Power is in the hands of social media, not the old boy network

 Facebook and Twitter had massive parts to play in major events such as Brexit and the election of Trump

Nicola Sturgeon has five times as many Twitter followers as Ruth Davidson PA Wire

It used to be that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was the United Cronydom of Great Poshhouse and Northern Grousemoor. The only network that mattered was the Old Boy Network. The OBN was formed by men who were the old boys of a tiny elite of boarding schools known as “public schools” because they were closed to the public. Most boys at those schools were scions of the aristocracy or the landed gentry: future barons and baronets. 

Even if thick to the point of educational sub-normality, these young gentlemen would attend either Oxford or Cambridge. They would then be given one of the following jobs:

1. Estate manager and courtier (eldest son).

2. Foreign Office or Treasury mandarin (brightest son).

3. Cabinet minister (most extrovert son).

4. Governor of [insert Caribbean island] (youngest son).

5. BBC director-general (Left-wing son).

This is of course a caricature. In reality, there were all kinds of sub-networks — clusters — within the elite network that ran Britain. Sometimes, a brilliant group of talented young men would come together to achieve great things. There was the “Kindergarten” formed by Alfred Milner, which tried (and failed) to transform South Africa into a second Canada or Australia. There were the Apostles — the Cambridge Conversazione, the most exclusive intellectual club of all time — to which the economist John Maynard Keynes belonged.  

However, with increasing frequency after 1945, the OBN’s achievements were less than brilliant. Suez. Wilson. Heath. Double-digit inflation. The three-day week. From being the winners of glittering prizes, the OBN degenerated in the eyes of a previously deferential public into the upper-class twits of the year.

In the Sixties the journalists Henry Fairlie and Anthony Sampson popularised the disdainful name that the historian A. J. P. Taylor had given the British elite: “The Establishment”. By the Seventies the Establishment were more like The Embarrassment — objects of sitcom ridicule. By the Eighties they had been almost entirely driven from the corridors of power. Nothing better illustrated this than the Thatcher governments: not only was the prime minister a woman from provincial Lincolnshire (albeit one with an Oxford degree); there were enough ministers in her Cabinet with Jewish backgrounds to inspire off-colour jokes about “Old Estonians”.

True, the Old Etonians should never be counted out. The school has in large measure reinvented itself as a kind of Harvard for under-18s, with an intake almost as cosmopolitan. But David Cameron’s premiership looks, with hindsight, like the last hurrah of the OBN.

The naïve view of how Britain has changed is that a new network of new money — the people who got rich in the glory years of the Eighties and Nineties — has displaced the OBN. In this interpretation, Debrett’s and Who’s Who have been swapped for the Sunday Times Rich List. However, the most striking feature of this list is that it is (to an astounding extent) a list of foreign-born billionaires who have opted to live in London: the Hindujas, Blavatniks, Reubens, Mittals, Usmanovs, Bertarellis and Rausings are all in the top 10. These people have great wealth. They own large chunks of the UK economy and umpteen square miles. But influence?   

Looking for a nouveau riche network (NRN) is to misunderstand the profound changes that have been brought about by technology in the past 15 years. For to an extent that is still not appreciated, the new networks made possible by the internet are not so much taking the place of old networks as empowering the equally old but hitherto marginal provincial networks of the UK.
LinkedIn was founded in 2002; Facebook in 2004; YouTube in 2005; Twitter in 2006; Instagram in 2010. Today 34 million Britons are regular Facebook users — more than half the population. Twitter and YouTube have 20 million UK users, LinkedIn 19 million, and Instagram 14 million. 

The network of online influence today matters more than the network of new money. If you don’t believe me, you still haven’t understood why Brexit happened (and why Donald Trump is President). As Dominic Cummings has argued — and I believe him — Brexit was a victory won by the network of online influence over both the NRN and the OBN, which favoured Remain. While the last Tory government conducted a conventional referendum campaign, concentrating on the economic risks of leaving the EU, Cummings used his Voter Intention Collection System and Facebook to communicate the viral message that it was worth paying some economic price to “take back control”. 

You had to spend time in provincial England and Wales before the referendum to appreciate how effective this strategy was. By deliberately combining Right-wing and Left-elements (the threat of more Muslim immigrants if Turkey joined the EU, the promise of more money for the National Health Service if Britain left), the Leave campaign disrupted British politics as surely as Uber has disrupted transportation.

