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USA Today as DoD cyber-war mouthpiece

And you thought they were up to Weekly World News standards....

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Anyone seeking advanced tuition in passing off government propaganda as news ought to consult USA Today columnist Andrea Stone's recent item entitled "Cyberspace: The next battlefield" for an exhaustive master-class in exactly what not to do if one entertains hopes of pulling the wool over their readers' eyes on behalf of the State.

So crude is Stone's work here that it unintentionally recommends itself for pedagogical use thus:

Confluence of interest

First off, it's generally wise to avoid quoting exclusively those people who maintain a vested interest in the very thesis one's 'news item' promotes. This practice tends to tip off readers to one's partiality, and should be discouraged.

In Stone's case, the thesis is that evil hacking masterminds in Russia, North Korea, Iraq, Libya, Cuba, Israel and China are poised to cripple all of Christendom at any second with the click of a mouse.

In support of this, Stone foolishly limits her sources to US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who likes the idea of diverting public funds to cyber defense (hey, it's not his money); Clinton Administration Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre, who made a career of terrifying anyone who would listen of an "electronic Pearl Harbor" which remains forever just around the corner; Congressional Research Service defense analyst Steven Hildreth, who needs something to analyze to keep his job; National Defense University instructor Dan Kuehl, who likewise needs something to teach; US Army Major General Dave Bryan, who needs someone to fight; and iDefense CEO James Adams, whose vast pocketbook feeds rapaciously off the hacker hysteria of all the above, and who needs your support so their budgets will continue to accommodate his ambitions.

And no one else.

Now, the smart way to go about persuading readers of this improbable nonsense would be to quote the relevant government apparatchiks and opportunistic defense-contracting plutocrats in such a way as to appear impartial while subtly privileging their message.

This can be accomplished by interviewing a number of opponents as well, and then filtering all the quotes in a clever manner. For example, one might arrange the source material in two columns on a note pad: Column A with a series of quotes from the people one wants readers to take seriously; Column B with a series of quotes from nay-saying critics one wants dismissed out of hand.

One needs only re-arrange the Column A material in descending order of rationality and the Column B material in ascending order of rationality, and then run the top three or four items from both.

See how easy that is? All normal human beings naturally say both smart things and stupid things whenever they open their mouths, so you simply run the smart things said by the ones you want believed, and the stupid things said by those you don't. Malicious journalism 101 so far as we're concerned, but too advanced for Andrea Stone. Yet quite instructive.

Talk the walk

Whenever one resorts to technical or professional jargon in a government press release masquerading as a news item like Stone's cyberwar exposé, it's advisable to have at least a general notion of what it all means.

Furthermore, in a lowbrow publication like USA Today it's desirable to include a four-color pie chart laying it all out graphically for the blockheads in the audience, whose dependable lack of imagination spares its publishers from bankruptcy; but even this level of intellectual condescension necessitates a rudimentary command of the underlying concepts.

Stone errs by underestimating the intelligence of the USA Today enthusiast with technical expressions which even the slowest of wit will detect are tossed about with self-consciousness and uncertainty. A glance at her roundup of the 'tech stuff' tells us all we need to know:

Analysts say the US arsenal likely includes malevolent "Trojan horse" viruses, benign-looking codes that can be inserted surreptitiously into an adversary's computer network. They include:

Logic bombs. Malicious codes that can be triggered on command.

Worms. Programs that reproduce themselves and cause networks to overload.

Sniffers. "Eavesdropping" programs that can monitor and steal data in a network.

A nice try, but it won't quite do. The explanations are about as opaque to the uninitiated as the phrases themselves. Someone hasn't done their homework, and we don't have to know what she's talking about to sense that she doesn't know what she's talking about.

A quick Google session would have turned up all she'd care to know about Trojans and logic bombs and worms and sniffers, and the (sometimes subtle) distinctions among them; but apparently that's too much to ask. She would have learned, and might have mentioned with some appealing, self-effacing rhetoric, that "logic bomb" is the name of a musical act and a Nintendo game, as well as a predictable nick for many a Usenet troll.

The smart propagandist will draw a lesson from this: familiarity with necessary jargon (whether real or affected) lends an air of authority much desired when rubbish is to be propagated. And mistaking people with low levels of educational achievement for ones with low levels of basic intelligence and common sense is a tempting, but always fatal, error.

The art of understatement

It's a cardinal rule of public lying that propaganda works only when the intended victim fails to perceive it as such. Most government propaganda uses fear as a means of motivating the populace to accommodate its agenda; thus the clever propagandist masquerading as a journalist needs to master the fine art of threat understatement.

It simply won't do to issue grandiose warnings. People tend to challenge them mentally, and if there's absolutely nothing behind them -- a condition assumed for all government propaganda -- they end up in the mental scrap-heap occupied by such things as sugar overdosing, "Waterworld" and Nancy Sinatra.

It's always far better to understate the danger, and let the reader's imagination unconsciously draw the government's scary conclusion, which you have been paid to promote.

Witness Stone's educational example of how not to go about it:

"An adversary could use these same viruses to launch a digital blitzkrieg against the United States. It might send a worm to shut down the electric grid in Chicago and air-traffic-control operations in Atlanta, a logic bomb to open the floodgates of the Hoover Dam and a sniffer to gain access to the funds-transfer networks of the Federal Reserve."

We were delighted by 'send a worm to shut down the electric grid in Chicago' as it seems to have a quite clever literary backbone to it, regardless of its essential dorkiness.

O Rose, thou art sick!
The invisible worm
That flies in the night,
In the howling storm,

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

    -- William Blake

Great stuff there, but we rather think it's a coincidence. Nevertheless, the clever propagandist should employ literary allusion, as it transfers the authority of work the reader likely respects onto your own drivel, thereby ennobling it to some degree.

In any case, the grotesque overstatements of opening the flood gates of one of the world's largest dams and crippling one of its largest cities backfire for poor Stone; and not even the Rose allusion (assuming it was conscious) can save her.

To have done it right, she might have written something like "release a worm in the night, to find unwary victims," which is a fair statement that would allow the Blake to work subtly on the reader's imagination.

Timing

Now, for Heaven's sake make sure your propaganda piece either contains some actual news, or at least appears to. Remember, the government is paying you good money for it, and they deserve a decent product in return. So if you can't come up with anything new, at least find an angle, a twist, an insight, that comes across as unique.

Again, a quick Google session would have led Stone to thousands of similar articles stretching back years, to which she could have applied a bit of imagination and ingenuity and happened upon a detail which the others missed, and which she could have used as a hook.

Unfortunately, she does nothing but reiterate verbatim the same, tired message that Richard Clarke, John Hamre, Michael Vatis, Louis Freeh and Janet Reno have been hammering into the heads of an enervated populace for ages.

Here again, the author underestimates her audience's basic intelligence, reading comprehension and memory. To get it right, you've got to grant your reader some credit -- don't try to pass off old background noise as news; but do let readers use their cognitive faculties to reach the conclusion you want. Otherwise, they'll sense they're being led by the nose and shut you out.

In other words, even the dullest USA Today McNews junkie has got to be distinguished from a victim of advanced Alzheimer's disease for a propaganda piece to be effective.

Stone's performance is a disgrace. We say the DoD has been cheated, and should demand an immediate, full refund. ®

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