Category: Science & technology

Backfire effect

Head in Hands

Here Are 5 Infuriating Examples of Facts Making People Dumber

By , Wed Mar. 5, 2014 3:00 AM GMT



On Monday, I reported on the latest study to take a bite out of the idea of human rationality. In a paper just published in Pediatrics, Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth University and his colleagues showed that presenting people with information confirming the safety of vaccines triggered a “backfire effect,” in which people who already distrusted vaccines actually became less likely to say they would vaccinate their kids.

Unfortunately, this is hardly the only example of such a frustrating response being documented by researchers. Nyhan and his coauthor, Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter, have captured several others, as have other researchers. Here are some examples:

1. Tax cuts increase revenue? In a 2010 study, Nyhan and Reifler asked people to read a fake newspaper article containing a real quotation of George W. Bush, in which the former president asserted that his tax cuts “helped increase revenues to the Treasury.” In some versions of the article, this false claim was then debunked by economic evidence: A correction appended to the end of the article stated that in fact, the Bush tax cuts “were followed by an unprecedented three-year decline in nominal tax revenues, from $2 trillion in 2000 to $1.8 trillion in 2003.” The study found that conservatives who read the correction were twice as likely to believe Bush’s claim was true as were conservatives who did not read the correction.

2. Death panels! Another notorious political falsehood is Sarah Palin’s claim that Obamacare would create “death panels.” To test whether they could undo the damage caused by this highly influential morsel of misinformation, Nyhan and his colleagues had study subjects read an article about the “death panels” claim, which in some cases ended with a factual correction explaining that “nonpartisan health care experts have concluded that Palin is wrong.” Among survey respondents who were very pro-Palin and who had a high level of political knowledge, the correction actually made them more likely to wrongly embrace the false “death panels” theory.

3. Obama is a Muslim! And if that’s still not enough, yet another Nyhan and Reifler study examined the persistence of the “President Obama is a Muslim” myth. In this case, respondents watched a video of President Obama denying that he is a Muslim or even stating affirmatively, “I am a Christian.” Once again, the correction—uttered in this case by the president himself—often backfired in the study, making belief in the falsehood that Obama is a Muslim worse among certain study participants. What’s more, the backfire effect was particularly notable when the researchers administering the study were white. When they were nonwhite, subjects were more willing to change their minds, an effect the researchers explained by noting that “social desirability concerns may affect how respondents behave when asked about sensitive topics.” In other words, in the company of someone from a different race than their own, people tend to shift their responses based upon what they think that person’s worldview might be.

4. The alleged Iraq-Al Qaeda link. In a 2009 study, Monica Prasad of Northwestern University and her colleagues directly challenged Republican partisans about their false belief that Iraq and Al Qaeda collaborated in the 9/11 attacks, a common charge during the Bush years. The so-called challenge interviews included citing the findings of the 9/11 Commission and even a statement by George W. Bush, asserting that his administration had “never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and Al Qaeda.” Despite these facts, only 1 out of 49 partisans changed his or her mind after the factual correction. Forty-one of the partisans “deflected” the information in a variety of ways, and seven actually denied holding the belief in the first place (although they clearly had).

5. Global warming. On the climate issue, there does not appear to be any study that clearly documents a backfire effect. However, in a 2011 study, researchers at American and Ohio State universities found a closely related “boomerang effect.” In the experiment, research subjects from upstate New York read news articles about how climate change might increase the spread of West Nile Virus, which were accompanied by the pictures of the faces of farmers who might be affected. But in one case, the people were said to be farmers in upstate New York (in other words, victims who were quite socially similar to the research subjects); in the other, they were described as farmers from either Georgia or from France (much more distant victims). The intent of the article was to raise concern about the health consequences of climate change, but when Republicans read the article about the more distant farmers, their support for action on climate change decreased, a pattern that was stronger as their Republican partisanship increased. (When Republicans read about the proximate New York farmers, there was no boomerang effect, but they did not become more supportive of climate action either.)

Together, all of these studies support the theory of “motivated reasoning”: The idea that our prior beliefs, commitments, and emotions drive our responses to new information, such that when we are faced with facts that deeply challenge these commitments, we fight back against them to defend our identities. So next time you feel the urge to argue back against some idiot on the internet…pause, take a deep breath, and realize not only that arguing might not do any good, but that in fact, it might very well backfire. or

Caïn venant de tuer son frère Abel, by Henry Vidal in Tuileries Garden in Paris, France.  Photograph by Alex E. Proimos, , 20:35:47.

