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    EXCLUSIVE: Meet the Reporters Whose Pages Were Shut Down By Facebook

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    Facebook purged hundreds of pages from its platform on Thursday. But instead of the usual targets - namely Russia and Iran - Thursday’s ban shut down accounts operated by independent American reporters and activists, Sputnik News has learned.

    Facebook said the pages were "working to mislead others about who they are, and what they are doing," but the co-founder of one of the pages, The Free Thought Project, tells Sputnik News Facebook's claim couldn't be further from the truth.

    Most of the pages that were banned and viewed by Sputnik News were independent media outlets and pages that advocated for marijuana legalization or shined a light on police brutality. 

    In total, Facebook removed 559 pages and 251 personal accounts "that have consistently broken our rules against spam and coordinated inauthentic behavior," the social media giant said. "Given the activity we've seen — and its timing ahead of the US midterm elections — we wanted to give some details about the types of behavior that led to this action," Facebook said, going on to accuse the accounts of manipulating the platform to make their content appear more popular, hawking fake products or functioning as ad farms that tricked "people into thinking that they were forums for legitimate political debate."

    The founder of one of the pages — Nicholas Bernabe of The Anti-Media — said he had no knowledge of his page engaging in any such behavior. The Free Thought Project co-founder Jason Bassler similarly denied Facebook's accusations. Rachel Blevins, a reporter for RT America whose personal journalism page was nixed, also denied inauthentic behavior.

    Just hours after its ban from Facebook, Twitter suspended Anti-Media from its platform, following a pattern of social media companies successively banning users that has been demonstrated in the past. For example, Facebook, YouTube and Apple all banned the far-right conspiracy theory site InfoWars around the same time. And after the CIA-funded cybersecurity firm FireEye contacted Facebook, Google and Twitter, each company banned a number of accounts allegedly linked to Iran.

    In the case of InfoWars, Twitter eventually followed suit.

    While many warned that the ban of InfoWars from social media would establish a slippery slope, they were often mocked and ridiculed. Thursday's onslaught on independent media appears to have confirmed their suspicions, however.

    Facebook has been partnering with the Digital Forensics Lab, an arm of the Atlantic Council think tank — a neoconservative group funded by Gulf monarchies and defense giants like Raytheon — to weed out inauthentic users from its platform. Similarly, it has been partnering with the neoconservative Weekly Standard magazine to fact check so-called fake news. 

    Journalist Abby Martin, who hosts "The Empire Files" on TeleSur English, told Sputnik News after TeleSur's page was temporarily removed from Facebook, "The shuttering of progressive media amidst the ‘fake news' and Russiagate hysteria is what activists been warning all along — tech companies, working in concert with think tanks stacked with CIA officials and defense contractors, shouldn't have the power to curate our reality to make those already rendered invisible even more obsolete."

    Sputnik News contacted a number of journalists caught up in the ban. Below is what they had to say, edited extremely lightly for clarity.

    Independent reporter John Vibes, who contributes to The Free Thought Project and other websites:

    This signifies a re-consolidation of the media. Cable news media controlled the narrative for most of modern history, but the internet has lowered that barrier to entry and allowed the average person to become the media themselves. This obviously took market share and influence away from the traditional media, and it has allowed for a more diverse public conversation. Now it seems the platforms that have monopolized the industry are favoring mainstream sources and silencing alternative voices. So now, instead of allowing more people to have a voice, these platforms are creating an atmosphere where only powerful media organizations are welcome, just as we had on cable news.

    People think that we are just providing an activist spin on the news, but they don't see the families struggling to have their voice heard. For example, when someone is shot by police, mainstream media sources often just republish the press release from the police department, without presenting the victim's side of the story. We give the victims and their families a voice, which is essential to keep power in check. This also goes for bigger issues like foreign policy as well; multiple full-scale invasions of Syria have been prevented because of information that the alternative media made viral.

