OPINION: The Disinformation Project is not a random, benign creation that just ‘happened’. It is a tool of the Censorship Industrial Complex, and it’s recruiting strategic allies.
An image used on The Looking Glass’ Ministry of Truth NZ report, and the feature image on a recent Kate Hannah interview on the PSAs website. One wonders if The Disinformation Project has been reading The Looking Glass?
The Disinformation Project is a secretive organisation. It only responds to media ‘friendly’ to promoting its ‘research’, but refuses others, such as The Platform, that attempt to force some transparency from them on the grounds of ‘safety’.
Yes, they can wax lyrical about the dangers of vaccine sceptics, freedom fighters and women’s rights campaigners without being challenged but don’t much like telling us about how the group is funded.
Have you ever heard a legacy media journalist ask them, or challenge their dubious methodology (described by one critic as ‘pseudo-academic’)?
The Disinformation Project was caught out last year attempting to run secret workshops for select journalists organised by the Science Media Centre, but once again used the ‘safety’ excuse to cancel once they were exposed. It’s frankly far more likely they were hoping to avoid another incident like this.
Researchers Kate Hannah and Sanjana Hattotuwa are allergic to answering questions they are uncomfortable with, but hypocritically make hyperbolic claims about whole groups of people knowing they will never be asked to substantiate their claims.
They occupy a privileged position in the information landscape, wrapped in cotton wool by fawning journos (who now fawn over themselves) who refuse to see through the thin veil of legitimacy that academia affords them – even though they refuse to show examples of this extremism they keeping going on about.
Interestingly, Te Pūnaha Matatini where they were originally homed, appears to have actively distanced themselves from TDP as scrutiny from the fringes of the mainstream has built. For some time, TDPs papers were printed on TPM letterhead.
My instinct is that after the journalism workshop fiasco, they re-strategised about how best to run their interference on behalf of the state. They seemed to be lying low but have popped up quietly here and there, so the project is surely squirreling away in the background on things.
For example, The Disinformation Project was instrumental in getting New Dawn magazine pulled from the shelves of supermarkets and Whitcoulls stationers. It worked closely with a Stuff journalist to create moral panic about an article questioning the official narrative of the Christchurch Mosque shootings. A perfect case study of the insidious censorship apparatus in action. Read about it here.
And we know it came out of its hidey-hole to ‘nazify’ women’s rights activists who wanted to talk about men accessing their single-sex spaces and competing in women’s sports categories. Here they claimed anti-trans activists were promoting trans ‘genocide’.
This really upset the apple cart, and even the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls saw fit to call it out.
On the back of this statement, Prime Minster Chris Hipkins was actually challenged on the issue at a recent standup:
Journalist: What about the The Disinformation Project that seems to be taking quite a strict line on things, and I guess that’s an organ of state power?
PM Hipkins: I think we have to realise that there is a lot more disinformation out there at the moment, which can do harm to people and so identifying it so that people can make their own informed decisions, I think is an important part of protecting the democratic system. That doesn’t mean that we’re making decisions for people, it means that we are giving them more information. The best way to counter disinformation is accurate information.
What I found interesting about this exchange was that the Prime Minster did not deny that The Disinformation Project was an ‘organ of state power’.
What else have they been up to?
Last week the Public Service Association published an interview with TDP researcher Kate Hannah on its website, who informed PSA national secretary Kerry Davies, that public service workers were less likely to be influenced by misinformation.
“Kate says that is due to their roles requiring lateral/critical thinking. A lateral/critical thinker will question the source and investigate to validate the information. However, simple and accessible information is often taken for granted in increasingly time-poor societies,” Davies notes.
No room here for the role of group think, then?
Playing a game of ‘invert reality’, Hannah states, “Dehumanising language used towards others diminishes trust in these groups and can create an environment of concern and sometimes anxiety stemming from those who are the target of dehumanising language.”
