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By Robert Parry
Traditional U.S. journalism and the American people are facing a crisis, as the preeminent American newspaper, The New York Times, has fully lost its professional bearings, transforming itself into a neoconservative propaganda sheet eager for a New Cold War with Russia and imposing a New McCarthyism on public debate
The crisis is particularly acute because another top national newspaper, The Washington Post, is also deeply inside the neocon camp.
The Times’ abandonment of journalistic principles has become most noticeable with its recurring tirades about Russia, as the Times offers up story after story that would have embarrassed Sen. Joe McCarthy and his 1950s Red-baiters.
Operating without any actual evidence, a recent Times article by Neil MacFarquhar sought to trace public challenges to official U.S. government narratives on world events to a massive “disinformation” campaign by Russian intelligence. Apparently, it is inconceivable to the Times that independent-minded people might simply question some of the dubious claims made by Official Washington.
Perhaps most stunningly, the Times sought to prove its point by citing the slogan of Russia’s English-language television network, saying: “RT trumpets the slogan ‘Question More.’”
So, now, presumably if someone suggests questioning a claim from the U.S. government or from the NATO alliance, that person is automatically a “Russian agent of influence.” For a major newspaper to adopt such a position is antithetical to the tenets of journalism which call on us journalists to question everything.
The Times’ position is particularly outrageous because many key claims by the U.S. government, including some used to justify aggressive wars against other countries, have turned out to be false. Indeed, the Times has been caught peddling some of these bogus claims, often fed to the “newspaper of record” by U.S. government officials or from think tanks funded by American military contractors.
Most memorably, in 2002, the Times pushed disinformation about the Iraqi government reconstituting its nuclear weapons program, a lie that was then cited by Vice President Dick Cheney and other senior officials to help stampede the American people behind the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Image: The controversial map developed by Human Rights Watch and embraced by the New York Times, supposedly showing the flight paths of two missiles from the Aug. 21 Sarin attack intersecting at a Syrian military base.
Lesser known moments of the Times serving as a disinformation conduit include a discredited assertion about the 2013 sarin attack in Syria, in which the Times purported to show how the flight paths of two missiles traced back to a Syrian military base, only later to grudgingly acknowledge that aeronautical experts judged that the one missile found to be carrying sarin had a maximum range of about one-fourth the required distance.
During the 2014 Ukraine crisis, the Times accepted photographs from the U.S. State Department which purported to show Russian military personnel in Russia and then later inside Ukraine, except that it turned out that the photograph supposedly taken in Russia was actually taken in Ukraine, destroying the premise of the Times article.
Image: Photograph published by the New York Times purportedly taken in Russia of Russian soldiers who later appeared in eastern Ukraine. However, the photographer has since stated that the photo was actually taken in Ukraine, and the U.S. State Department has acknowledged the error.
Yet, the Times holds itself out as some paragon of objectivity. This delusion further underscores how out of control and indeed dangerous the Times has become as a source of U.S. government disinformation, while accusing others of spreading Russian disinformation which often isn’t disinformation at all.
In its recent article, the Times cites reasonable questions raised by Swedish citizens about a proposal for the country entering into a military association with NATO and dismisses these concerns as proof of Russian government propaganda and lies:
“The claims were alarming: If Sweden, a non-NATO member, signed the deal, the alliance would stockpile secret nuclear weapons on Swedish soil; NATO could attack Russia from Sweden without government approval; NATO soldiers, immune from prosecution, could rape Swedish women without fear of criminal charges.”
Yet, all these worries raised by Swedish citizens – and cited by MacFarquhar in the Times – are not unreasonable concerns since nuclear weapons often are stored in NATO countries, NATO members are obliged to go to war to protect allies, and there have been problems with rape cases in countries with NATO or other foreign bases.
How those realities might affect a country agreeing to a NATO military association are reasonable concerns for Swedes to raise, but instead these worries are dismissed as Russian disinformation without any evidence to support the charge.
MacFarquhar even concedes the point that his lead allegation lacks evidentiary support, writing: “As often happens in such cases, Swedish officials were never able to pin down the source of the false reports.”
Image: Russian President Vladimir Putin, following his address to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 28, 2015. (UN Photo)
MacFarquhar then adds:
“But they, numerous analysts and experts in American and European intelligence point to Russia as the prime suspect, noting that preventing NATO expansion is a centerpiece of the foreign policy of President Vladimir V. Putin, who invaded Georgia in 2008 largely to forestall that possibility.”
Though MacFarquhar cites the Russian “invasion” of Georgia supposedly to thwart its entrance into NATO as a flat fact to support his thesis, that historical reference is a far more complicated issue since it was Georgia that launched an attack on South Ossetia, a breakaway province, and killed Russian peacekeepers stationed there.
An investigation by the European Union laid most of the blame on Georgia for initiating the conflict, with the Russians then reacting to the Georgian assault. A 2009 report on the E.U. mission led by Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini rejected Georgian claims about self-defense, finding that Georgia, not Russia, started the conflict.
“None of the explanations given by the Georgian authorities in order to provide some form of legal justification for the attack lend it a valid explanation,” Tagliavini said.
The E.U. report stated:
“There was no ongoing armed attack by Russia before the start of the Georgian operation. Georgian claims of a large-scale presence of Russian armed forces in South Ossetia prior to the Georgian offensive could not be substantiated by the mission. It could also not be verified that Russia was on the verge of such a major attack.”
In other words, Putin’s military did not “invade” Georgia in 2008 “largely to forestall” Georgia’s entrance into NATO, but as a reaction – arguably an over-reaction – to Georgia’s violent offensive into South Ossetia.
Yet, MacFarquhar cites this dubious point as some sort of indirect “evidence” that Putin is responsible for questions posed by Swedish citizens about what a NATO association would mean for them.
