Facebook’s “fake news” measures: A move toward censorship

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By George Gallanis
17 December 2016

On Thursday, the global social media giant Facebook announced new measures it said were designed to limit the spread of “fake news” from hoax web sites. The measures, however, are part of a broader corporate media campaign to clamp down on independent and alternative news organizations.

Facebook’s announcement is in response to criticism it received from major corporate news outlets such as the New York Times alleging that fake news articles shared on the social media platform played a major role in altering the outcome of the 2016 elections. Facebook’s CEO and founder, Mark Zuckerberg, first called such allegations “crazy” but has shifted to accommodate the demands.

In a news post on Facebook titled “News Feed FYI: Addressing Hoaxes and Fake News” by Adam Mosseri, vice president of product management, Facebook laid out the four components of its new policy.

Under the headline “Easier Reporting,” Facebook will streamline the way people can report an alleged fake news site by implementing new features. Under “Disrupting Financial Incentives for Spammers,” Facebook plans to financially hurt “fake news” sites by limiting their ability to purchase ads by making it more difficult to use fake domain sites when posting ads.

This is followed by the measure called “Informed Sharing.” If an article is read multiple times and it is not shared afterwards, according to Facebook this may be a sign that the article is “misleading.” If Facebook deems this to be the case, then the article will receive a lower ranking on Facebook’s newsfeed, making it less visible and available for reading.

In practice, this means that if an article, whether it is telling the truth or not, is not shared, then it may be demoted and become less likely to be read. An analysis by BuzzFeed News found that during the 2016 presidential election campaign, news posts considered fake were in fact more widely shared than those considered real.

Most significant, however, is a policy under the headline “Flagging Stories as Disputed.” Facebook will catalog reports of alleged fake news from users, along with other vague data it only describes as “signals,” and will send them to a third-party fact checker for arbitration. If a story is deemed fake, then Facebook will mark it as such with an attached explanation as to why. Such stories will then appear lower in Facebook’s newsfeed.

Facebook’s “third party” reportedly consists of five news organizations acting as fact-checkers. These are: ABC News, Politifact, FactCheck, Snopes and the Associated Press. According to Facebook, these organizations are also signatories of The Poynter Institute’s International Fact Checking Code of Principles, which are: 1) “a commitment to nonpartisanship and fairness”; 2) “a commitment to transparency of sources”; 3) “a commitment to transparency of funding and organization”; 4) “a commitment to transparency of methodology”; and 5) “a commitment to open and honest corrections”.

Poynter, a self described “global leader in journalism,” receives funding from, amongst others, Google, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and most notably the National Endowment for Democracy, a front for the US Department of State that has intervened in elections all over the world in the interest of US imperialism.

The implications of Facebook’s moves to limit “fake news” are ominous. It takes place in the context of an effort by the corporate media to create an amalgam between clearly manufactured content and articles and analysis that it brands “Russian propaganda” because they are critical of US foreign policy.

Last month, the Washington Post published an article, “Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say,” which referred to an organization, PropOrNot, that had compiled a list of web sites that are declared to be “peddlers of Russian propaganda.” The site includes WikiLeaks, Truthout, Naked Capitalism and similar publications.

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/12/17/face-d17.html

No, America, It Wasn’t Russia: You Did This to Yourself

Posted on Dec 10, 2016

By Juan Cole / Informed Comment

  President-elect Donald Trump. (Gage Skidmore / CC 2.0)

The headlines scream, “Secret CIA assessment says Russia was trying to help Trump win White House” and “Obama orders review of Russian Hacking during Presidential campaign.”

I don’t doubt that the Russian Federation employs hackers and PR people to influence public opinion and even election outcomes in other countries. So does the United States of America. But I am skeptical that anything the Russians did caused Donald Trump to be president.

It wasn’t like Trump was a Manchurian Candidate, a stealth plant in the US body politic who would only be operationalized once elected.

Trump was in plain view. He had all along been in plain view. His hatred for uppity or “nasty” women, his racism, his prickliness, his narcissism, his rich white boy arrogance and entitlement (apparently even to strange women and other men’s wives), his cronyism and his fundamental dishonesty were on display 24/7 during some 18 months of the campaign, and it wasn’t as though he were an unknown quantity before that.

