The Leeds Infirmary fake news is part of a greater problem

Ten years ago, the concept of Social Media being used to influence political outcomes and spread division was largely unthinkable. Indeed, Social Media a decade ago was simply a growing and exciting new way to connect with people, stay in touch with friends and, to the delight of teenagers and bored employees everywhere, play games. In the modern era, platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are integral to the social and political state of the world. From breaking news alerts to the grandiose confusing tweets of certain world leaders, it is central to the spread of information, debate and the persuasion of electorates. It is also the most dangerous threat to our democracy and the most unregulated form of information in the world; a fact that the controversy surrounding the “Leeds Hospital” scandal has proved.

The development of Social Media for political engagement has led to it’s development as a tool of political manipulation. The major platforms, notably Facebook, profit from allowing for the “pushing” of content that is neither fact-checked or source-checked. Based on its data algorithms, this allows users to push content and ideas to target groups through social media, without needing to verify their source or provide proof of their claims. Similarly, there are no restrictions on account creation – all it takes is an email address and a name – meaning that any number of accounts can be entirely fabricated and held by an individual or group. Whilst this has benefited advertising and commercial interest greatly, who can user social media algorithms to reach target demographics much more effectively, the political implication is severe. 

No story encapsulates the risk of unregulated social media and content targeting more than the controversy surrounding Leeds General Infirmary. The event in question refers to a photo circulating of a four-year-old boy with suspected pneumonia who, due to short staffing and a lack of beds in Leeds General Infirmary, was forced to sleep on a pile of coats on the floor of the waiting room. As the image circulated, uproar grew over the lack of provision available by the NHS, restricted due to systemic budget cuts and failure to retain nurses. Indeed, Leeds General Infirmary have confirmed the photo in question was true, and have apologised to the boy’s family for the lack of provision available.

There are many caveats to this story that make it so significant. From Boris Johnson pocketing a reporter’s phone as they showed him the photo, to the proven falsehood of a “senior Conservative source” regarding the now disproved punching of Matt Hancock’s aide at the hospital, the scope and continuing curiosity of events make it hard to cover all aspects in 1500 words. However, the aspect that is most significant, and in no uncertain terms to our democracy, relates to the spreading of disinformation by unidentified “Bot Farms” and social media firms on major social media platforms. First appearing on one individual social media account – the user of which, who will not be named due to their personal concerns for safety – the following message was shared:

“Very interesting. A good friend of mine is a senior nursing sister at Leeds Hospital – the boy shown on the floor by the media was in fact put there by his mother”

The post then goes on to detail how the photo had been apparently fabricated, before describing it as “another Momentum propaganda story”. Whilst the details are concerning, they are also false – there exists no “Leeds Hospital”, the photo had been corroborated by Leeds General Infirmary itself, and the user in question claimed hacking having stated no affiliation to anyone in the medical profession or, indeed, the city of Leeds.

Within a matter of hours, hundreds of Social Media accounts had shared the message, in various online groups and locations seemingly designed to maximise impact. As shown by Marc Owen Jones, one target of the “March Cambridgeshire Free Discussion group” – a Facebook group with over 37,000 members – created significant engagement and disgust at the proposed fabrication of the photo. The beauty of a disinformation campaign, from an objective perspective that overlooks the egregious and disgusting campaign to vilify a young child in hospital, is that it only takes a few successful placements of the story for the lie to go viral. Indeed, most of the sharing and dissemination of the story after the initial period came from real accounts and verified users; notably conservative figures, a telegraph columnist and former international cricketer.

Now, the problem of political misinformation is not one that is brand new to politics. From the recent controversy surrounding CCHQ and its false branding as “@FactCheckUK”, to the actions of Cambridge Analytica, Social Media has become to political organisations a means of misleading, persuading and dividing electorates. It is entirely unregulated, and in fact facilitated by social media platforms themselves. Therefore, as two senior politicians put forward in April 2019, “We cannot allow these harmful behaviours to and content to undermine the significant benefits that the digital revolution can offer”.

