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Testing perceptions – Myers-Briggs and false appearances

February 25, 2013 Leave a comment

Every morning at around 7.45am, BBC Radio 4 includes a short talk from a religious figure giving listeners a thought to ponder. The daily “Thought for the Day” is given by Christian priests and vicars, Rabbis, Imans and others.

The Last Supper

The Last Supper
(Hans Holbein the Younger, 1524)

This morning’s programme (25 February 2013) featured  Dr Giles Fraser, priest-in-charge of St Mary’s, Newington. Fraser spoke about Jesus and pointed out that the Western World’s perceptions on what he looked like are likely to be wrong. He referred to classical paintings of Jesus and contrasted these to  Judas. Jesus is often blonde while Judas tends to be much more swarthy looking with a longer nose and red or dark hair. Jesus has become an archetypical North European, while Judas reflects stereotypes on how Jews are supposed to look. Of course Jesus was Jewish – and was born and lived in what is now Israel. So did Judas. Both would have had Semitic physiognomies – as both were Jewish.

Fraser’s point however has further implications. There is a tendency to put our own preconceptions and views onto others – and expect others to behave and think like we do. In a business context, this can be fatal as it means we see competitors as just reflections of ourselves. When a competitor comes up with something that appears odd, or that we don’t understand, the inclination is to say that the competitor has it wrong – rather than that we have it wrong, which could just as easily be the situation. This error is a classic type of blind spot.

Myers-Briggs Type Indicators

One part in Fraser’s short talk caught my attention. While he was studying to become a priest, he was taught about Myers-Briggs Type Indicators based on work by Carl Jung.  Fraser commented that both he and his fellow trainee priests were asked to assess the personality type of Jesus based on what they knew and had learned about him. They were then assessed using the Myers-Briggs test. Most found that the personality type they had given to Jesus was actually a reflection of their own type.

The implications for this are that people have a tendency to assign their own expectations and prejudices onto others – and judge them accordingly.

Myers-Briggs test form

The Jungian Briggs Myers 16-Types Personality Test (JBM16) is designed to measure how you like to look at the world and make decisions.

In business recruitment, this can mean choosing a candidate who, rather than bring something fresh to the business, just continues the same old approach. Although this may avoid conflict, it also means that the chance for new, innovative thinking and an ability to change or challenge current norms is also lost. There is a real risk that recruiting clones may lead to the business stultifying and failing to recognise new opportunities and threats.

In research interviewing any attempt to profile an individual remotely is just foolhardy and a key source for interviewer bias, resulting in flawed interviews and erroneous conclusions riddled with misconceptions. Yet there are interviewers who claim to be so expert at such psychometric evaluations that they can assess an interviewee within minutes even though the published tests for Myers Briggs involve dozens of questions  that need to be answered before an assessment can be made.

In business analysis it can lead to a potentially more serious problem. Some analysts pride themselves on their ability to identify the personality type of business or political leaders, without meeting them and with minimal information. Unless there is a vast quantity of information available on another individual – speeches, TV and radio interviews, published articles and opinion pieces, etc. it is risky to extrapolate about another individual and anticipate their behaviour remotely. The danger is that the analyst may project their own typology onto the leader – judging them by reported actions without necessarily understanding the thought processes that lay behind those actions or even the accuracy of the reporting. The risk is that any assessment will be based on prejudices – rather than reality, and so lead to poor decisions.

Business research and analysis should depend on accurate and rigorous methodologies, and not pop-psychology. Myers-Briggs can be useful when backed up by sufficient data. It should be viewed as an analysis tool requiring detailed insight into the subject. Using these, and other similar psychometric approaches, as a basis for complex business decision-making without the full data as demanded by the process is another route to business failure, so treat with care, and treat advocates of these tools even more carefully.

Myers Briggs personality types

If you will it, it is no dream…

February 4, 2013 1 comment

This is the first blog post I’ve written on the subject of the Israel-Palestine conflict. I’m writing it in response to a number of twitter conversations I’ve had over the last week with Palestinian supporters. This has relevance to business research as it shows how people who are obviously intelligent and reasoning can be so influenced by prejudice and false assumptions that they fail to see this as a blind spot. They are blind to what is mostly false propaganda and so continue to believe lies. The Israel-Palestine conflict is highly emotive but can serve as an example and metaphor for any area where people have firmly entrenched opinions. Such dogmatism leads to bad decisions that are based on fallacies – irrespective of whether it relates to the Middle-East or business.

Those who know me know that, although I support Israel, I also believe in the rights of the Palestinian people to fulfil their dreams and have their own Nation State. However this should not be at the expense of the Jewish people’s dream. The land now governed by the State of Israel was originally designated for two peoples, and the Palestinians have rights to govern themselves as much as Israelis have.

What has disturbed me has been the unquestioning faith of the anti-Israel proponents to their cause and the lies they use to justify this faith. Worse, they believe that these lies are totally true.

I stand by everything I wrote. I am not a liar and everything I said is verifiable.

was one comment. Yet this same person said that anti-Semitism also relates to Arabs, ignoring the proper definition of the word. He suggested that I check the “Miriam Webster” (sic) dictionary. Well here’s the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition:

Hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group.

No mention of Arabs here. The concise encyclopaedia entry after the dictionary definition does continue:

Hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious group or “race.” Although the term anti-Semitism has wide currency, it is regarded by some as a misnomer, implying discrimination against all Semites, including Arabs and other peoples who are not the targets of anti-Semitism as it is usually understood….

This is quite clear – some people think that the term could apply to Arabs too, as Semitic peoples, and so the term is a misnomer (i.e. a wrong name or designation) and that Arabs are not the target of anti-Semitism.

This simple example demonstrates that even checking a dictionary entry can lead to a misinterpretation by somebody who has a prejudice.

Bible Stories & Ancient Languages

The other twitter conversation started innocently enough:

Abraham was from #Iraq ,Moses from #Egypt , Jesus from #Palestine, Golda Meier from #Russia and Herzl from #Hungry ,so who was “#Israeli”?

I responded, slightly flippantly:

#Palestine was the Roman name. Abe became #Israeli. Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, David, Solomon… Jesus: All #Israeli

to which came back:

Abe was a guest in the land of the Canaanite, Salomon has had a Phoenician mother and Jesus did not even speak Hebrew.

I pointed out that Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba,  was not Phenician but was from King David’s own tribe i.e. was an Israelite, and that Aramaic was a Jewish language.

Although we do not know whether or not Jesus spoke Hebrew he would have spoken Aramaic – the language spoken in Israel/Palestine at the time. His last words, as recorded in Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34, are Aramaic. The language is used for a number of Jewish prayers (including the Kaddish prayer said by mourners) and the majority of the Talmud.  It is feasible that Jesus also knew Hebrew based on some of the New Testament stories such as Luke 2:46-47 which relates that Jesus was in the Temple listening to the Rabbis’ teachings. This was the time when the Mishnah was being written – and the Mishnah is in Hebrew, implying that Jesus understood these teachings.

Despite the above, prejudices and inaccuracies started to come out – for example:

Aramaic is the old-Arabic-language. While today´s Israelis have re-invented the Hebrew-language in 1920

This is false on two counts. First, Aramaic is in a different branch of the Semitic language group to Arabic (the South Semitic group) – but in the same group as Hebrew (North West Semitic). Second, Hebrew was never re-invented – and certainly not in 1920. Eliezer Ben Yehuda who revived the Hebrew Language revived the language as a spoken, everyday language, in the 1880s – 1890s. Cecil Roth summed up Ben-Yehuda’s contribution to the Hebrew language: “Before Ben‑Yehuda, Jews could speak Hebrew; after him, they did.”

Even when I pointed this out, I got back the response:

Nevertheless Ben Yehuda invented it……

This suggests that Hebrew is a language like Esperanto  –  showing a prejudice that refuses to accept what should be common knowledge i.e. that Hebrew is the language of the Bible and most Jewish prayer and Rabbinic writings through the ages. It gives a flavour of the problems – and the ignorance.

The Ottoman Empire’s dissolution

Here are more tweets from the conversation:

In 1948 the UK left PALESTINE after being there 25 years as a mandate power….there was no “Israel” !!

To which I responded:

Independence Years: #Iraq 1932 #Lebanon 1943 #Jordan & #Syria 1946; #Israel 1948 #Palestine ?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_national_independence_days …

and

Prior to 1917 no Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, either. All part of Ottoman empire. No real difference but years!

My point here is that although Israel was founded in 1948, the other nations were also new, formed out of the carved up Ottoman Empire, with Britain and France granted mandates by the League of Nations following the First World War. Each of the nations gained independence from the colonial powers in the years stated. None had existed as sovereign nations before – except, like Israel, in pre-History. All were thus the result of a European mind-set, that took maps and drew borders. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was granted to an ally of Britain – Abdullah – as was the kingdom of Iraq, initially ruled by Abdullah’s brother, King Faisal. Iraq was drawn up by Winston Churchill in 1921 by using a ruler and a pencil and does not reflect the ethnicities or geographies of the area. Syria and Lebanon were ruled as French Mandates and were handled in a similar way to the British mandated territories.

The only difference between Israel and these other countries, is the majority peoples in the other countries were Arab. Not Iraqi, Palestinian or Syrian – but Arab. The majority religion was Islam. In contrast, Israel was Jewish.

The conversation continued:

So was also half of Europe being part of the Hapsburg empire and yet we have Romania,Poland Italy Hungry etc,,,,,,

This is, of course, correct – but doesn’t refute my statement. I agreed:

Agree. Geopolitics from 1850-1950 resulted in lots of national self-determination movements including Israel!

Jewish beliefs & Zionism

There then came nonsense trying to define what Jews are and falsifying Jewish history. (Non-Jews telling Jews who they are, and what they should believe is a classic anti-Semitic trope).

No sir !! there was never a “Jewish-nation” since the year 0070 !! it was invented by Zionists in Basel.

Zionism is simply a colonial-adventure with a Jewish artificial-flavour !!!

This, of course, completely ignores traditional Jewish belief and prayer. It ignores the fact that after every meal, religious Jews ask for Jerusalem to be rebuilt, and in each daily prayer they ask for a return to Zion (i.e. Israel) and an ingathering of the Jewish people there. This is not just in the prayers of Jews from Europe, but all Jews – irrespective of where they lived following the exile in the year 70. This exile is remembered in the Jewish calendar – with fast days, and even on joyous occasions such as weddings, where the breaking of a glass as the final act is to symbolise that we still remember the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and our subsequent loss of sovereignty and exile in the Holy Land. (It’s not – as the joke says – the last time that the man will be allowed to put his foot down!)

Population Exchanges & the Refugee Problem

I tried to move from history to a contemporary solution – without assigning blame for the Palestine-Israel problem:

Peace also means recognition of ALL Middle East refugees resulting from ’48 & ’67 wars. Jewish & Palestinian.

Majority of Israelis are now descendants of refugees from Arab countries forced out from their homes.

Back came more ignorance and prejudice:

There are no “Jewish-refugees”, there are rather Jewish-colonialists who came in carrying guns…….

I tried to correct this:

False. Jews forced out of Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon… Pre-1948 Baghdad was 1/3 Jewish. Now no Jews in Iraq

But got back the statement:

Arab-Jews were NEVER forced out , but rather tricked-out by Zionist-bombings of their own synagogues .

to which I responded:

False. The Farhud in Iraq http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Farhud  Pogroms in Yemen http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1947_Aden_pogrom … 1840 Blood libel in Syria…

The fact that these were all before Israel’s establishment was ignored – perhaps the truth was too inconvenient, as the response was:

If there were no State of Israel those Jews would have remained in their own Arab-country !!

I pointed out that this was because the Jews from the Arab countries had no choice – as without Israel there was nowhere else for them to go easily. (Many did try to escape to France, the USA, Australia – but in the main there were quotas and restrictions, unlike for Israel).

Life for Jews in Arab lands was not as rosy as anti-Israel supporters would like us to believe. Non-Muslims (Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians)  were tolerated but viewed as Dhimmis (i.e. second-class citizens). Although sometimes there was peaceful coexistence, generally this was because non-Muslims accepted that they had minimal rights. Post-1948 the situation Arab Jews found themselves in became intolerable with regular pogroms and attacks in almost all Arab nations – resulting in over a million refugees i.e. at least the same number as Palestinian refugees fleeing their homes in the aftermath of the 1948 and 1967 wars. (More recently, the position of the Christian minorities in many Arab countries has deteriorated – with murderous attacks in Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere). Israel gave  Jews a chance to escape.

I didn’t mention in either conversation that the definition of a Palestinian refugee is unique. Usually refugees are long-standing residents of a country.  The Arab Jewish refugees had lived in their countries for generations – many pre-dating Islam. In contrast, Palestinian refugees only had to have been living in the area since 1946.  (UNRWA – the UN agency set up to help Palestinian refugees define Palestinian refugees as “people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.“).

The facts are that as Jews returned to what was then Palestine, they drained swamps (e.g. in the Hula Valley) and started farming the land in a way that had not been done for centuries. This increased the affluence of the area, and Arabs started moving in to take advantage of new work opportunities. Prior to the 1880s, the area was desolate – with subsistence farmers being the majority population, except for in a few towns. Jerusalem had a majority Jewish population, for example – ignored by anti-Israel advocates who even claim it is an Arab city. So, in reality, there was a population exchange – with Jews being forced from their ancestral homelands in Arab countries, and Arabs – many of whom (like Yasser Arafat) had not been born in Palestine – forced out of, or leaving, their homes too. Further, the Arab Jewish refugees and their descendants are now the majority of Israel’s population – and not the descendants of European Jews, as anti-Israel apologists try to claim.

The need for separation – Two States for Two Nations

Eventually of course, we got onto that canard of Israeli Apartheid. Whenever you point out that there is no Apartheid – and mention that there are Arab members of the Knesset, Arab judges, Arab military officers – in fact, Arabs in all aspects of Israeli public life the point is ignored.  Instead, the fact that the West Bank Palestinians are not Israeli citizens and don’t wish to be makes Israel an Apartheid State, according to this view.

The true situation is that prior to the second Intifada, West Bank Palestinians had freedom of movement and work within Israel – although as non-citizens they did not have a vote. The only reason they are separated today is because they chose to attack and kill Israelis. The separation is for security reasons – and if there was a genuine peace there would be no need for such separation. Contrast this with Jordan and Saudi Arabia which have a policy to ban Jews living there or pre-Civil War Syria, where Assad’s Alawites held all the power. These more match the actual definition of apartheid – where ethnic and racial groups are kept separate.

I tried to end the conversation peacefully by pointing out:

There SHOULD be both Palestine & Israel. Needs to be 2 States. Both sides need to talk peace.

The following response shows the mind-set of the anti-Israel apologist – refusing to accept a fair, just and logical solution to the problem:

“2 states” means half of Palestine stolen forever !! One State would be secular-inclusive-Palestine

I pointed out that there is no truly bi-national State anywhere in the world that is stable. My correspondent tried to refute this by pointing out that Switzerland has a number of different groups living there – French, German, Italian and Romanche. However Switzerland is built on a canton system where each is essentially self-governing. Further, the Swiss nation hasn’t experienced decades of hatred. Another example – Belgium – is actually poor as the French and Flemish groups dislike each other would split if they could. Yet there is more in common culturally between these two groups than between Palestinians and Israelis.

I believe that if Israel and Palestine became separate States then one day the two could feasibly federate on a Swiss model if both peoples wanted it. However today, because of the enshrined hatred between the two peoples, there would be war which would lead to massacres – potentially by both sides.

I try to look at both sides and take into account both national narratives. Unless the Palestinian and anti-Israel side does the same then there will not be a peaceful and fair resolution of the problem. Instead there will be a continuation of the status quo which is good for neither side – or something far worse.

Whenever there is a conflict – or disagreement – it is important to understand both sides of the argument, and avoid bias. It is essential to check facts – and also the source of any information, in case there is bias there. Unless this is done, poor decisions and continuing problems are inevitable. This is as true in business as it is in Middle-East politics.

Checking Facts: an Olympic Example of Ineptitude

May 9, 2012 Leave a comment

At the end of April 2012, the official web-site for the 2012 London Olympics was launched – listing participating countries. The list contained embarrassing errors – which illustrate how political and geographical ignorance overcame factual accuracy and even elementary school knowledge.

As an example, the web-site gives Asia as the location for Palestine  but the country next door – Israel – is in Europe. A quick check on any atlas will show that Israel is located in Asia – as are its neighbours (Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Egypt).

When the web-site launched, this failure to check facts was even more inept. Originally the country profiles included the country capitals, population and currency. However for Israel the site initially put a blank for Israel and named Israel’s capital city, Jerusalem, as the capital of Palestine. When this was pointed out (as reported by the Times of Israel) this was reversed – with Palestine’s capital left out. Meanwhile the US Dollar was listed as the official currency for Palestine.

It’s not difficult to check such facts. There are numerous web-sites that list country capitals, currency and much more. For example, About.com has a geography section listing capitals. About.com is compiled by subject experts and is a good first stop when looking for general information – whether about geography, science, or many other school curriculum topics. Wikipedia also has a page listing country capitals. A quick search on WolframAlpha lists Jerusalem as Israel’s capital although an equivalent search fails on Palestine – perhaps because Palestine is not yet a country.  There is also WorldCapitals.info – another listing, and the CIA Factbook, which correctly names Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Whatever one may think about the CIA as an organisation, its website giving information on the countries of the world is generally reliable and an excellent site for anybody trying to find geographical information.

Accepting that finding the above may be beyond the average Olympic bureaucrat, why not do a simple Google search to check the facts. Putting in Israel capital city as the search term quickly gives the answer: Jerusalem.

This failure hints that in fact the error may not have been just ineptitude but also included an element of political dogma that should be missing from the Olympics. I’m suggesting this because of a related error that appeared in the Guardian newspaper recently.

The Guardian states (note my emphasis):

The caption on a photograph featuring passengers on a tram in Jerusalem observing a two-minute silence for Yom HaShoah, a day of remembrance for the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust, wrongly referred to the city as the Israeli capital. The Guardian style guide states: “Jerusalem is not the capital of Israel; Tel Aviv is”

This, as can be seen by the previous listings, is hogwash and is a political attempt by the Guardian to redefine a country’s right to name its own capital city. While it is true that most countries position their embassies in Tel Aviv, this is because of the disputed nature of Jerusalem – despite it being the location for Israel’s government and other national institutions. Failure to give the truth is a disservice to the Guardian’s readers and discredits its position as a leading UK newspaper.

When newspapers such as the Guardian and bodies such as Britain’s National Olympic Committee start to rewrite facts (or fail to check facts) then what hope is there for a genuine peace agreement between Israel and Palestine. What is worrying is that this constant repetition of false information relating to Israel and Palestine is an example of what is commonly termed the Big Lie (Große Lüge).  Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf

“But the most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unflagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over. Here, as so often in this world, persistence is the first and most important requirement for success.” (Volume 1, Chapter 6).

The false information relating to Israel in the press now often outweighs the truth. Even the terminology used has become the accepted dictum – and as Hitler counselled, is repeated over and over and over.

As an example, it is rare that the term used for the areas captured by Israel in the 1967 war is anything other than “occupied territories”. In fact, the Gaza strip was given back to Palestinian rule in 2005 and is no longer under Israeli control, and much of the captured territory (that Jordan annexed following the 1948 war) is under Palestinian rule (as had been the objective of the 1947 UN partition plan). Actual ownership of this land is disputed as there is no clear-cut international agreement on who owns the territory. Thus the correct term should be “disputed territories”. Anything else (i.e. “occupied” – as used by anti-Israel protagonists or “liberated” as used by the Israeli right-wing) is inaccurate.

Another example of a propaganda lie used against Israel is the word “apartheid” with Israel accused of adopting apartheid policies to discriminate against the Palestinians. Wikipedia states that

the crime of apartheid is defined by the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as inhumane acts of a character similar to other crimes against humanity “committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.”

Proof that the apartheid claim is a lie is not hard to find. Arab citizens of Israel have full voting rights, rights of employment, education and free movement (which was not the case for black Africans during the apartheid regime in South Africa). There are Arab members of the Israeli parliament (which have included Arab ministers such as Ayoob Kara and Raleb Majadale) and Arab supreme court judges (for example Salim Joubran).  Israel’s giving control of Gaza to the Palestinians shows that Israel’s intention is not to maintain dominance over the Palestinians. Yet the lie that Israel is an apartheid State is repeated over and over and over again – just as Hitler counselled for false propaganda.

Using propaganda to make political points makes sense in war but doesn’t make sense when seeking peace. Peace requires honesty, together with an attempt to seek common ground and compromise without propaganda lies, so that reconciliation and trust can be built leading to bridges that end conflict. This applies to all parties – whether involved in the conflict or on the sidelines.

A failure to identify falsehood by basic checking of facts – such as the location of Israel’s capital – does the opposite and prolongs the state of conflict, reinforcing those who choose to believe propaganda over truth. In this, the Guardian and the London2012 websites are both guilty – as continuously repeating such lies (taking Hitler’s advice) aims to delegitimize Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign State, and the right of Jews to live freely and govern themselves in  Israel.

The pursuit of justice and social media.

January 2, 2011 8 comments

You shall not pervert judgment; you shall not respect persons, nor take a bribe; for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you. (Deut. 16:19-20)

The world in 2011 is still split between the haves and the have-nots, the rich versus the less rich and the poor. Despite a global recession, many have profited – while millions look for work and struggle daily to survive. There has been reason for optimism in the last year – at the end of last year, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from unjust detention by the Burmese generals. However, this is the exception – and when it comes to justice it is difficult to be optimistic for many countries.

I think that it is worthwhile looking at a few news stories of the last month of 2010 and what they say about different views on justice, the rights of the individual, and also the potential impact of social media on calls for justice.

The first news story concerns the President of Iran’s bete-noire, Israel. Moshe Katsav was born in Iran, and moved to Israel in 1951, aged 5, as a refugee. He spent the next 4 years of his life, living in tents and a transit camp which eventually was built up to become the Israeli town of Kriyat Malakhi. At the age of 24, he was elected mayor of this town – the start of a life in the political limelight. He was elected to the Israeli Parliament (the Knesset) in 1977 and served as Minister of Housing & Construction; Labour & Welfare; Transportation; Tourism; and was Deputy Prime Minister between 1996-1999. In 2000 he stood for, and was elected President. In 2006 however, he was accused of sexual molestation and rape, and forced to resign in 2007. He was subsequently indicted and tried for rape. On 30 December 2010, Katsav was found guilty by a three judge panel and will shortly be sentenced, He can expect a mandatory jail term.

Although this is a highly unflattering story it is important as it shows how justice should work. It doesn’t matter how influential or senior somebody is, he or she should not be above the law. If they commit crimes then they should be tried and sentenced. The fact that a former President was accused, tried and found guilty shows that in Israel, nobody is above the law. Katsav is not alone – there are other public figures within Israel who have been or are being investigated for various crimes, and this is how it should be. As the Bible says “You shall not pervert judgement…” and have two levels of justice – one for those in positions of authority or with ability to pay, and one for everybody else.

In contrast, a recent news story from Bangkok shows how power and privilege can corrupt calls for justice as well as the potential influence of social media to ensure that justice does take place.

A few days before the Katsav judgement – 27 December 2010 – a road accident took place resulting in the deaths of 9 people (although the first news stories reported only 8). Initial media reports blamed a van driver for the deaths, but subsequently a different story emerged that was suppressed by Thai news outlets. This was rapidly circulated via a Facebook site calling for justice. Within 24 hours, the page had generated over 180,000 likes.  Currently over 270,000 people have said that they like the page, and there are numerous comments.

Driver on Blackberry after road accidentThe story that was suppressed, apparently backed up by CCTV and witness accounts, told of an impetuous 16-year old girl without a driving licence who got impatient with a slow moving van and tried to push it out of the way with her Honda Civic. The van crashed, resulting in the loss of life of a number of students at Thammasat University – one of the best in Thailand – plus an assistant to the dean at the university’s Faculty of Architecture and Planning, and researchers including a promising scientist from a very poor family who had won a national scholarship. The girl that caused the accident, in contrast, came from a well known family. Her father had been a general and her great great grandfather was King Rama V (1853 – 1910) – the king whose policies ensured that Thailand stayed independent (and not colonised like neighbouring countries) and who is viewed as having put the country on the road to modernization. Following the accident, the girl was photographed calmly using her Blackberry – apparently posting to a social networking site (although subsequently claiming to be calling her father).

Although some of the latest reports suggest that the girl will be prosecuted, the fact that she is described as a “minor” may give a get-out clause. (“ persons of that age were not entitled to a driver’s licence, nor could they be fully subject to criminal and civil liability for deaths and damage.“)

Although the comments from Thai Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, that “nobody is above the law” suggest that Thailand, like Israel, will treat miscreants equally, that does not seem to be the belief of those who set up the Facebook page, especially taking account the initial reports blaming the van driver.

In 1991, Alvin Toffler published PowerShift (US). The book is a “study of power in the 1990s and beyond” and traced “the shifting global power structures and describes how the very definition of power has changed in modern times”. PowerShift was written before the Internet had become mainstream, and well before today’s social media tools. The book suggested that the balance of power was changing from the traditional sources to those who controlled information. Although such ideas have circulated for some years, social media – such as Facebook and Twitter – are allowing for injustices to be quickly publicised, and as such, it becomes easier to call for justice. They are an example of the democratisation of information and allow for genuine expressions of “people power”, the “power of the crowd” as well as the “power of the many over the few”. Such calls are challenges to the existing elites of the world – who are likely to do what they can to suppress them. One approach is that taken by China, who, as the year 2010 closed,  was reported to have  banned sites like Skype, Facebook and Twitter. Other ways are to attack challengers to the existing order and some rumours suggest that the Thai Facebook page supporters may even be punished.

Nevertheless, I believe that a genie has been let out of a bottle. Although most of the time, social media is used to communicate with friends and colleagues, it has a power of its own – to change the world. With over 500 million people connected to Facebook – around 10% of all people in the world – it becomes very difficult to suppress injustices and much easier to spread the concepts of freedom, justice and the truth – however much dictatorial and corrupt regimes may try and stop it. However with power comes responsibility. The responsibility is to ensure that what is spread is the truth. There is a real danger that such tools can also be used to spread false propaganda, lies and untruths – allowing for injustice to spread. There is the danger of mob-rule, where a suspect is condemned, without being given a chance to defend themselves – the 21st century equivalent of a lynch mob.

Social media can help ensure that privileged people don’t escape justice. In this, it will serve a positive purpose. It can also act to reinforce prejudice, irrational hatred and bigotry – as can be seen in groups that try to delegitimise and condemn Israel, despite ample evidence to the contrary, as in the example of Katsav’s trial.

You must not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you are called to testify in a dispute, do not be swayed by the crowd to twist justice.(Exodus, 23:2)

Note: After I wrote this Blog post, I came across a link to a fascinating article by the Internet Guru, Clay Shirky, on the Political Power of Social Media – where he discusses issues relating to the power of social media to change governments, etc. He also considers the potential for change, and also the potential for achieving nothing positive. (Article is free but registration required. The article was summarised in the Economist – with comments. Evidently it was written prior to the Wikileaks affair – as some of the comments put the USA in the “control” corner rather than the “freedom” corner!)

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