Best-selling journalist Antony Loewenstein trav­els across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea, the United States, Britain, Greece, and Australia to witness the reality of disaster capitalism. He discovers how companies such as G4S, Serco, and Halliburton cash in on or­ganized misery in a hidden world of privatized detention centers, militarized private security, aid profiteering, and destructive mining.

Disaster has become big business. Talking to immigrants stuck in limbo in Britain or visiting immigration centers in America, Loewenstein maps the secret networks formed to help cor­porations bleed what profits they can from economic crisis. He debates with Western contractors in Afghanistan, meets the locals in post-earthquake Haiti, and in Greece finds a country at the mercy of vulture profiteers. In Papua New Guinea, he sees a local commu­nity forced to rebel against predatory resource companies and NGOs.

What emerges through Loewenstein’s re­porting is a dark history of multinational corpo­rations that, with the aid of media and political elites, have grown more powerful than national governments. In the twenty-first century, the vulnerable have become the world’s most valu­able commodity. Disaster Capitalism is published by Verso in 2015 and in paperback in January 2017.

Profits_of_doom_cover_350Vulture capitalism has seen the corporation become more powerful than the state, and yet its work is often done by stealth, supported by political and media elites. The result is privatised wars and outsourced detention centres, mining companies pillaging precious land in developing countries and struggling nations invaded by NGOs and the corporate dollar. Best-selling journalist Antony Loewenstein travels to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea and across Australia to witness the reality of this largely hidden world of privatised detention centres, outsourced aid, destructive resource wars and militarized private security. Who is involved and why? Can it be stopped? What are the alternatives in a globalised world? Profits of Doom, published in 2013 and released in an updated edition in 2014, challenges the fundamentals of our unsustainable way of life and the money-making imperatives driving it. It is released in an updated edition in 2014.
forgodssakecover Four Australian thinkers come together to ask and answer the big questions, such as: What is the nature of the universe? Doesn't religion cause most of the conflict in the world? And Where do we find hope?   We are introduced to different belief systems – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – and to the argument that atheism, like organised religion, has its own compelling logic. And we gain insight into the life events that led each author to their current position.   Jane Caro flirted briefly with spiritual belief, inspired by 19th century literary heroines such as Elizabeth Gaskell and the Bronte sisters. Antony Loewenstein is proudly culturally, yet unconventionally, Jewish. Simon Smart is firmly and resolutely a Christian, but one who has had some of his most profound spiritual moments while surfing. Rachel Woodlock grew up in the alternative embrace of Baha'i belief but became entranced by its older parent religion, Islam.   Provocative, informative and passionately argued, For God's Sakepublished in 2013, encourages us to accept religious differences, but to also challenge more vigorously the beliefs that create discord.  
After Zionism, published in 2012 and 2013 with co-editor Ahmed Moor, brings together some of the world s leading thinkers on the Middle East question to dissect the century-long conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians, and to explore possible forms of a one-state solution. Time has run out for the two-state solution because of the unending and permanent Jewish colonization of Palestinian land. Although deep mistrust exists on both sides of the conflict, growing numbers of Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs are working together to forge a different, unified future. Progressive and realist ideas are at last gaining a foothold in the discourse, while those influenced by the colonial era have been discredited or abandoned. Whatever the political solution may be, Palestinian and Israeli lives are intertwined, enmeshed, irrevocably. This daring and timely collection includes essays by Omar Barghouti, Jonathan Cook, Joseph Dana, Jeremiah Haber, Jeff Halper, Ghada Karmi, Antony Loewenstein, Saree Makdisi, John Mearsheimer, Ahmed Moor, Ilan Pappe, Sara Roy and Phil Weiss.
The 2008 financial crisis opened the door for a bold, progressive social movement. But despite widespread revulsion at economic inequity and political opportunism, after the crash very little has changed. Has the Left failed? What agenda should progressives pursue? And what alternatives do they dare to imagine? Left Turn, published by Melbourne University Press in 2012 and co-edited with Jeff Sparrow, is aimed at the many Australians disillusioned with the political process. It includes passionate and challenging contributions by a diverse range of writers, thinkers and politicians, from Larissa Berendht and Christos Tsiolkas to Guy Rundle and Lee Rhiannon. These essays offer perspectives largely excluded from the mainstream. They offer possibilities for resistance and for a renewed struggle for change.
The Blogging Revolution, released by Melbourne University Press in 2008, is a colourful and revelatory account of bloggers around the globe why live and write under repressive regimes - many of them risking their lives in doing so. Antony Loewenstein's travels take him to private parties in Iran and Egypt, internet cafes in Saudi Arabia and Damascus, to the homes of Cuban dissidents and into newspaper offices in Beijing, where he discovers the ways in which the internet is threatening the ruld of governments. Through first-hand investigations, he reveals the complicity of Western multinationals in assisting the restriction of information in these countries and how bloggers are leading the charge for change. The blogging revolution is a superb examination about the nature of repression in the twenty-first century and the power of brave individuals to overcome it. It was released in an updated edition in 2011, post the Arab revolutions, and an updated Indian print version in 2011.
The best-selling book on the Israel/Palestine conflict, My Israel Question - on Jewish identity, the Zionist lobby, reporting from Palestine and future Middle East directions - was released by Melbourne University Press in 2006. A new, updated edition was released in 2007 (and reprinted again in 2008). The book was short-listed for the 2007 NSW Premier's Literary Award. Another fully updated, third edition was published in 2009. It was released in all e-book formats in 2011. An updated and translated edition was published in Arabic in 2012.

