Facebook Is Throttling Nonprofits and Activists

B. Traven

Facebook Is Throttling Nonprofits and Activists

So far coverage of Facebook’s plan to squeeze the organic reach of Pages has focused on its impact on “brands” that spam us with ads and promotions. But nonprofits, activists, and advocacy groups with much fewer resources (and no ad budgets) are also being hugely affected. It’s starting to look like Facebook is willing to strangle public discourse on the platform in an attempt to wring out a few extra dollars for its new shareholders.

Put simply, “organic reach” is the number of people who potentially could see any given Facebook post in their newsfeed. Long gone are the days when Facebook would simply show you everything that happened in your network in strict chronological order. Instead, algorithms filter the flood of updates, posts, photos, and stories down to the few that they calculate you would be most interested in. (Many people would agree that these algorithms are not very good, which is why Facebook is putting so much effort into refining them.) This means that even if I have, say, 400 friends, only a dozen or so might actually see any given thing I post.

One way to measure your reach, then, is as the percentage of your total followers who (potentially) see each of your posts. This is the ratio that Facebook has more-or-less publicly admitted it is ramping down to a target range of 1-2% for Pages. In other words, even if an organization’s Page has 10,000 followers, any given item they post might only reach 100-200 of them. In the case of my organization, that ratio is already down from an average of nearly 20% in 2012 to less than 5% today—a 75% reduction.

Another way of looking at it is in terms of what our reach would have been if Facebook hadn’t shifted the goalposts. From February to October 2012 our posts reached about 18% of our followers, on average [see graph above]. If that percentage had stayed the same as our followers grew over the past two years, then each item we posted today would theoretically reach about 1,000 people.

The actual average for the second week of April? 79.

Facebook Is Throttling Nonprofits and Activists

Lots of people have no problem with making Mountain Dew or Sony pay for what was previously free advertising—never mind that Facebook had already encourage them to pay for more likes with the promise that they would be able to broadcast to those followers for free. Nobody needs to shed a tear for the poor souls at Proctor & Gamble who have been forced to rejigger some small piece of their multibillion dollar advertising budget.

But Facebook has also become a new kind of platform for political and social advocacy. We may scoff at overblown “saving the world” rhetoric when it comes from Silicon Valley execs, but in places like Pakistan (not to mention in Tahrir Square or the Maidan) the idea of social media as an open marketplace of social and political ideas is taken quite seriously. That all goes away if nobody can even see your posts.

In the more prosaic world of nonprofits, Facebook has also become a crucial outreach tool and an effective way to stay in touch with supporters and partners. Many organizations funded by government or foundation grants are not even legally allowed to spend that money on advertising—and many more simply don’t have the budget for it regardless.

Facebook urgently needs to address the impact that its algorithm changes are having on nonprofits, NGOs, civil society, and political activists—especially those in developing countries, who are never going to be able to “pay to play” and for whom Facebook is one of the few really effective ways to get a message out to a wide audience without government control or censorship.

Improving the quality of posts on Facebook is a laudable goal, but it must be done in a transparent manner. For all the gripes people have about Google and their search algorithm, they are very clear about what they consider “quality” content and even provide free tools to help ensure pages have what their robots like to see. An algorithm change that results in a huge swath of legitimate, non-spam users losing 75% of their reach should not be deployed in secret.

In the meantime, there are still some social networks that don’t presume to know what you want to see in your timeline and will blast every one of your messages to every one of your followers. At least for now. Twitter just went public last November and will need to show a profit someday.

B. Traven is a pseudonym. He runs social media for a mid-sized international NGO in Washington, D.C.


To Save the Internet We Need To Own The Means Of Distribution

| Written by David Morris Updated on Apr 28, 2014

The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Local Self-Reliance website at http://www.ilsr.org/save-internet-means-distribution-2/

map-storiesWith the announcement by the FCC that cable and telephone companies will be allowed to prioritize access to their customers only one option remains that can guarantee an open internet:  owning the means of distribution.

Thankfully an agency exists for this. Local government.  Owning the means of distribution is a traditional function of local government.  We call our roads and bridges and water and sewer pipe networks public infrastructure for a reason.

In the 19th century local and state governments concluded that the transportation of people and goods was so essential to a modern economy that the key distribution system must be publicly owned.  In the 21st century the transportation of information is equally essential.

When communities own their roads they can and have established the rules of the road.  The most fundamental and ubiquitous is what might be called road neutrality. Everyone has equal access regardless whether they drive a Ford or a Chevy, a jeep or a moped.

About 20 years ago, exasperated by high prices, poor service and a callous disregard by cable and phone companies for the future communications needs of their host communities, American cities began building their own networks.  Initially these were based on cable and later on fiber.

Today almost 90 communities have citywide fiber networks.  Another 74 have citywide cable networks.  Scores more have partial fiber networks that serve public institutions—local government, libraries, schools, networks—and could easily be extended.  See here for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s comprehensive map of muni networks in the United States.

More than 3 million people currently live in communities with a publicly owned communications network.

Unlike the FCC, cities that own their telecommunications networks can, and undoubtedly will respond to the will of their citizens by embracing the principle of net neutrality.

Many of today’s muni networks are in cities that a century ago built their own electricity networks after private companies proved unwilling to provide universal, affordable, reliable power. Today over 2000 cities still own the electric means of distribution.   Their price and reliability is comparable or better than those of investor owned utilities and they are, unsurprisingly, far superior in responding to the needs of their communities.

