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Watching Facebook struggle to deal with the fake news imbroglio is rather amusing, certainly for journalists. The digital giant hoovers up billions of dollars of advertising revenue on the back of other people’s content, collects epic amounts of data, destroys existing news providers and publishes acres of amateur abuse and a sprinkling of fake news. Now there is trouble at the digital mill. Facebook has belatedly sworn to improve standards, following a US election in which digital garbage poisoned the well, and says it will even use some human beings (human beings!) to scrutinise what appears.
If only there was some kind of trade available that is dedicated to trying to find out what is true and what is not. With reporters, and editors, and columnists, and sub-editors, designers and photographers, and lawyers on hand. Might journalists – imperfect as they are – be required?
What is most striking about Facebook’s discombobulation is how baffled it is by the scrutiny around its role in the US election. The enormous organisation that is less than 15 years-old is used to being feted, floating along on a tide of feel-good tech media boosterism, its architects having pulled off the most audacious trick. It’s all free! No, Facebook makes so much revenue by selling its readers. You and your data, your tastes, your movements, your habits, are the source of all that revenue. There is a price.
There are benefits too, of course. Mainstream journalism – particularly in the US, but also in the UK – enjoyed a monopoly pre-internet that encouraged self-regard in newsrooms and disregard for readers. The best digital upstarts have created competition and there is now a much wider and diverse range of voices on offer. In the olden days of my youth as a reporter in the early 1990s, a few readers wrote letters. Now the journalist is bombarded with feedback on Twitter and Facebook, some of it abusive, much of it useful.
But amid all that chaos and digital disruption, as the media landscape is remade rapidly, it has been difficult at times to get a clear view, to see what is really going on. That is particularly true it turns out in respect of hacking, state secrets and the emerging role of the Russians.
Much as the new digital giants are voracious for cash and hungry for growth, the flipside is their naive utopian worldview, which means they seem to have little grasp of issues of war, morality, defence of democracy, intelligence, terrorism, borders and state interests. They’re free-riders, existing thanks to the existence of a free society and then being the unwitting conduit for disinformation and propaganda designed to destroy freedom. For Facebook and the other giants to have little interest in these questions, for the biggest media company in the world – for that is what Facebook is – to be almost childlike in its assumptions is deeply concerning in an age as perilous as this.
As a new arrival Facebook simply doesn’t know (yet) what it’s doing. The same cannot be said of some of those at the other end of the media and digital spectrum, who facilitated and encouraged the torrent of leaks. Some of them at least should have known better.
Think back to the early days of Wikileaks, to King Useful Idiot Assange, to Bradley/Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, and to the pious claims made by news organisations such as The Guardian who revelled in publishing the West’s secrets that had been stolen. George Orwell, the greatest critic of a previous generation of useful idiots, that time Communists, would have recognised the phenomenon. Incidentally, the term useful idiots is credited to Lenin, though there is no evidence it was his.
Fast forward to the pomp of Julian Assange. Around him a coterie of anti-Western ultra-liberals, tech idealists, playboys and trust-fund social butterflies formed. It was like a tech version of Bonnie and Clyde with Krug available on tap. How thrilling it was and what drivel was written by the radical Left in defence of it all. The later US traitor (strong word, but what else do you suggest for what he did?) Snowden was even made Rector of Glasgow University by right-on students after – after – he had sought refuge in Russia. Yes, in Russia.
The underpinning assumption was, as it usually is on that side of the argument, that the West is the ultimate bad guy, surviving only thanks to a sham system riddled with lies and illegality. That was a position for which it was easy to get a hearing after the mess of the Iraq War. What the hackers had uncovered showed the “deep state” of the West working frantically to track terrorism and the jihadi threat, using techniques that stretched and sometimes broke the rules, what with our Islamist enemies being prepared to fly airplanes into buildings containing thousands of people, and to let off bombs on the London tube.
But quite a lot of what was leaked was just embarrassing tittle tattle, interesting in the sense that we weren’t supposed to see it. There were a lot of emails between people who work together thinking aloud and letting off steam, which is hardly surprising when the emails are from people doing difficult jobs. The overall effect, however, was deeply damaging over several years. The West was decadent, it seemed, and disintegrating at a time when the President of the United States was dismissive of the whole concept of Western or US leadership. Here was the opportunity for the Russians.
The Kremlin and Vladimir Putin may be many things. They are not stupid and they know what they are about. They paid attention to all that activity, and enjoyed the spectacle of the the West’s useful idiots doing their worst. We know this because of how much attention Russian state media gave these stories of Western awfulness.
Weirdly, or perhaps not because they like a big strongman and admire Putin’s gaming of the radical Left, parts of UKIP revere Putin, something they have in common with their hero Trump.
What does Putin want here? Primarily he wants respect for Mother Russia and its restoration as a key player in the international system, after a 25 year period in which Russia was first defeated and humiliated, then patronised and finally made to watch the rise of China. Russia cannot raise itself up to the level of the United States. An oil-dependent kleptocracy with disastrous demographics is incapable of doing that. The only alternative it has is to bring the West down to Russian levels in terms of esteem, or even to create the impression in Russia and its neighbours that the Kremlin’s system is superior in providing stability, strength and order. That means making democracy look silly, flawed, corrupt, unreliable, mad. If the Russians are linked to what happened in the US you might say it is working. The Russians are winning.
Putin as former KGB man (you never leave really) has a brilliant understanding of the power of information and disinformation. Disseminating stories and leaks is much cheaper and easier than actually invading anywhere, as he has discovered. Three years ago, the Kremlin began a huge effort to increase its digital and media output. Russia Today, a TV station, was ramped up as the public face of Kremlin soft power. The intelligence services think that the hard component of that effort was a massive hacking and fake news operation run through surrogates, that may even have extended to direct Russian hacking of the Democrat and Republican parties. We’ve only seen the anti-Clinton stuff.
Assange from his Ecuadorian embassy eyrie says the leaks weren’t the Russians. Honestly, would you trust the guy even if he told you that it’s Christmas next week? And in a world that murky how would he know for sure?
Suddenly, having seen the results of Russia’s brilliant operation, even some of those who participated in the Wikileaks and Snowden carnival – by far the worst thing done by the British press since the Establishment stitch-up at the time of Profumo – are having second thoughts. Ian Katz, the editor of Newsnight and a former Guardian executive, presented a fair-minded report for his programme this week on the subject. It seems the Wikileaks/Snowden business might have given encouragement and inspiration to the Kremlin and other dark forces. I mean, who woulda thunk it?
The answer is: lots of us, at the time. Once again clever Russians have divided the West and turned our strength – our freedom – against us, by understanding that freedom does allow people in the West the license to make themselves useful as idiots, unwittingly or otherwise aiding those wanting to weaken us and do harm.
Time to wake up from a Facebook-induced fug. Time to get serious again about the security of Western Europe.