DANIEL ESPINOSA WINDER
It was November 24th when Craig Timberg from the Washington Post ran a piece about the ‘findings’ of an anonymous media analysis outfit called Propornot, blacklisting nearly 200 alternative news sites [including The Greanville Post] as peddlers of ‘Russian Propaganda’. After a strong negative reaction by many journalists, the Post issued a coy correction stating that the newspaper didn’t endorse the findings made by Propornot. A week later and despite the pallid corrections, Timberg followed up his piece on ‘Russian propaganda’ with “Efforts to Combat Foreign Propaganda Advances in Congress”, where he states:
“Congressional negotiators on Wednesday (November 30th) approved an initiative to track and combat foreign propaganda amid growing concerns that Russian efforts to spread ‘fake news’ and disinformation threaten U.S. national security”, and further into the article: “The initiative grows out of a bill authored in March by (Sen. Robert) Portman (R-Ohio) and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) called the ‘Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act.’ It initially sprang from a desire to help independent journalists and nongovernmental organizations in European nations such as Ukraine, Moldova and Serbia, which face a heavy tide of Russian propaganda”. (Emphasis is mine)
This information is misleading. In reality, the initiative didn’t ‘grow out’ of a bill authored in March, instead, the initiative and the bill are one and the same. It was lightly modified in July to eliminate a small paragraph on Ukraine, included in the first place mostly as an example of the kind of situation it would address. The article is also based on information judged as doubtful by its own editor, to say the least. After the July 2016 version of the bill, there were no further modifications.
But by July, both ‘fake news’ and ‘Russian propaganda’ were only beginning to surface in mainstream media as a trending topic (and national security concern). We cannot imagine a positive or welcoming reaction to Obama´s ‘sanctions’ against Russia -or the need to regulate Facebook- if they would have been presented to public opinion by July or even September. But for Sen. Rob Portman, the urgency of the problem was clear enough when the Act was introduced for the first time in March, as he stated in an Atlantic Council speech:
“Structural deficiencies are preventing us (sic) from effectively countering foreign disinformation and propaganda and will continue to hinder future administrations—both Republican and Democrat—unless they are addressed…
“The most sophisticated media engagement strategies in the world will not work if the adversary jams communications towers, censors media outlets, or pursues a comprehensive strategy of grassroots manipulation designed to shape perceptions on the ground…” (Emphasis is mine)
The ‘agenda setting’ media, with the Washington Post leading the effort this time, was only preparing itself to start the propaganda campaign that then gained momentum with the presidential election itself, and basically repeated Portman’s view of foreign propaganda adding the already mentioned examples of the threat –Russian sponsored ‘fake news’ and propaganda- supported by intelligence “consensus” and supine, dishonest analysis.
This is the usual methodology when incorporating regressive policies or engaging in military aggression, only subtly dressing them as national security measures: the political establishment decides the policy, and if popular support will be needed or the issue at hand is controversial, a few months before presenting it publicly a propaganda campaign will convince the audiences of the urgency and legitimacy of the law, sanctions or military measures taken.
We saw this pattern repeating itself time after time in the last decade and a half with Iraq, Libya or Syria, but it might be as old as propaganda itself. ‘Regime change’ during the Cold War was said to respond to the Communist ‘threat’, and alternative discourses were many times labelled ‘anti-American’, a mere form of censorship. Now it’s ‘fake news’.
To be clear, the CDPA itself could have passed without much noise, as it was inserted in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2017, and passed quietly at night, during the holidays, when almost everyone’s attention is elsewhere. The propaganda campaign discussed in this article was aimed mainly at convincing the public about a supposedly dangerous enemy country meddling in US democracy by malicious, covert means, which also served to divert attention from the contents of Hillary Clinton’s campaign leaks, with its embarrassing revelations of the campaign’s ties with journalists.
Finally, the manufactured hysteria and wanton accusations were vital in substantiating further measures taken by Obama, as the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats. The outgoing administration is clearly stating that Russia, and particularly Putin, are enemies of the US and the President-elect should continue to consider them so, or be called a traitor, an ‘anti-American’.
“In his dalliance with Vladimir Putin, Trump’s actions are skirting treason… By undermining further investigation or sanctions against the Russian manipulation of the 2016 election, Trump as president would be giving aid and comfort to Russian interference with American Democracy”, said Democrat pundit Robert Kuttner. (Quoted here by David Swanson)
In other words, the propaganda campaign served both to pass the CDPA without opposition, establishing an information regulatory body aimed at the need to “shape perceptions on the ground”, as Portman pointed out to his elite colleagues in the Atlantic Council last March, and to legitimate Obama’s harsh ‘sanctions’ and further vilification of the Russian government. The Propornot ‘fake news’ fiasco served to toss dozens of alternative media news outlets into the equation and create distrust for them and for social media’s putative recklessness when addressing the issue.
