London violence – Should we blame drill music?

There is a sub-genre of rap music known as drill currently causing controversy in the media and in government circles. This music has been blamed for the current wave of violence engulfing Britain’s inner cities, particularly in London. There has been a spike in the number of youth murders with the recent number being around 60 so far in London alone, this year. Just this week, a 23-year old drill rapper was murdered in a knife attack in Camberwell, South London. It is a sad and frightening trend as these are young lives being cut down prematurely. These deaths leave behind grieving families and friends with lifelong scars.

Drill is a sub-genre of hip-hop music which contains vivid accounts of violence and threats of violence. It is popular because it tells scary stories of life on the streets where one wrong choice could land you in jail or get you killed. Also, the wordplay can be very clever and the beat, catchy.

Drill - 67
The most famous UK drill group, 67 (Photo courtesy of facebook/@6ix7Official)

The London Metropolitan Police recently reached out to the social media giant, YouTube, to help in removing drill music from its platform, as the government believes it has a significant role to play in the rising number of youth murders. The Met Police believe the lyrical content in drill music glamourises knife attacks and gun violence. They believe gang members use these outlets to taunt each other which eventually spills out onto the streets.

This approach is not new, blaming art for social problems. In the early ’90s, ‘gangsta rap’, pioneered by rappers like Rakim and the group NWA, was in the spotlight for the crime wave in inner-city New York and Los Angeles. It was believed that the lyrics of gangsta rap promotes violence which played out on the streets. The police were worried and called for a ban on gangsta rap. It never happened as we live in a free society that respects all forms of art and does not allow the government to make moral choices for its citizens. If you ban gangsta rap, what about heavy metal, death metal, garage punk etc, some of which talk about drug overdoses and suicide?

This same discussion is now being had in Britain over drill music.

I think it is ludicrous to think music is the cause of the violence in London. Young people get involved in gangs and criminality not because they’ve listened to a particular genre of music, but because of their backgrounds and upbringing. These kids come from difficult backgrounds where criminality is seen as a survival tactic. Many of them grew up with no positive role models and very little positive life choices. Some have drug dependent fathers or mothers, absent fathers, from abusive households and mental health problems. It is these toxic elements that combine to create a criminal. This is where government resources need to be concentrated for a successful address of this problem.

In my opinion, the illegal drug trade sits at the core of the wave of youth deaths in the inner cities. These attacks are usually turf wars among various drug gangs for control of territory. These gangs may listen to drill music, but the music is not responsible for their actions. Did Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and all the other infamous mob figures, who ran brutal gangs controlling cocaine and heroin distribution across America listen to rap or drill? The answer is no. Did the Kray twins, the brutal East London duo who ran sadistic protection rackets that brought fear to the streets of the capital, listen to rap or drill before they unleashed mayhem in the 1960s? The answer is no. The only common theme among all these infamous figures is their backgrounds, they all grew up in abject poverty with very little positive life choices.

Poverty is at the root of most social problems. It is a fact that poorer societies experience more violence than affluent ones. Some countries in Africa have seen more people die in brutal civil wars in a decade than relatively richer countries have seen in fifty years. Value for human life is low in economically deprived societies compared to affluent ones. Why should Peckham, South London be any different? This is a very deprived area of London’s inner-city, which has its own share of the current violence. The elements of this complex equation are poor housing, high unemployment, serious mental health issues, addiction and abuse in huge areas of our inner cities. Tackle these and you begin to unpick the problem.

Instead of pointing the finger at a genre of music, why not actually do something like improving employment prospects for the inner-city youth and actively create programmes that recruit from this talent pool. Put the inner city youth at the centre of positive change and support them with the tools they need. This is the way to tackle a problem, at the source. Criminalising a form of music is the lazy way out.

 

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What amount of information does Facebook actually hold about me? – Here is what I found and how….

Facebook

In light of the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, where a political consultancy in London has been accused of harvesting and applying Facebook users data inappropriately to shape political campaigns in the United States, I decided to find out exactly how much information Facebook holds about me.

I downloaded this via a single click in the settings section of my Facebook account. Find out how in the last paragraph of this article.

