Role of powerful private interests and the necessity to build our own organizations and media. “Although the use of social media by parties of the rich to gain electoral advantage and the wielding of social media as a weapon of U.S. imperialism against sovereign states have been well-documented, the use of social media by state agencies to directly interfere with progressive and anti-imperialist political movements is less well studied.” | SAM HEATON
One of the serious problems that faces the people’s movement for empowerment today is the exponential growth of disinformation that takes advantage of modern communications technology and social media. No sooner have these advances been made than powerful private interests, the state and its agents in the ranks of the people have worked out how to dominate and wield the technology in their interests.
For example, with the rise of big social media monopolies such as Facebook and Twitter, the ruling elite has promoted social media and platforms such as Wikipedia as great democratizing factors and say that there is now a “level playing field.” In traditional print and other media, they say, maybe there was a concentration of power, but now we have overcome that.
In analyzing this phenomenon like any phenomenon one important issue is to work out what is the spin and the counter-spin and what stand favours the people and their political movement.
In this case the spin and counter-spin over whether social media are “good” or “bad” diverts from the serious issue that the workers, women and youth must build their own organizations and media to inform their peers and give voice to their independent politics.
This is a necessity which has faced the working class since it began to organize as a class in itself and for itself in the nineteenth century, distinct from the political parties of the bourgeoisie.
This necessity has become even more acute with the rise of big media monopolies in the period of monopoly capitalism and still more with the domination of the social media landscape by the concentrated power of a handful of platforms valued in the billions.
On August 26 the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist) celebrated the 46th anniversary of the Party press and on September 1 the 36th anniversary of the Mass Party and non-Party Press. The Party and non-Party press are indispensable ingredients in the building of the movement of the working class for its own emancipation and powerful weapons for the class to organize in defence of its own interests.
To strengthen and consolidate the two kinds of press is a component part of the work CPC(M-L) has undertaken during this period of retreat of revolution in which the working class is engaged in a trial of strength with the bourgeoisie, with the Party at its disposal.
CPC(M-L) has paid serious attention in recent years to consolidating the mass Party press by developing groups of writers and disseminators. Across the country this press is known for providing the working class with the information and analysis it requires as a fighting force and for giving pride of place to the people’s movements.
The mass non-Party press has also gone through a period of transformation, increasing its readership in a manner which succeeds in overcoming the marginalization of the working class and vulnerable sections of the people.
At this time CPC(M-L) is putting in place the arrangements required to consolidate these victories and to pay close attention to dealing with problems posed by social media and developing the new journalism in today’s context.
In a situation characterized by the acceleration of war preparations and more and more aggressive disruption targeting the political movements the need is not only to combat disinformation in a systematic, professional manner but most importantly assist people in how to view the situation for purposes of solving problems facing the movement and the class.
In this regard, no matter the medium, the mass Party and non-Party press have the key advantage over the bourgeois press because both are forward-looking, working to open the path for the progress of society. For this reason, this press has a future just as the working class has a future and so does its vanguard.
That reality is the basis for how to discuss social media and the issues surrounding it. Although the use of social media by parties of the rich to gain electoral advantage and the wielding of social media as a weapon of U.S. imperialism against sovereign states have been well-documented, the use of social media by state agencies to directly interfere with progressive and anti-imperialist political movements is less well studied.
It is necessary to pay attention to all three aspects and call on Canadians to oppose these counterrevolutionary activities as an organized force. Most important is the question of how to use social media to inform and unite the people’s forces in action.
In what are referred to as “advanced democracies” social media is supposed to “[extend] political and campaign communication, [expand] opportunities for democratic engagement, [alter] traditional political margins and hierarchies, and [make] democracy more accessible.”
The Brookings Institution, a U.S. imperialist think-tank, highlights the “direct advantages in using social media to improve campaign engagement and reinvigorate American democracy. For instance, social media increased the public responsiveness and accountability of both parties.”
The main examples of how social media has improved “campaign engagement” and made democracy “more accessible” are the election of Barack Obama in the U.S. in 2008, that of Angela Merkel in Germany in 2009, and most recently the coming to power of the Trudeau Liberal government in Canada.
