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Media Link: AVFA on the Open Source Intelligence War.

datePosted on 13:28, April 1st, 2022 by Pablo

I have been busy with other projects so have not been posting as much as I would like. Hence the turn to linking to episodes from this season ‘s “A View from Afar” podcast with Selwyn Manning (this is season 3, episode 8). In the month since the Russians invaded Ukraine we have dedicated our shows to various aspects of the war. We continue that theme this week by using as a “hook” the news that New Zealand is sending 7 signals intelligence specialists to London and Brussels to assist NATO with its efforts to supply Ukraine with actionable real time signals and technical intelligence in its fight against the invaders. We take that a step further by discussing the advent of open source intelligence collection and analysis as not only the work of private commercial ventures and interested individuals and scholars, but as a crowd sourcing effort that is in tis case being encouraged and channeled by the Ukrainian government and military to help tip the conflict scales in its favour.

We also discuss the geopolitical reasons why NZ decided to make the move when it arguably has no dog directly involved in the fight. It turns out that it does.

Continuing our focus on the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, Selwyn Manning and I used this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast to examine the state of play on the battlefield and with regard to the sanctions regime being built against Russia. There is cause for both alarm and optimism.

Chinese influence and American hate diffusion.

datePosted on 15:08, November 22nd, 2021 by Pablo

Over the last decade concerns have been raised about Chinese “influence operations” in NZ and elsewhere. Run by CCP-controlled “United Front” organisations, influence operations are designed to promote PRC interests and pro-PRC views within the economic and political elites of the targeted country as well as Chinese diaspora communities. The means of doing so is transactional and convertible by cash. United Front organisations put money and operatives into the local political system exploiting loopholes or laxities in political finance laws and candidate selection processes, and buy majority ownership of or board membership in strategically placed local firms. This greases the skids for more “Chinese-friendly” perspectives in economic and political decision-making circles.

In parallel, local Chinese language media (both Mandarin and Cantonese) are purchased and their editorial orientation turned towards the CCP party line. This ensures that dissenting opinions are eliminated from outlets that cater to newer Chinese language immigrants, something that, for example, is evident in the coverage of Hong Kong over the last few years. Along with outright intimidation campaigns directed at critics, dissidents and so-called malcontents, this ensures that what is presented to local native and expat populations about China is what the CCP wants it to be. With large scale (now temporarily suspended due to Covid restrictions) immigration of CCP-approved or affiliated mainlanders on student and business visas and the emergence of ethnic Chinese lobbying groups, this ensures that pro-PRC narratives come to dominate how it is spoken about in targeted countries.

The practical goal is to present homogenous and uniform pro-CCP views among expat communities and to re-orient local elite perspectives and material interests towards a more China-friendly position, both in terms of international affairs as well as Chinese domestic politics. The broader strategy is to use the “Achilles Heel” of liberal democracy–freedoms of expression, association and movement–to subvert democratic societies from within. The approach is top-down and largely elite-focused, but has trickle down effects throughout the targeted society. Most importantly, it works. One only has to look at the wedding of NZ political and economic elite interests to those of Chinese agents and entities to understand why. Think Don Brash, John Key and Jenny Shipley as poster children for that type of unholy union, but Labour has, shall we say, some baggage of its own in this regard.

However, there is another malign foreign influence operating in NZ as well as places like Brazil and Italy. It arrives as a type of cultural or ideological diffusion and it is propagated by US-based non-state political actors like Steve Bannon and his Counterspin media channel as well as the Qanon conspiracy network, Alex Jones and Infowars plus assorted other alt-Right and neo-fascist outlets channeling anti-government and anti- “Deep State” views of the likes of the Proud Boys, Oathkeepers and Three Percenters. Rather than the top-down and elite-centric approach adopted by Chinese influence operators, US cultural-ideological diffusers use “alternative media,” direct marketing (such as by distributing leaflets and cold calling with false information) and social media (including using political blogs, fake websites, plus trolls and bots on large platforms) to exploit pre-existing social fault lines and amplify newer divisions in a targeted society. In doing so they copy and adapt Russian (and now Chinese) psychological operations models of disinformation, misinformation and false-flagging. They prey on gullibility, ignorance and/or hate and their currency is rage: rage born of frustration with life opportunities or personal grievance; rage against institutions and processes (i.e. the “system”), rage against past injustices and/or modern offences or slights; rage against assorted ‘others” challenging status and privilege; outrage at offences big and small–the sources of rage are both individual and collective and with enough coaching and channeling can be marshalled into a powerful force for good or evil. Cultural-Ideological diffusers such as Bannon travel on the dark side.

The approach is bottom-up and grassroots in orientation, and works along what Gramsci called the trenches of civil society to push a counter-hegemonic notion of “good sense” against the hegemonic conception of “common sense” purveyed by the mainstream (elite-controlled) media. These trenches include social movements as well as social institutions in which historical and contemporary grievances can be combined into a civil resistance front.

In the contemporary NZ context, that means uniting anti-vaccination/mask/lockdown sentiment with anti-tax, anti-environmental, anti-1080, Christian conservative, libertarian, gun-rights and assorted other rightwing views as well as outliers like Maori sovereignty proponents. To cultivate grassroots resistance it uses local activists as well as “Astroturf” entities such as the purportedly farmer-led group known as the “Groundswell Movement,” which in fact is a creation of the urban rightwing (and National Party-aligned) Taxpayers Union. The rhetoric of cultural-ideological diffusion protests is imported to a large extent and at times seemingly at odds with local issues: witness the proliferation of Trump and MAGA-supportive references amongst current anti-government demonstrators. More worryingly, unlike most of the NZ protest movements of the past, the rhetoric and actions of local protestors influenced by cultural-ideological US agitators is tinged with overt hints of violent punishment, retribution and revenge against the government, “liberals,” and even the mainstream media (which if anything has shown itself to be largely uncritical and mild Fourth Estate that is mainly interested in generating clicks or viewership based on controversies-of-the-day and scandal). References to NZ authorities as Nazis deserving of Nuremburg-style trials lend an ominous tone to the recent exercises in civil rights, to which can be added the open displays of racist, misogynist and neo-fascist sentiment among those involved. That may be a more “natural” form of discourse for a deeply polarised country like the US with a long record of political violence, but it has no organic roots in NZ’s otherwise vigorous culture of civil disobedience and public protest.

