With less than a week until polling day, the 2019 UK general election campaign has been marred with accusations of fake news, misleading political propaganda and ‘dystopian’ electioneering tactics. The key issue is a lack of clear legal regulation regarding the use of social media for campaigning, leaving platforms open to abuse and misinformation.
Attempts had been made before the departure of Theresa May to implement changes that would clearly define the legal role of social media platforms operating in the UK in regard to political advertising. However, according to senior civil servants and government officials, the current dominance of Brexit in the policy making schedule and uncomfortable questions about the legality of the Brexit referendum campaign make the implementation of sufficient safeguards difficult. Additionally, there is an inherent issue in tasking politicians who may benefit from lax social media regulation to legislate against their own interests.
For individuals, there are two clear issues. First is the micro targeting of social media users. The information Commissioners Office and the Electoral Commission have warned against misusing individuals data, such as their address, age and interests to target potentially misleading ads directly at certain demographics. Secondly, and with specific regard to Facebook, adverts containing false information or misleading claims are allowed to go unverified, and against Facebook’s policies against fake news, due to the platform’s categorisation of political ads as ‘opinion pieces/satire’. This is problematic; over 5000 ads on Facebook alone have been purchased by the three major political parties.
The responsibility for upholding advertising standards has fallen largely on social media platforms themselves. Twitter and Tiktok have banned political advertising across their platforms, however, fake accounts still have the potential to spread misleading political information disguised as ‘fact’. This issue was highlighted by the November 19th rebranding of the official Conservative Party Press Office account into ‘@factcheckUK’. Google has banned 8 separate Conservative advertisements for ‘violating advertising policies’, one of which saw the fake website ‘labourmanifesto.co.uk’, designed to mislead voters about Labour policies, removed for buying advertising in order to manipulate search traffic and shift interest from the real Labour manifesto. The Brexit Party too, has seen five of its adverts removed. Labour and the Liberal Democrats are yet to have advertisements removed by Google.
It should be noted that due to long standing calls for reform, critique of the current regulatory system and examination of existing loopholes for the spread of disinformation, some researchers have voiced concerns that the government has created an ‘election interference playbook’, without sufficiently addressing any of these avenues of exploitation in law. This is where the discussion shifts from the underhanded tactics of party politics, and instead has implications for national security.
There is concern that actors other than British political parties may seek to benefit from the spread of disinformation in the UK general election, specifically, the Russian government. Draft documents from the UK-US Trade and Investment Working Group were leaked online and later picked up by the Labour party in order to undermine Boris Johnson’s position on the National Health Service. The account, which published the documents on Reddit a month before they gained widespread media coverage, was determined to be of Russian origin, along with 60 other Reddit accounts linked to a ‘coordinated effort’ from Russia to spread misinformation. Despite claims from both Johnson and Corbyn that Russian interference is ‘nonsense’, given previous Russian involvement in the 2016 US presidential election, and the recently uncovered ‘Secondary Infektion’ disinformation scheme, also coordinated from Russia, concerns about attempted Russian interference in the upcoming election should be further investigated.
Ideally, these issues would be addressed in the yet-to-be-published Intelligence and Security Committee report, which is expected to contain an examination of Russian interference in UK politics, the Brexit referendum and the Conservative Party. Until this report is published, the full scale of Russian attempts to undermine UK democracy is unknowable. Whatever the outcome of Thursday’s election, questions regarding the legitimacy, independence and democracy of the UK political system will remain.
The Malian army is currently carrying out a massive offensive in the centre of the country, which has helped to put a number of terrorists out of action. On Monday 11 November, the Malian government released a statement saying that security forces of Mali have been engaged for a few days in a large-scale offensive against terrorist bases in some localities in the central Mopti region of the country. The statement went on to say that several extremists had been killed, without specifying the number, adding that a number of vehicles and motorcycles were burned, identity cards of several nationalities were found and military effects were recovered. The government indicated that the operation is being carried out with the support of the Malian Air Force. The operation comes in the wake of two recent deadly attacks that have claimed the lives of a hundred Malian soldiers in one month in what is one of the army’s heaviest losses since the 2013 French-led military intervention to oust extremists in northern Mali. According to a statement released by Malian officials, faced with mounting pressure to contain the jihadist insurgency, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita had ordered the development of a “new operational concept that gives an important part to the offensive.” The Malian government also formally denied the capture, and subsequent depiction on social media networks, of armoured vehicles by jihadists during recent attacks targeting positions of the Malian army.
While limited information has been released regarding the offensive in Mopti region, it coincides with another operation, known as “Bourgou 4,” which is being led by the French force Barkhane alongside local armies in the tri-border region of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. This operation was launched at the request of Burkinabe authorities, who are struggling to contain the growing jihadist threat within the country. French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly announced the launch of the offensive during a visit to the region on 6 November, though sources in Burkina Faso have suggested that the operation has already started. The operation represents an expansion of France’s operation in the Sahel region, and while the country has given air support to Burkinabe troops and small numbers of French troops are known to have operated in Burkina Faso for some time, this current operation represents France’s first major commitment of ground troops in the West African country.
