Winnie Mandela: The revisionist history of racism in South Africa

As tens of thousands of South Africans packed into Soweto’s Orlando stadium to sing the praises of their fallen ‘Comrade Winnie’, the crowd was treated to a service rich in political sloganeering. With the leadership of her former husband’s party, the African National Congress, headlining the triumphalist proceedings, a casual observer would be forgiven for thinking that the ANC were genuine in their mourning of the loss of the party’s symbolic first-lady. However, the high note on which the relationship between the ANC and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela ended on Saturday masks four-decades of conflict between the ‘Mother of South Africa’ and the nation’s founding party.

Much like Nelson and Winnie Mandela’s marriage, seemingly irreconcilable differences split Mrs. Mandela from the ANC and drove the two sides apart despite their shared connection in bringing about the post-apartheid South African state. However, with the death of Mrs Mandela, the ANC has seized the opportunity to revise the historical narrative as to her standing within the party and capitalise on the public outpouring of sympathy following her death.

As is common following the death of prominent figures, friends and foes alike have sought to associate themselves with the legacy of Mrs. Mandela. In death, divisions are often bridged unilaterally by surviving parties, as memorialisation and politically opportunistic revisionism go hand in hand with remembrance. The commemoration of Mrs. Mandela has been no different as the ANC used the occasion of her funeral to amend the relationship between the party and ‘Mama Africa’ within the nation’s popular consciousness.

The fractious divide between Mrs. Mandela and the ANC began during the 1980s and continued up until her death. With Nelson Mandela imprisoned, and most of his ANC party in exile, Mrs. Mandela positioned herself as the defacto leader of the anti-apartheid movement. Presiding over a violent militia known as the ‘Mandela United Football Club’, Mrs. Mandela reportedly endorsed the necklacing – the burning of people alive with petrol-soaked tyres – as an appropriate response to apartheid state collaborators and police informants. Ostensibly operating as her security detail, the Mandela United Football Club reportedly engaged in a campaign of kidnap, torture, murder, and assassination, which led the ANC government in exile to publically rebuke Mrs. Mandela after she refused to heed Nelson Mandela’s instructions to stand down.

According to testimony by her own bodyguards during the 1997 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) proceedings, she directly ordered at least fifteen deaths, and stood by her declaration that ‘with our boxes of matches and our necklaces we shall liberate this country.’ The most infamous of Mrs. Mandela’s alleged atrocities was the murder of 15-year-old Stompie Seipei, who was stabbed to death after being accused of being a police informant. She was later acquitted of the murder after one key witness was abducted and transferred to Zambia, and another, a doctor who was due to testify that he examined Seipei at Mrs. Mandela’s home shortly before his execution, turned up dead. As a result of her connection to the Football Club death-squad outlined in the TRC’s 1998 final report, and the many charges of political and financial corruption subsequently brought against her over the following two decades, the ANC increasingly sought to distance itself from Mrs. Mandela.

While revelations of an organised plan by the apartheid era security forces to discredit Mrs. Mandala by exaggerating stories of her violence, which included the coordination of an officer named Paul Erasmus with both the British government and Vanity Fairmagazine, had somewhat softened opinion towards her within the ANC ranks, she was still regarded with derision by the party during its preparations for Nelson Mandela’s funeral in 2013. However, with her passing, both the ANC and Stompie Seipei’s mother appear to be comfortable to pardon her actions. Citing a desire for reconciliation, Joyce Seipei revealed that Mrs. Mandela had asked for her forgiveness and that she had agreed to the request in the name of God. According to Mrs. Seipei, Mrs. Mandela had worked to make amends by giving the family money to pay for the remaining Seipei children’s schooling and had even re-furnished the family home. While Mrs. Seipei said her much-publicised attendance at Mrs Mandela’s funeral was motivated by reconciliation, the ANC’s prominent role in the memorial seems to be driven primarily by political opportunism.

Calling Mrs. Mandela’s life one of compassion, and casting her as the nation’s conscience, ANC leader and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa sought to entice her young, largely female left-wing following into the ANC fold. Similar to the revisionism witnessed globally following the death of her husband, the ANC has used her death to retrospectively rewrite history and place themselves within the warm glow of her remembrance.

The ANC’s gesture of posthumous reconciliation toward an individual it had publicly denounced in the past is not unlike the campaign undertaken by elements of British society following the death of her husband in 2013. However, in stark contrast to the cross-party outpouring of tributes after the death of Nelson Mandela, there has been a noticeable quit emanating from sections of British political society in regard to the passing of his wife. The reluctance of the British right to join the ANC in revising its attitude toward Mrs. Mandela beg questions as to the role of political gain and the issue of race in the collective remembrance of historical figures.

