Category Archives: social media

The New Xenophobia

One of the scarier consequences of the Paris Terror Attacks are the waves of renewed xenophobia that have swept Europe’s already seething right wing, and somewhat surprisingly travelled across the Atlantic.  The suicide bombings by jihadis were widely mapped in Paris at first, in attempts to comprehend the coordinated suicide bombings and sites at which terrorists struck with AK47’s and Kalshnikovs in quite shocking near-simultaneity.  (Coordination of the attacks, which claimed 130 lives, and left 368 wounded, undoubtedly increased their terror, and eerily echoed the parallel hijacking of planes on September 11, 2001, in suggesting vulnerability and geographic reach of an unseen network.)

The transformation of reflexive spontaneous public displays mourning the victims or in solidarity with migrants have all too rapidly been replaced in many European cities, as if leading us through a looking glass, into nationalist protests of anti-migrant sentiment, channeling fears that have grown with threats of another attack into neo-nationalist sentiments–as if governments had failed to defend public safety, following on the immediate declaration of a state of emergency, closing of borders, and multiplication of police raids.  The initial reflexive show of widespread solidarity of mourning and commemoration at the unprecedented attacks appeared to heal profound shock and disbelief at the murders at outdoor restaurants and night clubs in Paris and attempted assassinations at a soccer stadium attended by the President of the Republic outside the city.   Those public displays of sentiment contrasted sharply to how the deadly attacks have fed a new xenophobia in Europe and America, and a deep suspicion of the “other” of the refugee–now increasingly suspected of disguising their own ties to terrorist cells.  If these protests appears–inadequately–to orient and focus fears of further terror attacks of such terrifying scale, they suggest the disorientation before the shock of the Paris attacks, if not outright cynical deception.  After ISIS claimed responsibility for the coordinated attacks,  President Hollande’s immediate declaration that ‘France is at war prepared the stage for a rhetoric of opposition evoking George W. Bush’s declaration of a clash of civilizations, giving broader circulation to a misguided concept first theorized by Samuel P. Huntington, but that gained startling currency to justify the so-called war on terror:  it returned as a master-narrative of global oppositions reduced to the easiest alterity of us v. them and cast less in terms of law than religion; if it was readily reclaimed by ISIS news releases to magnify the actions of a group of attackers resident in Belgium who were second-and third-generation immigrants, the group of plotters was not based in Syria.

Despite clearly harmful over-simplifications in so faulty an opposition, the narrative have mobilized unjustified fears of infiltration removed from evidence:  mapping ties between ISIS and the perpetrators of the attacks shifted nefariously to mapping terror onto Syrian refugees.  Only three days after shock and outpouring of global sympathy to shootings that left 129 dead in six simultaneously timed attacks in the city’s center, fears of infiltration of displaced Syrian refugees by ISIS terrorist cells have gained unprecedented currency based on only the flimsiest of circumstantial proofs.  It is as if this responds to the relative inadequacy and failure of efforts to comprehend the plight or the scope of needs of Syrian refugees, and shock at the use of military-grade weapons in civil spaces.  Many of the multiple attackers in fact held French or Belgian nationality, and for disaffected underemployed Europeans living in the Brussels’ district of Molenbeek and other poor urban neighborhoods, the Islamic State appears to have exercised a particular appeal.  And although the attacks were coordinated by the Belgian ISIS Lieutenant  Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who sought to impress higher ups with a devastating attack in France, the group of terrorists and gunmen, if many were trained in Syria, are poorly mapped onto Syrians writ large, even if they were adept in evading security forces at airports and in cars.  For despite his presence in every available database of terror, Abaaoud evaded suspicion, as did other Paris plotters and Belgian jihadists, who had sequestered large amounts of triacetonea triperoxide explosives and automatic explosives.  The danger of terrorist threats and operations is profoundly mis-mapped and poorly apprehended as originating abroad, even if Abaaoud was indeed eager to “do jihad”:   ISIS propaganda has lavished praise on the “eight knights” for having “brought Paris down to its knees” but increasing evidence points to local coordination of the attacks, most probably planned and executed by a contingent of Europeans.  Yet rather than being coordinated at a remove from secretive locations in Pakistan, Syria, or Yemen, as Al Quaeda, European residents who joined ISIS have apparently hatched plots of their own–as firing automatics at close range in a concert hall or stadium–that reflect ISIS’ increased exploitation of social media and crowd funding to attract jihadis eager to pose beside the black ISIS flag.

 

alt-abouad-articleLarge

From ISIS’ online recruiting magazine, Dabiq

The topography of the Paris attacks is increasingly reveled to have unfolded in the changing urban sociology of European cities in France and Belgium, and neighborhoods plagued by high unemployment rates and disaffected youth as St. Denis and Molenbeek; although some suspects have indeed traveled to Syria, they are removed from a central command, and seem to have enacted their own fantasies of violence in crowded public spaces (a rock arena and soccer stadium), rather than being orchestrated from abroad as the French President Hollande has asserted: indeed, despite the target of ISIS’s Syrian de facto capital, many of the ISIS higher ups have left the city long ago, and bombs are focussed, it is argued, on empty lots.  The perpetrators are among thee roughly one thousand French citizens and six hundred Germans who have travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State; over 3,000 Europeans committed to jihad, attracted in part by IS’s increasingly effective use of the internet as a recruitment and fundraising tool, as well as for diffusing a call to jihad.

