Fixing Misinformation is a Misguided and Insufficient Strategy

Searching for new ways to stop the spread of false information is an understandable response to recent political developments, but proponents of the strategy are picking the wrong battle if they want to win this vital war

Recent revelations in the UK’s traditional media on Russian attempts to spread mis- and disinformation have been met with aghast intakes of breath. But this shocked response is really British exceptionalism, allied to a pretty incompetent domestic press. The issue of misinformation, disinformation and propaganda spread by social media has been at play for a long time in global civil society.

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Breathless headlines for a very old story: The Times/The Guardian (via BusinessInsider)

‘Fake news’ has become a co-opted cliché. It’s now more likely to be used by those who create and spread lies – such as the president of the United States – than those who unpick them. For the parts of civil society that have picked up the daunting gauntlet of defending the truth, the phrase is already a bad joke at best.

That doesn’t mean that they’ve given up on trying to solve the problem, though. Attempts to differentiate between misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda have become more sophisticated, and definitions are becoming more defined. According to experts on the topic at the most recent MisinfoCon, held in London in October, there are now more than forty projects engaged in tackling different aspects of the problem, mostly funded by the same few large philanthropic foundations. There is tremendous energy and enthusiasm among the motley community of academics, techies, policy wonks and activists attacking this. I consider myself to be part of that broad community.

However, the headlong rush to ‘solve’ this problem is misconceived and misguided. There are several different reasons for this. I’m aiming in this post to set out what those reasons are and how we could redirect our efforts, as a community, towards more effective and valuable outcomes.

I want to make clear at this point that I’m mostly writing about the situation from an English language perspective and I’m inevitably heavily biased towards the UK and US.

Jump to:

    1. Excessive focus on misinformation is a mistake
    2. Of firehoses and water pistols
    3. Wrangling the tech titans
    4. What should we do?

 

1: Excessive focus on one part of the information system is a mistake

At Mozilla Festival, also held in London in October, I attended a highly enjoyable session where the organizers (Melissa Ryan and Sam Jeffers) led several groups in imagining and designing ‘fake news’ articles. What this session proved beyond doubt is how easy it is to create such stories out of thin air. Although no one there had previously tried to write something viral and false, we all came with compelling ideas that would probably have gained at least some traction.

The rise of misinformation in the current age is not the product of newly creative bad actors. People – especially powerful people – have been lying since the dawn of time. It hasn’t become easier to create false information; it’s become far easier to disseminate it, and to profit from it. That’s an infrastructure problem; to correct it, you have to address the whole system and not merely one part of it.

It’s no surprise therefore that when we came towards the end of that session and began to discuss solutions, we drew a collective blank. Someone tentatively proposed better media education as a solution: that’s an admirable aim, but even if policy-makers acted now (and they aren’t), it will take at least a decade to make a noticeable difference. (I also happen to believe that the breakdown of trust in the media is arguably a consequence of improved media literacy.)

The best outcome of media literacy in a complex, tech-driven information ecosystem is perhaps not restored trust, but more sophisticated and granular distrust. To put it another way, we want distrust (i.e. limits on how far we are willing to accept information based on our experience and available data), not mistrust (i.e. a general cynical unease based on the complexity of modern life).

So attempts to change readers’ habits are long-term and therefore, I’d argue, insufficient as a solution for the immediate problems we face (by which I mean, we are already being governed by people who were elected in part on the basis of false information, at least in the USA and the UK). And attempts to reduce the amount of false information being produced are obviously doomed to fail.

In that context, it’s no wonder that we’ve turned to the kinds of projects that feel the most likely to succeed. But it’s short-sighted to focus all our efforts on the bad information in the system. We need to think much bigger, which brings me to the next point.

2: We can’t fight the falsehood wildfire with the tiny water pistol of truth

I have heard this point made occasionally at large disinfo- and misinformation conferences on both sides of the Atlantic (including MisinfoCon London and the Digital Disinformation Forum held at Stanford back in June). But it doesn’t appear to have sunk in yet.

