John Buell

Fake News and the New McCarthyism

One of the gravest concerns about the coming Trump presidency is its potential threat to free speech. Trump has encouraged assaults against nonviolent critics of his agenda. The Washington Post recently carried a chilling cautionary tale about the fate of a young woman who challenged Trump on women’s issues. Parallels with banana republic dictators encouraging paramilitary forces seem not far-fetched. Though it is easy for the Washington Post to call attention to and criticize Trump’s incitement to violence, the Post itself now practices subtle efforts to police speech.

Behind the façade of a concern about fake news, the Post featured an article by Craig Timberg that cited — without challenge — an anonymous website, PropOrNot, that fingered numerous other sites as purveyors of fake news. PropOrNot suggested that all of these sites be investigated and potentially prosecuted under the Espionage Act for wittingly or unwittingly spreading Russian propaganda.

This story especially caught my attention because one of the fingered websites — — has long been one of my favorite sources. In addition to meticulous coverage of finance, the site provides in depth analysis of both mainstream economics and contemporary and historic alternatives. All those upon whom economics 101 is being inflicted should consult entries by Philip Mirowski and Philip Pilkington. You will never think the same about simple supply and demand.

Designating this site as a purveyor of fake — even Russian supplied — news while providing no evidence for the claim is surely libelous. Charges of Russian interference in our election — thus far without any specific evidence beyond agency assertions — should be investigated but ought not to become an occasion to harass domestic critics of US policy.

In any case, as numerous contributors to some of these libeled sites point out, the Post’s action is the digital equivalent of a McCarthyite blacklist. The Washington Post has “apologized” only by saying that it takes no responsibility for the factual accuracy of the claims made in Timberg’s piece, an extraordinary response by an organization purporting to eradicate fake news.

Many Congressional Democrats have lent their support to provisions in the Intelligence Authorization Act that create a committee to counter supposed Russian “media manipulation,” “disinformation,” “assassinations,” and other covert measures in the United States.

Civil liberties organizations have rightly pointed out that this committee’s mandate is so broad that a future president could use it to target political enemies, journalists, and grass roots activists.

One common thread among many of the blacklisted groups is antagonism toward those critics of the “Washington Consensus on behalf of free trade and financial deregulation and the Obama/Clinton effort to impose that on the world. They are seen as derailing the Clinton campaign.

This play by Clinton loyalists could get out of hand. Norman Solomon, founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, rightly makes a Cold War analogy. He cites Democratic President Truman’s issuing a loyalty act in order to toss a bone to the emerging Cold Warriors only to have it blow up into the full-fledged fury of McCarthyism. I would add a further historical angle. As such International Relations scholars as David Campbell and James DerDerian have argued, the rhetoric of foreign affairs serves to discipline and support domestic identity as much as to fend off actual military threat.

The Cold War was born as much of domestic anxiety as of Soviet military threat. The end of World War II saw contentious efforts by unions and liberals to establish a full employment politics, coupled with a wave of strikes almost unprecedented in our history. Even key national security documents at the height of the Cold War indicated more worry about the political appeal of communism than its military might. That a cadre of Democratic centrists would strive to establish a top-secret surveillance committee targeting Russian links to dissident movements is an effort to escape blame for a failed campaign. Seen in broader perspective, however, it is also an effort to validate a badly wounded economic and foreign policy agenda by tying left opponents of that agenda to a reviled foreign power.

Fake news is a real problem as is the violence it can incite. At the very least such violence should be identified and its perpetrators punished. Libel laws should be enforced with regard to innocents targeted by social media or corporate giants. The problems of fake news are not going to be resolved by establishing a private corporate cop or censor for the internet, nor by establishing one more secretive watchdog. The Washington Post’s recent article on fake news is itself fake news. This is one more argument for both net neutrality and a more robust anti trust enforcement. The best answer to fake news is a more diverse media.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2017

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