a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

The “Zero Dark Thirty” interbranch torture propaganda war

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 24th December 2012

…followed by the highest-grossing propaganda effort in history?

The makers of “Zero Dark Thirty” may have just learned that there is such a thing as bad publicity.  Peter Bergen (CNN) reports:

On Wednesday, three senior U.S. senators sent Michael Lynton, the CEO of Sony Pictures, a letter about “Zero Dark Thirty,” the much-discussed new movie about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, which described the film as “grossly inaccurate and misleading.”

The letter, co-signed by Senators Diane Feinstein (D-CA), Carl Levin (D-MI), and John McCain (R-AZ), states:

…We understand that the film is fiction, but it opens with the words “based on first-hand accounts of actual events” and there has been significant media coverage of the CIA’s cooperation with the screenwriters. As you know, the film graphically depicts CIA officers repeatedly torturing detainees and then credits these detainees with providing critical lead information on the courier that led to the Usama Bin Laden. Regardless of what message the filmmakers intended to convey, the movie clearly implies that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Usama Bin Laden. We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect.

Zero Dark Thirty is factually inaccurate, and we believe that you have an obligation to state that the role of torture in the hunt for Usama Bin Laden is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film’s fictional narrative….

LA Times reporters Zeitchik and Keegan cut to the chase as far as Hollywood is concerned:

…a bipartisan thumbs-down from Washington may dim the once-bright Oscar chances for Kathryn Bigelow‘s fact-based thriller about the hunt for Osama bin Laden“You believe when watching this movie that waterboarding and torture leads to information that leads then to the elimination of Osama bin Laden. That’s not the case,” McCain said on CNN’s “The Situation Room,” adding that torture had yielded false information from detainees. The former prisoner of war explained that he was speaking out because “movies, particularly by very highly credentialed producers, directors and cast, [do] have an effect on public opinion — not only in the United States but around the world.”

Zeitchik and Keegan continue, apparently not ironically,

The slam — and on a subject as provocative as torture — is part of a public relations nightmare in an industry where perception often trumps reality.

…by which they seem to mean criticisms from the news cycle trumping box office receipts and cinematographic artistry.  If so, karma may be a bitch in this case, given that “perception trumping reality” is what the movie makers (arguably) did to position their movie as an Oscar-bait, kinda-sorta-documentary “based on first-hand accounts of actual events,” mainly-sorta-blockbuster in the first place.

Yet there’s something that doesn’t sit well about the senators’ position here either.  I don’t agree with the Washington Post’s  David Ignatius, who clutches at his pearls and calls  the senators’ letter “intemperate” and suggests the senators’ position “sounds like censorship.”  As to the former: good grief, who cares?  But as to the latter: first, “sounds like” ain’t “is.”  Second, it doesn’t even sound like it: the senators suggest setting the record straight — no more — about the movie’s lack of veracity, as they rightly (I suspect*) see it, on the subject of the paltry role that CIA depravity ultimately played in locating Bin Laden.

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Astroturf Wars

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 14th October 2010

Astroturf Wars: How Corporate America is Faking a Grassroots Revolution” is an impressive documentary by Australian Taki Oldham; he’s distributing it for online viewing for $1.99, and the DVD can be purchased for $14.99. There’s a website, of course — and it’s worth a look, too.

I’m watching the movie, though I’ll have to quit halfway through and hopefully return to it tomorrow evening. Oldham traces corporate connections to the anti-healthcare movement, the climate change skeptic, pro-energy company movement, and the Tea Party movement.

The grass is real, the roots are real — but any
lawn you make this way isn’t exactly grassroots —
even if it isn’t astroturf either.

Oldham is well aware of the problem with the astroturf charge, one I’ve brought up before myself: that’s an awful lot of people with something bugging them, it can’t be completely artificial.  Thus one Louisville Tea Party speaker:

“The fact of the matter is, we ain’t no astroturf.  Nobody’s pre-printing signs for us.  Nobody’s telling us what to think or how to think it.  By God, they’re not gonna start now. So we thought how do we take these feral cats and kind of herd them all together?  And we thought, a rolling symbol across the country in towns small and big and in between…”.

