Powerful Conspiracies & Open Secrets

Why do so many Americans, including the well educated, know so little about how power operates? There is a naivete that dominates the mainstream mind, in how the sociopolitical reality tunnel is mediated by way of corporate media, think tanks, perception management, etc.

The most powerful conspiracies often operate as open secrets. The conspirators, not that they think of themselves that way, don’t worry about exposure because the public is kept in a permanent state of apathetic ignorance. The alternative media and foreign media that investigates and reports on these conspiracies rarely reaches the American audience. Nor do those in domestic corporate media and among the domestic political elite necessarily get much exposure to other views, as they are as trapped in echo chambers and media bubbles as anyone else. It’s a shared condition of mediated reality.

If mainstream media reporting and the political narrative is controlled, then control can be maintained of public perception and opinion. Truth doesn’t matter when truth has been made invisible and irrelevant to most of the targeted population. As long as the official story is repeated enough, few will question it and the few who do will be dismissed as cranks and conspiracy theorists, not that most will even take notice. A news report might occasionally surface, barely touching upon it, only to disappear once again. The very casual and fleeting treatment of the incident communicates and reinforces its insignificance to the audience.

Conspiracies are easy, as long as there is an established system of persuasion and influence. It doesn’t require a secret cabal operating in a dark room. Those in positions of power and authority, including media personalities, live in the same world and share the same vested interests. Like the rest of the population, those in the upper classes come to believe the stories they tell. The first victim of propaganda are the propagandists, as any con man has to first con himself. And humans are talented at rationalizing.

Truth is easily sacrificed, just as easily as it is ignored, even for those who know better. We simultaneously know and don’t know all kinds of things. In a cynical age such as ours, a conspiracy doesn’t seem like a conspiracy when it operates out in the open. We take it as business as usual, the way power always operates. The greatest conspiracy is our collective blindness and silence.

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Daniel Ellsberg’s Advice for How to Stop Current and Future Wars
by Norman Solomon

Daniel Ellsberg has a message that managers of the warfare state don’t want people to hear.

“If you have information that bears on deception or illegality in pursuing wrongful policies or an aggressive war,” he said in a statement released last week, “don’t wait to put that out and think about it, consider acting in a timely way at whatever cost to yourself. … Do what Katharine Gun did.”

If you don’t know what Katharine Gun did, chalk that up to the media power of the war system.

Ellsberg’s video statement went public as this month began, just before the 15th anniversary of the revelation by a British newspaper, the Observer, of a secret NSA memo—thanks to Katharine Gun. At the UK’s intelligence agency GCHQ, about 100 people received the same email memo from the National Security Agency on the last day of January 2003, seven weeks before the invasion of Iraq got underway. Only Katharine Gun, at great personal risk, decided to leak the document.

If more people had taken such risks in early 2003, the Iraq War might have been prevented. If more people were willing to take such risks in 2018, the current military slaughter in several nations, mainly funded by U.S. taxpayers, might be curtailed if not stopped. Blockage of information about past whistleblowing deprives the public of inspiring role models.

That’s the kind of reality George Orwell was referring to when he wrote: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” […]

Katharine Gun foiled that plan. While scarcely reported in the U.S. media (despite cutting-edge news releases produced by my colleagues at the Institute for Public Accuracy beginning in early March of 2003), the revelations published by the Observer caused huge media coverage across much of the globe—and sparked outrage in several countries with seats on the Security Council.

“In the rest of the world, there was great interest in the fact that American intelligence agencies were interfering with their policies of their representatives in the Security Council,” Ellsberg noted. A result was that for some governments on the Security Council at the time, the leak “made it impossible for their representatives to support the U.S. wish to legitimize this clear case of aggression against Iraq. So the U.S. had to give up its plan to get a supporting vote in the UN.” The U.S. and British governments “went ahead anyway, but without the legitimating precedent of an aggressive war that would have had, I think, many consequences later.”

The BBC’s disgraceful attempt at a McCarthyist-style shaping public of perceptions and flouting impartiality rule
by Kitty S. Jones

One source of media bias is a failure to include a perspective, viewpoint or information within a news story that might be objectively regarded as being important. This is important because exclusion of a particular viewpoint or opinion on a subject might be expected to shift the ‘Overton Window’, defining what it is politically acceptable to say. This can happen in such a way that a viewpoint becomes entirely eliminated or marginalised from political discourse. Within academic media theory, there is a line of reasoning that media influence on audiences is not immediate but occurs more through a continual process of repeated arguments – the ‘steady drip’ effect.

A second potential source of bias is ‘bias by selection’. This might entail particular issues or viewpoints being more frequently covered, or certain guests or organisations being more likely to be selected. There are several others, for some of which the BBC has regularly been criticised.

Herman and Chomsky (1988) proposed a propaganda model hypothesising systematic biases of media from structural economic causes. Their proposition is that media ownership by corporations, (and in other media, funding from advertising), the use of official sources, efforts to discredit independent media (“flak”), and “anti-communist“ ideology as the filters that bias news in favour of corporate and partisan political interests.

Politically biased messages may be conveyed via visual cues from the sets as a kind of underhanded reference-dependent framing. A frame defines the packaging of an element of rhetoric in such a way as to encourage certain interpretations and to discourage others. It entails the selection of some aspects of a perceived reality and makes them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation and so on. […]

As Walter Lipman once noted, the news media are a primary source of those “pictures in our heads” about the larger world of public affairs, a world that for most citizens is “out of reach, out of sight, out of mind.” What people know about the world is largely based on what the media decide to show them. More specifically, the result of this mediated view of the world is that the priorities of the media strongly influence the priorities of the public. Elements prominent on the media agenda become prominent in the public mind.

