I talk to Max Blumenthal, author of The Management of Savagery: How America’s National Security State fueled the rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Donald Trump. We begin with the latest coup attempt in Venezuela and go from there to talk about anti-imperialist politics, the need to rebuild an antiwar and anti-imperialist mentality, and the hunger for such a perspective – as evidenced by the positive reaction to Max’s book – despite it being pushed away from the mainstream.
By Justin Podur (1)
Source: Independent Media Institute
This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
Who can we believe? Political parties and partisan organizations now present not only their own opinions but, as the old joke goes, their own facts as well. Are the Palestinians being shot at the Gaza fence trying to invade Israel, as the Israeli Army shooting them claims, or are they trying to protest their confinement in the open-air prison in which they are being slowly starved, as their spokespeople argue? Is Venezuela’s president Maduro a dictator, as Trump says, or did he win a fair election, as the country’s electoral council states?
The news reader faces diametrically opposed versions of truth, and on matters of life and death. A natural instinct would be to look for neutral, non-partisan voices—to find arbiters of truth that are not on one side or another, but seek only to adhere to matters of high principle. And what principle is higher than that of human rights, the idea that we all have rights solely because of our common humanity? Surely in the fog created by self-seeking politicians, armed groups that use deception as a weapon of war, and careerist journalists who climb the ladder by serving the powerful, organizations dedicated to human rights—like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch—can serve as beacons of light.
Sadly, they cannot. The very authority that human rights organizations own, their appearance of principle and neutrality, has become a commodity too valuable for the powerful to pass up. The result? Human rights organizations have sacrificed their credibility and become a sophisticated part of the U.S. foreign policy machine—or, to put it more bluntly, a part of the U.S. empire. Things have been this way for longer than most “people of conscience,” to use a human rights word, realize.
In his 2010 book Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights, author James Peck describes how Cold War U.S. officials searched for an ideological slogan that could rival the appeals to equality and anti-imperialism that were offered to the world’s downtrodden by communist revolutionaries. Anti-communism worked well enough at home, but it was a negative slogan—against communism, sure, but what would the U.S. be for? U.S. president Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski argued in a letter to Carter that a U.S.-based, quasi-governmental human rights foundation could promote “a worldwide constituency for human rights,” while being “insulated from direct dependence” on the United States, providing a voice “independent from, and in some cases more credible than, the U.S. government.” A broad definition of human rights, Brzezinski argued, would “retain for us the desirable identification with a human cause whose time has come.”
Human Rights Watch (called Helsinki Watch at its founding) came to serve exactly this purpose. Peck writes that in the 1970s “as Helsinki Watch worked closely with dissidents in the USSR and Eastern Europe, it found itself emulating long-standing American government practices.”
Amnesty International took a more independent path, focusing on specific practices like torture, political prisoners, and genocide. In doing so, one of its founders argued, Amnesty appealed to those “tired of the polarized thinking which is the result of the Cold War… but who are deeply concerned with those who are suffering simply because they are suffering.” But despite this beginning of trying to find and appeal to universals and avoid contentious and partisan issues, Amnesty quickly found itself in the middle of just such a controversy: according to Amnesty’s definition, prisoners of conscience could not be advocates of violence; Nelson Mandela hadn’t renounced violence; therefore Mandela wasn’t a prisoner of conscience. In this way, Amnesty ended up on the wrong side of one of the most historic struggles of the time.
In practice, these human rights organizations consistently find themselves on the side of the empire, despite the contradictions and contortions that such a stance requires.
Amnesty failed to give Chelsea Manning the “prisoner of conscience” designation. Amnesty representatives told journalist Joe Emersberger in 2013 that its investigation was ongoing, and that it wasn’t sure if Manning had “released information in a ‘responsible manner,’” and wasn’t sure if the government was punishing her “in order to prevent public knowledge of human rights abuses.” By contrast, Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who led multiple violent coup attempts against the government, was quickly given prisoner of conscience status by Amnesty. Were Lopez’s violent coup attempts less violent than Mandela’s refusal to condemn anti-apartheid violence? Were his coup attempts conducted in a more “responsible manner” than Manning’s whistleblowing?
In 2006, Jonathan Cook pointed out how Human Rights Watch researcher Peter Bouckaert told the New York Times that “it’s perfectly clear that Hezbollah is directly targeting civilians, and that their aim is to kill Israeli civilians. We don’t accuse the Israeli army of deliberately trying to kill civilians… so there is a difference in intent between the two sides.” Cook pointed out that “just as Bouckaert is apparently sure that he can divine Israel’s intentions in the war, and that they were essentially benign, he is equally convinced that he knows Hizbullah’s intentions, and that they were malign. Whatever the evidence suggests—in a war in which Israel overwhelmingly killed Lebanese civilians and is still doing so, and in which Hizbullah overwhelmingly killed Israeli soldiers—Bouckaert knows better.”
This is an amazing two-step process: First, the human rights organization suggests that effects (vastly disproportionate civilian deaths) matter less than intent. Second, the human rights organization assigns bad intent to the weaker side and good intent to the stronger, claiming in essence the ability to read minds. The emphasis is on (presumably telepathically discovered) intent—which for the U.S. or its allies is always good and for its enemies is always bad. The emphasis is away from disproportion, since the casualty ratios of U.S. wars are monstrously disproportionate (that is, the United States and its allies kill many more civilians than their enemies).
Such an argument, Cook goes on to point out, “legitimises the use of military might by the stronger party, thereby making a nonsense of international law and the human rights standards HRW is supposed to uphold.”
It also legitimizes the stronger party to focus on individual cases and avoid discussing the numbers. When human rights organizations argue that every individual case of torture or violation of human rights is a crime, they are completely right. But by failing to note that one side is killing 10, 100, or 1,000 times more than the other, they fail to bring their readers to any conception of who is responsible for these conflicts and where to apply pressure that could save lives.
There are more biases in practice. As the U.S.-led coup against Venezuela continues to unfold, recall HRW’s performance last month when the organization endorsed the U.S. attempt to force entry into Venezuela with “humanitarian aid” (Venezuela has been accepting humanitarian aid from other countries the whole time, while refusing aid from the U.S., citing the coup attempt). Adam Johnson from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting noted on Twitter that HRW “never technically endorse regime change but pass along every misleading, distorted shred of propaganda required for regime change then, when pressed on this, insist they’re just calling balls & strikes.” HRW’s executive director Kenneth Roth justified the coup attempt directly, calling it, “sad testament to… Maduro’s destruction of Venezuelan democracy that the opposition leader must resort to appeals to the military.” Roth’s obsession with Venezuela has gone on for years, during which serious violations of human rights and democracy in other Latin American countries, notably Honduras, were neglected by HRW.
Amnesty performed little better. On its list of 10 elements of the Venezuelan crisis, Amnesty found it in its heart to include as the 10th and final element, the “Damaging US sanctions.” The sanctions, which a U.S. official likened unironically to Star Wars villain Darth Vader choking someone to death using the force, may have deserved top billing, given its effects, which now extend to the theft by the U.S. and UK of billions of dollars of funds belonging to Venezuelans—harming Venezuela’s oil production, its energy sector, and even its health system.
The U.S. campaign against Venezuela today echoes the campaign to overthrow Salvador Allende in 1973, when Nixon ordered the CIA director to “bring the Chilean economy under Allende to its knees,” and when the U.S. ambassador to Chile told Henry Kissinger, “Not a nut or bolt will be allowed to reach Chile under Allende. Once Allende comes to power we shall do all within our power to condemn Chile and the Chileans to the utmost deprivation and poverty, a policy designed for a long time to come to accelerate the hard features of a Communist society” (quoted on Peck p. 57).
Inconsistencies in practice are matched by problems of human rights theory, as Amnesty and HRW are not against aggressive war on principle. The post–World War II international legal framework defined aggressive war as the supreme crime from which all other crimes of the Nazi regime followed; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared social and economic rights to be human rights. But past executive director Aryeh Neier of HRW argued that “the concept of economic and social rights is profoundly undemocratic” and that HRW “has never labeled any party to any conflict as an aggressor, holding that the concept of aggression is poorly defined. As Israel and the United States argued at the Rome conference in 1998… it is impossible to come up with a definition of aggression that is not politically controversial” (quoted on Peck pp. 95 and 227, emphasis mine). But aggression is no more poorly defined (and no more disputed) than other human rights concepts—genocide, democracy, dictatorship, political prisoner, even torture. The refusal of human rights organizations to oppose aggression leaves them in a demeaning position of begging aggressors to try to conduct their bombing campaigns in a way that minimizes harm to civilians—as any reader who grimaced their way through HRW or Amnesty reports about the Saudi/U.S./UK war on Yemen, or Israel’s bombings of Gaza, knows.
This is no way to take a stand on principle. But what to do? Discovering the bias of human rights organizations is even more demoralizing than discovering the propaganda power of social media. It is impossible to find a democracy and critical-thinking nourishing set of globally connected social media, and it is impossible for a person of conscience to find an unbiased comprehensive global database of human rights violations. On the other hand, the solutions may be similar: the creation of real-world connections, contacts, and ultimately movements.
In Ideal Illusions,
Peck contrasts the legalistic, bureaucratized, and ultimately co-opted
human rights organizations to the peace movements that rose and fell
over the same decades.
The alternative to these captured organizations is just such a peace movement: one that’s against war on principle, against aggression, wants to dismantle the war economy, understands the difference between the powerful and those resisting, and uses people power and not legal arguments and pleas to the powerful.
As we watch a US-backed coup unfold in a distant country, as in Venezuela today, our eyes are drawn to the diplomatic, military, and economic elements of the US campaign. The picture of a scowling John Bolton with a big yellow notepad with the message “5,000 troops to Colombia” reveals the diplomatic and military elements. The New York Times headline “U.S. Sanctions Are Aimed at Venezuela’s Oil. Its Citizens May Suffer First” reveals the economic element.
But US foreign policy mobilizes every available resource for regime change and for counterinsurgency. Among those resources, you will always find academics. The pen may not always be mightier than the sword, but behind every US-backed war on a foreign people there will be a body of scholarly work.
The academic laboratory of the Venezuelan coup has the highest academic pedigree of all—it’s housed at Harvard. Under the auspices of the university’s Center for International Development, the Venezuela project of the Harvard Growth Lab (there are growth labs for other countries as well, including India and Sri Lanka) is full of academic heavyweights, including Lawrence Summers (who once famously argued that Africa was underpolluted). Among the leaders of the growth lab is Ricardo Hausmann, now an adviser to Juan Guaido who has “already drafted a plan to rebuild the nation, from economy to energy.”
In an interview with Bloomberg Surveillance, Hausmann was asked who would be there to rebuild Venezuela after the coup—the IMF, the World Bank? Hausmann replied (around minute 20), “we have been in touch with all of them. … I have been working for three years on a ‘morning after’ plan for Venezuela.” The hosts interrupted him before he could get into detail, but the interview concluded that bringing back the “wonderful Venezuela of old,” for investors, would necessitate international financial support. Never mind that the “wonderful Venezuela of old” was maintained through a corrupt compact between two ruling parties (called “Punto Fijo”) and the imprisonment and torture of political opponents—amply documented but forgotten by those who accuse Maduro of the same crimes.
The Growth Lab website provides some other ideas of what Hausmann’s plan likely includes: Chavez’s literacy, health care, and food subsidy “Missions,” a growth lab paper argues, have not reduced poverty (and, implicitly, should go). Another paper argues that the underperformance of the Venezuelan oil industry was due to the country’s lack of appeal to foreign investors (hence Venezuela should implicitly be made more appealing to this all-important group). A third paper argues that “weak property rights” and the “flawed functioning of markets” are harming the business environment—no doubt strengthening property rights and getting those markets functioning again will be in the plan. If this sounds like the same kind of neoliberal prescription that devastated Latin American countries for generations and was imposed and maintained through torture and dictatorship from Chile and Brazil to Venezuela itself, that is because the motivation is to bring back the “wonderful Venezuela of old.”
A Wall Street Journal article by Bob Davis from 2005 credits Hausmann with being part of the original Washington Consensus in 1989, “the economic manifesto [that] identified government as a roadblock to prosperity, and called for dismantling trade barriers, eliminating budget deficits, selling off state-owned industries and opening Latin nations to foreign investment.” But before returning to the neoliberal prescription, Hausmann experimented with different economic ideas, including some heresies. If the WSJ article is to be believed, Hausmann looked at the data on Latin American economic growth decades later and found “Deep reforms; lousy growth,” and concluded that there “must be something wrong with the theories of growth.”
Hausmann’s academic work is highly technical, macroeconomic modeling. The models reveal the consequences of the assumptions used to construct them: at times there is some data fit to them. Others are applied mathematics exercises. A paper on 2005 “Growth Accelerations” looks for periods when countries’ economies grew quickly. An earlier paper, from 2002, presents a roundabout argument on the so-called “resource curse,” in which oil-dependent economies (like Venezuela) suffer poor developmental performance, arguing at that time that “more interventionist policies to subsidize investment in the non-tradable sector may also have a role to play.”
But whether it was written by Hausmann or not, the economic plan of Guaido’s post-coup government has no such heterodox ideas in it, however. It is difficult to imagine Hausmann or Guaido going against Bolton, who told Fox News that “It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela.” The post-coup Venezuelan economy will not be all about mathematically rigorous experiments in economic growth like Hausmann’s academic work. It will be about the privatization of Venezuela’s assets.
Hausmann might have a long and ideologically winding record of publishing models of economic growth, but he has maintained a passion for regime change in Venezuela for more than a decade—even at the expense of academic integrity. After the Venezuelan opposition failed to oust Chavez in a coup in 2002 and failed again to oust him using a strike of the Venezuelan oil company in 2003, they resorted to constitutional means—a recall referendum, in 2004. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the recall in the referendum, which featured then new electoral machines that did an electronic tally verified by printed ballots (still the system used in Venezuela and praised by former US president Jimmy Carter in 2012 as the “best in the world”) and was overseen by numerous international observers including the Carter Center. But Hausmann prepared a highly dubious statistical analysis to cast doubt on the outcome. Hausmann’s dubious statistics were cited numerous times. More may have been made of them had they not been thoroughly discredited by the US-based Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). Mark Weisbrot of CEPR summarized the episode in a 2008 report:
“… the political impact of economic and econometric research on Venezuela can be very significant. For example, in 2004, economists Ricardo Hausmann of Harvard’s Kennedy School (a former Minister of Planning of Venezuela) and Roberto Rigobon of MIT published a paper purporting to show econometric evidence of electronic fraud in the 2004 presidential recall referendum. The theory of the fraud was implausible in the extreme, the statistical analysis was seriously flawed, and the election was observed and certified by the Carter Center and the Organization of American States. Nonetheless this paper had a substantial impact. Together with faked exit polls by Mark Penn’s polling firm of Penn, Schoen, and Berland—which purported to show the recall succeeding by a 60-40 margin, the mirror image of the vote count—it became one of the main pieces of evidence that convinced the Venezuelan opposition that the elections were fraudulent. On this basis they went on to boycott the 2005 congressional elections, and consequently are without representation in the National Assembly.
“The influence of this Hausmann and Rigobon study would probably have been much greater, but CEPR refuted it and then the Carter Center followed with an independent panel of statisticians that also examined these allegations and found them to be without evidence. Nonetheless, the Wall Street Journal and other, mostly Latin American publications, used the study to claim that the elections were stolen. Conspiracy theories about Venezuelan elections continue to be widely held in Venezuela, and are still promoted by prominent people in major media sources such as Newsweek, even with regard to the recent constitutional referendum of December 2, 2007.”
Hausmann’s 2004 statistical gambit is actually an established part of the US-coup playbook. The academic analysis of an election and the finding of flaws, real or imagined, in an electoral process are the beginning of an ongoing claim against the target’s democratic legitimacy. The created flaw is then repeated and emphasized. Even if it was spurious and debunked, as was Hausmann’s 2004 analysis, it can continue to perform in media campaigns against the target. After years of such repetition, the target can safely be called a “dictator” in Western media, even if the “dictator” has more electoral legitimacy than most Western politicians.
The elected president of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was overthrown in a US-backed coup in 2004. Haiti’s Hausmann was an academic named James Morrell. After Aristide won reelection in 2001 in a landslide, he stood poised to make major legislative moves on behalf of the country’s poor majority. Morrell published an article about how Aristide had “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory,” because of irregularities in the election of eight senators (out of 19, 18 of which were won by candidates from Aristide’s party): only the votes of the top four candidates in the senatorial elections were counted for these senate seats. These senators would have won regardless of the methodology used, but these supposed irregularities were enough to initiate the financial punishment of Aristide’s government: the suspension of Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) financing, to the tune of $150 million. All eight senators were made to vacate their seats, but the IADB never provided the loan. Morrell’s article played a key role as the intellectual backing for the attack on the Aristide government’s legitimacy, despite Aristide’s overwhelming victory in the 2001 election and the contrived nature of the “irregularities” in the senate seats.
The coup against Aristide unfolded over a period of years: economic warfare, paramilitary violence, and the eventual kidnapping of Aristide from the palace were the tactics of choice in that regime change. But the academics preceded the coup, and followed it, providing justifications and obfuscations of what was happening in the post-coup, counterinsurgency violence.
