Friday, 2 September 2022

The Woman With The Red Umbrella - A Short Story.

The thing you’ve got to understand about misinformation and disinformation, Mr … Smith, is that they’re like machine-guns and artillery – much too dangerous to have just anybody firing them off. They are weapons that only the state can be permitted to wield.”

I SPOTTED HER at one hundred metres. Average height, average build, entirely nondescript: the sort of person you would pass in the street without a second glance. Had she not been carrying a red umbrella on a day that smelled of rain, my eyes would have registered her presence, and continued searching. But the red umbrella fixed my gaze. It was the pre-arranged sign. This was the woman.

As she came up the steps towards the bench I rose, as arranged, to greet her like an old friend. She stretched out her hand and I shook it gently. As she seated herself beside me, she took care to position the red umbrella between us. A demarcator: on one side, her world; on the other, mine.

“I’m told you are in search of information, Mr … Smith?”

“Not my real name.”

No? You surprise me. My name is Ms … Jones.”

“What can you tell me about the Government’s war against ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’? Are my sources exaggerating? Or, is this something to be taken seriously?”

“Direct and to the point. I like that Mr Smith. At my age, time is precious. So, let me be equally direct. Your sources are not exaggerating. The management of information is something this government takes extremely seriously. Its predecessors had it much easier, of course. Fifty years ago there were so few disseminators of information. Keeping the official story – or stories – straight involved managing maybe two or three hundred individuals – certainly no more than that. Today, you’re talking thousands – tens of thousands – all on digital platforms which can be updated in an instant. Thousands of people espousing views pulled straight out of their arses. Or, even worse, out of Russian, American and Chinese arses!”

“But, surely, propaganda of one sort or another has been around forever? Misinformation and disinformation – they’re hardly new.”

“No, that’s true. But the difference between the present and the past is the degree to which propaganda – yours and your opponents’ – can be controlled. Think about it. There have always been crazies out there. People who wrote to the editor of the local paper using green ink and capital letters. But they weren’t a problem. Their letters were simply crumpled up and deposited in the nearest wastepaper bin. And there was nothing, short of buying their own printing press, they could do about it. But today … Today they go on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tik-Tok and their craziness infects thousands, or, if you’re Donald Trump, millions.”

“Good luck with controlling Meta and Google, Ms Jones!”

“Yes, well, now you’re getting to the heart of the problem. Let’s start with the timing of this latest big push. Our Prime Minister, horrified by the Christchurch mosque massacre, reaches out to Zuckerburg and his ilk. But, she also takes to heart the criticism of the Muslim community about the ‘hate speech’ that fuelled the horror. All the lies and half-truths circulating about Islam. All that misinformation and disinformation. It took hold of Brenton Tarrant. It turned him into a mass murderer.”

“Okay. But Tarrant was refighting the crusades. How do you prevent that? Close all the libraries?”

“A fair question. But let me move the narrative on. Ten months after Christchurch, Covid-19 arrives on the scene. It’s new, and no one is at all sure how deadly this novel coronavirus is going to be. One thing the experts do know, however, is that the effects of a potentially deadly virus can be made a whole lot worse by people spreading misinformation and disinformation on the Internet. So the DPMC hires people to monitor what’s happening online vis-à-vis the pandemic. The results are frightening. It’s a nutfest out there.”

“And the Prime Minister, her government, and their advisers, are all convinced that these nutters have to be monitored and, if possible, reined-in, before they undermine the ‘Team of Five Million’s’ battle against the virus – especially the vaccine roll-out.”

“Well done, Mr Smith, well-spotted. But it gets worse. In the minds of the Government and its advisers, the anti-vaxxers and Wuhan Flu conspiracy theorists begin to merge with the white supremacists, Nazis, Islamophobes, transphobes and TERFs. As far as Labour and the Greens are concerned they are all dangerous nutters: people who can do real harm to others. And the people who defend these dangerous nutters’ right to free speech are little better than Typhoid Marys – allowing the viruses of hate and intolerance to spread throughout society.”

“But that’s ridiculous!”

“Is it? You’re not the Prime Minister. You’re not being accosted by these nutters every time you venture forth to promote vaccination. You’re not receiving e-mailed death threats – and worse – every day of the week. You’re not looking down on Parliament Grounds at a seething mass of what looks like every green ink correspondent that ever lived waving hangman’s nooses and threatening to execute the entire House of Representatives. You’d like to laugh it off, but then you remember Washington DC on 6 January 2021, and suddenly you no longer feel like laughing.”

“And then they start thinking about Three Waters, and He Puapua and co-governance.”

“Clever boy. Their great fear is that what the anti-vaxxers started, the racists will finish. They’re thinking of all the misinformation and disinformation that’s already being spread about the transformation of New Zealand into Aotearoa, and they’re telling themselves that these digital reactionaries cannot be allowed to win. That the Pakeha majority must not be allowed to crush the legitimate aspirations of the Māori minority. That the racists’ misinformation and disinformation must be stopped.”

“And so we get the Public Interest Broadcasting Fund, and journalists trying to convince us that there are right-wing monsters out there moving in the darkness.”

“And that is when people like me enter the story. People who can gently steer journalists in the right direction. People who can identify potential journalistic assets and supply them with the information they would have very little chance of unearthing without a great deal of unattributed assistance – information that makes their careers. People who can suggest which anti-government voices are most deserving of being silenced. You look shocked Mr Smith. You shouldn’t be. We spooks have been doing this sort of thing for years – just like the Australians, the Americans and the Brits. The thing you’ve got to understand about misinformation and disinformation, Mr … Smith, is that they’re like machine-guns and artillery – much too dangerous to have just anybody firing them off. They are weapons that only the state can be permitted to wield.”

She rose carefully from her seat, as if her joints were giving her discomfort. Glanced up at the grey clouds gathering before a sharp south wind, and pulled her coat more tightly about her.

“It’s coming on to rain, Mr … Smith. My car’s on the other side of the park – not far. So, since we know you came on foot, I’ll leave you the umbrella.”

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 2 September 2022.


Pyotmac said...

"...let me move the narrative on. Ten months after Christchurch, Covid-19 arrives on the scene. It’s new, and no one is at all sure how deadly this novel coronavirus is going to be. One thing the experts do know, however, is that the effects of a potentially deadly virus can be made a whole lot worse by people spreading misinformation and disinformation on the Internet. So the DPMC hires people to monitor what’s happening online vis-à-vis the pandemic. The results are frightening. It’s a nutfest out there.”

Quite right. The narrative.

Because the program to monitor for health misinformation began six months before Covid-19, with money from a National Endowment for Democracy (NED) partner.

Pandora said...

It's an arms race.

Still, you can rule over an Emerald Kingdom and be found out by a little dog.

In a word, a great power can be defeated by a tenacious terrier with the truth in its mouth.

Perhaps the terrier has been a naughty little doggy; and, fearing the truth he holds, the wizards of the Emerald Kingdom seek to dissuade him from pulling back the curtain by any means necessary.

But the little doggy, apart from being tenacious, is sly. So sly, the wizards of the Emerald Kingdom don't appreciate until it is much too late that in their attempts to rebuff him they are erecting another great liability for themselves. So sly, they fall into panic, come to believe they are dealing with a real magician against their mere parlour magic. Or a demon.

Or an agent of the Russians or the Chinese. How embarrassing, then, should such an accusation be made, that the little doggy can reveal that he has already sniffed them out, and traced them right to heart of the DPMC, perhaps sitting in a chair beside them?

Anything the little doggy might do or might have done is nothing against what the wizards of the Emerald Kingdom have done and continue to do. Anything the little doggy might do or might have done way very well be a form of counterintelligence itself, still proving highly effective all these years later, while the wizards can only ever tie themselves up in knots.

Anonymous said...

Anyone know any billionaires from whom I can score some Harry Potter jewellery?

David George said...

Thanks Pandora, very good.
It doesn't look like the government even considered the possibility that they could be wrong, that they were the unwitting (?) perpetrators of misinformation themselves, that reality is bigger than they are. “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men. Gang aft a-gley”
Perhaps having an ear for but one side of an issue is not such a great idea after all.
Perhaps the desperate attempts to control the narrative indicate something other than a convincing belief in their own rectitude. It's certainly starting to look that way; the backpedaling has begun:

There needs to be, and will be, a reckoning. The government have ruled out an official enquiry so it looks like it will be taking place in the smoko rooms and blogs instead. Good luck controlling that.

Anonymous said...

I've heard horror stories about people being persecuting and gaslighted for years, but who knows whether those situations ever arose in fact:

Crazy theories that agencies or their foreign partners (and, therefore, done with the tacit approval of the NZ agencies) drive people to insanity and potentially violence with decade-long smear campaigns, accusations of criminal activity, economic and relationship destruction, and active intimidation.

One particular story I heard concerned the treatment of a successful scholar and innovator who was driven to homelessness and who claimed he could not even visit St Vincent De Paul without being followed and intimidated.

Of course, anything he said is going to be dismissed as the ravings of a madman and, if he were to kill an NZSIS officer, or a policeman, or the Mayor, that would be the end of it, and he actions would only be used to enforce further draconian laws and controls on the public.

But who knows? The government is very keen to impose draconian laws and controls. How far would they and their stakeholders be willing to go? If such a situation arose... we'd never hear about it. It's the stuff of a Philip K. Dick novel, or from the pages of a historical book about East Germany and Zersetzung.

It's probably dangerous to even mention, lest the possibility of such abuse disturb a reader's mind. They may start seeing references to their imaginary intimidation being dropped in the state-funded media by one of the Prime Minister's favoured reporters at Stuff. It wouldn't be healthy. There's enough madness about to allow such a possibility to arise. It would be dangerous for the reporter, who the target might see as complicit, making the reporter a target themselves. I would be very upset if were a reporter or a blogger and the agencies had used me to communicate a handful of symbols that have been used repeatedly against one of their targets to make them lose their minds. I'd be making sure the door was locked and the window jabs secured from now on, because I might be considered to be participating in the most egregious and extreme form of state violence ever perpetuated against a New Zealand citizen.

