The social media’s Islamic state of terror

 
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By Christian Nielsen

ISIS has skillfully manipulated social media as a powerful propaganda tool.  Should the online community self-censor to deprive it of free publicity?

Prompted by social media, outraged Arabs and Muslims burned the ISIS flag.

Prompted by social media, outraged Arabs and Muslims burned the ISIS flag.

Tuesday 30 September 2014/Update Tuesday 18 November 2014

Quality media outlets – with their hierarchy of editors and codes of conduct – have the ability to hold or indeed withhold stories, in what they may consider the public good. Whether for ethical, legal or other reasons, though reasonably rare, there are historical precedents of newspapers and television stations, for example, choosing not to provide much-coveted coverage of terrorism events like a hijacked plane.

But the internet has proven a disruptive force – both in the positive and negative sense. Disruptive in that it gave a voice and opportunity to mostly young people in the Middle East to finally speak out against corrupt, incompetent or incorrigible rulers during the Arab Spring. But today it is also giving a loud voice – and gory platform – to a fanatical few who are intent on shocking and cajoling the right-minded world into a war which it sees no immediately viable way of avoiding. They say you should not shoot the messenger, but if social media is not part of the cause it should be part of the way out of this morass.

Is self-censorship an option?

This is a naive question, perhaps even an abhorrent one, for journalists to be asking, but it’s out there now, so let’s look at it more closely.

Of course, it is technically possible to censor social media from the top down, as amply shown by authoritarian states. This is an altogether different and unwelcome scenario. Here, I am speaking more of social media developing its own set of ethics or code of conduct beyond the people’s court of opinion after the offensive material has already been put out there.

Internet’s not insignificant influence

Already by 2008, just decades after it entered our lives, the internet had taken over traditional newspapers as a prime source of news, Pew Research reported, and for young people, it rivalled television as the main source of national and international news.

Back then a lot of the content still came from traditional sources, “usually those working in struggling newspaper companies and media outlets”, according to Global Issues in a debate broadly covering the changing media influence on society and democracy. But the online world is moving fast, with the growth of citizen journalism and blogs generating original content, and the ascent of video news and sharing sites.

Today, it is social media that seems to provide the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) and its ilk with an ideal forum for broadcasting their vitriol through cruel acts of violence, including horrific executions in the heart of war-torn Syria and Iraq, as well as further afield, such as the beheading of a French mountaineer in Algeria by IS-linked fanatics. It is a frightening frenzy of copycat behaviour fanned by a medium that has no genuine filter befitting the gravity of the acts.

The ability to easily film and almost instantaneously upload footage of these crimes brings into question the role of today’s one-to-very-many media as a possible conduit for a whole new level of terrorism. The more intense the reaction, it seems, the greater the appeal of the medium and the greater the likelihood of repeat offenses by all manner of offshoots, affiliates and IS acolytes.

How much can we blame the media for this new wave of glorified “me-too” terrorism? Can and should video-streaming sites refuse to allow – or be more stringent in their rejection of – violent content of this nature? How much should the holders and managers of these platforms be held responsible for this shocking content in much the same way as Julian Assange’s Wikileaks is being scrutinised for providing a forum for state “secrets” to be disseminated?

Some tough questions, but ones that most definitely need posing. Where is the debate on the role of new media as a seed for the decline in responsible reporting. As a supporter of the liberal press and freedom of speech, this is a hard thing to even write about, let alone contemplate. But maybe the new media have a responsibility like the old media once displayed, refusing to show the graphic, the abhorrent; reducing terrorists’ ability to promulgate their propaganda with impunity, and stopping the marketing machine that is IS from recruiting disenfranchised youth from East and West to its distorted call for a Caliphate.

I once described terror (in my now rather quaint book Tourism and the Media) in terms of its communication goals; and overlaid the way it works on people – remember terror is by definition to instil fear not necessarily to wreak carnage – and their perceptions in terms of basic communication (‘Terrorism represented as basic communication’ p157).

In the book, I touched on the early writing of PA Karber who in his unpublished paper ‘Terrorism as social protest’, introduced the communication dimension in how we conceptualise terrorism, “as a symbolic act”. In other words, the message (terrorist act filmed) being sent by the communicator/sender and received by the audience (the terrorist’s true target) whose feedback (recipient’s reaction) is communicated back to the sender.

