3 Apr 2019

Mediawatch Midweek: Guns, God and algorithms

From Mediawatch, 8:00 pm on 3 April 2019
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Photo: CAA Facebook

"If life puts a Goliath in your path, God wants you to find the David within...' Those words appeared on my Facebook feed earlier this week with a video by Pastor Baret Fawbush extolling the virtues of the Stock for Glock 19 - a device that converts a handgun to a semi-automatic rifle.

God knows what it was doing my on my Facebook feed - and you'd need to be omnipotent to fully understand the algorithms behind Facebook's selection - but my guess is it popped up as a result of some searches I'd been doing after watching Al Jazeera's two part documentary: How to sell a massacre.

Facebook itself has concerns about some of the content shared by Pastor Fawbush. The post directly before the Stock for Glock video was a screenshot of an earlier post that has been removed by Facebook because it was "against our community standards."

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Photo: Facebook: screen shot

The post was a notice for an upcoming event at the Old Union Christian Church in Poseyville, Indiana where those attending could "demo hundreds of pistols" - with the option of BYO bullets or buying them on site. And there will be gun raffles with proceeds going to Gun Owners of America.

More than a week after Fawbush circumvented Facebook's community standards by taking a screenshot of his original post - including Facebook's message telling him it had been removed - and re-posting it, it's still on his feed. It's been shared 26 times - the demonstration of the Stock for Glock 19, which Facebook itself posted on my time-line, has been shared 204,000 times and commented on 46,000 times.

It's anyone's guess why Facebook's algorithm finds one of the posts objectionable and the other worthy of sharing. And the fact that its algorithm can be fooled by a simple screenshot suggests Facebook's policing of its own "community standards" is incredibly lax. 

It seems for some Americans at least, God and guns are a marriage that go together like a horse and carriage.

In part 2 of How to sell a massacre the NRA's Catherine Mortensen is captured on a hidden camera telling One Nation's chief of staff James Ashby and the leader of its Queensland branch, Steve Dickson, that:

The right to protect and defend yourself is recognised by the constitution but it didn't come from the constitution.  The constitution guarantees it but it comes from God. If you're a person in Australia you share that right. It's a God given right.

The Al Jazeera documentary is truly revealing and its use of hidden cameras provide a rare insider's view of members of both the US gun lobby and the One Nation party at their most brazen. But a quick Google search reveals video after video that are as disturbing as anything in How to sell a massacre.

Youtube video reviews of the AR 15 - the mass shooter's gun of choice - rack up hundreds of thousands of views. There's a jokey, boy's own quality to much of the commentary.

"Meet the DDM 4 V1 from Daniel Defence. The DDM 4 V1 sounds like a vacuum cleaner created by Bill Gates. Why couldn't it have been called The Indestructible? And in case you haven't heard this is the infamous torture test rifle. Where they did everything in their power to try to kill the damn thing but it wouldn't die."

The ethics of the Al Jazeera three-year investigation and its use of hidden cameras is dividing critics. Former Al Jazeera reporter Peter Greste - now a professor of journalism at the University of Queensland is among those who think it crossed a line. He told the New York Times that the reporter brokering a meeting with the One Nation party was unacceptable.

“We are supposed to be observers to the news, not participants,” he said. “It’s inappropriate for journalists to become parts of the story the way they clearly did in this case,” Greste, who spent three years in an Egyptian prison for his reporting, told the NYT.

In contrast lawyer Michael Bradly writing on Crikey argued no laws had been broken and public interest justified the subterfuge.

"Ashby and his friend were seriously trying to shop Australia’s gun laws and democracy to the most genuinely evil coalition of interests in the world. It gets no worse, from the perspective of Australian public safety and social cohesion, than the NRA and the weirdos of the American far-right. Their beliefs are perverted and their money is pure poison."

Andrew Dodd, director for the Centre for Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne, was another who felt Al Jazeera was justified in its decision to use hidden cameras.

He told the New York Times that a scene in the documentary where the NRA discusses its social media strategy illustrated why it was clearly in the public interest. “You see a glimpse of truth in that moment that you couldn’t get in a two hour debate."

And that strategy could now be at play in New Zealand. New Zealand Herald data journalist Keith Ng crunched the numbers on Twitter and found that in the 12 days after the terrorist attack in Christchurch there had been nearly 9000 tweets about gun control in New Zealand, retweeted almost 90,000 times in total.

Economist Brian Easton writing on Pundit scoffeed at the idea that the gun lobby was responsible for New Zealand's lax gun laws.

"It is easy to blame the procrastination on the gun lobby, giving it a power akin to the American National Rifle Association. What nonsense!"

With no second amendment in New Zealand, Easton said politicians had none of the obstacles faced in the USA but proved to be spineless when it came to implementing the recommendations of the Thorpe Report commissioned in the wake of Australia's Port Arthur massacre.

And there were plenty of stories and editorials in the media warning of the dangers of lax gun laws.

In 2016 Stuff ran a story under the headline: "Mass shooting in New Zealand 'inevitable' without action on gun laws, MPs warned."

Waikato University law professor Al Gillespie was quoted as saying :The risk of a mass shooting in New Zealand was growing due to the threat from right-wing and religious terrorists, along with "lone wolf" attacks as seen in Europe and the United States.

Bougainville: Locking the guns away

When we think of a country in our region that has successfully rid itself of military-style weapons we invariably think of Australia. But in someways the story of Bougainville - a province of Papua New Guinea - is even more striking.

In 1989 a civil war broke out between the Bougainivillean Revolutionary Army and the PNG government resulting in the death of up to 20,000 people.

Last week RNZ Pacific's Don Wiseman wrote a piece on the upcoming referendum to decide whether Bougainville becomes independent. The story hasn't been covered anywhere else but that could change with premiere of a new documentary on Thursday night.

Soldiers without Guns tells the story of the civil war and New Zealand's part in bringing it to an end.

RNZ journalist Kirsten Johnstone spoke to the film's director Will Watson and Fiona Cassidy an army major and public relations officer who was stationed in Bougainville.

The news rap

The most recent edition of Al Jazeera's weekly media programme, The Listening Post, featured a story on the vital part hip hop played in last month's election in Senegal. 

Politicians compete for the endorsement of the country's rappers - and there's nothing unusual in political parties seeking the backing of celebrities but the hip hop influence goes further than just endorsements. Two of the countries best known hip hop artists,  Keyti and Xuman, present Journal Rappe - a weekly news bulletin that rhymes from beginning to end in French, English and the indigenous language Wolof.

Turns out it was launched six years ago and the Colombia Journalism Review reported in 2017 that it had 45,000 listeners a week and covered everything from politics, religion and education to homosexuality - a particularly controversial topic in Senegal apparently.