That ASPI is now partially in charge of Twitter’s moderation, influencing what hundreds of millions of people see daily, is a grave threat to the free flow of information, as well as to the chances for a peaceful 21st century.
CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA –Social media giant Twitter raised many eyebrows recently when it announced that it had partnered with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in its fight against disinformation and fake news. ASPI, Twitter revealed in a blog post, had helped identify thousands of accounts that “amplified Chinese Communist Party narratives” around China’s treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. These accounts have now been permanently deleted.
This is of concern because the ultra-hawkish Australian think tank is actually the source for many of the most incendiary claims about China and its foreign policy, and, as Australian journalist and filmmaker John Pilger told MintPress, has been a driving force in the ramping up of tensions between China and the West, something he explored in his 2016 documentary, “The Coming War on China.” Pilger stated that,
ASPI has played a leading role – some would say, the leading role – in driving Australia’s mendacious and self-destructive and often absurd China-bashing campaign. The current Coalition government, perhaps the most right-wing and incompetent in Australia’s recent history, has relied upon the ASPI to disseminate Washington’s desperate strategic policies, into which much of the Australian political class, along with its intelligence and military structures, has been integrated.”
Importantly, neither ASPI nor Twitter claimed that the deleted accounts were fake or operated by the Chinese state, strongly implying that merely agreeing with Beijing or questioning bellicose Western narratives was reason enough to be banned.
This is not the first time that Twitter has joined forces with ASPI. In 2020, it announced that, on the think tank’s recommendations, it had shut down more than 170,000 accounts that praised China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, generally “antagoniz[ed]” the U.S., or amplified “deceptive narratives” about the Hong Kong protests (i.e., ones that did not agree with the State Department or the 44% of Hong Kongers who supported the movement). In the same cull, Twitter also deleted thousands of Russian and Turkish accounts.
That a global social media platform is now in open partnership with ASPI should trouble anyone who is concerned with free speech or peace, as the think tank is funded by the U.S. government and the world’s largest weapons manufacturers, and has consistently agitated for global conflict.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute describes itself as an “independent, non-partisan think tank” whose mission is to “nourish public debate and understanding” and “better inform” the public, as well as to “produce expert and timely advice for Australian and global leaders.” It insists that it is not identified with any particular ideology and that it is committed to “publishing a range of views on contentious topics.”
Despite claiming to be independent, it also notes that it was established in 2001 by the Australian government, the sole owner of the organization. This represents a PR problem for the think tank, which warns that “the perception as well as the reality of that independence…need to be carefully maintained.” Its annual financial reports reveal that most of its funding comes straight from Canberra, although it also receives hefty donations from other governments including the United Kingdom, Canada, Japan and the Netherlands.
While the lion’s share of its funding comes from various sources within the Australian government, the vast majority of its overseas funding comes from Washington and, more specifically, the Department of Defense (over $700,000 in fiscal year 2020-21) and the State Department (around $430,000 over the same period). In addition, ASPI takes money from American tech giants such as Google, Microsoft, Oracle and Facebook.
For many, including veteran Australian diplomat Bruce Haigh, this foreign cash has fundamentally sullied the organization. Haigh told MintPress:
ASPI is the propaganda arm of the CIA and the U.S. government. It is a mouthpiece for the Americans. It is funded by the American government and American arms manufacturers. Why it is allowed to sit at the center of the Australian government when it has so much foreign funding, I don’t know. If it were funded by anybody else, it would not be where it is at.”
As Haigh noted, ASPI is also funded by a cavalcade of the world’s largest weapons companies, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, QinetiQ and Thales. Perhaps even more worryingly, many of ASPI’s key personnel moonlight as defense contractor executives. Indeed, almost half of its senior council are on the boards of weapons or cybersecurity firms.
Robert Hill is a case in point. As Minister of Defense between 2001 and 2006, he was one of the key figures driving Australia towards war in Iraq. Hill consistently lied to the public, claiming that it was “not in dispute” that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and that the occupation, in fact, saved many Iraqi lives. One former senior defense advisor, Jane Errey, claims she was even forced out of her job after she refused to lie to the media on Hill’s behalf about Iraqi WMDs. Today, he is on the board of Rheinmetall Defense Australia, a company that supplies fighting vehicles and ammunition to the Australian military.