It is fundamental to note that, as is normative in all these cases, any authoritative voices against the CDPA or the smearing of Putin were absent from mainstream media, which framed the supposed hacking, ‘fake news’ and Russian propaganda as a real, malicious and even blatant attempt by Russia to put a ‘stooge’ in the White House and manipulate American democracy. Other voices and testimonies involved were not part of the ‘plurality’ of the world’s mainstream media, as Craig Murray, former UK ambassador, who declared that the supposed hacks were actually leaks given by a Democratic party insider after the Bernie Sanders’ boycott. As a member of WikiLeaks and directly involved in receiving the information, we would think he had something to say that would interest WaPo readers. After all, letting opposite voices have their say is elementary journalism.
We can now add a second ‘fake news’ fiasco by the Washington Post, alleging without proof that the Russians hacked and manipulated the US electric grid (in Vermont) and then retracted it a day later. Of course, the damage was already done and the ‘scoop’ went viral. In terms of propaganda that’s a mission accomplished. Again, there is nothing new to see here, if we remember the San Bernardino Shooting in December 2015, the New York Times declared ‘terrorist ties’ to the perpetrators without solid proof, to later acknowledge that a “Systemic Change is Needed After Faulty Times Article”. Again, the effect was already out there, going viral: the US was ‘under terrorist attack’, or ‘ISIS is not limited to the Middle East, it can kill you in any American neighborhood’.
Example: this is a tweet of the WaPo ‘fake news’ that was retweeted thousands of times, posted by New York Times editorial writer Brent Staples (quoted by Glenn Greenwald, link below).
Glenn Greenwald made an excellent point regarding the WP and fake news in a recent piece for The Intercept:
“Whether the Post’s false stories here can be distinguished from what is commonly called ‘Fake News’ is, at this point, a semantic dispute, particularly since ‘Fake News’ has no cogent definition. Defenders of Fake News as a distinct category typically emphasize intent in order to differentiate it from bad journalism. That’s really just a way of defining Fake News so as to make it definitionally impossible for mainstream media outlets like the Post ever to be guilty of it (much the way terrorism is defined to ensure that the U.S. Government and its allies, by definition, never commit it)”.
How Facebook Changed the Game for News Sources
Facebook, specifically, is another main concern in the ‘fake news’/ propaganda discourse, as it was becoming “…the most powerful force in the news industry”, according to Farhad Manjoo in a New York Times report, last June. Another, August 24th piece by the Times, “Inside Facebook’s (Totally Insane, Unintentionally Gigantic, Hyperpartisan) Political-Media Machine”, was probably one of the firsts to point out the supposed dangers of Facebook as a news outlet:
“(Facebook’s) takeover of online media looks rather like a slow-motion coup. Before social media, web publishers could draw an audience one of two ways: through a dedicated readership visiting its home page or through search engines. By 2009, this had started to change. Facebook had more than 300 million users… By late 2012, when Facebook passed a billion users, referrals from the social network were sending visitors to publishers’ websites at rates sometimes comparable to Google…”
In other words, audiences’ attention was shifting from mainstream media and traditional news sources to independent sites and blogs, which amounts to a ‘coup’, as Facebook popularity was being abused by bastard, non-corporate news outlets to gain instant massive audiences. This means an obvious loss in advertising revenue. It’s all about where the attention of the masses is, in terms of revenue, but it is also who they listen, in terms of propaganda.
Certain political discourses are traditionally disseminated by the mainstream media because of their corporate nature and shared interests, but Facebook was now —perhaps unwittingly—opening the door for non-corporate and independent/ alternative news sources to present dissident narratives. These alternative media weren’t new, but Facebook made them more accessible to a population that has become increasingly incredulous of traditional media.
Of course, this isn’t the perspective of liberal media like the Guardian, where Olivia Solon reveals one of the possible solutions in an article on November 10th, adequately called: “Facebook failure: did ‘fake news’ and polarized politics get Trump elected?”:
“…Facebook could introduce a mechanism to allow fact checking organisations to report false stories to Facebook so they don’t continually circulate. ‘Of course, people will shout censorship, so maybe Facebook could choose to change the way it display certain stories instead,’ she (Claire Wardle, research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism) said.
