Tag Archives: Brexit

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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The international order

I’m off to England tonight for a conference at Ditchley Park on the subject ‘Russia’s role in the world today and tomorrow.’ I’ll be slumming it in a grand country mansion with a bunch of ambassadors, retired senior officials, and other people far more distinguished than myself, but as it’s all under the Chatham House rule, I regret that I won’t be able to report on it. Still, it provides an excuse to ponder the state of Anglo-Russian relations.

British Prime Minister Theresa May sought to divert attention from her Brexit troubles the other day with some inflammatory remarks about Russia at the annual banquet of the Lord Mayor of London. May remarked that Russia has

fomented conflict in the Donbass, repeatedly violated the national airspace of several European countries, and mounted a sustained campaign of cyber-espionage and disruption. This has included meddling in elections, and hacking the Danish ministry of defence and the Bundestag [German parliament], among many others. It is seeking to weaponise information. Deploying its state-run media organisations to plant fake stories and photo-shopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the west and undermine our institutions.

May accused Russia of ‘threatening the international order on which we all depend,’ and concluded by saying that, ‘I have a very simple message for Russia. We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed. Because you underestimate the resilience of our democracies, the enduring attraction of free and open societies, and the commitment of western nations to the alliances that bind us.’

As if to back May up, Ciaran Martin, the head of Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre, stated yesterday that, ‘I can confirm that Russian interference, seen by the National Cyber Security Centre over the past year, has included attacks on the UK media, telecommunication and energy sectors.’ To this Martin added, ‘Russia is seeking to undermine the international system. That much is clear. The PM made the point on Monday night – international order as we know it is in danger of being eroded.’

Along with all this comes alongside allegations that Russian internet trolls attempted to the influence the Brexit referendum. Evidence for this is a little weak since despite the hype, the Guardian reports that, ‘Prof Laura Cram, director of neuropolitics research at the University of Edinburgh, told the Guardian that at least 419 of those [Russian Twitter] accounts tweeted about Brexit a total of 3,468 times – mostly after the referendum had taken place.’ It would be interesting to know how many tens of thousands, or for all I know, hundreds of thousands of tweets were posted about Brexit by Brits and peoples of other non-Russian nationalities, but the fact that the alleged ‘interference’ mostly took place after the referendum in any case rather weakens the argument for the prosecution.

But let’s put that to one side. And let’s put aside also May’s somewhat contestable claims about fomenting war in Donbass, regularly violating European airspace, and the like. Let’s accept, for simplicity’s sake, that Russia is trying to influence people in Britain and that its intelligence agencies are attempting to hack the computer systems of British institutions. Let’s face it, it would be pretty odd if they weren’t. This is pretty much run of the mill for states which imagine that they have some position on the international stage. The questions which then arise are: a) does this constitute ‘interference’? and b) does this constitute  an attempt ‘to undermine the international order.’

The answer to the first question depends, I guess, on how you define ‘interference.’ But, to my mind, trying to influence people isn’t interference; it’s just a normal part of human relationships. I think that people need to calm down a little bit on this matter. There seems to be a rather odd view that only people within a country can attempt to influence the citizens or the government of that country. That is, of course, not the way Western states operate – Brits, for instance, are continually trying to influence others. And in any case, it’s just impractical. Human interaction is a perpetual attempt to influence one another. The interaction between states and between states and the peoples of other states is just the same. For sure, Russians want to change the way people in Britain think. That’s normal. There’s nothing wrong with it. The whole ‘interference’ narrative is wrong-headed at the philosophical level.

To this, some might reply that the problem is not Russians trying to influence Brits, but that they are doing so by spreading ‘fake news’. Well, perhaps they do sometimes, though I think that the ‘fake news’ meme is greatly exaggerated, and if we’re talking about social media there’s no shortage of utter tripe, including manifestly untrue stories, appearing in the Facebook and Twitter posts of non-Russians. A few hundred Russian tweets really don’t matter very much in the larger scheme of things. But, at a deeper level, we have to ask, ‘who is determine what is ‘fake’ and what is not?’ Are you going to say that we should have some sort of media police which eliminates what we deem to be inaccurate? If so, we have censorship, not a free society.

