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Editorial

Turf Wars: The Birth of the COVID-19 Protests

Over the weekends of the 17th and 24th of April, thousands of Americans showed up at intersections and state houses across the country to protest against social distancing rules, the closure of businesses, and other measures taken by mayors and governors to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. Depending on the location, protestors ranged from the pedestrian to the extreme and bizarre. Some groups were calm, carrying signs calling on governors to reopen businesses. Other groups were toting semi-automatic rifles, combat gear, and QAnon paraphernalia.

Users on reddit, in particular /u/Dr_Midnight, noticed a strange pattern in certain sites purporting to support the anti-quarantine protests. Dozens of sites with the URL format reopen[state code/name].com had all been registered on 17 April within minutes of each other, many from a single round of GoDaddy domain purchases from the same IP address in Florida. The original Reddit posts were removed by moderators because they revealed private information about the individual who had registered the reopen.com domains. Here are screenshots without sensitive information, as examples:

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The Pennsylvania and Minnesota sites are on the same server, registered from the same IP address

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Date and time for domain purchases // creds to Krebs On Security

Sites urging civil unrest in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, Minnesota, and Iowa all had the same “contact your legislator” widget installed, and these and other states’ websites “blog” sections cross linked to each other.

Many of the reopen.com sites purchased on 17 April are dormant and have no content at the time of publication. However several of these domains forward users to a string of state gun rights advocacy websites, all named [state]gunrights.org. The Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Michigan and other “gun rights” sites and associated Facebook groups belong to the Dorr brothers, gun rights extremists and conservative advocates who Republican lawmakers in the Midwest have repeated labeled as “grifters”. Multiple reopen.com sites have “shop” sections selling the Dorrs’ anti-quarantine and pro-gun rights merchandise.

Several reopen.com URLs lead to Facebook groups calling themselves “Operation Gridlock [city name]”. Here are the identical descriptions for the LA and Tennessee Gridlock Facebook groups:

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Security researcher Brian Krebs also identified reopen.com domains, including reopenmississippi.com, that had eventually been sold on to In Pursuit Of LLC, a for-profit political communications agency reported to belong to the conservative billionaire industrialist Charles Koch. Non-profit journalistic site ProPublica has identified several former In Pursuit Of employees who are now on the Trump White House communications staff. It is unclear who registered reopenmississippi.com and other sites purchased by for-profit political consultancies, as many were not purchased during the 17 April’s afternoon buying spree in Florida.

A further twist in the story came on 23 April, when a man named Michael Murphy, whose IP address was identified in /u/Dr_Midnight’s original removed reddit investigation, was interviewed by reporter Brianna Sacks. It turns out that Murphy, a struggling day trader from Sebastian, Florida, spent $4,000 on dozens of reopen.com domains in the hopes of selling them on to liberal activists looking to prevent conservatives from organizing protests. An attempt to out-grift the grifters.

It is unclear whether Murphy’s intentions were political, financial, or both. He describes his politics as “generally liberal”, however his business has been suffering in recent years — he even tried to reorient to selling N-95 mask cleaning solution when the coronavirus outbreak worsened in March, but was unsuccessful. Murphy even claims to have attempted to contact late night TV host John Oliver, hoping the comedian would pay him for domains to use in one of his show’s signature trolling stunts. Murphy came forward to reporters after anti-right-wing reddit users began doxxing him, revealing his name, address, and businesses. Any reopen.com sites not registered to Murphy’s Florida IP address were likely bought by the Dorrs brothers or Koch-backed organizations before Murphy could snatch them up.

What do we make of all this?

Relatively unsophisticated technical actors have shown themselves capable of mobilizing large numbers of citizens into the streets. A few well-named URLs and a decent Facebook following are all it takes for a series of protests to be organized across the country with little notice. Protesting citizens are entirely unaware that any central coordination of their activities exists beyond their local social media groups. However these groups were not genuine expressions of opinion by concerned private citizens. Most were created concurrently by individuals or organizations with the explicit intent of political or financial gain through advocating activities that contradict public health rules and guidelines in a time of national crisis.

It’s important to note at this point these protests represent the views of a very small minority of voters, regardless of party. A poll conducted by the Democracy Fund and UCLA in late March and again in early April shows broad approval of, and compliance with, local and state social distancing guidelines and business closures. Around 87% of respondents approved of varying measures imposed by mayors and governors, and 81% said they hadn’t left their homes over the last two weeks except for buying necessities, up from 72% in late March. Majorities of Democrats, Republicans, and Independents all believed quarantine measures to be necessary. Despite this general consensus in support of emergency measures, astroturfing operations were able to mobilize a diverse set of online activists, spectators, social media buffs, conspiracy theorists, and guns rights absolutists, even reaching all the way to disgruntled mainstream conservatives and their families.

The Internet and social media catalyze kinetic action

Centrally coordinated puppeteering of otherwise spontaneous demonstrations is not new. What is novel is the ability to do so at a national scale with almost no investment of resources of any kind — financial or otherwise. All it took was an internet connection, a few web domains, and a cursory knowledge of the online right wing universe. Once the spaces for action were created, and the right actors assembled, the demonstrations themselves were almost an inevitability. With enough prodding from conservative media and political figures, right up to the top of the movement, people took to the streets.

Twitter, and to a lesser extent Facebook, have actively shied away from preventing this method of organizing on their platforms. Despite both companies ostensibly having changed terms-of-use enforcement to take down content encouraging violating state quarantine orders, Facebook has not taken down Freedom Fund or Conservative Coalition groups or individual posts, and Twitter has officially decided that the President’s “LIBERATE” tweets do not violate their rules against inciting violence. On 22 April, Facebook did take down events pages for anti-quarantine protests in California, Nebraska, and New Jersey, but only after these states’ governors explicitly ordered the company to do so. Events pages in other states, most notably Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, remained active over the weekend of 24 April. Several groups of protesters in Lansing, Michigan entered the State Capitol Building carrying semi-automatic rifles and wearing kevlar vests and other combat gear. Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, has been a target of particularly vitriolic rhetoric from protestors over the state’s emergency orders — some of the most stringent in the country — enacted after a major outbreak in the Detroit area in late March.

Inauthentic action catalyzed by social media is legitimized by traditional media

Traditional media, most notably TV, are often playing catch-up with more savvy information actors online. An Insider Exclusive special oPoln coronavirus on 29 April — broadcast in primetime on multiple US cable networks — contained a segment on the protests. It first showed “hundreds” of people continuing to protest in front of various state houses, and immediately contrasted these images with footage of long lines at food banks in Houston, Texas. The narration insinuates that the “exasperation” felt by the protestors somehow derives from an inability to find basic necessities. This insinuation, however, is false. Footage of the protests has revealed the discontents to be predominantly white and older, while those requiring assistance from food banks in major cities are often younger, economically-precarious people of color, a demographic notably absent from images of anti-stay-at-home protesters.

