Because Banning Propaganda “Ties the Hands of America’s Diplomatic Officials, Military, and Others by Inhibiting Our Ability to Effectively Communicate In a Credible Way”
Michael Hastings reports:
An amendment that would legalize the use of propaganda on American audiences is being inserted into the latest defense authorization bill….
The amendment would “strike the current ban on domestic dissemination” of propaganda material produced by the State Department and the Pentagon, according to the summary of the law at the House Rules Committee’s official website.
The tweak to the bill would essentially neutralize two previous acts—the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 and Foreign Relations Authorization Act in 1987—that had been passed to protect U.S. audiences from our own government’s misinformation campaigns.
The bi-partisan amendment is sponsored by Rep. Mac Thornberry from Texas and Rep. Adam Smith from Washington State.
In a little noticed press release earlier in the week — buried beneath the other high-profile issues in the $642 billion defense bill, including indefinite detention and a prohibition on gay marriage at military installations — Thornberry warned that in the Internet age, the current law “ties the hands of America’s diplomatic officials, military, and others by inhibiting our ability to effectively communicate in a credible way.”
The bill’s supporters say the informational material used overseas to influence foreign audiences is too good to not use at home, and that new techniques are needed to help fight Al-Qaeda, a borderless enemy whose own propaganda reaches Americans online.
Critics of the bill say there are ways to keep America safe without turning the massive information operations apparatus within the federal government against American citizens.
“I just don’t want to see something this significant – whatever the pros and cons – go through without anyone noticing,” “ says one source on the Hill, who is disturbed by the law. According to this source, the law would allow “U.S. propaganda intended to influence foreign audiences to be used on the domestic population.”
The new law would give sweeping powers to the State Department and Pentagon to push television, radio, newspaper, and social media onto the U.S. public. “It removes the protection for Americans,” says a Pentagon official who is concerned about the law. “It removes oversight from the people who want to put out this information. There are no checks and balances. No one knows if the information is accurate, partially accurate, or entirely false.”
According to this official, “senior public affairs” officers within the Department of Defense want to “get rid” of Smith-Mundt and other restrictions because it prevents information activities designed to prop up unpopular policies—like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Critics of the bill point out that there was rigorous debate when Smith Mundt passed, and the fact that this is so “under the radar,” as the Pentagon official puts it, is troubling.
The evaporation of Smith-Mundt and other provisions to safeguard U.S. citizens against government propaganda campaigns is part of a larger trend within the diplomatic and military establishment.
In December, the Pentagon used software to monitor the Twitter debate over Bradley Manning’s pre-trial hearing; another program being developed by the Pentagon would design software to create “sock puppets” on social media outlets; and, last year, General William Caldwell, deployed an information operations team under his command that had been trained in psychological operations to influence visiting American politicians to Kabul.
The upshot, at times, is the Department of Defense using the same tools on U.S. citizens as on a hostile, foreign, population.
A U.S. Army whistleblower, Lieutenant Col. Daniel Davis, noted recently in his scathing 84-page unclassified report on Afghanistan that there remains a strong desire within the defense establishment “to enable Public Affairs officers to influence American public opinion when they deem it necessary to “protect a key friendly center of gravity, to wit US national will,” he wrote, quoting a well-regarded general.
The defense bill passed the House Friday afternoon.
Juan Cole notes:
Nothing speaks more urgently to the creeping fascism of American politics than the assertion by our representatives, who apparently have never read a book on Germany in the 1930s-1940s or on the Soviet Union in the Stalin period, that forbidding DoD and the State Department from subjecting us to government propaganda “ties the hands of America’s diplomatic officials, military, and others by inhibiting our ability to effectively communicate in a credible way.” And mind you, they want to use our own money to wash our brains!
Of course, having a Pentagon propaganda unit at all is highly anti-democratic. The best defense of the truth is a free press. It should also be remembered that nowadays everything in Washington is outsourced, so government propaganda is often being turned over to Booz Allen or the American Enterprise Institute ….
Doing propaganda abroad has the difficulty that it doesn’t stay abroad. False articles placed in the Arabic press in Iraq were translated into English by wire services, who got stung.
Then, another problem is that the Defense Intelligence Agency analysts *also* read the false articles placed in the Arabic press by *another* Pentagon office, which they did not know about. So the analysts were passing up to the White House false information provided by their own colleagues!
Mediaite points out:
The military has been trying to find new avenues for spread U.S. propaganda on social media websites for a while now. A 2011 Wired piece details how the Department of Defense has been working on ways to monitor and engage in “countermessaging” on social media sites like Twitter.
