Hashtag politics: 4 key ways digital activism is inegalitarian
Many believe that the internet has made it easier for us to participate in political activism. But is that really true?
JEN SCHRADIE: A key claim that's made around digital activism is that it is this more egalitarian space and also enables a wider variety of people to participate because of the lowered costs of participation. And this argument is made because of how expensive it is in terms of time and energy, for example, to print out flyers or go to a meeting to plan an event. Someone may need to pay bus fare or gas or pay for child care. And so many have argued that digital activism really lowers the costs for political participation. However, I found that this argument really doesn't consider the costs that people who may not already have a computer or a smartphone or high-speed internet access or a data plan that allows you to be on social media constantly, which uses up a lot of data, that these are very high costs for people who are struggling at the margins. And yes, certainly we hear reports of viral videos of working-class folks posting something, some injustice, and that's very real, but those are outliers compared to people who do have more resources who are able to engage on a regular basis. And what I found is that the middle- to upper-class groups were much more likely to have higher levels of online engagement than poor and working-class groups. And the reason is, first of all, organizationally.
So groups who have more middle- to upper-class members tended to just simply have more computers and skills and general resources, but I also found individual reasons. The individual members, they really lacked what I call ASETs. So they tended to lack access -- A for access. Some people had to drive, for example, 10 or 20 miles to their aunt's house who happened to have a computer, or they had to go to the library, or maybe they had a computer but it's not working so well. So basic access was important. So the next part of ASETs is S, skills. So really understanding the nuance of how Twitter works was really intimidating for people -- how the Facebook algorithm works. People talked about learning how -- maybe even going to a training to learn about how to build a website but not really being able to sustain those skills. But most people didn't even have those basic skills at all. The other issue that I think is really key and part of this ASETs -- so A-S-E -- is empowerment. So many people I talked to said, well, I'm not a computer person or I don't get up there in talking about Twitter, this very hierarchical sense of that's up there, I'm down here. That's not for me. One woman told me Twitter is too fast. I just can't keep up. And this idea of feeling entitled and empowered to engage in these tools that for middle- to upper-class folks just feel normalized or part of their everyday routines, but for a lot of people, it's much more challenging. But the other key point of ASETs is the last letter, T for time.
One worker I spoke with, young guy who's 25 years old. He was a nursing assistant at a mental hospital. And he had to drive into work. It took him a while. Lived in a very rural area. When he got to work, he had to hand over his cell phone, and he wasn't able to use it for his entire shift, sometimes up for 12 hours. And so if you think about then the time that it took for him to drive back home, he had very little time to be engaged online. And often digital politics happens very quickly. So for people who don't have consistent online access like many of us do who have a smartphone and a laptop and perhaps a tablet or other gadgets that can be substituted in if one isn't working, for example -- that's not always the case for a lot of people, and it's really important to remember that when we see a hashtag trending that that hashtag may not really be representative of people overall, especially the poor. And in the issue that I studied, I found over 60,000 tweets, and only one tweet was from a poor, working-class group, which is statistically zero
- Protesting in person is costly in terms of money and resources; some people have children to take care of, jobs that can't be away from, or may not have time to attend a planning event.
- The internet was supposed to be a way to sidestep this barrier to political activism. But this doesn't consider the other barriers preventing poor and working-class folks from participating in digital activism.
- In particular, these people lack ASETs: access to computers, the skills to use them, the empowerment necessary to feel that using Twitter or other social media is for them, and the time to make use of digital platforms in an effective way.
- Three Big Problems With Facebook Activism - Big Think ›
- Internet activism: How political movements are shaped online - Big Think ›
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For the ancients, hospitality was an inviolable law enforced by gods and priests and anyone else with the power to make you pay dearly for mistreating a stranger.
- Ancient literature is replete with stories about gods or people with magical powers taking the form of impoverished strangers who are begging for help.
- Those who reject the strangers are punished — often being turned into birds.
- Hospitality toward strangers is a foundation of society and religion.
The following is an excerpt from the book The Power of Strangers. It is reprinted with kind permission of the author and publisher.
Two guys walk into a village. They're dressed like beggars, and they're going door-to-door to make sure people are being nice to strangers. One is Jesus Christ, Son of God, in the Christian tradition. The other is Saint Peter, his right-hand man and the rock upon which his church is built.
