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How Facebook Became Tool for State Censorship and Goldmine for US Intelligence Services

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LongreadSunday is the 20th anniversary of Facebook’s* launch. In twenty years, the company has grown into a major tool for manipulation, social engineering and control by the deep state, big business and Western intel agencies. Sputnik reached out to an insider-turned whistleblower for info on the architecture of Facebook’s censorship industrial complex.Formally launched on February 4, 2004, Mark Zuckerberg’s future empire started out as a modest “directory of information for college students,” with Zuckerberg and several of his Harvard classmates assembling the initial platform in about two weeks, and the company taking just four short years to surpass rival Myspace to become the world’s number one social media platform. Twenty years since its founding, Facebook’s parent company Meta has become a tech giant, with over three billion active monthly users on its flagship service, and a market value of over $1 trillion.As the 20th anniversary of the company’s founding approached, legacy media began to publish a series of gushing, glowing and wistful reports on Facebook’s past, good times and memories created and shared online, and its ambitious, science fiction-inspired plans for the future, including the creation of artificial general intelligence.But beneath the surface of these ebullient, heartwarming stories is a darker story of manipulation and social programming, censorship and shameless attempts at narrative control by Western governments, major corporations, and intelligence services.As Americans, Europeans and others around the world signed up, logged on and voluntarily offered up private information that companies and intel agencies would have paid a fortune to get their hands on just a few short decades ago, powerful forces quickly realized the importance of collecting and engineering this new form of online human interaction.

“It is clear that intelligence agencies throughout the world, not only the US, can use Facebook to their advantage,” Ryan Hartwig, Facebook contractor-turned whistleblower and co-author of ‘Behind the Mask of Facebook: A Whistleblower’s Shocking Story of Big Tech Bias and Censorship,’ told Sputnik in an interview.

“The government launders their censorship through various NGOs and institutions on behalf of the US government,” Hartwig said, pointing, for example, to a 2021 report by the Stanford Internet Observatory entitled “Combating Information Manipulation: A Playbook for Elections and Beyond,” which plainly outlines tools the company uses to “remove the spread of malign information” from social media.© SputnikExcerpt from Stanford’s Internet Observatory Cyber Policy Center on tools Facebook has at its disposal to censor content.Excerpt from Stanford’s Internet Observatory Cyber Policy Center on tools Facebook has at its disposal to censor content.

Self-Appointed Ministry of Truth

In his book, coauthored with attorney Kent Heckenlively, Hartwig documents how, while working as a content moderator for Facebook in the 2010s, he had witnessed the platform’s disturbing transformation after the 2016 US elections into a tool for systematically suppressing conservative viewpoints while elevating liberal ones, and cracking down on some forms of suspected hate speech while amplifying others.Of course, conservatives aren’t the only ones targeted by the social media giant’s censorship leviathan, with non-liberal left groups, critics of the US military-industrial complex, Big Pharma, Big Tech and other elite forces which run America and much of the world also falling victim. Documented instances of censorship by Facebook include the scrubbing of criticism of US and European immigration policy, climate policies, vaccines and vaccine mandates, criticisms of Facebook itself, and the vagaries of US foreign policy, with posts on these issues occasionally deleted outright, but more often hidden or deranked without users being informed using the platform’s complex, non-open source algorithm.© Photo : Courtesy of Ryan HartwigScreenshot provided to Sputnik by Facebook content moderator-turned whistleblower Ryan Hartwig instructing moderators to ignore reports by users listing CNN host Don Lemon’s statement that “White men are the biggest terror threat in this country” as hate speech. Screenshot provided to Sputnik by Facebook content moderator-turned whistleblower Ryan Hartwig instructing moderators to ignore reports by users listing CNN host Don Lemon’s statement that “White men are the biggest terror threat in this country” as hate speech. In 2021, The Intercept obtained a vast, 100-page secret ‘Facebook Dangerous Individuals and Organizations List’ which, although designed to target extremists, criminals and terrorists, turned out to include a number of groups deeply involved in the battle against jihadist extremists in the Middle East, such Hezbollah, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Yemen’s Houthis. Hundreds of US-based armed militia groups (whose activities are protected under the US Constitution), were also targeted, as were a number of pro-Trump groups mixed in among a jumble of neo-Nazis for good measure.© Photo : The Intercept / FacebookInternal Facebook list of ‘Dangerous Individuals and Organizations’ whose speech can be censored on company platforms based on their affiliation.Internal Facebook list of ‘Dangerous Individuals and Organizations’ whose speech can be censored on company platforms based on their affiliation.In 2022, Facebook rolled out a special carve-out of exceptions to its anti-hate speech rules to allow users to make explicitly Russophobic posts, issue death threats against Russian officials, use dehumanizing language to refer to Russian troops, and even offer praise for the neo-Nazi Azov** Regiment, despite the social media giant’s ban on content featuring Nazi and neo-Nazi ideology.“Facebook manipulates public opinion by suppressing unpopular opinions, or allowing newsworthy exceptions for the people they like,” Hartwig explained, noting this extends not just to big name issues, but even extremely minute details bordering on psychopathy.“For example, they made a specific rule to protect Greta Thunberg from being attacked or called ‘Gretarded’,” the former content moderator recalled, referring to the WEF-promoted climate activist. “Normally, public figures, even young individuals like Greta are allowed to be called retarded. Facebook made an exception to protect her,” Hartwig said.© Photo : Courtesy of Ryan HartwigImage provided by Ryan Hartwig, Facebook contractor-turned whistleblower, showing a company directive instructing content moderators to “remove instances of attacks aimed at Greta Thunberg.”Image provided by Ryan Hartwig, Facebook contractor-turned whistleblower, showing a company directive instructing content moderators to “remove instances of attacks aimed at Greta Thunberg.”“This is truly 5th dimensional warfare and by utilizing Facebook, spy agencies can influence public opinion much more easily than ever before,” the whistleblower believes.

