Censorship, Digital Media, and the Global Crackdown on Freedom of Expression

by Robin Andersen (Volume editor) Nolan Higdon (Volume editor) Steve Macek (Volume editor)
©2024 Edited Collection XII, 444 Pages


Censorship, Digital Media and the Global Crackdown on Freedom of Expression explores the rising global phenomenon of censorship across various media platforms, in schools, universities, and public spaces. It documents physical assaults, legal restrictions, and the exclusion of critical topics from public discourse. This volume analyzes contemporary censorship methods, emphasizing the anti-democratic implications and the threat to civil society, human rights, and global democracy. It delves into the dangerous consequences of suppressing dialogue, information dissemination, and educational materials, providing insight into the challenges faced by critical media literacy and activists. The book advocates for policy alternatives, including economic restructuring of media, global agreements on freedom of the press, and educational strategies to preserve global freedom of expression.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Part I Rolling Back Freedom of Speech and Expression
  • 1 From Afghanistan to Ukraine: War, Disinformation, and Censorship
  • 2 Censorship by Proxy and Moral Panics in the Digital Era
  • 3 The Fake News Crusaders: Exploring the People and Practices That Spread Fake News While Working to Fight It
  • 4 Weak, Collapsing, or Resilient Media Ecosystems? Three Scenarios for the Future of Climate Crisis News
  • 5 Silencing the Students: Attacks on Freedom of the Press on Campus
  • 6 Automating Market Censorship: Authoritarianism and Democracy in the Twenty-First Century
  • 7 The Delusion of Power: Investigating the Myth of Social Media User Power in the Age of Big Tech Censorship
  • 8 Showstoppers: Can the Pentagon Shoot Down a Movie?
  • 9 Judgement Based on Gender: Patriarchy as a Tool of Censorship
  • 10 The Fascist Right, Rightwing Media, and the War on Critical Race Theory
  • 11 Rightwing Attacks on Academic Freedom in Hungary, Turkey, and the United States
  • Part II The Global Crackdown
  • 12 A Fate Worse Than Censorship: 
The UK, WikiLeaks, and Julian Assange
  • 13 When the Crackdown Is a Coup: Informational Autocracy and Media in Myanmar
  • 14 Censorship and the Emperor’s Fake Clothes: Media Repression in the Philippines from Marcos to Duterte
  • 15 Israel and Saudi Arabia: The Killing of Journalists Shireen Abu Akleh and Jamal Khashoggi, and the End of Meaningful Human Rights Discourse in US Policy
  • 16 The Brazilian Far-Right, Academic Freedom, and the Defense of Democracy
  • 17 How to Remove a Dictator: People, Power, and Media in Uganda
  • 18 News Media Censorship and Platform Control in Venezuela: Back to the Future!
  • 19 Repression and Restrictions on Internet Freedom of Expression: The Great Firewall of China, and the Loss of Democracy in India
  • 20 From Egypt to Qatar: Media Coverage of World Events, Hidden Conflicts and Human Rights Violations in the Middle East
  • 21 Mexican Journalists Under Siege: Between the Harassment of Local Governments and the Lethal Violence of Organized Crime
  • 22 Elon Musk, Twitter, Ukraine and Iran: “Free-Speech Outsider” or Essential Partner in the Military Industrial Complex
  • Conclusion: The State of Censorship and Resisting the Global Crackdown
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series Index


This book was made possible by the support of a number of individuals, institutions and organizations. While we cannot acknowledge everyone who helped us to assemble and polish this collection, a few are deserving of special recognition. First, much admiration is owed to series editor Anthony J. Nocella II for believing in and supporting our vision.

We want to thank our families for their continued insight, advice, and support. Taking on and following a project like this to completion it is felt by the entire family. We could not have done it without them.

We would also like to thank Fordham University, North Central College, and University of California, Santa Cruz for valuing free speech and fostering spaces where we can conduct this type of research.

We are privileged to be part of the numerous transformative organizations that have not only collaborated with us but inspired us as well. Such organizations include the American Association of University Professors, the Assange Defense Committee, the Critical Media Literacy Conference of the Americas, Critical Media Project, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, the National Coalition Against Censorship, Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, Freedom of the Press Foundation, Index on Censorship, Improve the News, Media Freedom Foundation and Project Censored, the Mount Diablo Peace and Justice Center, Pacifica Radio, PropWatch, the Real News Network, and the Union for Democratic Communications.