Publicly owned telecommunications networks offer lower prices and higher speeds than Comcast and AT&T and Time Warner.  It is instructive that the first gigabit network was built not by a private company but by Chattanooga, a muni network. Today 40 cities in 13 states have locally owned gigabit networks.

Cities that have built their own networks have found them a singularly successful economic development investment, especially for retaining and attracting the growing numbers of businesses that require high speed, high capacity networks.

Sometimes incumbents have reacted to the prospect of a new competitor by upgrading their networks or lowering their prices.  More often they aggressively lobby legislatures to pass laws prohibiting such competition.  To date 19 states impose significant obstacles to communities owning their broadband networks. Nebraska, Nevada, Texas, Missouri have enacted outright bans.  Virginia prohibits a city from offering tv unless it can cash flow the first year. Utah prohibits public broadband networks from selling any retail services.

To persuade legislators to inhibit or prohibit muni networks telecom lobbyists offer two arguments.  First they contend that government cannot effectively run a telecom network. When it becomes impossible to ignore the growing empirical evidence to the contrary, they shift gears and pitch without shame an entirely contradictory argument:  Cities have an unfair advantage.

That was the argument Time Warner used in North Carolina after the cities of Wilson and Salisbury successfully demonstrated their telecom competences.  It was a bizarre thesis. Time Warner had 15 million subscribers and revenues of $18 billion at the time.  Salisbury had 1000 subscribers and a total municipal budget of $34 million. Nevertheless, North Carolina legislators dutifully voted to effectively prohibit other cities from replicating Salisbury and Wilson’s successful ventures.

The FCC has done nothing to stop states from stripping their citizens of the right to get out from under an increasingly monopolistic broadband delivery system, although they have the authority to do so.

Nor has the FCC acted when giant telecom companies unfairly try to squash their public competitors.  After Monticello, Minnesota built its telecom network the incumbent cable company Charter used its profits from cities where it had an effective monopoly to offer Monticello households a triple play package for $60 a month even while it charged $145 a month for the identical package in the nearby city of Buffalo.  It was a clear case of predatory pricing but the FCC refused to step in.

The FCC decision on net neutrality, the increased concentration of power in the cable industry and the increasingly commonplace successes of muni networks should convince voters to demand that their own cities seize control of their information futures.

About David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and directs its initiative on The Public Good. He is the author of New City States and four other non-fiction books. His essays on public policy are regularly published by On the Commons, Alternet, Common Dreams and the Huffington Post.

Compton, California subjected to massive secret aerial surveillance

By Alan Gilman
30 April 2014

It has been recently revealed that for nine days in early 2012, as part of a test for an air surveillance system, a small Cessna aircraft patrolled the skies over the city of Compton, sending images of its residents’ activities to the local sheriff’s department.

Compton, located in Los Angeles County, is a poor working class community with a population of about 100,000 whose residents are predominately Hispanic and African-American.

The surveillance test was part of a larger effort by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to use aerial surveillance in the sprawling collection of communities it patrols. Around the same time, the sheriff was launching a similar aircraft observation program 80 miles north in the high desert city of Lancaster.

But while Lancaster’s effort was publicized and debated at City Council meetings, the Sheriff’s Department did not notify either Compton residents or their elected officials about the massive air surveillance that was being conducted.

The Compton surveillance program had gone mostly unknown until the Center for Investigative Reporting, an Emeryville-based journalism nonprofit, reported earlier this month that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had used high-powered cameras to watch over Compton.

In explaining why the police failed to notify anyone of this surveillance, the project’s supervisor, LA County Sheriff Sgt. Doug Iketani, candidly admitted, “A lot of people do have a problem with the eye in the sky, the Big Brother, so in order to mitigate any of those kinds of complaints, we basically kept it pretty hush-hush.”

Peter Bibring, an attorney for the ACLU of Southern California, said the lack of public notice and the far-flung nature of the videotaping troubled him. “So the sheriffs were surveying the entire city,” he said, “in the hope of catching very few.”

This surveillance system was designed by Dayton, Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems. Its President, Ross McNutt, indicated he had met with officials from both the sheriff’s Compton station and headquarters to try to sell them on his Hawkeye II system, which he said provided sweeping images equivalent to what would come from 800 video cameras.

McNutt said the company’s Cessna flew at 10,000 feet in a loop about four miles wide, with the cameras storing images from around the city, while beaming them to the sheriff’s Compton office and air headquarters in Long Beach.

According to McNutt, although these cameras cannot read license plates or see faces, they do provide such a wealth of data that police, businesses and even private individuals can use them to help identify people and track their movements. “We literally watched all of Compton during the times that we were flying, so we could zoom in anywhere within the city of Compton and follow cars and see people,” he said.

McNutt is a retired Air Force officer who previously helped design a similar system for the skies above Fallujah, the embattled city in Iraq. He hopes to win over officials in various cities by convincing them that cameras mounted on fixed-wing aircraft can provide far more useful intelligence than police helicopters, and can do so for less money.