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Their first institutional reflex


A clue as to why the Shin Bet might hack me

By Jonathan Cook, 7 February 2014


I have been pondering – probably more than is wise – what happened yesterday, when I lost control of my computer for an hour shortly after I had contacted the Israeli prime minister’s spokesman for a comment from the Shin Bet. I was working on a story about the various ways the Shin Bet seeks to exert pressure on Palestinians to recruit them as collaborators. For details of what happened, you can read about it here.

Several people have pointed out, following my post last night, that we should all assume that we are being watched all the time, and especially people like journalists. Much as I would be secretly flattered to think that I have my own dedicated Shin Bet agent analysing my every keystroke, as I laboriously tap out my stories, I am realist enough to know that is a little unlikely. Even the Shin Bet must have worked out by now that it is simpler to wait a day or two to read the posts on my website. The Shin Bet has limited resources, and I and people like me are still a marginal problem (though maybe not for much longer).

The thing that has puzzled me most is the brazen manner in which this was done, while I was looking on trying to regain control of my computer. No effort was made to hide the hack. I and several other readers have speculated that I should interpret this behaviour as a warning, or threat. As I explained yesterday, one of the Shin Bet’s main goals in recruiting collaborators is, in addition to gathering information, to sow fear and doubt, to isolate people and dissuade them from working together – in the Palestinian case, on resistance to the occupation.

Nonetheless, I don’t find this explanation entirely satisfying either. I can’t believe that the Shin Bet are so naive as to think that showing me they can watch me whenever they choose will force me to pack up my journalistic bags and take up another career, or tone down my reporting. After all, this is all I know how to do.

So what happened last night?

As I was trying to clear my mind to fall asleep, the penny dropped. In recounting the events yesterday, I overlooked an important element. Shortly after I emailed David Baker, one of the prime minister’s spokesmen, with my question for the Shin Bet, he emailed back. This is what he wrote:

Jonathan, Please send me the names  of those who asked for the permits and I will try to get you a response from the relevant authority.

Now, at the time I thought this a ludicrous request. What journalist is going to hand over a list of Palestinians who have complained to human rights lawyers that they were pressured into collaborating after requesting permits for emergency medical treatment? I ignored it and asked Baker just to get a response to my general question about whether such techniques were used. Now I consider his response both a little more sinister than I assumed and also the clue as to what happened.

First for the sinister. There’s a famous saying: to a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The Shin Bet’s main operational tool is collecting intelligence, including human intelligence (i.e. collaborators, in all their various guises). So I suspect that when they received my mail their first institutional reflex was to try to ensnare me, clumsily, into collaborating, whether inadvertently or not. When I refused to take the bait, they started thinking along different lines.

I am guessing that when my request came through, the assumption with some mid-level Shin Bet officer was that I would have on my computer either my notes from conversations with Palestinians complaining about the Shin Bet, or a list from human rights groups of  such Palestinians. Remember that the effort to recruit collaborators is a violation of the Geneva Conventions. In short, it’s a war crime. So I think we can safely assume that the Shin Bet is understandably a little sensitive about this aspect of their operations.

I am also guessing that they were concerned I might start to worry and delete the information from my computer. Time was of the essence: hack my computer quickly and download whatever was on the hard drive for leisurely analysis. In essence, what seems to have happened was the equivalent of the journalist or gumshoe who returns home to find his apartment ransacked by the security services. The only difference was that in virtual-world they can ransack your computer while you stand there helplessly watching them do it.

I recount the above in this much detail because one of the things that I find so irritating about the Israeli documentary The Gatekeepers, and the general acclamation of it, is the impression it has created among more naive viewers, including most reviewers, that the Shin Bet’s recent heads have been sensitive and liberal-minded individuals caught in an impossibly difficult situation. That’s like thinking Mafia godfathers are really just nice guys working in a tough world.

The Shin Bet is run by people who have the minds of thugs, clever thugs, but thugs nonetheless. If that has always been true, it is all the more so now. The Haaretz newspaper recently revealed that three of the four top posts in the Shin Bet are currently occupied by people who describe themselves as national-religious – that is, the ideology of the extremist settlers.

