Weapons of mass distraction

Robin Barnes

This is a summary of Robin's recent article in NILQ 69(4).

Surveillance technologies and algorithmic programming enable mining of personal data for collection by governments and sale to marketers for the purpose of prediction and modification of human behaviour in all spheres of life. Voice, facial and gait recognition technologies, social media accounts, user apps for goods and services, RFID chips and history retained by banks, insurance agencies, credit card companies, cell phones, Skype, VOIP, loyalty programs, credit-reporting agencies and consumer surveys collect more detailed personal information on individually named consumers than every other source combined.

Troves of data captured by internet service providers under ‘take it or leave it’ terms of service are collected and stored indefinitely. This ensures that Amazon and Netflix are free to retain individually identifiable logs of movies watched over decades, which when paired with a vast array of personal information – such as medical history or travel – and then cross-referenced with lists of friends, lovers, email content, Facebook posts, chats, text messages and location data, allow private intelligence firms to wreak havoc in the lives of individual targets. The obvious effects of buying a new car or designer watch that you don’t need and can’t afford, or expensive vacations that render little of the promised excitement, pale in comparison to accepting the validity of a costly medical procedure directed at uniquely vulnerable individuals, voting against your interests in a national referendum, or becoming the target of black-ops contractors when choosing to exercise your civil and political rights. And the absence of wider media scrutiny and calls for public discussion of the studies that reveal the toll this has taken through distortion of social norms and civil society amounts to journalistic negligence.

Broadcast media features clusters of panellists who do little more than state the obvious. Claims of disinterest in salacious details surrounding porn stars, playboy models, hookers and pee tapes ring hollow as the scope of financial deregulation and strong critiques of current markers of global financial stability are barely covered. Valuable time is spent lamenting the fall of successive governments to vigilantes inspired by populist rhetoric and nationalist ideologies, while proposals that would materially advance socio-economic justice are largely ignored. Meanwhile, the tech industry’s strongest minds are being used to augment authoritarian control and provide rapid means to manufacture consent and quash dissent with threats of harm and/or personal chaos.

The storm that erupted over Cambridge Analytic revealed just how government officials, candidates for public office and political operatives working on their behalf use information gained through mass surveillance, of social media in particular, to target both large groups and individuals. The deployment of private intelligence agencies to destroy political opposition and spread propaganda that undermines democracy while claiming to bolster it, is part of their standard play book: Facebook executives have mastered the art.

One consequence of our failure to curb propaganda in the media is a collective haze supported by journalism that advances insularity over public education concerning the demise of basic freedoms. Following non-stop discussion of the likely torture and murder of a Washington Post contributor in a Turkish consulate, mainstream media seamlessly shifted to a discussion of the revocation of a cable news reporter’s White House press credentials, oblivious to the ongoing assault on protesters, activists, whistleblowers, investigative journalists, and their confidential sources of information.  

Desperate to undo the damage of gifting then candidate Donald Trump nearly $5 billion dollars-worth of free air time in the lead up to the 2016 election, they go on to repeat the same mistakes. European news outlets feature guests who have dubbed neo-facists in the EU ‘Bannonites’, providing the pole from which to hang the far-right freak-flag all over Europe. Meanwhile, the bright orange Donald Trump baby blimp toured the continent accompanied by audio of crying babies seized by the US border patrol. The plain cruelty of luring children away from their parents at the border as leading European countries denied docking privileges to a boat carrying rescued migrants spawned cognitive dissonance. Images of drowning asylum seekers and toddlers being thrust into cages created a chilling spectre of toxic disruption of civil society and the end of decency full-stop.

The wasteland that divides the public welfare from the current role of broadcast media as a fourth estate – justified from a constitutional perspective for service as watchdogs over governments, big business and transactions between them – has rarely been more vast. Municipalities struggle to cope with failing infrastructure, toxic discharge of chemical wastes in public waterways, catastrophic drought, flooding and wildfires, while cable news’ echo chamber of opinions and assessments of outrageous behaviour divert public attention from massive injuries. Broadcasters joke about their fishing trips as the harms flowing from unregulated carbon emissions, fracking, industrial farm waste, shale oil extraction, and radioactive leaks from nuclear waste sites decimate one community after another. Corporate media monopolies are characterised by their non-stop focus upon political extremism. One might have time to notice the continued concentration of the world’s wealth in a few hands coupled with accelerating impoverishment of the majority, but for the cult of perpetual war alongside the transformation of Western societies by the ‘invisible’ power of public relations and lobbying. A few days after Trump became president-elect, Oxford Dictionaries announced that ‘post-truth’ had been chosen as the 2016 word of the year: defined as a condition ‘in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

Welcome to reality! David Cameron established a ‘Behavioural Insights Team’, or ‘nudge unit’, during his premiership in order to better influence the behaviour of UK citizens. Billed as a low-cost and simple tool to positively alter decisions of millions, the ‘nudge’ was presented as a benign and effective tool for future governments. Yet it has deep roots, reminiscent of theories developed in the 1920s by organisations such as the Tavistock Institute: a London-based centre for the study of human behaviour, mind control, propaganda and social manipulation. Nowhere is this research more relevant than exploring the uniquely ‘American’ response to mass shootings. A neo-Nazi fresh out of high school went on a shooting rampage in March 2018, in South Florida: marking the 56th mass shooting in the USA less than three months into the calendar year. Parkland High school’s surviving students organised multiple national days of protest and were roundly praised for their vigilance and courage while analysts neglected to mention how little they received in return for their monumental efforts. Moreover, their key realm of effectiveness – threatening mass boycott of sponsors of a radical right talk-show host who launched personal attacks against student leaders – received only minimal coverage. When their protests, subsided mass media returned to Russia-gate.