“And opponents, critics, journalists are targets, while content consumers are commodities in this new game of engineering perceptions”
By Maynard Manyowa
The concept has changed, not so much itself, but the adjectives used to describe the phenomenon of ‘perception engineering’, its purveyors, conveyors, and agents.
There is a long list of words, which perhaps symbolize, at each stage who has been considered ‘to blame’ for this phenomenon.
In reality, the evolution of names only demonstrates just how long propaganda has lived among us. Because that is essentially what it is. False facts aimed at creating a false perception for benefit and kicks.
Not so long ago, it was just called trolling. Then along the way, it became misinformation, made famous by ‘Web Brigades’; Russians employed full time to storm news websites and social media with a blatant pro-Kremlin agenda.
Along the way, it has accrued several names, from fake news, made famous by a chief financier of it, US President, Donald Trump, to names like ‘alternative facts’, and a South African favourite, ‘paid twitter’.
What is perhaps genius about perception engineering, is the fact that those behind it, have often endorsed campaigns that have targeted conveyors of truth, calling them conveyors of lies. In so doing, allowing everyone else to concentrate on the messengers and the message, and forget the sender.
In simple terms perception engineering is a dark art, whose goal is to denounce truth, by providing seemingly enlightened individuals in blocs who debunk by lies any information which is potentially harmful to the piper.
In the case of Russia, and Vladmir Putin, and tweet that has a geo-relevant hashtag is bombarded by thousands of profiles, essentially using the same tweet. Nomatter how honest and accurate the tweet or report may have been, if it paints Kremlin in a negative manner, the ‘bots’ will attack it and contest it with alternative facts. (Which I must state, are not facts at all, but made up lies and stats simply meant to confuse the reader on the fence)
It is a strategy that often requires more than just made up lies. Often involving deep doxing activities; a practice where people look for personally identifiable information on a user they dislike and use that to humiliate and bully them online.
Yet, perception engineering is not even the appropriate term. This is mere propaganda, albeit an evolved version of propaganda that went to private school!
The Russian model, though focused on promoting a pro-Kremlin agenda has given birth to a new phenomenon altogether.
Huge Public Relations companies have now adopted this dark art of ‘perception engineering’, understanding that, Public Relations is ultimately about controlling public perceptions.
This is not fake news. Nay. This is a dangerous game, where the rich and powerful deliberately use falsehoods to clean the dirty and dirty the clean. It is a wicked game whose meaningful end is to whiten cruel autocrats and paint in black, proponents of truth.
The damage can be catastrophic. In South Africa, a UK based PR Firm, Bell Potitnger, has been recently exposed for deliberately using fake social media profiles to achieve these despicable ends.
In their attempt to clean the image of an Indian family, the Guptas, who stand accused with proof, of exercising undue influence on the state, capturing its institutions, and operating like modern day demi Gods, the PR firm, created a scapegoat ‘White Monopoly’, and blamed it for everything wrong in the country.
Emails, sent between the firm’s reps and members of the Gupta family and their associates show that the firm sought to intentionally sow racial discord in the country as means of cleaning the dirty and dirtying the clean.
But they are not the only ones. In the USA, President Trump, engaged a firm called Cambridge Analytica, to do exactly the same thing (They deny it). Find a scapegoat in CNN, NY Times and other conventional media, then demonise them, and then storm social media with fake ‘expert’ bots who not only contest the negative views, but offer an alternative of ‘evil organized capital’ working against the subject of initial negative reporting.
Yet South Africa and USA offer grand scheme, but rather subtle (by no means playing down) examples of this phenomenon. I say so because both countries, despite being led by leaders who would have easily qualified as clowns not too long ago, are endowed with exceptionally strong institutions which are difficult to manipulate.
South Africa and USA are perhaps among the top global beacons with regards to fundamental human rights, development, and emancipation. Despite being led by what many term looneys, their institutions have forced some semblance of normalcy to remain in tact.
The most concerning development is that, dictators, far and wide, are learning from this phenomenon, and they are adopting it. After all, it is a successful method. Those that use it, are able to, divert attention first, create scapegoats second, promote their own agenda third, leave with a clean perception fourth, and escape scrutiny fifth. It is an unparalleled 101 on how to get away with murder!
From Morroco, Ethiopia, to Eritrea, to Rwanda, and even Kenya on a small scale, paid bots have taken over, and their big target is much too often, any journalist who reports on any negative phenomenon.