We owe a debt of gratitude to the allies and colleagues who make our work possible: Elizabeth Abrams, Mnar Muhawesh Adley, Maximillian Alvarez, Adam Armstrong, Sharyl Attkisson, Margli Auclair, Phil Auclair, Jorge Ayala, Nicholas Baham III, Matt Bailey, Manfred Becker, Kate Bell, Mara Berkland, Adam Bessie, Ben Boyington, Lonny Avi Brooks, George Bunch, Amy Buxbaum, John Corbally, Ian Davis, Roberto de Roock, Brian Dolber, Janice Domingo, Davide Dormino, Jessie Dubreuil, Andrea Gambino, Henry Giroux, Noah Golden, Eleanor Goldfield, Doug Hecker, Aaron Heresco, Michael Hoechsmann, Supna Jain, Josef Kay, Dorothy Kidd, Grant Kien, Amanda Lashaw, Dylan Lazaga, Jackie Leder, Cynthia Lewis, Jen Lyons, Kalemba Kizito, Emil Marmol, Abby Martin, Aims McGuinness, Sangha Niyogi, Christopher Oscar, Chase Palmieri, Peter Phillips, Albert Ponce, Kayla Rivara, Reina Robinson, T. M. Scruggs, Jeff Share, Lauren Shields, John Shipton, John Stanley, Max Tegmark, Alison Trope, Obed Vasquez, Rob Williams, and Amber Yang. Special thanks are due to Shealeigh Voitl for her careful copyediting. Thank you all for your wisdom, humor, scholarship, and most of all, thank you for your friendship and ongoing support.

And we thank all of our students, past and present, for their insights, energy, and determination to make our world a better and freer place.


Robin Andersen, Nolan Higdon and Steve Macek

Across the globe, democracy and democratic rights are under attack. This assault is being carried out by autocrats, governments, security and intelligence forces, and Big Tech companies. Academics, journalists, protesters, artists, poets, political advocates, and social media users have become the daily targets of repression. From the beating and jailing of journalists and citizens protesting injustice and abuse, to the online enclosures that result in internet prisons and digital apartheid, to surveillance spyware, the removal of books from school libraries and classrooms, and increased restrictions on freedom of the press, thought and expression, the suppression of individual and collective forms of freedom is being normalized around the globe.

A 2021 report from Freedom House, a non-profit organization that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, reported that such attacks are “shifting the international balance in favor of tyranny,”1 and warned that the enemies of democracy are “accelerating their attacks.”2 They point out that every year for the last sixteen years, countries experiencing democratic decline have outnumbered those with democratic gains.3 Relatedly, a 2022 report from The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), a specialized agency of the United Nations (UN) aimed at promoting world peace and security through international cooperation, warned that journalists, whose freedom a democracy resides, no longer have a safe space on the globe. Journalists are being killed, kidnapped or shot in the street. Journalists in countries not experiencing conflict are in almost as much danger as those actively reporting from a war zone. And the percentage of women among journalists killed in 2021 was 11 percent, almost double that of the year before.4 The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an organization that promotes press freedom and defends the rights of journalists, reported that in 2022, the number of journalists killed around the world jumped by 50 percent, with the highest proportion killed in Ukraine.5

The pandemic exacerbated the global threat to democracy and free expression. A United Nations representative warned that “a pandemic of [human rights] abuses” had taken place as COVID-19 raged.6 Prior to the pandemic, a 2018 report from CIVICUS Monitor warned “that civic space remains under serious threat in almost six out of 10 of the world’s countries.”7 The pandemic response accelerated this trend with governments centralizing their power over citizens with safety measures such as mandatory lockdowns. Simultaneously, Big Tech’s hegemony was expanded as remote employment and communication saw digital surveillance expand into all facets of life, especially the home, which was once considered a sanctuary from the market. Many regimes collaborate with Big Tech to silence criticisms of their own regimes, which are often marked by corruption and brutality.8

The United States Cracks Down

The United States has long presented itself as a bastion of freedom in a world where other repressive governments coerce their citizens through intimidation, harassing legal actions, surveillance, and much more. Yet, the launch of the War on Terror in 2001 saw the United States government contradict its stated commitment to freedom and human rights by using digital technology to spy on its own citizens as well as people around the globe, utilizing the Espionage Act to launch a war on whistleblowers, and suppressing the civil liberties of its citizens with laws such the Military Tribunal Acts and U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T Act.9

In the United States, the struggle over human rights, press freedoms, and civil liberties is taking place in libraries, on university campuses, and in the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS). When the 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision rescinded abortion rights and thus denied human rights to women, it sparked demonstrations across the country, and eight journalists were detained while covering back-to-back national protests. In total, fifteen journalists were arrested in the United States in 2022, as documented by the US Press Freedom Tracker,10 down from previous years because there were fewer protests in 2022. In 2023, two journalists were arrested in Asheville, North Carolina while covering the eviction of a homeless encampment. Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit of The Ashville Blade were charged with trespassing and curfew violations for taking pictures of the cops clearing a public park. Critics accused the Asheville police of “singling out journalists” who have been critical of their conduct in the past.11 Bliss and Coit were convicted of trespassing in a jury trial in June 2023, a verdict that was denounced as a “blatant violation” of the reporters’ First Amendment rights by the Committee to Protect Journalists and other press freedom organizations.12 Journalists are vital to a democratic society. Without reporters willing and able to investigate government officials and reveal corrupt practices, the people have few avenues for calling officials to account or calling out the wrongs of corruption.

