Russia’s manipulation of Germany’s refugee problems

Judy Dempsey writes: Russia’s propaganda machine—which went full blast against members of the Ukrainian government during the Ukraine crisis, labeling them fascists and anti-Semites—is in full swing again. This time, the target is Germany, once considered Russia’s closest ally in Europe.

Ever since Chancellor Angela Merkel declared her intention to allow refugees from Syria to enter Germany, the Russian media have been reporting every twist and turn of the opposition that is building up in her conservative bloc and among sections of the German public to her open-door refugee policy.

But in recent days, the Russian state media, joined by none other than Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, have taken a different turn. They are tapping into Germany’s community of 1.2 million ethnic Russians to criticize Merkel’s policies and boost those who are unequivocally against Germany taking in refugees. The community is known for its conservative if not xenophobic views, as witnessed during demonstrations by Germany’s anti-Islam Pegida movement, in which ethnic Russians participate.

Now, Russia may be using Germany’s Russian-speaking community to create further opposition to Merkel, similar to the way it tries to instrumentalize the ethnic Russian communities in the Baltic states. Merkel is an easy target, certainly for many Russians living in Germany and for Russians back home. To the surprise and annoyance of the Kremlin, Merkel has managed to keep the EU united over maintaining sanctions on Russia after it annexed Crimea in March 2014 and subsequently invaded eastern Ukraine. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Pankaj Mishra on Arundhati Roy: Hindu nationalists ​have many ways to silence writers

Pankaj Mishra writes: he governments of Egypt and Turkey are brazenly leading a multi-pronged assault on writers, artists and intellectuals. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last month denounced his critics among Turkish academics as treasonous fifth columnists of foreign powers; many of them have been subsequently dismissed and suspended. Both Turkey and Egypt have imprisoned journalists, provoking international protests. But the suppression of intellectual and creative freedoms is assuming much cannier forms in India, a country with formal and apparently free democratic institutions.

Controlled by upper-caste Hindu nationalists, Indian universities have been purging “anti-nationals” from both syllabuses and campuses for some months now. In a shocking turn of events last month, Rohith Vemula, a PhD student in Hyderabad, killed himself. Accused of “anti-national” political opinions, the impoverished research scholar, who belonged to one of India’s traditionally and cruelly disadvantaged castes, was suspended, and, after his fellowship was cancelled, expelled from student housing. Letters from Modi’s government in Delhi to university authorities revealed that the latter were under relentless pressure to move against “extremist and anti-national politics” on campus. Vemula’s heartbreaking suicide note attests to the near-total isolation and despair of a gifted writer and thinker.

The extended family of upper-caste nationalists plainly aim at total domination of the public sphere. But they don’t only use the bullying power of the leviathan state – one quickly identified by local and foreign critics – to grind down their apparent enemies. They pursue them through police cases and legal petitions by private individuals – a number of criminal complaints have been filed against writers and artists in India. They create a climate of impunity, in which emboldened mobs ransack newspapers offices, art galleries and cinemas. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

‘All the News We Didn’t Print’: Anonymous group distributes parody New York Times

nyt-parody

Haaretz reports: An unidentified group claiming that the New York Times is guilty of bias against the Palestinians and in favor of Israel distributed a fake version of the daily newspaper with parodied content more to the group’s liking in Manhattan on Tuesday.

The mock newspaper, which is also available online and has its own Twitter account, is represented as an effort at reconsidering the Times’ coverage of Israel and the Palestinians over the past year. Presented in a design strikingly similar to the Times itself, the online version of the “supplement” is labeled “Rethinking Our 2015 Coverage on Israel-Palestine.” [Continue reading…]

To call this a “fake” edition is to imply it was intended to deceive readers into thinking it was the real thing. I doubt that was the intention of the producers; neither is it likely that many recipients of a free copy of the print edition failed to notice that stories such as Hillary Clinton’s departure from the presidential race were fictitious — especially since they actually referred to her as “Hilarity Clifton.”

If this is a piece of activism, why the anonymity? And why spend this amount of money on a stunt that will garner public attention for less than 48 hours?

Since The Yes Men did something very similar in 2008, some observers suggest they might be behind the current undertaking. Just as likely, they merely provided a model for imitation.

