Reassurance or Concern?

This morning I’m waking up in my campervan (the best means of coping with the Covid-19-pandemic in isolation) in a quiet street in Berlin, wrapping my mind around the last things to do before heading back to Serbia by the end of this week. With my first morning coffee I am fueling up on caffeine, reading the news. Again, an article in the New York Times stands out: “Trump’s Call Leaves Allies Fearful for American Democracy”.

The hopefully outgoing incumbent of the Office of The President of The United States is still able to reach new levels of reckless destructive and manipulative action. It should not surprise anyone after four years, but raise the alarm bells on what may still be waiting for us: We should have learned by now that the mindset of this person does simply not know the notion of stopping to escalate until he has won. That is why I say “hopefully outgoing”. I will wait for January 20 events unfolding, and there is no doubt on my mind that notwithstanding whether he leaves the White House voluntarily or not, he will continue to assert he is the rightful President of the United States. We will hear this for the next four years.

The current cycle of news revolves around a long phone call which he had placed to the Secretary of State of Georgia, Brad Raffensperger, last Saturday. You can read the full transcript of the leaked content of this call here. On behalf of many articles, I am quoting 5NBCDFW: “President Donald Trump pressured Georgia’s Republican secretary of state to “find” enough votes to overturn Joe Biden’s win in the state’s presidential election, repeatedly citing disproven claims of fraud and raising the prospect of a “criminal offense” if officials did not change the vote count, according to a recording of the conversation.

The phone call caused national and international uproar, and this is what the New York Times article is about. But between the phone call and this uproar, another thing happened: Ashton Carter, Dick Cheney, William Cohen, Mark Esper, Robert Gates, Chuck Hagel, James Mattis, Leon Panetta, William Perry and Donald Rumsfeld are the 10 living former U.S. secretaries of defense. January 03, 2021, they jointly published an OpEd in the Washington Post. In this OpEd, all ten, including two who have served under Donald Trump, warn: Involving the military in election disputes would cross into dangerous territory.”

Wow.

Have ten distinguished officials, highly decorated Generals, career diplomats and politicians, gone lunatic? Have ten former Secretaries of Defence, responsible for the undoubtedly most powerful military force of this world, both Democrats and Republicans, lost their minds? When I wrote to my former partner the other day that Hell’s Gates are still open, she agreed but said “Don’t become morbid”. Of course I try not to. Have ten highly trained people with access to the most privileged secrets of the Western Hemisphere become morbid and did they collectively loose their marbles? Of course not, this question is purely rhetorical.

Let me quote the man himself, Donald Trump, during an electoral rally yesterday, January 04, in the U.S. State of Georgia. Both he and President-elect Joe Biden had come to Georgia supporting the run-off elections deciding between Democratic and Republican contestants for the U.S. Senate. Trump used his rally appearance mostly for airing his own grievances. And he said: “They’re not going to take this White House. We’re going to fight like hell, I’ll tell you right now.” During the past four years, he always made no secret about what he was about to do.

Whatever happens January 20, I join those who fear the long-term damage that is applied to democratic principles, and the rule of law. 74 million Republican voters are being made to believe that a rightful win was robbed from them. With literally no piece of evidence, and with numerous cases thrown out of courts in the U.S. because of that fundamental lack of evidence, with numerous re-counts and audits, the current President and his supporters still amplify a message that this all is not true, that there allegedly is overwhelming evidence for a massive attack of sinister Democratic forces against the rightful will of the people. 74 million good American minds kept in captivity.

This is where Jean-Marie Guehenno, the President of the International Crisis Group ICG comes in. Guehenno is a distinguished former United Nations Undersecretary of the Department for Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO, now known as Department for Peace Operations DPO). I adore him, and I know his trustworthiness on a deep professional and personal level: He was my highest boss during two tours of duty with the United Nations between 2000 and 2004. He interviewed me for the job as UN Police Commissioner in the UN Mission in Kosovo, UNMIK. I personally introduced him and his boss, the late former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, into policing developments in the northern parts of Kosovo. And I briefed him about the situation in Kosovo a few days before those terrible days in March 2004. Later, I would see him again in my capacity as an official of the European Union, and I would not forget his legacy when I came back to the U.N. as the UN Police Adviser, between 2013 and 2017.

So, Jean-Marie is one towering giant in the realm of peace&security who I place personal trust into. In the NYT article which I read this morning, Guehenno is quoted with a sentence on his Twitter-account (@JGuehenno) “Should we be reassured on U.S. democracy when 10 former defense secretaries warn against use of the military to dispute election results, or terrified that they believe taking a public stance has become necessary?”

Exactly.

Social Media Manipulation – An Example

So, here is a little story: STRATCOM is the NATO Strategic Communications Centre of Excellence. Recently, they re-ran a test of “the ability of social media companies to identify and remove manipulation”. The result is published, the report can be viewed and downloaded here. It is titled “Social Media Manipulation 2020”.

What did they do, in a nutshell? The researchers used thirty-nine authentic posts on FaceBook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Tic Toc. As far as I see from related news, for this they cooperated with two U.S. politicians, one a Republican, the other one a Democrat. The German news about it can be found on the German tech-news-site HEISE. Using these thirty-nine posts on social media, STRATCOM bought fake engagement on these posts from three specialised Russian service providers. Providers like these offer manipulated engagement with existing posts, for example. I guess they also offer much more, but this is just an example in which authentic posts of legitimate and appropriate information content were used, since this is NATO. The researchers paid the ridiculously small amount of 300 Euro to these Russian providers.

