How to Weigh a Mountain of Evidence: Guest Blog by Professor Paul McKeigue (Part 1)

In this first of a two part special guest blog, my colleague Paul McKeigue will explain how the formal logic of probability theory can be used to evaluate the evidence for alternative explanations of an event like the Khan Sheikhoun chemical incident in April this year. As an epidemiologist and genetic statistician, Paul is expert in this approach.

Paul picks up on the recent debate between George Monbiot and myself (here and here) observing how we were somewhat at cross-purposes. George was insisting that I offer a competing explanation to the ‘Assad did it’ story, but I declined to speculate, having no independent way of knowing. Because George believed a “mountain” of evidence supported his belief, he found it vexing that I should question it without venturing a specific alternative explanation.

Paul points the way forward by arguing that the logic of probability theory implies that you cannot evaluate the evidence for or against a single hypothesis, but only the evidence favouring one hypothesis over another. He shows, with simple examples, how an observation that is consistent with a hypothesis does not necessarily support that hypothesis against an alternative; in fact, an observation that is highly unlikely under one hypothesis may still support that hypothesis if it is even more unlikely under an alternative.

In this framework, then, evidence for a claim that the Syrian government carried out a chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun cannot be evaluated except by comparison with an alternative explanation. The problem for anyone who formulates such an alternative explanation is that, in the current climate, they are likely to be denounced as a “conspiracy theorist”. Paul shows, however, that you cannot evaluate evidence without envisaging what you would expect to observe if each of the alternative hypotheses were true. This inevitably requires you to ‘speculate’: it doesn’t mean that you endorse any of the alternative hypotheses.

In Part 1 posted here below, Paul explains the approach and demonstrates how it can be applied to evaluate the evidence for alternative explanations of the alleged chemical attack in Ghouta in 2013. We welcome discussions of the approach in the comments. In Part 2, he will examine the evidence for alternative explanations of the Khan Sheikhoun incident.

Bayes & Turing 2

Paul McKeigue    

Using probability calculus to evaluate evidence for alternative hypotheses, including deception operations

In this post I will try to show how the formal framework of hypothesis testing based on probability theory is able to separate subjective beliefs about the plausibility of alternative explanations, on which we can agree to differ, from the evaluation of the weight of evidence supporting each of these alternative explanations, on which it should be easier to reach a consensus. We can then begin to apply this to the Syrian conflict.

Although the mathematical basis for using evidence from observations to update the probability of a hypothesis was first set out by the 18th century clergyman Thomas Bayes, the first practical use of this framework was for cryptanalysis by Alan Turing at Bletchley Park. This was later elaborated by his assistant Jack Good as a general approach to evaluating evidence and testing hypotheses. This approach to testing hypotheses has been standard practice in genetics since the 1950s, and has spread into many other fields of scientific research, especially astronomy. It underlies the revolution in machine learning and artificial intelligence that is beginning to transform our lives. Although the practical usefulness of the Bayes-Turing framework is not in question, this does not prove that it is the only logical way to evaluate evidence. The basis for this was provided by the physicist Richard Cox, who showed that degrees of belief must obey the mathematical rules of probability theory if they satisfy simple rules of logical consistency. Another physicist, Edwin Jaynes, drew together the approach developed by Turing and Good with Cox’s proof to develop a philosophical framework for using Bayesian inference to evaluate uncertain propositions. In this framework, Bayesian inference is just an extension of the ordinary rules of logic to manipulating uncertain propositions; any other way of evaluating evidence would violate rules of logical consistency. There are too many names – not limited to Bayes, Turing, Good, Cox and Jaynes – attached to the development of this framework to name it after all of them, so I’ll follow Jaynes and just call it probability calculus.

The objective of this post and the one that follows is to show you, the reader, how to evaluate evidence for yourself using simple back-of-the-envelope calculations based on probability calculus.

Some fundamental principles of probability calculus can be expressed without using mathematical language:-

  • For two alternative hypotheses, H1 and H2, the evidence favouring H1 over H2 is evaluated by comparing how well H1 would have predicted the observations with how well H2 would have predicted the observations.
  • We cannot evaluate the evidence for or against a single hypothesis, only the evidence favouring one hypothesis over another.
  • The evidence favouring one hypothesis over another can be calculated without having to specify your prior degree of belief in which of these two hypotheses is correct. Two people may have different priors, but their calculations of the strength of evidence favouring one hypothesis over another should agree if they agree on what they would expect to observe if each of these hypotheses were true.

For a light-hearted tutorial in how to apply these principles in everyday life, try this exercise.

To take the argument further, I need to explain some simple maths. If you already have a basic grounding in Bayesian inference, you can skip to the next section. Otherwise, you can work through the brief tutorial below, or try an online tutorial like this one .

Before you have seen the evidence, your degree of belief in which of these alternatives is correct can be represented as your prior odds. For instance if you believe H1 and H2 are equally probable, your prior odds are 1 to 1, or even odds in everyday language. After you have seen the evidence, your prior odds are updated to become your posterior odds.

Bayes’ theorem specifies how evidence updates prior odds to posterior odds. The theorem can be stated in the form:-

\displaystyle \left(\textrm{prior odds of H}_1 \textrm{ to H}_2 \right) \times \frac{\textrm{likelihood of H}_1} {\textrm{likelihood of H}_2} = \left(\textrm{posterior odds of H}_1 \textrm{ to H}_2 \right)

  • Your prior odds encode your degree of belief favouring H1 over H2, before you have seen the observations. Priors are subjective: one person may assign prior odds of 100 to 1 favouring H1 over H2, while another may believe that both hypotheses are equally probable.
  • The likelihood of a hypothesis is the conditional probability of the observations given that hypothesis. To evaluate it, we have to envisage what would be expected to happen if the hypothesis were true. We can think of the likelihood as measuring how well the hypothesis can predict the observation.
  • Likelihoods of hypotheses measure the relative support for those hypotheses; they are not the probabilities of those hypotheses.
  • The ratio of the likelihood of H1 to the likelihood of H2 is called the Bayes factor or simply the likelihood ratio. In recognition of his mentor, Good called it the “Bayes-Turing factor”.
  • It is only through the likelihood ratio that your prior odds are modified by evidence to posterior odds. All the evidence on whether the observations support H1 or H2 is contained in the likelihood ratio: this is the likelihood principle.

Examples

  1. You have two alternative hypotheses about a coin that is to be tossed: H1 that the coin is fair, and H2 that the coin is two-headed. In most situations your prior belief would be that H1 is far more probable than H2. Given the observation that the coin comes up heads when tossed once, the likelihood of a fair coin is 0.5 and the likelihood of a two-headed coin is 1. The likelihood ratio favouring a two-headed coin over a fair coin is 2. This won’t change your prior odds much. If, after the first ten tosses, the coin has come up heads every time, the likelihood ratio is 210=1024, perhaps enough for you to suspect that someone has got hold of a two-headed coin.
  2.  Hypothesis H1 is that all crows are black (as in eastern Scotland), and hypothesis H2 is that only 1 in 8 crows are black (as in Ireland where most crows are grey). The first crow you observe is black. Given this single observation, the likelihood of H1 is 1, and the likelihood of H2 is 1/8. The likelihood ratio favouring H1 over H2 is 8. So if your prior odds were 2 to 1 in favour of H1, your posterior odds, after this first observation, will be 16 to 1. This posterior will be your prior when you next observe a crow. If this next crow is also black, the likelihood ratio contributed by this observation is again 8, and your posterior odds favouring H1 over H2 will be updated to (16×8=128) to 1.

