Normative Narratives


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“Stealing Elections” and Stealing Elections

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The Supreme Court of the United States, with “Equal Justice Under Law” etched into the front.

“The [Wednesday, September 5th] House hearing [with Twitter and Facebook Executives] was interrupted by Laura Loomer, a conspiracy theorist who has been banned from major social media sites. She shouted that Dorsey was lying, accusing him of banning conservatives and saying Twitter was going to help Democrats “steal” the November elections.” [Quoted article]

While it is easy to dismiss conspiracy theorists, I do not think these are the just the ravings of a madwoman. I think a lot of ardent Trump supporters buy into the idea, promoted by the President himself, that should the GOP lose Congressional majorities in the midterm elections, that those seats would have been “stolen” by some wide ranging conspiracy encompassing traditional media, social media, and China.

In an attempt to debunk and educate, lets explore the difference between “stealing elections”, and really stealing elections by devaluing people’s votes.

“Stealing Elections”

The idea that there is some conspiracy to “steal elections” is utter nonsense which only serves to widen the country’s already massive partisan divide. This is not just my opinion–only 13 of the 24 states’  attorneys generals invited to the Justice Department’s meeting on “social media bias” even bothered to attend. Furthermore, the meeting ended up focusing on privacy concerns on social media, not political bias; when the adults get together they speak about the real issues, not baseless allegations.

Allegations like these are part of the Trumpian playbook; get out there early and cry foul, so if an outcome you don’t like comes to pass, you can say “see, I told you it was rigged”. Trump did this throughout his campaign, and it has continued into his Presidency.

This is a sad, if unsurprising, abdication of accountability by Trump. It is a childish excuse, commonly employed by those who are unable to accept loss in a dignified manner. You would not (or should not) accept such excuses from your friends on trivial matters, so why would you from elected officials on much more consequential ones?

Yes, Twitter made a mistake with its algorithm. Yes, this mistake caused certain profiles to become less accessible by failing to auto-suggest them when a user began a search (they were still returned in search results). Twitter has owned up to this mistake and fixed it. To err is human; when mistakes inevitably do occur, the best course of action is to admit to and rectify them, as Twitter has done.

It should be noted that this was a relatively benign mistake that occurred well before the election cycle got into full swing (July, elections in November); it is not something that will impact the outcome of any of the midterm elections.

A broader issue, however, is at play here–the delicate balance between free speech, protecting public safety (censoring extremist content and hate speech), and ensuring our democratic process plays out fairly (limiting false information on political issues / candidates, including foreign interference).

There is no rule book for finding the “right balance”, as a nation we are learning as we go. Having said that, false political information is an actual threat to the integrity of our elections (as opposed to baseless accusations of bias). If anything social media companies should probably be erring on the side of too much restriction of potentially false information, not too little. Note that false information (or “fake news”, if you must) does not include opinion pieces that present themselves as such, like Normative Narratives, but rather false information being presented as fact.

Trying to find the proper limits on free speech is not a new problem, social media is just the latest (and probably most complex) iteration of this ongoing debate. Public safety has always had to be balanced against freedom of speech (“clear and present danger”, you can’t yell “FIRE” in a crowded movie theater)–it is baked into the First Amendment itself.

Technological improvements often outpace our elected officials ability to regulate them. This problem is especially prevalent in today’s hyperpartisan political environment, with its resulting legislative gridlock. Taken together, all this means it could take several imperfect attempts in either direction–to much censorship or too little–before we reach that elusive “proper balance”.

The reality that it is a long road to reaching this “proper balance” is a feature of democratic governance that we must accept. What we should not accept is the deliberate marginalization of voters that results from political and racial gerrymandering.

[Really] Stealing Elections–“Gerrymandering”

The original “gerrymander” in early 19th-century Massachusetts.

“[Gerrymandering] in U.S. politics, [is] drawing the boundaries of electoral districts in a way that gives one party an unfair advantage over its rivals.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that racial gerrymandering is unconstitutional, but has not yet ruled on partisan gerrymandering. Several states, however, have ruled that partisan gerrymandering is also unconstitutional, which should (eventually) force the Supreme Court to come to a definitive ruling at the national level.

Unfortunately, even when a state’s ruling is affirmed by a Federal court, the end result does not always restore justice. Recent events in North Carolina are a case in point:

A U.S. court panel has ruled there is not enough time to recast North Carolina’s congressional maps ahead of the November elections even though it found the Republican-constructed lines were illegally drawn for partisan purposes.

“North Carolina will have to suffer again under yet another unconstitutional Republican law that silences voters, divides our state, and undermines our democracy,” Wayne Goodwin, the state’s Democratic Party chairman, said in a statement. The party was a plaintiff in the suit.

Republicans in 2016 won 10 of the 13 House districts – 77 percent – despite getting just 53 percent of the statewide vote, nearly the same result as in 2014.

The North Carolina dispute centered on a congressional redistricting plan adopted by the Republican-led legislature in 2016 after a court found that Republican lawmakers improperly used race as a factor when redrawing certain U.S. House districts after the 2010 census.

The Republican lawmaker [Rep. David Lewis, a Republican member of the North Carolina General Assembly] in charge of the plan said it was crafted to maintain Republican dominance because “electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats.”

First of all, when it comes to the democratic process, there is no “better” party. Policy differences of course exist, but these are secondary to making sure the democratic process plays out as fairly and transparently as possible; any “patriot” that puts party ahead of democracy needs to take a long look in the mirror. Now back to the issue at hand–gerrymandering.

In the past decade, North Carolina lawmakers have been found to have illegally drawn voting districts based on both racial and political considerations (in fact they directly and unapologetically replaced their racially unconstitutional map with a politically unconstitutional one). It is hard to argue that there were not some truly stolen elections in North Carolina. Unfortunately this problem is not limited to North Carolina (or the Republican party–Democrats do it too).

Which party gerrymandering benefits more really just depends on who the majority is when it comes time to redraw a state’s voting district lines (“redistricting”). It is worth noting that because of demographic trends (liberals tend to live in more concentrated cities), gerrymandering has more potential benefit to the GOP.

