionism/ZOG” for the term “multinational corporations”, wherever that has traditionally appeared in anti-capitalist literature. How terribly convenient this must be for the readership of a site like Breitbart, which tends to be white, male, Christian and entrepreneurial. What a neat trick, to be able to reap all the rewards of globalized capitalism, while blaming everyone else for its existence.They don't seem to blame Hitler though.

Andrew Anglin, the founder of Daily Stormer (yes, him again) has been quoted as saying that '"Gas the k***s” sounds so outrageous that it can only be ironic.' Yet, someone who sees political correctness as some sort of inconvenient thought experiment, designed to stop people from being ironic, is probably isolated from truly globalized areas of the world. Those are the  big cities where Jews, blacks, feminists, refugees, queers and all the other alt-right bugbears mix with white straight guys: having relationships, living together and working together. What is truly ironic is that the loudest voices speaking out against the new, multicultural reality  seem to be so out of touch with it. Most people who denounce hate speech do so out of sympathy for their minority friends and family... not to mention, out of respect for themselves.

While the alt-right has plenty to say about its activist cause, though, it is much less forthcoming about the goals of that cause. This aversion to stating a goal is probably intentional, because it's pretty clear that it must be taking rights away from people who are currently equal, under the eyes of the law... rights which real activists helped to secure, in the past.

Instead, the people in the alt-right obsess about their supposed under-representation, trying to portray themselves as the victims of a liberal 'bias'. Perhaps their under-representation on the net may be due to the fact that it's the only place that equality, justice, truth, respect etc., can still achieve a critical mass... so it attracts those sorts of people.  The online world is not the native environment of right-wing ideas: the real world is. The likes of Coca Cola, working hand in hand with people like the Nazis, have made it that way. And now their bastard children, the alt-right, are trying to do the same thing online.

A glance at the news reveals wars happening between groups that have just as much racial hatred for each other, as the alt-right has for everyone. It reveals jihadis who ascribe to a fundamentalist faith that mirrors that of the American Bible Belt. It reveals feral capitalism that gets its way nearly everywhere, every day, regardless of what the people want, or what's good for their countries. It reveals human trafficking that reduces women and children to a dollar value. It reveals a wealthy, male, straight white gaze that has little time for anyone else. It's unsurprising if people don't want to see more of the same thing when they go online, isn't it?

The forces behind globalisation have imposed themselves on the world in much the same way that the totalitarian right are trying to do. Perhaps what these alt-right trolls are hiding from when they don an anonymous disguise online might not be a 'liberal bias', but their own unpopularity.

Tear Down This Wall(ed Garden) 

If the alt-right is guilty of fabricating echo chambers peopled by sock puppet mobs, though, then maybe they are just reflecting a general trend... albeit in a very negative, aggressive way. 

Most Internet users today live within their own 'echo chambers', where they have to pre-approve each and every person who gives them feedback, before they even speak.  If the creeping exposure of such venomous, bigoted echo chambers as the alt-right have have stunned internet users, it's probaby because they haven't been allowing enough space in their lives for random encounters with such people.  

Part of what is making the right wing so vehement may be a sense of being repelled by these endless, unseen defenses that people surround themselves with, online.  Predictive algorithms and privacy settings can be useful, but when they run out of control they tend to eliminate any element of random chance.  These defenses are now harder to escape than they ever have been before: undesirable commenters can now be pre-screened out of our feeds on Twitter, sight unseen. Facebook and Google's algorithms and website cookies filter out content that's either offensive or just plain unfamiliar without us knowing.

If people with undesirable views cannot easily engage in debate with a range of other views, that hardens them as much as it weakens everybody else.  It's a vicious cycle... and if it continues, even the most liberal people will eventually be compelled to convert their views into a form of dogmatism - a blunt tool that they use to defend their position, rather than to expand upon or develop it. 

So, what began as a reaction to hate speech (walled gardens were mainly designed to keep that sort of thing out, after all) has become another aggravating cause to it. Internet giants like Facebook and Google are feeding the trolls by starving them of any chance to hash their views out with others. They never learn about real alternatives, and latch on to the 'alt' instead.  

Are more walls the right response? No - as any gardener can tell you, any overly sheltered stretch of land becomes prone to invasion by weeds, eventually.  Only a diversity of life forms, like those found in the wild, can hope to keep them under control.  The price of that kind of openness, though, is eternal vigilance, it is critical thought and active engagement - otherwise we might eventually find ourselves living in a whole new kind of garden, where only the least tolerant species can survive.

To quote Saul Alinsky, the writer of activist handbook Rules for Radicals (which the alt-right often cites): "Conflict is the essential core of a free and open society. If one were to project the democratic way of life in the form of a musical score, its major theme would be the harmony of dissonance."

Or to put it another way,


 The tree that doesn’t bend, breaks.

15.12.16

Poisoned Fruit in the Walled Garden - Part II


In the second in a series of posts about the impact of organized, right wing trolling on the internet, find out what government operations from both the east and west have in common with the trolls of the alt-right. (Read Part I here)


The alt-right might be in the spotlight now, but its own activities are often overshadowed by the works of other trolls which are on a mission to promote slightly less offensive, conservative views: those of the military and the government.



