Explainer: Austrian Elections
Reading Time: 2 minutes

Whilst British politics has been in turmoil over the past few months (even ignoring Theresa May’s disastrous speech to her own party), Europe’s attention has been rather rudely diverted by events in Austria. After the shock success of the Alternative fur Deutschland at Germany’s elections shattered the nation’s belief in its immunity to populism, legislative elections at Austria appear to have done the same there.

It’s not an entirely unexpected turn of events there, admittedly. Over the course of a twisted presidential election last year, the far-right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (the Freedom Party of Austria or FPO) received the most votes in the first round, only to lose out in the second against the Green Party. Then, the whole election was declared void due to apparent irregularities in the process. Finally, the FPO was defeated in December 2016, but gained a respectable 46% of the vote.

At first glance, the victory of the conservative Österreichische Volkspartei (OVP) under Sebastian Kurz is less significant than the FPO’s presidential performance. Whilst it has anti-immigrant rhetoric, the OVP is broadly speaking a less extreme party, defined by economic liberalism and Catholicism. But an alliance between the OVP and FPO now seems likely, and would have the precedent of an earlier coalition as recently as 2002.

In essence, this gives the FPO a run at power on its key issues: most notably immigration, euroscepticism, and Islam. Where the centre (both in Austria and in the European Union at large) would have provided a bulwark against changes on these fronts in 2002, the situation today is almost unrecognisable, with Britain leaving, Germany lurching rightwards from under Angela Merkel’s feet, and Emmanuel Macron, the greatest supporter of Eurozone integration, isolated and losing popularity fast. Instead, as Politico reports, Austria is joining a vaunted club of Central European countries whose leading political movements (Fidesz in Hungary, and PiS in Poland) care little for Brussels and even less for Muslim refugees. A dangerous and growing isolationism, tied to archaic ideals of national identity (often carefully skirting the knottier bits of history).

That broader context is what makes the groundswell of right-wing populism so dangerous, creating a cycle in which parties in neighbouring countries see the successes of these ideologies and find themselves emboldened. There doesn’t seem to be a master plan for a grand European populist alliance as yet, in part because Europe is a messy patchwork built by generations of wars and treaties (the FPO, for example, demands part of Tirol – historically an Austrian province – back from Italy) – and yet each victory is a blow against the EU.

In light of all that, Theresa May’s situation looks a little less grim. Britain might be a ship with no clear helmsman, but the mood in Europe, towards the idea of Europe – tempered by the refugee crisis of 2015, growing ethnonationalist tensions, and a general displeasure with neo-liberal elites – is turning increasingly ugly. Brussels’ power has taken yet another blow, and this is unlikely to be the last.

Read more

Explainer: Autonomous Cargo Vehicles
Reading Time: 2 minutes

The history of humanity has in large part depended upon transportation. Civilisations have always been reliant upon supplies of food, water, and other amenities for expansion (both military and civil), and later for trade. The ox-cart gave way to the ‘iron horse’ and later to the trucks which still perform a major part of goods transportation in both the Global North and South. Whilst container ships – with the immense Post Panamax (that is, too big even for the Panama Canal) capable of hauling in the region of 120,000 tonnes – remain key internationally and for moving goods between distant regions, and whilst trains offer easier delivery of freight over long distances on land, the truck remains the most important vehicle for last mile deliveries.

And with trucks, come drivers, introducing an all too common element of friction. There’s the question of the number of hours which they should able to work: whilst drivers and their unions often push for lengthier periods, claiming that strict limits ignore down time on long journeys, their employers have largely resisted this. In America, moves to install tracking devices in trucks to ensure that drivers are adhering to the set times have claims of a ‘Big Brother’ mentality.

And then there’s the issue of the environment. Progressively more eco-friendly regulations, combined with a relative slowness on the part of automakers to take up this issue has created a conundrum for drivers. On the one hand, they can stick to older vehicles, which are much more analogue, cheaper to fix, and have limited resale value but emit massive levels of pollution. On the other, they can make the switch to new trucks which abide by the rules at high costs – and potentially face catastrophe, as in New York and New Jersey, where new, green, trucks certified by the Port Authority suffered from self-combustion. Independent drivers who had traded in their old vehicle to be scrapped found themselves reduced to working in fleets, where their autonomy was greatly reduced.

But this might just be tip of the iceberg for truckers, as autonomous vehicle technology could completely wipe out the profession. Whilst it remains highly experimental at this stage, August saw trials of wi-fi technology to allow platoons of autonomous trucks to drive together. For firms, aside from prohibitive costs and regulatory scepticism of driverless vehicles, they seem to offer a boon – there’d be no need to limit hours for robot drivers, or worry about them driving tired, or having issues to do with pay.

And yet who would the fault for crashes lie with – the company which produced the vehicles, or the companies which operate them? And will we see this technology spreading elsewhere in the goods industry, with talk of autonomous cargo vessels already appearing. How far governments offer supportive legislation – or at least lift the many barriers to the driverless future – will ultimately be crucial to how far these changes move.

Read more

Explainer: Godmen
Reading Time: 2 minutes

Godmen are hardly new to India – in fact, the image of the charismatic figure, perhaps in saffron, with a flock of devoted followers hanging off every parlour trick, is practically a cliche. They come in different varieties – some claim to cleave to Hinduism, others are more lax on their religious heritage – but at their core, all share a similar callous disregard for human autonomy and a commitment to finding fame and fortune.