Censored Al-Jazeera film on Israel lobby reveals important truths

My following essay appears in the Israel/Palestine news outlet +972 magazine

There’s a moment near the end of the four-part, Al Jazeera documentary on the U.S. Israel lobby — censored by its own network due to pressure from the U.S. government and incensed U.S.-based, pro-Israel lobbyists — where the show’s undercover reporter, “Tony,” films a key Israel advocate in Washington. Eric Gallagher was a senior manager at The Israel Project and admits that the dominant pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, faces an existential crisis.

“People at AIPAC know that something has changed,” Gallagher says. “They know something is wrong. They are not as effective as they used to be.” He worries that the day is coming soon when AIPAC wouldn’t be able to deeply influence the Israel lobby crafted in the U.S. Congress, as it does today, and that the pro-Israel lobby will have to operate without AIPAC’s power. “There’s this big bowling ball that’s being hurled towards them [AIPAC] and the response is to run faster,” Gallagher continues. “They need to get on the bowling ball and start dancing.”

Gallagher doesn’t explain why so many Americans are turning against Israel in public opinion polls. The latest figures from The Economist and YouGov, an online data analytics firm, find that U.S. liberals, millennials, and women have turned against the Jewish state in large numbers. The 50-plus year occupation of Palestinians and their lands, constant killings of civilians in Gaza, and the Trump administration’s obsessive embrace of Israel’s hard-right are all factors.

Republicans and conservatives still back Israel in large numbers, as do many in the evangelical Christian community (though younger members are more skeptical). For the foreseeable future, however, Israel will likely receive unprecedented financial, military, and diplomatic support from the United States.

Tony films Gallagher in a Washington D.C. café explaining that “the foundation that AIPAC sat on is rotting. There used to be widespread public support for Israel in the United States…I don’t think that AIPAC is the tip of the spear anymore, which is worrisome, because who is?”

It’s a telling admission in a documentary that’s full of them. Following Al Jazeera’s 2017 examination of Britain’s Israel lobby — a film that uncovered extensive Israeli government interference in the British political system, along with Labour Party operatives who aimed to silence critics of Israel with false charges of anti-Semitism — expectations were high for the U.S. version. They planted a convincing young, British, Jewish man, James Anthony Kleinfeld, within the American Zionist establishment, who filmed undercover for months to reveal pro-Israel lobbyists and Israeli government affiliates talking tactics and spewing racism against Muslims and Palestinians. Al Jazeera even admitted to planting an undercover reporter inside U.S. pro-Israel lobby groups in 2017, but the channel never broadcast the final product.

Director and founder of Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit, Clayton Swisher, has detailed the political reasons for this decision: a combination of Qatari government capitulation, pro-Israel lobbyists in Washington threatening to convince Congress to register the network as “foreign agents,” and false accusations of anti-Semitism against the producers of the documentary. A source told me that U.S. President Donald Trump’s first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, had even lobbied the Qataris not to screen the film. Whatever exactly Israeli, American, and pro-Zionist lobbyists did, it worked, though clips of the film started leaking in the last months. The full film can’t be far behind [it leaked a few days after this piece was published].