It seems facile to point this out, but even if we removed all the false information from the 21st century information ecosystem overnight, it still wouldn’t be healthy. That’s because the news industry’s incentives are set up wrong. Far more intelligent people than me have written about the corrosive impact of advertising on journalism, going back many decades.

More recently, the rise of the monopolistic tech titans (Google and Facebook), who now control the vast majority of the advertising market, has accelerated the tendency towards what we sometimes call ‘infotainment’: clickbait headlines leading us into factoid-laden stories of limited value and relevance. This is only likely to continue as newsfeed and search engine algorithms increasingly surface content based on a blend of general popularity, low quality titillation and individual preference.

While there are very clear differences between the large tech firms in terms of their motives, I am not sure that any of them can honestly claim to hold the high ground on this. Perhaps Google’s search team remains committed to giving humans access to high quality information, although Yelp and others may disagree. But YouTube (a natural monopoly and, if you’d forgotten, a Google company) is, by contrast, a nest of vipers, while Google News is still promoting false stories from long-time fakers and trolls like 4Chan.

In short, the business model that sustained for-profit journalism is broken beyond repair. The reporting on Donald Trump during the US election bears this out. Misinformation became a problem towards the end of that campaign, but way before that had occurred, the mainstream news media in the US gave Trump far more publicity than other candidates. This is because they have to compete for attention in an ever-expanding sea of attention seekers. Trump was outrageous, controversial, brash; in short, a ready-made attention-grabbing brand. (This is hardly surprising given his own business dealings have been based on nothing more than his brand – his own name – for decades.)

The question then often arises: what should we do about the broken business model? There is a lingering belief that journalism can become self-sustaining. There are some interesting new attempts to prove that subscription models can provide lasting funding: two that spring to mind are The Correspondent and Jimmy Wales’ latest endeavour, WikiTribune. People will often also point to the increase in subscriptions at established for-profit newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post and Guardian as evidence that readers are waking up to the threat posed by misinformation.

I think people need to get real about the likely success of such initiatives. Even if something like WikiTribune does get traction, it’s going to take years for such a small organisation to start to produce the kind of investigative reporting that will make a dent, whether by raising standards in the news industry, or by improving transparency in the political landscape.

3: There is no consensus on regulation of the tech giants

While EU regulators have been on the case for a while, a happy recent development is that US legislators have finally begun to grapple with the monopolistic power of the social media platforms that have accelerated the spread of false information. Sadly, their focus is currently taken up mostly with the influence of foreign entities (especially Russia) on elections, rather than the general degradation of information quality that these platforms and their super-dominant technologies are creating.

These are extremely knotty political questions that have no easy answers. In that sense it’s not surprising that the open internet advocacy community has developed little to no consensus on how to approach the issue. This is partly because many in that community are equally worried (sometimes more worried) about government interventions as they are about private corporations. These are people who are used to fighting against excessive surveillance by intelligence agencies; their heroes are Snowden and Manning. As such, it doesn’t come naturally to petition the government to take action against excessive corporate surveillance.

There’s also the risk that by taking action, governments could actually give more power to the platforms. I’ve been back and forth on the issue of CDA230, the provision that protects the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter from being liable for content posted on their platforms. This is a law that is staunchly defended by freedom of expression activists in the USA.

However, it has arguably backfired in its intention to allow speech to flourish online by allowing all sorts of misinformation and hate speech to be posted without placing enough of a responsibility on these media companies – for that is partly what they are – and by failing to account for what happens when, as in other markets, a few dominant players emerge. A law created in 1996 when the internet was an anarchic Wild West of small, intensely competitive players now looks like an anachronism, protecting the few titans of Silicon Valley.

On the other, placing that responsibility on these tech/media companies now, when they are the de facto managers of online speech, both gives them even more power and adds to the risk of censorship. Once you’ve gone down that path, what is there to stop governments imposing similar conditions on other publishers or editor-like websites?

