Monthly Archives: October 2010

China’s Cyberposse

March 3, 2010

China’s Cyberposse

The short video made its way around China’s Web in early 2006, passed on through file sharing and recommended in chat rooms. It opens with a middle-aged Asian woman dressed in a leopard-print blouse, knee-length black skirt, stockings and silver stilettos standing next to a riverbank. She smiles, holding a small brown and white kitten in her hands. She gently places the cat on the tiled pavement and proceeds to stomp it to death with the sharp point of her high heel.

“This is not a human,” wrote BrokenGlasses, a user on Mop, a Chinese online forum. “I have no interest in spreading this video nor can I remain silent. I just hope justice can be done.” That first post elicited thousands of responses. “Find her and kick her to death like she did to the kitten,” one user wrote. Then the inquiries started to become more practical: “Is there a front-facing photo so we can see her more clearly?” The human-flesh search had begun.

Human-flesh search engines — renrou sousuo yinqing — have become a Chinese phenomenon: they are a form of online vigilante justice in which Internet users hunt down and punish people who have attracted their wrath. The goal is to get the targets of a search fired from their jobs, shamed in front of their neighbors, run out of town. It’s crowd-sourced detective work, pursued online — with offline results.

There is no portal specially designed for human-flesh searching; the practice takes place in Chinese Internet forums like Mop, where the term most likely originated. Searches are powered by users called wang min, Internet citizens, or Netizens. The word “Netizen” exists in English, but you hear its equivalent used much more frequently in China, perhaps because the public space of the Internet is one of the few places where people can in fact act like citizens. A Netizen called Beacon Bridge No Return found the first clue in the kitten-killer case. “There was credit information before the crush scene reading ‘,’ ” that user wrote. Netizens traced the e-mail address associated with the site to a server in Hangzhou, a couple of hours from Shanghai. A follow-up post asked about the video’s location: “Are users from Hangzhou familiar with this place?” Locals reported that nothing in their city resembled the backdrop in the video. But Netizens kept sifting through the clues, confident they could track down one person in a nation of more than a billion. They were right.

The traditional media picked up the story, and people all across China saw the kitten killer’s photo on television and in newspapers. “I know this woman,” wrote I’m Not Desert Angel four days after the search began. “She’s not in Hangzhou. She lives in the small town I live in here in northeastern China. God, she’s a nurse! That’s all I can say.”

Only six days after the first Mop post about the video, the kitten killer’s home was revealed as the town of Luobei in Heilongjiang Province, in the far northeast, and her name — Wang Jiao — was made public, as were her phone number and her employer. Wang Jiao and the cameraman who filmed her were dismissed from what the Chinese call iron rice bowls, government jobs that usually last to retirement and pay a pension until death.

“Wang Jiao was affected a lot,” a Luobei resident known online as Longjiangbaby told me by e-mail. “She left town and went somewhere else. Li Yuejun, the cameraman, used to be core staff of the local press. He left Luobei, too.” The kitten-killer case didn’t just provide revenge; it helped turn the human-flesh search engine into a national phenomenon.

AT THE BEIJING headquarters of Mop, Ben Du, the site’s head of interactive communities, told me that the Chinese term for human-flesh search engine has been around since 2001, when it was used to describe a search that was human-powered rather than computer-driven. Mop had a forum called human-flesh search engine, where users could pose questions about entertainment trivia that other users would answer: a type of crowd-sourcing. The kitten-killer case and subsequent hunts changed all that. Some Netizens, including Du, argue that the term continues to mean a cooperative, crowd-sourced investigation. “It’s just Netizens helping each other and sharing information,” he told me. But the Chinese public’s primary understanding of the term is no longer so benign. The popular meaning is now not just a search by humans but also a search for humans, initially performed online but intended to cause real-world consequences. Searches have been directed against all kinds of people, including cheating spouses, corrupt government officials, amateur pornography makers, Chinese citizens who are perceived as unpatriotic, journalists who urge a moderate stance on Tibet and rich people who try to game the Chinese system. Human-flesh searches highlight what people are willing to fight for: the political issues, polarizing events and contested moral standards that are the fault lines of contemporary China.

Versions of the human-flesh search have taken place in other countries. In the United States in 2006, one online search singled out a woman who found a cellphone in a New York City taxi and started to use it as her own, rebuffing requests from the phone’s rightful owner to return it. In South Korea in 2005, Internet users identified and shamed a young woman who was caught on video refusing to clean up after her dog on a Seoul subway car. But China is the only place in the world with a nearly universal recognition (among Internet users) of the concept. I met a film director in China who was about to release a feature film based on a human-flesh-search story and a mystery writer who had just published a novel titled “Human-Flesh Search.”

The prevailing narrative in the West about the Chinese Internet is the story of censorship — Google’s threatened withdrawal from China being only the latest episode. But the reality is that in China, as in the United States, most Internet users are far more interested in finding jobs, dates and porn than in engaging in political discourse. “For our generation, the post-’80s generation, I don’t feel like censorship is a critical issue on the Internet,” Jin Liwen, a Chinese technology analyst who lives in America, told me. While there are some specific, highly sensitive areas where the Chinese government tries to control all information — most important, any political activity that could challenge the authority of the Communist Party — the Western media’s focus on censorship can lead to the misconception that the Chinese government utterly dominates online life. The vast majority of what people do on the Internet in China, including most human-flesh-search activity, is ignored by censors and unfettered by government regulation. There are many aspects of life on and off the Internet that the government is unwilling, unable or maybe just uninterested in trying to control.

The focus on censorship also obscures the fact that the Web is not just about free speech. As some human-flesh searches show, an uncontrolled Internet can be menacing as well as liberating.

ON A WINDY NIGHT in late December 2007, a man was headed back to work when he saw someone passed out in the small garden near the entryway to his Beijing office building. The man, who would allow only his last name, Wei, to be published, called over to the security guard for help. A woman standing next to the guard started weeping. Wei was confused.

Wei and the guard entered the yard, but the woman, Jiang Hong, was afraid to follow. As they approached the person, Wei told me, he realized it was the body of someone who fell from the building. Then he understood why Jiang wouldn’t come any closer: the body was that of her sister, Jiang Yan, who jumped from her apartment’s 24th-floor balcony while Hong was in the bathroom. Two days earlier, Yan, who was 31, had tried to commit suicide with sleeping pills — she was separated from her husband, Wang Fei, who was dating another woman — but her sister and her husband had rushed her to the hospital. Now she had succeeded, hitting the ground so hard that her impact left a shallow crater still evident when I visited the site with Wei a year and a half later.

Hong soon discovered that her sister kept a private diary online in the two months leading up to her death and wanted it to be made public after she killed herself. When Hong called her sister’s friends to tell them that Yan had died, she also told them that they could find out why by looking at her blog, now unlocked for public viewing. The online diary, “Migratory Bird Going North,” was more than just a reflection on her adulterous husband and a record of her despair; it was Yan’s countdown to suicide, prompted by the discovery that her husband was cheating on her. The first entry reads: “Two months from now is the day I leave . . . for a place no one knows me, that is new to me. There I won’t need phone, computer or Internet. No one can find me.”

A person who read Yan’s blog decided to repost it, 46 short entries in all, on a popular Chinese online bulletin board called Tianya. Hong posted a reply, expressing sadness over her sister’s death and detailing the ways she thought Yan had helped her husband: supporting him through school, paying for his designer clothes and helping him land a good job. Now, she wrote, Wang wouldn’t even sign his wife’s death certificate until he could come to an agreement with her family about how much he needed to pay them in damages.

Yan’s diaries, coupled with her sister’s account of Wang’s behavior, attracted many angry Tianya users and shot to the top of the list of the most popular threads on the board. One early comment by an anonymous user, referring to Wang and his mistress, reads, “We should take revenge on that couple and drown them in our sputa.” Calls for justice, for vengeance and for a human-flesh search began to spread, not only against Wang but also against his girlfriend. “Those in Beijing, please share with others the scandal of these two,” a Netizen wrote. “Make it impossible for them to stay in this city.”

The search crossed over to other Web sites, then to the mainstream media — so far a crucial multiplier in every major human-flesh search — and Wang Fei became one of China’s most infamous and reviled husbands. Most of Wang’s private information was revealed: cellphone number, student ID, work contacts, even his brother’s license-plate number. One site posted an interactive map charting the locations of everything from Wang’s house to his mistress’s family’s laundry business. “Pay attention when you walk on the street,” wrote Hypocritical Human. “If you ever meet these two, tear their skin off.”

Wang is still in hiding and was unwilling to meet me, but his lawyer, Zhang Yanfeng, told me not long ago: “The human-flesh search has unimaginable power. First it was a lot of phone calls every day. Then people painted red characters on his parents’ front door, which said things like, ‘You caused your wife’s suicide, so you should pay.’ ”

Wang and his mistress, Dong Fang, both worked for the multinational advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. Soon after Netizens revealed this, Saatchi & Saatchi issued a statement reporting that Wang Fei and Dong Fang had voluntarily resigned. Wang’s lawyer says Saatchi pushed the couple out. “All the media have the wrong report,” he says. “[Wang Fei] never quit. He told me that the company fired him.” (Representatives for Saatchi & Saatchi Beijing refused to comment.) Netizens were happy with this outcome but remained vigilant. One Mop user wrote, “To all employers: Never offer Wang Fei or Dong Fang jobs, otherwise Moppers will human-flesh-search you.”

What was peculiar about the human-flesh search against Wang was that it involved almost no searching. His name was revealed in the earliest online-forum posts, and his private information was disclosed shortly after. This wasn’t cooperative detective work; it was public harassment, mass intimidation and populist revenge. Wang actually sought redress in Chinese court and was rewarded very minor damages from an Internet-service provider and a Netizen who Wang claimed had besmirched his reputation. Recently passed tort-law reform may encourage more such lawsuits, but damages awarded thus far in China have been so minor that it’s hard to imagine lawsuits having much impact on the human-flesh search.

FOR A WESTERNER, what is most striking is how different Chinese Internet culture is from our own. News sites and individual blogs aren’t nearly as influential in China, and social networking hasn’t really taken off. What remain most vital are the largely anonymous online forums, where human-flesh searches begin. These forums have evolved into public spaces that are much more participatory, dynamic, populist and perhaps even democratic than anything on the English-language Internet. In the 1980s in the United States, before widespread use of the Internet, B.B.S. stood for bulletin-board system, a collection of posts and replies accessed by dial-up or hard-wired users. Though B.B.S.’s of this original form were popular in China in the early ’90s, before the Web arrived, Chinese now use “B.B.S.” to describe any kind of online forum. Chinese go to B.B.S.’s to find broad-based communities and exchange information about everything from politics to romance.

Jin Liwen, the technology analyst, came of age in China just as Internet access was becoming available and wrote her thesis at M.I.T. on Chinese B.B.S.’s. “In the United States, traditional media are still playing the key role in setting the agenda for the public,” Jin told me. “But in China, you will see that a lot of hot topics, hot news or events actually originate from online discussions.” One factor driving B.B.S. traffic is the dearth of good information in the mainstream media. Print publications and television networks are under state control and cannot cover many controversial issues. B.B.S.’s are where the juicy stories break, spreading through the mainstream media if they get big enough.

“Chinese users just use these online forums for everything,” Jin says. “They look for solutions, they want to have discussions with others and they go there for entertainment. It’s a very sticky platform.” Jin cited a 2007 survey conducted by iResearch showing that nearly 45 percent of Chinese B.B.S. users spend between three and eight hours a day on them and that more than 15 percent spend more than eight hours. While less than a third of China’s population is on the Web, this B.B.S. activity is not as peripheral to Chinese society as it may seem. Internet users tend to be from larger, richer cities and provinces or from the elite, educated class of more remote regions and thus wield influence far greater than their numbers suggest.

I found the intensity of the Wang Fei search difficult to understand. Wang Fei and Jiang Yan were separated and heading toward divorce, and what he did cannot be uncommon. How had the structure of the B.B.S. allowed mass opinion to be so effectively rallied against this one man? I tracked down Wang Lixue, a woman who goes by the online handle Chali and moderates a subforum on (China’s largest search engine, with its own B.B.S.) that is devoted entirely to discussions about Jiang Yan. Chali was careful to distance herself from the human-flesh search that found Wang Fei and Dong Fang. “That kind of thing won’t solve any problems,” she told me. “It’s not good for either side.” But she didn’t exactly apologize. “Everyone was so angry, so irrational,” Chali says. “It was a sensitive period. So I understand the people who did the human-flesh search. If a person doesn’t do anything wrong, they won’t be human-flesh-searched.”

Chali was moved by the powerful feeling that Wang shouldn’t be allowed to escape censure for his role in his wife’s suicide. “I want to know what is going to happen if I get married and have a similar experience,” Chali says. “I want to know if the law or something could protect me and give me some kind of security.” It struck me as an unusual wish — that the law could guard her from heartbreak. Chali wasn’t only angry about Jiang Yan’s suicide; she also wanted to improve things for herself and others. “The goal is to commemorate Jiang Yan and to have an objective discussion about adultery, to talk about what you want in your marriage, to find new opinions and have a better life,” Chali says. Her forum was the opposite of the vengeful populism found on some B.B.S.’s. The frenzy of the occasional human-flesh search attracts many Netizens to B.B.S.’s, but the bigger day-to-day draw, as in Chali’s case, is the desire for a community in which people can work out the problems they face in a country where life is changing more quickly than anyone could ever have imagined.

THE PLUM GARDEN Seafood Restaurant stands on a six-lane road that cuts through Shenzhen, a fishing village turned factory boomtown. It has a subterranean dining room with hundreds of orange-covered seats, an open kitchen to one side and a warren of small private rooms to the other. Late on a Friday night in October 2008, a security camera captured a scene that was soon replayed all over the Chinese Internet and sparked a human-flesh search against a government official.

In the video clip, an older man crosses the background with a little girl. Later the girl runs back through the frame and returns with her father, mother and brother. The subtitles tell us that the old man had tried to force the girl into the men’s room, presumably to molest her, and that her father is trying to find the man who did that. Then the girl’s father appears in front of the camera, arguing with that man.

There is no sound on the video, so you have to rely on the Chinese subtitles, which seem to have been posted with the video. According to those subtitles, the older man tells the father of the girl: “I did it, so what? How much money do you want? Name your price.” He gestures violently and continues: “Do you know who I am? I am from the Ministry of Transportation in Beijing. I have the same level as the mayor of your city. So what if I grabbed the neck of a small child? If you dare challenge me, just wait and see how I will deal with you.” He moves to leave but is blocked by restaurant employees and the girl’s father. The group exits frame left.

The video was first posted on a Web site called Netease, whose slogan is “The Internet can gather power from the people.” The eighth Netizen comment reads: “Have you seen how proud he was? He’s a dead man now.” Later someone chimed in, “Another official riding roughshod over the people!” The human-flesh search began. Users quickly matched a public photo of a local party official to the older man in the video and identified him as Lin Jiaxiang from the Shenzhen Maritime Administration. “Kill him,” wrote a user named Xunleixing. “Otherwise China will be destroyed by people of this kind.”

While Netizens saw this as a struggle between an arrogant official and a victimized family of common people, the staff members at Plum Garden, when I spoke to them, had a different take. First, they weren’t sure that Lin had been trying to molest the girl. Perhaps, they thought, he was just drunk. The floor director, Zhang Cai Yao, told me, “Maybe the government official just patted the girl on the head and tried to say, ‘Thank you, you’re a nice girl.’ ” Zhang saw the struggle between Lin and the family as a kind of conflict she witnessed all too often. “It was a fight between rich people and officials,” she says. “The official said something irritating to her parents, who are very rich.”

Police said they did not have sufficient evidence to prosecute Lin, but that didn’t stop the government from firing him. It was the same kind of summary dismissal as in the kitten-killer case — Lin drew attention to himself, and so it was time to go. The government had the technology and the power to make a story like this one disappear, yet it didn’t stand up to the Netizens. That is perhaps because this search took aim at a provincial-level official; there have been no publicized human-flesh searches against central-government officials in Beijing or their offspring, even though many of them are considered corrupt.

Rebecca MacKinnon, a visiting fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy, argues that China’s central government may actually be happy about searches that focus on localized corruption. “The idea that you manage the local bureaucracy by sicking the masses on them is actually not a democratic tradition but a Maoist tradition,” she told me. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao encouraged citizens to rise up against local officials who were bourgeois or corrupt, and human-flesh searches have been tagged by some as Red Guard 2.0. It’s easy to denounce the tyranny of the online masses when you live in a country that has strong rule of law and institutions that address public corruption, but in China the human-flesh search engine is one of the only ways that ordinary citizens can try to go after corrupt local officials. Cases like the Lin Jiaxiang search, as imperfect as their outcomes may be, are examples of the human-flesh search as a potential mechanism for checking government excess.

The human-flesh search engine can also serve as a safety valve in a society with ever mounting pressures on the government. “You can’t stop the anger, can’t make everyone shut up, can’t stop the Internet, so you try and channel it as best you can. You try and manage it, kind of like a waterworks hydroelectric project,” MacKinnon explained. “It’s a great way to divert the qi, the anger, to places where it’s the least damaging to the central government’s legitimacy.”

THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT has proved particularly adept at harnessing, managing and, when necessary, containing the nationalist passions of its citizens, especially those people the Chinese call fen qing, or angry youth. Instead of wondering, in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, why the world was so upset about China’s handling of Tibet, popular sentiment in China was channeled against dissenting individuals, painted as traitors. One young Chinese woman, Grace Wang, became the target of a human-flesh search after she tried to mediate between pro-Tibet and pro-China protesters at Duke University, where she is an undergraduate. Wang told me that her mother’s home in China was vandalized by human-flesh searchers. Wang’s mother was not harmed — popular uprisings are usually kept under tight control by the government when they threaten to erupt into real violence — but Wang told me she is afraid to return to China. Certain national events, like the Tibet activism before the 2008 Olympics or the large-scale loss of life from the Sichuan earthquake, often produce a flurry of human-flesh searches. Recent searches seem to be more political — taking aim at things like government corruption or a supposedly unpatriotic citizenry — and less focused on the kind of private transgressions that inspired earlier searches.

After the earthquake, in May 2008, users on the B.B.S. of Douban, a Web site devoted to books, movies and music, discussed the government’s response to the earthquake. A woman who went by the handle Diebao argued that the government was using the earthquake to rally nationalist sentiment, and that, she wrote, was an exploitation of the tragedy. Netizens challenged Diebao’s arguments, saying that it was only right for China to speak in one voice after such a catastrophe. These were heady days, and the people who disagreed with Diebao weren’t content to leave it at that. In Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong, Feng Junhua, a 25-year-old man who on the Internet goes by the handle Hval, was getting worried. Feng spent a lot of time on Douban, and, he told me later, he saw where the disagreement with Diebao was going — the righteous massing against the dissenter. He e-mailed Diebao, who lived in Sichuan Province, to warn her of the danger and urge her to stop fighting with the other Netizens. “I found out that the other people were going to threaten her with the human-flesh search engine,” he told me. “She wrote back to me, saying she wanted to talk them out of it.”

The group started to dig through everything Diebao had written on the Internet, desperate to find more reasons to attack her. They found what they were looking for, a stream-of-consciousness blog entry Diebao posted right after the earthquake hit: “I felt really excited when the earthquake hit. I know this experience might happen once in a lifetime. When I watched the news at my aunt’s place, I found out that it caused five people to die. I feel so good, but that’s not enough. I think more people should die.” Diebao wrote this right after the earthquake struck her city, possibly while she was still in shock and before she knew the extent of the damage.

