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Friday, 15 June 2018

A lie is halfway round the world before the truth gets its boots on (pt2)

I like a bit of symmetry in my social media content. So, after Tuesday's post about how fake news outruns truth on Twitter, I’m following up with an example of a bit of ‘truth’ that’s taken nearly half a century to catch up with an apparently false cultural idea. You may be familiar with the ‘infamous’ Stanford Prison experiments of the 1970s? These ethically dubious experiments saw students voluntarily incarcerated in a mock prison, policed by ‘mock’ student prison guards. Soon into the experiment the mock guards began mistreating the volunteer prisoners. A chilling conclusion drawn from the study was that even ‘normal’ people tend to abuse their power over others, given a certain set of circumstances. But a new French documentary blows the lid off the 46-year-old experiment. The film includes in-depth interviews with students and academics who were there. Is the truth finally catching up with the ‘fake’ findings of the Stanford Prison experiment, nearly half a century after its findings became embedded in western cultural lore? Blog is here:

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

A lie is halfway round the world before the truth gets its boots on (pt1)

Finally we have proof! A lie is halfway round the world before the truth has its boots on. This MIT research finds that false news travels faster on Twitter, by orders of magnitude, than 'truth' (though 'truth', as ever, is probably doing alot of heavy lifting here). Interestingly it's not robots spreading disinformation at an exponential rate, it's us. And what does the research conclude makes people engage with false stories more easily? Yes, you're right: emotion. There's strong research in the area of 'affective intelligence ' that's been saying this for a while now. Research is here

Friday, 8 June 2018

What are campaigning charities really afraid of?

Something that interests me is the disparity between mainstream charity campaigning and politically-motivated campaigns, on the right.

I was prompted to think about this again in the wake of yet more research about the impact the Lobbying Act has had on charity campaigns. The Sheila McKechnie Foundation, finds 90%  of charities blaming the Lobbying Act for having a chilling effect on their campaigning activity, forcing them to avoid being critical of government on contentious issues like welfare reform, for example.
This phrase in the report jarred with me in particular:
“Ultimately, it is up to the Government as the accountable body for such freedoms and regulations, to ensure that the interaction of policies and legislation do not unreasonably constrain what civil society may speak into public life, and how.”
But a cursory glance at the actions, activities and networks around organisations like the Taxpayers Alliance reveals that some campaigners are clearly feeling none of the ‘chill’ that is paralyzing mainstream charities and NGOs.

A further quote from the SMK report, this time from the Salvation Army included an incredible (for me) assumption about the 'public imagination' when it comes to campaigning. 
“The original intention of the Lobbying Act was good, but the public imagination now says that any attempt to influence is illegitimate. But an uninfluenced democracy is a dictatorship. There’s danger that the voluntary sector makes itself illegitimate by ceasing to influence. We see influence as good as long as it is transparent.”
(The Salvation Army)
Of course transparency matters. But what is this public imagination the Salvation Army speaks of? Is there evidence people actually think charity campaigns are illegitimate? Is it real or in the mind of the Salvation Army’s own campaigns team?
For sure the media does seem more critical of charities these days, but this isn't entirely unjustified, given recent issues around fundraising and safeguarding affecting charities and NGOs. It is also true that certain right wing campaigns (for example, the IEA) have played a role in creating an air of skepticism about the advocacy work charities do. 

But huge public support for campaigns like Stop Funding Hate and the groundswell behind movements like Momentum would appear to contradict the notion that the public has lost faith in campaigning.

Perhaps certain charity campaigners have lost faith in themselves? Perhaps the public has simply lost faith in certain charities?

Friday, 1 June 2018

Back to the future for Onwards: a new think tank for t'yoof

It’s been a dazzling few weeks in Westminster village think tank world with tanks close to Conservative Party MPs continuing to make the biggest waves (where do they get their money from?).
‘Onward’ with its plethora of ex-Policy Exchange hands, is the interesting new outfit on the block. But what’s driving this spontaneous flowering of Conservative wonkery? 
It's t’yoof innit? 

The Huffington Post reckons:
‘…many [Tory] MPs realise that unless they can appeal to younger voters the election after the next one could be disastrous.’