What did they get in return? 1150 comments, 9690 likes, 323202 views, and 3726 shares! Meaning plain and simple: I can create content on social media, with good, questionable or malicious intentions, and instead of hoping that I will attract many comments, likes, and views on my own, I can buy fake ones. Comments, likes and views increase the “digital weight” of the post. The more of this “digital value”, the more likely other people will look on these pieces of information or disinformation, and the more likely also these posts will be ranked higher by Internet search engines, such as Google. Finally, I can also buy distribution, through shares, of these artificially boosted posts. The more “oomph” I have in getting these informations pieces out into the right target groups, the more I increase chances of further distribution. And I pay very little money for it.

So, let me use a hypothetical example, but one which is commonly being used for manipulation purposes: I create a story with specific target groups in mind. Examples are countless. Like fake news stories which were designed for target groups of color in the U.S. in 2016. They were designed to raise doubt within these groups that a contender, in that case the democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, would be really interested in matters of grave concern for those communities of color. The unauthentic or fake pieces of news were designed to reduce the willingness of people in these target groups to participate in the elections. Many of us, I guess and hope, know about this form of manipulation. It also happened 2020, and it is fair to say that both domestic actors and foreign forces all over the world use this tactic in order to influence the outcome of an electoral process. It happens everywhere, it is commonplace. And it is manipulation at least, and more often violating law in many jurisdictions. But what it chiefly does: It contributes to burning credibility of truth to ashes. It leads to so much confusion about which information I can trust, and which not, that people may give up, or they just decide to only believe what their “friends” say.

By the way, coming to think of it: When sites like FaceBook (I don’t remember who came up with it first) began to abuse the term “friend” for the process of clicking a button asking somebody to “be my friend” and the invited party just accepting this request, I had a revolting feeling in my stomach. It lasts until today and is one of the reasons why I only engage minimally on social media. The notion of reducing the term “friend” to a digital connection with no real deeper meaning feels like the strike of an evil genius to me. It leads to the craving of having as many friends as possible, it is part of the addictive design of social media sites. It hollows out any real understanding of what friendship means. Terms like “friend” and “follower” are almost equal in their meaning. I need these digital friends for status and validation. Having friends has become an online currency. It is like a material possession, not an internal value which gives me the comfort of a deeper emotional, intellectual and spiritual connection to another person in whose well-being I take an interest. It adds to real-world-isolation because it strips the notion of having friends from what the term means in real social life. May be that is for a deeper reflection in another blog article. But ultimately, this manipulation can be used in order to get people into a network of “friends” for purposes of influencing them, depriving them from other sources of information, making them pawns in a game they do not understand, but crave to be part of. Emotions like the wish to belong mix with emotions such as fear, and anger, fake information is being used as a narrative giving them a feeling of meaning.

Back to the STRATCOM report: The first remarkable fact in the results of this research for me was the price for this form of manipulation. 300 Euro is so cheap that this service can be used as a mass tool, whenever this suits own devious interests. 

Secondly, this is a shadowy grey and a criminal market. The methodology can be used by State actors with sophisticated technology and staff at hand. Or money, just hiding traces and buying a service from some groups like the above. Likewise, non-State actors can use it for political purposes, for ideological purposes, for religious purposes, or as a marketing tool. Which is a hint towards how wide the scope of potential manipulation is. The targets are you and I, and we may, very often, not ever know that we were manipulated. So, this is a profound ethical issue with consequences for whether, and how, we want to regulate it, how we want to deal with it.

Thirdly, STRATCOM re-ran the test because they did it before. They did that because the industry promised they would get better at identifying manipulation like this, better at identifying fake, or robot, accounts. Better at curbing influence. The conclusions of the report state that “platforms continue to vary in their ability to counter manipulation of their services”. Read the details, I’m not going to rank services here myself. But there are platforms where manipulation requires a small effort and where costs are one thenth of what is to be invested on other platforms.

Fourthly, the report makes it clear that these actors are not a few, they are an industry. One chapter is titled “The Social Media Manipulation Industry”. With market rules which survived efforts to fight this industry. Quoting the report: “Social media manipulation remains widely available, cheap, and efficient, and continues to be used by antagonists and spoilers seeking to influence elections, polarise public opinion, sidetrack legitimate political discussions, and manipulate commercial interests online.” 

Fifthly, the report states that this industry prospered during 2020. I finish with quoting the three core insights which the researchers came up with:

  1. “The scale of the industry is immense. The infrastructure for developing and maintaining social media manipulation software, generating ficticious accounts, and providing mobile proxies is vast. We have identified hundreds of providers. Several have many employees and generate significant revenues. It is clear that the problem of inauthentic activity is extensive and growing.
  2. During the past year the manipulation industry had become increasingly global and interconnected. A European service provider will likely depend on Russian manipulation software and infrastructure providers who, in turn, will use contractors from Asia for much of the manual labour required. Social media is now a global industry with global implications.
  3. The openness of this industry is striking. Rather than lurking a shadowy underworld, it is an easily accessible marketplace that most web users can reach with little effort through any search engine. In fact, manipulation service providers still advertise openly on major social media platforms and search engines.” 

What do do? Of course, we have a regulation debate. Part of the findings relate to that social media promised earlier to root out this phenomenon, but that they have not become good at it. To me it feels like the contrary, may be because of unwillingness, sloppiness, or the sheer size of the problem. Or any combination of these three. However, regulation always leads to an escalation, or attempts to evade, if the business model generates revenue. Which it clearly does.

My take is to focus on education. I am not a young nerd. I am a nerd in my early sixties. This world rapidly changes, and often I don’t like the course. But disengagement is, I feel, not an option. It is about giving people the knowledge and skills to make their own informed decisions. That is a core principle of open societies based on democratic rules. Truth matters, so we need to know about how truth is demolished in the digital invisible world of the Internet. We need to be able to learn, staying curious about learning, engaging in meaningful discussions, empower people to better identify manipulation when it occurs, giving them the skillset needed for quality decisions for their own lives.

