Phoebe.Sengers on Thu, 27 Mar 1997 15:22:05 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Surveillance on the Net: The New Media Report

This is an excerpt from Phil Agre's excellent Red Rock Eater's News
Service (accessible from

Date: Wed, 26 Mar 1997 13:33:54 -0800 (PST)
From: Phil Agre <>
Subject: notes

I get the most appalling things in the mail.  Here, for example, I have
a letter from Richard Viguerie -- the same Richard Viguerie who is famous
for having pioneered direct-mail political fund-raising in the 1980's --
advertising his new publication, The New Media Report.  The letter itself
presumably distills everything he has learned; it is framed as a fake memo
to someone named Janis Tabor of the "Council for Chemican [sic] Research".
I'm sure he has some psychological explanation for the typo.

In any case, The New Media Report promises to inform organizations what
is being said about them in the "new media", which includes "direct mail,
phone banks, fax broadcasting, newsletters and Internet sites of hundreds
of activist public policy organizations".  He claims that his staff is
"following thousands of talk radio shows, cable news shows, public policy
newsletters, trade shows, conventions, lectures, independent book stores,
videos, religious broadcasts, campus publications, ethnic and political
publications and meetings", as well as "the activities of hundreds of
state and national labor unions".

He says, "We've hired people who are computer junkies and who love the
idea that we pay them to surf hundreds of organization sites on the
Internet.  They do it every day except now they get paid for it."  Also,
"We subscribe to and read hundreds of newsletters and desktop published
magazines dealing with public policy issues, current events, including
trade, taxes, possible new state ballot initiatives, attacks on business,
ideas for new government regulations, and much, much more."  Not only
that, "We call independent book stores to learn what the non-elite middle
class is reading."  And so on.  It appears weekly and costs $347 a year
by paper mail, fax, or e-mail.

Viguerie's newsletter is, I suppose, the next level of a phenomenon
that has been accelerating in recent years: the systematic surveillance
of popular political activity by the interests who have something to
fear from it.  The demand for such information is created in large
part by the concomitant rise of techniques for preventing new issues
from being established in the public sphere.  Sometimes the motivation
for this type of action is reasonable, for example when plainly false
rumors begin to circulate.  Many other times, however, the motivation is
much more problematic.  This has been well-documented (see, for example,
John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, "Toxic Sludge is Good for You", Common
Courage Press).  Having gotten early warning of the publication of an
unfriendly book, for example, an organization or its public relations firm
can mysteriously get hold of page proofs, round up its friendly experts,
and approach relevant reporters with disparaging previews so that the
book is less likely to be reviewed.  Bookstores might then receive phone
calls purporting to cancel an author's scheduled book-signing appearances.
Or, having gotten early warning of a potential issue campaign by a
political group, the affected organizations can prepare lobbying materials
and inoculate all of the relevant politicians with attacks on the group's
credibility before they even show up in the politicians' offices.  These
practices, as I say, are already routine, and The New Media Report will
permit them to become even more routine and even more efficient.  Public
debate will be smothered before it even begins, and society will drift
into oblivion and formless rage.

For a while there, had a story online about PR firms monitoring
the Internet.  It seems to be gone now, but the URL for the story was

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