One of the reasons that I started this blog was the fact that manipulation techniques were increasingly becoming commoditized. Years ago, manipulating customers, electorates, or media was the domain of a few skilled individuals. As a result, the overall level of manipulation was actually relatively low – the expertise just wasn’t there to handle 1,000 manipulations. That’s not to say that there wasn’t any manipulation, or that those manipulations were trivial, but overall manipulation as a science was in its early stages of development, and few understood how to use even the basic techniques that we’ve discussed here in the past. This kept the overall volume of manipulations at a decent level.
That changed since the 1990’s. What was once new and hard to do became known and relatively easy to do, if you had the means. Manipulation – or at least the basic techniques – became relatively easy to implement, and that means that a number of different intermediaries sprang up to offer manipulation services. In politics, these are essentially lobby firms (although they would argue they do more than manipulation), in business these are specialized consultants (often in marketing), and in media you have Fox News. Thanks to these intermediaries, manipulation became a lot more common and a lot cheaper.
Let’s take two examples of this type of commoditization, both fairly recent:
1. The American Action Group.
Remember this guy?
It’s Muammar Khadafi, of course. Tyrant, official leader of Libya until recently, and admirer of dusky U.S. former secretaries of state. He was not a nice guy: He planted bombs in the UK, blew up airlines, ordered entire towns to be destroyed, and generally behaved badly enough to put him on a select list of “world’s most hated” until fairly recently. His war crimes file alone is impressive, never mind what he and his family did on their personal time (don’t click unless you have a strong stomach).
A few months ago, as part of the Arab Spring, Libya’s rebels… well, rebelled, and Khadafi decided to fight. He had his army, with tanks and planes, and the rebels did not have either, which is a significant disadvantage when going to war in a flat desert. The rebels were defeated again and again, until only one town remained in their hands. They appealed to NATO, and, led by France of all nations, NATO began bombing the Libyan army ‘strike’ facilities, basically destroying their ability to fight the rebels (we called it Operation Odyssey Dawn in the US.) For Khadafi, the war became like fighting a midget, but with Andre the Giant holding your arms and one of your legs behind you as you did it.
This was a problem for Khadafi, but lucky for him the American Action Group came to the rescue. They sent Khadafi a letter, offering their services for $10M. What services? Why don’t we let the group speak for itself?
“Our group of Libyan sympathizers is extremely worried about this and we would like to help to block the actions of your international enemies and to support a normal working relationship with the United States Government.”
Wow. Block NATO? Set up a working relationship with the US? Just who was this American Action Group?
It was an eclectic group. There was Neil Livingstone, a US author and television personality currently running for Montana governor, and described as “a leading US anti-terrorism expert”. There was Dirk Borgers, a Belgian power broker. Neil Alpert, a lobbyist with the Republican National Committee. Marty Martin, a former CIA senior officer, and Randell Wood, a trial lawyer in Missouri.
It’s a weird group, and Khadafi died at the hands of the rebel before he could reply to this, so we will never know exactly what the group was planning had he paid them their “minimum non refundable fee“. But it’s interesting to note that the group might have been capable of significantly weakening US support for the NATO action. Consider the following facts:
A. Support for the US NATO participation was never very high. When the bombing started, 47% supported it, 36% opposed it. This is a healthy margin, but it is by no means one that cannot be overcome with a good manipulation campaign. In fact, later on in the year, the numbers reversed: 46% of Americans disapproved of the campaign, with only 39% approving.
B. This was partly thanks to a strong Republican push against the NATO campaign. Initially, the GOP supported helping the rebels. When Obama actually pushed the US into the NATO campaign, GOP sentiment turned, and several senators began to argue that a) the US should not be involved in another war, b) even if it was, bombing was not the way to do it, and c) Obama should have consulted with Congress much more before making this kind of decision. When the NATO campaign became a GOP vs Democrat issue, support against the campaign was bolstered by GOP voters who cared less about Libya as a standalone issue and more about weakening a Democratic president.
C. There were a lot of local issues demanding attention in the US, from the debt ceiling crisis (largely manufactured, but still in the news an awful lot) to the financial crisis beginning in Europe. NATO action against Libya was not a huge priority.
