Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Not All Propaganda is Equal

On May 18th, there began a brief controversy over an attempt by two U.S. Congressmen - Rep. Mac Thornberry and Rep. Adam Smith - to insert an amendment into an upcoming defense authorization bill that would have the effect of lifting two different bans on the targeting of American citizens via means defined as propaganda. That this amendment received some relatively high degree of attention was a fine thing; that it did not survive its journey through the Senate is a finer thing still. But over the course of the several days during which the amendment's existence was scrutinized and commented upon by the thousands whose online comments form a sort of directory of public opinion - and which of course help to fuel that opinion, simply by being read - there could be found a certain widespread take on all of this that happens to be not only wrong, but counterproductive: that such an amendment is no big deal because the American people are already subject to propaganda on a daily basis.

One sees this expressed in various ways, often half-sarcastic, and quite often referring to some deficit of the news media, or the dishonesty of public officials, or the very existence of Fox News. Now, certainly the circumstances by which information is tampered with and unfairly presented and even turned on its head by an array of parties is very damaging, and does indeed contribute a great deal to the deficit of public understanding. And perhaps the people who make such comments in reference to stories such as this one believe themselves to be providing some degree of insight that is helpful and necessary to others. What they are actually doing, however, is bringing damage to a great opportunity that was available by virtue of that amendment coming to attention - that is, the opportunity to likewise bring attention to the sophisticated new ways in which propaganda is being honed and deployed by both states and private actors.

That the propaganda methodology I'm about to discuss is not already more widely known and understood is due to several unfortunate dynamics. Only one of these dynamics - the fact that the parties involved in using them tend not to want to bring attention to their use - is the result of any intent. The rest are simply consequences of collective failures on the part of both news media and social media. 

For instance, notice that the post by Michael Hastings linked to above, in which he notes the existence of the amendment and provides some background, makes the following reference:

"another program being developed by the Pentagon would design software to create "sock puppets" on social media outlets"

Now, in a more perfect world, such a reference as this would indicate to everyone who chooses to comment on this story - which received a great deal of its play and attention via social networking - that propaganda of the sort that is up for discussion has advanced well beyond the level of lies and obfuscation or anything else with which even an educated and thoughtful person might be familiar. And so the comments that appear not only on the post here, but on the post as it virtually incarnates in a thousand other online nooks, would be less concerned with expressing some form of cynicism about how this isn't news, and more concerned with helping others to understand what is actually at stake, and what sort of propaganda methods now exist.

In the less perfect world that we seem to inhabit, though, the people who can be seen commenting on the Buzzfeed post - a post which has been viewed over 200,000 times - do not seem to know what sort of propaganda methodology could have been legally unleashed upon the citizenry by the State Department had this amendment survived. This is actually understandable, because almost no one knows exactly what level of sophistication has been reached in terms of high-end, technology-driven methods by which to provide false impressions to large numbers of people. Nonetheless, anyone who chooses to do so may get a sense of how sophisticated such things things are actually getting by learning about what is now public information - and what is now public information cannot lead any reasonable person to any other conclusion than that there is more that is not at all known to us. After all, much of what is known to us came to us haphazardly, through an unusual series of events that led to the well-connected intelligence contracting firm HBGary Federal having its e-mails stolen and distributed and then examined by various parties, including several of the more competent media outlets. And although the e-mails to and from other firms and government agencies provide a glimpse of an opaque complex, they can hardly be expected to have revealed every propaganda capability that has been developed and deployed in the background.

