Monday, 21 March 2011

Propaganda 2.0

In James Cameron’s 3D epic Avatar, the US government uses remotely operated clones to infiltrate and attempt to colonise an alien race. Despite great critical acclaim and estimating takings of over $2.7bn worldwide, it was famously overlooked in the 2009 Oscars, with the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director instead going to The Hurt Locker, a gritty and realistic take on the trails and tribulations of a bomb disposal unit in the Iraq war. If, as many commentators speculated at the time, Avatar was snubbed because its allegorical science fiction take on American activities in the Middle East was deemed too far-fetched and outlandish when compared with the understated authenticity of The Hurt Locker, then perhaps now is a good time for the Academy to consider reviewing their decision.

News that the Pentagon is developing an “online persona management service” or, in plain English, the capability for a single person to operate a number of fake social media accounts in order to counteract anti-American sentiment online, brings Cameron’s film back to mind. Quite why it requires a multi-million dollar contract to create what is essentially a number of phony Facebook accounts is unclear, however the US’s desire to “counter enemy propaganda” (Bill Speaks US Central Command), is nothing new.  

Scarcely a conflict goes by where the battle for hearts and minds cliché isn’t trotted out. The only difference now being, that this battleground is increasingly found online. According to the plans tabled, military controlled social networking accounts, or “sock puppets” as they have disparagingly come to be known, will not be permitted to be used on English language websites, instead focusing on Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto speaking audiences. Not only does this demonstrate an uncomfortable double-standard in the implementation of this programme, it is also reveals the complexity involved in modern 21st century propaganda.

Government agents may wistfully look back to days gone by, when the spreading of a particular political agenda, was an altogether much simpler task. Taking Hollywood again as an inspiration, Jean Jacques Annaud’s 2001 film, Enemy At The Gates, tells the real life story of a duel fought between a German and Russian sniper at the battle of Stalingrad. As shown in the film however, the story of this duel soon becomes more important than the actual exploits of the snipers. As a young political officer played by Joseph Fiennes puts it:  “We must tell magnificent stories, stories that extol sacrifice, bravery, courage. We must give them hope, pride, a desire to fight. We must make them believe in the victory. Yes, we need make examples, yes, but examples to follow. What we need, are heroes”

Despite being taken to task by a number of historians on questions of its accuracy, (ironically there is a school of thought who argue the German sniper was fabricated by Soviet intelligence at the time, to boost the legend of their own man); Enemy At The Gates reveals the relative ease with which certain tactical embellishments became the accepted version of the truth. Indeed, it begs the question why back then they didn’t just make it all up, after all, its not as if people had access to the internet to verify the information they were being told. Not like now. It certainly seems paradoxical that whilst technological advances have encouraged the creation of ever-more sophisticated propaganda, they have simultaneously made it easier for the more investigative-minded to expose misinformation. 

All that was needed to conscript people into the army for the First World War was a picture of a man with a big moustache pointing at them. Ninety years later however, the government had to produce a widely criticised 19 page document, much of it cut and paste, to attempt to engender public support for the Iraq war, and that hardly worked did it? Gone are the days when you could simply give your enemy a wooden horse large enough to fit an army inside and be thanked for your generosity. For better or worse people are naturally much more sceptical these days and technology has played a major role in aiding that scepticism. The slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On”, was used to keep peoples’ spirits up throughout the dark days of the Second World War, I’d imagine that its impact would have been somewhat lessened had it been encountered trending on Twitter. What’s more an unforeseen impact in the ascendency of the internet has been to give the lesser power in any dispute the opportunity to gain an equal share of voice. Although it may be embarrassing for the United States to have so far been unable to capture Osama Bin Laden, this embarrassment is compounded by the fact that Bin Laden is able to publicise his avoidance of capture by periodically uploading Youtube videos. With this in mind you can’t help but feeling a sense of futility about this latest propaganda venture and I doubt it will take long for the first “sock puppet” to be outed as the fictional construct of some IT graduate from the Midwest, probably not too long after he ends his first status update with the word “lol”.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

There’s Plenty More Fish in the Net

How enlightened we are, how open-minded and unprejudiced: we can now have civilised debates about the pros and cons of political self-determination for Arab sates that may want to elect fundamental religious leaders. We can positively urge gay sportsmen (and women), to come out publically and consign yet one more taboo to the annals of history. 

We can even write Jedi under ‘religion’ on the census form without fear of oppression from The Federation. Surely though our greatest achievement in the pursuit of total tolerance is the end of persecution to a group who previously had carried the greatest of social stigma; I am of course referring to those who use internet dating sites.

According to researchers at Stanford University, online dating is increasingly replacing more traditional methods as the preferred medium for singles to meet new people; and let’s be honest, they should know. The correlation is simple: as dating sites become more popular, the embarrassment associated with using them decreases.

For those interested in surfing for love online, the water has never been safer. As with any good swimming pool however, (I’m not sure this metaphor has any more legs), there are a few simple rules it’s worth noting. And ‘no heavy petting’ isn’t one of them.

1) Don’t Shoot The Messenger

Whereas conventional romances tend to start with a chat up line or conversation, internet liaisons begin with a message. Think of a prospective date like a prospective job: good ones are likely to be inundated with applications. But whilst a generic cutting letter won’t cut it, the schoolyard rules of not trying too hard, (or at least not being seen to), still apply. Try and find the middle ground between standing out from the crowd and portraying yourself as the life and soul of every party going.

Oh and anyone who describes themselves as crazy, out of the ordinary, chirpy or kooky is, more often than not, likely to be an acronym of the aforementioned words.

2)    Manage Your Expectations

Romance isn’t dead. But just because knights in shining armour and damsels in distress, have so far avoided extinction, doesn’t mean they’re ten a penny either. As a bare minimum you should at least try and meet the person you’ve been infatuating over once in person. This way you can rule out the possibility that it’s all just been an elaborate hoax co-ordinated from you housemate’s laptop.

3)     Keep the Sabbath

Saturday night is good for a lot of things: dancing according to the film Saturday Night Fever; fighting, according to Elton John and dancing again according to Whigfield. Under no circumstances however should a Saturday night be used as the trialling ground for a first date.

Have a bad date on a week night and what have you lost really? The latest plot instalment from a soap so uninspiring that when you come to catch-up the day after, it already feels like you’re watching a repeat? Lose a Saturday however and you’ve lost the week’s silver lining and pot of gold all in one and what’s more you won’t get another stab at it for the next 7 days.

4)    Pick Your Venue Wisely

Know a great little pub so jam packed full of character you half expect Mickey Mouse to be glass collecting? Put your favourite song on the jukebox on as you walk in do they? Rustle you up a quick snack even though they’ve officially stopped serving will they?

Well do yourself a favour then and keep schtum. That is unless you want to walk in there and find that girl who didn’t laugh at any of your jokes and made disparaging comments about your favourite shirt drinking in there with the gym instructor.

5)     Beware The Difficult Second Date

A difficult one this: you’ve successfully negotiated the first four steps, so successfully in fact that you’ve even managed to secure a second date. Problems over? Well, not always. Often the anxiety associated with a first date causes the parties involved to outperform. All that nervous energy manifests itself into a flurry of well-pitched compliments, witty one liners and fascinating anecdotes.

Come the inevitable reunion however, it quickly becomes clear that you’ve set the bar too high. Neither of you are able to reproduce the repartee you made seem so effortless first time around. You’re unable to divert attention from the awkward silences that ensue with the story about that time you led a group of German tourists on an impromptu conga line round the library, because you already told it first time round. Quite simply you’ve overplayed you hand and so have they. And in lieu of being able to deliver what was a quite frankly an unsustainably high quality of date discussion, it all ends a bit anti-climatically; and not in the good way.

I’m not sure there’s much to offer by way of advice here; you’ll just know when it’s happened, which it never has to me. 

Friday, 4 March 2011

I know what you did last semester

Feel like bringing down the Government or at least a prominent member thereof, but not too sure you’ve got the stamina for all that full blown revolution malarkey, what with all the shouting and the shoe waving involved? Maybe you’re claustrophobic and the thought of waiting round in a square with thousands of other people for hours on end causes you to hyperventilate, hey, you may even have a job to go to. Well fear not, because now you too can do your bit for the cause and the only thing you’ll need is a red pen. 

On Tuesday, German Defence Minister, Baron Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, resigned his Cabinet position, following accusations of plagiarism after his Doctoral thesis on the origins of the US and EU constitutions was shown to include significant amounts of text copied verbatim from other research papers. Guttenberg, who has proven to be a headline writers dream, is yet to answer allegations that he also plagiarised his own name from that of a villain in an unpublished Sherlock Holmes adventure

Barely days later it came to light that Saif al-Islam, the son of the only human being currently more mental than Charlie Sheen, Colonel Gaddafi; had apparently plagiarised his PhD thesis at the London School of Economics back in 2008. LSE are currently investigating the legitimacy of al-Islam’s work and state that they retain the power to revoke his degree if he is found guilty of plagiarism. Taking no chances however, the university’s director has already resigned, which gives a bit of an indication as to the way this one may go.  

I’ll go out on a limb here and state that plagiarism probably isn’t the worst crime either Gadaffi junior or senior have committed this week and nor is it likely to knock, ‘avoid capture and imminent death’, from the top of their list of current priorities. But nonetheless it’s an inconvenience and one that represents a new threat to the reputations of public figures, namely the validity of their academic record. 

So what is plagiarism? Surprisingly, for a relatively simple concept, what constitutes plagiarism remains the source of some debate. Traditionally plagiarism has been thought of the process whereby an individual passes someone else’s ideas or work off as their own, and for the vast majority, especially those in academic institutions, this remains true today. Increasingly however, this traditional view has come under attack by those who dispute the validity of plagiarism as a concept. When last month German author Helen Hegemann was found to have copied entire passages at length from a lesser-well known book into her critically acclaimed novel Axolotl Roadkill, she responded somewhat brazenly: “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity”. This followed news in October that the Supreme Court of the Philippines had allowed one of its magistrates to submit plagiarised material, some of it from Wikipedia, in a major trial, stating only that the party involved had: “at times suffered in formatting lapses”

In primary school, as with many things, it was all so much clearer: you either used your entire body to shield what you were writing from your classmates, so diligently that not even a NASA satellite would be able to read your unique take on the nine times table, or your work got copied; simple. If you failed in your task and your classmate got a glimpse of your work, you cried out “Miss, he’s copying!” in shrill monotone, and after a brief telling off the whole charade started again. But at least then everybody knew where they were: there were the plagiarisers and the plagiarised and no conflation between the two. You didn’t hear little Johnny arguing, after being caught copying somebody else’s answers for the fourteenth time that day, that he found the entire notion of intellectual property inherently flawed did you?

Nowadays, the internet has changed the game and despite the advent of anti-plagiarism software, the sheer volume of data available online means that cheats have become increasingly hard to spot, as was proven in the case of both Guttenberg and al-Islam. After all, both men were awarded their PhD’s at the time, and only had them challenged subsequently following what we can only assume is a great deal more scrutiny than most students received, no doubt due to a desire from parties unknown to discredit them from their political positions. A recent article on the BBC website sensationally titled: Plagiarism: The Ctrl C, Ctrl V boom, offers examiners tips in spotting plagiarism in students’ work: “You might notice a sudden variation - from good language to bad, from academic tone to journalistic tone. The pronouns go from single to plural, a sentence is cut off in the middle, or a strange reference to Australia appears”, says Judith Carroll, author of A Handbook for Deterring Plagiarism in Higher Education; although if the strange and inexplicable reference to Australia is anything to go by, we may suspect Ms Carroll of copying this passage from elsewhere too. Furthermore, what the article neglects to mention is The Guardian’s recent report which revealed the extent of “churnalism”, or wholesale reproduction of press releases without verification that goes on in the media at large.

So there it is: it’s becoming increasingly hard to know whether the material we read has been written by the stated author, or merely copied from another source. I may have simply cut and paste this article from an even more obscure blog. You’ll never know. But beware, because as nobody else has ever said before: there’s always someone, somewhere with a big nose, who knows, who’ll trip you up and laugh when you fall. And with that in mind, choose you least favourite public figure, start trawling through their old-schoolbooks, hope to find some irregularities and watch them come tumbling down.