Liam Mendes & The Howard Dean, Carbon Paper and Goody Abigail Techniques
Whilst my Western propaganda studies are focused on how Western journalists portray China, I do study Western propaganda more broadly in order to understand the full array of techniques journalists use to humanise monsters and monsterise humans.
One of those widely-used techniques I have identified is the Howard Dean technique.
# The Howard Dean technique
Howard Dean was a candidate for the Democratic Party nomination in the 2004 US presidential election, alongside John Kerry and John Edwards. He was also an outspoken critic of the Iraq War, so he had a fair few powerful enemies in Washington.
Howard Dean made the following campaign speech that would result in a media onslaught against him and the end of his nomination prospects:
"...we're going to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico, and we're going to California and Texas and New York. And we're going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan, and then we're going to Washington DC to take back the White House! Yeah!""
On paper, I couldn’t see what the problem was. I just saw typical hyperbole you’d expect from a US presidential nominee riling up his cheer squad.
But according to the mainstream media, Howard Dean transgressed a line when he let out a bizarre scream at the end of his speech, speculatively indicating mental instability. So I searched out a video clip to see what the fuss was about. I found a video titled ‘The Scream That Doomed Howard Dean’.
I watched it, waiting to hear the scream. It didn’t come. I only heard a cracked-voiced
“Yeah!”. I thought maybe the scream had been cut off at the end. So I found another clip, this one titled ‘Howard Dean’s Infamous Yell’.
The clip was the same as the last one.
It turned out that a simple
“Yeah!” actually destroyed a man’s credibility because of nasty, petty media spin.
I was gobsmacked!
A story about nothing was played 633 times by cable and broadcast news networks in just four days, with Howard Dean, himself, weirdly buying into the media spin, saying he felt
“a little sheepish” about it. That’s the almighty power of Western propaganda for you!
Individually, no one would have picked Howard Dean’s
“Yeah!” as a problem. But when propagandists plant a narrative in the public domain, turning something innocuous into a problem, and on top of that you throw group-think into the mix, the masses end up being taken for one hell-of-a ride.
Given I am not a public figure, I never expected that one day the Howard Dean technique would actually be used against lil ol’ me.
But it did, last Monday.
By way of background, a British journalist I know, back in March, mentioned to me in passing that he’d been tipped off that an analyst of the infamous Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) received a $350,000 book-publishing deal. A week or two later, I repeated what I heard on social media, wondering out loud if it was true.
A long seven months after that, a story was published about me in The Australian by a Mr Liam Mendes just because of that one measly social media post. The story turned something that every person does - i.e. repeat curious tidbits they hear - into me being a suspected email hacker and fifth columnist for the Chinese Communist Party. I couldn’t believe it! I was Howard Deaned on page 2 of a national newspaper!
Calls for me to be reported to the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Intelligence Security Organisation (ASIO) subsequently ensued, as did sexualised insults.
It was frightening and bemusing at the same time!
This is the Howard Dean technique – when a journalist turns something innocuous into something nefarious through linguistic sleight of hand. Don’t underestimate it!
# The Carbon Paper technique
What was the linguistic sleight of hand used against me? Something I’m coining the carbon paper technique. This is where a journalist splices an innocent person (i.e. the plain paper) amongst a sinister China-related plot-line (i.e. the carbon paper), thereby rubbing an ink-trace from the latter onto the former. This leaves the innocent person tainted. Below is an excerpt from the newspaper article that demonstrates how Mr Mendes applied this technique against me. The ‘plain paper’ part is underlined, and the ‘carbon paper’ part is in bold.
Human rights activist Drew Pavlou has been the target of Chinese hackers who accessed his private email account and may have obtained the identity of vulnerable Uighurs with whom he has been in contact.
The breach was confirmed by cyber security experts who laid a trap for the hackers by planting false information in the account – a fake book contract said to be worth $350,000.
The exact figure soon found its way into a social media post by a pro-Beijing activist group run by two Australians. One of the pair believes the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre is a hoax and the other … is a pro-China activist with links to China’s People’s Liberation Army.
Mr Pavlou suspects information obtained from his hacked emails resulted in Chinese authorities detaining the mother of an Australia-based Uighur he had interviewed for a research project. Shortly after the anti-China activist was initially hacked, she was tracked down and sent to a re-education facility in Xinjiang by Chinese authorities.
