The US propaganda system on full display in Sony hack story

Glenn Greenwald looks at how rapidly the US media accepted and spread the US government’s story (confidently affirmed by president Obama) that North Korea was behind the Sony hack without any evidence being presented in support. Those of us who follow the news almost minimally know how the government has brazenly lied in the past and some may marvel that the media could have such short memories or be so obtuse as to accept these claims at face value. While there is a small possibility that North Korea was behind the attack, the fact that a week has gone by since the supposedly offending film The Interview was shown and the promised apocalypse still hasn’t occurred suggests that a non-state actor was behind the original hack and other players later exploited the situation and sowed confusion for who knows what reason.

After an exhaustive listing of media culpability (with a few notable exceptions) in spreading this unsubstantiated story, Greenwald writes that assigning the reasons to ignorance or stupidity on the part of journalists is to let them off too lightly.

It’s tempting to say that the U.S. media should have learned by now not to uncritically disseminate government claims, particularly when those claims can serve as a pretext for U.S. aggression. But to say that, at this point, almost gives them too little credit. It assumes that they want to improve, but just haven’t yet come to understand what they’re doing wrong.

But that’s deeply implausible. At this point – eleven years after the run-up to the Iraq War and 50 years after the Gulf of Tonkin fraud – any minimally sentient American knows full well that their government lies frequently. Any journalist understands full well that assuming government claims to be true, with no evidence, is the primary means by which U.S. media outlets become tools of government propaganda.

U.S. journalists don’t engage in this behavior because they haven’t yet realized this. To the contrary, they engage in this behavior precisely because they do realize this: because that is what they aspire to be. If you know how journalistically corrupt it is for large media outlets to uncritically disseminate evidence-free official claims, they know it, too. Calling on them to stop doing that wrongly assumes that they seek to comport with their ostensible mission of serving as watchdogs over power. That’s their brand, not their aspiration or function.

Many of them benefit in all sorts of ways by dutifully performing this role. Others are True Believers: hard-core nationalists and tribalists who see their “journalism” as a means of nobly advancing the interests of the state and corporate officials whom they admire and serve. At this point, journalists who mindlessly repeat government claims like this are guilty of many things; ignorance of what they are doing is definitely not one of them.

The beauty of the US propaganda system is that the government does not have to coerce reporters into being its mouthpieces. The US media structure makes them willing, even eager, accomplices as was exhaustively shown by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their classic work Manufacturing Consent back in 1988 that I summarize here, here, and here.

What is surprising is not that the mainstream media dutifully plays its propaganda role but that the American public seems to fall for this stuff over and over again. Incredibly, people even went to see a comedy with Seth Rogen and James Franco out of a sense of patriotic duty.

This cartoon sent to me by reader Philip shows how modern communication technology enables the government to lie even more quickly and efficiently than before.



  1. says

    I had the rather surreal experience the other day of swapping emails with a journalist about the Sony thing. I pointed out that the FBI lies when it’s not ignorant, and he came back that I was known to be “anti-government” Uh, really? Who isn’t?

    Deep rifts.

  2. Nick Gotts says

    The beauty of the US propaganda system is that the government does not have to coerce reporters into being its mouthpieces. The US media structure makes them willing, even eager, accomplices – Mano

    Yes, nationalism and power-worship are a potent combination in modern pluralist states, as much as in totalitarian ones.

    You cannot hope
    to bribe or twist,
    thank God! the
    British journalist.
    But, seeing what
    the man will do
    unbribed, there’s
    no occasion to. – Humbert Wolfe, 1885-1940

  3. says

    While there is a small possibility that North Korea was behind the attack, the fact that a week has gone by since the supposedly offending film The Interview was shown and the promised apocalypse still hasn’t occurred suggests that a non-state actor was behind the original hack…

    In all pedantic fairness, that fact does not “suggest” any such thing. Plenty of other facts do, but not that one.

