- White House “flags” misinformation for Facebook (corporate media yawns)
- How deplatformed Alex Jones cracked the First Amendment’s backbone
- Congressional interrogators sweat social media execs
- (Good old days?) Media’s home on the range
- More ominous days ahead: Cancel culture comes for fintech
“We are flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation,” declared White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki on July 15.
Psaki’s tone was nonchalant, matter-of-fact — as if she were announcing the nomination of an undersecretary at the Energy Department.
From where she stood, it was no big deal the White House had begun using the back door to gut the First Amendment.
How far matters have come in three years.
It was this week in 2018 that Alex Jones, the face of InfoWars, was simultaneously “deplatformed” by Facebook, YouTube, Apple and Spotify on the theory he was engaged in “hate speech.”
At the risk of appearing alarmist, we devoted an entire episode of The 5 to the topic, titled, “After Alex Jones, Are We Next?”
Three years later, it’s become glaringly obvious that unless the opinions you express meet with Official Approval, you’re at risk of being “cancelled” in one way or another. We’re all Alex Jones now.
As the independent journalist Michael Tracey writes, “If you were under any illusion back in 2018 that this would ever stop with Jones — a figure believed to be sufficiently repulsive that any punishment doled out to him would not have broader implications for the average internet user — well, it didn’t take long for proof of just how wrong you were.”
We’ve chronicled several stumbles down the slippery slope these last three years. By late 2020 and early 2021, the First Amendment fell so hard it cracked its tailbone.
Facebook and Twitter suppressed a New York Post story that reflected poorly on Joe Biden and his son Hunter three weeks before Election Day.
Then, Facebook and Twitter suspended Donald Trump’s accounts after the Jan. 6 riot.
Then the alt-social media site Parler was nuked from Apple’s App Store, Google’s Play Store and Amazon Web Services. It was more than a month before Parler could make other hosting arrangements… and it wasn’t back on Apple’s iOS until May, with added content filters.
All along, the objection was raised: These are private companies. They have every right to determine who gets to play in their sandbox.
And all along, our riposte was that these private companies are acting under duress. Time after time, executives have been raked over the proverbial coals at congressional hearings for their alleged failure to curb “hate speech” and “misinformation.”
Three years ago we cited Reason writer Zach Weismuller: “Washington sees in Silicon Valley a chance to control speech in a way never before possible under the First Amendment, and to roll back the clock to a pre-internet age of media gatekeepers.
“The way to achieve this is by continually leveraging the threat of regulation.”
Works flawlessly: Haul a tech exec before Congress, give him the third degree for a day, watch him fold like a lawn chair a few weeks or months later. Lather, rinse, repeat.
The endgame is a 21st-century version of the “good old days” when three national evening newscasts, taking their cue from that morning’s New York Times, set the boundaries for acceptable discourse.
Slender boundaries they are, akin to the 40-yard lines on a football field. Anything to the left of Joe Biden or the right of Mitch McConnell is at risk of the ban hammer.
Parler’s experience was uniquely instructive: Its founders took to heart the advice “If you don’t like the situation, go start your own social-media company.“ You see where that got them.
So is it any surprise when in mid-July 2021, Psaki strips away all pretense and tells reporters that the White House is “flagging problematic posts” for Facebook because they contain “disinformation” about COVID-19? And the assembled reporters nod and smile in approval?
“The government cannot implement a censorship system under the Constitution — but it can outsource censorship functions to private companies like Facebook and Twitter,” writes George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley at The Hill.
As was the case three years ago, we bring up the matter today partly out of self-interest.
From the earliest days of our trade, financial newsletter editors have trafficked in ideas outside the mainstream.
Nearly a century ago, Roger Babson warned the Roaring ’20s were destined to end in tears. (They did.) A half-century ago, Harry Browne urged readers to forget the “Nifty Fifty” stocks and pile into precious metals after President Nixon killed off the last vestiges of the gold standard. (Good advice then.) Just over a quarter-century ago, James Dale Davidson warned about The Plague of the Black Debt. (It still plagues us.)
Across the decades, up to the present day, newsletter editors give voice to a nagging feeling people have in the back of their minds — that reality isn’t the way the mainstream gatekeepers portray it. We daresay financial newsletters were the pioneers of “alternative media.”
Here at The 5, we have brought our own snarky spin to the newsletter art since launch in 2007— lobbing spitballs at central bankers, politicians and the allegedly best-and-brightest denizens of Wall Street.
We called out former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke for perjury. We called out Warren Buffett for outrageous acts of crony capitalism. We called out House Speaker Paul Ryan as a phony years before it was fashionable. We called out JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon for all-around douchebaggery.
For the longest time, we did this while flying under the radar. The newsletter biz was a niche thing with a limited audience.
