Monday, May 16

The worst part of the Ben Rhodes Affair: Metadata analytics meld with propaganda

So much has been written about the Ben Rhodes Affair since the news broke May 5 that an entire genre has sprung up, in which opinion writers express their opinion about what talking heads on TV and other opinion writers have to say about Rhodes and his decision to sing like a bird to a journalist writing for The New York Times (David Samuels) about how the Obama Administration rammed through the pack of lies known as the Iran Deal. But the show-stopping passage from the Samuels piece goes far beyond one White House initiative: 
By applying 21st-century data and networking tools to the white-glove world of foreign affairs, the White House was able to track what United States senators and the people who worked for them, and influenced them, were seeing online — and make sure that no potential negative comment passed without a tweet.
In his followup piece, published in the Times on May 13 (Through the looking glass with Ben Rhodes), Samuels makes the implications of the passage even clearer: 
My interest [in Rhodes] heightened during the debates over the Iran nuclear deal, which seemed to highlight the increasingly sophisticated use of digital tools by powerful interests — including the White House — to achieve their policy aims, a practice that both amazed and troubled me. The campaign to sell the deal, it seemed to me, had been constructed by someone very smart, someone with a real mastery of an art that I recognized immediately, because I had built my entire career on it and had also taught it for 10 years to graduate students at N.Y.U. and Columbia University: narrative.
Through a cascade of tweets, quotes and other social-media posts, a story was being told, with the purpose of motivating people to feel a certain way, in order to achieve a specific foreign-policy aim. The other side was doing the exact same thing, of course, but they weren’t very good at it — and they weren’t in the White House. 
Nor did the other side have the resources available to the White House. The picture gets even clearer as Samuels continues ruminating:
When a White House adviser — not Rhodes — mentioned a “war room” for selling the Iran deal, a phrase that disturbed me, I went back to Rhodes and asked what it was and who ran it. He arranged for me to interview anyone I wanted. They were all candid and factual. They explained to me how they had used state-of-the-art tools and a sophisticated understanding of the way information moves in the social-media age to sell a deal that they clearly believed to be in the United States’ national interest.
But why were any of them talking to me? I soon surmised that Rhodes’s motivation in allowing me to peek behind the curtain came from a disquiet he felt at the possibility, or the likelihood, that the machinery he managed so brilliantly would soon be in the hands of his successors, who might use it to do things that he thought could be quite dangerous — like goading the United States into another pointless, bloody foreign war.
Rhodes readily admitted to me that the work he does is a potentially dangerous distortion of democracy, but he also felt that it had become a necessary evil, caused by the fracturing of the 20th-century mass audience and the decline of the American press.
A "potentially" dangerous distortion? Screwing with the heads of Congress, the news media and public to hide the fact that the White House supported a foreign-instigated insurgency against the Assad government has been a dangerous distortion of American democracy.  And what does Samuels think the horrors of Libya have been about? The future that Samuels believes Rhodes fears has been in evidence during the years Rhodes has been part of the Obama regime.

Beyond the specifics of the atrocities carried about by the regime, which Samuels' profile of Rhodes doesn't mention or glosses, are the revelations about how the regime got away with the atrocities for years and the implications of this. Through metadata collection and analysis, propagandists can now almost instantly pinpoint even the most obscure criticism of their efforts if it appears on the internet and co-opt it through psychology-based marketing techniques disseminated through electronic media.  

That's the nightmare scenario come to pass: a genuinely totalitarian approach to controlling the perceptions of hundreds of millions if not billions of people, including those in the news media.  

From the eventual failure of Obama's use of just such an approach, totalitarian in this case doesn't necessarily mean the control extends for an indefinite time. But it can be total or virtually total for a long enough time to meet objectives such as gaining majority public, media, and congressional compliance with an act of war or a piece of legislation -- or a 'deal' with a foreign power.    

How to counter this latest abuse of technology? I don't know. I do know that a society can't last long if nobody trusts anybody in the public eye to tell the truth. 


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