After acknowledging no real evidence and citing a historical “fact” that really isn’t a fact, MacFarquhar expands his conspiracy theory into more recent events claiming that Putin
“has invested heavily in a program of ‘weaponized’ information, using a variety of means to sow doubt and division. …
“The fundamental purpose of dezinformatsiya, or Russian disinformation, experts said, is to undermine the official version of events — even the very idea that there is a true version of events — and foster a kind of policy paralysis.”
The MH-17 Case
As an example, MacFarquhar cites the case of the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014, claiming “Russia pumped out a dizzying array of theories.” The Times correspondent then asserts as flat fact that “The cloud of stories helped veil the simple truth that poorly trained insurgents had accidentally downed the plane with a missile supplied by Russia.”
Image: The Dutch Safety Board’s reconstruction of where it believed the missile exploded near Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, 2014.
But, according to official investigations that have been underway for more than two years, MacFarquhar’s claim is not “the simple truth,” as he put it. Last year’s report by the Dutch Safety Board reached no conclusion about who was responsible for shooting down the plane, killing 298 people.
Indeed, the DSB’s report included a statement by Dutch intelligence (reflecting NATO’s intelligence data) that the only powerful anti-aircraft-missile systems in eastern Ukraine on that day – capable of hitting MH-17 at 33,000 feet – were under the control of the Ukrainian military. (Though an official document, this Dutch intelligence report has never been mentioned by The New York Times, presumably because it conflicts with the favored Russia-did-it narrative.)
The U.S. government, which in the five days after the crash did rush to a judgment blaming ethnic Russian rebels supposedly using a Russian-supplied Buk missile, then went silent on the issue after CIA analysts had a chance to examine the evidence in more detail.
Despite appeals from the families of Dutch victims, including the father of the one young American citizen who died in the crash, the U.S. government has refused to release its radar, satellite images and other intelligence information that presumably could establish exactly who was responsible.
Why the U.S. government would obstruct the investigation into this tragedy if indeed the evidence proved Putin’s responsibility doesn’t make any sense. Indeed, it is the kind of question that a responsible journalist would press the U.S. government to answer, but MacFarquhar and the Times take the pressure off by simply reaffirming the impression that the U.S. government wants the public to have: the Russkies did it.
In the weeks after the crash, I was told by a source briefed by U.S. intelligence analysts that the secret U.S. data points the finger of guilt at a rogue Ukrainian military operation, which would fit with the statement by Dutch intelligence. But whatever the ultimate finding, it is simply bad journalism to state as flat fact something that remains seriously in doubt, a professional failure reminiscent of how the Times and Post treated Iraq’s WMD as a certainty in 2002-2003.
But there is something even more insidious about what The New York Times and The Washington Post have been up to. They are essentially saying that any questioning of the official U.S. government narrative on any international topic puts you in league with Moscow in its purported attempt to “weaponize” information, whatever that is supposed to mean.
The two newspapers are engaging in a breathtaking form of McCarthyism, apparently in some twisted effort to force a neoconservative ideological conformity on the American people in support of the New Cold War.
There is also a stunning lack of self-awareness. While MacFarquhar sees a Russian desire to portray U.S. life as “hellish,” including RT’s decision to show protest demonstrations – rather than some speeches – during the Republican and Democratic conventions, he and other writers who have picked up this theme consistently present the situation in Russia in the darkest possible terms.
Relatively innocent actions, such as the Kremlin seeking to make its case to the world, are transformed into evil deeds, using buzzwords like “weaponized” information and “hybrid war.”. Yet, there is no reference to the billions upon billions of dollars that the U.S. government has invested in disseminating propaganda and funding political activists around the world.
NATO has even established what it calls a “Strategic Communications Command,” or Stratcom, in Riga, Latvia, which – as veteran war correspondent Don North has written – views “the control and manipulation of information as a ‘soft power’ weapon, merging psychological operations, propaganda and public affairs under the catch phrase ‘strategic communications.’
“This attitude has led to treating psy-ops manipulative techniques for influencing a target population’s state of mind and surreptitiously shaping people’s perceptions as just a normal part of U.S. and NATO’s information policy. …
“And, as part of this Brave New World of ‘strategic communications,’ the U.S. military and NATO have now gone on the offensive against news organizations that present journalism which is deemed to undermine the perceptions that the U.S. government seeks to convey to the world.”
In other words, the U.S. government and NATO are engaged in what psychologists call “projection,” accusing someone else of one’s own behavior. Yet The New York Times has never investigated Washington’s and NATO’s involvement in “strategic communications.” Only the Russians do such dirty deeds.
A Darker Side
But there is even a darker side to the Times’ recent propaganda barrage about Russian propaganda. On the heels of MacFarquhar’s indictment of Russia for questioning Washington’s official narratives, the Times published a vicious attack on WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange, entitled “How Russia Often Benefits When Julian Assange Reveals the West’s Secrets.”
Image: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange at a media conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo credit: New Media Days / Peter Erichsen)
The article portrays Assange as a participant, wittingly or otherwise, in Russia’s allegedly nefarious scheme to release truthful information, such as the Democratic National Committee’s emails confirming what many had long suspected, that some party officials were favoring Hillary Clinton over her rival, Bernie Sanders. No one has suggested that the emails aren’t real.
However, without presenting any real evidence proving that Russian intelligence was responsible for the hack, the Times and the rest of the mainstream U.S. news media have made that assumption conventional wisdom based on the opinions of some unnamed U.S. officials.
Or as the Times’ takedown of Assange wrote,
“United States officials say they believe with a high degree of confidence that the Democratic Party material was hacked by the Russian government. …That raises a question: Has WikiLeaks become a laundering machine for compromising material gathered by Russian spies? And more broadly, what precisely is the relationship between Mr. Assange and Mr. Putin’s Kremlin? …
“Among United States officials, the emerging consensus is that Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks probably have no direct ties to Russian intelligence services. But they say that, at least in the case of the Democrats’ emails, Moscow knew it had a sympathetic outlet in WikiLeaks, where intermediaries could drop pilfered documents in the group’s anonymized digital inbox.”
