Censorship by Proxy, Physical Violence, and Chilling Threats
How Media Is Under Attack Throughout the World
The following is an excerpt from Project Censored’s State of the Free Press 2022, edited by Andy Lee Roth and Mickey Huff.
The impacts of the internet and the increasing influence of social media on journalism cannot be overstated. “Google may not be a country, but it is a superpower,” Timothy Garton Ash has noted. Though Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other Big Tech corporations lack the formal legal authority of sovereign states, “their capacity to enable or limit freedom of information and expression is greater than that of most states.” The new media giants—including Alphabet (which owns Google and YouTube), Facebook (which also owns Instagram), Twitter, Apple, and Microsoft—function as the arbiters of public issues and legitimate discourse, despite assertions by their leaders that they are tech platforms, not publishers or media companies. Despite denying their roles, these tech giants are “the new gatekeepers,” and their proprietary algorithms “determine which news stories circulate widely, raising serious concerns about transparency and accountability in determinations of newsworthiness.”
A January 2021 court ruling raises pointed questions about the limits on our cherished constitutional protection of free expression set by privately-owned, for-profit media platforms. That month, a federal judge dismissed a class-action lawsuit by LGBT YouTube content creators, which claimed that YouTube had violated their First Amendment rights by censoring their content and demonetizing their channels. US District Court Magistrate Virginia DeMarchi ruled that, as “private entities,” Google and YouTube were not bound by the First Amendment. But in this digitally connected era, the distinction between government entities and private ones may not be so clear, raising the possibility of government censorship by proxy.
Today’s Big Tech gatekeepers trace their technological roots back to the Cold War of the 1950s and, specifically, the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Charged with developing technology to promote national security, DARPA played a crucial role in the development of computer networking that made the internet and related innovations, from the Global Positioning System (GPS) to drones, a reality. Many of the US-based global tech companies have benefited from federal funding for research and development and tax breaks, not to mention lucrative government contracts on projects involving national security and surveillance. The result is a new twist on President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warning, sixty years ago, about the threats to democracy posed by the “military–industrial complex” and burgeoning government surveillance.16
These tech companies’ unparalleled control over communication makes them a valuable proxy for government agencies struggling with political and legal obstacles to censorship. In this digital era, the biggest private tech companies can engage in what we term “censorship by proxy,” restricting freedom of expression in ways that the government cannot, in the interest of both parties.
If media deregulation and censorship by proxy constitute subsurface, tectonic shifts in the US media landscape, then attacks on reporters and other direct assaults on the integrity of journalism stand as more obviously concerning developments. In late 2018, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) listed the United States among the world’s most dangerous nations for journalists—the first time the United States ranked in the top five. By 2021, the United States ranked only 44th out of 180 countries in RSF’s annual World Press Freedom Index.
Especially since the onset of protests against structural racism that arose following the police murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, US journalists have faced a sharp increase in attacks. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, the past year brought with it “unprecedented violence” against journalists, who across the United States were assaulted, arrested, or had their equipment damaged “in numbers never before documented.” Between May 26, 2020 and May 25, 2021, the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker documented 415 assaults on journalists, 153 arrests, and 105 cases of damage inflicted upon their equipment. During that period, as they covered the Black Lives Matter movement, journalists and other media workers “faced near-unrelenting assaults”—more than 85 percent of which were perpetrated by law enforcement.
Alongside physical assaults, US journalists have also been subjected to chilling threats by government agencies. In Spring 2021, for example, journalists covering protests in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota and Portland, Oregon were detained by law enforcement officials who photographed reporters and their IDs or press credentials. Minnesota law enforcement officials suggested that the photos were necessary to “expedite the identification process,” but press freedom outlets registered concern that agencies, including the Minneapolis Police Department, have used facial recognition services, such as Clearview AI, to monitor and target individuals, including protestors.
In May 2021 the Washington Post reported that, under the Trump administration, the Department of Justice (DOJ) had “secretly obtained” the phone records for three of the Post’s national security reporters, each of whom had reported on Russia’s attempted meddling in the 2016 election. The Post’s report noted that it is “rare for the Justice Department to use subpoenas to get records of reporters in leak investigations,” and that press organizations and First Amendment advocates “decried the government practice of seizing journalists’ records in an effort to identify the sources of leaks, saying it unjustly chills critical newsgathering.”
The Biden administration initially supported the DOJ’s maneuvers, but a month later reversed its position after additional information came to light about similar invasive actions directed at a reporter from CNN as well as four reporters at the New York Times. The DOJ had even placed a gag order on Times executives, preventing them from revealing the secret legal maneuvers to the public or anyone in the newsroom. White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced that “the issuing of subpoenas for the records of reporters in leak investigations is not consistent with the President’s policy direction to the Department.” The DOJ subsequently said it would no longer legally compel journalists to reveal source information in leak investigations.
Freedom of the Press Foundation executive director Trevor Timm called this policy shift “a potential sea change for press freedom rights in the United States,” but added that the Justice Department “must now write this categorical bar of journalist surveillance into its official ‘media guidelines,’ and Congress should also immediately enshrine the rules into law to ensure no administration can abuse its power again.” By taking these steps, the Biden administration could “stem the tide of more than ten years of erosion of press freedom,” Timm concluded.
Time will tell whether the Biden administration fulfills these hopes, or whether it follows in the footsteps of the Obama and Trump administrations by continuing to prosecute government officials and other whistleblowers who disclose secrets to journalists.
We present State of the Free Press 2022, the Project’s latest yearbook, in the context of ongoing developments in the COVID-19 pandemic and the nation’s long-overdue reckoning with systemic racial inequality, as well as against the backdrop of media deregulation, censorship by proxy, and chilling threats, including physical violence, against journalists themselves. We hope that at least some of the weight of these concerns may be offset by the diversity of considered perspectives, fearless truth-telling, and bold civic solutions included in this volume.
Andy Lee Roth is associate director of Project Censored and coordinator of the Project's Validated Independent News program. His work has appeared in YES! Magazine, In These Times, and scholarly journals including The International Journal of Press/Politics; Social Studies of Science; and Media, Culture & Society. He earned a PhD in Sociology at the University of California-Los Angeles and a BA in Sociology and Anthropology at Haverford College. Roth has taught courses in Sociology at Citrus College, Pomona College, Sonoma State University, the College of Marin, and Bard College, and he serves on the board of the Media Freedom Foundation.
Mickey Huff is director of Project Censored; president of the nonprofit Media Freedom Foundation; and the executive producer and host of The Project Censored Show, a weekly public affairs program on Pacifica Radio. He is co-author with Nolan Higdon of United States of Distraction: Media Manipulation in Post-Truth America (And What We Can Do About It) and Let’s Agree to Disagree: A Critical Thinking Guide to Communication, Conflict Management, and Critical Media Literacy. In 2019, he won the Beverly Kees Educator Award as part of the James Madison Freedom of Information awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California Chapter. Huff is professor of social science, history, and journalism and is chair of the journalism department at Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Both Huff and Roth are co-editors of Project Censored’s State of the Free Press 2022.