The offline allure of ISIS

ISIS-instructor

TSG IntelBrief: Two recent announcements highlight the difference between the so-called Islamic State’s reach on social media and its real-world appeal. On February 5, 2016, Twitter announced it had suspended more than 125,000 accounts for supporting terrorism since mid-2015. On the same day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that 34 militant groups worldwide had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State as of last December, with more likely in 2016. The Islamic State’s social media efforts have always received disproportionate attention. Less attention has been paid to the offline power of the group in terms of radicalization and recruitment. Social networks matter more than social media when it comes to proliferating the ideology of bin-Ladinism espoused by both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

From pamphlets to audio cassette tapes—and now videos and mobile messaging apps—terrorists have always sought to broadcast their ideology to motivate and rally people to their cause. But the real propagation of terrorism requires salesmen and saleswomen—people who understand that the principles of persuasion begin with a deep understanding of the prospective customer. Graphic tweets may produce headlines, but persuasive individuals produce recruits, often in clusters.

The eight young men who left the Lisleby district of Fredrikstad, Norway, to join the Islamic State in Syria did not join because of social media, even if it did help spread the group’s message. All were reportedly motivated to join the Islamic State by the example of Abdullah Chaib, a charismatic local soccer player who traveled to Syria in 2012. The small group of friends created a feedback loop of motivation and encouragement that did not depend on Twitter or Facebook. Likewise, the terror recruit cluster in Molenbeek, Belgium thrived on networks built around friendship and familial ties, not Telegram or Kik. This same dynamic of peer-to-peer recruitment and consistent face-to-face interaction produced the cluster in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul region of Minnesota. Long-time foreign fighter hotbeds such as Derna, Libya, and Bizerte and Ben Gardane in Tunisia rely on decidedly offline networks to export extremism. [Continue reading…]

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Invasion of the body snatchers

Jacob Weisberg writes: “As smoking gives us something to do with our hands when we aren’t using them, Time gives us something to do with our minds when we aren’t thinking,” Dwight Macdonald wrote in 1957. With smartphones, the issue never arises. Hands and mind are continuously occupied texting, e-mailing, liking, tweeting, watching YouTube videos, and playing Candy Crush.

Americans spend an average of five and a half hours a day with digital media, more than half of that time on mobile devices, according to the research firm eMarketer. Among some groups, the numbers range much higher. In one recent survey, female students at Baylor University reported using their cell phones an average of ten hours a day. Three quarters of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-olds say that they reach for their phones immediately upon waking up in the morning. Once out of bed, we check our phones 221 times a day — an average of every 4.3 minutes — according to a UK study. This number actually may be too low, since people tend to underestimate their own mobile usage. In a 2015 Gallup survey, 61 percent of people said they checked their phones less frequently than others they knew.

Our transformation into device people has happened with unprecedented suddenness. The first touchscreen-operated iPhones went on sale in June 2007, followed by the first Android-powered phones the following year. Smartphones went from 10 percent to 40 percent market penetration faster than any other consumer technology in history. In the United States, adoption hit 50 percent only three years ago. Yet today, not carrying a smartphone indicates eccentricity, social marginalization, or old age.

What does it mean to shift overnight from a society in which people walk down the street looking around to one in which people walk down the street looking at machines? [Continue reading…]

As one of those eccentric, socially marginalized but not quite old aged people without a smartphone, it means I now live in a world where it seems the mass of humanity has become myopic.

A driver remains stationary in front of a green light.

A couple sit next to each other in an airport, wrapped in silence with attention directed elsewhere down their mutually exclusive wormholes.

A jogger in the woods, hears no birdsong because his ears are stuffed with plastic buds delivering private tunes.

Amidst all this divided attention, one thing seems abundantly clearly: devices tap into and amplify the desire to be some place else.

To be confined to the present place and the present time is to be trapped in a prison cell from which the smartphone offers escape — though of course it doesn’t.

What it does is produce an itch in time; a restless sense that we don’t have enough — that an elusive missing something might soon appear on that mesmerizing little touchscreen.

The effect of this refusal to be where we are is to impoverish life as our effort to make it larger ends up doing the reverse.

