Monthly Archives: January 2014

Syria As the Prototype for the Loss of Democratic Freedoms

In a recent Wall Street Journal article Puddington and Kramer reported that there has been a decline around the world in political rights and civil liberties as measured by Freedom House. True enough, the measurement of these things is not an exact science but Freedom House does a decent job of identifying key variables and definitions correlated with cultures that privilege democracy and civil liberties. After some years of improvement because of democratization around the world the general trends have been in decline. The authors report that 54 countries had registered declines in political rights and only 40 registered gains.

The reasons for these declines are interesting and the current conflict in Syria poses a particularly fitting example. The case of Syria is a typical model of authoritarianism that holds its power for a period of time through force and intimidation and then loses that power to violence and revolution (think Egypt, Tunisia, Libya). But even more interestingly the earliest mistakes are confusing violence with politics; that is, organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood or any other anti-government faction resorts to violence because there are no legitimate outlets of political expression and change. There’s a rather simple video you can watch which lays out the structure of the conflict in Syria and is actually a model for many other places. The video is brief and simple but is a template for any number of political situations. It is called “Syria explained in five minutes.” The decline in political freedoms is correlated with the political processes on display in the video.

Many of the losses of political freedom are associated with efforts to sabotage the Arab Spring. Religion and illiberal factions are reinforced for damaging democratic gains. And there is the very damaging influence of outside powers that imagine democratic gains as contrary to their own interests. Hence, countries like Russia, Iran, and Venezuela have conspired to keep Assad in power. Moreover, the Middle East is no longer the worst scoring region of the world when it comes to measurements of freedom. Russia has increased the intensity with which it silences groups, denies rights to nontraditional groups such as gays and lesbians, and uses its oil clout to interfere with any political process that is contrary to its interests. Russia cracks down on NGOs, civil rights activists, journalists, and any political opponent who poses a real challenge.

Russia, China, and Venezuela light the way for authoritarian governments that dominate media, security, as well as legislative and judicial branches of government. They do this mostly by blindly supporting centralized authoritarian governments such as the military government in Egypt or of course Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Syrian opposition to Assad is highly fractionated and is composed of the Free Syrian Army (deserters from Assad’s army), numerous Islamic groups from more extreme (e.g., “Battalion of Truth”,), to less extreme (Liwa al-Tawhid “Battalion of Monotheism”). There are Kurdish groups and independent groups not to mention attempts to form organizations that are more inclusive such as the “National Coalition.”

Clearly, the aggressiveness of extremist Islamic groups keep democratic pressures at bay and their presence in places like Syria will prevent democratization for a generation to come. And, finally, perhaps even more disturbing is the paralysis of places like the United States. We have said little and played an insignificant role in Syria because there’s no group to identify with and support. Secretary of State Kerry has worked to broker discussion at the macro level but the US is less engaged then countries like Russia and Iran. This can’t be good.

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Ariel Sharon: Tough Guy

For many people interspersed throughout the politics of the Middle East defending Ariel Sharon is an impossible task. Even bypassing for the moment those who considered him a “war criminal” and an aggressive and narrow minded defender of settlements, Sharon attracts a lot of emotional attention. He is easy to demonize and has been treated with more than his share of abuse and vitriol. He has been portrayed with swastikas and Nazi symbols of all sorts. Characterizing him as a hook-nosed version of Fagan or Shylock is routine for many media outlets.

I accept that Sharon was a tough guy who was a staunch defender of his country and took little reproach from anyone. But a closer look at historical events reveals that he’s been treated pretty unfairly. Again, I would not deny that Sharon was willing to do what he considered necessary but it is interesting to note how the truth or any justifiable interpretation about Sharon has drifted over time. There are three occurrences most associated with Sharon’s reputation for violence. They are the attack on the village Qibya, the second intifada, and the attack on Sabra and Shatila refugee camps. Let’s strike up a little history lesson.

In 1953 Sharon formed a military unit that carried out attacks on Arab villages in retribution for the murder of Israelis. In the village of Qibya he and his unit blew up houses and killed 69 people. Most reports describe this as a mistake and certainly not part of Israeli policy. The attack on Qibya was condemned by Israeli authorities. Moreover describing what Sharon and his unit did as reprisals implies that this was government policy and uncontrolled violence. At the time Israel was responding to the fedayeen who were terrorists no different than today’s terrorists. Israel had a right to defend itself. But the forces around the Sharon’s violent image were building and the Qibya incident simply laid the foundation for future charges.

