Cloaking hate speech and fake news in the right to free expression.

It should be obvious by now but let’s be clear: The same folk who regularly traffic in disinformation, misinformation and “fake news” are also those who most strongly claim that their freedom of expression rights are being violated when moves are made to curb hate speech (as opposed to protected offensive speech). They lie, they mislead, they conspire and they subvert, only to whine when they are called out on their prejudice and deceit.

That is what might be called message “cloaking” or “masking:” using the legal protections of democracy in order to undermine it from within via propaganda and psychological operations designed to confuse, divide and accentuate extant social cleavages, or what right-wing extremists call “acceleration.” This harks to old Marxist-Leninist notions of exacerbating social contradictions, although for Marxists these are class based in capitalist societies whereas the alt-Right sees race and ethno-religious differences as the main fault lines to be exploited (precisely because capitalism is seen to aggregate ethnicities into socio-economic classes, thereby diluting the racial or ethno-religious basis of “proper”–read: Anglo-Saxon–governance).

Ironically, the alt-Right and white supremacists share Lenin’s view that democracy is “capitalism’s best possible political shell,” and they, like him, see it as an impediment to “pure” government (be it of the workers or of a chosen racial or ethnic group, respectively). Lenin believed that democracy blinds workers to their common interests because of the false promise of choice offered by the universal vote. Conversely, Alt-Right adherents and white supremacists believe that democracy (both in terms of the right to vote and in legal protections for minorities, etc.) gives too much power to “inferior” or “replacement” groups, thereby impeding merit-based efficient (read: White) governance. Perhaps both are right.

All of this happens in a context where public cynicism about political elites runs deep in both mature and emergent democratic societies. Venality, corruption and instrumental opportunism are rife throughout the so-called ‘free” world, leading to disenchantment and anger towards “the system” as a whole. This creates the space where conspiracy theories, false alternative narratives, fear-mongering, scape-goating and other deliberate distortions of the truth take hold in the collective consciousness. Some of this is at play on the Left side of the political spectrum but the majority of notions about the existence of a (presumably homogeneous in outlook and transnational in manifestation) Deep State, climate change being a hoax, 9/11 being an inside job, etc. come from the Right, harking back to previous incarnations of paranoid fantasies like those of the John Birch Society and various anti-Semitic cults that see Jewish control behind every major social organisation. In fact, pushed by social media connectivity, new and old Rightist tropes have merged into a particularly nasty amalgam of hate and manipulated ignorance.

The convergence of hate speech enthusiasts, climate change deniers, bigots, xenophobes and assorted conspiracy mongerers has been facilitated by social and alternative media platforms, which has given them common ground and global reach. They fight vigorously to defend their “right” to voice retrograde views while working equally as hard at propagating all sorts of subterfuge and stupidity in pursuit of their ulterior motives.

The saddest part is that this syndrome has seeped into mainstream politics throughout the democratic world, with Right-oriented parties now adopting both dis-and misinformation campaigns and “cloaking” as political tactics. National-populist parties provide the most obvious example, but one only need to look at the GOP in the US or the ACT and National parties in NZ to see how this seepage works. If I was uncharitable I would call it the “Trump tactic dispersion effect:” lie, deny, invent, obfuscate and obstruct in pursuit of partisan and personal gain without regard to the negative impact it has on the political system as a whole. The GOP is too far gone to recover from its MAGA infection, but the NZ Right parties need to be called out on their attempts to model some of their tactics on Trump’s approach and those of the alt-Right.

The irony is that the major beneficiaries of this dispersion effect are authoritarians, both those internal to the societies in question as well as the foreign despots who see utility in the weakening of democracy world-wide (and who therefore encourage and support disinformation/cloaking efforts globally).

After all, the deadliest thrusts of sharp power are into soft targets.

23 thoughts on “Cloaking hate speech and fake news in the right to free expression.

  1. KR:

    Except that most of cloaking/disinformation is not disseminated by official govt outlets in the US, NZ or elsewhere in the democratic world. Government media outlets like the ABC, BBC, RNZ or TNNZ may pick up on some themes and uncritically reproduce them (e.g. the MSM regurgitation of the Clinton email story), but be it in NZ, Brazil, Spain or the US (as examples) the originators of disinformation are private entities often acting in concert with foreign actors (such as Fox News). And that is where cloaking or masking works so well, because only in democracies will shouting about having one’s freedom of expression abridged cause governments to pause when it comes to confronting disinformation and hate speech. Places like Singapore, Saudi Arabia, DPRK and the PRC have no such qualms, and their focus is on suppressing dissent, not freedom of speech per se.