The group tried to use this post to initiate a human-flesh search against Diebao. At first it didn’t succeed — no one responded to the calls for a search. (There are hundreds, maybe thousands of attempts each week for all kinds of human-flesh searches, the vast majority of which do not amount to much.) Finally they figured out a way to make their post “sparkle,” as they say in Chinese, titling it, “She Said the Quake Was Not Strong Enough” and writing, of Diebao: “We cannot bear that an adult in such hard times didn’t feel ashamed for not being able to help but instead was saying nonsense, with little respect for other people’s lives. She should not be called a human. We think we have to give her a lesson. We hereby call for a human-flesh search on her!”

This time it took hold. A user named Little Dumpling joined the pile-on, writing: “Earthquake, someone is calling you. Please move your epicenter right below [Diebao’s] computer desk.” Juana0906 asked: “How could she be so coldblooded? Her statement did greater harm to the victims than the earthquake.” Then from Expecting Bull Market, the obligatory refrain in almost every human-flesh search, “Is she a human?”

Feng, the user who tried to warn Diebao of the impending search, became angry that so many people were going after Diebao. “I cannot stand seeing the strong beating the weak,” he told me. “I thought I should protect the right of free speech. She can say anything she wants. I think that she just didn’t think before she spoke.” But the searchers managed to rally users against Diebao. “Her school read a lot of aggressive comments on the Internet and got pressure from Netizens asking them to kick out this girl,” Feng told me. Shortly after the human-flesh search began, Diebao was expelled from her university. “The school announced that it was for her own safety, to protect her,” Feng says.

Feng decided to get revenge on the human-flesh searchers. He and a few other users started a human-flesh search of their own, patiently matching back the anonymous ID’s of the people who organized against Diebao to similar-sounding names on school bulletin boards, auction sites and help-wanted ads. Eventually he assembled a list of the real identities of Diebao’s persecutors. “When we got the information, we had to think about what we should do with it,” Feng says. “Should we use it to attack the group?”

Feng stopped and thought about what he was about to do. “When we tried to fight evil, we found ourselves becoming evil,” he says. He abandoned the human-flesh search and destroyed all the information he had uncovered.

Tom Downey is the author of “The Last Men Out: Life on the Edge at Rescue 2 Firehouse.”

Mind Games

Mind Games

New on the Internet: a community of people who believe the government is beaming voices into their minds. They may be crazy, but the Pentagon has pursued a weapon that can do just that.

By Sharon Weinberger

Sunday, January 14, 2007

IF HARLAN GIRARD IS CRAZY, HE DOESN’T ACT THE PART. He is standing just where he said he would be, below the Philadelphia train station’s World War II memorial — a soaring statue of a winged angel embracing a fallen combatant, as if lifting him to heaven. Girard is wearing pressed khaki pants, expensive-looking leather loafers and a crisp blue button-down. He looks like a local businessman dressed for a casual Friday — a local businessman with a wickedly dark sense of humor, which had become apparent when he said to look for him beneath “the angel sodomizing a dead soldier.” At 70, he appears robust and healthy — not the slightest bit disheveled or unusual-looking. He is also carrying a bag.

Girard’s description of himself is matter-of-fact, until he explains what’s in the bag: documents he believes prove that the government is attempting to control his mind. He carries that black, weathered bag everywhere he goes. “Every time I go out, I’m prepared to come home and find everything is stolen,” he says.

The bag aside, Girard appears intelligent and coherent. At a table in front of Dunkin’ Donuts inside the train station, Girard opens the bag and pulls out a thick stack of documents, carefully labeled and sorted with yellow sticky notes bearing neat block print. The documents are an authentic-looking mix of news stories, articles culled from military journals and even some declassified national security documents that do seem to show that the U.S. government has attempted to develop weapons that send voices into people’s heads.

“It’s undeniable that the technology exists,” Girard says, “but if you go to the police and say, ‘I’m hearing voices,’ they’re going to lock you up for psychiatric evaluation.”

The thing that’s missing from his bag — the lack of which makes it hard to prove he isn’t crazy — is even a single document that would buttress the implausible notion that the government is currently targeting a large group of American citizens with mind-control technology. The only direct evidence for that, Girard admits, lies with alleged victims such as himself.

And of those, there are many.

IT’S 9:01 P.M. WHEN THE FIRST PERSON SPEAKS during the Saturday conference call.

Unsure whether anyone else is on the line yet, the female caller throws out the first question: “You got gang stalking or V2K?” she asks no one in particular.

There’s a short, uncomfortable pause.

“V2K, really bad. 24-7,” a man replies.

“Gang stalking,” another woman says.

“Oh, yeah, join the club,” yet another man replies.

The members of this confessional “club” are not your usual victims. This isn’t a group for alcoholics, drug addicts or survivors of childhood abuse; the people connecting on the call are self-described victims of mind control — people who believe they have been targeted by a secret government program that tracks them around the clock, using technology to probe and control their minds.

The callers frequently refer to themselves as TIs, which is short for Targeted Individuals, and talk about V2K — the official military abbreviation stands for “voice to skull” and denotes weapons that beam voices or sounds into the head. In their esoteric lexicon, “gang stalking” refers to the belief that they are being followed and harassed: by neighbors, strangers or colleagues who are agents for the government.

A few more “hellos” are exchanged, interrupted by beeps signaling late arrivals: Bill from Columbus, Barbara from Philadelphia, Jim from California and a dozen or so others.

Derrick Robinson, the conference call moderator, calls order.

“It’s five after 9,” says Robinson, with the sweetly reasonable intonation of a late-night radio host. “Maybe we should go ahead and start.”

THE IDEA OF A GROUP OF PEOPLE CONVINCED THEY ARE TARGETED BY WEAPONS that can invade their minds has become a cultural joke, shorthanded by the image of solitary lunatics wearing tinfoil hats to deflect invisible mind beams. “Tinfoil hat,” says Wikipedia, has become “a popular stereotype and term of derision; the phrase serves as a byword for paranoia and is associated with conspiracy theorists.”

In 2005, a group of MIT students conducted a formal study using aluminum foil and radio signals. Their surprising finding: Tinfoil hats may actually amplify radio frequency signals. Of course, the tech students meant the study as a joke.

But during the Saturday conference call, the subject of aluminum foil is deadly serious. The MIT study had prompted renewed debate; while a few TIs realized it was a joke at their expense, some saw the findings as an explanation for why tinfoil didn’t seem to stop the voices. Others vouched for the material.

“Tinfoil helps tremendously,” reports one conference call participant, who describes wrapping it around her body underneath her clothing.

“Where do you put the tinfoil?” a man asks.

“Anywhere, everywhere,” she replies. “I even put it in a hat.”

A TI in an online mind-control forum recommends a Web site called “Block EMF” (as in electromagnetic frequencies), which advertises a full line of clothing, including aluminum-lined boxer shorts described as a “sheer, comfortable undergarment you can wear over your regular one to shield yourself from power lines and computer electric fields, and microwave, radar, and TV radiation.” Similarly, a tinfoil hat disguised as a regular baseball cap is “smart and subtle.”

For all the scorn, the ranks of victims — or people who believe they are victims — are speaking up. In the course of the evening, there are as many as 40 clicks from people joining the call, and much larger numbers participate in the online forum, which has 143 members. A note there mentioning interest from a journalist prompted more than 200 e-mail responses.

Until recently, people who believe the government is beaming voices into their heads would have added social isolation to their catalogue of woes. But now, many have discovered hundreds, possibly thousands, of others just like them all over the world. Web sites dedicated to electronic harassment and gang stalking have popped up in India, China, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, Russia and elsewhere. Victims have begun to host support meetings in major cities, including Washington. Favorite topics at the meetings include lessons on how to build shields (the proverbial tinfoil hats), media and PR training, and possible legal strategies for outlawing mind control.

The biggest hurdle for TIs is getting people to take their concerns seriously. A proposal made in 2001 by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) to ban “psychotronic weapons” (another common term for mind-control technology) was hailed by TIs as a great step forward. But the bill was widely derided by bloggers and columnists and quickly dropped.

Doug Gordon, Kucinich’s spokesman, would not discuss mind control other than to say the proposal was part of broader legislation outlawing weapons in space. The bill was later reintroduced, minus the mind control. “It was not the concentration of the legislation, which is why it was tightened up and redrafted,” was all Gordon would say.

Unable to garner much support from their elected representatives, TIs have started their own PR campaign. And so, last spring, the Saturday conference calls centered on plans to hold a rally in Washington. A 2005 attempt at a rally drew a few dozen people and was ultimately rained out; the TIs were determined to make another go of it. Conversations focused around designing T-shirts, setting up congressional appointments, fundraising, creating a new Web site and formalizing a slogan. After some debate over whether to focus on gang stalking or mind control, the group came up with a compromise slogan that covered both: “Freedom From Covert Surveillance and Electronic Harassment.”

Conference call moderator Robinson, who says his gang stalking began when he worked at the National Security Agency in the 1980s, offers his assessment of the group’s prospects: Maybe this rally wouldn’t produce much press, but it’s a first step. “I see this as a movement,” he says. “We’re picking up people all the time.”

HARLAN GIRARD SAYS HIS PROBLEMS BEGAN IN 1983, while he was a real estate developer in Los Angeles. The harassment was subtle at first: One day a woman pulled up in a car, wagged her finger at him, then sped away; he saw people running underneath his window at night; he noticed some of his neighbors seemed to be watching him; he heard someone moving in the crawl space under his apartment at night.

Girard sought advice from this then-girlfriend, a practicing psychologist, whom he declines to identify. He says she told him, “Nobody can become psychotic in their late 40s.” She said he didn’t seem to manifest other symptoms of psychotic behavior — he dressed well, paid his bills — and, besides his claims of surveillance, which sounded paranoid, he behaved normally. “People who are psychotic are socially isolated,” he recalls her saying.

