By, Laura Ru
In June 2018 five law students from the University of Hong Kong and their American mentor flew, all expenses paid, to the UK to take part in a three-day Digital Verification summit hosted by the University of Cambridge in collaboration with Amnesty International and George Soros’ Open Society Foundations.
The technical expertise was provided among others by members of Bellingcat, Global Voices, Credibility Coalition, that is ‘experts’ from the cartel of narrative control outfits set up and enthusiastically sponsored by National Endowment for Democracy, Atlantic Council, Omidyar Network, Open Society Foundations.
Six months earlier, in January 2018, the same students had been inducted into the Digital Verification Corps (DVC) by its founder, Sam Dubberley, Head of Crisis Evidence Lab at Amnesty International, who had travelled to Hong Kong for that purpose. The Hong Kong team was tasked with two investigations: one into an alleged chemical weapons attack in Kafr Zita, Syria, an area under the military control of jihadi militias; the second, an investigation into alleged police brutality during a protest in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the light of subsequent developments in Hong Kong, namely the attempted colour revolution in 2019, the assignment of these particular tasks to hone the team’s skills seems too much of a coincidence.
So, why did our fresh-faced Hong Kong students spend hundreds of hours poring over satellite images of Northern Syria, sifting through distressing propaganda material that included video footage of children choking on chlorine gas? After all, before carrying out this assignment they knew nothing about the bloody war that had attracted to Syria jihadists from all over the world to topple its government. And what was the point of collating evidence of police brutality in central Africa?
Never mind that the arms race between information and disinformation has been integral to the Syrian conflict — the manipulation of public opinion reached such new heights that members of Al-Qaeda donning white helmets even won an Oscar — the assignment of these specific tasks would teach students how to proficiently apply the rhetorical skills they had acquired in their ‘Human Rights in Practice’ course. Most importantly, through this exercise they would learn principles of geolocation and how to use sophisticated digital tools and encryption software.
Clearly all that training didn’t go to waste: a year later these students would be investigating chemical attacks and police brutality…in their own city. How uncanny.
According to its promoters, digital verification, like open-source investigation, entails the microscopic examination of publicly available material such as satellite images, social-media posts, YouTube videos and online databases to uncover the truth about a disputed event. Its origins lie in the world of intelligence and law enforcement. But if we look at its application by Amnesty International’s ‘experts’ we soon realize that these university students were spared the trouble of uncovering the truth.
During the riots that rocked Hong Kong in 2019 their job consisted in detailing instances of tear gas use on an interactive map, collecting and cataloguing photo and video evidence supplied by activists on the front line of illegal protests. However, they conveniently dismissed the horrifying acts of violence and sabotage committed by the black-clad rioters who stripped ordinary residents of their freedom of speech, freedom of movement, right to live in safety and earn a living.
Using the supposed authority of DVC’s reports as a fig leaf to cover its bias, Amnesty International publicly condemned “the criminal misuse of tear gas and other human rights abuses by the Hong Kong Police” and launched a campaign against tear gas which resulted in the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture equating its use to…yes, you guessed, an act of torture.
These reports gave a fresh round of ammunition to local and international media that had demonized the Hong Kong police from the start of the anti-extradition protests. They also led the UK to revoke the export licenses for crowd control equipment to Hong Kong. As more of this equipment was sourced from mainland China, local residents’ phones and social media were bombarded with messages about the toxicity of Chinese tear gas in what seemed like a coordinated disinformation campaign: These messages sowed panic, confusion and distrust of the Hong Kong police among the general public.
Additionally, in a typical reversal of blame, anyone forced to stay indoors by guerrilla warfare in the streets was portrayed as a victim of alleged police brutality for inhaling tear gas that “seeped through the windows”. Public fear was immediately exploited by Ted Hui, a Democratic Party lawmaker: He filed a case at the High Court to compel the defendant — the commissioner of police — to disclose all the ingredients of tear gas used in the city.
Now let’s take a closer look at the Digital Verification Corps (DVC). Given that the common definition of ‘corps’ suggests a military unit trained to perform particular duties, the use of this term to describe an academic/NGO partnership sounds like an odd choice. However, it turns out to be a perfectly appropriate description if we subject this partnership and its goals to closer scrutiny.
Amnesty International’s DVC was set up in 2016 at the University of California, Berkeley in the USA, the University of Essex in the UK and the University of Pretoria in South Africa. A year later the DVC had extended its operations to the University of Toronto and recruited a team at the University of Hong Kong, thanks to a couple of US academics who direct the Human Rights Hub at the Faculty of Law.
