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Deplatformed by PayPal, Antiwar Journalists Speak Out

CoinDesk logo CoinDesk 5/23/2022 David Z Morris
Consortium News Editor-in-Chief Joe Lauria, whose site was blocked by PayPal without explanation. (Elvert Barnes/Wikimedia Commons) © Provided by CoinDesk Consortium News Editor-in-Chief Joe Lauria, whose site was blocked by PayPal without explanation. (Elvert Barnes/Wikimedia Commons)

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Earlier this month, we highlighted PayPal’s decision to ban two independent media organizations, Mint Press and Consortium, from using the payments platform. The sites are staffed by and affiliated with highly reputable journalists, and both believe they have been targeted for refusing to parrot mainstream media narratives about topics including U.S. intelligence operations and the war in Ukraine.

According to the two organizations, the PayPal ban remains in effect. PayPal had also frozen the outlets’ funds, including $9,348.14 in Consortium’s account, and threatened to seize the money as “damages.” Those funds have since been released, though Consortium chief Joe Lauria said he believes that was done only to prevent the sites from joining an ongoing class-action lawsuit against PayPal by a group of poker players whose accounts were similarly seized.

To top it all off, nobody will tell the outlets why exactly they’ve been banned.

“I've reached out to PayPal several times only to be told by a representative that they themselves don't understand or know why we have been banned,” said Mint Press founder and Editor-in-Chief Mnar Adley. CoinDesk has also reached out to PayPal multiple times seeking clarity, but PayPal has not responded to our inquiries.

This the latest in a long string of instances of financial deplatforming, which has become a constant and accelerating nuisance for a variety of controversial but legal businesses, including cannabis and adult entertainment. But compared to weed or porn, PayPal preventing journalists from making money has potentially much more serious social impacts.

That’s in part because it will directly interfere with the work of the outlets it has banned. It could also have a broader “chilling effect” on speech in general: if PayPal seems poised to ban controversial content, writers and publishers are less likely to print facts or ideas that contradict powerful mainstream institutions.

Inconvenient truths

“This is a warning shot fired at anyone even remotely antiestablishment,” said Mint Press Senior Writer Alan MacLeod. “Alternative media operations run on shoestring budgets and rely on enormous corporations like PayPal to operate correctly. If they can do this to us, they can do it to you.”

MacLeod, who holds a Ph.D. in geopolitics from the University of Glasgow and has published a book on disinformation with the respected academic press Routledge, is representative of the kinds of voices PayPal is helping silence here.

“I believe this is a case of ‘ideological policing,’” said Consortium editor Joe Lauria. “Indeed, this is wartime censorship even though the U.S. is not officially at war.”

Consortium and Mint Press have both recently published articles that challenge neat narratives about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. To be clear, Mint and Consortium are not peddling Russian apologism in support of an authoritarian future Fox News has that covered. Rather, the outlets are antiwar and largely leftist, and their reporting uncovers the ugly truths that inevitably arise on both sides of any conflict.

The incident is also worrying because the PayPal bans appear coordinated, with Mint Press and Consortium receiving their smackdowns within days of each other. That strongly suggests pressure from government authorities. The bans are easy to see as a follow-up to Wikileaks’ own deplatforming from PayPal ten years ago, which came at the request of the U.S. State Department. Consortium has long been noted for its coverage of America’s relentless attacks on Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange after he helped expose American war crimes in Iraq.

Mint Press coverage also seems likely to have rubbed Western officialdom the wrong way, such as MacLeod’s recent report that TikTok employs a strangely large number of NATO-affiliated individuals. Mint Press also reports extensively on attacks on Palestine by the Israeli Defense Forces, and publishes the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning antiwar reporter Chris Hedges. In his coverage, Matt Taibbi points to a recent PayPal announcement that acknowledged sharing data with governments and law enforcement as a way to “fight extremism and hate.” Tarring criticism of Israeli policy as anti-Semitism is a frequent tactic of its allies and supporters – a category error regardless of your politics.

