Geert Wilders Falls Short In Election, As Wary Dutch Scatter Their Votes

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK TIMES)

Geert Wilders, a Rising Anti-Muslim Voice

This is Geert Wilders, a far-right Dutch politician with aspirations to be the next prime minister of the Netherlands. He has compared the Quran to “Mein Kampf” and has called Moroccans “scum.”

By AINARA TIEFENTHÄLER on Publish Date March 13, 2017.  

THE HAGUE — The far-right politician Geert Wilders fell short of expectations in Dutch elections on Wednesday, gaining seats but failing to persuade a decisive portion of voters to back his extreme positions on barring Muslim immigrants and jettisoning the European Union, according to early results and exit polls.

The results were immediately cheered by pro-European politicians who hoped that they could help stall some of the momentum of the populist, anti-European Union and anti-Muslim forces Mr. Wilders has come to symbolize, and which have threatened to fracture the bloc.

Voters, who turned out in record numbers, nonetheless rewarded right and center-right parties that had co-opted parts of his hard-line message, including that of the incumbent prime minister, Mark Rutte. Some parties that challenged the establishment from the left made significant gains.

The Dutch vote was closely watched as a harbinger of potential trends in a year of important European elections, including in France in just weeks, and later in Germany and possibly Italy. Many of the Dutch parties that prevailed favor the European Union — a rare glimmer of hope at a time when populist forces have created an existential crisis for the bloc and Britain prepares for its withdrawal, or “Brexit.”

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“Today was a celebration of democracy, we saw rows of people queuing to cast their vote, all over the Netherlands — how long has it been since we’ve seen that?” Mr. Rutte said.

Alexander Pechtold, the leader of Democrats 66, which appeared to have won the most votes of any left-leaning party, struck a similar note underscoring the vote as a victory against a populist extremist.

“During this election campaign, the whole world was watching us,” Mr. Pechtold said. “They were looking at Europe to see if this continent would follow the call of the populists, but it has now become clear that call stopped here in the Netherlands.”

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Right-wing parties have been achieving electoral success in a growing number of nations.

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According to an unofficial tally compiled by the Dutch Broadcasting Foundation, the country’s public broadcaster, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy was likely to capture 33 of the 150 seats in Parliament — a loss of seven seats, but still far more than any other party.

Mr. Wilders’s Party for Freedom was expected to finish second, with 20 seats (an increase of eight); and the right-leaning Christian Democratic Appeal and the left-leaning Democrats 66 were tied for third, with 19 each, the broadcaster reported.

In the Netherlands, the results betrayed a lingering distrust of turning over the reins of power to the far right, even as its message dominated the campaign and was likely to influence policies in the new government.

Yet there are limits to how much the Netherlands, one of Europe’s most socially liberal countries, will be a reliable predictor for Europe’s other important elections this year, including next month’s presidential elections in France.

Mark Bovens, a political scientist at Utrecht University, noted that Mr. Wilders and other right-wing parties, despite their gains, did not drastically cross traditional thresholds.

“The nationalist parties have won seats, compared to 2012 — Wilders’s party has gained seats, as has a new party, the Forum for Democracy — but their electorate is stable, it has not grown,” Mr. Bovens said.

Mr. Bovens pointed out that an earlier populist movement led by the right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn had won 26 seats in 2002, and that Mr. Wilders’s won 24 seats in 2010. If Mr. Wilders’s party rises to 20 seats, as the early returns seemed to indicate, it will still be lower than the previous high-water marks.

“And some of the traditional parties have moved in a more nationalistic direction, taking a bit of wind out of his sails,” he said. “You see the same strategy in Germany.”

The German governing coalition led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, which is facing a stiff election challenge of its own this year, was clearly buoyed by the Dutch result, its foreign ministry sending a warmly enthusiastic message via Twitter.

Photo

“The Netherlands, after Brexit, after the American elections, said ‘Whoa’ to the wrong kind of populism,” said Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, speaking to an enthusiastic crowd. CreditCarl Court/Getty Images

“Large majority of Dutch voters have rejected anti-European populists. That’s good news. We need you for a strong #Europe!” it read.

In the Netherlands’s extremely fractured system of proportional representation — 28 parties ran and 13 are likely to have positions in the 150-seat lower house of Parliament — the results were, not atypically, something of a dog’s breakfast.

Mr. Rutte’s party lost seats, even as it came out on top, and will need to join forces with several others in order to wield power. Virtually all parties said they would not work with Mr. Wilders in a coalition — so toxic he remains — though his positions are likely to infuse parliamentary debate.

“Rutte has not seen the last of me yet!” Mr. Wilders wrote on Twitter, and indeed his anti-immigrant message, which dominated much of the campaign, was not likely to go away.

