The public skepticism surrounding the United States’ policy on censorship, surveillance, and foreign regime change interventions has existed for a long time. At a time when alternate news sources and social media platforms have surpassed their mainstream counterparts, Mint Press reported that the US military might be on a mission to exploit the popular social media platform Reddit for its gains.
At the heart of the controversy is an ‘unusual’ appointment of foreign policy expert Jessica Ashooh as the Director of Policy of Reddit in 2017. Ashooh hails from a prominent family in New Hampshire, with her uncle Richard serving as the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Export Administration under the former US President Donald Trump. Unlike her Republican uncle, she has a strong leaning towards the Democratic party and has donated to anti-Trump groups.
The foreign policy hawk has shown support for the contentious Right Side PAC and the Lincoln Project but has occasionally showered praise on prominent Republicans such as George W Bush. She had even written her doctoral thesis on Bush’s foreign policy in the Middle East while she was a student at the Oxford University. In Washington, her political views lie in the centre of the neoliberal blob. But, unlike other appointees to the senior roles in Reddit, Jessica Ashooh did not have any relevant experience in the field of tech or marketing.
Interestingly, Jessica Ashooh has been a member of the Atlantic Council, which is the foreign policy arm of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Mint News reported that the Atlantic Council receives funding from the US military, US government, big tech firms, weapon manufacturers, and even the Middle Eastern nations. The Board of Directors of the think tank has high-profile Statesman such as Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, Condolezza Rice, 7 former CIA directors, and senior military commanders.
Others occupying senior management roles in Reddit have worked with companies such as Snapchat, Yelp, and Expedia. As such, Ashooh’s appointment was a departure from normal practice in Reddit. While speaking about the development, journalist and researcher Tom Secker commented, “That someone whose entire career has been in international relations and foreign affairs is now the senior policy wonk at Reddit is simply bizarre. Given her ties to the CFR, Atlantic Council, and the like, it’s downright suspicious.”
Ashooh’s appointment as the Director of Policy of Reddit happened in 2017 when the Senate Select Intelligence Committee had demanded additional control over the social media site for ‘spreading disinformation.’ It has been 4 years since Jessica Ashooh took over the role. She is in charge of overseeing government relations, the public policy of Reddit, besides advertising and content management. Despite the appointment of such a high-profile foreign policy hawk, Mint Press found negligible coverage in the press between late 2016 and early 2017. All of this added to the long existent suspicion of a close-knitted nexus between Silicon Valley and the US deep state apparatus.
Jessica Ashooh is a strong proponent of the ‘moderate rebels’ in Syria
According to the LinkedIn profile of Jessica Ashooh, she worked as the Deputy Director of the Atlantic Council in its Middle East Strategy Task Force. During that time, she worked under Stephen Hadley and Madeline Albright. While Hadley was the senior national security advisor to George W Bush during the Afghan and Iraq wars, Albright oversaw the Oil for Food Program and the sanctions of Iraq under the Bill Clinton administration (both deemed as genocide by the United Nations).
Mint Press reported that Ashooh’s area of ‘expertise’ is the war in Syria. She has been a vocal proponent of US intervention in the country to overthrow Bashar-al-Asad’s government. During an interview with Al Jazeera in 2015, she had justified the decision of the UK government’s bombing in Syria and that it will help in gaining international consensus on foreign government intervention in the country. She had emphasised the need for ground troops and claimed that there was no political solution without military intervention. The Atlantic Council hawk had expressed her support for rebel forces in Syria who were supposedly ‘uniting’ against the Assad regime.
Despite no clear distinction between ‘moderate’ rebels and ‘militant jihadists’ by 2016 in Syria, she had condemned Russia likening the rebels to terrorist groups such as ISIS, AL-Nusra, and Jaysh-al-Islam. A report published by the Washington Post in February 2016 had conceded that many of the ‘moderate rebels’ had joined hands with Al-Nusra and it was difficult to set them apart. However, Ashooh had continued to urge the then US government to provide weapons to the rebels. “As long as [Assad] remains in power and remains the figurehead of the Syrian government…this conflict won’t end,” she had called for a regime change war.
Atlantic Council operative worked with the most regressive forces in Middle East
Between 2011 and 2015, she was working with senior decision makers of the United Arab Emirates’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs. According to Jessica Ashooh, she was involved in policy analysis and providing strategic advice, primarily focussed on Syria. The situation by then had become so grim that the then Vice-President Joe Biden said, “The Saudis, the Emiratis, what were they doing?…They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad, except that the people who were being supplied were al-Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”
VP Joe Biden later apologised for his comments. Prior to joining Reddit as the Director of Policy in early 2017, Jessica Ashooh was seen criticising Barack Obama for his ‘softness’ on Syria. She had also urged Donald Trump to order targeted, punitive strikes against the Assad regime and restore the credibility of the US. In an article in the Washington Post April 2017, the Atlantic Council hawk had revealed how she was travelled to Istambul in 2013 to coordinate with the leaders of the Syrian Opposition and plan a response to a ‘chemical weapons attack.’