By placing me smack-bang in the middle of those paragraphs, it would look to a typical reader like I had hacked into Mr Drew Pavlou’s email account, passed his stolen emails onto Chinese authorities, and the mother of an Australia-based Uighur is now in a re-education facility all because of me! No wonder people are calling for me to be reported to the AFP and ASIO!
Further down in the article, Mr Mendes conceded it was unclear to him how I obtained the figure, but by then, it is too late. The impression of me being a Chinese agent that hacks into Australian email accounts to help incarcerate innocent Uighurs would have been anchored in many readers’ minds. I would be seen as guilty of the crime of treason.
Further on in the article, Mr Mendes used triplicate carbon paper on me in the following paragraph:
“Jaq James, a pro-China voice who claims to be a ‘Western Propaganda Analyst' and has lectured in English for the CCP’s People’s Liberation Army. She also claims to have worked as a legal policy officer for the Australian government."
A typical reader could take away from this paragraph that I taught the subject of Western propaganda in English to cadets and officers of the People’s Liberation Army, and that I possibly worked inside the Australian Government as a fifth columnist on behalf of the Chinese Government. Of course, Mr Mendes knows this is not the case because there is a record of him snooping around on my LinkedIn page. He knows that my employment with the Australian Government ended 10 years ago, my employment with the People’s Liberation Army as an instructor of English as a second language (ESL) ended 5 years ago, and my current role as an independent Western Propaganda Analyst only commenced this year. (Note the underlined bits that Mr Mendes did not write.) In fact, if Mr Mendes had approached me in good faith, he could have learned an interesting tidbit about my employment history -- that I had brought Australian soft power straight into the heart of the People’s Liberation Army by teaching cadets and officers about Western liberal principles of democracy, freedom of speech and the separation of powers.
By Mr Mendes not clearly demarcating my employment timeline, all three jobs rub off on one another, making me look like a very disloyal Australian, potentially engaging in foreign interference crimes.
# The Eleventh-Hour Switch method
Mr Mendes noted in his article that I “did not respond to repeated requests for comment”. It’s a pity none of the readers know why I didn’t respond.
On Wednesday 29 September, five days before Mr Mendes published his story, I received an email from him telling me he was doing a story related to my social media post about the $350,000 book-publishing deal of the ASPI analyst. In other words, he made it look like he was writing an article about the ASPI analyst, not me. I thought it presumptuous of him to give me a mere 4-hour deadline to respond, and I thought it arrogant of him to think I would help do his job for him for free when he made no attempt at establishing a cordial relationship with me. I deleted his email and moved on with my day.
Later that evening, when I was working on my laptop, FaceTime unexpectedly popped up on my screen. Mr Mendes was FaceTiming me!
I freaked out! I didn’t know FaceTime was even on my laptop because I never use it! Moreover, I’d never given anyone my email address attached to the FaceTime account. Minutes later, Mr Mendes sent me an email to that very same email address.
I moved fast in getting help from friends to secure my laptop and online accounts, changing usernames and email addresses. Clearly something awry was going on. It was time to do some research on Mr Mendes. I uncovered that Mr Mendes had a past of engaging in unprofessional behaviour as a paparazzo. Australian celebrities Sam Armytage and Michelle Bridges had made complaints about Mr Mendes violating their privacy; Ms Bridges had personally felt so threatened that she applied for an apprehended violence order against Mr Mendes. Based on this information, combined with my direct experience of Mr Mendes’ methods, it was my opinion that Mr Mendes was not a credible journalist, and I was sure I wanted nothing to do with him and his story.
In the days following his deadline of 4pm Wednesday, Mr Mendes continued trying to reach me. Finally, on Sunday afternoon, the eleventh-hour switch came. Mr Mendes revealed by voicemail what he was really up to -- his story was actually about me and it was coming out the very next day. Mr Mendes left me no practical time to engage the services of a defamation lawyer. I had no choice but to wait and see what the damage would be. And oh boy! Was my reputation damaged! I could never have imagined the plot-line would end up being that I am a hacker for the Chinese Government who is aiding and abetting in the incarceration of Uighurs.
Up until my encounter with Mr Mendes, I had no idea how journalists approach their targets. Now I know about the eleventh-hour switch method!
# The Good Abigail technique
There were a lot of accusations and innuendos made in Mr Mendes’ article; but, for me, they raised more questions than provided answers. For instance:
If Mr Pavlou’s email account was hacked in January, how come the BBC article he featured in, in June, referred to his email account being hacked in April? Was Mr Pavlou’s email account hacked twice or once this year? If it was hacked both in January and April, why not tell the BBC, particularly when it makes for a bigger story?