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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.

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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…]

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Who was more prescient: Clinton or Awlaki? And why is YouTube helping promote a Trump conspiracy theory?

After a 52-minute video made by al-Kataib, the media outlet of Somalia’s al-Qaeda-affiliate, al-Shabaab, was posted on YouTube yesterday, it was swiftly removed. YouTube has a long-standing policy of banning videos that incite violence.

As the ABC News report above shows, the element in the video which has grabbed the media’s attention is its use of Donald Trump’s recent call for Muslims to be prohibited from entering the United States.

Here’s the part of the video which features Trump — although, by the time you read this post, YouTube will have removed this clip, which is why I’m also posting a transcript:

First we see the American imam, Anwar al-Awlaki, making a prediction about the fate of Muslims who continue living in the U.S. — Awlaki was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011. Then comes a clip of Trump and then Awalaki again.

Awlaki, date unknown: Muslims of the West, take heed and learn from the lessons of history. There are ominous clouds gathering in your horizon.

Yesterday, America was a land of slavery, segregation, lynching, and Ku Klux Klan. And tomorrow it will be a land of religious discrimination and concentration camps.

Trump speaking at a campaign rally on December 7: Guys remember this and listen: Donald J Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States [cheers] until our country’s representatives can figure out what [expletive bleeped] is going on [cheers and applause].

Awlaki: The West will eventually turn against its Muslim citizens. Hence, my advice to you is this: You have two choices, either hijra or jihad. You either leave or you fight. You leave and live among Muslims, or you stay behind and follow the example of Nidal Hassan [perpetrator of the Fort Hood mass shooting] and others who fulfilled their duty of fighting for Allah’s cause.

In response to pressure from Western governments, YouTube and other social media channels are becoming increasingly aggressive in blocking the distribution of terrorist propaganda. There is understandable frustration at the fact that the internet is being used to threaten the very societies within which this global communications system was created.

Censorship can easily backfire, however, and this is happening with the removal of clips of the new al-Shabaab video.

After the full-length version had been removed, snippets which just showed the al-Awalaki statement and Trump, have also been removed (as I noted above).

It is clear that these videos are being posted by Trump critics rather than al-Shabaab supporters and their removal is breathing life into a conspiracy theory being propagated by some Trump supporters: that the al-Shabaab video itself is a fabrication created by the Clinton campaign!

It seems likely that there are some Trump supporters who — following the lead of Bashar al-Assad supporters — are using YouTube’s community guidelines in order to silence criticism.

Although in the short clips of the al-Shabaab, Awlaki is indeed inciting violence, the clips themselves are clearly not being posted in order to incite violence — they have been posted to show how Trump’s rhetoric serves as a propaganda gift for jihadists.

By removing these clips, YouTube is playing straight into the hands of conspiracy theorists.

At the same time, censorship also buttresses the perception among ISIS and al Qaeda supporters, that the West feels threatened by “the truth.”

It’s worth remembering the trajectory Awlaki followed which eventually led to him promoting terrorism from Yemen.

In 2000, he supported George Bush’s campaign to become president and after 9/11 believed his own emerging role must be to serve as bridge between America and all Muslims.

Last August, Scott Shane wrote:

At midnight on Sept. 14, 2001, Awlaki, then a young Yemeni-American imam at the prominent Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Va., finished a long day by answering an email from his younger brother about the terrorist attacks of a few days before. ‘‘I personally think it was horrible,’’ he wrote to Ammar, a college student in New Mexico at the time. ‘‘I am very upset about it.’’ He added, ‘‘The media are all over us.’’ Anwar was disconcerted, but perhaps also pleased that an onslaught of reporters had turned his Friday prayers, or jummah, into a circus. ‘‘At jummah today we had ABC, NBC, CBS and The Washington Post.’’ He closed on a positive note, hinting at a noble purpose, to be sure, but also displaying a trace of personal ambition: ‘‘I hope we can use this for the good of all of us.’’