According to the Persistent Surveillance Systems website, “PSS supports federal, state, local, and international law enforcement organizations with surveillance of troubled communities and major events. PSS provides Electro optical and IR surveillance systems that allow tracking of vehicles and people up to a 25 square mile area. Dr. McNutt has led the development and deployment of these systems to Philadelphia, Baltimore and Dayton Police Departments, Los Angeles Sheriff Department, the U.S. Army at Ft. Leonard Wood, NAVAIR at Yuma Proving Grounds, and has performed wide-area surveillance operations for the DEA, El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC), Customs and Border Protection, and a number of international customers.”

WSWS reporters spoke to several people in Compton about their thoughts and reactions to the Sheriff’s secret surveillance of the community. Robert Taylor, a 55-year-old disabled worker who is a former resident of Compton, said, “They want to make sure you’re not a criminal and they make you the criminal. I have been stopped by the police. They slam me on the ground—you look like this suspect, you look like that suspect. I guess the whole United States is now suspect to the government’s eyes.”

Keisha and Amber, who live in nearby Watts and regularly shop in Compton, voiced similar concerns. Keisha indicated that the aerial spying made her understand that she has no privacy and does not feel safe. “It’s like someone is watching me all the time. Just to know that they are spying on me is not a good feeling. I’m not comfortable.”

Amber added, “It sounds crazy but we have no privacy. It all makes me very uncomfortable. For someone to spy on us that’s crazy.” As to why this was done in secret, Amber added, “because if everyone knew, there would have been a problem. People would have been out here protesting and doing things about it.”

Michael T., a resident of Compton, also felt his privacy had been invaded. As to why the government was spying on Compton, he felt it was “to give the government more knowledge of what’s going on in the community. They’re trying to get some type of intelligence and knowledge on people in lower class and lower income communities. They want to get more knowledge about the people who live here and how to contain them, control them.”

Last year the Dayton, Ohio Police Department was interested in McNutt’s offer to fly 200 hours over the city for a home-town discount price of $120,000. Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl, a supporter of McNutt’s efforts, proposed inviting the public to visit the operations center to view the technology in action. “I want them to be worried that we’re watching,” Biehl said. “I want them to be worried that they never know when we’re overhead.”

Persistent Surveillance Systems’ proposed contract for Dayton was rejected, however, at least temporarily, as the vote to approve this contract coincided with the recent wave of revelations about the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance operations.

The testing out of various methods to conduct large-scale domestic surveillance in Compton and in cities throughout the country is an integral component of the escalating assault on democratic rights. These latest revelations involving massive aerial spying, when added to the long record of antidemocratic attacks carried out since the declaration of the “war on terror”—from the establishment of the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, the government’s “right” to detain indefinitely US citizens, the Obama administration’s assertion of the “right” to summarily execute anyone, including US citizens, anywhere in the world, along with revelations of the vast NSA spying operations—provide further confirmation of the real and growing threat of an American police state.

Who Really Owns The Internet?


Why are a tiny handful of people making so much money off of material produced for nothing or next-to-nothing by so many others? Why do we make it so easy for Internet moguls to avoid stepping on to what one called “the treadmill of paying for content”? Who owns the Internet?

In her excellent new book The People’s Platform, Astra Taylor thinks through issues of money and power in the age of the Internet with clarity, nuance, and wit. (The book is fun to read, even as it terrifies you about the future of culture and of the economy.) She brings to bear her estimable experience as a documentary filmmaker—she is the director of two engaging films about philosophy, Zizek! And Examined Life—as well as a publisher and musician. For the past several months, she has been on the road performing with the reunion tour of Neutral Milk Hotel (she is married to the band’s lead singer, Jeff Magnum). We spoke over coffee on the Lower East Side during a brief break from her tour.

Can we solve the issues that you talk about without radically reorganizing the economy?

No. (Laughs) Which I think is why I’ve been so active. I’ve been thinking about this in connection with all these writers who are coming up who found each other through Occupy, and why all of us were willing to participate in that uprising despite all the problems and the occasional ridiculousness of it.

But the economy can be revolutionized or the economy can be reformed, and I don’t discount the latter option. That level of social change happens in unpredictable ways. It’s actually harder to think of a revolutionary event that has had a positive outcome, whereas there have been lots of reforms and lots of things that people have done on the edges that have had powerful consequences. Would I like to see an economic revolution? Definitely. But I think there are a lot of ways to insert a kind of friction into the system that can be beneficial.

This book is about economics, and the amazing, probably very American ability to not talk about economics—particularly with technology, which is supposed to be this magical realm, so pure and disruptive and unpredictable that it transcends economic conditions and constraints. The basic idea is that that’s not the case.

To a lot of people this is self-evident, but I was surprised at how outside the mainstream conversation that insight was. When money is brought up, there’s this incredible romanticism, like the Yochai Benkler quote about being motivated by things other than money. But we’re talking about platforms that go to Goldman Sachs to handle their IPOs. Money is here. Wake up!

The people at the top are making money.

In that conversation about creativity and work, there’s so much ire directed at cultural elites. And rightly so. Newspapers suck. They’re not doing the job that they could do for us. Book publishers publish crap. Cultural elites deserve criticism. The punching bags of this Web 2.0 conversation all deserve it. But when we let the economic elites off the hook, that’s feeding into the tradition of right-wing populism. Ultimately, the guys getting rich behind the curtain aren’t being treated as the real enemies.

You mention that when you wrote to people who posted your films online, you either received no response or a very angry response.