The leaks prove that the Israeli embassy, often working with pro-Israel groups, spies on pro-Palestinian students and attempts to disrupt the growth of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement across the U.S. Other Zionist lobbyists want students who support Palestinian rights to be criminally prosecuted. Fake Facebook accounts are created by Israel lobby groups that only occasionally mention Israel, because the Israel brand has become so toxic. The notorious Canary Mission website, used by the Israel government to target pro-Palestinian supporters on arrival in its country, is exposed as being funded by major pro-Israel donors in the U.S.

These are all important revelations, and an international audience deserves to see them. There’s nothing remotely anti-Semitic in the film. It’s a sober and detailed exposé of a lobby that functions despite the demographic gravity pushing against it. It’s not just young Americans losing support for Israel, but American Jews who increasingly can’t abide by a foreign country that advocateschauvinism, occupation, and racism. The horrific Pittsburgh synagogue massacre has only deepened this divide between Israel and its vast Jewish Diaspora.

Banning the film shows the weakness of the Zionist lobby, not its strength, because it acknowledges that any criticism that shatters the illusion of how the lobby operates secretly cannot survive sunlight or public scrutiny. Nonetheless, it’s worrying that Al Jazeera continues to stonewall about the real reasons it has not scheduled the film.

Swisher’s documentary is a positive development, however, from the myopic discussions around the U.S. Israel lobby that greeted the 2007 book on the subject by academics Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer (who appears in the film). The authors were accused of anti-Semitism and scapegoating Jews. U.S. journalist Jeffrey Goldberg, now editor of The Atlantic, who is notorious for policingsupposedly acceptable boundaries of debate around Israel/Palestine, called Walt, without evidence, a “grubby Jew-baiter.”

Yes, Swisher and his team have been accused of anti-Semitism, more than a decade after the Mearsheimer-Walt book. But the label no longer sticks effectively, apart from the rigid ideologues who won’t tolerate any criticism of Israeli actions. When real anti-Semitism is surging globally, it’s a damning indictment on those who abuse the term for shabby political ends. The Israel lobby does this around the world.

A key theme throughout the film is the perceived need by Israel and its advocates to secretly and publicly smear supporters of Palestinian rights. That’s what being strongly pro-Israel means for the litany of Zionist lobby groups featured in the documentary, from The Israel Project to the Brandeis Center. It looks and feels grubby and desperate. BDS is framed as an existential threat to the continuation of the Jewish state, a severe exaggeration in the current moment, but it has undeniably achieved great psychological damage to the Israeli narrative and justification for indefinitely occupying millions of Palestinians.

One of the early reviews of the film, written by Anshel Pfeffer in Haaretz, argues that the U.S. Israel lobby and Israeli government are “begging a bunch of amateurs for intel [on BDS supporters].” Although he later admits that the film shows a “self-harming campaign” that costs the Israeli government millions of dollars every year, he ignores the wider implications for the many targeted liberal Jews, pro-Palestinian activists and Muslims whose lives and records are smeared by the lobby for daring to defend Palestinian rights. Free speech around Israel/Palestine is now under attack in the U.S. and across the globe. The FBI is using Canary Mission as a reference point to harass pro-Palestinian activists.

This Al Jazeera documentary deserves a wide audience because it exposes the motivations and methods of individuals and groups that will spend the next 50 or 100 years defending Israeli control of Palestinian lives.

Antony Loewenstein is a Jerusalem-based, independent journalist, film-maker, author of My Israel Question and Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe and is currently writing a book on the global “war on drugs”, out in 2019. He has been reporting on Israel/Palestine since 2003.

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The Wire interview on Gaza death toll and US role in the Middle East

I was interviewed by The Wire news radio program yesterday:

The already fragile stability in the Middle East has been further affected in recent weeks, with the US Embassy move to Jerusalem and President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.

Overnight 55 Palestinian protesters were killed by Israeli forces in Gaza, coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Jewish state. This is the highest protest casualty rate in the region since 2014, and has some experts feeling that the US’s increased backing of Israel will lead to a more aggressive stance on neighbours such as Palestine and Syria.

