Six questions journalists should ask Barack Obama when he visits (enter your country name)

President Obama will be visiting Sweden in early September. These are a list of questions I would hope journalists in Sweden (and elsewhere) would ask Obama when he comes. Hope…but I doubt they will. I also know that if asked, his answers would tell us nothing. But, they must be asked. Repeatedly. Apologies for the writing, but this was a quick post!

Six Questions Journalists Should ask Barack Obama When he Visits (ENTER YOUR COUNTRY NAME)

by Christian Christensen

1. Mr. President, one of your election promises in 2008 was to close Guantanamo. It is still open, housing inmates who have not been charged with a crime and denied the basic right of habeas corpus. A large number of those inmates have been on a lengthy hunger strike in protest at their inhumane treatment. Can you explain to the people of (ENTER YOUR COUNTRY) how this prison, which you have failed to close, stands in relation to US claims to be a country which respects human rights and the rule of law?

2. Mr. President, you will accept, I hope, that a fundamental element of a functioning democracy is the presence of vibrant, critical journalism. That journalism is often fueled by whistle-blowers who release information they feel shows illegal or unethical behavior. Given the aggressive prosecution of Bradley Manning, Barrett Brown and Edward Snowden in the US, as well as the Grand Jury investigation into WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, can you explain to the people of (ENTER YOUR COUNTRY) why the US is going to such lengths to stifle the work of journalists, as well as prosecute individuals who engage in an act that is fundamental to keeping an eye on those in power, namely whistle-blowing?

3. Mr. President, the US is ranked 5th globally in the number of executions behind only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, and ahead of North Korea, Yemen, Somalia and Sudan. The US is also the only country amongst nations with advanced economies to still have the death penalty. How can the US lecture other nations on human rights when it engages in an act so many countries consider barbaric?

4. Mr. President, citizens of (ENTER COUNTRY NAME) might be confused as to how the US can justify the killing of its own citizens via the use of drones without judicial oversight, as well as the well-documented killing of scores of innocent civilians globally via the use of the same technology. Could you explain to the people of (ENTER YOUR COUNTRY) how drones, like Guantanamo and the death penalty, square with a US commitment to the right of fair trials, basic human rights and the rule of law?

5. Mr. President, do you feel it is appropriate for a person to be held for 9 hours, without access to a lawyer, under counter-terrorism laws simply because he is the partner of a journalist who broke the NSA story? Was the US involved in any way with his detention? Should journalists throughout the world who report on US national security now be worried when they travel, in case they are questioned at the request of the US government at random international borders?

6. Mr. President, one of the hallmarks of the former Soviet Union and current authoritarian regimes is the use of widespread surveillance under the guise of protecting “national security.” Can you explain how secret, widespread surveillance of the US population, done in cooperation with private corporations, can be justified in a nation that proclaims to be “the freest in the world”? Should Americans not be able to send an email without fear of it being read by the government?


DN, WikiLeaks and Assange

I was recently interviewed via email and telephone for an article that came out in DN today regarding the 1st anniversary of Julian Assange’s asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy. I was asked to reflect on this, as well as how things stand today for WikiLeaks and their relationship with the mainstream media. This email was followed with a 30-minute conversation with the journalist on the same topics. Unfortunately, the result of these two interactions was two short quotes in an article that essentially focused on why people might be leaking material elsewhere. The quotes from me in the piece are accurate, and I stand by them. However, I was under the impression that the article would be far more wide-ranging, and, as someone who has written about WikiLeaks, I feel that it is important to post the email I had written to the DN journalist on June 7 in response to the issues I outlined above, as it touches upon things that I think are vitally important. During the phone interview I was at pains to point out that the tension between WikiLeaks and the media was, in part, due to WikiLeaks beating journalists at their own game, and that the focus on the Assange personality was a media construction (something I have written about earlier).

So, here is what I wrote:


First of all, I think it very important to note how the recent revelations about the Obama administration spying on US citizens (the “PRISM” case) relate to WikiLeaks. First, the information was obtained by The Guardian as a result of a whistleblower, and, second it shows the extent to which the US government are engaged in highly detailed surveillance. WikiLeaks is a whisteblowing organization and has critiqued US abuse of power. The PRISM case has, I feel, helped WikiLeaks by reminding people how important leaks can be to the functioning of a truly democratic society. This is the ultimate goal of WikiLeaks.

