How social media took us from Tahrir Square to Donald Trump -MIT Technology Review

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This detailed and thoughtful article asks “How did digital technologies go from empowering citizens and toppling dictators to being used as tools of oppression and discord?” and what can we learn from the experience?

The Lessons:

  1. the weakening of old-style information gatekeepers (such as media, NGOs, and government and academic institutions), while empowering the underdogs, has also, in another way, deeply disempowered underdogs.
  2. the new, algorithmic gatekeepers aren’t merely (as they like to believe) neutral conduits for both truth and falsehood. They make their money by keeping people on their sites and apps; that aligns their incentives closely with those who stoke outrage, spread misinformation, and appeal to people’s existing biases and preferences.
  3. the loss of gatekeepers has been especially severe in local journalism. While some big US media outlets have managed (so far) to survive the upheaval wrought by the internet, this upending has almost completely broken local newspapers…
  4. Online, we’re connected with our communities, and we seek approval from our like-minded peers. We bond with our team by yelling at the fans of the other one. In sociology terms, we strengthen our feeling of “in-group” belonging by increasing our distance from and tension with the “out-group”—us versus them. Our cognitive universe isn’t an echo chamber, but our social one is. This is why the various projects for fact-checking claims in the news, while valuable, don’t convince people. Belonging is stronger than facts.
  5. Online, we’re connected with our communities, and we seek approval from our like-minded peers. We bond with our team by yelling at the fans of the other one. In sociology terms, we strengthen our feeling of “in-group” belonging by increasing our distance from and tension with the “out-group”—us versus them. Our cognitive universe isn’t an echo chamber, but our social one is. This is why the various projects for fact-checking claims in the news, while valuable, don’t convince people. Belonging is stronger than facts.
  6. Russia exploited the US’s weak digital security—its “nobody but us” mind-set—to subvert the public debate around the 2016 election.

The way forward?

“If digital connectivity provided the spark, it ignited because the kindling was already everywhere. The way forward is not to cultivate nostalgia for the old-world information gatekeepers or for the idealism of the Arab Spring. It’s to figure out how our institutions, our checks and balances, and our societal safeguards should function in the 21st century—not just for digital technologies but for politics and the economy in general. This responsibility isn’t on Russia, or solely on Facebook or Google or Twitter. It’s on us.”

For the full article, see: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/611806/how-social-media-took-us-from-tahrir-square-to-donald-trump/

Syria ceasefire deal explained -al Jazeera

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Here is a basic rundown of the September 2016 ceasefire deal in the Syrian conflict, courtesy of Al Jazeera:

  • “A nationwide ceasefire by Assad’s forces and the US-backed opposition is set to begin across Syria at sundown on Monday.
  • That sets off a seven-day period that will allow for humanitarian aid and civilian traffic into Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, which has faced a recent onslaught.
  • Fighting forces are to also pull back from the Castello Road, a key thoroughfare and access route into Aleppo, and create a “demilitarised zone” around it.
  • Also on Monday, the US and Russia will begin preparations for the creation of a Joint Implementation Centre that will involve information sharing needed to define areas controlled by the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham group (formerly known as al-Nusra Front) and opposition groups in areas “of active hostilities”.
  • The centre is expected to be established a week later, and is to launch a broader effort towards delineating other territories in control of various groups.
  • As part of the arrangement, Russia is expected to keep Syrian air force planes from bombing areas controlled by the opposition. The US has committed to help weaken Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria that has intermingled with the US-backed opposition in several places.
  • A resumption of political dialogue between the government and opposition under UN mediation, which was halted amid an upsurge in fighting in April, will be sought over the longer term.”

For more details on the deal see: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/09/syria-ceasefire-deal-explained-160910111132967.html

Russia’s Syria pullback: A catalyst for peace? -BBC

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“Vladimir Putin’s decision to pull much of his forces and air power out of Syria took the world by surprise. But it really should not have.
He has done exactly what he said he would do when he staged his surprise intervention nearly six months ago.
At that time, he said he had two goals: To stabilise the situation of the Syrian government, and to prepare the way for a “compromise political settlement” of a crisis that is now five years old.”

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-35815064

Vladimir Putin’s pledge to withdraw at least part of his forces from the Syrian conflict has been taken by many as a hopeful sign. The logic is simple enough: Putin has stabilized the situation for the Syrian government and now he wants to extract himself from a messy conflict while demonstrating to the world that Russia still has clout by delivering his Syrian client to the bargaining table. Without Russian support, the argument continues, the Assad regime will realize it cannot win and therefore accept a settlement.
Maybe this will happen, maybe not. There are two problems with the argument. First, the Syrian opposition is still demanding a transitional process which involves guarantees that Bashar Assad will step down. This is probably something Assad will only do as an absolute last resort. Second, Putin may not have as much leverage as he thinks. While the Russians can credibly tell Assad that they have no intention of helping him retake the entire country, it is clear that Moscow is committed to the regime’s survival. Knowing this, Assad may feel that he can hold out for the deal he wants, one where he gets to stay in power. While Putin may not like it, the costs of turning his back on the regime now would be too high.