It came into particularly sharp relief on the eve of the election, when Turkey’s foreign minister sought to enter the Netherlands to rally support among Turks in Rotterdam for a referendum to increase the power of the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Dutch officials refused him landing rights.

Mr. Wilders, who has seemed to relish being called the “Dutch Donald Trump,” has been so extreme that some appear to have thought twice about supporting him.

He has called for banning the Quran because he compares it to Hitler’s work “Mein Kampf,” which the Netherlands banned, and for closing mosques and Islamic cultural centers and schools.

Election turnout was high, with polling places seeing a steady stream of voters from early morning until the polls closed at 9 p.m. Of the 12.9 million Dutch citizens eligible to cast ballots, more than 80 percent voted.

Some polling places ran out of ballots and called for additional ones to be delivered. There were so many candidates listed that the ballots were as voluminous as bath towels and had to be folded many times over to fit into the ballot box.

Photo

Supporters of the Green Party reacted in The Hague on Wednesday.CreditRobin Van Lonkhuijsen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The percentage of the vote that a party receives translates into the number of seats it will get in Parliament. If a party gets 10 percent of the total votes, it gets 10 percent of seats in the 150-seat Parliament, given to its first 15 candidates listed on the ballot.

The election was a success for the left-leaning Green Party, led by 30-year-old Jesse Klaver, a relative political newcomer, whose leadership at least tripled the party’s seats, making it the fifth-place finisher and potentially a part of the government.

Mr. Klaver ran specifically on an anti-populist platform and worked hard to turn out first-time voters.

“In these elections there was an overwhelming attention from the foreign press, which is understandable because Brexit happened and Trump was elected, and because France, Germany and maybe Italy will be holding elections,” Mr. Klaver said. “They asked us: Will populism break through in the Netherlands?”

The crowd shouted: “No.”

“That is the answer that we have for the whole of Europe: Populism did not break through,” Mr. Klaver said.

Another striking development was the first-time election of former Labor Party members, all three of Turkish background, who formed a new party, Denk (which means “think”). It will be the only ethnic party in the Dutch Parliament and is a reminder that Turks are the largest immigrant community in the Netherlands. There are roughly 400,000 first, second, or third-generation Turkish immigrants in the nation.

The big loser was the center-left Labor Party, which was expected to drop from being the second largest party in Parliament, with 38 seats and a position as Mr. Rutte’s coalition partner. The party was expected to win only nine seats.

In past elections the impact of extremist right-leaning parties has been largely blunted by a political system that for more than a century has resulted in governance by coalition.

This year’s election may give the Netherlands its most fragmented government in history. Some political analysts believe it could take weeks or months to form a government and that the governing coalition will be fragile.

In Belgium, which has a similar political system as the Netherlands, it famously took nearly a year and a half after inconclusive elections in June 2010 to form a government.

So Turkey’s Sunni Dictator Er-Dog-an Calls European Countries Nazi Because They Won’t Allow Him To Rule Them

 

So the Sunni Dictator Dog of Turkey, the man who has ruined the lives of his people with his hate and his ego has the gall to call the governments of Germany and the Netherlands Nazi’s. When he first took power in Turkey the country and it’s people lived in relative peace with its neighbors and within its own borders. Turkey was the crown jewel in the Middle-East of the countries that had a majority Islamic population as far as people of various religions being free to worship as they pleased. There were many Gothic Churches that were hundreds of years old that dotted the landscape of this beautiful restive country. Now by my understanding of the many different articles I have read over the past few years several of these landmark Churches have either been destroyed or turned into Sunni Mosque.

 

Since Er-Dog-an has been in power he has through his policies created a situation where it is rather common for the people to have to try to survive car and truck bombs as well as suicide attacks on not just Turkey’s police and military personnel but on the civilians themselves. He had created tensions with Russia and with Israel before recently correcting this error, at least publicly. I say publicly because if you honestly think that Russia’s President Putin or Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu consider him a friend or that they trust him you are being quite delusional. He has spent his time in power doing mainly one thing and that is to gain more power and control over every aspect of life within the borders of Turkey. He has invaded his Shiite neighbor Syria and is not welcome in Iran or Iraq. Yet personally I believe that one of his biggest most arrogant and stupid policies has been his constant assault on the Kurdish people. The Dog has made it very plain that he wants nothing to do with peace with this huge ethnicity of people that live in the eastern part of Turkey. He could have peace with them if he wasn’t so darn greedy. The Kurdish people simply want their own homeland and being they already had settled in the eastern part of Turkey it would have been easy to have had peace with them by simply letting this small part of Turkey be officially theirs. Then the two Nations could have easily become good neighbors, brothers, sisters and trading partners. There would have been peace this way and many people who are now dead would still be alive. He has been playing the EU against Russia card trying to see how much he can get from both sides. He cared so little for his countrymen that instead of sealing off their border with Syria and not allowing millions of refugees to enter Turkey at all he let them in then has used them as bargaining chips with the EU trying to extort money and EU membership from them.

