Category Archives: Politics & Society

The Huffington Post: Is Social Media Polarizing Political Debate?

(The Huffington Post 15/6/2016) The tragic events in Orlando, once again, exposed just how dichotomized our political discourse has become. One group called for gun-control, while the other felt the right to bear arms, for self-defense, was vindicated. And religious motivations were blamed entirely, or considered irrelevant.

But proponents of these opposing views aren’t talking with each other—they’re talking at each other. And though social media facilitates news, opinion and idea flow, it may, paradoxically, be complicit in stifling progressive political conversations.

Facebook, Twitter and online news platforms allow us to share, discuss and access live data at our fingertips. It meets our demand for timely, concise and simple information, to accommodate the demands of our increasingly fast-paced lifestyles.

But the very streamline nature of social media may just be amplifying the noise of extreme—and simplistic—viewpoints, and sidelining the depth, nuance and complexity that truly comprise political issues. The center ground cannot compete for pace and plainness in a society that seeks trigger words, click-bait headlines, platitudes and 140 characters to make quick judgments, explanations and associations.

Research published by The Economist in November illustrated how far left and right parties in Europe were broadly more popular than their centrist counterparts on social networks, in terms of Facebook “likes,” Twitter followers and shared Tweets. Although acknowledging the more “prolific” use of Twitter by the strongly left- and right-wing parties, it added that their popularity may also be because “[s]ocial media reward starkness, not subtlety….Politicians on the fringes can react to news faster than their moderate counterparts, whose statements are carefully scrutinized before publication.”

And, though there is enhanced access to information online, we can also be more selective about it. We can filter what we want to see and who we want to interact with, enabling our ‘newsfeeds’ to become self-reinforcing echo chambers. The use of recommendation algorithms have also been criticized for only linking users to issues that ‘agree’ with them.

Social science studies have already demonstrated the human bias toward like-minded individuals, and self-fulfilling information. A 2014 study by U.S. think tank the Pew Research Center which mapped U.S. Twitter discussions found that political topics formed distinct polarized groups—often liberal and conservative camps—which largely interacted independently of each other. In other words opposing groups aren’t challenging each other, but talking amongst themselves.

With this enhanced online opinion binary, each side feels victimized by the other as the subtleties that connect and soften their viewpoints are lost. The end result is often a paralysis of debate, comprised of black and white rhetoric, defensiveness and ultimately a spat between restrictive political correctness and fear mongering.

Maajid Nawaz, co-founder and chairman of U.K. counter-extremism think tank the Quilliam Foundation, warned of the risks emanating from the intensified left-right dichotomy—particularly on what he termed the “global islamist insurgency”—in aCNN interview in November. “[L]et’s remain levelheaded and avoid being…blinded by our left eye or popping a blood vessel in our right eye,” said Nawaz. “Because both of those conclusions would render us blind.”

The social media response to recent events illustrate just how levelheadness is being squeezed out, and progressive debate is being lost. The European ‘migrant’ crisis became an issue of “open doors or building walls,” while “more or less immigration” has become the crux of debate in the U.K. referendum on the European Union. And, terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels were expectedly met with the same “blame religion or foreign policy” schism.

With some 2.3 billion active social media users worldwide, according to social insight consultancy We Are Social—and, set to grow as new consumers gain internet access—online opinions will become an increasingly important battleground for global, as well as national, politics.

Populists, like U.S. Republican candidate Donald Trump, are already wielding it for their gain, and traditional news cycles are devoting more air-time to noisy Twitterati discussions. But if the online discourse continues in this diluted and filtered manner, the risk is that, in reflecting the electorate, politics will increasingly stagnate into a debate over polarized narratives rather than actual issues and policies.

Social media, and the internet revolution, is widely seen as an opportunity to level the information playing field. But, though it can be an instrument for education, it can also be a tool for the production of mass ignorance. It just depends how we use it.

As with any progressive debate, overcoming personal narratives, considering alternate viewpoints and scrutinizing information (and ideas) is vital, but it is even more essential when social media also has the power to entrench, narrow and simplify the world around us.