The larger issue is not which party gerrymandering benefits more, but rather that it should not be a tool to benefit either party. Hopefully changes to the redistricting process (or possibly even more significant changes to how we elect our representatives), in addition to a more definitive U.S. Supreme Court ruling, can eradicate this plague on our democracy. It is, however, certainly an uphill battle.

When the Democratic Process Plays Out Fairly, the Means Justify the Ends

When the democratic process plays out fairly and transparently–two qualifications many elections, including the 2016 Presidential election, do not meet–the means justify the ends. Elections do have consequences, but they should never be predetermined, or even allowed to be titled to one sides favor.

All that should matter is the principle of one-person, one-vote. Now the Electoral College purposefully distorts this principle in Presidential elections, but that is another topic for another day. Regardless of your opinion on its current merits, the Electoral College was created intentionally as one of the compromises that birthed our great nation; it is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution until an amendment is passed that says otherwise.

Gerrymandering, on the other hand, is a bastardization of America’s democratic process. It is not a stretch to say that our Founding Fathers did not intend for gerrymandering to be a feature of our democratic process. This problem has only become more acute as software is developed to help lawmakers more effectively “pack” and “crack” districts. As with the issue of free speech on social media, technological improvements in gerrymandering have outpaced our government’s ability to regulate it.

By continuously punting on the issue of partisan gerrymandering, the U.S. Supreme Court has been negligent in upholding the words carved into its facade–“Equal Justice Under the Law”.

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Conflict Watch: Current Strategy Can Degrade But Cannot Defeat The Islamic State

Defeating ISIS means Western boots on the ground

UPDATE: With U.S. backed coallitons making advances in Mosul (Iraq) and Raqqa (Syria), and Sirte (Libya), with little news of IS expansion elsewhere, it seems like I may have been wrong on the need for a significant force of Western troops to defeat the IS on the battlefield.

I will leave this post up because it still contains important points about the multifaceted approach needed to defeat the IS ideology. But I believe it is important to admit when you are wrong, and in this case I was.

It is commonly accepted that the fight against the Islamic State (IS) is not solely a military fight.  When the U.S. led coalition outlined its plan for combating the group, three main fronts emerged:

  1. Social Media
  2. Financial
  3. Traditional Warfare

Let’s examine how we are doing on each of these fronts, before considering the larger goal of defeating the IS:

Social Media

It is notoriously difficult to police social media sites. Creating an account is free and monitoring content costs money. When an account is shut down, another one pops-up.

The IS has proven itself adept at using social media as both a recruitment tool and as a platform to amplify its message of terror. Good production quality has had the effect of making the group seem more permanent.

Social media sites, understanding the importance of countering the IS message, are stepping up to the plate (perhaps due to the fact that their own infrastructure is being exploited by these groups). One weak spot until recently was Twitter, but a new report shows the company has started to make a stronger effort:

The Islamic State’s English-language reach on Twitter has stalled in recent months amid a stepped-up crackdown against the extremist group’s army of digital proselytizers, who have long relied on the site to recruit and radicalize new adherents, according to a study being released on Thursday.

Twitter Inc (TWTR.N) has long been criticized by government officials for its relatively lax approach to policing content, even as other Silicon Valley companies like Facebook Inc (FB.O) began to more actively police their platforms.

Under intensified pressure from the White House, presidential candidates and some civil society groups, Twitter announced earlier this month it had shut down more than 125,000 terrorism-related accounts since the middle of 2015, most of them linked to the Islamic State group.

In a blog post, the company said that while it only takes down accounts reported by other users it had increased the size of teams monitoring and responding to reports and has decreased its response time “significantly.”

It does not appear social media will become less popular anytime soon. As long as it is a platform that billions of people use, extremist groups will try to use it to further their causes (especially given the success the IS has had).

Therefore, it is the responsibility of social media companies to do everything they can to fight this misuse–it should be a liability issue, a cost of doing business for a very profitable industry.

Financial

Fighting a war and running a “state” are not cheap–the IS has to at least appear to offer some social services and run certain institutions if it wants to claim it is a “state”.

The IS primary revenue streams are selling oil, taxing the people in areas it subjugates, seizing money from banks in those areas, and (to a lesser extent) other illicit activities (selling stolen antiques, ransoming hostages, drug trade, etc).

Recent drops in oil prices and sanctions have helped squeeze the IS finances. But we cannot and are not relying solely on market forces to disrupt the group’s revenue streams:

Air strikes have reduced Islamic State’s ability to extract, refine and transport oil, a major source of revenue that is already suffering from the fall in world prices. Since October the coalition says it has destroyed at least 10 “cash collection points” estimated to contain hundreds of millions of dollars.

U.S. military officials say reports of Islamic State cutting fighters’ wages by up to half are proof that the coalition is putting pressure on the group.

In January, the coalition said air strikes against Islamic State oil facilities had cut the group’s oil revenues by about 30 percent since October, when U.S. defense officials estimate the group was earning about $47 million per month.

[U.S. Army Colonel Steve] Warren said air strikes against Islamic State’s financial infrastructure were “body blows like a shot to the gut”.

“(It) may not knock you out today but over time begins to weaken your knees and cause you to not be able to function the way you’d like to,” he told reporters last week.

It is true there is a limit to what airstrikes can accomplish against the IS without more soldiers on the ground. But airstrikes can be very effective in disrupting oil production and blowing up known cash storage sites. This is an area where the U.S. could expand its efforts more or less unilaterally.

One way to do this could be reconsidering what an acceptable target is. The U.S. led coalition has made an effort to avoid striking areas with expensive infrastructure, in hopes it can be used if wrestled back from the IS. But, as Ramadi has proven, the IS will rig any areas it loses with explosives before it leaves, so perhaps we should rethink trying to spare infrastructure if it means we can make a more significant dent in the IS finances.

What we cannot do is disregard civilian casualties–“carpet bombing” IS held areas is not a viable option. Not only would such a strategy be morally reprehensible, but it would be counter-productive, reinforcing the IS anti-Western message.

Traditional Warfare

In recent months, the IS has lost significant territory in Iraq and Syria. Unfortunately, the groups practice of rigging areas it loses with explosives makes it very difficult to turn liberated areas back to “normal” (safe for displaced people to return and lead productive lives).

