- James Ward
Russian ‘interference’ in our elections. Who cares?
So finally. Yesterday, Mrs May announced that she believes Russia interferes in western politics; today, Ciaran Martin, the founding chief executive of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre - a branch of GCHQ - asserted the same thing. “I can confirm,” he said, “that Russian interference has included attacks on the UK media, telecommunication and energy sectors.”
The Russians, predictably, have asked for proof. And Russia Today was quick to pounce on Mrs May’s announcement a few hours ago. She said she hadn’t been speaking about the UK. “If they care to look at the speech on Monday, they will see that the examples I gave were not in the UK.”
So it all drags on. Or does it?
One possible response might be: so what if the Russians interfere? What difference does it make?
Put it like this. The UK is meant to be a democracy. We spend at least a decade educating each individual citizen, at a cost of tens of billions of pounds per annum. In the last financial year, our education bill came to 87.2 billion.
What that should produce is a citizenry capable of thinking for itself; one capable of examining controversial claims, evaluating those claims on their own merits, and coming to sober, rational conclusions accordingly.
What it shouldn’t produce is a bunch of mindless automatons susceptible to being swayed by social media posts (no matter in what numbers) from whatever source.
Arguably, in some ways, we should welcome the fact that Russia takes an interest in our elections. At least it shows we're still powerful enough to concern major overseas players. It is more than a bit sneaky, of course, that the Kremlin is supposedly concealing its true identity whilst trying to influence us, but even that shouldn’t really matter. We shouldn’t be looking at the source. We should be looking at the substance.
And how 'sneaky' is it, really? Let's just say that when we read all these supposedly independent Facebook posts, they are 'really' the views of Vladimir Putin. Is that more or less 'sneaky' than the fact that when we read the numerous supposedly independent articles in The Sun, we are 'really' reading the views of Rupert Murdoch? Or the Daily Mail, Lord Rothmere? Probably not.
So what next?
Let’s say we find out that Russia did influence, say, the Brexit elections. What should we do?
Well, definitely not call new elections. That would be insane. We need to proceed on the assumption that we’re all adults, and we made our collective decision in a mature way. However controversial that assumption might seem to some.
Firstly, we should accept it’s probably okay for the Russians to try and influence us, providing they’re upfront about it. We’re a democracy, and meant to be a robust one. We should be able to deal with influencers. Is it okay for the French to try and influence us? Or the Germans? Or the Australians? In a globalised world, it's difficult to see how we can stop foreign interests from having a say, especially if they proceed through non-violent means. Secondly, we should put pressure on Facebook and Twitter to identify the true sources. Just out of interest. Thirdly, we should use our brains.
Using shady means to influence elections is nothing new. In the 1970s, it was largely done through bomb-attacks, frequently targeting civilians. The IRA, the Baader-Meinhof Group, the Red Brigade, Black September, the Ulster Volunteer Force. Anyone who still remembers that era might feel that all outrage at the use of ‘fake’ posts on Facebook to achieve similar ends, is mostly misplaced.
The Russians are actually not that different to us. For historical reasons, we’ve grown used to considering them beyond the pale. But it seems highly unlikely that a culture capable of producing Turgenev, Tolstoy, Chekov, Dostoevsky, Akhmatova, Goncharov, Akhmadulina and Pasternak is really that dissimilar to ours. And more importantly, to what ours aspires to become.
Fake posts from Russia? A storm in a teacup, but not entirely without significance. We need to treat it as a wake-up call.
In short, we need to grow up and start acting like the mature citizenry we claim to be.