That too might help to explain the arrogance of ransacking my computer while I looked on. If they do that to a journalist who has at least the odd feeble tool (like this blog) to fight back, what are they doing to desperate, vulnerable Palestinians who need permits to get emergency medical treatment outside Gaza? I think we know the answer. or

Photograph (modified) of Prime Minister Netanyahu.

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Politically motivated and theologically inept

darwinNew Atheism’s big mistake: Debating creationists solves nothing

By Sean McElwee and Abigail Salvatore, Saturday, Feb  1, 2014 09:30 AM CST


Bill Nye and Ken Ham will be debating creationism on Feb. 4, and it’s a bad idea for both scientists and Christians. Ham’s young-earth creationism represents the distinct tendency of American Christian fundamentalists to reject science and use their religion to defend economic ideas, environmental degradation and anti-science extremism. But these views aren’t actually inherent in Christianity — they’ve been imposed on the biblical text by politically motivated and theologically inept readers. The solution is not anti-theism but better theological and scientific awareness.

The vast majority of right-wing Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. are evangelicals, followers of an offshoot of Protestantism. Protestantism is based on the premise that truth about God and his relationship with the world can be discovered by individuals, regardless of their level of education or social status. Because of its roots in a schism motivated by a distrust of religious experts (priests, bishops, the pope), Protestantism today is still highly individualistic. In the United States, Protestantism has been mixed with the similarly individualistic American frontier mythos, fomenting broad anti-intellectualism.

Richard Hofstadter’s classic, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” perfectly summarizes the American distaste for intellectualism and how egalitarian sentiments became intertwined with religion. He and Walter Lippmann point to the first wave of opposition to Darwinian evolution theory, led by William Jennings Bryan, as the quintessential example of the convergence of anti-intellectualism, the egalitarian spirit and religion. Bryan worried about the conflation of Darwinian evolution theory and capitalist economics that allowed elites to declare themselves superior to lower classes. He felt that the teaching of evolution challenged popular democracy: “What right have the evolutionists — a relatively small percentage of the population — to teach at public expense a so-called scientific interpretation of the Bible when orthodox Christians are not permitted to teach an orthodox interpretation of the Bible?” He notes further, “The one beauty of the word of God, is that it does not take an expert to understand it.”

This American distrust of experts isn’t confined to religion. It explains the popularity of books like “Wrong” by David Freedman (a book that purports  to show “why experts are wrong”) that take those snobbish “experts” down a peg.  The delightfully cynical H.L. Mencken writes,


The agents of such quackeries gain their converts by the simple process of reducing the inordinately complex to the absurdly simple.  Unless a man is already equipped with a considerable knowledge of chemistry, bacteriology and physiology, no one can ever hope to make him understand what is meant by the term anaphylaxis, but any man, if only he be idiot enough, can grasp the whole theory of chiropractic in twenty minutes.


Thus, an American need not understand economics to challenge Keynes, nor possess a PhD to question climate change, nor to have read Darwin to declare his entire book a fraud. One need not read journals, for Gladwell suffices, and Jenny McCarthy’s personal anecdotes trump the Institute of Medicine and National Academy of Sciences.

The irony of modern American Christian right-wing fundamentalism is that, for all its talk of tradition, it is a radically new way to read the Bible. The strict constructionist, or literal fundamentalist, biblical method of interpretation was invented in the 19th century. America at this time experienced rapid social change that played a key role in creating the fundamentalism that now lies at the core of the religious right. The Industrial Revolution gave rise to the idea that technological progress is the way forward. American Protestants worried that all this science would encroach on their religious beliefs, so they turned to the Bible as the source of all knowledge — scientific and spiritual. During a time when Darwin’s followers were trying to explain everything in terms of evolutionary theory, American Protestants refused to look for truth outside their interpretation of Scripture.

In “Fundamentalism and American Culture,” George Marsden describes fundamentalism as “essentially the extreme and agonized defense of a dying way of life.” The American Protestant response to the Industrial Revolution was engendered by the fear that a small cabal of experts would dictate to Americans how to live their lives and that science would somehow replace their religion. In truth, the Christian tradition provides little support for the fundamentalist doctrines that arose during this period. Augustine believed that science and religion need not be in competition, and the Catholic Church has long held that evolution does not contradict the Church’s teachings. Fundamentalists who deny climate change and evolution have simply read their simplistic understanding of science into biblical texts.

