He's not the only one who doesn't have time to look at graphs. Photo: Getty Images
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Does "sharing the facts" win elections?

The psychological evidence is that sharing the facts doesn't change people's minds. 

Correcting and decrying the perceived wrongness of others is the chief political preoccupation.  David dismisses Ed, Andy elbows Harriet, Jeremy and Nigel condemn everyone else and on it goes.  People who say they dislike this denounce others as pursuing yah boo, negative politics and these people are, in turn, are impeached for failing to provide proper opposition.

If the goal is to persuade people to change their minds, then attack and rebuttal has a mixed record.  On one extreme, SNP attacks on Scottish Labour clearly moved voters dramatically at the last election.  But on the other hand, think of all the criticism that a George Osborne or a Harriet Harman has faced in their careers: it hasn’t seemed to have really held them back from their political projects. 

One explanation may be found in the idea of “backfire” or “boomerang” effects that students of persuasion often talk about.  Being told that Protestants are conservative can make Catholics more liberal.  Saying that vaccines have no side effects appear, at least sometimes, to reduce the chances of someone getting a vaccination. No smoking signs can increase the desire to smoke. Informing American conservatives about the dire consequences of climate change on France has been found to reduce support for addressing carbon emissions.

Once we hold an opinion, it seems that we will try and defend it.  Suppose you tell me all the reasons why you hate the West Wing.  I’ll take the time to mentally dismiss each one of your criticisms: why shouldn’t every major political issue be resolved with a 90 second speech and some rousing music?  I’ll begin to delve into my memory for my favourite episodes.  By the end of the conversation, I’ll have applied myself to building the case that the West Wing is brilliant and my own counter-arguments may stick with me for much longer than your criticism.

So there is a heroic psychological assumption behind the commonplace political idea that when one politician angrily denounces another, this will help win over those voters who are watching.   According to at least one major review of the evidence, there are a similar number of examples of negative campaigning backfiring as there are for it working.  Whatever the equivalent statistics would be for the UK, it shows how developing a criticism of your opponents that actually wins you votes is an immensely complex and subtle a task.

However, much of politics has nothing to do with winning elections.  People singing songs from the football terraces aren’t expecting the other team’s supporters to suddenly change their minds.  When we think we are punishing rule-breakers, the reward centres of our brain are activated.  Loudly insulting the other side is the easiest way for mediocre politicians to get covered in their more supportive media.  It is a way of overlooking internal disagreements and demonstrating passion and it avoids the risky and time consuming process of coming up with a detailed policy proposal.

Why is this tendency towards ineffectively denouncing the other side so dangerous?  Because the backfire effect from one person’s shouting can hurt a much wider cause.   When things are complicated and life is busy, it’s often a time saving rule of thumb to know who you disagree with.  In a cynical age, it seems a lot easier to use the compass-point that your worst opponent is always wrong, than it is to trust that your favourite hero is always right. 

I’m more pro-European for every Nigel Farage interview I’ve watched and more pro-immigration for every Daily Mail article I’ve read.  But we have to have the imagination to think that this must work the other way too.  If the left and centre left has done one thing over the last five years, it has been to loudly denounce the Tories.  To put it mildly, the net effect – votes gained minus votes lost - does not appear to have been in our favour.

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Can Trident be hacked?

A former defence secretary has warned that Trident is vulnerable to cyber attacks. Is it?

What if, in the event of a destructive nuclear war, the prime minister goes to press the red button and it just doesn't work? 

This was the question raised by Des Browne, a former defence secretary, in an interview witht the Guardian this week. His argument, based on a report from the defence science board of the US Department of Defense, is that the UK's Trident nuclear weapons could be vulnerable to cyberattacks, and therefore rendered useless if hacked. 

Browne called for an "end-to-end" assessment of the system's cybersecurity: 

 The government ... have an obligation to assure parliament that all of the systems of the nuclear deterrent have been assessed end-to-end against cyber attacks to understand possible weak spots and that those weak spots are protected against a high-tier cyber threat. If they are unable to do that then there is no guarantee that we will have a reliable deterrent or the prime minister will be able to use this system when he needs to reach for it.

Is he right? Should we really be worried about Trident's potential cyber weaknesses?

Tangled webs 

The first, crucial thing to note is that Trident is not connected to the "internet" we use every day. Sure, it's connected to the main Ministry of Defence network, but this operates totally independently of the network that you visit Facebook through. In cyber-security terms, this means the network is "air-gapped" - it's isolated from other systems that could be less secure. 

In our minds, Trident is old and needs replacing (the submarines began patrolling in the 1990s), but any strike would be ordered and co-ordinated from Northwood, a military bunker 100m underground which would use the same modern networks as the rest of the MoD. Trident is basically as secure as the rest of the MoD. 

What the MoD said

I asked the Ministry of Defence for a statement on Trident's security, and while it obviously can't offer much information about how it all actually works, a spokesperson confirmed that the system is air-gapped and added: 

We wouldn't comment on the detail of our security arrangements for the nuclear deterrent but we can and do safeguard it from all threats including cyber.

What security experts said

Security experts agree that an air-gapped system tends to be more secure than one connected to the internet. Sean Sullivan, a security adviser at F-secure, told Infosecurity magazine that while some hackers have been able to "jump" air-gaps using code, this would cause "interference" at most and a major attack of this kind is still "a long way off". 

Franklin Miller, a former White House defence policy offer, told the Guardian that the original report cited by Browne was actually formulated in response to suggestions that some US defence networks should be connected to the internet. In that case, it actually represents an argument in favour of the type of air-gapped system used by the MoD. 

So... can it be hacked?

The answer is really that any system could be hacked, but a specialised, independent defence network is very, very unlikely to be. If a successful hack did happen, it would likely affect all aspects of defence, not just Trident. That doesn't mean that every effort shouldn't be made to make sure the MoD is using the most secure system possible, but it also means that scaremongering in the context of other, unrelated cybersecurity scares is a little unjustified. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.