When the U.S. announced that they had killed bin Laden, he was claimed to have been firing at the troops from behind his wife. To the disappointment of filmmakers everywhere, however, they retracted these decorative claims later in the week. I’d assumed it was misinformation and, frankly, was more surprised by the retraction than the claim. New research by Australian psychologists, however, has concluded that propaganda remains effective if it’s been debunked. The original idea is lodged inside one’s consciousness, and bloody hard to shift…

The effect of misinformation on memory and reasoning cannot be completely eliminated, even after it has been corrected numerous times, say Australian psychologists.

Assistant Professor Ullrich Ecker and colleagues from The University of Western Australia outline their findings in a recent article published in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review .

Ecker says this effect, known as ‘continued influence effect of misinformation’, occurs even if the retraction itself is understood, believed, and remembered.

Here’s another nice example. (Well, convenient example – it’s also nauseating.) In 2001, after the anthrax letters had been mailed across the States, U.S. officials and journalists planted the idea that Iraq presented likely suspects. By 2003 poor Steven Hatfill was being stitched up for the crime but the notion of Iraqi guilt was still clunking around people’s craniums. For some, it was the inspiration behind their support for war.

This quirk of the human mind seems to ensure that – in some cases, anyway – propagandists needn’t build substantial cases. They can just throw out a claim and see it latch onto perceptions like burdock in dog hair.

Well, as long as this research is accurate, anyway. (If it’s not we may go on believing it regardless.)

Something that always fascinates me about media reports are the promiscuous references to insiders: “police sources”; “governmental sources”; “friends” et cetera. Sometimes these insiders have been hunted down like rats; on other occasions, though, they’re free to spread lurid allegations without fear of reprisals. So, in the case of Gareth Williams, “police” and “security” “sources” have propounded all sorts of wacky claims about the man: from his private life to supposed suspects for his murder. Ironically, yet another anonymous source was quoted as saying that “someone, somewhere, who has access to case materials” was trying to obfuscate the investigation. Yes, it sounds like it: these anonymous sources. But – unlike, say, when a “source” is handing uncomfortable secrets to Wikileaks – no one in power has shown interest.

The guys and gals at J7 have unearthed a cracker here. In August 2005, the Times reported…

[Hasib Hussain], youngest of the July 7 bombers, made three desperate telephone calls begging for help from the other members of the terror cell minutes before he blew himself up on a London bus.

The frantic last messages are seen by Scotland Yard as vivid proof that the British-born Muslim extremists intended to die in the attacks.

A police source who has heard the telephone calls said: “His voice was getting more and more frantic with each call.”

J7 ask…

These messages were not played nor even were they claimed to exist during the recent 7/7 Inquests.

We need to know:

Did the Times hack the phone messages of the 4 accused of 7/7?

Who was the ‘police source’ who gave this information to the Times?

Why did the 7/7 Inquests not have an opportunity to hear these messages?

Why did the 7/7 Inquests not refer to these messages?

The story is interesting enough in itself. The Times implied that the police were holding substantial and fascinating evidence of Hussain’s actions. Yet, assuming that J7 are correct in their account, it hasn’t been heard of again. What’s up wi’ that?

Yet it also illustrates the point that phone hacking is one of the rotten apples in the rotten fruit salad of our journalism. The indifference to the relevance, validity and ethics of its sourcing – among other things – is also illustrated here; in far more “respectable” publications and, sometimes, as part of far more consequential episodes. (The Telegraph, for example, has been caught time and again regurgitating MI6 and CIA propaganda.)

We (by which I mean “general people”, not the brave few readers of Back Towards The Locus) should grasp this opportunity to promote the scepticism mainstream reportage has long deserved. It’s not going to be cured. We should do our best to make accurate diagnoses so we can at least recognise its symptoms and try not to be infected.

That, at least, is what a little bird has told me.

There will be films about Julian Assange. And, yes, there will be books about him. There will a play about Assange. Paintings of him. There may be a finger puppet-pantomime with Assange as its hero or, hey, villain. And there will be many, many essays, articles and opinion pieces. All about Assange.

But, if I’m honest, I don’t care about Assange. At the risk of sounding like a tut-tutty, finger-waggy, “Oh, you’re so all naive” pseudo-serious person, I look at a case that involves the exposure of widespread killing and corruption, and a diminutive Aussie bloke, and don’t find my attention drawn to the latter.

