“Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior:” Commodity Fetishism, Security, and Social Media

In Don Delillo’s prescient 1985 novel, White Noise, the protagonist encounters a ‘Simulated Evacuation (SIMUVAC) Team’ that’s had to respond to a real emergency.  Hearing them debate whether reality makes a good-enough simulation of reality to fulfill their true job, he asks what they’d have done if it had been a ‘real fake incident?’

Every few years we get an answer:  pretend there are weapons of mass destruction, rate it ‘too big to fail’, blame Russia, etc.  Ultimately, reverse the subject and object so all the contexts point nowhere, like with so many commodities that whiten your smile or reduce the signs of aging.

In this vein, Facebook just removed 652 of its accounts for ‘coordinated inauthentic’ behavior’. ‘Authenticity matters’, Mark Zuckerberg told Congress, ‘and people need to be able to trust the connections they make on Facebook.’[i] It would be hard to take him seriously, were it not clear ‘authenticity’, itself was just another commodity.

Most of the accounts were from Iran.  The rest, they suspect, were from Russia.  The NY Times quoted Renee DiResta of New Knowledge, that Iran’s involvement “reinforces that it’s an ongoing information war, and that our social ecosystem is vulnerable to manipulation by a variety of adversaries.” The Washington Post topped them, claiming that “Iran had globalized the tech war on disinformation”.  Apparently no one at the Post recalls it was a US disinformation campaign in 1954 that made Iran our ‘adversary’.

Meanwhile Senate Intelligence Committee Chair, Richard Burr proclaimed, ‘addressing this threat requires technology companies, law enforcement, Congress, and the intelligence community working together’.  (Burr forgot to add the press to his coalition.)

BUT the ‘threat’ can’t be to our security, since Facebook told Congress the Iran pages -many in Arabic or Farsi- ‘were not specifically designed to influence US elections’.  As for the Russian accounts, they ‘had not found activity targeting the US’ at all.

Furthermore, Energy and Tobacco industry tool, Burr, was against the Disclosure Act which requires political adds to reveal their funding.  He also opposed disciplining Wells Fargo for its fraudulent accounts in customer’s names (‘government-overreach’ in his words).  He even proposed a bill that would reduce FDA labeling requirements. So I doubt user protections, much less ‘authenticity’, is his motive.

New Knowledge is a venture-capitalist affair, with ties to the Brookings Institute, State Department, NSA, and JSOC, that uses artificial intelligence to expose ‘disinformation’ campaigns, for the sake of ‘brand security’.[ii]   -‘Brand security’ is plenty clear indication that ‘authenticating’ the net is an excuse to censor, not elucidate it, never mind democratize it.  (And artificial vs. fake out-screwballs White Noise.)  Yet our ‘social ecosystem’, if fiction, is still a telling choice of words.  It says the web is whole, thus, what happens beforehand doesn’t count.  So perhaps it caused the Post’s and Burr’s amnesia.

Now consider.  If your shoe is the product someone’s labor, you over-look it because you see the shoe, itself as valuable.  You think this because it fetches a price on the market, little in relation to the mainly-physical costs of producing it.  Thus, the subject and object change value:  From you the shoemaker, to the shoe making you, literally, a subject of the shoe industry.  Marx called this commodity fetishism.

Of course, the shoe is only the product of labor and  has as much innate value as two crossed sticks have power to repel vampires, but that’s essentially what you’ve done.  It’s literally, coordinated-inauthentic-behavior.  Burr’s ‘threat’ functions like your shoe.  If Iran were to remain the subject, there wouldn’t be any threat.  But if ‘threat’ is the subject, Iran is still a useful topic.  A like transposition gave us WMDs and ‘Too Big To Fail’.

One might think , then, the charge of ‘coordinated inauthentic behavior’ holds as much substance as, say, Facebook, except that there was such a case in recent news. The Memphis Police were on trial for illegal surveillance of Black Lives Matter and Fight for 15 activists, including ‘catfishing’ them with fake social media accounts.  Not ‘inauthentic’ but fake, as in a cop saying, ‘I’m not a cop’, etc.[iii]

Allow me to digress. ‘Catfishing’ gets its name from a 2010 documentary; one man’s crisis and redemption after learning he’d been tricked on social media.  The interesting part (bear with me) is that he and his friends, certain he’s the victim of exploitation, out the seemingly-troubled offender on screen, dragging her unwitting husband, children, and dying Midwest town as bi-catch, in the process.   Catfish screens like a revenge-porn for general audiences, yet they see themselves on a truth-seeking mission, from which they become famous (but not rich, since the film abused some copyrights and faced lawsuits, underscoring their lack of perspective).

