Cui bono?

I’m not a great fan of Marxist philosophy, but one thing it has got right is the need to be sceptical when faced by what academics like to call ‘normative’ claims, and to be aware that such claims often hide a bid for power. When faced by such a claim, one should always ask ‘Cui bono?’ – who benefits?

At present, politicians and political commentators are making much of the alleged threat to democracy posed by social media, ‘fake news’, and ‘disinformation’. This is leading to demands for social media to be more tightly regulated and for action to be taken against those supposedly guilty of spreading fake news, notably the Russian government. Yesterday’s big news was an announcement by Facebook that it had removed 32 accounts ‘believed to have been set up to influence the mid-term US elections in November.’ According to Facebook, these accounts were responsible for 9,500 posts and had spent $11,000 on advertising. Personally, I don’t regard this as a big deal. In a country in which political campaigns cost billions of dollars, I seriously doubt that $11,000 on Facebook is going to make any difference. For sure, there’s a lot of garbage to be found on social media, which also make it easier for people to hide their true identity. But I remain utterly unconvinced that ‘fake news’ on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram is that important, if only because nobody has yet to produce any hard evidence that such ‘news’ has actually swayed any significant number of voters.

Why then are so many people getting so worked up about it and demanding action? An interim report published last week by the British House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee provides some clues. Entitled, ‘Disinformation and Fake News’, the interim report says that,

There are many potential threats to our democracy and our values. One such threat arises from what has been coined ‘fake news’, created for profit or other gain, disseminated through state-sponsored programmes, or spread through the deliberate distortion of facts, by groups with a particular agenda, including the desire to affect political elections. … We are faced with a crisis concerning the use of data, the manipulation of our data, and the targeting of pernicious views. In particular, we heard evidence of Russian state-sponsored attempts to influence elections in the US and the UK through social media. … In this rapidly changing digital world, our existing legal framework is no longer fit for purpose. … Our democracy is at risk, and now is the time to act, to protect our shared values and the integrity of our democratic institutions.

You will note how this is couched in terms of normative claims concerning ‘democracy and our values’. But if you dig a little deeper, you will see that there is something else going on here. In its first two paragraphs, the report says:

  1. In this inquiry, we have studied the spread of false, misleading, and persuasive content, and the ways in which malign players, whether automated or human, or both together, distort what is true in order to create influence, to intimidate, to make money, or to influence political elections.

  2. People are increasingly finding out about what is happening in this country, in their local communities, and across the wider world, through social media, rather than through more traditional forms of communication, such as television, print media, or the radio.

Call me a cynic, but in my eyes, paragraph 1 simply describes democratic politics, a process in which people ‘distort what is true in order to create influence … or to influence political elections’. In an attempt to define ‘fake news’, the committee likewise describes a number of things which to my mind sound just like normal political or journalistic practice, e.g.

  • ‘Manipulated content: distortion of genuine information or imagery, for example a headline that is made more sensationalist.’
  • ‘False context of connection: factually accurate content that is shared with false contextual information, for example when a headline of an article does not reflect the content.’ [As I can personally testify from having had my articles appear under utterly misleading headlines put in by newspaper editors, this and the previous bullet point are absolutely standard journalistic practice.]
  • ‘Misleading content: misleading use of information, for example by presenting comment as fact.’ [As I’ve pointed out before, this is also completely standard.]

If the Committee were really investigating ‘fake news’, it would have to investigate itself and all its members’ colleagues, and indeed their entire profession. It would then have to consider all the profound questions which such an investigation would raise. But that, of course, is not going to happen. Likewise, the committee would have to investigate ‘traditional’ forms of journalism, which are guilty of many of the dubious practices identified. But that isn’t going to happen either. Instead, the report focuses entirely on the new phenomenon of social media, as if ‘fake news’ and ‘disinformation’ were primarily their fault, rather than, say, the fault of politicians who mislead in order to win votes.

Paragraph 2 reveals what’s really at stake here. People are now finding out about the world in ways which the politicians aren’t able to manipulate as successfully as the previous sources of information. Power is shifting. They don’t like it. And they want to stop it.

The question then is how to do that. The answer is to find some ‘malign persons’ or institutions who can be associated with the shift of power and used to discredit it. This is where Russia comes in handy. And sure enough, the interim report devotes several pages to discussing the evil impact of Russia on British democracy, and in particular alleged Russian interference in the Brexit referendum. The evidence provided for this interference is pretty weak, much of it consisting of a discussion of businessman Arron Banks, who provided millions of pounds to the Leave campaign, and who also held some meetings with Russian officials to discuss business deals. Somehow, this connection is meant to show ‘Russian interference’, but quite how is never explained.

What’s clear is that the result of the Brexit referendum really irks the committee. It keeps coming back to it, mentioning, for instance, connections between the Vote Leave campaign and the companies AggregateIQ and Cambridge Analytica, which used data mining techniques to gather information from Facebook for political purposes. This made me think that maybe there’s a hidden agenda here. In the USA, it’s obvious that the paranoia over ‘Russian interference’ and the malign influence of social media is driven by power struggles within the political elite, prompted by the angst caused by Donald Trump’s election. Is it the same in the UK?

To answer this question, I did a bit of investigating and looked up the members of the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and whether they had supported Remain or Leave during the Brexit referendum. The interim report lists 12 members of the committee. Here are the results:

Damian Collins MP (Conservative, Folkestone and Hythe) (Chair) – Remain.

Clive Efford MP (Labour, Eltham) – Remain.

Julie Elliott MP (Labour, Sunderland Central) – Remain.

Paul Farrelly MP (Labour, Newcastle-under-Lyme) – Remain.

Simon Hart MP (Conservative, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) – Remain.

Julian Knight MP (Conservative, Solihull) – Remain.