The astroturfing operation has therefore worked its way through an entire information cycle. Political donor money is used to fund fringe actors’ online efforts, purchasing websites and organizing on social media. These sites are used to generate kinetic action in the form of protests. These protests are then covered by the traditional media, broadcasting and legitimizing the initial message of the organizers, inserting their narrative into the mainstream.

Categories
Editorial

Fake News and the Coronavirus

Who doesn’t like a good challenge?

That is what came to mind when I listened to a webinar two weeks ago by the Director of the Reuters Institute, Professor Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, in which he started off by saying:

“We are not just fighting an epidemic but also an infodemic, where people are confused about the information they are getting from politicians, news organisations, social media, search and video sharing sites.”

In recent weeks, the topic of fake news has reemerged in the headlines in light of the current coronavirus pandemic. As a concept, false information is nothing new. As my colleague Max Gorynski illustrated in a previous article diving into its origins, civilisation has been grappling with the issue of misinformation for centuries. But the coronavirus has had an interesting side-effect, whereby the public have become tangibly aware of the dangerous consequences that misinformation and disinformation can have. One particularly poignant example of this was the report in early March “that 16 Iranians [had] died from methanol poisoning…after false rumours spread that drinking alcohol would help prevent people getting the Covid-19 virus.”[1]

The very fact that individuals are experiencing fear for their own safety during the pandemic, has forced onto the agenda skills which are necessary to differentiate fact from fiction. Useful information from dangerous information. Those skills include critical thinking, media literacy, source checking, awareness of the problem and responsible sharing of information. In this sense, the pandemic has perversely offered an opportunity to come to terms with fake news — in effect a metaphorical fork in the road.

The Age of Whoever Shouts the Loudest

The idea for this article started with the assertion by US President Trump in a public press conference on February 26th that “because of all we have done, the risk to the American people remains very low”, in reference to the current Covid-19 global pandemic.

These comments have not aged well, with the coronavirus cases in the US having surpassed 670,000 and 35,000 deaths at the time of writing.

Unless you have been living under a rock for the last four years, you know that this is far from the first time Trump has spread misinformation. In fact, he is the uncontested champion of lying, with “The Washington Post calculat[ing] that he’d made 2,140 false or misleading claims during the first year in office — an average of nearly 5.9 a day.” [2]

The Champion of Lying

But to be fair to Trump (and it really pains me to write that), he is simply the embodiment of something that has been festering in our society for decades — the erosion of truth.

But how did we get here? How did we get to a point where the truth has become unfashionable, telling lies acceptable and normalised; where truth is whatever a person chooses to believe?

Truth Redefined

Recently I read former New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani’s excellent book ‘The Death of Truth’ in which she sets out a timeline for this erosion and places it in the geo-political context of today. As she succinctly put it, we are currently in a time where “nationalism, tribalism, dislocation, fears of social change and the hatred of outsiders are on the rise again as people, locked in their partisan filter bubbles, are losing a sense of shared reality and the ability to communicate across social and sectarian lines”.[3]

There has, in effect, been a re-definition of the value that facts, science, rationale, objectivity and expert-opinion hold in our society, arguably leaving the door ajar for misinformation and disinformation to run amock.

A large contributing factor to this story has been the advent of the internet. As CEO of the New York Times Company Mark Thompson said in 2016, “our digital eco-systems have evolved into a near-perfect environment for distorted false news to thrive”.[4] This is an environment where information can be created and shared freely at incredible velocity and mass, without the veracity of it being checked beforehand. This view is reaffirmed by Kakutani who notes that “when it comes to spreading fake news and undermining belief in objectivity, technology has proven to be a highly flammable accelerant”.[5]

One industry that has been hit particularly hard by this changing societal relationship with truth has been journalism. As award winning digital media scholar Alfred Hermida notes: “verification is one of the cornerstones of the professional ideology of journalism in Western liberal democracy, together with related concepts such as objectivity, impartiality and autonomy.”[6] With this context mentioned above in mind, it is not surprising that the across the world the level of trust in journalism and indeed in journalists has declined in the recent past.

Declining Levels of Trust, Showing Healthy Dose of Scepticism

These declining levels of trust in journalism are most stark when it comes to the space of digital news. The industry leading market research report compiled in 2019 by the Reuters Institute, found that across the 38-country sample, the 75,000 survey respondents only had a trust level of 33% for news found via search engines and 23% for news found via social media.

These findings illustrate that people were already starting to think about the veracity and origin of the information that they were reading, even before the coronavirus outbreak. In fact, when asked, 55% of respondents said that they remain concerned about their ability to separate what is real and what is fake on the internet[7]. In the most extreme cases, people had felt the need to actively change their news consumption patterns to ensure a higher quality of news. This was conveyed in the fact that 26% of the repondents had said that they had started to rely on sources that they considered to be more reputable [8].

Spotting Different Types of Fake News

Yes, Covid-19 has led to a plethora of misinformation and disinformation being produced and spread online, and yes the challenge is certainly big.

At this point, it is appropriate to highlight that there are many types of what (in the contemporary vernacular) has been characterised under the umbrella term ‘fake news’. The graphic below from Reuters illustrates the different forms that it can take.

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https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/types-sources-and-claims-covid-19-misinformation

This was taken from a recently published piece of analysis, where Reuters looked at a sample of 225 pieces of misinformation between the beginning of January and end of March.[9] On the left you have misleading content, which “contain[s] some true information, but [where] the details were reformulated, selected and re-contextualised in ways that made them false or misleading”[10] and false context, where “genuine content is shared with false contextual information”.

Reconfigured content is arguably the more dangerous type of misinformation, because it is much more difficult for the reader to spot. This is why one technique often cited used to tackle the challenge of misinformation is to improve people’s media literacy levels and critical thinking skills. On the right of the graphic (38% of the findings) you have misinformation that was fabricated — also more accurately described as disinformation. This is content that is 100% false, that has been created with the intention of deliberately deceiving the reader.

Green Shoots of Recovery

The reaction to the spread of misinformation online surrounding the pandemic has been interesting to follow and given me reasons to be hopeful.

Firstly, the fact checkers are fighting back aggressively against the wave of fake news. The same Reuters article illustrated for example, how “the number of English language fact checks rose by 900% from January to March”.[11]

Furthermore, early indications are that people are employing a healthy dose of scepticism and taking some further steps themselves to access the credibility of the content that they are reading. This is reinforced by a survey conducted by Ofcom on the news consumption patterns of 2000 respondents in the UK from March 23 to March 29.