Jesus and Peter arrive at the house of an old peasant woman and beg for some bread. She gives them some crumbs. Jesus gives her another chance. He miraculously causes the cake in her oven to grow larger, giving her more food to share. She stiffs them again. At this point, Jesus and Peter decide they have seen enough, and they turn her into an owl.
This is a European folktale from the Middle Ages, but other versions exist. In a variation that appeared in Baltic countries, Jesus and Peter punish the miser by forcing her to raise two snakes as foster children. In another version, this one Scandinavian, she is turned into a woodpecker. In Germany, they turn her into a cuckoo.
These stories aren't just Christian, nor are they limited to Europe or the Middle Ages. A Moroccan version, which also turned up in Spain, Russia, and Turkey, features the Prophet Muhammad in the beggar role. His rich host refuses to kill a sheep for him, and instead boils a cat. Muhammad responds by reviving the cat and turning the man into an owl. In a Native American folktale, it's an old woman and her grandson who are turned away by stingy townspeople. They punish the misers by turning them and all of their children into, you guessed it, birds.
In the Japanese folk tradition, the stranger — ijin, or "different person" — often appears as a tinker, a foreigner, a beggar, or some other kind of vulnerable outsider, but in reality is a god, a priest, a prince, or someone else endowed with magical powers. In one such story, a Buddhist priest named Kōbō Daishi arrives in a village where water is scarce. He's dressed like a beggar, and he begs for a cup. A woman travels a great distance to a well and brings water back for him. To thank her, Kōbō Daishi strikes his staff against the ground, and a spring of water bubbles forth. In the next village, where water is plentiful, Kōbō Daishi is rejected. This time he strikes the ground in anger. The wells dry up and the settlement fails.
In the West, the ancient Greeks are perhaps most famous for promoting the idea that gods reside in strangers. Strangers were said to be protected by Zeus, who was both the father of the gods and the god of strangers. He frequently took up the wandering beggar guise to make sure people weren't mistreating strangers. In The Odyssey, the epic Greek poem written in the eighth century BC, a former charge of the hero Odysseus encounters his former master after a long separation. The man doesn't recognize Odysseus, but still he extends hospitality. "All wanderers and beggars come from Zeus," he says.
But why did he send them?
Like other social innovations, like greeting rituals and honorary kinship in hunter-gatherer societies — hospitality started out as a practical solution to a novel problem. There was a lack of strong central institutions and there were strangers around. Hosts had to reconcile the threat strangers posed with the opportunities they may present. In time, though, it proved so integral to the success of humans that it eventually became simply part of our morality, something we did without thinking, something encoded in our genes. "It's something that evolved with us, as us," says Andrew Shryock, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan who specializes in hospitality.
The tradition of hospitality toward strangers is, in other words, more than just folk stories by and for people who seem to really hate birds. It has lived in practice for thousands of years. In 1906, Edward Westermarck, a well-traveled Finnish philosopher who is considered one of the founders of sociology, published a book called The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas, in which he examined dozens of traditional societies that extended generous hospitality to strangers. "The stranger is often welcomed with special marks of honor," Westermarck observed. "The best seat is assigned to him; the best food at the host's disposal is set before him; he takes precedence over all the members of the household; he enjoys extraordinary privileges." There was such prestige attached to hosting the stranger that people would compete for his favor. Among the Arabs of Sinai, Westermarck wrote, "If a stranger be seen from afar coming towards the camp, he is the guest for that night of the first person who describes him, and who, whether a grown man or a child, exclaims, 'There comes my guest!'"
Shryock has spent years studying Arab hospitality — karam — research that led him to the Balga tribes of Jordan. To the Balga, Shryock wrote in 2012, "a house without guests, without the spaces necessary to take them in, and without the materials needed to prepare food and drink, is not only weak, it is shameful." Hospitality is a kind of deep faith there, he writes, "'a burning in the skin' inherited 'from the father and the grandfathers.'" One Balgawi man told Shryock, "Karam is not just a matter of food and drink. Hospitality is from the soul; it's from the blood."
