Red Pill or Red Herring? | Debunking an Alt-right Conspiracy Theory
TL:DR: A Redditor on a Trump supporting subreddit tries to prove that Obama and the Globalists (great band name by the way) wanted to use net neutrality to censor conservatives. The only problem is the Redditor forgot to fact-check.
The Trump hype camp that is the /r/The_Donald subreddit is hardly a bastion of intellectual prowess though they sometimes pretend to be. Getting banned or having a comment removed from the subreddit is laughably easy - I know from experience.
It is rare for a post on /r/The_Donald to seriously make me reconsider my position on... well anything really so imagine my surprise when I came across a post that after a first read left me thinking “ok maybe there is a nugget of truth here?”
This is the post in question and with a title like "[DISTURBING REDPILL] The Day Obama Nationalized the Internet... and you didn't even notice" you'd expect it to be filled with angry fear-mongering, conspiracy theories and several barely disguised anti-semitic dog whistles... and it is. But if you leave that aside for a moment the overall story that emerges seems at least a little compelling. Therefore, I’m sure you’ll be glad to know that the post is also so full of bullshit and misinformation that my original draft of this post came to over 6000 words.
In this post, I will be debunking some of the key aspects of the post that serve as its foundations, however, I’ll also add a link to a far more thorough (though still not exhaustive) debunking I did too.
Because I don’t want to use the guys Reddit name in this post I’ll refer to him as 'Vladimir.' Not because I actually think he's Russian or Russian sponsored but because it was in my draft.
Vladimirs Argument Summarised
I've tried to summarise the argument the post makes as fairly as possible. Here it is:
Obama and the FCC fought for net neutrality so that the FCC could revoke ISPs broadcasting licenses if the ISPs didn't remove Conservative content.
The globalists used the 'Countering Information Warfare Act of 2016' and 'National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017' to create legislation allowing the president to classify anything he wanted as propaganda and then censor this content (which would have impacted the right/anti-globalists the most).
The Global Engagement Center was a ploy to gain absolute power over the internet and help the globalists to promote propaganda and lies to the American people while crushing the right.
Trump and the current FCC helped save America from the evil globalists.
The FCC Can't Revoke a License That Doesn't Exist
One of the key arguments Vladimir makes is that the FCC can be forced to revoke an ISPs broadcasting license at the whims of the president. As he says:
Net Neutrality invokes Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to require all ISPs and any company that provides internet service to register for Broadcasting Licenses from the government and regularly renew them.
What's interesting is that in the Reddit post Vladimir quotes the above text as if it's taken from somewhere other than his imagination. The FCC has never issued broadcast licenses to ISPs. Why? Well because they're not broadcasting over airwaves. Don't believe me? I didn't at first so I went online and checked and then just to be certain I called and wrote to the FCC. They politely informed me that: "an individual broadcaster license is not required to operate as an ISP."
An ISP cannot be censored by having its license revoked for the simple reason that it doesn't have a license to be revoked. If the FCC didn’t renew an ISPs broadcast license they would be breaking the very fabric of reality in which case we would have far greater problems. So consider that point thoroughly debunked.
Senator Rob Portman - An Inconvenient Truth
Vladimir makes several pointed references to the spookily named 'Countering Information Warfare Act of 2016' he makes it sound like some sort of liberal plot to kickstart the process of silencing conservative voices. His argument relies on the fact that the bill will be effective at silencing conservatives because with (and only with) net neutrality the FCC can revoke ISPs licenses. As we've established that argument is meritless.
There's another flaw with Vladimirs argument and it's big enough to drive a Trump train through. You see Vladimir quotes parts of the bills "mission statement" without linking to the statement. The statement is not part of the bill in fact it's from the website of the bills main sponsor. Why doesn't Vladimir link to the website? Perhaps because it might upset the narrative. You see the main sponsor of the bill is a Mr Rob Portman a senator from Ohio. Why is this a problem?" I hear you ask: well it's because Rob Portman is both a Republican and an opponent of net neutrality.
A free and open internet has flourished for decades with limited government intervention, creating an environment for technological innovation that has impacted lives for the better in countless ways. I am committed to ensuring that the internet remains free.
Sound familiar? Yeah, it's one of the standard Conservative talking points. Awkward right?
Need I mention that Portman was a huge proponent of Trump's tax bill? Or that he “has a 100% rating from National Right to Life and has voted 77-0 in favor of the pro-life position on National Right to Life Committee key votes” or that he has voted in line with Trump's position 92.7% of the time – the same as Ted Cruz. Portman – though a moderate when it comes to marriage equality also opposes Obamacare and has voted against extending unemployment benefits.