When encountering what they perceived to be misinformation, 45% of the survey respondents said that they had actively attempted to verify the content — 15% doing so by choosing themselves to employ fact-checking tips they had seen online, 13% asking friends and family, 10% going to fact-checking websites and 7% saying they had reported or blocked the content.[12]

Similarly, there has been a large increase in the number of social media users who are themselves flagging and removing misinformation. In particular, as reported by the BBC [13], administrators of closed Facebook groups have been very active on this front in the last few weeks. Going forward, I would urge readers to check any information that they send on to others via closed networks (eg WhatsApp) because of the risks as outlined in the video below. ‘Bottom-up’ spread amongst peers, family and friends is potentially more dangerous than ‘top-down’ misinformation spread by politicians, officials and celebrities.

BBC: How do you stop misinformation spread?

Secondly, as has been widely reported in recent days, public service broadcasters (e.g. ARD in Germany) have seen a significant uptick in their viewership since the coronavirus started. On March 16th, the BBC announced in a series of tweets that the previous week had been “the biggest week ever for BBC News Online…with 70m unique browsers coming to the website and apps” and that its TV audience for the BBC News at six pm “was up by 27% on 2019”. This is reinforced by the aforementioned Ofcom report, where 82% of those asked said that they were using the BBC as a source of information (see graph below).[14]

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Ofcom Covid 19 News and Information: Consumption and Attitudes Report

This is encouraging when compared to online media consumption patterns before the crisis, where a majority of people were accessing their news through either search engines, social media sites, email, mobile alerts and aggregators.[15] These sources are much more likely to feature stories that include misinformation and disinformation. These sources are particularly popular with people under the age of 35, who prefer them to public service broadcasters that have a majority of older users.

During times of crisis, it is well established that people typically tend to engage much more frequently with news than during ‘normal times’. A key driver for this change in behaviour is fear, whereby the population feel the need to inform themselves for their own protection. In their search for factually correct information people often turn to the established media brands, which is what we have seen happen in recent weeks.

In the Context of Life and Death, Turns Out Facts Do Matter

In the past, after a crisis has subsided, there is a tendency for the population’s media consumption patterns to revert back to pre-crisis levels. Perhaps this will also happen this time. But there are indications that at least some of the current patterns of behaviour might remain in place post-coronavirus. This crisis has a key point of differentiation to other crises in the past. The nature of this virus has meant that in this environment facts and data do matter and the population are starting to realise this.

On the one hand, people are using sources where they can rely on the information to be true. Many have turned to the public service broadcasters which typically command a high level of trust from users. Similarly, experts are back in high demand as millions of citizens look to them for reassurance, trusting their knowledge and analysis. Appropriately, scientists are currently the most trusted spokespeople globally[16], which is why they have been taking a leading role in government press conferences.

On the other hand, people have become hypersensitive to fake news. There is an awareness by the general public of the plurality and danger of the spread of misinformation which is a good starting point for tackling this challenge. Furthermore, we have seen a multitude of fact checking websites and organisations taking up arms against the deluge of fake news online and these resources are being used. This has been complemented by people having adopted a more responsible attitude towards sharing of information with family and friends in closed networks.

We are at a critical juncture — a fork in the road ahead— and there is still a lot of work to do in the battle against fake news. Will the Facts Win Out? Only time will tell…

Sources:

[1] Corona Virus: Iran reports leap in death toll. (2020) Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-51801968

[2, 3, 5] Kakutani, M. (2018). The Death of Truth. HarperCollins UK.

[4] https://www.nytco.com/press/mark-thompson-delivers-speech-on-fake-news/

[6] Hermida, A. Nothing but the Truth. In Carlson, M., & Lewis, S. C. (2015). Boundaries of Journalism: Professionalism, Practices and Participation. Routledge.

[7 & 8] Reuters Institute 2019 Digital News Report (2019). Retrieved from: https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/inline-files/DNR_2019_FINAL.pdf

[9, 10, 11] Brennen, J. S., Simon,F., Howard, P. N., Nielsen, R.N., (2020) Types, sources, and claims of COVID-19 misinformation.Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Retrieved from: https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/types-sources-and-claims-covid-19-misinformation#footnote-01

[12 & 14] Ofcom (2020) Covid-19 News and Information: Consumption and Attitudes. Retrieved from: https://www.ofcom.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0031/193747/covid-19-news-consumption-week-one-findings.pdf

[13] Spring, M. (2020, April 10). The people fighting viral fakes from their sofas. BBC Newshttps://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-trending-52149568

[15] Brennen, J. S., Simon,F., Howard, P. N., Nielsen, R.N., (2020) COVID–19 has intensified concerns about misinformation. Here’s what our past research says about these issues. Retrieved from: https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/risj-review/covid-19-has-intensified-concerns-about-misinformation-heres-what-our-past-research

[16] Edelman Trust Barometer, Special Report: Trust and the Coronavirus (2020). Retrieved from: https://www.edelman.com/sites/g/files/aatuss191/files/2020-03/2020%20Edelman%20Trust%20Barometer%20Coronavirus%20Special%20Report_0.pdf

Videos:

Video 1: From Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/03/03/trumps-baffling-coronavirus-vaccine-event/

Video 2: From BBC https://www.bbc.co.uk/academy/en/articles/art20200402193339465

Categories
Editorial

The Coronavirus Power Games

It’s the End of the World As We Blog It, and we feel fine.

Yet as we join millions of observers from our monitors at home, our concern grows for the billions who will suffer the consequences unleashed by COVID-19’s rattling of the international system. This article may be about geopolitics, but it could very well serve as a warning to the powers that be; humanitarian efforts first, power games second.

In 430BC at the height of the Peloponnesian War, an invisible enemy sneaked into the port-city of Piraes — lifeblood of Athens. The great Aegean hegemon was closely linked and dependent to Piraes for its food and supplies. Though both Athens and Sparta worshipped Athena, the goddess of wisdom was going to teach Athens a costly lesson. Her wrath took the form of an epidemic which wiped out nearly 100,000 Athenians (25% of the population); the single-most deadly event in Ancient Greek history.

Just as the tide of war seemed to swing in its favour, The Plague of Athens led to the breakdown of Athenian society, wiping out much of the wealthiest citizens and strongest Hoplites. Adherence to laws and religious belief waned, violent punishments and anti-Athenian xenophobia soared. Hopeless attempts to reinstate control over the city’s 80% of non-citizens translated to a new pernicious form of institutionalised discrimination. As some of the affected came from neighbouring city-states, news of this reached Athens’ allies, contributing to the breakdown of said diplomatic relationships, previously instrumental to Athenian hegemony.

The epidemic did affect the entire region, but nowhere was struck as hard as in Athens, where overpopulation and crowding was already a real problem. A density of 100 people per square mile of land lead to the deforestation and land erosion of the forest and land around Attica (Athens).

