Defend Our Networks

Free and fast-flowing information is the key to health

All of us, whether we read, chat, post, comment, write newsletters, record our voices or edit video: we are all part of a flourishing online ecology.

The new media can learn from physics: a fine mesh of networks, lots of small pipes, are a more effective delivery system than a few big tubes. They are less prone to congestion and more resilient because they can't be shut off.

Self-proclaimed ‘trusted voices’ — the state-corporatist media — are not planning to play fair. Online Safety Bills will hire them as plumbers, their hands on the spigots and sluice gates that constrain the flow of ideas.

The Internet is like the aqueducts that for thousands of years filled the public reservoirs and yet only ever supplemented the rivers and springs that fed the farms and fountains of our great civilizations. So long as the waters flow fast and freely life is healthy — vital. We must not let janitors or beadles presume to stop the flow.

Sep 23, 2021

We built this city

The alternative media is in full flow and, like a running stream, it pools and burrows new channels and gullies, before gathering volume and plunging on.

At its best the new media beats the established media for fresh ideas, first-hand authenticity, speed of connection, minimal latency and that key ingredient in news — the first three letters.

It has its faults. There is a tendency to repeat and review the work of others: reaction videos are the worst. It takes time, however, as well as money to create everything anew and people often face spurious copyright challenges, undermined by internet reputation managers, aka fact checkers, who are paid to wage constant war on independent voices.

Disregarding rough edges or lack of polish, we should support as many sources as possible. It is the declared aim of the state-corporatist media to promote a small group of prominent, 'trusted' voices. Should we do the same? There is an objective reason why we must not.

They dug their hole

Long before the Internet ate their advertising revenues, the state-corporatist media had already begun to restrict the spectrum of ideas and information. It began in the 1980s with a fashion for features to replace news. Opinion bled from the editorial page to blot the whole paper. Celebrity commentators and reviewers replaced seasoned journalists. The publishers' motives were not simply to cut costs.

With hindsight we can see they were creating influencers and thought leaders, and we can assume they had a common aim.

The BBC invented "the journalism of attachment" which meant its reporters took sides on major issues like apartheid. It sounds noble until you remember that Earthly observers require objectivity. BBC reporters usually take a line consonant with government policy so it differs little from propaganda.

Then came the first Gulf War in 1990 and reporters were physically embedded within the military meaning they sat in press centers and regurgitated what they were told.

Internet Influence Activities have spread since President Barack Obama modified the Smith-Mundt Act in 2013 to let the U.S. Agency for Global Media (the former Broadcasting Board of Governors) redirect foreign propaganda at the domestic audience.

In Europe and the Mid East traditional media monitoring has become active perception management through military and reserve information units particularly in Britain and Israel. Social media companies are fully on board — or rather, government, military and intelligence representatives sit on their boards.

This is just the propaganda process on steroids. Richard Thieme tells how in the 1980s the CIA planted in an Italian newspaper revelations that the KGB was sponsoring terrorism around the world. The New York Times picked up the story, Secretary of State Alexander Haig demanded answers and six months later the Director of Central Intelligence William Casey had to tell Gen. Haig that it was, ah, our own little story. [1]

I describe the filter bubble here:

Already we can spot a virtuous circle: the more content the spooks monitor, the more they need to counter. The more they counter, the greater the proportion of journalism that is directly working for, or indirectly influenced by, intel.

We haven’t hit bottom. There’s more to come. This virtuous circle originates from concepts like Total Information Awareness and its successors at the National Security Agency.

Former German defense minister Andreas von Bülow said that 80-90 per cent of intelligence is gathered from public sources, yet those are increasingly under the control or influence of defense and intelligence agencies. This is creating a feedback loop.

Through influence activities, state ministries and agencies fill newspapers and social media with information to prod the public towards certain perceptions, behaviours and outcomes. At the same time, social media vacuums up that information on behalf of corporations and state, crunching data and feeding it into algorithims and policy decisions, schooling and policing, and the whole cycle begins again.

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Trusted voices

You can chose to listen to thought leaders, placed on the menu by Poynter, Google News Initiative, and Facebook with its International News Safety Institute, OFCOM, State Department, NATO's Atlantic Council and Newsguard, which is funded by Microsoft, Time and Wired, the State Department and Defense Department among others. But don’t imagine it’s a free choice.