He means the Tea Party Express — a bus beautifully custom-painted with images of the Constitution, currently on its 4th multi-state tour in less than a year.  Now if that’s grassroots I wish I was back in the business; in the 80s the Nuclear Freeze groups I was with ran out of grubby storefronts if they were lucky and from people’s living rooms if they weren’t.

Oldham’s point — and it seems to me a fair one — is that movements like these needn’t be completely artificial to still be deceptive, to still be “astroturf.” But the word is misleading, because astroturf is completely artificial.  Call them perhaps “grass sod organizations” and the distinction to a lawn or a meadow is clearer: not completely artificial — but not natural either: tour buses. Conventions. Ad campaigns. Cookie cutter “Americans for XYZ” groups and web sites.  It all costs a lot of money to “spring up overnight” and it costs more to stay there once you’ve sprung up.

With this new kind of phenomenon, the grass is real, the roots are real — but any lawn you make this way isn’t exactly grassroots. It’s been built and it’s being fertilized by other people, ones with plans of their own.

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Spam 3.0: issue-based comment spam

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 8th April 2010

Because I get fairly few comments — not whining about it, I promise! — I’m at leisure to screen every one of the new commenters who show up. Sadly, most of them are plain old spam — call them spam 1.0.  Once you could at least see that they were links to online Viagra sales sites or whatever; these days they’re often not even intelligible writing (these are generally from Eastern Europe and Russia), showing up as strings like “????? ????? ??????’? ????”, which is kind of mysterious, but whatever, maybe it’s homework for some Ukrainian “Internet Marketing 101” class.

Next came “suck up” spam: short notes pretending to congratulate me on a post — i.e., impersonating someone who has actually read the post, instead of just dropping in to deposit a dropping with a link back to their huckster site.  While it’s still pretty lame, it’s sufficiently innovative that I’ll call it spam 2.0.  I’ve collected the text from some of the more amusing examples, but like all the other spam comments, the “Akismet” spam filter catches them, I look at them, I yawn, I delete them.

Lately, though, I’ve seen something new.  While the web site link of the commenter remains a giveaway to a commercial interest of some kind, the comment itself is almost relevant to the post, and the commenter’s web site is also almost a  genuine looking web site or blog.

Here’s a comment of this sort, attempted for “In What’s Become a Bit of a Regular Occurrence” (a post about Obama’s reversal on offshore oil exploration):

Our major issue in this country is our two political parties. Our forefathers knew that a two party system would be our downfall and took steps to try to stop this type of politics, and thus anyone who seriously thinks that politics isn’t corrupt or slaves to Corporate America hasn’t not been paying attention. George Jr. will go down in History as one of the worst administrations in history and I could go on for hours showing why, but my point is that the Obama administration has offered nothing different (besides health reform, granted) and has in fact continued nearly every single Bush program. Obama has almost the same political donors and thus has the same pressures as Bush did. Health reform will turn out to be the most expensive and destructive waste of tax payer money ever. I just wish I could offer a better alternative for other frustrated people, but I can’t and those that think that the tea partiers are the future, remember that Sarah Palin is an important figure to them.

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I never realised this before, but you have a very good point indeed

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 17th March 2010

An ongoing collection of my favorite form of spam comment — suck-up spam.

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But diplomatically dismissive spam is even better!

  • Has anyone used this site before. It looks great and simple to use.
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  • Just as appetite comes by eating, so work brings inspiration, if inspiration is not discernible at the beginning.

I’ll keep on it.

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Grasstroturf, hopeandchange, and Inglewood, CA

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 14th August 2009

I agree with Julian Sanchez about the alleged astroturfing behind the angry town hall crowds:

Manifestly, there are groups like FreedomWorks trying to catalyze or corral opposition to Obama’s policies, but it hardly sounds as though they’re in control—at most, it seems like they’re providing focal points for the kind of genuine, strong sentiment you can’t fake… and that I’d think few political operatives would want to fake.

