Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Activision, Documentaries Are Not Ads: An Open Letter

Robert Rath | 8 May 2014 12:01
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The lack of context is a killer in editing too. The quotes that Vice and 72andSunny feature in the trailer have all the hallmarks of a bad documentary meant to drive ratings rather than actually educate - the kind of stuff you see in those awful Discovery Channel docufiction productions about mermaids and Megalodon. Sizzle quotes with no backup. Few concrete examples. All the caveats, background information and qualifying statements removed.

All bacon bits, no salad.

This issue extends to the rather scant data your documentary cites - though cites isn't really the right term, because nowhere in this video did anyone think to include sources for their data. It's not in the narration. It's not printed in the charts and graphics. There aren't even links in the video's description on YouTube. And that's frustrating, since "Superpower for Hire" contains a stunning number of factual errors or misrepresentations for a video that's less than four minutes long.

Many of the errors can be chalked up to flawed presentation rather than flawed research. For example, after talking about the headway PMCs have made on the modern battlefield, the narrator states that: "In the 10 years after 9/11, the U.S. Government has spent more than $3.3 trillion dollars in private defense contracts."

And while yes, that is technically true, it's also misleading. Stating it that way - with the imagery you chose - gives viewers the impression that the United States has spent $3.3 trillion dollars on mercenaries. But according to George Washington University's project Face the Facts USA, that $3.3 trillion covered all private defense contracts, and most of that money went to aerospace and military technology companies. The largest beneficiaries in 2012, for example, were Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, General Dynamics and United Technologies, none of which are PMCs.

There's a similar problem with the documentary's claim that "as of March 13th, 2013, private contractors represented 62% of the total forces in Afghanistan." This is also true, straight from a government report - but again, context matters. The majority of contractors in Afghanistan work in logistics, construction, areal resupply, food service and other support missions. Only about 17% of them, around 19,197 people, are security personnel - i.e., the armed escorts we usually associate with Blackwater. (And a surprising number of security contractors these days are locals.)

But, Activision, where your video really starts to fall down is when it calls security company G4S the "third largest company in the world."

Let's unpack that.

First of all: Yes, G4S has 620,000 employees, and yes, that does make them the third-largest private employer in the world. However, there are so many major problems with this claim that I can only assume whoever put together this documentary for you - whether Vice, or as I increasingly suspect, 72andSunny - either didn't check their facts or decided to intentionally misinform your audience.

First of all, G4S is a British security company that does a lot more than run a private army. They mostly provide security guards for standard commercial and residential properties. They do cash deliveries in armored cars, maintain electronic monitoring devices for prison systems and install security alarms. Their smaller subsidiaries are the ones that guard ships from Somali pirates, handle deportees and send security contractors to Iraq and Afghanistan. There are certainly scary things about G4S -privatization of police services, poorly trained guards and several scandals involving prisoner and deportee abuse - but your video makes them out to be a private army of half a million, and that's absurd.

G4S wasn't even able to provide 10,000 security guards for the 2012 Olympic Games. They fell so short the British government had to call up 3,500 troops to fill the gaps. One manager found that, instead of getting a group of trained security guards, his command consisted of untrained teenage girls recruited from a local university.

Yet your documentary plays that 620,000-employee statistic to ominous music and men drilling with assault rifles. "What if they stop taking orders," it asks, "and start taking over?"

I hate to tell you, but if it's the teenage girls you're talking about, I think it's too late.

"Superpower for Hire" also does a poor job explaining the methodology they use to determine G4S's global ranking. While the narrator calls them the "the third largest company in the world" (which is wrong) the onscreen text calls them "the third largest private employer" which is true depending on how you slice the data.

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