 

Now this egomaniac Dictator dares to call the governments of Germany and the Netherlands Nazi’s because of their policies that he personally doesn’t like. Think about this for a moment please, why is he slandering the leadership of these two countries? In Rotterdam they are going to be having elections very soon and Turkey has a huge number of Turk people living there now and there was going to be a big rally that the Turk Foreign Minister was going to address and the government decided to not let him show up. What is going on is very simple, if the Turk population grows to a high enough level they can then have more control of the laws passed in that country. If a minority population can gain control of a foreign country and they are loyalist to their home Dictator, this Dictator can have a huge effect on being the defacto Ruler of that Nation. Do not be naive, the people who believe in the teachings of ‘the prophet’ Mohammed know that they are ordered to infiltrate Infidel countries and when they have sufficient numbers to attack from within and to take control of the country and then to convert everyone there to Islam. The easiest way to take control of a Democratic country is through the ballot box, then if that doesn’t work, take it by force. Europe is starting to wake up and many of the people of Europe’s Nations are realizing the dangers they are having now and that it will only get much worse if they allow Islamic believing people to settle in their country. It is obvious why this Sunni egomaniac used the slur of Nazism toward Germany because the pain of their past but when this horse’s behind referred to the Netherlands the same way he showed his ignorance and his hate as well as pure stupidity. The worse thing that has happened to the Nation of Turkey since world war two has been allowing this madman to continue breathing within their borders. I say this because as he proves constantly like this upcoming referendum to give him alone even more power to rule as a King or a god would, he is only interested in making as many people as possible bow to his power, even Nations outside of Turkey’s current borders. If the EU Leaders in Brussels ever allow Turkey or any Islamic Nation to become part of the EU, that will be the kiss of death for their Countries and their way of life, and their very lives.

China’s Premier Says Hong Kong Will Never Be Allowed Independence

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF CNN)

Hong Kong (CNN) China’s second highest-ranking politician criticized calls for Hong Kong independence in a speech to the nation’s parliament Sunday.

Speaking at the opening of the annual National People’s Congress, Premier Li Keqiang said calls from within the city to go it alone would “lead nowhere.”
This was the first time “Hong Kong independence” has ever been mentioned in any Chinese premier’s annual address.
“We will continue to implement, both to the letter and in spirit, the principle of ‘One Country, Two Systems’,” Li said, referring to the doctrine by which Hong Kong maintained certain freedoms and rights after it passed from British rule to Chinese in 1997.
“We pledge our full support to the chief executives and governments of (Hong Kong and Macau) in exercising law-based governance, growing their economies, improving people’s well-being, advancing democracy and promoting social harmony,” Li said.
Macau, a small island near Hong Kong, is also a special administered region of China.
He also had strong words for those who might seek independence for Taiwan. Officially the Republic of China, Taiwan has been self-governing since 1949, but Beijing claims it as an inalienable part of its territory.
“(China) will resolutely oppose and contain separatist activities for Taiwan independence,” Li said. “We will never tolerate any activity, in any form or name, which attempts to separate Taiwan from the motherland.”
Growing trend?
Within Hong Kong, calls for independence from China have been growing since the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests ended in no reforms to the existing political system.
For 79 days, thousands of protesters occupied Hong Kong’s financial district and elsewhere to demand true universal suffrage — one person, one vote, without the interference of Beijing.
The crowd was eventually dispersed by police, and organizers vowed to push for change by other means.
Hong Kong voters elect pro-democracy activists
In parliamentary elections last year, several pro-independence candidates were blocked from standing, but there was nevertheless a pronounced swing towards so-called localist parties, which support anything from greater autonomy to full self-rule.
Two pro-independence lawmakers who were elected never managed to take their seats however, having been ejected by the courts for failing to take their oaths of office properly after they staged a curse word-filled protest during the swearing-in process.
The intervention by Beijing into that case sparked more concerns by many Hong Kongers that the city’s autonomy — as guaranteed by “One Country, Two Systems” — is being eroded.

Fears

Anti-American views clear in new China propaganda

Beijing has always reacted angrily towards any promotion of independence for its special administered regions of Hong Kong and Macau, or suggestions from self-ruled Taiwan that the island should seek full legal independence.
A bizarre propaganda video posted online by the Chinese Supreme People’s Procuratorate, the country’s top prosecutor’s office, in August contrasted apocalyptic images of Syria and Iraq with bucolic views of China today.
“The haze of ‘domestic and international concerns’ has not dispersed from the Chinese sky,” the video said.
“Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan separatism, as well as dissident leaders, lawyers who would fight until death and other agents of Western forces are damaging China’s internal stability and harmony. Behind all these incidents, we can often catch a glimpse of the dark shadow of the Stars and Stripes.”
Speaking to the South China Morning Post Sunday, political advisory body delegate Tam Yiu-chung said the mention of Hong Kong independence by Li shows that “Beijing is very concerned about the problem.”
“The central government would not tolerate it … it’s a very serious problem,” Tam said.
Some commentators have predicted that Hong Kong’s next leader, who will be chosen by a Beijing-dominated “election committee” later this month, will be told to crack down harder on pro-independence sentiment.
“(They) might be asked by Beijing to enact Article 23,” Chinese University of Hong Kong professor Willy Lam told CNN last year, referring to a hugely controversial anti-subversion law that led to mass street protests in 2003 and the eventual resignation of then Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa.

