Bots for #Brexit


First thing: I think the UK’s vote to leave the European Union is a calamitous mistake. The worst in foreign policy since Suez in 1956 and quite possibly second only to Munich in the last century.

What I want to write about here, though, is the way in which that Leave campaigners (in the broadest sense) leveraged the use of Twitter bots in the campaign. A report now available on Arxiv (here) suggests that bots generated over three times as many pro-Brexit tweets (97,431) than pro-Remain messages (28,075) in a one-week period in June.

(The report also suggests a slightly higher proportion – 15.1% – of pro-Remain tweets were bot-generated than for Leave – 14.7%)

Did it matter? The paper suggests bots have “a small but strategic” impact. In a referendum of huge importance that was lost by a narrow vote that could be very important.

My personal experience was that the online field was much more important in the Scottish referendum, where the “Yes” campaign (in favour of Scotland leaving the UK) were very effective in mobilising online resources for people seeking to “research” the question.

One thing where both referendum campaigns were similar was that the pro-change campaign accused the other side of being “Project Fear” and used online resources to repeatedly reassure people that they need not fear the consequences of a Yes/Leave vote.

Happily, in Scotland, disaster was averted and so the accusation of Project Fear merely lingers. Over the EU it has now become Project I Bloody Well Told You So.

The Black Death, immigration and Labor Day


Portraits of the Haymarket Martyrs
Portraits of the Haymarket Martyrs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After one year in a job, the average American is entitled to eight days of holiday. In Europe the absolute legal minimum is 20 days (in the UK it is 28 days – the 20 day European minimum plus 8 additional statutory public holidays or days off in lieu of those holidays).

Of course, America is the richest country in the world – but I am tempted to ask what’s the point of being rich if you never get the chance to spend it? People are social democrats for a reason!

Today is of course the US’s Labor Day – while the rest of the world celebrates this on 1 May – partly in memory of the decision of the US authorities to judicially kill four people who had supported a May Day strike after a notorious unfair trial (see the Haymarket Affair for more on that) – and so it has presented Reuters an opportunity to consider the lot of the average American worker compared to her or his mediaeval predecessor.

We learn several things – first of all that the “protestant work ethic” was, at least to some extent, a reaction to the liberality of the Catholic Church when it came to festivals and holidays. I am sure more than a few budding capitalists noticed that the reformers’ detestation of festivals of wine, women and song coincided with their economic interest in increasing the amount of labour their employees undertook.

We also can see that in 14th Century England peasant power was at its height – wages were high and many worked as few as a 150 days (just 30 5 day weeks) a year.

What’s not said is that was partly because half the population had died off in the Black Death – labour was in very short supply and the labourers knew it – so much so that they even turned to revolution – the Peasant’s Revolt – when the oligarchy tried to fight back.

All the same – seems like an argument for restricting immigration. Let’s tighten the supply of labour and we’ll get a better paid and happier work force.

Except that the economics of the 14th century are not the same. There was global trade, of course, but not for much. There was certainly little complexity in the systems that supported everyday life. Technical progress since the Roman Empire had been pitiful. What’s more the law actually mandated the immobility of labour (though this was crumbling) and banking and free movement of capital was little more than a gleam in the Medicis’ eyes.

So, we are not protected by the US after all


Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...
Image via CrunchBase

Let me start this post – on the PRISM programme – by making a few things clear.

Firstly, I think the jihadist terrorist threat is real and dangerous and even potentially existential in nature: if these people had atomic weapons do you think they would hesitate to use them?

Secondly, I think the police and security services need to be able to do their job to deter and catch these people.

And, thirdly, I believe that all such actions need to be regulated by law and need to reflect the fundamental protections we expect.

What we now know is that a US based internet – which is what we have when we consider Google, Facebook, Twitter and the rest – does not offer those of us who are not US citizens the guarantee that our communications are protected by law. No probable cause is needed to snoop at what we say and do – don’t take my word for it, listen to what the President of the United States has said.

He’s been very clear that the communications of non-US citizens have no legal protection. And I am sure he is right.

Most of us, perhaps until today, sought to resist the efforts to “internationalise” the Internet: why would we want Putin or Assad to have a say on internet regulation? We don’t, and we still don’t.

But equally the current situation is not acceptable either. For Europeans we must now expect and demand that the European Commission intervene swiftly and make it clear to the US internet giants operating on European soil that the current situation is unacceptable and equally make it clear to the US authorities that this is a matter of trade policy: after all communications could be being intercepted to steal trade secrets as much as anything else.

The aim should not be to ban the authorities’ access to communications but to ensure that European citizens who trade with US internet companies are offered the same legal protections as US citizens (and vice versa as far as Europe is concerned).

This cannot be good news for Last.fm


Image representing Last.fm as depicted in Crun...
Image via CrunchBase

Just logged in to Last.fm to be told that I’d have to pay a subscription for a desktop client from next Tuesday and if I lived in most countries in the world I wouldn’t be able to listen full stop.

Now I generally listen to Last.fm via the website so I am not likely to be affected while in the UK (it seems years since I was able to use that on a trip abroad without paying a subscription).

But the European Union is failing to implement its “great freedoms” if it is impossible to organise a business like Last.fm on a pan-European basis. In recent years the EU has seemed more concerned about stealing from the commons than protecting consumers rights in what too many call “intellectual property” (how can anyone own an idea? Are we not supposed to regard Prometheus as a hero, or is he just a pirate these days?).

Damian Green: venal or just poorly educated?


Damian Green
Image via Wikipedia

The UK’s immigration minister, Damian Green, made this claim:

“Do immigrants displace British workers in the labour market? The MAC [Migration Advisory Committee – official advisors to the UK government on immigration] research showed that in certain circumstances there can be displacement of British-born workers by non-EEA [European Economic Area] migrants, up to a level of 23 displaced for every 100 additional working age non-EEA migrants… This analysis gives us the basis for a more intelligent debate.  It supports a more selective approach to non-EU migration. The old assumption was that as immigration adds to GDP—national output—it is economically a good thing, and that therefore logically the more immigration the better, whatever the social consequences.”

The problem for Green is that the MAC research did not show what he claimed at all. Instead it showed that (I am quoting this excellent blog here) that for every 100 working-age non-EU immigrants who arrived in a particular UK region in a particular year, 23 fewer UK natives were employed in that region in that year.

Green appears to have made one of those classic post hoc ergo propter hoc mistakes of those with a poor grasp of maths or statistics – the fact that one event follows another does not mean they are actually causally linked. As the MAC professionals state:

“Our findings should therefore be considered as estimating the association between migration and the native employment rate rather than the impact of migration on the native employment rate”

Perhaps the Daily Telegraph ought to highlight Green’s mistake in their ongoing and well-timed campaign on numeracy – Make Britain Count – as Green’s mistake is all too common.

Of course, the Telegraph would first have to assure themselves that the former business news editor of the Times and Channel 4 News was so innumerate that he had indeed made a mistake.