Cablegate: Gossip or Groundbreaking intel?

29 Nov

Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, looking remarkably pleased with himself

Wikileaks Julian Assange strikes again with the beginning of a release of over 250,000 Secret U.S. Embassy Cables last Sunday. The release, dubbed Cablegate by Wikileaks, and “an attack on the international community” by Hillary Clinton, has certainly caused a lot of media frenzy.

Some, like Gary Younge of The Guardian, are unsurprised by the content in the cables, and think that there aren’t that many people who should be surprised by America’s uncensored dealings with the rest of the world.

Others, notably The Economist, see this latest release as nothing more than gossip, the dreary who-said-what catcalling of diplomacy. New York Magazine went so far as to compare it to the (marvelous) high-school film Mean Girls(the picture in their article is copyrighted, but please take a look, it’s hilarious). It has to be admitted that some of the most salacious pieces of intel gathered from Cablegate, including the news that Libyan leader Khadafy goes nowhere without his ‘voluptuous blonde nurse‘ seem pointless at best, and media garbage at worst. However, the U.S. has responded almost too strongly to the cables, with leaders warning certain countries about embarrassment before the cables were even released.

So what is the story then? Is this just a media stunt, getting Assange yet more publicity, but exposing little of value? Or is there something to be learned from the growing pile of diplomatic correspondence, even if it is just that there are multiple layers to diplomacy, and they don’t always correspond with official press releases? But, really, didn’t we already know that?

Update: The majority of Fox-reading Americans think Wikileaks is a terrorist organization. What does that mean?

The (failed?) state of Haiti: Where’s the money?!?

28 Nov

With International Support, Haitians go to the Polls

Today, Sunday November 28, 2010, the citizens of Haiti are heading to the polls to vote for their next president.  Thankfully, Haiti’s prodigal son, Wyclef Jean is not on the ballot.  Not that he wouldn’t have made a good leader necessarily but, it’s difficult to rule a country in the Caribbean when you’re living in Saddle River, New Jersey.  The news coming out of Haiti today so far has been the usual dismal rhetoric we’ve gotten used to associating with the Western hemisphere’s poorest nation .  Voters must step over the bodies of cholera victims to get to the polls, many are without their national ID cards (mandatory for voting) which were lost in the earthquake and were unable to obtain copies. Those lucky enough to have their ID cards are being  turned away because polling centers cannot locate their names on the voting roster.  The only ounce of hope being offered in the mainstream media for the fate of Haiti and it’s people is speculation about the ability of one of Haiti’s nineteen presidential candidates to be charged with effectively doling out the $5 billion in reconstruction funds sent from around the world to help Haiti rebuild.  But, the earthquake didn’t happen last week or even last month; it was over 10 months ago!  This begs the question: Where’s the money and why has it taken so long to get to the people who need it? 

If you were to base your opinion on the media’s rather contemptuous attitude towards Haiti and it’s government, you would naturally assume that Haiti is incapable of handling so much money.  Should the (failed) state of Haiti be given autonomy over such a vast sum, it would simply be lost to corruption and greed.  There is some modicum of vailidity to this argument.  98% of the rubble from the earthquake in January has not been removed.  98%!!  Over a million people are living in makeshift homes.  Many have set up tents in front of the destroyed remains of their former residences.  This may be an indication of the government’s corruption or painfully slow bureaucracy and it may not.  The reality is that many international charities which collected funds for Haiti are refusing to hand over the cash until Haiti’s government offers a logistical plan for how the money will be used.  Haiti’s government says it needs the money in order to begin that process, leaving the people of Haiti in a deadly state of limbo.

Haiti (pic: Reuters)

If there were $5 billion worth of funds, no matter how corrupt or devastated the government may be, does that mean that all should be withheld until the state miraculously transforms itself in to a highly functional Scandinavian-esque governing body?  I believe that the media’s persistent portrayal of Haiti as a failed state, unable or unwilling to govern itself efficiently is to blame for the popular opinion that Haiti is eternally doomed.  When riots broke out last week in Port-au-Prince over the spread of cholera, the media blamed the ignorance of Haiti’s populace for misunderstanding how the disease spreads and linking their faith in voodoo for inciting violent feelings which led to the riots.  How about they’re just angry because 98% of the rubble from an earthquake ten months ago hasn’t been cleaned up and the corpses of cholera victims are being left in the streets to rot?  No matter how strong the rest of the world’s reservations may be in terms of the Haitian government’s ability to provide for it’s citizens, that $5 billion was meant to reach the people of Haiti.  Give it to them!!

Israeli Rockets and Palestinian Blogs

10 Nov

Is new media the new battleground for the Palestinian/Israeli conflict? And if so, how has blogging affected the public debate on the conflict and how has blogging responded to the main stream media and vice versa? To better understand the results this interaction has had on the public discussion of the Palestine/Israel conflict, one can easily seek out dozens of high quality blogs which explore commentary and debates from both Israeli and Palestinian perspectives.

Do traditional media outlets ask the right questions when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian saga, and do they grasp the significance of the regions complexity? I prefer to think that blogs like Jim Lobe’s, biased and all, do a better job at exploring issues such as the contest of leadership in the Middle East than mainstream media, and by doing so, provide greater platforms for all parties to voice their concerns. These blogs portray both sides aggressively projecting their story. Wherein the unbalanced way major US networks and press cover the Israeli-Palestinian story, new media provides new possibilities where many sectors of the US public (young people, women and minority communities) are more open than ever before to hearing a counter narrative to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Popular pundits in the Middle East blogosphere, such as Tony Karon, Juan Cole, and Tom Engelhardt impartially focus their blogs on both sides of the debate. More biased blog-based sites such as, Electronic Intifada provide a predominately Palestinian perspective of analysis and reporting of events in Israel and Palestinian territories, while more Jew-centric blogs like Haaretz and Mondoweiss cover American foreign policy in the Middle East from a non-Zionist Jewish context. The magazine blog, +972 offers independent commentary by on-the-ground Israeli journalists.

I’m curious to know your thoughts. Do you think blogging/new media matter to the policy making elite? What about Congress, lobby groups? How has the increase in participants in the discussion changed policy calculations if any? Does the openness created by blogging/new media, which was not present in the past, make elected officials think twice about their actions? And most of all, do you think there will one day be Peace in the Middle East?

Lastly, check out this short video by Culture’s of Resistance. It follows two musicians, one Iraqi and one Palestinian through New York as they make radio appearances, hit the studio with Public Enemy producer Johnny Juice, and perform together at CoR-ally Norman Finkelstein’s book tour event. Their multimedia tour was designed to publicize the truth about the Israeli military’s attack on the Gaza Strip. Lowkey and Mansour are two artists who place the plight of the Palestinian people at the center of their creative work, encouraging young Palestinians to express themselves through art, music, and creative forms of protest.

Whatever Happened to Darfur Anyway?

5 Nov

For this week’s blog, Publish First. Ask Later did a little bit of research on how many people remember the conflict in Darfur. It was a big topic on campuses a few years ago, but you don’t hear so much about it these days and we wanted to know where all that energy and activism has gone.

We filmed three students answering questions related to the topics of Darfur and African-connected celebrities and one young gentleman who identified pictures of celebrities related to the Save Darfur campaign. The pictured celebrities were, Barack Obama, who as a senator spoke at several Save Darfur rallies, George Clooney, who has been one of the most visible people campaigning on behalf of Save Darfur, and Angelina Jolie, who as you can imagine, not only accompanied her husband on some of his Africa-saving trips, but has in fact written several essays championing the cause. Last, we saved some photos of Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, sporting some dashing headgear, to see if our interviewee could identify him.

Next we asked people our relevant Darfur/celebrity questions. If you watch the video below, you can see exactly how much people knew about what. That is to say, not much about Darfur at all, but quite a lot about some African-inspired singers whose hips don’t lie.

How effective is community media in creating civil society?

29 Oct

This Wednesday, October 27, 2010, a group of four groundbreaking digital activists came to The New School and presented their work and ideas.  These activists work with a range of mediums, from video and photography to radio and blogging, however they all were focused on the same broad goal, using media tools to empower those who have historically been silenced.

Liz Hodes, from Digital Democracy discussed a project where Haitian women were given cameras and asked to film and document gender-based violence, thereby giving these women a tool to speak out.  James Lebbie from Sierra Leone’s Cotton Tree News played a portion of an audio program named InsaiSalone, in which two women gossip about societal problems that the government can fix, such as corruption and infrastructure.  Lebbie described this program as the one “politicians fear the most.”  Lova Rakotomalala, the French Language Editor of Global Voices, an online blogging aggregator discussed how blogging had exposed the coup in Madagascar from last year.  Finally, there was WITNESS, a global video advocacy program presented by Pricila Neri.

Each of these speakers presented their programs with an air of optimism, but acknowledged that there were challenges and dangers to working in the human rights and advocacy field that might not be readily apparent to a casual observer. At one point Rakotomalala showed a global bandwidth map, which looked something like the one below, showing the fundamental lack of internet connectivity, or “internet penetration” in the Global South.  As most of these projects are internet-based, one must question how effective these initiatives are in creating real civil society among populations that do not have access to internet.  While mobile technology could affect this imbalance, can it really be a platform for substantive civil society discourse?








In our last post, we discussed real activism vs. ‘slacktivism’, the idea that clicking a Facebook ‘Like’ button can not replace offline actions for social change.  Malcolm Gladwell’s recent piece in The New Yorker , “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted About” caused quite a stir by claiming that social tools are ineffective at causing real social change. Gladwell claimed that real activism is caused by strong social ties, and that our new social tools, such as Twitter and Facebook, are driven by weak social ties. Pricila Neri, representing WITNESS, acknowledged this dilemma in her own work.  These organizations seemed to refute Malcolm Gladwell’s argument to some degree.  For example, Cotton Tree News, by giving ordinary citizens a space to publicly critique their government, has caused real physical change.  Additionally, WITNESS has been in existence for 18 years and allows victims such as child soldiers who have witnessed numerous human rights violations to record information, re-telling their stories and broadcasting those videos to targeted audiences to bring about change.  While questions about the effectiveness of community media still remain, the record of these organizations shows that with the right strategies and methods, offline change can occur as a result of dedicated individuals using mobile tools to pursue change.