Some of the stories are borderline ridiculous – take Guru Ashutosh Maharaj, whose body has been left in a freezer since a fatal heart attack three years ago. Whilst his family want it back, his devotees are convinced he’s just meditating, and that sticking the corpse in a deep freeze is the closest thing to the calming environment of the distant Himalayas. But this isn’t the story of irrational superstitions so much as it’s a tale of greed: the late Ashutosh had property in the order of $160 million. It’s hard to be so convinced of the purely religious piety of his followers when that much money is floating around.

If there was one godman who best epitomised the worst of the trend, it’s been Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh – the man whose arrest for carrying out the rape of two young followers sparked rioting which lead to the deaths of more than 30 individuals. Singh, in spite of his supposedly aescetic religious background, was known for gaudy jewellery, large-scale civic hygiene events, and a series of movies starring himself as, essentially, a God. If there was any doubt about this humility, his decision to essentially dress up as a Sikh religious figure should have put paid to that, sparking riots between his followers and orthodox Sikh groups – a prelude to the more recent, deadlier violence he initiated.

Singh is not the only member of his movement to be dubbed ‘eccentric’ at the least. His adopted daughter, Honeypreet Insan, had starred in several of Singh’s movies, and has 1.2 million followers on Twitter – not an insignificant following, considering that she is now in police custody under suspicion of having organised the riots surrounding Singh’s arrest. Her website paints her as a world-renowned actress and director rather than a felon.

The problem of religious zealots is not a peculiarly Indian one; neither is the problem of religions acting as cash cows. But the central role which godmen like Singh play in politics is less common in other states, where the religious fringe is treated as the religious fringe for good reason. Singh has been courted by both the Congress Party and the BJP, India’s largest political parties. For India’s politicians, he was a convenient vote bank, offering access to large numbers of voters. Whilst they might have sent in police forces to help restore order after his followers had gone on the rampage, politicians had effectively allowed Singh to become the problem that he was.

Other controversial godmen have found similar succour from the state – Asaram Bapu, another convicted rapist, had received massive grants of land from Congress and BJP governments. By using them as middle men, India’s political system chooses to ignore the problems which create them – rampant inequality, religious intolerance, and the remnants of the caste system all play a part. By failing to deal with godmen, India’s politicians have fundamentally neglected these issues – and the citizens plagued by them.

 

Read more

Explainer: The British Far-Right
Reading Time: 2 minutes

The murder of Jo Cox in the run-up to Brexit was shocking not merely for the fact that it was the first killing of a British MP in over 20 years. The words her killer, Thomas Mair, shouted – “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain” – marked a return of British white supremacy which had last had its heyday in the 1990s.

Whilst more electorally focussed versions of white nationalism have persisted and gained support over the past decade – most notably in the brief surge of support the British National Party (BNP) received under Nick Griffin – the last decade of the 20th century had marked a high-point in the indigenous white nationalist movement (as opposed to US or European imported groups). Neo-Nazi groups centred in the UK included Combat 18 (the number standing for the letters ‘AH’, Hitler’s initials) and Blood & Honour, which hosted the formerly flourishing white nationalist music scene. For groups like these, which had evolved from post-WWII fascists and disillusioned imperialists with ill-disguised antipathy for immigrants from former colonies, the high point of their publicity came in April 1999 – courtesy of a 22 year old called David Copeland.

A former BNP member, Copeland had read ‘The Turner Diaries’, William Luther Pierce’s dystopian novel and handy manifesto for the budding fascist. In 1995 it had made the headlines in America when Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City Bomber, was discovered with pages from the novel (which describes an attack on an FBI building) – a screed which called for radical warfare against the state. Copeland turned to explosives himself, but he targeted another typical fascist target – non-white Britons, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ community. His attacks killed three and wounded another 140.

It’s probably unfair to call Copeland’s attack the catalyst for the failure of the British far-right scene – the deaths of key members of groups like Combat 18 through factional infighting also played a role. At any rate, the early 21st century saw the apparent transition of the old street fighting outfits to electoral politics.

Mair’s actions shattered this illusion, especially as his words were rapidly coopted by a previously little known group, National Action. With its roots in Yorkshire (which has traditionally played host to the BNP and other far-right outfits), the group had only been founded in 2013 – but it nevertheless is the only far-right group proscribed in Britain. The status has conferred upon it a great deal of respect in white supremacist forums, seeming validation of the state control which Pierce’s Turner Diaries ‘predicted’ – not bad going, considering attempts in 2015 to organise a rally in Liverpool ended with National Action members hiding behind the shutters of a shop at Liverpool Lime Street Station.

In styling, National Action offers a blend of the peculiarly British and the distinctly transnational – a technique borrowed from the broader alt-right. Where older iterations of the website from 2013 show a particular approach which mimicked the National Front, focusing on immigrants, the group has increasingly opted for a broader symbolism. One of the most recent examples of its home page featured Anglo-Saxon imagery alongside the broader, pseudo-academic ideology which has been popularised by Richard Spencer and others in America – and which is increasingly developing in continental Europe and Britain.

Read more

Reading Time: 2 minutes

60 years ago (and 25 years after its founding), the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia enacted what would become the most famous example of gender inequality – a ban on female drivers. In spite of a series of protests in the 1990s which lead to the arrests of several women for driving, the kingdom’s stance on the matter seemed inflexible (bar sporadic comments from King Salman that changes would come when they were ‘ready’.)

