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Fake news – a global concern

Last March 4, the BBC reported on the joint declaration regarding fake news, disinformation and propaganda by Mr. David Kaye (UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression) and his counterparts from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Organisation of American States (OAS) and African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR).

After some minutes of flicking and clicking online, I got into one of the United Nations’ websites which I thought would shed more light on this declaration. Someone from the Special Procedures Division of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights responded promptly to my request for a copy of the declaration.

This declaration focuses on concerns about fake news and the risk of censorship while trying to combat these. It, likewise, mentions the danger in which the growing prevalence of fake news or disinformation, fuelled by both State and non-State individuals and agencies, mislead citizens and interfere with people’s right to know the truth. Charter 6, the last section, says “All stakeholders – including intermediaries, media outlets, civil society and academia – should be supported in developing participatory and transparent initiatives for creating a better understanding of the impact of disinformation and propaganda on democracy, freedom of expression, journalism and civic space, as well as appropriate responses to these phenomena.”

Last month, you most probably heard about the much publicised video of a female cyclist responding to catcalls from men in a van by chasing them and destroying their vehicle’s wing mirror. This was posted on Facebook then by the media; several of them later updated their stories calling it as a hoax or fake.
How to recognise fake news?

Publishing or reporting fake news undermines the trustworthiness of the media as a whole. But, why are some media outlets and journalists not careful and thorough with their information?

Facts and information take more time, effort and money to produce than entertainment-style reporting. Even well-known major media organisations use entertainment model to gain maximum audience and profits.

The onus, therefore, is for us – the consumers (readers, listeners, audiences) to decide whether we want to be informed or entertained. If our goal is the former; firstly, we should find out about the source of the information (i.e. do we recognise the author or publisher)? Are there supporting materials or reports from credible sources, i.e. has it been reported elsewhere? Most importantly, let’s be more questioning and less accepting, such as thinking about underlying purposes or intentions of the story and its source (e.g. income from ad platforms, political gain or propaganda).
Why are fake news believable?

Stories are attention getter (e.g. outlandish, involving famous people) and disseminated to meet specific agenda, but not really to inform factually. As well, often their formats and sources resemble those of reputable media outlets. According to the U.S. News & World Report (https://www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2016-11-14/avoid-these-fake-news-sites-at-all-costsPrdicker@usnews.com.ublication), these news outlets produce fake news: The Onion (satire), The Borowitz Report – The New Yorker (satire), American News (hoax), Daily Buzz Live (propaganda) and World Truth TV (propaganda).

Why should we be vigilant about fake news?
According to research results by Zubiaga, Arkaitz; et al. (PLOS ONE, 2016. doi: 10.1371/journal), “Whilst one can readily see users denying rumors once they have been debunked, users appear to be less capable of distinguishing true from false rumors when their veracity remains in question.” As well, “highly reputable users such as news organizations endeavor to post well-grounded statements, which appear to be certain and accompanied by evidence. Nevertheless, these often prove to be unverified pieces of information that give rise to false rumors.”

Though we may know that it’s a fake news, we (human beings) have the tendency to remember this because of its entertaining element that interests and abets processing.

False news influences beliefs, attitudes and actions; therefore, can lead to fears, conflicts and loss of job/family/friends/belongings. It divides and destabilises communities and society as a whole.

For instance, fake news about crimes committed by illegal entrants and refugees, such as the reported rape in Germany that led to street protests (although Germany’s government officials debunked it quickly), undermine peace and the country’s refugee and humanitarian programme.
When it comes to our decisions and actions, there’s no short cut or substitute for facts and truths. Thus, we should always go for reports that have in depth analyses and are professionally-generated.

*(The prefix dis indicates reversal while mis means wrong or erroneous. Misinformation is a form of disinformation that is disseminated intentionally to mislead or confuse).

