Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Switch it off

Although I'm someone who once had (cautiously) high hopes for the Internet becoming a force for creating a better informed, better connected and more tolerant global public sphere, I have been becoming increasingly aware--like a lot of us--that it's about as likely to be a tool for pervasive surveillance, tendentious propaganda and unhinged misinformation.

And although I participate in various forms of social media (because--at least so far--its benefits seem to outweigh its costs for me personally), I've found it, over the last five years or so, to be increasingly a source of frustration and even despair.

Peter Pomerantsev's excellent "Diary" at the London Review of Books crystallises a lot of what I've been thinking along these lines with reference to recent events in Ukraine.

As the conflict over Ukraine intensified my social media feeds became more and more unsettling. Acquaintances from Moscow, the ‘creatives’ who make up the semi-mythical Russian middle class – that normally apolitical but vaguely anti-Putin iPhone crowd who’d joined the protests in 2011 and 2012 – were suddenly frothing with patriotic passion. I imagined myself in some downmarket horror movie where you wake to find your neighbours are vampires, with little ultra-patriotic bite marks on their necks.
I was talking to a work colleague just today about a very similar trend that she had noticed among Russian and Ukrainian friends on Facebook.

More generally, this is good to remember:

A common myth about social media is that it’s a priori a tool of liberation, taking publishing out of the hands of power. But Facebook and Twitter are a perfect vehicle for postmodern authoritarian regimes that focus on opposition narratives instead of simply suppressing them. You can switch off the TV, but you can’t stop a political technologist getting inside social media and generating memes from within.
This is also true for radical Islamism.

For myself, I've certainly been aghast (though not surprised) by Russian propaganda; what has disturbed me more has been the number of Western journalists willing to echo it.

Pomerantsev is eloquent here on this "strange complicity with the Kremlin's cause":

When she wasn’t repeating news from Brighton Beach my New Jersey cousin was sending me links to the Guardian. Comment is Free has become well known for its references to the Ukrainian fascist takeover. My Kiev friends began to message me, looking for an explanation: ‘Is Seumas Milne in the pay of the Kremlin?’ they would ask. Probably not, I said. ‘It all fits into a larger pattern of English racism towards Eastern Europeans,’ Oksana Forostyna, executive editor of the Ukrainian cultural magazine Krytyka, told me. She too spoke of the Ukrainians as ‘the new Untermenschen who get called whores and fascists. All those English jokes and novels about Ukrainian sluts; the weird fixation you had during Euro 2012 that Ukraine was full of neo-Nazi hooligans – there was even a BBC documentary warning football fans not to come – when in truth there are fewer racist attacks in Ukraine than in Britain … Now Putin can play on those prejudices.’

(Germany, has a very similar problem.)

Finally, I can't say that I disagree with this entirely:

‘The only thing to do if you want to stay sane in this war is quit social media,’ Alexey said when I Skyped him.

On related points, I would recommend that people read Evgeny Morozov's insightful book The Net Delusion.

See you online.

Friday, June 06, 2014

La liberté vint de la mer

The Normandy American War Cemetery and Memorial,  Coleville-sur-Mer (2006)
On the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, I have to think of two members of my family who were, to varying extents, involved.

In going through some of my parents' war-time correspondence not that long ago, I ran across the following in a letter from my uncle George--who was serving on a US Navy warship--to my father, who was in the army.

In October 1944, George was filling his brother in on what he'd been up to that year. He got to talking about Normandy:

"Then 6 weeks of Normandy--from D Day until days later when the sea lanes were cleared--we had all the excitement I could possibly want. Our ship got several commendations and quite a bit of publicity for our part in the operation. The miraculous fact that we weren't even hit still amazes me. Bombs hit the water so close to us that spray showered our decks, seven torpedoes were thrown at us all missing from 200 yards to 25 feet, 88mm shells narrowly missed us a dozen times but [our] luck held out. Our salvoes knocked out many a shore battery that was holding up the army's advance on the beach and it was a swell feeling to know that we were saving some of those soldiers. Those Nazis were pretty tough in Normandy." 

By the time the letter arrived, my father's unit--the 316th Army Station Hospital--had been relocated to Glasgow, but from the autumn of 1943 to the summer of 1944, he was near the Devonshire coast. On 6 June 1944 he was, therefore, not all that far away, geographically speaking, from where his brother was having what sounds like a pretty harrowing day.  (Though he wouldn't have been aware of this fact at the time.)

(My mother's main memory of that day was wondering where all the Yanks had suddenly disappeared to.) 

I recently ran across a fairly detailed unit history online (it seems to take a while to load, but the link should work), and the section for D-Day is interesting.

Having heard SHAEF’s official communiqué about the Invasion, the Hospital was now ready to fulfil its particular mission in the grand-scale assault on “Fortress Europe”. It was not however until the first casualties from the D-Day landings arrived on 11 June 1944, that the unit was confronted with “real” war! They were 23 German Prisoners of War, accompanied by armed MPs! The unit was now temporarily acting as a Transit Hospital. Five days later, it was 7 July 1944, the first Hospital Train filled with American battle casualties arrived at the nearby Heathfield Station of the Great Western Railway, and the Hospital settled down in earnest to its real war job. The top number of patients occupying the installation was reached on 30 July, when the Registrar had 819 patients listed. 

We're fairly often in Normandy--though in a different part than where the landings took place--but a few reminders of the war are still very visible.

It's not, really, all that long ago.