Archive for the 'Campaigning' Category

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The persistence of lack of memory. How the state retirement age was changed and communicated

Sunday, October 28th, 2018

Old sins have long shadows. The equalisation of state pension age was first mooted in the early 1990s and was enacted in 1995. Yet it remains controversial now. The action group WASPI campaigned in the last general election and that campaign arguably made the difference in some marginals.  Theresa May might conceivably have got an overall majority if it had not been for their efforts and the whole course of Britain’s departure from the EU, among other things, might have been radically different.

What are they campaigning about? The argument shifts from point to point.  The current focus is on the absence of notice given to the women who were affected by this change. A Parliamentary Research Paper published this week, State Pension age increases for women born in the 1950s, looked at the claims on this. 

A key section has the title “Did women affected have advance warning?” Its three subsections are headed: “How much notice should people get?”; “What did the Government do?”; and “How aware were women affected?”. 

Other sources of information are dealt with in just three words (“including press coverage”). This by itself shreds the value of the report to pieces. In practice people get their information about pensions from many sources, public and private. They watch TV.  They listen to radio. They read newspapers. They look online. They look at their company pensions materials.  They plough their way through their personal pension documentation. They talk to IFAs.  They talk to friends. Any examination of the advance warning that women got needs to look at all of those sources.

As it happens, there was plenty of press coverage. I was going to look into this myself, but I found that Josephine Cumbo of the FT had beaten me to it. In the period 1993-2006, she found more than 600 mentions in the national press.  As she notes, it appeared on front pages. It appeared in tabloids. The controversial nature of the changes was fully aired. This was not a law change that was smuggled out in secret.

But let’s give the WASPI women the benefit of the doubt and accept that they somehow missed this. So let’s think carefully about what is really being said when it is complained that insufficient notice was given.  The complaint is not, on the surface at least, that the change should not have been made.  Not even a group that campaigns for the restoration of sex inequality under the name “Women Against State Pension Inequality” has the gall to argue that. The complaint is that if only I had been told, I would have done something different. 

“Something” is usually conveniently unspecified. In practice, however, it can amount to only one thing: that the individual would have saved more money earlier. Let’s leave to one side the fact that means that the money that has not been saved has in practice already been spent on something that the individual would have wanted (so the individual, having consumed cake is now wanting to have it again). This idea of earlier saving implies that the individual, if only she had been told, would have planned rigorously for her retirement.

That’s hard to reconcile with the evidence or indeed common sense. Even if the changes had been perfectly understood by all, many would not have been able to afford to do more.  Many would not have wanted to.  The tax advantages for saving in a pension had always been there, but were not taken up with anything like the enthusiasm that financial logic would have suggested.

It is disappointing, to say the least, that the Parliamentary Research Paper did not look at information about pensions provided in the private sector. In the early 1990s, occupational pension schemes were having their own torrid time equalising retirement ages.  When the state followed suit, they made sure that they built that into their scheme booklets. 

If the compilers of the Parliamentary Research Paper had done any research in this area, they would have found that the point was routinely covered in the mid-1990s in scheme booklets. Here’s a typical example (not one drafted by me, though I certainly put together a few at that time). As you can see, anyone who read such statements would have been quite clear about the nature of the change that had been made.

The conclusion we can draw about women who were members of such schemes who were unaware of the change in state pension age is that they did not look in any great detail at their pension scheme literature, or if they did, it did not sink in. That suggests a lack of interest in long term saving and casts doubt on whether they would have paid any attention at the time to any government communication either.

These, remember, were the women who were likely to be among the most interested in pensions, already having made private arrangements. The rest were going to be a lot less interested. 

As it happens, this fits well with other evidence we have. A 2005 DWP Paper on Women and Pensions noted that only 22% of women had worked out what their retirement income would be and only 47% of women said they had looked into saving or investing for retirement. Perhaps one leaflet from the government would have galvanised the indolent into action. Personally, I am seriously sceptical. 