Bayes’ theorem can be expressed in an alternative form by taking logarithms. If your maths course didn’t cover logarithms, don’t be put off. To keep things simple, we’ll work in logarithms to base 2. The logarithm of a number is defined as the power of 2 that equals the number. So for instance the logarithm of 8 is 3 (2 to the power of 3 equals 8). The logarithm of 1/8 is minus 3, and the logarithm of 1 is zero. Taking logarithms replaces multiplication and division by addition and subtraction, which is why if you went through secondary school before the arrival of cheap electronic calculators you were taught to use logarithms for calculations. However logarithms are not just for calculations but fundamental to using maths to solve problems in the real world, especially those that have to do with information. I was dismayed to find that here in Scotland, where logarithms were invented, they have disappeared from the national curriculum for maths up to year 5 of secondary school.

The logarithm of the likelihood ratio is called the weight of evidence favouring H1 over H2. As taking logarithms replaces multiplying by adding, we can rewrite Bayes’ theorem as

prior weight + weight of evidence = posterior weight

where the prior weight and posterior weight are respectively the logarithms of the prior odds and posterior odds. If we use logarithms to base 2, the units of measurement of weight are called bits (binary digits).

So we can rewrite the crow example (prior odds 2 to 1, likelihood ratio 8, posterior odds 2×8=16) as

prior weight = 1 bit (21=2)

likelihood ratio = 3 bits (23=8)

posterior weight = 1 + 3 = 4 bits

One advantage of working with logarithms is that it gives us an intuitive feel for the accumulation of evidence: weights of evidence from independent observations can be added, just like physical weights. Thus in the coin-tossing example above, after one toss of the coin has come up heads the weight of evidence is one bit. After the first ten coin tosses have come up heads, the weight of evidence favouring a two-headed coin is 10 bits. As a rule of thumb, 1 bit of evidence can be interpreted as a hint, 2 to 3 bits as weak evidence, 5 to 6 bits as modest evidence, and anything more than that as strong evidence.

Hempel’s paradox

Within the framework of probability calculus we can resolve a problem first stated by the German philosopher Carl Gustav Hempel. What he called a paradox can be stated in the following form:

An observation that is consistent with a hypothesis is not necessarily evidence in favour of that hypothesis.

Good showed that this is not a paradox, but a corollary of Bayes’ theorem. To explain this, he constructed a simple example (I have changed the numbers to make it easier to work in logarithms to base 2). Suppose there are two Scottish islands denoted A and B. On island A, there are 215 birds of which 26 are crows and all these crows are black. On island B, there are 215 birds of which 212 are crows and 29 of these crows (that is, one eighth of all crows) are black. You wake up on one of these islands and the first bird that you observe is a black crow. Is this evidence that you are on island A, where all crows are black?

You can’t do inference without making assumptions. I’ll assume that on each island all birds, whatever their species or colour, have equal chance of being seen first. The likelihood of island A, given this observation, is 2-9. The likelihood of island B is 2-3. The weight of evidence favouring island B over island A is [3(9)]=6 bits. So the observation of a black crow is moderately strong evidence against the hypothesis that you are on island A where all crows are black. So, when two hypotheses are compared, an observation that is consistent with a hypothesis can nevertheless be evidence against that hypothesis.

The converse applies: an observation that is highly improbable given a hypothesis is not necessarily evidence against that hypothesis. As an example, we can evaluate the evidence for a hypothesis that most readers will consider an implausible conspiracy theory: that the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were brought down not by the hijacked planes that crashed into them but by demolition charges placed in advance, with the objective of bringing about a “new Pearl Harbour” in the form of a catastrophic event that would provoke the US into asserting military dominance. We’ll call the two alternative hypotheses for the cause of the collapses – plane crashes, planned demolitions – H1 and H2 respectively. The proponents of this hypothesis attach great importance to the observation that a nearby smaller tower (Building 7), collapsed several hours after the Twin Towers for reasons that are not obvious to non-experts. I have no expertise in structural engineering, but I’m prepared to go along with their assessment that the collapse of a nearby smaller tower has low probability given H1. However I also assess that the probability of this observation given H2 is equally low. If the planners’ objective in destroying the Twin Towers was to create a catastrophic event, why would they have planned to demolish a nearby smaller tower several hours later, with the risk of giving away the whole operation? For the sake of argument, I’ll put a value of 0.05 on both these likelihoods. Note that it doesn’t matter whether the observation is stated as “collapse of a nearby tower” for which the likelihoods of H1 and H2 are both 0.05, or as “collapse of Building 7” for which (if there were five such buildings all equally unlikely to collapse) the likelihoods of H1 and H2 would both be 0.01. For inference, all that matters is the ratio of the likelihoods of H1 and H2 given this observation. If this ratio is 1, the weight of evidence favouring H1 over H2 is zero.

The conditional probabilities in this example are my subjective judgements. I make no apology for this; the logic of probability calculus says that you can’t evaluate evidence without making these subjective judgements, that these subjective judgements must obey the rules of probability theory, and that any other way of evaluating evidence violates axioms of logical consistency. If your assessment of these conditional probabilities differs from mine, that’s not a problem as long as you can explain your assessments of these probabilities in a way that makes sense to others. The general point on which I think most readers will agree is that although the collapse of a nearby smaller tower would not have been predicted from H1, it would not have been predicted from H2 either. The likelihood of a hypothesis given an observation measures how well the hypothesis would have predicted that observation.

We can see from this example that to evaluate the evidence favouring H1 over H2, you have to assess, for each hypothesis in turn, what you would expect to observe if that hypothesis were true. Like a detective solving a murder, you have to “speculate”, for each possible suspect, how the crime would have been carried out if that individual were the perpetrator. This requirement is imposed by the logic of probability calculus: complying with it does not imply that you are a “conspiracy theorist”. The principle of evaluating how the data could have been generated under alternative hypotheses applies in many other fields: for instance, medical diagnosis, historical investigation, and intelligence analysis. A CIA manual on intelligence analysis sets out a procedure for ‘analysis of competing hypotheses’ which ‘demands that analysts explicitly identify all the reasonable alternative hypotheses, then array the evidence against each hypothesis – rather than evaluate the plausibility of each hypothesis one at a time.’ I am not trying to tell people who are expert in these professions that they don’t know how to evaluate evidence. However it can still be useful to work through the formal framework of probability calculus to identify when intuition is misleading. For instance, where two analysts evaluating the same observations disagree on the weight of evidence, working through the calculation will identify where their assumptions differ, and how the evaluation of evidence depends on these assumptions.

An interesting argument about the use of Bayesian evidence in court can be found in this judgement of the Appeal Court in 2010. In a murder trial, the forensic expert had given evidence that there was “moderate scientific support” for a match of the defendant’s shoes to the shoe marks at the crime scene, but had not disclosed that this opinion was based on calculating a likelihood ratio. The judges held that where likelihood ratios would have to be calculated from statistical data that were uncertain and incomplete, such calculations should not be used by experts to form the opinions that they presented to the court. However the logic of probability calculus imply that you cannot evaluate the strength of evidence except as a likelihood ratio. Calculating this ratio makes explicit the assumptions that are used to assess the strength of evidence. In this case, the expert had used national data on shoe sales to assign the likelihood that the foot marks were made by someone else, given that the foot marks were made by size 11 trainers. The conditional probability of size 11 trainers, given that they were made by someone else, should have been based on the frequency of size 11 trainers among people present at similar crime scenes. It was because the calculations were made available at the appeal that the judges were able to criticize the assumptions on which they were based and to overturn the conviction.

We next consider an example of Hempel’s paradox from the Syrian conflict.

Rockets used in the alleged chemical attack in Ghouta in 2013: evidence for or against Syrian government responsibility?

To explain the alleged chemical attack in Ghouta in 2013, two alternative hypotheses have been proposed, which we’ll denote H1 and H2

  • H1 states that a chemical attack was carried out by the Syrian military, under orders from President Assad. The proponents of this hypothesis include the US, UK and French governments.
  • H2 states that a false-flag chemical attack was carried out by the Syrian opposition, with the objective of bringing about a US-led attack on the Syrian armed forces. A leading proponent of this hypothesis was the blogger “sasa wawa”, who set up a crowd-sourced investigation of the Ghouta incident. The evidence generated during this investigation was later set out in the framework of probability calculus by the Rootclaim project, founded by Saar Wilf, an Israeli entrepreneur (and noted international poker player) with a background in the signals intelligence agency Unit 8200. I think we can tentatively identify “sasa wawa”, who seemed “to have unlimited time and energy and to be some sort of polymath”, as Wilf.

