Rumsfeld and the Propaganda War


Donald Rumsfeld, in a recent speech made some extremely provocative comments about the new media and public relations:

Our enemies have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in today’s media age, but for the most part we, our country, our government, has not adapted. Consider that the violent extremists have established media relations committees – these are terrorists and they have media relations committees that meet and talk about strategy, not with bullets but with words. They’ve proven to be highly successful at manipulating the opinion elites of the world. …

They know that communications transcend borders and that a single news story handled skillfully can be as damaging to our cause and helpful to theirs as any other method of military attack. And they’re doing it. …

Today we’re engaged in the first war in history – unconventional and irregular as it may be – in an era of e-mails, blogs, cell phones (laughter) Blackberrys, Instant Messaging, digital cameras, a global Internet with no inhibitions, cell phones, hand-held videocameras, talk radio, 24-hour news broadcasts, satellite television. There’s never been a war fought in this environment before. …

The government is, however, beginning to adapt. In Iraq, for example, the U.S. military command, working closely with the Iraqi government and the U.S. embassy, has sought nontraditional means to provide accurate information to the Iraqi people in the face of aggressive campaign of disinformation. Yet this has been portrayed as inappropriate; for example, the allegations of someone in the military hiring a contractor, and the contractor allegedly paying someone to print a story – a true story – but paying to print a story. …

Consider for a moment the vast quantity of column inches and hours of television devoted to the allegations of unauthorized detainee mistreatment. Some additional photographs have come out just this week. This, of course, was an event where the policy of the president and the policy of the government was for humane treatment and was against torture. And there were some people on a night shift who engaged in mistreatment of detainees. So this week, again, out of Australia, I guess, some same pictures – similar pictures, same event – of people on the night shift, one night shift in Iraq, who did some things that they have since been punished for under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. …

So what does that all mean?

…our government has not adapted. …they have media relations committees… manipulating the opinion elites of the world.
In other words, although we have press secretaries, speech writers, focus groups, spin doctors, presidential addresses and the whole shebang, a few people in a cave who I’m glorifying with the title media relations committee are winning. Gaining the support of the opinion elites of the world, no less. Of course this is hogwash – what he really means is that the so-called liberal media, pretty right wing by most standards, don’t buy the administration’s line on Iraq being a just or successful occupation, on the need for wiretapping of US citizens, on kidnapping and torture and imprisonment without trial of terrorist suspects. No wait, they do buy most of that, just not the idea that the US is winning in Iraq.
…a single news story handled skillfully…
Oh yes, Abu Grahib. unauthorized detainee mistreatment. You know the evil media, no doubt influenced by those media relations committees devoted hours of television to it when it was just some people on night shift who got out of hand. One night shift in Iraq and they thought it was a whole culture of torture and sadism. Donald you twisted bastard, you wouldn’t be like that about it if it were Americans being mistreated.
…nontraditional means to provide accurate information…
The LA Times puts it a little differently: secretly paying Iraqi newspapers to publish stories written by American troops…though the articles are basically factual, they present only one side of events and omit information that might reflect poorly on the U.S. or Iraqi governments. Even the Government Accountability Office has labeled it “covert propaganda.” No wonder Rumsfeld chose not to mention that the US had secretly brought an Iraqi television station and a radio station – it might look as if the non-traditional means he’s talking about were propaganda.

It may be all based on feeling hard done by and misunderstood. Anyone who can genuinely feel that people overreacted about Abu Grahib or that the mainstream media are only critical of Bush because they’ve been gotten at by a few spin doctors on the satellite phone from a cave in Afghanistan must feel misunderstood. More likely he’s not genuine about it. I think he’s setting the scene for a campaign of propaganda using the new media. He didn’t go into it clearly, but he finished his speech with this:

During the Cold War, institutions such as the U.S. Information Agency and Radio Free Europe – just to mention a couple of examples – proved to be valuable instruments for the United States. We need to consider the possibility of new organizations and programs that can serve a similar valuable role in the war on terror in this new century. … I don’t know the answer. But I do think we ought to ask ourself the question: What should a U.S. Information Agency or a Radio Free Europe for the 21st century look like? … I noticed this week that Secretary of State Condi Rice offered a proposal to support the democratic aspirations of Iranian people through expanding broadcasting, the Internet and student exchanges. Personally, I think she deserves support in those recommendations.

Condoleeza Rice had asked Congress for US$75m to increase TV and radio broadcasts and fund dissident groups. This included US$50m to introduce 24 hour Farsi broadcasting into Iran by US television and radio, US$15m for trade union and human rights groups, $5m for student exchanges, and $5m to set up indepentent web sites, TV and radio stations in Farsi. Wall to wall Voice of America.

Personally, I think the US administration is making a big mistake if they think they can influence the Arab world by broadcasting propaganda, or if they think that they can influence the blogsphere by setting up websites which are mouthpieces for disinformation. For the first, mishandling of the situation in Iraq has made the US so unpopular and untrusted that the US has no credibility whatsoever throughout the Arab world. For the second, the blogsphere is a dynamic information filter which has built up an incredible ability to sift wheat from chaff. Ninety nine percent of all information in the blogsphere is already disinformation, lies, ramblings of right wing nutters, conspiracy theories of left wing nutters, or carefully crafted fantasy. All this and the one percent which contains a grain of truth is ceaselessly repeated, checked, elaborated on, lied about, and rehashed. But users of the blogsphere have their bullshit detectors at full power, and they build up, each one of them, a picture over time of who they can trust, how much, and about what. No user believes the same as another or trusts the same sources, but each creates from the sea of information their own small stream of truth. Against this the spin doctors are guppies.

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