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Alex Salmond is the perfect fit for RT – all he needs to do is be himself

The former SNP leader's style is perfectly in tune with the Kremlin-backed broadaster's broader goals. 

Alex Salmond is far from the first anti-establishment politician to have decided RT (as Russia Today has rebranded) is a good place to air his views – but he may one of the most perfectly suited to the Kremlin–backed news channel’s agenda.

The former Scottish first minister’s talk show will be airing on what has of course become a regular platform for politicians pitching themselves as outsiders. That includes everyone from Nigel Farage to Jeremy Corbyn.

For some supporters of the latter, RT’s slogan “question more” reflects a noble mission to challenge the orthodox narratives of a western media that has often failed to hold the powerful to account, from the Iraq War to the global financial crisis.  

RT has lent legitimacy to its operation by hiring some good journalists and doing decent reporting in areas where those western powers should be coming under more scrutiny.  When the topics it takes aim at have little bearing on the strategic interests of Russia, it even manages to deliver what might be considered balanced programming. Just don’t expect an unbiased analysis of what’s going on in Eastern Ukraine or Aleppo.

But the problem with RT isn’t primarily the pro-Vladimir Putin propaganda it churns out in between occasional acts of journalism. More worrying is the way its output fits into the broader goals of Russian disinformation.

Traditional conceptions of propaganda imagine a concerted effort to convince the public to believe in something. But modern Russian information warfare is as much about convincing populations to doubt everything. The purpose is to undermine consensus, to weaken the ability of Russia’s global competitors to take action by leaving their populations divided.

That is why the recent expose of Russian activity on Facebook in the US found Russian-backed accounts pushing seemingly contradictory political views. It’s not about whether the Black Lives Matter movement or the white nationalists end up victorious, but about ensuring they keep fighting and leaving a beleaguered middle unsure of what to believe from and about either side.

And that brings us back to Salmond. As the leader of Scotland’s push for independence, he was very literally at the head of a movement designed to divide the UK. Russia may not have a great deal of interest in the national identity of Scots, or the economic and social arguments that drive much of the independence movement.  But it sure as hell would like to see the UK smaller and less united.

Almost as importantly, the independence movement, and Salmond himself were deeply divisive. The anger on both sides, and Salmond’s ability to be both outrageous and devious in pursuit of his cause, helped drive one of the axis of polarisation that characterises and splits modern Britain. He also has one major advantage over Nigel Farage - unlike the Ukip leader he is not seen as a figure of the right. His particular dividing line cuts straight across the ideological spectrum. There’s also the added bonus that large numbers of those who support Salmond are deeply hostile to the BBC, an institution that has not only traditionally been the most trusted source of news in the UK, but through its entertainment programming regularly manages to bring the population together.

Much of the criticism of Salmond’s deal with RT assumes that he will become a puppet of a Russian propaganda effort. Amid the panic about Russian interference in various aspects of the democratic process on both sides of the Atlantic, that’s no surprise. But like much of that debate it misses the point of Russia’s forays into western media both online and over the airwaves. Salmond doesn’t have to say a thing about Russia to serve RT’s goals. All he has to do is remain the divisive, polarising figure he’s so far proved to be.

Jasper Jackson is the New Statesman's digital editor. He was formerly assistant editor of Media Guardian, and editor of TheMediaBriefing.

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People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.