Posts by YouArebeingManipulatedNews:

    Corporate Sabotage part 1

    January 17th, 2014



    By Marhalt.

    Competition is good – the whole idea of competition is that corporations will compete with one another, and in the process develop new, better, cheaper products. Often, it does – and the company with the better product goes on to reap rich rewards, until the next battle. And, at each iteration, we the customers benefit! It’s a good system. Occasionally, though, this doesn’t work as expected – because some companies have figured out that destroying the competition is a lot easier than coming up with some better product.

    dreamstime s 29814047 300x300 Corporate Sabotage part 1

    Corporate sabotage can take many forms. One of the most famous form is the kamikaze sabotage – where a company consciously destroys a product to kill off its competitor’s.

    Do you remember this?

    Crystal pepsi Corporate Sabotage part 1

    This is was Crystal Pepsi. If you’ve never seen it before, not to worry. It was a real but short-lived product – introduced by Pepsi in 1992, it was the first of the “clear Colas”: basically, a caffeine-free clear soda that was marketed as a new, fresher, healthier soda. It launched to Van Halen’s “Right now” song, it was healthy (ok, healthier) and clean-looking and different, and it should have been a huge hit.

    And initially, it was. Sales spiked, and then, after a few months, started to level off and drop quickly. Eventually the product was pulled from the shelves, and sodas remained black forever thereafter.

    images Corporate Sabotage part 1

    So what happened? Some blamed Crystal Pepsi’s taste, but initial taste tests and consumer reaction was pretty strong. So why did consumers eventually turn against the drink?

    This could be the answer:

    TaB Clear can 150x300 Corporate Sabotage part 1

    This was Coca Cola’s response to Crystal Pepsi: Tab Clear.

    You should notice a few intriguing things about this Tab Clear: first, it was only ever available in opaque cans, which is odd for a clear drink. Secondly, it focuses heavily on the “diet” component, with a package that is almost reminiscent of a medical drink or a cough syrup. And even the name, Tab Clear, was vaguely… off: Tab was a much weaker brand than Pepsi – why not fight flagship brand against flagship brand? So why did Coke introduce its competitor to Crystal Pepsi in such a bizarre way?

    The then-CMO of Coke, Sergio Zyman, eventually talked  about this, several years after the fact. Coke had realized that they needed an answer to Crystal Pepsi, but rather than try to introduce a better cola, Coke had an idea – change the perception of Crystal Pepsi. Whatever drink Coke introduced, they knew that it would be immediately compared to and associated with Crystal Pepsi. Both products would be placed next to each others on the shelves, for example, and the two drinks would continue the Great Cola Wars that had already been raging for decades. But rather than introduce a ‘Crystal Coke’, Coke introduced a medicinal, diet drink, and basically recast the entire category. Instead of giving clear colas a cool new vibe, Tab Clear made them a diet, medicinal drink. In a few months, Tab Clear was dead – but so was Pepsi Clear. Coke had essentially introduced a kamikaze – a brand doomed to fail – and had made sure that its demise also took its competitors. By ‘ruining’ clear sodas, Coke lost Tab Clear, but also killed Pepsi Clear, a much larger threat to Coca Cola overall.

    kamikaze Corporate Sabotage part 1

    This is a good example of corporate kamikaze sabotage, but there are other forms of corporate sabotage as well. One of the more funny one is often called brown-washing.

    Basically, brown-washing is trying to paint your opponent in a terrible light, usually without a shred of substance. It has a long history. Thomas Edison, for example, once found himself in competition with Nikola Tesla, probably one of the few men who was more brilliant than he was. Both men had schemes to transport electricity from utility to homes – Edison backed a scheme called DC (direct current), and Tesla backed AC (alternative current). For a variety of technical reasons, AC is actually far superior when you’re trying to move electricity around, which is why every utility on the globe uses it today. But back in Edison’s day, the debate was not settled, but Edison knew that, if the decision was made completely objectively, he would lose. So what to do?

    Edison decided to electrocute an elephant.

    index Corporate Sabotage part 1

    No, seriously. Edison found an elephant that had attacked his keeper, and that was scheduled to be put down as a precaution. Instead of shooting it, which was the procedure to kill elephants back then, he campaigned to have the elephant electrocuted instead… using Tesla’s AC!

    Edison was hoping to prove how dangerous Tesla’s AC was by showing that it can kill an elephant. Of course, this was nonsense – enough electricity can shock anything, whether DC or AC (DC is actually more dangerous in some circumstances). But Edison wanted to paint his rival’s invention in a negative light, and, for a while, he succeeded – no one knew the spec differences between AC and DC, but they knew that AC “was the one that killed the elephant”. Edison was a master showman, and brown-washing came naturally to him.

    There are many examples of brown-washing. For example, you may have heard about the famous reading of War of the Worlds on radio?

    ku xlarge 300x166 Corporate Sabotage part 1

    The story that most people heard is that when “War of the Worlds” was first read on the radio, thousands mistook it for a real news report of extra-terrestrial invasion. People escaped the cities, families hid in basements, reservists showed up for duty, several people killed themselves, and general mayhem ensued. It’s a well-known story that is variously used to illustrate the power of good narrative, the gullibility of the 1930′s crowds, or H.G. Well’s skills.

    But the fact is that the story is, itself, largely made up.

    When researchers went back to look at the extent of the actual panic, they found very, very little. No suicides. No crazy crowds trying to escape the cities. Mostly, it seems, the broadcast was met with concern by some listeners who mistook the aliens for German troops.So where did the story of panic striking the nation actually come from??

    The newspapers largely made it up. You see, back in 1938, radio was starting to become a force to be reckoned with. Newspapers were getting very nervous at this new source of information that was taking readers away from them. Fearful of their future, newspapers started to attack radio on the grounds of being “too quick”. How can you trust a source, they said, which didn’t really take the time to investigate, to research, to print? So when the War of the Worlds broadcast happened, newspapers (especially those owned by Hearst, the Fox of the day) decided to pounce on it. Some newspapers used the opportunity to decry how stupid radio listeners were in general. Other noted with pride that listeners who were scared called the newspapers offices to ask whether the news they were hearing on radio was true (with the clear implication that only newspapers were trusted news source). The entire story became an attempt of the newspapers industry to brown-wash the emerging competitor, radio, and make it seem like a dangerous, untrustworthy alternative to newspapers.

    Craiglist. Corporate Sabotage part 1

    * * *

    There is a fair bit of corporate sabotage going on even today. It’s a form of manipulation that is time-honored and fairly effective: Microsoft used it extensively when it was a dominant player to destroy upstarts before they could become threatening, and more are using it every day as they discover that it is a LOT easier than competition. And, unlike individuals, corporations rarely go to jail or pay hefty fines for sabotage activities…

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    Reality Show Update 2013

    January 15th, 2014


    By Marhalt.

    So here we are at year’s end again, and it’s time for our annual review of reality shows, as we did in 2012 and in 2011. So without further ado, how real were the shows in 2013?

    duck dynasty men 300x150 Reality Show Update 2013


    Tradition demands that we review at least one previous ranked show. Let’s do this with one of the most popular breakout shows this year, Duck Dynasty. It’s now the second-most watched cable shows of all time. It got a 7/10on our reality scale last year. How is it fairing today? As the show has aged, to some extent it is becoming less and less real.  The show itself is largely staged – watch any episode, and you will see fairly typical sitcom situations: a central plot, a subplot, and a resolution around the dinner table at the end. In that sense, even the family doesn’t try too hard to pretend that this is “reality” in any real sense. Having said this, though, the characters are largely who they are. We said in 2012 that as the ratings grew, the temptation would be very real to make the show more and more contrived, and that has happened (e.g. a finale in Hawaii). The characters are still real – if anything, A&E has been trying to downplay some of the more offensive aspects of some of the characters as the series becomes more mainstream, and that part is relatively real. So we’re going to go with a 5/10 – relatively real characters, staged situations but not scripted – yet!


    index Reality Show Update 2013


    Dancing with the stars is a different type of reality show – unlike most reality show which crafts characters into villains and heroes, the show invites celebrities that already have a following, a narrative, and then makes then dance with experienced dancers before eliminating them one by one. In that sense, it’s not an easy show to manipulate: viewers can actually see the dances, and it is hard to manipulate the outcome too much. Accordingly, Dave gave this a rating of 8/10. There have been allegations of some past stars that the pairs are eliminated in a secret sequence designed to maximize ratings, and that is probably true – the main reason the show has judges is to ‘shape’ the popular opinion of each dancing couple and exert some influence over the outcome (why would a dancing / voting show need judges otherwise), and the only reason to do this is to maximize ratings.


    gypsy 300x225 Reality Show Update 2013



    Gypsy sisters is a spinoff of My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding series, and it chronicles the complex dynamics between members of a gypsy family in West Virginia. In terms of reality show, it’s a pretty raw one. It features fights, drug and substance abuse, and less than great parenting. In many ways, it’s a reality show that is the opposite of Duck Dynasty – Duck Dynasty essentially tries to portray redneck living at its most sanitized and palatable, while Gypsy Sisters does a lot less to ‘clean up’ the show – cameramen on the show have been forced to intervene on some emergency situations, for example. It’s only 7 episodes per season, but each of them packs a lot of drama. The reality level? It’s relatively real – there are few stagings, the editing is designed to enhance rather than fake outcomes, and there is little scripting (mostly because these women are wayyy to emotional to follow scripts). Let’s go with 8/10.


