Who needs the Stasi? We’ve already got Google


The cancelling of Gina Carano foreshadows more sinister developments. The Force is no longer with Gina Carano, one of the stars of The Mandalorian, the wildly popular spin-off from the Star Wars films. She has been cancelled. Twitter erupted with #FireGinaCarano and Lucasfilm dutifully complied.

Carano, a 38-year-old mixed-martial arts expert who has moved into acting, became so popular after playing Cara Dune, a battle-hardened mercenary and marshal, that at one point she was being considered for her own show. But last year’s election brought about her downfall. She was allegedly transphobic, supported anti-vaxxers, spread “misinformation” about Covid-19 and supported Trump. Lucasfilm was probably hungry for an excuse to erase this scabrous blot of political incorrectness.

Carano obliged. In a recent Instagram post she wrote:

“Jews were beaten in the streets, not by Nazi soldiers but by their neighbours… even by children. Because history is edited, most people today don’t realise that to get to the point where Nazi soldiers could easily round up thousands of Jews, the government first made their own neighbours hate them simply for being Jews. How is that any different from hating someone for their political views.”

There are two ways of interpreting this. Lucasfilm chose the negative one: “her social media posts denigrating people based on their cultural and religious identities are abhorrent and unacceptable.” Apparently Lucasfilm believes that Carano was equating the suffering of Republicans under Biden with the suffering of Jews under Hitler. This is preposterous.

The positive interpretation is that ordinary folks can become haters and bigots if their prejudices are whipped up by government-controlled media.

And that is what happened in the 1930s. In the words of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum: “Individual citizens chose to be involved when, out of a sense of duty, or prejudice, or some opportunity for business or other personal gain, they voluntarily denounced their co-workers and neighbors to the police because of their alleged wrongdoings as Jews, anti-Hitlerites, or gays.”

Isn’t something similar is happening in the United States today? Anonymous accusers are denouncing incorrect attitudes to the “authorities”. Gina Carano is right, although she was dumb to compare the situation with Nazi Germany. More apposite is East Germany under the Communists.

From 1950 to 1990 the Ministry for State Security, better known as the Stasi, enforced political correctness through police spying and a vast network of informers. The Oscar-winning film The Secret Lives of Others portrays the dehumanising world in which East Germans had to live. But it still failed to convey the enormity of the totalitarian surveillance. The Stasi even collected jars of the body odour of people it had under observation.

To deal with trouble-makers the Stasi had a policy called, in German, Zersetzung. It’s a difficult word to translate. Originally it meant “decomposition”. But in the context of the East German police state, it meant destroying dissidents. “The goal,” according to German historian Hubertus Knabe, “was to destroy secretly the self-confidence of people, for example by damaging their reputation, by organizing failures in their work, and by destroying their personal relationships.” Sound familiar?

A striking feature of Stasi control was how cooperative ordinary citizens were. In 1989, in a population of about 16 million, the Stasi employed about 200,000 informers. Between 1950 and 1989, about 620,000 people are believed to have been informers at some stage or other. It appears that young men between 25 and 40 were over-represented. So much for the idealism of youth.

It doesn’t take much imagination to appreciate that in the age of internet shaming, deplatforming, cancelling and Google monitoring we are recapitulating the surveillance state of East Germany.

Consider what happened after the Capitol Hill riot. The videos which have been screened in President Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate are horrifying. The frenzied mob violence was terrifying. There can be no doubt that hundreds of people deserve to face criminal charges.

Everyone wanted to know who these barbarians were.

An army of “online sleuths” went to work to identify and profile the rioters. The FBI appealed for digital information about the day’s tragic events. “This kind of crowdsourcing is not the same thing as a formal investigation. It’s certainly not a replacement for the investigations done by the judicial system,” says John Scott-Railton, from Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto. But “it’s an excellent mechanism for surfacing clues.”

One result of this internet detective work was an impressive feature in the New York Times which aggregated data about 175 rioters who had been charged, along with his or her photo, and a brief profile. It was a jaw-dropping revelation of how easy it is for pyjama-clad detectives to nab criminals. A number of these people were summarily fired by their employers after this information became public.

Spadework done by other organisations shows the power of online sleuthing. Bellingcat, “an independent international collective of researchers, investigators and citizen journalists using open source and social media investigation to probe a variety of subjects” created an impressively researched profile of Ashli Babbitt, the 35-year-old woman who was shot and killed by Capitol Police, based upon her social media posts.

In the age of Google, criminal profiling by ordinary citizens almost seems like a patriotic duty. But actors with fewer scruples can do this as well.

Consider the website of Rose City Antifa, which contributed to the detective work. Its mission is collecting information about “fascists” – pictures, addresses, cars and licence plates, physical features like height, build, hair/eye/skin colour, hair length, tattoos and piercings – so that it can doxx them.

Doxxing is the practice of publishing private information about a person to discredit and shame them. “It’s only when their privately held hate is made public that they face repercussions,” according to the website. “As it turns out, a lot of people don’t want to work with or live near a nazi. Go figure!”

It’s not difficult to imagine how destructive the work of online sleuths can be for people who don’t deserve to be called Nazis.

Which is something that retired Chicago firefighter David Quintavalle discovered after the riots. One of the army of online sleuths matched his face with the face of the suspect who hurled a fire extinguisher at a Capitol policeman who later died. He was bombarded with hundreds of tweets calling him a cop killer and with phone messages like this: “Hey Dave you’re a murderer and a traitor. And I can’t believe you killed a cop and your son is a cop. Wow. Good luck in Prison.” He needed police protection. But Quintavalle had been at home all the time.

But only ignorant scumbags would do stuff like this, right?

Wrong. New York Times reporters are being paid to do something similar, as independent journalist Glenn Greenwald pointed out in a recent column. “The tech reporters of The New York Times (Mike Isaac, Kevin Roose, Sheera Frenkel) — devote the bulk of their ‘journalism’ to searching for online spaces where they believe speech and conduct rules are being violated, flagging them, and then pleading that punitive action be taken (banning, censorship, content regulation, after-school detention),” he wrote.

No doubt these reporters are more scrupulous about checking their sources than those ignorant scumbags. But they’re more devious and dangerous. They search out private communications and betray them to the raving mobs of Twitter. It’s both “infantile and despotic”, says Greenwald.

Greenwald is not a rustbucket MAGA zealot. He worked for The Guardian; he is a free speech advocate, an animal rights supporter, a supporter of Julian Assange, and a human rights activist. He is openly gay and is married to a Brazilian congressman. But he writes in his column:

“The overarching rule of liberal media circles and liberal politics is that you are free to accuse anyone who deviates from liberal orthodoxy of any kind of bigotry that casually crosses your mind — just smear them as a racist, misogynist, homophobe, transphobe, etc. without the slightest need for evidence — and it will be regarded as completely acceptable.”

Which brings us back to the Stasi.

Thanks to the internet, the United States is moving dangerously close to East Germany’s surveillance society. It may be open source, decentralised, and anarchic — but high tech Zersetzung crushes people like Gina Carano just as effectively as the Stasi’s blackmail. Greenwald calls the online sleuths “tattletales”, “voluntary hall monitors” and “speech police”. Or perhaps the truth is even more sinister. In the Newspeak lingo of the Stasi, they are inoffizieller Mitarbeiter, unofficial colleagues, informants.

A true democracy respects privacy, confidentiality and intimacy. But social media are hollowing out those values. Gina Carano’s cancelling should remind us that the tyranny depicted in The Secret Lives of Others took place in the German Democratic Republic.

COLUMN BY

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet