Building Trust on Social Media: A Recipe to Increase Turnout at the 2014 European Elections

Alessandro Bonzio   |   February 23, 2014    9:50 AM ET

The upcoming European elections will offer a valuable insight into the current state of democracy in the EU. While the vote will lay the foundations for a greater involvement of citizens in the Union's policy-making process, a poor result may end up undermining the legitimacy of the EU system as a whole. One aspect likely to be tested is the much-lauded value of social media as a tool of democratic participation. With discontent concerning EU institutions growing at an alarming pace, policy-makers are on the lookout for new opportunities to reach out to citizens and many believe social media could be the key to finally drive turnout up. Could social media actually encourage citizens to walk to the polling booths?

To begin with, all those Web enthusiasts picturing the 2014 elections as a potentially European version of the 2012 Obama campaign are likely to remain disappointed. Obama spent 47 million dollars for his digital campaign: a sum not even comparable with the budget in the pockets of candidates running for a seat in the next EP. The true secret behind his success was a systematic use of big data, which could hardly fall within the boundaries of the European legal framework, with its much stricter regulations on privacy issues. And if you think about the profound differences between the US and the EU political systems, the Obama analogy becomes even more problematic.

A better approach is to look at one of the factors that most affects people's willingness to get involved in politics: their trust in political institutions. Over the last decade, citizens' faith in the EU has declined hand in hand with turnout at EP elections. Both dropped by 3 per cent in the five years prior to the 2009 vote, which registered the lowest turnout rate in the history of the European Parliament. Since then trust levels have gone from 47 to a worrying 31 per cent, and many take this as a sign that the next elections might reach an unprecedented low in terms of participation.

Strengthening relationships and building trust is something social media is potentially really good at. Users can reach people they would otherwise be unable to reach, and engage in a direct and immediate dialogue with them, which is essential to earn people's trust. According to the Labour MEP Richard Howitt - who spoke at an event held in December at Europe House, London - social media is much more than an effective tool for getting to as many citizens as possible. In his view, "the increased insight into the lives of politicians brought about by social media will [also] allow the public to see that 'they are just normal people'." Trust cannot come without authenticity: treating people merely as a target for propaganda not only isn't going to do the job but in many cases may even reveal counterproductive.

The EU seems to be on the right track in this sense: three months away from the vote, its digital campaign shows a genuine commitment to values of accountability and transparency. The EP has created an online platform combining multi-media content from different social networks, including a page dedicated to the online activities of single MEPs. Moreover, on the MyVote2014 portal citizens can access information on party policies and single issues, learn how each party member has voted and even discover interactively how EU policies would change if decided upon by users.

This strategy could well succeed in convincing part of the electorate to cast their vote in May. But as some have noted, it might have a hard time reaching fervent Euro-sceptics as well as militant abstainers. Increasing turnout might ultimately depend as much on politicians as on citizens themselves. At the end of the day, it is not the politicians that most influence thoughts and behaviours, but the people we really trust, be they friends and colleagues or our favourite writers and journalists. From this perspective, spreading engaging content online in order to get people to talk about the elections may prove even more effective than interacting with them directly.

With 350 million users potentially connected to each other, social media could be the public space the EU has always lacked; a place where transnational issues can be discussed and where popular debate could suddenly develop a pan-European dimension. The mainstream media no longer retain their traditional monopoly of news and, therefore, no longer exclusively define the parameters of public discussion. Thanks to Twitter, British people were able to follow the 2013 election campaign in Germany to an extent it would have never been possible by simply relying on national media. New technologies are helping Europeans come together despite geographic and language barriers, which in the long run may create a stronger sense of identity among them. And history teaches us that identity is another powerful fuel for political action.

Social media could play an important role in boosting turnout at the next EP elections. But, maybe, not in the way people think. Listening to citizens' voices online will be a crucial step towards reconnecting them to Europe, while making EU democracy more transparent and accountable will help Brussels restore part of its lost legitimacy. Yet social media's potential will not be fully exploited unless citizens begin using it consistently as a platform for discussing Europe with fellow Europeans. Building trust is hardly ever a top-down process: whatever happens in May, constructive change will be driven largely by the people.

A Requiem for the World's Revolutionaries

Robin Lustig   |   February 22, 2014   12:00 AM ET

Today is a day to weep for the world's revolutionaries. Their bruised bodies, their lost lives- and their shattered dreams.

Not just those who have been out in the freezing streets and squares of Kiev and other Ukrainian towns and cities, but also those who were out not so long ago in Cairo or Tripoli, where as in Kiev, their passion and their courage brought them nothing but grief. People power meets brute power- and the cost is huge.