So the announcement a week ago that the longstanding law would at last be lifted was greeted as a victory for women’s rights in the kingdom. Certainly, it suggests that public pressure can have an impact on even the most recalcitrant of nation-states, trumping ideological purity. Was this, suggested some more optimistic thinkers, a sign of greater things to come? Women had their first chance to vote at local elections just two years ago.et law, but not removed, certainly. As publications including The Week, a large number of rights remain outside of the domain of Saudi Arabian women including wearing make-up, trying on clothes, or make a number of major decisions including getting married or divorced.

In the context of these wider, continuing restrictions, it’s not difficult to see this as a piece of clever publicity, seeking to remove the most unpleasant and visible aspects of gender inequality. Nevertheless, more conservative elements reacted with considerable anger in spite of the state’s considerable attempts to clamp down on dissent. Whilst it’s unlikely to catalyse anything larger, it suggests a potential divide between the most hard-line elements of the religious establishment and the monarchy.

On the other hand, it’s possible to view this as simply a step in a wider move towards a modernisation of the traditional recalcitrant nation-state under crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose rise to power has upset the traditional order. At 31 years of age, he represents a challenge to the traditional and highly ossified hierarchy of the country – and potentially represents what’s needed for a country struggling with monopolies, fallen oil prices, and increasing (if still relatively impotent) discontent amongst a young populace with access to the internet.

Read more

Don’t be Seduced by Techno-Optimism

Reading Time: 6 minutesThere has long been an assumption that on balance, technological advancement is always a good thing. I would like to challenge this assumption, in two ways: First, let us consider the past. In the 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution, the now infamous Luddites tried and failed to stop technological progress. They are now considered […]

Read more

Explainer: Alternativ für Deutschland
Reading Time: 3 minutes

In 2012, a group of German luminaries of some stature – including a former state secretary of Hesse, a veteran journalist, and a professor of macroeconomics – started a party as an alternative to Angela Merkel’s government. The Eurozone crisis was at its fiercest, with Grexit looking significantly more likely than Brexit as austerity measures grew increasingly unpopular and Brussel’s patience with the southern European state grew thin.

The ‘Alternative for Germany’ (Alternativ für Deutschland or AfD)began with a manifesto which received the support of journalists, thought leaders and professors who agreed that the Euro was increasingly becoming an unstable and ineffective currency for Germany to participate in. Many of its early members – including Alexander Gauland, former state secretary – were drawn from Merkel’s own Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU), a traditionally conservative party which retained a deeply conservative aspect, fiscally as well as socially.

At a time when the EU’s woes were marked by the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, it was hard to imagine that the party would become the de facto voice of Germany’s xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment – ending the decades long claim by the country’s politicians that the nation’s history  immured it to populist hatred.

Back in 2012, a Eurosceptic party in the heart of the Eurozone’s most powerful and industrious nation was enough to make quite a splash. At first glance, its showing at the 2013 federal elections wasn’t so promising – it achieved just 4.7% of the vote, about one and a half percent more than UKIP in 2010, and missing out on entering the Bundestag. But German’s fractured electoral system, which relies upon alliances between parties with often disparate goals, made this showing considerably more potent – especially as the other smaller parties all lost a few percentage points. Nevertheless, the union of Merkel’s CDU and its Bavarian sister party the Christlich-Soziale Union (CSU) received a 41.5% of the votes, putting it within spitting distance of an absolute majority.

The AfD was not phased by this, and entered the European Parliamentary elections in 2014 with enthusiasm, reaping just over 7% of the national vote, with its seven members joining the European Conservatives and Reformists group alongside the Tories and other major European conservative parties. 2014 marked a turning point in the group’s fortunes, with state elections that year and in 2015 providing further proof of a German swing to Euroscepticism.

It was to be in 2015 that the anti-immigrant, xenophobic party which the AfD is known as today emerged, as Frauke Petry, a self-described national-conservative, took control of the party, moving it away from the economic conservatism which had marked its early stages. Instead, it became the party which most readily capitalised upon Angela Merkel’s choice to welcome refugees fleeing from ISIS. If dissent towards the Eurozone had been shocking, an uncomfortably mainstream party with anti-immigrant, pro-Russian leanings was horrifying – hinting at a strain of politics which Germany had long claimed to reject.

All of which made the 2017 election so disturbing. Not only did the CDU and CSU return with a significantly reduced majority of 32.9% – a sign that Merkel’s support for refugees had significantly if not fatally dented her popularity within her own party – but the AfD surged to take 12.6% of the vote, clearing the barrier to gain representation in the Bundestag and becoming the third largest party.

In terms of practical politics, the other German parties have done their best to exclude the AfD: politics there has traditionally been based on alliances, allowing Merkel to stay in power without an absolute majority. But the challenge she faces can’t be ignored: her most likely allies, the Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP) and Die Grünen (The Green Party),are at odds with each other politically, and unlikely to have great faith in the future of the CDU-CSU.

Yet the AfD’s path to further political disruption is unclear. Petry announced her resignation co-chair shortly after the election – perhaps ironically as part of a belief that the party’s ever more radical bent (with current leader and founder Alexander Gauland clamouring for recognition of Wehrmacht soldiers) will doom it to the position of a noisy but perennial opposition. But regardless of the political change it enacts, the AfD’s success this year mark a new high-water mark for populism – and a new ebb for those who saw Germany as the ‘special case’ of Europe.

Read more

Explainer: Journalism in India
Reading Time: 3 minutes

India has long prided itself on being the world’s most populous democracy, in contrast to its nominally Communist neighbour to the north-east. Journalism, usually considered a key tenant of free societies, dates back to the colonial era – in 1871, Irish surgeon James Hickey started a paper in Bengal. Hickey, who had fallen out of grace with the local governor Warren Hastings, used the venture as an attempt to ‘speak truth to power’, accusing him of being a tyrant.