One thing I took away from that experience is that it’s almost as though people really believe that the Internet is a library. “I should be able to watch on YouTube a full-length film about philosophy. It’s a library, it should be full of edifying, enlightening things!

My response was that I spent two years making this film, and I want a window—I didn’t ask them to take it down forever, I asked for a grace period of I think two months. Conceptually, we’re not grasping the fact that even though there are private platforms that increase our access to things, first those things have to exist. How have we not thought through how these products are funded?

I empathized with the person on the other end, who wanted these films. I made them because I hoped that people would want them. But I can’t invest another two years of my life in an esoteric and expensive production if all I can do is put it on YouTube and pray that it goes viral.

And even if it goes viral, you might not make any money from it.

Right. The whole model doesn’t work in that context. And I can see both sides. Especially on the copyright issue. As a documentary filmmaker, you’re so dependent on gleaning from the world, gleaning from other people’s creations. You’re not always the author of the words on the screen. I don’t want some closed, locked-down scenario where every utterance is closed and monitored by algorithms who have no ethical imperatives and have no nuance and who don’t understand fair use.

Another person I’ve talked to for this series is Benjamin Kunkel, who said his introduction to Marxist theory is already a bit antiquated because of Jesse Myerson’s Rolling Stone article, which recommends, among other things, a universal basic income. As I was reading your book, I was thinking about how a universal basic income might help.

I actually mention universal income in passing, in the chapter that looks at the enthusiasm for amateurism that was actually a bit more prominent a few years ago, when I started writing. “We finally have a platform that allows non-professionals to participate!There were things in that conversation that were so reminiscent of utopian predictions from centuries past about how machines would free us to live the life of a poet. “We’ll only work four hours a day.Why didn’t those visions come to pass? Because those machines were not harnessed by the people. They were harnessed by the ruling elite.

I was struck by how ours is a diminished utopianism. It wasn’t that we would use these machines to free us from labor; it was that now in our stolen minutes after work we can go online and be on social media. How did it come to this, that’s that all we can hope for? And the answer is in how the economy has been reshaped by neoliberalism or whatever you want to call it over the last few decades.

The idea of labor-saving devices has been around. Oscar Wilde, Keynes. But it was pretty common in the 1960s, when there was a robust social safety net. So I think you’re exactly right, that we need something in the public-policy and social sphere, not the technological sphere, to address these issues.

It’s great that people are talking about a universal income, at least in our little tiny circles. You step outside bubble of the young intellectual left of New York, and people will say: What the fuck are you talking about?

We think this idea is getting traction, but it’s because we all follow each other online and we’re all reading the same magazines. Not everyone is reading Kathi Weeks or Ben Kunkel in their free time. I don’t agree with Ben that his book is out of date because of that one article in Rolling Stone. We need to keep harping on these basic concepts.

I think it’s a ripe time for it, considering recent research into the employment prospects for millenials. College indebtedness is insane right now. That’s why I got involved with StrikeDebt. When the economy is forcing you to separate the romantic idea of what you consider your calling from what you have to do for money since there are no fucking jobs that have anything to do with your degree, you start to think that maybe a universal income might make a lot of sense.

If the economy won’t support you to do what you love for a living, you’re already halfway there.

Can you talk about Occupy and how you got involved?

I was working on this book before Occupy, and the tech realm was where a lot of our political hopes were being invested. If you think back, there wasn’t a vibrant protest movement in the US. Instead, there was this idea of democracy through social media, and technologically-enabled protests abroad. That might account a bit for why I gravitated towards this subject.

Then Occupy happened. If anything, it distracted me from The People’s Platform. I wound up putting out five issues of the Occupy Gazette with n+1. Then I got roped into, or rather I roped myself into, this offshoot of Occupy called StrikeDebt that has been doing the Rolling Jubilee campaign.

But my work with the Occupy campaign suffused my analysis more and more. Calling attention to the economic elite fits very well into Occupy’s idea of the ninety-nine percent and the one percent. The amount of value being hoarded by these companies is just mind-boggling.

So these projects did go in tandem. Both of them are thinking about power today. In this book, I was trying to think through how power operates in the technological sphere generally, but particularly in relationship to media. So no longer are you just watching what’s been chosen for you on television. Now you’re supposed to be the agent of your own destiny, clicking around. But there’s still power; there’s still money.

People will say, “How can you criticize these technological tools that helped people overthrow dictators?We constantly use this framework of the people against the authoritarian dictator. There was a lot of buzz about how social media empowered the protests in the Middle East which mostly turned out to be false. But what about the US? There’s no dictator. There’s a far more complicated power dynamic. The challenge of our generation is how you build economic association and aggregate economic power when you’re not going to be doing conventional workplace organizing, because there are no jobs, let alone stable, long-term jobs.

So, this is depressing. Could you talk about solutions?

The solutions aren’t that radical: The library model that we project on to the Internet but that doesn’t quite fit—we can invent something analogous to it. There are lots of cool things we could be doing. But we’re locked into this model that’s really stupid and inefficient: the advertising model. That’s the most ridiculous way to create these services and platforms. The advertising model is commonsensical because it’s common, but it’s not sensical.

What would socialized social media—and non-social media—look like?

