Series: What is propaganda in 2017 and how did we get here? (1)
Recently I wrote about Cambridge Analytica (CA), I’ve discovered since then that there is a lot more to this story than just marketing tactics and I will be writing a series of articles about it. What has led us to the likes of fake news, alt-facts, disinformation, and propaganda not only in the media but also in social media? Who are the players and who stands to gain? I will explore all of this and more with detailed research in coming days.
Michael Flynn is a retired American army lieutenant general and was the first National Security Council advisor to be appointed by President Donald Trump. He was fired less than a month later this year on February 13th, under a cloud of suspicion relating to what he said on a phone call at the White House to Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak. Mr Flynn told Vice President of the US, Mike Pence, that the call merely consisted of small talk and holiday pleasantries. The White House, upon analysing the transcript of the wiretapped conversation found that he had also had a discussion about sanctions imposed on Russia, for interfering in the 2016 election on Mr Trump’s behalf.
The US army was also investigating Mr Flynn about whether he had received payments from the Russian government for a trip that he took to Moscow in 2015. The occasion was the tenth birthday celebration of Russian Today (RT), a television network controlled by the Kremlin. US intelligence agencies have been warning since 2012 that RT is a propaganda arm of the Russian government. Payments like this, without the consent of congress could violate the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which forbids former military officers from receiving money from a foreign government without their consent. The FBI was also examining Mr Flynn’s White House phone calls. This was due to concerns that in his attempts to hide what was said in the call, the Russians could blackmail him by threatening to expose him if he refused.
Mr Pence was angry at Mr Flynn as he had defended him in a number of television appearances about the phone call and he wasn’t impressed with him blaming it on his bad memory. Mr Pence was dubious about the bad memory excuse because of a similar experience late last year when this time, he was defending Mr Flynn’s son on television. He denied that Michael Flynn Jnr, was behind the conspiracy theories, such as Pizzagate about Hillary Clinton on social media. He also denied that Mr Flynn Jnr been given a security clearance. He had been given security clearance even though Mr Flynn told Mr Pence’s team that he didn’t have one.
On March 16th this year, the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (House Oversight Committee) reported back to President Donald Trump, Secretary of Defense, James Mattis and FBI Director, James Comey. [PDF] They uncovered documents showing that RT paid Mr Flynn more than US$45,000 for his participation in the birthday celebrations as well as US$11,250 from a Russian charter cargo airline and US$11,250 from a Russia-based cyber-security corporation. They also uncovered a retroactive filing by Mr Flynn on March 7th with the Department of Justice. It disclosed that he served as an agent of a foreign government while advising President elect, Donald Trump. The filing reported that US$530,000 was paid to Mr Flynn for pro-Erdogan lobbying work in Turkeybetween the months of August and November in 2016. It is of note that on November 8th Mr Flynn wrote an op-ed claiming that the Obama administration and the US media wasn’t being supportive enough of Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. ‘It is fair to say that most Americans don’t know exactly what to make of our ally Turkey these days, as it endures a prolonged political crisis that challenges its long-term stability. The U.S. media is doing a bang-up job of reporting the Erdoğan government’s crackdown on dissidents, it’s not putting it into perspective. We must begin with understanding that Turkey is vital to U.S. interests.’
Mr Flynn’s lawyers say that they notified the transition team about his lobbying in Turkey but the President and the Vice President say that they knew nothing about it. The House Oversight Committee, requested information as to whether he’d fully disclosed his communications and payments from foreign sources as part of his security clearance, for his return to government. They also requested that the Defense Department take steps to recover all foreign funds accepted in violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution. On March 31st Mr Flynn told investigators that he was willing to be interviewed about the allegations but only if he received immunity from prosecution.
In 2010 as the top US intelligence officer in Afghanistan, Mr Flynn wrote a report about intelligence acting more like journalists. He lamented that US intelligence in Afghanistan spent too much time on attacking the Taliban and not enough on figuring out Afghanistan’s cultural and social landscapes. ‘Having focused the overwhelming majority of its collection efforts and analytical brainpower on insurgent groups, the vast intelligence apparatus is unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which U.S. and allied forces operate and the people they seek to persuade.’ And that they overlook data such as polling data, patrol debriefs, minutes from local shuras, and economic statistics that helps them connect the dots. ‘This vast and underappreciated body of information, almost all of which is unclassified, admittedly offers few clues about where to find insurgents, but it does provide elements of even greater strategic importance — a map for leveraging popular support and marginalizing the insurgency itself,’ the report stated.
This sounds very much like the Strategic Communication Laboratories Group (SCL) which specialises in behavioural research and data that drives behavioural change. SCL is the parent company to CA. Five years earlier SCL was reported to be the first private company to provide psychological warfare services, known as ‘psyops’ in the military, at a global arms fair in London. It believed that armies were prepared to pay for their services from a private provider and that it could shorten conflicts.
The US Army definition for Psychological Operations or PsyOps is: “Psychological operations are planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behaviour of foreign governments, organisations, groups or individuals.”
Bolstered by the success of CA during the American election SCL has lobbied the US national security services in the Pentagon about how its technology could be used to deter terrorism and to help assess attitudes about immigrants. SCL’s lobbying has been driven by a former aid to Mr Flynn and Mr Flynn is a former adviser for SCL. SCL recently won a defense contract with the US state department “Global Engagement Services” to work on “target audience analysis” (TAA) of young men in other countries who may be thinking of joining ISIS. The founder of SCL, Nigel Oakes also founded the Behavioural Dynamics Institute.(BDi). BDi is the research arm of SCL and its stated goal is ‘to assemble and assimilate the full extent of creative and scientific knowledge on group behaviour and the dynamics of change, and package it into a unified and workable methodological approach to conducting successful and measurable behaviour campaigns.’ BDi has a nine page white paper [PDF] dedicated to TAA ‘if you just want to understand a population, hire an anthropologist. But if you want to change people’s attitudes and behaviours, TAA is essential.’
Marketing has long been used by corporations to influence people’s buying behaviour but what does it mean if government’s use psy-ops to change people’s behaviour?
Tomorrow, I will delve into Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump’s husband, and the role that he played in her father’s election and more.