Project Censored: Top 25 Most Censored Stories of 2016-2017

Lots of important material in these reports.

#1 Widespread Lead Contamination Threatens Children’s Health, and Could Triple Household Water Bills

In December 2016, M.B. Pell and Joshua Schneyer of Reuters reported that nearly three thousand neighborhoods across the US had levels of lead poisoning more than double the rates found in Flint, Michigan at the peak of its contamination crisis. Blood tests showed that more than 1,100 of those communities had rates of lead contamination “at least four times higher” than had been found in Flint.

In January 2016, President Obama had declared a federal emergency in Flint, based on lead contamination of the city’s water supply. In that case, corrosive river water leached lead from old pipes; as a result, 5 percent of the children screened in Flint had high blood lead levels. By comparison, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that 2.5 percent of all US children under the age of six—approximately 500,000 children—have elevated blood lead levels. (The CDC defines five micrograms per deciliter as its threshold for elevated blood lead levels in children up to age six. In 2012, the CDC lowered this threshold from ten to five micrograms to reflect medical consensus that even low levels of lead exposure can do permanent harm to children.)

In early 2016, Flint’s lead-contaminated water featured prominently and frequently in the news; however, news about the health plight of Flint’s residents quickly peaked, and it never emphasized the full scope of the issue. Unlike Flint, the “lead hotspots” identified in Pell and Schneyer’s report have received “little attention or funding.”

Pell and Schneyer wrote that the communities affected by lead poisoning “stretch from Warren, Pennsylvania . . . where 36 percent of children tested had high lead levels, to . . . Goat Island, Texas, where a quarter of tests showed poisoning. In some pockets of Baltimore, Cleveland and Philadelphia, where lead poisoning has spanned generations, the rate of elevated tests over the last decade was 40 to 50 percent.” Across the US, they reported, “legacy lead”—which includes not only leached lead from faulty plumbing but also crumbling paint and industrial waste—continues to thwart national efforts to eradicate childhood lead poisoning.

As part of a special series of investigations on lead poisoning across the US, titled “Unsafe at Any Level,” Pell and Schneyer requested testing data at the neighborhood level from all fifty states. Their focus on census tracts and zip code areas allowed them to identify neighborhoods “whose lead poisoning problems may be obscured in broader surveys,” such as those focused on statewide or countywide rates.

Twenty-one states responded with data, allowing Pell and Schneyer to identify 2,606 census tracts and 278 zip code areas with rates of lead poisoning at least double Flint’s rate. (Pell and Schneyer reported that some states’ health departments did not have the data, or did not respond to records requests, while other states would not share the data they did have. The twenty-one reporting states are home to about 61 percent of the US population.) Interactive maps embedded in their December 2016 report detail their findings for census tracts and zip code areas in the cities of St. Joseph, Missouri; Milwaukee; South Bend, Indiana; Cleveland; Baltimore; Fresno; Los Angeles; and Buffalo. As one expert, Dr. Helen Egger, chair of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Child Study Center, told Pell and Schneyer, “The disparities you’ve found between different areas have stark implications . . . The national mean doesn’t mean anything for a kid who lives in a place where the risks are much higher.”

#2 Over Six Trillion Dollars in Unaccountable Army Spending

According to a July 2016 report by the Department of Defense’s Office of Inspector General (DoDIG), over the past two decades the US Army has accumulated $6.5 trillion in expenditures that cannot be accounted for, because two government offices—the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army and the DoD’s Defense Finance and Accounting Service—“did not prioritize correcting the system deficiencies that caused errors . . . and did not provide sufficient guidance for supporting system-generated adjustments.” In the bureaucratic language of the report, the expenditures themselves are referred to as “unsupported adjustments” and the lack of complete and accurate records of them are described as “material weakness.” In other words, as Dave Lindorff reported, the DoD “has not been tracking or recording or auditing all of the taxpayer money allocated by Congress—what it was spent on, how well it was spent, or where the money actually ended up.”