 

1. It is striking how public spectacles of collective mourning have rapidly mutated into frustration to contain deep fears of where terrorists might strike, and desperation at the unexpected attacks–even as parallel protests have occurred sympathetic to the plight of refugees.

The government’s official denunciation of attacks as “planned in Syria” have justified airstrikes against the Syrian capital of the Islamic State, led to over 600 raids and numerous house arrests across France, and increased visible military presence in much of the nation.  French President François Hollande’s involvement of the army across the country “confirms we are at war“–as is, by extension, suddenly, much of the world.  The absence of the face of the “enemy” has led concern to be projected upon the next potentially scary suspect, in an attempt to contain fears of repeat attacks, with the whereabouts of their actual coordinator unknown.  We assume that it must be contained in fixed border, and arrive from a place that lies far outside the boundaries of the European Union.

 

Islamic State's Frontier

 

Yet if France is at war, where’s the enemy?  Molenbeek?  The problem of mapping the threat has provided substantiation of deeper fears of the arrival of terror cells in the European Union’s borders whose provenance was limited to the Middle East is no longer tenable, and the bombing of unidentified targets in Syria may not even be an adequate response to a network of men in their late twenties or early thirties, mostly petty criminals, who are presumed to have recently traveled to Syria.  Even if their radicalization occurred in Syria, they are not refugees.

 

Molenbeek detail

New York Times

 

The lack of clear compass to where the enemy exists has made the apparent insinuation of terrorism into the European Union so startling that a finger has been quite deceptively pointed toward refugees.  A similar lack of knowledge and growing fears of further attacks have come to justify an unprecedented public expansion of xenophobic protests calling for a rethinking of the European Union’s previous decision to admit refugees.  These protests, stoked by threats of continued terror attacks, mirror a broad attack on outside, external forces as if they have indeed coordinated the vicious jihadi attacks, and the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa constitutes an odd localization of the the terrorist threat.  Bombings have been unleashed against northern Syria, announced to be in retaliation, concentrated in the operational capital of the Islamic State, have been concentrated on its outskirts.  Even in the face of evidence locating coordination of attacks in Paris among local jihadis, the unprecedented intensification of anti-migrant rhetoric across Europe mismaps and exploits the danger of further jihadi attacks in irresponsible ways, largely because of the discovery of a Syrian passport near the corpse of one suicide bomber in the Paris attacks at the Stade de Paris.

 

Bataclan Concert before Attack:Marion Ruszniewski:Agence France Presse.pngMarion Ruszniewski/Agence France Presse

 

The Syrian refugee crisis has already provoked severe human rights violations, from sequestrations and confinements to arrests and strip-searches, and numbering, dehumanizing displaced refugees who try to enter Europe in search of residence and work.  The renewed currency of ties between terror and migrants have also led American politicians eager to find common ground to condemn Barack Obama’s offers of asylum within the United States to those displaced–as if it constituted a heedless abetting of the spread of terror attacks, mirroring inflated anti-refugee rhetoric throughout the European Union.  The wholesale borrowing of such groundless charges from right wing European parties is a particularly toxic manifestation of anti-Islamic xenophobia, transported by means of tweets and social media, and giving rise to a melding of anti-immigrant xenophobia and nationalism that attract an inverse demographic than protests welcoming immigrants in recent months, demanding their repatriation and literally cloaking themselves in regional nationalisms.

 

poland-byg

55b3e3f5c36188314b8b45fa

Russia Today

Pelagics Protest

DW

The protest of Germans anointing themselves as “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident” hearken back to visions of oppositional political history framed by Karl Schmitt in the Nazi period.  The pressure they have put on Germany’s continued promises to resettle refugees has forced its Minster of Justice, Heiko Maas, to caution against equating refugees with terrorists, and affirm the absence of any actual ties between Syrian migrants and the perpetrators of the Paris attacks, and the EU to tighten security on the boundaries on the Schengen region.

The actual geography on the ground hasn’t at all changed.  But the links already insinuated between hidden terrorist cells and Syrian refugees have materialized as a rationale for collectively turning our backs on the growing refugee crisis as if our actual well being and survival depended on it–and the acceptance of refugees has provided an entry point of sleeper cells who may execute similar attacks.  As the manhunt for the terrorists who committed the atrocities has expanded, waves of panic have spread, stoked by accusations that resemble a witch craze, as the association of migrants and terrorists has virally mutated not only in Europe, but migrated across the Atlantic to the United States, in ways that stand to infect political discourse and debate.  The recent reassessment of how open America’s doors would remain to refugees–and absurd request for assurances that none would engage in “terroristic activity,” as Greg Abbot of Texas put it, or, as Senator John McCain glibly demanded, while defending migrant asylum, that “there’s a process that prohibits any kind of infiltration like we’ve just seen in Paris,” entirely misses the point.  And they stand to expand the waiting-time to process Syrian refugees in the United States beyond the  18 to 24 months now required, and hamstring plans to grant 10,000 refugees asylum in 2016–by requiring the heads of the FBI and Secretary of Homeland Security to personally approve each refugee for entrance, radically reworking practices of processing Syrian and Iraqi refugees at a crucial and sensitive time.

