Imagine yourself a small business owner. Perhaps the owner of a local pizzeria in a large metro area who came up with a unique recipe for pizza and built a dedicated clientele through word of mouth and social media.
Imagine yourself working day and night to grow your business, doing everything that needs to be done, taking orders, making pizza, cleaning toilets, embracing the sacrifice it takes to grow a business.
Now imagine a Big Tech company taking over the delivery industry in your city with an app that gives customers much wider options for ordering pizza. The app requires you to purchase advertising in order to reach potential customers and it’s not cheap but you are soon receiving more business than ever with customers lining up out the door for your pizza.
But then one day the company restricts the visibility of your business on its app and your sales plummet overnight.
When you ask for an explanation, they point to comments you made on the app against police abuse which angered local cops. The company responded by banning you from advertising, restricting your ability to reach customers.
You are forced out of business even though most customers loved your pizza; they just figured you no longer existed.
You then learn that Big Tech routinely works with the federal government in censoring social media pages, including small businesses critical of the government forcing them out of business.
And you are left wondering, where is the outrage?
The above scenario is what happened to my business but instead of a pizzeria it was a news site exposing police abuse. And the company, of course, is Facebook.
But I used the analogy of the pizzeria because most people view blogging as a hobby rather than a business. Or at most, a side gig.
But the blog I launched in 2007 after I was beaten and arrested for photographing police in Miami, Photography is Not a Crime, became an award-winning national news site called PINAC News after I started writing about other people getting beaten and arrested for recording police.
PINAC became my full-time job with the encouragement of Facebook who spent years hounding me to buy ads in order to grow my business on its platform. And I was able to make a modest income as long as I wrote day and night to keep up with the growing competition.
PINAC became the first news site to educate citizens on their right to record police in public as well the first to expose police abuse caught on camera at a time when the corporate media was reluctant to report such stories.
But dozens of independent news sites and Facebook pages and YouTube channels dedicated to exposing police abuse caught on camera emerged. And only then did the corporate media began taking a more serious look at police abuse.
But Homeland Security which had been stalking me for years succeeded in shutting the site down by bullying Facebook into restricting our articles, costing us hundreds of thousands of dollars in potential ad revenue over several years and ultimately forcing PINAC out of business.
The crackdown against PINAC began in 2018 not long after Facebook began removing pages belonging to Alex Jones, including Infowars, for what it called “hate speech.”
Facebook then removed 800 other pages claiming they had “consistently broken our rules against spam and coordinated inauthentic behavior,” including political sites from both the right and left as well as police accountability sites like Cop Block and the Free Thought Project.
PINAC survived the purge but we were severely shadow banned to the point where we were only able to reach a few hundred readers a day where before we would reach thousands in minutes. Facebook also barred us from boosting our stories on our own page and banned us from advertising our t-shirts on Instagram on the basis that we write about “social issues” which they never elaborated on but was obviously code for police abuse.
Inside sources within Facebook then began talking to journalists, saying the company was being pressured by the federal government to restrict certain sites.
It all started in January 2018 during the Trump Administration, according to a 2020 Mother Jones article, when Facebook adjusted its algorithms to restrict left-leaning news sites while boosting right-leaning sites in order to appease the Trump Administration which was threatening to regulate the social media company. Sites like Mother Jones, Slate and ThinkProgress all saw a drop in readership while sites like the Daily Caller, Daily Wire, The Gateway Pundit and Breitbart all saw a boost.
But in August 2018, Facebook removed Infowars, which was a huge supporter of Trump, after public backlash over Jones spreading lies about the Sandy Hook mass shooting, claiming that it was all a hoax which ultimately led to several lawsuits filed against him, resulting in him having to pay more than a billion dollars in damages to the families of the victims. He has since filed for bankruptcy.
That was when PINAC noticed a significant drop in readership even though August has traditionally been our peak month because police abuse increases along with the temperature. Then in October 2018, Facebook removed the 800 pages which was when PINAC was further restricted from reaching the more than 375,000 people who have chosen to follow the page.