So, contrary to the implied argument being made by WASPI and its supporters, the changes to women’s pension ages were widely discussed in the 1990s and the early 2000s and they were communicated to many by sources other than the government – and yet they still were not absorbed by many. The women affected have already had the benefit of the money that they spent and they have not noticeably been otherwise disadvantaged by any lack of notice (as opposed to disappointed).

Their claim to any form of compensation is weak. The inverse relationship between the vehemence with which they press their case and the merits of it is striking.

Upton Sinclair supposedly observed that “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”. It seems that it is just as difficult to get a woman to remember something when her pension depends on her not remembering it.

What MPs of all parties have to wrestle with is that WASPI and their supporters, no matter how misconceived, have votes at their disposal. Making sure that they dispose of them in a favourable manner without wrecking longstanding pensions policy positions might be a tough balancing act.

Alastair Meeks

Alastair Meeks is a former Chair of the Association of Pension Lawyers




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Men of Honour?

Monday, August 13th, 2018

In Peter Hennessey’s Reflections radio series, Margaret Beckett was asked why she abandoned the Catholic faith of her childhood.  The event which crystallised her disenchantment was John Freeman asking Cardinal Heenan what one word summed up the Church.  Margaret waited, expecting something like “charity”or “love”. The Cardinal’s answer was “Authority”.

Perhaps not a surprising answer for an institution long steeped in hierarchy and an acute sense of its own magisterium.  But in light of the revelations over recent years of the criminal, un-Christian activities of too many of its priests and nuns, most recently in this story (which has received surprisingly little attention) the Cardinal’s answer was revealing about what really mattered to its leaders.

To its shame, the Church has yet to show that it really understands that the appalling conduct by some, and its cover up by others, is not, sadly, an exception but the almost inevitable consequence of it placing the maintenance of its authority above other values.

This is what is likely to happen when people in authority feel unchallenged and unchallengeable.  For an institution founded by a man who said, “Suffer little children to come unto me” it will be a long time before many will be able to look at a sentence with the words “church” and “children” without thinking of matters quite other than what Jesus intended.

When an institution becomes more concerned about its own reputation, even at the expense of covering up or condoning behaviour deeply at odds with its professed values, about preserving its brand, about protecting its leader or staff from criticism, however justified, then there seems to be nothing which cannot be justified to protect the institution’s honour, even as its conduct becomes more and more dishonourable.

The same responses to allegations of scandal have been seen in: the Anglican church (Bishop George Bell), charities; some parts of the Muslim community, understandably (on a human level) unwilling to countenance the possibility that their religion may have been used to justify atrocious crimes; the NHS (most lately, Gosport); the Labour party, parts of whom have been desperate to ignore any suggestion that their leader is anything other than perfect;

Trump and his supporters treating anything even remotely critical as “Fake News”; the Leave campaign refusing to engage with allegations about its funding; even banking where, contrary to Bob Diamond’s tin-eared and premature “The time for apologies is over” most people felt (and probably still feel) the time for apologies has yet to start.

Curious that, in an age of PR, branding and the “message”, it seems to come as a surprise to many that the only long-term effect of acting dishonourably while focusing on image, of a culture of denial and cover up is to stain an entity’s or person’s reputation, perhaps irretrievably. Worse: the longer the denial lasts, the longer it will take to recover one’s reputation.  Long after a clean-up has occurred the entity will still be dealing with the harm caused by events long before.

You would have thought that the Tory party would have understood this lesson.  Its description as the “nasty” party has a half-life almost as long as the material stored at Sellafield.  The flirtation of Johnson and Rees-Mogg with Bannon, their apparent desire to copy the Trump playbook risks tainting once again their party, whatever its short-term advantages. 

Even if they are careless of their own reputation, surely they should have a care for the party?  Labour too seems intent on repeating the same mistake.  Not just in failing to address its issues with anti-Semitism but in giving the impression that the current leader’s reputation is more important than that of the party he leads. 

Corbyn is echoing the hubris shown by May last year when her battle bus had her name prominently displayed rather than that of the party she led.  One day they will no longer be leaders but their parties will live on.  When leaders forget that they are not more important than the institution they serve, disaster is rarely far away.