How come Mr Pavlou waited nine months before revealing his Uighur friend’s mother had been detained by Chinese authorities? Why didn’t he tell the BBC about it for their June story?
What evidence did Mr Mendes obtain that corroborated Mr Pavlou’s claims that his Uighur friend’s mother was indeed sent to a re-education facility in Xinjiang? Why didn’t Mr Mendes share the evidence with the readers?
How come one of the pro-China activists who claimed they received an abusive email from Mr Pavlou’s account also received a spam-warning that suggested the abusive email didn’t actually come from Mr Pavlou’s account? Is it possible the sender-address space was manually deleted and replaced with Mr Pavlou’s email address? What evidence did Mr Mendes see that proved Mr Pavlou’s email account had indeed been hacked? Why didn’t he share the evidence with the readers?
The IT expert featured in Mr Mendes' story, Mr Robert Potter, claimed his Internet 2.0 company
“assessed the commentary of pro-China Twitter to identify what information might be interesting to them" and then "[a]fter seeing much speculation on the value of the book contract..., Internet 2.0 placed fake information within activist emails."How does Mr Mendes reconcile this statement by Mr Potter with the fact that there only seems to be one record of a person speculating on the value of the book contract (and even then, it was merely a rhetorical question)? Did Mr Mendes see evidence that I did not see? What is Mr Potter's threshold for “much" ?
Mr Potter also claimed the IP addresses linked to the alleged hack
“originated from mainland China". If a hack did indeed occur, how is Mr Potter sure that a virtual private network (VPN) was not used to falsify the hacker's location?
Mr Mendes stated that fake book contracts were sent to activists' email accounts. Were these pro-China activists or anti-China activists? If pro-China activists, how exactly does this prove Mr Pavlou's email account was hacked? If anti-China activists, wouldn't the hackers realise something odd was going on if Mr Pavlou was receiving someone else's book contract, with each one containing a different figure? Either way, is Mr Mendes certain that there were fake book contracts contained in the emails? Did Mr Mendes see the fake contracts situated in the emails with his own eyes?
Mr Pavlou has since stated explicitly and unequivocally that I
"helped assist in the doxxing of [his] Uyghur friend which led to his mother being sent to a concentration camp". Mr Pavlou has also since imaginatively suggested that parts of this blog post were written by the Chinese embassy. In light of Mr Pavlou making such extraordinary statements with zero evidence, does Mr Mendes still believe Mr Pavlou is a credible witness? If not, does Mr Mendes intend on keeping his article live?
None of these matters were addressed in Mr Mendes’ article.
I ask these questions because they represent a recurring theme I see in anti-China propaganda, i.e., when it comes to denigrating stories about China, us ordinary Australians are expected by the media to accept testimonial claims at face-value; we are not to expect actual persuasive evidence and logical reasoning instead.
This is what I call the Goody Abigail technique because it was this same theme that concerned Arthur Miller when he wrote his play ‘The Crucible’ at the height of McCarthyism.
Based on the Salem witch-hunts of the 17th Century, Goody Abigail Williams was the teenage protagonist in ‘The Crucible’. Nearly one hundred people were arrested for witchcraft, some even executed, merely on Abigail’s say-so. Any townsfolk who questioned the “invisible nature” of witchcraft and Abigail’s credibility would subsequently face damning accusations themselves.
Today’s anti-China hysteria is rhyming with the hysteria of 1950s McCarthyism and the Salem witch-hunts: people in charge expect us Australians to put our better judgments aside and give a free pass to imagined subversions, conspiracy-hunting and ratchet-up charges against non-combatants.
This is the Goody Abigail technique - when mainstream Western journalists lower their standards of evidence just because the story is related to China.
# Next moves
I’m in two minds about what to do with Mr Mendes’ article.
On the one hand, it’s very upsetting to have my reputation damaged, and there is no doubt in my mind that I could pursue a defamation action against Mr Mendes and The Australian. Yet, on the other hand, the knowledge that Mr Mendes’ article would make the Chuck McGills in ASIO clutch tighter to their space blankets does put a smile on my face each time I think about it.
Life is always presenting us with trade-offs. Thankfully, I have a statutory limitation period of 12 months to decide which trade-off to take.