Though it’s nice that some U.S. officials acknowledge a lack of evidence proving an operational relationship between Assange and Russian intelligence, the fact that a high-profile journalistic institution, such as WikiLeaks, has been under that sort of U.S. government investigation should be troubling to the Times and other news organizations.
However, instead the newspaper appears disappointed that it cannot declare outright that Assange is a “Moscow stooge.” (Also note that in the last passage, the Times treats the suspicion that Russian intelligence hacked the Democratic emails as flat fact when U.S. intelligence officials say they don’t know for sure.)
Verify, Don’t Moralize
The usual rule of thumb for journalists is to accept and verify information regardless of where it comes from. While occasionally you get a selfless leaker, it’s more common to get leaks from interested parties seeking to undermine their rivals. We see that in legal proceedings when lawyers supply documents helpful to their cases and in political contests when campaigns dig up dirt on their opponents.
Image: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders. (NBC photo)
Yet, journalists don’t throw away newsworthy information because it may be self-serving. We check it out and – if it checks out – we use it. The only real problem would be if you run the material as flat fact, without caveats, and it turns out to be false, as has happened repeatedly with material that the U.S. government has leaked to the Times and the Post.
What is particularly unprofessional about how the Times is treating Assange is that no one is saying that the Democratic Party emails are disinformation; they appear to be quite real and reflect a newsworthy concern, which is: Did the Democratic National Committee seek to throw the presidential nomination to Hillary Clinton?
But the Times’ unprofessional treatment of truthful information from WikiLeaks as well as the Times’ disdain for legitimate debate about the New Cold War with Russia has contributed to another dangerous development – a McCarthyistic launching of official U.S. government investigations into people who question the official Washington narratives.
An Official Investigation
The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that
“U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies are investigating what they see as a broad covert Russian operation in the United States to sow public distrust in the upcoming presidential election and in U.S. political institutions. …
Image: The Washington Post building. (Photo credit: Daniel X. O’Neil)
“The aim is to understand the scope and intent of the Russian campaign, which incorporates cyber-tools to hack systems used in the political process, enhancing Russia’s ability to spread disinformation. … A Russian influence operation in the United States ‘is something we’re looking very closely at,’ said one senior intelligence official,”
while admitting that there is no “definitive proof” of such a Russian scheme.
The danger of this investigation – and what a normal news media would focus on – is the U.S. government taking an unfocused look at how Russia supposedly influences the U.S. public debate, a probe that could easily cross the line into questioning the loyalty of Americans who simply dispute what the U.S. government is claiming about current events.
The Post reported,
“U.S. intelligence officials described the [Russian] covert influence campaign here as ‘ambitious’ and said it is also designed to counter U.S. leadership and influence in international affairs. …
“Russia has been in the vanguard of a growing global movement to use propaganda on the Internet to influence people and political events, especially since the political revolt in Ukraine, the subsequent annexation of Crimea by Russia, and the imposition of sanctions on Russia by the United States and the European Union. …
“‘Our studies show that it is very likely that [the influence] operations are centrally run,’ said Janis Sarts, director of the NATO Strategic Communications Center of Excellence, a research organization based in Riga, Latvia.”
Yes, that is the same NATO Stratcom complex that, as Don North reported, blends psychological operations with traditional public relations. Yet, you wouldn’t know that from reading The Washington Post’s article, which cites Stratcom as a source for accusing Russia of running influence operations.
A Vast Conspiracy
According to the Post, Sarts
“also said there is ‘a coordinated effort involving [groups using] Twitter and Facebook and networks of bots to amplify their message. The main themes seem to be orchestrated rather high up in the hierarchy of the Russian state, and then there are individual endeavors by people to exploit specific themes.’
“Sarts said the Russian propaganda effort has been ‘successful in exploiting the vulnerabilities within societies.’ In Western Europe, for instance, such Russian information operations have focused on the politically divisive refugee crisis.”
In other words, any reporting or commenting on significant foreign policy issues could open a journalist or a citizen to a U.S. government investigation into whether you are part of some nefarious Russian propaganda/disinformation scheme.
This McCarthyistic investigative style has already begun to have a chilling effect on public debate in the United States where dissident views on Russia, Syria or other hot topics are quickly disparaged as enemy propaganda. Almost anyone who questions whether a new, costly and dangerous Cold War is necessary is immediately tagged as a “Russian agent of influence,” a “Putin apologist,” or a “Moscow stooge.”
In this case, the Democrats have been particularly aggressive in playing the Joe McCarthy role by denouncing Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in such overheated terms, even suggesting his disloyalty for suggesting that he could, as President, get along with Putin.
During the McCarthy era of the 1950s, defense of freedom of thought required courageous journalists, most notably Edward R. Murrow, to stand up to the often unfounded smears against the patriotism of Americans. In 2016, however, it is the prestige news media, particularly The New York Times and The Washington Post, that have been leading the rush into the New Cold War and into the New McCarthyism.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon andbarnesandnoble.com).
The original source of this article is Consortium News
Copyright © Robert Parry, Consortium News, 2016
David Thrussell, New Dawn
According to an article on the website of ‘Radio Free Europe’, a nondescript modern 4-storey building on Savushkina Street, St. Petersburg, houses the innocuously titled ‘Internet Research Centre’.
Inside the building operate government controlled and tasked teams of professional ‘trolls’. Spread across approximately 40 rooms, the trolls prowl the Internet in 12 hour shifts, generating pro-Kremlin comments and ‘gaming’ Internet forums and online conversations.
St. Petersburg blogger Marat Burkhard recently came forward to describe the apparent covert activities in detail. Burkhard describes his co-workers as “politically illiterate young people” who must be briefed on current topics at the beginning of each shift and continually supervised.
At this point it would be pertinent to note the source of the article – Radio Free Europe – notoriously a CIA funded propaganda outlet for decades (now financed, more obtrusively, through the State Department and ‘private donors’). While only the congenitally naive would doubt the veracity of the article’s basic claims, what is (unsurprisingly) lacking is context. Whether financed and operated by Russia’s intelligence agency FSB, or some other shadowy enclave, it is estimated that the entire Russian security establishment currently operates with just one twentieth (1/20) of the US equivalent (not even including the UK and other close Western allies).