As the pandemic spread, so did economic disruption and inequality, which was further exacerbated by severe and costly weather events related to climate change. Information is a prerequisite for public participation and mobilization in the face of social and economic injustice, gender and racial inequality, police brutality, and environmental crises. By any measure, US corporate reporting on global injustice and environmental advocacy is inadequate. Global Witness has highlighted the increasing urgency to protect land and environmental defenders as climate and biodiversity crisis worsens. They found that a total of 1,733 land defenders and environmental activists have been killed over the past decade; the deadliest countries were Brazil, Colombia, Philippines, and Mexico. Because of “restrictions on a free press and a lack of independent monitoring in many countries,” these numbers are likely higher.13

For the first time in the United States, police killed a defender in the United States when cops evicted an encampment protecting the Atlanta Forest. Speaking for the climate action group 350.org, Jeff Ordower said, police used “their usual litany of brutal tactics.” He added, “We can expect the usual false claims of ‘self-defense,’ coupled with an attempt to smear the victim and movement.”14 In 2017, the Atlanta City Planning Department designated the forest one of four “city lungs” and recommended that it become an urban park. Instead, “Cop City,” was approved; a $90 million, eighty-five-acre police and privately owned fire training facility. Georgia police arrested nineteen defenders, invoking a 2017 terrorism law against activists accused of little more than trespassing.15

In the United States, the wave of Black Lives Matter and anti-police rallies in 2013, following police killings of unarmed Black and Latino victims, provoked a vicious response from law enforcement and prompted state legislators to pass draconian laws designed to curtail the right to assembly and protest. According to the National Lawyers Guild, between January 2017 and February 2018, fifty-eight pieces of anti-protest legislation were proposed in some thirty-one states and anti-protest bills became law in North Carolina, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Some of the proposed bills attempted to remove liability for drivers who run over protestors with their cars or to change the legal definition of a “riot.” Other repressive legislation imposed criminal penalties on environmental protestors who trespass near pipelines or oil fields and “prescribe criminal penalties and financial liability for any ‘conspiring organizations’ that assist protesters.”16

A Big Step Toward Repression: The Presidency of Donald J. Trump

The accelerating rollback in civil liberties, which has intensified since the start of the War on Terror in 2001, drew international attention with the presidency of Donald J. Trump in the United States. As President, Trump relentlessly attacked the US press and called out reporters with belligerent rhetoric at campaign rallies encouraging personal attacks against them. He banned the Washington Post from covering his campaign events altogether, and in 2019, he revoked the press credentials of several established White House reporters and pointedly excluded correspondents who were known Trump critics from the highest level of access.17 He denigrated the New York Times and CNN with his repeated accusations that they were purveyors of fake news. During Trump’s presidency, reporters became the focus of police surveillance while covering the US border and were openly attacked by police while documenting the Black Lives Matter protests throughout the spring and summer of 2020.18 Violent Trump followers threatened and assaulted reporters and photographers and destroyed their equipment as they stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2020.

Under Trump, the US condoned and openly supported dictatorial rulers in countries around the world, and by example, encouraged a growing global trend of rulers silencing the voices of those who would criticize autocratic and corrupt governments. Journalists, bloggers, academics, and artists have been censored, arrested, and worse—tortured and killed—in a growing number of countries. The most brazen example of the escalation of silencing took place in late May 2021, when a Ryanair commercial flight was forced to land in Belarus and dissident journalist Raman Pratasevich was forced off a plane and arrested by the security forces of Alexander Lukashenko. Pratasevich was later paraded over state media, forced to retract critical comments, and praise the government. Alexander Lukashenko had the dubious distinction of appearing on the shortlist for Tyrant of the Year by the Index on Censorship for 2022.19

Trumpist Politics at the State Level

Trump’s governing style has been replicated by state lawmakers. Recently, Republican-led states have passed laws that ban books, silence the teaching of critical race theory, and criminalize transgender people. For example, in January 2023, with bill SB278, West Virginia doubled down on its transgender bans, proposing to fine trans people $1,000 and add up to six months in jail for just going out in public.20 By mid-January, with 158 bills introduced, more anti-trans laws had been proposed than in all of 2022.21 The American Library Association reported that the wave of attempted book-banning intensified across the country.22 For example, in North Dakota, with HB 1205, Republicans are racing to ban more books, particularly any with “sexually explicit” content that includes depictions of gender identity and sexual orientation. The measure proposes up to thirty days imprisonment and a $1,500 fine for librarians who don’t remove such books from libraries.23 In 2022, Pen America was alarmed by the number of books being banned in schools, saying such bans “threaten free expression and students’ first amendment rights.” They went on to note the “intense focus on books that relate to communities of color and LGBTQ+ subjects.”24