Americans voted for him anyway. Slightly more Americans voted for him than for a respectable person like Mitt Romney. No Russians were holding a gun to their heads. And they knew, or should have known, what they were getting.

By a “black swan” fluke, a few tens of thousands of the Trump voters were distributed differently, state by state, than the McCain and Romney voters; and in some key states like Michigan Sec. Clinton did not do as well as Obama had, even if she was beloved in California and New York.

One of the cleverest things Trump said during the campaign was directed to African-American voters, asking what they had to lose by challenging the status quo and voting for him. It was a trick, of course, and they have everything to lose, both because the Republican Party’s economic policies aim to help rich people at the expense of workers and most African-Americans are working class, and because the GOP since Nixon has connived at attracting a white racist constituency, and succeeded.

But despite the dishonesty of the quip (which did not fool African-Americans one little bit), that kind of thinking appears to have been widespread. In some states, as many as 14 percent of the white working class deserted the Democratic Party compared to the previous two elections, and, worse, 21 percent of white working class voters who used to vote for Obama just stayed home. They weren’t being irrational. Things have been bad for them and they haven’t participated in the recovery after 2008 the way the stock market has. Their death rates have even increased.

Nor did any Russian hacking related to Wikileaks, if that is what happened, prove decisive. Clinton’s own polling people found the big turning point was when she called Trump voters a “basket of deplorables.” Americans don’t like being talked down to, and had already gotten rid of Romney for the same sin. The spectacle of Clinton taking hundreds of thousands of dollars to give a speech to the people who put them out of their homes in 2008-9 also turned many of them off so that they stayed home, while another section of them decided to take a chance on Trump. He will screw them over, but from their point of view, they worried that she might have, as well. Trump was promising to stop the hemorrhaging of jobs via protectionism, whereas everyone understood that Sec. Clinton’s first instinct was to do TPP and send more jobs to Asia.

So it was Clinton’s public persona and public positions that hurt her and depressed Democratic turnout in places like Detroit and Flint, not anything in Wikileaks (can anyone name even one newsworthy email?) Or on the other hand it was neofascist disinformation campaigns like spirit cooking and pizzagate. It wasn’t anything as rational as a Putin sting.

No, America had its eyes wide open. The Republican Party, the usual 61 million, voted for Trump, despite his vulgar talk and vulgar style of life. Since the GOP is mostly the party of Protestant whites plus about 40 million Catholics who think they are white, nobody over there too much minded the racism against minorities. There were some defections among the white Protestant married women from the GOP (either stay-at-homes or aisle-crossers) and there were some defections among the white working class from the Democratic Party. But those two may well have just cancelled each other out.

The GOP voted for a champion of the business classes, which Trump will be, in spades. And that is what everyone should expect. There is nothing surprising about it. The GOP wins nationally when it can add to its base of small and large businesspeople and farmers and exurbanites, and Trump managed to attract a few tens of thousands of other sorts of people in the districts where it happened to matter.

Russia doesn’t enter into it.

http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/no_america_it_wasnt_russia_you_did_this_to_yourself_20161210

AT&T, Time Warner and the Death of Privacy

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OCTOBER 27, 2016

By Amy Goodman and Denis Moynihan

It has been 140 years since Alexander Graham Bell uttered the first words through his experimental telephone, to his lab assistant: “Mr. Watson—come here—I want to see you.” His invention transformed human communication, and the world. The company he started grew into a massive monopoly, AT&T. The federal government eventually deemed it too powerful, and broke up the telecom giant in 1982. Well, AT&T is back and some would say on track to become bigger and more powerful than before, announcing plans to acquire Time Warner, the media company, to create one of the largest entertainment and communications conglomerates on the planet. Beyond the threat to competition, the proposed merger—which still must pass regulatory scrutiny—poses significant threats to privacy and the basic freedom to communicate.

AT&T is currently No. 10 on the Forbes 500 list of the U.S.‘s highest-grossing companies. If it is allowed to buy Time Warner, No. 99 on the list, it will form an enormous, “vertically integrated” company that controls a vast pool of content and how people access that content.

