Yesterday some friends on Facebook were kicking around the question of whether there is such a thing as applied epistemology and if so what it covers. There are plenty of candidates, but there is one notion of applied epistemology that I’ve been pushing for a while – the idea that groups engage in strategies to undermine the epistemic position of their adversaries.
In the military context this is part of irregular warfare (IW) and it often employs elements of PSYOPS (psychological operations). Applied epistemology should help us develop strategies for armoring ourselves against these PSYOPS. I wrote a brief essay on the idea here. What most people don’t realize is that PSYOPS aren’t just deployed in the battlefield, but they are currently being deployed in our day-to-day lives, and I don’t just mean via advertising and public relations.
I became aware of this when members of Anonymous began hacking private intelligence corporations like HBGary and Stratfor. I wrote an essay for the Stone column in the NYT entitle “The Real War on Reality”, for those who are interested, but here are a couple examples: the HBGary hack showed that there was an effort by a group called Team Themis to undermine the credibility of Chamber Watch (an activist group that monitors The Chamber of Commerce), the journalist Glenn Greenwald, Wikileaks and other organizations via a series of strategies of deception. One proposal was to provide those targets a fraudulent document, and then when they published it call them out for hyping a forgery. (A photocopy of the proposal can be found here.)
Another thing that showed up in the HBGary hack was a proposal for a “persona management system” – in effect a system that allows you to control a number of fake personas (sometimes called “sock puppets”) on social media sites to give the illusion of support for a particular position. The proposal was offered in response to a call for proposals by the United States Air Force.
What really opened my eyes however, was work by my friend Steve Horn, a reporter who has been uncovering example after example of this kind of epistemic warfare in recent months. In a two-part article on the history of Stratfor, he showed that Stratfor had its origins in a corporation called Pagan International, which then evolved into a company called Mongoven, Biscoe & Duchin. The partner Duchin was a graduate of the Army War College and one of the original members of Delta Force.
I quote Steve at length below the fold...
Duchin replaced Pagan’s “fanatic activist leaders” with “radicals” and created a three-step formula to divide and conquer activists by breaking them up into four subtypes, as described in a 1991 speech delivered to the National Cattleman’s Association titled, “Take an Activist Apart and What Do You Have? And How Do You Deal with Him/Her?”
The subtypes: “radicals, idealists, realists and opportunists.” Radical activists “want to change the system; have underlying socio/political motives’ and see multinational corporations as ‘inherently evil,’” explained Duchin. “These organizations do not trust the … federal, state and local governments to protect them and to safeguard the environment. They believe, rather, that individuals and local groups should have direct power over industry … I would categorize their principal aims … as social justice and political empowerment.” The “idealist” is easier to deal with, according to Duchin’s analysis.
“Idealists…want a perfect world…Because of their intrinsic altruism, however, … [they] have a vulnerable point,” he told the audience. “If they can be shown that their position is in opposition to an industry … and cannot be ethically justified, they [will] change their position.”
The two easiest subtypes to join the corporate side of the fight are the “realists” and the “opportunists.” By definition, an “opportunist” takes the opportunity to side with the powerful for career gain, Duchin explained, and has skin in the game for “visibility, power [and] followers.”
The realist, by contrast, is more complex but the most important piece of the puzzle, says Duchin. “[Realists are able to] live with trade-offs; willing to work within the system; not interested in radical change; pragmatic. The realists should always receive the highest priority in any strategy dealing with a public policy issue.”
Duchin outlined a corresponding three-step strategy to “deal with” these four activist subtypes. First, isolate the radicals. Second, “cultivate” the idealists and “educate” them into becoming realists. And finally, co-opt the realists into agreeing with industry. “If your industry can successfully bring about these relationships, the credibility of the radicals will be lost and opportunists can be counted on to share in the final policy solution,” Duchin outlined in closing his speech.
A book by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton — “Trust Us, We’re Experts!” — says that MBD kept (in its own words) “extensive files [on] forces for change [which] can often include activist and public interest groups, churches, unions and/or academia.” According to Stauber and Rampton, “A typical dossier includes an organization’s historical background, biographical information on key personnel, funding sources, organizational structure and affiliations, and a ‘characterization’ of the organization aimed at identifying potential ways to co-opt or marginalize the organization’s impact on public policy debates.”
This continues to be the case with Stratfor, as the data dump from the hack (now available on Wikileaks) shows. Drawing on that data dump, Horn notes that the PSYOPS strategies are currently being deployed against environmental groups that are working against the petroleum industry .
In a December 2010 PowerPoint presentation to the oil company Suncor on how best to “deal with” anti-Alberta tar sands activists, Bart Mongoven explains how to do so explicitly utilizing the “radicals, idealists, realists and opportunists” framework. In that presentation, he places the various environmental groups fighting against the tar sands in each category and concludes the presentation by explaining how Suncor can win the war against them.
More recently, Horn has shown that the same PSYOPs strategies have been taken on to fight anti-fracking activists in Pennsylvania. One passage in particular caught my attention.
Anadarko Petroleum Corporation's Public Relations Chief Matthew Carmichael, a military veteran himself, recommended that all natural gas industry PR professionals read the "Counterinsurgency Field Manual," formerly the official doctrine of the US military. "Download the US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual because we are dealing with an insurgency. There's a lot of good lessons in there and coming from a military background, I found the insight in that extremely remarkable," remarked Carmichael.
Of course the cherry on top of this whole thing is that the current president of Stratfor, George Friedman, is a philosopher who was trained in the Frankfurt School (he is not the only philosopher who has gone to the dark side, as we will see later this week). Dealing with these sorts of attacks on our epistemic position may or may not count as applied epistemology, but I don’t see why philosophers should not be engaged in exposing these strategies and helping activist organizations armor themselves against such attacks. Indeed, I rather think it is our responsibility to do so.