23 November 2018

How credulous cranks made me the subject of their baseless conspiracy theory


In the 2017 French presidential election, stories emerged on social media that Emmanuel Macron held offshore bank accounts and was in a secret gay relationship. These claims were completely false.

On taking office, President Macron criticised the Russian state propaganda organs Sputnik and Russia Today for spreading baseless rumours to harm his electoral chances against the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. This week the French parliament passed a law that will, during an election period, allow candidates to apply to a judge for an emergency injunction to have this type of “fake news” removed from the internet.

I’m uneasy about how this law will operate but the problem is real. We know that Russia also interfered in the US presidential election and probably did in the Brexit referendum. On an immeasurably more trivial issue than the affairs of state, and though I’m merely a journalist rather than a political figure, I’ve had the same treatment.

A conspiracy theory emerged online in which I was the target of totally baseless and damaging rumours, which if they’d been true would have ended my career. These were then pushed by Russia Today and Sputnik in the hope they would thereby be insinuated into public debate.

I’m telling the story now, six months later, as a microcosm of how falsehoods can gain currency through fake news outlets. And while the experience has been unpleasant, it’s been educative to see how a conspiracy theory can wax and then persist online even in the complete absence of evidence and common sense.

The purported scandal is not about money or sex. Instead, it’s about — of all things — editing Wikipedia. Anyone can edit that site. One person who’s done so for 14 years on subjects he’s interested in is called Philip Cross. He’s amassed a large number of edits – apparently more than 130,000, though many of these are minor changes in drafting or punctuation. A particular focus of his edits is jazz. But other articles he’s edited are those about politicians, campaigners and journalists, including George Galloway, Jeremy Corbyn, Seumas Milne, John Pilger — and me.

I’ve been aware for some time of a weird speculation advanced by figures on the political fringes that Mr Cross is in fact me, writing under a pseudonym, possibly in alliance with the security services. For example, in 2016 I had a radio debate with the former diplomat Craig Murray about Julian Assange. Murray did not do well (you can hear it here) and he lamented afterwards on his blog that I’d been unfair to him.

Apparently Philip Cross then edited the Wikipedia page on Murray several times over a few days and Murray took exception to this too. Under an entry on his blog shortly afterwards titled “Is GCHQ Embedded in Wikipedia?”, Murray wrote: “It could of course be an extraordinary coincidence that Philip Cross, who has been named as Oliver Kamm, launched this massive attack on my Wikipedia entry the day after I outed Kamm as a liar on my blog…. Now I really do not care whether or not ‘Philip Cross’ is actually Oliver Kamm or whether he is just Oliver Kamm’s bitch. For Oliver Kamm’s lawyers, my address is [actual address]. I should love to see Kamm explain all this in court.”

Doubtless he would, but I’ve got better things to do. Murray has more recently attracted public derision for his exotic conspiracy theories about the Salisbury poisoning and I judge that his words are never likely to be a risk to whatever reputation I have as a journalist.

In April this year, my newspaper, The Times, ran an extensive investigation into the activities of a small group of academics at British universities peddling conspiracy theories denying the war crimes of President Assad of Syria. The academics call themselves collectively the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media (SPM). They include Piers Robinson, a professor of journalism at Sheffield University, and Tim Hayward, a professor of environmental political theory at Edinburgh.

As a Times leader remarked: “The leading figures of SPM’s steering committee include three professors. None has expertise in Middle Eastern affairs and all display an exaggerated willingness to entertain any idea, however implausible, that acquits the regime of Vladimir Putin and its client of Damascus of abominable acts.”

I believe that Mr Cross added some of this coverage to Wikipedia, citing The Times as his source. Though the academics, like Murray too, were displeased, it’s hard to see why. By definition, figures who make fringe claims do not get coverage for them in mainstream media and Wikipedia has criteria on what constitutes a “reliable source”. These allow publications like The Times; they don’t include fake news outlets like RT and Sputnik. That’s not my decision: it’s Wikipedia’s. There’s no point in complaining to me about it: I’ve been a voluble critic of Wikipedia almost since the project’s inception, and have debated Jimmy Wales – the site’s founder – on this question.

Murray again, however, speculated that Philip Cross might be a front for certain nefarious interests. And this time the rumours spread on social media. I was inundated with abusive messages attacking me for editing Wikipedia under a pseudonym, or running a massive operation of others doing so, or of paying for such a task (the claims varied and were never very coherent). Mr Cross follows me on social media and knows my writings, and sometimes my observations apparently prompted him to edit Wikipedia on writers or politicians – such as Galloway or leading figures in UKIP – whom I’d criticised.