It's impossible to say yet how all this will end - but it may well be that when peace eventually returns to Ukraine, the protesters will, in effect, have lost. When a regime uses live ammunition against its own citizens, it has crossed a line. It cannot turn back, it cannot concede. It's hard to see what real prospect there can possibly be now of a meaningful negotiated settlement. Just as in Cairo and Tripoli (Syria is a tragedy of a different order), even the overthrow of a hated president may lead to a new reality that is no better than what went before. It gives me no pleasure to say this: revolutions are often in vain.

It is, alas, too easy to be swept up in the excitement of young protesters taking control of the streets, unfurling their banners, erecting their tents and singing their songs of defiance. TV cameras blinking down from the balconies of nearby hotels give us the impression of a people in revolt, an unstoppable wave of protest, sweeping away oppression and corruption.

But the cameras can lie. Yes, the people are there, and yes, for a time, they control the streets. But the real power is elsewhere, behind the heavy wooden doors in government buildings, in army headquarters- and sometimes in capital cities hundreds or thousands of miles away, where those with more power make their own calculations, in their own interests.

So let's look at what has been happening in Kiev. Nearly a decade ago, the protesters of the Orange Revolution were out in that same Independence Square, from where they successfully brought down a sclerotic, corrupt regime and prevented the fraudulent installation of a pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovych. Today, that same Mr Yanukovych is in power- having been elected, more or less fairly, in 2010. With the all-important backing of President Putin, he is determined to stay there.

Here are the real battle lines: pro-Western protesters out on the streets, most of them young and dreaming of a Ukrainian future as part of Europe, up against a ruthless Kremlin autocrat who has a very different dream- of a Ukraine firmly in Russia's sphere of influence, beholden to Moscow politically, militarily and economically.

Ask Hungarians who remember 1956 what happens when popular protest confronts Moscow might. Ask Czechs who remember 1968. It doesn't require Red Army tanks to start rolling through the streets of Kiev for the answer to be the same: the people lose.

Yet it has not been forever thus. In 1989, in Romania, Bulgaria and across eastern Europe, brutal Communist dictatorships were indeed swept away by people's uprisings. Different time, different Kremlin. For Mr Putin, 1989 was the greatest disaster to befall Moscow in its recent history. He is determined not to let it happen again.

Only now, it seems, are Western policy-makers waking up to the new reality: as Obama's Washington has withdrawn from global engagement, weakened and exhausted by Afghanistan and Iraq, Putin's Moscow has leapt in to fill the gap. We have seen it in Syria, where President Assad survives only at Putin's pleasure, and now we are seeing it in Ukraine as well. Putin understands the nature of power, and he knows better than any other current world leader how to use it.

I do not believe that all revolutions are doomed to fail. In east Asia and Latin America, the ruthless military dictatorships that were the norm in the 1960s and 70s have long gone, swept aside by a combination of popular resistance and internal decay. Similarly in much of Africa, kleptocratic dictatorships have made way for democracies, at least in part due to the end of the Cold War and the removal of external Big Power support for military strongmen.

But nor are all revolutions bound to succeed. Especially not in countries like Ukraine, Libya, Egypt and Syria, with deep social and political divisions, where there is no national consensus and no tradition of political dialogue. It is easy to forget as we watch the terrible, apocalyptic images from Ukraine that President Yanukovych has plenty of supporters, just as President Mubarak did in Egypt and President Assad, despite everything, still has in Syria. (There is one important difference, though: neither Mubarak nor Assad ever won a properly contested election. Yanukovych did.)

I still want to believe in the power of protest. I am still an optimist who believes that the world is slowly becoming a better place, with millions more people able to live decent, fulfilling lives. But when I see what is happening in Ukraine, Syria, Egypt, Libya, Central African Republic - need I go on? - my faith, such as it is, is sorely tested.

Barely Racist?

Shweta Kothari   |   February 21, 2014   10:11 AM ET

It was an everyday lunch and all classmates were sitting together to discuss an assignment. Suddenly I said something which made all the eyeballs roll towards me and one of my classmates remarked, "Jeez, are we in seventies"? I didn't comprehend the reaction very well. All I had asked was whether a woman being discussed was coloured.

Must be a cultural thing, I thought. After all I don't really get English jokes and satires. This was one of those things that I didn't understand, until today when one of my friends said that it's offensive to refer to someone by their skin colour. Honestly, I wasn't in agreement.

In 2006, the deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, Bernard Jenkin was sacked when he used the word 'Coloured' in a radio interview. It sparked a debate in Britain regarding the use of the word, which is otherwise widely used in the US and other parts of the world. Some said it is highly derogatory and reduces a person to their skin color, while others proposed that it is merely used to identify people and does not entails racism.

As for me, I do not consider addressing people by their skin color to be offensive or racist, unless it is used to devoid them of equal rights. As an Asian, I proudly call myself brown and some may acknowledge that black has become a fashionable word after the appointment of Barack Obama.

Don't we say 'white men' in a discriminatory manner to refer to any imperialistic or colonization aftermath and to vent out our anger? Then why is this hypocrisy?

Some people go so far to ward off racism that after a point it becomes fallacious! I am sure I was looked upon as a racist when I said that and it made me reflect upon my own upbringing as an Indian.

An essentially pluralistic country, India is divided on the grounds of caste, creed, religion, ethnicity, dialect and geography. A country where a northerner dismisses an easterner, a southern discriminates a northerner, coupled with an age-old caste system and gender inequality. All these do not make India very tolerant.

People seldom use the 'N' word, but the 'C' word is widely spoken while referring to people of North-East. These slurs are used in a very casual manner without much care for the offence they cause to the people around. Lack of awareness, insensitivity, persistent prejudice and absence of law enforcement make Indians highly racist.

Grown up in such an environment and berated for saying a cautious line such as that, did annoy me. However, after much contemplation I recognize that it is not the best way to address people and sow the seeds of racism in a long run.

As Indians, we presume ourselves to be forbearing and do not pay heed to our day-to-day attitude where we unconsciously nurture stereotypes. Death of a young boy from Arunachal Pradesh, a few weeks back in a racist attack was what it took to bring the spotlight on a long neglected issue of racism.

As hostile as we are to the LGBT community and people of North-East, we must change our outlook towards fellow citizens for the sake of humanity. As a developing country there is a need to educate and sensitize people towards diversity, so that youths like me understand the gravity of a racial phrase, before we land abroad.

An Athlete's Perspective: Human Rights at the Winter Olympics

Jonathan Cook   |   February 19, 2014    9:12 PM ET

Lost among much of the recent debate over human rights at the Sochi Winter Olympics, and Russia's 'anti-gay law', has been the fine line that athletes at Sochi have to tread between the strict restrictions placed upon 'political comment' by the International Olympic Committee, and remaining true to their own moral convictions.

The days preceding the opening of the Sochi games were characterised by sharp disagreements between many western governments and the new IOC President, Thomas Bach. In response to the refusal of prominent leaders such as Barack Obama and David Cameron to attend the games, and Mr Obama's decision to include several openly gay former athletes in the American delegation, Mr Bach issued a strongly worded criticism of such 'ostentatious' political statements. 'Have the courage', Mr Bach counselled western leaders, 'to address your disagreements in a peaceful direct political dialogue and not on the backs of the athletes'.

But what of the personal convictions of the athletes Mr Bach purports to protect? Olympic organisers recently refused permission for competitors to wear stickers in memory of the Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke, who died in a training accident in 2012. The decision to outlaw these stickers, which could in no reasonable sense be considered to carry a 'political' message, unmasks the IOC as a hypocritical and archaic body out of touch with modern realities. While the IOC continues to cloak itself in the ideals of amateurism, fair play, and mutual respect, the reality is far different. The Olympics has indisputably become a commercial and political entity, raking in billions of dollars in sponsorship from many of the world's largest corporations. Furthermore, the IOC has built an increasingly close relationship with the United Nations in recent years, with Mr Bach himself drawing parallels between the objectives of the two organisations in a speech to the UN General Assembly in November last year. While these notions are laudable, the blatant contradictions between the IOC's own activities and the draconian restrictions it imposes on its own athletes is particularly worrying.

The Olympic movement represents all the people of the world, with their many distinct cultures and national identities, and it would admittedly be improper for the IOC to play an active role in encouraging any political viewpoint. The point is, simply, that neither should the IOC, or any other major sporting body, prevent athletes from expressing strongly held individual beliefs - political or otherwise. In August 2013, in a prelude to the debates that have shrouded the Sochi Games, the Swedish High Jumper, Emma Green Tregaro, competing at the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Moscow, was reprimanded for painting her nails in the colours of the rainbow in a statement of solidarity with homosexual Russians. Green Tregaro was told that her actions breached IAAF regulations, which stipulate that athletes may not engage in any political or commercial statements; and she was instructed to repaint her nails prior to the next round of competition or risk disqualification. Such overbearing actions - inhibiting the considered and reasoned right of expression for an athlete with a clear sense of her own personal convictions - are fundamentally wrong.

The truth is that sport and politics cannot be separated - they are inextricably linked from the foundations upward. Athletes compete, after all, in the colours of their home nation. They stand on the podium, victorious, and often teary-eyed, as the flag of their nation is raised to the echoes of their national anthem. This exemplifies politics at its most basic level. Representing one's country is a privilege and a responsibility that transcends the wearing of a branded tracksuit and singing the national anthem. Athletes also represent the values with which they have been raised; but above all they represent themselves: what they believe and what they stand for as individuals. Many Olympians are, of course, inclined to focus entirely on their own performances, free from distractions of any sort; and they certainly should not be negatively judged for doing so. However, athletes who have strongly held political views deserve to be allowed to express them free from any external restriction. It is, fundamentally, an issue of individual rights, which the IOC should not suppress.