After a few months, Girard says, the harassment abruptly stopped. But the respite didn’t last. In 1984, appropriately enough, things got seriously weird. He’d left his real estate career to return to school at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was studying for a master’s degree in landscape architecture. He harbored dreams of designing parks and public spaces. Then, he says, he began to hear voices. Girard could distinguish several different male voices, which came complete with a mental image of how the voices were being generated: from a recording studio, with “four slops sitting around a card table drinking beer,” he says.

The voices were crass but also strangely courteous, addressing him as “Mr. Girard.”

They taunted him. They asked him if he thought he was normal; they suggested he was going crazy. They insulted his classmates: When an overweight student showed up for a field trip in a white raincoat, they said, “Hey, Mr. Girard, doesn’t she look like a refrigerator?”

Six months after the voices began, they had another question for him: “Mr. Girard, Mr. Girard. Why aren’t you dead yet?” At first, he recalls, the voices would speak just two or three times a day, but it escalated into a near-constant cacophony, often accompanied by severe pain all over his body — which Girard now attributes to directed-energy weapons that can shoot invisible beams.

The voices even suggested how he could figure out what was happening to him. He says they told him to go to the electrical engineering department to “tell them you’re writing science fiction and you don’t want to write anything inconsistent with physical reality. Then tell them exactly what has happened.”

Girard went and got some rudimentary explanations of how technology could explain some of the things he was describing.

“Finally, I said: ‘Look, I must come to the point, because I need answers. This is happening to me; it’s not science fiction.'” They laughed.

He got the same response from friends, he says. “They regarded me as crazy, which is a humiliating experience.”

When asked why he didn’t consult a doctor about the voices and the pain, he says, “I don’t dare start talking to people because of the potential stigma of it all. I don’t want to be treated differently. Here I was in Philadelphia. Something was going on, I don’t know any doctors . . . I know somebody’s doing something to me.”

It was a struggle to graduate, he says, but he was determined, and he persevered. In 1988, the same year he finished his degree, his father died, leaving Girard an inheritance large enough that he did not have to work.

So, instead of becoming a landscape architect, Girard began a full-time investigation of what was happening to him, often traveling to Washington in pursuit of government documents relating to mind control. He put an ad in a magazine seeking other victims. Only a few people responded. But over the years, as he met more and more people like himself, he grew convinced that he was part of what he calls an “electronic concentration camp.”

What he was finding on his research trips also buttressed his belief: Girard learned that in the 1950s, the CIA had drugged unwitting victims with LSD as part of a rogue mind-control experiment called MK-ULTRA. He came across references to the CIA seeking to influence the mind with electromagnetic fields. Then he found references in an academic research book to work that military researchers at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research had done in the 1970s with pulsed microwaves to transmit words that a subject would hear in his head. Elsewhere, he came across references to attempts to use electromagnetic energy, sound waves or microwave beams to cause non-lethal pain to the body. For every symptom he experienced, he believed he found references to a weapon that could cause it.

How much of the research Girard cites checks out?

Concerns about microwaves and mind control date to the 1960s, when the U.S. government discovered that its embassy in Moscow was being bombarded by low-level electromagnetic radiation. In 1965, according to declassified Defense Department documents, the Pentagon, at the behest of the White House, launched Project Pandora, top-secret research to explore the behavioral and biological effects of low-level microwaves. For approximately four years, the Pentagon conducted secret research: zapping monkeys; exposing unwitting sailors to microwave radiation; and conducting a host of other unusual experiments (a sub-project of Project Pandora was titled Project Bizarre). The results were mixed, and the program was plagued by disagreements and scientific squabbles. The “Moscow signal,” as it was called, was eventually attributed to eavesdropping, not mind control, and Pandora ended in 1970. And with it, the military’s research into so-called non-thermal microwave effects seemed to die out, at least in the unclassified realm.

But there are hints of ongoing research: An academic paper written for the Air Force in the mid-1990s mentions the idea of a weapon that would use sound waves to send words into a person’s head. “The signal can be a ‘message from God’ that can warn the enemy of impending doom, or encourage the enemy to surrender,” the author concluded.

In 2002, the Air Force Research Laboratory patented precisely such a technology: using microwaves to send words into someone’s head. That work is frequently cited on mind-control Web sites. Rich Garcia, a spokesman for the research laboratory’s directed energy directorate, declined to discuss that patent or current or related research in the field, citing the lab’s policy not to comment on its microwave work.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed for this article, the Air Force released unclassified documents surrounding that 2002 patent — records that note that the patent was based on human experimentation in October 1994 at the Air Force lab, where scientists were able to transmit phrases into the heads of human subjects, albeit with marginal intelligibility. Research appeared to continue at least through 2002. Where this work has gone since is unclear — the research laboratory, citing classification, refused to discuss it or release other materials.

The official U.S. Air Force position is that there are no non-thermal effects of microwaves. Yet Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center, tagged microwave attacks against the human brain as part of future warfare in a 2001 presentation to the National Defense Industrial Association about “Future Strategic Issues.”

“That work is exceedingly sensitive” and unlikely to be reported in any unclassified documents, he says.

Meanwhile, the military’s use of weapons that employ electromagnetic radiation to create pain is well-known, as are some of the limitations of such weapons. In 2001, the Pentagon declassified one element of this research: the Active Denial System, a weapon that uses electromagnetic radiation to heat skin and create an intense burning sensation. So, yes, there is technology designed to beam painful invisible rays at humans, but the weapon seems to fall far short of what could account for many of the TIs’ symptoms. While its exact range is classified, Doug Beason, an expert in directed-energy weapons, puts it at about 700 meters, and the beam cannot penetrate a number of materials, such as aluminum. Considering the size of the full-scale weapon, which resembles a satellite dish, and its operational limitations, the ability of the government or anyone else to shoot beams at hundreds of people — on city streets, into their homes and while they travel in cars and planes — is beyond improbable.

But, given the history of America’s clandestine research, it’s reasonable to assume that if the defense establishment could develop mind-control or long-distance ray weapons, it almost certainly would. And, once developed, the possibility that they might be tested on innocent civilians could not be categorically dismissed.

Girard, for his part, believes these weapons were not only developed but were also tested on him more than 20 years ago.

What would the government gain by torturing him? Again, Girard found what he believed to be an explanation, or at least a precedent: During the Cold War, the government conducted radiation experiments on scores of unwitting victims, essentially using them as human guinea pigs. Girard came to believe that he, too, was a walking experiment.

Not that Girard thinks his selection was totally random: He believes he was targeted because of a disparaging remark he made to a Republican fundraiser about George H.W. Bush in the early 1980s. Later, Girard says, the voices confirmed his suspicion.

“One night I was going to bed; the usual drivel was going on,” he says. “The constant stream of drivel. I was just about to go to bed, and a voice says: ‘Mr. Girard, do you know who was in our studio with us? That was George Bush, vice president of the United States.'”

GIRARD’S STORY, HOWEVER STRANGE, reflects what TIs around the world report: a chance encounter with a government agency or official, followed by surveillance and gang stalking, and then, in many cases, voices, and pain similar to electric shocks. Some in the community have taken it upon themselves to document as many cases as possible. One TI from California conducted about 50 interviews, narrowing the symptoms down to several major areas: “ringing in the ears,” “manipulation of body parts,” “hearing voices,” “piercing sensation on skin,” “sinus problems” and “sexual attacks.” In fact, the TI continued, “many report the sensation of having their genitalia manipulated.”

Both male and female TIs report a variety of “attacks” to their sexual organs. “My testicles became so sore I could barely walk,” Girard says of his early experiences. Others, however, report the attacks in the form of sexual stimulation, including one TI who claims he dropped out of the seminary after constant sexual stimulation by directed-energy weapons. Susan Sayler, a TI in San Diego, says many women among the TIs suffer from attacks to their sexual organs but are often embarrassed to talk about it with outsiders.

“It’s sporadic, you just never know when it will happen,” she says. “A lot of the women say it’s as soon as you lay down in bed — that’s when you would get hit the worst. It happened to me as I was driving, at odd times.”

What made her think it was an electronic attack and not just in her head? “There was no sexual attraction to a man when it would happen. That’s what was wrong. It did not feel like a muscle spasm or whatever,” she says. “It’s so . . . electronic.”

Gloria Naylor, a renowned African American writer, seems to defy many of the stereotypes of someone who believes in mind control. A winner of the National Book Award, Naylor is best known for her acclaimed novel, The Women of Brewster Place, which described a group of women living in a poor urban neighborhood and was later made into a miniseries by Oprah Winfrey.

But in 2005, she published a lesser-known work, 1996, a semi-autobiographical book describing her experience as a TI. “I didn’t want to tell this story. It’s going to take courage. Perhaps more courage than I possess, but they’ve left me no alternatives,” Naylor writes at the beginning of her book. “I am in a battle for my mind. If I stop now, they’ll have won, and I will lose myself.” The book is coherent, if hard to believe. It’s also marked by disturbing passages describing how Jewish American agents were responsible for Naylor’s surveillance. “Of the many cars that kept coming and going down my road, most were driven by Jews,” she writes in the book. When asked about that passage in a recent interview, she defended her logic: Being from New York, she claimed, she can recognize Jews.

Naylor lives on a quiet street in Brooklyn in a majestic brownstone with an interior featuring intricate woodwork and tasteful decorations that attest to a successful literary career. She speaks about her situation calmly, occasionally laughing at her own predicament and her struggle with what she originally thought was mental illness. “I would observe myself,” she explains. “I would lie in bed while the conversations were going on, and I’d ask: Maybe it is schizophrenia?”

Like Girard, Naylor describes what she calls “street theater” — incidents that might be dismissed by others as coincidental, but which Naylor believes were set up. She noticed suspicious cars driving by her isolated vacation home. On an airplane, fellow passengers mimicked her every movement — like mimes on a street.

