Internet memes: love them, hate them

Oh, social media, you entertain us on myriad levels. As a frequent Facebook user I am subjected to Internet memes on a daily basis. Sometimes they are inspiring and funny, other times they are annoying and infuriating. I rarely comment on the ones I find offensive or misleading, but two memes I recently saw compelled me to respond.

The first:

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This image was posted by ClashDaily.com with Doug Giles with the following hash tags: #‎irs ‪#‎nsa ‪#‎benghazi ‪#‎doj ‪#‎fastnfurious ‪#‎scandals

If the guy who posted this and all the hateful commenters had done a minimal amount of research, they would know the “scandals”—IRS, Benghazi, Fast & Furious, and Solyndra—were overblown, in particular with regard to allegations of direct White House involvement or malfeasance. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be investigations or at least assessments about what went wrong in these situations.  Darrell Issa, however, in his zealousness, has made repeated attempts to connect the White House (e.g. – President Obama) to these incidences, with little success. On the other hand, the NSA surveillance issue has major privacy implications and should be investigated thoroughly.

Still, conservative calls for Obama to resign are hypocritical. We heard nary a peep from these same quarters when George W: lied about weapons of mass destruction, started a war of choice that was a major disaster on so many levels—both financial and in American and Iraqi lives; allowed the torture (illegal) of suspected terrorists; and surveilled Americans without warrants through telecom companies.

The Obama bashing in the comments section was disgusting to say the least. Liberals are good at bashing the other side too, so I do not expect a different standard of online conduct from conservatives, though reasoned disagreement instead of slinging insults would be nice from everyone. Yeah, I know, I’m living in a fantasy world.

The second meme was posted and shared several times on Facebook: “You tell me…what’s the difference?”

meme

Let me tell you the difference.

The difference is that while both killings are tragedies, the police in Charleston did their job and arrested the killers of this white teenager and conducted a solid investigation. However, the same cannot be said in the case of Trayvon Martin. In fact, the Florida police in that community gave a collective yawn over the killing of an unarmed black teenager, basically slapping Zimmerman on the wrist and sending him home that same night, and only further investigating the murder after a national outcry.

The difference is not that a black child received national attention while a white child was ignored. If that is the argument some are trying to make, then one could refute it by pointing out that when girls/young women go missing in the United States and receive national media attention, they are mostly white. Missing white woman syndrome (MWWS) is a phrase coined by social scientists and media commentators to describe the “wall-to-wall coverage” given in media reporting, especially television, to missing person cases involving young, white, upper-middle class women or girls. Examples are here, here, here, and here.

When I researched this meme further, I discovered that the woman who created it did so because it hit close to home, not because of the racial component and media attention that many people have been suggesting. Still, the fact that she created it and asked the question about the “difference” makes one question her motive; it does seem to suggest a racial bias message.

Memes, political ones in particular, create quick impressions by fusing images with words and phrases that incite the emotions, causing us to respond very quickly to a post without taking a moment to pause about why it resonates so strongly with us, be it positively or negatively. The two memes I discuss in this post, are relatively tame; many others are not. Use  caution on social media and understand what it is you are “liking” and/or sharing before doing so. Remember, it’s your reputation out there in cyberspace.

Read both stories here:

Cross-posted at The Feisty Liberal

NSA Surveillance, Data Mining, Security, and Civil Liberties

“Congress is full of hypocrites. Liberals who criticized Bush are less incensed with Obama. Republicans who bowed to Bush are now blasting Obama. The next time your congressional representative criticizes Obama for curbing civil liberties, ask if he or she would vote to repeal the Patriot Act, the post-911 law that handed unfettered power to the intelligence and military bureaucracies. Most won’t.”  ~ Ron Fournier, “Welcome to the Bush-Obama White House: They’re Spying on Us (National Journal)

The trend of leaking government classified information continues. Last week we discovered that Verizon has been sharing customer phone data with the government: when and where customers’ phone calls are placed and to whom, though we are told the content of these calls are not being monitored. The next day it was revealed that the National Security Agency has been mining user data under its PRISM program from Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple, and PalTalk. These companies strongly refute this claim, but then again, they must save face with their customers.