Other hypotheses are possible: for instance we can define hypothesis H3 that an unauthorized chemical attack was carried out by a rogue element in the Syrian military, and hypothesis H4 that there was no chemical attack but a massacre of captives, in which rockets and sarin were used to create a false trail of evidence for a chemical attack. But for now we’ll just consider H1 and H2.

You may have strong prior beliefs about the plausibility of these two hypotheses: for instance you may believe that H1 is highly implausible because the Syrian government had no motive to carry out such an attack when OPCW inspectors had just arrived, or you may take the view that H2 is an absurd conspiracy theory requiring us to believe that the opposition carried out a large-scale chemical attack on themselves. Whatever your prior beliefs, to evaluate the evidence you must be prepared to envisage for each of these hypotheses what would be expected to happen if that hypothesis were correct, in order to compute the likelihood of that hypothesis. This requires for H1 that you put yourself in the shoes of a Syrian general ordered to carry out a chemical attack, or for H2 that you put yourself in the shoes of an opposition commander planning a false-flag chemical attack that will implicate the regime.

A key observation is credited to Eliot Higgins, who showed that the rockets examined by the OPCW inspectors at the impact sites were a close match to a type of rocket that the Syrian army had been using as an improvised short-range siege weapon. This “Volcano” rocket consisted of a standard artillery rocket with a 60-litre tank welded over the nose, giving it a heavier payload but a very short range (about 2 km).

In Higgins’s interpretation, which has been widely disseminated, this observation is evidence for hypothesis H1. Let’s apply the framework of probability calculus to compute the weight of evidence favouring H1 over H2 given this observation.

First, we compute the likelihood of H1. The Syrian military had large stocks of munitions specifically designed to deliver nerve agent at medium to long range, including missiles and air-delivered bombs together with equipment for safely filling them with sarin. Given that they had been ordered to carry out a chemical attack, I assess the probability that they would have used these purpose-designed munitions as at least 0.9. The probability that they would have used an improvised short-range siege weapon, which to reach the target would have had to be fired from the front line or from within opposition-controlled territory, is rather low: I assess this as about 0.05. This is the likelihood of H1 given the observation.

Second, we compute the likelihood of H2. Given that under this hypothesis the objective of the attack was to implicate the Syrian government, the opposition had to be able to show munitions at the sites of sarin release that could plausibly be attributed to the Syrian military. They had two possible ways to do this: (1) to fake an air strike, with fragments of air-delivered munitions matching something in the Syrian arsenal; or (2) to use rockets or artillery shells matching something in the Syrian military arsenal. Volcano rockets, either captured from Syrian army stocks or copied, would have been ideal for this. With no other reason to choose between options (1) and (2), we assign equal probabilities to them under H2. The likelihood of H2 given the observation is therefore 0.5.

The likelihood ratio favouring H2 over H1 is 10, corresponding to a weight of evidence of 3.3 bits. Your assessment of the conditional probabilities may vary from mine, but I think the general point is clear: from hypothesis H1 we would not have predicted that the Syrian military would have chosen to use an improvised chemical munition rather than their stocks of purpose-designed chemical munitions, but from hypothesis H2 we would have expected the opposition to use any munition available to them that would implicate the Syrian army. So this is a classic example of Hempel’s paradox: an observation consistent with hypothesis H1 does not necessarily support H1, but instead contributes (under a plausible specification of the conditional probabilities) weak evidence favouring the alternative hypothesis H2.

This also shows how, by using the framework of probability calculus we are able to separate prior beliefs from evaluation of the weight of evidence. Your evaluation of the weight of evidence depends only on the ratios of the conditional probabilities that you specify for the observation given H1 or given H2; it does not depend on your prior odds.

Comparison with Rootclaim’s evaluation of the weight of evidence contributed by the rockets

As discussed above, where two analysts disagree on evaluating the weight of evidence contributed by the same observations, using probability calculus allows us to identify exactly where their assumptions differ. For the weight of evidence favouring H2 over H1 given the observation of Volcano rockets, I assigned a value of 3.3 bits. I had not looked at Rootclaim’s assessment which assigns a value of minus 0.5 bits for the weight of evidence favouring H2 over H1.

Let’s see how Rootclaim’s assumptions differ from mine. For the probability of observing Volcano rockets given H1, Rootclaim assigns the same value (0.05) as I have. However Rootclaim assigns a value of only 0.036 to the probability of observing Volcano rockets under H2. Rootclaim obtains this value by multiplying together a probability of 0.4 that an opposition group would capture Volcano rockets, a probability of 0.3 that another opposition group with access to sarin would find this group, and a probability of 0.3 that these two groups would figure out how to fill the munition with sarin.

I think Rootclaim’s assignment of the conditional probability of observing Volcano rockets given H2 does not correctly condition on what is implied by H2. Under hypothesis H2, the purpose of the operation is to implicate the Syrian government. The conditional probability of observing Volcano rockets given H2 is the probability that these rockets would be found given that the opposition plans to release sarin and to leave a false trail of evidence implicating the Syrian military. To release sarin the opposition has to figure out some way to fill munitions (rockets or improvised devices) with it. To implicate the Syrian military, the opposition has to use a munition (captured or copied) that matches something in the Syrian military’s arsenal. The only choice for the opposition, given hypothesis H2, is whether to use a munition fired from the ground, like the Volcano rocket, or to use remnants of an air-dropped bomb with an improvised chemical-releasing device. With nothing to choose between these two options given H2, I have assigned them equal probabilities.

Without these calculations being stated explicitly, there would have been no way for you, the reader, to evaluate the difference between my assessment that the rockets contribute weak evidence in favour of hypothesis H2 and Rootclaim’s assessment that the rockets contribute practically no evidence favouring either hypothesis. By working through the formal framework of probability calculus, you can see that this difference arises because my assignment of the likelihood of H2 is based on assumptions about the purpose of the deception operation that is implied by hypothesis H2.

This example illustrates a more general principle: to evaluate the likelihood of a hypothesis that implies a deception operation, we must condition on what that deception would entail.

Evidence contributed by the non-occurrence of an expected event

To evaluate all relevant evidence, we must include the non-occurrence of events that would have been expected under at least one of the alternative hypotheses. This is the principle set out in the case of “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time“: Holmes noted that the observation that the dog did not bark had low probability given the hypothesis of an unrecognized intruder, but high probability given the hypothesis that the horse was taken by someone that the dog knew.

From the alleged chemical attack in Ghouta, a “dog did not bark” observation is that despite the mass of stills and video clips uploaded that showed victims in hospitals or morgues, no images have appeared that showed victims being rescued in their homes or bodies being recovered from affected homes. The only images from Ghouta purporting to show victims being found where they had collapsed were obviously fraudulent, showing nine alleged victims of chemical attack dead in the stairwell of an unfinished building named the “Zamalka Ghost House” by researchers.

As an exercise, you can assess the likelihoods of each of the following hypotheses, given the observation that no images showing rescue of victims in their homes, or recovery of bodies of people who had died in their homes were made available. To put this observation in context, this page lists more than 150 original videos uploaded, most showing victims in hospitals or morgues, attributed to 18 different opposition media operations.

  • H1: a chemical attack was carried out by the Syrian military, authorized by the government
  • H2: a false-flag chemical attack was carried out by the Syrian opposition to implicate the government
  • H3: an unauthorized chemical attack was carried out by a rogue element in the Syrian military
  • H4: there was no chemical attack but a managed massacre of captives, with rockets and sarin used to create a trail of forensic evidence that would implicate the Syrian government in a chemical attack.