Voices similar to those in Girard’s case followed — taunting voices cursing her, telling her she was stupid, that she couldn’t write. Expletive-laced language filled her head. Naylor sought help from a psychiatrist and received a prescription for an antipsychotic drug. But the medication failed to stop the voices, she says, which only added to her conviction that the harassment was real.

For almost four years, Naylor says, the voices prevented her from writing. In 2000, she says, around the time she discovered the mind-control forums, the voices stopped and the surveillance tapered off. It was then that she began writing 1996 as a “catharsis.”

Colleagues urged Naylor not to publish the book, saying she would destroy her reputation. But she did publish, albeit with a small publishing house. The book was generally ignored by critics but embraced by TIs.

Naylor is not the first writer to describe such a personal descent. Evelyn Waugh, one of the great novelists of the 20th century, details similar experiences in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Waugh’s book, published in 1957, has eerie similarities to Naylor’s.

Embarking on a recuperative cruise, Pinfold begins to hear voices on the ship that he believes are part of a wireless system capable of broadcasting into his head; he believes the instigator recruited fellow passengers to act as operatives; and he describes “performances” put on by passengers directed at him yet meant to look innocuous to others.

Waugh wrote his book several years after recovering from a similar episode and realizing that the voices and paranoia were the result of drug-induced hallucinations.

Naylor, who hasn’t written a book since 1996, is now back at work on an historical novel she hopes will return her to the literary mainstream. She remains convinced that she was targeted by mind control. The many echoes of her ordeal she sees on the mind-control forums reassure her she’s not crazy, she says.

Of course, some of the things she sees on the forum do strike her as crazy. “But who I am to say?” she says. “Maybe I sound crazy to somebody else.”

SOME TIS, SUCH AS ED MOORE, A YOUNG MEDICAL DOCTOR, take a slightly more skeptical approach. He criticizes what he calls the “wacky claims” of TIs who blame various government agencies or groups of people without any proof. “I have yet to see a claim of who is behind this that has any data to support it,” he writes.

Nonetheless, Moore still believes the voices in his head are the result of mind control and that the U.S. government is the most likely culprit. Moore started hearing voices in 2003, just as he completed his medical residency in anesthesiology; he was pulling an all-nighter studying for board exams when he heard voices coming from a nearby house commenting on him, on his abilities as a doctor, on his sanity. At first, he thought he was simply overhearing conversations through walls (much as Waugh’s fictional alter ego first thought), but when no one else could hear the voices, he realized they were in his head. Moore went through a traumatic two years, including hospitalization for depression with auditory hallucinations.

“One tries to convince friends and family that you are being electronically harassed with voices that only you can hear,” he writes in an e-mail. “You learn to stop doing that. They don’t believe you, and they become sad and concerned, and it amplifies your own depression when you have voices screaming at you and your friends and family looking at you as a helpless, sick, mentally unbalanced wreck.”

He says he grew frustrated with anti-psychotic medications meant to stop the voices, both because the treatments didn’t work and because psychiatrists showed no interest in what the voices were telling him. He began to look for some other way to cope.

“In March of 2005, I started looking up support groups on the Internet,” he wrote. “My wife would cry when she would see these sites, knowing I still heard voices, but I did not know what else to do.” In 2006, he says, his wife, who had stood by him for three years, filed for divorce.

Moore, like other TIs, is cautious about sharing details of his life. He worries about looking foolish to friends and colleagues — but he says that risk is ultimately worthwhile if he can bring attention to the issue.

With his father’s financial help, Moore is now studying for an electrical engineering degree at the University of Texas at San Antonio, hoping to prove that V2K, the technology to send voices into people’s heads, is real. Being in school, around other people, helps him cope, he writes, but the voices continue to taunt him.

Recently, he says, they told him: “We’ll never stop [messing] with you.”

A WEEK BEFORE THE TIS RALLY ON THE NATIONAL MALL, John Alexander, one of the people whom Harlan Girard holds personally responsible for the voices in his head, is at a Chili’s restaurant in Crystal City explaining over a Philly cheese steak and fries why the United States needs mind-control weapons.

A former Green Beret who served in Vietnam, Alexander went on to a number of national security jobs, and rubbed shoulders with prominent military and political leaders. Long known for taking an interest in exotic weapons, his 1980 article, “The New Mental Battlefield,” published in the Army journal Military Review, is cited by self-described victims as proof of his complicity in mind control. Now retired from the government and living in Las Vegas, Alexander continues to advise the military. He is in the Washington area that day for an official meeting.

Beneath a shock of white hair is the mind of a self-styled military thinker. Alexander belongs to a particular set of Pentagon advisers who consider themselves defense intellectuals, focusing on big-picture issues, future threats and new capabilities. Alexander’s career led him from work on sticky foam that would stop an enemy in his or her tracks to dalliances in paranormal studies and psychics, which he still defends as operationally useful.

In an earlier phone conversation, Alexander said that in the 1990s, when he took part in briefings at the CIA, there was never any talk of “mind control, or mind-altering drugs or technologies, or anything like that.”

According to Alexander, the military and intelligence agencies were still scared by the excesses of MK-ULTRA, the infamous CIA program that involved, in part, slipping LSD to unsuspecting victims. “Until recently, anything that smacked of [mind control] was extremely dangerous” because Congress would simply take the money away, he said.

Alexander acknowledged that “there were some abuses that took place,” but added that, on the whole, “I would argue we threw the baby out with the bath water.”

But September 11, 2001, changed the mood in Washington, and some in the national security community are again expressing interest in mind control, particularly a younger generation of officials who weren’t around for MK-ULTRA. “It’s interesting, that it’s coming back,” Alexander observed.

While Alexander scoffs at the notion that he is somehow part of an elaborate plot to control people’s minds, he acknowledges support for learning how to tap into a potential enemy’s brain. He gives as an example the possible use of functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, for lie detection. “Brain mapping” with fMRI theoretically could allow interrogators to know when someone is lying by watching for activity in particular parts of the brain. For interrogating terrorists, fMRI could come in handy, Alexander suggests. But any conceivable use of the technique would fall far short of the kind of mind-reading TIs complain about.

Alexander also is intrigued by the possibility of using electronic means to modify behavior. The dilemma of the war on terrorism, he notes, is that it never ends. So what do you do with enemies, such as those at Guantanamo: keep them there forever? That’s impractical. Behavior modification could be an alternative, he says.

“Maybe I can fix you, or electronically neuter you, so it’s safe to release you into society, so you won’t come back and kill me,” Alexander says. It’s only a matter of time before technology allows that scenario to come true, he continues. “We’re now getting to where we can do that.” He pauses for a moment to take a bite of his sandwich. “Where does that fall in the ethics spectrum? That’s a really tough question.”

When Alexander encounters a query he doesn’t want to answer, such as one about the ethics of mind control, he smiles and raises his hands level to his chest, as if balancing two imaginary weights. In one hand is mind control and the sanctity of free thought — and in the other hand, a tad higher — is the war on terrorism.

But none of this has anything to do with the TIs, he says. “Just because things are secret, people tend to extrapolate. Common sense does not prevail, and even when you point out huge leaps in logic that just cannot be true, they are not dissuaded.”

WHAT IS IT THAT BRINGS SOMEONE, EVEN AN INTELLIGENT PERSON, to ascribe the experience of hearing disembodied voices to government weapons?

In her book, Abducted, Harvard psychologist Susan Clancy examines a group that has striking parallels to the TIs: people who believe they’ve been kidnapped by aliens. The similarities are often uncanny: Would-be abductees describe strange pains, and feelings of being watched or targeted. And although the alleged abductees don’t generally have auditory hallucinations, they do sometimes believe that their thoughts are controlled by aliens, or that they’ve been implanted with advanced technology.

(On the online forum, some TIs posted vociferous objections to the parallel, concerned that the public finds UFOs even weirder than mind control. “It will keep us all marginalized and discredited,” one griped.)

Clancy argues that the main reason people believe they’ve been abducted by aliens is that it provides them with a compelling narrative to explain their perception that strange things have happened to them, such as marks on their bodies (marks others would simply dismiss as bruises), stimulation to their sexual organs (as the TIs describe) or feelings of paranoia. “It’s not just an explanation for your problems; it’s a source of meaning for your life,” Clancy says.

In the case of TIs, mind-control weapons are an explanation for the voices they hear in their head. Socrates heard a voice and thought it was a demon; Joan of Arc heard voices from God. As one TI noted in an e-mail: “Each person undergoing this harassment is looking for the solution to the problem. Each person analyzes it through his or her own particular spectrum of beliefs. If you are a scientific-minded person, then you will probably analyze the situation from that perspective and conclude it must be done with some kind of electronic devices. If you are a religious person, you will see it as a struggle between the elements of whatever religion you believe in. If you are maybe, perhaps more eccentric, you may think that it is alien in nature.”

Or, if you happen to live in the United States in the early 21st century, you may fear the growing power of the NSA, CIA and FBI.

Being a victim of government surveillance is also, arguably, better than being insane. In Waugh’s novella based on his own painful experience, when Pinfold concludes that hidden technology is being used to infiltrate his brain, he “felt nothing but gratitude in his discovery.” Why? “He might be unpopular; he might be ridiculous; but he was not mad.”

Ralph Hoffman, a professor of psychiatry at Yale who has studied auditory hallucinations, regularly sees people who believe the voices are a part of government harassment (others believe they are God, dead relatives or even ex-girlfriends). Not all people who hear voices are schizophrenic, he says, noting that people can hear voices episodically in highly emotional states. What exactly causes these voices is still unknown, but one thing is certain: People who think the voices are caused by some external force are rarely dissuaded from their delusional belief, he says. “These are highly emotional and gripping experiences that are so compelling for them that ordinary reality seems bland.”

Perhaps because the experience is so vivid, he says, even some of those who improve through treatment merely decide the medical regimen somehow helped protect their brain from government weapons.

