Posts Tagged ‘Guardian’

A Failure of Skepticism on Reddit

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

Back during the 2008 campaign, one of the things that most infuriated me was the emails that went around with all sorts of claims about Obama that referred to outside authorities such as Snopes or Obama’s memoirs. (See here, here, here, here, and here.) People forwarded these items, but never took the time to check out these basic claims. As FactCheck.org observed at the time:

Such attacks usually can be disproved with less effort than it takes to forward them to others.

Now, of course political debate has always been about framing events and pushing one’s agenda – about creating stories and propaganda to demonize your enemy and rile up your supporters. And there have always been lies, and every other sort of assault on the truth. There have always been fringe movements that require their supporters to believe elaborate constructions of lies built into conspiracy theories. But beginning with the rise of Obama in the spring of 2008, the Republican Party itself has become such a fringe group – as it has mainly stopped engaging in more honest political dialogue such as ideological arguments and good-faith disputes over facts. America’s political debate has turned into lies and efforts to combat these lies. (For the prime example, see the primal scream of outrage that was the health care debate. Hereherehere.)

How a propaganda source lies or frames issues tells us a lot about how its creators view their audience. As Jason Zengerle has sagely noted, the fictional world that Republican media is selling of grand conspiracies and ominous music demonstrates that they see their audience primarily as consumers who want entertainment. Is this season of 24 over? Then check out Fox News for the same adrenaline rush. Or read a Vince Flynn novel. Either way, you’ll get stories of grand conspiracies by terrorists with weak liberals being saved by brave conservatives. Thus Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and much of the rest of the Republican media establishment started out as and still describe themselves as “entertainers” rather than journalists.  Then, of course, as I’ve observed in the past, TownHall.com just presumes its readers are gullible, lazy idiots – sending them get-rich-quick-schemes (See here and here.) in addition to their political lies. (See here, here, and here.) The creators of the smear emails clearly similarly saw their audience as gullible and unlikely to check the sources they cited in support, even as they made the most outrageous claims. What all three of these propaganda sources have in common is that they don’t expect their audience to fact check their smears, but expect them to act on them and spread them to others. They do not expect their audience to be skeptical, but to simply accept and promote the smears.

I was reminded of this by another smear that got spread – this time via reddit. (Probably other sites too – but reddit is the only one I pay attention to.) I normally see reddit as made up of rather skeptical individuals. But a few times, as a whole, the reddit community seems to have bought whole various smears and propaganda efforts – usually when they were both (1) emotional and (2) fit into some preconceived bias, usually a bias against the establishment media. Thus, when Russia invaded Georgia almost two years ago, reddit promoted various Russian propaganda claims and demoted any support for Georgia – despite the fact that atrocities were being committed by both sides and Russia’s actions clearly violated international law. When I challenged people on this, the most common reaction was to say that they were just trying to balance the mainstream media which was very pro-Georgia.

Another example of this occurred on reddit last week – as headlines were voted up reaching the top of reddit claiming:

Israel admits harvesting Palestinian organs

Israel apparently harvested Palestinian organs without telling anyone.

Israel harvested organs off dead Palestinians, says former head of Israel’s Abu Kabir forensic institute

Israel admits harvesting Palestinian organs–without permission or consent

Philip Weiss on organ thefts: “I say it’s further evidence of this great challenge in Jewish history, learning respect for the other”

Anyone who followed up and read beyond the headline of the piece in the Guardian that most of these stories linked to would have found that an Israeli doctor had admitted that Israeli hospitals had harvested organs from patients “including Palestinians” who died in their hospitals, as they did not have a policy which required them to get permission.* Shortly thereafter, the Guardian followed up and said:

The Guardian has admitted it erred in using the headline “Israel admits harvesting Palestinian organs” . “That headline did not match the article, which made clear that the organs were not taken only from Palestinians.”