    Parentalcontrol1 Reality Show Update 2013


    Parental control is a reality show with a twist – parents set up their kids on dates and the kids have to choose whether or not to keep their old relationship or to move onto the new one.

    It’s not a new show (been on the air for almost five seasons), and it set a low bar for shows in general. It was cringe-inducing for many reasons, but it is also probably one of the fakest show on record. Watch any episode and see how long you can stand the poor acting or the weak writing – adult writers trying to write parts for teens and failing miserable. 1/10.


    index1 Reality Show Update 2013


    This is the grand-daddy of TV reality shows – it’s been on TV for almost 25 years now, and the iconic opening music is recognized by almost anyone who watches TV. Cops is an interesting show because it breaks many reality show rules: it has no recurring characters, for one thing; the show moves from town to town, and rarely revisits the same locale. It doesn’t have storylines per se – most of the show is action-focused, and doesn’t spend a lot of time trying to build up a narrative or a complex story. The producers of the show have often spoken out about their belief that reality show should just show reality, and not shape it. So it scores pretty highly on our scale: 9/10. The only reason it is not a 10/10 is that the very act of having cameramen follow police officers introduces a bias – police officers behave better when filmed, and of course the producers select footage from a very large sample, so you don’t see many criminals getting away, for example, in the show. But it’s pretty close to true reality.


    index2 Reality Show Update 2013


    This is a Jennifer Lopez-produced show that chronicles the doing of a family-run towing business in Miami. Not sure why Jennifer Lopez is involving herself into a reality show, but to be fair the reality part of it is not particularly true – there is very little reality here. The show is ‘inspired’ by a real family business, but the show is fairly shameless about staging incidents, hiring actors, and generally faking most of the action on the show. The show claims that the show “features real people and is based on real situations. Due to production needs, some scenes are reenacted.” It is very, very fake. 2/10.


    sister wives season 4 300x225 Reality Show Update 2013


    Sister wives chronicles the life of a polygamist family – one man and his four wives and his 16 children. It’s on the learning channel, which is an odd place to be, but there it is. In reality, the husband, Kory, is legally married to only one wife, his first, but the group refers to each woman as his wife and are quite free with details on how they live their life as a polygamist marriage. This is probably the only reality show that I know of that changed a law – after the show aired, Utah prosecuted all of the participants under Utah’s bigamy laws. Eventually a judge struck down the law as anti-constitutional, handing Kory and his wives a resounding victory. That is usually a sign of reality, so let’s give this one a 8/10. The characters are definitely real, and the producers occasionally prod for reactions and retakes, but in general the show is fairly representative… of one, unique family.

    That’s it for 2013! There were a lot more shows, of course, but in general this year was relatively light on reality shows. Scripted shows like the Big Bang Theory and Breaking Bad had massive years, fueling more scripted shows and a relatively low number of reality shows in the top 40 shows of the year. Singing shows dominated, like the Voice and American Idol, but they are increasingly the exception rather than the rule. We’ll have to see what 2014 brings, but if the trend continues it will be interesting to see if shows that are less manipulative rise in the ratings more than the more heavily-handed manipulative ones. Perhaps the audiences are learning?

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    Manipulating social media, part 1

    November 15th, 2013


    By YouAreBeingManipulated.

    On the Internet, who can you trust?

    There’s an old joke that on the Internet, nobody knows that you’re a dog. That may be true, but it does raise the question of who can you trust online? Or, more prosaically, what kind of manipulation are you subjected to online?

    index Manipulating social media, part 1

    In the dawn of the Internet (roughly 12 years ago), the rise of review sites like Amazon or Ebay was supposed to essentially solve the problem of who or what to trust online. The idea was that there was wisdom in the crowd: the more people rated an object or a service, the more trustworthy the rating. It was the perfect solution, and trust and transparency were going to reign over the new Internet.

    Of course, this didn’t happen. Review sites have indeed gotten very popular – yelp, tripadvisor, and many many more sites have largely replaced the magazines and reviewers that once preceded them as the guides to what was good and what was not.

    Social Media 300x141 Manipulating social media, part 1

    However, pretty quickly, corporations figured out that review sites, far from being immune to manipulation, were actually fairly easy to manipulate. Early on, some businesses figured that anonymous review sites were a good way to trash competitors, and so began to leave negative reviews on their competitors’ products rather than try to boost their own ratings. To some extent, this makes sense when you don’t have a lot of time: a few negative reviews will make potential customers hesitate a lot more than a lot of positive reviews. So business owners started to trash their competitors online. This was particularly nasty at Amazon, for example, where authors would regularly trash other authors’ books, out of a belief that publishing is a zero-sum game.

    MP900433180 300x200 Manipulating social media, part 1

    It wasn’t just authors that got into the act, of course. Even large corporations did it. Samsung staffers began to trash other manufacturers’ phones as they got released, for example.

    But as the sites like Amazon grew in popularity, leaving negative fake reviews became more difficult, since they could get ‘buried’ by real positive ones. So corporations started to shift their attention towards boosting their own products, and they were plenty of people that sprung up to help them, in a number of different ways. Belkin, for example, simply posted ‘job wanted’ ads for folks who would write positive reviews about their products, and paid $0.65 per good review on sites like Amazon.

    Companies calling themselves “online image consultants”  started to sell services to increase ratings for clients, mostly by filing fake reviews by either real people (which cost a bit more) or by imaginary accounts. One full-time employee, for the price of around $700 a month, can file 25,000 fake reviews in the space of 3 months.

    Such firms claim (and seem to be able to deliver) a substantial spike in ratings – a restaurant that had 3 stars, for example, can, for the low low price of around $1,000, raise its ratings to 4 stars and even beyond. The effect is even more pronounced the lower the actual rating – a one-star restaurant, for example, can usually become an ‘average’ three-star restaurant more easily than a good restaurant can become a great restaurant.

    Online Reputation Management Infographic cutoff 300x221 Manipulating social media, part 1

    How bad is the problem? A group of researchers recently discovered that around 20% of Yelp’s reviews are faked.

    That’s… a lot. To understand why, in 2006, only around 5% of Yelp’s reviews were faked. A 20% fake review rate is significant, because it doesn’t take that many reviews to skew a restaurant’s true rating: a restaurant with 66 ratings, with an average of 2.2 stars (i.e. not a place that is great). With around 16 fake ratings, it’s relatively easy to raise the restaurant to a 3 star status (i.e. average). And with each rating costing between 1 and 10 dollars, (mostly from Bangladeshi and Indian authors), 16 ratings would cost less than $200. Not a bad investment to shift a restaurant from the ‘poor’ category to the average bucket…

    dirty kitchen 300x225 Manipulating social media, part 1

    Now a 5 star restaurant!!


    Review sites have argued that ‘fake’ reviews are relatively easy to spot: poorly written, stilted, and often without any details or depth. That’s true, to some extents – you get what you pay for, and a $1 review written by a poor Bangladeshi is not going to be particularly compelling. But that misses the point – a review is a review, and many sites’ features don’t differentiate on quality: sort the restaurants on Yelp by ratings, for example, and the ones with the most stars come out on top, regardless of the quality of the ratings themselves.

    Rating sites have also started to deploy bots, automatic software that tries to detect fake reviews and stop them before they are published, but this is both hard and, to some extent, against some of the sites’ own metrics: after all, the more reviews a site gets, the more ‘trustworthy’ it seems. The more reviews, the more analytics the site can offer (recommendations, links to other sites like Facebook, etc…); in that context, the efforts that review sites deploy against fake reviews are always somewhat stilted, since most of their value-added services depend on a lot of ratings.


