On 9 January 2019, Leave Means Leave – a cross-party pro-Brexit pressure group with close ties to Leave.EU and Nigel Farage – sent a letter to the Charity Commission for England and Wales accusing The Photographers’ Gallery in London of ‘possibly criminal’ use of taxpayers’s money to fund ‘anti-Brexit propaganda’, and demanding that the gallery’s charitable status be withdrawn. Anticipating protest, The Photographers’ Gallery sought legal advice from the Arts Council long before artist Jonas Lund’s propaganda office Operation Earnest Voice (2019) was unveiled. In the Charity Commission guidelines, political activity is considered legitimate on the condition that it supports the delivery of an institution’s charitable purposes. The gallery affirms that Lund’s work fulfils their charitable objective to exhibit new media and technology that responds to the evolving nature of photography in the 21st century – in this case, the targeted dissemination of advertisements that played a pivotal role in the result of the EU referendum.
When Operation Earnest Voice was planned last year, the UK was on track to leave the EU in March 2019; it was only by chance that it took place days before the decisive vote on Theresa May’s deal in Westminster, giving the event an unanticipated semblance of credibility. The team of fourteen – who were employed from an open call – ranged from an A-level student, a Postdoctoral Fellow from the Courtauld Institute of Art and a photographer who worked on Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama’s election campaigns. Over the course of four days, this motley group appropriated data manipulation tools that have until now been employed almost exclusively by the right, to design a pro-Europe propaganda campaign. Visitors were encouraged to contribute to discussions and help develop political strategy, but speaking to some of the employees, it was far from clear how sincere their mission really was. Whilst some hoped they might actually influence public opinion about Brexit, others remarked that I was missing the point; this was not an unofficial branch of the People’s Vote.
Though the joke was lost on Leave Means Leave, it was hard to miss the irony of Operation Earnest Voice, which boasted among its many services ‘lucrative manipulative systems’, ‘professional disinformation’ and ‘dark arts’. If it wasn’t already obvious, Operation Earnest Voice is a tongue-in-cheek caricature of big data firms like Cambridge Analytica and Aggregate IQ, whose dubious practices have come under heavy scrutiny since the EU referendum. Historically, satirists have often masqueraded as their subject of derision, mimicking certain forms or conventions in order to critique them. Yet, as in much of his work, Lund (the self-styled CEO of Operation Earnest Voice) treads a line between satire and sincerity that is often hard to pin down, and in the midst of this ironic play, there is an earnest call to arms; citing US media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, Lund tells his office staff to ‘programme or be programmed’. But can Operation Earnest Voice’s ‘leftist fake news generator’ really help us to resist the progressively ubiquitous torrent of online manipulation?
Bots now generate roughly half of all web traffic, and their sophistication is developing at an unprecedented rate – many Twitter bots mimic human sleep cycles and tweet according to a rhythm that approximates human users, making them extremely difficult to recognise. Bots and online ‘sock puppets’ (false identities) have been used to generate fake grassroots movements behind political campaigns, a process known as ‘astroturfing’ which is on the rise around the world. Lund’s Operation Earnest Voice takes its name from a US campaign that employs astroturfing to propagate pro-American propaganda in the Middle East; Russia and China have their own equivalent programmes. Talks by Peter Geoghegan and Adam Ramsay of the investigative website openDemocracy in the Operation Earnest Voice office at the gallery revealed the murky trails of ‘dark money’ that fuelled the Brexit campaign, and exposed little-known links between Cambridge Analytica and SCL, a firm which has orchestrated data strategies for a number of multi-national military operations. Nobody at The Photographers’ Gallery really expected to reverse Brexit in four days; above all, this was an opportunity to raise awareness about the ethical consequences of computational propaganda in the modern world.
As media and technology changes, satire is impelled to evolve with it. Amongst a collection of volumes on media theory and propaganda in the Operation Earnest Voice office, I spotted a book on the early twentieth-century German artist John Heartfield. It was Heartfield’s conviction that ‘the pencil was too slow and was overtaken by lies’ that inspired his radical anti-fascist photomontages, which are as comic as they are devastating. In contemporary China, an increasingly complex vocabulary of euphemisms and memes are being used to critique the government and bypass censors. The ostensible premise of Operation Earnest Voice was of course deluded from the start – countering disinformation with more disinformation would only lead to chaos. Yet, by revealing the ease with which these tools of manipulation can be accessed and deployed, Lund poses a challenge to the lenient regulation of the internet. Researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute have described computational propaganda as ‘one of the most powerful tools against democracy’. The law has failed to keep pace with the rate of technology’s development, and it needs to catch up, fast.
Main image: Members of the public marching for a People's Vote on Brexit, 2018. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Ollie Millington