Two contentious letters were sent by two Tory MPs this week, one to Facebook headquarters and the other to all UK universities.
Both letters demanded access to private data. Neither letter supported its respective demands with any legal substance or judicial instruction. Both letters were phrased as requests but were typed on official parliamentary stationery to give the spurious impression of legal solidity.
Both Tory MPs, deliberately and with malice aforethought, chose to misrepresent the authority (or lack thereof) contained within the written “requests.”
Letter 1: Damian Collins letter to Facebook headquarters
In his letter to Mark Zuckerberg, screenshot below (1), Collins says
“I am writing to you to request information regarding the use of Facebook advertising and pages by Russian-linked accounts in the lead up to, and during, the 2016 referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union and the 2017 British general election.
“As you may be aware, the House of Commons Select Committee for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is currently undertaking an inquiry into the phenomenon of fake news. Part of this inquiry will focus on foreign actors abusing platforms such as yours to interfere in the political discourse of other nations. It is for this reason that I am requesting that Facebook provides to my Committee details relating to any adverts and pages paid for, or set up by, Russian-linked accounts.“
Manœuvering past the clunky use of English reminiscent of a weakly educated person pretending to be adequately educated – Damian Collins attended a private school – the letter is full of clumsy signposting and inventive representation of reality. What is a “Russian-linked” account? Is it any Facebook account where the user is normally based in Russia? The phrase “the phenomenon of fake news” belongs in an Alex Jones rant or a Nick Cohen article. Collins is worried about “foreign actors abusing platforms“ but Facebook is based in USA and used throughout the world; also, and most pertinently, persuading someone to have a particular political opinion is not abuse. “My” committee? It’s a parliamentary committee not Collins’ own.
Letter 2: Chris Heaton-Harris letter to university vice chancellors
In his letter to several university vice-chancellors, screenshot below (2), Heaton-Harris says
“I was wondering if you would be so kind as to supply me with the names of professors at your establishment who are involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit.
“Furthermore, if I could be provided with a copy of the syllabus and links to the outline lectures which relate to this area I would be much obliged.
“I sincerely hope you are able to provide me with such and I look forward to hearing from you soon.“
More clunky use of English – Heaton-Harris attended an “academy” school – and a bizarrely overwrought cod-politeness that belies the sinister nature of the requests in the letter. However, the most important fact to note is that all the information that Heaton-Harris asked for is available publicly. He could find it if he could be bothered to spend a short time looking around the websites of the universities. Thus, his reasons for the sending the letters are sheer laziness coupled with an intent to express a false authority. The entire letter is unnecessary Trump-like posturing. It is a gormless display of mock authority. Heaton-Harris is effectively saying “I’m watching you.” He is pathetic. The responses he has received from a variety of university administrators and academic staff have been relentlessly and marvellously mocking.
Both letters are embarrassing. Both are displays of mock authority by weak people who are part of a government that is rapidly losing all power and respect. Heaton-Harris is a fool trying to get noticed and be relevant, Collins is a jumped-up little toad who has no clue what on earth he is talking about.