If triggering editorial reform in the newspaper was actually the goal, I would have thought a steady stream of genuine letters to the paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, might actually be more productive — even if they never yielded a news event.

Moreover, to characterize this stunt as “pro-Palestinian” sounds dubious. Among the range of issues confronting Palestinians, biased reporting in the New York Times probably doesn’t rank among their most pressing concerns.

facebooktwittermail

Google thinks it can combat terrorism with advertising

The Telegraph reports: Jihadi sympathisers who type extremism-related words into Google will be shown anti-radicalisation links instead, under a pilot scheme announced by the internet giant.

The new technology means people at risk of radicalisation will be presented with internet links which are the exact opposite of what they were searching for.

Dr Anthony House, a senior Google executive, revealed the pilot scheme in evidence to MPs scrutinising the role of internet companies in combating extremism.

“We are working on counter-narratives around the world. This year one of the things we’re looking at is we are running two pilot programmes,” said Dr House.

“One is to make sure these types of views are more discoverable.

“The other is to make sure when people put potentially damaging search terms into our search engine they also find these counter narratives.”

A Google spokeswoman said the pilot project referred to by Dr House would bring up counter-narrative messages in “AdWords” – the sponsored links which are returned at the top of a Google search – and not the search results themselves.

Dr House said later: “We offer Google AdWords Grants to NGOs so that meaningful counter-speech ads can be surfaced in response to search queries like ‘join Isis’.” [Continue reading…]

Let’s disregard the fact that would-be jihadists are just as likely as anyone else to use ad-blocking software. What are we to imagine the click-through rate will be for, let’s say, a Human Rights Watch ad that appears on a search page delivered on a query about the ISIS magazine, Dabiq?

Is Dr House serious? This sounds, more than anything, like a PR exercise for Google — a way of saying: we’re playing out part in combating terrorism.

Clearly, Google, like every other internet company, wants to be seen as being opposed to terrorism; not as a facilitator of terrorism through the creation of communications platforms — even though in reality these have become a vital tools in 21st century terrorism.

Terrorists are often credited with being able to stay one step ahead of their adversaries — as though this is an indication of their cunning. Unfortunately, more often it seems to be an indication that counter-terrorism is another name for easy money.

Anything can get funded on the smallest prospect it might be effective. Those who carry the burden that they must be seen to be doing something, can duly claim they are meeting their responsibilities as they approve almost anything.

Aside from the question of efficacy when it comes to Google’s strategy for presenting counter-narratives, just as importantly, we need to question the search engine’s ability to decipher the motives of its users, i.e it’s ability to accurately identify “dangerous searches.” After all, a query that indicates the malevolent intentions of one user, might from another user be an indication that they are a journalist or an academic. Search terms indicate what is sought but not necessarily why it is being sought.

Beyond that is the broader issue of the political and social manipulation that internet companies are engaged in when the services they provide are designed to modify the behavior of their users.

As Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Men have become the tools of their tools,” but it’s hard to grasp the degree to which, during the intervening 150 years, this has become so much more true.

Google might not have high expectations about its ability to limit the growth of ISIS through the use of adwords, yet it certainly has a huge interest in every branch of research through which it can refine the effectiveness of its primary revenue source by shaping our interests and desires.

facebooktwittermail

Google: Big bets on future tech are sign of an empire bidding for immortality

By Robert MacIntosh, Heriot Watt University

We have got used to Google as a massive global success story. But sometimes the detail is more interesting than the top line. On February 1 an announcement by the firm’s holding company Alphabet gave investors their first real insight into the relative performances of its different parts. And it revealed a lot about a section of the operation of which we previously knew very little – the large number of investments into technologies that are some distance from the core businesses.

We now know that these “moonshots”, as they have come to be known, produced an operating loss of $3.6bn (£2.5bn) in 2015. They lost $1.9bn in 2014 and $527m in 2013. You may have heard about the wearable technology or the driverless cars, but it goes much further than that. There is fibre-optic broadband, Indian railway wifi, thermostats, IP video cameras and solar-powered drones. Then there is Google’s X-lab. Initially shrouded in secrecy, it is now known to be working on everything from contact lenses for diabetics that can monitor glucose levels in tears, to nano-particles that will be able to predict disease.

