Battle Against ‘Fake News’ Marginalizes Progressive Media Outlets
Interview with Julianne Tveten, journalist, conducted by Scott Harris
As congressional committees and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation seeks information and evidence on charges that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign had colluded with Russian government operatives to win the White House, independent journalism has emerged as an unlikely victim of the probe.
An explosion of news stories highlighting charges that Russia sponsored an operation to plant “fake news” in U.S. social media to boost Trump during the 2016 election campaign, has prompted online giants Google and Facebook to block access to what they label as “offensive” news websites. Unfortunately, dozens of progressive, left and radical political websites have been blocked in this process, and have since reported dramatic declines in their online traffic, the lifeblood of online news organizations.
This marginalization of left media resulted in large part from major changes made to Google’s search engine algorithm, designed the company says, to combat fake news. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Julianne Tveten, who writes about the intersection of the technology industry and socioeconomic topics. Here, she discusses important issues examined in her recent article titled, “How the ‘Fake News’ Scare is Marginalizing the Left,” which reveals how unaccountable tech companies are defining the parameters of acceptable discourse.
JULIANNE TVETEN: The kind of premise of what I wrote is that there’s this kind of confluence of the “fake news” narrative and of the “Russiagate” narrative. And the idea is that various kinds of mainstream sources – CNN, The Washington Post, The New York Times, etc. – have been really emphasizing the influence of Russia on the election, obviously, and in the process of kind of this narrative of Russia tampering with United States democracy, various technology companies have been placed at the center. So Facebook, Google, Twitter – which all have tremendous capacity to disseminate information and to disseminate news stories – and so, what’s been going on recently is that pundits and mainstream media sources are claiming that Russia has been tampering with Facebook and with Twitter. Russia agents have placed ads on Facebook, and have created accounts on Twitter have manipulated American citizens and the American voting citizenry. So that’s kind of the latest development in this narrative.
But what I found was that the idea of “fake news” is very nebulous. Since Google and Facebook have been responding to these critiques of their complicity in disseminating “fake news,” left-leaning sites have suffered. Google has updated its algorithms in order to kind of “control” for the spread of “fake news” and in the process, sites like Alternet and the World Socialist website and Democracy Now! and several others have seen their search traffic decline.
And so, that’s kind of the latest stirring in the ongoing “fake new-Russia gate” narrative.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Julianne, can you explain a little bit more about the algorithm changes that we’ve seen at Facebook, and how that has affected – and you can mention some of the statistics of the reduced readership that some of these important progressive sites have experienced as a result of that algorithm change.
JULIANNE TVETEN: That’s actually more closely related to Google. In April, Google instituted several algorithmic in response specifically to accusations that it had helped to spread misinformation and “fake news.” And as a result of that, various sites saw their search traffic decline. So the World Socialist reported that it had seen a 67 percent in traffic between April and July. So right after the algorithms were changed, a total decrease of 85 percent – sites like Alternet, Democracy Now! Commondreams, Global Research and Truthout also saw pretty significant declines in their search traffic ranging from 49 to 71 percent. And Alternet claimed to have lost an average of 1.2 million of its 2.7 million unique visitors that it received from search traffic.
And of course, Google has a search monopoly and generates the majority of search traffic for most websites. So it’s pretty easily attributable a Google searches. So it’s quite indicative of the power that Google can have on pretty much any website it wants, let alone with a certain political identity.
BETWEEN THE LINES: These progressive media outlets – small, not very powerful – they are quite alarmed at what’s going on here in the real reduction of their readership. What are they doing to push back? Are they capable of putting any counter-pressure here to get back on some kind of even playing field in social media without being hobbled by these counterfeit news operations?
JULIANNE TVETEN: Right. It’s difficult for them because they’re really not in positions of power, certainly not compared to the monopolistic forces – but provide their search ranking. Or prevent them to users on a large scale. I don’t know exactly what the strategy is, but I think this speaks much more to a very, very large-scale problem, which is monopoly capitalism. The fact that there are these private companies that their own political motivations what place such a large role in how visible these sites can be. Perhaps some of these sites can take legal action; I think they’re more apt to organize in a more grassroots fashion. Again, I’m not entire sure – I wish I knew more about that. But I do think this should be used as an opportunity to really examine the effects of monopoly capitalism and of giving such a small concentration of companies such immense power when so much is at stake.
Dramatic Increase in Western U.S. Wildfires Linked to Climate Change
Interview with Leroy Westerling, co-director of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at the University of California, conducted by Scott Harris
The early October wildfires that swept six northern California counties, including Napa, Lake, Sonoma, Mendocino, Butte and Solano, constitute the deadliest fires in California history. Officials reported that multiple blazes across the state killed 42 people and hospitalized nearly 200 others. The wildfires destroyed at least 8,400 homes and other structures – burning more than 200,000 acres, roughly the size of New York City.
An estimated 5,000 firefighters continue to battle 10 different fires across northern California. Altogether 100,000 people were displaced by the fires, leaving thousands of evacuees not knowing if they’ll be able to find new homes in the region in the months and years ahead. All told, this year’s California fires caused the largest loss of life due to fire in the U.S., since Minnesota’s Cloquet fire in 1918.
Since the 1970s and early 1980s, the number of large wildfires has increased more than 500 percent in federally managed forests across the western U.S. Questions are now being raised by many about why there’s been such a dramatic rise in wildfires in recent years. According to scientists, the answer is climate change, in combination with other factors. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Leroy Westerling, co-director of the Sierra Nevada Research Institute at the University of California at Merced. Here, he explains how climate change has increased the frequency and destructive power of wildfires – and will make the future incidence of these fires ever more dangerous.
LEROY WESTERLING: So, across the western United States there has been a very dramatic increase overall in wildfires since the 1970s. Every decade since then has seen more fires, more large fires, more area burned in those fires, more high severity fires in places that didn’t used to get high severity fire that frequently.
The thing to keep in mind is that there is a lot of diversity in the ecosystems and fire in those ecosystems within the West – so some places are much more sensitive to changes in temperature than others are. These fires that we’re talking about in California most recently – Sonoma and Napa Counties in particular – are burning at a different kind of vegetation. It’s lower elevation, doesn’t snow there, it’s much warmer and drier in the summer. And so the temperatures that we’ve had are compounding this. But there’s a lot more going on than just the temperatures.
This last winter was a very wet winter, and that gave us a lot of extra fuel, but it was also very hot temperatures in the spring and into the summer and so those fields dried out and were available to burn the same year that they grew. At the same time, we had a record drought in California for several years. Fuels were really super dry, there was more fuel than usual on the landscape and we had these winds. And we always have plenty of ignition. And that gave us this really combustible situation and then a lot of homes have been built in these subdivisions that are right up against dense chaparral, shrub land, fuels, grasses and things like that as well.
That mix of homes and really dense fuels and then the really dry conditions give you a really risky situation all the way around.
BETWEEN THE LINES: I would ask you, Leroy, to comment on something you had written. You had written that these very destructive wildfires we’re seeing are not a natural occurrence. And you link them with climate change. How do we know it’s climate change that’s feeding this pattern of ever-increasing and more severe fires?
LEROY WESTERLING: The important thing to keep in mind around the western U.S. and globally, is that when we’re looking at fire, we’re not thinking of fire as a way to prove that climate change is happening. We know climate change is happening because we know about the basic physics of what we’re doing to the atmosphere. We know how we’ve changed the content of the atmosphere, increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases. There would be no life on earth, earth would not be warm enough to support the ecosystems we have without the greenhouse effect. What we’ve done is intensify that. The temperature of the earth is catching up and that’s affecting ecosystems. It’s that energy imbalance that we’ve introduced by changing the atmosphere; it’s affected the climate system, as a whole, warming up earth, and there are a lot of feedbacks.
