Police infiltration of political groups deemed dangerous or subversive by the state political establishment is nothing new. It is well known that between 1970 and 2007 the police in Britain had infiltrated left-wing political groups like the Socialist Workers Party, employing up to 24 full-time undercover officers to work within the groups for the purposes of gathering intelligence and to act as agents provocateurs. We know the British secret service has bugged the constituency and Westminster offices of politicians and political parties thought to pose a risk to the status quo, parties like the Scottish National Party, Sinn Féin, and Plaid Cymru.
Politicians not belonging to establishment parties are all too aware of this behaviour. Recently, when a former SNP MP wished to speak with me, he asked if we could use WhatsApp rather than talking on a regular phone line because “that’s a little more secure.” We have to doubt that it is, in fact, safe from government intelligence, but at least it betrayed his awareness of the activities of the state. The reality is that the clandestine services are interested in and keep a close eye on any political organisations which do not have the integrity of the state at heart.
Organisations and movements have always been vulnerable to snooping and infiltration, and this is so because they are formed of groups of people. They are wide open to agents of the state joining under false pretences and false identities. Individual members of the group can be compromised, using any number of incentives and coercions, so as to act as agents for the state. But, and especially in the age of the internet, the state has a little more difficulty policing less organised movements, and even more trouble policing isolated individuals like bloggers and other online activists who have influence over the movement to which they are attached.
One method it has developed is to use thousands of state-funded “trolls” – usually funded through government-aligned Public Relations firms – to astroturf the online presence of the movement. Posing as an army of individual grassroots movement members, they work to undermine the core message of the movement, sow doubt in the arguments of the movements’ influencers, and manufacture a negative image of the movement for the government-aligned media to “expose” and thereby damage the public image of the movement and its objectives. The over-all aim of this project is to neutralise the threat posed to the status quo by an otherwise uncontrollable mass movement.
As is always the case, the closer one is to the political establishment, the safer one is from state and media attack. We see examples of this from the British state broadcaster all the time; non-establishment politicians and activists are smeared while their every infraction is blown up out of proportion, while – no matter how criminal their behaviour – the establishment politicians and activists are shielded by the state media and the rest of the political and policing establishment. This is the purpose of the state-aligned media.
Every so often, however, a political activist – typically acting alone, like a blogger or a social media user – cannot be reached by the easy intelligence of the security services or convincingly smeared or destroyed by the state-aligned media. This has become typical of the internet age, and governments around the world are scrambling to bring their policing and intelligence operations up to speed with the new realities. It is at this point the government relies on old-school, more visible and more forceful political policing. Any suspicion – no matter how spurious – will be used by the authorities to call the individual in for questioning. When suspicion cannot be found or convincingly manufactured, then other – more extreme – legislation is employed by the police, such as, in the United Kingdom, the 2000 Terrorism Act. Under such emergency powers a person may be detained without charge or arrest for significant periods for the purposes of interrogation and intelligence gathering.
The detainee need not be actually suspected of involvement in terrorism or any form of criminality, making such legislation a god-send for political policing. “Persons of interest” to the state may be routinely stopped, searched, interrogated, and significantly inconvenienced in their lawful and rightful business. The warrantless search of any and all documents, phones, and electronic devices gives the police and the intelligence services access to activists’ private lives and to all their activist contacts – thus widening the net to encapsulate other persons of interest. The state then has the power and the information to – in collusion with the media and other non-state agents – publicly attack and smear perfectly innocent political activists.
In acting in this manner, the “democratic state” protects the status quo by discouraging peaceful and democratic political activism that does not conform to the hegemonic standards of the state. The state maintains the perception of democracy and openness by using powerful legislation designed to deal with real threats to security in order to intimidate and harass those it cannot reach through the surveillance skills it usually deploys against organisations and political parties. Any reasonable assessment of this activity must find it to be a real and present danger to freedom and democracy and a fundamental challenge to our human, civil, and political rights. In fact, this is the mechanism of a functioning tyranny behind the guise of a faux democracy.