CVE: A Very British Surveillance & Manipulation Mechanism

On November 2nd 2004, filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was shot dead in Amsterdam in broad daylight by a 26-year-old Netherlands-born Muslim. The shocking act had far-reaching consequences, which insidiously resonate today the world over.

In its wake, Dutch authorities created an “early warning” system to identify citizens they believed to be at risk of becoming “radicalized”, and committing violent acts. In the manner of Minority Report, officials covertly gathered information on citizens and their opinions – if perceived to exhibit “extremist” inclinations, “pre-criminal” interventions were then staged in order to prevent them turning to terrorist violence.

This approach assumes radicalization to be an effective conveyor belt. So the thinking went – and to this day goes – anyone exposed to certain “radical” viewpoints, and thereby possessed of particular perspectives, inevitably turns to violence. 

There is no evidence this analysis is accurate, much to suggest there are multiple psychological, social, economic, political and contextual factors that compel “terrorist” acts, and no clarity on whether preemptive state action is an effective means of tackling the issue. The very terms “terrorism”, “radicalism” and “extremism” are moreover subjective and highly politicized propaganda constructs, which conveniently legitimize Western state-level aggression, while delegitimizing non-state violence, often perpetrated in response to the former.

Nonetheless, the British government eagerly leaped upon the Dutch model in the wake of the 7/7 bombings, and has ever since pursued a wide-ranging policy known as Countering Violence Extremism (CVE). Costing hundreds of millions annually, it combines surveillance, cognitive manipulation, and civil society infiltration – and it has been exported the world over.

Prevent what, precisely?

CVE is primarily applied in Britain as ‘Prevent’. Under its auspices, every public service in the country is compelled to report individuals believed to be potential extremists to authorities. Charities, NGOs, and religious leaders have been wittingly and unwittingly exploited in information warfare campaigns, and websites, social media brands and ‘astroturf’ movements surreptitiously created to disseminate state propaganda. 

These efforts are managed by the Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), which employs a number of cutouts – often staffed by military and intelligence veterans – to obscure the British government’s role. The full extent and nature of these activities is uncertain, shielded from public and parliamentary scrutiny by the draconian Official Secrets Act. It’s known however that a shadowy company known as Zinc Network (formerly Breakthrough Media) is RICU’s contractor of choice for CVE efforts.

RICU was for many years headed by Richard Chalk, who previously worked for notorious PR firm Bell Pottinger in Iraq. There, the firm reaped vast sums from the US government for among other things creating fake insurgent videos, which were circulated among the local population via DVDs equipped with tracking software, in order to identify and monitor who viewed the clips. Bell Pottinger collapsed in 2017, due to revelations it had conducted clandestine communications campaigns intended to incite racial hatred in South Africa.

Zinc director Scott Brown was also a staffer at Bell Pottinger in Iraq at this time. Despite the veil of secrecy shrouding his company’s work, some of its cloak-and-dagger subterfuge has been publicly exposed. Often it involves influencing on and offline conversations “by being embedded within target communities via a network of moderate organisations that are supportive of [government] goals.”

For example, Zinc created a fake charity, Help for Syria, ostensibly offering advice on how best to support Syrian civilians during the crisis. Under its auspices, close to a million leaflets were delivered to private homes across Britain, and thousands of students engaged at universities. The real purpose was deterring British Muslims from traveling to Damascus and joining jihadist groups.

A noble endeavor, one might argue. More sinisterly though, some Zinc psyops have had grave real-world consequences. For example, in 2013 it secretly produced a slick two-part documentary, Return to Somalia, on behalf of the Anti-Tribalism Movement, an NGO “aimed at educating and raising awareness about the effects of tribalism within communities.” The film depicted the war-torn, militia-run country as a place of “opportunities and optimism, attracting thousands of Somalis to return home,” and was viewed by over 200,000 people worldwide via international TV stations.

Just two months prior to the film’s broadcast, Medicins Sans Frontieres fled Somalia after 22 years of operation. The retreat was attributed to “extreme attacks on its staff” and “an environment where armed groups and civilian leaders increasingly support, tolerate, or condone the killing, assaulting, and abducting of humanitarian aid workers.”

