ALAI, América Latina en Movimiento
The Wizards of Lies
Since the twentieth century, information control obsesses those looking for “excessive profit”, as Adam Smith defined it. The model was developed in the United States. There, secondary education – the mass version - was minimized in any aspect related to humanities, such as history, geography, philosophy, which give benchmarks for critical thinking.
The idea is to impart only the knowledge that will render the working class useful at a job, but politically ignorant. It allows for nurturing majorities with a world view based on distorted information, so the public can be guided according to the convenience of the ruling class. It is a useful trick even for governments without electoral fuss and with visible leaders, but it is in democracies where it is most useful, because the ruling class, which is hardly seen, uses misleading information to promote their puppets in electoral carnivals.
Until the nineteenth century, media ownership was diffuse, had regional coverage and showed different perceptions of reality. During the twentieth century, media ownership started to concentrate, coverage was extended to a national and sometimes international public, interpretations of the news started to resemble each other and information expanded into audio-visual media, which breeds intellectual laziness.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, we find a highly concentrated media ownership and highly orchestrated news coverage. There is an international cartel whose political intentions seem to go beyond those defined by the Washington Consensus or at NATO. Its basic technique is to lie by omitting essential parts of the story or the historical or political reality, while fabricating or exaggerating the version to be exposed. The aim is to demonize persons or countries, beliefs or ideologies that bother their vagabond ambition.
The novelty of this century is the use of the Internet to disseminate information out of the media cartel's control. That information is used by the growing class of people that use computers, which is the educated strata of the working class and carries political influence. On Internet sites we can find more complete versions of current affairs; but the media cartel and government agents also distort online information, especially at social networking sites.
Debates on regulations for news media
The concentration of ownership and shareholder anonymity make it difficult to identify the specific economic, political or confessional interests that guide news manipulation. But the way that large media conglomerates oppose attempts to democratize information by decrying an attack on freedom of expression, is a hint of their fear of transparency.
Recent European data shows an increase in concentration, because the crisis affects mainly the small independent media. According to El País (14/12/2012) since 2008, 132 magazines and 22 journals have disappeared and 6.300 journalists are now unemployed. Investment in press, radio and television fell by 45%, but investment in Internet rose by 171%.
Right now, there are several public cases related to information concentration, the methods used to make news and the accuracy of its content. The most attention-grabbing ones are happening in Argentina, Britain and the United States. In Argentina, the initiative originates from the executive and the legislature, with the judiciary slowing it down. In Britain it is rather the opposite. In the U.S., the trial of Bradley Manning throws light on the risk of bringing out truthful information.
In Argentina, the government introduced a law to democratize information provision that was approved by a large majority of Congress. The new law allows a person or a company to own up to 24 cable television systems, 10 broadcast licenses –FM, AM or over-the-air TV- and 1 content signal. The law was appealed as unconstitutional by the Clarín Group, which has 250 licenses and holds a dominant position in the Argentine media market, to such extent that, without being a political party, it plays the role of the main political opposition to the government.
Clarin argued before a Civil and Commercial Court that the new law was against Constitutional Law. The Supreme Court granted Clarin a precautionary suspension expiring on December 7, but the Chamber of Civil and Commercial Justice renewed it until the definitive ruling, which delayed compliance only for Clarín, because other media owners had already adapted to the law. The government appealed to the Supreme Court which gave the order to expedite proceedings. On December15, the Civil Court ruled that the law is not contrary to the constitution.
In Britain there were scandals over the conduct of the media throughout the twentieth century. Despite that, the principle of "self-regulation" has been upheld since 1953. Results show that it does not work. After the last Murdoch Group scandal, a Commission chaired by Judge Brian Leveson recommended adoption of a law to regulate press concentration and behaviour. The list of offences committed by tabloids includes interception of electronic messages, debasement of innocent defendants, persecution of celebrities and more.
But there are more troubling things. The investigation uncovered complicity between the press and politicians, between the Murdoch group and the two major parties, between the police and the newspapers. Judge Leveson has ruled on the links between media barons and British politicians, with a classic British understatement when he said that during the last 35 years “there was an unhealthy relationship in that proximity."