And then we come to question b) – does this constitute an attempt to ‘undermine the international order?’ The answer to this is fairly simple – No, and two times no! Yes, the Russians engage in espionage. They try to influence people. They always have! And so have Western countries! This isn’t an attempt to undermine the international order. This is the international order!! Let’s not be naïve about this. The international order consists of a whole set of institutions and rules which states for the most part abide by. At the same time, they occasionally break the rules, by for instance carrying out espionage on one another. Yet the order continues on nonetheless. Russia spies on Britain. Britain spies on Russia (remember the British spy rock in Moscow, anyone?) That’s how the order works.

I’m tempted to go off into a bit of ‘whataboutism’ and talk about all the many times that the United Kingdom has egregiously broken the rules of the international system. It’s hardly an innocent in this regard. But instead, I’ll end on a different thought. If Mrs May really thinks that Russia is undermining the international order in general and more specifically British democracy, then shouldn’t she be reconsidering Brexit? Of course, Mrs May won’t do anything of the sort. She recognizes the result of the Brexit referendum as legitimate and binding. Yet Brexit is a huge shock to the international order, one of the biggest in recent years. Who ‘undermined the international order’? The British people, that’s who.

UPDATE:  According to Sky News, Yin Yin Lu of Oxford Internet Research has identified 22.6 million tweets associated with the alleged Russian ‘troll factory’. Of these, 400 were about or related to Brexit. As Ms Lu says: “First of all the number of these tweets is important to highlight. So there’s about 400 tweets here out of 22.6 million. That is a very infinitesimal fraction. So the word interference is perhaps a bit exaggerated.”

Evidence not needed

A report by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) of the British House of Commons is causing a stir today. According to the headline in The Guardian: ‘Brexit: Foreign states may have interfered in vote, report says’. And The Independent announces: ‘Foreign hackers may have hit voter registration site days before EU referendum, say MPs’.

The report in question is entitled Lessons Learned from the EU Referendum and contains a short section concerning the crash of the British voter registration website on the last day of registration for the Brexit referendum. In this section, the report mentions in passing Russia and China. It is this which had led to the breathless headlines seeming to blame Russia and China for interfering in the Brexit vote.

Contrary to the headlines, however, the report doesn’t actually make a positive statement that Russia and China may have been behind the voter registration website’s crash. All it actually says is ‘PACAC does not rule out the possibility that the crash may have been caused by a DDOS (distributed denial of service attack) using botnets.’ So it doesn’t actually rule it in, it just doesn’t rule it out. And, in any case, it doesn’t in fact blame the DDOS on ‘foreign states’. It doesn’t say anywhere who might have carried it out, assuming that it even was a DDOS. The only mention of Russia and China is a sentence a little later, saying

Russia and China use a cognitive approach based on understanding of mass psychology and of how to exploit individuals. The implications of this different understanding of cyber-attack, as purely technical or as reaching beyond the digital to influence public opinion, for the interference in elections and referendums are clear. PACAC is deeply concerned about these allegations about foreign interference.

This really doesn’t add up to much. Nevertheless, committee chairman Bernard Jenkin sought to stir the pot, telling The Independent that ‘it would have been “entirely in character” for “the Russians and Chinese” ’ to do such a thing.

And what is his evidence? It turns out that he doesn’t have any. The report itself comments that:

Although the Committee has no direct evidence, it considers that it is important to be aware of the potential for foreign interference in elections or referendums. The report on lessons learned from the website crash described it as ‘technical in nature, gaps in technical ownership and risk management contributed to the problem, and prevented it from being mitigated in advance.’

