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.
Last week, London was rocked by what authorities are calling a terrorist attack, after a man in a vehicle ploughed into pedestrians near Parliament in the central part of the British capital.
The attack, which occurred during the afternoon hours on Wednesday 22 March resulted in four deaths after the man drove his car along a pavement on Westminster Bridge, knocking down pedestrians, creating panic and leaving at least fifty people injured. After crashing his car into railings, the attacker ran towards Parliament where he stabbed a police officer to death. Armed police then shot the attacker. The attack lasted 82 seconds.
In the days that have followed, information emerged regarding the attacker. On Thursday 23 March, Prime Minister Theresa May revealed that the Westminster attacker was a British-born man who was known to the police and intelligence services. The attacker has been named as Khalid Masood. Speaking to MPs on Thursday, she disclosed that the authorities had investigated some years ago but was not part of the current intelligence picture.
Overnight, police officials carried out several raids across the country, which resulted in eight arrests in London and Birmingham. In total, eleven people have been arrested and nine people in total have been released without charge. Scotland Yard has since reported that Masood acted alone and that there is no information to suggest that further attacks are planned. The Metropolitan Police have disclosed that Masoon, 52, had previous criminal convictions but none for terrorism. He had used a number of aliases. At birth, he was registered in Dartford, Kent, as Adrian Elms, but later took his stepfathers name become Adrian Ajao in childhood. In the early 2000s, he was convicted of causing grievous bodily harm after slashing a man across the face with a knife in a pub.
The so-called Islamic State (IS) group has disclosed that it was behind the attack, stating that the attacker had been a soldier of the Islamic State.
The United Kingdom and France have pledged to work together and to “step up” moves to improve the migrant situation in Calais, France.
A statement released shortly after UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd met with her French counterpart Bernard Cazeneuve indicates that both countries would resolve the situation through “close co-operation,” adding that the UK and France would also further secure the port and tunnel in the city.
In the statement, France and the UK further agreed to:
- Bear down on the organized crime gangs exploiting the vulnerable. In 2015, twenty-eight criminal networks were disrupted while since the beginning of this year, an additional 28 have been disrupted.
- Address the humanitarian challenges in Calais as around 7,000 migrants are now present, including 5,000 who are without housing.
- Work together in order to return illegal migrants in Calais who are not in need of protection.
- Further secure the port. A total of 100 million Euros have already been provided by British authorities to reinforce security while French authorities have been providing 1,000 police day and night to prevent intrusion. This scheme has just been recently reinforced by an additional 160 officers.
Ms Rudd and Mr Cazeneuve further disclosed that “the two countries recognize the humanitarian situation in Calais that affects both countries and the need to stop up joint efforts to improve the situation in Calais.”
The show of unity follows calls to allow migrants to lodge UK asylum claims on French soil, something that a source at the Home Office has dismissed as a “complete non-starter.” On 29 August, Xavier Bertrand, the president of the Hauts-de-France region where Calais is located, disclosed that Calais migrants should be allowed to lodge UK asylum claims in France. Under the 2003 Le Touquet agreement between France and the UK, Britain can carry out checks in Calais on people heading to the UK while French officials can do the equivalent in Dover. Mr Bertrand however has stated that he wanted a “new treatment” for asylum seekers trying to get to the UK, adding that people living in the Calais camp known as the Jungle should be able to apply at a “hotspot” in France rather than waiting to reach Britain. He added that those who failed would be deported directly to their country of origin. Under the current rules, which is known as the Dublin Regulation, refugees must register in the first European country that they reach. This country usually takes charge of their asylum claim. While Mr Bertrand does not have the power to change the treaty, some of the candidates looking to win next year’s presidential election in France, including former President Nicolas Sarkozy, agree with him that it should either be reformed or scrapped.
The Jungle camp in Calais, which has about 7,000 people living there, has become the focal point of France’s refugee crisis. Many attempt to reach the UK by hiding inside vehicles entering the nearby port and the Channel Tunnel. Debate over border controls was a key issue during the EU referendum campaign. At the time, former prime minister David Cameroon claimed that the Jungle could move to England if the UK left the EU. However jest weeks after the warning, the then-PM and French President Francois Holland agreed a “mutual commitment” to keep it in place. After the Brexit vote, new UK Prime Minister Theresa May and President Hollande have reiterated that commitment.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May has announced that Britain’s security measures are being reviewed in the wake of the attack in Nice.
As armed police stood guard at the French Embassy in London, Mrs May stated that the nation “must redouble our efforts to defeat these brutal murderers who want to destroy our way of life.” She continued to state that “the threat level here in the United Kingdom is already at severe – that means a terrorist attack is highly likely,” adding, “senior officials today will be reviewing what more we can do to ascertain whether there is any further action to take.” She also stated that the capital stands “shoulder-to-shoulder” with France as it has done in the past and asserted “we must work with our partners around the world to stand up for our values and for our freedom.”
The National Police Chiefs’ Council has revealed that forces are reviewing the policing of large public events over the next seven days in order “to ensure the appropriate security is in place.”
Meanwhile Germany has also stated that it is increasing its border controls at airports as well as road and rail crossings into France. Prime Minister Charles Michel has stated that security is also being increased in Belgium ahead of a national holiday on 21 July.
On Thursday 14 July, at least 84 people, including several children, were killed and dozens more hurt after a man drove a lorry into crowds who had gathered to celebrate Bastille Day along the famous Promenade Des Anglais in the French seaside city.
Earlier this month, Sir John Chilcot outlined his findings on the UK’s involvement in the 2003 Iraq War and the lessons to be learned from it.
The newly released report spans almost a decade of UK government policy decisions that occurred between 2001 and 2009. It covers the background to the decision to go to war, whether troops were properly prepared, how the conflict was conducted and what planning there was for its aftermath.
The main points of the report are the following
- The UK chose to joint the invasion of Iraq before all peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted. At the time, military action was not a last resort.
- The report states that military action might have been necessary later, however in March 2003, there was no imminent threat from the then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, noting that the strategy of containment could have been adapted and continued for some time and that the majority of the United Nations Security Council supported continuing UN inspections and monitoring.
- On 28 July 2002, then Prime Minister Tony Blair assured US President George W. Bush that he would be with him “whatever.” However in the letter, he pointed out that a US coalition for military action would need: Progress on the Middle East peace process, UN authority and a shift in public opinion in the UK, Europe and amongst Arab leaders.
Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)
- Judgements about the severity of the threat posed by Iraq’s WMD’s were presented with a certainty that was not justified.
- Intelligence had “not established beyond doubt” that Saddam Hussein had continued to produce chemical and biological weapons.
- The Joint Intelligence Committee disclosed that Iraq had “continued to produce chemical and biological agents” and that there had ben “recent production.” It added that Iraq had the means to deliver chemical and biological weapons, however it did not state that Iraq had continued to produce weapons.
- Policy on the Iraq invasion was made on the basis of flawed intelligence assessment. The report notes that it was not challenged and should have been.
The Legal Case
- The report states that the circumstances in which it was decided that there was a legal basis for UK military action were “far from satisfactory.”
- While the invasion began on 20 March 2003, it was not until 13 March that then Attorney General Lord Goldsmith advise there was, on balance, a secure legal basis for military action. Furthermore, apart from No 10’s response to his letter on 14 March, there was no formal record made of that decision and the precise grounds on which it was made remain unclear.
- The UK’s actions undermined the authority of the United Nations Security Council: The UN’s Charter puts responsibility for the maintenance of peace and security in the Security Council. The UK government was claiming to act on behalf of the international community “to uphold the authority of the Security Council,” however it knew that it did not have a majority supporting its actions.
- In Cabinet, there was little questioning of Lord Goldsmith about his advice and no substantive discussion of the legal issues recorded.
- The report notes that there was “little time” to properly prepare three military bridges for deployment in Iraq, noting that the risks were neither “properly identified nor fully exposed” to ministers, which effectively resulted in “equipment shortfalls.”
- Between 2003 and 2009, UK forces in Iraq faced gaps in some key capability areas, which included armoured vehicles, reconnaissance and intelligence assets and helicopter support.
- It was not sufficiently clear which person in the department within the Ministry of Defense had responsibility for identifying and articulating such gaps.
- The report notes that delays in providing adequate medium weight protected patrol vehicles and the failure to meet the needs of UK forces for reconnaissance and intelligence equipment and helicopters should not have been tolerated.
- Despite explicit warnings, the consequences of the invasion were underestimated, with the report noting that the planning and preparations for Iraq after Saddam Hussein were “wholly inadequate.”
- The government failed to achieve the stated objective, which it had set itself in Iraq. More than 200 British citizens died as a result of the conflict. Iraqi people also suffered greatly. By July 2009, at least 150,000 Iraqis had died, probably more, and more than one million were displaced.
- The report found that Mr Blair overestimated his ability to influence US decisions on Iraq, adding that the UK’s relationship with the US does not require unconditional support.
- It stated that ministerial discussion, which encourages frank and informed debate and challenge, is important. As is ensuring civilian and military arms of government of being properly equipped.
- In future, all aspects of any intervention need to be calculated, debated and challenged with rigour. Decisions need to be fully implemented.