Furthermore, these gains have not always been made in “sustainable” ways. In Syria, the Assad regime has gained much of the territory the IS has lost (although the Kurds, natural allies to the West, have also gained territory). In Iraq, a Shiite dominated government has made advances with the aid of Iranian fighters, risking further alienating Iraq’s Sunni population (which paved the way for the rise of the IS in the first place).

Further curbing the benefit of IS loses in Iraq and Syria is the group’s expansion into Libya, where it has an estimated 6,000 fighters and rising, exploiting the post-Qaddafi power vacuum. The U.S. led coalition has started an aerial campaign against the IS in Libya, but absent a unified Libyan government, it will be difficult to stop the groups expansion.

In Libya’s incredibly important neighbor Tunisia, the freedoms associated the country’s successful democratic transition have created more space for the IS to operate. Ultimately effective pluralistic democratic governance, which respects the human rights of all people, is the only way to defeat the IS. We must provide Tunisia with all the support it needs, to ensure that democratization does not become a tool the IS uses to its advantage in the short-run. 

Degrading AND Defeating the Islamic State

The good news is we have made progress on each of the three main fronts in the fight against IS (Social Media, Financial, Traditional Warfare). The bad news is that while we are able to degrade the IS, we have done so in a way that ignores the underlying factors that led to the groups rise in the first place.

Let’s not downplay the very real benefits of degrading the IS. It limits the groups ability to spread misery and death. It compromises the groups ability to carry out attacks abroad, and reduces the likelihood it will inspire lone-wolf attackers.

But the fight against the IS is expensive, and the longer the group is allowed to operate, the more it’s assertion that it is a “caliphate” becomes the fact on the ground. Moreover, time gives the IS (which has proven itself quite tactical and resilient) room to metastasize and evolve. Imagine if the group connected its Middle Eastern territory with large swaths of Northern Africa, transforming its ideological link to Boko Haram into an actual military alliance? This may seem like an unlikely scenario, but everything the IS has done up until this point has defied the odds against it. 

To avoid perpetual war we must degrade the IS in a way that also attacks the groups underlying message–that there is no viable alternative for Muslims. On this front, much work remains. Governments in Islamic countries should put aside sectarian divides and treat the fight against the IS as the fight for the soul of Islam that it is. Unfortunately, there is little to suggest this will happen anytime soon, a point recently made by political comedian Bill Maher:

“Why don’t they fight their own battles? Why are Muslim armies so useless against ISIS? ISIS isn’t 10 feet tall. There are 20,000 or 30,000 of them. The countries surrounding ISIS have armies totaling 5 million people. So why do we have to be the ones leading the fight? Or be in the fight at all?”

If you consider the countries bordering Iraq and Syria — Iran (with 563,000 armed forces personnel), Jordan (115,500), Kuwait (22,600), Lebanon (80,000), Saudi Arabia (251,500) and Turkey (612,800) — you get a total of 1.6 million.

Add in Iraq (177,600) and Syria (178,000) themselves and that brings the total to 2 million. That’s less than half of Maher’s figure.

When we heard back from Maher’s spokesman, he said the comedian was also including the armies of Bahrain, Egypt, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

If they (reservists) are included as part of a country’s army, the total for those 13 countries Maher wants to include rises to 4.95 million, as Maher said.

If you don’t include the reservists, the number of troops in the countries cited by the comedian only rises to 3.6 million.

Looking at the largest Muslim players, there is little hope in sight. Turkey is more interested in fighting the Kurds–one of the strongest forces against the IS–than the IS itself. Saudi Arabia and Iran are wrapped up in proxy wars in Syria and Yemen, and are ideologically opposed to pluralism, democracy, and one another. Egypt under Sisi has become increasingly authoritarian, and as a result finds itself consumed by its own terrorist insurgency. Iraq, as mentioned earlier, is relying too heavily on Iranian forces. In Syria, Assad is hoping that with Russian and Iranian support he can knock out all opposition except the IS, completing his “fighting terrorism” narrative and cementing himself in power as he kills indiscriminately. Jordan seems like a true ally in this fight, but it itself is a monarchy that will not fight for democratic values, and even if it would it cannot be expected to take on this fight alone.

It often seems that the IS is everyone’s second biggest concern. The inability to rally a meaningful Pan-Arabic counter-insurgency against the IS is not ideal (and is actually quite sad), but it is a reality we must acknowledge if we are to put together a coalition that CAN end the group’s reign of terror.

To this end, we need more support from those who do share our values. America cannot be the World’s Police, but the world does need a “police force”. Every country that believes in and has benefited from democratic governance and human rights has a role to play. A global coalition (including ground troops) must include all these parties, and be proportionately funded and manned (meaning the U.S. will still have to play a major leadership role).

To some, such a coalition may seem even less likely than a meaningful Pan-Arabic counter-insurgency. But in my mind, corralling support from interdependent allies that share common values and coordinating financing to fairly and sustainably spreads the cost is more achievable than completely changing the behavior of historically adversarial actors.

We need this global coalition not just to defeat the IS, but to prevent the next Syrian Civil War. Global security is at a crossroads and must evolve–prevention is the cheapest way to maintain a peaceful international order. Having an effective deterrent, alongside promoting democracy and human rights, are indispensable elements of preventing conflict.

Global security is a global public good, absent visionary leadership it will be under-invested in, to the detriment of all.


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RIP NYPD Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu

New York City lost two hero’s yesterday. Officers Ramos and Liu were murdered execution style by a mad gunman, whose name I care not to learn. Both of these men are survived by their families, who after mourning must try to pick up the pieces of their lives. I have no doubt that the city of New York will make sure these families are given all the support they need.

After these cold-blooded murders, the gunman took his own life; there will be no trial, no answers. Unsurprisingly, this coward took the cowards way out.

It is natural in times like these to look for scapegoats. I have heard people calling for Mayor De Blasio to step down. I have heard people placing blame on Al Sharpton (a man who I take little pleasure in defending). The “other side” of the argument could place blame on the Staten Island Grand jury which failed to indict Officer Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner.

