Peter Bye

The UK has lived in interesting times since my previous post on 20th February. The Brexit date has been postponed twice and now sits at 31st October 2019. Yet another Conservative Prime Minister has been destroyed by the Europe question: Theresa May joins Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron as the latest victim. And we are no nearer to any consensus on what to do; the country is still deeply divided. The recent EU Parliamentary elections yielded a majority of votes for parties in favour of remaining in the EU, although the new Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage, gained the largest number of MEPs. The Conservative and Labour Parties were severely damaged. UKIP was effectively wiped out[1]. The Conservative Party is now in the throes of choosing a new leader. Mrs May formally resigns on the 7th June; she will remain as acting Prime Minister until a new leader is chosen.

Some things do not change, however: those in favour of Brexit continue to claim that everything will be wonderful after leaving the EU. Any evidence to the contrary is dismissed as wrong or ignored. As the candidates for Conservative leadership – eleven as I write – begin their campaigns, wishful thinking and misrepresentation dominate on Europe and other subjects.

With misrepresentation in mind, I’d like to pick up on a couple of points that I have recently been thinking about.

The first dates back to the 2016 referendum campaign. Boris Johnson, currently one of the most likely candidates for the Conservative Party leadership, stated that the UK sent £350 million per week to the EU. If we left, he said, we could spend that amount on the National Health Service (NHS). This claim was painted on the side of a bus, which was used as a mobile HQ for the Leave campaign.

Many people at the time pointed out that this was a lie –there is no other word for it – yet the statement remained unaltered. It appears to have been believed by a lot of people, in spite of the fact that the number was easy to check. The figure of £350 million per week is about £18.2 billion per year, which was the number excluding the discount the UK negotiated some years ago. Allowing for the discount and funding provided to the UK by the EU, the net amount is about £8.9 billion, or just under half the Boris Johnson figure[2]. The claim is now having unexpected consequences: Mr Johnson is the subject of a crowd-funded private prosecution for allegations of misconduct in public office, that is, for lying about the £350 million per week[3].

My second point is a wider one about information and its truth or otherwise. The £350 million per week is an easy number to check, although many people clearly did not. That’s not the case for many other numbers or so-called facts that are claimed to be true. It may take some effort to uncover the truth, or possibly to put the claimed fact into context. Some of the claims about trade outside the EU illustrate the importance of context. It was claimed, for instance, that trade with the EU was stagnant or declining whereas trade with New Zealand had increased by 40% in under ten years. The percentage was correct but the increase only lifted trade with New Zealand to about 0.23% of the UK’s total; EU trade was around 50%[4].

Lies, misleading information and propaganda have of course always been with us, dating back to the origins of societies. Some of the most poisonous over many centuries have been anti-Semitic. Propaganda and misleading information often find willing receivers because they reinforce existing prejudices, particularly among conspiracy theorists.

Technology, in the form of the Internet and the Web, has had a dramatic impact in two ways. First, social media platforms have massively increased the amount of information available, and accelerated the rate at which it can be spread to huge numbers of widely-scattered people. Secondly, criminal actors or nations wishing to create false information, for example to affect an election, have a wide variety of tools available to help automate the process. Unless a serious effort is made to verify the truth or otherwise of material, or the reliability of sources, false information can immediately go viral. The consequences are all too clear.

Until recently, the leading social media companies have claimed that they only provide platforms and are not responsible for the content placed on them. This is in contrast to more traditional outlets in open democracies, such as print and broadcast media. Social media are now under pressure to adopt an approach more in keeping with the rules governing more traditional forms of journalism. They are expected to remove false or dangerous content quickly, difficult though it can be because of the volume of information. Some countries have passed legislation to compel prompt action; Australia is one of them[5].

There have been claims that imposing controls on social media risks damaging freedom of expression. It is always hard to draw a line between what is allowable within freedom of expression and what is unacceptable, for example because it may incite violence. In liberal democracies, the grey area between the acceptable and unacceptable will always be the subject of debate. I believe that we should err on the side of free expression. But it is not unreasonable to expect the social media organisations to more towards the standards expected by other media outlets.

Finland provides an excellent example of the scale of the problem and what can be done to fight against misinformation, trolling and threats against a nation and its citizens from hostile actors, including other nations[6].

Notes and sources

[1] The vote percentages were: Anti-Brexit parties (Liberal Democrat, Green, SNP, Change UK and Plaid Cymru) 40.4%; Pro-Brexit parties (Brexit Party, UKIP) 34.9%; Labour Party 14.1% and Conservative Party 9.1%. For full details, including seats won and regional distribution, see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-48403131

[2] See https://fullfact.org/europe/our-eu-membership-fee-55-million/ for more information on the UK’s contribution in 2017. The figure also needs to be seen in the context of the UK’s GDP and government expenditure. In 2017, the UK’s GDP was £1,960 billion, so the net contribution is about 0.45% of GDP. With government expenditure at around £814 billion, the net EU contribution is about 1.09% of expenditure See https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-7886 for more information.

[3] For more information, see https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-05-30/what-is-this-private-prosecution-of-boris-johnson-quicktake and https://www.itv.com/news/2019-06-04/campaigner-boris-johnson-marcus-ball-not-about-brexit-legal-high-court-challenge/

[4] I went into the subject of context in more detail in an earlier blog. See https://peterbye.blogactiv.eu/2018/04/25/whats-the-context-please/

[5] See https://www.theguardian.com/media/2019/apr/04/australia-passes-social-media-law-penalising-platforms-for-violent-content

[6] For more on what is happening in Finland, see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-europe-48401922/how-finland-fights-the-fake-news-trolls The video is well worth watching.

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