These are the words of Sajid Javid and Jeremy Wright, formerly home secretary and culture secretary respectively, in their “Online Harms” white paper. The document, available here, was commissioned during the final months of Theresa May’s premiership. It outlines the dangers to society and politics that unregulated social media poses, both domestic and international, before recommending the introduction of regulatory frameworks and bodies to prevent the spread of harmful or misleading content, and actions that threaten the public safety or interest.  Whilst the exact details of their proposal have been condemned by some as Draconian censorship, the White Paper itself represented a concerted addressing of the dangers of unregulated social media to British society, politics and Democracy.

So where is the regulatory body and the white paper in the wake of the “Leeds Hospital” Scandal? Eight months after the publication of the White paper, it is nowhere to be seen in parliamentary discourse. Whilst perhaps the December election might explain this, the political landscape has not been in it’s favour either. Dominic Cummings, a veritable Tsar of Online disinformation and Social media manipulation, is now senior adviser to the Prime Minister. The PM in question spreads misinformation at an alarming rate, ranging from his former journalistic controversies to contradictions over the future trade relationship with Northern Ireland after Brexit. Sajid Javid, co-presenter of the White paper itself, now sits as Chancellor in a Government who’s political wing falsely branded itself as a fact checking service to spread political propaganda. No regulation exists; instead the governing party of the United Kingdom actively utilises the platform for disinformation and political manipulation for its own interests.

It is a point that needs repeating. Social Media offers a platform through which private interests can push disinformation, manipulate opinion and erode democracy. The governing party of the United Kingdom, having published a report and white paper on the dangers of this to our nation, have elected instead to use it to undermine their political opponents and deflect from their own shortcomings. The proclivity of the non-discerning user to believe their Twitter feed, and suspect their trust in media outlets, means that many will refuse to believe the truth of a young boy forced to sleep on coats due to the overstretching of a systemically reduced national health service.

The need for regulation has never been clearer. Social Media is one of the great developments of the digital age; facilitating the advent of new forms of communication, self-expression and connection. It is also the greatest threat to democratic institutions and political trust in the unfortunate post-truth era. Without regulation and restriction on Social Media platforms that facilitate disinformation, Politicians and private interest groups will continue down the past of post-truth and online manipulation to divide and conquer the electorate. Whilst the White Paper may not be the right course of action, it represents the right response to this.

If the trend of growth and digitisation continues, Social Media will not only become the central source of information in society, but it will also be filled with bots, fake information and private interests seeking to manipulate opinion and truth. Without regulation, we face a near-Orwellian threat to our lives; our democracy, our freedom of information and, perhaps, freedom of thought is at stake.

The horrifying reality of Cameroon’s Anglophone ‘civil war’

Children in Cameroon are bearing the brunt of the Anglophone crisis with schools becoming “battlefields,” says one resident. 
Since 2016, a wave of violence has swept the North West and South West regions of Cameroon – where English-speaking people in Cameroon reside.
The conflicts left children as young as seven in regions like Bamenda and Kumbo witnessing the everyday violence, says South west born James.
“A lot of these children have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. What they have seen and experienced I can not  explain it. It’s too awful and there are not enough services that can help them deal with this.”
“Anyone who speaks the Anglophone will be shot and killed, and when this is happening you cannot film, you can not even bring your phone out or else you will be targeted too,” he told The Peoples News.
Over the last three years 80% of schools closed as a result of the “crisis”, denying more than 600,000 children access to education. 450,000 people within the NW and SW regions – half of them children – have been displaced to neighbouring areas, according to a report published by the UN. 
The violence, which has often been described as a civil war, started after English-speaking lawyers and teachers protested against their perceived marginalisation and called for more autonomy away from the French regions. 
Instead, President Paul Biya used force to break up the Anglophone demonstrations – which James believes radically changed the atmosphere in the country and started an uprising of violence. 

