‘Strategic communication’ and Muslim communities
The British-based Facebook page “Woke” and the Australian page “Rapt” carry remarkably similar content. Both are rich sources of memes, photos and videos showcasing cheerful young Muslims who have chosen to reject hate in favour of friendship, discord in favour of harmony, fundamentalism in favour of fun. A video on Woke tells the story of the Bearded Broz, a community organisation established by young Muslim men who follow the example of the Prophet by distributing food to the needy. Rapt recently posted a short documentary in which a group of young Muslims travelled from Sydney to Australia’s oldest mosque in Broken Hill, preparing falafel in the desert and learning about the role of the Afghan cameleers in Australian history. Both Woke and Rapt specialise in lightweight, feel-good profiles of Muslims who take pride in both their religious and national identities. They are, of course, highly shareable.
The similarities are no coincidence. As a recent report in Middle East Eye revealed, Woke is a counterterrorism program commissioned by the British Home Office, just as Rapt was commissioned by the Australian Department of Home Affairs. Both projects were undertaken by the public relations firm Breakthrough Media, which was recently renamed Zinc Network.
Breakthrough Media is known to not clearly disclose the source of its funding to those participating in its projects, as reported last year by The Saturday Paper. A woman who had featured in a film for Woke, titled “What does wearing hijab mean to you?”, told Middle East Eye that Breakthrough had described the project as a way of marking International Women’s Day.
Last year, when Breakthrough Media invited me and a select group of other Muslims to attend a “voice accelerator workshop”, the invitation described it as a grassroots initiative undertaken at the request of the Muslim community. We were to be taught how to use social media more effectively and would be given material we might share with our networks. The disclosure that the program was funded by the Department of Home Affairs’ Countering Violent Extremism Sub-Committee, under the Australia–New Zealand Counter-Terrorism Committee, was hidden in the middle of an eight-page registration form. It was never explicitly revealed to us that the material we were being asked to share was government messaging.
The Sudanese-Australian writer Yassmin Abdel-Magied told The Saturday Paper that Rapt failed to disclose the source of its funds when it commissioned her to feature in a short video on how to circumvent unconscious bias in the workplace. After The Saturday Paper report was published, Father Rod Bower from the Gosford Anglican Church tweeted: “I was used by Breakthrough Media too. Now I feel dirty.” Father Bower had collaborated with Breakthrough in producing a short film about his church’s signs, advocating support for the dispossessed and opposition to racism.
I have since been contacted by a number of young Muslims who have been approached by Breakthrough Media with invitations to participate in various creative endeavours. They declined or backed out of the proposals, either for logistical reasons or because, in the words of one: “I could smell the ASIO on them.” While it is possible that Breakthrough disclosed the source of the funding somewhere in the fine print, the fact that multiple well-educated and media-savvy people failed to see this information indicates that the information was designed to be overlooked.
These underhand tactics serve to undermine the social harmony that Breakthrough and those who commission its work claim to promote. Both the talent and the audience are left feeling “dirty”, as Father Bower described it, once the ruse is discovered. The mere fact that I had been approached was a blow to my ego. As I said to friends: “Did they think that I wouldn’t notice or did they think that I wouldn’t care?”
Breakthrough’s recruitment tactics raise similar concerns. Yassmin Abdel-Magied says that she agreed to be involved because Breakthrough had been given her name by someone she knew. Others describe being approached through friends and family members. It is difficult to imagine a more damaging tactic than this appropriation of trust and personal history for the purposes of national security.
Those defending Breakthrough Media note that the agency merely helps its participants to frame the messages they were already seeking to communicate. The funny memes and heartwarming videos communicate a genuine message. But attempts by the British and Australian governments to combat the perceived risk of extremism in Muslim communities via “strategic communication” taints the creative artists, social workers, feminists, scholars and activists who nurture the social fabric by making them – us – all look like potential government stooges.
CNN reported last week that Breakthrough Media had stopped working on the British Home Office account a few months ago, and had been replaced by M&C Saatchi. In Australia, Breakthrough recently informed its network that it was closing its office at the end of June to focus on projects in other parts of the world. It assured them that its work for the Department of Home Affairs would be continued by another agency. A spokesperson for the department told The Saturday Paper that the communications activity undertaken by Breakthrough Media would be continued and that the department now has a contract with Brady Perspectives for strategic communication. While Breakthrough’s staff have backgrounds in advertising or journalism, the biography for the principal consultant at Brady Perspectives notes his 12 years’ experience as an officer in the Australian Army intelligence corps.
The Department of Home Affairs assured The Saturday Paper that “Brady Perspectives fully discloses that it is contracted by the department in any interaction with community organisations or individuals”. The Saturday Paper is not suggesting otherwise or questioning the ethics of the consultancy’s staff.
Woke produced a video to educate its audience on how to recognise fake news. As one of the young participants notes: “Online, you can never know who the source is because several people may have shared it by the time it gets to you.”
Of course, Breakthrough Media and those who commission its work rely on this for their success. If young people in general and young Muslims in particular can benefit by improving their skills in recognising fake news, it is perhaps even more crucial for them to learn how to recognise government propaganda. Sometimes, it might be called “strategic communications”.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 24, 2019 as "A nasty piece of Woke". Subscribe here.