Categories
Opinion

Afghanistan collapse illustrates failed doctrine of interventionism

“Never fight a land war in Asia”. A prophetic quote, attributed to military figures throughout history such as Bernard Montgomery and Douglas MacArthur, and popularized in the 1987 movie The Princess Bride by the Scillian criminal Vizzini; “You’ve fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia”. 

This oracular quote has been further exemplified by events in Afghanistan in the last 10 days. After the full withdrawal of US troops from the country by the Biden administration in June, the Taliban, an Islamist movement and military organization, swept through the country, seizing the first provincial capital on 6 August, and seizing the capital, Kabul, within nine days. A 20-year military operation, globally coordinated, at the cost of billions of dollars, collapsed in the blink of an eye (in terms of the wide, sweeping nature of historical chronology). 

The Taliban began planning a nationwide offensive in May, coinciding with the US departure, and made their first moves on 9 July, laying the groundwork for the capture of Kabul, the final piece of the jigsaw. Taliban fighters captured land surrounding the western city of Herat, home to over 500,000, before completely surrounding the city within three days.

By 23 July, government, US-backed forces reclaimed land in the centre of the country, but between 5-11 August the Taliban had squeezed the city of Kandahar from the east and west, and made movements towards the city of Mazar-i-Sharif. 

The 13-15 August were the crucial days – huge swathes of northern and central land were easily seized by Taliban fighters, before Kabul was conquered fully by 16 August. Taliban fighters encircled the city, proclaiming a transfer of power would be peaceful and orderly. Fighting and looting soon broke out in the city, and the Taliban arrived not as invaders, but as policemen, to restore order as official statesmen.

It was revealed President Ashraf Ghani had fled to neighboring Tajikistan – with the country rapidly falling into lawlessness and anarchy. Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar subsequently declared himself President of the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ – a partially recognized state between 1996 and 2001 before the US-led invasion. 

The images of Afghani’s desperately clinging to a departing US Air Force jet are harrowing. The UN Refugee Agency estimates over 2,500,000 refugees have fled the country – this is an accumulative figure from over two decades of intermittent fighting. The Taliban appear poised to reinstate their governance of the nation in the late 1990s – a repressive, theocratic state based on ‘Sharia’ law – with little to no rights afforded to women and religious minorities.

This has prompted a crisis for the Afghani people, with hundreds of thousands fleeing their homes with only the clothes on their backs, and in a geopolitical sense for American and European leaders. How will the Taliban interact with NATO, what will their relationship be like with Iran and China, could fighting spill over into neighboring Pakistan? It is a worrying and highly disconcerting situation. 

These events provoke many damning questions. Was the US war in Afghanistan pointless? Is the country really doomed? Can any campaign of military interventionism be successful? 

Firstly, let’s look at the immense cost of the ‘War on Terror’. According to estimates from the Costs of War Project at Brown University, the US has spent over $2trillion in Afghanistan alone. This includes direct funding of over $800billion towards the invasion and fighting itself, plus an additional $83billion towards training the Afghan army. Brown University has also predicted this war debt will rise to an astonishing $6.5trillion by 2050 – equating to a cost of roughly $20,000 for every US citizen.

The loss of life has been huge too. The US lost 2,448 servicemen as of April 2021, as well as almost 4,000 civilian contractors. In terms of Afghan costs, more than 66,000 military and police personnel have lost their lives since 2001. In addition to this, 47,245 civilians have died in the country, as well as 51,191 Taliban (and other opposition) fighters. 

Was this really all for nothing? On the face of it, this 20 year campaign appears to be in vain – the country has collapsed in a matter of weeks, the Taliban turning back the clock to 2000 with relative ease, to the horror and bewilderment of the international community. 

However, it is worth noting certain interests have benefitted from the War in Afghanistan. Lockheed Martin, a US-based arms and defense company, have seen their profits and revenue consistently increase since this was first measured in 2005.

In 2005, the company’s total annual revenue amounted to $37.21billion. By 2012, this figure rose to $47.18billion, as US troop presence in the country rose in the same time from 19,000 to 76,000. By 2020, Lockheed Martin’s revenue rose to an all-time high of $65.39billion – the company is evidently benefiting financially from America’s military involvement in Afghanistan and other war-torn countries by selling equipment via lucrative contracts. 

The ‘military-industrial complex’ is a term that has been bandied about throughout history – outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned of the threats of such a complex in his farewell address: “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.” Surely now this disastrous rise of misplaced power has reared its ugly head, to the cost of the Afghan people and thousands of US (and other nations) soldiers. 

Lockheed Martin also spends considerable sums of money “lobbying” – endorsing political candidates and funding campaigns to continue and increase their embeddedness in the political process. After spending just over $7,000,000 in 2001 on all lobbying-related activities, this sum grew to nearly $15,000,000 in 2008.

Despite decreasing to $13,000,000 in 2020, this is still a gargantuan amount directly channeled into promoting political candidates that have no interest in fully ending the War on Terror, and instead seek to continue the military operations due to purely financial interests.

This brings me to the next point; the bipartisanship of the Afghan War. Republican, Democract, it doesn’t really matter, the vested interests at the heart of the American executive process remain firmly submerged underneath the surface, churning out troops into Afghanistan, selling more military equipment, until the original goal of interventionism is almost forgotten and unknown. 

President Obama was elected as a fairly ‘dovish’ President in terms of military interventionism. He pledged to close Guantanamo Bay (which didn’t happen), refused to engage Gaddafi’s government in Libya militarily (he sent NATO bombers in instead), and pledged to end the US involvement in Afghanistan. Instead, troop levels in the country rose rapidly – from 30,000 in 2008 to 110,000 in 2011. Republicans and Democrats claim to vary on foreign policy and military interventionism – in reality, the aforementioned vested interests ensure this is merely an illusion. 

Perhaps it is also worth musing upon the inevitability of history to repeat itself – in the words of philosopher George Santayana, “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it”. In 1919, after the Emirate of Afghanistan invaded British India, British troops were deployed to the country to assist their Indian allies.

Despite outnumbering Afghan forces and possessing far greater military equipment, the British troops ran into various problems in their battles with the Afghans, under the command of Amanullah Khan. The 5,000 mile distance to London created a considerable delay in communications, and British troops severely struggled with the tough terrain, which the Afghans were accustomed to. After just 3 months and 2 days, the British Empire signed the Treaty of Rawalpindi, recognising Afghan independence, after a loss of 236 men, and a further 1,500 injuries. A diplomat of the era, Sir Hamilton Grant, described the affair as “the most meaningless, crazy and unnecessary war in history”.

It would be interesting to know what Grant thinks of the events of the last month in Afghanistan. Interventionism as a doctrine promotes freedom – freedom from oppression and totalitarianism, giving help and assistance to civilians in countries across the world unable to dislodge their dictatorial governments.

In reality, interventionism is nearly always futile. Billions are spent, lives are lost, progress is reverted, all in the blink of an eye. At the same time, the vested interests and lobbyist culture in America ensures the sliding doors continue to open and close, regardless of who is President, and regardless of what lessons history tries in vain to teach us.

Categories
Opinion

Vaccine passports are dangerous and discriminatory – we must oppose them now

The government is treading dangerously along the path of compulsory COVID-19 vaccinations in all but name – we must make our voices heard if it is to be stopped.

You might need a vaccination to go abroad, they said a couple of months ago. Then they said it might be necessary to attend large-scale gatherings, such as football matches or concerts. Now, you might need a COVID-19 vaccination to go to the pub. What might it be next? To obtain employment or God forbid, leave your home?

Though it may seem totally unfeasible that the government would mandate a ‘Stay At Home’ order solely for those who have refused vaccination, this is essentially what they would be doing by mandating vaccination in order to get back to the things we love.

And in doing so, the government would, effectively, be breaking the law – the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 specifically states that members of the public should not be compelled to undergo any mandatory medical treatment, including vaccinations.

Given what this nation, and this world, has endured for the last 12 months, would the sustained removal of one’s freedom not constitute compulsion? Ultimately, government powers would be coercing individuals into acting in a certain manner – removing one’s freedoms and changing the conditions upon which they are returned.

It could even be said that it would represent a violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which grants an individual the right of respect for one’s ‘private life’.

Now, the ECHR also states an important exception: when it comes to the protection of public health. However, we have been repeatedly told by a whole raft of experts that a so-called ‘COVID-zero’ policy is not an option and that we would have to live with the virus once we have achieved herd immunity.

Given the policy of herd immunity [through vaccination], and what it offers, alongside the realistic acceptance that more lives will inevitably be lost due to COVID-19, the government cannot justifiably claim they are protecting public health by mandating vaccinations.

In fact, you could argue that they would be making it worse. The mental health implications would be huge – not only would a whole manner of individuals feel ostracised by their personal choice to refuse a vaccine but for many, merely knowing that they had no choice but to get a vaccine would have devastating consequences for one’s perception of freedom.

The results would not only be devastating for individuals but for our entire society. What we would be left with is an increasingly two-tiered society, one that not only creates new forms of discrimination but encourages and exacerbates existing ones.

It is well documented that there is a relative increase when it comes to vaccine hesitancy within ethnic-minority communities – though we absolutely need to communicate with such communities to encourage take-up, compelling vaccination through passports whilst aware of this existing discrepancy would ultimately represent a very real and damaging form of state-inflicted racial discrimination, which would inevitably spill over into the rest of society.

The government needs to stop treading along this path and really embrace what it means to live with the virus: vaccine passports would not represent living with COVID-19, it would mean changing the way we live because of it, and not for the better.

Categories
Opinion

Unregulated social media companies should worry all of us

We all spend too much time on social media. Every time I look at my screen time, I squirm in my seat, throw my phone on the floor, delete all my social media, only to re-download it all again just two hours later.

Almost every social media user has experienced something similar in their time online, yet we always seem to be drawn back in.

This is not done by default but by design. In other words, social media companies design their platforms to create and subsequently feed addiction.

The notion of ‘social media addiction’ is something that has been bought to the fore by former Google employee, Tristan Harris, who claims that social media apps act as a substitute for ‘Big Tobacco for our brains’.

Harris was a key figure behind the recent Netflix documentary, ‘The Social Dilemma’, which presented a compelling case against the recent expansion of social media and smartphone technology.

During an interview with Fox News, Harris argued that the smartphone is “the most deep and subtle issue of our time … I believe it’s actually an existential threat to democracy”.

”Three billion people have a brain implant that’s a remotely controlled brain, because – especially in the coronavirus times – we are relying on these things to make sense of what’s reality out there in the world,” Harris said.

‘They have become the fabric for our sense-making and the fabric of our choice-making, the fabric of how children develop.”

Harris is not wrong – I have been on Twitter since May 2013. This means that Twitter has been shaping my beliefs for over eight years, despite being just 21 years of age.

A key driver behind the sustenance of these platforms is interaction: likes, retweets, comments, direct messages – all of which usually occur when one user agrees with another.

The resulting dopamine release that is proven to occur following such interactions means that people naturally continue to post thoughts that will likely be interacted with.

As a result, independent thought is something that is seemingly lacking from social media these days, especially in relation to politics.

Companies such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram all use complex algorithms to measure your preferences: what you like, what you do not, what you linger on for one second more, or one second less. This data not only informs your timelines but is packaged and sold to the highest bidder.

We are all aware of how Facebook and Cambridge Analytica were able to influence the 2016 Brexit and US Presidential elections, respectively – social media companies not only have the power to influence individuals but their political beliefs and by extension, political outcomes.

When are we going to draw the line? If social media companies can control what political opinions you do and do not see, it is entirely feasible that they can swing elections results one way or another.

Twitter has also shown form with their recent ban of former US President Donald Trump. Regardless of his beliefs, should Twitter really act as the final arbiter of what he can and cannot say online?

The only next logical step is government intervention; following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook promised change. Since then, it has promised more change – what’s changed? Nothing.

Social media companies have shown time and time again that they cannot be trusted to self-regulate. Our only hope of change lies within real, meaningful legislation that removes social companies from the secret positions of power they have put themselves in.

An easy counter-argument would be: if you do not like it, just delete your account.

This is simply not realistic for the people of today or the children of tomorrow. Twitter and other forms of social media platforms, like it or not, have become essential forms of communication for people across the globe.

Social isolation, especially among children, is at an all-time high due to the restrictive implications of the COVID-19 pandemic – the last thing that is needed is the total removal of forms of communication.

Instead, we need to make sure that social media companies are held accountable for their actions and stripped of their ability to orchestrate our socio-political futures on a mass scale.

Categories
Opinion

Social media companies require government regulation – here is why

We all spend too much time on social media. Every time I look at my screen time, I squirm in my seat, throw my phone on the floor, delete all my social media, only to re-download it all again just two hours later.

Almost every social media user has experienced something similar in their time online, yet we always seem to be drawn back in.

This is not done by default but by design. In other words, social media companies design their platforms to create and subsequently feed addiction.

The notion of ‘social media addiction’ is something that has been bought to the fore by former Google employee, Tristan Harris, who claims that social media apps act as a substitute for ‘Big Tobacco for our brains’.

Harris was a key figure behind the recent Netflix documentary, ‘The Social Dilemma’, which presented a compelling case against the recent expansion of social media and smartphone technology.

During an interview with Fox News, Harris argued that the smartphone is “the most deep and subtle issue of our time … I believe it’s actually an existential threat to democracy”.

”Three billion people have a brain implant that’s a remotely controlled brain, because – especially in the coronavirus times – we are relying on these things to make sense of what’s reality out there in the world,” Harris said.

‘They have become the fabric for our sense-making and the fabric of our choice-making, the fabric of how children develop.”

Harris is not wrong – I have been on Twitter since May 2013. This means that Twitter has been shaping my beliefs for over eight years, despite being just 21 years of age.

A key driver behind the sustenance of these platforms is interaction: likes, retweets, comments, direct messages – all of which usually occur when one user agrees with another.

The resulting dopamine release that is proven to occur following such interactions means that people naturally continue to post thoughts that will likely be interacted with.

As a result, independent thought is something that is seemingly lacking from social media these days, especially in relation to politics.

Companies such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram all use complex algorithms to measure your preferences: what you like, what you do not, what you linger on for one second more, or one second less. This data not only informs your timelines but is packaged and sold to the highest bidder.

We are all aware of how Facebook and Cambridge Analytica were able to influence the 2016 Brexit and US Presidential elections, respectively – social media companies not only have the power to influence individuals but their political beliefs and by extension, political outcomes.

When are we going to draw the line? If social media companies can control what political opinions you do and do not see, it is entirely feasible that they can swing elections results one way or another.

Twitter has also shown form with their recent ban of former US President Donald Trump. Regardless of his beliefs, should Twitter really act as the final arbiter of what he can and cannot say online?

The only next logical step is government intervention; following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook promised change. Since then, it has promised more change – what’s changed? Nothing.

Social media companies have shown time and time again that they cannot be trusted to self-regulate. Our only hope of change lies within real, meaningful legislation that removes social companies from the secret positions of power they have put themselves in.

An easy counter-argument would be: if you do not like it, just delete your account.

This is simply not realistic for the people of today or the children of tomorrow. Twitter and other forms of social media platforms, like it or not, have become essential forms of communication for people across the globe.

Social isolation, especially among children, is at an all-time high due to the restrictive implications of the COVID-19 pandemic – the last thing that is needed is the total removal of forms of communication.

Instead, we need to make sure that social media companies are held accountable for their actions and stripped of their ability to orchestrate our socio-political futures on a mass scale.

Categories
POLITICS ON SCREEN

Politics on Screen: Breaking Bad & the reality of the US healthcare system

Beware, spoilers lie ahead – surely everyone’s watched Breaking Bad though, right? Right? If you haven’t, then what the fuck are you doing?! We have all been locked indoors for the last year – there really are no excuses.

There has been a Breaking Bad-shaped hole in our lives for almost ten years now, though its legacy definitely still lives on – in 2019, Vince Gilligan picked up the pen again to tell a classic ‘what happened next’ story of universally-loved character, Jesse Pinkman.

There is also the highly-rated prequel series ‘Better Call Saul’ – this follows the original series’ shady lawyer Saul Goodman, or Jimmy McGill, in the years leading up to Breaking Bad.

And yet, Breaking Bad is arguably still to be replaced as the TV show that everybody talks about.

When people reminisce over the series, they tend to think of the series’ complicated protagonist, Walter White, killing his arch-nemesis Gus Fring, or when he ran over those two drug dealers, or when he ordered Jesse to kill Gale, or when he watched Jesse’s girlfriend die…yeah, that guy was fucking tapped.

Something that is perhaps not remembered as commonly is the social commentary inextricably tied to the series – specifically, what it said about the American healthcare system.

This is particularly intriguing coming from the UK, where there is universal access to a state-funded, national health service.

After all, Walter was originally lured into the world of methamphetamine due to the financial disaster surrounding his cancer diagnosis.

And though his ascendancy to the throne of a methamphetamine empire within the space of two years might have been exaggerated for entertainment, the inability to pay for one’s medical bills, or even insurance, is the reality for millions of people across the US.

Despite being the self-proclaimed leader of the free world, the United States is one of the only nations in the Western world void of a universal healthcare program.

Healthcare facilities are largely owned and operated by private sector businesses. Over 58% of community hospitals in the United States are non-profit, though still profit; a mere 21% are government-owned and a staggering 21% operate on a for-profit basis.

Unsurprisingly, there are real-life repercussions to the United States’ flawed system of healthcare – out of 35 industrialised OECD countries, America ranks 22nd for public health.

Since Breaking Bad aired, the situation only seems to be getting worse: in 2016 and 2017 life expectancy in the United States dropped for the first time since 1993.

A 2017 survey conducted of the healthcare systems of 11 OECDs also found the US healthcare system to be the most expensive and worst-performing in relation to health access, efficiency, and equity.

It is no wonder that Gilligan felt so compelled to centre his dramatic drug-infused crime-drama around an average American citizen who simply could not afford to pay for his cancer treatment.

The persistence of the healthcare problem since the show aired demonstrates Gilligan’s understanding of the scale and nature of the crisis, only making its social commentary more profound upon rewatch.

Most disturbingly, the 27 million uninsured Americans do not have the luxury Walter had – we are talking about a TV show here, a highly-dramatised piece of fiction. Walter, in his own fucked up way, ended up paying for his medical bills, and those of his DEA brother-in-law, Hank Schrader.

Outside of Walt’s world, millions of Americans work for the rest of their lives in order to pay for any sudden medical problems that come their way – given that these are often fatal, people can be left with little dignity as they succumb to illness.

This is not fiction, it is reality: America’s healthcare system costs lives every year. This was confirmed by a study carried out by Harvard Medical School in 2009 – it found that over 45,000 preventable deaths occur every year in the US and are directly associated with a lack of medical insurance.

In a scarily-ironic metaphor for the American healthcare system, Walter White’s method to pay for his medical bills led to the deaths of countless people across the series. In real-life, thousands of people die no matter what.

And so, while Walter White starts off as a victim of the healthcare system, he soon becomes a representation of it – a money-driven, ruthless cancer that leaves countless victims in its wake across the United States.

Categories
Opinion

Not-so-New Labour: why Keir Starmer is failing

He was meant to be the man, the Lord and Saviour, the man who could pull Labour back from the brink – dare I say it, the new Tony Blair. Nearly one year on, Keir Starmer’s Labour revolution has barely even begun.

Last April, Keir Starmer replaced one of the Labour party’s most controversial leaders ever, Jeremy Corbyn, after it suffered its worst electoral result in nearly one hundred years.

It was the 2019 General Election that saw Labour lose 60 seats, many of which were thought to be part of an indestructible ‘Red Wall’ – and yet, as in Westeros, the wall came crashing down.

Labour lost Birmingham Northfield, Wrexham, Bridgend – perhaps most shocking was the loss of Bolsover; this saw Parliament’s longest-serving MP, Dennis Skinner, lose his seat.

It truly was a shocking performance and there is no doubt that the party leadership had to change – it was not resonating with the public anymore. But why?

There are likely many reasons for Labour’s shocking performance. Perhaps the British public simply was not interested in a radical, left-wing government; the party had also been unforgivably slow and reluctant to deal with a vile anti-Semitism that had spread across the party.

However, this contradicts Corbyn & co’s success just two years earlier, when they forced Theresa May’s minority government into cahoots with the Northern Irish DUP.

Rather, it is abundantly clear that Labour’s historic defeat was largely defined by Britain’s issue of the day: Brexit.

Corbyn failed to clarify his stance during the 2016 referendum and then proceeded to vote against every single solution May’s government came up with. To this day I could not tell you what Corbyn wanted out of Brexit.

Of the 60 seats lost by Labour, all but eight voted to leave the European Union – that is 52 constituencies that looked at Labour’s dreadful Brexit stance [if you can even say they had one] and thought “I’m not having any of that”.

The eventual winner Boris Johnson, on the other hand, framed the 2019 GE as the second referendum Remainers had craved for so long. The results of this make-shift referendum were so conclusive that talk of an actual follow-up all but disappeared.