Latin American social violence has even longer-running academic underpinnings. Today, Colombia’s president, Iván Duque (the protégé of the previous warlord-president Álvaro Uribe Vélez), leads the call for regime change in Venezuela. Duque’s country was reshaped by a multigenerational civil war during which the countryside was depopulated, through paramilitary violence, of millions of peasants (many of them Afro-Colombian or Indigenous). The academic theorist behind this was the Canadian-born, US “new dealer” Lauchlin Currie, whose theory (summarized by academic James Brittain in a 2005 article), called “accelerated development,” was that “the displacement of rural populations from the countryside and their relocation to the urban industrial centers would generate agricultural growth and technological improvements for Colombia’s economy.” Currie implemented these ideas as the director of the foreign mission of the World Bank from 1950, and as adviser to successive Colombian presidents. Today Colombia continues to suffer from Currie’s academic theories. Despite the peace deal of 2016, it has the largest internally displaced population in the hemisphere.
John Maynard Keynes wrote that “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.”
As Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton show in their article about him, Guaido is just such a practical man, a US-foundation-funded street fighter for the rich neighborhoods of Caracas. But he certainly has use of the academic scribblers gathered at Harvard.
When it comes to suppressing the people of Latin America in their hopes to control their own fortunes and their own resources, the scribblers have a key role to play, as much as their diplomatic and military counterparts.
This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
In their book Manufacturing Consent, the late Ed Herman and professor Noam Chomsky described how a privately owned free press could function as a propaganda system that deceived its readers quite as efficiently as a heavy-handed government censor.
In their propaganda model, information about the world had to pass through a series of filters before reaching the media’s audiences. These filters prevented dangerous ideas—like democracy, equality, and peace—from reaching the readers of mass media. They identified five of those filters: Concentrated media ownership helped ensure that media reflected the will of its wealthy, corporate owners; reliance on official sources forced journalists and editors to make compromises with the powerful to ensure continued access; shared ideological premises, including the hatred of official enemies, biased coverage toward the support of war; the advertising business model filtered out information that advertisers didn’t like; and an organized “flak” machine punished journalists who stepped out of line, threatening their careers.
When Herman and Chomsky created the propaganda model in the 1980s, they wrote about newspapers—what we now patronizingly call “legacy media.” The “legacy media” still wield influence, but things have evolved far beyond the five “filters” they identified: ownership, official sources, ideology, advertising revenue, and flak. In our media environment, these five filters have become supercharged. And new filters have refined propaganda into something more like mind control.
The Supercharging of Existing Media Filters
Ownership of media outlets is now supercharged and superconcentrated. It’s not the four or five media companies, but Big Tech that determines what you see. And Big Tech is even more concentrated: it’s Google (which owns YouTube) and Facebook (which owns WhatsApp and Instagram). The generous can give honorable mention to Twitter, with its few hundred million users (which dwarf the reach the “legacy media” had). In recent years tech billionaires have bought media companies too, such as the Washington Post (owned by Jeff Bezos of Amazon), the Intercept (Pierre Omidyar of eBay), Time magazine (Marc Benioff of Salesforce), and the Atlantic (Laurene Powell Jobs of Apple).
Official Sources: Relying on official sources and the compromises needed to maintain access to those has long been a force behind media self-censorship. Media companies like Fox News have staked their fortunes on Trump’s ability to draw audiences to their networks. They have made Trump the ultimate official source and the ultimate news story. This has reduced the range of issues down to those that cross Trump’s limited attention span and narrowed the spectrum of debate (for and against Trump’s often absurd positions on the topics of the moment).
Ideology: Herman and Chomsky wrote about Cold War and War on Terror ideologies, but today’s ideological filter is worse than ever. Anticommunism might not have the force it had in the 1980s, but the New Cold War means that associations with Russia can be made to the same political effect as they had then. We also continue to have to hear about the importance of endless war, the endless generosity of police, the undeserving poor, and most of the other key premises that undergirded the media in the 1980s.
Advertising Revenue: The tech giants are advertising companies at their heart, and so all of the problems that came with the legacy media being driven by advertisers remain in the new environment. Two years ago a report out of Columbia University described the new business model of media, “the platform press,” in which technology platforms are the publishers of note, and these platforms “incentivize the spread of low-quality content over high-quality material.”
Beyond the boost to the propaganda system provided by the transition to a “platform press,” the new advertising ecosystem has led to an explosion of what could be called the fake internet: advertising companies can pay other companies for clicks; the production of content can be automated. Much of the internet, as writer Max Read puts it, is now “fake people with fake cookies and fake social-media accounts, fake-moving their fake cursors, fake-clicking on fake websites.” This provides the powerful with two distinct opportunities to mislead audiences: first, they can take advantage of the fake internet directly. Second, by posing as uniquely credible on an internet full of fakery, they can sell more sophisticated or subtle falsehoods.
Flak has become supercharged to the point where organized hate machines can be created and deployed against anyone at the drop of a hat, creating immense psychological pressure to silence independent voices. In November 2018, Indian student activist Shehla Rashid wrote devastatingly about both the organization of hate on Twitter and the effect it has on her:
“The hate that I get from pro-BJP accounts is organised. No sooner have I tweeted than hundreds of abusive, acerbic, mocking replies start appearing beneath—within 12 seconds, 17 seconds. It would be flattering if it weren’t scary. Also, there seems to be no way to avoid this. There is no method to the madness. Regardless of what I tweet, there is ‘instant abuse.’ It is not based on the content of what I write.”
This affects not just Rashid, but her followers on the social media platform: “If you want to genuinely engage with my post, you’ll think twice before replying to me, as it means that your day will be ruined by abusive trolls who will keep tagging you for hours or even days. You will find no support for me in the direct replies (except in the forms of retweets or favourites) and you’ll take whatever I say with a pinch of salt.”
Rashid feels stuck, as in an abusive relationship: “In times when electronic media has turned into a show of competitive bigotry, Twitter does provide activists like me with a platform to air our views. I have 427,400 followers on Twitter. This means that the trade-off between leaving Twitter and having a voice is too high. This points to a deeply abusive relationship that we have with Twitter. We have virtually been held hostage to its benefits.”