  2. Reading the opening lines of this post I thought you might have had a revelation. I thought you were about to excoriate the dems for their relentless hounding of Trump and the Russia fantasies. Trump is a misogynist buffoon to be clear. But the woke and the authoritarian left are the reason why Britain voted to leave and Trump got the US presidency. You can try to control how we think and call us islamophobes and climate deniers and alt right racists whilst giving a leave pass to the anti semites because they agree with your world views. But reasonable people who believe in fair play and one person one vote are not racists because they believe immigration is too high.
    It is the fault of the loud mouthed authoritarian identitarian woke left that they drive reasonable people to think that only the likes of Trump can save them from the vastly worse alternative. A corrupt Clinton who you now defend. Obama is caught on mic telling Putin he can appease him more after the election. Obama gives no military aid to Ukraine but Trump should be impeached as the senior law officer of the USA for asking Ukraine to follow up another clearly corrupt payoff to a senior Democrat.
    But it is the main stream centre right you have a crack at. What the serious f£&@?
    /rant over/

  3. There are plenty on the left who are effectively exacerbating racial tensions by advocating for full separatism and putting out there comments like “Pakeha who learn Te reo are appropriating a language and culture that is not theirs” to give a recent, I feel, fairly nasty example.

  4. Surely you jest.

    But if not, let’s be clear once again: No serious person (on the Left or otherwise) thinks that a non-native speaker learning another language, much less the indigenous language of the land in which they live, is cultural appropriation. It is called “assimilation” in the first instance and cultural respect in the second. My family did it in Argentina when they arrived there as temporary immigrants, and it behooves all of us to think of the benefits of speaking a second language (especially as a means of hard wiring a child’s brain to different speech patterns, which in turns expands their range of thought and comprehension). Beyond that, the idea that the political Left is anything but defensive and polite in its attempts to confront the market driven social experiment and its immediately palpable catastrophic results, to which are now added the often violent revanchist Right wing attempts to stem and reverse an inevtiable and inexorable demographic and ideological tide, is laughable. And if you want to start in about ANTIFA I say: they emerged as a direct action, at best semi-armoured (and lightely armed) resistance to fully armed, organized and clearly violent rigthwing freaks like Proud Boys. By definition, anything with “anti” its name is a reaction, not a cause. Were there no violent rightwingers about there would be no anti-fascists to counter them (since in many places the police will not).

    Pakeha and other non-Maori benefit by learning Te Reo regardless of what some what self-promoting chauvanists have to say. Just do not disrespect the context in which words and cultural rituals happen (unlike that f-ing clown show that Princess Cruises threw at Tauranga last week).

    Note to Phil S: Nice to see you wake up to the reality of Drumpf.


    That’s some nasty BS.

    Interesting to note that she doesn’t make one criticism of China in her entire timeline.

    I know that I am talking about a tiny minority but they are very vocal.

    I intend to seriously study te reo starting over the next year. In my experience of learning languages, and I speak a number of them, you learn the culture (tikanga etc) as you learn. Hard to separate out the language from the cultural context when you learn a language so comments by this woman above (that clearly got to me) are scullilous racist agitation in my opinion.

    Thanks for the fullsome response. As for Antifa, it has an interesting history. I wasn’t think about it at all, though.

    As for the rather strained anti-fascist movements that have popped up since the 15 March attacks, well… I have an interesting perspective on those too. Suffice to say I find some of it needless if not purposeful but as long as we can talk to each other online and offline calmly and respectfully I don’t have a problem with some of the more hysterical strains of that movement, wherever they may ultimately be coming from and to what end. Thanks

  6. …what I do know isthat the former mosque secretary who was shot, who was a Palestinian, would be apoplectic with rage to know that his death was being used by some to argue for online censorship by the Anti-Defamation League, which branded the free Palestine movements he supported terrorist movements (having known him).

  7. Alt right … alt left… aren’t they as bad as each other?

    My concern is the pressure to conform and what happens if one doesn’t?

    Is marginalization and exclusion the price one has to pay to maintain a degree of coherent, critical and independent thought?

  8. Edward:

    IMO the Left does comparatively little in the way of disinformation, propaganda and fake news, at least when viewed against the actions of the Right. In fact, the use of dark art/psyops has become an essential part of the political Right’s playbook, whether or not the script is written in Cyrillic. The point of my post was mostly designed to note that those who cry the loudest about restrictions on “free” speech are most often those who engage in hate speech. They see freedom of expression s an opportunity to not only espouse repugnant views (which can be considered to be protected offensive speech), but to incite, encourage and/or promote harm to others. They see freedom of expression as a carte blanche when in fact it is predicated on a modicum of self-restraint and responsibility. The old adage about not yelling “fire” in a crowded movie theatre comes to mind, but in this era the Right spends lots of time doing exactly that.

  9. Fake news on the left is mostly focused on environmental issues, e.g. the “radiation maps” after the Fukuyama disaster that circulated in 2012+2013. A lot of it is also promoted directly or indirectly by Russia.

  10. That’s where you’re wrong, Pablo, in respect of your reply to Edward. Significant funding from the United States aimed at dominating the debate as to what constitutes fake news and disinformation and misinformation. That funding has gone to individuals and groups that are considered left wing.

