Kochtopus and getting to know some more players (4)

Before we look at how Steve Bannon met David Bossie and Andrew Breitbart, we need to go back to 1976, before the 1980 American elections. Billionaire brothers, David and Charles Koch were frustrated by legal limits prohibiting how much that they could spend on political campaigns. A candidate could spend as much as they liked running for office, and an individual could spend what they liked promoting candidates, but only if the spending wasn’t coordinated with them. Charles decided that David should run as the Libertarian party’s vice-presidential candidate too, so that they were free to donate as much as they liked.   

Their father Fred Koch, was a chemical engineer and built the family fortune out of oil refineries. Interestingly enough, he started out building refineries in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and believed that communism was evil and didn’t like any type of government intrusion, these views became his son’s views. David Koch explained in a 2012 interview that their father: ‘was extraordinarily fearful of our government becoming much more socialistic and domineering. And that: ‘from the time we were teenagers to the present, we’ve been very concerned and worried about our government evolving into a very controlling, socialist type of government.’ When the Koch brothers inherited their father’s business in 1967, they renamed it Koch Industries in honour of their father, and have turned it into the second largest privately held company in America. Koch Industries not only owns and operates a massive network of oil and gas pipelines but it also makes a wide range of products including Dixie cups, chemicals, jet fuel, fertilisers, electronics, toilet paper and more. Out of the Koch family, these two brothers are the most politically active.

Back to 1980 and the Koch brothers and the Libertarian party. What is the Libertarian party? It was founded in 1971 by David Nolan and it promotes free market economics, protection of private property, non-interventionism, laissez-faire capitalism and the abolition of the welfare state. Some of the Libertarian policy platform that David Koch ran on is below.

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The Libertarian ticket only received one-percent of the vote. All was not lost as the campaign gave them valuable political experience. The older brother Charles, told a reporter at the time that: ‘It tends to be a nasty, corrupting business,’ and that he was ‘interested in advancing libertarian ideas.’ They came to realise that in order to change the direction of America they had to have influence in the areas where policy ideas arise from. They had already founded America’s first libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute, three years earlier in 1977. Today, they underwrite a huge network of foundations, think tanks and political front groups and their powerful, ideological network is known as Kochtopus, in political circles. They have also given millions to political campaigns, advocacy groups, and lobbyists since then.

In 1988, a Political Action Committee (PAC), called Citizens United (CU) was founded by Republican, Floyd Brown, with major funding from the Koch brothers. It promotes corporate interests, socially conservative causes and candidates that advance their goals, which are: ‘limited government, freedom of enterprise, strong families, and national sovereignty and security.’ During the 1992 American elections, Mr Brown hired fellow Republican, David Bossie to find dirt on Bill Clinton. Mr Bossie made a name for himself as being a bit of an attack dog, in particular with all things relating to the Clinton family. Four-years later when the House Republicans launched a probe into the 1996 Clinton campaign’s fundraising practices, he ended up being the chief investigator for the member in charge, Republican, Dan Burton. Eighteen months later he was forced to resign after distributing doctored transcripts of an investigator’s’ jailhouse conversations with Clinton associate, Webb Hubbell.      

In 2001, Mr Bossie took over from Mr Brown as president of CU, where he began to write negatively slanted books about Democratic politicians. He became interested in making films in July 2004 after seeing Michael Moore’s documentary, Farenheit 9/11. His documentary questioned the Bush administration’s motives for war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and amongst other things, it argued that the media was used to exploit the 9/11 attacks. A couple of months later, Mr Bossie, mindful that it was an election year, retaliated with his own documentary, Celsius 41.11 (the temperature when the brain begins to die). CU produced the film and said in a press statement that they issued at the time: ‘Celsius 41.11 was made to refute the propaganda in Michael Moore’s Farenheit 9/11.’  

At around the same time that Celsius 41.11 was released in October 2004, Steve Bannon was promoting “In the Face of Evil,” a Ronald Reagan documentary that he had worked on as a screenwriter. When Mr Bannon’s documentary was released, it was panned by mainstream critics, with Lou Lumenick from the New York Post, writing that it was ‘very much like Soviet propaganda.’ There was a small group of conservatives in Hollywood that did like it however, and Mr Bannon met Mr Bossie at one of these screenings. It wasn’t long before they started working together on a film called Border War, about the perceived threat of immigration, this led to a series of movies that they made for CU. Mr Bannon also met Andrew Breitbart at a screening in December at the Liberty Film Festival. Mr Breitbart was working for the Drudge Report at the time, with plans to start his own website. More on him, a little later.                

In 2008, Mr Bossie and CU produced a documentary called Hillary: The Movie, critical of then-Sen Hillary Clinton, for the election campaign season. It was to be aired on cable TV before the Democratic primaries, but the Federal Election Commission (FEC) blocked it. They reviewed it and found that it was “electioneering communication” and that they were subject to rules governing the production of political ads. In 2009, CU sued the FEC, this led to a Supreme court case called Citizens United v. Federal Electoral Commission. On January 21st 2010, a five-four majority of the high court, ruled against the FEC, and ruled that corporations such as CU can spend as much as they like for and against political candidates. This also meant that they could receive unlimited donations without any government oversight or ever having to publically disclose them. The ruling opened the donation floodgates and gave a small group of wealthy donors, even more influence on elections.

Liberal advocacy group, Common Cause, believe that two of the judges involved, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, should have recused themselves from the Citizens United v. Federal Electoral Commission case. Both of the judges have attended invitation-only retreats organised by the Koch brothers. The retreats are for Republican donors and in an invitation for their January 30-31,2011 meeting, it describes the retreat as a ‘twice a year’ gathering ‘to review strategies for combating the multitude of public policies that threaten to destroy America as we know it.’     

Think Progress also managed to get a copy of a booklet [PDF] from the June 27-28, 2010, meeting and buried within it, is a list of former guests at previous meetings. Mr Scalia and Mr Thomas are on the list, and while the booklet can’t prove when they went, if it was before the CU case, or if their decision was influenced. The booklet does provide insight into the issues that worry the likes of the Koch brothers. On page five, one of the topics for the small group dinners on the eve of the meeting caught my eye.

Issue Micro-Targeting: What gaps do we face in thoroughly understanding the electorate? What has been learned from research so far? How can we take advantage of this advanced technology?

When Obama was elected a myriad of conservative nonprofit groups cropped up, and one of them was called Liberty Central. It was founded in 2009, by Virginia Thomas, the wife of Judge Thomas. A few weeks after the CU court ruling, Ms Thomas told the Los Angeles Times that Liberty Central would be soliciting donations from corporations and other entities freed by CU to step up their political activity. Common Cause, also see this as a conflict-of interest, more on Ms Thomas soon.

In the next series we will look at Breitbart’s role in all of this, and take a look at the rise of the Tea Party, Steve Bannon and the Mercer family.  

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US propaganda 100 years ago and how the media was influenced (3)

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Image is by whatisusa.info

In 1917, one-hundred-years ago this year, American president Wilson Woodrow, declared war on Germany. Mr Woodrow also pioneered the government propaganda system that exists to this day. He began by intimidating and suppressing any ethnic or socialist papers that opposed the US entering the first World war. At the time such meddling in press freedom was unheard of. A week after the war declaration he created a new federal agency called the Committee on Public Information (CPI). The government now controlled the narrative and press coverage. The CPI was dubbed ‘the nation’s first ministry of information’ by journalist, Stephen Ponder. Their first task was to convince millions of young men being drafted to go to war, as well as millions of Americans that supported neutrality. They had to convince them that war was the only option to ‘make the world safe for democracy.’ This was a time before radio became popular and before the weekly news magazine was invented. The chairman of CPI was journalist, George Creel and he organised it into several divisions.

The speaking division had 75,000 specialists who became known as the “Four Minute Men” for their skill in transcribing Mr Wilson’s war goals in short speeches.

The film divison produced the news reels needed to to garner support by showing graphic images in movie theatres. The images depicted the allies as the heroes and the Germans as barbaric.

The foreign language newspaper division kept an eye on US newspapers that were published in other languages than English.

The advertising division secured free advertising space in US publications to promote various war campaigns. Campaigns such as recruiting new soldiers, encouraging patriotism and feeding the narrative that the US was involved in a crusade against a barbaric, anti-democratic enemy.  

The division of pictorial publicity comprised of a group of volunteer artists and illustrators. They were behind the famous image of Uncle Sam below. Mr Creel denied that CPI’s work was akin to propaganda but he did admit that he was engaged in a battle of perceptions. ‘The war was not fought in France alone’ he wrote in 1920. And after the CPI was disbanded in 1919, he described it as ‘a plain publicity proposition, a vast enterprise in salesmanship, the world’s greatest adventure in advertising.’

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One of the techniques favoured by the news unit was to bury journalists in paper by producing numerous press-releases each day. The unit also restricted the media’s access to those involved in the war, creating a news vacuum. This was filled with government-written stories, masquerading as news. The CPI also issued a set of guidelines for US newspapers and if editors didn’t follow these patriotic guidelines, they were deemed as unpatriotic. In another first, they decided to create their own daily newspaper, published by the government.  

A nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward L Bernays, was a pioneer in human thoughts and emotion theories and was one of the CPI volunteers. ‘The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society,’ Mr Bernays wrote after the war. And that ‘Propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government.’ Many of those involved in the CPI went on to lucrative advertising careers after the committee was disbanded.  

In 1988 Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman published the book, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. They discovered that the propaganda model today, consists of five filters of editorial bias:

Media ownership: Media outlets have become large companies that cater to the interests of the owners or owner, and to make them profitable.  

Advertising: Media can’t survive without it so they must also cater to political leanings as well as the economic desires of their advertisers.

Complicity: Government’s, corporations and institutions know how to influence the media. They feed the media scoops and interviews with “experts” and make themselves part of the journalism process. If you push back against the establishment you will soon find yourself out of the game.

Flack: When a story comes out that the powers that be don’t like, they mobilise and attack. They do this by discrediting sources, trashing stories, creating distractions and by changing the narrative back to where they want it to be.

The common enemy: Whether it’s communism, terrorism or immigration fears, to manufacture consent, you need a common enemy.

In 1992, they produced a documentary about it if interested and below is a handy animation, from March this year. It’s under five minutes long and has some more information, Australia gets a mention near the start.       

