Category: Global Affairs

Retrospective on loss

“What’s past is prologue.”

 – William Shakespeare, The Tempest

It was a strangely warm winter’s day while reflecting on the cold, dismal year just past. In a year bookended by this city, the enjoyment of being here can’t quite blot out memories of what happened in the middle.

Loss has defined 2016; loss of people, of peace, and of collective sanity. Perching on the brink of the approaching new year brings a sense of trepidation. From my own vantage point (ever-changing as it is), I’ve observed much news of loss. It hasn’t been pretty.

Celebrity deaths have come in a steady stream this year. The most recent, Star Wars legend, writer and activist Carrie Fisher, marks a resounding end to a terrible run that took with it some of the world’s most iconic figures, including Bowie, Cohen and Prince.

There have been other losses too, less famous but equally resonant, like the murder of the principled politician Jo Cox. And we mustn’t forget the lives lost this year in terrorist attacks that now seem frighteningly frequent, from Brussels to Berlin and all over the Middle East.

Along with human loss of all stripes we also witnessed political loss. In June, Britons voted away their privileges of living, working and travelling freely across 28 European nations. Our pound and our passports lost their heft as the people lashed out in one spiteful kick against perceived notions of Brussels and refugees. I cried when I heard news of Brexit.

Soon after, Istanbul was lost; and everything that came with it. But things were much worse for embattled Turkey, which lost peace, calm and its sense of security on that fateful July day of the failed coup. The country may never be the same again.

Globally, we lost the ability to make sense of world events. The toxic fog of ‘fake news’ descended upon us and took over our incoming news channels. This effect had been building up for months, culminating on the day the earth stood still – when Donald Trump took the White House.

The resulting furore rages on. Those of us whose job it is to seek truth feel compromised, hindered and weighed down by grey propaganda at every turn. Bot armies and paid Macedonian trolls are vying to control our perceptions. They are tools of those who wish to shape the future of nations for the worse.

No-one knows what truth looks like anymore. Each new story attracts cycle after cycle of ‘debunking’, until fact and fiction become smeared together in one unholy mass, until all is in doubt and nothing feels right anymore.

No-one knows what the new year will bring. All we can do as individuals is buttress ourselves against the coming storm, building a safe haven of the self. Because the world isn’t fair, and if we can’t rely on ourselves, who can we rely on?

Trust no-one, question everything, and don’t lose yourself.

After Berlin, can Germany resist hate?

In Berlin just before Christmas, twelve people were killed and dozens injured in another terrorist attack.

The attacker drove a truck into a busy Christmas market, targeting shoppers and bystanders, ploughing his hijacked vehicle into the crowds in much the same way as the Bastille Day attack in Nice. ISIS was quick to claim that it inspired the attack.

German authorities believe the attacker is a Tunisian national in his early 20s, according to identity documents found in the truck’s cabin, where the Polish driver was also found shot dead. Police are currently conducting a series of raids as they try to find the attacker.

Although this latest event in Berlin is as bloody and tragic as any other, it is beginning to lose some of its shock value in a year filled with carnage. It’s just another instalment in a series of attacks on European cities that have targeted Brussels, Istanbul (multiple times), Paris, and Nice this year. In response we find the usual banalities.

Politicians tweet ‘thoughts and prayers’, analysts weigh in on TV and in op-eds, while the world expresses sentiments on social media ranging from grief and solidarity to ‘we told you so’, among a range of negative remarks aimed at Islam. Most of these responses ring hollow; they’ve been said so many times already. But the anti-Islam ones are more serious than most, as for Western societies they herald yet another step down a frightening rabbit hole.

The anti-Islam, anti-refugee view, once the preserve of those at the far-right margins, is now making its way into everyday discourse. Ordinary people can’t help but be shocked at the plight of innocent victims like those visiting the market that fateful day. Far-right discourse plays on their shock and encourages their fear to take hold and manifest itself in growing fear and suspicion of the ‘other’, particularly refugees and Muslim immigrants.

But with the frequency of attacks in 2016 in particular, one could argue that ‘propaganda of the deed’ could be losing some of its potency. The West knows that it’s under threat but seems to lack the ability to counter the origins of the problem. Defeating ISIS in Syria and Iraq hasn’t helped, as this latest attack in Germany shows.