When I talk to my youngest children about how much of their personal information is sucked from their smartphones, iPads, and computers without their knowledge, I am often presented with a sense of “why bother, I don’t feel it, I don’t feel harmed, or hurting”. May be we need to find ways how to reinforce the understanding as to which extent the digital and the real world are interconnected. People seem to discriminate between these two worlds. 

Education is more relevant than regulation. Which motivated me writing this article. Hope you enjoyed reading it.

2020 – Closing Thoughts – Looking Ahead

I don’t recall any other year comparable to 2020. If I go back in my memory, at the time of events even years like 1989 appear to have felt less intense with regards to the global revolutionary impact. But that’s just me comparing on a very subjective level. In any case, the changes, the tectonic shifts that we have witnessed in 2020 are beyond anything that we might have imagined. And there is one experience from events such as those unfolding in 1989 which will be true for 2000, too: In many ways I only understood the local, regional, and global consequences of the end of the Cold War only gradually, throughout many subsequent years. Like when I analysed the development of peacekeeping since its beginning in 1946. You can read about it here. When I analysed facts and figures related to United Nations Peacekeeping Operations, a new dimension of my understanding of how deeply 1989 had influenced global development opened up. I’m not saying I wasn’t aware of it before. Neither that analysing aspects of peacekeeping completed my understanding of what happened in 1989. It just opened my eyes about the complexity of the impact of that year. Studying it as comprehensive as possible takes a lifetime of historians, sociologists, political analysists, and so on. And on Peacekeeping, 2020 had a huge impact, whilst the entire topic itself literally went on the backburner of public perception. As always, when things get us out of our comfort zone into fear, we tend to neglect, or forget, those who really suffer.

On a similar impact level like 1989, I also do not forget 2001, with its September 11th. The same tectonic shifting is true here.

And it will be true for 2020. Yet, we feel the impact in ways very much different to those events 36 years ago, and may be also compared to 19 years ago, except those who suffered from the terror attack directly in New York City. 2020, the foundations of what we have become used to, they are shattered in their core on a global level. The measures implemented to fight the pandemic, the lockdowns, the social distancing, the constant news about ups and downs in the fight, hope, despair, the experience of depression and helplessness, it creates one huge yarnball of fear in our stomachs all over the world. The dimension of change in private lives, economics, and societies, they are endless. I guess “Home Office” is the topic which comes to most minds in high-tech countries. But that is just for starters.

Of course, the pandemic and its impact does not stand on its own. The crisis of democracy which we see continuing to unfold in menacing ways, it adds to confusion, polarization, and fear. But still, this is just the surface of the entire development. The crisis response that we could witness with all its faults and all its successes cannot be looked at in isolation. The pandemic has an impact on everything else which is ongoing. Which at times gives space to discussions such as: Would we have done the same under different circumstances, when it comes to fighting Covid-19? And this is tricky, because I do not want to contribute to any speculation that the crisis response has been used as a pretext for something that has been motivated differently, perhaps mischieveously. This is a pathway quickly leading into the most horrible type of discourse where people begin to de-legitimize any crisis response and also attempt to minimize the threat that is stemming from this global pandemic. A taxi-driver in Belgrade who brought me to the airport told me: “Covid is a machination of the pharma-industry. It has been created as a myth in order to sell vaccines. Wait for it, in April Covid is gone.” The insanity of this simple circular logic is almost ridiculous, but how do regular people feel when historians, sociologists, politicians, epidemiologists, and all else, struggle with giving an answer on something which is only beginning to be understood, whilst the explosive and utterly pervasive impact of it affects the lives of billions of people in life-threatening ways? How to mentally deal with explaining circumstances when you are loosing your job because an economy is melting down? Add the conspiracy-theorists, the fearmongers, the deniers, the liars, whatever. It just increases the desire of many people to find an explanation and to re-direct their fear.

A surgical analysis of what happened as the crisis unfolded will require years. As history is not an exact science, the conclusions will be expressed in untold and diverse, certainly at times contradicting assessments. We will see heated discussions for decades to come.

But what is it what we can see right now? It is very clear that the Covid pandemic did not happen as an isolated crisis but it did unfold at a time when other tectonic tensions were there, or materializing, at the same time. The development has become so interdependent that effects of various crises had a chaotic and hardly predictable impact on other crises. It is all a huge, a gigantic mess. Which reinforces fear. Nobody understands. The wish to blame someone, or something, it is a consequence of rage and fear towards something invisible. People feeling the pain from depression and helplessnes, they want to “smash”, but what?

Some other crises unfolding before and throughout 2020 that have not gone away, and which require more attention than we may have been able to give to them, are:

The Covid pandemic has not just made global warming going away. It has superseded any discussion about it, and it has helped radical deniers of global warming to get away with chopping off previous achievements on environmental protection.

The crisis of legitimacy of the Western system of peace and security, which is in existence since more than 75 years, it has been building up for quite some time, was becoming scarily visible and menacing from 2016 onwards, and further unfolded during the same time when we were hit by the pandemic. Even more: The requirements necessary fighting a pandemic, and even the assessment of the dangers stemming from Covid-19, that all was taken hostage in ways still numbing my mind. The casualties of instrumentalising a pandemic for political fights, including ripping down institutions, they are real. At the time of this writing the United States is going through an unprecendetend challenge of the electoral system, with protagonists of this attack entirely neglecting the pandemic. I don’t want to speculate about numbers, but saying that many thousands, or tens of thousands of people could have been rescued, it is a given. Who will hold those accountable who have, with a clear and insane mind, done that, whilst they swore an oath to protect their citizens, rather than themselves, their riches, their families, and servile friends?