I do not know Mr Cross. I’ve never met him or spoken with him. I know nothing about him. We’ve occasionally exchanged emails or direct messages on Twitter, just as I have done with hundreds if not thousands of people over the years who have comments on articles or books I’ve written. The number of edits I’ve requested Mr Cross to make on Wikipedia comes to exactly zero. Why on Earth would I care? To repeat: I’m a critic of Wikipedia and its ethos. I never consult the site, let alone participate as one of its “community”.

When the allegations on social media began to swirl, I alerted my employers and my solicitors in case these were picked up by media outlets, and took a firm decision in conjunction with them not to respond in any way. The surest means of putting falsehoods into public debate is to deny them. We could deal with the issue once it got to that stage, if it ever did.

It didn’t but it might have done. The Scottish newspaper The Herald published a diary column by a freelance contributor called Ron McKay. He is a longstanding ally of, and aide to, George Galloway. McKay devoted a diary item to Mr Cross’s Wikipedia edits of far-left figures: “You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see that there are common threads here. All of those [subjects edited by Cross] are… prominent campaigners on social media and in the mainstream media vigorously questioning our foreign policy. All have also clashed with Oliver Kamm… All have been edited on Wikipedia by Andrew Philip Cross whom the complainants believe, without conclusive evidence, to be Kamm after dark. He denies it.”

This is a straight fabrication. There was not only no conclusive evidence but literally no evidence at all for this preposterous thesis. Nor had McKay spoken to me, nor (as the tortuous syntax seems to suggest, though it may refer to Cross) had I denied the claim. As I’ve explained, I had deliberately made no comment at all on the subject.

Russia Today meanwhile weighed in with an article that began: “Wikipedia editor Philip Cross is still waging war against the left [i.e. posting factually sourced information that any other editor could themselves amend]. Some of those targeted by his vexatious edits have reported patterns between him and Times columnist Oliver Kamm.”

To my surprise, a BBC presenter and producer emailed me to ask if I would be interviewed for an edition of a World Service radio programme called BBC Trending. She wrote: “We’re covering the story of Phillip [sic] Cross and routine targeted editing of some Wikipedia pages. Some people have suggested there may be an overlap of politics between yourself and Phillip [sic] Cross. Would you be prepared to be interviewed on this topic on the programme?”

It was obvious what was going on here. The programme makers had presumably thought they’d alighted on a scandal comparable to – but much bigger than — that of Johann Hari, the Independent columnist who’d been caught making (and lying about) pseudonymous Wikipedia edits concerning other journalists (including me) some years previously. I ignored the email but listened to the programme, and was appalled.

The programme makers appeared to have found late in their researches that they couldn’t pin anything on me at all – that there was no “targeted editing” — but they still had a programme to put out. They should have pulled it. Instead airtime was given to Galloway, who on his talk show had offered a financial reward to anyone who could track down Philip Cross. It seems to me an unappealing hobby to edit Wikipedia but people do it and Mr Cross is by no means among the most prolific editors. The programme struck me as a violation of his privacy, as well as giving credence to absurd claims that he was somehow being controlled by powerful forces.

My friend and colleague Daniel Finkelstein tweeted about the programme: “I listened to this tin-foil hat nonsense with a mounting sense of incredulity, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. I literally can’t believe that this extraordinary rubbish has managed to make it to a BBC programme.”

It was rubbish, indeed, and irresponsible. The trolling messages continued. Galloway went on a podcast for Sputnik, whose presenters sent me unsolicited messages about it on Twitter, as if to publicly mark me out as a malefactor. Galloway appears to have realised by then that Philip Cross is actually just a guy called Philip Cross, but he was already committed to a darker thesis. He posted on Twitter: “I now have direct and irrefutable evidence of ‘a powerful man’ giving editing direction to Philip Cross in his role as a Wikipedia editor. This is going to be huge.”

It’s now six months on, and Galloway has never presented this evidence, for the very good reason that it doesn’t exist. I know this, because I’m the subject of the claim about “a powerful man” (though I’m not powerful at all). The pro-Assad academics targeted me. Hayward posted numerous abusive tweets concerning my supposed moral failings and even attacked my book on grammar (a book I’m fairly sure he hasn’t read, on a subject he has no expertise in). Additionally, he wrote: “Does Oliver Kamm have Wikipedia editor Philip Cross doing his bidding in amplifying smears and vendettas? Evidence coming to light suggests serious questions concerning possible misuse of media influence and unethical conduct.”