Free Press, the national media policy and activism group, is mobilizing the public to oppose the deal. “This merger would create a media powerhouse unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. AT&T would control mobile and wired internet access, cable channels, movie franchises, a film studio and more,” Candace Clement of Free Press wrote. “That means AT&T would control internet access for hundreds of millions of people and the content they view, enabling it to prioritize its own offerings and use sneaky tricks to undermine net neutrality.”

Net neutrality is that essential quality of the internet that makes it so powerful. Columbia University law professor Tim Wu coined the term “net neutrality.” After the Federal Communications Commission approved strong net neutrality rules last year, Wu told us on the Democracy Now! News hour, “There need to be basic rules of the road for the internet, and we’re not going to trust cable and telephone companies to respect freedom of speech or respect new innovators, because of their poor track record.”

Millions of citizens weighed in with public comments to the FCC in support of net neutrality, along with groups like Free Press and The Electronic Frontier Foundation. They were joined by titans of the internet like Google, Amazon and Microsoft. Arrayed against this coalition were the telecom and cable companies, the oligopoly of internet service providers that sell internet access to hundreds of millions of Americans. It remains to be seen if AT&T doesn’t in practice break net neutrality rules and create a fast lane for its content and slow down content from its competitors, including the noncommercial sector.

Another problem that AT&T presents, that would only be exacerbated by the merger, is the potential to invade the privacy of its millions of customers. In 2006, AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein revealed that the company was secretly sharing all of its customers’ metadata with the National Security Agency. Klein, who installed the fiber-splitting hardware in a secret room at the main AT&T facility in San Francisco, had his whistleblowing allegations confirmed several years later by Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks. While that dragnet surveillance program was supposedly shut down in 2011, a similar surveillance program still exists. It’s called “Project Hemisphere.” It was exposed by The New York Times in 2013, with substantiating documents just revealed this week in The Daily Beast.

In “Project Hemisphere,” AT&T sells metadata to law enforcement, under the aegis of the so-called war on drugs. A police agency sends in a request for all the data related to a particular person or telephone number, and, for a major fee and without a subpoena, AT&T delivers a sophisticated data set, that can, according to The Daily Beast, “determine where a target is located, with whom he speaks, and potentially why.”

Where you go, what you watch, text and share, with whom you speak, all your internet searches and preferences, all gathered and “vertically integrated,” sold to police and perhaps, in the future, to any number of AT&T’s corporate customers. We can’t know if Alexander Graham Bell envisioned this brave new digital world when he invented the telephone. But this is the future that is fast approaching, unless people rise up and stop this merger.

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Listen, your party is the “neo” kind of liberal

Why do the Democrats always disappoint their most loyal supporters? Thomas Frank’s excellent book helps explains the party’s betraying ways, says Lance Selfa.

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the Democratic convention

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the Democratic convention

THE NEW York Times headline on July 28 said it all: “After Lying Low, Deep-Pocketed Clinton Donors Return to the Fore.”

Nicholas Confessore and Amy Chozick’s article proceeded to document the myriad ways in which corporations, from the Wall Street firm Blackstone Group to for-profit college giant Apollo Education Group, peddled influence at fancy parties around Philadelphia during the Democratic National Convention.

Yes, that Democratic convention. The same one that featured dozens of speakers denouncing Wall Street and crushing student debt? Whose presidential nominee pledged to get big money out of elections?

Turns out that “it’s business as usual,” as Libby Watson of the Sunlight Foundation told the Times writers.

Author Thomas Frank wouldn’t be surprised by this latest glimpse of how the Democratic Party does business. His Listen, Liberal is an engaging and witty demolition of the party, especially its modern post-New Deal incarnation.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE DEMOCRATS don’t see it as a contradiction to issue election-year platitudes about supporting “working families” while courting millions from the “rocket scientist” financial engineers behind the Wall Street hedge funds or the self-styled “disrupters” who run for-profit educational corporations.

REVIEW: BOOKS

Thomas Frank, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, Henry Holt and Co., 2016. 320 pages, $12.99. Find out more at ListenLiberal.com.

As the GEICO TV ad might say, “It’s what they do.”