The depth of the obligation was such that the Bedouins there were said to occasionally host the stranger with a zeal that could tip into a kind of madness, specifically, hiblat al-'arab — "the Arab madness" — in which a person overcome by the spirit gives everything away to guests. Shryock spent years searching for one particular Jordan Valley folk story in which a man gave away his children to a stranger because he had nothing more valuable to offer. There were more such tales bearing the same message. In the way a zealot could lose everything in his quest for the face of God, so, too, can the karim — the hospitable man — draw too close to the ruinous ideal of total hospitality when met with the face of a wayfaring stranger.
Indeed, for many of these cultures, Shryock tells me, hospitality and religion were not just connected, they were inextricable. "Hospitality developed into and alongside religion," he says. "It's hard to say if hospitality derives its power from its sacredness, or if it lends its power to the sacred." In other words, are we religious because of hospitality? Or are we hospitable because of religion? It's impossible to say. But the practice of hospitality is foundational to human civilization. "My own hunch," says Shryock, "is that human sociability is impossible without hospitality."
Today when we think of hospitality, we usually think of the private hospitality industry, which hosts weary travelers for a fee, replacing conversation with Wi-Fi, and the lavish spreads of old with rust-colored coffee and those clammy, shrink-wrapped muffins served in the lobby between seven and nine a.m. But for our distant ancestors, hospitality to strangers was something else entirely, a daily practice elevated to a supernatural plane, fashioned into an inviolable law enforced by gods and priests and anyone else with the power to make you pay dearly for mistreating a stranger.
Which leads to our next question: Why?
From the book THE POWER OF STRANGERS by Joe Keohane. Copyright © 2021 by Joe Keohane. Published by Random House, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World
An unconventional solution to the problem of violence.
In 2007, Mexico was catching up to its northern neighbor — at least when it came to safety. Two decades of rapidly declining violence had brought the country's murder rate to within throwing distance of the United States.
Credit: INEGI and SNSP, compiled by Mexico Crime Report (https://elcri.men/en)
Then, quite suddenly, a war broke out. Murders more than tripled, from fewer than 9,000 in 2007 to over 27,000 in 2011. In 2018, murder hit another all-time high, with over 34,000 homicides.
This year, murder has continued to climb, with June being one of the bloodiest months since the Mexican Revolution. So far, Mexico is on course for 40,000 homicides in 2019 — more than twice as many people as died in the Syrian civil war last year.
The cause of the violence is obvious: a massive war between Mexico's cartels. But the dynamics that are fueling violence south of the U.S. border are not unique to Mexico, or even to its sophisticated, transnational drug cartels. The problem of organized criminal violence afflicts nearly every country in the Americas.
In Central America, gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18 have fostered an epidemic of murder, extortion, and kidnapping, which is helping drive the surge of migrants seeking asylum at the U.S. border.
In the United States, battles between street gangs have recently caused murder to spike in cities like Chicago, Baltimore, and St. Louis, while notorious prison gangs, like the Mexican Mafia, Aryan Brotherhood, and Latin Kings, are effectively running the U.S. prison system. In South America, a war between rival gangs has pushed Brazil's murder rate to all-time highs.
The natural response for governments facing such violent groups is total suppression: a full-frontal assault to crush the organizations and lock up the ringleaders.
But there is a powerful argument that this strategy, while understandable, is actually responsible for making the violence worse. One country is trying a radically different approach: in 2007, Ecuador began a process of "legalizing" its street gangs, and its murder rate has fallen by 70% in the decade since.
It's easy to read too much into one anecdote from a single country, but seen in context, Ecuador's example may offer a positive contrast to the cautionary tales seen elsewhere in the hemisphere.
Mexico: Splintering Gangs, Spiraling Violence
Mexico dealt with the violence and corruption associated with drug cartels for decades. But in 2000, a major shift occurred in the country's power structure, when Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) lost its 70-year stranglehold on Mexican politics.
Newly elected leaders from the conservative PAN party did not directly attack the cartels, but the power transition led to turnover among police, prosecutors, and military officials. With government loyalties shifting for the first time in decades, cartels began losing their corrupt protection arrangements with the government, destabilizing the relatively peaceful relationships of previous decades. Even while the murder rate continued to fall, cartel-associated killings grew from about 1,000 a year in 2003 to nearly 3,000 in 2007.
In 2007, newly inaugurated PAN President Felipe Calderon promised to crack down on the rising violence and crush the cartels. For the first time in its drug war, Mexico deployed tens of thousands of troops inside the country. The military was tasked with executing Calderon's "kingpin" or "decapitation" strategy, systematically killing or capturing cartel leadership to try to destabilize the groups.
Officially, this strategy is still working. Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, was just convicted and is now facing life in an American prison, after being recaptured in 2016. The leader of the Zetas Cartel was also captured last year. Dozens of other shot-callers have been killed or imprisoned in recent years.
But rather than eliminating the cartels, this policy has simply caused them to splinter and fragment into new groups. There are now more cartels than ever, waging a bloody, multi-sided war for territory across the country. Research from the University of San Diego has tied the recapture of El Chapo, in particular, to the latest surge in violence, as gangsters fight for control of the Sinaloa Cartel and its territory.
Former President Enrique Pena Nieto, who served from 2013-2018, declared last year that the military had "won" the war against the big cartels, but admitted that "this weakening brought with it small criminal groups, without there being the capacity on the local level to effectively confront them."
In cities like Acapulco, the LA Times reports, "the cartel system has collapsed completely, with historic levels of violence being driven by dozens of warring street gangs."
The churn among senior management (and the loss of reliable partners inside the state) has caused organized crime to become disorganized — but it hasn't disappeared, and the chaos has made the violence worse than ever. With more gangs fighting over the same turf, there are exponentially more opportunities for conflict, and local police are hopelessly overwhelmed.
Supply and Demand for Gangs
The theory behind suppression strategies is that the gang itself is the problem. If we get rid of the organization — capture its leaders, disrupt recruitment, seize assets, etc. — it will crumble and evaporate, because it won't be able to sustain itself. Problem solved.
But that's almost never what actually happens. In Chicago, police tried a similar zero-tolerance approach and "decapitated" the old gangs, and the result was the same as in Mexico: smaller, less organized, and more numerous gangs, fighting a dizzyingly complex war. Chicago's violence has been difficult to quell precisely because there is nobody to call a ceasefire — or rather, there are now too many people who have to negotiate and agree on it.
Brown University economist David Skarbek isn't surprised by the failure of suppression strategies, because they are based on the same kind of mistake that has been playing out in the U.S. prison system for decades. In his book The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System, he argues that we have been systematically misdiagnosing why gangs exist — and so it's no wonder why our solutions keep failing.
"Gangs don't exist because there are just a lot of particularly evil people, or because there are sort of 'gang member' types, people who are inclined to be gang members," he says. Instead, paradoxically, "Gangs exist because people want more safety in a dangerous, volatile environment — and they want more regular access to contraband in illicit markets."
In other words, gangs aren't a "supply-side" problem — it's not about the group itself, it's about the social and economic dynamics that create the demand for gangs in the first place. In violent, risky situations (like overcrowded prisons), people form gangs because they need things that the authorities cannot give them (like guaranteed safety) or will not (like cell phones and illegal drugs).
To facilitate these services, gangs have also created rules to regulate the black market and resolve disputes in private. "The gangs have some pretty clear rules about when you can use violence against other prisoners. You can't just choose to assault another prisoner," Skarbek says.
In violent, risky situations, people form gangs because they need things that the authorities cannot give them.
"They'll organize a controlled setting— maybe in a cell at a time when correctional officers aren't going to be around. They'll allow interpersonal violence to take place, but they'll regulate it in a way so that it's less likely to destabilize the prisoner community."
Spontaneous, public acts of violence often lead to prison-wide lockdowns, and that interferes with the gangs' business. "They can't sell drugs or turn a profit during periods of lockdown. They have a private financial incentive to reduce large scale disruptions, large scale rioting, and so that gives them the incentive to want to govern these interactions."
"I think of (gangs) as the symptom of a disease, rather than the underlying disease itself. The underlying disease is forcing people into dangerous situations where there's insufficient resources or governance."
Skarbek has no illusions about the brutality that these gangs are willing to inflict, both inside and out of prison. "There's much to be worried about with gangs," he says. "But I think of them as the symptom of a disease, rather than the underlying disease itself. The underlying disease is forcing people into dangerous situations where there's insufficient resources or governance."
Abuela Needs a Sicario
In his book Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel, the journalist Tom Wainwright tells the story of Rosa, "a barrel-shaped seventy-year-old who cannot be taller than about four feet six," who works as a maid in a suburb of Mexico City.
"In between mopping floors and making blueberry pancakes," Wainwright recounts, "she is plotting a murder."
Rosa had a problem that is increasingly common throughout Mexico: a pair of men had for years been killing, robbing, and stealing from her community with absolute impunity.
Three months ago, one of her sixteen grandchildren came home with her husband to find two burglars in the middle of ransacking their house. The robbers escaped but later came back to give the husband a vicious beating with an axe handle, as a warning not to report them. "He still walks like this," Rosa says, mimicking the awkward swing of his fractured arms.
… The police are doing nothing about all this. "Honestly, I don't trust them," Rosa says. "If the authorities don't do anything, what are we left with? One can't live like this anymore. We can't live with the fear that at any moment they can enter our house and kill us."
So Rosa and her neighbors began raising money to hire a hitman (sicario) to take out the robbers. "Rosa's story may be horrifying, but it is not as unusual as it sounds," according to Wainwright. "Many organized criminal groups provide this sort of 'protection.'"
Drug dealers, for instance, cannot go to the police if they are robbed, cheated, or attacked, and so they tend to band together to defend themselves and their market — and they aren't as patient as your average abuela.
This desperate grandmother was hardly a hardened criminal, but her case illustrates exactly the kind of incentives faced by people who find themselves in dangerous, poor, violent situations — within a prison, neighborhood, or even a country — where the formal authorities cannot or will not provide security.
Drug dealers, for instance, cannot go to the police if they are robbed, cheated, or attacked, and so they tend to band together to defend themselves and their market — and they aren't as patient as your average abuela.
Now, after years of rising insecurity, corruption, and chaos, ordinary citizens are also succumbing to the logic of gangs and forming armed groups for protection. In the Mexican state of Guerro, for example, private "self-defense groups" (effectively, vigilante gangs) have banded together into a 11,000-member paramilitary to defend their towns and fight the cartels. But this third power structure, outside both the government and the cartels, risks pouring new fuel on the conflict and further undermining the state — and, as Colombia has shown, paramilitaries are no more accountable or less susceptible to corruption than other groups.
A Different Path
Ultimately, the way to defeat gangs is to eliminate the demand for them by providing reliable security inside prisons, schools, and the community at large. This isn't easy to do, and the specifics will differ depending on the place and purpose of the gang.
Unfortunately for Mexico, there is little sign that newly inaugurated President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (also known as AMLO) is changing course. In July, he inaugurated a new 70,000-strong militarized "National Guard" to try to quell cartel violence and circumvent corruption in the army and police. The new force may provide a brief boost to security, but it won't fundamentally change the dynamics that have corrupted the local police, federales, and army before it.
Instead of hoping for a miraculous breakthrough from brute force, governments should look for ways to mitigate the worst aspects of gangs. In his wide-ranging study Making Peace in Drug Wars: Crackdowns and Cartels in Latin America, the political scientist Benjamin Lessing argues that American governments need to abandon their tough-on-crime, maximum pressure strategy toward gangs and embrace a "conditional repression" strategy.
Conditional repression means offering a deal to the gangs (whether explicitly or implicitly): "We have a ton of firepower, but on a normal day, we're not going to let it all loose on you — unless you do X, Y, or Z"— for example, killing civilians, children, or police, or having shootouts in public.
Instead of hoping for a miraculous breakthrough from brute force, governments should look for ways to mitigate the worst aspects of gangs.
Lessing argues that "brute-force repression generates incentives for cartels to fight back, while policies that condition repression on cartel violence can effectively deter cartel-state conflict."
The downside of this approach is that it tacitly admits that we are not "doing everything we can" to stop organized crime. The upside is that, because police pressure is not always 100% maxed out, there is a significant deterrent available to discourage open violence and channel cartel operations into less destructive paths.
Conditional repression tells cartel leaders that, at any given time, the police have the power to make their life much worse than it is. Maximum repression tells the cartels they have nothing to lose by attacking the state.
