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Archive for February 2011

Why I Am Skeptical about Data Visualizations

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A visualization was posted recently on gephi.org showing “a preliminary result of the network of retweets with the hashtag #jan25 at February 11 2011, at the time of the announcement of Mubarak’s resignation.” Each dot on the visualization is a person with a twitter account. Each line between points is when one of those people retweeted something the other person tweeted that had the hashtag #jan25 in it. The video to which the site links shows about an hour of monitoring the hashtag usage, showing relatively connections at first and then showing a burst of activity about the time that Egypt’s vice-president announced that Mubarak had resigned.

The visualizations themselves look impressive, but I’m just sort of skeptical about how useful they are. Every visualization like this evokes the same response in me: “so…a bunch of people communicate with a bunch of other people? Information spreads through networks?”

I feel like social-media mapping is the new globalization. Back in college when the term “globalization” was first coined, everyone started talking about how we could see globalization everywhere. Look at the

Bedouin with a cell phone! Look at people in Vladivostok selling things to people in Milwaukee! All of the examples only served to drive home the point that, yes, people could interact a lot faster at much less individual cost than they could before. But that’s all.

As people continued to focus on showing examples of globalization, they failed to explore the issues that were actually interesting and important – how does people’s interaction, no matter how or over what distances it takes place, affect the things they actually do? How do previously unavailable resources change the constraints on behavior? Very few people bothered to explore these issues, because (at least, it seemed to me) they felt those were old questions that didn’t fully appreciate the new dynamic of globalization. I feel like social media is falling into the same trap. Like globalization, a focus on social media itself is sort of a stagnant topic. Now, using social media as a tool to look at the same sort of behavior that we’ve always tried to understand, that’s an endeavor I could support…but that would require a recognition that social media itself is not the thing we need to understand. Social media is one way to measure behavior. Over-emphasis on visualizations risks losing sight of that fact.

Written by Schaun Wheeler

February 28, 2011 at 8:49 am

Posted in Analysis

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Political Correctness, Ideology, and Bad Analysis

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Politico came out with a piece a couple weeks ago titled “Right fractures over Islam.” The author of the article quotes David Horowitz at CPAC:

“We are also faced at home and abroad with a mortal threat in political Islam. Political Islam is a totalitarian movement that seeks to impose Islamic law on the entire world through the seizure of states by stealth and electoral means where possible and by terror where necessary and sometimes by a combination of the two. There are hundreds of millions of believers in political Islam.”

Apparently CPAC featured a panel on “the threat of sharia law” as well as on the “ground zero mosque.” A small panel discussion about religious freedom moderated by Suhail Khan, the only Muslim board member of the American Conservative Union, was interrupted repeatedly with questions about Khan’s possible ties to or sympathies toward (and his parents’ ties to or sympathies toward) the Muslim Brotherhood.

Khan pointed to activists Pam Geller and Jihad Watch’s Robert Spencer as two prominent proponents of the idea that radical Islam is the enemy and that many, if not most, Muslims are suspect by association. The two paid for one panel at CPAC where “concerns about Islam itself as a faith were openly voiced by both audience members and panelists.” For example:

“For 10 years, people have been asking for moderate Muslims to speak up,” said Spencer. “We’re going to be waiting for those guys until doomsday.”

“Moderate Muslims don’t exist,” said one audience member at the Geller and Spencer event. “Muslims are not able to be moderate — or they are speaking against what is written in the Koran.”

Now, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that all that rhetoric isn’t just political posturing. I think that’s a fairly safe assumption since there appears to be a lot of people who look at connections between Islam and extremism without, apparently, ever trying to score political points from the endeavor (see here for an example). For the sake of convenience, I’ll refer to these kinds of connections as ideological explanations of behavior.

I’m opposed to ideological explanations of behavior, not because they aren’t politically correct, but because they represent really shamefully bad analysis.

