Break Down the Epistemic Wall

(Photo Credit: Dale Rogerson)

The bleachers were hauntingly silent. Unlike empty vessels, empty seats make no noise. A bank of floodlights shone piercingly bright on the deserted playing court, illuminating an indecipherable scribble on the artificial arena. Yet, just a few hours ago, the atmosphere was anything but serene. A cacophony of words, a medley of insults and a menagerie of ideologies turned what was a non-decrepit high school basketball court into a clash of conflicts.

But when the dust finally settled, what came down was not just the curtains, but epistemic walls, information bubbles and Echo Chambers. Racism was OUT; Neighbours were IN!

(Word Count: 100)

This story was written as part of the FRIDAY FICTIONEERS challenge, more about which may be found HERE

For more stories based on the above prompt, click HERE 

Information Wars – Richard Stengel

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Gleb Olegovich Pavlovsky a Russian political scientist and a self-proclaimed “political technologist”) once famously exclaimed that to get people to vote the way you want, “you need to build a fairy tale that will be common to all of them.” Who better to assimilate this fact than Richard Stengel. Mr. Stengel, in his capacity as the longest serving Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in American history (2013-16) spent his entire tenure directing all resources at his disposal to counter the threat of global disinformation.

In a hard-as-nails, quasi memoir Mr. Stengel regales his readers as in a quest to combat the plague of disinformation, he unwittingly locks horns with two of the deadliest purveyors of the tradecraft of disinformation. No.55 Savushkin Street in St Petersburg, four story limestone building with neither razzmatazz nor name was the very motherlode of disinformation. The machines of propaganda were lubricated and greased in this otherwise nondescript building. No.55 Savushkin was Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s “troll factory.” Registered to the “Internet Research Agency”, “a shadowy Russian company that seems to do everything from creating sock puppets to practicing cyber vandalism…every day, in two shifts, a few hundred young people spend their time writing blog posts, tweets, Facebook posts, VKontakte posts and much more.” Spewing out thousands of content or rather malcontent at a speed which would put the reproduction of rabbits to utter shame, this troll farm was the veritable synonym of malicious disinformation.

As Mr. Stengel reveals in startling detail, the other most insidious source of disinformation emanated from a less tranquil but unlikeliest of settings. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of the Iraq and Levant (“ISIL” a.k.a “ISIS”) may not strike one as popular mediums of news enjoying stellar ratings. Yet, the two most murderous terror outfits wreaking mayhem across the globe, also double up as genius peddlers of disinformation. As Mr. Stengler, was briefed by a senior intelligence officer, who employed an element of morbid humour for added effect, “ISIS is a distributed network. Al-Qaeda is Yahoo. ISIS is Google.” As Mr. Stengel explains, the twin kingpins of terror while not slaughtering civilians in Syria or reducing cities to a rubble in Iraq, were busy circulating English language magazines. While Al-Qaeda’s online publication was – ironically titled “Inspire”, ISIS’s competing offering was named “Dabiq.” Writing about Dabiq, Mr. Stengel says, “it was a digital publication…it actually had a pretty sophisticated layout and decent pictures…. the two publications debated each other about Islamic theory. They were like the Time and Newsweek of medieval Islamic theology.” Incidentally before accepting a job with the State, Mr. Stengel was Time ‘s 16th Managing Editor from 2006 to 2013.

Attempting to combat the pernicious princes of fake news, let alone conquering them, as Mr. Stengel realised was an unenviable if not an insurmountable task. To add insult to injury, the weapons available in his arsenal was turning out to be woefully inadequate. The State was grossly ill-quipped to deal with the sophistry and chicanery of both the Russians and the reprehensible terrorists. As Mr. Stengel elucidates, the actual canary in the coal mine was not the physical war and bloodshed but the information war that was engulfing and enveloping the digital world in a sweep, all encompassing. When Putin’s special Spetsnaz forces invaded Crimea, backed by a narrative of white lies and brazen denial, they were merely paying obeisance to the principles of Igor Panarin and Alexander Dugin, Russia’s two primary theorists of information warfare. Dugin, popularly known as “Putin’s Rasputin” coined the term “netcentric warfare”, a military line of effort. Hand in glove with the digital propaganda machine was RT the English language Russian TV channel. Conceived by former media minister Mikhail Lesin, and Russian president Vladimir Putin’s press spokesperson Aleksei Gromov, RT in the words of Mr. Stengel, “used all the traditional tricks of tabloid TV: attractive anchors, colourful graphics, wacky guests, sensational chyrons.” Even Julian Assange was provided a TV segment for his hosting. However, at the helm of all this glitz and glamour is Margarita Simonovna Simonyan, editor-in-chief and master orchestrator of the disinformation campaign.

Similar was the strategy adopted by ISIS. Their suave imagery, magnetic resonance and the affiliation towards a cause acted as an irresistible lure to the youth to either join them in their homicidal escapades or to essay the role of Lone Rangers in wreaking havoc through individual acts of mindless mass shooting and suicide bombings. Someone even termed ISIS the Muslim version of the Baader-Meinhof gang.

With a view to countering the “Russification”, and radicalization of the world, Mr. Stengel undertakes some bold and ingenious steps. In addition to creating and overseeing the Global Engagement Center, the United States’ only stand-alone anti-ISIL messaging entity., he also co-opted foreign allies in establishing the Sawab Center in Abu Dhabi. Initially nursing honest ambitions, the Sawab Centre has become a model organization for disseminating anti-ISIL messages and campaigns. The Under Secretary also oversaw the Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program is a competitive. This was a merit-based scholarship program funded by the U.S. Department of State. FLEX students who pass multiple rounds of testing earn a scholarship to spend an academic year in the United States living with a volunteer host family and attending a U.S. high school. Unfortunately, Russia prohibited its students from enrolling in the FLEX programme following a false allegation of the abduction of a Russian boy, who was part of the FLEX programme.

Even while dealing with a subject as serious as that of disinformation, Mr. Stengel juxtaposes a blend of sardonic wit with dollops of wisdom. For example, while describing the filtering process to which Mr. Stengel was subjected to before being cleared for service as the Under Secretary of State. “For the SF86 and the Senate Foreign Relations Questionnaire, you have to list every foreign trip you have taken over the past 14 years, every significant relationship you had with any foreign national on the trip, and to the best of your ability, an estimate of how much you drank on these trips, Oh, and whether you had any illegal drugs.”

Mr. Stengel also recounts a painfully embarrassing personal encounter while experimenting with 140 characters on Twitter. Tweeting in a fit of fury about the downing of MH-17, a Malaysian Airlines commercial jet with 298 passengers aboard, by Ukraine separatists, who fired a Russian made BUK missile at it, Mr. Stengler overcome by rage, expresses his disgust on the incident. However instead of employing the hash tag #UnitedForUkraine, he falls prey to the auto-complete function and chooses the first hash tag to appear on screen. Thus #UnitedforGaza instead of #UnitedforUkraine.  As may be expected, even though he deletes the tweet subsequently, he gets panned on Twitter by Twitterati, of silly and sublime breed alike.

So long as there are warring factions with entrenched beliefs in their ideologies however manic or senseless, the armoury of disinformation will not be lacking in myriad weapons. This has been evidenced in eviscerating detail by the Trump campaign and the Russian involvement in it. However, hope quelling maliciousness is brought to bear, courtesy, the indefatigable efforts of intrepid people, the likes of Richard Stengel.

Love at the end of the Line

(Photo Credit: Na’ama Yehuda)

No one knew what was awaiting them at the end of the queue. The people lining up were instinctively paying obeisance to the attribute of herd mentality.  Umbrellas of various hues and colours kept the rain at bay as their wielders stood undaunted and unfazed. Baseball caps and bald heads craned their impatient necks and shuffled their impertinent feet. But what were the collective bodies looking for?

Venky with neither cap nor umbrella stood watching the spectacle. “Join us brother” screamed a voice. “I will when you tell me you found love at the end of the line” replied Venky.

