Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Russian "interference" is symptomatic of the West's political weakness

To the untrained eye some Twitter parody accounts are indistinguishable from the real thing. The same can be said of Twitter bots and fake accounts. There are usually tell tale signs but some of them are virtually indistinguishable from Leave.EU followers and alt-right accounts. I have in the past had friends go down that avenue of politics and have since broken off contact. I have no time for it.

These will be the people most susceptible to subversive manipulation attempts since they retweet anything on the basis of confirmation bias. How much influence it has I really can't say for certain but I am a massive sceptic.

According to The Times, Russian Twitter accounts posted almost 45,000 messages about Brexit in 48 hours during last year’s referendum in an apparently co-ordinated attempt to sow discord. More than 150,000 accounts based in Russia, which had previously confined their posts to subjects such as the Ukrainian conflict, switched attention to Brexit in the days leading up to last year’s vote, according to research for an upcoming paper by data scientists at Swansea University and the University of California, Berkeley.

Russian activity allegedly spiked on June 23, the day of the referendum, and on June 24 when the result was announced. From posting fewer than 1,000 tweets a day before June 13, the accounts — many of which are virulently pro-Putin — posted 39,000 tweets on June 24 before dropping off almost entirely.

However, according to Sky News, although co-ordinated, Russian activity appears to be at a much lower level than in the US presidential elections. Analysis was carried out by Yin Yin Lu, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute. Ms Lu cross-referenced a pre-existing database of 22.6 million tweets she created last year with the 2,752 accounts identified as creations of the Russian Internet Research Agency by the US senate. She found 416 tweets from the Russian usernames from March to July 2016, including during the referendum period itself.

Ms Lu told Sky News: "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." However, those accounts appear to have co-ordinated strategically, retweeting each other to amplify their message and making much more use of photos and videos than normal Twitter users during the same period. "There's some kind of network happening here," Ms Lu said.

So this opens up a few questions. How much effect did it have? What is the agenda? Can it be countered? 

Clearly there is a case for the regulation of bot activity and Twitter has legal and moral obligations. That is an ongoing discussion. I think Twitter probably can and should do more. Propaganda wars are here to stay and the West is vulnerable. The bigger and more difficult question is to address why it works (if indeed it does).

We will never be able to precisely pinpoint exactly what swung it for leave. Primarily I think it was a two fingered salute to the establishment and there are a number of milestones in the campaign where the remain effort jumped the shark in its hectoring tone, condescension and fearmongering. For them it is comforting to believe that Mr Putin had more of a hand in their defeat than they. 

We should, however, be prepared to entertain the notion that coordinated external activity can sway elections. Certainly the model is not without merit. The Leave Alliance founding strategy was to establish a network of bloggers each disseminating themes to their own audiences.

To a point it was successful in that we did manage to lodge some arguments in the debate but we were not sufficient in number and not active soon enough. We have enjoyed more influence since the referendum than before. Our intention, though, was not to engage in the mass appeal material, rather we sought to target opinion formers in the media to at least lodge the idea that there was an economically neutral means of leaving the EU.

As to the populist front we had Leave.EU and to a point, Vote Leave. The former invested heavily in Facebook advertising through native tools with no real science. For Arron Banks is was simply a popularity contest in order to win the official campaign designation. The bitter feud between the camps better explains some of the tactics in play.

In the end, Leave.EU efforts were so cringe-worthy and amateurish that anyone serious about winning disowned them. They attracted a large contingent of what could loosely be described as alt-right followers, tweeting anti-muslim material and centring on immigration. Though this stuff does have reach it also has an inherent glass ceiling and what we saw from a number of Twitter mapping exercises was a distinctly tribal flow of data.

From the illustration above we can see from the large green blob that leave activity was largely self-referential. The Leave Alliance triangle is indicated in the circle thus demonstrating we did manage to reach a different audience while the blob was talking to itself. I do, therefore, wonder whether populist material from Russian bots, largely indistinguishable from Leave.EU material, would have had the slightest impact. I can't see that any bot material would have influenced anybody who wasn't already planning to vote leave. 

If there is any purpose at all in publishing highly contentious material it's for the purposes of electoral judo where you use the overwrought reaction to your own advantage in which case Leave.EU was more successful than any Russian bot. We might also note that bot traffic surged about the time when all other traffic also surged so as a fraction of output it's impact is minimal.

Ultimately if the UK is vulnerable to external manipulation - a case which is not proven, policy makers would be better advised to examine why. In this you only have to look the choice of guests Russia Today which has always sought to give air time to popular fringe figures. For a time the right wing bias on the UK edition of RT was the equal and opposite of BBC output. At one time I would even have said that RT was a welcome antidote to the sterility of the BBC.

One imagines this helped foster the perception that there was an establishment collusion to exclude the authentic voice of the people from the media domain. The best the BBC can muster is a token slot for Andrew Neil as a licensed dissident.

The BBC as an inherently left wing bureaucracy will always fail in its mission for neutrality. Of late it has overcompensated but that's because it will never really know where the political centre lies. Institutionally it is out of touch. This leaves the BBC a constant source of suspicion and where there is suspicion there is fertile ground for conspiracy theories and a willingness to believe, well, just about anything. 

But then this is more than just a PR problem. Populism goes for the weak points. The populist narrative holds it that the West is threatened by "open borders" while an indifferent elite enrich themselves, blind to the concerns of ordinary people.

The narrative pushed by Russia is socially conservative, encompassing anti-Muslim and anti-gay sentiment. It is very much designed to break eastern European nations out of the EU sphere of influence. It speaks to religious conservatives who view the west as permissive, decadent and vulnerable to terrorist attacks. It would appear to be highly effective in the Visegrad states. This is with a view to weakening support for sanctions against Russia.

One might, therefore, venture that policy-makers turn their attention to the domestic cultural divides which have long festered without redress. If you wish to render Russian propaganda inert then you have to drain the sea it swims in. To do that we need to stop the adoption of leftist degeneracy as public policy.

Russia is positioning itself as the defender of white Christianity against the creeping "cultural Marxism" (whatever that means) of the West. It's cynical, hypocritical but highly effective. When we can't even have an open debate about CSE in Rotherham and elsewhere and we are unwilling to assert our own values in fear of offending middle class white liberals, some might conclude hat Mr Putin has a point.

Presently we have a political class which dare not even speak in the same terms as those it purports to represent. Consequently politics is ever more estranged from electorates. Unless we are prepared to start having difficult conversations where the public and politicians are able to speak freely, the poison from the Kremlin will continue to take root. The West will have no defenders if there is nothing left to defend.

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