The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Parliamentary Committee has recently published its report on disinformation and misinformation. (It recommends we don’t use the phrase “fake news” because nobody knows what it means.) Such manipulation of the truth, it says, is a direct to our whole democratic way of life and laws are in urgent need of updating. More regulation is required. This Committee achieved a remarkable degree of non-partisan consensus. The DCMS Committee highlighted in particular the role Russia and its “digital agents” have played in both the Leave campaign in the EU referendum and in the US Presidential election.
The UK government has, rightly, condemned Russia’s actions. But, hey, isn’t there some hypocrisy here?
USA Foreign Policy
Since the end of World War II, a central feature of US foreign policy has been interference in elections and regime change in other countries, particularly those in South America. During the Cold War, according to the Washington Post, the USA had 72 attempts to effect regime change in other countries.
Historically, the USA’s approach has often been less than subtle. Their means of interference has been military, up to and including invasion. Wikipedia takes a longer view, starting in 1846. The USA chooses to spend around 3.5% of its GDP on its military rather than, for example, providing healthcare for its 20 million poorest and most vulnerable citizens. Or a half-decent European-style welfare system.
Russia, with its tiny economy compared to the USA, can never outspend the Americans on military expenditure. But it has learnt the art of cyber-warfare – a much cheaper option. Anyone who has studied Russian history – I confess I have only dabbled – will understand that the rapid eastward expansion of NATO countries following the collapse of the Soviet Union has spooked the Russians.
Vladimir Putin, with his KGB background, wants to restore Russia to the world’s esteem comparable to the USA as a superpower. His training and instincts towards authoritarianism has driven Russia to “fake news” and to funding organisations to undermine Western liberal democracy. He exploits the very freedoms which are democracy’s bedrock to work against the interests of the west.
UK and US-based fascists have exploited the situation too. The USA has spawned monsters in the form of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Twitter. (Apple, with its obscene stockpile of cash, is in a slightly different category. It can use its money mountain to bribe any politician, senior judge or law enforcement officer anywhere in the world, or, failing that, to pay for expensive lawyers to outwit law enforcement – or to make it prohibitively expensive to pursue cases against Apple.)
With all these companies registered in the USA and with that country’s light regulation, laisse-faire attitude to business, these companies have turned into monsters. Their sheer size implies a power which prevents them from failing. Their accumulated data about our lives is on a frightening scale. (Full disclosure: I still use Twitter, WhatsApp and Google – they’re so damnably convenient!) The companies’ chiefs, Mark Zuckerberg in particular, treat democratic processes with contempt.
Only the EU as a body has shown any appetite for taking on the monsters. Trump broadly sees fines against them as anti-American. Historically, and particularly at the height of its Imperial power, the UK played Divide & Rule with the rest of Europe and in May’s mishandling of the EU exit negotiations, continues – in a futile way – to try to do the same. It won’t work any more. So May will fail, either by October, when the EU and EU27 want clarity on the UK’s position or by December, the last gasp opportunity to avoid an “over the cliff” disaster.
Fascists and “No Deal” Leavers
Western fascists like Steve Bannon share Putin’s methods, but ultimately for a different agenda. In Russia’s case, the motive is Russian security and self-esteem. For the western fascists, it’s the overthrow of democracy to enable Free Market Fundamentalism, which benefits only the richest 1% (or even really 0.1%) to continue into the future. The Tories are beginning to learn the limitations of trying to preserve a failed economic dogma within the constraints of Parliamentary democracy. The lessons of Pinochet’s Chile have been forgotten already.
Whilst there are no desaparecidos in the UK yet, as far as I know, it’s clear we are showing worrying signs of jettisoning democratic norms in favour of more authoritarian practices: see my 2016 post Sliding into Fascism for some early examples. More recent examples include the branding of judges as “enemies of the people” and talk of “saboteurs”, “betrayal” and “traitors”. A Tory MEP has even called for an update to the treason law to suppress dissenting views, specifically “extreme EU loyalty”.
May’s almost uncritical sucking up to Trump and our continuing delusion about the non-existent “special relationship” with the USA exposes both the UK’s weak position and our hypocrisy. (Explainer: Trump used the phrase “highest level of special” in his UK press conference. Trump, with the attention span of a gnat, will say in the moment he has the world’s attention, anything that will make him liked – just for that moment. All his other actions support the view that he treats us with contempt.)
We’re supping with the devil in a US-UK trade relationship. Use a long spoon or, better still, don’t sup at all and stick with people who share our values: the rest of Europe and the EU. I for one, don’t want to “take back control” and hand it over immediately to Trump’s America.