For over a century, Uncle Sam has used the mass media to manipulate public opinion; particularly to justify its direct or indirect involvement in foreign wars.
Take the presidential administration of President Woodrow Wilson, for instance. In 1916, in the middle of the “Great War” (World War 1, at the time the largest war in human history), he campaigned for re-election using slogans like “He kept us out of war” and “America First.”
There was a reason for these slogans. Most Americans then, as now, wanted no part of foreign wars. But only a few months after his second presidential term began in 1917, he asked Congress for a declaration of war against Germany.
But Wilson had a problem. There was no widespread public support for US involvement in the war. Some of Wilson’s advisors suggested that he follow the example of President Lincoln in the Civil War and simply shutter newspapers that opposed American involvement in the war. During that conflict, Lincoln had shut down more than 300 newspapers. Some of their editors were imprisoned without charge after Lincoln suspended the writ of habeas corpus.
Like Lincoln, Wilson also shut down newspapers and imprisoned journalists. But he also sought to change American hearts and minds in favor of war. To that end, he established the Creel Commission, chaired by journalist George Creel, officially known as the Committee on Public Information (CPI).
Creel mobilized public opinion behind the war effort with every available form of mass communication. Over the next few months, the CPI placed pro-war propaganda into more than 20,000 newspaper columns each week. It recruited 75,000 public speakers to deliver pro-war speeches in every corner of the country. And it produced newsreels to be shown in movie theatres nationwide extolling the bravery of Allied troops and the depravity of Germany.
The campaign was spectacularly successful. Author Noam Chomsky summarized Creel’s work as succeeding, “within six months, in turning a pacifist population into a hysterical, war-mongering population.”
Over time, the tools of persuasion wielded by our masters in Washington, D.C. became far more sophisticated. A notorious example is Operation Mockingbird, a CIA initiative beginning in the late 1940s in which the agency paid journalists to write and distribute fake news for intelligence purposes. Essentially, its goal was to program Americans to believe the news our minders wanted us to believe.
The program was exposed by The New York Times in 1967, but has never been officially discontinued. A recent example involves Ken Dilanian, a correspondent for NBC. His former employer, The Los Angeles Times, acknowledged in 2014 that he had collaborated with the CIA. Dilanian repeated the CIA’s false claims that President Obama’s drone warfare campaign wasn’t killing innocent civilians. These claims were proven false by documents leaked from human rights groups.
With that background in mind, we were intrigued to learn recently of a longstanding effort by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to manipulate online news content. And it’s doing so through direct engagement with social media companies and other online platforms. As Microsoft executive Matt Masterson, a former DHS official, stated in a text message obtained by The Intercept, “Platforms have got to get comfortable with gov’t.”
For instance, while the DHS shut down its widely lampooned “Disinformation Governance Board” earlier this year, similar initiatives are ongoing. Indeed, behind closed doors, DHS officials are strongarming tech companies to correct what it believes to be disinformation about “the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, racial justice, US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the nature of US support to Ukraine.”
A parallel campaign against supposedly fake news or politically disfavored views is exclusion from the financial system. We saw this first-hand in 2012, when Uncle Sam strongarmed MasterCard, Visa, PayPal, and the Bank of America to close down the accounts of WikiLeaks as punishment for the group’s publication of leaked documents relating to American war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Given this reality, it’s clear that our government is pulling out all the stops to manipulate our opinions. And if you don’t want to be manipulated, you need to develop your own network of reliable sources.
When reviewing any source, we tend to attach the most credibility to those that don’t have any known relationship to an intelligence agency. For instance, whenever we see CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, or other media outlet interview an “ex-intelligence official,” we tend to not regard the information as credible. For all we know, that official might still be working for an intelligence agency.
We also question the reporting done by any media outlet that receives financial support from Uncle Sam. For instance, the Atlantic Council lists two of the largest contributors to its Digital Forensics Research Lab as being the US Department of Defense and Department of State.
Sources we consult regularly to get as close to the truth as we can include:
Project Veritas (investigative journalism, including undercover sting operations).
Wikileaks (news leaks and classified data provided by anonymous sources)
International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) (global network of 280 investigative journalists)
While we don’t always agree with these organizations (e.g., Project Veritas has a right-wing bias while ICIJ leans left), the data they release appears to be unfiltered by intelligence agencies. But while we once were fans of fact-checking sites such as Snopes and Politifact, we no longer regard them as reliable. In a posting on February 25, 2022, in response to Russian accusations that the United States had bioweapons labs in Ukraine, Politifact stated unequivocally that, “There are no US-run biolabs in Ukraine.” But only two weeks later, US Under Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland testified that Ukraine has “biological research facilities” and that the Biden administration was concerned that Russia might seize them.
All countries use propaganda to manipulate public opinion; the United States is hardly unique in that respect. But before you form your opinion on a topic where there’s been an enormous onslaught of propaganda, try to find the facts so you can make up your own mind.