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US finds its smoking gun… and it makes no difference

Image: Gilad Lotan

In mid-February, Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 individuals who had worked for the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency of interfering with the 2016 US presidential election.  But for all the “we told you so’s” of the corporate media, the indictment proved to be a damp squib.  Most of the individuals named in the indictment had left the organisation in 2014, while much of the alleged propaganda was disseminated after the election.

Far from being a well-funded James Bond-style state/criminal organisation bent on world domination, the Internet Research Agency turned out to be an underfunded (by western standards) troll farm that paid Russian students the minimum wage to spend their days posting videos of kittens interspersed with the occasional link to a (often commercial rather than political) fake news story.  The only clever thing about the people behind the Internet Research Agency was that they convinced political campaigners who ought to have known better that for a few hundred thousand dollars they could influence America’s multi-billion dollar election campaign.

Most damningly, however, was Mueller’s concession that there was no collusion between the Internet Research Agency and the Trump campaign.  And that’s the real point.  Nobody in the USA is particularly concerned about internet trolling or the influence of the media and big money on the outcome of elections.  All that really matters is that some – no matter how tenuous – link between the Putin regime in Russia and the Trump campaign be uncovered.  The failure of the Mueller indictment is not that it is what we in the UK would refer to as a “crock of shit,” but that it failed to make a link between Trump and Russia.

So what, exactly, is the crime alleged against the Internet Research Agency?  It boils down to three clauses:

  1. That the agency and its people are foreign nationals
  2. That the agency and its people posted information of a political nature on social media during a US election
  3. That the agency and its people failed to register as a foreign agent, and failed to declare the income from political activities.

This caused Bloomberg journalist Leonid Bershidsky to quip:

“I’m actually surprised I haven’t been indicted. I’m Russian, I was in the U.S. in 2016 and I published columns critical of both Clinton and Trump w/o registering as a foreign agent.”

He has a point. Mueller is effectively inventing a new crime that he is fully aware will never get to be tested in a US court because none of the people named in the indictment is about to voluntarily hand themselves over to the US authorities.  In a later article for Bloomberg, Bershidsky sets out the potential impact of this threat on freedom of speech in future elections:

“The U.S. has laws that require foreign agents to register and which ban foreigners from buying campaign ads. These laws, however, have never been stringently applied — not even during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union did its best to promote the peace movement in the U.S. and beyond…

“Limiting foreigners’ ability to troll U.S. politicians, or even the political process as a whole, could be the first step toward doing the same for Americans. The next time someone rolls out a cage containing an actor impersonating a presidential candidate, it could be seen as a legitimate reason to investigate: What if the Russians (the Chinese, the North Koreans, the Iranians) are behind this? Even such an investigation would have the effect of censoring speech.”

What if, however, the individuals behind the Internet Research Agency chose to go to America to defend themselves in court?  It sounds unlikely.  But, it turns out that they do not have to, because there is another foreign agent that interfered in the 2016 presidential election in exactly the way the Internet Research Agency is alleged to have done, but on a massive scale.  That agency is a somewhat shady outfit known as Cambridge Analytica; which proudly boasted about its role in fixing both the Brexit referendum in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

Nor is there any need for an in-depth investigation to uncover (still less invent) potential links between Cambridge Analytica and the Trump campaign.  As Jamie Doward and Alice Gibbs report in the Observer:

“The US billionaire Robert Mercer – a major Trump supporter who is close friends with Bozell and the former Ukip leader Nigel Farage – was so impressed with Cambridge Analytica that he has reportedly become a major shareholder. Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, used to sit on its board. Perhaps inevitably, given these connections, the Trump campaign ended up paying almost £5m to the company to help it target swing voters. Mercer introduced Farage to Cambridge Analytica, according to Andy Wigmore, communications director of Leave.EU, the Brexit campaign championed by Farage.

“On its website it boasts: ‘We collect up to 5,000 data points on over 220 million Americans, and use more than 100 data variables to model target audience groups and predict the behaviour of like-minded people.’”

The agency has been far quieter in recent months, not just because it did everything the Russians have been accused of doing, but also because, according to whistleblower Christopher Wylie, it breached data protection laws in the US when it hacked more than 50 million Facebook user accounts.

The fact that nobody is calling for Trump to be impeached because of his links with Cambridge Analytica is telling.  The Mueller investigation, the corporate media’s anti-Russian hysteria and the DNC’s ongoing protestations that Russians somehow stole the election from them are demonstrably ideological because in the absence of the Russian cartoon villain, the crime is little more than a matter of privacy law.  Perfidious Albion, it seems, does not fit into the Cold War 2.0 narrative.

The more interesting question concerning Cambridge Analytica has only been raised in geek circles.  Leonid Bershidsky has a long track record of reporting on so-called “Big Data” in both its commercial and political uses.  His conclusions are somewhat at odds with the current hysteria:

“Knowledge, of course, is still power. Companies may be able to collect enough useful information about us to use it for noticeable sales increases, someday… I suspect it would require customers’ cooperation in the data collection: Without it, too much of the big data is false, insufficient or just useless.

“As things stand, however, using snake oil won’t give you a competitive edge. It’ll just make the snake oil salesman rich.”