In the Photos and Videos sections, I was pleasantly surprised to see photos and videos that I had completely forgotten about. In the Messages section, I was able to view conversations with friends from 11 years ago when I joined Facebook! Some of these conversations took me right back to what my life was like at those points in time. The Timeline section shows all the comments I’ve ever posted and I was able to go back to my first post on the platform, including the date and time it was posted!

I was also able to see my ad history, not only ads I have clicked on Facebook but also on Instagram! Now, I have the Instagram app on my phone and I know the company was acquired by Facebook in 2012, but I didn’t realise that data from my activity on Instagram is being flowed directly into the Facebook app. I was able to see advertisers with my contact info as well.

In the Security section, I was able to view all devices I have used to log in to Facebook and the IP addresses of these devices including date and time stamps.

All these were interesting to me until I came across the Contact Info section where I was able to see that Facebook holds contact information from my mobile phone including people not even on my Facebook friends list! 70% of my phone contact list are known to Facebook, including the contact info for the Indian Takeaway I frequent on days I feel a bit peckish!

From what I was able to gather from a quick Google search, the Facebook app on your phone apparently has access to your phone contacts and you gave this permission away when you downloaded the app. I think you can manage this though and restrict this access by going into your settings.

The good thing about downloading this data is that you are able to see the evidence of the power of Facebook. Every Like, every comment, every photo you’ve posted, adverts you have clicked on and places you’ve been are being meticulously chronicled in great detail and made accessible to you and I am sure, the government and other authorities as well (on demand probably). How much of this data is accessible to corporate interests and political parties is less known. Cambridge Analytica’s parent company (prior to 2014), then known as SCL Elections, has been accused of interfering in the 2007 general elections in Nigeria where it is alleged that the company organised rallies in Nigeria to weaken support for the opposition. There are also allegations of political interference by the same company in Latvia and Trinidad and Tobago elections in 2006 and 2010 respectively.

If you feel there is anything on there you would be uncomfortable being made public (e.g. those old photos you were tagged in or the ones you posted, or even opinions you expressed a long time ago that you no longer hold), it is the time to clean up and check how much consent you are giving apps to access your personal data, in your settings.

The more disturbing aspect is how secure is this data? The recent Cambridge Analytica scandal shows it is not as secure as we would like it to be. I know a lot of people say if you have nothing to hide, then you shouldn’t worry. But I think this is a naive position as you should be concerned about how much information about you is available to a private company who makes billions of dollars trading in that very information. Imagine giving the keys to your house to a private insurance company for example, and saying you have nothing to hide! That would be unthinkable. Facebook is no longer a passive fun app where we post smileys to far-flung friends, it is a very powerful machine hoovering up and digesting every aspect of our lives and making a huge profit from it.

Information about you could be used for positive as well as negative or criminal purposes, protecting it is important. In an age of identity theft, impersonations and blackmail, you ignore this at your peril.

If Facebook holds this much information about us, I wonder what data Google and Apple keep about us all and what they do with it or ‘can’ do with it!

To view your own Facebook data (see screenshots below), go to your settings in your Facebook app (desktop or mobile) and in the General account settings tab, click ‘Download a copy of your Facebook data’. It will take about 10-15 minutes and an email will be sent to you with a link to the downloaded data.

DACA – The programme at the heart of the US government shutdown

DACA
Protesters at the White House (Photo courtesy of http://www.pbs.org)

We woke up to the news on Saturday of the US government shutdown due to Congress and the White House not being able to reach an agreement on a replacement for the Obama administration’s DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) programme, which has been rescinded by the Trump administration.

Listening to the major news sources, you will come off with the impression that the DACA program simply allowed illegal immigrants to settle in the US with their families in their thousands every year. However, when you scratch beneath the surface, you will find out the The DACA programme actually operated with very strict criteria to protect children of illegal immigrants from deportation to countries they have no practical connection to. The current argument is not whether the programme should continue, as it will not continue, but whether to continue to honour the benefits of the programme to the already eligible population.

