The more that is understood about the U.S. intelligence apparatus, the more it becomes clear that Aldous Huxley’s vision of an oppressive society seems to fit the mold. It is the subtle deception and constant, manufactured confusion at the hands of the most powerful entities in the U.S. government that allows for them to operate in ways that subvert our rights, our perception of the world and our control in what we see and hear. MintPress News reporter Alan MacLeod has been pulling back the curtain on the government’s duplicitous involvement in the social media world for months.
In this week’s Scheer Intelligence, MacLeod joins host Robert Scheer to break down his research and reporting, examining just how easy it is to find the moles and spooks working at some of the most influential positions at Meta, Twitter, TikTok and other platforms. His latest piece, “TikTok: Chinese Trojan Horse is Run by State Department Officials,” exposes the recent outrage and China baiting surrounding the popular app as a front for what is really happening behind the scenes.
Rather than overt censorship, the U.S. government can bend the rules and maintain their control of information through the hiring of its former employees at these massive social media conglomerates. “In this case, we really have the best of both worlds for the U.S. government,” MacLeod says. “They get to keep these private companies, so-called private companies, at arm’s length, all the while filling their ranks with former State Department officials, former officials who worked at the White House or the Department of Defense or the FBI or the CIA.”
The hysteria surrounding the recent TikTok-themed congressional hearing proves to be a distraction, as MacLeod affirms: “Even as we’re talking about TikTok being this Chinese trojan horse, a casual glance at its trust and safety department or its content moderation department strongly suggests something very different, that it’s actually much closer to Washington than it is to Beijing.”
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Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guest in this case it’s Alan MacLeod and I don’t want to go overboard, but one of the good things about doing these podcasts, it compels me to read a lot of stuff that I haven’t read, and frankly, I had not kept up with your work in a way I should have. I mean, we’ve reposted pieces on ScheerPost and so forth. The reason I wanted to talk to you is I was blown away by “TikTok: Chinese Trojan Horse is Run by State Department Officials,” and, you know, but then I thought, all right, I got to learn more about Alan MacLeod and I read now, I don’t know 20-30 things. I haven’t read your two books yet. You just got a Ph.D. not that long ago from Glasgow University.
Alan MacLeod: That’s correct.
Scheer: In media and communications, I must say, you are doing incredible work. And this last story, I mean, here we’re all into, you know, the China menace once again, as if Nixon. God, where is Richard Nixon when we need him? And Kissinger. We’re starting this global war with China and of all things, TikTok. I mean, how dare the Chinese produce a successful consumer product? And there’s all this absolute hysteria and Alan MacLeod here wrote an article for MintPress News, which has a lot of really good stuff. And it’s all about TikTok which actually has an awful lot of the American CIA, State Department, Deep State people who… Well, what else is new? There’s money to be made but these people have gone to work there. And the whole idea that somehow this is a Chinese company that’s going to steal our data. And the spooks you got in here are largely, and you identify them by name and everything, from the American Deep State. And I also, it’s like what Sy Hersh’s thing about blowing up the pipeline in Germany and so the mass media basically ignores inconvenient truths here, and your story hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. So let’s try here. Take us through it.
MacLeod: Yeah, sure. Well, first of all, thank you very much for those kind words. It means a lot coming from you, such a distinguished journalist who has, you know, blazed a trail for decades. Yeah, since I completed my Ph.D. in media and journalism studies, I’ve been doing a lot of writing about the media itself. And one of the main projects and focuses of my work for the last 18 months or so has been exploring the connections between big government and big media. And what I find is that in virtually every case, any big social media company you want to name, be it Facebook or Twitter or Reddit or Google or in this case, TikTok, is absolutely full to the brim of US national security state agents. And that’s really quite ironic when we are talking about TikTok, because right now the political conversation in the United States is, is it a Chinese Trojan horse or isn’t it? Is it something that is stealing your data and giving it to the Chinese Communist Party or not? And there’s a debate on that. But, you know, if you actually go to publicly available records such as employment databases like Zoom info or social media sites like LinkedIn, and you just do a little bit of digging and write something like “TikTok CIA” into the search bar. You will be greeted with absolutely dozens and dozens of hits of people working in the highest echelons of the social media company who have very spooky backgrounds, let’s say. So, for instance, one we can talk about is Christian Cardona. He enjoyed a distinguished career at the State Department. He served in Poland, Turkey, Oman and all over the Middle East during the 2010s. In fact, between 2012 and 2013, he was the assistant to the U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan. And he also had a role in organizing political and military affairs for the U.S. in Iran. And in the summer of 2021, he left his job at the State Department to become product policy manager for trust and safety at TikTok, which is a position that, on paper, he’s completely unqualified for. But it does give him an extraordinarily large amount of scope to change TikTok’s algorithm and decide what we see and crucially, what we don’t see. Now, for many people under 30, TikTok is just some sort of silly little app where people, you know, watch videos of other kids dancing but it really is a lot more powerful than people think. 31% of Generation Z use TikTok regularly and 9% use it for their number one source of news, which equates to tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of people relying on this service, meaning it is one of the most powerful and potent sources of news that’s ever been created. And when you start looking into the people who are actually pulling the strings at TikTok, it becomes clear that there are just an absolute host of people from the U.S. national security state. I talked about Christian Cardona, but there are just tons of them that I talk about in my article. I mean, another one, for instance, is TikTok trust and safety manager Beau Patterson, who was not only a CIA targeting analyst…
Scheer: Wait a minute, just give me the title again, the man who in TikTok in the United States is what? The trust? What’s his title?
