Friday, December 14, 2018

That time Louise Mensch claimed I’m a Russian spy

(This being by far the craziest thing that has happened to me all year. Possibly all decade. As originally reported at Overland.)

It started quite innocently, as these social media collisions always do. A friend and I were discussing on Twitter Ed Whelan’s bizarre conspiracy theory in defence of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, remarking – as many people have – that it was reminiscent of Eric Garland’s infamous 120-tweet long ‘game theory’ thread of late 2016. A random Twitter user (you must always watch out for those) chimed in that not just Garland but also former Tory MP Louise Mensch had been vindicated by recent developments in the Russia investigation.

I responded that someone who has claimed that Bernie Sanders is a Russian asset and that Vladimir Putin is orchestrating both the #metoo movement and Black Lives Matter will never quite be ‘vindicated’. This must have triggered Mensch’s activation code.

However, instead of engaging with the thread, Mensch searched my Twitter history for a few key words. Then, over the course of the next twenty minutes or so, she produced a febrile series of tweets in an apparent effort to ‘flag me up’ as a Russian spy.

This reaction initially confused me because she was not making her claim to her large Twitter following (roughly 279k). She was, rather, replying directly to various old tweets of mine that she regarded as incriminating. It was a more intimate accusation of wrongdoing than I might have expected – almost a whisper campaign for my ears only, and those of various authorities.

It’s worth reproducing some of the tweets. The first one was addressed to me and one Brent Allpress.

This is the detail of some of the tweets that ‘expose me’. It seems that using the word ‘Russian’ is incriminating.

Having been to Russia is also evidence.

Now I must be very careful not to go down the track of refuting any of Mensch’s ostensible pieces of evidence lest it creates the perception that there is a case to be answered. However, just for the sake of historical accuracy, it wasn’t in Moscow that I saw an exhibition of Marc Chagall’s drawings for the Jewish Theatre. I saw it at the Fondazione Mazzotta in Milan. It’s the Jewish Theatre that is in Moscow. (Incidentally, the same exhibition is touring Italy again – it’s in Mantua now until 13 January 2019. Go see it if you’re in that part of the world.)

Making a joke about spies also means you’re a spy. This time, Mensch helpfully refers me to the British intelligence service and the NSA.

This one calls me a traitor for having penned an Overland article about Luke Harding. Traitor to whom, is not terribly clear. GCHQ is copied in again.

Responding to a conversation from 2012, like any normal person would, Mensch makes the first use of the hashtag #fvey – meaning the Five Eyes intelligence gathering network of which New Zealand is part. (Though apparently in Australia they call it ‘Five Eyes and a Wink’ in reference to the fact that the New Zealand eye is not completely open.)

This one – in which Mensch tries to link wonderful former New Zealand Green MP Catherine Delahunty to US presidential candidate Jill Stein for reasons best known to her – is quite intriguing: how did she find it? What was the search term?

The last tweet in this first furious salvo (which I have reproduced only in part) clarifies Mensch’s apparent intent: to flag me with the New Zealand intelligence services. She might have even thought that her job was done.

Note the distinctly McCarthyist flavour of the exchange. None of the tweets that Mensch found is evidence of anything other than knowledge that Russia exists. Together, in her mind but possibly also in the social context in which she operates, they may constitute ground for suspicion of a kind. Writing about Mensch for Vox, Zack Beauchamp has described her as belonging to the ‘Russiasphere’, an informal media network that operates mainly through Twitter for the purpose of advancing not a unified conspiracy theory but rather ‘the general sense that Russian influence in the United States is pervasive and undercovered by the mainstream media’.

The target audiences of these efforts by Mensch, Garland and others are US liberals. Clumsily deployed among the New Zealand Twitter public, the same methods attracted mockery and nothing but mockery from across the political spectrum. In response, Mensch sent out a few more tweets over the weekend, of which only a couple deserve mention. This one, which contained the closest thing to a specific accusation:

And this one:

Evidently frustrated with not being able to find a Twitter address for the New Zealand Government Communications Security Bureau, Mensch settled for alerting the Minister of Justice in charge of it. And because Mr Little is a minister, there will be someone in government who has to file the request along with the tweets from the dozens of users that made fun of it, adding to the general absurdity of the exercise.

(If you’re wondering who one of the three people who liked that last tweet is, it’s Louise Mensch.)

This story is 95% ridiculous, but it’s also 5% serious. ‘Reporting’ people to the intelligence services for pointing out on Twitter that you said some stupid things in the past is not a normal thing to do, although it has become normalcy adjacent. The pervasiveness of conspiracism in the global political discourse, combined with the attrition-free nature of social media (leading to what I called in the past the unbearable closeness of others), is a breeding ground for a new culture of suspicion from which no country or community is quite immune. Where Mensch erred is by not knowing in what language to frame her claims in a New Zealand context. Were I more socially isolated, or in possession of less cultural capital, I might be vulnerable even to a clumsily worded attack such as this. If I lived elsewhere, it might have actual repercussions on my freedom or employment.

It’s not altogether a laughing matter. But for the most part it is, and if we can’t have a bit of fun while the world goes down in flames, then what can we do?

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