Ben Kunkel has an essay where he talks a bit about this. But first, we have to get away from the idea that the government is the bad guy. One thing that we’ve learned in the wake of the NSA scandals is that the public and private sectors are really intertwined; government surveillance piggybacks off of corporate surveillance. It might be less technological and more about funding things for their own sake. If you look at countries with robust cultural policies, under the broadcast model a lot of them instate quotas. There would be a lot of protectionist regulations, and they would invest in their own work.

Quotas are complicated, obviously. But you can look to the model of public broadcasting. Public broadcasting wasn’t a government propaganda machine. Liberals and conservatives both worry that this would create something bland. But when public broadcasting came under fire, it was usually for being too edgy and provocative. There are mechanisms that you can introduce to prevent whatever visions of sad iron-curtain art you have in your head.

One thing that comes up a lot in some liberal critiques of Edward Snowden is that he might be a libertarian.

I don’t know Snowden, so I can’t comment on him. But I think that a lot of us are libertarians. Libertarianism is the default ideology of our day because there’s something deeply appealing about the idea of free agents—people on their own in charge of their own destinies. That has to do with the retreat of institutions from our lives, which results in an inability to imagine a positive role for them to play. We’re still dependent on institutions; we just don’t recognize it or give them much credit.

This ubiquitous libertarianism, particularly in tech circles, was a major target of my book. All of these things you want these tools to bring about—an egalitarian sphere, a sphere where the best could rise to the top, one that is not dominated by old Goliaths—within the libertarian framework, you’ll never get there. You have to have a more productive economic critique.

But I also think that if you’re on the left, you need to recognize what’s appealing about libertarianism. It’s the emphasis on freedom. We need to articulate a left politics that has freedom at its center. We can’t be afraid of freedom or individuality, and we need to challenge the idea that equality and freedom are somehow contradictions.

At the same time, even on the radical left, there’s a knee-jerk suspicion of institutions. When we criticize institutions that serve as buffers or bastions against market forces, the right wins out more. It’s a complicated thing.

When I defend institutions in this book, I knew I might provoke my more radical friends. The position that everything is corrupt—journalism is corrupt, educational institutions are corrupt, publishers are corrupt—sounds great. And on some level it’s true. They’ve disappointed us. But we need more and better—more robust, more accountable—institutions. So I tried to move out of the position of just criticizing those arrangements and enumerating all their flaws and all the ways they’ve failed us. What happens when we’ve burned all these institutions to the ground and it’s just us and Google?

One of my favorite aspects of your book is your emphasis on the physical aspects of the Internet. It reminded me of the scene in Examined Life where Zizek is standing on the garbage heap, talking about how material stuff disappears.

That image we have of the Internet as weightless—it’s so high-tech it doesn’t really exist!—is part of why we misunderstand it. There are some people doing good work around this, people like Andrew Blum, who wrote the book Tubes, asking what the Internet is. There’s infrastructure. It’s immense, and it’s of great consequence, especially as more and more of our lives move online. The materiality is really important to keep in mind.

We’re moving to a place where we have a better of grasp of this. People are finally realizing that the online and the offline are not separate realms. It’s not really like I have my online life where I’m pretending to be a 65-year-old man in a chat room, and then I’m Astra at the coffee shop. Those identities are as complicated and as coherent as any human identity has ever been. That can extend towards thinking about objects.

The other night I was re-reading Vance Packard’s The Waste Makers—the sort of book that makes you feel like you’re just reheated whatever, and that this person did it so much better the first time around. He outlines planned obsolescence, stuff made to break. It’s so relevant to our gadgets, our technology. He wrote it in 1960, at that moment where the economy had been saturated, so everybody had their fridge and their car. So how do you keep GDP going up? It’s actually patriotic to make things that break.

You talk about Steve Jobs in that context.

Steve Jobs is the ultimate incarnation of that plan. You have to have a new iPod every year. But he presented himself as this artist-craftsman who would never sacrifice quality. That’s such a lie.

You talk about how both sides of the Internet debate, if you will, see a radical break with the past, whereas you see more continuity.

I think that that’s crucial to understanding where we’re at. This standard assumption that there would be a massive transformation blocked us from seeing the obvious outcomes and set us back in terms of having a grasp on our current condition. If we had gone into it with a bit more realism, more respect for the power of the market, less faith in technology’s ability to transcend it, we’d be better off.

Could you say more about respect for the power of the market?

You don’t want to be too deterministic, I suppose, but the market drives the development of these tools. Especially once you’ve gone public and you’re beholden to your shareholders.

There’s confusion because we’ve been here before with the first tech boom. One thing that got me thinking about this—and that confused me—was that I came to New York right at the tail end of that. I didn’t work for a startup or anything like that, but I had friends who did, friends who were fired. I followed what was happening in the Bay Area, they lost hundreds of thousands of jobs. You think: okay, we learned from that. We learned that because of the way the market sought investments, they propped up some really stupid ideas, there was a bubble, and it burst. What’s amazing to me is that fifteen years later, the same commentators are suddenly back, talking about social media, Web 2.0, and making proclamations about how the culture will evolve. You were wrong then, partially because you ignored the financial aspect of what was going on, and here you are again, ignoring the money. Give the market its due.

Do you have advice for what people—people like me—who write or produce other work for the Internet can do about this situation?

I’m encouraged by all these little magazines that have started in the last few years. Building institutions, even if they’re small, is a very powerful thing, so that we’re less isolated. When you’re isolated, you’re forced into the logic of building our own brand. If you build something together, you’re more able to focus on endeavors that don’t immediately feed into that. That’s what an institution can buy you—the space to focus on other things.

What would help creators more than anything else in this country are things that would help other workers: Real public health care, real social provisions. Artists are people like everybody else; we need the same things as our barista.

I quote John Lennon: “You think you’re so clever and classless and free. One thing we need is an end to artist exceptionalism. When we can see our connection to other precarious people in the economy, that’s when interesting things could happen. When we justify our position with our own specialness…

You talk about how Steve Jobs would tell his employees that they were artists.

Right. How could you ask to be properly compensated, don’t you see that you’re supposed to be an artist? Grad students were given that advice, too.

That’s where this ties in to Miya Tokumitsu’s essay on the problems with the concept of “Do What You Love.”

Exactly. Now, precarity shouldn’t be a consequence of being an artist. Everyone should have more security. But it’s more and more the condition of our time. One thing I say in passing is that the ethos of the artist—someone who is willing to work around the clock with no security, and who will keep on working after punching out the clock—that attitude is more and more demanded of everyone in the economy. Maybe artists can be at the vanguard of saying no to that. But yes, there would have to be a psychological shift where people would have to accept being less special.

David Burr Gerrard’s debut novel, Short Century, has just been released by Rare Bird Books. He can be followed on Twitter. The interview has been condensed and edited.


The Demonization of Hamas


What Destruction of Israel?



When, in response to the threat of potential Palestinian reconciliation and unity, the Israeli government suspended “negotiations” with the Palestine Liberation Organization on April 24 (five days before they were due to terminate in any event), Prime Minister Netanyahu’s office issued a statement asserting: “Instead of choosing peace, Abu Mazen formed an alliance with a murderous terrorist organization that calls for the destruction of Israel.”

In a series of related media appearances, Mr. Netanyahu hammered repeatedly on the “destruction of Israel” theme as a way of blaming Palestine for the predictable failure of the latest round of the seemingly perpetual “peace process”.

The extreme subjectivity of the epithet “terrorist” has been highlighted by two recent absurdities – the Egyptian military regime’s labeling of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has won all Egyptian elections since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, as a “terrorist” organization and the labeling by the de facto Ukrainian authorities, who came to power through illegally occupying government buildings in Kiev, of those opposing them by illegally occupying government buildings in eastern Ukraine as “terrorists”. In both cases, those who have overthrown democratically elected governments are labeling those who object to their coups as “terrorists”.

It is increasingly understood that the word “terrorist”, which has no agreed definition, is so subjective as to be devoid of any inherent meaning and that it is commonly abused by governments and others who apply it to whomever or whatever they hate in the hope of demonizing their adversaries, thereby discouraging and avoiding rational thought and discussion and, frequently, excusing their own illegal and immoral behavior.

Mr. Netanyahu’s assertion that Hamas “calls for the destruction of Israel” requires rational analysis as well.

He is not the only guilty party in this regard. The mainstream media in the West habitually attaches the phrase “pledged to the destruction of Israel” to each first mention of Hamas, almost as though it were part of Hamas’s name.

In the real world, what does the “destruction of Israel” actually mean? The land? The people? The ethno-religious-supremacist regime?

There can be no doubt that virtually all Palestinians – and probably still a significant number of Native Americans – wish that foreign colonists had never arrived in their homelands to ethnically cleanse them and take away their land and that some may even lay awake at night dreaming that they might, somehow, be able to turn back the clock or reverse history.

However, in the real world, Hamas is not remotely close to being in a position to cause Israel’s territory to sink beneath the Mediterranean or to wipe out its population or even to compel the Israeli regime to transform itself into a fully democratic state pledged to equal rights and dignity for all who live there. It is presumably the latter threat – the dreaded “bi-national state” – that Mr. Netanyahu has in mind when he speaks of the “destruction of Israel”.

For propaganda purposes, “destruction” sounds much less reasonable and desirable than “democracy” even when one is speaking about the same thing.

In the real world, Hamas has long made clear, notwithstanding its view that continuing negotiations within the framework of the American-monopolized “peace process” is pointless and a waste of time, that it does not object to the PLO’s trying to reach a two-state agreement with Israel; provided only that, to be accepted and respected by Hamas, any agreement reached would need to be submitted to and approved by the Palestinian people in a referendum.

In the real world, the Hamas vision (like the Fatah vision) of peaceful coexistence in Israel/Palestine is much closer to the “international consensus” on what a permanent peace should look like, as well as to international law and relevant UN resolutions, than the Israeli vision – to the extent that one can even discern the Israeli vision, since no Israeli government has ever seen fit to publicly reveal what its vision, if any exists beyond beyond maintaining and managing the status quo indefinitely, actually looks like.

As the Fatah and Hamas visions have converged in recent years, the principal divergence has become Hamas’s insistence (entirely consistent with international law and relevant UN resolutions) that Israel must withdraw from the entire territory of the State of Palestine, which is defined in the UN General Assembly resolution of November 29, 2012, recognizing Palestine’s state status as “the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967” (including, significantly, the definite article “the” missing from “withdraw from territories” in the arguably ambiguous UN Security Council Resolution 242), in contrast to Fatah’s more flexible willingness to consider agreed land swaps equal in size and value.

