John Pilger on bringing down the new Berlin Walls

The last thing the west wants is to dismantle the barriers separating "us" from "them". They are vital to its power.

The recent breakout of the people of Gaza provided a heroic spectacle unlike any other since the Warsaw ghetto uprising and the smashing down of the Berlin Wall. Whereas on the occupied West Bank, Ariel Sharon's master plan of walling in the population and stealing their land and resources has all but succeeded, requiring only a Palestinian Vichy to sign it off, the people of Gaza have defied their tormentors, however briefly, and it is a guarantee they will do so again. There is profound symbolism in their achievement, touching lives and hopes all over the world.

"[Sharon's] fate for us," wrote Karma Nabulsi, a Palestinian, "was a Hobbesian vision of an anarchic society: truncated, violent, powerless, destroyed, cowed, ruled by disparate militias, gangs, religious ideologues and extremists, broken up into ethnic and religious tribalism, and co-opted [by] collaborationists. Look to the Iraq of today - that is what he had in store for us and he nearly achieved it."

Israel's and America's experiments in mass suffering nearly achieved it. There was First Rains, the code name for a terror of sonic booms that came every night and sent Gazan children mad. There was Summer Rains, which showered bombs and missiles on civilians, then extrajudicial executions, and finally a land invasion. Ehud Barak, the current Israeli defence minister, has tried every kind of blockade: the denial of electricity for water and sewage pumps, incubators and dialysis machines and the denial of fuel and food to a population of mostly malnourished children. This has been accompanied by the droning, insincere, incessant voices of western broadcasters and politicians, one merging with the other, platitude upon platitude, tribunes of the "international community" whose response is not to help, but to excuse an indisputably illegal occupation as "disputed" and damn a democratically elected Palestinian Authority as "Hamas militants" who "refuse to recognise Israel's right to exist" when it is Israel that demonstrably refuses to recognise the Palestinians' right to exist.

"What is being hidden from the [Israeli] public," wrote Uri Avnery, a founder of Gush Sha lom, the Israeli peace movement, on 26 January, "is that the launching of the Qassams [rockets from Gaza] could be stopped tomorrow. Several months ago, Hamas proposed a ceasefire. It repeated the offer this week . . . Why doesn't our government jump at this proposal? Simple: to make such a deal, we must speak to Hamas . . . It is more important to boycott Hamas than to put an end to the suffering of Sderot. All the media co-operate with this pretence." Hamas long ago offered Israel a ten-year ceasefire and has since recognised the "reality" of the Jewish state. This is almost never reported in the west.

The inspiration of the Palestinian breakout from Gaza was dramatically demonstrated by the star Egyptian midfielder Mohamed Abou treika. Helping his national side to a 3-0 victory over Sudan in the African Nations Cup, he raised his shirt to reveal a T-shirt with the words "Sympathise with Gaza" in English and Arabic. The crowd stood and cheered, and hundreds of thousands of people around the world expressed their support for him and for Gaza. An Egyptian journalist who joined a delegation of sports writers to Fifa to protest against Aboutreika's yellow card said: "It is actions like his that bring many walls down, walls of silence, walls in our minds."

In the murdochracies, where most of the world is viewed as useful or expendable, we have little sense of this. The news selection is unremittingly distracting and disabling. The cynicism of an identical group of opportunists laying claim to the White House is given respectability as each of them competes to support the Bush regime's despotic war-making. John McCain, almost certainly the Republican nominee for president, wants a "hundred-year war". That the leading Democratic candidates are a woman and a black man is of supreme irrelevance; the fanatical Condoleezza Rice is both female and black. Look into the murky world behind Hillary Clinton and you find the likes of Monsanto, a company that produced Agent Orange, the war chemical that continues to destroy Vietnam. One of Barack Obama's chief whisperers is Zbigniew Brzezinski, architect of Operation Cyclone in Afghanistan, which spawned jihadism, al-Qaeda and 9/11.