Though the country was in mourning, a sense of defiant unity emerged. A non-Muslim neighbor of Dar al-Hijrah organized a candlelight vigil around the building to show solidarity with the mosque. Roughly 80 residents of a nearby apartment building sent over a note saying, ‘‘We want your congregation to know that we welcome you in this community.’’ Journalists, hunting for an authoritative voice from the Muslim community, began to pass regularly under the mosque’s grand marble arches or to gather in Awlaki’s modest family home. He denounced the 9/11 attacks but in the same breath would criticize America’s record in the Middle East. Reporters were impressed. The New York Times wrote that Awlaki, just 30, was being ‘‘held up as a new generation of Muslim leader capable of merging East and West.’’ He relished the spotlight. He seemed to be quite self-consciously auditioning for a dual role: explainer of Islam to America and of America to Muslims. ‘‘We came here to build, not to destroy,’’ he declared from his pulpit. ‘‘We are the bridge between America and one billion Muslims worldwide.’’

The challenge presented by ISIS, al Qaeda and other jihadist groups is more than one of security and communications. At its core, this is a moral challenge.

The jihadists present themselves as offering the solution to a moral problem: a way for Muslims to confront the immorality, corruption, and hypocrisy they see in the contemporary Western-dominated world.

An effective counter-jihadist strategy cannot simply brush off this critique of the West. It has to present an alternative solution.

Currently, who has the more credible voice? Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, or Anwar al-Awlaki?

Unfortunately, it’s Awlaki.

As Shane observed:

Awlaki’s pronouncements seem to carry greater authority today than when he was living, because America killed him.

Right now, it’s easy to castigate Trump for providing terrorists with fodder for propaganda, but we mustn’t forget the extent to which the U.S. led by Bush and then Obama, has helped reinforce the jihadists’ narrative — by opening Guantanamo; through the use of torture, rendition and secret prisons; through the disastrous war in Iraq; through drone strikes in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia; through continuing to prop up authoritarian regimes across the Middle East; through allowing the Assad regime to destroy Syria, and through failing to broker an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The real challenge for Western political leaders and whoever becomes the next U.S. president is not whether they can destroy ISIS and effectively tackle global terrorism.

It is this: How can they regain sufficient moral authority that their words carry weight? How can they restore some much-needed respect for democracy?

In a global failure of governance, the Middle East can be viewed as the emergency room, while in the West, governance suffers from chronic illness for which symptom-relief is the only treatment on offer.

It’s time we face up to the fact that terrorism is just a symptom what ails the world. Indeed, much of the time a global obsession with terrorism is having the effect of turning our attention away from broader issues that undermine the health of societies and our ability to survive on this planet.

This isn’t a question of striving for some kind of unattainable and contestable moral purity. No one wants to live under the control of zealots. It’s about trying to create societies in which government is no longer a dirty word, where ordinary citizens receive the respect they deserve, and in which individuals are no longer cynical about the possibilities for securing collective interests.

In a word, it’s about the restoration of honesty in public life.

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What Twitter really means for ISIS supporters

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Amarnath Amarasingam writes: Abu Ahmad, one of Islamic State’s most active supporters online says he has had over 90 Twitter accounts suspended, but is not planning to slow down. He is a trusted member of what has come to be called the Baqiya family, a loose network of Islamic State supporters from around the world who share news, develop close friendships, and help each other when members get arrested or come under law enforcement surveillance. Abu Ahmad, as with all Baqiya members, agreed to talk to me on the condition that his real name and location not be published.

While Islamic State social media accounts used to flourish, Twitter has now been suspending the accounts of fighters and supporters alike. Scholars and analysts continue to debate whether this is effective and worthwhile.

For over two years now, I have co-directed a study of Western foreign fighters based at the University of Waterloo and have been interviewing — on Skype and various text messaging platforms — several dozen fighters and members of this Baqiya family. A few things are clear: First, while Twitter suspensions certainly disrupt their ability to seamlessly spread information, they have developed innovative and effective ways of coming back online. Second, these youth receive an enormous amount of emotional and social benefits from participating in their online “family.”