Sport has immense power to do good. It brings people together across divides of language, race, sexuality, gender and culture, and has enriched and inspired countless millions. Within the sporting world the IOC has more power and influence than any other organisation, but its current restriction of freedom of expression among the movement's own ambassadors - the athletes - has the potential to do significant harm. At the very heart of the Olympic Charter is an unequivocal respect for other human beings and a repudiation of discrimination in any form. It is high time the IOC found the courage to live up to these convictions.

A Bitter Valentine's Day

Shaker Aamer   |   February 14, 2014   12:00 AM ET

It's 14 February. In Britain it will be Valentine's Day. In 2002, it was the day I arrived in Guantánamo Bay, and the day my youngest child was born - Faris, whom I have never been allowed to touch.

Yesterday, my fellow detainee Emad Hassan did not take his legal call, for the same reason every time he misses a phone call or a meeting. They intimidate him by telling him before he goes, "we'll do a full body search" - the "scrotum groping search" as they call it. So Emad goes with them to the Camp 5 exit where they plan to do the search, and when he sees them ready to carry out a full body search, he tells them that he refuses the humiliation, and demands to go back to his cell.

Indeed, the authorities don't want someone like Emad to let the world know what has happened to him. Recently, he encountered the worst doctor here in Guantánamo - the "Doctor of the Dark Side". I told him to write as much as he can about it and send it out, but it takes time for him to write in English, and it takes time for the letters to get through the censors.

I am on my hunger strike. Last night, I took one cup of coffee and added two creamers. As a consequence, all this morning I had bad diarrhoea and went to the toilet more than six times in half an hour. That is why I am writing now. I can't go to sleep, plus it is nice to write something about this place on the first day of my New Year.

There are 35 hunger strikers now. Eighteen of them are being tube-fed. These brothers go and return from feedings by the FCE [Forcible Cell Extraction] team. They even are weighed by the FCE team, but it's impossible to take someone's weight whilst he is shaking so hard on the digital scale and tied to a board. But this means there are 11 or 12 soldiers required every time they have to be moved, as many as five or six times a day.

It is exactly 8:00AM and the National Anthem is playing so loudly. There are big rumours going around, and we hope they are true. It is said that the Government dropped the charges against 12 Yemenis and that only two Yemenis will be prosecuted (Bin Attash and Nashiri). The eligible ones will go to Yemen in three groups: only those who have conditions will be kept in the planned rehabilitation centre; those who have no conditions will be free; and the third group will be those who are to be prosecuted in Yemen, serving their jail sentence in Yemen.

What else... How do I feel with another year of my life gone unjustly and another year started? Truly, I feel numb. I can't even think about it. Years are passing like months and months like weeks. Weeks pass like days and days like hours. Hours feel like minutes, minutes seconds, and seconds pass like years. And it goes around in a strange circle that makes no sense. It all takes an age, and yet an age of my life seems to pass too fast. On and on and on.
I live in the dark, knowing nothing. Here I am, cleared for release for seven years, more than half my time here. What, why, when, how, where? These questions have no answers, only total darkness.

I feel lonely and lost. Not knowing my future is the worst torture. I am living just to die. I am confused about everything and everyone. It is not enough for them to leave us alone with all this pain we are suffering. It is not enough for us to live only with our memories, which bring more pain. Dead people are better off than us. They are living a new way of life, knowing that they are dead and facing the consequences of their past actions.

But our suffering is endless - and with it, our loved ones' suffering is endless. We are not dead but they forget us after awhile, because they cannot see us or feel us and know how we truly are.

Yet still they do more harm to us: humiliating and insulting us, degrading us, anything to make us more miserable. Welcome to the Hell on Earth, welcome to Guantánamo. Welcome to the year 1984, the year 2014.

I have no doubt justice will prevail and the light of the truth will shine all over the world. What is happening to us and others is a small price for justice, peace, and happiness which will cover the whole world soon. Always, after total darkness, the sun rises again. I hope to see the sun of justice, peace, and happiness with my own eyes. It will be a great day.

If I don't get to see that sun, please remember that I have endured all this in the name of Justice.

Shaker Aamer

Alone in Guantánamo

Shaker relayed this blog post to his lawyer Clive Stafford Smith in an unclassified letter

Five Principles and 38 Influential Quotations for the Modern Politician

Davis Mukasa   |   February 13, 2014    6:36 PM ET

With the Sochi Winter Olympics well under way and the conduct of our global leaders and their policies firmly in the spotlight, I thought it'd be helpful to produce a guide to some abiding political principles, quotations and notes that aspiring politicians and politicos can use to make sense of the madcap crazy political world we live in. Enjoy.