Hill’s successor as defense minister, Brendan Nelson, is also on ASPI’s senior council. Nelson continued Australia’s collaboration in the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, although his loose tongue got him in trouble in 2007, when he casually stated that the reason Australia was in Iraq was not WMDs, as Hill had insisted, but in order to secure a slice of the country’s oil reserves for itself. “Energy security is extremely important to all nations throughout the world and, of course, in protecting and securing Australia’s interests,” he said, in response to a direct question about whether this was a war for oil.
While director of the Australian War Memorial – a monument to those who died in Australia’s wars, Nelson controversially allowed weapons companies Boeing, Thales, Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems to sponsor the institution, a decision critics allege turned it from a sober memorial into a glorification of war. Just weeks after stepping down from that position, he accepted a job as president of Boeing Australia, New Zealand and South Pacific, a title he still holds.
Michelle Fahy, an investigative journalist specializing in the Australian arms industry, was particularly concerned by Nelson’s position at ASPI, telling MintPress:
Along with the funding, it is hard to see how this board appointment fits with a claim to being an ‘independent’ organization when Boeing is a multi-billion-dollar, top-five contractor to the Australian Defense Department, the third largest arms manufacturer in the world, and Nelson was formerly Defense Minister in an earlier government of the same political party now in power.”
Thus, a group headed by the individuals who championed the biggest political deception of the 21st century – one that led to the deaths of 2.4 million people – is now in charge of deciding what is real and what is fake news online for the entire planet. This raises a question: if ASPI had similar control over the means of communication in the early 2000s, would voices questioning the legitimacy of the Iraq invasion have been silenced for promoting false narratives?
Lt. Gen. Ken Gillespie was Vice Chief of the Defense Force from 2005-2008 and then Chief of the Army – the highest military position in Australia – between 2008 and 2011. As such, Gillespie was central to Australia’s efforts in both Afghanistan and Iraq. As his own LinkedIn biography boasts, “I led the initial Australian Defense Force contribution into the Middle-East and Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 11 strikes on the U.S.A. I was a key planner for Australia’s contribution to the Iraq war, and I commanded all Australian Defense Force operations for a lengthy period.” Both Gillespie and fellow ASPI council member Jane Halton are on the board of Naval Group Australia, producer of warships and other combat systems. They both also work for cybersecurity companies; Gillespie is director of the Senetas Corporation, a cybersecurity firm that regularly partners with weapons manufacturers, such as Thales, that have heartily endorsed Senetas’ work. Meanwhile, Halton is chair of the board of directors at Vault Cloud, a defense-minded cybersecurity firm.
Another ASPI council member is former politician Gai Brodtmann. Brodtmann serves on the advisory board of cybersecurity firm Sapien Cyber, a firm that has secured a number of large military contracts and is chaired by former Minister of Defense Stephen Smith. In addition to this, she holds a senior position at Defense Housing Australia, a company that provides a range of services aimed at military personnel.
One of the newest members of ASPI’s council is James Brown, an ex-army officer and son-in-law of former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. Brown is chief executive officer of the Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA), an organization that represents the interests of a number of prominent weapons corporations, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman Australia and Saab Australia.
As Fahy noted in an article in Declassified Australia, many former ASPI council members had similarly questionable connections to the arms industry. Jim McDowell was chief executive of BAE Systems Australia. Fellow politicians Stephen Loosley and Allan Hawke were on the boards of Thales Australia and Lockheed Martin Australia respectively, at the same time as serving on ASPI’s council. Meanwhile, retired Vice-Marshal Margaret Staib was on British aerospace giant QinetiQ’s board.