While she was advising the US on the Middle East, UAE was accused of transporting Al-Qaeda and ISIS leaders into Yemen to continue the Saudi-led genocide and smuggling US weaponry to the jihadist outfits. Even though Ashooh tried to draw a distinction between ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist’ rebels, Mint Press reported she ended up working for the entities which eventually joined hands with the most regressive forces in the Middle East.
Jessica Ashooh and her penchant for regime change wars
The Atlantic Council operative had supported the idea of regime change wars. Besides Syria, she had suggested overthrowing the Iranian government in 2017 but lamented that such an idea was a distant policy. In an Atlantic Council report, Jessica Ashooh emphasised, “Iranian interference in the Arab world must be deterred…America’s friends and partners must be reassured that the U.S. opposes Iranian hegemony and will work with them to prevent it.”
While it might appear that she is opposed to the idea of military dictatorships, however, this is far from reality. In 2016, she had accompanied her bosses Albright and Hadley to Saudi Arabia and heaped praise on the dynamic leadership of the dictator aka monarch for his dynamic leadership. She had applauded the Saudi government for bringing up a positive change in the region. Ashooh had also decided to look past the genocide committed by the Gulf nation in Yemen. On her public Reddit page (arabscarab), she had also tried to deflect the issue of ill-treatment of women in Saudi Arabia.
Ashooh had also worked for the Iraqi Ministry of Planning on strategic and economic development issues as an advisor in 2010. Her Linkedin profile stated that her consultancy agency provided managerial and strategic advice to the ‘Ministry of Planning of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Northern Iraq.’ Mint Press reported the lead partner in the consultancy firm is an ex-Army captain and the organisation is connected with the US military.
The growing influence of the Atlantic Council over social media firms
The think tank behind NATO, Atlantic Council, had been gradually increasing its control over social media firms. After successfully planting Jessica Ashooh in Reddit, it had partnered with Facebook in 2018 to delete low-quality or fake news and promote trustworthy sources. As such, traffic to alternate media was throttled while mainstream sources such as CNN, Fox News, and New York Times were given preference. “Given the Atlantic Council’s funding and the identities of those on its board, their control over social media is tantamount to state censorship on a global level,” said journalist Alan MacLeod of Mint Press.
Facebook had also hired Ben Nimmo, a NATO press officer, as its Intelligence chief. Nimmo had earlier courted controversy for identifying a Welsh pensioner and a Ukranian pianist as ”Russian bots.’ Twitter had also hired Gordon MacMillan, an officer of the British Army’s 77th Bridage was ousted from active duty, in 2019 despite his tainted past. No major news portals covered the story and the journalist who covered the story for a major US outlet resigned a few days later, over censorship concerns. Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit had earlier admitted to deleting accounts linked to sources in Russia, China and Iran, and other enemy nations of the US.
While speaking on the development, journalist Tom Secker emphasised, “The mainstream media-politik establishment has managed to get a hold over Twitter, Facebook and Instagram — shadow-banning and downrating posts considered ‘Russian propaganda’ or whatever other excuses they use to marginalize perspectives and content outside of the mainstream. Audiences for this sort of content are increasingly pissed off and alienated by the major social media sites.” Mint Press reported that several news items, often dubbed as Russian propaganda, find their origins in documents of the Atlantic Council.
Reddit and the US security state propaganda
Mint Press reported that Reddit played a crucial role in peddling propaganda against Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in 2019. Prior to the UK General elections, Corbyn had highlighted documents leaked on Reddit which showed UK PM Boris Johnson negotiating with American companies for the sale of Nation Health Service. It was a game-changer, noted Mint Press. However, Reddit dubbed the leaked documents as part of the ‘Russian disinformation campaign.’ Mainstream media had then tweaked its headlines from ‘Boris Johnson is selling off the NHS’ to ‘Corbyn promotes Russian disinfo.’
According to Mint Press, the ‘anti-war’ Jeremy Corbyn lost while the Conservative Party rode on the Anti-Russia narrative. It said, “…an outcome the hawks at the Atlantic Council were no doubt relieved by, given Corbyn’s open skepticism about war, empire and nuclear weapons.” Although Reddit started off as anti-establishment and libertarian, it went to extremes in supporting free speech. The social media site was soon flooded with child pornography. Following extensive reporting by CNN, Reddit protected offensive communities such as /r/BeatingWomen and /r/CoonTown.
With the arrival of Jessica Ashooh in 2017, Reddit experienced an overhaul in its policies. While the social media site would earlier protect offensive communities that would bring bad publicity, the new content policy ensured the deletion of such communities. In 2020, the Atlantic Council hawk oversaw the banning of over 2000 communities in a single day including those of /r/ The_Donald and left-leaning /r/ChapoTrapHouse. While the new content policy has ensured more revenues for the social media platform since 2017, the objective of free flow of ideas and expression has certainly diminished.