May 31, 2012

The Blogosphere Worries about Government Propaganda

PEJ New Media Index May 21-25, 2012

Bloggers from both the right and left sides of the political spectrum united last week in overwhelmingly condemning the House passage of an amendment intended to modernize rules surrounding the dissemination of information. Both sides argued the bill was an overreach of government power, warning it would enable public officials and the military to disseminate propaganda to the American public. But they disagreed over who was responsible. Liberals feared the military and Republicans were trying to expand their influence while conservatives warned that President Obama would employ that power for political means.

The issue received negligible coverage in the mainstream media last week, reflecting the libertarian leanings and privacy concerns that are often present in social media.

For the week of May 21-25, discussion over the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act was the No. 5 topic on blogs, according to the New Media Index from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Almost all the bloggers who discussed the topic linked to the same report-a May 18 BuzzFeed article that offered details of the bill.

While a much smaller part of the conversation, defenders of the bill also came from various segments of the political spectrum. Representatives of a wide range of organizations such as The Heritage Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) claimed the opposition to the act was based on misinformation and that the bill would make the workings of the U.S. government more transparent.

Domestic Dissemination of Propaganda

Sponsored by Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) and Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act would allow Americans to see materials produced by the U.S. government for overseas consumption. The bill would also remove prohibitions which prevented Americans from receiving news from organizations like Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. Supporters also argued that the amendment contained protections so that the U.S. government and the Department of Defense could not use propaganda on its own citizens to improperly influence public opinion.

The amendment was attached to the National Defense Authorization Act and was passed with bipartisan support by the House on May 18. However, when the Senate approved their version of the defense appropriations a week later, it did not include the same amendment. (The future of the legislation depends on what happens when the House and Senate versions of the bill are reconciled.)

BuzzFeed staffer Michael Hastings posted a story that day entitled “Congressmen Seek to Lift Propaganda Ban.”  The piece, which quickly drew attention in the blogosphere, cited both supporters and critics of the bill, but focused mostly on the perceived dangers. In it, an unnamed Pentagon official is quoted as saying, “It removes oversight from the people who want to put out this information. There are no checks and balances. No one knows if the information is accurate, partially accurate, or entirely false.” (A correction to the story noting that the amendment would not apply to the Department of Defense, but only to the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), did little to quiet the reaction.)

Most bloggers had strong negative reactions after reading the BuzzFeed article.

“Americans could now be subjected to the hardcore, massively manipulative and disinformation-filled propaganda that is usually reserved for foreign countries such as Iraq,” predicted afteramerica at Guerilla Media. “While propaganda in the United States was always somewhat covert and disguised as something else, the new bill apparently seeks to form an actual Orwellian Ministry of Truth, where propaganda is just part of daily business.”

“This legislation opens the door for the government to legally lie to the American people,” added Bill Wilson at Pray the News. “Many would say that the mainstream media is already a propaganda arm of the government. Nevertheless, it will be far more difficult to discern the truth by making propaganda legal.”

Conservatives charged that the bill was an attempt by the Obama Administration to manipulate public opinion.

“The American people are subjected to a steady stream of propaganda-right from the talking heads of the MSM,” wrote Matt at Conservative Hideout. “So, I think that the proposed legislation will do nothing more than make official the media bias and disinformation that the American people receive on a regular basis anyway.”

“Who here still recognizes their country?” wondered Roryann O’Rourke. “Every morning I wake up and I hear the latest coming out of this administration, the most corrupt administration I believe we’ve ever had…Our representatives want to allow the use of PROPAGANDA?”

KrisAnne Hall could not believe that conservative members of congress were supporting the legislation.

“Isn’t domestic propaganda something that this administration has been engaging since 2008?” she wrote. “We should care, because this crime against the American people is not being perpetrated by a Socialist President through executive order. It is CONGRESS authorizing this manipulation.”*

Liberals, on the other hand, blamed others for what they viewed as an expansion of government power.

“At a time when the American Public’s trust in Government is at an all time low, the House wants to make it easier for the Government to lie to us?” asked Richard Jensen at News From the Front. “And also keep in mind that Bush and company was able to get the country into a needless war with Iraq without those powers. How easy do you think it would be for the next guy who uses those tools to bomb somewhere else.”

“This is the military industrial complex run amok, and it’s going to be up to every American citizen to read between the lines of just about everything now,” charged Beth at Veracity Stew. “It is truly the age of disinformation, and if this bill passes, it’s only going to get worse.”

The outrage led to a response from the bill’s authors who claimed the concerns were a result of misinformation.

Rep. Smith defended the amendment on his own website.

“The Thornberry-Smith amendment does not authorize any U.S. government agency to develop propaganda for a domestic audience nor is that our intent,” he posted. “This amendment is intended to provide greater transparency and to ensure the U.S. government can get factual information out to foreign audiences in a timely manner…It does not and is not in any way intended to ‘legalize the use of propaganda on American audiences.'”

A few outside observers supported the bill and offered a very different interpretation than many bloggers.

“The House Armed Services Committee clearly acted in the U.S. interest when it voted to modernize the Smith-Mundt Act last week…In the age of the information revolution and the global war of ideas, these prohibitions have become obsolete and worse,” declared Helle Dale at the blog for the conservative  Heritage Foundation. “Access to programs and materials produced by the State and the BBG will allow Congress and the public a better understanding of what we are funding.”

“But the outcry in this case seems misguided,” agreed Adam Weinstein at the liberal publication Mother Jones. “For starters, the proposed law doesn’t permit the spread of any information that isn’t already available to the American public. Moreover, the amendment could conceivably bring more of the government’s overseas information operations into the sunlight, a good thing.”

“With only minor tweaks…the Thornberry-Smith Amendment is on balance a very good thing for free speech,” determined Gabe Rottman of the ACLU. “From a First Amendment perspective…the ban is both highly paternalistic and a nightmare for government transparency.”

Rep. Thornberry tried to put the entire episode into a larger context.

In an interview with Foreign Policy magazine, Thornberry said, “To me, it’s a fascinating case study in how one blogger was pretty sloppy, not understanding the issue and then it got picked up by Politico’s Playbook, and you had one level of sloppiness on top of another. And once something sensational gets out there, it just spreads like wildfire.”

The Rest of the Week’s News on Blogs

Elsewhere in the blogosphere, technology dominated the week’s conversation.

Google was the No. 1 subject last week for several stories-some of which portrayed the company in a more positive light than others.

Many bloggers linked to news that Google Chrome had overtaken Microsoft’s Internet Explorer as the most used browser on the web. Others highlighted a post on Google’s blog announcing that the company had purchased Motorola Mobility, a move that will help Google in its efforts to expand its mobile device capabilities.

On a less positive note, other bloggers linked to a piece on the Huffington Post blog by Professor Erik K. Clemons of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School which chronicled the “legacy of continued bad behavior at Google.” Clemons claimed that Google’s large market share has led them to violate privacy rules and spy on customers.

The topic of search engine optimization (SEO) was the No. 2 subject. Many people focused on a column on Search Engine Watch that cited cautionary tales of companies who were making mistakes in their efforts to improve their ranking on search engines.

A report about the likely next generation iPhone with a larger screen display was No. 3. Speculation and previews of Apple products have drawn significant attention in the blogosphere in recent years, such as the release of the iPad 3 in March.

A blog post on Programmable Web about 78 new APIs available on the web was fourth. API, otherwise known as application programming interface, is a component of software that allows interfaces to interact with each other. Programmers can take advantage of these APIs to automate connections between websites. This specific post highlighted new APIs such as a travel booking service and a wallet checkout service.

The Week’s News on Twitter

On Twitter, as is often the case, pop singers and entertainment news made up most of the popular topics.

One Direction, the British-Irish boy band, was the top subject as tweets and videos from the group’s tour received the most links.

The launch of the SpaceX cargo ship, the first commercially-bankrolled spacecraft to travel to the International Space Station, was No. 2. SpaceX is a private company, founded in 2002, that holds a $1.6 billion NASA contract to launch at least 12 unmanned cargo missions.

A trailer for the movie version of The Great Gatsby (due out in December) starring Leonardo DiCaprio was third.

Stories about the season finale of American Idol were fourth, followed by a video of Justin Bieber performing his song “Boyfriend” on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

YouTube

All five of the most viewed news videos on YouTube last week were about events that took place overseas.

A backhanded slap from Will Smith to a Ukrainian reporter landed the famous actor in the top spot.

The May 18 incident occurred on the red carpet at the Moscow premiere of Smith’s new film, “Men in Black 3.” In the video, reporter and noted prankster Vitalii Sediuk tries to kiss the celebrity on the lips, prompting Smith to push him away and give him a light slap.

The No. 2 video was footage captured by a Saudi woman in the middle of a heated discussion with officers from the “muttawa,” the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, in a shopping mall in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The woman refused an order from the religious police to leave the shopping mall because she was wearing nail polish. She warned that the video would be on Twitter and Facebook.

Most Viewed News & Politics Videos on YouTube

For the Week of May 19 – 25, 2012

1. A video showing actor Will Smith slapping a Ukrainian prankster during the Moscow premiere of his new film “Men in Black 3”
2. An Arabic-language video showing a Saudi woman defying orders by the religious police to leave a mall because she was wearing nail polish
3. A Korean-language video showing a debate aired by the South-Korean Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation
4. Footage showing the aftermath of a May 19 bomb blast near a high school in Italy which killed a 16-year-old female student
5. A French-language video showing a police officer pepper spraying student protestors at close range in Montreal

About the New Media Index

The New Media Index is a weekly report that captures the news agenda of social media, with a focus on blogs, Twitter and YouTube. These platforms are an important part of today’s news information narrative and shape the way Americans interact with the news. The expansion of blogs and other social media sites has allowed news-consumers and others outside the mainstream press to have more of a role in agenda setting, dissemination and interpretation. Through this New Media Index PEJ aims to find out what subjects in the national news the online sites focus on, and how that compares with the narrative in the traditional press.

A detailed description of the NMI methodology, which was recently modified in August 2011, is available here.

*For the sake of authenticity, PEJ has a policy of not correcting misspellings or grammatical errors that appear in direct quotes from online postings.