You can certainly shake your head about Dick Armey, Rupert Murdoch, and Howard Phillips — a report in Alternet by Adele Stan illuminates their roles well.  But I think it’s a false sense of superiority to call the right wing participants in these events “fringe” or “astroturf.” No more so than Obama supporters turning out by the hundreds and more for campaign rallies — called there by e-mail, text message, and spiffy web sites. Sanchez continues:

That said, I think the sharp line between “grassroots” and “astroturf” will probably make less and less sense in the emerging media environment. The Platonic form of a grassroots campaign is, say, a bunch of ordinary parents in Peoria, largely unconnected with and certainly undirected by any larger political entity, banding together to agitate for some change or other. And the Platonic form of astroturf is when Peoria Parents for a Brighter Future turns out to be three bachelors  in a K Street office with some letterhead and a fat check from McDonalds or something. But the lines between local and national politics are much blurrier when all the organizing and reporting are taking place online.

In a comment, he concedes a reader’s point that “the “genuine, strong sentiment ” you [applaud] is authored by deceit,” and so do I — see Re: Fw: SENIOR DEATH WARRANTS below.  But it does no one any good to bemoan that.  Freedomworks et al have been out-organizing Obama’s people, and by a considerable margin. Why is that?  I have a few theories.

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Posted by Thomas Nephew on 12th August 2009

I got one of the health care e-mails that have been ricocheting around the Internet yesterday.  It was forwarded by a dear relative of mine, with the subject line “FW: SENIOR DEATH WARRANTS.” I’ve posted it on my Google Docs site — of course, without any identifying information, and without editing.  I want to respond to various claims made in that e-mail.

Throughout the discussion below, I’ll link to relevant parts of proposed legislation to back up what I’m saying.  I’ll usually be referring to the text of H.R.3200, also known as “America’s Affordable Health Choices Act of 2009” — this is one of the main House bills.  The link leads to an “all about H.R.3200” web page at that enables links to very specific parts of the bill.  However, readers with slow browsers or older computers may be better off consulting the text version of the bill.

The email begins by recounting a conversation with a doctor:

…He then asked how old I was, and when I replied 70, he said that if this legislation goes through as intended by the powers that be, that I probably would not be able to get [a cancer treatment] next year, as that would be money better spent on someone else with greater longevity. I would be referred to someone to “counsel” me.

REPLY: FALSE. This and other parts of the e-mail appear to misconstrue Section 1233 (“Advance care planning consultation”) of the bill.  As a fact sheet by Rep. Blumenauer summarizes,

The provision merely provides coverage under Medicare to have a conversation once every five years if – and only if – a patient wants to make his or her wishes known to a doctor. If desired, patients may have consultations more frequently if they are chronically ill or if their health status changes.

I asked him why the AMA had recently endorsed the plan. He replied that only about 15% of the nation’s doctors were members of AMA, and most of them were not really on the front lines of doctorhood but in some other areas of medicine. […]

REPLY: NOT RESPONSIVE. It’s true that the AMA has endorsed a health care reform plan; given the organization’s opposition to health care reform in the past, that’s big news.  The main reason, according to reporter Jeffrey Young of The Hill, is that the bill envisions a “permanent fix to a Medicare payment system that annually calls for doctors fees to be cut.”

This was potentially an expensive gift to doctors; so if the doctor is advocating keeping annual fee cuts intact, I’m right there with him.

SENIOR DEATH WARRANTS: In England anyone over 59 cannot receive heart repairs or stents or bypass because it is not covered as being too expensive and not needed.