MacLeod: Beau Patterson is the trust and safety manager for TikTok, one of them.
Scheer: For TikTok! For U.S. TikTok. So he’s not some Chinese communist, he’s this guy from the American Deep State. There is a deep state, he’s there, this is public information and he’s there in this central position.
Scheer: Yeah, that’s right. He was a CIA marketing analyst until 2020.
Scheer: Why didn’t anyone in Congress know this? Why didn’t The New York Times, when it covered the congressional hearings, tell us this, that the fact is this group is infiltrated and infiltrated openly, publicly by people from the State Department, the CIA, what have you, how could that have been ignored?
MacLeod: Well, almost nobody is covering this. But honestly, we like to think of Western countries as having free and open presses. But in fact, you know, we talk about countries like Russia or North Korea as having state media, state run media. But when you live in a corporate state, corporate media is de facto state media. And so when we talk about The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal or Fox News, I mean, they’re basically just representing different sections of the international elite there. And so really, these sorts of inconvenient truths constantly for decades have been swept under the rug so that people don’t actually know the extent to which the people who are in charge of the algorithms that really control our lives have very suspicious backgrounds and deeds, because this ultimately, what we’re talking about, is one step removed from state censorship but on a global level, because this affects not only Americans, but if you’re in Botswana, Burundi, Bahrain or Britain, this is also happening because these security officials who have been parachuted into TikTok, they’re not getting jobs in politically neutral fields like, you know, sales or marketing or customer service. It’s all about trust and safety and content moderation. In other words, the parts of the business that actually affect what people see and don’t see. That should be front page news, but unfortunately, as you pointed out, almost nobody is covering it.
Scheer: But let me explain why I found your article so important and it’s not just this article. You’ve done this kind of reporting for the whole infrastructure of information now. The U.S. Constitution protects us against government intrusion, that’s where we have a Fourth Amendment. That’s why we have the First Amendment and so forth. If it’s done in the private sector, we don’t get that constitutional protection, okay? We can sue for libel, we could do things. But there is this idea that the main threat to our freedom comes from the government. And therefore we have these amendments and we have separation of powers and protection. What has happened is the private sector came under attack by the government, congressional hearings and so forth, for not being vigilant enough in their dealing with information. They intimidated even, you know, the head of Facebook and Google and so forth, or at least appeared to. And then at the same time ignored the fact that their own ex-government personnel veterans had gone into these companies and they have actually more so once these companies were attacked. The best way they could defend themselves was to hire former CIA, State Department, Homeland Security officials. You name dozens, actually, in your article that are working at TikTok, right?
MacLeod: That’s right.
Scheer: And so when you say that, you know, these congressional people who were investigating TikTok and were shocked, oh, you have some connection with the Internet and you do this and do that, to not have one… I did not know this until I read your article and I want to give MintPress credit for running it. You’ve written for FAIR, you’ve written for The Guardian. You’ve written for a lot of people. But this was an incredible public service because we went through a national debate about how horrible this company is, because it’s Chinese owned by Bytedance, a Chinese company, and yet this US division has been infiltrated. Now, maybe they just did it because they were good jobs and they paid well. But as you detail and the devil is in the details here, you show that key people at TikTok in the United States who know where the information is, who can pass it around, who can exploit it, are veterans of our intelligence community. That is really sobering. So what they’ve been able to do is they can go into these private organizations, and you’ve written other articles about what they do with Google and Facebook and so forth, and do the very thing that our Constitution should be protecting us against their doing. That is really the serious argument here. If they did it as government people, they probably could get away with it by keeping it secret, but they would be clearly violating our Constitution, our rights to privacy, our Fourth Amendment rights and so forth. But then they leave the government, they go work for these companies, and they can do exactly this and yet it’s not even noticed.
