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Information Warfare in the Age of Empire
by Ilyse Hogue & Patrick Reinsborough,
the smartMeme project
The stakes in Miami were very high for the Bush administration. Across the Americas, hundreds of millions of people are expressing their opposition to corporate driven globalization and “free trade.” Meanwhile, historic alliances were being forged between domestic movements inside the US. Unions, local community groups and street activists shared a clear, common message: “No FTAA!” Anti-war groups like United for Peace and Justice joined with the more de-centralized, affinity group-based wing of the global justice movement to organize direct action. Local community groups representing immigrants, low-wage workers and communities of color organized marches and popular education events supported by global justice puppeteers and seasoned direct action organizers. Powerful labor groups like the AFL-CIO and the United Steelworkers made clear that despite tactical differences, there was solidarity across all the organizations and events represented in Miami.
Yet this powerful display of solidarity is not the glimpse of the action that most Americans got wedged in between their daily doses of the Michael Jackson surrender. More and more concerned citizens should ask themselves—why?
Two-pronged attack: Control the streets and control the story
What has become clear in the aftermath of the FTAA was that “The Miami Model”—as policing enthusiasts are calling it—had goals far more ambitious than merely controlling the streets. The bigger agenda of the Miami policing was to control the public perception of mass protest and domestic opposition movements. Miami represents the mainstreaming of overt information warfare against non-violent protest movements. Information warfare constitutes “Actions taken to achieve information superiority by affecting adversary information, information based processes, and information systems.” 
The bigger agenda of the Miami policing was to control the public perception of mass protest…
The relevance of information warfare to social movements and political conflicts has been the subject of study by Rand Corporation researchers John J. Arquilla and David F. Ronfeldt. Over the past decade, they have written extensively about an aspect of information warfare they call “netwar” which they define as “trying to disrupt or damage what a target population knows or thinks it knows about itself and the world around it. It may involve public diplomacy measures, propaganda and psychological campaigns, political and cultural subversion, deception of or interference with local media.” 
Learning from Iraq: Embed to win
A central piece of the information warfare strategy in Miami was to borrow one of the military’s latest insights in public relations and “embed” the media in the police operations. As the viewing public learned in Iraq, embedding the media has a deep and powerful impact on reporters’ perception of the situation. Appearing on camera in their special issue flak jackets and riot helmets, embedded TV correspondents helped reinforce the perception of the protests as a threat to public safety rather than a free expression of opinion. The story was aggressively defined from long before the FTAA meeting as protesters versus police, masking the reality that people from all walks of life were uniting to protest against “free trade” and unchecked corporate power. The Miami Herald’s embedded reporter uncritically documented Police Chief John Timoney’s description of protesters as “punks,” “trouble makers” and “knuckleheads” as well as Timoney’s personal commitment to “hunt them like a hawk picking mice off a field.”
Like most US media corporations, the Miami Herald Publishing Co. uses its platform to uncritically promote the “free trade” ideology. The role of Miami Police Chief Timoney illuminates the tight connections between the war in Iraq and the increasingly militarized response to dissent at home. Timoney, the former Police Commissioner of Philadelphia, is infamous for his heavy-handed response to the protests against the Republican National Convention in 2000. He was also scheduled to go to Baghdad in May, as he told the Associated Press, to “advise Iraqi officials on training, managing and organizing local police.” The common denominator of Timoney between overseas military operations and domestic repression is a chilling indicator of the Bush administration’s world view.
As seen on TV!
The strategy of embedding media was most obviously effective in shaping the local television coverage running live for most of November 20, the main day of protests. The coverage can only be described as surreal, as anchor after anchor verbally described situations that appeared completely disconnected from the footage running concurrently. At one point, an anchor’s voice-over described undercover agents being chased behind police lines by protesters, while the film repeatedly showed a small group of demonstrators aiding a friend who appeared to have been attacked by other protestors (undercover agents). Throughout the day the reporters providing live interpretation were disproportionately embedded reporters who were either behind police lines or in a police command center far away from the physical site of the protest being broadcast from live helicopter shots.
The guests, with the rare exception of an occasional, quick protester-in-the-street interview, were almost all police spokespeople.