REPLY: FALSE. First, while it’s too bad, no major health care reform bill advocates a health care system anything like England’s.  But second, the statement is flatly wrong. actually contacted the U.K. Department of Health and and an English nonprofit group advocating for older persons about this claim:

[A spokesman] said medical procedures in the U.K. are not routinely denied for older people. The National Health Service, the U.K.’s public health care service, has a constitution which prohibits discrimination on the basis of age and other factors. “The NHS Constitution states that the NHS provides a ‘comprehensive service, available to all irrespective of gender, race, disability, age, sexual orientation, religion or belief,’ “ the spokesman said.

We also contacted a nonprofit group, England’s Age Concern and Help the Aged, which works to stop age discrimination in various facets of life, including employment and health care. Age Concern’s press office had never heard of any kind of prohibition on heart surgery for those 60 and older.

Obama wants to have a healthcare system just like Canada ‘s and England ‘s.

REPLY: SADLY, NO. First, it would be impossible to have a healthcare system “just like Canada’s and England’s” because they have different systems.  Canada has a “single payer” health care system, in which health care costs are negotiated between health care providers and the government or an independent agency — a kind of “Medicare for all” instead just for older persons.  Another country with a successful kind of single payer health care system is France — according to that left wing magazine Business Week.

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St. Petersburg Times on CENTCOM blog monitoring

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 12th February 2007

Blogs are CentCom’s new target,” writes William Levesque of the St. Petersburg Times; he contacted me for his story about the CENTCOM blog outreach effort that contacted me last year and that continues today. (CENTCOM stands for “Central Command” and is the Defense Department branch responsible for executing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as other US military operations in that part of the world.)

Last February, a CENTCOM sergeant visited and very briefly commented about my post “The wheels off the bus go round and round“; that post quoted three mainstream press articles and one polling organization to the effect that things were not going swimmingly for the Bush administration in Iraq as far as the American people, soldiers in Iraq, or facts on the ground were concerned. I added the comment, “Problem is, it’s my bus too.” CENTCOM Sergeant Gehlen’s comment:

My name is Sgt. Gehlen and I work for the USCENTCOM public affairs office. To find out what is really happening in the CENTCOM area of responsibility, visit our website at:

I answered asking which item in my post he considered to be misrepresenting what was “really” happening, but never got a response — that goes beyond the team’s rules of engagement, according to a story about the team. As Levesque reports,

“We don’t tell anyone, ‘You should or shouldn’t say that,’ ” Deiss said. “We stay in our lane.”

With terrorists using the Web as a tool, the military would be remiss if it didn’t also use it to counter misinformation, he said.

As I told Mr. Levesque, I think that this kind of CENTCOM activity “verges on propagandizing people,” which I think is a pretty questionable use of taxpayer dollars. CENTCOM sees it differently, of course:

CentCom officials deny that they are trying to spin anyone.

“With the proliferation of information today, if you’re not speaking to this forum, you’re not being heard by it,” [Colonel Matthew] McLaughlin said. “We don’t want to cede this information arena to anybody. We think we owe it to the American taxpayer.”

But as commenter Paul wrote at the time, “”what’s really happening” …[is] leaving “here’s our information resource” territory and entering the world of advocacy and spin.” As Tom Rosenstiel (“Project for Excellence in Journalism”) told Levesque:

“Americans have traditionally had a great reluctance letting the government get involved in the news business directly,” Rosenstiel said. “We’ve got a name for that. It’s propaganda.”

My post happened to be an nearly unadorned set of four news item quotes. It’s true that they were chosen to make a point that all did not seem to be well with respect to Iraq, but they were as much what was “really happening” as anything CENTCOM had to offer, and there was no reason to think reports of sectarian killings in Baghdad, an opinion survey of troops in Iraq, or the Bush administration’s standing at home were inaccurate — let alone a Defense Intelligence Agency report, even if it was characterized as “gloomy.”

While the example he gives to introduce the story may cause careless readers to think my post was as “patently untrue” as that one, Levesque’s article is useful and pretty fair, with only one minor inaccuracy (CENTCOM didn’t contact me by e-mail, but via a public comment to the blog post). Levesque presents several views, including mine and those of CENTCOM personnel, a journalist watchdog, and a pro-war blogger (Rosemary Welch, “DoD Daily News“). I thank him for reporting the story.

