On November 30, 2016, presumably right at the stroke of midnight, Google Inc. unpersoned CounterPunch. They didn’t send out a press release or anything. They just quietly removed it from the Google News aggregator. Not very many people noticed. This happened just as the “fake news” hysteria was being unleashed by the corporate media, right around the time The Washington Post ran this neo-McCarthyite smear piece vicariously accusing CounterPunch, and a number of other publications, of being “peddlers of Russian propaganda.” As I’m sure you’ll recall, that astounding piece of “journalism” (which The Post was promptly forced to disavow with an absurd disclaimer but has refused to retract) was based on the claims of an anonymous website apparently staffed by a couple of teenagers and a formerly rabidly anti-Communist, now rabidly anti-Putin think tank. Little did most people know at the time that these were just the opening salvos in what has turned out to be an all-out crackdown on any and all forms of vocal opposition to the global corporate ruling classes and their attempts to quash the ongoing nationalist backlash against their neoliberal agenda.
Almost a year later, things are much clearer. If you haven’t been following this story closely, and you care at all about freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and that kind of stuff, you may want to take an hour or two and catch up a bit on what’s been happening. I offered a few examples of some of the measures governments and corporations have been taking to stifle expressions of dissent in my latest piece in CounterPunch, and there are many more detailed articles online, like this one by Andre Damon from July, and this follow-up he published last week (which reports that Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Chris Hedges has also been unpersoned). Or, if you’re the type of soul who only believes what corporations tell you, and who automatically dismisses anything published by a Trotskyist website, here’s one from last December in The Guardian, and an op-ed in The New York Times, both of which at least report what Google, Twitter, and Facebook are up to. Or you could read this piece by Robert Parry, who also has “legitimate” (i.e., corporate) credentials, and who hasn’t been unpersoned just yet, although I’m sure they’ll get around to him eventually.
I am using the Orwellian verb “unperson” playfully, but I’m also trying to be precise. What’s happening isn’t censorship, technically, at least not in the majority of cases. While there are examples of classic censorship (e.g., in the UK, France, and Germany), apart from so-called “terrorist content,” most governments aren’t formally banning expressions of anti-corporatist dissent. This isn’t Czechoslovakia, after all. This is global capitalism, where the repression of dissent is a little more subtle. The point of Google unpersoning CounterPunch (and probably many other publications) and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists like Hedges is not to prevent them from publishing their work or otherwise render them invisible to readers. The goal is to delegitmize them, and thus decrease traffic to their websites and articles, and ultimately drive them out of business, if possible.
Another objective of this non-censorship censorship is discouraging writers like myself from contributing to publications like CounterPunch, Truthdig, Alternet, Global Research, and any other publications the corporatocracy deems “illegitimate.” Google unpersoning a writer like Hedges is a message to other non-ball-playing writers. The message is, “this could happen to you.” This message is meant for other journalists, primarily, but it’s also aimed at writers like myself who are making a living (to whatever degree) writing and selling what we think of as “literature.”
Yes, as you’ve probably guessed by now, in addition to writing political satire, I am, as rogue journalist Caitlin Johnstone so aptly put it once, an “elitist wanker.” I’ve spent the majority of my adult life writing stage plays and working in the theater, and it doesn’t get any more elitist than that. My plays are published by “establishment” publishers, have won a few awards, and have been produced internationally. I recently published my “debut novel” (which is what you call it if you’re an elitist wanker) and am currently trying to promote and sell it. I mention this, not to blow my little horn, but to the set the stage to try to illustrate how these post-Orwellian intimidation tactics (i.e., unpersoning people from the Internet) work. These tactics do not just suppress information. They enforce conformity at much deeper level.
The depressing fact of the matter is, in our brave new Internet-dominated world, corporations like Google, Twitter, and Facebook (not to mention Amazon), are, for elitist wankers like me, in the immortal words of Colonel Kurz, “either friends or they are truly enemies to be feared.” If you are in the elitist wanker business, regardless of whether you’re Jonathan Franzen, Garth Risk Hallberg, Margaret Atwood, or some “mid-list” or “emerging” author, there is no getting around these corporations. So it’s kind of foolish, professionally speaking, to write a bunch of essays that will piss them off, and then publish these essays in CounterPunch. Literary agents advise against this. Other elitist literary wankers, once they discover what you’ve been doing, will avoid you like the bubonic plague. Although it’s perfectly fine to write books and movies about fictional evil corporations, writing about how real corporations are using their power to mold societies into self-policing virtual prisons of politically-correct, authoritarian consumers is … well, it’s something that is just not done in professional elitist wanker circles.
Normally, all this goes without saying, as these days most elitist wankers are trained how to write, and read, and think, in MFA conformity factories, where they screen out any unstable weirdos with unhealthy interests in political matters. This is to avoid embarrassing episodes like Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize lecture (which, if you haven’t read it, you probably should), and is why so much of contemporary literature is so well-behaved and instantly forgettable. This institutionalized screening system is also why the majority of journalists employed by mainstream media outlets understand, without having to be told, what they are, and are not, allowed to report. Chomsky explains how this system operates in What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream. It isn’t a question of censorship … the system operates on rewards and punishments, financial and emotional coercion, and subtler forms of intimidation. Making examples of non-cooperators is a particularly effective tactic. Ask any one of the countless women whose careers have been destroyed by Harvey Weinstein, or anyone who’s been to graduate school, or worked at a major corporation.