MacLeod: Exactly. It’s a political shakedown is what it is. Sometimes these social media companies just become too big to ignore and suddenly they get hauled up before Congress talking about how they are a threat to society. And I’m sure behind closed doors, they’re given all sorts of ultimatums. In this case, we really have the best of both worlds for the U.S. government. They get to keep these private companies, so-called private companies, at arm’s length, all the while filling their ranks with former State Department officials, former officials who worked at the White House or the Department of Defense or the FBI or the CIA. They are guys in other words, people who on Friday afternoon left their job in the U.S. national security state and on Monday morning take up the job as moderators of the entire Internet, because that’s what Google and TikTok and Facebook really are. So, yes, for the U.S. government, this is a perfect legal gray area for them whereby they get to exert huge amounts of control over what everybody in the world sees in their news feeds, but don’t actually have to take on the responsibility of saying this is state media. It reminds me quite a lot about how the CIA uses the National Endowment for Democracy to promote regime change all around the world. That’s technically a private company, so it doesn’t get the same scrutiny from the press as the CIA does. And it also means they’re not subject to the same sorts of rules and regulations regarding freedom of information requests, etc.. But as we’ve been alluding to, this isn’t just a TikTok problem. This has been happening at pretty much every social media outlet. You might remember in 2018 there was a huge hoo ha in Congress around Facebook and the damages Facebook had caused American society, particularly with regards to the 2016 election. Congress people were actually talking about jailing Zuckerberg and breaking up Facebook. And just a few weeks after he was read the Riot Act in Washington, Facebook announced that it had teamed up with the Atlantic Council to help it curate everybody’s news feeds. Now, the Atlantic Council, for those who don’t know, is basically the think tank of NATO, where the generals and the staff get together and decide what NATO’s future will be. And that’s the sort of people that are actually running these big outlets now. So, for instance, if you go to Facebook, the person who they themselves choose as being like the face of trust and safety and content moderation is a guy called Aaron and you can watch Aaron talk in a very brightly lit room wearing a lovely purple sweater about how freedom of speech and transparency is so important to him and how he’s really kept up at night thinking about the sorts of decisions he has to make. And he always errs on the side of letting people speak their minds, etc. But sometimes he has to take down harmful content. At no point is it disclosed that Aaron is actually a CIA agent, or at least he was until 2019, where he left his job as one of the highest ranking members of the CIA to become in charge of the biggest social network in the world and its content moderation policy. That should be front page news everywhere in the world. And yet, how many people actually know that happening? Algorithms are extraordinarily important to the way the world functions today. And only a few people really are starting to grasp the power of them. Facebook is absolutely full of these ex-CIA guys. There was another Berman, Deborah Berman who spent, I believe, a decade working for the CIA on matters to do with Syria in the 2010s and then immediately gets dropped into a trust and safety management position. Scott Stern as well, is a very interesting character. Until 2013, Scott Stern was a targeting officer for the CIA and he became chief of targeting for the Middle East for the CIA. Now, if you’re thinking, what does that mean? Does that mean like deciding which Afghan weddings get droned? Yes, that is exactly what I mean. But today, instead of droning, instead of targeting, you know, Yemeni civilians, he is now senior manager for risk intelligence at Meta and he is weeding out misinformation and malicious actors all over the world on this platform, which is just an extraordinary thing to happen. I’ll give you a thought experiment. Imagine if TikTok was full of people from the Russian FSB or the KGB who were just being dropped into positions of power to make sure that they influenced what Americans or British people or anyone around the world saw in their news feeds. We would immediately see this as an absolutely blatant state interference over the means of communication. But because this is happening in the U.S., people don’t really bat an eyelid. And in fact, most people have no idea this is going on.
Scheer: Well, but they’re now being told that they may not, as certain states actually are saying you can’t access TikTok. If you work for the government you can’t use it, that it should be banned. No, you should be deported if you’re the CEO when you say something to Congress that they don’t want to hear, let’s take away his right to come here. He’s not even Chinese, he’s from Singapore, the CEO. And you have this, you know, the great defense of capitalism in relation to freedom is supposed to be that people want to use the market, reach customers, and therefore you will have a diversity of ideas and products and so forth. What these people have been able to do is actually exploit the illusion of freedom in the market at the same time turn it into an instrument of the total state. It is absolutely startling. You know, yes, if there were Chinese agents, you know, one you found, that would be the end of TikTok. But you could have dozens of top CIA, State Department, Homeland Security people leave, as you say, their job in Washington, go over to TikTok, that was supposed to be a Chinese company, and they make decisions. And this is happening about Google, they make decisions about what people get to see. I want to get to… of course, I did go and read I don’t know what, 30 different things you wrote, and so I want to take advantage of that. Really, what we’re involved in now is the destruction of what was the good part of the Internet. It was the Wild West, it was free capitalism. It was you who could be out there. Yeah, there’d be a lot of junk, there’d be a lot of exploitation, there’d be a lot of wisdom. It was the best and worst of all worlds. And publications, MintPress that you’ve written for, FAIR, all of these different ones, right wing, left wing, independent, could find a big audience. The main thing these people have been able to do, and you pointed out in a number of your articles, is have there… First of all, intimidate Facebook and Google and then put their own people in these organizations, brand somebody like MintPress a not respectable organization, and suddenly these alternative sites don’t get any traffic. So you don’t have the marketplace, you don’t have consumer freedom. In fact, you’re just blacked out and you have Bellingcat and others deciding who can see and then suddenly like, yes, we have the illusion right now; fortunately, I’m still able to do this show and it’ll be on NPR or at least posted as a podcast on KCRW for a while. There’s still that measure of freedom. But the great thing about the Internet, most people won’t even know we’re having this conversation. It’ll be blacked out by these big organizations. And I know that sounds a little bit paranoid, but it’s the reality. And even the independent voices we had, the Glenn Greenwald’s and, you know, and and others, Matt Taibbi, and they’re now doing behind paywalls in order to be able to make a living, I don’t blame them but the fact is the Internet has been neutered. And you actually outlined just exactly how it’s happening. These people can go in and suddenly you’re not getting Facebook traffic and the Facebook readers don’t know you even exist.