PITY THE LITTLE PEOPLE

2014-02-13-VladPutin.png

1. Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies
Groucho Marx
Well that sounds cynical

2. I myself know some people who are gay. We're on friendly terms.
Vladimir Putin, Russian President, on 'anti-gay' legislation to protect children
Oh, I see your point Groucho

3. The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries
Winston Churchill
I dare not say that this is connected to the previous statement

4. Suffer little children and come unto me
Evita Peron, Argentine First Lady
Eva extends an arm of optimism to the children

5. Blessed are the young for they shall inherit the national debt
Herbert Hoover
Herbert takes it away again

6. Please do not touch the kids
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak's advice to gay Winter Olympic athletes
As I said, I see your point Groucho

7. When I was poor and I complained about inequality people said I was bitter, now I'm rich and I complain about inequality they say I'm a hypocrite
Russell Brand
I'm tempted to say they just don't like you Russell but I hear your point

8. I live in a neighbourhood so bad that you can get shot while getting shot
Chris Rock

9. I went to Zimbabwe. I know how white people feel in America now; relaxed! Cause when I heard the police car I knew they weren't coming after me!
Richard Pryor, on race, profiling and the perks of afro-American Zimbabwean tourism 


STICK TO YOUR PRINCIPLES

10. Politics, noun. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage
Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

11. The president has kept all the promises he intended to keep
George Stephanopolous, Communications Director to Bill Clinton
Never let virtue get in the way of semantics

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12. Now, I know that he's taken some flak lately but no one is prouder to put this birth certificate matter to rest than The Donald. And that's because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter like where are Biggie and Tupac?'
President Obama, on Donald Trump at the 2011 White House Correspondents' Dinner

13. We don't do God!
Alastair Campbell, Communications chief, quickly reminds Tony Blair not to mention his faith
I only wanted to know where Biggie and Tupac were

14. It's pity there isn't a hell for him to go to
Christopher Hitchens, Atheist, of a particular journalist
Not of Alastair Campbell although some in the British media have uttered similar. Adam Boulton?

15. I don't make predictions. I never have and never will.
Tony Blair, predicts he won't be making a prediction anytime soon

16. He can compress the most words into the smallest ideas better than any man I ever met
Abraham Lincoln, referring to a lawyer
The fact this appears below former lawyer Tony Blair is innocently unfortunate

17. The penalty of success is to be bored by people who used to snub you
Nancy Astor, on the joys of being the first female Member of Parliament
Eyes on the prize Nancy


LOVE THY MEDIA

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18. Now is not the time for sound-bites. I can feel the hand of history on my shoulder
Tony Blair, signing the Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement, April 1998
The media made sure this would haunt him for years to come

19. If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: 'President Can't Swim'
Lyndon Johnson

20. We don't do God!! [again]
Alastair Campbell, on walking on water

21. Politics is supposed to be the second-oldest profession. I have come to realise that it bears a very close resemblance to the first
Ronald Reagan
Reagan hated courting

22. The first time Adam had a chance, he laid the blame on women
Nancy Astor
When the cameras are rolling there is no gallantry Nancy

23. Television has made dictatorship impossible, but democracy unbearable
Shimon Peres, Israeli President laments
Unless you're a dictator that likes the limelight...


DON'T LET POWER CORRUPT YOU

24. The difference between a democracy and a dictatorship is that in a democracy you vote first and take orders later; in a dictatorship you don't have to waste time voting
Charles Bukowski, US Writer

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25. In the past months the people of Uganda have been following with sorrow the alarming economic crisis befalling on Britain
Dictator Idi Amin Dada, offers parcels of food and compassion to depression-hit Britain, 1974

26. Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt
Abraham Lincoln
Seems simple

27. I love to bring people into the Oval office and say, this is where I office
George W. Bush
OK, point taken Abraham

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LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR

28. Democracy is the process by which people choose the man who'll get the blame
Bertrand Russell, British philosopher

29. Despise the enemy strategically, but take him seriously tactically.
Chairman Mao Zedong
Mao, never far from killing something

30. An ideal form of government is democracy tempered with assassination
Voltaire, French writer
Nice.

31. The difference between a misfortune and a calamity is this: If Gladstone fell into the Thames, it would be a misfortune. But if someone dragged him out again, that would be a calamity
Benjamin Disraeli, British Prime Minister considers the assisted drowning of the opposition

32. In waking a tiger, use a long stick.
Mao Zedong

33. If God had intended us not to eat animals, how come he made them out of meat?
Sarah Palin, US politician evaluates Mao's words

34. One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.
Plato, Greek philosopher
See above. Must see Russell Brand about this...

35. Amigo! Amigo!
George W. Bush hails Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Spanish at G8 summit

36. A fool and his money are soon elected
Will Rogers
See above

37. If ignorance goes to $40 a barrel. I want drilling rights to George Bush's head.
Jim Hightower, US political activist on George Bush Snr
See above

38. A man may fight for many things. His country, his principles, his friends. The glistening tear on the cheek of a golden child. But personally, I'd mud-wrestle my own mother for a ton of cash, an amusing clock and a sack of French porn.
Edmund Blackadder on the art of selflessness and expenses filing
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That just about covers it.
Happy Politicking.


Cartoon images under creative commons licence from DonkeyHotey http://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/
Other images adapted by author from publicly available WikiCommons Images. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Images

Mehdi's Minute: On the Floods, 'Money Is No Object' and the Obama-Beyonce Nonsense

Mehdi Hasan   |   February 13, 2014    5:02 PM ET

Do you want my alternative take on the political fallout from the floods, Cameron's 'money is no object' remarks and the (false) French claims of an Obama-Beyonce affair?

Here it is in 60 seconds.

  |   February 13, 2014   11:15 AM ET

There's a time and a place for a selfie, and this probably isn't it.

French journalists seized the moment while they were sitting in the Oval Office - with Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande looking on in the background.

According to French reports, they were ticked off by White House staff, who reportedly said this was "not the done thing".

TOP STORIES TODAY

Perhaps the hacks should concentrate on holding their President to account over rumours about his private life.

Paul Vale   |   February 12, 2014    2:22 PM ET

A Republican senator is to hit president Obama with a lawsuit on Wednesday that aims to halt surveillance by USA spy agencies which have been intercepting private communications both at home and abroad, as revealed by the Edward Snowden leaks.

Entitled 'Rand Paul v. Barack Obama', the Kentucky Senator is asking the Federal court in Washington DC to declare part of the Patriot Act, the legislation signed into law by George W Bush after the 9/11 attacks that enables agencies such as the NSA to monitor private phone calls, unconstitutional. Those named as defendants include the president, FBI director James Comey, director of the NSA General Keith Alexander and director of National Intelligence, James Clapper.

The legal action currently has around 350,000 plaintiffs, with Paul, a staunch libertarian and a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, looking to corral many more. In a Fox News interview in December, Paul said that “everybody who has a cell phone would be eligible to become a plaintiff”.

The thrust of Paul’s complaint focuses on the metadata – the bulk phone records collected from American telecommunications companies – routinely collected by the NSA, which includes details such as phone numbers, dates and times of calls.

Several other lawsuits challenging the collection of this metadata are already pending in federal courts across the US. However Paul’s challenge is different in that it’s a class action suit, which means the plaintiff is not only seeking damages for themselves, but also for anyone who has been affected by the perceived wrongdoing.

Speaking to MSNBC, Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at American University, said of Paul’s suit: "Ostensibly, he could be suing on behalf of all Americans, or all Americans hypothetically affected by these court orders."

Addressing his supporters via a video message on Tuesday, Paul said: "When we learned that the NSA was collecting the phone data of every American last year it posed a serious Constitutional question: Do we no longer have a Fourth Amendment?"

The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, part of the Bill of Rights, prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and requires any warrant to be judicially sanctioned and supported by probable cause.

In a statement released this week, Paul outlined his case against Obama, arguing that the president has "publicly refused to stop a clear and continuing violation of the Fourth Amendment," with the 51-year-old senator expecting the case to go all the way to the US Supreme Court.

The White House has yet to publicly comment on the lawsuit but, in a speech on security given earlier in January, Obama argued that members of the intelligence community "follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people", adding: "They're not abusing authorities in order to listen to your private phone calls or read your emails."

Paul is expected to give a press conference in front of the federal courthouse in the capital after the suit has been filed, with the senator trumpeting his credentials as a defender of the constitution against encroachment of the intelligence services.

However, Paul’s critics, many of whom are from the Republican Party, have lambasted the move, with Peter King going as far as to question the Senator’s place in government.

"The NSA is doing exactly what it is supposed to be doing," said King in an interview earlier this month, adding: "To me, he’s either totally uninformed, or he’s part of that ‘hate America’ crowd that I thought left us in the 1960s.

"In any event, he doesn’t deserve to be in the United States Senate for spreading that type of misperception and absolute lies."

The scope of the NSA’s surveillance programme gained international notoriety last June after former NSA contractor Snowden, who is currently in asylum in Russia, released a tranche of classified documents about US and British spying activities.

TOP STORIES TODAY

  |   February 12, 2014    1:33 PM ET

As Jon Stewart points out in this clip from 'The Daily Show' (showing midnight tonight on Comedy Central Extra), the American media are rather obsessed with one detail of Francois Hollande's trip to Washington...

Sara C Nelson   |   February 12, 2014   11:48 AM ET

Sad times, social media fans – if you’re in Sonora, Mexico you can’t name your baby ‘Facebook’.

‘Rambo’ is also off the list after the state began banning names found to be odd or offensive.

