The Disinformation Wave is Just Getting Started – But Are We Ready for It?

Over the past two years, a wave of disinformation campaigns has upended democratic electoral systems across the globe, prompting both governments and electorates to demand action to counter the growing prevalence of fake news. So far, several governments have begun enacting laws to address the issue, from Malaysia’s anti-fake news bill passed in April to French President Emmanuel Macron’s advocacy for legislation criminalizing falsified content.

While these clampdowns are highly visible, these responses to a growing and diffused threat from falsified content essentially amount to knee-jerk attempts to declare the practices criminal. Along with the potential to severely restrict free speech through claims of fake news, these laws do not address the underlying factors that enable fake news campaigns to be successful in the first place, such as poor digital and information literacy among the general public.

Likewise, criminal legislation alone will not equip governments or the public against the next wave of disinformation threats derived from emerging technologies, such as “deepfakes.” In order to effectively respond or even counter this threat, more attention must be directed to the intersection between disinformation and emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Deepfakes are digitally manipulated videos, images, and sound files that can be used to appropriate someone’s identity—including their voice, face, and body—to make it seem as if they did something they did not. So far, deepfakes have largely consisted of manipulating images into celebrity sex tapes, but as professors Danielle Citron and Robert Chesney warn, the leap from fake celebrity porn videos to other forms of falsified content is smaller than we think.

Until recently, such realistic, computer-generated content was only available to major Hollywood producers or well-funded researchers. However, rapid advancements in technology have resulted in applications that now allow nearly anyone, regardless of their technical background, to produce high-quality deepfakes that can range from the innocuous—such as depicting a friend in an embarrassing situation—to the incendiary—such as a world leader threatening war. The proliferation of seemingly authentic, but actually manipulated, content at a time when it is already difficult to determine content authenticity is highly concerning.

As the prevalence of disinformation in society has become clearer, governments and non-profits have started to fund research on the impact of fake news on societies and political systems. But this only addresses part of the problem, leaving out key emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning that are already fueling the next disinformation wave. For example, in late March, the Hewlett Foundation announced $10 million for research on digital disinformation and its influence on American democracy, but with no specific calls for research on deepfakes or other emerging technologies. Given the potentially devastating threat deepfakes could pose, this is a missed opportunity to get ahead of the problem and improve our understanding about deepfakes and their potential for harm. Similar initiatives in the European Union heavily emphasize understanding and combating the current brand of fake news, rather than preparing for these more advanced disinformation threats.

These research and development efforts should also go hand-in-hand with strong, public digital information literacy programs on how to identify distorted media and falsified content, including from emerging technologies. In 2017, California lawmakers introduced two bills requiring teachers and education boards to create curricula and frameworks focused on media literacy. However, to have the most impact governments must also engage non-profit and private sector expertise to help the public better understand the technical issues at play, thereby improving their ability to identify real content from fake content.

In its coverage of the rise of deepfakes across the internet, the tech media site Motherboard stated that we are “truly fucked,” predicting that it won’t be long before the public becomes embroiled in chaos over these emerging forms of disinformation. But we don’t have to feed the fear. Rather than pass hasty and ineffective legislation, governments can work with nonprofits and the private sector to direct resources to relevant research on emerging technologies. Equally important will be more support for programs that educate the public on identifying disinformation threats based on both old and new technologies.

Deepfakes are at the cutting edge of the disinformation landscape right now, but who knows for how long? If governments and non-profits act strategically, they could even find themselves ahead of the game.

By Spandana Singh, YPFP Cybersecurity & Technology Fellow

Empowering Rohingya Women:  Confronting Sexual Violence in Humanitarian Settings

During the second half of 2017, an estimated 671,000 Rohingya fled Myanmar due to systemic violence perpetrated against the ethnic group, including killings, rape, and torture. Much of this violence, allegedly committed by Myanmar’s armed forces, specifically targeted women and girls. Pramila Patten, United Nations Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, stated that the organized gang rape of Rohingya women was “a calculated tool of terror aimed at the extermination and removal of the Rohingya as a group.” Adding to the trauma of this campaign of sexual violence, many Rohingya women continue to experience sexual exploitation and violence after reaching the refugee camps in Bangladesh. To date, little has been done to address the unique needs of these women or to prevent a recurrence of the systemic violence they fled from.

A Muslim minority group living in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, the Rohingya have faced government persecution for decades. Among the many discriminatory policies they face, the Rohingya are not recognized as one of the country’s official ethnic groups and have been denied the right to claim citizenship in Myanmar. In August 2017, violent clashes erupted when a Rohingya militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked military stations throughout Rakhine State. After the ARSA claimed responsibility for the attacks, the resulting military crackdown forced thousands of Rohingya to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.

Sexual gender-based violence (SGBV) often escalates during crises like these, when large populations are displaced and a state’s protection systems for women collapse. Rape is often used as a tactic to dehumanize and humiliate “other” populations within sectarian conflicts and during the military’s clearance operations, Myanmar soldiers allegedly raped Rohingya women and girls. When the women attempted to report the violations to authorities, they were forced to undergo invasive medical examinations. The government of Myanmar has denied that its armed forces have committed any acts of sexual violence, even suggesting that Rohingya women are not attractive enough to merit such attention. Yet, in every case of sexual violence reported to Human Rights Watch, the perpetrators were described as uniformed members of Myanmar’s security forces.

Even after reaching Cox Bazar, Bangladesh, where sprawling refugee camps have been set up to accommodate an ever-growing refugee population, Rohingya women continue to live in fear of SGBV in what should be a safe haven. This is in part due to frustration with life in the camps, as well as an extreme lack of privacy, especially near latrines. Latrines are not separated by gender, which compounds the discomfort of women survivors of sexual violence. Reports of violence near sanitation facilities have led to instances where women and girls refuse to eat in order to avoid using the toilets, dreading the violence that comes with it. Some women even resort to sharing burkas to feel they can move safely about the camp without fear of being assaulted.

In addition to the risk of sexual violence, aid agencies have also reported an increase in sex trafficking in and around Rohingya refugee camps, with girls as young as 13 years old being abducted and sold as sex slaves. Many of the smugglers come from outside the camps, falsely promising families they will provide work opportunities for the girls, who are then smuggled out of the camps and sold in Thailand, India, and Malaysia.

Although a repatriation deal has been reached, the United Nations Refugee Agency assesses that conditions in Myanmar are not ready for the safe and voluntary return of Rohingya refugees. The first and most important step toward this goal, is to acknowledge and address the sexual violence perpetrated against Rohingya women. It is paramount that humanitarian organizations uphold and protect the safety of all refugees within the camps and especially for women and girls, who are the most vulnerable to sexual exploitation and trafficking.

Second, organizations working within the camps should immediately expand services to meet the unique needs of Rohingya women survivors. These services should include pre- and post-natal care for Rohingya women, some of whom became pregnant during the violent military crackdown. Since August 2017, aid agencies have provided services to 2,756 survivors of SGBV in refugee camps. But renowned human rights journalist and Nobel Peace Laureate Tawakkol Karman noted after a visit to Cox Bazar that less than 20% of Rohingya women have had access to post-rape care. This is completely unacceptable.  In a more positive development, the first Multi-Purpose Women Center built by UN Women in the Bhalukhai refugee camp creates a safe space for Rohingya women, as well as provides sexual violence recovery services and counseling. This model should be replicated in other Rohingya refugee camps, as well as around the world.

