Fox Bytes 14 – the not-what-it-seems issue

When grassroots don’t run deep

The ‘will of the people’ carries power in politics, and grassroots activism is its ‘voice’. But what if the ‘grass’ in question is artificial? Then the ‘voice’ is known as ‘astroturfing’, and you have to be smart to spot it.

Astroturfing is the action by persons or organisations to create the impression that a certain product, policy or individual enjoys widespread grassroots support, invariably where no such support actually exists.

It can be limited to a single fake online identity with a name suggesting they represent, say, ‘concerned citizens’, and speak on behalf of ‘many’ people (see Fox Bytes 13), or it could be a coordinated campaign funded by powerful lobby groups or major corporations.

Another layer of fakery is often in the name, which will suggest one thing, but in fact, support the opposite. An ‘organisation’ called ‘Mums for Healthy Food’, for example, could be a creation of a major fast food retailer.

And if you think you can spot astroturfing, know this: software is easily available to create armies of virtual voices, complete with fake IP addresses, seemingly non-political interests, and inoffensive online histories.

Astroturfing is an ongoing game, playing the part of the opposition requires vigilance and a critical eye.

(Image: Freepik)


Where 17th Century thinking still abounds

If you think of slavery in terms of 17th Century slave ships crossing the Atlantic from Africa to America, you’re missing the big picture. The Global Slavery Index map shows a vast swathe of Africa where slavery is still rife.

In fact, of the ten countries where modern slavery is most prevalent, five of them are in Africa. One of those – Mauritania – punches way above its weight. It may have only 4.3 million people, but reportedly as many as 20% of those live in slavery.

Whereas slavery was abolished in England in 1833, it was still legal in Mauritania until 1981. Although slavery is now outlawed, it is still allowed. 

Demographically Mauritania has two distinct castes. One, the Beydanes, are Arab Berber tribesman. Their ancestors conquered parts of West Africa in the 17th Century, and enslaved the indigenous population. 

The other caste are the descendants of those enslaved. They are the Haratin, and they make up the largest of the minority groups in Mauritania. According to the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO), half of all Haratin are forced to work on farms or in homes with no possibility of freedom, education or pay.

Most are women and children, ‘inherited’ by slave-owning families from one generation to the next. Until the caste system in Mauritania is eradicated, slavery will define its international status.

(Image: Vecteezy)


But she did it first!

An old Soviet propaganda tool is making a comeback. It’s called ‘whataboutism’, and it has a ring of reason to it.

It goes a little like this: a president accused of unlawful activity doesn’t offer evidence to prove the claims are false. Instead, he attempts to direct attention towards another politician suggesting something she did was unlawful – “What about her?”, he wails. 

It’s sneaky, because it suggests hypocrisy on the part of the accuser. It’s a little like a five year-old caught crayoning a bedroom wall reminding a parent of a sibling’s previous act they consider a crime unpunished. 

Tempting though the reasoning may seem, it doesn’t address the issue of culpability: a crime was committed – the wall was crayoned – and the five year-old was caught with the crayon in hand, the metaphorical ‘smoking-gun’.

In the hands of, say, an elected president, whataboutism is designed to sow confusion in the minds of supporters, and divert attention from their misbehaviour. In an era of social media, it is particularly effective.

As a defence for being caught misbehaving though, it only makes sense in the head of a five year-old.

(Image: Freepik)

[These articles originally appeared in Issue 14 of Fox Bytes (you can view it here) in the week of 3 September 2018. Growing Foxes is a school strategic intelligence programme designed by mindofafox. It is being piloted in a number of leading schools in the UK and South Africa. Fox Bytes is published weekly to support those students currently engaging with the programme. Click on the logo to find out more]