Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Viral Violence

In this week's guest blog, Katie Gallogly-Swan investigates Viral Violence

After two years of social media scandals on the use and abuse of personal data and advertising, this week (27 November 2018) Mark Zuckerberg chose to skip an international ‘Grand Committee’ inquiry on the hot topic of fake news. Comically sharing a picture of his empty seat, the organisers of the committee underscored the impunity that such powerful corporate leaders can enjoy. However, more interestingly at work in Zuckerberg’s absence is the ambiguity of accountability posed by social media’s relationship with politics, revealing challenges for understanding how new media technology enables and participates in conflict, and particularly in generating ethnic violence.

The relationship between media technology and ethnic violence isn’t a revelation. There are countless examples of how news-makers create the environment for violence by capitalising on technological advancements to spread a message of primordial difference. For example, the rise of the printing press enabled the circulation of anti-Semitic publication Der Stürmer during World War II, whose publisher, Julius Streicher, was executed for his role in the Holocaust. More recently, Rwandan journalists were imprisoned in 2003 for incitement of ethnic violence in the 1994 genocide via broadcasts over Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines. As a result, some explorations on media and war such as Johanna Neuman’s Lights, Camera, War have asserted that while the technology might be ever-changing, it continues to function in the same way and we as consumers adapt as we have in the past.

However in both of these instances, perpetrators were easily identified. This is not so simply the case with social media technology. Whether Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube, users are implicated as both consumers and creators of media. Further, these technologies do not in themselves generate news, but act as networked tools to algorithmically distribute the posts created by users allowing alternative centres of gravity for news production to emerge. Mobilising the personal data Facebook mines from users, this algorithm manifests as ‘filter bubbles’, where users are only exposed to posts that the platform ‘thinks’ they will like or share (generating more traffic and therefore advertising revenue), which creates intensely uniform echo chambers where communities co-exist but never dialogue. When these echo chambers are mobilised around hateful messages that gain viral status, the exponential exposure and normalisation of hatred can have deadly consequences.

In the past year, Facebook has come under intense scrutiny for its implication in the genocide of Rohingya people in Myanmar. Using training in psychological warfare, the Myanmar military have spent the past five years developing an expansive social media campaign against the Rohingya minority by capitalising on filter bubbles. Spreading anti-Rohingya propaganda and dehumanising language across a range of seemingly non-political entertainment pages on the social media platform as well as targeted anti-Buddhist posts to Rohingya populations, this long term campaign has normalised and embedded divisions within Myanmar. This has culminated in the majority Buddhist Myanmar public either rejecting reports as false or even supporting the mass murder, rape, and village burning in North Rakhine and the subsequent displacement of around 700,000 Rohingya people into Bangladesh.

A Reuters investigation revealed that by having next to no moderators who spoke Burmese and not translating community procedures into local languages, Facebook simply didn’t know that hateful media was being distributed. Their circulation was further enabled by the ubiquitous use of Facebook in Myanmar, where competitors in a recently deregulated telecoms industry offer data-free usage of Facebook and many people see it as their sole source of internet and news.

Facebook have accepted some responsibility, voluntarily publishing a Human Rights Impact Assessment for Myanmar in line with UN Guiding Principles on business and human rights, which acknowledged that the platform created an ‘enabling environment’ for human rights abuse, and committed to hiring 100 Burmese speaking moderators. But these commitments only raise more questions on how to understand the complex web of globalising forces, social media technology, and the rise in ethnic violence Facebook has been linked to; simplistically, guilt is displaced to an arbitrary moderating tool, enshrining the platform as a neocolonial arbiter of truth and decency.

The focus on moderation as a safety valve relies on narratives of essential, primordial difference that must be managed. Meanwhile, there has been little consideration of how the rapid emergence and dominance of the platform has impacted on the peace of fragile states such as Myanmar, which only recently opened up to global markets and is in transition after years of military dictatorship. Focused completely on its growth, we could liken Facebook to other imperialist corporate ventures; doing business with little regard for unintended consequences until it’s too late.

Perhaps the most sinister but most crucial aspect to consider in Facebook’s connection to ethnic violence is the way it makes its money. The appearance of flattened access to the platform hides a model which monetises personal data: clients can buy advertisements that target specific demographics who are algorithmically selected. With global reach, Facebook has a monopoly on personal and social information that transcends borders, and this data can be bought and sold by powerful and hateful interests for political ends. So-called ‘psychographic’ techniques to manipulate behaviour have been shown to be at work in the most recent American election where Russian organisations pumped money into distributing media in support of Donald Trump, and these same methods were employed in Myanmar to enable and normalise genocide.

At this point we must ask: does a focus on increasing the moderation of hateful media actually illuminate our understanding of how Facebook became a tool of ethnic violence in Myanmar, or would it be more astute to consider the complicity of a profit model which benefits from selling personal data to generate viral engagement, whether hateful or not. If we accept that ethnicity is constructed, then to understand the roots of the violence in Myanmar we might just need to look beyond moderation and consider the role played by the rapid market entry of global capital forces such as Facebook.  