Third, humanitarian organizations and civil society groups should educate the entire Rohingya refugee community about sexual violence. According to Human Rights Watch, two-thirds of Rohingya survivors interviewed did not report their rape to the appropriate authorities due to a deep-rooted stigma surrounding SGBV. Diminishing the stigma of SGBV will not only encourage more women survivors to come forward and report the violence they have experienced, but also help them receive proper recovery services and improve SGBV prevention.

For many women refugees, the risk of SGBV doesn’t disappear after they leave the location of their crimes, even when they reach places of presumed safety. The humanitarian response to the Rohingya crisis must be revamped to meet the particular needs of women and girl refugees, especially their protection and recovery from systemic SGBV within refugee camps. Acknowledging and addressing the plight of Rohingya women, especially within humanitarian settings where they should expect a certain level of security, is essential to putting these women on the path to recovery and breaking the cycle of violence.

By Renee Coulouris

Photo: Flickr

PS21 Event Writeup “Changing Face of Conflict”

The third instalment of our Changing Face of Conflict series brought together four experts who reflected on transformations in warfare globally, regionally, and locally. From the redistribution of global power and established ideologies under threat, to innovative solutions to hybrid group conflict, European regional defence autonomy and cooperation in the time of Brexit, as well as the changing use of force from Ukraine to the world, the discussion provided fundamental insights for grasping the future of conflict.

Nigel Inkster, former Assistant Chief and Director of Operations and Intelligence at the British Intelligence Service, started the discussion with a historical perspective on our current geopolitics. In the post-Cold War milieu, we have seen a redistribution of global power from West to East, the return of state on state warfare, a different kind of soldiering, and the rise of asymmetric warfare. Increasingly, Inkster confirmed, we sense a retreat of the United States, a global status challenged, and the strain of established ideologies under threat. Here, Inkster pointed to the renewed rise of the extreme right as well as the Chinese ideological model of Neo-Marxism. Inkster then focused on how game-changing increases in the power of information and communications technology are shaping the behaviour of states on a strategic level. He urged to consider the associated risks and concluded that conflicts today may no longer be about clear-cut victories, but about creating a shift in circumstance which allows for future manipulation.

Emily Winterbotham, Senior Research Fellow in the National Security and Resilience Programme at RUSI, discussed the interaction of insurgencies and terrorism, leading to a hybrid form of group conflict. According to Winterbotham, local grievances are a catalyst, but insurgent groups around the world have realised the transactional and economic advantage of aligning themselves with the ISIS brand.

In this context, Winterbotham shared her insights into the challenges for conflict resolution: Purely looking at these issues from a counter-terrorism perspective or addressing them only through military solutions is doomed for failure. And in a first instance, prosecution is often overwhelmed by the sheer number of cases whilst military operations can be the reason grievances exist in the first place. However, conventional reintegration options may be precluded due to counter-terrorist financing legislation.

Expanding on traditional DDR (Disarmament, Demobilisation, Reintegration), Winterbotham introduced the audience to the 4DR approach. Instead of focusing on mitigation after the fact, 4DR (Defections, Disarmaments, Disengagement, Deradicalisation and Reintegration) is a holistic approach designed to reflect the challenge hybrid conflicts present, including the need to inspire defection and arrange meaningful amnesty. Considering this approach, Winterbotham stressed disengagement over deradicalisation (so as not to ignore real structural problems and grievances); the importance of individualised exit strategies for insurgents and terrorist fighters; and also highlighted a role for transitional justice in the overall concept.

Alice Billon-Galland, Policy Fellow at the European Leadership Network, then led the discussion over to the question of current and future European strategic autonomy. 2016 marked a political turning point which has since sparked a steady increase in defence cooperation between the European Union and NATO. Currently, the EU’s global strategy decidedly does not strive for collective defence, but focuses on providing tools for capability development to each member state. While Billon-Galland highlighted PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation), the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence and the European Defence Fund, she also addressed continuous fears of competition and capability overlap between NATO and the EU.

Set against the political challenge of Brexit, the push to build a EU defence cluster with a weapons procurement independent from non-European allies may cause further political tension as it shifts from U.S. and UK arms industries to entirely intra-European Union defence spending. And similarly, the United Kingdom is faced with exclusion from other defence cooperation benefits such as the notorious example of Galileo, the EU project building an alternative to the US-controlled GPS.

Adam Coffey, British Army Officer and RUSI Visiting Fellow, concluded the discussion with his perceptions on changing approaches to the use of force, beyond the timeless nature of warfare. He argued that force is often no longer the last, but the first step in warfare; that winning a tactical fight by conventional measure has changed; and therefore asked what victory means today.

Drawing on insights from Crimea and Donbas, Coffey reflected on force as direct confrontation compared to an attention-grabbing means of messaging.  In winning the global information war, good performance in a fight may not matter if public perception is shunned.

Considering the pace of technological change, Coffey concluded that flexibility, adaptability, and using means beyond force will decide the next war.

The indiscreet charm of a ban

By banning popular social media outlets, Ukraine and Russia have exposed the technological unawareness of its ageing governments. But where will these authoritarian-inspired measures really lead to?

On the 8th of May Telegram, an app which has been banned in Russia since early April, turned to the Supreme Court of Russia with an appeal.

“Not sure why the messenger needs it. It benefits from the ban,” commented Pavel Salin, Director of the Center for Political Studies at the Financial University.

Indeed, Telegram has become the forbidden fruit: following the ban, the app’s audience in Russia has not dwindled, but in fact expanded. Pavel Durov, the app’s creator, estimates that 15 mln Russians are its active users and thanks Apple, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft for refusing to maintain the censorship. These sites, specifically Amazon, have been claimed to use domain fronting and providing its subnetworks to Telegram to circumvent the ban.

And with much success. Even Dmitry Peskov, Vladimir Putin’s spokesman and a Russian big shot, confessed after the ban: “My Telegram still works, no big deal.” If it is indeed no big of a deal, why is there so much ado?

Russia’s Western neighbour Ukraine was quick to mock the Russian decision, emphasising that “they blocked everything except for Telegram”. And yet its government had done exactly the same. Back in 2017, in a continuous effort to block the Russian sites and channels, it blocked the biggest social media Vkontakte (VK), ironically, also created by Mr. Durov, as well as

Both countries used similar state-security related explanations when justifying a widespread assault on freedom of expression. Hence, Russia cited the need to combat terrorism while Ukraine used the ban to obstruct the Russian misinformation spread, such as the notorious fake child crucifixion newspiece.

The result, however, is awkwardly alike: VK continues to be the second most popular social media with 32% of Ukrainians (6,8 mln) using it in December 2017, leaving ban supporters disappointed after a small triumph in 2016. Back then, Ms. Antonina Cherevko, for example, from the International Media Support contently stated that “a legal ban on Russian TV channels in Ukraine contributed to a considerable drop in public trust in Russian media, now down at around 1.3 per cent only” justifying both the prohibitions and proving their effectiveness.

Now, the situation is different. One reason is that the Internet is a dramatically different area comparing to television: indeed for an average, Ukrainian 50+ TV consumer, it is a challenge to master both the PC and related programmes. Mr. Zorian Shkiriak, an advisor to the Minister for Internal Affairs and an ardent supporter of the VK’s ban, for instance, believes that it takes “an expert” using “some twisted ways” to log onto the site. Now, double-check your computer: You might have that “twisted way” installed — a Virtual Private Network (VPN) which enables you to connect to different servers around the world and circumvent bans.