Understanding the Syrian conflict amid Facebook’s informational ‘coup’
The Syrian conflict and the dramatic story of Aleppo illustrates this ‘coup’ rather clearly: mainstream media’s narrative had to compete with a very different perspective brought online by independent researchers and disseminated via social media to reach millions, who then started asking questions, and demanding the same quality of coverage from mainstream sources that were basically repeating, for example, what the USAID-funded White Helmets (a ‘civil defense’ group working only in ‘rebel’-held zones) had to say, without journalists on the ground. (Not that the presence of mainstream journalists on the ground would have assured veracity. The mendacity of the corporate media is universal and deeply rooted, anchored in careerism and a fair dose of chauvinism and ignorance. Still, there have been some cases of truthful reports from the field that contradicted the State Department’s line, in which case the home editors simply redacted the reports or killed the story.)
Let’s review some Facebook comments regarding Syria in mainstream media fan pages:
Russian ‘trolls’ seem to be getting a lot of ‘likes’ this days. The commenters appear to be somehow ‘polarized’, no doubt, but we are talking about a “humanitarian” disaster killing hundreds of thousands.
Before Internet, and before Facebook, access to the other versions of events, and history itself, were reserved to researchers with the resources and time to investigate and then publish essays, articles or books on any given subject, or to independent researchers willing to spend hours or days looking for alternative sources of information available on the web but, traditionally, mostly invisible.
Robert Portman’s partner presenting the CDPA at the Atlantic Council last March, Sen. Chris Murphy, said that the idea behind the bill was not to propagandize (that would be wrong…) but only to offer people the ‘other side’, make information available so they can ‘decide for themselves’. A clear reversal of reality where the other is always the bad guy and we are only responding and ‘defending’ ourselves. The bill is of course truly Owellian because it attempts to describe the massive and usually overwhelming machinery of disinformation at the disposal of American empire as the underdog.
As Rick Sterling noted in Consortium News on January the 1st: “Whether or not you wish to accept these (alternative media’s) depictions of the reality in Aleppo, at a minimum, they reflect another side of the story that you have been denied… The goal of the Global Engagement Center to counter ‘foreign propaganda’ is to ensure that you never get to hear this alternative narrative…”
The solution, as prophesized by Claire Wardle, would be ‘regulation’ (censorship?) of Facebook, which is taking place as Snopes, Politifact and Factcheck are teaming up to tackle whatever they consider ‘fake news’, after pressure from politicians and journalists directed at Mark Zuckerberg to take action on the issue. Although more obscure means of censoring are starting to surface, as ‘ghost-banning’, where social media users share information that mysteriously fails to reach their followers, as Craig Murray noticed after sharing an article refuting that the source of the “hacked” Democratic National Committee emails was Russia.
That’s what is planned regarding the biggest social media online, but the CPDA goes way further. Among its many functions, it will coordinate information sharing, planning and developing among government agencies to expose “foreign propaganda,” analyze relevant information, and disseminate thematic narratives to counter “propaganda,”—anything that deviates from Washington’s narrative— coordinate with allied countries, and give support to third private parties as think tanks, NGOs and journalists.
In short, an Orwellian Ministry of Truth, or perhaps an amplification, modernization and legalization of the infamous CIA’s Operation Mockingbird, depending on how exactly these policies are implemented in the public and private spheres. After all, the idea of Op. Mockingbird was to push certain messages and discourse covertly by incorporating journalists and editors onto the CIA payroll (and sometimes even creating its own media).
This will indeed amount to a fully overt Mockingbird, claiming the right to use (and counter) “propaganda” extensively, on the grounds that the ‘enemy’ is doing the same already, in this case Russia, which openly funds RT and Sputnik news, but -allegedly- it also funds hundreds of alternative media promoting ‘fake news’ while using any kind of covert means, as hacking, to manipulate information. That many nations—from Britain (BBC) to France (France Televisions) to Italy (RAI) and many others have state-owned news and entertainment systems that are highly regarded, including America’s PBS, does not seem to compute in the mind of these hypocritical witch-hunters.
A Few Conclusions About a Deeply Corrupted Profession
If something is completely beyond the mainstream media’s framing of this subject is the fact that the US establishment owns the biggest and most sophisticated propaganda apparatus in the world and probably in history. A handful of mega-corporations own most of what Americans watch or read every day and its ties to official, state discourse and corporate interests are undeniable and widely studied. As noted by media and political analyst Edward Herman, who with Noam Chomsky authored the pathbreaking Manufacturing Consent, the fact that this criticism has been strictly kept out of the mainstream media is significant, entirely logical, and to be expected. Addressing the anatomy of the US propaganda model, Herman argues the following:
In Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (Pantheon, 1988) Noam Chomsky and I put forward a “propaganda model” as a framework for analyzing and understanding how the mainstream U.S. media work and why they perform as they do. We had long been impressed with the regularity with which the media operate within restricted assumptions, depend heavily and uncritically on elite information sources, and participate in propaganda campaigns helpful to elite interests. In trying to explain why they do this we looked for structural factors as the only possible root of systematic behavior and performance patterns.