“The law is very clear because it prohibits giving children names that are derogatory or that don’t have any meaning and that can lead to bullying,” Sonora state Civil Registry director Cristina Ramirez told the Associated Press.

rambo stallone

Rambo is off the list

So far 61 names have been struck off and more could follow as officials continue to check records.

Ramirez also cited a male child being named ‘Juan Calzon’ or ‘Juan Panties’ and a baby girl called ‘Lady Di.’

If you thought that was bad, spare a thought for baby Hashtag.

SEE ALSO: He's Not The Messiah... Judge Changes Baby's Name To Martin Claiming Moniker 'Only Befits Jesus'

Oh and two-year-old twins Barack Obama and Mitt Romney – born to proud mother Millicent Owour of south-west Kenya in 2012.

Aaaand while we’re at it – the ridiculously-named spawn of these 66 celebrities:

Twelve Years a Guantánamo Slave

Neil Durkin   |   February 12, 2014   12:00 AM ET

Well, not exactly a slave, but a slave of the Guantánamo system. I'm talking about Shaker Aamer, the former UK resident who is still - still - marooned at the notorious US detention centre in the Caribbean almost exactly 12 years after being taken there during the height of George W Bush's frenzied and law-breaking "war on terror" (Aamer was brought to the camp, manacled and blindfold, on 14 February 2002).

The deepening mystery of why Aamer is still being held at Guantánamo - uncharged, untried and now almost unspoken of in UK-US diplomatic circles - is profound indeed. Like a significant number of Guantánamo's remaining detainees, Aamer was judged by the camp authorities to be suitable for "transfer" out of Guantánamo as long ago as 2007. After this (entirely extra-legal adjudication) things were supposed to be largely procedural - sorting out the details with the receiving country, almost certainly the UK, his longstanding place of residence and home to his British wife and children.

However, that never happened. And the years crept by. In 2009 another - confirmatory - "approval for transfer" decision made by the Guantánamo Review Task Force came and went. Still no change. Since then an increasingly pessimistic Aamer has intermittently sent the world word of his half-forgotten plight via his lawyer, has taken part in miserably desperate hunger strikes, and has even shouted out to passing journalists (forbidden from talking to him) during their heavily-controlled media tours of the camp. Meanwhile his family in London (wife, four children, father-in-law) have pressed on with their efforts to get him released, and ... and what? And nothing. His lawyer writes open letters to the US president in the US media, Amnesty hands in letters to the US embassy in London, and indefatigable campaigners like Andy Worthington and the Save Shaker group plug away with their blogging and speeches at public rallies. But ... still nothing. Aamer stays put. Still detained, growing older, increasingly unwell, and more and more desperate. More despairing.

So, why is this happening? The truth is we don't know. We just don't know about the behind-the-scenes UK-US diplomatic machinations (WikiLeaks where are you when we need you ...?). In public, politicians like William Hague and Nick Clegg are pretty unequivocal, declaring - though only relatively recently and usually only when pressed - that they're willing to facilitate his passage back to Britain and are actively "negotiating" with the US for his release (the implied subtext apparently being that it's the USA that's actually holding things up). But there are also claims that the UK's intelligence services are privately lobbying for his continued captivity, worried that a newly-released Aamer will renew his past allegations of MI6 abuse and their involvement in his calamitous rendition to Cuba. Who knows? Yet all the while, the years creep by and Aamer - and another 154 men - remain firmly behind bars at Guantánamo.

Guantánamo has been one of the true scandals of our age (yes, I know there's a lot of competition and a lot that's infinitely worse in the world, but still, it's definitely a class-A scandal). It's truly scandalous that the place was ever established, was ever populated with hundreds of people flown there by the US military and CIA after being drugged and shackled, and scandalous that it was ever justified by politicians (on both sides of the Atlantic, both Republican and New Labour) as "necessary" in the fight against terrorism. In truth it was - and is - an insult to the victims of the 9/11 attacks. It's never served the interests of justice and any perpetrators still languishing at Guantánamo should rightly have been put on trial in a civilian court years ago.

Yet still the scandal goes on and on. Despite President Obama's now-infamously unfulfilled pledge to close Guantánamo by the beginning of 2010, it's still very much with us. Twelve years a slave of Guantánamo's unlawful system, Shaker Aamer's plight deserves to be the subject of far greater political urgency than it's currently receiving. Regarding Steve McQueen's much-garlanded slavery film, I was recently grumbling about the film's soapy melodramatics and its safe liberal subject matter, wishing instead that McQueen would take on a tougher, more contemporary topic. In fact, Steve, why not make a film about the tragic story of Shaker Aamer?

  |   February 11, 2014    9:17 AM ET

Are Beyonce and Barack Obama dangerously in love? The short answer – no, they are not.

