Migrants prepare to cast off the beach at Shimbiro, Somalia, for a perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen and beyond. Photo: Alixandra Fazina/N
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The best of the NS in 2014: World Affairs

Our best pieces from the past year. In this selection, we choose the best foreign affairs coverage and reports from abroad.

From Portsmouth to Kobane: the British jihadis fighting for Isis

By Shiraz Maher.

British jihadis fighting for Isis What motivates the young men who leave Britain to join the murderous fanatics of Isis in the Middle East? Shiraz Maher spoke to dozens of them inside Syria to find out.
 

Life among the ruins: ten days inside the Gaza Strip

By Donald Macintyre.

The grossly asymmetrical casualties inflicted on the Palestinians have obscured another important question: how far have they even been worth it from Israel’s point of view?
 

High heels and hijabs: Iran’s sexual revolution

By Ramita Navai.

For more than 30 years, the Islamic Republic has been obsessively battling against sex, but as with anything that is suppressed or banned, people have learned to sidestep the punitive regulations.  


Miracle of the tsunami

By Xan Rice.

A family lost a son and daughter in the Indian Ocean disaster. Ten years on, they may have found them.
 

Blowback: who are Isis and why are young Brits fighting with them?

By John Bew and Shiraz Maher.

Hundreds of young British men are said to have joined the murderous group, first in Syria and now on its bloody incursion into Iraq. What happens when they come home?  


It is sobering to see how war has taken hold in Ukraine

By Lindsey Hilsum.

There is no question in my mind that Russia stirred up this war to destabilise Ukraine, but how will these people ever trust the government in Kyiv again?  


Can anyone bring back Nigeria's lost girls?

By John Simpson.

President Goodluck Jonathan has no strategy for dealing with Boko Haram – he just hopes the world will forget the 276 youngsters kidnapped by them in April.  


Project Martyr: the British doctor who went to work in Syria

By Martin Fletcher.

In 2011, Rami Habib, a 43-year-old doctor from Leicester, flew to Syria. Since then, he has watched the revolution against Bashar al-Assad fall apart – but he won’t give up.  

 

Two years after the infamous Delhi gang rape, India’s women still aren’t safe

By Samira Shackle.

India is only just beginning to understand the scale of its sexual violence problem. The public discussion in the wake of the Nirbhaya case has been encouraging, but until it translates into action, little will change.

 

At the gates of power: Marine Le Pen and the far right in France

By Charles Bremner.

Under her father, the Front National was the pariah party of France. Now Marine Le Pen has brought it closer to the mainstream – and people are getting worried.  

 

Francis Fukuyama: “America shouldn’t have permanent enemies”

By Sophie McBain.

The American political scientist and author once predicted that liberal democracy had won the battle of ideas. Now he says political Islam is not a serious threat to the west and we should not intervene in Iraq.
 

From Africa to Kent: following in the footsteps of migrants

By Daniel Trilling.

The guardians of Fortress Europe are fighting a lost battle: poor migrants will always try to find a better life for themselves, or die in the attempt. Daniel Trilling traces their steps, from the Middle East and Africa to the Kent countryside.  


Where has the French Left gone?

By Myriam Francois-Cerrah.

The recent dissolution of the government reflects the increasing pressure on Hollande to turn around a dire economic outlook.
 

I saw no evidence of Hamas using Palestinians as human shields

By Jeremy Bowen.

The BBC's Middle East editor reports from Gaza.
 

A tale of two cities: how San Francisco's tech boom is widening the gap between rich and poor

By Laurie Penny.

San Francisco is awash with tech money. Yet this city of innovation is also a place where you have to step over the homeless to buy a $20 artisan coffee.  

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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