There should not be “sides” to this conflict. Nobody benefits when an innocent person, a police officer or civilian, dies. I often hear people speak of Officers or Army vets as if they should be above the law because of their contributions to society (I am thinking of an often shared video of an army vet saying “my right trumps your dead” in response to the passing of the NY SAFE Act). People volunteer for these jobs, they receive pay and benefits, and are revered as hero’s by the vast majority of society–these are the benefits.

Being considered above the law, or “better” than those you serve and protect, is not part of the job description. No one American’s rights are greater than another, regardless of your sacrifices. Anybody who believes otherwise has a fundamental misunderstanding of the principles which guide this great nation.

Having said that, all rights have limitations. The first amendment, which protects the rights of protestors, is no exception. Free speech cannot come at the expense of public safety–you cannot yell “fire” in a crowded movie theater, and you should not be able to march down the streets of NYC chanting “What do we want? Dead Cops“. I have no reservations in saying these chants galvanized the murderer of officers Ramos and Liu.

If any third party should shoulder some blame in these senseless murders, it is people who participated in this chant. That “protest” was a bastardization of both first amendment rights generally, and the peaceful social-justice based protest in response to the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown specifically.

Back to my original point on scapegoating; all this finger pointing, while understandable, is destructive. It trivializes the role of the actual culprit–the man who pulled the trigger.

After senseless tragedies like this, the best way forward, in my opinion, is to figure out how we can prevent similar tragedies in the future. It has become quite clear that treating social media postings as serious threats could help achieve this goal.

While it is impossible to preemptively identify all killers, a certain pattern has emerged from some of the most infamous killings in recent American history: Sandy Hook, Ft. Hood, UC Santa Barbara and now the murders of NYPD Officers Ramos and Liu. Recognizing this pattern, and updating police procedures, could provide a blueprint for how to prevent future tragedies and get people the help they need.

Social media has become a window into people’s thoughts, beliefs, and actions. Adam Lanza’s social media posts showed a fascination with mass shootings, Lopez expressed a general disillusion with the world and sympathy for Adam Lanza prior to his massacre, and Mr. Rodger’s posted now infamous (and removed) videos detailing his personal issues on Youtube. The NYPD cop killer made instragram posts making his intentions publicly known.

We have to ask ourselves, at what point does protecting a persons freedom of expression infringe upon the ability to protect another persons right to life? As an economist, I am constantly looking for “perfect information” to make the best decisions. While we will never have “perfect information”, is it possible that we are overlooking a valuable and readily available source of information in social media posts?

Perhaps police departments could employ social media specialist to identify potential threats without compromising a departments ability to fulfill traditional police duties?

Would monitoring social media produce false positives? Yes. But even so, anybody who threatens to harm someone on social media–whether they intend to make good on that threat or not–is probably in need of mental healthcare (or at very least needs to be made aware how serious their threat was).

Furthermore, by setting the precedent that social media postings are serious threats that can lead to incarceration / institutionalization, we would increase the perceived “cost” of making such threats. This would deter people from making empty threats / “venting”, leaving (for the most part) only serious threats that actually need to be acted on.

The law often lags behind technological advance. Are we, as a country, ready to police social media? Perhaps not, but it is certainly a debate worth having.


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Monday Morning QB: Can the NFL Stop Domestic Violence Among Its Players?

Long answer short–it can reduce it, but not definitively stop it.

The NFL has come under fire from fans, politicians, and sponsors over the past two weeks. Since the infamous Ray Rice elevator video was released (which the NFL claims it never saw, a claim I strongly doubt), a parade of disturbing and embarrassing stories have come to the forefront.

Notably, news of Adrian Peterson’s multiple child abuse episodes has (rightfully) resulted in public outcry. As if not to be outdone, soon-to-be-former Arizona RB Jonathan Dwyer was arrested for both beating his wife and throwing a shoe at his 17 month old son. The Greg Hardy and Ray McDonald domestic violence cases have also come under closer scrutiny.

These incidents have led to an independent investigation into the NFL’s conduct during the Ray Rice investigation. Commissioner Roger Goodell has promised that “all options are on the table” in revamping NFL processes and rules. Perhaps most notably, their has been a decisive shift in the balance between legal due process and NFL / team punishment. These are all important steps; in behavioral economics terms, the NFL has increased the “cost” of domestic violence.

Furthermore, the NFL should pursue a preventative campaign against domestic violence through education. The NFL should educate its incoming and current players, as well as league personnel, on domestic violence issues on a regular basis. The NFL should also focus its efforts towards the youth within its influence, utilizing it’s NFL Play60 and Youth Football programs as an already-in-place infrastructure for reaching young people during a period in life when lifelong values are formed. The NFL can also team up with the NCAA to educate young adults at the college level. At all levels, the NFL should partner with experts in the domestic violence, substance abuse, and the behavioral sciences fields to create curricula which effectively address domestic violence and related issues.

I believe the question on many peoples minds is, “Why the sudden increase in domestic violence?” The answer is there has not been an increase in domestic violence, but rather it’s reporting. The 24 hour news cycle and muckraking news outlets like TMZ (I can’t believe I am using such a noble term to describe TMZ, but it has truly evolved into an important news source) have brought previously unreported issues to light. Social media has given fans a direct outlet to voice their displeasure; overwhelming shifts in public opinion can catalyze change in ways that “the facts” alone historically have not. These are positive evolutions–ignorance is not bliss, it is ignorance.

Having said this, we must remember that the court of public opinion often makes up its mind based on imperfect / incomplete information, and demands disproportionate penalties. I am not advocating for relying solely on the legal process–which when popular figures and high-priced lawyers are involved often delivers incomplete justice–but a reasonable middle ground. While players should certainly be held accountable for their actions, they should not suffer enhanced punishments because of their public status; a mistake should not cost someone their career (most of the time).

There is a limit to what the NFL, or any organization, can do to stop domestic violence. Ultimately, the issue of domestic violence comes down to one of personal accountability. The NFL is not beating women or abusing young children, individuals are. The NFL can make counseling, mental healthcare, and anger management services available or even mandatory, but it cannot police it’s almost 1,700 players 24/7.