What that means, in a nutshell, is that for every Internet Research Centre in Russia, the CIA/NSA/GCHQ/private contractor nexus would be operating the equivalent of (at least) 20 such centres. Flooding the social media networks, news and other sites of their domestic populations with thousands upon thousands of comments, posts, disruption, disinformation and propaganda bullets every day. Salvos in an escalating, but largely unseen, ‘Information War’.
Furthermore, recent reports cite the development of software that actually scours the web, automatically switching between user names/identities and generating propaganda, provocations and automated comments as it goes. Coupled with Google’s recent announcement of A.I. software that can discern (Google’s version of) ‘the truth’, it doesn’t take much imagination to envisage any online expression of ‘untruth’, ‘heresy’ or ‘dissent’ being automatically swamped beneath a torrent of managed obscurity, cyber-troll bile, distraction and chicanery.
Seismically underreported, similar allegations about the ‘troll farms’ or ‘web brigades’ of the West (such as GCHQ’s ‘77th Brigade’) have barely surfaced in the blinding mass of ‘Snowden Revelations’. Chilling images (reportedly leaked from internal GCHQ presentations) document operations in ‘virtual communities’, ‘social identity theory’, ‘herding’, ‘mimicry’ and the ‘psychology of deception’. Much of the language used seems best suited to neutralising dissent and activism in the ‘target’ (domestic) populations (and not the lame-duck excuse of ‘fighting terrorism’).
As an astounding amount of human activity and intercourse migrates online, public spaces empty and forums/social media fill with a new species – homo digitalis – a being safely cubicled and shepherded into approved opinions, paradigms and navel gazing.
Accordingly, corporations now view social media and online social networks as their plaything and happy-hunting-ground – each ‘like’, ‘trend’, ‘tweet’ and online action the precious raw material to map, direct and monetise consumer behaviour. Edward Bernays (pioneer marketeer, nephew of Sigmund Freud and author of the seminal text Propaganda) could hardly have dreamed of the marketing, perception management and social engineering possibilities now available at the press of a few attractive and endorphin-stimulating keystrokes. Today’s brave new keyboard-warrior looks an awful lot like yesterday’s plantation indentured servant or herd of cattle (in sleek, Apple designed ergonomic garb).
A plethora of research (let alone common sense) suggests that our reliance/addiction to social media and its associated devices is already having a profoundly deleterious effect on basic cognitive skills, human interaction, attention spans and functional intelligence. Factor in a cocktail of narcissistic personality disorders and body dysmorphic disorders (with a chaser of smartphones and other hand-held devices) and humankind looks at last set to plunge over the precipice of unfathomable stupidity.
Doubtlessly technologists (and the teams of psychologists who work for them), minutely design every latest gadget to further exploit the very human weaknesses of vanity and the desperate need to be endlessly and pointlessly distracted. A chronically self-obsessed, trivialised generation (like no other generation before it) of ‘selfie’ snappers and banal ‘tweeters’ is the technocrat’s utopia.
Disinterested, disenfranchised and disengaged from the outside world, ‘Generation Now’ (the iGeneration) have become tyranny’s best enablers – politically, philosophically and spiritually ineffective – vapid consumers and mindless infants. Delivering themselves up ‘freely’ to the corporate-military-complex – their every mood, ‘status’, location, relationship and conversation accessible in real time or stored in vast information vaults secreted away in distant desert bunkers.
The very architecture of social media seems intrinsically designed to be nothing more than a gargantuan electronic trap to collect as much data, biometric and psychological information as possible about the population.
Facebook’s notorious ‘experiments’ in ‘emotional contagion’ and political herding become even more sinister when placed in their rightful context. Despite Facebook’s chummy image and branding, ostensible founder Mark Zuckerberg has made it clear in numerous interviews his desire to mould a future of what can only be described as pure techno-totalitarianism. A consumer’s/user’s every action and thought mediated through the ‘safe’ interface of Facebook – always surveilled, always stalked and tabulated – available to corporations and intelligence agencies at all times. ‘Dangerous’ physical interactions minimised and discouraged.
Whilst Facebook may have a hidden nativity story, its birth secretly shepherded by funds channelled through In-Q-Tel (the CIA’s venture capital arm), the same in fact may also apply to the very foundational platforms of the Internet itself. Recent research by journalist Nafeez Ahmed has revealed the cosy (symbiotic even) relationship between (‘Don’t Be Evil’) Google and the entire American intelligence apparatus. Mediated through a decades-old shadowy group known as the ‘Highlands Forum’ – leading technologists, corporate heads and intelligence chiefs have met privately innumerable times to cross-pollinate innovations, strategies and policy.
Ahmed makes it clear that the entire contemporary surveillance landscape may well have been seeded through the Highlands Forum, as business and the secret state pursue their (remarkably similar) aims. Much like the unspoken ‘revolving door’ that operates between the Pentagon and the armaments industries – the board members and senior officials of Google, Facebook and alike have the striking habit of being familiar faces from the recesses of the Pentagon, CIA, NSA and so on. So ubiquitous is this limited personnel pool, that ultimately the question must be asked whether Google and Facebook are simply not just clandestine arms of the national security state.
(developed apparently to protect communications in case of a devastating nuclear conflict at the height of the Cold War) are naturally products of ARPA (the predecessor of today’s DARPA) the research and development arm of the Pentagon.
Does it take the mind of a paranoiac to wonder whether decades of social engineering research, think-tank profiling and Rand Corporation policy directives, coupled with the natural desires of bureaucrats, tyrants and salesmen (control of a captive market), has finally produced the perfect homogenised and pasteurised Panopticon Supermarket? An online, and global, Stepford village.
The only rational reaction to such a possibility is disconnection. To remove oneself from the insidious web of trivia, celebrity inanities, prefabricated media events and puerile conversation. Escape from the moronic matrix. But who has the courage to do that?