America’s surveillance state began decades ago but has picked up steam over the past twelve years. The war on terror has coincided with technological advances that make surveillance and information gathering so much easier than in previous decades. This twelve-year project has been a bipartisan effort—with very few detractors. Presidents Bush and Obama, both parties in Congress, federal judges and lawyers, and communication and technology companies have all worked together to create a vast surveillance infrastructure.

Proponents of the current national security measures argue that they are necessary, they have kept Americans safe, they are legal, and it is the “leakers” of classified information that pose a big threat to America’s security. Opponents, on the other hand, see this as a massive government overreach, intrusion of privacy and civil liberties, weakening of democracy, and further erosion of trust in government. Both sides have valid arguments, which is why this is such an important conversation for the American public to have with their leaders.

And it’s not only the government. As Michael Lietke wrote in the Huffington Post:  “It’s such a rich vein of information that U.S. companies and other organizations now spend more than $2 billion each year to obtain third-party data about individuals, according to Forrester Research.” Corporations are gathering data on us as well.

Americans are being cyber-stalked by advertisers. Ever notice how a product or service that you have searched for or purchased suddenly appears on website pages you read online? That doesn’t happen by accident. This is the result of data mining. The Internet knows your product preferences, services you utilize, restaurants and other establishments you frequent, who your friends are, and a whole cornucopia of other information relevant to your life.

This is a bit unsettling; or perhaps it’s not to some people. Americans love their technology.  Is it any wonder that this recent NSA revelation, unlike the  IRS’ (a universally despised institution) scandal, has received a collective yawn?

1984I plucked my copy of George Orwell‘s 1984 from my book shelf to read again; it’s been a while. Walter Cronkite wrote a special preface to this book in 1983 (Orwell published it in 1949). Here is some of what Cronkite wrote:

1984 is an anguished lament and a warning that we may not be strong enough nor wise enough nor moral enough to cope with the kind of power we have learned to amass. That warning vibrates powerfully when we allow ourselves to sit still and think carefully about orbiting satellites that can read license plates in a parking lot and computers that can tap into thousands of telephone calls and telex transmissions at once and other computers that can do our banking and purchasing, can watch the house and tell a monitoring station what television program we are watching and how many people there are in the room. We think of Orwell when we read of scientists who believe they have located  in the human brain the seats of behavioral emotions like aggression, or learn more about the vast potential of genetic engineering.

And we hear echoes of that warning chord in the constant demand for greater security and comfort, for less risk in our societies. We recognize, however dimly, that greater efficiency, ease, and security may come at a substantial price in freedom, that law and order can be a doublethink version of oppression, that individual liberties surrendered for whatever good reason are freedoms lost.

Cronkite wrote those words thirty years ago; they remain eerily relevant today. How much government intrusion are we willing to allow in order to be safe? Do the terrorist threats truly warrant as much surveillance as we are being told is needed? Some experts say the terrorist threat is overstated, even going back several years. Read this 2008 article from the Cato Institute and this one by John Mueller in the September/October 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs.

National security is important, protecting state secrets and classified information is also important, but balancing security with civil liberties and transparency is critical to preserving the freedom Americans claim to so highly value. The time for this national discussion is past due.

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America’s Expanding Surveillance State and Perpetual War

Of all the Obama administrationrelated investigations currently underway, the most disturbing and possibly unconstitutional one is the Justice Department’s seizure of reporters’ phone records and emails at the Associated Press and of Fox News reporter James Rosen, whose comings and goings at the State Department appear to have been tracked by the FBI. A judge granted a search warrant on the basis that Rosen was possibly violating the Espionage Act (1917), a law intended to stop state secrets from being shared with foreign governments.

The Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson excoriated the Obama administration for these actions in a recent op-ed:

“Before president Obama took office, the Espionage Act had been used to prosecute leakers a grand total of three times, including the 1971 case of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Obama’s Justice Department has used the act six times. And counting.

 Obviously, the government has a duty to protect genuine secrets. But the problem is that every administration, without exception, tends to misuse the “top secret” stamp—sometimes from an overabundance of caution, sometimes to keep inconvenient or embarrassing information to coming to light.”

Fred Kaplan at Slate has a different perspective on Fred Rosen’s responsibility in the reporting of his FOX News story:

“In Rosen’s case, the alarm bells went off not because he reported that North Korea was about to conduct a nuclear-weapons test but because he reported that the CIA learned of this fact from a source inside North Korea. In other words, Rosen revealed that the CIA had a source inside North Korea. It’s unclear whether the source was a human spy or a communications intercept; it’s also irrelevant because, thanks to this story, the source is probably no longer alive or active.”

National security requires a balance between protecting Americans and preserving constitutional freedoms. Ever since the “war on terror” began, Americans have largely accepted that in order to remain safe from terrorists they may have to relinquish some of their civil liberties. This is problematic. If we agree that one minor, intrusive action is okay, and that action leads to incrementally more intrusive actions over time, at what point does the government rein in its own behavior? Can it? At what point do citizens find it unacceptable and push back?

English: President George W. Bush and Presiden...

English: President George W. Bush and President-elect Barack Obama meet in the Oval Office of the White House Monday, November 10, 2008. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, many Americans, particularly those on the left, hoped the Patriot Act would be abolished. While I applaud the President’s decision to make torture illegal, he has continued, and in some instances even expanded, many of the Bush national security policies. One example of that expansion is the use of drones. The use of drones began in 2002. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism the Bush administration carried out 52 strikes over both terms. At least 300 strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia were recorded during Obama’s first term. Furthermore, Americans would be up in arms if other countries were dropping bombs from drones onto U.S. soil to kill terrorists. Think about that.

These unmanned planes are designed to be highly targeted and aimed at leaders and high-level operatives of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, yet it is regularly reported that innocent civilians, including children, are killed in these attacks. The Obama administration claims the numbers of civilian casualties are low, but many citizens of these countries refute those claims. Not surprisingly, this breeds resentment of the United States and creates terrorist sympathizers.

Drones

Many also hoped the era of warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency would go by the way-side once Obama took office. In 2008, the Bush administration legalized this eavesdropping through the FISA Amendments Act, and part of that bill retroactively granted amnesty to the telecom companies involved, shielding them from prosecution even though what they were doing was illegal. The telecom companies were doing this at the request of the government. Consequently, the FISA Amendments Act, by extension, also shielded the Bush administration from any criminal wrong-doing. Senator Barack Obama voted for this in 2008, and in December 2012, as President, signed a five-year extension of the law.

Then there is the continued use of indefinite detentions for suspected terrorists. Some of these prisoners have been held for years then found to be innocent of any wrongdoing, or found to have had tenuous connections to terrorists, or none at all. Many detainees are currently being held indefinitely without being charged with a crime. This is wrong; it’s a human rights issue. Imagine being locked away, left to rot in a foreign prison, no contact with your loved ones and no trial date in sight. Admittedly, there are bad guys in these prisons too, but that doesn’t mean some rule of law shouldn’t be followed. We are America after all; we should set the standard for human rights.

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Photo attributed to: Joshua Sherurcij

Lastly, is the prosecution of government whistleblowers. Whistleblowers only come forward to report fraud, abuse, and crime when they feel safe to do so. The excuse of “national security,” freely used, to punish whistleblowers is chilling. We need whistleblowers. Otherwise too many politicians or government appointees will escape accountability for crimes or misuse of power. That’s not to say that leaking classified information should go unpunished either.

National security is important, but the American people can be protected and freedom of the press maintained without government intrusiveness, particularly in relation to the use of increased surveillance of Americans, which most of us find reprehensible. Technology serves us well and makes our daily and work lives easier, but with technological advances also come security and privacy challenges. These are major issues with which Americans and our leaders are grappling and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. One writer even warns that left unchecked, future presidents could be even worse than Bush or Obama.

Americans should consider and answer these questions: 1.) How many of our civil liberties are we willing to give up in the name of security and fighting terrorism? 2.) How long is it acceptable for the U.S. to be involved in conflict after conflict in foreign lands? 3.) How much money are we willing to spend to continue feeding the military-industrial complex at the expense of other pressing domestic issues?

On May 23, President Obama spoke about his national security policy and the plans to change it. You can read the transcript or watch it below:

Only time will tell how effective the proposed changes will be. History will be the ultimate judge.

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