Because the “fundamentalist problem” is not rooted in religion, the answer can’t be found in anti-theism, the preferred response of commentators like Bill Maher, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Rather, American Protestants must learn to read the Bible as a religious text rather than a series of logical premises to be proven. The irony of debates like the one between Bill Nye and Ken Ham is that they pit two fundamentalist readers against each other. The fundamentalist Christian and the atheist both read the Bible as a series of falsifiable propositions — what Terry Eagleton calls the “Yeti” theory of belief. Disproving the creation narrative should strike any theologian as absurd — the way a literature professor would react if a student claimed to have “disproven” “Sons and Lovers.”

Religious conflicts can serve to obfuscate base political or economic motives. Christianity was used to justify slavery in the South, but it’s doubtful that without the Bible, Southerners would have freed their slaves (it may be worth noting that science was also used to justify racism, most famously documented in Stephen Jay Gould’s “Mismeasure of Man”).

In the same way that racism was read into the Bible, modern American Protestant positions, like climate change denialism and anti-evolutionary thinking, are being imposed on Scripture. The religious justification for denying climate change is tenuous, while the economic justification, for someone worried about keeping their job or filling up their tank, is not. Americans whose economic interests rely heavily on fossil-fuel-intensive industries aren’t keen to lower their standard of living by abandoning coal.

The upcoming Nye/Ham debate, and other debates like it, are merely reiterations of the classic debates between Adams and Jackson, Burke and Paine, Lippmann and Chomsky: the philosopher-king vs. the democrat. By singling out religion as the genesis of these anti-intellectual outbursts, the New Atheist movement only takes us away from the solution: divorcing religion and science. By claiming that religion needs to be abolished, the New Atheist movement justifies the worst fears of the religious. When a religious person makes a political assertion or an economic argument or a claim about science, it is exactly that: a disprovable assertion. Within religious circles, fundamentalists must be challenged (with appropriate love) for manipulating true religion.

The religious right’s stance on climate change, economics and evolution is not informed by their religious beliefs. Rather, these political and economic views are imposed on Scripture, which is often read without theological rigor. It is not religion that is the problem, but rather the use of religion as an ideological weapon. But to respond by using science as a weapon is equally problematic.

The best way to address the problem is to confront the underlying political and economic concerns that are obscured by religious dogma, rather than attacking the religion directly. Our problems require an entirely new political and economic paradigm, one that rests on understanding and empathetic action between people of all faiths. Religious reformers, concerned environmentalists, scientists and economists must work together toward a more sustainable future. Bill Nye is intensely concerned about climate change and evolution, as are we. He should therefore ally himself with sane religious leaders, rather than debate fundamentalists.

Sean McElwee is a writer and researcher of public policy. His writing may be viewed at  Abigail Salvatore is a junior at The King’s College. or


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I didn’t do anything wrong


Malala and Nabila: worlds apart

By , 01 Nov 2013 09:57


On October 24, 2012 a Predator drone flying over North Waziristan came upon eight-year-old Nabila Rehman, her siblings, and their grandmother as they worked in a field beside their village home. Her grandmother, Momina Bibi, was teaching the children how to pick okra as the family prepared for the coming Eid holiday. However on this day the terrible event would occur that would forever alter the course of this family’s life. In the sky the children suddenly heard the distinctive buzzing sound emitted by the CIA-operated drones – a familiar sound to those in the rural Pakistani villages which are stalked by them 24 hours a day – followed by two loud clicks. The unmanned aircraft released its deadly payload onto the Rehman family, and in an instant the lives of these children were transformed into a nightmare of pain, confusion and terror. Seven children were wounded, and Nabila’s grandmother was killed before her eyes, an act for which no apology, explanation or justification has ever been given.

This past week Nabila, her schoolteacher father, and her 12-year-old brother travelled to Washington DC to tell their story and to seek answers about the events of that day. However, despite overcoming incredible obstacles in order to travel from their remote village to the United States, Nabila and her family were roundly ignored. At the congressional hearing where they gave testimony, only five out of 430 representatives showed up. In the words of Nabila’s father to those few who did attend: “My daughter does not have the face of a terrorist and neither did my mother. It just doesn’t make sense to me, why this happened… as a teacher, I wanted to educate Americans and let them know my children have been injured.”

