Jess Phillips MP headshotJess Phillips Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley

Retweeting Away Our Liberty

October 6, 2017 - 11:52am By: Jess

I cried hot, angry tears while watching Hillary Clinton speak this week at the Cheltenham Literary Festival. I was a bit hungover, so this was a factor, but I cried for my sex class, I cried for how far we had not come. I cried at the assault on liberal democracy that she described and tears seared my skin with frustration that, as far as I can tell, we the public are sleepwalking into becoming the agents and worker ants of authoritarian regimes, and we are doing it in our pyjamas while watching X Factor.
I do not want to sound like a flat earth swivel-eyed fool. I believe in the moon landings. I have seen behind the curtain and there is no lizards back there. I am absolutely certain however about the truth of a raging Cold War being waged online. I feel it, I am a target of it and have almost certainly been an agent of it albeit unwittingly. As have you.
It is widely known and has been wildly reported that authoritarian states like Russia are using fake accounts and propaganda outlets to spread dissent online. Dissent is the point, not the particular thing it might be talking about. Dissent about religion, dissent about the wealthy, dissent about immigrants, dissent about race. A controversial tweet here, a fake exposé there, subtle enough to seem harmless, silly enough for many to discard. Shared a couple of times by the usual suspects and a few hundred bot accounts. A few thousand people see it and then it dies.
For those that see it, it remains planted in their minds. They carry on watching Strictly Come Dancing and shout to their husband to put the kettle. This repeats every day - people swipe it away on Facebook or block a particular account on Twitter that is doing their head in, others share the stories in outrage of the content. Conversations spring up, dissent spreads. You think nothing of it, then when you pop for a cup of coffee with the parents on the school run as you do most days, over a pain au raisin one parent says: “Democracy is flawed, I think it’s had its day.” You look around your little world and realise we all bought a line and repeated a line that was handed to us by someone with a plan. The plan was to make us question democracy and seek something else, more authority for example.
These microagressions used as propaganda are terrifying because they are stupid, subtle and unreasonable, and everyone thinks they are too clever to fall for it. I learned everything I know about subtle microaggressions from my children.
My sons will sit on the sofa next to each other and the way that one of them pronounces a certain word or moves one of their limbs even a tiny inch will send the other into a wild rage: “Mom, he’s moving his leg in that way again!” My children can have a row about the way that the other one breathes!
Don’t think for even one second that the complainant is being unreasonable, my children do actually breathe in such a way to annoy the other one. It is brilliant and clever because, to an outsider, nothing has occurred and an authority figure cannot tell a child to stop breathing. Perfectly pitched defences of “I’m only breathing, I can’t stop breathing.”
The result is a blazing row which now everyone in the house is embroiled in, the telly is switched off, everyone is cross and they are banned from being in the same room as each other. This cycle continues and eventually you learn to dread the family time watching the telly together and curb your own liberties and the privileges of your children in order to avoid a ruck. All because of the tiniest, seemingly harmless infringement in sodding breathing. The slightest aggression thought out by the perpetrator in order to control a room has wreaked havoc. If you don’t have children I realise this sounds mad but I assure you anyone who does is reading this locked alone in the toilet pretending that they are in there for anything other than peace.
My parliamentary emails have been hacked, a fact that amuses me. I love to think of Russian or Iranian hackers reading endless emails about the Birmingham bin strike or how neonicotinoids are killing the humble British bee. The Gmail accounts that I set up for the snap General Election were spammed to the point that I could not use them. It seems like nothing, I didn’t even report it to anyone. A simple problem of modern life. It seemed a bit rich to complain about receiving thousands of emails selling fridges and signing me up to the newsletter of every company in the world it seemed. People are dying in the world, who cares if some election candidate gets spammed by a bot. It meant that I couldn’t speak to my constituents, and that if they contacted me I was ignoring them. Subtle little thing really, but an assault on our democracy none the less. Free speech types I find are actually scared of speech, their whole plan is to stop us communicating. Don’t think that this stuff isn’t happening here.
I mean I could be completely wrong. There might be nothing in this dissent theory. Maybe we are all too clever to fall for propaganda and in fact the internet is allowing us to see many more sources and come to our own well thought out conclusions. Hey, maybe Trump is the best candidate and Brexit will make the UK roar like a lion. Just seems to me that we are being stalked by a lion and we are willingly putting our heads in its mouth and sending it a tweet telling it to have a bite, and then sharing the pictures of our decapitated body on Facebook.
Jess Phillips is the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley
First published online on 16/10/2017 at

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