States legislatures are also preventing public school teachers from covering topics about racism and economic inequality. At least thirteen states now have policies telling teachers how race can’t be taught in schools. As a result of a vaguely worded New Hampshire law, one instructor is “no longer teaching her students about how Jim Crow laws and redlining built the racial wealth gap that still persists.”25 Since January 2021, thirty-five states have introduced 137 bills limiting what schools can teach with regard to race, American history, politics, sexual orientation, and gender identity.26

As the Brennan Center for Justice has documented, in recent years an increasing number of US states have passed voting restriction laws. Since the beginning of 2021, lawmakers have passed at least forty-two restrictive voting laws in twenty-one states. Among those laws, thirty-three contain at least one restrictive provision that was in effect for the 2022 midterms in twenty states. Restrictive state laws enacted in 2022 amount to the second-highest number of such laws enacted in any single year in the last decade behind 2021.27

The War on Whistleblowers and Human Rights Activists

Whistleblowers are individuals operating inside private, public, or government organizations, who disclose corruption, crimes, and abuses inside that organization. When whistleblower Edward Snowden, a government-contracted employee, exposed US intelligence agencies’ surveillance partnership with Big Tech, he was charged with espionage. The documentary film Citizenfour (2014) follows Snowden’s actions in real time and gives voice to his dedication to freedom of expression over the internet. The film also contains a damning critique of the Espionage Act, a law that bypasses all aspects of American jurisprudence based in due process. Lawyers cannot argue the public’s right to know or the illegality of government secrecy and hiding of information in a democratic society. This anti-democratic law was adopted during World War One and was used to jail socialist leader Eugene Debs and hundreds of members of the International Workers of the World (IWW) for their antiwar activism.28

US government attacks on whistleblowers began in earnest with Julian Assange, a journalist who initially published WikiLeaks, including the shocking video of US war crimes depicting US pilots killing civilians and journalists in Baghdad titled “Collateral Murder.”29 In fact, the US government’s harassment and prosecution of whistleblowers has been a defining feature of every presidency during the so-called War on Terror.30 Chelsea Manning, who leaked over 600,000 documents about the war on terror to WikiLeaks was also charged with espionage. NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake and John Kiriakou were also charged under the Espionage Act. Kiriakou identified CIA operatives who used waterboarding to torture detainees. The Espionage Act was also used to prosecute Jeffrey Sterling for releasing information about US efforts to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program. The latest security analyst to be charged with espionage is Daniel Hale who leaked information revealing the actual numbers of civilians killed by US drone warfare. Hale’s revelations came in response to the deliberate withholding of the brutalities of the war on terror and the numerous intelligence reports admitting that the war in Afghanistan was un-winnable.

Recognizing that fear of retaliation such as job loss or imprisonment may dissuade whistleblowers from coming forward, some governments and companies offer legal protections to whistleblowers who expose illegalities. Despite such protections, whistleblowers remain under attack in the US and around the globe. In the Maldives, Gasim Abdul Kareem was arrested in 2016 after leaking information about a government banking scheme that led to the removal of authoritarian president, Abdulla Yameen.31 The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the global war on whistleblowers.32 In 2020, forty-five whistleblower groups came together to warn that whistleblowers had been intimidated, attacked, harassed, and punished for exposing “inadequate health system capacity and delivery, public procurement problems, violations of health and safety and labor law, inequitable and ill-prepared global supply chains, unfair competition practices and market abuses, and large-scale violations of personal privacy rights” during the pandemic.33

Like whistleblowers, human rights activists campaigning to win justice for the victims of corporate malfeasance have faced increased harassment, retaliation, and intimidation. Perhaps the most notable recent example is the case of the environmental and human rights lawyer, Steven Donzinger. In 2013, Donzinger won a historic $9.5 billion lawsuit in Ecuador against oil company Chevron on behalf of indigenous people there. After that, he faced a Chevron-promoted campaign of retaliation in US federal court that resulted in his disbarment, two years of house arrest, and a conviction for “criminal contempt” that carried with it a six-month prison sentence. On October 1, 2021, the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights ruled Donzinger’s confinement illegal under international law and declared that Donzinger had failed to receive a fair trial.34

Without journalists, public interest lawyers, and whistleblowers to expose corruption and human rights abuses, and bear witness to protesters under attack, government and security forces will not be held responsible, either domestically or on the international stage. As the world becomes more interdependent, sound information about politics, finance and global markets, the environment, and international treaties that impact human well-being becomes a prerequisite for our collective survival. But as the Foreign Policy Centre detailed, more than half of the investigative reporters around the world who cover financial crimes—like the multinational team of journalists that covered the Panama Papers disclosures about global money laundering—say they have been subjected to defamation lawsuits, “cease and desist” letters, trolling, coordinated online smear campaigns, threats, and physical violence.35

The Digital Crackdown: Internet, Monetization, and Freedom of Expression

Once celebrated as champions of free speech, social media platforms and Big Tech companies now execute attacks on journalists and abet legal prosecutions of whistleblowers. A ProPublica exposé revealed Big Tech’s failure to protect the privacy of its digital users on What’s App, an encrypted platform. Meta, formerly Facebook, has an extensive monitoring operation and regularly shares personal information with prosecutors.36 In a disturbing development that followed the US Supreme Court’s anti-abortion ruling, local police departments in certain states have gained greater authority to invade people’s private data to hunt down and prosecute abortion seekers.37 When governments institute systematic surveillance that traces the actions and activities, writings, books, and beliefs of their citizens, individuals live in fear of expressing critical thought. A social order based in fear stagnates in a type of conformity ironically depicted in the novel and movie, 1984.