 Tej Parikh is a global politics journalist and analyst. He received his master’s degree from Yale University, with a focus on state building, ethnic politics and fragile states. He has published for the Guardian, Reuters, The Diplomat, The Cambodia Daily, Global Politics Magazine and Beyond Violence. His work is archived at: www.theglobalprism.com

The Huffington Post: Did The Death Of A Pakistani Humanitarian Icon Get Fair Coverage?

(The Huffington Post 21/7/2016) Why did the death of a Pakistani philanthropist—once touted as the world’s greatest humanitarian—garner such little focus in western media?

It’s a poignant question in an age when vitriolic bearded faces dominate our primetime news feeds. From the hook-handed Abu Hamza, AK 47-wielding Osama Bin Laden to the black-cloaked Islamic State group executioners—death, destruction and division have become synonymous with the muslim world.

Yet, Abdul Sattar Edhi, 88, who passed away on July 8, devoted his life to an entirely different message. The Edhi Foundation, which he founded in Karachi in 1951, has trumped the Pakistani government to become nation’s most reliable social safety net, providing ambulances, nursing homes, orphanages, clinics, women’s shelters and rehabilitation centers, free-of-charge, across the country.

According to Radio Pakistan the foundation—which runs the world’s largest ambulance service—”has rescued over 20,000 abandoned infants, rehabilitated over 50,000 orphans and has trained over 40,000 nurses.” The organization’s reach has also become global—including the provision of $100,000 in aid to the U.S. following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

And for a man who lived by the motto “no race, no religion, just humanity,” a desire to indiscriminately service Christians and Hindus brought enmity from islamic zealots, and with that came numerous death threats. But his fortitude was recognized by international awards, and many, including Pakistani Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai, have recommended him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Edhi represented a vision of the Islamic world so far unseen by many western eyes. But his death, an opportunity to celebrate his legacy, failed to pique significant interest among news editors beyond relegated obituary pieces—and was largely ignored by broadcast media.

Instead, there seems to be an obsession with mainstream media to paint the muslim world with the brush of fanaticism, dysfunction and terrorism. And this has played a key role in fine-tuning the rise of islamophobia in the west. Polls conducted by the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland showed that in June 62 percent of Americans harbored unfavorable views of muslim people, while acidic sentiments are only on the rise in Europe with growing anti-Islam rhetoric.

As our window to the world, the media plays a critical role in shaping our perceptions. But with the palpable fear of Islam at fever pitch, we must question whether we are seeing that world through a filtered lens, and judging some 1.6 billion people by their most incriminating facets.

The death of Qandeel Baloch, a Pakistani social media star, at the hands of her ashamed brother—just a week after Edhi’s passing—for example, has certainly done more rounds emphasizing the struggles of the nation’s patriarchal society.

Sure, we must not denigrate the genuine ills of terrorism, instability and human rights abuses that plague some parts of the developing world, but rather call for a careful balance in our reporting. After all, with a cursory glance at the west today, xenophobic movements, police brutality, economic inequality and political turmoil would not paint the brightest of pictures, particularly when we know there are other more ennobling societal strands to highlight.

Strife, security and destitution are in the public interest and deserve media attention: in order to right wrongs, we must be informed about the problems first. But unfortunately, spiraling negative coverage has become the sole means to peddle news in a saturated market that seeks fingertip information for likewise judgements.

And this not only marginalizes muslim diaspora who carry that burden of such prejudices on their shoulders, but it also fails to empower the very people who can act to bring positive change to the darker corners of our world. Simply put, peace cannot prevail if it isn’t given a voice, and selling fear will only enhance our differences.

It seems apt that while Edhi’s body was being laid to rest in a state funeral, eye surgeons in Karachi were busy transplanting the corneas he donated to two blind patients—for it is now the responsibility of our media to make the world see clearly again.

Tej Parikh is a global politics journalist and analyst. He received his master’s degree from Yale University, with a focus on state building, ethnic politics and fragile states. He has published for the Guardian, Reuters, The Diplomat, The Cambodia Daily, Global Politics Magazine and Beyond Violence. He Tweets @tejparikh90

The Huffington Post: Brexit: An Inconvenient Truth for Liberals

(The Huffington Post 5/7/2016) Globalists can no longer parade under the banner of international unity while ignoring imbalance at home.

