Are Trump and Brexit two sides of a hard-right anti-democratic take-over bid? One has to ask the question, since in the pursuit of power and influence both groups seem to be using questionable techniques that could lead one to wonder quite where this is going.
In the US there is an ongoing probe by the FBI-appointed special prosecutor Mueller into whether the Trump campaign indulged in illegal activities in collaboration with a hostile foreign power, Russia, to swing the 2016 Presidential election in Trump’s favour. In the UK, the Information Commissioner is examining the Brexit campaign’s exploitation of personal data potentially at the risk of data protection laws, while the Electoral Commission is looking into the possible by-passing of strict spending limits and whether there was interference in the campaign by Russian troll farms through social media.
Some commentators are speculating further, that these two seemingly separate issues are actually linked. Though some of those involved have threatened legal action against journalists, and so detailed comment will be avoided by this blog for now (and be substituted with some wordy contortions!), it should at least be mentioned that “there are those that believe” (eg. Carole Cadwalladr and various MP’s) that via an organisation called Cambridge Analytica, owned by US billionaire Robert Mercer, an ally of Steve Bannon and a friend of Nigel Farage, a whole system of “alt facts”, fake news and essentially right wing propaganda was put to use in the UK referendum and in the US campaign. It allegedly made use of highly sophisticated personal data mining, psychological warfare techniques and focused positioning in social media to influence voting behaviour.
At the same, and you might be feeling distinctly paranoia by now, or simply emotionally detached as one might be with spy stories, Russian troll farms were, and still are, active along similar paths to sow discord and disinformation consistent with long-standing Russian techniques of “maskirovka” but now also directed into cyberwarfare. Outfits such as “Cosy Bear” are part of Russian military intelligence (such as the Internet Research Agency or, ironically, known here as the IRA). The investigation into Russian influence in the UK is still in its early stages, and MP’s are still trying to get the social media giants to produce the evidence.
However, in the US, in another but related direction, Trump uses a consistent pattern to divert attention from the investigation into his campaign’s activities by launching blistering attacks on the traditional media such as CNN and the BBC, alleging partisan bias and “fake news”. As with much of what Trump does, it is focused on shoring up his electoral base but in the process would seem to be undermining trust in the media. In the US the media are often called the “Fourth Branch of Government”, not for any formal role in the US constitution but as a traditionally much-valued check on the abuse of power by the three real branches of government. Once we consistently question the integrity of our sources of information and opinion, we then cease to trust and use independent material that could inform action to conserve what we value in our political processes. Put simply, propaganda is the first tool of dictators and their enemy is democracy.
Moreover, Trump surrounds himself with plutocrats, in a way analogous to Putin, and is now passing legislation that favours them, while his appointee to head the FCC has just decided to end the neutrality of the internet. When he also is linked with people who are perhaps undermining democracy from different directions, we arguably need to sit up and take notice, for our own sakes. We also need to take notice when these actors from across the “pond” are also linked with those in mainstream movements in the UK and with authoritarian activities elsewhere.
We also need to take care of our own media and its much-valued plurality. As Voltaire is supposed to have said, “I hate what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.
As Carole Cadwalladr writes, “This is Britain in 2017. A Britain that increasingly looks like a “managed” democracy. Paid for by a US billionaire. Using military-style technology. Delivered by Facebook. And enabled by us. If we let this referendum result stand, we are giving it our implicit consent. This isn’t about Remain or Leave. It goes far beyond party politics. It’s about the first step into a brave, new, increasingly undemocratic world.”