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Manufacturing opinions

Edward Campbell

Army.ca Myth
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This, reproduced under the Fair Dealing provisions of the Copyright Act from the Globe and Mail, is not, really, a "new" story as I will explain:

How a U.S. agency cleaned up Rwanda’s genocide-stained image


JOHANNESBURG— From Wednesday's Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012

For a monthly fee of $50,000 plus expenses, the U.S. agency offered a tantalizing prospect to the Rwandan government: a burnished image, a sophisticated media campaign – and a chance at “drowning out” those pesky opposition voices on the Web.

It was 2009, and the authoritarian regime in Rwanda was facing mounting criticism of its human-rights record. It was accused of censoring the media, suppressing freedom, shutting down newspapers and creating a climate of fear. So it turned to a public-relations agency, Racepoint Group, that had already polished the image of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

Just two years earlier, Racepoint had charged $167,000 for its role in a campaign to promote Colonel Gadhafi, whom it respectfully referred to as “The Leader.” It touted the Libyan strongman as a democrat, a reformer, “an intellectual and philosopher.” Compared to this, the Rwanda job would be an easy one.

The contracts reveal the increasingly high-tech tactics of the publicity war between African strongmen and their foreign critics – a war in which many governments are becoming more aggressive and sophisticated in their efforts to deflect attention from their human-rights abuses.

Over a period of 18 months, Racepoint created two pro-Rwanda websites, filled the Internet with positive stories about Rwanda, and promoted a new national “brand” for the country. It later boasted that its campaign generated more than 100 stories a month in newspapers, websites and television networks, while also producing an 11-per-cent reduction in online discussion of Rwanda’s genocide in 1994.

Racepoint’s publicity blitz on behalf of the Rwandan government, explicitly aimed at “undercutting” foreign critics such as Human Rights Watch, is an increasingly popular tactic among autocratic rulers in Africa and the Middle East. A rising number are spending large sums of money on U.S. and British lobbying firms and public-relations consultants for what critics call “reputation laundering” campaigns.

Racepoint’s contracts, and many similar ones in other countries, were quietly disclosed by the firms in their filings with the U.S. government under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, although the contracts were sometimes filed two or three years after they were signed, as the law permits.

The agreement between Racepoint and Rwanda, including a 10-page “strategic plan” for shaping a new image for the country, is one of the most detailed and revealing glimpses of how the industry works. The agreement said the campaign had several aims: providing a new positive “brand” for a country that was previously famous mostly for its 1994 genocide; erecting a “wall of defence” on the Internet to “undercut” and “blunt” the government’s critics; and “flooding” the media with stories of Rwanda’s economic and social progress.

“Once we have secured agenda-setting stories in the general political and business media, we will propagate the story on the Web,” Racepoint said in its agreement with Rwanda. “Eventually this will have the effect of drowning out the opposition and reducing the incidence of genocide-related search dominating the organic search (on the Internet).”

The campaign was aimed at defeating two main groups: Rwandan émigrés in Europe who oppose the current government and human-rights groups that criticize abuses in Rwanda. The agreement, which singles out Human Rights Watch for particular attention, says these groups “advance a story of an unstable Rwanda as a means of continuing to attract donors and wield influence in the region.”

Larry Weber, chairman of Racepoint’s holding company, W2 Group Inc., said he’s sorry if the agreement seemed to target the donors of Human Rights Watch. The goal of the strategic plan, he said, was simply to correct any inaccuracies spread by the rights groups.

“I apologize if it comes across as if we’re going after them or their donors,” he said in a telephone interview from his company’s head office in Boston. “We didn’t want to put them out of business.”

He also denied that the plan was aimed at “drowning out” the legitimate opposition in Rwanda. It was only aimed at “illegitimate” opponents who were spreading false information, he said.

Mr. Weber said he has “disdain” for anyone who thinks it is morally questionable for him to be promoting Rwanda’s rulers. “The campaign was to do nothing but to help them learn how to communicate more aggressively in a world that likes to throw a lot of stones.”

As for the Libyan contract, he said Col. Gadhafi was “not a good man” in the end, but he noted that at the time of the public-relations contract in 2007 the West was improving its diplomatic and business relations with Libya.

