The Null Device

Strategic communication

Forget spin doctors: the latest in public-opinion management is "strategic communications" firms, who will, for a fee, use psy-ops techniques to control public reaction to anything from disease outbreaks to coups:
A shadowy media firm steps in to help orchestrate a sophisticated campaign of mass deception. Rather than alert the public to the smallpox threat, the company sets up a high-tech "ops center" to convince the public that an accident at a chemical plant threatens London. As the fictitious toxic cloud approaches the city, TV news outlets are provided graphic visuals charting the path of the invisible toxins. Londoners stay indoors, glued to the telly, convinced that even a short walk into the streets could be fatal... While Londoners fret over fictitious toxins, the government works to contain the smallpox outbreak. The final result, according to SCL's calculations, is that only thousands perish, rather than the 10 million originally projected. Another success.
"If your definition of propaganda is framing communications to do something that's going to save lives, that's fine," says Mark Broughton, SCL's public affairs director. "That's not a word I would use for that."
The consultancy in question, Strategic Communications Laboratories, allegedly has expertise in areas including "psychological warfare", "public diplomacy" and "influence operations", including operations in a number of foreign countries (an example cited at their exhibit at the recent London arms fair involves benignly overthrowing an unstable Asian democracy to head off the threat of an insurgency, a scenario not unlike what happened in Nepal recently). It's hardly surprising that, in the post-9/11 age, they are gearing up to grab a slice of the lucrative homeland-security market.
Government deception may even be justified in some cases, according to Michael Schrage, a senior adviser to the security-studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "If you tell the population that there's been a bio-warfare attack, hospital emergency rooms will be overwhelmed with people who sincerely believe they have all the symptoms and require immediate attention," Schrage says.
The problem, he adds, is that in a democracy, a large-scale ruse would work just once.

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