After winning the last Palestinian elections and after seven years of responsibility for governing Gaza under exceptionally difficult circumstances, Hamas has become a relatively “moderate” establishment party, struggling to rein in more radical groups and prevent them from firing artisanal rockets into southern Israel, a counterproductive symbolic gesture which Israeli governments publicly condemn but secretly welcome (and often seek to incite in response to their own more lethal violence) as evidence of Palestinian belligerence justifying their own intransigence.

Mr. Netanyahu’s “destruction of Israel” mantra should not be taken seriously, either by Western governments or by any thinking person. It is long overdue for the Western mainstream media to cease recycling mindless – and genuinely destructive – propaganda and to adapt their reporting to reality, and it is long overdue for Western governments to cease demonizing Hamas as an excuse for doing nothing constructive to end a brutal occupation which has now endured for almost 47 years.

John V. Whitbeck is an international lawyer who has advised the Palestinian negotiating team in negotiations with Israel.





US-backed Egyptian regime sentences 683 more to die


29 April 2014

A drumhead court in Egypt Monday handed down death sentences to 683 defendants—alleged members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB)—after a five-minute trial in which the judge refused to allow a word uttered or a shred of evidence submitted in defense of the condemned men, most of whom were not even present for the proceeding.

The mass trial and its pre-ordained verdict and sentence follow a similar judicial mockery last month in which 529 people were sentenced to die by the same judge, Saed Youssef. In a separate ruling Monday, Youssef upheld 37 of those death sentences while commuting the remainder to life prison terms.

Outside the heavily guarded courthouse in Minya, about 150 miles south of Cairo, relatives of the accused wept and shouted denunciations of the ruling junta and its de facto leader, former Mubarak-era military intelligence chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

The charges against over 1,200 defendants—all facing either the gallows or a life in Egypt’s notoriously brutal prisons—stem from the death of a single policeman during protests organized by the Muslim Brotherhood against the military coup that ousted Egypt’s elected president, MB member Mohamed Mursi. During the same period, Egyptian security forces massacred as many as 2,000 protesters, including 1,000 of them in a single day.

As the judicial travesty in Minya makes abundantly clear, that reign of terror has only continued and become more firmly institutionalized under Sisi, who stepped down recently to become a candidate in what will inevitably be rigged elections for president.

In addition to the over 2,000 killed by Sisi’s junta, another 21,000 have been imprisoned. Thousands more have disappeared into a network of “black sites,” secret detention and torture centers.

The target of this vast machine of repression is not only the Muslim Brotherhood, but also protesters involved in the demonstrations that led to the downfall of former dictator Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Three of them—Ahmed Maher and Mohammed Adel, leaders of the April 6 Youth Movement, which has now been outlawed on trumped-up charges of espionage and maligning the state, and Ahmed Douma—have been sentenced to three years of hard labor and $7,000 in fines for violating a decree outlawing all unauthorized protests. They have reported suffering continuous beatings by their jailers.

This wholesale and savage repression is aimed at the Egyptian working class, the social force that was the main actor, through its mass strikes and protests, in the toppling of the Mubarak regime. These strikes have continued, bringing out textile, steel, public transport, postal and port workers, including on the strategic Suez Canal. Under conditions in which the ruling junta is preparing to enact drastic IMF-dictated austerity measures, including the scrapping of subsidies on bread, electricity and gas, it is desperate to intimidate Egyptian workers with state violence.

The sheer scale of Egypt’s mass trials and mass death sentences is unrivaled in recent history, recalling the kind of atrocities carried out under the Nazis. With its weasel words and its concrete deeds, Washington stands exposed as the direct accomplice in this crime, with President Barack Obama all but soaping the hangman’s noose.

In a statement dripping with cynicism, the White House Monday allowed that Obama was “deeply troubled” by the mass death sentences in Egypt.

“While judicial independence is a vital part of democracy, this verdict cannot be reconciled with Egypt’s obligations under international human rights law,” the White House statement read. It appealed to Sisi and his fellow military rulers to “take a stand against this illogical action.”

Whom do they think they’re kidding? The niceties of “judicial independence” are hardly an issue in Egypt. The hanging judge Youssef—popularly known as “the butcher”—was installed in a special court created by the junta to do precisely what he is doing. Moreover, the draconian sentences have a very clear logic: they are an act of state terror designed to intimidate the Egyptian masses.

The statement continued: “Since the January 25 Revolution, the Egyptian people have aspired to be represented by a government that rules justly, respects their dignity, and provides economic opportunities. The United States supports these aspirations and wants Egypt’s transition to succeed.”

Lies piled on top of lies. The reality is that the Obama administration did everything it could to keep its “stalwart ally” Mubarak in power and smash the January 25 Revolution, sending the Egyptian dictator the ammunition to do it.

Having failed, it sought to secure a transfer of power to Mubarak’s intelligence chief and CIA “asset” Omar Suleiman. Failing that, it backed the assumption of power by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. After briefly trying to utilize the right-wing Muslim Brotherhood government of Mursi to secure its interests in Egypt and the region, it quietly backed the military coup that overthrew him last July, refusing to call the coup a coup so that it could legally continue pouring in military aid.

The talk about wanting “Egypt’s transition to succeed” cannot be topped for sheer cynicism. The “transition,” aided and abetted by Washington, has proven to be to a dictatorship bloodier and more repressive than even the hated US-backed Mubarak.