Racepoint stopped working for Rwanda about a year ago, but Rwanda has hired other U.S. and British agencies too. The head of one British agency, BTP Advisers, boasted of setting up an Internet “attack site” where the Rwandan government could target its critics, according to a report last month by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an independent non-profit news organization.

“The Rwandan government is obsessed with its image, and it’s very intolerant of criticism of its human-rights record,” says Carina Tertsakian, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The hiring of U.S. and British agencies is “one more tool” in an aggressive public-relations strategy that is “often quite nasty and personalized,” said Ms. Tertsakian, who has been personally attacked herself on Rwandan government websites.

“It’s worrying. They’re deliberately obscuring information on their human-rights situation. They’re denying human-rights violations, distorting the historical record and peddling false information.”

Thor Halvorssen, president of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, says too many public-relations agencies are helping African dictators to whitewash their abuses and drown out criticism.

“These companies specialize in burying evidence of human-rights violations deep under rosy language about stability, economic growth and commitments to help the poor,” he said.



Equatorial Guinea

$60,000 a month

This oil-rich country with one of Africa’s worst records for corruption and human-rights abuses, hired a U.S. consultant, Qorvis Communications, for $60,000 a month in 2010 and 2011 to massage its public image. Its long-time ruler, Teodoro Obiang, who seized power in a military coup, enjoys an estimated fortune of $600-million in a nation where most people survive on less than a dollar a day. He has ruled Equatorial Guinea for 32 years.


$675,000 annually

Another repressive oil-rich country, Angola, signed an agreement in 2008 with a U.S. company, Samuels International Associates Inc., to improve its global image and “facilitate” its meetings with senior U.S. officials for an annual fee of $675,000. Its autocratic president, José Eduardo dos Santos, has ruled Angola for 32 years.


$420,000 contract

During his authoritarian rule, ex-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali signed a $420,000 contract with a U.S. public-relations firm, Washington Media Group, to promote a more favourable image for the country. The firm ended the contract last January after the start of a violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. Mr. Ben Ali ruled Tunisia for 23 years until his downfall last year.



Known for arresting hundreds of opposition politicians and repressing the media, the Ethiopian leader, Meles Zenawi, spent more than $2.5-million on three U.S. lobbying firms in 2007 and 2008. Its elections have been widely criticized as unfair and undemocratic, but it is a major recipient of Western aid. Mr. Zenawi, has ruled Ethiopia for 21 years.


$150,000 plus a monthly $50,000 fee

When Senegal’s president, Abdoulaye Wade, decided last year that he wanted a third term in office, despite a constitutional ban, he signed a contract in October with a U.S. law firm, McKenna Long & Aldridge, promising to pay $150,000 plus a monthly $50,000 fee for the company to prepare a research paper on the third-term question and to “share” the research with U.S. and Senegalese officials. Mr. Wade has ruled Senegal for 12 years.

I don't know how many of you remember 1967; the big news was not Canada's centennial celebration, it was the Six Day War.


Pictures like this were on every front page:
celebrating "brave little Israel's" victory
over the big, bad Arabs.

Israel was not, until after Jun 1967, America's best friend in the region - in fact America was, still, relatively hostile to Israel but the image of the Six Day War - a little democracy preemptively attacking and beating countries with 10 or 20 times it population - struck a chord.

Just a few years later, in 1970, another catastrophe hit the anti-Israel forces, which now included the USSR, which changed from Israel's ally to an enemy in 1967: Black September when King Hussein of Jordan kicked the PLO out of Jordan.

In the 1970s Israel was on top of the world: our, Western media, were full of jokes about cowardly Arabs and brave Jews and, a bit later, about savage, uncivilized Arab terrorists. But it all changed: Israel was, in the 1980s, 90s and beyond, increasingly branded as a Nazi like oppressor, beating down the brave Palestinian people. What happened? Two words: "Hill" and "Knowlton." As in Hill & Knowlton which took on several Arab states as clients and mounted a covert media campaign with the aim of "changing the narrative." It worked. The folks at Hill & Knowlton were, doubtless still are, very, very good at their business. Hill and Knowlton would, eventually, take on China as a client, just after Tiananmen Square (1898) and, ironically, Isreal when the latter finally understood that it, too, needed the services of a PR agency.