And anyway, I’ve got to check on the status update of my friend’s friend’s friend of a friend’s friend…
About the Author
David Thrussell is a poet trapped in the body of a hillbilly. Or a hopeless romantic hidden in the twisted frame of a dark electronic musician. Late at night Thrussell fantasises that actually he lives next door to Hieronymous Bosch in Medieval Europe and has hallucinated the whole dreadful modern era while suffering from acute ergot poisoning. We are not entirely convinced that this is not the case. The world knows him (if it knows him at all), as the creator of a seeming multitude of obscure recordings (Snog, Black Lung and Soma among others) and film scores. He has written previously for Wax Poetics, Fortean Times and numerous other publications.
**The above article appeared in New Dawn 150 (May-June 2015), if you appreciated this article, please consider a digital subscription to New Dawn.**
The internet has spawned subtle forms of influence that can flip elections and manipulate everything we say, think and do
By Robert Epstein
Over the past century, more than a few great writers have expressed concern about humanity’s future. In The Iron Heel(1908), the American writer Jack London pictured a world in which a handful of wealthy corporate titans – the ‘oligarchs’ – kept the masses at bay with a brutal combination of rewards and punishments. Much of humanity lived in virtual slavery, while the fortunate ones were bought off with decent wages that allowed them to live comfortably – but without any real control over their lives.
In We (1924), the brilliant Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin, anticipating the excesses of the emerging Soviet Union, envisioned a world in which people were kept in check through pervasive monitoring. The walls of their homes were made of clear glass, so everything they did could be observed. They were allowed to lower their shades an hour a day to have sex, but both the rendezvous time and the lover had to be registered first with the state.
In Brave New World (1932), the British author Aldous Huxley pictured a near-perfect society in which unhappiness and aggression had been engineered out of humanity through a combination of genetic engineering and psychological conditioning. And in the much darker novel 1984 (1949), Huxley’s compatriot George Orwell described a society in which thought itself was controlled; in Orwell’s world, children were taught to use a simplified form of English called Newspeak in order to assure that they could never express ideas that were dangerous to society.
These are all fictional tales, to be sure, and in each the leaders who held the power used conspicuous forms of control that at least a few people actively resisted and occasionally overcame. But in the non-fiction bestseller The Hidden Persuaders (1957) – recently released in a 50th-anniversary edition – the American journalist Vance Packard described a ‘strange and rather exotic’ type of influence that was rapidly emerging in the United States and that was, in a way, more threatening than the fictional types of control pictured in the novels. According to Packard, US corporate executives and politicians were beginning to use subtle and, in many cases, completely undetectable methods to change people’s thinking, emotions and behaviour based on insights from psychiatry and the social sciences.
Most of us have heard of at least one of these methods:subliminal stimulation, or what Packard called ‘subthreshold effects’ – the presentation of short messages that tell us what to do but that are flashed so briefly we aren’t aware we have seen them. In 1958, propelled by public concern about a theatre in New Jersey that had supposedly hidden messages in a movie to increase ice cream sales, the National Association of Broadcasters – the association that set standards for US television – amended its code to prohibit the use of subliminal messages in broadcasting. In 1974, the Federal Communications Commission opined that the use of such messages was ‘contrary to the public interest’. Legislation to prohibit subliminal messaging was also introduced in the US Congress but never enacted. Both the UK and Australia have strict laws prohibiting it.
Subliminal stimulation is probably still in wide use in the US – it’s hard to detect, after all, and no one is keeping track of it – but it’s probably not worth worrying about. Research suggests that it has only a small impact, and that it mainly influences people who are already motivated to follow its dictates; subliminal directives to drink affect people only if they’re already thirsty.
Packard had uncovered a much bigger problem, however – namely that powerful corporations were constantly looking for, and in many cases already applying, a wide variety of techniques for controlling people without their knowledge. He described a kind of cabal in which marketers worked closely with social scientists to determine, among other things, how to get people to buy things they didn’t need and how to condition young children to be good consumers – inclinations that were explicitly nurtured and trained in Huxley’s Brave New World. Guided by social science, marketers were quickly learning how to play upon people’s insecurities, frailties, unconscious fears, aggressive feelings and sexual desires to alter their thinking, emotions and behaviour without any awareness that they were being manipulated.
By the early 1950s, Packard said, politicians had got the message and were beginning to merchandise themselves using the same subtle forces being used to sell soap. Packard prefaced his chapter on politics with an unsettling quote from the British economist Kenneth Boulding: ‘A world of unseen dictatorship is conceivable, still using the forms of democratic government.’ Could this really happen, and, if so, how would it work?
The forces that Packard described have become more pervasive over the decades. The soothing music we all hear overhead in supermarkets causes us to walk more slowly and buy more food, whether we need it or not. Most of the vacuous thoughts and intense feelings our teenagers experience from morning till night are carefully orchestrated by highly skilled marketing professionals working in our fashion and entertainment industries. Politicians work with a wide range of consultants who test every aspect of what the politicians do in order to sway voters: clothing, intonations, facial expressions, makeup, hairstyles and speeches are all optimised, just like the packaging of a breakfast cereal.
Fortunately, all of these sources of influence operate competitively. Some of the persuaders want us to buy or believe one thing, others to buy or believe something else. It is the competitive nature of our society that keeps us, on balance, relatively free.
But what would happen if new sources of control began to emerge that had little or no competition? And what if new means of control were developed that were far more powerful – and far more invisible – than any that have existed in the past? And what if new types of control allowed a handful of people to exert enormous influence not just over the citizens of the US but over most of the people on Earth?
It might surprise you to hear this, but these things have already happened.
To understand how the new forms of mind control work, we need to start by looking at the search engine – one in particular: the biggest and best of them all, namely Google. The Google search engine is so good and so popular that the company’s name is now a commonly used verb in languages around the world. To ‘Google’ something is to look it up on the Google search engine, and that, in fact, is how most computer users worldwide get most of their information about just about everything these days. They Google it. Google has become the main gateway to virtually all knowledge, mainly because the search engine is so good at giving us exactly the information we are looking for, almost instantly and almost always in the first position of the list it shows us after we launch our search – the list of ‘search results’.