A rather more jocose instance of technological unawareness was presented by the head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) Vasyl Grytsak when disclosing the Ukrainian MP Mr. Anton Gerashenko’s assassination plot. Thus he gravely explained that the assassinators “were conspiracy-literate” and used “closed apps with vanishing messages.” Mr. Grystak, however, did not elaborate how often hitmen use open-access means to hatch high profile lethal plots, nor which of the apps — Telegram or Snapchat available at your Apple/Google store — were used.

Likewise, Mr. Peskov also claimed that he is not that technologically literate to circumvent the Telegram’s ban once the Russian authorities fully block the traditional ways: “I am just not that sophisticated of a user, it is too difficult for me.”

It is precisely these statements which show how out of touch both political elites are with the modern technological scene. While they should of course be taken with a pinch of salt, in the governments where a 50+ average bureaucrat  still continues to think in the Soviet totalitarian terms of banning, blocking and shutting down, the ground for technological literacy is tenuous at best.

The appetite for interfering the technological scene, however, is growing. Hence the SSU stormed the Odessa offices of ForkLog, claiming that it uses cryptocurrency to sponsor terrorists in the East of Ukraine and prompting POLITICO to call it the Wild East of Cryptocurrencies. For young Ukrainians, heavily involved in the crypto world, the actions of the government, which has only recently announced that it is looking to legalise bitcoin, were shocking.

The bans and raids go beyond the freedom of speech vs the governmental regulation debate — a worthy one given the continuous struggle of the two countries to create a truly democratic environment and resorting to what the international standards qualify as extreme measures. It also begs the question where these regulations will lead to, most notably for the more “sophisticated” than Mr. Peskov younger generation.

In Ukraine’s case 75% of young people partially or completely disbelieve the political leaders and the turnout for elections continues to decline. Realising that the head of the SSU might not own a smartphone while contributing to prohibitions regarding its usage, does little to improve their perception.

Likewise, in Russia it was not just the opposition which was expressing dissatisfaction about the Telegram’s ban following the detention of its leader Mr. Alexei Navalnyi, but also the ruling elite. Despite Mr. Putin’s recent triumph., the Russian society is craving changes, and divisions exist at the governmental level. These anti-regulation sentiments might matter, after all.

Hence at the end of the day both states might find themselves in a trap of illusional success, while promoting the benevolent, “now-now” paternal tap on the shoulder-like rule. Not only because it damages the freedom of expression but because citizens become more and more apathetic and frustrated watching their out-of-touch governments act.

For both Russian and Ukrainian societies, in which the young get hold of multiple technologies, Mr. Durov is promising to donate millions of US dollars on proxy and VPN , and the blood shedding Ukrainian Euromaidan just four years old, this spells a precarious outcome — a development which the region needs the least.


By Lesia Dubenko


Image attribution: bsdourin/Pixabay

PS21 Event Writeup “Changing Face of Conflict”

At the second instalment of our ‘Changing Face of Conflict’ series, a panel of experts considered the future of warfare. The discussion included cyber warfare, the limits of military force, policing in Karachi and the lack of long-term strategies.

Lieutenant General Sir Graeme Lamb, former Director Special Forces and Commander Field Army, said that the recent past – while often presented as largely peaceful – had also seen the world at war just below the threshold of outright conflict. He said that amongst the most powerful tools were weapons of mass disorder, such as propaganda and information warfare, leading to a new kind of warfare. Recognising this shift, said Lamb, should bring changing tactics and strategy. Lamb acknowledged the limits of military capacity, stating that grand strategies must ultimately return to politics, as militaries can deal with the symptoms but are unable to tackle the causes of conflict – a political solution was needed.

Stefan Soesanto, Non-resident James A. Kelly Fellow, Pacific Forum CSIS, said that nation states were still working out where the thresholds of war and peace stood when it comes to conflict in cyberspace. Currently, ground rules for cyber warfare existed largely only in theory – in the form of the Tallinn manual, the UN GGE, and elsewhere – outlining how international law applies to cyberspace. Attributing responsibilities within the cyber domain was also challenging, he said, with private companies often being the victims of incidents while the role of the military remains frequently unclear.

Zoha Waseem, PhD candidate on Urban Security, Policing, Terrorism and Religious Extremism (King’s College London), shifted the conversation to policing in Karachi, Pakistan. The deterioration in law and order in the city in recent years had encouraged police to act above the law, said Waseem. This in turn weakened their legitimacy, leading many civilians to turn to other armed groups, such as militias, to rely on protection. The security dilemma worsens as the police then participate in volatile arms races. The police culture in Karachi, according to Waseem, had taken on ethnic dimensions with geopolitical impact. Citing an example, when a Pashtu youth was killed in Karachi, an ethno-nationalist movement was sparked, exacerbating the existing security dilemma.

Director of the Remote Warfare Programme, Emily Knowles, said that today’s world saw a large spectrum of threats and varieties of warfare – from machete wars to nuclear dangers. The UK political climate was risk-averse with a shift away from large-scale operations to a reliance on local allies and smaller UK training teams. Knowles saw an absence of strategy in this threat environment as a major problem going forwards, particularly the lack of a clear political vision of what the desired end state for conflicts that the UK is currently engaged in should be.


PS21 Event Writeup “Work in 2030”

 On May 15, the latest instalment of our ‘Imagining 2030’ series took place at Juju’s Bar and Stage, in conjunction with Wilton Park and Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Reuters Global Affairs Columnist Peter Apps moderated the panel of experts on the world of work to take a look at how exactly the job market would change and how technological advances would impact our lives twelve years from now.

Kate Bell, Head of Economic and Social Policy from the Trade Union Congress, began by looking at the changes of the last twelve years: three million more people in work, but the worst pay stagnation in 200 years, falling productivity and the rise of so-called ‘false self-employment’. Those with power and responsibility, she said, were increasingly finding ways to dilute the social contract when it came to corporates paying tax, sick pay and other employee benefits.

Global Thematic Strategist Frances Hudson from Aberdeen Standard Life Investments was sceptical towards the change technology might bring, stating that even though robots might replace surgeons in the future, the element of care and empathy could not be replaced by technology. The kind of jobs most likely to see growth were often those at the bottom of the pay and social spectrum, she said, particularly care work – but this might lead to something of a reappraisal of what jobs society actually valued.

Joe Dromey, Senior Research Fellow at IPPR, called for three changes in the job market: the need for managed acceleration of automation, the transformation of skill systems and stronger unions. Comparing the present to past industrial revolutions, Dromey pointed out that the net demand for labour had always increased. This was the case now as well, given that automation created more jobs than it destroyed, however, these new jobs may not be accessible to those losing their jobs to greater mechanisation.

Artificial Intelligence specialist Luca Perletta said that AI allowed to identify patterns and trends much quicker than if carried out by humans and that in this case, technology replaced repetitive jobs. However, Perletta said, AI could not replace humans entirely. But they would create new industries and industrial dynamics that would change the job market forever.

Professional and personal coach Helen Gazzi said that despite technological change, many of the frustrations of the work environment – including boredom, lack of fulfilment and worries over career path – had always existed and were likely to continue. Tackling that required a rethinking of the paradigm of work, she said, and what individuals needed to feel fulfilled.

