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Bradley Manning, the unknown soldier

The spotlight has been on Julian Assange, but the 23-year-old accused of leaking US secrets to Wikileaks.

The spotlight has been on Julian Assange, but the 23-year-old accused of leaking US secrets to WikiLeaks, is held in solitary confinement at a US army base and faces life in prison. Can anyone save him?

On 26 May 2010, 23-year-old American soldier Bradley Manning was arrested in Iraq on suspicion of leaking classified information. As Manning was charged and imprisoned, first in Iraq and then in the US, the organisation WikiLeaks released an unprecedented amount of information into the public sphere: most significantly, the Afghanistan war logs in July, the Iraq war logs in October and then thousands of diplomatic cables in November. Julian Assange, the founder and pale face of WikiLeaks, went into hiding but emerged in London after the Swedish judiciary requested his extradition to face charges of alleged rape and sexual assault.

As Assange became a worldwide media sensation, with a host of well-known supporters paying his bail and publicly offering him support, Manning was comparatively forgotten. Assange himself says they have never met (if it cannot be proven that Manning leaked data directly to Assange, then the US authorities will have no case to prosecute or extradite the WikiLeaks founder). But in an interview with MSNBC in December, he described Manning as a "political prisoner".

Manning is being held at the Marine Corps Brig in Quantico, Virginia. He has been there since 29 July 2010 after spending two months in a military jail in Kuwait. Only two people visit him: his lawyer, David Coombs, and a friend, David House. Manning doesn't have many friends. Since his arrest, people have fallen away, reluctant to be associated with a man who has incurred the wrath of the highest levels of the US government and who could spend the next 52 years of his life in jail.

House - a softly spoken, intense 23-year-old from Alabama - has taken Manning up as his cause. When I meet him in London, he says he didn't know Manning personally before the events of last year. A researcher at MIT, House is involved in the hacker community in Boston. Manning was connected to the group through a friend and House said he knew of him. After Manning's arrest, state department officials, the FBI and police investigated the hackers, trying to fathom their informal set-up and find out what they knew about Manning. In response, members of the group formed the Bradley Manning Support Network. House got involved and began to visit Manning in jail.

Brig problem

The military base at Quantico is huge. An hour outside Washington DC, it is mostly used as a training centre for marines, but there is also an air base and accommodation for military personnel and their families. It has a suburban atmosphere, says House - woods and fields surround the area, and a river passes through it. Manning is held in the "Brig", a squat, one-story building surrounded by barbed-wire fences. The unit is normally used as a short-term pre-trial detainment centre, where suspects are held for a maximum of 90 days. Manning has been there for seven months.

When House arrives to see Manning, he is searched and then lead into a fluorescently-lit room dissected by a glass wall. There is a tiny hole in the wall through which the two men can speak. The whole facility has to go into lockdown when Manning - a "maximum custody" prisoner - is taken out of his cell. House says he can hear his friend before he sees him, because his chains rattle so loudly. "I can't really describe how bizarre it is to see a 110-pound, five-foot-three individual done up in chains from his hands to his feet, connected at the waist, so he can't really move," he says.

As they talk, three marines stand behind Manning and listen to the conversation. They stare at House. His first visit was in September 2010 and he has been to Quantico every few weeks since then. As time has gone on, House has noticed that Manning has become increasingly anxious about discussing his situation in the Brig. There have been other changes, too - it takes Manning longer to warm up to conversation; sometimes it will be nearly an hour before he is able to speak at any length or with coherence. He has also gained weight and appears exhausted. Most recently, he has appeared almost catatonic, barely able to communicate at all.

This kind of deterioration is typical of prisoners held in solitary confinement. Manning is under a Prevention of Injury (POI) order, which limits his social contact, exercise, sleep and access to external stimuli such as newspapers or television (Manning had no idea of the impact the WikiLeaks release was having until House told him). He spends 23 hours a day alone in his cell. The hour he is allowed out, he is taken to an empty room and walks in circles. If he is caught exercising in his cell, he is forced to stop. At night, Manning is stripped to his underwear and has to sleep under blankets that he says give him carpet burn. He is usually woken several times throughout the night by guards. POI orders are usually issued when prisoners present a risk to themselves or others and are supposed to be temporary. Manning has been under the order since he arrived at the Brig in July.