Unsurprisingly, Hickey’s Bengal Gazette lasted approximately a year in total, but it would symbolically pave the way for a press unafraid to take on the government. Gandhi himself founded Young India after his release from jail in the 1920s, as a vehicle to disseminate his message in favour of non-violent protest against British rule.

So it is doubly disturbing that a constant stream of Indian journalists have been killed in recent years. For a country which continues to point to sister states Pakistan and Sri Lanka as examples of poor press freedom, the world ranking suggest otherwise: India comes in at 136 on the Reports sans Frontieres Press Freedom Rankings, just three above Pakistan and five above Sri Lanka. The killing of Kannada journalist Gauri Lankesh – just one of many – have brutally exposed this.

It’s true that this isn’t the first time in India’s history that the press has come under sustained attack. Most famously, for 21 months between 1975 and 1977, Indira Gandhi ruled the country by decree in what became known simply as The Emergency. In with campaigns of forced sterilisations orchestrated by her son Sanjay, the arrests of regional opposition leaders, and the essential end of habeus corpus, the power was cut off to printing presses. In one of India’s most famous obituaries, The Times of India carried this:

“D.E.M O’Cracy, beloved husband of T Ruth, loving father of L.I.Bertie, brother of Faith, Hope and Justice, expired on June 26.”

But the simple fact of the matter is that journalists in India have rarely been safe. Since 1992, the Committee to Protect Journalists has listed 68 journalists and 3 media workers as killed, over half covering politics or corruption. The difference today is perhaps in the callousness – or even delight with which the murders are considered amongst audiences and even fellow journalists.

Lankesh’s death was treated as just vengeance by nationalists incensed by her critique of Brahminical politics and the ruling BJP, and her support for non-military options when dealing with the Naxalites (Communist insurgents prevalent in India’s Eastern ‘Red Corridor’). As reported in The Wire, an Indian online publication, elements of India’s right wing sought to place the blame on Naxalites who had turned on her, or sought to defame her by association with student dissidents.

And where Lankesh made the headlines, dozens others have not. KJ Singh, a veteran editor , was stabbed to death along with his mother in their home in what police consider a professional killing. Bengali journalist Santanu Bhowmik was abducted and murdered whilst covering clashes between the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) and the Communist Party of India (Maoist) in Tripura, allegedly by members of the former (although many questions still remain to be answered on this front). The IPFT is aligned with the National Democratic Alliance, the BJP lead power bloc, though as with anything in Indian politics,

And those are just this year: at least five more were murdered last year (according to the Committee to Protect Journalists), and another four in the year before that (and the list seems woefully incomplete, not yet updating for the killings of Singh or Bhowmik). Previous victims included Rajdev Randan (who had worked on stories about a political leader from the Rashtriya Janata Dal, a Bihari political party.

With strong nationalist and theocratic tendencies under the current government (which treats any dissent as ‘anti-national’), coupled with equally potent and ruthless regional parties keen to push for their own agenda, it is hard to see the situation resolving any time soon.

Read more

Explainer: Regulating Hate Speech and Extremism Online
Reading Time: 3 minutes

There’s very little that can’t be blamed on the internet, in the grand tradition of new technologies. The same arguments which paint cyberspace as a corrupting, seductive force have long been laid at the feet of television, gaming, and practically any innovation. And yet it’s hard not to feel that there’s something palpable in those claims. The internet is a very different space to classical mass media because it allows for grassroots engagement, easier dissemination, and far fewer boundaries on what behaviour acceptable. Perhaps the most noteworthy example of this is in the extremism – Islamist, fascist, secessionist, and otherwise – that it has fostered, and the hate speech it has normalised. Online anonymity, a blessing in illiberal regimes, has also proven a vital tool for the intolerant to organise actions and to spread their messages.

The leaders of both America and Britain have been outspoken on their condemnation of the internet. In the wake of the Parsons Green attack, Donald Trump tweeted that the internet was “the main recruitment tool” for (Jihadi) terrorists, adding, “we must cut [it] off & use [it] better!” Theresa May had called for similar regulations following the London Bridge attack, blaming social media for creating “safe spaces” for terrorists seeking to maximise the damage they inflict. End-to-end encryption, which became a flashpoint following the San Bernadino attack, has only become more contested since then.

Another group of extremists, white nationalists, have been equally adept at using the internet: leaks from popular gaming chat app Discord reveal how it has been adapted as a convenient tool for neo-Nazis, Klansmen, and neo-Confederates (amongst other hate groups) to stage their mass rally at Charlottesville. More aggressive use – such as using blogging platforms to host online campaigns of abuse against political opponents – has also become a worryingly normalised phenomenon. And in a revelation that shamed a tech scene already uncomfortably hands-off when it comes to policing extremist content, it was revealed that Facebook and Google had both set up their systems in such a way that it supported racist advertisers.

Of course, not all hate speech promises imminent violence – and the idea of hate speech is itself culturally relative, a construct far more prevalent in Europe than in America, which instead prizes the First Amendment freedom of speech. But even focusing specifically on ideas of violent extremism, and we hit roadblocks. How much leeway should a government receive when it comes to choosing who is an extremist? The Trump administration, for example, has been sheepish at best when dealing with those on the far-right, which rather undermines any assumption that the correct groups will always be targeted. Not to mention historical state support for extremist groups abroad.