The troubled worldview of disaffected, frustrated young Muslims in the West can’t very well be addressed with military action in Iraq or Syria. In fact, this only serves to stoke the flames of radicalisation and lead more people to take up arms in support of Syria’s plight. The difference is, they may choose to attack at home where it’s easier to do so.

So if Isis inspired this latest attack what is it hoping to achieve? For starters this could be a reminder that it’s still here and still a credible threat. Despite recent territorial losses in Syria and Iraq the group knows that its influence extends far beyond those battlefields. Understanding its audience as well as Isis does means that the group can still tap into their frustrations and fears, harnessing those to inspire attacks like this latest one in Berlin.

For Angela Merkel this is very bad news. Her pro-refugee policy back in summer 2015, despite its best intentions, meant that Germany perhaps bit off more than it could chew, without a clear plan in place to make sure the new arrivals were properly integrated. As thousands of desperate refugees headed for Germany, the people of overwhelmed towns and cities started to become resentful. As negative incidents emerged, such as the Paris shootings and the Cologne sexual assaults, so the tide of German public sentiment started turning against refugees, equating their very presence with a heightened risk of terrorism.

Events like these are prime opportunities for the far-right to promote its brand of hatred, fear and division. If far-right political proponents time their moves well, their parties can manipulate public opinion and use it to gain political leverage. They already did so successfully in Britain and the US, resulting in Brexit and Trump respectively. France, with the rising popularity of Marine Le Pen, is not far behind.

Merkel’s Germany has been described as the ‘liberal West’s last defender’ in Europe. Although this seems ironic given the country’s 20th century history, it’s a testament to how hard Germany has worked and how far it has come.

Germany has a few advantages that may help protect popular sentiment from far-right influence; firstly, a stronger economy than many of its EU neighbours; secondly, a media landscape that is more restrained and less hysterical than, for example, that of the UK. But Germany’s final, and most important, advantage is that it has already learned serious lessons from history. It has lived through the terrible reality of what widespread xenophobia can bring.

For this to now be undone and for fascism to return would be a travesty, not just for Germany, but for the world. It remains to be seen in the run-up to the next German elections whether the people will give in to the forces that wish to sow division, or instead form their own judgements and proceed with wisdom and clarity.

Update: Since this piece was published, the Berlin market attacker, Anis Amri, has been shot dead by Italian security forces in a shootout in Milan.

Fake armies: A field guide to astroturfing

“There are invisible rulers who control the destinies of millions.”

― Edward L. Bernays

It sounds so Orwellian; the world’s opinions shaped by vast armies of bots, or by paid groups of teenagers in Macedonia. But far from being a 1984 nightmare come to life, this scenario has become reality; and not just in authoritarian states. Technology is now used to drown out the voices of real people, creating an alternate reality where fake opinions rule and the zeitgeist is based on myths.

What exactly is astroturfing?

Astroturfing is where paid groups or automated technologies (‘bots’) fool the public into believing that certain opinions are more popular or widespread than in reality. It’s used in many arenas, from political campaigning to Amazon reviews. With the increasing influence of social media it’s difficult to tell fake from fact. Astroturfing is especially likely to happen whenever the interests of big business come into conflict with those of the public, for example climate change and big oil, or lung cancer and tobacco companies. To challenge scientifically proven fact should be an impossible endeavour, as surely nothing is more sacred than fact? But in a world led by fake news and paid opinion, the word of experts has been cheapened. In fact, many people no longer trust experts at all. This was demonstrated to devastating effect this year during the EU referendum in the UK, and the presidential elections in the United States.

When did astroturfing begin?

Astroturfing is not a phenomenon of the digital age. It’s been going on since before social media began. Back in the days of print newspapers, so-called ‘concerned residents’ would send a barrage of letters to the editor, especially around election times, to protest against certain policies or candidates. Now that newspapers have gone online the armies of astroturfers have headed to the nearest obvious outlet: the comment sections. From there, it’s an easy step to create multiple identities and start posting comments. Forums are another prime target for astroturfers, along with blogs and of course, social media. Have you ever felt a sense of despair when reading the comments under a newspaper article posted on Facebook? They seem to bring out the worst of human nature, but some of them could be astroturfers. In our low moments, when we feel the world is doomed to a constant cycle of bigotry, xenophobia and fear, perhaps we’d do well to remind ourselves that the rabid anti-Muslim or anti-foreigner comments online could simply be the work of some bot army.