And fire is one of those feedbacks. Fire allows us to see the impacts very abruptly of climate change on the landscape. So as you warm things up gradually over time, you still get very abrupt changes in the landscape in sort of steps. From fire, from insect infestations, from drought die-back and things like that. So these are natural processes, but they’re sort of like a natural way the system responds as it’s transformed by climate change.
BETWEEN THE LINES: We have a government in Washington right now, both the Congress and in the White House in the Trump administration, a lot of climate deniers in charge of key agencies that have a lot to do with fighting fires and providing resources to prepare for the next set of fires next season. How is the climate change denial in our government hobbling and placing obstacles for those who are really concerned about it and trying to do their best to combat these fires before they start?
LEROY WESTERLING: With the current administration, it’s hard to see how they are responsive to the science that would tell you what you to do where and when to get the results that you want to get. So, we had a lot of trepidation that the policies are going to be enacted to manage the landscape that don’t take account of the science that tells us what their effects are going to be.
We’ve had these problems in the past and if we do it again at this time, this moment in our history, we’re just going to be compounding the risks that we face and the difficulty that we’re going to have in the future to manage these landscapes in a way that provides the services we want for them.
For more information, visit Leroy Westerling’s web page at ulmo.ucmerced.edu.
Simply Too Hot: The Desperate Science and Politics of Climate
Excerpt of Yale University speech by Bill McKibben, author, writer and climate activist, founder of climate activism organization 350.org, recorded and produced by Melinda Tuhus
Writer and activist Bill McKibben spoke at Yale University on Oct. 10, addressing the urgency of taking action to slow down climate chaos. In the wake of many recent disasters predicted by climate scientists – including the deadliest forest fires in California history and three of the strongest hurricanes ever to hit the U.S. mainland and Caribbean – McKibben talked about the pace of climate change and the people’s and politicians’ response to it.
McKibben wrote “The End of Nature” in 1988, the first book for non-scientists that explained the concept of climate change. He later co-founded the group, 350.org, which has led a global campaign to raise awareness about the impacts of climate change, especially on poor nations and low-lying islands whose people have contributed the least to create the climate crisis.
McKibben now travels the world raising the alarm about the dire consequences of climate change and urging people to take immediate action to reverse it. During his talk at Yale, he pointed out that although coal plants are being phased out and renewable energy sources are growing by leaps and bounds, the planet is not winning the battle fast enough, and hence is losing ground. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus recorded McKibben’s Yale speech, titled, “Simply Too Hot: The Desperate Science and Politics of Climate” and brings us the following excerpts.
BILL MCKIBBEN: There is resistance underway every place around the world now, as I say, and it’s beautiful to watch. So much leadership provided by frontline communities and especially, I think most gratifyingly over the last five years, by this rapid emergence to the leadership of indigenous traditions around the world. You saw what happened at Standing Rock last autumn – a beautiful, beautiful, powerful gathering. It didn’t surprise me because the people who organized it, we’ve been working with for years. They are great leaders. It’s a good sign that the oldest indigenous wisdom tradition on the planet is meshing now powerfully with the newest – that the word that comes from the sweat lodge and the word that comes from the supercomputer is the same word. (Applause) And now people gather in their numbers. These were 400,000 people on the march in New York city – until the Women’s March in January, the biggest marches about anything in this country in a very long time. And it wasn’t just this country; it was as usual all over the entire world.
I think I want to close just showing you a couple of pictures that illustrate in my mind the kind of drama of this moment in which we find ourselves. You know, there are sort of tropes that go on in one’s head, that fit the human mind, and one of them is the battle of the small against the very large, the David and Goliath story. These are our friends in the Pacific in those islands like Vanuatu and Tuvalu and the Marshalls and Micronesia and the Solomons that will probably be underwater by the end of the century. But their slogan is, “We are not drowning; we are fighting!”
