Redefinition Politics – An Incomplete Rhetorical Dictionary

“China’s chilling plan to use social credit ratings to keep score on its citizens”, a CNN headline from October 2015 reads. The article describes the Chinese state’s plans to use data from surveillance along with scoring algorithms to analyse – en masse – the credit worthiness of its population. China’s stated goals sound legitimate enough: a “lawful application of credit information and a credit services system” with a goal to “use encouragement to keep trust and constraints against breaking trust as incentive mechanisms, and its objective is raising the honest mentality and credit levels of the entire society.”

Of course, setting up a credit rating system is not an unusual activity for an industrializing nation and the credit system in America is instantiated for exactly the reasons expressed by China’s State Council. Nor is China unusual in setting up a credit system under their Central Bank (e.g. Spain, Ireland).

The reporting in CNN’s article makes the plans to factor social media postings and relationship circles into credit scores sound literally Orwellian – they even use the word:

“The State Council plan, for instance, mentions rumor-mongering as an example of behavior to be sanctioned.

It is this part of the plan that has led many commentators to describe it as an Orwellian tool of individual control.

They may well be right — the Chinese state has continuously sought to expand its power to intervene in the lives of their citizens.

It is where the hard power logic of state survival and political stability intersect with a tendency towards social engineering with roots both in Socialist and Confucian thought.”

CNN completes their article by referring to the global trend towards social control through surveillance – they tacitly include the US – with “In that sense, perhaps the most shocking element of the story is not the Chinese government’s agenda, but how similar it is to the path technology is taking elsewhere.”

Yet the article only makes vague references to this global trend – and then only with feel-good techno utopian sidelines toward Silicon Valley. The article does not mention that online surveillance of social media content and relationships is already factored into United States credit scores.


CNN makes a wink at the tendency of the United States and the broader West to use social engineering to control their citizen’s behavior, but excludes direct references to state actions, preferring instead to talk in broad strokes about Silicon Valley.

CNN did not mention the Social and Behavioral Sciences Initiative within the Office of Science and Technology Policy to deploy “Nudge Units” which use behavioral engineering to affect large scale civil behaviour. They do not mention that the Cass Sunstein approach to policymaking – of using psychological nudges and incentive systems – is now the predominant legal view in the US judicial system. They don’t mention that to affect this, he was made the head of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which oversees all of US policymaking and regulation for the White House.

Cass Sunstein is known for suggesting the government actively and anonymously infiltrate civilian discussions online to fight rumor-mongering. He is also known for eloquently expressing in his book The Problem of Free Speech that in “light of astonishing economic and technological changes, we must doubt whether, as interpreted, the constitutional guarantee of free speech is adequately serving democratic goals.” Indeed one of Sunstein’s core suggestions for the state is that it employ a tax or discredit – public or otherwise – to citizens who engage in online rumor-mongering.

Wikipedia summarizes his accolades: “A study of legal publications between 2009 and 2013 found Sunstein to be the most frequently cited American legal scholar by a wide margin.”


Compare the coverage of the emerging Chinese credit system with this story run recently by the Washington Post. “The new way police are surveilling you: Calculating your threat ‘score’” did not only fail to make front headlines but was published under “Public Safety.” The article is littered continuously with images of police officers posed in heroic, gentle gestures:

Otto_Fresno_111447882991

Fresno Chief of Police Jerry Dyer inside the Fresno Police Department’s crime center. (Nick Otto/For The Washington Post)” – Credit to the Washington Post

In defiance of palpable use of surveillance and social media scoring directly for “real time” law enforcement, the article contains absolutely no mention of Orweil. Every example in the article of how the police use the technology is positive or speculatively positive – the article even opens with how surveillance is used to identify that a suspect in a domestic case has social media ties to gang members.

Missing is any reference to the Fresno Police Department’s track record of misconduct, including harassment and excessive use of force. The Post article is perhaps made more interesting by the recent extremely bizarre death of John Lang, who accurately predicted the time of his death and collected video and records of what he was certain was Fresno police harrassing him with street surveillance and monitoring his online messaging. Whether murdered by the police in Fresno or not – these systems of continuous monitoring have deep and predictable psychological consequences that unquestioningly led to Lang’s lack of personal security.

The consistent theme across the ‘threat score’ article is that these powers are necessary for public safety. That the surveillance systems are legitimate and only very speculatively subject to any abuse. In one of the few paragraphs that suggests that these systems are controversial the Post writes:

“But the powerful systems also have become flash points for civil libertarians and activists, who say they represent a troubling intrusion on privacy, have been deployed with little public oversight and have potential for abuse or error. Some say laws are needed to protect the public.”

– The Washington Post Article (emphasis ours)

Not only does the Post neglect featuring the actual arguments of activists and those concerned with human rights against warrantless law enforcement – they cast what they phrase as a marginal opinion as mere concerns with ‘privacy’.

