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Dog bites dog

By: Philip Whitfield You can measure the revolution’s pace counting column inches devoted to the birds and the bees. There’s nothing government toadies like more than filling up space with articles on Nile Delta flora and fauna and Red Sea ostriches. In peacetime that’s OK. But in war? The chicken livers are squirming to keep …

Philip Whitfield
Philip Whitfield

By: Philip Whitfield

You can measure the revolution’s pace counting column inches devoted to the birds and the bees. There’s nothing government toadies like more than filling up space with articles on Nile Delta flora and fauna and Red Sea ostriches.

In peacetime that’s OK. But in war? The chicken livers are squirming to keep the collapse of the state off the front pages.

We gauged the Vietcong’s progress by ordering a Dalat Salad (no tomatoes meant the Ho Chi Minh trail was cut).  In Cairo we watch the bumblebee barometer.

The censor helps out, approving cheery copy about the economy, expected millions of new tourists coming from Iran and entreaties to cough up EGP 15 to walk round the Agricultural Museum.

Imagine his apoplexy when he reads the distinguished foreign media, such as the current issue of The Economist. Headlined Going to the dogs, it charts Egypt’s parlous foreign reserves, inflation rate and GDP.

According to The Economist: Egyptians are no longer easily cowed, so the result has been political paralysis accompanied by rising violence. Mr Morsi has shown growing frustration with the limits to his power, leading opponents to suspect he may try even harsher tactics to thwart them. Many Egyptians now fear that a judgment day is indeed nearing.

The worst trouble I could find in the Neverland world of the Cairo official press was road maintenance almost coming to a halt due to the soaring price of tarmac.

I recall Luanda in the Angola civil war. Outside the Tropico Hotel where I lived the drain covers popped up in the mornings from the pressure of corpses dumped in the sewers.

The MPLA (Marxist) backed by the Soviet Union and UNITA (Nationalist) supported by the United States were battling it out and there were plenty of side wars to cover as well involving the Cubans and countless factions with a few tanks and guns.

Yet the daily paper cheerfully reported National Nature Day, with a view of puce-coloured bougainvillea swaying in a gentle breeze off the walls of Fort San Pedro de la Barra overlooking a blissful Atlantic harbour.

There was a window after Mubarak fell when the Cairo media had a field day unearthing all manner of scoops. Nobody knew if they were true. But they made a good read.

Then came the revolution’s unravelling. It’s early to determine who did what to whom with any certainty, but it provided the media with a predictable canvass: rioters swinging at each other; rioters bopping the military and rioters getting clobbered.

The government ran around like chickens with their heads cut off, reminiscent of long-forgotten South American banana republics.

Then the media became less adventurous. Editors got bored with gore. The TV antagonists shouted themselves hoarse. Morsi went into hiding. Friday demos attracted less people than a Talaat Harb taxi-driver punch-up.

According to analytical scientists such as Kalev Leetaru from the University of Illinois’ Institute for Computing in the Humanities, Arts and Social Science, the course of revolution can be predicted without ordering a salad.

Leetaru gathered more than 100 million articles going back to 1945. He analysed them according to a nation’s mood, whether they represented good or bad news, and by location where events were happening and the location of other participants in the story.

The information was taken from a range of sources including the US government-run Open Source Centre and BBC Monitoring, both of which monitor local media output around the world.

Then he crunched the 100 million articles into an SGI Altix supercomputer, known as Nautilus at the University of Tennessee.

Mood detection searched for words such as “terrible”, “horrific” or “nice”. Location, or “geocoding”, took mentions of specific places, such as “Cairo” and converted them in to coordinates that could be plotted on a map.

Analysis of story elements was used to create an interconnected web of 100 trillion relationships. Based on specific queries, Nautilus generated graphs for different countries that experienced the Arab Spring.

In each case, the aggregated results of thousands of news stories showed a notable dip in sentiment ahead of time – both inside the country, and as reported from outside.

So just as media “sentiment” around Egypt fell dramatically in early 2011, just before the resignation of President Mubarak, you could say the bumblebee barometer is registering the onset of another revolution.

According to Leetaru his system could easily be adapted to work in real time, giving an element of foresight. He’s developing the technology to emulate economic forecasting.

He likens it to weather forecasting: Never perfect, but better than random guesswork.

Or the official Cairo media could get off its backside and do some real beat reporting instead of rehashing copy force-fed by the Middle East News Agency (MENA), the government’s lip.

A.J. Leibling (1904 –1963) the great American press critic (“People everywhere confuse what they read in newspapers with news”) said: “The function of the press in society is to inform, but its role in society is to make money.”

His most quoted quote? Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.

My hero H. L. Mencken (1880 –1956), undoubtedly the most perceptive columnist of all time was unafraid of an uncomfortable truth: Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. No one in this world, so far as I know has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.

Mencken’s ‘plain people’ have given up on the Cairo media. Morsi’s lies have compounded their sense of disbelief. And that has led to a state of anarchy: not anarchy on the street, but anarchy in the mind: the thought that any dream is permissible in the new era.

It’s time the Cairo media connected with the people instead of handouts. Shovel news ill behooves them.

Philip Whitfield is a Cairo commentator


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