Coordinating the snarl of “alphabet agencies” in the American intelligence community, the “Office of the Director of National Intelligence” instructed the “National Intelligence Council” to prepare “an assessment of the implications of governments’ use of the Internet and other digital technologies to suppress freedom and control public debate”.
The (predictable) result was a 31 October 2022 study, some 40%-redacted, entitled “Digital Repression Growing Globally, Threatening Freedoms” which specifically aimed at how “autocrats and personalist leaders in backsliding democracies” have definitely awoken to the potential political power of cyber-technology and invested heavily in controlling the flow of information and shaping public opinion through increasingly-severe limitations on what citizens are allowed to see and to say over the web.
To control the flow of what today is widely called “The Narrative” dates directly from the patriotic propaganda (in his own words) of Edward Bernays, known in the USA as the “father of public relations” but more broadly portrayed as a master propagandist of the 20th Century, “the American Century” following military victory in both world wars and economic adventure whose effects extend into the present.
More than any contemporary, Bernays understood the power of mass media, and his work tracked the rise first of mass printed publications, then radio and film, into the television era. Advertising techniques were used to sell democracy and American-style corporate capitalism, while smoothing the way to overturn governments inconvenient to American business interests, his most famous, and notorious, example being when United Fruit decided the democratically-elected government of Guatemala had to go. It went, with prompting from the CIA and other alphabet agencies.
Adolf Hitler famously stated that he would never have succeeded without the power of the electrical loudspeaker, to amplify his speeches.
Fast-forward to the age of the internet, an unforeseen technology that not even a sharp futurist like Alvin Toffler even predicted, in “Future Shock”. By the 1990s the power of the web as a communications and advertising tool was taking shape, even though few people owned personal computers, web connections were tenuous and no one had ever heard of a smartphone.
Autocratic states, by virtue of being reactionary in their fundamentals, took longer to appreciate the potential of mass interconnectivity, but the unpleasant jolt of the “Arab spring” insurrections brought them up to speed on that. As the Russian Federation rebuilt its broken economy, following the ignominious collapse of the USSR at the end of 1991, and the People’s Republic of China began its impressive acceleration toward modernity and prosperity, few of their citizens, or those of other authoritarian states, paid much attention to the internet, apart from the alarmed reaction of regimes to easy access to hard-core pornography, long the central economic driver of internet revenue.
Cheap cell phones, broad, reliable internet access and the rise of the software industry now allow a degree of leveling never imagined in history. This is not a welcome phenomenon to any governing organ, with what German sociologist Max Weber called, with painful accuracy, its “monopoly on the legitimate use of violence”.
Every government in the world today understands the power of media, and how it might well threaten vested interests, in business, political and social spheres of influence.
The National Intelligence Assessment specifically aimed at “…foreign governments are increasingly using digital information and communication technologies to monitor and suppress political debate domestically as well as in their expatriate and diaspora communities abroad. Leaders exercise digital repression because they fear that open debate of political or social topics could jeopardize their hold on power.”
The study details “…censorship, misinformation and disinformation…” as being “primary tools of digital repression”, including “…backsliding democracies…” as worthy of condemnation for a lack of freedom.
It cuts both ways, as the cases of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden very plainly illustrate. The essential issue is “Who will control ‘The Narrative’ and how can this serve to extend the power and influence of corporations and organs of governance?”
The paper goes on to predict that control over access to internet content, already quite restricted in many markets (Google, YouTube and Facebook, among many others, are banned in the PRC, although millions adroitly access them through VPNs), will become even more tightly filtered, as authoritarian regimes invest in sophisticated “…censorship, misinformation and disinformation…” techniques and technologies.
The prescription? Similar to the West’s demand that all economies follow its well-worn “rules-based international trading system centered in the WTO”, the objective is to ostensibly open up the World-Wide Web dreamily, with “…development and spread of innovative technologies and approaches that help populations bypass governmental controls [that] could help create openings for individuals to exercise greater digital freedoms within repressive states”.
In principle, noble and fair. In execution, more like “My Way or The Highway”. When DARPA crafted ARPANET their Government-funded exertions were undoubtedly aimed at propelling American values and mores, in a Cold War competition of ideas and political / economic philosophies. No one had any idea that WYSIWYG technology would mutate into TikTok and western corporate media hammering a nonstop “war of unprovoked aggression against Ukraine” propaganda stream onto worldwide publics. Meanwhile, the freedom of the internet also permits public display and commentary of the vicious nation-smashing campaigns in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, among others. It cuts both ways.
“We assess that states’ use of these methods to monitor and limit dissent probably will become even more pervasive targeted, and complex in the next few years, further constraining freedoms globally” is the dire prediction of the study. Nevertheless, technological advances have their own astonishing ways to circumvent state control, no matter how clever. Amid the black blocks of redacted text the admission: “This assessment was prepared under the auspices of the Director of the Strategic Futures Group (SFG).”