Legalizing domestic misinformation

But would we really be able to tell?

An amendment that would legalize the use of propaganda on American audiences is being inserted into the latest defense authorization bill.

The tweak to the bill would essentially neutralize two previous acts -- the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 and Foreign Relations Authorization Act in 1987 -- that had been passed to protect U.S. audiences from our own government's misinformation campaigns.

In a little noticed press release earlier in the week -- buried beneath the other high-profile issues in the $642 billion defense bill, including indefinite detention and a prohibition on gay marriage at military installations -- Thornberry warned that in the Internet age, the current law "ties the hands of America's diplomatic officials, military, and others by inhibiting our ability to effectively communicate in a credible way."

The new law would give sweeping powers to the government to push television, radio, newspaper, and social media onto the U.S. public. "It removes the protection for Americans," says a Pentagon official who is concerned about the law. "It removes oversight from the people who want to put out this information. There are no checks and balances. No one knows if the information is accurate, partially accurate, or entirely false."

Um, guys, I think "entirely false" is the whole idea here...

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9 Responses:

  1. Preed says:

    "ties the hands of America's diplomatic officials, military, and others by inhibiting our ability to effectively communicate in a credible way."

    To quote a classic: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

  2. Stephen Harris says:

    If Fox News starts to sound sane then you know we've been disinformed.

  3. nooj says:

    So let me get this straight: When someone in the FBI sees online discussions critical of the government (or its future, possibly illegal, political stances), they want to be able to use shill accounts to insert "pro-American" commentary, to make sure people don't realize they are in the majority.

    And since all digital content is being stored and/or scanned by the FBI, I assume we can expect to see government bots with increasing regularity.

    Remember, kids: It's not about maintaining the status quo, it's about controlling discourse!

    > The Pentagon used software to monitor the Twitter debate
    > over Bradley Manning’s pre-trial hearing; the Pentagon would design
    > software to create “sock puppets” on social media outlets.

  4. Mark Welch says:

    Fox News is already a form of Soviet-style state television, so I'd say this amendment is simply a way to grant retroactive immunity for that and other acts of treason.

  5. Marcello says:

    You mean you actually have/had a law prohibiting the "government" to tell lies on TV?
    Has it ever actually been used?

    • Andy says:

      Yes, it's illegal (currently) for propaganda per se to be targeted at US persons. This has been interpreted in a fairly conservative way from Vietnam up into the current Asian Land War (parts one and two) -- the grunts (who write the actual propaganda to influence popular opinion in occupied countries) are trained to be aware that they should not target the US, with explicit auditing and reporting mechanisms to ensure compliance.

      I suspect that the rationale behind this current legislation is something like: "as currently interpreted, the law prohibits our propaganda machine from publishing if there is any chance that it might find a US target. So we can't publish on Facebook, or even on internet forums frequented by both US persons and Iraqis. This is breaking our previous operational model. Let's patch the law to restore our previous capabilities to publish to local audiences."

      Note that "propaganda" as used above has a very specific meaning; the US military has large sub-branches dedicated to convincing occupied civilian populations that the US is their friend. I'm not referring to political speech or to non-Pentagon executive branch bloviating.

  6. Counter-statement from Rep. Smith :

    Haven't read the whole thing through, but Smith is the guy who was pushing for the NDAA amendment to force the Executive branch to bring charges / due process against detainees... (no "government gets to secretly jail/kill you w/o telling anyone") ... so I'm not immediately assuming he's evil ... Anyone got links to opposing views?

    • nooj says:

      I'll make a link to an opposing view:

      Without an auditable reporting requirement, accountability requirement, fact-checking requirement, and a requirement to mark all propaganda as coming from the US Government, this amendment will be abused.

      if there is a possibility this language could be misinterpreted to allow a U.S. government agency to develop propaganda for a domestic audience please be assured, changes will be made to make sure it does not happen.

      First, I don't believe him. The US Government is known to go out of its way to "interpret" the law--something only the Justice System should do. Second, where's the transparency and reporting requirements to prove he is right? I see nothing in the amendment or in Smith-Mundt that requires either; and there is nothing preventing the US Government from refusing to disclose by a claim of national security.

      This amendment is intended to provide greater transparency... . Smith-Mundt restrictions limit transparency by prohibiting American citizens’ direct access to the government’s overseas communications efforts.

      This is what you call transparency? Transparency is when authors and/or authorizing officials take responsibility for content they produce. This includes an auditable trail of ALL content produced.

      Equating transparency with American eyeballs seeing the content is disingenuous in two ways: Because it is not transparency; and because it is exactly what the spirit of Smith-Mundt was trying to prevent.

      Adam Smith is trying to claim that his propaganda machine should be allowed to accidentally or incidentally reach domestic browsers and feeds because foreigners communicate using these media. He claims that if a few pamphlets dropped from a C-130 over Iraq float over and land on US soil, that's not so bad. He's wrong.

      It will be abused: eventually, a proverbial pamphlet supposedly developed for foreign audiences will be dumped into the jet stream over Japan and "happen" to land predominantly in the US.

      Finally, he assumes US propaganda is a good thing. I don't. The practice should continue to decline.

      (Quotes are from Rep. Smith's blog linked above.)