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Fake news is a meme that should die

“Fake news”—that awful, awful term is a meme that has hit its mark, proven its fitness, and is gaining traction due to misunderstanding, division and lulz that we are all guilty of spouting. We are feeding it every time we utter it.

And we should just stop using it.

Fake news generally refers to information that is false or misleading, often sensational, and masked as news. It is a term that is shouted, spouted, typed and copy-pasted a great deal. It’s even associated with a specific voice in my head—can you guess whose?

Now, when I refer to “fake news” as a “meme,” I don’t mean those tacky time-wasters we should all ignore on the internet. I’m writing about the original definition of meme as coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene.

The book itself presents the view that the gene is the agent of evolution (as opposed to the individual or the group). In the last chapter, Dawkins explores the idea of a unit of cultural evolution that works kind of similarly, though also differently. The meme, as he named it, is an idea, behaviour or style that exists in human minds and persists because of its sticking power and ability to spread. “Smoking is cool” is a meme that receives help from nicotine and the tobacco industry.

To be clear, internet memes aren’t quite the same. As Dawkins put it in a speech at Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors’ Showcase 2013 in Cannes in 2013, “instead of mutating by random chance and spreading by a form of Darwinian selection, they are altered deliberately by human creativity.” Internet memes are mere playthings for humans, and while real memes are created by humans, they evolve naturally.

Fake news is a meme in the original sense, and a strong one at that. It survives because it’s based on truth: false news is a real problem. It thrives by latching on to our fear of being lied to, the belief that people of opposing views are more likely to spread or believe lies—our fear of journalism’s demise, and the mix of humour and outrage we feel when Donald Trump uses it as a slur.

Sure, disinformation has always existed and will always exist—much like the people generating it, believing it and the journalists fighting against it. It’s a never-ending struggle. But this fake news business has gotten out of hand. It doesn’t simply exist to refer to disinformation in one form or another anymore.

The Washington Post and BuzzFeed News were among the first to use the term in October 2016 to describe how false news articles on Facebook had influenced the US elections. That put the seed in people’s minds. Then, President Trump threw an all-caps FN-bomb at CNN on Twitter in December of that year, which was the water that nurtured the meme’s growth.

Columnist Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post actually warned us a couple of weeks later, calling the term a label that has been “co-opted to mean any number of completely different things: Liberal claptrap. Or opinion from left-of-center. Or simply anything in the realm of news that the observer doesn’t like to hear.”

To my liberal friends, stop using it ironically. To my conservative friends, stop using it so angrily. To my journalistic friends, stop using the term entirely. After this article, I will also stop using it. That’s the only way to kill a meme. Because we’re not really using it. It’s using us. Stop saying it. Stop writing it. Let it die.

 

Graphic by @sundaeghost

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Preventing Fake News

Social media gives a platform for anyone to share their stories and opinions. All one needs is an internet connection—there is no criteria for professional journalistic skills or ethics. However, with this freedom comes opportunity to publish literally anything — including fake news.

Fake news involves the dissemination of information that is intended to mislead or manipulate an audience. It is also known as disinformation. Fake news can influence public opinion or perception, or instill fear. According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, 71 per cent of Canadians worry about fake news being used as a weapon. It is so easy to spread fake news—so citizens need to be better protected from it.

It recently occurred to me how easily information can be transformed into disinformation. On World Cleanup Day on Sept. 21, I was photographing the many Montrealers who took to the streets to pick up garbage. My camera lens caught one of the participants, François Raymond, putting Justin Trudeau’s campaign poster into a garbage bag. Raymond was smiling as if he looked happy about throwing it away. The first thought I had was that his smile was linked to his political views. I assumed he did not like Trudeau.

François Raymond, a participant, cleans the streets on World Cleanup Day near the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald in Montreal, Quebec. Photo by Reham Al Azem.

However, after I approached him to verify my perception, he said his smile had nothing to do with his political views, he was just happy with the amount of trash he had collected so far.

It got me thinking that if my picture had been shared on social media without context or with the wrong caption, it would misrepresent Raymond’s actions of simply cleaning his city. For example, if it was published on a social media page affiliated with the NDP or Conservatives, the picture could give the impression that Canadians are not supporting the Liberal Party, and affect voter perception. And with 40 per cent of Canadians using Facebook as a news source, according to the Reuters 2019 Digital News Report, many people could be subject to this disinformation.

This type of situation isn’t unheard of in the mainstream media. In 2016, during a campaign in South Carolina, a photo of Hillary Clinton went viral. It depicted her tumbling on steps with aides helping Clinton get her balance. The photo was used in the alt-right news site Breitbart published it as a clue of Clinton’s deteriorating health from a previous brain injury.  The Getty photographer Mark Makela was disappointed how his photo was misappropriated, in an interview with Wired.