Hannah and her colleagues at The Disinformation Project have been front and centre when it comes to ‘othering’ people – they claim about 1.8 million New Zealanders belong to the ‘disinformation community’. We know they are just people who hold different, but inconvenient, opinions. TDP casually uses dehumanising slurs such as ‘anti-vax’ and ‘extremist’ – designed to demonise and shut people up.
It read like the rallying cry of a true believer, someone so deeply cooked in the pot of wokeness, they saw anyone with even a moderate criticism of it’s tenets, as a certifiable fascist nazi threat (the irony being that just a cursory education in what actual fascism is should alert them to it’s insidious presence in the behaviour of the woke mob, particularly on that fateful day).
“So listen up #NewZealand – especially all of those who stood up for #TransRights yesterday. I need to tell you about a man named Sanjana Hattotuwa and some advice he had for the recent teaching union conference, where he was a Keynote Speaker,” the thread begins. (emphasis mine)
“This man is an expert on Social Media, he spends hours every day researching and delving into the worst of the filth and abuse and horror online, and believe me, it’s worse than any of us could ever know. Not all heroes wear capes. One of them works for Otago University.”
“At the conference, during the Q&A someone asked what country we could look to as an example of how to push back against this radicalisation and programming of hatred, fear and violence which is welling up online. He looked at us and said ‘You’re living in it’.”
A glowing review indeed. Hattotuwa has an obvious intelligence and a persuasive way with words, which is why he is in the job, I would say.
OK, so TDP is working hard on journalists, teachers and civil servants for mindshare – powerful forces if they can be co-opted, which they appear to have been.
And in fact we do have a frank admission from Hannah, in her PSA interview, that they are also involved with government agencies:
So the strategy has been well thought out and planned, and conveniently, it’s being done away from the public eye where scrutiny will be limited. Marketing, like this article is targeted at key audiences, presumably.
Now call me cynical, maybe they really did just form a friendship organically, and maybe Benson really did feel intellectually and emotionally moved enough, as did our teacher, to wax lyrical on social media about how selfless and wonderful this man’s work was – how could I possibly know?
But I find it interesting that Hattotuwa is having regular coffee dates with someone as influential and high profile with young New Zealanders as Benson. Journalists, civil servants, teachers and … influencers? Just maybe part of the overall disinformation strategy that TDP is running.
The Free Speech Union takes aim
Another recent development is this $450,000 government tender for disinformation research, which looks like a job description written especially for The Disinformation Project, that emerged from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet this month.
Remember DPMC heads up the state’s disinformation monitoring and influencing apparatus, which I have written about in my report, Ministry of Truth NZ. DPMC was also the funder of the covid modelling unit that sat (still sits?) inside of Te Pūnaha Matatini, formed at exactly the same time as The Disinformation Project in early 2020. It all fits together rather nicely.
And in fact the tender basically makes this admission:
“This request for trustworthy and transparent insights reporting will complement a wider programme of work to strengthen our national capacity to identify and address disinformation. This reflects a “whole-of-society” approach to build understanding and resilience against the harms of disinformation, and recognises the need to maintain an open internet and uphold the right to freedom of expression. These reports will be made publicly available, to help all New Zealanders to better understand the challenges of disinformation in Aotearoa.” (emphasis mine – please see my February report Ministry of Truth NZ, for more details).
Now the Free Speech Union is putting together a counter bid in a humorous campaign to bring attention to the dubious work of TDP, which they correctly identify has a goal of generating greater levels of censorship in New Zealand. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
Personally, I think they give TDP too much credit, seeing them as pseudo-academic grifters looking for an audience – and Bryce Edwards who will form part of the team engaging in the counter bid, is positively charitable about them.
But I have always seen TDP as part of the state apparatus, most likely formed at the behest of the intelligence community, which works closely with other Five Eyes nations.