The translator broke down in tears while recounting their story, but the government made it a point to snub this family and ignore the tragedy it had caused to them. Nabila, a slight girl of nine with striking hazel eyes, asked a simple question in her testimony: “What did my grandmother do wrong?” There was no one to answer this question, and few who cared to even listen. Symbolic of the utter contempt in which the government holds the people it claims to be liberating, while the Rehmans recounted their plight, Barack Obama was spending the same time meeting with the CEO of weapons manufacturer Lockheed Martin.

Selective memory

It is useful to contrast the American response to Nabila Rehman with that of Malala Yousafzai, a young girl who was nearly assassinated by the Pakistani Taliban. While Malala was feted by Western media figures, politicians and civic leaders for her heroism, Nabila has become simply another one of the millions of nameless, faceless people who have had their lives destroyed over the past decade of American wars. The reason for this glaring discrepancy is obvious. Since Malala was a victim of the Taliban, she, despite her protestations, was seen as a potential tool of political propaganda to be utilised by war advocates. She could be used as the human face of their effort, a symbol of the purported decency of their cause, the type of little girl on behalf of whom the United States and its allies can say they have been unleashing such incredible bloodshed. Tellingly, many of those who took up her name and image as a symbol of the justness of American military action in the Muslim world did not even care enough to listen to her own words or feelings about the subject.

As described by the Washington Post‘s Max Fisher:

Western fawning over Malala has become less about her efforts to improve conditions for girls in Pakistan, or certainly about the struggles of millions of girls in Pakistan, and more about our own desire to make ourselves feel warm and fuzzy with a celebrity and an easy message. It’s a way of letting ourselves off the hook, convincing ourselves that it’s simple matter of good guys vs bad guys, that we’re on the right side and that everything is okay.

But where does Nabila fit into this picture? If extrajudicial killings, drone strikes and torture are in fact all part of a just-cause associated with the liberation of the people of Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere, where is the sympathy or even simple recognition for the devastation this war has caused to countless little girls such as her? The answer is clear: The only people to be recognized for their suffering in this conflict are those who fall victim to the enemy. Malala for her struggles was to be made the face of the American war effort – against her own will if necessary – while innumerable little girls such as Nabila will continue to be terrorized and murdered as part of this war without end. There will be no celebrity appearances or awards ceremonies for Nabila. At her testimony almost no one even bothered to attend.

But if they had attended, they would’ve heard a nine-year-old girl asking the questions which millions of other innocent people who have had their lives thrown into chaos over the past decade have been asking: “When I hear that they are going after people who have done wrong to America, then what have I done wrong to them? What did my grandmother do wrong to them? I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Murtaza Hussain is a Toronto-based writer and analyst focused on issues related to Middle Eastern politics. or

Photograph of Nabila Rehman, 9, watching her brother Zubair read a statement about the day their grandmother was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan, by Jason Reed (Reuters), October 29, 2013.

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The US chose to kill my mother

tattered_usa_flagPlease tell me, Mr President, why a US drone assassinated my mother

By , Friday 25 October 2013 09.00 EDT


The last time I saw my mother, Momina Bibi, was the evening before Eid al-Adha. She was preparing my children’s clothing and showing them how to make sewaiyaan, a traditional sweet made of milk. She always used to say: the joy of Eid is the excitement it brings to the children.

Last year, she never had that experience. The next day, 24 October 2012, she was dead, killed by a US drone that rained fire down upon her as she tended her garden.

Nobody has ever told me why my mother was targeted that day. The media reported that the attack was on a car, but there is no road alongside my mother’s house. Several reported the attack was on a house. But the missiles hit a nearby field, not a house. All reported that five militants were killed. Only one person was killed – a 67-year-old grandmother of nine.

My three children – 13-year-old Zubair, nine-year-old Nabila and five-year-old Asma – were playing nearby when their grandmother was killed. All of them were injured and rushed to hospitals. Were these children the “militants” the news reports spoke of? Or perhaps, it was my brother’s children? They, too, were there. They are aged three, seven, 12, 14, 15 and 17 years old. The eldest four had just returned from a day at school, not long before the missile struck.

But the United States and its citizens probably do not know this. No one ever asked us who was killed or injured that day. Not the United States or my own government. Nobody has come to investigate nor has anyone been held accountable. Quite simply, nobody seems to care.