This online network is important for spreading the new Twitter accounts of individuals coming back from suspension. Watching Abu Ahmad’s accounts, for instance, I have been amazed at how quickly he is able to re-acquire his followers. At times, his new accounts are only active for a day or two before getting suspended again, but he manages to get most of his 1,000-plus followers back every time. “I follow people, and they follow me back. We do shout outs,” he told me during an interview last month; “we also have secret groups online which don’t get suspended, and we share our new accounts on there.” [Continue reading…]

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ISIS’s countercultural appeal is real

ISIS-catwalk

Simon Cottee writes: If you want to get a sense of what attracts westernized Muslims to ISIS, you could do worse than listen to one of its sympathizers, as opposed to its legion of opponents, who are liable to pathologize the group’s appeal as an ideological contagion that infects the weak, instead of taking it seriously as a revolutionary movement that speaks to the young and the strong-minded.

Check out, as just one of many examples, the Twitter user “Bint Emergent”: an apparent ISIS fangirl and keen observer of the jihadist scene. (Bint Emergent has not disclosed her identity, or gender, but bint is an honorific Arabic word for girl or daughter; like umm — mother in Arabic — bint features prominently in the Twitter display names of female ISIS sympathizers.)

“Jihadis,” she explains on her blog BintChaos, “look cool — like ninjas or video game warriors — gangstah and thuggish even — the opposition doesnt.” She concedes that “There aren’t a lot of jihadist ‘poster-girls’ displayed—they all wear niqab [face veil], but sometimes its tastefully accessorized with an AK47 or a bomb belt.” By contrast, “Team CVE [a reference to Countering Violent Extremism, or Anglo-American counterterrorism entrepreneurs whose role, state- or self-appointed, is to challenge “extremist” narratives],” consists “mostly [of] middleaged white guys with a smidgin of scared straight ex-mujahids [ex-jihadists] and a couple middleaged women.” [Continue reading…]

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How a misreported story is changing U.S. immigration policy

The Atlantic reports: On Sunday, The New York Times published a scorching story alleging that one of the killers in the San Bernardino attack had previously “talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad.”

But by Thursday, the Times admitted it had gotten parts of the story wrong. Tashfeen Malik had not posted publicly about violent jihad before moving to the U.S. Instead, according to the FBI, she had written about violent jihad only in private messages—not public posts. The Times changed its story, issued a correction, and endured a par­tic­u­larly bru­tal pub­lic flog­ging at the hands of its public editor.

That correction, however, came far too late to put the genie back in the bottle. News of the so-called “public” posts had already rocketed around the Internet, been cited repeatedly in the Republican presidential debate, and, apparently, made quite an impression on Capitol Hill.

On Tuesday, Senator John McCain pointed to the Times report in an­noun­cing legislation to require the Department of Homeland Security to “search all public records, including Internet sites and social media profiles” when vetting applicants to enter the U.S.

The same day, nearly two dozen Democrats wrote to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson calling for “more robust social media background check process for all visitors and immigrants to the United States.” The let­ter references press ac­counts in­dic­at­ing that such work had been done inconsistently. And it says Ma­lik “may have ex­pressed rad­ic­al ji­hadist sentiments on so­cial me­dia platforms.” [Continue reading…]

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Connections aren’t conversations – while technology enables, it can also interfere

By Daria Kuss, Nottingham Trent University

A prisoner was in the US was recently released after 44 years of incarceration for the attempted murder of a police officer. Emerging onto the streets of New York City, Otis Johnson, now 69, found himself bewildered by the world before him. Seeing people apparently talking to themselves on the street, futuristic headphones dangling from their ears, reminded him of CIA agents. People barely paid attention to their surroundings, and instead studied their smartphones while crossing the street, engrossed in their own personal bubbles.

Technology had delivered Johnson a massive culture shock, the shock of a world where technology has quickly changed the way we live and the way we relate to one another.

In 2013 Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist and esteemed professor at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote Alone Together, in which she questioned the extent to which social media is bringing people together. Following decades of research on the profound impact of modern technology on human relationships, Turkle concluded that with the omnipresence of technology “we’re moving from conversation to connection”.

Connection, it seems, denotes a very different quality of social interaction in comparison to conversation, as it refers to continuous streams of little titbits of information, such as those neatly packaged into 140 characters on Twitter.