This brings us to the year Assange has spent in the embassy. What has happened, I feel, is that Assange the personality has overshadowed WikiLeaks the organization. This is a shame, given the importance of the material WikiLeaks has revealed. Clearly, after Assange sought asylum, things were not looking good for WikiLeaks: they were short on money, and the negative press was growing. But, with the (partial) lifting of the economic blockade, and the PRISM revelations in The Guardian, I feel that WikiLeaks might, perhaps, regain some of its former importance. It should be noted that even though WikiLeaks ended the formal relationship with major newspapers, these papers continue to use WikiLeaks material in their reporting. It has been an important resource.

As far as the documentary about WikiLeaks (We Steal Secrets) by Alex Gibney, I haven’t seen it, so I can’t comment on the contents. But, what we can see from the reaction to the film is what I discussed above: that the personality of Assange has tended to overshadow WHAT WikiLeaks has done. This isn’t to say that a resolution of the Assange case in Sweden isn’t important (it is), but rather that WikiLeaks is more than just Assange.

mvh, Christian

Two New Journal Articles on Nation-Branding & US 2012 Elections

Two articles I have written have just come out.

The first, @Sweden: Curating a Nation on Twitter is a critical analysis of the Twitter-based @Sweden nation-branding project published in Popular Communication. This paper is OPEN ACCESS UNTIL THE END OF JUNE 2013. You can access it by clicking on the link above. Here is the abstract:

On December 10, 2011, the first tweet was sent out from the @Sweden Twitter account, a nation-branding project financed by the Swedish government through the Swedish Institute and VisitSweden. Trumpeted by the media both in Sweden and internationally as an exercise in “transparent” and “democratic” nation-branding via the use of Twitter, the @Sweden account is “given” to a new Swede every week, and, supposedly, these curators are given free rein to tweet what they like, when they like. The use of a popular communication channel by the Swedish government—in this case, Twitter—provides an illuminating example of the carefully planned and managed promotion and nation-branding of Sweden, presented under the guise of a “transparent” and “democratic” selection and editorial processes. The @Sweden project will be addressed in light of “liberation technology” (Diamond, 2010) and “technology discourse” (Fisher, 2010) perspectives, within which a correlation between access to, and use of, technology and proactive change is postulated. These theoretical perspectives are particularly valuable when heeding Kaneva’s (2011) call for a more critical, communications-based understanding of nation-branding.

The second paper, Wave-Riding and Hashtag-Jumping: Twitter, Minority “Third Parties” and the 2012 US Elections is a study on the use of Twitter by smaller political parties in the run-up to the 2012 elections published in Information, Communication & Society. The abstract:

With the description of the 2012 election as the ‘most tweeted’ political event in US history in mind, considering the relative media invisibility of the so-called ‘third-party’ presidential candidates in the US election process, and utilizing the understanding of retweeting as conversational practice, the purpose of this paper is to examine the use of Twitter by the four main ‘third-party’ US presidential candidates in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election in order to better understand (1) the volume of tweets produced by the candidates; (2) the level of interaction by followers in the form of retweeting candidate/party tweets; and, (3), the subject and content of the tweets most retweeted by followers of the respective parties. The ultimate goal of the paper is to generate a broader picture of how Twitter was utilized by minority party candidates, as well as identifying the issues which led followers (and their respective followers) to engage in the ‘conversational’ act of retweeting.




Toy Store to my Daughter: “Stick to Cooking and Cleaning”

Let’s see if we can spot the subtle message about gender roles (not to mention ethnicity) sent to my daughter at my local BR toy store in Stockholm…















Covering Assange: We Have Taken our Eyes off the Prize

An article I have written entitled Covering Assange: We Have Taken our Eyes off the Prize has just come out in the British Journalism Review. You can read the piece either as a BJR blog post, or you can download a PDF of the article from BJR’s homepage at Sage.

Christensen, C. (2012). We Have Taken our Eyes off the Prize. British Journalism Review, 23: 48-53.

Nick Cohen, Assange and US Power

If there is a better response to Nick Cohen’s ill-conceived article on paranoid WikiLeaks supporters than yesterday’s New York Times Op-Ed by former US President Jimmy Carter, then I am not sure where to find it. To my mind, Cohen is correct when he notes that some elements of the defense of Julian Assange by supporters have been very troubling – none more so than direct and indirect attacks on “radical feminism” in Sweden. I myself have written on this issue, and, a result, have been accused (via Twitter) of being an anti-WikiLeaks, anti-Assange agent of US-Swedish power. I am not any of these things, but it is increasingly obvious that these types of attacks come with the territory when commenting on WikiLeaks. If Cohen had a serious point about the potentially negative impact of some elements of the Assange defense, however, then they have been lost in a problematic line of reasoning .