Players bring their own personal baggage into the NFL. Players drink, do drugs, and make bad decisions; players are people, and will inevitably make mistakes. Even if the NFL was willing to institute a vigorous vetting process, turning away talented players on the grounds of character concerns, it would be impossible to completely stop such occurrences. Everybody make mistakes, and with player’s lives under the microscope, these mistakes will come to light. This fact, in-and-of-itself, should provide a powerful deterrent to would-be offenders.

The NFL has to revamp it’s policies, but it should not have to defend itself every time one of its players makes a poor decision. You don’t see the POTUS apologizing for every personal scandal involving a Congressman, or a CEO addressing the personal issues of their employees; this is an unfair burden that no other organization faces. The NFL probably does not deserve tax-exempt status, but this issue should not be connected to some mystical air of infallibility which never existed in the first place.

Professional sports leagues champion positive values such perseverance, teamwork, and community service, in addition to providing enjoyment to millions of people on a regular basis. No matter what the NFL does, these stories will continue to pop up–they are symptoms of advances in communication technologies, not a signal of deteriorating values.


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Transparency Report: Preventing Tragedy Revisited

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In the wake of Ivan Lopez’s Ft. Hood rampage, I posed a question to my readers; “can social media posts be considered ‘warning signs’ for violent / deadly behavior”? After another mass killing Isla Vista, Calif. a little more than a month later, the issue is again thrust back into the spotlight, this time calling police protocol into question:

A week after Elliot O. Rodger’s violent rampage in Isla Vista, Calif., that left six college students dead and 13 other people wounded, state lawmakers are now calling for an investigation of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office’s previous contact with Mr. Rodger. Some are calling for wholesale changes to how law enforcement officers respond to calls that someone could be a threat to himself or to others.

Sheriff’s deputies visited Mr. Rodger on April 30, just three weeks before his rampage, after receiving a call from his mother, who had been concerned by videos he posted online.

At the time, Mr. Rodger had already bought at least two firearms, which were both registered in his name. But sheriff’s deputies were unaware of that when they visited Mr. Rodger, because they had not checked the statewide gun ownership database. They also had not watched the videos Mr. Rodger had posted.

Law enforcement agencies across California have said that it is not necessarily standard practice to check the state gun registry before any check by officers on someone’s well-being. And the sheriff’s office has defended the six deputies who visited Mr. Rodger in April.

“When questioned by the deputies about reported disturbing videos he had posted online, Rodger told them he was having trouble fitting in socially in Isla Vista and the videos were merely a way of expressing himself,” the sheriff’s office said in a written statement.

“Sheriff’s deputies concluded that Rodger was not an immediate threat to himself or others, and that they did not have cause to place him on an involuntary mental health hold, or to enter or search his residence. Therefore, they did not view the videos or conduct a weapons check on Rodger.”

Kelly Hoover, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office, would not elaborate on why no weapons check was done, and declined to confirm whether there would be an internal investigation of the visit.

Based on the information reviewed thus far, the sheriff’s office has determined that the deputies who responded handled the call in a professional manner consistent with state law and department policy,” Ms. Kelly Hoover, a spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office said in an email on Saturday.

After Mr. Rodger’s rampage in Isla Vista, Ms. Jackson co-wrote legislation that would create a “gun-violence restraining order.” If family members or friends alert law enforcement that someone poses a threat to themselves or to others, law enforcement would then be able to petition a judge to prohibit the person from purchasing firearms.

Ms. Hannah-Beth Jackson, the state senator who represents Santa Barbara, said she planned to introduce further legislation designed to keep guns from people who could become violent, including a major overhaul in protocol for how the authorities follow up on calls from family members expressing worry that someone could hurt himself or others. She said a mental health professional, who is trained to identify mental illness, should accompany law enforcement.

We need to completely re-evaluate protocols that are used when law enforcement is given info that someone potentially is a danger to themselves or to others,” Ms. Jackson said. “I think we need to check the gun registry. And then we have to find a balance for when it is appropriate for police to remove those firearms, and when it is not.”

My intention is not to place blame on the Santa Barbara police officers who initially responded to Mr. Rodger’s mother’s call; I am sure they followed procedure for such incidents. However, the procedure they where following certainly needs to be revisited. While it is impossible to preemptively identify all killers, a certain pattern has emerged from the three most notorious mass killings in recent American history; Sandy Hook, Ft. Hood, and now UC Santa Barbara. Recognizing this pattern, and updating police procedures, could provide a blueprint for how to prevent future tragedies and get people the help they need:

Step 1) Identifying a Potential Threat: In each of these incidences there was someone–either a parent, confidant, or mental health worker–who had reason to believe the future shooter was mentally unstable. These people either notified the police, or should have.

In a recent NYT “Room For Debate”, 6 experts weighed in on the question “Can Therapists Prevent Violence?”; notably, each expert agreed to varying degrees that red flags should be acted on, and there should be greater coordination between law enforcement and mental health professionals–a rare consensus for a feature which typically, as its name suggests, presents a number of differing views.

Step 2/3) Access to Weapons: Adam Lanza, Ivan Lopez, and Elliot Rodger’s all had access to weapons; Lanza from his parents, while Lopez and Rodgers had legally bought guns prior to their rampages. If somebody is deemed a threat to themselves or others, the next question should be “do they have access to guns?” (beyond the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms, direct access to a gun already purchased).

I applaud Senator Jackson’s proposed “gun-violence restraining order” plan to keep potentially dangerous people from buying guns. However, in a country where gun ownership is so pervasive, we must also consider whether these people already have direct access to a weapon.

 Step 3/2) Social Media Postings: Social media has become a window into people’s thoughts, beliefs, and actions. Adam Lanza’s social media posts showed a fascination with mass shootings, Lopez expressed a general disillusion with the world and sympathy for Adam Lanza prior to his massacre, and Mr. Rodger’s posted now infamous (and removed) videos detailing his personal issues on Youtube.

After a potential threat is referred to the police, an investigation of that person should begin immediately. If that person is known to have access to firearms, or has a social media footprint suggesting mental instability, this is pertinent information that police should be aware of before responding to a call (and not only for public safety, but also for the safety of the responding officers). The police should also be accompanied by a mental health professional, preferably one who has experience identifying someone who is trying to mislead investigators.

I am not talking about an in depth investigation, but rather a cursory search of weapons databases and social media outlets. This can all be done digitally and should not significantly delay police response times.

Preemptively identifying potential mass murders and placing them involuntarily under mental health surveillance based on the factors above is sure to be a contentious issue. Upon developing a new draft protocol, an open comment period including people suffering from mental illnesses, mental health experts, civil liberty advocates, law enforcement officials, and anybody else interested, should be initiated. Doing so would help develop a more effective police protocol that balances public safety and civil liberties (specifically for people with mental health issues).

Such a protocol would not prevent all mass murders–nothing can. Notably, it ignores those who obtain guns illegally (which if you ask a gun activist, 100% of criminals do, despite evidence to the contrary). It would also not help in the instance of an imminent threat. But it may have helped prevented any of the three tragedies mentioned in this post from occurring, and on that merit alone is worthy of serious consideration.


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Transparency Report: Can Social Media Postings Be Considered “Warning Signs”?

According to his army psychiatrist, Fort Hood shooter Ivan Lopez showed “no sign of likely violence, either to himself or to others.” While it may be possible for someone to “snap” and go on a shooting spree without warning, I have trouble believing this was the case in this incident.

Lopez had a history of depression and anxiety, yet he was still able to purchase a firearm legally (at the same store the 2009 Fort Hood shooter bought his weapon), underscoring the need for stronger background check laws for gun purchases.

“We have very strong evidence that he [Lopez] had a medical history that indicated an unstable psychiatric or psychological condition,” Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, head of the Army’s III Corps at Fort Hood, said of Lopez. “There was no indication that he was targeting specific people.”

3 people are dead 16 more are wounded. The questions we as a nation now face are:

1) Could this tragedy have been prevented? (were there warning signs?)

2) How can we prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future?

These two questions are obviously related. If there were warning signs, then recognizing these signs can help prevent similar tragedies from happening.

The warning signs, beyond Lopez’s mental health record, came in the form of Facebook posts:

1) On March 1, the same day he purchased the .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol he used in the attack, Specialist Lopez wrote an especially angry and vaguely threatening post. “My spiritual peace has all gone away, I am full of hate, I believe now the devil is taking me. I was robbed last night and I’m sure it was two flacos. Green light and thumbs down. It’s just that easy …”

2) In a Facebook post, Specialist Lopez said of the Newtown massacre: “For me, the direct responsibility for this situation is with the psychiatrist, who didn’t uncover Adam’s level of dangerousness so that he could be restricted.”

Read posthumously, these posts depict someone who was unable to grasp the concept of personal accountability. On the other hand, hindsight is always 20-20; these posts were separated by over a year, during which time Lopez probably made many posts which are irrelevant to his mental state.

Taken separately, each of these pieces of “evidence”; a questionable mental health history, delusional Facebook posts, and a gun purchase; could not be considered a red flag–it would be impossible to police all social media platforms. But taken together, they form the profile of an individual who is very likely a risk to himself and others.

What someone posts on social media can get them fired or (if a public figure) publicly ridiculed–American’s clearly take social media postings seriously. What can we do when someone writes about hurting themselves or others on social media? At what point does protecting a persons right to privacy prohibit the ability to protect another persons right to life? As a social scientist, I am constantly looking for “information”; is it possible that we are overlooking a valuable source of information in social media posts?

I already alluded to the need for stronger background checks for gun purchases, another preventative measure is greater access to mental healthcare, which I believe should be a human right (it is currently viewed as a luxury for the wealthy). Specialist Lopez was covered as an Army employee; what about people out there without mental health coverage? Obamacare has gone a long way in rewriting insurance guidelines to cover mental healthcare, and subsidizes plans for those who cannot afford insurance on their own, but what about people who are still not covered? Given the various ramifications of untreated mental illness (crime, poverty, etc.), is it time to consider investing more tax dollars into walk-in mental health clinics? 

These issues, privacy and security, lend themselves to heated debates. I leave my readers with these loaded questions to ponder.


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Conflict Watch: In Effort To Show How “Powerful” He Is, Erdogan Exudes Weakness

Demonstrators, members of the Turkish Youth Union, shout anti-government slogans during a protest against a Twitter ban, in Ankara March 21, 2014. REUTERS-Stringer

CREDIT: REUTERS/STRINGER

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan shut down Twitter, citing bias and vowing to show the world how “powerful” his administration is:

“It is difficult to comprehend Twitter’s indifference, and its biased and prejudiced stance. We believe that this attitude is damaging to the brand image of the company in question and creates an unfair and inaccurate impression of our country,” the statement from Erdogan’s office said.

“Twitter, mwitter!,” Erdogan told thousands of supporters at a rally ahead of March 30 local elections late on Thursday, in a phrase translating roughly as “Twitter, schmitter!”

“We will wipe out all of these,” said Erdogan, who has said the corruption scandal is part of a smear campaign by his political enemies.

“The international community can say this, can say that. I don’t care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the Republic of Turkey is,” Erdogan said.

The European Union Commissioner for Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes tweeted that the ban in Turkey “is groundless, pointless, cowardly.” She added that the “Turkish people and international community will see this as censorship. It is.”

It is laughable to call Twitter “biased”, as it is a social media platform for people to share what they think. If Twitter is “biased” against Erdogan’s administration, it is because it has lost the support of the Turkish people. If Twitter was creating fake accounts to post anti-Erdogan tweets, or censoring pro-Erdogan followers, that would indeed be biased; this is not the reality of the situation.

On one hand, Erdogan says “Twitter, schmitter”, as if he is indifferent to supposedly falsified accusations against him. On the other hand, he shows himself to be very concerned about what goes up on Twitter, enough so to shut the social media platform down. Erdogan is clearly afraid that Twitter will catalyze a revolution in Turkey, as it did in Egypt.

In an attempt to show his strength, Erdogan has instead shown just how concerned he is about his oppositions social media activities, lending credence to their claims. This action is likely to backfire, adding another grievance (alongside corruption, tightening control over the judicial branch, and firing hundreds of police officers and officials) to the opposition’s arsenal, while moving protest movements from social media back to the streets.

Michelle Obama, on a “non-political trip” to China, had a markedly political message for Chinese citizens; internet freedom is a human right:

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama told an audience of college students in the Chinese capital on Saturday that open access to information – especially online – is a universal right.