To Frank, this provides much of the explanation for why the Obama presidency has been such a disappointment for those who believed in candidate Obama’s message of “hope and change” in 2008.

In 2008, the economy was melting down, taking free-market orthodoxy with it. The Democrats swept to power in Congress and the White House. If there was ever a time that the conditions were ripe for a bold reformist program–which would have been massively popular–this was it.

Yet it didn’t happen. Two years later, the Tea Party Republicans took back the House in the midterm elections, and the administration deepened its commitment to austerity and the search for a “grand bargain” for bipartisan support to cut Social Security and Medicare.

Frank rehearses the standard liberal excuses for Obama’s failures, quoting the president himself about how hard it is to get things done (“It’s hard to turn an ocean liner”). Frank then proceeds to knock these down, one by one.

He shows convincingly how, using only executive action, Obama could have unwound the Bush administration bailouts for the Wall Street bankers and pressed bankruptcy judges to reduce or wipe out the mortgage holders’ debt. At the very least, he could have refused to allow executives from the insurance giant AIG to collect their multimillion-dollar bonuses from the taxpayers’ dime.

Instead, Obama and his Treasury team of Ivy Leaguers on leave from Wall Street reassured the banksters that he was on their side. Frank reprises the critical scene from Ron Suskind’s 2010 book Confidence Men: A description of a high-level meeting that began with Obama warning Wall Street that “my administration is the only thing between you and pitchforks”–and ended with a relieved CEO telling Suskind that Obama “could have ordered us to do just about anything, and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t–he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.”

As Frank concludes:

Having put so much faith in his transformative potential, his followers need to come to terms with how non-transformative he has been. It wasn’t because the ocean liner would have been too hard to turn, or because those silly idealists were unrealistic; it was because [the administration] didn’t want to do those things.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

HOW DID the Democrats come to power amid the worst crisis since the Great Depression and basically operate according to the same-old-same-old model? In trying to explain this, Frank lands on an explanation that is inadequate–more on that below–despite the insights it offers.

To him, the Obama team, like Bill Clinton before him–and probably Hillary Clinton after–couldn’t conceive of a different course because they approached problems from their vantage point as wealthy, highly educated professionals.

Like the whiz kids on Wall Street or health care industry policy wonks, they appreciated complex solutions that balanced multiple interests while generally preserving the status quo. Think of Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank financial reform, whose enforcement regulations are still being written six years after its passage.

The roots of this worship of professional expertise and support for market-based policies, according to Frank, can be found in party operatives’ desire to build a new Democratic coalition to replace the New Deal coalition of the 1930s through the 1960s. From George McGovern’s early 1970s “new politics” to the Democratic Leadership Council’s “new Democrats” of the 1980s and 1990s, these figures sought to distance the party from organized labor in favor of the “new middle class” of credentialed professionals.

Voting statistics show that college graduates still tend to be Republican territory more than Democratic. But there’s little doubt that a middle-class ideology of “social liberalism and fiscal conservatism” reigns supreme in the Democratic Party today.

To show this in full bloom, Frank considers the state of Massachusetts and the city of Boston as exemplars. Both depend heavily on the “knowledge industries” of higher education, finance and health care. And both have been Democratic bastions for generations.

If the Democratic mayors of Boston and a Democratic-dominated statehouse hand out tax breaks to corporations, enact anti-labor pension “reforms,” and promote charter schools or amenities catering to middle-class professionals, it isn’t because Republicans forced them to. It’s because the Democrats actually believe this stuff, and profit from it.

In this “blue state model,” Frank writes:

Boston is the headquarters for two industries that are steadily bankrupting middle America: big learning and big medicine, both of them imposing costs that everyone else is basically required to pay and yet which increase at a pace far more rapid than wages or inflation. A thousand dollars a pill, thirty grand a semester: the debts that are gradually choking the life out of people where you live are what has made this city so very rich.

