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Under The Radar – 24 December

Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

This week, we discuss:

  1. Biden’s dismal end to his first year as President

  2. Mali’s fallout with France & their pivot to a Russian mercenary group

  3. TikTok becomes the world’s most popular website

Dismal end to Biden’s first year in the White House

What happened?

US Democratic Senator Joe Manchin dealt a significant blow to President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda by announcing he would not support the $1.75tn Build Back Better Act.

What does it mean?

Biden’s administration was hoping to end a mixed year on a high by signing his signature bill: the Build Back Better Act. The legislation would make unprecedented investments into childcare, healthcare and climate initiatives at a time when the pandemic still wreaks havoc throughout society and climate action is the buzzword of the year.

However, when a member of your own party rebels against you and leaves next-to-no room for negotiation, the optics are less than optimal, and moreover, the chances of the bill passing are even less due to the 50-50 split in the Senate. Should the Senate Democratic Leadership push ahead with a vote, the risk of further discord between the left and centre of the party is greatly increased as well as the dilution of the bill itself.

This is not a position Biden wants to find himself in heading into the midterms next year. Not only will he have failed to deliver on key election promises, but amidst this factionalism he will likely lose control of Congress and take a significant dent to his reputation as a bipartisan deal maker. Regardless of whether it’s Trump or a different Republican nominee, his opponents will have relished this week’s events.

There is one option left in Biden’s arsenal; using the power of the executive pen, as Trump did a number of times, to enact immediate change. Whether or not Biden ditches his preference for bipartisanship in favour of executive power remains unknown, but it may be a last resort to rescue his Presidency.

Fallout with France turns Mali to Russian mercenary group

What happened?

The Malian government has turned to Kremlin-linked mercenaries due to France’s failure to eradicate the threat from jihadist groups, with violence spreading to Burkina Faso and Niger and millions being displaced across the Sahel.

What does it mean?

This is yet another example of the declining influence of Western powers in their former colonies and the opportunities it provides to illiberal regimes. Unable to quell jihadist violence, the French have been criticised for worsening a conflict that began in 2013 and inadvertently pushing Mali towards the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary outfit headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch who also runs Russia’s Western disinformation factory, the Internet Research Agency.

This power shift is a result of France’s misguided focus on combating the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) rather than al-Qaeda linked groups (JNIM), even though JNIM account for about 90 percent of jihadist activity in the region. This has baffled the Malians, who have been further disillusioned by a French air strike that is alleged by the UN to have killed 19 civilians.

But one French source suggests their withdrawal is linked to the Malian government, who having taken power through a coup-d’etat, is breaking their commitment to hold elections in February. This would also explain Mali’s shift to Russia, who have close ties to other authoritarian regimes.

Macron’s desire to break with Françafrique not only opens the door to further Russian influence in Africa, but at a time of heightened tension over potential conflict in Ukraine, Putin will be emboldened by the continued withdrawal of Western powers on the global stage.

TikTok overtakes Google as world’s most popular website

What happened? TikTok, the short-form video app, has overtaken Google as the world’s most popular website.

Even though Google owns a variety of popular domains (including Maps, Mail and Translate), the Chinese owned social media site has surpassed its US rivals during the pandemic.

What does it mean?

Viral entertainment on TikTok’s platform has spread like wildfire in the era of isolation and online friends. And whilst Google continues to offer many of the products that support remote working, TikTok’s rise to the top suggests that content is king.

But more crucially, these latest figures underline why TikTok receives such special treatment back home. Unlike other consumer tech companies in China, such as Alibaba, TikTok has not had its wings clipped by the Chinese government, who are clamping down on the consumer tech industry in a concerted effort to push China’s best and brightest towards more strategically important tech industries, like battery and small chip production.

But with so many global users – now believed to be over one billion per month – TikTok is a vital soft power asset for China. With the ability to collect vast quantities of data from a wide variety of users, China’s intelligence services will be well equipped to step up its global disinformation efforts in order to manipulate foreign elections and sow discord, should they choose to do so.

Many in the West have voiced concerns regarding this issue, but so far, no country has followed in India’s footsteps by banning the app. Given that Facebook, Twitter and Google have long been excluded from the Chinese market, there may be some stronger lobbying efforts to convince the US and its allies to engage in some tit for tat.

This week’s must reads:

  1. “North-South antipathies endure around the world” in The Economist

  2. “Liz Truss: the new Iron Lady?” by Charlotte Edwardes for The Times

  3. “Sturgeonomics would have crashed an independent Scotland” by John Ferry for The Spectator

  4. “Americans lose faith in Facebook and other Big Tech” by Hugh Tomlinson for The Times

Chart of the week:

Hannah Ritchie (2021) – “Climate change and flying: what share of global CO2 emissions come from aviation?”. Published online at Retrieved from: ‘’ [Online Resource]


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