Newsguard’s Anna-Sophie Harling, Managing Director, Europe sits on OFCOM as Online Safety Principal. OFCOM will become the UK’s official censor under the Online Safety Bill 2021 (currently in the committee stage). [2]

Australia has already passed its Online Safety Bill in Jul 2021. [3]

Canada will introduce an online harms bill this autumn, in addition to the Hate Speech Bill C-36 of Jun, 2021, to create a digital safety commissioner to police internet content. [4]

Diversity is great — but not of opinion, it seems.

River deep

If you want to think freely you will need to broaden and deepen your networks, not streamline them.

In one of my jobs I used to edit magazines about architecture, technology and urban development. It is a myth of traffic planning that bigger roads solve traffic jams.

Gas particle physics has been able to demonstrate that a fine mesh of networks — lots of small pipes — is a more effective dispersal system than a few big tubes. It is less prone to congestion and more resilient because they can't be shut off as easily as a few big conduits.

To summarize, we're about to face a new clampdown on the diverse ecology of news networks and distribution. Now is the time to deepen your network, online and real. And fast.

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In other news

The first three letters of news are…

Everyone in the new media needs to raise their game: better networking to ensure our survival, ever-better storytelling to whup the old media even harder.

By retelling a familiar story, we fail to move it forward. The more prominent the writer, the more guilty. There are a couple of academics and published authors who specialise in retelling stories about MK-Ultra, DARPA and the CIA. The headline causes you to react: “wow, she got the inside scoop,” until you realize we have known most of this since the 1970s.

Should Hollywood keep rebooting the same movies just because a new generation hasn’t seen them?

Objection! Recent events are history to the young.

Sustained! Not everyone has been alive as long. Yet it’s often people of limited knowledge who refuse to consider what they don’t already know. How do we help them and ourselves?

The answer is to add something new every time, so that even those familiar with a topic gain new perspective. It is not a question of revelation or scoop but simple hard work.

Back in the day I had an editor who demanded scoops. He even set a quota of scoops per month. He was naive, because scoops are usually the initiative of a vested interest that wants some piece of information out there. In recent years we've seen that so-called scoops are often how the intelligence agencies or political rivals manipulate public discourse.

The Washington Post's "inside track" usually means inside someone's pocket — and that was true of Watergate, too.

Beyond scoop there is cogent analysis, perspective and context. It is true that journalists who “get it right” are often more persistent than novel. They stick with the story while others lose interest. Keep updating: context keeps us fresh.

There is already too much content that retells the story, ribbon and wrapping. When someone finds a new nut or bolt, they reopen the box, put it in, and tell us the whole story again, ribbon and wrapping.

Mountain high

Alastair Crooke at Strategic Culture Foundation used an analogy from physics to look for the trigger to recent Afghan events. Scientists who study avalanches say it’s not about mass or flow.

Dozens of points of instability develop in a pile. In their model they colour grains red if they are individually oblique to the mass and ready to move. These cusps of change are distributed seemingly randomly, “a dense skeleton of red instability” spreading through the pile. The status quo holds until a grain falls on one of these points and suddenly causes other red spots to slide. [5]

It is as if the red spots share the same vulnerability. They sense each other’s readiness.

What a metaphor for change!

Newsguard presents these red grains, this quizzical, curious, wonderful network as unreliable, unsound and a threat. Perhaps in an avalanche it represents instability.

In a stultifying, absolute tyranny those same red grains constitute touchstones of sanity. As a network or web they fire the neurons to realign and reconstitute the moral, artistic and humanitarian vibrancy of shared life — among our own seven billion points of light.

[1] Richard Thieme, DEF CON 22, YouTube, 2014 — The Only Way to Tell the Truth is in Fiction

[2] UK Online Safety Bill, Parliament, Jul 2021 — Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill established

[3] Australian Online Safety Bill, Parliament, Jul 2021

[4] Gov Canada, Online Safety Bill, Jul 2021, Consultation — Have your say: The Government’s proposed approach to address harmful content online

[5] Alastair Crooke, Strategic Culture Foundation, Sep 2021 — A Pandemic of Authoritarianism, as the Red Grains Cascade

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