LORD ASHCROFT POLLS
Large majorities who considered multiculturalism, globalization and immigration as forces for good voted to remain in the European Union; while those who felt they were ills voted by greater majorities to leave, according a poll of over 12,000 voters.

 

If you’re connected to the U.K.’s professed liberal social media network, there’s a strong chance you’ve read a cacophony of Tweets and Facebook status monologues condemning the outcome of the U.K. referendum.

For many in the Remain camp—hailing from London, its suburban corridors and university towns—the June 23 vote to leave the European Union was an apparent victory for “the racists, the ignorant and the uneducated.”

But in their blind outrage many have revealed their very own insularity. There is a failure to understand how different economic, political and social narratives can precipitate alternate belief systems—ones that feel fearful of immigration, subordinated by multiculturalism and disadvantaged by international trade.

If Britain’s avowed progressives are to truly challenge the salience of xenophobic, nationalist and anti-expert rhetoric, they need to first digest that globalism is not a value everyone can afford to espouse, nor is it just unique to Remain voters.

The snapshot analysis of the 17.4 million who voted Leave—the elderly, lesser educated and lower income individuals—offered scapegoats for a result truly cast by the entirety of British society, and borne in the nation’s disparate economic and cultural experiences of globalization.

Inequality and Inequity

Over the past decades, Britain has undergone one of the largest de-industrializations of any major nation. Manufacturing output shrank from over 30 percent of economic output in the 1970s, to nearer 10 percent today, as shifting global trade patterns and technological productivity transformed the nation into a service-orientated society.

Industrial, coastal and agricultural Britain languished in obsolescence, as financial, commerce, research and cultural hubs blossomed into wealthy, tolerant and cosmopolitan havens. And by the late 2000s, income inequality among Britain’s working-age population had risen faster than in any other high-income nation since 1975, according an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study in 2011.

Riding high on Britain’s deregulated globalized capitalist system a professional, political and media elite captured the zeitgeist of individualism and a largely feckless working class, caricatured as the “Chav”—a British pejorative used to describe the young lower class.

And, with the post-financial crisis age of austerity, influx of eastern European migrants and the images of last year’s ‘migrant’ crisis on the continent, which disproportionately threatened the less affluent, animosities grew in a largely unequal and upwardly immobile society.

“Many people have grown tired of waiting for the benefits of a vastly interconnected world to trickle down,” wrote Reva Goujon, a global strategic analyst at the Texas-based intelligence firm Stratfor, in a company report. “As the world whizzes by them, their wages remain flat and jobs become scarcer.”

It is little surprise then that large majorities who considered multiculturalism, globalization and immigration as forces for good voted to remain in the European Union; while those who felt they were ills voted by greater majorities to leave, according the Lord Ashcroft Poll of over 12,000 voters—globalism dichotomized the nation.

The inconvenient truth for many Remainers is that they benefited most from the post-industrial status-quo, and therefore had the most reason to protect it. While Leavers voted symbolically against a system that did not work for them—and not to frivolously spite liberal principles, as social media feeds may suggest.

Promises to “take back control” from foreign interests and reduce immigration were bound to foment eurosceptic appeal among the disenfranchised and economically excluded millions. And it’s a damning harbinger for the U.S., with an equally torn narrative over trade and immigration.

Illiberal Liberalism

Unless British society can overcome its vogue for mindless virtue signaling, ridiculing and vilifying those who do not effuse liberal values, nuance—like the logic of experts—will forever fall on deaf ears. And, its exclusionary impact will continue to strengthen the appeal of simplistic xenophobic explanations.

Because calling someone a racist, or stupid, is not a policy prescription. It does nothing to tackle the roots of racism, fascism or nationalism, or offer a path for inclusive prosperity. And too many feel its is enough to make a spectacle of globalism and liberal values without actually acting to ensure they can be universally adopted.

A truly progressive form of liberalism in Britain must rather decentralize economic power, devolve politics, fight inequality and elitism, bridge the North-South divide and raise British expenditure on investment.

It must also pragmatically engage with alternate narratives, to avoid a continueddestabilizing polarity in British politics—in which the far left and right amplify in reaction to one another—and to regain the middle ground. That challenge is clearly harder now that some see Brexit as a vindication for racism.