I’m going to start introducing some of the players involved in today’s web of propaganda. In October 1996, Rupert Murdoch launched Fox News, it was the first of its kind. A 24-hour conservative-populist propaganda channel, filled with right-wing opinions and slanted news stories. All under the banner of “fair and balanced” and delivered as entertainment. He is most definitely a key player and one of the most powerful men in the media, more on him later.

In 1995, a year before Mr Murdoch launched Fox News, Matt Drudge launched the Drudge Report, and he ran it alone. It began with a weekly email for subscribers full of quirky conspiracy theories, right-wing politics, extreme weather and pop culture. Andrew Breitbart, wasn’t doing much at this stage besides being a news-junkie of sorts, and became a big fan of the report. He emailed Mr Drudge offering his help of which Mr Drudge accepted. Mr Drudge became his mentor and they created their own headlines with a blurb telling you the main point of the story, that linked to articles from all around the web. The Drudge Report was one of the earliest news aggregator web sites, a link from them could bring hundreds of thousands of readers to a  story. This gave reporters wanting exposure an incentive to contact Mr Drudge or Mr Breitbart as soon as their pieces were published (or even before publishing them). Tips from journalists gave the pair eyes and ears into nearly every newsroom in the world. In early 1998 they broke not only the Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton scandal, but also the fact that Newsweek had killed the story.

The Drudge Report, didn’t just have the ability to provide scoops for its readers but it also had a sense of urgency about it, and continuous news and stories sourced from the internet to entertain its readers. All of this was achieved with two people rather than a whole newsroom and without having to host content on its site, meaning extremely low overheads. It was also marketed as an alternative to mainstream-media that wasn’t controlled by corporate interests or politicians. It’s role in directing mass amounts internet traffic also made it lucrative for the news sites that received the traffic. He has even been called the ‘Rupert Murdoch of the digital age.’ More on it’s role in the Trump election campaign and how far that it’s come today, in another part of the series.  

Next, I will uncover how Steve Bannon meeting Andrew Breitbart and David Bossie in 2004, has led us to today. I will also explain how the political activities of the Koch brothers’ has influenced the chain of events and more.  

Jared Kushner, Facebook and Hacking: Propaganda in 2017 and how we got here (2)

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Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump’s husband, was very much behind her father’s presidential campaign. He focused on message tailoring, sentiment manipulation and machine learning or artificial intelligence. His friends in Silicon valley are some of the best digital marketers in the world. He also focused on micro-targeting on Facebook: “I called somebody who works for one of the technology companies that I work with, and I had them give me a tutorial on how to use Facebook micro-targeting,” Mr Kushner said. Mr Kushner’s inexperience in political campaigning and his understanding of the world online became an advantage. Mr Kushner also looked at campaign spending differently by getting a maximum return on every dollar spent. “We played Moneyball, asking ourselves which states will get the best ROI for the electoral vote,” Mr Kushner explained. “I asked, How can we get Trump’s message to that consumer for the least amount of cost?” He tapped into the Republican National Committee’s data machine and he also hired Cambridge Analytica (CA) to help identify which voters mattered the most for Mr Trump to win. Be it trade, immigration or change. There are digital tools out there such as Deep Root, which drove his TV spend by identifying shows popular with voter blocks in different regions. The TV show NCIS had ads directed at anti-Obamacare voters and for folks worried about immigration it was shows like The Walking Dead. “It’s hard to overstate and hard to summarize Jared’s role in the campaign,” says billionaire Peter Thiel, the only significant Silicon Valley figure to publicly back Trump. “If Trump was the CEO, Jared was effectively the chief operating officer.”

This week Facebook publically acknowledged that its platform has been exploited by governments manipulating public opinion in other countries. Including during the presidential elections in the America and France. In a white paper, they detailed well-funded as well as low-funded techniques that are used by nations and organisations to spread disinformation and lies for geopolitical goals. It explained that these tactics go further than “fake news” as they include content seeding, targeted data collection and fake accounts to help amplify a particular view. “We have had to expand our security focus from traditional abusive behavior, such as account hacking, malware, spam and financial scams, to include more subtle and insidious forms of misuse, including attempts to manipulate civic discourse and deceive people,” said the company. Facebook didn’t mention any nation states involved, but that their investigation ‘does not contradict’ the report [PDF] by the US Director of National Intelligence, outlining Russian involvement in the US election.

The white paper [PDF] doesn’t go into much detail about micro-targeting or what are known as “dark posts”. These are paid, sponsored Facebook posts that can only be seen by those that you want to manipulate. Mr Kushner also employed this technique during the Trump campaign. The paper does talk about targeted data collection that uses phishing malware to infect an individual’s or organisation’s computer. The malware steals their identification and information in emails and in their social media accounts. This information helps hackers to better target their phishing campaigns or ‘advance harmful information operations’.  

The Democratic National Committee (DNC) had their emails hacked due to a phishing campaign by Russian hackers in the run up to the election last year. One of these was sent to the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, John Podesta. One of his assistants, Charles Devalan, noticed the email that was sent to Mr Podesta’s private email account. It asked Mr Podesta to change his password. Mr Devalan could see that it was a phishing attack and forwarded it to a computer technician. Instead of saying that ‘This is an illegitimate email’ and ‘John needs to change his password’ he typed that it was ‘legitimate’, meaning that they unwittingly gave the hackers access to about 60,000 emails.

This week it was revealed that Russian intelligence has been allegedly sending phishing emails to officials and others involved in Emmanuel Macron’s campaign in the French presidential election. Security researchers at cybersecurity company, Trend Micro noticed a hacking group sending emails with links to fake websites that baits them into turning over their passwords. They believe that Russian intelligence are behind this and the registering of decoy web addresses, were as recent as April 15th this year. The websites are registered to a group of web addresses that they say belong to the Russian intelligence unit that they refer to as Pawn Storm, also known as Fancy Bear, APT28, Sofacy and STRONTIUM. US and European intelligence agencies as well as US private security researchers have determined that they were responsible for hacking the DNC last year.      

Trend Micro also released a thorough report [PDF] detailing phishing attempts by Pawn Storm that they have blocked, including their email headers. They also provide visual examples of how hackers target high profile email users. Mainstream media has also been utilised by Pawn Storm to publicise their attacks as well as to attempt to public influence. One example is reputable German magazine Der Spiegel, that reported about doping in sports in January this year. They admit to having been in contact with the “Fancy Bear hackers” for months. They say that in December last year that they received “several sets of data containing PDF and Word documents in addition to hundreds of internal emails from United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and WADA, the World AntiDoping Agency.”   

In April 2015, the British army created a special force of Facebook warriors, with skills in journalism, psychological operations or PsyOps, and in using social media to engage in unconventional warfare. They join the US and Israeli armies that already heavily engage in PsyOps. Counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan has inspired the creation of the force. An army spokesperson said: “77th Brigade is being created to draw together a host of existing and developing capabilities essential to meet the challenges of modern conflict and warfare. It recognises that the actions of others in a modern battlefield can be affected in ways that are not necessarily violent.”

In the last article in this series, I mentioned Michael Flynn’s 2010 report, when he was the top US intelligence officer in Afghanistan. It was about wanting intelligence in counterinsurgency to act more like journalists.   

The purpose of this series of articles is to provide you with as much background as I can, by researching and analysing information that can only be backed up with evidence. I believe that this story is onion-like with many layers as well as foreign players involved. A multi-layered attack on democracy around the world is currently at play. Because this story is playing out in real time, new information, once validated, will also be woven into the series.    

My next article will explore Wilson Woodrow’s contribution to propaganda and how this has helped lead us to the likes of Breitbart News and Fox News.  


Series: What is propaganda in 2017 and how did we get here? (1)

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Recently I wrote about Cambridge Analytica (CA), I’ve discovered since then that there is a lot more to this story than just marketing tactics and I will be writing a series of articles about it. What has led us to the likes of  fake news, alt-facts, disinformation, and propaganda not only in the media but also in social media? Who are the players and who stands to gain? I will explore all of this and more with detailed research in coming days.

Michael Flynn is a retired American army lieutenant general and was the first National Security Council advisor to be appointed by President Donald Trump. He was fired less than a month later this year on February 13th, under a cloud of suspicion relating to what he said on a phone call at the White House to Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak. Mr Flynn told Vice President of the US, Mike Pence, that the call merely consisted of small talk and holiday pleasantries. The White House, upon analysing the transcript of the wiretapped conversation found that he had also had a discussion about sanctions imposed on Russia, for interfering in the 2016 election on Mr Trump’s behalf.

The US army was also investigating Mr Flynn about whether he had received payments from the Russian government for a trip that he took to Moscow in 2015. The occasion was the tenth birthday celebration of Russian Today (RT), a television network controlled by the Kremlin. US intelligence agencies have been warning since 2012 that RT is a propaganda arm of the Russian government. Payments like this, without the consent of congress could violate the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which forbids former military officers from receiving money from a foreign government without their consent. The FBI was also examining Mr Flynn’s White House phone calls. This was due to concerns that in his attempts to hide what was said in the call, the Russians could blackmail him by threatening to expose him if he refused.

Mr Pence was angry at Mr Flynn as he had defended him in a number of television appearances about the phone call and he wasn’t impressed with him blaming it on his bad memory. Mr Pence was dubious about the bad memory excuse because of a similar experience late last year when this time, he was defending Mr Flynn’s son on television. He denied that Michael Flynn Jnr, was behind the conspiracy theories, such as Pizzagate about Hillary Clinton on social media. He also denied that Mr Flynn Jnr been given a security clearance. He had been given security clearance even though Mr Flynn told Mr Pence’s team that he didn’t have one.

On March 16th this year, the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (House Oversight Committee) reported back to President Donald Trump, Secretary of Defense, James Mattis and FBI Director, James Comey. [PDF] They uncovered documents showing that RT paid Mr Flynn more than US$45,000 for his participation in the birthday celebrations as well as US$11,250 from a Russian charter cargo airline and US$11,250 from a Russia-based cyber-security corporation. They also uncovered a retroactive filing by Mr Flynn on March 7th with the Department of Justice. It disclosed that he served as an agent of a foreign government while advising President elect, Donald Trump. The filing reported that US$530,000 was paid to Mr Flynn for pro-Erdogan lobbying work in Turkey between the months of August and November in 2016. It is of note that on November 8th Mr Flynn wrote an op-ed claiming that the Obama administration and the US media wasn’t being supportive enough of Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It is fair to say that most Americans don’t know exactly what to make of our ally Turkey these days, as it endures a prolonged political crisis that challenges its long-term stability. The U.S. media is doing a bang-up job of reporting the Erdoğan government’s crackdown on dissidents, it’s not putting it into perspective. We must begin with understanding that Turkey is vital to U.S. interests.’