The Sabra and Shatila incident is most associated with Sharon’s reputation for violence and aggressive reprisal. Sabra and Shatila were Palestinian refugee camps that were the home to various terrorist groups. Those who are truly ignorant of the facts believe Sharon and the Israelis massacred hundreds of Palestinian refugees. But, of course, it was the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia who carried out the massacre. It was considered revenge killing for the assassination of the Lebanese president in a car bomb. Still, Sharon was blamed for “letting it happen.” Sharon had allowed the Phalange to enter the camp because they were supposed to be administrative changes of sorts. Sharon made mistakes and probably should’ve known what sort of violence was about to take place when the Phalange entered the camp. But it remains the case that he was regularly defamed and treated in a very discriminatory manner over the years by a constant drumbeat claiming that he “intended” to kill civilians.

Finally, Sharon was blamed for an intense outburst of violence in the year 2000 because he visited the Temple Mount. This was described as highly provocative and sparking the Palestinians anger because of the holy nature of the Temple Mount. Of course, the Temple Mount is equally as holy to Jews as it is to Muslims and even from a legal administrative standpoint Sharon had a “right” to go there. But, it is true enough, that Sharon visiting the Temple Mount was going to be extremely provocative and one wishes he had exercised more discretion. Yet again, Sharon was painted with a broad brush blaming him for the entire Second Intifada. More than a few Palestinians later explained that the Intifada had been planned for some time and that the violence resulting from Sharon’s visit could have been stopped by the Palestinians at any time. Arafat was more interested in provoking the Israelis than anything else.

Ariel Sharon was a magnet for misdirection and misinterpretation of issues. The reporting about him was often strongly biased and never missed a chance to blame him for something. But even though Sharon supported settlement development and was the father of many current Israeli problems, he will also be remembered in history as one of the “fathers” of the state of Israel.

Three Important Studies in Digital Media and Politics

Below are summaries of 3 studies that represent trends and progress in digital media and politics. They are of particular interest and represent highlights from 2013. More details are available from the Shorenstein Center.

The first study demonstrates empirically that the global village is increasingly a reality. Most twitter contributions are beyond the local geography and represent a new pattern of interaction.

“Mapping the Global Twitter Heartbeat: The Geography of Twitter” Study from the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, published in First Monday. By Kalev Leetaru, Shaowen Wang, Guofeng Cao, Anand Padmanabhan, and Eric Shook.

One of the most comprehensive assessments to date about the effect of new technologies on human communications worldwide, this study examined patterns among more than 1.5 billion tweets from 70 million users over a one-month period in late 2012. It provides empirical evidence that the world is indeed shrinking: “There appears to be only weak geographic affinity in communicative link formation in that users retweet and reference users far away nearly as often as they do those physically proximate to them.” Further, on average people tweet news that happens locally and news about far-away events with about equal frequency. Twitter is “not simply a mirror of mainstream media” and has its own distinct conversational dynamics. The data also show that significant portions of the “world’s most influential Twitter users” were in places such as Indonesia, Western Europe, Africa and Central America. The overall takeaway is that where we live is beginning to matter less in terms of our knowledge, interests and social networks: “Geographic proximity is found to play a minimal role both in who users communicate with and what they communicate about, providing evidence that social media is shifting the communicative landscape.” – See more at: http://journalistsresource.org/studies/society/news-media/digital-media-scholarship-dozen-highlights-2013#sthash.AtZXGfyh.dpuf
The study below demonstrates that incivility online damages  expert credibility  and distorts the communication process. The study was responsible for a magazine shutting down its comments section.

“The ‘Nasty Effect’: Online Incivility and Risk Perceptions of Emerging Technologies” From George Mason University and University of Wisconsin-Madison, published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. By Ashley A. Anderson, Dominique Brossard, Dietram A. Scheufele, Michael A. Xenos, and Peter Ladwig.