The tributes to Nelson Mandela led by then Prime Minister David Cameron in 2013 and echoed by Ed Miliband, Tony Benn, and Nick Clegg gave the impression that Mandela had always been a figure that transcended politics and race within the United Kingdom. However, for the Conservative Party, and its then leader David Cameron, this was far from the case. In the 1980s, as a cascade of international sanctions were levied against South Africa’s apartheid government, Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher refused to follow suit, declaring her support for the apartheid regime and denouncing Mandela and his ANC party as terrorists. Owing in part to her husband Denis’ business interests in South Africa, as well as her perennial distaste for left-wing politics, Thatcher’s vociferous admonition of Mandela inspired a radical resistance to the anti-apartheid movement by the British right. The Federation of Conservative Students, led by now Speaker of the Commons John Bercow, distributed material that included a call to ‘Hang Nelson Mandela’. Bullingdon Club member and future Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron was amongst Bercow’s FCS ranks that actively campaigned to hang ‘all ANC terrorists’, and baited the party by referring to them as butchers.

With Cameron’s about-face concerning Nelson Mandela, which culminated in his calling Mandela a hero in 2013 while ordering Number Ten’s flag to fly at half-mast a sign of respect, a two-decade-long campaign of historical revisionism undertaken by the British right concerning Mandela’s memory was book-ended. Those who had demanded Mandela’s execution now praised the Nobel Peace Prize winner as having been a ‘great light’ in the world, and the triumphant narrative of Mandela as the globally celebrated father of the post-apartheid Rainbow Nation was entrenched within the historical record.

However, unlike in 2013, tributes to the life of Mrs. Mandela from prominent Britons seem to be coming almost exclusively from members of its Afro-Caribbean community. British-educated Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu featured prominently at Mrs. Mandela’s funeral, and Labour MPs David Lammy and Diane Abbott called Mrs. Mandela a ‘voice for the voiceless’ and a ‘heroine’ respectively. Apart from a glowing tribute by African-born Labour Peer Lord Hain, and a now-deleted tweet by Labour MP Naz Shaw, which included Mrs. Mandela’s infamous quote about ‘necklacing’ being the avenue to national liberation, the bulk of high-profile British condolences have been delivered by celebrities such as Naomi Campbell and Idris Elba.

With the pressing issues facing Britain at present it makes sense that the passing of Mrs. Mandela is not a top political consideration. However, the apparent lack of interest in using Mrs. Mandela’s death as an opportunity to leverage political advantage by the current Conservative government reveals an undercurrent of racial and ideological division that had supposedly been closed with the death of her husband.

It is clear that unlike in 2013, the British right does not view joining in the wave of revisionism and spirit of reconciliation sweeping across South Africa to be politically advantageous. The disparity in their response to the death of Mrs. Mandela as compared to her husband calls into question the authenticity of the praise they heaped on the latter following his death. Furthermore, it suggests that political division along racial lines is not an issue consigned to history, buried in the past along with South African apartheid and the man who defeated it, but rather one that endures in contemporary Britain.

The politics of remembrance and the use of memorialisation in revising historical narratives for political gain reveal subtle insights into societies and their power structures. That the ANC views reconciling itself with the legacy of Mrs. Mandela as advantageous demonstrates that the party believes catering to her base of young female supporters to be worth putting aside its previous misgivings about her actions. Alternatively, that British Conservatives do not see the opportunity to memorialise Mrs. Mandela as being able to generate a commensurate return in the form political capital suggests that their ideological backpedalling in regard to revising their stance on Nelson Mandela’s legacy was inspired by nothing more than political pragmatism.

Does the Left actually have a problem with anti-Semitism?

Recently, there has been a wave of scathing publicity and demonstrations from Jewish community groups against Labour and its leader Jeremy Corbyn. This is as a result of the supposed tolerance of antisemitism within the party, and has been met with mixed reactions.

A handful of Labour MPs have joined in the criticism of Corbyn, while his supporters have challenged the allegations as a politically motivated attack on the Corbyn project and its wider policies. Despite the doubts as to the validity of the charges of antisemitism against Labour, the furore has motivated reflection within the British left, leading some to question whether or not the left does indeed have an antisemitism problem.

The announcement in late-February of the possible readmission to Labour of Ken Livingstone, suspended from the party for claiming that Adolf Hitler was a Zionist, reignited controversy surrounding Labour’s perceived tolerance of antisemitism. In order to address these allegations made by Jewish community groups, and echoed by some Labour MPs, an analysis of the complex evolution as to why the left is smeared with the accusation of promoting antisemitism is required.