Anyone who has bought a product or clicked on an advert online only to be “followed” by the same advert for the ensuing weeks knows instinctively just how ineffective big data is.  Like driverless cars, rockets to mars and the Internet of Things, big data is just another facet of an enormous tech bubble inflated on the back of trillions of dollars of global quantitative easing since 2008.  It is just another thing that gullible investors can lose their shirts on.  And if, just occasionally, the snake oil salesmen can point to some coincidental commercial or political success, then that merely creates the space for a good deal of disappointment later on.

The same failures occur in the political sphere.  Charles Hugh Smith, an American blogger who writes on financial issues had his site added to a Washington Post blacklist of supposedly extremist fake news outlets in the aftermath of the 2016 election.  The reason?  A failure of big data:

“Now we discover that profit-maximizing data-mining (i.e. Facebook and Google) can–gasp–be used for selling ideologies, narratives and candidates just like dog food and laundry detergent. The more extreme and fixed the views and the closer the groups are in size (i.e. the closer any electoral contest), the more profitable the corporate data-mining becomes.

“Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the data-mining gets all the important stuff wrong. As correspondent GFB explains, was identified as ‘propaganda’ by data-mining, which concluded that any site that posted content that wasn’t pro-Hillary was automatically propaganda…”

In effect, if extremists visit your website, the bots and algorithms assume both that your website and your other readers are extremists in a kind of Amazon “people who looked at this also bought that” way:

“It also turns out that data-mining draws all sorts of false conclusions about individuals, groups and sites. For example, if you visit a ‘prepper’ site then the algorithms will reckon you’re pro-gun ownership. If you visit the Sierra Club website, then you’re targeted as a ‘social liberal,’ and so on…

“If targeting political extremes generates the most profit, then that’s what these corporations will pursue. It’s nothing personal–maximizing profit by any means available is why they exist.”

The implicit assumption that people are influenced by big data – whether Russian or British in origin – is attractive to those politicians and parties who refuse to take responsibility for their failures.  But this casting of the voting public as passive empty vessels simply waiting for some conspiracy theorist on YouTube to tell them which way to vote is all the more dangerous for its dismissal of very real economic hardship affecting millions of people across the developed world.

To a supporter of Hillary Clinton or a British Remoaner the belief that a Russian troll farm or a UK big data outfit somehow illegitimately tipped the result of their respective votes against them leaves open the hope that, having failed to defeat their opponents in the voting booth, they can steal the result back via the courts.

It should be apparent that any such action – particularly a US action in which the dead hand of the post-9/11 security services can be seen pulling the strings – would be an appalling mistake since it would convince the growing majority of people who have been on the wrong side of 40 years of neoliberal globalism that democracy is a sham.  You only get to overturn the result of a democratic election/referendum once.  After that, you no longer get to criticise Russia, China, Iran or a hundred other faux-democratic and anti-democratic states, because everyone can see that you just joined the same club.

In Britain at least, there may be a way out of the Brexit bind in the shape of a vote on the final deal between the UK and the EU27.  However, for the moment there is little sign of buyers’ remorse on the part of Leave voters.  Moreover, any underhand attempt to reverse the outcome may even lead previous Remain voters into the leave camp.  The only democratic way forward is a campaign to convince around 10 percent of Leave voters that their concerns are more likely to be addressed within the European Union than outside.

In the USA, the situation is much worse.  Trump is in for the duration, and is already talking about his second term.  There is currently no route to impeachment, and will not be unless the Democrats can take control of the Congress later this year.  But even if Trump were forced into an impeachment hearing, there is no guarantee that he loses it.  And if he does, America merely gets saddled with Mike Pence who – unlike Trump – will do right-wing politics competently.

Which brings us back to the politics.  The truth is that Britain got Brexit because the entire campaign was about the short-term infighting within the Tory Party.  Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn – who adopted a “remain and reform” position was actively excluded from the campaign by Blairite politicians who wrongly believed he would be a liability.  Meanwhile, the UK media treated the campaign as no more than a brawl between rival factions within the governing party.  The electorate – who, it turns out, actually matter – were treated as passive spectators who would simply do the bidding of their betters.  Instead, a sufficient number of them chose to give the ruling elite an unexpected poke in the eye.

Something similar occurred in the USA in November 2016.  Hillary Clinton ran a textbook Washington insider’s campaign that drew attention to her links with – and thus ability to negotiate with – the Republicans, state officials, foreign governments and the Wall Street bankers.  That is, Clinton very deliberately positioned herself on the side of every faction that Middle America holds responsible for its declining living standards, collapsing infrastructure and failed public services.  On two occasions (refuting the “basket of deplorables” allegation) the same people had voted America’s first black president into office on the promise that he was going to make things better.  “Can we fix it?” apparently not.  And Clinton was merely promising to keep things the same.

Neither blaming big data nor the Russians changes the fact that British voters voted for Brexit and American voters voted for Trump.  They did so for myriad reasons, some honourable, some not.  But the route to change lies in changing their minds, not inventing ludicrous conspiracies and inflated claims about the power of social media to disguise the fact that, when all is said and done, the Clinton and Brexit campaigns were both textbook examples of how not to win a vote.  And until that lesson is learned, they will go on losing.

As you made it to the end…

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