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Internet scammers and political tricksters

Sep 29,2023 - Last updated at Sep 29,2023


LONDON — I am not proud of this, but like many others, I have fallen victim to an online scam. This has never happened to me before, and the experience left me feeling so ashamed that I told very few people about it.

To be sure, I am far from alone in this. Nearly 43 million people in the United Kingdom have encountered suspected internet scams. While not all of them have been duped in the same way I was, millions have been, and often at great cost. Recognising the prevalence of such scams, the British government recently introduced legislation aimed at mitigating the risks of online fraud. In the United States alone, an estimated one in ten adults falls victim to online scams while more than a million children have their identities stolen annually.

As we get older, many of us become increasingly vulnerable to online fraud due to unfamiliarity with the digital world and our inherent charitable tendencies. In my case, I fell for one of the oldest scams on the Internet: I received a message from someone claiming to be the teenage child of one of my friends, saying she had been robbed in Cairo and had no money. She asked for my help to get out of this predicament. Naively, I sent a modest sum using my bank card. Fortunately, when my wife discovered this and pointed out that I had been conned, I promptly updated all the information on my card to prevent any unauthorised use.

The reason I make this embarrassing confession is that it sheds light on how, in recent years, various political leaders have managed to avoid taking responsibility for promoting policies that ultimately revealed themselves to be based on fraudulent promises and blatant mendacity.

In his recent book, Big Caesars and Little Caesars, Ferdinand Mount compellingly explores the ways in which tyrants and contemporary authoritarian leaders have evaded accountability for their deceptions and ascended to the pinnacles of power. Although Mount refrains from drawing direct parallels between the strongmen whose political trajectories he examines, he underscores the shared tactics and strategies they used to seize and hold on to power. From historical figures like Julius Caesar and Napoleon to present-day rulers, these bullies have often cast themselves as heroes within largely fabricated accounts of recent events.

Julius Caesar, for example, is known to have embellished accounts of his campaign in Gaul, overstating his military achievements and downplaying his brutal treatment of the Gallic tribes. Similarly, Napoleon’s heroic image was built on a partially fabricated narrative. Nowadays, such image manipulation is often the work of spin doctors.

Drawing parallels to the present day, one might ask how nationalist charlatans like former US president Donald Trump and former UK prime minister Boris Johnson evade responsibility for their policies’ disastrous consequences.

Trump has based his presidential campaign on the assertion that President Joe Biden stole the previous election from him, claiming that he was on the path to making America great again when his Democratic opponents cheated their way to victory at the polls. By portraying himself as a victim of political fraud, Trump has gained momentum in his pursuit of a White House comeback.

Johnson, for his part, clinched the Conservative Party’s leadership and ascended to the role of prime minister by spearheading (and winning) the campaign to withdraw the UK from the European Union. During the subsequent negotiations, he prioritised a quick Brexit, bypassing parliamentary scrutiny, over securing the best possible terms from what was always likely to be a lousy deal.

According to the Brexiteers, especially Johnson, the UK was going to reclaim its sovereignty and exit the EU as quickly as possible. There would be no delays. The deal they envisioned was going to transform Britain into Singapore on the Thames, making it a more formidable player on the world stage than it ever was as a member of the EU.

The reality, as the British public is now coming to realize, has been markedly different. Instead of making the UK economically and politically stronger, Brexit has exacerbated the country’s economic woes and eroded its global standing.

This is hardly surprising, given that Brexit meant erecting trade barriers between Britain and its largest market. Quitting the EU has probably knocked 4 per cent off our GDP and resulted in the executive branch, rather than our elected Parliament, seizing control over critical areas such as environmental regulation and food safety. Observing the rising number of illegal immigrants crossing the English Channel in makeshift boats, one cannot help but wonder what happened to the enhanced sovereignty that the government assured us Brexit would bring.

At long last, public opinion seems to have shifted, with many Britons now finally recognising that Brexit was a disaster. But why did this realisation take so long? I suspect that voters were reluctant to acknowledge that they had been duped, just as many of us are afraid to reveal that we have fallen for internet scams. Admitting to being deceived, whether by online crooks or political tricksters, is never easy. But in both cases, owning up to our mistakes is a crucial step toward ensuring that it does not happen again.


Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is chancellor of the University of Oxford and the author of “The Hong Kong Diaries” (Allen Lane, 2022). Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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