Why are some people (wrongly) claiming petition to retract Article 50 notice has been fiddled?

A petition for Britain to revoke the Article 50 notice has gone viral, but supporters of Leave are claiming foreign interference (despite the fact that you have to sign from a UK postcode). This seems a snapshot of how fake news circulates because it fits with what people need to be true, rather than what is.

On the evening of Wednesday 20 March (2019), Theresa May gave a televised address which went down badly. Immediately after a petition on the government web site started to gather support, as if in reaction. As it headed towards 100,000 signatures someone pointed out that there was a petition in favour of a hard Brexit with nearly 400,000 signatures and suggested people shouldn’t be complacent. They needn’t have worried. In less than 24 hours it gained over 1,200,000 signatures, becoming the most-signed petition on the Parliament petitions web site and causing the site itself to crash repeatedly, struggling to cope with its highest-ever rate of signing.

The sense is of a huge surge of energy in favour of cancelling the Article 50 notice. As this can only be done “in good faith”, and not simply to buy more time before being re-issued, this would stop the Brexit process for the forseeable future.

A pro-Brexit response: fear of outside interference

From the pro-Brexit side things have been muted. Angela Leadsom said she’d only take it seriously if the number of signatories crossed 17.4 million (the number who voted Leave). The Daily Express headline that “Petition to CANCEL Brexit hits 1 MILLION signatures as Luvvies declare ‘national emergency’”, adding “ELITIST luvvies Hugh Grant, Annie Lennox and Jennifer Saunders are scrambling to cancel Brexit using a petition that has amassed an eye-watering one million signatures — though Leave voters are questioning its authenticity.”

The petition itself, coupled with the People’s Vote march on Saturday 23 March, creates a strong story about support for EU membership. But that comment that “Leave voters are questioning its authenticity” should raise eyebrows. At a purely-practical level, the government’s petitions web site asks people to give their name, postcode and email address. That’s a hard mix for people to fake via bots (given the capacity of web sites to filter out things coming from IP addresses outside the UK). The case for assuming things are being spoofed also lacks plausibility: if a foreign nation developed the capacity to hack the British government’s petitions web site, why wait for a speech from the Prime Minister that backfires rather than weighing in before? That’s all the more striking as this petition appears to have been started on 20 February, so it is a surprising coincidence that they wait until now.

No evidence of outside interference

The data quoted

But the Guido Fawkes web site, soon picked up by Brexiteers, ran a headline that “Foreign actors attack Article 50 petition with fake signatures”, apparently on the basis of data from the petition web site suggesting some signatures were coming from aboad. That data is publicly available. The names of the individuals who have signed are not shown, but totals are broken down by country and by constituency. The Guido Fawkes article shows what looks to be an image from near the start of that data, which is the section showing breakdown by country. Looking at this rather later in the day, I saw that the total number of UK signatories was 1261367 and the total from the rest of the world was 49967 — 3.9% of the total. There are UK nationals, entitled to vote but living elsewhere in the world, so this small number doesn’t imply that something has gone wrong, and in any case it’s such a small number that it doesn’t undermine the petition.

Fake news

In terms of fake news, it is fascinating to see something unwelcome dismissed as “fake news”, as if its welcomeness and its truthfulness are indistinguishable. The entire Brexit process has been characterised by reality being squeezed out. Here, the surge of support for retracting the Article 50 notice is being presented as if it both isn’t true, and must be the result of foreigners trying to interfere.

The Leave campaign made a lot of use of the slogan “take back control”. Assuming that an unwelcome poll has been hacked says the opposite. It pushes people in the direction of hearing the poll not as evidence of support for EU membership — and therefore inviting Leave supporters to wonder why others might think differently — but instead of hearing it as evidence of foreign interference — taking away control.

In this case, it looks as if a conclusion has been jumped to without checking the evidence, as if it is true because people need it to be true. This presents a profound challenge to democracy because it makes it much harder to have a debate in which people listen to each other and to evidence which might be new to them, before coming to a conclusion.

The challenge to democracy

The sharp end of this is that deliberative democracy (electing MPs who take part in Parliament) is about people listening to each other and to the evidence. Direct democracy (voting in a referendum) tends to short-circuit both of these, pushing things back to a much less sophisticated way of thinking where the two sides are irreconcilable and there’s no space for understanding what lies behind their positions.

Fears from the Remain side

Showing anxieties from both sides, the government petition web site went down repeatedly on 21 March. The explanation coming out was that this was a result of the unprecedented number of people trying to sign — at times as high as 2000 a minute. Yet there were stories in some quarters suggesting that this was some sort of conspiracy to stop people signing. If that were true, the site might well have needed to go down for several weeks for “maintainance”: instead the short periods offline are consistent with some technical support people working hard to keep it going. But the assumption from some people that this is something sinister speaks volumes for people’s fears.

A Kleinian insight

One of Melanie Klein’s insights was that people, often under stress, can default to the sort of thinking found in small babies, where everything is intense, rationality is not really around, things are very black-and-white and there’s not the capacity to understand others. She called that the “paranoid schizoid” position, and it reflects the bewildering task for a baby of making sense of the world, and the urgent necessity to get the nourishment they need. The response to this petition seems to come straight out of that.

