Threats to Freedom: Facebook’s Atlantic Council censors are more interested in tanks than thinking

While the ubiquitous presence of Atlantic Council lobbyists across the information space already imperilled fair discourse, Facebook’s May move empowered it to endanger freedom of expression. And founder Mark Zuckerberg’s reference to an information  “arms race” in a Washington Post op-ed last weekend exposes the grim reality behind the move.

That said, the spin has been impressive. Headlines such as “US think tank’s tiny lab helps Facebook battle fake social media (Reuters)” and “Facebook partners with Atlantic Council to improve election security (The Hill)“. 

But the truth is very different. The Atlantic Council is effectively NATO’s propaganda wing. And it’s funded by arms manufacturers, various branches of the US military, and Middle Eastern autocratic regimes, among others, as it promotes the alliance’s agenda – which was best described by its first secretary-general, Hastings Ismay, as  “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

Let’s be clear. If people don’t believe in the “Russian threat,” NATO is essentially rendered useless. Promoting tensions with Europe’s largest country is an existential matter for The Atlantic Council. And now Facebook has effectively placed the lobby group in charge of political censorship on its platform. This presents chilling dangers to free speech and should worry anybody who believes in fairness and balance in the media. Especially after Zuckerberg admitted in the Washington Post piece how his company is being used by US authorities to control information and combat “foreign actors.” The tech boss also boasted that “we’ve worked with law enforcement to take down accounts in Russia.”

Roll of Horror

Founded in 1961, with the mission of “encouraging the continuation of cooperation between North America and Europe that began after the Second World War,” the Atlantic Council slowly evolved from being a sort of forum for socialising to a pseudo-academic lobby group. While it professes to be a “think tank,” its lack of genuine debate and tolerance for dissent means in practice this description isn’t accurate in the classical sense of the term, as the Atlantic Council is clearly more interested in creating a market for tanks than thinking.

Funding comes from dozens of foreign governments and also individual vested interests. They include arms makers Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Boeing, plus wealthy private backers such as Ukraine’s Viktor Pinchuk and Saudi billionaire Bahaa Hariri. State institutions who plough in funds vary from the National Endowment for Democracy to the British Foreign Office and the US Army itself.

The money is mainly used to hire lobbyists, who are known as “fellows.” And some of them are occasionally outsourced to cutouts like the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) – the department which works with Facebook.

Some of the Atlantic Council’s hires have significant media profiles. For instance, Dmitri  Alperovitch (of DNC hack fame), Anders Aslund (a radical economist who has predicted Russia’s collapse twice, and been wrong both times), Michael Carpenter (Joe Biden’s, usually misinformed, Russia-baiting sidekick), Borzou Daragahi (Middle East correspondent of Buzzfeed), Maxim Eristavi (a pro-American Ukrainian activist), Evelyn Farkas (a rabidly anti-Russian Obama adviser), and Michael Weiss (a CNN ‘Russia analyst’ who has never been to Russia and can’t speak Russian). The DFR Lab is comprised of 11, almost uniformly young, tech enthusiasts from the US and Eastern Europe and previously worked to support NATO narratives in Ukraine and Syria.

Some are long-time Atlantic Council bodies, and others are some fresh recruits. The main men are Eliot Higgins, the founder of Bellingcat, which specialises in
media-friendly investigations of wars from the perspective which suits British and American interests, Aric Toler (a former private intelligence specialist who spent time in Russia on State Department-funded study programmes) and Ben Nimmo, a one-time NATO press officer.

Other censors include ex-Obama administration and NATO staff, with the managing editor, Graham Brookie, having previously worked at the US National Security Council. There is nobody listed as an employee who could be considered, in any way, neutral on Russia. This betrays the unit’s confidence in how the mainstream media won’t scrutinise them, as normally you’d expect at least one token dissenter.

Different Times

In normal circumstances, Facebook’s engagement of the Atlantic Council to decide standards of permissible information would seem bizarre. But, in the current US climate, Zuckerberg’s motivations are quite obvious. Betrayed by the speed with which he engaged the pressure group shortly after his testimony to Congress on “election meddling” was widely derided by the establishment last Spring. And how better to avoid a repeat, and turn down the heat, than to engage the ultimate DC insider institution?

After all, an organisation that has helped to rehabilitate George W. Bush can probably rescue any reputation in the American capital.

Some of the stuff the Atlantic Council itself gets away with serves to show its power over the mainstream media. For instance, when Nimmo himself earlier this year ludicrously insisted grammar mistakes were “proof” that social media users critical of NATO were paid Kremlin trolls, and later when he smeared a British man by labelling him a Russian bot, the popular press didn’t bother to question whether he was a fit and proper person for Facebook to engage as a censor. Even after the victim appeared on Sky News to prove he was a real person. Thus, what should have been a warning of the dangers of DFR Lab was essentially ignored.