Given each of these hypotheses in turn, what do you assess to be the conditional probability that none of the uploaded videos would show the rescue of victims in their homes or the recovery of bodies of people who had died in their homes?

In the next post we shall explore how to apply the formal framework of probability calculus to evaluate the weight of evidence for alternative explanations of the alleged chemical attack in Khan Sheikhoun.

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Posted in disinformation, global justice, guest blog, journalism, media, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war | Tagged , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

What is ‘Open Society’?

The idea is familiar and sounds attractive. But attractive ideas can be used in different ways, and not always those you expect. Some interpretations of ‘Open Society’ actually conflict with others. The latent battle of ideas within is not obvious from a superficial look at definitions.

Yet the idea has become embroiled in some of the most significant political controversies of our time. Some might argue it has played a part in decisions affecting the fate of entire nations and the lives and deaths of people in them.

People choose to die for ideas. People can also be killed because of the ideas of other people. Seen in this light, spending a little time thinking about ideas is not time wasted.

In the course of this new series of blogs,[1] I shall be looking closely at the idea of Open Society. I shall try to be succinct, each time, highlighting a specific contradiction that can be uncovered in the conceptual roots of the idea. I’ll say enough about the opposed interpretations to account for how people who promote the idea in practice might in fact be promoting something they hadn’t imagined.

To begin with, then, Open Society is an idea first elaborated in the 1940s by philosopher Karl Popper. His book, The Open Society and Its Enemies, was very much a response to the world situation of his time, and he took a definite political stance. Whether or not one shares his perspective, philosophically or politically, his argument is cogent within its own set of assumptions. But I come to be writing about the idea now – 70 years on – because it has been made more famous through its uptake by a person who was directly influenced by the philosopher. I am talking of course about billionaire financial trader George Soros. As a student, Soros had looked to Popper as a mentor, and he went on to adopt Popper’s idea as the very name of his Open Society Foundations (OSF).

The political activities Soros has supported in the name of Open Society are controversial. Some have been strongly condemned in many parts of the world. On the other hand, there are vast numbers of constituent organisations of the OSF that employ a great many people who are aiming to make the world a better place.

So there seems to be something profoundly contradictory at work here. In fact, there are several potential misconceptions, and I shall give here just a first example. It relates to a puzzle we will keep coming back to, about the meaning of ‘people power’. This sounds like something we, as people, should probably be in favour of, if we are not part of the elite, and yet some terrible things can happen under the name of People Power. Those terrible things don’t need philosophy to deal with, but to understand how they might have been avoided, and might be avoided another time, some conceptual clarity can do no harm.

‘People power’, on the view of Popper, was no better than ‘elite power’, as found in Plato’s ‘Philosopher King’ (or as Popper saw it in Hitler’s dictatorship). Popper did not support populism. He favoured securing the rights of people to live under democratic conditions. He wanted a firm democratic, secular, constitution within which people would be empowered through freedom to live their lives as they choose. He took the classic liberal view that a belief in allowing a single ‘popular will’ to make political decisions is the thin end of a totalitarian wedge. For Popper, then, people should be protected against tyranny by a form of government that protects pluralistic acceptance of different points of view. The people are empowered to decide on who governs them; they are not in power.

When Soros advocates People Power, and even provides practical support and resources for activists in its name, he seems to be doing something very different from what Popper had in mind. Soros does say he supports pluralism, but he sees it as compatible with the direct empowerment of selected groups of people in what he calls ‘civil society’ (another deeply tricky concept!). He does not talk about the protections of a state’s constitution because he wants to diminish the power of states altogether (another thing we’ll come back to!). Soros is less concerned about the dangers of populism than about what he sees as the freedom-impinging constraints of state powers. He claims that power should really reside with people rather than with states. This could look like embracing a form of populism that runs counter to pluralism. That can be a problem if the two are mutually contradictory.

Given that power arguably rests today not so much with states as the mega-wealthy corporate and financial elite, there are clearly further questions to ask in relation to the issue of populism. But those take us way beyond philosophy. So just an unphilosophical thought to end on. I mentioned that ‘people power’ sounds like something we should probably be in favour of, if we are not part of the elite. But Soros is part of the elite…

 

[1]  In these blogs I am providing excerpts of a longer argument, with each post highlighting a specific philosophical question and indicating some of the practical implications of it. For those interested, the academic version of the argument in full is available as a working paper: ‘The Open Society and Its Enemies’ Enemies’. Any suggestions for improvement of that paper will be gratefully received.

 

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Posted in constitutional politics, global justice, human rights, political philosophy, Uncategorized, war | 2 Comments

It’s Time To Raise the Level of Public Debate about Syria

These past six months I have been getting to know the inter-media. They’re not formally part of mainstream, and they’re not very social, so I call them inter-media. They are like the maintenance team for the mainstream. To explain this, I’ll first say how I came to meet them.

The context of these encounters is writing posts on Syria. Doing so, I rely entirely on what others say. But the fact that we hear directly contradictory narratives provides a rare opportunity to test whose tale is the truer. Lies, whatever some bluffers and braggers may think, are infinitely harder to sustain, over time, than is the truth.[1]

The impulse to write about Syria originated at a very specific moment, even if my curiosity had been piqued earlier by the Netflix White Helmets: Where are the fighters that are holding off the combined military might of Syria and Russia? How come they don’t mind you filming here? The moment, though, was when Eva Bartlett responded to a mainstream media critic’s question: “Sources on the ground? You don’t have them.” And when Eva pointed out that the White Helmets were embedded with the fighters, this simply made more sense than Netflix had. But then I learned “That woman has been debunked.” (Note the way she is spoken about.) So who by? Well, Snopes for one. Fine, but seriously? I was informed that the mainstream view was verified by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Here, now, was a reputable organisation that actually had doctors there on the ground risking their lives to save others under very dangerous conditions. Except, as it turned out, they did not, and so I came to write my first blog on Syria.

(MSF had the good grace to accept that I’d identified a problem, and invited me to their annual research conference this year to discuss the issues involved in relying on secondhand testimony.)

Channel 4’s alleged debunking of Eva prompted a subsequent blog. That involved studying their output, which was revealed to include much more than some unreliable witness statements. If MSF’s misleading testimony might be attributable to an insufficiently accountable communications operation, Channel 4 appeared to be engaged in a systematic programme of disinformation. There seemed to be a conscious commitment to presenting part of the same alternative reality that White Helmets and Bana feature in. It all appears to be produced by the Aleppo Media Center, which is actually in Turkey, but Channel 4 got some bespoke pieces, like the ‘Inside Aleppo’ series, and not just syndicated stuff. Hence we find Channel 4’s Aleppo films winning awards, like Netflix did with the White Helmets.

(Hence the channel will not publicly address what some there privately acknowledge are valid questions. And when you think about the investment involved you can understand their reluctance.)

Reflect on what must be involved here, and you start to realise that such a coordinated effort must have a deep and extensive organisational basis that goes way beyond the specific organisations that retail the information. Consider the preparation, work, time, and resources, material and human, that go into producing even a single scene in a movie, and then, after a whole feature has been shot, the audience still knows it is just a movie, not real. How much more preparation and resource must go into not merely producing a movie but actually persuading the entire public that reality is like the movie.

Nor is the effort to build that wall of disinformation the end of the challenge. It will require constant maintenance, for any big structure is liable to stresses, and cracks will appear. Here is where you need people ready with some filler. This is where we meet the inter-media. More fleet-footed, less constrained, than straight up media channels, but more disciplined and very much less social than social media, they are something in between.  Their function with respect to the dominant narrative seems to be akin to that of those hi-tech bacteria that mould themselves into ongoing repairs in cracked concrete: the inter-media are there to plug up the cracks where shafts of truth show through.

