How dilution has supplanted censorship in online media

The current machinery of the internet doesn’t need censorship to distort the truth. It simply dilutes the truth with a flood of misinformation and propaganda.

Unlike traditional broadcast media such as radio and television where the flow of information is uni-directional from broadcaster to viewer and must be tightly controlled, the internet bombards us from all directions with information and mis-information. It is hard to tell where news stories originate from in the first place, and the filter bubbles these stories have passed through en route to your device range from subtle (news aggregators that repeat a story but leave out critical facts) to completely opaque (search engine results, social media algorithms). In other words, dilution has become a powerful new form of censorship that can be deployed to distort and manipulate critical news stories.

Gil Scott Heron warned us that “The revolution will not be televised.”
These days on the internet, it might be more accurate to say:“The revolution will be pushed down the search results page.”

A tragic, unfolding case study of this effect is playing out with regard to the conflict in Syria. A civilian search-and-rescue group called The White Helmets, who now have a feature-length documentary available on Netflix and have recently been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, are in the eye of a public relations storm.

On one hand, we have the narrative coming from mainstream media: White Helmets good! Syrian and Russian regimes bad! Who can argue with a group of civilians selflessly rescuing victims of bombing raids? Even The Intercept, a seemingly non-mainstream publication with a billionaire funder, published an article earlier this week whose all-caps title screams at us: “Syria’s White Helmets Risk Everything To Save The Victims Of Airstrikes”. The author of this short piece is a regular contributor named Murtaza Hussain.

But if we widen our net and watch independent and alternative media closely, we find that another narrative has emerged this week that is entirely different, one that casts a strange glow around the simplistic White Helmets storyline. It is a much more complex and convoluted storyline than the one elicited by photos of men in white helmets rescuing children from rubble that abounds in mainstream media outlets, Netflix, and search engine results.

Max Blumenthal’s blockbuster two-part series for Alternet about the origins of the White Helmets and their parent organization “The Syria Campaign” alleges these organizations are puppets of American USAID and an exiled Syrian oil oligarch who operates his business in London. He shows how the organizations are using a privately held public relations firm to coordinate placement of positive stories about the White Helmets that coincidentally (*wink*) push for regime change that would benefit the exiled Syrian oiligarch as well as US and NATO imperial interests.

Other similar stories and interviews emerged this week in the alt media on this topic. The Ron Paul Liberty Report interviewed activist and journalist Vanessa Beeley who told the same story: that the White Helmets are being used to eradicate the real Syrian Civil Defense who are working in both civilian and rebel-held areas in Syria. Joanne Leon of also gave us a great roundup of links about this topic, under the general heading “An exposé of the ‘White Helmets’ in Syria has rattled the War Party establishment”.

Perhaps one of the most damning and critical stories this week about how war propaganda is financed and created was published by Crofton Black and Abigail Fielding-Smith via The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. It painfully chronicles the journey of a videographer who flippantly answered a “help wanted” ad for a PR firm in London which led to a secretive media operations unit. His job was to fabricate fake Islamic jihadi videos under the command of the US Pentagon’s “Psychological Operations” in Iraq.

As responsible news readers, we have to ask ourselves: How in the world are we supposed to navigate this mess? How are we supposed to distinguish fact from PR, especially when there is so much PR that passes for news online?

There is, of course, no simple answer. But there are a few simple strategies that one can employ:

* Look first at the name of the journalist, not the publication. Gone are the days of great editorial boards and journalistic standards. The internet has turbo-charged the news cycle and gutted newsrooms. The only thing that will endure is a reporter’s name. What stories have they signed their name to previously?

* Cui bono. You must think about who benefits from the narrative, and how the story arrived on your device in the first place. Was the story funded? Who funded it? And who funds them?

* Scroll down the search results page. Check another search engine. Seriously, you might find some hidden gems “below the fold” or on the next few pages, things that may have been pushed out of sight via dilution tactics. Understand what Dr. Robert Epstein calls SEME: the Search Engine Manipulation Effect.

* Who shared it? Are there people in your social network(s) that you can always count on to share the good stuff? Who do you follow?

* Balance perspectives. There is no unified mainstream media, no unified alternative media, nor is there even a unified government perspective for that matter. Each of these are complex umbrellas for factions and individuals with varying interests. Be wary of simple narratives that might suggest otherwise. Seek out other points of view.
Out of these strategies, as an online news gathering project hopes to design a technical framework for surfacing the best public-interest independent journalism from across the web.

What are your strategies for navigating the convoluted world of online news? If you have ideas to share, drop a note to vision *at* or tweet @LevelNewsOrg and you’ll get a link back from here -- whether its a blog entry, a simple tweet or a post on Facebook.


"Google's Featured Snippets Are Worse Thank Fake News" -- by Adrianne Jeffries via

"Common Core, Automated Advocacy, & Media Coverage" -- by Alexander Russo via

"British Gov't Funded Outlet Offered Journalist $17,000 a Month to Produce Propaganda for Syrian Rebels" -- Rania Khalek via Alternet

"Google, democracy and the truth about internet search" -- Carole Cadwalladr via The Guardian

"Bots Unite to Automate the Presidential Election" -- Samuel Wooley and Phil Howard via

Creative Commons License
"Spotting Propaganda" by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Lauren Garcia is a software developer in the San Francisco Bay Area.