MacLeod: That’s right. If you go back to ten years ago, it was kind of the Wild West on the Internet. And if you were a small independent outlet, you were actually treated with something like the same kind of prestige as a big outlet was, in terms of the algorithm. And what that meant was that people who were actually looking for something different found it. And in fact, what we saw was that small, independent outlets wiped the floor with big corporate news giants like CNN or Fox, who did terribly on the Internet. And one of the reasons was that you went to the Internet to get away from what you saw on the television because you didn’t want to just see the same monotonous tripe from a bunch of different corporate news outlets. And so it was a time when we could build audiences quite well and build brands and actually, you know, try and, you know, affect the public sphere. But this really changed in the wake of the 2016 election when the Clinton campaign, the corporate media and the U.S. government and national security state coalesced around the idea that fake news was responsible for the demise of Hillary Clinton and the victory of Donald Trump. Now, of course, there was an absolute ton of stupid nonsense on the Internet, but that wasn’t really the reason why Clinton lost, we can go into that. But really, the upshot of that was that these three forces, the corporate media, the Democrats and the US national security state put a lot of pressure on big Internet giants like Google and Facebook to radically change their algorithms to support what they called authoritative content and demote derank or delist what they called borderline content. And what that meant in practice was almost overnight, pretty much all alternative media websites saw massive drops in traffic. So, for instance, MintPress, where I work, lost more than 90% of its Google traffic overnight and more than 99% of its Facebook traffic overnight. Now, can you imagine what that does to a media outlet when they lose that sort of audience? We don’t know the numbers of how many alternative media outlets went to the wall because of these algorithm changes, but it must have been absolutely huge. And it wasn’t just MintPress that suffered this. It was all across the board. Democracy Now! lost 36% of its Google traffic overnight. The Intercept lost 19%. And in fact, there was an interview with Mark Zuckerberg in The Wall Street Journal where he revealed he even personally decided to suppress Mother Jones’s reach because of its left leaning bias. Now, if you read Mother Jones, it’s a very sort of liberal and milquetoast outlet. But if that is the sort of company that is getting suppressed by Facebook, specifically on ideological grounds, what do you think is happening to more radical outlets? They are getting absolutely suppressed and just buried by the algorithm. So you won’t find us in the first two, three, four pages of Google searches. And that is actually a much more effective tactic of censorship because you get to reduce a company’s reach by 90 plus percent, but you don’t get those outraged headlines saying that the government is destroying companies, going into their offices and smashing up their computers or anything. And so we’ve got a sort of beautiful kind of censorship here where it’s an almost censorship, you can still find us, but only if you know where you’re going.
Scheer: Well, yes, And it’s extremely effective because you still have the illusion of a free market, of a free, you know, the old system, the heady days of the Internet. And I was editing Truthdig back then. We won, I think, six Webby Awards for Best News site. And, you know, I won the Society of Professional Journalism Award in 2011 for exposing stuff about the banking bailout and all that. And so you had a market in which, if you did good work, which I’m here to praise your work, Alan MacLeod, It’s really worth following. With the old sort of Adam Smith notion of a free market and an invisible hand, readers could find you and presumably Google was a neutral agency, even Google News, right? And oh, a lot of people find this interesting. You might find it interesting. That was the whole idea of the anonymous algorithm. Instead they came in and they rig it. And they say, no, we don’t want inconvenient truths, we don’t want inconvenient news, and we will simply blacklist it. And, you know, I have no great insight into the Chinese government or, you know, any other, but it would seem to me that they’d be stupid if they’re still doing only the old fashioned censorship. You know, why not do the new invisible hand of the government doing it by having their agents in there and pretending the market is free? That’s what’s so ominous about this, is that the average person using the Internet, does not understand that Google News is no longer just directing traffic or even Reddit evidently, because you have some people that you name who work at Reddit or any of these places. I can tell you, as somebody who edited a publication before, we got a lot of traffic from Google News and from Google, I once did an interview with Jill Stein and suddenly a million people appeared, you know. Now, does that mean people should not have heard Jill Stein? She was an independent candidate running, they found her interesting, because of those numbers other people came. That wouldn’t happen now. That will just be blocked out. Democracy Now! which you mention, Amy Goodman, she’s done a terrific job covering news from a different point of view and objectivity. She was able to build a really serious audience. They can now whack that just out of business. So it’s the opposite of the free market. It’s the government doing a more effective control. I want to just get that clear here. What you have outlined is that the government, our government, the U.S. government, has found a far more effective means of controlling the media of the debate than the overtly totalitarian model. You know, in the old Huxley/Orwell debates, you find that Huxley was right. It would be subtle, it would be deception, it would be drugs rather than the stiff hand of the state. As long as they can do that. If it still doesn’t work, of course, they’ll arrest everyone they don’t like.
MacLeod: Yeah, I guess they found a way of channeling people back into established corporate media like CNN or Fox or MSNBC, which just wasn’t the case ten years ago. If you went to YouTube and started to look for news or you went to Google and started to look for news because those outlets just couldn’t compete against these new independent ones which were giving stories and content to people that was just more real and more relevant to them. So I guess it’s a bit like how, you know, the U.S. government loves the free market until they’re not benefiting from it. It kind of reminds me of how in the 1980s, Japanese technology began to sort of outcompete the US stuff. And so the US imposed all sorts of trade barriers and tariffs on the Japanese economy, from which it still hasn’t recovered to this day, or how the U.S. government is trying to ban Huawei 5G technology because it’s domestic producers like Qualcomm just cannot compete with this sort of Chinese stuff or how, you know, Alstom, the French company, got into loads of pressure from the U.S. government. This is basically what happens. They love the free market until they start benefiting from it. And then they have to change the rules of the game. But when it comes to media, I think it’s just so much more important because ultimately there’s no greater arbiter of affecting what people think is true, what is false, what is possible, and what is impossible. There might be no greater force shaping society today than the media. And it is extraordinary to what extent behind the scenes this is being actually dictated by the U.S. national security state.
