Sunday, 31 July 2011

What Role Did 'Online Media' Play in Norway Massacres?

By Ruth Skilbeck

After 7/22, Social Responsibility and Online Media. 
The role of online media in encouraging extremism is a topic of  much media discussion, following the Norway twin attacks, on the part played by the internet and extremist ‘right wing’  blogs and violent video games in what turned Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivick into a killer. Yet in seeking explanations and remedies, it is important to avoid the dead-end of technological determinism. Online media may for some users foster a solipsistic sense of dissociation, and ‘parallel reality’. Yet it is people not the online media that they use that are ultimately responsible for their actions; and in the same week very different  accounts of the central role played by online media text messages and blogs were reported in the stories of the heroic survivors 
The atrocities of the Norway massacre on 22 July have led to journalistic investigations into the online behaviour of the mass murderer. An article in the Guardian entitled Norway Attacks: How Far Right Views Created Anders Behring Breivik (30/7/11) contextualises the mass murderer’s behaviour within discourses of ‘far right wing blogs’ of networked hate-talk directed at global multiculturalism and the liberal policies that support it in a globalised world. Throughout the week of the massacres, the article reports that far rightwing groups scrambled to distance themselves from Breivik's actions and intentions; and numerous dismissals occurred in extremist political parties across Europe.
It is important not to ‘blame the technology’ which in the main part is put to very different uses in social communication.
What has also been revealed in media coverage over the past week is the positive part played by online and mobile media, and blogs in the horrifying events. Mobile phone text messages were vital communication tools linking survivors of the attacks to each other during the massacre and to loved ones. In the hours and days following the event, survivors’ blogs have been an outlet for sharing their experience with the world, and bearing witness to the horror. This has had a powerful effect of communicating the strength and humanity and courage of the survivors in their own voices around the world (as discussed in my previous blog entry).
Media reports that suggest the blogopshere breeds right wing extremists overlook that there are now millions of blogs and only a very small minority would come into that category. Many, many more are using social media and blogs for profoundly positive communication of shared human values.
Blaming 'the media' may divert attention from individual and collective responsibility for its use.
 At the same time the Norway twin attack is also prompting calls for rethinking the regulation of the internet and the exercise of freedom of expression. 
Norway’s prime minister Mr Jens Stoltenberg has been outspoken in his support for freedom of expression:
As shown in the  widely reported mass public gatherings over the last week, the Norwegian people are united in their drive to combat hate with love.  
At the first funerals for the victims of the massacre and bombing, on Friday, the country held a one minute silence in memory of the 77 dead.
Addressing a huge crowd from a stage filled with red roses, Mr Stoltenberg vowed that Norway would not allow itself to be traumatised or intimidated into silence. Drawing inspiration from the survivors of the massacre he added: "The bravery these young people have shown is catching. We are going to answer hatred with love and honour our heroes for ever."
This message, like so much news now, is communicated through the world of online media. It may be stating the obvious to say that, as in the rest of life, whilst online and social media may be used nefariously by some there are many more around the world using online media and blogs to connect socially and communicate far stronger messages of humanity, tolerance, and hope. What the starkly contrasting uses of online media in coverage of the Norway massacres  shows is a new awareness of the value of personal, community and social responsibility in the evermore blended reality of the actual and virtual worlds.

© Ruth Skilbeck, 2011

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Heroic Survivors of Norway Massacre

By Ruth Skilbeck

Leading others swimming to safety even when shot, or hiding in the rocks exchanging texts, brave young women delegates from the youth Labour camp on the island of Utøya showed remarkable fortitude and courage when the mass murderer attacked.

Amongst the multiple threads in the reporting of the double attack in Norway earlier this week is the ugly emergence of the rabid "anti-feminism" expressed in the obnoxious outpourings of mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik, in his 1518 page manifesto entitled 2083: A European Declaration of Independence that he reportedly emailed to hundreds of contacts shortly before embarking on his drug-fuelled massacre. After initial media "fact free conjecture" that the attacks were by a 9/11-style terror cell was revealed as reflex prejudice, much of the focus of the global media has been on the significance of the mass-murderer's extremist anti-multiculturalism, including anti-immigration and anti-feminist prejudice, in the context of rising right wing extremism across Europe.  