In the US, pundits trapped in the bubble of Washington (where Hillary Clinton won 22 times more votes than Trump) failed to notice he was crushing her on social media: 32 per cent more followers on Twitter, 87 per cent more on Facebook. That was one of the best predictors of what would happen on November 8.

Now take a look at networked Britain. Right now, Jeremy Corbyn has four times more Twitter followers as Theresa May or Boris Johnson and two and half times as many Facebook followers. 

Sadiq Khan is also comfortably ahead of May and Johnson. Some Tories see Ruth Davidson as a potential future leader. Bad news: Nicola Sturgeon has five times more Twitter followers. As for Jacob Rees-Mogg, even I have more Twitter followers than him.

Followers don’t necessarily mean votes of course but if you needed more evidence that power is slipping away from the Tories, here it is. Corbyn looks alarmingly like being the next prime minister of the United Facebook of Great Twitter and Northern YouTube.

Niall Ferguson’s new book The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power has just been published by Allen Lane

Dark clouds gather over home of Fakebook


Last October, with just a few weeks to go until the US presidential election, I pointed out something rather strange about Donald Trump’s election campaign. At a rally in Pennsylvania, Trump had read out a leaked email he claimed was from Hillary Clinton’s confidant Sidney Blumenthal. It suggested that, in Blumenthal’s view, the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans died, could have been prevented by Clinton, who was then secretary of state. The crowd lapped it up.

In fact, as I pointed out, the words Trump read had been lifted from a Newsweek article and falsely attributed to Blumenthal by Sputnik, a Russian news website.

It was already clear that the Russian government was meddling in the election. The Department of Homeland Security had issued a statement that the Kremlin had “directed” the hacking of email accounts associated with the Democratic Party and that its intention was “to interfere with the US election process”.

Nor was there much doubt that Moscow was behind the release by WikiLeaks of emails to and from Clinton, including many purloined from the Gmail account of John Podesta, her campaign chairman. However, we did not appreciate the full extent or sophistication of the Russian operation.

Shortly after the election, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder, dismissed as “a pretty crazy idea” the notion that fake news might have decided the contest in Trump’s favour. Last week he had to admit that he regretted those words.

We now know that before (and after) the election, Russian trolls with bogus identities bought more than 3,000 Facebook ads. Even though only $100,000 (£75,000) was spent, the ads could have been seen by tens of millions of people. Moreover, the Russians also used Facebook Events to organise phoney political protests in the US, including an anti-immigrant rally in a small Idaho town known for welcoming refugees. It was to be “hosted” by “SecuredBorders”, a Facebook group exposed in March as a Russian front.

Twitter was used in a similar way. In response to congressional investigations, the company admitted last week that it had identified about 200 accounts linked to Russia, and that the Kremlin-backed news site RT had spent a quarter of a million dollars on Twitter ads last year.

It is still too early to conclude that Russian use of social media decided the election. However, we probably can conclude that social media decided the election. It seems that the Russians were aiming more to widen US political divisions than to get Trump elected. The Trump campaign was aiming to get its man elected — and it spent far more than $100,000 on Facebook. About $90m went on social media, most of it on Facebook. Last November, Brad Parscale, the Trump campaign’s digital director, said: “Facebook and Twitter were the reason we won this thing.” I believe he is right.

I meet a lot of people these days with pet theories about why Trump won. Some talk about economic inequality, others about racial division, still others about Clinton’s inadequacy as a candidate. What all these people have in common is that they wholly failed to predict Trump’s victory, despite knowing all these things before November 8, 2016. The other thing they have in common is they underestimated the explosive growth in social media in the years of the Barack Obama presidency. The only indicators that reliably predicted the election result were Facebook and Twitter. Trump completely dominated Clinton on both.

Or to put it differently: if the social media platforms had not existed, Trump would have been forced to conduct a more conventional campaign, in which case the greater financial resources of his opponent — who outspent him by more than two to one — would surely have been decisive.

In less than a decade, the public sphere — and the democratic process — has been revolutionised. In 2008, the defeated Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, had 4,492 Twitter followers and 625,000 Facebook friends. Obama had four times as many “friends” and 26 times as many followers. Yet the platforms were still in their infancy. Facebook had been created at Harvard only four years earlier. Twitter was set up only in March 2006.

