Surveillance and fact-checking
Two richly interesting pieces in the most recent New Yorker, both of them touching on conspiracy and democracy themes. ‘The Whole Haystack’ by Mattathias Schwartz tells the story of Basaaly Moalin, the only person successfully prosecuted for terrorism offences in the US using evidence collected by the meta-data trawls of phone and email records now routinely being undertaken by the NSA and other security services. Moalin is meant to be the needle in the haystack: his case is held up by politicians and spooks as evidence of why mass surveillance is necessary. But he is a lot more like that other proverbial cliché: the nut under the sledgehammer. Even this doesn’t really capture the mismatch between the scale of the intelligence operation and the minimal rewards: he is a blade of grass under a steamroller. His offences look at best trivially related to any major security threat faced by the US (he sent money to a proscribed terrorist group in Somalia). More to the point, there’s just him and his buddies. It is often said that by hoovering up private data the NSA has helped prevent numerous terrorist attacks. But there is no evidence for this. There is only Moalin and his low-rent, barely credible money-laundering scheme.
In truth, the political imperatives behind the NSA operation are not primarily driven by indicators of future terrorist attacks. They are fuelled by evidence of missed leads in the attacks that did take place, starting with 9/11. Almost every terrorist incident in the West of the last two decades has involved individuals already known to the security services. They were noticed but they weren’t stopped. As Schwartz writes: ‘In retrospect, every terrorist attack leaves a data trail that appears to be dotted with missed opportunities.’ But that knowledge is more likely to unleash paranoiac delusions than to help in the search for the next attack. ‘Before the event, every bit of hay is potentially relevant . . . By flooding the system with false positives, big-data approaches to counterterrorism might actually make it harder to identify real terrorists before they act.’ There are real conspiracies out there, but invariably they can only be identified after the event. Looking for them in the patterns in the haystack is more likely to send us mad than to make us safe.
The other article is ‘The Next Thing’ by Adam Gopnik, which discusses Michel Houellebecq’s satirical fantasies of a future France under the rule of an Islamic president who imposes a form of sharia law. As Gopnik says, the target of Houellebecq’s rage is not the Islamists themselves but the French intellectual class, whom he imagines happily collaborating with the new regime (à la Vichy). Houellebecq thinks that France is now a hollowed out, rootless nation, in thrall to shallow materialism and prey to anyone peddling even the most spurious forms of faith. There is nothing to stop the enemy within from eventually taking over because there is no one with the belief necessary to resist. These are some of the standard tropes of conspiracy theory, which imagines that the hidden forces at work in any society must triumph because what appears on the surface is too superficial to stand up to them. But that’s not the way it works. The confusion of surface events is what stops the conspiracy from coming to pass, because it has a way of messing with even the best-laid plans. Gopnik has an elegant way of summing this up: ‘The fun of satire [or conspiracy theory] is to think what would happen if nothing happens to stop what is happening. But that is not what happens.’ Exactly.
However, the paragraph in Gopnik’s piece that really stood out for me was a different one. At one point he discusses some fashionable French fears that the country is in terminal decline, as evidenced by the exodus of many French footballers – those rootless cosmopolitans – to ply their trade elsewhere. Underlying these complaints is a nostalgia for a simpler time when footballers played for the place where they grew up and to which they should owe their primary loyalty. Gopnik is not buying any of it. ‘The result of this new free market in football,’ he writes witheringly, ‘is that French footballers, like Thierry Henry and Arsène Wenger, have become heroes in North and West London, their exploits heralded, their pictures hung in giant murals high on the stadium façade. This leaves a lot of English footballers unemployed, I suppose, but in what way can having its actors idolized abroad be a loss for French prestige?’
The New Yorker has a fact-checking department that is routinely described as ‘legendary’, though when you read something like this it’s tempting to think that the legend is that it exists at all. Everything in those two sentences is wrong. Arsène Wenger is not a footballer, he is a football manager (indeed he is one of the new breed of managers, including José Mourinho, who have succeeded despite being no great shakes as players themselves). Arsenal’s stars are hardly heroes in West London – and if Gopnik is thinking of Chelsea then who are the French players whose pictures are hung on the walls of Stamford Bridge? Wenger’s image in not one of those on display on the walls of the Emirates. Finally, why should their being idolised in a foreign land make you proud of your players if what it really signals is that your own club sides no longer have the prestige to keep them? Gopnik should know that the one French team that can now attract the very best international talent – PSG – is being bankrolled by owners from Qatar. For American readers, if this blog has any, all this would be like saying that Bill Belichick is a footballer not a coach, that Tom Brady is a hero in New York, and that Americans should be proud if their leading sportsmen went to play in Canada because that’s where the money is, rather than seeing it as evidence of national decline.
It is hard to imagine how, in an age of Google and Wikipedia, a fact-checked article at the most preciously fact-sensitive magazine in the world would leave even the most basic facts unchecked. Couldn’t someone have looked Wenger up to find out who he is? But then again, to search for the truth you have to know what it is you are looking for. These things are only really clear in retrospect. Even with the almost limitless information now available at the press of a button, it is still important to know what might be wrong before you can start trying to correct for it. Otherwise you are just flailing around in the dark. It seems likely that people at the New Yorker have about as much understanding of English football culture as people at the NSA have of Somali-American Islamic culture. They have all the facts at their fingertips but they don’t know where they should be looking or what they should be looking for. (I love the fact the New Yorker got the accent on Wenger’s first name right, which means someone checked something, just not the important thing.) Maybe Gopnik’s article would have been better fact-checked in a pre-internet age, when anyone who knew nothing about football would have had to ask someone else where to start. As Schwartz writes, similar thoughts are starting to percolate in the world of counterterrorism. The F.B.I and other agencies have started to revert to a method which ‘bears some resemblance to the community policing programs of the nineteen-nineties, in which law enforcement builds a listening relationship with local leaders.’ Ah, the good old ‘nineteen-nineties’ (which the rest of us, lacking the New Yorker’s quaint pedantry, still call the 1990s): who said nostalgia was dead!