In striking contrast, what also has been widely reported is Norway's prime minister Jens Stoltenberg’s 'defiant' assertion:The Norwegian response to violence is more democracy, more openness and greater political participation." 

Mr Stoltenberg’s determined defence of his country’s values was supported by the public gatherings of over one hundred thousand Norwegians with flowers, in mourning and condemnation of violence, over the week. Most moving of all are the stories translated from the Norwegian media, of the courage and strength shown by the young people in the extreme horror of the hour and a half long massacre on the island of Utøya, that followed the bombing of Oslo's centre left government headquarters, that killed eight.

The annual summer Labour youth camp ended in a horrifying blood bath with 68 young people and adults murdered at point blank range by Breivik. The island conference was a Labour party tradition where prime ministers spoke to the youth.

Two survivor stories from the Utøya island massacre published in the Guardian this week reveal the extraordinary fortitude of two young women who exemplified Norway's national virtue  of "keeping a cool head". The young women remained calm and coherent even whilst hiding and under fire from the mass murderer in a fake police uniform. 
An edited SMS exchange between Julie Bremnes, 16, who was in hiding and her mother giving her latest updates from the news, was published in the Norwegian newspaper VG, then published in translation in The Guardian ( with the headline "Norway attacks survivor’s frantic texts to mother: ‘There is a mad man shooting people" on Tuesday  26 July 2011
Julie was with a group who were ‘hiding in the rocks along the coast’; the harrowing exchange starts with the urgent words: 
17.42 Julie: Mummy, tell the police they must be quick. People are dying here!
What is remarkable about the text exchange is the degree to which mother and daughter manage to stay in control in such a terrifying situation. 

J: I’m not panicking even if I’m shit scared.
On 27 July, under the headline "Norway attacks: a survivor’s account of Utøya" the Guardian published the translated account of Emma Martinovic, 18, an activist from the youth labour movement; the story was originally posted on her blog. She escaped by swimming from the island leading a group of others as Breivik’s bullets rained around her.
“I felt the pain. The panic spread to my breathing. I was gasping for air. Suddenly someone behind me shouts. “Emma, I can’t go on.”

It was one of my girlfriends. I gritted my teeth and swam back to her, then told her to keep the rhythm: Breath for you and breath for me. We’ll soon be safe and warm, you’ll see. I let her climb up on my shoulders and keep swimming with her legs; together we managed to keep going.... 

Suddenly she said: “Emma you’re bleeding, and when I looked down at my left arm, there was blood pouring from it...

Emma ends her remarkable story with the assertion that she is not going to leave politics. 

“The bastard will not stop us, we won’t give in.”

She adds “Just think of it, he dressed himself in a police uniform, the symbol of safety and support. He abused our trust in the police.”
Both of the survivors’ stories entered the mainstream media through channels of social media bringing into the public global realm the immediacy and authenticity of the young women’s voices. They add a powerful dimension of human courage to the mainstream media stories that is profoundly inspiring and at least as important as debate over the killer’s politics.
The courage and level-headedness of these brave young women provides a chillingly poignant contrast to the cynical cowardice of the murderer. Like prime minister Jens Stoltenberg’s call for increased tolerance and openness, and the mass display of calm opposition to violence from the Norwegian people over the past week, their stories of bravery and strength are signs of hope for our global future.

© Ruth Skilbeck 2011

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Death in Newcastle

It’s on days like this that I feel, dangerously, ominously, like von Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. 
Feels like the triumph of the petty functionaries of the state institutions over the beauty and exquisite sensation of the human spirit.
Where is the sensitivity. 
I wait at the station; I stare wordlessly at the hard blue sky that is filled in my vision with  
images of official buildings, a clock tower, the council buildings. 
I am sure the train will be on time.
But I cannot wait for it, impelled by a sudden inner force to move, away from the station with its on-time train and lines of dismal passengers slumped on seats, away down the street,
to there and back again.