Sparta left their siege of Athens to regroup in uninfected lands. Athens gradually lost its diplomatic influence and the trust of its allies, partially from its newer attitudes towards non-citizens but also due to the lack of sustained diplomatic contact. Athens’ trade power destroyed with a breakdown of trust in merchant vessels (thought of as carriers). Its army severely depleted by the deaths of Athenian citizens, key to highly organised Hoplite formations.

In the geopolitical academic cannon, the Peloponnesian War holds a strong place as the forefather of Great Power rivalries: from Rome vs. Carthage (200s BC) to France vs. Germany (1870s). It is thus compelling that behind this war is a landmark event which can also serve as a forewarning for future Great Power rivalries. Today’s rivalry of the United States and China is in a radically different world, between cultures and societies completely alien to Ancient Greece. However, the geopolitical effects of disease and the actions states can take to channel the impacts of said disease are comparable.

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Google trends showing a gradual decline in popular usage of the term “Pax Americana”

If the tragic events of September 11th 2001 marked the beginning of the end of Pax Americana, the events unfolding during this pandemic are a clear sign that we are well into the next geopolitical chapter.

Learning from strategic blunders in the 00s, American foreign policy in the 2010s found itself on awkward footing, and with accordingly awkward decisions to make as to its forward identity. To ditch Interventionism for strategic realism and restraint. To seek “long-termist” policy by engaging regional allies, while also dictating American national interests. To be the “first among equals”. The Obama doctrine was a brilliant assembly of the world’s greatest power’s hawkish and dove-ish leanings. It was a brilliant foreign-policy device so long as it stayed within a familiar Post-Cold War consensus. This framework depended on the United States’ dominance of the financial system (the financial aid and monetary support accompanying it), its military credibility (damaged by twenty years of military stalemates in Afghanistan and the Middle East), and institutional influence (ability to effect change at a global level).

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By the time Donald Trump entered the picture, the United States had lost ground on all three fronts. It may have achieved energy independence thanks to the discovery of huge Shale gas and oil reserves, but this only helped reduce its enthusiasm for investing abroad (this includes reducing America’s budget for multinational institutions such as the United Nations). Years of strategic counter-measures from rival powers like China, Russia and even Iran have pushed the US to retreat into its historical role: a Superpower in Isolation.

After a delayed response by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the United States played a major role in containing the Ebola outbreak in West Africa back in 2014–5. It coordinated the international response and even sent 10,000 American personnel to the affected region. Today, as Yuval Noel Harari puts it, America is isolated and in-denial: “concerned by its own greatness”.

Perhaps a testament to the United States’ decentralised governance structure, its current approach to responding to the virus has been principally State and Municipality-driven. Donald Trump has been repeatedly lambasted across the USA for his denial of COVID-19 and now for his blaming of China and the World Health Organisation’s supposed “collusion”. Whereas New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo has now been dubbed “America’s Governor”. Cuomo’s media presence, narrative clarity and personal links to COVID-19 (his brother caught the virus) are all great conditions for him to become an homme providentiel (man-of-the-moment). Ahead of an unpredictable 2020 presidential election, Trump may be missing his chance to take advantage of a much needed crisis. His inability to marshal both sides of the aisle and assert Federal leadership on COVID-19 present America’s biggest weakness on the global stage.

American disunity is a handicap to its ability to influence other nations and institutions. The current administration’s complicated relationship with the world-leading American scientific community, indicates an inability to reap the soft power benefits that this community attracts on the world-stage. The characteristically cool relationship between Washington DC and multinational institutions in past years have already ushered a passing of the torch to other world powers. Macron’s France has inherited the mantle of coordinating the Global Climate Emergency response, since his predecessor’s masterful COP-21 conference. Xi Jinping’s China is in the middle of a 25-year strategy of replacing Western-led international institutions with comparable Sino-led organisations: AIIB or NDB. Today, the World Health Organisation willingly chose China as its primary partner in delivering and communicating the global response against COVID-19.

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Despite a rocky start, China has found a way to assume global leadership on the question of Coronavirus. Thanks to the brave actions of a few Wuhan residents, who decried the state of local Chinese hospitals and the lack of face-masks in early February, Xi Jinping rapidly coordinated a “typically-authoritarian” response to the growing number of infected patients. China imposed a total lockdown of the Wuhan region and then confined all non-essential citizens to their homes for two months. A feat still unequaled by any country in the world, China built two field hospitals holding 2600 beds in a matter of 12 days. As the number of Wuhan cases began to slow-down, China was able to use its spare capacity to send “generous face-mask and ventilator donations” to the countries of Europe that were, in late February, becoming the new epicentre of the virus. As supplies were unloaded from a Chinese plane in Italy, Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio noted that the aid demonstrated that “we are not alone, there are people in the world who want the help Italy.” This contrasted very strongly with the US-EU travel bans (minus the UK) initially called-for by Donald Trump and the lack of EU-driven solidarity at that stage of the crisis.

China not only impressed the world with its “show of generosity” but also with its ability to impose social distancing and lockdowns across a country of 1.4 billion people. I put parentheses around the word “generosity” because one cannot forget that China is in most cases the primary manufacturer of face-masks, ventilators and other essential supplies. Xi Jinping managed to nevertheless brand the export of supplies by investing in their value as diplomatic gifts for countries-in-need. This is by no means downplaying the value of such support for the countries lacking the supplies, who are only awaiting another generous donation by a global power like China or the United States to help keep people alive.

After a rocky-start and a close-to-perfect diplomatic response, the crisis is entering a new phase. Embellished, China’s credibility as a leader in the global pandemic response and as a credible source for scientific data depends on persistent exemplary behaviour. In early April, China is particularly vulnerable for two reasons:

Taiwan’s investigation into possible collusion between the WHO and China. Technically-speaking the WHO chose China because this virus most likely originated in the Chinese province of Wuhan. It chose China because of its unfortunate position on the frontline, responsible for gathering data and developing solutions aimed at stemming and then slowing the growth of the infected. This said, some outlets have described the WHO’s attitude to China as “largely deferential”, and others even pointed to potential political collusion due to a recent Zoom recording released by Hong Kong English-language outlet RTHK where a WHO official declined to recognise the existence of Taiwan.

It is crucial nonetheless to understand that if a partnership between the WHO and China should be fruitful, it is indeed an understandable move to avoid controversial questions such as Taiwan’s political status foregoing the risk of soiling the relationship. It comes to no one’s surprise therefore that Taiwan has and will continue to look for ways to discredit China and the WHO, and perhaps find new information to come to light about the beginnings of the pandemic. Taiwan found a new track yesterday evening, which if proven valid could indicate that China initially denied the existence of a virus in mid December and decided to cover-up the evidence of an outbreak until several weeks later. If this story reaches a critical mass in Western media outlets, particularly European outlets, many of Chinese recent gains could vanish and trust broken down.