Scheer: Well, take us there because, you know, okay, we’ve established we have a new totalitarian model. That’s what it is. We can’t kid around about this. There’s the illusion of freedom and it’s been destroyed by these spooks. That’s what they are. It’s people who don’t trust the public to get different pieces of information, make their own choices. It has to be controlled. And since we do have, at least in our system, constitutional protections so that when Edward Snowden, you know, when Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, when they revealed stuff that the government’s doing, it embarrassed the government. There were actually investigations, just like the old COINTELPRO program and the Church Committee, they’ve actually found an ingenuous way of controlling things that there’s no put them up to a constitutional challenge. It should, but, you know, instead they say, hey, lead the CIA, go work for TikTok. We’ll blast it as a Chinese commie front but meanwhile, you’ll be inside there and while it still has this huge audience, we’ll make sure that they don’t get to, you know, read Alan MacLeod on MintPress. You know, and it’s really quite interesting, in the heyday of the Internet, and, you know, I was editing Truthdig then, it was very exciting because Chris Hedges, who had been a great New York Times Pulitzer Prize winning author but broke with the establishment over the Iraq war, told the truth. He was our franchise, you know, he was our LeBron James, our, you know, franchise hitter and could bring in hundreds and thousands of viewers who also helped fund the enterprise. Now, he still has a big following on Substack, of people who already knew him like they already knew Matt Taibbi. They already knew Glenn Greenwald, they already knew Amy Goodman, but that audience will be frozen. And what you don’t have is the opportunity of people who have never heard of those writers to find them. That’s what the Internet did in its heyday that got destroyed. What they did not like was freedom. They could not tolerate freedom, freedom of choice, of awareness, making up… And that goes for trying to ban Tucker Carlson as much as Chris Hedges. I’m not equating these two, but what I’m saying is they don’t want it coming from any sector. That’s really what it is. They don’t want freedom. And take us through some of these, you know, personalities. I mean, people might think we’re just spinning this, but I was blown away reading, you know, people should go to MintPress, they can also go to ScheerPost, they can go to other places, they could just Google your name, but you have been a kind of force here, you know, really. I mean, amazing, you’re not the only one, but it’s really quite startling what you’ve been able to do with your Ph.D. knowledge of research, I guess. And I keep wondering, it has to be deliberate, too good to check. Somehow other people are not looking at this because as you point out, you didn’t break any laws to find this. This is all… Tell us what you did and what you found, particularly. I want to recommend to everyone, wherever you read it. “TikTok: Chinese Trojan Horse Is Run by State Department Officials,” Alan MacLeod, who was originally on MintPress News. Let’s give them credit, it’s available other places. This is a case study of all that is wrong with America now in relation to the media. It’s a compelling case study. It’s the illusion of freedom unmasked. So take us what you found with this specific article.
MacLeod: Yeah, I guess it’s all about reestablishing control over the means of communication. And yeah, what I found was and I’m no real sleuth, as I said, I don’t have any real skills in terms of finding these people. It’s all out in the open, if you just go to somewhere like LinkedIn and know how to use Google searches properly. So even as we’re talking about TikTok being this Chinese trojan horse, a casual glance at its trust and safety department or its content moderation department strongly suggests something very different, that it’s actually much closer to Washington than it is to Beijing. And what I mean by that is just the amount of people from the US national security state who now have highly influential positions in TikTok whereby they decide what we see and what we don’t see by tweaking these algorithms, supposedly in terms of trust and safety, is extraordinary. So one example that I found which I find particularly egregious is Greg Anderson, whose LinkedIn profile, until I actually published an article describing him, actually said that he works at NATO on, quote, psychological operations, end quotes, and he leaves that job and goes straight into Twitter as some sort of cybercrime guy and now works a TikTok on field of trust and safety. And so this guy is being held up as somebody who is going to save us and, you know, call balls and strikes in terms of what is borderline content and what is acceptable. And yet just, you know, months previously, he was actually doing exactly the opposite. He was a literal psyop, according to his own words, to the point where you have to, you know, take your hat off to them just how blatant it is. Another example of this at TikTok, anyway, is Beau Patterson, who I mentioned earlier. He was a CIA targeting analyst until 2020. And he is, you know, pretty high up at TikTok in that sort of field. But he is also, according to his LinkedIn profile, a currently serving military intelligence officer in the US Army. So he’s doing two of these jobs at the same time. And as we talked about before, imagine if this was a Chinese or a Russian national security state agent or military intelligence operative running the show at a big social media company, we wouldn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But as you talked about with the case studies, I’ve gone through pretty much every big social media outlet, whether it’s Facebook or Twitter or Google or Reddit, and just started digging into their trust and safety teams, their content moderation teams. And without fail, I’ve been able to find dozens upon dozens of people from the CIA, from the FBI, or from the State Department who one day were working at the highest echelons of the US national security state and then the next day they quit their job and just suddenly find themselves working in Silicon Valley in extremely influential positions where they basically control what we see and what we don’t see. So Reddit is a very popular social media app. Their director of policy is Jessica Ashooh, who until recently, was a hawkish mandarin at the Atlantic Council, which is NATO in all but name. There, she was coordinating with governments like the UAE to successfully prosecute the dirty war against Syria. And now she’s being dropped into a completely different field of expertise to the point where she’s supposed to be essentially deciding the outlook and layout and overall political tone of Reddit, which is one of the biggest content aggregators on the Web. This sort of thing, as I said, should be front page news. Everybody should understand just how closely related Silicon Valley is now with the US national security state, to the point where I find it very difficult to see where one ends and the other begins because quite frankly, they are one and the same when it comes to the actual officials who are working, going through this revolving door between the two parties.