So, there’s no easy win here either. The reality is that only the threat of government intervention to regulate the market on the basis of competition/antitrust law – perhaps by breaking apart Alphabet and Facebook, which are both collections of monopolies – may be what goads the companies into taking real action.

So what do possible solutions look like?

1: Good quality information doesn’t come for free. So fund it.

One partial solution – crucially, one of which we (global civil society) can shape most or all elements – is to pour as many resources as possible into existing success stories, in an attempt to scale them. At the moment, philanthropic attempts to support media are too meagre to do anything but create additional competition, even between non-profit outlets that are openly committed to extraordinary collaboration. The same few foundations funding the same few organisations is all quite cosy, but doesn’t do enough to expand the amount of good quality information flowing through the system.

If we want projects like the Panama Papers or the Paradise Papers to be more than annual events, then reducing the need to compete (or, to put it another way, reducing the barriers to collaboration) and improving the technology used by investigative journalists and civil society accountability organisations should be the two foremost priorities. What characterises the network of organisations that carried out those projects is that it is sufficiently removed from the profit motive and sufficiently focused on social impact that its leaders are willing to forego the benefits that derive from exclusivity.

It follows that the main way we can expand the amount of good quality reporting in the system is to crowd in more funding at a sufficient scale to make a difference. Omidyar Network’s announcement earlier this year of an extra $100 million to address the global ‘trust deficit’ was impressive, but it’s important to realise that the amount allocated to content production is probably only a third of that (it’s not entirely clear where it’s all going).

We need a global fund of sufficient scale that it can accept money from all-comers, including corporate and individual donors who, on their own, would pose too much of a reputational risk to organisations receiving money. This fund, if large enough, could support global public interest media in perpetuity. There are already strong proposals on how to fund this. Governments recovering assets and money on the back of investigative journalism, for example, could tithe some part of the return into a trust. Or, indeed, there could be a levy placed on the tech titans (or voluntarily paid by them), as proposed variously by expert commentators like Emily Bell, Ben Eltham and Steven Waldman.

2: Turn surveillance tech to the people’s advantage.

The thing that really drives the tech titans’ insane profitability is their successful drive to turn surveillance into something people don’t just passively accept, but to which they actively contribute. On Facebook, Google or Twitter, you are the product. Attention has been tied in an unprecedented way to personalisation through massive-scale analytics conducted by beautiful, sophisticated mathematical contraptions barely understood even by the people who built them.

By contrast, the world of journalism is barely even living in the 20th century, let alone the 21st, when it comes to technology. It’s telling that the most popular film about investigative journalism since the mid 1970s – Spotlight – depicts an investigation conducted in the early 2000s in which the reporters rely pretty much entirely on shoe leather, phone calls, door-knocking and interviews. It’s extremely trad journalism. It has very little to do with the state of the art of investigative journalism today, which is heavily reliant on mapping relationships between entities found in disparate, large and often incredibly unwieldy datasets.

Because of the dire funding situation for accountability journalism, no single organisation – even in the for-profit media space – has the money to invest in the quality data scientists and software engineers you would need to get the most out of a leak like the Panama Papers or the Paradise Papers. Due to increasing collaboration, those projects have yielded tremendous results, but they could have yielded far more if there were a common set of tools, used by everyone, into which data could be shared.

‘Surveillance tech’ is a scary name for something that is, itself, agnostic. What makes the tech titans scary is their incredible network effects, the impossibility of knowing their motives, and the lack of accountability around what they are and do. If we were to build an open source, publicly available data commons to store datasets relevant to transparency, accountability and democracy – such as all public registers of ownership, all public land registries, and structured data from major leaks – it would vastly accelerate and improve the investigative process. In time, you can also envisage this commons including ‘open source intelligence’ – scraped YouTube videos, tweets, Instagram photos and all the rest.