The global economic competition like between China and the United States, or Europe, was in existence before the pandemic. Economic consequences of the pandemic are affecting individual citizens, households, communities, societies. How do we cooperate in a world with limited resources, in which 2020 witnessed an impact which could be partially mitigated in rich countries, but not at all in poor countries? What does the pandemic mean in terms of fueling selfishness of economy? How did the economies send shockwaves into governing the pandemic, and how did the pandemic influence global competition? What will we see in 2021 and beyond? In essence, all these questions create uncertainty and fear. Which create selfishness.

The migration crisis was there, and has not gone away. Not only because of the global warming, or previoulsy existing instability and war. The shockwaves of the pandemic do add. Attempts to curb illegal migration, efforts to influence migration by means of supporting capacity development and economic and security perspectives for populations in threatened regions or on entire continents, it was there before. But how will this play out as we move on through the pandemic and it’s consequences? Will we continue with helping, or have we become used to locking down things, because we are experiencing this even by ourselves. Will this be used for building visible or invisible walls?

Autocratic governments controlling the population were in existence before and it did not stop because of the Covid pandemic. How will selfishness, fueled by the fearmongers of nationalism and xenophobia, influence policy on jointness, with some nations perhaps continuing to be willing to share, and others not? Will we be able to find strength for an new attempt to act collectively, instead of dividing and putting “My Country First”? Which, by the way, is a perfect example for lying straight into the faces of people, because in reality all these actors mean “Me First”.

I sometimes feel like the pandemic was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Obviously the Covid pandemic created interdependent effects in other major lines of global or regional political and societal development. Tectonic shifts happen only after a long building up of tension between tectonic plates which is mostly not seen and measurable only by using sophisticated technology. But the event triggering the cascade of effects that we feel in a gigantic earthquake, it can be comparatively small. A rupture in a small area can stand on its own when there is no build-up of larger tension. But beware: The tension may be there. In that case, hell is breaking loose once the weakest part of the chain is breaking and the chain reaction of events is unfolding in explosive succession. That is also how I look at the pandemic. It set off something way larger, and perhaps way more catastrophic.

Amongst many effects that came as a consequence of Covid-crisis-management I am also looking at two:

(1) The reoccurrence of borders in the European Union and the erosion of something that could be considered a core achievement inside the European Union, meaning the so-called Schengen Space. Millions of travellers in Europe have witnessed something that was always part of contingency planning in case of crisis management: The temporary re-instating of border control inside the Schengen Area. I believe it was never anticipated to happen on the scale as it did in spring 2020. When finally road travel under severe restrictions was possible again, I traveled devoid highways from South-East-Europe to Germany, with border control and temporary police checkpoints becoming semi-permanent. We all remember the eerily absence of the noise of aircrafts. For people like me, travel is the only way connecting me with my friends and family all over the world. Others felt it during holidays, some behaved, others didn’t. But once we got through the first lockdown and had to handle the first wave of anger about the possibility of new lockdowns springing up again, we also got used to it. So, with this Christmas bringing new lockdown measures, what will be the future of an interconnected world where the border-free Schengen Zone once was a hallmark achievement of the European Union? I am not sure the situation will go back to something called a “status quo ante“, the status like it was before. People who are critical to the vast arranging of border checks are already using an argument that the crisis has been used to erode achievements long held in the EU, and taking rights away, in order to control more. These opinions are inevitable, and may be at this moment is is hard to tell who is right and who is wrong. But it will require a sustained effort of political representatives, civil society, and all of us ourselves, to participate in this discourse. The silence of the lambs always has led to catastrophes, and more recently we saw this in well-established democracies who considered themselves to be the bedrock of the modern Western world.

(2) Connected to it is the velocity with which Covid crisis response mechanisms also severely affected individual rights of freedom of movement or freedom of expression of opinion and freedom to demonstrate. Even more, we are facing a holiday season where States regulate how many people from different households can meet inside their homes. I would, frankly, never had imagined that I am facing a situation where my brothers and I have to think about how to organise Christmas, because if the three of us including a few children and partners meet, we will exceed the permissible number of people gathering in one large house. These restrictions are new and subject to learning and regulation by legislators, but also by the courts. We have seen courts already doing what they have to do: Correcting measures of the executive, where excessive. Because we don’t have blueprints. We make mistakes, having the best intentions, but we make many. So it is a normal procedure that courts will contribute to acceptable application of law. At the same time, law is evolving as well. And like in the first example, the steering democratic discourse will require a sustained effort of political representatives, civil society, and all of us, ourselves. A discourse ensuring that the rule of law prevails.

Taken together, for me the two case-studies are examples for potential regression. Signature achievements being taken away, hopefully only temporarily. But it happens during a time where the Covid-pandemic, as I mapped out, does not stand on its own. It happens during a time of newly incensed nationalism, conservatism, renewed right-wing extremism, fascism on the rise, autocratic attacks on democracy and the rule of law intensifying. It comes at a time of effects that go beyond re-emergence of borders, and infringements on human rights which require rigid scrutiny. Motivations mingle: We see governments (like mine) attempting to act as responsible as possible with temporary restrictions. We see tendencies of xenophobia, attacks on minority rights, erosion of inalienable human and individual rights, and efforts to reverse hard-fought achievements in domains such as the right of women, or the rigths to which the LGBTQ-community is entitled. It is a wild mix of “retro” banding together, and I am certainly not saying they are motivated by the crisis coming with the pandemic, but all these developments fuel each other, and not to the best of humankind.

I can not help but feeling afraid. Whilst I fully appreciate the necessity to infringe on basic rights under extraordinary circumstances of threats, I also fear that we may have opened pandora’s box. The other day I had a coffee with a friend over a long (and socially-distanced) walk in the park. We were reflecting on the fatigue which we all sometimes feel. Like, “What difference do we make with our work and our passion?”. We both agreed that much of this fatigue comes from the depression which holds many people in their grip after now almost one full and grueling year of how individual life has been affected.