This week afforded some opportunities to encounter the inter-media at work. Early in the week, a great article by Piers Robinson was published in openDemocracy urging a more serious look at propaganda and its contribution to the regime change agenda that is destroying Syria. Getting published in this prominent outlet was something of an achievement, for reasons I’ll let one of the first responders illustrate:

“By amplifying this conspiracist drivel, you are polluting the public sphere. @OpenSociety & @boell_stiftung should reconsider their support”

That tweet has since been deleted, perhaps because its author agreed with me that it cast a worrying light on his idea of how public debate should be conducted, and on whose terms. But it had made me curious as to why the Heinrich Böll Foundation should have a particular interest in the matter[2] I only knew them as a research organisation linked to the German Greens. (I’d spoken myself at their headquarters one time in Berlin.) But now I was about to turn over another stone! A cursory look on twitter quickly turns up that Foundation’s Middle East communications person tweeting about Tim Anderson, a longstanding critic in relation to The Dirty War on Syria, and lecturer at Sidney University:

“When will @sydney_uni finally end this producer of #FakeNews contract? Smearing of civilians, pretending #Assad doesn’t use gas.”

Wow! She attacks a man’s reputation, campaigns for him to lose his job, and challenges academic freedom, while also asserting an unproven claim as if it were truth, all within 140 characters. I can see how she got the job as communications head.

Moving on from this inter-media filler of German precision we will shortly come to meet one with American pizzazz. But first there is some backstory to fill in, starting with some words of clarification.

I hope it was clear, when I a moment ago implied a certain admiration for the skills of the propagandist just mentioned, that I am not approving of what she uses them for. I should have been clearer on this score when giving credit to Bellingcat in a post last week. In order to establish that my engagement with him would follow academic norms, I exaggerated the courtesies.[3] This caused some genuine consternation amongst readers, given the awareness many have of Bellingcat’s role in the propagation of the US-UK narrative. A few individuals were so outraged that they launched a forceful public criticism at me.[4] Since the last thing I want to do is mislead people I revised the blog, stripping out the confusing niceties, in order to bring attention back to its actual point. I had already apologised.

That incident taught me a few things. One is that writing in public, unlike in academia, means being aware of a potentially wide readership, with a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. So I should take more care to say only what I mean. Something else I learned, though, is what wonderful people there are who share the kinds of concern that I’m working through in these posts. Many people who I had already instinctively felt trust in revealed a depth of solidarity and integrity that is simply humbling. I really want to thank you all for your words of support. Thank you, also, for urging everyone to settle any differences like friends.

Like friends. That this expression comes so spontaneously to mind is my most important lesson.[5] There is actually a group of friends who are bound by a few simple ties: a desire that what we learn about the world is the truth; a conviction that whatever pressures of life may drive human beings into conflict with one another, we should do everything in our power to deal with them without being pushed into wars. Our power may not be great as individuals, but we all partake of a power that is ultimately indomitable. As embodied creatures of this real world we have evolved with a deep commitment to pursuing truth. If our ancestors could not discern the difference between a snake and a stick, we would not be here. If we were not able to make correct judgements about myriad things every moment of our waking life, aware of it or not, we would not survive long. We have an instinct for seeking true knowledge. We are predisposed towards it. To those who want to obscure it, we will seem like partisans for the truth.

With this in mind, I return to the American intervention on my twitter feed this week. The twitter storm provoked by my being too polite to Bellingcat had been watched with some amusement by Higgins himself and some of his friends. Here is one of them:

trouble-in-paradise-e1500653132802.jpg

I have anonymised this because, like the first tweet I quoted above, it comes from a person who works at a UK University. I highlight it not because I personally mind being grouped with the majority of people living in Syria who prefer their legitimate government to the murderous bands of foreign-backed sectarians attacking it. But it is intended as a smear, and for the sake of people who want to engage in constructive and serious debate, I shall stand up to this practice of the inter-media brigade of attacking any and every attempt at actual public debate about the truth in Syria (or, indeed, in many other places). If they want to behave like rude trolls, they’d best keep a respectful distance from academia when they do it. That is a message I would encourage them to embrace.

I don’t believe the public want to think their own or their children’s university education is entrusted to people who think it is appropriate public conduct to come out with productions like the follow up to that tweet. For in lieu of the requested apology from the waggish twitterer, there ensued a series of tweets including this flourish of creativity:

"Show Trial"

The inter-media brigade may think this is a bit of fun, a change from straight up abuse and intimidation (and from unreasoned dismissals such as we find with Padraig Reidy calling Piers Robinson’s piece in openDemocracy ‘disgraceful’ apparently because Piers has elsewhere defended Russia Today against irrational attacks). But I ask them, very seriously, what actually is there to be having fun about? Those who promote propaganda that has real consequences for real people should man up, and grow up, and own what they do.

Frankly, none of this should need saying, and I am not paid to be spending valuable time dealing with it. So to them I leave it at this: Meet us in an academic forum or on a public platform where norms of civil debate apply. You cannot have it both ways: you cannot go bruising it around the internet just making ad hominem slurs while also staking an implicit claim to academic backing.

As for friendly and open readers, especially beyond academia, I have this to say.  If in resisting propaganda you get called partisans, then let it be so. We are partisans for the truth. And resistance will work.  Perhaps the truth is ‘rarely pure and never simple’, but it is much less high-maintenance than the wall of misinformation that the inter-media team are perpetually trying to patch up, and it will out. Meanwhile, the resistance is growing.

And finally, just to illustrate the difference between the alternative reality and the world we live in, I leave you with a video released this week by the amazing journalist from Aleppo, Khaled Iskef. He shows us around the neighbourhood in Aleppo where the little Syrian girl called Bana actually lived, there alongside the HQs of the armed brigades whose men, alone, were able to make or send images from the place. You then get an idea of how the child used in the propaganda may have a true call on our human sympathies.

 

[1] I am willing to use the seemingly hyperbolic term ‘infinitely’ because the truth will be what it is forever, without any input from anyone, whereas a lie becomes increasingly high maintenance in the face of simple questioning. It is endlessly difficult to maintain the back story, and then the back story’s story, and so on, until the effort required to avoid self-contadiction simply becomes too much and the simple truth just comes out again, like a plant through cracked tarmac. That is why the propaganda campaign needs to be so vast and long term. It is a gargantuan feat that we only see the tip of. We see the movie, we don’t see the entire production process.

[2] A twitter contact, by way of answer, informed me that the ‘Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung was used by the CIA to influence culture in Europe. The financing was made via Ford Foundation’.  She sent me this video link (in German).  I have not investigated so I make no comment myself. A look at a longer sweep of tweets from the foundation’s spokesperson for Syria does reveal a pattern sufficiently familiar to anglophone inter-media agencies to warrant mentioning a possible concern here, but I emphasise the caveat that her twitter profile makes the disclaimer “Tweets my own”.

[3] In giving credit for his geolocation skills and responsiveness to my inquiries (which I’ve learned does not reflect everyone’s experience) I frankly laid it on too thick. It genuinely hadn’t occurred to me that anyone would think I misunderstood the nature of his operation, but that was my mistake. Notwithstanding my apologies, I can see my critics were justified in residual anger on the grounds that there would be readers at earlier stages of learning who could take it at face value. How much it then helped that those critics themselves proceeded to extract and broadcast precisely that misleading message, as if it really were my message to the world, I can only leave them to consider.

[4] I haven’t seen it myself, having opted out of interactions with its author and the initial instigator once it became evident they hadn’t accepted my apology. There have been replies on my behalf, and I also haven’t been reading these, but one was copied to me by a mutual friend on Facebook and I reproduce it below. One can tell from reading it that the debate had got heated, and such a forceful response needs to be seen in that context. Thank you, John Schoneboom, for your eloquent words:

Schoneboom on me on bellingcat

[5] The people I owe thanks to are far more than I shall even try to mention, but there is one person I do want to thank by name. Like Eva, she gets subjected to vast amounts of abuse for reporting a counter-narrative from Syria. Also like Eva, she is more than strong enough to take it. But frankly, she shouldn’t have to, certainly not from anyone associated with a UK university. Vanessa Beeley, I believe, has done more good for the prospects of ordinary people living in Syria than any of her trolls and detractors. If anybody in academia says I am wrong about this, I am ready to listen, but let them speak in terms that meet the standards of academic discussion.

 

Khaled & Bana

Amidst a cluster of (former) terrorist HQs.

Posted in Channel 4, disinformation, film, inter-media, journalism, media, MSF, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war, White Helmets | 29 Comments

It’s Time To Raise the Level of Public Debate about Syria

These past six months I have been getting to know the inter-media. They’re not formally part of mainstream, and they’re not very social, so I call them inter-media. They are like the maintenance team for the mainstream. To explain this, I’ll first say how I came to meet them.

The context of these encounters is writing posts on Syria. Doing so, I rely entirely on what others say. But the fact that we hear directly contradictory narratives provides a rare opportunity to test whose tale is the truer. Lies, whatever some bluffers and braggers may think, are infinitely harder to sustain, over time, than is the truth.[1]

The impulse to write about Syria originated at a very specific moment, even if my curiosity had been piqued earlier by the Netflix White Helmets: Where are the fighters that are holding off the combined military might of Syria and Russia? How come they don’t mind you filming here? The moment, though, was when Eva Bartlett responded to a mainstream media critic’s question: “Sources on the ground? You don’t have them.” And when Eva pointed out that the White Helmets were embedded with the fighters, this simply made more sense than Netflix had. But then I learned “That woman has been debunked.” (Note the way she is spoken about.) So who by? Well, Snopes for one. Fine, but seriously? I was informed that the mainstream view was verified by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Here, now, was a reputable organisation that actually had doctors there on the ground risking their lives to save others under very dangerous conditions. Except, as it turned out, they did not, and so I came to write my first blog on Syria.

(MSF had the good grace to accept that I’d identified a problem, and invited me to their annual research conference this year to discuss the issues involved in relying on secondhand testimony.)

Channel 4’s alleged debunking of Eva prompted a subsequent blog. That involved studying their output, which was revealed to include much more than some unreliable witness statements. If MSF’s misleading testimony might be attributable to an insufficiently accountable communications operation, Channel 4 appeared to be engaged in a systematic programme of disinformation. There seemed to be a conscious commitment to presenting part of the same alternative reality that White Helmets and Bana feature in. It all appears to be produced by the Aleppo Media Center, which is actually in Turkey, but Channel 4 got some bespoke pieces, like the ‘Inside Aleppo’ series, and not just syndicated stuff. Hence we find Channel 4’s Aleppo films winning awards, like Netflix did with the White Helmets.

(Hence the channel will not publicly address what some there privately acknowledge are valid questions. And when you think about the investment involved you can understand their reluctance.)

Reflect on what must be involved here, and you start to realise that such a coordinated effort must have a deep and extensive organisational basis that goes way beyond the specific organisations that retail the information. Consider the preparation, work, time, and resources, material and human, that go into producing even a single scene in a movie, and then, after a whole feature has been shot, the audience still knows it is just a movie, not real. How much more preparation and resource must go into not merely producing a movie but actually persuading the entire public that reality is like the movie.

Nor is the effort to build that wall of disinformation the end of the challenge. It will require constant maintenance, for any big structure is liable to stresses, and cracks will appear. Here is where you need people ready with some filler. This is where we meet the inter-media. More fleet-footed, less constrained, than straight up media channels, but more disciplined and very much less social than social media, they are something in between.  Their function with respect to the dominant narrative seems to be akin to that of those hi-tech bacteria that mould themselves into ongoing repairs in cracked concrete: the inter-media are there to plug up the cracks where shafts of truth show through.

This week afforded some opportunities to encounter the inter-media at work. Early in the week, a great article by Piers Robinson was published in openDemocracy urging a more serious look at propaganda and its contribution to the regime change agenda that is destroying Syria. Getting published in this prominent outlet was something of an achievement, for reasons I’ll let one of the first responders illustrate:

“By amplifying this conspiracist drivel, you are polluting the public sphere. @OpenSociety & @boell_stiftung should reconsider their support”

That tweet has since been deleted, perhaps because its author agreed with me that it cast a worrying light on his idea of how public debate should be conducted, and on whose terms. But it had made me curious as to why the Heinrich Böll Foundation should have a particular interest in the matter[2] I only knew them as a research organisation linked to the German Greens. (I’d spoken myself at their headquarters one time in Berlin.) But now I was about to turn over another stone! A cursory look on twitter quickly turns up that Foundation’s Middle East communications person tweeting about Tim Anderson, a longstanding critic in relation to The Dirty War on Syria, and lecturer at Sidney University:

“When will @sydney_uni finally end this producer of #FakeNews contract? Smearing of civilians, pretending #Assad doesn’t use gas.”

Wow! She attacks a man’s reputation, campaigns for him to lose his job, and challenges academic freedom, while also asserting an unproven claim as if it were truth, all within 140 characters. I can see how she got the job as communications head.

Moving on from this inter-media filler of German precision we will shortly come to meet one with American pizzazz. But first there is some backstory to fill in, starting with some words of clarification.

I hope it was clear, when I a moment ago implied a certain admiration for the skills of the propagandist just mentioned, that I am not approving of what she uses them for. I should have been clearer on this score when giving credit to Bellingcat in a post last week. In order to establish that my engagement with him would follow academic norms, I exaggerated the courtesies.[3] This caused some genuine consternation amongst readers, given the awareness many have of Bellingcat’s role in the propagation of the US-UK narrative. A few individuals were so outraged that they launched a forceful public criticism at me.[4] Since the last thing I want to do is mislead people I revised the blog, stripping out the confusing niceties, in order to bring attention back to its actual point. I had already apologised.

That incident taught me a few things. One is that writing in public, unlike in academia, means being aware of a potentially wide readership, with a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. So I should take more care to say only what I mean. Something else I learned, though, is what wonderful people there are who share the kinds of concern that I’m working through in these posts. Many people who I had already instinctively felt trust in revealed a depth of solidarity and integrity that is simply humbling. I really want to thank you all for your words of support. Thank you, also, for urging everyone to settle any differences like friends.

Like friends. That this expression comes so spontaneously to mind is my most important lesson.[5] There is actually a group of friends who are bound by a few simple ties: a desire that what we learn about the world is the truth; a conviction that whatever pressures of life may drive human beings into conflict with one another, we should do everything in our power to deal with them without being pushed into wars. Our power may not be great as individuals, but we all partake of a power that is ultimately indomitable. As embodied creatures of this real world we have evolved with a deep commitment to pursuing truth. If our ancestors could not discern the difference between a snake and a stick, we would not be here. If we were not able to make correct judgements about myriad things every moment of our waking life, aware of it or not, we would not survive long. We have an instinct for seeking true knowledge. We are predisposed towards it. To those who want to obscure it, we will seem like partisans for the truth.

With this in mind, I return to the American intervention on my twitter feed this week. The twitter storm provoked by my being too polite to Bellingcat had been watched with some amusement by Higgins himself and some of his friends. Here is one of them:

trouble-in-paradise-e1500653132802.jpg

I have anonymised this because, like the first tweet I quoted above, it comes from a person who works at a UK University. I highlight it not because I personally mind being grouped with the majority of people living in Syria who prefer their legitimate government to the murderous bands of foreign-backed sectarians attacking it. But it is intended as a smear, and for the sake of people who want to engage in constructive and serious debate, I shall stand up to this practice of the inter-media brigade of attacking any and every attempt at actual public debate about the truth in Syria (or, indeed, in many other places). If they want to behave like rude trolls, they’d best keep a respectful distance from academia when they do it. That is a message I would encourage them to embrace.