The long and multifarious narrative of antisemitism within the European context is a chronicle of the social exclusion and oppression of Jewish peoples perpetrated by mainstream society. Historically, Europe’s two main Jewish communities were the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim, two unique groups, which up until the last century, were united primarily by faith and a shared experience of marginalisation.

The Sephardim of Southern Europe, who were largely barred from the guilds and trades, is remembered mainly for turning to money-lending in the absence of other opportunities. Their fundamental influence in shaping modern finance and banking was famously immortalised by Shakespeare. Shylock, the wicked money-lender whose greed, the Bard fantasised, drove him to demand a pound of flesh from insolvent debtors, characterises key elements of the historical antisemitic narrative; the Jewish people as a greedy cabal of pitiless usurers and pecuniary schemers.

The Yiddish speaking Ashkenazim who settled throughout most of Western, Northern, and Eastern Europe, also faced social and professional exclusion, becoming artisans and artists, jewellers and dealers, composers and musicians, and writers and academics. These are the Jews of The Fiddler on the Roof, who suffered pogroms and expulsions, and whose population produced some of history’s most influential philosophers and thinkers. Out of their colossal influence came the reputation of Jews as comprising a clever and clandestine league of legalistic-thinking political string-pullers, bent solely on world domination. Akin to the homogenisation of the Ashkenazim and Sephardim into an undifferentiated Jewish community over the last century, so too have the pejorative stereotypes of the two groups become combined into a unified modern blood libel; the Jews as a secret society united to achieve political and economic global domination.

The historic prohibition of Jews from mainstream professions, and the resulting intellectual tradition this prohibition raised, gave rise to the philosophical genesis of the modern secular left. Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, and Leon Trotsky, as well as the majority of other ‘giants’ of left, from Anarchism to the Frankfurt School, trace their roots back to Ashkenazi heritage. The massive overrepresentation of Jews in establishing the ideological foundations of the modern left makes the issue of contemporary anti-Semitism amongst the left seem historically irreconcilable.

However, with the rise of a zealous strain of nationalism during the turn of the 20th century, socialists (Jewish and non-Jewish alike) began adopting nationalist aspirations, leading to a period in which elements of the left and right became intertwined in the struggle for statehood.

Between the 1880s and the 1930s, socialists from around the globe increasingly began to adopt nationalism, autonomism, and separatism. One of the prominent socialist-leaning thinkers to adopt a nationalist cause was Theodore Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism. In founding the World Zionist Organisation, which, in the pursuit of a Jewish homeland, encouraged immigration to Palestine, and coordinated an international effort to secure a Jewish state, Herzl added a central element to the issue surrounding contemporary anti-Semitism: the unification of Zionism with global Jewish collaboration. When the World Zionist Organisation funded the creation of the World Jewish Congress as the official international federation of Jewish communities. Zionists have since sought to capitalise on this ambiguity to delegitimise opposition to the Israeli state, through charges of anti-Semitism.

The formation of the World Jewish Congress was founded on the twin pillars of creating ‘a worldwide Jewish representative body based on the concept of the unity of the Jewish people’, and establishing a ‘Jewish National Home in Palestine’. This explicit connection of Jewishness to Zionism forever linked the global Jewish population, willingly or unwillingly, to the campaign to create a nation-state in Palestine. The coordination between world Jewry (represented by the World Jewish Congress) and Zionism (represented by the World Zionist Organisation) has resulted in the development of two corresponding narratives. The first represents an update to traditional anti-Semitic conspiracy theories concerning an international plot to achieve global domination. The coordination of a worldwide body of Jewish representatives with another seeking a nation-state added a tangible element to the narrative that Jews were actively trying to take over the world. The second narrative to emerge was a direct response to the first by Zionists, who sought to purposefully conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, in order delegitimise opposition to the Zionist project.

Both of these narratives are false, and both are substantive in informing the contemporary dispute as to whether or not the left has an anti-Semitism problem.

Another critical part in determining whether or not it is legitimate to accuse the left of tolerating anti-Semitism developed out of the troubling character and partnerships the Zionist movement developed during the 1930s and 40s, when they were in pursuit of a national homeland. The sharp rise of nationalism throughout the world during this period caused a trend of seemingly unimaginable political relationships. Connections developed within the League Against Imperialism, despite its connection to the Comintern, led directly to the future collaboration of socialist-leaning Northern Irish republicans, and left-wing Breton separatists, with Nazi Germany through partnerships developed with socialist Rhinish autonomists during the 1920s. Similar to European socialist-come-nationalist groups, so too did the nationalist inspirations of the Zionists lead to seemingly incongruous relationships.

