Politics

Russia and the West: what is the Endgame?

Reading Time: 4 minutesIn light of the poisoning of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, and the tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats by NATO countries and Russia that followed, one might begin to wonder: what exactly is the endgame of this increasing confrontation between Russia and the West?

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Does Social Media Really Polarize Our Politics?

Reading Time: 3 minutesIt’s often said that social media has a polarizing effect on our politics. And, on the surface, this narrative makes a lot of sense. The polarization of politics has continued as social media has taken over our brains. And what social media does, among other things, is make a game of earning the approval of your peers, thus solidifying your group identity.

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There is No Solution to the Problem of “Fake News”

Reading Time: 4 minutesIn the aftermath of the 2016 election, the term “fake news”, seldom heard previously, became ubiquitous. This was, of course, no coincidence: the unexpected victory of Donald Trump cried out for an explanation, and invoking the concept was one such attempt by the president’s many critics, who could not bring themselves to face the possibility that he won fairly […]

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Oprah: The Candidate of Democrat Desperation

Reading Time: 4 minutesFor the first time in a while, there was a feel-good atmosphere in Hollywood on Sunday evening as Oprah Winfrey delivered a Golden Globes speech that many described as “presidential”. She sounded all the right notes about sexual harassment and rape, managing to present women–especially, black women–as righteous victims and brave fighters simultaneously. She pointed the finger of blame squarely at “brutally powerful men” […]

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Is there Hope Yet for the Rainbow Nation?

Reading Time: 9 minutesSouth Africa might be seen as a microcosm of the “globalised” world itself. Home to people of African, European, Indian, Asian, and mixed descent, it nevertheless attempts to find some unity of purpose in its diversity. To this end, in 1994 with the end of white minority rule, it styled itself as the “Rainbow Nation”: the idea that the country’s many racial and ethnic parts can make up a beautiful whole. But rainbows are also elusive, as anyone who has ever tried […]

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Is the Indo-Pacific Here to Stay?

Reading Time: 3 minutesCoverage of Trump’s recent tour of Asia has tended to focus on a few areas. There were his readiness to speak kindly of China, in spite of earlier campaign promises. Then there was the continuing war of words with North Korea, which has reached farcical levels. And finally, the obligatory snaps of Putin and Trump […]

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Alt-Left vs. Alt-Right

Reading Time: 8 minutes[Note: In this essay, I only discuss the cultural aspects of the left-right divide, and leave the economic aspects to others who have a far better grasp of these. Of course, culture and economics are not entirely separable, and I regret any blind spots that may result from this.] What has been called the “alt-right” is only the mirror […]

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What does Siloed Social Media mean for Politics?

Reading Time: 3 minutesThe old adage for dealing with dealing with online abuse was ‘Don’t feed the trolls’ – a statement based on the premise that they could fundamentally dealt with like offline bullies. By refusing to give them the emotional response and the attention which they crave, the argument went, they would get bored and move off […]

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Explainer: The Iran Nuclear Deal

Reading Time: 2 minutesFew pet peeves have attracted the ire of Donald Trump as much as the Iran nuclear deal completed by his predecessor. President Obama’s 2015 action was meant to reshape policy in the region, breaking the long-standing divide between the Shia powerhouse and the US which dates back to late 1970s, and which had only intensified […]

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What ISIS and its critics get equally wrong about early Islamic history

Reading Time: 5 minutesAs the star of ISIS (apparently) begins to fade, it is perhaps worth interrogating its vision of returning to Islam in its original, pure form. A Salafi Islamist movement, ISIS seeks to purge contemporary Islam of its heretical accretions. Its English-language magazine Dabiq, explains that the Khilafah [caliphate] could not be established except through a jama’ah [group] […]

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Explainer: The British Far-Right
Reading Time: 2 minutes

The murder of Jo Cox in the run-up to Brexit was shocking not merely for the fact that it was the first killing of a British MP in over 20 years. The words her killer, Thomas Mair, shouted – “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain” – marked a return of British white supremacy which had last had its heyday in the 1990s.

Whilst more electorally focussed versions of white nationalism have persisted and gained support over the past decade – most notably in the brief surge of support the British National Party (BNP) received under Nick Griffin – the last decade of the 20th century had marked a high-point in the indigenous white nationalist movement (as opposed to US or European imported groups). Neo-Nazi groups centred in the UK included Combat 18 (the number standing for the letters ‘AH’, Hitler’s initials) and Blood & Honour, which hosted the formerly flourishing white nationalist music scene. For groups like these, which had evolved from post-WWII fascists and disillusioned imperialists with ill-disguised antipathy for immigrants from former colonies, the high point of their publicity came in April 1999 – courtesy of a 22 year old called David Copeland.

A former BNP member, Copeland had read ‘The Turner Diaries’, William Luther Pierce’s dystopian novel and handy manifesto for the budding fascist. In 1995 it had made the headlines in America when Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City Bomber, was discovered with pages from the novel (which describes an attack on an FBI building) – a screed which called for radical warfare against the state. Copeland turned to explosives himself, but he targeted another typical fascist target – non-white Britons, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ community. His attacks killed three and wounded another 140.