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Reconciling the thoughts of a liberal on the Middle East

I’ve written a long essay/memoir in the latest edition of leading Australian literary journal, Meanjin, on Judaism, Israel/Palestine, human rights and modern identity.

My article is here: meanjinisraelessay

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Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters speaks on Palestine and the Middle East

Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters recently toured around Australia. One night in Melbourne he took the time to speak at a public event, in conversation with Palestinian writer Randa Abdel-Fattah and me, about politics, the media, Palestine and the Middle East. He appeared before a packed house at the Athanaeum Theatre and the video has just been released of the event, organised by the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network.

Short clips:

Roger Waters on Palestine – highlights from Aust Palestine Advocacy Network on Vimeo.

Full event:

Roger Waters on Palestine from Aust Palestine Advocacy Network on Vimeo.

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How Trump weaponised far-right/Israeli connections

In March 2016, MidEastWire published my investigation into the growing ties between Israel and the global far-right.

Newsweek Arabic has now re-published the story in Arabic, in its 3 February edition, and I’ve updated it one year into the Trump presidency:

newsweekarabic

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Israeli dissident journalist Gideon Levy speaks in Sydney

Gideon Levy is one of Israel’s most outspoken journalists. He’s been writing for decades in Israeli newspaper Haaretz about the devastating effects of the never-ending Israeli occupation of Palestine.

I first met Gideon in Tel Aviv in 2005 when I was researching my first book, My Israel Question.

Since then, he’s become an inspiration for daring to reveal the dark side of Israeli society and what it’s supporting in the West Bank and Gaza.

He recently toured Australia, and received extensive media coverage (on the public broadcaster ABC), and I was privileged to speak alongside him at Sydney University. It was one of the biggest Sydney Ideas events of the year, with nearly 500 people present.

My comments begin at 50:07 and then a Q&A with Gideon.

Here’s the audio:

And the video:

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The Wire interview on Trump moving US embassy to Jerusalem

US President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem is unsurprising and clarifying. It proves, once and for all, that Washington will only do the bidding of the Jewish state.

I was interviewed on Australian news program The Wire about the move:

Access and ownership of Jerusalem have been a hot issue for decades after its occupation by Israel. Peace talks have stalled multiple times and Donald Trump has thrown a spanner in the works once more.

The US President recently announced his intentions to move the US Embassy into Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. Which has caused condemnation from other political leaders and protests in the streets.  The consequences of his actions could be felt for years.

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Australia’s ambition to become global arms dealer

My major investigation in the Melbourne Age/Sydney Morning Herald on Australia’s surging defence industry:

This year’s Avalon Air Show in Geelong was the first chance for the public to see the long-delayed Joint Strike Fighter in action. At a cost of at least $100 million per aircraft, Canberra is slated to spend $17 billion on 72 F-35s in the coming years.

Manufacturer Lockheed Martin, the world’s biggest defence contractor, has faced countless problems with the plane including cost blowouts (spending more than $US1 trillion and counting), a Pentagon report in January finding 276 deficiencies (with 20 new issues discovered per month) and consistent troubles with overheating and cybersecurity. An Australian contractor on the aircraft was recently hacked, with sensitive material stolen.

None of this dampened the mood at Avalon. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, along with Defence Minister Marise Payne, Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne and Lockheed Martin CEO Marillyn Hewson, praised the plane and Australia’s growing defence sector.

“It is an example of how our defence industry plan is not simply securing our Air Force and our Army and our Navy with the capabilities they need to keep us safe in the 21st century,” Turnbull said. “It is driving the advanced manufacturing, the jobs, the advanced technology that Australians need to make sure our children and grandchildren have the opportunities in the years ahead.”

Billed as Australia’s premiere showcase of defence, civilian and aerospace equipment, sponsored by the world’s major defence companies such as BAE Systems, Raytheon, Thales, L3, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, along with Australia’s Department of Defence and the Victorian Labor government, this year was the largest in Avalon’s history, with over 210,000 people in attendance.

But away from Avalon’s glitzy surface, and its promotion of a family-friendly event to watch the world’s most sophisticated aircraft, is a darker reality. Australia’s defence sector has hugely expanded in  recent years with barely any public discussion, let alone debate in federal parliament.

It’s a nearly impossible task to discover exactly what Australia is selling and to whom because the federal government refuses to say, but nuggets of information make it clear that Canberra is aggressively selling weapons and defence equipment to countries involved in conflicts where human rights abuses are being perpetrated.

Australian Defence Magazine released figures in December 2016 that revealed the scope of the industry. The top 40 defence contractors, including top players BAE Systems Australia and Raytheon Australia, had an annual turnover of $10.384 billion, 11 per cent higher than 2015 and the biggest in the magazine’s 21-year history.

According to Amnesty International, in 2016 the world spent $US1.69 trillion on the military, with the US Pentagon issuing  $US304 billion in contracts to corporations including Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

But how transparent is Australia’s defence spending internationally? In December 2016, Christopher Pyne visited Saudi Arabia and met with senior members of the regime, including the head of the National Guard. A Freedom of Information (FOI) request, filed in April by the Australian group, The Medical Association for Prevention of War, found that Canberra was looking to expand the reach of its domestic defence sector and had no issue selling equipment with dual use (for either military or civilian purposes). The government refused to give a full list of companies accompanying Pyne.

Saudi Arabia is already the world’s second biggest purchaser of weapons. The Trump administration recently signed a $US350 billion arms deal with Riyadh for the next 10 years.

Saudi Arabia launched military action against Yemen’s Houthi rebels in 2015 and the humanitarian situation in what was already the poorest country in the Middle East has rapidly deteriorated. At least 10,000 civilians have been killed, cholera ravages millions of citizens and Saudi Arabia has been accused of committing war crimes by human rights groups. In October the UN included the kingdom on a blacklist for killing and injuring children (though the UN has previously backed down on similar steps under Saudi pressure).

Britain has refused to support a United Nations investigation into atrocities because it could affect trade and weapons sales and in July Britain’s High Court backed London’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia as legal. Charity War Child UK has claimed that British arms companies have earned more than £6 billion ($10.3 billion) from trade with Saudi Arabia since the Yemen conflict began (Holland banned such sales in 2016).

Australia has refused to condemn Saudi actions in Yemen. The heavily redacted FOI revealed that there was discussion during Pyne’s December trip of the Royal Saudi Naval Force eastern fleet expansion with a budget of $26 billion (Australian shipbuilder Austal accompanied Pyne on his visit), talk of the Tasmanian, Incat-designed and built aluminium catamaran damaged by a Houthi attack off the coast of Yemen in October 2016 and consultation about a future submarine program (though whose was not clear).

I asked the Australian Department of Defence for further information on any dealings with Saudi Arabia and was told that “Defence does not release the details of export approvals due to commercial-in-confidence restrictions. Exports of military equipment and technology to Saudi Arabia were assessed in line with Australian export control provisions.”

Then Greens senator Scott Ludlam was one of the only parliamentarians who questioned Australia’s dealings with Saudi Arabia. He told Fairfax Media that he could find nobody in the Labor Party to support his enquiries into Pyne’s trip.

Greens leader Richard Di Natale told me that he condemned Australia’s “military-industrial complex”: “Why promote Australia as a global arms dealer when we could be revitalising our manufacturing industry around new energy technology?”

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) is one of the world’s leading researchers on conflict and armaments. Its latest figures, for the period 2010-2016, showed ships as the biggest Australian export, along with aircraft, missiles and armoured vehicles. The list of customers included Papua New Guinea, Oman, the Philippines, India, Indonesia, Singapore and the United States.

I asked the Department of Defence to whom they were selling defence equipment. They said that no export licences were granted between January 2015 and the present day to Myanmar (currently engaged in ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, according to the UN), but during the same period dual-use equipment and technology was sold to the United Arab Emirates and Israel.

The UAE stands accused of committing abuses in Libya and Yemen while Israel has been condemned by the UN and human rights groups for war crimes in Gaza and the West Bank. An Australian intelligence company, iOmniscient, is selling surveillance equipment to the brutal Bahrain dictatorship. Canberra is already one of the world’s biggestimporters and exporters of small arms.