Turkey’s Dictator Erdogan Chastises Germany About Democracy

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

 

Erdogan compares German cancellation of meetings with Nazi period

President Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday German actions in stopping political meetings of resident Turks that were due to be addressed by Turkish officials “were no different to those of the Nazi period”.

German authorities withdrew permission for two meetings in German cities last week that were part of a government campaign to win the 1.5 million-strong Turkish community’s support for sweeping new powers for Erdogan going to referendum in April.

“Germany, you have no relation whatsoever to democracy and you should know that your current actions are no different to those of Nazi period. When we say that, they get disturbed. Why are you disturbed?” he said at a rally in Istanbul.

(Reporting by Ece Toksabay; writing by Ralph Boulton; editing by Louise Heavens)

Democracy Lebanon Style

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF AL-AWSAT NEWS AGENCY)

Opinion

Opinion: When Lebanese Democracy Talks

The controversy surrounding the election of Donald Trump as US president made many outside America have another look at how its electoral system works. However, controversy is surely not limited to America; it extends to Lebanon, a faraway small country that boasts being an ‘institutional democratic’ state built on consensus and entente.

Many pose questions about the logic behind the American political system which values the electoral votes of individual states more than the direct popular votes of the electorate. The fact is that the USA is a federal country, thus its political representation needs to reflect two fundamental principles without which no healthy democracy can survive:
-The first is simple direct democracy whereby the numerical majority has the advantage over the numerical minority; and this is embodied in the House of Representatives where each state is represented by a number of congressmen relative to its population.
-The second is respect for national unity in a diverse society, where an individual in a populous state must enjoy no advantage over another individual from a less populous state before the federal law which must treat all Americans equally. The principle of national unity is enshrined in the Senate where all states, regardless of population, are equally represented by two senators each.

This great vision has helped make the American political system as a whole, one of the fairest and most advanced in the world. It has sustained an ever growing and geographically expanding country since the 16th century, attracting wave after wave of immigration; and through the years each American state based on its topography, natural environment, and economic resources had specific attributes and qualities despite free and smooth inter-state movement.

Of course Lebanon is far too small compared to the USA. Its ‘democratic’ experience is also pretty modest to compare with that of America’s ‘Founding Fathers’ and the legislations and agreements they adopted, even though these legislations and agreements failed to prevent the American Civil war (1861-1865), some vestiges of which remain until today. In fact, Lebanon too had a civil war in 1860 that helped create its almost ‘independent’ status; and as in America’s case, the vestiges of the war remain, while its borders have changed.

Still, size and global influence aside, there is another major difference between the American and Lebanese examples, which is that the Americans have learnt from their experiences, respected their institutions, and stopped bluffing themselves, which is not the case with the Lebanese.

In the USA no less than five presidents trailed their opponents in the popular votes, but abiding by the Constitution, the process led them to the White House. Moreover, despite the huge diversity in a country of 320 million inhabitants, there remains a good deal of healthy co-existence. We don’t hear people calling every day for a new electoral law that enhances the share of his or her ethnicity or religious sect. Nor do we hear of people calling for foreign intervention in their favor in the light of changing international policies.

Lebanon’s case, however, is totally different. Here, even the Lebanese constitution does not deal with its people as citizens but rather as members of sectarian flocks. The constitution which recognizes 17 sects, has “permanently” allocated each sect what has been deemed as its fair share of governmental position although population changes are continuous as are political disagreements.

Another interesting fact is that any Lebanese may spend his/her lifetime within the confines of his/her sect without interacting with other sects, beginning with birth, death, inheritance and marriage registries, and ending with education, health and employment. Thus, religious sects in Lebanon are de facto quasi-independent ‘states’, that have their own leaders, political parties, schools, universities, hospitals, and even sport clubs!

