Harmony Institute & Free Press Seek to Create Net Neutrality Propaganda

by Adam Thierer on July 26, 2010

Interesting article in the New York Times today about how the radical media activist group Free Press is now working with an organization called The Harmony Institute toward the goal of “Adding Punch to Influence Public Opinion.” The way they want to “add punch” is through entertainment propaganda. The Times article notes that Harmony’s mission is “aimed at getting filmmakers and others to use the insights and techniques of behavioral psychology in delivering social and political messages through their work.” And now they want to use such “behavioral psychology” and “political messaging” (read: propaganda) techniques in pursuit of Net neutrality regulation.

More on that agenda in a second. First, I just have to note the irony of Harmony’s founder John S. Johnson citing “The Day After Tomorrow” as a model for the sort of thing he wants to accomplish. According to the Times interview with him, he says the movie’s “global warming message [and] rip-roaring story, appeared to alter attitudes among young and undereducated audiences who would never see a preachy documentary.” I love this because “The Day After Tomorrow” was such a shameless piece of globe warming doomsday propaganda that it must have even made the people at Greenpeace blush in embarrassment. After all, here is a movie that claims global warming will result in an instantaneous global freeze (how’s that work again?) and leave kids scurrying for the safety of New York City libraries until a quick thaw comes a couple of weeks later. (Seriously, have you seen that movie? That’s the plot!) So apparently we can expect some pretty sensational, fear-mongering info-tainment from Harmony and Free Press.

But here’s what’s better: Do you know who produced “The Day After Tomorrow”? Oh, that’s right… Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation financed and distributed that movie!! The man that Free Press casts as the nefarious media overlord set to take over all media and program our brains gave us the greatest piece of radical environmental propaganda of modern times. Now, which does that prove: (A) Rupert Murdoch is hell-bent on programming our minds to embrace a sweeping global warming regulatory agenda, or (B) Rupert Murdoch is out to entertain people and make money? If you answered B, congratulations for being a sensible person. If you answered A, then click here now to start giving money to the Free Press!

OK, so let’s get back to Free Press and what they are up to with the Harmony Institute (which I originally thought was an online dating site). Free Press apparently hired Harmony to research public attitudes about Net neutrality and how to influence them. Harmony’s Johnson tells the Times they got interested in the Net neutrality because Free Press and the Pacific Foundation paid them handsomely to do so. And it appears Free Press got their money’s worth.

The Harmony Institute’s report for Free Press is entitled, “Net Neutrality for the Win: How Entertainment and the Science of Influence Can Save Your Internet.” It is the kind of document that would make Machiavelli and Saul Alinsky proud. According to the Times, “the report… promises a sophisticated attempt to change attitudes on a range of issues… by using applied behavioral science.” That ain’t the half of it. The report is a shameless effort to completely distort the reality on the ground, which is is that, as the Harmony Institute itself admits, “The public tends to have a favorable view of their current telephone company, cable or satellite provider, mobile provider, and ISP.” (pg. 10) “Currently the public likes the way the Internet works,” the Harmony report goes on to note. “Internet users and businesses generally have a positive relationship with their ISP and believe they can access what they want, when they want it.” (p. 16) More generally, the report finds that the public just isn’t all that interested in Net neutrality regulation but that “Those who responded to the November 2009 poll generally had a favorable view of their ISP, but were split in their view of the government’s role with regard to the Internet.” (p. 11)

Yikes! This sure doesn’t sound like the Free Press doomsday narrative, which says that the public is absolutely clamoring for comprehensive regulation of the Internet via Net neutrality. And that’s where the Harmony Institute’s propaganda machines kicks into high gear. On its website, Harmony explains how it will accomplish such behavior conditioning by claiming that:

Although the open Internet is vital to enabling ideas like Facebook and Ebay to flourish, without federal regulation, the Internet is vulnerable to discriminatory practices and corporate gate keeping that will dramatically alter its role in public life. As the web continues to permeate society, the issue of’ net’ neutrality has become integral to the preservation of the country’s most basic liberties.

I want to congratulate the folks at Harmony for at least admitting what Free Press never does, namely, that Net neutrality is a form of regulation. An essential part of the Free Press Net neutrality narrative has always been how Net neutrality is not a form of regulation since they realize that most average Americans will not take kindly to the idea of increasing government control of the Internet. I guess the Harmony Institute people didn’t get the Free Press memo on that one. [BTW, let's see how long the word "regulation" remains on the Harmony site! I bet it disappears shortly.]

Anyway, the rest of the “Net Neutrality for the Win” document is essentially a blueprint for re-engineering public opinion and to get the public panicky about various Chicken Little scenarios of corporate control. The report talks about getting to the “persuadables” on the issue and changing their minds. Of the checklist of ways to accomplish this, Harmony stresses how important it is to “Challenge How People View the Internet.” Well of course you want to challenge how people view the Net when most of them are perfectly happy with it! We can’t have that, after all. They must be reprogrammed to understand they are really not all that happy with their broadband service, regardless of what they currently think.

The document also goes on to note that “Most people think of the Internet in terms of private ownership,” but “The ultimate goal of a narrative campaign should be to update the image of the Internet from a privilege like property ownership, to a public resource like telephone networks.” Of course, this fits in all too perfectly with the vision set forth by Free Press co-founder Robert McChesney, the prolific Marxist media theorist. McChesney has made it clear that “the ultimate goal is to get rid of the media capitalists in the phone and cable companies and to divest them from control.” “What we want to have in the U.S. and in every society is an Internet that is not private property, but a public utility.” So, at least the Harmony folks got the Free Press memo about media and infrastructure control. And killing property rights will be at the heart of this mission. No shock there.

But, according to the Harmony website, the “Net Neutrality for the Win” document is just the beginning of the Harmony-Free Press propaganda campaign:

The second phase of this project will employ the messaging recommendations outlined in the Entertainment and Messaging Guide to Net Neutrality in a six-part animated web show that informs and persuades online audiences of the need to support net neutrality. By consulting with the show’s writing and production team, HI has helped embed issue statements and calls to action within the show’s narrative to further inform the beliefs, attitudes and behaviors of the audience. The end goal is to persuade individuals to take quantifiable steps to positively impact the cause. Each episode is between three-to-ten minutes long, and will be released once a week, over the course of six weeks beginning early 2010.

This is all part of what Harmony calls its “Harmony Institute Method for Entertainment Education”, which seeks “behavior change through narrative entertainment.” (p. 25) Oh, I can’t wait to see how terrifically entertaining this propaganda will be! With a mission of “harnessing entertainment to create transformative action in mainstream audiences,” I can only imagine how Harmony will stop at nothing to help Free Press spread lies, rumors and innuendos in their by-any-means-necessary crusade to impose a comprehensive regulatory regime on the Internet.

The only interesting question is whether Hollywood and other entertainment providers will take the bait or if the Harmony-Free Press propaganda machine will consist mostly of homemade videos of Free Press lackeys shouting at web cams in Mom’s basement. Only time will tell. But I, for one, am hoping for a big screen blockbuster — “The Net After Tomorrow” — in which nefarious corporate schemers block all online speech until trusty Federal Internet Commission regulators — played by Leo DeCaprio and Megan Fox (since all regulators are that hot) — swoop in to foil the wicked scheme and put the State back in control of our media and communications infrastructure. You know, because we can trust Big Government to do the right thing once we hand them the keys.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: