Everything you see is tailored for your mind – algorithms to shape a world-view, or hide one. Dr. Jennifer Earl is an expert on digital repression, by states, companies and trolls. From UN University, Dr. Duminda Perera reveals the first portrait: hundreds of millions starving for water in Africa.
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DIGITAL REPRESSION: DR. JENNIFER EARL
When humans are unhappy, they gather to protest or riot. But now, especially during years of pandemic, many find their activism online. Meanwhile, governments, corporations, and tech-savvy individuals find new ways to block social dissent. How you are being channeled?
In the old days of dictatorships and rule by oligarchs of the “upper class” – the goal was to create a unified belief system. Everyone was supposed to believe the one party line. A small group controlled the printing press, and later radio or television. With digital media, that unity of propaganda has given way to a more nefarious scheme for control. With massive computing power, you are encouraged to find a bubble of beliefs and believers. Your searches and purchases can be merged with individual profiles to steer information you “like” to your screen. We become a patchwork, and the new power elite are alright with that. Disunity is fine for control. Divided we fall.
Part of the power of patchwork develops not just from steering custom information toward you, but also driving counter-data away from you. Your individuality, your identity, is built from what you know, but also what you do not know. The Russian government censors, jails and threatens it’s way toward keeping the ugly reality of the Ukraine war from it’s people. But every government tries to keep hostile information hidden. The oil-soaked West seldom adds up the real cost of expanding fossil fuels, and many people are just fine not-knowing. All sorts of obvious criminality is left out of media reports, or dismissed as less important than the story-of-the-day.
Probably no one has studied repression more than Professor and social scientist Jennifer Earl. Dr. Earl teaches and leads projects at the University of Arizona. She writes a LOT of useful papers, and her book “Digitally Enabled Social Change”. Jennifer is uniquely qualified to speak about online tools for activists, and the relatively new subject of “digital repression”.
Dr. Jennifer Earl, University of Arizona
With grants from institutions like the National Science Foundation, Jennifer worked through the history of protest since the 1960’s. It was common for police to use beatings, tear gas, and arrest against protesters. In the 1900’s, government and business refused to hire, or fired, communists, gays, and people of color. She has published papers on repression before the online world emerged.
Almost 20 years ago, Jennifer published the paper “Tanks, tear gas and taxes: Toward a theory of movement repression.” Now the tanks may have been replaced by shadow-banning. Is “cancel-culture” like digital tear gas?
Her latest paper is a big look at what we know. The title is “The digital repression of social movements, protest, and activism: A synthetic review“. It is published in the journal Science. Can the older research in social repression can be applied to action and re-action in the digital age?
Reading through Earl’s work, almost every government is trying to control social dialog in digital media. We hear of covert campaigns by countries in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. It is used in democracies too.
Companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter say they are neutral, just selling advertising. But it is much more than that. For example, Cambridge Analytica used social media data to target voters in the 2016 election, helping Donald Trump.
Jennifer’s new study cites an important 2018 paper called “Technology firms shape political communication: The work of Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, and Google with campaigns during the 2016 U.S. Presidential Cycle.” Facebook finally admitted they helped Russians post thousands of ads and disinformation against Clinton and promoting Trump. Digital repression can be a threat to democracy.
the internet is not really a free-speech zone at all
One shocking realization from this study by Earl: the internet is not really a free-speech zone at all. The reality is: private companies control so much of the public conversation. In the 1960’s, Americans walked down public streets looking in shop windows. The public street was quite a mixing ground. In the 1970’s, that all went indoors to private shopping malls, with private security guards. You do not have a right to protest or free expression on their property.
Last year, I posted video interviews about extreme climate change. But if you search the subject on YouTube, you are far, far more likely to get anti-science rants by Alex Jones than Alex Smith. Controversy sells, even when it is dangerous. The sad truth is: algorithms work against you discovering the truth.
People may join QAnon or any number of conspiracies, and block out anything else. All their news comes from selected sources. We can inhabit a hall of mirrors. Do we chose our own digital repression, and is social cohesion in danger?
Advertising is the legitimized tool to shape our minds, even when they use psychology against our best interests, as tobacco companies did. Advertising can also be a form of digital repression, right out in the open. The classic way to derail a restive public is to flood all channels with distractions and false issues.