In January, the Brig commander put Manning on suicide watch for three days (though none of his psychological evaluations have suggested he has suicidal tendencies or any inclination to harm himself). Manning's glasses were removed, so he was unable to see properly. A guard was stationed outside his door, his clothing removed and he was kept in his cell for 24 hours a day. House cannot understand why the suicide watch or POI conditions are enforced, given the recommendations by Brig psychiatrists that Manning is psychologically fit. Pentagon officials maintain that Manning receives the same treatment and "privileges as all other prisoners held in what the military calls 'maximum custody'". But House points out that Manning is the only maximum-custody detainee at Quantico, "so he is being treated like himself".

When House and Manning talk, they cover a range of subjects and common interests - computers, philosophy and the impact of technology on society. They share a passion for the potential of the internet, for free information. At their first meeting they had "this amazing conversation about Hinduism and the way the internet distils ethics down". Manning requested that House visit again.

Born in December 1987 in the small town of Crescent, Oklahoma, Manning grew up with his parents and sister. In his early teens, his father walked out and his mother, Susan, decided to move with the children back to her home of Haverfordwest in south-west Wales. It was an awkward transition for Manning, who went to the local school and spent much of his time in the computer room. When he was 17, he returned to Oklahoma to live with his father, who threw him out when he discovered his son was gay. Manning lived on the road, moving from place to place without a job. He visited a boyfriend, Tyler Watkins, in Boston where he met the network of hackers around MIT. In October 2007, he joined the US army and was soon despatched to a base outside Baghdad in Iraq.

The reasons for Manning's disaffection with the US military have been widely discussed. House says it is difficult for him to talk about this with Manning directly, as he doesn't feel comfortable talking about the past or about his alleged crime in any detail in front of the marines. But House says there is one incident they have discussed that had a clear impact on Manning. A group of Iraqis had been detained for publishing "anti-Iraqi literature". Manning, tasked with investigating the case, got the leaflets translated and discovered they were a serious critique of government corruption. He notified his superior officer, who simply told him to find more Iraqis to detain.

According to chat logs of alleged conversations between Manning and a fellow hacker, Adrian Lamo (later published incompletely by Wired), the huge download of information from government databases was easy to execute. Manning appears to explain how he was able to copy data from the classified network using unmarked CDs. In the chat logs, Manning seemed to realise the potential impact of his actions. "Hillary Clinton and several thousand diplomats are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format, to the public," he wrote. Lamo, based in California, informed the authorities and Manning was arrested.

At attention

Manning has no set date for a trial. Those, such as House, who are campaigning on his behalf, want Manning's case to be handled with "due process" and the extreme conditions of his detainment to be re-evaluated. They want him to be seen by an independent pyschiatrist and are also trying to raise awareness in the UK, as Manning holds dual UK/US citizenship.

But the authorities, it seems, do not like the attention. In January, House drove to the Quantico base to visit Manning with Jane Hamsher, a Washington DC film producer and blogger. The pair were stopped before they reached the base and held by the police on the basis that Hamsher only had a digital copy of her car insurance certificate. They were eventually let go, as visiting hours ended, and so were unable to see Manning. This incident occurred shortly after Manning was on suicide watch. As Hamsher put it to me: "It felt like they didn't want David to see Bradley that day and they were going to do anything they could to stop it."

Towards the end of our conversation, I ask House why he thinks Manning might have committed the crime he is accused of. "If the chat logs between Manning and Lamo are true, you can see Manning's need for attention," he says. "But we also see him calling for worldwide debate and reform. When I meet him, I see the individual that wants reform. But I think at the core of it are the conditions in his life. He needed to find some self-worth in the world."

Sophie Elmhirst is an assistant editor of the NS

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The great property swindle

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.