Privacy SOS

On memory, self-perception, and the corralling of the possible in the information age

The world’s most powerful spy agencies aren’t content to secretly read our communications, monitor our business and social networks, stockpile our nude photographs, or track our physical locations as we go about our daily lives. They have also designed tools to impersonate the zeitgeist, thereby changing it—and with it, our destinies—without our knowledge or consent. As a result of these almost cellular-level manipulations, the production of culture, memory, and history is arguably more opaque and potentially totalitarian a process than ever before.

Our agency silently vacated by impersonators purporting to read with our eyes and listen with our ears, we are robbed not just of our identities and desires, but also, concomitantly, of a different future. And perhaps the scariest part of all is that absent the courageous acts of a young man with a conscience, we might never have known it is happening.

What is really real online? Only God NSA knows

States and powerful actors have been deftly manipulating our self-perception for a long time. Some of the gears of the memory-making machine are as old as the modern nation state, or even older. Governments of all kinds have always operated propaganda departments. The CIA has long cozied up to and influenced journalists, sometimes even covertly employing them to ensure coverage that advances the agency’s interests. Official censorship, too, is nothing new, even in societies that see themselves as open and democratic.

A lot has changed in the past five years or so, as information technology put almost all recorded human thought and science directly into the hands of anyone with access to a smartphone. But while the new information landscape—the internet—has opened up a revolutionary universe of possibility for the democratization of memory and history, the currency of clicks that drives most fast-moving knowledge production (i.e. the news media) becomes a glaring vulnerability.

Unfortunately, the totalitarian institutions have identified this vulnerability—a zero day in the code that produces and reproduces human knowledge and culture—and they have come up with a suite of tools with which to exploit it.

Documents disclosed by former NSA contractor and Booz Allen Hamilton employee Edward Snowden reveal that the British spy agency GCHQ operates programs to both seed to and disappear info-content from the internet. Taken together, the following four GCHQ programs have profound implications for the future of journalism, the open internet, and the possibility of living in a future that somehow manages to evade a techno-totalitarian information matrix.

“Change outcome of online polls” (UNDERPASS)

“Disruption of video-based websites hosting extremist content through concerted target discovery and content removal.” (SILVERLORD)

“Amplification of a given message, normally video, on popular multimedia websites (Youtube)” (GESTATOR)

“Ability to artificially increase traffic to a website” (GATEWAY) and “ability to inflate page views on websites” (SLIPSTREAM)

Covert dissemination of propaganda on the one hand and secret censorship on the other strike a dagger in the heart of free speech and democracy. But again, this isn’t new and isn’t a problem substantially altered by the new information technologies.

What's new here is the creation of an entirely false, subjective set of social and political conditions, crafted to propel into the future a vision of the zeitgeist that does not exist. The intent is to remake the future by tricking people into believing something about the present that is not representative of reality. It is the conjuring of a sold out concert no one attends, because they didn't know they purchased seats, towards the end of creating a pop star. No one has ever heard of them today, but tomorrow they are on the cover of People magazine.

It’s the impersonation that kills. The heart of democratic society is physically removed from the body politic when spy organizations not only influence discourse, but manage perceptions of public appetites for information. How can human beings competently self-govern if what we see in the mirror is merely an amalgamation of false consciousness and gaslighting, but which appears natural and self-delineated? In this world, George Orwell’s famous totalitarian descriptor “war is peace, freedom is slavery” begins to makes sense.

What happens to our understanding of the present and our recollection of the past when deep state surveillance agencies have the power not just to impersonate or to censor, but to actually manipulate perceptions about who is listening to what messages? What happens when the least democratic elements of a society secretly don the mask, and in the relatively shapeless, shadowy world of spoofed internet protocols, pretend to inhabit our own minds?

If the NSA—which presumably shares these capabilities with its friends across the pond—wills it, the most viewed page on buzzfeed.com is Cute Cats In CIA History. If GCHQ wants the editors of the Guardian to think their coverage of domestic football matches is as popular as their Edward Snowden leak stories, they can make it so. Editors will never know the difference.

The GCHQ’s advanced information warfare operations remind me of what Orwell wrote about censorship and free speech in his original preface to Animal Farm.

[T]he chief danger to freedom of thought and speech at this moment is not the direct interference of the [UK Ministry of Information] or any official body. If publishers and editors exert themselves to keep certain topics out of print, it is not because they are frightened of prosecution but because they are frightened of public opinion. In this country intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face, and that fact does not seem to me to have had the discussion it deserves.

Any fairminded person with journalistic experience will admit that during this war official censorship has not been particularly irksome. We have not been subjected to the kind of totalitarian 'co-ordination' that it might have been reasonable to expect. The press has some justified grievances, but on the whole the Government has behaved well and has been surprisingly tolerant of minority opinions. The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news – things which on their own merits would get the big headlines – being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that 'it wouldn't do' to mention that particular fact.

Other media critics, not least among them Noam Chomsky, have echoed this point for the past sixty years. Official censorship is unnecessary when access to sources, insider status, and identification with power effectively exclude those “particular fact[s]” polite, responsible media makers “wouldn’t do” to mention. Nonetheless, uncomfortable truths slip through the cracks. So what is a deep state entity like the GCHQ or NSA to do?

If the CIA tells a journalist it won’t work with her anymore if she publishes a story about torture, the journalist may very well run with it anyway. Her editors, after all, want juicy scoops—to drive page views, which translate directly into advertising dollars. If, on the other hand, the journalist’s page views for stories about Russian aggression in Ukraine are twenty times higher than those about CIA depravity and war crimes, she and her editors might reconsider how they spend their limited time, energy, and political capital.

If anti-Putin reports bring in the page views (and thus profit), but the CIA stories—which likely take much longer to report and pose significant risks—do not, we can guess what the journalist’s editor will assign her to write about. The story about torture was important, sure, but it didn’t translate into advertising revenue—and besides, it upset a lot of important people.

Henry Giroux describes the interplay between “erasing critical knowledge” and the “whitewashing” of history:

In the current historical moment, the line between fate and destiny is difficult to draw. Dominant power works relentlessly through its major cultural apparatuses to hide, mischaracterize or lampoon resistance, dissent and critically engaged social movements. This is done, in part, by sanitizing public memory and erasing critical knowledge and oppositional struggles from newspapers, radio, television, film and all those cultural institutions that engage in systemic forms of education and memory work. Historical consciousness has been transformed into uplifting narratives, box-office spectacles and lifestyle stories fit for the whitewashed world of the Disney musketeers. As Theodor W. Adorno puts it, "The murdered are [now] cheated out of the single remaining thing that our powerlessness can offer them: remembrance."[i] The relentless activity of thoughtlessness – worship of celebrity culture, a cravenly mainstream media, instrumentalism, militarism or free-roaming individualism – undermines crucial social bonds and expands the alleged virtue of believing that thinking is a burden.

If thinking is already a burden, our destiny seems much further out of reach in a world in which we cannot even be sure to know what we want. We are unsure of what we see when we look in the mirror. Do we want what we think we want? Are we who we think we are?

Think about it like this: What if cat pictures aren’t really that popular on the internet, and no one actually reads those Buzzfeed-style listicles?

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.