It’s impossible to connect ideology to extremism on the basis of empirical observation alone. To do that, we’d have to see that a lot of people who espouse a certain ideology engage in the behavior that concerns us (in most cases, violence). Rhetoric like the stuff seen at CPAC show that the case can be made that we do, in fact, see that connection between ideology and behavior. However, those kinds of observations aren’t enough to claim that we have evidence of a connection. We would also have to show that many people who do not espouse the ideology do not engage in the behavior, and that few people who espouse the ideology do not refrain from the behavior. In other words, our assertions about cause (ideology) and effect (extremist behavior) need to create few false positives and false negatives.

Ideological explanations of behavior don’t do that. Even if we define “Islamist” ideology ridiculously narrowly (violent salafist jihadist” or whatever), those definitions invariably result in false positives and false negatives – people who do not engage in the behavior despite their espousal of an ideology, and people who do engage in the behavior despite their ignorance or even rejection of an ideology.

Now, we don’t technically need a false-positive-less and false-negative-less  set of observations to connect a purported cause and a purported effect. Smoking causes cancer but if we use the fact that people smoke to predict who is going to die of cancer, we’re going to end up with a lot of false positives and false negatives, because a lot of other things can mitigate smoking’s carcinogenic effects or have carcinogenic effects regardless of whether a person smokes. However, in cases where effects are determined by so many interacting causes that a clear empirical line cannot be drawn between an individual cause and an individual effect, good analytic practice demands that we define actual mechanisms by which the purported cause can produce the effect.

Mechanisms aren’t just stories. It’s easy to say something like, “If a person has an ideology the defines one group of people as an enemy, then you will be more likely to be hostile towards members of that group and less likely to feel empathy with those people.” Sound very plausible. But what reason do we have to believe it? I have yet to see an attempt to define a mechanisms by which ideology elicits behavior that goes beyond these kinds of just-so stories.

Fact is, we have no reason to believe that ideology influences anything at all. We can talk about ideological influences that seems to make intuitive sense, but intuition is a lousy way to conduct analysis. The Islam-related rhetoric that came out of CPAC ranged from politically incorrect to plain-old bigoted, but that’s largely beside the point. The point is that it’s bad analysis.

Written by Schaun Wheeler

February 28, 2011 at 8:48 am

On the Impotence of Historical Comparisons

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As the demonstrations in Cairo progressed and it started to look like Mubarak might actually step down, various media outlets and pundits started asking questions like “is Cairo Tehran 1979 or Berlin 1989?” (see here and here).

Timothy Garton Ash, writing for the Guardian, remarked that Cairo 2011 was neither Tehran 1979 nor Berlin 1989. It was Cairo 2011.  I think Ash was right, but I think his argument glossed over a point that often seems to be lost on commentators, journalists, and probably a great many politicians as they try to make sense of world events. The point is this: historical comparisons are never appropriate tools for making sense of protests, wars, rapid social change, legislation, or pretty much anything else that regularly makes the news.

All historical comparisons, when they are used to try to explain something, make two implicit assumptions:

1. There exists a very limited number of conditions that determine the outcomes the comparison is supposed to explain.

2. We know what the grand majority of those conditions look like for both the historical scenario that is supposed to explain, and for the current scenario that is supposed to be explained.

I have never seen a situation where these two assumptions are valid in attempts to explain events of the scale we saw in Cairo. That doesn’t mean these assumptions may not be valid in some situations. It just means our belief in those assumptions ought to be explicitly justified before we make them. To assume that years of oppressive rule an great numbers of protestors are the only relevant conditions is obviously wrong. But to what additional considerations do we turn our attention to adequately explain the events? Status and loyalty of the military? Foreign involvement? Local economic conditions? Communication’s technologies? There are all plausible influences upon the outcome.

That’s the problem.

The list of plausibilities doesn’t really end. I think we feel pretty safe assuming that “oppressive regime” belongs in the “relevant” category and that “last year’s TV ratings for the Grammy awards” doesn’t belong in that category. But everything between those two extremes is one big gray area.