    Even if a site (or its users) can spot obvious fakes, most of them rely on spotting pretty obvious fakes – reviews written by foreigners, with very little depth or details. But it turns out that volume is not the only way to manipulate online ratings…

    This last September, Popular Science shut down its comments section – it was no longer possible to comment on the Popular Science stories. Why did the editors decide to do this? They posted a long explanation here, but the bottom line is that the editors found that a few negative, racist or otherwise ignorant comments could actually skew an entire discussion – and actually weaken the readers’ understanding of the science and of the article. Basically, the editors found out that comments, left unchecked, could derail an entire discussion. Rather than have their articles essentially trolled, Popular Science decided to shutter their online comments section altogether.

    Others have found the same thing. Researchers discovered, for example, that a single comment – or even just a vote – can have a completely disproportionate impact: a single  ‘like’ on Facebook, or a upvote on Reddit, creates a cascade of positive comments – on average, the positive ratings on a conversation after a single manipulated upvote increased by 25%!

    fake 300x185 Manipulating social media, part 1

    Equally importantly, the researchers found that the impact didn’t work both ways: positive upvotes created a cascade of positive comments. Negative ones did not. It seems that we are social animals: give us a positive nudge, and it encourages us to become more positive. If, on the other hand, you nudge us down, it actually pushes us to ‘correct’ the negative perception. Basically, we tend to tag along with the positive opinions of others, but are skeptical of the negative opinions of others and we like to ‘correct’ the injustice.

    The power of that single review, that single comment, is surprisingly strong. Whether it’s a true review or not doesn’t seem to matter too much, since even a content-free upvote can influence the conversion a great deal. This explains the popularity of services to ‘enhance’ a firm’s reputation online – a few dollars can buy you a couple of good reviews, and that seems to be enough to shift the conversation a fair bit to the positive. Where else can a few dollars or a few hundred dollars buy you this much impact?

    Of course, this type of manipulation can be too much for some corporations, and they choose a different path: lawsuits.

    When a woman gave a bad review to a construction company on Yelp, for example, the company’s owner sued her for $750,000 for “lost work and opportunities”. Those lawsuits sometimes backfire – see the Streisand effect here – but sometimes they do work and generate payouts for the companies and force the takedown of negative reviews.

    positive feedback conceptual meter 300x220 Manipulating social media, part 1

    So, back to the original question. If reviews can be manipulated for a few dollars, if negative reviews can be stifled by lawsuits, how can you trust anyone online anymore?

    asterism Manipulating social media, part 1

    Ironically, we may see a return to the trusted advisers of yore, the magazines and the critics that the review sites were going to replace. If you want a good dishwasher, for example, will you look at the reviews at Amazon, knowing how easily they can be manipulated, or would you check out consumer reports? What about next year, when marketing firms have  figured out six new ways to manipulate the ratings sites in new and innovative manners?

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    The power of narrative

    August 27th, 2013




    If you’re a regular reader of this blog (and frankly, if not, why not? It’s quality stuff!) one theme that you might recognize across several posts – such as this one or this one –  is that a lot of manipulation involve letting people manipulate themselves, to some extent. We like stories, as a species: we evolved to recognize patterns, after all, and stories are the ultimate patterns. Since time immemorial, at the end of the day, around the communal fire, we have sat around and shared stories – to cheer ourselves up, to keep the darkness at bay, to pass on wisdom. Stories are how we often communicate, and for those that recognize this, stories can be powerful tools to influence us as well…

    saw 298x300 The power of narrative

    For example, take Hollywood. It’s long been axiomatic that Hollywood has a pretty narrow opinion of what makes for a successful movie, but most didn’t realize just how narrow that opinion really is. In 2005, Blake Snyder published a book, Save the Cat, which details the perfect blockbuster structure. It is far more than a simple high-level view of what a story is: it is a step of 15 ‘beats’, with detailed timings on each, that shape a narrative for maximum impact. It is a minute-by-minute outline of what to show and how to progress the story, and it is hugely successful – most blockbusters today follow that outline to the minute. Even Pixar’s new movie – Monster University – follows the outline that Snyder formulated, down to the minute, for example.

    65743 thumb 300x173 The power of narrative

    And some… did not.


    We like stories, and we seem to like stories told to us in a certain way. There are thousands of stories, but many of them are broadly similar, and that’s where the term archetype came from – a basic story so common that it is the base for thousands of variations. The Hero’s Journey, for example, is one of the most used archetypes – it was used by George Lucas in Star Wars, in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and in the Harry Potter books.

    Anakin and Harry starwars vs harry potter 26996372 432 337 300x234 The power of narrative

    Stories can be far more powerful than facts for us. A team of researchers from Wharton and Carnegie Mellon decided to actually measure this, and sent out two fundraising letters to two similar groups: one letter stressed the facts about famine in Africa – how many children are dying, what the money would buy and how much of it, etc… The other told the story of Rokia, a small girl in Mali, and how the famine was affecting her. The group that got the narrative letter donated 50% more than the group that got the facts only. In fact, the more facts a group got, the less likely they were to act on those facts. In a very real way, stories trump fact in our minds. We look for stories, for archetypes, in the world around us, and this has influenced more people than Hollywood writers alone…

    For example, author Evan Cornog argues in his book The Power and the Story that most American Presidential elections are determined by narrative – the winner is the one that finds a compelling narrative first – “the good old boy”, “the war hero” – and then successfully defends that narrative. In other words, he argues that elections are won by those that can shape their campaign around an archetype. Jimmy Carter won in 1976 because his narrative – casual, always pictured in fields and pastoral settings, honest to a fault – contrasted so successfully with the corruption of Nixon which had demoralized the nation. Four years later, he was mired in hostage crisis, inflation, and oil shortages. His opponent, Ronald Regan, pitched the perfect narrative against that backdrop: a great Nation that had been humbled but which was ready to regain its greatness, if it could stand behind a strong leader (him). That narrative pervaded everything they said and did, including their campaign posters:

    jimmy carters ubiquitous green campaign poster e1347149989125 195x300 The power of narrative

     The power of narrative

    Even George W. Bush, probably the worst president in recent times, hit upon a very solid narrative to succeed the roaring but divided Clinton years: he was the outsider with no ax to grind, the middle ground, the “compassionate conservative” that would bring harmony back to a Washington divided by an impeachment scandal. Of course, that narrative looks ridiculous with hindsight, but at the time it was enough to win him – by a hair – the White House against an opponent (Gore) who was, on almost all fronts, stronger, but who never found a compelling narrative (and let’s never talk about Kerry’s narrative in 2004!).

    And narratives impact more than presidential elections. They can shape history. Consider the story of Christopher Columbus, for example. Historically speaking, almost everything that schools teach about Columbus is wrong. He didn’t discover America (the Vikings and many others had already done so), he wasn’t the first to think the world was round (most navigators knew that at the time, but they were smarter and had figured out that Asia was twice as far Westwards as Colombus had calculated), and he died still believing that he had reached Asia (instead of Hispaniola).

    Columbus The power of narrative

    Not pictured: Asia

    So why do we have a holiday named after this guy?

    Well, during the Revolutionary War, the rebels that would in time become the US government had a problem. Most citizens at that time dimly knew that America, the continent, had been discovered by John Cabot in 1497, who claimed it fort… England. The same country that the revolutionaries were currently fighting. It’s annoying to have to fight a nation on the one hand, and on the other to give it credit for ‘discovering’ you. But Columbus was Spanish, and thus a much better choice for the would-be new nation to honor. So the revolutionaries began to intentionally emphasize Columbus in the histories, and demote poor Cabot, and gradually a narrative took form around Columbus: the intrepid explorer who would prove them all wrong, the discoverer of America, the pioneer. Cabot was relegated to a tower in Newfoundland. The story eventually triumphed over the facts.

    The Storytellers 300x205 The power of narrative

    Narrative is very important in war. We fought the Iraq war mostly thanks to the WMD narrative (we discussed this before). Most of our war efforts have been driven by a compelling narrative, at least initially: Afghanistan was driven by a desire to catch the perpetrators of 9/11. The rationale for the Gulf War I was helpfully set up by Iraq deciding to invade Kuwait (and Kuwaiti money paying for the narrative of the US defending against such an unjust invasion). Going back further, there were good narratives set up for Vietnam (Stop the spread of communism!) and even Korea.

    And the world today is demonstrating the importance of narrative in a different way. Syriais a small state in the Middle East, ruled by a despot who has tried hard to tick all the usual despot to-do lists: killed innocents, tortured dissidents, cracked down on most type of freedoms, blamed the US and the West for most everything, etc, etc… Since March 2011, the country has been torn apart as rebels rise against the despot, in fairly typical Arab Spring fashion. Normally, this is where the West would support the plucky rebels, and help install democracy in another fragile part of the world.