Mr Flynn’s lawyers say that they notified the transition team about his lobbying in Turkey but the President and the Vice President say that they knew nothing about it. The House Oversight Committee, requested information as to whether he’d fully disclosed his communications and payments from foreign sources as part of his security clearance, for his return to government. They also requested that the Defense Department take steps to recover all foreign funds accepted in violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution. On March 31st Mr Flynn told investigators that he was willing to be interviewed about the allegations but only if he received immunity from prosecution.      

In 2010 as the top US intelligence officer in Afghanistan, Mr Flynn wrote a report about intelligence acting more like journalists. He lamented that US intelligence in Afghanistan spent too much time on attacking the Taliban and not enough on figuring out Afghanistan’s cultural and social landscapes. ‘Having focused the overwhelming majority of its collection efforts and analytical brainpower on insurgent groups, the vast intelligence apparatus is unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which U.S. and allied forces operate and the people they seek to persuade.’ And that they overlook data such as polling data, patrol debriefs, minutes from local shuras, and economic statistics that helps them connect the dots. ‘This vast and underappreciated body of information, almost all of which is unclassified, admittedly offers few clues about where to find insurgents, but it does provide elements of even greater strategic importance – a map for leveraging popular support and marginalizing the insurgency itself,’ the report stated.

This sounds very much like the Strategic Communication Laboratories Group (SCL) which specialises in behavioural research and data that drives behavioural change. SCL is the parent company to CA. Five years earlier SCL was reported to be the first private company to provide psychological warfare services, known as ‘psyops’ in the military, at a global arms fair in London. It believed that armies were prepared to pay for their services from a private provider and that it could shorten conflicts.

The US Army definition for Psychological Operations or PsyOps is: “Psychological operations are planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behaviour of foreign governments, organisations, groups or individuals.”  

Bolstered by the success of CA during the American election SCL has lobbied the US national security services in the Pentagon about how its technology could be used to deter terrorism and to help assess attitudes about immigrants. SCL’s lobbying has been driven by a former aid to Mr Flynn and Mr Flynn is a former adviser for SCL. SCL recently won a defense contract with the US state department “Global Engagement Services” to work on “target audience analysis” (TAA) of young men in other countries who may be thinking of joining ISIS. The founder of SCL, Nigel Oakes also founded the Behavioural Dynamics Institute.(BDi). BDi is the research arm of SCL and its stated goal is ‘to assemble and assimilate the full extent of creative and scientific knowledge on group behaviour and the dynamics of change, and package it into a unified and workable methodological approach to conducting successful and measurable behaviour campaigns.’ BDi has a nine page white paper [PDF] dedicated to TAA ‘if you just want to understand a population, hire an anthropologist. But if you want to change people’s attitudes and behaviours, TAA is essential.’  

Marketing has long been used by corporations to influence people’s buying behaviour but what does it mean if government’s use psy-ops to change people’s behaviour?  

Tomorrow, I will delve into Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump’s husband, and the role that he played in her father’s election and more.

 

        

 

Cambridge Analytica arrives in Australia

Cambridge Analytica (CA) has boasted that their psychometric data methods helped win the Brexit campaign as well as the successful election of President Trump. CA registered in Australia before several state elections and before the federal election last year. It hasn’t lodged any financial disclosures as yet in Australia. CA has registered an Australian office at a property that is currently being redeveloped in Sydney, in the beachside suburb of Maroubra. The CEO of CA, Alexander Nix and their Head of Product, Matt Oczkowski have been in the country this week for ADMA, as guest speakers at a data analytics conference. They will also be meeting with Liberal party officials for a dinner tonight, including the veterans’ affair minister, Dan Tehan.  

In 2008 when Dr David Stillwell and Dr Michal Kosinski were students at Cambridge University’s Psychometrics Centre, they launched a Facebook application called MyPersonality app. The research focused on five personality traits known as OCEAN:

Openness (how open are you to new experiences?)

Conscientiousness (how much of a perfectionist are you?)

Extroversion (how sociable are you?)

Agreeableness (how considerate and cooperative are you?)

Neuroticism (are you easily upset?)

They asked Facebook users psychometric questions such as these as well as psychological questions. This was done with a test called “The Big 5 test” and they asked users permission to use their Facebook profiles for their research. Users were given their personality profile in return and forty-percent of users agreed to share their Facebook profile data with them.     

They expected maybe a few dozen users to fill in the questionnaire but they ended up getting over a million responses. Their data set combining the psychometric scores with Facebook profiles was the largest ever to be collected. Over the next four years they measured the OCEAN data and compared these with other data points such as Facebook “likes,” content shared and where they lived. In 2012 Dr Kosinski reported that with the data of 68 “likes” he was able to predict things such as whether the user was a Democratic or Republican supporter, with 85% accuracy. With constant refining and testing of this model Dr Kosinski was soon able to evaluate a personality with just 70 Facebook likes, learning more about the person than what the person’s friends knew about them. A couple of weeks after this Facebook changed “likes” so that they were private by default. This doesn’t stop data collectors, many apps and online quizzes today still requiring access to your private data before you can even take the personality tests. If you want to evaluate yourself based on your Facebook “likes,” I have provided links at the end of the article for Dr Kosinski’s website and a link for an OCEAN questionnaire. The original project has finished as such but it is still open for research, you can even find Monash university from Australia on there as a collaborator.   

Dr Kosinski realised that it wasn’t just about Facebook “likes” or even Facebook but that we also reveal things about ourselves when we’re not online. Our smartphone he concluded, is in itself a psychological questionnaire that we are constantly filling out, both consciously and unconsciously. He worried what his research would mean in reverse and that essentially he had invented a people search engine that could possibly cause harm, rather than the original intentions of psychological research.

In 2014 Dr Kosinski was approached by a lecturer from Cambridge University’s psychology department. Dr Alexsandr Kogan, on behalf of a company called Strategic Communication Laboratories Group (SCL) wanted access to the MyPersonality app. SCL was founded in 1993 by Nigel Oakes, a former Saatchi & Saatchi ad man with a penchant for psychology and behavioural profiling. He also established the Behavioural Dynamics Working Group to understand and potentially change people’s opinions in 1989. SCL has been involved in elections in Africa, Asia, The Middle East, Europe, Latin America and The Caribbean. It has also worked for the UK Ministry of defence, the US state department, Sandia and NATO. It states on its websites that its methodology is approved purely because of its involvement with the latter, not anything to do with their success rate or ethics. Cambridge Analytica (CA) is an offshoot of SCL and was founded in July 2014.            

In the nineties, Mr Oakes employed two respected psychometrics professors, Professor Adrian Furnham and Professor Barrie Gunter. Both psychologists say that they were used by Mr Oakes to build credibility for his group. ‘I believe he is inappropriately using my name and reputation to further his career. He was unreliable and Prof. Gunter and I severed links with him’, Prof. Furnham wrote in an email. Prof. Gunter went further: ‘Adrian and I were  running our own small company providing consultancy services. Nigel made contact with us while he was working for the event division of Saatchi & Saatchi. As far as we were concerned Behavioural Dynamics was simply the name of a company he founded”, Prof. Gunter said. “Nigel didn’t have any qualifications in psychology. To have credibility he needed an association with bonafide psychologists, which is part of the reason that he brought us on board. But we found that no matter how hard we tried to rein him in, he would make all kinds of claims that we felt that we couldn’t substantiate, and that is why we stopped working for him’.          

In 2015 The Guardian reported that SCL found out about Dr Kosinski’s method from Dr Kogan in early 2014. After Dr Kogan was turned down by Dr Kosinski he established his own company called Global Science Research Ltd in May 2014. It also reported that he began working with SCL to deliver a “large research project” in the US. His stated aim was to get as close to every US Facebook user into their dataset as he could. He used Mechanical Turk (MTurk) which is Amazon’s crowdsourcing marketplace, to access Facebook profiles. He recruited MTurk users by paying them around a dollar to take a personality questionnaire that also gave access to their Facebook profiles. He promised that their Facebook data would “only be used for research purposes” and would remain “anonymous and safe”. Some complained that he was violating MTurk terms of service. “They want you to log into Facebook and then download a bunch of your information,” was one complaint at the time. Dr Kogan also captured all of the data of each MTurk users’ friends and at that time Facebook users had an average of 340 friends each.

This data was then used to generate models of their personalities using the OCEAN scale. Within a just a few months dr Kogan’s business partner gloated on LinkedIn that their company “owns a massive data pool of 40+ million individuals across the United States – for each of whom we have generated detailed characteristic and trait profiles”. Dr Kogan was unable in email to explain where all of the data came from as he was restricted by various confidentiality agreements and said that SCL was no longer a client. After Dr Kosinski read the Guardian reports he believed that Dr Kogan replicated his measurement tool and that he had sold it to SCL. Interestingly, Dr Kogan changed his name not long after this and is now known as Dr Spectre.

In November 2015, former Ukip leader and UK politician Nigel Farage, was supporting the “Leave European Union” campaign, he announced that it had commissioned CA to support its online campaign. The results as we know now, is that Britain is leaving the EU. A record number of Google searches shortly after the polls had closed asking ‘What happens if we leave the EU?’ suggests that many people didn’t know why they voted to leave or what the consequences of their vote meant.

Mr Nix describes their marketing success as being based on three elements: behavioural science using the OCEAN model, big data analysis and ad targeting. CA buys personal data from places like land registries, automobile data, shopping data, loyalty card data, club memberships, magazines that you read and what places of worship that you attend. They also use “surveys on social media” and Facebook data. There are data brokers such as Acxiom and Experian in the US for example, where you can get almost any personal data that you desire for a price. If you wanted to know where Indian women live for example, you can just buy it, phone numbers included. CA can then add this data to the electoral rolls of the Republican party alongside their OCEAN and social media data. “We have profiled the personality of every adult in the United States of America-220 million people” Mr Nix boasts. Which was exactly what Dr Kosinski feared.

“They will soon be calling me MR. BREXIT” was a telling tweet by then Presidential candidate, Donald Trump on the 18th August 2016. Robert Mercer is a billionaire that started out financially backing Ted Cruz in the Presidential race but when he fell out of the race he supported Mr Trump to the tune of $13.5 million. He was Trump’s biggest donor. Mr Mercer started out his career with IBM as a brilliant but reclusive computer scientist. He is credited with “revolutionary” breakthroughs in language processing – a science that went on to be key in developing today’s use of artificial intelligence. He later became CEO of Renaissance Technologies, a hedge fund that makes its money through algorithms on the financial markets. Nick Patterson, a British cryptographer, described how he was the one who talent-spotted Mercer. “There was an elite group working at IBM in the 1980s doing speech research, speech recognition, and when I joined Renaissance I judged that the mathematics we were trying to apply to financial markets were very similar.” One of its funds Medallion, that manages its employees’ money is the most successful in the world. It’s generated $US55 billion so far. Mr Mercer also likes to fund such things as climate change denialist think tank, The Heartland Institute and right-wing news site Breitbart News. In fact it was $US10 million of his own funding that enabled Steve Bannon, who is now President Trump’s chief strategist, to set up Breitbart News. Mr Bannon was previously a CA board member and gave up this role as well as his executive chairmanship with Breitbart news upon becoming Trump’s chief strategist. Mr Mercer also has a $US10 million stake in CA.

Mr Nix has explained that most of Donald Trump’s messaging during his election campaign was data driven. CA divided the US population into 32 personality types and focused on just 17 states. They discovered that a preference for cars being made in the US for example, was a pretty good indication that they were a potential Trump voter. Similar tactics were used with gun ownership on the series “House of Cards” in season four. The episode focused on government “terrorism” surveillance data being used to influence gun-toting voters opinions, for their own means.

The Liberal Party federal director, Tony Nutt resigned from his position yesterday on the eve of a report that investigated last year’s dismal Liberal party election campaign. Journalist Byron Kaye, tweeted last night that a week before Mr Nutt quit he told him that the Australian federal government was planning to use ‘Trump’s big data consultant.’ CA had it’s eyes on US government contracts in a quite a few departments, including defense while Mr Bannon was on the board, before the election win. In February SCL or CA finalised a $US500,000 contract with the department of Homeland security, this had been in the works since before the election. CA even offers radicalisation services for terrorists. Former national security (NSC) adviser to Trump, Michael Flynn has also been an adviser for SCL in the past. Mr Flynn has been accused of Russian connections and conflicts of interest. It’s of interest that Mr Bannon has stepped down from his position on the NSC overnight.  

With Mr Tehan attending the dinner tonight and Australia’s defence spend at an all-time high for the next decade, you have to wonder if CA has it’s eyes on Australian government contracts. Let alone what it has to offer the Liberal party in regards to electoral campaigning and staying in power. Mr Nix shrugs off doubters of their data methodology: “We have been doing this for nearly 30 years,” he said. “I suppose if it didn’t work, we wouldn’t still be in business and we wouldn’t still be growing.”        

For those curious about what makes you or your friends tick, or a little bit of insight into your personality, please feel secure in trying the links below:

https://applymagicsauce.com/

https://discovermyprofile.com/

Two weeks in, how does Mr Trump affect Australia?

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Image by Banksy.

I read with interest an article in The Saturday Paper called Goad of Silence by Mike Seccombe this morning, this led me down into an intriguing rabbit hole into the depths of the internet. Mr Seccombe described how different official social media channels of information, such as the National Aeronautics and Space (NASA) Administration Twitter account were being blocked by the Trump administration. And that “rouge” unofficial Twitter accounts had sprung up in their place such as @RogueNASA, I went to investigate the @RogueNASA account. Besides being impressed by their fund-raising efforts with pins and patches for charities such as Black Girls Code and FIRST Robotics!, I came across a non-descript looking link for a newsletter titled Garrett on Global Health. It was written by Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow for Global Health Council on Foreign Relations. This nondescript looking link is the most comprehensive report detailing the first two weeks of the Trump Administration that I have come across. Ms Garrett provides analysis of three national security presidential memoranda (NSPMs), presidential statements, Executive Orders (EOs) and provides a list with links below, of nineteen presidential actions undertaken by President Trump between the dates of January the twentieth and the thirty-first of this year.

  1. “minimizing the economic burden” of the Affordable Care Act (ACA)
  2. freezing all regulations
  3. reinstating the Mexico City abortion policy (also known as the global gag rule)
  4. scrapping the Trans-Pacific Partnership 
  5. freezing hires for the federal workforce 
  6. advancing the Dakota Access Pipeline
  7. advancing the Keystone XL Pipeline
  8. expediting environmental reviews on infrastructure projects
  9. promoting pipelines “produced in the United States”
  10. reviewing domestic manufacturing regulation 
  11. increasing border security measures 
  12. eliminating “catch-and-release” strategies
  13. pursuing undocumented immigrants
  14. reevaluating visa and refugee programs
  15. strengthening the military (NSPM 1)
  16. reorganizing the National Security Council (NSPM 2)
  17. implementing a lobbying ban
  18. calling for a plan to defeat the self-declared Islamic State (NSPM 3)
  19. reducing regulations

Out of forty-three top State Department positions, thirty-five were vacant by the second of February. Usually new presidents want to avoid mass resignations and wait until replacements have been found. Mr Trump’s party controls the House and the Senate and his party is most likely to support his choice of Supreme Court nominee. This means that the presidential actions above are expected to be backed by legislation and to become law. As Ms Garrett highlights, this behaviour from a new president isn’t unusual, what is different though is the speed of these changes and the confusion and turmoil that it has brought to the executive branch.

On the twenty-seventh of January Mr Trump signed an EO titled: “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States.” Iran is one of seven countries included in the ban, the other six are Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia. Mr Trump reportedly has business connections with Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, hence those countries seemingly being deemed as safe. It has been estimated that around ninety thousand people have been affected by this, including an Australian born teenager denied a visa to attend space camp in America because his parents are from Iran. A lawyer for the Justice Department revealed last Friday that around one hundred thousand visas have been revoked since the ban was put in place. A formal dissent memo was signed by over a thousand State Department employees, this is unprecedented in the first month of a new presidency, as well as the record amount of signatures. White House spokesman Sean Spicer has said that he was aware of the memo but warned that diplomats should either “get with the program or they can go.”

There has been concern amongst the scientific community that science data stored on American government websites will be erased. Scientific gatherings to save and store government data stored have been organised by a non-profit group called 314 Action.

“The government has done a great job of collecting and maintaining climate change data on these websites located all across the federal government,” said Shaughnessy Naughton, the founder of 314 Action. “The concern is that the data may no longer be publicly available, and then that they may no longer gather the data. It’s a lot easier to deny climate change when you don’t have data.”

Data Refuge is a public, collaborative project that was established by Penn libraries and the Penn program in Environmental Humanities. Data Rescue events are also being held all around America where volunteers are copying data from government sites and government data bases for safe keeping. After Mr Trump was inaugurated a few agencies restricted the amount of information available to the public. An EPA memo said “no press releases will be going out to external audiences, no social media will be going out … no blog messages … no new content can be placed on any website.”

America has a Whistle-blower Protection Enhancement Act that has been in place since 2012 and by chance the Follow the Rules Act happened to be before “The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee” last Thursday. Legislation strengthening measures related to nondisclosure policies, or gag orders, that restrict the ability of federal workers to communicate with Congress, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) and inspectors general were approved. “This law has lived up to its name,” said Eric Bachman, OSC’s deputy special counsel. “It has significantly enhanced OSC’s ability to protect federal employees from retaliation.”

An America First Energy Plan was also released shortly after Mr Trump’s inauguration and it contains such phrases as: “Sound energy policy begins with the recognition that we have vast untapped domestic energy reserves right here in America. The Trump Administration will embrace the shale oil and gas revolution to bring jobs and prosperity to millions of Americans. We must take advantage of the estimated $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, especially those on federal lands that the American people own. We will use the revenues from energy production to rebuild our roads, schools, bridges and public infrastructure. Less expensive energy will be a big boost to American agriculture, as well.”

“The Trump Administration is also committed to clean coal technology, and to reviving America’s coal industry, which has been hurting for too long.” And that “Lastly, our need for energy must go hand-in-hand with responsible stewardship of the environment. Protecting clean air and clean water, conserving our natural habitats, and preserving our natural reserves and resources will remain a high priority. President Trump will refocus the EPA on its essential mission of protecting our air and water.”

The Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility Act 2016 (NAIF) was passed by the Australian Parliament on 3 May 2016, with its headquarters established in Cairns on the 1st July 2016 and it is supported by the Export Finance and Insurance Corporation (Efic). It’s offering $5 billion in concessional loans to encourage private sector investment in Northern Australia. Last Wednesday the Prime Minister (PM) of Australia, Malcolm Turnbull addressed the National Press Club (NPC) and said

“We will need more synchronous baseload power and as Australia is a big exporter we need to show we are using state-of-the-art, clean, coal-fired technology,” and that “The next incarnation of our national energy policy should be technology-agnostic.”

Treasurer Scott Morrison stated after Mr Turnbull’s NPC speech that ‘Coal is a big part of the future under a Coalition Government’ Mr Morrison also told the ABC that he won’t rule out Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) funding towards clean coal either “It’s the Clean Energy Finance Corporation — it’s not the wind energy finance corporation.”

Last Friday Australian Resources Minister, Matt Canavan, announced that he had opened up the $5 billion NAIF fund for new “clean-coal” power stations. He told ABC AM that “I’ve received some interest over the past week associated with our commitment to build base load power stations, including to support clean coal options”

Mr Canavan also cited a 2012 report by industry consultants GHD, which indicated that clean-coal power stations could be commercially viable in Australia’s north. “Some people might not realise that in North Queensland there is no base-load power station north of Rockhampton and industrial consumers in north Queensland pay often up to double the prices in southern Queensland”

Mr Canavan dismissed comments by AGL and Energy Australia that argued that new power stations would be expensive to build and would require significant public funding. “With all respect to those very eminent companies, we wouldn’t take advice from Coles or Woolworths on whether we should allow Costco for example to come into the Australian market,” Mr Canavan said.

“I am not surprised that existing generators don’t want another large-scale base load power station to come into the market, part in an area like North Queensland where they are clearly making good money selling electricity at very high prices.

“Good luck to them and good luck to them in the market.”

Australian Conservation Foundation chief executive Kelly O’Shanassy, doesn’t agree and said that there was no such thing as “clean coal”. “Every coal-fired power plant is damaging our climate, intensifying heatwaves and bushfires, polluting our air and bleaching coral reefs,” she said.

