Breaking down news: Fighting words

Shalini Langer
And perhaps there is a need for a counter-narrative, because Khan s tweet freaked out the Twitter AI. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

At the SAARC meet in New York on Thursday, while all eyes were on Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi s refusal to share space, time and breathable air with his Indian counterpart, a more fruitful meeting was in progress elsewhere in the city. ARY News and Dawn, among other Pakistani media, reported on a trilateral meet between Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, to develop a counter-narrative to Islamophobia. The three countries will jointly promote a TV channel and films to set the record straight.

Khan tweeted: President Erdogan, PM Mahatir (sic) and myself had a meeting today in which we decided our 3 countries would jointly start an English language channel dedicated to confronting the challenges posed by Islamophobia and setting the record straight on our great religion Islam. Another propaganda channel. But why not? Here in India, Mrs Gandhi created one to perpetuate her rule. The BJP launched one only for the duration of the last general election. The Kremlin has its own. This is the old normal.

And perhaps there is a need for a counter-narrative, because Khan s tweet freaked out the Twitter AI. It hustled to do its stuff, blanking out the tweet and flagging it: This media may contain sensitive material. Such hypersensitivity reflects either its programmers prejudices, or it has learned far too much from the data in the angry little boil that social media has become, where Islam and Islamophobia can be read as fighting words.

Fighting words were also heard last week from climate activist Greta Thunberg in a Congressional hearing in the US. Then, the world applauded her for her maturity in drawing attention to what climate scientists had to say, rather than what she had to say. But by the middle of this week, it became clear that she had sparked off a global youth movement. The Guardian and the BBC were focusing on protests held all over the world. And the tide turned, with many people, including the environmentally conscious, finding her annoying . The word was popping up everywhere on social media and in comments on stories accompanied by pictures of Thunberg looking angry.

Crowds have been fickle from the time of the Roman circus, and in the age of politics as spectacle, blowback is normal. A gender spin developed in America, with many believing that Thunberg is threatening because she has stepped out of the gender box. She is 16, but is not being asked by the press whether she likes Gap or H&M. This is apparently scary. The obvious truth is even scarier. From the publication of Silent Spring in 1962, environmentalism has proclaimed that it works to secure the lives of the children of the future. A child now accuses us, her elders, represented by the political community, of failing her. To be told the blunt truth is generally unnerving, especially when convenient fabrications are the norm.

Those who are tiring of the Thunberg story, rejoice, because it is about to be shouldered off the information superhighway. Talk of impeachment is in the air. The blunt truth is finally out, with the public release of the complaint of the whistleblower who has called out President Trump s attempt to use the good offices of the new government in Ukraine to further his chances in elections due next year. Now, the spectre of foreign meddling in America s choice, which had dogged the last election, is out in the open and as CNN reports, the Democrats have little choice but to move for impeachment.

The whistleblower, who appears to be an intelligence officer, had helpfully marked his letter of complaint unclassified when separated from the attachments (those would be gripping). He accuses the administration of trying to wipe traces of a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy (officially, the world s first comedian to head a nation), in which he sought to offset military aid against a commitment to help investigate his rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Meanwhile Michael McFaul, Stanford teacher and Obama s ambassador to Moscow, has posted a picture from his tenure, showing how a head-to-head call happens. Off camera, Obama is on the line with prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, and a bunch of officials and aides in the White House Situation Room are listening in on a speakerphone and taking notes. It illustrates how many officials must be leaned on to conceal the details of a call.

Misuse of office to get your political dirty work done is ample ground for impeachment. But it s only a preliminary step, rather like an FIR being filed by the representatives of the lower House. A trial must follow, conducted by the upper House, giving stiff competition to courtroom dramas. Meanwhile, rumours about an Israeli intelligence company, Saudi Arabia and the Russian mob have surfaced, as media and activists in Ukraine and the Middle East start assembling a timeline of events. The picture will get murkier before it clears.

pratik.kanjilal@expressindia.com