The reactions in the case of IS are expressed in different ways, including, it now seems, the greater resolve of governments, both in the region and beyond, to stop them, in the knowledge that public support for aggressive measures is broadly accepted. The general public also “reacts” in concrete ways which “express” the fear now successfully instilled by, for example, changing their travel plans. Authorities in the West also react in terms of altering their perception of a region or people of Muslim faith or “men of Middle-eastern appearance doing nefarious things”. This kind of profiling has dangerous and far-reaching consequences on tolerance in multi-ethnic cultures like Canada, the USA, Australia and many parts of Europe. Examples of racial profiling are already coming out in Australia where the Guardian has reported a storm brewing over sensationalist journalism, press freedom and media hysteria about terrorism.

It will be telling proof to see the impact on travel to Muslim-majority countries by Westerners from the nations who have been loudest and most actively opposed to IS. The terrorist act succeeds if just one person changes their plans to visit Algiers, Petra, Casablanca or largely peaceful nations in the wider region, if people start making decisions based on fear. And with potentially millions seeing these horrible acts, or even reading about them in follow-up coverage, the probability that many more people will give in to the fear grows.

Perhaps the solution is to take out the middle men, remove the ability of these vile characters to get their message out so easily and effectively. It’s a thought. But is it a step too far? Does it take us back decades, or centuries… back to treating the press as a war propaganda machine? It amounts to censorship, one way or the other.

It would also mean articles like this are doing nothing more than adding to the “noise” of material keeping these fanatics’ dreams alive. On the flipside, if no-one reported the events, the support for action against this threat would be so much harder to muster.

Former US President George W Bush’s head-long and ham-fisted “War on Terror” in mostly Iraq and Afghanistan has brought only more trouble to a troubled region. And the loose application of the truth about weapons of mass destruction used as justification to enter this “war” doesn’t help the case for going back into the fray. Which is why the graphic nature of the crimes today (for that is what we are really talking about… Vile crimes committed by a cast of Sunni zealots, killers and misfits, to borrow from a recent story in The Economist) has worked as a wake-up call to the United States and its band of unlikely allies to go back and fix what was broken during the decade-long folly that was the War on Terror.

Now we’re terrified

Now that we really do have terror and the perpetrators are using the most powerful weapon they have at their disposal – mass, cheap, easy communications – to make us afraid. I think for the sake of clarity, it is worth recounting what terrorism is. It has no doubt existed in one form or another for millennia, but in its modern form, we need to go back more than a century.

Anarchist terrorism captured headlines and media attention back in the late 19th and early 20th century. But for modern scholars, it reached the zeitgeist in the 1960s and 70s, and first peaked (in news terms at least) in the 1980s thanks to events such as the downing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, and tensions in Israel, Northern Ireland, northern Spain, Central America and more.

Since the War on Terror commenced in the early 2000s it’s impossible to say what an act of terror really constitutes, and whether a death is a consequence of that when all parties would claim to be acting out of righteousness. But to continue on that train of thought would take us into a deep, dark recess of rhetoric and semantics on the distinction between terrorist and freedom fighter; one in which the Northern Irish have for years been digging their way out of. But with the statesman-like send-off that Ian Paisley recently received on the news of his death, it appears history is rewriting certain chapters for all of those engaged in the war/terrorism in and around Northern Ireland.

So back to our (mis)understanding of terrorism. The US government once defined it as “… premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents… intended to influence an audience.” While perhaps ignoring state terrorism in this equation it is a compact and functional definition.

And IS and its acolyte’s violent acts on civilians, journalists and aid workers would appear to fit this description, and its use of the media to “influence an audience” works here as well. RAND, a research think tank that keeps records of terrorism trends, has expressed that terrorism should be identified by the nature of the act and not by the identity of its perpetrators or the nature of their causes. But as I mention in my book, RAND’s description could be taken too literally by the world’s mass media which keep coming back to the horrors of the act, the visible carnage, and the loss of life which unfortunately seems to boost ratings. The focus here is more on the act than the nature or reasons behind the act.