At the time, after Nimmo, instead of apologising, wroteinteresting to see the real face of Ian56789, rather than the David Gandy one, at last (referring to his Twitter avatar). Not a troll factory account. Rather, a pro-Kremlin troll(definition based on [sic] use of someone else’s picture, systematic use of Kremlin narratives, and repetitive abusive behaviour),”

WikiLeaks challenged the lobbyist. “You literally produced, with money from weapons companies and dictatorships, a fake news story that spread all over the world, defaming a very British retiree, who wants to reduce arms company profits, as a Kremlin bot,” its editors wrote. “So who’s the paid troll?”.

Again, despite WikiLeaks’ prominence, no mainstream outlets connected the dots.

Higgins and Nimmo also focused on attempting to discredit the Twitter user ‘Partisan Girl’ (real name Maram Susli). Susli herself insisted an associate of Higgins had even written to her university accusing of her of plotting to make Sarin gas, and she provided evidence to back up her claims.

Susli was also insulted by Atlantic Council “fellow” Michael Weiss. After a group of pro-Syrian jihadist agitators accused her of having had cosmetic surgery, she responded with a photo of herself as a child to prove them wrong. Weiss interjected by asserting how the young Maram looked like a prostitute, writingso, your parents raised you as a streetwalker? Honey, no wonder you are pro-Assad.”.

The CNN contributor seems to have a habit of commenting on women’s physical attributes. A few months earlier, well-known Lebanese American journalist Rania Khalek accused Weiss of promoting a smear about her appearance on Twitter, falsely claiming she used funds donated to her journalistic work to get a nose job. The fact he has received no blowback, in this ‘MeToo’ era, again speaks volumes.

Deflecting Dunces

Meanwhile, Higgins himself has been shy about taking on real experts. In Spring, he refused to debate Theodore Postol, Professor Emeritus of Science, Technology, and International Security at MIT, instead labelling him “an idiot.” Which led to a strange situation where a man with no training in science, whose background is in finance and administration, was smearing a skilled specialist from one of the world’s best universities. Perhaps this is the confidence a man gains by working for NATO’s propaganda adjunct.

His colleague, Weiss, also has a habit of insulting academics with genuine bona fides, running a long campaign of character assassination against Stephen Cohen. Cohen is professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University.

Of course, to advance the goals of its paymasters,  the Atlantic Council also needs to shape the media narrative, and influence journalists, which is presumably why it has engaged the likes of CNN Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto and Buzzfeed Foreign Editor Miriam Elder to moderate panels, in what amount to very profound conflicts of interests.

Nevertheless, while plenty of its press outreach is smooth, sometimes it can appear clumsy and amateurish. Take this tweet from lobbyist Agnia Grigas, for instance. Firstly, she misrepresents Vladimir Putin’s stated goal of making Russia a top five economy by using raw GDP, where the country currently scores badly due to weak exchange rates. In reality, economic experts regard purchasing power parity as a fairer snapshot of fiscal heft and by this measure, Russia was only $163 billion behind fifth-place Germany last year ($4,007.831 billion v $4,170.790 billion, IMF)so it doesn’t have much catching up to do. What Grigas does next with her disinformation is instructive. Because  she tags the Financial Times’ news editor, Peter Spiegel, on the tweet alongside other Atlantic Council lobbyists . Which blurs the lines between supposedly independent media and propaganda, dressed up as scholarship.

Tail Wags Dog

Anyway, now that you’ve seen the nature of these lobbyists, let’s circle back to the DFR Lab/Facebook link up, and the extraordinary power the social media giant has handed to this gang. Only last month, the same Reuters report quoted at the outset dropped this nugget.

“Facebook is using the group to enhance its investigations of foreign interference. Last week, the company said it took down 32 suspicious pages and accounts that purported to be run by leftists and minority activists. While some U.S. officials said they were likely the work of Russian agents, Facebook said it did not know for sure.”

Read the last line again. “Facebook said it did not know for sure.” But the accounts were removed anyway. Presumably, at the Atlantic Council’s behest.

Here we see the fallout of Mark Zuckerberg’s knee-jerk reaction to pressure from congressional leaders and prominent media talking heads. Instead of asserting his independence, the Facebook founder buckled. And the stakes are impossibly high. Put plainly, this amounts to a merger of the US national security state and Silicon Valley. With implications far beyond American shores.

Bryan MacDonald for RT

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