On Monday 4 November, pirates attacked a Greek oil tanker off the coast of Togo and fled after taking four crewmembers hostage, just two days after a similar attack was carried out in the waters of neighbouring Benin.
Officials have reported that those kidnapped in Monday’s attack include two Filipino nationals, one Greek and one Georgian. One security guard was also shot and wounded in the attack. A statement released by the Togolese Navy disclosed that “Monday, 4thof November 2019, around 0300, the tanker boat Elka Aristotle (…) was attacked around 18 kilometres (11 miles) from the port of Lomé by armed individuals.” The vessel’s manager, European Product Carriers Ltd. confirmed the early morning attack, though provided no further details. Greece’s shipping ministry has meanwhile disclosed that it is “closely monitoring the issue.” The Togolese Navy has also reported that armed guards were present on the Greek vessel and tried to fight off the attackers, noting that one was wounded in the incident. An investigation into the attack has been opened.
Monday’s attack follows the abduction by pirates of nine Filipino crewmembers from a Norwegian-flagged boat off the coast of Benin on Saturday 2 November. A vessel owned by Norwegian shipping firm J.J. Ugland was boarded by pirates while at anchor off the coast of Benin on Saturday, with nine crewmembers kidnapped, the company confirmed on Sunday. A statement released by the company indicated that the remaining crew of the Norwegian-flagged MV Bonita notified local authorities and the vessel docked at the port city of Cotonou later on Saturday, adding that the vessel was destined for Benin. Citing safety reasons, the company did not reveal the crew’s nationalities or how many had avoided capture.
Third quarter figures this year released by the International Chamber of Commerce International Maritime Bureau (IMB) indicate that there were fewer incidents of piracy and armed robbery against vessels than the first nine months of 2018. So far this year, a total of 119 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against vessels have been reported, compared to 156 incidents for the same period in 2018. Overall, the 2019 incidents comprised of 95 vessels boarded, 10 vessels fired upon, 10 attempted attacks, and four vessels hijacked. The number of crewmembers taken hostage through the first nine months of this year has declined from 112 in 2018 to 49 in 2019. While the overall number of incidents has declined, the IMB notes that incidents involving guns and knives remain consistent, stating that there have been 24 knife-related and 35 gun-related incidents reported this year, compared to 25 and 37 for the first nine months of 2018. The statistics confirm the IMB’s concerns over continued threats to the safety and security of seafarers.
While piracy has decreased worldwide, West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea remains a high-risk area for abductions and armed robbery. The region accounts for 86% of crewmembers taken hostage and nearly 82% of crewmember kidnappings globally. So far this year, Lagos, Nigeria has reported 11 incidents – the highest number of any port in the world. Despite reporting more attacks than any other country, Nigeria saw its attacks reduced in the third quarter of this year from 41 during the same period in 2018 to 29 in 2019. Nevertheless, the greater Gulf of Guinea region remains the piracy hotspot. Recent attacks in the region include the July incident of a general cargo vessel that was hijacked approximate 120 nautical miles southwest of Brass. Ten crewmembers were kidnapped from the vessel and were released four weeks later. In August, a bulk carrier and a general cargo vessel were boarded within ours of each other at Douala anchorage, Cameroon. A total of seventeen crewmembers were kidnapped from the vessels. Within six weeks, all kidnapped crewmembers were released. This incidents demonstrates the range of piracy activity in the Gulf of Guinea and that all types of vessels are vulnerable to attack. ICC IMB Director Pottengal Mukundan notes that “although incidents are down, the Gulf of Guinea continues to be a concern for piracy and armed robbery-related activities with kidnappings of crewmembers increasing in both scale and frequency,” adding that “it is important that shipmasters and owners continue to report all actual, attempted and suspected incidents to ensure that an accurate picture of these attacks emerge and action is taken against these criminals before the incidents further escalate.”
On Thursday, heavy fighting broke out in northern Mexico after security forces attempted to seize one of the sons of jailed drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.
Fighting lasted for several hours after Ovidio Guzmán López was found during a routine patrol in the city of Culiacán, some 1,235 km (770 miles) northwest of Mexico City. After entering the house, they found four men, including Guzmán, who is accused of drug trafficking in the United States. Footage depicted heavily-armed men firing on police, with cars, bodies and burning barricades strewn in the road. According to the country’s Security Minister Alfonso Durazo, a patrol of National Guard militarized police came under intense fire from outside the home where they had located Guzmán, adding that police were forced to retreat from the building without Guzmán in custody for their own safety and “to recover calm in the city.” A lawyer for the Guzmán family has confirmed that “Ovidio is alive and free.” The chaos continued as night fell. A large group of inmates escaped from the city prison while residents cowered in shopping centres and supermarkets as gunfire continued to be heard across the city. A state police spokesman confirmed that several prisoners escaped from a prison during the chaos, with video footage depicting a group of at least twenty prisoners running in the streets. It was not immediately clear how many had escaped. Cristobal Castaneda, head of security in Sinaloa, told the Televisa network that two people had been killed and a further 21 were injured, according to preliminary information, adding that police had come under attack when they approached roadblocks manned by gunmen. Officials have advised residents not to leave their homes.
Meanwhile Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has disclosed that he would hold a meeting of his security cabinet in order to discuss the incident.
Under El Chapo’s leadership, the Sinaloa cartel was the biggest supplier to the US, according to officials, and with El Chapo currently in prison, the cartel is said to be partially controlled by Guzmán, who has been accused of drug trafficking in the US. He is believed to be in his twenties. El Chapo, who ran the cartel for decades and escaped from prison twice before being arrested and extradited to the US, was found guilty in a US court in February of smuggling tons of drugs and sentenced to life in prison. He is believed to have twelve children, including Ovidio. In February, the US Department of Justice unveiled an indictment against Ovidio and another of the brothers, charging them with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana in the US. The indictment gave Ovidio’s age as 28 and stated that he had been involved in trafficking conspiracies since he was a teenager.
Thursday’s chaos in Culiacan, which has long been a stronghold for the Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel, will likely increase pressure on President Obrador, who took office in December 2018 on a promise to pacify the country, which is weary after more than a decade of drug-war fighting. The release of Guzmán however is likely to send the wrong message as it indicates that the state, including the army, could potentially be blackmailed and that overall, officials are not in control. Reports have indicated that presumed cartel members apparently intercepted a radio frequency used by security forces warning of reprisals against soldiers if Guzmán was not freed. Overall security in Mexico has declined this year, and officials are already reporting that murder rates for 2019 are set to be at a record high. Furthermore, Thursday’s incident follows the massacre of more than a dozen police in western Mexico earlier this week and the killing of fourteen suspected gangsters by the army a day later.
Israel and Hezbollah have been engaging in fierce fighting this month, with Israel’s military shelling in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in early September representing the most significant Israeli operation against the terrorist group since the 2006 Lebanon War. Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organisation by Israel and the United States, and is a major political actor in Lebanon. The conflict between the Iranian-aligned group and Israel comes amidst rising tensions between Iran and the US, particularly in regard to the seizure of an Iranian oil tanker at the beginning of July. This has further sparked fear of possible military escalation between Israel and Hezbollah.
Last month, alleged Israeli attacks in Lebanon reinforced existing rifts between the two countries, further building tension between Israel, the US and Iranian-aligned regions. Lebanese President Michael Aoun called the crashing of two Israeli drones near the Hezbollah media office in the Hezbollah-dominated southern Beirut district of Dahia a “declaration of war.” Israeli forces also killed two Hezbollah members in a strike against targets in Syria. After the Lebanese army fired at two Israeli drones in Lebanese airspace, the UN Security Council subsequently warned that violations of the ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon in the latter country’s south could lead to “new conflict that none of the parties or region can afford.”
In September, violence has escalated. On 1 September, Hezbollah fired several anti-rockets into northern Israel in retaliation for the Israeli drone attack in Beirut last month. Israeli military sources confirmed that rockets had been fired at an Israeli army base and military vehicles. The Israeli army responded by attacking targets in southern Lebanon. On 9 September, Hezbollah revealed that it had shot down an Israeli unmanned aircraft outside the southern town of Ramyah. The group said in a statement that it had “confronted” the drone with “appropriate weapons” as it was heading towards the town. Israel has also recently accused Hezbollah of building a precision-missile factory in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, just days after the cross-border flare-up. In a statement accompanied by satellite images, the Israeli military said that Hezbollah, with Iranian assistance, had brought specialised equipment to a weapons factory near the village of al-Nabi Shaith, in the Bekaa Valley, with the intention to set up a production line for precision-guided missiles. Hezbollah has previously admitted to possessing such weapons, which could be used to damage and destroy key Israeli infrastructure.
The fighting has triggered fears of a full-blown conflict. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has cautioned the Lebanese government that if it doesn’t stop Hezbollah’s aggression against Israel, the terror group will drag both countries into war, stating: “We say clearly to the Lebanese government and its allies around the world: Hezbollah’s aggression must be stopped before we find ourselves dragged into a conflict that neither Lebanon nor Israel want.” Indeed, if the conflicts continue, it is likely that tensions may escalate, marking the start of another military conflict between Israel and the Lebanese Shia militia. Heiko Wimmen, the project director for Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon at the International Crisis Group, said that any miscalculation could spark a war. Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate, agrees that the fighting could lead to another full-blown conflict. “The next war will be devastating for both sides and that’s why both sides want to avoid it,” Yadlin said. “[However], even without planning for a full-scale war, we can find ourselves there.” Others have suggested that Hezbollah fighters are eager to reopen old wounds with the Israelis due to the Syrian conflict winding down.
Indeed, Hezbollah is a formidable opponent both politically and militarily, with an estimated 40,000 to 150,000 rockets and missiles which are said to outmatch the weapons capabilities of most countries. The group also yields significant political clout in Lebanon, having secured a majority in Lebanon’s government where it influences most of the country’s domestic policy. A full-blown conflict would therefore have worrying repercussions for the rest of the Middle East and the worldwide community. The last time hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel flared into open conflict, approximately 1,300 Lebanese and 150 Israelis were killed.