Scheer: You know, you can see had been at the beginning because clearly the Internet did come out of the Defense Department. It was a nuclear war fighting means of communication, packets and decentralization and so forth. But the conceit had been that in the private sector they would do it for money and they would worry about their customers and they worried about their integrity and so forth. And so the argument was, no, once we went to Silicon Valley, we realized, you know, you didn’t have to do this. You could do something meaningful, a good search engine, you could use these skills. It was supposed to be good, you know, it’s like a peaceful use of nuclear power. You know, we’ll use these techniques and we from the very beginning, you had companies like In-Q-Tel and, you know, starting Palantir, you had all of these contradictions from the beginning. And yet they the defense was if the private sector is doing it, it doesn’t rise to a constitutional issue because Palantir may be getting your private data and they may have been founded, they were founded in part by the CIA, the CIA was their main customer for their first three years, but now they’re actually interested in making money. And that doesn’t fall under the protections of the Fourth Amendment. Well, that’s been made a hash here. And I want to sort of wrap this up to explain ideologically and philosophically why this is so critical for the future of the world. It goes back to the Huxley/Orwell argument, which I bring up quite frequently. Dystopian models. And the irony is we’re still internationally following the old fashioned argument, you know, if there’ll be a big state power, it’ll be overt, it’ll be the hand, the Gestapo will show up. That will happen if things start to break down. But actually this is a much more effective model of dystopian control because you have the illusion that people are giving up their privacy because they’re consumers. But the fact is, it’s not a free market. And when it comes to political propaganda, it’s a far more effective way of controlling people. And so here you have the irony, we’re blaming TikTok, we’re saying you’re a Chinese company, even though you’re a profit making company but you’re not really part of the market economy. You’re just at the beck and call of the Chinese government. And yet TikTok in America is actually at the call of the U.S. security establishment. So we, kind of a big idea of the moment, we had mocked the whole claim of free market capitalism and we have shown it to be just an extension of totalitarian power. That is really quite sobering, because what’s the alternative? I mean, shouldn’t people in the Chinese government just say, hey, why don’t we just do what they do in the United States? We’ll just put people in there and pretend they’re just there is an occupational shift, right? They’re not really with our secret police, they’re now actually working at TikTok. We have mocked the very idea of the American Constitution, which is the threat to freedom comes from government power, big government and that’s what our protections are about. Fact is not the case. Big governments can pose as private industry and have even more power.
MacLeod: That’s right. We’re seeing an amalgamation of big industry and big government here. And ultimately, that means that people who are more, you know, dissenting voices or free thinkers are going to be squeezed out of this system because nobody in power really wants those voices heard. And ultimately, it’s taken a long time, but they have come up with some sort of way by which they can algorithmically suppress people. Because while we think of the Internet as this wide open space, you know, this ocean of information, the reality is that we are on one of just a handful of websites, generally, whether it’s Twitter or Facebook or whatever. What that means is that we are all essentially slaves to the algorithm. And there are these chokepoints, like the Facebook algorithm or the Twitter algorithm that really come to define what everybody sees and what they don’t see very crucially. And that means that they can basically set the tone for what people think about what the debates are and the person or persons or entities that have control over these algorithms, which affect billions of users have an enormous amount of control over the means of communication, the kind of control that dictators of the past could only dream about. So in terms of a free speech issue, I think this is probably the biggest one we have to deal with in the modern era. What is the alternative? Well, I think ultimately, if you’re not in power, you can’t propose breaking up these enormous media mammoths. But there are alternatives being worked out. I mean, just on an individual level, I think we have to go back to proper newsletters where we directly mail shotting stuff to people because we absolutely cannot rely on some of the biggest gigantic capitalist corporations in world history to promote content which actually challenges their power. That just simply goes against their business model and of course, we can’t rely on the US government to do that either. I think Robert McChesney is probably the academic that’s done the best work in terms of trying to figure out an alternative media system. He was thinking about something that where pretty much everything would be in the public domain, and the way it would get paid for is that every citizen would have, say, a few hundred dollars of tokens every year and they would give those to the podcast or the radio show or the newspaper or the book or whatever that they found was the most deserving, or they could scatter them around. And what that would mean is that advertising, the grip on advertising would be broken and that companies would actually have an incentive to go after niche audiences and do high quality work rather than, you know, go for the lowest common denominator. But yeah, ultimately we are in a seriously just a terrible and perilous era for media freedom and for free speech in general. And this is one of the absolute most important issues when it comes to modern journalism. And unfortunately, there aren’t enough people writing or talking about this.