The Remain camp must see its own culpability in failing to convince swathes of moderates. In fact, some now emerging, liberal, Leave voters, justify their vote by saying greater constitutional autonomy is paramount in addressing Britain’s long ignored socio-economic fissures.

And so, among the multiple introspective questions Brexit should impel upon militant Remainers, its greatest may be to the in-denial leaders in Brussels themselves. How can an effective political, monetary, and eventually, fiscal, supra-national union of over 500 million people be achieved when nation states are not only disparate to each other, but also, within themselves?

It is this fallacy—carried by a somewhat privileged ignorance—that we all have the same agency and all stand to benefit equally from globalism, that has led to Brexit and an unravelling of the European project. We cannot continue to parade under the banner of international unity, without addressing imbalance at home.

The Huffington Post: After Brexit, a Divided Nation Must Face Reality

(The Huffington Post 24/6/2016) Britain wakes up divided. London, Scotland and Northern Ireland against England and Wales; millennials against older generations; and university students against school leavers.

Divisions are inevitable. Geography, age and education define our narratives, our political identities—and how we vote. Progress, however, is not inevitable, it requires strong dialogue, introspection and compromise.

Yet trends in global politics—across the Atlantic, and the English Channel—and the increasingly dichotomized nature of our discourse, presage only a further descent into the left and right, the black and white, and the Leave and Remain.

And so while Britain may have missed the chance to symbolically abrogate rising political disunity worldwide by voting out of the European Union, it now has the opportunity to demonstrate true progressivism—advancing, despite division.

If the Remain campaign is to avoid its economic fears from becoming self-reinforcing, now is the time to act in unison with opponents, and not to engage in defeatism. If the Leave campaign is to lead Britain into a brighter future, now is the time to begin meeting expectations, and not for rejoice.

“The politicians who will lead the U.K. out of the E.U. must guard against allowing a yawning gap to emerge between their political rhetoric and the realities facing Britain outside,” wrote Robin Niblett, director at U.K. think tank Chatham House.

Amid a fragmented society and political elite, Britain must withstand a barrage of challenges in the coming months, as it negotiates its path out of the E.U. and beyond. If it seeks prosperity, it must wake up to the post-Brexit world—together.

The pound’s decline in value has broken records, shares have plummeted and the risk of recession is firmly tied to support for market confidence. The nation’s two largest political parties seek structure, with British Prime Minister David Cameron announcing his forthcoming resignation, and a vote of no confidence overshadowing his co-Remain campaigner and opposition Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

Beyond the City and Westminster, Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon says a second referendum on Scotland’s independence is “highly likely,” after the country overwhelmingly voted to stay in the E.U., adding variables to the crowded planning matrix.

And in Europe, Eurosceptics have newfound ammo. Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front in France, is calling for a similar referendum, Dutch anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders wants a “Nexit” and Mateo Salvini leader of Italy’s Northern League party says “now it’s our turn.”

This ‘domino effect’ threatens to unwind the European project altogether, with critical national elections in France and Germany on the horizon. In the meanwhile, the U.K remains deeply connected to the continent by trade, finance and labor, and will need to weather the uncertainty and contagion, in addition to the direct challenges at home.

Between the U.K. and E.U., trade deals and business terms need to be renegotiated, laws, rules and regulations need to be clarified and the British government will need to overhaul its diplomatic infrastructure with Europe.

Economic precariousness and political shuffling are the face of Britain’s new short term reality. And reforming the nation in this climate will be a doomed Sisyphean venture if it cannot first overcome the toxic duels that have masqueraded as democratic debates in the past weeks. Negotiations, bureaucratic restructuring and economic adjustment will otherwise suffocate.

Egoistic, insular and “I told you so” rhetoric will need to disappear if Britain is to progress beyond the divisive, fear mongering and post-truth politics that colored the referendum. While denial, bitterness and demonization must also subside in order to unpack and reverse a growing polarity in British politics.

Britain may be split by a binary question, but it must now reopen dialogue, understand rising nationalist, anti-expert and anti-immigrant sentiments, and address class, geographic and generational cleavages, if it is to truly “take back control” of its democracy, or it faces a stasis.