The keynote speaker at the first DVC summit was Eliot Higgins, founder of Bellingcat and at the time a senior fellow at Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRL). Both Bellingcat and DFRL are tried and tested conduits for the Atlantic Council’s dis/misinformation campaigns, churning out reports that are immediately hyped and amplified by mainstream media.
Sam Dubberley and Eliot Higgins are no strangers to each other: before joining Amnesty International to create and manage its DVC, Sam Dubberley was an advisory board member for the Syrian Archive, a non-profit that dovetails smoothly with British government’s creations such as the White Helmets.
Higgins and Dubberley were also founding members of First Draft, a news outlet backed by the Omidyar Network and tasked with laundering propaganda, just like Bellingcat. Its operation model is well-oiled: First Draft liaises with opposition journalists and activists — those deemed useful to promote the Anglo-American agenda and smear its adversaries — to collect or make videos for social media. This material is promptly handed over to ‘laboratories’ like Bellincat, DVC and DFRL which then, using ‘forensic tools’, declare that they are highly credible.
These stories and videos are thus ready to be picked up and embellished by corporate media, which in turn can claim they conducted due diligence and had a fact-checked genuine story. A process that, from the making, collecting, analyzing and spreading, is often aided by friendly intelligence services. Incidentally in the name of fighting fake news and targeting ‘inauthentic behaviour’, Facebook partnered with DFRL to crack down on critical voices. They decide what you and millions of users see — and don’t see — in your news feeds, which articles or videos are ‘credible’ and can be shared, which pages should be taken down, which users should be suspended and banned. How convenient for the US, a self-touting bastion of freedom, to outsource censorship and narrative management to tech giants that can legally restrict free speech because the First Amendment does not apply to private entities.
One may wonder why these ‘forensic tools’ were not employed by Amnesty’s DVC and other similar outfits to verify the identity of Kong Tsung-gan, the ‘Hong Kong activist and author’ widely quoted as a reputable source by both local and international media when they were covering the civil unrest in our city. Actually such investigation would have required neither satellite images nor sophisticated digital tools because the white American man hiding behind that Chinese pseudonym was very well known to Amnesty International.
As a senior staffer, Brian Kern had developed Amnesty International human rights education programme across 15 countries before moving to Hong Kong to join the Chinese International School. A rabid anti-China activist and a champion of Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjiang separatism he clearly was not satisfied with simply preaching the human rights gospel to secondary school students. He carried out his ‘educational’ activities on the front line of Hong Kong protests, where he was repeatedly photographed instructing young rioters to throw bricks and petrol bombs at the police.
The ability to synchronize different performative frames — in Brian Kern’s case human rights defender and educator, prominent Hong Kong pundit under a fake Chinese identity, agent provocateur — is a requirement for regime-change operatives and that’s why scores of people like him are being enlisted in destabilization projects around the world.
Training a new generation of ‘human rights defenders’ starts in primary and secondary schools, but of course it doesn’t stop there. Tomorrow’s leaders attend university and the University of Hong Kong, the oldest and most prestigious tertiary institution in the city, must have seemed an obvious choice. As part of their recruiting efforts on campus, Amnesty International promised students “By joining the DVC, you will influence international narratives of human rights violations and bring fresh perspectives to human rights advocacy, learn how to conduct open-source investigations, gain experience working with international human rights researchers and experts around the world and have the opportunity to travel to and participate in the DVC Summit”. The prospect must have sounded irresistible to idealistic students who want to travel the world and save it at the same time thanks to the ‘generosity’ of plutocrats and their US-vetted foundations.
Following their induction, they could start using platforms developed by Meedan to collaboratively verify and archive information, use ‘burner computers’ for online browsing and a set of ‘air-gapped’ computers for analysis that keeps information separate from the rest of their academic activities. These methods for sharing, encrypting and storing information insulate the team and presumably prevent scrutiny of its activities by the Faculty of Law and the university’s Governing Body.
Once they graduate, the new recruits can look forward to well-paid positions as professional humanitarians. After all, there is no shortage of NGOs and think tanks that work hand in hand with the US government and its allies to frame and change narratives, plant stories in mainstream media, put pressure on recalcitrant states, advocate for sanctions and military intervention, present legal cases with a view to the international prosecution of those governments that resist interference in their internal affairs.
Since several countries have already banned NGOs that play a destabilizing role at their donors’ bid, we witness a new strategy to circumvent this ban: they have replaced on-site investigation with open-source intelligence.
Jeffrey White (Defense Intelligence Agency) revealed to The Newyorker magazine “We used to send reconnaissance units out to hilltops and report back on hostile forces. Now you’ve got people running around taking pictures and posting them on social media.”