The discovery of a passport of the Syrian Ahmad Almohammad, who entered Europe from the island of Leros in Greece and the traversed the Balkans, near one site of terrorist attack offered circumstantial evidence but needed grist to identify refugees who have arrived in Europe with feared terrorist groups.  Links between ISIS terrorists and Syrians refugees in Europe acquired the sort of substantiation which politicians believed to exist, even if they were not searching for them.  Although no previous proofs of actual connections exist that could have prevented the Paris attacks, the fingerprints of one of the suicide bombers on a Syrian passport has suddenly substantiated fears of terrorist infiltration of groups of millions of undocumented refugees.  Such identifying signs, no doubt since they provide the archetypical clues for how the police have apprehended and identified criminals, offer the needed grist for inflammatory ties between national security and displaced Syrian migrants and substantiating long latent xenophobic fears.  The documented passage of the holder of the passport through the Greek island of Leros tied to the cluster of deadly attacks under the name Ahmad Almohammad suddenly offered possible grounds to fear potential infiltration by Islamic State operatives among the 1.5 millions displaced entering Europe from Turkey–even though the other perpetrators were of longstanding European residence, including a French national and Belgian resident.  The poor sense of the geography of terror is to blame.  For even the discovery of the even crudest hand-drawn map of a route from Turkey through Greece and Hungary to Germany provokes speculation about terrorist plots.  Suspicions of the presence 4,000 “covert gunmen” in Europe have been stoked by ISIS videos promising further attacks, and led refugees to be stopped on suspicion in Turkish port cities.

Ahmad was clearly not the ringleader of the operations–local police finger the Belgian-born jihadist Abdelhamid Abaaoud–but the apparent presence of a Syrian refugee at a site of terror has provided the needed catalyst for expanding increasingly inflammatory rhetoric linking jihadi terrorism to Syrian refugees, despite the unfounded nature of these links.  The potential links of terrorist threats and the arrival of Syrian refugees in Europe has been often cited by countries than had already built barbed wire fences in order to discourage the arrival and block the progress of Syrian refugees across the Balkans in the Schengen region.  The border barriers built in Greece, Hungary, Bulgaria and Croatia served as physical barriers to transit points of entrance to the Schengen area of passport-free travel–

 

schengen_area_map_2008

migrant-borders-europe-1442357424369-master495-v3

 

But the identification of the fingerprints–regarded as a clue that conceals the illogical association of guilt with all refugees from the region to seek a home in Europe–has become grounds to criticize whatever agreement existed for resettling refugees within the European Union.

And so, three days after outbursts of sympathy and horror at the Paris shootings, panic has been fostered about the fear for admitting terrorists disguised as refugees and displaced.  European nations from Poland to Czechoslovakia, a nation already eager to turn away refugees from its borders, and a rousing chorus of tweets from others to close their borders in the light of terror attacks for which ISIS claimed responsibility,–by linking the danger of the further attacks that ISIS has promised to the presence of refugees within their borders, as if accepting refugees constituted surefire vulnerability to further attacks.  But even closing borders won’t help stave off the attacks that ISIS promises would be repeated, though the reflexive agenda of far-right politicians in Europe–and, shortly after, in the U.S.–has been surprisingly swift.  Poland provided one of the easiest cases for accepting this policy, its new right-wing government having been elected on a platform of anti-migrant platform.  Such right-wing opponents of accepting refugees have even found recognition and previously implausible legitimacy as defenders of the common good:  they obscure the fact that such home-grown jihadis originate in districts of European cities with unemployment rates exceeds 30%.

Molenbeek.png

The Paris attacks may have broken a delicately negotiated managed solution to a growing crisis, despite the reluctance of Austria, Hungary, and other nations.  Only shortly after the President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, instituted an emergency quota system to spread the admittance of an expanding number of refugees who entered the Schengen region among EU member states and their neighbors–requiring almost all of the member states to welcome a total of 160,000 people–the Paris attacks that claimed 129 victims have provided a pretext for Europeans as the incoming Polish president or Slovakia’s government to bend to popular protests against the acceptance of immigrants from Syria and the Middle East.  (None other than the now-cranky Lech Walesa has reared his head again as a nationalist spokesperson, asking the world “to remember that Poland has been transitioning from communism for only 25 years.”)  Yet the market has little to do with the rampant xenophobia nourished in anti-migrant marches in Polish cities, which have prominently included emblems of explicit nationalist protectionism.

