“With the Internet, only two things are certain: the global appeal of cat videos and the pervasiveness of disinformation.”
So begins a government memorandum recently circulated by the US State Department's Global Engagement Center (GEC) titled: “Cat Park – A New Online Game to Inoculate Youth Against Disinformation,” recently obtained by America First Legal and reviewed by Foundation for Freedom Online.
The memo, dated Oct. 31, 2022, details a government plan to roll out a new taxpayer-funded online game called Cat Park. The game is billed as a product that “inoculates players against real world disinformation by showing how sensational headlines, memes, and manipulated media can be used to advance conspiracy theories and incite real-world violence.”
However, there is more going on here than a simple cat-themed video game.
As this report will explain, the GEC appears to be using taxpayer dollars to fund “behavioral modification” propaganda games intended to make young people around the world view populist content online as being de facto “disinformation.”
To understand the full story, we will explore the Cat Park game itself, break down the GEC memo, and then reveal the bigger picture of where this all came from and what's behind it.
Cat Park: 'Vaccinating' Young People Against Distrust In The Government
Aimed at young people aged 15 years and up, Cat Park purports to be a “noir adventure” where a player takes on “the role of a disinformation agent recruited into a shadowy social media pressure campaign.”
In the game's plot, the player assumes the role of a social media user who makes memes and news headlines to energize local citizens to stop the construction of a local park for cats (hence, Cat Park). Then, the player, realizing they have been spreading disinformation, must repent for their memes that resulted in the park getting canceled.
The major crux of plot tension in the game is the concern that the cat park being built by the city's mayor ostensibly only serves the city's upper-income residents. Thus, populist resentment lurks within the lower-income strata at the city who believe their own needs are being neglected by government officials.
Thus, as a “disinformation” purveyor, the player represents the “anti-park” movement, and begins the game by generating grievances against the park's construction.
See screen-record videos below for an illustration:
In case that's unclear, the generation of the “news headlines” below is framed as an evil act of disruptive populists engaged in a divisive campaign to disrupt the city's peace:
So right away, this government-funded game establishes a moral framework in which complaining about wasteful spending by government elites – spending which comes at the expense of “improving city roads,” “objections of locals” and “our kids” — is framed as spreading disinformation.
It is almost as if the government is using the video game of Cat Park to get young people to subliminally believe that opposing the government is only done by disinformation purveyors.
How convenient for the government that this government-funded game has such a plot!
This anti-populist, pro-establishmentarian theme of Cat Park permeates every scene in the game. For example, the player meets a zealous working class citizen, Marvin, who runs a local hot dog stand and opposes the cat park's construction. Marvin instructs the player to create a “cat conspiracy” theory about elites in government, or elites in corporations, being behind the new project:
The in-game exercise then has the player assign a deliberately false motive to the elites behind the cat park construction, making up a conspiracy about “money” or “control.”
The point here is to subliminally train young people to associate social media posts alleging government corruption as being “fake news,” just like such claims are revealed to be “fake news” in Cat Park.
The player in the game is first forced to make anti-government memes, then is ultimately forced by the plot to repent for the damage caused by making those memes.
While in the role of a disinformation purveyor, the player is told to start “a meme war” and “Make sure to point out how ridiculous this cat park is!”
The “disinformation memes” the player makes include memes making allusions to the city's local government acting like the The Party out of the dystopian novel, 1984:
This all has the effect of making challenges to corrupt government practices seem ridiculous and part of a fraudulent subversive campaign by disinformation spreaders.
The 1984-ish irony of the government funding a dystopic cat-themed video game associating 1984 with censorable “disinformation” is, however, wholly lost on the GEC.
To make the irony complete, this propaganda video game designed to create “behavioral modification” in young people so that they never believe conspiracy theories ends with a conspiracy theory against the other side. As it turns out, the entire disinformation campaign the player embarked on was all secretly planned by an eccentric billionaire organizing the city's populists from the shadows:
It is this shady populist organizer figure who pushes the player to “push the anti-park movement to the next level,” which includes mobilizing aggrieved citizens to shut the park down.
