Sunday, March 25, 2018

Changing the Conversation: Beware of Psy-Ops in #USSstrike

Changing the Conversation: Beware of Psy-Ops in #USSstrike

by Vian Bakir
10pm, 25 March 2018

Officianados of Donald Trump’s Twitter behaviour (@realDonaldTrump) will be well aware of his oft-used tactics of ‘changing the conversation’ online whenever there is a new report that casts further aspersions on his presidency. But what about when this attempt to change the conversation happens more covertly, online, and during crucial moments when communities are trying to reach a political decision (as in elections, referenda or ballots)?

The University & College Union (UCU) strike started on 22 February 2018 (and is still ongoing). Strike action, and action short of a strike, is being taken over a proposed decimation by Universities UK (UUK) of Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pensions (a shift from being Defined Benefit to Defined Contribution). USS is one of the largest principal private pension schemes for universities and other higher education institutions in the UK.

The strike generated a torrent of Twitter reaction from academics across the 64 striking institutions. Indeed, Twitter emerged as a prime site for UCU academics across the UK to quickly swap information and interpretations about UUK’s tactics, silences and offers, as well as some universities’ strike-breaking tactics. It would seem that through Twitter, as well as on the picket lines, academics shared vital knowledge, organised themselves, even radicalised themselves and demanded change, as the many flaws of a neo-liberal Higher Education system were discussed and dissected.

Meanwhile, the arcane, abstract and complex world of pensions, employers’ attitudes towards financial risk, actuarial modeling, and university debt, remained hard for most to grasp. But, rapidly emerging online were a handful of trusted opinion leaders.  These were academics with a healthy dose of skepticism towards UUK’s position, and who could make sense of it all: people like @MikeOtsuka, ‪@henryhtapper, ‪@Dennis_Leech and ‪@felicitycallard‪. Also rapidly emerging was a crowd-funded legal team, Academics for Pension Justice (‪@ForPension), who quickly raised £50,000 to make a case to take the USS trustees to court.

Within this milieu, UUK put forward their latest proposal, on Fri 23 March. Most centrally, the proposal would see the creation of a jointly agreed expert panel to agree key principles to underpin the future joint approach of UUK and UCU to the valuation of the USS fund. (Both parties had hitherto very divergent conclusions on whether or not the fund was in deficit and needing of emergency measures to make it sustainable.) UCU told its branches that they would be recalled to a briefing on Wednesday 28 March to provide initial feedback on their response to the proposal. It would then be for UCU’s Higher Education Committee to decide on the further process for consulting members via a ballot. In short, UCU branches have been given a few days to make sense of the proposal. And it is hard. Fundamental trust from many academics in UUK as an organisation has broken down. And hardly anyone really understands pensions. So what are we to make of their offer?

Evaluating the Offer on Twitter
Quick to interpret it, and call it out for its many flaws was UCULeft. They pointed out that the proposal does not prevent employers agreeing to set up an expert panel, and then, when USS’s books are opened, find an even bigger deficit, come back in a year’s time and then railroad through changes in the scheme. UCULeft propose that the UCU negotiators should go back to the employers and insist that they agree that there should be ‘no detriment’ to members as a result of this new valuation process. Only then, should branch members vote on this proposal.

Also quick to pick holes in the proposal was @MikeOtsuka‪ who pointed out that it completely lacks the transparency needed for a fair deal. Henry Tapper pointed out the problems that would arise from any expert panel on this issue. Dennis Leech pointed out why UCU should not leave the USS valuation to the proposed panel of selected experts. He clarified on Twitter that we need an actuarial paradigm shift before negotiations begin. Academic Pensions for Justice (our crowd-funded legal team) suggested that there was not enough detail in the proposal, but ultimately, they did not think it appropriate for them to tell us how to interpret it. Felicity Callard (who has been digging into policy documents from the past few years to understand how university Vice-Chancellors and UUK reached their position that pensions should become Defined Contribution rather than Defined Benefits) argued that we must be very wary of their phrasing in their latest proposal, especially their claim of 'a joint attempt to find fair terms of cooperation to the mutual advantage of employers & scheme members.'