But by 2016 and 2017, two of our editors showed up on blacklists smearing them as Russian stooges — blacklists amplified by “prestigious” think tanks and media organs like The Washington Post.
So yes, we’re keenly attuned to the censorship vibes coming out of Washington and Silicon Valley… and we’re closely watching how some people respond.
Days after Psaki’s announcement, The New York Times did a lengthy hit piece on Dr. Joseph Mercola, the osteopath who’s a leading light in the alternative- and complementary-medicine field. Days after that, Mercola told his readers he’s taking down large portions of his website.
“Over 15,000 articles full of vital information that has helped tens of millions across the world take control of their health, will be removed. There was a time when people could debate and respect each other freely. That time is now gone…
“I will still be writing my daily articles that I started 25 years ago BUT they will only be available for 48 hours before they are removed… These will be removed to appease the individuals in power who have an arsenal of overwhelming tools at their disposal, and are actively engaged in using them.”
We suspect there’s an element of clever marketing behind Dr. Mercola’s announcement, along with sensible discretion. But he wouldn’t do it at all unless there was some validity to the threat.
“Please don’t even try to argue that Psaki’s dictum is somehow going to be limited to ‘misinformation’ surrounding vaccines,” writes the aforementioned Michael Tracey, “and that’s fine because of the unique danger of vaccine-related misinformation in light of the Delta variant blah blah blah.
“There’s always going to be a situation deemed sufficiently ‘dangerous’ by those in power to rationalize encroachments on free expression. Always some ‘emergency’ — Islamic terrorism, white nationalist terrorism, a communicable disease, severe weather events, racist Academy Awards ceremonies, whatever. It will never end. Because those in power are extremely adept at finding rationalizations for the power they seek to exercise.”
Something to think about when the next financial emergency rolls around.
Yes, there are means to reach an audience in the present moment that bypass social media.
We’re lucky in that our own primary means of distribution is still good old-fashioned email, with the bulk of our revenue coming directly from customers like you. It’s a straightforward business model that limits our dependence on the infrastructure of others — unlike, say, someone who depends on the “monetization” of his or her YouTube channel that can be yanked with no warning.
Outside the realm of financial newsletters, Substack has come to offer a thriving and lucrative subscription model for original journalism. In many cases, the bloggers of 15 years ago who went on to work for mainstream news organizations but then ran afoul of their groupthink have found a home at Substack — the tireless Glenn Greenwald chief among them.
And when it comes to video, the Canada-based Rumble offers a refuge from the increasingly sterile environment of YouTube.
That’s a hell of a lot better state of affairs than the days of samizdat in the old Soviet Union. Access to a printing press was strictly limited. The luckier dissidents had access to typewriters and carbon paper to spread their ideas. But many resorted to writing by hand. Their documents were simply handed from reader to reader.
But more ominous dangers are on the horizon: If people with “bad ideas” can’t be fully banished from the internet, perhaps they can be blocked from access to the financial system.
A few days ago, PayPal announced it’s joining forces with the Anti-Defamation League for a research project looking into “how extremist or hate movements use financial platforms to fund their activities,” as a USA Today story put it. “The results of their research will be shared within the financial industry, policymakers and law enforcement.” Accounts deemed too “extreme” will be shut down.
It’s a disturbing development for David Sacks, one of PayPal’s founding executives.
“As with the censorship of speech, financial deplatforming often begins as something that seems narrow and reasonable — who wouldn’t want to ban the Oath Keepers or Proud Boys? But once the power is granted, it metastasizes into widespread use,” he warns in a recent essay — published, as it happens, on Substack.
PayPal, he writes, has created “the economic equivalent of the No-Fly List with the ADL’s assistance. If history is any guide, other fintech companies will soon follow suit. As we saw in the case of speech restrictions, the political monoculture that prevails among employees of these companies will create pressure for all of them to act as a bloc…
“Kicking people off social media deprives them of the right to speak in our increasingly online world. Locking them out of the financial economy is worse: It deprives them of the right to make a living,” Sacks continues.
“We have seen how cancel culture can obliterate one’s ability to earn an income, but now the cancelled may find themselves without a way to pay for goods and services. Previously, cancelled employees who would never again have the opportunity to work for a Fortune 500 company at least had the option to go into business for themselves.
“But if they cannot purchase equipment, pay employees or receive payment from clients and customers, that door closes on them, too.”
So it’s not just a free-speech issue. It’s right in our wheelhouse of money and markets.
Today we redouble our commitment to stay on top of it… and keep you in the loop before, well, the next announcement at a White House press briefing.
The 5 Min. Forecast
P.S. The markets today? The major U.S. stock indexes are meandering after the Dow and the S&P notched record closes on Friday.
But the commodity complex is getting thumped. Gold is down another $38 bucks to $1,725. And crude is back below $67.
Thanks for indulging one of our occasional single-topic episodes of The 5. Back to regularly scheduled programming tomorrow.