This malign circus has been silent on Palestine and Gaza and almost anything that matters, including the following announcement, perhaps the most important of the century: "The first use of nuclear weapons must remain in the quiver of escalation as the ultimate instrument to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction." Inviting incredulity, these words may require more than one reading. They come from a statement written by five of the west's top military leaders, an American, a Briton, a German, a Frenchman and a Dutchman, who help run the club known as Nato. They are saying the west should nuke countries that have weapons of mass destruction - with the exclusion, that is, of the west's nuclear arsenal. Nuking will be necessary because "the west's values and way of life are under threat".

Where is this threat coming from? "Over there," say the generals.

Where? In "the brutal world".

 

An identifiable target

 

On 21 January, a day prior to the Nato announcement, Gordon Brown also out-Orwelled Orwell. He said that "the race for more and bigger stockpiles of nuclear destruction [sic]" is over. The reason he gave was that "the international community" (basically, the west) was facing "serious challenges". One of these challenges is Iran, which has no nuclear weapons and no programme to build them, according to America's National Intelligence Estimates. This is in striking contrast to Brown's Britain, which, in defiance of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has commissioned an entirely new Trident nuclear arsenal at a cost believed to be as much as £25bn. What Brown was doing was threatening Iran on behalf of the Bush regime, which wants to attack Iran before the end of the presidential year.

Jonathan Schell, author of the seminal Fate of the Earth, provides compelling evidence in his recently published The Seventh Decade: the New Shape of Nuclear Danger that nuclear war has now moved to the centre of western foreign policy even though the enemy is invented. In response, Russia has begun to restore its vast nuclear arsenal. Robert McNamara, the US defence secretary during the Cuban crisis, describes this as "Apocalypse Soon". Thus, the wall dismantled by young Germans in 1989 and sold to tourists is being built in the minds of a new generation.

For the Bush and Blair regimes, the invasion of Iraq and the campaigns against Hamas, Iran and Syria are vital in fabricating this new "nuclear threat". The effect of the Iraq invasion, says a study cited by Noam Chomsky, is a "sevenfold increase in the yearly rate of fatal jihadist attacks".

Behold Nato's instant "brutal world".

Of course, the highest and oldest wall is that which separates "us" from "them". This is described today as a great divide of religions or "a clash of civilisations", which are false concepts, propagated in western scholarship and journalism to provide what Edward Said called "the other" - an identifiable target for fear and hatred that justifies invasion and economic plunder. In fact, the foundations for this wall were laid more than 500 years ago when the privileges of "discovery and conquest" were granted to Christopher Columbus in a world that the then all-powerful pope considered his property, to be disposed of according to his will.

Nothing has changed. The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation and now Nato are invested with the same privileges of conquest on behalf of the new papacy in Washington. The goal is what Bill Clinton called the "integration of countries into the global free-market community", the terms of which, noted the New York Times, "require the United States to get involved in the plumbing and wiring of other nations' internal affairs more deeply than ever before".

This modern system of dominance requires sophisticated propaganda that presents its aims as benign, even "promoting democracy in Iraq", according to BBC executives responsible for responding to sceptical members of the public. That "we" in the west have the unfettered right to exploit the economies and resources of the poor world while maintaining tariff walls and state subsidies is taught as serious scholarship in the economics departments of leading universities. This is neoliberalism - socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor. "Rather than acknowledging," wrote Chalmers Johnson, "that free trade, privatisation and the rest of their policies are ahistorical, self-serving economic nonsense, apologists for neoliberalism have also revived an old 19th-century and neo-Nazi explanation for developmental failure - namely, culture."

What is rarely discussed is that liberalism as an open-ended, violent ideology is destroying liberalism as a reality. Hatred of Muslims is widely advertised by those claiming the respectability of what they call "the left". At the same time, opponents of the new papacy are routinely smeared, as seen in the recent fake charges of narcoterrorism against Hugo Chávez. Having insinuated their way into public debate, the smears deflect authentic critiques of Chávez's Venezuela and prepare the ground for an assault on it.