Government Has Been Illegally Using Propaganda for Decades
Of course – even though it is currently illegal – the government has already been using propaganda against U.S. audiences for decades. Government agencies – including both the Department of Defense and other agencies – are actively manipulating social media for propaganda purposes, to crush dissent (and see this), to help the too big to fail businesses compete against smaller businesses (and here), and to promote viewpoints which have nothing to do with keeping us safe.
- Famed Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein says the CIA has already bought and paid for many successful journalists
- The New York Times discusses in a matter-of-fact way the use of mainstream writers by the CIA to spread messages
- A 4-part BBC documentary called the “Century of the Self” shows that an American – Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays – created the modern field of manipulation of public perceptions, and the U.S. government has extensively used his techniques
- The Independent discusses allegations of American propaganda
- And one of the premier writers on journalism says the U.S. has used widespread propaganda
We noted in 2009:
The U.S. government long ago announced its intention to “fight the net”.
As revealed by an official Pentagon report signed by Rumsfeld called “Information Operations Roadmap”:
The roadmap [contains an] acknowledgement that information put out as part of the military’s psychological operations, or Psyops, is finding its way onto the computer and television screens of ordinary Americans.
“Information intended for foreign audiences, including public diplomacy and Psyops, is increasingly consumed by our domestic audience,” it reads.
“Psyops messages will often be replayed by the news media for much larger audiences, including the American public,” it goes on.
“Strategy should be based on the premise that the Department [of Defense] will ‘fight the net’ as it would an enemy weapons system”.
Indeed, the Pentagon publicly announced years ago that it was considering using “black propaganda” – in other words, knowing lies.
CENTCOM announced in 2008 that a team of employees would be “[engaging] bloggers who are posting inaccurate or untrue information, as well as bloggers who are posting incomplete information.”
The Air Force is now also engaging bloggers. Indeed, an Air Force spokesman said:
“We obviously have many more concerns regarding cyberspace than a typical Social Media user,” Capt. Faggard says. “I am concerned with how insurgents or potential enemies can use Social Media to their advantage. It’s our role to provide a clear and accurate, completely truthful and transparent picture for any audience.”
In other words, the government is targeting “social media”, including popular user-ranked news sites.
In addition, when you look at what the Israeli lobby has done with Megaphone software to automatically vote stories questioning Israel down and to send pro-Israel letters to politicians and media (see this, this and this), you can start to see how the U.S. military – an even larger and better-funded organization – could substantially influence voting on social news sites with very little effort.
Moreover,the military has outsourced many projects to private contractors. For example, in Iraq, much of the fighting has been outsourced to Blackwater. And governmental intelligence functions have largely been outsourced to private companies.
It is therefore not impossible that the government is hiring cheap labor to downvote stories on the social media sites which question the government, and to post pro-government comments.
Raw Story reported last year that the Air Force ordered software to manage army of sock puppets:
Internet users would be well advised to ask another question entirely: Are my “friends” even real people?In the continuing saga of data security firm HBGary, a new caveat has come to light: not only did they plot to help destroy secrets outlet WikiLeaks and discredit progressive bloggers, they also crafted detailed proposals for software that manages online “personas,” allowing a single human to assume the identities of as many fake people as they’d like.
The revelation was among those contained in the company’s emails, which were dumped onto bittorrent networks after hackers with cyber protest group “Anonymous” broke into their systems.
In another document unearthed by “Anonymous,” one of HBGary’s employees also mentioned gaming geolocation services to make it appear as though selected fake persons were at actual events.
“There are a variety of social media tricks we can use to add a level of realness to all fictitious personas,” it said.
Eerie as that may be, more perplexing, however, is a federal contract from the 6th Contracting Squadron at MacDill Air Force Base, located south of Tampa, Florida, that solicits providers of “persona management software.”
While there are certainly legitimate applications for such software, such as managing multiple “official” social media accounts from a single input, the more nefarious potential is clear.
Unfortunately, the Air Force’s contract description doesn’t help dispel their suspicions either. As the text explains, the software would require licenses for 50 users with 10 personas each, for a total of 500. These personas would have to be “replete with background , history, supporting details, and cyber presences that are technically, culturally and geographacilly consistent.”
It continues, noting the need for secure virtual private networks that randomize the operator’s Internet protocol (IP) address, making it impossible to detect that it’s a single person orchestrating all these posts. Another entry calls for static IP address management for each persona, making it appear as though each fake person was consistently accessing from the same computer each time.
The contract also sought methods to anonymously establish virtual private servers with private hosting firms in specific geographic locations. This would allow that server’s “geosite” to be integrated with their social media profiles, effectively gaming geolocation services.
The Air Force added that the “place of performance” for the contract would be at MacDill Air Force Base, along with Kabul, Afghanistan and Baghdad. The contract was offered on June 22, 2010.