It is worth noting that Keir Starmer was a ferocious Remainer himself, and frequently called for a second referendum during his time as Shadow Brexit secretary.

So, given the huge role Brexit clearly played in the last election, was it really wise to respond to the nation’s decision to double-down on Brexit with somebody who does not believe in it at all?

Of course, Starmer would tell you now he wanted the ‘will of the people’ to be respected, but his prior behaviour clearly suggested otherwise.

To make matters worse for Starmer, Boris has since ‘Got Brexit Done’, achieving a deal that, at least on some level, has managed to appease most factions across the country: Remainers were relieved to see a deal, while hard-liners were happy to see us leave the single market and customs union.

But it would be lazy to pin Starmer’s troubles solely on Brexit – the reality is, it is no longer the nation’s biggest worry.

As well all know, the UK has been gripped in battle against the deadly COVID-19 virus for over one year, which has totally upended the normal political agenda.

Perennial debates about the economy, education and the state of welfare have not disappeared, but have been re-framed in the context of a global pandemic.

It’s no longer about improving education, it’s about getting kids into school safely; it’s not about who should get welfare, it’s about who isn’t being furloughed.

I am in no way suggesting that Starmer and his party should exploit a terrible situation in what would be a ruthless and maniacal attempt to move up the polls, but these are issues Labour have dealt with before, and frankly, they should be doing a much better job holding the government to account for its inexcusable mistakes.

The ground is ripe for opposition and we are in dire need of it: the UK has the third-highest per-capita death rate in the world and has experienced some of the worst case and hospitalisation rates across Western Europe. We lack a fully functioning test & trace system, as the UK government fails to provide indispensable support to those in need across the country.

And yet, the government has been given a fairly easy ride. That is because Starmer’s priority appears to be ‘one-upping’ the government, rather than dealing with the issues that so desperately need addressing.

A common criticism has been that Labour waits until it hears rumblings of a policy that the government is seemingly veering towards; it then calls on the government to do exactly what it is already planning to already do.

One recent example is the party’s suddenly extreme stance on the issue of border control; we have been in this pandemic over one year, with this particular issue being one of concern for some time now.

Despite this, it is only now that Labour are attempting to dominate the national discourse and lament the Tories for their lack of action – even more ironic, then, that Starmer was an avid Remainer.

Unsurprisingly, the government already plans to introduce ‘quarantine hotels’ for high-risk countries.

And then there is issue of schools. This is a very sensitive moral dilemma, the solution to which is by no means easy.

Right at the start of the year, Boris and his government were hammered by the national press for dithering and delaying on the issue of school closures. In a typical-timely manner, right at the last moment, Starmer urged to the government to close schools – just days later, the government did.

Now the party’s policy has changed again: vaccinate all teachers and open schools immediately – keep in mind, the country has not yet vaccinated everyone from the four most vulnerable groups. Not only this, but there would still be 17 million more people considered to be at high-risk of serious disease in need of vaccination.

The desire to vaccinate nearly one million people who work in schools would mean one million people with serious vulnerabilities not getting vaccinated and would almost certainly lead to unnecessary deaths.

It would be understandable if teachers were at serious risk of illness or death, but the profession sits in 12th for overall number of COVID-related deaths – with lorry drivers first, why is the focus not on giving them greater protection?

Starmer’s overall position on education perfectly encapsulates the party’s approach over the last year: wait until the right moment to criticise the government, claim they are holding it to account when it inevitably enacts a policy, and then wait for a new angle on the same issue.

Seemingly, the public see right through it: the latest YouGov/Times voting intention figures show the Conservatives on 39% (+1), gaining a lead over Labour, who are down on 38% (-1).

As for a recent Survation poll, Conservative voting intentions sit at 39%(-2), while Labour remains unchanged at 37% – even as the Tories drop, Labour do not gain.

The gap is respectable, perhaps even more so given the dismal outcome of the last General Election, but the trajectory is worrying and with this government, it should be doing much better.

In a recent interview we conducted with ‘The Kunts’, a satirical-punk band most famous for its recent song ‘Boris Johnson is Fucking Cunt’, Kunt, the main act, gave us a sense of what people across the country think of the Labour leader:

“When I look at Keir Starmer, I just see Tony Blair. He’s part of the system because he’s a “Sir” presiding over the Crown Prosecution Service when they chucked out the Jimmy Saville case. I’m not saying he’s personally responsible but it’s what he represents as a leader”

Starmer’s first year as Labour leader must be considered a failure. The party is failing to hold the government to account, it’s failing to win over the public and lacks any sort of general image or policy direction.

There are four years until the next General Election, so there is some time yet to shift the post-pandemic debate in Labour’s favour.

If the last 12 months are any indication, however, Keir Starmer has shown he is incapable of leading the Labour party.

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INTERVIEWS

Boris Johnson Is A Fucking Cunt: Exclusive Interview

The Christmas number one has become a long-standing tradition in the music industry and has infiltrated wider British culture – first formatted in 1952, it has been claimed by legendary artists such as Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Queen and Michael Jackson throughout the decades. 

Winners of The X Factor have also typically enjoyed success in this festive race – particularly between 2005 and 2010. Listeners keenly tune in on Christmas Eve to discover the winner of the tightly-contested race – with fan classics competing with newer tracks, unexpected outsiders, and talent show winners. 

2020 was very different. The coronavirus pandemic has greatly altered the practices of the music industry – artists are no longer able to tour or perform live to earn an income, and are more reliant on social media to promote and distribute their music. 

Fans have become used to tuning into YouTube to watch their favourite artists perform – the roles of Facebook and Twitter have become far more central too. 

A Guardian report in November, quoting figures from UK Music, predicted a loss of £3billion to the music industry across the year – the same report also estimated an 85% slump in the live music sector, with job losses of up to 170,000.

Furthermore, the public mood was not one of traditional festive cheer and jubilance. The public are frustrated and stressed, bored and fearful, uninspired and exasperated. 

According to YouGov, whilst 72% of the public believed the government was handling the pandemic “very” or “somewhat” well on 27th March, 11 days after the first national lockdown was imposed,  this figure effectively halved to 37% on January 19 this year. In mid-September, this figure was meandering around a low of 30%.

Feelings of “frustration” increased from 35% in March 2020 to 46% in January this year, a similar trend was evident in feelings of “happiness” – falling from 50% to 34% in the same period. “Boredom” also nearly doubled from 21% to 40%. 

With his political style of constant U-turns, cronyism, and delaying decision-making until it is almost always too late, Boris Johnson has been the subject of a huge amount of this public dissatisfaction. Whilst 55% of the public believed he was “competent” in April 2020, this figure fell to 34% this month. Almost exactly contrarily, views of “incompetence” increased from 31% to 52% in the same period. 

Also, whilst 28% of the public believed Boris was “indecisive” in April 2020, this increased to 69% this month, whilst those believing he was acting “decisively” fell from 58% to 21% in the same timeframe. 

Amongst this backdrop of public malaise and anguish, and unprecedented changes to the way consumers interact with artists and consume music, The Kunts rereleased “Boris Johnson Is A Fucking Cunt” from their July album “Kunts Punk In Your Face” on 10th December.

Credit: xsnoize.com

Just 81 seconds, and containing only 8 words repeated in a catchy hook, the song reached 5th in the Official UK Charts at Christmas, and was the 20th best selling single of 2020. 

As of right now, the song has been streamed on Spotify nearly 7,500,000 times, has spawned several remixes featuring other high-profile public figures, and was endorsed by Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker. 

With zero TV or radio coverage, and without the help from a promotion company or record label, the song represented a howl of pain from the public and a desire to spin the usually light-hearted Christmas race to a vote of no confidence in Boris, especially after the late-notice cancelling of Christmas household mixing provisions, and the introduction of Tier 4 restrictions across the south. 

The song has also come to represent the strength of people power and collective action in the post-COVID music industry, capitalizing off the pure contagion of a social media campaign to propel the song into the top 5. In the words of the Kunt himself,  ‘the whole campaign cost a tenner’.

I spoke to the man behind the act (who made it clear he wanted to be referred to as ‘Kunt’) about the history of the track, promoting the song, and his wider views on the political state of Britain in 2020. 

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Before entering the musical world, Kunt spent several years working for his local council, “putting some tiles around a sink, fixing a broken toilet in a youth centre”, and it was these mundane tasks that “generated the (song) ideas and gave the ideas a chance to percolate” 

“I’d go home, work on the song, then the following day when you’re back working and doing things, the ideas come through like that. I’d normally get a melody, or an idea of the topic of the song, and then go and write the music on the computer, and record it from there”.

When asked whether his experiences working for the council has shaped his own politics at all, Kunt gave a mixed response. One huge issue for him was the bureaucracy and level of waste in local government. 

“I could see there were lots of ineffective people, something that shocked me was the amount of waste. One of the worst wastes of money was if you needed a lightbulb changing, you had to call in the contractors. The contractors charge £60 of taxpayers money just for some bloke to come in, change a lightbulb, have a cup of tea, and go again”.

“The council had money leaking out of it left, right and centre, and you’d see them spend £1,000s on equipment that they didn’t really want or need, just so they didn’t get their budget cut for the next year”.

“When you think of all the money that’s gone down the drain on red-tape and bureaucracy, that could’ve been channeled into having a proper health service”.

Kunt admits there is no easy fix to this issue: “No-one is prepared to go to ‘year zero’. People are scared of change. It’s like the people who were employed by Michael Jackson. They know something wrong’s going on, but they’re worried about their jobs so they keep quiet and no-one says anything”. 

In July last year, The Kunts released That’s Why I Voted Brexit, from their 10-track EP Kunts Punk In Your Face, which Kunt revealed was originally entitled That’s Why I Voted UKIP. This marked the band’s first foray into music with a clear political spin, as opposed to previous crude and light-hearted tunes such as Fucksticks and Use My Arsehole as a Cunt that built the bands following over several decades. 

“It was just about the ridiculousness of looking at people with foreign cultures and being scared of things that are different. I think a lot of the reason we left the EU was to do with fear of anything different. People are scared, I don’t even know what they’re scared of. I even had friends talking about ‘taking back control’, that slogan Cummings made up, and I thought ‘fuck, it’s actually worked!”

As a band with only two songs entering the top 70, in 2010 and 2011, Kunt was hugely surprised by the popularity of the song, both in terms of the charts, and wider public reception.

“As someone who’s been making music for 30 years with no success, I was surprised. I was really fucking surprised”. 

“A mate of mine, Jon Morter, who was behind the Rage Against the Machine campaign to go up against the X Factor 10 years ago, he sent me a message saying ‘Fucking hell mate, nice one!”

“I said ‘maybe we’ll just give it a go’, and release it in the run-up to Christmas. The week before, it was quite quiet, and I thought ‘I’m not really sure anything is gonna happen’. The minute I went with the release, my fans went really proactive and started spreading it – it was like COVID in that every person had a good R number, and it spread from there”

“It was completely people power. There was no promotion budget, no record label, no promotional company, it was just me, in lockdown, doing it from the shed at the end of my garden. I was so short of time, working the social media, doing 14 hour days just to keep up”.

“When Boris cancelled Christmas halfway through the week, I thought ‘fucking hell, he’s doing my promo for me!”

However, the Kunt’s sentiments regarding Boris and what he represents are not new at all. 

“I thought Boris was a fucking cunt a long time ago, a long time before the lockdowns, and a long time before he cancelled Christmas”.

In fact, Kunt draws certain parallels between his own musical act and Boris’ political style. 

“This is my whole live act – if you can deliver quite offensive, hard-hitting things, but you can do it in the style of a kids presenter, people get on board with it and take it as a joke. I think Boris has made a whole career out of that – he looks ridiculous, he acts like a buffoon, but actually, he’s got really sinister undertones”.

“I actually think the guy’s a psychopath and a compulsive liar, and someone who isn’t actually in control of what comes out of his mouth, and then he just bats it away, and he gets away with it”.

When asked whether or not Boris has in fact made any correct decisions throughout the course of the pandemic, the Kunt struggled. “I feel like he always seems to get it wrong somehow. I just don’t know how he does it, he’s like a fucking magician, he waves his hand, and everyone has forgotten about it”. 

“We’ve got the 3rd worst per capita death rate in the world. I don’t know how much worse he could’ve done. I never really considered this to be a political song, I just presumed everyone would think he’s a fucking clown”.

In fact, it hasn’t just been Boris who has been subject to The Kunts musical wrath. Throughout last month, the band released various remixes – targeting figures such as Xi Jinping, Matt ‘Wankcock’ Hancock, Prince Andrew and Donald Trump.

“I thought calling Xi Jinping was a ‘fucking cunt’ was justified because he’s a fascist dictator. Prince Andrew is a dodgy, sweaty cunt as well”.

There was also a Jimmy Saville remix (The BBC Turn A Blind Eye To It Mix), and I asked the Kunt about his views regarding the BBC. The Beeb did not play the song at all throughout the promotional campaign, despite the band releasing a ‘clean’ version – with expletives replaced by “sausage roll”.

“Throughout the whole campaign, the BBC didn’t mention it once. It got mentioned in the chart rundown, there was a clean version they could’ve played, but there was clearly some directive at the BBC to blackout on it, because it was too uncomfortable to deal with”.

“The BBC produces a lot of good content, but I don’t know why we have to fund it now. Also the idea that they’re completely politically neutral, I just don’t buy it. I just think it’s an institution for a bygone era, and it needs breaking up and sorting out. I’m not saying I’ve got the answer to it, I’m just some bloke that makes songs in his shed”. 

Kunt also took aim at Facebook and Twitter, which were central in his promotional campaign and granting the band a platform to spread and distribute their music. 

“I miss the days of MySpace, the internet was more naive then. When people wanted to become a fan of your music, there were no algorithms in place to stop the people that wanted to connect with you being able to do so”.

“It was a much more free arena to express yourself. For example, when I was doing the Boris Johnson song, I had lots of people tell me they were serving Twitter bans just for posting in the name of the song, because of hate speech.”