This headline got much less attention. Even more interesting than those too lazy to read the article were those who claimed vindication for the Swedish newspaper that had previously reported that Israel had been killing Palestinians in order to harvest their organs:

Will Netanyahu/Israel apologize for the baseless attacks calling Sweden anti-Semitic regarding the truth about Israeli organ harvesting?

Remember the Israeli outrage over alleged organ harvesting, and how that could never have happened? Yeah, well, about that…

Israeli Organ Harvesting. The New “Blood Libel”? I dare you to read this and say there is absolutely nothing to this story.

Yet the Guardian story by Ian Black specifically addressed the Swedish story:

Channel 2 TV reported that in the 1990s, specialists at Abu Kabir harvested skin, corneas, heart valves and bones from the bodies of Israeli soldiers, Israeli citizens, Palestinians and foreign workers, often without permission from relatives…

However, there was no evidence that Israel had killed Palestinians to take their organs, as the Swedish paper reported.

Reading through the comments on these posts, you will find quite a bit of blatant anti-Semitism, as well as people disputing and disparaging these anti-Semitic comments. But should it be called anti-Semitism when people were so willing to jump to the conclusion that in fact Israel had some program which sought to harvest Palestinian organs? I’m not sure. But it is disturbing – almost as disturbing as those many right wingers fooled into thinking Obama is a secret Muslim born in Kenya (and that Snopes confirmed it!)

I expect better from reddit. I expect people to be skeptical. When I read a story that says that Obama is a secret Muslim, that Israel is killing Palestinians to harvest their organs, that the health care legislation will create death panels and kill babies, I regard it with as much skepticism as when I am told that if I subscribe to this or that newsletter, I will make $1 million in less than a year. Before I vote up or forward an email or invest in a stock, I check the sources. This isn’t unreasonable – and redditors are usually decent about this – which is what made this story so bothersome.

* These headlines are as misleading as a headline on November 5, 2009 would be claiming that “McCain receives third largest vote total in American history!” without mentioning the guy who won.

Remembering Ted Kennedy: “He lived his own large life and the ledger of it shows a substantial positive balance.”

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

The tributes have obviously been coming in. The conclusion seems to be the same one I would have come to before: that Ted Kennedy was a great, but flawed man – and like all men and women, he should be celebrated, without tears for the good he did in his life.

Here’s a few articles worth reading:

In Timothy Noah’s Slate piece he declares Ted Kennedy, “The Kennedy who most changed America.”

George F. Will argues much the same thing in a piece that reminds me of his greatness as a columnist, despite all of his bitter distortions on climate change:

Let us pay the Kennedys tributes unblurred by tears. Although a great American family, they are not even Massachusetts’ greatest family: The Adamses provided two presidents, John and John Quincy, and Charles Francis, who was ambassador to Britain during the Civil War, and the unclassifiable Henry. Never mind. It diminishes Ted to assess him as a fragment of a family. He lived his own large life and the ledger of it shows a substantial positive balance.

Joe Klein meanwhile explains “how Ted Kennedy found himself” in a personal remembrance of the man he knew for many years.

Michael Tomasky writes in the Guardian in his moving piece:

One would be hard pressed to argue that Ted Kennedy’s death was a more bitter pill for the country than the deaths of his brothers before him – John, the young president whose assassination gave Americans a hard warning about the violent age they were about to enter, or Robert, the presidential aspirant who was thought at the time to be the last leader in America who might have been able to help the nation transcend that violence.

Nevertheless, the heavens have somehow conspired to make this Kennedy death, however expected it might have been, nearly as heartbreaking as those of his vigorous younger brothers.