It is hardly a coincidence that Monday’s mass death sentence comes only days after Washington approved the provision of 10 Apache attack helicopters on top of some $650 million in military aid already approved for the Egyptian junta this fiscal year. This is half of what the administration wanted to supply to the country’s repressive forces, the other half being held up by laws restricting aid to regimes brought to power through military coups.

The helicopter deal was correctly interpreted by the Egyptian junta as a green light to escalate its brutal crackdown.

Nothing could expose more nakedly the hypocritical fraud of the Obama administration’s “human rights” foreign policy. For the past several months, it has postured as the champion of democracy and human rights in Ukraine. It used what was, by comparison with Egypt, a relative handful of killings—whose perpetrator remains a matter of debate—to justify a fascist-led coup and a policy of continuous anti-Russian provocation that threatens to push the world into a nuclear third world war.

Similarly in Venezuela, the death of 41 people in violent demonstrations—the cause of which are again disputed—led to Secretary of State John Kerry denouncing the government for waging a “terror campaign against its own citizens.” No such terror was perceived in the massacres of thousands last August in the streets of Cairo or in the mass death sentences handed down over the past two months.

Egypt exposes the real face of US imperialist policy, which employs bloody state violence and militarism to pursue the interests of America’s financial and corporate ruling strata and suppress the social struggles and democratic aspirations of working people all over the globe.

Bill Van Auken

CNN is its own disaster

How a perversely immature news channel blew its opportunity

Fox News and MSNBC have given the network an open field in which to run. This is what it’s done instead


CNN is its own disaster: How a perversely immature news channel blew its opportunity

A month after its launch, on June 29, 1980, the New York Times reviewed Ted Turner’s embryonic cable channel. It was a fairly positive write-up, in which the critic presciently identified the outfit’s bread and butter. “It is evident so far that disasters are perhaps the best news the network can hope for,” he wrote. “Volcanoes, airplane crashes and riots are ideally suited to CNN’s gritty, live coverage.” For CNN, he continued, “disasters offer a justifiable means of filling time.”

Nearly 34 years later, very little has changed.

It’s hardly news anymore that CNN has gone all in on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which vanished on March 8. Jon Stewart succinctly summed up the coverage as “occasionally pointing at shit and wondering what it is.” It ought to be said that the disappearance of the plane, while tragic, is not of great geopolitical or economic significance. Should the plane be found, Malaysia will not invade Iraq or Afghanistan. The country will simply grieve. 

And yet here we are, more than six weeks later — during which time very little progress has been made on the search — and CNN’s home page appears stuck in amber:  

Perhaps in preparation for the day Flight 370 is found — and ceases to be of interest — CNN has moved on to a fresher, equally horrific hobbyhorse, the capsized South Korean ferry. (The network seems to have a thing for exploiting Asian fatalities for fun and profit.) The incident has given CNN enough material for innumerable stories, including a segment asking: Was South Korean “culture” to blame for the demise of the passengers? (Spoiler: It was not.) A few days later, in what I hope is the nadir of this coverage, an anchor named Rosa Flores chose to fill airtime by giving viewers a horrifically inadequate approximation of what it would be like to be trapped in a sea vessel and drown. “This is a full-blown ship simulator!” squealed Rosa Flores. 

The great perversity is that CNN, with revenue of about $1 billion last year and profits of approximately $200 million, could be an effective purveyor of news. It’s not as if there is no precedent for a cable channel doing just that. Al Jazeera America, for example, has been exceptional. Outside of maybe the Guardian, no news organization in the world has done a better job of keeping viewers abreast of what’s going on. (Alas, AJAM has not so far been a commercially successful venture.) And CNN should, in theory, have an open field in which to run. Fox, as is often said, is the public relations arm of the Republican Party (or, as Gabriel Sherman has magnanimously put it, “a political machine that employs journalists”) and MSNBC is largely devoted to commentary. Meanwhile, CNN maintains “by far the largest bureau system among the three major news channels.”

What has CNN done with this opportunity? It has chosen to treat the second word in its name as vestigial. “The goal for the next six months,” Jeff Zucker announced late last year, “is that we need more shows and less newscasts.” Zucker helped this along by firing 40 reporters in January. That he was rumored to be wooing Jay Leno was, while sad, not surprising. 

This strategy has been grotesquely effective. The coverage of Flight 370 — to the exclusion of pretty much all else — has been good for ratings, good for the bottom line and a snug fit within the new editorial framework. As a CNN executive bragged to the Times, “It is a tremendous story that is completely in our wheelhouse.” That this coverage is in CNN’s wheelhouse is, I’m sure, a great comfort to the families of the dead passengers. 

* * * 

A review of CNN’s history shows that it never really matured. Despite the occasional bright spots — the first Gulf War, for example, when the network remained in Baghdad, against the wishes of President Bush — Turner’s baby never really outgrew that diet of “volcanoes, airplane crashes and riots.” It is fitting that the seminal, early events in CNN’s history were 18-month-old Jessica McClure’s fall down a well in Midland, Texas, and the Challenger disaster.

So, not much, save for perhaps the locations and ethnicities of the victims, has changed. This stasis strikes me as an abdication of responsibility. The first rule of any news organization should be to leave the reader, listener or viewer smarter and better informed than you found them. CNN, with all its resources, does not meet even this basic standard. And, by all accounts, they’re just fine with that. Viewers should not be.