I'm sure such a situation would never be allowed to arose: one in which, for instance, a New Zealand citizen was tortured, and shown a certain symbol with certain phrases repeated while that took place, who then had those symbols and phrases used against them for the next 10 years in situations where they were being robbed, intimidated, and abused - or just trying to go about their lives - as if whomever was doing was attempting to get that person to commit a crime in anger.

greywarbler said...

Note - unknown acronym? DPMC - Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
perhaps could be DePrimeMC.

Anonymous said...

For those who don't know what "Zersetzung" refers to in the post above. Some choice quotes.

"As applied by the Stasi, Zersetzung is a technique to subvert and undermine an opponent. The aim was to disrupt the target's private or family life so they are unable to continue their "hostile-negative" activities towards the state. Typically, the Stasi would use collaborators to garner details from a victim's private life. They would then devise a strategy to "disintegrate" the target's personal circumstances — their career, their relationship with their spouse, their reputation in the community. They would even seek to alienate them from their children. [...] The security service's goal was to use Zersetzung to "switch off" regime opponents. After months and even years of Zersetzung a victim's domestic problems grew so large, so debilitating, and so psychologically burdensome that they would lose the will to struggle against the East German state. Best of all, the Stasi's role in the victim's personal misfortunes remained tantalisingly hidden. The Stasi operations were carried out in complete operational secrecy. The service acted like an unseen and malevolent god, manipulating the destinies of its victims.

It was in the mid-1970 that Honecker′s secret police began to employ these perfidious methods. At that moment the GDR was finally achieving international respectability. [...] Honecker′s predecessor, Walter Ulbricht, was an old-fashioned Stalinist thug. He used open terror methods to subdue his post-war population: show trials, mass arrests, camps, torture and the secret police.

But two decades after east Germany had become a communist paradise of workers and peasants, most citizens were acquiescent. When a new group of dissidents began to protest against the regime, Honecker came to the conclusion that different tactics were needed. Mass terror was no longer appropriate and might damage the GDR′s international reputation. A cleverer strategy was called for. [...] The most insidious aspect of Zersetzung is that its victims are almost invariably not believed."
- British journalist Luke Harding, who had experienced treatment on the part of Russia′s FSB

"...the Stasi often used a method which was really diabolic. It was called Zersetzung, and it's described in another guideline. The word is difficult to translate because it means originally "biodegradation." But actually, it's a quite accurate description. The goal was to destroy secretly the self-confidence of people, for example by damaging their reputation, by organizing failures in their work, and by destroying their personal relationships. Considering this, East Germany was a very modern dictatorship. The Stasi didn't try to arrest every dissident. It preferred to paralyze them, and it could do so because it had access to so much personal information and to so many institutions."
— Hubertus Knabe, German historian

Directive 1/76 lists the following as tried and tested forms of Zersetzung, among others:

a systematic degradation of reputation, image, and prestige on the basis of true, verifiable and discrediting information together with untrue, credible, irrefutable, and thus also discrediting information; a systematic engineering of social and professional failures to undermine the self-confidence of individuals; ... engendering of doubts regarding future prospects; engendering of mistrust and mutual suspicion within groups ...; interrupting respectively impeding the mutual relations within a group in space or time ..., for example by ... assigning geographically distant workplaces.
— Directive No. 1/76 of January 1976 for the development of "operational procedures".

Anonymous said...

Follow the note on Zersetzung, let me quote an article by Andrea Vance, which suggest the NZSIS and GCSB are not beyond doing this sort of thing to Kiwis, if they find a relevant excuse:

"The documents show Kiwi spooks were briefed on setting honey traps and internet "dirty tricks" to "control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp" online discourse.

GCSB agents – part of the Five Eyes intelligence network – were briefed by counterparts from the ultra-secret Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group.

A slide-show presentation, called The Art of Deception: Training for Online Covert Operations, was given at a top secret spy conference in 2012.

It outlined sex and dirty tricks cyber operations used by JTRIG, a unit of the British signals intelligence agency GCHQ, which focused on cyber forensics, espionage and covert operations. GCHQ described the purpose of the unit as "using online techniques to make something happen in the real or cyber world", including "information ops (influence or disruption)".

According to the slides, JTRIG conducted "honey traps", sent computer viruses, deleted the online presence of targets and engaged in cyber-attacks on the "hacktivist" collective Anonymous."


Not that anyone would be likely to believe it.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Of course, anything he said is going to be dismissed as the ravings of a madman"

Given that you provide no information at all about said scholar and innovator, I suspect that it is in fact the ravings of a madman. Although I might put it in more politically correct terms. There is also the possibility that said scholar is a figment of your imagination.

Grímnir said...

A madman like... Lord Odin?

Grimnir said...

A myth is a myth.

Or is it?

greywarbler said...

As GS said that Anonymous doesn't provide anything but hearsay so what do we make of that. Added to it is that Anonymous is unable to think of one word to use as
a recognition code to his broadcasts about underhand dealings, so he is underhand too. If this is the level of thinking of conspiracy theorists they seem like a bunch of rabid witches sitting in a virtual ring chanting 'Hubble bubble, boil and trouble'.

Anonymous said...

Her cover isn't very good, Chris!