In 1996, Congress enacted legislation that required all government agencies—including not only the Department of Defense but also the federal government’s departments of education, veterans affairs, and housing and urban development, for instance—to undergo annual audits. As Thomas Hedges reported for the Guardian in March 2017, “the Pentagon has exempted itself without consequence for 20 years now, telling the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that collecting and organizing the required information for a full audit is too costly and time-consuming.” (For Project Censored’s previous coverage of the Pentagon’s “inauditable” budget, see “Pentagon Awash in Money Despite Serious Audit Problems,” Censored 2015, pp. 59–60.)

As Lindorff wrote, in fiscal year 2015 total federal discretionary spending—which includes everything from education, to housing and community development, to Medicare and other health programs—amounted to just over $1.1 trillion, and the $6.5 trillion in unaccountable Army expenditures represents approximately fifteen years’ worth of military spending.

 

The DoD Inspector General issued its report at a time when, in Lindorff’s words, “politicians of both major political parties are demanding accountability for every penny spent on welfare,” and they have also been engaged in pervasive efforts “to make teachers accountable for student ‘performance.’” Yet, he observed, “the military doesn’t have to account for any of its trillions of dollars of spending . . . even though Congress fully a generation ago passed a law requiring such accountability.”

Mandy Smithberger, director of the Strauss Military Reform Project at the Project on Government Oversight, told Lindorff, “Accounting at the Department of Defense is a disaster, but nobody is screaming about it because you have a lot of people in Congress who believe in more military spending, so they don’t really challenge military spending.” Similarly, Rafael DeGennaro, director of the Audit the Pentagon coalition, told the Guardian, “Over the last 20 years, the Pentagon has broken every promise to Congress about when an audit would be completed . . . Meanwhile, Congress has more than doubled the Pentagon’s budget.” Notably, since 2013 Congressional representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) has introduced bipartisan legislation that would penalize the DoD financially for failing to complete its required audit. One of the act’s cosponsors, Michael Burgess, a Republican representative for Texas, told the Guardian that the Pentagon “should have been audit-ready decades ago.”

Corporate media have not covered the $6.5 trillion in unaccountable Army expenditures, as documented in the July 2016 DoDIG study, and reported by Dave Lindorff. In December 2016, the Washington Post published an article about a “buried” January 2015 DoD report, which had found “$125 billion in administrative waste” in Pentagon business operations. As the Post reported, “After the project documented far more wasteful spending than expected, senior defense officials moved swiftly to kill it by discrediting and suppressing the results.” The Huffington Post and TomDispatch cross-posted William Hartung’s May 2016 piece, “The Pentagon’s War on Accountability,” which made many of the same points raised by Lindorff, but did not address the $6.5 trillion in unaccountable Army expenditures. CounterPunch and OpEdNews reposted Lindorff’s original report.

#4 Voter Suppression in the 2016 Presidential Election

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 addressed discrimination in voting by requiring all state and local governments with a history of racial discrimination to get preclearance from the federal government before making any changes to their voting laws or procedures. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled 5–4 in Shelby County v. Holder that a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, the section that determined which state and local governments must comply with the Act’s preapproval requirement, was unconstitutional and could no longer be used. (Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act required specific states and local governments to obtain federal preclearance before implementing any changes to their voting laws or practices. Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act established the formula to determine which state and local governments must comply with the Act’s preapproval requirement.) As Ari Berman and other independent journalists reported, this made 2016 the first presidential election in fifty years without the full protections guaranteed by the Voting Rights Act. The director of media and campaigns for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Scott Simpson, told Mother Jones, “The Shelby decision is when this election began for people of color.”

Specifically, as a result of the Shelby decision, changes to voting laws in nine states and parts of six others with long histories of racial discrimination in voting were no longer subject to federal government approval. Since Shelby, fourteen states, including many southern states and key swing states, implemented new voting restrictions, in many cases just in time for the election. Texas implemented a photo-ID law that resulted in one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country. In North Carolina a voter-ID requirement permitted just a few acceptable forms of identification: According to data from the state’s board of elections, over 300,000 registered voters lacked even one accepted form of ID. Arizona made changes to its voting laws that the Department of Justice had previously rejected due to minority voter discrimination. Florida converted to English-only elections in many counties, and also changed poll locations at the last minute.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 addressed discrimination in voting by requiring all state and local governments with a history of racial discrimination to get preclearance from the federal government before making any changes to their voting laws or procedures. In 2013, the Supreme Court ruled 5–4 in Shelby County v. Holder that a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, the section that determined which state and local governments must comply with the Act’s preapproval requirement, was unconstitutional and could no longer be used. (Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act required specific states and local governments to obtain federal preclearance before implementing any changes to their voting laws or practices. Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act established the formula to determine which state and local governments must comply with the Act’s preapproval requirement.) As Ari Berman and other independent journalists reported, this made 2016 the first presidential election in fifty years without the full protections guaranteed by the Voting Rights Act. The director of media and campaigns for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Scott Simpson, told Mother Jones, “The Shelby decision is when this election began for people of color.”