Impact of violence 

 In November  2018, 80 people were kidnapped from the region of Bamenda from the Presbyterian Secondary School Nkwen.
Several months later a total of 176 people, mostly students, were kidnapped by unidentified gunmen at Saint Augustin’s College in Kumbo, in the North West region of Cameroon. They were released the next day – after negotiations to shut down the school were made.
James admitted that over the last three years it was not just the French-speaking who incited violence. 
He said: “They (Anglophones) kidnap or hurt you if you advocate for school resumption, just like my uncle who is a pastor in Bamenda was kidnapped because he is in support of schools continuing.”
“ To them they think when schools are not functioning, it will push the government to negotiate. But this is not the case.”
The two Anglophone regions have requested greater authority from the government since former territories held by the British and French were federated into one central African nation in 1961.
The 25 year-old said people, particularly the young, have become “scared to the point where they avoid going outside to identify their families bodies.”
This is to ensure no one identifies them as also being part of the English-speaking community.
“I had to move from the South West to escape everything that was happening but my family was still living there so I would visit often. But like others they have all moved from there now to neighbouring regions {Limbe}. No one is left in my home town,” James said.
 He added: “It makes me sad knowing that children in some of the cities in these regions can’t go to school, it’s almost like a battlefield for them. And the fact that my father cannot go back to the house he recently built before the crises began.”
“All of these things have had a toll on me mentally and sometimes I wake up at night when its raining thinking about those in the bushes in those regions with no shelter it sends chills down my spine each time I think about it.”

Resolutions

James believes that one day the violence in Cameroon will change the same way Rwanda’s violence did. 
“In my opinion I think the United Nations and African Union needs to set up some sort of a peace keeping mission to keep the military and the separatists at bay so the civilians can return.”
“The UN and other organisations push for dialogues by urging a monitored negotiation  but unfortunately the government is reluctant,” he said. 

Names of individuals mentioned in this article have been changed for their protection.

Image by: Stringer 2019

Nationalisation: a flawed idea, or an economic saving grace?

Nationalisation is often seen as a buzzword. It usually has a weird effect on people that causes them to start rabidly screaming the words “Marxist” at you every time it’s mentioned. With the Labour Manifesto in the public domain, this phenomenon is becoming more and more common. However, if you’re going to make such a comparison, at least give the Communist Manifesto a read first. The Labour party has pledged to re-nationalise industries such as the Royal Mail, British Energy, as well as Broadband services. Whether the policies put forward by Jeremy Corbyn are plausible or not isn’t the point of discussion, I’m more interested in establishing how or if nationalism fits into the modern-day.

Firstly, it must be established that nationalisation is not actually that radical. Corbyn’s manifesto has been called “Radical” by the BBC and even members of the Labour Party, but the actual policy of nationalisation isn’t as extreme at all. America has utilised nationalisation in various industries, and their Government the exact opposite of socialist. Nearly nine out of ten people in the United States receive their water service from a publicly owned utility and in the last 20 years. Since then, nationalisation of the water industry has only expanded. From 2007 to 2014, the portion of people with water from publicly owned water suppliers increased from 83% to 87%. France’s mass nationalisation of its energy industry in the 1980s, Germany’s re-nationalisation of the Print Office in 2008 after it was privatised in 2001, and Iceland’s re-nationalisation of its largest commercial banks in 2008, shows that it isn’t some outlandish or outdated idea. 

This isn’t necessarily a socialist idea, it’s simply economically liberal. What is then done with nationalised industries is what takes it a step further. Even the services stated above are only a partially nationalised industry, as the state does not have a 100% market share and neither does it legally obstruct private companies from entering the industry. The common question asked is, why on earth would the government want to do this? Simple, it’s because we can’t trust the market completely to operate fairly, and when it crashes, the market won’t protect the public.

In some industries – take water for example – it just makes more sense to have fewer entities providing the service because of the infrastructure involved. The economically savvy readers will recognise this as a natural monopoly. It’s even been used to pull banks and other private entities out of trouble. This is done by temporarily buying them to ensure they don’t collapse and cause damage to the economy as a whole. A good example was when the US government took over GM Motors. When the problem is resolved, the government simply sells the company afterwards. In the case of nationalising industry, it allows the consumer to get a cheaper or even free service whilst the government tanks the cost but runs the companies, they are purchased at a profit which can then go back into your pocket.

Some of you will be reading this and think “Why don’t we just do this for everything? Cheap Nationalised Broadband? Sounds great”. Don’t jump the gun. It’s not something to be taken lightly and isn’t always a good idea. When nationalising an industry, the assumption is the government will actually be good at running the businesses in that industry. You can very easily argue that the British Government, in combination with local government, just isn’t good at it.