“If you call your friend a ‘cunt’, it’s not something of great offence, it’s a term of endearment and could be used for 100 different reasons, but the social media platforms can’t pick up the nuances of conversation, and things kind of get shut down”

“I feel monetization has been a real killer of creativity and has stopped some things that were really good finding an audience. I’m so old and out-of-date I’ve not even worked out why TikTok is a thing, what the appeal of it is, I haven’t really got my head around it.”

In terms of the future, Kunt hopes to return to his older style of music, and feels he has somewhat exhausted the political avenue. 

“I wasn’t really interested in politics for a long time, it’s only really been in the last few years that politics has interested me, I’m very late to the party.”

“It was fun to do for a while, but I can see it becoming quite wearing. I’m not saying I’m going to give up the political spin, because once you’ve had your eyes open to how rotten the whole system is, you’ve got to do something. But I think the next lot of stuff will be a return to the old Kunts”.

Furthermore, Kunt admitted the promotional campaign for the song became quite draining. 

“I don’t like promoting things. My favourite thing is to sit here at the computer, fiddling around with songs, and making albums. When it comes to promoting them, you always feel like you’re selling a bit of yourself”

“When people are fed up with it, they’re fed up with you, so I don’t want to be that bloke because that’s not what I’m about, I’m about making songs that make me laugh and hopefully make a few other people laugh as well.”

Kunt has spent this lockdown performing a live show every Saturday, recording a song everyday, and watching Cobra Kai. “As someone firmly stuck in the 80s, it’s fucking great to see this bloke who’s also stuck in the 80s and an even more flawed character than me. Love it.”

At the end our conversation, Kunt warned me “not to stitch him up” with this article. I really enjoyed speaking to the man behind the song – a valuable insight into the promotional campaigns behind viral hits, and a microcosm of the public political mood over Christmas.

Categories
POLICY ANALYSIS

One Year On: analysing the UK’s COVID-19 response

Almost one year ago to the day, the first two cases of COVID-19 were detected in the UK. It was the positive test of two Chinese nationals on January 29th 2020 which marked the nation’s fight against the disease.

One year on, the UK’s fight against COVID-19 looks very different: since then, over 100,000 people have died, while over 3.6m have tested positive, as per the John Hopkins University.

We analyse the government’s performance over the last year, outlining five things it has got right, and five things it has got wrong.

Let’s focus on the negatives first.

Five things the government has got wrong:

Lockdown(s) timing

I am not here to scream ‘LOCKDOWN’S DO NOT WORK!!!’ – I hate them as much as the rest of you. They are a disaster for the economy and for people’s health; however, they have been shown to be effective in bringing down cases and consequently, hospital admissions and deaths.

Whether the trade-off between COVID-19 and other health conditions, mental and physical, as well as the damage to economy is justified, will be saved for another article.

What we do know, however, is that all three of Britain’s lockdown’s have come too late.

The government’s initial lockdown advisor, Neil Ferguson, stated that locking down just seven days earlier in March may have halved deaths [granted, this is the same advisor who flouted his own recommendations mid-lockdown to stay over a woman’s house].

Yet, his point stands: the government’s persistence at delaying the inevitable is not an isolated incident; when cases started to rise again around mid-September, leader of the opposition Keir Starmer called for a two-week ‘firebreaker’ to be implemented around half-term week.

In avoiding the opportunity of half-term, Boris delayed the inevitable and ultimately plunged the country into a second national lockdown at the beginning of November.

This lockdown was in place for just four weeks. Cases had started to come down but by mid-December, they were on the rise once again.

What is different about this third national lockdown was the looming prospect of a COVID-Christmas: cases were rising at a commensurate rate, yet government policy still remained that up to three households could mix for five days over the festive period.

Just days before the government eventually reduced the period to one day and to only two households, Boris claimed that cancelling Christmas would be inhumane. And yet, Boris cancelled Christmas for many.

Unsurprisingly, cases surged and this was quickly reflected in hospital admissions. As things stand, the NHS is on the brink of being overwhelmed.

You cannot help but think that had the government acted sooner and more decisively over Christmas, the NHS would not have entered this place of panic. After all, the sooner cases come down, the sooner we can all be free from this horrendous situation.

No doubt, it is easy to look from afar and accuse the government of acting too slowly – we are talking about shutting down the entire nation. It’s certainly not an easy decision to make.

Exactly why Boris and his government have dithered and delayed is unknown. There are rumours around Westminster that Boris delays the inevitable in order to demonstrate his reluctance to more hard-line, anti-lockdown Tory MPs.

In this attempt, the government appears to have allowed this pandemic to be worse than what was necessary, with lives being lost in the process.

Testing

Another one of the government’s initial failures was testing. Again, as with the lockdowns, it is easier to sit from afar and scream about what the government should and could be doing.

But testing was far too slow and too meagre at the start of this pandemic. During the first wave, daily positive cases peaked at around 7,000. To put this into perspective, the highest daily case rate during the current wave is over 68,000. Can you imagine how many more cases would have been uncovered had testing capacity been in place?

It has also failed to properly utilise one of the greatest tool’s at its disposal: mass community testing. The mass testing pilot in Liverpool was deemed a success; indeed, case rates came right down and ultimately, it was one of the last region’s to remain in Tier 2 prior to the third national lockdown.

But why has this programme not become a national one? Why is it not now the gold standard? There are many logistical challenges associated with testing an entire region, with a large number of volunteers and much of the army needed.

Liverpool’s experience cannot be considered a total success, either: in particular, the government’s programme failed to reach young, digitally-excluded males, a group thought to be prominent spreaders of the virus.

All of this is bad enough on its own, but is made significantly worse by the UK’s ineffective track and trace system.

NHS track, trace & isolate

The government ultimately succeeded on getting testing capacity up [more on that below]. One thing it has simply failed to get on-lock is an effective test and trace system – the city of Leicester can attest to that.

As Leicester left the national lockdown with the rest of the country, cases continued to surge. This is no surprise given that just 53% of contacts are being traced within the national system.

As per Gian Volpicelli from WIRED, the city has since set up its own localised test and trace system. And the contract-tracing success rate? Over 90%.

This success is not only testament to the tireless work of local officials but exposes the ineffectiveness of the government’s own national test and trace system.

The NHS test & trace app has not been much of a success, either. Over ten million people have downloaded the app, which is well below what is needed for the system to work comprehensively.

Downloading the app is also entirely optional and users can simply ignore any notification ordering them to isolate.

At this stage of the game, COVID-zero is not a possibility and would not be achieved even with a fully-functioning test and trace system; however, it would serve to break chains of transmission and bring case rates under control as the vaccine roll-out continues.

And if a failing test and trace system is not enough to dishearten you, then the isolation system might: back in September, SAGE warned the government that just 20% of people who test positive for COVID-19 fully isolate for the full duration of their period. That is up to 80% of people knowingly leaving the house with COVID-19.

Some of those people are undoubtedly ignorant, underestimating the impact of the disease and how quickly it can spread to those with certain vulnerabilities. Others, however, seem to be left with little choice.

In particular, those on zero-hour and precarious work contracts who simply cannot afford self-isolation. For a large part of the pandemic, the self-isolation period was 14 days. – without a stable income, how are people meant to buy food or pay the bills?

The government states that those self-isolating should be given support from employers, but stops short of enforcing this support, or providing it themselves.

It is against the interest of the public and government policy to allow these systems to continue to fail.

Border control

You will have heard a lot about border control over the last few weeks. The fact that it has taken this long to dominate the public discourse is worrying enough, and it only highlights this gaping whole in the government’s policy.

It has come under greater scrutiny since the discovery of several significant COVID-19 variants across the globe, which pose a great threat to any vaccination roll-out programme.

It was only the start of this year when the government mandated that arrivals into the UK must provide proof of a negative test within 72 hours, a policy that has been adopted by many European nations for nearly six months – why have we waited until the variants are already here?

Self-isolation is also a requirement but it is rarely enforced – if people are coming into the UK without a test and without enforced isolation, how can we stop the importing of international variants? The answer is we cannot.

The UK government finally appears to be getting the message on border controls. We are expecting an announcement on the introduction of an Australian-style ‘quarantine hotel’ system for new arrivals in an effort to stop the introduction of even more variants.

This pro-Brexit government wanted greater border control powers – now, it needs to use them.

Education

This is one of the most difficult issues for the government to navigate. Whatever stance the government takes, it’s damned if it does, it’s damned if it doesn’t.

This has been highlighted by Labour’s continuously-shifting stance on the issue during the last year. For months and months, the opposition called for schools to close as infections rates sky-rocketed. When schools did close, the government was accused of acting too late. Now they are closed, Labour is pushing the government to publish a plan for schools to re-open. When schools do open, there will no doubt be people arguing that it is too soon, some too late.

As a result, it is difficult to determine whether the government has failed in terms of timing. But it has undoubtedly not protected students or teachers enough. Testing systems should have been set up in schools throughout the summer in readiness for the new academic year.

Students, at least those in secondary school, should be able to access tests readily and without stigma in an environment they are comfortable with. It is entirely unreasonable to expect children and teenagers to social distance at all times, and so transmission is inevitable. If an effective testing system can be set up prior to students returning before schools return, a huge amount of transmission will be avoided.

University students have also been neglected during this pandemic. I have a bit of a personal bias with this one, but let me tell you what is going on first hand.

Back in the summer, students were told to come back to university – we were promised an overwhelmingly-normal student experience. Six months later, we are all stuck in our accommodation, paying unnecessary rent, with little-to-no access to study spaces and just three hours of poor-quality online seminars per week.

Any prospect of a refund looks bleak, just like our futures in education.

Now, for something a bit more positive [sorry, I really cannot help myself].

Five things the government has got right:

Testing 2.0

Yes, the government has experienced successes and failures in relation to testing. Although the government was undoubtedly slow at increasing test capacity, it has improved impressively since.

The UK’s testing capacity is the relative highest in the world and is still growing by the week. From January 7th to 14th, nearly three million people were tested, a 14% increase from the week before.

This is particularly impressive given that 2.3m vaccine doses were also administered during the same period – that is over five million actions taken to try and control this deadly virus.

If the government can turn around testing, it can turn around tracing – let’s hope it succeeds.

The Furlough Scheme

This might be a bit of a controversial one. I have said it myself – those with precarious employment contracts have not been supported enough.

But the reality is that the majority of people are not in informal employment and so a huge portion of the population will have benefited from this scheme.

Paying 80% of people’s wages comes at great cost to the state and although it is largely to be expected, it is generous compared to similar schemes in other European nations: France covers 70% of its workers salaries, while Germany covers 67%.

Unemployment has just hit 5% in the UK for the first time since 2016, so the furlough scheme has not saved every job – but, it was not expected to.

One thing the furlough scheme has exposed, however, is the UK government’s policy on sick pay. Workers in Sweden are entitled to sick pay is worth 80% of workers’ salary [the same as the UK’s furlough scheme] – for comparison, in UK sick pay sits at just £95,85 per week.

Given that a huge number of people knowingly go to work with COVID-19, the UK government seriously needs to re-consider its policy on sick pay, especially during a health crisis.

Compliancce

Disclaimer: the public should take the overwhelming majority of praise when it comes to compliance during the COVID-19 crisis. The government does deserve some praise, though.

The average level of compliance has remained stable throughout the crisis, sitting at just above 90%, with a small dip in summer.

Its messaging on the tier system is perhaps the most confusing and some of the rules are definitely too vague.

But the overall severity of its messaging relative to the risk that is posed has been, on the whole, a resounding success.

The governent’s use of word-play rivals that of a GCSE student in an English language exam: ‘Hands, Face, Space’; ‘Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives’. These catch-all, memorable phrases are ingrained into the public psyche; when they are uttered by ministers, the public know exactly what to do.

Seemingly, the impact of messaging is huge and the overall level of compliance reflects the effectiveness of government messaging.

Brexit

It is bad enough doing an article on the issue that everybody’s most sick of hearing about, but forcing in the second most despised issue is pretty shameless. Nonetheless, it is relevant to the UK’s COVID-19 response.

Another disclaimer: I am not a fan of Brexit. Yet, I accepted it as the UK’s reality long before many of the remainers who still think that Keir Starmer will save their European dream.

It was meant to be the nation’s biggest event of the 21st century. And yet, it does not even compare to the scale of the COVID-19 crisis. The two culminating at the exact same time could have been a total disaster for the government.

Though the COVID-19 response has been far from perfect, Boris did a very good job at navigating Brexit – it was in the public consciousness enough to be scrutinised, but not to detract from the ongoing public health crisis.

His deal also appears to have appeased large sections of both sides. Those who wanted a No-Deal were happy to see us leave the single market and customs union; those who wanted to remain are happy to see a deal; those wanting a soft-Brexit are probably most pleased.

Thankfully, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, Britain has not magically turned into a third-world country.

Vaccines

I am aware that I may be speaking too soon when it comes to vaccines. A lot could still go wrong and I do not want to doom the nation by jinxing anything. But, as things stand, the vaccine roll-out is going extremely well.

Well over 2.3m vaccines were administered last week, bringing the total to over 7 million. This means that 10.4 people have been vaccinated per 100 – by comparison, the highest in Europe is 5.4 [Malta].

There has been some criticism over the decision to delay people’s second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. I cannot say I am a science man, but the notion that a single dose of a vaccine could be rendered ineffective within three short months seems extremely unlikely.

Not only does this decision allow for a greater number of people to be vaccinated, it also buys manufacturers time to scale up production.

Which country is vaccinated first is not a competition, as the government seems to be presenting it, since the vaccination of the entire planet is in the interests of the UK.

But the UK is doing an excellent job at covering its own base first. Long may it continue.

Categories
Opinion

Donald Trump’s Twitter ban is a worry for everyone – here’s why

Donald Trump has been banned from Twitter. Ponder that statement for a moment – are you really surprised?

Former reality TV star and businessman Donald Trump has been condemned back to the sidelines of politics after completing his final day in office.

The former US President did not go down without a fight, however, kicking and screaming his way out of the White House from the moment he lost the election to Joe Biden.

Immediately after the results were announced, Trump took to his infamous Twitter page to scream FAKE NEWS!!!! and claimed that the Democrats had orchestrated a mass assault on American democracy.

What started as a typical Trump tirade quickly turned into a fully-fledged legal battle: Georgia’s vote recount came back once again in favour of Biden, while US federal appeals courts in Pennsylvania & Wisconsin refused to even consider his case.

And then, up steps Twitter. As legal battles ensued, the social media platform marked any allegations of voter fraud by Trump with a disclaimer: ‘Some or all of the content shared in this Tweet is disputed and might be misleading about an election or other civic processes’.

Photo by Marcus Winkler, Unsplashed

Twitter has always had the power to silence its users and there are certainly good reasons for it. If somebody is spouting clear hatred, discrimination or inciting violence, Twitter can and should step in.

But the lines are becoming increasingly blurred, and interventions are becoming more common. Trump’s claims about voter fraud were disputed, but is it Twitter’s job to remind of us this? Not only this, is it Twitter’s job to determine what should and shouldn’t be highlighted?

This was just the start of Twitter’s war against Trump; ultimately, it was his comments prior to the Capitol Hill riots that allowed Twitter to deal its final blow.

Despite the harrowing scenes in Washington, Trump’s subsequent impeachment and Biden’s succession into office shows that America’s democratic institutions have stood firm. This only further highlights how unnecessary and worrying Twitter’s actions were.

Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey has defended his platform’s decision: “I believe this was the right decision for Twitter. Offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real”.

The CEO did admit, however, that it could set a worrying precedent: “Having to take these decisions fragment the public. They divide the public…and sets a precedent I feel is dangerous: the power an individual or corporation has over a part of the global public conversation”.

Dorsey is right: his company’s decision to take the highly political decision to ban Trump will have consequences, especially as long as his platform decides to silence only certain perspectives.

To clarify, I am no fan of Donald Trump; his Presidency has been a disaster and has left the United States in an extremely precarious situation as ‘leader of the free world’.

It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that Twitter only feels this level of social responsibility when it comes to politics; not only this, but when it comes to opposing a given political agenda.

Photo by John Cameron, Unsplashed

How can Twitter justify the removal of Trump when countless Chinese officials, undoubtedly involved in – or at least aware of – the persecution of Uyghur Muslims, continue to use the platform to deny that this persecution is taking place? Does Twitter draw the line at genocide?

Just yesterday, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared on Twitter that ‘China is committing genocide and crimes against humanity…targeting Uyghur Muslims’.

In response, Chinese state-affiliated media took to Twitter to dispute the claims; Chen Weihua’s response was to celebrate the end of Pompeo’s tenure as the ‘Secretary of Disinformation’.

There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that corroborates Pompeo’s claims and government policies across the world are beginning to reflect this. So why has Weihua’s tweet not been disputed?

Surely the continued use of Twitter to deny China’s horrendous behaviour facilitates the continued persecution of Uyghur Muslims, as the Chinese government engages in a monumental effort to cover up its atrocities?

What may be even more worrying is that Twitter’s actions cannot be viewed in isolation. Other platforms quickly followed suit; Google, Facebook – even Pornhub. That’s right, Pornhub, the adult-porn site implicated in the trafficking of women now also feels a renewed sense of social responsibility.

Facebook’s decision to ban Trump is surely the most dubious. Let’s not forget, this is the same platform that facilitated Cambridge Analytica’s use of targeted data to influence Brexit referendum and the 2016 US Presidential election.

Photo by Annie Sprat, Unsplash

And yet, despite the inconsistencies, the giants of Silicon Valley do not draw the line at political figures – their censorship is something I have experienced myself.

It was one fateful Tuesday night, when I decided to tweet: “Let’s not forget the Chinese government is to blame for this pandemic”.

I will resist the desire to indulge in the full reasoning behind my tweet but given reports of whistle-blowers being silenced at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, it is an issue I believe needed discussion.

Twitter, however, disagreed. I was subsequently banned from tweeting for over 12 hours, due to ‘offensive tweets’. I reached out to Twitter for a response, yet did not receive one – must I assume it was due to my anti-Chinese-government message?

It is this type of selective silencing that we should all be worried about; it isn’t just affecting politicians, but ordinary citizens as well. In 10, 20, 30 years, what will Twitter deem worthy of their wrath?

Ultimately, Trump was wrong about voter fraud and his comments prior to the Capitol Hill riot may still be classified as incitement, but the move by Twitter and its tech-allies sets a worrying precedent for our freedom of speech on social media.

This age-old ideal is fundamental to the health of any functioning democracy and Twitter’s actions demonstrate that our freedom of speech hangs on a knife edge. Nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill explains its importance better than anybody could hope to:

“The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race…if the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit – the livelier impression of truth”

Social media platforms must realise that in their attempts to protect the public, they threaten the very ideals that uphold our democratic society.

Categories
LRC

LeftRight to Centre: an introduction

This is LeftRight to Centre, a political blog determined to ensure beliefs of all political persuasions are given an equal platform.

Social media can be great at times. I would not even be able to start and share this blog without it. From long-lost lovers to long-lost brothers, it connects people around the globe like nothing else.

But it has a dark side. It can also divide people like nothing else. Much of said division can be attributed to algorithms used by the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. These algorithms prey upon your internet usage to determine what may or may not be of interest to you, when and in what context.

Users are essentially pigeon-holed into their own unique, endless echo chambers, leaving them confused and conflicted when they happen upon people with different perspectives.

This is an especially difficult issue when it comes to politics, which is no doubt more divided than ever. Some students get to university campuses and are shocked to see their fellow students do not have Jeremy Corbyn cardboard cutouts in their bedroom. Others are shocked to hear that daddy is not paying for their tuition fees up front.

These kind of divisions are nothing new and their existence is not solely down to social media, though it clearly serves to amplify and reinforce them.

The key is start investigating the divisions, rather than solidifying them – engaging with the other side, rather than rejecting it.

So where do we start?

We need to read more opinions that we disagree with; we need to start challenging ourselves as individuals so we do not become too passive, too accepting. It is crucial we do not believe everything we read and that we question everything.

This is where LRC comes in. We are a political blog with no one specific political allegiance and are open to all beliefs. One minute you might be reading something on abolishing billionaires, the next on rejecting ‘woke’ culture.

It aims to encapsulate the variety of views on the left, on the right and anywhere in between, as well as the chaotic and fragmented state of politics.

But does this not just make us another algorithm?

Maybe, but we will not tailor your reading experience insofar as prioritising what you read and in what order. Instead, LRC will strive to represent as many views as possible, giving all an equal platform to thrive.

Anything of quality submitted to us, so long as it does not incite violence, hatred, oppression or discrimination, will be given a platform.

We aim to show that different political beliefs, and the people that hold them, can meaningfully co-exist with one another.

As for the reader – well, how much and what you read is up to you. LRC simply hopes to provide you with a variety of different perspectives, so that you can make up your own mind.

So, what are you waiting for? Get reading on LeftRight to Centre and see where you land!