For instance in 2017, the International Criminal Court issued, for the first time, an arrest warrant based solely on video evidence from social media, while the heavily redacted report on gas attacks in Syria by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons leaned heavily on images from Google Earth that were annotated in a Bellingcat style. Never mind that respected members of the OPCW investigation team on the ground disagreed with its conclusions. You can’t buy or pressure everyone, but that’s not a problem: UC Berkeley’s Technology and Human Rights Program, working in concert with DVC, has plenty of influence in the Hague given that their experts from the fields of software, security, analytics, and open-source intelligence are already helping advance the tech capacity of International Criminal Court investigators.
NGOs, think tanks and the academics who work for them, far from being neutral providers of sound policy advice, have become distinctive participants in the struggle between global actors for influence over economic choices, societal directions and political decisions. Not only they act as effective peddlers of global neoliberalism and its associated values, but leveraging on a narrow and selective definition of human rights they produce and reproduce bias and narratives aimed at bolstering U.S. hegemony. As conduits of American influence they play an integral role in a war strategy known as hybrid warfare, aimed not so much at defeating the enemy militarily as at changing the regime in targeted states. Its hallmarks are financial and economic pressure, cyber attacks, information warfare, global media and human rights campaigns, colour revolutions and proxy armies if necessary.
According to NATO analysts “Hybrid warfare, at least in its first stages, is typically tailored to remain below obvious detection and response thresholds, and often rely on the speed, volume and ubiquity of digital technology that characterizes the present information age.” It certainly did in Hong Kong until the central government stepped in.
As hybrid warfare blurs the lines between war and peace, military and civilian, domestic and foreign, public and private, physical and digital, we see clear evidence that NGOs have become de facto global contractors and the NGO-media-academia complex can play both a defensive and an offensive role. It can deepen social fissures by exploiting internal fault lines, create and disseminate ‘atrocity stories’, manipulate or modulate a crisis, whether by exacerbating or playing it down, and that’s why the control of this highly integrated complex is vital for the U.S.
The level of interpenetration between state departments, NGOs, think tanks, media outlets and universities has increased so much that the revolving door model, whereby roles were performed in sequence, seems to have been replaced by an updated version: now players occupy more roles than in the past and at the same time, and they can easily structure their overlap to create a coincidence of interests.
In today’s hybrid wars, regime-change operatives are more useful than intelligence agents because they don’t need camouflage to blend in with their environment; their mission is to shape it in their likeness. Through a process that appears as natural and effortless as osmosis, their ideas, knowledge and values are gradually and often unconsciously assimilated by those they interact with, creating a swarm effect that can overwhelm or saturate the defenses of the principal target. It’s precisely their visibility and credentials that allow these agents to hide in plain sight, develop and strengthen a global network of influence that leads to groupthink and the desired collective behavior.
As digital technology plays a central role in gathering and sharing information, Amnesty International invested a considerable amount of resources to strengthen security, boost its IT capabilities and support the DVC. In 2019 the NGO unveiled its own Berlin-based Security Lab to provide digital security training and one-on-one support to global activists.
That is, technology that can circumvent government firewalls, secure telephone text and voice messages, and prevent attacks on websites. Sure, most organizations hire security experts, but the choice of hiring Claudio Guarneri, a self-described hacker and human rights advocate as head of security is significant. In 2014, Guarneri was already giving tips to Hong Kong protesters about digital security while working as Senior Research Fellow with CitizenLab in Toronto (he still sits on its Technical Advisory Board.) Based at the University of Toronto, CitizenLab notoriously engages in digital espionage and counter-espionage under the cover of an academic research lab. By operating at the intersection of information, communication technologies and human rights these offshoots of Amnesty International, Security Lab and DVC, are well positioned to serve as a conduit for intelligence work. Turning activists and opposition forces into intelligence assets has never been easier.
Paradigmatic of Amnesty International’s tainted record and yet another egregious example of close collaboration between this organization and the US government is the career trajectory of a well-known regime change operative who has a long association with Hong Kong, Louisa Coan Greve.
Between 1993 and 1998 she served on the national board of directors of Amnesty International USA and was a member of Amnesty’s China Coordination Group on a pro bono basis for eight years. At the same time she was also Vice President for Asia, Middle East and Global Programs, at the National Endowment for Democracy, the presentable face of the CIA. In that capacity she was tasked, among other missions, with bankrolling Hong Kong opposition parties and the intricate network of labour, civil and human rights organizations that have been instrumental in orchestrating two attempts at a colour revolution in Hong Kong.
