#OpIsrael: Anonymous takes on Israel, again.

When I opened my computer on Sunday morning, my twitter feed was overrun with messages about #OpIsrael. The hacker’s collective Anonymous had targeted Israel for the second time–the first being in November of last year–with the aim of “wiping Israel off the Internet”.

I decided to focus on #OpIsrael for this week’s assignment; I thought it would be interesting to follow a purely online phenomenon through social media, especially considering the issues of credibility and verification that are associated with an ‘anonymous’ and open hacking collective. Here is the result of this process:



Police corruption in South Africa: what does and doesn’t it tell us about the state of the country?

The Economist’s 500-word piece “South Africa’s Police: Bad cop, bad cop routine”, published March 9th, provides a glimpse into the dark side of this Southern African nation. Often referred to as “the darling [reconciliation model] of many legal policy makers in the international community” and as the richest nation in sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa also faces a host of issues that stem from immense corruption and weak rule of law.

Casual observers tend to believe that because Blacks have assumed positions of power in South Africa since 1994, the country’s Black majority is now better represented and considered in the country’s governance and policy-making processes. This might not be the case however, and investigating various components of The Economist‘s latest ZA article in more detail can serve to illustrate why.

As such, I am pulling quotes from “Bad cop, bad cop routine” and exploring them in greater detail an attempt to paint a more complete picture of South Africa’s complex and interconnected social, economic, and political issues.

1. Townships are some of the most enduring and visible remnants of Apartheid in South Africa. Over 3 million Blacks, Indians, and Coloureds were forced to move from centers that Whites retained, to barren and segregated regions. Today, although South Africa has been a democracy since 1994, it is one of the most unequal countries in the world (number 2 according to the CIA World Factbook). Accordingly, townships remain underdeveloped and are growing as the number in poverty increase. Crazily, the nation’s Gini Coefficient is higher now than it was under the Apartheid regime. Although the African National Congress (ANC) is in power and its president is Black (Zulu), inequality in South Africa is still highly correlated to race. The size, ethnic composition, and socioeconomic indicators of townships in South Africa speak to the unfinished and faltering efforts of the government to combat the Apartheid’s legacy.

2. Violence in South Africa is neither common solely between the government and its citizens nor just within the population. In the past several years there have also been frequent incidences of violence targeting immigrants from other African countries. A wave of attacks in 2011 was preceded by more serious xenophobic violence in 2008 and 2009. A comprehensive report by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants can be found here, which points to lack of legal and government enforcement mechanisms as a key hurdle to addressing this serious human rights issue. That there is no reference to violence against African immigrants in this article is a surprising omission even when considering the word limit.

3. South Africa’s telephone system is “the best developed and most modern in Africa“. I lived in South Africa in 2009-2010 and worked in Khayelitsha (the largest township in the Cape Town area); the reach of cell phones to corners of the country where even running water and regular electricity are absent astounded me. Of course, the potentially transformative power that mobile phones hold for countries in Africa is a trendy topic in development and business fields. But the prevalence of cell phones in ZA combined with the fact that bystander footage is what sparked public outrage over this scandal prompted me to wonder whether citizen journalism is also making strides in the context of weak rule of law and lack of government accountability.  Interestingly, although I found a few more recent comments regarding NGOs that have initiated citizen journalism programs, the few academic or journalist endeavors encouraging the phenomenon are out of date. The lack of investment in the topic may have something to do with the fact that despite prevalent mobile phone usage, internet penetration in ZA is relatively low and costs for accessing the web are prohibitively expensive. It is one thing to text on a Nokia and quite another to be connected to a vast network like the Internet through a device. Further, limits to internet access are connected to socioeconomic status in South Africa as they are in many other countries.

4. Regular violence on the part of the SAPS is shocking. Last year, police opened fire at an illegal strike of mine workers, killing 34 in one of the worst death tolls in violent protests since Apartheid ended. It is difficult to fathom this degree of police brutality in a democracy, and speaks to larger issues about the lack of ability or will on the part of the government to do more to protect its citizens. Indeed, although the murder rate is falling according to official numbers, unofficially many South Africans do not believe the figures. Gun ownership is high, rape is incredibly common (one survey had 37.4% of men admitting to rape), and murders like that of white supremacist Eugene Terreblanche in 2010 highlight the continued existence of race-inspired violence that still plagues the country.