That ordered list is so good, in fact, that about 50 per cent of our clicks go to the top two items, and more than 90 per cent of our clicks go to the 10 items listed on the first page of results; few people look at other results pages, even though they often number in the thousands, which means they probably contain lots of good information. Google decides which of the billions of web pages it is going to include in our search results, and it also decides how to rank them. How it decides these things is a deep, dark secret – one of the best-kept secrets in the world, like the formula for Coca-Cola.
Because people are far more likely to read and click on higher-ranked items, companies now spend billions of dollars every year trying to trick Google’s search algorithm – the computer program that does the selecting and ranking – into boosting them another notch or two. Moving up a notch can mean the difference between success and failure for a business, and moving into the top slots can be the key to fat profits.
Late in 2012, I began to wonder whether highly ranked search results could be impacting more than consumer choices. Perhaps, I speculated, a top search result could have a small impact on people’s opinions about things. Early in 2013, with my associate Ronald E Robertson of the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in Vista, California, I put this idea to a test by conducting an experiment in which 102 people from the San Diego area were randomly assigned to one of three groups. In one group, people saw search results that favoured one political candidate – that is, results that linked to web pages that made this candidate look better than his or her opponent. In a second group, people saw search rankings that favoured the opposing candidate, and in the third group – the control group – people saw a mix of rankings that favoured neither candidate. The same search results and web pages were used in each group; the only thing that differed for the three groups was the ordering of the search results.
To make our experiment realistic, we used real search results that linked to real web pages. We also used a real election – the 2010 election for the prime minister of Australia. We used a foreign election to make sure that our participants were ‘undecided’. Their lack of familiarity with the candidates assured this. Through advertisements, we also recruited an ethnically diverse group of registered voters over a wide age range in order to match key demographic characteristics of the US voting population.
All participants were first given brief descriptions of the candidates and then asked to rate them in various ways, as well as to indicate which candidate they would vote for; as you might expect, participants initially favoured neither candidate on any of the five measures we used, and the vote was evenly split in all three groups. Then the participants were given up to 15 minutes in which to conduct an online search using ‘Kadoodle’, our mock search engine, which gave them access to five pages of search results that linked to web pages. People could move freely between search results and web pages, just as we do when using Google. When participants completed their search, we asked them to rate the candidates again, and we also asked them again who they would vote for.
We predicted that the opinions and voting preferences of 2 or 3 per cent of the people in the two bias groups – the groups in which people were seeing rankings favouring one candidate – would shift toward that candidate. What we actually found was astonishing. The proportion of people favouring the search engine’s top-ranked candidate increased by 48.4 per cent, and all five of our measures shifted toward that candidate. What’s more, 75 per cent of the people in the bias groups seemed to have been completely unaware that they were viewing biased search rankings. In the control group, opinions did not shift significantly.
This seemed to be a major discovery. The shift we had produced, which we called the Search Engine Manipulation Effect (or SEME, pronounced ‘seem’), appeared to be one of the largest behavioural effects ever discovered. We did not immediately uncork the Champagne bottle, however. For one thing, we had tested only a small number of people, and they were all from the San Diego area.
Over the next year or so, we replicated our findings three more times, and the third time was with a sample of more than 2,000 people from all 50 US states. In that experiment, the shift in voting preferences was 37.1 per cent and even higher in some demographic groups – as high as 80 per cent, in fact.
We also learned in this series of experiments that by reducing the bias just slightly on the first page of search results – specifically, by including one search item that favoured theother candidate in the third or fourth position of the results – we could mask our manipulation so that few or even nopeople were aware that they were seeing biased rankings. We could still produce dramatic shifts in voting preferences, but we could do so invisibly.
Still no Champagne, though. Our results were strong and consistent, but our experiments all involved a foreign election – that 2010 election in Australia. Could voting preferences be shifted with real voters in the middle of a real campaign? We were skeptical. In real elections, people are bombarded with multiple sources of information, and they also know a lot about the candidates. It seemed unlikely that a single experience on a search engine would have much impact on their voting preferences.
To find out, in early 2014, we went to India just before voting began in the largest democratic election in the world – the Lok Sabha election for prime minister. The three main candidates were Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal, and Narendra Modi. Making use of online subject pools and both online and print advertisements, we recruited 2,150 people from 27 of India’s 35 states and territories to participate in our experiment. To take part, they had to be registered voters who had not yet voted and who were still undecided about how they would vote.
Participants were randomly assigned to three search-engine groups, favouring, respectively, Gandhi, Kejriwal or Modi. As one might expect, familiarity levels with the candidates was high – between 7.7 and 8.5 on a scale of 10. We predicted that our manipulation would produce a very small effect, if any, but that’s not what we found. On average, we were able to shift the proportion of people favouring any given candidate by more than 20 per cent overall and more than 60 per cent in some demographic groups. Even more disturbing, 99.5 per cent of our participants showed no awareness that they were viewing biased search rankings – in other words, that they were being manipulated.
SEME’s near-invisibility is curious indeed. It means that when people – including you and me – are looking at biased search rankings, they look just fine. So if right now you Google ‘US presidential candidates’, the search results you see will probably look fairly random, even if they happen to favour one candidate. Even I have trouble detecting bias in search rankings that I know to be biased (because they were prepared by my staff). Yet our randomised, controlled experiments tell us over and over again that when higher-ranked items connect with web pages that favour one candidate, this has a dramatic impact on the opinions of undecided voters, in large part for the simple reason that people tend to click only on higher-ranked items. This is truly scary: like subliminal stimuli, SEME is a force you can’t see; but unlike subliminal stimuli, it has an enormous impact – like Casper the ghost pushing you down a flight of stairs.