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Image for postSource: Worldmeters (accessed April 11th 2020)

A second-wave of infected patients. Since mid-February, China managed to contain the spread of the virus and restrict its logarithmic growth to barely above zero. After several weeks of stagnation at around 50 new cases per day, China has begun to progressively lift its lockdown on Wuhan. There are fears however that a second-wave of infections, like the one Japan is currently experiencing will restart the exponential growth of January and February. If China gets a second wave, it will damage its example to the world: that lockdown and “social distancing” aren’t sustainable models to follow. In a world where waves of infections are almost impossible to avoid, Wuhan-style lockdowns every few months are a tough ask for decentralised individualistic countries such as those in Europe or North America. Three schools of thought have emerged in Coronavirus disaster response:

  • 1. A Wuhan-style lockdown & social distancing approach, based on centralised government action restricting the movement of people through regulation and law enforcement (China, Italy, France)
  • 2. Massive testing campaigns and intensive citizen awareness efforts, based on informing citizens of updates in their neighbourhoods and workplaces and letting them take necessary steps themselves. (Taiwan, South Korea for the testing, UK)
  • 3. “Herd Immunity” — Which relies on the idea that a person/city/country having caught the virus can develop the antibodies necessary to prevent catching the virus again. Therefore some are pushing for relaxed social distancing policies to build their country’s immunity. (Sweden, UK in Feb)

While the Wuhan-style lockdowns are the current dominant approach to fighting the virus, a second wave could change this and make Testing-first and Herd Immunity approaches more appealing. Always struggling to shrug off the “Big but cheap” stereotype, such a public humiliation could significantly damage China’s regime image abroad in more sectors than just healthcare.

The Plague of Athens saw the transformation of the Aegean geopolitical system with Athens losing its position as hegemon to Sparta’s power and its growing diplomatic influence. Athens bore the brunt of the plague and Sparta had the fortunate sense of retreating its forces from the besieged city of Athens in time to avoid significant infection.

The war on Coronavirus is far from over, with many developments ahead. Who will, for example, win the battle for a treatment method (or even a potential vaccine)? Will second waves come, what will the reaction be if the world discovers a Chinese cover-up of second-wave cases?

Today, it is unclear who will be Athens and who will inherit the new COVID-19 world. China seems to have made inroads with countries beyond its traditional sphere of influence, filling a void left by the slowly reacting EU and the disunited United States. However, China has vulnerabilities regarding its actions early in the crisis and the soundness of its pandemic response. Those vulnerabilities can damage the key ingredient of trust that it desperately needs to overcome the United States on the global stage.

The rivalry between the United States and China, just like that between Athens and Sparta, isn’t only based on economic rivalry or military competition, but on the incompatibility of two governmental models. China is currently showing to the world what a centralised authoritarian model can do. The United States (perhaps due to its model) has not had the chance to show yet.

Whoever can make a more convincing case will be the Power able to define the future international standard for dealing with global emergencies. The geopolitical arena will place pandemic preparedness and response at the top of the international agenda for decades to come. Just as 9/11 defined international action from 2001, the COVID-19 virus will provide a mandate to change the international system.

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Editorial

The Technologies that will help China recover from COVID-19

This article is a follow-up to “The Chinese Tech behind the War on Coronavirus”. China is now moving into the second phase and using technology to bring about a new normality.

In many locations, temperature checks restaurants or supermarkets and mask-wearing is still mandatory. An air of cautiousness has settled throughout the country. Nevertheless, the great Chinese economic machine is slowly shifting gears to support its economic and social recovery.

David Chang — “Normalcy under high Surveillance”

Remote-working Technologies

In early March, Zoom surged nearly 22% to $159.07 per share, a new intra-day high for the video conferencing company. Since January 31, Zoom stock has gained 101% while the S&P 500 has lost nearly 30%. This reflects the demand for video conferencing technologies as a direct response to businesses’ commitments and compliance to social isolation.

Remote working also skyrocketed in China. Around 200 million people were working at home by the end of the Chinese New Year holiday. Many companies in China adopted local productivity technologies, such as, WeChat Work and Alibaba’s Dingtalk to: communicate externally & internally, hosting meetings, training and lectures. DingTalk Monthly active users jumped by 66 percent to more than 125 million. Trip.com, commonly known as Ctrip in China is the country’s largest online travel agency, has long enabled its contact-center staff to work from home. This paid dividends for the agency who was able to maintain a high service-quality during widespread travel disruptions.

Due to the high demand of remote working technologies the 3 leading domestic software enterprise players: Alibaba Dingtalk, Bytedance Lark, and WeChat Work experienced substantial growth between January-Feburary 2020 in downloads, though their user base vary massively:

DingTalk: 1,446%

Lark: 6,085%

WeChat Work: 572%.

What is DingTalk?

Entertainment Technologies

Domestic lock-down promised a surge of online entertainment. The short-video industry registered 569 million daily active users after the Chinese New Year holidays, regularly exceeding 492 million users, as reported by QuestMobile (Beijing located big data intelligence company).

The movie industry also benefitted despite the lack of box office revenues. “Enter the Fat Dragon,” an action comedy film directed by Kenji Tanigaki, debuted on Tencent Video and iQiyi released 2 weeks before premiering on Feb 14th. Another comedy, “Lost in Russia” was set to hit theatres on the first day of the Lunar New Year (Jan 25th), but opted to launch on ByteDance-owned platforms Xigua VideoDouyin and Jinri Toutiao the same day. With the foresight of offering it for free to viewers, as of Jan 27th more than 600 million Chinese have watched the film. The video streaming business is carrying Cinema.

Image for post
Online video company owned by Baidu (China’s domestic equivalent of Google)

Delivery Technologies

The initial Wuhan lock-down triggered panic-buying and the emptying of shelves. Yet in a matter of days, the supply chains worked on overdrive and supplies started to flow double-time into Wuhan. Residents have come to terms with the new reality and used digital technology to communicate and collaborate with suppliers.

Digitally-enabled delivery systems present in major Chinese population centres have enabled product delivery to homes in as little as 20 minutes — button-clicked to doorbell-rung. Alibaba’s Cainiao network supports the supply chains of the merchants it serves through an AI-enabled digital inventory system. Cainiao links the offline and online shopping worlds, in which the physical location of the merchant stores serve as an extended distribution network. When the lockdown went en-force, Alibaba immediately facilitated shipping essential medical & food supplies into Wuhan.