Hostage-taking, beheadings, bombing, hijackings, assassinations… Audiences risk becoming addicted to the outrage, at the expense of better analysis and understanding of the causes; a trend which is likely only to aggravate the situation. What audiences must understand is that a terrorist act is intended to cause mayhem, confusion, outrage and terror, to rock the status quo.

The mass media, especially social media, needs to take a good look in the mirror and ask how much exposure they want to give these people. How much graphic detail is needed to maintain support for a just ‘War for Humanity’, if such a thing could ever exist, not another improvised ‘War on Terror’? Is the information really in the readers/viewers’ best interest, or the media channel’s?

Let’s stick to the tenets of good journalism, avoid sensationalising or fuelling the terrorists by over-publicising their horrible acts. Let’s try to sensibly limit the “feedback” they are craving.

UPDATE:

New figures published this week indicate that terrorism fatalities have increased almost fivefold since 9/11, and this is despite the US-led ‘war on terror’. The Global Terrorism Index reported some 18,000 deaths last year, a hike of nearly 60% over the previous year. According to the report, four groups were responsible for the majority of deaths; namely Islamic State (Isis) in Iraq and Syria; Boko Haram in Nigeria; the Taliban in Afghanistan; and al-Qaida in various parts of the world.

“The terrorism index raises questions about the effectiveness of a western counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 that has seen US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen and the use of proxy forces around the world,” writes The Guardian. The report’s release coincides with the latest Isis video showing the beheading of the American Peter Kassig, an aid worker who was posted in Syria.

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Arab spring and Turkish autumn?

 
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By Andrew Eatwell

Is Turkey truly a role model for the Arab Spring or is it actually a secular democracy in its autumn years?

Wednesday 8 June 2011

In the midst of the Arab Spring, Turkey is being looked to as a role model for post-revolutionary Arab states: a large, mostly Muslim country that has moved from military domination to civilian rule, led by a popular democratically elected government. Surely, conventional thinking goes, the so-called ‘Turkish model’ is a template for countries like Tunisia, Egypt and a post-Gaddafi Libya or a post-Saleh Yemen.

But as people in many Arab countries look forward to a new democratic dawn, many Turks are wondering if their secular democracy is not moving into its autumn years.

In recent months, as Tunisians and Egyptians celebrated the overthrow of their authoritarian regimes, Turks watched as police rounded up journalists, bloggers and military officers. As Arab revolutionaries coordinated anti-government protests over the internet, the Turkish government announced new internet regulations that critics say will increase censorship and restrict freedom of expression.

Many secular Turks worry that opposition to years of authoritarian rule in the Arab world is running parallel to rising authoritarianism at home. And they fear what will be next if Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wins the upcoming general election on June 12, as is widely expected.

Since coming to power in 2002, Erdoğan has sought to curtail the power of the meddlesome military – long the guardian of Turkish secularism – and the country’s militantly secular judges. A former radical Islamist who was once jailed for inciting religious hatred and whose party was previously banned, Erdoğan has reincarnated himself and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), publicly espousing a moderate, democratic brand of political Islam. As such, he has framed his efforts to trim the influence of the secular military as a step toward full-blooded Western-style democracy rather than a step away from secularism.

Outside Turkey, Erdoğan, in his new incarnation, has been widely applauded. A constitutional reform package that was approved in a referendum last September won praise from Western officials and the European Union, which Turkey is trying to join (though obstacles on both sides have recently cast shadows over the membership process). The reforms, which Erdoğan will seek to implement should he win the 12 June election, allow for previously untouchable army officers to be tried in civilian courts – in line with EU norms – and put an end to the legal immunity of top military officials implicated in a 1980 coup. It also increases the number of judges on the Constitutional Court – Turkey’s highest – and on the powerful Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors.

Inside Turkey, Erdoğan, who grew up in a poor Istanbul neighbourhood, became a semi-professional football player and went on to serve as mayor of the city in the 1990s, remains popular in low-income urban areas and in the country’s conservative rural Anatolian heartland. He is credited with bringing jobs and economic growth, taming formerly rampant inflation and doing more than any previous leader to move Turkey along the road to EU membership.

