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.

That Nativity Play

Amusing as this constant stream of memes circulating on Social Media is, seeking as they do to compare Syrian refugees to the Christmas Nativity, I can’t help thinking people are getting their stories mixed up.

The Biblical narrative doesn’t describe Mary and Joseph as refugees: they’re simply registering for a census in their home town, taking a circuitous route from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

There certainly is an episode after the birth in which they flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous decree, where they remain until he passes away: an asylum tale of sorts.

Of course the Nativity tale in popular culture as it is enacted each year by primary schools the world over is subject to all sorts of embellishments not found in the Biblical tradition — so it could mean whatever you want it to.

The reality is that compassionate people do not need to be moved by a false retelling of their religious tradition in order to act on behalf of the poor and vulnerable: they will act anyway.

But more to the point: we each project ourselves — our political leanings, our prejudices, our worldview, our culture, our environment — onto our respective religious traditions. This applies to all people at all times. Simplistic, if amusing, soundbites aren’t going to change the world.

Confirmation bias

Keep in mind that on Social Media we are afflicted with amplified Confirmation Bias.

Most of us would agree that it is unhealthy to read only the Telegraph, Times, Daily Mail or Guardian, for each of these partisan newspapers will only reconfirm the readers’ own political views. A feedback loop is created in which the source and the audience feed off each other.

Yet on Social Media we do just that: we surround ourselves with people with similar views, who echo and mirror our own sentiments ad nauseam, setting in motion an even bigger feedback loop, which creates a distorted picture of the outside world.

We subscribe to news feeds which we believe represent our interests, but which instead channel the world through selective filters. The simple act of Sharing and Liking another’s post, picture, video or article creates viral avalanches the power of which can never be diminished, no matter how hard the voice of reason tries.

Meanwhile, largely unbeknownst to us, complex algorithms designed to sell advertising work away in the background to serve up targeted news and products determined to appeal to us.

In short, Social Media creates a version of reality which only confirms our own fears, prejudices and beliefs correct. We prioritise information that confirm our biases and ignore everything else.

A trip outside, a conversation with neighbours, a walk in the wild, a moment’s meditation, a few hours volunteering or a day without the ever-present smartphone might break the infinity loop of despair. I suggest we try it.

Public gaze

Has nobody seen the vast number of posts on the internet from women complaining about men taking surreptitious photos of them in public places without permission?

Why is it that nobody has bothered to ask if it was okay to share the now famous photo of a Muslim woman on the Basingstoke train, taken secretly as she snoozed?

Too late: it has now been seen by hundreds of thousands of people, shared thousands of times and republished repeatedly by media corporations and bloggers alike over the past 24 hours. It has now been cached on so many servers that it will never disappear from an internet image search, like that poor young artist in the red hijab.

The man who took the photo has been hailed as a hero: a champion of decency and tolerance. Nowhere has anybody asked for the woman in the photo to represent herself or provide consent to be seen by thousands without as much as a lowered gaze.

If that was you, or your sister, or your wife, or your mother, would you allow that photo to be shared ad infinitum by tens of thousands of strangers, just because the person who took it claimed to be your saviour?

What has happened to our ability to probe and ponder, and not just follow the crowd without a second’s pause or moment of thought?

To be noticed

The lesson of the week for those seeking to influence public opinion is to not publish gory photos of children killed in war.

Ten thousand child deaths in Syria might have been avoided had there been an iconic photo capable of going viral (unfortunately most injuries were just too graphic for that).

The hundreds of children killed by Saudi Arabia in Yemen or by Israel in Gaza had no hope of reaching the masses and provoking global demands for change.

We must be pushed outside our comfort zones, yes, but not too much. The informed have known for years about the brutality of these wars and the desperate refugee crises caused by them.

Some hoped Angelina Jolie’s face would go viral to raise consciousness – and indeed she did an admirable job advocating on behalf of the destitute. But not even a pair of starving children eating breadcrumbs from the ground had the power to effect real change.

Only this photo could have gone viral. Gruesome but not offensive. Horrific yet sanitised. A peaceful babe in aweful circumstances. An angel that could speak to the masses.

Pity the thousands of other tragic children who could not speak and be heard either in life or death, whose unspeakable wounds were seen but never noticed.

DeenPort Runaways

It’s a long time since I’ve had the ability to post comments on the DeenPort forum. I deleted my account over five years ago and though I sometimes feel compelled to join again in order to respond to a particular thread, it appears that MAMA (the automated moderation system) is set to immediately auto-ban me. So instead I look on from afar, checking in now and then to see what people are talking about these days. Continue reading “DeenPort Runaways”

Intelligence

Our Intelligence Services may claim that they need new powers to facilitate online surveillance, but it seems the self-proclaimed muhajirun in Syria are not quite so tech-savvy.

It took me roughly two seconds to find the twitter account of an individual named in news reports today — and glean all sorts of information about their apparent location, recruiting methods, ideological worldview and associates (who are also using wide-open Twitter accounts).

I don’t know if the smartphone generation realise this, but everything that they post on Twitter via an App is viewable by the entire world via a web browser (unless they set their account to private). And you don’t even need a Twitter account to do that.

While I’m not advocating spying on your children, it is true that if parents tried to familiarise themselves with internet technology just a little, they would be well on the way to protecting their children from harm.

If you’re going to give your children smartphones, tablets and laptops, educate yourselves about risks associated with them. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve had to fix a family friend’s laptop because they didn’t install anti-virus software — or they did, but their internet browsing and downloading habits wreaked havoc. But one example of a multitude of risks associated with Internet use.

It is not acceptable anymore to be generous in spirit — giving your children expensive gadgets — and yet remain oblivious to their effects. Use your intelligence and do whatever it takes to keep your children out of harm’s way.