“Australia needs energy that doesn’t pollute, not energy that pollutes a little less than Australia’s existing coal generators, some of which are among the dirtiest in the world.”

Noting the use of “base load” in the quotes above, I will quote the Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop, in 2014 “It’s an obvious conclusion that if you want to bring down your greenhouse gas emissions dramatically you have to embrace a form of low or zero-emissions energy and that’s nuclear, the only known 24/7 baseload power supply with zero emissions,” she told Fairfax Media.

A “baseload power supply” is in a nutshell, “continual power supply.”

“I always thought that we needed to have a sensible debate about all potential energy sources and, given that Australia has the largest source of uranium, it’s obvious that we should at least debate it,” said Ms Bishop.

It was reported last week by the Guardian that long term coal industry lobbying for years in Australia, by American and overseas corporations, has put pro-coal talking points naturally into Australian leaders’ mouths.

As John Quiggin wrote in Crikey last month, the only real viable option for clean coal was via a “carbon capture and storage” program or (CCS). The only version of CCS that could be considered commercially viable is when Carbon dioxide (CO2) is pumped into exhausted oil wells. This works best though with a pure source of CO2 such as natural gas rather than a mix of gases from coal-fired boilers. After decades of work and funding spent on CCS technology (including $590 million spent by Australian governments since 2009), there is only one operational power plant using CCS, the Boundary Dam project in Canada.

Even if all of the coal-fired CCS projects listed by the Global CCS Institute in Melbourne as possibly happening by 2030, are included in the total amount of CO2 captured, it would be less than 20 million tonnes a year.

Australia roughly generates this amount of energy in two weeks.

The Turnbull government’s administration, despite the focus of the main stream media on presidential phone calls and name mishaps, appears to be pretty much aligned with the Trump administration. Fred Palmer was the Peabody Energy Vice-President for government relations in 2010 and in the same year that the “Advanced Energy for Life” campaign was born. Peabody Energy Corporation (Peabody) is headquartered in St. Louis, America and it is the largest private-sector coal company in the world. Peabody has been developing, refining and honing its campaign tactics ever since. Mr Palmer describes former Australian PM Tony Abbott, as a “precursor” to Trump in the context of climate change and energy policy.

“When Tony Abbott came in, he came in running against the carbon tax. When Donald Trump came in, he came in running against the Clean Power plan. That’s the parallel I am talking about.” When asked if he had problems getting through to the federal government he responded, “No it was not. I was thrilled to have that meeting and reception that I got,” says Palmer.

“I had zero problems. If they had time, they talked to us.”

He also thinks that Mr Trump will be “spectacularly successful”.

And that “We are going down the path of his America first energy plan. There is nothing in there about renewables and there’s nothing in there about carbon taxes. It’s fossil fuel-centric and it is meant to be. It’s a fossil-fuel future for the United States.”

Followed by “I guarantee you the world is going to follow.”

There is no money to be made out of coal today, it’s had its time and has progressed us from the days of having to rely on whale blubber or whale oil for energy sustenance and steam powered ships. Renewable energy can also be a base-load energy that Australia can rely on and lead the world in how to do it rurally even, if there is political will.

Australia is in a unique position, not just in regards to our geological positioning and weather elements but we are surrounded by water and we live in very different circumstances, when we compare this with land locked countries in the Middle East. Countries such as Syria that Australia is involved in protecting values wise or war wise, is a part of this ban too. It is high time that we question our values and ethics as a country. Our countries shipping ports also need to be thought about for the long term of Australia’s future and not just a short-term sugar hit for a state government’s or federal government’s budget bottom line.

Human Services Privatisation Creep and TiSA

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Image by artist Banksy

Australia has the highest rate of private incarceration per capita of any country in the world. We imprison more people now than in any time in history. Private prisons operate in five of Australia’s states: Queensland (QLD), New South Wales (NSW), South Australia (SA), Victoria and West Australia (WA). There are eighty-two state prisons between these five states with around 20% of Australia’s prison population residing in nine private prisons. Victoria has the highest number of inmates held in private prisons than in any of the other four states. It is comprised of thirteen state run prisons and two privately owned prisons. As of 2014 the two private prisons accounted for 31.8% of the total inmate population or 1,845 out of 5,800 inmates.

A report called: Prison Privatisation in Australia – The State of the Nation June 2016 was the first to collate publicly available information on private prisons in Australia. The key areas that were explored were Accountability, Costs, and Performance and Efficiency. The first private prison to open was the Borallon Correctional Centre (CC) in QLD, near Ipswich. It was operated by Serco until it closed in 2012. Serco is one of three private prison contractors favoured by state governments, the other two are G4S and the GEO Group (GEO), formerly known as Australasian Correctional Management (ACM). The privatisation stemmed from a 1988 report called the Kennedy report. It was chaired by businessman and accountant, Jim Kennedy and its intention was to reform corrective services in QLD. A program for privatisation was set out within his report: ‘(t)he opportunities for introducing private sector involvement are substantial and should lead to an increase in cost-effectiveness’. The reasoning behind this was that in some areas private providers ‘can do it cheaper and better’ and that introducing competition to the public sector would allow for the measurement of public sector performance. It was budgetary concerns with staff sickness and over-time that led to these measures not overcrowding as was the case for the other states except SA. Borallon CC was back in state hands in April 2016 as an education centre called ‘earn or learn’ for eighteen-thirty-year old offenders.

NSW followed QLD’s lead with an ‘Investigation into Private Sector involvement in the NSW Corrective System’ in 1989. The report cited a claim that Borallon CC had made cost savings of 7.5-10%. One parliamentarian cast doubt over the fact that no information had been provided as to how these numbers were established or calculated. Despite this questioning, Junee CC near Wagga Wagga was approved as NSW’s first private prison. It was originally managed by ACM in 1993, the ACM was restructured and became the GEO Group in 2004. GEO won the bid again in 2009 and still manages the facility today.

Independent inspection of private prisons in NSW has been sporadic, an Inspector of Custodial Services (ICS) was appointed in 1997 with a review off office scheduled for 2003. The ICS was to address issues not already covered by the Ombudsman. The review was carried out by former Police commissioner John Dalton and former chairman of the Corrective Services Commission, Vernon Dalton. They recommended it to be discontinued citing that many duties overlapped with that of the Ombudsman and the government accepted their recommendations. Another ICS wasn’t appointed until another nine years later in 2012 and within this time frame in 2009, the NSW government privatised Parklea CC in the North West of Sydney. The contract was awarded to GEO and it revised its plans to sell Cessnock CC in the Hunter due to an economic downturn in the region.

With a record 12,000 inmates in NSW, the NSW government announced “Better Prisons” in March 2016, with plans to “market test” the operation of the John Morony CC near Windsor, Sydney. For contrast, as of June 2015, there were 36, 134 people incarcerated across all eight states in Australia. Private companies were invited to compete against state owned, Corrective Services NSW (CSNSW) for the tender with a winner to be announced in early 2017. A $3.8 billion expansion of the prison system was also proposed and includes a “Commissioning and Contestability Unit” costing $2.9 million. The unit is based on the work of former Serco worker, Gary Sturgess who was also an adviser to former Liberal premier Nick Greiner. The NSW shadow treasurer Ryan Park said “Contestability shouldn’t be an evil word – but under this government, all it means is privatisation by stealth. This government has shown time and time again that contestability isn’t about service delivery – it’s about saving money.” Mr Sturgess argues that it’s not about actually privatising but rather the threat of it to get public services and unions to improve their efficiency. “Gladys Berejiklian understands contestability – she used that approach as transport minister when she took on the private bus monopolies in western Sydney, and then initiated a reform agenda within the State Transit Authority … using the threat of competition if they did not reform,” he said.

The “Better Prisons” reforms also include cutting the number of teachers from CSNSW from over one hundred full-time positions to twenty. Corrective Services Minister David Elliott is to create sixty more roles but they don’t require a teaching degree. Prison teachers went on strike and up to two-hundred people rallied outside the NSW Parliament in September last year. “No-one can do the job that you do, you are highly skilled” Labor’s Guy Zangari told the crowd. “It’s more than just reading and writing, it’s more than just gaining skills to get a job”

The Prison Privatisation in Australia – The State of the Nation June 2016 report covers publicly available data as of December 2015, and concluded that many problems in QLD private prisons were mirrored in NSW. NSW governments have favoured confidentiality and   commercial-in-confidence protections for private, over providing the public with any transparency about their operations and costs. When it comes to Performance Level Fees (PLF), Key Performance Indicators (KPI) or bonuses for reaching “performance targets”, it gets even more opaque. One example from 2006 involved GEO still being awarded its PLF despite not meeting its performance targets for Junee CC. The justification given By Commissioner Ron Woodham was that ‘performance linked fees were designed to encourage performance rather than be punitive’. The Department of Corrective Services (DCS) makes an annual report about some of the prison’s performance but not the costs, they’re aggregated. In fact, the researchers of the above report could find no publicly available information regarding the breakdown of private prison costs on a year-by-year basis. NSW has an Ombudsman that handles prisoner complaints and reports their data prison-by-prison. According to the data there are more complaints in private prisons than in public ones. There’re contract “monitors” that make reports about both private prisons in NSW but these reports are also not publicly available. The monitors reports don’t marry up with the Ombudsman’s either especially regarding complaints made. In 2011 when inmates died at Parklea and three men escaped from the prison, there was no mention of these incidents at all in the monitors reports.

It is of interest that the NSW government at the end of March 2016, made both the Junee CC and the Parklea CC contracts available through the CSNSW website. The contracts are heavily censored, for example in schedule six of the Junee contract ‘Operational Service Level Fee and Opioid Pharmacotherapy Program Fee’, all of the financial information has been redacted. In section eight, the ‘Key Performance Indicators and Performance Linked Fee’ has had the targets for each KPI censored, meaning that we don’t know the level of service that is expected of GEO. The Parklea contract states that the operational fee in schedule six is $29, 124, 488 but any information relating to the breakdown of these costs has also been redacted. It also lists financial penalties for major incidents such as deaths in custody but it doesn’t include the KPI’s against which the PLF is calculated. Once again, we have no idea what level of performance is expected of the contractor by the NSW government.

Treasurer Scott Morrison asked the Productivity Commission to investigate privatising human services. The preliminary findings of the inquiry suggested that social housing, public hospitals, dental services, aged care, services for remote Indigenous communities and social housing services could all be reformed. The commission will work on recommendations for each sector and report back to Mr Morrison in October this year.

There has been much said about the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) by Prime Minister Turnbull, President Donald Trump and the media. Mr Trump has made it clear that he believes that it’s not in America’s best interests to sign the agreement but Mr Turnbull doesn’t want to let it go. What has been missing is any talk about the Trade in Services Act (TiSA) agreement in the media or by Mr Turnbull or Mr Trump. There is a media release from October 21st last year by Trade, Tourism and Investment Minister, Steve Ciobo. He chaired a ministerial meeting on TiSA in Oslo, Norway that weekend and the release talks of ‘increasing Australian services exports, a key part of the Turnbull Government’s national economic plan to create jobs and drive economic growth.’

Australia’s services sector is a major part of our economy and accounts for 70% of economic activity. It employs four out of five Australians and accounts for 20.9% of all of Australia’s exports. Services account for around 75% of the European Union (EU) economy and 80% of the US economy. TiSA was also meant to be signed off with the TPP at the end of last year but it stalled due to disagreements about the free movement of personal data across borders. Mr Trump has already promised and already met with thirteen US tech giants last year and promised to make it “a lot easier” for their companies “to trade across borders.”

TiSA according to Wikileaks and other whistle-blowing sites is a deal that will “lock in” the privatisation of services, even in cases where private service delivery has failed. Government’s would never be able to return water, energy, health, education or other services to public hands. Perhaps this’s why there is such secrecy and a five-year clause preventing public access to the TiSA agreement after it has been signed.

We have seen the Australian federal government’s attitude towards human services with Centrelink and Medicare, and the absolute lack of transparency when it comes to the treatment of private prison operators in Australia. Should our tax payer dollars be used to pay private, overseas companies bonuses for fulfilling their contract’s? If companies need incentives to do a good job it sounds like human services belongs in the hands of public. When will state government’s using private, prison operators admit that a lack of staffing appears to be much of that sectors problems? And lastly, I implore you to please help create awareness about this, if they come for our services it will be the end of Australia or the world as we know it.

 

 

 

 

The Centrelink debacle has only just begun…

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Image by The Pen

We hear Artificial Intelligence (AI) bandied about a lot in recent times as well as innovation and agility and more recently we have been hearing terms such as robo-debt recovery, algorithms and malware. The Income Security Integrated System (ISIS) ISIS was set up in 1983 and oversaw welfare payment deliveries, customer service, support and compliance activities for Centrelink. In 2015 Marise Payne, former Human Services Minister (and now Defence Minister) called for an overhaul of the system: ‘To deal with the increased demands over the years the original system has literally had another 350 systems bolted on. To put it simply, we are running a turbo-charged Commodore 64 with a spoiler in the age of the iPhone.’

In the 2015-16 budget, the Welfare Payment Infrastructure Transformation (WPIT) program was announced as the replacement for ISIS. The 2015-16, budget measure worth $60.5m is part of a $1.5 billion, seven-year program. The program was described by the government as one of the world’s largest social welfare ICT transformations.

In September 2015, the Department of Human Services (DHS) asked for expressions of interest (EOI) for the first tranche of WPIT for a core software provider. As part of tranche one a panel of members was also to be formed to compete for the other tranches. In a statement, Ms Payne said that: “Finding innovative and expert industry partners is the first step in providing a modern platform that will make interacting with government services easier for our customers,” the Minister added. “Over the next year, the department will commence two major procurement activities to secure a Core Software Vendor and Systems Integrators.”’ 

“The new system will reduce red tape for customers, lower the costs of administering welfare payments and save taxpayers money,” Payne said. “Customers can expect to see improvements to our payment systems by the end of 2016 with enhancements that will make online interactions quicker and easier.”

On March 2nd 2016, legislation was introduced to parliament to assist the government in chasing welfare debt by Social Services Minister Christian Porter. The changes allow interest to be charged on debts, ends the six-year limit on when debt can be pursued and stops debtors from being able to travel overseas. The new interest charge is around nine-percent and applies to social security, family assistance, child care, paid parental leave and student assistance debt. It won’t be imposed on those that have an approved repayment plan. The six-year limit brings it in line with tax debt and the travel ban brings it in line with child support debtors.

And by March 20th it was reported in the media that the DHS had partnered with the Australian Federal Police (AFP) in a venture called Taskforce Integrity. Welfare recipients in areas identified as high-risk, received letters with the AFP logo alongside the Centrelink logo. This is a first, using a police logo on a welfare letter. The first batch of letters was sent to South Queensland and will be rolled out to other geographical areas around Australia considered high risk or noncompliant. The letters warn that the taskforce was “currently working in your community” and that providing the wrong information could constitute welfare fraud, resulting in a “criminal record or a prison sentence”.

The government’s new automated compliance system to detect overpayments began on the 13th of July last year. The system compares Centrelink information with records such as tax records, saving the government money on employing staff. The first error to come to light was it not computing the difference between 52 weeks in a year and 26 fortnights. And in December last year stories from the public began trickling through to the media.

In early August 2016, German software company SAP was selected to be the government software provider and tranche two was opened up for bidding. In the MYEFO published in December 2016 it was revealed that tranche two of the WPIT will cost $313.5 million over four years. The panel is to consist of IBM, HP, Capgemini, and Accenture; with the latter two currently competing for tranche two below:

  • Tranche 2 – Student payments
  • Tranche 3 – Job seeker payments
  • Tranche 4 – Family payments, including disability and carer payments
  • Tranche 5 – Seniors, pensioners and any remaining payments.

It is of note that IBM was also awarded a five-year contract by the DHS in March 2016 worth $484 million. DHS CIO Gary Sterrenberg said: “This innovative and flexible agreement allows the Department to use products, services and expertise through an on- demand model. It ensures value for money for government in maintaining the Department’s existing spend with IBM, with the opportunity to realign technology and services to areas which provide better outcomes for our customers over the five-year term.” And that: “This will also ensure the Government is prepared to transition to new infrastructure with more dynamic capability to support future programmes.”

This week Centrelink’s new robo-public servant was introduced in the media, and it is being tested on the public next month in February. Two robo-assistants will answer questions from the public, one will focus on the National Disability Insurance Scheme, (NDIS) and the other one on student payments. The plan is that if the trials are successful, they will be rolled out to replace traditional public servant roles behind the desk and on the phone in the DHS. Human Service’s Chief Technology officer Charles McHardie, also believes that virtual assistance will have a central role in the future of claims processing at the DHS or in WPIT.

Concerns about the right use of AI are real and there are many examples of it helping to increase inequality in many areas of our lives. Sexism, racism and other forms of discrimination are being built into the machine-learning or predictive algorithms, either intentionally or unintentionally. Machines are taught by humans and this includes any bias that may have. An example of predictive algorithms is Pro Publica’s study of an algorithm, built by a private company, it incorrectly flagged black defendants as “future criminals” more than twice that of white defendants. “The reason those predictions are so skewed is still unknown, because the company responsible for these algorithms keeps its formulas secret,” wrote Microsoft Research principal researcher Kate Crawford in “Artificial Intelligence’s White Guy Problem.”

Australian businesses spend an average of $8.2 million a year on AI technologies according to recent research by Infosys. Algorithms are being developed for more and more things such as predicting investor responses to market shocks and offering financial advice. The research also found that: “Happily, Australia was the most ethically conscious country of the seven surveyed, with 69% [of businesses surveyed] saying ethical concerns were a major barrier to their organisation’s AI deployment plans, compared to just 33% in the US.”

To date 230,000 debt recovery letters have been sent out to Australians. There’s been countless articles written about it and there are 350 individual stories shared on the Not My Debt web site and a false debt tally of $2,124, 501. Thousands of Indigenous Australians have been sent letters with some just paying it off despite knowing it is wrong. Daniel Hayes told NITV News he was repaying the debt but when he started seeing news articles he stopped paying Centrelink. He said in early January that: “I’m in the middle of repaying them $3350 for apparently not declaring correctly in periods where I didn’t even have a job. When I asked for proof, they told me I had to go through my bank records, so I’ve paid it for a year down to $1600,” he said.

In early January, independent MP Andrew Wilkie, said: “I have had at least four people now approach me in my office who I would describe as presenting suicidal and in all those cases we’ve taken what action we thought was appropriate.”

Mr Wilkie requested an investigation into Centrelink by the Commonwealth Ombudsman before Christmas, they agreed on January 9th. Deputy ombudsman, Richard Glenn told the Guardian that the matter was “of significant interest to this office”.

“I can certainly say the ombudsman has approved an own-motion investigation into the matter… this one will be self-initiated because we have a number of complaints and there is significant public controversy about the issue. So, it is an inquiry into the issue at large, rather than into a specific complaint,” Mr Glenn said.

“Certainly, there’s enough information from complaints we’ve received and … that it’s an issue of significant interest to this office, and we’ll be pursuing it.”

The focus will be on three areas: the data-matching process used to compare Centrelink records with those of the tax departments; how Centrelink communicated with clients and how the agency managed the fallout.

Centrelink has been referring distraught people to Lifeline and several current and ex-Centrelink employees have told Mr Wilkie that there was little to no training for the recovery program. Mr Wilkie has written to the Ombudsman this week sharing what he has been told. It all reads badly but what jumps out at me, is that it has been alleged that senior departmental staff have been encouraging officers to compete with themselves over who can achieve the highest debt recovery quotas.

While all of this has been going on for weeks, the government denies that there is a problem, although they have agreed to soften some wording in the letters. And they’ve agreed to start sending letters by registered mail so that Centrelink can track if letters are being received. Many people have been unaware of any alleged debts until a debt collector was knocking on their door.

So far only The Australian has reported that there will be a senate inquiry into Centrelink. Perhaps last year’s failed Census inquiry report can assist them with it. The Turnbull and the Abbott governments don’t have a great record with technology. News about Australia’s biggest infrastructure, the National Broadband Network (NBN) is reduced to tiny PR pieces talking up their rollout but neglecting to tell the rest of the story. The census fallout may not be felt now but it will, that data has been compromised and is vital for planning things like infrastructure. Seeing this play out and knowing that the government is nowhere finished with their five-seven year WTIP plan, sends a shiver down my spine. We can take comfort in the fact that it has united us, so many are fighting for those affected but it is bittersweet, because it feels intentional and a government at war with its own people will never end well.