Left behind are places like Lynn, Massachusetts, a once thriving industrial town, now depopulated and deindustrialized–“engineered by Republicans and rationalized by Democrats,” Frank writes. Or Decatur, Illinois, which Frank revisits 20 years after he had reported on the “War Zone” labor battles that dramatized the death of the American dream for thousands of blue-collar unionized workers

In the mid-1990s, Frank writes:

Decatur was far away from Washington, and its problems made no impression that I could detect on Bill Clinton’s wise brain trust. The New Economy was dawning, creativity was triumphing, old industry was evaporating, and those fortunate enough to be among the ascendant were absolutely certain about the direction history was taking.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

AS WITH so much about the Democratic Party today, all this somehow works its way back to the Clintons.

Frank’s assessment of Bill Clinton’s two terms in office in the 1990s is a crucial antidote to the free-flowing Clinton nostalgia of 2016. Frank says that while he was writing the book:

I would periodically ask my liberal friends if they could recall the progressive laws he got passed, the high-minded policies he fought for–you know, the good things Bill Clinton got done while he was president. Why was it, I wondered, that we were supposed to think so highly of him– apart from his obvious personal affability, I mean? It proved difficult for my libs…

No one mentioned any great but hopeless Clintonian stands on principle; after all, this is the guy who once took a poll to decide where to go on vacation. His presidency was all about campaign donations, not personal bravery– he rented out the Lincoln Bedroom, for chrissake, and at the end of his time in office, he even appeared to sell a presidential pardon.

Frank concedes a few small positive efforts by Clinton: a small increase in taxes on the rich, a failed attempt at health care reform. But the biggest initiatives Clinton won were things that would have been considered Republican policies of an earlier era: the 1994 crime bill that put the “New Jim Crow” described by Michelle Alexander into overdrive; the destruction of the federal welfare system; free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); and various forms of financial deregulation.

Frank notes that Clinton was conducting backdoor negotiations with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich on a scheme to privatize Social Security. That attempt collapsed during the impeachment battle connected to Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Frank’s crucial point is this. It took a Democrat–one skilled in the double-talk of “feeling the pain” of ordinary people and bolstering those “who work hard and play by the rules”–to push through a wish list of conservative policies that not even Ronald Reagan could win. As Frank writes:

What distinguishes the political order we live under now is a consensus, at least in the political mainstream, on certain economic questions–and what made that consensus happen was the capitulation of the Democrats. Republicans could denounce big government all they wanted, but it took a Democrat to declare that “the era of big government is over” and to make it stick. This was Bill Clinton’s historic achievement. Under his direction, as I wrote back then, the opposition “ceased to oppose.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

MUCH OF what Frank writes will sound very familiar to regular readers of Socialist Worker. But for liberals who might know Frank from his What’s the Matter with Kansas? or The Wrecking Crew, Listen, Liberal might feel like a bucket of cold water. Especially for those who might be “ready for Hillary” in 2016.

For my money, the entire book is worth the price of the chapter “Liberal Gilt,” where Frank skewers the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation and, by extension, what he calls the “liberal class’s virtue quest.”

At the center of this chapter is, of course, Hillary Clinton, whose public persona of “doing good” for “women and children” dissolves against a backdrop of her support for ending welfare in the 1990s and pushing poor women in developing countries into debt through “microcredit.”

As Secretary of State, Clinton marketed global entrepreneurship and the endless “war on terror” as crusades on behalf of women. Through “partnering” on these initiatives with the Clinton Foundation or the State Department, the likes of Walmart and Goldman Sachs can win praise for their social consciousness–or what Frank brilliantly describes as their “purchasing liberalism offsets”:

This is modern liberalism in action: an unregulated virtue-exchange in which representatives of one class of humanity ritually forgive the sins of another class, all of it convened and facilitated by a vast army of well-graduated American professionals, their reassuring expertise propped up by bogus social science, while the unfortunate objects of their high and noble compassion sink slowly back into a preindustrial state.

Frank weaves this analysis around an unforgettable eyewitness account of a Clinton Foundation celebration–held on the socialist holiday of International Women’s Day, no less! The event, at midtown Manhattan’s Best Buy (now Playstation) Theater, touted entrepreneurship for women in the global South. The Clintons, Melinda Gates, Hollywood stars, fashion magazine editors and Fortune 500 leaders came together for an afternoon of self-congratulation.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

YET FOR all that is spot-on in Frank’s critique of the Democrats, the book’s analysis is flawed on two interrelated points.