Director of Vanguard Africa, Jeffery Smith, has been subject to assaults by bots on behalf of autocrats from all these places. As we speak, in Kenya, a hashtag, #NasaExposed is being force trended by ‘paid twitter’.
It is all about him, and claims that Smith is funding opposition movements on behalf of the American government, and has miraculously used American advanced hacking techniques to gain monopoly of the electoral system and will use it to engineer a win for former Prime Minister and perennial opposition candidate, Raila Odinga.
Of course all of these claims are bottom barrel hogwash and horse crap! But the engineers of this perception know that they can create doubt among several readers who look at institutions like Vanguard Africa to help disseminate accurate information about what dictators do in private.
It is not far off. Just last year, Jeffery Smith played a significant role in Gambia, ending an over two-decade dictatorship through ingenious work, assisting opposition figures with advice, strategy, and ideas.
As elections are nearing in Kenya, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe. Smith will only find himself under increasing attack. He is not alone. People like Peter Bruce in South Africa, and journalists, like myself, who have written anything on these countries have increasingly found our self under attack.
The campaign against Jeffery got worse, a few weeks ago, when Smith re-tweeted an article I wrote about tribal bloc voting in Kenya. It got even worse when I myself re-tweeted an article about press freedom in Eritrea. Jeffery Smith concedes that it can only get worse too.
“It’s pretty widespread”, he says to me. “If you look at all the re-tweets (attacking me), its all the same, and its same tweets” he adds.
“I am glad you are writing about this. It will only get worse with elections in Rwanda and Kenya coming up”
But the perception engineers are not very smart, neither are they fool proof. (Although they do not care). Most of the accounts they use have very generic names, have little or no followers, but tweet incessantly about one agenda.
It is not uncommon to find an account with 100,000 tweets, about the same thing only. Most often about the Western Sahara, or Pro-Eritrea-Anti-Ethiopia (or reverse), anti-white and pro black, or things like that.
Something which is strange. Just imagine a normal real human being tweeting hundred thousand times about the same agenda, with only 5-6 followers, but following every pro or anti news personality for the purposes of endorsement or attack.
But as I said, the people behind these attacks do not really care. Most people do not really go beyond a tweet or submission to verify authenticity of users. In their mind, if 20 people state that something is true or false based on some stat or phenomena (unproven), it is pointless to verify the authenticity of the account, nor the facts stated. People generally love the majority. In this case, a false mirage of the majority.
Dictators have found this out, and fake social media profiles are their new favourite toys. They are not holding back, and are using PR firms with little integrity to launch assaults all over. Ethical journalists are their first targets, political opponents are the second targets, and normal citizens, consumers of social media content are their commodities.
What is perhaps unfortunate is that, those who are targets of this ‘professional trolling’ have little to do about it. Celebrates author, Ron Jonson, in his book “So you have been publicly shamed”, starts by accounting his experiences with a bot determined to do damage.
In follow up submissions, he explains how difficult it has been to get Twitter to regulate this wanton abuse.
Facebook has tried to go steps further, allowing members to report accounts suspected to be fake.
In my case, 6 out of the 10 accounts that were harassing me with fake claims that I am a fake person who does not exist in real life, and a persona of an editor of Mugabe’s mouthpiece ‘The Herald’ were shut down completely after I reported them.
Whilst Facebook did not respond to efforts for formal reaction, they attempted to act. The same cannot be said about twitter. Efforts to get them to assist in my case did not yield. Other peers have seen the same.
“I doubt you’ll get anything from them (Twitter), unfortunately. I’ve reported several people attacking me, using violence and hate speech, and nothing.”
In a sense, he is right. Ron Jonson wrote extensively about this as well. Twitter simply seems uninterested in ending abuse, and fake profiles.
This even though it is driving users away from its network, and secondly, it renders their advertising network ecosystem undesirable – because no one wants to have their ads seen by fake profiles who cannot engage in rewarding actions. (As such twitter continues on a downward to stable outlook while its peers grow – itself a matter for another day)
What remains clear, is that, with a gullible audience, and a social network not keen on finding ways to end ‘professional bots aimed at baiting’, dictators are fast discovering that the power social media once held in the fight against them, can be harnessed, turned by them, to work for them. It is a new toy, and one working wonders for them.
Maynard Manyowa is a journalist and the editor of Khuluma Afrika- a nonpartisan center for investigative journalism, and political analysis in Africa.