Jacob Appelbaum, one of the developers of the online anonymizing software TOR, was featured briefly in the Edward Snowden documentary “Citizen Four.” In twelve words Appelbaum provides a crisp and damning response:

What we used to call liberty and freedom we now call privacy.

Bulk and warrantless surveillance, scoring systems, pre-crime and ‘real time’ crime enforcement are concerns over fundamental freedoms, constitutional and human rights: but are covered by establishment news as ‘privacy concerns’.


The differences in the phrasing between the article on Chinese credit scoring and US threat scoring belie their content.

Somehow credit scoring systems in China that behave the same way they function in America are written in ominous overtones. At the same time, the deployment of surveillance systems developed by our military for the control and occupation of foreign territories into hundreds of districts and cities across the United States (the article only mentions New York, Seattle and Houston) receives praise and quiet rationalization. The articles never mentions that political parties have been targeted by these surveillance systems along with both presidential candidates and peaceful civilian protest groups (including Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter).

But far more insidious than persistent double standards in fundamentally biased media is this issue of redefined political terminology. During the Snowden global surveillance disclosures it was difficult – and it still is – to find any broadcaster that would put “mass surveillance” or “surveillance” at all in headlines. Instead broadly across CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Fox and other major outlets referred to the act of collecting, processing, mining, scoring and reporting on everyone’s private conversations, daily routines and political activities as “Bulk Collection”. To this day if you search for the two disparate terms you will see a definitive divide that isolates the major US news networks from the independent and international media.

This redefinition is startlingly common inside the American political space. Within the past year or two, what used to be called non-interventionism has recently been relabeled as new or neo-isolationism; as though Americans who are against non-defensive warfighting somehow want to isolate America completely from the world, absent all global trade, foreign assistance, travel and information connectivity.

The term populism is now primarily used as a pejorative to refer to knee-jerk snap decisions by uninterested and unintelligent populations rather than its original intended meaning of bottom-up grassroots democratic participation and accountable leadership that is held on transparent record to plebian inspection.

Socialism and Communism have for generations in America meant nothing at all similar to either structures of government or aspirations toward effective distributive ownership. Elements on the right of the spectrum in the country gleefully refer to the liberal policies promised by a possible Clinton administration as ‘socialist’.

Even the term democracy has suffered. Under the cover of the National Endowment for Democracy the United States military has overthrown elected representatives from countries with fair and able democratic processes to install dictators and juntas – infamous examples from the mid-twentieth century include Guatemala and Chile – and modern examples of election fixing include the Malaki administration in post-invasion Iraq and the ironically named “Operation Uphold Democracy” in Haiti.

The United States renaming of the ‘War’ Department to the ‘Defense’ Department is indicative of its use of the terms security and defense. The definition of National Security, as officially descibed by the first National Security Presidential Directive NSPD-1 to mean “the defense of the United States of America, protection of our constitutional system of government, and the advancement of United States interests around the globe. National security also depends on America’s opportunity to prosper in the world economy.” By strict application of the term, National Security means invasion of another country or rigging of financial outcomes as easily as it means defense of national borders.

The recent Senate report on the CIA torture program, which is still over 80% redacted due primarily to fears of popular outcry, lists the least controversial of what the state had insisted on calling ‘enhanced interrogation’ rather than torture: forced rectal feeding (without medical need), rectal ‘exams’ with excessive force (leading at least one prisoner to rectal prolapse), mock executions, repeated drowning and resuscitation, weeks long sleep deprivation, and stress positions including forcing detainees to stand on broken feet.

Similar to ‘enhanced interrogation’ is the terminology used for propaganda: ‘strategic communications’ and ‘public diplomacy’.

The combination of terms makes following political debates exhausting and confusing. When Clinton described her relationship with Wall Street by invoking National Security, did she mean to say that her policies are intended to underwrite and guarantee the prosperity of the stalling American global economic system? Or did she mean that she will protect Wall Street from another physical attack? Or is there some financial interest the United States has overseas that Wall Street will help the state to obtain?

We can’t blame the Huffington Post for compiling a (not really that good) list of articles under the umbrella category “weird politics” or the National Council of Teachers of English for giving out yearly Doublespeak Awards. Politics have to be weird when talking about national security means financial interests, defense means unprovoked invasion,  when peace can mean war and isolationism means trade and diplomacy; and when public safety nets like unemployment, minimum wages, and health care are labeled communist when communist countries around the world broadly don’t have them (and capitalist countries broadly do).

This weird politics is redefinitional politics – a form of public discussion that can’t be effective because its terms are either vacuous or actively antithetical. Redefinition politics will feature as prominently this election year as “populism”, “isolationism” and “identity politics” but it will be so hard to parse that pundits and talking heads will generate twice as much doublespeak as it takes to unwind the first.

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10 comments

  1. Thanks ross, an excellent explanation of “modern media” and “mainstream media” that are seemingly (more and more) dupes of “state” interventionism. Our freedoms still enable us to comment, but we may be made “accountable” for actions deemed “not in the public interest.” Speak Truth.