What’s the role of technology?

As technology advances further, astroturfing gets more sophisticated. Russia has a particular talent for harnessing the power of fake opinion on a massive scale, using something called ‘persona management software’. This software creates bot armies that use fake IP addresses to hide their location, along with generating authentic-looking ‘aged’ profiles. There’s almost no way to tell bot from human – and that’s where the real danger lies. Fake opinion en masse can have alarming results; shifting the social and political mood and whipping people up into hysteria over issues minor or even non-existent.

Thanks to the online echo chambers that we live in these days, fake opinion can spread with ease once sown. It becomes further reinforced and legitimised by ongoing social sharing and discussion. Most social media users get their news from within a bubble, as algorithms do their utmost to show only the updates that the user is most likely to engage with. This means there’s less chance of people being shown opinions that challenge their existing worldview. That’s a recipe for disaster – and it’s one that we’ve only just begun to understand the significance of.

What are the implications?

Politics in 2016 is fishy business. In particular, the Trump election campaign is extremely suspicious. There have been claims that Russia used its cyber warfare prowess to interfere in the US elections; in the end putting Trump in command of the country. Notably, Russia has been accused of using its hackers to access Wikileaks to produce a leak of thousands of incriminating emails supposedly sent by Hillary Clinton. This move eroded public trust in Clinton and narrowed the gap between candidates by double digits. Again, like astroturfing, this technique is not new. Orchestrating the right conditions to encourage people to act in a certain way has been used for decades. The father of propaganda, Edward Bernays, used it to great effect in the early 20th century, to sell pianos and bacon, and cause regime change in Guatemala.

Having Trump in power is very much in Russia’s interests. Trump is inexperienced in politics, especially foreign policy, making him very much open to manipulation from afar. He has a reputation for being greedy, meaning he can be easily bought. He has already said publicly that he favours anon-interventionist military policy abroad. For the Kremlin, a Trump presidency is Russia’s very own puppet in the White House. It’s the Cold War revisited, with Russia scoring a massive coup against the US. Only this time Russia has technology on its side, propelling its influence all the way into the corridors of American power. The Soviets couldn’t have hoped for anything like it.

Controlling the zeitgeist via propaganda and astroturfing has reached new heights in this fundamentally connected age where the concept of ‘post-truth’ is rapidly gaining currency. That’s a serious concern; it makes a mockery of democracy and free speech, destroying the validity of the internet as a forum for useful online debate. Soon we won’t know what’s bot and what’s not. In this post-truth, Trump-tainted era, one could well argue that is already the case.

Teeth and claws

Cloudy weather allows for clearer thinking, so it is said, while sunshine ‘dulls the mind’ to risk and thoughtfulness’. If that’s truly the case, my thoughts should have been crystal during these last months. But mostly, they are full of constant musings on what a wild place the world has become.

There are four days left until the US election. Media hysteria surrounding the candidates has risen to fever pitch; with tales of deleted emails vying for dominance with those of sexual harassment (can’t think which could be worse…) Old family friends have emerged as die-hard supporters of those who purvey the latter, much to my great dismay.

Meanwhile, a glimmer of light appeared yesterday on this side of the Atlantic, as the UK’s high court ruled that Parliament must vote to trigger Article 50. This ruling is a small victory for those who just months ago watched in dismay as the future of their country was hijacked by the masses voting for false promises. We watched while the pound plummeted. We watched while other EU member states ganged up against us. And we watched while the hard-won British reputation for tolerance openness and pluralism was smashed apart in a matter of days.

On a wider scale, the world is moving in a worrying direction. Driven by fear, people are retreating to the familiar, afraid to interact with the ‘other’ in case something bad happens to them. Refugees are potential suicide bombers; immigrants will steal our jobs. We can witness the rise of Trump’s alt-right in America reflecting the Brexit mentality in Britain, and the Europe-wide rejection of refugees inextricably linked to the rise of ‘acceptable’ far-right parties, such as Marine Le Pen’s Front Nationale in France. This culture of hate is growing teeth and claws.