Now it is a HUGE business and journalists, including "reputable" Canadian journalists are the targets of slick, sophisticated, covert campaigns aimed at manufacturing an "image" for leaders and nations. Some, a few journalists, are aware of the campaigns, a few go along with it willingly, most are simply careless and lazy and they are the cannon fodder for the PR firms - the journalists regurgitate the PR firm's releases, "informing" you, their readers/viewers/listeners of the new "truth."


Goebbels would be proud
Manufactured opinions, and propagnda in general, need to be based on a grain of truth otherwise it will eventually fail. This article is about the ongoing Republican primary, but I think it illustrates the point; the relentless negative campaigning will not get the desired results because there isn't anything to build on (kind of the mirror image of not having anything to build the positive message on without the underlying positive idea/fact/metric).


Strategist Bill McGurn on Mitt Romney’s cheap Florida win

Normally I consider Bill McGurn to be the kind of establishment, RINO political strategist who I instinctively distrust, but Tuesday in the Wall Street Journal he hit the nail right on the head:

“Even before the voting has begun in Tuesday's primary, polls show Mitt Romney with a comfortable lead. If the former Massachusetts governor wins by a respectable margin, it would be completely understandable to take it as confirmation that he needs to stick with his campaign strategy.

It would also be a colossal mistake.

At least since South Carolina, Mr. Romney has been laboring under the assumption that his most serious challenge is to defeat Newt Gingrich. It's not. Mr. Gingrich's viability after months of also-ran status owes itself almost entirely to Mr. Romney's glaring weaknesses. The governor's challenge is not merely to best Mr. Gingrich but to do so in a way that addresses those weaknesses.”

Ronald Reagan always understood that ideas were more potent than invective. Nor was he above looking to others for those ideas. The across-the-board tax cut he made the heart of his 1980 campaign was largely the work of a then-obscure congressman from upstate New York named Jack Kemp.”

There is only so much that one can accomplish with negative attack ads. While they certainly have their place in scaring the undecided voters into your column at the last minute, all truly successful campaigns begin with a strong, compelling positive message.

This is because a completely negative campaign will repel voters from you as well as your opponent. The reason the Florida primary had a low turnout was because a pure negative campaign is a negative sum game. Dick Morris has made much the same point.

When going up against Obama in the general election, negative ads will work a bit - to bring items like Solyndra and Fast and Furious to the attention of the disengaged voter who has been kept in the dark by the main-stream media. But if negative ads are allowed to dominate the way they did in Florida, the Republican nominee will be making a big mistake. Obama has inherited a lot of good will from the American people by virtue of being the first black President. The American people want the first black president to succeed. They feel it is their patriotic duty to help him succeed. This is what is holding up his polling numbers in such a dismal economy. If all he does is slime President Obama, the GOP candidate will be working against this dynamic – and making himself a hated figure.

The ongoing deamonization of Israel is also running into inconveinient facts, people who have been buying the narrative are stunned when they see the treatment the Arab nations have been dealing their own people in the "Arab Spring", or reading about "honour killings" by these cultures, or just the general levels of poverty being broadcast in the news reports. Israel, as a liberal democracy, is totally the opposite of these images, and some people are rejecting the "Israel as opressor" meme because of this.
The initial article was about "top down" methods of manufacturing opinions, here is the use of an "army of davids" and social media to spread messages and attempt to overwhelm the opposing ideas. Note it is still a "top down" operation, the 50 cent army is posting what they are told to post:


The Fifty Cent Army - When trolls outnumber blog readers.

China has a "50 cent army", Russia is catching up with its 50 ruble army and the US goes for viral marketing using tame bloggers.  The "army" is paid to make pro-government posts, tweets and comments. What do you do when trolls outnumber the readers?

For some members of the original Chinese "50 Cent Party" it was a full time job, receiving up to 50 cents (two yuan) each for up to a hundred pro-government messages posted a day, using several dozen different accounts. Eight years ago, when Chinese propaganda officials ... organized the pro-government posters already out there. The propaganda bureaucracy (which is huge in China) did so and got so many volunteers that they soon developed a test to select the most capable posters, and also set up training classes to improve the skills of volunteers. Cash bonuses were offered for the most effective work. At one point, the government had nearly 100,000 volunteers and paid posters operating. This quickly evolved into the 50 Cent Army, and now the 50 Ruble Army in Russia.