Less the smorgasbord approach to forming anti-government movements seem hopeless as a political strategy or praxis (and hence dismissible), the key to its success is to use cultural-ideological diffusion tactics to create a temporary coalition of convenience, not a long-term alliance. It’s immediate purpose is to sabotage the government from without, not undermine it from within. It uses contemporary political conflicts such as the debate about pandemic mitigation to sow social and political division while exploring the same Achilles Heel as do the Chinese influence operators (the freedoms of speech and protest in particular). Ultimately, its long-term end is similar: to undermine public faith in the liberal democratic system as given in order to impose a more authoritarian order of some sort. But for the time being, the focus is on the short-term: sow unrest, promote sedition and usurp authority using social media to import US-sourced cultural-ideological framing of “wedge” issues in order to do so.

Gramsci of course wrote thinking about Left political praxis in Mussolini’s Italy, so there is a certain irony in the adoption of his thought by the likes of Steve Bannon. But that is part of why Bannon is an evil genius: he knows what works and does not care from where good strategic ideas come from.

Not surprisingly local security “experts” have jumped up to state the obvious that things might get violent if the anti-government rhetoric continues to escalate along the lines mentioned above. Raising public consciousness of this possibility is a good thing. More helpfully, the NZ intelligence community has warned that a terrorist attack is possible within a year or so and that it will likely come in the form of a “lone wolf” emerging out of the anti-vaxx/mask/lockdown movement (although the process of radicalisation and likely profile of such an individual has not been specified). The media is covering itself as a target of extremists because some of its members have been threatened by anti-government bullies, and politicians, with good reason, are increasingly concerned about their security given the vitriol directed at (some of) them. While it is laudable to focus attention on the security threat angle implicit in recent protests, a deeper understanding of the methodology and mechanics of cross-border non-State cultural-ideological diffusion is in order, especially when it is subversive in intent. Unless one understands what the likes of Bannon want to do when directing their malevolent gaze on Aotearoa and who are the most susceptible to the entreaties of their perverse siren song, then all that can be done is to react to rather than pre-empt whatever harm is headed our way.

Our security authorities need to be cognisant of this fact, but as a stable and largely peaceful society, so do we.

Random Retweets: Pandemic mitigation.

datePosted on 14:35, November 15th, 2021 by Pablo

Introduction.

I have recently seen a trend whereby people turn their twitter ruminations into op eds and even semi-scholarly essays such as those featured on Spinoff, Patreon or The Conversation. It makes sense to develop ideas from threads and maximise publication opportunities in the process, especially for academics operating in a clickbait environment that has now crept into scholarly journals. I am not immune from the thread-to-essay temptation, although I have tended to do that on my work page and stick to subjects more pertinent to my work because the twitter account I use is a business rather than personal one.

With that in mind and because I have not posted here for a while, I thought it opportune to edit and repurpose some twitter thoughts that I have shared on the subject of what might be called the security politics of Covid mitigation in New Zealand. Below I have selected, cut and pasted some salient edited tweets along that analytic line.

Security aspects of pandemic politics.

There are traditional national security threats like armed physical attack by external/internal enemies. There are non-traditional national security threats like rising sea levels and disasters. Anti-vaxxers are a non-traditional national security threat that must be confronted.

Social media is where state and non-state actors (criminal organisations, extremist groups) link with local agitators in order to combine resources for common purpose. Viral dis-/misinformation and influence campaigns designed to socially destabilise and politically undermine public faith in and support for liberal democracies like NZ are an example of such hand-in-glove collaboration. If left unchecked it can lead to mass public disorder even when seemingly disorganised (e.g. by using “leaderless resistance” tactics). This growing “intermestic” or “glocal” threat needs to be prioritised by the NZ intel community because otherwise social cohesion is at risk. On-line seditious saboteurs must be identified, uncovered and confronted ASAP. That includes “outing” the foreign-local nexus, to include state and non-state actor connections.

If people are going to complain about Chinese influence operations in NZ, then they would do good to complain about US alt-Right/QAnon influence operations in NZ as well. Especially when the latter is manifested in the streets as anti-vac/anti-mask protests. The difference between them? PRC influence operations attempt to alter the NZ political system from within. US alt-Right/QAnon influence operations seek to subvert it from without. Both are authoritarian threats to NZ’s liberal democracy.

In the war against a mutating virus initially of foreign origin NZ has a 5th column: anti-vax/maskers, religious charlatans, Deep State and other conspiracy theorists, economic maximisers, venal/opportunistic politicians, disinformation peddlers and various selfish/stupid jerks. Their subversion of a remarkably effective pandemic mitigation effort should be repudiated and sanctioned as strongly as the law permits. Zero tolerance of what are basically traitors to the community is now a practical necessity (along with a 90% vaccination rate). Plus, as a US-NZ dual citizen who had his NZ citizenship application opposed by some hater, I would like to know who let in the rightwing Yank nutters now fomenting unrest over masks/vaxes/lockdowns/mandates etc. They clearly do not meet the good character test.

A counter-terrorism axiom is that the more remote the chances of achieving an ideological goal, the more heinous will be the terrorist act. Anti-vax and conspiracy theorists using Nazi/holocaust analogies to subvert democratic pandemic mitigation strategies are akin to that.