ASPI’s pro-war teenage growth spurt
ASPI began life 20 years ago as a relatively small think tank with a mandate to produce timely and independent research. However, in recent years, the organization has ballooned in size and now employs dozens of full-time staffers (contrary to its original vision). Its aggressive targeting of funding from a wide range of sources has undermined its credibility in Fahy’s eyes. As she told MintPress:
ASPI’s charter requires it to work to maintain the perception as well as the actuality of its independence. Given the widespread criticism directed at ASPI in recent years due to the perceived excessive influence of the U.S. government and U.S. arms and cybersecurity multinationals on its output, there is little doubt that the perception of its independence has been lost.”
Nevertheless, its ascendancy has led to it carrying inordinate influence within Australian politics and beyond, the organization’s reports being frequently cited in major outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post and Fox News. Diplomat Haigh said:
ASPI has supplanted the Department of Foreign Affairs in advice to the government. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, [Marise] Payne, is really very weak, and has been bypassed. So ASPI is feeding straight into the prime minister’s office on matters of foreign policy, particularly as it relates to China…This is part of the militarization of Australia and the Australian public service.”
Unsurprisingly for an organization taking money from weapons contractors, ASPI publishes some of the most crude and relentlessly pro-war propaganda anywhere, and has been a leader in the rush to declare a new Cold War on China and Russia.
This militaristic attitude is exemplified by ASPI’s executive director, Peter Jennings. Last year, Jennings bitterly denounced President Joe Biden and his decision to pull out of Afghanistan, describing it as his “first big blunder” in office. Jennings confidently predicted that Biden’s assessment that the U.S. “could not create or sustain a durable Afghan government” would be proven wrong. “In fact, that is precisely what American, Australian and other forces delivered to Afghanistan: a flawed but functioning democracy, keeping the Taliban at bay and preventing groups such as al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a training base from which to attack the West,” he wrote. Later that year, the Afghan government would fall to the Taliban, only days after American troops finally withdrew.
In the same article, Jennings went on to state that Biden’s decision was “an abandonment as complete as the U.S. failure to back South Vietnam…in the face of North Vietnam’s advancing conventional forces in 1974 and 1975,” thereby signaling that he supported the Vietnam conflict as well.
Indeed, it is hard to find a war Jennings has not advocated for. He vociferously backed the Iraq War, even demanding in 2015 that Australia increase its troop numbers. A committed cold-warrior who has argued that “the West is setting the bar for military response too high” and that the world must stop the “Leninist autocracies” of Russia, Iran and Syria, last week he came close to calling for war against nuclear-armed Russia. “America’s credibility is on the line” in Ukraine, he thundered, demanding that Biden back up his talk with “believable military options.”
An arms producers’ Yellow Pages
For a think tank that was supposed to produce nonpartisan, expert advice, it is remarkable how far ASPI strays from this goal, going so far as to run advertisements for weapons manufacturers masquerading as serious analysis. One example of this is a 2020 study, titled “Australia needs to ensure it has the advanced missiles it needs.” Comparing death machines to crucial lifesaving equipment, it states:
Missiles are like a combination of a medical ventilator and the masks health workers need during a pandemic…You need many thousands of them and they can’t be reused. Ordering or holding a few hundred just doesn’t cut any mustard outside peacetime training routines. So, production is key.
“Without such weapons,” the author continues, “Islamic State might still control major chunks of territory in Iraq and Syria.” This claim, of course, ignores the fact that it was largely Iranian forces under Qassem Soleimani that were responsible for destroying ISIS, and that the United States assassinated him in 2020. ASPI chief Peter Jennings appeared to support Trump’s decision, writing that “it’s surely a positive that, after Soleimani’s death, bad actors in the region might pause to wonder if a Hellfire missile on a circling drone has their name and address programmed in.”
Hammering the point home, ASPI claims that “Australia is fortunate in having close relationships with…companies like Raytheon, Rafael, Lockheed Martin and Kongsberg” that can close the country’s supposed “missile supply gap.” “Getting agreement to and support for high-end U.S. missiles, like the long-range anti-ship missile made by Lockheed Martin, to be manufactured in Australia as well as the continental U.S. through co-production, will only happen if the senior leadership of our nations drive it,” it concludes.