The manipulation of social media by electoral campaigns is not only said to save time and money but is an integral part of collecting the private information of as wide a section of the population as possible in party databases for targeting.
Elections Canada in June 2016 released its figures for central political party expenditures in the October 19, 2015 federal election. Of the cartel parties the Liberal Party reportedly spent $43 million, the Conservative Party nearly $42 million, the NDP almost $30 million. The Liberals far exceeded other parties in social media expenditures, spending almost $9 million versus less than $2 million by the Conservatives.
Trudeau’s campaign purchased permanent front-page ad space on Twitter, sponsoring the hashtag #elxn42 (referring to the 42nd general election) making it a permanent fixture of the website with his name attached. In other words, Trudeau’s campaign paid for him to be branded on Twitter as the person associated with the election. One newspaper noted,
“Users who click on the trending topic from the Canada Trends section of their feed or who search for it through the Twitter search bar see a promoted tweet from Justin Trudeau that features a 15-second video ad.” Tom Pitfield, Justin Trudeau’s digital strategist and now President of the neo-liberal think-tank Canada 2020 said, “…digital had the greatest ROI (return on investment) … We focused on it as a strategic advantage.”
Trudeau’s top advisor Gerald Butts told media, “The game is about how do you talk to people in a way that they are going to tell you what they really think and that you are going to have reliable information on which to base your campaign plan.” In other words, how do you get as much personal information about people as possible which can be deployed to manipulate them in your favour.
The method perfected by Obama, Merkel and Trudeau is to give the appearance that the leader is directly communicating with the people or even that this communication is two-way.
In the case of the Trudeau Liberals, the data-collection function of social media has been streamlined into the party constitution to the extent that “joining” the party is effectively a social media exercise in which one fills out boxes on the Liberal website.
The category of “member” has been abolished and instead everyone who signs up on the party website is put into the database of Liberals to be cross-referenced to the federal electors’ list and form part of a Liberal army ready to be mobilized. What the Liberal Party referred to as a “top-down” or “hierarchical” structure has been replaced by what is supposed to be a direct relationship with the leader.
The “left-wing” spin is that the “emerging digital community and social relations” on social media platforms are characterized as
“decentralized, democratic, heterogeneous, fluid, open, informal, and in many ways self-governing. In particular, the ease with which individuals can generate and share content via social media is seen by some as indicative of a more democratic and egalitarian society.
“Social networking Web sites and services provide ‘radical public spheres’ that constitute new forums for the development and expressions of political citizenship, forums that are less subject to elite control.”
Spokespersons of the imperialist ruling elite say much the same thing about the role of social media in countries branded as enemies of the U.S. and un-free societies.
In “representative democracies” the triumph of social media is said to be the greater ability of citizens to interact with their governments and of political parties of the rich to mobilize people against their own interests. Social media is brandished to give a greater appearance of legitimacy to governments of the rich.
However, in countries branded “enemies,” “rogue states,” “human rights violators” and the like, social media is supposed to assist people in opposing the state, overthrowing governments and even engaging directly with the imperialist powers to coordinate the undermining of authorities.
In neo-liberal parlance it is said this leads to “a more active, critical, and politicized citizenry, where citizens are no longer passive receivers of state-oriented media.”
“Digital diplomacy”, “direct diplomacy” and “public diplomacy”
Far from these activities coming from the people themselves, they are organized at the highest levels of the U.S. imperialist state. For example, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a “private, non-profit” CIA front founded by Ronald Reagan to sponsor pro-U.S. groups around the world, runs a “Center for International Media Assistance” (CIMA).
The CIMA “works to support efforts of independent journalists and media and their effectiveness in developing countries” and “believes that independent media is critical in the world today.” The CIMA says, “social media has changed how traditional journalists gather information and has empowered individuals to join the conversation. This is particularly powerful in developing countries seeking to gain truth and promote justice.”