Scott Temple, a professor of psychiatry at Penn State University who has been involved in two recent studies of auditory hallucinations, notes that those who suffer such hallucinations frequently lack insight into their illness. Even among those who do understand they are sick, “that awareness comes and goes,” he says. “People feel overwhelmed, and the delusional interpretations return.”

BACK AT THE PHILADELPHIA TRAIN STATION, Girard seems more agitated. In a meeting the week before, his “handlers” had spoken to him only briefly — they weren’t in the right position to attack him, Girard surmises, based on the lack of voices. Today, his conversation jumps more rapidly from one subject to the next: victims of radiation experiments, his hatred of George H.W. Bush, MK-ULTRA, his personal experiences.

Asked about his studies at Penn, he replies by talking about his problems with reading: “I told you, everything I write they dictate to me,” he says, referring again to the voices. “When I read, they’re reading to me. My eyes go across; they’re moving my eyes down the line. They’re reading it to me. When I close the book, I can’t remember a thing I read. That’s why they do it.”

The week before, Girard had pointed to only one person who appeared suspicious to him — a young African American man reading a book; this time, however, he hears more voices, which leads him to believe the station is crawling with agents.

“Let’s change our location,” Girard says after a while. “I’m sure they have 40 or 50 people in here today. I escaped their surveillance last time — they won’t let that happen again.”

Asked to explain the connection between mind control and the University of Pennsylvania, which Girard alleges is involved in the conspiracy, he begins to talk about defense contractors located near the Philadelphia campus: “General Electric was right next to the parking garage; General Electric Space Systems occupies a huge building right over there. From that building, you could see into the studio where I was doing my work most of the time. I asked somebody what they were doing there. You know, it had to do with computers. GE Space Systems. They were supposed to be tracking missile debris from this location . . . pardon me. What was your question again?”

Yet many parts of Girard’s life seem to reflect that of any affluent 70-year-old bachelor. He travels frequently to France for extended vacations and takes part in French cultural activities in Philadelphia. He has set up a travel scholarship at the Cleveland Institute of Art in the name of his late mother, who attended school there (he changed his last name 27 years ago for “personal reasons”), and he travels to meet the students who benefit from the fund. And while the bulk of his time is spent on his research and writing about mind control, he has other interests. He follows politics and describes outings with friends and family members with whom he doesn’t talk about mind control, knowing they would view it skeptically.

Girard acknowledges that some of his experiences mirror symptoms of schizophrenia, but asked if he ever worried that the voices might in fact be caused by mental illness, he answers sharply with one word: “No.”

How, then, does he know the voices are real?

“How do you know you know anything?” Girard replies. “How do you know I exist? How do you know this isn’t a dream you’re having, from which you’ll wake up in a few minutes? I suppose that analogy is the closest thing: You know when you have a dream. Sometimes it could be perfectly lucid, but you know it’s a dream.”

The very “realness” of the voices is the issue — how do you disbelieve something you perceive as real? That’s precisely what Hoffman, the Yale psychiatrist, points out: So lucid are the voices that the sufferers — regardless of their educational level or self-awareness — are unable to see them as anything but real. “One thing I can assure you,” Hoffman says, “is that for them, it feels real.”

IT LOOKS ALMOST LIKE ANY OTHER SMALL POLITICAL RALLY IN WASHINGTON. Posters adorn the gate on the southwest side of the Capitol Reflecting Pool, as attendees set up a table with press materials, while volunteers test a loudspeaker and set out coolers filled with bottled water. The sun is out, the weather is perfect, and an eclectic collection of people from across the country has gathered to protest mind control.

There is not a tinfoil hat to be seen. Only the posters and paraphernalia hint at the unusual. “Stop USA electronic harassment,” urges one poster. “Directed Energy Assaults,” reads another. Smaller signs in the shape of tombstones say, “RIP MKULTRA.” The main display, set in front of the speaker’s lectern has a more extended message: “HELP STOP HI-TECH ASSAULT PSYCHOTRONIC TORTURE.”

About 35 TIs show up for the June rally, in addition to a few friends and family members. Speakers alternate between giving personal testimonials and descriptions of research into mind-control technology. Most of the gawkers at the rally are foreign tourists. A few hecklers snicker at the signs, but mostly people are either confused or indifferent. The articles on mind control at the table — from mainstream news magazines — go untouched.

“How can you expect people to get worked up over this if they don’t care about eavesdropping or eminent domain?” one man challenges after stopping to flip through the literature. Mary Ann Stratton, who is manning the table, merely shrugs and smiles sadly. There is no answer: Everyone at the rally acknowledges it is an uphill battle.

In general, the outlook for TIs is not good; many lose their jobs, houses and family. Depression is common. But for many at the rally, experiencing the community of mind-control victims seems to help. One TI, a man who had been a rescue swimmer in the Coast Guard before voices in his head sent him on a downward spiral, expressed the solace he found among fellow TIs in a long e-mail to another TI: “I think that the only people that can help are people going through the same thing. Everyone else will not believe you, or they are possibly involved.”

In the end, though, nothing could help him enough. In August 2006, he would commit suicide.

But at least for the day, the rally is boosting TI spirits. Girard, in what for him is an ebullient mood, takes the microphone. A small crowd of tourists gathers at the sidelines, listening with casual interest. With the Capitol looming behind him, he reaches the crescendo of his speech, rallying the attendees to remember an important thing: They are part of a single community.

“I’ve heard it said, ‘We can’t get anywhere because everyone’s story is different.’ We are all the same,” Girard booms. “You knew someone with the power to commit you to the electronic concentration camp system.”

Several weeks after the rally, Girard shows up for a meeting with a reporter at the stately Mayflower Hotel in Washington, where he has stayed frequently over the two decades he has traveled to the capital to battle mind control. He walks in with a lit cigarette, which he apologetically puts out after a hotel employee tells him smoking isn’t allowed anymore. He is half an hour late — delayed, he says, by a meeting on Capitol Hill. Wearing a monogrammed dress shirt and tie, he looks, as always, serious and professional.

Girard declines to mention whom on Capitol Hill he’d met with, other than to say it was a congressional staffer. Embarrassment is likely a factor: Girard readily acknowledges that most people he meets with, ranging from scholars to politicians, ignore his entreaties or dismiss him as a lunatic.

Lately, his focus is on his Web site, which he sees as the culmination of nearly a quarter-century of research. When completed, it will contain more than 300 pages of documents. What next? Maybe he’ll move to France (there are victims there, too), or maybe the U.S. government will finally just kill him, he says.

Meanwhile, he is always searching for absolute proof that the government has decoded the brain. His latest interest is LifeLog, a project once funded by the Pentagon that he read about in Wired News. The article described it this way: “The embryonic LifeLog program would dump everything an individual does into a giant database: every e-mail sent or received, every picture taken, every Web page surfed, every phone call made, every TV show watched, every magazine read. All of this — and more — would combine with information gleaned from a variety of sources: a GPS transmitter to keep tabs on where that person went, audiovisual sensors to capture what he or she sees or says, and biomedical monitors to keep track of the individual’s health.”

Girard suggests that the government, using similar technology, has “catalogued” his life over the past two years — every sight and sound (Evelyn Waugh, in his mind-control book, writes about his character’s similar fear that his harassers were creating a file of his entire life).

Girard thinks the government can control his movements, inject thoughts into his head, cause him pain day and night. He believes that he will die a victim of mind control.

Is there any reason for optimism?

Girard hesitates, then asks a rhetorical question.

“Why, despite all this, why am I the same person? Why am I Harlan Girard?”

For all his anguish, be it the result of mental illness or, as Girard contends, government mind control, the voices haven’t managed to conquer the thing that makes him who he is: Call it his consciousness, his intellect or, perhaps, his soul.

“That’s what they don’t yet have,” he says. After 22 years, “I’m still me.”

Sharon Weinberger is a Washington writer and author of Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through the Pentagon’s Scientific Underworld. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article Tuesday at

View all comments that have been posted about this article.
© 2007 The Washington Post Company

Remote Control Electronic Brain Punishment

Remote Control Electronic Brain Punishment?

Gleaned from Usenet

October 18, 1988

Dear Sir:

I am currently involved in a crisis of a bizarre nature which I’m sure will be of utmost interest, providing you can find credence in what I relate and not summarily dismiss me as being a fantasy-stricken space case.

I’m being subjected to some type of remote control electronic brain punishment, in severity nothing less than outright torture, and the technology being utilized to execute this questionable action is not only highly specialized and sophisticated, but causes me to wonder whether knowledgeable authorities are even aware that a device of this nature exists. The credentials I can offer as to the veracity of these allegations are slim and none. I’m standing in a bad light to begin with, as I am a 38 year old inmate serving a 1 to 15 year sentence for 2nd degree burglary at the Utah State Prison, and the information contained within is in regard to my substantial problems with prison officials who would gladly have it believed that my word merits no credibility whatsoever. They have, in fact, gone to extreme lengths to insure that such is the case, and you will presently understand why. I have never been afflicted with psychological disorders of any kind, and am not given to fabricating stories with which to bother busy people or cause unnecessary commotion. I’m a convicted thief, not a liar.

It is a difficult story to tell–and though a bit long winded as presented, I feel it important to explain these events in their entirety so as to give the reader a proper picture. Although not well educated, I am reasonably intelligent and able to recount the sequences and details to incidents with a great deal of accuracy, and I swear to you that what is written on these pages is unembellished and 100% true. I ask you to please read and evaluate my letter and hope you will see fit to assist me with any pertinent information you might possess. Should it prove to be that you cannot offer an explanation as to what is happening here, then I’m afraid there is much more amiss than what I had suspected and would make my position appear most precarious.