That’s not to say that the tech sector is any better. For years, it peddled the claim that it was simply a provider of services, and that the content on them was none of its responsibility – an abdication of any moral authority. But in the wake of Charlottesville and in fear of growing public outrage, we saw a number of services whir into action to cut off hate speech. Perhaps most memorable was Cloudflare, a service used by white nationalists to protect their websites and which had previously been outspoken about their commitment to allow them to remain as customers. The murder of a protester at Charlottesville was seemingly the only thing which made them react, booting off prominent neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin. It’s a worryingly ad hoc state of play in which internet service providers are the arbiters of public good.

And even assuming that we find a body, public or private, who we trust to push extremism out of the digital space, do they have the power to do it? This is a tricky one: on the one hand, there is some evidence from Reddit that shutting down specific areas for hate speech can push commentators into other zones where they’re less likely to behave so egregiously. On the other hand, the dark web (accessible through the Tor browser) offers a highly anonymous and extremely difficult to police zone for committed extremists. It’s hard to see whether the regulations which politicians demand could effectively break that down.

Read more

Explainer: Data Protection in the Age of Big Leaks
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Hacking is the news story which keeps on giving. Gone are the images of ostentatious cyberpunk  seeking to bring down the Man; in its place is a class of savvy, slick criminals, taking advantage of the negligence of corporations with access to massive amounts of our data. Whether through the installation of ransomware, spearfishing, or Trojan Horses, the insurers Hiscox estimated cybercrime cost businesses $450 billion this year. 

And it’s not simply that more businesses have been hit, but that the size of hacks have kept on growing. Indeed, the biggest targets have often been felled by the softest strokes: the massive Wannacry ransom ware attack which brought down NHS Trusts was so successful because it used an exploit which was patched two months earlier, coupled with the NHS’s partial use of an unsupported version of Windows XP.

The political line between private and public enterprises has also become increasingly blurred: when Petya succeeded bringing down major Western companies, the original assumption was that it was ransomware like Wannacry. Investigations quickly suggested this was not the case – the data ‘encrypted’ was essentially destroyed, it used a very poor method for payouts (particularly for such a big attack), it hit a lot of critical infrastructure in Ukraine, and its only major Russian hit (oil giant Rosneft) was miraculously able to fight off the virus in record time. Businesses can expect this sort of financial proxy war to only intensify in the future.

The latest big fish to fall prey to hacking was Equifax, the US credit reporting agency. In an almost perfect example of big business playing fast and loose, Equifax discovered it had been compromised all the way back in July, but neglected to mention this to consumers until the start of September. Bad data management practices mean that while UK servers weren’t hit, perhaps 400,000 Britons have had their personal data exposed – whether that means being sold professionally or dumped on some PasteBin.

Equifax’s fate, in the court of public opinion, probably doesn’t vary too much on either side of the Pond (i.e. everyone agrees that they were not only exceedingly lax in the way they secured their data, but also exceedingly unprofessional in trying to fudge over that fact). In the court of law, however, who gets hurt by these big leaks is going to become increasingly important for companies hoping to avoid hefty fines. That’s because of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the mammoth piece of European legislature which even Brexit won’t stop.

The GDPR covers a series of topics related to personal data usage, and runs along the premise that the more power to the consumer, the less likely they are to get fobbed off. Amongst the regulation’s promises are the right to be forgotten, the right to access of data (in an accessible format) – and breech notification, within 72 hours of knowledge of a breech. Any European company which tries to pull an Equifax this time next year could see up to 4% of its annual income or €20 million (whichever is higher).

The European Union has been showing an increasing tendency to clamp down on the bad boys of the internet. In perhaps the most obvious case, there was the €2.42 billion fine that Google got slapped with for spinning its own search results to its favour. Even today, if Equifax had been based in Austria rather than Atlanta, it would have likely seen at least £500,000 in fines. To its great fortune, however, the American approach to internet policing is very laissez-faire – perhaps in part because of the US government’s lack of conviction that anyone’s data should be off limits to them.

This culture clash is only becoming more and more obvious as Europe pursues a draconian interpretation of data protection in the face of an American happy-go-lucky passivity masking advanced surveillance mechanisms. The EU-US Privacy Shield (designed to allow for easy movement of data across the Atlantic) came up for review on Monday – the lack of an American ombudsman seems indicative of a very different value system when it comes to privacy.

That’s not to say that the GDPR is perfect. Whilst major players like Equifax, Google, or Facebook might be the companies most visibly hurt by the need to both protect people’s data from hackers and avoid using it for unethical financial gain, the regulation is an ungainly beast. For smaller businesses, there’s considerably less capital to withstand the hefty fine for a mistake in data storage practices. Its limited publicity (with just under 250 days to go) makes that all the more alarming.

The GDPR is, at least for now, a ‘living document’, and it might be safe to assume that it won’t be the last piece of data regulation enacted in Europe. For American companies, the restrictions will rankle; for European businesses, who have to live through them more directly, there will be frustration and pain. And yet, the US alternative is to sit and wait for the next hack to happen, in the name of ease of access. Neither extreme is fundamentally stable in the long run; unfortunately, picking the middle ground doesn’t seem entirely popular these days.

Read more

Explainer: Cryptocurrency Regulation
Reading Time: 3 minutes

In the 8 years since the elusive programmer(s) Satoshi Nakamoto first floated the idea for a secure, anonymous currency, the fortunes of Bitcoin and its fellow cryptocurrencies have waxed and waned. The Royal Bank of Scotland toyed with Etherium last year, and crypto enthusiasts have touted EU investment (lead by tech paradise Estonia) to the tune of €5 million in block chain starters as a sign of greatness to come.
But all is not well in the land of the cryptocurrency. The glut of Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs), the sale of coins to crowdfund projects, has laid bare a mixture of the ridiculous and the criminal. The former – including Dentacoin, which promises to somehow disrupt the dental market – epitomise a sort of futurism gone wrong: the belief that everything needs breaking, and that block chain technology is always the answer. This is patently absurd: the addition of cryptocurrencies does not inevitably form a new paradigm.
The issue of the criminal element is more severe however, because it has caught states’ attention. Whether it’s the repeated failures to secure cryptocurrencies allowing hacker’s access (DAO, June 2016), embezzlement by programmers within block chain exchanges (Mt Gox, December 2013), or association with criminal elements (the highly anonymous cryptocurrency Monero and dark net market AlphaBay, June 2017), or the apparent bubble which Bitcoin has become have engendered as much suspicion amongst governments as enthusiasm, if not more.
That’s come through in a spate of regulations against cryptocurrencies, with the most draconian example evident in the Chinese ban on all ICOs and other cryptocurrency launches. Although this was announced to be temporary yesterday, the impact of the proclamation was enough to knock Bitcoin down a few hundred dollars.

More worryingly for crypto enthusiasts, rumours remain over whether this is a step towards an even more stringent act against a ‘parallel’ economy, with a massive potential shock if Bitcoin exchanges were closed. Venezuela, another country with a rather top heavy approach to politics – albeit one in considerably more dire straits – banned cryptocurrencies as it became clear that they were increasingly supplanting the local currency. Whether China might view block chain based currencies in a similar light is speculation, though not impossible.

Its neighbour India has approached somewhat more gently – while ICOs remain unfettered for now, the central bank acknowledged that cryptocurrencies were “susceptible” to abuse. The most infamous use of cryptocurrencies – illicit trades for drugs and weapons, or money laundering – smacks of the black money which Modi’s demonetisation tried and failed to remove from the system. 

The two most populous countries in the world are joined by nations including South Korea, Japan, and Ukraine, with various degrees of regulation. The assorted working groups all seem to agree that at the least, a new regulatory framework is needed for the Wild West of currencies
What does this mean for Bitcoin and co? It’s not all bad news – Canada, home of Ethereum, has shown an increasing willingness to support cryptocurrencies. The launch of the Canadian Bitcoin Fund, an investment fund based around the rising value of the cryptocurrency.

Estonia has also gone hard for block chain, announcing last month that it wanted to start a new ‘estcoin‘. This would raise eyebrows in any situation, but coming on the heels of an Italian suggestion to introduce a separate domestic currency, it looks like an attempt to gravitate away from tthe Euro.

These are glimmers of hope that in time, cryptocurrencies will gain the cultural cache and parity with regular currencies which advocates desire. But the impact of the Chinese decision to freeze out ICOs might presage a wider collapse in the crypto currency market. If countries such as Japan, India and South Korea were to follow China, even a staunchly pro-crypto attitude like Canada’s might not be able to stop as stunning a fall as Bitcoin’s meteoric rise. Where the rate of the Bitcoin goes next is down to the Middle Kingdom, and whether it sees block chain as a boon or a threat.

Read more

Why the Rise of State Media Requires Savvy Reading
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Painting of Edmund Burke MP c. 1767, studio of Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) Wikimedia Commons

The Fourth Estate, in 1787, was an embodiment of the ‘speak truth to power’ mantra. “[Edmund] Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all,” as Thomas Carlyle wrote. Burke, pictured above, would never have seen the radio, the television, or the blog, but the principle of a free, impartial, and rigorous press has long stood as part of the democratic school of thought nevertheless.
330 years later, events show that the pen and the sword are not equally matched. Reporters face harassment, threats, or death in pursuit of their duties, even in democracies. The murder of Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh is only the latest example of this trend. The image of the journalist as watchkeeper has been replaced by that of the journalist as impediment – something to be trampled over if it gets in the way of populist progress. In dictatorships and under military juntas, the ability to strike at members of the press with impunity is now viewed as routine.

And an equally pernicious trend is the attempt to blur the line between state and mass media: an approach to power perhaps best known from the dictatorships of the 20th century, given new life in the 21st.

The state media today is a far more sophisticated machine because there are more avenues of attack. The USSR’s replied upon newspapers like Pravda – a former journal of arts which would gain its political character under Leon Trotsky – and broadcasting stations including Radio Moscow, coupled with heavy censorship of both local and foreign journalists. These politics of exclusion sought to keep a strict lock on what could be accessed.

The astonishing lack of trust in the news media has done away with the need for a hermetic seal on news, allowing state-sponsored news to fill the gap with a variety of techniques. Sputnik, for example, apes Western media with its delight in viral headlines and emojis – but its bald pro-Russian stance makes it an unsubtle tool. RT (formerly Russia Today), its big brother has proven a somewhat more skilled player: in addition to its wild-eyed columnists, it has featured such noteworthy figures as Noam Chomsky, developing credibility. It has also experimented with less explicitly state-led channels for foreign markets: Agence2Presse (a clear take on APF’s full name), a Front National supporting news outfit in the vein of The Gateway Pundit, is the second iteration of ProRusseTV (many of whose former journalists have gravitated to Sputnik or RT). The use of French journalists for a French audience – and the removal of any Russian state branding – don’t mean that the influence from the Kremlin is diminished.