The federal government’s 2016 Defence White Paper outlined a $200 billion investment over the next 10 years. Canberra promotes its wares at events such as this year’s Defence and Security Equipment International conference in London, though protesters greeted the tens of thousands of participants.

Pyne said in July that his ambition was for Australia to “enormously increase that capacity and send a lot more weapons overseas to appropriate countries and appropriate places of course. We simply wouldn’t do so willy-nilly. We have a particular process for that.”

He says that current contracts are worth $200 billion in the coming years. That’s a massive expansion of defence exports from 2003/2004, when they amounted to just under $600 million.

The move was slammed by World Vision Australia chief Tim Costello, who questioned whether Australia should be “exporting death and profiting from bloodshed … Do we really want that to be what people think of when they see the brand ‘made in Australia’?”

The federal government states that export applications are granted against the following criteria: international obligations, human rights, regional security, national security and foreign policy. The government’s Global Supply Chain program gives exclusive access to Australian companies to enter into close commercial relationships with, and provide vital parts to, Lockheed Martin, Rheinmetall, Northrop Grumman, Thales, Boeing, BAE and Raytheon.

Some of these corporations have unprecedented access to decision making in the Trump administration, with the US President filling key roles in Homeland Security and the Pentagon with defence contractors. However, Barack Obama sold more weapons globally than any US commander-in-chief before him.

Australia’s ambition to expand its defence sector is intimately tied to the growth of the world’s biggest weapons companies on Australian soil, despite them being connected to some of the world’s major conflicts and controversies.

Thales is one of the biggest beneficiaries  of the European Union’s increasingly militarised border policies and Lockheed Martin is supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia. Lockheed Martin refused to answer my questions about its role in Australia despite its presence growing by the year (including the establishment of a research facility at the University of Melbourne, praised by Pyne).

But Australia’s goal of becoming a global weapons dealer may be futile. SIPRI’s senior researcher Siemon Wezeman has closely studied Australia’s defence policies and questions their stated aims.

“To be honest, I don’t see Australia becoming a major arms exporter in any near future,” he told me. “The list of exports in the last decade gives not the greatest reasons to be optimistic about exports of major weapons from Australia, the more so since the new-produced weapons listed are not very advanced and are not niche weapons. Australia has no comparative advantage and many other countries produce or can produce them cheaper.”

Wezeman stresses that Australia has made decisions to largely “cater for its own needs, largely now as subsidiaries of foreign companies, which works nicely if the government wants to spend its money in Australia (even if that may be not 100 per cent cost-effective).” He sees China, South Korea, Turkey, Japan and Singapore elbowing out Australia on the world stage because of their industrial, political and military connections.

In his seminal 2011 book on the global arms trade The Shadow World, journalist Andrew Feinstein exposes the fallacies of a nation’s expanding defence sector. “The arms industry’s economic contribution is undermined by the frequency with which its main players around the world, Lockheed Martin, BAE, Boeing, Northrop Grumman … are implicated in grand corruption, inefficiency and wastage of public resources,” he wrote.

Feinstein concludes that the arms trade “often makes us poorer, not richer, less not more safe, and governed not in our own interests but for the benefit of a small, self-serving elite, seemingly above the law, protected by the secrecy of national security and accountable to no one”.

Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, filmmaker, author of Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastropheand is currently working on a book about the global war on drugs.

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ABCTV Lateline interview on Israel/Palestine

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten travelled to Israel this week to “celebrate” the 100-year anniversary of Beersheba and the Balfour Declaration. Palestine was barely on the agenda. After living in East Jerusalem for the last 1.5 years, I was interviewed for Lateline by ABC TV reporter Michael Vincent on the grim reality in Palestine:

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Sydney Ideas talk on Israel/Palestine and realities in the West Bank and Gaza

In September, I spoke at Sydney University alongside US academic Mark LeVine and Palestinian academic Lana Tatour on the realities in today’s Palestine/Israel. Many interesting comments and my thoughts (after living in East Jerusalem for the last 1.5 years) start at 1:00:26:

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ABC TV The Drum on refugees, boycotting Australia and Israel/Palestine

This week I appeared on ABC TV’s The Drum talking about Australia’s awful refugee policies, Israel/Palestine and the Israel lobby’s pernicious attacks on anybody who dares challenge the Jewish state:

The show has gone viral. One clip, of fellow journalist John Lyons and I talking about the Zionist lobby’s pressuring of critical voices, has been watched nearly 100,000 times (and growing fast). It’s received international attention.

