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Big data and the Future of Democracy: The Matrix world behind the Brexit and the US Elections

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Authors: Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus

Aegean theater of the Antique Greece was the place of astonishing revelations and intellectual excellence – a remarkable density and proximity, not surpassed up to our age. All we know about science, philosophy, sports, arts, culture and entertainment, stars and earth has been postulated, explored and examined then and there.

Simply, it was a time and place of triumph of human consciousness, pure reasoning and sparkling thought. However, neither Euclid, Anaximander, Heraclites, Hippocrates (both of Chios, and of Cos), Socrates, Archimedes, Ptolemy, Democritus, Plato, Pythagoras, Diogenes, Aristotle, Empedocles, Conon, Eratosthenes nor any of dozens of other brilliant ancient Greek minds did ever refer by a word, by a single sentence to something which was their everyday life, something they saw literally on every corner along their entire lives. It was an immoral, unjust, notoriously brutal and oppressive slavery system that powered the Antique state. (Slaves have not been even attributed as humans, but rather as the ‘phonic tools/tools able to speak’.) This myopia, this absence of critical reference on the obvious and omnipresent is a historic message – highly disturbing, self-telling and quite a warning.” – notes prof. Anis H. Bajrektarevic in his luminary book of 2013, ‘Is there like after Facebook? – Geopolitics of Technology’.

Indeed, why do we constantly ignore massive and sustain harvesting of our personal data from the social networks, medical records, pay-cards, internet and smart phones as well as its commercialization and monetization for dubious ends and disturbing futures.

Professor Bajrektarevic predicts and warns: “If humans hardly ever question fetishisation of their own McFB way of life, or oppose the (self-) trivialization, why then is the subsequent brutalization a surprise to them?”

Thus, should we be really surprise with the Brexit vote, with the results of the US elections, and with the forcoming massive wins of the right-wing parties all over Europe? Putin is behind it !! – how easy, and how misleading a self-denial.

Here is a story based on facts, if we are only interested to really grasp the Matrix world. The Iron Cage we constructed ourselves.

On November 9 at around 8.30 AM., Michal Kosinski woke up in the Hotel Sunnehus in Zurich. The 34-year-old researcher had come to give a lecture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) about the dangers of Big Data and the digital revolution. Kosinski gives regular lectures on this topic all over the world. He is a leading expert in psychometrics, a data-driven sub-branch of psychology. When he turned on the TV that morning, he saw that the bombshell had exploded: contrary to forecasts by all leading statisticians, Donald J. Trump had been elected president of the United States.

For a long time, Kosinski watched the Trump victory celebrations and the results coming in from each state. He had a hunch that the outcome of the election might have something to do with his research. Finally, he took a deep breath and turned off the TV.

On the same day, a then little-known British company based in London sent out a press release: “We are thrilled that our revolutionary approach to data-driven communication has played such an integral part in President-elect Trump’s extraordinary win,” Alexander James Ashburner Nix was quoted as saying. Nix is British, 41 years old, and CEO of Cambridge Analytica. He is always immaculately turned out in tailor-made suits and designer glasses, with his wavy blonde hair combed back from his forehead. His company wasn’t just integral to Trump’s online campaign, but to the UK’s Brexit campaign as well.

Of these three players—reflective Kosinski, carefully groomed Nix and grinning Trump—one of them enabled the digital revolution, one of them executed it and one of them benefited from it.

How dangerous is big data?

Anyone who has not spent the last five years living on another planet will be familiar with the term Big Data. Big Data means, in essence, that everything we do, both on and offline, leaves digital traces. Every purchase we make with our cards, every search we type into Google, every movement we make when our mobile phone is in our pocket, every “like” is stored. Especially every “like.” For a long time, it was not entirely clear what use this data could have—except, perhaps, that we might find ads for high blood pressure remedies just after we’ve Googled “reduce blood pressure.”

On November 9, it became clear that maybe much more is possible. The company behind Trump’s online campaign—the same company that had worked for Leave.EU in the very early stages of its “Brexit” campaign—was a Big Data company: Cambridge Analytica.

To understand the outcome of the election—and how political communication might work in the future—we need to begin with a strange incident at Cambridge University in 2014, at Kosinski’s Psychometrics Center.

Psychometrics, sometimes also called psychographics, focuses on measuring psychological traits, such as personality. In the 1980s, two teams of psychologists developed a model that sought to assess human beings based on five personality traits, known as the “Big Five.” These are: openness (how open you are to new experiences?), conscientiousness (how much of a perfectionist are you?), extroversion (how sociable are you?), agreeableness (how considerate and cooperative you are?) and neuroticism (are you easily upset?). Based on these dimensions—they are also known as OCEAN, an acronym for openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism—we can make a relatively accurate assessment of the kind of person in front of us. This includes their needs and fears, and how they are likely to behave. The “Big Five” has become the standard technique of psychometrics. But for a long time, the problem with this approach was data collection, because it involved filling out a complicated, highly personal questionnaire. Then came the Internet. And Facebook. And Kosinski.

Michal Kosinski was a student in Warsaw when his life took a new direction in 2008. He was accepted by Cambridge University to do his PhD at the Psychometrics Centre, one of the oldest institutions of this kind worldwide. Kosinski joined fellow student David Stillwell (now a lecturer at Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge) about a year after Stillwell had launched a little Facebook application in the days when the platform had not yet become the behemoth it is today. Their MyPersonality app enabled users to fill out different psychometric questionnaires, including a handful of psychological questions from the Big Five personality questionnaire (“I panic easily,” “I contradict others”). Based on the evaluation, users received a “personality profile”—individual Big Five values—and could opt-in to share their Facebook profile data with the researchers.

Kosinski had expected a few dozen college friends to fill in the questionnaire, but before long, hundreds, thousands, then millions of people had revealed their innermost convictions. Suddenly, the two doctoral candidates owned the largest dataset combining psychometric scores with Facebook profiles ever to be collected.