If we can’t define beforehand what the majority of relevant conditions are, then there is no way to pick an apt historical comparison. I’ve seen no reason to believe that anyone following or analyzing world events has the slightest clue as to what the majority of relevant conditions are. Historical comparisons are by their very nature worthless, at least so long as we know so little about what causes large-scale behavioral changes.

An opinion piece in the New York Times recently quipped that “Egypt’s path does not have to follow Iran’s.”

The thing is, Egypt’s path cannot follow Iran’s. It’s impossible. That path doesn’t exist anymore, and it probably won’t ever exist again. There may be similar paths, but I haven’t seen any evidence that any of us who analyze world events know how to recognize those paths when we see them.

This isn’t just about protests and regime change. It’s just as inappropriate to ask if Obama is Clinton or Carter as it is to ask if Egypt is Germany or Iran. It’s also inappropriate to ask if Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, or any other country experiencing protests is Egypt. Historical comparisons are impotent.

Written by Schaun Wheeler

February 28, 2011 at 8:45 am

How Can We Understand A Complex Operation?

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I have a new article up at PBS Need to Know, discussing how we can really know what’s going on in Marjah, Helmand:

ISAF, however, doesn’t see things that way. By May of last year, three months after the start of the campaign to “win” Marjah, General McChrystal had declared the Marjah area a “bleeding ulcer” that was distracting him from his goal of winning Kandahar. Even months after new leadership took over the war (when General McChrystal was suddenly replaced by General Petraeus), Marjah was described only in terms of constant combat. “The Taliban are still here in force,” said an AP reporter in October, “waging a full-blown guerrilla insurgency that rages daily across a bomb-riddled landscape of agricultural fields and irrigation trenches.” By December, however, ISAF declared Operation Moshtarak “over,” an example of their success in routing the insurgency.

In a way, this was to be expected — as with the Afghanistan War Review, General Petraeus has been up front in his desire to proclaim only good news about the war, regardless of what the intelligence community believes. But it also leaves nothing but questions about how one could evaluate the current situation in Marjah. Since October there have been very few (if any) reporters to visit Marjah — and even then, they’re not reporting on Marjah so much as peripheral issues like cross-dressing interpreters. While senior officials talk of “progress,” and “shifting momentum,” there aren’t any means by which one could actually say these things are happening.

That’s really the gist of it. In brief, public data say one thing, while officials say another. How do you de-conflict them? I don’t have a meaningful answer to that just yet. But what we do need is a consensus about what deserves measurement, what the changes in those measurements mean, and what our reactions to those changes will be. That has never taken place in Afghanistan, and I suspect that is why our policy remains the same regardless of what specific bits of news emerge from the war.

Written by Joshua Foust

February 15, 2011 at 2:58 pm

The Heat of the Moment

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It’s very easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment when analyzing political events. In the Middle East, it’s been clear that the utopian statements of many of the reporters covering the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen are based more on the euphoria of watching dramatic history unfold in real time than any sober consideration of the consequences these uprisings will have.

In Tunisia, the uprising happened in a dramatic, and tragic way. After his vegetable cart was stolen by a policewoman Last December, Mohammed Bouazizi, unable to get help or even recognition of his plight from the authorities, doused himself with petrol and lit himself on fire (he died January 4). The shocking suicide attempt sent ripples through Tunisian society, and his cause became a rallying cry for a series of protests that led, later in January, to the sudden resignation of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. It was a delirious moment, the first time in decades that a massive protest led to the downfall of an Arab autocrat. Now, so the conventional wisdom went, Tunisia can have freedom and democracy.

If only Tunisians felt the same optimism. The revolt and soft coup has led to a wave of emigration. The flood of refugees into Italy, for example, is so great it’s sparking a mini-crisis with the EU. The tourism industry, which is a major contributor to Tunisia’s economy, has been at a standstill for months. Even more importantly, they still don’t have a government, and people remain unsure of how to proceed with crafting a future for themselves.