Back in 2014, I argued in The Guardian that Australia should suffer a sports boycott due to its illegal asylum seeker policies. I made the same point on this TV show and many people, with a few notable exceptions, welcomed the idea. Australian legal academic Dr Amy McGuire wrote a story in The Conversation around the issue.

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How do we escape our filter bubbles?

We live in an age of filter bubbles. I’ve been commissioned by Germany’s Goethe Institute to discuss these issues online for the next month alongside Austrian journalist Robert Misik. Here’s the first entry that is distributed in 160 nations around the world (here’s the German version):

Once upon a time there were hopes that the Internet would democratize social discourse – but today the talk is mainly about fake news and filter bubbles whenever the subject turns to the question of how digitization influences politics. What can journalists do to regain the trust that has been lost? And what can ordinary people do to engage to a greater extent in discussions with one another again? Over the next few weeks, this will be debated here by the journalists Robert Misik from Austria and Antony Loewenstein from Australia. Their digital correspondence is postage-free – and open to all, so join in the discussion and give your opinion! Contradict! Ask questions! You can take part using the comments field on this page, or on Twitter using the hashtag #freepost. Geraldine de Bastion, who is chairing the debate, will contribute your comments to the exchange.

Geraldine de BastionPhoto: Roger von Heereman / Konnektiv

Geraldine de Bastion: 4 December 2009 marked a paradigm shift on the Internet, as it was on this day that Google began creating personal profiles for every user and individually filtering search results. Internet activist Eli Pariser described this as the start of an “era of personalization”, coining the term “filter bubble” for it in his book Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You.

This growing individualization is evident when we are presented with personalized advertising – and indeed when we use supposedly neutral tools such as search engines to navigate our way through the information medium number one; tools we have to use because otherwise the Internet would be simply impenetrable.

“Customized services” are omnipresent. Rather than being an encyclopaedia of world events, the Internet is more reminiscent of a special interest paper. In our social media profiles too, which should really be connecting rather than isolating us, we find ourselves faced initially with a kind of “one-way mirror”, as Eli Pariser describes it in his book. By watching what we click, algorithms learn more and more about us, and we get increasingly entangled in our own personal bias online: when surfing the web, users only see stuff that matches their profile, their worldviews and their convictions.

Some critics of this theory claim that the filter bubble is not a purely digital phenomenon, and that it is intrinsic in all of us from the start. We view the world through our own particular glasses, surround ourselves with like-minded people and read only things that confirm our own opinions.

So how do you perceive your filter bubble, online and offline? And do filter bubbles in fact exist at all?

 

Robert MisikPhoto: Helena Wimmer

Robert Misik: Of course filter bubbles exist. That is not something that requires any discussion – it is rather a question of interpretation: do the filter bubbles in digital communication enclose and confine us to a greater extent than would otherwise be the case? If this is the question to be addressed, the situation is already more complicated. Modern societies are comprised of a large number of subgroups that differ from one another in terms of their ways of life, political persuasions, personal styles and so on. We have inner city dwellers, working class urban districts, middle classes in the suburbs, the super-rich in their favoured areas, big cities, small towns, villages … The people who live in these various sub-communities also have little contact with those in other sub-communities in real life – and when they do have contact, it tends rather to be on a superficial level.

Digital communication, be it in social networks, forums or other online media, reinforces this logic on the one hand while breaking with it on the other. Reinforced in the sense that, assuming we fit into the patchwork of a community with a particular set of opinions, we will find ourselves inundated with ever more messages that reinforce this community’s prevailing opinions. This entrenches our views and gives us tunnel vision. Yet that is of course only one side of the truth. We can see the opinions of others on a daily basis in the social media and forums – where we are confronted with attitudes that we might otherwise not even notice. That is something that is often overlooked when we talk about filter bubbles.