Within this swirl of opinion, skepticism and interpretation, one of the opinion leaders, Michael Otsuka, made a surprising volte face.  @MikeOtsuka‪ tweeted: ‘I've just written a new blog posted called "Why I now strongly support the latest USS pension offer". As Twitter’s academic community read it, they questioned him about its surprising lack of transparency, as he told us that he had changed his mind due to private assurances that he could not reveal. People (including me) called on him to elaborate, but at the time of writing this has been unforthcoming. He has stuck to his position that, like journalists, he cannot reveal his sources as this would prevent further confidential information flowing to him.

Changing the Conversation
Meanwhile, I noticed some strange goings-on on Twitter, that reminded me of older writings on persuasive communications. Research into mass communications has long recognised the importance of face-to-face communication in persuading people to change their views. In one of the first detailed analyses of why Americans vote and how they come to their political attachments, Lazarsfeld, Berelson and Gaudet (1944) describe the persuasive advantages that personal face-to-face communication has over mass communication (then, radio and the printed page).

But suppose we do meet people who want to influence us and suppose they arouse our resistance. Then personal contact still has one great advantage compared with other media: the face-to-face contact can counter and dislodge such resistance, for it is much more flexible. The clever campaign worker, professional or amateur, can make use of a large number of cues to achieve his end. He can choose the occasion at which to speak to the other fellow. He can adapt his story to what he presumes to be the other's interests and his ability to understand. If he notices the other is bored, he can change the subject. If he sees that he has aroused resistance, he can retreat, giving the other the satisfaction of a victory, and come back to his point later. If in the course of the discussion he discovers some pet convictions, he can try to tie up his argument with them. He can spot the moments when the other is yielding, and so time his best punches. (Lazarsfeld, Berelson and Gaudet 1944: 15)

While writing in the 1940s, the attributes that Lazarsfeld et al. subscribe to face-to-face communication are all achievable by today’s digital profiling and targeting. We cannot see the whites of the would-be-persuader’s eyes (a verification technique used by investigative journalists, apparently, when evaluating whistleblowers), and this distance may help the online persuaders in their bid to persuade. After all, they have to hand all of the other tactics mentioned above, and more (I’m thinking of online targeting techniques here). We seem to have witnessed attempts to harness this persuasive effect of conversation in the #USSstrike. But the attempts to change the conversation have also used tactics from psychological operations online typically conducted by intelligence agencies, and, as recently revealed in the news, by data/political strategists, Cambridge Analytica.

For instance, I noticed that an outfit with a Twitter handle (‪@JusticePension) - curiously similar to that of our crowd-funded legal team (@ForPension) - had emerged on Twitter on 17th and 18th March. (This was the day that it was rumored that UUK had hired a big PR firm to handle their PR in the #USSstrike.) I noticed that ‪@JusticePension had acquired a number of academic followers. It is fair to posit that they could easily be confused (among the torrent of messages that is a typical Twitter feed) into thinking that this was @ForPension. I noticed that (apart from one tweet) @JusticePension were only tweeting about the USS strike, and that since the UUK-UCU recent offer, were strongly urging people to accept this offer.

I also noticed that they were intervening in online discussions of those skeptical of the offer, to try to change the conversation. The example I honed in on was a conversation by @Skourkos1 ‪casting doubt on the reasoning for supporting UUK’s proposal presented in ‪@MikeOtsuka’s volte face. ‪@JusticePension was countering @Skouris1 with counter-arguments supporting Otsuka’s volte face.

With my spidey-senses tingling, I tweeted ‪@JusticePension asking them who, what and why they were. I copied @AlistairJarvis in, for good measure (CEO of UUK). They didn't reply. So I started DM-ing or tweeting at some of the academics who were following @JusticePension, asking them if they knew who this outfit was, and that they were not the same as @ForPension. I only got through to a couple (and both were grateful that I had pointed this out), when I noticed a tweet from @Justice Pension, apologising if they had been confused with @ForPension, and saying that they were immediately altering their profile page to avoid this. Indeed, they did so within a few hours. Their profile now says: ‘This is not academic pressure group Justice for pensions’. @Justice Pension has also clarified in a tweet: ‘I am an academic who has been on strike and picket line EVRY DAY of this strike, for personal reasons I cannot tweet with affiliations. I am genuinely sorry that there has been confusion between my account and ‪@ForPension .’ Needless to say, the response from the academic community to this claim has been somewhat skeptical.