From 1999 to 2004, Ms. Greve was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, sharing her expertise on topics such as “U.S. National Security: New Threats in a Changing World.” Her current public role is Director of Global Advocacy for the Uyghur Human Rights Project. To put her humanitarian concern into context, one should remember that Xinjiang is vital to the Belt and Road Initiative, a project that the US has been trying to sabotage even before it was officially unveiled.
Given that Amnesty International has been faithfully following the line from Washington and London, it’s no surprise that on July 1, 2020, within hours of its introduction in Hong Kong, the National Security Law had already triggered Amnesty International’s automatic response. In its long tirade the organization claimed “Hongkongers are facing an assault by the Beijing authorities and the Hong Kong government on freedoms they have long enjoyed. Given how draconian the law is, the most effective way to protect people in Hong Kong from repression is to ensure strict adherence to human rights.” As on cue, this denunciation was immediately relayed and amplified by mainstream media.
Of course no comparative analysis of the different approaches to national security across the globe was attempted, otherwise this selective indignation fest, fuelled by emotionalism, exaggeration and distortion would have been undermined by cold hard facts.
But encouraging a rational and informed debate about national security clearly wasn’t Amnesty International’s intention, as evidenced by the fact that 5 weeks earlier, when the law was under discussion and its text still being finalized, the organization wrote on Twitter “The national security law proposed by China is a terrifying assault on human rights in Hong Kong” and signed a joint letter urging the Chinese government not to introduce the law.
According to this dystopian logic, a country can be publicly denounced for an assault on some unspecified human rights that might take place in the future. Wouldn’t it fit neatly into a sequel of Minority Report? A human rights organization, staffed with mutated humans known as PreCogs (precognizants) assists the Washington DC’s PreCrime unit and flags suspects before they can commit any actual crimes. Far-fetched? Unfortunately it’s not so implausible if we examine the role played by human rights organizations in assisting American foreign policy.
When the moral crusade against communism lost its raison d’être with the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, the U.S. and its allies needed a new ideological weapon that would cloak its geopolitical and economic interests while simultaneously providing a moral rationale for both military intervention and the imposition of trade restrictions and sanctions on its rivals.
Humanitarian NGOs were identified as an extremely effective political tool for governing international relations and introducing new rules based on the Anglo-American legal framework, deemed superior to any other legal system.
By appealing to the universality of human rights, while at the same time denying their own citizens many of these rights, the U.S. and its allies, cooperating with powerful globalist corporations, are hellbent on eroding one of the cornerstones of International Law, the principle of non-intervention, that is the right of every sovereign state to conduct its affairs without outside interference.
It’s no accident that human rights NGOs began sprouting during the decolonization process in Asia and Africa, when national liberation wars led to the creation of new sovereign states. Humanitarians hijacked once counter-hegemonic concepts, emptied them of any social and economic emancipatory potential, and turned them into weapons that could be used against political projects often inspired by Marxism and Maoism.
Leveraging on the neoliberal theology of ‘freedom, democracy and human rights’, that is market freedom, sham democracy and individual rights as opposed to collective rights, the West has effectively maintained control over post-colonial space.
Human rights NGOs can constrain and influence politics from outside, without being themselves political. They can target and smear legitimate governments and political leaders that enjoy the support of their people, while these organizations — lobby groups bankrolled by Western governments and elites — have no legitimacy, unless you consider their superiority complex as a source of political legitimacy.
Despite the fact that no direct power-giving relationship exists between NGOs and citizens — they are only accountable to their main donors and board of directors — in the last forty years, non-governmental organizations have secured socio-political functions based on the assumption that they act on the basis of moral imperatives. Rather than a solution to, they are a symptom of the crisis of political representation and democracy.
On July 1, 2020, the day the National Security Law was introduced in Hong Kong, Amnesty International, during a submission to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, made this statement to denounce it “From now on, China will have the power to impose its own laws on any criminal suspect it chooses“. Doesn’t it perfectly encapsulate the arrogant mindset of a neocolonial organization? How dare China impose its own laws…in China!
As to the impartiality and reliability of Amnesty International’s reports, I let those who witnessed the senseless violence, destruction and mayhem unleashed by rioters judge by themselves another gem contained in the same submission to the UN: “the protesters that marched against the extradition bill in 2019 — and have recently returned on a smaller scale in the wake of COVID-19 — have been overwhelmingly peaceful.”
It’s perhaps no accident the world’s largest human rights organization spends a large chunk of its budget on promoting and protecting its brand, shaping young minds, overpaying and buying the silence of its senior staff while bullying its junior staff. Dressing up the aspirations of the corporate-financier global elite and the foreign policy goals of the U.S. and its allies as “human rights advocacy” is no easy task, one must admit.
© Laura Ruggeri