Egypt faces a similar dilemma: yes, it was exhilarating to watch teeming crowds of people eventually force Hosni Mubarak to resign the presidency in some way. Yet all the protests have done so far is to replace a hated tyrant with a small cabal of Army officers. Rather than proceeding immediately to democracy, the military is instead threatening the protesters in an effort to dissolve the mass movement. As the protests change from anti-Mubarak to anti-military, it is not at all clear that Egypt will see a happy end to its revolt.

Both outcomes could have been foreseen (and were by the more cynical among us). Leaderless movements can be effective means of bringing down governments, but they are terrible at creating replacement governments—to do that requires leadership, coherent ideas (and even ideology, though not necessarily), and a plan for transitioning society from now to the future. Neither Egypt nor Tunisia have that in any great abundance.

So what about Yemen? There the situation has been different from Egypt and Tunisia: by and large, the protests have been carefully planned and proceeded relatively peacefully. One observer wryly noted after witnessing the protests, “By 3pm, traditionally Qat chewing time in Yemen, everyone had packed up and gone home.”

The main reason the protests have proceeded as they have in Yemen is because the opposition movement, while fractured and beset with in-fighting over specific issues, is still relatively organized. They have limited goals for their large protests (a reform of electoral laws allowing them a fair chance in the next election is at the top of their list), and adhere, with very few exceptions, to non-violence. This week, a smaller crowd of young protestersᾹthe New York Times says hundreds while the BBC says a thousand while the AFP says three thousand—marched at the Presidential Palace in Sanaa, angrily demanding the ouster of President Saleh. They were beaten back with sticks and rocks, and there are rumors that several were beaten with batons and arrested.

Still, this is far less violence, on a far smaller scale, than either Tunisia or Egypt saw (in both of those countries, hundreds of protesters have been killed by the government). And just as importantly, the major opposition groups have not participated in these smaller, more militant protests. They are not, in other words, in the mainstream of Yemen’s opposition movement.

This is important when pondering the importance of these protests to Yemen’s political environment. In the United States and Britain, protests of under a thousand people are so common as to be not worth reporting in any real sense—even when the demands are crazy, and the crowds far larger, there’s no speculation about the “stability” of the government or its ability to remain in control of itself. Yet, in Yemen, when vanishingly small numbers of people try to make a statement and get beaten back, it’s reported as if it’s on par with the millions of people who camped in the streets of Cairo for over two weeks to force out their dictator.

It is truly exciting to see people take to the streets in protest. In fact, it’s difficult not to get caught up in the emotions of the movement, even if you don’t really have a stake in them. But this tendency, which happens even among the very educated, of assigning huge importance to very small, routine events like a few hundred people at a protest march in Yemen, can obscure our ability to think clearly about these sorts of events. We can do with a little more sobriety.

Written by Joshua Foust

February 14, 2011 at 2:30 pm

Posted in Analysis, Objectivity

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How to Handle the Aftermath of Egypt’s Revolution

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Max Boot analyzes the events in Egypt:

But for the time being, let me offer a thought as someone who is writing a history of guerrilla warfare and terrorism.

Egypt shows that there is a better way than setting off bombs if you want to change regimes. “People power” protests of the kind we have seen in recent weeks in Cairo and Alexandria have toppled far more rulers in recent decades than all the world’s terrorists and guerrillas combined. East Germany, the Soviet Union, Romania, Serbia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, the Philippines, Lebanon, Georgia, Tunisia, and on and on — the list of countries where popular demonstrations have toppled unpopular regimes is a long one. Now add Egypt to that list…

There is a lesson here for those not too fanatical or deluded to learn it. Put down the bomb, the sniper rifle, whatever weapon you have, and grab a placard, go on Twitter, organize a rally. True, many peaceful protests have been repressed too, as we have seen most recently in Iran; but they offer a much surer road to regime change than does blowing up innocent people.