(Word Count: 100)

This story was written as part of the FRIDAY FICTIONEERS challenge, more about which may be found HERE

For more stories based on the above prompt, click HERE 

RETREAT FROM MOSCOW – DAVID STAHEL

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Riding on the back of research that can only be appropriately described as ‘monumental’, David Stahel’s “Retreat From Moscow”, portrays in an unsparing and eviscerating fashion, Germany’s ill-fated winter campaign between 1941 – 1942. Drawing on new sources of history, Mr. Stahel argues that the despotic dictator Adolf Hitler’s “first defeat” took place as early as in the summer of 1941. Operation Barbarossa (the code name for Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union) which was to have culminated in the Fuhrer securing his much trumpeted Lebensraum (living space) in the East, instead transformed into a bloodied and blithering blunder of irredeemable proportions. From the beginning of 1941 till early 1942, both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army, competed with each other in resorting to tactics that were inexplicable and maneuvers that could only be termed indecipherable. It would be wrong to foist the responsibility for such mindless mechanics solely upon the Generals commanding their troops. While Hitler and Army High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres –OKH)’s Halt Orders and War Directives prohibiting beleaguered groups from withdrawing, in the face of a continued and relentless onslaught had the German Army in a bind, Stalin’s equally incalculable but vengeful determination to hurl everything the Soviets had at a more experienced and well entrenched opposition, in spite of staggering losses of life and limb had the Soviet forces in veritable tatters. What’s more all of this fighting was being conducted in the most inhospitable and treacherous of conditions. For e.g. the diary of Erich Hager claimed that on the 6th of December, the thermometer had reached minus 46 degrees Celsius near Tula.

As Mr. Stahel painstakingly informs us, what prevented the German army from a complete annihilation was the ingrained hall-mark system of “mission oriented tactics” (Auftragstaktik) which enabled bold “initiatives” to be taken at the front. A combination of brazen and tactful disregard of Hitler’s “retain-ground-at-any-cost” instruction resulted in the Germans retreating to temporary safety.

The Soviets, suffering from an appalling lack of leadership and experience did not have the luxury of any mission oriented tactics. Drawing upon statistics provided by Lev Lopukhovsky and Boris Kavelerchik, Mr. Stahel informs his readers about the casualties suffered by the Big Bear. “. revised upward the Soviet winter total, arriving at more than 1.6 million Soviet losses, which tells its own story when set against the German total of just 262,524 casualties for a slightly longer period (November 26, 1941, to February 28, 1942).

 Pandering to Hitler’s whims and wanton mood swings, his coterie, as Mr. Stahel demonstrates, filtered information coming in from the front thereby distorting the actual goings on and feeding the murderous leader only what he wanted to hear. The likes of Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel who controlled the Fuhrer’s Headquarters and Franz Halder, then chief of staff of the Army High Command (OKH), provided detailed instructions to the “Generals” about both the news to be conveyed and the manner which was to be adopted while presenting oneself before Hitler. However, as Mr. Stahel demonstrates with extraordinary clarity and verve, there were brave and brilliant Generals and Commanders who cocked a snook at the famous “halt order” (Halthefehl) issued by their Supreme leader. Chief amongst such dissenters was the immensely respected and incredibly measured Günther Adolf Ferdinand von Kluge. The man who later on became an active conspirator in the 20 July plot to assassinate Hitler, and who took his own life on 19 August 1944, when the plot failed, was almost single handedly responsible for the Army Group Centre remaining intact during the winter campaign. As Mr. Stahel elaborates, “His so called “middle solution” sought, under the most difficult circumstances, to chart a response between the all-out retreat practiced by the likes of Heinz Guderian and the fanatical resistance demanded by Hitler. Kluge’s limited withdrawals sought to avoid exhausting the men, while seeking to preserve as much equipment as possible.” This was no easy task, especially considering the predilections of Hitler to ingloriously sack anyone possessing the will, if not the temerity to challenge his diktat. An unfortunate but classic case in point was the case of Walther von Brauchitsch, a Field Marshal and Commander-in-Chief. Contemptuously treated or mistreated by Hitler, this decorated war veteran was dishonorably discharged from his duties upon incurring the wrath of his leader.