Digital vs. Real Activism: Will the Revolution be tweeted??

20 Oct

In his article Small Change: Why the Revolution will not be tweeted, famed author and writer for the New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell argues that digital activism cannot replace traditional activism. He argues that tools of social media such as Twitter and Facebook cannot replace real world human–to-human connections that form the basis for and sustain real social movements.

Gladwell calls these friendships, alliances and allegiances in the real world ‘strong ties’, that create the commitment and sacrifice necessary for ‘high-risk activism.’ Electronically mediated social connections are distant relations that have no real capability to galvanize people towards change. He adds that real, ‘high-risk activism’ requires strategic planning, organized leadership and a hierarchical structure, in order to ensure discipline and avoid conflict and error.

In ‘A mild defense of Social Media’, Daniel W. Drezner disagrees with Gladwell that digital social networks do away with strong ties or lack hierarchy. He says, “Networks eliminate neither hierarchical power nor strong ties — they’re simply expressed in different ways. Actors in central nodes, with lots of dynamic density among other actors, can command both power and discipline. Not all networks will look like this, but the ones successful at fomenting change will likely resemble it. To put it more precisely: social networks lower the transactions costs for creating both weak ties and strong ties, loose collaborations and more tightly integrated social movements.”

In his article Gladwell states, “The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life … The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvelous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.”

According to David Pell of Forbes blog, for many of us “our online world is an extension of our offline lives,” and disagrees with Gladwell that, the use of modern channels to communicate and the ‘activism-driving trait’ are somehow mutually exclusive. He says it is foolish to separate online and offline relationships and that while “activism does not require technology, technology certainly doesn’t stop activism.”

In response to Gladwell’s piece, Jillian C. York believes that the very distinction between traditional and digital activism altogether is unnecessary, for digital tools are “complementary to traditional activism.” Furthermore, strong ties or not, expressions of traditional activism such as marches often involve “the outliers”, folks who care but only enough to participate that one time. She claims that while Gladwell might argue that one time involvement in the real world also poses a high risk for the parties involved, “digital involvement in repressive societies can present similar risks, with both the most serious and sometimes the less outspoken being arrested.”

Leo Mirani of the Guardian says that if “real activism” is defined as taking to the streets and protesting, then Gladwell is right to say that we have indeed forgotten what “real activism” is. However, in citing the spread of reports of human rights abuses to mainstream media in India through the help of social media as an example, he states, “if activism extends to changing the minds of people, to making populations aware of what their governments are doing in their name, to influencing opinion across the world, then the revolution will be indeed be tweeted.”

Ultimately whether you agree with Gladwell that social media is an inadequate forum for ‘high-risk’ activism or whether you believe it is the new face of revolution, I think there is something that most of us can agree on… The social media-scape is still evolving and until we understand it better, sites such as twitter and facebook are an effective tool to share and spread a message.


“We are more alike than we are unalike…

4 Oct

… But the way we are unalike matters.”

Gary Younge’s newest book Who are we – And should it matter in the 21st Century discusses the problematic nature of the labels of race, religion and gender. He draws on case studies from around the globe to highlight the notion that our individual identities are too often decided by who is judging or asking, when it is our experiences as humans that should shape who we really are, and instead of finding a common higher ground to overcome the issues that come hand in hand with identity, our society is becoming increasingly divided. As the discourse of national borders has amplified, the result has been an increase in nationalism worldwide, and instead of border relations becoming friendlier, they have grown increasingly hostile with groups retreating into divided camps.

Younge’s own experiences with identity, life as a black man of Barbadian heritage growing up in the UK, and various encounters in through Sudan, Paris, the former Soviet Union, and more recently, Brooklyn, has taught him that:

“Identities are about how we think about ourselves in relations to others. But those thoughts do not come out of a clear blue sky. Identities are rooted in material circumstances. In certain circumstances, whether you are British, black, gay, Iraqi, Hindu or female can be the difference between life and death, poverty and wealth, citizenship and statelessness. Power, resources, and opportunity are in play in how we choose to understand (or misunderstand) the value of ourselves and others.”

Who are we – And should it matter in the 21st Century, illuminates fact that how we define ourselves affects every part of our lives, and that if we really want to reach a common humanism, we must fight for it.

“When the gentile condemns anti-Semitism, the white challenges racism or the citizen takes on xenophobia, the lift the sense of siege on ‘the other’, creating possibilities for the Jew, black, or foreigner to denounce the dupe and the demagogue in their own community.”

Younge describes the dilemma American census takers face with their identity, and how ones concept of their self is constantly being questioned. Since identity is fluid and constantly evolving, the rigid and certain stereotypes that ‘mixed’ or ‘other’ box checkers face further aggravate the ‘equal opportunities’ that supposedly provided to all. Gary states that the census is a way to “bring order to the chaos” and while “those boxes are not meant to make us feel good, they give us a sense of what’s going on.”