The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was an American immigration policy that allowed some individuals who entered the country as minors, and had either entered or remained in the country illegally, to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and to be eligible for a work permitWikipedia.

The DACA programme was initiated by the Obama administration in 2012 to find a way of integrating children who were historically brought to the US illegally by their parents and give them a chance at the American dream. America has always been a country who welcomed people from all countries to settle if they are hardworking and law-abiding, even president Trump’s ancestors were immigrants from Germany and his mother was from Scotland who emigrated to the US in the ’30s, and look where he is now!

Today, President Trump believes the programme denies hard-working native Americans a fair chance in the workplace as the immigrants would take up local jobs, housing and other state benefits. He has declared the programme is not going to continue, but gave the congress six months from September 2017 to find a way of dealing with the eligible population in the original programme.

The opponents of DACA argue that it merely gives amnesty to illegal immigrants who would then invite their families in a process known as chain-migration. They believe it encourages illegal immigration. So granting an illegal immigrant a work permit (and eventually permanent residency) will lead to them bringing their extended families to the country. Advocates on the other hand believe that this is a matter of treating children who had no choice in their parent’s decision, humanely. These children (now young adults) have lived in the US for many years and consider themselves American, to suddenly send them back to their countries of origin is not just cruel, but also disadvantageous to the US economy. With the criteria put in place, only law-abiding, hard-working and well-educated migrants will make it through the programme. Why would the US deny itself the benefit of this group of immigrants?

According to an article in the Business Insider looking at the criteria, to be eligible, applicants must have entered the United States before their 16th birthday and prior to June 2007, are currently in school, a high school graduate or have been honourably discharged from the military, be under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012, and not have a criminal record. These are pretty good safeguards to me that ensures only law-abiding, decent and ambitious immigrants are given the opportunity at the American dream.

So why is President Trump so against the idea? This is because it was one of the main pledges he made during his campaign. His loyal base thrive on him delivering on these promises and this is one of them. No matter how much anyone tries to convince the president otherwise, he holds his voters in a much higher regard than any logical argument.

I believe the programme if well managed is actually good for America, but I know I am in a minority in the current wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric across the world. I believe immigrants are not a nuisance but valuable assets to any country if managed properly. America should know better, as the great country is built on this very principle.

 

 

How Facebook, Google and Apple control our lives whether we like to admit it or not

Modern Keyboard With Colored Social Network Buttons.

I was reading the interview with Tristan Harris, the technological ethicist, in WIRED, the business and technology magazine, this morning and could not help but agree with him on his views about how social media has hijacked our lives and constantly compete for our very souls in this modern digital age.

“Phones, apps, and the web are so indispensable to our daily lives—a testament to the benefits they give us—that we’ve become a captive audience. With two billion people plugged into these devices, technology companies have inadvertently enabled a direct channel to manipulate entire societies with unprecedented precision” – Tristan Harris

I have always been concerned about the influence of the ‘three kings’, Facebook, Google and Apple on our lives, and on modern society in general. It is no longer news that these three are also the ‘king makers’ in today’s global village. Fake news is the dilemma of our time as millions of people are manipulated by false information. Elections across the world are being swayed by fabricated news, deliberately manipulating facts or plain falsehood disguised as truth. We are all swimming in a sea of information with most of it junk information. We are caught up in a web of smokes and mirrors and we cannot tell head from tail anymore. They tell us.

When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I check is my phone. If you are being honest, you are exactly the same. Phone notifications have come to rule our lives, we wait for those comments and likes on our social media posts, respond to these and then scroll to others’ posts, ‘like’ and comment on theirs, continue scrolling endlessly only to click on the link to that Youtube video and that’s your day gone. I don’t know what the research says, but I would think our generation may be the most attention deficit generation in the history of mankind with multiple distractions by the minute from apps. If it’s not Facebook, its Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat. These platforms compete endlessly for our attention by pushing the most aggressive advertising, tell us what we should like, show us what they think we are missing and give us subtle ideas about what we should be doing with our lives. They even hook us up with new friends who are friends of our friends. The amount of data they have on our innermost thoughts and beliefs is staggering. Never before have we put our deepest feelings and habits into the hands of corporations who are endlessly using this data to shape our lives.

“Religions and governments don’t have that much influence over people’s daily thoughts. But we have three technology companies who have this system that frankly they don’t even have control over—with newsfeeds and recommended videos and whatever they put in front of you—which is governing what people do with their time and what they’re looking at” – Tristan Harris

One of the leading cause of stress and distress in young people today is Facebook. In fact mental health issues are now considered directly correlated with use of Facebook, admitted by the tech giant itself. Body image, career expectations, self-perception are all linked to what we see others doing on a minute by minute basis. Mankind has never had this level of insight into other people’s day to day lives. Real human interactions are now suffering from addiction to endless digital feedback and validation. How many of us show up at a family dinner only to whip out our big screen phones and put it on the table, ready to continue engaging with the online world, as those notifications never stop coming. We never switch off! The effects of not having that old undivided attention to something is being eroded. It is a lot of stress on the brain, to have to keep all these channels going at the same time. Imagine you are about to rest for the night, then suddenly had a notification popped up on your phone just as you settle into bed, you check it and it’s a reply to your comment on a post earlier in the day, critical of your viewpoint, immediately your brain responds and you want to respond back with why you were right in your previous comment and alas you are up till midnight arguing on Facebook! Then you check your WhatsApp to see whether your mum has read that message you sent earlier (those two blue ticks), she has read it but not responded, you wonder why? You worry a bit, was it what you said in the text? Gradually your planned peaceful night rest slips away from you. You get to work the next day feeling like you have had a vigil, your productivity suffers.

Tristan Harris pushes the idea that tech giants have a lot they can do to help us take back control of our lives in the age of social media. He runs a website called Time Well Spent.

“What began as a race to monetize our attention is now eroding the pillars of our society: mental health, democracy, social relationships, and our children”

– Tristan Harris (www.timewellspent.io)

Even though we like to believe we are in control of our use of these platforms and the information they feed us, in reality, we are all pawns in their great chess game. There are maybe 10-11 engineers at Google working together at the one time to ensure that video plays instantly when you scroll past it or ensure that advert uses the best visual possible to lure you to that expensive shop. They earn a lot of money for this. They cleverly design their apps to ensure we get addicted by keeping us constantly engaged, so they can push as many advertising as possible to us, make money for their shareholders and grow their influence. Most people get their news from social media links and form opinions based on what they see in their timelines. A few go after verification, but most consume these subtle suggestions passively without checking. Tristan believes tech companies instead of making their apps as addictive as possible, rather should look at the benefits to mankind and see the bigger picture. Those two ticks in WhatsApp for example keep you tied to the app, you want to see the message has been delivered, you want to see when they were seen, and then wait for the reply! With letters you put in the post, you only have one layer, not three, which means less mental stress. Tristan is not advocating going back to the dark days of paper letter writing under candle light, but says companies could help people by reducing those layers of engagement with their apps and giving them some measure of control. For example those two ticks in WhatsApp could be removed or modified to help the user reduce their need to check back constantly hence reduce distraction from real life. Same with Apple iPhones, where you can see those little dots showing when someone is responding to your text. If they (the responder) changes their mind and decide not to respond immediately, or postpone their response to a later time, then you start to worry and wonder why they changed their mind. If you didn’t see those dots in the first place, you probably would be less stressed and just receive the response when it finally arrives.

It is probably inevitable that we are ruled by our phones and tablets, but in the midst of the madness we can still seize back control if we understand that these companies are not working entirely in our interest and they are mainly concerned with their profits and expanding their influence and market share. Most of us will continue to depend on them and see the world through their lenses, the impact of this on the future of mankind is not entirely clear. We have unleashed a ferocious beast whose creators cannot even tame.

 

 

Justin Fashanu – The making of a tragedy

I had the opportunity to see a powerful Netflix documentary this weekend about the life and death of Justin Fashanu, once Britain’s most popular black footballer. I remember hearing the story as a teenager growing up in Nigeria but never really knew the details. The story is a tragic cocktail of betrayal, abandonment, pain and sadness.

