Politics Digest 28.03.18

By Alex Beard

It wouldn't be a bad idea to start this with a thank you to the people actually reading this, the 4th Weekly Politics Digest - who thought it'd make it this far? It would be a good idea, anyway, to try and distract attention from the deeply worrying revelations about data firm 'Cambridge Analytica', and their use of Facebook as a tool for targeted advertising aimed at millions of people whose data was being unknowingly harvested in order to influence the outcome of elections, which have dominated the headlines this week. Alongside this, a Brexit transition deal with which no one appears to be happy has been signed, Vladimir Putin continues to act with all the diplomacy of a disgruntled ape holding a machine gun, Trump has replaced his National Security Advisor with a hard-right warmonger who wants to invade Iran and Jeremy Corbyn has sacked Shadow NI Secretary Owen Smith (remember him?) for deviating from the party line on Brexit. You can't say I'm not an optimist.


Facebook forced to face up


Last week's digest didn't mention the words 'Cambridge Analytica' once, meaning this is a huge scandal which has developed almost entirely in the space of just one week. The situation is as follows: Last week, the Observer and Channel 4 News broadcasted allegations by whistle-blower Chris Wiley (the man with the pink hair who's been in the news a lot) that a London-based data firm known as Cambridge Analytica (CA), about which little had been previously known, was collecting information about 'up to 50 million Facebook users', mostly without their permission, which they used to bombard people with targeted adverts for political campaigns.

The information was collected by a University of Cambridge academic who gained the personal data of hundreds of thousands of people who agreed to give it up in return for money; what brought this to a larger scale was the fact that on top of these people, all of their friends had their data non-consensually collected. This allowed CA, with whom the academic Aleksandr Kogan worked, access to an unprecedented amount of personal information.

As Chris Wiley, who helped set up the company put it, people's activities on the Internet mirror the whole of their lives, not just what their friends or family might see. By harvesting this data, Cambridge Analytica could, for example, identify if someone was more likely to be influenced by a particularly emotive video and could therefore work with people and campaigns, such as Steve Bannon who ran Donald Trump's and was heavily involved in CA, to target people with advertising that would make them more likely to vote a certain way. 

These uncoverings were followed by another whistle-blower from the 'Vote Leave' campaign, who claims that him and his friend were used as a diversion for money paid to a Canadian sister company of Cambridge Analytica, which Wiley also helped to create, in order to breach election spending rules.

These allegations were followed by the raiding of CA's offices, and an apology from Mark Zuckerberg and brings into question the integrity and unchecked power of huge social media companies, who, it seems, have the power to undermine the democratic process and influence elections. As a piece in the New Statesman put it, these companies are not on a mission to 'connect the world' but are rather ultimately advertising firms who make billions, and potentially trillions, out of the people's data. 

The long-term fallout is only beginning, and regulation will probably take a long time to implement, although the EU have already begun to put measures in place, but the scandal this week is proof of something I and many others have suspected for a long time - social networks now have immense power.


Brexit never ends

Amidst the data scandal and continued fallout from the Skripal poisoning, it was easy to miss the signing of a deal on a Brexit transition period, in which Britain's status will be effectively that of Norway's, with little deviation from the current legal status, avoiding the 'cliff edge' that would harm business, were Britain to leave all of the EU's institutions overnight. The agreement doesn't seem to satisfy anyone however, with hard-line Brexiteers unhappy with the continued jurisdiction of the ECJ and the lack of change it will make to fishing policy during the period and many Remainers, like me, hoping that the whole thing still won't go ahead anyway and, if it does, the future relationship will be similar to the one outlined in the transitional deal.



New and blue, not 'De la Rue'

For all I wanted to ignore this story, the hysteria surrounding it has been hard to avoid - the blue passports on which people seemed when voting to leave the EU will not be made in the UK as they previously have been. Instead, the contract will go to a Franco-Dutch company, part owned by the French government, which will make them at a lower cost. Completely disregarding the fact that they support a privatised rail system that means the train network in this country is run largely by operators owned by foreign governments, including the Dutch and German, many right-wing Tory MPs, notably the Rees-Moggists, have branded the decision a disgrace. The Home Office argues it is in the interest of competition.


No longer the McMaster of his own destiny

Not a week goes by without Donald Trump firing someone in his cabinet (insert lame joke about The Apprentice here), or so it seems. The relatively moderate general H.R.McMaster, the incumbent National Security Advisor has, after taking a tough stance against Russia, been replaced by John Bolton - a security 'expert' who believes that the US should launch pre-emptive strikes against Iran and North Korea in order to prevent conflict and protect the West. I'll leave you to figure that one out.


There will be more to come on the stories of the Russian spy poisoning, after which the diplomatic crisis has further escalated, and Jeremy Corbyn's sacking of Owen Smith.