Driving the global trajectory toward a 1984-like dystopia are powerful hacking tools such as Pegasus. developed by the Israeli cyber company NSO Group, Pegasus was sold to repressive governments around the world, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Morocco, Rwanda, Hungary, India, Mexico, and Azerbaijan.38 It was used to target activists, journalists, and politicians in a massive surveillance campaign that hacked into citizens’ cell phones and was directly connected to the killing of at least one journalist in Mexico.39 A team of international reporters investigated the spyware after Amnesty International gained access to a leak of more than 50,000 records of phone numbers hacked in countries known to be NSO clients. PBS Frontline quoted one reporter observing that “governments manage to retain their power by staving off threats from people who are campaigning for democracy, or holding them to account, or telling the truth. And here is a company that gave them a tool to do that.” Reporters Without Boarder (RSF), with others, filed a complaint to the UN in Paris in July 2021, citing the fears that journalists “were spied on by their governments as a result of having carried out independent journalistic reporting in the public interest.”40 Another journalist added, the cyber surveillance tool is “a military weapon used against civilians.”41

Censorship by Proxy

Big Tech serves as a proxy for governments around the globe censoring political speech and robust public debate. This censorship by proxy escalated in the United States after the post-2016 moral panic over false information online, and the (now thoroughly debunked) charge of Russian influence in US elections. Big Tech companies colluded with the government to limit user access to select information and have been directed to remove and “correct” information deemed to be false or misleading. Such online censorship is often highly selective and politically motivated. For example, in December 2022, Elon Musk released thousands of internal Twitter documents. Soon afterward, journalist Matt Taibbi reported that Twitter’s staff regularly fielded phone calls from powerful people in government and acted upon their requests to moderate content. And it wasn’t just Twitter. In an interview with Joe Rogan, co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Meta, Mark Zuckerberg, admitted that his company’s decision to moderate content—including the 2020 Hunter Biden story—is sometimes based on recommendations from the intelligence community.42 Similarly, the Intercept reported in 2022, that Big Pharma, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Department of Homeland Security, and officials from both major parties regularly influence Big Tech’s content moderation practices.43 Indeed, international partnerships between governments and private industry have strengthened the global crackdown on democracy. Governments around the world have enacted cyberlaws to prevent critical voices with claims of “fake” news, “terrorism,” and “national security” threats.44

Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are not neutral platforms. The flood of conspiracy theories and fake news saturating the internet is a direct consequence of the monetized technologies that drive profits for the powerful tech industry. These technologies are deliberately designed to actively harvest human attention and sell it to advertisers, which is immensely profitable. For example, the global market for Digital Advertising and Marketing was estimated to be $476.9 billion in 2022, and is projected to reach $786.2 billion by 2026, growing at a CAGR of 13.9 percent over the analysis period.45

Compounding this influence is the way digital technology blurs the lines between paid ads, boosted posts, and organic content on platforms such as Facebook, where ads and newsfeeds alike go viral. This design choice came about because in-feed placement increased engagement with advertisements, and thus revenue for Facebook. Writing in Politico, Diresta and Harris note, “The self-serve ease and affordability of Facebook’s ads tool, and the fact that the platform can turn content viral quickly, is why advertisers and manipulators alike love it.”46

Algorithmic Power

The inconsistencies in Big Tech’s content moderation reveal a commitment to political and market power rather than truth, accuracy, and democracy. As the fake news panic reverberated across social media platforms, Zoom censored events that featured speakers critical of the Israeli occupation of Palestine at San Francisco State University; Instagram prevented Raina Khalek from posting her interview about the conditions in Bolivia; and YouTube removed video content from the Critical Media Literacy Conference of the Americas.47 It is not clear what false information was being circulated in any of these cases. Meanwhile, many platforms removed discussions about QAnon but falsehoods about Russiagate were not removed from any platform.48 These inconsistencies reflect Big Tech’s haphazard content moderation and arbitrary decisions they later re-think, such as Twitter’s removal of the October 2020 New York Post story about Biden’s son, a move CEO Jack Dorsey later apologized for,49 or Facebook’s decision to end the company’s blockade of content about the possibility that the COVID-19 virus originated in a lab in China, a charge better addressed through research and investigation than censorship.50