In the wake of their own president being surrounded by scandal, the French media is getting very over-excited about a rumour that Beyonce has been having an affair with President Obama – a claim the singer has swiftly denied.

beyonce obama

The affair claims came as Francois Hollande arrived in America on an official state visit without his now-ex partner, Valérie Trierweiler.

Rumours of an affair between the American president and the pop superstar were first made this morning by a man with some expertise in the subject.

Pascal Rostain, a French paparazzo, who snapped Hollande cheating on his first lady with the actress Julie Gayet, spoke of the alleged relationship during a sensational interview on the Europe 1 radio station.

He said: "Indeed, it will come out tomorrow in the Washington Post. We cannot say that it is from the gutter press - a supposed liaison between President Barack Obama and Beyonce. I can assure you that the world will talk."

The Washington Post immediately denied any such report – saying the newspaper does not produce articles' of this kind and that it is "definitely not true."

But Rostain's claims were reported by a range of respected media in France, including respected newspaper Le Figaro, and Le Point.

Questioned about the Obama-Beyonce claims following the denial by the Washington Post, Rostain said they were a "joke."

Rostain backpedaled on his comments in a piece published on jeanmarcmorandini.com later on Monday, saying he "didn't say that at all" about Obama and Beyoncé. He clarified that "some American journalists were working on the case."

"It looks like things between Barack and Michelle Obama haven't been in the best of shape for a couple of weeks," Rostain said, according to a HuffPost translation. "From what I know, the atmosphere is pretty frigid between Barack and Michelle. But I know nothing more.”

Beyoncé and her rapper husband Jay Z have been friends with the Obamas for several years and she performed at Michelle Obama’s recent 50th birthday party.

A spokeswoman for Beyoncé dismissed the claim as "absurd."

Do Better Wages Really Make For a Better Society?

Nash Riggins   |   February 10, 2014    8:00 PM ET

Britain is on the brink of a disaster. The prices of food and fuel have been allowed to spiral out of control. Meanwhile, affordable accommodation is quickly dissipating - egged on by the coalition's dubious desire to slash cost-cutting holes in Britain's social safety net.

With that in mind, it only makes sense that entrenched politicians should point the finger at the country's pitifully low minimum wage. For the better part of four years, many within the Labour camp have been whinging about Britain's criminally stagnant wages - which are constantly being marginalised by relentless hikes in inflation and living costs that relegate even full-time workers to lives of poverty.

Now, it's easy for an opposition leader to moan about low wages - it's harder to draft tangible resolutions. But across the pond, President Obama is preaching an identical message of hope for America's working class. As momentum builds, even a characteristically stubborn George Osborne has been forced to hop on the bandwagon by promising to authorise some muted legislative pay raise in the run up to the 2015 general election. But try not to hold your breath.

As housing costs continue to soar, most of us would need our salaries doubled in order to scramble onto the lowest wrung of the property ladder. Meanwhile, without addressing the core issues at hand, even the most ambitious wage increase would only serve to widen the country's ever-increasing poverty divide further still.

Let's talk economics.

When governments force employers to hike their wages, we tend to see a swift impact upon those minimum wage workers who are most in need. Warm fuzzies ensue. Yet because employers want to maintain differentials, this increase at the bottom inevitably produces a domino effect that eventually reaches even the plushest chair in the boardroom. In turn, real inflation rises because more people have more money - driving basic living costs up with it. Ultimately, the status quo remains quite unchanged.

To some extent, this knock-on effect actually hurts a lot of workers more than it helps them. That's because when companies are forced to increase wages without seeing any sort of profit increase, they end up with a tattered bottom line that renders future investments meaningless. Thus, new jobs are lost - and the chances are, a few old ones will be made redundant in order to cut corners.

Faced with such a tragically grim outlook, it's hard to say what we should make of all this buzz surrounding people's wages. It would be political suicide not to jump on the bandwagon and call for a higher minimum wage. After all, whilst bankers in The City are proudly high-fiving each other to celebrate the alleged end of a five-year global recession, most of us have yet to witness a damn change. Our bills are still rising and our High Street shops are still closing. But like it or not, a minimum wage increase alone can't change that - it will only perpetuate it.

If politicians are truly serious about solving Britain's cost of living crisis, they should start by addressing the painfully obvious questions first. For example, what can we do to subsidise food costs for people? What about Britain's cutthroat energy market? Or, perhaps most pertinently, how can we provide more affordable housing for those in need? A short afternoon of soul-searching, and politicians on all sides of the spectrum would be shocked to find the answers to these questions aren't so complex - they just involve making a few tough decisions.

Until that happens, let's just go ahead and call this latest push for a higher minimum wage by its true name: shameless politicking. This is precisely the sort of substance-free policy agenda that's meant to turn our attention away from demanding tangible legislative solutions to society's biggest problems. Because, believe it or not, there's a better way to fight homelessness than with a bedroom tax - and there's sure as hell a better way to combat high living costs than with a hollow hike in wages.