Australia has lost its identity

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The Australian cultural mindset has been eroded and is becoming predominately American. The size of the American population and its dominance in movies, television and music meant that influence was inevitable and it’s reflected in our fashion and in language with words such as “like”, “bro” and phrases along the lines of “you go girl”. American cultural imperialism has only exacerbated since Australia signed the American free-trade-agreement (AUSFTA) in 2004. Australia is losing its cultural identity. The Indigenous Australian culture actually has more in common with Australian culture than many may realise. The love and affection for Australian land is evident when so many Australians spend their time off from work and on holidays to do such things as swimming, sun baking, surfing, yoga, meditating, mountain climbing and hiking.

Australia’s history with Indigenous Australians is also not what many may realise with slave labour, stolen wages and stolen federally paid maternity allowances and child endowments from their trusts. Indigenous Australians not only built the pastoral industry for Australia but they also helped build it in other ways with wage, labour, allowance and endowment theft. They also worked in a wide range of occupations: interpreters, concubines, trackers, troopers, servants, nursemaids, labourers, stock workers and pearl divers. What is also overlooked is that they are the oldest living culture on earth with many achievements starting to come to light such as, superfoods knowledge, being the world’s first bakers and perhaps even being responsible for the world’s oldest astronomical map.

Australian television in the eighties and nineties is markedly different today with the likes of comedy shows such as The Comedy Company, Fast Forward and Full Frontal now fond memories. The reality television show Big Brother, began on Australian screens in 2001, along with a plethora of American shows such as Sex in the City, Law and Order and CSI. Many Australians including Indigenous have been raised subconsciously or subliminally with an American belief or values system. Calls get made to the American emergency number 911 rather than our own national emergency number 000 and “product dumping” is the norm with American businesses selling their television shows in the Australian market for below local cost or production prices. With an American population of around 325 million, it’s a lot easier to recoup your production and overall costs and it means that sales to other countries are essentially pure profit for America. This makes it harder for local industry to compete and it takes away any incentive to innovate or foster local production and talent. It also creates a deficit in our creative knowledge economy preventing innovation at a local level. More funding and tax breaks are needed to bolster confidence and to transition our creative knowledge economy for the future.

Between 1996 and 2000 Australia’s royalty trade deficit (including Information and technology) with America, increased by 84 per cent. In the book How to Kill a Country by Linda Weiss, Elizabeth Thurbon and John Mathews, they suggest an Intellectual Property Right (IPR) tax. They argue that governments have always taxed property as a principal source of avenue, so why not tax royalty flows? This book was written twelve years ago so it would be even easier for the government to look at royalty flows data and to put even a modest tax on it. For example, if Australian businesses paid royalties of AU$1 billion, the government could collect say 10 per cent or AU$100 million and use the revenue to reinvest locally.

Forced control over Indigenous Australian’s wages and savings (bank books) only ended in 1972 and they didn’t receive equal wages until 1986. Despite stolen wages, slave labour and stolen benefits they have fought wars for Australia without recognition and thanked only with discrimination when they got home. They have been portrayed as nomadic, hunter-gatherers but evidence shows that they were actually Australia’s first farmers.

Grindstones that are 36,000-years-old have been discovered in New South Wales (NSW), they were used to turn seeds into flours for baking. The Gurandgi Munjie collective is made up of a number other Indigenous Australians living along the NSW south coast and in east Gippsland in Victoria. They’ve been trialling native millet, kangaroo grass and murnong crops to increase harvests and begin selling bread soon. “One of our aims is to make sure our people earn a living out of it, as well as helping Australia learn about a natural Australian diet.” Murnong – is also known as yam daisy and is a tuber that can be eaten like a vegetable, the seeds of millet and kangaroo grass make up the healthy, gluten-free flours. Pascoe of Gurandgi Munjie’s baking experiments, says: “Kangaroo grass flour has got a really beautiful smell and a nutty flavour. We love making the breads simply because it tastes so good, but also because it makes the kitchen smell good as well.” And that “Environmentally it’s a pretty good deal,” says Pascoe. “They’re perennials, so once you get your crop established you don’t have to plough the land again or add fertiliser or pesticide. Your CO2 emission levels are going to drop dramatically because you’re not turning the soil over and releasing carbon into the atmosphere.”

Marnybi, Gugbinge, Kakadu plum, bush or billygoat plums have the highest natural vitamin C content in the world and can be found in abundance in Wadeye, the Northern Territory (NT). For Indigenous Australians it’s known as traditional Indigenous medicine. A local Wadeye woman explains: “It’s good for your headache. If we have headache at bush, we eat plum and it makes us feel good.” It is considered as a gift from the Dreamtime. It has taken off commercially as a powder for smoothies and to be sprinkled on to breakfasts as well as a good source of folic acid, iron and may even protect against Alzheimer’s disease. With this success comes bio piracy which locks up intellectual property around bush foods. Bush foods’ intellectual property is already being largely exploited by companies and individuals that are patenting intellectual property of native plant knowledge. Multinationals can come in and patent the use of products with little consideration for knowledge or history. The Northern Land Council is calling for a blanket moratorium on all patents over native foods and plants until a legal framework protecting Indigenous interests can be enforced. Andrew Forrest has been making noise again recently about a “premium” Australian brand to woo China, wouldn’t it be prudent for Indigenous Australians to have their own?

Australia may be home to an ancient astronomical stone formation that could be older than Stonehenge. The Wurdi Youang stone arrangement 45km west of Melbourne was formed using 90 blocks of basalt and clearly depicts the equinox, the winter solstice and the summer solstice. The Wathaurong people are the traditional owners. Geologists and experts have estimated it to be around 10,000 years-old, or 3,000 years older than the 7,000 year-old Stonehenge. They used the sky to help them work out weather patterns too and shared this knowledge with one another through song and dance, for example, if stars are twinkling rapidly it’s because of high-altitude trade winds. Another example is if the stars are twinkling fast and are bright blue, storms are on the way. They use dreaming and songlines as memory techniques to retain vast amounts of knowledge.

Indigenous are being included and recognised as such a lot more with Acknowledgement of Country becoming the norm as well as “Welcome to Country” ceremonies. Just about daily more stories and discoveries like the ones above can be found if you look, you won’t find them often in main-stream-media, but you will find cartoonists like Bill Leak. The social media campaign that followed with #IndigenousDads to counteract the latter’s cartoon was heart warming and shows that there is good will out there for each other. The ABC television show Cleverman also helped to educate and give insight into Indigenous Australian’s culture. Personally, I still can’t get Jesse William’s speech at the Black Entertainment Awards about racism in America out of my mind. In particular the last paragraph: “We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo, and we’re done watching and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us, burying black people out of sight and out of mind while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil – black gold, ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them, gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit. The thing is though… the thing is that just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.”

So much of the Australia that many grew up with and know is gone, owning your own home and endless summers at the beach have been replaced with longer working hours. That is if you can get work and aren’t dealing with underemployment. Now that America and other multinationals are snapping up Indigenous bush foods and medicine patents, I think it’s time that we united and fought for our countries independence from America Inc, it’s a corporation not a country. Call out the main-stream-media misinformation, ignorance and racism when we see it and hear it. Acknowledge the ugly side of Australian history as well as all that we have in common and share this knowledge with others.

We can not allow Free-Trade-Agreements without any transparency

Updated: 18/08/2016

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was conceived in 2003 as the Trans-Pacific Strategic Partnership Agreement TPSEP as a path to trade liberalisation in the Asia-Pacific. The original participating countries were Chile, New Zealand and Singapore with Brunei joining in 2005. In 2008 the United States of America (USA), Australia, Peru and Vietnam joined, followed on by Malaysia, Mexico, Canada and Japan. Free Trade Agreements (FTA) deal mostly with goods being imported at a certain price with certain environmental and labour standards met. What’s different about the TPP is that the treaty has 29 chapters, dealing with the whole scope of tariff and agricultural quota removal and market access on sensitive products, but in particular agricultural goods. It also includes provisions over non-tariff issues such as intellectual property rights, the environment, state-owned enterprises, and investment.

Japan was the last to join in 2013, as agriculture as well as the auto industry have long been a sticking point in Japanese trade liberalisation and had held up the TPP negotiations with the USA. However agricultural reforms made by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has tipped the power of balance back into the governments favour and away from Japan’s most powerful farm lobby, the Japan Agriculture Cooperative. Japan offered to import more rice from the USA while keeping existing tariffs in place, and the USA agreed to stop demanding that Japan ease its car safety standards. Progress was also made on issues such as state-owned enterprises, environmental protection, and investment. This not only paves the way for greater market liberalisation and deregulation in Japanese agriculture but was meant to enable Mr Obama’s plan to “fast track” push for Congress approval to conclude the TPP before the end of his Presidency.

What is of the most concern is the provisions over not only the aforementioned non-tariff issues of intellectual property rights, the environment, state-owned enterprises, and investment but the Investor State Dispute Settlements provisions (ISDS). ISDS allows multinational corporations to sue governments if they’re deemed not to be acting in their best “interests”. It can potentially place limits on governments being able to develop their domestic laws and policies in areas such as public health, patents on medicine, the environment, food labeling, Internet use and privacy and even local media content. Australia had a long-running investor-state dispute with Philip Morris Asia, due to the introduction of the ‘Tobacco Plain Packaging Act 2011′ in 2011. The laws were introduced by the former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Australian Labor Party (ALP) government as a health measure but Philip Morris Asia amongst the many breaches, believes that it infringes their intellectual property. Previous ALP and Liberal National Party governments had in the past only included ISDS in trade agreements with developing countries that didn’t have any investments in Australia and they were not included in the US-Australia FTA. American corporations are the most frequent users of ISDS and the safeguard clauses that countries employ to protect themselves in FTA’s can and have been re-interpreted and over-turned through the arbitration process. Philip Morris International Inc in an Australian case for example, challenged the tobacco plain packaging legislation under a 1993 Agreement between the Government of Australia and the Government of Hong Kong for the Promotion and Protection of Investments.