Carnival here and there

This week, 9 of my acquaintances are on holiday or have taken days off from work to participate in carnival activities. One of them lives in Binche, Belgium, where every year during the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday (i.e. today) there are street performances, dancing and merry making. The Shrove Tuesday’s parade includes the throwing or giving away of oranges to spectators by the Gilles – famous participants colourfully dressed with wax masks, ostrich-feathered hats and wooden footwear. The oranges are considered to bring good luck because they are a gift from the Gilles and it is an insult to throw or give them back. (Shrove Tuesday is also known as Mardi Gras, Pancake Day or ‘Fat Tuesday’ in French as it’s the last night of eating rich and fatty food before fasting during Lent, which is 40 days before Easter).

According to http://www.carnivalpower.com/history_of_carnival.htm, the Catholics in Italy started the tradition of holding a wild costume festival right before the first day of Lent Because Catholics are not supposed to eat meat during Lent, they called their festival, carnevale — which means “to put away the meat.” As time passed by, carnivals in Italy became quite famous; and the practice spread to France, Spain and all Catholic countries in Europe.

Two years ago, I was at the Notting Hill carnival in London and it had a fully Caribbean flare with lots of feathers, and I have since found out that in Africa feathers are used in masks and headdresses as a symbol of humans’ ability to overcome problems, pains, illness and difficulties. I’m certain you’ve heard a lot about the spectacular carnival bonanza in Brazil and Trinidad & Tobago, and the lavish Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans, Sydney, Venice and other cities.

During my early days in Luxembourg when I read everything from billboard notices to free newspapers, I remember seeing something like “You haven’t lived in Luxembourg properly or fully until you’ve sampled the country’s magnificent array of carnival processions and parties.” Indeed, in Luxembourg, carnival is a serious and month-long celebration with various Luxembourgish associations organising a host of festive events and cavalcades (tradition that goes back to 1870); and February 27 was a no-work day in some companies.

During the carnival period, people enjoy tasty doughnuts, pancakes and other local specialities, such as knots of pastry sprinkled with icing sugar (Verwurrelt Gedanken) and small cakes made of scalded pastry (Stretzegebäck).

I did make some pancakes last weekend. As well, I was in a fancy-dress party organised beautifully by a lovely Polish-French couple, which included games, dancing that lasted till dawn and devouring on bigos (made of cabbage) and faworki ‘Angel wings’ (a yolk-base dough well aerated, kneaded then fried in deep oil, which are traditionally eaten on the last Thursday of the carnival).

Often, we hear about disorders and drunkenness that result from carnival festivities. Generally, however, there are more ups than downs: they liven up arts and cultures, vitalise local economy, provide employment and attract tourists. They encourage community spirit (e.g. one of my students serves as a volunteer First Aid personnel in his German-speaking hometown in Belgium); social integration; self-esteem; optimism and happiness. They also provide opportunities for authorities to showcase their organisational skills in terms of security, safety, transport, etc.

If you want to go beyond the carnival atmosphere, check the following local and world events in March: concerts and shows in your towns and cities, Water-Drawing Festival in Japan, Festival of Colour in India and Nepal, Bali Spirit Festival in Indonesia and Semana Santa in Mexico.

Our brains adapt and change

I hope 2017 has started well for you and your loved ones. I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions but believe that there’s always a room for improvement. So, in any day of any month, I try to deal with my faults and weaknesses. These imperfections make me wake up in the morning wanting to do something better than yesterday.

As you can see on the above photograph, I got a trophy 3 weeks ago for finishing 2nd among adult female participants at a chess tournament in Marange-Silvange, a commune 20 km from where I live in Moselle department in north-eastern France. From time to time, I join this kind of competition because it makes my avid-chess playing son happy and proud of his mum. As well, I find the atmosphere festive amid rivalry characterised by fair play, respect and camaraderie.

What pleases me most is watching children, as young as 5 years old, sitting for some time thinking, analysing and making decisions which pieces to move to corner their opponents’ Kings. For me, all players are winners because they learn and exercise discipline, accept or manage their wins and losses, and try to improve their future performances. Furthermore, spending a Saturday or Sunday afternoon playing and socialising is more productive, with long-term benefits, than being a couch potato — which is likely when the outside temperature is -5°C.