This would be a major technological endeavour, but it is not at all beyond the bounds of current software engineers. What it requires is money and a team willing to work for the good of humanity, rather than for their own financial interests, and those of some anonymous VC investors. If philanthropic foundations or enlightened rich people were to pool resources to fund such a project, it could change the world.

3: Stop being squeamish about working together.

One of the things that most characterises different groups within global civil society is a strong sense of identity. That’s not surprising.

There are the investigative journalists, often independent to the point of paranoia; there are the activists, fired up but sometimes without a compelling, evidence-based story to tell; there are the academics and policy people, who have some data and some answers but can’t get a hearing; there are the civic tech people, trying to work with all of the above and explain why things aren’t as simple as they seem; and there are the donors, who must somehow tolerate all of these groups explaining why they deserve their money.

I’m always struck whenever I go to a conference or an event organised by any one of these groups how insular each one is. As someone who has no qualification to be in any one of them, and therefore feels like a perennial outsider, I find myself wondering at what point this might change.

And then, looking outside, there are other gaps: between civil society and government, between government and Silicon Valley; between civil society and Silicon Valley. And this is to say nothing of the deeper social divides that brought us here in the first place: between the powerful and the weak, the ignorant and the informed, the rich and the poor, the young and the old.

The state of the world today – certainly the world of ‘liberal democracy’, the ‘open society’ or whatever you want to call it – seems urgently to require new thinking, new places to convene, new ways to work together. There are a few places where this is happening, or where it might happen. I was proud to work with OCCRP on its formal partnership with Transparency International because it was a serious attempt to bridge one of these many divides. The Open Government Partnership is another important and valuable nexus for such attempts. Encouragingly there also seems to be a serious move towards building and funding interdisciplinary institutes engaged on ethical issues raised by artificial intelligence technology, such as AINow. And I am excited to see what comes of the new Intellectual Forum at the University of Cambridge, led by the brilliant Julian Huppert (for whom I used to work).

But there’s room for far more. This is an area where a small amount of systems thinking allied to a small amount of funding could have huge benefits and concrete outputs.

Get in touch if you want to help.

Cross-posted from Medium

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Brexit reveals the broken relationship between government and parliament

Much wringing of hands over the government’s so-called ‘concession’ yesterday. David Davis promised a vote on the final Brexit deal – a ‘take it or leave it’ vote, as reported by the BBC here.

The way this is portrayed by the media (including the BBC in that article) is that this is some sort of climb down by the government. In fact it’s nothing of the sort.

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As it’s been apparent since the referendum result became clear, any vote on a deal must include the possibility of staying in the EU, otherwise it is meaningless. It’s very strange that the government hasn’t recognised this, as by giving Parliament that power they would both be honouring the terms on which Leave won the referendum (“take back control” – sovereignty, remember?) and giving themselves more bargaining power by holding themselves accountable.

In coalition government, the best thing rank and file Lib Dem members could do was to up the ante on policy-making to force the parliamentary party to take more radical starting positions when negotiating with the Tories. This was quite basic stuff; when negotiating with a more powerful party, you have to hold your ground as best you can, not concede it from the outset. (I say it is basic, but it was also apparently beyond the grasp of some of our people.)

In the same way, the UK government would have been better off using Parliament’s bias to Remain in its favour. They would have been justified in doing so because the Leave side claimed it wanted to give Parliament more power. And they would have given themselves room to make concessions that are healthy for the UK economy, in line with the EU’s requirements, and supported by Parliament. In short, they would have got a better deal that reflected the result of the referendum more accurately.

It blows my mind that the same Theresa May who made what now looks like a remarkably decent pro-Remain speech (for a Tory) back in April 2016 has frittered away her political capital and her chance to ‘stand tall and lead’, in her own words, by manufacturing a situation in which her ministers can simply ignore the country’s elected representatives.