In 1933, the Zionist Federation of Germany formed an agreement with Germany to support the large-scale migration of German Jews to British Mandatory Palestine. Similar to the motivating factors behind the socialist leadership of the Irish Republic Army in Northern Ireland aligning itself with Germany under the logic that the enemy (Germany) of my enemy (Britain) is my friend, the increasing resistance of the British toward Jewish migration into Palestine encouraged European Zionists to make an agreement with Germany. The Haavara Agreement between the German state and German Zionists, which was upheld by the Eighteenth International World Zionist Congress, was not the only example of the coordination of Zionists with Germany. Two far-right wing Zionist groups that were engaged in a terrorist campaign against the British in Palestine also endeavoured to make deals with the German state in order to gain a nation-state. The Irgun and Lehi (also called the Stern Gang), led by future Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, who modelled themselves after the IRA and were openly sympathetic to fascism, attempted to establish an official alliance with Germany. These inconvenient historical realities, however, do not excuse Ken Livingstone’s assertion that Hitler himself was a Zionist.

Following the Holocaust, and the tumultuous birth of Israel, as well as the subsequent wars and border changes of the 1960s and 70s, the two parallel conspiracy theories continued to grow and shift. One, spread by the far-right, predicated on the age-old claims of a Jewish world conspiracy desirous of global domination enacted through control of international banking and finance and now bolstered by the state of Israel and its partnership with the American government, continued to link all Jews directly to Israel and Zionism. The other, a counter-narrative peddled by Zionists and Israeli nationalists, continued to capitalise on the concept that Jewishness and the Jewish homeland were indivisibly united in order to confound anti-Israeli arguments with anti-Semitism and argue that those who oppose Israel oppose Jews in general.

In what can only be seen as a peculiar ideological shift, historically speaking, contemporary elements of the far-right have recently adopted Israel as talisman due to the state’s perceived Islamophobia. Groups like the English Defence League began carrying Israeli flags during marches to goad counter-demonstrators who would often turn up with Palestinian flags. The championing of Israel by the far-right is directly related to the rise of the left’s criticism of Israeli expansionism and the human rights abuses committed by the state against Palestinians. An unfortunate consequence of this polarisation has been the infection of elements within the left with the far-right disease of conspiracy theories concerning the existence a Zionist Occupation Government design to establish global control. It makes ideological sense that the criticism of the power of groups such as the Rothschilds maintain over both international banking and the international Jewish Congress would appeal to the anti-capitalist sensibilities of some within the left. While support for the Palestinians, which is in line with anti-imperialist sympathies present within much of the left, has also coaxed some within it to fall prey to the notion of Israeli ultra-nationalism as being synonymous with Jewishness. It is incumbent on the left to recognise these issues and reject the temptation to buy into far-right generated conspiracies, no matter how enticing to the progressive ideology they may appear.

In response to the demand by Jewish groups that Labour deal with anti-Semitism, the left needs to commit itself to demanding explicitness and transparency in the discourse surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict, and reject any nebulousness from both within and without. It is imperative to be clear in the differentiation of what constitutes anti-Semitism and what comprises legitimate political, humanitarian, and anti-imperialist arguments against Israel, its government, and its policies.

It is not anti-Semitic to criticise the state of Israel, its actions, policies, or the historical and contemporary displacement of Palestinians by force. It is not anti-Semitic to historically analyse the coordination of the German state in the 30s with the Zionist Federation of Germany and radical right-wing Zionists in Palestine such as the Lehi, the Irgun, and Yitzhak Shamir. It is not anti-Semitic to decry the forced population transfer, expulsion, and concentration of Palestinians by the state of Israel. It is not anti-Semitic to oppose the illegal expansionism of Israel and its occupation, cleansing, and settlement of lands recognised by the world and international law as being Palestinian. It is not anti-Semitic to compare the treatment of Palestinians and Arab-Israelis by the Israeli state to that of blacks under South African apartheid. It is not anti-Semitic to denounce the camp-style internment of African migrants within Israel and plan to deport them back to locations unknown in Africa to which they did not originate and have no say in choosing. It is not anti-Semitic to boycott Israel itself or goods produced within it. And, it is not anti-Semitic to be wholly against Zionism and to even the question the right of the state of Israel to exist – just as it is not bigoted to question the right of other settler-states such as Canada to exist as from an Indigenous-rights or anti-colonial perspective.

It is anti-Semitic to deny or question the scope of the Holocaust. It is anti-Semitic to claim Hitler was a true Zionist as Ken Livingstone did. It is anti-Semitic to assert international finance is controlled by an Illuminati-like secret society headed by Jews seeking a ZOG world government. It is anti-Semitic to attack individual Israeli citizens living outside of the occupied territories and illegal settlements, just as it is inappropriate to attack average Americans, Australians, Canadians, and New Zealanders for being born on land confiscated from Indigenous peoples in the past. And, it is anti-Semitic to attack or hate all Jews because of the actions of Israel and claim every to Jew to be complicit in Zionist oppression simply due to their being Jewish.

