Government’s Social Meddling

Yesterday’s conference at Harvard/Berkman suggested that humor or ridicule could be used as part of a social movement’s narrative or “story”. Although no examples were presented, everyone seemed to agree that a making “fun” of an opponent or position could be effective. I am aware of two occasions where this happened from an unlikely sponsor.

As part of the US Government’s “dialog” with Saddam Hussein, it produced a considerable amount of news feeds through such outlets as Voice of America and other media. Apart from the “western” news feeds, other elements of the US Government produced custom feeds to technology devices in Iraq. Such devices as telex terminals, FAX machine, telephone message systems, eMail accounts, RTTY, military secure communication, private WANs, etc. were bombarded with custom messages. In most cases the messages (in Arabic), poked fun at Saddam, personally. Visual content was in the form of cartoons, text messages were caustic jokes, and many were disinformation. In one case, a message included an order to Saddam’s Swiss bank (including account number, telephone numbers, names, etc.) to transfer several hundred pounds of gold bullion bars from the bank of Iraq to his personal account. All of the messages were fairly short, presumably they could be read quickly and destroyed. However, these messages were delivered to all communications simultaneously. It had the effect of a denial of service attack, with a dash of humor. During this period of time, the telecommunications ministry frequently changed account numbers and only activated some accounts at specific hours. However, media accounts of all types conform to international standards. Thus, it was possible to poll all the “vacant” or unassigned numbers. When these accounts became activated, they received a message. During this period of time, international record carriers (IRCs) did not have the technology to propagate such traffic directly. Instead, the US Government appears to have used a series of unaffiliated accounts through little used back channels of communication — normally used as redundant lines. Moreover, few providers in the USA had the technology to produce messages in Arabic. Then, only ASCII was available. It seems that similar programs were conducted “against” North Korea, Sudan, Syria. Some of these governments complained to the foreign press and a few obscure articles appeared abroad. When I was visiting the ITU in Switzerland, Iraqi embassy and technical staff were visiting trying to track down the source of this traffic.

Novosti Press Agency (Russia) routinely practiced disinformation programs through its media outlets and through direct delivery like the US. It’s foreign offices were involved in coordinating with movement contacts to feed them customized information. Much of the information was provided in Cyrillic. I remember receiving a call from Daniel Ortega who asked me to send him such traffic in Spanish. The press offices were part of the Embassy and not subject to traditional restrictions as all workers had diplomatic immunity. Movement coordinators were regularly present in Novosti’s world-wide offices to coordinate news feeds and coordinate on delivery matters. In these cases, Novosti had a world wide staff of about 35k employees stationed in Moscow and abroad. It delivered the news via satellite, through its own encrypted Ku band (geosynchronous) systems, and via all other channels — Telex, Fax, WAN systems, data links, undersea cable, electronic mail (AT&T/MCI/RCA WorldComm). It’s Moscow headquarters was a vast building with many corridors that stretched for 1 mile. Keep in mind that Novosti was only one of the official news media of the Government. It’s role was to release the “official” news of the Government as well as other matters. One of its little known functions was to feed party information and news to the world-wide network of “official” communist party members, who were linked to movement coordinators in most countries, including the USA. Novosti distributed politically inspired computer games that poked fun at US/SALT negotiators and US diplomatic efforts. It included humor pages in all of its 25 world-wide news media outlets and its direct publications in most countries. In the USA, one of these publications was Soviet Life, later Russian Life. All components of the “news” were manipulated to present the Soviet Perspective. Custom news feeds for “friendly” media outlets had their own political and editorial managers. The majority of cold war peace activists in most countries had some direct or indirect (clandestine) contact with Novosti including financial support. Today, Novosti is still operating. You can see its offices on Google Earth — near Park Culturi subway station. Its involvement with movements has probably not changed. Humor is a part of all Russian newspapers and magazines.


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About dpales

MIT Graduate Fellow. Research interest in cognitive studies, focused on mapping group and linguistic relationships in a causal environment -- i.e., does lingustic expression (i.e., language processing) permit a causal inference in real time.

One thought on “Government’s Social Meddling

  1. Pingback: MegaPost on #21M Berkman Workshop | Networked Social Movements

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