ISIS urges sympathizers to kill U.S. service members it identifies on website

The New York Times reports: In a new online threat to American military personnel, the Islamic State has called on its members and sympathizers in the United States to kill 100 service members whose names, photos and purported addresses it posted on a website.

The group said that the personnel had participated in efforts to defeat it in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere.

Defense Department and F.B.I. officials said that they were aware of the website and were investigating the posting.

It does not appear that the information had been hacked from government servers. One Defense Department official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said that most of the information could be found in public records, residential address search sites and social media.

The officials said the list appears to be drawn from personnel who have appeared in news articles about airstrikes on the militant group.

Some of the names also appear to be drawn from the Defense Department’s own official reports on the campaign against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.

But the list also included armed services personnel and others in the United States or elsewhere who have had nothing to do with the bombing campaigns, officials said. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Where are ISIS supporters tweeting from?

Infographic: Where are ISIS supporters tweeting from? | Statista
You will find more statistics at Statista

facebooktwittermail

Inside Russia’s ‘Kremlin troll army’

Olga Bugorkova reports: Over the past year, Russia has seen an unprecedented rise in the activity of “Kremlin trolls” – bloggers allegedly paid by the state to criticise Ukraine and the West on social media and post favourable comments about the leadership in Moscow.

Though the existence and even whereabouts of the alleged “cyber army” are no secret, recent media reports appear to have revealed some details of how one of the tools of Russian propaganda operates on an everyday basis.

The Internet Research Agency (“Agentstvo Internet Issledovaniya”) employs at least 400 people and occupies an unremarkable office in one of the residential areas in St Petersburg. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

A phony populism is denying Americans the joys of serious thought

Steve Wasserman writes: The vast canvas afforded by the Internet has done little to encourage thoughtful and serious criticism. Mostly it has provided a vast Democracy Wall on which any crackpot can post his or her manifesto. Bloggers bloviate and insults abound. Discourse coarsens. Information is abundant, wisdom scarce. It is a striking irony, as Leon Wieseltier has noted, that with the arrival of the Internet, “a medium of communication with no limitations of physical space, everything on it has to be in six hundred words.” The Internet, he said, is the first means of communication invented by humankind that privileges one’s first thoughts as one’s best thoughts. And he rightly observed that if “value is a function of scarcity,” then “what is most scarce in our culture is long, thoughtful, patient, deliberate analysis of questions that do not have obvious or easy answers.” Time is required to think through difficult questions. Patience is a condition of genuine intellection. The thinking mind, the creating mind, said Wieseltier, should not be rushed. “And where the mind is rushed and made frenetic, neither thought nor creativity will ensue. What you will most likely get is conformity and banality. Writing is not typed talking.”

The fundamental idea at stake in the criticism of culture generally is the self-image of society: how it reasons with itself, describes itself, imagines itself. Nothing in the excitements made possible by the digital revolution banishes the need for the rigor such self-reckoning requires. It is, as Wieseltier says, the obligation of cultural criticism to bear down on what matters. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

How ISIS succeeds on social media where #StopKony fails

J.M. Berger writes: Social networks offer an incredible tool for tapping into the collective unconscious, a virtual Jungian arena in which competition might be expected to amplify the critical values and anxieties of millions of people in real time.

In early 2015, these critical issues included the ambiguous color of a random dress, the so-called Islamic State, and llamas — in that order.

How did we get here?

The answer to this question is, predictably, complex. Divining the mood of the masses has always been a tricky business. Prior to the rise of democracy, there were few consistent tools for this purpose, aside from counting how many pitchforks and torches the peasants were waving outside the gates. The vote became one way to quantify citizen priorities. But in practice, democracy is reductive. A finite number of candidates run for a finite number of offices, and the winners infer what their constituents want and need.

The explosion of affordable communications technologies allowed such inferences to become more accurate over time. Still, at every stage, reductionist influences kept whittling and shaping the raw data of public opinion. Pollsters decided what to ask and how to phrase the questions. Politicians decided which issues to exploit. News editors and producers made judgment calls about what was newsworthy.

Social media has introduced a new and profound layer of complication to how we listen to the voice of the masses. The technology has replaced the reductionism of the old world with a bafflingly dense ecosystem of echo and amplification. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

CIA chief says social media ‘greatly amplifies’ terror threat

Reuters: Social media and other technology are making it increasingly difficult to combat militants who are using such modern resources to share information and conduct operations, the head of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency said on Friday.

CIA Director John Brennan, in a speech in New York, said such communications heighten the challenge of dealing with diffuse threats and attacks across the world from groups like Islamic State, known also as ISIL, and others.

“New technologies can help groups like ISIL coordinate operations, attract new recruits, disseminate propaganda, and inspire sympathizers across the globe to act in their name,” Brennan said, using an acronym for the militant group that has taken hold in Syria and Iraq.

“The overall threat of terrorism is greatly amplified by today’s interconnected world, where an incident in one corner of the globe can instantly spark a reaction thousands of miles away; and where a lone extremist can go online and learn how to carry out an attack without ever leaving home,” Brennan said.

facebooktwittermail

Media hacking

John Borthwick writes: 2014 certainly ended up as the year of the media hack. The Sony incident and the ham handed response by the company and theatrical distributors, pushed the hacking of a media company and its ransoming into the mainstream. The entire incident was surreal, partially because it was both an example of a media company getting hacked and media hacking. There has been a lot of attention on the former; we want to dig into the latter — media hacking.

Media Hacking refers to the usage and manipulation of social media and associated algorithms to define a narrative or political frame. Individuals, states, and non-state actors are increasingly using Media Hacking techniques to advance political agendas. Over the past year we’ve seen a number of such incidents occur — where both social media and mainstream media were manipulated to advance a particular agenda. Two examples follow, one which I tracked and one Gilad tracked.

Open your browser and search for ISIS France. The first recommendation that Google offers is “ISIS France support”. Why is the most sophisticated algorithm in the world prompting me that the most frequently used search term about ISIS and France relates to French support? The answer has nothing to do with the tragic murders at the French satirical magazine. It’s a hack. Google search algorithm was effectively hacked to produce this result.

On August 26th Vox ran a story with the title “One in six French people say they support ISIS”. The headline is disconcerting — the article highlights that in the 18–24yr old bracket, 27% of French youth surveyed support ISIS. I remember seeing this in my Twitter feed and thinking this makes no sense, 10M people in France, a quarter of French youth, support ISIS? A bit of digging yielded some perspective.

The article is based on a survey of random phone interviews conducted by a British marketing agency called ICM. ICM randomly dialed 1,001 people in France. This seems like a small sample, but 1,000 randomly selected callers is statistically significant for a population the size of France. While the overall sample is relevant the sub samples aren’t — the sample size that yielded the 27% number was based on a sample size of 105 people. That’s not meaningful. And the questions in the survey were oblique — if you look at the source data, it’s possible that people who were interviewed thought this was a general statement of support of Iraq, not ISIS and while the survey refers to ISIS the French have several other words they use. Finally the survey data indicated only 2.7% of people had a very favorable view — most people grouped into the unfavorable group (62%) or the “don’t know” group (23%) so methodology wise, it’s a mixed bag, at best.

Beyond the methodology, the survey was commissioned by Russian news agency Rossiya Segodnya. The trail of the media breadcrumbs seem to be as follows: Rossiya Segodnya commissioned a survey to test support or opposition to the admissions of Georgia and the Ukraine into the EU, the ISIS question was secondary. On August 18th Russia Today ran the story with the headline: “15% of French people back ISIS militants, poll finds.” Over the following week the Russia Today story was reposted, in particular the summary infographic (above) propagated around the internet, mostly on French sites. A Tinyeye search for the URL of the image for the infographic shows some of the sites who ran it.

The Vox story ran a week later. In an email exchange Max Fisher (author of the Vox post) said he thought he saw the data in Tweet. The Vox story combined two surveys (the one by ICM and one by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion), sources were cited (including that Rossiya Segodnya commissioned the survey) and they included an infographic from Russia Today. With the headline — “One in six French people say they support ISIS” — the story started to circulate on social media, in particular on Twitter. Media hacks take advantage of the decontextualized structure of real time news feeds — you see a Tweet from a known news site, with a provocative headline and maybe the infographic image included — you retweet it. Maybe you intend the read the story, might be you just want to Tweet something interesting and proactive, maybe you recognize the source, maybe you dont. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Defining and describing the population of ISIS supporters on Twitter

Although much ink has been spilled on ISIS’s activity on Twitter, very basic questions about the group’s social media strategy remain unanswered. In a new analysis paper, J.M. Berger and Jonathon Morgan answer fundamental questions about how many Twitter users support ISIS, who and where they are, and how they participate in its highly organized online activities.

Previous analyses of ISIS’s Twitter reach have relied on limited segments of the overall ISIS social network. The small, cellular nature of that network—and the focus on particular subsets within the network such as foreign fighters—may create misleading conclusions. This information vacuum extends to discussions of how the West should respond to the group’s online campaigns.

Berger and Morgan present a demographic snapshot of ISIS supporters on Twitter by analyzing a sample of 20,000 ISIS-supporting Twitter accounts. Using a sophisticated and innovative methodology, the authors map the locations, preferred languages, and the number and type of followers of these accounts.

Among the key findings:

• From September through December 2014, the authors estimate that at least 46,000 Twitter accounts were used by ISIS supporters, although not all of them were active at the same time.
Accounts Created, By Year

• Typical ISIS supporters were located within the organization’s territories in Syria and Iraq, as well as in regions contested by ISIS. Hundreds of ISIS-supporting accounts sent tweets with location metadata embedded.
Location Claimed in Profile

• Almost one in five ISIS supporters selected English as their primary language when using Twitter. Three quarters selected Arabic.

• ISIS-supporting accounts had an average of about 1,000 followers each, considerably higher than an ordinary Twitter user. ISIS-supporting accounts were also considerably more active than non-supporting users.

• A minimum of 1,000 ISIS-supporting accounts were suspended by Twitter between September and December 2014. Accounts that tweeted most often and had the most followers were most likely to be suspended.

• Much of ISIS’s social media success can be attributed to a relatively small group of hyperactive users, numbering between 500 and 2,000 accounts, which tweet in concentrated bursts of high volume.

facebooktwittermail

The U.S. has no counter-narrative to challenge ISIS propaganda

Simon Cottee writes: ISIS’s métier is shock and gore, whereas the [U.S. State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications] CSCC’s, to put it unkindly, is more mock and bore, more Fred Flintstone than Freddy Krueger. Shock and gore, needless to say, is where the action is — and hence where the Internet traffic tends to go. “You’re never going to be able to match the power of their outrageousness,” Fernandez said, conceding this disadvantage.

ISIS has a vast network of “fanboys,” as its virtual supporters are widely and derisively known, who disseminate the group’s online propaganda. (ISIS ennobles them with the title “knights of the uploading.”) They are dedicated, self-sufficient, and even, Fernandez said, occasionally funny. And they are everywhere on Twitter, despite the social-media network’s efforts to ban them. Fernandez described the group’s embrace of social media as “a stroke of genius on their part.” The CSCC doesn’t have fanboys.

More crucially, ISIS has a narrative. This is often described by the group’s opponents as “superficial” or “bankrupt.” Only it isn’t. It is immensely rich. The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence estimates that of the 20,000 or more foreign jihadists believed to have gone to fight in Syria and Iraq, around 100 are from the United States. These fighters may be naive or stupid, but they didn’t sacrifice everything for nothing. John Horgan, director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies at University of Massachusetts Lowell, told me that people who join groups like ISIS “are trying to find a path, to answer a call to something, to right some perceived wrong, to do something truly meaningful with their lives.”

The CSCC doesn’t have a narrative — not one, at any rate, remotely comparable in emotional affect and resonance to that of ISIS. No one is more sharply aware of this than Fernandez himself. “ISIS’s message,” he said, “is that Muslims are being killed and that they’re the solution. … There is an appeal to violence, obviously, but there is also an appeal to the best in people, to people’s aspirations, hopes and dreams, to their deepest yearnings for identity, faith, and self-actualization. We don’t have a counter-narrative that speaks to that. What we have is half a message: ‘Don’t do this.’ But we lack the ‘do this instead.’ That’s not very exciting. The positive narrative is always more powerful, especially if it involves dressing in black like a ninja, having a cool flag, being on television, and fighting for your people.” [Continue reading…]

It’s a bit misleading to keep on talking about the need for a counter-narrative when narratives are nothing more than marketing strategies.

ISIS’s marketing strategy is coupled with the realities it has created on the ground. It might be marketing hype to pronounce the territory under its control as a caliphate, but the fact is, it does control real territory as large as a medium-sized country. Without that territory, it would have next to nothing to market.

Countering ISIS requires much more than coming up with a better pitch — it has to be a pitch for something tangible and not just some vacuous promise of a better future. Such a narrative (if it can be found) can neither be crafted nor delivered by the U.S. government

facebooktwittermail

The Silk Road: where libertarian dreams collided with criminal realities

Henry Farrell writes: The Hidden Wiki holds the keys to a secret internet. To reach it, you need a special browser that can access ‘Tor Hidden Services’ – websites that have chosen to obscure their physical location. But even this browser isn’t enough. Like the Isla de Muerta in the film Pirates of the Caribbean, the landmarks of this hidden internet can be discovered only by those who already know where they are.

Sites such as the Hidden Wiki provide unreliable treasure maps. They publish lists of the special addresses for sites where you can use Bitcoin to buy drugs or stolen credit card numbers, play strange games, or simply talk, perhaps on subjects too delicate for the open web. The lists are often untrustworthy. Sometimes the addresses are out-of-date. Sometimes they are actively deceptive. One link might lead to a thriving marketplace for buying and selling stolen data; another, to a wrecker’s display of false lights, a cloned site designed to relieve you of your coin and give you nothing in return.

This hidden internet is a product of debates among technology-obsessed libertarians in the 1990s. These radicals hoped to combine cryptography and the internet into a universal solvent that would corrupt the bonds of government tyranny. New currencies, based on recent cryptographic advances, would undermine traditional fiat money, seizing the cash nexus from the grasp of the state. ‘Mix networks’, where everyone’s identity was hidden by multiple layers of encryption, would allow people to talk and engage in economic exchange without the government being able to see.

Plans for cryptographic currencies led to the invention of Bitcoin, while mix networks culminated in Tor. The two technologies manifest different aspects of a common dream – the utopian aspiration to a world where one could talk and do business without worrying about state intervention – and indeed they grew up together. For a long time, the easiest way to spend Bitcoin was at Tor’s archipelago of obfuscated websites.

Like the pirate republics of the 18th century, this virtual underworld mingles liberty and vice. Law enforcement and copyright-protection groups such as the Digital Citizens’ Alliance in Washington, DC, prefer to emphasise the most sordid aspects of Tor’s hidden services – the sellers of drugs, weapons and child pornography. And yet the effort to create a hidden internet was driven by ideology as much as avarice. The network is used by dissidents as well as dope-peddlers. If you live under an authoritarian regime, Tor provides you with a ready-made technology for evading government controls on the internet. Even some of the seedier services trade on a certain idealism. Many libertarians believe that people should be able to buy and sell drugs without government interference, and hoped to build marketplaces to do just that, without violence and gang warfare.

Tor’s anonymity helps criminals by making it harder for the state to identify and detain them. Yet this has an ironic side-effect: it also makes it harder for them to trust each other, because they typically can’t be sure who their interlocutors are. To make money in hidden markets, you need people to trust you, so that they will buy from you and sell to you. Having accomplished this first manoeuvre, the truly successful entrepreneurs go one step further. They become middlemen of trust, guaranteeing relations between others and taking a cut from the proceeds. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Terror Inc.: How the ISIS became a branding behemoth

Alyssa Bereznak writes: When Robin Williams died last August, people around the world rushed online to mourn the loss of the actor. “Oh dear God. The wonderful Robin Williams has gone,” Bette Midler tweeted. “No words,” added a somber Billy Crystal. “Shame. I liked Jumanji,” tweeted one England-based Twitter user. “Good movie. Loved it as a kid,” replied an account with the handle @Mujahid4life.

“Mujahid,” for those unfamiliar, roughly translates to “jihadist warrior.” And this particular handle belonged to a 19-year-old British-born guy by the name of Abdullah, who happened to be both a supporter of the Islamic State and a big Robin Williams fan.

Abdullah’s opinion of the fallen star unleashed a torrent of blog posts, most of which marveled at the fact that a member of an organization that openly beheads its enemies could also have the emotional capacity to mourn a U.S. comedian on Twitter. But however surreal it was to watch Hollywood actors and terrorist sympathizers tangle online, those voyeuristic bloggers missed a larger point. That moment encapsulated a key pillar of the group’s now infamous social media fortress: Spreading extremist ideology doesn’t need to start with religious screeds and beheadings. It starts — as a social media 101 instructor might say — by simply taking part in the conversation. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Will big data allow China to create the perfect surveillance state?

James Palmer writes: On 5 July 2009, residents of Xinjiang, China’s far western province, found the internet wasn’t working. It’s a regular frustration in remote areas, but it rapidly became apparent that this time it wasn’t coming back. The government had hit the kill switch on the entire province when a protest in the capital Ürümqi by young Uighur men (of the area’s indigenous Turkic population) turned into a riot against the Han Chinese, in which at least 197 people were killed.

The shutdown was intended to prevent similar uprisings by the Uighur, long subjected to religious and cultural repression, and to halt revenge attacks by Han. In that respect, it might have worked; officially, there was no fatal retaliation, but in retrospect the move came to be seen as an error.

Speaking anonymously, a Chinese security advisor described the blackout as ‘a serious mistake… now we are years behind where we could have been in tracking terrorists’. Young Uighur learnt to see the internet as hostile territory – a lesson reinforced by the arrest of Ilham Tohti, a popular professor of economics, on trumped-up charges of extremism linked to an Uighur-language website he administered. ‘We turn off our phones before we talk politics’, a tech-savvy Uighur acquaintance remarked.

The Uighur continued to consume digital media, but increasingly in off-line form, whether viewing discs full of Turkish TV series or jihadist propaganda passed on memory sticks. Where once Chinese media reports claimed that arrested Uighur had been visiting ‘separatist’ websites, now they noted drawers full of burnt DVDs and flash drives.

A series of brutal terrorist attacks early in 2014 reinforced the lesson for the Chinese authorities; by driving Uighur off-line they had thrown away valuable data. Last summer, the Public Security University in Beijing began recruiting overseas experts in data analysis, including, I’m told, former members of the Israeli security forces.

In Xinjiang, tightened control means less information, and the Chinese government has always had a fraught relationship with information – private and public. Today, an explosion in available data promises to open up sources of knowledge previously tightly locked away. To some, this seems a shift toward democracy. But technocrats within the government also see it as a way to create a more efficient form of authoritarianism. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Does the unstructured web need structure?

Alex Wright writes: The Earth may not be flat, but the web certainly is.

“There is no ‘top’ to the World-Wide Web,” declared a 1992 foundational document from the World Wide Web Consortium — meaning that there is no central server or organizational authority to determine what does or does not get published. It is, like Borges’ famous Library of Babel, theoretically infinite, stitched together with hyperlinks rather than top-down, Dewey Decimal-style categories.1 It is also famously open—built atop a set of publicly available industry standards.

While these features have connected untold millions and created new forms of social organization, they also come at a cost. Material seems to vanish almost as quickly as it is created, disappearing amid broken links or into the constant flow of the social media “stream.” It can be hard to distinguish fact from falsehood. Corporations have stepped into this confusion, organizing our browsing and data in decidedly closed, non-transparent ways. Did it really have to turn out this way?

The web has played such a powerful role in shaping our world that it can sometimes seem like a fait accompli — the inevitable result of progress and enlightened thinking. A deeper look into the historical record, though, reveals a different story: The web in its current state was by no means inevitable. Not only were there competing visions for how a global knowledge network might work, divided along cultural and philosophical lines, but some of those discarded hypotheses are coming back into focus as researchers start to envision the possibilities of a more structured, less volatile web. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Twitter says government data queries rising

Phys.org: Twitter said Monday it saw a 40 percent jump in government request for user data in late 2014, with sharp rises coming from both Turkey and Russia.

The “transparency report” released by the messaging platform showed the United States remained the largest source of data queries with 1,622 over the last six months of the year, but that notable increases came from Turkey and Russia.

The total number of requests globally was 2,871, up from 2,058 in the first six months of the year.

Turkey — which blocked Twitter and other social media last year for leaking data about government corruption — vaulted to the number two spot with 356 requests, the Twitter report said.

facebooktwittermail

FCC plans strong rules to protect net neutrality

The New York Times reports: For the last year, Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has been working on new rules to ensure so-called net neutrality, or an open Internet. Over that time, his hints and comments have shown a steady shift toward stronger regulation — and a more direct confrontation with the cable television and telecommunications companies that provide high-speed Internet service to most American homes.

But on Wednesday, Mr. Wheeler went further than some industry analysts had expected and even beyond the recommendations of President Obama, who in November urged the commission to adopt the “strongest possible rules,” in a surprising public admonition to an independent agency.

First, Mr. Wheeler proposed regulating consumer Internet service as a public utility, saying it was the right path to net neutrality. He also included provisions to protect consumer privacy and to ensure Internet service is available for people with disabilities and in remote areas.

Mr. Wheeler’s plan would also for the first time give the F.C.C. enforcement powers to police practices in the marketplace for handling of data before it enters the gateway network into people’s households — the so-called interconnect market. For good measure, he added a “future conduct” standard to cover unforeseen problems.

Some industry analysts expected Mr. Wheeler to leave some rules out of this order, partly to create a narrower target for legal challenges. Yet he chose to add the other provisions to the main thrust of his plan, which is to reclassify high-speed Internet service as a telecommunications service, instead of an information service, under Title II of the Telecommunications Act.

“Once you’ve decided to take the bold step — apply Title II — and open yourself up to attacks from the industry and in court, it makes sense to put in everything you want,” said Kevin Werbach, a former F.C.C. counsel and an associate professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

Silk Road creator convicted on all counts

The New York Times reports: A California man behind the website Silk Road, once a thriving online black market for the sale of heroin, cocaine, LSD and other drugs and illicit goods, was convicted on Wednesday of all seven counts related to the enterprise.

The verdict against the defendant, Ross W. Ulbricht, was delivered swiftly: Jurors began deliberating in the morning, and reported that they had reached a consensus about 3 1/2 hours later.

Prosecutors had portrayed Mr. Ulbricht, 30, as a “digital kingpin” who ran the website on a hidden part of the Internet, where deals could be made anonymously and without the scrutiny of law enforcement.

Evidence showed that Silk Road generated revenues of more than $213 million from January 2011 to October 2013, when Mr. Ulbricht was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in a library in San Francisco while he was logged on to his laptop as Dread Pirate Roberts, the pseudonym under which prosecutors said he operated the website. Deals were conducted in Bitcoins, and Mr. Ulbricht took millions of dollars in commissions, the government said. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

British army creates social-media brigade

The Daily Beast reports: The British army is creating a special force of Facebook warriors, skilled in psychological operations and use of social media to engage in unconventional warfare in the information age.

The 77th Brigade, to be based in Hermitage, near Newbury, in Berkshire, will be about 1,500-strong and formed of units drawn from across the army. It will formally come into being in April.

The brigade will be responsible for what is described as non-lethal warfare. Both the Israeli and US army already engage heavily in psychological operations.

Against a background of 24-hour news, smartphones and social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, the force will attempt to control the narrative.

The 77th will include regulars and reservists and recruitment will begin in the spring. Soldiers with journalism skills and familiarity with social media are among those being sought. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail

A conversation with Adam Curtis

Jon Ronson writes: I’ve known Adam Curtis for nearly 20 years. We’re friends. We see movies together, and once even went to Romania on a mini-break to attend an auction of Nicolae Ceausescu’s belongings. But it would be wrong to characterise our friendship as frivolous. Most of the time when we’re together I’m just intensely cross-questioning him about some new book idea I have.

Sometimes Adam will say something that seems baffling and wrong at the time, but makes perfect sense a few years later. I could give you lots of examples, but here’s one: I’m about to publish a book – So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed – about how social media is evolving into a cold and conservative place, a giant echo chamber where what we believe is constantly reinforced by people who believe the same thing, and when people step out of line in the smallest ways we destroy them. Adam was warning me about Twitter’s propensity to turn this way six years ago, when it was still a Garden of Eden. Sometimes talking to Adam feels like finding the results of some horse race of the future, where the long-shot horse wins.

I suppose it’s no surprise that Adam would notice this stuff about social media so early on. It’s what his films are almost always about – power and social control. However, people don’t only enjoy them for the subject matter, but for how they look, too – his wonderful, strange use of archive.

His new film, Bitter Lake, is his most experimental yet. And I think it’s his best. It’s still journalism: it’s about our relationship with Afghanistan, and how we don’t know what to do, and so we just repeat the mistakes of the past. But he’s allowed his use of archive to blossom crazily. Fifty percent of the film has no commentary. Instead, he’s created this dreamlike, fantastical collage from historical footage and raw, unedited news footage. Sometimes it’s just a shot of a man walking down a road in some Afghan town, and you don’t know why he’s chosen it, and then something happens and you think, ‘Ah!’ (Or, more often, ‘Oh God.’) It might be something small and odd. Or it might be something huge and terrible.

Nightmarish things happen in Bitter Lake. There are shots of people dying. It’s a film that could never be on TV. It’s too disturbing. And it’s too long as well – nearly two and a half hours. And so he’s putting it straight onto BBC iPlayer. I think, with this film, he’s invented a whole new way of telling a nonfiction story.

VICE asked the two of us to have an email conversation about his work. We started just before Christmas, and carried on until after the New Year. [Continue reading…]

facebooktwittermail