First, its theory of the Democrats as a party of educated professionals suffers from what might be called a crude class analysis.

When Marxists argue that the Democrats and Republicans are “capitalist” parties, we don’t mean that a cabal of capitalists acts as their puppet masters from behind the scenes. We mean that through various means–from political contributions to expert advice to control of the media–various capitalist interests assure that the mainstream political parties implement policies that allow the capitalist system to thrive and reproduce itself.

Scholars such as Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers have documented why we should understand shifts in the mainstream capitalist parties as shifts in blocs of capital rather than shifts in voting bases. Ferguson has even demonstrated how Obama’s support from Silicon Valley is linked to the administration’s care and nurturance of the surveillance state.

Frank doesn’t cite any of this analysis. Thus, in arguing that the Democrats’ current embrace of Silicon Valley neoliberalism is somehow a product of “well-graduated” Democrats’ fascination with “complexity,” “innovation” and “disruptive” app-driven services like Uber and AirBnB, Frank misses the close integration of the Democratic Party with the capitalist class.

The Democrats may have been capitalism’s B-Team over the last generation, but they’re not the Washington Generals, forever bested by the Harlem Globetrotters.

Second, understanding the Democrats as a party of Ivy League professionals–and not as one of the two big business parties in the U.S.–implies that it can be reclaimed as the “party of the people” or the party of the “working class,” as Frank believes it was in its New Deal heyday.

This characterization forgets that, in many ways, the Democrats were capitalism’s A-Team during that period. And if the Trumpization of the Republicans continues, the Democrats may end up as the first-stringers again. The 2016 Clinton campaign certainly hopes so.

Listen, Liberal is a great read for this election season. While Frank concludes that the state of affairs that brought us to Clinton against Trump “cannot go on,” he’s not sure where to go. Charting that course is a challenge the left faces today.

https://socialistworker.org/2016/08/04/your-party-is-the-neo-kind-of-liberal

Stephen Fry signs off from ‘The Grid’ again

Wed 20 Apr 2016 2.47pm

stephen-fry-logans-run

Following a scathing departure from his four million Twitter followers regarding criticism of his BAFTA commentary in February, unelected UK and internet technology ambassador Stephen Fry has made an avowed departure from all social networks.

In a stinging 2,600+ word essay at stephenfry.com, the 58-year-old comedian, presenter and raconteur compares an exit from mainstream social network channels such as YouTube, Twitter and Facebook to the heroic plight of the heroes of 1970s dystopian sci-fi movies such as Logan’s Run and Soylent Green; thereby comparing the pre-eminence of social media with those highly-telescoped visions of ruthless government authorities.

Likewise Fry regards flight from the social networks in the same light as ‘unplugging’ from the enemy artificial reality offered to a ‘sleeping’ populace in The Matrix:

‘Jacking out of the matrix would cast one as a hero of the kind of dystopian film that proved popular in the 70s, Logan’s Run, Zardoz, Soylent Green, Fahrenheit 451 … on the run from The Corporation, with the foot soldiers of The System hard on your heels. We really are starting to live in that kind of movie, mutatis mutandis, so surely it’s time to join the Rebels, the Outliers, the Others who live beyond the Wall and read forbidden books, sing forbidden songs and think forbidden thoughts in defiance of The One.’

The tech evangelist, first baptised into his ministry by early association with Apple’s products, turns his powers of persuasion 180 degrees in the piece, in a plea for ‘Generation Z’ to rebel against the matrix:

‘Who most wants you to stay on the grid? The advertisers. Your boss. Human Resources. The advertisers. Your parents (irony of ironies – once they distrusted it, now they need to tag you electronically, share your Facebook photos and message you to death). The advertisers. The government. Your local authority. Your school. Advertisers..
Well, if you’re young and have an ounce of pride, doesn’t that list say it all? So fuck you, I’m Going Off The Grid.