The approach that Kosinski and his colleagues developed over the next few years was actually quite simple. First, they provided test subjects with a questionnaire in the form of an online quiz. From their responses, the psychologists calculated the personal Big Five values of respondents. Kosinski’s team then compared the results with all sorts of other online data from the subjects: what they “liked,” shared or posted on Facebook, or what gender, age, place of residence they specified, for example. This enabled the researchers to connect the dots and make correlations.

Remarkably reliable deductions could be drawn from simple online actions. For example, men who “liked” the cosmetics brand MAC were slightly more likely to be gay; one of the best indicators for heterosexuality was “liking” Wu-Tang Clan. Followers of Lady Gaga were most probably extroverts, while those who “liked” philosophy tended to be introverts. While each piece of such information is too weak to produce a reliable prediction, when tens, hundreds, or thousands of individual data points are combined, the resulting predictions become really accurate.

Kosinski and his team tirelessly refined their models. In 2012, Kosinski proved that on the basis of an average of 68 Facebook “likes” by a user, it was possible to predict their skin color (with 95 percent accuracy), their sexual orientation (88 percent accuracy), and their affiliation to the Democratic or Republican party (85 percent). But it didn’t stop there. Intelligence, religious affiliation, as well as alcohol, cigarette and drug use, could all be determined. From the data it was even possible to deduce whether someone’s parents were divorced.

The strength of their modeling was illustrated by how well it could predict a subject’s answers. Kosinski continued to work on the models incessantly: before long, he was able to evaluate a person better than the average work colleague, merely on the basis of ten Facebook “likes.” Seventy “likes” were enough to outdo what a person’s friends knew, 150 what their parents knew, and 300 “likes” what their partner knew. More “likes” could even surpass what a person thought they knew about themselves. On the day that Kosinski published these findings, he received two phone calls. The threat of a lawsuit and a job offer. Both from Facebook.

Only weeks later Facebook “likes” became private by default. Before that, the default setting was that anyone on the internet could see your “likes.” But this was no obstacle to data collectors: while Kosinski always asked for the consent of Facebook users, many apps and online quizzes today require access to private data as a precondition for taking personality tests. (Anybody who wants to evaluate themselves based on their Facebook “likes” can do so on Kosinski’s website, and then compare their results to those of a classic Ocean questionnaire, like that of the Cambridge Psychometrics Center.)

But it was not just about “likes” or even Facebook: Kosinski and his team could now ascribe Big Five values based purely on how many profile pictures a person has on Facebook, or how many contacts they have (a good indicator of extraversion). But we also reveal something about ourselves even when we’re not online. For example, the motion sensor on our phone reveals how quickly we move and how far we travel (this correlates with emotional instability). Our smartphone, Kosinski concluded, is a vast psychological questionnaire that we are constantly filling out, both consciously and unconsciously.

Above all, however—and this is key—it also works in reverse: not only can psychological profiles be created from your data, but your data can also be used the other way round to search for specific profiles: all anxious fathers, all angry introverts, for example—or maybe even all undecided Democrats? Essentially, what Kosinski had invented was sort of a people search engine. He started to recognize the potential—but also the inherent danger—of his work.

To him, the internet was a gift from heaven. What he really wanted was to give something back, to share. Data can be copied, so why shouldn’t everyone benefit from it? It was the spirit of Millenials, entire new generation, the beginning of a new era that transcended the limitations of the physical world. But what would happen, wondered Kosinski, if someone abused his people search engine to manipulate people? He began to add warnings to most of his scientific work. His approach, he warned, “could pose a threat to an individual’s well-being, freedom, or even life.” But no one seemed to grasp what he meant.

Around this time, in early 2014, Kosinski was approached by a young assistant professor in the psychology department called Aleksandr Kogan. He said he was inquiring on behalf of a company that was interested in Kosinski’s method, and wanted to access the MyPersonality database. Kogan wasn’t at liberty to reveal for what purpose; he was bound to secrecy.

At first, Kosinski and his team considered this offer, as it would mean a great deal of money for the institute, but then he hesitated. Finally, Kosinski remembers, Kogan revealed the name of the company: SCL, or Strategic Communication Laboratories. Kosinski Googled the company: “[We are] the premier election management agency,” says the company’s website. SCL provides marketing based on psychological modeling. One of its core focuses: Influencing elections. Influencing elections? Perturbed, Kosinski clicked through the pages. What kind of company was this? And what were these people planning?

What Kosinski did not know at the time: SCL is the parent of a group of companies. Who exactly owns SCL and its diverse branches is unclear, thanks to a convoluted corporate structure, the type seen in the UK Companies House, the Panama Papers, and the Delaware company registry. Some of the SCL offshoots have been involved in elections from Ukraine to Nigeria, helped the Nepalese monarch against the Maoists, whereas others have developed methods to influence Eastern Euripean and Afghan citizens for NATO. And, in 2013, SCL spun off a new company to participate in US elections: Cambridge Analytica.

Kosinski knew nothing about all this, but he had a bad feeling. “The whole thing started to stink,” he recalls. On further investigation, he discovered that Aleksandr Kogan had secretly registered a company doing business with SCL. According to a December 2015 report in the Guardian and to internal company documents given to Das Magazin, it emerges that SCL learned about Kosinski’s method from Kogan.

Kosinski came to suspect that Kogan’s company might have reproduced the Facebook “Likes”-based Big Five measurement tool in order to sell it to this election-influencing firm. He immediately broke off contact with Kogan and informed the director of the institute, sparking a complicated conflict within the university. The institute was worried about its reputation. Aleksandr Kogan then moved to Singapore, married, and changed his name to Dr. Spectre. Michal Kosinski finished his PhD, got a job offer from Stanford and moved to the US.

Mr. Brexit

All was quiet for about a year. Then, in November 2015, the more radical of the two Brexit campaigns, “Leave.EU,” supported by Nigel Farage, announced that it had commissioned a Big Data company to support its online campaign: Cambridge Analytica. The company’s core strength: innovative political marketing—microtargeting—by measuring people’s personality from their digital footprints, based on the OCEAN model.

