Tag Archives: internet

Ironic

‘Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?’ sang my fellow Ottawan Alanis Morissette. Of course, the really ironic thing was that Morissette didn’t understand the meaning of ironic. Nevertheless, her words often come to mind when thinking of developments in the United States, especially when they involve Russia. For when it comes to matters Russo-American, the cup of irony truly runneth over.

Take, for instance, the purge of conservatives from social media following the riot in Washington a couple of weeks ago in which a mob of supporters of now ex-president Donald Trump invaded the Capitol building. As anybody who has been even remotely following American politics for the past four years will know, Trump and his supporters have been repeatedly accused of being puppets of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Expelling them from social media is thus portrayed as in part a liberation of the United States from years of Russia disinformation and behind-the-scenes manipulation.

But where have these purged conservatives gone?

One answer is that they have fled from Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and all the rest of them, to the messaging app Telegram. Indeed Telegram has been making hay, portraying itself as the home of free speech, and inviting people to defect to it en masse. Adverts have been popping up on my computer screen, showing a deleted Twitter symbol alongside the words ‘Leave Censorship’, followed by Telgram’s symbol and the words ‘Choose Freedom’, and then the hashtag ‘#LeaveTwitterJoinTelegram’.

But what is Telegram? It’s a Russian app, that’s what. And it’s doing really well from the media purge in America. This week the number of Telegram subscribers passed 500 million, with tens of millions having joined in just a couple of weeks.

From a Russian point of view, the irony is sweet: suddenly, America is the home of censorship, and Russia the home of free speech. More broadly, the irony lies in the fact that the assault on Russian disinformation has driven tens of millions of people into the hands of the Russians. You kinda gotta laugh.

And it’s not just Telegram. Also involved in this story is a conservative rival to Twitter which goes by the name of Parler (I’ve heard people pronounce this as ‘parlour’, but Americans don’t speak French any more than they do irony, so I guess we have to forgive them). Founded in 2018, Parler attracted conservatives who felt that Twitter was censoring them, and to that end it advertised itself as a bastion of free speech.

Until a couple of weeks ago, Parler had somewhere around 2 million users, making it something of a minnow on the social media scene. Nevertheless, it was deemed sufficiently objectionable for the rest of the internet community to gang up to shut it down, first throwing it off the various app stores from which people downloaded it, and then denying it access to any computer servers.

So what has Parler done about it? According to today’s news, it’s moved to Russia, finding a new home on the servers of the Russian tech company DDoS-Guard. It expects to be back online and operating again by the end of January.

Heh, heh, heh. Just a few weeks ago, left-wing conspiracy theorists were claiming that Parler was a Russian asset. Well, guess what? It wasn’t, but then you shut it down, and now it is! How’s that for irony?

Now, I want to be clear about one thing. I’m not a fan of the sort of right-wing nutjobbery which got Trump and so many of his supporters thrown off social media. I don’t follow those kind of people, have never used Parler, and don’t intend to. Sadly, the internet is in part a beautiful source of wonderfully useful information and in part a cesspool of rotten filth. I can see why people want to do something about the latter.

But part of what makes the cesspool is the fact that the internet encourages people to self-isolate among those who share their own out-of-the-way beliefs. At least if they are all together on the same platforms, there’s a chance that they might be subjected to some alternative points of view now and again. But that changes once you boot them out. At that point, you don’t actually shut them up. As we’ve seen above, they just find somewhere else to go. But now they’re by themselves even more than they were before. How that is meant to help make things better, I really don’t know. I fear that it will just add to embittered sense of persecution that lies behind so many of America’s current political problems.

Meanwhile, as American social media rips itself apart, Russian internet providers are raking in the profits. It’s ironic, don’t you think?

The latest ‘existential threat’

Following the revelation that ‘Russia-linked accounts’ (an extremely broad category) spent a massive £0.75 on Facebook advertisements related to the Brexit referendum in the UK, I was amused to read in the Globe and Mail this morning that ‘Privacy officials in Britain and British Columbia are investigating how a Canadian technology company may have helped sway last year’s Brexit vote.’ There I was thinking that ‘Putin dunnit’, and it turns out it was Canada! Who’d have thought it?

All the recent hype about Russian hacking, Russian ‘information warfare’, Russian internet trolls, and the like makes it sound as if the Russians pretty much dominate the internet. At the very least, if the vast number of Russia-related stories are to be believed, Russians are certainly using the internet to exercise outsized influence on world politics. Supposedly, by manipulating online news, sending out adverts on Twitter and Facebook, and generally trolling web users, they have managed, it is said, to get Donald Trump elected; swing British voters in favour of Brexit; persuade the Dutch to support a referendum aimed at blocking Ukrainian entry into the EU; sow chaos and enhance racial tensions in American society; and influence elections in Germany and France, among other things. The internet, apparently, has been thoroughly ‘weaponized’ by Russia to enormous effect.

What then are we to make of a declaration yesterday by the British Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach, that Russia could ‘catastrophically’ damage the British economy by severing underwater communiations cables and so cutting Britain off from the internet? According to the BBC, Peach ‘said Nato had prioritised the protection of the cables “in response to the threat posed by the modernisation of the Russian navy, both nuclear and conventional submarines and ships”.’ The BBC then quotes Conservative MP Rishi Sunak as saying that an attack on the underwater cables would pose an ‘existential threat to our security.’

I have a simple question for the Air Chief Marshal and Mr Sunak – ‘why would Russia want to shut down the internet?’ If there was an all-out war between Britain and Russia, then obviously destroying Britain’s communications would make sense, but short of that amazingly unlikely scenario, what would be the point? The BBC cites former NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Admiral James Stavridis as saying, ‘It is not satellites in the sky, but pipes on the ocean floor that form the backbone of the world’s economy.’ Russia is part of the world economy too. In what way would breaking that economy’s ‘backbone’ help it?

And besides, haven’t we been told again and again in recent months just how successful the Russians have been in using modern digital communications to influence the rest of the world? If that’s all true, then why would Russia want to sabotage them? Surely the Russian government wants people in Britain to be able to access its trolls’ many messages?

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t rationally believe that Russia is using the internet with stunning success for nefarious purposes, and also believe that Russia might want to shut it down.

So what’s this all about? There’s a clue in the BBC article. It says that Peach declared that the UK needed to ‘match and understand Russian fleet modernisation,’ and then notes that, ‘Britain certainly doesn’t have enough ships, submarines and aircraft to mount a constant watch.’ And now it’s clear. This is a pitch for more money for the British military. Since the end of the Cold War, the military has struggled to find a purpose. For a while, it was to act as a ‘force for good’, changing the world for the better by bombing it. That hasn’t turned out so well in places such as Iraq, Afthanistan, and Libya. Humanitarian intervention, regime change, and the like are no longer very persuasive arguments for higher defence spending. So the military has gone back to exaggerating external dangers and hyping up the ‘existential threat’ posed by Russia. Frankly, it’s more than a little bit irresponsible.