Chinese consumer are comfortable with the virtual/online world. Since SARS 2003 Chinese consumers have gotten used to preferring online shopping. With the development of Meituan-DianpingJD.com and Alibaba, consumer behaviour shifted from traditional ‘brick & mortar’ shopping to 100% online- “contactless” shopping.

These two particularities of the Chinese lifestyle enable residents in gated community to organise home-delivery of essential supplies to those in self-quarantine. In my father’s gated-community in Hefei, residents have organised groups of volunteers via WeChat apps to receive supplies at the gate for the whole residential community. They box the goods and send them over to the households in need on their doorstep. The community-mentality present in communities like the one in Hefei has bought the community closer and provided hope for virus-affected families who know their community does not discriminate but instead lends a helpful hand.

As I conclude this article, I am writing in my lounge gazing longingly into the long-awaited London spring weather — an urge to go out and enjoy the Sun. It is only the start of the surge in COVID-19 cases in the UK. My wish is that the world can heal soon, with humanity coming together to fight this pandemic.

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Editorial

Botnets for Good

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Editorial

The Chinese Tech behind the War on Coronavirus

Drones, Smart Helmets, Disinfecting Robots and advanced facial recognition softwares are fighting back against the Coronavirus.

The novel-coronavirus (officially labelled by the WHO as COVID-19) outbreak is posing a devastating impact on peoples’ lives and China’s economy, but its technologies are helping the country inch back.

Beijing has long stressed technological advancement as a pillar of growth, both the central and provincial government has promised funding to support its “Made in China 2025″ strategy designed to accelerate developments in artificial intelligence, automation and other areas, such as, manufacturing to develop a tech sector which rivals the Silicon Valley.

“The fight against the epidemic cannot be achieved without the support of science and technology,” — President Xi Jinping

Xi stressed that China needs to step up clinical research for vaccines and antiviral drugs, in addition to expand online shopping options for the millions of people who are staying indoors to prevent the disease’s spread.

In supplement to Xi’s statement, the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology called on the tech sector for help, suggesting that temperature screening machines, robots and other technologies that can help reduce human contact should be deployed.

Robots

Robotics isn’t a new concept, however, the coronavirus outbreak in China has prompted many leading Chinese technology firms to respond to the deadly virus. Robots aren’t susceptible to the virus, therefore are being deployed to complete many tasks, for instance, cleaning and sterilising and delivering food and medicine to reduce human-to-human contact.

Pudu Technology deployed its robots — normally used in the catering industry — to more than 40 hospitals around the country to help medical staff spraying disinfectants and performing basic diagnostic functions to minimise the risk of cross-infection.

Food delivering giant Meituan-Dianping introduced robots in some partner restaurants in Beijing that bring food from kitchen to delivery works, and then to customers waiting for orders. Again to minimise human-to-human interaction.

Meanwhile, e-commerce giant JD.com (JD) enlisted self-driving robots to bring products to medical workers in the epicenter of the outbreak — Wuhan City.

Detection robot — it can simultaneously detect over 30 people whether they are wearing a mask or not

Drones

Unmanned aerial vehicles or simply drones have also been put into extensive use, being one the of fastest and safest ways to transport medical supplies via remote delivery.

Terra Drone is using its unmanned aerial vehicles to transport medical samples and quarantine material with minimal risk between Xinchang County’s Disease Control Centre and the People’s Hospital.

Drones also are used to patrol public spaces, track non-compliance to quarantine mandates, and for thermal imaging.

Whilst in Shenzhen, MicroMultiCopter is deploying drones to transport medical samples and conduct thermal imaging.

The technology allows authorities to scan through large crowds and spot if someone’s in need of medical attention, according to MicroMultiCopter, a drone startup based in Shenzhen that has dispatched about 100 of the devices across the country. They’ve also sent nearly 200 employees to command centres where they can monitor what the drones are seeing in real time.

“The company has been working overtime,” a spokesperson told CNN Business. “This is the best test of our drone system. It is also the best showcase to the world.”

Drones in action — to warn villagers to wear masks

Artificial Intelligence

Image Source

Infervision launched a coronavirus AI solution that helps front-line healthcare workers detect and monitor the disease efficiently. Imaging departments in healthcare facilities are being taxed with the increased workload created by the virus. This solution improves CT diagnosis speed.

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba also built an AI-powered diagnosis system they claim is 96% accurate at diagnosing the virus in mere seconds, compared to manual diagnosis which can take more than a few hours to receive a relatively unreliable result often needing a second diagnosis. This was the case with Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil’s President), whom had to undergo two tests until a medical professional could confirm whether he had been tested positive for COVID-19.

Source: BBC News

In Sichuan, “Smart helmets” used by officials to identify people with fever using thermal visors. Similar to the fever detection robot, the helmet rapidly scales-up the policeman’s ability to check a peoples’ temperature in a crowd. He is presented with a live data-stream that shifts his effort from detection of the virus to dealing with the machine-presumed infected. Naturally to China’s surveillance state, its sophisticated surveillance system also used facial recognition technology and temperature-detection software from SenseTime to identify people who might have a fever and be statistically more likely to have the virus.

Beijing also introduced a monitoring system called “Health Code” that uses big data to identify and assesses the risk of each individual based on:

  • Their travel history
  • How much time they have spent in virus hotspots
  • and potential exposure to people carrying the virus

Citizens are assigned a colour-code (red, yellow, or green), which they can access via WeChat or Alipay to show whether they are safe to be around in public or should be self-isolating.

Mr. Zhong here has a green QR code, so is currently deemed at lower risk

Criticisms

According to Elliott Zaagman, who co-hosts the China Tech-Investor podcast, “the State media apparatus, takes every opportunity to send a message about China’s technological sophistication…(and) i suspect most of the stories about disinfecting robots, drones etc are just performative gimmicks, however, tech’s ‘less-sexy’ role in controlling this outbreak should not be dismissed”

The use of big, data, artificial intelligence has widened the country to criticisms about its vast surveillance state, which human rights groups have warned can be used to violate freedoms. Whilst these new surveillance technologies may be necessary during a health crisis questions are asked about protection of personal privacy.

Critics argue China could use the Coronavirus as a justification to expand its already vast surveillance system, which human rights bodies have described as dystopian often drawing parallels with Netflix’s “Black Mirror”.

Wonk Bridge will not be diving deep into this particular criticism here. But we will follow China’s use of social-monitoring technologies in the next few weeks and provide a follow-up article in due time. In the meantime, if this is a topic of interest, check out our article on China’s Social Credit Score apparatus.

In Brief

China has very openly marshalled technology in as many ways possible to combat the Coronavirus outbreak. With objective of minimising human interactions and delivering essential medical supplies in mind. Nonetheless, the measures China has adopted is subject to criticisms such as contravening privacy.

“Technology won’t be the “dominating factor” that stops the outbreak, but it will help people better face the epidemic”according to Danny Mu, a Beijing-based analyst of emerging technologies at Forrester.