Yet, not long after Return to Somalia’s release, the Home Office declared Mogadishu safe for returning refugees, and accordingly began mass forced expulsions. This ruling was extremely controversial, widely disputed, and in contravention of a 2011 European Court of Human Rights judgment. Clearly, Zinc’s propaganda was produced to soften the blow for deportees, convince others to leave of their own accord, and reassure the public that deportees would be safe and happy back home.

Condemn war, become a security risk

According to the most recent official figures, over the year ending March 31st 2022, 6,406 individuals were referred to Prevent, a 30 percent annual increase. Many of these cases will have inevitably been lodged on farcical grounds. In 2015, a 10-year-old was reported for requesting a prayer room at their school, as was a four-year-old child the next year after teachers misheard their pronunciation of “cucumber” as “cooker bomb”.

Referrals are also frequently made due to political views. Multiple students have been reported for wearing “Free Palestine” badges, or advocating for the BDS movement. Staff at one British school even raised concerns about a 14-year-old who described themselves as a socialist and anti-fascist in class, leading to their parents being relentlessly harassed by counter-terror police.

Evidently, the “pre-criminal” space is one in which a wide variety of completely legitimate, lawful behaviors and opinions are considered suspect, problematic, and worthy grounds for covert and overt state intrusion into citizens’ private lives.

That marginalizing and demonizing anti-establishment perspectives lies at the core of British CVE doctrine is abundantly clear. In December 2015, a Prevent pamphlet circulated to parents in London listed purported warning signs of radicalization. They included distrust of the mainstream media, belief in “conspiracy theories”, and criticism of the British government, particularly in respect of foreign policy. 

That same year, the Massachusetts Attorney’s Office published a CVE policy framework. It likewise asserted opposition to Washington’s actions at home and abroad were indicators of a potential inclination towards violence and needed to be counteracted via targeted propaganda campaigns, and community engagement initiatives. By then, the State Department was spending hundreds of millions on CVE programs annually.

US policy in this regard has since inception been heavily influenced by British thinking, although initially efforts were internationally-focused rather than domestic. They included bankrolling tours of the Middle East by Muslim-American hip-hop artists, the production 0f a Pakistani version of Sesame Street via intelligence cutout USAID, and “moderate” clerics in the Middle East to extol non-violence. 

This changed in 2011, with the publication of a dedicated CVE strategy for the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and law enforcement. An approach resembling Prevent has been in operation Stateside ever since. At the same time, the European Union’s Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) was created. London provided direction, support and staff.

Four years later, Washington’s CVE capabilities were greatly enhanced when the Obama administration created the Social and Behavioral Insights Team. Its activities were heavily informed by “nudge theory”, which contends that individuals can be prompted to make “better” decisions, by shaping informational environments in specific, surreptitious ways. 

Academic Cass Sunstein, who helped develop the theory, was appointed administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs by the White House in 2008. That same year he wrote a paper advocating for “cognitive infiltration” of online communities, in order to counteract the spread of “conspiracy theories”. 

‘An Endangered Species’

All these facts are salient to consider given that throughout the COVID19 pandemic, there was a concerted effort across much of the Western world to frame lockdown criticism and vaccine hesitancy as threats to national security, and signifiers of far-right, violent tendencies. In the process, those possessed of these positions became dedicated targets of CVE programs.

London was in every sense the nucleus of this malign push. On April 25th 2020, just one month after the UK Coronavirus Act was passed and the country went into lockdown, none other than Zinc Network published a report alleging belligerent local Neo-Nazi elements were “using Covid-19 to promote a British form of fascism.”

Evidence presented for this bold claim was non-existent. Zinc merely highlighted a handful of fringe, racist figures who’d commented on coronavirus, a mocked up scan of a positive COVID19 test for then-presidential candidate Joe Biden circulated via Telegram, and some leaflets “promoting conspiracy theories,” such as alternative takes on the March 2018 poisoning of GRU defector Sergei Skripal, as proof of the development.

Quite what relevance the ever-mysterious Salisbury incident had to homegrown fascism, or coronavirus pandemic, isn’t clear. Nonetheless, the obvious conclusion to draw from Zinc’s pronouncements was a clear synergy existed between anti-lockdown, vaccine hesitant views and the far-right.

Zinc returned to this theme two months later. They told The Daily Telegraph “hard-right” activists were behind an effort to plaster streets and transport stations countrywide with stickers bearing the logo of climate change activist group Extinction Rebellion, imploring the public to “preserve an endangered species of white Brits.” Which sounds like precisely the kind of skullduggery in which Zinc itself would engage.