Though there’s been a widespread use of computer and video games, Internet entertainment and online socialising, individuals and families still get involved in group activities. According to http://www.therichest.com/rich-list/most-popular/the-top-10-most-sold-board-games-ever), the following are the most popular board games ever: 1. Chess 2. Checkers 3. Backgammon 4. Scabble 5. Monopoly 6. Clue (or Cluedo) 7. Othello 8. Trivial Pursuit 9. Pictionary and 10. Risk.

Except for Clue and Othello, I’ve played them all; and when I was at university my favourite was Scabble which was responsible for my many sleepless nights. During the first decade of my professional life, I used to play Risk with 2 close male friends who either tried to persuade me to form an alliance to get rid of the other player or accused me of being unfair for showing leniency to the other.

On the other hand, except for a few hours of self defense lesson required by my father and membership to a local gym, I’ve never been in any sports club or group. Sometimes I play lawn tennis with my family and bowling a few times a year, and wish I could ski.

As you probably know, football (US ‘soccer’) is the most played sports in the world. Cricket and field hockey come next then tennis, volleyball, table tennis, baseball, golf and basketball. (http://www.mostpopularsports.net)

Whether you are a board game or sport enthusiast, you are doing something that helps develop or strengthen your mind as these activities train you to be patient and resilient in the face of difficulty or inconvenience. Likewise, being with other people widens your social network that can also have a flow-on effect on your professional life; and of course, it entertains you that has positive psychological and health benefits. It’s never too late to start a leisure activity or hobby, and why not a board game? Most towns and cities have local clubs that welcome new members.

I’d spoken with many chess players during tournaments and they told me that they started playing at home with their relatives or friends (or friends of friends) during family gatherings, through encouragement by teachers and classmates, watching the game or sport live on TV/movie/online, and living near the club or tournament.

Whatever game or sport we decide to do, let’s bear in mind that, as Dr. Doidge has said, not all activities are equal. “Those that involve genuine concentration—studying a musical instrument, playing board games, reading, and dancing—are associated with a lower risk for dementia. Dancing, which requires learning new moves, is both physically and mentally challenging and requires much concentration. Less intense activities, such as bowling, babysitting, and golfing, are not associated with a reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s.” (Dr. Norman Doidge is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, researcher and author at the University of Toronto’s Department of Psychiatry and New York’s Columbia University’s Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research).

Dr. Doidge has also said that “The brain is a far more open system than we ever imagined, and nature has gone very far to help us perceive and take in the world around us. It has given us a brain that survives in a changing world by changing itself.” (http://www.azquotes.com/author/18876-Norman_Doidge).

PS:My website was down for a while for reasons unknown to me, and it took a few days to fix it.Our brains adapt and change

Surprises, wonders and hope

Happy New Year!

December 2016 was an unusual Christmas for me because I had received an unexpected, generous gift from someone who’s not a friend or relative. When I opened the envelope, I thought it was handed to me by mistake, so the next time I saw her I tried to return it. With the sweetest smile, she said “it’s not a mistake, it’s for you from Santa.” A week later, I still couldn’t believe and accept such a present. What did I do to deserve such kindness? This act of generosity propelled me to do the same, and I was even more blessed. I was so joyful to see the sparkling eyes of contentment and happiness of those I shared my blessings with.

The year 2016 has just ended, and it’s quite a challenge trying to find words to describe it. It has been a tough year for several people whose friendship I value (i.e. losing parents and family members, colleagues, etc.) This reminds me, as in other gloomy situations, that I should not neglect my family and friends, and be greatly grateful for what I’ve.