The essay grounds its argument in the current millennial fad for ‘retro’ and ‘legacy’ – abstract, unlived ideas for young people captivated by the spirit of nostalgia for the fax age – but Fry, part of the ‘blank generation’ that emerged after the conformity of the 1950s and before the conformity of the yuppie age, ascribes genuine merit to the pre-digital society, and fond regard for the early days of the internet and the computer revolution:

‘The digital Wild West may have been rough and lawless but folk were politer to strangers and knew their manners better than the ruthless, ambitious citizens who took over. The pioneer territory has now had its shitty streets and crooked boardwalks paved over. In place of saloons there are strip malls, fun fairs and multiplexes. The telegraph and train killed the stage coach and the pony express.’

The highly discursive piece provides a fairly comprehensive history of the internet, and an array of historical examples demonstrating Fry’s contention that the current social media giants will fall as mightily as they have risen in the last ten years:

‘And Facebook will be dust one day. Hard to imagine perhaps but obviously and happily true… For now, Facebook is of course all powerful and finds itself busy eating the internet (thereby preparing its own extinction) and of course parents are on it. That’s how crap it is.’

‘Off the Grid’ is a refreshing note of rebellion because of who wrote it, though that’s somewhat counterbalanced by Stephen Fry’s epic history of departure, and not just from the virtual world. His last major retirement from Twitter was in 2009, following a row with another Twitter user. Fry suffers, now quite publicly, from bipolar disorder.

So he may be back – it wouldn’t be the first time. But his current spirit of rebellion is worthy of celebration:

‘I live in a world without Facebook, and now without Twitter. I manage to survive too without Kiki, Snapchat, Viber, Telegram, Signal and the rest of them. I haven’t yet learned to cope without iMessage and SMS. I haven’t yet turned my back on email and the Cloud. I haven’t yet jacked out of the matrix and gone off the grid. Maybe I will pluck up the courage.’

 

https://thestack.com/world/2016/04/20/stephen-fry-signs-off-from-the-grid-again/

Eye in the Sky: The liberal war on terror

By Joanne Laurier
31 March 2016

Directed by Gavin Hood; screenplay by Guy Hibbert

Eye in the Sky is a political-military thriller in which British and American officials weigh the consequences of a drone strike in Nairobi, Kenya. Directed by South African-born filmmaker Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, 2005, Rendition, 2007), it is a fast-paced movie resting, unfortunately, on a grossly manufactured and unlikely set of circumstances.

The film’s central character is Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), a fierce British military intelligence officer, who has been tracking a radicalized UK female citizen and her husband, both leading members of Al-Shabaab, a Somali jihadist group. From a military base in southern England, Powell identifies, via a US drone camera feed, these top Islamist figures arriving in Nairobi and being transported to a compound in a poor, crowded neighborhood patrolled by armed rebels.

Helen Mirren in Eye in the Sky

When a cyborg beetle—a small surveillance device controlled by a Kenyan intelligence unit—relays imagery of the terrorists preparing a suicide bombing mission, Powell wants to upgrade the order from “capture” to “kill.”

Despite her eagerness to call for a missile strike, she must seek permission from her superior Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Alan Rickman in his final screen performance), who is observing from London in a room with various government ministers and legal advisors. The British foreign secretary (Iain Glen) is attending an arms trade fair in Singapore.

Meanwhile, at a US Air Force base in Nevada, two young American drone pilots, who are concerned about collateral damage from such a strike, wait apprehensively for Powell’s decision. Both the US secretary of state, who is in Beijing playing ping-pong with Chinese officials, and a US government legal consultant are amenable (to say the least) to destroying the “targets,” despite the presence of one US and two British citizens.

The major obstacle is an adorable Kenyan child, Alia (Aisha Takow), selling bread near the targeted house. From Singapore, the foreign secretary observes that should the suicide bombers be allowed to kill scores of people, it would be a public relations gain for England, but if the military were to wipe out the compound, injuring or killing the youngster—especially if the video of the action were to be released by a WikiLeaks-type outfit—it would be a public relations disaster.

Nonetheless, more ruthless heads prevail …

In Eye in the Sky, talented actors (and producers such as Colin Firth) lend weight to a movie that is reasonably well-constructed on its own terms. However, the problem is precisely those “terms,” that is, primarily the legitimacy of the “war on terror.” So, such performance skills serve for the most part to sugar-coat a big lie.