D. There was no ‘face’ to the Libyan rebels. No personality spoke for them, they were virtual unknowns prior to the war, and they were not an especially ‘appealing’ group from a media standpoint.
All of this made the job of the American Action Group at least possible. They could have done a number of things: a determined push to align the GOP against the war. Testimonial from respected anti-terrorist experts that ‘the rebels are worse than Khadafi’. A media campaign decrying US forces under command of European and *gasp* Canadian generals. Showcase of CIA – Khadafi links, showing that maybe he was actually a good guy in disguise.
None of those, singly, would have stopped the US participation in NATO, but all of them, carefully orchestrated? The goal would not have been to convince 100% of the US population that Khadafi was a great guy – merely make it painful enough to convince President Obama, with many other issues to deal with, to drop it and save himself another bruising fight.
And had such a campaign been done properly, the US would have withdrawn support for the action, NATO might have stumbled without US groups, the rebels would not have been able to count on NATO planes, Khadafi could have continued to hammer the rebels and eventually hold unto power. Best of all, no one would have ever heard of the American Action Group, and the critical role they played in changing global geopolitics. With $40B in the bank, $10M would have been a triviality for Khadafi, if it ensured that outcome…
2. Occupy Wall Street
I was at Occupy Wall Street two weeks ago (are you kidding? How could I miss that?) and talked to some of the protesters. I’m not involved in any aspect of OWS, but I do find the movement fascinating. I know many people dismiss it as useless, and it probably is right now, but it feels to me very much like an acorn – not much use now, but carrying within it the potential for a mighty oak. I’m not the only one who feels that way, obviously. A week ago, a memo came to light from a well-known lobbying firm, Clark Lytle Geduldig & Cranford, that offered, for a little less than $1M, to discredit OWS and to address its destructive potential:
“[OWS] can mean more than just short-term political discomfort for Wall Street firms. […] it has the potential to have very long-lasting, political, policy and financial impact on companies in the center of the bullseye.”
So, for $1M, the firm offered to address this threat. What’s interesting about that letter is that, unlike the Khadafi example, the letter from CLGC actually outlines what $1M buys the Wall Street firms:
– Polling data in various important states for the 2012 election, to understand the mood of voters there.
– An “analysis of OWS backers and funders”, with some opportunities to “construct fact-based negative narratives of the OWS”. Basically, they wanted to identify some backers of OWS, or some extreme elements, and then construct media-friendly ‘revelations’ to discredit OWS.
– A media campaign, because, as they noted, large Wall Street Firms can buy advertising and national campaigns much more easily than “grass-root” movements like OWS.
There’s much more, but you can read the full memo here. It should be mandatory reading for all serious manipulation students.
By the way, I do find it deeply ironic that a lobbying firm is suggesting ways to manipulate a movement that has, as one of its primary drivers, the anger over firms doing precisely that..
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The OWS memo is a good example of basic manipulation techniques: find some weaknesses, create some narratives, buy media and other channels to communicate your narrative and discredit the group, etc… It’s all pretty much a good but basic by-the-number lobbying firm effort, but these can be surprisingly effective (although I doubt it would actually work against OWS – at least, it’s not what I would have done to counter it, had I been asked to do it).
The fact that you can buy such services for less than $1M is the truly interesting thing here. If you believe that OWS has the potential to even slightly shift regulations against Wall Street firms by a tiny percent, the cumulative cost of that shift will be measured in hundreds of millions. Against that cost, a $1M fee to do basic manipulation against OWS makes perfectly good business sense.
When $1M buys you pretty good manipulation tools, it’s pretty obvious that for any serious issue, not buying manipulation services becomes stupid – why would you not use such a powerful and relatively cheap tool? The problem, of course, is that over time, as more and more interests actually hire lawyers, lobbyists, media and others to manipulate their pet issues, the overall level of manipulation of the population goes up and up and up. One of the things that I understood many years ago, perhaps better than most of these lobbying firms, is that once you reveal a manipulation, the manipulated are quite unhappy about it. And so I did wonder, as I walked through OWS, as to just how much manipulation a population can take before the peaceful protests become not so peaceful, and the anger of the manipulated find new channels that our friends the lobbyists and lawyers cannot yet imagine…