Scheer: But let me raise a contradiction. Do you have a few more minutes on me just since you have a Ph.D. In dealing with communications. I’m supposed to be a professor dealing with communications. Let me look at it a slightly different way. We have been used to counting on liberals to believe in freedom. Wherever that idea came from, there’s supposed to be a liberal sensibility. There have been other people who care about freedom. There are probably, there are libertarians, for instance, who actually are consistent and serious and believe in some kind of Adam Smith’s notion of a free market, which would not have cartels, would not have Google. But, you know, it can come from a lot of impulses. It could come from just a respect for the individual and a notion of individual freedom and accountability. But what happened here, is that these categories have got mixed up. And you have something, I hate to use the word fascism because it gets overused, but if you think about that, what was fascism as a corporate model? It was really a wedding of the government and corporations. That’s really what it was. I mean, after all, BMW had no trouble surviving under Hitler. They just bent to sort of a government sensibility and a notion of national security and patriotism and so forth, and they could still make profit. And what I think is really quite dangerous now is we don’t have a force for freedom. You know, it’s amazing to me, but, you know, to find myself feeling better about Rand Paul, you know, than traditional Democrats who, you know, that I thought were defenders of freedom. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, I’ve always heard they’re kind of libertarian or something, but they do consistent good work in exposing some of this. And what I’m concerned about is we’re not even having a significant debate about this. And this is where we got into, when you began talking about fake news. Well, fake news is always inconvenient to whatever your base is in your power and, you know, is going to be called fake. You know, it doesn’t mean there isn’t a standard of proof and logic and facts? But that’s not what’s involved here. You know, the fake news that dominated us for the last 20 years was George W. Bush and his weapons of mass destruction and the connection between Iraq and Al-Qaeda. Total lies. And you had decent people like Colin Powell advance those, and nobody talks about that as fake news. Fake news came to be when, you know, Julian Assange revealed actual truths. Edward Snowden. So somehow that all got twisted around. And what you really have is the big lie. The big lie here is that somehow we were taken off the proper rails by effective lying by people who had bad politics or foreign agents, that is not what happened. And yet that is what I think is the dominant view in this country right now.
MacLeod: There has been just a gigantic bait and switch whereby there has been an enormous state influence operation on the US public, but it’s been from the U.S. government. And part of that has been to convince the US public that the Russians or Chinese are the ones that are actually influencing their opinions and not the elephant in the room, which is Washington itself. I was studying fake news before the term was really in circulation. There was probably only a few dozen people that were really following this pre-2016. And what I would really impress upon people is that fake news goes much further than some Macedonian bloggers writing on Tumblr about how Hillary Clinton is really a lizard person or whatever. The most damaging and pernicious fake news generally comes from big organizations who have the influence to spread it. And so the worst fake news of the 21st century is the sort that got us into wars like the WMD Iraq hoax, or the idea that Colonel Gaddafi was on the verge of committing genocide in Libya. These are the sorts of lies that started wars and killed hundreds of thousands of people, in Iraq’s case, more than a million, and left tens of millions of people without homes. And so that’s the sort of fake news I would actually concentrate my fire on. But unfortunately, companies like Google and Facebook have just amassed incredible amounts of power and money, and they are being silently and quietly controlled behind the scenes by the US government, who, by the way, were the perpetrators of the worst fake news of this century. They were the ones that were flooding CNN and the New York Times with all these false stories about yellowcake uranium or, you know, Havana syndrome or whatever is. And so these are, journalistically speaking, and just from a public point of view, these are some of the least trustworthy organizations and entities that we have. And yet it is groups like the CIA and the FBI and the State Department who now hold the keys over the means of communication. And so, yeah, we are in an absolutely perilous state in terms of media and our ecosystem more generally. And there’s no easy way out of that. But one thing we absolutely do have to do is at least talk about it and expose these big social media companies for what they are or what they have become.