With how easily fake news can be produced, social media companies cannot be depended upon to police themselves. Although Facebook Canada  with Agence France-Presse (AFP) launched its third-party fact-checking program, this will not do enough to prevent disinformation on its platform, according to a new transparency report released by the U.K.-based fact-checking charity organization Full Fact. For example. they state  government should be more involved in providing public information on subjects where harm can be done by disinformation.

I believe that using artificial intelligence to monitor social media on a daily basis will decrease fake news. Yet, Facebook’s fact-checking program is only a partial solution, since it’s impossible to combat the many fake news posts, often mixing opinions, conspiracies, and even facts, which can sometimes appear as real news.

More needs to be done, and I think it should start with legislation, as ultimately, the way people perceive fake news can completely change their views and potentially harm their lives. Law should be a method to protect users’ safety first and foremost,  and to protect journalism as a profession, as it’s one of the main institutions aimed at keeping democracy in place.

In Canada, laws around the dissemination of fake news haven’t been very effective. Section 181 says “ Every one who wilfully publishes a statement, tale or news that he knows is false and that causes or is likely to cause injury or mischief to a public interest is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.” But in 1992, Canada’s Supreme Court deemed the offense unconstitutional as it the right to freedom of expression. And since the  section is not legally effective, there is still a gap when it comes to fighting fake news in the country.

With the new big technology shift occurring, it broadens the chance to have misleading news and lies. To hold that back, new laws need to frequently be enacted on a case-by-case basis in order to suppress the harmful mistruths. I think fines should be imposed on those who repeatedly publish fake information. Ethical hackers can be used to track down perpetrators who are causing significant harm on people’s lives or reputations. This will still keep the flow of democracy without limiting people’s right to free speech.

Due to a national survey conducted by Nanos Research for the organization Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), More than 70 per cent of Canadians agree or somewhat agree that government regulation is needed to prevent the proliferation of fake news, while more than 60 per cent of Canadians think that the federal government is not transparent or somewhat not transparent when it comes to the information that is available about what governments do.”

In the meantime, all we can do is to think critically about everything we see or read, and be skeptical, especially on social media.

 

Graphic by @sundaeghost
Photos by Reham Al-Azem

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Algorithm editors and what they mean

What would journalism be without editors? Well, in my opinion, it would be pretty chaotic.

Editors are the backbone of journalism — take them out of the equation and you are setting loose a tsunami of fake news, badly written and poorly researched stories – to sum up, just total amateurism.

But, what do editors actually do?

According to Amelia Pisapia, journalist and former editorial director of Novel, editors are talented problem solvers who excel at putting information in context, assessing the accuracy of data and weeding out bias.

“They view issues from multiple angles, connect the dots and uncover human stories in complex systems,” writes Pisapia.

Pisapia adds that editors work within established ethical frameworks. She says that all editors have five values in common: accuracy, independence, impartiality, humanity and accountability.

However, in recent years editors have started to quite literally lose some of their humanity. With developments in technology and artificial intelligence, more and more media and news distributing platforms have started to use algorithms as editors instead of actual humans.

A good example is the algorithm behind the news feed on Facebook.Tobias Rose-Stockwell, a strategist, designer and journalist for Quartz wrote in his article, “[Facebook’s algorithm] shows you stories, tracks your responses, and filters out the ones that you are least likely to respond to. It is mapping your brain, seeking patterns of engagement.”

Sounds great doesn’t it? Having only quality news that you are interested in delivered right to your doorstep without having to move a muscle.

Well if it sounds too good to be true, it’s because it simply is. Algorithms are actually very far from being these perfect editors that we hope them to be. They have massive flaws and are actually very dangerous.

Don’t misunderstand me, algorithm editors have some good sides. They do surpass humans on some points — vis à vis their conduct as an editor for example.

In his article, “Can an Algorithm be an Editor?,” José Moreno, former multimedia director at Motorpress Lisboa explains that an algorithm has the silver lining of always acting the same way.

“Human editors always act differently on the basis of a common code,” Moreno says. “In a way, there is more accuracy and reliability in a “system” that always performs a function in the same way than in a “system” that always performs differently.”

So, yes algorithms have some upsides; Professor Pablo Boczkowski from Northwester University even called Facebook’s algorithm “the greatest editor in the history of humanity.”

But unfortunately, despite their virtues, any positive aspect that algorithms may present are always heavily outweighed by their negative counterparts.

The study , The Editor vs. the Algorithm: Targeting, Data and Externalities in Online News done by a collection of professors from different universities compared the different aspects of AI and human editors. The researchers discovered an alarming number of problems with algorithms editors, for example the algorithms tend to serve a less diverse mix of news to readers. They create a “bubble” effect as readers are presented with a narrower set of topics. An example the study presented was about readers who lived in German states where there was a high share of votes for extreme political parties. In the last election, those people were more likely to increase their consumption of political stories when their stories were selected by algorithms.