Wonk Bridge Co-Founder Yuji Develle added an editorial comment, “Previously perceived as instruments of State control, wielded with the singular purpose of diluting popular or democratic opposition to the Communist Party, these technologies have proven of dual-use. They are now at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19 doing what they do best, keeping people apart and maintaining gamified social control. Such is the dilemma with new technology, how will we perceive these technologies in the future?”

This article was written on March 15th 2020 — where the number of new cases in China has decreased substantially, the number of new cases from China are now largely imported because China has successfully albeit a hard fought battle (not yet over) last 3 months to contain the spread of the coronavirus domestically.

As shops and business re-open and the economy kick back up again the head now turns to how the rest of the world will tackle this Global Pandemic. As WHO General Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has stated, Europe is now the new epicentre of Coronavirus.

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Editorial

Art gone bananas? — Meme culture’s entrance into high culture

 

An altered Frans Snyders (1579–1657), Fruit Stall (1618–1621)

Art about bananas. Art is going bananas. Art has gone bananas. Oh what a familiar refrain — “art is no longer valued for its aesthetic value, it makes no sense” says the outsider. “You philistine, art is valuable for it represents a concept, an idea, a commentary, of which you are too infantile or uninitiated to realise” the commodore of pretension claps back.

“Comedian” by Maurizio Cattelan

Comedian at the Art Basel gallery in Miami (2019) is the latest episode in the pantheon of expensive art-pieces that are designed to boldly comment on established conventions in the art-world and provoke shock-and-terror amongst the uninitiated. The Basel Banana, along with it’s £100K+ price-tag has a dual objective as an art-piece and as a viral news-story. It can be placed squarely within meme culture — an artistic statement which grows in value through its evolving interaction and usage by a specific community and the public.

The art-world has its say

The first non-controversial point, is that Comedian is a meme within the art-world. Since the emergence of the contemporary art market (watch Oscar Boyson’s explainer here), art has always acted as a type of memetic device conveying trends and stories that were judged importance from within the hermetic artist community (often in as small-a-circle as that of Warhol’s entourage in Brooklyn, NY).

The banana itself holds historical weight. Earliest representations in modern art depict the exotic fruit as a symbol of international trade and commerce, of consumerist culture and unsustainable demand for products sourced in another hemisphere. Then enters art legend Andy Warhol’s cover-art for the Velvet Underground & Nico, VU being a band that knew little commercial success but were once described by Rolling Stone as “the most prophetic band ever”.

Cover-art for The Velvet Underground & Nico, Andy Warhol (1967)

The Velvet Underground went-on to becoming a symbol for anti-communist resistance to oppression — particularly with Václav Havel and the Prague Spring (1969). This association between the fruit and resistance took a new form when the feminist artists The Guerrilla Girls re-appropriated this meme to fight male oppression. Famous examples of this are the photos of the woman seductively eating a banana and politicised pop-posters (seen below).

As memes evolve through time, they will lose their original meaning along with authorial intention. While many will say that Andy Warhol’s banana holds the inspiration for this work, others will say that it is a direct allusion to another story: Yoko Ono’s apple exhibit.

It is said that John Lennon first met his long-love at one of Yoko Ono’s exhibits, biting into an apple placed on a centre-piece pedestal. Exactly in the same way as how David Datuna bit into the banana at last week’s Art Basel:

 

Artist David Datuna reappropriates the origin of a meme

Like jazz, contemporary art has become a co-created art-form in flux, every-changing and mutable. A meme changes its meaning depending on how people interact with it. The original motive of the Basel Banana no longer matters, because it’s meaning has changed dramatically as we interact with it.

Enter the wider public

The second more significant point, is thus how the Comedian became a “popular” or folk meme.

No matter how hard artists from within the “inner circle” try to influence (or force-through) interpretations of their work to the public, Comedian demonstrates how artistic intent matters little in a world where everyone could become an artist. Death of the author is real and quite unstoppable.

The broader public, in aggregate, has the ability to change and reappropriate artwork just as it can do so for memes. In fact, it sometimes do so even better than the Basel or Frieze insiders, by simple nature of the amazing creativity and truth-to-zeitgeist of crowd-sourced content.

Although I am not proficiently versed in the art market, I can observe at least that a major quality of the more successful artists today is the ability to keep an ear on the ground for the latest social movements and political issues. On this, the algorithmic panopticon that is social media can (provided echo-chambers are brought down) do a better job.

The public had its first swing at the meme when it made fun of the artwork in various ways (sticking a banana to the NYC subway or on the hairy chest of a middle-aged man). It then had its second more-devastating swing, when an artist removed the banana entirely and replaced it popular folk meme “Epstein didn’t kill himself” (written in fake blood). This, along with throngs of smartphone wielding onlookers, “forced” Emmanuel Perrotin to remove the piece entirely from his exhibit.

Unfortunately for Perrotin (the curator), the damage is already done. In his own words:

“[Datuna] did not destroy the artwork. The banana is the idea”

Maybe he should have said: ‘I did not destroy the artwork. The wall is now the idea’. For by vandalising the wall after the removal of the banana, the vandaliser — this people’s vigilante for memetic justice — made the artwork more about the blank canvas that the walls of an art gallery represent.

These walls now belong to the audience. The much wider audience that contemporary art is blessed/cursed to have.

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Seeing Is Not Believing

We still have trouble understanding 21st century communication. Taking a page out of Mirzoeff’s book, let’s see how the digital age has changed the way we understand visual media differently.

Eric Garner’s death by NYPD chokehold, went viral and spawned some of the largest #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe protests in the past years. However, along with several other high-profile police-linked murders in the USA, the same videos were fueling white-supremacist and NRA membership.

How can a video spawn such contrasting views?

The answer lies in the way people interpret information in the digital age.

Nicholas Mirzoeff’s How to See the World sheds a crucial light on the physiological and sociological reasons that drive today’s communication paradigm.

Seeing is not only about the eyes

Before the momentous coming of the Information Age, images held a special and rare place in political culture. They were valued as important sources of evidence, even proof. The effect of IMINT (Images Intelligence) during the Cold War was crucial.

A bird's eye view of Cuba.
IMINT used during the Cuban Missile Crisis 1962

Our growing visual conscience

IMINT was central to the USA exposing the Soviet Union for its activity during the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). On the flipside, the 1960 Gary Powers incident, when a U-2 surveillance fighter was shot down by the USSR, marked one of America’s low points.

Forty years later, in 2003, Colin Powell used IMINT to (intentionally or unintentionally) mislead the UN Security Council into invading Iraq.

