THE Scottish independence movement should consider the implications of leaked GCHQ documents that boast of using ‘“false flag operations” (posting material to the internet and falsely attributing it to someone else) to manipulate online discourse and activism and generate outcomes it considers desirable’, Glenn Greenwald – the journalist who broke the Snowden revelations – has claimed in a series of reports published in 2014.
Image: GCHQ headquarters, Cheltenham England, released by Ministry of Defence under an Open Government Licence v1.0
What is GCHQ?
The UK Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) is the centre for Her Majesty’s Government’s Signal Intelligence activities, responsible for gathering, analysing and distributing intelligence, collected from intercepted communications between people and from electronic communications.
According to its website, GCHQ employs over 6,000 people and has a budget, in combination with other security services organisations Military Intelligence, Section 5 (MI5) and the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) of over £2.5 billion per year:
‘Employing over 6,000 people from a range of diverse backgrounds, we strive to keep Britain safe and secure by working with our partners in the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and MI5. Our headquarters is based in Cheltenham, with regional hubs in Scarborough, Bude, Harrogate and Manchester.’
Greenwald’s article based on leaked security documents suggests that:
‘Among the core self-identified purposes of [GCHQ’s previously secret unit] JTRIG are two tactics: (1) to inject all sorts of false material onto the internet in order to destroy the reputation of its targets; and (2) to use social sciences and other techniques to manipulate online discourse and activism to generate outcomes it considers desirable.”
“… the tactics they boast of using to achieve those ends: “false flag operations” (posting material to the internet and falsely attributing it to someone else), fake victim blog posts (pretending to be a victim of the individual whose reputation they want to destroy), and posting “negative information” on various forums. ‘
Democracy under threat
Arguably, the pro-Scottish independence YES campaign dominated online campaigning during the lead-up to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.
However, if GCHQ is prepared to use the kinds of tactics mentioned above, this should worry the Scottish independence movement, particularly in light of recent concerns raised by experts at the London School of Economics (LSE) about the implications of unregulated online political campaigning and what this means for the UK’s electoral processes.
‘Damian Tambini, director of the media policy project at the [London School of Economics (LSE)], who heads [a] group made up of leading experts in the field, said that new forms of online campaigning had not only changed the ways that political parties target voters but, crucially, had also altered the ability of big money interests to manipulate political debate.’
‘”There is a real danger that public trust in the democratic process will be lost. There is real potential for foreign influence. We have now the ability to manipulate public opinion on a level we have never seen before. And the current framework is weak and helpless.”’
In light of a possible Scottish independence referendum in 2018-19 and given that Scottish independence is, by its nature, an existential threat to the UK state, it is worth considering how anti-independence forces might try and control the online campaigning environment in the future.
Interestingly, from a Scottish perspective and in connection with Greenwald‘s report, GCHQ mentions the “UK” as one of its security priorities. GCHQ states on it’s FAQs web page:
‘… we all [GCHQ, MI5 and MI6] work to protect the UK, its citizens, and interests at home and abroad, against a variety of threats. Where GCHQ specialises in gaining intelligence from communications, MI5 and MI6 both deal with human intelligence. MI5 focuses their efforts within the UK and MI6 focuses on gathering intelligence outside the UK.
The following are relevant excerpts taken from Greenwald‘s report (NOTE: the following paragraphs are not in the original order in which they were published – read the original report in full here: https://theintercept.com/2014/02/24/jtrig-manipulation/).
‘… these GCHQ documents are the first to prove that a major western government is using some of the most controversial techniques to disseminate deception online and harm the reputations of targets. Under the tactics they use, the state is deliberately spreading lies on the internet about whichever individuals it targets, including the use of what GCHQ itself calls “false flag operations”’
‘I want to focus and elaborate on the overarching point revealed by all of these documents: namely, that these agencies are attempting to control, infiltrate, manipulate, and warp online discourse, and in doing so, are compromising the integrity of the internet itself.’
‘Over the last several weeks, I worked with NBC News to publish a series of articles about “dirty trick” tactics used by GCHQ’s previously secret unit, JTRIG (Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group).’
‘GCHQ describes the purpose of JTRIG in starkly clear terms: “using online techniques to make something happen in the real or cyber world,” including “information ops (influence or disruption).”’
‘Critically, the “targets” for this deceit and reputation-destruction extend far beyond the customary roster of normal spycraft … In fact, the discussion of many of these techniques occurs in the context of using them in lieu of “traditional law enforcement” against people suspected (but not charged or convicted) of ordinary crimes or, more broadly still, “hacktivism”, meaning those who use online protest activity for political ends.’
‘Among the core self-identified purposes of JTRIG are two tactics: (1) to inject all sorts of false material onto the internet in order to destroy the reputation of its targets; and (2) to use social sciences and other techniques to manipulate online discourse and activism to generate outcomes it considers desirable.’
‘… the tactics they boast of using to achieve those ends: “false flag operations” (posting material to the internet and falsely attributing it to someone else), fake victim blog posts (pretending to be a victim of the individual whose reputation they want to destroy), and posting “negative information” on various forums. ‘
‘… Gabriella Coleman of McGill University told me, “targeting Anonymous and hacktivists amounts to targeting citizens for expressing their political beliefs, resulting in the stifling of legitimate dissent.” Pointing to this study she published, Professor Coleman vehemently contested the assertion that “there is anything terrorist/violent in their actions.”’
‘Government plans to monitor and influence internet communications, and covertly infiltrate online communities in order to sow dissension and disseminate false information, have long been the source of speculation. Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein, a close Obama adviser and the White House’s former head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, wrote a controversial paper in 2008 proposing that the US government employ teams of covert agents and pseudo-”independent” advocates to “cognitively infiltrate” online groups and websites, as well as other activist groups.’
Respectful debate key to healthy Scottish political system
Even if the kind of tactics, highlighted above, are not used directly by UK security services against pro-independece campaigners, it is always possible that other anti-independence actors could use these methods. Therefore, and in light of the fundamentally serious concerns raised here by Greenwald, campaigners involved in the YES movement would do well to consider how best they might handle these kinds of tactics.
One obvious conclusion is that threatening or abusive language or violent behaviour, can and will be used to undermine the Scottish independence movement.
Anyone indulging in such language or behaviour – either claiming to be pro or anti-independence – is working against the interests of the people of Scotland and, of course, the Scottish independence movement.
As Scotland’s First Minster, Nicola Sturgeon, recently said:
“The Scottish Government has a special responsibility to build consensus where we can,” she said. “So I will ensure that at all times we make our case not just with passion and conviction, but with courtesy, empathy and respect.”
Read Greenwald‘s original report in full here: https://theintercept.com/2014/02/24/jtrig-manipulation/
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