A glimpse into how this happened came from a study by Oxford University’s Internet Institute that found only 20 percent of sampled tweets contained links to “professional” news, which became identified as the problem. Google downgraded searches for websites and organizations not considered “professional,” and many alternative news websites were targeted for exclusion. Search engines like Google rendered a vast range of progressive and alternative views invisible to their users, effectively narrowing the range of acceptable public debate.51 Journalist Robert Parry argued that Google algorithms made it harder to find “some of the highest-quality alternative news sites on the Internet.” 52 Alternative news sites reported dramatic drops in readership as Google’s new search protocols began restricting access to leading independent, left-wing, progressive, anti-war, and socialist websites.53 The number of readers visiting the progressive news and commentary website Common Dreams via Google search “dropped like a stone.”54

As we enter a brave new world where artificial intelligence is deployed in web filters and algorithms purportedly targeting fake news, the winners are invariably mainstream commercial media. This may account for why so little discussion about the dangers of algorithmic censorship appears in corporate news, while positive reports that praise new technology do. The New York Times lauded “researchers harnessing digital technology to fact checking programs in a hunt for fake news. It’s a positive way of moving artificial intelligence forward while improving the political debate.”55 Readers were told that tech giants were partnering with computer scientists and start-ups to develop sophisticated programs that analyze “reams of online data to quickly—and automatically—spot fake news faster than traditional fact-checking groups can.”56

Big Tech’s moderation policies seem to be driven by their loyalty to ruling elites rather than to accuracy or truth. This is abundantly clear when it comes to online discourses about war. Just as it has been for decades, war continues to drive censorship in the twenty-first century. When nations go to war, most citizens must be persuaded to support state violence over alternatives—loud drums of war calling for belligerencies serve to incapacitate basic humanity and the desire for peace and well-being. Governments and the military hit civilian “soft targets” with aggressive, vengeful sentiments to justify mass killing by the state. Censorship is the necessary compliment to war propaganda and disinformation, an essential component to manufacturing public opinion so that lies flourish and debate is shut down. Fake news and censorship begins during times of war but lingers on during peacetime. This process has been evident and well-documented since the World War I.57 The lies told in the rush to war metastasize, and the practices of concealing the truth, distracting audiences, covering up inconvenient facts, and censoring opposing voices become common political strategies that prevent the public from understanding the world. The disinformation of war is one of the precursors to today’s fake news, which has begun to imperil the possibility of an American democracy based on an informed citizenry.58 As war is now fought using internet technologies and digital imaging for everything from drone warfare to spreading propaganda, social media platforms such as Twitter are harnessed into the war effort, compromising their ability to serve as sources of information around the globe.

The Global Crackdown

The impulse to censor print and online media is taking hold in a myriad number of ways around the globe. New cyberlaws with vaguely worded restrictions and far-reaching consequences for freedom of speech have been imposed in China, the Middle East, and many other regions and countries. In October 2021, the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom issued a Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR) that urged the Greek government to withdraw proposed amendments to the Criminal Code, which would introduce fines and jail sentences for journalists found guilty of publishing “false news.” Though it is important to recognize the serious threat false news poses to states around the world, “the passing of heavy-handed legislation” would do more harm than good. Subjective interpretation of such vaguely worded laws can open the door to censorship of legitimate reporting.59

Attacks on Scholars, Poets, Artists and Citizen Activists

The rollback of democracy extends from journalism and human rights activists into other realms of expression. From the suppression of educational materials to the prosecution of individuals for scholarly or artistic expression, public discourse has become far more dangerous in many places around the world. For example, countries throughout Eastern Europe have banned Gender Studies programs and, in Russia, women face prison for disseminating images of body positivity that include drawings of vaginas.60 India, Egypt and Turkey are notable for their attacks on universities, the internet, the news media, social media, and civil liberties.

Around the globe, universities, scholars, and college students have become the targets of mounting government repression and politically-manipulated popular outrage. Russia, China, Brazil, India, the United States—in every country in the world where authoritarian parties or autocratic politicians exercise substantial political power—the powers-that-be have lately attempted to reign in the academy and curtail free inquiry and debate. Dissident scholars have been silenced, the teaching of controversial ideas has been banned and critical research has been shut down. In the United States, attacks on universities, student activists and professors have a long history but became much more frequent and increasingly strident in the wake of 9/11 and widespread student and faculty outcry against George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Anthony Nocella II and his collaborators have analyzed in detail the sorry record of what they call “academic repression” in the US-- a concerted effort by those in authority to purge higher education of certain people, ideas, identities and ideologies-- beginning with attempts by politicians and university administrators to stifle protests against Bush’s “War on Terror” up through local and state-level efforts to prevent Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter protests on college campuses.61 As the essays in this volume demonstrate, the concept of “academic repression” can used to understand events outside the US as well.

Restrictions on freedom to assemble and engage in political protest—a fundamental component of freedom of expression—are sadly becoming all too commonplace, particularly in countries with rightwing or authoritarian governments. For instance, in the fall of 2019, Chile witnessed a series of mass demonstrations over increasing public transit fares, the cost of living, and growing economic inequality known as Estallido Social (the “social outburst”) that were greeted with brutal repression by the administration of President Piñera. Begun as “fare strike” by high school students in Santiago in opposition to fare increases affecting the city’s subway and bus system, the protests rapidly grew in size and spread across the country, sometimes resulting in the destruction of subway stations.