In Turkey, the political situation has sunk to new lows with last night’s arrest of members of the elected opposition party HDP, headed by the charismatic Selahattin Demirtas. The pro-Kurd HDP supports the rights of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, along with being a vocal advocate for those of women, LGBT and workers. The MPs have been accused (predictably) of crimes ‘relating to terrorist propaganda’, which could mean absolutely anything (or could even be made up). Nevertheless, it sounds a death knell for any semblance of democracy in Turkey.

Social media in Turkey has been blocked, including WhatsApp, the country remains under a state of emergency, and it seems the powers-that-be will stop at nothing in their quest to stamp out any dissent and retain power indefinitely. What’s more, Turkey’s recent invasion of Mosul has drawn the ire of ISIS leader Al-Baghdadi, who has urged his followers to wage ‘all-out war’ against Turkey. The future of the country looks grim, to say the least.

But fortunately, not all people move in fearful herds. Examples can still be found of grassroots initiatives that promote tolerance, justice and humanity. The Devon town of Great Torrington responded to a hateful anti-refugee Facebook page by creating its own “Refugees ARE welcome in Devon” page, which has attracted a lot of positive engagement. In a similar vein, but Syrian-run, From Syria with Love is a charity that travels around the UK giving talks on the Syrian situation and encouraging donations in support of refugees. So far, much of its feedback has been positive.

There are many more like this, but the mainstream media prefers to focus on news that holds the requisite shock value, painting a picture of a divided and hateful world. Over the coming weeks and months I shall be keeping my eyes open for examples of people working hard to promote basic humanity over the constant parade of hatred and fear. Through that, perhaps I can retain some modicum of hope.

 

Climate of fear: Two years in Istanbul

istanbul

It is sobering and painful to imagine bad fortune befalling those places you hold dear; to know that the streets that you once frequented and the bridges you once traversed have become bit part players in a much larger tragedy.

I first discovered Istanbul during its calmer days. I arrived in the city in the autumn of 2013; my first encounter with the ancient cultural heart of an altogether unfamiliar country. Istanbul captivated me at once with its energy and quirkiness, with its fascinating and shambolic mingling of cultures, and with its passion and unrelenting buzz.

Admittedly, all was not entirely well in the Istanbul that I first saw. In the summer of that same year, the Gezi Park protests had brought the city’s various discontents into stark view. The heavy handed crackdown by Turkey’s government against those protests was an ominous sign of things to come. During the Gezi events the world saw a flow of images showing Turkish police with tear gas and water cannons turning on protestors with vicious intent. These images became a dominant motif for Turkey over the months and years that followed Gezi.

I will never forget one ordinary Saturday afternoon in late 2014. I was wandering Istiklal Caddesi with friends on a mildly sunny day. The avenue was busy with people young and old, families, and foreign tourists. Suddenly we were startled by people running in our direction. It turned out there were police hot on their tails armed with excessive amounts of teargas.

We were about to be caught in the crossfire and knew that a gassing could be really unpleasant. So we ran for the nearest side street and took refuge in a vehicle workshop, where the owners rushed to batten down the steel door and where together we all waited until the danger had passed by. Outside, the air was acrid with the lingering stench of teargas.

Since those early days there have been many more dramatic events in Istanbul and wider Turkey. Most notably, the ruling regime has stepped up its level of control, bolstered by another resounding win at the ballot box in mid-2015, when Turkey held its most recent general election. The leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is a divisive figure. At first I thought he was unpopular with most Turks, judging from the opinions of my liberal and mostly secular English-speaking Turkish friends, who never missed a chance to criticise him.

But as I got to know Turkey more deeply it became clear that the man had widespread popular support, just not from the demographic that constituted most of my social scene. On the contrary, Erdogan supporters came from the working classes, from the more religious and less well-educated sections of society. This is a general statement but one that largely holds true.

To understand Turkey better it is important to remember that Istanbul is not really Turkey, and Turkey is not really Istanbul. In fact, most of Turkey resides in the wider Anatolian regions, beyond Istanbul, where society tends towards the poorer, more conservative and more religious. These are the heartlands from where President Erdogan draws the majority of his support base. These are the voters that have kept the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in power for almost fifteen years.

Erdogan is undoubtedly a gifted politician. Although he may lack a university education (his degree is believed to be fake), he has used his time spent on the streets of Istanbul to learn exactly what makes the common Turk tick and he has leveraged this knowledge to great effect. He is ruthless too, as shown by his cynical manipulation of Turkish society to achieve his political aims.