Nearly everyone these days is familiar with the trolls working for China's 50-cent party, or the denizens of “Putin’s troll factories”. Typically, these trolls pose as Americans or Europeans and try to pack as much disinformation as they can into each rushed comment that they knock out.  They write transparent adulations to those in power in broken, Google-translated English. Their bugbears are the American Democrats; democracy in general; anyone who criticizes Russia or China; the EU; homosexuality (which is criminalized to some extent in both countries).
                                  
The reasons why the governments of Russia and China might have seen fit to mobilize their own sock puppet mobs to tow the party line might seem obvious: the old establishments there would have found it too difficult to cling to their accustomed, totalitarian level of control over popular opinions, in the face of new freedoms and technology.  Few of their dogmatic distortions would have stood a chance online, where millions can find the truth (or at the very least, an opposing view) at the click of a mouse.

But what, then, does this say about the U.S. military when the authors of its narrative choose to employ the same methods as those used by China and Russia, to counter criticism from so-called 'extremists' - particularly when it might be that those 'extremists' are just people with a really good argument?

In 2011, the Central Command of the U.S. military was revealed to have secured a deal with Florida-based cyber security firm NTRepid, to buy up persona management software. This software would allow each service man or woman to own up to 10 sock puppet identities, for use worldwide. Once the impending deal was exposed, the U.S. military was quick to state that none of the personas would work in English or on American soil, but those are the only solid details that have ever been given regarding the program. Centcom’s own insistence that it conducts its online deceptions in a way that ensures ‘maximum deniability’ - namely, by avoiding detection - doesn’t reassure, especially since its closest analogues within the US and the UK have been caught ransacking all of the barriers between the personal and the public; the domestic and the international, in pursuit of similarly-hazy, ‘anti extremist’ aims.  
                                  

Right:  a slide from the GHCQ powerpoint presentation that was entered into evidence during Berlin hearings into the role of the German Bundesnachrichtdienst (secret service) in enabling NSA mass surveillance.

The presentation
illustrates how government operations envision themselves infiltrating major social media sites - Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube - using tactics that are nearly identical to those employed by the alt-right. 


The 'Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group' (a department of UK signals agency, the Government Communication Headquarter) has honed an online propaganda program which is being used by America, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, whose spy agencies work together in an alliance known as the "5 Eyes". Although JTRIG is shrouded in secrecy (British MPs say they have no idea what it’s up to), most leaks to date have suggested that it focuses on non-criminal ‘targets’ such as Anonymous, to change their ‘extremist’ views. It is, bluntly speaking, a propaganda machine for conservatism.

In leaked material, JTRIG has admitted that its activities include monitoring ‘domestic extremist groups such as the English Defence League’ and ‘denying, deterring or dissuading hacktivists’. So, its targets are those which might one day pose a threat but haven't yet done anything wrong, nor even planned to.

It should also be remembered that intelligence agencies in both the UK and the US have often been wont to label anti-nuclear activists, animal rights activists, anarchists, anti-globalization activists, ecological activists and even whistleblowers as ‘terrorists’ for their use of “harassment, intimidation and coercion”, and "economic pressure" tactics - which essentially means 'boycotts'.  While these tactics may be considered slightly aggressive by some, they are a far cry from actual, suitcase-go-kaboom terrorism.

A picture slowly forms of a Western intelligence which views anyone who upsets the status quo (or its profit margins) as a physical threat, regardless of the moral questions that are raised by upholding that status quo and those profit margins and regardless of the physical threat which the status quo may pose to society. Additionally, it lumps in activists who idealize causing damage (like jihadis or the neo-nazi far right) alongside activists who idealize peaceful aims,
yet whom eventually resort to some form of non-violent sabotage to achieve them. It’s pretty critical to make a distinction between the two kinds of activists, though, unless one aspires to a nihilistic, materialist society which is wholly devoid of any deeper moral drives or ideals.



Above: a screenshot showing a moment when a Reddit user was caught out using an automated template to post dismissive comments to one of the site’s political subs
 
The JTRIG mission has perhaps been best summarized by the Intercept, which wrote: “Several GCHQ memos published last fall by the Guardian revealed that the agency was eager to keep its activists secret not to protect national security but because, ‘our main concern is that reference to agency practices […] could lead to damaging public debate which might lead to legal challenges against the current regime.

An interesting implication contained in the above statement is that the 5 Eyes alliance which essentially created JTRIG speaks as a single regime - one which coordinates its actions in order to answer needs and desires that are above and beyond the needs and desires of its component nations, or their people. In short, this statement seems to confirm the existence of a superstate whose sovereignty transcends the interests of the member nations... at least in the (five) eyes of the beholder, it does.
 
Perhaps none of this will stand out to internet users as much as some of the juicier controversies that explode out of the social media spheres each week or month, but perhaps that in itself, is what should give them pause.  These official trolls represent oh-so subtle, understated efforts to blend the ‘regime’ message with the messages sent by friends, family and peers, manufacturing the appearance of an agreement among them, where none exists.
In the process, the government's trolls have succeeded in almost validating the garish antics of the alt-right that are grabbing stage centre, at the moment. In their attempts to drum up support for their respective regimes, these trolls are inadvertently propping up the neo-fascist trolls that claim to speak for the silent, right wing masses. 