Eleven months ago I unfortunately ran afoul of prison officials as a result of a minor altercation with other inmates and what was then deemed to be a poor attitude on my part. It has since been a battle of wills, and what they have done to me for my failure kow tow to them is incomprehensible. The hostilities commenced with guards being ordered to launch an intensive campaign of harassments against me. Day after day they tampered with my food, smashing and removing items from my tray, and threatened to poison me with carcinogens and diseases. My mail received similar treatment, I was constantly verbally badgered as well as physically assaulted, and was told my parents would be murdered should I fail to maintain silence. These methods were employed to provoke me into losing my temper and acting out, giving them sufficient cause to impose disciplinary measures and isolate me in the maximum security unit where I could be dealt with without their having to be concerned about witnesses. I have since discovered that these set-up tactics are standard operating procedure at this prison, and believe me, no one could undergo the systematic and intense harassment routine I was subjected to and not lose their temper.

Once isolated, some extremely peculiar things began to occur. I became disoriented to the extent that my cell and surrounding area would take on a surrealistic appearance as though I were under the influence of a hallucinogenic drug, and I was plagued by severe headaches and insomnia for weeks at a time. I had absolutely no inkling of what was happening, and after a couple months of having some fantastically cruel games played with my mind ultimately reducing me to a state of anxiety, the psychiatric squad was called in to play their roles in this colossal “set up” and I was declared to be suffering from a mental illness after undergoing a farcical and cursory interview in duration of no more than 15 minutes. Delusional persecution and paranoia was, I believe, how they so conveniently labeled me. It was obviously a deliberate and prearranged plan, and throughout these actions the staff would make malicious comments as to, “How are you enjoying your headaches?” Need some aspirin?” and “Are you sleeping well, Mr. Fratus?” The use of this fraudulent and adverse psychiatric classification was just one more nail in my coffin, and intended as a means to cast suspicion on my credibility, as well as further enable them to keep me isolated. Now that the frame-up prerequisites were satisfactorily out of the way, they were able to proceed with their campaign of mental terrorism.

I began to receive, or hear, high frequency tones in my ears. Like the test pattern on a TV set. The volume or intensity of these frequencies is adjustable and some are so high and piercing that they’ve literally had me climbing the walls. When I plug my ears with cotton or fingertips, the tones are still inside and become amplified. It’s as if they had become electrified echo chambers with the sounds coming from the inside out. When I complained or acted out, I was beaten and thrown into a strip cell with no clothes, mattress, toilet paper or drinking water. Nothing–and the intensity of these frequency transmissions would be crescendoed to maddening levels. Much mental distress! This is still being done to me three shifts, 24 hours a day, and the combination of these demoralizing mental torments and sleep deprivation for weeks on end has exacted a heavy toll on me.

I began to write letters of complaint and question to various medical and legal associations after the first four months. It proved futile to complain to prison and state officials, as they are aware of, and sanctioning this treatment, and did nothing but use my complaints as a vehicle to further ridicule and aggravate me. It required upwards of 50 letters before I finally acquired information which gave me a clue as to just what kind of a predicament I was in. Most people, it seems, are understandably reluctant to offer assistance to a convicted person no matter how serious the situation, and the majority of my letters went unanswered. No telling if these letters were actually mailed, however, as prison officials are notorious for misplacing inmate mail, and these people are definitely trying to hinder my quest for information and support in this matter. I subscribe to “U.S. News and World Report” which recently printed an article concerning the workings of the human mind. I did not receive this particular issue and became suspicious after hearing guards make comments like, “I’ll be damned if I’ll give it to him,” so I had my father, who resides in New Hampshire, mail me the article which contained the names of several brain research scientists and their respective universities. The administration obviously doesn’t want me advising research people of my situation here–and so that is just what I intend to do. Getting back to the letters I had written requesting information, I was fortunate in that the folks at the “Coalition for Prisoners’ Rights Newsletter” located in Santa Fe, New Mexico, were concerned enough by word of my plight to conduct a little research which resulted in their sending me reprints of three articles dealing with: Electromagnetic, and Non-Ionizing Electromagnetic Radiation, and Radio Frequency Weapons–which were published by “U.S. News,” “The Nation” and “The Atlantic” back in March 1987. I received this information September 22, 1988, and thanks to those kind and conscientious people, I now have some idea of how such things are being done to me, and most importantly that such technology does exist.

These articles cover most of the mental and physical maladies I’ve been experiencing for the past eleven months, with one major exception, and I’ll hopefully be able to use this information to gain further insight as to what is going on, and to alleviate the hostilities being waged against me. You cannot imagine what it has been like confined to a cell 24 hours a day for almost a rear now, being brain blasted by high frequency impulses–no respite, no place to hide, and having not the lightest notion what was going on. All three of these articles, “U.S. News” in particular, describe dire consequences as a result of over exposure to various radiation and frequency hazards, and I’m now most apprehensive as to how eleven months of constant application, by whichever of these means it is being done, might be affecting my cell chemistry and vital organs.

I’m sure you’ll agree that I’ve stumbled headlong into the proverbial hornets nest, but what I have told you thus far is only the lull before the storm and is quite unremarkable in comparison to what comes next. What they proceeded to do to me from approximately the fifth month on is the exception I spoke of–and is so unimaginable and seemingly preposterous that its very ludicrousness is obviously one of their primary defense assets. Even though I have been living with this incredible phenomenon for months on end and have grown somewhat accustomed to what is being done, as well as having resigned myself to the inevitability that I have no escape from this torment as long as they choose to inflict it, I still find great difficulty in believing this can be reality. Getting an outsider to accept my allegations is going to be something else altogether, and that’s just what prison officials are counting on.

For the climax in this series of weird events, I began to hear voices in my ears. Voices that change pitch and timbre in contrast from being a cartoonish high and squeaky, descending through the octaves, including everything from sinister Darth Vadorish to basically normal characteristics. The reception of these voices into my inner ears is as vivid as though I were listening to a set of stereo headphones, and they are able to mix, match, and blend them in conjunction with the frequency tones creating a raucous cacophony of audio discord that disheartens the soul. Now for the clincher.

The various effects of this device have been progressively increased throughout this eleven-month onslaught, finally arriving at full potential with the end result being that I am now having my brain monitored by an omnipotent computerized mind reading or scanning machine of some sort. No hoax, no illusion to what I’m experiencing. These people have devised or acquired a specialized unit that reads absolutely everything–physical as well as mental functions, and are able to cause severe impairments and dysfunctions via this remote-control scanning device. I have no memory of having had anything of a physical nature done to me, but it has somehow been contrived to “wire” me up to where they have access to instant, and unerringly accurate comprehension of even my most fragmented and fleeting thoughts. They are attempting radical behavior modification and thought control by means of an incessant, round the clock monitoring of my brain–imposing the various punishments when my thinking or physical actions fail to conform to what they are demanding of me. Interesting concept, isn’t it? “Big Brother” and the “Thought Police” have most assuredly become reality.

This scheme of sleep deprivation, headaches, and audio torments is relentless and being used to break down my resistance and wear me to a mental frazzle, permitting no mental privacy, berating and picking my thoughts apart, and attacking my mind with an insidious tirade of sickening innuendo and threats. They are going into my subconscious, or memory bank, bringing forth unpleasant memories long ago forgotten, and I am being punished for past as well as present indiscretions. I can think of anything from the past–a friend or situation from 30 years ago for instance, and the voices will provide names and particulars. I have repeatedly tested and attempted to trick them on this. No way. They have better access to what’s in my head with this nefarious invention than I do. I can converse with my antagonists merely by thinking what I wish to say…. and I welcome you to the Twilight Zone!! How the hell is this being done?? They are using those frequency impulses to perpetrate some very vicious maltreatment on me. With the apparent ease of manipulating a keyboard, they can, with a flick of the switch, strip me of all energy and motivation to where I’m forced to lie on my bunk and stare at the wall like a-zombie. I’ve been left in this state for weeks at a time–literally chained to my bed without the actual use of physical restraints, having not the energy to walk back and forth in my cell even a few times. For almost the entire eleven months I have continuously been made to feel low down and chronically depressed. The effects of this device have been cancelled on several occasions, instantly returning me to my normal self, only to have the voices laugh and taunt, then reducing me to the former state of despondent misery and confusion after an all too brief reprieve. The most powerful of these frequency impulses is jokingly referred to as the “Death Ray” by guards, and is so potent it causes an intense physical sensation of having an electrical, or magnetic force field combined with a vibrating tuning fork in my head. Different parts of my brain are targeted by this thing, causing a variety of mental and physical reactions. Sometimes I can feel it at the base of my brain where it joins the spinal cord, other times up in the frontal lobes, and it is in fact comparable to a lobotomy, as it causes my brain to lock up and malfunction to where I cannot concentrate or spell simple words. It actually blurs my eyesight and fouls the air I expel from my lungs, giving it a metallic sulfurish taste and odor. It’s a God-awful feeling, I can tell you. They have, at times, assailed me with this “Death Ray” in bursts ranging from seconds to minutes, causing me to psychologically bounce up and down like a human yo-yo. Lobotomies may have been outlawed in the U.S.A., but they’ve sure found the perfect replacement, and I don’t see how this treatment can possibly be construed as anything other than torture.

It is inconceivable to me that the technology of this awesome device can be unique and possessed solely by the State of Utah, but I may very well be wrong. When I first entered the prison in May, 1986, one of the psychologists who conducted my initial classification interview inquired as to whether I had ever heard “voices.” That seems to be the key word around here. This question was posed almost a year before the “U.S. News” and other articles were published, which seems unlikely, as the proficiency of the apparatus I’m dealing with is sophisticated far beyond anything scientists had apparently imagined in use at that time. I, of course, didn’t attach any significance to the question of voices back then, but remember it well, and have since heard many references made to people hearing “voices” by both inmates and staff, which would indicate that these people were in possession of, and employing this technology at least that far back. This is what prompts me to wonder how they could have had such an innovative piece of equipment in use, operating with apparent perfection of technique, without the scientific and medical community in general being aware of it. Quite a puzzle.