Long-term community well-being requires commitment to collective responsibility and acceptance of individual inconvenience in the face of a serious public health threat. It is part of the democratic social contract and should not be usurped for partisan or personal gain. Elephant in the room: when cultural mores contradict and undermine public health scientific advice but for political reasons cannot be identified as such. If true, partisan-focused approaches to Covid is not just an Opposition sin. The virus does not see culture or tradition. Anti-vax/mask views are no excuse to violate public health orders. Likewise economic interest, leisure pursuits, religious or secular beliefs no matter how deeply held. Ergo, cultural practice cannot override the public good. Collective responsibility is a democratic obligation.

Those that set the terms of debate tend to win the debate. In politics, those that frame the narrative on a subject, tend to win the debates about it. By announcing a “Freedom Day” the govt has conceded the debate about pandemic mitigation. The issue is not about human freedom. It is about managing public health risk in pursuit of the common good. Using “freedom” rhetoric injects ideology into what should be an objective debate about prudent lockdown levels given uneven vaccination rates, compliance concerns, mental health and economic issues. Bad move.

The tyranny of the dishonest and stupid.

datePosted on 15:00, February 24th, 2021 by Pablo

One theme in the literature dedicated to democratic theory is the notion of a “tyranny of the minority.” This is where the desire to protect the interests of and give voice to electoral minorities leads to a tail wagging the dog syndrome whereby minorities wind up having disproportionate influence in debates about policy. The minorities in question may be political, ethnic, religious, racial, cultural or identified by other characteristics, but the commonality is in their (previous) relative disenfranchisement when compared to dominant electoral groups, again defined by various criteria. For example, white, straight, christian males have traditionally been an electorally dominant group in the US; transgender gay afro-asian atheists have not.

In democratic practice the issue is one of striking a fair and equitable balance between the rights of the (electoral) majority and the rights of minorities. This has been attempted via re-districting and voter enrolment schemes that allow for more minority representation in politics at all levels, affirmative action initiatives and regulations that preferentially promote minorities in fields and institutions in which they are traditionally underrepresented, advancement of historical accounts and alternative artistic expressions that reflect the experiences of the subaltern, exploited and dispossessed, etc. The objective is to level the playing field across the gamut of social endeavour, thereby leading to more democratic outcomes in politics and society.

The push to democratise has by now gone well beyond politics and deep into the fabric of social life. Old notions of what is permissible even in the sanctum of family life have been challenged and redrawn away from traditional heterosexist patriarchal hierarchies. Private firms can no longer ignore gender bias or subtle racism in their ranks. Children no longer fear the teacher’s rod or strap.

All of this is good. Historical injustices have been addressed and authoritarian social structures have been reformed as a result of democratisation efforts world-wide. The fear now, in some quarters at least, is about an over-reaction to previous ills when it comes to democratising society. It also has prompted a backlash by reactionaries, who in earlier decades whined about “political correctness” and “culture wars” and who now whinge about “triggered” “wokeism,” “cancel culture,” “snowflakes” and limits on “free speech” (when what they actually mean is restrictions on public expressions of various forms of racism, bigotry and other intolerance).

At its core the argument against economic, social and political democratisation is about over-compensation and giving a few people too much just because they were done wrong somewhere down the road. To wit: unencumbered by traditional forms of discipline, children will run roughshod over their parents. Students will have rights without responsibilities. Wives and teenagers will mouth off with impunity and people of color will expect and demand equal treatment by law enforcement. Once tradition goes, chaos will rule.

Of course none of the above is true and fears grounded in such beliefs lack substantive foundation. But the concern that minority rights might eventually supercede majority rights is a real one for more than political scientists, and has become what is known (in very simple terms) as the tyranny of the minority.

The backlash to economic, political and social democratisation was to be expected because the backlash comes from those who benefitted from the majoritarian electoral status quo before the political, economic and social rights of minorities was even allowed, much less considered as part of the democratic equation. But now the backlash has taken a particularly sinister turn in the form of the dissemination of disinformation and false narratives under the banner of democratic “balance” when it comes to minority voice.

As a lead in, let’s consider the CNN approach to political debates on its opinion shows. In the interest of being “balanced,” CNN shows regularly feature paid Republican shills (reportedly on a retainer of US$150,00/year) who with increased frequency over the years have blatantly lied, denied, denigrated, insulted, engaged in specious false comparisons and “whataboutism,” and generally acted like the a-holes that they truly are. Rick Santorum, Kayleigh Mcenany, Paris Dennard, Kelly-Ann Conway, Jason Miller and assorted others were given a huge platform from which to dispense their bulls**t, and some even managed to use the CNN enhanced profiles to step into White House jobs in the Orange Merkin administration (Dennard and Miller were caught up in sex scandals so are now relegated to talking to the converted on Fox News).

Given their disinterest in honest debate and fair play and their use of the CNN platforms to push fake news and disinformation, why on earth were they given that privilege? What was CNN thinking? Did it do so out of a naive belief that these people would behave with a modicum of grace and decorum? Or did it feature them out of some mistaken belief in “balance?” What objective balance can exist between an honest and neutral commentator and a dishonest partisan spin-scammer? Why would one even try to “balance” objective truth with rabid lies?

That is the crux of the tyranny of the minority today. Because of the advent of social media and (successful) practice of sowing deliberate disinformation and fake news, everyone who has an opinion is not only entitled to one but has equal weight in the debates of the moment. Take the anti-vaccination crowd. Even though a thousand scientific journal articles and books by leading epidemiology and vaccinology experts have been written about the effectiveness of vaccines, even though polio and other diseases were essentially eradicated within a few years of immunization campaigns being introduced against them, some celebrity chef or other uninformed ignoramus will find one medical practitioner and a few tinfoil quacks who claim that vaccines cause autism, rabies, droopy eye syndrome and alien reproductive parasitism in humans and use that as a counter-argument against vaccines. Rather than ignore these fools, some other internet-schooled morons seize upon the minority opinion to show “proof” that the counter-narrative is true.