Another flaw with algorithms is their lack of social awareness; every calculation they make is based on an individual-level data. Algorithms don’t take into account “socially optimal reading behaviour,” according to the study.

“It doesn’t differentiate between factual information and things that merely look like facts,” said  Rose-Stockwell, referring to the Facebook example above. “It doesn’t identify content that is profoundly biased, or stories that are designed to propagate fear, mistrust, or outrage.”

The worst part in all of this, is that algorithms have even started to change the way some human editors think as well as the behavior of some news organizations. We have entered a traffic-at-all-costs mentality. News outlets are influenced by numbers, clicks and views now and no longer by journalistic values.

Despite all their flaws, regrettably, algorithm editors are still here and due to humans’ lust for technology and artificial intelligence, they are probably going to stay and even multiply.

But, why should algorithm editors be opposite to human editors, why should it be human vs machine?

The solution is easy: use a mix of both. The researchers from the study mentioned above concluded that “the optimal strategy for a news outlet seems to be to employ a combination of the algorithm and the human to maximize user engagement.”

In the digital age that we currently live in, machines will continue to take over more and more aspects of life. However, humans are more relevant than ever because these machines aren’t always optimal. So, in the end having a symbiosis between humans and machines is actually a comforting thought. It is the promise of a better tomorrow where machines will help humans and not supplant them.

Graphic by @sundaeghost

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I’m a journalist and an activist. Deal with it

In September, the Global Climate Strike took the world by storm with approximately 7.6 million people marching for climate action.

According to its organizers, this was the biggest climate mobilization in history. People sent a clear message to their governments: they expect climate action, and they expect it now. With approximately 500,000 people striking in Montreal, this was the largest strike in the city’s history, said Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante.

I was part of the march both as a journalist and an engaged citizen. I wonder if my objectivity could be discredited, since I personally share values with some climate activists and align myself with certain environmental movements.

Many journalists think it’s important to keep a distance from groups and movements, at the risk of losing credibility and thus the trust of readers. I’m aware that I have my own perspectives that impact the filter through which I view and describe events; and inevitably shades the, so to say, “truth.” However, I truly believe that being aware of these biases can only encourage me to be more objective and motivated to deliver the “truth.”

Objectivity is thought of as an absolute – journalists are either 100 per cent objective, or not at all. But in fact, journalists, like other human beings, are all subjective. They too, have their own interests, values, opinions and ideologies. I believe that, consciously or not, these values shape who they are, what they think and how they act as citizens as well as journalists. My personal interests are based on environmental and social issues and I believe in climate change and the need to act now. The planet is the number one subject I want to report on and I believe my interests and experiences in this field can add value to my journalism.

There is also this fantasy that journalists are independent and serve only the public. In theory, journalism is meant to deliver the truth and help the readers make their own opinion about the world, beyond the influence of any source of power, such as the government or private companies. I believe that in reality, even the most conscientious and cautious journalist can be influenced either by powerful sources or by various situations. For example, influences may come from the political views of the news organization the journalist works for.

Moreover, in my opinion, there are always two – if not more – sides to a story. The concept of “balance” can give you the impression that both sides should always be covered equally. But should they really? Journalists can sometimes give equal voice to people of unequal knowledge. For example, when covering stories linked to the constant debate on the existence of a climate urgency, journalists tend to grant equal importance to both scientists and global warming sceptics. Fearful of being seen as biased or discriminating certain opinions, they sometimes don’t help but confuse and mislead the public opinion.

Also, depending on deliberate choices concerning the materials used to depict an event or news, such as the composition of the pictures taken during a protest or the words used to describe the event, journalists can convey different sides of a story. They may do it unconsciously as they are sometimes just following news conventions, like publishing a picture showing the one violent demonstrator in a peaceful protest. It makes a more compelling photo than showing peaceful marchers, but I don’t think this depicts the actual event as it happened. I believe it is part of the journalists’ job to break barriers between people of different opinions and not only share what people do, but why they do it.

As part of my studies as well as my personal interests, I decided to join an environmental movement last July, to better understand activism and its link to journalism. Born in France, known for its revolutionary people, I had never joined any protest or any march before and had always thought protesters were very different from me. But the more I started attending protests, the more I realized how alike we were. This made me realize that there is a very powerful stereotype among the public opinion concerning activism. More and more, I could see that activism was often portrayed as violent, and activists as harmful troublemakers.

On the other hand, when I went to protests myself, I could see how peaceful they actually were and how cautious they had to be to fight against this misinterpretation commonly held in the public opinion that they’re the ones messing with the system. I believe journalists matter in this, since they have a certain influence on the public opinion.