So, does the left have an anti-Semitism problem? It depends on who you ask. According to an inquiry into anti-Semitism within the Labour Party led by Baroness Chakrabarti in 2016, the answer is no. The Chakrabarti Inquiry report found that while the Party does need to be more proactive in its rejection of bigotry, it “is not over-run by anti-Semitism.” This finding was not universally accepted within Labour, however, as, shortly after the Chakrabarti report was published, Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth rejected its findings and claimed that a Corbyn-led Labour Party was not a safe space for British Jews. Due in part to Smeeth’s comments and the Labour appointment of Chakrabarti to the House of Lords shortly after the inquiry, a cross-party Home Affairs Select Committee was convened to investigate anti-Semitism within political and organisational bodies across the UK.

The Select Committee on Anti-Semitism described the Chakrabarti Inquiry as compromised and criticised the parameters of the inquiry, stating that the definition of anti-Semitism used in the report was too loose. While the Select Committee aimed criticism at all of Britain’s major political parties, it found that “there exists no reliable, empirical evidence to support the notion that there is a higher prevalence of anti-Semitic attitudes within the Labour Party than any other political party.”

There also seems to be a lack of consensus within the Jewish community in Britain as to whether Labour suffers from endemic anti-Semitism. According to Maureen Lipman, a celebrity spokesperson for the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, Corbyn’s anti-Semitism ‘made her a Tory’. However, Lipman has also called Corbyn a Marxist and has previously claimed to have abandoned Labour when former leader Ed Miliband – who is of Jewish heritage himself – supported a motion to recognise Palestinian statehood. It must also be noted that the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism in their own study into anti-semitism within political parties found Labour members to be less anti-semitic than Tory party members. On the other side, the left-wing and Israel-sceptic Jewish group Jewdas hosted Corbyn at their Passover Seder, claiming that in Corbyn they have a pro-Jewish ally who isn’t afraid to criticise Israel. However, Corbyn’s attendance at the Seder was immediately condemned by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, who claimed Jewdas to be a clearinghouse for “virulent anti-Semitism.”

In my own experience, there is a tendency within the radical reaches of the far-left to transcend anti-Zionism and enter into anti-Semitism. Having spent time at the London Action Resource Centre (LARC) in Whitechapel, East London, I have witnessed first-hand the tolerance of anti-Semitism in the name of anti-Zionism and anti-capitalism that exists within pockets of the far-left. LARC is housed, ironically, in a former synagogue located a stone’s throw from where the Battle of Cable Street took place – a street fight which pitted local Jewish residents against Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and is widely considered to be the first antifascist action in Britain. However, despite the building’s Jewish history, in my experience volunteering at the social centre, I observed a consensus within sections of the far-left that sanctioned anti-Semitism as long as it was enveloped within anti-zionist and/or anti-capitalist rhetoric, it was acceptable.

At present, anti-Semitism is being promoted by the right, as well as conservative Jewish groups, and elements within the mainstream media, as a being a problem that disproportionately pollutes the left. However, even staunchly pro-Israel groups such as the Community Security Trust have found that the left is no more anti-Semitic than the centre-ground, and certainly less so than the right.

Due to the lack of consensus as to whether it is fair to say that the left, in general, has an anti-Semitism problem, what is required is for both the left and those claiming that Labour is a safe-haven for anti-Semitism to enter into an honest and explicit dialogue as to what constitutes anti-Semitism so that it can be appropriately dealt with. In order to do so, both sides must disavow themselves of any narratives and conspiracy theories that may drive a wedge between the progressive left and Jewish community groups.

The left must explicitly reject any temptation from within to subscribe to the historically embedded narrative of pan-Jewish plans for a New World Order. Rehashing imagery of global Jewry populating a ZOG cabal that controls the banks and fundamentally manipulates the American and Israeli governments by way of worldwide Jewish ‘deep state’ simply discredits legitimate opposition to contemporary Israeli policy and must be vociferously cast off by the left.

On the other side, the constant equation of anti-Israeli opinion with anti-Semitism must stop. It is disingenuous and only serves to stoke the fires of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Maintaining the line that those who oppose Israel, including Jewish groups like Jewdas, do so out of anti-Semitism is counterproductive to a meaningful resolution. If pro-Israeli forces continue to reject any critique of Israel and its historical or contemporary policies as being one and the same, or inspired by, anti-Semitism, the left’s capacity to tackle genuine anti-Semitism within its ranks will be severely impeded.