The revelation about the losses didn’t stop Alphabet from replacing Apple as the most valuable company on the planet the day after the announcement. So what can we infer from its seemingly voracious appetite for newness?

[Read more…]

facebooktwittermail

From Iraq, general rebukes Ted Cruz’s plan to ‘carpet-bomb’ ISIS

The Washington Post reports: The top U.S. general in Iraq on Monday addressed recent political rhetoric in the presidential campaign that the United States should “carpet-bomb” the Islamic State, saying that the Pentagon is bound by the laws of armed conflict and does nt indiscriminately bomb civilian areas.

“We’re the United States of America, and we have a set of guiding principles and those affect the way we as professional soldiers, airmen, sailors, Marines, conduct ourselves on the battlefield,” MacFarland said. “So indiscriminate bombing, where we don’t care if we’re killing innocents or combatants, is just inconsistent with our values. And it’s what the Russians have been accused of doing in parts of northwest Syria. Right now we have the moral high ground, and I think that’s where we need to stay.”

The comments came in response to a question from CNN’s Barbara Starr during a Pentagon news conference. The general was asked why the military isn’t engaged in “so-called carpet-bombing,” a phrase that has been used often by presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R.-Tex.). [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Fight ISIS with democracy

Baghdadi

Rached Ghannouchi, co-founder and president of Tunisia’s Muslim democrats party, Ennahdha, writes: As more countries confront the question of how to counter terrorist groups like ISIS, it is clear that a short-term, reductionist approach focused largely on military force has proven ineffective. Efforts to dislodge the so-called Islamic State through bombing, and to keep it at bay by strengthening and equipping security forces in the places it operates, have so far had limited success despite their enormous financial costs.

This is because, although such efforts are critical, they are not sufficient. The rise of ISIS, and its ability to recruit from a region that just five years ago was swept by democratic hopes and aspirations, requires a global response that is informed by where the group came from. For such a response to work, I believe it must reflect five principles. These are based on Tunisia’s experience as the most successful democratic transition to emerge from the Arab uprisings, as well as my personal intellectual and political work in Tunisia and the Arab world over five decades.

First, there is no universal approach to tackling ISIS. Rather, the group can only be defeated through a variety of locally designed and targeted responses. Extremist groups like ISIS use technology and social networks to cross boundaries and attract recruits globally—but their discourse is linked to local grievances wherever they operate. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

How Saudi Arabia’s grip on oil prices could bring Russia to its knees

By James Henderson, University of Oxford

When Saudi Arabia led an OPEC decision to end a restraint put on oil production in November 2014, it marked the beginning of a new era in oil economics. It has given us a tumbling oil price, prompted huge losses and job cuts at oil firms like BP and might yet give us economic and political drama in the heart of Moscow. To understand why, it’s worth drilling down to the start of the whole process, and the costs of getting oil out of the ground in the first place.

Historically, the OPEC cartel of oil-producing nations has been able to manage oil prices because of the lack of flexibility in global supply. The whole business of setting up wells, operating pipelines and building rigs entails large and long-term investments which makes producers slow to respond to price movements. And a small cut in OPEC supply can have a significant impact on the global oil price.

The advent of the US shale oil boom changed this dynamic. The industry has lower fixed costs but higher variable costs and is more like an industrial process than a major one-off investment. That makes it more responsive to price movements and more flexible in adjusting short-term output.

Overall though, shale is a relatively high cost source of oil, especially compared to Middle East production. As a result, when US shale threatened OPEC’s market share, the cartel allowed a position of global oversupply to develop. It was a simple trick: make oil prices fall to make shale unprofitable.

[Read more…]

facebooktwittermail

Iran still ranks as one of the most repressive states in the world

In an editorial, The Guardian says: The government was probably looking for a public relations bonus in the west when it recently released a number of journalists, but the statistics tell another story: in 2015 Iran executed at least 830 people, including juveniles, many for non-violent crimes. The security services continue to harass and detain activists, writers and journalists. The methods used by the regime to crush the pro-democracy Green movement in 2009 are still very much in use today.