  4. kevinalexander says

    No, I think ‘suggest’ is the right word. He didn’t say ‘proves’ or ‘demonstrates’ The reason why they accused NK is the proximity of the events – Sony is about to release a film that makes a joke about Kim Dum Fuk then someone hacks into their system. Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc, a classic fallacy.
    What other state would have a hard on for Sony? Most hackers are non state entities so the suggestion is valid IMHO.

  5. says

    What other state would have a hard on for Sony?

    The attacks do not resemble state-sponsored attacks. The assumption that it’s state-sponsored fails Occam’s test.

  6. karmacat says

    I think the media and journalists being mouthpieces for government is not new. It has been going on for decades with occasional confrontations with government (Watergate, Vietnam War). I wonder if anyone has looked at these trends in the media for the past 100 years. I tried to find something but it is not so easy. Often the problem with journalism is that gathering information is driven by deadlines and there isn’t much time for fact checking.

  7. says

    Here’s a data point: I work in information security and have for 25+ years. I know people who know people, and I’m one of those “industry experts” who is waving the “bullshit!” flag on the FBI’s claims about North Korea regarding Sony. But, as I look at the media coverage, what I see is: journalists reporting verbatim what they are fed by anonymous government sources, or carefully spun quotes from real industry experts. It’s a hack job and it’s scary but it makes me wonder one thing:
    What if the propaganda-field is this heavy in every subject matter area?

    Having seen what the US Government is willing to claim in my field (I have been railing against unattributed “chinese hacker” stories for more than 10 years, now) I wonder if the official news about, say, the economy, is as spun. Well, the economy is easy. But what about .. fuck, everything else? Crimea? Of course. Hugo Chavez? Sure. Wall St corruption? See what I mean? What if you looked at the front page of Google news and thought:
    Every single story that’s not about the Kardashians is a lie. And even those, probably are, too.

  8. lorn says

    I have yet to read even one first-hand, concrete, and entirely credible piece of evidence that NK was not behind the attack. So far I have read a few accounts of people “in the industry” and “experts”, none of which has any first hand access to original sources, claiming that perhaps it wasn’t the NKs. As usual with this sort of conspiracy mongering, speaking loudly and waving hands while speculating isn’t the same thing as having concrete, verifiable and first-hand proof.

    So far it has gotten to the stage of scary stories told around a campfire. An entertaining exercise in creative writing and wild speculation. Wake me when someone drags in some real proof.

  9. Mano Singham says


    The burden of proof is on the party making the affirmative existence claim, in this case the government. The experts have looked at the statements by the government and what is known and said that the story just doesn’t add up.

    The current situation is almost exactly parallel to the claims about Iraq’s WMD, where the government kept making assertions based on supposedly secret knowledge that they ultimately were shown not to have, even though skeptics kept saying that it did not hold up. Do we want to repeat that?

  10. Glenn says

    How dare the North Korean National Defense Commission, which is headed by Kim Jong Un compare Obama to a monkey.

    Doesn’t Kim Jong Un know that the USA has become a color blind society and civilized people don’t refer to black people that way anymore? We USAyers treat blacks with the utmost verbal respect when we choke and shoot them.

    And note the euphemism of “tropical forest” when Kim Jong Un, this dastardly enemy of free speech, is clearly referring to the word “jungle”. They must not have free speech in NK. Or maybe bad translators unfamiliar with the idiom.

    And as for assassinations, many in the USA call for assassinations of “jungle monkeys” without the slightest fear of recriminations in this, the land of free speech.

    Even the President himself exercises his free speech in calling for the assassination of US citizens. And retributions for those who might possibly have some unreasonable grudge against the USA. Like all those haters from the Middle East who disguise their hate rallies as weddings.

  11. lorn says

    “The current situation is almost exactly parallel to the claims about Iraq’s WMD, where the government kept making assertions based on supposedly secret knowledge that they ultimately were shown not to have, even though skeptics kept saying that it did not hold up. Do we want to repeat that?”