We can’t really blame the government though. It asked for unfettered power to negotiate the terms of Brexit by challenging Parliament over Article 50. And Parliament, to its everlasting shame, blinked. In voting through the government’s bill completely unamended, it enabled Theresa May to invoke Article 50 without binding her in any way to any policy that would have ameliorated the total uncertainty of the current situation.

Once Article 50 was triggered, the legal process ceased to be a UK-based one, and becomes European. David Allen Green’s excellent thread, starting with this, summates:

If you didn’t read David’s thread, here’s the gist: you can forget all you read or hear in the press about Parliament having a ‘final say’ on Brexit. The legal position is that the UK will leave the EU on March 29, 2019, regardless of any further legislation being passed in the House of Commons. Only the government can directly intervene to stop the Article 50 process, and even then, it would be dependent on European institutions to allow or confirm the revocation.

What does all this tell us? It shows us the extent to which government and Parliament are failing to work together in the interests of the country. The relationship between executive and legislature ought always to be adversarial rather than cosy; the way that our government is built, derived as it is from Parliament, makes this immediately difficult.

But more importantly, it shows us just how poorly our elected representatives understand their role in our democracy. They voted enthusiastically for an advisory referendum that meant they retained the power of decision-making on Brexit. They squandered that power. Now, it appears, they are demanding that power be restored, having voted enthusiastically for a legal process that took it out of their hands.

It’s almost as if we need to reform the way we choose them.

Time to Remove the Lib Dem Invisibility Cloak

Over the last couple of days I’ve been dipping my toe into that infamous Twitter meme, “1 Like = 1 Unpopular Opinion.” You can see all my inane (the S is silent) ramblings here, but I’d draw particular attention to no. 17:

A lot of people will look at that and laugh. The Lib Dems are, after all, at a low ebb, even by our own ebb-inclined standards. We somehow contrived to lose vote share at this year’s general election, even if we did gain a few seats. And despite having changed to a serious, heavyweight (if slightly long-in-the-tooth) leader, we’re still struggling to get a hearing in the media.

However, it’s not all our fault. Part of the problem is that people who could make a difference and get us moving forward keep pretending we don’t exist. It seems like every other day someone comes up with a bright idea to start a new liberal party that is pro-Remain. Sometimes it feels like it happens every single day.

A few days ago, for example, the Financial Times reported that a random bloke from Battersea (?) is starting a party called Renew. This prompted a Newsweek journalist to tweet:

There’s also James Chapman’s Democrats, which appear to have done precisely nothing, if they even exist at all.

And then today, lo and behold, another game-changing movement has arisen. This time it’s the Economist‘s Berlin Bureau Chief, Jeremy Cliffe (hitherto a sensible and extremely well-informed journalist, especially on EU issues) who is donning Macron’s clothes:

Just a couple of hours after his initial tweet proposing the ‘Radicals’ my friend Jon Worth had snapped up a Twitter handle, which got immediate attention:

Jon, who also lives in Berlin, then hastily wrote up the rapidly growing movement on his blog at what must have been some ungodly hour (I’m in San Francisco and so have no grasp of European timezones), mentioning my somewhat brusque response:

Look, I get it. I get that being part of something new and dynamic and Macron-like is much more exciting than joining a political party that peaked in 2005, screwed up massively in 2010/11, and has since had a descent roughly akin to a drugged-up squirrel that’s obsessed with that one R Kelly song.

But the UK doesn’t have a mechanism for a Macron. Whatever people say about our system being more ‘presidential’ than democracies with actual presidents, you have to be a political party of substance and scale to succeed in a general election. Starting a new party is going to achieve nothing while wasting your energy and distracting from the real goal.

Like it or not, if you want a pro-EU, pro-business, pro-tech UK political party, there is already one that has over 100,000 members, 12 MPs, thousands of councillors, and an internal democracy that compares favourably to every single one of its competitors. You can have an immediate impact. We are a party in which it’s literally possible to go from new member to MP in a year and a half, but you can also get policies passed with a bit of effort, and when we get into government, they really do get implemented.