A military diagram.
IMINT used in Colin Powell’s UN testimony 2003 (source)

The images were labelled and commented on, professionally and under-oath. At this point, we can already notice that it was slightly more difficult for Powell than it was for Kennedy’s team. Not because the IMINT was fake, but because society’s relationship to visual data was beginning to change. Check out his historical speech here.

Contrary to 1962, Powell’s use of visual data was received with scorn and skepticism abroad. Dominique de Villepin’s speech in response de Powell and against the invasion of Iraq is still hailed as a high-point of French diplomacy. As Mirzoeff puts it, in the first possible political use of Microsoft PowerPoint, the highly annotated slide shows how annotation can actually can actually raise more eyebrows.

As we’ve exposed ourselves to more visual data, we’ve come to expect so much more from images; heavily annotated black/white IMINT just doesn’t cut it.

Source

In fact, in the years following, the satirical use of political images and the development of text-image combinations (memes) became one of the most impactful displays of socio-political protest. My favorite is when Iran, to mask a technical failure, doctored an extra missile into their strategic missile-test images.

The Internet Revolts

We See With More Than Just Our Eyes

In 2009, Nassi and Callaway discovered that among primates visual processing occurs on two ‘streams’ of brain activity. As Mirzoeff alludes, vision is a plural noun: perception and action. ‘One aspect identifies a friend, and the other reaches for his/her hand to shake it.’

Felleman & van Essen, “Hierachy of Visual Areas”

In fact, there are over 80 (and counting) different areas of the brain associated with processing vision. Felleman & Van Essen’s “Hierarchy of Visual Areas” effectively map out this neurological complexity.

On a sensory level, vision is already a collaborative effort. While looks can be deceiving, your five other senses + a plethora of other visual sensors associated to the brain can aid you in identifying and associating what you see with your lived experience.

Yet, seeing is as much based on mindset as it is on sensory experience. Daniel Kahneman’s best-seller Thinking Fast and Slow explains how we “think”. Kahneman points at how judgement can be determined by an interaction between one’s System 1 (intuitive/emotional) and System 2 (analytical/rational) cognitions.

‘During the talk Kahneman offered his take on how the mind processes information in two distinct ways. “System 1,” he explained, is the brain’s fast, automatic, intuitive approach. “System 2,” he said, refers to the mind’s slower, analytical mode, where reason dominates. But the first often dictates the second.’ — Koleen Walsh, Harvard Staff Writer

Simply put. People “see” what they are used to seeing. Our tendancy towards associating what we perceive visually with predetermined ideas, is a way of creating an understanding of the world around us. This understanding is what provides us with the cognitive stability to feel safe in the world. It is thus difficult to shake off.

Simon & Chabris’ “Can You See the Gorilla?” is a selective attention test from 1999 that exposes how our two systems can lead to cognitive dissonance. The experiment was uploaded on YouTube in 2010 and immediately went viral; society is fascinated with these amusing occurrences.

While the experiment is rather simple and amusing, these neurological traits have grave consequences socially and politically. Over the years, we all develop cognitive biases or pre-supposed judgements that are filed into our System 1 brains. They lead us to living in a prison of the mind, a cortexual isolation. Many Americans can develop a hostile attitude towards Muslims due to a cognitive association of terrorism with the Muslim demographic. It is no coincidence that xenophobia towards Muslims is found most often in communities with the lowest amount of Muslims or minority populations.

Along with a swathe of other factors (of course), the media’s constant discussion of Muslims in the context of war and/or terrorism has cemented this perception among those who can’t counter-balance this view with other experiences. In this lens, Donald Trump’s hate speech towards Hispanics, Muslims and pretty much every other minority (+ women), can’t be defeated with raw logic and clear explanation. Instead, it may be more useful to help the American public shift its mindset in a way so that it can “see” the gorilla.

Should you have an idea on this, do shoot us a message.

We are being told how to think

Today, our constant connection to the Internet and social media has put our critical thinking at risk. My favourite YouTuber, Evan Puschak, made a video about “The Treachery of Images”. Watch it now, and then I guarantee that you will spend the rest of your day watching all of his other videos.

C’est en meme temps une pipe, et pas une pipe.

You knew it was coming. It’s the artpiece everyone starts piping about (the pun is always intended) as soon as the conversation on communication goes cognitive.

René Magritte’s “La Trahison des Images” (or “The Treachery of Images”) is a simplistic painting of a pipe with “this is not a pipe” transcribed underneath it. It comments on how we often take images for granted. René reminds us that just because we think we know what the drawing (or data) is about, does not mean we are right.

Source: http://imgur.com/a60AHPr

That the mental association we make (this drawing looks like a pipe and therefore is a pipe), is fundamentally incorrect.

Yet, at the same time, it is a commentary on commentary itself. Why should anyone trust the text underneath (this is not a pipe)? What authority does the painting have in dictating the way I think/feel about it?

The text traps you into a certain interpretation. It reduces your options. As is often the case for the most important events covered by the media, primary sources are rare and shallow at best. Terrorist attacks, mass shootings and images from the Middle East are rare to come by and heavily annotated.

Of course, it is important to analyse and explain events to audiences. But being unable to provide recourse to critical thinking and/or to opposing schools of thought can lead to ignorance.

For instance, Vox has become a one-stop resource on YouTube for visual explanations on current events (particularly for American liberals). This video seeks to use data representations to highlight certain topics of the Gun Debate in America.

YouTube is a great medium when it comes to annotating data as it ensures artists get a monopoly on the creative process. Nevertheless, the comments section still allows for conversation/cynicism:

The Washington Post’s use of the Federal Bank of St.Louis’ gun violence infographic leads to a more “balanced” annotation of the data.

Source: http://knoema.fr/infographics/ltziteg/police-shootings-in-the-united-states

It can be interpreted in two different ways. There are six key pieces of data on this infographic:

  • Total Number of Casualties in 2015–2016 for Whites
  • Total Number of Casualties in 2015–2016 for Blacks
  • Number of casualties per 100,000 people for Whites
  • Number of casualties per 100,000 people for Blacks
  • Oklahoma figures
  • Washington D.C. figures

A person interested in linking the gun violence issue with race inequality and police brutality would more likely use the per 100,000 people casualty figure and discuss the Oklahoma figures. A person who thinks that gun violence has little to do with race and/or the police would likely look at total casualties and D.C. figures.

Concluding part one.

I am dividing this thought-piece into two parts. This piece treated how our obsession with cognitive association leads us to losing our ability to think critically. The next section will look at how we can change the way we communicate to better fit this new reality.

Let us not forget René Magritte’s lessons. Humans are especially vulnerable to generalisation. 21st century media is particularly guilty of simplifying events and experiences to mere intuition and/or ‘feelings’. In the context of rising extremism and radicalisation, we should be mindful of who’s in charge: the subject or the object?