I have no other answer than that we need to continue. Human perception is always attracted by everything scary and negative. My experience is that, at the same time, we can also see, and focus on, how the best human attitudes have been shaped: Kindness, respect, nurturing relationships with different means, intensifying communication with loved ones, taking care the best way possible for lonely people. I’m not rambling at the end, I am just arguing that there is a need to focus on positive developments. Not only because it protects our mental health. More importantly because it truly makes a difference without which we would become silent lambs in the face of fear, anger, rage, and fearmongering. These four lead to isolation. There is no need for being isolated, or feeling so. I have had more contacts with friends and loved ones than I ever had before. Much of it, of course, with modern means of communication. But it has, very clearly, grounded me in a circle of people who I support, and who support me.

Merry Christmas!

Anger, Rage, Fear – The Change of How We Consume News

I’d like to quote Anne Applebaum from her book “Twilight of Democracy -The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism”, pages 110-114. At the end of this quotation you will find the same statement in relation to addictive manipulation by the likes of FaceBook, Google, and YouTube as I have been explaining in my blog article Add title – Start Writing. And just for the record, I wrote that blog entry before reading the below part in Anne Applebaum’s very insightful and readable book. Not because I’m claiming to be smart, but just to assure you I am not just copying and repeating something I have read. However, Anne Applebaum is smart. She is an American journalist and historian, not only with a distinguished history of publications, but with a very deep knowledge about European history and contemporary political and societal development. She spent vast stretches of her professional and private life in East- and West-Europe.

“In the more open societies of the West, we have become smug about our tolerance for conflicting points of view. But for much of our recent history, the actual range of those views was limited. Since 1945, the most important arguments have usually unfolded between the center right and the center left. As a result, the range of possible outcomes was narrow, especially in democracies like those in Scandinavia that were most inclined toward consensus. But even in the more raucious democracies, the field of battle was relatively well defined. In the United States, the strictures of the Cold War created bipartisan agreement around U.S. foreign policy. In many European countries, a commitment to the EU was a given. Most of all, the dominance of national television broadcasters – the BBC in Britain, the three networks in the United States – and broad-based newspapers that relied on broad-based advertising revenues meant that in most Western countries, most of the time, there was a single, national debate. Opinions diferred, but at least most people were arguing within agreed parameters.

That world has vanished. We now are living through a rapid shift in the way people transmit and receive political information – exactly the sort of communication revolution that has had profound political consequences in the past. All kinds of wonderful things flowed from the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century: mass literacy, the spread of reliable knowledge, the end of the Catholic Church’s monopoly on information. But those same things also contributed to new divisions, to polarization and political change. The new technology made it possible for ordinary people to read the Bible, a change that helped inspire the Protestant Reformation – and, in turn, many decades of bloody religious wars. Martyrs were hanged, churches and villages sacked in a furious, righteous maelstrom that subsided only with the Enlightenment and the broad acceptance of religious tolerance.

The end of religious conflict was the beginning of other kinds of conflicts, between secular ideologies and national groups. Some of these also intensified after another change in the nature of communication: The invention of radio at the end of the monopoly of the printed word. Hitler and Stalin were among the first political leaders to understand how powerful this new medium could be. Democratic governments struggled, at first, to find ways to counter the language of demagogues that now reached people inside their homes. Anticipating how divisive broadcasting might become, the United Kingdom in 1922 created the BBC, which was explicitly designed from the beginning to reach all parts of the country, not only to “inform, educate, entertain” but also to join people together, not in a single set of opinions but in a single national conversation, one that would make democratic debate possible. Different answers were found in the United States, we are journalists accepted a regulatory framework, libel  laws, licensing rules for radio and television. President Franklin Roosevelt created the fireside chat, the form of communication better suited to the new medium.

Our new communications revolution has been far more rapid than anything we know from the fifteenth century, or even the twentieth. After the printing press was invented, it took many centuries for Europeans to become literate; after radio was invented, newspapers did not collapse. By contrast, the rapid shift in advertising money to Internet companies has, within a decade, severely damaged the ability of both newspapers and broadcasters to collect and present information. Many, though not all, have stopped reporting news altogether; many, though not all, will eventually cease to exist. The most common business model, based on advertising to the general public, meant that they were forced to serve general public interest and forced to maintain at least a theoretical commitment to objectivity. They could be biased, bland, and boring, but they filtered egregious conspiracy theories out of the debate. They were beholden to courts and regulators. Their journalists conformed to formal and informal ethical codes.

Above all, the old newspapers and broadcasters created the possibility of a single national conversation. In many advanced democracies there is now no common debate, let alone a common narrative. People have always had different opinions. Now they have different facts. At the same time, in an information sphere without authorities – political, cultural, moral – and no trusted sources, there is no easy way to distinguish between conspiracy theories and true stories. False, partisan, and often deliberately misleading narratives snow spread in digital wildfires, cascades of falsehood that move too fast for fact checkers to keep up. And even if they could, it no longer matters: a part of the public will never read or see fact-checking websites, and if they do they won’t believe them. Dominic Cummings’s Vote Leave campaign proved it was possible to lie, repeatedly, and to get away with it.

The issue is not merely one of false stories, incorrect facts, or even the election campaigns and spin doctors: the social media algorithms themselves encourage false perceptions of the world. People click on the news they want to hear; Facebook, YouTube, and Google then show them more of whatever it is that they already favor, whether it is a certain brand of soap or a particular form of politics. The algorithms radicalize those who use them too. If you click on perfectly legitimate anti-immigration YouTube sites, for example, these can lead you quickly, in just a few more clicks, to white nationalist sites and then to violent xenophobic sites. Because they have been designed to keep you online, the algorithms also favor emotions, especially anger and fear. And because the sites are addictive, they affect people in ways they don’t expect. Anger becomes a habit. Divisiveness becomes normal. Even with social media is not yet the primary news source for all Americans, it already helps shape how politicians and journalists interpret the world and portray it. Polarization has moved from the online world into reality.