The propaganda model was and is in distinct contrast to the prevailing mainstream explanations–both liberal and conservative–of media behavior and performance. These approaches downplay structural factors, generally presupposing their unimportance or positive impact because of the multiplicity of agents and thus competition and diversity. Liberal and conservative analysts emphasize journalistic conduct, public opinion, and news source initiatives as the main determining variables. The analysts are inconsistent in this regard, however. When they discuss media systems in communist or other authoritarian states, the idea that journalists or public opinion can override the power of those who own and control the media is dismissed as nonsense and even considered an apology for tyranny.
There is a distinct difference, too, between the political implications of the propaganda model and mainstream scholarship. If structural factors shape the broad contours of media performance, and if that performance is incompatible with a truly democratic political culture, then a basic change in media ownership, organization, and purpose is necessary for the achievement of genuine democracy. In mainstream analyses such a perspective is politically unacceptable, and its supportive arguments and evidence are rarely subject to debate.
What is the propaganda model and how does it work? The crucial structural factors derive from the fact that the dominant media are firmly imbedded in the market system. They are profit-seeking businesses, owned by very wealthy people (or other companies); they are funded largely by advertisers who are also profit-seeking entities, and who want their ads to appear in a supportive selling environment. The media are also dependent on government and major business firms as information sources, and both efficiency and political considerations, and frequently overlapping interests, cause a certain degree of solidarity to prevail among the government, major media, and other corporate businesses. Government and large non-media business firms are also best positioned (and sufficiently wealthy) to be able to pressure the media with threats of withdrawal of advertising or TV licenses, libel suits, and other direct and indirect modes of attack. The media are also constrained by the dominant ideology, which heavily featured anticommunism before and during the Cold War era, and was mobilized often to prevent the media from criticizing attacks on small states labelled communist. (The Propaganda Model Revisited, E. Herman, Monthly Review)
The rationale behind ‘fake news’ implies that lies in traditional, mainstream media, are purely accidental and isolated events. In fact, mainstream media participates actively in selling corporate points of view about basically anything regarding human life, as well as pushing for wars —when deemed necessary by the ruling circles—by repeating, unceasingly and without questioning, the official state narrative, directly from government sources or even unidentified officials. When such narratives are debunked or challenged they fall back on an inconspicuous editor’s note, but the propaganda damage is already done, and in the case of most people exposed to it, permanent.
The many wars destroying the Middle East in the last decades have substantial similarities and patterns that corporate journalism seems incapable or, more likely unwilling of grasping, a case in point being ‘regime change’ sold under a ‘humanitarian intervention’ scheme. The UK House of Commons report on Libya 2011 uses exactly those words.
The hacking that never was
As we approach the inauguration of Donald Trump in mid-January, the result of these ongoing propaganda campaigns initiated by the Democratic party with the assistance of the media and the support of the CIA and other major intel agencies, is the widely believed notion that the US is under cyber-attack by Russia and must retaliate. Putin is painted as clever, sinister and resourceful enough to put a stooge in the Oval Office, destroying Hillary Clinton’s political career and US democracy in the process, leaving none or little trace. Around the world, mainstream media aren´t necessarily reminding their publics that the Russian hacking story is based on groundless allegations, and it’s now being treated as received wisdom. In keeping with this complicit posture, they aren’t reminding their readers and viewers about the many inaccuracies and retractions issued by the ‘agenda setting’ media either. Those are treated as mere details around a central and strong idea that remains out of discussion: the Russians are coming (again).
The other idea being pushed into the collective mind is that alternative news sources are not trustworthy, you never know what’s true and what’s a lie, unless authoritative media says it is.
At the end of the day, and consistent with its role as one of the major media serving the interests of the American plutocracy, The Washington Post has been used shamelessly to deliver an inherently defamatory and blatantly false accusation on a number of independent news outlets by the anonymous Propornot. The fact that a significant number of these independent news and opinion websites have acquired and enjoy a well deserved reputation for superior journalism has not entered the calculations of the accusers since respect for truth is neither a factor in their objectives or procedures. As its sponsors expected, what the Washington Post started has now been copied and repeated uncritically across the mainstream media, with toxic effects that almost guarantee the rise of a real Ministry of Truth.
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