My name is Andrew Lowenthal. I am a progressive-minded Australian who for almost 18 years was the Executive Director of EngageMedia, an Asia-based NGO focused on human rights online, freedom of expression, and open technology. My resume also includes fellowships at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center and MIT’s Open Documentary Lab. For most of my career, I believed strongly in the work I was doing, which I believed was about protecting and expanding digital rights and freedoms.In recent years, however, I watched in despair as a dramatic change swept through my field. As if all at once, organizations and colleagues with whom I’d worked for years began de-emphasizing freedom of speech and expression, and shifted focus to a new arena: fighting “disinformation.”
Long before the #TwitterFiles, and certainly before responding to a Racket call for freelancers to help “Knock Out the Mainstream Propaganda Machine,” I’d been raising concerns about the weaponization of “anti-disinformation” as a tool for censorship. For EngageMedia team members in Myanmar, Indonesia, India, or the Philippines, the new elite Western consensus of giving governments greater power to decide what could be said online was the opposite of the work we were doing.
When Malaysian and Singaporean governments introduced “fake news” laws, EngageMedia supported networks of activists campaigning against it. We ran digital security workshops for journalists and human rights advocates under threat from government attack, both virtual and physical. We developed an independent video platform to route around Big Tech censorship and supported campaigners in Thailand fighting government attempts to suppress free expression. In Asia, government interference in speech and expression was the norm. Progressive activists in search of more political freedom often looked to the West for moral and financial support. Now the West is turning against the core value of free expression, in the name of fighting disinformation.
…The Old Normal Trump and Brexit are often cited as the turning point, a great political realignment that saw cultural elites shift to the left, and the working class move to the right. The NGO and academic class (elites despite their internal narratives) reacted by aligning their causes ever more tightly with corporate and government power, and vice-versa. Brexit and Trump seriously dented the authority and status of the expert/professional managerial class. These events were explained away as being the result of bad actors (racists, misogynists, Russians), stupidity, or “misinformation.” The usual leftist class/materialist analysis was thrown out for a simple story of good and evil. COVID-19 made things weirder. Big Media and Big Tech fell completely out of sync with material reality, smearing criticism that had previously been normal, and explicitly banning topics from social media such as discussion of a possible lab leak, or vaccines not stopping viral transmission. Polite society agreed with such bans, stayed silent, or even, as in the case of the Virality Project and its partners, led the censoring.
…QUESTION: Who do you trust?