In the end, what is needed to solve the debate over the left’s alleged anti-Semitism problem is consistency and explicitness on all sides. The left and Jewish community groups must reject those within their ranks who perpetuate false narratives and conspiracy theories. Only then can all sides enter into a meaningful dialogue.

#Welcome_Saudi_Crown_Prince- The Manipulation of Social Media by Illiberal States

It would not be an understatement to call the rise of social media a paradigm shift within the narrative of modern history. The information revolution has so rapidly and profoundly reshaped discourse, perception, and ideology that appreciating its full impact on society is nearly impossible without the benefit of retrospection. The reformation of the way in which information is generated and openly exchanged across the globe has given rise to a reconceptualisation of information itself. For instance, fake news, alternative facts, and the emergence of post-truth politics indicate that information no longer derives its value primarily from its accuracy or authority, but rather from its virality. From the growth of ideological ‘echo-chambers’, such as The Donald and Gab, to the Twitter Presidency of Donald Trump, the intersection of social media and politics has produced revolutionary changes to the way information, society and governments interact.

While the impact of social media on liberal societies has been radical, for nations that roughly adhere to democratic processes, protect the freedom of expression, and operate within a market economy, the course has been somewhat organic. As social media represents a global free market of information rooted in liberal values such as free-speech, whose offerings are commoditised according to consumerist logic, the character of global social media can be situated within the broader extension of socio-political liberalism writ universal. However, for illiberal societies, the rise of global information sharing has presented a considerable challenge to the maintenance of traditional power structures.

The uneasy relationship between illiberal states and global social media has evolved in an observably segmented manner, as authoritarian governments initially responded to the information revolution in a predictably reactionary fashion. However, the recent Saudi state-funded ad-space blanketing of major social media platforms within the British region represents a new stage within the evolving relationship between illiberal governments and social media. The campaign to ‘Welcome Saudi Crown Prince’ Mohammed Bin Salman (aka MBS) to London by purchasing ad-space across Twitter, Reddit, and Google is demonstrative of a shift in the way that illiberal nations are using global social media, and its liberal nature, to benefit their national interests abroad.

In leveraging social media’s free-market character, including its offering of ad-space to whoever is willing to pay for it, Saudi Arabia has signalled a willingness within illiberal states to use the liberal essence of social media to overtly promote their national agendas abroad. The Saudis’ consumer behaviour-based marketing campaign displays a rudimentary, yet innovative, attempt to explicitly manipulate public opinion within liberal societies. By adopting the accepted discourse of social media advertising, a language that liberal societies implicitly understand, the Saudis have ushered in a new era in the relationship between illiberal nations and social media.

The initial response of illiberal states to the rise of global social media was, predictably, extreme censorship or blanket banning. It makes perfect sense that illiberal governments would view the global liberalisation of information and opinion sharing as inherently dangerous to the tight control over information that authoritarian states endeavour to maintain. Many of the most popular global social media sites are either outright banned, or heavily censored and monitored, within countries such as China, North Korea, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. The bluntness of the early response to social media by illiberal states suggests that many did not immediately grasp the significance of the medium concerning its influence within the international sphere.

While the initial reaction of illiberal states to the rise of social media implied a level of ignorance concerning its significance, the second stage represents the growth of nuance and a strategic understanding concerning the power and influence of social media. Nations such as China and Russia, both technological powerhouses with sophisticated cyber capacities, rapidly came to realise that outmoded notions of state censorship were impractical in the face of the information revolution. These nations responded with a two-pronged strategy to harness social media for their national interest and transform social media from a threat into an asset within both the domestic and international spheres.

Internally, technologically savvy illiberal nations created their own state-run or state-sanctioned versions of popular global social media sites such as Vkontakte and Renren. These sites imitate the liberal nature of global social media in that they appear to extend to users the freedom to share opinion, information, and ideas. This mimicry allows citizens of illiberal countries to feel as though they are a part of the global information revolution while being effectively denied substantive access to the free interchange of information going on outside of their borders. Such tactics numb the sensation of being censored and allow for the population of illiberal nations to become digitally literate. State-run social media is also advantageous in creating state-controlled propagandist echo-chambers and for feeding curated information quickly and efficiently to large populations, while also allowing the state to easily monitor the opinions and ideas of its citizenry; all of which are essential elements within the maintenance of illiberal authority.

Up until recently, the way in which illiberal nations have used global social media to support their national interests abroad has largely been to exploit its open forum nature to spread disinformation and inflame ideological divides within rival nations. The operative strategy has been covert and surreptitious, with troll armies masquerading as citizens of other nations to legitimise the carefully crafted antisocial opinions and information they are spreading. The use of bot boiler rooms and troll factories to target controversial domestic issues and factionalise the liberal world has, so far, been both extensive and effective. It’s estimated that around 10% of Twitter accounts are bots and that there are hundreds of thousands of fake Facebook and Reddit accounts that take advantage of the free speech ethos of social media to clandestinely fracture liberal social cohesion.