Now Kosinski received emails asking what he had to do with it—the words Cambridge, personality, and analytics immediately made many people think of Kosinski. It was the first time he had heard of the company, which borrowed its name, it said, from its first employees, researchers from the university. Horrified, he looked at the website. Was his methodology being used on a grand scale for political purposes?

After the Brexit result, friends and acquaintances wrote to him: Just look at what you’ve done. Everywhere he went, Kosinski had to explain that he had nothing to do with this company. (It remains unclear how deeply Cambridge Analytica was involved in the Brexit campaign. Cambridge Analytica would not discuss such questions.)

For a few months, things are relatively quiet. Then, on September 19, 2016, just over a month before the US elections, the guitar riffs of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” fill the dark-blue hall of New York’s Grand Hyatt hotel. The Concordia Summit is a kind of World Economic Forum in miniature. Decision-makers from all over the world have been invited, among them Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann. “Please welcome to the stage Alexander Nix, chief executive officer of Cambridge Analytica,” a smooth female voice announces. A slim man in a dark suit walks onto the stage. A hush falls. Many in attendance know that this is Trump’s new digital strategy man. (A video of the presentation was posted on YouTube.)

A few weeks earlier, Trump had tweeted, somewhat cryptically, “Soon you’ll be calling me Mr. Brexit.” Political observers had indeed noticed some striking similarities between Trump’s agenda and that of the right-wing Brexit movement. But few had noticed the connection with Trump’s recent hiring of a marketing company named Cambridge Analytica.

Up to this point, Trump’s digital campaign had consisted of more or less one person: Brad Parscale, a marketing entrepreneur and failed start-up founder who created a rudimentary website for Trump for $1,500. The 70-year-old Trump is not digitally savvy—there isn’t even a computer on his office desk. Trump doesn’t do emails, his personal assistant once revealed. She herself talked him into having a smartphone, from which he now tweets incessantly.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, relied heavily on the legacy of the first “social-media president,” Barack Obama. She had the address lists of the Democratic Party, worked with cutting-edge big data analysts from BlueLabs and received support from Google and DreamWorks. When it was announced in June 2016 that Trump had hired Cambridge Analytica, the establishment in Washington just turned up their noses. Foreign dudes in tailor-made suits who don’t understand the country and its people? Seriously?

“It is my privilege to speak to you today about the power of Big Data and psychographics in the electoral process.” The logo of Cambridge Analytica— a brain composed of network nodes, like a map, appears behind Alexander Nix. “Only 18 months ago, Senator Cruz was one of the less popular candidates,” explains the blonde man in a cut-glass British accent, which puts Americans on edge the same way that a standard German accent can unsettle Swiss people. “Less than 40 percent of the population had heard of him,” another slide says. Cambridge Analytica had become involved in the US election campaign almost two years earlier, initially as a consultant for Republicans Ben Carson and Ted Cruz. Cruz—and later Trump—was funded primarily by the secretive US software billionaire Robert Mercer who, along with his daughter Rebekah, is reported to be the largest investor in Cambridge Analytica.

“So how did he do this?” Up to now, explains Nix, election campaigns have been organized based on demographic concepts. “A really ridiculous idea. The idea that all women should receive the same message because of their gender—or all African Americans because of their race.” What Nix meant is that while other campaigners so far have relied on demographics, Cambridge Analytica was using psychometrics.

Though this might be true, Cambridge Analytica’s role within Cruz’s campaign isn’t undisputed. In December 2015 the Cruz team credited their rising success to psychological use of data and analytics. In Advertising Age, a political client said the embedded Cambridge staff was “like an extra wheel,” but found their core product, Cambridge’s voter data modeling, still “excellent.” The campaign would pay the company at least $5.8 million to help identify voters in the Iowa caucuses, which Cruz won, before dropping out of the race in May.

Nix clicks to the next slide: five different faces, each face corresponding to a personality profile. It is the Big Five or OCEAN Model. “At Cambridge,” he said, “we were able to form a model to predict the personality of every single adult in the United States of America.” The hall is captivated. According to Nix, the success of Cambridge Analytica’s marketing is based on a combination of three elements: behavioral science using the OCEAN Model, Big Data analysis, and ad targeting. Ad targeting is personalized advertising, aligned as accurately as possible to the personality of an individual consumer.

Nix candidly explains how his company does this. First, Cambridge Analytica buys personal data from a range of different sources, like land registries, automotive data, shopping data, bonus cards, club memberships, what magazines you read, what churches you attend. Nix displays the logos of globally active data brokers like Acxiom and Experian—in the US, almost all personal data is for sale. For example, if you want to know where Jewish women live, you can simply buy this information, phone numbers included.

Now Cambridge Analytica aggregates this data with the electoral rolls of the Republican party and online data and calculates a Big Five personality profile. Digital footprints suddenly become real people with fears, needs, interests, and residential addresses.

The methodology looks quite similar to the one that Michal Kosinski once developed. Cambridge Analytica also uses, Nix told us, “surveys on social media” and Facebook data. And the company does exactly what Kosinski warned of: “We have profiled the personality of every adult in the United States of America—220 million people,” Nix boasts.

He opens the screenshot. “This is a data dashboard that we prepared for the Cruz campaign.” A digital control center appears. On the left are diagrams; on the right, a map of Iowa, where Cruz won a surprisingly large number of votes in the primary. And on the map, there are hundreds of thousands of small red and blue dots. Nix narrows down the criteria: “Republicans”—the blue dots disappear; “not yet convinced”—more dots disappear; “male”, and so on. Finally, only one name remains, including age, address, interests, personality and political inclination. How does Cambridge Analytica now target this person with an appropriate political message?

Nix shows how psychographically categorized voters can be differently addressed, based on the example of gun rights, the 2nd Amendment: “For a highly neurotic and conscientious audience the threat of a burglary—and the insurance policy of a gun.” An image on the left shows the hand of an intruder smashing a window. The right side shows a man and a child standing in a field at sunset, both holding guns, clearly shooting ducks: “Conversely, for a closed and agreeable audience. People who care about tradition, and habits, and family.”

How to keep Clinton voters away from the ballot box

Trump’s striking inconsistencies, his much-criticized fickleness, and the resulting array of contradictory messages, suddenly turned out to be his great asset: a different message for every voter. The notion that Trump acted like a perfectly opportunistic algorithm following audience reactions is something the mathematician Cathy O’Neil observed in August 2016.

“Pretty much every message that Trump put out was data-driven,” Alexander Nix remembers. On the day of the third presidential debate between Trump and Clinton, Trump’s team tested 175,000 different ad variations for his arguments, in order to find the right versions above all via Facebook. The messages differed for the most part only in microscopic details, in order to target the recipients in the optimal psychological way: different headings, colors, captions, with a photo or video. This fine-tuning reaches all the way down to the smallest groups, Nix explained in an interview with us. “We can address villages or apartment blocks in a targeted way. Even individuals.”

In the Miami district of Little Haiti, for instance, Trump’s campaign provided inhabitants with news about the failure of the Clinton Foundation following the earthquake in Haiti, in order to keep them from voting for Hillary Clinton. This was one of the goals: to keep potential Clinton voters (which include wavering left-wingers, African-Americans, and young women) away from the ballot box, to “suppress” their vote, as one senior campaign official told Bloomberg in the weeks before the election. These “dark posts”—sponsored news-feed-style ads in Facebook timelines that can only be seen by users with specific profiles—included videos aimed at African-Americans in which Hillary Clinton refers to black men as predators, for example.

Nix finishes his lecture at the Concordia Summit by stating that traditional blanket advertising is dead. “My children will certainly never, ever understand this concept of mass communication.” And before leaving the stage, he announced that since Cruz had left the race, the company was helping one of the remaining presidential candidates.

Just how precisely the American population was being targeted by Trump’s digital troops at that moment was not visible, because they attacked less on mainstream TV and more with personalized messages on social media or digital TV. And while the Clinton team thought it was in the lead, based on demographic projections, Bloomberg journalist Sasha Issenberg was surprised to note on a visit to San Antonio—where Trump’s digital campaign was based—that a “second headquarters” was being created. The embedded Cambridge Analytica team, apparently only a dozen people, received $100,000 from Trump in July, $250,000 in August, and $5 million in September. According to Nix, the company earned over $15 million overall. (The company is incorporated in the US, where laws regarding the release of personal data are more lax than in European Union countries. Whereas European privacy laws require a person to “opt in” to a release of data, those in the US permit data to be released unless a user “opts out.”)

The measures were radical: From July 2016, Trump’s canvassers were provided with an app with which they could identify the political views and personality types of the inhabitants of a house. It was the same app provider used by Brexit campaigners. Trump’s people only rang at the doors of houses that the app rated as receptive to his messages. The canvassers came prepared with guidelines for conversations tailored to the personality type of the resident. In turn, the canvassers fed the reactions into the app, and the new data flowed back to the dashboards of the Trump campaign.

Again, this is nothing new. The Democrats did similar things, but there is no evidence that they relied on psychometric profiling. Cambridge Analytica, however, divided the US population into 32 personality types, and focused on just 17 states. And just as Kosinski had established that men who like MAC cosmetics are slightly more likely to be gay, the company discovered that a preference for cars made in the US was a great indication of a potential Trump voter. Among other things, these findings now showed Trump which messages worked best and where. The decision to focus on Michigan and Wisconsin in the final weeks of the campaign was made on the basis of data analysis. The candidate became the instrument for implementing a big data model.

What’s Next?

But to what extent did psychometric methods influence the outcome of the election? When asked, Cambridge Analytica was unwilling to provide any proof of the effectiveness of its campaign. And it is quite possible that the question is impossible to answer.

And yet there are clues: There is the fact of the surprising rise of Ted Cruz during the primaries. Also there was an increased number of voters in rural areas. There was the decline in the number of African-American early votes. The fact that Trump spent so little money may also be explained by the effectiveness of personality-based advertising. As does the fact that he invested far more in digital than TV campaigning compared to Hillary Clinton. Facebook proved to be the ultimate weapon and the best election campaigner, as Nix explained, and as comments by several core Trump campaigners demonstrate.

Many voices have claimed that the statisticians lost the election because their predictions were so off the mark. But what if statisticians in fact helped win the election—but only those who were using the new method? It is an irony of history that Trump, who often grumbled about scientific research, used a highly scientific approach in his campaign.

Another big winner is Cambridge Analytica. Its board member Steve Bannon, former executive chair of the right-wing online newspaper Breitbart News, has been appointed as Donald Trump’s senior counselor and chief strategist. Whilst Cambridge Analytica is not willing to comment on alleged ongoing talks with UK Prime Minister Theresa May, Alexander Nix claims that he is building up his client base worldwide, and that he has received inquiries from Switzerland, Germany, and Australia. His company is currently touring European conferences showcasing their success in the United States. This year three core countries of the EU are facing elections with resurgent populist parties: France, Holland and Germany. The electoral successes come at an opportune time, as the company is readying for a push into commercial advertising.

********

Kosinski has observed all of this from his office at Stanford. Following the US election, the university is in turmoil. Kosinski is responding to developments with the sharpest weapon available to a researcher: a scientific analysis. Together with his research colleague Sandra Matz, he has conducted a series of tests, which will soon be published. The initial results are alarming: The study shows the effectiveness of personality targeting by showing that marketers can attract up to 63 percent more clicks and up to 1,400 more conversions in real-life advertising campaigns on Facebook when matching products and marketing messages to consumers’ personality characteristics. They further demonstrate the scalability of personality targeting by showing that the majority of Facebook Pages promoting products or brands are affected by personality and that large numbers of consumers can be accurately targeted based on a single Facebook Page.

In a statement after the German publication of this article, a Cambridge Analytica spokesperson said, “Cambridge Analytica does not use data from Facebook. It has had no dealings with Dr. Michal Kosinski. It does not subcontract research. It does not use the same methodology. Psychographics was hardly used at all. Cambridge Analytica did not engage in efforts to discourage any Americans from casting their vote in the presidential election. Its efforts were solely directed towards increasing the number of voters in the election.”