Even where corporations do lose they have dragged governments through lengthy and expensive legal processes with dispute settlement cases that are heard by tribunals of three private-sector lawyers. The tribunals tend to be more concerned with assessing potential damage to corporate investments rather than the protection of the government’s or public’s interest. In December 2015 Australia won its four year international legal battle with Phillip Morris Asia and there are now currently 608 ISDS cases globally. More than $3bn has been paid by out governments, or taxpayers, to corporations under existing US trade and investment agreements alone. African countries are increasingly becoming involved in ISDS cases with the majority of these in the gas, oil and mining sectors. According to the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), out of the ISDS cases registered with them until 2014, 26% were concentrated in the oil, gas and mining sectors. It was 35% for the year 2014 alone, compared to 2000 when there were only three pending cases. Investors have challenged many government measures such as: licenses that are revoked in mining, telecommunications and tourism; alleged breaches of investment contracts; the withdrawl of previously granted subsidies and changes to domestic regulatory frameworks in gas, nuclear energy, the marketing of gold and currency regulations.

An examples of an ISDS case against a government is one from Canada by Lone Pine Resources which filed a $250m lawsuit against the Canadian government when Quebec placed a moratorium on it and banned drilling and fracking processes for oil and gas underneath the St. Lawrence River for an environmental evaluation. “Based on the principle of precaution, the Quebec government’s response to the concerns of its population is appropriate and legitimate,” said Martine Châtelain, president of Eau secours! (The Quebec based Coalition for the responsible management of water). “No companies should be allowed to sue a State when it implements sovereign measures to protect water and the common goods for the sake of our ecosystems and the health of our peoples” Ms Châtelain added.

And there is the case of Eli Lilly and Company when an American global pharmaceutical company (and it’s fifth biggest), filed a $500m law suit against Canada. It was for allegedly violating its obligations to foreign investors under the North American FTA for allowing its domestic courts to invalidate patents for two of its drugs. Canadian courts had found that there was a lack of evidence supporting the drug’s alleged benefits.

According to Forbes in 2013 the biggest profit margins produced be USA corporations are in the pharmaceuticals. In 2013, US pharmaceutical Pfizer, the world’s largest drug company, made a 42% profit margin. As one industry veteran put it: “I wouldn’t be able to justify [those kinds of margins].” In the UK that year, there was widespread anger when the industry regulator predicted energy companies’ profit margins would grow from 4% to 8% for the year. In 2014, five pharmaceutical companies made a profit margin of 20% or more, these were – Pfizer, Hoffmann-La Roche, AbbVie, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Eli Lilly. And in 2015 Johnson & Johnson was named the world’s largest drug and biotech company, edging out Pfizer and Swiss company Novartis once again. In 2015 Johnson & Johnson made $16.3bn in profits, held $131bn in assets and it’s market value was $276bn.

The problem isn’t just with the massive amounts of profiteering but the fact that the drug companies spend far more on marketing drugs than on developing them. Johnson & Johnson’s total revenue for 2013 for example was $71.3bn with a profit of 13.8%, it spent 8.2% on research and development and 17.5% was spent on sales and marketing.  Drug patents in the US are usually awarded for 20 years, but 10-12 of those years are spent developing it at a cost of up to $2.5bn, leaving eight to ten years to make money before the formula can be taken up by generic drug companies. Once this happens, sales fall by over 90%. Joshua Owide, director of healthcare industry dynamics at research company GlobalData, explains, “Unlike other sectors, brand loyalty goes out the window when patents expire.” This is why pharmaceutical companies go to such extraordinary lengths to extend their patents, a process known as “evergreening”, employing “floors full of lawyers” for this express purpose, one industry insider has said. And with a drug raking in $3bn a quarter, even a one month extension can be worth a lot of money. Some drug companies, including the UK’s GSK, have been accused of more underhand tactics, such as paying generics to delay the release of their cheaper alternatives. This is a win for both industries, as it has been said that the loss of the big pharmaceuticals far outweighs the generic industries revenue.

The source of contention between Australia and the US to seal the TPP deal now in 2016, is the difference in the monopoly period (the time-frame that it can’t be taken up by generic companies) for medicines or biologics between the two countries. Biologics are “next generation” drugs and Australia’s time-frame to protect medical intellectual property is five years whereas the US had been bargaining for eight years. Meaning that no generic or cheaper drugs could come onto the market for nearly a decade. Last month TPP supporter, US Senator Orrin Hatch, accused Australia of trying to steal American medicine patents and said that he wants it to be changed to twelve years.

The former Abbott government and the current Turnbull government have an appetite for signing FTA’s with their eyes on more with India, Indonesia and an Asian trade deal to rival the TPP called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. The TPP has been many years in the making and has been fraught with difficult negotiations that could impact on us really hard in an already uncertain economic environment. The secrecy in our Australian political environment in particular around FTA’s and the public’s growing unease with them needs to be heeded. If the government won’t listen we need the opposition, independents and the senate to come together and put the countries future and needs first, no matter how big the opportunities are for for a few investors in this country. Can you imagine what could be in store for us if we allow multinational corporations and trade ministers to ultimately decide our economies, laws and policies? With the global spend on medicines projected to be worth up to $1.2 trillion for 2017, low global growth and profit hungry corporations, the stakes are too high.

US propaganda 100 years ago and how the media was influenced (3)

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Image is by whatisusa.info

In 1917, one-hundred-years ago this year, American president Wilson Woodrow, declared war on Germany. Mr Woodrow also pioneered the government propaganda system that exists to this day. He began by intimidating and suppressing any ethnic or socialist papers that opposed the US entering the first World war. At the time such meddling in press freedom was unheard of. A week after the war declaration he created a new federal agency called the Committee on Public Information (CPI). The government now controlled the narrative and press coverage. The CPI was dubbed ‘the nation’s first ministry of information’ by journalist, Stephen Ponder. Their first task was to convince millions of young men being drafted to go to war, as well as millions of Americans that supported neutrality. They had to convince them that war was the only option to ‘make the world safe for democracy.’ This was a time before radio became popular and before the weekly news magazine was invented. The chairman of CPI was journalist, George Creel and he organised it into several divisions.

The speaking division had 75,000 specialists who became known as the “Four Minute Men” for their skill in transcribing Mr Wilson’s war goals in short speeches.

The film divison produced the news reels needed to to garner support by showing graphic images in movie theatres. The images depicted the allies as the heroes and the Germans as barbaric.

The foreign language newspaper division kept an eye on US newspapers that were published in other languages than English.

The advertising division secured free advertising space in US publications to promote various war campaigns. Campaigns such as recruiting new soldiers, encouraging patriotism and feeding the narrative that the US was involved in a crusade against a barbaric, anti-democratic enemy.  

The division of pictorial publicity comprised of a group of volunteer artists and illustrators. They were behind the famous image of Uncle Sam below. Mr Creel denied that CPI’s work was akin to propaganda but he did admit that he was engaged in a battle of perceptions. ‘The war was not fought in France alone’ he wrote in 1920. And after the CPI was disbanded in 1919, he described it as ‘a plain publicity proposition, a vast enterprise in salesmanship, the world’s greatest adventure in advertising.’

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One of the techniques favoured by the news unit was to bury journalists in paper by producing numerous press-releases each day. The unit also restricted the media’s access to those involved in the war, creating a news vacuum. This was filled with government-written stories, masquerading as news. The CPI also issued a set of guidelines for US newspapers and if editors didn’t follow these patriotic guidelines, they were deemed as unpatriotic. In another first, they decided to create their own daily newspaper, published by the government.  

A nephew of Sigmund Freud, Edward L Bernays, was a pioneer in human thoughts and emotion theories and was one of the CPI volunteers. ‘The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society,’ Mr Bernays wrote after the war. And that ‘Propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government.’ Many of those involved in the CPI went on to lucrative advertising careers after the committee was disbanded.  

In 1988 Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman published the book, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. They discovered that the propaganda model today, consists of five filters of editorial bias:

Media ownership: Media outlets have become large companies that cater to the interests of the owners or owner, and to make them profitable.  

Advertising: Media can’t survive without it so they must also cater to political leanings as well as the economic desires of their advertisers.

Complicity: Government’s, corporations and institutions know how to influence the media. They feed the media scoops and interviews with “experts” and make themselves part of the journalism process. If you push back against the establishment you will soon find yourself out of the game.

Flack: When a story comes out that the powers that be don’t like, they mobilise and attack. They do this by discrediting sources, trashing stories, creating distractions and by changing the narrative back to where they want it to be.

The common enemy: Whether it’s communism, terrorism or immigration fears, to manufacture consent, you need a common enemy.

In 1992, they produced a documentary about it if interested and below is a handy animation, from March this year. It’s under five minutes long and has some more information, Australia gets a mention near the start.       

I’m going to start introducing some of the players involved in today’s web of propaganda. In October 1996, Rupert Murdoch launched Fox News, it was the first of its kind. A 24-hour conservative-populist propaganda channel, filled with right-wing opinions and slanted news stories. All under the banner of “fair and balanced” and delivered as entertainment. He is most definitely a key player and one of the most powerful men in the media, more on him later.

In 1995, a year before Mr Murdoch launched Fox News, Matt Drudge launched the Drudge Report, and he ran it alone. It began with a weekly email for subscribers full of quirky conspiracy theories, right-wing politics, extreme weather and pop culture. Andrew Breitbart, wasn’t doing much at this stage besides being a news-junkie of sorts, and became a big fan of the report. He emailed Mr Drudge offering his help of which Mr Drudge accepted. Mr Drudge became his mentor and they created their own headlines with a blurb telling you the main point of the story, that linked to articles from all around the web. The Drudge Report was one of the earliest news aggregator web sites, a link from them could bring hundreds of thousands of readers to a  story. This gave reporters wanting exposure an incentive to contact Mr Drudge or Mr Breitbart as soon as their pieces were published (or even before publishing them). Tips from journalists gave the pair eyes and ears into nearly every newsroom in the world. In early 1998 they broke not only the Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton scandal, but also the fact that Newsweek had killed the story.

The Drudge Report, didn’t just have the ability to provide scoops for its readers but it also had a sense of urgency about it, and continuous news and stories sourced from the internet to entertain its readers. All of this was achieved with two people rather than a whole newsroom and without having to host content on its site, meaning extremely low overheads. It was also marketed as an alternative to mainstream-media that wasn’t controlled by corporate interests or politicians. It’s role in directing mass amounts internet traffic also made it lucrative for the news sites that received the traffic. He has even been called the ‘Rupert Murdoch of the digital age.’ More on it’s role in the Trump election campaign and how far that it’s come today, in another part of the series.  

Next, I will uncover how Steve Bannon meeting Andrew Breitbart and David Bossie in 2004, has led us to today. I will also explain how the political activities of the Koch brothers’ has influenced the chain of events and more.