I care, though. And so does my family and my community. We want to understand why a 67-year-old grandmother posed a threat to one of the most powerful countries in the world. We want to understand how nine children, some playing in the field, some just returned from school, could possibly have threatened the safety of those living a continent and an ocean away.

Most importantly, we want to understand why President Obama, when asked whom drones are killing, says they are killing terrorists. My mother was not a terrorist. My children are not terrorists. Nobody in our family is a terrorist.

My mother was a midwife, the only midwife in our village. She delivered hundreds of babies in our community. Now families have no one to help them.

And my father? He is a retired school principal. He spent his life educating children, something that my community needs far more than bombs. Bombs create only hatred in the hearts of people. And that hatred and anger breeds more terrorism. But education – education can help a country prosper.

I, too, am a teacher. I was teaching in my local primary school on the day my mother was killed. I came home to find not the joys of Eid, but my children in the hospital and a coffin containing only pieces of my mother.

Our family has not been the same since that drone strike. Our home has turned into hell. The small children scream in the night and cannot sleep. They cry until dawn.

Several of the children have had to have multiple surgeries. This has cost money we no longer have, since the missiles also killed our livestock. We have been forced to borrow from friends; money we cannot repay. We then use the money to pay a doctor, a doctor who removes from the children’s bodies the metal gifts the US gave them that day.

Drone strikes are not like other battles where innocent people are accidentally killed. Drone strikes target people before they kill them. The United States decides to kill someone, a person they only know from a video. A person who is not given a chance to say – I am not a terrorist. The US chose to kill my mother.

Several US congressmen invited me to come to Washington, DC to share my story with members of Congress. I hope by telling my story, America may finally begin to understand the true impact of its drone program and who is on the other end of drone strikes.

I want Americans to know about my mother. And I hope, maybe, I might get an answer to just one question: why?

Editor’s note: Momina Bibi’s age when she died was originally given in the body text and standfirst as 65; this was amended to 67 at 1.30pm (ET) on 25 October or


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A kind of paranoid art


NSA to Americans: ‘All your data are belong to us!’

By , 10 Jun 2013 18:19


A few days ago, the Guardian published details of the US National Security Administration’s PRISM programme. We now know that the NSA is able to access personal data stored by Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Paltalk, YouTube, Skype, AOL and Apple. Though these companies have done their best to downplay the significance of the story, the revelations should force us to think much more carefully about the political economy of the information economy – the role of states and private companies in creating each country’s shared agenda.

There is nothing new about states seeking to coordinate communication systems to further their interests. Although the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Center for Democracy described PRISM as “unprecedented militarisation of domestic communications infrastructure”, PRISM is entirely consistent with longstanding security doctrine in the US.

For instance, National Security Decision Directive Number 97 issued in 1983 states that: “The nation’s domestic and international telecommunications resources, including commercial, private and government-owned services and facilities, are essential elements in support of US national security policy and strategy”. Through NSDD 97, President Reagan directed, among other things, “that the nation’s telecommunications capabilities be developed or improved, and implementing procedures established, to provide for… support for the vital functions of worldwide intelligence collection and diplomacy”. TV and radio were part of how the US got what it wanted from the rest of the world.

Every country’s communications infrastructure is essential to the functioning of its state, and always has been. But PRISM is nevertheless highly significant. It shows us that the new digital technologies are not weakening states relative to global corporations. These companies might play all kinds of tricks to minimise their tax obligations. But when the NSA comes calling, they do what they are told. And the “big data” companies’ business models provide intelligence operations with far more detailed information about home and foreign populations than ever before. Companies such as Facebook and Google create “free” services that then cause us to invade our own privacy. The NSA then hoovers up the results. You have to admire the elegance.

A ‘mighty Wurlitzer’

During the Cold War, the CIA and others paid close attention to both the print and broadcast media. The general field of knowledge was subject to all manner of manipulation. The spies recruited editors and publishers, subsidised translations and fact-finding trips, and built networks of influence in academia as well as journalism. They were able to arrange publicity and support for ideas and trends that they favoured, long before the phrase information dominance had been coined. According to Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, the deputy director of the CIA in the 1950s and early 1960s, Frank Wisner, used to boast that he had created a “mighty Wurlitzer”, an instrument for reproducing propaganda themes across the world media.