We published a detailed report about our first five experiments on SEME in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in August 2015. We had indeed found something important, especially given Google’s dominance over search. Google has a near-monopoly on internet searches in the US, with 83 per cent of Americans specifying Google as the search engine they use most often, according to the Pew Research Center. So if Google favours one candidate in an election, its impact on undecided voters could easily decide the election’s outcome.
Keep in mind that we had had only one shot at our participants. What would be the impact of favouring one candidate in searches people are conducting over a period of weeks or months before an election? It would almost certainly be much larger than what we were seeing in our experiments.
Other types of influence during an election campaign are balanced by competing sources of influence – a wide variety of newspapers, radio shows and television networks, for example – but Google, for all intents and purposes, has no competition, and people trust its search results implicitly, assuming that the company’s mysterious search algorithm is entirely objective and unbiased. This high level of trust, combined with the lack of competition, puts Google in a unique position to impact elections. Even more disturbing, the search-ranking business is entirely unregulated, so Google could favour any candidate it likes without violating any laws.Some courts have even ruled that Google’s right to rank-order search results as it pleases is protected as a form of free speech.
Does the company ever favour particular candidates? In the 2012 US presidential election, Google and its top executives donated more than $800,000 to President Barack Obama and just $37,000 to his opponent, Mitt Romney. And in 2015, a team of researchers from the University of Maryland and elsewhere showed that Google’s search results routinely favoured Democratic candidates. Are Google’s search rankings really biased? An internal report issued by the US Federal Trade Commission in 2012 concluded that Google’s search rankings routinely put Google’s financial interests ahead of those of their competitors, and anti-trust actions currently under way against Google in both the European Union and India are based on similar findings.
In most countries, 90 per cent of online search is conducted on Google, which gives the company even more power to flip elections than it has in the US and, with internet penetration increasing rapidly worldwide, this power is growing. In ourPNAS article, Robertson and I calculated that Google now has the power to flip upwards of 25 per cent of the national elections in the world with no one knowing this is occurring. In fact, we estimate that, with or without deliberate planning on the part of company executives, Google’s search rankings have been impacting elections for years, with growing impact each year. And because search rankings are ephemeral, they leave no paper trail, which gives the company complete deniability.
Power on this scale and with this level of invisibility is unprecedented in human history. But it turns out that our discovery about SEME was just the tip of a very large iceberg.
Recent reports suggest that the Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is making heavy use of social media to try to generate support – Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat and Facebook, for starters. At this writing, she has 5.4 million followers on Twitter, and her staff is tweeting several times an hour during waking hours. The Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump, has 5.9 million Twitter followers and is tweeting just as frequently.
Is social media as big a threat to democracy as search rankings appear to be? Not necessarily. When new technologies are used competitively, they present no threat. Even through the platforms are new, they are generally being used the same way as billboards and television commercials have been used for decades: you put a billboard on one side of the street; I put one on the other. I might have the money to erect more billboards than you, but the process is still competitive.
What happens, though, if such technologies are misused by the companies that own them? A study by Robert M Bond, now a political science professor at Ohio State University, and others published in Nature in 2012 described an ethically questionable experiment in which, on election day in 2010, Facebook sent ‘go out and vote’ reminders to more than 60 million of its users. The reminders caused about 340,000 people to vote who otherwise would not have. Writing in theNew Republic in 2014, Jonathan Zittrain, professor of international law at Harvard University, pointed out that, given the massive amount of information it has collected about its users, Facebook could easily send such messages only to people who support one particular party or candidate, and that doing so could easily flip a close election – with no one knowing that this has occurred. And because advertisements, like search rankings, are ephemeral, manipulating an election in this way would leave no paper trail.
Are there laws prohibiting Facebook from sending out ads selectively to certain users? Absolutely not; in fact, targeted advertising is how Facebook makes its money. Is Facebook currently manipulating elections in this way? No one knows, but in my view it would be foolish and possibly even improper for Facebook not to do so. Some candidates are better for a company than others, and Facebook’s executives have a fiduciary responsibility to the company’s stockholders to promote the company’s interests.
The Bond study was largely ignored, but another Facebook experiment, published in 2014 in PNAS, prompted protests around the world. In this study, for a period of a week, 689,000 Facebook users were sent news feeds that contained either an excess of positive terms, an excess of negative terms, or neither. Those in the first group subsequently used slightly more positive terms in their communications, while those in the second group used slightly more negative terms in their communications. This was said to show that people’s ‘emotional states’ could be deliberately manipulated on a massive scale by a social media company, an idea that many people found disturbing. People were also upset that a large-scale experiment on emotion had been conducted without the explicit consent of any of the participants.
Facebook’s consumer profiles are undoubtedly massive, but they pale in comparison with those maintained by Google, which is collecting information about people 24/7, usingmore than 60 different observation platforms – the search engine, of course, but also Google Wallet, Google Maps, Google Adwords, Google Analytics, Chrome, Google Docs, Android, YouTube, and on and on. Gmail users are generally oblivious to the fact that Google stores and analyses every email they write, even the drafts they never send – as well as all the incoming email they receive from both Gmail and non-Gmail users.
Certainly, if Google set about to fix an election, it could first dip into its massive database of personal information to identify just those voters who are undecided. Then it could, day after day, send customised rankings favouring one candidate to just those people. One advantage of this approach is that it would make Google’s manipulation extremely difficult for investigators to detect.
Extreme forms of monitoring, whether by the KGB in the Soviet Union, the Stasi in East Germany, or Big Brother in1984, are essential elements of all tyrannies, and technology is making both monitoring and the consolidation of surveillance data easier than ever. By 2020, China will have put in place the most ambitious government monitoring system ever created – a single database called the Social Credit System, in which multiple ratings and records for all of its 1.3 billion citizens are recorded for easy access by officials and bureaucrats. At a glance, they will know whether someone has plagiarised schoolwork, was tardy in paying bills, urinated in public, or blogged inappropriately online.