This is the role that journalism has played in the invasion of Iraq and the great injustice in Palestine. It also represents a wall, on which Aldous Huxley, describing his totalitarian utopia in Brave New World, might have written: "Opposition is apostasy. Fatalism is ideal. Silence is preferred." If the people of Gaza can disobey all three, why can't we?

www.johnpilger.com

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Naughty nation

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“Yes, it was entertaining”: A twisted tale of Twitter trolls and fake terror victims

Here’s what happened when I contacted people involved in the insidious new social media trend.

When I reach out to Sam to ask why she stole the image of a 19-year-old Minnesotan man to post on her Twitter account, the first thing she says is: “Am I getting paid?” The day after the Manchester Arena bombing, Sam took the profile picture of a man named Abdulfatah and posted it alongside a 137-character tweet. “Please retweet to help find Abdul,” she wrote. “He has chemo and we're very worried. We last heard from him before Ariana's concert”. She rounded it off with a hashtag. #PrayForManchester.

Abdulfatah was not a victim of the Manchester bombing and nor was he at Ariana’s concert, as he has been living in Cairo for the last year. Sam’s tweet was a lie that generated (at the time of writing) 1,280 retweets, mostly from people simply trying to help after a tragic terrorist attack. Over the last few years, trolls have responded to terrorism and other catastrophes by opportunistically pretending that their friends and family are among the victims of attacks. After the Manchester bombing, a handful of accounts continued this trend – for varied reasons.

“I had no aim,” is Sam’s simple response to being asked why she posted her tweet.

Sam explains that she wants me to pay her so she can “feed [her] team”, who she says are called the Halal Gang. After explaining that I cannot ethically pay for her interview, she concedes to speak when I say that I will link to her twitter account (@skrrtskrtt).

Born a male, 18-year-old Sam tells me she “prefers female pronouns” and immediately gives me her full name, town of residence, and the name of the English university where she studies civil engineering. When I ask for a form of ID to prove her identity, she claims she left her wallet on campus. When I ask her to simply email from her university email address, she says – over Twitter’s direct messaging service – “unfortunately i cannot provide u with evidence at this very moment”. For this reason, I will refer to her by her first name only. Her quotes are here copied verbatim from the messages she sent me online.

“I chose that mans image because he seemed like an easy target. I was quite intrigued by the huge number of retweets because i got the attention i never got at home. And yes i did him a favour by getting him clout. He's ugly so i guess I got him some girls. People who also made fake missing people are G's and i salute them.”

Why did you do it, I ask? The reply is one word. “Entertainment”.

***

Abdulfatah was casually scrolling through Twitter when he realised his profile picture had been stolen. “Honestly, it was horrific,” he tells me – again over Twitter’s messaging service – “I hope nobody has to go through what I did. Just imagine scrolling through Twitter only to find that some random person used your photo to claim you’ve gone missing in a bombing.”

When Abdulfatah decided to confront his troll on Twitter, his tweet got 63,000 retweets and 98,000 likes. “i'm from Cairo and i don't have Chemo... who tf are you? how do you know me???” he wrote – and his response went on to be featured in articles by The Sun, Yahoo!, Mashable, and AOL.com. The tweet is part of a larger story that has spread over the last few days – of “sick Twitters trolls” targeting innocent people by pretending they are missing. 

My Twitter chat with Abdulfatah spans a few hours, and he hammers home how “vile and disgusting” he finds the act of spreading fake victims on social media. “I hope people come to their senses soon and stop this type of behaviour. It’s not funny at all.” Half an hour after we exchange goodbyes, he messages me to explain that there is something else he wants to say.

“I totally forgot to mention this,” he begins. “I couldn't have done this without this groupchat I'm in called ‘Halal Gang’.”

***

In their 2017 book, The Ambivalent Internet: Mischief, Oddity, and Antagonism Online, authors Whitney Phillips and Ryan M Milner dedicate an entire chapter to “Identity Play” on the internet.