    And yet, nothing happened. The US has made some suggestions about helping the rebels, and some EU nations did the same, but so far, nothing, despite some pleas from the rebels:

    syria nato please help us.preview 300x219 The power of narrative

    So what’s missing?

    Unlike Kuwait, where well-heeled expats hired the best PR firms to create a compelling narrative for action, nothing like that has happened for Syria. The rebels themselves are a smorgasbord of groups, including some that the West doesn’t particularly like, like the Muslim Brotherhood. It doesn’t help when the rebels do some nasty things themselves,either, but the key missing item, to prompt widespread support for the rebels, has been a lack of narrative support. A narrative archetype needs a villain (the despot), but it also needs a hero. And when the hero is a Muslim fanatic, who wishes to impose Sharia law in Syria, and who bans croissants, it makes crafting a story much more challenging, especially when no one has the dollars needed to hire some good story-tellers (PR firms) to help the exercise along.

    tumblr md1ud6IjyX1rdxozyo1 500 300x199 The power of narrative

    The enemy. The delicious, decadent enemy.

    Stories are important, and if you can weave the right story, people will listen. The core of any manipulation is to create a compelling story, a narrative. A good manipulator is, at heart, a good storyteller.


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    Of flags and agents

    July 12th, 2013



    One of the more interesting and used manipulation techniques is called the False Flag manipulation. It’s pretty simple: you do something terrible, and then make sure that there is enough evidence to blame someone else, preferably someone that you don’t like.

    Simple Button 300x2981 Of Flags and Agents

    So far, so good.


    In practice, there are many ‘flavors’ of False Flag operations. At one end of the scale is the misdirection move, as used by Linda McMahon in the recent election:

    628x471 300x196 Of Flags and Agents


    Linda is the wife of Vince McMahon, who took wrestling to a national sport and in the process became a multi-millionaire. Linda is a Republican, who has given liberally to Romney’s campaign and many other Republican races. She really, really wanted a Senate seat, enough to spend $65M of her own money on her two races. But Linda, faster than many other Republicans, felt the mood of the country, and decided that attaching her wagon to Romney’s might be a problem, especialyl in Connecticut. So, relatively late in the campaign, Linda’s campaign began to leverage a little-known law in Connecticut that allows candidate to run for Senator in more than one party. So Linda ran as a Republican, of course, but also ran as the candidate of choice for the Indepedent Party (her Democratic opponent was also running as the candidate for the Working Families Party). So far, it’s strange, but not really ‘false flaggy’.

    But, as the Democrats took the ascendant in the campaign, Linda’s campaign decided to do things a little differently. These types of posters began appearing:

    mcmahon obama door asset cropped proto custom 28 300x165 Of Flags and Agents

    At the same time, Linda’s campaign started distributing sample ballots that looked like this:

    v3 224x300 Of Flags and Agents

    There is nothing illegal about this: Linda is not telling voters that she’s a Democrat (that would actually be illegal). On paper, as an Independent candidate, she has the right to align herself with the President. The ads are misleading, of course, but that is the core of any manipulation: the idea was to trick Democrat voters into voting for Linda, while at the same time retaining the Republican vote. A foolproof plan! It failed, though. Linda eventually lost, 55% to 43%, and while some voters were mislead by the ads, it wasn’t enough to push her over the edge.


    linda mcmahon crop exact 300x206 Of Flags and Agents

    But next week…tune in FOR HER REVENGE!

    False flag operations are usually a bit more straightforward, as mentioned above. They are often used in military conflicts, or at least by people trying to start a military conflict. Here is a lobbyist, for example, suggesting that the Israel should use a false flag to goad the US into war with Iran:


    israel 300x225 Of Flags and Agents

    It is not subtle, but why bother? This is not an obscure tactic, after all: several politicians use it fairly frequently. For example, when the Wisconsin governor recall election was happening earlier this year, an Indiana prosecutor (who really, really didn’t like unions),wrote an email to the governor suggesting that he organize someone to shoot him and then blame the (hopefully botched) assassination on unions:

    If you could employ an associate who pretends to be sympathetic to the unions’ cause to physically attack you (or even use a firearm against you), you could discredit the unions,” Carlos suggested, then went on to actually name the tactic: “Employing a false flag operation would assist in undercutting any support that the media may be creating in favor of the unions.”

    When the email was leaked, Carlos initially denied writing it, then eventually admitted it and resigned.

    sorry i m not sorry.american apparel unisex fitted tee.silver.w760h760 300x300 Of Flags and Agents


    While the champion of False Flag is widely considered to be Israel, the US does use False Flags quite often. Operation Northwoods, for example, was an operation planned by in 1962 by the US Joint Chiefs of Staff to create a series of false flag missions against Cuba. The operation would have seen the US blow up a ship in Guantanamo Bay and blame it on Cuba, refugee boats to be sunk by pretend Cuban warships in view of some media, hijacked airliners in the name of Castro, or a civilian US plane shot down with attack planes that appeared to be Cuban MIGs.

    Northwood, and its cousin Operation Mongoose (they had cooler names back then) was brought up all the way to the President for implementation, but President Kennedy disallowed Northwoods, and eventually fired its key architect from the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

    northwoods 300x159 Of Flags and Agents
    A close cousin to the False Flag operation is the Agent Provocateur. From the French for “he who provokes”, an Agent Provocateur is a plant designed to provoke a crowd or a group into rash action, which can then be crushed with impunity.

    agent 240x300 Of Flags and Agents

    Google Image Search for Agent Provocateur. Address your complaints to


    Since this is a French word, let’s grab an example from our neighbors in Canada.

    This video

    11 19 2012 8 41 36 PM1 300x266 Of Flags and Agents

    shows 3 masked men at a protest in Montebello. In 2007, the leaders of Canada, the US and Mexico met to discuss the sequel to the free-trade agreement. Of course, such a high-profile gathering attracted its share of protests. One such massive protest was a peaceful march organized around the Montebello Hotel. During the protest, several protesters noticed men in camouflage pants and baklavas, some clutching rocks and trying to push the crowd into rushing the riot police standing nearby. One of the protesters (seen in the video) started shouting that the men were actually policemen. This led to an awkward confrontation where the crowd turned on the Agent Provocateurs themselves, and they had to run to seek shelter within the police lines themselves. Later, the police admitted that they had placed the agents there to push the crowd to violence and to gain an excuse to break up the protest.

    Exactly the same tactic was used in London by police trying to stop protests against the G20 meeting.

    Police and protesters cla 001 300x180 Of Flags and Agents

    Agent Provocateur manipulations are interesting because they essentially allow a small number of agents to manipulate a giant crowd. For example, Israel used just 9 agents provocateurs to try and ruin Egypt-US relations in 1954. Fearing that the US and Egypt were getting too cozy, the Israel military recruited 9 Egyptian Jews to fire-bomb several sites used by foreigners in Cairo and Alexandria.

    The idea was that the fire-bombing would be blamed on local insurgents, and both the US and the UK would be put off enough to freeze the growing alliance with Egypt. As it happened, the plot failed – the agents were caught, and then confessed. Several were hanged, and the rest eventually returned to Israel. That’s the trouble with Agent Provocateur attacks – if they fail, the provocateurs get exactly the reverse effect of what they were trying to do.

    fo02ja Egypt Blast02 300x200 Of Flags and Agents

    Sometimes, a false flag operation comes to light because of time, or because of changed circumstances. When the Egyptian government fell as part of the Arab Spring, for example, in 2011, protesters raided the building of the secret police. There, they found a treasure trove of documents detailing secret operations, with many false flag manipulations amongst them.

    The files revealed that several bombings that had been blamed on Muslim extremists in Egypt were actually carried out by the secret police, including one that had killed 88 people in a resort which had actually been orchestrated to harm one of President Mubarak’s business rival…


    * * *


    A well-carried out false flag manipulation is usually hard to spot, and can trigger wars if done well. Even if something goes wrong, there can be enough confusion and doubt to allow the perpetrators of a false flag attack to not suffer any major setbacks.  For example, consider the Google Trends chart for “false flag”:

    11 19 2012 7 03 39 PM 300x98 Of Flags and Agents

    So what happened in July 2012, where that giant spike is? Why did the world collectively decide to Google the relatively obscure “False Flag” phrase? Well, in July 2012, a suicide bomber killed 8 people in a bus in Bulgaria full of Israeli tourists. It was a tragic, senseless killing, and the suspicion quickly moved to Hezbollah (and hence Iran).