    Actually, no. The situation is not anything like the same. In Iraq there were people saying it wasn’t so. Here we have people saying quite literally, ‘there is some chance it might not be so’. About Iraq the people objecting were people with real, first-hand, knowledge. Some of them were UN inspectors who had repeatedly questioned the Iraqi scientists, compared the testimony to the physical evidence on the ground, and concluded that both the biological and nuclear programs had been systematically dismantled to the point that any work product of any remaining program would be too insignificant to be of strategic concern.

    In the case of the NK claim the experts are completely unfamiliar with the specifics of this individual case. They are computer security people who are simply part of the wider digital security community. They have to special insight into this case. They can speak in platitudes, the malware used was highly similar to two previous cases, this seemingly important bit of information was release publicly, but they are mute about anything not released. In other words their insights are pretty much what anyone could gather on any decent computer security forum, a mix of a few facts available to anyone willing to read a few press releases, and speculation based on gut feelings and a desire to make a name for ones self by being ‘edgy’, taking non-risks by pushing the claim beyond the evidence knowing you will never be called on it if it turns out to be false. Worse case they can claim to be trying to prevent a war while being oblivious to the fact that they are not clarifying anything because they are simply speculating.

    Is it possible that The US, a disgruntled Sony employee, Japan, or South Korea did it and blamed it on NK? Yes. Is it possible the NK did it, or had it done by a third party? Yes. Like so many other things we have to be comfortable with ambiguity and patient as the situation clarifies. Rushing to judgment when there is no need to rush is simply foolish.

    As it stands the people with the ability to know, the people at Sony and in the groups studying the situation, Japanese and US government and a small number of contractors have said it was NK. Until someone with first-hand knowledge comes forward with strong contradictory evidence, something far stronger than what I have seen, I will provisionally accept the official version.

    I would be much more caustically skeptical if the stakes were higher. So far the claim hasn’t been used to justify anything beyond an as yet unnamed response. It is widely assumed this won’t amount to much simply because there isn’t much in NK that isn’t broken already.

    As it is the NK situation is widely viewed as tragic for the NK population. The NK is a broken nation. It can’t provide for its own needs. It has to get vital resources like energy and food from outside using what amounts to international blackmail. The deal is that NK gets what it can’t pay for or NK acts out externally, or implodes. Either way it gets messy and very costly for the neighbors. In and of itself this isn’t an existential threat to surrounding nations but China is always worried about internal political stability and SK is worried about giving up a big chunk of the prosperity it has worked hard for over the last 50 years.

    It is a situation which will resolve itself over time, decades, and a situation in which all parties are heavily invested in a ‘soft landing’ even as the specifics of what that will look like, and how we get there, remain unclear. What is clear is that the regime is slowly losing control. Currently, the best money about NK prospect seem to be that we will continue buying off NK, specifically its leaders, to keep them from extreme actions.

    Look for upcoming offers to the top families within NK to set them up for life in a western nation. A sweet sprawling mansion in the south of France with a $100, 000,000 stipend is something a second tier NK functionary could grow into. The point where simply paying them off is cheaper than the damage they could cause has been crossed. Listen closely and you can hear talk of a buy-out. Yes, it is rewarding bad behavior. Morality be damned. The leaders of NK slowly dissipating in the south of France is a lot better than what might happen if NK explodes or implodes in an uncontrolled manner.

    The Sony attack does fit in with a pattern of temper tantrums that seem to arise when NK feels people aren’t paying enough attention to it or showing respect. They regularly sink ships, kidnap people, blow up SK villages, and bloviate about turning major cities into seas of fire. None of these actions make any sense long term. They are all rear-guard actions meant to continue the ongoing blackmail of the world. None were part of any overarching plan.