Justin Fashanu
The Fashanu brothers – Justin (right) and John (left) [Photo credit: http://www.theguardian.com]

Netflix’s “Forbidden Games – The John Fashanu story” is a deep and disturbing look at the troubled life of two brothers growing up in the harsh, racially charged atmosphere of 1970s and ’80s Britain.

Born to a Nigerian father and a Guyanese mother in 1961 in the London borough of Hackney, Justin and his younger brother John were put in foster care at ages four and three respectively after their parents split up and their father moved back to Nigeria.

Justin and John were eventually fostered by a white middle-class couple in Norfolk who took care of them and provided them with the stability of family life. In the documentary, this couple recalled how the brothers were two lovely little kids bursting with energy.  But Justin never got over the fact that their mother gave them up. In the documentary, Pearl, their biological mother, said she didn’t have the means to look after the children after their father left and had no choice but to give them up to be fostered.

Justin-Fashanu
Justin at Norwich FC (Picture credit: http://www.themirror.uk)

The documentary reminded us of Britain of the ’70s and ’80s when being black was a social stigma and the consequences were severe. Justin and his brother John were the only black children in an overwhelmingly white Norfolk village and experienced the cold reality of prejudice at the school playground. But Justin had a talent that made him shine, he was fast and quick with the football than any other kid. He had an athletic build and a charismatic personality. He quickly got noticed and made his debut when he was signed to Norwich FC, and eventually to Nottingham Forest in 1981, which marked the high point of his career as a professional footballer. He was transferred to Forest for a whopping £1million. The most expensive black player in English football history, up to that time.

But fame and fortune brought out previously latent attitudes in Justin, he became stubborn and arrogant, he would park his expensive cars in inappropriate places and would refuse to move it when asked to. Justin loved the fast life, money, cars and clubbing. These soon took a toll on his career as his performance dipped on the pitch. For such an expensive player, the expectations were high and the pressure was huge. Meanwhile the news was going round that Justin was frequenting gay bars in Nottingham, and in 1980s Britain, this was not something you would shout from the rooftops. The environment was hostile to homosexuals and Justin knew that his career would be jeopardised if he admitted being gay. His manager however, Brian Clough, a veteran football manager and homophobe, had had enough of Justin’s below expectation performance on the pitch and the rumours of him being gay was the final straw. Justin was sacked from the club, and marked the beginning of a slippery slope for him. He started to drift from one football club to the next, picked up a knee injury and at one point became a born-again christian.

Justin visited Nigeria to find is biological father but it wasn’t the visit he planned. He thought he would be going into his father’s arms wide open for him, but it was rather a disappointment and that was the first and last time he ever met with his biological father.

As Justin’s career slowed down, John’s (his younger brother) was picking up. John rose through the ranks to the top of the football tree when he got signed to Wimbledon in 1986 and eventually went on to play for England. John was now the face of the Fashanu brand in Britain. The tables turned.

In 1990, Justin came out publicly in The Sun newspaper (Britain’s largest tabloid) as being gay, despite John’s efforts to prevent him going public with it. John went as far as offering Justin a huge amount of money, more than the tabloid would pay him for the story. John believed this revelation would harm his own career which he has worked so hard to achieve. John had a difficult relationship with his older brother due to his overwhelming popularity and success,  which meant John lived in his shadows. In the documentary, John described  how if he achieved something, people would say well that is expected, and when he didn’t they would say why not, ‘his brother could do it’. It was a difficult corner to get out of for John. He also described how Justin became his arch enemy after he came out publicly as gay, he dissociated himself from Justin and they literally lost touch for years afterwards. In Britain of that time, you cannot be seen to be openly sympathetic to homosexuality. It was a macho environment, supported by politicians who banded it as a perversion that needed to be contained. The documentary even has a footage of Margaret Thatcher declaring at a Conservative party conference, how children had to be protected from such ideas. It is true when they say the past is a different country. It truly was a Britain difficult to recognise!