Journalists decide what is news. Journalists are the ones to attach relative importance to news events. Readers interpret those events through the language that journalists choose to constitute their coverage. 

It’s obviously very difficult to leave my personal interests out of my work life, and I think that it’s a journalist’s responsibility to have integrity in their work. There will always be an inherent link between the authenticity of my work and my values, and it would be hypocritical to hide it. I strongly believe that if I acknowledge my personal interests, am conscious that I may have biased first reactions but am willing to try my best to deliver factual reports, I should not be considered any differently than other reporters, and I believe my knowledge of the ecological crisis can make me even better equipped to talk about such issues.

 

Photo by Britanny Clarke

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Gender inequality is real in the music industry: Taylor Swift can’t re-record or use her old songs

As a 20-year-old music fan living in Canada, I have been listening to Taylor Swift for as long as I can remember.

When I was younger, she was an idol, and I still love her and her music. From “Our Song” to “Lover,” her songs just keep getting better. I have to admit that there’s something about her old songs that hits me differently – perhaps because of my sentimental ties to the memories of these older songs.

On Nov. 14, Swift tweeted about how Scott Borchetta, founder and CEO of Big Machine Label Group, and Scooter Braun, the company’s new owner, wouldn’t let her perform at the American Music Awards (AMAs), where she’d be honoured with the Artist of the Decade Award.

Ironically, as soon as she expressed concern about the restriction, Big Machine Label Group released a statement saying artists can perform their music live without the label’s permission. They granted “all licences of their artists performances to stream post-show and for rebroadcast on mutually approved platforms.” However, they still won’t let the artists re-record or use them. This statement was obviously directed at Swift.

When Braun purchased Big Machine Label Group, he became the owner of Swift’s first six albums. According to Swift, Borchetta never gave her the opportunity to buy her music before selling the label, even though it is suspected he did with other artists. Braun owning Swift’s music means he legally controls it, which is why he’s allowed to tell her what she can and can’t do with it.

Essentially, two men who didn’t write, sing or collaborate on her songs wouldn’t let her perform them or use them in a documentary she is filming with Netflix. It is evident that this is all an attempt at controlling Swift in order to make more money off of her and her work.

This issue speaks to a wider systemic issue of women’s rights in music. Swift is a successful and well-respected artist, but it seems like it’s never enough. This has happened to many other amazing women in the music industry. Demi Lovato has been body-shamed countless times by fans, media, and other celebrities. According to MSN, Lady Gaga was also judged because of her looks and fashion sense and felt she was never enough. Miley Cyrus was also judged after the split with Liam Hemsworth. This confirms that there is still a long way to go for gender equality.

However, according to Vox, Swift will be re-recording all of her old songs starting in November 2020, when her contract with Big Machine Label Group legally allows her to.

But what about her Netflix documentary? Borchetta and Braun won’t let her use any of her old recorded songs. What would a Taylor Swift documentary even be without “Mine” or “I Knew You Were Trouble?”

In the meantime, show Swift some support by using #IStandWithTaylor on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. 

Graphic by @sundaeghost

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The role of the audience in comedy

In 2019, people claim comedy is “under attack.” Is this true?

The short answer is no, but I seem to be writing an article here, so let me explain.

Comedians such as Bill Maher, Louis CK, Kevin Hart and Dave Chappelle are experiencing a change in their careers. This most definitely does not mean that their careers are over, so, let’s take a closer look. Chapelle fans – stay with me.

I’m assuming that you have heard this argument being circulated for quite some time and although this might feel frustrating, I don’t think it’s necessarily negative.

Comedy and comedians represent laughter, happiness and, more importantly, growth and learning. There’s a reason why people look at political memes more than political policies: humour can be accessible, clever, and most of all, it has an impact.

Comedy is changing. People are no longer laughing at things that make them feel small. Social media and other large platforms are giving previously silenced communities a voice in the comedic world. We are speaking truth to power and this all feeds into one thing: the evolving role of the audience.

Yes – that’s us, the audience!

We have more control than ever before. It’s exciting, but naturally quite unnerving for comedians that have spent most of their lives writing jokes and not thinking about how they could offend people.

Despite acting like they don’t care, we have seen evidence that the opposite is true. Let’s take a look at Chappelle for a moment. He’s undoubtedly a very successful comedian who has been called out for his tone deaf demeanour for the past two years. He’s a powerful figure, re-emerging as a comedian in a world very different than the one he’s used to.

Jenna Wortham and Welsey Morris, New York Times writers and hosts of the podcast  Still Processing, highlight that in his newest standup, Chappelle is just plain lashing out at the audience.

He says,“If you do anything wrong in your life, and I find out about it, I’m going to try and take everything away from you and I don’t care when I find out… Who’s that? That’s you!”

The shift here is obvious. The audience is clearly impacting the way Chappelle normally functions. He is making a joke out of his fear for his career.