The German’s while strategically retreating from the positions that they had captured and occupied followed a scorched earth policy. Burning every village in their wake, their main objective was to leave not one structure standing or one inhabitable building intact. For example, in December 1941 the retreating forces of Schmidt and Guderian’ s armies wreaked wanton misery upon both people and property in Orel. “An MG 42 was set up in the main aisle of a church. Then the Russian men, women and children were made to shovel snow; then they were taken into the church, without knowing at all what was happening. They were shot immediately with the MG 42 and petrol was poured on them and the whole place was set on fire.”

With the propaganda machine on both the warring sides working overtime, the losses incurred by each side was grossly overestimated by their opponents. The propaganda Minister and a rabid Nazi, Josef Goebbels cranked out incredulous quantum of fictitious victories thereby satiating the anxious Germans. The Soviet Union on the other hand had its own share of mercurial writers such as Ilya Ehrenberg, churning out reams of glorious battle field exploits which either had taken place only in the author’s mind or whose outcomes grossly exaggerated glorifications.

While two sparring vainglorious and pretentious men played dice with the future of their respective countries and country men, the gallant soldiers who were sacrificial pawns in the broader scheme of things fell prey to a legion of uncontrollable factors. A crippling loss of materiel, and men not to mention the specter of frost bite and lice infestation, took an enormous toll. “While epidemic typhus was the most common of louse-borne diseases on the Eastern Front, it was not the only disease transmitted by the lice. Rickettsia Quintana caused trench fever, and Borrelia recurrentis, relapsing fever. There was also spotted fever, but this was spread by mites, ticks, and fleas, not lice.” Consumption of the stimulant Pervitin, colloquially termed Panzerschokolade (tank chocolate) became rampant and led to the drug being subject to the Reich opium law.

Ultimately, when the dust settled and the spoils of war were temporarily counted, both sides were left not just licking their wounds or massaging hurt prides. They were left to nurse permanently etched scars that would haunt them for not just their lives, but future generations as well. To quote Willy Peter Reese, who was in the eye of the storm and was returning home on furlough:

“I lived on the edge. Death, the blind strangler, had failed to find me, but a human being had died in Russia, and I didn’t know who it was…We were required to subject our own lives to the will of the age, and our destiny began like a tale of duress, patience, and death. We could not escape the law, there was a breach in our unfinished sense of the world, and, like a dream, the march into the other and the unknown began, and all our paths ended in night.”

“Retreat from Moscow” – a Masterpiece dealing with a perfectly avoidable tragedy; or was it inescapable?

The Philharmoknee!

(Image Credit: Crispina Kemp)

Just as he ascended the last of the steps, a lacerating pain shot through the left knee of Venky. White, lancing and dizzying. Before he could realise his legs buckled under him and he collapsed in a heap clutching at his affected knee. An involuntary wail escaped his lips.

“You seem to have done it really bad” a mellifluous voice, wafted towards him. A handsome middle aged man, with a frail but immaculate build stood over Venky. Before waiting for a reply, the man bent down and gently rolled his right palm in an anti-clockwise motion around Venky’s knee. The pain vanished miraculously.

The ‘miracle-man’ accompanied Venky, – who by this time had become effusive in both talk and praise – down the steps.  Siew Kuan, just entering the park, greeted Venky cheerfully, before knitting an eyebrow and wondering out loud, “how come you are walking all alone this evening?”

(Word Count: 150)

Written as part of the Crimson’s Creative Challenge #46 More details regarding this challenge may be found HERE.

 

 

Permanent Record – Edward Snowden

Image result for Permanent Record + Edward Snowden + Book

In her bestselling book, “Surveillance Capitalism”, author Shoshana Zuboff while making reference to the insanely popular virtual game, Pokémon Go, writes, “players think they are playing one game – collecting Pokémon – while they are in fact pawns in an entirely different one.” Beneath the seemingly innocuous exterior of a task involving ‘collection’ of creatures hidden in various nooks and crannies both indoors and outdoors, lay an interior, murky and malfeasant. The game’s creators, in due course, confessed that popular virtual locations were for up for sale to the highest bidder, thereby leading to lucrative deals with multinational corporations such as McDonald’s, Starbucks et al.  While the players progressed, goaded by a blissful illusion that they were collecting Pokémon, they were in fact unwitting and unsuspecting pawns, allowing a dastardly manipulation of their behavior by capitalists who were gunning for both their attention and resources.