Specifically, as a result of the Shelby decision, changes to voting laws in nine states and parts of six others with long histories of racial discrimination in voting were no longer subject to federal government approval. Since Shelby, fourteen states, including many southern states and key swing states, implemented new voting restrictions, in many cases just in time for the election. Texas implemented a photo-ID law that resulted in one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country. In North Carolina a voter-ID requirement permitted just a few acceptable forms of identification: According to data from the state’s board of elections, over 300,000 registered voters lacked even one accepted form of ID. Arizona made changes to its voting laws that the Department of Justice had previously rejected due to minority voter discrimination. Florida converted to English-only elections in many counties, and also changed poll locations at the last minute.

#5 Big Data and Dark Money behind the 2016 Election

 Right-wing computer scientist and hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer was the top donor to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, contributing $13.5 million and helping lay the groundwork for what is now called the Trump Revolution. Mercer also funded Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics company that specializes in “election management strategies” and using microtargeting. As Carole Cadwalladr reported for the Guardian in February 2017, Cambridge Analytica’s website boasts that it has psychological profiles based on thousands of pieces of data for some 220 million American voters. As Jane Mayer and other independent journalists reported, Mercer, Cambridge Analytica, and others used these capacities to exploit a populist insurgency among voters and tip the election toward Trump.

Right-wing websites are now dominating Google’s search results on certain subjects. Jonathan Albright, a professor of communications at Elon University in North Carolina, mapped the “news ecosystem” and found millions of links to right-wing sites “strangling” the mainstream media. As the Guardian and the New Yorker reported, Albright has described Cambridge Analytica as a “propaganda machine,” using trackers from sites like Breitbart to document people’s web histories and target them with messages and advertisements via their Facebook accounts.

Mercer’s money also enabled Steve Bannon to fund Breitbart, a right-wing news site established with the express intent of serving as a Huffington Post for the Right. Since 2010, Mercer has donated $95 million to right-wing political campaigns and nonprofits. As Cadwalladr reported in the Guardian, Mercer funds the Heartland Institute, a climate change denial think tank, and the Media Research Center, which refers to itself as “America’s Media Watchdog” and aims to correct “liberal bias.” (On the Heartland Institute, see also Suzanne Goldenberg, “Leak Exposes How Heartland Institute Works to Undermine Climate Science,” Guardian, February 14, 2012.)

 

In an article for the New Yorker, Jane Mayer described Mercer as a “brilliant computer scientist” who has “never given an interview explaining his political views,” and yet is “emblematic” of a major shift of power in American politics, from the two main political parties toward “a tiny group of rich mega-donors.” (Mayer researched the Mercer family for her book, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires behind the Rise of the Radical Right.) Mayer quoted Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan watchdog group, and former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, on the effects of the 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission: “Suddenly, a random billionaire can change politics and public policy—to sweep everything else off the table—even if they don’t speak publicly, and even if there’s almost no public awareness of his or her views.”

As Mayer reported, Mercer has argued that the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a major mistake, and sources who know Mercer told Mayer that he has stated that the Clintons have had opponents of theirs murdered, and that, during the Gulf War, the US should have simply taken Iraq’s oil. As Mayer wrote, “despite his oddities, he has had surprising success in aligning the Republican Party, and consequently America, with his personal beliefs, and is now uniquely positioned to exert influence over the Trump Administration.”