But the Euroscepticism of several incoming conservative governments has relished in having found new fodder for their claims.  Just after an equably distribution of refugees among Europeans seemed reached, the shock of processing the terrible deaths of innocent civilians in Paris seems to have helped redraw the map again, giving far-right European politicians from Marine Le Pen–tweeting an “immediate halt to all intake of migrants in France”–and Poland’s European Affairs Minister Konrad Symanskic, with Viktor Orbán not far behind, occasion to tweet about the need to close borders to prevent unsubstantiated fears of terrorist infiltration.  Even in France, where President Hollande had recently if only grudgingly decided to accept 24,000 displaced refugees over two years, the readiness to evoke fears of admitting unwanted terror cells give expression and justification to longstanding deeply-seated anti-migrant and -immigrant attitudes that have been suddenly given a new boost by conservative social media.

While Facebook unveiled the Safety Check app to alert friends ‘I’m Safe’ just after the Paris shootings, post-shooting tweets have disseminated particularly dangerous rallying cries from the right on social media.  The rage of tweets from members of the radical right from Filip Dewinter of the Flemish secessionist Vlaams Belsang party to Nigel Farage of England’s UKIP echoed the decision another Eurosceptic, Poland’s Foreign Minister, to use the events to revise his nation’s policy toward migrants.  The tragedy has sadly provoked the weirder, post-tragedy tragedy of making it even harder for refugees to be accepted in Europe who are fleeing ongoing civil war, even as that war seems to have visited Europe.  The New Xenophobia is of the most dangerous sort–a xenophobia prominently rooted in the fear of enemy agents potentially destabilizing the nation, based on linking the displaced to the most nightmarish event visited on a nation for several years.  The new xenophobia stigmatizes the humane acceptance of displaced migrants based on the paranoid fear that displaced migrants, rather than seeking asylum, seek to attack our security and our cities and our homes.

The stoking of all this barely logical fear has, back in our own country, somehow swiftly set the stage for the weirdly unpredicted closing of ranks that Presidential candidate Donald Trump couldn’t have possibly foreseen himself.  But it stands to add an element of distinct charm to the presidential race:   for in the face of President Obama’s humane decision to multiply the number of accepted refugees accepted by the United States from Syria five-fold, a strikingly cynical consensus has emerged among American republicans in the wake of the Paris tragedy that state governors must act as federalist sheriffs to protect the country, and refuse the entry to displaced Syrian refugees which Obama had earlier promised.  If Donald Trump has taken the opportunity to impugn the President’ sanity as much as his foreign policy choices–

 

IMpugn sanity

 

–other candidates have not hesitated to broadcast their own readiness, unlike the President, by implication, to protect similar tragedies in the United States, and rather put at risk the hopes of entry of the 30,000 refugees that the United States government promised  it would soon increase from 70,000.  Indeed, the strike in Paris, claimed to be the proportional equivalent of the Twin Towers’ destruction in New York City back in 2001, and “France’s 9/11,” has led Republicans to direct renewed attacks on President Obama’s offer to resettle a small share of the refugee crisis to be equated with putting Americans at risk.

And so, just three days after the terror attack in Paris, Texas’ Governor, Greg Abbott, took it upon himself to write a letter informing President Obama that, given his experience in dealing with the dangers of migrant crises and immigrant threats, and the foiling of an ISIS-related terrorist attack, and by extension his greater familiarity with terrorist threats, he would refuse to allow Syrians to be placed in the state he represented, and called on the President to “halt your plans to allow Syrians to be resettled anywhere in the United States,” given the possible danger that they pose to the country.  The chorus of Republican governors, from Bobby Jindal’s advice of prudence to Charlie Barker of Massachusetts, to Chris Christie of New Jersey, seemed an attempt to drown out the airwaves after shock over the terror attack.  The bizarre move imitated far-right European parties again evoked the degree of “unacceptable peril” Republicans have long liked to Obama’s presidency, rather than any material threat.  But within a few days, sympathy was overwhelmed by isolationism, as the television news network CNN trumpeted in banner headlines that governors of over half of the states in the union–twenty-seven states–have unilaterally refused to accept Syrian refugees, although the position has limited if any legal ground, in ways that have been imitated by a spate of Republican presidential candidates eager to prove their executive abilities.  All have been magically transformed, including Jindal, into foreign policy experts.

 

CNN No Refugees.png

CNN

 

The map of those still honoring their commitments to accept displaced refugees struggling to find homes appear to be in the vast minority–five states that seem almost foolhardy embraces of national vulnerability, from Vermont to Pennsylvania to Colorado and Washington, against the dominating common sense of declaring closed doors to the displaced.  When placed in context of nearly five million Syrian refugees  displaced truth, of course, regions of the United States have hardly absorbed their share–and those states whose governors were so quick to condemn the possibly plausible terrorist ties of refugees from Syria or Iraq had admitted far fewer than 300 or 250 refugees since 2011 at most:  their governors seem to be showing their own ignorance by taking such a broad stance.

