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Press: Brace yourselves for bishops’ election pleas

08 November 2019


WE HAVE not yet reached that cringe-inducing moment in an election campaign when the Archbishops put out a J. C. Flannel message, exhorting people to think carefully before voting. Nor have I yet spotted a sermon or Thought for the Day on the theme of “The cross that really matters this Christmas.”

But I’m braced. When The Telegraph and the Mail run stories saying “Welby attacked for Remainer bias”, I will remind myself that the trouble with platitudes such as “Think before you vote” is that they offer no solutions, even while they remind us of real problems. In this election, the problem is trust. Which party do we least distrust?

Two stories, apparently unrelated, illustrate this very nicely. The first comes from the London Review of Books, and is an account of the online drug markets that are accessible through the dark web. The point of these markets is that buyers and sellers are both pseudonymous, although, at some stage, the seller has to know where the drugs are to be delivered. So, the buyer needs to know that they will get what they have paid for, and the seller needs to know that they will get their money.

The solution, as explained by Misha Glenny and Callum Lang, is to trust third parties. The organisers of these markets hold the money in escrow until the deal is done, and they also arrange for customer reviews to be posted by sellers’ names. The result is, in the best case, an invisible hand that works: buyers can rely on reviews, and sellers can rely on the people who run the market. There is even a service available on the open web which tests drug samples from the dark net to be sure that they contain what they are supposed to.

All that law enforcement can do is to try to force the traffic on to insecure markets. This spring, they appear to have succeeded: Dream Market, the biggest and best source of online drugs in Europe, was forced off the internet for three months. The action moved to another site, Wall Street Market, which the police had quietly penetrated. The next development, obviously, was for the police to seize the servers and, with them, all the money and information about buyers and sellers — but, before they could do that, the owners of the market themselves stole all the money and tried to get away. The story leaves it unclear whether they were arrested.

THIS kind of destruction of trust-based systems is, of course, what Russia is trying to do to democracy everywhere. One of its main means is Facebook, which makes the company’s refusal to regulate political advertising more worrying.

An op-ed in The Washington Post explains why this kind of lying is more effective than the sort deployed in analogue political campaigns: “True transparency would include information about the tools that differentiate advertising on Facebook from traditional print and television, and in fact make it more dangerous: Can I see if a political advertiser used the custom audience tool, and if so, if my email address was uploaded? Can I see what look-alike audience advertisers are seeking? Can I see a true, verified name of the advertiser in the disclaimer? Can I see if and how your algorithms amplified the ad? If not, the claim that Facebook is simply providing a level playing field for free expression is a myth.”

The author Yaël Eisenstat has worked for the White House and the CIA, but her real qualification is that she was, until she quit, most recently Facebook’s “head of integrity”.

THE GUARDIAN had an excellent scoop about the Home Office’s liaison with faith groups to identify rough-sleepers who can be deported: “A list obtained by the Manchester-based human rights charity Refugee and Asylum Seeker Participatory Action Research, and seen by the Guardian, reveals that 21 Home Office immigration surgeries are embedded in community centres and places of worship across London and in Birmingham, Slough and Manchester. It shows that Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs are being targeted for removal, along with Brazilians, Albanians and Chinese people.”

This is, of course, a further destruction of trust, as Fizza Qureshi of the Migrants’ Rights Group pointed out. Yet the representatives of the faith groups quoted in the story were quite unapologetic. There is no necessary correlation between religious belief and a welcoming attitude to immigration. You need only look at the hostility to immigrants displayed by nominal Anglicans to realise this, or even to remember that Theresa May is, by all accounts, a remarkably devout Christian.

JUST time to notice that The Times had yet another story about Holy Trinity, Brompton’s, disrupting a parish in the effort to transform it, this time from Exeter, where the beefy 29-year-old Rector poses for the paper’s photographer in T-shirt and jeans by the door of St Matthew’s — except that it has been rebranded as “St Matt’s”, which is one of the things that the regular worshippers complain about.

Was there ever a more HTB name than Matt?

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