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.