Conversation, on the other hand, refers to listening and empathic understanding, actively attending to another person, rather than fleetingly commenting on their status updates online while simultaneously talking on the phone, doing the laundry, or preparing the children’s dinner.

[Read more…]

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Possessed by a mask

Sandra Newman writes: It is an acknowledged fact of modern life that the internet brings out the worst in people. Otherwise law-abiding citizens pilfer films and music. Eminent authors create ‘sock puppets’ to anonymously praise their own work and denigrate that of rivals. Teenagers use the internet for bullying; even more disturbingly, grown-ups bully strangers with obsessive zeal, sometimes even driving them from their homes with repeated murder threats. Porn thrives, and takes on increasingly bizarre and often disturbing forms.

Commentators seem at a loss to satisfactorily account for this surge in antisocial tendencies. Sometimes it’s blamed on a few sociopathic individuals – but the offenders include people who are impeccably decent in their offline lives. The anonymity of online life is another explanation commonly given – but these behaviours persist even when the identities of users are easily discovered, and when their real names appear directly above offensive statements. It almost seems to be a contagion issuing from the technology itself, or at least strong evidence that computers are alienating us from our humanity. But we might have a better chance of understanding internet hooliganism if we looked at another form of concealment that isn’t true concealment, but that nonetheless has historically lured people into behaving in ways that are alien to their normal selves: the mask.

There doesn’t seem to be any culture in which masks have not been used. From the Australian outback to the Arctic, from Mesolithic Africa to the United States of the 21st century, people have always made and employed masks in ways that are seemingly various and yet have an underlying commonality. Their earliest appearance is in religious ritual. [Continue reading…]

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Syria’s media war

Elizabeth Dickinson writes: The driver stops on a crowded, dusty road lined with cars. Used SUVs and sedans are parked two deep in front of tired warehouses bearing sun-bleached signs for a shipping company and a tire store. “Is it here?” I credulously ask the chauffeur who was dispatched to bring me to this desolate stretch of road. “Yes, wait,” he says, pointing as a man weaves his way towards us. I get out and follow the man to one of the warehouses’ unmarked doors. After passing through a lobby that smells of cigarette smoke and mint tea, we push through a second, locked door and into the newsroom of Orient TV, a Syrian satellite channel run and broadcast from Dubai.

The discreet exterior is no accident. Syria’s media is at war, and with its $1.5 million monthly budget, dozens of correspondents, and four regional bureaus, Orient TV is in the middle of it.

As the Syrian conflict has unspooled over the last four years, Orient TV has earned a reputation as an opposition bulwark. A Syrian automotive exporting mogul named Ghassan Aboud founded the channel in Damascus in 2009, intending to broadcast movies and frothy serial drama programs.* But since the 2011 Arab Spring, he has used the channel to become an outspoken advocate of rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad. In addition to Orient TV, he bankrolls a chain of field hospitals in Syria. He has sent hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own money in the form of humanitarian aid, advocated an anti-government stance to policymakers across Western capitals, and trained a legion of young journalists in the opposition.

Along the way, Orient TV’s evolution has tracked that of the broader Syrian media. Like much of the Arab Spring, Syria’s revolution began with a flood of optimism about independent, citizen-driven news. When protesters thronged the streets, obtuse state television and radio networks played patriotic songs on loop, while satellite channels like Orient TV ran grainy cellphone videos of police firing on peaceful demonstrations. By evading censorship, platforms like Twitter and Facebook achieved two things Syria’s tightly-controlled media never had before: They gave the political opposition a voice, and they exposed to the world Syria’s brutal police state.

Within weeks, social media had helped topple decades-old despotic regimes in Egypt and Tunisia. Orient TV, like so many broadcasters covering the uprisings, tapped into this new pool of readymade sources on the ground. Its journalists built a database of as many as 9,000 Syrian activists ready to send in video and tips. International NGOs and foundations sent smartphones to activists and deployed media trainers to advise them on Skype. A new generation of citizen journalists was born, helping to grow Syria’s mobile phone penetration rate from just 46 percent in 2011 to nearly ubiquitous today.

