Now that the masses have access to mass communication, there are not only more opportunities to create messages, but also to jam them. When governments try to jam messages we call it censorship, but this is only one form of message jamming. Here are seven methods of message jamming that can be used by activists or governments/elites.
1) Stop the Message
Mechanism: Stopping the message means placing a block between the message and the audience. It is a form of censorship that includes putting blocks within the network architecture to prevent certain words, articles, and even entire sites from being accessed by a certain population. Most governments that censor use these mechanisms, which function automatically and are easy to implement at the national level. There are even nice Western technology firms who have created software to make it easier.
Counter-Action: Activists and citizens can use proxies, onion routers, and VPNs to circumvent these blocks.
Advantage: Governments. Even though savvy users can get around censorship, most citizens remain blocked.
2) Stop the Messenger
Mechanism: Repressive regimes are not satisfied with blocking the transmission of dangerous messages. They want to stop these messages at the source, which means stopping the messenger. There are several ways to stop the messenger from transmitting messages, including threats and intimidation, resulting in self-censorship, or physically cutting activists off from the means of transmission. This can be achieved by separating the means of transmission from the activist (turning off the Internet or SMS services) or by separating the activist from the means of transmission (imprisonment and illegal detention).
Counter-Action: Find work-arounds. In a case in which the infrastructure is cut off from the activists one can replace Internet communication with fax or access the net through international dial-up modems. In a case in which the activist is cut off from the infrastructure one can find creative ways to get the message out, such as blogging from jail by writing posts on pieces of paper and passing them to friends on the outside.
Advantage: Governments, again. Savvy activists can get their messages out but, for most people, Internet shut-down or imprisonment does stop the messenger.
3) Delegitimize the Message
Mechanism: If the message and the messenger cannot be effectively stopped, they need to be rendered non-threatening. One way to do this is to make the message less appealing. For example, in the US, when a public health care option sounded pretty appealing, Sarah Palin re-defined it as “death panels” (a very “sticky” idea). In this troublingly effective 2009 statement she took an idea that seemed appealing and cost-effective and re-defined it as “evil” in a few sentences:
The Democrats promise that a government health care system will reduce the cost of health care, but as the economist Thomas Sowell has pointed out, government health care will not reduce the cost; it will simply refuse to pay the cost. And who will suffer the most when they ration care? The sick, the elderly, and the disabled, of course. The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.
Counter-Action: Coming up with a “stickier” definition of your message than your opponent, the back and forth ends when one side’s definition of the idea sticks.
Advantage: No one. It’s a rhetorical game and no one has a monopoly in coming up with sticky definitions.
4) Delegitimize the Messenger
Mechanism: If a message is a threat, it is probably a threat because it is somehow appealing on its own merit, so while a repressive government could argue the merits of “down with the dictator,” they usually don’t. Rather than delegitimize the message, they delegitimize the messenger. For example, during the recent revolution, the Egyptian government forced Vodaphone to send out this SMS to all its subscribers, defining the pro-democracy activists as “traitors and criminals” and government supporters as “honest and loyal men.” It’s pretty textbook:
The Armed Forces asks Egypt’s honest and loyal men to confront the traitors and criminals and protect our people and honor and our precious Egypt.
Counter-Action: The messenger is in a harder position here than with message delegitimization, because not one message, but every message he/she transmits is tainted by association. This makes it harder to fire back and redefine the message in their favor.
Advantage: No one. Neither government nor activists have a monopoly over character assassination. Both can use the tactic effectively. In fact, activists may even see their legitimacy rise if they are the subject of attempted character assassination by an unpopular government.
5) Impersonate the Messenger
Mechanism: Why defeat your opponent when you can impersonate him/her and transmit your own messages in their place? It is tough though as it takes perseverance and skill to impersonate one’s target and one also has to be convincing enough not to be immediately debunked. During the 2009 Iran election protests, a number of Twitter accounts were set up for the seeming purpose of confusing activists and observers and encouraging the former towards violence. Identified by TwitSpam:
- http://twitter.com/Persian_Guy (Using fake RT to spread disinfo)
- http://twitter.com/serv_ (posing fake RTs; disinfo)
- http://twitter.com/TruePersian1 (Was preaching violence & destruction in all caps; now updates are protected)
- http://twitter.com/ohaitere (Alternating between a false report of Mousavi death and spam about iPhones)
A particularly ingenious use of impersonation was carried out by the Pakistani government when they (accidentally…hmmm) asked a national ISP to set their DNS servers to impersonate YouTube.com, thus erroneously re-routing millions of page requests around the world.
Counter-Action: Publicly debunk the impostor or overwhelm disinformation with accurate information, either from multiple sources or from a single trusted source.
Advantage: Governments, slightly. In an age where activists as well as the government can shout loudly, it is not so difficult to debunk or overwhelm the impostor, making it difficult for government agents to impersonate activists. However, it is much harder for activists to impersonate the government.
6) Dilute the Message
Mechanism: If you cannot stop or delegitimize the message/messenger or impersonate the messenger, then you might as well try to dilute the message so much that it is drowned out. Yes, there are a lot of water analogies for this one. The basic idea is to shout louder that your opponent such that your opponent’s message no longer has the attention of the public and you are able to define whatever the subject is by flooding (there’s another one) the public space with your own messages.
There are many good examples of this, but one of my favorites is the case of the Westboro Baptist Church, which protests funerals with posters of virulently hateful messages. In the action pictured above, counter-protesters appear to be attempting to drown out the Westboro protesters with their own signs that simultaneously mock (delegitimize) and dilute the hateful message.
Counter-Action: Scream louder. Push your message out over more platforms, particularly ones that are more influential.
Advantage: Governments unfortunately have greater access to influential channels (network TV, print media, etc) than activists do.
7) Co-Opt the Message
Mechanism: This is the last option, only one step removed from utter defeat. To co-opt your opponent’s message is to say “yes, the message is right, but it’s our message so we should get the credit.” This is the dictator extolling the benefits of democracy when he’s been forced to hold a free and fair election.
Counter-Action: There is no counter-action as the opponent has effectively won.
Advantage: Since this is the last recourse of the rhetorical loser, no one who uses it has the advantage any more.
Of the seven methods, governments have the advantage in four (stop the message/messenger, dilute the message, impersonate the message) and neither activists nor the government has an advantage in two (delegitimize the message/messenger). Activists don’t yet have the advantage in any tactic, but they should seek to drive governments into tactical battles of delegitimization, where activists have more of a fighting chance. Where censorship and message dilution are prevalent, activists are in a distinctly inferior position.
(UPDATED, mostly to correct typos.)