Many will embellish the original stupidity with talk about Big Brother Deep State social control schemes, and before long the internet is festooned with anti-vax screeds vying for attention with real scientific publications. Because scientific publications are hidden behind paywalls or in university libraries and use technical language in order to be understood, the “my kid has autism because of a measles shot” scientifically uneducated crowd have the upper hand in the democratic space that is the unregulated social media market. So much for being blinded by science (apologies to Thomas Dolby).

When confronted by the utter inanity of their claims, the anti-vaxxers will respond with something along the lines of “you may have your truth but I have MY truth.” The false equivalence between them then becomes not a matter of fact versus fiction but a matter of disputed (selective) facts. Everyone not only has an opinion and places to publicise them. They now have their own set of cherry picked facts to back up their views (“links please”). At that point the slippery slope toward full blown conspiracy theories begins.

That is where we are today. Conspiracy theories vie with objective reporting as preferred narratives on social issues. The latest conspiracy gem from Q Anon involves fake snow in Texas rather than the real blizzard-caused sub-zero snow and ice that killed over 50 people and left that state without power water for days. One can only conclude, charitably, that those who subscribe to such views do not live in the Longhorn State.

However absurd all of this is, real damage has been done. Well before the January 6 conspiracy-motivated assault on the US Capitol, the pervasive echoing of political and social conspiracies permeated rightwing media, whether out of a sense of sincere conviction or opportunistic political gain. Faith in government at all levels has been consistently undermined by the promulgation of minority extremist ideological views that in a truly fair and confident society would never see the light of day but which now are given equal space with fact-based reporting. In an effort to democratise social and political discourse, the field has been given away to the tyranny of an often deranged or evil-minded ideological minority.

The truth is that not all opinions are equal. Not all views are worth considering. Not all “facts” are empirical, falsifiable or objectively measured. Some thing should simply not be considered because they are not worth the time or energy to do so. But here we are, with Plan B (non-expert) academic fools in NZ disputing the expert scientific approaches to pandemic mitigation and me arguing with anti-vax housewives in the primary school parking lot.

I blame post-modernism, including cultural relativism and other forms of inter-textual subjectivity, for greasing the slippery slope into the tyranny of the ideological minority. I do so even as I recognise the contributions that modes of critical inquiry like subaltern studies have made to the study of humanity and the advances to the human condition pushed by non-binary interpretations of what constitutes personhood. But the descent to the “all truth is subjective and therefore all views are equal” syndrome that has led to the popular rise of pseudo-scientific claptrap masquerading as alternative truth and conspiracy theories as counterfactuals to reality-based narratives lies in the notion that one can transpose an alternative methodology designed to interpret human social behaviour onto “hard” scientific inquiry or the lived and experienced reality of the people in question.

In reality, Pizzagate did not happen. The Democratic leadership demonstrably does not run a pedophile ring. It has been repeatedly verified that US election results were not stolen, in any State. On the other hand, fake snow in Texas and Jewish space lasers setting fires to California forests for profit are not objectively provable and yet are peddled (by Republican politicians even!) as if they were empirical fact. The commonality among them is the all of these views share space in the rightwing conspiracy ecosystem that is by design focused on countering observable and verifiable information provided by objective reporting in various media.

In other words, it is not what you know and the basis for how you know it. It is about how you interpret things based on what you are told, whether it is verifiable or not.

In a weird way, the path towards democratising stupidity is proof that human social evolution is dialectical, not progressive (in the sense of progressing from lower to a higher forms of knowledge, consciousness or material well-being). The push for economic, political and social democratisation, which through much trial and error and while still a work in progress, has yielded significant gains for populations previously denied agency in their lives and in society in general, has also eventually led to the spectre of the tyranny of the minority. As a result, much effort has been put into ensuring that democratisation efforts do not result in the “tail wagging the dog” effect mentioned at the beginning of this essay, and much pushback has been levelled at that effort by those who fear the effects of democratisation on the traditional socio-economic and political hierarchies that constituted the previous era.

This all is evidence that human societies do not always progress from more simple to more complex. But the dialectical progression is most clearly seen in the democratisation of social discourse to the point that idiots and evil-doers are given equal opportunity and space to vent their irrational, mean-spirited and unreal views as if they were truth, and where a minority of ideological retrogrades can manipulate the digital media space to dissemination lies, falsehoods and disinformation unimpeded by reality-based filters or objective facts.

Before, the fear was that democratisation of electoral and social opportunity would lead to a tyranny of people denied voice because of who they are by the previous systems in place, and who would use the new, more open institutional structures to impose their minority preferences on the majority. Now the threat is posed by ideological minorities who in a rational world would be laughed off stage but who now, with the democratisation of telecommunications, have global media platforms on which to spew hatred and ignorance unencumbered by a grounding in objective knowledge and notions of honesty, civility and fair play.

If Hegel could see us now, I wonder what he would say.

Counterfeiting information.

datePosted on 14:24, October 30th, 2020 by Pablo

Although trite to say so, if knowledge is power, then information is its currency. The more complete the information at hand, the more knowledge that it imparts, which can be wielded for bad or good.

In that light, spreading disinformation is akin to counterfeiting. It is fraud masquerading as fact. The more it is accepted and disseminated, the more genuine informational “currency” (including scientific and factual information) is devalued. The more legitimate information is devalued the more it becomes indistinguishable from disinformation. This is the purpose of many psychological warfare campaigns and is a standard tool for authoritarians that rely on so-called “gaslighting” tactics to keep their subjects confused or ignorant of actual reality and the circumstances of their rule.

Actors who use disinformation campaigns in liberal democracies are no more than imposters and counterfeiters attempting to influence the political market. Counterfeiters and imposters are not accepted in the financial and business markets, so there is no reason to accept them in the political and social realms. Instead, they should be seen as malignancies that need to be excised.

