Revealing our biases in our responses to “Dirty Politics”

On his Radio Live segment, Duncan Garner intimated that some people are excited about Nicky Hager’s Dirty Politics book, particularly those who don’t like the right because it reveals everything they want to hear.

Confirmation and selection bias are both prevalent during election years. No one is immune. Many will attempt to present as impartial, while others will acknowledge their partisanship proposing to hold any wrongdoing to account. However, that’s a fine line to walk for most, if not all of us. We do seek out information that conforms to our preferences or value judgements and we are selective in not only the kind of information that accords to our preferences, but also how we frame that information to strengthen our own convictions.  This has been very apparent in the responses to Hager’s book.

From the left, there are three common themes:

  • The ‘Corruption’ argument: the details of the particular claims made and the seriousness of those allegations warrant an inquiry and police involvement.
  • The ‘Pot-Kettle-Black’ argument: that Cameron Slater has a ruthless history of publishing private information about people so he cannot now complain because of a retaliatory act.
  • The ‘Public Interest’ argument: that we the public have a right to know about the information extracted as a result of the hacking operation.

From the right:

  • The Conspiracy Theory argument: that the details provided in the book do little more than raise suspicion and lack any conclusive evidential backing and of course, John Key’s own proclamation that that Hager is a ‘screaming left wing conspiracy theorist’. [FWIW, I look forward to Matthew Dentith, NZ’s leading expert on Conspiracy Theories analysing Dirty Politics in light of this argument]
  • The ‘Everyone Does It’ argument: that all parties engage in attack politics in some form or another, it’s been happening for years, and it’s not new nor is it news.

In my view, both sides make valid arguments.

The issues raised by Hager are serious and do warrant further inquiry because we must never dismiss any allegations of corruption and abuse of political power. It is an affront to democracy and to our civil and political liberties, no matter who is involved. In saying that, the right have a point about whether or not we are dealing with a conspiracy theory, arguably then it is in the interests of the right to support an inquiry to prove or disprove the corruption allegations that will subsequently determine whether or not an actual conspiracy exists.

However, Lamia at Corner Politics makes a very good point, she writes:

“…I don’t see how the investigation could happen while John Key is still PM. I would not have confidence in any such investigation! This alone means that he can no longer stay”

I agree with her, that we cannot have confidence in an inquiry carried out by the particular government who would be the subject of the inquiry. I’m not convinced though that we could be confident in any inquiry led by the opposition either given their own vested interests. Perhaps I’m too cynical, but I don’t trust that the political elite in our country are capable of carrying out a fully independent inquiry.

In regard to the Pot Kettle Black argument, which has some teeth to it since Slater has a reputation for carrying out the same actions he is complaining about. But the information doesn’t just target Slater, it implicates a raft of people. Although here, one might argue those people are the same who are responsible for leaking the information Slater publishes. Gordon Campbell writes that some might think it karma since:

“Slater began his jihad against Labour by being complicit with how the hacking of the Labour Party website was exploited. He has now been exposed by much the same means”

I’m not entirely comfortable with the ‘its karma’ framing either. It seems rather hypocritical when it runs a retributive justice line, that many of those using the argument have previously detested, and is a form of justice not conducive to what left wing values would typically entail.

Equally problematic is the rights ‘everyone does it’ argument. This argument operates as an admission that the allegations of collusion are true and worryingly that such people think it justifiable, i.e. legitimacy obtained through customary practice, or something. However, it does acknowledge that the attack politics practice might be widespread, which further supports the need for an independent inquiry.

The last one is the public interest argument and this entails a number of concerns [which I think requires extensive research to unpack the various issues between private individuals and public officials and private information and public information].

One issue that concerns me is that yes, Hager’s actions were that of a whistleblower but what about the actions of the person or persons who gained unauthorised access to the private accounts of Slater and extracted information?

Should we tolerate the actions of a private person hacking into the private accounts of another private person? Well, we know the law says we ought not to tolerate it because it is a crime in NZ.

However, some are arguing that in this particular case, it is justifiable to access information and steal it because the information obtained was of such public importance. My concern is at what point then, might we say that it was at least morally justifiable, if not legally so? What is the threshold we are applying when we are accepting that in some instances these practices might be legitimate? Remembering we are not talking about hacking into government systems or stealing information from the government as in the Edward Snowden case. We are talking about private individual vs private individual? Do we say mere suspicion is enough, or do we need something firmer? Can we justify it at all?

My view, is that no we cannot justify hacking into the accounts of private individuals. Period. And if we truly oppose the implementation of the GCSB Act then how can we argue that the government cannot spy on us in what they determine is in the public interest but we should be allowed to spy on each other if we suspect each other of harbouring information of vital public interest? Where does that even leave us as a society? And what does it mean for the value we place on internet freedom, if that freedom entails the right of others to gain unauthorised access to our accounts if they are suspicious of our activities, whether or not such suspicions are grounded in a reasonable belief or mere speculation? Where do we draw the line? There are far more questions than there are answers.

[Note: I appreciate that the digital community have diverse views on the role of hacking, and I’m not saying that ‘all hacking is bad’, rather that all private individuals should have a reasonable expectation that their private online accounts are not intruded upon]

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3 comments

  1. In the case of the someone cracking Slater’s web server the real big problem is that the police didn’t act. He is a known criminal and has illegally obtained digital information thus they should have got a warrant to search his entire information and then acted upon what appears to be highly illegal actions by this government.

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  2. A few points:
    – The two arguments from the right directly contradict each other.
    – Hacking is a tricky issue, but it isn’t the issue, and it shouldn’t be used (by the right) as a barrier to investigation.
    – The Hackers have purposely separated themselves from any attempts to benefit from this. This is completely different from whaleOil who is getting paid.

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