The “U.S. Institute of Peace” – which, despite its name, is an arm of the U.S. government created at the same time as the NED and wholly funded by Congress – concluded in a recent study that “Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have played major roles in episodes of contentious politics as activist tools in replacing authoritarian regimes and in promoting freedom and democracy.”
These techniques have been formalized in a practice called “digital diplomacy,” a hallmark of the Obama doctrine also referred to as “direct diplomacy” and “public diplomacy.” In “digital diplomacy” the U.S. State Department and NATO deal directly with the citizens of various countries and with NGOs to do their bidding and completely bypass sovereign governments. In other words, it is a form of cyber-warfare.
The “advantages” of “digital diplomacy” are said to be, first, a
“relatively cost-effective way to develop connections with foreign publics… Second, digital diplomacy also extends the reach of diplomatic staff… Digital diplomacy is typically considered a form of public diplomacy, which seeks to engage foreign publics, rather than just political elites within a nation. Finally, digital diplomacy allows diplomatic staff to better monitor public opinion toward a foreign government, political leaders, and policies, in ways similar to the manner in which corporations use social media to monitor public opinion.”
Digital diplomacy is also the extension into the Foreign Service and international affairs of the direct involvement in government of privileged private interests such as Google, Twitter and Facebook.
In June 2013 NATO academic Roland Paris, who went on to serve as Justin Trudeau’s head foreign policy advisor for the first six months of his government, discussed “how far Canada had fallen behind its closest allies in the use of social media tools. The United States and Britain recognized the importance of digital diplomacy years ago, encouraging their ambassadors and missions to engage directly through social media with the public and policy leaders of other countries,” he said.
Canada’s then-Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird in February 2014 visited the headquarters of Google and Twitter in Silicon Valley, California and mapped out how “digital diplomacy” will be added to the arsenal of the Canadian government against targeted countries.
Baird stated, “Using social media and insights from big-data analytics, we can engage in direct diplomacy, not just elite diplomacy. Social media mapping exercises at Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada have helped us to reach out to civic actors who seek to bring about positive social and political change in the countries they live in.”
The Islamic Republic of Iran was a main target for Canada’s “digital diplomacy” under the Harper government in its project with the University of Toronto Munk School called “Global Dialogue on the Future of Iran.”
During the 2011 war against Libya, NATO agents on the ground even used Twitter and Facebook to provide coordinates for the bombing runs that devastated the country.
Canada’s foreign affairs department, called Global Affairs Canada, maintains a Special Representative to the Syrian Opposition based in Turkey, one of whose main jobs is digital diplomacy. Robin Wettlaufer has served in the position since March 2014.
Trek, the UBC alumni publication, said Wettlaufer “typifies the next generation of Foreign Service Officers and a new kind of diplomacy that focuses on new partners and approaches.’ Wettlaufer said, “We connect in many different ways with the Opposition, the whole host of parties opposed to the Assad regime, including through social media. Our objective is to expand our networks, to understand the different dynamics, to amplify the voices of democracy…”
State disruption tactics to attack the political movements and sovereign countries
The concepts discussed above are well documented. For instance the three-volume Encyclopedia of Social Media and Politics published in 2014 has essays on all of these practices and subjects. However, state disruptions practices using social media are not mentioned in such literature, but are no less important.
The significance is underscored by the new situation of a Liberal government in Canada and contending sections of the U.S. ruling elite coalescing around the election of Hillary Clinton as U.S. war president. Both have the aim of blocking resistance movements of the people, especially their political mobilization in defence of rights and against war and aggression.
The Trudeau Liberals are accelerating the anti-social offensive to abolish any state arrangements standing in the way of making the monopolies competitive on global markets and are putting Canada further at the disposal of the U.S. striving for domination.
Their success on these fronts requires the depoliticization of the polity so that the resistance of the people is rendered ineffective, and this is what the Liberals’ efforts are directed towards.
In this regard think-tanks advising the U.S. government have devised methods to wage disinformation campaigns against anyone the U.S. administration feels is undermining government positions.