Ian C. Lucas MP (Labour, Wrexham) – Remain.

Brendan O’Hara MP (Scottish National Party, Argyll and Bute) – Remain.

Rebecca Pow MP (Conservative, Taunton Deane) – Remain.

Jo Stevens MP (Labour, Cardiff Central) – Remain.

Giles Watling MP (Conservative, Clacton) – Remain.

Christian Matheson MP (Labour, City of Chester) – Remain.

Does it make sense now?

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15 thoughts on “Cui bono?”

  1. Yeah, the Internet makes it difficult to practice censorship, effectively.

    It’s a challenge. You’ll have to expand the liberal PC project, to exclude, from the Overton window, many concepts and opinions related to the current events. So, if you hear someone advocating Brexit – you immediately aware that you’re listening to Russian propaganda, and you know how to react.

    Actually, come to think of it, that has already happened, in the US at least. The concept of “states rights”, for example.

    Of course, these ‘incorrect’ ideas can change, so that, for example, tomorrow Brexit may become totally correct, while anti-Brexit turns racist and treasonous.

    This is really, literally the 1984 territory.

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    1. States rights is federalism. Which makes it highly ironic historically, in that Sowjet Russia was transformed into very autonomous state(let)s, some even so distant and autarkic that only the air force has something so say there.
      So I ask myself what would there to be gained if D.C. has power over everything? Central control. Only one place to manipulate. Indeed, “curb state rights” in this regard could be promoted by foreign powers to make it easier to manipulate the Empire. But who would think that far? From Switzerland to Brazil the centralized media conglomerates speak for abolishment of federalism. An odd coincidence I guess.

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  2. Another question anyone should be asking is “Qui custodeiet custodes”? Or: “Cyberpunk 2018 is so boring and ordinary”.

    Note – The Wired is mildly Russophobic and totally on board with the Russiagate Resistance.

    How Americans Wound Up on Twitter’s List of Russian Bots

    “If you followed Rebecca Hirschfeld’s @Beckster319 account on Twitter in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election, you would have seen that she’s an actress, a huge fan of David Bowie but not so much of Donald Trump, and that she enjoyed anything flavored with pumpkin.

    Around the same time, if you looked at Markiya Franklin’s @internalmemer account, you would have gathered that she supports Black Lives Matter and is a K-pop diehard. Chris Osborne’s @skatewake1994 account was into surfing and snowboarding with a passion, along with saying a few things about then-candidate Trump.

    Hirschfeld lives in Illinois, Franklin in Florida, and Osborne in California, but their account handles were among 2,752 that Twitter identified as potentially connected to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, and submitted to Congress in November 2017. In February, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted the IRA for engaging in “fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the US political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.” The IRA is the Russian propaganda arm considered a “troll factory,” distinct from the military-intelligence officers Mueller indicted last week for hacking into Democrats’ computers in 2016.

    The three Americans are among more than 20 Twitter accounts that appeared on Twitter’s list of suspected Russian accounts yet show signs of being real people, according to an analysis by Clemson University professors Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren. Of those, WIRED independently verified that at least four accounts were created by people with no demonstrable ties to Russia. Their handles were published by a congressional committee, identifying them in some minds as Russian agents.”

    Here, allow me to show you the Tl;dr version:

    As for the British Parliament report, well… People living in the same country as the Daily Mail should not be throwing stones.

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  3. I like your thinking in general, but I think you lack a bit of context about the UK referendum vote. There has been 40 years of anti-EU press in the UK and a failing educational system. Most UK voters have little hard knowledge of what the EU is, what it does, how much it costs. Few also understand how the UK works. Devolution over the past 20 years have left the majority English at a disadvantage compared with the Scots and the Welsh. Northern Ireland is more complex because of the Good Friday agreement. The fact that a majority of MPs voted remain is probably because they are slightly better informed than their constituents. “Naming and shaming” them is unhelpful and unworthy of your otherwise excellent blog.

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      1. Yes, thanks for replying, but you remind me of the BBC balance. An opposite view is not necessarily correct by virtue of being opposite. That’s why the contrarian media tarts such as Farage, Johnson and Rees-Mogg get so much undeserved publicity m. That is if you scrutinize the conrent of what they have to say. Best wishes,Michael.

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    1. At least 1 out of 12 should be expected and if only by virtue of being a tide swimmer for their constituency just because.
      Analogy in Switzerland would be a commission in parliament where everybody are joiners and none are äh, stay-outers?. Highly unlikely.

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  4. Mao says, “Yeah, the Internet makes it difficult to practice censorship, effectively.” To some extent this statement is true, but it needs to be qualified. The internet can be flooded with misinformation that overwhelms one’s ability to find the truth. Piling on more hay makes the needle harder to find.

    Unfortunately, there are interests that have a motivation to obscure the truth. Those of us who are accustomed to finding alternative view points in the media are not affected as much, but most people can be more easily misinformed.

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    1. “Unfortunately, there are interests that have a motivation to obscure the truth”

      There are blatant lies, of course, but I’m skeptical about “the truth”. I’m more sympathetic to the view (a bit of exaggeration itself, perhaps) that ‘all communication is manipulation of signal-receiver by signal-sender’.

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      1. Even taking it as true, for the sake of discussion only, that “all communication is manipulation of signal-receiver by signal-sender,” there is a difference in intent between someone who attempts to convey the truth, or what he believes to be the truth, and someone whose intent it is to mislead.

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  5. Relevant:

    That ain’t no some stinky totalitarian Russian Mordor with it’s repressive Yarovaya Package – that’s the Blessed Democratic Valinor of the Western Elfs! Totally justified in persecuting thought crimes and “jailing for likes” ™. Next step – jaling for liking/reposting what will be deemed as “fake news/Russian propaganda”.

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