Are ‘Sock Puppets’ Propaganda?
Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) sure has some strange priorities.
Last week, he formed the left flank of the Amash-Smith coalition to upend the indefinite detention provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act. It failed, 238-182.
Three days ago, BuzzFeed reported that he had proposed another amendment, along with Texas Republican Mac Thornberry, to “strike the current ban on domestic dissemination” of Pentagon and State Department propaganda:
In a little noticed press release earlier in the week — buried beneath the other high-profile issues in the $642 billion defense bill, including indefinite detention and a prohibition on gay marriage at military installations — Thornberry warned that in the Internet age, the current law “ties the hands of America’s diplomatic officials, military, and others by inhibiting our ability to effectively communicate in a credible way.”
The bill’s supporters say the informational material used overseas to influence foreign audiences is too good to not use at home, and that new techniques are needed to help fight Al-Qaeda, a borderless enemy whose own propaganda reaches Americans online.
Critics of the bill say there are ways to keep America safe without turning the massive information operations apparatus within the federal government against American citizens.
Recognizing that some legal limits on domestic information operations are probably a good thing, it remains clear that the limits in place up until now haven’t exactly prevented either agency from advancing their own agendas in the press.
This is not new. Complete separation of state and media has always been a fallacy; in fact venerable broadcasters like Edward Murrow, who President Kennedy appointed head of the U.S. Information Agency more than a decade after the Smith-Mundt Act‘s passage, have turned to the state messaging apparatus in the face of the perceived market failure of broadcasting to deliver news as anything other than entertainment.
It’s a salient anecdote because a subsidiary of the USIA, Voice of America, provided the pretext for some of the provisions of Smith-Mundt; the bill’s supporters were concerned about how an organ like VOA might be used if it were allowed to broadcast domestically. The first attempt to permanentize the agency was blocked in 1946 by Sen. Robert Taft. Back then, VOA was justified as providing a way to make sure the recipients of our foreign aid knew where it was coming from; hearts and minds and all. Therefore, the assumption went, it was better for academicians and the traditional media to bring it home instead, with an acceptably independent spin. This is a significant development because it extended the antagonistic wartime understanding of information ops–it’s ok to broadcast propaganda over there, but not here–to peacetime.
Now, due primarily to the internet, it’s nearly impossible to separate foreign and domestic dissemination. If the old Smith-Mundt bill was paranoid in its apparent fear of government leaflet operations over Peoria, the repeal provisions now before the House seem to have a paranoid belief that Al Jazeera’s presence in domestic markets will make Americans unduly skeptical of our current mideast policy of promiscuous military intervention. So why not repeal an ineffective law?
Because this is all about wartime messaging. Repealing portions of the law would only give more cover to the military for violating the spirit of the law, which they already do in several ways. It was revealed earlier this year that the military was engaged in creating armies of social media “sock puppets” to drum up support for its policies. When two USA Today staffers started to look into the propaganda contracting, they found themselves on the receiving end of it. And the sock puppets are just the automated version of their earlier talking heads. That is, the Pentagon’s military analysts program, which provided VIP trips to Guantanamo and other perks for retired military officers who would then appear on cable news and reliably tout DoD talking points.
Consistent messaging and a complacent public are enormously important to the war managers at the Pentagon. Not to get all Alex Jones-y, but my favorite example thereof is this lovely white paper from 1980 on Mindwar–“The Psychology of Victory”–co-written by Fox News military analyst Paul Vallely and avowed satanist Michael Aquino. (You’re not allowed to ask if there’s anything wrong with a satanist writing policy briefs on U.S. military information policy, by the way. Aquino dismisses earlier objections as an “absurdly comic opera.”) Nearly every sentence reads like an unholy hate-child of Orwell, Machiavelli, and Freud, but here’s the most relevant:
MindWar must target all participants if it is to be effective. It must not only weaken the enemy; it must strengthen the United States. It strengthens the United States by denying enemy propaganda access to our people, and by explaining and emphasizing to our people the rationale for our national interest in a specific war.
Under existing United States Law, PSYOP units may not target American citizens. That prohibition is based upon the presumption that “propaganda” is necessarily a lie or at least a misleading half-truth, and that the government has no right to lie to the people. The Propaganda Ministry of Goebbels must not be a part of the American way of life.
Quite right, and so it must be axiomatic of MindWar that it always speaks the truth. Its power lies in its ability to focus recipients’ attention on the truth of the future as well as that of the present. MindWar thus involves the stated promise of the truth that the United States has resolved to make real if it is not already so.
Yet, based on its own actions, the military has already claimed the prerogative to determine that truth, and suppressed two journalists’ ability to contradict it. So why give them even more license to turn the bullhorn on us?