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Why is Russia trying to influence other countries’ elections by means of targeted advertising wrong?

“Nick Clegg denies misuse of Facebook influenced Brexit vote”, reports the Guardian.

Umm, okay. A lot of people are saying “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”.

Sir Nick Clegg, for those readers who have forgotten this rather forgettable chap, used to be leader of the Liberal Democrats and was Deputy Prime Minister for a while, back when the Lib Dems were in coalition with the Conservatives. He lost his seat in the 2017 election, which made him sad. Then he got a “communications” job with Facebook at a salary that probably made him feel better.

So nine years after Cleggmania, here he is back on our TV screens again. The Times report on the same story says,

The former Liberal Democrat leader said that social media could not be blamed for the vote to leave the European Union.

He said: “Much though I understand why people want to reduce that eruption in British politics to some kind of plot or conspiracy — or some use of new social media through opaque means — I’m afraid the roots to British Euroscepticism go very, very deep.”

Sir Nick added: “Yes, Facebook has a heavy responsibility to protect the integrity of elections from outside interference. I also think we have a duty to explain fact from some of the allegations that have been made.”

Calling for greater regulation of the internet, he said: “We forget that though these companies are huge and affect every aspect of our lives — our social lives, our business lives — nonetheless it has all happened in such a short period of time.

It is no surprise to find Nick Clegg “calling for “greater regulation of the internet”. Not only was more regulation of corporations his schtick when he was a politico, it also suits his current employers very well. Facebook can buy another twenty floors of lawyers whenever it needs them; struggling new startups cannot.

But to hear such a lifelong Europhile admit that the roots of British Euroscepticism go deep was a surprise. He is right. Russia’s puny efforts to interfere in the EU referendum were the equivalent of the eternally slandered King Canute calling the tide forward.

But in all this debate about how effective or ineffective Russia’s “outside interference” in the referendum was I have not yet heard a convincing explanation of what exactly is wrong with “outside interference” anyway.

I need not list the real crimes – waging unjust wars, murders, domestic repression – that can be laid at Putin’s door. On an infinitely smaller scale, making use of harvested data that people did not agree to make available is a bad if commonplace thing. But what is bad in principle about Russia trying to persuade British people to vote a particular way by advertising? Where did this idea come from that only British ideas are allowed to enter British brains during an election or referendum campaign? In a democracy you are allowed to vote on any criteria you like. You can vote for a candidate because you carefully researched his or her voting record and found that it best aligned with your political beliefs, or because your family has always voted for the Reds or the Blues, or because you think the candidate has nice eyes, or because your imam told you which way to vote, or because Vladimir Putin did. They all count equally. If we were to operate a system of Juche when it comes to political thought, would that not also exclude political ideas originating in the European Union?

19 comments to Why is Russia trying to influence other countries’ elections by means of targeted advertising wrong?

  • Agammamon

    I have not yet heard a convincing explanation of what exactly is wrong with “outside interference” anyway.

    If nothing else, I have not heard *any* explanation of why its bad when someone does it to us but its ok when we do it to someone else. Talking from a US perspective, we have *multiple generations* of attempts to ‘influence’ the internal politics of other countries – from minor stuff like propaganda broadcasting to paying money to support ‘the more liberal tendency’ to outright fomenting of rebellion, and even straight up invasion if your country pisses us off too much.

    But for some reason I’m supposed to quake in rage at the very idea the Kremlin sponsored some ads and astroturf commenting?

  • Flubber

    “I have not yet heard a convincing explanation of what exactly is wrong with “outside interference” anyway.”

    Well its all based on hypocrisy anyway. The biggest lobby group in the US is AIPAC. There are 30,000 corporate lobbyists in Brussels.

    Its just an excuse for bad losers.

    I personally am looking forward to Carole Catlady being destroyed by Aaron Banks in court.

  • Julie near Chicago


  • Eric

    Agammamon, agreed. The whole thing makes me laugh – VOA didn’t end Russian language broadcasts until 2008.

  • I think we all here know that, in both Brexit and Trump, the Russian interference thing was false and sore-loser as explanation, was ridiculous to consider as a factor given its minuscule ratio of spending and visibility compared to the local campaigns, and was in the US wildly hypocritical given the whiners’ own past acceptance of Russian input, and arguably hypocritical in the UK given other foreign input accepted by Remain.

    Stepping away from that to consider whether the complaint ever could have value, I have two thoughts.

    1) Native people have skin in the game. (English-speaking intellectuals have a long history of siding with hostile enemy countries against their own, but as people living in their countries, with a fair chance of being purged for deviationism themselves if their preferred state took over, they do have skin in the game even if they are too ideologically blinkered to realise it.) In principle, the advice of foreigners has a higher chance of being in the interests of the adviser rather than our country, other things being equal – which of course they very much are not.