Yet four years later, the much-vaunted media revolution hasn’t delivered the freedom or the plurality it promised. As unarmed demonstrations gave way to conventional warfare, the media, too, entered the fray. The number of citizen sources grew, but their audiences fragmented. Opposition, regime, jihadist, and ethnic media today rarely resemble one another; the stories they tell speak less to a shared reality than to the fissures between different versions of the prevailing narrative.

These days, every militia and brigade has its own YouTube channel, theme song, and social media network. And as armed groups have grown to resemble media organizations, the media has started looking like militias too: partisan, sectarian, and driven by hate speech. On social media particularly, but in the established media as well, broadcasts don’t just report the violence. With inflammatory language and provocative storylines, they actively incite it.

Orient TV has not been immune to these trends. The channel was a voice of reason in the early days of the uprising, and remains among the most professionally produced and one of the few to have reporters on the ground, breaking news few others can. But Orient TV, which describes itself as a non-partisan opposition channel, also took a side. Critics see a station that panders to a limited, Sunni revolutionary subset, adopting sectarian lingo to speak to and about most everyone else.

Syria is hardly the first conflict in which the media landscape has become a battlefield. But the rapid expansion of social media in the last few years has sped the process. The sheer volume of information the conflict has produced, and the vast number of people who are shaping it, mean that everyone is both citizen and journalist, partisan and reporter. The media war is just as real as any fighting on the ground, because many of the actors are the same. Ending the military conflict likely won’t be possible until the information battle dies down.

This explains why Orient TV operates behind unmarked doors, tucked away a dozen miles from the flashy Dubai neighborhood hosting most other satellite stations. The channel’s stance hasn’t just won it critics, but also enemies. Orient TV and its staff have been targeted by the Syrian government, the Islamic State (ISIS), and many others.

And Orient TV is fighting back. “The journalists don’t take it just as professionals; they take the revolution as their cause,” says Aboud, the owner. “They take it personally because Syria is their home.” [Continue reading…]

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Social media lifts Saudi women in vote

The Wall Street Journal reports: After Lama al-Sulaiman became one of Saudi Arabia’s first elected female politicians over the weekend, she celebrated her landmark victory through her Twitter account.

She expressed thanks to her supporters and said she hopes to meet their expectations. “Words of gratitude are not enough,” she tweeted.

As with many other candidates who had to campaign under restrictive rules in this absolutist monarchy, Ms. al-Sulaiman bet heavily on social media to promote her political program and to hear from voters.

Ahead of Saturday’s historic election — the first in which women were allowed to participate as voters as well as candidates — she combined face-to-face campaigning with social-media outreach to secure a seat in the local council of her hometown, the coastal city of Jeddah.

“Saudi Arabia is ready for women in politics,” said Ms. al-Sulaiman, the entrepreneur behind a woman-only fitness club and one of at least a dozen women who won a seat in Saturday’s nationwide municipal election.

That Saudi Arabia has one of the highest rates of social-media use in the world — there are an estimated five million Twitter users in the country — helps explain the ease in which candidates promoted their campaigns and articulated their priorities. [Continue reading…]

Michael Stephens writes: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s recent municipal elections is not usually a story most international observers would spend an awful lot of time on. But the election of 19 women from some 2,100 candidates has focused attention for the first time on the role of women in a country which has over the years received much criticism for its perceived imbalance of gender.

While fewer than one percent of the successful candidates were female, make no mistake, this is a big moment for Saudi. Thirty women already sit in Saudi Arabia’s 150-member parliament, known as the Shura Council, but they are appointed directly by the king. So the election of women by the public is a welcome step which in the eyes of many commentators – indeed many Saudis – is long overdue.

There is much more to be done, the next most likely step being the normalisation of driving for men and women. But as with all things in the kingdom, change happens slowly and at its own pace. [Continue reading…]

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#YouAintNoMuslimBruv said it better than Cameron ever could

I can’t decide if this is Vine at its best or worst:

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein.

I think that applies to the phrase “bruv” coming out of David Cameron’s mouth.