Today, Facebook has more than 2bn users around the world. In America, about two-thirds of adults are on Facebook. Nearly half — 45% — get their news from it. One in 10 get news from Twitter. About 40m people (and bots) follow @realDonaldTrump.

The problem is not just the outright fake news, such as that non-existent anti-immigrant rally in Idaho — though that problem will persist as long as identities can be made up without verification. Last week, a tweet appeared from what purported to be the Boston branch of the “Antifa” (anti-fascist) movement. “More gender exclusivity with NFL [National Football League] fans and gluten free options at stadiums. We’re liking the new NFL. #NewNFL #TakeAKnee #TakeTheKnee.”

How typical of the New England leftists to side with those football players who have been kneeling during The Star-Spangled Banner in protest at police violence against African Americans! Except that the troll responsible for the tweet forgot to disable location services. It wasn’t a tweet from Boston. It was from Vladivostok.

Everyone — including Russian trolls, as long as they remember to conceal their whereabouts — can use social networks not just to spread falsehoods but to spread extreme opinions. This is a key problem that the titans of Silicon Valley gravely underestimated. Homophily — the tendency for “birds of a feather to flock together” — means that like-minded people form clusters in any social network, regardless of its size.

The result is massive polarisation. One recent study of 665 blogs and 16,852 links between them showed that they formed two almost separate clusters: one liberal, the other conservative. A similar study of Twitter revealed that retweets have the same character: conservatives retweet only conservative tweets. Most striking of all, a newly published study of language used on Twitter demonstrates that, on hot-button issues such as gun control, same-sex marriage and climate change, it’s the tweets using moral and emotional language that are more likely to be retweeted.

The sky is darkening over Silicon Valley. Facebook or Fakebook? Twitter or Twister? Last week, Trump fired his first (and characteristically ungrateful) shot directly at Facebook: “Facebook was always anti-Trump.” Zuckerberg shot back: “That’s what running a platform for all ideas looks like.”

The key question is how tenable that defence now is. A platform for all ideas? Or the most powerful media publisher in the history of the world? We used to think William Randolph Hearst — the inspiration for Citizen Kane — deserved that title. But Citizen Zuck has surely outstripped him.

In China he is excluded. In Europe he is increasingly regulated. But in America? Watch this Face.

Borders are back and a new Great Game looms

 Trump’s rejection of globalism will harm only the small countries

We were promised a world without borders: jeux sans frontières, not to mention médecins and much else. In 1985 five European states signed the Schengen Agreement, which abolished border checks between them. In 1990 the Japanese business school professor Kenichi Ohmae published The Borderless World, in praise of global supply chains. In 1996 John Perry Barlow wrote his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, addressed to the “governments of the industrial world, you weary giants of flesh and steel”. He told them defiantly: “Cyberspace does not lie within your borders.”

Just over two decades later, borders are back. In his speech last week to the United Nations general assembly, Donald Trump was unequivocal: “If we aspire to the approval of history, then we must fulfil our sovereign duties to the people we faithfully represent. We must protect our nations, their interests and their futures. We must reject threats to sovereignty, from the Ukraine to the South China Sea. We must uphold respect for law, respect for borders, and respect for culture, and the peaceful engagement these allow.”

“As president of the United States,” he said, “I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always, and should always, put your countries first.” Like Trump’s reference to the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, as “Rocket Man” and his threat to “totally destroy” Kim’s country, this was calculated to appal the people Steve Bannon calls “globalists”. Yet Trump’s assertion of national sovereignty was one of the few lines in the speech that won applause.

The world is not in a globalist mood. Brexit is about reasserting sovereignty, above all over immigration, even if (as Theresa May’s Florence speech made clear) extricating the United Kingdom from the European Union is easier said than done. Angela Merkel will be re-elected as German chancellor today, but her party’s share of the vote will almost certainly be reduced, mainly because she lost control of Germany’s borders two years ago. And Trump clings to his election promise to build a wall along the US–Mexican border, as well as to exclude from the United States the citizens of mainly Muslim countries associated with terrorism.

European elites sneer compulsively at Trump, but polls show that majorities of their citizens would support a similar ban on Muslim immigration into the EU. Meanwhile, the same European elites are ramping up their efforts to tax and regulate the principal beneficiaries of the borderless world, the giant tech companies of Silicon Valley.