To an extent we only dimly appreciate, post-war culture, from CBS nightly news to abstract expressionism, was the creation of a handful of poets and novelists manqué in the heart of the US secret state. The Cold War itself, seen in a certain light, looks like a kind of paranoid art, a brightly coloured and fast-moving thriller, under cover of which the state could conduct its real business. Similarly, the “War on Terror” takes on the outlines of a sequel – an uninspired return to a successful formula by the same production company, another milestone on the road to constitutional breakdown – The Die Harder Is Cast.

And as the computer replaces the television as the device on which most people turn to for information, the links between the state and the “big data” companies become more numerous and obvious. While the NSA wants the personal information harvested by Google and others, there is more to the state than the NSA and there is more to “worldwide intelligence collection and diplomacy” than data mining.

The current director of Google Ideas, and co-author with Eric Schmidt of The New Digital Age, Jared Cohen, is a former member of the state department’s policy planning staff. Meanwhile, Rob Painter, the “Senior Federal Manager” at Google was previously the director of technology assessment at In-Q-Tel. In-Q-Tel was created by the CIA and describes itself as a company that “identifies, adapts, and delivers innovative technology solutions to support the Central Intelligence Agency and the broader US intelligence community”. There is little doubt that the technology companies will operate within parameters set by “US national security policy and strategy”, as their predecessors in broadcast did.

And this brings us to the heart of the matter. During the controversy over the Leveson Inquiry in the UK, many American journalists were shocked that people in Britain were willing to countenance state regulation of the press. After all, the first amendment of the US constitution forbids Congress from passing laws “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. But debates about the media should take into account the relevant facts. PRISM reminds us that all functional states ensure that information systems serve their interests. Journalism, in the US as in Britain, is embedded in a telecommunications infrastructure over which the state maintains paramount control, in the name of national security.

No choice but cooperation

The digital age is only beginning and, as the science fiction writer Frank Herbert once observed, “a beginning is a very delicate time”. At the moment, the Obama administration is trying to make the digital media landscape safe for state power and its deep commitments. It is doing this through ever-closer coordination with the digital companies and through a campaign of intimidation against potential whistleblowers and troublesome reporters. It is surely obvious that Bradley Manning and Wikileaks are being targeted to discourage others.

In this moment of transition from broadcast to digital, the blunt instrument of vindictive prosecution has its place, along with technical wizardry and the state-of-the-art in soothing public relations. Google and the other technology companies want to assure us that they don’t operate as instruments of state policy. But they do, just as the broadcast networks do. They really have no choice but to cooperate, and to deny that they cooperate.

During the Cold War, the state used its control over the media to manipulate the general field of knowledge in all kinds of more or less deniable ways. The spectre of terrorism is being used to reconstruct this unaccountable power in the new landscape of network communications. And this is about much more than privacy and surveillance. PRISM and similar programmes seek to shape the information technologies on which we will increasingly rely. The aim, as ever, is to set the limits of debate: establish who is moderate, who is extreme. We can expect strenuous efforts to frame the recent revelations in ways that conceal or misrepresent as much as possible about the relationship between states and their media.

We don’t have to play along. Media systems are the creatures of state power, whether they are formally private, such as Google and the US broadcast networks, or formally public like the BBC in Britain. They may be trustworthy in many respects, but they are also “essential elements” in support of national security policy and strategy. Given that this is so, we can discuss the media much more sensibly.

If the state supports and coordinates national systems of knowledge, then we can change the terms on which this support and coordination takes place. Washington currently spends a fortune in secret in order to reproduce a media system that consistently fails to connect with reality. This is money that would be better spent in daylight, by a citizenry wishing to inform itself. Washington has provided us with our governing narratives since 1945, through the Cold War, to the brief interval of The End of History, and now the ragged and sprawling “War on Terror” (aka Dangerous Times).

A media system over which we exercise substantial oversight and control would allow us to tell our own story, and to escape from the delirium that injustice needs if it is to survive.

You can call it media reform if you like, or democratisation of the state. One thing is for sure – you can’t have one without the other.

Dan Hind is an editor for openDemocracy and the Tax Justice Network. His books include The Return of the Public and Maximum Republic. or

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So many

SamarTrue costs of Iraq War whitewashed by fuzzy maths

By Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, Apr 5, 2013


‘So many’, wrote TS Eliot, reflecting on the waste land left by the First World  War. “I had not thought death had undone so many.”