Alvin Carpio, Founder and Chief Executive of the Fourth Group, a global community established to respond to the challenges caused by the fourth industrial revolution, began by outlining the positive aspect of technology, such as the opportunity of emancipation through technology and the possibility to undertake online learning, as well as the formation of connections which can lead to new job opportunities through networks such as LinkedIn. Carpio also drew attention to the negative side of accelerated work environments, such as abysmal working conditions in factories, as well as the ‘blood iPhone’, assembled with parts that were mined by children in the DRC.

Many of the panellists expressed reservations on the concept of Universal Basic Income, questioning both the economic models behind it and whether it would genuinely leave people fulfilled. As with previous industrial revolutions, most believed new jobs would emerge to replace those lost with technological change, although the dramatic fall in productivity in recent years might be a sign that things could be somehow different this time around.

Photo credit: Thomas Hoare

PS21 Event Writeup “Power in 2030”

The latest instalment of our ‘Imagining 2030’ series took place at Juju’s Bar and Stage on April 10, 2018, on the future of political power.

John Raines, Head of Political Risk at IHS Markit, started by looking back 12 years to 2006, examining how much had changed and stayed the same. He pointed to the rise of populist leaders, new platforms, such as social media, as well as a growing economic shift away from the West. He expected cyber attacks to continue to rise, while US politics might increasingly oscillate from one extreme to another. This, he suggested, might be complimented by problems being solved ‘from the bottom up’, given examples of civil society movements, such as #metoo.

IHS Markit Russia Analyst Alex Kokcharov took the audience to Russia in 2030, where a ‘supreme arbiter’ Vladimir Putin could still be in power. Kokcharov spoke of a fundamental change in Putin’s core politics with a swing from the man of the middle classes to a more socially conservative agenda. Kokcharov voiced serious doubts over a possibility of Putin stepping down and suggested a change of the maximum of terms, as seen in Kazakhstan and Belarus, would be much more likely. The only way a handover of power would occur, so Kokcharov, was if Putin’s successor could guarantee he would not end up being tried for war crimes, corruption or anything else.

Professor Kerry Brown, Director of the Lau China Centre at King’s College London, noted that for the first time in modern history, the world was faced with a China that was strong rather than weak, and which had naval capacity which was now in terms of numbers at least rivalling the US. From a military perspective, however, it appeared difficult to project the country’s real fighting capabilities, given China’s last combat experience goes back to 1979 with Vietnam. According to Brown, the economic super power had been  effective instead in waging wars in the cyber sphere. Brown predicted that by 2021, China’s aim with the achievement of the first centenary goal (to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Communist Party’s foundation) would have won the battle of modernity on its own terms and would seek to act according to its own values, a hybrid mixture of traditional Chinese culture and signified Marxism Leninism. It was hard to predict how this would harmoniously co-exit with the enlightenment values still prevailing in the West. . His biggest worry was the exclusive  and excluding nature of Chinese values and the ways in which they did not seem fit for purpose in operating as a transferable world view that others could embrace, and see a space for themselves in.

Anthropologist Eleanor Beevor talked of a simultaneous desire for greater democracy coupled with a want for stronger leaders. The latter, said Beevor, stemmed from a desire to form personal bonds within politics and connect emotionally with leaders – even if that were often unrealistic. Politicians might increasingly be tempted to embrace overly simplistic messages, she said. Instead of single authoritarian figures emerging, she predicted it was also possible a range of such figures would come from a variety of local and globalised power structures.

Fiona Almond, Senior Lecturer at Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, stressed she was speaking as an individual rather than for her institution. She pointed to new communications technology creating new power structures as well as new ways of understanding people and communities. Harnessing this data was important to forming understanding, power, and the ability to influence people’s actions. Data, she said, was the new oil. As a result, it was important for people to gain a better understanding of the power they held through it.

Laurence Dodds, Assistant Comment Editor at the Daily Telegraph, said technology had changed the way power was felt, as well as the nature of truth and lies. Following on from Almond regarding the power of data, Dodds said the power of platforms such as Facebook could be nuanced: for example, Facebook marketing campaigns were more effective at increasing turnout rather than altering strongly held opinions. The companies themselves increasingly operated more like governments in their own right rather than firms – although this was open to a mounting challenge. At the same time, “algorithmic governance”, will offer a great deal of new power to repressive regimes, which we can already see being deployed against the Uighurs in western China. The same techniques would be used in the West in a more diffuse, subtle way – deployed by outsourcing companies on behalf of governments, or by platform-holders like Facebook. This will make power more opaque and diluted – held by systems more than people – while fuelling the desire and the ability for digitally-aided populists to rise.

PS21 Event Writeup “Changing Face of Conflict 1”

Monday, March 19, 2018

At the inaugural event of the ‘Changing Face of Conflict’ series, kindly hosted by Bob Seely MP, PS21 assembled a panel of experts with diverse backgrounds and experiences. The discussion considered the growth of hybrid warfare, the effect of changing technology, as well as artificial intelligence and changing norms.

Bob Seely MP opened by sketching out how Russia had embraced a variety of forms of non-traditional warfare to pressure the West, noting that a similar degree of innovation might now be required to combat it.

Veerle Nouwens, Asia Studies Researcher at RUSI pointed to the implementation of information operations, which includes “legal warfare” through the challenging of international law, particularly by China in the South China Sea. Nouwens outlined how the EU was experiencing a fracturing of unity over China, akin to that of ASEAN, as a result of increased strategic influence operations. As an example of China’s successful use of unconventional tactics, Nouwens noted the increased militarisation of Chinese activity in the South China Sea, evidenced by the installation of weapons on newly built artificial islands.

King’s College London lecturer Samir Puri said that the world was going through an era of major reconfiguration of power, although that was in itself not new. Puri said the US was moving from being the undisputed champion of the world to one that was very much disputed. Pointing to Russia, China and Iran in particular, he said US adversaries were working very deliberately to identify the thresholds for US military reaction and to take all action they could short of that level. Puri advocated for a need to be diplomatically smart, with new responses needed for actions he described as “accepted but not tolerated.”

Adam Maisel, US Army reservist and co-founder of the Dagr Group, said the US and its allies had been left asking themselves if they understood what modern war and peace really looked like. After several decades of technical dominance, he said, US forces would likely need to learn to deal with much more capable enemies who could largely deny powerful US platforms, such as aircraft carriers, access to strategic regions such as the South China Sea. To win, it would need to lose old lazy assumptions, such as over US aerial dominance, and recruit and train people who could fight in dynamic environments.

Major Kitty McKendrick, British Army Fellow at Chatham House researching the implications of Artificial Intelligence for defence and security, said that US superiority has been traditionally linked to their technological advantage. In terms of AI, McKendrick saw two big risks: the strategic overmatch by a competitor with less control and fewer ethical considerations and the marginalisation of the human in the battlefield. The impact of AI, according to McKendrick, could also change how states conduct foreign policy.

Why Europe has stopped trusting

Iona Allan

In Rome last month, Luigi di Maio, the 31 year frontman of the anti-establishment 5 Star Party won over 24% of the electoral vote and became the most powerful political force in Italy. For the second time in less than two years, a major western election has been fought and won by the swelling powers of populism.

For now at least, the 5 Star Movement are a long way from actually governing. Neither Di Maio, nor Matteo Salvini, the leader of far right Lega Nord party have enough seats to form a government. And the chances of a coalition emerging between Di Maio and Salvini are still very slim. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t just pull off one of the most comfortable victories of any protest party in Europe.

Indeed, what Di Maio, Salvini and his right wing affiliates did wasn’t so much win last month’s  election, but prevent the mainstream from doing so –  draining influence from the political centre and offering a supposedly clean break from politics as usual.

Why Italian voters turned their backs on the political establishment on the 4th March  is hard to know. To some, it was simply a reflection of the Democratic Party (PD’s) growing unpopularity across Italy and a backlash against the widely perceived personal vanities of Matteo Renzi- the country’s former Premier.  To others however, it points to a much bigger problem –  the widening disconnect and mounting distrust between the citizen and state.  Voters in Europe have grown restless. And it is the political centre which is currently paying the biggest price. Di Maio’s emphatic victory and the PD’s slow fall from grace is just the latest proof of this.

The 5 Star movement built their entire election campaign around the principle of rejection. Di Maio, like his influential predecessor Beppe Grillo, rejected basic aspects of the political system, calling for the dissolution of parliament and a shift towards a referendum based style of governance. The willingness of protest parties to challenge key pillars of the democratic system and commit themselves to outlandish policy gaffes is nothing new, nor anything to be necessarily worried about.  What is worrying however, is that these ideas are actually being listened to. What’s more they are being backed and championed as realistic political alternatives on a scale that was unimaginable only a few years before.

Italy’s election, like Donald Trump’s presidency and France’s flirtation with a far-right Le Penn government,  has proven once again just how contested our democratic norms have become.

The appeal of the middle ground is waning, and no matter how resilient liberal democracies have been in previous centuries, it’s hard not to feel that in this one, our political system has  slipped into slow state of crisis.



The reason this crisis feels so acute is because we are not just dealing with one, but with multiple. What’s more, they seemed to have reached their breaking points at precisely the same moment. The first; a crisis in political representation, where our elected officials and central rule making bodies are failing on a more consistent basis to deliver on their promises and break through mounting democratic gridlock.  At the same time however, the mainstream media, on whom we depend even more when our politicians fail us, are facing a similar crisis of legitimacy.  All the while, these anxieties are being transmitted, shared and amplified through our online networks, and, instead of confronting the views that we find destructive, we retreat further into the security of our own.  The result? A perfect storm of uncertainties and a feeling of disillusionment so profound that it has come to define an entire political era.

From the Italian elections, to the surge of the Hungarian, Polish and Swedish far right and onto the shock election of Donald Trump, what do all the seminal moments in the post-truth calendar have in common? They all took place within and indeed depended upon a pervasive culture of distrust. Distrust of politicians, distrust of the ‘dead tree press’ and distrust of the phoney expert- who, according to President Trump, ‘will say anything to keep the rigged system in place.’[1] But so what? Politicians have never ranked particularly highly in terms of trustworthiness and confidence in government institutions has been declining since the final, crook-denying days of President Richard Nixon. So what, if anything, distinguishes this current slump in trust from any other?

The answer, this article suggests, lies in the sheer intensity of the uncertainty and cynicism that this crisis has unleashed. What we are witnessing here, is something far greater and far less containable than Donald Trump, Luigi Di Maio or any other populist leader currently riding the wave of distrust.  What we are facing is in fact much worse; a culture of suspicion that extends beyond traditional political fault lines and casts doubt on all forms of public life.  According to Edelman’s ‘Trust Barometer’ over two thirds of countries in 2017 were classified as ‘distrusters’, meaning that levels of trust in government institutions have dipped below 50%.[2] This is a three point decrease from 2016. But compare this to the average of 80% trust in the US government during the early 1960s and even the moderate 60% levels in the early 2000s and this is a truly astonishing figure.

The favoured explanation, at least within Western scholarly circles is that this crisis of trust is the result of a seemingly  ‘toxic’ combination of technocratic driven policy disasters and the emergence of a mutually dishonest political-media hybrid.[3] The Iraq War, the parliamentary expense scandal, austerity, phone-hacking debacle, the shameful legacy Jimmy Saville left at the BBC and the mishandling of the Grenfell Tower fire are just some of the scandals that have tarnished the reputation of the British government in recent years.

Nevertheless the global financial crash of 2008 stands out as a particularly critical and legitimacy sapping moment the post-truth era.  Banks were bailed out, homes were lost and, as Stephen Griffin has highlighted, a new virulently anti-political discourse was spawned.[4] When the very institutions responsible for steering the global economy to the brink of meltdown were rescued and their directors allowed to carry on with the same impunity as before, then the result was not just collective sense that the economic system is broken, but the conviction that the entire system is broken.

What is interesting about all the countries which ranked lowest in terms of public satisfaction and faith in their institutions, is that they have one important and perhaps surprising feature in common. They are all democracies. Democracies, which currently lack the key ingredient needed for their survival; trust. This is not how we typically expect democratic systems to function. Shouldn’t freedom of expression, access to information, ability to play an active and critical role in public life translate into a moderate or least workable level of trust in government? Why don’t we have faith in a system which, since its ancient conception was built to be ‘fair’ and ‘just’? Isn’t ‘trust’ what we pay for the liberties and privileges of living in a modern democracy? Maybe, but that’s not what global trends seem to be telling us.

According to a 2017 Edelman’s poll, 53% of people surveyed from across 28 countries reported their distrust of central government and belief that the system as a whole was ‘failing them.’  And of those respondents who distrusted the ‘system’, fears over globalisation, technical progress, corruption, immigration and the failure of government to protect them and their families from the impact of the 2008 global financial crisis that were cited amongst the most common reasons for their mistrust. Trust and confidence are slippery political concepts and clearly not an inbuilt feature or commensurate outcome of democratic governance. They are built, according to one OCED policy brief, from ‘fair and reliable public services.’[5]

‘Public service’ is an equally misunderstood term, and one which is often confused with the mere existence of a democratic political structure, or the provision of basic civil liberties. In its most basic form public service means action and measurable outcome. But it also means the delivery of promises, and the expectation that your elected official will always and unconditionally be working in your interests. But the substantial majority, (75%) of respondents across all 28 countries surveyed by Edelman in 2017 felt  that this system wasn’t built to serve them, but to ‘accumulate wealth’,  assert power and undermine the interests of hardworking ‘ordinary’ people.[6] Instead of narrowing the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, governments are now seen to be supporting ‘their own’ and silencing the majority.




The problem, therefore, runs deeper than our elected politicians and has gone beyond a simple ‘mass v class’ conflict. [7] We don’t just distrust our politicians but seem to have grown cynical of an entire political system.  Of course distrust of the governing elite is not a new feature of the political landscape. What’s different today, is that this longstanding mistrust of politicians ‘to do the right thing’ and accurate perception of political elites being unable to deliver on their promises has coincided with a declining trust in other institutions; institutions which have historically held the state accountable for such promises and kept the rusting wheels of democracy rolling. In other words; our media.

Scepticism towards traditional media, both newspaper and broadcast, has been increasing steadily over the past two decades. This  culminated last year with only 6% of Americans and, with the lowest rating in Europe, 22% of Brits trusting the mainstream media .[8] According to 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer Global results, only 43 % of respondents trust the media (5% less than in 2016) making it the second least trusted institution after government. [9]

The way we consume news has also changed dramatically over the last decade.  In 2017, with 3.77 billion internet users, online sites have rapidly outstripped television as a primary source of news. [10]  From Sweden to South Korea more and more smart phone owners now receive their news from social media rather than professional news sites.  The overwhelming majority of Americans also consume their news on Facebook. Ironically however, social media remains the least trusted news source across all categories, with only 12% of Americans actually trusting the information they consume. [11]

In Britain, this erosion of trust feels particularly hard to accept. As a country with a long history of independent journalism we tend to think of institutions like the BBC and Reuters as instinctively trustworthy and unbiased. Recent research suggests however, that their reputations are far from unshakable. Just under half of British people now don’t trust these institutions to report with balance, fairness, and accuracy.[12] Indeed, the BBC has faced more accusations of bias in the last year than in any other. It’s coverage of Brexit for example has been accused of being too quick to accept some of the wild  claims made by both sides of the campaign. The ‘Leave’ Campaign’ pledge to fund an extra £350 million a week to the NHS is one of the more outlandish promises that wasn’t scrutinised carefully until after the referendum. Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s political editor faced similar accusations of inaccurate and partisan reporting of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and his views on ‘shoot to kill’ terror policies.[13] Claims of bias reporting dominated the U.S election as well, from the supposed ‘fake news’ agenda being waged against Donald Trump by CNN, The New York Times and other liberal leaning institutions, to the accusations that the candidate Bernie Sanders was either negatively framed or under reported during his run for the Democratic nomination. Whether there are any truth to these accusations is almost besides the point. The problem runs deeper and requires us to confront two of the most perplexing features of the post-truth landscape; the impulse to congregate with the ‘like minded’ and the ease with which we dismiss the views and ‘facts’ which that challenge our own.

As Nick Barron has argued, the root cause of the post-truth world is not the lack of trust in the media per se, but rather the growing trust we place in ‘someone like me’.  This tendency to retreat into the comfort of the like minded echo-chambers has two significant consequences.  First, it makes it possible to avoid interacting and engaging with disconfirming information, and secondly it produces tribes and like- minded clusters, who, contrary to what they may claim, are actually less likely to hold power to account and more likely to consume ‘fake news’ uncritically.

The contradiction is striking, but it is nonetheless characteristic our current political culture. What’s worse is that this cycle of cynicism and mistrust seems to be endlessly self producing.  The more we retreat into like minded eco-chambers, the more we abandon the process of critical thinking and up placing more trust in social media algorithms than human experts. The result, is an electorate that is almost immune to counter argument.

How many times during the weeks leading up to the US election did Donald Trump face what should have been campaign ending scandals? There were countless. But he won nonetheless. Why? First of all he offered change not continuity, and secondly he convinced his voters that he was was one of them, part of their tribe- or  ‘the common man’ as The New York Times put it.[14]  Given that 71% of Americans now have more faith in reformers than in defenders of the status quo, the odds now seem like they were always stacked in the President’s favour.[15] Indeed, as Naomi Klein has pointed out in her recent study No Is Not Enough, President Trump was only half joking when he said ‘I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I still wouldn’t lose any voters.’ [16]

Whats’ more, is that according to former Brexit strategist Dominic Cummings, this tribalism and fetish to trust ‘someone like me’, is not confined to any particular social group. The only difference, Cummings  suggests is that the ‘educated’ are more willing to deny what is actually happening. ‘They back their gang’ he explains, ‘and then fool themselves that they have reached their views by their own sensible and intelligent reasoning.’[17]

The internet has undoubtedly amplified this trend,  but it did not create them. Neither can we conclude that our politicians and journalists are quantitively more dishonest now than they were 10 years ago.  Anxieties and frustrations at ‘the system’ have always been a feature of political life.  What has changed therefore, is the intensity at which these uncertainties are being felt, the speed at which they are being transmitted and the feeling that ‘crisis’ is is being fought on not just one but multiple fronts.

Solving these problems presents an immense challenge. Democracy depends on its citizens arguing constructively, and until we are forced to leave our eco-chambers and engage in some degree of critical thinking then there is little hope that trust will ever return to public life.

The advance of populism, however, is not inevitable. And as shakable as the political establishment feels in this current climate, we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from the triumph of Italian populism. Trust has been drained from our political system, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t salvageable. Building a more accountable media, transparent political system and two way stream of public communication will be the first of many steps required to restore faith in our institutions.
It may take generations to build and only a few seconds to break, but trust is too important and too integral to the future of our political system to abandon altogether. The fight back must start now.
[1] Catherine Happer, ‘The Post-Trust Crisis of Mainstream Media, Glasgow Sociology, (2016), accessed 15th June 2017.

[2] 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, Global results, Slide 11,

[3]Matthew D’Ancona, Post Truth: The New War on Truth and How to Fight It (London, 2017), p. 37.
Jane Suiter, ’Post-truth Politics’, Political Insight (2016), pp- 25- 27.

[4] Stephen M Griffin, ‘Trump Trust and the Future of the Constitutional Order’, Maryland Law Review 77 (2017), pp1-16.

[5] OESD, “Trust in Government”, Home/Directorate for Public Governance/Trust in Government.

[6] 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, Global Results, HYPERLINK “”; Richard Edelman, “An Implosion of Trust”, Edelman Trust Barometer, 2017 Executive Summary,””

[7] Richard Edelman, “An Implosion of Trust”, Edelman Trust Barometer, 2017 Executive Summary, “”

[8], accessed 20 July 2017., accessed 20 July 2017.

[9] 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, Global results, Slide 10, .


[11], accessed 20 July 2017.

[12], accessed 24 July 2017.

[13], accessed 19 July 2017.


[15] Friedman, ‘Why Trump is Thriving in an Age of Distrust’.

[16] Naomi Klein, No Is Not Enough: Defeating The New Shock Politics (London, 2017), p. 34.

[17] D’Ancona, Post Truth .


Image Attribution: TheAndrasBarta/Pixabay

Why radical right-wing networks thrive on social media


Arthur Bradley


Over the past few years there has been a deterioration in public trust and support for democratic ruling parties and institutions across Europe. The political centre of gravity has shifted towards the right, and radical right-wing groups have attracted an increase in support. These groups and their surrounding networks come in various forms, but can be defined by their general resistance to multiculturalism and immigration alongside a vague conviction to safeguard national identity and culture. They embrace populist tactics and claim to fight for the concerns of a silent majority against an out-of-touch, politically-correct liberal elite. Most commonly they stress the impending threat of ‘Islamisation’ by an apparently homogeneous and intolerant Islam. From their point of view, they are engaging in a fight between two camps: good versus evil, honesty versus lies, the ‘truth’ versus spin and self-interest.


Social media is a great medium to spread this kind of message. Radical leaders bypass the gatekeepers in the traditional media to interact directly with their audience. Their arguments are not subject to the dilutive effects of fact-checking, contextualisation or expert analysis as they would be in mainstream media. Instead, they use short, sharp emotional appeals, posting inflammatory content intended to spark outrage among their supporters. In November 2017, for example, Britain First’s deputy leader Jayda Fransen (recently convicted of religiously aggravated harassment and banned from Facebook and Twitter) tweeted a video of a violent assault with the caption: ‘Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!’. For Ms Fransen and her supporters, the video was an indication that immigration and Islam have a detrimental effect on western society, and pose an existential threat. She provided no context or evidence to corroborate the claims made in her tweet. Later, it emerged that the perpetrator in the video was ‘not a Muslim, let alone a migrant, but just a Dutch guy’.[1] But the video was accepted by Ms Fransen’s supporters as truth. Principal among these was U.S. President Donald Trump, who retweeted the video to his 43.6 million followers.


It is easy to see why inaccurate information exists in such abundance online. Popular discourse on social media is not shaped through meritocracy, but democracy: these are platforms where anyone – irrespective of credentials – can take it upon themselves to be a journalist, essayist, political agitator, or publisher of information. It was discovered in a recent study into ‘fake news’ on twitter over the last ten years that false information outperforms accurate information on the social network. And it was not bots who were primarily responsible for the dissemination of false information, but real people. Because fake stories are often deliberately inflammatory and are specifically designed to provoke an emotional reaction, they are shared more quickly and more widely by Twitter users – meaning that they end up on more people’s newsfeeds than real stories.[2] If false stories relate to a subject like immigration – already a politically-sensitive issue which can evoke emotive and sometimes ill-informed opinion (most Europeans vastly overestimate the population of Muslims in their country, for example)[3] – then they are sure to encourage radicalisation and political polarisation. It doesn’t help that many internet users do not think to question the reliability of the content that they read online. As one respondent in a 2016 study into fake news put it: ‘It’s not that the reputation of the publication did not affect my opinion…but more that I didn’t pay attention to it at all’.[4]


But this isn’t just about the stories that are patently false. The ability for users to personalise and self-select the content they see on social media can lead to something called the filter bubble – a term coined by Eli Pariser. A filter bubble occurs when an individual exclusively consumes the news and media content that they already agree with. Over time, the filter bubble will create a subjective evidence base that the individual uses to make sense of the world around them. If we continually absorb information which matches the ideas that we already have, crucial opposing facts and perspectives are likely to be missed – and this leads to confirmation bias. There is research to confirm the existence of this phenomenon online, but with an added dimension: the closer to the edge of the political spectrum an internet user is, the more likely they are to exclusively digest and engage with content that validates and reinforces their existing beliefs.[5] This is visible on the social networks of right-wing extremists on Twitter, who often will cherry-pick new stories that support their agenda whilst overlooking a multitude of others that don’t.


The tendency for people to actively absorb information they already agree with is nothing new, but the increased capacity for personalisation on social media newsfeeds is unique. In a June 2016 blog post, Facebook spokesperson Adam Mosseri set out new changes to the way that content would appear on the platform. ‘The goal of News Feed’, he explained, ‘is to show people the stories that are most relevant to them […] something that one person finds informative or interesting may be different from what another person finds informative or interesting’. He went on: ‘When people see content they are interested in, they are more likely to spend time on News Feed and enjoy their experience’.[6] This underlines the social media business model: it is an attention economy. To ensure people keep coming back, Facebook and other mainstream platforms use data collected about their users (including what they have liked, commented on or shared, and what those in their network have interacted with) to create personalised algorithms that organise and prioritise posts according to the things their users are already interested in. This exacerbates the filter bubble effect.


These online ideological ecosystems are a by-product of political polarisation and rising right-wing extremism, but they also make it worse. They nurture an environment where exposure to alternative perspectives or contradictory facts is reduced, and with the addition of inflammatory false information, are likely to radicalise perspectives. Radical political movements have typically always been ahead of the curve when it comes to harnessing new technologies and the contemporary far-right are no different. It is has become common for radical right-wing leaders to accrue a larger following on social media than their mainstream political peers. Before their account was removed from Facebook, Britain First had around 2 million likes – far more than Labour or the Conservative party, who have only 1 million and 650,000, respectively, and the founder of the English Defence League, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (who goes by the pseudonym Tommy Robinson) currently has almost as many Twitter followers as British Prime Minister Theresa May. It should come as little surprise that when Matteo Salvini, leader of Italian anti-immigration party Lega Nord, addressed the media following his electoral successes earlier this month, he had some very specific thankyous to give: ‘Thank god for the internet, thank god for social media, [and] thank god for Facebook’.[7]


[1] Angus Harrison, ‘The Truth Behind Those anti-Muslim Videos Donald Trump Just Retweeted’, Vice, 29 November 2017.

[2] Soroush Vosoughi, Deb Roy and Sinan Aral, ‘The spread of true and false news online’, Science, 9 March 2018. Available at:, last accessed 20 March 2018.

[3] Pamela Duncan, ‘Europeans greatly overestimate Muslim population, poll shows’, The Guardian, 13 December 2016.


[5] Alex Krasodomski-Jones, ‘Talking to Ourselves? Political debate online and the echo chamber effect’, Demos, September 2016. Available at:, last accessed 20 March 2018.

[6] Adam Mosseri, ‘Building a better news feed for you’, Facebook Newsroom, 29 June 2016, (accessed 20 March 2018).

[7] Mark Di Stefano, ‘Italy’s new far-right star specifically thanked Facebook for the election result because of course he did’, Buzzfeed News, 7 March 2018.


Photo Credit: Pixies/ Pixabay 

PS21 Event Writeup “Imagining the World in 2030”

Tuesday, March 13, 2018


The newest event of PS21’s 2030 series saw a panel of experts in tech, policy, defence, economics and more to discuss what the world would look like by 2030. Hosted by Juju’s Bar and Stage and in cooperation with Young Professionals in Policy, the discussion ranged from the changing impact of technology to rise in extremism, economic and social divisions and the importance of diversity.

Paola Subacchi, Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House, stressed the importance of equality, as well as the need for sustainable and inclusive growth as part of a broader and progressive agenda. Subacchi saw the world today at a turning point, with the rise of emerging economies and technological revolution creating a range of new opportunities but also dangers.

Gurjinder Dhaliwal from Young Professionals in Foreign Policy reflected on YPFP’s mission statement, which saw a shift to amplify voices of the next generation, bringing with it more autonomy. Dhaliwal hoped to see a future of greater democratisation of information but saw obstacles in a lack of vision and ideas. Dhaliwal highlighted the reality that change does not happen automatically but that it requires practical policies to bring about social change and equality. He also reflected on the lack of big political ideas from the political mainstream.

Julia Ebner, Research Fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, specialising in far right and Islamist extremism, took up Dhaliwal’s thought on “winning the battle of ideas”. According to Ebner, the current generation grew up after 9/11, amid talk of a war between the West and Islam. This idea was dangerous with far right counter-cultures exploiting it to take advantage of frustrations with mainstream ideas. Ebner warned fringe groups had the ability to create the impression online that they were more widespread than in reality, making the media more receptive towards their ideas and ultimately reaching more people.

Former British Army officer and cyber security specialist Harry Porteous saw warfare becoming increasingly technological, altering its character but not its fundamental nature. Recent examples included cheap, off-the-shelf drones employed by militants in Northern Iraq and Syria. These capabilities were no longer limited to states. Porteous predicted such ‘human-on tech’ conflict would be followed by ‘tech-on-tech’ combat, likely first in a maritime environment in the form of unmanned vehicles. Speaking on Russia, Porteous highlighted that Russia had the same means and accessibility to tech as the UK but was prepared to go further and faster.

Catalina Butnaru from Women in AI called for accuracy in understanding technology, particularly citing the need to distinguish between machine or automated intelligence and common-sense, self-aware intelligent systems. AI, she said, was not conscious and lacked both awareness and common sense, relying only on algorithms, data, and human intervention. The nature of jobs and employment would change drastically, she said, but existing levels of job automation suggests computers will not be able to take over entirely. Companies should slowly incorporate AI into current jobs, she said, using it to augment, not displace jobs. Two key components of this transition were building in user interface levers for adequate AI adoption amongst digitally literate workers, and helping the remaining workforce develop complex cognitive skills needed to make the most of AI-driven systems at work.

Hedge fund portfolio manager Subhajeet Parida saw democracies increasingly challenged through a range of hybrid structures within them. Access to opportunities across the world remained very varied, he said, creating its own economic and political strains. Reflecting on the adoption of technology in his own sector, Parida said banking had leapt ahead in some areas but more cautiously in others, sometimes without a coherent strategy. The emergence of Blockchain could bring about a further raft of changes in a large number of sectors, he said, potentially including news and publishing as the world sought new solutions to fake news and other problems.

The Putin-factor

Lesia Dubenko

This Sunday the Russian President Vladimir Putin has secured a stunning 76,66% of support during the presidential election in Russia. In his post-victory speech at the Manezhnaya square he encouraged a cheering crowd to proceed with Russia’s development: “We are destined for success.

While that is yet to be seen, it is clear that Mr. Putin is the one who is so far destined for success — and he uses cleverly-crafted manoeuvres for it. Hence, ahead of the election Mr. Putin in his usual, rather persuasive and eloquent manner, unveiled new types of weapon systems capable of striking targets even in Florida. The Federal Assembly’s audience loved it, interrupting the President 36 times with applauses.

This speech, despite seemingly being addressed at the West, was in fact predominately aimed at the voters. Mr. Putin is well aware that the Western sanctions had an unfavourable impact on Russia’s socio-economic scene. Thus he used his ace in the hole in order to mobilise the voters and avoid the 2016 Duma election’s low turnout which was below 50%. And he succeeded: The turnout has reached 67,49%.

For many the mere notion that authoritarian Mr. Putin, with the sanctions’ impact and recent scandal involving the poisoning of the former spy Sergei Skripal in the UK,  continues to appeal to a substantial chunk of voters may be puzzling. However, they also rarely fathom Russia’s turbulent past which never created an environment for liberalism and individual’s rights to flourish in, empowering Russians to reject him.


The double-death of Russian liberalism

Before the Bolshevik’s created Communist Soviet Russia in 1917, Russia was a Europe’s typical absolutist Empire, engaging in often successful wars contributing to the national pride. Yet comparing to its Western counterparts it was also, arguably, the least industrially and democratically developed of the states. If the British Empire, for example, had already a fully-functioning and representative* Parliament by 1884, the Russian Empire installed one solely in 1905, abolishing slavery in the rural Russia in 1861 — nine years before the Second Industrial Revolution took place in other quickly developing European states.

The Russian historian Kirill Solovyov points out that the 19th century liberal adherents, like Konstantin Kavelin, substantially differed from the Western promoters of a night-watchman state: “A liberal is associated with ideas of constraining state power. Russian liberals, however, praised the state’s authority.”

While in the early 20th century, the liberal Constitutional Democratic Party had already modified views supporting the Parliament’s central role in the decision-making, its ideas, however, were confined to small intellectual circles. Cadets, as they were also called, unlike the dissimilar socialist camp failed to strike a chord with the Russian wider public. Eventually, liberals left Russia, while their views were buried, leaving the public unfamiliar with the individual-centred life approach.

Russian liberalism resurrected in the 1990’s, following the USSR’s collapse. For the first time in its history the country had a chance to not just promote democratic institutions, but also build them. However, the then Russian President Boris Yeltsin and his government failed to mitigate the market transition’s negative impact, banish the organised crime and preserve the country as America’s counter-balance.

For a typical Soviet well-respected scientific associate, who in the new world had to sell fruits at the bazaar to make ends meet, it was of a mild amusement to contemplate Tsarist’s adherents engaging in public, relatively democratic, debates with their Communist opponents. Consequently they mistakenly confused liberalism which they knew little of with a state where everything is allowed. And developed a grudge against it and its promoter the U.S. which is best portrayed in Danila Bagirov — a soldier-turned-bandit hero of the cult 1997 Russian movie “Brother”.

Ironically, Mr. Putin fulfilled Danila older brother’s intention, expressed in the movie, to make the “Ukrainian bastards pay for Sevastopol” when he annexed Crimea in 2014. Since he was first elected in 2000, Mr. Putin together with Dmitriy Medvedev, who served as president between 2008-2012, has been playing a two fold game of restoring the Russian´s feeling of glory and raising the level of income to such an extent that even the average breadwinner could enjoy a vacation in a Turkish family resort.

Acting as a Tsar’s prototype, Mr. Putin managed to create a unique image of a leader who deals with economy and military, albeit addressing the “little Russian’s” needs. A rather amusing illustration of it concerns Vyatskiy Kvass — a local low-alcohol drink which a journalist personally asked Mr. Putin to try and promote. Now, it is sold around Russia and is being prepared to be exported to Israel

This kinship with the ordinary Russians, who feel that many of the hardships are due to “evil America” and not the “amiable” Mr. Putin, is central to his support.


Living in a muppet show

However, not all Russians are “little”. In fact, a recent survey carried out by Carnegie Moscow Center (CMC) and “Levada Center” shows that 42% yearn for radical changes and “don’t care who exactly carries them out – Mr. Putin or Mr. Stalin.”, while 40% simply want something new. Both, however, fail to identify the necessary reforms.

These results are both curious and mixed, as while showing public dissatisfaction, they also reiterate how highly state-centred, as Mr. Andrey Kolesnikov from the CMC points out, Russians are. They believe that one man should solve their problems and see no alternative to Mr. Putin. The Russian historian and journalist Dmitriy Galkin stresses that this is because Mr. Putin installed a “muppet show” on the Russian political and media scene with no true competitors in sight.

In this muppet show, Mr. Putin’s supporters, like Viacheslav Nikonov who is the grandson of Viacheslav Molotov, the concluder of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, debase opponents on the popular federal channels. Such as Michael Bohm, whom the Wall Street Journal described as an American Russians love to hate. He frequently attends the local political talk show “Time will tell” where the “wiser” guests counter his critique, often employing the “whataboutism” approach and occasionally attempting to beat him up.

A candidate for the presidential election Ksenia Sobchak, who encapsulated, as Alexander Baunov, the editor-in-chief of CMC puts it, the idea that Russia could have preserved the 1990’s state of art, was called a “**ore” by her opponent in the election the notorious and supportive of Mr. Putin’s policy Vladimir Zhyrinovskiy. Having been systematically debased during the campaign, the former daughter of Mr. Putin’s first political boss, the deceased former mayor of Saint Petersburg Anatoliy Sobchak, received solely 1,64% of the vote.

Mr. Putin, however, like all paranoia-prone authoritarian leaders, did ensure that the most well-known opposition candidate Alexey Navalnyi stays out of the competition. Mr. Kolesnikov admits that he could have gotten substantial support. However, its exact level from electorate yearning changes, yet accepting a potential Stalin to carry them out, remains unknown. More so, since the already-mentioned survey revealed that the 18-24 years olds, on whom Mr. Navalnyi could potentially rely, turned out to be more conservative than pensioners with a totalitarian past.

Hence, Mr. Putin is left alone in the society which remains to be predominantly liberal-sceptic winning over not only the candidates listed in the ballots, but also the intangible scenarios of Russia’s past and future. “Mr. Putin needs to show that during his rule he did everything right,” emphasises Mr. Baunov.

With the unambiguous majority saying yes, discarding even tenuous blinks of Ms.Sobchak’s liberal rhetoric, Mr. Putin is enthusiastic to continue.



*not fully, however. Women were still not allowed to vote, for example.

Image attribution: DimitroSevastopol / Pixabay


The views of this article are of the author and not of PS21 as an organisation