“Online and off, identity is a series of masks,” they write. “Whether online deceptions are harmless or targeted or somewhere in between, determining why anonymous or pseudonymous actors do the things they do can be very difficult.”

So why do people use the internet to deceive? The authors’ argue it is simple: “because they’re able to: because the contours of the space allow it.”

Creating a person online is incredibly simple. Believing that someone online is who they say they are is even easier. Many newspapers now create entire stories based around a single tweet – taking what is said and who said it as fact, and covering their backs with a few “appears to have” and “allegedly”s. By taking viral tweets at face value and crafting stories around them, media companies consistently break one of the internet’s oldest rules. Do not feed the trolls. 

***

Abdulfatah sent me a copy of his provisional driver’s license to prove to me that he is who he claims. After his announcement about the Halal Gang, I became suspicious that both the victim, Abdulfatah, and the perpetrator, Sam, were in fact working together to go viral. Why else would they both independently reference the same group? Instead of a random troll picking on a random person, was this the case of two friends working together to achieve social media fame?

“I have never met this person prior to this incident,” said Abdulfatah over Twitter, promising me that I could call him for clarification (at the time of writing, he has not answered his phone). “I feel offended that someone like that would ever try to claim to be a part of our group.” Abdulfatah was added to the Halal Gang (which is a Twitter group chat) in January, and says to me: “I promise you this isn't a troll.” It is worth noting that a Twitter search shows that Abdulfatah and Sam have never previously interacted publicly on the site.

From 19:43 to 20:30 on Wednesday night, I was added to the Halal Gang chat. The group describes themselves as a place for young people to “find peace and tranquillity” through the Islamic faith. The 12 members told me Sam was a “lost person” who used to be in the chat but was kicked out for inappropriate behaviour. Abdulfatah was her replacement (he says he didn’t know this) and thus Sam targeted him in her tweet after the Manchester attack. One member of the Halal Gang said that Sam was his ex and went on to send a sexually-suggestive picture of her in the chat.

“It wasn’t our intention to go viral, just to help out Abdul but I guess it was kind of cool to go viral lol,” said one member.

Rather than trolls targeting random people, this incident therefore seemed to be a case of personal rivalry and revenge. This goes some way to explaining the psychology behind, and the motivations of, people who claim to have missing friends and family after terrorist attacks. According to the Halal Gang, Sam was simply targeting her replacement, Abdulfatah, because she likes trolling.

But then, at midnight, I received another Twitter message, from a person wishing to remain strictly anonymous.

“This is a MAJOR conspiracy,” they wrote.

***

Most of the time people make up fake victims on social media, the motives are cut and dried.

Andrea Noel is a Mexican journalist whose picture was circulated after the Manchester bombing, in a collage purporting to show 20 missing people. She has been trolled extensively in the past after speaking on social media about her sexual assault, and believes some of the same “anti-feminist” trolls may have been at work.

“I started getting Facebook messages and Twitter messages from various people that I know… getting in touch with me to make sure I wasn’t in Manchester,” she tells me over the phone.

The collage Andrea appears in also includes photographs of YouTubers, and was featured on the Daily Mail’s Twitter and Fox News as a legitimate collage of missing people. According to Buzzfeed, 4Chan trolls may have been behind the picture, choosing people they disliked as their victims.

Yet when a handful of people create a fake image, it is thousands more who are responsible for its impact. In 2013, researchers found that 86 per cent of tweets spreading fake images after Hurricane Sandy were retweets, not original tweets.

Caroline Leo is a 16-year-old from Florida who gained over 15,000 retweets on her tweet of the collage. “I felt good about it because I was helping find so many people and my phone was literally freezing and I had to turn it off for a little while,” she tells me of the initial reaction to the tweet. Yet when multiple people contacted her to say it was fake, she decided not to delete it as some of those featured in the picture were actual missing people. “I was so happy to make their faces familiar to over one million people and I wanted to keep it up because I like Ariana so much and I wanted to help other people who love her just as much as I do,” she says.