So who better to lead this new generation of “second hand dealers in ideas” than…. Michael Gove MP!! 
It's not like he’s been a more-or-less ever present cabinet minister for eight years is it? And as a massive Brexiteer, he'll easily endear himself to young people, surely.
And to top it off, Michael was himself young once.

Here he is on TV in the 80s… being youthful.

Micky will, of course, be partnered by that saviour of Scottish Conservatism, Ruth Davidson.

Anyway, for me it's the collection of ex Policy Exchange staffers, trustees and associated fellow travellers that's notable about this new 'Onwards' outfit (The Times' Sam Coates noted it, the Guido blag noted it too). Former Policy Exchange Trustee Lord 'finger on the pulse of yoof' Finkelstein has apparently signed up, though he's been coy about out it on Twitter, imo. 

Back to the future?
Ex Policy Exchange Comms head, Nigel Faith, is chief among the luminaries heading up this new forward-looking thinky tanky thing. Faith left Policy Exchange to set up lobbying company WPI. There he was joined by ‘respected economist and policy expert’  Matt Oakley, the architect of Iain Duncan Smith’s benefit sanctions policy. A policy which, new research, has [again] confirmed has been an absolute catastrophe for young people. Oakley himself formerly worked for Policy Exchange. See Donkey passim.

Another WPI staffer is Guy Miscampbell, someone who seems to be really likeable on social media. Back in 2014, Guy wrote a paper (you guessed it for..... Policy Exchange!) on benefit sanctions. The paper was heavily criticised by academic Dr David Webster a respected benefit sanctions academic, see Donkey passim.
(In passing – and for no other reason than mischief – I must also draw the reader’s attention to another member of the team at WPI – John 'Come to Peckham and say that' McTernan – mastermind of Labour’s 2015 Scottish General Election campaign. The south London slugger is listed as an ‘associate’ at WPI.)

So it’s great to see ‘Onward’ adopting such a forward looking recruitment strategy. I'm sure it will it will soon have much to commend itself by way of further immiserating t’yoof over the coming years.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Sockpuppet IEA slapped down by charity regulator

It was delicious this week to see the business lobbyists think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs  called out by the Charity Commission for breaking rules on political campaigning during the recent UK general election.

Although the Commission hasn't made a big deal of it, the small matter of an upheld complaint about the IEA's party political bias is contained in one of the charity regulator's reports (read the full report here). 

It's a welcome comeuppance for the IEA, which really is little more than a business lobbying outfit that masquerades as a research institute and is among the least transparent 'think tanks' in the UK.
The IEA has been behind a series of smears against the charity sector down the years, at various times attacking the Child Poverty Action Group for being too 'political'. It's infamous sockpuppet 'research' was used to smear the charity sector. Then, last year, the IEA was behind an announcement  by the Cabinet Office that charities who receive UK funding would themselves be banned from lobbying the government on legislation. A move considered by civil servants themselves to be stupid, unworkable and unnecesarry. It was eventually dropped.
Anyway, it turns out that the real sockpuppet in all of this was... the Institute of Economic Affairds itself.
Couldn't happen to a nicer bunch.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Why does the world need a fund to support LGBT people whose rights are under threat?

The following is a fictional account, but drawn from real-life testimony about an ongoing situation.
 You arrive at work like any other morning. The sun is shining and you’re positive about the day ahead, but something’s not right. There are police officers outside and the door to your office has been smashed in, papers with private details of people from the LGBTI community in your town are strewn across the ground.
At your desk sits the country’s Minister of Interior. He raises his gaze from the list of beneficiaries that your organisation works with and fixes his eyes on you.
“Report to my ministry within 24 hours,” he demands, “You need to prove to me that you have the right to work in this country. We want your registration documents, a list of the people you work for and who funds you.
“We have reason to believe that your organisation’s activities are unlawful in this country. If we are not satisfied with your answers, we will shut you down and imprison you.”[1]
What do you do? Do you need a lawyer? Do you need to leave town?

Physical attacks on the LGBT community – the need for a ‘safe house’ during an emergency.
Beyonce, 35, was attacked by a mob outside her home in October, 2015. For 12 months she had been receiving threats of violence after hosting a social gathering for transgender women at her home.
She said: “Most people were wondering who these ‘boys’ were and people started spreading rumours that I was recruiting people into homosexuality. On Sunday while talking to a group of guys in my neighborhood, I was informed that there was a witch hunt for me and my ‘boy-girl’ friends; they wanted to cut off our balls and burn us to death.”
Beyonce escaped the area and secured emergency accommodation, but after two days she had to move on again, that’s when her luck ran out.
“I went to a friend’s house and as I waited at the gate, a number of guys came and beat me up. The attack lasted about five minutes and fortunately, a friend of mine happened to be in the vicinity and came to my rescue. He scared the goons away and managed to save my bag; I was in shock and tears as I quickly digested what had just happened. I was then taken to Bunga where I spent the night at another friend’s place. So far I have been supported by friends who have heard about my ordeal and offered assistance in one way or the other. This is not the first attack I have gone through but I strongly believe the people who have been sending me these threatening messages must have followed me and were determined to kill me. Of all the attacks I have been subjected to, this is the first time I have dealt with death threats and I am very scared for my life; I am currently staying at a safe house where East and Horn 48 has placed me for the time being.” [2]

The state of LGBTI criminalisation
Africa: Thirty four of Africa’s 54 countries, maintain laws that criminalise consensual same-sex
sexual practices between males, with 24 of these applying to sexual relations between women.
These laws most often perpetuate stigma, persecution and discrimination on the basis of a person’s
sexual orientation and gender identity, and they form the basis upon which governments deny
activists their right to freely associate with like-minded individuals. [3]
Latin America and the Caribbean: Despite its overall track record of progress in the fight for legal equality for LGBT people the Americas has the highest levels of violence and murder against the LGBTI population. However, at the same time, the region shows the highest levels of violence and murder against LGBTI population. [4]
The  Rapid Response Fund has been set up by the International HIV/AIDS Alliance to support LGBT-led organisations in 29 counties considered hostile to LGBT and MSM human rights.
The overall objective of the fund is to alleviate specific risks from stigma, discrimination and violence that threaten the provision, access and uptake of HIV services for LGBT people. Grants of between $5,000 and $20,000  for organisations that face an immediate or longer term threat are available

For more information visit Rapid Response Fund

[1] Although fictional, this account is based on testimony from an incident that occurred in one of the 29 countries covered by the EJAF Rapid Response Fund.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

IDS: Ignorance, Agnotology and Gas Lighting?

It is well known that Iain Duncan Smith has a limited patience for reality.
He has faith in a calamitous policy of Universal Credit, he believes that unemployment has no structural causes and that the unemployed can be sanctioned into work. The evidence, at every turn, shows he is wrong (see Donkey passim). But evidence long since passed being relevant.

I’ve been party to conversations about IDS. I’ve spoken to high profile anti-poverty campaigners who ally an intimate grasp of his damaging policies with a surprising forbearance for his desire to be seen as a sympathetic social reformer. (Incredibly some really do see IDS as a social reformer, see this Spectator piece by Isabel Hardman).

Other people, while not necessarily ruling out his good intentions, think him a bungling idiot. Surely this was behind the media’s wrongly held belief, last year, that he was due to be sacked. In the event neither reshuffle, nor a subsequent general election left a mark on this most shambolic of ministers.

This tells us a lot about mainstream journalists and commentators, but precious little about IDS.

George Osborne, according to right wing commentator, Matthew D’Ancona, thinks IDS an intellectual lightweight, an observation that, if true, is especially interesting if added to D’Ancona’s other revelation that IDS was shocked, upon entering government, at just how jealously the Treasury guards its power over public spending (how can a politician be unaware of this?).

Still, IDS survives concurrently with a reputation as a deeply ignorant politician.

It was with this in mind that I read an interesting paper by Edinburgh University academic, Tom Slater. It enjoins us to pay closer attention to something that IDS is very good at: agnotology, or the promotion of ignorance.

And we should pay attention to Slater’s thesis. Because if we are to stand a chance of fighting the drip of poison aimed against society’s most vulnerable, then we need to confront the reality that a formally ‘liberal’ or reason-based politics has long since ceased to operate in this country. We need to confront the fact of a deliberate campaign of ignorance-inducing propaganda, honed by neoliberalism during countless skirmishes against practical reason (think climate change denial, big tobacco, Greece or austerity more generally).

It’s a thesis (unwittingly?) echoed by Adam Curtis, whose last documentary tackled a similar project of political ignorance, but this time at the level of culture.

Agnotology is the process of sowing doubt with the aim of keeping people sufficiently unsure about reality, such that they are dissuaded from acting to change it. Philip Mirowski in his book ‘Never Let a Good Crisis Go To Waste’ recounts how this process ran its course in the run up to 2008 crisis and in its subsequent fallout.

Mirowski painstakingly depicts what sometimes feels like a conspiracy theory-sized account of how reasonable, rational positions (on issues as varied as climate change, tax and macro economics) were systematically undermined with the sole aim of preventing change contra to the interests of the wealthy.  A further collection of articles on this burgeoning area of academic inquiry is contained in the book ‘Agnotology: the making and unmaking of ignorance,’ including research which uncovered the famous tobacco industry memo declaring ‘Ignorance is our product'.

Students of agnotology say it is qualitatively different from simple propaganda, in that it’s object is the social and cultural production of ignorance.

I’m often struck by the similarity agnotology bares to the phenomenon of ‘gas lighting’. Gas lighting is a form of psychological abuse, diagnosed by feminist thinkers, that convinces its object (usually a female spouse, but also children) to doubt their memory, perception, reality and, ultimately, their sanity (the term ‘gas lighting’ is from the 1944 film ‘Gas Light’). Feminists have noted the way abusive men routinely enact the technique through a combination of lies, deceit, rumour (and just enough truth) to keep their victimised partner or family, unsure, unbalanced, emotionally drained, isolated and thus easier to control. The technique is an acknowledged favourite of the narcissist and the psychopath, also the torturer (Read this blog for a delicious example of how a woman turned the tables on a gas lighting partner, by making him watch the film ‘Gas Light’. As an aside, the Greek film ‘Dog Tooth,’ while fictional, seems to me to come close to depicting the workaday horror of a family marked by this kind of abuse.)

For me there is something uncannily familiar about the gas lighting favoured by the domestic abuser and the deceitful propaganda about benefit scroungers, skivers and foreigners spouted by our media and political class. The ‘look over there’ smears parroted by the likes of Osborne, Farage and others in our political class. The hatred whipped up against the poor by programmes like Benefits Street.  The sense that the BBC may not have crossed the Rubicon in the public’s mind with its idea of making poor people compete against each other for the title of ‘Britain’s Best Grafter.’

In IDS’s favour, I can’t find a single example of him ever having uttered the word ‘scrounger’.  Indeed he denies ever saying it (George Osborne came close in his infamous‘shirkers versus skivers’ budget speech). But to chase around looking for a verbatim record of what IDS or Osborne did or didn’t say is to miss the point entirely, indeed it is to fall victim to the self-same mind games so beloved of the gas lighting, agnotological abuser.

Some advice

The best defence against narcissism is to run. 

Unfortunately, the poor, the disabled, the young, the sick and the unemployed cannot just up sticks to Bermuda to spend time with their offshore accounts.

The second best defence is to be prepared to count everything as a lie, to judge these people by what they do, and allow no mitigation in their endless fork tonguery. It is a sign of weakness, like blood in the water, to engage a narcissist in a discussion about reasons. Similarly it is a proper defence mechanism against the crazy-making barbs of politicians to dismiss everything they say, offhand.
Forget about the lies. Fixating on the lie is their trick, a means to an end. Insanity and anomie lie at the end of any attempt to reason with such people.

Condemning all politicians is no new thing. Indeed from the comfort of the commentariat it is a position often sneered at. Well, it may be ‘unsophisticated,’ it may be uncouth to them, but what difference should that make?

We have the right, to treat as lies, every word from the mouth of IDS and his ilk.