It is because of that proximity that Prime Minister David Cameron rejected the adoption of a law that would "endanger the freedom of the press" and talked precisely with the guilty media barons and the heads of political parties, seeking an agreement that would avoid norms that regulate ownership and the media behaviour. Cameron’s initiative serves the Murdoch group well, because it owns half of the press and the Sky TV network. The British model of Clarin.
Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, endorsed the recommendations of Judge Leveson and proposed a return to the media ownership law that existed before the Thatcher deregulation. Let’s hope that he will be consistent with what he says.
In the U.S., the Manning case proves two facts: the almost total information control of the media cartel and the cruel treatment to whoever gives information about crimes committed by government agents. The media, like US politicians, follow orders. If you want to read the text of what Manning or its defence said in pre-trial hearings, you'd better read the foreign press. The same goes for the U.S. economic crisis, remote controlled murders and other official crimes.
Truths and lies on the Internet
Internet is growing as a source of information, because you can write freely. One hint is that the US, where media ownership is more concentrated, is precisely where there is greater growth of Internet information and where you can read very lucid political analysis. There are several important free sites where the kind of news and analysis evaded by the mainstream press can be found, such as Information Clearing House or Counterpunch, to name two well known ones.
Any significant newspaper or magazine now has a digital edition online. TV programs follow this trend. There are sites in Spanish that distribute alternative views on a variety of topics and have an international projection, such as ALAI, Argenpress or Rebelion, to name just a few.
Social networks like Facebook or Twitter, are not just to chat with friends, they are also used to express opinions, but that has further complications. Those networks allow false identities that can be used to spread false rumours and lies. Fake profiles appear suddenly in the hundreds - created by robots – with false "likes" or comments in support of a cause or a political figure. There were such instances during the U.S. election campaign with sites whose support came from unlikely places like Bangkok or Vilnius. The same trick was played in the Colour Revolutions of Eastern Europe or in support of uprisings in Iran or during the "Arab Spring" to justify wars on Libya and Syria.
In Latin America there is a new internet wizard: Daniel Gabriel, a CIA expert on subversive use of social networks, who worked in Afghanistan and Iraq. He was hired by BBG to work with a group of Cuban journalists, who are paid to write five stories per week. The local leader is Ms Yoani Sanchez, who worked at Applied Memetics, Gabriel’s company. She migrated to Switzerland in 2002. She went back to Cuba and in 2007 opened a blog called "Generation Y" which had instantaneous international recognition. Only in 2008, she won the Journalism Award Ortega y Gasset; Time put her among the 100 most influential people in the world; CNN classed her blog among the top 25; Foreign Policy listed her among the 10 intellectuals of the year and the Mexican magazine Gatopardo followed suit. More awards followed. In 2012 the IAPA appointed her Vice-President of the Committee on Freedom of the Press, to monitor press freedom in Cuba. Next she became El País correspondent for Cuba, while the newspaper cut 1/3 of its workforce in Spain.
Ms. Sanchez is remarkable for other reasons. The quality of her ideas can be deduced by her remark that Gabriel Garcia Marquez should not have been awarded the Nobel Literature Prize, because of his friendship with Fidel Castro. Le Monde Diplomatique wonders how she can manage, from Havana, to maintain her blog in 18 languages. It also wonders about her Twitter account which claims 214,000 followers, but only 32 in Cuba - and says that she reaches over 80,000 "via SMS, without access to the Web." That is more than 200 accounts each day. Such activity is only possible with robots, and outside of Cuba, because in Cuba there are technical Internet connection limitations. Indeed, many profiles on the account @yoanisanchez have no picture or network activity.
I have mentioned the case of Yoani Sanchez because of it being a clear case of manipulation, but there are others in Latin America and the world. So we must be cautious while reading information that circulates on blogs and social networks. The Internet gives us an opportunity to expose the truth, but there are also new tricks invented by the Lie wizards.
- Umberto Mazzei has a PhD in political science from the University of Florence. He has taught international economics at universities in Colombia, Venezuela and Guatemala. He is Director of the Institute of International Economic Relations in Geneva.
Broadcasting Board of Governors, entity in charge of international non military transmissions of the USA.
Inter American Press Association. It groups 1300 media owners and has its headquarters in Miami.
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