    So why the spike in False Flag searches? Well, the incident had a number of odd characteristics which awakened suspicions: prime minister Netanyahu said that “all signs point to Iran”, a mere hour after the attack, when the Bulgarian police was still sorting through exactly what had happened.  When the Bulgarian police had investigated, theyfound a lot more depth and planning had gone into the attack than your standard strap-a-vest-on-me-I’m-doing-this suicide bomber typically does.

    Also, Israel has used false flag several times in the past, using US, Canadian and European passports to hide operations by its secret services. The timing of the attack was also remarkably useful for Israel (as it was trying to gather global support to stop Iran’s atomic program) and seemed a remarkably stupid move for Iran (angering European nations to attack a bus full of students).

    All in all, while nations around the world condemned the attack and stepped up the pressure on Iran, searches for False Flag operations began to spike. Senseless attack or botched false flag operation? We may have to wait for a leaked memo or a revolution or a tell-all book to know…


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    June 3rd, 2013


    By YouAreBeingManipulated.


    Wow. Sorry I’m so late on this post. All right, I’ll try extra-hard to make this week’s entry a good one to make it up to you guys!

    What do you think about when you hear the word propaganda?

    I’ll bet it looks something like this:

    propaganda poster Propaganda, part 1

    Or, if you’re more into the perspective of the other side,

    north korea propaganda poster 300x227 Propaganda, part 1

    That’s the kind of image that most people think about when you mention propaganda. Notice the similarities – simple pictures, colorful, compelling slogans, and caricatured good and bad guys. If we saw one of these today, most of us (well, unless you’re in North Korea, and if you are, you really should stop reading a blog on manipulation before someone notices you) would either laugh it off or be scandalized by the insult to the intelligence. Boy, those older people must have been dense to be taken in by these!

    Well, it turns out that the art of propaganda didn’t really stop at the end of WWII. The techniques and the medium and the art simply evolved, away from poster art and more towards tweaks and manipulation of standard media.

    First off, propaganda posters were not just used in war. Most people don’t realize this, but you can find old propaganda posters on most of the key issues of the day prior to the 1960s. For example, just after WWI, women’s right to vote was a hot topic, and posters went up to dissuade men from voting for, well, women’s right to vote:

    tumblr lbcdqmXgZ51qa49tx 300x195 Propaganda, part 1

    Note the similarities with the war posters above?

    tumblr lbcdt7SsJX1qa49tx 272x300 Propaganda, part 1

    By WWII, it became clear that posters alone were not going to do it. An entire branch of the military, the Office of War Information was actually built to figure out new ways to spread propaganda. They focused on new ways to reach both domestic and foreign audiences, using relatively novel methods – everything from working with writers of movies and comic books to emphasize the war effort to more esoteric efforts – Operation Cornflakes, for example, was a project where the Allies bombed German mail trains, and then airdropped bags of mail in the region. The mail contained Allied propaganda with fake German stamps, and when the Germans came to clean up the bombed trains, they found the bags and, thinking that they were part of the original mail train, they delivered the propaganda mail themselves.

    22721583.thb  300x210 Propaganda, part 1

    Operation CornFlakes. Part of a well-balanced Propaganda effort

    Many of the people hired in this office over the years left at the end of the war and joined private companies. They were the seed of modern propaganda efforts – except that today, propaganda is much more focused on new media than on cute posters and mail efforts.

    Think of radio call-in shows, for example. Of course, they use screeners so that only callers that agree with the host (or that are so inarticulate as to make good fodder for the host) can get through. But screening is only half the battle. What if you can’t get good quality callers to call in? What if your callers are too smart to agree with you, or too idiotic to agree with you articulately? Well, then, you use a service! Services like Permiere On Call hire actors to call in to shows with pre-set scripts. The scripts adhere to the basic propaganda rules: colorful, caricatures (both good and bad), and simple, easy-to-understand messages. To a very large extent, those services are pure propaganda – just in a different format.

    21651173.thb  285x300 Propaganda, part 1

    Hello! This is James, from Iowa? I am a truck driver and first time caller?

    What about TV? I could do several blog entries on Fox News alone, partly because it has brought propaganda to a new level, and partly because it is new at it, so there are enough mistakes that can be easily spotted for discussion.  The Fox News propaganda is more subtle than flashy posters, but it is quite effective:

    One trick that Fox News likes to use, for example, is to use images from previous events while reporting on other things:

    sara palin crowd 300x148 Propaganda, part 1

    For example, this was a scene from Sarah Palin’s book-signing tour. The voice-over by Fox reporters talked about “huge crowds” at the book signing, seen above. Except, of course, that the crowds were not there – turns out Fox had used footage of the 2010 campaigninstead. Fox likes doing this – it did it while covering a health care rally, for example, and did it again while covering a Michelle Bachman event using crowds from Glenn Beck’s 9/12 event. Fox News does this often enough that the writers of the Daily Show now consider it a safe staple for a source of jokes.
    A similar process was used on Joe Biden – On March 16 of2009, for example, Fox News showed an abridged clip of Joe Biden saying that “the fundamentals of the economy are strong.” It was a stupid thing to say at that time, of course, and made him look completely moronic. To be fair, he did not say it then – he had said it during the campaign as part of a longer point, and the clip had been shortened to make it appear as a recent interview.

    Fox News apologized for all these things, of course, once they were discovered, but it makes no difference. Remember the Distribution Rule?  If you spread the news that Biden is an out-of-touch politician one night on prime time, and then apologize the next day during the morning, far, far more people see the propaganda than the apology.

    600440.thb  300x270 Propaganda, part 1

    Another trick that Fox News pulls off relatively often is to remove things instead of adding them. For example, during the last State of the Union, President Obama made some jokes. The next day, Fox reported that the “jokes fell flat”. What followed was almost painful to watch: president Obama made jokes, which were followed by silence and even cricket sounds, added by Fox to emphasize how terrible the president was bombing.

    fox broadcast 300x243 Propaganda, part 1

    The problem, of course, is that the president’s jokes didn’t bomb- the actual jokes got lots of laugh, but Fox edited them out and replaced them with silence and cricket sounds.

    Even Ron Paul fell victim to the same trick. When Ron Paul was announced as the CPAC 2011 winner, the crowd cheered and shouted. When Fox News showed the scene, Ron Paul is heavily booed. How is that possible? Well, Fox simply changed the soundtrack to a speech where Ron Paul was booed – in 2010.

    All right, one final one, not to pick on Fox News. On Feb 10, Fox News anchor Jon Scott decided to take the viewers on a “look back at how the economic stimulus package grew and grew.” Followed was a timeline video that showed a very partisan view of the stimulus package history. How do we know it was partisan? Well, it was written, word for word, by the Senate Republican Communication Center – it was a Republican press release masquerading as news. The issue was not showing it – it was not identifying it as a Republican packaged  piece instead of investigative journalism.

    Propaganda is a very specific type of manipulation.  At its heart, propaganda is all about simple narrative: find a compelling slogan, and hammer it home with basic, simple tools. the propagandists of today have had to adapt, and they use digital media instead of posters, but the lessons learned by the poster makers are still valid. Find a compelling slogan, caricature it, and then spread it as fast as you can.  Propaganda  is not subtle –  “Japanese soldiers are evil!”   ”Suffragettes hate their family!”    ”Sarah Palin is popular!”    ”Democrats are not!” – but it doesn’t need to be. The idea is to take a narrative, make it simple, make it colorful, and then spread it as far as fast as you can. Whether you do it via posters, or radio shows, or television shows doesn’t make a difference – the core idea is the same.  And it still works today just as well as it did 100 years ago.


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    I Spy With My Little Eye

    May 20th, 2013


    Spying is usually the business of governments. After all, this is what has given us
    Casanova and Bond. But, on sheer volume, the biggest spies of today may not be working for governments at all…

    4670019 300x200 I spy with my little eye...

    Take the FBI, for example. Nominally, it is a federal police, created to address crimes that cross state boundaries. Increasingly, though, it seems increasingly focused on trying to outdo MI6.

    To be fair, the FBI is pretty open about its program of spying on Americans. The agency is particularly interested in being able to intercept communications that are slowly supplanting email: skype, chat programs, and even ‘strong’ email hosts like gmail. Under CALEA, an act passed by Congress, the FBI can already ask any telecommunication provider to give it real-time access to its network to listen in on calls or emails. But there is nothing on the books that is focused on Google, Facebook, and others, and that is increasingly how people (both good and bad) communicate. So the FBI has been trying to find ways to remedy this.