“My husband and I are on the receiving end of plenty of questioning and criticism from our media and our fellow citizens, and it’s not always easy,” she added. “But I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”

Censorship in Chinese news media and online is widespread, and internet users in the country cannot access information about many controversial topics without special software to circumvent restrictions.

Turkey has modernized quickly over the past decades, and currently boasts a much stronger human rights record than China or Egypt. But sometimes taking away freedoms can cause a greater backlash than keeping them from people in the first place. When people have been empowered with certain rights and then see them taken away, it generally does not sit well.

It is not easy to take criticism, but as most people know, addressing a claim only makes it appear legitimate. In the age of social media, any position in the public eye requires “tough skin”.

While Erdogan has presided over a prosperous era in Turkish history, he now seems outdated and unfit to govern a country with “Western” aspirations (such as EU ascension). Erdogan sounds borderline crazy when he calls dissent a “conspiracy” or “bias” from an inherently neutral medium of expression.

In pluralistic democracy, political dissent is part of everyday life. It is up to the politician to make the call as to whether dissent is:

a) uninformed (in which case the government can inform the opposition as to why they should not be concerned), and/or;

b) comes from a vocal minority which can (but not necessarily should) be dismissed, or;

c) a legitimate grievance which must be addressed with policy changes.

When “c” is met with a dismissal (claims of conspiracy, bias, etc.) and tightening of power, it makes the situation worse. Erdogan still remains very popular in Turkey, but one has to question how many missteps his popularity can endure.

(Note: A government will almost always try “a” and claim “b” even if in reality the case is “c”. Furthermore, “b” can turn into “c” if not addressed. This list is supposing these alternatives are mutually exclusive and there is an objective truth, which is often not the case, at least until long after the fact.)


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Conflict Watch: Is History Still “Written by the Victors”?

This famous phrase calls into question to objectiveness of history; can we really believe the accounts of those who exterminated their foes? Prior to World War II, the world was a much different place: there was very little economic interdependence, war was a profitable endeavor, and “soft power” (diplomacy, “spotlighting” abuses of power) played a negligible role in international affairs. From the beginnings of modern history through WWII, no one can really question that history was written by those who emerged from conflicts victorious (although, as the quote above argues, this does not necessarily mean it is false).

The tide began to shift towards more objective historic accounting in the decades following WWII. The proliferation of independent media outlets, combined with advances in information and communication technologies (ICT) (the internet, social media, etc.), have made it much more difficult for any one party to dictate history on their own terms, regardless of their ability to exercise “hard power” (I wrote a research paper on this shift for anybody interested in a more in-depth read).

As people around the world have become more educated / empowered (via civil / human rights), we have naturally learned to question conventional wisdom. Have we gotten to the point where this historic adage is no longer applicable? A report by an Egyptian government panel responsible for determining what happened during the August 2013 Cairo massacre seemingly refutes this claim:

A government-appointed panel said on Wednesday that the deaths of hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters at a protest camp in Cairo last August was mostly the fault of demonstrators who had provoked the security forces into opening fire.

The findings mainly echoed the military-backed government’s version of events. But in an unusual move, the panel also placed some responsibility for the bloodshed on the security forces and said they had used disproptionate force.

Panel member Nasser Amin accused the Mursi supporters of detaining and torturing civilians at the protest camps…contradicting past official accounts, Amin said security forces did not maintain proportional use of force when confronted with heavy gunfire from protesters.

He said some protesters also carried arms and shot at security forces, causing them to fire back.

But most of the protesters were peaceful and some had been used as human shields by the gunmen, he said.

The Interior Ministry has said that authorities did not use excessive force to scatter the camps and that Mursi’s supporters fired first.

It is particularly telling that a commission tasked with assessing blame for 1,200+ murders took up the issue of “detaining and torturing”. The commission found that deaths were not the fault of the Egyptian military, but rather Mursi supporters who used protesters as “human shields”, apparently quite effectively.

Admission of disproportionate use of force by Egyptian forces is a sign that the Egyptian government cannot simply whitewash over this past August’s bloodshed. Instead, it has to rely on distraction (don’t worry about the murders which undeniably took place, worry about alleged torture), and absurd scapegoating (it was not the fault of those who fired on protesters, but of terrorists using people as human shields).

The wounds of the Morsi ouster and crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood are still very fresh. Morsi currently stands accused of capital crimes, and the MB was just designated a terrorist organization by Saudi Arabia, marking a larger regional crackdown against the group. Eventually, the truth will be recognized. Unfortunately for members of the Muslim Brotherhood, there is no specific date when this will happen. It is, however, important to remember that history is not written in a matter of months.

Eventually, liberal politicians will wrestle power from the Egyptian military. In order to build up the broad based support needed to do so, liberal politicians will have to embrace some form of a “truth and reconciliation commission“, uniting all factions of Egyptian civil society under the banners of pluralistic democracy, economic populism, and human rights. To what extent the Egyptian military will be held legally accountable under such a commission is uncertain; military leaders will likely use immunity as condition for agreeing to hand over power in the first place. However, just having official recognition of grievances fosters unity, trust, and reconciliation–all important aspects of peaceful and prosperous societies.

We have come to a point in history where eventually the truth prevails, which is in itself a huge victory for social justice / deterrent against nefarious actors. It can certainly be argued that currently “crime still pays”, as accountability for social injustices is often incomplete, disproportionately lenient, and not timely in nature. However, as trends in governance and technology continue to empower people, we will one day reach an age of true social accountability.


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Transparency Report: Notification, You Have 5 Billion New FB Friends; The Human Right To Internet Access

At the beginning of my internship at the UNDP, I was lucky enough to get the chance to volunteer at and then attend the ECOSOC Partnerships forum. I was assigned to write a few blogs for the event, among a number of other blogs I have written about events at  the UN which for some reason I have never shared on NN. Perhaps someday I will release the rest of the “lost UNDP blogs”, but that day is not today. Here are notes from the event Policy Dialogue: “The Changing Face of Technology and Innovation” (full blog):

The second policy dialogue at the ECOSOC youth forum focused on how technological innovations in recent years have helped bridge the “digital-divide” between developed and developing countries. While the gap has not been fully closed, partnerships between the private sector, governments, non-governmental organizations and civil society groups have helped identify challenges and opportunities in the developing world. By creating differentiated products at lower costs, private companies can gain access to new markets while simultaneously empowering the people in those markets.