So far, this seems to be the calculation Assad is making. The Syrian government has already announced that it will not participate in direct talks with the opposition. (see: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-35820823)

The situation as it stands, demonstrates the often complex power dynamics between patron states and their clients. Even if the patron is much more powerful and much richer, and even if the client is really desperate, if the patron is committed to the survival of the client they may not have that much influence over its actions.

The Kurdish Predicament in Syria: Balancing Russia, Turkey and the United States -Jamestown Foundation

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An interesting discussion of the Syrian Kurd’s strategic environment now that Russia has began its bombing campaign.

“Despite the good Russian-Kurdish diplomatic contacts, it is more likely that the PYD will strengthen their relations with the United States in the future, since they can only advance against the Islamic State with that country’s support. Without U.S. airstrikes since September 27, 2014, the PYD’s armed militia, the People’s Protection Units (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel—YPG), would have never been able to connect PYD-controlled administrations of Kobane and the Hasakah area by capturing Tal Abyad in June 2015. Likewise without U.S. support, Syrian Kurdish territories would be very vulnerable to Islamic State attacks. If the YPG or PYD decided to work openly with Russia, this could end U.S. air support. So while Salih Muslim met Bogdanov in October, Ilham Ahmed was in the United States seeking more support….”

“Russia cannot offer the Syrian Kurds much apart from protection against al-Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra and the rebel’s Military Operation Room in Aleppo, or to supply the YPG with limited weapon supplies. Since last summer, there have been several clashes between the YPG and Nusra-allied rebel groups around Efrin and the Kurdish neighborhood of Shaykh Maqsoud (Aranews, July 31).

“But, these rebel groups are growing weaker and weaker due to Russian airstrikes targeting them and Islamic State advances in Aleppo and towards Azaz. That jihadist organization is now already seven kilometers from Efrin and could capture Azaz (Welati, October 14). This will make it even more difficult for the Turks to protect its favored Syrian rebels or to create a safe zone alongside its border. Therefore, this arguably reduces the Kurds’ need for direct Russian support.”

http://www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=44539&no_cache=1#.VjPMErSqqko

In 1983 ‘war scare,’ Soviet leadership feared nuclear surprise attack by U.S. -Washington Post

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“In 1983, we may have inadvertently placed our relations with the Soviet Union on a hair trigger,” the review concluded.
That autumn has long been regarded as one of the most tense moments of the Cold War, coming after the Soviet Union shot down a South Korean civilian airliner in September and as the West was preparing to deploy Pershing II intermediate-range and ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe in November. But there has been a long-running debate about whether the period known as the “war scare” was a moment of genuine danger or a period of bluster for propaganda purposes.”

There are a number of interesting points in this article concerning perceptions and miss-perceptions.

1. Balance of power politics, even in a “relatively simple” two power system are complex and ambiguous, especially when tensions are high.

2. One side never really knows what the other side is thinking or how it sees a situation. While the US was arguing that the USSR was one offensive, the Soviets were concerned that a “deterioration of Soviet power might tempt a US first strike,”.

3. One’s adversaries probably do not see them in the same way they see themselves: Ronald Reagan was surprised that the USSR feared an American attack. Not because of the balance of power, but because “he felt that “it must be clear to anyone” that Americans were a moral people who, since the founding of the nation, “had always used our power only as a force for good in the world.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/in-1983-war-scare-soviet-leadership-feared-nuclear-surprise-attack-by-us/2015/10/24/15a289b4-7904-11e5-a958-d889faf561dc_story.html?postshare=3341445716450466

Bashar al-Assad Finds Chilly Embrace in Moscow Trip -New York Times

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From a distance, the relationship between patron and client states seems simple. The patron, usually a super-power like the US or at least a major power like Russia or China, holds all the cards. They have the money, the military and the diplomatic clout, therefore when they say jump, the client state, usually a regional power, asks, “how high”? In reality these relationships are more complex. Patron states need their client states and their client states know it. The result is often a subtle battle of wills as both sides try to leverage the other to do what they want. This seems to be happening between Russia and Syria.

“even as Mr. Assad flew secretly to Moscow on Tuesday night for a meeting to assess the fighting in Syria, the chilly personal relationship between the two men has not changed, according to officials, diplomats and analysts.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/22/us/politics/assad-finds-chilly-embrace-in-moscow-trip.html?ribbon-ad-idx=5&rref=world/middleeast&module=Ribbon&version=context&region=Header&action=click&contentCollection=Middle%20East&pgtype=article