    A Facebook page dedicated 006 300x180 I spy with my little eye...

    It’s even better when the spies use Facebook on their own. Sort of kills two birds with one stone.

    For example, the US government asked Skype to restructure its architecture to allow federal agents to spy on communications in real time. It is an interesting example of a company actively downgrading a product and making it less secure than it could, in response to government prompting.

    There is another layer to the manipulation here, though. It is one thing to strong-arm a company into creating a back door for eavesdropping. Under the law, though, the FBI and others still need a warrant to actually carry out the eavesdropping. The trick, though, is that they need a warrant from a special court, called the FISA warrant. The FISA court is a special court established mostly to review surveillance applications, and was established as the ‘guardian’ of the new surveillance powers granted to the FBI and others through the Patriot Act.

    The issue is that this special court has never seen an application for surveillance that it did not like. In 2012, for example, the court received 1,789 requests for surveillance (around one application every 4 hours). It granted… 1,789 of them.

    rubber stamp 300x171 I spy with my little eye...

    That’s right. Each and every one of the surveillance applications were granted warrants, which were then served by the FBI and used to spy on various folks. Keep in mind that the US indicts around 50 people a year for “terrorism”, the main reason the FISA court was founded.  It does beg the question as to what the remaining 1,739 applications were made…

    Of course, the manipulation is relatively simple to understand – once the capability for spying is made, either technical (Skype back doors) or legal (FISA courts), the urge to use them becomes harder and harder to resist in all sorts of cases. After all, if we could spy on our neighbours and friends with impunity, how many of us would resist?

     I spy with my little eye...

    The FBI is not the only organization trying to gain access to our electronic communications, though. Moxie Marlinspike, a security expert, recently posted an email exchange he had with a Saudi executive trying to entice him to develop software to spy on Saudis at the provider level, by modifying the country’s telecommunication infrastructure to allow for spying and eavesdropping.

    What is interesting about the email exchange is to see the reaction of the Saudis when Moxie refused to help them: “I have same thoughts like you freedom and respecting privacy, actually Saudi has a big terrorist problem and they are misusing these services for spreading terrorism and contacting and spreading their cause that’s why I took this and I seek your help. If you are not interested than maybe you are on indirectly helping those who curb the freedom with their brutal activities.”

    Ironically, this is a good example of a WATOC argument.

    It was also the argument that India used when they threatened Blackberry with a ban unless the company gave them access to their servers. Back a few years ago, pre-Apple, Blackberries were the main business tools. Everyone had one. And one of the interesting elements of the Blackberry service was that all communications between devices bypassed local infrastructure and was decrypted and forwarded by special servers in the company’s control in Canada. So if India wanted to spy on its citizens that were using Blackberries, they were out of luck – they could compel their national companies to give them back doors or access, but without an international warrant served in Canada, that access was useless.

    This was a problem for India, and so the government decided to ban Blackberry from India unless the company put some servers under the control of the Indian government. A move that other governments, from China to the UAE (and of course our friends the Saudi) immediately emulated.

    images I spy with my little eye...

    In all cases, the threatened ban never materialized. Eventually, the countries concerned dropped the ban – although, of course, no resolution was ever announced: whether Blackberry eventually allowed the countries access to their data or resisted and called the bluffs of the government is not known at this time.

    But what about if your computer spies on you without any involvement from police at all?


    For example, this is a Bloomberg Terminal:
    ksb hero bloombergterminal 300x158 I spy with my little eye...

    It is pretty much standard issue on Wall Street. It is what allowed Mike Bloomberg, mayor of New York, to earn his fortune, when he developed it for traders. The terminal allows a trader to bring up information on stocks, bonds, or any other security at will. It is a powerful tool, and its price reflects that: each terminal costs the user around $20,000 a year. And large firms like Goldman Sachs will have thousands of Bloomberg terminals on their premises.

    Which is why these clients were shocked recently to realize that each terminal ‘phones home’ fairly regularly, and reports a lot of data to Bloomberg itself: who logged into the terminal, for how long, and what did they do while logged in.

    This is not good news in general, but when the user is Bernanke or Tim Geithner, Secretary of Commerce, the news becomes particularly problematic. Knowing what the Secretary of Commerce is looking at, how frequently, and when can make a big difference to traders and Bloomberg journalists looking to scoop the market.

    And others have caught Bloomberg spying on them with those terminals. Goldman Sachs itself, the master manipulator, was stunned by the fact that Bloomberg traders and insiders could gather so much data about them from terminals that Goldman was leasing from the company. JP Morgan is demanding more information from Bloomberg’s CEO on exactly why the company should be allowed to collect and analyze all of this information. There will probably be more such calls in the weeks to come.

    Perhaps the ultimate in this kind of manipulation is this:

    news nsa I spy with my little eye...

    It doesn’t look like much, but it is one of the largest data centers ever built. It is the data center of the National Security Agency (the CIA’s less flashy cousin but more successful), capable of processing over a yottabyte of information – enough to process all the phone calls and emails of every US citizen in near-real time. Essentially, every phone call you make – cellular or otherwise – will be routed to this facility and archived. Some of it will be analyzed, but most of it will probably not be, at least until the NSA takes a special interest in you.

    The magnitude of this endeavor is hard to grasp. Every phone call made, digitized and held for analysis. Every email, corporate or otherwise, stored for future reference. It is both technically impressive and manipulatively striking.

    14062954 digital binary code on computer screen pen pointing out we re watching you surveillance breach in re 300x200 I spy with my little eye...

    Spying has traditionally been thought of as governments spying on each other, but the scale of that effort is dwarfed by the capabilities being built to spy on their own citizens. For most governments, what the Russians are doing is becoming far less interesting than what their own citizens are doing. And with companies like Bloomberg paving the way, they are learning how to capture and analyze that information. Whether that leads to a safer or a better nation, no one knows, but it will be a more manipulative one.

    Original Link:

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    Post Censorship Part Two

    March 10th, 2013
    By YouAreBeingManipulatedOrg.

    If you like this article, please help spread the word by sharing this post with your friends.

    Get a button!

    We’ve talked about censorship before. But the topic is a rich one, and we can periodically revisit it for fun and insights.

    You may have heard that the U.K. government is drafting an interesting plan. To combat porn, the government (more specifically, Ed Vaizey, the communication minister) is going to ask all the major ISPs to essentially filter out porn sites by default, unless the subscriber specifically asks to have access to the forbidden sites. The rationale for this? Well, the government is convinced that porn causes problems, and is now a “health issue”. As a result, it feels that it can regulate it, just like cigarettes or drugs.

    What’s interesting here is that this is a WATOC argument. The rationale for filtering the Internet is now to protect children from ‘accidentally’ seeing porn, which is apparently damaging to them in some way.

    Censorship is not an all-or-nothing system, unlike what some people think. And, increasingly, it is the rule rather than the exception. Most people (well, non-Chinese people) know that China has built a complex system of feeds, firewalls, and screening software to make sure that its citizens do not ‘stumble upon’ sites that would be damaging to the Communist Party’s image. For example, searching for Tiananmen Square in China on Google used to give this error:

    google cn tiananmen e1295315184475 This post is censored, part 2

    Censored results of Google search in China regarding Tianamen Square

    How does China enforce its Great Firewall? Well, one of the smartest manipulations is that the existence of the Firewall is itself censored. You can’t discuss the Firewall, talk about the way it works, or how to circumvent it – and if you do, you could get a knock on your door. As a result, most Chinese have no idea that their Internet access is censored (and, to be fair, there is some evidence that Chinese people actually don’t object to government censorship of their Internet, even if they know about it). It’s hard to object to something that you know little about, after all.

    The UK uses a similar ‘stealth’ technique, but implemented very differently. If you’re reading this blog from the UK, for example, your traffic passes through an invisible filter called CleanFeed. Cleanfeed is invisible in that, most of the times, accessing a web page through  Cleanfeed is perfectly invisible – it is a silent gateway beyond your ISP. if you go to a web-site that is ‘forbidden’, however, it returns a 404 error:

    image003 This post is censored, part 2

    404 Error page – on filtered internet Traffic in the UK

    Nothing to see here. Move along.

    Note the trick – it returns a 404 page not found error, not a “this site is blocked by your friendly government”. Since there is no censorship message, the user usually assumes that the page is simply offline. The manipulative nature of CleanFeed is precisely its invisibility – again, it’s hard to object to censorship that you cannot see.

    And by the way, Cleanfeed is also active in Canada and Australia – if you’re visiting from there, you’re probably going through Cleanfeed right now! Say hi!