I don’t believe the public want to think their own or their children’s university education is entrusted to people who think it is appropriate public conduct to come out with productions like the follow up to that tweet. For in lieu of the requested apology from the waggish twitterer, there ensued a series of tweets including this flourish of creativity:

"Show Trial"

The inter-media brigade may think this is a bit of fun, a change from straight up abuse and intimidation (and from unreasoned dismissals such as we find with Padraig Reidy calling Piers Robinson’s piece in openDemocracy ‘disgraceful’ apparently because Piers has elsewhere defended Russia Today against irrational attacks). But I ask them, very seriously, what actually is there to be having fun about? Those who promote propaganda that has real consequences for real people should man up, and grow up, and own what they do.

Frankly, none of this should need saying, and I am not paid to be spending valuable time dealing with it. So to them I leave it at this: Meet us in an academic forum or on a public platform where norms of civil debate apply. You cannot have it both ways: you cannot go bruising it around the internet just making ad hominem slurs while also staking an implicit claim to academic backing.

As for friendly and open readers, especially beyond academia, I have this to say.  If in resisting propaganda you get called partisans, then let it be so. We are partisans for the truth. And resistance will work.  Perhaps the truth is ‘rarely pure and never simple’, but it is much less high-maintenance than the wall of misinformation that the inter-media team are perpetually trying to patch up, and it will out. Meanwhile, the resistance is growing.

And finally, just to illustrate the difference between the alternative reality and the world we live in, I leave you with a video released this week by the amazing journalist from Aleppo, Khaled Iskef. He shows us around the neighbourhood in Aleppo where the little Syrian girl called Bana actually lived, there alongside the HQs of the armed brigades whose men, alone, were able to make or send images from the place. You then get an idea of how the child used in the propaganda may have a true call on our human sympathies.

 

[1] I am willing to use the seemingly hyperbolic term ‘infinitely’ because the truth will be what it is forever, without any input from anyone, whereas a lie becomes increasingly high maintenance in the face of simple questioning. It is endlessly difficult to maintain the back story, and then the back story’s story, and so on, until the effort required to avoid self-contadiction simply becomes too much and the simple truth just comes out again, like a plant through cracked tarmac. That is why the propaganda campaign needs to be so vast and long term. It is a gargantuan feat that we only see the tip of. We see the movie, we don’t see the entire production process.

[2] A twitter contact, by way of answer, informed me that the ‘Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung was used by the CIA to influence culture in Europe. The financing was made via Ford Foundation’.  She sent me this video link (in German).  I have not investigated so I make no comment myself. A look at a longer sweep of tweets from the foundation’s spokesperson for Syria does reveal a pattern sufficiently familiar to anglophone inter-media agencies to warrant mentioning a possible concern here, but I emphasise the caveat that her twitter profile makes the disclaimer “Tweets my own”.

[3] In giving credit for his geolocation skills and responsiveness to my inquiries (which I’ve learned does not reflect everyone’s experience) I frankly laid it on too thick. It genuinely hadn’t occurred to me that anyone would think I misunderstood the nature of his operation, but that was my mistake. Notwithstanding my apologies, I can see my critics were justified in residual anger on the grounds that there would be readers at earlier stages of learning who could take it at face value. How much it then helped that those critics themselves proceeded to extract and broadcast precisely that misleading message, as if it really were my message to the world, I can only leave them to consider.

[4] I haven’t seen it myself, having opted out of interactions with its author and the initial instigator once it became evident they hadn’t accepted my apology. There have been replies on my behalf, and I also haven’t been reading these, but one was copied to me by a mutual friend on Facebook and I reproduce it below. One can tell from reading it that the debate had got heated, and such a forceful response needs to be seen in that context. Thank you, John Schoneboom, for your eloquent words:

Schoneboom on me on bellingcat

[5] The people I owe thanks to are far more than I shall even try to mention, but there is one person I do want to thank by name. Like Eva, she gets subjected to vast amounts of abuse for reporting a counter-narrative from Syria. Also like Eva, she is more than strong enough to take it. But frankly, she shouldn’t have to, certainly not from anyone associated with a UK university. Vanessa Beeley, I believe, has done more good for the prospects of ordinary people living in Syria than any of her trolls and detractors. If anybody in academia says I am wrong about this, I am ready to listen, but let them speak in terms that meet the standards of academic discussion.

 

Khaled & Bana

Amidst a cluster of (former) terrorist HQs.

Posted in Channel 4, disinformation, film, inter-media, journalism, media, MSF, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war, White Helmets | Leave a comment

More about Bana

I wept. During the previous fifteen minutes the video camera had shown us around the neighbourhood of rubble and damaged buildings on Bana’s block. About twenty different HQs of militant groups had been identified in that small space.

Interviews with residents, ordinary decent men who had been through a lot, answered questions about what it had been like there during the occupation. Arbitrary detention and beatings, if not worse, was what you’d expect if you tried to raise any concerns about amenities with the warlords in charge of the district. When the interviewees were asked did they take videos or photos of the area at the time, they looked askance. It had been strictly prohibited to anyone other than members of the terrorist groups to take any sort of photo or video.  You could see from their faces that they would not have been about to go against prohibitions.  Did they know a little girl called Bana? They didn’t seem to.

But as the camera roved around it captured scenes and camera angles that reproduce images and films we’d seen before.  And, at a certain point, towards the conclusion of this episode of his exploration, Khaled Iskef slowly walks to us in a familiar looking scene; and then the film cuts to a recording of the little girl coming towards us in that exact same place. At that moment, and even thinking about it now it happens again, I wept.

We are now seeing what the real life was for Bana.  May she be allowed to grow up now in peace. My heart goes out to that poor child.

Perhaps one day she may return to Aleppo.  There was no #holocaust aleppo, no massacre, once the government regained control of the area. The fighters left, and people began trying to rebuild lives.

I shall leave you with a picture of Aleppo from this summer. This is where Bana might have been playing right now, with her friends, if the rest of the world had left her country alone.

But first I want to thank Khaled Iskef – for your courage and dedication in the service of Syria and humans, everywhere. (The video is available on Facebook or Youtube.)

 

ddbdkgsw0aaz_ic

Photo from Syria Daily, 23 June 2017 @Syria_Daily

Posted in disinformation, journalism, media, Syria, Uncategorized, war | 1 Comment

On Bellingcat, Truth, and War (revised)

This is a revised version of the original post.

Bellingcat has a difficult job. For those who don’t know, it is “to set the record straight” when US-UK foreign policy is challenged on the truthfulness of its factual premises. The difficulty lies in trying to sustain a reputation for reliable and truthful analysis at the same time. For facts are recalcitrant. They can only ever be spun for so long until a misleading narrative, the effort of maintaining it spent, subsides into acquiescence with the truth.

The founder of Bellingcat is Eliot Higgins. As well as leading the team at Bellingcat and being a Senior Fellow in research at Atlantic Council Higgins is Visiting Research Associate at King’s College London, a leading UK university. This provides Bellingcat a particular source of credibility it could not otherwise claim to have.

It also makes Higgins an academic colleague of people like myself and Professor Piers Robinson of Sheffield University, who has done considerable research on how propaganda about war has come to permeate our media, including a recently published analysis of how we were misled about Iraq.

(We do not get to pick and choose all our colleagues, of course, nor will we agree with all of them, or necessarily rate their work, even though we will treat them courteously.[1])

What binds the academic community is a commitment to discovering and disseminating truths about the world through credible sources of reason and evidence. To contravene those standards is to bring one’s profession and university into disrepute. Engaging in deliberate practices of disinformation risks doing that.