Scheer: Yeah. And okay, we’re going to wrap this up, but every time people talk about solutions, in a way, it underestimates the depth of the problem. It’s working and I’ve been a little bit harsh on Orwell. The boot will come. The boot will come because people are unhappy, that’s why they vote for somebody like Trump. We have huge incomes and the people around the world, you know, they don’t want a unipolar world. They want to find different ways. You know, what is the great threat of China? They found a way to take hundreds of millions of people out of horrible poverty, who don’t like this aspect or don’t have, you know, a successful capitalist country, ironically. They produce stuff that people want to buy, including TikTok. You know, they’re real competitors. And so, you know, how do you deal with it instead of becoming more efficient? For instance, I mean, electric vehicles and global warming, they’re interrelated, right. And here you have the Shanghai trade show. And let me wrap this up by just talking a little bit about the China baiting here. Here is the Shanghai trade show where Volkswagen is there and Mercedes and they’re talking about they’re going to make more electric cars and one third of cars now sold in China are electric. And that’s necessary because otherwise you’re not going to be able to breathe in Beijing as you can for four, five months. So there’s actually some really good stuff going on in the world, in a multipolar world. You know, Brazil now with Lula, he goes to China, they can work out things. Maybe we don’t have to be dependent on the dollar. Maybe there are different models, you know, of how to do things. And what is really at issue here is the old, you know, Project for the New American Century, where they singled out China. They don’t want competition and they’re doing what Orwell said. You invent an enemy, you invent enemies. That’s what this TikTok thing is about. And unfortunately, instead of calling these people out, which is what Google and Facebook should do, because they know TikTok is not dangerous, it’s a danger maybe to their profit, you know, to have this kind of competition from a Chinese company. But the cynicism here, which is really you don’t want an open free market of ideas or products, you know, because, look, we went through this pandemic and most of what we ordered on Amazon was made in China. And now we’re going to say they’re the evil empire. It’s nuts. It’s absolutely nuts. And the very people who, 25 years ago with inventing the Project for a New American Century, the neocons, they are actually now the dominant force in the Democratic Party. They used to be more on the Republican side. Now they’re there, you know, they’re the same cast of characters and what they need is what Orwell warned us against. They need an enemy and that enemy can excuse their errors, their mistakes, their lack of program. But boom, we’re going to go. And that’s what makes it so dangerous. I’ll let you have the last word on this. I don’t want to force you into seeming to agree with me, but that’s how I see it and that’s why your articles have moved me so much. It’s so, what you revealed, is so odious, so frightening, so manipulative.
MacLeod: Yeah, I guess this is one aspect that we haven’t touched on, and I think the real context behind a lot of the hysteria about TikTok is that there is one major declining power in the world and one rising power, and we all know which one is which. We’ve seen even over the past few weeks, major shifts in world politics, whether it’s the wave of countries pushing towards de-dollarization, which would have serious impacts on both the U.S. economy and its ability to project its economic power around the world. We saw Florida Senator Marco Rubio warn that if countries continued to go along this trend of de-dollarization, which means using their own currencies rather than the US dollar for international trade, it meant that they couldn’t shut countries that they didn’t like out of the world system and sanction countries into death like they have with Cuba or Iran or Venezuela or any number of other ones. And so really, it’s been more than a decade since the United States really identified China as the rising threat. We saw this with Obama’s supposed pivot to Asia in the early 2010s. This was ramped up by Trump with his China fear mongering and this continuing under Biden, who is, you know, establishing military bases encircling Beijing and preparing for a war that most people certainly don’t want. But unfortunately, the propaganda has been very, very influential in the US, at least as recently as 2018. A majority of people, according to a Gallup poll, saw China in a positive light. But the most recent update to that poll showed that now only 15% of Americans consider China or Chinese people in a positive light and a large majority see it as a threat or an enemy. And that really shows just how well propaganda works, whereby an entire population can be ramped up even to the point of almost accepting a future world war on the basis of Yellow Peril and Red Scare. And that is really going to be one of the two defining features of the 21st century, the early part anyway, is one is climate change, and two, is this US competition with China. So we’re all going to have to watch it whether we like it or not.
Scheer: You know, the irony here is that when we were in the real Cold War and McCarthyism and hysteria, you had a liberal camp, including some moderate Republicans, even Eisenhower himself at critical points, warned about it, where people pushed back and said, no, this is Orwellian, you are inventing, you’re exaggerating the enemy. And, you know, there were real differences and there was real power on the other side. And there was a Sino-Soviet dispute. It was fragmented, but nonetheless overtly totalitarian, authoritarian governments and big machinery of war and so forth. Now you have this crazy situation where this communist threat of China has turned out to be a threat in the marketplace. You know, they kept us alive in the pandemic, you know, and so instead of saying, well, maybe that’s a good thing, after all, there’s a lot of people that are starving in China now, you know, can travel, can eat better. Maybe that’s a good thing, maybe other countries should do that. No, we are doing exactly what Orwell warned about. And the irony in this, I want to get back, conclude, by telling everyone to read this story. And you know, let me praise MintPress News for printing it. We also have it on our website, but forget that. Alan MacLeod of MintPress News, “TikTok: Chinese Trojan Horse Is Run by State Department Officials.” The reason his article is so important is that TikTok doesn’t make nuclear weapons and they don’t make tanks and they don’t make poison gas, okay? So here is an example of a company you can say, well, amusing us to death or it’s distracting or it’s consumerism, or it’s this or it’s invading our privacy, welcome to the Internet. All of these companies get your private data and try to make more money. How in the world did TikTok get to be the menace to freedom? And particularly when you read Alan MacLeod’s article, the idea that this company is staffed by former spooks, maybe they’re still spooks from the CIA and the State Department. They’re in there. They’re manipulating the data. They know where it’s going. And our mass media doesn’t even write about it. You got to go to something like MintPress News to get this information and if I sound ticked off, it’s because I didn’t know a lot of what Alan MacLeod has been writing about until this caught my attention and I read it. So my hat’s off to you. You’re a great journalist. Welcome to the old club. And I’m glad that there’s still turning people like you out. I want to also thank some good journalists at KCRW who post these podcasts, Laura Kondourajian and Christopher Ho. Our executive producer Joshua Scheer, who pushed me to do this interview, Diego Ramos and Max Jones, who also said you got to get Alan MacLeod on and I want to thank the JKW Foundation in the memory of a really good independent journalist, Jean Stein, for providing some funding for this show. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.