What is so interesting about Boot saying this is, he is unwilling to follow his own advice. Whether Iraq, Afghanistan, or even Yemen, Boot has publicly stated he has zero faith in the power of other people to change governments or situations he doesn’t like, and would prefer to use the might of the U.S. military to make things happen more in line with his sense of timing.

But even beyond the hypocrisy of Boot’s newfound belief in mass movements to undermine dictatorships and outwit terrorism, it doesn’t make any sense. Terrorists, almost by design, hold a minority view that they feel cannot get a fair hearing in public (it is why they resort to violence to intimidate societies into compliance). They cannot, almost by design, be equivalent to a mass protest movement, which involves large numbers of people generally using non-violent means to petition a government for change. He’s using apples to disprove oranges.

And that’s setting aside the assumption that mass movements are automatically a net good. Today, February 11, is the day that Mubarak resigned his dictatorship in Egypt. It is also the day another mass protest movement brought down a hated tyrant that had abused his people for decades: the Shah of Iran. There, too, millions of angry citizens took to the streets demanding a change. The result can’t be said to have been all that great. Several of Boot’s other examples of “people power” fall into similar traps: Serbia, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia. None have necessarily benefited from the uncertainty and upheaval their people power movements created.

In other words, it is not always a good thing when a dictator falls to an angry mob in the streets. We can hope for the best for Egypt (as I certainly do) without making specious arguments about its morality, or the certainty of what comes next being any better than what came before.

Written by Joshua Foust

February 11, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Posted in Analysis

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On the Utility of Link Charts

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Intelwire recently published a fascinating link chart: Anwar al-Awlaki’s “social network.” I hope they permit my reposting the image here:

This chart is meant to catalog “Awlaki’s current social and inspirational connections to terrorism,” as part of an effort to “illustrate some of his reach and influence.” It is revelatory for several reasons: for one, it shows that Awlaki is something of a hub, but not a node for terrorist activity (in the sense of he seems to connect to loners more than networks for action). For another, he’s just not very good at planning terrorist attacks (which makes it so puzzling that Janet Napolitano would sound the alarm over AQAP, of which Awlaki is middle management).

This chart, however, is also limiting in many ways. This is, in part, because of the assumptions behind it—it doesn’t help us understand who influences or inspires Awlaki himself, for example. Anwar al-Awlaki is more than just a terrorist, he is a person operating in an environment native to his family. Nasser al-Awlaki, Anwar’s father, has been begging the media to stop “demonizing” his son. It is an understandable thing for a parent to not want to believe the worst about his child; but does this make Nasser an accessory to Anwar’s terrorism?

Obviously it does not. But if Anwar’s own father has a hard time publicly condemning his son for terrorism, what of the rest of the Awlaki tribe? What of the communities the Awlaki’s call home? If they are not constraining Anwar’s terrorist activities, should they be included in his social network of aspirational terror ties? What if they’re encouraging Anwar’s militancy, since people in Shabwa tend to vehemently oppose the government in Sanaa?

These are the sorts of expansive questions one must ask when building a network of a single figure’s ties, influences, and targets. Anwar al-Awlaki is not a single figure, standing astride a vast network of eager empty-vessel recruits awaiting radicalization and instructions. He is the product of a system, an environment of factors that inspire, shape, and just as importantly constrain his rhetoric and activities. We in the U.S. have no idea what those really are: we don’t know who his closest friends are, we don’t know what his family tells him in person, we don’t know who either inspires or discourages him in conversation and in his reading and research.

In other words, we lack information that is critical to understanding his exact motivations and capabilities and intent. Yet, for some reason, we feel very comfortable assigning him tremendous importance and blame in both regional and global terrorist circles… based on little more than after-the-fact dot connecting that may or may not reveal useful information about his ties and activities. Until we close that gap, and start researching the relevant social and environmental factors that shape Awlaki’s decision-making process (and thus, by extension, AQAPs), we will continue to grasp in the dark, not knowing what will come next.

Written by Joshua Foust

February 10, 2011 at 1:45 pm

Posted in Analysis, Case Studies

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