Charles P. Pierce writes in a long piece about Ted Kennedy’s life and career about how the events in Chappaquiddick shortly before the first man landed on the moon affected the rest of Senator Ted Kennedy’s career:

She’s always there. Even if she doesn’t fit in the narrative line, she is so much of the dark energy behind it. She denies to him forever the moral credibility that lay behind not merely all those rhetorical thunderclaps that came so easily in the New Frontier but also Robert Kennedy’s anguished appeals to the country’s better angels. He was forced from the rhetoric of moral outrage and into the incremental nitty-gritty of social justice. He learned to plod, because soaring made him look ridiculous…

And if his name were Edward Moore, he would have done time.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

Orwellian Tactics

Monday, April 6th, 2009

According to an article in the GuardianClive Stafford Smith and his colleague Ahmed Ghappour wrote a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to reconsider the American stance on releasing information related to their client’s detainment at Guantanamo. Smith, who has some level of American security clearance, attached a memo to this letter which included some information which he had gleaned due to his security clearance – and so he submitted the memo to a privilege review team at America’s Department of Defense for clearance. 

 

[T]he memo was redacted to just the title, leaving the president unable to read it. Stafford Smith included the redacted copy of the memo in his letter to illustrate the extent to which it had been censored. He described it as a “bizarre reality”. “You, as commander in chief, are being denied access to material that would help prove that crimes have been committed by US personnel. This decision is being made by the very people who you command.”

The privilege team argue that by releasing the redacted memo Reprieve has breached the rules that govern Guantánamo lawyers and have made a complaint to the court of “unprofessional conduct”.

 

The Guardian has posted the full letter here (pdf).

If the privilege review team is successful in pressing their complaint, Stafford Smith will be receive a six-month prison sentence. Unfortunately, the privilege review team has not yet identified what rule was supposedly breached.

Preparing For A Summer of Rage

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

Those in power are clearly nervous about what will happen if this crisis continues to deepen. British police are predicting that 2009 will be a “summer of rage” as middle-class anger at the economic crisis erupts into violence on the streets of Great Britain. Protest organizers are claiming that the police are merely trying to prepare the public for more brutal put-downs of protests by the police – but even this in itself indicates a nervousness on the part of the police, a fear that protests will get out of control. 

At the same time, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the powerful inside player in Washington since he was National Security Advisor under Jimmy Carter, warned on MSNBC that this recession could lead to riots in America:

[T]here is public awareness of this extraordinary wealth that was transferred to a few individuals at levels without historical precedent in America . . . And you sort of say to yourself: what’s going to happen in this society when these people are without jobs, when their families hurt, when they lose their homes, and so forth?

…[T]here’s going to be growing conflict between the classes and if people are unemployed and really hurting, hell, there could be even riots.

The financial crisis has already lead to the increasing instability, civil unrest, and conflict in Russia, Pakistan, Mexico, and throughout the world - all of this during the normally dormant winter months.

It was often said that China’s government was only able to remain in power and maintain stability if the economy was growing at a fast enough rate. It’s beginning to be clear that this is true for most of the world’s governments. As I wrote before:

As long as American citizens have their basic needs met and a reasonable opportunity to succeed, they will accept a polarized distribution of wealth, corruption of various sorts, and sundry other injustices. And as long as the Chinese citizens are moving towards having their basic needs met and have a reasonable opportunity to succeed, they will accept a single-party state, restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, and other restrictions.

Any state’s constitutional structure is legitimated by whether it provides for the needs of it’s people. In another age, the state merely provided security against hostile invasions and criminals; later, it provided an identity as well; by the middle of the 20th century, a state was legitimated by the extent to which it could provide for the basic needs of it’s citizens. The Cold War was, to a large degree, a competition between the capitalist states and the Communists states to see which could provide more ably for the needs of it’s citizens. Today, the state is evolving from providing for the needs of it’s citizens to providing opportunities for it’s citizens.

We are now facing the spectre of rapidly increasing unemployment and diminished opportunities for millions accustomed to a rising standard of living. A prolonged depression, or even a slowing in growth, in a market-state undermines the government’s legitimacy and society’s stability, perhaps to the breaking point.