Problem 1: An Ill-Informed Belief in US Justice

Radical socialists don’t become President of the United States of America, so when a former Commander-in-Chief writes the following, it carries a fair amount of weight:

Recent legislation has made legal the president’s right to detain a person indefinitely on suspicion of affiliation with terrorist organizations or “associated forces,” a broad, vague power that can be abused without meaningful oversight from the courts or Congress (the law is currently being blocked by a federal judge). This law violates the right to freedom of expression and to be presumed innocent until proved guilty, two other rights enshrined in the declaration.

In addition to American citizens’ being targeted for assassination or indefinite detention, recent laws have canceled the restraints in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 to allow unprecedented violations of our rights to privacy through warrantless wiretapping and government mining of our electronic communications. Popular state laws permit detaining individuals because of their appearance, where they worship or with whom they associate.

Carter’s article also reminds us that there are currently 169 prisoners being held in Guantanamo Bay who are denied the minimal right of habeas corpus. By ignoring the gross violations engaged in by the United States government, and by labeling WikiLeaks supporters conspiracy nuts, Cohen actually confirms what many Assange and WikiLeaks supporters suspect: that the mainstream media have a short-sighted vendetta against Assange because he beat them at their own game.

Problem 2: Cohen’s Piece is Ahistorical

In addition to ignoring the issues discussed by Carter – drones, Gitmo, lack of oversight on presidential power – Cohen fails to address the fact that history books on the last 50 years of domestic US and international politics are hardly reassuring reading for a person with a fear of extradition to the United States. Salvador Allende, Cuba, Cambodia, Vietnam, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama, Iran-Contra, Gulf War I, Afghanistan, Gulf War II, Gitmo, Extraordinary Rendition, Water-Boarding, Bradley Manning. When you look at this laundry list, and consider the fact that within many of these events hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals have either died, been attacked or had their rights violated, then someone like Assange surely has cause to be worried for his own safety.

What makes a theory a conspiracy theory (as a pejorative term) is a perceived ludicrousness: a proposition so outlandish and technically unlikely (usually due to the involvement of multiple actors engaged in hidden activity) that the person who utters it must be divorced from reality. Can we honestly say that Assange’s fear of extradition to, and potential imprisonment in, the US falls into this category? Let me put it this way: if you had told me 12 years ago that Sweden would allow CIA agents to detain, assault and interrogate two Egyptian nationals on Swedish soil, then drug and fly them from Stockholm to Egypt on a private jet for interrogation and torture, only to have Sweden deny it, I might have called that borderline conspiracy talk. But it happened.

Problem 3: The Watergate/Journalism Argument is Very Thin

Ah, Watergate. Every time a question pops up about freedom of speech in the United States, Watergate, the Washington Post, Deep Throat, the Pentagon Papers, Woodward, Bernstein and Nixon are trotted out and put on display as evidence of the Fourth Estate at work. Well, Watergate was 40 years ago, and this is not your father’s America. In the 40 years since Watergate we have precious few examples of US mainstream media actively challenging US corporate and military power. In fact, quite the opposite. We live with (and some in) a post-9/11 America of Freedom Fries, Fox News, the Tea Party and the Patriot Act. Yes, the First Amendment is a fantastic piece of writing, but remember that in 2010 the Citizens United decision made by the US Supreme Court held that corporations have the same free speech rights as regular, human citizens. Even great political documents can be perverted.

Cohen also suggests that WikiLeaks and Assange will likely be protected under US law because WikiLeaks, “was in effect a newspaper.” That is a pretty loose legal hook to hang the hat of your life on. Whether or not WikiLeaks is classified as a newspaper or journalistic organization is far from decided. Again, some context from Sweden: one of the reasons why WikiLeaks initially used servers located in Sweden was the perceived protection offered to the organization under Sweden’s stringent freedom of speech and whistleblower protection laws. Interestingly, however, that logic was called into question when it was noted that WikiLeaks would not be classified as a journalistic organization because it did not have what is known as a “responsible publisher” (a person legally responsible for the content): a condition necessary for an organization to be considered journalistic in Sweden. In other words, lots of assumptions can be made about WikiLeaks being a news organization, but assumptions don’t hold up in court.

Problem 4: Cohen Conflates WikiLeaks Supporters

As a final point, although I have been subject to some accusations (some of which were re-tweeted to 1.5 million WikiLeaks followers on Twitter) in relation to my questioning some WikiLeaks arguments, I suspect that the number of supporters who adhere to these dogmatic lines of thought, and attack those who disagree, is relatively small, and that their voices have disproportionate strength as a result of echo-chambers like Twitter. I get the sense that many supporters of WikiLeaks are regular people who are tired of being used and lied to, and want to support an organization which has shown a willingness and backbone to challenge some big schoolyard bullies.