If it were not clear that this was a “buy more missiles, says group funded by missile manufacturers” advertisement, ASPI included both Thales’ and Lockheed Martin’s logos on the page. Indeed, every page on ASPI’s website includes a sidebar advertisement for those two companies, complete with links to their websites.
These sorts of practices would be problematic enough if ASPI were a think tank trying to promote orange juice drinking in Australia while being filled with executives from Tropicana and Minute Maid. But it is not fruit ASPI is selling: it is war. It is literally a life-and-death affair.
Red flags, Yellow Peril
Saber-rattling at Russia or running unofficial advertorials for weapons companies are sidelines to ASPI’s main business of hyping up the threat that China poses to Australia and the world. Earlier this month, Jennings took to the pages of The Australian to demand a more formal military alliance with Japan in order to take China head-on. The Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper failed to disclose the fact that Jennings’ organization – and therefore his hefty salary (around $332,000 last year) – is being directly paid in part by the Japanese government. He has also recently called for a diplomatic boycott of the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics.
ASPI was the source behind the infamous 2019 documentary “Red Flags,” which aired on state broadcaster ABC. In McCarthyist fashion, “Red Flags” claimed that Australian universities were “infiltrated” with thousands of agents of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), learning Australian secrets and bringing them back to their homeland. ASPI’s report, “Picking Flowers, Making Honey,” insisted that universities were in active “collaboration” with the CCP.
I grew up in the cold war. Third-rate academics and a rag bag of charlatans made fools of themselves with their mighty conspiracy theory of Chinese (aka the Yellow Peril) under our beds. They’re back! This lot, the ASPI, echoes Trump’s lies and racism.https://t.co/Ir9HZ3D2yP
— John Pilger (@johnpilger) June 18, 2020
The Canberra-based think tank was also behind the scaremongering that led to the Australian government canceling Huawei’s contract to upgrade the country’s notoriously poor telecommunications infrastructure. Adding to the hype, one ASPI employee even took to the pages of a national newspaper to claim that if the small city of Bendigo went forward with its plans to attach Huawei sensors to their garbage trucks, it would constitute a national security threat.
Jennings hailed the government’s subsequent decision to cancel the nation’s 5G plans as “absolutely the right call,” categorizing those opposing it as simply “the inevitable whining from China’s red brigade of useful idiots.” At no point did he acknowledge that telecom giants who fund ASPI, and on whose boards many of its key members sit, would likely benefit from the decision.
I met ASPI acolyte Vicky Xu today at the cab line at the airport. When I explained I’m concerned we’re heading to war with China she said, “We’re already at war with China.” I said, “No, a real war.” She replied, “I’m in a real war with China.” ASPI has a lot to answer for, IMHO.
— Robert Barwick (@RobbieBarwick) April 14, 2021
Last summer, ASPI also published a report with the title “China threatens Australia with missile attack.” The basis of the “threat,” was not China, however, but a two-paragraph statement from Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of a Chinese newspaper, The Global Times. Hu wrote that if Australia declared war on China, sent troops to Taiwan, and started killing Chinese soldiers, then China should have the capability to fire back on Australia. The author of the piece, Paul Dibb, the former head of Australia’s equivalent of the Defense Intelligence Agency, surely knew the difference but did not let that get in the way of a good story.
Dibb himself has openly ramped up tensions between the two nations. In 2020, he wrote an article for ASPI entitled “How Australia can deter China.” The article was illustrated simply with a picture of a Lockheed Martin missile. Pilger told MintPress:
ASPI is one of the world’s most blatant propaganda ciphers. If we were back in the old Cold War, it would be the equivalent of Pravda – though my memory of Pravda is that it was honest in its role as a voice of the state whereas ASPI pretends to be independent.”
For a think tank that claims to be a guardian against fake news and disinformation online, ASPI has been at the forefront of mainstreaming conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and China, particularly that of the Wuhan lab leak. In a report called “The Great Covid Cover-up,” ASPI insisted that there has been massive, worldwide collusion on the part of the scientific, academic and medical communities, and even from parts of the U.S. government, all to hide Covid’s true origins and to run interference for China.
Perhaps most importantly, however, ASPI is a worldwide driving force behind bringing the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang to global attention. Their many reports, particularly the ongoing Xinjiang Data Project, have been the basis of hundreds of articles and news segments across the planet. Unfortunately, much of their research is as sloppy as it has been with other projects. As soon as it released an interactive map of the locations of what it claimed were hundreds of Uyghur detention centers, local Chinese people and even just individuals using tools like Google were able to show conclusively that many of these “prisons” were actually schools, government offices, or other more mundane edifices.
ASPI’s report’s Turpan Detention Center Facility #7 & Facility #1 turn out to be Gaochang District Bureau for Veterans Affairs and Gaochang District Bureau for Business & Industry Informationisation respectively. The smoking gun is that they both have external walls! https://t.co/yb3LTz9wvA pic.twitter.com/WuRprk4Bih
— Chengxin Pan (@ChengxinPan) September 27, 2020
Of course, this is not to say that no detention facilities exist, or that a great number of Uyghurs have not been oppressed or imprisoned. Even the Chinese government accepts that it has put large numbers of people through what it describes as deradicalization programs. What it does highlight, though, is the sloppy nature of the scholarship that is being used to justify a worldwide boycott of Xinjiang-linked companies on the grounds of forced labor, something ASPI has helped lead. Thus, ASPI is far from a neutral arbiter in Twitter’s decision to close thousands of accounts on the grounds of stopping misinformation about Xinjiang spreading; in fact, it is serving as the prosecutor, the judge and the executioner all at once.
Ironically, at least 11 of the think tank’s largest financial backers are themselves heavily implicated in using forced labor to produce their weapons, or in human trafficking. Boeing, Raytheon, BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin all make use of forced American prison labor to make their products, while certain national sponsors, including the United States and the UAE, engage in forced labor.
The organization that constantly attacks China was also among the driving forces behind the yearslong RussiaGate conspiracy in the United States. ASPI agents were flown across the world to provide supposedly expert testimony to the U.S. Senate hearings about alleged Russian interference online and in the 2016 election. Remarkably, ASPI’s report, “Hacking Democracies,” claims that only Russia and China interfere in other nations’ elections, blithely ignoring the long history of the American government doing just that.
Facing mounting criticism at home, ASPI has inexpertly attempted to launder its own image online. The organization was caught scrubbing negative information off its Wikipedia page while using an ASPI-registered I.P. address. A number of users editing the page to add positive content and remove negative information were identified as sock puppets (fake accounts controlled by another user to give the impression of a group consensus) and banned by Wikipedia. Journalist Marcus Reubenstein also discovered that another pro-ASPI Wikipedia editor named “Wyvern2604” was originally called “ASPI ORG” before changing their name. This sort of crude online propaganda is exactly what ASPI accuses its enemies of engaging in. Yet, far from being discredited and having its accounts removed, ASPI is now a leader, supposedly, in the fight against disinformation – whether the public likes it or not.
Signing on to Bellum Americanum
Australia’s stance on China has taken a dramatic turn in recent years. Once, it had enjoyed a cordial relationship with Beijing and developed deep economic ties to it. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, in and out of office between 2007 and 2013, even impressed his Chinese counterparts with his fluent Mandarin.
Yet as the United States has turned its eye upon Beijing, Australia has followed suit, joining the U.S.-dominated military organizations like The Quad (U.S., Australia, Japan, India) and AUKUS (Australia, U.K., U.S.), both of which are squarely aimed at preventing China’s further economic rise. To that end, there is a concerted U.S. effort to develop what senior generals have called an “Asian NATO,” sooner rather than later.
Media have worked with ASPI to hype the China threat, while politicians not going along with this dangerous jingoism are labeled “panda huggers.” To that extent, it has had a profound impact on public opinion. As recently as 2018, 82% of Australians saw China as an “economic partner” rather than a “security threat” (12%). However, by 2021, those numbers had radically shifted; 63% considering China a threat, and only 34% describing it as an economic partner. Even Rudd himself has become something of a China hawk, describing the country as “a 1,000-pound gorilla in the front living room.”