Listen, I am aware that I’m yet another chia seed eating, avocado spreading, social media savvy, left-wing millennial preaching about why Chappelle is a sore loser, but hear me out.

I’m not trying to promote cancel culture or tell you what you should or shouldn’t watch. I understand that in this social climate things often sway to an extreme. This being said, I think it’s important to understand the reality of where comedy is going.

Comedian and actor Kevin Hart is another public figure who has voiced his frustration with the audience.

He said in an interview, “I don’t understand why there’s a push to destroy what you just don’t have to support or like.”

Even though he is using oversimplified vernacular to describe backlash he received about homophobic comments, I think the important thing to note in this comment is the word “destroy.” Comedians are fearful that the audience can control their careers and instead of adapting, they don’t know how to handle it.

Nazeem Hussain, an Australian comedian speaks openly about understanding the audience’s fluid role.

In an interview with Eureka Street, he said, “’the audience doesn’t buy that homophobic, racist and sexist stuff anymore. It’s lazy comedy, they should find new jokes and get a laugh.”

Hannah Gadsby, a writer and comedian also from Australia spoke very eloquently about the dissonance certain comedians won’t stop complaining about, in an interview with Esquire.

“So many comedians expect control of the room when they’re onstage, because they’ve got the magic stick that amplifies their voice, and everyone has to listen,” she said. “Comedy no longer exists in a vacuum. To be relevant, you have to speak with your audience. You don’t get to just tell them how it is.”

People are not standing for harmful jokes anymore. This does not mean vulgarity is dead and that audiences can’t handle explicit or shocking material.

It means the role of the audience has changed – and that’s not a bad thing.

 

Graphic by @sundaeghost

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The impossible position: Why mothers can never seem to fit a single mould

Scenario: Meredith Grey is on the streets picking up trash as part of her social work. A “PTA mom” AKA “super mom” passes by, but not without commenting on how happy it makes her feel to see Meredith – a working mom with three kids (or so I have been told. I stopped watching Grey’s Anatomy after five seasons) – volunteering for something. To this our protagonist replies, “You know, Suzie, when working moms don’t volunteer at school, it’s usually because we’re working in the daytime and parenting at night, so we generally don’t have time to participate.”

Let’s just unpack that a little, shall we? Firstly, I’m sorry I didn’t get the memo, but since when did it become the job description of anyone to make anyone else feel happy?

Secondly, oblige me, if you may, by imagining a spectrum. On the one end, let’s place these super PTA moms. On the other, those super successful career women, who are breaking the glass ceiling every day, as they make great strides on every level professionally. Somewhere in the middle, let’s put all the Merediths of the world, attracting the judgmental wrath of both these extremes.

These women are never considered good enough mothers for choosing to have a career and dreams. They are never considered professional enough, for how can they be if they have to leave at 5:30 p.m. to pick up their child? This doesn’t mean they are not fulfilling their responsibilities equally well in both these spheres. These women are doing the best they can, day in and day out, running from their meeting, to the school bus, to getting groceries and starting dinner, to getting their kid in bed on time, only so that they can do the dishes. They have careers, kids, family and social responsibilities. But here is the thing: how is their position any different from the “working fathers” out there? A terminology that ought to be brought into currency!

Men have careers, kids who presumably have bedtimes, and responsibilities, and yet they never have to hear statements like, “You never volunteer at school,” “It must be time to pick the baby,” “It must be hard for you to work more hours because you have kids,” or “I could never imagine leaving my kids to go back to work.”

It almost appears as though once you have kids, your identity is to mould itself around the institution of motherhood, and this should be enough. A good mother stays at home with kids; a bad mother tries to pursue her own goals. And God forbid, if you actually derive contentment from your work – that will be the cardinal sin!

My partner has never been told how brave he is, to have packed up his life and moved to a new country with a five month old baby in tow to pursue his dreams. Those comments have been given especially to me by other working women, as a sign of encouragement and support. However, within these statements too lies the underlying theme of such acts being extraordinary feats for a woman. They have not been normalized as a concept, despite the fact that I personally know many women who have chosen a similar path.

Not for one moment does this mean that I think that women who make up the ends of this spectrum are not judged. Working women are judged by men with half their qualifications; the PTA moms by other mothers who think they are simply better. By the virtue of this conclusion, one can argue that if everyone is being judged, why am I making a big deal about working mothers?

The deal is that such judgments are directly linked to the stereotypes that exist around motherhood and working mothers. It perpetuates this image of women finding unbound happiness within the confines of their home, and their offspring. That looking for anything beyond this is selfish. This perception is then disseminated by both working women and PTA mothers, leaving the working mothers forever standing on shaky grounds. This simply needs to change.