In an article in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat on 4 September 2004, shortly after the Beslan massacre, Abdel Rahman al-Rashed wrote this: “It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorist, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslim…….It would be easy to cure ourselves if we realise the seriousness of our sickness. Self-cure starts with self-realisation and confession. 

We should then run after our terrorist sons, in the full knowledge that they are the sour grapes of a deformed culture.”  Substitute “Catholics” and “child abusers” and “abusive priests” for “Muslims”, “terrorists” and “terrorist sons” in the above passage and this could – and should be – addressed to the church with which this header started.  There is profound pain and shame in these words but also an appeal to people’s better nature, to remember, and act on and according to, the real values which once motivated the entity’s creation.

What might the travails of religious groups teach those in public life?  The obvious one is that describing oneself as good does not makeone so.  But, ironically enough, one lesson is not to place so much emphasis on a star politician, a saviour who will lead the party to the promised land of huge majorities and electoral hegemony.  As is being clear that even the best politicians are flawed human beings, needing people and processes around them to limit their power.

But perhaps the most important one – and for voters, not just politicians – is to realise that, while  there is honour in public life, in seeking to speak up for unpopular groups or causes, in trying to make life better for the forgotten and vulnerable, in wishing to remove injustices, in seeking to improve our political arrangements, remembering the values which motivated you and acting honourably in trying to achieve your aims is the only, the best way of achieving anything worthwhile and lasting. 

There is a price to be paid for short-term victories achieved in a dishonourable manner.  Cynicism, disillusionment, worse: a perception that reprehensible means are a useful tactic.  Might we get better politicians were we to reward honourable behaviour?  Or, like Caliban, are we raging at our own face in the glass?

Cyclefree



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The sick rose. The disease in the English hard right and the failure of the rest of the right to confront it

Thursday, July 5th, 2018

Picture Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On 16 June 2016, Thomas Mair fired a gun at Jo Cox MP, shouting “Britain first, this is for Britain. Britain will always come first. We are British independence. Make Britain independent.”  He then attacked her with a knife, shot at her again and again shouted “Britain first”.

Sentencing him for murder, Mr Justice Wilkie, said to him: “You affect to be a patriot. The words you uttered repeatedly when you killed her give lip service to that concept. Those sentiments can be legitimate and can have resonance but in your mouth, allied to your actions, they are tainted and made toxic… You are no patriot. By your actions you have betrayed the quintessence of our country, its adherence to parliamentary democracy.”

At the time, this seemed to be a freakish event, like a rare migrant bird blown astray by unfamiliar weather conditions.  Since then, however, it has become apparent that the far right is systematically organising for terror attacks.  At Finsbury Park, a far right sympathiser drove a van into a crowd at a mosque.  In the year to March 2018, four far right planned attacks had been broken up (for comparison, 10 Islamist terrorist attacks had been stopped in the same period).  This is a major threat to the British way of life.

The impact is not just visible at the most extreme end of the spectrum.  For many years UKIP was careful to present itself as the acceptable face of nativism.  Nigel Farage might have blamed bad traffic on immigrants and thought it problematic to live next door to Romanian men, but UKIP portrayed itself as a party open to all.

UKIP is now imploding, spawning a host of parties as the various kipper titans seek to establish themselves as the dominant anti-immigration voice.  Anne-Marie Waters, having failed to take over UKIP, has set up For Britain, with a policy of reducing Muslim immigration to Britain to zero: one of its local election candidates had to be expelled after having been linked to National Action, the group behind a plot to kill Rosie Cooper MP. 

John Rees-Evans, most famous for claiming to have contended with a gay donkey seeking to rape his horse, has set up the Democrats & Veterans Party, which on its website accuses current lawmakers of tyranny and betrayal of the highest order.  (Henry Bolton, erstwhile leader, has announced plans to set up OneNation in his own image: its credo is awaited impatiently.)