Cambridge Analytica is an affiliate of a larger British company known as Strategic Communication Laboratories. As Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus reported, Alexander Nix, the chief executive officer of Cambridge Analytica, was quoted in a company press release the day after Trump’s victory, saying, “We are thrilled that our revolutionary approach to data-driven communication has played such an integral part in President-elect Trump’s extraordinary win.” Cambridge Analytica began working for the Trump campaign in June 2016, after initially providing analysis for Ted Cruz. (Cambridge Analytica is also believed to have worked for the organization Leave.EU in its Brexit campaign.) According to Nix, Grassegger and Krogerus reported, Cambridge Analytica combined behavioral science based on the measurement of psychological traits, Big Data analysis—premised on the fact that everything we do leaves digital traces—and ad targeting that is aligned “to the personality of an individual.”

As Nix told the audience at the Concordia Summit in New York in September 2016, once Cambridge Analytica became involved with the Trump campaign, “Pretty much every message that Trump put out was data-driven.” For example, Grassegger and Krogerus reported, on the day of the third presidential debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton, the Trump team “tested 175,000 different ad variations for his arguments, in order to find the right versions above all via Facebook.” The results were examples of “dark posts”—sponsored newsfeed-style advertisements that will only be seen by users with specific profiles. These specifically tailored and targeted messages ignored demographics, data Nix dismissed as “a really ridiculous idea.” What Nix meant, Grassegger and Krogerus explained, is that “while other campaigners so far have relied on demographics, Cambridge Analytica was using psychometrics.” Prior psychometric research has shown that a sample of just sixty-eight Facebook “likes” is sufficient to predict a user’s skin color (with 95 percent accuracy), sexual orientation (88 percent accuracy), and affiliation to the Democratic or Republican party (85 percent accuracy).

As Grassegger and Krogerus reported, this new approach informed not only direct messaging to potential Trump voters, but also Trump’s canvassers. From July 2016, they used an app, known as Ground Game, to identify the political views and personality types of the inhabitants of a house. As Grassegger and Krogerus wrote, “Trump’s people only rang at the doors of houses that the app rated as receptive to his messages. The canvassers came prepared with guidelines for conversations tailored to the personality type of the resident. In turn, the canvassers fed the reactions into the app, and the new data flowed back to the dashboards of the Trump campaign.” (Advocates in the Brexit campaign used the same app.) While Clinton and the Democrats relied on traditional demographic data to inform their campaign, Cambridge Analytica and the Trump campaign divided the US population into thirty-two personality types and focused on seventeen specific states. According to Grassegger and Krogerus, data analysis using psychometrics led to the campaign’s focus on Michigan and Wisconsin in the final weeks. “The candidate,” they wrote, “became the instrument for implementing a big data model.” Cambridge Analytica, they reported in January 2017, earned an estimated $15 million overall during the 2016 campaign, and Nix, the company’s CEO, is “currently touring European conferences showcasing their success in the United States.”

#6 Antibiotic Resistant “Superbugs” Threaten Health and Foundations of Modern Medicine

Pharmaceutical companies that produce antibiotics are creating dangerous superbugs when their factories leak industrial waste, Madlen Davies of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported in September 2016. Superbugs are bacteria that become resistant to antibiotics. Pharmaceutical factories in China and India—the places where the majority of the world’s antibiotics are manufactured—are releasing “untreated waste fluid” into local soils and waters, leading to increases in antimicrobial resistance that diminish the effectiveness of antibiotics and threaten the foundations of modern medicine. A number of the companies have established links to US markets.

After bacteria in the environment become resistant, they can exchange genetic material with other germs, spreading antibiotic resistance around the world, according to an assessment issued by the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), which served as the basis for Davies’s news report. Davies described a case in which a drug-resistant bacterium that originated in India in 2014 has since been found in seventy other countries. Superbugs resulting from pharmaceutical pollution have already killed an estimated 25,000 people across Europe—thus globally posing “as big a threat as terrorism,” according to a UK National Health Service official, Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies. In a May 2014 report, Martin Khor quoted Dr. Keiji Fukuda, who coordinated the World Health Organization’s work on antimicrobial resistance between 2010 and 2016. According to Fukuda, “A post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries can kill, far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st century.”

At the heart of the issue is how to motivate pharmaceutical companies to improve their production practices. With strong demand for antibiotics, the companies continue to profit despite the negative consequences of their actions. The EPHA assessment recommended five responses that major purchasers of medicines could implement to help stop antibiotic pollution. Among these recommendations are blacklisting pharmaceutical companies that contribute to the spread of superbugs through irresponsible practices, and promoting legislation to incorporate environmental criteria into the industry’s good manufacturing practices.