This should be the bottom line for political parties and social media platforms: disinformation is fraud. Peddling information counterfeits should be avoided and blocked rather than enabled, much less encouraged. This is not a “free speech” or civil liberties issue. It is a matter of countering malign deceptions deliberately designed to hinder and cloud the flow of legitimate information in the social and political spheres.

The threat to democracy posed by information counterfeiting is worsening. The proliferation of social media and the descent into “winner take all” disloyal political competition has aided the trend. Information counterfeiting is now used by both domestic and foreign actors who may or may not be working synergistically. It no longer is confined to times of open (inter-state or civil) conflict. For the foreign actor it is a means of weakening a targeted society from within by sowing division and partisan/racial/ethnic/religious/cultural rancour. For domestic actors it is a way to pursue partisan advantage and achieve political gain even if over the long-term it serves the purposes of hostile foreign agents. Be it myopic or strategic in objective, political counterfeiting is inimical to liberal democratic values because it seeks to impede or disrupt the flow of legitimate information in society.

It may seem obvious that disinformation and “fake news” is bad. But it is particularly bad when those who start the spread of disinformation turn around and accuse opponents of doing so when challenged on factual grounds. That is when Orwell meets Alice in Wonderland when it comes to the information stream framing the narrative that informs public opinion.

I have chosen here to rephrase the subject of disinformation as a form of counterfeiting. Not only because it advises caution when validating political claims, much like one would do when checking a label, stitching, material, ink or other components of a branded product, commodity or banknote. Doing so also removes arguments about free speech and rights of expression from the equation when it comes to confronting and countering disinformation in the public square because it frames the matter as one of fraud, not opinion. That should then become the basis for legal approaches to framing fair, just and proper responses to the problem.

Otherwise liars, cheats, agitators and provocateurs will continue to peddle false public narratives in pursuit of selfish gain.

It should be obvious by now but let’s be clear: The same folk who regularly traffic in disinformation, misinformation and “fake news” are also those who most strongly claim that their freedom of expression rights are being violated when moves are made to curb hate speech (as opposed to protected offensive speech). They lie, they mislead, they conspire and they subvert, only to whine when they are called out on their prejudice and deceit.

That is what might be called message “cloaking” or “masking:” using the legal protections of democracy in order to undermine it from within via propaganda and psychological operations designed to confuse, divide and accentuate extant social cleavages, or what right-wing extremists call “acceleration.” This harks to old Marxist-Leninist notions of exacerbating social contradictions, although for Marxists these are class based in capitalist societies whereas the alt-Right sees race and ethno-religious differences as the main fault lines to be exploited (precisely because capitalism is seen to aggregate ethnicities into socio-economic classes, thereby diluting the racial or ethno-religious basis of “proper”–read: Anglo-Saxon–governance).

Ironically, the alt-Right and white supremacists share Lenin’s view that democracy is “capitalism’s best possible political shell,” and they, like him, see it as an impediment to “pure” government (be it of the workers or of a chosen racial or ethnic group, respectively). Lenin believed that democracy blinds workers to their common interests because of the false promise of choice offered by the universal vote. Conversely, Alt-Right adherents and white supremacists believe that democracy (both in terms of the right to vote and in legal protections for minorities, etc.) gives too much power to “inferior” or “replacement” groups, thereby impeding merit-based efficient (read: White) governance. Perhaps both are right.

All of this happens in a context where public cynicism about political elites runs deep in both mature and emergent democratic societies. Venality, corruption and instrumental opportunism are rife throughout the so-called ‘free” world, leading to disenchantment and anger towards “the system” as a whole. This creates the space where conspiracy theories, false alternative narratives, fear-mongering, scape-goating and other deliberate distortions of the truth take hold in the collective consciousness. Some of this is at play on the Left side of the political spectrum but the majority of notions about the existence of a (presumably homogeneous in outlook and transnational in manifestation) Deep State, climate change being a hoax, 9/11 being an inside job, etc. come from the Right, harking back to previous incarnations of paranoid fantasies like those of the John Birch Society and various anti-Semitic cults that see Jewish control behind every major social organisation. In fact, pushed by social media connectivity, new and old Rightist tropes have merged into a particularly nasty amalgam of hate and manipulated ignorance.

The convergence of hate speech enthusiasts, climate change deniers, bigots, xenophobes and assorted conspiracy mongerers has been facilitated by social and alternative media platforms, which has given them common ground and global reach. They fight vigorously to defend their “right” to voice retrograde views while working equally as hard at propagating all sorts of subterfuge and stupidity in pursuit of their ulterior motives.

The saddest part is that this syndrome has seeped into mainstream politics throughout the democratic world, with Right-oriented parties now adopting both dis-and misinformation campaigns and “cloaking” as political tactics. National-populist parties provide the most obvious example, but one only need to look at the GOP in the US or the ACT and National parties in NZ to see how this seepage works. If I was uncharitable I would call it the “Trump tactic dispersion effect:” lie, deny, invent, obfuscate and obstruct in pursuit of partisan and personal gain without regard to the negative impact it has on the political system as a whole. The GOP is too far gone to recover from its MAGA infection, but the NZ Right parties need to be called out on their attempts to model some of their tactics on Trump’s approach and those of the alt-Right.

The irony is that the major beneficiaries of this dispersion effect are authoritarians, both those internal to the societies in question as well as the foreign despots who see utility in the weakening of democracy world-wide (and who therefore encourage and support disinformation/cloaking efforts globally).

After all, the deadliest thrusts of sharp power are into soft targets.

Beware the false narrative.

datePosted on 11:19, April 25th, 2019 by Pablo

ISIS and a junior defense minister in the Sri Lankan government have claimed that the terrorist attacks on churches and hotels in the island nation were a response to the white supremacist attack on mosques in Christchurch on March 15. The claims need to be treated with skepticism. Here’s why.

Having been defeated on the battlefields of the Levant, ISIS now urges its followers to return to decentralized terrorist attacks as a form of irregular warfare. It wishes to show continued strength by claiming that it can orchestrate attacks world-wide and that no country can escape its reach. The Easter Sunday terrorist bombings in Sri Lanka fit that narrative.