The party you’re looking for – the party you’re reinventing – is the Liberal Democrats. We were in government just two years ago. If you are serious about stopping Brexit or at least providing some decent opposition to it, you should join us. Now. Today.

The EU referendum should be rerun based on this Leaver’s vision

You probably won’t have heard of Pete North. Unless you’re a political geek who’s followed the developments since the EU referendum exhaustively, you also won’t know what the Leave Alliance is. To cut a long story short, the Alliance has usually been one of the more sensible groups advocating Brexit, and North is its spiritual leader.

Yesterday North published a post on his personal blog setting out what he now expects to see happen. He takes for granted (as do I) that there will be no deal arising from the current, increasingly frantic, negotiations between the UK government and the EU’s team led by Michel Barnier.

He then sets out what the likely effects of this ‘no deal’ scenario are. They include:

  • A ten year recession, never before experienced by anyone under 50
  • Unemployment back to where it was in the 1980s
  • A spike in crime
  • Major cuts to the armed forces,  including RAF reduced by a third
  • Enormous price rises as British produce becomes accessible only to the rich
  • A skeleton NHS, poorly staffed, partly because immigration has slowed to a trickle

What is most striking is that he is happy to live with these effects. He says: “I have always primarily thought Brexit would be a reboot on British politics and culture. In a lot of ways it will bring back much of what is missing,” and that “I think, given the opportunity to vote again I would still vote to leave. Eventually it gets to a point where any change will do.”

I would love to see a polling company set out this scenario for people and then ask them to say which way they would vote in a new referendum. If we had had this kind of candour from the Leave side during the campaign in 2016, it seems most likely we would have had a very similar result to the 1975 referendum, with a vast majority for staying in.

I’d love to hear from people who voted Leave, too, as to whether they would have done so had this been the outcome offered to them.

The Manifesto Problem

An excellent piece from Helen de Cruz, an academic at Oxford Brookes University, has been doing the rounds. The article explores the reasons why so many pro-EU voters ended up choosing Labour, despite the party’s evident “hard Brexit” stance. This is based on data from surveys conducted by de Cruz in pro-EU groups on Facebook. It lands on the conclusion that those who lent their support to Jeremy Corbyn’s party

did vote Labour for tactical reasons, but they were also attracted by the Labour manifesto and identified with the party’s anti-austerity message. They voted for Labour in spite of its Brexit stance, not because they were all of a sudden pro Brexit.

Anecdotally, this chimes very closely with the decisions many of my friends and family made in choosing Labour. They were closer to the Liberal Democrats on the issue of Brexit, but saw a tactical vote for Labour as more important given the danger of a large Conservative majority.

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I could not personally agree with this stance. While I was terrified of a renewed mandate for Theresa May (who I’ve written about extensively as a massive threat to the United Kingdom and to the world), I saw a polarisation of the UK’s domestic politics along with an alignment around ‘hard Brexit’ as the worst possible outcome. In short, this was an election in which Brexit was the be-all, end-all issue; however popular Labour’s flagship policies may have been (and they were undoubtedly popular, rightly or wrongly) they were meaningless against a backdrop of a poor deal – or no deal – with the EU.

Of course, that’s not how the election campaign went down. Both Labour and the Tories were allowed to get away with either limiting their references to Brexit or avoiding any kind of specificity on what precisely they planned to do during negotiations.

In Labour’s case, this vagueness was so complete that the position taken by Corbyn and John McDonnell since the election – a reiteration of the party’s manifesto statements on the single market and freedom of movement – has been met with dismay by a lot of Remainers.

