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Weaponized Free Speech

Knowing the Enemy: The anthropology of insurgency, by George Packer, is an insightful article in the current New Yorker (Dec 18, 2006). He discusses how the information / propaganda / media component of any fight has become hugely important, and how insurgents / freedom fighters / terrorists around the world have been quicker to use the new tool than established armies.

‘Just before the 2004 American elections … [in] Bin Laden’s public statements … that offered a list of grievances against America: Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, global warming. … The odd inclusion of environmentalist rhetoric … made clear that “this wasn’t a genuine list of grievances. This was an Al Qaeda information strategy.” … Bin Laden shrewdly created an implicit association between Al Qaeda and the Democratic Party, for he had come to feel that Bush’s strategy in the war on terror was sustaining his own global importance. … Al Qaeda’s core leadership had become a propaganda hub.”‘ [italics in original]

(Of course, they’re a propaganda hub, but I think he means that the propaganda part has become more important than the blowing-things-up part. It’s extremely plausible that Al Qaeda is much less concerned about global warming than they are, for instance, about defilement of Islam’s holy places. And if one accepts that premise, then the inclusion of warming in the list is, indeed, very odd.)

An information strategy seems to be driving the agenda of every radical Islamist movement. Kilcullen noted that when insurgents ambush an American convoy in Iraq, “they’re not doing that because they want to reduce the number of Humvees we have in Iraq by one. They’re doing it because they want spectacular media footage of a burning Humvee.”

(I would add that “radical” is the significant adjective, not “Islamist.” The exact same thing, for instance, is true when they target abortion clinics.)

“It’s an information operation. They’re trying to generate influence.” [italics in original]

… The Afghan or Iraqi or Lebanese insurgent, unlike his Vietnamese or Salvadoran predecessor, can plug into a global media network that will instantly amplify his message.

(it’s always been about influence. However, to distribute pamphlets, you needed access to a printing press and–more difficult–a distribution network. Before that, people were limited by how far they could get word of mouth to spread. The only thing that’s changed is that the web makes worldwide publication accessible to everyone who can reach an internet cafe, and that governments don’t yet control that new conduit.)

In the information war, America and its allies are barely competing. America’s operations, far from being the primary strategy simply support military actions, and often badly …. On a recent visit to Nigeria, Barton heard that American propaganda efforts are being outclassed by those of the Iranians and the Saudis. “What would Pepsi-Cola or Disney do?” he asked. “We’re not thinking creatively, expansively. We are sclerotic, bureaucratic, lumbering–you can see the U.S. coming from miles away.”

I would argue that they’re looking in the wrong place for effective US propaganda. It’s hopeless overseas. Domestically, it’s quite sophisticated. (I refuse to accept that this is evidence of private enterprise doing a better job than government.) The government’s fingerprints are not all over the news, and yet, even disregarding the Fox network which simply gets its talking points straight from the White House, the media as a whole are so enthralled by the party line that a (shrinking) majority of Americans still think the campaign against terrorism has made the country safer. (Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg Poll. Dec. 8-11, 2006)

However, that’s an example of slanting information, rather than using information itself as the weapon. There are ways of dealing with slanted information that involve more free speech, not less.

The bigger issue is not lies. The bigger issue is what to do when free speech itself is the problem. That isn’t limited to wily radicals. The US government has also used events to shape rather than inform thought. One needs only to count the incidence of terror alerts in the year leading up to and the year following the 2004 presidential elections for one example. Like mangled bodies around a burning Humvee, these things aren’t lies. The pictures aren’t doctored; the information leading to the alert may be sound. And yet, their purpose is not to tell the truth.

There is something very creepy about using freedom of speech to cloud thinking instead of to clarify it. There’s a lethal virus in there, somewhere, when free speech is used to steer people’s feelings in ways that bypass their higher brain functions. This is the same thing advertisers (try to) do, which I think is a huge corruption of free speech, but which doesn’t bother most people. However, even if you take advertising calmly, there is a difference between using speech to influence the buying of soap versus using it for the greater killing of people.

How do you cure this fatal disease? Publicity is the point of weaponized speech, and yet there is no way to say, “You can report on these stories, but not those stories” without striking at the heart of free speech.

If censorship couldn’t work, is there some way to increase the volume on the voice of reason until it matches the shouting of the savages? I don’t see how. There is no symmetrical fix. There is no way for reason to deliver a message that has the same punch as dead bodies. If it tried, it would cease to be a voice of reason.

The whole thing strangles up my mind. There is no solution so long as there are people willing to commit violent crimes / acts/ wars, so long as there are people who broadcast them, and so long as there are people who want to hear that message. The “marketplace” of ideas only functions when nobody brings a machine gun into it.

Technorati tags: free speech, propaganda, news, media, sensationalism, politics, current events