The result is a hyper-partisanship that adds to the distrust of “normal” politics, “establishment” politicians, derided “experts”, and “mainstream” institutions – including courts, police, civil servants – and no wonder. As polarization increases, the employees of the state are invariably portrayed as having been “captured” by their opponents. It is not an accident that the Law and Justice Party in Poland, the Brexiteers in Britain, and the Trump administration in the United States have launched verbal assaults on civil servants and professional diplomats. It is not an accident that judges and courts and now the object of criticism, scrutiny, and anger in so many other places too. There can be no neutrality in a polarized world because there can be no nonpartisan or apolitical institutions.”

Part of my writing these days relates to the changes that have come with how our lifes are continuing to be transformed by social media. In this, the dense run-down from the 15th to the 20th and into the 21st century in the quotation above is brilliant. What becomes obvious to me (as we all establish our own interpretations of reality, I should only stay on my own side of the street) is to which extent the cohesion of a society and the underlying norms depend on some degree of “value-based order” in how news and opinion pieces are being narrated in that society. I would compare today’s technological development with some form of anarchy that is being usurped, exploited, and used for manipulation by individuals and groups with a deeply un-democratic attitude. The founding motto of the United Nations and the reasons for why it was created come to my mind: “Never Again”. History, once more, is repeating itself. But some things are profoundly new.

Also, again, the use of “algorithms” shows up. AI is, after all, a very complex and very specific form of an algorithm. It is a self-learning computer-based code that constantly changes itself within the framework of what it is directed to do: To turn input into a desired outcome. That outcome, at least for now, is defined by humans. I am still preparing something like a blog entry titled “AI For Dummies”.

However, speaking of those human engineers and their bosses who create and improve these forms of “social media”: As far as I know, they are also not only perfectly aware of but also purposefully using what we know about how to create addictive patterns of behavior. With addiction being something I do know a lot about. Because when I started to address my own compulsive self-harming behavior, I also began to dig deeper into the science of addiction. There are quite a few articles in my blog which carry that tag.

Deeper explanations may be for another article, but there is a direct link between emotions such as fear, anger, rage, and addiction. Every practising health professional and every recovering trauma survivor will tell you about it, and every student beyond freshman status, in fields such as addiction medicine, neuroscience or related will happily explain the inner workings within the brain that sit behind this connection. Like for “AI 101”, “Neurophysiology of Addiction 101” is for later. But I will say that forms of addictive compulsive behavior go way beyond a discourse of commoners in a society, and the proportion of individuals in a society being affected by this is including a vast number of people who just simply do not even know.

My friend from Long Island, New York State, decided to quit watching Cable News and reading blogs on contemporary U.S. politics. Shortly after the networks called Joe Biden the winner of these elections, she realized to which extent her usually peaceful life had gotten into a turmoil of fear and anger. She continued to watch the onslaught which is still fueling the news of CNN and others. She could not bear it any longer, and when she stopped watching, she felt withdrawal. She felt the same void which I described when I temporarily went off YouTube, once I realized to which extent my evenings had become endless hours of watching videos that were presented to me in endless succession because I had watched only one of them. Most recently, I looked up a new mini-drone, and it happened again: My YouTube homepage is overboarding with videos from vloggers putting that little technological marvel through its paces. And the more I watched, the more I got offered.

Now, this is a mechanism in order to sell products. Such as cute drones. So, the longer I continue to watch, the more likely I will buy one, right? Thats what these sites intend to do: Sell me more stuff. Those algorithms, they don’t care about whether I watch a video about a drone, or about a conspiracy theory, or a hate-speech by a politician. They will just present more of those, mercilessly, because they are just bits of computer-code. But when it comes to conspiracy theories, or hate-speech, I get presented with hate, divisiveness, anger. The increasing polarization that I see in traditional networks, it adds. If I don’t fall victim to wrong memories, news presentations by CNN, New York Times, Washington Post, they also became more polarised, often angry, the longer the onslaught by authoritarian politicians and their increasingly louder sycophants became. But these social media sites operate by attempting to get more and more of my screen time. Meaning I have less and less time for news that, at least to some degree, attempt to follow rules of value-based journalism. So, even if I want (which many don’t), I see less and less curated news, and more and more unspecified information and, simply, propaganda.

May be you want to watch this one, on propaganda. Its horrible and disturbing. Like this one. Or this one. Or you look up the OpEd of the Editorial Board of the Washington Post on the entire thing. But don’t blame me when you’re getting angry. Rather, try not to. Because I wrote on an earlier occasion that once somebody has made you angry, he or she has won over you.

I wrote to my friend: “When I get too upset about things (though rightfully), my mind is bordering insanity. Turning this into a positive statement, we need to learn from it. It is not about neglecting news, but learning to consume healthily, and more importantly contribute with our experiences to explaining what needs to change.”

If we want to experience peace and love, we need to practice it.

The feature picture of this article has been taken from https://discover.hubpages.com/health/Anger-and-Traumatic-Brain-Injury

Happy Thanksgiving, America – Meanwhile, Over Here

Happy Thanksgiving, America. This year, you are celebrating one of your most sacrosanct holidays under the weirdest of possible circumstances. Millions of people traveling to re-unite with family in the midst of a pandemic descending into disaster. Desperate for a sense of normalcy, craving to celebrate traditional values of homecoming to family and being grateful, you gather on airports, get on planes, playing a game of denial in assuring yourselves that you won’t be the ones who are carrying or getting the virus. Because a significant portion of you will. Or you may be believing the virus is a hoax, or not as dangerous as science says it is.

But in this game of russian roulette you are not holding the gun to your own head, at least not only. In banking on that you will escape that round in the chamber, you include the most vulnerable in your families into this game. Your parents and others in your family have not only grown to old age. They may also carry pre-existing conditions. Experts like Dr Fauci warning in strongest terms. I find it absolutely horrible to think about the tragic scenes that will occur, a few weeks later. Will they be buried in the sea of statistics, will those who have fallen victim to this collective denial just become more anonymous numbers in this collective shrugging of shoulders? Since I have friends and family in America, and not only in Canada or over here, in Germany and in Europe, I do care personally.

Meanwhile, over here, my father is hospitalized again in Bavaria. He is at old age, his health is deteriorating rapidly. And he is alone. Last time I was able to visit was this summer, when he was in another hospital. It was after the most intense lockdown in spring and I could only visit him under the strongest possible precautions. Distance. Desinfection. Masks. Time limitation. No hugs. Contact tracing. Like a little while later, when I quarantined for two weeks in Toronto in October in order to see my children after ten months of deprivation. Until I was released from quarantine, my children would visit me on the porch for a few minutes per day. Distance. Desinfection. Masks. Time limitation. No hugs. Contact tracing. It was almost unbearable for them, but we made it and the hugs thereafter, when I was allowed to enter their “bubble”, they felt a thousand times sweeter.

Winter is coming and I think that with the current Covid-19-situation I won’t be able to visit my lonely and scared father in the hospital. Meanwhile, my kids are in another lockdown in Toronto again. Also here, in Germany, the collective mechanism formed from Federal and State governments decided to double down on measures restricting us. Both in intensity, and in duration. The measures imposed in November do yield some success, we seem to be able to reverse the trend, but we are intensifying protective measures in order to protect the vulnerable and to make it until we have soaked ourselves in vaccines, collectively. And again, meanwhile, Happy Thanksgiving to all my friends in America. Be mindful, and be careful, will you?

You are not alone with all the crazies defying anything even resembling a minimum degree of logic and reasonable behavior. We have ’em crazies over here as well. The craziness is global. The virus is global. The pre-existing conditions for this craziness are global. I know for a fact that this did not start with the virus, the craziness was happily blossoming long before. Yet, it is frightening to see mass demonstrations in my beloved Berlin or Leipzig or in other cities, with thousands of what could be considered to be moderate citizens, expressing their frustration and scare, and sure their discontent or disapproval with decisions being made by the governments. This, in itself, is not crazy. It is absolutely what we want to see in a living and prospering democracy. But societal mainstream appears to allow mixing themselves in the wildest ways imaginable with far-right and far-left extremists. Conspiracy theorists throwing themselves happily into the bunch. In late spring I saw the same thing happening in Belgrade, where I am spending significant time. People got angry when the government, after the elections, planned to reinforce limitations, fearing the advent of the second wave.

Demonstrations in Germany were getting out of control in fall, people not respecting decisions on distance and mask-wearing that would allow for their exercising the fundamental right to demonstrate, and the right to express their opinions. People showing up (on purpose, thoughtless, uneducated, malicious, or what?) carrying a badge on their upper arms, of yellow color, with the words “not vaccinated” on them. Clearly a reference to the way how Jews were forced to identify themselves before and during the Holocaust. It left the Federal Government’s Commissioner for fighting Anti-Semitism speechless and outraged (German link here).

This is a bit of a rambling blog entry, as you may have noticed. I struggle with collecting all my thoughts on what is happening these days. Because meanwhile, others engage in pardoning turkeys two days ago, leaving the media being ripe with speculations about who might benefit from a last-minute Presidential pardon in human life. And there it is, the pardoning did not stop with two turkeys, it was the prelude for pardoning Michael Flynn, just yesterday.

I am no stranger to self-centered thinking combined with denial. It leads to progressively distorted and then delusional perceptions. The ensuing action always isolates, harms oneself, and harms others. Understanding the impact of this goes way beyond my appreciation of my personal root causes (trauma) and consequences (masking pain, rather than acknowleding it) in my own life, which I began to address many years ago. I believe that self-centeredness plays an important role in many things we see unfolding. Two days ago, I noted to myself: “The core of anti-democratic sentiments is founded on [collective] selfishness.”

I will stop here, for the moment, with a few links (1), (2), (3), (4) in German which I collected over the past days. Because, believing this development is “elsewhere” would be hypocritical.

I always talk about that we have to share this World. I am just off a two-days video-conference addressing joint efforts of the six jurisdictions in the Western Balkans (in alphabetical order): Belgrade (Serbia), Podgorica (Montenegro), Pristina (Kosovo), Sarajevo (Bosnia & Hercegovina), Skopje (North-Macedonia), and Tirana (Albania). My country has, together with others, again put money to where the mouth is, and action to words. In a team effort, and a true spirit of partnership and assistance. The impact of the Covid-19-pandemic has affected everything, on levels of individual fate, in terms of operational work, strategic work, political work, and regional cooperation. But at the end it became clear: We all stayed safe because of adhering to principles allowing us to get through this situation. Despite the shortfalls coming from the use of electronic conferencing instead of real meetings, we have seen that we are able to stay together.

That is what I am grateful for. Happy Thanksgiving. Stay healthy, safe, and grateful. Do not allow division and selfishness drive us into further madness. The best form of communication is listening to each other.

On a grey November day over here

“My personal view of this is, yes, it’s pathetic, yes it’s ridiculous,” Levin said. “However if you look at history, authoritarian and totalitarian regimes are born often when there’s some exit ramp out of democracy. And I’m sure a lot of the people involved at those times said, ‘Oh whatever, obviously they’re so completely breaking the rules that they’ll be stopped.’ But they aren’t.”

Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich), quoted in The Washington Post, Nov. 20, 2020

The transactional death-threat to democracy

Here is a little cautionary tale. Entirely fictional. Any resemblance to existing persons unintentional. I just woke up with this dream and I quickly jotted it down.

I win. As a matter of fact, I told you that already: I told you I have won. I always tell you what is happening. Because I know how your minds work. I know that you can not see the real me, since I am masterminding you by controlling your emotions, by blinding you through your own fear, resentments, and hate, and your own hypocritical belief that you understand me. As if any non-sociopath would really be able to fully understand me. Well, there are some. I can’t bullshit other bullshitters.

It is so simple: (1) If I make you hate me, I have won over you. (2) If I make you hate those I want you to hate, I have won over you. I am a sociopath. I am an expert in this game, and most of you are my pawns. Some of you are helpful (Lenin named you guys the “useful idiots”), but as soon as you are not useful any longer, I will spit you out. By the way, I truly enjoy seeing you, along the ride, ripping your own spine out of your own body, and realizing too late how this has destroyed your lifes, and the lifes of those who love you. Because I am a sadist, too. And those who are my adversaries: I will smash you. Everyone else is entirely irrelevant for me. Just stay out of my way, except you have something I want. I am prepared to make a deal with you, but preferably I will take it away from you.

What I don’t want you to realize is that I give a damn about how you think a win is looking like. For me, winning is about getting the max of what is in for me. Because it is about me, not about democracy.

That is why things are simple for me, right now: I Just have to continue with what I have done all the time: Mounting more pressure, dumping more lies, firing more people, sowing more confusion and fear, answering any threat with just more escalation, never ever giving in, always responding to facts with yelling “Fake”. Making my adversaries feeling exasperated and their guts filled with the excruciating pain of helpless fury and anger.

Because, may be it works and I win and stay in office. But if I can’t, I will have made so many people angry with the mess I will have created that more and more people will blame my adversary (you know, the one who says he has won the elections). It is really easy! I smash and let people blame him. I just say “I fight for the will of the people”, whilst I really do nothing else than smashing things. I told you already, I am a sadist.

It will force my adversaries to make a deal with me. Do they really want to see 71 million voters being angry when prosecutors try to arrest me? And if I am lucky, I am going to be a double-winner: I am getting my deal, and I see my adversary being morally discredited because he had to give me the deal I forced him to hand over to me. Sadists love humiliating other people.

I will win by forcing people to make a deal with me. And until I get my deal, I will make 74 million people walk blind in their fear and hate, and I will make 71 million people walk blind in their triumph and hate.

So, I am doubling down. I fire people. I stack the levels underneath the top of departments with loyalists. I make sure that my adversary feels more and more pressure by wondering whether, and how much, of my doing can be undone. I don’t care about how much can be undone. I only care about my pokerface: Creating fear and anxiety, resentment, and hate on one side, and drunken triumph and hate on the other side. And by golly: There are so many things I can make difficult and smash. I don’t even need to plan it, they will come along my way and I just pick them, between twittlering, watching TV, flying on fancy aircrafts, having burgers, and playing golf.

So, I will push things to the melting point. And my adversary knows this already. Because he knows, he does something pretty smart. He deploys the best current weapon possible: Calmness, and showing he has a plan. I guess he knows that this weapon might loose it’s cutting edge soon. He might desperately need a cavalry coming in not too far from now.

But don’t forget, here is my secret, plain out in the open: In my world, I am better at smashing things than The Hulk is. I will never concede. And if you decide to smash me, chances are that this will turn against you. I will have divided you, and I will have conquered you. Because I incite your hate, instill your fears, make you blind with nervosity, so that I can feed off from your hate. It’s the oldest trick in the world.

I told you, I win. If only the nagging feeling would disappear that my adversaries understand this, that there are enough smart people understanding this as well, that they manage to keep things together, and that they have found my Achilles’ Heel.

Character matters

I’m writing this with tears in my eyes. Yes, it becomes easier now to say to our children: Character matters. Compassion matters. Love matters. Sharing this World matters. Humanity matters. The Rule of Law matters. Democracy matters.

It is easier to be a Dad…

Watch it yourself:

Van Jones fights back tears: Result shows character matters

This is the America that has our back. And thank you for reaching out to those who feel they lost. As a matter of fact, I hope that most of them will see that they won, too.

Others have a long way ahead until they can be trusted again. Action speaks louder than words, in this regard. But, please, let us stay humble, free from resentment, and steer away from hypocrisy.

Congrats, America. Congrats, Joe and Kamala. And Kamala: We are soooo proud of you. My daughter sure is.

Finally

My boss is very clear. There is no diplomatic coating if Heiko Maas, the German Foreign Minister, is calling out Donald Trump’s urging his supporters to vote twice as disturbing and unscrupulous behavior. Which it is.

I am glad we speak the truth, we do it with diplomatic language whereever we can, do not play into the antagonization game whereever possible, use moderate language instead of yelling, call on upholding human values including decency and truthfulness. I am also glad to see that we can be clear, crystal clear, saying “enough is enough”. Which it is.

https://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/heiko-maas-wirft-donald-trump-ruchlosigkeit-im-wahlkampf-vor-a-b110069c-8888-4118-bb1c-f39cee51c59a

Or, for my English speaking friends:

https://www.newsweek.com/germanys-foreign-minister-calls-trump-urging-supporters-vote-twice-disturbing-unscrupulous-1529939

Never ever the Doomsday Clock was closer to twelve. Do not underestimate His Neediness and his minions.

Peace, democracy, safety and security, human rights, humanity, none of these come for free.

We have a responsibility to hold to the power of love that we know to be true, and to not allow the world around us to deaden that in ourselves. LUCAS JOHNSON