Media literacy: we’ve got a piece of info, now what? (and some data/thoughts on terrorism)


Media literacy (the art of how to consume media smartly and responsibly) is something that I’ve been meaning to write about for ages: and now since I’m back to blogging after a pretty long hiatus seems to be as good of a time as ever.

So, let’s take something that caught my eye today: a tweet from Nigel Farage; because he is, in the great words of Stewart Lee, “a character”.

Riiight…. So we got a simple, straightforward, piece of information: there’s this guy who’s a law enforcement chief (so he should know his stuff) and he’s saying that about 5000 EU nationals are deemed to present a risk of engaging in terrorist acts. Now, what do we make of this? What is it supposed to mean to us? Presented, as it is, by Mr. Farage in a series of anti-EU tweets, it is presumably supposed to mean: “The EU is a scary place full of terrorists, vote for me so I can get you out”.

Yet somehow I’m reminded of an old joke: “The overwhelming majority of adult deaths happen in bed- so keep out of it!”

So, I read the article. Let’s go through it bit by bit:

UP to 5000 European nationals pose a potential terrorist threat to Europe, a senior law enforcement chief has told MPs, as a former head of MI5 warned that the West was facing circumstances similar to those that existed before the 9/11 terror attacks.

Hmmm… In what way similar? (I’m not contesting the idea, I’d just like to see his reasoning detailed.)

Rob Wainwright, director of Europol, told the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee his organisation has so far collected 2500 names of suspects, who had travelled overseas, from agencies across EU member states. Asked how many so-called foreign fighters had left Europe, Mr Wainwright said yesterday (tue): “We’re talking about 3000 to 5000 EU nationals.

Europol publishes an annual report entitled EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report. The 2014 version can be read here; and this is what it has to say:

” The largest proportion of terrorist attacks in the EU was related to separatist groups, although the number significantly decreased in 2013 compared to previous years. Most separatist incidents, however, were small-scale. The majority of EU Member States continue to consider religiously inspired terrorism as a major threat, as evidenced by the significant increase in the number of arrests. Two attacks and several disrupted plots in 2013 illustrate this threat. Al- Qaeda and like-minded terrorist groups abroad continued to encourage self-organised attacks within the EU aiming for indiscriminate casualties. With regard to left-wing and anarchist terrorism, the number of attacks and arrests increased compared to previous years. Right-wing extremists may exhibit violent and intimidating behaviour, but do not generally employ terrorist modi operandi. An exception to this rule in 2013 was a series of four attacks in the UK carried out by one individual.”

In this context, I’m a bit confused why “suspect of terrorism” needs to be so closely linked with “travelling abroad”; the 2009 EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report did mention that “Past contacts between ETA and the FARC illustrate the fact that also separatist terrorist organizations seek cooperation partners outside the EU on the basis of common interests” but nonetheless- how likely are persons deemed at risk of engaging in terrorist acts to travel outside the borders of their countries for reasons related to terrorism/the ideology behind it? (I don’t know and the article doesn’t mention it).

It then goes on to say:

It is estimated that as many as 600 British nationals have travelled to Syria and Iraq.

This, again, is a simple, somewhat informative fact- which does however leave a lot unsaid. Whom does this figure of ‘600 British nationals’ include? Journalists? Aid workers? People with families leaving in the area? Military personnel? This piece of information, in itself, does not tell us.

Rather, having these two bits of information together- “UP to 5000 European nationals pose a potential terrorist threat to Europe” and “600 British nationals have travelled to Syria and Iraq” paints a certain kind of picture in our minds: it makes us think of Islamist terrorists attending Jihadi training camps in Syria and Irak in order to come back and attack Europe and, while not explicitly saying it, lets us assume all those 5000 European nationals,out of which 600 are British, belong to this category. It does not make us think, of say, separatist of extreme right terrorism, along with people who may have legitimate reasons to travel to Syria and Iraq. Which is why, later down the line, the article mentions explicitly al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan before 9/11, but not any kind of terrorism that isn’t Islamist (despite the fact that separatist terrorism has been consistently more prevalent, as the Interpol report shows (see also this guy’s analysis, for an overview of 2006-2009 reports)

It is perhaps the tone in which the article ends that I found the most problematic (underlinings and comments in brackets mine):

Meantime, Nigel Farage accused European authorities of showing “moral cowardice” in failing to tackle the problems associated with multiculturalism.