 

Antony LoewensteinPhoto: Reuben Brand

Antony Loewenstein: A key deficiency of modern society is lack of empathy for the underprivileged, a disease caused by experiencing our daily lives in a bubble. Too often what we read and don’t see online and what we hear and experience in our real lives reduces our ability to relate to others who look or sound different to us. It’s tempting to hate refugees coming from the Middle East or Africa if you feel economic and racial insecurity and are told by your trusted newspaper, TV host or friend that you should fear the “other” because they’re worsening your personal situation. Resisting this impulse requires widening what you consume and consider on a daily basis. This tendency existed before the rise of the internet and social media but it’s now easier to find your own tribe online.

I’ve experienced this in my own work. When I visit Gaza as a journalist and tell people that I don’t feel threatened as a Jew by locals or the Islamist government, the instant reaction is often suspicion because the media has fed a line for decades that Palestinians are inherently violent and Muslims want to kill all Jews. This lie can only be challenged by constantly explaining the truth and showing the fallacy of the position.

The rise of Donald Trump, Brexit and rampant nationalism in Europe, the US and Australia has made me spend even more time reading, listening and reporting on the movements that caused these political earthquakes. Contemptuously dismissing Trump won’t make his supporters disappear. I don’t personally know any Trump or Brexit voters, and nor do I associate with white nationalists who loathe Islam, but I’m drawn to exploring why many people are.

UPDATE: Week two’s question: What has been your experience: how can we seek and conduct constructive discourse outside the filter bubble?

My answer:

Living and working outside our own filter bubbles requires us to first acknowledge that our own positions are inherently biased and should be challenged. I proudly call myself a liberal and yet I constantly feel disillusioned with the superiority expressed by ‘my side’ in political debates.

Take the 2003 Iraq war, arguably the most consequential conflict of the 21st century. Countless journalists, commentators and supposedly serious politicians around the world backed the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq, including many progressively-minded people. They were catastrophically wrong and yet virtually none of these individuals have paid any political or career price for their hubris. Many of the same faces are now advocating the bombing of Syria, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan. What this seminal experience taught me was that we need to question our own ‘side’ first, online and in person, while also disputing the mistruths and bigotry of our opponents.

Truth-telling can be powerful. If Wikileaks had existed in 2003, and it published the conversations of George W. Bush and Tony Blair conspiring and lying about the Iraq war, would the war have been stopped before it even begin?

The election of Donald Trump fills me with dread but I’m not suddenly more concerned about ‘fake news’ today than 15 years ago. Social media has undeniably fuelled our ability to feel connected and insulated from views we don’t want to hear but I’m far more worried about group think when it comes to questions of war and peace and the millions of lives that have been lost in the name of national security and fighting terrorism since 9/11.

We should aim to conduct constructive and insightful conversations with everybody online, personal abuse should be avoided, but it’s the height of arrogance to believe that only we have facts on our side and others, like Trump, Brexit or Marine Le Pen supporters, are all delusional.

UPDATE: Week three question: Do we need new tools to secure a digital agora?

UPDATE: Week four question: What would your demands be [for greater media education and diversity]?

We are drowning in public relations. Journalism is suffering. According to a recent study in the US, 15 years ago there were two PR people for every reporter in the nation. Today there are 4.8 PR people for every reporter. The result is that the general public is too often bombarded with press releases as “news” because there are too few journalists to analyse and investigate current events.

One way to address this worrying shift is for greater public funding into a wide range of journalistic endeavours but government-sponsored press isn’t the only solution. Escaping our filter bubbles must begin at a young age.

Universities and schools, starting at kindergarten, should emphasize media literacy and stress the importance of accountable and adversarial journalism. A healthy mantra to be repeated time and again is the famous expression by journalist Claud Cockburn: “Never believe anything until it’s officially denied.”

Scepticism of all government and business claims is a healthy way to assess the news of the day. Don’t simply trust journalists because they’re in positions of privilege; they should earn it by producing work that enhances our understanding of society and brings empathy to the silenced or forgotten.

Despite the proliferation of social media in the last decade, personal contact with people is arguably still far more powerful in changing minds than re-tweeting a thought or sharing a Facebook post. Talk to people with differing views, attend talks with writers and politicians with whom you vehemently disagree and spend less time online.

Finally, some tips for healthy living: enjoy the sun, read a book, have a meal with a friend and don’t always Instagram what food you’re eating.

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