What of UKIP itself?  Under the leadership of Gerard Batten, it has taken a lurch to the right.  He has denounced Islam as a death cult.  He has supported Tommy Robinson, the EDL founder who is currently serving a prison sentence for his second separate contempt of court for breaching reporting restrictions: Tommy Robinson’s utterances were apparently one of the inspirations for the Finsbury Park attacker. 

And it has just welcomed four high profile basement-dwelling online activists, one of whom specialises in conspiracy theories and one of whom recently encouraged vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down (this was, he clarified after five journalists had been gunned down, apparently a joke).  These are apparently suitable members of the latest incarnation of UKIP.

We are seeing a sick flowering on the right unleashed by Brexit, where nativism has spawned a new politics in which accusations of treachery are routine and violence is not beyond contemplation. 

What has been the response of the mainstream right?  To minimise and trivialise the threat.  Antoinette Sandbach MP received an email accusing her of treachery.  She reported it to the police.  The Daily Mail then ran a story on how the church-going pensioner who sent it was living in fear and upset that she had been labelled abusive. 

Later that week, another far right extremist pleaded guilty to a terrorist plot to murder Rosie Cooper MP.  Against that background, one wonders how the Mail expects MPs to sift lurid accusations.  It is disturbing to write the words, but in the current climate the idea of someone planning an attack on Ms Sandbach is not far-fetched.  Why should she be expected to behave as though it was?

The Brexit right that considers itself mainstream has a responsibility to confront this sickness.  It courted this section of society assiduously during the referendum campaign, frightening them with untrue claims that millions of Turks were poised to descend on Britain and portraying unending queues of asylum seekers as heading our way. 

Since then, various prominent Leavers have accused the judiciary, the BBC, the civil service, the CBI, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the governor of the Bank of England and pretty well any other national institution that you can name of seeking to sabotage Brexit. 

They have for two years fanned the flames of nativism and used the rhetoric of betrayal, treachery and quislings.  And they then refuse to make any connection between their inflammatory rhetoric and the actions of extremists.

What is particularly peculiar is that the people who have been providing shelter to far right extremists under cover of their angry nativism are often the same people who vehemently insist that Muslims should disown in the clearest terms the extremists in their midst.  The test should be the same of both groups. No ifs, buts or whataboutery: clear lines must be drawn. 

Too many on the right are currently treating civic obligation as a pick-and-mix.  Those who love to drape themselves in the Union Jack need to need to face up to their responsibilities, and help to change the climate and eliminate this dangerous threat to our society that they have helped to create.  If they really love this country, that is what they must do now.

Alastair Meeks




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The LDs to outperform the Tories in Thursday’s by-election is the best bet out there at the moment

Monday, June 11th, 2018

Ignore the GE2017 result & look at what’s happening on the ground

Yesterday on Betfair someone wagered a few pounds on the Tories at 1000/1 to win Thursday’s Lewisham East by-election. This means that if he bet £10 he’ll lose £10 for all the signs are that the blue team is just running a token campaign in the seat where LAB got 67.9% of the vote in June last year. To make things harder the CON candidate is a leaver in a seat that was 65% remain.

The LDs who came second here at GE2010 are throwing everything at getting a good result and expect a big squeeze on Tory voters to tactically vote yellow. I’d expect their message to be something like “If enough CON supporters lend their votes the LDs they could yet defeat LAB and end years of Labour domination in Lewisham. That outcome would shock Corbyn’s Leadership to the core.”

To LAB voters you can envisage a message on the lines of “A good result for their Lewisham-born candidate could force Corbyn to reconsider his support for Brexit – and help turn the tide in favour getting another vote on Brexit

The signs are that Labour is getting a tad concerned. This is from leading party MP, David Lammy, under the heading “Lewisham is not a done deal” on LabourList.

“… there is a real problem with voter fatigue. The people of Lewisham East have had election after election – a general election in 2015, the mayoral and the referendum votes in 2016, another general in 2017, the council and Lewisham mayoral this year, and now this by-election. Voters really like Janet, and why wouldn’t they? She is an amazing candidate – a local who set up a foodbank, a keen campaigner who has already done a lot for the area. But people still need encouragement to go to the polling station. The fatigue goes for Labour members too..”