As Edward Snowden’s revelations made clear, we are rapidly moving toward a world in which both governments and corporations – sometimes working together – are collecting massive amounts of data about every one of us every day, with few or no laws in place that restrict how those data can be used. When you combine the data collection with the desire to control or manipulate, the possibilities are endless, but perhaps the most frightening possibility is the one expressed in Boulding’s assertion that an ‘unseen dictatorship’ was possible ‘using the forms of democratic government’.
Since Robertson and I submitted our initial report on SEME toPNAS early in 2015, we have completed a sophisticated series of experiments that have greatly enhanced our understanding of this phenomenon, and other experiments will be completed in the coming months. We have a much better sense now of why SEME is so powerful and how, to some extent, it can be suppressed.
We have also learned something very disturbing – that search engines are influencing far more than what people buy and whom they vote for. We now have evidence suggesting that on virtually all issues where people are initially undecided, search rankings are impacting almost every decision that people make. They are having an impact on the opinions, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours of internet users worldwide – entirely without people’s knowledge that this is occurring. This is happening with or without deliberate intervention by company officials; even so-called ‘organic’ search processes regularly generate search results that favour one point of view, and that in turn has the potential to tip the opinions of millions of people who are undecided on an issue. In one of our recent experiments, biased search results shifted people’s opinions about the value of fracking by 33.9 per cent.
Perhaps even more disturbing is that the handful of people who do show awareness that they are viewing biased search rankings shift even further in the predicted direction; simply knowing that a list is biased doesn’t necessarily protect you from SEME’s power.
Remember what the search algorithm is doing: in response to your query, it is selecting a handful of webpages from among the billions that are available, and it is ordering those webpages using secret criteria. Seconds later, the decision you make or the opinion you form – about the best toothpaste to use, whether fracking is safe, where you should go on your next vacation, who would make the best president, or whether global warming is real – is determined by that short list you are shown, even though you have no idea how the list was generated.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, a consolidation of search engines has been quietly taking place, so that more people are using the dominant search engine even when they think they are not. Because Google is the best search engine, and because crawling the rapidly expanding internet has become prohibitively expensive, more and more search engines are drawing their information from the leader rather than generating it themselves. The most recent deal, revealed in aSecurities and Exchange Commission filing in October 2015, was between Google and Yahoo! Inc.
Looking ahead to the November 2016 US presidential election, I see clear signs that Google is backing Hillary Clinton. In April 2015, Clinton hired Stephanie Hannon away from Google to be her chief technology officer and, a few months ago, Eric Schmidt, chairman of the holding company that controls Google, set up a semi-secret company – The Groundwork – for the specific purpose of putting Clinton in office. The formation of The Groundwork prompted Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, to dub Google Clinton’s ‘secret weapon’ in her quest for the US presidency.
We now estimate that Hannon’s old friends have the power to drive between 2.6 and 10.4 million votes to Clinton on election day with no one knowing that this is occurring and without leaving a paper trail. They can also help her win the nomination, of course, by influencing undecided voters during the primaries. Swing voters have always been the key to winning elections, and there has never been a more powerful, efficient or inexpensive way to sway them than SEME.
We are living in a world in which a handful of high-tech companies, sometimes working hand-in-hand with governments, are not only monitoring much of our activity, but are also invisibly controlling more and more of what we think, feel, do and say. The technology that now surrounds us is not just a harmless toy; it has also made possible undetectable and untraceable manipulations of entire populations – manipulations that have no precedent in human history and that are currently well beyond the scope of existing regulations and laws. The new hidden persuaders are bigger, bolder and badder than anything Vance Packard ever envisioned. If we choose to ignore this, we do so at our peril.
Robert Epstein is a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology in California. He is the author of 15 books, and the former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today. This article is a preview of his forthcoming book, The New Mind Control.
The original source of this article is Aeon
Copyright © Robert Epstein, Aeon, 2016
While Monsanto continues to deny that glysophate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is a carcinogen, the World Health Organization’s cancer research department, the International Agency on Cancer Research (IARC), has classified the substance as “probably carcinogenic.” In addition, the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment now lists glysophate as a “known carcinogen,” while a prominent scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has found it to be “the most important factor in the development of multiple chronic diseases and conditions that have become prevalent in Westernized societies.” But recent research indicates that glysophate may not be the worst part of Roundup.
Most scientific studies on Roundup (not sponsored by Monsanto) have focused on the effects of the primary ingredient. However, a French research study published a year ago revealed that the “inert” ingredients in Roundup actually increase its toxicity, even at very low concentrations. The study was led by Gilles-Eric Seralini, a molecular biologist at the University of Caen who has done extensive research into GMOs and pesticides. What they discovered was alarming, to say the least. For example, one of the “inert” ingredients in Roundup is polyethoxylated tallow amine, or POEA. This is a substance derived from the fat of bovine species. It is used as a surfactant, or emulsifier. Amazingly, the USDA allows POEA in “certified organic” products, and the EPA has determined that it is environmentally safe and poses no threat to public health.
Seralini and his team found evidence to the contrary. They have discovered that POEA by itself has a deadly effect on placental, umbilical and embryonic cells – even at concentrations as low as .01%, or one part per ten thousand. Interestingly, they did not observe this toxic effect with glysophate salt by itself at the same concentration; however, when mixed with POEA, it proved fatal to virtually all living tissues. In the published study, Seralini and his colleagues wrote that their research “clearly confirms that the [inert ingredients] in Roundup formulations are not inert…the proprietary mixtures available on the market could cause cell damage and even death [at the] residual levels.”
The “residual levels” referred to are the same levels found on soy, maize and alfalfa crops as well as lawns and gardens. Seralini and his colleagues found evidence to indicate that even low exposure to Roundup can interfere with hormone production, which in turn can cause pregnant women to miscarry, or result in birth defects.
What is appalling is that this study has been out for some time – and yet few in the United States are even aware of it. Meanwhile, several other countries that include France, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, Japan and New Zealand have banned the use of Roundup – and that list is getting longer. What do their government officials know that ours do not?
The original source of this article is The Ring of Fire Network
Copyright © Anne Harvester, The Ring of Fire Network, 2016