Quickpost: East Asian thinking, the spiderweb, the ‘Five Eyes intelligence officer’… did @AndrewProbyn get pranked?

For a few hours this morning, ABC ran a story about a Chinese company scraping private and semi-private information from the Internet.  These stories always smell kind of racist.  Think about how many companies around the world due creepy shit with data; why do we care specifically about this Chinese company?

But what really struck people as odd was a section towards the middle of the piece.  Here’s the original text:

A Five Eyes intelligence officer, who uses the pseudonym Aeneas, has pored over the data, and described the technique as “mosaic intelligence gathering” — sourcing vast tracts of information from a wide variety of sources.

“The individual pieces of intelligence are like tiles in a mosaic, which make sense when they are arranged the right way,” Aeneas said.

He argued it was a different way to collect information than how many western agencies went about their work.

“The East Asian mind and the Western mind are fundamentally different in the way they think,” Aeneas said.

“Western thought is based on causality; East Asian thinking is like a spider’s web, where moving any individual point on the web moves everything else.

“With this starting point, mosaic collection and analysis is both logical and natural for the East Asian mind.”

It was edited to remove the weird part about ‘the East Asian mind’ and to include information about ‘a long-running penetration operation inside a Chinese diplomatic post.’

A Five Eyes intelligence officer, who uses the pseudonym Aeneas, has pored over the data, and described the technique as “mosaic intelligence gathering” — sourcing vast tracts of information from a wide variety of sources.

He argued it was a different way to collect information than how many western agencies went about their work.

“For example, we had a long-running penetration operation inside a Chinese diplomatic post,” Aeneas said.

“You’d think we would have collected on everyone, but we didn’t.

“Not everyone inside the post was an intelligence operator for the other side.

“We collected thoroughly on their spooks and stringers, but unless someone in the post was a possible source for us, we left them alone.”

Let’s start at the start.  What is a ‘Five Eyes intelligence officer’?  It’s not clear.  Five Eyes doesn’t have intelligence officers because Five Eyes isn’t an entity that can have intelligence officers; it’s a collaboration agreement between five governments.   AusPol Twitter has assumed the title refers to ASIO, but intelligence officials briefing journos are ordinarily identified as ASIO sources.  It’s such a weird phrase that a search through Google suggests that this is the first time in history that the phrase has been published.

Notice that, in neither version, the intelligence officer says anything that is remotely interesting?  You don’t need top secret clearance to say ‘East Asian brains are different’, and you could probably mumble the rest after watching some Hollywood blockbusters.  There’s no real insight here.

At the very least, it appears that Aeneas has lifted their original analysis about East Asian brains from a journal article.  Here’s de Oliveira and Nisbett’s ‘Culture Changes the Way We Think About Thinking: From “Human Inference” to “Geography of Thought”’ (2017) Perspectives on Psychological Science 12(5):

East Asians use more dialectical thinking.This thinking style is characterized by strong attention to context and to relationships. Objects are viewed as part of a larger system rather than as discrete, independent entities. One might compare that system to a spider web—each section is connected to the rest of the web. If a disruption occurs on one end of the web, the whole web is affected. Thus, with dialectical thinking, states of the world are assumed to be subject to constant change as interconnected parts engage in dynamic, mutual influence, and change is expected to be nonlinear or even circular.

Something definitely smells off.

Finally, there’s the pseudonym.  The literary Aeneas, of course, was a leader of Trojans, the protagonist of the epic poem The Aeneid.  Importantly, the pseudonym in the story adds absolutely nothing to the information being imparted.  There’s no reason to give a pseudonym.  If anything, the reference to a leader of Trojans makes the whole thing seem extremely silly and much more likely to be a prank by a bored teenager studying HSC Latin.

If a journalist wants to use an anonymous or pseudonymous source, there needs to be a clear reason why.  Here, ‘Aeneas’ provides no information that is specific or useful to the story.  It is so general and bland that it is difficult to understand Aeneas’ relevance to the events of the story.  Is this somebody with whom Probyn has an existing relationship?  Is this somebody who contacted Probyn offering additional information on a story that was breaking elsewhere in the Press?

Remember, Probyn’s analysis of the Ruby Princess affair was so bad that it got a special mention for how bad it was in the Inquiry Report.  The guy is a gullible nitwit.  If he is offering information from a secret source, do we really trust him not to be taken for a ride by some bored private school kids?

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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