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MICHAEL WHITE: Labour loves Facebook for the same reason Trump adores Twitter

Brexit madness. Picture: Gary Barker - Credit: Archant

It’s hard to keep up with all these claims of plots and counter-plots swirling around the political system, isn’t it?

Not just in embattled Brexit Britain but pretty well everywhere you look, and that’s no coincidence.

Globalisation is the thread that runs through much of it – from US steel tariffs against China (the EU got a reprieve) to the uproar over Cambridge Analytica’s shady data dealings across all five continents. Proudly exporting British tech know-how to a grateful world? Er, yes and no. The equally globalised British legal system, beloved of McMafia oligarchs’ estranged wives, may now be deployed against the data crunchers.

Other manifestations of a system under fearsome strain? A former president of France, Nicholas Sarkozy, is taken into police custody over alleged illegal campaign cash, this particular wodge from Gadaffi’s Libya. The story barely makes a ripple on the introspective UK media scene, absorbed in its own dramas over passport contracts, anti-semitism, and the emerging Brexit endgame – exactly a year away.

Thus the fugitive ex-president of breakaway Catalonia, Carlos Puigdemont, is arrested in Germany. Amazing, but that’s inside page stuff. The current president of the United States, Donald Trump, replaces his national security adviser with armchair warlord, John Bolton, and fights off steamily reheated sex claims by porn star, Stormy Daniels. Another sacking? More p***y grabbing? Bor-ring.

Let me leave the finer technical points of Facebook’s data offences against propriety – and probably the law– to James Ball and other clever techies writing week after week in The New European. They can explain how those innocuous supermarket ‘loyalty’ store cards of the 1980s have been weaponised on such a fearsome scale by artificial intelligence’s impact on commercial advertising, online politics and cyber-warfare as military strategy.

The information commissioner may have been old-school slow to serve its warrant on Cambridge Analytica, but the CA-SLC network’s boastfulness has been helpfully filmed by Channel 4 News. The impression is reinforced by its public self-contradictions now that the old media’s spotlight (hats off to the Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr’s dogged work) is turned on the online crew.

Combined with the dangerous enemies CA and pals have made on their rapid ascent – cheated academic colleagues, thwarted rivals, whistleblowing ex-staff – the mix should be toxic enough eventually to enable even under-powered British regulators to sink their dentures into something. Has UKIP bad boy, Andy Wigmore, remembered to delete all his chummy CA tweets? Of course, CA deny any wrongdoing.

So, long overdue it may be, but proper regulation and taxation of tech giants now looks to be at hand – much as the oil and steel plutocrats were tamed by President Theodore Roosevelt’s anti-trust laws a century ago. We know how China and Russia handle the challenge: with muscular repression. But in more open societies, will the EU or the US take the lead in balancing privacy with accountability and tax receipts? Much may depend on whether the Democrats (who won a Congressional by-election last week) win the mid-term elections in November if Trump’s fiscal credit splurge runs into trouble.

In late March I will confine myself to a prediction and a warning. The warning is that we should strive to separate the issues of principle at stake here from personal prejudices we may share about the substantive issues of public policy which may have been affected by the ability of the tech wizards of Northern California and the East Anglian Fens (has Oxford University missed the boat again?) to tap into individual voters’ ‘private’ thoughts and preferences.

Thus, we may not like the fact that Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton for the White House, though she was always a beatable candidate, crying out for defeat. We may regret – and do regret – that the twin Brexit campaigns, Boris’ official campaign and Nigel’s more Provisional wing, won the June 23 2016 referendum. In both countries the winners, property billionaire and public school boys, brazenly played the underdog card to defeat more complacent and incompetent opponents.

But we should concentrate on possible abuses of the law and of election process, not what we regard as the undesirable outcome. The fact is that targeting individual voters via personalised mailing shots is at least 30 years old, pioneered in the US and imported – like much else – by Margaret Thatcher along with ‘made for TV’ soft focus campaign techniques where the candidate is seen, but rarely heard.