This reveal has the effect of making young people subtly associate social media posts expressing dissatisfaction with government with fraudulent, astroturfed billion-dollar operations — rather than genuine citizens mobilizing for reform of corrupt government practices.
As the leaked GEC memo makes clear, the exercises and subliminally embedded messaging contained in Cat Park are deliberately based on so-called “inoculation theory.”
“Much as vaccinations work by exposing subjects to an innocuous strain of a virus in order to trigger an immune response”, the GEC memo says, “empirical studies indicate that the controlled experience of responding to disinformation through a game can build cognitive resistance to disinformation in the real world. This concept is also known as 'pre-bunking.'”
The GEC worked closely with the University of Cambridge's “Social Decision-Making Lab” to produce Cat Park. Per its website, the Social Decision-Making Lab has long been at work trying to create “A Psychological Vaccine Against Fake News”:
According to the GEC memo, the Social-Decision Making Lab found that after playing Cat Park, “players are 19 percentage points more likely than a control group to spot disinformation and 15 percentage points less likely to want to share disinformation after playing.”
However, as we highlighted above, Cat Park is not really about spotting disinformation. Rather, it is about creating a strong psychological aversion in young people to social media posts associated with populist political sentiments or airing grievances against government.
So the success of Cat Park appears to be measured by whether young people are “vaccinated” against populism after playing the game — not by whether they are “vaccinated” against so-called “fake news.”
The final frame at the end of Cat Park links to the “Inoculation.Science” website, maintained by two UK universities: University of Cambridge and University of Bristol.
To appreciate the entrenched political bias and partisan targeting of Cambridge's Social Decision-Making Lab, recent “disinformation research” from them includes:
- Targeting US conservatives: Meta-analysis reveals that accuracy nudges have little to no effect for US conservatives.
- Targeting “climate changed deniers:” Climate of conspiracy: Meta-analysis of the consequences of belief in conspiracy theories about climate change; Responding To Climate Change Denial.
- Targeting “vaccine skeptics:” Prebunking messaging to inoculate against COVID-19 vaccine misinformation: An effective strategy for public health.
- Targeting “election deniers:” Democratic Norms, Social Projection, and False Consensus in the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election.
With the GEC working closely with the UK government to roll out Cat Park, it is helpful to know that both the Cambridge and Bristol University “disinfo lab” researchers have explicitly and systematically targeted Brexit supporters and the Brexit political movement for the past five years. See, for example:
- Joint studies by Cambridge and Bristol (the exact two universities who run the inoculation.science page linked to in Cat Park) to “vaccinate against fake news” motivating “Brexit,” described as “populism on steroids”;
- June 2017 presentation by Cambridge disinfo researcher Dr. Sander van der Linden specifically targeting Brexit (this author has been directly involved in GEC-produced disinformation games); and
- Public testimony by both Cambridge and Bristol disinfo researchers specifically targeting Brexit.
Cat Park As a Sequel To Harmony Square
Cat Park is now the second counter-disinformation video game the GEC has produced at taxpayer expense. Its first video game production, Harmony Square, was released in November 2020. The game draws on the same above-mentioned “Inoculation Science” to “prebunk” misinformation in the impressionable minds of young people.
The GEC's Counter Disinformation Technology Advisor, Davor Devcic, explains how Cat Park builds on Harmony Square in this YouTube video, clipped below:
If the explicit political nature of all this is still unclear from the above, the GEC memo removes all doubt. They positively cite a Harvard University pro-censorship publication called the Misinformation Review, which specifically heralded Harmony Square as “'inoculating' against political misinformation:'
In perhaps a preview of the boomerang of foreign-focused political influence efforts coming home, the Misinformation Review write-up had the UK-based University of Cambridge “disinformation” researchers writing their findings directly for the US-based Harvard research community:
The Misinformation Review notes that Cat Park's predecessor, Harmony Square, is specifically about “election misinformation.” Its psychological impact therefore is intended to translate into direct political impact:
Harmony Square is an interactive social impact game about election misinformation. The goal of the game is to reveal the tactics and manipulation techniques that fake news producers use to mislead their audience, build a following, and exploit societal tensions to achieve a political goal.