From this perspective, the actual evidence (that lots of people have signed a petition) has been read with minimal reference to the facts, taking an irrational leap to “foreigners are taking control”. On that trajectory, people would respond to the petition not by looking at why people think revoking the Article 50 notice is a good idea (and perhaps seeing the point), but by being deepened in the their support for Leave. It points to some supporting Leave out of fears around control that don’t stack up against reality.

But the snag here is that this “paranoid-schizoid” position is in the driving seat with fighting, when understanding disappears and winning is all that matters. This makes sense in terms of strident comments from some supporters of Brexit that “we won” and must now go for the hardest possible form of Brexit (#LetsGoWTO), because it is about winning in itself, rather than an understanding of what this would lead to.

What makes this sharper is that the Guido Fawkes article actually starts: “A petition backed by all the faces who had been pretending to care about holding another referendum for the sake of ‘democracy’ have been sharing a new petition entitled ‘Revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU.’ They’re not even pretending to be democrats any more”. Yet it’s not “all the faces…”: the petition was started by one person.

The narrative seems to become an assertion that “Remainers” are launching a dodgy petition, swung by foreign interference, to subvert democracy — overlooking, among other things, the fact that the Article 50 notice can only be withdrawn by the government formed from the Parliament we have elected. It’s hard not to hear that as paranoid. It’s also interesting that there is evidence of Russian involvement in supporting the Leave campaign via social media (though it is less clear whether this was done with the knowledge of the Leave campaign), so, in effect, this becomes Brexit supporters accusing Leave supporters of what they themselves did. Another characteristic of paranoid schizoid functioning is the tendency to get rid of unbearable emotions by projecting them onto others (so, accusing supporters of EU membership of doing the thing the Leave campaign has reason to be ashamed of).

Moving to consensus building needs a shift to a more mature way of thinking. Polarising and dividing, as Theresa May’s speech on 20 March seemed to do, mobilises paranoid-schizoid responses. In its turn, this raises serious questions about whether there is enough maturity for a People’s Vote referendum campaign to be more than the airing of anxieties from those who support Brexit.

Personally, I’ve argued that the best path is a delay followed by a People’s Vote. The delay is needed to allow some healing and to address some of the structural problems of the 2016 vote which enabled significant rule-breaking and lying to take place.

But Guido Fawkes might just have provided the strongest case for retracting the Article 50 notice — as a country we are now so traumatised that nothing else can provide the stability to move back into a more mature thinking which would let us think sensibly about the situation, acting out of something more than fear and fantasy.

The EU does require the unilateral retraction of the Article 50 notice to be “in good faith”, so couldn’t be re-issued immediately. Brexit would indeed be on hold for the “foreseeable future”. How far we can foresee is another question.

In reality, I think it will take a few years, changes of leader in each of the main parties, a General Election, and addressing some of the pain that led to support for Leave, before it would be wise to think about whether “Brexit on hold” should become “Brexit dropped” or “Brexit re-visited”.

Postscript: 23 March

Since writing what’s above, several extra details have dropped into place.

  1. On the same day as the People’s Vote march in London (23 March), Margaret Georgiadou, who started the petition for the Article 50 notice to be withdrawn, reported receiving three death threads and significant abuse on Facebook.

    In groups an unthought fight-flight response is often associated with the paranoid-schizoid position. While the threats and abuse are clearly not justified, particularly if the emotions around Brexit are unleashing this sort of behaviour, it invites the use of paranoid-schizoid thinking — with the implications of this getting in the way of thinking (this could also be read in terms of even more regressed behaviour, sometimes called Earl Hopper’s “fourth basic assumption”).

    There’s been another claim that the petition is faked, this time from Stephen Edginton of Leave means Leave on Channel 4. In that interview, Edginton claimed to have signed the petition several times, suggesting that it is open to abuse. This is the same mechanism as used for all Parliament petitions, so it is curious that he singles this one out. More sharply, the petition doesn’t list the individuals who have signed, but does have software to detect duplicates. That software can’t be perfect, but no IT security professional would explain how their protection works because that helps people get around it. So it’s not clear that his duplicate signatures were accepted.

    What’s also interesting about that interview is that the other person being interviewed, Mike Galsworthy, says that democracy enables people to chose things, and change their mind, where Edginton talks of the 2016 vote as “democracy” and everything since as the Establishment trying to undermine it. So it becomes a fight against the Establishment, where thinking about the actual issues can’t be allowed — again in the domain of the paranoid-schizoid position.

  2. The figure for attendance at the People’s Vote march on 23 March is being widely quoted at 1,000,000. To me it felt significantly larger than the one in October, estimated at 750,000. But The Telegraph has put out an article accusing the People’s Vote campaign of overestimating the number of marchers. Their logic is a claim that the numbers in the October march were exaggerated, on the basis a report from the Greater London Authority putting the number of attendees at October’s People’s Vote rally at 250,000. They don’t actually reference the report &#151 so it’s not clear how the Greater London Authority got to that figure, but don’t have a comparable figure for 23 March. So one source challenging the widely-quoted figure of 750,000 for another march is taken as evidence of the People’s Vote lying over numbers at this one. Again, this feels like disbelief based on thinking not happening. For comparison, at the time of writing this, I am trying to verify a claim from A C Grayling that the Police estimated the numbers at 2 million.

    This also feels like The Telegraph rubbishing something because they don’t want to believe it, rather than because they have evidence.

    This BBC video shows the size of the crowd:

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