Given the reduction in sophistication and rationality in government rhetoric, media news and current affairs presentation, (and reduction in democratic accountability, for that matter) we don’t currently have a climate that particularly encourages citizens to think critically and for themselves.

* * *

On a related topic, Kitty S. Jones has another piece she just put up. It is about how we are influenced. This is also a bit of an open secret. There has been some leaks about it, along with some investigative reporting. Yet the average American remains uninformed and unaware or else not comprehending or taking seriously the threat.

The fact of the matter is that a conspiracy to influence is as easy to accomplish as anything else. We are surrounded by highly effective conspiracies to influence us, many that operate out in the open and still we rarely notice them. They are the air we breathe in a cynical society such as this. They have become normalized and so we have stopped being shocked by how far the powerful are willing to go.

It would be depressingly naive to dismiss this as the rantings of conspiracy theorists. This is one of the most central concerns of anyone who both understands what democracy is and why it matters. We either want a free society or not. When we find ourselves being kept in the dark, the first thing to do is to turn on a light and look around to see what is going on, no matter how ugly is the reality we see and no matter how uncomfortable it makes us feel.

Here is Jones’ most recent post:

Cambridge Analytica, the commodification of voter decision-making and marketisation of democracy
by Kitty S Jones

It’s not such a big inferential leap to conclude that governments are attempting to manage legitimate criticism and opposition while stage-managing our democracy.

I don’t differentiate a great deal between the behavioural insights team at the heart of the Conservative cabinet office, and the dark world of PR and ‘big data’ and ‘strategic communications’ companies like Cambridge Analytica. The political misuse of psychology has been disguised as some kind of technocratic “fix” for a failing neoliberal paradigm, and paraded as neutral “science”.

However, its role as an authoritarian prop for an ideological imposition on the population has always been apparent to some of us, because the bottom line is that it is all about influencing people’s perceptions and decisions, using psychological warfare strategies.

The Conservatives’ behaviour change agenda is designed to align citizen’s perceptions and behaviours with neoliberal ideology and the interests of the state. However, in democratic societies, governments are traditionally elected to reflect and meet public needs. The use of “behaviour change” policy involves the state acting upon individuals, and instructing them how they must be.

Last year, I wrote a detailed article about some of these issues, including discussion of Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in data mining and the political ‘dark’ advertising that is only seen by its intended recipients. This is a much greater cause for concern than “fake news” in the spread of misinformation, because it is invisible to everyone but the person being targeted. This means that the individually tailored messages are not open to public scrutiny, nor are they fact checked.

A further problem is that no-one is monitoring the impact of the tailored messages and the potential to cause harm to individuals. The dark adverts are designed to exploit people’s psychological vulnerabilities, using personality profiling, which is controversial in itself. Intentionally generating and manipulating fear and anxiety to influence political outcomes isn’t a new thing. Despots have been using fear and slightly less subtle types of citizen “behaviour change” programmes for a long time.

* * *

In Kitty S. Jones’ above linked piece, she refers to an article that makes clear the dangerous consequences of covert anti-democratic tactics. This is reminiscent of the bad ol’ days of COINTELPRO, one of the many other proven government conspiracies. If this doesn’t wake you up, you must be deep asleep.

How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations
by Glenn Greenwald

One of the many pressing stories that remains to be told from the Snowden archive is how western intelligence agencies are attempting to manipulate and control online discourse with extreme tactics of deception and reputation-destruction. It’s time to tell a chunk of that story, complete with the relevant documents.

Over the last several weeks, I worked with NBC News to publish a series of articles about “dirty trick” tactics used by GCHQ’s previously secret unit, JTRIG (Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group). These were based on four classified GCHQ documents presented to the NSA and the other three partners in the English-speaking “Five Eyes” alliance. Today, we at the Intercept are publishing another new JTRIG document, in full, entitled “The Art of Deception: Training for Online Covert Operations.”

By publishing these stories one by one, our NBC reporting highlighted some of the key, discrete revelations: the monitoring of YouTube and Blogger, the targeting of Anonymous with the very same DDoS attacks they accuse “hacktivists” of using, the use of “honey traps” (luring people into compromising situations using sex) and destructive viruses. But, here, I want to focus and elaborate on the overarching point revealed by all of these documents: namely, that these agencies are attempting to control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp online discourse, and in doing so, are compromising the integrity of the internet itself.

Among the core self-identified purposes of JTRIG are two tactics: (1) to inject all sorts of false material onto the internet in order to destroy the reputation of its targets; and (2) to use social sciences and other techniques to manipulate online discourse and activism to generate outcomes it considers desirable. To see how extremist these programs are, just consider the tactics they boast of using to achieve those ends: “false flag operations” (posting material to the internet and falsely attributing it to someone else), fake victim blog posts (pretending to be a victim of the individual whose reputation they want to destroy), and posting “negative information” on various forums. […]

These agencies’ refusal to “comment on intelligence matters” – meaning: talk at all about anything and everything they do – is precisely why whistleblowing is so urgent, the journalism that supports it so clearly in the public interest, and the increasingly unhinged attacks by these agencies so easy to understand. Claims that government agencies are infiltrating online communities and engaging in “false flag operations” to discredit targets are often dismissed as conspiracy theories, but these documents leave no doubt they are doing precisely that.

Whatever else is true, no government should be able to engage in these tactics: what justification is there for having government agencies target people – who have been charged with no crime – for reputation-destruction, infiltrate online political communities, and develop techniques for manipulating online discourse? But to allow those actions with no public knowledge or accountability is particularly unjustifiable.

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