Yet when you reflect for a moment on the “back to borders” movement, you see how strange the world is. More than 36% of the world’s population live in just two countries, China and India, each with a billion-plus population. A quarter (26%) live in 11 countries with populations in the hundreds of millions. And another third live in 75 countries with populations in the tens of millions. In other words, 95% of all people live in fewer than 90 countries. Yet the United Nations has 193 members. Among its most recent recruits are Timor-Leste (pop 1.3m) and Montenegro (629,000).

Why is this? Why do the Kurds not yet have a nation state with borders of their own, despite numbering up to 45m? Why do the Catalans not? Tomorrow Iraqi Kurdistan will vote on independence from Iraq. A week from today, Catalonia will vote on independence from Spain. Neither poll is seen as legitimate by the states from which Kurds and Catalans would secede. Yet if the tiny Pacific island of Nauru (pop 11,359) is a sovereign state, what is the argument against an independent Kurdistan or Catalonia?

Or what about the Rohingya, the Muslim minority in Burma whose plight has attracted the world’s attention, leading to a sustained media campaign against the Nobel laureate and state counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi? Would her critics cheer if she proclaimed the independence of Rohingyastan (a country as likely to come into existence as “Nambia”, the African state invented by President Trump last week)?

The explanation for all these anomalies is history. As the Harvard economist Alberto Alesina has argued, if country size were determined by either economic rationality or the democratic preferences of national communities, the map of the world would look completely different. But that is not the way history works. Small countries can attain independence where the strategic stakes are low (remember Henry Kissinger’s joke about Chile as “a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica”). Otherwise, in the immortal words of Thucydides’s Melian dialogue, “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”.

A hundred years ago, as the idea of a League of Nations was taking shape in his mind, President Woodrow Wilson naively assumed that a world based on national self-determination rather than imperialism would be a stable world. It turned out otherwise. In Europe and the Middle East, populations were not distributed in homogeneous blocks but in patchwork quilts of religion, language and ethnicity. Trying to create nation states in Europe paved the way for the Second World War, not least because it legitimised the vision of a Greater Germany, uniting all German speakers and excluding all “alien” races, that inspired the Austrian Adolf Hitler. The strong did what they could.

The modern world order is not fair. There are nearly as many Indians as Chinese, but only China is one of the five permanent members of the UN security council. There are more Germans than French or British citizens, yet it is France and Britain that are members of the “P5”, along with the two superpowers of the last century, America and Russia. Like the five great powers that dominated Europe after the Congress of Vienna, the permanent members owe their privileged status to history: to past victories, or past alliances that compensated for defeat.

Nevertheless, the security council has yet to impose its will on North Korea (pop 25m). Last week’s tough talk — Rocket Man retorted by calling Trump a “mentally deranged US dotard” — took the world another step closer to a day of reckoning. Financial sanctions are now squeezing Pyongyang. The North Koreans are threatening to detonate a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific. The other members of the P5 are waking up to the possibility that Trump has a real, if risky military option and is capable of using it.

In the final analysis, borders are a function of power. If you can’t defend them, they are just dotted lines. The Kim dynasty’s calculation has been that nukes are the ultimate border guards. We shall soon find out if that calculation was correct. If so, many more states will want them. If not, we shall be back in the 19th century, when the great powers played their Great Game with everyone else’s borders.

Donald Trump the Rino merrily stomps on his own party

 Shrewd flirting with Democrats suggests he is a ‘Republican in name only’

‘He likes us. He likes me, anyway.” Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Party’s leader in the US Senate, does indeed have some natural affinity with President Donald Trump. The former was born in Brooklyn, the latter in Queens. They are both sons of the outer boroughs of New York, men who will always know that Manhattan looks down on them.

Last week a live microphone picked up Schumer’s account of his most recent conversation with the president. “I said, ‘Mr President, you’re much better off if you can sometimes step right and sometimes step left. If you have to step just to one direction, you’re boxed.’ He gets that . . . It’s going to work out, and it’ll make us more productive too.”

It seems like the craziest idea in modern American political history. A Republican president whose party controls both houses of Congress and who enjoys enduring popularity among Republican voters is playing footsie with the Democrats. The ghastly possibility is dawning on Trump’s most ardent supporters on the right that he might be contemplating outright defection or becoming the first bipartisan president in American history.

It all began 11 days ago when Trump astonished Republicans by — seemingly on an impulse — agreeing to the Democratic leadership’s proposal: they would vote for aid for the victims of Hurricane Harvey if the debt ceiling were raised and government funding continued for just three months. Trump’s own side had been planning to raise the debt ceiling for a year and a half.