In 2015, World Health Organization head Margaret Chan cautioned that antibiotic-resistant superbugs may signal “the end of modern medicine as we know it.” Noting that superbugs “haunt” hospitals and intensive care units around the world, Chan reported that, if current trends continue, “sophisticated interventions,” including organ transplants, joint replacements, cancer chemotherapy, and care of pre-term infants,” will become more difficult or even too dangerous to undertake” as common infections “will once again kill. As Katie Morley and Madlen Davies reported in the Telegraph in December 2016, data analysis by the UK Sepsis Trust indicated that superbugs now cause more deaths than breast cancer in the UK. The UK Sepsis trust estimates that around 12,000 people in the UK die because of drug resistance each year, a figure that is considerably higher than the government estimate of 5,000 deaths per year due to drug resistance. In 2014, the government recorded 11,433 deaths due to breast cancer.

As Morley and Davies reported, “the full extent of the problem is obscured because the Government statistics are calculated using ‘ballpark’ figures from foreign studies, not those conducted in the UK.” Furthermore, superbugs are “rarely listed on death certificates,” and government health officials often lack political, legal, and financial means to establish a rigorous system to monitor the spread of resistance.

In May 2016, Scientific American reported that a “dangerous new form of antibiotic resistance has spread to the United States.” Bacteria infecting a Pennsylvania woman with a urinary tract infection proved resistant to colistin, which is known as an “antibiotic of last resort.” Citing a report published in the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, Melinda Wenner Moyer wrote that “the findings have sounded alarm bells” among scientists who fear that “common infections will soon be untreatable.”

In November 2015, Wenner Moyer reported, Chinese and British researchers discovered that a new gene for colistin resistance—known as mcr-1—was circulating among animals and people in China. The case of the Pennsylvania woman is the first to document mcr-1 in the US. Wenner Moyer also noted that in May 2016 the US Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services announced that they had discovered colistin-resistant bacteria in an American pig, suggesting that colistin-resistant bacteria have reached American livestock. If the newly discovered mcr-1 gene is picked up by other bacteria that are already resistant to multiple drugs, then “the world could suddenly be faced with pan-drug-resistant bacteria.” As Lance Price, director of the Antibiotic Resistance Action Center at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, told Scientific American, the results would be “a royal flush—the infection has an unbeatable hand.”

Although the threat of antibiotic-resistant microbes is well documented in scientific publications, there is little to no coverage on superbugs in the corporate press. What corporate news coverage there is tends to exaggerate the risks and consequences of natural outbreaks—as seen during the Ebola scare in the US in 2014—rather than reporting on the preventable spread of superbugs by irresponsible pharmaceutical companies.

#9 DNC Claims Right to Select Presidential Candidate

In June 2016, Beck & Lee, a legal firm based in Miami, filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of supporters of Bernie Sanders against the Democratic National Committee and its former chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, alleging that the DNC broke legally-binding neutrality agreements in the Democratic primaries by strategizing to make Hillary Clinton the nominee before a single vote was cast. Transcripts from the hearing on the lawsuit, which took place in a federal court in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in April 2017, document the DNC’s lack of commitment to key articles of its own charter. As Michael Sainato reported for the Observer, in that hearing, attorneys for the DNC claimed that Article V, Section 4 of the DNC Charter—which instructs the DNC chair and staff to ensure neutrality in the Democratic presidential primaries—is actually “a discretionary rule” that the DNC “didn’t need to adopt to begin with.”46

(The relevant text of the DNC charter states: “the Chairperson shall exercise impartiality and evenhandedness as between the Presidential candidates and campaigns. The Chairperson shall be responsible for ensuring that the national officers and staff of the Democratic National Committee maintain impartiality and evenhandedness during the Democratic Party Presidential nominating process.” Article V, Section 4, The Charter & The Bylaws of the Democratic Party of the United States, as Amended by the Democratic National Committee, August 28, 2015.)

Later in the hearing, a DNC attorney asserted that it would have been within the DNC’s rights to “go into back rooms like they used to and smoke cigars and pick the candidate that way.” Bruce Spiva, the DNC attorney, said, “That’s not the way it was done. But they could have. And that would have also been their right.”

