Bruce Schneier is a public-interest technologist. He’s been writing about security issues for more than 20 years, and he’s a Special Advisor to IBM Security, a fellow and lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and a board member of Electronic Frontier Foundation.
A couple of quite similar stories caught my eye in the past while.
The first was about a German MP called Markus Frohnmaier. He was elected to the Bundestag, the German parliament for the far-right AfD party in 2017.
A consortium of journalists from the BBC, German news magazine Der Spiegel, and TV station ZDF and the Italian La Repubblica newspaper got a leaked email from Petr Premyak, a former Russian spy who is also a former member of the Russian parliament. The email, which Premyak confirmed is genuine, but says he didn’t draft, was sent a couple of months before Frohnmaier was elected.
It contains a document assessing the state of public opinion in Germany and analyzing how to influence it in favor of Russia.
It also refers to Markus Frohnmaier. Frohnmaier, for a bit of background is quite young, only 28 now; he was 26 when he was elected to parliament. He has very frequently spoken against the EU sanctions on Russia imposed after the invasion of areas of Ukraine; he has also made trips to Crimea, the Ukrainian territory illegally annexed by Russia in 2014, and to areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists and Russian special forces.
The leaked document says that Frohnmaier is – quote “our own absolutely controlled” politician, and it goes on to predict – rightly as it turned out – that he had a good chance of getting elected, and discusses how Russian money could be used to him get elected.
The second story is about Austria’s FPÖ party. They’re one of the most successful far-right parties in Europe; they are in coalition government with that country’s conservative party. Or they were, until a secretly-recorded video of Heinz-Christian Strache, the party’s leader was published. It was made on the Mediterranean party island of Ibiza, and is showed Strache with a woman who said she was the niece of a Russian billionaire.
They discussed a deal where his party would arrange for her to take ownership of an Austrian newspaper, the newspaper would be switched to support his party, her billionaire uncle would get large government contracts, and pay Strache big bribes. This scandal has led the Austrian government to fall apart and it remains to be seen what the coming election will throw up.
The third story is about Nigel Farage, the former leader of the British UKIP party. It emerged that he was paid hundreds of thousands of pounds – well over half a million dollars – a year by a British businessman. A couple of things about this. Farage said that his friend was helping him out because he was broke. This is clearly a lie, at the time Farage was a member of the European parliament, with a salary of about $10,000 per month, along with more than $30,000 a month in media earnings. That makes more than half a million dollars in earnings a year, hardly broke.
But the real issue here is Aaron Banks the businessman – so called – who was giving him the money, it’s not entirely clear that he is a businessman at all. Investigations into his wealth all seem to lead back to – guess where – Russia.
In a different age, any one of these stories would have led directly to the immediate and permanent exile of their subjects from politics, and they would be lucky to stay out of jail. And, of course, they and their parties would suffer most likely permanent damage.
But not in 2019.
Nigel Farage’s new party, the Brexit Party, has just had a stunning success winning the European Parliament elections in Britain. All the more impressive for a party that is only a month old. I’ll talk about that more at the top of next week’s podcast, but what I want to remark on here is how gleefully these stories were reported in left-wing newspapers, on left wing social media, their political opponents were sharing it like crazy.
Now, it’s true that the FPÖ in Austria suffered a small loss of votes in the European Parliament elections, the AfD went up in Germany, but they didn’t do as well as they did in the recent national elections, but these are minor swings and, as I said Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party had a storming success.
The bottom line is that their supporters don’t care about these stories. It doesn’t matter how stark they are. Documents, confirmed as genuine, where the Kremlin says a member of parliament is a controlled agent; video of a politician arranging corrupt contracts in return for undermining the media and large bribes; a party leader taking massive, probably illegal payments from a questionable businessman – their supporters just don’t care.
That’s a lesson to people who oppose them. The lesson is that no matter much how you enjoy those stories, how much you like sharing these stories with everyone who agrees with you, how it confirms everything you ever thought about these people, it doesn’t convince anyone. The people who listen agree with you already. And the people who don’t agree with you, don’t listen.
People – some people – support these politicians and they do so for a reason, and it’s not connected to how corrupt they are or aren’t. A decade ago or so we might have all thought that liberal democracy is where the whole world was converging, just that places were getting there faster than others. Now, that’s not so sure; progress, if you call it that can also regress. People who believe in democratic values have to learn how to win people over, not just wait for them to come round.