That very morning the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, had denounced the Democrats’ proposal as “ridiculous and disgraceful”. Yet Trump swallowed it whole, leaving his party to contemplate a hideous legislative pile-up in December. Schumer and his House of Representatives colleague Nancy Pelosi did not attempt to conceal their glee. Trump added insult to injury by referring to them fondly as “Chuck and Nancy”.

This was no aberration. Earlier this month the attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, announced the end of the programme known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which shielded from deportation about 690,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as minors. On Thursday Trump dumbfounded Republicans a second time by signalling his willingness to grant permanent legal status to the so-called “dreamers” as part of another deal with Democrats. Was this deal going to be contingent on the Dems agreeing to fund Trump’s US-Mexico border wall? Nope.

Across conservative America the cry went up: what happened? Ann Coulter, author of In Trump We Trust, tweeted bitterly: “At this point, who DOESN’T want Trump impeached?”

So what did happen? The knee-jerk answer is that Trump committed political suicide. By flip-flopping on one of the core issues of his campaign last year — cracking down on illegal immigration — Trump risks alienating his electoral base. Moreover, he risks demoralising his party in Congress.

Any normal president would be working night and day to ensure that they deliver a successful tax bill, to compensate for their miserable failure to repeal Obamacare. Without a successful package of tax cuts, the Republicans will have scarcely any achievements to run on this time next year as the November mid-term elections approach. And if the Republicans lose control of the House, then Trump himself might well face impeachment.

Yet it is always a mistake to assess Trump by the yardsticks of conventional politics. First, the polling data. You might think Republican voters would hate what Trump has just done as much as Coulter. You would be wrong. More than two-thirds of people who voted for Trump last year say underage illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay if they have been in America for 10 years and have graduated from high school. And 72% think it’s good for the country if Trump works with congressional Democrats.

Second, consider the setting: a Washington widely despised by the electorate, only 16% of whom give Congress a positive rating. Last week I visited the nation’s capital. My main takeaway is that the term “unified government” can no longer meaningfully be applied. There is only nominal unity between the different branches of government.

How Republican is the White House these days anyway? The final outcome of the power struggle within it was the near disappearance of both the conservative element (Reince Priebus) and the arch-populist (Steve Bannon). What remains are the generals (John Kelly, HR McMaster), who are by training unpolitical, and the New York Rinos — “Republicans in name only” — who are essentially Democrats (Jared Kushner, Gary Cohn).

In the next-door Eisenhower Executive Office Building, meanwhile, there is mounting frustration among Trump’s appointees at the difficulty of changing the direction of national security strategy. A substantial portion of officials below the top echelon are holdovers from the previous regime or career civil servants. In effect, the White House is an elected head that sits atop the bloated body of the administrative state. The latter is deeply Democratic. Washington is, after all, a liberal stronghold where Hillary Clinton won 91% of votes last year.

Recall the complaints at last year’s Grand Old Party convention that Trump and his close advisers were “Republidents” — half Republican, half independent — with little commitment to conservative principles. Recall, too, Trump’s rage at the Republican leadership’s failure to deliver on healthcare.

It seems at first sight unimaginable that the president could make a habit of co-operating with the Democrats. Doing so would make his already bad relations with the Republican leadership unsalvageable. And the Democrats have little incentive to compromise with an unpopular president.

Based on my observations in Washington, Republicans are counting on the Democrats to self-harm, whether through the return of Clinton to the political scene to hawk her It Should’ve Been Me! memoir, or the readiness of the left of the party to descend into identity politics or to legitimise the “Antifa” — anti-fascist — movement.

But what if the real threat to Republicans is posed by the man who, like a cuckoo in the nest, they were forced to nominate as their candidate? If the Democrats seem likely to win back the House, Trump has every reason to flirt with Chuck and Nancy. Trading immunity for things he and they can agree on such as a big infrastructure bill might be his best hope of avoiding impeachment.

Past presidents have changed party allegiance while in office. John Quincy Adams became a Whig after he was elected in 1824. John Tyler ceased to be a Whig after he became president in 1841. And Abraham Lincoln ran in 1864 not as a Republican but as the leader of the National Union Party.

Could Trump run for re-election in 2020 as a Rino? It seems nuts. But so did 2016.

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