Andrea understands Caroline’s motivations, but does think people need to be more careful about what they spread online. “If you realise that half of these people are YouTubers then just delete it, you know. Make a new one,” she says. “I understand that she’s trying to be sweet but after a couple of hours everyone knew this was fake… so, really just make a new one.”

Yet a big part of the reason people create fake images – or accidentally spread them believing them to be real and then don't want to delete them – is for the likes, retweets, and comments. The buzz that we feel from social media attention doesn’t go away just because of a tragedy, and Dr Linda Kaye, an expert in the psychological impacts of technology, explains social media interactions facilitate our “need satisfaction”.

“Humans are social animals and have a basic need for social belonging,” she says. “Perhaps these individuals who [use social media] in this way to gain ‘social approval’ are not having their social needs fulfilled by their existing relationships with friends and family. Adolescents may be particularly prone to this sort of behaviour, as this is a period of great change, in which peer relationships often become more fundamental to them than parental ones.”

John, a YouTuber who was also featured in the collage and in a separate tweet claiming he was missing, urges people to think before they act on social media. “If there is one thing I would like to say about this all... I understand that during events such as this, information can develop and spread very rapidly,” he tells me, “but it doesn't hurt to try to confirm information through a second source.

“For instance, say that a story on Yahoo is claiming that I was a victim - is the BBC reporting the same story? During a crisis situation, I feel that disseminating the correct information to the general public is absolutely crucial and potentially lifesaving.”

***

The Twitter user who contacted me about the Halal Gang “conspiracy” refused to speak when I said I would not transfer $10 to his PayPal account. “$10 is a steal for the info I have not gonna lie,” they said. When I refused, they sent me this offensive meme from the adult cartoon The Boondocks.

At 3:05am, another anonymous Twitter user messaged me. They claimed that the man in the Halal Gang who claimed to be Sam’s ex and had sent me a sexual picture of her, was in fact trying to humiliate his ex. “It’s embarrassing don’t use that picture in any articles,” they wrote.

As it stands, there is potential that the Halal Gang were working together to get multiple viral tweets. There is also potential that the man who asked me for $10 was also trolling in turn by trying to tell me the Halal Gang were acting like this when they are, in fact, innocent. Yet if not Abdulfatah, some members of the group seem to be corresponding with Sam, as she changed her story after I spoke with them. “I believe they kicked me way before the incident and I’ll be completely honest with you, I wanted to get them back, yes,” she says, despite moments earlier saying that they kicked her out after her Manchester attack tweet.

It is impossible to work out Sam’s true motivations for creating a fake victim, as she is hiding behind her online persona and simply answered “nope” when I asked if there was a number I could call her on. Her comments – that she lives in a foster home and is emotionally abused by her family, that she is “not dumb enough to go to an Ariana Grande concert”, and that people critical of her actions “need to move on init” – read as though she is simply trolling me, a journalist, in turn.

There is no real way for me to know who is who they say they are, and whether the Halal Gang are telling the truth that they didn't collaborate with Sam (they refuse to send over screenshots of her being kicked out from the groupchat, as the chat has a “no SS” rule). As Phillips and Milner note, even experts have great difficulty identifying people online. Either way, there is clearly more of connection between Sam and Abdulfatah than the two initial tweets made it seem. 

The reason why this matters is because this story isn’t really about Sam, nor is it about Abdulfatah. If two friends (or people involved in the same group) seek to get revenge or go viral by attacking each other on social media, it is not their actions that have wide-reaching ramifications. It is the actions of the hundreds of thousands of people who choose to Retweet uncorroborated claims, and the journalists who take tweets as gospel. Naturally, in the painful hours proceeding a terror attack, we all make mistakes about what we share on social media. But we can fix them and we can avoid making the mistakes again.

Before claiming she wanted revenge, Sam told me she was acting on a desire to be entertained. I check with her, after this revelation, whether she succeeded in this aim. “So did you find it entertaining?” I ask.

“Yes,” she replies. “It was entertaining.” 

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

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