Nor has Iran become in any way more “moderate” in its behaviour in the Middle East. In Syria, Iran’s militias and Republican Guards are direct participants in the war crimes that the Assad regime inflicts on its own population. Iran’s close ally Hezbollah played a key role in the siege of Madaya, where children died of hunger as a result, and it is part of similar operations elsewhere.

It is to be hoped that a sustained implementation of the nuclear agreement will improve international security. But to draw from that the notion that Iran must now be spared any reproach would be foolish. Iran’s hardliners sought economic relief through the nuclear deal because they desperately want to keep their hold on power, not because they want to pursue a more democratic path at home or more rational policies abroad. Diplomacy is important, but it must not come at the expense of clearsightedness, nor should it be accompanied by the kind of simplistic analysis that puts the sole onus on Saudi Arabia rather than on Iran as far as human rights are concerned. The records of both countries are equally dismal. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Syrian refugee children subjected to forced labor and early marriage in Lebanon

Nick Grono writes: I met six-year-old Mustafa in the safe zone of one of the many tented settlements for Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley. These areas offer schooling, including art and music classes, for Syrian children. They provide a respite from the brutal realities of life as a refugee, which can involve back-breaking labour for children as young as six, and marriage for girls at the age of 13.

Mustafa told us that, after leaving class at midday, he would spend the afternoon carting bricks to earn a pittance for his family. One of his classmates, a seven-year-old girl, said she picks potatoes every afternoon – tough, physical work that involves constant bending while carrying a heavy load.

Officially, Lebanon is home to almost 1.2 million refugees, but unofficial estimates put it at more than 1.5 million. Given that its prewar population was just over 4 million, this is an overwhelming burden, one with which any government would struggle to cope.

Syrian refugees in Lebanon are highly vulnerable to exploitation. Most have little or no money, yet they have to pay landlords for the patches of land on which they erect their tents, and to supplement the meagre aid handouts they may be fortunate enough to receive. But the Lebanese government – keen to stop Syrians settling permanently in Lebanon – is preventing refugees from working or even residing legally in the country. It is refusing to issue work permits except in exceptional circumstances. And it is now very difficult for Syrians to obtain residency permits – a key obstacle being a $200 (£140) annual fee per adult refugee – meaning most are breaking the law simply by staying in the country (pdf).

This creates conditions ripe for abusive employers to exploit vulnerable refugees. Because they don’t have the necessary papers, refugees live in fear of coming into contact with the authorities, particularly at the many checkpoints throughout the country. As children are less likely to be stopped at checkpoints, they are forced to work in the fields or in nearby towns. Unscrupulous employers prefer them because they are more compliant, and more unwilling to complain about physical abuse. For this laborious and often hazardous work, they are paid a few dollars at most, a portion of which is often retained by the Syrian settlement leader. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Saudi Arabia: Palestinian poet sentenced to eight years in prison and 800 lashes for apostasy

The Guardian reports: A Saudi court has overturned the death sentence on a Palestinian poet accused of renouncing Islam, instead imposing an eight year prison term and 800 lashes.

The decision by a panel of judges came after Ashraf Fayadh’s lawyer argued that his conviction of apostasy was seriously flawed as he was denied a fair trial. In a briefing on the verdict, Fayadh’s lawyer said the new judgement revoked the death sentence but upheld that the poet was guilty of apostasy.

A memo written by the lawyer, posted by Abdulrahman al-Lahem on Twitter, describes the details of Fayadh’s new punishment. He is sentenced to eight years in prison and 800 lashes, with 50 lashes carried out on 16 occasions, and must also publicly renounce his poetry on Saudi state media.

Al-Lahem welcomed the overturning of the death sentence but reaffirmed Fayadh’s innocence and announced they would launch an appeal and ask for bail.

Adam Coogle, Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: “Instead of beheading Ashraf Fayadh, a Saudi court has ordered a lengthy imprisonment and flogging. No one should face arrest for peacefully expressing opinions, much less corporal punishment and prison. Saudi justice officials must urgently intervene to vacate this unjust sentence.” [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

How the Telegram messaging app is changing Iranian media

Saeid Jafari reports: “A grandson of the late founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran has been disqualified from running for the Assembly of Experts”; “The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has reached a deadlock”; “The bodybuilding champion of Iran and the world has been killed in a street fight”; and “Following in the footsteps of Djibouti and Sudan, Tunisia has also severed its ties with Iran.”