    I suggest that you catch up with some of Anti-imperialist Max Blumenthal’s on the matter. Much of what he writes about is in operation here.

    Sean Plunket and Matthew Hooton raised it or brought it to my attention.


  11. Joshua,

    I shall take a look at Blumenthal, who I know as a critic of US corporate media and its complicity in fabricating/justifying US wars of opportunity and foreign policy adventurism in general. I am unaware of his writing on US Left disinformation campaigns, so will look into that. Even so, I remain skeptical that what passes for “Left” disinformation is in any way comparable to the outright lies and grotesque distortions that are now routinely used by the Right under the banner of “free” speech (and I note that Blumenthal is a favourite of RT, the Kremlin propaganda outlet that, for all the good that it does exposing US news stories that US corporate media decline to cover, is little more than a conduit for Russian disinformation campaigns). I also do not see anything in the supposedly “Left” corporate media that remotely comes close to the propaganda and fake news emanating from outlets like Fox, Sky News and assorted talk radio channels such as that which employs Plunket here in NZ. Plus, I would not take my cues from either he or Hooten, the former because he exhibits pathological misogynistic and other alt-Right traits and the latter because he is a Rightwing PR spin hack elevated to the level of political commentator, but without the intellectual or analytic grounding in political science required to credibly warrant that label.

  12. Pablo:

    The funders are not left wing but opportunistic libertarians seeking market advantage or monopoly through partnering with the US government, the UN, the World Bank, etc, etc.

    After Plunket brought up Omidyar – apparently after Hooton brought him up, the first to – I was amazed to discover that much of what Blumenthal writes about on Mintpress News in relation to Omidyar’s media framing empire is in operation here. So it turns out Tracey Watkins received funding to tie fake news to Trump from Omidyar when political editor at Stuff, and that the experts quoted at stuff from a thinktank called “the Workshop” also received funding from the same source, as did the lobby group ActionStation, which has also been pushing the same framing agenda to the public. I’m bothered to hear that our govt tech sector is apparently so tied up with Omidyar also because there’s been a big song and dance about Huiwei… Blumenthal states that Omidyar is a CIA partner!

    When all these “objective” actors are being funded to frame hate speech and fake news by an actor with a very definite political agenda, and note he funded NeverTrump/Bill Kristol also, then I think we need someone to take a good hard look at where this undue foreign interference or influence is really coming from.

    As for Blumenthal, he is no Russian asset but an old fashioned anti-imperialist. The left no longer has room for anti-war types apparently!

  13. Joshua,

    That is most interesting. I will have to read up on Omidyar. Can you point to a reliable source for the claims about Watkins and Stuff as well as Action Station and the Workshop? I get regular missives from ActionStation but have never seen anything on all these entities’ connections to Omidyar. I would have thought that would have been heavily reported at some point.

  14. Pablo:

    There was a Twitter account listing all the connections, it seems to have been suspended now or has been deactivated but I bookmarked some references.

    The Workshop (wayback as reference was deleted from live site):
    Behind ActionStation digital platform:
    … which also apparently has some link and then there was the Trust Project:
    Watkins rec. from the Trust Project when Stuff political editor:

    Didn’t catch everything but that looks like evidence to me. Yes, given it looks like a broad strategy by a foreign power or oligarchy or whatever it may be, you’d think it would have been worthy of an article at some point given the fuss over Peter Thiel and recent concern over foreign interference esp. in the tech sector, agreed.

    Then again, Thiel nemesis Matt Nippert is also an indirect beneficiary through the ICIJ apparently. Apparently a lot of money has come into tech sector and startup world and even government also and into some significant areas around online behaviour / speech / culture too over the past year or so.

  15. Also, since getting interested in this stuff I’ve been recommended Yasha Levine’s Surveillance Valley, which apparently goes into detail about this stuff, got it on order

  16. Outrageous claims and no supporting evidence when called on his BS. Typical for the alt-right.

  17. Joshua:

    The links are interesting (although the one on the Workshop just send one to a donation appeal page), but I do not see anything in the donor information provided in them to suggest some pernicious intent or, for that matter, global agenda-framing. Perhaps I need to read up a bit more…

  18. Byron/Gary:

    Please refrain from using false email addresses and names. It runs counter to our comments policy, which requires honesty in identification even if you use a pseudonym when commenting.

  19. Pablo:

    This link has that info:

    In the context of articles by Max Blumenthal and Mark Ames and others, who have written about this funder’s partnering with the CIA and the NED in other countries to influence the media and civil society in line with US foreign policy objectives, I think the NZ should receive some scrutiny.

    That funding was directly provided to fund framing exercises by thinktanks and for PR / social awarenress raising about fake news and hate speech and what technological solutions there might be to reign it, and by extension the Silicon Valley “big 6”, in.

    Quite prescient, really given the tragedy of 15 March and the general view that the offender was radicalized online.

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