Historically, Australia has consistently followed the United States into whatever military endeavor it begins. There were nearly 8,000 Australian soldiers in Vietnam at the war’s peak, the country suffering some 3,500 casualties. It also accompanied the U.S. during the First Gulf War and the two largest post-9/11 campaigns.
This continues to the present day. Late last year, Australia committed to purchasing eight enormous nuclear submarines at a cost of around $64 billion. The announcement was understood on all sides to be a gesture to Washington, showing that Australia will stand by it, come what may. Yet as China is by far and away Australia’s largest economic partner (almost one-third of all Australian exports go to the P.R.C.), any conflict would be devastating. Thus, the enthusiasm with which the government in Canberra has chosen the U.S. over China speaks wonders about what it sees its true role as being. As Pilger put it:
In the words of a senior CIA officer once based in Australia, Australian prime ministers are ‘forever obsequious to us.’ Up until 2015, the relationship with China was pragmatic and businesslike. China is Australia’s biggest, most important trader. The relationship is now a spectacle akin to aiming a pistol at one’s own feet.”
“Australia now has become very much a part of the American confrontation with China,” Haigh said. “The Americans are dead set keen to take on China. It is not a matter of ‘if,’ it is a matter of ‘when,’ because that is what they want to do. They have made their minds up… It’s gunboat diplomacy with aircraft carriers,” he added.
“Do you want me to drop this c***?”
Horrific Video shows Australian SAS soldier shooting and killing unarmed Afghan man at close range in #Afghanistan.#Australia #WarCrimeshttps://t.co/O3V6qfTjEE pic.twitter.com/gSzNiUAEum
— DOAM (@doamuslims) March 18, 2020
The think tank-social media axis
Twitter’s collaboration with ASPI is part of a growing trend for the biggest social media platforms partnering with hawkish, state-sponsored think tanks. In 2018, Facebook announced it was collaborating with NATO think tank the Atlantic Council, whereby it gave an undisclosed amount of control over users’ news feeds to the group, allowing it to help Facebook decide what posts users saw and which ones were suppressed.
If anything, the Atlantic Council’s connections to state power are even deeper than ASPI’s. The council’s board of directors is a who’s who of powerful state figures – including senior statespersons like Condoleezza Rice and Henry Kissinger; a host of top U.S. generals, including Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis, Wesley Clark, and David Petraeus; as well as no fewer than seven former directors or acting directors of the CIA. Like ASPI, the Atlantic Council receives its funding from Western governments, weapons manufacturers, and big tech companies. As such, it represents the collective consciousness of the American state.
The Atlantic Council, like ASPI, has also been central to the rush towards potential war with Russia or China, the organization constantly putting out highly questionable reports of Russian or Chinese interference in domestic politics. Last February, the Atlantic Council published an anonymous, 26,000-word report outlining its vision for a future China. “The United States and its major allies continue to dominate the regional and global balance of power across all the major indices of power;” it wrote, hoping as well that head of state Xi Jinping will be “replaced by a more moderate party leadership; and that the Chinese people themselves have come to question and challenge the Communist Party’s century-long proposition that China’s ancient civilization is forever destined to an authoritarian future.” In other words, that China has been broken and that some sort of regime change has occurred.
A week later, Facebook hired former NATO press officer and current senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, Ben Nimmo, to “lead global threat intelligence strategy against influence operations” and “emerging threats.” Nimmo specifically named Iran and Russia as potential dangers to the platform.
Another former Atlantic Council hawk turned social media boss is Reddit’s Jessica Ashooh. Ashooh left her job as deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Strategy Force to become Reddit’s director of policy – a position for which she was completely unqualified on paper.