Internet access is considered one of the great technological advances of our time. Internet access empowers people; the possibilities are constantly evolving and literally endless. It is an essential component of “E-Governance”, which includes the dissemination of information and a more inclusive and democratic government agenda-setting process. With a greater push for accountability and inclusiveness mechanisms in the Post-2015 Development Agenda, internet access, bolstered by innovations in mobile technology, has become an increasingly important tool for achieving sustainable human development.

But not enough has been done to make internet access affordable for a large portion of the world’s population. According to Mr. Tuli, 3 billion people have mobile phones but no internet access. This is not because of a lack of electricity or communication networks (as evidenced by the fact that they do have cell phones), but because they are priced out of the market. Mr. Tuli went on to call basic internet access a “human right”, to resounding applause from the hundreds of participants in the ECOSOC chamber.

While mobile technology was originally thought of as an educational tool, it has since evolved beyond that (although mobile education is still a proposed root for overcoming education deficits in Least Developed Countries (LDCs)). E-Governance can help disseminate information and promote inclusive governance, creating an enabling environment for sustainable human development. Healthcare providers can connect to information and expert advice in ways that can save lives. E-Finance can help provide capital in a much cheaper and convenient way to previously isolated groups, unlocking the entrepreneurial spirit in the developing world (and making such endeavors potentially much more profitable). Even people who are off traditional power grids (the least developed places in the world without basic infrastructure), mobile renewable energy generators and wireless internet capabilities can help bring ICTs virtually anywhere in the world.

Mobile technology penetration can be very rapid. Competition between private sector actors can drive prices down to affordable levels, and in some cases subsidies can help. Mr. Ogutu told the story of mobile phone penetration in Kenya; 5 years ago there were 20,000 users, today there are over 30 million users. This was made possible by M-Kopa, a company that utilized E-finance to provide pay-as-you-go mobile solar powered electricity to poor people who are not on a conventional power grid. Financing—secured through PPPs—allowed the founders of M-Kopa turn their vision into reality.

The narrative on bringing internet access to the least developed areas of the world continues a few months later. Not surprisingly, behind the initiative is a large-scale public-private partnership, with publicity magnet Facebook at its core (original article):

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, announced the launch of Internet.org Wednesday, a project aimed at bringing Internet access to the 5 billion people around the world who can’t afford it. The project is the latest initiative led by global-communications giants to combat market saturation in the developed world by introducing the Internet to remote and underprivileged communities.

“The goal of Internet.org is to make Internet access available to the two-thirds of the world who are not yet connected and to bring the same opportunities to everyone that the connected third of the world has today,” Zuckerberg said.

“There are huge barriers in developing countries to connecting and joining the knowledge economy,” he added. “Internet.org brings together a global partnership that will work to overcome these challenges.”

The project will develop lower-cost, higher-quality smartphones and deploy Internet access in underserved communities, while reducing the amount of data required to surf the Web. Other founding partners include Samsung, Qualcomm, Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia and Opera.

Facebook and other tech giants, of course, have a significant financial stake in expanding in the developing world. With tech companies reaching market saturation in the United States, countries in Latin America and Africa, for example, offer a big opportunity to attract a steady stream of new users, whose data can be mined by advertisers.

Connecting more people globally has important implications for how people organize their lives, said Patrick Meier, co-founder of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative’s program on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning. Social media has become a lifeline to people affected by earthquakes, floods and conflicts in the developing world, he added.

In places where the state is limited, Meier added, the Internet becomes a way to make up for services the government fails to provide. “When the state is not there, when you talk about limited statehood, you get a void,” he said.

In addition to acting as a substitute for the state in the context of “bad governance” / conflict / crisis environments, mobile technology should be a tool utilized by the state to promote inclusive and indiscriminate human rights based governance for sustainable human development. ICT connects people, enabling social accountability (people claiming their rights) by overcoming collective action problems. There are also myriad standard of living benefits associated with bringing ICT in the developing world–micro-financing, healthcare, education, media, etc. (OK maybe I am a little biased, I want those 5 billion readers too 😛 ).

Furthermore, by utilizing open-source technology and the collective will and creativity of 5 billion people facing similar problems, innovations in one part of the developing world can be adapted to the local needs of other developing regions. This would further expedite the global development process–open-source technology should be a core feature of the global internet connectivity push.

The possibilities are literally endless, as the utility and functions of the internet continue to evolve at ever faster rates. It should also be noted that new technological capabilities in LDCs will necessitate new policies, laws and oversight mechanisms to ensure gains are shared fairly. However, since these technologies are only new to certain regions, digital accountability mechanisms already exist for these regions to build on.   

I cannot stress enough how important bringing mobile ICTs to least developed countries is for sustainable human development, nor can I know how the technology will evolve in the future. Providing access to mobile information and communications technology empowers people, creating an enabling environment for a multitude of interrelated development objectives. These positive forces will naturally synergize, empowering people to challenge power-imbalances and hold powerful groups accountable for their human rights obligations.

ICTs are a natural fit for a large scale public-private-partnership (PPP). Companies can provide most of the start-up capital and technical know-how. Governments can create an education campaign about the benefits of ICTs and how to use them, while also guaranteeing companies market access and security of any capital / infrastructure installations (extremist groups will not like this idea as closing government service gaps will restrict their ability to buy goodwill and recruit new members). As ICTs help sustain the development process, new markets will emerge for communications companies to sell their products and services. This means more profits for companies, more tax revenue for governments, and a higher standard of living for people in LDCs. Not to suggest vested interests will not try to play spoiler (my regular readers by now know this is not the case), but overall a this is a win-win-win partnership.

Due to the indisputable importance of ICTs for sustainable human development, internet access should become an internationally recognized human right. Human rights obligations are primarily the responsibility of the state; in this case however, it seems that states have a willing and capable partner in the private sector. I will continue to keep the NN community up-to-date on this potentially-world-changing initiative.