Instructively, the Misinformation Review notes Harmony Square was based on the Internet censorship and counter-disinformation theories put forward by the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA). Specifically, CISA founder Chris Krebs's “War On Pineapple.”
Foundation for Freedom Online has previously reported how CISA's censorship network targeted 22 million tweets for takedown or throttling in the run-up to the 2020 election. Every single one of the “repeat misinformation spreaders” targeted by CISA for “election misinformation” all had the exact same political affiliation as right-of-center accounts:
Per the GEC memo, Cat Park's video game predecessor Harmony Square has been played more than 400,000 times. The US government evidently worked closely with the UK government to put Harmony Square in schools through “media literacy lesson plans,” and worked to install Harmony Square in the educational system in Ukraine, and to be played “ahead of national elections” in Latvia and elsewhere.
What Is The GEC Doing With Cat Park?
Because the US State Department and its taxpayer-funded activities are supposed to be exclusively foreign-facing, Cat Park's programming is not supposed to boomerang back into the US and propagandize the American public with its anti-populist messaging.
But for reasons discussed further above and below (see subsequent section: The GEC's Role In The Censorship Industry), there is ample reason to expect this foreign/domestic distinction may cease to be respected once the game is out on its own, beyond its initial global release.
Further, the Smith-Mundt Modernization Act signed into law by President Obama in 2013 made it legal for government-produced propaganda made for overseas audiences to be directed at US citizens themselves. So were Cat Park to be introduced independently to audiences in America, there would presumably be no legal injunction against it.
That means there is no firewall against Cat Park coming to a public school targeting the kids near you.
With that stipulated, however, let's now turn to the GEC's plans to promote Cat Park in countries around the world.
The GEC, per the leaked memo, is pushing Cat Park for “adoption in local schools” in countries in whose languages the video game has been interpreted (presently, English, French, Dutch and Russian). Importantly, “the game is localized so that the jokes and message will resonate with each translation in the intended community.”
Per the GEC memo, the US government officially launched Cat Park on social media three weeks ago, on October 24, 2022. Embassies were instructed to “Consider asking your Ambassador or other well-known official to play the game online with a locally popular influencer, academic, journalist or government official.”
US Embassies were also encouraged to “[draw] on exchange program alumni, youth networks, members of the Digital Communication Network, or other influencers” to “carry the message and promote the game.”
The government propaganda launch plans also included “Possible events [that] could include discussions with journalists, academics, educators, game developers, gamers, and cat people about the game, local challenges around disinformation, and how to promote media literacy.”
The GEC stresses Cat Park's inclusion into the curricula of schools “for middle and high-school or university-age players.” Specifically, the GEC notes Cat Park “could be readily included in media literacy, history, civics, political science, or international relations curricula.” The GEC further notes to “consider approaching ministries of education or other authorities about adoption of the games into lesson plans:”
The GEC's Role In The Censorship Industry
So why is the GEC really doing this, and what's really going on here?
To answer that question, some historical background on the GEC's history and operations is necessary.
The most important context to understand about the GEC is that it was originally founded to combat the social media popularity of terrorist groups, not populist groups. But like DHS's “foreign-to-domestic switcheroo” in the context of censoring “disinformation,” the GEC pulled off a “terrorist-to-populist switcheroo” in its targeting as well.
The GEC was created by Executive Order during the Obama Administration in March 2016 at the height of domestic fears over ISIS-related terrorism. The GEC was tasked with stopping ISIS's recruiting and virality online on Facebook and Twitter by working with tech companies and global partners to take down ISIS networks (resulting in 635,000 ISIS account takedowns) and to produce counter-propaganda offensives.
Today, the US military treats the GEC as a key civilian arm of its psychological warfare operations:
The new Global Engagement Center (GEC), established by presidential executive order and located at the DoS, focuses on third-party validators or influencers from the bottom up, whereas MISO [Military Information Support Operations, formerly known as “psyops”] within DoD remains more focused on government top-down communications. [RAND Corporation]
The GEC was first founded and overseen in 2016 by then-State Department Under Secretary for Public Affairs Richard Stengel. Stengel described his job at GEC as being the US government's “chief propagandist.”