The info I’m getting from the campaign has been enough for me to gamble every day the maximum amount that Ladbrokes will allow me on the market featured above. I plan to go on betting almost however tight the odds get.

By-elections are one-off events. People aren’t electing a government and as we have seen voting pattern can be very different from normal elections.

UPDATE

Mike Smithson




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The Conservatives must again make the case for private enterprise, profit, choice and competition

Saturday, May 19th, 2018


1929 Conservative poster

The risk is an unwitting drift into a new left-of-centre consensus

Some revolutions are begun by small steps; others are revealed by them. Of itself, Chris Grayling’s announcement this week that the government was bringing the East Coast Mainline back into public ownership, was nothing unusual. It is, after all, the third time in the 20 years of the privatised era that the East Coast franchise has failed. Furthermore, for the government, the return to state-run operations is a purely pragmatic consequence of there not being another operator ready to take over, and of not wanting to hand an extension to a company which has already failed to deliver. So far, so logical.

What’s not a natural consequence of the Virgin-Stagecoach failure is the decision to change the delivery model from franchising to a partnership. That represents not just a substantial change in transport policy but a retreat from the principle that a competitive private sector – where such a market is possible – is the best means of assuring service delivery. Once a partnership is in place, it is likely to be there for the long run, without the need to worry about retendering for the franchise.

I have to say, I’m sceptical about such a model. Public-private partnerships don’t have a happy history. At least with franchising, the companies take on both the risk and the potential rewards. Too often with things like PFI contracts, the state ends up with a very poor deal.

That, however, is not the point politically. What was perhaps most significant was how quietly the change was made; how little defence there was of the previous system – and, consequently, how easily the whole system could be transformed. After all, once you have an organisation running the infrastructure as well as the trains, you’re well on the way to breaking up the system within which even quasi-competition can take place. Labour – with its commitment to return the railways (and, indeed, a good deal else) to full public ownership and operation – must be laughing.

And this is where the quiet revolution is occurring. The era of retreating state control has been over for at least a decade: the financial crisis not only brought some banks directly into partial or full state ownership but also undermined faith in the entire capitalist system. Ever since, advocates of a well-regulated market economy have been on the defensive. In Britain, that took a little time to work through: Labour was initially still wary of advocating what might be seen as post-war socialism, despite its instincts. Not now. Corbyn and McDonnell have never been shy of state ownership and are no doubt exultant at both the government’s change of tack and the polling on the issue.

An article in the New Statesman this week quoted a Populus poll from last year which showed that more than three-quarters of the public backed state ownership of water, electricity, gas and railways. That’s no doubt partially a consequence of some obvious problems in each of those markets.

Water, for one, doesn’t even really have a market and the argument for a private monopoly as against a public one is marginal and relies on the profit motive driving medium-term efficiency, and on private companies not being as subject to political whims as a state-run would be. Both arguments are contestable.

However, even if you can make a case that regulation can provide either a direct or indirect market for each of the services, the problem goes deeper and is that of a growing scepticism of profit as the legitimate return of successful enterprise – again, perhaps driven by a sense of injustice against cases where directors have paid themselves large sums out of businesses that have then gone bust – Carillion providing a prime recent example. Those cases might be high-profile but they’re not representative.

What all this amounts to is an assault, not even by stealth, on the post-1979 (and in particular, post-1987) economic settlement; one which the Conservatives are not meeting. Unless they do so, they will lose the philosophical argument by default. It shouldn’t be difficult but perhaps that consensus’ ascendency has lulled the party’s leadership into a sense of complacency. Or perhaps they just don’t particularly do philosophical argument, even when in government and doing so is setting the foundations for the policies being implemented.

Unless they do, though, they’ll find public support weak and susceptible to the sort of collapse seen at the last general election, when Corbyn’s simple solutions and slogans sound sufficiently attractive to win voters.