It’s probably unfair to call Copeland’s attack the catalyst for the failure of the British far-right scene – the deaths of key members of groups like Combat 18 through factional infighting also played a role. At any rate, the early 21st century saw the apparent transition of the old street fighting outfits to electoral politics.

Mair’s actions shattered this illusion, especially as his words were rapidly coopted by a previously little known group, National Action. With its roots in Yorkshire (which has traditionally played host to the BNP and other far-right outfits), the group had only been founded in 2013 – but it nevertheless is the only far-right group proscribed in Britain. The status has conferred upon it a great deal of respect in white supremacist forums, seeming validation of the state control which Pierce’s Turner Diaries ‘predicted’ – not bad going, considering attempts in 2015 to organise a rally in Liverpool ended with National Action members hiding behind the shutters of a shop at Liverpool Lime Street Station.

In styling, National Action offers a blend of the peculiarly British and the distinctly transnational – a technique borrowed from the broader alt-right. Where older iterations of the website from 2013 show a particular approach which mimicked the National Front, focusing on immigrants, the group has increasingly opted for a broader symbolism. One of the most recent examples of its home page featured Anglo-Saxon imagery alongside the broader, pseudo-academic ideology which has been popularised by Richard Spencer and others in America – and which is increasingly developing in continental Europe and Britain.

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How the Echo Chamber won Trump his presidency
Reading Time: 4 minutes

American Likes 1

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” pretty much sums up 2016 in a single sentence. Today’s result in the American Presidential Election came as a shock to many, partly because all the data pointed to the contrary right up until the day itself. It seems we are still a long way from understanding the contextual nature of mining big data for information, and this problem extends itself into how we are becoming heavily reliant on similar systems controlling how we consume information.

Nowadays we use Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks to gain information, ingest content and read the news. We often see what we like and like what we see, resulting in biased social feeds because of this echo chamber. Most of us have realised how biased our news feed is which is down to how we use them, but recent political events such as Brexit and the US election have shown us the extent of just how much this is the case.

[quoter color=”yellow”]We unknowingly accept the echo chamber we’re placed in because we are fed information we like and agree with our own opinion.[/quoter]

In many cases, users don’t even realise that they consume one-sided, or similar information because of the social circles around them. This entire phenomenon can be chalked up to “You don’t know what you don’t know,” and users end up only reading regurgitated information. As a consequence, we unknowingly accept the echo chamber we’re placed in because we are fed information we like and agree with our own opinion. It’s then reinforced because people in the same social sphere agree with us too. So the echo chambers’ cycle remains because it gives us a false sense of affirmation that we are right in our beliefs – also known as a confirmation bias.

How likes divided a nation

The 2016 U.S. Election coverage is a perfect example. The Wall Street Journal recently put together this graphic which depicts how feeds may differ to Facebook users based on their political views: http://graphics.wsj.com/blue-feed-red-feed/

In the graphic, you can see Liberal and Conservative Facebook feeds side by side and how much they differ. After all, your feed is designed to prioritise content based on what you’ve liked, clicked and shared in the past. This means that conservatives don’t see much content from liberal sources and vice versa.

This particular presidential campaign has been fought on an entirely different content battleground than others, with a new army generating that content at high speed; with low value but an extremely high impact judging from today’s outcome. According to an article in Wired, one in every five election-related tweets from September 16 to October 21 was generated by a bot. These bots automatically generated content that met the criteria of the political agenda.  Because of the deluge of tweets, they triggered and shaped online discussions around the presidential race, including trending topics and how online activity surrounding the election debates were judged. The problem stems in a shift from an Information Economy to an Attention Economy, where he or she who makes the most noise, wins. Unfortunately, noise does not equal signal but you can’t tell them apart when a bot or algorithm is involved.

The perfect example of this was the revelation that over 100 pro-Trump websites were in fact, being run out of a small town in Macedonia. Posts weren’t being generated by bots but by a small group of teenagers making money from click bait articles which were mostly false and misleading. The most successful post, according to Buzzfeed when they investigated the issue was based on a story from a fake news website, was the headline on the story from ConservativeState.com which read “Hillary Clinton In 2013: ‘I Would Like To See People Like Donald Trump Run For Office; They’re Honest And Can’t Be Bought.’” The post was a week old and had racked up an astounding 480,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook. Those numbers are astounding and prove that attention means more than information.

Breaking the cycle

Bots and algorithms don’t seek out opposing views or surface them for readers because they’re not built that way. They serve us what we want to hear. It’s the same when we’re served news written by human hands specifically for our tastes. We become trapped in a filter bubble wrapped around an echo chamber (or should that be an echo chamber wrapped around by a filter bubble?!).

[quoter color=”yellow”]Bots and algorithms…serve us what we want to hear[/quoter]

The way to break free from this is to start understanding how algorithms work, why content screaming for attention can no longer be trusted as relevant, and to surround ourselves with different viewpoints. The ultimate goal is balance and only this way can you find a new perspective, different content, and learn what you don’t yet know.

We should be more selective in the content we consume. Instead of the algorithm doing the filtering first, we should manually look to filter the news, media, and information ourselves in order for algorithms to gently nudge new information by suggesting opposing views that broaden our perspective.

The algorithm should be the one to challenge our point of view, not reinforce it.

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