When Cameron finished negotiating the U.K.’s ‘special status’ with the E.U. in February he proclaimed that the referendum was a “once-in-a-generation moment to shape the destiny of our country.” The referendum has passed, but a prosperous destiny remains firmly in the hands of the British people.

 Tej Parikh is a global politics journalist and analyst. He received his master’s degree from Yale University, with a focus on state building, ethnic politics and fragile states. He has published for the Guardian, Reuters, The Diplomat, The Cambodia Daily, Global Politics Magazine and Beyond Violence. His work is archived at: www.theglobalprism.com. He tweet @tejparikh90

Global Politics Magazine: Should We Empathize With Extremists?

(Global Politics Magazine 17/2/2016) When U.N Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon suggested in a recent Security Council speech that an Israeli drive to build settlements beyond its territory partly fueled Palestinian extremism, it drew ire from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“There is no justification for terror,” responded Netanyahu. “The comments of the U.N. Secretary-General encourage terror.”

In the epochal ‘war on terror,’ the Netanyahu ‘them versus us rhetoric’ has dominated—from ground zero in New York to the bloodstained cafes of Paris.

Amid these ruins, anger and vengeance fester. But could this very human reaction to affliction exacerbate our struggle with violent fundamentalism?

Throughout history, humans have reacted to perceived grievances, oppression and struggle with violence. While ends do not justify the means—understanding injustices, rather than suppressing them, are the key to peace building.

Mr. Ban’s explanation for the Palestinian violence—occupation, settlement encroachment and a paralyzed peace process—was not offered by way of justification for violence. But he was seeking to bridge divides and perhaps connect Palestinian and Israeli narratives through a call for introspection.

For a victim of violent extremism it would be more gratifying to respond with commensurate force. But in order to break cycles of violence, targeting motivations are essential to de-fueling the fire.

Of course, grievances can be distorted and amplified, but no dialogue and divisive policy toward those associated with radical thoughts does little to halt or reverse the radicalization process. In fact, it solidifies it—by entrenching the view that ‘terrorists will be terrorists.’

In a recent study, the Quilliam foundation, an anti-extremism think tank, noted that “[Governments] must…ensure that the grievances that are exploited by extremists are not unwittingly exacerbated and that counter-narrative approaches are not derailed.”

Radicalization, defined as the process by which an individual or group comes to adopt extreme political, social or religious ideals, is not unique to any region or religion. It happened in 1930s Nazi Germany—and is occurring today in Burma, led by radical Buddhist monks opposed to Islam.

Though highly idiosyncratic, radicalization appears to find energy from a nexus of state building failures—be it ethnic conflict, economic inequality or social injustice, perceived or otherwise.

A greater awareness of the environments in which extremist ideologies, religious or otherwise, could permeate has led to a growing Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) movement.

The Soufan Group, a strategic intelligence firm, analogized CVE to inoculating against disease as opposed to costly and ineffective approaches of treating it after an ‘infection.’

For example, the UK’s Prevent CVE initiative broadly aims to support those vulnerable to extremism, address grievances and challenge ideologies.

But, many CVE programs have under-performed for lack of a clear vision and funding for essential community and NGO-level participation say experts.

Fashioning coherent, coordinated and well-resourced CVE programs on a domestic level is key to long-term security—alongside measured military action, intelligence gathering, law enforcement and state building assistance.

As events in Paris showed last year, nations remain exposed to homegrown extremism, which thrives in the dense, destitute and segregated districts of our capitals.

Molenbeek neighborhood, on the edge of Brussels—where several arrests were made in connection with the November Paris attacks—had a reputation for unemployment, crime and drugs. But, it largely fell under the radar amid Belgium’s bureaucratic and decentralized governance systems.

Such vulnerable environments will become ever more volatile as the estimated 27,000-30,100 battle-hardened Jihadi fighters who are currently in Iraq and Syria start filtering back to their home countries.

Yet for the past 15 years we have let anger drive our counter-terrorism policy, with quick-fire military reprisals to satisfy the short-term illusion of security. As things stand now, efforts aimed at de-radicalization, together with counter-narrative and general community development policies closer to home have barely gathered steam.

The desire to vilify those who commit and associate themselves with terrorist acts is understandable.

But we must not let such emotions cloud our awareness of the very rational processes and environments that lead people—at home and abroad—toward extremism in the first place.