In defense of both my sanity and the veracity of my allegations, I now relate part of a conversation I recently had with a prison paid, but supposedly independent and neutral paralegal advisor. He stated that he has received similar complaints from other inmates, but that nothing can be done for lack of evidence. He said that one inmate in particular has been placed on forced medication (Prolixin) because of his hearing “voices,” and unless I’m greatly mistaken, I believe his words carried an unofficial warning for me. At least two inmates that I know of have been badgered to the point of having attempted suicide as a result of this mental torment, and something stinks to the high heavens here! All of the staff, as well as a number of inmates, are aware of what is happening, so I can’t fathom how it can remain, or even at this time, be a kept and closed secret human nature being what it is. For the most part, I believe the other knowledgeable inmates are intimidated and cowed for fear of retaliation in the form of a mental torture routine such as I’m being subjected to should they complain. Threats of additional time being imposed by the Parole Board are also being used to coerce silence. Tough odds to buck.

Prison officials deny that they are perpetrating any such activities in response to formal inquiry but will grin and smugly indicate full awareness when no witnesses are present. “Yes, we are doing this to you, but no one will believe it, and you can do nothing to deter us.” This is the attitude they project, and they are engaging in a conspiracy of inmate experimentation and exploitation that defies description. The outside authorities who even made a pretense of investigating my allegations were told I’m a habitual trouble maker with a history of psychological problems, and that effectively frustrates my attempts to have this situation looked into right there. Who is to dispute the word of my law-abiding and honorable keepers? How to verify and impress upon investigators the honesty of my accusations? What concrete evidence do I have? Even a group of inmates alleging corresponding facts are subject to skepticism as prison officials will simply accuse them of collusion. I’m being deliberately isolated from the inmates who would collaborate my story, by the way–and legal organizations such as the A.C.L.U., due to lack of substantiated proof and the absurdity of this horror show, are hesitant to invest the time and effort necessary to determine what is actually taking place at the hands of these pious Mormon inquisitioners. I’ve seen them in action and they are possessed of exceptional finesse in their ability to conceal the true nature of matters and mislead outsiders with their upright and holier than thou pretentiousness. It has been eleven months of deception by prison officials, of nonstop elaborate harassments and vicious mind games, and I would surely like to know just what provocation I gave to warrant the infliction of such insane mistreatment. No rhyme or reason–nor justification–either legal or moral, to any of this. They are so very smug and secure in the belief that they cannot be brought to account for these blatantly illegal acts due to their well rehearsed methods of official denial, isolation, and absence of witnesses, bogus psychiatric evaluations, and of course, the fact that this mental torment is being accomplished by a faceless machine, operated by anonymous antagonists from an unknown location and distance. I overheard one guard boast that the tactics they’ve employed have been so extensive that no one would believe me anyway.

I was an Air Force brat, born in New Foundland and stubborn as a Missouri mule. I suppose I could capitulate and eventually get these people to cease and desist in this mental warfare, but I vehemently resent and object to this flagrant invasion of the sanctity of my mind and will be damned if I’ll just sit here and allow them to go unchallenged in this attempted programming and manipulation of my brain and personality as though I were an experimental laboratory animal. The judge sentenced me to serve an atonemental amount of time for my crime and said nothing of corporal punishments or mental torment and abuse when he passed judgment. It is plain enough why they went to such extremes to set me up for isolation and discredit my word. I have to shake my head in incredulous dismay when I picture the outrageousness of the circumstances I’ve been maneuvered into. I recently signed a release form and obtained, acting through the paralegal I previously mentioned, partial copies of both my administrative and medical prison files. I was denied access to all of this material and told to get a court order if I wished to see what was withheld. What I did see, however, was enough to convince me that I’m dealing with some highly unscrupulous people who will stop at nothing to protect their conspiracy. The chronological notes contained in these files bore a contrived and twisted mass of outright lies pertaining to alleged conversations between myself and both psychological and correctional staff. This deceit was expressly woven in harmony by the various contributors to detract from my credibility and make me appear unstable. There was, in fact, mention of obtaining a court order to force treatment on me (Prolixin?), and I find it very sad, and hard to believe, that this type of atrocious inhumanity is being practiced in this country in this day and age. Equally hard to understand is the fact that the state officials I have advised of this situation, including the Governor, Attorney General, State Senate, County Attorney, and Department of Corrections Personnel, all choose to ignore and make light of these allegations, even though there is strong indication of foul play due to the numerous individual complaints made by inmates at this institution. I even went so far as to challenge Warden Gerald Cook, and Gary Deland, who is the Executive Director of the Department of Corrections, to a $1500.00 wager as to the outcome of a polygraph test between myself and prison officials to determine who is speaking the truth. They have declined my invitation, of course, and I was threatened with the possibility of disciplinary action for my proposal of illicit gambling. This is a Mormon state, and there is a deep-rooted conspiracy going on which apparently encompasses most, if not all of the governmental structure. Can nothing be done?

It may very well prove impossible to bring legal action against these people for what they’re doing to me, but I fully intend to continue my pursuit of the answers–and shall endeavor to expose this malignant corruption for what it is. I firmly believe the truth must eventually surface.

Any consideration you can give this matter–either assisting me with information, suggesting responsible authorities from whom I might elicit assistance, or possibly forwarding this letter to someone who could cause investigation, and perhaps act to prevent further retaliation by these people, would be ever so greatly appreciated. This letter has been written in good faith, and I sincerely hope you will treat it as such. If nothing else, I ask that you at least accord me the courtesy of acknowledging receipt.


David James Fratus
17886 Box 250
Draper, Utah 84020

Five Reasons to Unplug the TV Now!

Posted by Dr Stuart Jeanne Bramhall on @ 5:31 pm

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Commentators from all parts of the political spectrum are increasingly vocal about overwhelming public passivity in the face of far-reaching legislation, by both the Bush and the Obama administration, that strips Americans of important Constituional protections. I’m sure much of this passivity relates to Americans’ overall alienation from the political process – by the powerful corporations who fund elections and whose army of lobbyists drives most major legislation.

Nevertheless the corporate media also plays a significant role in reinforcing public passivity and apathy. This can be seen by a careful breakdown of specific ideological messages (also known as propaganda) that continually bombard the American public. These messages can be found in direct advertising, “news and information” reporting and the so-called “entertainment” content of TV, films, books magazines and newspapers.

The notion of using carefully crafted psychological messages to condition Americans’ thinking and behavior isn’t new. As Australian born psychologist Alex Carey has traced, it grew out of a decision by the National Association of Manufacturers decision in the 1930s to foster the development of a “public relations” industry. However over time the science and techniques employed have become increasingly sophisticated and new players – (predominantly right wing) think tanks and government (Pentagon and intelligence) agencies – have quietly entered the arena.

At present the “messages” Americans are bombarded with on a daily basis fall into five broad categories:

Category 1: Pro-war messages.

These are messages occurring repeatedly both in “news” reporting and both TV and film crime and spy dramas (both TV and film) which portray the US is under threat of imminent terrorist attack. This includes regular reporting that US intelligence, on the basis of secret information, has upgraded the US alert status from yellow to orange (high). Obama, like Bush, uses these messages to justify a continual escalation of the war in the Middle East and apparent plans for an imminent attack on Iran.

Category 2: Anti-civil liberties messages

There are fear-inspiring messages used to make Americans so fearful of imminent terrorist attack that they willingly surrender their own civil liberties to prevent it. Both Bush and Obama have used similar messages to convince the American public to surrender their right to habeas corpus (guarantees review by a judge whenever anyone is detained by law enforcement), their protection against warrant less search and seizure, government surveillance of phone conversations and emails, torture and extrajudicial assassination of so-called terrorists (unfortunately this could potentially include anyone who criticizes the government, as there is no burden to prove the victim’s guilt). These messages figure prominently in a raft of national news reporting and a raft of crime and espionage dramas that have dominated TV and movie entertainment in the past decade (24 and Without a Trace are good examples). It is common in similar programs (which often employ Pentagon consultants) to portray warrants and non-violent interrogation techniques as an “inconvenience” and a threat to public security. (As an aside the original Patriot Act was directed towards the growing anti-globalization movement and not towards towards Middle East terrorists.)

Category 3: Messages promoting fear of dark skinned people

Government propaganda aimed at minority scapegoats dates back to the Middle Ages and the systematic persecution of Jews in Europe – with Hitler’s “Final Solution” the most extreme example. It serves two main purposes – to deflect popular anger from a corporate elite (in Hitler’s case to conceal the German, British and US corporate backers who promoted his rise to power) and to promote distrust between various sections of the working class that might otherwise unite and rebel. Recent racist media messages largely take the form as anti-immigrant hysteria directed against Hispanic immigrants from Mexico (who are portrayed as welfare cheats and a threat to American jobs) and dark skinned people from Middle East and Asia (who are portrayed as potential terrorists). However there continues to be a disproportionate portrayal of African Americans as angry, violent and criminally inclined, both in unbalanced news reporting and racial stereotypes in TV and film entertainment.

Category 4: Messages promoting US exceptionalism (the belief that that US has the fairest, most democratic and most open political system in the world)

The media carefully conceal corporate interference with elections and the legislative process (all the perks – gifts, meals, cocktail parties, free trips and free use of corporate aircrafts – corporate lobbyists dispense as an inducement for favourable legislation). They also systematically concealed the massive electoral fraud which occurred in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections.

Category 5: Messages encouraging ordinary people to disengage from the political process because it’s too complicated and too corrupt

(Yes, the government and the public relations industry deliberately portray politics as corrupt to persuade the public to stay out of it). This message is driven in part by the name, blame and shame focus that dominates political reporting – Americans are most likely to hear their lawmakers mentioned in the mainstream media as a result of immoral, illegal or unethical contact. However this message is mainly driven home via distraction – by making other aspects of modern life (such as Tiger Wood’s infidelity) vastly more prominent than demanding a voice in whether the US gives two trillion dollars in bail outs to banks or engages in an unwinnable war with Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.