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  • Mike

Passport to Influence

I applied to renew my passport this week. I hope it comes soon because this morning I read that Passport Office workers will begin strike action on April 3.


t’s not just that a passport will give me freedom to travel abroad but from 4 May in this country we will need photo ID to vote in elections. If you don’t have a passport or driving licence, you are in danger of being disenfranchised. That could deprive many of their right to influence public life in some small but real way, especially young people - student cards are not acceptable, but bus passes are - and members of ethnic minorities who statistically are less likely to have either passports or driving licences. This move will favour the ruling political party.

Nowadays you make a good living by being an ‘influencer’. It involves endorsements by celebrities and product placement in various forms of social media like Instagram. Some ‘influencers’ like Cristiano Ronaldo and Kim Kardashian have millions of followers. Many make a lucrative career of it.

That may – or may not – be all well and good. But there is a still more sinister form of influencing behaviour at work than that. Nobel Peace laureate Maria Ressa has made it her life work to combat it. She is a Filipino-American and spent her early career as a probing investigative reporter. As she confronted waves of misinformation, in 2012 she founded Rappler, an online news site based in the Philippines designed to promote freedom of expression and expose fake news. This has made her a good many enemies not least the violent and ruthless Rodrigo Duterte, the president there until 2022. She was imprisoned in June 2020 for alleged ‘cyberlibel’, that is for daring to express criticism of his government.

Ressa has a number of serious concerns.

The first is that her beloved Philippines is a major centre of algorithm activity in the world. What happens there in large tech centres may affect what comes up on your screen when you are on a social media website. Your choices are being influenced from afar. You cannot stop such activity but you can be aware of it.

The second is that freedom of expression and responsible independent journalism are the foundation of healthy democracy and a lasting peace. And there are powerful people in the world who wish to undermine both.

Third, and most urgently, is that in the next 12-18 months there are very important elections due to take place in USA, UK, France, India, Brazil, South Korea and the Philippines. These countries are all powerful players in world politics for various reasons. Not only that but what happens there inevitably affects what happens here. We are not a small island anchored peacefully off the north coast of Europe.

Keep an eye out for Maria Ressa – she is a remarkable woman. And keep an eye on the Rappler website if you want some balance to your usual news sources

Extraordinarily enough, while I've been writing, the postman has just come with my new passport – I only submitted the application on Tuesday! I am now free not only to travel but to vote for freedoms to be protected at all costs.

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