A kitten and a gun, as posted on Instagram by a jihadi fighter with the hashtag #CatsOfJihad.
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Why terrorists tweet about cats

It used to be that extremists used Facebook and YouTube to post recruiting videos - but Isis and its fighters have become adept at using social media to show their side of war.

In April, British Pathé uploaded its entire collection of 85,000 newsreels to YouTube. From 1908 until the late 1940s, when television gradually supplanted them, these reels gave the public what newspapers and radio couldn’t: a visual, moving record of current affairs. The iconic footage from the Second World War – including Hitler’s early speeches and the bombing of Hiroshima – were also useful for the government’s propaganda effort. In those days, controlling the narrative was as simple as keeping an eye on a few newspapers, a handful of movie studios and the BBC.

One of the wonders of the internet is how irrelevant it makes the distinction between “people” and “the media”. Was it a journalist or a blogger who broke the story? Who cares, if it gets a minister sacked? Today, a smartphone can be as powerful as a media agency.

Consider that 11 years ago many of us saw the US-led invasion of Iraq through the eyes of John Simpson, who spoke to BBC viewers live via satellite phone from a road near Mosul and explained that it was “a bit of a disaster, I have to say” that the Americans had bombed one of their own convoys and killed around ten people. The broadcast was remarkable for its intensity and candidness – at one point a soldier interrupts Simpson to point out that the journalist is bleeding – but at root, the footage is little different to a Pathé newsreel. It might be more immediate and more explicit but it is still war reportage by a journalist whose job is to tell us what he thinks we need to know.

It is too dangerous for most journalists to report from Syria or Isis-controlled territories in Iraq. Our perception of what is happening comes instead from the fighters themselves. They are using Twitter and Instagram and relying on the disturbingly well-organised Isis public relations team – which knew, for instance, that the best way to spread videos of the murder of hundreds of Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit was to upload them to sites such as LiveLeak, rather than to send them to major media outlets.

Different Isis groups each have their own “corporate” Twitter accounts – which brag about victories both real and imagined. Individual fighters use apps such as WhatsApp, Viber and Kik to communicate with each other and social media sites including Twitter and Ask.fm to troll their critics. There’s a subgroup of fighters who Instagram photos of their guns, snacks and cats.

Many of these young men are showing off because they want to prove to their friends – some of whom are in the west – that joining Isis is fun. Like execution or recruitment videos, social media jokes are an exercise in propaganda. No wonder an Isis fighter tweeted: “Praise be to Allah, who gave Twitter to the mujahideen so that they may share their joys and not have to listen to the BBC, al-Arabiya, al-Jazeera.”

And no wonder that from 13 June, the Iraqi government began blocking social media and video sites across the country. Isis has a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of soft power.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

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Why orphanages are not the answer to Hurricane Matthew’s devastation

For this year’s New Statesman Christmas charity campaign, we are supporting the work of Lumos in Haiti.

Two weeks after Hurricane Matthew made landfall, I found myself driving along the Haitian coast, 40 miles north of Port-Au-Prince. The storm had barely impacted this part of the country when it hit in early October. There were a few days of rain, some felled trees, and locals complained that water ate away at the beachfront. But nothing remotely comparable to the devastation in other parts of the country.

In an odd turn of events, I found myself traveling in this relatively untouched central zone with two young American women – missionaries. “And there’s an orphanage,” one pointed out as we zoomed by. “And here’s another one too,” the other said, just on the opposite side of the road. They counted them like a memory game: remembering where they’ve popped up, their names, how many children are housed within their walls.

The young women spoke of the neglect and abuse they witnessed in some of them. No matter how “good” an orphanage might be, it simply cannot replace the love, attention, and security provided by a safe family environment. “And it doesn’t matter if the kids look OK. It doesn’t mean anything. You know it’s not right,” the younger of the two quietly says. She was a volunteer in one that cared for 50 children at the time. “Most people who live and work in Haiti don’t like the orphanage system. We keep getting them because of Americans who want to help but don’t live in Haiti.”

In the quick mile of road that we covered, they identified nine orphanages. Two of the orphanages housed less than 10 children, six averaged around 40 children. One housed over 200 children. All but one was set up in the months following the 2010 earthquake. There was a significant increase in the number of orphanages across Haiti in the next four years.

The institutionalisation of children is still the go-to response of many Western donors. US funders have a quick and relatively cheap access to Haiti, not to mention an established history of support to orphanages with nearly seven years’ investment since the earthquake. Many local actors and organisations, international NGO staff, and others in the child protection sphere share the same fear: that many new orphanages will crop up post-hurricane.

But it’s not just orphanage donors who do not understand the true impact of their interventions. Humanitarian relief workers have a gap in institutional knowledge when it comes to best practice in emergency response for this particular vulnerable group of children.

Nearly two months on from the hurricane, rain and flooding continue to hamper humanitarian relief efforts in the south of Haiti. Over 806,000 people still need urgent food assistance and 750,000 safe water, and 220,000 boys and girls remain are at risk, requiring immediate protection. But what about the virtually invisible and uncounted children in orphanages? These children cannot line up to receive the food aid at relief agency distribution centers. They cannot take advantage of child-friendly spaces or other humanitarian services.

We must find a way of reaching children in orphanages in an emergency, and bring their situations up to an acceptable standard of care. They have the right to clean water, food, medical attention, education, and safe shelter – like all other children. But therein lies the catch: orphanages cannot just be rehabilitated into perceived best options for vulnerable families. A balance must be struck to care for institutionalised children in the interim, until family tracing and reunification can occur. Simultaneously, families must be strengthened so that they do not see orphanages as the only option for their children.

We know that nine orphanages per mile does not equal a good emergency response. Housing children along an isolated strip of road segregates them from their families and communities, and violates their best interests and their human rights.

Since I visited Haiti last, Lumos, in partnership with the Haitian government and local partners, has documented over 1,400 children in 20 orphanages in the hurricane-affected South. Vulnerable families have been strengthened in efforts to avoid separation, and we are working with the government to ensure that no new children are placed in orphanages.

We are all worried that, without concerted messaging, efforts to raise awareness among donors, relief agencies, and families, the orphanage boom will happen again in Haiti. And though Haiti is susceptible to natural disaster, its families and children shouldn’t have to be. In seven years we cannot find ourselves repeating the same sorry mantra: “and there’s another orphanage, and another, and another. . .”

Jamie Vernaelde is a researcher with Lumos, based in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter: @jmvernaelde

This December, the New Statesman is joining with Lumos to raise money to help institutionalised children in Haiti return to family life. In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, funds are needed to help those who have become separated from their families. Please consider pledging your support at http://bit.ly/lumosns

Thanks to Lumos’s 100 per cent pledge, every penny of your donation goes straight to the programme. For more information, see: http://wearelumos.org