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 world woke up on Friday to find out that the United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union (EU). As the markets tumbled overnight, with the pound plunging to record lows, uncertainty has taken over across the UK as British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he will step down in the fall.
Polling stations opened on 23 June at 7 AM BST and closed at 10 PM BST. While polls indicated shortly after voting ended that the Remain camp was going to be the likely winner, overnight, as the vote count came in, it increasingly became apparent that Brits had voted to leave the EU. While Prime Minister David Cameron had urged the country to vote Remain, he was ultimately defeated by 52% to 48% despite London, Scotland and Northern Ireland all backing staying in. The referendum turnout was 71.8% – with more than 30 million people voting. It was the highest turnout at a UK-wide vote since 1992. UKIP leader Nigel Farage has hailed Thursday’s vote as the UK’s “independence day.” Mr Farage, who has over the past twenty years campaigned for Britain to leave the EU, told cheering supporters that “this will be a victory for ordinary people, for decent people.” Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has stated that the EU vote “makes clear that the people of Scotland see their future as part of the European Union” after all 32 local authority areas returned majorities for Remain. It is thought that Scotland may seek another referendum on separation from the UK.
The impact of the vote however has already been felt across the UK and on international markets, with the pound falling to its lowest level against the dollar since 1985 as the markets reacted to the results. Bank of England governor Mark Carney has stated that UK banks’ “substantial capital and huge liquidity” allowed them to continue to lend to businesses and households, adding that the Bank of England is ready to provide an extra £250 billion of support.
PM to Step Aside
Despite MP’s signing a letter overnight urging Prime Minister David Cameron to stay on whatever the result, on Friday morning the Prime Minister announced that he will step down by October after the UK voted to leave the EU. Speaking outside 10 Downing Street, he disclosed that he would attempt to “steady the ship” over the coming weeks and months, noting however that “fresh leadership” was needed. Flanked by his wife Samantha, Prime Minister Cameron indicated that he had informed the Queen of his decision to remain in place for the short term and then hand over to a new prime minister by the time of the Conservative conference in October. He has indicated that it will be for the new prime minister to carry out negotiations with the EU and invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which would effectively give the UK two years in order to negotiate its withdrawal.
Process to Leave the EU
While Britain is set to be the first country to leave the EU since its formation, the Leave vote does not immediately mean that Britain ceases to be a member of the 28-nation bloc.
That process could take a minimum of two years, with Leave campaigners suggesting during the referendum campaign that it should not be completed until 2020 – the date of the next scheduled general election. Once Article 50 has been triggered, a country cannot re-join the EU without the consent of all member states. Prime Minister Cameron previously indicated that he would trigger Article 50 as soon as possible after a Leave vote. However Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, who led the campaign to get Britain out of the EU, have disclosed that the prime minister should not rush into it. They have also indicated that they want to make immediate changes before the UK actually leaves the EU, such as curbing the power of EU judges and limiting the free movement of workers, potentially in breach of the UK’s treaty obligations. The government will also have to negotiate its future trading relationship with the EU and fix trade agreements with non-EU countries.
In Whitehall and Westminster, there will now begin the massive task of unstitching the UK from more than 40 years of EU law, deciding which directives and regulations to keep, amend or ditch.
EU Leaders Call for Stability and Solidarity in Wake of Vote
In the wake of the UK’s vote to leave the EU, shocked EU leaders have called for stability and solidary but also for change and reform. While President of the European Council Donald Tusk has stated that the remaining 27 members are determined to stay united, leaders like Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi have stated that the EU had to change and become “more human and more just.”
The European parliament has called for a special session for Tuesday 28 June to assess the vote, while foreign ministers of the six founding nations of the EU – Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Belgium and Luxembourg – will met in Berlin on 25 June. Some leaders of EU member states, such as France’s Francois Hollande, held their own crisis talks on Friday. European parliament president Martin Schulz, president of the European Council Donald Tusk, European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte also went into emergency talks.
Anxious European leaders have issued a number of calls to Britons to stay in the European Union (EU) rather than to risk years of economic damage, however the prime minister whose country will chair the EU from July has stated that it must prepare for a Brexit.
From German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to the heads of the EU institutions in Brussels and the man who forged the modern EU, Jacques Delors, they said that remaining in the EU would be better for Britain and Europe. While they are aware that outside pressure may be counterproductive, they all stressed that it was for voters to decide. While most European leaders have previously muted appeals to the British for fear of being counter productive, a swing towards Brexit in opinion polls a week before the 23 June referendum has sparked deep concern about the impact on the EU, effectively prompting a greater readiness to warn Britons of the harsh consequences.
Chancellor Merkel, who did her best in order to help British Prime Minister David Cameron negotiate a special status deal for Britain in February, has stated that the UK could be shut out of the prized single market on which its large financial services sector is heavily reliant. She stated that “if Britain votes to leave the EU, it will no longer be able to benefit from the advantages of the European common market,” adding that any negotiation of future terms of access would start with Britain bong on the outside. She noted, “I can’t imagine that would be any kind of advantage…But the decision is ultimately up to the Britons.”
While finance ministers from the nineteen EU countries that use the euro currency met on 16 June in Luxembourg, their chairman, Dutch minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, stating that they would not discuss any contingency plans for Brexit. While he acknowledged concern about the British vote, he stated that there was no “Plan B” to deal with it, adding that he was confident that Britons would vote to remain in the EU. That confidence however is not widely shared in Brussels, especially in the past two weeks as polls have swung towards Brexit. One senior diplomat has stated, “we are approaching the point of no return. Brexit is now a visible scenario…We are talking, loudly but not in public. But there is nothing we can do.”
Robert Fico, the outspoken prime minister of Slovakia, who met with Merkel on Thursday, has also indicated that he thinks Britain will vote to leave. He stated, “if you’re watching football and your team is three behind in the 90th minute of the game, its unlikely that there will be a turnaround and that suddenly you will win.” His country’s six-month presidency of the EU begins in July, and would effectively give Slovakia some role in the start of negotiations with a Britain set on leaving the EU. Fico has warned that the polls shows that it is now time to be “realistic” about preparing for that eventuality.
While European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the Union Chief executive, told a questioner at an economic form in Russia that Brexit would not put “the EU in danger of death” he has cautioned against a rise of euro-scepticism across Europe. And like European Council President Donald Tusk, who chairs EU summits, Juncker warned that a Leave vote would unleash “major uncertainty.” Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, made one of his most impassioned calls yet for Britons to stay, saying, “Europe without the United Kingdom will be distinctly weaker. This is obvious. Equally obvious is that the UK outside the EU will be distinctly weaker too,” warning that Brexit would bring “seven years of limbo and uncertainty in our relations.”
Juncker’s distant predecessor from 1985 – 1995, Jacques Delors, has also issued a statement in a bid to dispel rumours that he favoured a Brexit to let other states to integrate further. The architect of the euro single currency stated, “I consider the UK’s participation in the European Union to be a positive element both for the British and for the Union.”
12 February– Early on Wednesday after announcing their official takeover of the country, Shiite Houthi rebels attacked several anti-Houthi demonstrations. Later in the day, thousands of Houthi supporters marched through the capital shouting “Death to America, Death to Israel.” Amid the escalating violence, the US, British and French embassies have closed. The French and British embassies have encouraged all nationals to leave the country immediately. The US State Department currently has no plans to conduct a government-sponsored evacuation, but they have urged US citizens to maintain extreme caution amid an ongoing risk of kidnapping.
The Houthis captured large parts of Sanaa in September, however the embassies remained open. The closures today signal that the security situation has deteriorated significantly and is unlikely to change. Some analysts have indicated that Yemen is likely to slide into civil war.
Following the departure of American staff, Houthi rebels seized over 25 US Embassy vehicles in Sanaa. Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said that although several vehicles were left behind, security forces destroyed heavier weapons before departing the US embassy for a commercial flight out of Yemen. In addition, embassy staff destroyed files and documents. Conflicting reports have emerged that the militiamen harassed US diplomatic personnel and confiscated their vehicles and side arms at the airport.
A small contingency of US military personnel that was not assigned to the embassy remain behind. The closure will not impact counter-terrorism operations against al Qaeda’s Yemen branch, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The branch is considered the most dangerous and active in the AQ network.
Yemen has been in crisis for months. Last week, fighters led by Abdel-Malek al-Houthi dissolved parliament and claimed formal control of the government. Weeks earlier, Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi resigned and has reportedly since been under house arrest. Al-Houthi has repeatedly warned against foreign intervention, saying, “We will not accept pressures. They are of no use. Whoever harms the interest of this country could see that their interests in this country are also harmed.”
About the Houthis
The Houthis stem from a minority branch of Shia Islam known as Zaidism (Zaydism). Zaidis comprise approximately a third of Yemen’s population, and ruled north Yemen for nearly a millennia until 1962, when a coup d’état carried out by Abdullah as-Sallal, successfully dethroned Imam Muhammad al-Badr, who was the newly crowned king of Yemen. Sallal and declared Yemen a republic and became its first president.
North and South Yemen unified in 1990 under its first president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Fearing a threat to their religious and cultural traditions, a portion of the Zaidis formed a rebel group known as Ansar Allah (Partisans of God). The group were led by Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi, a former member of the Yemeni parliament for the Al-Haqq Islamic party between 1993 and 1997. The rebels sought to win greater autonomy for the Saada province. Houthi led the first uprising in June of 2004, but was found and killed by Yemeni security forces in September of that year. After Hussein’s passing, his family took up the mantle, and the Houthis took on the name of their leader. The Houthis conducted five further rebellions until a ceasefire agreement was signed with the Yemeni government in 2010. During the 2011 Arab Spring, the Houthis joined the protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. When Saleh stepped down in 2012, the Houthis quickly used the power vacuum to expand control over the Saadi province, and neighbouring Amran province.
The Houthis claim that the Yemeni people were dissatisfied and under-represented within the government, which they feel is dominated by members of the old regime.
Critics say the Houthis are a proxy for Shia dominated Iran, which the rebels and Iran deny. Former president Saleh has been accused by the US of backing the Houthis’ takeover of Sanaa “to not only delegitimize the central government, but also create enough instability to stage a coup”. In November, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on him and two senior Houthi leaders. The UN said the leaders were threatening Yemen’s peace and stability and obstructing the political process.