Monday, June 8, 2015

Spot the "Mocking bird"

What Everyone Should know about the Media

The title is derived from the infamous CIA campaign of the 1950s called the "Operation Mockingbird". It was(?) the propaganda arm of CIA to spread dissent, influence public opinion, etc. During 1950s, in its peak, around 3000 employees were working on propaganda efforts. In 1976, the then Director of CIA George H. W. Bush declared that CIA wouldn't enter into any paid contract with journalists. However, if it is the actually the case is anyone's guess...

In any case, a close observer could find the footprints of "Mockingbird" all over the media. Let us see some of the cases, which may make one suspect if the "Mockingbird" is still alive. 

Iraq War I & II

Perhaps the most well known example in the recent history is the testimony of Nayirah al-Sabah. Until her testimony to the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq went widely unnoticed by the Western Media. The emotional testimony of Nayirah, supposedly as a part of the campaign, "Citizens for a Free Kuwait" helped stir public opinion in US to support Kuwait in the War (Operation Desert Storm). It is also alleged that she was paid by CIA to take acting lessons

Similarly, in the lead up to the Iraq War of 2003, Western media was whipping up mass hysteria and paranoia about the WMD in Iraq. Only after the war, at the cost many US lives and its allies', it was found that Iraq had none. While over 4000 US life were lost, some were extremely benefitted. I followed up the news to ExxonMobils website and apparently it is having a couple of affiliates in Iraq but I'm not sure if these oil companies shared their profit with the deceased, after all its the death of the service men which led to their profits, isn't it?

Interestingly, during the 1990s and in 2002, US was experiencing recession and unemployment was high. Can the occurrence of such incidents twice be coincidence?


In 2014, AP exposed the secret US program aimed at encouraging Cuban Youth to revolt against the countries communist government. In 2010, US Agency for International Development (USAID) created a text only social networking and microblogging service called "Zunzeo" (in cuban slang referring to a hummingbird's call) through a complex network of shell companies in Cayman Islands. The US Govt. obtained the phone numbers of some 40000 Cuban youths, who would form the seed subscribers for the program. Though no details is available on how the phone numbers were obtained, it is suspected to be through covert means. While the programs objective was to slowly grow the network until it reaches a critical mass to foment "Cuban Spring", it was retired without notice in 2012, ostensibly due to the expiration of funds.

While the reception of "Zunzeo" among Cuban Youths and the "actual" reasons for its retirement is anyone's guess, it demonstrates US mastery over social networking. However, US is not alone in this. The UK's top secret STRAP COMINT unit of the GCHQ is similarly manipulating posts to go "viral". Thanks to Mr. Snowden the UK's capabilities of social network manipulation came to fore. The documents along with the exposure of Zunzeo reveals how aggressively the Western Govt. are exploiting Internet as a means to manipulate public sentiments both within and abroad to suit their interests.

Indian Elections

While manipulating social networks for propaganda is organized by secret Govt. programs in the West, it seems Indian politicians are masters in that as well. The recent victories of Mr. Modi and Mr. Kejriwal is largely attributed to their adept manipulation of public sentiments through social networks. Mr. Modi has been cultivating NRI and upper middle class' networks for quite some time since his time as the Chief Minister of Gujarat. This network aided him to project himself as a leader of change though other states such as TamilNadu and Andhra Pradesh had better GDP, and was rated high in Human Development index than Gujarat. Wikileaks leak that he is incorruptible helped to secure public sentiments in his favour. However, the series of tweets later by Wikileaks that it never described Mr. Modi as incorruptible, never reached Indian ears. Thanks to Mr. Modi's vast network and effective propaganda. Another personality who rose to power by piggy-backing on the anti-corruption sentiment and Mr. Hazare's anti-corruption movement is Mr. Kejriwal. His party too have used social network extensively for its propaganda. The use of social networks for political propaganda are also effective in circumventing the restrictions imposed by the Election Commission of India (ECI) on Electoral spending since these restrictions only come to existence after the declaration of elections and since ECI currently don't have a means to estimate expenses in such propaganda.

Source: Cover image of The Bane of Ethical Journalism
It should also be noted that, unlike Western Media, Indian media is already for sale. Between 2009 - 2013, ECI registered 1400 cases of paid-news where politicians paid print and television media to run favourable stories on them. Some media, is also embarking on extortion of industries/celebrities by threatening to run stories against them.  Thankfully, Indian public were usually adept and they hardly believed the media. But apparently, the situation is currently changing with the rise of urban youth who thinks less but are more busy forwarding funny pics. These youths with large social networks but with least capabilities to separate "grain from husks" are likely to be the target of present and future social manipulation by foreign countries/companies. With its huge population, India is at the risk of attaining "critical mass" in a very short period of time.