Tuesday, 20 August 2019

In Conversation with Baroness Valerie Amos for World Humanitarian Day 2019

19 August is World Humanitarian Day. To mark this day, we arranged a discussion between SOAS Director, Baroness Valerie Amos, and some of our students. In our discussion we covered issues of conflict prevention, aid conditionality and effectiveness, dilemmas and contradictions and diplomacy.
This discussion is part of the preparations we are making for the launch of our online MSc Humanitarian Action in October

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Does being a consumer make you inherently violent?

 Alice Macaskie explores the violence of climate change in this week's guest blog:

Does being a consumer make you inherently violent?

Before his death in March this year, Professor Steven Hawking said that humans have just 100 years to populate a new planet if they are to survive. He explains that if we continue to “confine” ourselves to Earth, then we risk annihilation. Nuclear war, artificial intelligence gone rogue, and climate change are cited as some of the major culprits for this bold statement. What each has in common is that they are linked to the actions of human beings. Despite the latter being harder to quantify or prove, does being a consumer – with an insatiable addiction to fossil fuels – by default make you the perpetrator of violence against those living in countries affected by increasing levels of drought, famine and turbulent weather patterns?

Violence can take many forms: psychological, structural, sexual, cultural, symbolic and negative. It is inherently hard to define and measure. Looking at the Continuum of Violence, is it possible to say that one form – such as self-harming, suicide, civil war or genocide – is any better, worse or more evil than another? Arguably the definition and force of violence depends at least in part on how it is understood. David Riches’ view of violence as a triangular relationship between a perpetrator, victim, and witness begins to break down the idea of a concrete and localised violent interaction. Tied in with Neil Whitehead’s view of violence as a cultural performance globalised through the world’s media, it becomes apparent how we in the Global North may take on the part of witness or observer. This post takes the idea a step further, arguing that as a consumer in a capitalist society, knowingly adding fuel to the climate change furnace, you embody each role of witness, victim, and importantly, perpetrator.

Structural violence is a term coined in 1969 by Johan Galtung, meaning the non-negotiated loss of choice, or “anything avoidable that impedes human self-realisation”. This matters because it is important to understand whether we can talk about violence when nobody is committing it directly, from one person to another. Galtung’s definition shows us that violence is “built into the structure and shows up as unequal power and consequently as unequal life chances.” It is a form of social injustice. A recent report by the UN News clearly puts this into context. UN Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed, highlights that in order to achieve peace and sustainable development in the Sahel region in Africa, it is necessary to tackle the root causes of “discrimination, human rights violations, weak governance, conflict, and the impact of climate change”.

Spanning northern sub-Saharan Africa, the Sahel region is one of the most vulnerable areas to climate change in the world. Consisting of 10 countries, this ecoclimatic zone has seen a massive 4.9 million people displaced this year, with a further 24 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. Rapid growth population is “estimated at 2.8% per year” in an environment of shrinking natural resources, reports the UN News. The impact of climate change has been highlighted by the President of the UN’s Economic and Social Council, Inga Rhonda King, as a significant and compounding factor to the issues in the Sahel region. A key question for political theorists is, should anthropogenic climate change – and those knowingly fuelling it – be redefined as a violation of human rights? A crime against all of humanity and our biodiverse planet?

Climate change has become highly politicised. Despite President Trump’s initial forthright views on global warming as a hoax, he has since regressed his position slightly: “I think there’s probably a difference, but I don’t know that it’s man-made.” Since being in office, he has dropped climate change from his National Security Strategy’s list of global threats, made numerous anti-environmental policy changes, and withdrawn the United States from the 2015 Paris Agreement. Conversely, scientists argue that there is “no convincing alternative explanation” that anything other than human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels and destruction of forests, is to blame.

Call it what it is, argues Rebecca Solnit in The Guardian, “Climate change is violence”. We can see its impacts around the globe: desertification, droughts, floods, crop failure and consequent famine, acidification of our oceans, the decline of many species and increasingly extreme weather patterns. We are now seeing the emergence of disaster relief charities like Team Rubicon – an organisation that uses the skills and knowledge of ex-military veterans – to “create order in the wake of destruction”. Devastating local- and global-scale natural weather events like hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis are having to be responded to and planned for in the same way as civil or nuclear warfare.

“Climate change is global-scale violence, against places and species as well as against human beings”, continues Solnit. As a result of globalisation, we are the first generation to fully comprehend the negative impact that our action (or in-action) is having on the planet. If humans are knowingly using fossil fuels – for transportation, electricity, plastics, and even computers – is it too far fetched to call our avoidable use of natural resources a form of violence? As Galtung highlights, “The objective consequences, not the subjective intentions are the primary concern” of structural violence. In October, The UN’s Climate Change Panel (IPCC) published a report warning that the human race has just over a decade to curb our climate emissions, otherwise just under half a billion more people will suffer. But, despite all the stark warnings, there are glimmers of hope. The BBC News notes how “miniature suns” or nuclear fusion reactors could bring a commercial solution to the fore in the next five years. Will Steven Hawking’s prediction prove right, or can the human race pull itself and the planet back from the brink of destruction?