The truth is otherwise. The Sri Lankan attacks may have taken inspiration, and perhaps even logistical support from ISIS but planning and preparation began well before March 15. It is true that ISIS called for retaliatory attacks after the Christchurch attacks, and it could well be possible that March 15 was a precipitant event for the Sri Lankan bombings. But there was and is a larger and yet more local picture in play.

The Easter Sunday bombings occurred against a backdrop of rising violence against both Muslims and Christians in Sri Lanka by Buddhist militants, something that has accentuated in the last year and is the underlying motive for the attacks. These were not random or foreign in origin, but represent a violent response by one oppressed minority using terrorism against another minority and tourists in order to make a sharp point to the constitutionally empowered majority that it sees as increasingly oppressive in nature (70 percent of Sri Lankans practice Buddhism, which is the official religion of the country and which has constitutionally protected privileges). Christians were the targets because they were left unprotected by an indifferent or incompetent government, while tourists were attacked because the country depends on them for hard currency revenues. Neither targeted group were the real subject of the attacks, nor was the objective of the attacks strictly about them.

Operationally speaking, the effort to engage in coordinated, simultaneous attacks against multiple soft targets using significant quantities of explosives and involving at least 7 suicide bombers requires months of target surveillance, stockpiling and concealment of bomb-making ingredients, manufacture of human-portable bombs, coordination and communication between perpetrators and accomplices and logistical support in at least three cities, all under the veil of secrecy. Whether or not Christchurch served as a precipitant or ISIS called for revenge attacks in its wake, the making of the Easter Sunday plot was long in the works well before the white supremacist gunman walked into the Masjid al Noor.

Simply put, the Easter Sunday bombings simply could not have been put together in the month after the Christchurch attacks. Moreover, the Sri Lankan security services were warned several times before March 15 that Muslim extremists were preparing to launch attacks, followed by specific information two weeks ago that Catholic churches were being targeted on Easter. The complexity of the attacks and the repeated warnings of them strongly suggests that ISIS’s claims are opportunistic rather than truthful.

Likewise, the uncorroborated claim by a Sri Lankan junior minister that Christchurch was the reason for the Easter Sunday atrocities appears to be reckless attempt to deflect attention away from the gross negligence that led to the intelligence “failure” that facilitated them. In an atmosphere of rising ethnic and religious tensions, the Sri Lankan government received repeated and specific warnings about the impending attacks and yet did nothing. It did not increase security around churches and hotels and did not seek to preemptively arrest suspects on various extremist watch lists. Instead, rendered by partisan infighting and weighed down by incompetence, the security forces cast a negligent eye on what was going to happen. That may be because the attacks can serve as an excuse to crack down on the Muslim community, something Buddhist hard-liners have been seeking for some time. Whatever the reason, it was not an intelligence “failure” that facilitated the attacks. The security services knew, or at least were warned about what was going to happen. They either could not or chose not to act.

In truth, ISIS and some Sri Lankan government interests converged in making Christchurch part of the narrative. Falsely claiming that the Easter Sunday attacks were revenge for Christchurch makes it seem as if they are part of a larger struggle in which Sri Lanka is a pawn. The reality is more simple: the attacks were a local Islamist response to increased ethno-religious conflict in Sri Lanka in recent years, which itself is part of a larger struggle within South Asia between Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims as their lines of division continue to harden.

Therein lies the danger of the false narrative embedded in the ISIS and minister’s claims about Christchurch. They feed into the “clash of civilizations” argument put forward by ideological extremists that the world is in the midst of an cultural and religious conflict in which only one side can win. Subscribing to this argument justifies so-called “tit for tat” responses, whereby an attack by one side leads to an attack by the other, creating a cycle of violence that is designed to spiral into an existential confrontation between antithetical “others.” Although the vast majority of religionists the world over are non-violent and tolerant of other beliefs, this is the apocalyptic vision that extremists want to propagate.

The antidote to this is to place responsibility where it belongs and to not buy into false opportunistic narratives about revenge-based existential conflict. Sometimes the blame for atrocities lies closer to home, both in terms of root causes and inadequate responses.

An earlier version of this essay appeared on the Radio New Zealand web site (rnz.co.nz) on April 25, 2019.

On the post-truth moment.

datePosted on 14:36, January 25th, 2019 by Pablo

For a while now I have been wondering about how we have come to the current state of affairs where objective facts and reality-based truths are subject to question at the same time that blatant falsehoods and denials of fact are promoted and increasingly accepted as part of contemporary social discourse. We now live in a world of “fake news” and “alternative facts” where reality denial and abject lying are regular features of the cultural landscape.

I cannot claim any expertise in tracing the origins of the phenomenon. What I can say is that fake news and truth relativism follow a long line of disinformation, misinformation and propaganda aimed to deceive or distract from a particular reality or fact. It has roots dating back to ancient times, where the practice of seeding public debates with false narratives was employed by Egyptians, Greeks, Persians, Romans and Chinese dynasties. In the late 20th century it was associated with a type of “yellow” journalism as practiced by the Daily Mail and National Enquirer, where stories about alien abductions and pregnancies shared space with false stories about celebrity deaths, illnesses, criminality, two-headed babes and assorted other lunacy. This overlapped with conspiracy theories peddled by Right and Left wing extremists, who saw dark machinations behind an array of global events.

As of the late 1980s another factor entered into the mix. The rise of post-modernism and its attendant notions of epistemological, cultural and moral relativism, liminality, intersectionality, post-structuralism, rejection of “objective” reality in favour of subjective, contingent and socially-constructed interpretations of “truth” and concern for the narratives of subordinated and traditionally unheard of voices (e.g. indigenous peoples, women, LGBT communities) gave intellectual foundation to the idea that nothing real was truely “objective” and that no fact was universally factual. Like four blind people groping an elephant, reality is defined by the position of the subject as much as it is by the empirical conditions in which s/he is located. And as Isaac Asimov noted with regard to his extraterrestrial beasts and characters, they only appear grotesque, scary and outlandish because we are trapped in the physical constraints of our own Earthly reality, which in turn determines the mental framework we use to categorise what is real, imaginary and unimaginable.

