“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

16 November 2017

Never mind Russian Twitter-bots, what about Obama’s Brexit fake news?


Several years ago I had the chance to go to the United States with a Labour Party group to canvass for Barack Obama in his re-election campaign.

It seemed like an attractive idea, but I decided against. For one thing I wasn’t a fan of the hero worship of Obama that many engaged in at that time. Also though, I felt that I would be an imposter there, that it was really none of my business, that it was the Americans’ election and not for me to rock up and tell them on how they should vote.

Colleagues told me that the reception on the doorstep was generally favourable and the Americans didn’t mind. But I was uncomfortable. I felt I would be an interloper. So I didn’t go.

Roll on a few years and Obama had no such compunction about coming the other way and lecturing the British on how we should vote in our EU referendum. Indeed in April 2016 our Prime Minister David Cameron placed a nice presidential podium in front of him to do so in front of a salivating press pack.


Barack Obama tells Brits to get with the programme

He didn’t disappoint, saying that the United Kingdom would be ‘at the back of the queue’ when it came to trade talks if it voted for Brexit. The Guardian gleefully reported that it was “an intervention that delighted remain campaigners” while its columnist Jonathan Freedland said, “It was the Vote Leavers’ worst nightmare" and that, “At a stroke, he had crushed not only a core part of the leavers’ economic argument.”

But Obama was telling a fib, or perhaps, if we want to be generous, he was fooling himself – all sponsored and signed off by both American and British governments. His words were that, “the UK is gonna be in the back of the queue,” which is an unequivocal statement of what is going to happen.  However, Obama’s term of office was coming to an end within a few months, so he wouldn’t be able to direct policy to follow his statement. Maybe the Democratic nominee Hilary Clinton would have stuck to his script if she had won the forthcoming election. But would she have followed through with it? Who knows? When politics changes, politics tends to change to match it.

As it happened Donald Trump won the election and Obama’s sincerely-delivered statement of what was going to happen proved to be nonsense. We might even call it a ‘bullshit’ or ‘fake’ statement, one which turned into ‘fake news’ in the relaying by mainstream media and the rest of us.

In this way, ‘fake news’ is nothing new, contrary to the agonised wailings of those who preside over our public life and have only started to notice it recently. What is perhaps new is that these people are no longer having it their own way in disseminating information/misinformation and controlling what happens in our political life. They have only become bothered about the process now that they have started to lose control over it by losing power.

...Which brings us on to Russia and its apparent attempts to interfere in the Brexit referendum and other Western elections through fake social media accounts and spreading fake news. I used to see tweets from at least one of these accounts pop up in my Twitter timeline quite regularly. ‘David Jones’ from ‘Southampton/Isle of Wight’ was a prolific pro-Brexit tweeter with more than 100,000 followers who apparently only tweeted during Russian office hours and when unmasked as a ‘Kremlin stooge’ promptly went private on his/her account.

I never engaged with this account, always finding it a little odd: maybe too prolific, too well organised and well-crafted for an ordinary human being. It fitted in rather too well, appealing to a right-wing social media consensus while not showing any of the real life presence that you would expect of someone so dedicated, articulate and popular in these circles (which aren’t blessed with many such people).

The subject of fake Russian tweets has been getting more and more attention on both sides of the Atlantic. Yesterday, The Times led with a story about how “Russian Twitter accounts posted more than 45,000 messages about Brexit in 48 hours during last year’s referendum in an apparently co-ordinated attempt to sow discord.” This was quickly subsumed into a gathering liberal-left narrative that Brexit was somehow the result of a Russian conspiracy and that Brexit voters were dupes, although some were a little more sanguine, with the Blairite commentator John Rentoul tweeting,


I'm more concerned about the David Joneses of this world, who manage to build up a large, trusting following over a long period of time. No doubt, this account would have helped drag some people over to the Brexit side during the months before the vote by helping build up a weight of force behind the Brexit cause that mainstream civil society was failing to provide for the most part.

This is a concern, but I find it difficult to get excited about it. Why? Because this sort of activity pales compared to the weight of political power mobilised by other international sources against Brexit, of which Obama is just one example. The IMF, the United Nations, the G20, international investment banks, seemingly the whole of the global Establishment was waged on one side, in an overseeing posture, demanding the British people do what they are told.

You might argue that they were doing so in plain sight and employing evidence to back up their demands, but this ‘evidence’ was typically the evidence of prediction. In order to present an anti-Brexit case, they predicted that Brexit would be a disaster. This power of prediction, wedded to their privileged access to the public through government news machines and the mainstream media, confers more than a degree of control over what can appear in the public sphere and how courses of action can appear to be attractive and unattractive.

In this way politics and opinion comes to appear in the guise of knowledge and fact, which apparently cannot be challenged.

But, as we might see with Obama, knowledge of the future is a contradiction in terms. There is a dishonesty here, but it is an officially-approved dishonesty, one which gets platforms and podiums and mass media coverage and red carpets rolled out for it on a daily basis.

It is the dishonesty of a global Establishment, against which the dishonesties of a few clever Russians tweeting fake news from St Petersburg troll farms seems a concern, but trivial.

5 comments:

  1. Good piece Ben. Am also interested in the idea of populist discourse breeding populist discourse (or reverse-populist discourse) on this. No doubt the leave campaigns employed some populist rhetoric - the elites are corrupt and self-serving, don't trust you to govern yourselves etc. However, it now seems that some on the remain side (e.g. Ben Bradshaw) are taking an essentially populist line of attack - the masses are ok but have been manipulated and subverted by shadowy elite forces (be it Russian bots or the Daily Mail). I think there should be a distinction made between remainers who are using democratic processes and serious arguments to try and change minds, and those that are using a kind of reverse-populism in an attempt to delegitimate the vote. These people don't understand that by doing this they are ignoring the fact that Brexit was popular long before the campaigns began, and that a simple reversal of the vote on contestable and poorly evidenced legitimacy grounds will not resolve anything.

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    1. good points John, yes I agree. There are perfectly good Remain arguments, and they remain so and it's perfectly fair to keep on pressing them in a democratic debate. The dishonesty of many is what gets me, as I explained here!

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  2. If the process of separating from the EU does prove to be difficult and painful then many of "those who preside over our public life" will become openly anti-democratic. They will start to argue that Brexit proves that the ignorant masses can't be trusted with any important decision and must be controlled by their betters for their own good. This would lead to a form of class-based politics, in which the dividing line was not between workers and bosses but between a self-proclaimed elite and everybody else. It would not be a left-right split because many political and media figures who currently describe themselves as left-wing would be firmly on the elite side of that divide.

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  3. You might argue that they were doing so in plain sight and employing evidence to back up their demands, but this ‘evidence’ was typically the evidence of prediction. In order to present an anti-Brexit case, they predicted that Brexit would be a disaster. This power of prediction, wedded to their privileged access to the public through government news machines and the mainstream media, confers more than a degree of control over what can appear in the public sphere and how courses of action can appear to be attractive and unattractive.

    A penetrating insight - thanks

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  4. Agree a thoughtful and well written piece, and fair minded, and... ho hum, that brought tears of laughter when I got to the remark that there are good and rational arguments for the EU. I have not yet heard any and I have tried, honest I have !

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