In this new paper, Jennifer Earl writes, quote: “For many, repression is what happens to the groups you favor, whereas lawful governance is what affects groups you dislike.” How do we tell the difference? What about cases where the majority of citizens WANT digital repression, like bans on child pornography?
Can we think about this issue in terms of environmentalism? Is there a digital “environment”? Could there be “digital environmentalism”? Perhaps trying to save an endangered species of free communication against a predator, whether state, corporate or individual? Or is the current state endangered, being unable to cope with a new reality, using pre-digital institutions? Does cyberspace contain the equivalent of toxic waste dumps and pollution? Certainly. These are digital environmental issues.
It is important not to get lost in state surveillance and digital repression, without seeing that very large corporations, including energy magnates and even widely held banks or investment houses, may be engaged in digital repression. Also: now that an individual or tiny group can mimic institutions using digital tools, a single individual or small group of people can attack, deny rights, and steal resources.
All this makes life more challenging for the online, digital warrior for progressive causes, like preventing deadly climate disruption. But Jennifer finds online activism is alive and well, and talks about tools to overcome digital repression – by governments, corporations, or trolls.
Jennifer’s web site contains many tools for online activists to learn more about the play space. She even offer a free spread-sheet bibliography of resources for you.
The Rise of Digital Repression
Streamed live on Apr 29, 2021
Steven Feldstein on his new book, “The Rise of Digital Repression: How Technology is Reshaping Power, Politics, and Resistance”, in conversation with Josh Chin, moderated by Anne Applebaum.
Digital repression belies democracy in India, says report
A study by Stanford University reported 134 instances of network shutdowns or digital sieges in India in 2018 alone and over a 100 sieges in 2017.
April 06, 2019 by Peoples Dispatch
“Of Blackouts and Bandhs: The Strategy and Structure of Disconnected Protest in India”
HUNDREDS OF MILLIONS LACK CLEAN WATER IN AFRICA –
DOES ANYONE CARE?
You probably never experienced water stress for more than an hour or two. Thirsty? Enjoy a cold glass of drinking water. Worried about disease? Wash your hands. Except in Africa, the United Nations reports hundreds of millions of people can’t find enough water to do either one. The new UN University assessment, just out for World Water Day 2022, says: “The overall low state of provision of personal and communal hygiene services in Africa is a major water security problem in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its deadly effects.”
Water insecurity means personal hardship for men, women and children. Lack of water can lead to civil unrest, mass migration, wars, and diseases that spread to every continent. Yes, we do need to know, and to care.
How big is water scarcity on Earth’s second largest continent? We barely know. The best picture so far is just came out in the March 2022 report “Water Security in Africa: A Preliminary Assessment”.
We reached one of the report’s co-authors, Dr. Duminda Perera. A civil engineer from Sri Lanka, Perera earned his Doctorate in Urban and Environmental Engineering from Kyushu University, in Japan. Now he is Senior Researcher for Hydrology & Water Resources at the United Nations University, and Adjunct Professor at both University of Ottawa & McMaster University in Canada.
Until recently, we had no clear idea how bad African water stress is. Some governments do not collect statistics or measurements, and funding to investigate is scarce. That is why a new study from UNEP, the United Nations Environment Program, is a welcome first step. We get our first solid picture of how serious African water shortages have become. Almost a third of people in Africa do not have “basic drinking water service”.
Sadly, many people in North America imagine Africans still in a jungle or desert Oasis. The reality is about 50 percent of Africans live in urban areas, including large cities. We recall “Zero Day”, the day when Capetown South Africa expected to run out of water.
The Economist is one of several sources projecting Africa’s population will double by 2050. If water cannot keep up now, and progress is slow to nil, that doesn’t look good does it? Is it too harsh to say Africa’s water security problems can never be solved without population control?
The UNEP report says: “Egypt stands out as the most water-dependent country on the African continent, with a dependency ratio of over 98%.” What does that mean, and will the newly opened dam on the Nile in Ethiopia create new challenges for Egyptians? The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam ( or Gerd), is the largest hydroelectric project in Africa. The dam just began producing electricity in late February this year. Some see it as a potential source for a water war. But research by the Pacific Institute suggests water wars are less likely between African countries, but may show up in ethnic or clan clashes within countries, perhaps as civil war, or attempts at genocide.