But can the agendas of these groups even be so different when they agree on the methods, if not the madness that drives them?
 

‘The guarded-aggressive, totalitarian ideology put forth by these people is their main indicator. A few members of this group try to look even somewhat liberal.'

'They introduce arbitrary tracts full of facts and events — often completely fraudulent — that force their opponents to do extensive research to refute them.'


‘It is an absolute orgy of animal hatred...'


'These remarks have been word-for-word identical [...] putting forward exactly the same “arguments”, accusations and insults, using exactly the same phrasing and sentence constructions.'


'One gets the feeling that they are being written by exactly the same people with the same impoverished imagination and vocabulary.'



The above quotes may sound like they are descriptions of tactics that are currently used by the alt-right, but they’re not: they’re taken from a 2007 expose entitled "Commissars of the Internet" which was published on La Russophobe, a dissident blog out of Russia. Its authors worked on the major independent publication, Novaya Gazeta. The series described how many of these writers were harangued and gang-stalked across the online world by feral trolls which showed all the hallmarks of being in the pay of the Kremlin. 

Unlike the alt-right, though, the people trolling the Russian blogosphere were speaking for those at the top of their country’s hierarchy: people who were capable of hiring hit men to silence journalists, and of
shutting down websites at will, with a multi-million-ruble budget on hand from which to pay operatives who would drown out dissent with astroturfing campaigns. Even so, a single voice of opposition was obviously too much for them to bear - nothing but total conformity would do.  It never does, with totalitarians.

One of the journalists whom the authors described as being continually harassed by the Russian brigadniki, acclaimed humanitarian activist and journalist
Anna Politkovskaya, was even assassinated in 2006 - and on Putin's birthday, no less.



“[It] is we who are responsible for Putin's policies ... [s]ociety has shown limitless apathy ... we have let them see our fear, and thereby have only intensified their urge to treat us like cattle. The KGB respects only the strong. The weak it devours. We of all people ought to know that.  From 'Putin's Russia' by Anna Politkovskaya

Totalitarians don't just stop at killing off the local opposition, though; even when dissenters give up the fight and leave Russia for good, officials will still go to great lengths to 'correct' their views in RL (real life). Another famous example of how online trolling can have fallout in RL is that of writer
Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned with polonium in London in 2006, after accusing Vladimir Putin of having ordered the death of his fellow journalist, Politkovskaya (somewhat understandable, given the circumstances).

An author on the alt-right website Daily Stormer could well have been voicing the mantra embraced by the Kremlin when he wrote: "This is about survival. We must win by any means necessary, or we will cease to exist". It's the sort of false equivalency that leads true extremists to kill people for their ideas alone. But the beliefs that the Kremlin, the alt-right, and even the NSA are fighting for the survival of seem to be beliefs that are undergoing a natural extinction. They are ideas whose death would make way for some sort of evolution or rebirth in society's consensus.  Do beliefs in mind numbing uniformity, torture, war, prejudice, cruelty and sectarian hate actually ever need rescuing from the brink? 


The alt-right is just one in a long line of astroturfing movements that is being led by a once-privileged group which is facing an online consensus that limits its former
scope of power. And the only way to regain that power, it seems, is to reduce the rest of the world to a droning singularity of voice, identity, thought. 

That is the only way that any despotic regime ever manages to survive.
                                               

Translation of BND-NSA inquiry question (left, above)

Not far from our hearing hall here was the Berlin Wall, which enclosed GDR citizens. We had various deaths - 136 at the inner-German frontier, 872 fatalities which in particular were caused by the Stasi. Against this historical context, I am wondering how you can compare the NSA and that state security?

Answer in English (left, below): "Yes, they've learned the lessons of that surveillance state [the Stasi]". 





“Drowning in information” is the tagline of the latest release of NSA documents that were compiled by Edward Snowden. The sensory overload experienced by spy agencies as they attempt to sift through every thought and image we produce tends to overspill on to us, too. When it comes to leaks about spying on ordinary citizens, those citizens are also drowning in information which they don’t know how to process, to interpret.

The modern internet may be filthy with leaks, but sites which interpret the content of the leaks and share their conclusions are still too thin on the ground and their conclusions are often too limited. Taken together, these sites tend to form a well-intentioned echo chamber that can seem as dislocated from day-to-day online experience as the government itself. But that's an illusion: the Western government's troll operations are just as geared towards engineering a whole new consensus down on the ground as anything done by the 'populist' alt-right.  In this new consensus, opinions exist not to reveal anything, but merely to further the goals of entrenched power.   


In the next post in this series, we will see how corporate culture was instrumental in implanting those goals in the online world, in the first place. 
All writing & images © A. E. Elliott (unless otherwise specified)

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Berlin, Germany
NOT a fashion blogger! I write about underground music, streetart, left-wing activism, social trends and the environment. Other publications that I have written for include: Urban Challenger Blog, Siegesaeule, Shlur, Alternative Berlin, Sensanostra.