Many commentators have suggested that the charges directed against Assange are part of an attempt to smear him and Wikileaks by proxy. There might be an element of truth to that – though his own defence suggests he has a serious case to answer – but it’s worth reflecting on the fact that by shifting the story from the information Wikileaks have been disseminating to one of the guys who contributed to that dissemination the media have already diminished its positive influence – not by discreding the organisation’s work but by distracting people from it. “Wikileaks” is almost as synonymous with one man and his alleged crime as it is with all the states and corporations whose crimes it has exposed.

It’s too obvious to say that groups and movements shouldn’t form behind an individual. The cult of personality that’s built around prominent dissidents is typically a response to the media’s isolation of them rather than a natural process. But they shouldn’t play the game. Because, win or lose, they’re likely to emerge worse off from it.

Professor Jason Stanley makes the valuable point here that calumnies are as able to dismiss opinions as their censorship. “Free speech” – ie. the freedom to speak unhindered – is nigh-on irrelevant if no one listens to you. Obvious, perhaps, except that if the people who dislike your insights can persuade your would-be listeners that you’re not worth their attention there’ll be no need to stop you speaking. It strikes me, then, that if we uphold the right – legal right – to free speech we should place as much value in fair speech – an informal right to be presented accurately. To cite a predictable example, no one had to keep Emmanuel Goldstein a secret. They just had to hate the guy so much that his words would never get through to them.

With press corruption on the lips of men and women far and wide the journalists who’ve remained free from Murdoch’s clutches are declaring their innocence to pitchfork-wielding punters…

Britain has a long tradition of highly competitive, lively and responsible newspapers. It is a tradition which attracts envy from many parts of the world and has fostered a press culture with an admirable reputation for speaking truth to power.

Hmmm – convince me, Independent columnist. Seduce me.

At its best, British investigative reporting is second to none, with a clear sense of the public interest, quite properly, to the fore. Let’s not forget that it was not only the MPs’ expenses scandal that newspapers exposed, but the phone hacking…

Phone hacking? Well, perhaps. (Thanks are largely due to Nick Davies and his colleagues, and the other organs of the press seem to have only woken up to the story when he dropped it in their laps.) But the expenses scandal? Really? I’ve seen more consequential stories in the Newbury News.

I’m not the sort of person who imagines that the papers are drafted by committee at Babylon-on-Thames. They do good things. On the other hand, they do a lot of bad things. And while the tabloids are the loudest and most vulgar they’re not alone in producing tripe (often to order). It’s not the Sun that prints a man who churns out more disinformation than the forces of COINTELPRO could spin. It’s the Telegraph. And it wasn’t just the Star that acted as a funnel for MI6 propaganda in the run-up to Iraq. It was the Observer. And it wasn’t the New of the World that portrayed Serbia as a “blot” on the face of Europe. It was the Guardian.

I don’t want this to be one of those tut-tutty, finger-waggy, “Oh, you’re so naive” posts. News Int. is a special brand of evil, I agree, and deserves the attention it’s receiving. But let’s not allow its rivals to portray it as a single boil on an otherwise unblemished figure. No, it’s just particularly pustulent, and lasting media reform would have to be far more thorough.

The National Review is celebrating Michelle Bachmann – the holy warrior of the Republican Party…

Ejh noted the portrait’s artistic lineage…

The sun shining into the face is illustrative of a bright future, of course, but it always shows their formidable powers of endurance. I mean, those rays can sting, y’all.

The New York Times reports on a strange piece of hasbara…

A YouTube video featuring a man who presented himself as an American gay rights activist disillusioned with the latest Gaza flotilla campaign has been exposed as a hoax.

The man in the video, who introduced himself to viewers as Marc and claimed that the organizers of the latest flotilla of ships bound for Gaza had rejected his offer to mobilize a network of gay activists in support of their cause, was identified as Omer Gershon, a Tel Aviv actor involved in marketing, by the Electronic Intifada, a pro-Palestinian Web site.

Here’s Omer in action…

One thing gratuitous exposure to pro-wrestling does teach you is to separate a “worked” (staged) performance from the real thing. And Omer’s product is embarrassing. He ostentatiously turns the webcam on at the beginning but acquires a mystery cameraman at other points in the film. There are some tactics that I’d guess are common to spooks and astroturfers, though. He never directly states his affiliations – just mentioning ambiguous “gay rights networks”. His faux-naive narrative is also utterly implausible when you break it down: he implies that he’d have been prepared to join the flotilla because the names of its organisers “sound[ed] impressive”. Oh, yeah, and I’m off to Rwanda with Médecins sans Frontières. Don’t know much about the guys but, hey, MSF – almost like EMF, innit? Cool!

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