But in fast-modernising areas of major cities and coastal towns, many secular Turks question his aims.
They see the army, which has had a hand in the overthrow of four governments in the last 50 years, not as a threat to democracy per se but rather as the guardian of Turkey’s secular political order, a role it has played since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, himself a senior army commander, established the modern republic in 1923 following the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

For them, Erdoğan’s efforts to curtail the military’s power risks opening the door to Islamisation. And they worry that the independence of the courts, which have strictly upheld the secular Constitution, will be undermined by the increase in the number of judges, more of whom will be appointed by the president and parliament, currently under the control of Erdoğan’s AKP.

Opinion polls suggest the AKP will easily win the 12 June election, picking up around 45% of the votes, a similar percentage to in the last election in 2007. The main opposition centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) with its new leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, meanwhile, is on track to garner around 30% of votes, 10 percentage points more than in 2007. Despite that, the AKP stands a chance to increase its strength considerably and win an absolute majority in the 550-seat parliament if the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) drops below the 10% threshold needed to enter the chamber. Hit by a series of sex scandals – made public in videotapes distributed over the internet that have so far led to the resignation of four party members – the MHP currently looks likely to win 13% of votes, opinion polls suggest.

If the MHP fails to maintain sufficient support to enter parliament come election day, the AKP will all but certainly pick up enough seats to push its constitutional reform package – and many other laws – through parliament unchallenged. That has put secularists on edge in light of the events that have followed the constitutional referendum.

In February and again in April, dozens of military officers – among them 30 serving generals – were arrested for allegedly plotting a coup in the so-called Balyoz (Sledgehammer) case. And, over the same period, journalists were detained and blogs closed down for allegedly supporting another group of similarly likeminded coup-mongers in a separate case known as Ergenekon. Critics, among them law professors, political analysts and rights groups, say that the evidence in both cases looks flimsy and, in some instances, may have even been fabricated. Some have likened the investigations to a witch-hunt against opponents of the AKP.

“The Ergenekon investigation became a political witch-hunt tinged with obtuse paranoia in which a single, centrally coordinated – and manifestly fictional – clandestine organisation was accused of responsibility for every act of political violence in Turkey in the last 25 years,” writes Istanbul-based political analyst Gareth Jenkins. “Those who questioned the prosecutors’ claims – and the numerous breaches of due process, including the apparent fabrication of evidence – were subjected to public smear campaigns; in several cases they were arrested and charged with being members of Ergenekon themselves.”

Having already tamed the country’s largest media conglomerate, Doğan, with draconian fines for alleged tax fraud, the arrest of journalists, bloggers and the closure of an internet portal, Oda tv, which was critical of the AKP, are increasingly being seen as attempts to silence dissent and muzzle free speech.

With more than 50 journalists taken into custody in recent months, Turkey has imprisoned more journalists than any other country, ahead of China and Iran, according to the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers.
“Journalists and editors remained targets for prosecution. Legitimate news reporting on trials was deemed ‘attempting to influence a judicial process’ (and) reporting on criminal investigations was judged as ‘violating the secrecy of a criminal investigation’,” Human Rights Watch noted in its most recent World Report.

Members of the European Parliament pressed the issue in April when Erdoğan visited Brussels. Specifically, he defended the arrest of several journalists, a raid on the offices of leftist-liberal daily Radikal and the seizure of a book (banned by the government but widely circulated over the internet), all linked to the Ergenekon affair.

The book, titled The Imam’s Army and written by arrested investigative journalist Ahmet Şık, could be explosive, Erdoğan appeared to suggest: “It is a crime to use a bomb but it is also a crime to use materials from which a bomb is made. If informed that all materials needed to construct a bomb have been placed in a certain location, wouldn’t the security forces collect these materials?”

The government’s attacks on press freedom, combined with Erdoğan’s increasing hostility to Israel and warming relations with Iran, have undoubtedly tarnished relations between the NATO ally and Europe and the United States. Turkey’s chances of joining the EU anytime soon are looking increasingly slim and are likely to only get slimmer if the Erdoğan government continues down its current path.

Confiscating books, closing websites and blocking internet content is not new in Turkey: the government barred access to YouTube in 2008 over a video that was deemed to be insulting to Ataturk, a criminal offense under Turkish law. It lifted the ban two years later when the content was removed.