    This lack of long term logic seems to me to be the single most important point the so called skeptics cite. They see it as possible proof NK had nothing to do with it. I see it is entirely consistent with well established pasterns of NK behavior. Similarly the claim that the attack used existing code is cited as proof NK didn’t do it while I see this as internally consistent with NK behavior and desire to conserve its strength. Why would they use new code if the old will work? They are interested in getting the job done, not winning an award for the best new exploit. Other attacks with torpedoes and rockets similarly used older, largely obsolete, weapons in provocative ways to make a point. Why wouldn’t they do the same in the digital sphere?

    Either way the simple fact is that the so called skeptics have failed to make an affirmative case. And no, the government is under no obligation to prove anything without a credible challenge. If you want to make an alternative case you have to win by providing stronger, more specific, more concrete evidence than what exists presently. Whispers, speculation, and vague doubts are not half good enough. The case has not been made.

  12. steffp says

    @ lorn, #13
    We’re talking about propaganda here, lorn. I must say, in a way I have to admire your naivety.
    “Actually, no. The situation is not anything like the same. In Iraq there were people saying it wasn’t so.”
    Interesting, Indeed, the governments of France and Germany refused to partake in the Iraq war on respectable grounds – no WMD, and especially the resulting chaos if Saddam and the Baath structures were removed – but, please, update your short memory on how such realistic considerations were treated by both the tame US media and the general public. I remember the French Ambassador was interrupted by an American audience when he voiced his opposition in the weeks before the war started. The audience turned their backs towards him and started singing “America, the beautiful”. (“Thine alabaster cities gleam / Undimmed by human tears!”). Remember the renaming of French fries to “Freedom Fries”? Rumsfeld’s” Old Europe” snark? And the chief UN weapons controller was explicitly forbidden to give interviews to anyone. Look it up, it’s just 12 years ago. No difference to today, not after what we’ve seen about the CIA torture report…

    Some US agencies, especially the CIA, have a long history of false flag and provocative operations. Just to name a few: to facilitate the US inspired coup against Mossadegh in Iran 1953, US and MI6 agents bombed mosques and left leaflets that indicated Mossagegh was behind those terror acts. Same procedure in Guatemala, 1954, Griece, 1964. Chile, 1973, and later Italy (Bologna 1980). In 1964 the US Destroyer “Maddox” pretended to have been attacked by North Vietnamese Torpedo boats. A bland lie, used to justify bombing Hanoi and Haiphong. Read about “Operation Northwood”, the “USS Liberty”, Operation “Gladio” in Italy.
    It may be hurtful for your patriotic feelings, but your government has a long history of lying to you, especially in questions of war and peace. In such a tradition, a certain scrutiny of only too useful government agency statements is not only wise but required. And up to today there are no conclusive facts published by the US side.
    Your argument rests on the assumption, that towards NK it suffices to show that they might have done it. Practically you say that it is their MO to do stupid things, so every stupid thing is most likely their make. Well, such arguments worked in the cold war, but don’t expect too much acceptance these days.
    I’ve read with some interest that you expect top tiers of the NK nomenclatura to emigrate to the South of France – which seems a bit unrelated to the topic above. I don’t dare to ask where you got that bit from…
    I remember a study from 2007 or so, about the sources for apologetic pro-war soundbits. Interesting enough, it seems they did not originate from central agencies, but were invented by uninformed patriotic supporters. Makes sense…

  13. brucegee1962 says

    We’ve got three possibilities here:

    a) NK was behind the attacks as the CIA says,
    b) the CIA knows it wasn’t the Koreans, and is deliberately lying,
    c) the CIA is about as competent as a bunch of college freshmen pulling an all-nighter, and has convinced themselves that was is basically a hunch is actually rock-solid evidence.

    The fact is, unfortunately none of these three possibilities constitutes an extraordinary claim, so none of them requires extraordinary evidence. But we don’t really have any evidence at all, so we’re just guessing too.

    lorn is right that it’s important to remember this is low stakes so far. If someone was suggesting we punish NK harshly for this, I’d be out protesting the weakness of the evidence too. But so far, it’s likely to just be one more kerfuffle in NK’s gradual slide.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *