Media Mythbusters

Did it seem strange that one week before major anti-war demonstrations were scheduled, the Bush Administration raised its terrorist warning system to "high risk?"

Are you having trouble keeping up with the administration's revolving talking points to justify war with Iraq? After Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei, the chief U.N. weapons inspectors, gave their reports to the Security Council, did Secretary of State Colin Powell's extemporaneous performance leave you scratching your head?

Is it déjà vu all over again when you hear administration minions claim that anti-war demonstrations aid and comfort Saddam Hussein's regime? Are you amused or outraged by the government's attempts to attach Osama's beard to Saddam Hussein's face?

Is there any way for ordinary people to fight the misinformation, disinformation and myths coming from the Bushites -- repeated day-after-day by stenographers calling themselves the mainstream media?

By now, the duct tape, plastic sheeting and other emergency supplies are being tucked away for another day. President Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft, and Tom Ridge, the Director of Homeland Security, are trying to calm the jittery American people while wiping egg off their faces at the same time. And, despite the government's cranking up its terrorist warning system, hundreds of thousands of people -- not cowed into staying home -- marched in anti-war demonstrations in cities across the country on Feb. 15 and 16.

It has been acknowledged that the elevation of the Homeland Security Advisory System threat level to High Condition (orange) -- one step below the maximum red alert -- was based on false information provided by a captured al Qaeda prisoner. It took a few days, but that fact was finally revealed in an ABC News story on Feb. 13, titled "False Alarm?: Terror Alert Partly Based on Fabricated Information".

In a related story, dated Feb. 16 and posted at the Capital Hill Blue (CHB) Web site, it was reported that Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, told U.S. officials that the U.S.-led coalition "had, for the time being, crippled bin Laden's ability to mount any large-scale attacks against the United States."

According to CHB, "the Israelis warned bin Laden would use 'misinformation' planted through CIA assets and captured al Qaeda operatives to keep America guessing on just when and where such attacks might come and force the United States to waste time and resources preparing for attacks that would not come."

The Mossad report, given to the CIA five months ago, concluded that while al Qaeda might be able to deliver "small-scale terrorist attacks against U.S. targets both home and abroad, the Israelis said the terrorist group did not have the money to carry out any large-scale attack involving 'dirty bombs' or biological weapons."

An FBI agent familiar with the Mossad report called the recent elevated alert "totally unnecessary." "We ignored a valid assessment from an agency that has far more experience dealing with terrorism."

Cranking up the fear

Let's not completely denigrate the President's warning system or disregard recommendations that we have at least three days of water, canned or boxed food and other emergency supplies on hand. Regardless of whether we are warned or not however, the truth is that some kind of terrorist incident could happen at just about any time. We should be as prepared and as vigilant as possible.

Several years ago, a friend worked for a small radio station in Lawrence, Kansas. Except for the broadcasts of local high school and University of Kansas football games, the listening audience was generally pretty small. However, during tornado season -- especially when a tornado warning was issued -- lots more people tuned in. My friend said that he was once told by the station's owner that when the all-clear signal was given, he should delay broadcasting it for just a bit, so that the audience would hang with the station a little while longer.

It's getting harder to sift through the chatter and take much of anything the government says about Iraq or the war on terrorism seriously, let alone believe government-issued terrorist warnings. (Let's not forget the recent FBI warning that five suspected terrorists had crossed the U.S. border from Canada. Within hours, pictures of the five blanketed the 24/7 news channels and the Internet, and even the president called on the American people to be on the lookout for the five. It took a few days, but FBI officials eventually admitted they had been snookered by an informant.) And, as is the case in most media-induced fear-fests, when the correction comes, it's too late to stem the jitters.

"What if the media were to report a false story, and then fail to correct that false story until three or four days later? What if the story were circulated in all the major papers and media web sites, and all the talk shows were buzzing about it? What if then, the story fed on itself, so that the reaction to the story became even bigger than the original story? And finally, what if, by the time the original story is corrected (on page 34 most likely, or the digital equivalent), it is dwarfed by the reaction to the original false story? So that, it was as if the correction never happened?"

Those are some of the questions Rich Cowan, an organizer of the Massachusetts-based Organizers' Collaborative is asking these days. Cowan and his colleagues are going beyond just asking questions; they're coming up with ways to respond with corrective information.

According to Cowan, the Organizers' Collaborative got its start by examining how technology could enable activists to collaborate. "In our first year, we made a big splash when the 2000 election ended in a deadlock," he said. "In just four days, we used the Internet to organize two dozen researcher/activists nationally in exposing the Bush team's disinformation campaign to try to convince the public that they had not stolen the election. The fact sheet that resulted, '13 myths about the results of the 2000 election', ended up reaching at least two million people."

Organizing a quick response

Cowan pointed out that when "the media receives false information, there are rarely any independent experts questioning the veracity of that information, so they run with it. There is no system in place to 'inoculate' the media against such an information 'virus.' But with the speed of today's computer networks," Cowan explained, "it is not just the Slammer virus that can spread in 15 minutes. Stories like the duct tape myth, or whatever other ideas might be concocted on Monday morning as the latest inducements to prepare America for war, can spread just as fast."

13myths.org is "a web site designed to facilitate... rapid collaboration at... times when a 'myth-fact' rapid response flyer may be useful". Its current, and third, Fact Sheet "13 MYTHS ABOUT THE CASE FOR WAR IN IRAQ" will be released Wednesday, Feb. 19. Cowan says that some of the myths to be corrected include: the Bush Administration's attempt to conduct the war on a shoestring budget; links between al Qaeda to Iraq; the media's praise for Colin Powell’s presentation at the Security Council; and what to expect out of the mainstream media during times of war.

"People spend too much time spinning their wheels and then they often regurgitate similar information," Cowan told me in a phone interview. "A more economical and useful thing to do is to boil down the administration's arguments and come up with the most thoroughly researched and well-documented rebuttal to them. Right now, the administration is on the ten-yard line and heading for the end zone. Our job is to analyze and understand the plays they might use in order to prevent them from getting there."

Cowan and his colleagues, a collection of media savvy activists and computer professionals, recognize that its work is still in its formative stages. "It would be nice if we had the resources necessary to fully develop an online mechanism that would pool the contributions of thousands of volunteers to make the process run more quickly." Cowan says that it would take "maybe 1,000 researchers, categorized by the issues and constituencies with which they are familiar, to be ready and available to jump all over a media myth and create an effective counterargument, within minutes of the original dissemination of the myth."

The Organizers' Collaborative is setting the wheels in motion. It will be up to other activists to help move the process along.

Bill Berkowitz is a columnist at WorkingfForChange.

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