It’s not only the Russians

As well as having to keep an eye out for Russian electoral interference we now need to watch out for the fake news promulgated by knights of the realm – and the employee whistle blowers who provide the evidence of what their knightly employers, such as Sir Lynton Crosby and his company CTF Partners, do.

Now the electoral interference of the Russians, and Crosby, is of course, of little note compared to the intervention of the CIA agent turned 1970s US Ambassador to Australia, Marshall Green. Green, fresh from his experiences in the coup against Sukarno and the subsequent slaughter of probably a million Indonesians, arrived in Australia just in time to contribute to the downfall of the Whitlam Government. While Professor Jenny Hocking’s ongoing campaign to unveil the monarchy’s role in the affair is incredibly important our ahistorical society has forgotten about the US efforts in the dismissal despite abundant evidence of their organising coups and interference here and in elections around the world.

In this historical context perhaps one shouldn’t get agitated about Crosby’s efforts for clients as diverse as Brexit, cycle lanes and Saudi Arabia. One could hope they were as unsuccessful as his ‘strong and stable’ slogan was for Theresa May, but the evidence seems to suggest some of these rather unsavoury campaigns have been more successful – with the added advantage of not having to sort of recompense the Tories for part of the cost of the disastrous May campaign – just as has (so far) been his work for BoJo.

The Guardian (1 August 2019) alleges, on the basis of information from former employees, that the company “has secretly built a network of unbranded ‘news pages’ on Facebook for dozens of clients ranging from the Saudi Government to major polluters.”

“In the most complete account of CTF Partners’ outlook and strategy, current and former employees of the campaign consultancy have painted a picture of a business that appears to have professionalised online disinformation, taken on a series of controversial clients and faced incidents of misogynistic bullying in its headquarters.”

CTF is generous – after some sort of recompense to Theresa May’s campaign it has also allegedly provided an interest free loan to cover BoJo’s office and staffing costs and seconded a staff member to work on his campaign for the Tory leadership.

They can afford to be because, The Guardian said, that among other campaigns the company “took millions of pounds from the Saudi Arabian Government to burnish the reputation of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (albeit before he ordered the murder of Jamal Kashoggi)…worked for the party of the former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak who has since been implicated in one of the world’s biggest-ever corruption scandal” and worked for governments from Sri Lanka to Zimbabwe as well as private sector clients in the coal and tobacco industries.

All this – along with the Russian intervention in the US elections – is based on a form of astroturfing – in which CTF “created Facebook pages on specific topics to spread disinformation to interested members of the public in the UK and abroad” according to The Guardian. They also employed what appeared to be independent online news sources with seemingly independent names which could be used to disseminate selective information to millions.

The company should be given credit for some innovation in the fake news arena. Staff used initials for some campaigns and as well as their real names for internal Facebook administration tools. They also used the supposedly highly hack proof ProtonMail encrypted mail service to avoid being traced. This hack proof service has recently been hacked so we can all perhaps look forward to more revelations on that front.

Needless to say Facebook claims it is blameless and fixed on the use of real names in the campaign which theoretically would have meant the company did not breach Facebook’s “inauthentic behaviour policy”. It said, according to The Guardian: “Our review to date suggests the majority of these pages to be operated by real people and do not currently violate our coordinated inauthentic behaviour policy. However, we take seriously the information shared by The Guardian and are continuing to review the activity of the pages mentioned.”

Equally needless to say was the tenor of CTF’s response which blamed the source saying: “This is not public-interest journalism: it is agenda-driven and irresponsible journalism.”

The company declined to comment on their methods, the clients they worked for and cited commercial confidentiality. It was all reliant “on distorted facts and improperly leaked documents as part of a political agenda.” Well, in the immortal words of Mandy Rice Davies – they would say that wouldn’t they?