Reuters reported in 2021: “Clean water supplies are running short in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region where a conflict has left infrastructure damaged and looted, equipment stolen and a dam inoperative, a state-run news agency said on Wednesday.” In this case, it looks like even if water shortages are not the cause of a war, water can become an issue due to war damage, or water can be used as a weapon. That makes water shortages as much a social issue as a technical problem to solve.
In 2019, Emad Hasan and colleagues published their paper “Assessment of Physical Water Scarcity in Africa Using GRACE and TRMM Satellite Data”. Hasan et all developed a guage called Potential Available Water Storage or PAWS. They found: “The PAWS index shows that 14% (~160 million people) of Africa’s population currently live under water scarcity status.”
When we break down these big numbers, these hundreds of millions of people, to a personal level, for each of those people, this is one of the saddest assessments I’ve read in a long time. I want to ask what would it take to fix this, how much would it cost, who should pay – but this report doesn’t get that far. Because first we need to know how big the problem is and where.
The other problem: most humans don’t acknowledge the size and seriousness of fresh water problems in Africa. Mainstream media might cover this on World Water Day, but the average American or European doesn’t care a lot, or we feel helpless. Can we help make life better for hundreds of billions of fellow humans? Can we fix the system and turn on the taps for Africa?
IS A GLOBAL FOOD CRISIS COMING?
Predictions of a global food crisis are coming in from all sides, in scientific journals, the business press, and news from China. Yes, China. But this is a developing story with conflicting information. For years on this program experts warned the world is over-dependent on just a few major “bread baskets” – regions that produce most of the world’s wheat, corn and more. One major source for exports is the great step region which spans both Russia and the Ukraine. About a quarter of all wheat on international markets comes from Russia and the Ukraine. They also produce over export three-quarters of the sunflower oil trade, and about a sixth of maize on world markets.
Both Russia and Ukraine have announced a halt to grain exports this year, because of the war. That will leave many countries in the Middle East and beyond hungry and prey to sky-high bread prices. Revolutions or war may result.
Experience has shown when one big growing area fails, other regions can make up the difference, although that becomes more strained as world population continues to grow. The crisis comes if another big producer also fails to reach a good harvest.
Key here: the largest wheat producer in the world is not Russia or America, but China. At 134 million metric tons, China outproduces the United States almost two to one, with the U.S. at 47 million metric tons. But China exports little. They have 1.4 billion people to feed at home.
Bloomberg News quotes China’s agriculture minister, Tang Renjian, saying: “China faces big difficulties in food production because of the unusual floods last autumn. Many farming experts and technicians told us that crop conditions this year could be the worst in history.” I have more on those extreme floods in Northern China in next week’s show.
Millions of acres of crop land was damaged by record-breaking rains and floods, likely made so extreme by climate change. The Chinese acknowledge that. So the Chinese will be competing in the international market to buy wheat, corn and other agricultural products to make up their losses, and feed the people of China.
That means war and climate change have coincided to produce a shortage of essential grains not seen in the last 50 years. The scientific journal Nature rushed out a warning editorial called “Broken bread — avert global wheat crisis caused by invasion of Ukraine”.
Beyond the war, mixed with the pandemic, are supply chain problems for agricultural fertilizer and fuels. The sanctions will further cripple trade. Food prices are already on the rise, and we are just at the start of this crisis. No one knows how far food inflation will go, or how fast. Remember, Canada and the United States, even with Australia, do not produce enough grains to feed the world. And there is no guarantee that extreme weather will not hit the North American harvest this year.
“More wheat stats. My personal favorite Misleading Wheat Stat is “Ukraine/Russia grow 25% of world wheat exports.”
Why’s it misleading? It’s technically true, but doesn’t mean what people think! When the headline is “25% of world wheat exports missing,” that naturally leads people to think “oh my god we have to suddenly come up with 25% more wheat in the world out of nowhere.”
Nope! Only 0.9% Let’s talk about where that 25% figure comes from & why it misleads. Black Sea wheat was 25% of EXPORTS: wheat shipped internationally. Most of the world’s wheat is eaten in the country that grew it! For ex[ample], India & China alone grow massive domestic domestic crops & eat most of them.
So exports are a SMALL fraction of the global wheat crop. Estimated wheat export shortfall from Russian invasion: 7 million tons. Sounds like a lot! Unless you look at total global production, which last year was 778 MILLION TONS. The war shortfall is 0.9% of the global wheat crop! Not 25%!
We don’t have to suddenly increase world wheat production by 25%. We have to increase it by… 0.9%. And the world’s farmers already started planting more wheat 4 months ago, when wheat futures rose due to possibility of Black Sea conflict. Most of the world plants wheat in the FALL and harvests in SPRING/SUMMER. So planting to make up for missing Black Sea wheat already happened. 4 months ago.
India went all-out planting more wheat, looks set to continue a 3yr streak of rapidly increasing wheat exports. The US planted four MILLION more tons more wheat seed last fall than usual. Australia, Canada, Argentina, South Africa, even Brazil getting in on it.
Wheat trade updates: India coming in clutch
-India’s annual wheat harvest is now coming in.
-They’ve been preparing to grow wheat exports since futures start rising last fall: building up port facilities, QA check stations, rail capacity.
-Bumper wheat crop expected this year. Again, the “25% of exports” framing makes it sound like we have to replace 1/4 of the world’s wheat. Reality is we have at least a dozen countries and thousands of square miles zooming in to replace a whopping 0.9% of global crop shortfall. I think they’re gonna make it guys
Again, specific places are facing EXTREMELY REAL wheat supply problems. MENA usually sources from Ukraine. Switching supply chains to India & other sources takes extra time, & if they’re further away from India and Ukraine, it takes longer for supplies to get there.
What these places are facing is a SHIPPING shortage.
Not a lack of enough wheat in the world. Their food supply chain problems are still dangerous. A local, shipping-induced shortage that lasts a week can still kill you. To solve that problem, we gotta start with being clear on what the problem IS! We haven’t! We decided it’s a wheat shortage, not a shipping shortage. So investors panicked, drove up the price of wheat, & made it even harder for these places to get new import shipments launched.
And that’s how a 0.9% shortfall in global wheat production, that farmers already fixed 4 months ago, turned into a global commodity panic that solved nothing – while a very real shipping problem continues to threaten people’s lives.
THE WAR IN THE UKRAINE HITS GLOBAL NUCLEAR INDUSTRY
As you know, the Chernobyl nuclear site is the horror that keeps on giving. Radiation measurements show an uptick from the site, attributed to Russian tanks and other vehicles stirring up radioactive soil in the Exclusion Zone. Worse, satellite images and reports from Ukraine show forest fires in the Exclusion Zone, which also release more radiation. The lab monitors and tests for radioactivity. Over 25 years later this nuclear power site remains an international risk – one that will continue into the next century and beyond.
It gets more complicated. According to Turkish journalist Pinar Demircan, until 2005, Russia made over 200 million dollars a year from Ukraine by taking back waste from Ukrainian nuclear reactors. In 2005, the Ukrainian’s switched to on-site storage, using an American technology from the company Holtec. That began operation in 2021, and that is why nuclear waste was found at various Ukrainian reactors attacked by the Russians, including the big Zaporizhzhia nuclear power complex taken by the Russians in early March. If the Russian conquered Ukraine, perhaps they hopped to get that 200 million dollars a year back.
I will leave out all the known risks of the Holtec on-site nuclear storage system, which obviously can be super dangerous in any war, terrorist attack so simple a grid break down taking away necessary cooling power. I suggest you read the illuminating article “Rosatom’s woes before and beyond the war: implications of Russia’s embattled nuclear industry” posted March 6, 2022 at dianuke.org.
Meanwhile the pandemic is already back with a huge wave of disease and deaths in Asia, and rising numbers in Europe, including Britain. Analysis of sewage in North America, in both Canada and the United States, shows the new BA2 virus is already present and growing. This highly transmissible variant will find the unvaccinated and anyone with waning immunity. With all precautions dropped for political reasons, we do not know if this will be another killer wave, or something less. I’m keeping my mask on in public places. The virus never stays in one part of the world.
The old Chinese curse is: “May he live in interesting times”. We do. Trouble travels all over the world. So it comes down to this: humans need to recognize each other as brothers and sisters of a common species. We stand or fail together, as a species.