    China and the UK are not alone, by the way. More and more countries are trying to ascertain some level of control on the Internet, and censorship and manipulation are an important component of that control. South Korea demands users post their unique government ID when posting online or searching for ‘forbidden terms’. The UAE blocks VoIP, all Israeli domains, and maintains a blacklist of domains. Reporters Without Borders has compiled the following visual map:

    800px Internet blackholes.svg  e1295315616101 This post is censored, part 2

    Censorship Map Key2 This post is censored, part 2

    Reporters Without Borders Internet censorship ratings.

    In most of the Western world, the impetus behind most of these controls is either the always-popular child pornography, or, increasingly, copyright law. France has passed lawsthat would track and eventually disconnect anyone who accesses or distributes copyrighted content (without trial). Italy censors the Pirate Bay, but not the thousands of similar torrent sites.  Go ahead, Italian friends – click the link and see what happens!  Even in the US, Homeland  Security occasionally tampers with the Internet’s core ‘maps’, the DNS records, to seize control of sites that it deems copyright ‘thieves’. Amusingly, Russia does not seem to have censorship of any kind in place. Kind of ironic, if one remembers the Soviet regime.

    What’s interesting, from our point of view, is to see how governments tend to expand the control of the Internet once they’ve established a beach-head based on child pornography or copyright laws.

    The Chinese milk scandal is a good example. China’s Firewall will stop searches mostly on political issues, of course, and also… on many milk-related searches. Why? Because when Chinese milk was found to be heavily laden with melamine, hundreds of children were hospitalized and it was an international embarrassment to the party.

    Well, it was if you could find it. For most Chinese, the incident never happened, since the Chinese Internet heavily censored the incident. Once a government has a tool that can censor the Internet, it’s very, very difficult to stop using it. That’s why China has censored milk, and the UK is thinking of censoring online porn in some way.  South Korea started censoring sites that were sympathetic to North Korea, and then gradually expanded the ‘bad’ content to gambling sites, pornography, and even unrated games. Denmark started a standard child-pornography blacklist in 2005, and then gradually expanded the black list to cover torrent sites, and now song-download sites as well. Tunisia has been caught in a spiral where they started banning pornography, then documents critical of the government, then translation services and more…

    Once a tool for censorship is in place, especially one that is manipulative, the urge to use it to expand the scope of control from things that are undeniably bad (child pornography) to ones that are disliked by the party in power.

    Froggif This post is censored, part 2

    Steady… Steady…

    Back home, in the US, generally, the Internet has been protected by the 1st amendment, but recently one site has changed the dynamic in a fundamental way.

    wlogo This post is censored, part 2

    Wiki Leaks – For students of manipulation, it is invaluable

    Wikileaks (here – test your connection and connect!) has become, in a few years, arguably one of the most important sites on the Internet. For students of manipulation, it is invaluable – manipulation often comes to light after the fact, and more often than not it is leaked documents or whistle-blowers who bring the most interesting manipulations to light.

    Wikileaks has been publishing leaks for several years now, but the last round of revelations, even though they were not particularly stunning, created enough embarrassment for our government that a number of manipulative measures were enacted very, very quickly:

    – The US state department called Colombia University’s school of International and Public affairs to have them warn students that talking or discussing Wikileaks “would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information, which is part of most positions with the federal government.” Basically, discuss Wikileaks and you’re banned from a job with the Federal government.

    – Senator Joseph Lieberman questioned Amazon on its relationship with Wikileaks (Wikileaks was hosted on Amazon’s servers). A day later, Amazon cut off the site from its servers.

    – Paypal also came under some scrutiny for being the agent through which individuals could donate to Wikileaks. A few days after the Amazon move, Paypal froze its accounts, and refused to send it the money that had already been contributed to the site.

    – Mastercard also decided, on its own or with some prodding, to cut off Wikileaks from donations from its members – you can’t use Mastercard to send donations to Wikileaks anymore. No one knows, for now, the pressure that was brought to bear on Paypal or Mastercard or  Amazon to push them to cut off Wikileaks (unless Wikileaks publishes it), but the results were pretty impressive – in 5 days, a web site was cut off from hosting and financial lifeblood.

    – Republican Representative Peter King accused Wikileaks of “treason”, which is harsh since neither Wikileaks nor its founder are American, hence are incapable of treason no matter what they do. Still, that didn’t stop a lot of talk radio and blogs and publications from picking up the title and running with it.

    – Joe Biden announced that the State Department will try to find creative ways to prosecute Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder. He also branded him a “high-tech terrorist”.

    What’s interesting about this is that nothing that Wikileaks has released is particularly damaging to the US. Most of it (at least thus far) has been embarrassing more than damaging – embarrassing stories about Afghanistan, about trying to prevent a governmental UK inquiry in the Iraq war, that sort of thing. Nothing particularly bad, adn some commentators have actually argued it puts us in a pretty good light. In general, though, the response has been negative, and the sheer range and creativity of the response, from legal attacks to pressure to PR blitz is probably without precedent.

    As the Internet grows in scope and more and more people rely on it for their news, it should be interesting to see how different governments attempt to manipulate and control it for their own purposes. Stay tuned…

    Original Article:

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    Ads Of Yore

    February 3rd, 2013

    By Marhalt.

    The world changes, but it does so slowly. But slow changes do add up over time, and sometimes when you wait long enough and look back, you’re stunned at how far you’ve come… The same is true in manipulation: go far back enough, and the manipulations of yesterday seem increasingly simple and transparent.

    Take women’s vote, for example. Women only got the right to vote less than one hundred years ago. A hundred years is not that long ago, and people like to talk about the pioneers that fought to give women the vote. But we tend to forget that, for every pioneer, there was at least one opponent – someone fighting to prevent women from getting the vote.

    Who were these folks, and how did they fight the suffragettes?

    Most of the folks who were arguing against women getting the vote were looking after their own interests. Democrats, for example, were mostly against granting women the vote because they were afraid of black women being able to vote (they were mostly in the South). Drinkers and pub owners were against the vote because they were afraid that women would pass laws limiting liquor (they did, asd it turned out). Some women were even against the vote because they argued that their power was one of influence, and that having the vote would paradoxically lower their ‘voice behind the throne’ power.

    0wsLtX2 240x300 Ads of Yore

    Either way, the anti-suffrage forces had a tough gig. After all, how do you argue that half a population can’t vote, especially after a civil war that granted blacks the right to vote?

    Most of the groups decided on two approaches. The first one was to basically scare men that women with the vote would leave the home, and leave them with the babies:

    tumblr lbcd9dw9s11qa49tx 188x300 Ads of Yoretumblr lbcdryR56U1qa49tx 216x300 Ads of Yore

    That worked, somewhat, but more and more women were becoming convinced of the need to vote. And they were pushing their men – husbands, sons, brothers – to vote in that direction. So the anti-suffragette forces switched strategy, and decided that they had to make being a suffragette a negative thing:

    enhanced buzz 17610 1288729561 24 300x185 Ads of Yore

    177688 300x236 Ads of Yore

    These ads seem insulting and transparent in hindsight, but that’s because we’ve had an accumulated 100 years of learning and perspective – manipulations of 100 years ago seem so quaint….

    But let’s roll the clock fifty years or so and go to the 1950′s, where cigarettes ruled the day. By then, there were rumors of cigarettes maybe being less than good for your health, so cigarette makers focused on that topic in their ads:

    camels doctors whiteshirt 300x270 Ads of Yore

    20060403181925 206x300 Ads of Yore

    The idea was that if doctors were seen as supporting and endorsing cigarettes, any lingering health questions would be put to rest. They weren’t the only ones to try and use pseudo-science, by the way. Look at how butter decided to sell its health benefit:

    butter 230x300 Ads of Yore

    All these ads are shamelessly manipulative, but that’s because we’re viewing them with the benefit of 50 years of distance. What if we forward the clock again?

    The year? The 1980s. The world was innocent, at least by today’s standards. During the 1980s, women were emerging as a major customer segment – and so ads shifted to reflect that. Basically, women became fair play, mostly in sexually suggestive ads:

    Shape Liquid Powder 19701 239x300 Ads of Yore

    1980s ad are interesting – they nominally target women, but the ads were still being made by men, and so many of them essentially read… odd by today’s standards:


    a96674 yourlips 209x300 Ads of Yore

    a96674 ThisIsAComputer 219x300 Ads of Yore

    Basically, these ads are more funny than manipulative – they play off basic stereotypes, they are shameless, and the manipulation level is pretty basic, but remember that, at the time, a mere 20-25 years ago, these were state of the art ads that cost their sponsors millions of dollars.