    "Information exchange" activist Jason Bassler, who co-founded The Free Thought Project and solely founded Police the Police, both of which were banned:

    We were verified by Facebook with a little check mark next to our name, so they know we are a legitimate organization/outlet. They have seen our "Articles of Organization" which was issued by the state of Louisiana, which is where my partner and The Free Thought Project co-founder lives.

    We have even paid Facebook to boost our posts and for likes in the past, meaning they gladly took our money for a product that they ended up manipulating and backing out on. It wasn't much, maybe $1,200 over the past 6 years. Do we get that money back now?

    We have already had the lawyers at Rutherford Institute (a nonprofit civil liberties organization) send them a letter late last month about unfair treatment by third-party "fact checkers," which they ignored and never responded to.

    I was motivated [to start The Free Thought Project] by the injustices I saw on social media during Occupy Wall Street in 2011. I knew I had an obligation to get involved somehow and to share information critical for liberty and peace. I never thought I would have built fan pages of 5 million fans, nor did I ever think we would employ and give jobs to nine other activists (at one point), but I was inspired to do what I could to plant seeds and combat the mainstream media's bullsh*t narratives, to keep police and government accountable, to make sure people knew their rights and how to interact with police.

    All that's gone now with a click of a button. Six years of hard work, literally seven days a week, working our as*es off finding stories, researching them, writing them, making thumbnails and titles for them, making graphics and videos for them, sharing them on various social media outlets.

    What's next? I will fight this until I am utterly exhausted. We will fight back tooth and nail. I don't care if that means protesting in front of Facebook headquarters (which I've already considered doing many times in the past two years), I will make sure people know how corrupt and untrustworthy Facebook is if it's the last thing I do. You can't just steal years of hard work from someone and not expect there to be consequences. I will do everything I can to make their lives miserable. That's a promise.

    Rachel Blevins, a correspondent for RT America:

    Today I was locked out of my Facebook account for four hours, and my public page was "unpublished." There appears to be no explanation for this other than the vague claim from Facebook that my page was taken down because it was "administered by a fake account, misleading users or violating the Facebook spam policies." I am the only person who publishes posts on my page; the only posts I publish are articles I have written or videos of my reports, and I only post one or two times a day — which rules out all of the claims that I have violated Facebook's policies.

    My page had nearly 70,000 followers before it was taken down. I have poured the last four years into building my page as a journalist, and I have noticed recently that the reach seems to have been stifled and that the engagement on my posts was down significantly. I know that I am not the only one who has become a victim of this purge, and there are hundreds of other pages — many of which had millions of followers — that have been taken down with no warning and no explanation.

    Ford Fischer, the founder of the media startup News2Share, had a number of his live streams removed during the purge, although they were later restored:

    This attack was a long time coming. Facebook has been slowly clamping down on independent media. First, they removed more extreme pages and made it harder for the surviving ones to make a living by hurting their algorithms (unless they paid, of course!). Then they started purging those that didn't quickly respond to their ID requests. Today, hundreds of pages belonging to the family of independent media, especially those that question state authority, were removed without explanation. This is just one step further toward the total state and corporate takeover of what you're allowed to think.

    Nicholas Bernabe, founder of The Anti-Media:

    Our approach generally is to cover stories and angles that corporate media underreport or misreport and to amplify activist and anti-war voices and stories. All of our content is professionally fact-checked and edited.

    I got into this line of work because I felt there was a need for media that challenged mainstream assumptions and biases in politics. I wanted to shed light on corruption and wrongdoing against oppressed peoples and cover the harsh truth about American foreign policy.

    Over the last 28 days, we reached 7,088,000 people on Facebook.

    The timing of this purge is rather dubious in my view, coming shortly before the midterm elections. This could be an attempt by Facebook itself to affect the outcome of the coming elections. The Twitter suspension caught me by surprise. I can only speculate that these suspensions were a coordinated effort to stifle our message ahead of the coming elections.

    By Alexander Rubinstein.

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