This I greatly resented. I didn’t consult my lawyers about it so can’t give an informed view on whether it’s defamatory but it’s grossly false. Hayward had literally no evidence on which to make this highly damaging claim. No one had.

I let all of this go, confident that – as no one could produce any such evidence at any time – it would have to die down. The idea that, while holding a senior position in journalism and writing books, columns and articles, I’d manage to make 130,000 Wikipedia edits while my colleagues never once spotted me doing it is so absurd as to be laughable. Or at least it would be if there weren’t a victim of this smear campaign. But there is: not me, but Mr Cross, who has been dreadfully traduced.

And it did die down, until last month. Quite suddenly, a two-person pressure group calling itself Media Lens published an article on social media reprising the whole daft conspiracy theory all over again. It included the tweet I’ve quoted from Hayward. Rather incriminatingly, I noted from a Twitter account that tracks politicians’ deleted tweets that Galloway immediately afterwards discreetly deleted his retweet of Hayward’s comment. I can hazard a guess why. He knew it couldn’t stand up, and he’d been reminded of it by Media Lens’s article. He presumably hoped I wouldn’t notice, but I did.

I took the view at this point that if Hayward’s comment was going to persist in cyberspace then it was a different matter from run-of-the-mill conspiracy theorists. A range of pro-Assad activists, including those exposed by The Times, had drearily repeated ad nauseam the charge that I was Philip Cross or was controlling him. They included the hoariest deniers of Assad’s and Putin’s crimes, including (though you won’t know their names, they are given plenty of exposure on Russian state propaganda) Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett.

Nothing they, or two blokes portentously calling themselves Media Lens, can say about me is of moment, as these are obscure campaigners of obviously extremist views who don’t get access to serious discussions of foreign policy. But Hayward is a professor at a leading university (one where, as it happens, a friend of mine – one of the world’s leading scholars of linguistics – is also a professor). I emailed him to request that he retract his tweet. I made it explicit that, if he was not minded to do this, I would take no action to make him – but I thought it an obviously right course and (naively) that he’d actually wish to do it. I pointed out that Galloway had already discreetly rowed back from Hayward’s falsehoods.

Hayward deleted the tweet (which I hadn’t asked for) but was evasive when I pointed out this wasn’t the same as retracting a falsehood that has been widely republished. We didn’t get anywhere. On the contrary, to my astonishment he speculated, with regard to me, that Mr Cross had certain personal circumstances (which I won’t disclose) that made him “vulnerable to manipulation – even ‘grooming’ – by people they regard as friends”.

This revolting remark was appended with a request that “particularly after your stunt in The Times in April”, I be “more respectful” towards him, along with a warm tribute to himself that he is “so humane and non-vindictive… qualities you may not be very familiar with”.

What can you say? It’s clear that Professor Hayward, at a minimum, has no idea how newspapers work, and is querulous, credulous and intellectually insecure (for no one who commands respect needs to ask that it be extended to them).

But, at that moment, I recognised a subculture that has a small but vital place in the literature. In his classic essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (1966), Richard Hofstadter wrote of a type of politics marked by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy”, where “the feeling of persecution is central, and it is indeed systematised in grandiose theories of conspiracy”.

That’s where we are in the era of fake news. Because it’s impossible to prove the non-existence of a conspiracy, those who exhibit the paranoid style (meant in a non-clinical sense) will hold on to the near-millenarian hope that they will be vindicated in perceiving one. They won’t, but this won’t deter them, and in the meantime the organs of Russian state propaganda will give them a modest megaphone (that is, tiny viewing figures but the patina of media coverage).

Though I don’t know him, I profoundly hope that Mr Cross’s appalling experience is now over. I thought hard about writing this essay and I sought his permission to do so. Had he not given it, I wouldn’t have written it. For me, I’m unscathed but it’s an experience that others, far more famous and eminent than I, are sure to go through too.

I have occasionally wondered whether the point of it was to psychologically break me. It’s on the public record (I’ve written about it) that I suffered a few years ago from prolonged and severe mental illness. I see a clinical psychologist regularly to ensure that my thinking remains free of that type of cognitive sickness. But right in the middle of the social media campaign I’ve outlined, I suddenly wondered if, in fact, what they were saying might be true – whether I really had done 130,000 Wikipedia edits, often on subjects I have no interest in, and had no recollection of them at all.

This fantastical delusion passed within an afternoon, but I found myself repeating the cry of the protagonist in Evelyn Waugh’s novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold: “O let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven.”

Oliver Kamm writes for The Times.