Since 2019 the US Department of Homeland Security has been releasing briefings clearly indicating the intelligence community was switching its focus from fighting international terrorism to domestic terrorism. Their focus is on conservatives, now called ‘far right’, and people who choose not to take vaccines, now evil ‘anti-vaxxers’, or frankly anyone who works in or prefers using natural health approaches.
The nature of propaganda today
In a recent talk given by political scientist and propaganda expert Piers Robinson, titled Propaganda in the 21st Century: Learning from Covid-19, he talks about the supposed ‘pandemic’ as in fact being a propaganda event.
He says propaganda is deeply embedded in western institutions. It’s not something that was only exercised in the past by illegitimate actors, it’s something used widely by all westerns states today.
He points out that it’s a non-consensual process, it fools people into believing something whether it’s true or not. It does not seek to persuade by open debate. It pushes people to act and behave in certain ways coersively, Robinson says.
This can include PR campaigns and strategic communications, which are he says, sanitised words for the same thing. The covid-19 campaign was even referred to as “sustained propaganda” by former Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern. We all experienced that, didn’t we? We know what that looks and feels like in its extreme form.
Popular culture is also an arm of propaganda, he points out. Hollywood nudges us into adopting certain viewpoints, as do Netflix and Apple TV and all the rest. A wide range of institutions in our society are involved in propaganda.
The use of behavioural psychology in the early stages of the covid situation by governments was widespread – the UK SPI-B group openly advocated for the government to “increase the sense of personal threat” among people with “hard hitting emotional messaging”, in order to induce compliance with lockdowns, masking and later vaccine uptake. Along with fear, guilt and shame are used.
Political scientist Piers Robinson gives a lecture on Propaganda during covid-19.
And importantly, Robinson points out that character assassination is a very effective part of propaganda that aims to censor and shut people down. This is what the Disinformation Project’s real role is. Hence the labeling of people as conspiracy theorists and extremists.
It has worked very well.
The end game
Why would they do this, you might ask?
I would suggest not giving your government and the intelligence community too much benefit of the doubt, as people are inclined to do.
Aren’t more than quarter of a century of regime change wars, imprisoned journalists and endless states of emergency enough? Aren’t increasingly authoritarian policies in supposed democratic nations loud enough warning signals? Isn’t denial of the damage wrought by covid mRNA shots going unacknowledged a tacit admission they know what they are doing? What about the teenagers cutting off their healthy breasts and penises with government sanction? Women being shouted down? Is that progress?
If you can demonise out-groups within your own population, you can justify censorship. If you can censor information, you can control what people think and believe. If you can do that, you have a docile disempowered compliant population unable to stand up for itself. If you can recruit young people before their minds are fully formed, you can create foot soldiers. You can introduce anti-democratic policies, impoverish people ‘for their own good’ using trumped up crises as excuses, and you can generally exercise power and control without opposition.
Power is an end in itself, so don’t appease yourself with thoughts that ‘they would never do that’. The history books are laden with examples, we’ve just been fortunate enough to live an era of relative peace and prosperity, in societies that at least pretended to value liberty.
That’s why I don’t think there is any use pretending that The Disinformation Project is anything other than an actor in the (dis)information war. I can’t prove this – but state-sponsored, set up and handled by the intelligence community would be my bet.
They may be unwitting, recruited without ever realising that was what was happening – you can play to people’s egos if you’re smart. Or they may be witting – true believers, or even coerced into it.
Who knows, I don’t. But I’ve been observing the narrative of domestic extremism from the beginning, particularly in relation to New Zealand’s dissident freedom community and along with the The Disinformation Project, other academics and lobbyists, and random influencers online have been selling this narrative hard. And it’s working among at least a segment of New Zealanders.
It’s exemplified by our dear teacher’s twitter thread. Instead of people who value independence from the state, civil liberties, open democratic discourse, bodily autonomy – all those things that were the bog standard domain of liberals just a few short years ago, we are now fascists, fake Christians, fear mongers, incels, anti-vaxxers, anti-trans, white supremacists.
We are the domestic enemy.