With this in mind, and with Professor Piers Robinson of Sheffield University I put a question to Higgins via Twitter. It was a simple question about whether the UK Government could actually rule out the possibility of opposition forces in Syria having access to the kinds of chemical found in the recent OPCW tests on samples said to come from Khan Sheikhoun. Higgins was brought to admit, thanks to some careful supplementary questioning by Professor Piers Robinson that he could not. He accepted on behalf of Bellingcat that if the UK Government suggested the opposition in Syria had no access to sarin, then that was merely an opinion.

Bellingcat’s admission was duly noted by the journalist Peter Hitchens, the famously independent-minded and highly experienced journalist who had also been party to the Twitter conversation, having that same day published a piece in the Mail on Sunday (found half way down the page here) urging caution (as I had previously) about rushing to judgement concerning the Khan Sheikhoun incident. The next week after the Twitter exchange Hitchens was to write an even more powerful article. Its careful critical analysis of the OPCW report demonstrated the severe weaknesses of its evidentiary base, and he foregrounded the fact that the UK Government opinion was merely an opinion.

The government, of course, has opinions on many things that are not shared by all reasonable people. So we should not allow any rush to judgment about who was responsible for the incident on the basis of the UK statement relayed by Ambassador Adams. Aside from the many other reasons to be very cautious, there are good reasons to be critically alert on the specific matter of access to the chemicals analysed. There are abundant reports, analyses, testimonies and videos available from a variety of sources over the past five years that present at least circumstantial evidence, and potentially more than that, to suggest opposition access to the relevant chemicals. In fact, at times, there have been very grave concerns on the part of our governments’ intelligence agencies about the potential threat from opposition terrorists bringing chemical weapons back to our own lands. In the note beneath the text of this article I include links to some of those sources.[2]

It is said that the first casualty of war is truth. This is a compelling reason for us to fight for truth to prevent war, as urgently and as long as we can.

Some people have fought for the truth at the cost of their lives. Such a person is Serena Shim.

If you have not heard of Serena Shim, that will not be surprising, given the priorities of our media, but I would recommend that you take at least a moment to find out something about the witness she was bearing to events in and around Syria. I wish here to honour her memory. Shortly before her untimely and unsatisfactorily explained death in 2014, she filed a report that was particularly germane to the question about the Syrian opposition and chemical weapons.

 

[1] In the original post I tried to be super polite to someone I am fundamentally critical of. In my choice of words I evidently over-compensated and conveyed a very misleading impression to some readers. Twitter went a bit berserk, even though both Vanessa Beeley and Eva Bartlett intervened at a very early stage to urge some individuals to calm down. Higgins himself came along to have a laugh at a certain point, and the whole situation became ludicrous. I had not actually been under any illusions about Higgins or Bellingcat; but I evidently had been about some other people! Still, the vast majority of readers, even if they were a bit perplexed by my original tone, were either understanding or prepared to give the benefit of the doubt in light of everything else I have ever published. I thank you for this.

[2] This is just a small selection that I had readily to hand. There are very many more out there, and if readers mention others in the comments over the next week or so, I shall consolidate them into this list. Meanwhile, thanks go to all who have already sent links, including Qoppa

http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/charles-shoebridge/syria-chemical-weapons-us_b_3443185.html

http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/world-news/sarin-gas-materials-sent-to-isis-from-turkey-claims-mp-eren-erdem-34286662.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/10039672/UN-accuses-Syrian-rebels-of-chemical-weapons-use.html

http://mobile.reuters.com/article/idUSBRE94409Z20130505

http://brown-moses.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/responses-to-final-un-report-into-use_14.html

http://acloserlookonsyria.shoutwiki.com/wiki/Alleged_Chemical_Attack_Khan_Sheikhoun_4_April_2017

 

 

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Serena Shim (born USA 1985 – died Turkey 2014)

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 28 Comments

We need to talk about #Bana

Bana is safe now in Turkey, and my dearest wish for her is that she be able to lead a peaceful and happy life. I hope her parents can make that possible.  In this piece I shall not be referring to a little Syrian girl, now 8 and settled in a new country. For her, my heart desires nothing but good things.

I shall be speaking of the internet phenomenon @AlabedBana and of the adults responsible for creating it. To speak of family members is unavoidable.

To start with a simple and quite obvious fact: the @AlabedBana Twitter account was not initiated or run by a 7 year old girl from Aleppo, even if one was used as its living avatar. Some intuitively doubtful elements of the tale – that were defended against ‘conspiracy theorists’ by the corporate media and its penumbra of disinformationists – can now be demonstrated. For since the fighting stopped in Aleppo, some verifiable truth about people, places and events there during the time of the occupation and siege has been coming out. It differs in many ways from what we were encouraged to believe by the massed corporate media of the world. The twitter account @AlabedBana is one conspicuous example. Another is the image of the little boy Omran, who we’ll return to at the end.

What I am going on to write here involves no in-depth research or analysis on my part. That has been done by Khaled Iskif, a journalist from Aleppo. (I commend his video about @AlabedBana and other videos covering previously unrecorded aspects of the situation in Aleppo. He regularly adds videos to his Youtube channel) He lives in the Western part of town that was protected by the government while the Eastern part was held hostage. He is now able to go across and track down various locations that have become familiar to us from the video reports earlier transmitted via the Aleppo Media Center (in Turkey) and onward through the world’s corporate media.

In this latest video, Khaled takes us on a short walk around the Alabed house and environs, accompanied by Nour Al Ali doing the filming and photography. They show us into the Alabed house, and then into the Al Nusra headquarters adjacent to it.

The proximity of the house to the Al Nusra headquarters is demonstrated – each a few meters from a shared street corner. This explains why the house was in an area being bombed. About 100 men were quartered in the basement of the adjacent building, according to a local witness interviewed.

We learn about the Alabed family. The paternal grandfather was running a weapons dealership and repair workshop for Al Nusra and other militant groups; his sons worked there; one of them had served a criminal sentence, even before the war, for gun smuggling; and we are shown a photo of the now famous granddaughter at about 3 years posing with a serious-looking weapon that is as big as her.

Her father Ghassan worked as a lawyer, before joining the armed groups. We see photos of Ghassan, armed, with the militant factions Al Nusra and the Islamic Safwat Brigade. We see documents showing he served in the Sharia Court based in the ‘Eye Hospital’. Admidst other papers strewn about the abandoned house is one that indicates he was ‘assistant director of the Civil Registry of Aleppo Council’ – a “rebel” organisation with links to foreign states and armed groups in the governorate. Another document shows he worked as a military trainer and investigating judge for the Islamic Safwa brigades. Prior to 2015 he had been working with ISIS in the Sharia court in the Eye Hospital. We see a photo of him brandishing an AK47 beneath an ISIS flag; and another of him in the midst of an armed Asafwa group. We see him with four brothers, each holding a serious weapon, outside the store.

Also lying around is a dog-eared piece of paper with one of Bana’s famous #StandWithAleppo messages on.

Outside, and a few steps just around the corner, we are taken into the basement. We are now inside the headquarters of Al Nusra. There we see rolled militant flags, Turkish supplies, and a prison.

On this and the other videos there is much more to see. So I recommend them. They don’t have the slick production values of Channel 4 and the other corporate media outlets. What they do offer is honest and dispassionate testimony.   Or as dispassionate as a participant observer can be under the circumstances.

As a resident of Aleppo, Khaled is visibly affected by the whole situation. He expresses something close to despair about “the exploitation of children in politically motivated attempts to distort the image of his government.” His fellow citizens in that part of town have confirmed on the video that they had been human shields for the militants.

Khaled also has a word about the little boy Omran who, photographed in the orange-seated ambulance, was another major media sensation in the West. We meet Omran today in videos with Khaled (and others, like this and this). He is in Aleppo, back in his original home, not Turkey. He was thrust into the world’s media spotlight against his family’s wishes. His family is glad Aleppo was liberated from the likes of those that made the propaganda for #Bana.

 

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Posted in journalism, media, propaganda, Syria, Uncategorized, war | 5 Comments