Canadian Politics

Recently, I published post on Mr. Harper using Islamophobia and Xenophobia to divert public attention from the failure of his economic policies.  Mr. Harper's intention to spend over 200 million Canadian dollars in a fight against ISIS also closely resembles the US' actions against Iraq in 2003. Prior to attack, as mentioned before, US used its media to whip up mass hysteria. Similarly, Mr. Harper used the two lone attacks in Canada to whip-up Islamophobia, which in addition to encouraging racism provided him a basis to intervene in Iraq. The attempt was so successful that there was no public sentiment against him for the intervention which costed Canadian public over 200 Million CAD, which could have been used to generate more Canadian jobs. Just think about it, assuming that an average person makes 1 million during his effective lifetime, the amount means a close of 200 jobs. However, when these dollars are invested to encourage industries, more than just 200 jobs would be created. When looked from the perspective of beneficiaries of Canada's action in Iraq, it seems some oil companies do have interests in the region. In addition, the prolonged crisis in Iraq is likely to boost the profits of Canada's domestic oil sector. In other words, Canadian public (federal and provincial) lost their jobs so that certain parties could make billions. However, there was no public response, thanks to the effective propaganda machinery of Mr. Harper.

In Canadian politics, Mr. Harper, is not alone in using media to push is agenda. Ms. Wynne, the premier of Ontario is also similarly using media to push her agenda on Sex Education. In my recent post, I described how Mr. Wynne is using the ignorance of teens to her advantage while diverting the public from asking pertinent questions. Her only defence is that parents could opt their children out of those subjects. What didn't she tell and what the public failed to ask is the efficacy of that measure, given that the children are now highly social-media savvy. Just imagine, how difficult it is for a student to keep her mobile open transferring the content of his/her sex-education to those students whose parents had opted out of those course. In that situation, the students who are not in the course are likely to err more given their natural curiosity and prurience at that age, which would eventually justify her curriculum. In effect, using media she had not only diverted public opinion but she is effectively manipulating the thought process itself

"Mocking Bird" everywhere

This phenomenon of manipulating or controlling media to manipulate public opinion is not limited to US and its allies alone.  China from the time of Mao is effective in using its propaganda to shape its public opinion. It even controls religion so that no other opinion creeps into public minds but its own. Censorship of foreign media criticizing it human rights abuses in Tibet or Xinjiang are also part of its strategy to prevent foreign media from sowing dissent in Chinese minds. In other words, China seeks to control what its people sees, hears or thinks. However, its propaganda machinery is not limited to its territory alone.  Its media, particularly Global Times, has been quite aggressive in posts in response to any Indian activities in Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as its own as it claims the entire South China Sea. By terming 'Global Times' as a Tabloid it is able to maintain certain level of deniability. However, any one with some insights in how China operates would hardly believe it. However, recently there has been news of China's propaganda officials heading Chinese journalism schools. Taking a cue from China, Mr. Modi's Govt. too seems to be interested in training journalists in propaganda. If this phenomena continues unabated, the public could hardly believe what they hear, whatever they hear...!

Spot the "Mocking bird"

The previous sections gives a glimpse of how the Govts./politicians all over the world is using media (conventional and social) to shape/manipulate public sentiments in its favour. This is not limited to them alone. Even industries are in the game (Ex. Vogue). However, could we spot these attempts?

It is possible, but extremely difficult... From my perspective, asking rationally right questions is the start. However, as the "right questions" itself are subjective and changes with the news, spotting the public manipulation attempts become difficult. In my perspective, the following questions could help:

  • Who are the beneficiaries?
  • Why now?
  • How could the claim be justified?
  • What is not addressed? Why only certain things are addressed?
  • How could the news/information be proved?
  • What are the counter arguments against the said news?
  • How the counter-arguments weigh against the advertised arguments?
  • What is unstated expectation of the news?
  • Why this particular news is given so much attention compared to others?
  • How would I be benefitted?
These are just the some of the questions, in no specific order, that everyone should use to understand the real intention of the media coverage. The questions and analyzis become challenging and complex depending upon how the "news" is delivered. The very intention of this blog is to help people analyze situation and bring to fore those questions that were usually missed but, nevertheless, important to ask. The greatest of success of this blog would be how effective it is encouraging people to ask such questions.

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