Given this situation and bearing in mind the vestiges of the past, the Lebanese have two living obsessions: the first is the ‘unfairness’ lamented by the Muslims who believe they are the majority that is long prevented from enjoying what it deserved under the French Mandate (1920-1943); and the second is the ‘fear’ felt by the Christians towards the ‘sea of Muslims’ surrounding them. The latter, led at first to separating Mount Lebanon from its surrounding area in 1861 and giving it the status of an ‘autonomous district’, i.e. “Mutassarrifiyya”, under the joint rule of the Ottoman Government and the European Powers, in order to ensure the ‘protection’ of the Christians. Then in 1920, it led to the creation of the current Lebanon (Grand Liban) under a Christian president, and a 6 to 5 parliamentary representation in the Christians’ favour that lasted until the ‘Taif Agreement’ in 1989.

Now, after ending ‘the presidential vacuum’ and forming the new cabinet, all that remains is electing a new parliament to replace the current one. The latter ended its four year term in 2013, but due to ongoing disagreement the scheduled elections were cancelled and its term extended. Still, disagreements continue regarding under what electoral law the forthcoming elections should be conducted, noting that almost all political parties and blocs refuse to carry on under the current multiple seat constituency law, popularly known as ‘The 1960 Law’.

There are many alternatives being put forward by parties and blocs ranging from full ‘proportional representation’ as preferred by Hezbollah and followers – which is understandable given its virtual armed hegemony – to the ‘Greek Orthodox Law’ whereby each sect elects its own members of parliament, including different ‘mixed’ versions combining direct vote and PR.

One alternative, however, that seems to be intentionally and stubbornly dismissed is the one calling for a bi-cameral parliament comprising: A Senate or Upper House elected by each sect, whereby all religious sects are equally represented and enjoy a ‘veto’ on issues adversely affecting their interests; and a House of Deputies or Representative, elected with no sectarian quota, with Lebanon as a single constituency, thus encouraging proper issue-based political parties after ridding the country of the two obsessions, i.e. the Muslims with ‘unfairness’ and the Christians with ‘fear’!

Why the idea of a Senate looks like being rejected out of hand, is not really surprising, if one keeps in mind the Lebanese eternal gamble in external forces and changes of regional and international balance of power. This remains the case despite the fact that the Lebanese Constitution, as adopted in Taif, called clearly for ‘wide decentralization’ and a ‘senate’.

Indeed, it has become a habit of Lebanon’s factions to demand justice and fairness when they are the underdogs, but seek hegemony when they feel they are winning.

Given such a mentality, any authority devised to curtail the ambitions of the powerful and defended the rights of the weak, has no chance of being accepted; as every faction hopes one day to be powerful enough to monopolize the country, and obliterate the others. Even the one who may be weak today would rather hope for an opportune moment to gamble again, and settle old scores.

In short, this is ‘electoral democracy – Lebanese Style’!

Eyad Abu Shakra

Eyad Abu Shakra

Eyad Abu Shakra is the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. He has been with the newspaper since 1978.

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French President Hollande Says French Values Must Be Defended In Cold War Climate

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF BLOOMBERG NEWS)

Hollande Says France Must Defend Values in Cold War Climate

December 31, 2016, 3:03 PM EST
  • Outgoing French president sees democracy, freedom at risk
  • Final New Year’s address targets National Front’s Le Pen

French President Francois Hollande tells the French they have values to defend in the context of a new Cold War — a reference to both geopolitics and the country’s looming presidential election.

“There are moments in history when everything can be toppled. We are living through one of those periods,” Hollande said in a televised speech from Paris. “Democracy, freedom, Europe and even peace — all of these things have become vulnerable, reversible. We saw it with Brexit and with the U.S. election in November.”

Hollande, who came to power in May 2012, bowed out of France’s 2017 presidential race earlier this month, meaning today’s New Year’s eve address to the nation will be his last as head of state. The Socialist leader insisted to French voters that they have a responsibility on the global stage when they cast their ballots.

“France is open to the world, it is European,” Hollande said. “It is not possible to imagine our country crouching behind walls, reduced to its domestic self, returning to a national currency and increasingly discriminating based on peoples’ origins. It would no longer be France. That is what is at stake.”

Those remarks directly targeted the policies of National Front leader Marine Le Pen, who is committed to pulling France out of the euro, increasing restrictions on immigration, as well as putting up tariff barriers.

“Our main enemy is our doubt. You must have confidence in yourselves,” Hollande said.

Before it’s here, it’s on the Bloomberg Terminal.

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Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE WASHINGTON POST)

Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, experts say

November 24 at 8:27 PM
The flood of “fake news” this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy, say independent researchers who tracked the operation.Russia’s increasingly sophisticated propaganda machinery — including thousands of botnets, teams of paid human “trolls,” and networks of websites and social-media accounts — echoed and amplified right-wing sites across the Internet as they portrayed Clinton as a criminal hiding potentially fatal health problems and preparing to hand control of the nation to a shadowy cabal of global financiers. The effort also sought to heighten the appearance of international tensions and promote fear of looming hostilities with nuclear-armed Russia.

Two teams of independent researchers found that the Russians exploited American-made technology platforms to attack U.S. democracy at a particularly vulnerable moment, as an insurgent candidate harnessed a wide range of grievances to claim the White House. The sophistication of the Russian tactics may complicate efforts by Facebook and Google to crack down on “fake news,” as they have vowed to do after widespread complaints about the problem.

There is no way to know whether the Russian campaign proved decisive in electing Trump, but researchers portray it as part of a broadly effective strategy of sowing distrust in U.S. democracy and its leaders. The tactics included penetrating the computers of election officials in several states and releasing troves of hacked emails that embarrassed Clinton in the final months of her campaign.

“They want to essentially erode faith in the U.S. government or U.S. government interests,” said Clint Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute who along with two other researchers has tracked Russian propaganda since 2014. “This was their standard mode during the Cold War. The problem is that this was hard to do before social media.”

During a Facebook live discussion, reporter Caitlin Dewey explained how fake news sites use Facebook as a vehicle to function and make money. (The Washington Post)

Watts’s report on this work, with colleagues Andrew Weisburd and J.M. Berger, appeared on the national security online magazine War on the Rocks this month under the headline “Trolling for Trump: How Russia Is Trying to Destroy Our Democracy.” Another group, called PropOrNot, a nonpartisan collection of researchers with foreign policy, military and technology backgrounds, planned to release its own findings Friday showing the startling reach and effectiveness of Russian propaganda campaigns.

The researchers used Internet analytics tools to trace the origins of particular tweets and mapped the connections among social-media accounts that consistently delivered synchronized messages. Identifying website codes sometimes revealed common ownership. In other cases, exact phrases or sentences were echoed by sites and social-media accounts in rapid succession, signaling membership in connected networks controlled by a single entity.

PropOrNot’s monitoring report, which was provided to The Washington Post in advance of its public release, identifies more than 200 websites as routine peddlers of Russian propaganda during the election season, with combined audiences of at least 15 million Americans. On Facebook, PropOrNot estimates that stories planted or promoted by the disinformation campaign were viewed more than 213 million times.

Some players in this online echo chamber were knowingly part of the propaganda campaign, the researchers concluded, while others were “useful idiots” — a term born of the Cold War to describe people or institutions that unknowingly assisted Soviet Union propaganda efforts.

Consider these points before sharing a news article on Facebook. It could be fake. (Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

The Russian campaign during this election season, researchers from both groups say, worked by harnessing the online world’s fascination with “buzzy” content that is surprising and emotionally potent, and tracks with popular conspiracy theories about how secret forces dictate world events.

Some of these stories originated with RT and Sputnik, state-funded Russian information services that mimic the style and tone of independent news organizations yet sometimes include false and misleading stories in their reports, the researchers say. On other occasions, RT, Sputnik and other Russian sites used social-media accounts to amplify misleading stories already circulating online, causing news algorithms to identify them as “trending” topics that sometimes prompted coverage from mainstream American news organizations.

The speed and coordination of these efforts allowed Russian-backed phony news to outcompete traditional news organizations for audience. Some of the first and most alarming tweets after Clinton fell ill at a Sept. 11 memorial event in New York, for example, came from Russian botnets and trolls, researchers found. (She was treated for pneumonia and returned to the campaign trail a few days later.)

This followed a spate of other misleading stories in August about Clinton’s supposedly troubled health. The Daily Beast debunked a particularly widely read piece in an article that reached 1,700 Facebook accounts and was read online more than 30,000 times. But the PropOrNot researchers found that the version supported by Russian propaganda reached 90,000 Facebook accounts and was read more than 8 million times. The researchers said the true Daily Beast story was like “shouting into a hurricane” of false stories supported by the Russians.

This propaganda machinery also helped push the phony story that an anti-Trump protester was paid thousands of dollars to participate in demonstrations, an allegation initially made by a self-described satirist and later repeated publicly by the Trump campaign. Researchers from both groups traced a variety of other false stories — fake reports of a coup launched at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey and stories about how the United States was going to conduct a military attack and blame it on Russia — to Russian propaganda efforts.

The final weeks of the campaign featured a heavy dose of stories about supposed election irregularities, allegations of vote-rigging and the potential for Election Day violence should Clinton win, researchers said.

“The way that this propaganda apparatus supported Trump was equivalent to some massive amount of a media buy,” said the executive director of PropOrNot, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid being targeted by Russia’s legions of skilled hackers. “It was like Russia was running a super PAC for Trump’s campaign. . . . It worked.”

He and other researchers expressed concern that the U.S. government has few tools for detecting or combating foreign propaganda. They expressed hope that their research detailing the power of Russian propaganda would spur official action.

A former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael A. McFaul, said he was struck by the overt support that Sputnik expressed for Trump during the campaign, even using the #CrookedHillary hashtag pushed by the candidate.