Be careful to whom you respond in your online conversations. Be careful to whom you listen online. Be careful who you follow online. Be careful what opinions come to matter to you, especially if you can’t see the whites of your persuadee’s eyes. Scrutinise all of these things, if you can, and if you can be bothered. I may be wrong, but as it currently stands, @JusticePension looks like the deployment of psychological operations, using covert identities/ fake accounts online (that we’ve got used to hearing about this year regarding allegations of Russian interference in the US 2016 presidential election). In the USA, such accounts seem to have been designed to foment outrage online. Here, in the #USSstrike, they seem to be trying to change the conversation, and at a crucial moment when UCU branches are being consulted over how to react to the latest UUK-UCU proposal. I imagine that @JusticePension are not the only suspect account out there.

And‪ @MikeOtsuka is not the only influential opinion leader on Twitter. Other opinion leaders – please watch out for insiders leaking you compelling material in confidence. Our pension future relies heavily on whom we most trust to interpret this complex risk issue, but also whom we most trust has our interests at heart. I urge transparency all round. Verify, then trust.


Lazarsfeld, Paul F., Berelson, Bernard and Gaudet, Hazel. 1944. The People’s Choice: How a Voter Makes up his Mind in a Presidential Campaign. New York: Columbia University Press.

Declaration of Conflict of Interest

I am an academic directly affected by the proposed changes to the USS pension scheme. I also write about fake news, intelligence elites, public accountability and risk. I may therefore be ‘over-sensitised’ and ‘over-sensitive’ to the issues discussed above. All inaccuracies are my fault, or the fault of my sources – all of whom have been transparently revealed above.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Veillance - opening night Fri 24 Feb 2017

Dear all,

All DATA-PSST participants are warmly invited to an art exhibition here at Bangor – Veillance. It spun out of DATA-PSST seminars, and one of our participants, artist Ronan Devlin.

It is an immersive, audio-visual artwork about data surveillance and mutual watching. The work, which takes the internet as its medium, self-generates in real time in response to audience browsing activity, some of which is projected (creatively) onto the walls for all to see.

Event details are as follows: Friday 24th February, Pontio (Bangor University, Bangor, Wales, LL57 2TQ)
Pre-exhibition Talks & Q&A: 4–5.30 p.m., CoLab, Pontio
Reception and Viewing: 6–8.p.m., White Box, Pontio.

Feel free to bring a friend. 

If you want to attend the Friday opening, please RSVP to by Tuesday 21st February.

The work was commissioned by The Space and supported by Arts Council of Wales & Arloesi Pontio Innovation, and made in collaboration with Vian Bakir, Ant Dickinson, Carwyn Edwards, Michael Flückiger, Gillian Jein & Andy McStay. 

For further information check out the interim website:, and follow the project on Twitter @veillanceinfo

Special Issue - Veillance and Transparency

Our Special issue on Veillance and Transparency is almost complete:

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Seminar 6 Yvonne McDermott Position Statement

Developing a Unified Concept of Privacy Law

My position statement for Seminar 1 adopted the standpoint of the (common) law in England and Wales on the right to privacy, and examined how this interplays with sousveillant practices. We discussed in that seminar how the case law on privacy, especially with regards to the relatively new tort of ‘misuse of private information’, has largely been a question of how the rich and famous can protect details of their private lives from unwanted press interference. This is highlighted once again by the recent spate of celebrity injunctions. Yet, this series of seminars has illustrated the different disciplinary understandings of privacy, and how even within the law, different spheres of law protect quite distinct interests under the umbrella of ‘privacy’, with seemingly little interplay between them. As a result, clear gaps in legal protection have arisen through our discussions over the course of the series, including:

Data Protection Law: A number of speakers in Seminar 5, in particular, discussed how information gathered from smart technology falls outside the remit of traditional ‘data’ protected under data protection legislation. Following the Schrems judgment, a new draft ‘Privacy Shield’ has been developed for the transfer of information between the EU and US, but a leaked document from the Article 29 Working Party revealed continued concerns about whether the agreement guaranteed the fundamental protections required to comply with EU standards
Human Rights Law: Speakers across several seminars have analysed the rights of individuals vs. the interests of state security. However, we can see from the Snowdon leaks and related revelations that surveillance stretches far beyond  traditional notions of surveillance, and encompasses mass collection of data, including (if the new Investigatory Powers Bill is passed) bulk interception and acquisition of communications data. The European Court of Human Rights has clearly stated that the interception of communications must be specifically targeted, limited in duration, and that there must be a reasonable suspicion that the person targeted has committed or is about to commit a crime. These principles are not (yet?) incorporated into the new Bill.
Private/Tort Law: This relates specifically to the type of information to which a ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ would attach, and thus generally would not encompass, for example, such information as an individual’s location – this again raises issues on the interplay between new technology and legal standards. 

The  confusion about what we mean when we talk about privacy, even from one disciplinary (legal) perspective, highlights one of the main challenges that we face in attempting to communicate some of this project’s key findings and recommendations to a broader (non-specialist) audience. The report by DATA-PSST and DCSS showed that the public (at least the population of under-60s) seemed to link the notion of privacy as most closely relating to state surveillance of communications data, as opposed to their right to privacy vis-à-vis fellow citizens, in this era of ‘forced transparency’.

Seminar 6 Dyfrig Jones Position Statement

Conceiving the DATA-PSST! Documentary

Dyfrig Jones

Bangor University

Over almost two years, we have discussed a huge range of issues related to privacy and the use of data, bringing together a broad sweep of theoretical perspectives. As we approach the end of the DATA-PSST! series, the production of a short documentary film presents a number of challenges. Simply reflecting the opinions expressed during the seminars would, I suspect, be a relatively easy task. Interviews would be arranged with key participants, sound-bites elicited, and the whole thing could be tied together with shots of us deep in discussion. Such a film would do little more than tick a box, however. It would be a vanity piece, a mirror in which we could see ourselves at our cleverest and most interesting – but of little interest to anyone else.

From the outset, DATA-PSST has sought to engage with non-academics who have an interest in this field. The aim of the film is to expand this circle further, not only drawing in policy-makers and opinion formers, but also the general public. Co-ordinating the work, and taking it from concept to screen is my responsibility, but the film should be a collective endeavour. To try and steer me in the right direction, I would appreciate it if we could, during this final seminar, briefly discuss some of the following questions:

·       What are the key ideas that need to be expressed? How do we distil five days of discussion into ten minutes of film, without being (overly) reductive?

·       How can these ideas be turned into narratives? Good documentaries usually show, rather than tell.  Think about the real-world implications of your ideas, and how these can be put on screen.

·       How will this work visually? We need to avoid being overly reliant on interviews; this should be more than series of position statements in video form.

·       How do we appeal to the general public? What will make people share this video with their friends?

Seminar 6 Ronan Devlin Position Statement


Ronan Devlin


a data art collaboration with:

vian bakir, ant dickinson, carwyn edwards, michael flückiger, gillian jein & jamie woodruff

Our technologies watch us. Digital devices track our everyday actions, communications and purchases in both real and virtual realms. This information mapping is employed by governments to monitor activity, and corporations to target and manipulate the public via ‘smart’ advertising techniques. 

Working in opposition to this invisible information capture, Veillance is a web application artwork which renders these territories of data surveillance as a real-time typographic map of individual and collective audience experience. Referencing ‘cut up’ writing techniques and Concrete (or shape) Poetry, the work’s data-scraping and visualisation system continually transforms audience information, which is transparently gathered with clear consent, into real-time poetic narratives. The result is an ever-expanding rhizomatic structure woven from interconnected audience experience.

This information environment may be experienced and navigated through from various perspectives. From a microscopic position the audience member follows a moving pathway of real-time self generated typographic assemblages, with accompanied text-to-speech sound. From a macroscopic vantage point the traveler perceives the ‘datasphere’ as a whole and may view and engage with text clusters generated by other participants in the expansive, chattering typographic constellation. 