5. The group was comprised of South African lawyers, activists, and other professionals concerned with corruption in South Africa. It had indicted several high-ranking officials in the African National Congress (the party that has been in power since 1994) and was dissolved by an ANC-dominated parliament after accusing President Jacob Zuma (now ANC and South African president) of corruption.  Since then, no independent corruption monitoring body has been reinstated.

6. Five senior criminal-justice posts have gone unfilled for more than a yearThe ANC’s corruption and laziness is blatant; police impunity is only one symptom of it. To many casual observers, ZA is Reading “Bad cop, bad cop routine” provides a first glimpse into some of the mounting issues that South Africa faces right now, but it fails to elucidate how this is both a product and cause of the government’s depressing failures that have resulted in corruption and ineptitude.


Israel/Palestine in the Media

Searching for an undisputed fact in the media surrounding the Israel/Palestine conflict inevitably leads to defeat. At this point party positions are so entrenched and divergent that not even issues like primary education or access to drinking water–usually considered to be human rights–are left untouched.

And as we discussed, words are easy to manipulate; a strong writer can use her skill to clandestinely persuade a reader to adopt an opinion with little reliance on the facts she presents. Or, facts can be presented and reinterpreted and unintentionally adjusted to better fit a certain narrative. Either way, the potential pitfalls of relying on information that is written and translated and analyzed and summarized, etc. etc, are many. This is apparent with regards to the Israel/Palestine debate to anyone who reads about the issue in Fox and then Haaretz and then Al Jazeera.

Imagery, conversely, can carry a higher degree of credibility with regards to supporting the “fact”. As such, activists in Israel and the Occupied Territories (check out B’tselem, for example) are increasingly relying on photography and film to capture breaches of law perpetrated by the opposite side. But while such testaments to recording the real truth are admirable, I have found that in this context as in any other, imagery can also be manipulated. In particular, lack of context and omission of important relevant information–as opposed to simply presenting wrong or false data–are serious offenders.

As such, for this assignment I will analyze two short clips–one from an Israeli perspective and another from a Palestinian one–to illustrate how lack of image context can radically warp the projection’s significance.


Counterculture in Computer Science

Jean was born in Hunan Province, China. Her family had lived there for generations but in the late 1980’s, her father received an offer to pursue a PhD in electrical engineering and then was began working at Carnegie Mellon University. So the Yangs moved to Pittsburgh. Jean was five.

Growing up across the street from a university focused on engineering and technology, Jean was surrounded by computers for much of her childhood. And as her parents worked in the tech field as well, computers and programming are what Jean has always known best.
But as she grew older, Jean’s context expanded. She began attending an all-girls school where the arts and humanities were emphasized. Although she appreciated being exposed to different intelllectual avenues, technology still intrigued this adolescent female most. However, she recalls that “I noticed my teachers were kind of horrified if I said I wanted to do computer science. No one there was accepting of this idea that I might not want to do something in the humanities,” her mother included.
Although perhaps unaware of it at the time, Jean was already embarking on a path that challenged the conventional narrative of gender roles, espoused by the people who surrounded her.
Therefore, unsure of her career path and wanting to keep her options open, Jean attended Harvard University instead of the Massachusetts Institute for Technology for undergrad.  She toyed with the idea of majoring in Economics, and then of being pre-med, but these disciplines were uninspiring to her.
When Jean finally did enroll in computer science courses, she felt out of place, excluded, and discouraged from participating in class discussion and group work.
In short, Jean was stuck choosing between a career in which she was uninterested and one whose dominant culture discouraged participation from the atypical, women included.
Luckily, the conflicted student eventually encountered a female mentor and role model in the male-dominated field of computer science at Harvard: Dr. Margo Seltzer.

Professor Seltzer encouraged Jean to major in computer science. When she explained the ‘Impostor Syndrome’, she articulated a notion with which Jean had been wrestling, but unable to pinpoint, for some time:

“When you feel like you don’t belong, everyone is better than you are, and its only a certain amount of time until people figure it out?” That is the Impostor Syndrome. “A lot of women in male dominated fields tend to feel this way because they don’t have role models who are women.”

So, with the reassurance of her new advisor, Jean was able to pursue a degree in computer science with confidence, although she still had to contend with the dominant narrative of a white male as a programmer, and the disadvantages that accompanied being outside the mainstream of the profession. To give you an idea of the odds Jean faced (and still faces):

Plus guys in her major saying things like “women I find attractive I can’t bare to listen to when they speak” or, in other words, you’re either smart and not feminine or feminine and not smart.
So, how has Jean fared since undergrad, considering her profile diverges so acutely from the typical tech nerd?
            White:    check.
           Male:      check.
           Nerd:       duh.
Channeling her liberal arts education, Jean regularly contributes to various blogs.
(To the left is a photo of Jean in Peru and to the right is a professional drawing of her practicing yoga.)