McFaul said Russian propaganda typically is aimed at weakening opponents and critics. Trump’s victory, though reportedly celebrated by Putin and his allies in Moscow, may have been an unexpected benefit of an operation that already had fueled division in the United States. “They don’t try to win the argument,” said McFaul, now director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. “It’s to make everything seem relative. It’s kind of an appeal to cynicism.”

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied interfering in the U.S. election or hacking the accounts of election officials. “This is some sort of nonsense,” Dmitry Peskov, press secretary for Putin, said last month when U.S. officials accused Russia of penetrating the computers of the Democratic National Committee and other political organizations.

RT disputed the findings of the researchers in an e-mail on Friday, saying it played no role in producing or amplifying any fake news stories related to the U.S. election. “It is the height of irony that an article about “fake news” is built on false, unsubstantiated claims. RT adamantly rejects any and all claims and insuations that the network has originated even a single “fake story” related to the US election,” wrote Anna Belkina, head of communications.

The findings about the mechanics of Russian propaganda operations largely track previous research by the Rand Corp. and George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

“They use our technologies and values against us to sow doubt,” said Robert Orttung, a GWU professor who studies Russia. “It’s starting to undermine our democratic system.”

The Rand report — which dubbed Russian propaganda efforts a “firehose of falsehood” because of their speed, power and relentlessness — traced the country’s current generation of online propaganda work to the 2008 incursion into neighboring Georgia, when Russia sought to blunt international criticism of its aggression by pushing alternative explanations online.

The same tactics, researchers said, helped Russia shape international opinions about its 2014 annexation of Crimea and its military intervention in Syria, which started last year. Russian propaganda operations also worked to promote the “Brexit” departure of Britain from the European Union.

Another crucial moment, several researchers say, came in 2011 when the party of Russian President Vladimir Putin was accused of rigging elections, sparking protests that Putin blamed the Obama administration — and then-Secretary of State Clinton — for instigating.

Putin, a former KGB officer, announced his desire to “break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams” during a 2013 visit to the broadcast center for RT, formerly known as Russia Today.

“For them, it’s actually a real war, an ideological war, this clash between two systems,” said Sufian Zhemukhov, a former Russian journalist conducting research at GWU. “In their minds, they’re just trying to do what the West does to Russia.”

RT broadcasts news reports worldwide in several languages, but the most effective way it reaches U.S. audiences is online.

Its English-language flagship YouTube channel, launched in 2007, has 1.85 million subscribers and has had a total of 1.8 billion views, making it more widely viewed than CNN’s YouTube channel, according to a George Washington University report this month.

Though widely seen as a propaganda organ, the Russian site has gained credibility with some American conservatives. Trump sat for an interview with RT in September. His nominee for national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, traveled to Russia last year for a gala sponsored by the network. He later compared it to CNN.

The content from Russian sites has offered ready fodder for U.S.-based websites pushing far-right conservative messages. A former contractor for one, the Next News Network, said he was instructed by the site’s founder, Gary S. Franchi Jr., to weave together reports from traditional sources such as the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times with ones from RT, Sputnik and others that provided articles that often spread explosively online.

“The readers are more likely to share the fake stories, and they’re more profitable,” said Dyan Bermeo, who said he helped assemble scripts and book guests for Next News Network before leaving because of a pay dispute and concerns that “fake news” was crowding out real news.

In just the past 90 days — a period that has included the closing weeks of the campaign, Election Day and its aftermath — the YouTube audience of Next News Network has jumped from a few hundred thousand views a day to a few million, according to analytics firm Tubular Labs. In October alone, videos from Next News Network were viewed more than 56 million times.

Franchi said in an e-mail statement that Next News Network seeks “a global perspective” while providing commentary aimed at U.S. audiences, especially with regard to Russian military activity. “Understanding the threat of global war is the first step to preventing it,” he said, “and we feel our coverage assisted in preventing a possible World War 3 scenario.”

Correction: A previously published version of this story incorrectly stated that Russian information service RT had used the “#CrookedHillary” hastag pushed by then-Republican candidate Donald Trump. In fact, while another Russian information service Sputnik did use this hashtag, RT did not.

Venezuela: Does An Incompetent Tyrant Ever Willingly Give Up The Presidency?

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS NEWS AGENCY)

In escalation of crisis, Venezuela congress to put Maduro on trial

Venezuela’s opposition-led National Assembly on Sunday vowed to put Nicolas Maduro on trial for violating democracy, days after authorities nixed a recall referendum against the unpopular socialist president.

The measure is unlikely to get traction given the leftist government and a compliant Supreme Court have systematically undermined the legislature, but it further heightens tensions in the crisis-hit OPEC nation.

“It is a political and legal trial against President Nicolas Maduro to see what responsibility he has in the constitutional rupture that has broken democracy, human rights, and the future of the country,” said opposition lawmaker Julio Borges during a special congressional session on Sunday.

