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On 22 May, a London-based online news outlet called Middle East Eye (MEE) published an article on the UK government’s attempt at ‘mind control’. What it means by that, is that the government has developed a ‘blueprint’ to influence the British public’s reaction in the aftermath of, for example, terrorist incidents. According to MEE, they have spoken to government functionaries who have said that social media campaigns are pre-planned and

“(…) [D]esigned to appear to be a spontaneous public response to attacks (…) Hastags are carefully tested before attacks happen, Instagram images selected, and ‘impromptu’ street posters are printed. In operations that contingency planners term ‘controlled spontaneity’, politicians’ statements, vigils and inter-faith events are also negotiated and planned in readiness for any terrorist attack.”

MEE states that campaigns of this sort have been implemented “during every terrorist incident in recent years (…).” The article also reports that some of those involved in planning, say the purpose of the campaigns is “to shape public responses (…).” The operations are said to be modelled on a 2012 ‘original’, plans drawn up “to channel public anger” in the event of an incident during that year’s London Olympics. These in turn are inspired by the use of social media during the Arab Spring and the riots in various towns and cities across the UK in 2011.

The article quotes a ‘veteran contingency planner in the UK’ as saying that the plans formulated for the 2012 Olympics have since been the go-to strategy of an “attempt at ‘mind control’,” as the article calls it. In the words of the contingency planner:

“The point I noticed change was the Olympics. (…) The management of the secret, hidden emergency planning work behind the Olympics became the social control that we would fall back on if we had any terrorist attack, or if we had any disruption. It’s ‘this is the hashtag we go to’. And we’ve never come back from those days. (…) This job has changed significantly from planning for organic, people responses to tragedy, to being told: ‘We would like the people to do that, how do you get them there?’ (…) A lot of the public’s responses are spontaneous, of course. But a lot are shaped. The [British] government doesn’t want spontaneity: it wants controlled spontaneity.”

Veteran contingency planner

One of the examples MEE gives of this ‘controlled spontaneity’ was the picture on the front page of the Sun after Alan Henning, a British aid worker, was murdered by IS in October 2014. MEE claims that the Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU), “a controversial propaganda unit“, used an image created beforehand just for such an eventuality. The image was created for RICU by Breakthrough Media expressly for the purpose of challenging

“(…) ultraconservative and misogynistic interpretations of Islam – particularly those around women – in order to promote the true face of Islam among vulnerable UK communities.”

from ‘internal Breakthrough Media documents seen by MEE
The Breakthrough Media picture as it was run by The Sun

MEE further claims that RICU wanted to establish a platform, which was capable of setting out alternative interpretations of Islam. That this platform was formed as Making A Stand, which in the days after the Henning murder approached The Sun.

That the fact that The Sun ran a front page with the photograph and a further six pages of coverage dedicated to “political leaders and members of the public who said that they were making a stand against Islamic State terror,” was all the work of RICU, according to MEE. As proof, MEE claims “emails disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act” showing that RICU monitored online responses and acknowledgement of the front page as its own product.

MEE also reports that Breakthrough Media were delighted with the result. Further, it is only one of “hundreds of media projects” designed on behalf of RICU, which are part of a “controversial counter-radicalisation programme known as Prevent“. Breakthrough Media has since been renamed Zinc Network and continues working on RICU contracts. As MEE puts it:

“Internal RICU documents seen by MEE say the unit is working ‘at an industrial scale and pace’ to develop messages that aim to ‘effect attitudinal and behavioural change’ – particularly among Muslims. The involvement of the UK government is rarely acknowledged.”

There are a number of issues with MEE and the article, however. The Old Continent is unfamiliar with MEE as a media outlet and accusations have been levelled at them of links to terrorist organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. In particular, there is some controversy surrounding ownership:

“Delving into the details of MEE, however, show that it acts far less as a traditional journalistic outlet and far more as an English-language front for Qatari-supported groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. British corporate records, for example, show that Jamal Awn Jamal Bessasso, a former official for both Al Jazeera in Qatar and the Hamas-affiliated al-Quds TV in Lebanon, owns and operates MEE through M.E.E. Ltd. A CV for Jamal Bessasso, since scrubbed from the internet, shows previous stints as director of planning and human resources for the Al Jazeera satellite network in Qatar and director of Human Resources for the Samalink Television Production Company in Lebanon.  Samalink is the registered agent for Al Quds TV’s website.  While David Hearst, MEE editor-in-chief, told the United Arab Emirates’ The National paper that Bessasso was “a colleague and the head of human resources and the legal director,” he denied that Bessasso was the MEE owner, despite his listings on corporate records. Neither Hearst, former news editor Rori Donaghy (in a tweet now deleted), nor other MEE employees, however, would identify who owned MEE if not Bessasso.”

Michael Rubin, for the American Enterprise Institute

What makes this problematic for this particular article, is that so much of it is based on either interviews with anonymous sources, or alleged documents that are not identified in detail. The only links to further data are to news articles or books, not to primary sources. At the least, MEE could have provided the full ‘internal RICU documents’ it mentions. Failure to do so – even though the reasons might be perfectly valid – make that this is a case of the reader deciding if MEE is trustworthy. There is simply no way to check the veracity of some of the claims.

In view of the importance of the article, it was decided to publish on the article. At the same time: reader beware.