One tactic is to smash any unity of the people around a principle or goal and to sow doubt about their collective consciousness.
A theorist of these methods is Cass R. Sunstein, who served for a number of years as the head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for the Obama administration. In 2008 as a University of Chicago professor Sunstein co-authored a paper advising the U.S. government on how to undermine and discredit its opponents online using a concept called “cognitive diversity.”
The paper is nominally aimed at those spreading what Sunstein calls “conspiracy theories” but refers to any “group polarization,” i.e., resistance or principled conviction. Sunstein argues that “group polarization” is irrational but that it is “particularly likely, and particularly pronounced, when people have a shared sense of identity and are connected by bonds of solidarity.”
Sunstein writes, “These are circumstances in which arguments by outsiders, unconnected with the group, will lack much credibility, and fail to have much of an effect in reducing polarization.”
Sunstein’s solution is to
“suggest a distinctive tactic for breaking up the hard core of extremists who supply conspiracy theories: cognitive infiltration of extremist groups, whereby government agents or their allies (acting either virtually or in real space, and either openly or anonymously) will undermine the crippled epistemology of those who subscribe to such theories.”
“They do so by planting doubts about the theories and stylized facts that circulate within such groups, thereby introducing beneficial cognitive diversity.” “Cognitive diversity” is a cheap word for disinformation.
Sunstein goes right to the point:
“We suggest a role for government efforts, and agents, in introducing such diversity. Government agents (and their allies) might enter chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine percolating conspiracy theories by raising doubts about their factual premises, causal logic or implications for political action.”
Sunstein is also the author of a book called Nudge based on the premise that “humans are not always capable of making decisions in their own best interests” and should be “nudged” by authorities towards correct decisions.
Documents obtained through the Edward Snowden leaks describe intelligence methods in more detail with the example of the British Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group (JTRIG), a unit of the Government Communications Headquarters and the Communications Security Establishment (CSE), Canada’s electronic spy agency.
These methods are first and foremost the purview of the U.S. political police and farmed out to franchises in the Five Eyes network of the U.S., UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
The Intercept reported on March 23, 2015:
“According to the Snowden documents, [Canada’s Communications Security Establishment] has a range of ‘deception techniques’ in its toolbox. These include ‘false flag’ operations to ‘create unrest,’ and using so-called ‘effects’ operations to ‘alter adversary perception.’ A false-flag operation usually means carrying out an attack, but making it look like it was performed by another group – in this case, likely another government or hacker. Effects operations can involve sending out propaganda across social media or disrupting communications services. The newly revealed documents also reveal that CSE says it can plant a ‘honeypot’ as part of its deception tactics, possibly a reference to some sort of bait posted online that lures in targets so that they can be hacked or monitored.
“The apparent involvement of CSE in using the deception tactics suggests it is operating in the same area as a secretive British unit known as JTRIG, a division of the country’s eavesdropping agency, Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ. Last year, The Intercept published documents from Snowden showing that the JTRIG unit uses a range of effects operations to manipulate information online, such as by rigging the outcome of online polls, sending out fake messages on Facebook across entire countries, and posting negative information about targets online to damage their reputations.”
Glenn Greenwald notes, “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.”
Today these methods are evident in the activities of the powerful private interests aligned with U.S. imperialism that dominate social media. This includes not only the sections of the international financial oligarchy and firms that already dominated traditional media and now dominate online platforms but the creation of “viral” content and sophisticated manipulation of users targeting political movements and resisting countries.
Powerful private interests
Online networks are now no less saturated with private advertising than newspapers, television and public space. Individuals are targeted based on social media firms and private companies surveilling their consumption habits, web searches, private conversations over e-mail and other platforms and even what is picked up by the microphones in their computers and phones.
As in the case of traditional media the extent to which individuals can be reached through the official channels of the social media monopolies now depends on ability to pay.
Twitter and Facebook are themselves now valued at $10 billion and more than $300 billion, respectively.
The U.S. imperialists highly value Twitter and Facebook and have nurtured their growth as weapons to subvert the resistance of the people. These platforms are used by the U.S. imperialists to spread gossip, rumours and disinformation in small, unchallengeable and unverifiable chunks of words and video.