From Brexit to the election of Donald Trump, the abuse of the liberal values inherent within global social media by illiberal states seeking to destabilise the liberal bloc has proven to be a tremendously effective strategy in the game of realpolitik. However, with the explicit and conspicuous marketing campaign initiated by Saudi Arabia in the run-up to the visit of their crown prince to the UK, a new chapter has been opened regarding the utilisation of global social media and its liberal norms by illiberal states to strengthen their interests abroad.

In the days and weeks before the Crown Prince’s arrival, #Welcome_Saudi_Crown_Prince –  underscores and all – was plastered across social media sites within the British region. As the majority of Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter comments on the Crown Prince’s visit were unfavourable, an interesting contrast between public sentiment and the cheery Saudi advertisement hovering off to one-side took place on screens across the UK. While it can be said with some certainty that the welcoming campaign was not an outright success in generating a groundswell of support for the visit, it is still important to look at what it represents regarding illiberal states interacting with social media.

Within Saudi Arabia, commercial advertising, like access to information, is highly regulated. Just as it is nearly impossible for Western brands to advertise within Saudi Arabia, it is highly unlikely that the Saudis would allow a foreign state-sponsored publicity campaign to go ahead inside their borders.  However, within the free market and liberal rights-oriented West, the ability of a state to advertise across major social media sites is possible so long as the funding is in place. The dichotomy in social and economic values between illiberal and liberal states puts illiberal states at an advantage concerning drumming up support for their national interest abroad via social media.

The Saudi marketing campaign characterises a novel and explicit use of social media and its underlying liberal norms to further the interests of an illiberal state. Unlike Russian covert operations aimed at creating a cyber fifth-column of fraudulent in-group members to manipulate the beliefs of liberal society from within, the marketing tactics used by the Saudis exemplify an overt strategy influenced by consumer psychology. As ad-space on social media is governed by the profit-seeking impetus of economic liberalism, cyber advertising campaigns often rely on the principles of psychological marketing to influence consumer behaviour. That the Saudis chose to promote their future head of state in the same medium and messaging style as large consumer brands is significant as it implies some level of awareness as to the effectiveness of such marketing in influencing behaviour within liberal democratic culture.

The #Welcome_Saudi_Crown_Prince campaign shrewdly leveraged both the omnipresence of ad-space on social media sites, as well as the consumer psychology-based advertising style that Westerners are accustomed to, in order to promote their country akin to how a company promotes its brand. It is impossible to know with certainty whether or not the Saudi campaign deliberately sought to employ psychological marketing techniques. However, it is possible to see how these techniques were nonetheless present in their advertisements.

Within advertising, effective frequency is a formula for exposing individuals to a message sufficiently to effectively communicate its meaning and have it internalised, even if subconsciously. Repetitive exposure seeks to create familiarity and manufacture the foundations of affinity and brand loyalty. While it is a stretch to think that the Saudis believed they could generate genuine affinity for the Crown Prince and loyalty to him within Britain, the hallmarks of neuro-marketing were observable within their campaign. The drip-effect within media theory proposes that mass media and advertising contribute to gradual changes in beliefs and attitudes over the long term, while the illusory truth effect is a tendency to believe the information to be correct or ‘right’ after repeated exposure. As such, the Saudis’ upbeat welcome promotion has, intentionally or not, set out the initial foundations of a brand marketing campaign that is engineered to slowly induce fondness for the subject within viewers.

It is more than likely that the goal of the cyber campaign, which was supplemented by a billboard rollout in London, was an overly-optimistic attempt to create a viral campaign online in the hopes of making it appear as though there is a base of support within the UK for close relations with the future Saudi leader. However, the Saudis’ use of social media ad-space to coordinate a marketing campaign in a fashion informed by the tenets of consumer psychology is an essential update in the way that illiberal states are able to use the liberal nature of social media to support their national interests.

In the end, the Saudis’ tone-deaf marketing campaign, featuring a clunky and obtuse hashtag paired with a picture of the Crown Prince looking slightly bog-eyed, did not accomplish much regarding a short-term manufacturing of support within the UK for this particular visit. The Crown Prince was faced with protests and even had his motorcade pelted with eggs, while online, within the mostly uncensored sphere of global social media, the Crown Prince’s warm official reception was thoroughly admonished. However, the Saudis’ social media publicity operation is still of consequence in that it represents a new stage in the way in which illiberal states exploit the liberal nature of global social media to benefit their interests. What is worth noting concerning the #Welcome_Saudi_Crown_Prince campaign is that it has opened a new frontier in which illiberal states are using social media ad-space to mount marketing campaigns aimed at endearing Western ‘consumers’ to their national brand.