As well, I should look at the glass half full, and not half empty, even in surprisingly polarising events, such as Brexit in the UK and Donald Trump’s election as the US president. The situation in Syria’s Aleppo is dehumanising and unbearable, and how can peace and security be restored there? Last month’s terrorist attacks in Europe and the Middle East resulted in the loss of many lives, which have contributed significantly to making the fear of migrants and refugees even worse. Consequently, insecurity in many facets and from different directions besets our society. On the other hand, there were inspiring events last year that have left a positive imprint, such as the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro with its Refugee Team (the first time in its history).

What could we have done better in 2016? There are things that we definitely can’t undo, however, these can serve as hard-earned lessons to be a good or better person. I won’t seek for perfection as “One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply doesn’t exist…..Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist” (Stephen William Hawking – born 8 January 1942, English theoretical physicist, cosmologist and author who has a rare early-onset, slow-progressing form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and uses a speech-generating device to communicate).

But, I’m persuaded that the following actions can make life more fun, fulfilling and challenging:

If you’re not happy with today, do something about it (i.e. willing to change).
Bury experiences that make you angry.
Be honest: the truth is easier to remember. The so called ‘white lies’ or an economised truths distort and can cause emotional pain to others.
Cultivate or have a sense of gratitude.
Stop making excuses and blaming others.
Avoid being cynical and defensive.
There are always two sides to every story, so listen to both.
Forgive
(What else?)

The above statements are easier written (said) than done; however, they are worth giving a go. If we don’t succeed the first time, let’s try again and again.

May you experience lots of love, joy, peace and good health in 2017 and beyond.
Take care!

Language, identity and global necessity

Language is a cultural, political and economic tool, and English has shown great success in this domain. The spread of English internationally has been aided and abetted by the advancement in technology, forging of international organisations, and bare economic and political necessities. On the other hand, languages have been (and can be) taken over by one which is spoken by those from an economically, politically and socially dominant nation.

People who speak English as a second language do so because either they want or are obliged to (it is imposed from the outside). These days, they represent more than two-thirds of English speakers in the world, and the distinction between native and non-native speakers is not that significant anymore.

In the Philippines, for example, English is used in government, private and public dealings. Although Tagalog is the official language, English is the medium of instruction in schools and universities and is used lavishly in the mass media. This country was a Spanish colony for more than 300 years; however, it’s the Americans who have had the recent influence on its culture. Its proximity to Australia – another native English speaking country – has been a convenience. In the Asia-Pacific region, the Philippines has the largest population of English-speaking inhabitants (over 102 millions).

The majority of this year’s Eurovision songs were in English. Even the winning title by Jamala of Ukraine has more English than Tatar words. For the first time, Spain’s entry was also in English which aroused criticisms from its Royal Academy of Spanish Language (RAE), the official body that oversees language use. The French entry was also mainly performed in English. (In Eurovision’s earlier days, contests were dominated by francophone nations – e.g. France, Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg & Monaco – and by entries in French). These days, contestants believe that English gives them a better chance to win because it is more widely understood than other languages; as well, successful songs have English lyrics.

Language is part of our identity, i.e. we identify and communicate with each other through it. Without language, a society and its culture do not have strong and unifying foundation upon which to exist. It is sad that sometimes this identity is sacrificed in favour of financial gain and/or career ambition.
Bilingualism or multiculturalism is definitely advantageous, particularly to access job and education, improve relationships or open opportunities. What is disconcerting is putting aside our native language (heritage) in favour of another; for example, parents insisting on their children to speak only the language of their new country or place of residence. Without practice, the ability to speak a language (native or acquired) gradually vanishes.

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the most spoken languages in the world are Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, Hindi and Arabic. The BBC (www.bbc.co.uk.languages seen 30/05/16) has reported that there are 7,000 different languages in the world; 90% of these are spoken by less than 100,000 individuals; of which 2,200 are in Asia and only 260 in Europe.