  2. What we used to call liberty and freedom we now call privacy.

    The problem I think with this “redefinition” is that it ties the idea of freedom up into the idea of private property. Homeless people, for example, have no privacy at all, in any system.

    1. This is a perfect example of the implications of the syllogism the state has set up between the two terms. I hope you don’t mind if I use it.

      Because the boundaries of privacy are drawn much thinner than rights – and because privacy is a privilege enjoyed increasingly more by those with more power – the effect is that those rights become watered down or, in some cases, completely dissipate.

      Another good example of this is the Third Party Doctrine – which expresses the important addendum: it is not a valid legal claim that anything done involving someone else’s property is private. The Third Party Doctrine has been extended to justify collecting the online activity, phone conversations and GPS locations in masse of everyone (globally and domestically) in this case because these records are claimed to be the property of the capital/infrastructure holders.

      With this doctrine anyone with a phone or cell phone, or who uses roads, the sewers, water, electrical grid, makes financial transactions with cards, or uses the internet does not have privacy at all, in any system.

      1. Could you elaborate on that a bit? Some of the concepts are fairly new to me.

        1. Absolutely.

          The Third Party Doctrine is the current predominant legal interpretation of where “expectation of privacy” is a permissible defense. This legal interpretation has been evolving since the 1970’s but manifested in its stronger, modern form in the 90’s and early ‘oughts with reclassifications of tap and trace laws to include digital communications – and in the past decade to include digital services (online ads, online mapping, cloud storage, etc).

          Simply stated it says that a person who rents, leases or uses someone else’s property (e.g. Verizon’s cell phone tower) can not expect and therefore does not expect privacy with respect to that use. However when made into law (CALEA, PATRIOT, FREEDOM, SCA, etc) the collection of information from third parties on suspects has not only been fully compelled it has often also been warrantless and in many cases has justified the state taking data on everyone.

          The United States has ruled very consistently that using data from a person’s cell phone GPS for law enforcement without a warrant is okay specifically because there is no expectation of privacy. This is just one example.

          The takeaway is that if you want to expect privacy, for example, from cell phone conversations you need to build and own your own cell phone infrastructure.

          There hasn’t been a court case as far as I know, yet, but if someone were to introduce a smart TV into their house that had a camera and a microphone (http://www.cnet.com/how-to/samsung-smart-tv-spying/) the law of the United State would be that there is no expectation of privacy in that household as the camera and microphone data belongs to, e.g. Samsung.

          The doctrine effectively means that your ‘personal effects’ can only include the things that you explicitly own. Your cell phone and credit card you do own, but the voice calls are owned by communications companies, the data backups on them owned by tech companies, and the financial transactions are owned by the banks.

          1. The doctrine effectively means that your ‘personal effects’ can only include the things that you explicitly own.

            How does this effect software you lease and not buy? I don’t actually own my copy of Windows 10. And I rent my copy of Office 365.

            1. Not owning the software and leasing it as a service puts you squarely in Third Party Doctrine territory. All data required to run the software service and all data that is stored on your behalf by the third party are subject to legal or extralegal compulsion. You do not have an expectation of privacy from Microsoft or Gmail or Google.

              Windows 10 is particularly bad with regard to this and has been subject to negative press. Computer Security and anti-surveillance folk are avoiding Windows 10. I encourage you to look up Windows 10 legal policies. Hidden deep inside the legal terms (I can track it down if you need) Microsoft states that you agree to give access to your data and metadata to the state. This isn’t particularly shocking or new – just an evolution of the same policies that the Snowden docs showed Microsoft had put in place to allow the Fed unregulated access to Skype conversations, outlook email and SkyDrive (OneDrive) data.

              But beyond your operating system the “software as a service” model is plagued by this relationship. Indeed – if companies do not sell you software but are somehow making money off of your using it – then you aren’t the customer. There is an entire industry, much of it advertising, but also much of it political and military, that injests the ‘data footprint’ of your software use.

              Right now this technological innovation (software as a service) has caused a bit of an international legal crisis as countries are trying to find a way to keep ‘data borders’ without balkanizing the internet. You can read plenty about that as well. Right now the highest courts in America are filing opinions on Microsoft’s recently submitted argument about what data it can serve without notifying end users (the court case is over data held in Ireland datacenters that the US requests access).

              The only way to have a legitimate legal expectation of privacy online – according to current legal doctrine – is very close to your having to build everything yourself.

              1. I sent a very unfriendly e-mail concerning MicroSoft and Win 10. Seems like Linux might be an alternative, other Open Office (which makes me wonder about situation with “free” software, hm.) Wouldn’t mind some of the features I want in a self-made word-processing and e-mail program, maybe time to re-kindle programming skills. Which reminds me that many users really SHOULD learn to “code their own”.

              2. I use Ubuntu and Open Office. Open Office is fine but the spell check really doesn’t work on Windows. So I pay the money for Office 365.

  3. Jonah moberg · · Reply

    Reblogged this on jonah moberg.

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