With audience information as its medium, the artwork aims to invite experimentation with, and questions ownership of, the data we generate. The project seeks to re-assert our roles as (creative) producers of information as opposed to subservient consumers or targets, recognizing the virtual realm as a living environment we co-habit. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Seminar 6 Andrew McStay Position Statement

Approaching DATA-PSST! as an Ad Man (Creative Briefs)

Andrew McStay

Creative Studies & Media, Bangor University

In her blogpost, Vian Bakir identified key policy recommendations from past seminars that we could develop in Seminar 6. For my position statement, I have drawn upon these documents and my former life as an “Ad Man”. (As I write this, the title of Jacques Seguela’s 1979 book comes to mind: Please don’t tell my mother I work in advertising, tell her I play the piano in a brothel.)

What we have below are two “creative briefs”. Used within ad agencies to help steer the direction of a communications campaign, the writer of creative briefs collates meaningful information supplied by a client, and research conducted by an ad agency, and translates this into one short document (or two in our case).

The reason for two is that the DATAPSST policy recommendations focus on engaging both citizens and policy makers connected with signals intelligence. These are two very different audiences. These communities require different objectives, strategies, communications approaches and modes of post-campaign engagement.

Feel free to comment, post disagreements and, where relevant, I’ll incorporate and re-post the briefs.

Name of Agency DATA-PSST!
Date 19/05/16

Media requirements
Creative team to select.
Production budget
Since 2014 the DATA-PSST! seminar series has heard from experts from multiple academic disciplines, regulators, business, NGOs and artists. It has explored and debated a range of topics surrounding the fact that mediated life is becoming more transparent to security agencies, commercial actors and each other. The focus has often been on the security side of the equation. We found that unlike the UK government, the British public sees bulk data collection as constituting mass surveillance and that the European and British public care about this. The picture is nuanced as they recognise that certain surveillance technologies are useful for combating national security threats, but there is scope to compromise human rights. Collectively the public want targeted rather than blanket surveillance, clear communications to citizens about what is going on, and strong regulatory oversight.

Target audience
Members of the British public who harbour disquiet about surveillance but do not understand what is taking place.
To tell the public in clear but engaging terms, what is going on when their data is surveilled, and how this is surveillance is overseen.
Consumer insight
Evidence from all industry, academic and independent public opinion polls show that people wish to have greater control over their data.
The proposition
Be in control by being aware
Desired response
For people to be emboldened, informed, entertained and willing to share communication with peers.
Reason(s) to believe
An aware citizenry is the most powerful force in a democracy. If they want change, reform or more transparency over surveillance practices, all they have to do is collectively demand it.
Tone of voice
Expression is more powerful than paternalistic description: the emphasis is on showing in interesting ways rather than telling.
Executional considerations/mandatories
Budget is a consideration so the campaign will need to be shareable throughout social networks.

Name of Agency DATA-PSST!
Date 19/05/16

Media requirements
Creative team to select.
Production budget
Since 2014 the DATA-PSST! seminar series has heard from experts from multiple academic disciplines, regulators, business, NGOs and artists. It has explored and debated a range of topics surrounding the fact that mediated life is becoming more transparent to security agencies, commercial actors and each other. The focus has often been on the security side of the equation. Mindful of the balance between security and liberty, DATA-PSST! recommend greater transparency, albeit with opacity built-in to protect necessary secrets. They also suggest periodical review of all stages of the data process, and of the effectiveness of policies based on such surveillance, by diverse actors drawn from citizens, civil liberties groups, technologists and industry. Promotion of data literacy and reasons for specific data are also encouraged to help generate awareness, trust and conceivably consensus.

Target audience
Policy makers connected with national security and signals intelligence.
To tell policy makers that opaque awareness of signals intelligence practices will serve citizens and security agencies alike.
Consumer insight
The intelligence community argues for a dualistic position whereby some liberty must be sacrificed to ensure security. They may be reciprocal to a third option.
The proposition
Work together towards opaque transparency.
Desired response
For the intelligence community to understand that collective enlightenment facilitates trust and serves citizens and security alike.
Reason(s) to believe
The British public harbour a strong wish to have control over data about them, yet also understand the need for some surveillance of online communication.
Tone of voice
Confrontation is to be avoided. A solutions oriented approach is preferred.
Executional considerations/mandatories