From Mockingbird to Birdwatch: Big Tech & Big Media Uniting Against Independent Press, Scholars Warn
16:18 GMT 05.08.2021 (Updated: 18:21 GMT 03.11.2022)
On 2 August, Twitter announced that it was partnering up with the Associated Press (AP) and Reuters to expand its efforts to "identify and elevate credible information" on the platform. What does the partnership between Big Media and Big Tech mean for alternative platforms and freedom of speech and expression?
In a statement on Monday, Twitter elaborated that its partnership with AP and Reuters "will increase the scale and speed of the current work" aimed at combating misinformation.
"Twitter’s curation team helps give people context to make informed decisions about what they see on Twitter," the tech giant stated, referring to trends, exploring tabs, search algorithms, prompts, and labels which help promote "credible" information.
In particular, Twitter's "Birdwatch" – a community-driven approach to tackle what it perceives as misinformation – "will use feedback from AP and Reuters as one way to assess the quality of information elevated by Birdwatch participants."
Reuters, AP & Twitter are no Guardians of Truth
"The Twitter-AP-Reuters partnership risks entrenching practises of deplatforming, restricting or limiting the influence of alternative information and news outlets," suggests Dr Binoy Kampmark, senior lecturer at the School of Global, Urban, and Social Studies at RMIT University in Australia. "The move is very much towards regulating and sanitising the information system, using disinformation as a pretext. The danger to independent journalism and validly informed opinions is real."
According to Kampmark, one should also not place confidence in the exclusive objectivity of these newswires. In January 2020, declassified UK government documents showed
that Downing Street secretly funded Reuters in the 1960s and 1970s at the behest of an anti-Soviet propaganda unit linked to British intelligence.
It appears that old habits die hard: in February 2021, Grayzone, an independent news website founded by investigative journalist Max Blumenthal, commented
on a series of leaked documents apparently originating from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). The papers alleged that Reuters – together with the BBC and Bellingcat – participated in the FCO's covert programme aimed at "weakening Russia"
by planting and promoting the UK government's agenda in Russia and the post-Soviet space
"Reuters and the BBC solicited multimillion-dollar contracts to advance the British state’s interventionist aims," Blumenthal wrote in his article analysing the leak.
When it comes to AP, the media outlet also has "a blemished record on this,"
the academic notes: "One example comes to mind: the promoting
of news – uncritically – on Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction," he says. "You could hardly accuse AP of being thorough with its fact-checking."
Prior to this, AP pushed
the 1990 Kuwaiti incubator hoax, based on unverified reports and a testimony of a 15-year girl named Nayirah who claimed that during the August 1990 invasion, Iraqi soldiers had taken Kuwaiti babies out of hospital incubators and left them to die. The horrendous story was used by then President George H.W. Bush as a rationale behind supporting Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq. However, when the war was over it turned out
that the story lacked any evidence.
"Just to top that off, Twitter itself has already shown itself to be interested in shaping information narratives by employing personnel in the information curation department with ties to military intelligence," the academic says.
Spectre of Operation Mockingbird
Reuters and Twitter's apparent ties to British and American intelligence services have also been mentioned by Grayzone's Ben Norton in his latest op-ed
dedicated to the new joint Twitter-Reuters-AP programme.
Therefore, in addition to its Cold War-era collaboration with MI6, Reuters appears to maintain ties with the CIA as well: according to Norton, the media outlet employed 33-year CIA veteran Dawn Scalici as "the company’s first Government global business director" between 2015 and 2018. Scalici used to be a high-ranking CIA officer and is also known for serving as the a national intelligence manager for the Western Hemisphere within the office of the director of national intelligence (ODNI).
Earlier, in September 2019, the Middle East Eye reported
that Gordon MacMillan, a Twitter senior executive who worked for the tech giant since 2013, "ha[d] for several years also served with the 77th Brigade,"
a British psy-op warfare unit formed in 2015.
The media's collaboration with intelligence and psy-op professionals, selective censorship, and attempts to shape and propagate specific narratives evoke strong memories of the CIA's infamous Operation Mockingbird. The operation was first exposed by famous Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein in Rolling Stone in 1977.
Bernstein revealed how numerous journalists, including Pulitzer-prize winners, wrote fake stories and disseminated propaganda at the CIA's behest during the Cold War. The scale of the CIA's gargantuan international media network was described
by one CIA official as ranging "from Radio Free Europe to a third‐string guy in Quito who could get something in the local paper." According
to the Daily Beast, "the programme has never been officially discontinued."
'Disinformation' as Pretext to Silence Dissent
Meanwhile, Twitter's effort to bolster its curation team by teaming up with Big Media is just part of a bigger trend, notes Zach Vorhies, Google whistleblower and author of the new book "Google Leaks."
"This is not something isolated to just Twitter, but is a tech trend that is moving in lockstep with the rest of the tech industry," Vorhies says. "Google’s version of Birdwatch is called 'News Nutritional Labels' and at Microsoft it’s called 'NewsGuard'. The goal of these projects is to boost 'authoritative content' and derank everything else."
Last month, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki prompted a wave of criticism from the GOP over supposed collusion between the White House and Big Tech
. She specifically told journalists that "it shouldn't come as any surprise that we're regularly in touch with social media platforms."
While speaking about COVID "misinformation," Psaki further suggested that if one is banned for the spreading of supposedly false information on one media platform, he/she should be banned from the others too.
Less than two weeks later, Twitter permanently suspended several accounts dedicated to audits of the 2020 elections
in Arizona, Wisconsin, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Georgia on 27 July. The move followed Biden's condemnation of attempts to review the results of last year's November vote as propagating the so-called "Big Lie."
The Twitter ban of states' audit accounts coincided with the US Department of Justice's warning
that the 2020 election state audits conducted by Arizona and some other states violated federal laws.
Twitter has been repeatedly lambasted by American conservatives and GOP lawmakers for a biased approach and apparent partisanship. In particular, the tech company barred The New York Post's bombshells concerning Hunter Biden, the son of then-presidential candidate Joe Biden, branded at the time as "Russian disinformation." In addition, the company resorted to repeated labelling, tagging, and banning conservative observers as well as ousting then-sitting President Donald Trump from the platform.
"Essentially Big Tech is giving up on the open and organic internet model for news aggregation and trying to go back to a centralised top down broadcast model of news distribution," Vorhies underscores.