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Charlie Mitchell: High international intrigue visits Mississippi towns

 

Charlie Mitchell

 

 

OXFORD -- What do Oxford and Starkville have in common? Both were -- or almost were -- players in determining the future of the European Union, thereby exerting influence over some of the largest and oldest economies in the world. 

 

A lawsuit in England says Ole Miss and Mississippi State were -- or might have been -- venues in a high drama with truly global consequences. 

 

For those familiar with the narrative that suspects President Trump sought or simply used aid from Russia to get elected, the story is similar: Sneaky mass manipulation. 

 

First, some terms: 

 

  • "Brexit," as it came to be known, references the June 2016 referendum by which British voters narrowly opted to leave the European Union effective next March. (Actually, the vote was in the entire United Kingdom, but it was British voters, as opposed to those in Scotland and Northern Ireland, who tipped the balance.) 

     

  • The European Union, for those who need a refresher, dates to 1993 when 28 nations on the same continent decided to streamline. They initiated a unified currency (the euro), merged a bunch of operational policies and removed several barriers. Some said it was as if a United States of Europe had been created, and that was pretty close to accurate. 

     

    It was the considered opinion of former British Prime Minister David Cameron that an end should be put to grumbling about how the United Kingdom, with its large and fairly solid economy, was being stifled by stragglers such as Greece that couldn't pay their bills. Cameron sought an affirmation vote to stay in the EU-- but it turned out the other way. 

     

    Was something afoot? 

     

    Don't know for sure, but that's what the lawsuit alleges. 

     

    The plaintiffs are a group known as Fair Vote Project. They contend British voters were mind-gamed -- not just given bad information. They name their nemesis as Arron Banks who funded much of the campaign. 

     

    As it happens, the international press identifies Banks and Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant as besties along with another Brexit advocate, Nigel Farage. The bond is reported to have begun at the 2016 Republican National Convention. From thence, it appears Bryant courted Banks and Farage while Banks and Farage courted Bryant. 

     

    It is known that Banks and Farage provided a lot of money to the Leave EU campaign and the Leave EU was fined 70,000 pounds (the British kept their currency and didn't adopt the euro) for "multiple breaches of electoral rules." 

     

    Back to Bryant. It's a governor's job -- and this one takes it seriously -- to court investment. Bryant squired Banks around the state -- took him to an Ole Miss football game. It's not hard to imagine Bryant saying, "Hey, look. We've got computer people at Mississippi State and Ole Miss who can do anything you need. Spend your money here." 

     

    The problem is that harvesting and using private information gathered through whatever people place on the internet requires explicit permission under British law. No such permission has been required in the United States (as yet). The suit contends there was (1) a purposeful intent to evade British law by (2) having experts in Starkville and Oxford gather information to create psychographic profiles of British voters and (3) using that information to dupe them. The term "brainwash" comes to mind. 

     

    Bryant is not a defendant, but the lawsuit says more offices than the governor's became involved in romancing the investment through companies doing business as Eldon Insurance and Big Data Dolphins. Bryant's office has confirmed that $100,000 in public money was approved to support the venture, but was never awarded. It doesn't appear that Mississippi State or Ole Miss personnel or computers did any actual work or had any idea what they were being asked to do. The plaintiffs believe otherwise, and allege a coverup. 

     

    Dastardly deeds. 

     

    Fear not, Cambridge Analytica of Facebook fame, Facebook and even President Trump are players in the broader narrative which is long and complex. 

     

    The full story may never be known, but think about this: If the plaintiffs are right and the as-yet unlikely outcome is that the Brexit vote is invalidated, then Mississippi at least had a bit role in the most impactful economic event of the century. 

     

    If there's a lesson in all this it's that impoverished states should not be too eager. Mississippi is not in a position to closely vet or reject potential investors. But going all in for anyone who dangles a dollar can lead to real scandal and, in some cases, be hurtful to the state's people, institutions and reputation. 

     

    Charlie Mitchell is an associate dean of journalism at the University of Mississippi. Email reaches him at [email protected]

     

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