In an ironic twist, Zinc itself may have inadvertently revealed the motivation behind its seeding of these false narratives during the pandemic in July 2020. That month, the company published research on the “viability” of a track-and-trace app, before its rollout by the British government. This resource sent smartphone alerts to individuals when they had been in close contact with someone who tested positive for Covid19, and instructed them to self-isolate immediately for two weeks.

As Zinc recorded, just under half the British population was steadfastly opposed to using the optional track-and-trace app, and privacy was the overwhelming concern of opponents. In all, 92% of respondents expressed anxiety about how their data would be used, 63% were worried their data “would be used for purposes other than fighting Covid19,” and 31% would only use a decentralized track and trace app, so the British government couldn’t access their data.

What better way of battering down such concerns than falsely framing those quite reasonably worried about what the British state might – and would likely – do with their personal data as dangerous, potentially violent Neo Nazis, thereby shaming the public into submission and compliance?

Strikingly too, Zinc lists the World Health Organization as a “partner” on its website. This may suggest it conducted covert propaganda campaigns on the agency’s behalf over the course of the pandemic, and passed the results of the track-and-trace research, and other investigations, to the body.

Neverending Story

Zinc Network was far from the only British intelligence cutout involved in stoking this psyop. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a shady NATO state contractor that reaps millions from research into supposed “disinformation”. Invariably, this serves as a basis for defaming and suppressing anti-establishment viewpoints, and censoring inconvenient truths, whatever they may be. It has also been engaged in countless CVE projects.

In March 2020, when Britain entered lockdown, ISD serendipitously launched a program “to understand the ways [the] global health crisis is being used, co-opted and manipulated for extremist ends.” Over the next two years, it frequently published reports into purported extremist activity related to the pandemic, many of which were featured verbatim by the BBC. The British state broadcaster’s “specialist disinformation reporter” Marianna Spring, who coincidentally also took on that role in March 2020, frequently fronted these propaganda blitzes.

The ISD’s work on COVID19 “conspiracy theories” and far-right culminated with the organization publishing Between Conspiracy and Extremism: A Long COVID Threat? in December 2021. The brief paper argued “antivaxxer” sentiment was so widespread and dangerous in Britain, it represented a pronounced terror risk. It is surely no freak twist of fate that British officials were at the time mulling yet another nationwide lockdown.

As it was, the government not only decided against it, but abruptly declared the crisis over at the start of 2022. Immediately, doom-laden, minute-by-minute updates on the pandemic’s spread and death toll, and advocacy for harsh lockdown restrictions, which had dominated mainstream media attention for the past two years, disappeared from headlines overnight. And so too did any reference to the purported “antivaxxer” terror threat frenziedly warned of by ISD.

Nonetheless, the danger to average citizens represented by CVE programs not just in Britain, but worldwide, has not gone anywhere. In 2016, British and US weapons manufacturer-funded “think tank” CEPA published a report, Winning the Information War, which advocated for “radicalized, pro-Kremlin supporters, those on the far left and the far-right, and Russian speakers” to be subject to “deradicalization” measures akin to “former Islamic radicals and far-right extremists.” Proposed methods were straight out of the CVE playbook.

It is almost inconceivable that following the invasion of Ukraine, these efforts have not ramped up considerably. As the first instalment of this series revealed, Britain via its Counter Disinformation Unit currently battles “disinformation related to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine,” along the way censoring and maligning anti-war perspectives, and inconvenient truths, online.

An official fact sheet on the Unit boasted of how it had “already countered Russian disinformation about Ukraine, including denials of mass casualty events”, including the Bucha massacre. Irrespective of what happened in that city, and who was responsible, the puzzling incident was unambiguously weaponized by London to keep the proxy war grinding on, and scuttle a peace deal signed by Kiev and Moscow in late March 2022.

It is unknown when the conflict will end. Yet, there are ominous indications an entirely new theater of informational combat is already being prepared. In April this year, ISD was awarded a lucrative British government contract to “analyse climate related mis/disinformation on social media.”

Evidently, London looks to the future, and foresees a fight on its hands to implement sweeping, life-altering measures, allegedly in service of environmental protection, which may include “climate lockdowns”. And with that, another ideal opportunity to surveil, manipulate and control the masses not just at home, but abroad.

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