Post-modernism has been deservedly critiqued for its focus on subjectivity and relativity, particularly where it intersects with hard science (say, with regards to the laws of physics and biological imperatives). But it also is correct in bringing attention to the fact that history as well a values lie in the eye of the beholder, and that perspective is often socially constructed and not universally shared.

9/11 gave conspiracy theorists a major boost and the false pretences under which the US invaded Iraq (non-existent WMD “ready to launch” in Tony Blair’s words) spawned wide-spread skepticism about official claims and narratives once the ruse was exposed and the consequences revealed. Meanwhile, the rapid rise of social media and telecommunications technologies gave state intelligence agencies and non-state actors new channels of communication through which they could manipulate and distort “reality” for partisan, political, military, economic and diplomatic advantage.

It appears that the right-wing propaganda outfit Breitbart was one of the first Western agencies to introduce fake news into mainstream political coverage. Steve Bannon honed his skills in this dark art at Breitbart and used them very successfully during the course of the Trump campaign for the US presidency. He got a boost from Wikileaks, which was used by Russian intelligence as a conduit for hacked communications by and disinformation about Hillary Clinton’s campaign. This in turn fed into the Rightwing echo chamber fronted by Fox News and conservative talk radio, who willingly and unknowingly parroted fabricated lies deliberately planted by Bannon and his coreligionists.

Trump then turned everything on its head. Although the mass propagation of “fake news” began with Brietbart and its ilk, Trump started (probably at Bannon’s behest) to use the term as an attack on mainstream, corporate media coverage of his campaign and later presidency. His assault on the free press has been relentless yet very effective because it depends on doubt about factual veracity in the media as a whole. On top of that Trump uses another tactic that seems absurd but which works: he denies obvious things he has said and done even if they have been recorded the day before and lies on top of lies to the point that it is near impossible to determine when the falsehoods began.

In Trumpworld objective reporting is fake and outright lies and deceptions are truth. Climate change is a hoax; the security threat posed by undocumented migrants of colour is real.

His advisors and surrogates imitate his style and add their own flourishes, such as Kelly Anne Conway’s remark that the administration deals in “alternative facts.” A whole machinery of Republican-linked PR and crisis management agencies now engage in institutional whitewashing and blacklisting via dissemination of fake narratives and denial of reality. Witness the case of the catholic school punk who confronted an Omaha tribe elder outside the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Within days of his smirking gob going “viral” on cellphone videos he was fronting up to leading television outlets spouting the manicured lies of a Republican advisory agency that he, in fact, was the victim of the encounter. Also consider the Republican-backed campaigns to link the Clintons to various murders and the infamous pizza parlour pedophile ring. And of course the “Obama is a Muslim non-citizen” trope.

The practice of using fake news and accusing honest media agents of doing so has spread world-wide particularly in rightwing political circles. Although authoritarians like Putin are masters at the art of disinformation, even upstart despots like Erdogan, Bolsonaro and Dutarte have trotted out their variations on the theme.

But that is not the only realm where the post-truth moment has gone. It is now considered–at least in large parts of the US– to be a socially accepted strategy to deny, dispute and lie about objective facts rather than take responsibility for what actually happened. It is now acceptable to flout ignorance of facts, be they scientific or political, in support of a particular world view. It is now common for bigots to not only come out fo the closet but to openly display prejudice while denying doing so. One is no longer a racist; one is a proud white nationalist simply sticking up for his/her heritage and cultural values.

It is like a kid caught out stealing cookies from a bakery display jar. When confronted about stealing cookies, he yells “says who?” When told that he was seen by several people in the act of committing the deed, he yells “who are they?” When told they are responsible adults who just happened to be on the scene he yells that they saw wrong and even of they did see right they are plants and snitches out to get him. And when his parents turn up, they angrily take his side of the story even though he has crumbs on his hands and chin. At that point the baker and witnesses just want to move on, thereby allowing the kid to get away with his misbehaviour. So it is with Trump and an ever growing number of people enamoured by his type of approach to facts that do not accord with his notion of a preferred reality.

New Zealand has so far been largely spared the ignominy of embracing the post-truth moment. But if the actions of certain ideological circles are an indication, the introduction of Bannon-style politics is on its way, at least in terms of using fake news to cloud public perceptions of what is fact and what is not.

For the time being I remain confident that Kiwis have the ability to identify and call out the BS artists and purveyors of mistruths. And I am reminded of something that I have said to my children over the years as they came of age and found it difficult to discern fact from fiction when reality is contested:

“May your path be that of the gentle warrior, steeled by conviction. And may your eyes always shine brightly with the beacon of truth.”

In Iraq, the NZDF is there but not “there.”

datePosted on 11:22, February 12th, 2018 by Pablo

Recently I was approached by reporters to comment on a report by Harmeet Sooden that reveals that NZDF activities in Iraq extend well beyond what has publicly been acknowledged.  You can read his report here. My back and forth with the reporters eventuated in an op ed (ironic, given the content of my previous post), the gist of which is below.  As readers will see, my concerns are not so much about the mission as they are about the lack of transparency on the part of the NZDF and the previous government as to what the deployment really involves.

