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:
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.
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?