Showing posts with label propaganda. Show all posts
Showing posts with label propaganda. Show all posts

11 July 2018

Wet Work

by David Edgerley Gates

The Russian security services are well-practiced at what's known in the trade as Active Measures: Mokrye Dela, which loosely translates into "Wet Stuff." They've been doing it for a long time now. 

The assassination of Trotsky in Mexico in 1940, or the suspect suicide of defector Walter Krivitsky in a Washington hotel room in 1941. They used an ice axe on Trotsky. Krivitsky was found with a hole in his head and a .38 revolver in his hand.

The methods get more sophisticated. Georgi Markov in London, and Vladimir Kostov in Paris, were targeted by the Bulgarian DS, under KGB discipline. This was 1978. The vehicle was a tiny metal pellet containing ricin. A dose equivalent to a few grains of table salt is fatal. The delivery system was the by-now-notorious poisoned umbrella tip. Markov died, Kostov survived, but due only to a technical failure. The special protective coating on the pellet dissolves at human body temperature and releases the toxin; in Kostov's case, the coating was compromised.

2006. London. Alexander Litvinenko. An unstable polonium isotope. It took him three weeks to die, excruciatingly.

2018. Salisbury, UK. Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. A nerve agent in the Novichok family. Both victims survived. (But two British nationals suffered Novichok poisoning symptoms four months after the Skripals, and one died. How they came in contact with that specific toxin is unknown, as of this writing.)

This is by way of prologue, for those who may be skeptical of blaming the Russians for God knows what, or imagine it's some variation on Red-baiting. They've been practicing disinformation for a very long time, as well. If you didn't know, for example, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a forgery cooked up by the Czarist secret service, the Okhrana. You might have guessed which road I'm going down, here. Disinformation and the 2016 election.

Let's dispense with the denials. Facts don't matter, in matters of belief. We know that. Only faith counts. If you want to think Hillary Clinton ran a pedophile ring out of the basement of a DC pizza parlor, you're not going to doubt your convictions when you find out the pizza joint in question doesn't have a basement. It's obvious I'm only trying to throw sand in your eyes, distract you with inessentials, because the essential is the Deep State, the interlocking conspiracy of - ah, Jesus. I don't have the patience. You can insert [BLANK] here, fluoridation, alien abductions, or whatever the latest grievance is.

Stop me if you've heard this. Let's talk means, motive, and opportunity. Actually, motive doesn't need to take up much of our time. It's obvious the Russians are enjoying terrific benefits at our expense. The minimum damage is a widening mistrust of American political institutions, along with the collapse of a common language and our failure to engage in a national conversation. We've turned a deaf ear to any voices but our own.

Now of course this is a self-inflicted wound, and we didn't need the Russians to help, but why should they stand idly by when the opportunity was  offered to them?

People, understandably, get stuck on the means. Social media seems so transient, and shallow. How can a platform that gives us the internal monologues of Kanye and Kim have such a fatal effect? How can it be so consequential?

The penetration of social media in the everyday, its ubiquity, and the Internet presence generally, is too big a mouthful for me. That's cultural anthropology, or maybe sociopathology, if such exists. I'm just taking a look at the mechanics. If you can fix a horse race, how do you fix the Internet, in that same sense?

There's a tool content providers use called Search Engine Optimization - SEO. It's similar in a way to product placement, in a movie or on TV, a shot of the Apple logo, or a Dos Equis label on a bottle of beer. You want to draw web traffic to your sites, your sponsors, your content. A lot of web content masquerades as information. When you search for 'dental implants,' for example, or 'Mini-Cooper replacement wiper blades,' very often the top result is a tutorial. It appears as information, but it's a stealth sales pitch. The way to get Google's filters to feature this result is with trigger phrases, which optimize the search. The trick is to second-guess which keywords are most likely to be entered as search parameters, which games the system.

Search algorithms provide the closest match. You can load the dice. The higher the frequency of your triggers, the higher your SEO, and the higher results you'll return. It's pretty much an article of faith that most people won't scroll past the first ten results of any given search, and if you could weight the results, it might appear there was consensus on, say, the efficacy of dental implants.

We can apply this lesson in virtual marketing to any kind of content. Suppose we could leverage Benghazi to mean not simply a place on the map, but a leadership failure of the Obama presidency and the personal responsibility of then Secretary of State Clinton. If every web search generated six or eight results that followed this narrative, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was the received wisdom.

Stories like this can be placed using private blog networks or dummy websites. These are the robocall centers of the Internet. One will sell space on 900 sites for twenty bucks a pop. Another publishes on a network of 2,000 sites for $225. These sites aren't curated, not in the sense of being checked for accuracy. Their purpose is to maximize search hits, and boost traffic volume, which multiplies the hits exponentially,  and so on. It's circular.

It's not as dramatic as a daylight terror attack, and it doesn't have the same deterrent effect as throwing a turbulent priest or muck-raking journalist off the top of a forty-story building, but the fact that it's so pedestrian actually recommends it. It's basically a data-driven model of what's long been known as Black Propaganda.