To prevent that, ministers need to make a sustained effort to explain why markets – when regulated effectively, a key caveat – tend to produce more choice and innovation, and better service. Those who remember the nationalised industries may well remember the kind of customer service that went with them. But fewer and fewer do remember those days, thirty years and more ago now. The Conservatives cannot assume that the public buy into their preferred model (to the extent that it still is), nor that they adequately understand all the steps that link from the policy to the customer outcome. They have four years to turn that round.

David Herdson



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The last LE2018 post: How the main academic election predictions did

Tuesday, May 8th, 2018

A key part of election analysis each year are the two academic seat projections which seek to project party Council gains and losses. These play a big part in setting the media narrative over party expectations.

Professions Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher have been doing this for years and their projections are based on what has been happening in the local council by-elections in the run up to polling day.

The other is from Oxford Professor Stephen Fisher who is a key member of the general election exit poll team. He runs the Elections etc site and this was his post
when he made his predictions last week. It should be noted that he allowed wide ranges of possibility in his calculations. He had the LDs, for instance, at -335 seats to +169.

“…my forecasting models this year are based on changes in the gaps between polls shares. For the Conservatives, who have traditionally faced many contests with the Liberal Democrats, their leads over both Labour and the Liberal Democrats matter. For Labour, the model is primarily based on the Labour lead over the Conservatives. Meanwhile, for the Liberal Democrats, their changing opinion poll performance relative to the Conservatives, but not Labour, has historically been correlated with headline local election seat changes.”

What made it more difficult this year was that a large number of wards were electing up to 3 councilors rather than the standard practice in many parts of 1/3 of the councillors being up at a time.

All three of the councils that the Lib Dems gained had all the councillors up for election which actually makes life so much easier for campaigners. Just about the same campaigning effort is required in winning a single seat as a multi member election.

The LD Council gains of S Cambs, Richmond and Kingston all had all seats up last Thursday and are in areas where there’s LD organisational strength both in the area and nearby.

The Tory activist and long standing PBer, Sean Fear in his observations of Wandsworth where he was working has spoken of the apparent lack of campaigning experience of the many LAB volunteers.

People who are well managed and know what they are doing can make a huge difference in the run up and on polling days particularly in local elections where turnout levels are low.

Mike Smithson




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Fake news and how to deal with it

Tuesday, April 24th, 2018

DNA is perplexingly long. Almost 98% of the human genome is non-coding: that is, it does not make protein in the cell. Some of that definitely does have some practical aspect but at present large parts of human DNA has no known function. Scientists are still trying to work out why. It is sometimes disparagingly known as junk DNA.

The internet, like DNA, is a mechanism for passing on information. Like DNA, large parts of the internet have no outwardly-obvious function. Perhaps there are scientists earnestly scrutinising cat videos trying to work out why they are there (perhaps junk DNA encodes cat videos).

In each case, the really dangerous part isn’t the junk, it’s the corruption of the important information. The nature of lying online has changed the way in which untruths have affected public debate. It’s well past time that we took stock.

Lying wasn’t invented on the internet. In the past, however, the ability to tell a narrative-changing lie was severely restricted. In the early part of the twentieth century, mass communication was in the hands of those who owned newspapers. The barriers to entry were high and newspaper audiences were large. The influence of the owners was enormous. Not for nothing were they called press barons.

We should have no false nostalgia for the age of the fourth estate. At least one British election was hugely influenced by press lies – the Zinoviev letter remains notorious. Journalism was seen as a byword for venality and unfairness. Moreover, much information that was of huge public interest was kept from the masses because the political classes could effectively control the small group responsible for public information. Edward VIII’s assignations with Wallis Simpson were not publicly known in Britain for many months (though covered in detail in other countries).

The internet destroyed the barriers to setting up information provision. Suddenly anyone with a computer and an internet connection, a readable writing style and with some information to offer could open for business.

Initially, this seemed like an unqualified positive. Want to know about opposition politics in Hong Kong? Developments in bee-keeping? The technical changes to Formula 1 constructor requirements? The internet could fulfil your needs more quickly and more comprehensively than any newspaper or magazine could ever hope to.

Some of this has been truly transformative. There are now more than 5.5 million articles on the English version of Wikipedia, a single repository of knowledge unlike anything ever previously seen in any previous encyclopaedia.

The worm in the apple took some time to break cover. It had long since been appreciated that online information that had not been peer-reviewed might be wrong or misleading through inadvertence or might present a highly tendentious view of the truth from the writer’s personal viewpoint. Readers were well-aware that some might present deliberate lies defensively. All of these problems were familiar from past experience with the media.

The idea of someone presenting deliberately untrue information as an active policy was something new. It had not previously been practical because of the gatekeepers at the top of the media who could bar access to the public. With that control gone, the way was open for anyone who wanted to launch a campaign of misinformation.

It started relatively innocently, with mischief-makers on Wikipedia tinkering for kicks. Some saw the business opportunity in heart-warming clickbait, whether or not the inspirational story was in fact true (see Daisy the Dog for more details).

Then the political implications began to sink in. “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies”, Winston Churchill advised. It is apparent that many fighting wars online feel exactly that way.

Why are internet lies so successful? First, people want to believe stories that are congenial to their worldview. Corbynites, Leavers and those on the Trump train are obvious examples of this phenomenon, but those on the opposing side of each of these groups can be just as guilty of wishful thinking. Why scrutinise carefully a story that confirms your prejudices?

Secondly, debunking a lie takes time as the facts are established. Previously, journalists would have done the job. But the media’s response to the pressure on costs that the internet has driven was to cut those costs. Among the most expensive costs were the salaries of the journalists who did the fact-finding. So the people who used to do this just aren’t doing this job any more.

I’ve already quoted Winston Churchill so I’d better quote Oscar Wilde as well: “The truth is rarely pure and never simple”. Truth is fractal – the more closely you look at it, the more qualifications you need to put on the assertion. This leaves plenty of scope for argument and the original claim can get lost in an argument over an essentially trivial point. Moreover, the truth is usually quite humdrum. But (this is my thirdly) a lie is subject to no such need for restraint. It needs no nuance and can be as exciting as its creator wishes it to be. And who doesn’t like lurid excitement?

Fourthly, it’s human to want to lead the pack. Once CNN exhorted us to “Be the first to know”. Now we want to be the first to tell. Why check when you can be claiming kudos points?

So, in a news version of Gresham’s Law, bad information drives out good. We hoard the quality stuff and pass on the rubbish.

What can we do to combat this? In short, be sceptical. If you’re told something eyebrow-raising, look for a primary source to back it up. Try to get context.

Be especially sceptical of information that produces a strong emotional response from you. Ask yourself who wants to produce that response.

Don’t be part of the problem. If you are retweeting without first checking your information, you are a vector.

At the moment, fake news is achieving its proponents’ ends spectacularly. In the long run, it will subside as the internet public become more wary of their source material. For now, trust no one.

Alastair Meeks




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To election junkies like me the Cambridge Analytica stuff is fascinating but where is it going to lead?

Wednesday, March 21st, 2018

Isn’t it just election losers seeking to undermine the legitimacy of results?

Given the amount of publicity the Cambridge Analytica story has had over the past few days both in the UK and in the US the big question is where is this all going to lead politically?

The Westminster SNP leader, Ian Blackford, used both his allocated PMQ questions in the clip shown above.

    In the US are the revelations going to make it that bit harder for Mr Trump to continue in office and in the UK will it assist those who are still trying to stall the referendum outcome to leave the EU?

What makes all this rather confusing is that using Facebook is not new. Obama in his 2012 campaign was the first to utilise social media in a big way in order to reach new audiences to ensure his re-election.

We then have the UK Conservative campaign in 2015 which is said to have used social media to enable the party to identify and target key voters in marginals resulting in an outcome that was far better than anybody had been predicting and indeed secured Mr Cameron his majority.

Nobody is questioning the validity of these two earlier uses of social media but they are now in relation to Brexit and of course to Mr Trump.

So far, from my perspective at least, there’s yet to be a “gotcha” moment which could have a political impact. Maybe that will change.

Mike Smithson