The opposition coalition, seeking to end 17 years of socialism in the South American nation, says Thursday’s suspension of its drive for a plebiscite against Maduro shows Venezuela has abandoned democracy.

Ruling party officials have accused the opposition of fraud in their signature drive and say the coalition is seeking a coup to gain control of Venezuela’s vast crude reserves, the world’s largest.

Despite that oil wealth, Venezuela has plunged into an unprecedented economic crisis, with many people skipping meals due to shortages and soaring prices.

Many Venezuelans fear that preventing a the referendum increases chances of social unrest in the already volatile and violent country.

The opposition coalition has called for a major peaceful protest on Wednesday, dubbed “The takeover of Venezuela” to keep pushing for the plebiscite.

(Reporting by Deisy Buitrago; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer

Another African President Decides To Become A King/Dictator In The Congo?

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF ‘THE GUARDIAN’ NEWS AGENCY)

The Observer view on Congo and the failure of democracy in Africa

The Democratic Republic of Congo is the latest country disintegrating because a leader wants to hang on to power
Joseph Kabila promised not to seek a third term as president of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Joseph Kabila promised not to seek a third term as president of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photograph: Reuters

Two decades ago, the Democratic Republic of Congo, sub-Saharan Africa’s largest country, was engulfed in what became known as Africa’s Great War, a conflict that drew in half-a-dozen neighboring countries and raged for five years from 1998.

The conflict and its aftermath cost the lives of an estimated 5.4 million people, mainly from starvation and disease. This epic disaster was largely ignored outside Africa, even though it was the developed world’s insatiable demand for the DRC’s mineral riches that helped to fuel it.

The war was halted, in part, by the introduction of a new constitution and a democratic system of governance, replacing decades of Mobutu Sese Seko’s brutal dictatorship. In 2006 Joseph Kabila was confirmed as DRC president by popular vote, although the fairness of the election was widely disputed. In 2011 he was re-elected. Again, the results were hotly contested. A key factor in their acceptance was his pledge to honour the constitution and refrain from seeking a third term.

The DRC’s next presidential election is due next month. It isn’t going to happen. A court last week upheld a request by the election commission that the poll be postponed, ostensibly because voter rolls are incomplete. A “national dialogue” by the ruling coalition and involving fringe parties and civic groups, but boycotted by the main opposition and Catholic church, also agreed a delay until at least April 2018. In effect, Kabila and his security force backers have compromised the constitution and the judiciary and engineered a silent coup. His solemn 2011 promise has been broken.

This shameless subversion of the democratic process (parliamentary and provincial polls have also been put off) was condemned by the main opposition party, the UDPS, as a “flagrant violation”. Rassemblement (Gathering), the multi-party opposition organisation, reacted with fury and called a general strike last Wednesday. Kabila’s attempt to cling to power threatens the DRC’s hard-won and still precarious stability. Worse, it risks a return to national and regional upheaval, violence and war. At least this time the world is paying more attention. Maman Sambo Sidikou, the senior UN official in the country, warned the UN security council last week that “large-scale violence is all but inevitable” if the impasse is not resolved. “The tipping point could be reached very quickly.” After related clashes in Kinshasa last month, in which at least 50 people died, the US imposed limited sanctions on army generals implicated in human rights abuses. On Monday EU foreign ministers also agreed to pursue possible punitive measures.

Matters are not as clear-cut as they might seem. Kabila denies he wanted the delay. Analysts suggest the president, thrust into office after his father was assassinated in 2001, is a front man for the security apparatus. The opposition is fragmented and its readiness to resort to protests often leads to violence. Concerns over stability by countries such as France and Belgium are not wholly disinterested, commercially speaking. But that the leadership of another African country appears ready to ride roughshod over democracy and laws is clear. The DRC has never had a peaceful transition of power since independence in 1960. This is why term limits are so important. Last year the presidents of Burundi, Rwanda and Congo-Brazzaville overrode constitutional requirements that they step aside. In Burundi’s case, violence and displacement resulted. In Uganda, Yoweri Museveni looks determined to go on for ever. Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwean “presidency for life” and José Eduardo dos Santos’s Angolan ascendancy provide further examples of endemic disregard for democratic principles.

It would be a mistake to think Africans care less about self-serving, corrupt and irresponsible politicians than Europeans or Americans. The African Union has repeatedly stressed peaceful political transitions in embedding democratic habits. Studies show African voters value democratic systems but are increasingly frustrated at their malfunctioning and wilful subversion.

Nigeria demonstrated last year how it could be done. But South Africa, ruled since apartheid’s end by a single, over powerful party, is less of a shining light. It’s reported decision to renounce the International Criminal Court is another sign that too many African politicians would rather jettison democratic and legal norms than subject themselves to scrutiny and public judgment.

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