The question isn't why would the Russians want to poison the American political well, the question is why wouldn't they? They're playing the long game. This isn't some anti-Bolshevik hysteria, this is geopolitics, the place of nations, the uses of power. Clandestine warfare is no less real or violent for being hidden.

*

And some BSP.  David Edgerley Gates and Eve Fisher are both featured in the July/August 2018 double issue of ALFRED HITCHCOCK. 



09 July 2014

The Leslie Howard Mystery

by David Edgerley Gates

This is about a personal enthusiasm - although I might not be the only one, if you're into older, classic movies - and it's also a little bit about eating crow.


Leslie Howard was a big star, between the wars. He made his bones as a stage actor, and then hit the big-time when he came to Hollywood. His best-known pictures are THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL, PETRIFIED FOREST, and, of course, GONE WITH THE WIND. As it happens, he hated playing Ashley Wilkes. He thought he was way too old for the part, and he remarked that when they got him in costume, he looked like "that sissy doorman at the Beverly Wilshire." Which raises the following question.

I always thought Leslie Howard was kind of effeminate. He certainly camped it up in SCARLET PIMPERNEL. But it turns out, in real life, that he was a disarming charmer, who may very well have slept with most of his leading ladies. ("I don't chase women, but I couldn't always be bothered to run away.") That languid persona he developed for the movies wasn't him at all. He was in fact an earthy kind of guy.

He was also extremely loyal to his friends. The story goes that when PETRIFIED FOREST was made into a movie, from the stage play, Warners wanted Eddie Robinson for Duke Mantee - the character based on Dillinger - but Howard held out for Bogart, because they'd done the play together. Bogart runs away with the picture, and it made him an A-list star.

Howard was deeply loyal to England, as well. He described himself as a man with two homes, America, which had made his fortune, and the UK, where he was born. When the war broke out, in 1939, he went back, and he wasn't the only one. There was a big Brit colony in Hollywood, and some of the guys who could have made a bundle, sitting the war out, went home instead and applied for active service. David Niven, for one, had been to Sandhurst, and was commissioned in the Highland Light Infantry, before he got into movies, and he got his commission back. Noel Coward, who was arguably the most famous of the Brits expats at the time, volunteered for war work, and found himself seconded to the Secret Service. All three of them wound up making propaganda pictures, too. Niven did THE WAY AHEAD, Coward wrote and directed IN WHICH WE SERVE, Leslie Howard put his shoulder to the wheel with 49th PARALLEL.


Niven and Noel Coward survived the war. Leslie Howard didn't. He was on a civil aircraft, flying to Lisbon, when the plane was shot down by German fighters over the Bay of Biscay, in 1943. There's a lot of speculation about this incident. For one thing, the Luftwaffe pilots were operating well beyond their normal patrol zone. For another, did German intelligence know Howard was aboard the plane? Evidence suggests they did. A lot of the German spy nets in Britain had been rolled up or turned, but some were still active, and it wouldn't have been that hard to get the passenger list. Howard was regarded by the Germans as a very able and dangerous propagandist for the British war effort, even possibly a covert agent. But maybe he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Knowing how he died, if not exactly why, puts a different spin on things, in retrospect. Here's where I eat crow. Maybe he really was the Scarlet Pimpernel, masquerading as a hapless fop, an exaggerated stage Englishman, languid and fey. Far from it, it appears.


What changed my mind about him is 49th PARALLEL. This is one of the many collaborations between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger - the most celebrated being THE RED SHOES - but the real muscle behind it is Leslie Howard, who takes no on-screen producer credit. In brief, here's the storyline. It's 1939, and Canada, as a Commonwealth country, has entered WWII in support of Great Britain (the US, as yet, is still sitting on the fence). A roving German sub attacks Allied shipping off the east coast of Canada, and is then hunted down and sunk, but they've left behind a landing party, sent ashore to forage. The surviving U-boat crew tries to evade pursuit, and runs all the way across Canada. Little by little, their numbers are whittled away until only one of them is left.


The trick of the movie is that the fugitive German is the common thread, although he's not sympathetic, but he meets all manner of people while he's on the run, Eskimos, Hudson Bay trappers, Hutterite farmers, Indians, you name it, and it doesn't make a dent. He's a convinced Nazi, and his exposure to these other people only hardens him in his conviction. You'd think he was on a journey of redemption, but it ain't so.


The line-up of cameos is pretty amazing. Laurence Olivier, Finlay Currie, Anton Walbrook, Glynis Johns, Raymond Massie, Leslie Howard himself. They play the characters whose lives the German interrupts, and it's no stretch to imagine Howard, as unnamed executive producer, getting them on board. What - a couple of days on the shoot, and ten minutes of screen time? Olivier, bless his heart, is terrible, phony French trapper accent and all. But when, near the end, you get to the Leslie Howard scenes, it's incredible. He plays his trademark lightweight, silly and dandyish, a sheep to be sheared, and then he suddenly turns into an Old Testament revenge figure, iron in his bones. 

So who was he, really? A shape-shifter. A guy who worked at his trade, enjoyed it enormously, and made good money at it. He once remarked that an actor can't conceal himself. He did a fair job of it, though. The mystery of Leslie Howard isn't in his self-deprecating appeal, but in what he didn't often show. The naked steel.