Edward Snowden is a man without a passport. In 2013, Mr. Snowden blew the lid off a gargantuan State surveillance machinery when he copied and leaked highly classified information from the National Security Agency (NSA) which he happened to gather in his role as a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee and subcontractor. Currently, in exile, the sub-contractor turned whistleblower, by his own account, dwells in a rented structure in Moscow, after having been designated a fugitive under the laws of the United States, his motherland. Popular opinion as to whether Mr. Snowden ought to be prosecuted for exposing State secrets, or feted for exposing an invidious industry for what it is, and has been all along, has taken contrasting contours.

Now, Mr. Snowden has elected to bare it all, in his autobiography, imaginatively titled, “Permanent Record.” More a vindication of self-conscience than an outright indictment of the State, “Permanent Record” brings to bear an arresting combination of wit, vitriol, guilt and resolve. After magnanimously informing his readers about the streak of intrepid curiosity which he nursed as a child and an incorrigible predilection towards electronic stuff, Mr. Snowden gives a breathtaking expostulation on the various surveillance tactics adopted by the CIA and NSA.

In his teens, Mr. Snowden once, hacked into the website of the Los Alamos nuclear research laboratory. His uninterrupted traipsing through a phalanx of confidential documents, reveals to him, the startling fact that the information security apparatus in the laboratory faces a gaping hole. Being aware of the flaw, he assiduously, and even somewhat naively calls the laboratory itself to inform them about the lacuna. Unable to make contact with any one, he leaves a message. After a protracted period of time a caller from Los Alamos makes contact, thanks him for his altruism and upon realizing that Mr. Snowden was till in his teens, exclaims, “Well, kid, you’ve got my contact number. Be sure and get in touch when you turn 18.”

To realise that what you are being watched all along as you blissfully continue to do some watching of your own, is sufficient to induce a tingle down the spine. In a Where-Matrix-Meets-Minority Report, scenario, a civilian unwittingly gives over every single byte of his information to the Government, all the while being utterly oblivious of the fact that he is doing so. Just consider this:

Employing tools threateningly named, TURBULENCE, TURMOIL and TURBINE, the NSA tracks and evaluates the URL typed by a user in her browser window. Gatekeepers at an invisible firewall, these tools scan the relevant metadata embedded within the user’s request, for selectors or criteria, meriting further scrutiny. These selectors are the sole preserve and prerogative of the NSA. Upon identifying selectors, that are, in the opinion of the people at the NSA, ‘suspicious’, the users request is ‘tampered’ with using malware programs decided by complex algorithms. The end result of this extremely convoluted process as per Mr. Snowden is: “you get all the content you want, along with all the surveillance you don’t, and it all happens in less than 686 milliseconds. Completely unbeknownst to you.”  Just pause for a while to assimilate and absorb the essence of this phrase: “COMPLETELY UNBENOWNST TO YOU.”

Mr. Snowden narrates the conundrum he faces in trying to reconcile between the discharge of his duties, – which involves incorporating more layers of sophistry that aid and abet a brazen and universal intrusion of privacy – on the one hand and the preservation of the Constitutional ethos that guarantees the right to privacy to all citizens. Discussing the modus operandi followed by the Government in recruiting technology professionals, Mr. Snowden elaborates in generous detail, the employ of outside contractors. Mr. Snowden himself, was contracted by Dell, although spending his entire professional career with the NSA.

Mr. Snowden also lays bare a few euphemisms used by the Agency to justify their methods as they go about their dark acts. Plain acts of kidnapping are given the esoteric cover of “extraordinary rendition”, while “bulk collection” refers to mass surveillance. You better say every single prayer upon hearing the words “enhancement interrogation” for in plain speak it means torture.