These are some of the stories that have been widely circulated among Iranians in recent weeks — but they weren’t reported by any of the licensed Iranian media outlets. Thanks to the power of social media, where ordinary Iranians can produce and broadcast their own news, many of these stories find their way into people’s homes. The same, unfortunately, also goes for mere rumors.

First it was Facebook, and then the smartphone messaging apps Viber and Line. Now, however, the hottest communication tool among Iranians is Telegram. It has more advanced features than its predecessors, and enjoys a high level of influence in Iranian society. Information and Communications Technology Minister Mahmoud Vaezi said there are roughly 13 million to 14 million Telegram users in Iran. More recent surveys, however, put this figure at over 20 million. The simplicity and ease associated with using Telegram has prompted users to see themselves as a rival of licensed media outlets. In fact, many governmental organizations are now using Telegram to create a bridge to communicate with their audiences. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Mali’s irrepressible musical spirit resounds after jihadi-imposed silence

The Guardian reports: n the courtyard of a colonial villa in Bamako, four young men crouch around a tiny camping stove. The Malian tradition of simmering tea for hours is as old as the ancient trade routes crossing the Sahara desert. There is even a saying behind the practice, says Aliou Touré, a singer in the Mali band Songhoy Blues.

“Here in Mali we say that the first cup is bitter like life, the second is sweet like love and the third is soft like the breath of a dying man,” he says.

Songhoy Blues are one of the latest musical acts to emerge from the west African country that has produced artists such as Salif Keita and Toumani Diabaté – both multiple Grammy winners – Tinariwen, Ali Farka Touré, Bassekou Kouyaté, and Rokia Traoré.

The band is one of a dozen acts at this week’s Bamako acoustic festival, the first major music festival in the capital since 2012, when Islamist extremists seized northern Mali and imposed their hardline interpretation of sharia law that, among other things, banned music. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

The staggering economic cost of air pollution

The Washington Post reports: Air pollution caused by energy production in the U.S. caused at least $131 billion in damages in the year 2011 alone, a new analysis concludes — but while the number sounds grim, it’s also a sign of improvement. In 2002, the damages totaled as high as $175 billion, and the decline in the past decade highlights the success of more stringent emissions regulations on the energy sector while also pointing out the need to continue cracking down.

“The bulk of the cost of emissions is the result of health impacts — so morbidity and particularly mortality,” said the paper’s lead author, Paulina Jaramillo, an assistant professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. Using models, researchers can place a monetary value on the health effects caused by air pollution and come up with a “social cost” of the offending emissions — in other words, the monetary damages associated with emitting an additional ton (or other unit) of a given type of pollutant. This social cost can then be used to calculate the total monetary damages produced by a certain amount of emissions in a given time period.

The new analysis, just published in the journal Energy Policy, did just that. Using an up-to-date model and a set of data acquired from the Environmental Protection Agency on emissions from the energy sector, the researchers set about estimating the monetary damages caused by air pollution from energy production between 2002 and 2011. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

How China’s downturn threatens one of the world’s greatest success stories

poverty

The Washington Post reports: Over the last 25 years, a period of remarkable economic growth spanning from China to South America spurred one of the world’s greatest — and oft-overlooked — modern achievements: a dramatic reduction in the number of extreme poor. More than one billion were pulled out of the most destitute conditions, and the pace of improvement inspired such optimism that two years ago the United Nations vowed to eliminate extreme poverty entirely by 2030.

But now, China’s downturn — and the related prospect of weaker growth across the world — is threatening to stall that progress, signaling a new era of dimmer prospects for the poorest of the poor. That is just one of the emerging challenges from a slowdown that has crippled some nations’ currencies and wiped hundreds of billions from stock markets globally.

Economists caution that the rise or fall of poverty in the coming years depends on a number of hard-to-predict factors, including technology, disease, corruption, war, and climate change. But they also say with growing confidence that the job of fighting poverty is getting harder, particularly in Africa, a continent that is home to half the world’s extreme poor and depends disproportionately on Chinese demand for raw materials. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail