We’ve all become accustomed to hearing about Edward Snowden and the NSA scandal. In fact, it’s almost become a daily ritual: checking major news outlets and discovering new revelations which never seem to fail in shocking us about the extent and invasiveness of what’s been called the “national security apparatus”—at least, the reaction tends to be one of shock, though often without the surprise.
The latest chapter in the saga is the disclosure of a new document coming out of JTRIG (Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group)—a secretive unit inside Britain’s spying agency (GCHQ—Government Communications Headquarters). The document reveals an insidious effort on behalf of these spying agencies to infiltrate social media platforms in order to manipulate online discourse and destroy targets’ reputations.
“Insidious” might seem to be an apt description when one considers who the targets of such tactics are: online activist groups like Anonymous. In fact, it’s unquestionable now—the knowledge that western governments are devoting significant resources to combating and disrupting the online communications of various activist groups for purposes unrelated to defense or security.
This comes as a surprise to no one, but confirmation should not be taken through the filter of second-hand reporting. Open the document and read through it for yourself as I did. What you’ll find is an obscenity reserved for novelists of dystopian fiction: a secretive program using such techniques as “cognitive infiltration” as a means to influence how these individuals and groups are perceived in an online setting. Using research from psychology and the social sciences, JTRIG developed a method that uses a host of dirty tactics ranging from harmful viruses and malware, denial of service attacks, to so-called “honey traps” (using sex to lure individuals) to effectively destroy the reputations of those targeted.
This hardly sounds like the work of a benevolent national security collective looking to root out terrorism. It’s clear this effort is instead aimed at persecuting people for their political beliefs and affiliations. The threat of instant communication and online organization through social media has empowered activist groups and online communities, radicalizing their views and ambitions. The NSA and the GCHQ, clinging to the residual logic employed during periods of heightened anxiety over terrorism—the corporeality of which has yet to be persuasively demonstrated—have strengthened their participation in a global cyberwar, and there are precious liberties at stake.
But it still feels as though many of us are without a drum to beat in this war—without a cause to pull us out from under the apathy and disdain mass produced by a broken political system. Although the NSA debacle is providing perpetual fuel for activist groups and solidarity movements, the population by in large seems to be unmoved by what is surely the most damning case of government usurpation in recent memory—perhaps ever.
This is no less a media phenomenon. The media compliantly report on the matter through the prototypical corporate-establishment lens, under-analyzing and covering over important details through relentless punditry and the celebrification of key public figures. Government loyalists and benefactors of all stripes have made their way into newspapers and discussion panels to publicly chastise Snowden. One columnist in The Washington Post described him as: “smug, self-righteous, egotistical, disingenuous, megalomaniacal, and overwrought.” Popular and normally left-leaning media figures—such as David Gregory, Anderson Cooper, and the like—have attempted to conceal their establishment compliance under the misappropriated defense of “adversarial journalism.” Faced with the increased scrutiny of folks like Glenn Greenwald—the reporter who broke the story—as well as with the hard facts of the case, major media outlets have retreated into rhetorical distractions and defenses prescribed by the executive branch in a dire attempt to curb the blowback. Time and time again, as with each new revelation, they seem only to need more resilient tactics if they’re to maintain this pernicious campaign against genuine discourse.
But the media are relentless in their protection of manufactured controversies; and consequently the public are largely placated and ignorant to the full reality of the inner-workings of their government. It’s been shown that government officials have consistently lied to the public about their knowledge of the NSA’s surveillance capabilities. But little are we concerned. They have us indulging in the petty, insensitive trivialities of celebrity gossip and wrapped up in the charade of partisan politics. They want us gossiping about Snowden, Manning, Assange, and Greenwald rather than thinking about privacy, press freedom, and government transparency. Of course, these are the issues—among others—that penetrate at the heart of the matter, issues which the general public were plainly under-informed of, and had it not been for Edward Snowden and an erudite team of journalists, this important public debate would likely not be taking place.
Public debates frequently come with legal questions, and this story has its share. But the media is focused on the wrong questions, and again, on the wrong issues. The campaign to vilify and label Snowden a terrorist, traitor, criminal, etc. is plainly the tactic and focus of the media establishment; hence the discussion follows routinely as: what kind of sanctions do we levy against a person who “steals” a massive body of classified “intelligence”? Note the quotations, for what’s been regarded as “theft” is actually something quite different; and what’s been regarded as “intel” is actually the information detailing the illegal, indiscriminate bulk collection of the personal information of every American citizen and countless others abroad—needless to say—in blatant violation of the U.S Constitution.
This campaign against Edward Snowden is shameful and retracting of any decency that may exist in the establishment press. Glenn Greenwald has been accused on a number of fronts by the media of various interpretations of aiding and abetting, to whom an expansive lexicon of sinister labels is equally dedicated—“terrorist” and “traitor” being not the least bit underused. Irony has it that one of the central questions in this debate is over internet and press freedom, both of which are virulently being stamped out by corporate journalism.
Let’s not forget the point of journalism and the press: to hold leaders accountable, to check abuses of power, and to inform the general public of matters concerning all human life. To suggest that together Glenn Greenwald and Edward Snowden were not in service of these causes is an utterly insane proposition. Freedom of the press, government transparency, and intelligent civic participation—these are the principles worth fighting for; in a corporate-captured society, they do not come easy. It often takes courage of a kind that we attribute to the likes of Daniel Ellsberg and Chelsea Manning, whose sacrifices have carried substantial civil progress.
As for the charge of theft, the only thing of value that was taken from anybody was the little faith we had in our government and our leaders, and it was forcibly taken.