The New Media Filters
But the new environment has some powerful filters the old one didn’t. Here are three:
It’s Brought to You by a Cult: Earlier this year employees at Facebook described the ways in which the company’s performance review system, in which numerical ratings from colleagues are gathered by managers, leads to “cult-like” practices within the company. To get ahead in the company, employees must “act as though everything is fine and that we love working here,” even when they don’t. In authoritarian political systems, people must do what they’re told; in totalitarian systems, people must pretend to love the authority. Most corporations could be described as internally totalitarian, and so this may not be a “new” filter. But by recent reports, the most powerful social media corporation in the world is, internally, more totalitarian than most.
An Opaque Algorithm Controls What You See: Many researchers have pointed out how social media algorithms work to boost conspiracy theories, move users to more extreme content and positions, confirm the biases of the searcher, and incentivize the outrageous and offensive. These proprietary algorithms, which determine what you see, cannot be viewed, reverse-engineered, or understood. The media platforms that use them do so without any accountability. On the other hand, savvy political operators with resources can game the algorithm by creating ecosystems of links and platforming one another. This has been done so effectively on YouTube that, as the report Alternative Influence notes, the top 10 results for the phrase “social justice” are “criticisms of social justice from reactionary channels.”
They Have Hacked Your Social Brain: When you receive news on Facebook, even though it comes from a small number of corporate sources or advertisers, you are receiving it from your friends, and so it comes with additional trust that you never had in “legacy media.”
One of Facebook’s founders, Sean Parker, said that Facebook’s goal was to “consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible,” and that it did so by giving users “a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments.” The point was to create “a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”
If that were not enough, social media platforms can hack your mood directly. In 2014, it was revealed that Facebook researchers had done a study on users, manipulating their moods, to see if they could. That case was terrifying, and has long been forgotten. Repeated academic studies show that social media use is harmful to mood and body image. Reducing its use can help with mental health. That is why upper-level social media executives neither use, nor allow their children to use their own platforms.
In the face of the propaganda system, Chomsky once famously advocated for a course of “intellectual self-defense,” which of necessity would involve working with others to develop an independent mind. Because the new propaganda system uses your social instincts and your social ties against you, “intellectual self-defense” today will require some measures of “social self-defense” as well. If Big Tech executives can unplug themselves and develop their “real-world” selves, those of us who hope to resist should probably do the same.
This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.
Brazil’s president Bolsonaro salutes the American flag
Why is it so difficult even for huge countries with large, diversified economies to maintain independence from the West?
If anyone could have done it, it was Brazil. In the 19th century it was imagined that Brazil could be a Colossus of the South to match the U.S., the Colossus of the North. It never panned out that way.
And 100 years later, it still hasn’t happened. With a $2 trillion GDP (a respectable $9,800 per capita), nearly 200 million people, and a strong manufacturing base (the second largest in the Americas and 28.5 percent of its GDP), Brazil is far from a tiny, weak island or peninsula dependent on a patron state to keep it afloat.
When Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva won a historic election to become president of Brazil in 2003, it seemed like an irreversible change in the country’s politics. Even though Lula’s Workers’ Party was accused of being communists who wanted to redistribute all of the country’s concentrated wealth, the party’s redistributive politics were in fact modest—a program to eradicate hunger in Brazil called Zero Hunger, a family-based welfare program called the Family Allowance, and an infrastructure spending program to try to create jobs. But its politics of national sovereignty were ambitious.
It was under Workers’ Party rule (under Lula and his successor, president Dilma Rousseff, who won the 2010 election to become president at the beginning of 2011) that the idea surged of a powerful BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) alliance that could challenge the ambitions of the U.S.-led West. Brazil took steps to strengthen its manufacturing, and held its ground on preventing pharmaceutical patent monopolies. Lula’s Brazil accused Western countries of hypocrisy for insisting both on “free trade” with poor countries and farm subsidies for themselves. Brazil even moved in the direction of building an independent arms industry.
Contradictions remained: The Workers’ Party government sent Brazilian troops to command the UN force that enacted the U.S.-impelled occupation of Haiti—treating the world to the spectacle of the biggest, wealthiest country in the region helping the U.S. destroy the sovereignty of the poorest as part of its foreign policy. But in those years Brazil refused to renounce its alliance with Venezuela’s even more independent-minded government under Hugo Chavez; it defended ideas of South-South cooperation, especially within Latin America, and it made space for movements like the Landless Peasants’ Movement (MST).
But after more than a decade of Workers’ Party rule, what happened? President Rousseff was overthrown in a coup in 2016. When polls showed that Lula would have won the post-coup election, he was imprisoned to prevent him from running. And so with the Workers’ Party neutralized, Brazil elected Jair Bolsonaro, a man who famously saluted the American flag and chanted “USA” while on campaign (imagine an American leader saluting the Brazilian flag during a presidential campaign). No doubt the coup and the imprisonment of Lula were the key to Bolsonaro’s rise, and failings like supporting the coup in Haiti played a role in weakening the pro-independence coalition.
But what about the economy? Are Brazil’s leaders now dragging the economy into the U.S. fold? Or did the Brazilian economy drag the country back into the fold?
Brazil’s economic history and geography have made independence a challenge. Colonial-era elites were interested in using slave labor to produce sugar and export as much of it as possible: The infrastructure of the country was built for commodity extraction. Internal connections, including roads between Brazil’s major cities, have been built only slowly and recently. The various schemes of the left-wing governments of the last decade for South-South economic integration were attempting to turn this huge ship around (not for the first time—there have been previous attempts and previous U.S.-backed coups in Brazil), and to develop the internal market and nurture domestic industries (and those of Brazil’s Latin neighbors).
Yesterday’s dependent economy was based on sugar export—today’s is based on mining extraction. When Bolsonaro was elected, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation quickly posted a story speculating on how the new government would be good for Canadian mining companies. The new Brazilian president plans to cut down huge swaths of the Amazon rainforest. Brazil is to return to its traditional role of providing natural resources to the U.S. and to the other rich countries.
A smaller country with a stronger pro-independence leadership, Venezuela faced similar structural economic problems that have imperiled and nearly derailed the independent-minded late president Hugo Chavez’s dream that Venezuelans would learn to eat arepas instead of hamburgers and play with Simon Bolivar dolls instead of Superman ones. There, too, the pro-independence project had a long-term goal of overcoming the country’s dependence on a single finite commodity (oil), diversifying its agricultural base and internal markets. And there, too, the challenge of doing so proved too great for the moment, especially in the face of an elite at least as ruthless as Brazil’s and nearly two decades of vindictive, pro regime-change U.S. policy. Today Venezuela’s “Bolivarian project” is in crisis, along with its economy and political system.
There are other sleeping giants that remain asleep, perhaps for economic reasons. In the face of relentless insults by Trump, the Mexican electorate chose a left-wing government (Mexicans have elected left-wing governments many times in the past few decades, but elections have been stolen). But locked into NAFTA, dependent on the U.S. market, Mexico also would seem to have little option but to swallow Trump’s malevolence.
Egypt is the Brazil of the Middle East. With 100 million people and a GDP of $1.4 trillion, the country that was for a few thousand years the center of civilization attempted in the 20th century to claim what is arguably its rightful place at the center of the Arab world. But today, this giant and former leader of the nonaligned movement is helping Israel and the U.S. starve and besiege the Palestinians in Gaza and helping Saudi Arabia and the U.S. starve and blockade the people of Yemen.
Egypt stopped challenging the U.S. in the 1970s after a peace deal brought it into the fold for good. Exhaustion from two wars with Israel were cited as the main cause—though a proxy war with Saudi Arabia in Yemen and several domestic factors also played a role. But here, too, is there a hidden economic story?
Egypt has oil, but its production is small—on the order of 650,000 barrels a day compared to Saudi Arabia’s 10 million barrels, or the UAE’s 2.9 million. It has a big tourist industry that brings in important foreign exchange. But for those who might dream of an independent Egypt, the country’s biggest problem is its agricultural sector: It produces millions of tons of wheat and corn, but less than half of what it needs. As told in the classic book Merchants of Grain, the politics of U.S. grain companies have quietly helped feed its power politics all over the world. Most of Egypt’s imported grain comes from the U.S. As climate change and desertification wreak havoc on the dry agricultural ecosystems of the planet, Egypt’s grain dependence is likely to get worse.
The structures of the global economy present challenges to any country or political party that wants to try to break out of U.S. hegemony. Even for countries as big and with as much potential as Brazil or Egypt, countries that have experienced waves of relative independence, the inertia of these economic structures helps send them back into old patterns of extraction and debt. In this moment of right-wing resurgence it is hard to imagine political movements arising with plans to push off the weight of the economic past. But that weight cannot be ignored.
This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
I talk to Judi Rever, author of the important new book In Praise of Blood: The Crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front. We start with the inception of the military force that would become the RPF in 1980s Uganda and follow it through the civil war and genocide to contemporary Rwanda and the Congo. The mind-boggling deaths and atrocities of the many Central African wars and the central role of Paul Kagame are the focus of this interview.
After the 2016 U.S. election, Barack Obama provided some perspective on the U.S.’s growing fear of Russia; fear that has only grown in the year since.
“Russia can’t change us,” Obama said. “They are a smaller country, they are a weaker country, their economy doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy except oil, and gas and arms.”
Obama was appealing to an analysis students are taught in first-year undergraduate international relations class: the idea, espoused in Yale history professor Paul Kennedy’s textbook The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, that military power is determined ultimately by industrial power. Kennedy’s work is full of tables showing the relative industrial power of countries in armed conflict. The winner in each case is the one with more industrial power.
Table 33, Tank Production in 1944, shows Germany producing 17,800 tanks, Russia producing 29,000 tanks, Britain producing 5,000, and the US producing 17,500. Germany produced less than Russia alone, in other words, and far less than the Allies combined.
Table 34, Aircraft Production of the Powers, shows how year after year, the allies out-produced the Axis, by the end, by more than four times or five times. Table 35 shows combined military production: The Allies produced $62.5 billion in arms in 1943, compared to $18.3 billion from the Axis.
Based on the tables, the allied victory was inevitable. The tables don’t lie. Look at hundreds of years of war and in each conflict, the side that brings the most economic power to bear almost always wins.
Trying to estimate Russia’s relative power has been a Western preoccupation for centuries. One quote, “Russia is neither as strong nor as weak as it appears,” has been attributed to Western statesmen from Metternich to Talleyrand to Churchill.
Going through Great Power history looking specifically for Russia, we see phases during which Russia’s relative power expanded and phases when it contracted. Between 1815-1880, as the other powers were industrializing, they pulled far ahead of Russia: Russia’s GNP in 1830 was $10.5 billion, compared to Germany’s $7.2 billion and Britain’s $8.2 billion; but in 1890, Russia’s GNP had grown to $21.1 billion while Germany’s had grown to $26.4 billion and Britain’s to $29.4 billion. Russia had fallen even further behind on a per capita basis.
It was in this period, in 1867—when Russia’s rulers wondered whether they would even be able to get to their Alaskan territory should the invincible British navy contest them—that they sold Alaska to the United States. At the end of this period, in 1904-’05, Russia lost a war to Japan, a loss that surprised both sides.
Despite two devastating World Wars, Russia was, in relative terms, at its strongest during its Soviet phase from 1917-1991. Even in those decades, though, as Russia expanded its industrial and military power, it never came close to rivaling the wealth and power of the United States.
The post-Soviet phase in Russia began with the fastest loss of living standards for the greatest number of people in history. Around 70 million people became impoverished virtually overnight when Yeltsin imposed American-advised economic shock therapy on the country. In the 1990s, NATO expanded across Central Europe and reached Russia’s own borders. NATO military interventions dismembered Russia’s ally, Yugoslavia, and a U.S.-led covert mission destroyed Russia’s neighbor, Afghanistan, which is today occupied by U.S. troops.
If Russia’s might seems to be growing today, it is because Putin set about trying to reverse some of the post-1991 losses to Russian living standards and to Russia’s regional alliances. To the degree that Putin’s policies have been successful—in restoring Russia’s per capita GDP to pre-1991 levels by around 2006, for example, and preventing Syria’s state from being partitioned like Yugoslavia was—they are popular in Russia. This is a far cry, however, from making Russia (with a $1.3 trillion GDP) a challenger to a U.S. economy 15 times its size (with an $18 trillion GDP).
In 2017, the U.S. spent a cool 10 times what Russia did on arms; the U.S. budget is around $600 billion, the Russian is $61 billion. Russia spends considerably less than China ($150 billion) and less than Saudi Arabia ($77 billion).
Russia approaches U.S. levels in arms exports—the U.S. exported around $10 billion in 2016, while Russia came in second at around $6.4 billion, according to a report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. But it is still behind the U.S. even on this metric.
By other, softer measures of power, Russia has yet to catch up to its pre-1991 levels. In scientific research, in the early 1990s, Russia was producing around the same amount of research as China, India and Brazil, none of which were anywhere near the U.S. By 2009, 20% of global science publications were authored by Americans; 13.7% by Chinese; and only 1.6% by Russians. In 2011, U.S. researchers published 212,394 papers. Russian researchers published 14,151.
None of this precludes the sorts of Russian influence that the American public fears. Russia doesn’t have to have more scientific output than America to get compromising information on its president or to have informal influence over him. Russia doesn’t have to outspend America for Russian hackers to get a lucky break and expose embarrassing emails that influence an election.
But lucky breaks and clever spycraft are as easy for the wealthier and more powerful side to achieve as they are for the smaller, weaker country—easier, even. In the long run, industrial power is a better predictor of influence. America’s military bases ring Russia’s borders, not the other way around. America’s economic power dictates to the world, not Russia’s. And even if a Russian hacker group got a lucky break once a week, the fact is that day to day the Internet is monopolized by American corporations that work with American government agencies to maximize American influence in the world.
Exaggerating Russian power may help justify higher military expenditures in the U.S.; it may soothe Democratic party leaders who want to believe their electoral loss was due to something other than their own unpopularity. But it requires ignoring hundreds of years of the history of economic and military power.
The story goes that Einstein’s theory of relativity began with a simple question: What if a person could sit on a beam of light? A single inquiry led to an entire field of study, and perhaps the world’s most famous scientific breakthrough.
The late Ed Herman’s questions were less playful. They were about war and death, lies and power politics, but they too created entire areas of study. If properly considered, they can even guide us through the perilous age in which we’re living.
Herman is best known for co-authoring Noam Chomsky’s iconic Manufacturing Consent, which explores how U.S. corporate media operates as a system of disinformation. Written during the Cold War, the book challenged readers who understood propaganda to be a tool of the Soviet Union. How could a diverse industry without official censors to monitor what it published or aired, that was neither owned nor controlled by the state, be used for social control? Quite easily, as it turns out.
The world offers an almost infinite array of events that can be covered, and media insitutions must decide what’s most relevant to their audiences. In other words, they operate as an information filter. But how do they provide their viewers, listeners and readers with the best possible understanding of the world? Ideally, these institutions produce the kind of coverage necessary to make informed decisions about public policy. In reality, Chomsky and Herman discovered, they serve the interests of the rich and powerful.
In their propaganda model, the pair identified five distinct filters: Media ownership, which is concentrated in the hands of a few spectacularly wealthy corporations; ideology, specifically anti-communism, which “helps mobilize the populace against… anybody advocating policies that threaten property interests or support accommodation with Communist states and radicalism”; advertising, or the selling of audiences to advertisers, which can lead to any number of distortions and misconceptions; official sourcing, which often leads to self-censorship as media outlets become dependent on their access to members of the government; and finally organized flak, which allows lobbies to lean on journalists and outlets who deviate from the status quo.
Manufacturing Consent remains as vital today as it was when it first published in 1988. Anti-communism continues to dominate our discourse, even in the absence of a Soviet Union or communist China, while several prominent media personalities have made their careers decrying “leftist ideologues.” Media ownership has become even more exclusive, and the advertising model has overtaken the whole of society by way of Google and social media. Twitter mobs can be manufactured and mobilized; organized flak is now a matter of life and death.
Not only did Herman ask the kinds of questions that produced one of social science’s most compelling theories, but he served as a model of rigor for media critics across the political spectrum. The 1988 edition of Manufacturing Consent ran 330 pages (including appendices), 63 pages of which were endnotes. Its voluminously documented cases were always supplemented by quantitative analysis: the amount of coverage devoted to so-called enemies of the state was inversely proportional to that of crimes committed by the U.S. and its allies. This method can be applied to virtually any line of journalistic inquiry, be it war, economic crisis or a political dispute on campus.
Herman’s priorities were radical, aimed at stopping or preventing the most heinous forms of violence by exposing the media biases that facilitated them. Herman and Chomsky revealed as much in the preface to Manufacturing Consent: “It would have been very difficult for the Guatemalan government to murder tens of thousands over the past decade if the U.S. press had provided the kind of coverage they gave to the difficulties of Andrei Sakharov or the murder of Jerzy Popieluszko in Poland. It would have been impossible to wage a brutal war against South Vietnam and the rest of indochina… if the media had not rallied to the cause, potraying murderous aggression as a defense of freedom.”
Finally, Herman was relentless in his pursuit of a cause he deemed just. “Trolling” has many definitions, but when it comes to politics, it can most aptly be described as the use of bad-faith tactics to demoralize one’s opponent. Having devoted his life to exposing the consequences of media manipulation, Herman was immune to this mode of communication. He threw himself into intellectual debates with little regard for social taboos, and he gave it as well as he took it. (I learned this firsthand when he published a withering rebuttal to my review of the BBC 2 documentary, “Rwanda’s Untold Story.”)
In The Politics of Genocide, which he co-authored with David Peterson, Herman argued that Western media used the term “genocide” to quash debate about foreign policy, specifically NATO’s efforts to dismantle Yugoslavia, and the joint support of the United States and Britain for Rwandan dictator Paul Kagame. He was immediately labeled a “genocide denier.” More recently, in its obituary for Herman, the New York Times accused Manufacturing Consent of “having soft-pedaled evidence of genocide in Cambodia, Rwanda, and, during the Bosnia war, Srebrenica.” FAIR and other outlets were quick to point out that the book was published years before two of the conflicts, and the obit was corrected.
The zeal with which these outlets tried to smear Herman’s name could have made a case study for Herman himself. Knowing Herman, the study would have been carefully modeled, meticulously conducted, and revealing in its conclusions about the mainstream media. American readers would have gained a fresh understanding of their country’s propaganda system, not only how it works but how they can subvert it.
Published Feb 15/18 on AlterNet as: What Can Noam Chomsky’s Co-Author Teach Us in the Age of Trump?
Academics should be collaborating, not competing for pseudoscientific rankings.
At a time when federal employees are prohibited from uttering the phrase “climate change,” the right routinely attempts to undermine universities’ legitimacy, and tuitions have skyrocketed alongside student debt, it seems perverse that academics would further endanger their mission to educate and enlighten. Yet by embracing a malignant form of pseudoscience, they have accomplished just that.
What is the scientific method? Its particulars are a subject of some debate, but scientists understand it to be a systematic process of gathering evidence through observation and experiment. Data are analyzed, and that analysis is shared with a community of peers who study and debate its findings in order to determine their validity. Albert Einstein called this “the refinement of everyday thinking.”
There are many reasons this method has proven so successful in learning about nature: the grounding of findings in research, the openness of debate and discussion, and the cumulative nature of the scientific enterprise, to name just a few. There are social scientists, philosophers, and historians who study how science is conducted, but working scientists learn through apprenticeship in grad school laboratories.
Scientists have theorized, experimented, and debated their way to astounding breakthroughs, from the DNA double helix to quantum theory. But they did not arrive at these discoveries through competition and ranking, both of which are elemental to the business world. It’s a business, after all, that strives to be the top performer in its respective market. Scientists who adopt this mode of thinking betray their own lines of inquiry, and the practice has become upsettingly commonplace.
Here are five ways capitalist logic has sabotaged the scientific community.
1. Impact Factor
Scientists strive to publish in journals with the highest impact factor, or the mean number of citations received over the previous two years. Often these publications will collude to manipulate their numbers. Journal citations follow what is known as an 80/20 rule: in a given journal, 80 percent of citations come from 20 percent of the total articles published: this means an author’s work can appear in a high-impact journal without ever being cited. Ranking is so important in this process that impact factors are calculated to three decimal places. “In science,” the Canadian historian Yves Gingras writes in his book Bibliometrics and Research Evaluation, “there are very few natural phenomena that we can pretend to know with such exactitude. For instance, who wants to know that the temperature is 20.233 degrees Celsius?”
One might just as easily ask why we need to know that one journal’s impact factor is 2.222 while another’s is 2.220.
2. The H-Index
If ranking academic journals weren’t destructive enough, the h-index applies the same pseudoscience to individual researchers. Defined as the number of articles published by a scientist that obtained at least that number of citations each, the h-index of your favorite scientist can be found with a quick search in Google Scholar. The h-index, Gingras notes in Bibliometrics, “is neither a measure of quantity (output) nor quality of impact; rather, it is a composite of them. It combines arbitrarily the number of articles published with the number of citations they received.”
Its value also never decreases. A researcher who has published three papers that have been cited 60 times each has an h-index of three, whereas a researcher who has published nine papers that have been cited nine times each has an h-index of nine. Is the researcher with an h-index of nine three times a better researcher than their counterpart when the former has been cited 81 times and the latter has been cited 180 times? Gingras concludes: “It is certainly surprising to see scientists, who are supposed to have some mathematical training, lose all critical sense in the face of such a simplistic figure.”
An alternative to Impact Factors and h-indexes is called “alt-metrics,” which seeks to measure an article’s reach by its social media impressions and the number of times it’s been downloaded. But ranking based on likes and followers is no more scientific than the magical h-index. And of course, these platforms are designed to generate clicks rather than inform their users. It’s always important to remember that Twitter is not that important.
4. University Rankings
The U.S. network of universities is one of the engines of the world’s wealthiest country, created over generations through trillions of dollars of investment. Its graduates manage the most complex economies, investigate the most difficult problems, and invent the most advanced creations the planet has ever seen. And they have allowed their agendas to be manipulated by a little magazine called the US News and World Report, which ranks them according to an arcane formula.
In 1983, when it first began ranking colleges and universities, it did so based on opinion surveys of university presidents. Over time, its algorithm grew more complex, adding things like the h-index of researchers, Impact Factors for university journalism, grant money and donations. Cathy O’Neil of the blog mathbabe.org notes in her book Weapons of Math Destruction that, “if you look at this development from the perspective of a university president, it’s actually quite sad… here they were at the summit of their careers dedicating enormous energy toward boosting performance in fifteen areas defined by a group of journalists at a second-tier newsmagazine.”
Why have these incredibly powerful institutions abandoned critical thought in evaluating themselves?
The original sin from which all of the others flow could well be the casual way that scientists assign numerical grades and rankings to their students. To reiterate, only observation, experiment, analysis, and debate have produced our greatest scientific breakthroughs. Sadly, scientists have arrived at the conclusion that if a student’s value can be quantified, so too can journals and institutions. Education writer Alfie Kohn has compiled the most extensive case against grades. Above all, he notes, grades have “the tendency to promote achievement at the expense of learning.”
Only by recognizing that we are not bound to a market-based model can we begin to reverse these trends.
First published January 18, 2018 in AlterNet
In this episode Justin Podur is the guest and guest interviewer Dan Freeman-Maloy asks the questions. We talk about media, Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model, activism in a time of social media monopolies, and empires. The first of a series.