The police spokespeople operated like public relations professionals, slickly framing the issue and by any standard exploiting the confusing events to make misleading statements. During his repeated television appearances throughout the day, Chief Timoney made numerous claims about police tactics that were later proved to be untrue. These misrepresentations included claiming the police never used tear gas, that police showed “remarkable restraint” while being repeatedly attacked, that police only arrested “violent” protesters and that people were allowed to peacefully demonstrate.
Perhaps most disturbing for the critical viewer was the blurring of perspectives and roles as the voice-over conversation between anchor and embedded reporter would shift to embedded reporter and police spokesperson.
These shifts frequently occurred without clear identification and obfuscated the ability of viewers to interpret the information being provided to them.
The full effect of the embedding strategy became clear as reporters and anchors repeatedly slipped and revealed partisan pro-police bias. In one notable instance, as Channel 7 aired live footage of militarized police driving frightened protesters from the downtown area with massive force, the anchor enthusiastically declared, “So far, we’re winning!”
…as Channel 7 aired live footage of militarized police driving frightened protesters from the downtown area…the anchor enthusiastically declared, “So far, we’re winning!”
Justifications for pre-emptive police action were plentiful: “prepared,” “have been preparing,” “are ready for any scenario.” “When something came up, they put it out,” were examples of anchors’ comments.
“Everything is going according to script,” another triumphantly crowed.
Conspicuously absent was any analysis of what the police force was prepared for. The live coverage that was the compulsory fare of the day was largely comprised of uneventful shots of groups of demonstrators gathered in clumps in parks or wandering down streets followed at close range by lines of riot cops and armored vehicles. A few repetitive shots of young masked protestors were peppered with hundreds of references by the anchors to the “trouble makers,” “rabble rousers,” “bad seeds,” “protesters looking for trouble,” and of course, the never defined but always scary “anarchists” or “suspected anarchists.”
Much of this coverage comes not only from irresponsible journalism but also from a calculated campaign of police public relations to demonize demonstrators and create an artificial threat. This intentional media spin was accompanied by police pressure on downtown businesses to close during the protests, which insured a city emptied of all witnesses to the policing operation. When none of the property destruction and chaos that had been promised by the authorities materialized, the anchors were able to declare triumphantly that this was a result of a “massive, well-prepared police force.”
Age old formula: Divide and conquer
The police propaganda efforts were clearly designed to disrupt the newly forming alliances. Chief Timoney attempted to create artificial dichotomies between the “credible” labor movement and the “suspect” direct action community. As he praised the labor groups for planning an orderly, non-violent march, Timoney continued his campaign of slander against the direct action community, describing participants in the unpermitted events as “violent trouble makers with no message.” Police spokespeople throughout the day used their tight relationship with the embedded media to spread misinformation about schisms between the labor march and the other street actions.
Despite the repeated stories in the media describing the “good protestors” and the “bad protestors,” the reality on the ground was quite different.
Not only was there incredible solidarity between labor, community and direct action activists but the police operation was also targeting the labor march for harassment and disruption. People trying to join the permitted rally and march were threatened, pepper sprayed and in the case of over a dozen buses prevented from reaching downtown. Only days after the FTAA protests on November 23, the New York Times broke a story on the FBI’s ongoing policy of infiltrating and spying on the anti-war and global justice movements. The article references the FBI’s COINTELPRO, the well documented program of government harassment, dirty tricks and even assassinations used to discredit domestic opposition groups like the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement.
On the same day, the Los Angeles Times reported on the recent expansion of the military’s “War on Terror” powers to include domestic spying on civilians. How many of these new state powers were being used in Miami?
If at first you don’t succeed, destroy the evidence.
One of the strengths of progressive movements has been to understand the power of producing our own media to relay our stories. Videotapes produced by independent media have been used as legal evidence and as irrefutable proof of state propaganda. In Miami, being an independent journalist meant you were a target. Numerous independent journalists and even unembedded mainstream journalists reported harassment and arrest during the actions.
In Miami, being an independent journalist meant you were a target.
Some had their equipment confiscated and destroyed. Even more ominously, in the hours after the major action, reports began to filter in about a rash of armed robberies of independent videographers.
At least five independent videographers who had been documenting undercover police, brutality and abuses against non-violent protesters reported their cameras and footage taken from them at gun or knifepoint.