In summer 2015 the tide shifted in Turkey. A challenger party, the HDP (People’s Democratic Party), won enough general election votes to give it a seat in parliament. This denied the AKP the majority rule it had expected to win. The result was a hung parliament amid calls for the ruling party to form a coalition. Anyone who knows Turkish politics and the personality of Erdogan himself knows how impossible this is. There was stalemate for a number of months until a second general election was called in November.

Between the first and second elections a number of unusual events befell Turkey. In July, not long after the first election result was announced, a truce between the ruling party and the PKK (Kurdish independence party, notorious for long-standing conflict with the Turkish state) suddenly fell apart. It was unusual, because this truce had been in place since 2013, with the goal to embark on a peace process. As a result, conflict duly resumed in the south-east between the PKK and Turkish security forces. Turkey was once again embroiled in a civil war.

Then, just before the November election was due, Turkey suffered the worst terrorist attack in its history. Two suicide bombers blew themselves to smithereens amid a peace rally in the capital Ankara, killing 102 people, most of them young. They had been rallying for peace in the Kurdish southeast. The finger was pointed at Islamic State. But the militant group, normally so quick to claim responsibility for its actions, has so far remained silent on this attack.

Eyewitnesses at the Ankara event noted the surprising lack of security forces during the peace rally. It was almost as if the government wanted the rally to be attacked. Some have even gone as far as to claim the AKP deliberately orchestrated the bombing to tip the November election in its favour. Be that the case or not, it worked. The AKP won a landslide victory and regained full control in parliament. I was out of the country when the results came through.

All the while tensions were ratcheting up across Turkey. The feeling was palpable in Istanbul’s over-crowded subways and heaving streets; not only tension but also fear. The country had started to feel unstable. I was fairly shielded from the effects of this fear, as I lived far from the city centre at that time. The place where I lived was a low-key working-class suburb, where nothing except occasional boredom was a concern. But friends living in the centre spoke of their nervousness using public transport and being in busy enclosed spaces such as shopping malls.

Istanbul was changing.

The following year, things took a turn for the worse. There were two separate suicide bomb attacks, one in January in touristy Sultanahmet followed by a second in March in the heart of Istiklal Street. Both times foreign tourists as well as Turks were killed. These two locations were absolutely the most effective choices for destroying the tourism industry in Turkey, which indeed they did.

Another suicide attack in late June, a particularly brazen one targeting Ataturk Airport, cemented the climate of fear in Istanbul. It sent many people fleeing elsewhere if they were able to do so. Expats began talking seriously about leaving; while Turks entitled to foreign passports were trying urgently to secure them.

To their credit, the Turks had the airport up and running again within hours of the attack, which was convenient for some but rather alarming for others. Things felt normal when I flew out of that same airport just days after the attack, apart from the commemorative display in the arrivals hall where 42 people had been blown and shot to shreds.

This leads us up to the most recent news of this weekend’s coup attempt. It’s a time of high drama for Turkey. Erdogan has called on the US to extradite his arch-rival, elderly Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who he has accused of orchestrating the coup via his many supporters in positions of power in Turkey. It makes little sense for Gulen to do such a thing.

What rings more true – alarmingly – is that the AKP somehow set up the coup attempt as justification for the subsequent arrest of thousands of judges and senior military figures – which happened within two days of the coup. How the wheels of so-called justice can move so fast is mystifying, unless of course the coup was expected, planned and carried out by those loyal to the AKP.

Now is a golden opportunity for Erdogan to make his final bid for total control. His dearest wish is to change the constitution to allow executive powers for the presidency. If this occurs, it could be a death knell for any semblance of democracy in Turkey. The country will have transitioned into a dictatorship in all but name, just like its current civil war in all but name against the Kurds in the southeast.

There is no telling now what the future holds for Turkey. If it continues down this path Erdogan is likely to achieve unquestionable power. What that means for the common people of Turkey is as yet unknown. Now relegated to an observer instead of a more active participant, I can only hope that whatever comes next will avoid doing further damage to the city, country and people among which I spent some happy, formative and productive years. It feels like Turkey is descending into an abyss, but inshallah, as the Turks say, things will not be as dark as they seem.