A second, highly significant example of Twitter collaboration with state intelligence is the case of Gordon MacMillan. MacMillan is an active-duty officer in the British Army’s 77th Brigade, a unit dedicated to online operations and psychological warfare, yet was somehow appointed to become Twitter’s Head of Editorial. Despite his outing being covered extensively in alternative media (including in MintPress News), only one mainstream U.S. publication – Newsweek – even mentioned the revelations at all. The Newsweek journalist who wrote the story was forced out of the industry only a few weeks later. Yet to this day, MacMillan remains in his important post at Twitter, strongly suggesting the social media company knew of his role before he was hired.
Ultimately, what these incidents hint at is a fusion between social media and the national security state, something that the Twitter/ASPI union underlines. This has long been foreseen, even championed by both entities. At NATO’s 70th anniversary gala in 2019, Admiral James Stavridis, former NATO supreme commander for Europe, declared that his organization would very soon be “far more engaged” with tech and cybersecurity issues. But long before then, executives at Google were pitching their company as a new weapon for the U.S. empire. “What Lockheed Martin was to the twentieth century, technology and cyber-security companies [like Google] will be to the twenty-first,” wrote Eric Schmidt and Larry Cohen in their book, The New Digital Age, a book that came replete with a ringing endorsement from Henry Kissinger on the back cover.
Platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are far more widely used and influential than any newspaper or TV network. Whoever controls their algorithms and has the power to promote or delete accounts at will has significant influence over global public opinion; hence the desire to control them. When an organization like ASPI or the Atlantic Council has even some amount of editorial control over social media, that is tantamount to state censorship, but on a worldwide scale.
This power is already being used in a flagrantly anti-democratic manner. Just days before the Nicaraguan presidential election in November, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram worked, seemingly in unison, to essentially wipe the left-wing FSLN Party (a longtime bête noire
of the U.S.) from the internet, purging thousands of accounts, channels and pages at the most politically sensitive time. Activists who had been suspended by Facebook for “inauthentic behavior” (i.e., being bots) poured on to Twitter, recording messages stating they were real people who supported President Daniel Ortega. Incredibly, Twitter took the decision to delete virtually all these accounts, too.
That Twitter intends more of these types of operations in the future is made clear by the fact that they announced partnerships with two other organizations at the same time as with ASPI. One is Venezuelan outlet, Cazadores de Fake News, a group that presents itself as a fact-checking organization but appears to be inordinately dedicated to attacking the left-wing government of Nicolas Maduro (another American target). Cazadores de Fake News tacitly endorsed the self-declared president, Juan Guaidó, a favorite of Washington. It was also supportive of the U.S.-backed military coup that briefly brought Bolivia’s Jeanine Añez to power in 2019. The other organization partnering with Twitter is the Stanford Internet Observatory, a group that boasts about training a new generation of (anti-Russian) leaders in Ukraine and whose director, Alex Stamos, is also on the advisory board of NATO’s Collective Cybersecurity Center of Excellence.
While the Australian Strategic Policy Institute might have started out and even operated for years with the best of intentions, it is increasingly clear that its primary role is to create crises – fake or otherwise – to serve their backers’ agendas. Once weapons were manufactured to fight wars; today, wars are often manufactured to sell weapons.
The interests of the U.S. government and of arms companies are not those of either the Australian public or of social media users. Where once the online space was a place where critical information could circulate freely, we increasingly live in an upside down world where a giant government influence operation is being carried out under the guise of protecting us from a similarly large (foreign) government operation.
ASPI has become not only a prime vehicle driving the West to war, but it now also holds considerable power to suppress dissenting opinions, meaning it can simply invent reality. That this organization is now partially in charge of Twitter’s moderation, influencing what hundreds of millions of people see daily, is a grave threat to the free flow of information, as well as to the chances for a peaceful 21st century.
Feature photo | Graphic by Antonio Cabrera
Alan MacLeod is Senior Staff Writer for MintPress News. After completing his PhD in 2017 he published two books: Bad News From Venezuela: Twenty Years of Fake News and Misreporting and Propaganda in the Information Age: Still Manufacturing Consent, as well as a number of academic articles. He has also contributed to FAIR.org, The Guardian, Salon, The Grayzone, Jacobin Magazine, and Common Dreams.