Viral vigilantes

Is it ethical to share on social media a photo of an alleged attacker without first verifying the facts?

And is this habit Shariah-compliant with regards to the manners of bearing witness, taking evidence and judging equitably?

It seems that in these troubled times, the politics of identity have completely replaced the moral framework which underpins our faith.

What if, after the photo has been shared 30,000 times, it turns out that the alleged attacker was innocent?

Does anyone have regrets and repent, or do we just write it off as a case of collateral damage? Mere fallout of the new vigilante religion we have made?

Pray tell.

ad-blocker disabled

Dear Publisher,

I have just responded to your plea to turn off the ad-blocker when visiting your website, by disabling it. But I wanted to follow up with the reason I’m using an ad-blocker, in the hope that we can meet in the middle.

I have no real objection to being shown adverts on the websites I visit. I fully understand that publishers need to fund their operations in a financially sustainable fashion.

The problem is this: many advertisements are so memory intensive and poorly optimised for the web, that they cause pages to load slowly, laptop fans to go into overdrive, the hardware to become uncomfortably hot under the palms of our hands and, when mobile, unnecessarily consume data.

The terrible memory management of the Chrome web browser is often the culprit, and it’s true that we could always choose to use a different web browser, but the alternatives have their own set of problems. And so we use an ad-blocker instead.

If publishers would look again at the kinds of adverts they put on their pages, I will certainly look again at using an ad-blocker. If they will stop using intrusive, poorly optimised advertisements that cause my usually cool-running MacBook to turn into a cooker, I’ll permanently turn the ad-blocking software off.

If publishers could find a middle ground between funding their work and providing a reader-centric user experience, I think the number of people using ad-blockers would definitely decrease.

Optimise or die, might be the lesson for the developers behind these adverts.

Your sincerely, etc.

The video call

I’m known for my occasional Luddite lapses, but still we should challenge some of the technophobic declarations of our some of our scholars.

My wife has just had a seamless face-to-face conversation with her mother, 1600 miles away, both via a flawless video image on a pair of mobile phones, one out about in the streets of Istanbul…

What untold reward awaits the software and hardware developers that facilitate the coming together of families separated by seas and continents, who make these conversations possible?

All things can be used for good and bad, be it the marketplace, the cafe, the school, the book, the knife, the car…

The internet, television, smartphones and Facebook are no different.

We just need to remember that ethics and manners apply to this sphere as much as any other. That should be the concern of our scholars: how to we navigate these new avenues of communication. Not encouraging us to abandon them altogether.

Truthfulness is an issue on the web because it is an issue in general. Verifying information is an issue for the same reason, albeit amplified by immediacy and reach.

For all the claims that something awful is happening, it could be said that something beautiful is happening. Perhaps access to more information than ever before and exposure to new ideas might be good for us.

Perhaps the perpetual challenge of ideas we are subjected to might help us see a clearer forward path, that would have been impossible in our cloistered life of old, when gate keepers defined for us what is orthodoxy and what is heresy, regardless of truth or godliness.

Technology challenges us, without a doubt: it forces us to ask new questions, to negotiate the unknown, to be ever more vigilant to the pitfalls and obstacles brought ever closer to us.

But we have been placed in this time and place for a reason: in this world where national borders or vast oceans, or treks across sand dunes, rivers, valleys, mountains and ravines, risking the assault of bandits or pirates, no longer need keep loved ones apart. Blessings, if only we would allow ourselves to see it.

Make time for meditation, yes: for quiet and peace and a time for contemplation. Disconnect when you have to. Apply ethics liberally to these new gateways, check your intentions and habits and manners. Yes, all of this is important.

But be open to this world; embrace it. Be grateful, count your blessings. Make a prayer for the software developers that facilitate family time, even if thousands of miles separate you. Be in awe, and amazement, and thankfulness. Make good use of the blessings bestowed on you. We are living in an amazing time: we just have to try extra hard to see it.

Data mining sacred texts

Social Media timelines are awash with the results of a textual analysis of the Old Testament, New Testament and Qur’an, which in a very cursory way seems to suggest that the Qur’an is a more peaceful text than the Bible. Unfortunately it is one of those feel-good stories, easily shared, which falls apart on closer inspection.

Firstly because the Bible and the Qur’an are very different texts. What would happen if we were to compare biblical oral histories with those of Muslim tradition? Or the Acts of the Apostles to the accounts of early Muslim communities? The New Testament is made up of accounts of the life of Jesus, pseudo histories and letters of encouragement: though of course it informs the life of the Christian believer, it is of a completely different genre to the Qur’an. The Old Testament is an even more diverse body of literature, containing histories, poetry, canticles, mythology and law, spanning two thousand years.

More pertinently, however, the analysis was undertaken not on original sources in their native languages, but on English translations / interpretations. For the Bible, the New International Version was selected. For the Qur’an, Muhammad Ali’s Ahmadiyya rendering was used. Clearly data-mining any interpretation or translation of a text other than the original is going to severely skew the results.

It’s true that mining the original texts in Arabic, Hebrew or Aramaic would present its own set of problems. Even in their Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek forms, biblical texts have long histories spanning centuries of oral transmission, the written record and subsequent editing and refinement.

It doesn’t stop there. The nature of language itself is an issue for all traditions. The meanings of words are not independent of religious authority, which itself is not independent of the political establishment; naturally the definitions of words are very often politicised. Even so, a word-for-word analysis of earlier texts would at least avoid some of the layers of interpretational, doctrinal and linguistic bias introduced by the translator.

Textual analysis of this kind no doubt has its place, but it is too limited to be used on its own, other than to generate the kinds of headlines helpful to a small technology company seeking to stand out from the crowd.

A real analysis of sacred texts demands years of very patient work — much more than most of us are willing to pledge — taking in the meanings of surrounding words, grammar, ellipsis, philosophy, practice, historical context, later political developments and so on. On the road to understanding there are no shortcuts: it is a lifetime’s work.

Manufactured schisms

Religious groups are just as capable of engaging in cunning marketing schemes as commercial organisations (if, indeed, such a distinction exists).

The mere mention of a banned video with a traditional religious message in the run up to Christmas was guaranteed to be splashed all over the press in a frenzy of head-shaking disbelief in no time.

What we have seen over the past few days is merely a more sophisticated version of the tried and tested viral marketing campaigns employed by all kinds of religious and political groups daily on social media.

Step one: make an almighty fuss about something nobody would have otherwise known about. Step two: sit back and relax as it goes viral in a self-perpetuating cycle of manufactured hurt, offence and counter-offence.

Give your PR company a raise.

False witness

It is disturbing how willingly we will share photographs from one situation and pass them off as new images of another.

We have witnessed this repeatedly this week as France stepped up its bombing campaign against ISIS.

It is not beyond the realm of possibility that there have been civilian casualties as a result of this action.

However, every one of the phtotographs provided as evidence has on investigation turned out to be several months old. Some actually depict the victims of the regime’s bombardments.

Using photographs of one conflict to depict another is not just unethical, but also alters the historical narrative. Who nowadays recalls the crimes of the regime?

Legends

The daily reading of the Facebook news feed is an instructive illustration of how myths easily and permanently solidify into undeniable realities: once an untruth has been repeatedly recounted it becomes real and true in the popular imagination. Preposterous embellishments only make it seem truer still: even if we disagree on the details, agreement on the core guarantees that the original claim was always broadly true. In past times legends had decades to incubate; today our myths are instantaneous. Depressing, but fascinating all the same.