The world has been turned upside down. Great Britain is leaving the EU, Donald Trump is president of the United States of America. And in Stanford, Kosinski, who wanted to warn against the danger of using psychological targeting in a political setting, is once again receiving accusatory emails. “No,” says Kosinski, quietly and shaking his head. “This is not my fault. I did not build the bomb. I only showed that it exists.”


KrogerusAbout authors:
Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus are investigative journalists attached to the Swiss-based Das Magazin specialized journal.  The original text appeared in the late December edition under the title: “I only showed that the bomb exists” (Ich habe nur gezeigt, dass es die Bombe gibt). This, English translation, is based on the subsequent January version, first published by the Motherboard magazine (titled: The Data That Turned the World Upside

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Lesson to be Learn from Monsanto’s Involvement in the Vietnamese War: The Agent Orange

Petra Mosetti

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Monsanto is an American multinational company founded in 1901 by John Francis Queeny, a thirty-year pharmaceutical veteran married to Olga Mendez Monsanto, for which Monsanto Chemical Works is named. In the 1920s Monsanto expanded into industrial chemicals and drugs, becoming the world’s bigger maker of aspirin and acetylsalicylic acid, which was found toxic. During this time period, the company introduced their polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), an oil that wouldn’t burn, resistant to degradation and with limited applications. Eventually, its use was banned after fifty years for causing such devastation, but it is still present in almost all animal and human blood and tissue cells across the globe and is considered one of the most dangerous chemicals on the planet.

The Vietnam War (1961-1975) is most known for the extensive bombings of North Vietnam. More dangerous, however, yet less well-known to the general public, was the chemical war carried out from 1961 to 1971 against South Vietnam. The involvement of the U.S. government escalated over a period of twenty years, peaking in 1968 and ending with a complete withdrawal of troops in 1973. During this period, it engaged with the companies Dow Chemical and Monsanto, which were assigned the task of designing herbicides that would contaminate the jungles where the North Vietnamese forces operated. The project, known as ‘’Rainbow Herbicides’’ included Agent Pink, Agent Green, Agent Purple, Agent Blue, Agent White, and Agent Orange. As a result, a total of 20 million gallons of herbicide have been sprayed across Vietnam for ten years, that is until scientific research studies had proven that the dioxin present in Rainbow Herbicides, caused cancers in laboratory rats.                                                           

American air forces, the navy as well as tanker trucks, and men with backpack sprayers, diffused 72 million liters of the chemical Agent Orange to spoil the coverage of communistic North Vietnam, as well as destroy the rice fields. Their goal was to pursue from the jungle the combatants taking shelter there, to cut the Ho Chi Minh trail by which supplies, weapons, and medication arrived down from the North, to facilitate surveillance of roads, coastlines, and waterways and to destroy the rice fields, depriving the guerrillas of food and aid.

The contained dioxin TCDD in Agent Orange was classified as “super poison” and as a consequence 3 million people got sick, and 150,000 children were born with disabilities. Even today there are still 3,500 children a year who are born disabled according to the aid group Green Cross. Lavallard claims that to the millions of Vietnamese victims, must be added the American veterans and their Canadian, South Korean, New Zealand and Australian allies who used defoliants without knowing they were dangerous. Herbicides were delivered separately, and mixtures were made on the scene before being loaded into tanks, without provision and without protection. Military bases and they’re encircling were regularly sprayed with defoliants to remove the bush growth. Furthermore, soldiers saved rainwater for drinking or washing in empty drums and prepared barbecues in them. Indeed, veterans have experienced same pathologies as the Vietnamese, and their children have also been affected.

An immense environmental disaster and a human catastrophe taking different forms, including health, economic as well as socio-cultural, which had dramatic consequences that are still felt today. For years, a conspiracy of silence has ulterior the toxicity of the defoliants used. Agent Orange was one of them, a chemical containing two herbicides, one of which turned out to be contaminated with a highly toxic strain of dioxin.

According to official and unofficial documents about the history of the dangerous defoliants, the U.S. chemical companies that made the Rainbow Herbicides as well as the government and military authorities who ordered its spraying on Vietnam, knew the human health cost it could take. Indeed, a review of the documents related to the use of Agent Orange, a dioxin-laden herbicide, including public papers from the companies that manufactured it and the government that used it, provides compelling evidence that those in charge also covered information about the devastating effects it could have on people.

Nowadays, Monsanto is a known agricultural company, claiming to help farmers grow food more sustainably. From seed to software, to fiber and fuel, they are developing tools to assist growers in protecting natural resources while providing sustenance to the world. With it headquarter in St. Louis, 69 subsidiaries across the world, including over 20.000 employees, Monsanto believes that in the face of a changing climate and other environmental challenges, it is helping to ensure that the agricultural system continues to suit the needs of everyone.

In regard to legal and non-legal responses, the international community has done a lot to hold the company liable, however without results. In fact, many lawsuits have been filed against Monsanto, and various activists and organizations worldwide had and are still fighting against the atrocities committed. The greatest accomplishment was, therefore, the establishment of the ad hoc International Monsanto Tribunal, which aimed to include the crime of ecocide in the Rome Statute that would allow the prosecution of individuals and legal entities suspected of having committed this crime. Yet, without positive outcomes.

Monsanto, being one of the largest and most powerful companies in the United States, is an ambitious target for non-profit organizations and protests groups. Moreover, their direct cooperation with the government makes it even more difficult to prosecute. As Derricks points out for the last 50 years, the company has gotten away with this crime. However, I believe justice can and must be done with the right resources and support of the international community. Indeed, with the support of different governments worldwide programs such as Agent Orange Education can be set up to share awareness about the wrongdoing.

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Psychological programming and political organization

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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Contemporary politics and the ensuing organization of consensus currently employ techniques and methods never used before.

 We are going through an era in which completely new mechanisms operate within the traditional Parliamentary political representation, inherited from the liberal and democratic thought of the eighteenth century and of the following century. These mechanisms are much more powerful than those that – in the modern imitation of the Athenian agora -formed the will of the people and the guidelines and directions of the government.

 Democracy of Ancients and Democracy of Moderns – just to use the simile of Benjamin Constant – were basically similar, but different in their functioning.