Previously, US officials had complained about the “absurd” trial of Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk for writing about the death of up to one million Armenians in 1915, a deeply neuralgic issue in Turkey.  “It will take much work to convince the Turks that freedom should cover the right to criticise and open guarantees to protect that right,” wrote former US Ambassador Ross Wilson of the Pamuk affair in a 2005 cable made public last year by WikiLeaks.

In the latest – though not entirely surprising – twist, the Turkish government has refocused its attention on the internet, announcing plans to implement new regulations that will effectively give it even more control over what content Turkish surfers can see. Under a regulation entitled “Procedures and Principles Regarding the Safe Use of the Internet” that is due to go into effect on 22 August, internet users will be given four filtering options to choose from: “family,” “child,” “domestic” and “standard”, each of which will give them access to a certain set of websites. The government claims that it is taking the step in order to protect children from pornography and uphold “family values” but it has not made clear which websites will be blocked and the most open “standard” package is still expected to maintain the restrictions Turkey already imposes.

“There is no time in Turkey when we do not face new censures and pressures. There are many barriers put in front of the right of people to be informed in Turkey,” the main opposition CHP said in an online statement, comparing the internet restrictions to the censoring and imprisonment of journalists. “You close websites, we will open them,” the party said, promising the change if it wins the forthcoming election.

In 2009, the government stopped releasing figures on the number of blocked sites (most of which are restricted arbitrarily by government officials without court orders), but it is now believed to be in excess of 8,000. Most of them contain pornographic material, though websites linked to Kurdish rights groups, blogs critical of the government and even some foreign media sites are also blocked.

“Depending on the government, depending on the ministers, you can be put on the blacklist,” says Nadire Mater, the head of the Turkish human-rights website Bianet. “This is not a democracy.”

Under the new measures, attempting to access restricted sites – using proxy servers abroad, for example, as many Turks previously did to watch YouTube – could lead to arrest and hefty fines. Erdoğan’s government has tried to persuade Turks that the filtering system is similar to that offered in some European countries, while failing to point out that no Western democracy bans websites to the extent that Turkey already does.

Internet campaigners and human rights groups say the move will put Turkey on a par with China and is inconsistent with the provisions on freedom of expression in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, both of which Turkey has signed.  “We will be behind censorship software just like in China. We will not have the chance to stay out of it,” warns Serdar Kuzuloğlu, an IT reporter for the Radikal daily.

The planned restrictions on the internet drew tens of thousands of people onto the streets of Turkish cities in protest on May 15. They carried banners warning that the new regulations portend the “death of the internet” in Turkey. Many may well worry that they are also witnessing the death throes of their secular democracy.

©Andrew Eatwell. All rights reserved. Published here with the author’s consent.

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The curse of the Nile

 
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By Khaled Diab

Egypt is certainly the gift of the Nile, but the great river could become east Africa’s curse. What are the chances of a future ‘water war’?

14 December 2010

The Nile - ©Khaled Diab

The Nile when it arrives in Cairo. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

With the world’s attention distracted by the latest WikiLeaks revelations, Ethiopia’s prime minister Meles Zenawi did not need a whistleblower to cause his country diplomatic embarrassment: he proved more than capable of doing that all by himself.

Zenawi accused Egypt of backing anti-government rebels in his country and warned that Egypt would be defeated if it tried to invade Ethiopia. “Nobody who has tried that has lived to tell the story,” he boasted, rather inaccurately. But why would Zenawi, a presumably seasoned politician who has led his country for almost two decades, make such wild allegations without supplying a shred of evidence to back them up, and why now?

Sceptics may conclude that fomenting a manufactured foreign crisis is a classic tactic to divert attention away from the questionable elections earlier this year, which helped Zenawi retain his grip on power and gave his party all but two seats in the parliament. And Zenawi, despite defeating Ethiopia’s “red terror” when he himself was a rebel leader, has largely worn out his welcome with millions of Ethiopians, particularly those living in the cities, as I witnessed first hand while travelling in the country at the time of the 2005 elections.

Zenawi’s political offensive seems to have caught Egypt unawares, with the ageing and increasingly frail-looking President Hosni Mubarak appearing miffed by Ethiopia’s posturing when asked about it by al-Jazeera last week. Nevertheless, like its counterpart in Addis Ababa, the Cairo regime could find a foreign distraction convenient, embroiled as it also is in allegations of vote-rigging and intimidation during last month’s parliamentary elections.

