Monday, July 11, 2011

Propaganda case study: how government surveillance is treated by mainstream media

I compare the mainstream media's take in an article on new government surveillance measures and their function, vs. an article detailing the experiences of radical movements being targeted and surveilled by the FBI. Should we be concerned about a future of mass political surveillance in America? The mainstream media doesn't seem to notice anything potentially omious...

Two stories came out around the same time in December 2010:
A Washington Post article on mass domestic surveillance, emphasizing the “lack of useful information” from America’s new program and conveys an image of well-intentioned but ineffective outcomes in the  “fight against terrorism”:
An interview with an activist who has been targeted by the FBI and treated as belonging to “domestic terrorist” organizations, a label applied liberally to environmental and social justice groups. This is the real face of domestic repression and surveillance. COINTELPRO never ended.
    Most would agree that terrorism is worth stopping and that it may be justifiable to give police power to keep terrorism at bay. This will not be the main function of the Department of Homeland Security's massive new information-gathering apparatus, however. I will compare the two articles above on their takes on government surveillance. 
    Soon after the start of the Washington Post's article on the topic, it begins discussing the 9/11 attacks and refers to violent acts repeatedly, setting the tone for the article before it analyzes the program itself. This implicitly tells the reader that the new survillance systems are designed to keep us safe from terrorists. In reality, the new system will be used to target domestic activist groups in the US. Some domestic movements being primarily targeted by government counter-terrorism efforts are "eco-extremists" like the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation front. The FBI has described the ELF as one of the "top domestic terrorist groups in the country". Other, mainstream activists who do not use property destruction as a tactic are also being targeted by three-letter agencies even though they do not engage in property desutrction or illegal acts, but nevertheless represent a threat to the social order.
Judging from the Post's article, the reader would assume that DHS's program will primarily help fight violent extremists (and may well succeed if the right bureaucrat can get things running smoothly). But ELF and other activist groups would hardly frighten the average citizen the way dirty bombs or chemical attacks might. In this light, it should seem absurd to many that these groups would be grouped in the same category as violent threats, let alone be priority targets for those charged with "keeping us safe from terrorism".  
    Criticism of the information-gathering programs does of course exist in the Post's article, but within a narrow framework of debate. The program's usefulness and shortcomings are discussed in the article and the cost of the new system and its lack of useful information are lamented. Also mentioned is the unavoidable fact that there just don't seem to be many terrorism cases within the US to justify mobilization of police forces everywhere for preparedness to terrorist attacks. The mass accumulation of information in  Fusion Centers also suffers from a lack of justification with respect to terror since reports of minor criminal activity are the majority of content in the databases. Despite this, the article treats the program with kid gloves, minimizing privacy issues and other concerns. One way the new measures are implicitly defended is by the article echoing the false dichotomy between claimed to exist of "long-standing privacy principles [... ] under challenge by these new efforts to keep the nation safe". The notion frequently mentioned but rather unquestionedin media, where officials and other commentators tell us that there must be sacrifices of personal liberty in order to guarantee our safety. This quote also implies that the primary goal of the program is the serious concern felt by top bureaucrats with our safety.
    The fact that mostly petty criminal reports are in the system hints at the likely intended real function of the system, which is to be a domestic surveillance tool for criminal activity, as well as their legitimate political activity. This could be intentional design or simply a result  function creep which inevitably occurs when government bureaucracies are given big budgets, broad yet poorly defined missions, high hopes for untested and potentially ineffective technology (at mega-project scale), and unchecked power. Either way, political repression will be a major service the database provides to government agencies, for example the FBI, which has traditionally repressed progressive social movements
    Nowhere is it mentioned in the Post's article any concerns that social justice groups are being targeted by three-letter agencies in the name of counter-terrorism, despite this information being available online. These omissions, along with the the article's relatively neutral tone and lukewarm criticisms of privacy concerns in effect amounts to media complicity in government use of police powers. From a perspective of class conflict, the article performs a function of white-washing a potentially dangerous program instead of offering the real critical analysis that one would (perhaps naively) expect from investigative reporting.