Never-before heard from a programmer: “I try to limit my self to 40 hours of work a week or less. Too much burns you out.”

So it seems that she is doing pretty well, actually…

First of all, a PhD from MIT is a decent step toward world domination.

Further, Jean has also been published and has received several scholarly awards. You can see her full list of accomplishments here. Keep in mind, though, that she has not even finished her PhD yet, so we can expect much more from the young Ms. Yang in the years to come.

Despite her accomplishments, Jean is not quick to forget the obstacles she faced on her path to MIT. The lack of females in the programming community remains an important issue to her, and she has grappled with how best to tackle it throughout her academic career, ultimately reaching the conclusion that  “I should keep being the best scientist I can be in my field and lead that way.”

Indeed, perhaps more significant than her plentiful academic achievements, by pursuing a career she loves–and doing it well without sacrificing her values–Jean is assuming the position of female role model that is sorely absent in the programming field.

How to actually ‘serve your country’ in China

“I used to be a no body…until I discovered the internet” a young glasses-clad man says as he stares at his computer screen. He proceeds to explain, turning toward the camera, how to circumvent China’s Great Firewall in order to access blocked websites like Twitter or Facebook.

This is Zola, one of the two citizen journalists followed in director Stephen Maing’s 2011 documentary feature High Tech, Low Life. The other, a 57-year old single retiree, is Tiger Temple.

High Tech, Low Life is advertised as a documentary that addresses the challenges of censorship in China, but the film is equally a tale of bravery, compassion, and drive of these two Chinese men aspiring for a country that values truth and transparency over the Party and self-censorship

But while their motivation to risk government tracking or arrest for a greater cause is shared, the two bloggers diverge with regards to their characters and approaches to reporting. Maing follows Zola and Tiger Temple in two parallel story lines, slicing discussions on censorship and propaganda with scenes of scolding mothers and pet cats. Indeed, getting to know these two men is one of the many treats of this insightful and informative 87-minute film.

Tiger Temple is a solitary man who, divorced and retired, has devoted his life to chronicling the plight of fellow citizens shafted by the Communist Party in China.  His resentment toward the government runs deep; he blames Mao’s cultural revolution for making him homeless at 13. But the resulting vagabond life he adopted, biking around the country and meeting the poor farmers that the revolution supposedly served, contributed to a belief that loving his country did not mean loving the government, and provided the requisite inspiration necessary to conduct his risky work.

“I’m in my 50’s. I wont live much longer. I should tell the truth,” Tiger Temple states matter-of-factly as he explains why he keeps visiting farmers whose land was destroyed by government-routed pollution. Stunning scenes of lush fields are juxtaposed with damaged housing and polluted water, evoking an additional element of shame on behalf of the dishonest state for the viewer as the documentary progresses.

The slightly disheveled and reserved man continues despite the fact that government trackers follow him on his journeys and bust into his apartment overnight.  While Tiger Temple understands the personal risks of his work, his commitment to serving fellow Chinese and exposing the lies and injustices of the government, ultimately trumps his fear.

Zola’s mission is similarly infused with threats from the Communist Party; he is blacklisted, barred from leaving the country, questioned at his apartment, and tracked on the Internet.  Perhaps it is his age, but despite these obstacles Zola maintains an air of lightness throughout the film that is notably absent in his co-star’s scenes, who seems gravely aware of the beast he is battling.

Zola’s enthusiasm for writing about and filming victims of government injustice—such as a teenage girl who was raped by a government official or residents of Beijing evicted during the Olympics—is surprising when contextualized. His parents, weathered rural farmers, lecture him that “country comes first, then the individual” at the dinner table. They explain to a son whom they are baffled to call their own, that helping the public may lead to personal benefits in the future. Zola promptly excuses himself from the table, hops on his bike and leaves the family farm.

This is because to this young man, countering to the Communist party and exposing its injustices is the ultimate service to his nation. He claims that, “the truth is I don’t really know what journalism is. I just record what I witness”. While Zola is clearly not so naïve, his simplification speaks to the fact that just recording and publicizing the truth is a provocative and significant act in a country where ‘social order’ and ‘cooperation’ are used as justifications to stifle dissent.

Thus Zola and Tiger Temple both, although in distinct ways, take the Communist Party narrative of helping the country by cooperating and flipping it on his head, suggesting that to actually help Chinese citizens, transparency is the answer.

But although the idea is increasingly popular in some circles, especially as internet usage spreads in China, such work makes for a lonely existence. The viewer is introduced to some of Zola and TIger Temple’s fans, either through blog comments or in person at a blogger convention, but such instances are obviously rare. While the older of the pair has accepted this fate, Zola seems to still be grappling with it: at one of the lowest points of the film, he wonders “if anyone else in this world feels as lonely as I do”.

Ultimately though, it is evident that both men are steadfast in their convictions and hopeful for a major shift in the future. An informative, insightful, and aesthetically gorgeous documentary, High Tech, Low Life gives the viewer hope, through introducing two incredible bloggers, that humanity in China is pushing the world’s most populous nation toward change.

Capitalizing on Hyperconnectivity

My interest in the future of news, and thus in taking this course, does not stem from a professional background in journalism or technology. Instead, it derives from experiences I have had while working in post-conflict areas. The overt lack of access to credible information in many of these contexts—and its implications for transparency, corruption, etc.—motivated me to explore the relationship between information, news, and democracy, and founded my belief that the words “news” and “truth” should be synonymous.

Realizing the relationship between news and certain civil and political rights, such as free speech and access to information, drove me to really ponder the significance contained in the U.S.’s First Amendment. But a curiosity that was spurred by a proud celebration of my nation’s commendable values concluded with a deflated and disillusioned understanding of the rights contained therein.  Specifically, while sifting through the web I found vignettes—such as the fact that CNN signs advertising contracts with governments that it covers, or that most major US news outlets agreed not to publish soldiers’ coffins at the request of the U.S. government—which suggest a news industry whose coverage is dictated by corporate and government interests. And although the above examples may be exceptions, I cannot be sure because these outlets are almost as obtuse as the governments and businesses they purportedly hold accountable. As such, although I have many journalist friends who lament how increasingly challenging it is to earn a decent income, I am excited by emerging forms of participatory media, fueled by interconnectivity, that could potentially provide a paradigm for challenging the existing monopoly over news content.

But before celebrating social media, and besides the fact that my friends are losing jobs, a negative result of the changing nature of news is that many outlets are closing their foreign bureaus. When I asked one of my friends why her paper, the Lebanese English-language daily The Daily Star, was not covering the uprisings in Bahrain more frequently, she lamented that what her paper publishes is dictated by the information that the news wires contain.  Existing traditional publications are relying on a shrinking pool of verified sources for their information, and this too is problematic; neutrality in specific pieces is meaningless if only a narrow slice of events happening around the world is reported on.

At the same time, a non-curated jumble of information on the net that perhaps touches upon a wider array of issues could never supplant the quality reporting and analysis we see in The Washington Post or the BBC. We should not expect it to, and must be careful to idealize phenomena such as We Media, if for no other reason than that most content that the most popular tweeters discuss still links back to ‘credible’ publications for sourcing. And I will not even endeavor to address the ethical, verification, and other issues that accompany using “citizen journalism” in reporting. Indeed, the million-dollar question now is not whether we need news curators or not. We unquestionably do.

Instead, the question toward which to focus our efforts concerns who the new curator will be, where this entity’s interests lie, and how a model can be designed whereby truth and transparency, as opposed to money and politics, dictate content and information flows.

These criteria automatically disqualify governments and most current news outlets from assuming this role.  So what are our options?  I believe we must think in terms of the increasingly international and interconnected nature of our lives, on which much of new media’s success relies. As such, what about an international body (not limited to government members) that funds and is responsible for ensuring broad, verifiable coverage on world events? I know this sounds ridiculous and totally unrealistic today, but a public, nongovernment entity may facilitate an open, international conversation about what the role of news should be and how to improve it terms of quality and equity, bringing news into a broader conversation about individual rights.

Specifically, addressing such a mammoth topic as information on the international level may facilitate a more robust discussion of development topics related to communications, like the digital divide. Access to the Internet, and underlying that basic literacy, are at least as massive of impediments to an informed citizenry of the world as is lack of transparency. And until we also draw such issues into the debate surrounding the future of news, the discussion will transpire among a class of elites instead of the “citizens” that journalists purportedly aim to serve. Bringing news content regulation to the international level could help to change all that.