Or let me provide you with a personal example.
A couple weeks ago, I googled myself (which we elitist wankers are wont to do), and noticed that two of my published books had disappeared from the “Knowledge Panel” that appears in the upper right of the search results. I also noticed that the people “People Also Search For” in the panel had changed. For years, consistently, the people you saw there had been a variety of other elitist literary wankers and leftist types. Suddenly, they were all rather right-wing types, people like Ilana Mercer and John Derbyshire, and other VDARE writers. So that was a little disconcerting.
I set out to contact the Google Search specialists to inquire about this mysterious development, and was directed to a series of unhelpful web pages directing me to other unhelpful pages with little boxes where you can write and submit a complaint to Google, which they will completely ignore. Being an elitist literary wanker, I also wrote to Google Books, and exchanged a number of cordial emails with an entity (let’s call her Ms. O’Brien) who explained that, for “a variety of reasons,” the “visibility” of my books (which had been consistently visible for many years) was subject to change from day to day, and that, regrettably, she couldn’t assist me further, and that sending her additional cordial emails was probably a pointless waste of time. Ms. O’Brien was also pleased to report that my books had been restored to “visibility,” which, of course, when I checked, they hadn’t.
“Whatever,” I told myself, “this is silly. It’s probably just some IT thing, maybe Google Books updating its records, or something.” However, I was still perplexed by the “People Also Search For” switcheroo, because it’s kind of misleading to link my writing to that of a bunch of serious right-wingers. Imagine, if you were a dystopian sci-fi fan, and you googled me to check out my book and see what else I had written, and so on, and my Google “Knowledge Panel” popped up and displayed all these far-right VDARE folks. Unless you’re a far-right VDARE type yourself, that might be a little bit of a turn-off.
At that point, I wondered if I was getting paranoid. Because Google Search runs on algorithms, right? And my political satire and commentary is published, not only in CounterPunch, but also in The Unz Review, where these far-right-wing types are also published. Moreover, my pieces are often reposted by what appear to be “Russia-linked” websites, and everyone knows that the Russians are all a bunch of white supremacists, right? On top of which, it’s not like I’m Stephen King here. I am hardly famous enough to warrant the attention of any post-Orwellian corporate conspiracy to stigmatize anti-establishment dissent by manipulating how authors are displayed on Google (i.e., subtly linking them to white supremacists, anti-Semites, and others of that ilk).
So, okay, I reasoned, what probably happened was … over the course of twenty-four hours, for no logical reason whatsoever, all the folks who had been googling me (along with other leftist and literary figures) suddenly stopped googling me, all at once, while, more or less at the exact same time, hundreds of right-wingers started googling me (along with those white supremacist types they had, theoretically, already been googling). That kind of makes sense when you think about it, right? I mean, Google couldn’t be doing this intentionally. It must have been some sort of algorithm that detected this sudden, seismic shift in the demographic of people googling me.
Or, I don’t know, does that possibly sound like a desperate attempt to rationalize the malicious behavior of an unaccountable, more or less god-like, global corporation that wields the power of life and death over my book sales and profile on the Internet (a more or less god-like global corporation that could do a lot of additional damage to my sales and reputation with complete impunity once the piece you’re reading is published)? Or am I simply getting paranoid, and, in fact, I’ve developed a secret white supremacist fan base without my knowledge? Only Google knows for sure.
Such are the conundrums elitist literary wankers have to face these days … that is, those of us wankers who haven’t learned to keep our fucking mouths shut yet. Probably the safest course of action, regardless of whether I’m being paranoid or Google does have me on some kind of list, is to lay off the anti-corporatist essays, and definitely stop contributing to CounterPunch, not to mention The Unz Review, and probably also give up the whole dystopian satire novel thing, and ensure that my second novel conforms to the “normal” elitist wanker rules (which every literary wanker knows, but which, technically, do not exist). Who knows, if I play my cards right, maybe I can even sell the rights to Miramax, or … okay, some other corporation.
Once that happens, I assume that Google will want to restore me to normal personhood, and return my books to visibility, and I will ride off into the Hollywood sunset with the Clintons, Clooneys, and Pichais, and maybe even Barack Obama himself, if he isn’t off jet skiing with Richard Branson, or having dinner with Jeff and MacKenzie Bezos, who just happen to live right down the street, or hawking the TPP on television. By that time, CounterPunch and all those other “illegitimate” publications will have been forced onto the dark web anyway, so I won’t be giving up all that much. I know, that sounds pretty cold and cynical, but my liberal friends will understand … I just hope all my new white supremacist fans will find it in their hearts to forgive me.
C. J. Hopkins is an award-winning American playwright, novelist and satirist based in Berlin. His plays are published by Bloomsbury Publishing (UK) and Broadway Play Publishing (USA). His debut novel, ZONE 23, is published by Snoggsworthy, Swaine & Cormorant. He can reached at cjhopkins.com or consentfactory.org.