After numerous attempts to jumpstart his career, Justin got embroiled in controversy when lurid details of alleged sexual affairs with some British MPs were documented in the tabloids, with himself being the source of these details. He later retracted the claims saying he made them up for the money. He was at rock bottom by this time. Broke and desperate.

He went back to America and coached a small football club. But this soon unravelled when in April 1998, Justin was accused of sexual assault on a 17 year old boy and the police put out a warrant for his arrest. Justin fled back to England fearing incarceration. He denied the charges and claimed he fled because he feared he wouldn’t get a fair trial because he was gay. In May 1998, Justin was found dead in a garage in East London after an apparent suicide with a note saying he was innocent of these charges. He was 37.

The documentary was very moving and demonstrated how events in childhood usually set the pace for life afterwards. Justin felt a sense of abandonment when his mum gave him and his brother up for foster care. He couldn’t come to terms with this, even when his mum tried to explain her side of the story. Justin battled demons buried deep in his life but wore the mask of a confident, charming man who appeared to be in control.

John sobbed during the filming of the documentary as he watched old videos of Justin wishing John would fight his corner. He felt abandoned by John at a time he needed him the most. John’s reaction was however his own survival strategy at a time when having a gay brother could finish his own career as well. John had lost a brother with whom he endured so much with as kids, shared happy and difficult times together, cried and laughed with. It was a sad ending for both brothers.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle – A look at how their union could be affected by UK immigration rules

Harry and Meghan
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle (Photo credit: Cosmopolitan)

The news came this week of the engagement of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle and plans for a Royal wedding next year. It was welcome news and myself and the rest of the country are so happy for them. Finally the prince has found love and will be settling down.

However, under UK immigration rules, Meghan Markle will be subject to residency laws which will see the couple meet stringent requirements after their wedding if they plan to live together permanently in the UK.

For mere mortals who live far away from the pomp and pageantry of British royalty, to bring over your non-European spouse into the UK, you would need to first prove to the Home Office that you can support your spouse without recourse to public funds. This means meeting an income threshold of £18,600 ($25,000) annual earnings to obtain a spouse visa for Meghan. This income threshold is based only on the income of the UK sponsor, in this case Prince Harry’s.

“The non-UK partner cannot count their income towards the threshold if they are working abroad, because of the concern that they may stop working after they come to the UK” – The Migration Observatory, The University of Oxford

According to the Migration Observatory, 40% of UK workers did not earn above £18,600 a year in 2015. We all know Harry left the army in 2015 and had not earned taxable income since then, rather he has been doing a lot of charity work and royal duty, from important conservation work to supporting mental health charities. He could however meet this requirement through the Duchy of Cornwall, the Royal estate which would provide Harry with unearned income. If Harry was an ordinary citizen, unearned income would not qualify for the Home office income requirements.

This process is made even more complicated if the couple already have children (not the case in Harry and Meghan’s situation). If the couple already have children, the annual income threshold of £18,600 ($25,000) required jumps by £3,800 ($5,100) for the first child and £2,400 ($3,200) for additional children after the first child.

Many people across the UK are being prevented from bringing their non-EU spouse (and children) into the UK by this regulation. Many families have been split apart because they cannot prove clearly to the Home Office how they meet this requirement. According to the Migration Observatory, an Home Office impact assessment in 2012 estimated that between 13,600 – 17,800 fewer people would be prevented from coming to the UK per year as a result of the income threshold. The actual figure would be much higher.

After this income hurdle, then comes the ‘financial cost’ and ‘time’ hurdles. It will be five years after Harry and Meghan get married before she can apply for permanent residency in the UK. She will initially get 2.5 years after the application for residency after their wedding next year, then she will have to renew this after this time for another 2.5 years (a total of 5 years). After 5 years she can then apply for permanent UK residency. Shortly after this she can apply for British citizenship. For ordinary citizens, this is a very costly process. In all you are looking at around £7,000 ($9,400) from getting married to becoming a permanent UK resident.

These requirements will likely will not apply to Prince Harry because he is Prince Harry, but many ordinary lives are affected by this on a day to day basis. People who love each other are penalised heavily because one of them comes from a non-European country. If they were from a European country like France, Netherlands or Poland, it is absolutely fine, you could live together in the UK immediately (this may change after Brexit though, who knows).