    But we’re in 2013 today, and one obvious question is what are the manipulative ads of today that will be fondly remembered 20,30 or 40 years from now in the same way as all of these?

    In general, ads become more manipulative the more ‘out of synch’ they are. If you’re fighting the tide of history, or if facts are not on your side, you are fairly likely to turn to manipulation instead. Of course, identifying those without the benefit of hindsight can be challenging, but here are our picks as the ads most likely to be nominated in blog entry 893, in 2050:

    6a00d8341c730253ef017d3ca9a6f7970c 800wi 300x211 Ads of Yorereferendum 71 reject 300x235 Ads of Yore


    Our first bet are the ads targetting gay marriage. Whether or not you’re in favor of gay marriage, there’s good evidence that the world is moving increasingly in that direction. More and more states are passing laws allowing for gay marriage, and the arguments to legislate against them are becoming increasingly manipulative.


    Billboard2 620x229 300x110 Ads of Yore

    Our second bet, of course, are the ads by the Heartland Institute and some others to fight global warming. In a world where there is an almost complete scientific consensus on global warming, and where we can actually see glaciers receding and heat records broken, it is hard to maintain that ‘everything is a conspiracy’. But the Heartland Institute does its best, with ads like these – basically, the equivalent of the “suffragetes are ugly” mantra of yore.



    billboard mhc 14x48 sept2012 lied r crop 300x87 Ads of Yore



    Our third bet is marijuana. This one is also controversial, but there is a precedent – prohibition. Again, the pattern seems clear: more and more states are legalizing marijuana, the effects of marijuana are scientifically weaker than alcohol’s, and it’s a golden opportunity for state and municipal budgets to reduce enforcement costs and get some added tax revenues. As the trend towards legalization grows, ads designed to fight it have to become increasingly strident and manipulative to have any impact. Hence our third bet.

    Manipulation is context-depedent, especially when used in advertising and propaganda. Take the most innovative, subtle, manipulative ad, add in enough time and social change, and the ads look primitive at best, and insulting at worst.

    Slave Ad 1835 300x234 Ads of Yoreoutrage 300x230 Ads of Yore



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    Un-Reality Television

    January 19th, 2013

    by marhalt.

    You probably watch reality television. This is not going out on a limb – around 30% of programming is now reality television of some type. That is amazing, in a way – 10 years ago, this type of programming was virtually unknown. Today, most of the top-rated shows on television are reality shows – from American Idol to Survivor to Big Brother to Jersey Shore, reality shows are the most important and dynamic segment of television today.

    300 jersey shore duo2 Un Reality Television

    Important. And Dynamic.

    Reality shows are a bonanza for the networks. They cost half as much to produce as scripted shows, they don’t require writers, and they can effectively go on forever. They also allow for so much more product placement than traditional TV shows that sometimes, the product placement fees alone can pay for a significant proportion of the production fees.

    shameless product placement subliminal advertising american idol cocacola 8130070 Un Reality Television

    Sponsored by… NOT Pepsi

    But everyone lives in reality. Reality is boring. And most reality show contestants have no appreciable skills. So how do you get people to tune in, week after week? The quick answer – manipulation. Reality shows are probably the most manipulative programming available today, and in some areas the reality producers have literally written new chapters in the book of manipulation. Let’s take some examples, (with my thanks to Dave, who’s been both a good friend and an executive producer for reality shows for almost a decade now!) and see how many you already knew!

    – Casting. Most people know that casting is key to the success of a reality show. Pick the right people, and you’re already half-way to ratings gold. Big Brother, for example, has an extensive casting process, where potential roommates are screened and tested to see which ones will offer the best television. But it is a lot more subtle than just picking ‘extremes’ – much of the skill of reality-show casting directors is to pick folks which will provide good storylines. Casting directors look for contestants that could provide support different storylines – villains, friends, romances, drama. It is at this stage that producers look for the potential storylines that will keep viewers coming back for more, be it on the Amazing Race or the Biggest Loser. Casting is where the producers get the basic ideas and storylines that they will come back to all season – it is literally where the basic script of the ‘unscripted show’ gets written.

    By the way, casting is a lot more than choosing contestants. One of the most important stepis to make sure everyone signs the Agreement, a 30+ page contract that not only makes sure that the contestants sign over their image and all rights to the production company, but most importantly makes sure that they keep everything about the reality show – filming, editing, etc… – completely confidential. The Agreement basically stipulates that if they reveal anything – anything, at any time – about the show, they are liable for damages – a lot of damages. The Agreement is the main tool that producers have to make sure that the secrets of their reality show remain secret.

    necronomicon Un Reality Television

    Sign at the bottom, please.

    The best casting, of course, is when it is invisible. Cash Cab, for example, is a show on Discovery in which a special taxi prowls the streets, and if you’re lucky enough to get in, you have a chance to win some cash in a trivia quiz. Part of the attraction is that the cab looks like any other, and thus everyone in New York seems to have a slim but real chance to one day hail it. As it turns out, however, the Cash Cab contestants are screened and cast prior to entering the cab, and so your odds of simply stumbling into it are essentially nil.

    – Editing. Most viewers completely underestimate the power of editing. Watch this clip, for example, to see how the exact same scene can be cut differently to make someone look like a hero or a zero.  Film is cheap – since directors can film thousands of hours of film, they can choose fragments and edit them together to create whatever story they can imagine. With thousands of facial expressions and days of dialogue, a skilled editor can create almost any storyline that he wants. In a typical reality show, a director will shoot 150 hours of footage for every hour that ends up on screen.

    3242388.thb  Un Reality Television

    “&#@# reaction shot!!!”


    If all else fails, there is a technique called Frankenbiting – basically, cutting audio that was recorded separately into a scene. This way, contestants can be literally made to say anything that the director wants. Dating contestants, for example, can be asked who their favorite actor is, and then the footage can be spliced with another name to produce a completely different scene (a very popular technique with dating shows).

    Another technique that is often hard to notice is using music. It seems trivial, but adding mood music (and some sound effects)  can change the entire interpretation of a scene. A couple is walking away, talking. Friends? Add in a romantic music, and fade the dialogue softly, and now they are lovers. A skilled editor can use music to change the entire ‘feel’ of a scene.

    – Acting. The director of a reality show will often ask contestants to re-enact a scene. This will often be done because something happened off-camera, or because the footage the camera did catch was poor. But sometimes the director will ‘push’ the contestants during the enactment. A good director can entice contestants to exaggerate their reactions, or sometimes to simulate them entirely. Of course, some shows can take this idea to extremes and basically hire actors to directly ‘simulate’ reality. For example, Operation Repo, a show about repossession of cars and boats, shows repo men and the reality of their day-to-day operations. It is very ‘raw’, but it is, as the show very brief disclaimer states, “based on real events”. In fact, the show features actors who participate in scripted re-enactments. There is nothing ‘real’ about it.

    On most reality shows, though, the producers do not develop an exact script. But that is not to say that the show is not scripted. One ‘writer’ on a reality show described it thus to theWashington Post: “We’re not sitting in a room writing dialogue,” she said. Instead, typically, “we write outlines, with beats. We write specific jokes. We contrive comedic situations and then we help edit them, and we go back and reshoot scenes to bring out the various stories. And sometimes we just tell the contestants you’re mad, you’re happy, whatever. Act that way. And if they’re not getting it, we feed them a line.”

    There are many more techniques that we could discuss, but there are two conclusions that are worth highlighting. The first one, which deserves its own post, is that many of the manipulation techniques used in reality shows have been adopted to news media, where they have profoundly more impact. More on this later!

    The other interesting insight here is that “reality”, for these shows, is analog, not binary. Rather than a dividing line that splits ‘real’ from ‘not real’, reality shows form a spectrum, from the absolutely faked and manipulated (e.g. Operation Repo) to ones that are almost entirely real (e.g. Amazing Race) and manipulation-free. A good illustration of this is Pawn Stars:

    Pawn Stars Season 3 Episode 3 Un Reality Television

    Pawn Stars is a show about real pawnbrokers. It is a fun show to watch with a relatively rare feature – it is set in a real Las Vegas pawn shop, which you can visit, giving people a rare chance to compare the reality to the television show. If you do go, incidentally, you will notice that the store is clearly there, with real people bringing in objects, and the stars of the show really do work there. But, on the other hand, the store looks much larger on television, the traffic is mostly tourists who have seen the show, and about half of the real store is taken up with merchandise… from the show! So… real or manipulated?


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