 

Graphic by @sundaeghost

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From one phone addict to another

It was the 14th time I hovered my thumb over the empty space where my instagram app used to be, when I realized that my social media addiction was more invasive than I thought.

As I sat on the bus that Monday morning, I felt anxious, bored and fidgety – a recipe that I knew could only be cured by scrolling through my ex-best friend’s homecoming pictures.

I’m weak. Sure enough, I re-downloaded the app on the bus. I did this so I could receive the hit of dopamine that comes with looking at pictures of humans I barely know, getting likes, comments, validation and all that fun stuff we do on our mobile devices. Dare I sit with my own thoughts and self regulate my inner dialogue for 20 minutes straight without distraction?

I often feel like I have little-to-no control over my experience with my technological devices. We have allowed it to be normal for our minds to be constantly interrupted with notifications, messages and funny dog memes.

I wish it was as easy as deleting the apps, but social media and phone usage goes deeper than that. So here I am, still grappling with how to exist in an overcrowded, oversharing world of communication – and I’m assuming you are too.

Here’s the thing: I find researching phone addictions quite frustrating. Often times article headlines will be along the lines of, “Six easy ways to get off and stay off your phone!” or “Three Simple tools to curb your phone addiction!” or even, “I got rid of my phone and my life has never been the same!”

I just don’t buy it. I feel like my phone addiction can’t be fixed with “Seven great tips” because this problem goes beyond life hacks. Similar to false weight loss diets that tell you to drink green juice and rub kale on your temples, these quick fixes are ridiculous. We need to learn more about the psychology behind why we depend on our phones, how the companies make money and how to change our philosophy.

Cal Newport, an associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, and writer of the book Digital Minimalism, has been researching this epidemic extensively over the past few years and providing practice and frameworks to bring balance to people’s lives.

The movement Digital Minimalism is about living deliberately. Newport says when integrating new technology into your life, one must weigh their costs and benefits. One of the major costs of modern technology is solitude deprivation.

“A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds.”

Newport explains that having time alone creates opportunities for problem solving, self regulating, focusing, de-stressing and getting creative. Our discomfort with boredom is an epidemic, and our brains were not built for this constant stimulation. This has caused a mental health crisis. The ubiquitous nature of our cell phone use has been increasingly linked to the rise in anxiety and depression, especially in young people born after 1995.

Now is the part where I would give you a list of strategies to help you with this addiction. But alas, that would be hypocritical.

Instead, we need to educate ourselves on this overpowering issue of addiction and make significant lifestyle changes. Reading books like Newports’, researching, sharing your anxieties with peers and demanding more regulations from Facebook, Google and the powers that be are a few first steps.

Newport writes, “it’s easy to be seduced by the small amount of profit offered by the latest app or service, but then forget its cost in terms of the most important resource we possess: the minutes of our life.”

The most valuable commodity in our economy is your attention – so I hope I have it.

 

Graphic by @sundaeghost

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“You like my body the way it is”

A few weeks ago, at The Link’s launch party (no, there is no feud between our publications) BackxWash performed “You like my body the way it is” off her Deviancy album. In a moment that felt like I was in a movie — as if the camera was behind and panned to a POV of me watching BackxWash perform — I latched onto those lyrics and snapped into journalist mode. A story idea (this one) came alive.

BackxWash starts by saying she had a dream she would die and go to heaven, moving into the second verse with, “If he [Jesus] made me in his image/ It’s amazing how I hate seeing my face up in the mirror”. The rest of the song takes you through this sentiment; the feeling of inadequacy, the idea of wanting to change parts of yourself, either partly or completely. Then the chorus shines through: “you like my body the way it is” — you admire it and cherish it and love it just how it is, regardless of how much I don’t like about it or what I want to change.

There has been a growth in the body-positivity movement over the past few years, with everyone preaching that you should love yourself just the way you are. The thing with body-positivity is that it can take years for some to actually achieve a state of mind of full acceptance.

If someone has years of issues with their body image, just telling them “love yourself” or that there’s nothing wrong with them doesn’t do much. Sometimes, especially if someone has struggled with loving themselves for a long time, it takes more than simple affirming statements from a stranger over the Internet or kind words from your friends to really spark a change of mind.

BackxWash’s song is a reality check that these thoughts of inadequacy and of wanting to change parts of yourself are still on people’s minds, despite the body positivity movement trying to rid the world of negative thoughts people have about their bodies. Her song is also a soft reminder that having another person love the parts of you that you hate can help you learn to love those parts yourself.

There have been times where I didn’t like parts of my body, either because of the perfect body propaganda on social media and in advertising around me, or because of years of feeling inadequate and inferior to everyone else my age, or even because I was comparing myself to others. All of these added to my already not-so-great self-image. But between those times of self-doubt and of feeling inadequate, there have been people who were patient with me, who took the time to learn what I didn’t like about myself and made sure I knew they loved those parts of me. They made sure to tell me they liked my body the way it is, even if I couldn’t see it at first. And soon enough, because of these people, I started liking the parts of myself that I used to not like so much.

The point of this is that, sometimes, we all need a little help loving ourselves, to see ourselves in a new light and to not feel so alone. As BackxWash says: “But when I’m feeling so cold, you don’t get me a coat/ Your touch gives me the warmth, you don’t leave me alone.” While, no, we shouldn’t need to depend on someone’s validation and idolize their opinions about us, having others’ reaffirmations that they love the parts of you that you dislike can help you in loving yourself. By someone telling you they like your body just how it is – without objectifying you, of course – despite all the flaws you point out to them, you may also start liking your body the way it is.

Graphic by @sundaeghost

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Same family, different political views

In the last few years, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that my political views are very different from those of some of my closest family members. It’s a realization that slowly crept up on me around the time I became legal voting age. Now, five years later, it’s still a source of contention at the odd family dinner.

My mom’s side of the family comes from a long line of rural Ontarians who bleed blue, while I, on the other hand, have gone out of my way to meet Justin Trudeau on two occasions. I own a t-shirt with a photo of him and the word “Tru-Daddy” on it, just to give you an idea of where my allegiance lies.

This realization of the differences between myself and my relatives has been challenging not only for the obvious reason; we all want the rest of the world to agree with our political ideologies. But also because of the fact that it has actually driven a wedge between some of those relationships.

I have relatives who I once loved spending time with, but I now actively avoid them whenever possible. Our conversations always seem to shift into political mode, and I feel like I might not love them as much anymore if I hear them say “Liberal taxes” one more time.

You grow up thinking that the people – the adults – who are part of the village raising you are good, smart, and kind people. Then all of a sudden your aunts and uncles won’t stop sharing posts by Ontario Strong on Facebook, and your oldest cousins keep complaining about the rise in immigration. The worst part is, when you’re old enough to know and understand the implications of that, and thanks to the DNA you share with them, you’re too stubborn to keep your mouth shut about it.

In all seriousness, it isn’t my family’s conservatism that I take issue with. It’s the lack of empathy demonstrated by their ballot choices. During the 2018 Ontario provincial election campaign, Doug Ford promised cuts if elected (spoiler: he was), to the services that I knew would greatly affect vulnerable people in Ontario; myself and some relatives included.

These promises entailed cuts to the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP) and to the Ontario Student Assistant Program (OSAP). The OHIP had previously covered almost all prescriptions for people aged 24 and under, and the OSAP gave students a six-month grace period after their graduation before charging interest on their student loans.

In the lead up to that election, I implored many members of my family, who I knew weren’t fond of the provincial Liberals at the time, to consider any option other than Doug Ford. I explained how I thought it would negatively impact the people who need provincial services the most – to no avail.

Those family members would complain about things like their hydro bills and their property taxes under the Liberals. They would say that they wanted to elect Ford because he promised to repeal the sex-ed curriculum which the Liberals updated in 2015 for the first time since 1998 (it included concepts such as LGBTQ rights, online bullying and consent). They thought that it taught things that were too complex for kids to think about, let alone understand. As someone who was taught the 1998 version, I can assure you I would have appreciated the modern information that it lacked.

All of these concerns of theirs are valid issues to consider when electing a new Premier. But to me, they are not nearly as important as things like low-income families getting free prescriptions when their kids get sick, post-graduates getting a moment to catch up before paying back tens of thousands of dollars of debt, and kids growing up in a province they feel accepted by.

My family and I may never agree on which party to vote for, and that’s hard for me to reconcile. All I can do is vote for what I believe in and hope that they begin to see things from a more outwardly compassionate perspective.

 

Graphic by @sundaeghost

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How the “Dumb Dad” stereotype hurts us all

Do you remember the Berenstain Bears? You know, a family of four: mama, papa, sister, and brother. It was a classic kid show: they lived in a tree-house, played outside, learned some lessons, and so on. Although this show seems straightforward, my mother never let me watch it.

At the time, I thought she was just being unnecessarily strict. Seven-year-old Callie wanted to hang out with a couple cartoon bears, what could possibly be wrong with that? As it turns out, she was actually on to something.

Writer Paul Farhi explained in Los Angeles Times that the fundamental narrative of the show is problematic.

“The action usually starts when the kids face a problem,” Farhi wrote. “They turn to Papa, who offers a “solution” that only makes the problem – or the kids’ fears about it – even worse. Enter Mama, who eventually sets everyone straight.”

This is a common archetype for fathers in media. These male characters are portrayed as incompetent and incapable of nurturing their family. It’s important to analyze the impact these stereotypes have on viewers. From Papa Bear to Homer Simpson, this character mould transcends all ages and is harmful to society.