In May 2022, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt and Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry filed a lawsuit against the Biden Administration, accusing it of colluding with Big Tech to censor stories regarding Hunter Biden’s laptop as well as stories related to COVID-19 questioning the government mandates towards vaccines and masks. The lawsuit remains pending.
Three months later, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged on the Joe Rogan Experience that Facebook restricted a New York Post article about the Hunter Biden laptop scandal before the 2020 presidential election after being pressured by the FBI even though fact checkers were unable to prove it was false.
Then in October 2022, The Intercept published an investigative report revealing how Facebook under pressure from the United States Department of Homeland Security created a portal page allowing police officers throughout the country to log in with their government email and request certain articles be removed or restricted.
The article states that Homeland Security, the federal agency created in 2001 in the wake of 9/11, has shifted much of its focus from combatting international terrorism to “investigate Americans, including anti-government individuals such as racially motivated violent extremists, sovereign citizens, militias, and anarchists.”
The article also states that the goal is to stop the spread of what it calls disinformation and misinformation but the federal government has long been a purveyor of lies so how can it be trusted to determine what are truths and lies? Especially when there is absolutely no transparency in the process of how it operates and whom it targets.
And as much as PINAC has angered the government, it has never been accused of spreading lies. The fact-checking website, Media Bias Fact Check, gave PINAC a “high credibility” rating with zero failed fact checks over the past five years.
The Department of Homeland Security has had its eyes on PINAC for at least a decade as we revealed through public records when we proved its Southeast Florida Fusion Center had been monitoring my comments on social media and relaying them to Miami-Dade police hours before I was arrested for video recording the Occupy Miami eviction from Government Center in January 2012. I was acquitted by a jury.
Today, after 15 years of investing every ounce of energy and last dollar into PINAC to ensure every one of our articles was thorough and accurate, I am back to square one, seeking clients who need writing, photo or video services.
Turning PINAC into a business was the furthest thing from my mind when I launched it at 2007 after I was beaten and arrested by Miami police for photographing them in public while on assignment for a local news site and charged with nine misdemeanors.
My goal was to proclaim my innocence and document my trial as well as to educate others about their right to photograph cops in public. My priority was to ensure every article I published was accurate and that remained my priority until the very end.
I initially figured the blog would be short-lived because I expected to be acquitted on all charges, naively believing at the time in truth and justice. But a biased judge who was a former police union attorney allowed improper evidence against me, resulting in my conviction of resisting arrest even though I had been acquitted of all the other charges.
I appealed the conviction and had it reversed but I was arrested and prosecuted an additional three times in Miami-Dade over the next several years for photographing cops or security guards in public. And with each arrest and court battle, PINAC’s readership grew, despite cops trying their hardest to discredit me. I would end up beating every single one of my cases.
PINAC did not start making ad revenue until 2010 after I signed a contract with Barnes & Noble agreeing to let them host the blog on a photography site they had launched along with other photography bloggers, each which their own expertise. I was the First Amendment blogger and remained under contract with them for three years before moving the site back to WordPress. That partnership also led to a book deal in which I published The Citizen Journalist’s Photography Handbook in 2014.
As the competition grew, I quit the freelance side jobs that had earned me a steady income during the early years of PINAC to focus full-time on growing the site. I also hired more writers and we spent several years writing day and night to keep up with the onslaught of police abuse videos surfacing daily, many times scooping the competition on huge stories. But that type of business model was not very sustainable because it leads to burnout.
My plan was to turn PINAC into a nonprofit where we would not have to be so dependent on ad revenue, allowing us to focus on quality over quantity. But without capital, I had to rely on friends and volunteers to help start the nonprofit, including one friend who took on the role of executive director to raise money for the site, only to end up trying to steal the site from me.