 The number of citizens did not constitute a substantial difference, except that, according to Constant, modern democratic citizens delegated to the ruling class what did not fall within their being “private individuals, with private interests”.

Again according to Constant, the reason lay precisely in the new category of “private individuals” who, with a view to maintaining their wealth or work, deemed it right to delegate to someone else their power to make and break laws. Nowadays the private sphere does no longer exist. But not in the sense of the society of “one thousand eyes” and of continuous supervision and surveillance, but because the very category of “private” is over even in the political discourse.

Hence a mass totalitarian society, with a repressive apparatus that applies to everything would previously have been the subject of the strictly personal sphere of life.

 Everything has currently changed, but everything still appears to be similar to the criteria and principles we have studied in the manuals of history of political doctrines. This is not the case.

 Meanwhile, since the beginning of the 20th century, Eduard Bernays, Freud’s nephew and the father and pioneer of public relations, had established some connections between Sigmund Freud’s psychology (and with Gustave Le Bon’s Psychology of the Crowds, Mussolini’s favourite book) and political practice.

 That was the beginning of what we now call “corporate communication”.

 The suffragettes smoked and that was an operation funded by Bernays through the US tobacco producers.

  The exaltation of sex – following the publication of the Kinsey Report and the mass spread of the contraceptive pill-changed and upset the consumption styles and habits of vast masses of young people who, in the 1960s, were to shape the consumption habits of what Galbraith called the “affluent society”.

 That was the objective, not sex.

Hence, based on what discovered by Sigmund Freud, with a view to selling or prompting and inducing political behaviours, there was the need to “work” above all on the unconscious.

Currently, whatever is implanted from outside into the unconscious – if repeated constantly – always becomes real in the future.

 The real for itself always becomes in itself, because what individuals think -in crowds, but solitarily (Riesman’s “lonely crowd”) -becomes either consumption or political behaviour, which is basically the same.

 The subconscious has a huge power, i.e. controlling all subjective experiences. It is the autopilot of life, also from a practical viewpoint.

Nowadays no one speaks to the “reason”, the myth of the eighteenth century, but to instincts, to the subconscious, even to the unconscious.

The whole mechanism of the subconscious is already well in place and ready at 7-8 years of age and continues all lifelong.

With a view to reprogramming it, we need at first to limit the external and environmental negativities.

Indeed, we need to look for fully “positive” people, things and environments, as well as information.

 Needless to say, this rule is carefully followed by all political propagandists and, above all, by advertisers.

Currently politics always follows the rules of consumer goods advertising. The leader is a testimonial. The script is the program and the government an oligopoly.

 With a view to de-programming the “negative” mind, we need instead to visualize – as in a daydream – positive situations which we have already experienced.

We also need to reprocess the feelings of joy, which reach the subconscious immediately, well before the other ones.

 The subconscious mind always and only knows the present.

 Past and future are conceptual notions and processing – hence they are conscious. The subconscious interprets the negative of a negative proposition only as negative.

Creating positive propositions that counteract the negative ones processed and produced by the subconscious and then continuously repeat these actions. This is the basic technique.

 This is, in short, the subjective mechanism that is currently used in political and commercial communication.

What are, however, the current technologies used to program and reprogram people’s minds?

 We can mention the theory of social warfare, the virtual but all-out clashtaking place in the minds of citizens of a target country, using current technologies.

 The aim of any reprogramming campaign is, in fact, to make the enemy (the enemy people, indeed) think like us.

 It is a new kind of manipulation, much wider than the one carried out with the old disinformation or with the intelligence intoxication that was the non-violent part of the Cold War.

 The most used information technologies are now Precision Targeting – which sends messages and behavioural inductions to a specific group – as well as the wide range of Artificial Intelligence mechanisms that are used to simulate online the behaviour and thought in relation to the primary information we wants to convey. There is also the algorithmic decision-making, which processes information through specific algorithms in view of formulating recommendations or taking fully automated decisions.

 This holds true both for decision-makers and for the vast mass of users, citizens and voters of the aforementioned decision-makers.

We can also mention the Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) technologies, which create partially or completely artificial environments for both the programmers of the public opinion and the public itself.

  But also the Internet of Things (IoT) is used in this field, by correlating machines and sensors for the construction of a Complete Reality, which becomes facts and data to be spread as such.

 In this context of complete manipulation of information, which becomes the Complete Reality, also voice interfaces are useful. They allow to exchange information between the Source and the User or between Users, thus allowing the psychological reinforcement of news.

 Again in the field of information manipulation, blockchains are also important. They allow to control and process information only through the users enabled to use the “chain”.

We should also recall the computerized programs that generate completely false videos and images – fakes which, however, are absolutely plausible.

Precision Targeting is used above all to reprogram groups of pre-selected individuals, who provide the Web with a continuous flow of information, from mobile phones, from the Web and from the other channels, to those who can selectively access the Web. All this is currently used, above all, through social media.

 In this case, we have already reached the phase of neuromarketing, which changes the desires and habits of specific population groups, by combining the mental effects with the emotional ones.

 As if it were a sign which, according to De Saussure, is the indestructible connection between signified and signifier. But the product of neuromarketing is not at all a language sign.

In this case, the above mentioned technology could be used for indirect facial recognition, manoeuvred by Artificial Intelligence systems.

 Facial recognition will enable those who manoeuvre -also temporarily – the Web to quickly check the emotions of millions of people, and we all know how important emotions are now to tamper with the psyche and communicate concepts that often have very little relevance at conceptual and even at emotional or mental levels.

 By 2035 these technologies are expected to be spreading like wildfire, since they are very important both for commercial operations and for political marketing.

 Artificial Intelligence is the primary axis of development of all the other technologies we are talking about.  AI will be used above all in verbal and textual recognition, as well as in the collection and analysis of very broad spectrum data, and for the processing of raw initial data, again in a very large population.

AI, however, will above all be used for defining an automated decision-making that can support the human decision-makers when they do not know, remember or understand all facts and, above all, the underlying determinants of facts.

 We will get to imitate, without realizing it, Elsa Morante’s book “The World Saved by Kids” and certainly what is happening in global communication already guarantees this future to us. They are more manipulable. They have no memory and they are perfect for the Brave New World that stands before us.

We can easily imagine what all this means for advertising, for the selection of markets, for business decisions but, above all, for the development of political platforms, both in terms of the electoral process and for the more specific decision-making process.

 The next level will be content, which will often be produced directly by AI systems.

 But let us better analyse what algorithmic decision-making is.

 It is often currently applied in medicine.

 Disease analysis, therapy forecasting, statistical analysis of diseases and their effects, both at subjective and population levels. In the near future, however, other sectors will be ever more like the banking system. Human Resources, even political decision itself, will be the subject of these applications, which will often become so complex as not to be understood – in the future – by the computers using them.

 If you collect a lot of data, it is increasingly likely that a sequence of decisions or simple new data is not recognized by the program operating in the computer.

 Also for AI networks we will have a process of learning by doing.

 There are two dangers. Firstly, that the private ownership of the most important databases makes competition between systems impossible; secondly that the algorithms are hackable or manipulable by third parties unknown to the system.

 There are also Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality.

If we proceed with the increasingly analytical and obsessive adaptation of the devices to the Ego of the User, or to his/her tastes- considered, for some reason,  immutable – we risk an ideological drift of new technologies, i.e. that of hyper-subjectivism and, as happens in current educational practice, that of the permanence of the mass Ego in an eternal childhood.

 The “Minor Ego” advocated by some people is a very real risk and it is not even clear how a super-massified production can be adapted to the increasingly self-referential psychologies of the Consumer Ego.

 Not to mention the natural limit – currently often evanescent – that the Augmented Reality keeps between the imaginary and reality – a limit that, in the propaganda and political implementation of the Virtual Reality, could become very dangerous to cross.

 Immanuel Kant spoke of the 100 gold Thalers that can be in your pocket or just in your imagination, but that cannot certainly be mistaken one for the other.

Hence beyond any technological processing, Reality is never the Imaginary.

 Although the imaginary can induce behaviours very similar to those that the subject would have if subjected to reality, the one that – as Voltaire said – has “hard head”.

By Internet of Things (IoT) we generally mean an environment full of machines that interact with one another through the Web.

As can be easily guessed, the IoT information potential is huge.

 Human consumption habits, but also communication, ways of life, lifestyles, exchanges between subjects, positions and information exchanged between individuals will be part of huge databases.

Probably, in the future, it will be difficult to find exactly what is needed in those databases, considering that the bias of the IT and data storage systems tends to increase with the quantity and complexity of data.

 It is estimated that, by 2030, there will be over one and a half trillion sensors connected to IoT networks, which will be worth half of the entire Internet traffic of “simple” users.

 According to Deloitte, the entire IoT market is expected to be worth a trillion, in addition to further 750 billion for IoT network connection modules.

 It can be easily imagined to what extent this makes it possible to hack data not only from IoT networks, but also from all other networks connected to the Internet and ending up in an IoT structure.

By 2030 blockchains will be the basis of financial, control, check and analysis networks.

 It will be the beginning of virtual monetization, which is, in itself, the opening of the financial gates of Hell.

 The miserable level of the current economic thinking allows it.

Nevertheless, all this technological development – between imagination and reality – will lead us towards a society of the unverifiable and probable, with no possibility of responding to a   government financial or information fake and with an increasing penetrability of information networks, to which the whole social fabric and not only its control will be delegated.

However, the society of the imaginary 100 Thalers – believing that the imagined ones are already in the pocket – will not be able to pay anything.

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Intelligence

Baghdadi Dead : What it means for Terrorism in West and South Asia?

Gen. Shashi Asthana

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on

President Trump’s announcement  that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State(IS) commander, died during a US military operation in Syria, later confirmed by ISIS itself, was a welcome news for all fighting terrorism or suffering from it in any part of the world.  This was followed by death of their spokesperson and arrest of his sister and wife by Turkey. After the decimation of IS caliphate, IS continues to exist in small modules in many parts of the world, mainly in West Asia, but the loss of its undisputed leader who inspired many youth globally towards radicalisation as never before, during his peak performance days will not be easy to fulfil. He revolutionised the art of extending terror network through internet, made IS the richest terror group in the world, with a caliphate to govern through sharia laws and revived sex slavery. It’s a major setback to IS & affiliated terror groups but long overdue good news for those suffered its brutality like Yezidi women. The idea of IS does not end with leader, who stands replaced by Ibrahim al Hashemi al Qurayshi from Prophet Mohammad lineage (qualified to become caliph) with a vow to avenge Baghdadi’s death. There being no change in the overall aim and ideology of IS, it will manage to regroup with lesser fund flow and area of influence and wait for opportunity to re-emerge; hence the global fight against IS has to continue.

What does it mean for Regional Terror Groups?

The US has given a strong message to terrorists but its declared withdrawal from Syria is untimely; hence the Middle-East needs a fresh look from strategic perspective. Turkey cross-border offensive on October 9 against the Kurdish YPG militia, whose fighters made up the bulk of the SDF controlling IS is a game spoiler in fight against IS. Turkeys double game with terrorists is marred with helping IS and treating Kurds as terrorists as they demand a homeland. Its desire to invade Syria and destroy Assad’s supporters made it an ally of US, but US is not keen on decimation of Kurds, who will be left with no choice but to commence terrorist activities against Turkey. The temporary five days truce, sanctions against Turkey could buy some time, but is unlikely to change Erdogan’s intent who seems to have decided to go Wahhabi way. It does give some extra lifeline to IS, which is going to get dispersed to other areas, in addition to some existing ones like Afghanistan. US withdrawal also cedes this strategic space in Syria to the forces loyal to Assad and Russia, something which US was not very keen to concede till short while ago as it was not in the best interest of Israel. This strategic equation does not change the terror potential of Hamas appreciably.