In the US this is mostly from private enterprise but includes a stable of tame political bloggers who help out.  Think JOURNOLIST and look for a spitoon to get the taste out of your mouth.

Wikipedia has a more scholarly review of the 50 cent party (army).

China has lots of businesses in the same swamp as their government:  "One firm recently admitted to employing more than 800 people who created nearly 20,000 fake user IDs. Half of the posters create at least one post or comment at the rate of one every 2.5 minutes, and many do this full time. And there are many such PR firms engaged in the practice."

An Al Qeda/4 GW warfare version of this meme would be to put some general ideas "out there" and encourage/incentivise people to take up these ideas and run with them on their own. Since the ideas would be changing and evolving in real time as various bloggers/posters/agencies digest and use the ideas, you would end up with a very complex branching structure derived from the initial idea or set of ideas, and have little control over how it would develop or be implimented. As well, free range ideas would also have a tendency to "cross breed" with other ideas that are in circulation, resulting in new branching structures with more unpredictable results.
I'm reopening a necrothread because one of the most popular "manufactured opinions" is that Buddhists, especially Tibetan Buddhists who follow the Dali Lama, are all right thinking pacifists. Nothing could be further from the truth.

E.R. Campbell said:
There are many, many Buddhist sects, and Buddhists in Myanmar are not the same as Tibetan Buddhists, but let us put aside the notion that Buddhists are "benign and enlightened." They (Buddhists) are just as capable of sectarian violence as is any other socio-religious/ethnic group. And, as we saw in the Balkans, Muslims can be the victims, too.

More on Buddhist extremism in this article which is reproduced under the Fair Dealing provisions of the Copyright Act from the Straits Times:

Myanmar monk lashes out at Time magazine

Published on Jun 21, 2013

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) - Upon seeing his photo splashed across the cover of Time magazine with the words "Face of Buddhist Terror", Myanmar's most-talked-about monk was unfazed, saying no amount of bad publicity could hurt him


Buddhist monk Wirathu sits in the library of the Ma Soe Yein monastery during an
interview in Mandalay, Myanmar on March 27, 2013. Upon seeing his photo splashed across
the cover of Time magazine with the words Face of Buddhist Terror, Myanmar's most-talked
-about monk was unfazed,saying no amount of bad publicity could hurt him.                                                         

The 46-year-old is accustomed to - even flattered by - the foreign reporters who steadily parade through his monastery in the city of Mandalay to ask about religious violence that has swept his predominantly Buddhist nation in the last year - fuelled in no small part by his anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Nearly 250 people have died and tens of thousands have fled their homes, threatening to destabilise the quasi-civilian government that came to power just two years ago after five decades of military rule.

"A genuine ruby will shine," said monk Wirathu, "even if you try to sink it in mud." New freedoms of speech have made it easier to disseminate radical views, while exposing deep-seeded racism felt by much of the population towards Muslims and other minorities.

New freedoms of speech have made it easier to disseminate radical views, while exposing deep-seeded racism felt by much of the population toward Muslims and other minorities.

There has been almost no public outcry when Buddhist mobs have marched into villages brandishing machetes and clubs, but the appearance of a Burmese monk on the cover of the glossy international magazine with an inflammatory title was apparently too much.

The social networking site Facebook was alight with criticism.

Dozens changed their profiles to mock-covers of Time with the word "Boycott." One person lamented that the image of his country — and faith — was being tarnished.

"Some people misunderstood the title ... seeing it as an insult to religion," said Dr. Yan Myo Thein, a political analyst. "They believe it's equating Buddhism with terrorism."

Few took the opportunity to criticize Wirathu, however, saying it was further evidence of media bias. The monk has repeatedly called on Buddhists to unite against the "threat" Muslims pose to the country and its culture, accusing them of breeding too fast and hijacking the business community.

The Time article quoted him as saying this was not the time to stay calm.

"Now is the time to rise up, to make your blood boil," he said.


The "Time" cover

It's not just Muslims who are extremists or who take their extremism to violent, bloody ends.