Connecting the Dots: Cyber-Meddling and Russia’s Grand Strategy

To understand the motivation behind the seemingly indiscriminate nature of Russia’s cyber-meddling operations, it is essential to contextualise them within the evolution of Russia’s grand strategy.

 

In 1989, Vladimir Putin, a young KGB officer stationed in East Germany, witnessed first-hand the power of popular uprising and the infectious nature of chaos as a destabilising agent against established authority. Putin’s lesson in the destructive power of general disarray and the communicability of popular dissent represents the genesis of Russia’s contemporary grand strategy. However, to fully understand the rise of Putin’s Russia, discussion of a man by the name of Aleksandr Dugin is essential.

 

At first glance, Aleksandr Dugin, an occult fascist, seems an unlikely ally of a former KGB operative such as Putin. However, Dugin’s philosophical influence on Putin would further crystallise Russia’s contemporary approach to foreign policy.

 

In 1997, Dugin published Foundations of Geopolitics. The book draws heavily on the work of Halford Mackinder’s who recognised the strategic advantages of occupying the Heartland of Russia and that whoever controlled it would control the world. However, Dugin revises Mackinder’s work and reframes it into a strategy of perpetual conflict as an enduring foreign policy strategy.

 

Dugin’s influence on Putin’s strategy also comes from their shared belief that popular chaos and instability are as potent as military force in the game of power. For Dugin, maintaining a permanent condition of conflict with the West is essential to Russian political power, and the key to this play is the ceaseless subversion of its heartland by sewing internal chaos.

 

In George Orwell’s 1984, the world exists in a state of perpetual and unwinnable conflict within a tripolar global divide. In Dugin’s theory, Eurasia, a name that Orwell borrowed from Mackinder, is at war not with Oceania, but the Atlanticist alliance led by the United States. According to Dugin: “The Eurasian Empire will be constructed on the fundamental principle of the common enemy: the rejection of Atlanticism, the strategic control of the USA.”

 

Understanding that Putin’s Russia is not pursuing the unlikely goal of singular world domination, rather the maintenance of a constant condition of Cold War-style tension, so that Russia can hold on to its relative power is key to understanding contemporary its foreign policy. So too is the practical operative strategy to foment domestic imbalance within the Atlanticist heartland in order to realise and maintain a global equilibrium.

 

Echoing 1984, Russia seeks an enduring conflict to divide and contain, rather than one to divide and conquer. This Machiavellian strategy is grounded in the subversion of their enemy’s core through infecting them with domestic disorder. By introducing a virus that attacks the social and political values of its foe, Russia hopes to unleash an epidemic of internal suspicion and agitation that will weaken interior power structures and, in turn, deteriorate their external strength. According to Dugin, for Russia to maintain its power globally, it must continuously erode America’s role as a superpower from within. In doing so, Russia is enacting Dugin’s argument that, “it is important to provoke all forms of instability and separatism within the borders of the United States.”

 

Considering the power held by America and its Atlanticist allies, and the rising might of China, which anchors the globe’s third tripolar sphere, it makes sense Russia has developed its grand strategy around relatively inexpensive arms-length cyber destabilisation campaigns. By focusing on remote subversion, Russia can punch far above its military and economic weight to maintain its position as a global power. Cyberwarfare, hacking, leaks, trolling, and bot-spread disinformation operations represent Moscow’s frontline tactics in its drive to weaken Atlanticist democratic society by influencing its citizens’ thought and warping perspectives.

 

Russia’s most infamous cyberattack to influence the result of the 2016 presidential election was a mission designed to infect the United States with the disease of internal division, suspicion, and chaotic paranoia. To Russia, President Trump is a useful idiot, an unwitting dupe in fulfilling Dugin’s plan to energise “extremist, racist, and sectarian groups, thus destabilising internal political processes in the U.S.” Even Trump’s America First policy affirms Dugin’s desire “to support isolationist tendencies in American politics.”

 

Contextualising Russia’s wide range of targets within the narrative of its grand strategy connects the dots between the seemingly unrelated actions being directed by Moscow. Each headline issue that includes Russian cyber-meddling demonstrates the relatively inexpensive yet massively effective techniques Moscow is employing to destabilise its enemies and maintain global influence. Unlike the costly version of permanent military warfare in Orwell’s 1984, Russia’s cynical approach to ensuring a perpetual global stalemate is being waged by contaminating the hearts and minds of its enemy’s population. And so far, the plan to sustain an enduring condition of septic chaos within the West appears to be meeting little meaningful resistance.