Ethically and practically speaking, there is no real problem with what the NZDF is doing in Iraq, including the undisclosed or downplayed aspects. It is a way for the NZDF to hone its skills (to include combat skills), increase its capabilities, enhance its professional reputation and more seamlessly integrate and operate with allied forces and equipment, as well as demonstrate that NZ is willing to do its part as a good international citizen. The cause (fighting Daesh) is just, even if the context and conditions in which the war is prosecuted are prone to unintended consequences and sequels that blur the distinction between a good fight and a debacle. The issue is whether the benefits of participating in the anti-Daesh coalition outweigh the costs of being associated with foreign military intervention in a region in which NZ has traditionally been perceived as neutral and as a trustworthy independent diplomatic and trading partner. The statements of coalition partners (especially the ADF) demonstrate that they believe that the mission has been worthwhile for the reasons I noted.

Some will say that the disclosure of the NZDF “advise and assist” role in Iraq is evidence of “mission creep.’ In reality this was envisioned from the very beginning of the NZDF involvement in the anti-Daesh coalition. The training mission at Camp Taji, although a core of the NZDF participation in the coalition, also provided a convenient cover for other activities. These were generally disclosed in the months following the first deployment (TGT-1) in theatre, and it was only during TGT-5 and TGT-6 in 2016-17 that the advise and assist role was openly acknowledged. In practice, military training such as that conducted by the NZDF in Iraq does not stop after six weeks behind the barbed wire at Taji, so some advise and assist operations in live fire conditions were likely conducted before what has been publicly acknowledged (perhaps during the battles of Tikrit and Falluja or other “clearing” missions in Anbar Province).

The extended advisory role “outside the wire” is particularly true for small unit counter-insurgency operations. That was known from the start.  So it is not so much a case of NZDF mission creep as it is planned mission expansion.

NZDF collection of biometric data is only troublesome because of who it is shared with. The Iraqi authorities are unreliable when it comes to using it neutrally and professionally, so sharing with them or the ISF is problematic. Biometric information shared with NZ intelligence agencies can be very useful in vetting foreign travellers to NZ, including migrants and refugees. But again, whereas the use of such data can be expected to be professional in nature when it comes to NZ and its military allies, the whole issue of biometric data sharing with any Middle Eastern regime is fraught, to say the least.

The reasons for the National government’s reluctance to be fully transparent about the true nature of the NZDF commitment in Iraq are both practical and political.

Practically speaking, denying or minimizing of NZDF involvement in combat activities, to include intelligence and other support functions, is done to keep NZ’s military operations off the jihadist radarscope and thereby diminish the chances that New Zealand interests abroad or at home are attacked in retaliation. This goes beyond operational and personal security for the units and soldiers involved as well as the “mosaic theory” justification that small disclosures can be linked by enemies into a larger picture detrimental to NZ interests. All of the other Anglophone members of the coalition (the US, UK, Australia and Canada, as well as others such as France and Spain) have suffered attacks in their homelands as a direct result of their public disclosures. NZ authorities undoubtedly see this as a reason to keep quiet about what the NZDF was actually doing in theatre, and they are prudent in doing so.

However, foreign reporting, to include reporting on military media in allied countries, has already identified NZDF participation in combat-related activities, so the desire to keep things quiet in order to avoid retaliation is undermined by these revelations. Likewise, Daesh and al-Qaeda have both denounced New Zealand as a member of the “Crusader” coalition, so NZ is not as invisible to jihadists as it may like to be. Even so, to err on the side of prudence is understandable in light of the attacks on allies who publicly disclosed the full extent of their roles in Iraq.

The other reason why the National government did not want to reveal the full extent of the NZDF role in Iraq is political. Being opaque about what the NZDF is doing allows the government (and NZDF) to avoid scrutiny of and deny participation in potential war crimes (say, a white phosphorous air strike on civilian targets in Mosul), complicity in atrocities committed by allied forces or even mistakes leading to civilian casualties in the “fog of war.” If there is no public acknowledgement and independent reporting of where the NZDF is deployed and what they are doing, then the government can assume that non-disclosure of their activities gives NZDF personnel cover in the event that they get caught up in unpleasantness that might expose them to legal jeopardy.

It is all about “plausible deniability:” if the NZDF and government say that NZ soldiers are not “there” and there is no one else to independently confirm that they are in fact “there,” then there is no case to be made against them for their behaviour while “there.”

In addition, non-disclosure or misleading official information about the NZDF mission in Iraq, particularly that which downplays the advise and assist functions and other activities (such as intelligence gathering) that bring the NZDF into direct combat-related roles, allows the government some measure of insulation from political and public questioning of the mission. NZ politicians are wary of public backlash against combat roles in far off places (excepting the SAS), particularly at the behest of the US. Although most political parties other than the Greens are prone to “going along” with whatever the NZDF says that it is doing during a foreign deployment, there is enough anti-war and pacifist public sentiment, marshaled through a network of activist groups, to pose some uncomfortable questions should the government and NZDF opt for honesty and transparency when discussing what the NZDF does abroad.

However, in liberal democracies it is expected that the public will be informed by decision-makers as to the who, how, what and why of foreign military deployments that bring soldiers into harm’s way. After all, both politicians and the military are servants of the citizenry, so we should expect that transparency would be the default setting even if it does lead to hard questioning and public debate about what is a “proper” foreign military deployment.

The bottom line as to why the NZDF and political leaders obfuscate when it comes to foreign military operations is due to what can be called a “culture of impunity.” This extends to the intelligence community as well. They engage in stonewalling practices because traditionally they have been able to get away with them. Besides public ignorance or disinterest in such matters, these affairs of state have traditionally been the province of a small circle of decision-makers who consider that they “know best” when it coms to matters of economic, security and international affairs. Their attitude is “why complicate things by involving others and engaging in public debate?” That tradition is alive and well within the current NZDF leadership and was accepted by the National government led by John Key.

It remains unclear if there will be a change in the institutional culture when it comes to disclosing military operations abroad as a result of the change in government, with most indications being that continuity rather than reform is likely to be Labour/NZ First’s preferred approach.

 

An earlier version of this essay appeared in The Dominion Post on February 12, 2018. (https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/101327837/advise-and-assist-in-iraq-was-always-part-of-the-plan-for-nz-defence-force).

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