These platforms also spread celebrity worship of leading figures of U.S. imperialist culture aimed at attacking the thought material of the peoples of the world and wrecking public opinion. As U.S. Commander-in-Chief, Barack Obama has been regularly given a special position by Facebook and Twitter to promote his own celebrity and undermine opposition to imperialist war.
Case study: Fake photos on Venezuela
Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution and the Venezuelan people’s staunch resistance to imperialist attacks have been targets of online disruption activities since the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998. These activities have intensified along with the economic war unleashed by U.S. imperialism and the Venezuelan oligarchy and successive attempts to destabilize the country and stage counterrevolutionary coups d’état.
During attempts to destabilize the country and create the conditions for a coup and foreign intervention in 2013 and 2014 images were widely circulated by shady forces showing horrible scenes of police violence and unrest. They were accompanied by fraudulent stories claiming that a popular uprising was taking place against the Venezuelan government and the people were facing brutal repression.
These images turned out to be scenes from Chile, Egypt, Mexico and other countries and after images went “viral” several imperialist news outlets were forced to issue retractions. In 2014 when all was said and done 43 people had lost their lives to street violence organized by counterrevolutionary forces along with widespread damage to public facilities.
Case study: Venezuela and Buzzfeed
The disruption techniques have increased in sophistication each time the Venezuelan people defeat attempts to smash their anti-imperialist nation-building project. On top of the constant barrage of falsehoods about Venezuela in monopoly-owned newspapers and from state agencies like the CBC, the most vicious attacks are coming from websites specializing in viral social media content and giving the appearance of being edgy and left-of-centre.
One example is Buzzfeed, a “social news and entertainment company” which has pioneered the use of manipulating readers to achieve the maximum number of “clicks” and shares of mostly trite and superficial content. This is known as “click-bait.” In 2015 Buzzfeed received a $200 million investment from NBCUniversal and the site has been valued at over $1 billion.
The website closely aligns itself with the positions of the U.S. government. A June 30, 2016 study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting found that 99 per cent of Buzzfeed’s coverage of the Obama administration was positive and only one critical story out of 100 could be found, a story that pointed out the U.S. government had not met its target for resettling Syrian refugees.
Most of the company’s revenue comes from its unit called Buzzfeed Creative, which creates branded, paid-for advertisements, which are disguised as regular Buzzfeed news content. One tech analyst says Buzzfeed’s future “depends on convincing us that ads aren’t ads.” It likewise depends on convincing readers that disinformation is news.
The magazine Wired writes, “If there is a science to BuzzFeed’s content strategy, it is built on obsessive measurement. The data-science team uses machine learning to predict which stories might spread; the design team keeps iterating the user interface through A/B testing and analytics.”
Its content and titles are designed based on formulas to receive the maximum number of clicks and shares.
When Buzzfeed promoted the idea that an “uprising” was taking place in Venezuela, it stated that Venezuela’s problems stemmed from the government nationalizing the oil industry and taking it out of the hands of giant foreign monopolies.
The website has published a number of disinformation items recently with “click-bait” titles such as “How Much Do You Really Know About What is Happening in Venezuela,” “What Is Going On In Venezuela?” and “Venezuela Opened Its Border And The Rush Of Hungry People Was Nuts.”
Buzzfeed has since 2013 promoted a Norwegian-Venezuelan figure called Thor Halvorssen who runs two phoney “human rights groups,” the Oslo Freedom Forum and the Human Rights Foundation.
Halvorssen is the son of Thor Halvorssen Hellum, a CIA informant who helped fund the Contras in Nicaragua. Halvorssen’s aunt is a former state oil executive found to have funneled state money to Venezuela’s “Popular Will” political party.
The Popular Will party was founded by Leopoldo López, who is serving a jail sentence for inciting deadly violence during the U.S.-backed protests against the Venezuelan government in 2014. López is also the first cousin of Halvorssen and has been featured at Halvorssen’s “Freedom Forum.”
U.S. journalist Ken Silverstein says, “One of Halvorssen’s alleged specialties is falsely editing Wikipedia pages and inserting bogus charges to smear his clients’ enemies.”
One Buzzfeed correspondent flew to Oslo in 2013 to write a flattering portrait of Halvorssen as a “human rights activist.” He has been the subject of several other Buzzfeed articles since that time and Buzzfeed has even featured his “Human Rights Foundation” in videos attacking Cuba.
The three-minute video “What Is Going On in Venezuela” was produced by Buzzfeed’s new “Pero Like” page, which produces content targeted at English-speaking people with Latin American backgrounds. It was published on August 2 and by August 11 had 29 million views.
The video features an unidentified man speaking English giving a dramatic performance. He says there is a crisis in Venezuela, caused by a government which for 18 years “fed the country hatred.”
He speaks about the crime rate and the minimum wage and (falsely) insinuates that the people are going hungry. All of it is devoid of any context and presents a nightmare scenario. Your mother, your sister or your uncle can all be killed at any moment, he says, and suggests that this has to do with the “hatred” created by the government.
“They” asked for money, his family delivered the money, and “they” still shot him, the man says. He then tells a story about his mother being held up in a robbery at gunpoint. He says that in 2008 Venezuela was voted the happiest country in the world, “despite the situation.”
In conclusion he says, “I think that the most important thing we can do is raise awareness. Let the whole world know. ‘Cause, if everybody knows, then maybe we can make a difference.” In other words, share, share, share and create the pretext that “something must be done” in Venezuela.
The man in the video is Alejandro Toro, a professional actor and reality TV contestant born in Miami, Florida who spent most of his life in Venezuela. He is supposed to be giving the inside perspective of a Venezuelan but the authors of the video did not seem to want to identify him.
As much as the disinformation video says precisely nothing about “what is going on in Venezuela” it also targets for destruction the esteem in which the peoples of the world hold Venezuela, its Bolivarian Revolution and the memory of Hugo Chávez. It is precisely to sow doubt in the manner of Cass Sunstein to block the movement from coming to the defence of Venezuela’s sovereignty and opposing disinformation.
The techniques outlined are all examples of the use of social media by powerful private interests to split the people and undermine their political movements. We think there is an urgent need today to work out how to use social media to inform and unite the people’s forces.
To do so requires organizations that carry out such an aim consciously and base their work on maximum ideological and political mobilization. It means professionalizing our work by involving all those who recognize this urgent necessity. One urgent task is to bring the production of audio and video content of the mass Party and non-Party press in conformity with the needs of the times.
We think that it is time for the daughters and sons of the working people to come forward to build the institutions needed by the people to raise their ideological and political level and unite them in action. On the anniversaries of the mass Party and non-Party Press CPC(M-L) is implementing a plan to strengthen the Party’s technical base solidly based on its greatest asset, the human factor/social consciousness. By mobilizing its material asset, the working class and broad masses of the people, and its spiritual asset, Contemporary Marxist-Leninist Thought as its guide to action, it is sure to succeed.
- Kerric Harvey, Ed. Encyclopedia of Social Media and Politics. SAGE Publications, 2014. Vol. 1, pp. 183.
- Ibid. pp. 190.
- Ibid. pp. 249.
- Ibid. pp. 308.
- Ibid. pp. 391.
- Cass R. Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, Conspiracy Theories (January 15, 2008).
- Ryan Gallagher, “Documents Reveal Canada’s Secret Hacking Tactics.” The Intercept, March 23, 2015.
- Glenn Greenwald, “How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet to Manipulate, Deceive, and Destroy Reputations.” The Intercept, February 24, 2014.
(The above presentation was delivered at the Seminar on the National and International Situation organized by the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist) at the University of Ottawa on August 14, 2016.)
Related reading on this website
‘Digital diplomacy’: Harper government’s new weapon for subversion, Tony Seed, March 19, 2014
CNN, CBC: Fake image of a young child – again, February 9, 2014