What if there was a small pox outbreak in London?

LONDON�Over the past 24 hours, seven people have checked into hospitals here with telltale symptoms. Rashes, vomiting, high temperature, and cramps: the classic signs of smallpox. Once thought wiped out, the disease is back and threatening a pandemic of epic proportions.

The government faces a dilemma: It needs people to stay home, but if the news breaks, mass panic might ensue as people flee the city, carrying the virus with them.

A shadowy media firm steps in to help orchestrate a sophisticated campaign of mass deception. Rather than alert the public to the smallpox threat, the company sets up a high-tech “ops center” to convince the public that an accident at a chemical plant threatens London. As the fictitious toxic cloud approaches the city, TV news outlets are provided graphic visuals charting the path of the invisible toxins. Londoners stay indoors, glued to the telly, convinced that even a short walk into the streets could be fatal.

Slate reports on a small UK company that’s making a go in the “influence operations” business.

The company holds up the small pox scenario as an illustration of the “altruistic” nature of their business.

Besides keeping people from fleeing and spreading deadly diseases, in what other situations does this company see itself being useful?

In another doomsday scenario, the company assists a newly democratic country in South Asia as it struggles with corrupt politicians and a rising insurgency that threatens to bubble over into bloody revolution. SCL steps in to assist the benevolent king of “Manpurea” to temporarily seize power.

Oh, wait, that sounds a lot like Nepal, where the monarchy earlier this year ousted a corrupt government to stave off a rising Maoist movement. The problem is, the SCL scenario also sounds a lot like using a private company to help overthrow a democratically elected government. Another problem, at least in Nepal, is that the king now shows few signs of returning to democracy.

Hmmm. Who is this service being marketed to? (And what’s up with the bizarre fictitious country name Manpuria?)

The company, which describes itself as the first private-sector provider of psychological operations, has been around since 1993. But its previous work was limited to civil operations, and it now wants to expand to military customers.

The company boasts that their product, “strategic communications” is “the most powerful weapon in the world.” And their operations center “…can override all national radio and TV broadcasts in [a] time of crisis[.]”

So we have a company doing business with governments that disseminates disinformation to, or completely overrides the media. I have a bad feeling about this.

The article mentions that in a democracy “a large-scale ruse” would only work one time. I don’t know about that; but, it seems to me that after one large-scale ruse, the credibility of the news media would be ruined and a democracy based on a free press would be compromised.

Slate: You Can’t Handle the Truth

Politics Strategic Communications