This notion is unlikely to cross the minds of those surveying the devastation  left by the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The most frequently quoted fatality figure –  about 115,000 Iraqis killed – is shocking. But compared to major conflicts of  the past century, it is a relatively modest toll. The 1916 battle of the Somme  alone killed three times as many. More than that were killed by a single atomic  bomb dropped on Hiroshima during the Second World War.

Former British prime minster Tony Blair, and then-US vice president Dick  Cheney, were perhaps conscious of this when they expressed “no regrets” on the  10th anniversary of the war last month.

That the perpetrators of an aggressive war should accept the lowest costs for  their folly is unsurprising. What is less explicable is why so many supposed  critics of the war are crediting the same estimate. Brown University’s Costs of  War project and the Centre for American Progress’s Iraq War Ledger use it as  their main source.

This is particularly puzzling when there are two peer-reviewed  epidemiological surveys that give a far more comprehensive accounting of the  war’s human cost. A Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Survey  published in the Lancet, and the Iraq Public Health Survey published in the New  England Journal of Medicine, gave figures of 655,000 and 400,000 excess deaths  respectively. (Both were concluded in June 2006, a month before the violence  peaked, suggesting the actual toll is even higher).

It is odder still that when epidemiological surveys have come to be accepted  as the standard method for estimating conflict fatalities – the method has been  used without controversy in Congo, Bosnia and Darfur – an exception is made in  the case of Iraq.

The method involves a household survey to establish current mortality rates  and comparing them with pre-war ones. The difference, extrapolated for the whole  population, yields an estimate of the number of people who would still be alive  had the war not happened.

By comparison, the most commonly cited source, the UK-based online initiative  Iraq Body Count (IBC), uses a passive surveillance method to estimate what it  calls “violent civilian deaths”, relying mainly on media reports, initially only  in the English language. Current total: between 111,842 and 122,326.

Distinguishing a civilian from a combatant in an urban war zone is itself a  fraught business. But the IBC methodology makes two further assumptions that  raise questions: that war kills only by violence, and that the media records  every death in every part of the country.

If we accept the first assumption, then we would also have to revise our  estimates of history’s other major atrocities. Those who died of exhaustion or  starvation during the Nazi death marches cannot be considered casualties of war  using IBC criteria since they did not die of violence. One would also have to  omit those who died in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising since, by virtue of taking up  arms, they forfeited their right to be counted.

War in most cases means collapse of state institutions and health care  systems; it means social disintegration, food shortages and lawlessness. It  kills by starvation, scarcity, contamination, shock, abandonment – and a host of  other causes that don’t involve bullets. There was a four-fold increase in  traffic accidents alone in the years following the invasion of Iraq. IBC’s  methods make no allowances for such consequences.

The second assumption appears to ignore both Iraqi reality and media  practices. No journalist made a commitment to report every death in Iraq. Most  were based in politically significant locations. During the most violent period,  all but a few were confined to Baghdad’s Green Zone. There is no reason to  assume that every violent death, let alone every war-related death, was being  reported.

Despite such limitations, IBC has become the primary, if not the only,  reference for Iraqi deaths. It speaks to the political serviceability of its  numbers. It also speaks to a lack of seriousness among its user about  establishing the actual costs of war. The manner in which the Lancet study has  been buried attests to this.

It is telling that the critics of the Lancet study are mainly journalists,  politicians and bureaucrats. On the other hand, the study was endorsed by  scientists, statisticians, epidemiologists and, in internal discussions, even  some government officials.

The soundness of the method and the rigour of the Lancet’s research were  acknowledged by Sir Roy Anderson, the British Ministry of Defence’s chief  scientific adviser. In an internal memo obtained by the BBC, Mr Anderson wrote:  “The study design is robust and employs methods that are regarded as close to  ‘best practice’.”

One can understand the appeal of IBC for the credulous, the conformist, the  cowardly or the plain ignorant. But there is no excuse for those who have  allowed Iraq’s dead to be erased rather than buried.

The solemnity of even a single headstone can be a poignant warning against  the folly of war. But there can’t be an epitaph on a grave that does not exist.  Every Iraq dead must be counted.

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is a Glasgow-based sociologist and the author of a  forthcoming book on the Iraq war. He edits or


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