We have indulged the “dumb dad” cliché for years. Even shows that are seemingly “representative” of today’s family, like Modern Family, and Life in Pieces, portray dads as incompetent and unaware of what it means to emotionally support family members. It sends the message that fathers are not crucial members of the emotional aspect of a family unit, whereas mothers are. This is not only hurtful and often an inaccurate representation of many fathers, but sets a specific tone for young boys and girls growing up and learning about the expectations of fatherhood and motherhood.

Co-founder of the U.S. advocacy group Dads and Daughters, Joe Kelly, explains that this is a cultural blind-spot and has become an unconscious and recurring story we tell.

“I don’t believe it’s a manner of injustice or anyone being victimized, I think it’s habit,” said Kelly. “The habit is that men are of secondary importance in the life of a family.”

As much as a father like Peter Griffin from Family Guy is a comic relief character, he adds little to no emotional support to his children. On the other hand, his wife Lois Griffin, is less funny and more shrill. Mothers often do all the emotional work on television and young children internalize this.

This being said, we are slowly seeing dads portrayed differently. For example, Terry Jeffords from Brooklyn 99 is a sergeant for the police force. He is a strong masculine figure who also shows vulnerability and prioritizes his children. Jack Pearson from This Is US, is a father who shows love and care, and viewers actively see how this has helped shape his family. These shows are creating a space where men can be vulnerable, emotionally intelligent, and kind.

This speaks directly to the feminist movement. We have to remember that feminist ideology at its core includes all genders and orientations. It is meant to free people of the stereotypes and categories that society has put them in. Unfortunately, these stereotypes don’t start or end with television; and we can see this being portrayed in commercials and movies as well.

Not to mention, this trope is overdone and boring. So how about we move past dads drinking beer and rolling their eyes at their vacuuming wife and lean into the complexity of a shared partnership?

 

Graphic by @sundaeghost

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Oh my sweet, broken home

It is no question that Lebanon prides itself for being a land based on paradoxes.

Where the government forces its people to travel to Cyprus for civil marriage, but never bats an eye at nightclubs closing at 6 a.m. Where religion and politics are – quite literally – the two nesting pillars, and are more often than not interchangeable. Where our greatest accomplishments consist of being among the top 10 party cities, and breaking the Guinness World Record for the biggest hummus plate.

I love my birth country more than anything in the world. Despite all its flaws and political turmoils, I remain the devil’s advocate. However, there are certain things I will never be able to overlook, nor defend; and that is the Lebanese population’s innate racism and intolerance.

On Sept. 20, Lebanon’s Minister of Education Akram Chehayeb took to Twitter to discuss the Near Eastern country’s refugee crisis.

“Despite all the challenges, we will not allow any student to remain outside of school in Lebanon, whatever his nationality, and we will endeavor to ensure a comprehensive and just education for all,” his words read. “The human right to education is a sacred right guaranteed by all international conventions and laws.”

Such an accepting statement did not sit well with a number of people, and was followed by an overtly racist, some would call ‘nationalist,’ caricature. OTV, a Lebanese broadcasting channel, shared a cartoonist’s take on Chehayeb’s words. The drawing shows two Lebanese students walking to school, only to be greeted with a sign that roughly translates from Arabic to: “We apologize, the school is full of Syrians, Palestinians, Indians, (an offensive word for Black people), Ethiopians, Bangladeshis.”

The Daily Star reported that the cartoon has been removed from OTV’s socials as of Monday, with no response from the channel about the backlash.

It’s no secret that Lebanon has had its fair share of conflicts from the influx of refugees, due to the many strifes the Near East has had to face over the years. Not to mention the unresolved Civil War issues, placing the country in a devil’s palm, where the people live in imminent fear of it happening again. Suffice to say, a country with a pint-sized territory of 10,452 square km bites off more discords than it can chew; and for inexplicable reasons, remains hungry for more.

One thing I have learned since moving to Montreal is how similar we all are once we get over our differences. At times, I have more in common with a Syrian or Palestinian citizen than I do with a Lebanese one who has lived their entire life in the same country as I. I even go as far as relating to many Latinos about similar childhood moments, mostly ones relating to parental disciplinary methods. Because globalization has enabled us to look beyond one’s nationality, and realize that no ethnicity is better than others – especially not ethnicities that live so close together. 

As the years go by, I don’t believe the sentence “I am not racist, butshould be tolerated anymore. It is not acceptable to follow antiquated ideals of favouritism, and elitist attitudes, where one believes themselves to be better than others.

I grew up in an environment where institutionalized racism was ever-present, but was taught to treat everyone with respect and kindness. I’ve outgrown, and educated myself out of that innate racial bias, and I am only 22. What’s your excuse?

 

Graphic by Victoria Blair

 

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