It takes guts to challenge the United States: just ask people who have done so and paid the price. By playing the “conspiracy theory” card in relation to extradition to the US, and dismissing legitimate fears when there is ample evidence to the contrary, Cohen throws the baby out with the bathwater. US power is real, and US justice has shown a willingness to bend to that power when needed. That isn’t conspiracy theory, that is reality.

Democratic? Let’s put @Sweden Into Context

The 24-hour rise and fall (and rise again…the feed now has seen a big jump up to 57,000 followers) of the @sweden twitter account — from global PR masterpiece to international diplomatic embarrassment — is an excellent case study in the hyping of the benefits and perils of technology at the expense of contextualization. The account, which had already received a decent amount of press, achieved a global exposure breakthrough with an article in the New York Times entitled, “Swedes’ Twitter Voice: Anyone, Saying (Blush) Almost Anything.” This headline managed to crystallize everything that is misleading and shortsighted about coverage of the @sweden project: (1) the idea that the feed is the “voice” of Swedes; (2) the idea that “anyone” can take part; and (3) an obsessive, uncritical focus on the fact that the feed was/is marked by supposedly non-repressed Swedish sexuality.

I imagine that most people reading this post will by now be aware of what happened only a matter of hours after the New York Times articles came out: the @sweden “curator” sent out a number of tweets about Jews which caused a near-immediate avalanche of global media coverage containing breathless hyperbole about a failed democratic experiment where one person represents an entire country on the world stage. As a media story, of course, this had it all: modern technology, a young blonde Swede using salty language, making risque comments about sex, Jews and AIDS, all framed within a vague understanding of Sweden and Swedishness.

So, what’s the problem? Let’s start with the obvious fact that…

1. @sweden is an exercise in calculated PR and nation branding:

Sweden has been very aggressive in promoting Brand Sweden online, from the rather misguided opening of a virtual Swedish embassy on Second Life, to Foreign Minister Carl Bildt blogging and tweeting his way through international diplomacy, to the current Swedish government taking the lead on providing foreign aid to net activists. In fairness, it has been widely reported that @sweden is the brainchild of the Volontaire advertising agency (who also work for corporations such as Nestle and SonyEricsson), at the behest of the Swedish Institute (a state organization involved in public diplomacy) and Visit Sweden (the Swedish national tourism agency), as a project to increase Swedish exposure on Twitter. Deeper considerations of what this fact means for the @sweden feed, however, are rarely presented.

And, so, something that we might want to think about in relation to this might be that…

2. The selection of @sweden tweeters might be less “democratic” and representative than the rhetoric suggests:

Let’s get to the money quote from the New York Times article:

“Sweden stands for certain values — being progressive, democratic, creative,” Patrick Kampmann, Volontaire’s creative director, said in an interview. “We believed the best way to prove it was to handle the account in a progressive way and give control of it to ordinary Swedes.”

The @Swedens are nominated by others — people are not supposed to put their own name forward — and then selected by a committee of three, including Mr. Kampmann. The qualifications are that they have to be interesting, Twitter-literate and happy to post in English.

So, the @sweden curators are people who are Twitter-literate, can write in English, are nominated by others, are approved by a 3-person panel (including the creative director of the ad agency running the campaign), are deemed to be “interesting” by that panel (whatever that means), and, importantly (though not discussed in a majority of the articles on @sweden), must accept the invitation and be the type of person willing to post their identity, ideas and daily activities to a global audience of 40,000 (a number which can increase dramatically with re-tweets). We are talking a narrow selection, from a narrow selection, from a narrow selection. If we throw the fact that Sweden has a relatively low number of Twitter users per capita (somewhat going against the grain of stats showing Sweden as ultra-cutting edge in terms of tech use) into the mix, then I would suggest that we get a far less “democratic” picture than is painted by ad agencies and journalists.

This is not to say that the @sweden tweeters are dishonest or lying, but rather that the number of “provocative” tweets coming from the account (in terms of subject and language) must be seen in relation to a number of factors far more complex than simply “regular Swedes” just “being themselves.” And, by the same token, the selection process is far more complex than “Sweden” just throwing the keys to the national information car to a citizen passing by on the street. Volontaire describe @sweden as “the world’s most democratic Twitter account.” That’s a hip, sexy statement…but if your nomination has to be green-lit by three people and an ad agency who find you “interesting,” then @sweden might be many things, but democratic isn’t one of them.

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