 

a pittance of refugees in US

The map of those local Republicans who took it upon themselves to retract any offer of resettlement to all displaced Syrians–by far the greatest majority of refugees who left homes with hopes to resettle in Europe–seems not only an eager posing as patriots, or launch grenades at the existing foreign policy of the Obama White House yet again, but reveals an unforeseen opportunism as well as little familiarity with the workings of the federal government:  those most quick to reject entry to refugees as if this were within their competence responded to the fears of their own constituents, or so it looks in the below visualization printed by the New York Times–the graphic may not map clearly onto where displaced Syrians have been relocated or placed, but to the demographics that local politicians seek to reach.   The declaration spread like a meme, at any rate, over the airwaves of the United States, alerting constituents that their immediate governors would not place them at risk–as, by implication, the folly of the President had, and Hillary Clinton and the Democrats had been uniformly duped to advocate.  And it is not a surprise, to enter the world of the archeology of data visualizations, that they mirror those states that reject the federal government’s expansion of Health Reform.

Medicaid-Expansion-States-07.01.14

Access to health care--insurance

And so, the entire party has been associated with irresponsibility, and the other accepted xenophobia as the cry of the day. Quickly, not only Donald Trump but Marco Rubio and Chris Christie and Ted Cruz have joined in calling for shutting the borders to the displaced, and Bobby Jindal can appear a model of executive authority–whose deeply felt opinions illustrate little familiarity with constitutional law or Geneva Conventions.

 

 

What Governors Draw line at Syrian Refugees?

New York Times

 

The opportune nature of such a quick in-step realignment of the debate about immigration took up its lines went without much comment.  But it unsurprisingly seems to replicate opportune lines of political pandering at its worst:  if it was the ultimate insult to most refugees, and the perhaps poorest forms of protection mirrored political opportunism below the historical 48th in the United States parallel that so sadly seems to continue to divide north and south, and have little correspondence to the areas where most of Syrian extraction live–or Syrian refugees have been placed by the US Government since 2012, and mirror the red/blue divide, as configured in these cartograms reflecting the electoral results of Presidential elections of 2004 (state by state) and 2012 (county by county).

 

Shaded Cartogram 2012.jpg

What do they have in mind?  Out-Trumping Trump?  Winning, more likely, or hoping to do so by stoking fears and bringing them to the surface again.

For the close-minded knee-jerk refusal stokes the most unfounded fears in the wake of the tragic terrorist attacks that we are all vulnerable:  and to pretend we are living in the shadow of 9/11, when Republicans once unbelievably came to be improperly equated with protecting our nation’s safety and common good, and to wallow in complete amnesia by bandying about the word “terrorism,” ISIS, and “terror attack” with undue frequency to suggest the benefits of responsibly closing our frontiers.  The good old days.

 

1-d28cb2b8ec

3 Comments

Filed under Clash of Civilizations, ISIS, Paris Terror Attacks, refugee crisis, refugees, social media, Syrian refugees

Mapping Friendships? Facebook Maps Social Networks

The recent growth of web-based “social networks” inspire maps no longer rooted in terrestrial relations, but stand to become vertiginously unmoored from them:   maps often help us to grapple with the distance between them, as much as to orient us spatially to their relationships, but the blobs on this series of maps oddly disaggregates the inhabitants from the land, focussing less on their spatial situation than their relative degree of web-presence.   Indeed, in ways that very inventively rewrite the map as a throbbing surface, rather than a static interface, the attachments of folks to the interactive space of Facebook becomes cast as the subject that is being mapped–as well as being the datasource from which the map’s dataset derives.

Thanks to the creative folks at Stamen design, we have a beautiful interactive global map of Facebook users, whose bold colors offer a neatly clickable index of social networking over space.  The map is not an innovative ordering of space, but illustrates the network’s global reach in a twist on the project of mapping the inhabited world, shared by Ptolemy and Abraham Ortelius alike.  But let’s ask what’s at stake in crafting a visualization culled from archived data gathered from users’ profiles–as much as celebrating the virtuosity of the clickable map as a chart of the social network’s reach, as if it were able to map as previously unquantifiable (and indeed ultimately almost ephemeral) value as ‘friendship’ might be.

World's "Friendships" on Facebook

Many maps employ self-reported data.  In a sense, the map of Facebook use–or the self-identified “Friendship Map”–charts global inter-relations, like the global maps of national distribution of GDP, provenance of coffee beans or even pathways of the migrating whales, both discussed in earlier posts.  But whereas  maps objectively mediate terrestrial inter-relations–and inter-connectivity–the notion of connectivity has been re-appropriated in the images of “Friendship” that Facebook commissioned, as has the meaning of the word “Friendship” itself.  On the one hand, this map is a celebration and triumphal illustration of Facebook’s near-ubiquity.  But it is also with clear limits, even if they are unacknowledged.  Anyone not on Facebook is absent from the map, since connectivity is generated from profiles that are registered online.