So, it turns out that the committee ‘has no direct evidence’ that Russia and China had anything to do with this, and it turns out also that the specialists who looked into the crash considered it ‘technical in nature’ and didn’t blame on it outside attack. As John Rentoul points out in The Independent, Jenkin’s insinuations are the ‘the purest baloney. The website crashed because lots of people left it to the last minute to register and whoever built the site failed to provide another capacity for the surge.’

Mr Jenkin, however, is unperturbed. ‘We’ve seen this happen in other countries’, he said, without saying which those countries were, and adding, ‘Our own Government has made it clear to us that they don’t think there was anything, but you don’t necessarily find any direct evidence.’

So even the British government doesn’t think the story is true. But never mind. When it comes to blaming the Russians, who needs evidence anyway? Just make something up and then say how concerned you are. Because, you know, it’s ‘entirely in character’, and what more proof do you need? Just make sure to insinuate something salacious, and you can then rely on The Guardian and The Independent to pick it up, exaggerate it even further, and spread your baseless allegation far and wide.

Vote for ‘Remain’

Being a British as well as a Canadian citizen, and having been resident in the United Kingdom within the last 15 years, I have a vote in the imminent referendum on whether the UK should leave the European Union (EU). Today I received my postal ballot. I intend to put a cross in the box marked ‘Remain a member of the European Union’.

Arguments for and against the EU range from the rationalistically technocratic to the purely emotional. Left-wing opponents of the EU think that it is a bastion of neoliberalism. Right-wing opponents think that it is a source of socialist regulation. They can’t both be right. Perhaps leaving the EU will damage the British economy; perhaps it will strengthen it. We don’t actually know.

What we do know for sure is that by the standards of the rest of the world, Britain is a pretty prosperous and successful country. Whether this has anything to do with the EU, one cannot tell. But certainly the EU has not wrought untold damage upon the UK. Certainly, the EU is imperfect, perhaps even badly flawed. But so are all human institutions. The fact that something is imperfect is not per se a reason for abandoning it in favour of the unknown. Given Britain’s prosperity, the burden of proof lies upon those who would exit the EU to show that leaving would definitely be beneficial. That proof has not been provided.

What I can be sure of is that leaving the EU would deprive my family of benefits which it enjoys at the moment. Being a citizen of the EU allows one to live, study, and work anywhere in the Union without hindrance. This is a tremendous privilege. Members of my family may wish to go to university in Europe and make lives for themselves there. Brexit wouldn’t make this impossible for them, but it would certainly make it more difficult. From a purely person perspective, I would rather that my children had access to a union of 500 million people and an area of four million square kilometres than be limited to one small island near the far western edge of the Eurasian continent.

My stance is also a matter of identity and aesthetics. I am a citizen of two countries. I have lived and worked in various European countries – the UK, Switzerland, Belarus (more precisely the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic), Russia, Germany, Italy, and Belgium. I speak English, French and Russian, as well as some Italian and German. Simply put, I feel cosmopolitan rather than nationalist. Perhaps that’s just because as an anglophone born in Quebec and brought up in Wales, I have an innate dislike of separatists and nationalists, and have a sense of the value of belonging to a larger whole. But I think that there is more to it than that. Although the EU often fails to deliver on its promises, the basic ideals it stands for – free trade, open borders, and the like – are things I support and identify with. They are certainly better than the alternative of Little England.

Vote ‘Remain’!

EU: In or Out?

My mother, Dr Ann Robinson, who among other things was at one time a member of the Economic and Social Committee of the European Union (EU), has written a book entitled ‘In or Out? An Impartial Guide to the EU’. The idea is to inform British voters of what the the EU is and what it does, so that they can make an informed choice in the forthcoming referendum on EU membership, but it may also be interest to non-Brits wanting to know about the subject. It is available as an e-book for a mere £2.99 here; and also for Kindle at Amazon.co.uk here.

She has also started a blog about the EU, whose title is modelled after that of this blog: EUrationality. You can read it here. I have added it also to my blogroll.

euinorout