Still, he meant well:

As Muhbeer Hussain, founder of British Muslim Youth, says, the man who defiantly challenged the Leytonstone attacker, is “a hero for the British Muslim community for speaking out against this.”

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Is Facebook luring you into being depressed?

Chelsea Wald writes: In his free time, Sven Laumer serves as a referee for Bavaria’s highest amateur football league. A few years ago, he noticed several footballers had quit Facebook, making it hard to organize events on the platform. He was annoyed, but as a professor who studies information systems, he was also intrigued. Why would the young men want to give up Facebook? Social scientists had been saying the social network was a good thing.

“At the time, the main paradigm in social networking research was that Facebook is a positive place, it’s a place of happiness, it’s a place where you have fun, you get entertained, you talk to friends, you feel amused, accepted,” says Hanna Krasnova, an information systems researcher at the University of Bern in Switzerland. Influential studies had shown that the social capital we earn on social media can be key to our successes, big and small. Our virtual connections were known to help us access jobs, information, emotional support, and everyday favors. “Everyone was enthusiastic about social media,” Laumer says.

Laumer, an assistant professor at Otto-Friedrich University in Germany, suspected that quitting Facebook was a classic response to stress. He knew other researchers had looked at something called “technostress,” which crops up in workplaces due to buggy interfaces or complex processes. But that didn’t really fit with Facebook, which is easy to use. Something else seemed to be stressing people out. “We thought there was a new phenomenon on social media in particular,” Laumer says.

Through probing interviews, surveys, longitudinal studies, and laboratory experiments, researchers have begun to shift the paradigm, revealing that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and their ilk are places not only of fun and success, but of dark, confronting, and primal human emotions—less Magic Kingdom and more creepy fun house. In many ways, researchers say, these platforms are giant experiments on one of our species’ most essential characteristics: our social nature. So it shouldn’t be a surprise there are unintended consequences. [Continue reading…]

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Why does Donald Trump tell so many lies?

The more lies Donald Trump tells, the larger the frustration grows — the greater the sense that Trump continues lying because he’s being allowed to get away with it.

The New York Times says:

Mr. Trump relies on social media to spread his views. This is convenient because there’s no need to respond to questions about his fabrications. That makes it imperative that other forms of media challenge him.

Instead, as Mr. Trump stays at the top of the Republican field, it’s become a full-time job just running down falsehoods like the phony crime statistics he tweeted, which came from a white supremacist group.

Yet Mr. Trump is regularly rewarded with free TV time, where he talks right over anyone challenging him, and doubles down when called out on his lies.

This isn’t about shutting off Mr. Trump’s bullhorn. His right to spew nonsense is protected by the Constitution, but the public doesn’t need to swallow it. History teaches that failing to hold a demagogue to account is a dangerous act. It’s no easy task for journalists to interrupt Mr. Trump with the facts, but it’s an important one.

MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell says “Donald Trump lies because he knows he can get away with it.”

O’Donnell also says Trump exploits the politeness of his interviewers and that they are afraid of challenging him because they are afraid he won’t show up for future interviews.

Trump’s antics are boosting the ratings of both supporters and critics in the media.

But I don’t think Trump continues lying simply because he can get away with it, or because the media is too polite to call him a liar, or because since he is a pathological liar he just can’t stop lying.

The reason he keeps on lying is because, paradoxically, among his supporters it reinforces his image as a truth-teller.

Since Trump supporters think that “the media” and “media lies” are synonyms, and since in a polls have shown “liar” (at least until recently) was a phrase more commonly linked to Hillary Clinton than Trump, and since the political establishment is widely viewed as being filled with liars, it matters much less to Trump that he is being called a liar than it does who is calling him that.

If each time Trump gets called a liar and Trump’s base see his accusers themselves as liars, the accusation not only loses its sting — it ends up looking like a vindication, proof that Trump is rocking the establishment.

What’s the solution?

For a start, the media needs to stop giving Trump so much free airtime. And that means refraining from following the currently irresistible impulse to profit from his notoriety.

A presidential election should be about issues, not antics, and it’s up to the media to cover the issues.

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