    2) If a country, especially its administration, is not merely foreign but actually an enemy, the case for its advice being against our interests is stronger. An operation explicitly targeting us will usually have an obvious agenda. The 50-rouble army is not being funded for our benefit. The same is true of wealthier China. Thus, as a point to make in a debate, it is fair to say this propaganda’s motive is not our wellbeing.

    (It’s effect, of course, can disconcert its operatives. Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that Putin stirred up trouble in the US in 2016, and was in fact behind release of the DNC info, to weaken a can’t-lose Hillary and warn her to beware the nastier stuff in her emails. If so, he miscalculated, and did the US a favour. It was of course obvious to us in the UK that many a EUrocrat’s public statement on how to vote in the brexitref was so cloth-eared as to achieve the opposite of its intent.)

    The paradigmatic case is “The People’s Convention for a People’s Peace”, held in early 1941, organised by communists with pacifist and nazi-sympathiser support. It was ordered by Stalin with intent to harm the UK and aid Hitler (and himself, or so Stalin foolishly imagined). In the much more free-speech-oriented Britain of that time, it was permitted to go ahead. And in the much more free-speech-oriented Britain of that time, people were permitted to say what they thought about it. In the not-quite-so-free-speech-oriented BBC of then and now, Michael Redgrave, one of the People’s Conventioners, experienced just one tiny inconvenience in his otherwise lucrative and high-status career at the beeb then and later. One day, soon after after the convention (before Hitler attacked Russia), he came back to his reserved chair between takes and found that someone – presumably some very lowly BBC gopher – had put on it a piece of paper with the word “Traitor”. The offended Mr Redgrave (IIRC it was only later he became ‘Sir Michael’) demanded to know who had done this but no-one fessed up so he had to let it drop.

    By contrast, when, during the war, someone praised the BBC to Churchill, he complained that the BBC were the people who had kept him off the air during the 30s when he had wished to broadcast his warnings to the British public. Sadly, Churchill seems never to have had the time to do anything very much about that.

    My take on all this is that one can win a war while preserving a high standard of free speech, and the most dangerous enemies are not foreigners but those who work for them – for ideological reasons, not money – in one’s own country.

  • neonsnake

    Upfront, I’ll admit to not having followed the “Russian interference” thing too closely, for many reasons; it seemed a bit of a conspiracy theory to me and I steer clear of conspiracy theories; I’m also unclear on what exactly the interference actually was in real terms – was it more than Facebook posts and twitter posts that were explicitly pro-Leave?

    If not, I’m struggling to have a problem.

    At least, I’m struggling to have more of a problem than with Obama’s “You’ll be at the back of the queue” comment.

    In a democracy you are allowed to vote on any criteria you like.

    Yes, we either trust people to go and make their minds up based on their own ideals and values, or we don’t. If we don’t, then sod it – let’s go back to being a monarchy. If we do, then we accept that people will try to persuade others to vote in particular ways.

    My own take on this is to realise and to confess that I’m starting to have muddled feelings on Facebook, Twitter et al, vis a vis their rights to free association related to who they give a platform to, and who they ban.

    Instinctively, I’ve always felt that they should have, as private enterprises, the right to publish or ban whoever they choose, and so should Breitbart, Rebel Media et al. Ergo, I’d be anti-regulation of any stripe.

    But I’m beginning to get uncomfortable with this line of thinking; I’m beginning to wonder if the sheer reach that they have, and the near-impossibility of competition*, outstrips my ideological purity on this issue. I’m wondering if the technology, and the way the world has changed, has outstripped the theory, I guess.

    *I’m unclear if this is objectively true or not, and if so whether it’s due to regulations preventing start-ups from entering the market – lack of affordability of 20 floors of lawyers. It intuitively feels likely – but then, I would say that, wouldn’t I, as an anti-corporatist? Hence, my muddledness.

  • pete

    Perhaps if all those pro-EU youngsters we are told about could have spared a few minutes to go out and vote instead of spending nearly every waking minute looking at the tiny screens of their mobile phones then the vote might just have gone the other way.

    So perhaps we have Facebook, Instagram etc to thank for our impending exit.

    If so, thanks very much Mr Zuckerberg and your fellow internet moguls.

  • Paul Marks

    First of all…..

    Que Bono?

    Who benefits from Donald Trump being President Trump? Mr Putin certainly does NOT benefit – as President Trump has followed policies that are the opposite of what Mr Putin wanted. And this was no secret – President Trump said he would rebuild the American military, and he has. And President Trump said he would deregulate American oil and gas production so that American would no longer be dependent on imports (California is still dependent on expensive imposts of oil and gas from other countries – but that is not the fault of President Trump, it is the fault of the demented regulations of California), and President Trump has achieved the energy independence he promised – the exact OPPOSITE of what Mr Putin wanted.

    The sort of people who control California would have benefited Mr Putin a great deal – under them the American military would, by now, be a joke force, no match for Russia or China. And under the Californian politicians American would be stuck in the “Green” delusion – with lots of talk about sun and wind hiding massive IMPORTS OF OIL AND GAS. But the Californian rulers are DEMOCRATS.

    So, as one would expect from the “mainstream” media and the education system (the schools and universities) the narrative presented by the msm and the education system (that President Trump has followed the policies that the Putin regime wanted) is the exact OPPOSITE of the truth.

    So who is trying to influence elections in the United States – for example the 2018 Congressional elections.

    How about the mainstream media – those lying sacks of shit. who did their best (worst) to give Mrs Clinton the Presidency in 2016. Or how about Google – which RIGGED search results for Congressional candidates in 2018, “guiding” people to pro Democrat and anti Republican sources of information.

    Mr Putin is a very bad man – but he is not the threat to free elections in the United States.

    The threat to free elections in the United States are the “mainstream” media (and the education system which excretes the sort of people who go into the media) and the Tech companies – for example the endless censorship of conservatives by Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, and the RIGGED search results of Google.

    If you want to see what the establishment elite (the Progressives) want to do to the United States – look what they have already done to California.

    They have taken the “Golden State” – a society that as recently as the times of Governor Reagan was the most prosperous society (for ordinary people) that the world had ever known, and they have turned it into a Third World society. A handful of very rich people (such as the managers of the leading Tech companies) and vast masses of poverty stricken people – even the Economist magazine now admits that, adjusted for the cost of living, California now has the worst poverty in America.

    Why make anything? Why work? Why not just BORROW money (endless amounts of it) and import everything – in a State that used to produce its own energy (so much so that oil pipelines do not really go to California – why would they as it used to produce its own energy) and was the leading manufacturing centre in the world.

    Yes there are still many factories in California – but why set up new factories there, when the energy costs for industry are now twice the rest of the United States? And where other regulations and taxes choke manufacturing. Sorry but tens of millions of people can not all be “Tech Lords” working in the Silicon Valley internet cartel, or Hollywood “performers” mouthing “Social Justice” slogans as they fly about in their private jets, or bankers who specialise in blowing Credit Bubbles instead of taking Real Savings and investing them in Productive Industry.

    Places such as San Francisco and Los Angeles DO NOT WORK – they have become piles of human excrement (literally – it is in the streets). And that is the sort of society that the establishment elite is pushing for all of America – and using such things as RIGGED Google searches to push it.

    That is the threat to American free elections – California and such places as New York, New Jersey and Illinois. But the university “educated” (brainwashed) are everywhere – like termites eating away at the foundations of society. Even in Texas – which is very much under threat these days.

  • JohnB

    Paul Marks, as always, you nail the logic of it.
    Congratulations, sir.

  • Mr Ed

    I suppose the argument has to be: if anyone reads a Russian-funded advert, they ‘buy it’. It makes them wholly unable to know truth from falsehood, their experience from their dreams and up from down. Even if just a few people saw those adverts, it’s like ink in milk, it’s contaminated the entire process, and the whole vote has to be thrown away.

    Otherwise, how on Earth did the UK vote to leave?

  • Gavin Longmuir

    neonsnake: “I’m beginning to wonder if the sheer reach that they [Facebook, etc] have, and the near-impossibility of competition*, outstrips my ideological purity on this issue.”

    Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, as the French sometimes say. The human race has been down this road before, and has developed fairly effective (and arguably ideologically reasonably pure) methods for handling these kinds of situations.

    If a market is competitive, with multiple buyers and sellers, government should step back and let the invisible hand of individual decisions lead to the optimum outcome. Not necessarily a perfect outcome, since this is the real world, but probably better than any other realistic outcome.

    If a market is a natural monopoly (for example, the water utility delivering piped water to your home), then it is advisable to regulate that natural monopoly to prevent abuses. Again, this is not necessarily a perfect outcome, but it is probably better than the alternatives. Of course, the big problem is — Who Regulates The Regulators? And this is where universal suffrage democracy has broken down.

    Applying this logic — if something like Facebook is a natural monopoly, then it needs to be regulated to prevent abuses; treated as a Common Carrier pipeline, or some such. But in our dysfunctional democracies, natural monopoly Facebook will simply pay off the reliably Far Left regulators, and the public will suffer.

    Fortunately, the Gods of the Copybook Headings are awakening, and the dysfunctional democracies will some day smack into reality, with consequent major changes.

  • Ellen

    Facebook is hiring politicians? Isn’t that some kind of double jeopardy? Or, perhaps, doubleplus ungood?

  • frank

    Free speech…..I think USA should stop the “war on drugs”…..I am a human living in Mexico. Is this “collusion” or not?

  • Runcie Balspune

    Clegg is just sipping the Facebook Kool-Aid, any company of that size likes to position itself as something that influences a large number of people (to advertisers) and at the same time doesn’t do any such thing (to government, regulators, concerned citizens, etc).

    In truth, when it comes to news and political influences, most Facebook users are either (a) sockpuppets, or (b) interested in gossip, cats, dogs, gardening, etc or (c) checking up on their local club or interest group, I doubt many would bother to be influenced by Facebook any more than they would by any national newspaper (or its online version). The only people who actually think Facebook is so f*cking great is the people who work for it, invest in it, or rely on it (for income or influence), but then they would, wouldn’t they?

    We all know the internet community is the biggest example of “squeaky wheel gets the grease” the world has ever seen, and various greasy political shakers and squeaky commercial groups like to big things like this up for whatever purpose, but it’s a load of trash really and it certainly does not need regulating, it really is not that important, did you remember the world stopping in March this year?

  • Zerren Yeoville

    Did Russia really want the UK to vote for Brexit anyway? There are a number of reasons why this particular Remainer trope doesn’t hold water, not least the fact that Russia holds Germany – and therefore, by extension of German power, the whole EU** – on a puppet-string because of German dependence on importing Russian energy, especially since their curious post-Fukushima decision to abandon nuclear power despite Germany not being anywhere near as seismically unstable as Japan. Also, it’s simply a lot harder to browbeat twenty or thirty small separate independent countries into submission than one big centralised union. Bigger targets are easier to hit.

    Consider that the fanatically-Brexitphobic media outlets ‘The Independent’ and the ‘Evening Standard’ are both under the ownership of a Russian oligarch. Consider also that the Russian-owned ‘RT’ channel’s coverage is just as disdainful of Brexit as the output of the BBC or Sky, particularly its flagship business show ‘Keiser Report,’ the host of which frequently gives vent to vehemently caustic denunciations of Brexit. If Russia is actually supportive of Brexit they are doing a fine job of concealing the fact.

    But since Russia has worked so assiduously to install the control levers of having Germany and the EU dependent on Russian energy imported through the NordStream pipelines, why would they now want to encourage one of the EU’s major powers to succeed in clawing its way out of the EU crab bucket, thereby reducing Russia’s carefully-schemed sphere of influence over both the EU and the departed UK?

    ** (see Leopold Kohr’s prediction in his 1957 book ‘The Breakdown Of Nations’ that “European federation, based on its great national blocks, unequal in size and strength, would in the end become a federation in the interest of Germany, because Germany alone would be large enough to enforce a federal law, and no law could be enforced without Germany’s consent. Germany would be arbiter and master.”)

  • Umbriel

    The most comical example of attempted “foreign influence” I’ve ever seen was a late night TV commercial on US cable back in the ’90s. A number of Muppet-like puppets on a farm backdrop discussed how it would be unimaginable for the US not to grow its own wheat, and that rice was similarly important to Japan, so America shouldn’t press Japan to lift its rice tariffs.

    I suppose that explaining the issue to American voters, much less making them care, was a pretty tall order, and they did the best they could, but I don’t imagine a single letter to an elected representative was generated by the ad, much less a vote somehow influenced. Of course, given the production values of the ad and it’s time slot, I’d guess the Japanese government had allocated something like a five digit budget to the project. In any event, I was not remotely outraged by their effort to control American minds.

  • bobby b

    “Bigger targets are easier to hit.”

    Still, it’s less risky to shoot at deer than elephants.

    Russia is struggling to absorb its smaller neighbors. “Divide and conquer” could have been written for Russia’s lack of strength. One could see Putin’s goal as being more the process – the division the question has caused – than the result – Brexit. Putin thrives on others’ division.

  • Paul Marks

    JohnB – many thanks Sir.

    As for Russia and British independence (can we just take that meaningless word “Brexit” and bury it at the cross roads with a stake through its heart – we are talking about INDEPENDENCE not “Brexit”).

    I watch Mr Putin’s “RT” from time to time – it is actually normally rather hostile to British independence (fools who go on – please note).

    As for the European Union “standing up to Putin” – Germany is more (yes more) dependent on Russian oil and gas by the day.

    Western European is protected (via NATO) by the United States Armed Forces – it is protected by “nasty – vulgar” President Donald Trump.

    The European Union has no military forces and is increasingly tied to Russia for its energy (due to its anti nuclear stance).

    The E.U. can not protect anyone from Mr Putin.