On October 18, Piñera’s government responded by declaring a state of emergency, sending the Chilean army into major population centers to quell demonstrations and imposing a nationwide curfew. A week later, on October 25, over a million people marched in Santiago demanding Piñera’s immediate resignation, the largest street demonstration in the country’s history.62 Though Piñera paid lip service to the protestors’ demands and fired some cabinet ministers, his government’s violent treatment of demonstrators continued. According to the Guardian, as of November 25, 2019, Chilean security forces had detained more than 7,000 people, injured 2,300—1,400 of whom sustained gunshot wounds—and killed twenty-three.63 Other estimates put the numbers of those detained and injured by Chilean security forces during roughly the same period much higher.64 A similar wave of mass protests over interference by mainland China’s government in the internal affairs of Hong Kong during the roughly same time period was met with hundreds of arrests, the dissolution of pro-democracy activist organizations, and the forced closure of dissident newspapers.65

During the pandemic, artists and the cultural sector in general, also became the targets of prosecution and imprisonment in many countries. A study on the State of Artistic Freedom by Freemuse, a Copenhagen-based human rights organization, analyzed 978 incidents of “violations to the right to freedom of artistic expression.” Freemuse found that in twenty-six countries, seventeen artists were killed, eighty-two were imprisoned, and 133 were detained in 2020. By stifling the words of grief, witness, and criticisms conveyed by artists, authorities have weaponized the pandemic over the past year against freedom of expression.66

There are many more examples of the growing international crackdown currently underway by authoritarian regimes, and those that are rapidly moving away from democratic practices. Ultimately, with the suppression of citizen participation, dialogue, and discourse, the world becomes a much more dangerous place, increasingly driven by misinformation and false narratives in countries subject to human rights abuses, corruption, and corporate exploitation, especially by extractive and multinational industries.

Overview of the Text

Censorship, Digital Media and the Global Crackdown on Freedom of Expression gathers a group of experts to document and evaluate the contemporary phenomenon of censorship in digital spaces as well as in print, visual, and legacy media. It details the many forms, reasons, and situations under which freedom of speech and expression are currently under attack, both on and offline in the United States and around the world. We argue that censorship and the loss of free speech is part of a growing anti-democratic movement with grave implications for civil society, human rights, and global democracy, and ultimately, human and environmental survival.

Part I

The first section of the book surveys the broad contours of the crackdown on freedom of expression in the United States as symptomatic of a worldwide trend. The volume begins with a series of chapters that explore the ways journalism and reporting on such crucial topics as war, disease, and ecological devastation have been limited and constrained by government policy and economic structures.

Robin Andersen’s essay examines the role of censorship and disinformation after 9/11 and the false narratives that propelled the war on the terror. Media coverage failed the American public as it uncritically repeated lies and disinformation used to curry favor for the bombing of Afghanistan, and later, the invasion of Iraq. Censorship of the wars’ human and financial costs laid the groundwork for many of the media practices of the twenty-first century. The chapter details the uses of the one-sided messaging that continues to propel war’s destruction as we come dangerously close to World War III and nuclear armageddon.

The next entry by Mickey Huff, Andy Lee Roth, and avram anderson draws on Project Censored’s ongoing monitoring of topics under-reported by the corporate press to argue that independent news media often set the agenda for the way corporate news organizations cover stories that challenge establishment conceptions of newsworthiness. They identify the concept of “censorship by proxy,” now actively used to close down public discourse, especially on social media, about social justice issues. Next, Nolan Higdon identifies and analyzes the individuals and organizations that have co-opted fears over fake news to spread misinformation and disinformation. This is followed by Antonio Lopez’s theoretically visionary forms of healthy media ecosystems able to actively address our climate emergency, in contrast to those that are failing democracy by messaging the oil and gas industries and allowing corporate propaganda and PR to dominate reporting on environmental issues. In his chapter, John K. Wilson analyzes the multiple attempts made by college administrators across the US to stifle and constrain student newspapers.

Sue Curry Jansen’s contribution to the volume employs the notion of “market censorship” to investigate how the commercial values built into our largely private, for-profit media system have privileged some voices while muzzling others. Jansen contends that the digital revolution, which has had such a transformative impact on contemporary culture has also precipitated a global crisis in democracy and allowed surveillance and censorship to flourish. Analyzing the increasing turn towards “curation” and “content moderation” by social media giants like Facebook and Twitter, Nolan Higdon argues that social media users may feel empowered by “correcting” user content and calling for censorship, but such actions and attitudes obscure the larger issues of the enormous power wielded by the owners and technological designers of these omnipresent platforms. Next, drawing on documents from the Pentagon’s entertainment and media office that have recently become public, Roger Stahl interrogates how the Pentagon leverages Hollywood’s desire for weapons, military personnel, and other financial benefits, to shape commercial films and TV shows, demanding that war narratives reflect military logics and the ethos of belligerency.