‘Fake news’ that isn’t

There is an important distinction between Consortium and Mint Press on the one hand, and other sorts of outlets that have been deplatformed as clickbaity misinformation or government propaganda, on the other. Over the past six years, we’ve seen justified concern over the rise of fake viral content crafted only to generate clicks and ad views, state-backed outlets pushing official agendas on social media, and increasingly partisan rhetoric that distorts real events.

Mint Press and Consortium, by contrast, are independent but credible sources focused on careful reporting of real events, even if they’re politically uncomfortable. Both are staffed primarily by Americans, and neither takes backing from any government.

“This fight against so-called disinformation is just a guise to target dissenters and outlets that expose the profiteers and both parties’ addiction to forever wars,” said Adley. “Which is exactly what we do at Mint Press. We name the names, show their profits, highlight their statements and report on the many conflicts of interest that exist within the media and these shady relationships.”

Moreover, their staffers and contributors include many highly lauded veteran journalists. Lauria is a former staffer at the Boston Globe and Wall Street Journal, and co-authored a book with Mike Gravel, who represented Alaska as a Democrat in the Senate from 1969 to 1981. Consortium was founded in 1995 by Robert Parry, an award-winning investigative journalist who helped uncover the CIA’s role in drug trafficking and its extensive use of psychological warfare abroad. I’ve already mentioned Mint publishing Chris Hedges, who famously resigned from the New York Times after criticizing its coverage of the Iraq War – which in fact was and continued to be catastrophically flawed.

Mint and Consortium also have highly reputable supporters. Taibbi, who covered the PayPal deplatformings sympathetically, remains one of the most influential journalists of his generation for his coverage of the 2008 financial crisis, including the timeless description of Goldman Sachs as “a giant vampire squid.” Robert Scheer, who recently interviewed Lauria about the fight with PayPal, is a journalist with a half century of experience and professor of journalism at USC-Annenberg.

All this may sound like an appeal to authority or credentials, and that’s because it is. You may be a fan of Lindy effects in crypto, and it doesn’t get much more Lindy in journalism than folks like Lauria and Scheer, who have managed to maintain careers over long decades while refusing to bend to the groupthink of the media industry. They should be heroes in particular to skeptics of state power.

Financial censorship is still censorship

While both Mint and Consortium are openly antiwar, their reporting doesn’t amount to a political campaign. They are simply exposing facts that authorities would rather not have to navigate, such as the strong presence of fascist-aligned units such as the Azov Battalion in the Ukrainian war effort. By lumping such uncomfortable realities in with “fake news,” PayPaI is accepting its new role as a bottleneck for ideological control.

I would call this a sad index of American fragility, but in reality, this is just a tactical shift in response to new technology. As Joe Lauria points out, controlling the news has been part of American democracy since at least the early 20th century.

“Before the internet,” said Lauria, “It was easier to indirectly control the narrative through three TV networks or media owned later by just a handful of corporations. With social media anyone can start a publication, a webcast or reach thousands of followers on social media … The narrative is out of control from [the government’s] point of view, so a stringent government censorship program, first by pressuring social media giants and now directly with the Disinformation Governance Board.” (Since the interview, that board, at the Department of Homeland Security, has been mothballed.)

“Woodrow Wilson lost by one vote in the Senate to put government censorship in the Espionage Act,” Lauria added. “His dream is now coming true.”

Luckily, there is at least one solution for these and other marginalized voices: cryptocurrency.

“We accept bitcoin [donations], which has been a great backstop” during the PayPal ban, said Adley. “The ban has reminded us that we shouldn't rely on these big tech financial giants. We will be working to add options for other cryptocurrencies as well, as it seems that we should work with a more decentralized financial option. We are still new to the cryptocurrency world, but it seems like we don't have a choice but to move this direction if we are to survive as a media business.”

Read more: Financial Censorship Is a Thing. Bitcoin Fixes It

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