Telling lies about lies
Despite its claims, the Commons select committee is undermining democracy, writes Paul Demarty
To much fanfare, the Commons select committee for media, culture and sport has published its interim report on “Disinformation and ‘fake news’”, and it is not without interest.1
The committee’s investigations are a matter of sprawling and often puzzling scope. This seems not least to be an issue of events refusing to politely stop happening during the time when, what The Guardian called this “plucky little committee”, was still hearing from witnesses.
So we have a document that covers social media monopolies, campaign finance trickery, electoral interference, data protection, even the sale of citizenship in tax havens. Despite this cosmopolitan sweep, the picture is in some places astonishingly partial, and what we get in the end is yet another document of the western establishment in a state of total panic. In spite of all this, the committee’s recommendations are sometimes mildly positive, sometimes dangerous, but generally pretty unambitious. This, in the end, is down to the ever-longer list of things that the establishment MPs who populate these select committees are forbidden to even think.
The first part of the report is dedicated to the major tech companies and their influence on modern society. The account is scathing. It focuses particularly on the extent to which the major platforms are unaccountable to any kind of scrutiny. The report rubbishes the claim that Facebook and friends are just platforms:
The definition of ‘platform’ gives the impression that these companies do not create or control the content themselves, but are merely the channel through which content is made available. Yet Facebook is continually altering what we see, as is shown by its decision to prioritise content from friends and family, which then feeds into users’ newsfeed algorithm (§51).
Despite having power over “political opinions, mental health, advertising [and] data privacy”, social media companies face “little or no regulation” (§51). This seems to have fed into a very high-handed approach by the companies - “What we found, time and again, during the course of our inquiry, was the failure on occasions of Facebook and other tech companies to provide us with the information that we sought” (§51). Users are deceived about how much of their data they are giving up and how much control they really have (§72-4). The case of the ethnic cleansing of Rohingyas in Burma, and the use of Facebook to spread murderous propaganda, is also considered at unflattering length.
We then swerve into the murky world of targeted advertising, and via that to politics and the new methods of electioneering now available, taking in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. This leads our committee members on a pretty wild chase for Russian gold, and a whistle-stop tour of Ukip funder Arron Banks’s sometimes very dubious dealings. The Russian business has grabbed much of the media attention, but frankly there is little new here, except some extremely tenuous attempts to tie Aleksandr Kogan - who initially scraped together the data that ended up with Cambridge Analytica - closer to the Kremlin than would probably stand up in court.
Though controversy has needled at the social media giants for their whole lives, the report is the latest evidence that the period since 2016 has become one long annus horribilis. The long honeymoon, where politicians competed to seem the friendliest to these shiny new soi-disant pioneers, is categorically over. Most ominously of all is the fact that regulation is now being taken seriously with regard to these companies, at least in Europe. The agenda of the general data protection regulation (GDPR) is being driven substantially by incumbent media companies with well established lobbies; thus the social media platforms find themselves politically toxic at exactly the moment they most need to be making friends.
The committee’s report has little new to say on the general social ills associated with new digital media, but there are worse introductions to the area. Several witnesses, apparently, told our intrepid investigators the old saying - if you’re not the customer, you’re the product. In the context of Facebook and friends, it means that these services are free in monetary terms, but paid for in kind - with data. Facebook (and YouTube, and ... ) is very interested in you, your habits, your likes and dislikes across the cultural spectrum, your prejudices, your neighbourhood, your children’s health - literally anything. And the major social media platforms are in a very good position to learn these things, given that people insist on blathering out their entire lives on them.
The peculiarly indiscreet behaviour of people on social media, of course, is no accident, but rather the result of mass psychological engineering - the one-more-scroll, one-more-tweet effect is designed to get more data. The data is the product, which is sold to advertisers, for targeting purposes. This in turn allows the targeting of political material, which tends to polarise people’s views of the world - it is no longer the case that we all look at the same Tory billboard, but instead we have one tailored to our own innermost fears and prejudices plastered on our retinas alone.
In relation to all this, the committee makes a fairly salient recommendation:
Just as the finances of companies are audited and scrutinised, the same type of auditing and scrutinising should be carried out on the non-financial aspects of technology companies, including their security mechanisms and algorithms, to ensure they are operating responsibly. The government should provide the appropriate body with the power to audit these companies, including algorithmic auditing (§51).
To this we would only add that we do not trust the capitalist state to make a very good go of it - especially if we are referred to its ‘achievements’ in the field of financial regulation by way of precedent! - and that, rather, the communist movement’s old demand to ‘open the books’ of capitalist firms ought to be extended to these peculiar intangible assets we call data (after appropriate anonymisation and so on). If this prohibitively increases the cost of running an operation like Facebook or Twitter, then so much the better.
The essential difficulty here is what is left out, and is in fact highlighted nicely by another of the committee’s recommendations:
Our schools play a crucial role in helping students to differentiate between fact and fiction, and there are various initiatives to tackle the growing issue of the use of social media by children and young adults ... The Times and The Sunday Times have recently launched a media literacy scheme in schools, to help pupils how to spot ‘fake news’. The scheme will be available for pupils in secondary schools, colleges and sixth form. The programme is in partnership with News UK’s News Academy (§244).