There seems to be a commonly held belief among some voters that party manifestos, far from being complete plans for government, are a kind of pick-and-mix. I thought I would test this through a Twitter poll. Given my followers are predominantly pro-EU, liberal types with a disproportionate interest in politics national and global, I expected the answer to be pretty clear, but instead it was surprisingly split:

This seems to be the most salient question arising from this election. Is the Labour party’s leadership entitled to claim that its voters supported its stance on Brexit? This obviously has huge implications should the embattled Theresa May eventually decide that it’s time to go and a new election eventuate. Because, after all, Labour massively outperformed expectations despite adopting a stance on Brexit that, in isolation, clearly alienates a large number (perhaps the majority) of its voters.

The broader question, of course, is what manifestos are for. They are important for parliamentary procedure, because the Salisbury Doctrine, which limits the ability of the House of Lords to contradict government policy, is based on them. As such, it is essential that parties feel able to rest on the support of voters for their manifestos as a whole; yet this election has thrown up more than ever the confusion that can ensue as a consequence.

It is probably about time we revisited the idea of deliberative democracy in broad terms as a theory of civics. Democracies surely cannot survive this amount of cognitive dissonance for long.

This could be the UK’s last ‘real’ election. Prepare for the worst.

We should be concerned about the possibility that the UK is about to have its last real general election for some time.

Let’s speak plainly. This UK election is a farce. Theresa May’s campaign consists of three words. Labour are only campaigning to save seats. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems are treading water because May’s timing is perfect. The Brexit catastrophe hasn’t hit and the pain hasn’t been felt.

There is no groundswell of pro-EU support. People are still considering voting Labour as if they’re any better than the Tories on Brexit. People such as Ian Dunt have pointed out the similarity of Labour policy on Brexit to the Tories, so I won’t dwell on it. But if anyone is voting Labour to protect the country from the enormous damage Brexit is about to wreak, they’re ignoring reality.

So, instead, let’s talk about the media. I know some people object to that as a catch-all term. But can we please agree it’s justified right now?

Theresa May is saying time and again that she intends to use the majority she wins at this election as a mandate for Brexit negotiations. So far, the might of the UK lobby has failed to extract any kind of candour or honesty by May on any aspect of those negotiations. That’s because they aren’t asking. Their ‘coverage’ involves waiting for policy announcements while pointing out awkward campaign incidents.

Unlike many I don’t believe that this is conspiratorial. The UK news media is about entertainment, just like the US media. And just like the US media, it means the important stories aren’t being covered, while froth and bullshit top the ratings.

The result will be a general election held in the dark with citizens lacking the information they truly need to make informed decisions. And yet this is so much better than where we are likely to end up.

I’ve written sufficiently on the threat posed by Theresa May to our country. You can see that here: https://twitter.com/tallgeekychap/status/855344386086973440 My point is that she *is* about to be given free rein. She is abusing her power even during this campaign: https://twitter.com/tallgeekychap/status/859403567203004417

The combination of news organizations gagging to do May’s bidding for access and influence (most of them) and creeping repression of the others will lead to an even more lopsided political media than we have now. And it’s already basically heavily weighted in the Tories’ favour.

The Tories have regularly shown since 2010 they are willing to game the system in their favour. With their newly minted 150+ majority, they will push through boundary reform exacerbating their in-built electoral advantage under FPTP. They are also likely to revisit attempts to cut opposition funding, originally introduced in November 2015: https://www.theguardian.com/…/osborne-accused-of-despicable…

We should all watch out for anything related to ‘cutting the cost of politics’. This is code for ‘giving the government more power’. And we should all be aware that Parliament is unlikely to lift a finger to oppose any of it. It didn’t when given an unexpected chance to redeem itself on Article 50, so why would it when it’s stacked to the gills with Tory lackeys?

To sum up: May will have no Parliamentary opposition. She’ll have no media opposition. Institutional opposition (courts) is limited at best. If what’s happening in the US is any guide, it’s time to start thinking about worst-case scenarios, and preparing for them. And it’s also worth noting that all the worst-case predictions in the US have been covered in barely four months.

So think bigger. Look at how Putin and Erdogan have operated. Don’t look at previous experience from within the UK. It’s insufficient.