It was the spectre of 9/11 that instilled in Mr. Snowden an urgent sense of national duty; a fervent desire to assist his nation in bringing all those culpable and heinous deviants to book. However, the initial burst of effervescence fizzes out as Mr. Snowden realises that the means to accomplish the end are unacceptable, even though novel. As Mr. Snowden puts it, while nearly three thousand people perished as a result of 9/11, over a million more have been killed in the course of America’s response. “The two decades since 9/11 have been a litany of American destruction, with the promulgation of secret policies, secret laws, secret courts, and secret wars, whose traumatizing impact – whose very existence – the US Government has repeatedly classified, denied, disclaimed, and distorted.”

In the NSA, Mr. Snowden obtains the pinnacle of all clearances “TS/CSI”, a pre-requisite for handling highly classified and sensitive data. It is this very access that results in Mr. Snowden experiencing an almost philosophical epiphany concerning the workings of his employers. While based in Japan, he stumbles upon a sensitive document dealing with a government inquiry into the controversial “President’s Surveillance Program” (PSP), a programme instituted by the Bush administration following the catastrophe of 9/11. Mr. Snowden comes to the mind-bending realization that, the difference between the classified version and the one released to the public for consumption, is chalk and cheese. The classified version provided “a complete accounting of the NSA’s most secret surveillance programs, and the agency directives and Department of Justice policies that had been used to subvert American law and contravene the US constitution”.

The closing chapters of “Permanent Record” seem straight out of a James Bond novel. After having decided to spill the beans, Mr. Snowden walks the tightrope in transferring the documents he proposes to leak to the public, from the vaults of the NSA to his personal laptop. A series of indescribably complex maneuvers – involving converting his car into a roving Wi-Fi sensor and driving around like a madman with a high powered antenna and magnetic GPS sensor slapped atop the car’s roof; storing 20 * 21.5 mm Secure Digital Cards amongst other places, in his sock, within the confines of a prised off square of a Rubik’s Cube and even inside his cheek – so that in times of emergency he can swallow the whole card – and contacting journalists under a variety of identities (“Cincinnatus”, “Citizenfour” and “VERAX”) – makes for some head-spinning and rousing reading.

At the time of writing this review, a very hefty and heavy price has been exacted out of Mr. Snowden for his act of transparency. Living in obscurity in Moscow, the one silver lining in an otherwise sordid saga, has been for Mr. Snowden, his marriage to Lindsey, his longtime girlfriend. The Justice Department has also filed a civil lawsuit against Edward Snowden seeking recovery of all proceeds from the sale of his book. The Justice Department has alleged that the memoir was not submitted to the CIA or NSA for pre-publication review, a required practice among former employees of intelligence agencies.

Mr. Edward Snowden might be a man without an identity. But with his one act of pellucidity, he has ensured that there would never be an erasure of the “Permanent Record” which highlights the peril that mass surveillance has imposed upon a gullible and unwitting segment of the population by rampantly impinging upon and interfering with their one seemingly inalienable right – the right to absolute privacy.

Amoebic Puddles of Red

(Photo from Pixabay)

By the time, the riot police arrived with their threatening paraphernalia, there was left no activity to disperse, no arson to direct their water cannons at and no clashes to separate with their gleaming black batons. The damage was well and truly done. Wrecked furniture lay atop each other in an asymmetric pattern of destruction. An assortment of moans and wails emanated from the ground where prone bodies with broken bones lay curled and twisted. The asphalt had turned darker absorbing the tiny rivulets of blood forming amoebic puddles.

Chairs were hurled at each other by the warring adversities with such ferocity that the law enforcers were stunned to see a couple of them perched precariously on a massive beam overhead. It was like a trapeze artist, who, after being rendered clueless about her next move, was just balancing dangerously on one leg.

It was an innocuous question raised by an octogenarian that made the congregation a tinderbox. “Why shouldn’t the President be made accountable for his devious activities. He is not above any of us – as human beings after all.”

A flying boot made a cracking connection with her jaw. As she hit the ground – mayhem!

(Word Count: 199)

Written as part of Sunday Photo Fiction. Write a story of around 200 words based on the photo prompt given (above). Hosted by Donna McNicol . For more details visit HERE

To read more of the stories based on this week’s prompt, click HERE