 

 

 

‘Bots’ – The problem of ‘fake news’ in the age of social media

By now, the phrase ‘fake news’ is no longer new to many people, but its influence couldn’t be more widespread. We have all been victims whether we like to admit it or not. We have been exposed to propaganda disguised as news through Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp or Instagram and some of us have ‘fallen’ for it. We all like to think we are not being manipulated or controlled by what we read or see on social media, but the truth is, we are.

FAke News
Photo credit – http://www.mashable.com

The influence of ‘fake news’ is more devastating in countries where there are delicate balances of power and spreading false rumours could easily offset this balance, sometimes with catastrophic consequences. For example in multi-ethnic societies like the ones in Africa and Asia, spreading false information about an ethnic group could quickly increase tensions and could lead to strife, or conflict in extreme cases. It could alter the political landscape and cause power shifts.

Countries, organisations or individuals who want to influence the socio-political dynamics of a society know the fact that most people will believe what they read, if you can sensationalise it enough. Gone are the days when media corporations are the only ones who could wield this kind of influence, today, an 18 year old with some knowledge of Adobe Photoshop and video editing software could create powerful ‘false information’ that would get the attention of millions of people. I think this is scary enough, but when you now realise there are actually groups and syndicates out there (sometimes sanctioned by governments) sending out internet ‘bots’ in their millions into societies with the sole aim of churning out hundreds of tweets per hour, spreading false information manufactured with state of the art softwares, then the ball game changes.

This week it was exposed that there are state-run organisations in Russia who have well developed methods of targeting western democracies with false information with the sole aim of creating suspicion and fracturing societies. The allegations are endless, the UK referendum, the US elections, the Immigration debate, the Catalonia referendum etc.

A particular photo was held up this week as a clear evidence of this type of deliberate misinformation for political gain. I could remember seeing this picture (below) circulating widely on twitter when the tragedy occurred on London Bridge earlier in 2017. The reaction it generated was that of fury and anger. The tweet read:

“Muslim woman pays no mind to the terror attack, casually walks by a dying man while checking phone #PrayForLondon #Westminster #BanIslam.”

Blog image
Photo credit: London Evening Standard

At a time of difficult discussions around immigration and religious freedom in Britain,  this photo added a lot of fuel to the fire, particularly for far-right groups who were already injecting a dose of toxicity to the debates.

It has now been discovered that the twitter account behind this photo was actually an internet bot manufactured in Russia. An internet bot as defined by Wikipedia as “a software application that runs automated tasks (scripts) over the Internet. Typically, bots perform tasks that are both simple and structurally repetitive, at a much higher rate than would be possible for a human alone”. So these are computer codes controlled from thousands of miles away, which wield ten or twenty times more ‘tweet-power’ than a human being.

Contrary to the tweet, the young woman wasn’t ignoring the crime scene, but rather horrified at what was happening around her. The photo was taken out of context and used for a malicious narrative.

As the general population is now beginning to understand, millions of twitter accounts, facebook profiles and instagram accounts are actually bots. Many of these accounts are used for criminal purposes, contain malicious content or were created to spread false information very quickly across the web. Bots do not know borders or political boundaries. Tweets sent by bots in St.Petersburg will be seen in London in seconds and its intensity beyond your wildest imagination as it saturates the media space at a rate that can never be matched by a human being.

I don’t know what the solution to ‘fake news’ and malicious bots is, but I am sure Russia is not the only suspect. The extent to which this actually affect societies and shape public opinion is yet to be clearly established.

The only effort we can all make is to make sure we do not believe everything we read or view on the internet. Many videos though look like they are real, many times they have been carefully ‘doctored’ and taken out of context to drive home a particular agenda. I see this all the time on Facebook. Social media is fast becoming a playground for people with an agenda. Some of these posts for example disguise as an emotional appeal, designed to tug at your heart strings, be careful, and do your research before you fall for it. I see it all the time, people jumping to conclusions on a sensational post on facebook. Protect your mind.