Thursday, 8 August 2019

Transcending violence: The geeks and new stalwarts of Palestinian identity

This week's guest blogger, Benjamin Jackson, considers "Transcending violence: The geeks and new stalwarts of Palestinian identity"

In occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), namely the West Bank and Gaza, new social phenomena are materializing; in refugee camps in Lebanon, specifically Shatila camp in southern Beirut, pragmatic daily practices are forming new selves.
In recent weeks, I have been struck by stories of remarkable agency: in particular, a young tech generation in Gaza are transcending the physical barriers (such as limits to trade) which come with living in oPt. Thousands of twenty-somethings – the geeks – are joining technology startups, and subsequently securing high-quality jobs as software developers.
The coding initiative, spearheaded by Gaza’s first tech hub ‘Gaza Sky Geeks’ (GSG), was developed by the international NGO Mercy Corps. Young Palestinian entrepreneurs are flocking to the hub to demonstrate their skills. It has received international backing: Google has sponsored the initiative; Microsoft, Uber, SoundCloud, and other startups based in London have all provided pro bono support.
It is most impressive because of the very conditions it is blossoming in. By definition, the Israel-Palestine conflict is an ‘active’ conflict, yet those in oPt must also tackle structural violence. The Gaza strip is notoriously precarious; travel in and out scarce. It faces frequent barrages from the Israeli military. It also has limited water resources and frequent electricity shortages, whilst access to capital is limited and unemployment rates are high for ethnic Arabs and Palestinians.
So, why does all this matter? What is its relevance for conflict and development? The point is that transcending armed conflict and structural violence enables Palestinians to construct new political identities and subjectivities. Much as causes and acts violence are being theorized by scholars as having symbolic meaning and subjectivity – symbolic responses to violence, rooted in the locale, are equally important.
Whilst it has been the media picking up on these remarkable acts of solidarity of late, in the context of conflict and development, it is the role of ethnographers which ought to be significant. The ‘geeks’ are apt ethnographic subjects for understanding violence subtleties in oPt. Why study the soldiers and political figures of Hamas, when those who are forging meaningful lives for themselves are a purer representation of the Palestinian predicament?
The geeks are exponents of the fact that Palestinians can no longer be portrayed as objects of their political surroundings. Rather, they are subjects wrought from the existential practices they are employing to preserve hope and optimism. This signifies a departure from the armed struggle usually attributed to Palestinian political identity. In this discourse, Palestinians are presented as flagbearers of historical nationalism. Whilst the creation of a sovereign Palestine state remains the overarching goal, Palestinians are asking important questions: What about my present? What about my raison d'être? Through technology, they are able to forge meaningful lives for themselves; be active in the present rather than always looking into the past or future.
Another positive of the technology sector in Gaza and the West Bank is the level of gender parity and subsequent agency demonstrated by young women. Over 50% of attendees at GSG events in 2015 were women. It has even been claimed women are better represented at GSG and other startups in oPt than in Silicon Valley!
Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon has also witnessed a similar showing of agency. The camp suffers from the inexcusable discriminatory policies of the Lebanese government (leading to high unemployment, poor infrastructure, water resources and electricity). Palestinians in Shatila experience destitution and humanitarian issues much like their counterparts in oPt. The violence in Shatila does not fit with normative categories of conflict. It has experienced sporadic armed conflict throughout its existence, yet the structural violence at times of ‘peace’ is more acutely felt by residents, a precious example of how the distinctions are often blurred between war and non-war. Such contexts (including that of the Acholi people in Northern Uganda, for example) are better described as a continuum, where violence is endless.
Despite this, women have set up informal micro-credit schemes, in turn constructing economic subjectivity, not allowing themselves to be weighed down by their social environment. In contrast, men are less able to find work and thus the paradigm is reversed: cultural norms (specifically gender relations) associated with Palestinian identity are no more.
It is also interesting to see how certain practices, which at face value seem trivial, are in fact of great importance in shaping political identity in Shatila. The illegal tapping of electricity from grids in Beirut, among other practices, can be seen as a symbolic form of resistance to the Lebanese government’s restrictive policies.
On this theme, the only concert piano in Gaza was also recently restored. The piano had been abandoned in a theater damaged in the 2014 war with Israel. Listening to the piano being played is both moving and politically significant; a symbolic performance of resistance to the Israeli government and the blockade of the strip by Israel and Egypt.
I have found the Bourdieusian model of illusio – “the ability to invest oneself in the prospect of a meaningful life” – a useful aide in getting to grips with such existential practices. It seems that despite experiencing unpredictable forms of violence and adversity, humans are able to develop, create being through work, illegal tricks, conversations, even music. It is also useful to consider how carving subjectivity for oneself has a historical gist. Much like colonial subjects resisted colonizer’s attempts to become ‘civilized’, Palestinians resist the mandates of the governments who seek to restrict their very identity.

Viral Violence

In this week's guest blog, Katie Gallogly-Swan investigates Viral Violence After two years of social media scandals on the use an...