Security agencies attempt to stifle Internet discourse

For many young Americans, the Internet is not only their primary source of news, but also a forum to freely exchange ideas and opinions. Seeing as we mostly absorb information from perusing a vast conglomeration of Facebook newsfeeds, Twitter feeds, emails, blogs and various news websites, it’s not a stretch to say the Internet holds great power in affecting our opinions.

elder_nsaLast week, journalist Glenn Greenwald released several documents from the Snowden archive on The Intercept that detail how a coalition of western government agencies are attempting to manipulate public opinion online through various cyber tactics involving deceit and libel. Aside from being illegal and unconstitutional, these methods threaten to compromise the integrity of the Internet as a public forum.

The leaked documents come from the Joint Threat Research Intelligence Group, a secret unit belonging to the British Government Communications Headquarters. These documents were reportedly presented to the NSA as well as the rest of the “Five Eyes” Alliance ­— the surveillance pact between the U.S., Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

I strongly urge everyone to read Greenwald’s write-up, which does a great job of explaining the sinister objectives of these documents.

“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. To see how extremist these programs are, just consider 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.”

The extent of these tactics reaches far beyond the NSA’s original intention of tracking terrorist activity through the collection of metadata. One would think that the so-called “targets” of these defamatory methods would consist of groups threatening national security: e.g. terrorist networks, military agencies and enemy governments. But JTRIG seems to instead be focusing on “hacktivists” — a broad characterization of individuals who use the Internet to air their dissent.

Enough is enough. I was able to tolerate the privacy violations of my email and social media accounts as a cost of neutralizing the terrorist threat, but I will not tolerate intelligence agencies tainting the reputations of people who have no connection to matters of terrorism and national security just because they disagree with them. When did we invest in our government agencies’ powers the capacity for libel?

While this activity is alarming, it’s certainly not anything new. In a series of covert maneuvers known as COINTELPRO, the FBI spread false information throughout the ’60s and early ’70s to smear an assortment of anti-war groups, leftist organizations, and even civil rights groups. The crucial difference here is the involvement of the Internet.

Furthermore, the documents display plans for covert infiltration of online activist communities with the intent of stifling debate. In other words, the GCHQ and NSA are paying people to infiltrate forums and social news websites to discredit certain ideas. How exactly is this done?

There is no way to ascertain the veracity of such a case, but not long ago the moderators over at social news site Reddit (which houses more than 2 million subscribed members) repeatedly censored the Greenwald report on government manipulation of the Internet. The site has yet to officially reply on the matter, but such alarming conduct severely undermines the Reddit’s integrity as a stage for legitimate political discourse.

Considering the lack of mainstream media coverage this story is getting, it’s easy to dismiss the evidence in Greenwald’s report as the speculation of some crazy conspiracy theorists. Granted, many conspiracy theorists do seem crazy, but what if Greenwald’s report is actually evidence of a large conspiracy? Have we been conditioned into thinking that anyone who believes the government would possibly scheme against us is a lunatic?

It isn’t an accident that news similar to Greenwald’s report gets regulated to fringe sites and blogs that the public already heavily discredits. One of the major cyber tactics in the leaked documents describes an agent posing as a hardcore propagandist while posting false information, further damaging the credibility of these sources. As we’re conditioned as a society to flag these sources as the province of nutjobs, the issues they address seldom enter the realm of public debate.

As a public forum, the Internet should be a place for open political dissent. It’s disgraceful that the NSA and GCHQ are attempting to damage the reputations of people — who have nothing to do with terrorism ­— for merely voicing their political opinion. Moreover, the NSA has no right to stifle public discourse on the Internet, as its capacities are purely defensive.

Reach the columnist at Alexander.Elder@asu.edu or follow him on Twitter @ALEXxElder