Few films parade the values-inversion at the heart of neoliberal America so clearly.  It massaged Post-911 sentiments that wished to avoid the broader economic or political narratives that led to being attacked.  It’s makers were the crème of Richard Florida’s ‘bourgeois bohemians’ (fortunately the gig economy didn’t pay enough for their kind to transform our cities like Florida promised) acting, not just as capitalists run amok, but also nascent fascists.[iv]  Yet despite the moral-ambiguity, having the capital to make the film solidified the roles of victim and perpetrator.  It’s in this form we use the term, today. 

I mention, not to soften ire for out-of-control cops.  Rather, whereas White Noise showed crisis, itself was a commodity, Catfish exposed how we sublimate it.  Capitalism would ossify without a good crisis, as would its tool, nationalism. Yet ‘crisis’ mixes seamlessly into fascism.  It was, after all, ‘crises’ -a moslem president, rampant minority-voter fraud, the Walking Dead storming our border, and -most of all- America’s imperial decline, that shat us Donald Trump.  Fascism isn’t apart from capitalism.  It’s capitalism with boots on the ground. 

Hence, there is more to the Memphis story.

The day of trial, police raided the homes of one of the plaintiff’s family members, ostensibly for cocaine trafficking, though none was found, and they cite no preceding investigation.  More than 50 heavily-armed cops, most shielding their identity with bandannas or ski masks and unmarked cars with civilian plates, tossed his uncle’s house, then trained their guns on his 71 year-old grandmother at a second address. They even detained the plaintiff’s ACLU lawyer, handcuffing, but not charging him, for ‘tailing a police car’.[v]

Now the formal trial has closed, no verdict yet.  The guardian alone covered this part of the story, I could not find mention of it in the Times or Post.  Blindness as well as amnesia?  Certainly, the best way to combat disinformation, is to have at least a hint of clout, oneself.  Maybe even report the news.  But they are commodities, first.  So that’s quite not what they’re for.

Question is, should we look at the Memphis PD’s abuses as part or against Burr’s cyber declaration of war?

Certainly, Memphis police hiding their identity, both on and off-line, is hard to reconcile with the ‘authenticity’ narrative (perhaps why the newspapers didn’t try).   But, then, ‘authenticity’ was Zuckerberg’s shitshow. Burr just wanted more control. Burr, in fact, drafted a bill in 2016 requiring tech companies to use encryption formats that law enforcement could read without assistance.  Common sense says, control would act as rational on-line as it does in raided Memphis homes.

Last month Facebook blocked a page with near 140,000 followers who, it said, ‘believed they were fighting racism in the United States’.  Never mind that ‘fighting racism on facebook’ isn’t authentically ‘fighting’, in the first place, they could not even link it to Russia, only that it used ‘some similar tools and techniques’ to those used by the (Russian) Internet Research Agency’.[vi]   By which matrix, every legitimate protest or real-held opinion could be shut down for suspicion of ‘inauthentic behavior’.  The cops will have proof, they likely being the source of misinformation. How many ‘terrorists’ in the past decade were nurtured and sold weapons by the FBI, lives ruined, just for sake of publicizing the arrest?

J.S. Mill had a fabulous conception of free speech.  (Paraphrasing) true information is prized for its truths, and false is prized because you won’t encounter much truth without it. Therefore, the law should protect both. It was perhaps the high-water mark in Liberal-Capitalist thought.  Today, fear democracies will elect fascists, or have already, has drained it.

Now we should be more concerned with how fascists elect democracies.


[i] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/21/technology/facebook-political-influence-midterms.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage&section=Technology

[ii] http://newknowledge.io/seed-funding/

[iii] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/aug/26/memphis-police-raids-activists-family-black-lives-matter


[v] Ibid.

[vi] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/21/technology/facebook-political-influence-midterms.html?action=click&module=Well&pgtype=Homepage&section=Technology