To paint a picture, I’m going to use the Labour party promise to provide a state-run fibre broadband service across the country. I am a huge PC gamer nerd. I play mostly League of Legends and Counter-Strike, but anyone who plays video games regularly can unite and agree upon a common enemy, bad ping. Lag spikes are actually the worst, and usually, we all have little tricks we use to try and deal with them, but if they don’t work, we are comforted by the fact that we can just switch broadband providers or upgrade our service. If Broadband is nationalised, you might not be able to do that, leaving you with bad ping and poor gaming experience. 

The state wants to purchase broadband relevant parts of BT, but the BT group also owns Plusnet and EE which have their own broadband services. If only the state broadband service is available in the area you live in, and that service just isn’t good enough, you would have to move to get to a different service provider, because currently there are only 5 providers for commercial usage, and 3 of them (BT, Plusnet and EE) could end up under the state service. To make it even worse, Openreach (a BT Subsidiary) maintains the fibre networks that the other broadband services sell, so if a state broadband service was to exist, the government would either need control of that as well or sub-contract it to Openreach. Even with all those complications, it doesn’t even touch on the fact that everyone who currently works for those companies now becomes state employees, and that’s a whole different fiasco.

Although nationalisation isn’t a ‘pipe dream’ like some would call it. The belief that magically buying all these industries will solve itself is certainly naïve. As I have displayed by briefly exploring the result of the nationalisation of just one service, this is not a straightforward process by any means. Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, said the nationalisation plans of the Labour Party as a whole is risky and would require a restructuring of the economy specifically in the area of taxation. This would be a slow and gradual process that would take around 10 years. This doesn’t just apply to the Labour Party’s plan, it applies the nationalisation as an idea. 10 years is two governments, maybe three, governments. Who says our economic situation doesn’t change? Who says halfway through the project it’s no longer economically viable and the whole thing gets put on hold?

Nationalisation isn’t the Marxist evil that many claim it to be, but it isn’t necessarily the undeniable saving grace of the British population that it is being peddled as either.

We must not let Brexit dominate this election’s agenda

Brexit, Brexit, Brexit – the word you hear time and time again. You hear it from the mouths of your family, friends and neighbours; you read it in the newspapers; you see it repeated endlessly as you scroll through social media. It is a cause of anxiety and upset for many on both sides of the debate. Ever since the referendum in 2016, we have seen two early general elections and the departure of two Prime Ministers (and soon, perhaps, a third). While Brexit is a topic which must be addressed, we must not let it push other important issues such as climate change and austerity into the deep, dark corners of our politics.

While it is entirely likely that a Tory-led exit from the E.U will be disastrous for the economy, what will be even more disastrous is global warming. The impact of Brexit may last for generations but the consequences of the excessive heating of our planet will be something we’re stuck with for eternity. The IPCC warns that if governments don’t step up to tackle climate change in the next twelve years, the effects could be irreversible. Rising sea levels could mean more flooding of coastal regions, which will grind businesses to a halt, the Met Office insists. To make matters worse, resulting damage to infrastructure such as roads, bridges and rails will hinder national trade but also stop many workers from going to their places of employment, which will contribute to a massive drain on the economy.

Environmental policy is not simply an infrastructure issue; it will affect living standards, create climate refugees, and ultimately lead to a spiking death rate – and only the Labour Party seem to be offering a real solution to this issue with their “Green New Deal”, created in consultation with climate scientists. Labour alone must push the issue to the top of the agenda pile; not Jo Swinson, who has taken a lax approach to fracking, and certainly not Boris Johnson, who wrote his party’s climate agenda with the help of the fracking industry.

For the past nine years, the Conservative Party’s brutal austerity programme has crushed the working classes, decimating and privatising our public services. Cuts in police, youth centres and drug treatment services imposed by the Conservatives ever since they got into power in 2010 have led to an increase in crime up and down the UK:

These are issues which have been around longer than Brexit and deserve far more attention from the political parties.

For many of us, Brexit has proven to be a dark cloud which overshadows everything else. The electorate must realise that this general election is not and cannot simply be a “Brexit election”; it’s an election for climate change, it’s an election for our police services, our youth centres, our health facilities, our schools. The future isn’t simply Brexit or no Brexit, it’s our children going to well-funded schools and receiving world class education, our police being funded properly so they can make our country a safer place to live, our NHS, and the state of our climate.