We are all in favour of ‘media literacy’, but we draw readers’ attention to exactly who is supposed to be teaching our children about it - one K Rupert Murdoch. It is difficult not to laugh at the idea that youngsters are to be taught how to spot fake news by the publishers of TheSun. Here is the Weekly Worker’s two-step guide, for what it is worth, to spotting fake news in the wild: step one, read TheSun; step two, go back to step one.
I said at the outset that the scope of the inquiry is oddly drawn, and this is exactly what we have in mind. Even after the Brexit vote, the Daily Mail was treading out the old line about straight bananas. Yet it is not mentioned at all, and the Murdoch press only in the piece of puffery we have just quoted - I guess we are supposed to believe that the problem was possibly-Russian Facebook adverts, rather than the systematic poisoning of the public mind over decades by the traditional rightwing media.
Of course, an inquiry cannot be about everything, and there is enough specific to the spread of ‘fake news’ on social media to recommend it as a discrete area of study. But that has not stopped our intrepid heroes from acting out their Tinker Tailor fantasies and stepping into the world of counter-espionage.
Here, the same problem arises, and again it is highlighted by incidental remarks in the text. The first section in the chapter on Russian interference in elections is worth quoting in full:
The speed of technological development has coincided with a crisis of confidence in institutions and the media in the west. There is a global phenomenon of foreign countries wanting to influence public opinion through disinformation. A report from the University of Oxford published in July 2018 identified evidence of formally organised social media manipulation campaigns in 48 countries, up from 28 countries last year.
The evidence led us to the role of Russia specifically, in supporting organisations that create and disseminate disinformation, false and hyper-partisan content, with the purpose of undermining public confidence and of destabilising democratic states. This activity we are describing as ‘disinformation’ and it is an active threat (§160).
Notice, first of all, that Russian interference is “an active threat” (to what is not stated here, but is impliedly, from the summary, “our democracy and our values”). Yet, according to the Oxford University report cited, plenty of countries are playing silly buggers on this point. Russia is pointed out as a very active cyber-subverter, alongside four others - the United States, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and China. The Oxford researchers have a scattering of numbers - hardly surprising, given the sensitive nature of their material; but they put Russia at a maximum of 1,000 operatives and an annual budget of $10 million. The Israeli ‘cyber troop’ numbers only 400, but with a budget of $100 million; the American is unknown in staff size, but has various budgets that add up to $300-400 million. The Chinese budget is unknown, but its corps is estimated here as numbering up to two million people.2
As far as the select committee goes, though, there is only Russia. They do not appear to have even requested a witness from Al Jazeera, which so expertly exposed Israeli embassy interference in Labour Party politics; the doubtless vast involvement of the American state department in the affairs of its ‘51st state’ is brushed over. The result is that the whole thing resembles the worst kind of conspiracy theory, whereby every unfortunate event in world politics in the last few years is laid at the door of Putin and his pet hackers, who are no doubt wearing hoodies in the traditional fashion.
In that light, let us return to the very first sentence quoted there: “The speed of technological development has coincided with a crisis of confidence in institutions and the media in the west.” Indeed it has! It has also coincided with the worst capitalist crisis since the 1930s, the bail-outs, crushing austerity at the periphery, the rise of a monopolistic political caste in the core capitalist countries. Quite a coincidence, all round - that is mentioned here, and then forgotten completely. It is irrelevant: everything would have been fine if it wasn’t for those meddling Russian botnets ...
The point is not that Russia doesn’t interfere in foreign politics - wouldn’t you? - but that this stuff is a matter of routine. It has achieved ‘non-routine’ reputation only because it is working too well, a phenomenon that is in by far the largest part a matter of the “crisis of confidence” mentioned and discarded by the committee.
From this point of view, it is inevitable that we dissent from the bourgeois-establishment veneration of these MPs. What they are up to is a grubby affair; it is merely the defence of their liars among the lifers in the British foreign office against Putin’s, and their means of systematic deceit - the likes of Mr Murdoch and Herr Springer - against those others, such as Mr Zuckerberg, who have yet to take sides with sufficient enthusiasm. The fixes they offer are universally technical - some unobjectionable, like subjecting Facebook to data security audits, and others not so, like the extension of already overweening powers on the part of the electoral commission to decide who may advertise during election time. (Communists do not fear electoral budgets and, just as water always finds a way, so do the political funds of the enemy class; we object instead to any attempt to expropriate our own funds, raised honestly from supporters’ sacrifice; long live Citizens United!)
The answer lies, instead, in confronting the reality implied in the “crisis of confidence”: that establishment worthies undermine, rather than build up, the ‘democracy’ and the ‘values’ they claim to uphold. Into that credibility gap, all manner of creatures may insert themselves, some of them even Russian; but the blame lies squarely, in this case, with the accusers l
2. http://comprop.oii.ox.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/93/2018/07/ct2018.pdf. Of course, all these numbers are highly speculative; they are, so far as we can tell, supposed to refer to total cyberwarfare capability, not specifically disinformation, so may misrepresent the particular matter at hand.