The study, published in February, has the distinction of being one of the few to actually help change editorial policy this year at a publication. Popular Science cited the study in its announcement that it was shutting down its comments section to push back against a perceived “war on expertise.” There remained some controversy, however, about whether the study’s conclusions were broad enough to justify that editorial decision. The researchers used online surveys with embedded experiments to test how people responded to articles about nanotechnology; some were accompanied by nasty comments, others not. The study’s findings suggest that “impolite and incensed blog comments can polarize online users based on value predispositions utilized as heuristics when processing the blog’s information.” Further, the researchers note, “The effects of online, user-to-user incivility on perceptions towards emerging technologies may prove especially troublesome for science experts and communicators that rely on public acceptance of their information. The effects of online incivility may be even stronger for more well-known and contentious science issues such as the evolution vs. intelligent design debate or climate change.” – See more at: http://journalistsresource.org/studies/society/news-media/digital-media-scholarship-dozen-highlights-2013#sthash.AtZXGfyh.dpuf

The third study is an interesting and important summary of the role of the Internet and political campaigns

“The Internet and American Political Campaigns” From George Washington University, published in The Forum. By David Karpf. (Pre-print open version here.)

Part of a growing cohort of academics pioneering the subfield of online politics, Karpf provides a short, useful summary of the state of research in this area. For journalists, the works cited page alone is a valuable who’s who — fill up that contact list for campaigns 2014 and 2016 — but the narrative also underscores some basic truths: The web has not changed many forms of participatory inequality; polarizing candidates frequently win the small donations race; the “culture of testing” and analytics are changing how campaigns allocate resources; liberals and conservatives typically use technology differently for campaigns. One striking insight: “We are potentially moving from swing states to swing individuals, employing savvy marketing professionals to attract these persuadables and mobilize these supporters with little semblance of the slow, messy deliberative practices enshrined in our democratic theories.” But definitive answers remain elusive on many other fronts. “There is still, frankly, a lot that we do not know,” Karpf writes. For more insights in this area, see Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s response, “Messaging, Micro-Targeting and New Media Technologies.” – See more at: http://journalistsresource.org/studies/society/news-media/digital-media-scholarship-dozen-highlights-2013#sthash.AtZXGfyh.dpuf

End the Year with Top Biased Photos

Let’s return to the issue of biased images. Click on the link below and check out some of the most biased and obviously manipulated images – not necessarily from the previous year – and think a little bit more about how to protect yourself from such manipulation.

Photo Bias in the media.

You can see that there are essentially four strategies  to manipulating images.  The  first is termed  deliberate staging.  This is pretty self-explanatory and refers to  using objects to increase the emotional intensity of the message  or stimulate a particular conclusion that might not be warranted otherwise.  It represents a blatant lie  and the crude manipulation of an image by placing objects  in the image that were not there in the  first lace.  The  second strategy is called fauxtography.  This is making something look like a photograph that really is not.  So you can see in the one image how  a fired missile was captured on  the computer and reproduced  to make it look like another missile was fired and increase the impression of  military might and  competence.  This is particularly simple in the era of  computer photography and Photoshop. The  third way to manipulate images is through  perspective and angles.  Close-up shots of  a few hands make it look like there are more people present  then in actuality.  Wide-angle shots give a different perspective than  narrow angle shots.  Finally,  visual images can be recycled or reused.  Pictures of injured  or dead soldiers can be simply reused  in order to make the scene appear more emotional or communicative  of violence than actually occurred.

The ethics of digital manipulation of the news in particular are clear – it is unacceptable. There are debates about photo manipulation with respect to aesthetics or beauty. I have encountered the argument that enhancing beauty or engaging in numerous manipulations for the purpose of aesthetic enhancement only is acceptable. I can accept that. It is not very troubling that a movie star on the front of a magazine has blemishes removed and positive highlights. But a “news” story that is supposed to be telling some semblance of the truth is a different matter.

I have encountered the argument that enhancing a photograph through any of the four methods described above, for the purpose of what the perpetrator considers increased clarity and specificity, is acceptable. So, if a building is blown up and some children are killed then placing a baby’s toy in the center of the image enhances the significant emotional truth of the story. This is, of course, a weak argument that is dangerous since its acceptance justifies any sort of manipulation. Moreover, even if children were killed in an explosion there are numerous emotional and political issues that would be forced to the background because of an individual’s doctoring of the image. And although such an argument has been made is accepted by no reliable or trustworthy news organization.

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