The internal political disturbance Lebanon puts Hezbollah in tight spot. The current internal political turbulence in Iraq is helpful for reorganisation of IS as it dampens the Shia spirit which indirectly helps Sunni terror groups. The recent strategic clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia triggered by a drone attack on Saudi’s oil establishment followed by attack on Iran oil tanker is also a recipe for refuelling of Shia – Sunni terror competition in West Asia. After US walked out of JCPOA (Iran Nuclear Deal) renewed and clamped additional sanctions on Iran which European Union could not prevent, Iran has also climbed the escalation ladder by announcing to fill gas in over 1000 centrifuges to enrich uranium further, which it was holding out due to the deal. This is another dangerous spiral in the region to increase the insecurity of Saudi Arabia and may result in further push to Sunni cause.  These developments have blurred the definition of victim and oppressor. The internal turbulence of West Asia therefore is creating an environment for breeding terrorists.

After IS suffered these reverses it has opened opportunities and ignited some competition for other terror groups like Taliban and al Qaeda, to strive to gain the influence they lost to ISIS earlier. This has increased their quest to grab more power and money, a bulk of which comes from coercion globally, prove their terror potential to the target population and governments to get more attention, followers, logistics and other resources. It is however noteworthy a number of terror organizations having allegiance to IS have still not changed their allegiance, indicating that demise of IS may not be on the card so soon and the group is still not out of competition.

What does it mean for Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) Region?

Afghanistan continues to face aggressive and coordinated attacks by ISIS’s branch in the region, the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) and the Afghan Taliban, including the affiliated Haqqani Network (HQN). Afghan Taliban seems to have grown much stronger for the fact that it controls more territory in Afghanistan than what it controlled when US forces marched in 19 years back. The fact that all world powers talked to them for peace (to fulfil their respective interests) indicate the blackmailing potential of Taliban.  Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and remaining US forces have not been able to control their terror strikes despite their best efforts, which are likely to increase if US choses to withdraw completely. I do visualise some more efforts of global powers for talks to Taliban in near future.  Although al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan and Pakistan was degraded earlier by multinational forces, remnants of al-Qa’ida’s global leadership, as well as its regional affiliate – al Qa’ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), continue to operate from remote locations in the region have a reason to cheer Baghdadi’s death.

Pakistan continues to be the epicenter of global terrorism playing host to maximum UN designated terrorist organisations and terrorists in the world, a large No of them have indicated allegiance to IS. Pakistani military counter-terrorism operations are more of ethnic cleansing acts against Pashtuns and Baluchis directed against groups which conducted attacks within Pakistan, such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Pakistan Army and ISI supports externally focused groups such as Lashkar e-Tayyiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), which continue to train, organize, and fundraise in Pakistan with a narrative of pseudo Islamic Jihad. The Pakistani Army does not restrict the Afghan Taliban and HQN from operating in Pakistan and threatening US and Afghan forces in Afghanistan, despite being placed on the “grey list” continuously till date, since June, 2018.The support of Pakistan to Sunni terror groups is well known and IS is no exception. The increasing radicalisation of establishments in Pakistan, conglomeration of terrorist groups in Af-Pak Region is a dangerous sign as it indicates a caliphate in making, far more dangerous than ISIS caliphate.

What does it mean for South Asia?

After the declaration of the caliphate, the newly named Caliph, Baghdadi while addressing the jihadists the world over explicitly mentioned China and India as one of the prime targets of the ISIS amongst many others and there are no signs of change in that narrative. ISIS and other militant groups are attempting to spread their ideology to countries that have Muslim population, and where there is a chance to reach out to dis-satisfied youth. al-Qa’ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and ISIS have together claimed responsibility for over 40 attacks in Bangladesh since 2015. The Government in Bangladesh continues to battle terrorism with strict Anti- terrorism Act in place, however terrorists do manage to operate there with backing from ISI, Pakistan. Terrorist organizations are using internet, social media to spread their ideologies and solicit followers globally including South Asia and many terrorists have been featured in multiple publications, videos, and websites associated with ISIS and AQIS. Terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka and rapid radicalisation in Maldives are some more examples of IS mastered methodologies to spread terror, which is likely to continue. 

India having the second largest Muslim population in the world is an obvious target for IS. India is a tolerant and pluralist society with a mix of Shias and Sunnis, which has absorbed all religious faiths, hence the rate of penetration of radicalisation has been extremely low, although some individuals have been attracted to it. Many Lone Wolf Attacks in Europe, like the suicidal car crash attack in Westminster in London on 22 March 2017, are a possibility in India as well, in future, for which it needs to be prepared. The Incidents like the train explosion in Bhopal-Ujjain express by a terror suspect, Mohammad Saifurullah alias Ali, allegedly a member of the ISIS(K) module, on 07 March 07, 2017 injuring 10 passengers, occasional display of IS flags in Kashmir Valley, bursting of few IS modules in South India by National Investigative Agency, announce the arrival of IS in India. These incidents need to be viewed in consonance with the global scene, wherein Daesh is looking for new hosts after decimation of their caliphate.

Recent Trends in Terrorism

The peaceful coexistence of IS, Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan and so many terror groups in Pakistan indicates that they are also collaborating and economising on certain activities and efforts like intelligence sharing, training camps, arms transfers, irregular trade and related activities on mutual benefit basis, hence it is increasingly difficult to use one against the other, despite intense competition amongst some of them. They are generally keen to expand their terror industry under pseudo religious cause of avenging perceived atrocities to muslims and continue to fight security forces trying to disturb their design. Their fight against each other is rarely seen in recent times. The other interesting trend especially in Pakistan is that whenever a terrorist organisation is banned globally, it changes its name, registers as social welfare organisation, and continues terrorist activities as usual.

A very well organized media and cyber campaign by the IS by incorporating technologically savvy cadres from western countries affecting some Indian youth is still on. Some media news that it had gained access to fissile material and suspected access to chemical weapons like Sarin gas, indicates that its potential for global nuisance is far from being over. The same is being tried by other terror groups as well. To fight the global war on terror the world community will have to shun double gaming, individual country interest over global safety, the concept of good and bad terrorist and strict sanctions on terror sponsoring countries because terrorism cannot flourish without financial and logistics support.

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