Social media has offered another outfit altogether. On the anniversary of the abortive coup in Turkey, TRT World (a part of the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation) used its social media feeds to push out a distinctly pro-government message. Its message was delivered via slick videos, which had an added bonus – allowing users to respond. A quick scroll through found the majority of responses were strongly in support of Erdogan. Whether or not this simply reflected TRT’s readership is difficult to ascertain; what is more obvious is that TRT does not explicitly show its ties to the Turkish government.

Turkish protests in support of Erdogan in the wake of the 2016 coup d’etat attempt                                 Mstyslav Chernov – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51156155

And then there is the case of the bot – the ‘fake’ user, a profile rigged to blurt out things in support of or against a given candidate (with the potential for manual control as well). The Russian botnets I discussed last week are a particularly noteworthy example of this because they are so visible: they have targeted Western institution, and as a result have been exposed by Western think tanks and journalists. But studies on this ‘computational propaganda’ suggest it’s hardly a Kremlin secret – it’s simply that in many other countries, it is designed with a domestic audience in mind. The presence of these bots in Venezuela, for example, is little remarked upon both because of their relatively limited numbers and their lack of interference with Western geopolitics: nevertheless, they act as force multipliers for the Maduro government, creating an illusion of grater support.

This all feels a bit grim, especially as President Donald Trump seems keen to follow this route. Lara Trump’s Trump TV resembles Sputnik the most in its on-the-nose style of propaganda. Whilst it’s unlikely to gain new converts, even stabilising support from an existing audience – and further encouraging them to disbelieve non-state-affiliated media – is an achievement of sorts. Whilst it lacks the commonly seen underpinning of a party structure(in favour of a support for a demagogic leader), there’s certainly a case to be made for Trump TV being a kind of proto-state media.

It would be unfair to say that all state media exists purely for propaganda purposes – Al Jazeera’s reporting (when it doesn’t come to Qatar) is very high quality; the BBC, in spite of its many flaws, represents a gold standard in editorial independence. And yet, no matter how free they are from state interference, these institutions are inextricably linked into a form of soft, cultural power. Nor are non-state actors inherently agenda free: the objective press is a myth after all. The peculiar problem of the state media in the age of rising populism is the tendency to violence under illiberal governments, and the role propaganda plays in both legitimising and downplaying it.

Under more benevolent rulers, the question of how to fight it remains. There have been suggestions to bar state media channels from broadcast, but regulations fail to solve the underlying problems (and you can’t regulate every state media website). The only way to fight it is to have an engaged citizenry which can recognise the signs of propaganda, and treat it with the scepticism which it deserves.

Read more

The rise of citizen journalist isn’t all bad news for mass media
Reading Time: 3 minutes

I discussed Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks a few weeks back – a seminal text which predicts (amongst other things) the weakening of mass media in the face of a growing ‘prosumer’ movement. If some of Benkler’s other prophecies have not come true (most pointedly the death of intellectual property), the change of media from a one-way street to a two-way discussion most certainly has.

Benkler, however, didn’t predict that support for the mass media would collapse so profoundly. Just under a third of Americans surveyed last year in a Gallup poll had even a fair amount of trust in the mass media, compared to 40% a year before. That disbelief is much more pronounced amongst Republicans (at 14% trust down from 32% in 2015), but even Democrats had slumped to 51% – the lowest on record. The last great drop in trust was in 2004, presumably a result of the Invasion of Iraq.

That lack of trust in legacy media has paved the way for a desire for authenticity, as embodied by citizen media. The sneering of the mass media establishment for those without the mantle of ‘professional journalist’ has lost much of its bite over the years, not least because the ‘amateur’ journalist have often proven quite capable. Consider the most notable example from 2004, when Little Green Footballs and other blogs were able to score one over Dan Rather, regarding George W. Bush’s military record.

As social networks have evolved, some of the most important work comes from formal teams rather than individual bloggers. Few sites embody this better than Bellingcat, which was started by British blogger Elliot Higgins in 2012 and which “uses open source and social media investigation to investigate a variety of subjects.” Like those involved in Rathergate nearly a decade previously, Higgins work investigating the Syrian civil war started as a personal project. Today, a team of analysts affiliated with the Atlantic Council cover a wide range of conflicts, supported by crowdfunding. That citizen journalists can complete investigative work – which is so often expensive, slow, and uncertain – means it can serve as a helpful adjutant to the pre-existing infrastructure of mass media investigations.

The citizen journalist might lack the name or the funding which the mass media offers, but they also avoid the clunky bureaucracy, red tape, and any ideological agenda imposed from atop.  All of this translates into a greater appreciation of authenticity, in which being a bit rough around the edges, or not being an expert in a field,  is seen as an advantage. Think of it as the vox pop, but this time it’s the common person asking the questions.

And yet to place too much faith in authenticity can lessen an interest in verification. As the idea of journalism and political activism has become mixed up, that idea of authenticity has also helped to empower an industry of fake news, who can hawk lies and half-truths on the basis that they are saying what the mainstream media will not. Mike Cernovich, the former men’s rights activist and conspiracy theorist turned Breitbart correspondent, hosts a Patreon for his ‘high impact journalism’, peddling alt right canards including white genocide in South Africa and covert media support Hillary Clinton. Cernovich makes heavy use of Periscope, which offers the same sort of ‘unmediated’ experience as Trump’s tweets.