Five years is an awfully long time. 2022 is an awfully long way away. The UK is going to look awfully different.


This was also published on Twitter here and on Facebook here.

Small Unimportant State Calls Fresh Elections as Corruption Accusations Fly

The Prime Minister of a small European nation has called for a general election. But the leader of the country’s incumbent hard-right government faced immediate demands to come clean as it became apparent that state prosecutors were preparing to bring charges against around thirty of the party’s legislators and staff over irregularities in the previous election – held two years ago.

The ballots cast back then had catapulted the PM’s predecessor to a shock majority in the national parliament, with the idiosyncratic electoral system giving the party more than half of the seats on a mere 37% of the popular vote. But investigations by a state-owned media channel found that there had been over-spending in several key seats, and that in some cases spending hadn’t been declared at all.

It became clear that this had the potential to have decided the election, and that without this undeclared assistance, key marginals may not have fallen into the hands of the blue team.

Police forces followed up on the media investigation, opening 29 cases a year after the election. 29 by-elections would be more than enough to create a political earthquake; the government’s slim majority was only 12.

The then PM was in a bind. He’d run into difficulties with that tiny sliver of control, and despite the uncertainty over the legitimacy of his position, he decided to take drastic action. Calling a referendum on the country’s place within its most important trading bloc seemed unnecessary, even foolish; but it would appease those on his backbenches who frequently seemed to be sharpening their daggers.

The referendum was a parade of falsehoods. The campaign director of the winning side admitted later that they would not have won without telling a straightforward lie. They claimed that money ‘saved’ from abandoning free trade would be spent on the nation’s health services – a claim that was immediately abandoned by the campaign’s own leaders after the result came through.

Nonetheless, the decision was made. A cosmic cloud of political fallout followed. A summer of insanity in which both the governing party and the opposition held leadership elections, only for the former to be left with a coronation and the latter to retain their previous leader, despite his deep unpopularity.

Not only that; the new PM had been on the wrong side of the result in the referendum, but now appeared to be dead set on implementing that unwanted result.

Of course, the people did not have the opportunity to offer an opinion on their new leader. The argument ran that the general election had given the party a mandate, and that the mandate had been refreshed and strengthened by the referendum, even though the party’s official policy had been defeated in that referendum, and even though the country’s leader had had to resign in ignominy.

The new PM quickly set about testing the strength of that mandate by abandoning the commitment in the previous election manifesto to stay in the trading bloc even if the referendum was lost. At the same time, a vicious campaign against dissent was beginning to swirl in the media, with judges involved in assessing the constitutional impact of the plebiscite branded ‘traitors’ and ‘enemies of the people’. This language was not condemned by the PM herself.

Just a few months after the new PM was elevated, it became clear that her top aide had been involved in the election expenses scandal. Further evidence was uncovered a few months later.

Once again, though, the party pressed ahead. A seismic decision was taken: the country officially began the process of leaving the trading bloc. This was despite further revelations – that same month – that the party’s headquarters and many top officials had been deeply implicated in the election expenses scandal.

All of which brings us to the present. Today, the Prime Minister called for an early general election, presenting this as a natural way to refresh her government’s mandate and strengthen her hand in negotiations. But it seems clear from this torrent of obfuscation and chicanery that it is only about one thing: shoring up her corrupt, disastrous and potentially illegal regime by any means necessary.

How the country can continue to pursue its extreme policy of self-defenestration, at a stroke making its economy less competitive and taking freedom and rights away from its people, is unclear. It would at least have been appropriate to wait until the police forces and the prosecutors had finished their inquiries.

Instead this plucky island nation is now faced with the prospect of a quasi-dictatorial PM whose power was acquired in an undemocratic, opaque fashion, prosecuting policies on behalf of her friends and cronies, not the nation she represents.

It must now be the role of international observers and – perhaps – interventionists from prominent countries to build an appropriate response.

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“Crush the Saboteurs”: Vladimir Lenin