Many of the world’s societies are only peaceful and stable to the extent that their people believe they can improve their lot in life, or their children’s lot. The opiate of the masses is no longer religion – it is hope, the expectation of better things to come grounded in expanding individual opportunity. This financial crisis may test what happens when this opiate is removed.

Europe’s Impotence

Friday, January 9th, 2009

Timothy Garton Ash writes in the Guardian with frustration at Europe’s seeming impotence, so much at odds with it’s theoretical power:

At a moment when the United States is suspended between an outgoing president who won’t do anything to stop the slaughter and an incoming president who feels he can’t yet, Europe has a chance to show what it can do. So here it is: weak, divided, and still as infuriatingly pompous and vacuously self-aggrandising as it was in the early 1990s, when the foreign minister of Luxembourg descended on disintegrating Yugoslavia and cried “the hour of Europe has come”. Like the Bourbons, the EU seems to have forgotten nothing and learned nothing…

Why can’t we Europeans get our act together when it comes to dealing with the rest of the world? On our own continent we have done great things: we have almost completed the most ambitious enlargement in the history of the union; we have just marked the 10th anniversary of the euro. In external policy we are little further on than we were a decade ago. And time is not on our side. As powers such as China and India rise, the relative power of Europe inevitably decreases – so pooling our resources is to some extent simply running to keep up. Global warming and nuclear proliferation will not wait on our endless internal debates.

Given the power of so many European countries in the recent past – and today – it is astounding that collectively they seem to have less diplomatic and political pull than they do individually. Sarkozy demonstrated to some degree how the EU presidency could be used more strongly, but with only six months in office, he was not able to make a significant difference. Couple this with the demographic crisis in Europe – as it’s population ages and perhaps decreases – and with the rapid growth of China, India, and Brazil – and as Ash points out, with America at a low ebb in our power – it’s hard to see a better time for Europe to have taken the lead in world affairs than in the past two years.

Yet they didn’t – or couldn’t.

The Dynamics of Moral Outrage, Group Hatred, and Violence

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

Reem Al Ghussain, an English teacher at Al-Azhar University in Gaza in the Guardian:

[My children] ask me: “Why are the Israelis doing this to us?” My child in fifth grade asks me: “What did we do to them?” I tell them that they want to take our land and they want all Palestinians to die.

It is this attitude, this indoctrination that passes down hatred and a sense of the ‘Otherness’ of the enemy from parent to child, that is at the root of so many long-simmering conflicts. As Glenn Greenwald wrote, channeling George Orwell:

If you see Palestinians as something less than civilized human beings:  as “barbarians” – just as if you see Americans as infidels warring with God or Jews as sub-human rats — then it naturally follows that civilian deaths are irrelevant, perhaps even something to cheer.  For people who think that way, arguments about “proportionality” won’t even begin to resonate – such concepts can’t even be understood – because the core premise, that excessive civilian deaths are horrible and should be avoided at all costs, isn’t accepted.  Why should a superior, civilized, peaceful society allow the welfare of violent, hateful barbarians to interfere with its objectives?  How can the deaths or suffering of thousands of barbarians ever be weighed against the death of even a single civilized person?

So many of these conflicts – one might say almost all of them – end up shaped by the same virtually universal deficiency:  excessive tribalistic identification (i.e.:  the group with which I was trained to identify is right and good and just and my group’s enemy is bad and wrong and violent), which causes people to view the world only from the perspective of their side, to believe that X is good when they do it and evil when it’s done to them.  X can be torture, or the killing of civilians in order to “send a message” (i.e., Terrorism), or invading and occupying other people’s land, or using massive lethal force against defenseless populations, or seeing one’s own side as composed of real humans and the other side as sub-human, evil barbarians.

As Bill Bishop described in Slate the tendency of groups to polarize towards extremes (in the context of the Palin rallies in the news then):

We are constantly comparing our beliefs and opinions to those of the group. There are advantages to being slightly more extreme than the group average. It’s a way to stand out, to ensure others will see us as righteous group members.

“It’s an image-maintenance kind of thing,” explained social psychologist Robert Baron. Everybody wants to be a member in good standing, and though it sounds counterintuitive, the safest way to conform is to be slightly more extreme than the average of the group.

Cass Sunstein, a law professor and adviser to Barack Obama, described how this dynamic works in a social setting as a preface to his discussion of “leaderless jihad“:

A few years ago, Daniel Kahneman, David Schkade, and I were involved in several studies of punitive damage awards by juries. We began by asking one thousand or so demographically diverse people to register their judgments about misconduct by various wrongdoers. We asked them to rate their moral outrage on a scale of zero to six, where zero meant “not at all outrageous” and six meant “exceptionally outrageous.” We also asked them to come up with an appropriate dollar award…

[As our] goal is to understand how juries really behave – or more ambitiously, how outrage develops in the real world…we conducted a follow-up study, involving about three thousand jury-eligible citizens and five hundred deliberating juries, each consisting of six people. Here is how the experiment worked. Every juror read about a personal injury case, including the arguments made by both sides. Jurors were also asked to record, in advance of deliberation, their individual judgments on a bounded numerical scale, and also in terms of dollars. Next they were asked to deliberate together to reach a verdict, both on the bounded scale and on the dollar scale. Our goal was to discover the relationship between people’s individual judgments, in advance of deliberation, and the ultimate views and actions of group members who have discussed the matter.

You might predict (as I did) that deliberation would lead to compromise, and hence that the verdicts of juries would be pretty close to the median of punishment judgments of jurors; but your prediction would be badly wrong. It turned out that the effect of deliberation was to create a “severity shift.” When people began with a lot of outrage, their interactions made them significantly more outraged than they were before they started to talk. And with dollar awards, the severity shift was especially large. The ultimate award of juries was usually higher than the award favored by the median juror in advance of deliberation. In many cases, the jury ended up with an award at least as high as the highest award favored, in advance, by any of the jury’s members.

Sunstein connects this experiment of moral outrage and social dynamics to Marc Sageman’s “Leaderless Jihad”:

Drawing on the data, Sageman offers an arresting conclusion, which is that a major explanation of Islamic terrorism lies in patterns of social interaction that transform moral outrage into extremism. In his account, terrorists are not mentally ill, poor, uneducated, sociopathic, or victims of trauma. In the main, they are ordinary individuals who move to radical positions as a result of discussions with like-minded others. Sageman focuses in particular on the rise of what he calls “global Islamist terrorism” – a large and loosely organized social movement that is subject to no command-and-control structure and has prospered in the wake of the invasion of Iraq. What makes Sageman’s account distinctive is his emphasis on the crucial role of social networks – in the real world and on the Internet – and his effort to show that an understanding of those networks has significant and sometimes counterintuitive implications for how to safeguard national security. At the same time, Sageman offers general lessons about how enclosed enclaves of like-minded types help produce political beliefs and action of many kinds, including violence.

This same dynamic plays out on many different scales in our society and in societies around the world, with differing levels of ferocity. How a society deals with this dynamic helps determine it’s stability, or lack. One of the ways to address this issue seems to be dialogue and communication among polarizing groups – and friendships between these groups – a principle which Obama, to his credit, has often stood for. As Americans increasingly clustering and moving into areas in which they are ideologically comfortable, as they tend to find media outlets that cater to their ideological preferences and ignore as biased those media sources that do not, we are moving away from those aspects of American society that have tamped down extremism and encouraging this dynamic of polarization.

At the same time, we shouldn’t overstate things about American polarization. It’s hard to believe we are close to the point that Russian academic Igor Panarin is predicting – that America will break into six seperate parts [map]. Much more significant is the extent to which this dynamic plays out amongst Muslim populations that are trending towards extremism and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – as these situations demonstrate extremely heightened forms of this dynamic. Without understanding this dynamic, we can never address the root of these issues – and we will be tempted to respond without adequate reflection.