Hard News by Russell Brown


If this was ever funny, it's not any more

Two months ago, White Press Secretary in waiting Sean Spicer said in an interview that denying of access to out-of-favour media organisations – as President-elect Trump had done for much of his campaign – would take America from a democracy to a "dictatorship" were the government to do it. Last week, the White House, via Spicer, did it.

A cluster of leading news organisations – including The Guardian, CNN, The New York Times, Politico, The Los Angeles Times and BuzzFeed – was excluded from an off-camera briefing which supplanted the usual televised daily press briefing. Reporters from Associated Press walked out after discovering that their colleagues had been banned.

This unprecedented move came in the wake of the accreditation of a kind of media organisation previously unseen at White House briefings. Among them are Right Side Broadcasting (which has commonly been referrred to as "Trump TV" in the past year). But most strikingly, Gateway Pundit has been accredited. If you don't know Gateway Pundit, you're lucky. Its founder, Jim Hoft, is notorious for embracing conspiracy theories so baseless and bizarre that even other wingnuts won't touch them. He is often consequently referred to as "the dumbest man on the internet". But he is reliably – actually, make that maniacally – pro-Trump.

As is the man Hoft has appointed as his White House correspondent: Lucian Wintrich, the Milo-style gay conservative behind "Twinks for Trump", who refers to the President as "daddy".

The intention is clear enough here: experienced political reporters have been having a field day with leaks from inside the dysfunctional Trump White House, and in calling the equally prodigious flow of claims the President and his spokespeople for the demonstrable falsehoods they are. Trump's senior, Steve Bannon, made it clear at CPAC last week that the press should be regarded as "the opposition party". Trump himself described the free press as "the enemy of the people". The last thing they want is to be held to account.

If this was ever funny, it's not any more. Lawrence Douglas was correct to write in The Guardian that the press ban is an attack on democracy itself, but his entreaty to Congressional Republicans – as morally and ethically empty a group as has ever been seated in the Houses – seems unduly hopeful.

The cap on all this came in Carole Cadwalladr's chilling Observer report Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media, which looks at the way the same money has gone into Breitbart, Trump himself – and a sophisticated big data operation aimed at persuading people with without them even knowing they've been persuaded. By, essentially, creating the reality the people paying the bills wish to be perceived. And not only in America.

Sam Woolley of the Oxford Internet Institute’s computational propaganda institute tells me that one third of all traffic on Twitter before the EU referendum was automated “bots” – accounts that are programmed to look like people, to act like people, and to change the conversation, to make topics trend. And they were all for Leave. Before the US election, they were five-to-one in favour of Trump – many of them Russian. Last week they have been in action in the Stoke byelection – Russian bots, organised by who? – attacking Paul Nuttall.

Cadwalladr continues:

Later, when Trump picked up Mercer and Cambridge Analytica, the game changed again. “It’s all about the emotions. This is the big difference with what we did. They call it bio-psycho-social profiling. It takes your physical, mental and lifestyle attributes and works out how people work, how they react emotionally.”

Bio-psycho-social profiling, I read later, is one offensive in what is called “cognitive warfare”. Though there are many others: “recoding the mass consciousness to turn patriotism into collaborationism,” explains a Nato briefing document on countering Russian disinformation written by an SCL employee. “Time-sensitive professional use of media to propagate narratives,” says one US state department white paper. “Of particular importance to psyop personnel may be publicly and commercially available data from social media platforms.”

Yet another details the power of a “cognitive casualty” – a “moral shock” that “has a disabling effect on empathy and higher processes such as moral reasoning and critical thinking”. Something like immigration, perhaps. Or “fake news”. Or as it has now become: “FAKE news!!!!”

The isn't just some crazy conspiracy theory. Cadwalladr has spoken with people who have researched this area deeply and in detail. She's drawing on US and Nato documents. It's happening and it will continue to happen. And, because the internet is everywhere, this isn't just a matter of backing one team in a foreign football competition: wherever this happenes, it happens to us too.

If this was ever funny, it's not any more.

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