The false presentation of reality involves important plot contrivances. The filmmakers early on remove the possibility of capturing the apparent suicide bombers. Why? There are only a handful of them and they are taking their time making videos and loading their vests with explosives. There is no reason why this should be any more than a Kenyan police matter.

Instead, an atmosphere of hysteria is concocted in line with the scare-tactic scenarios used by proponents of the “war on terror” for the last 15 years or so. In 2005, for example, the ultra-right columnist Charles Krauthammer, writing in the Weekly Standard, set out the following circumstances, in order to justify torture: “A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He’s not talking. … If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it? … Not only is it permissible to hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty.”

This is all a fantasy. No such circumstance has ever arisen, nor will it. This is the argument of those itching for authoritarian rule and the power to dispose of political opponents by the most brutal means.

Eye in the Sky, of course, does not see itself in that light. However, its central motif is nearly as bogus. Such pumped-up dramatic situations serve to shut down the brain and activate the nervous system along Pavlovian lines. Furthermore, the insertion of a beautiful, innocent Kenyan girl increases the ante. There is an odor of manipulation on every side here. (Andrew Niccol’sGood Kill, although flawed, is a far more scathing film about drone warfare.)

The central questions never broached nor presumably considered by the filmmakers are: Who are these terrorists and where do they come from? What are the social conditions in Kenya and East Africa as a whole? What is the history of the region? What are the British and American military and intelligence doing there? In Eye in the Sky, there is no history and no explanation.

First of all, it should be noted that in every major terrorist attack thus far, it has emerged that the jihadist elements had ties to the Western powers and their security forces at one time or another, or were manipulated or under close observation by those security forces.

Al-Shabaab came into being in Somalia in 2006 and has been formally aligned with Al Qaeda since 2012. The organization’s ranks are filled with impoverished youth and led by operatives with ties to US-backed Arab regimes.

In addition, the Kenyan government has proven a loyal partner in Washington’s drive to maintain its grip over the Horn of Africa. The region is at the center of the new colonial scramble for Africa, where the criminals are returning to the scene of their crimes. And the bloodiest of the old colonial masters in East Africa, from the end of the 19th century, was the British ruling class, whose suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s was the one of the most notorious models of imperialist counterinsurgency, on a par with the savage wars in Vietnam and Algeria.

According to Caroline Elkins in Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, the British colonial government detained vast numbers of people in camps or confined them in villages ringed with barbed wire. “From 1952 until the end of the war in 1960 tens of thousands of detainees—and possibly a hundred thousand or more—died from the combined effects of exhaustion, disease, starvation and systemic physical brutality.”

How is it possible for a director—from South Africa, no less—to treat seriously a significant political crisis in a former colonial country without reference to this recent history? How could Hood—with a straight face—possibly portray a panoply of British officials as behaving in the most sensitive, even-handed manner toward the Kenyan people?

Eye in the Sky

Almost inevitably, given this degree of intellectual surrender, the filmmakers end up adopting the viewpoint of the powers that be, the US and UK political establishment, the principal source of global terrorism.

The filmmakers offer certain oppositional gestures. They may not be insincere gestures, but they are weak. Eye in the Sky contains a lengthy debate about the rights and wrongs of killing or maiming Alia. (This seems fantastical given the level of destruction perpetrated by the Western powers in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa.) Moreover, the various higher-up government officials in both the US and Britain are not portrayed in an attractive light, while the novice drone pilots are represented as having a conscience. (What does ring true is the apprehension the decision-makers feel about the possibility of the exposure of their war crimes, which Hood, however, tends to alchemize into humanitarianism.) The final images are presumably meant to be disturbing, as is Col. Powell’s relentlessness. But this is really not much.

In an interview, the director asserts that “the questions that Guy’s [Guy Hibbert’s] script has beautifully raised are supported by the fact that he’s not reaching for an argument—these are the arguments and discussions that are happening among policy makers, lawyers, the military, human rights organizations … I hope it brings what seems like a mysterious subject to the general population, and we de-mystify it.”

This is simply not true. The difficulty is that the filmmakers are so at one with global bourgeois-liberal public opinion that they accept as their starting point an entire series of pernicious assumptions that shape and warmly envelop Eye in the Sky from its first moment to its last.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/03/31/eyei-m31.html