Election Manipulation Tool

In 2020, concerned over what he saw as blatant interference in the upcoming US federal elections, Hartwig contacted Project Veritas with hidden camera footage and other information documenting Facebook’s skewed content moderation directives, revealing exactly how posts related to one candidate and his supporters could be removed or manipulated, in direct violation of the company’s policy on protecting political speech.Hartwig’s observations have been corroborated by other whistleblowers and information leaks throughout the past decade. In 2018, for example, it was revealed that UK-based political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica engaged in the harvesting of tens of millions of Facebook profiles in 2014 to later target them with personalized political ads, including during the 2016 US presidential campaign. Subsequent reports consequently reported that the company engaged in similar harvesting and vote manipulation operations in nations across the globe, from Kenya and Nigeria to Argentina, Venezuela, India, the UK and the Czech Republic.In a bombshell interview with Joe Rogan in 2022, Mark Zuckerberg explicitly admitted that Facebook had suppressed the biggest news story of the 2020 election cycle – a New York Post article published on the eve of the November vote based on damning files in Hunter Biden’s laptop containing evidence of a pay-to-play corruption scheme by the Biden family. Facebook was ordered to censor the story by the FBI, Zuckerberg said.“Basically the background here is the FBI I think basically came to us, some folks on our team and was like hey, just so you know, you should be on high alert, there was – we thought that there was a lot of Russian propaganda in the 2016 election, we have it on notice that basically there’s about to be some kind of dump that’s similar to that. So just be vigilant,” Zuckerberg recalled. “If something is reported to us as potentially misinformation, important misinformation, we also [have a] third-party fact-checking program because we don’t want to be deciding what’s true and false. And for the I think it was five or seven days when it was basically being determined whether it was false, the distribution on Facebook was decreased…basically the ranking and newsfeed was a little bit less, so fewer people saw it than would have otherwise.” Similarly blatant practices have been seen elsewhere, with Hartwig pointing to one particularly “egregious example” used against Venezuela, where “there was a call to arms to help defend Nicolas Maduro and Facebook deleted that post because it was [deemed] a ‘call to violence’. Nicolas Maduro was the sitting president and Facebook didn’t allow people to use social media to defend their own country.”© Photo : Courtesy of Ryan HartwigScreenshot by Ryan Hartwig of directive to Facebook content moderators telling them to delete a video from a Maduro ally calling on Venezuelans to “defend the revolution with arms.”Screenshot by Ryan Hartwig of directive to Facebook content moderators telling them to delete a video from a Maduro ally calling on Venezuelans to “defend the revolution with arms.”

Handy Coup-Plotting Assistant

Along with election manipulation, Facebook and other social media resources have long been seen by intelligence services as an ideal tool for fomenting social unrest or even overthrowing governments. Learning from the experiences of the 2011 Arab Spring violence, spy agencies quickly realized the potential of the new technology for advancing their nations’ geopolitical objectives abroad. In 2013, it was a Facebook post by a liberal Ukrainian television journalist-turned activist angered by the Yanukovych government’s decision to scrap Kiev’s plans to sign an association agreement with the EU which ended up triggering the Euromaidan unrest, culminating in the February 2014 overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected government.Western intelligence services tried to repeat the process in Iran in late 2022, when violent protests sparked by the death of a young Iranian woman under suspicious circumstances were commandeered by an Iranian-American US-based Voice of America employee and suspected CIA asset who used Facebook, Twitter and Instagram* to organize and radicalize demonstrators to overthrow the government.

Down the Rabbit Hole of Physiological Manipulation

Facebook’s attempts to control and manipulate go beyond censorship and election interference. In 2012, the company carried out a secret mood manipulation experiment targeting nearly 700,000 users and using their news feeds to alter their emotional states. The project, whose existence was only revealed in 2014 after the publication of a scientific article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that by tweaking users’ news feeds, Facebook could influence the content they would post, lead them to post more negative replies and status messages, and more. The controversial study ultimately found “that emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness.”

That was more than a decade ago. Today, with the company incorporating machine learning and other tools on an industrial scale, it can only be imagined what kind of ‘experiments’ Facebook may have in store, especially as Meta continues to dabble with augmented reality technology designed to ensnare users even more deeply online.

* Meta’s Facebook and Instagram are banned in Russia for extremism.** Designated a terrorist group and outlawed in Russia.

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