Brandon Jourdan of the NY Independent Media Center described his situation.
“After shooting over 90 minutes of unprovoked police violence against demonstrators, I went to take my footage to a safe location. On the way, I was robbed by two clean-cut men who were carrying stun guns.
“Eyewitnesses from the local community reported they had never seen these individuals before and that they were observed leaving the neighborhood with my camera.”
Follow-up interviews in the area produced a number of residents who went on camera testifying that the police had encouraged locals to rob protesters, specifically targeting people with cameras. This type of attack on independent video documentation of a conflict is a tactic of information warfare—attack your opponents’ ability to communicate their version of the story. It would appear as if elements within the police operation were willing to go to great lengths to prevent images of brutality and repression from reaching the outside world.
Lessons for the future
Now that the tear gas has cleared from the streets of Miami, the battle for the long-term meaning of the demonstrations against the FTAA is under way.
Many questions linger, but what is certain is that both demonstrators and police are examining how the lessons of Miami will play out in future mass demonstrations.
The Bush administration is rapidly turning America into a propaganda state of Orwellian proportions. From calling clear-cut public lands a “Healthy Forests Initiative” to weakening air pollution protections with a “Clear Skies Initiative” to lying about their motivation for invading Iraq, the Bush administration is using its weapons of mass deception to manipulate public opinion. The staging of next year’s Republican National Convention (RNC) in New York, timed in the lead-up to the anniversary of 9-11, is just one more example of this ongoing spin war.
The convention is certain to be one of the next major flash points between the administration and the diverse grassroots movements for change.
Already some organizations are calling for a million people to descend on NY to protest the Republican agenda. Judging by the experience in Miami, we can expect more of the same: militarized streets and little respect for First Amendment rights.
The Bush administration appears intent on continuing its military style information warfare campaigns as well. They have already tapped one of their most seasoned propagandists, Jim Wilkinson, director of strategic communications at US Central Command, to head up New York media operations for the RNC. Embedded media are already being assumed, and Wilkinson has promised other tricks of the trade to leverage the spectacle.
Battling the story
Progressive movements must meet this spin machine with a more sophisticated definition of protest—one that prioritizes contesting power in the broader symbolic, cultural and ideological arenas rather than competing with militarized riot police for control of the streets. We must learn to effectively fight the battle of the story—the competition to define public interpretation of and shape the core values that are communicated by a mass action, campaign or movement. The Battle of the Story must be fought in idea space—from the corporate controlled airwaves and newspapers to the street level chants and, ultimately, the dinner table conversations of middle America.
We must learn to effectively fight the battle of the story…
Effective story telling relies on sympathetic characters clearly articulating the conflict they face. As the list of victims of the Bush economy grows longer and longer every day, one of our best strategies for winning the Battle of the Story at future mass actions is to magnify these diverse voices of opposition. Imagine if teachers, steelworkers, disgruntled veterans, fire fighters, immigrants and working mothers were able to speak to America about the impacts of Bush’s shortsighted policies on their lives. Imagine if ordinary New Yorkers were able to ask the hard questions about the EPA cover up of post 9-11 air pollution. Imagine if the family members of US soldiers were able to demand answers about the Bush lies that justified the invasion of Iraq. These are the types of voices that could turn the Administration’s strategy of hijacking 9-11 into a tremendous backlash that exposed the Bush Regime’s flawed agenda.
We need to continue to use our alternative media institutions to document and disseminate the real stories that compel change. At the same time, we must magnify the voices of ordinary people, highlighting the increasingly obvious contradictions and lies in the Bush story. These lies are like the loose threads on the unraveling fabric of the Bush era of fear and greed.
Now our job is to keep tugging at the threads until the world sees that the emperor wears no clothes.
1. As defined by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Instruction Number 3210.01. January 2, 1996.
2. Arquilla, John, & David F. Ronfeldt. Cyberwar and Netwar: New Modes, Old Concepts of Conflict. 1995. Rand Corporation.
Ilyse Hogue and Patrick Reinsborough are co-founders of the smartMeme Strategy and Training Project which works to combine grassroots movement building with tools to inject new ideas into the culture. They are both long-term media strategists and direct action organizers who have been deeply involved with the global justice, anti-war and ecology movements. http://www.smartmeme.com/
[5 apr 04]