But are there any reasonable grounds for Zenawi’s allegations? Whether or not Egypt is actually backing rebels in Ethiopia, many Ethiopians may be inclined to believe the claim, simply because Egypt has previous form when it comes to meddling in Ethiopia’s affairs.

After Egypt conquered Sudan in the 19th-century, it launched a further campaign to invade Ethiopia, which ended in failure in 1875. In the aftermath of the second world war, Egypt made a cheeky claim for Eritrea at the Paris peace conference, which undoubtedly incensed the Ethiopians. In more recent times, Egypt and other Arab countries provided support to the Eritrean independence movement, in a kind of proxy Arab-Israeli war. However, for all his other failings, President Mubarak has taken a far more nuanced and conciliatory approach than his predecessors towards relations with Ethiopia.

But why this animosity between two countries who – beyond sporadic trading missions that stretch back to ancient times, and the religious link between the Egyptian and Ethiopian Coptic churches – have actually had limited contact and interest in each other’s affairs over the centuries?

Well, one issue above all else has been clouding the waters: the Nile. It is only fairly recently that the discovery was made that some 85% of the Nile’s waters originate in the Ethiopian highlands. Five years ago, when I sat in a boat on Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile, it was somewhat overwhelming to reflect that here I was many thousands of miles away, floating on Egypt’s life-support system.

Herodcreating sotus once said that Egypt was the gift of the Nile but, in a way, the river is also its modern curse. If it weren’t for the “eternal river”, which courses through the country like a life-supporting vein pumping billions of gallons of vitality into a narrow strip of lush green, Egypt, one of the driest places on earth, would be little more than a barren desert dotted by occasional oases.

Given Egypt’s almost complete dependence on water from outside its own borders, the Nile is viewed as a major “national security” issue – and one whose importance is growing. To secure its supply, Egypt signed an agreement with Anglo-Egyptian Sudan in 1929 which gave Egypt 48bn cubic metres of the Nile’s total flow of an average 88bn cubic metres. Following independence, Sudan upped its share to 18.5bn cubic metres and Egypt got 55.5bn.

When the other Nile basin countries were not in a position to make use of the river’s resources, this staggering inequality was not a major issue. However, in recent years they have pursued a drive for more equitable redistribution of the Nile’s resources through the Nile Basin Initiative.

Ethiopia understandably wishes to exploit the rains that fall on its territory to develop its agricultural sector, to stave off starvation, to generate electricity and to stimulate development. Towards that end, it has constructed a number of dams in recent years, including a mega dam.

Despite Egypt’s expressed commitment to sharing the river, the country can barely make ends meet with its current mega quota of Nile water. And, with a burgeoning population and an even drier climate thanks to global warming, Egypt will need even more water in the future. That is why it has been blocking moves to change quotas.

Frustrated at Egyptian-Sudanese obstructionism, a number of upstream countries, including Ethiopia, signed a deal in May to re-assign Nile quotas, which was roundly condemned by Egypt and Sudan. So, could this impasse eventually lead to a water war on the Nile? The idea is not far-fetched, as a number of conflicts already partly revolve around water, including Darfur and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In 1999, the UN, predicting that water would be the main cause of conflict in Africa over the following 25 years, identified the Nile basin as a major flashpoint.

Averting this looming catastrophe involves careful diplomacy, the development of appropriate alternative sources of water (including desalination) and, perhaps above all, urgent population control.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 5 December 2010. Read the full discussion here.

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From numbers to narratives

 
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Nikolaj Nielsen

Most journalists dread crunching data. But finding narratives among the numbers is part of journalism’s mandate. Luckily, there are tools to help.

27 August 2010

Mirko Lorenz, who organised a recent data-driven journalism event through the European Journalism Centre (ECJ), believes data-driven journalism may be the future. Lorenz explained that being able to visualise filtered data alongside a good story could provide an invaluable service to the public good.

Is this really the next big thing or is it just hubris? Another miracle fix to the glum outlook of journalism? Perhaps saving journalism (and the public’s trust in the profession) requires going back to the basics of a good, well thought out, and structured story telling based on compelling research.  Take Florence Nightingale. In 1858, she produced a coxcomb graph showing how more soldiers died of sickness in the Crimean War than on the battlefield. The UK Sanitary Commission subsequently improved hygiene in both military camps and hospitals. In other words, data-driven journalism is not new. And neither is good storytelling.