The Ukip leader claimed there were “no-go zones” for non-Muslims in “most big French cities”  (source? I am quite willing to trust the authority of an Interpol official on terror suspects; I am much less inclined to trust Nigel Farage’s authority on multiculturalism and segregation) and there were problems across the continent.

The MEP argued that “big ghettos” had been allowed to develop  (sounds like the opposite of multiculturalism- ghettos generally mean you have a problem with discrimination) and the authorities in the UK and elsewhere were turning a “blind eye” to issues including the sexual exploitation scandals in Rotherham and Rochdale, female genital mutilation and the application of sharia law.

(By the way, FGM is not exclusie to Muslim communities; it does also happen among the Christians in Niger and Uganda)

So, here’s the facts we have:

Reliable source: UP to 5000 European nationals pose a potential terrorist threat to Europe; unspecified of what ideologies

Reliable source: 600 British nationals have travelled to Syria and Iraq

Much less reliable source: Nigel Farage claims that there were “no-go zones” for non-Muslims in “most big French cities”

Fact: Ghettoisation is a thing (to a certain extent and for complex reasons – none of which the article goes into)

Fact: Sexual and physical abuse do happen in the UK to women and girls

How do these facts combine together? What do they mean? What do they lead to?

“The comments come after Mr Farage blamed a “fifth column” of Islamic extremists in Europe for terror atrocities including the Paris attacks and vowed to “be more courageous in standing up for our Judeo-Christian culture”.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said: “It is disappointing that Nigel Farage is running our country down on American television, and his comments are both irresponsible and wrong.

“This Government is standing up for British values and British liberties. We’ve clamped down on the excessive use of foreign translation by councils, re-affirmed the importance of Christianity in public life, tackled divisive politics in Tower Hamlets, and are taking firm action to stop the criminal abuse of children.”

OK… how did we get from “risk of terrorism” to “sexual abuse and gender-based violence” to “let’s affirm the importance of Christian culture and councils should avoid the excessive use of foreign translation- because that’s how we can avoid ghettoisation”? There could be a feminist case for the idea that systematic gender-based violence and abuse do constitute a form of “intimate terrorism” used by patriarchal systems to maintain control over women, but I very much doubt that this is what the article- or Mr. Farage, for that matter, meant.

Rather, it seems to go like:

Fact: UP to 5000 European nationals pose a potential terrorist threat to Europe

Fact: as many as 600 British nationals have travelled to Syria and Iraq

Assumption: Oh yeah, they must be talking about Islamist terrorists, rather than, say, Separatists, Communists or Neo Nazis.

Opinion: Well I, Nigel Farage, say multiculturalism has lead to ghettos of Muslims where on White person is allowed to enter- it happens in France, in major cities I’m not going to mane

Reaction/assumption: Yeah, these may be the breeding grounds for terrorism- what if Muslim French terorists take advantage of our open-border policy and launch an attack on the UK?

Fact, conveniently mentioned: Violence against women and children happens in some Muslim communities in the UK.

Assumption: Violence against women and children is something specific to Muslims

Reaction: Seee, those people are up to no good; they’re terrorists and abusers! Let’s reaffirm how we are not like those people– and by the way it looks like the EU is not doing much against them; let’s secure our borders before anything happens.

This is pretty much what Farage means in his tweet; it states not merely a fact, but a fact that comes with assumptions about what images “terrorist” and “EU” mean to his target audience/potential voters.

Or, to quote Stewart Lee again, although not in the way he originally meant it, “You can prove anything with facts, can’t you?



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