Portman is clearly a conservative so why would he write a bill that threatens him and the people he supports? Also even if we pretend for a moment that he does want to censor conservatives why was he such a firm opponent of net neutrality? He could easily have supported it without too much political damage - after all, even 73% of Republican voters favour net neutrality and conservative organisations such as the 'Christian Coalition of America’ have supported net neutrality vigorously since at least 2006. Anyone with a brain has to admit that Portman is clearly no Democrat/Globalist in disguise.
So, to sum up: the main sponsor of the Countering Information Warfare Act of 2016 is a pro-Trump Republican who is against net neutrality and dislikes government regulation. Even Vladimir must admit that this significantly weakens his argument. Perhaps fatally so when we remember the FCC doesn’t actually grant ISPs broadcasting licenses.
The GLOBAL Engagement Center
Finally, we approach the one topic where I express some agreement with Vladimir even though his argument is still dumb. Vladimir notes that the original bill 'Countering Information Warfare Act of 2016' went nowhere but then Obama snuck it into the 'National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017' and Vladimir is sort of right - though I should note that this bill went through a Republican-controlled Congress. And hey, I agree it is wrong to bundle several things into one bill. Can we get that message to the GOP too? However, in the case of the Countering Information Warfare Act of 2016, I can sort of see how it's relevant to US interests. The bill basically sets up the Global Engagement Center (GEC).
According to a report from the Congressional Research Service, the Global Engagement Center is the most recent of several similar initiatives such as The Counterterrorism Communication Center (2006), The Global Strategic Engagement Center (2008) and Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication (2011). To quote the report initially the Global Engagement Center was:
Similar to the structure and purpose of the CSCC [Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication], the GEC was tasked with leading interagency efforts to carry out U.S.-government-sponsored counterterrorism communications to foreign publics, […] The GEC was designed to lead a whole-of-government approach to countering terrorist messaging, violent extremism, and ideological support to terrorism; better integrating advanced technologies and analysis into U.S. government counterterrorism communications efforts; and leveraging private sector and local foreign communicators, all aided by greater budgetary authority than had been afforded its predecessors.
A quick note: a "whole-of-government" approach does not mean an approach that the whole of the government engages in rather it means that different areas of the government can work together more efficiently.
Basically, the Center was initially envisioned to battle ISIS propaganda which I'm sure we can all agree is a good idea - at least in principle. Vladimir is shocked that the bill also has provisions to "train local journalists" and yeah that's not ideal if we're talking US-based journalists but the GEC has helped set up a radio station in East Africa which airs:
youth-produced programming that pushes back against the rising volume of violent extremist propaganda in the region. In particular, the content is aimed at local youth living in neighborhoods where violent extremists are known to recruit.
Later, after the alleged Russian interference in the US election and proven propaganda attempts (through the Internet Research Agency) and the growing Chinese threat, the final bill did broaden the remit of the GEC to analyse (not censor) the propaganda from foreign state and non-state entities. The bill also gives the GEC powers to offer a "fact-based" counter-message (not censorship) however it is made clear in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 that:
None of the funds authorized to be appropriated or otherwise made available to carry out this section shall be used for purposes other than countering foreign propaganda and misinformation that threatens United States national security.” Pg. 1404 (or 1446 on the PDF)
The word foreign is used 11 times in the bill in fact, "foreign" is the 6th most used word in the whole section and makes up 2% of the words coming after only: Center, united, states, secretary and shall. The center is not designed to look at American “non-state” entities or publish propaganda there.
Having made that clear I do want to say one thing: the US government has never said they won't/aren't using the GEC to target the American public and that is reprehensible. The US government should not be trying to propagandise its own people and any attempts to do this must be condemned - the government has already abused its powers enough and we must restrict its power to spy on us.
Although Vladimir's post is a good exercise in speculative fiction it fails to stick close enough to reality to be deemed noteworthy. It is a decent attempt at promulgating obfuscation but ultimately it is too flawed to succeed in red pilling anyone.
The way language is deployed throughout the post is nothing short of masterful – the author has the misdirection of a master illusionist. If you don’t give the post your full attention and read it with a critical eye you’ll miss crucial details that are quietly glossed over.
Vladimir attempts to increase the legitimacy of the post by adding links to copious sources to confer some of the validity of a well-sourced news article or scientific paper to his writing, (no need to point out the irony). Although linking to sources is admirable it doesn't increase the validity of an argument if your argument doesn't stay based in reality. The links Vladimir chooses to include are far less telling than the ones he chooses to leave out.
In my view, Vladimir's post is a red herring designed to stoke fear and confirm biases - when we're scared we find it difficult to think clearly so I don't blame people for upvoting it. Debunking the whole post has taken me the better part of three days and the lesson I've learnt is clear: don't believe everything you read online, there be dragons lurking everywhere.
For a less readable but more extensive debunking of Vladimirs case you can go here: https://www.theseventhdegree.net/news/2018/9/22/red-pill-or-red-herring-the-full-debunk