Back in 1983 Michael Foot’s Labour party was hopelessly outgunned. The Kinnock-Mandelson partnership did much better (but still lost in 1987 and 1992). Blair was triple-brilliant, Brown less so in 2010. Ed Miliband was outfought in 2015 by the Cameroons in the online campaign (the ‘air war’ as they say in the trade) and less effective than his staff predicted in the canvassers ground war. Who can recall Miliband in Alex Salmond’s breast pocket without flinching at the brilliant brutality of it?

But in the fast-evolving world of data deployment Cameron’s 2016 referendum campaign was demoralised and disorientated by Brexit’s ‘chaos’ strategy, the hydra-headed campaign now under scrutiny (again) by the Electoral Commission, the information regulator and media. Both cash and data flows are being investigated.

Yet we all know – again whether we like it or not – that in 2017 Team Corbyn spent barely a quarter of the Tories’ £2 million Facebook election budget but managed to out-perform Lynton ‘Dog Whistle’ Crosby and Obama’s online gun-for-hire, Jim Messina. Improbable though it may seem for a bearded old Luddite, Labour’s ‘why do you hate me, daddy?’ video, like Corbyn’s current ‘change is coming’ video have leapfrogged the Tories to make a big impact on voters (Jez still lost).

No wonder the Labour leader ducked the ‘will you be closing your Facebook pages?’ question when he launched the party’s May 3 local elections campaign in Trafford the other day. Labour loves Facebook for the same reason Donald Trump loves it and adores Twitter: their message is not mediated/distorted by ‘fake media,’ also known as the mainstream media/capitalist press, Tory Blairite scum etc.

To its credit Team Corbyn (which here means Momentum, not the lumbering behemoth which is Unite) took instruction from Senator Bernie Sanders’ grassroots campaign (‘Feel the Bern’) for the Democratic nomination in 2016. Sanders fiercely scorched Clinton’s goose before Trump cooked it to a cinder by micro-targeting swing voters in swing states. He carried the electoral college, but not the popular vote.

And there’s my point. As the media searchlight lengthens the chances are that we will find that most political campaigns are tainted by what it exposes. JFK and LBJ weren’t angels. Barack Obama, who most progressive voters admire, won two presidential elections with the help of then state-of-the-art online, below-radar fund-raising and messaging. He got all those $25 donations from ordinary voters, but the big corporate or billionaire cheques weighed heavier on the scale.

All this was pointed out at the time, but hey, the good guys were winning, so who cared? Obama was famously fastidious – I am tempted to say ‘notoriously’ so – and campaign managers like David Axelrod, driven by values rather than Jim Messina’s dollars, would have kept his campaign relatively clean. There were no White House scandals on his watch, only nasty smears.

Personal and/or professional evidence suggests that dog whistler Crosby, Trump, Arron Banks and Nigel (‘betrayed’) Farage are less fastidious operators. So were amiable Ronald Reagan’s attack dogs – and Richard Nixon’s before him – back in the day. Fox News’ ousted sex pest boss, Roger Ailes, worked for both. Before he died of cancer at 40 in 1991 another Reagan strategist, Lee Atwater, repented being such a shit. He won’t do that again.

But the genius of the current wave of populists is that they neutralise their own egregious offences by persuading millions of voters that politicians are ‘all as bad as each other’ and ‘this sort of thing has always gone on’ – as if 5,000 pieces of data about each of 57 million voters was something Disraeli could have purchased without Queen Victoria suspecting.

It’s a form of moral equivalence which conservatives claim to deplore when Jeremy Corbyn calls for ‘an end to violence on all sides’ in Venezuela or for all sides to stop poisoning Russians in Salisbury; less so when President Trump equates civil rights protests with racist thuggery in the American heartlands.

And, in the bigger picture, that’s what Vladimir Putin’s online disinformation spikes are intended to do: help elect Trump to bring America’s reputation (‘they’re all as bad as each other’) down to his own level, spread conspiracy theories (did Porton Down poison the Skripals?) to divide and demoralise us in Britain too. Sifting the data throws up more evidence of what happened with every week that passes.

There’s always a sucker market out there, where fellow-citizens can’t tell the difference between the fallible BBC and Russia Today’s polished rascality. But there are also more shades of grey than we sometimes care to admit – though whiter shades of grey are always worth fighting for.

