Disappointed by PayPal, anti-war journalists speak out

Disappointed by PayPal, anti-war journalists speak out

"If they can do this to us, they can do it to you," says a writer whose magazine challenges the neat narratives of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Earlier this month, we reported on PayPal's decision to ban two independent media organizations, Mint Press and Consortium, from using its payment platform. The websites are run by and affiliated with highly respected journalists. Both believe they have been targeted for refusing to parrot mainstream media narratives on issues such as U.S. intelligence operations and the war in Ukraine.

According to the two organizations, the PayPal ban remains in effect. PayPal had also frozen the organizations' funds, including $9,348.14 in Consortium's account, and threatened to seize the money as "damages." Those funds have since been released, although Consortium CEO Joe Lauria said he believed this was done only to prevent the sites from joining an ongoing class action lawsuit against PayPal filed by a group of poker players whose accounts were also seized.

To make matters worse, no one will tell the sites exactly why they were blocked.

"I've contacted PayPal several times, only to be told by a representative that they themselves don't understand or know why we were blocked," said Mint Press founder and editor-in-chief Mnar Adley. CoinDesk has also reached out to PayPal multiple times for clarification, but PayPal has not responded to our requests.

This is the latest in a long line of financial deplatforming cases that has become a constant and growing nuisance for a variety of controversial but legal businesses, including cannabis and adult entertainment. But compared to pot or porn, PayPal preventing journalists from making money has potentially much more serious social implications.

That's partly because it directly affects the work of businesses blocked by PayPal. It could also have a broader "chilling effect" on expression in general: If PayPal appears to ban controversial content, authors and publishers will be less likely to print facts or ideas that contradict powerful mainstream institutions.

Inconvenient truths

"This is a warning shot fired at anyone who is even remotely anti-establishment," said Mint Press Senior Writer Alan MacLeod. "Alternative media operates on very small budgets and relies on huge corporations like PayPal to operate properly. If they can do it with us, they can do it with you."

MacLeod, who holds a doctorate in geopolitics from the University of Glasgow and has published a book on disinformation with the prestigious academic journal Routledge, is representative of the kind of voices PayPal is silencing here.

"I believe that this is a case of 'ideological surveillance,'" said the consortium's editor, Joe Lauria. "In fact, this is war censorship, even though the U.S. is not officially at war."

Both Consortium and Mint Press have recently published articles questioning a clean account of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. To be clear: Mint and Consortium are not peddling Russia apologetics to support an authoritarian future - Fox News has that covered. Rather, these are anti-war magazines, largely left-leaning, whose reporting exposes the ugly truths that inevitably surface on both sides of any conflict.

The incident is also troubling because PayPal's bans appear to be coordinated, with Mint Press and Consortium receiving their bans within days of each other. This strongly suggests pressure from government agencies. The bans can easily be seen as a result of Wikileaks' exclusion from PayPal ten years ago, which was at the request of the U.S. State Department. The consortium has long been known for its coverage of relentless U.S. attacks on Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange after he helped expose American war crimes in Iraq.

Mint Press' reporting is also likely to have soured Western authorities, such as MacLeod's recent report that TikTok employs a strangely high number of people affiliated with NATO. Mint Press also reports extensively on the Israeli Defense Force's attacks on Palestine and publishes the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning anti-war reporter Chris Hedges. In his reporting, Matt Taibbi points to a recent announcement by PayPal acknowledging the sharing of data with governments and law enforcement as a means to "combat extremism and hate." Labeling criticism of Israeli policies as anti-Semitism is a common tactic of its allies and supporters - a category mistake, regardless of one's political affiliation.

Fake news" that isn't

There is an important distinction between Consortium and Mint Press on the one hand, and other media outlets that have been vilified as clickbaity misinformation or government propaganda on the other. Over the past six years, we have seen legitimate concerns about the rise of fake viral content that serves only to generate clicks and ads, government-backed outlets that propagate official agendas on social media, and increasingly partisan rhetoric that distorts real events.

Mint Press and Consortium, on the other hand, are independent but credible sources that focus on careful reporting of real events, even if they are politically inconvenient. Both are run primarily by Americans, and neither source is backed by any government.

"This fight against so-called disinformation is just an excuse to target dissenters and sources that expose the profiteers and both parties' addiction to perpetual war," Adley said. "That's exactly what we do at Mint Press. We name the names, show their profits, highlight what they say, and report on the many conflicts of interest that exist within the media and these shady relationships."

In addition, the staff and contributors include many highly acclaimed, veteran journalists. Lauria is a former Boston Globe and Wall Street Journal staffer and co-author of a book with Mike Gravel, who represented Alaska in the Senate as a Democrat from 1969 to 1981. Consortium was founded in 1995 by Robert Parry, an award-winning investigative journalist who helped expose the CIA's role in drug trafficking and its extensive use of psychological warfare abroad. I mentioned earlier that Chris Hedges, the editor of Mint, famously resigned from the New York Times after criticizing its coverage of the Iraq war, which was and continues to be catastrophically flawed.

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

All of this may sound like an appeal to authority or credentials, and it is. You may be a fan of lindy effects in the crypto economy, and in journalism, you don't get much more lindy than people like Lauria and Scheer, who have managed to sustain their careers for long decades while refusing to bow to the media industry's groupthink. They should be heroes, especially to skeptics of state power.

Financial censorship is still censorship

Although both Mint and Consortium openly oppose the war, their reporting does not amount to a political campaign. They simply expose facts that the authorities would rather not note, such as the strong presence of fascist-oriented units like the Azov Battalion in the Ukrainian war effort. By lumping such inconvenient facts in with "fake news," PayPaI accepts its new role as a pinhole for ideological control.

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

Century. "Before the Internet," Lauria says, "it was easier to control news coverage indirectly through three television stations or media outlets that were later owned by just a handful of corporations. With social media, anyone can launch a publication or webcast or reach thousands of followers on social media ... The narrative has gotten out of control from [the government's] perspective, so the government has instituted a strict censorship program, first by pressuring the social media giants and now directly through the Disinformation Governance Board." (Since the interview, this board has been mothballed at the Department of Homeland Security).

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

Fortunately, there is at least one solution for these and other marginalized voices: Cryptocurrency.

"We accept Bitcoin [donations], which was a great backstop during the PayPal ban," Adley said. "The ban reminded us that we shouldn't rely on these big tech financial giants. We will work to add options for other cryptocurrencies as it seems we should work with a more decentralized financial option. We are still new to the world of cryptocurrencies, but it seems that we have no choice but to move in this direction if we want to survive as a media company."