When we were marching in New York, they cut down on each island a single tree and made a big, traditional war canoe. And they took them to Newcastle (Australia) in the Pacific, which is the biggest coal port in the world, and there they used them for a day to blockade the port and keep the largest warships in the world in harbor so they couldn’t come out without running them over. It was a brave and beautiful action. It’s been one of the reasons that’s galvanized Australians into opposing this crazy plan for this giant coal mine. And it illustrated perfectly this trope that the small and the many against the few and the very big. We saw the same image from the Pacific Northwest the next year. This was when Shell Oil announced it was going to drill for oil in the Arctic.
Think about that for one minute, by the way. Scientists said that if you warm the planet, the Arctic will melt. Shell and its ilk paid no attention and went ahead, and what do you know, the Arctic melted. Having looked at that did the leadership of Shell Oil say, “Huh, maybe we should go into the solar business instead. This seems to be not working out.” No. The leadership of Shell Oil said, “It’s melted up there now; it will be easier to drill for oil.”
And in Seattle and in Portland, for days they blockaded the two giant drilling rigs with small craft. We called them kayaktivists, and it was beautiful, and it threatened more brand damage to Shell that was more than they could contend with. And by the end of the year, Shell said, “Well, we didn’t find enough oil in the Arctic. We’re going home.” Really what they found was a lot more trouble than they could with, and so they turned tail and ran, and that was a very good moment. (Applause)
But we need lots more moments like that. I guess the way to say this is, the planet is now way, way outside its comfort zone. That’s what it means when the Arctic is melting, when coral is dying. Because it is way, way outside its comfort zone, we need to be outside our comfort zones, too. We need to be doing much more than we are doing now, because it’s manifest that what we are doing now is insufficient – that’s why the temperature keeps going up. All we are asking for is a world a little bit like the one we were born onto – a little bit of ice at the top and the bottom, the odd coral reef in the middle.
That’s not a radical demand; that’s a conservative demand. Radicals work at oil companies. If you get up in the morning willing to make your fortune by altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere; and you are willing to do it after scientists have told you it will happen and you are willing to do it after you’ve seen it happen, then our job is to check that radicalism (applause). And it is our job to check it fast.
For more information on climate change and Bill McKibben’s climate activism, visit 350.org.
This week’s summary of under-reported news
Compiled by Bob Nixon
This year’s massive outbreak of cholera in war-torn Yemen could lead to 1 million cases of the bacterial disease before the end of the year, the fastest-spreading outbreak of the disease in modern history. The epidemic which began in late April now surpasses Haiti’s cholera outbreak after the massive 2010 earthquake. Yemen is in the midst of a three-year civil war between Houthi rebels and a coalition backed by Saudi Arabia supplied with US made weapons. (“Yemen’s Cholera Outbreak Now the Worst in History as Millionth Case Looms,” The Guardian, Oct. 12, 2017; “How Yemen’s Cholera Outbreak Became the Fastest Growing in Modern History,” Frontline, Oct. 18, 2017)
A month after Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico, raw sewage is flowing into rivers and reservoirs which supplies water to the island’s 3.5 million people. Residents, most still without electricity, don’t have clean water for drinking, bathing and washing clothes. The situation has become so dire that some people have turned to tapping water from known polluted sources, including Environmental Protection Agency designated toxic pollution superfund sites. (“Raw Sewage Contaminating Waters in Puerto Rico after Maria,” Washington Post, Oct. 16, 2017; “Puerto Rico’s Environmental Catastrophe,” The Atlantic, Oct. 18, 2017)
About half of the country’s 1.6 million prisoners have some sort of job behind bars. Though prisoners technically volunteer to work many of these jobs, nothing is really voluntary in prison. Nationally prison labor provides many local and county public services. Every state now depends on inmates to clean and prepare meals in jails and prisons. (“Both Red and Blue States Rely on Prison Labor,” The American Prospect, Oct. 17, 2017)