That leads me (cries of ‘about time too’) from my warning to my prediction. Whatever the Electoral Commission’s third inquiry into Leave.EU’s possible abuse of data and into Vote Leave’s possible distribution of money to organisations it effectively controlled, it strikes me as highly unlikely that it will be soon enough, or damning enough, to warrant a serious political or legal attempt to nullify the 52-48% Brexit verdict.

That’s partly because the Brexit moaners (cries of ‘betrayal’) will insist that the Remain campaign was just as bad. Didn’t the government spend £9 million on a (bad) leaflet to every household just before the campaign started? Wasn’t most of the media and big business pro-Remain (no) and isn’t the Electoral Commission biased anyway? The Sunday Telegraph ran an editorial to that effect last weekend.

The underlying political reality is that Corbyn, Theresa May and Co sold the pass in agreeing that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ immediately after the result and a sovereign-but-cowed parliament voted by 498 to 114 to trigger Article 50. A weekend poll by BMG found 57% of voters just want May to get on with it, against 22% who don’t, while the rest concentrate on earning a living, having a baby or playing bingo.

With or without the support of eight EU leaders that Vince Cable claimed (‘sorry Vince, we didn’t quite say that’) or even of sacked Owen Smith, Labour’s new Brexit martyr, the case for a second referendum does not get traction on such numbers. The law may be tightened to catch up with the data miners. That’s good. Corner-cutters in May’s Downing St as well as in Cambridge may be forced to resign (ditto). Someone may be sent to jail, as too few have since the bankers crashed the economy in 2008. But it won’t reverse Brexit. Even Brussels seems to be losing that hope by now.

By the same token Trump won’t be felled by the exposure of whatever the Cambridge Analytica crowd may have done for him. Most voters won’t care any more than they care about what Stormy Daniels says or was bribed not to say. Trump never pretended to be more than a p***y grabber and they voted for him anyway to ‘Make America Great Again’.

If snooty elites don’t like the way it’s going, Middle America and Middle Britain murmur ‘Good’. Whether the closet liberal in Boris Johnson’s well-fed bosom likes it or not (he doesn’t) he’s under the duvet with Trump and Farage. You could say Boris is Trump’s Stormy Daniels, paid off to keep schtum. Policy by prejudice rules. So what if Trump’s coming tariff war with China cost Americans jobs and money, it makes enough of them feel good.

The same forces are in play over Brexit Britain’s blue passports furore, where prejudice overwhelmed the mundane facts about printing jobs lost in the North East but gained in Hampshire. It struck me as recklessly provocative for civil servants running the tender to let De La Rue – as English a name as rosbif – lose its contract. But the howls of protectionist outrage from the ‘Global Britain’ wing of the Brexit camp was an unprincipled joy to witness.

In the circumstances Keir Starmer’s Birmingham speech, promising amendments to block a ‘No deal’ outcome if parliament’s ‘meaningful vote’ rejects the eventual Barnier-Davis package, strikes me as being about as realistic as we can hope for at present. A world crisis, trade war or even hot war, might change everything. So might Robert Mueller’s investigation of Trump’s Russia connection, which the president so obviously fears.

But where we are now is where Jeremy Corbyn sacks Owen Smith as his well-infored Northern Ireland spokesman, for writing what Diane Abbott was saying too not so long ago. We have to remember that deep down Jeremy remains a ‘socialism in one country’ man. He does not like the EU, any more than he likes Northern Ireland, a lingering symbol of British imperialism in the Corbyn travel guide.

Neither has been his most urgent housekeeping crisis this week as he battled with renewed allegations of anti-Semitism in Labour’s ranks.

If Cambridge Analytica is still in business on election day 2020 it will doubtless offer to exploit the sentiment among voters on both sides of the Palestine/Israel divide. But when I hear Corbyn saying ‘I sincerely regret that I did not look more closely at the image I was commenting on’ I first think, not of Mear One’s inflammatory wall painting in East London, but of the economic policies he proposes to inflict on struggling Brexit Britain.

Look more carefully at those images, Jez.

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