The battle for hearts and minds: RT, WikiLeaks and net neutrality

The ongoing battle to maintain net neutrality is perhaps the most important free speech issue facing the United States, if not the West as a whole.

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A little more than two weeks ago, headlines and panel discussions on American cable news temporarily revolved around the revelation that Wikileaks’ official Twitter account had communicated by direct message (DM) with the U.S. President’s son and namesake, Donald Trump Jr, during and even after the 2016 campaign had ended. This added a new wrinkle to the long running story of alleged Russian interference in last year’s U.S. presidential election.

Less noted, but arguably more important over the longer term, on Nov. 13th, the same day as The Atlantic Monthly broke the Trump Jr. story, the Russian funded news organization, RT America formally registered as a foreign agent under the United States’ 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).

The move, taken by the network’s Editor in Chief, Margarita Simonyan, who wrote of the decision, “Between a criminal case and registration we chose the latter,” carries the additional risk of tarnishing the reputations of American journalists who work for the outlet. These include left leaning voices like Chris Hedges and Ed Schultz, who hardly seem like puppets of the right wing nationalists in the Kremlin.

As a network, RT America does offer a sometimes uniquely Russian perspective on major news stories, whether the speaker is commenting in an official or unofficial capacity. This is not in and of itself a bad thing, especially regarding areas of conflict like Syria and eastern Ukraine, where differing perspectives are noticeably absent in the mainstream English language press.

Although a few other outlets have been made to register under FARA, including China’s Peoples Daily just a short while after the RT decision, the law that, for a start, will require RT to publish and broadcast a disclaimer for every story or segment, is under most circumstances reserved for lobbyists working the American political system for foreign governments.

The most recent example of the use of FARA in building cases against lobbyists, which themselves are also rare, are the charges brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller against Paul Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates. Trump’s former campaign manager and his associate were reportedly at the center of complex money laundering and tax avoidance schemes involving “tens of millions of dollars” paid to them by the corrupt, Kremlin-friendly Yanukovich government of Ukraine between 2006 and 2015. Both men have pled not guilty.

Somewhat ironically, Manafort’s alleged corruption only became a major story because he’s caught up in the investigation of the Trump campaign’s purported collusion with the Kremlin. It may be that this new scrutiny on high powered lobbyists, most of whom are more like amoral guns for hire than principled proponents of any given political philosophy, will be the most important thing to come out of these seemingly endless investigations and attendant attempts to ‘flip’ campaign staffers and aides.

Backing up this view, in a less reported but related story, long standing Democratic lobbyist and the brother of the Hillary Clinton campaign’s former campaign chairman, Tony Podesta, is also caught up in the same Ukrainian net and resigned his leadership role at his eponymously named firm, The Podesta Group, in late October.

RT’s forced FARA registration risks losing sight of the fact that news organizations, even foreign sponsored ones, are very different animals from lobbying firms and the action taken by American lawmakers may turn out to be a costly mistake in terms of press freedom, and not just in the United States.

The move against the Kremlin sponsored news organization, which has never had a wide American audience, is already having unforeseen consequences as Gabe Rottman of PEN America warned a reporter from the Moscow Times when the registration was first ordered in September, “Say what you will about Sputnik or RT. The biggest concern with the FBI focusing on a foreign-owned media organization as a suspected foreign agent is retaliation against U.S.-supported outlets such as Voice of America or public broadcasters like the BBC.”

As might have been expected, both houses of the Russian parliament quickly passed even broader legislation than the U.S. Congress shortly after RT complied with the FARA order. This was signed into law by President Putin on November 25th. It targets American and possibly other foreign media, likely extending the damage to the free flow of information and varying opinions in a country where there is the additional problem of wealthy oligarchs and government officials targeting independent journalists.

RT is an example of soft power, just like Voice of America, which is on the Kremlin’s registration list, or other U.S. government sponsored news sources that concentrate on regions outside of the country’s borders. Similar in many ways to RT, VOA also carries content that includes voices from across the political spectrum, including some you would never hear on corporate networks like CNN or MSNBC.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise; corporate news gatherers need to please their owners, advertisers and, to a lesser extent. insider sources, making these outlets, including elite broad sheets like the New York Times or Washington Post, at least as biased as any state sponsored broadcaster.

Speaking to the Russian side of the equation, Denis Krivosheev of Amnesty International told the New York Times that the legislation forcing foreign media to register with the Russian government, “…strikes a serious blow to what was already a fairly desperate situation for press freedom,” in the country.

These attempts to limit the flow of ideas in both Russia and the U.S. for nakedly political reasons remind us of the importance of maverick outlets like Wikileaks and that transparency is generally a good thing, even if one doesn’t always like the messenger.

Wikileaks and Don Jr.