It was not clear exactly what the Air Force was doing with this software, or even if it had been procured.
Though many questions remain about how the military would apply such technology, the reasonable fear should be perfectly clear. “Persona management software” can be used to manipulate public opinion on key information, such as news reports. An unlimited number of virtual “people” could be marshaled by only a few real individuals, empowering them to create the illusion of consensus.
That’s precisely what got DailyKos blogger Happy Rockefeller in a snit: the potential for military-run armies of fake people manipulating and, in some cases, even manufacturing the appearance of public opinion.
“I don’t know about you, but it matters to me what fellow progressives think,” the blogger wrote. “I consider all views. And if there appears to be a consensus that some reporter isn’t credible, for example, or some candidate for congress in another state can’t be trusted, I won’t base my entire judgment on it, but it carries some weight.
“That’s me. I believe there are many people though who will base their judgment on rumors and mob attacks. And for those people, a fake mob can be really effective.”
“Team Themis” [tasked by the Chamber of Commerce to come up with strategies for responding to progressive bloggers and others] also included a proposal to use malware hacks against progressive organizations, and the submission of fake documents in an effort to discredit established groups.
HBGary was also behind a plot by Bank of America to destroy WikiLeaks’ technology platform, other emails revealed. The company was humiliated by members of “Anonymous” after CEO Aaron Barr bragged that he’d “infiltrated” the group.
Wired reported last year:
The Pentagon is looking to build a tool to sniff out social media propaganda campaigns and spit some counter-spin right back at it.
On Thursday, Defense Department extreme technology arm Darpa unveiled its Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) program. It’s an attempt to get better at both detecting and conducting propaganda campaigns on social media. SMISC has two goals. First, the program needs to help the military better understand what’s going on in social media in real time — particularly in areas where troops are deployed. Second, Darpa wants SMISC to help the military play the social media propaganda game itself.
This is more than just checking the trending topics on Twitter. The Defense Department wants to deeply grok social media dynamics. So SMISC algorithms will be aimed at discovering and tracking the “formation, development and spread of ideas and concepts (memes)” on social media, according to Darpa’s announcement.
SMISC needs to be able to seek out “persuasion campaign structures and influence operations” developing across the social sphere. SMISC is supposed to quickly flag rumors and emerging themes on social media, figure out who’s behind it and what. Moreover, Darpa wants SMISC to be able to actually figure out whether this is a random product of the hivemind or a propaganda operation by an adversary nation or group.
Of course, SMISC won’t be content to just to hang back and monitor social media trends in strategic locations. It’s about building a better spin machine for Uncle Sam, too. Once SMISC’s latches on to an influence operation being launched, it’s supposed to help out in “countermessaging.”
SMISC is yet another example of how the military is becoming very interested in what’s going on in the social media sphere.
Gene Howington writes that mainstream media – including NPR – have used propaganda on American audiences to shape the debate on numerous issues:
Consider the use of media outlets like NPR that made a public and conscious decision to refrain from reporting on “torture” – a word with extremely negative denotation and connotation – and instead choosing to use the euphemistic language “enhanced interrogation”. Everyone with a conscience thinks torture is a bad thing and torturers are ethically abhorrent people. It’s not only a Federal crime, cruel and unusual punishment is specifically barred by the 8th Amendment of the Constitution. The word choice here is designed to clearly shift public attitudes from “those guys need to be prosecuted as criminals” to “maybe they aren’t so bad after all”. NPR (aided by the Bush Administration no doubt) chose words with a neutral/positive value load compared to the word “torture”. Connotation plays to your emotional response over your rational response. When the word choice becomes more subtle, the damage of connotations can be even more insidious. Compare:
- war – limited police action
- conquest – liberation
- famine – widespread hunger
- pestilence – outbreak
- death – casualties
Indeed – in the ultimate Kafkaesque nightmare – the Pentagon recently used black propaganda to smear USA Today reporters who were investigating illegal Pentagon propaganda.
Virtually Everything Government Does Is Propaganda
It is a sad fact that virtually everything government does these days is propaganda.
For example, the government has tried to corral the American public into a certain view on the economy: One that says that the big banks are more or less healthy, that they must be saved at all costs, that we need not prosecute Wall Street fraud, and that an economic recovery is just around the corner.
Indeed, in response to virtually every problem, the government puts out spin covering up the severity of the crisis and pretending that the problem was “unexpected” and that it won’t happen again … so we can keep on doing the exact same thing. This is true in regards to the financial crisis, Wall Street fraud, nuclear accidents, oil spills, groundwater pollution and a host of other problems.
Indeed, it sometimes seem like the only thing the government does these days is to provide propaganda on behalf of special interests so they can make more money.