Facebook connections allowed the folks at Stamen to generate instantaneous images of web-use, making this sequence of clickable maps a truly interactive treat, as well as a visual feast.  But the effect is also to present the data generated from Facebook use as endowed with the allegedly objective criteria of maps, and to normalize Facebook’s criteria of “friendship” in apparently objective terms.  Although the very notion of geographic connectivity is fundamental to map making, the maps that are used as the templates to indicate the “connections” of friending in the Facebook platform invest a sense of objectivity and meaning in trends of friending that elevates the medium as the basis to generate further information to a degree that boosts Facebook’s criteria of meaning, as much as provides analytic tools:  if “the medium is the message,” the medium is not cartography, although the multiple images echo the authority of cartographical forms, but Facebook itself.

This is particularly pernicious, and bears some examination.  The maps on this site visualize aggregate friendships on Facebook as quivering blobs of connections that pulsate as with life of their own.  Although claiming objective authority of a map, the aggregates map “friendship” as Facebook has defined it, and embody and reify the data FB use itself creates and generates:  this is a map of FB use, in other words (rather than of web use in general), and a vision of the interconnectivity Facebook promises and the very “Friendships” that it creates.

Take a look once again at the snapshot of the connectedness of the Marshall Islanders who use Facebook:

World's Friendships on Facebook

 

Such a map is decidedly not a territory–nor could it be confused with one.  But if “all maps are arguments,” in Harley’s words, and conceal interests, as much as show meaning, the interests concealed in these “Maps of the World’s Friendship” demand considerable unpacking.  For to me, the multiple maps that Stamen design unveiled last September 12 are something like post-modern versions of earlier corporate emblems.

The aggregate views of information born of Facebook use essentially trumpet the inter-connected world that Facebook promises as a matrix achieved by corporate interconnectedness, in other words, in ways that update the familiar stream-lined modernist logo of global unity Pan Am once used to promote itself as the “world’s most experienced airline,” able to provided air service to all regions of the world by airline jets.  The Pan Am emblem emptied the familiar format of projection from toponyms or places, as if to illustrate the lack of obstacles to air travel and the global surface that its flights promised to link.  The logo owned by Pan American World Airways erased places in favor of the latitudes that link the world bridged by flight paths and no longer in need of land maps, no doubt intentionally offering the new map the airline corporation promised to provide to its users.

 

277px-Pan_Am_Logo.

The interactive map of Facebook connectivity are constantly evolving and generated at a given moment, and, unlike the static emblem, as if living independently from the viewer, but embodying actual FB use.

The contrast is interesting on iconographic grounds as well as stylistic ones.  The generation between these visions of global interconnectedness has led to a map of greater sophistication and persuasiveness of interactive form, and one that seems, like Facebook, user-friendly and value-free:  but the map of Facebook users is particularly insidious, as ‘friending’ and connections are rendered by the web-based platform itself.  In comparison to the Pan Am logo, rather than merely provide an illusory image of the promise of global unity, the map is a triumphant image of the actual interaction that the web-based platform promised: “friending” provides the metric of global interconnectedness and the sole standard of national interconnectivity.  Although the map can be re-centered at a click in order to map the connectedness from a different point of view, the “point of view” does not really change. In the text above the map, “friendship” doesn’t appear in scare quotes:  it in fact normalizes Facebook use as the sole index of contentedness and inter-connection.

Let’s examine specific cases to ask what is revealed or viewable in these multiple maps, which represent a proliferation of different data visualizations as much as providing a basis for geographical or spatial orientation. To do so, return to the “map” of Facebook connectivity in the Marshall Islands, which maps Islanders’s global connectedness via Facebook friendships:

World's Friendships on Facebook

 

 

The notion of mapping an emotion or state of mind–friendship–suggests the sort of positivism of early twentieth-century phrenology, or the comic maps of lands of contentment, like the early modern “Carte du Tendre“–an imagined geography described as a “topographic and allegoric representation” by Mme. de Scudéry in seventeenth-century France–as a geography of Love, complete with a river of Tenderness that runs through towns named after different stages of tender affection.

There’s a wonderful paradox of mapping the intangible as concrete, or mapping the ineffable–how often do we invest deep significance in the word “friend” after fourth grade?–in graphic terms, as if to make manifest the good-will that exists as if it were a physical topography.  (The notion of such mythic lands is re-inforced by dividing the map into color-coded continents, as if an emotional Olympic games between different parties.)  But it is more the hubristic belief of Facebook in their own metrics, doubtful in any event, than a positivistic belief in the ability to locate sites of well-being in the body or on the planet.

What’s the metric here?  Hopes of visualizing interconnectedness among Facebook’s users is more of an advertisement for their web-based platform than a visualization of disinterested data, and it’s not at all certain that this converts to a metric of well-being:  the huge number of connections boasted by residents of the Marshall Islands, Guam, Fiji, and the Philippines may derive from a sense of disconnectedness among the American populations in these regions, and a reliance on FB as a platform to remain in contact with their relatives in a different time-zones.  Although the Marshall Islands were only occupied by the United States until just less than thirty years ago–American forces left in 1986–the 10% of the population of American origin maintain extremely close ties to the US, and, more tellingly, the top destination for Marshallese ex-pats is the US.  “Technology bridges distance and borders,” Mia Newman boasts from Stanford on the FB website itself, as, due to the grace of this platform, “Individuals today can keep in touch with their friends and family in completely new ways — regardless of where they live.”  In a world characterized by dislocation and isolation, Facebook provides social ties.

The appeal of the map is of course to advertise how Facebook trumps geography, and one might do well to return to the interested nature of this map as a corporate logo:  “Immigration is one of the strongest links that seems to bind these Facebook neighbors,” the website informs us, if this was a discovery that the platform allowed; having (and maintaining) a lot of FB connections isn’t that surprising given the dislocations caused by such out-migration over recent years.  Flipping to the site itself,

[http://www.facebookstories.com/stories/1574/interactive-mapping-the-world-s-friendships#color=continent&story=1&country=MH],

watch with awe as color-coded aggregate bubbles quiver with connectivity,  as folks update social profiles, making new connections, adding “Friends”, or, as I happened to do last night, de-Friending others.  Clicking on the variable of ‘language’ on the site, we can see or imagine close ties between the Marshallese and the Philippines, and note with some surprise that the dominance of red (English) on the map, the improbability that non-English speakers in the islands nonetheless register the greatest number of connections.  This omits the different uses of “Friending” or “FB Friendship” among each region, of course, we failed to add, as it assumes that use of Facebook conventions is as universal as Facebook’s global reach.

The deepest attraction of the site is its interactive feature by which the map at a click newly configures itself from the perspective of dfferent FB users.  The movable centering of the map doesn’t change the geographic distribution of place, but rather  reveals how connectivity is centered in the globe from different national aggregates, which can also be segregated by language.

Experiment at the link here, to explore the fluidity of this new mode of mapping the world’s population, and abstracting one’s web-presence from the world.

[http://www.facebookstories.com/stories/1574/#color=continent&story=1&country=HT]

In this case Haiti, the “map” correlates the number of Facebook connections in the country and numbers between countries in ranked order that are a bit surprising, given the prominence of Canada, until one imagines the number there of Haitian refugees:

Learn Which Countries Share

The links among active FB users, cast here in terms of language groups, ostensibly responds to the question of who “shares the closest friendship connections,” although the reasons for those connections are not able to be clarified–although the illumination of linguistic ties clearly helps.  The huge prominence of Haitian ties to the Dominican Republic and Canada is not a big surprise; if the slightly lesser ties Haiti enjoys to the United States may be, it is not surprising that the proportional ties to France rank a close fourth.  This is a map, however, of dislocation, and attempts to bridge physical divides, as much as it is of friendship ties–or even a measure of friendship per se–so much as the type of “friendship™”  that Facebook seeks to market and be able to offer:  friendship that is less in, as it were, meatspace than cyberspace.

In contrast, the close ties of Russia to the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus might be better explained by their recent division from a formerly united regional territory, albeit one that was ethnically diverse:

Russia's %22Friends%22

These maps display salient ties of economic and linguistic relations, to be sure, yet filtered through the economy of Facebook use.  The dramatically interactive map measures different perspectives of the world through the sum totals of FB users in one region or nation–a self-selected group–based on the criteria that that group imposed on the map.  Unlike other maps, where the data is cherry-picked and chosen and balanced by the mapmaker to conceal or pinpoint interests in an objective manner, Facebook has culled the data for this map–created and devised by Stamen Design–based on data that is not only essentially self-reported, but represents not only a portrait, but Facebook’s ability to mine the data archived by user-preferences and to assemble its own data of the aggregate of regional Facebook communities.

The result is a fantastic vision of totality through the eyes of the Facebook network, in which we can “click” on any country to view its population’s “connections” to other areas of the world.  What else does the map tell us?  Little more than the economic ability to dedicate large amounts of time to FB, or the state of emotional dependence on expanding one’s connections–or, more accurately, the acculturation of FB as a way of maintaining ties.  “Economic links, through trade or investment, also seem to be strong predictors of country connectedness,” Mia Newman informs us as she seeks to interpret the map for readers who have stumbled upon it and seek to understand this new configuration of the globe online.

Since we’re championing interconnectedness, let’s look at the potentially more isolated country of Pakistan:

Pakistan 1

The ever helpful text panel–as the legend that must always be read with care in any map–calls special attention to Pakistanis’ ties to Bangladeshis, an effect of their unity in colonial times, but is less than illuminating about what are the classes of Facebook users in the former South Asian colonies, or what are the groups using the platform:  perhaps the emphasis on the fourth largest aggregate site of connections distracts from the comparable ties to users in Afghanistan, or the surprising permeability of the Indian-Pakistani border.

The multiple FB connections of inhabitants of Greece, however, and the generous radii of countries in Eastern and Central Europe, belies the notion that interconnectedness is a metric of economic vitality.

Greece.

There’s a lot of FB activity in Micronesia–but are Bulgaria and Serbia hotspots of economic vitality or cooperation?  Are Chile and Argentina sites of stability, or is Mexico?  Is Argentina really a center of stable labor relations and a model of free markets that we are instructed to read the map as providing evidence of?

Argentina's Friendship and Labor Market

The arrangement of a configuration of bubbles of different colors are beautiful, and the pulsation of colored blobs dramatic, but the group of users are particularly difficult to identify, as are the habits by which they might “friend” their “friends”–or the networks they create.

Does–to chose a limit case–an absence of FB interconnectedness in China really reveal that the country is moribund economically?  In the manner that North Korea drops off Google Maps, although we all know that North Korea is not known for its open-access, there is no point of reference on which to click or metric to view for the largest of the world’s economies.

The limits of mapping FB use as a form of “friendship” rests on a combination of economic benefits, security, and desires for companionship that jointly contribute to online “friending” and the archiving of “friends.”  Not only is there a uniform level of “friending”–so that the necessity of economic “friendship” is equated with the ties of countries of origin among immigrant communities–but the homogenization of these different gradations of “friendship” obscure the potential benefits of legibility in this dramatically interactive map of Swedish FB users’ ties to geographically proximate and distant members of the FB community.

As the test notes, it shows the close ties of the Swedish market to Norway-not surprisingly–Denmark, and Finland, but also the ties of refugees who have arrived in Sweden, a preferred site, from both to Serbia and Iraq.  These recent settlers in the region, unlike the Scandinavian nexus, document a “friendship” to parents, schoolmates, or extended family– the database FB has culled suggests a deep desire to continue an imaginary with these faceless “connections,” and the lack of ability to make easy contact with these ties among immigrant communities, rather than the depth of their connections.

sweden's friendships

In the end, these are wonderful maps of our own making, whose indices are a better reflection (or projection) of what connectedness means to us–connectedness now being a relation that Facebook has now both defined and designed.  Whereas the old Pan Am logo surely maps geographical interconnectedness, as do all maps, the series of user-generated maps of Facebook connectedness map the extent of networked interconnectivity:   they are less truly maps, in some sense, than data visualization schema, that render in pictorially iconic form the data that Facebook is able to collect.  All maps reflect their makers to be sure; the maps of Facebook connectivity, more than perhaps anything else, illustrate the range of data Facebook is able to mine.  Perhaps this is the real function of the maps, which parade the range of information and “closer looks” that Facebook has access to.

For what goes unsaid–and remains unsaid–in this endless sequence of maps is the variations among the penetration of Facebook within each country–it is assumed to be complete, and to rester anyone that one is interested in taking measure of, as if it were the metric of Who Really Counts.  Yet the wide disparities within the extent of Facebook’s currency (or, if you will, adoption) in different countries not only widely varies but might be itself mapped, as something like a corrective to the data streams that the above maps claim to oh-so-conveniently organize.

The distribution of the differential sin Facebook’s adoption in the population at large might be usefully remembered in this far yet brilliantly colored but useful bubble map, which chats the intensity of Facebook’s penetration in the population, based on site-registered active users around 2012 from a variety of sources, from a project of Elvin Wyly and Larissa Zip, which attempts to map the more socially-networked world that Facebook boasts it can offer access to.  Although the ranking of urbanization of countries is problematic–given the local variation in a largely rural nation as India that possesses large cities–the huge size of connectedness that was privileged in the urbanized areas of brazil, the United States, UK, Uruguay, Chile, France, Columbia, Turkey, Argentina, Malaysia and the Philippines, as well as highly urbanized Singapore and Hong Kong–irrespective of actual geography or population size.  (India is the outlier of a largely unorganized country with high FB users, but the undoubted majority of its users are concentrated in cities or urban areas–Facebook does not release or record precise geophysical location; the relatively small user numbers for Iraq, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Uganda, or China seems to show regional poverty.

 

paste74

The outsized boast of mapping “The World’s Friendships” conceals the very absence of the non-networked, the new disenfranchised who the ideology of Facebook erases from the map–and who are poised to become the unnamed hordes of the inhabited world, whose lives are less visible in a globalized world, although we absent India, Kenya, China, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Nepal and Uganda at considerable risk.

Unurbanized Low-FB presence

The “Maps of [Facebook] Friendship” are fundamentally ways to advertise the very sort of datasets that Facebook is able to sell to companies that want its records of page-views, if by orienting folks to the very metrics that Facebook has at its fingertips.

What we get is a sense of the reliability and credibility that the data Facebook possesses to orient us to the webspace that Facebook has created, using the trademark of being a “friend”–that crucial desideratum in an economy when credibility seems hopelessly confused with web presence and social connectedness intertwined with virtual contexts and contacts mediated over Facebook and LinkedIn–is able to be mapped with apparent accuracy, of an almost positivistic tenor, albeit allowing for the fluidity that is itself so characteristic of the web as a medium and of Facebook as a virtual interface.

Leave a comment

Filed under bubble maps, data visualization, Facebook, Facebook Friendship Map, Facebook Urban Penetration, FB users, Interactive Maps, social media, social networking