The Atlantic story that first revealed the Twitter messages from the anonymous person or persons representing Wikileaks to Trump Jr. frames the mostly unanswered DMs in a somewhat sinister way, even if only one of the reported missives is really troubling.
That the communications found their way to the magazine in the first place is also presumably the result of a leak, as they were part of a large cache of communications turned over by Trump Jr.’s lawyers to U.S. congressional investigators.  Perhaps a little cynically, the author of the piece, Julia Ioffe, does her best to dissemble on this point.

The stories that came out of Ioffe’s initial reporting revolved around three main things contained in the DMs. Now that Trump Jr. has released what he claims is the entirety of the correspondence, we can see that all of the contact on Twitter was initiated by Wikileaks.

As Julian Assange tweeted shortly after Trump Jr. made the correspondence public, the publisher may had more prosaic concerns in attempting to cultivate a relationship with Trump Jr. than helping Russia subvert American democracy, namely self promotion, saying, “Wikileaks can be very effective at convincing even high-profile people that it is their interest to promote links to its publications.”

In an early message asking Trump Jr. to pass along his father’s tax returns, whoever was controlling the Wikileaks account made the point that this would make the outlet, then in the midst of releasing the Podesta emails, seem more even handed in terms of the American election. This was unlikely and went unanswered, but considering the continuing interest in the subject of the President’s taxes, it was worth a shot.

In another request that it’s hard to believe wasn’t made with tongue firmly in cheek, Wikileaks’ also asked Don Jr. to have his father, if elected, ask Australia’s government to make Assange that country’s ambassador in Washington, D.C. It’s a request so audacious that it must have been difficult for so many in the media to take it as seriously as they did.

Less humorous was an ill considered (and unanswered) message sent on election day when most of the world was preparing for a Clinton presidency, saying that the Trump campaign should contest the election if they lost it, a terrible idea that could have had serious consequences if it had taken place. This revelation may have irreparably damaged Wikileaks’ credibility after almost a decade spent developing a reputation for truth telling of the most unbiased kind. However, this idiotic suggestion still doesn’t in any way link the publisher to the Kremlin.

While we might wish that Assange was more like Chelsea Manning and less like Kim Dotcom, this doesn’t change the revolutionary challenge to entrenched power that Wikileaks represents. Politicians and the powerful in almost every country (including Russia) hate the outlet because it has continually embarrassed  them by advertising their venality and often startling incompetence to the world, usually in their own words.

Many older writers have commented on the fact that Assange, who they assumed was on the left, would be so self-absorbed, trying to portray himself as some kind of celebrity for the internet age and all too often deflecting attention away from the information contained in the leaks themselves and toward himself.

As Andrew O’Hagan wrote in the London Review of Books after temporarily taking on the position as Assange’s ghost writer of his experiences with the publisher before Assange became a virtual prisoner in Ecuador’s Embassy in London, “Oddly for a dissident, he had no questions. The left-wingers I have known are always full of questions, but Assange, from the first, seemed like a manifestation of the hyperventilating chatroom.”

This is because Assange has always been more of a libertarian than a leftist, as many hackers and internet activists are. While many of the issues he speaks to are of obvious interest to the left, libertarian economics and the perpetual adolescence of many of its adherents make them untrustworthy allies at best, as the support many gave to Trump Sr. clearly demonstrated last year.

In more nakedly authoritarian countries, like China or Egypt, the solution to dissidents and muckraking journalists online is enforced censorship but, as Jonathan Cook pointed out recently on Counterpunch, in the United States, and other western representative democracies who will follow its lead, powerful corporations are at the ready to censor dissenting content and will soon have the perfect excuse to do this: it isn’t profitable:

“As soon as next month, the net could become the exclusive plaything of the biggest such corporations, determined to squeeze as much profit as possible out of bandwidth. Meanwhile, the tools to help us engage in critical thinking, dissent and social mobilization will be taken away as “net neutrality” becomes a historical footnote, a teething phase, in the “maturing” of the internet.”

Trump’s FCC chairman Ajit Pai, formerly of Verizon, a company that stands to profit from the end of net neutrality, might make RT’s registration under FARA and the damage done to Wikileaks by the Trump Jr. messages seem like tiny blips in terms of the great free speech debates of our time. Its end will benefit mainstream politicians, whether they call themselves liberal or conservative, and their corporate benefactors if ideas found on the so-called fringes are hidden from public view due to their lack of profitability.

Unlike the ongoing bipartisan vitriol over ‘political correctness’ (otherwise known as ‘showing empathy’ or ‘being nice’), the ongoing battle to maintain net neutrality is perhaps the most important free speech issue facing the United States, if not the West as a whole. If this leveling rule is overturned by Pai, relatively few people will even notice that many unconventional ideas and viewpoints have disappeared from the internet, let alone complain about the loss.

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