#10 2016: A Record Year for Global Internet Shutdowns

Governments around the world shut down Internet access more than fifty times in 2016, Lyndal Rowlands reported for the Inter Press Service (IPS) in December of that year. Around the world, governments shutting down Internet access limited freedom of speech, swayed elections, and damaged economies. “In the worst cases,” Rowlands wrote, “Internet shutdowns have been associated with human rights violations,” as happened in Ethiopia and Uganda. The IPS report quoted Deji Olukotun, a senior manager at digital rights organization Access Now: “What we have found is that Internet shutdowns go hand in hand with atrocities.”

As Kevin Collier reported for Vocativ, Access Now documented fifty-three instances in 2016 in which national governments shut down the Internet for all or part of a country, “throttled” access speeds to make the Internet essentially unusable, or blocked specific communication methods. These fifty-three instances represent a sharp uptick in government shutdowns of the Internet, following on from the fifteen shutdowns identified by Access Now in 2015. As Collier noted, Access Now uses a “conservative metric,” counting “repeated, similar outages”—like those which occurred during Gabon’s widely criticized Internet “curfew”—as a single instance.

#11 Law Enforcement Surveillance of Phone Records

In cooperation with AT&T, US federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies have been secretly collecting telephone records since 1987 under a program known as Hemisphere, Aaron Mackey and Dave Maass reported for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). The Hemisphere database contains “trillions” of domestic and international phone call records, and AT&T “adds roughly four billion phone records” each day, including calls from non-AT&T customers “that pass through the company’s switches.”

The call records for individuals include phone numbers dialed, calls received, and each call’s time, date, and length. Furthermore, Mackey and Maass noted, the collected data allows the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and other law enforcement agencies to undertake “complicated traffic analysis” that can “dynamically map people’s social networks and physical locations.” Information gleaned from EFF’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuits suggests that officials collect and analyze this sensitive data “without a warrant or any judicial oversight,” possibly in breach of Fourth Amendment rights. Because Hemisphere permits law enforcement to map personal connections and social networks, Mackey and Maass reported, Hemisphere “also poses acute risks to the First Amendment rights of callers caught in the program’s dragnet.”

In secret documents obtained by EFF, police tout Hemisphere as a “Super Search Engine” and “Google on Steroids.” These descriptions, Mackey and Maass wrote, “confirm EFF’s worst fears that Hemisphere is a mass surveillance program that threatens core civil liberties.”

#13 Right-Wing Money Promotes Model Legislation to Restrict Free Speech on University Campuses

Right-wing conservatives are using money and power to influence public policy to suppress student dissent on US college and university campuses. The right-wing Goldwater Institute, which is funded by conservatives including Charles Koch and the Mercer family, has proposed model legislation that seeks to quell student dissent in favor of guest speakers who attempt to discredit climate change, oppose LGBTQ rights, and espouse hate speech, Alex Kotch reported for AlterNet in March 2017.

The stated intent of the Goldwater Institute’s proposed “Campus Free Speech Act” is to “uphold free-speech principles” and to ensure “the fullest degree . . . of free expression”—but, Kotch reported, the model legislation does not consider protest or dissent to be free speech. In fact, the model legislation stated that “protests and demonstrations that infringe upon on the rights of others to engage in or listen to expressive activity shall not be permitted and shall be subject to sanction.” Students found to have infringed on the expressive rights of others more than one time would be “suspended for a minimum of one year, or expelled,” according to the model legislation.

UnKoch My Campus is a campaign that seeks to “expose and expel undue donor influence” from institutions of higher education.62 Kotch’s AlterNet article quoted Ralph Wilson, a senior researcher with UnKoch My Campus: “These laws would create a chilling effect on students who reject the idea that white supremacists or climate deniers are simply representing an ‘opposing viewpoint’ that should be tolerated, and who are rightfully relying on their first amendment freedoms to stop the rise of fascism and prevent global climate catastrophe.”