EDIT, 2/12: title changed from “blogger team” to “blog monitoring”; CENTCOM explained.
UPDATE, 2/15: The Project for Excellence in Journalism looks like an interesting site. Also, I’ve joined a discussion of the CENTCOM story at the St. Petersburg Times site. 2d comment there: “Any American that states anything negative about armed forces that are protecting them, should leave the country and go live in France, or Lebanon where the Islamic extremists kill people every day. Shut your mouth and be appreciative.” Sir, yes sir! (I mean ‘monsieur, oui monsieur!’) There are less, um, un-American points of view as well.

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Astroturfer denies "macaca" defense campaign

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 9th September 2006

To begin with, I want to strongly emphasize the precise title of this post. It is true, but it may imply the opposite to some — that there is or was in fact some kind of astroturfing operation (a paid public relations campaign masquerading as an authentic grassroots campaign) defending Allen’s notorious “macaca” remark of mid-August. The evidence available to me does not prove that implication — nor does it disprove it.

However, given (1) continued questions about a comment left at this blog, (2) how widespread astroturfing has become, and (3) the particular track record of Dick Wadhams, George Allen ‘s campaign manager, it’s legitimate to ask questions. If by doing so — while remaining honest about the limits of my knowledge — I help prevent (rather than discover) political astroturfing by the Allen campaign or any other campaign, I think the cause of truthful political discourse is well served.

I recently posted “Their voice. Amplified.” or Why I’m banning 151.200.70.* comments” based on a comment whose contents and author I decided not to specify at the time. The commenter’s IP address led to “Democracy, Data & Communications” (DD&C), a firm that turns out to be hosting a number of cookie-cutter online organizations on behalf of causes like Social Security “reform,” tobacco companies, “merit shop”construction hiring, and (in 2004) directly for George W. Bush. Many of the organizations appear to forward interested parties into a Chamber of Commerce “” central database. DD&C also has an affiliated “OnPoint Advocacy” operation, which notes on its web site:

OnPoint Advocacy understands how difficult it can be to generate the amount and quality of support you need, especially within tight timeframes or on specialized issues. That’s why we often turn to the Web to help our clients quickly build high-volume support for a campaign.

Last Friday, I decided to e-mail the commenter — who I’ll continue to leave unnamed in this post — the following question:

You recently left a comment on my blog re the George Allen “macaque/macaca” statement. (The post is “Welcome to America,” George and the URL is http://[…etcetera].)

Do you work for Democracy, Data & Communications or for the related business called OnPoint Advocacy? If so, was the comment you left at my blog post part of that work? And if so, is this work paid for by Senator Allen’s campaign, or is it done free of charge by DD&C?

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"Their voice. Amplified." or Why I’m banning 151.200.70.* comments

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 22nd August 2006

I got curious the other day about a comment left some time ago at this blog. I won’t identify it, so that I can discuss the the IP address it traced to without revealing an identity that perhaps shouldn’t be revealed — and without leveling a precise charge that can’t yet be supported. Suffice it to say a political opinion was involved, as is of course the case for most comments here.

Haloscan — the comment service for this blog — permanently records IP addresses of published comments, and site owners can examine them with the “Manage Comments” utility. In addition, I’ve built the SiteMeter script into the comment code. Together, this gives me a chance to quickly learn about commenters and, when necessary, report spammers or ban unwanted commenters. In this case, the IP address — 151.200.70.X (I know but won’t say the final block number) — turned out to be registered to

1029 North Royal Street, Suite 200
Alexandria, VA 22314-1542

Interesting name — so I tried to learn more about it. And lo and behold, Democracy, Data & Communications (henceforth DDC) is in the astroturfing business — or, as the Wikipedia entry on the subject puts it:

…formal public relations projects which deliberately seek to engineer the impression of spontaneous, grassroots behavior.