In her contribution, Allison Butler uses a number of high-profile examples involving women actors, gamers, and newscasters to demonstrate that contemporary patriarchy censors all women and discusses the various ways women are fighting back.

Anthony DiMaggio’s chapter investigates the attack by neofascist politicians—in particular, Donald Trump—and rightwing media outlets on the teaching of critical race theory in American colleges and universities. Rounding out this section, Steve Macek maps the dismal state of academic freedom around the globe, with a special focus on the situation in the US, Turkey, and Hungary.

Part II

The second half of the book charts the onslaught on unfettered communication and free exchange of ideas outside the United States, tracking the ways that authoritarian governments and corporations from Asia to Latin America have policed, regulated, and silenced the voices of journalists, artists, academics, social media users, political activists, and ordinary citizens.

Since its founding in 2006, WikiLeaks has provoked more discussions about the contemporary nature of censorship than perhaps any other media organization. In its efforts to create an “uncensorable Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking,” Kevin John McEvoy documents the ways in which WikiLeaks has been confronted with a series of traditional and novel forms of political censorship. The detaining of WikiLeaks founder and editor Julian Assange in a maximum-security prison in London, awaiting judicial proceedings relating to a US extradition request, is only the most obvious example. The chapter examines WikiLeaks’ experience of censorship in the UK and whether a pervasive culture of self-censorship—or even voluntary censorship—represents a growing threat to the UK public’s right to know.

In her chapter, Lisa Brooten discusses the brutal repression of journalists and media organizations following the February 2021 coup d’etat in Myanmar. The regime has cut the internet, mobile phone data and social media platforms. She examines how the country’s vibrant, independent media have resisted this repression, and how public opposition to the coup has persisted for months despite the risks of the violent crackdowns. The movement’s creativity and resilience are due in large part to the long history of development of the now vibrant media and civil society networks developed painstakingly during decades under military dictatorship. Amy Forbes and Gary Moriano’s chapter explains how a succession of regimes in the Philippines—including, most recently, the government of strongman Rodrigo Duterte—have eroded press freedom and imperiled reporters.

A close examination of the media coverage of the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in the occupied territories, compared to the coverage of the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabian operatives, reveal very different media treatments of human rights violations in US. Robin Andersen argues that this double standard in coverage has rendered human rights discourse nearly meaningless in US foreign policy. James Green’s contribution looks back at the efforts by former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his rightwing supporters to destroy academic freedom and undermine the autonomy of the university. He documents how campuses and activists resisted this campaign.

In his chapter, Kalemba Kitzo takes a hard look at the operation of censorship during the 2021 Uganda Presidential elections. The next chapter about Venezuela is an example of what can happen to the press in a country targeted for US regime change. In their chapter on the changing face of censorship in Venezuela, Jairo Lugo-Ocando and Monica Marchesi examine how evolving structural conditions, smears of independent, anti-government journalists and judicial and extrajudicial efforts to incentivize “self-censorship” have created novel forms of suppression that, in turn, have led Venezuelan media-makers to create new outlets that circumvent these restrictions. (It is worth noting that the devastating impact of US economic sanctions on the Venezuelan people have, in turn, been dramatically underreported by American corporate media, so much so that it would be fair to say that both supporters and opponents of Venezuela’s current Maduro government have experienced censorship of various kinds).67


XII, 444
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2024 (March)
Censorship Free Speech Free Expression Digital Media Corporate Ownership of Media Government Regulation of Media Academic Freedom Journalism News Media Propaganda Misinformation Fake News Surveillance Human Rights Repression Censorship, Digital Media, and the Global Crackdown on Freedom of Expression Steve Macek Robin Andersen Nolan Higdon
New York, Berlin, Bruxelles, Chennai, Lausanne, Oxford, 2024. XII, 444 pp., 1 table.

Biographical notes

Robin Andersen (Volume editor) Nolan Higdon (Volume editor) Steve Macek (Volume editor)

Robin Andersen, Professor Emerita of Media Studies at Fordham University, is an award-winning author, writer and commentator and has written and co-authored a dozen books. Her latest work is Investigating Death in Paradise: Finding New Meaning in the BBC Mystery Show (2023). She is a Project Censored Judge and writes for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). Nolan Higdon, a founding member of the Critical Media Literacy Conference of the Americas, serves as a Project Censored National Judge. He is also an author and lecturer at Merrill College and the Education Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Steve Macek, Professor of Communication and Media Studies at North Central College in Naperville, IL, teaches courses on media studies and the First Amendment. He is the author of Urban Nightmares: The Media, the Right and the Moral Panic over the City and has contributed chapters to several Project Censored yearbooks, includingthe latest, State of the Free Press 2023.


Title: Censorship, Digital Media, and the Global Crackdown on Freedom of Expression