But Stengel, the former Time Magazine editor-in-chief, went from a job “exporting the First Amendment” before the 2016 election to writing a Washington Post op-ed calling for an end to the First Amendment after the 2016 election.
What changed? According to the GEC founder, what changed was the free and open Internet. The Internet, says Stengel, gave political populist groups power to sway the hearts and minds of the public, which was now swaying elections in a political direction with which Stengel vehemently disagreed.
And so, outcompeted in the social media marketplace of ideas, Stengel's GEC network embarked out a crusade to ban the distribution of alternate ideas online. Hence, the rise of Internet censorship after the 2016 election.
Foundation for Freedom Online has previously covered the origin story of Internet censorship in broad sketches, referencing the GEC's key role. Indeed, the current domestic censorship bureau run out of CISA at DHS was originally intended to be run out of the GEC at the State Department, until early backers conceded they could not position a domestic censorship directorate at a statutorily foreign-facing office:
For example, the network who first began lobbying for a DHS Ministry of Truth role first had wanted to install the domestic social media censorship bureau at the State Department [GEC], but decided they couldn't overcome the legal prohibition on domestic operations. [FFO]
So how did the GEC get the mandate to go from “countering propaganda” from terrorists to countering populists?
The opportunity came with the media hysteria over Russiagate after the 2016 election.
The GEC, still primarily staffed in 2017-2018 with Rick Stengel loyalists, was given $120 million to fight so-called “Russian meddling” that was deemed by groups like Graphika to be plaguing US social media. The Trump Administration, skeptical of such claims, balked at deploying such funds. Nonetheless, the mandate to fight “foreign disinformation” and not just “terrorism” was broadly established, and the GEC conducted a parallel “foreign-to-domestic switcheroo” with the CISA censors at DHS.
As one illustration of this joint GEC-DHS network, in this video from October 2019, you can watch GEC founder Rick Stengel planning future domestic-facing Internet censorship operations with none other than Nina Jancowicz, the would-be future face of the DHS's Disinformation Governance Board:
The GEC now, effectively, forms the global-facing political censorship arm of the Internet, while its sister agency CISA forms the domestic political censorship arm.
Just as the leaked GEC memo detailed herein reveals that Cat Park is intended to be played around the world “ahead of national elections,” the GEC has joined forces with CISA to step in behaviorally modify American hearts and minds in US elections as well.
For example, Foundation for Freedom Online has extensively documented how CISA outsources election censorship on social media to a group called the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP). As noted above, EIP was responsible for 22 million tweets being targeted for censorship during the 2020 election alone, and every single “repeat misinformation spreader” throttled by EIP was politically tagged as right-of-center.
EIP has explicitly stated that CISA wanted to engage in taking down domestic “disinformation” but was barred by the First Amendment, and thus outsourced its censorship operation to EIP:
The above video, and EIP's post-mortem report, both make clear that GEC was authorized as a government partner to submit social media posts and trending narratives for censorship ahead of the 2020 election, thus directly impacting the US electoral process.
While the specific “disinformation” takedown requests and communications that GEC sent to EIP about the 2020 election and 2022 midterms remain unknown, the EIP report suggests the GEC appears to have submitted at least several unique “tickets” during the 2020 election.
EIP's “disinformation” tickets can refer to censorship of a single URL, or of an entire narrative comprised of millions of impacted URLs. The total extent of GEC's involvement in domestic censorship, as a partner to CISA, is therefore presently unclear.
But given the GEC's explicit intermingling of psychological warfare and political interference since its formation, this new progression into “behavioral modification” video games such as Cat Park marks an Orwellian, but perhaps unsurprising, development.
GEC has publicly acknowledged that Cat Park was produced for foreign audiences, and is not intended to boomerang back on schools and curricula here in the US.
But until Congress defunds or recharters the GEC to address much-reforms, it is now up to the American people to remain vigilant to stop GEC-produced products from coming home.
For those who want to see your tax dollars at work, you can play Cat Park here: https://catpark.game/.