Sadly, many of these languages (e.g. Romani in Europe, Austral in French Polynesia and Native American Hupa) are disappearing, which has global consequences. Reports published by UNESCO have expressed concerns that if nothing is done, half of the languages spoken today won’t exist anymore by the end of this century; and with their disappearance, humanity would lose cultural wealth and ancestral knowledge embedded in indigenous languages. This is an absolute worry because local knowledge, which is mainly transmitted orally, is linked to timeless wisdom on health, wellbeing and biodiversity (i.e. their wise understanding of the environment can be lost during the change in language).

Therefore, there is an urgent need for well-planned and implemented policies on maintaining or revitalising mother tongues and pass these on to younger generations. Every small effort in this regard is an extra mile. UNESCO’s “Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger” is a useful guide in monitoring the status of endangered languages and creating awareness on the need to safeguard the world’s linguistic diversity. On individual level, let’s continue teaching and speaking with our children and family our native language as this is a heritage issue and not a hindrance to life’s success.

*********

At 5am on 14 November 2015, I was awaken by a phone call from Australia. My sister was so relieved that none of my family and friends was in Paris. My brother-in-law continued the conversation with information on deaths and damages unfolding on their television screen the whole day.

We were in Luxembourg that Friday evening watching Spectre, and as soon as we got home at 11pm we went to bed oblivious to the terrorist attacks in the city of lights, where my first son was born and I resided for 2 years. Though we don’t live in Paris any more, I’m affected by this insecure state and threats of terrorism, which I had never seen in my life before. Last week, one of my students was at the funeral of his cousin’s son who was one of the Bataclan victims. For 2 weeks now, I’ve been coming home late, missing dinner with my family as it takes 2 hours to get home due to traffic jams and security checks. These days, I spend more time commuting than teaching.

Terrorism threatens our existence and that of the civilised world. This has ramifications on every aspect of our society: psychological (limit our activities & choices/create fear), political (e.g. State resources are redirected from social development to security measures), social (relationships are redefined, suspicions arise, and stereotypes prevails) and economic (increased expenditures on health and security; loss of income – e.g. shops in Brussels were deserted last November 21-22).

As the saying goes “If it doesn’t kill us, if will only make us stronger,” and this is exactly what our democratic world has become. There has been an outpouring of support and solidarity. This write-up is my contribution to ensuring that such support and solidarity continue even after families and friends have buried their loved ones and the injured have left their hospital beds.

Solidarity is best described as a fellowship due to common or shared feelings, interests, purposes and responsibilities. Thinking about solidarity, I was reminded of my undergrad lecture more than 3 decades ago on Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917), a French-born academic who’s known as the Father of Sociology. He put forward the concept of mechanical and organic solidarities. In the former, people have common values and beliefs (i.e. they have the same jobs and responsibilities) that constitute to a collective conscience leading to cooperation between individual members of the group or community. In the latter, there is specialisation of tasks (division of labour) so the society is more secular and individualistic hence people rely on each other to achieve and maintain unity.

Yes, we depend on each other to keep our world safe and democratic – i.e. solidarity. There is a need to intensify our efforts to stay connected to people in our neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces. We must be proactive in dealing with friendly and hostile encounters, especially within a diverse and multicultural environment. As well, let’s not forget that poverty, ignorance or misinformation, discrimination, absence of communication, lack of political will (or their opposites) contribute to the kind of society we have and leave for future generations.

There are enormous examples of individual and group solidarity. « Je suis Paris » was written on t-shirts, walls and banners in many countries, and some individuals have collected money to help the families of victims.

Likewise, there are commemorations, fund-raising events and social/political gatherings (e.g. last week’s Domestic Violence Day and Climate Talks in Paris) when we can give support beyond monetary terms. We shouldn’t wait for the loss of lives, natural disasters, accidents or gloomy situations to demonstrate solidarity. Every day we are faced with circumstances and people that provide us with the opportunity to show sympathy, cooperation and a sense of humanity.

I would like to take this opportunity to wish you a peaceful and happy festive season. This is my last article in 2015, and I hope that there have been more ups than downs in your life this year.