Even further to the fringe, Alex Jones of InfoWars has perfected aggrieved authenticity as a marketing gimmick. Jones’ violent outbursts against liberals, satanists, and assorted nasties are notorious (including one scene in which he rips his t-shirt off on camera), but they perform a kind of rawness which is rarely found in the mass media. Screaming about demonic possession or challenging random members of the public to fight is so far out of the realms of normal, mass media behaviour that it bolsters Jones’ claim to be unfettered.

It would be unfair to say that the media establishment is not immune to failures or deliberate deceptions by reporters or editors. Checks and balances don’t always work, and to ignore criticisms by the public is arrogant at best, business suicide at worst. So it is encouraging to see when citizen journalism and the mass media work in tandem. At the Washington Post, David Farenthold’s reporting of Trump’s donations relied heavily on working with a broad audience via social media. The idea of sending a reporter around the country looking for a painting would raise an editor’s eyebrow, though probably not their wallets. Instead, Farenthold was able to mobilise a massive group of individuals who previously could only have been involved with journalism through the letters page of a paper or magazine.

A more permanent hybrid currently in the works is WikiTribune, founded by Jimmy Wales of the Wikipedia foundation. “Articles are authored, fact-checked, and verified by professional journalists and community members working side by side as equals,” it claims. If WikiTribune works, it could be the missing link between authenticity and verification we need. Only time will tell, but even if such a high minded example does not play out, we can expect to see a fruitful partnership between the mass media and citizen journalists in years to come – one of the few antidotes to false news and misinformation.

Read more

The Fightback Against Misinformation – and Why Propaganda is so Hard to Beat
Reading Time: 3 minutes

The misinformation industry has had a bit of a boom over the past year or so. On the one end of the spectrum, there are the amateurs: such as right-wing activists like the Gateway Pundit, or InfoWars-style conspiracy theorists. Many of their attempts are sensationalist, relying on an audience already primed to believe fringe theories.

Perhaps more worrying are attempts to ape credible sites, as seems to be the case in a slew of stories unearthed by The Guardian. The most likely suspect is the Kremlin, given that the articles were designed to denigrate opponents such as Francois Macron. These were quite literally fake news sites, using practically identical addresses to obscure their authenticity. 

Most concerning, are when the two groups work in unison, boosting their message even further.

In any case, the net result of misinformation isn’t merely the attempt to convince readers of a certain set of facts. More perniciously, it creates alternative truth systems, at best harming public confidence in facts and at the worst increasing polarisation. ‘There’s a war on for your mind’, Alex Jones’ site proudly declares, and that mentality enables propagandists great and small to defend their positions through ad hominem attacks and strawman arguments. They do not simply ask you to believe them – they demand you don’t trust anyone who contradicts them. The public issues of politics become personal.

Deliberately fake news isn’t a new problem, as has been pointed out ad infinitum – but then, the geopolitical stakes today are unique. One of the examples often cited is William Randolph Hearst, and his attempts to spur on the Spanish-American War: his alleged telegram, “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war”,  shows a man bent on skirting facts if they got in the way of a good story (an allegation perennially levelled at tabloids).

And yet Hearst’s motivation doesn’t seem to have been about creating a narrative so much as simply selling papers. Morally repugnant nonetheless – the explosion of USS Maine, which was pinned on a Spanish naval mine, was probably a naval accident – but with a different level of cunning. Hearst probably didn’t want the Spanish side in his papers, and he did want to whip up a jingoistic fury, but the end goal seems to have been purely mercenary.

Thankfully, in the age of disbelief, we are armed with various tools to counter misinformation. There are the old guard, the Snopes and the Politifact, which have simply gained a new lease of life during the past year. And then there are heavier duty systems, designed by academics, such as the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) and the German Marshall Fund’s Hamilton 68.

The two cover similar topics – namely the far-right and Russia – but present it in different ways. Hamilton 68 is  more back-end, studying a group of Kremlin/alt-right Twitter accounts and offering users statistics such as trending hashtags in their group as well as top domains and daily Tweet counts.  By contrast, the DFRLab’s work is more about verifying news stories: whilst some focus on the archetypal misinformation campaign, other articles have used tweets, videos and NASA data to track potential arson by Ukrainian separatists. 

The existence of these systems are important to a general public more wary of legacy news media – they offer expert insight without the taint which arrogant and myopic media giants brought upon themselves over the past year. But defeating computational propaganda amongst the converted may be beyond even their capacity. For a committed, core following, Hamilton 68 and the DFRLab are embodiments of the great liberal menace, with or without lashings of anti-Semitism and anti-Communism. For those convinced the academy is blinded by liberal bias, an emphasis on expertise is ripe for accusations of conspiracy.

And even worse is the simple fact that computational propagandists don’t like being contradicted – and they have ways to make this clear. As the New York Times reported,  ProPublica’s work exposing pro-Trump/pro-Kremlin networks saw their reporters targeted and their inboxes knocked out of action. Not quite physical violence, perhaps, but as the Times argues, it’s only part of a wider belief that journalism which doesn’t fit one agenda is not journalism at all, but a personal attack on the propagandists (and by association their audience).  The ‘democratising’ effect of the internet has not merely given the world the right to reply, but also offers the capacity to silence troublesome voices.

The context collapse over the past year – the movement of political issues from a public sphere into a private one – has been the basis of computational propaganda, and its greatest strength: it immures it from criticism, and legitimises its excesses. How this is altered remains to be seen, but until it is, all the fact-checking in the world won’t be able to break misinformation’s hold over a concerning proportion of its readers.

Read more