In early 2018 I signed a contract with a company called the Maven, agreeing to let them to host the site on its platform for a higher rate of ad revenue than we had been making through Google Adsense. But Facebook began restricting our reach within a year of signing that contract which is when everything started going downhill.
The Maven cancelled PINAC’s contract in the fall of 2021, blaming the decision on the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing the site back on WordPress under a new domain. But the Maven failed to redirect the older stories to the new site even though they said they would, resulting in a serious loss of ad revenue.
And with Facebook tightening the reins on our stories even tighter, it became impossible to regain our footing.
My last hope was the federal government which was dishing out billions of dollars in economic aid to small businesses through the SBA – but I soon learned that program was rife with fraud and cronyism.
Under the Trump Administration, the money disappeared in weeks after it was dished out to huge companies, many with Trump ties, while ignoring actual small businesses with less than 50 employees. Biden promised to do it differently, vowing to prioritize sole proprietors and minorities in low-income communities because they had been excluded under Trump.
And I fit that profile perfectly because I am a Hispanic-American who has filed my taxes as a sole proprietor for years and who lives and works in a low-income community in Miami, according to the SBA map.
But my application went ignored for a year before they told me the funds had been exhausted. During that time, the SBA would repeatedly ask for the same documents I had repeatedly emailed, claiming they had never received them. And even after I printed out all the documents and sent it to them through Federal Express, creating a track record, I was told by phone that the application was complete but was “on hold” for some reason they could not explain.
And during the year I waited to be approved, several people in Miami with apparent connections offered to obtain the loan for me for a 20 percent cut. And they were very effective because I spoke to people who received six-figure loans through them within weeks and they didn’t even own businesses. It seemed as if everybody was getting paid except me, especially in Miami, the fraud capitol of the country.
Biden later made a speech vowing to “fund the police” to the tune of billions of dollars in pandemic money which was when I left the Democratic Party after more than 30 years, vowing to never vote for them again. I am now an NPA, non-party affiliate, and have no intentions of ever voting again.
Last month I made the decision to shut PINAC down because I had finally accepted the fact I was beating a dead horse.
It was not easy shutting PINAC down because it had become such a dominant part of my life for so many years, and I now realize I had to go through the five stages of death before arriving at the decision.
At first, denial, believing that Facebook would lift its ban as it became clear we were not spreading lies or misrepresenting ourselves.
Then anger over being censored and cancelled despite hundreds of thousands of readers wanting to read our articles.
Then bargaining, looking for other ways to keep PINAC alive by applying for loans and posting Tik Tok videos, desperately seeking capital or at least another channel of distribution.
And then depression when I realized that hard work and honesty does not pay off because it is always the manipulators and liars who move to the top.
And finally acceptance when I realized PINAC had already served its purpose by waking citizens up to their rights and it was time to move on.
The truth is, the site had me under a constant state of stress throughout the entire 15 years I ran it.
From the possibility of getting sentenced to jail for photographing cops or raided on some trumped-up charge during the early years; to the challenge of remaining competitive when the corporate media began covering these stories; to the betrayal of friends trying to steal my site; to the shock of being shadow banned during the later years, destroying my livelihood for publishing the truth about cops – not to mention the post-traumatic stress disorder from being nearly killed for taking photos in public, including one incident where cops repeatedly bashed my head into the pavement and another where armed security guards dragged me down an escalator in a chokehold – the site has wreaked havoc on both my mental and physical health.
I now feel as if a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders but I am also very proud of the work we did on PINAC and very grateful for the support I received over the years from readers across the country. Without the support of the readers, none of this would have happened. We changed the world.
And while I have no plans to open a pizzeria, I do plan on interviewing the owners of a pizzerias in Miami specializing in different styles of pizza, including three styles from Italy. I will write about the histories behind each style and what sets them apart from each other as well as the struggles and benefits of running an independent pizzeria in the age of Big Tech.
And I plan to keep writing about the growing collusion between Big Tech and the government because it is one of the biggest threats to our democracy even though most people do not seem to realize it.
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