Serving Democracy…
A defunct “Rational Grounds” post preserved by Teresa Nielsen Hayden once noted DDC’s involvement in sotto voce Bush administration P.R. campaigns for its Medicare and “No Child Left Behind” education initiatives — the latter famously blowing up on the front pages with the Armstrong Williams “paid shill” story:

An internet campaign was also mounted through Democracy, Data & Communications, a company with a breathtaking record in the astroturf world. A quick WHOIS/nslookup investigation turned up oodles of DDC fronts. [detailed list to follow] Their client list is also pretty impressive.

Yes, it is: Edelman Public Affairs Worldwide, (which has Wal-Mart as a client), BellSouth, Verizon, ClearChannel, Merck, Monsanto, Microsoft… the list goes on and on. Motto: “Your Voice. Amplified.”

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CENTCOM pays a visit

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 5th March 2006

Last Tuesday I posted “The wheels off the bus go round and round,” juxtaposing four pieces of rather bad news for, variously, the Bush administration, military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hopes for stability in those countries. It wasn’t exactly my most painstakingly written and researched post ever — more a sort of combined “serves ’em right,” “how about that,” and “oh my god” post that I concluded with “Problem is, it’s my bus, too.”

The first comment was a surprise; one Sergeant Gehlen dropped in from Tampa, Florida’s CENTCOM command — the folks in operational charge of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan — to write:

My name is Sgt. Gehlen and I work for the USCENTCOM public affairs office. To find out what is really happening in the CENTCOM area of responsibility, visit our website at:

“CENTCOM’s reading my blog?!” I thought. I checked my sitemeter visit log, and sure enough, there was a visit from in Tampa, Florida. Judging by the referring page — at, a blog ranking site — I guessed that Sergeant Gehlen had a busy day ahead of him scanning hundreds of other blogs for wrongthink regarding Operation Iraqi Freedom. At any rate, I replied, in part,

Your implication is that one or the other of the last 3 items linked in this post is somehow misrepresenting what’s really happening in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. Which one? And how?

Although I’ve waited in vain for an answer from Sgt. Gehlen, my suspicion that my visit was part of a campaign has been confirmed. In a followup comment about the same post, Paul points to a March 2 American Forces Information Service article posted at, CENTCOM Team Engages ‘Bloggers’:

Blogs sometimes include information — accurate and otherwise — about the U.S. military’s global war on terror. U.S. Central Command officials here took notice and created a team to engage these writers and their electronic information forums.

“The main interest is to drive their readers to our site,” Army Reserve Maj. Richard J. McNorton said. McNorton is CENTCOM’s chief of engagement operations. […]

The team engages bloggers who are posting inaccurate or untrue information, as well as bloggers who are posting incomplete information. They extend a friendly invitation to all bloggers to visit the command’s Web site.

While I have little problem with the military blog team clearing up misconceptions or falsehoods, the really elastic phrase in the CENTCOM team’s mission is “bloggers who are posting incomplete information.” After all, that’s pretty much everyone, yet I have a hunch CENTCOM doesn’t bother to leave “hey, things aren’t all that great, find out what’s really going on” comments at, say, Roger Simon’s or Glenn Reynolds’ blogs — after all, what could they direct them to? Hard-hitting exposes of Bagram or Abu Ghraib torture policy? “Let the chips fall where they may” analyses of pre-war intelligence on Iraq or body armor supply problems?

Having left a comment, the team “engaging” bloggers has one simple rule of further engagement — don’t:

“We don’t go in there and get into a debate,” he said. And officials here are quick to point out that they are not policing Web sites. They are simply offering bloggers the opportunity to get raw information directly from the source.

And, of course, simply leaving behind the implication that I’m misleading people with my own post.

Paul’s comments about this are apt; while public affairs/relations have their place in the military, the “what’s really happening” line leaves “here’s our information resource” territory and enter[s] the world of advocacy and spin.” It invites the question of whether CENTCOM’s site actually shows “what’s really happening” any more than my particular selections of bad news did.

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