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Why the rest of the world should get a vote in the greatest reality TV show on Earth – the US election

I've been watching so closely, I am now able to tell Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio apart almost 50 per cent of the time, though it’s still like watching the Chuckle Brothers trying to lead a fascist rally.

We’re only halfway through, and I’m already sick of the US presidential race. As reality television goes, it’s a hackneyed format. The narrative is childish and simplistic. And if I want to watch a bunch of interchangeable thuggish white men and the occasional token minority making terrifying pronouncements to a pounding rock soundtrack, I’ll stick on a Tarantino film.

American commentators often point out that the whole two-year, multibillion-dollar pageant is a great way to distract the entire US electorate from the real-life daily process of democracy. Imagine how the rest of us feel. We’re not even allowed to vote and help decide which candidate gets to go home with all those fabulous prizes, which include a free plane and the largest military arsenal the world has ever known. What can I say? It’s America. They have high expectations. In Britain, whoever Rupert Murdoch picks is usually just excited to meet the Queen.

I’ve tuned in for the past five series of this horror show, and I’ve got to say, it’s getting tiresome. It picked up in 2008, when they made some genuinely progressive casting decisions. The 2012 one repeated a lot of the same material, but the writers’ strike was on and the producers had to work with what they’d got. But in recent years, they seem to have broken entirely with the reality aspect and just attempted to glue us to the screens with unremitting horror and the possibility that one of the contestants might start screaming and try to eat the others.

The same thing happened on Big Brother, where the first few seasons were truly engaging, partly because they featured at least some ordinary people who occasionally forgot they were on television. But then they tried to boost ratings by filling a bunker with G-list celebrities wearing DayGlo spray tans who smiled all the time and tried to get them to have sex or kill one another on camera.

In both politics and entertainment, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of shock value, as long as it isn’t replacing actual content. The presidential race would be embarrassing even if it weren’t supposed to dramatise the proper function of politics in the world’s only democratic superpower.

America does seem, at times, to forget that it’s on camera and the entire world can see when it strips naked and rants at itself in the mirror. Guys, everyone can see you seriously considering leadership by a man who calls global warming a “hoax” and wants to build a border wall out of Muslims.

I’ve been paying as much attention to the Republican race as I can stand, and I am now able to tell Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio apart almost 50 per cent of the time, though it’s still like watching the Chuckle Brothers trying to lead a fascist rally. The candidates appear to be competing to deliver the most unhinged bigotry. Last season, it was enough to oppose a woman’s right to choose. This season nobody will pay attention until you say you’re going to make it illegal for women not to be pregnant and replace what remains of the health-care system with a single giant gun.

It was mildly hilarious at first to think that any one of these swivel-eyed clowns might become the leader of the nominally free world, but that joke has been running for six years now, and it’s not funny any more. It’s just scary. It’s depressing and scary. It’s boring and depressing and scary, and most viewers are bored and depressed and scared and unable to change channel, which is even worse, because it means that these cartoon monsters might even pull it off – like that time everyone voted for four screaming Finns in plastic goblin masks to win Eurovision just to see what would happen. That’s how we got Boris Johnson. Who turned out to have been serious about making London into a giant theme park for millionaires.

Under these circumstances, I am rather nonplussed by everyone asking me what I think of Hillary Clinton. What I think, along with most non-Americans, is that compared to the Republican choices, absolutely anyone at all is acceptable as long as they appear to be at least semi-hinged.

Americans do not appear to realise that, although it would be nice to get the more progressive of the two Democrats, what matters most to the rest of the world is that not a single member of the Republican line-up, the worst boy band in history, ever gets within 50 feet of the Situation Room (hey, I’ve seen The West Wing). What matters is that these people are not allowed to make decisions about climate change, or military intervention, or preferably any decisions at all apart from, perhaps, whether they would prefer milk or hot chocolate at bedtime, because someone should take gentle care of them in a place where they are never allowed to engage in politics again. I’d call them lunatics but it would do a disservice to the many people I know with mental-health difficulties.

At this point I, for one, would feel a lot safer if the selection were done by a lottery of the entire American public. But if we must pretend that this is democracy, there ought at least to be a chance for everyone affected to have their say.

The world is obsessed with the US elections because the outcome of those elections will have an impact on every person on Earth. So, let the world have its say. Why not? Even limited voting rights for everyone affected by US foreign, environmental and trade policy might restore a measure of sanity, or at least oblige the US to acknowledge the existence of several billion non-American human beings who would really prefer not to be blown up or under water.

The world is burning. America is watching a creaky junior string quartet try to play Wagner. Let’s give the species a chance to change the channel.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, A storm is coming

Photo: Getty
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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?