Nonetheless, we are faced with an information overload that makes it almost impossible to single-handedly understand what is happening. What if Wikileaks had sent you its 75 000 + documents? Both The New York Times and The Guardian had three weeks to sift through files. The Guardian’s datablog was then able to create a graphical representation of the war logs. These were then linked to the articles. It’s great stuff. But not everyone is so lucky.

Wikileaks is an exceptional case. Most often journalists have to deal with one or several unstructured excel spreadsheets, text files and pdfs. Sensitive information on budgets are, for instance, often wrangled from some official who will then typically present the data in an unstructured manner. Trying to sift through hundreds of thousands of  data sets is an exercise that taxes limited resources and takes too much time. How can one possibly make sense of a text file with millions of figures? And what exactly is one looking for?

“Always question government stats,” says Financial Times investigative journalist, Cynthia O’Murchu, adding that data is rarely user friendly. Ms O’Murchu, who was present at the EJC conference, expressed her frustration at having first to clean data before any attempt to decipher it.   Even getting access is a quest. She demonstrated how her request to obtain UK government data through the Freedom of Information Act would come with a GBP3,400 price tag and months of delay. Information is not so free, after all.

Another tactic used by government officials is to dump massive amounts of unstructured raw data. This is known as data dumping, an exercise that New York Times interactive news technology whiz, Alan McLean, said not only fails to inform but is also distracting. Thankfully, there exist a number of free online tools that claim to make reading and finding narratives in data much easier:

Lippmannian device

Richard Rogers, a professor at the University of Amsterdam, compiled a list of 35 different online tools to help you make sense of data. He demonstrated one tool called the Lippmannian device – named after Walter Lippman.

This tool does two things: it can generate source clouds or issue clouds. Source clouds enable one, for instance, to find out which sites most often quote a particular source. So if you enter the terms ‘climate change sceptics’ you can visualise which sites source sceptics the most. Issue clouds enable you to establish quickly what a particular organisation actually does as opposed to what it says it does. For instance, you can find out the main issues of the top 50 human rights organisations and quickly visualise their relative differences.  The Lippmannian device is a nifty little tool. Incidentally, Google is not too keen about it and is beginning to muscle-in on the operation.

The Guardian database

Simon Rogers is the editor of the Guardian’s Datablog and Datastore. This online data resource publishes hundreds of raw datasets and encourages users to visualise and analyse them. There are around 800 datasets currently available and they add three or four every day.

OUseful.info

Tony Hirst runs this blog. He’s a lecturer at the Open University.  The blog is pretty detailed but provides how-tos on taking data from a website and visualising it in Google Map without having to code anything. You can then send your Google Map URL to anyone.  This is a great feature if you want to locate poverty indexes using Eurostat datasets. You could, for instance, see the relative differences and intensity of poverty in Google Maps.  Note, I haven’t tried doing this but he does provide a step-by-step guide.

Many-eyes.com

Frank van Ham was one of the developers of this useful tool that was quickly bought up by Google. His two partners now work there.  Many-eyes allows you to visualise data and place it online for all to see and comment on. It’s interactive and enables others to manipulate and analyse it. Yes, there are people who actually do this for fun.  Your graphic gets a direct URL that you can then share as well. Or you can also embed the graph into your own website.

Hackhackers and Storify.com

I’d also like to make short mention of this one. Hackhackers is developed by the former AP foreign desk bureau chief Burt Herman. Burt describes his tool as combining computer science with journalism – a still distant concept here in Europe but common in the United States. He took the concept and applied it to tool he calls storify.com.  Storify will allow you (still in development)  to make sense of twitter feeds and may be even find a story. Anyway, the guy was super interesting.

Qgis.org

This tool wasn’t  presented at the conference. But I found out about it from a German journalist who uses it to better analyse Eurostat data. Quantum GIS allows you to visualise, manage, edit, analyse data, and compose printable maps.  Sounds good.

Nikolaj Nielsen is a Brussels-based independent journalist. Published here with the author’s permission. ©Nikolaj Nielsen.

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