#14 Judges across US Using Racially Biased Software to Assess Defendants’ Risk of Committing Future Crimes

In 2014, then–US attorney general Eric Holder warned that so-called “risk assessments” might be injecting bias into the nation’s judicial system. As ProPublica reported in May 2016, courtrooms across the country use algorithmically-generated scores, known as risk assessments, to rate a defendant’s risk of future crime and, in many states—including Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin—to unofficially inform judges’ sentencing decisions. The Justice Department’s National Institute of Corrections now encourages the use of such assessments at every stage of the criminal justice process.

Although Holder called in 2014 for the US Sentencing Commission to study the use of risk scores because they might “exacerbate unwarranted and unjust disparities that are already far too common in our criminal justice system,” the Sentencing Commission never did so. Julia Angwin, Jeff Larson, Surya Mattu, and Lauren Kirchner’s article reported the findings of an effort by ProPublica to assess Holder’s concern. As they wrote, ProPublica “obtained the risk scores assigned to more than 7,000 people arrested in Broward County, Florida, in 2013 and 2014 and checked to see how many were charged with new crimes over the next two years.” The ProPublica study was specifically intended to assess whether an algorithm known as COMPAS, or Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions, produced accurate prediction results through its assessment of “criminogenic needs” that relate to the major theories of criminality, including “criminal personality,” “social isolation,” “substance abuse,” and “residence/stability.”

Judges across the country are provided with risk ratings based on the COMPAS algorithm or comparable software. Broward County, Florida—the focus of ProPublica’s study—does not use risk assessments in sentencing, but it does use them in pretrial hearings, as part of its efforts to address jail overcrowding. As ProPublica reported, judges in Broward County use risk scores to determine which defendants are sufficiently low risk to be released on bail pending their trials.

Based on ProPublica’s analysis of the Broward County data, Angwin, Larson, Mattu, and Kirchner reported that the risk scores produced by the algorithm “proved remarkably unreliable” in forecasting violent crime: “Only 20 percent of the people predicted to commit violent crimes actually went on to do so.” In fact, the algorithm was only “somewhat more accurate” than a coin toss.

The study also found significant racial disparities, as Holder had feared. “The formula was particularly likely to falsely flag black defendants as future criminals, wrongly labeling them this way at almost twice the rate as white defendants,” ProPublica reported.

#15 Shell Understood Climate Change as Early as 1991—and Ignored It

In 1991, Shell Oil Company produced and distributed a twenty-eight-minute documentary titled Climate of Concern. Asserting that climate change was taking place “at a rate faster than at any time since the end of the ice age—change too fast perhaps for life to adapt, without severe dislocation,” the film addressed potentially drastic consequences of climate change including extreme weather, flooding, famines, and climate refugees. While commenting that global warming was “not yet certain,” the Shell film stated, “many think that to wait for final proof would be irresponsible.” The film’s narrator explained that a “uniquely broad consensus of scientists” had issued a “serious warning” in a report to the United Nations at the end of 1990. (The landmark report identified in the Shell documentary was Climate Change: The IPCC Scientific Assessment.)

Recently Climate of Concern resurfaced, after Jelmer Mommers obtained a copy of it, and he and Damian Carrington posted it online as part of a joint investigative report for De Correspondent and the Guardian. As Mommers and Carrington documented, instead of trying to combat climate change as the company’s own documentary urged, Shell’s actions since 1991 have often contributed to increasing the negative impact of climate change.

A former geologist who had researched shale deposits with funding from Shell and BP, Jeremy Leggett, told Mommers and Carrington, “The film shows that Shell understood that the threat was dire, potentially existential for civilization, more than a quarter of a century ago.”

#17 Young Plaintiffs Invoke Constitutional Grounds for Climate Protection

In September 2015, twenty-one plaintiffs, aged eight to nineteen, brought a lawsuit against the federal government and the fossil fuel industry to the US Federal District Court in Eugene, Oregon. The case, Juliana v. United States, argued that the federal government and the fossil fuel industry have knowingly endangered the plaintiffs by promoting the burning of fossil fuels, and that this violates their constitutional and public trust rights. Their complaint said that the defendants “deliberately allow[ed] atmospheric CO2 concentrations to escalate to levels unprecedented in human history.”