But they did allow for those paying attention to learn about the existence of persona management, the capability that Hastings described in brief in the above quote. They did show us that the US Air Force put out a bid on the software in question in 2010, and thereafter led to a few journalists confirming that the capability was being used by CENTCOM in foreign theaters. They also showed us that at least a handful of firms have been developing a variant on this capability, and that at least three of them were considering to deploy it in such a way as to infiltrate American activist groups and set one up in such a way as to make it appear to have acted dishonestly, even with fraud in mind - as laid out in the following idea by then-CEO of HBGary Federal Aaron Barr:

Create a false document, perhaps highlighting periodical financial information, and monitor to see if U.S. Chamber Watch acquires it. Afterward, present explicit evidence that such transactions never occurred. Also, create a fake insider persona and generate communications with CtW. Afterward, release the actual documents at a specified time and explain the activity as a CtW contrived operation. Both instances will prove that Chamber Watch cannot be trusted with information and/or tell the truth.

Such an offensive measure as this would not have required the more complex software that is known to be used by CENTCOM and which is known to have been created at the very least by a unit of the sprawling contracting firm Cubic Corporation. But this simple instance should serve as an example of what is possible even without the more advanced forms of persona management. It should also lead to questions as to how much more sophisticated we can expect such things to get, knowing as we do that there is a market for such things, and a use for them, and nothing in place that can be expected to stop this practice from going much father and being deployed by more and more entities until anyone who turns out to be inconvenient to some corporation or government will face the possibility of being discredited or framed. As the technology improves and as the procedures by which to do this are refined, this will become not only a larger problem, but a virtually unsolvable one.

The concern I have with some of the reaction to the amendment is wrapped up in a concern I have with some of the reactions I saw to the several news articles that appeared about persona management after it was discovered. There are usually a great number of comments to the effect that "sock puppets" are nothing new - something that is literally true but irrelevant to a situation in which the practice is being refined and militarized and adopted by more and more institutions, such that we are now dealing with something of far more weight than what the term evokes.

And as serious a problem as this persona management capability could end up posing, there is a far more serious problem represented in the highly complex capabilities that are also now available to powerful entities - not least of which is that few people understand how complex such capabilities can get, thereby helping to ensure that such things will continue to become more complex even as the public imagination remains limited in terms of what sorts of things are now possible. The best example of which I'm aware is Romas/COIN, another project that was not supposed to have come to light but which can be pieced together to some extent via a close examination of dozens of the HBGary e-mails and additional research. Among the few bits of coverage this received when I put out the report linked above in 2011 and announced its existence in The Guardian was this segment on Russia Today in which Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer - best known in relation to Able Danger and now a senior fellow at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies - is invited to provide his comments. His take is summarized by the very first thing he says:
Well, I think the public is naive to the actual level of technology that's available and what's being done.
Which, of course, is entirely true, and will remain true until such time as more people take responsibility for the flawed online discourse, just as they demand that the media take responsibility for the flawed traditional discourse. Those who wish to have a hand in correcting the situation might read through some of the many articles that have been written by some of the better media commentators within the traditional media, and then might even go so far as to link to them or blog about them or otherwise distribute them to others. Obviously, no one has to do any of this. It will either get done or not depending on how many people decide that they are so strongly opposed to the dangers represented by government propaganda and surveillance that they will go so far as to actually help oppose it by making the problem known and understood by others.


  1. We are being subjected to a manipulated world of ideas motivated by self-interest and without any standards on surveillance of innocent private citizens. On the issue of surveillance capabilities by CIA and FBI thru TVs and computer monitors: if anyone can obtain a sufficient quantity of video footage of innocent private citizens being spied on in their bedrooms and private lives, then blow the footage up en masse, get it shown on tv, something might finally get done. Im sure there would potentially be grave risk attached, however. Private citizens I think would be shocked and would hold their representatives accountable.

  2. I have been trying - with little success - to convince the various progressive news outlets (e.g. FirstLookMedia, Adbusters, Vice, etc.) to look closely at social intelligence technology and methodologies as a means to expose and shame the various special interests around key issues. This will be the only way to elevate this growing problem out of the realm of "conspiracy theory" and into the light of day and wider discourse. The problem is, these technologies and methodologies are currently the province of the security / surveillance state and the corporate world - and few news organizations have the wherewithal to deploy such systems and procedures - but we desperately need them.