#19 Inmates and Activists Protest Chemical Weapons in US Prisons and Jails

Daniel Moattar, writing for the Nation, and Sarah Lazare, a journalist at AlterNet, reported how chemical weapons, including several types of tear gas, are being used against prisoners in the United States, despite the fact that the international Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997 bans their use in warfare. Despite the arms control treaty that now binds nearly two hundred nations, Lazare reported, “in prisons and jails across the United States, far from any conventional battlefield or public scrutiny, tear gas and other chemical weapons are routinely used against people held captive in enclosed spaces, including solitary confinement.” Tear gas is known to cause skin and respiratory irritation, intense pain, blindness, and, in severe cases, death.

#21 Fossil Fuel Industry “Colonizing” US Universities

Without the public’s awareness, fossil fuel interests—representing oil, gas, and coal companies as well as utilities and investors—have “colonized nearly every nook and cranny of energy and climate policy research in American universities,” two researchers at Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) reported in the Guardian in March 2017. Fossil fuel interests dominate energy and climate policy research at the nation’s most prominent universities, including Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and the University of California, Berkeley. “The very experts we assume to be objective, and the very centers of research we assume to be independent,” Benjamin Franta and Geoffrey Supran wrote, “are connected with the very industry the public believes they are objectively studying. Moreover, these connections are often kept hidden.” The result is more than a “conflict of interest,” Franta and Supran reported. These are “industry projects with the appearance of neutrality and credibility given by academia.”

 

#22 Lawsuit against Illinois Department of Corrections Exposes Militarization of Law Enforcement inside Prisons

Against a backdrop of national concern over the militarization of police, Brian Dolinar reported for Truthout that a judge has approved a 2015 lawsuit against 232 Illinois Department of Corrections officers to proceed to the discovery phase. The class-action suit, Ross v. Gossett, brought on behalf of prisoners at Menard, Illinois River, Big Muddy River, and Lawrence Correctional Centers, alleges that the “Orange Crush” tactical team used excessive force, including physical and sexual abuse, when it conducted mass shakedowns in the spring of 2014. As Dolinar wrote, “less is known beyond prison walls about guards who regularly brutalize those incarcerated,” but the Illinois lawsuit “names a list of horrific abuses that includes strip searches, beatings and mass shakedowns of cells,” indicating how militarization of law enforcement has occurred inside prisons as well as in public.

 

#23 Facebook Buys Sensitive User Data to Offer Marketers Targeted Advertising

Julia Angwin, Terry Parris, Jr., and Surya Mattu reported that, since 2012, Facebook has been buying sensitive data about users’ offline lives from data brokers and combining this information with the online data it collects in order to sell this information to advertisers who seek to target specific types of Facebook users for their products and services. Facebook, they reported in September 2016, uses a “particularly comprehensive set of dossiers” on its more than two billion members in order to “offer marketers a chance to target ads to increasingly specific groups of people.” As Angwin, Parris, and Mattu described in that report, “we found Facebook offers advertisers more than 1,300 categories for ad targeting—everything from people whose property size is less than .26 acres to households with exactly seven credit cards.”

Their December 2016 report quoted Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. Facebook, Chester said, is “not being honest . . . Facebook is bundling a dozen different data companies to target an individual customer, and an individual should have access to that bundle as well.”

Facebook collects information on users in many ways beyond users’ posts and “likes.” For instance, many websites include a Facebook link where a visitor to the site can like it on Facebook. In such cases, even if the website visitor does not choose to like the site on Facebook, Facebook is still able to track that the page was visited—linking back to the user. The data brokers from which Facebook buys additional information track offline sources, such as supermarket loyalty cards, mailing lists, and public records information (which includes records of home or car ownership).

Facebook seeks to puts users at ease by providing an opt-out option. However, as Angwin, Parris, and Mattu wrote, “Limiting commercial data brokers’ distribution of your personal information is no simple matter.” Even getting data brokers to share the information that they have about you (and can sell) could require sending the last four digits of your social security number, as in the case of Acxiom, one of six data brokers from which Facebook buys personal information. Reporter Julia Angwin noted that in 2013 she tried to opt out from as many data brokers as she could find. Sixty-five of the ninety-two brokers she found required her to submit some form of identification. “In the end, she could not remove her data from the majority of providers,” despite the fact that she had not signed up for any of these tracking services herself, the December ProPublica story reported.