There is evidence from across Latin America that the government can also use this privileged position to negotiate and enforce truces between rival cartels, creating an incentive for the cartels to stop fighting each other. In 2012, the government of El Salvador (assisted by the Catholic Church) negotiated a truce between MS-13 and Barrio 18, which cut the country's murder rate in half in a single year.
Unfortunately, that truce fell apart two years later when the government minister responsible for it was removed from office. Brazil's recent surge in murder has been blamed on a gang truce from 1997 suddenly falling apart in the middle of 2016, as violence spilled from the country's dangerously overcrowded prisons into the streets.
"Brute-force repression generates incentives for cartels to fight back, while policies that condition repression on cartel violence can effectively deter cartel-state conflict."
In Ecuador, the government seems to have embarked on a more successful and durable strategy of conditional repression, and the result has been a massive reduction in violence. By 2018, the homicide rate in Ecuador was nearly as low as in the United States.
Sources: FBI, UNODC, media reports
Starting in 2007, Ecuador made a number of radical changes to its law enforcement strategy, by doubling its spending on security and launching an ambitious program of "legalization" for the country's street gangs, including notorious groups like the Latin Kings and STAE.
The program allows gang members to register with the state to receive benefits, including training and job placement. Members are not asked to give up their gang affiliation — to the contrary, the goal is to bring in current gang members and transform the gang into a more benign social group — but they are expected to abide by the conditions of the program.
According to a report by the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), "legalized" gang members understand the deal: "Our leaders told us that we were no longer allowed to go to war… After that, you know, the government began to give us job opportunities. So, if we began to act violently again, the government would take away what they had already begun to give us, so what we did was to reciprocate the government's help (to ensure the relationship continued)."
The main benefits the gang received from "legalizing" was different treatment by the police. According to the report,
Before legalization, if the STAE (gang) got together to hold a meeting in a park, the police would inevitably arrive to arrest and physically abuse them. … Legalization was primarily a reinstatement of the right to the city… They are no longer stopped and frisked or targeted for wearing their gang colors in public spaces. Many noted that this was perhaps the biggest victory of legalization.
But another key aspect of the program was conditional on keeping the street gangs away from the cartels, which historically do not operate directly in Ecuador, but launder money and smuggle drugs through the country.
"This is one of the most important aspects of the Ecuadorian approach," the report argues. "Mano dura (the heavy hand) for cartels but inclusion towards gangs. The government actively and consciously strove to avoid gangs working for cartels (especially due to the proximity of Peru and Colombia, both major drug-trafficking hubs), hence they aggressively pursued organized crime networks while applying policies of social inclusion to street gangs."
The legalized gang members understand that the arrangement is precarious, and it could fall apart if a new president is elected. According to the IADB, their goal right now is to "institutionalize the legalization process and give it a sustainability and legitimacy that would be impervious to political shifts."
It's not clear how much of Ecuador's decline in murders is due to random factors, more and better policing, or the new strategy on gangs. No one should imagine that Ecuador's gang problem has vanished, and it would be facile to suggest that Mexico should simply import this program wholesale, applying it to criminal organizations that are very different than Ecuador's relatively small street gangs.
But at a high level, the difference in approaches is worth noting. Ecuador's policy admits that as long as there is a demand for gangs, they will continue to exist, and they must be dealt with, rather than blindly smashed. By contrast, Mexico seems determined to follow the supply-side, mano dura policies that have failed across the Americas.
In Making Peace in Drug Wars, Lessing argues for a pragmatic approach, managing the problem of criminal gangs without chasing the illusion of eliminating it overnight:
It is critical to reframe the policy problem, from eradicating drugs or crushing the cartels or punishing dastardly traffickers, to minimizing the harms produced by the drug trade… Reframing the problem ultimately implies "diplomatic recognition": accepting that as long as there is demand for drugs, there will be traffickers, and orienting repressive policy to favor the sorts of traffickers we would like to have.
That is a hard sell, especially for voters that are justly horrified and outraged by the crimes these groups have perpetrated. What Ecuador might ultimately show us is that it is possible for a democratic government to increase basic public safety, while incentivizing less bad behavior from its gangs. The results have been a rare positive example in one of the most violent regions of the world. Whether the rest of the region can learn from its example remains to be seen.
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
An ancient skeleton of a man dating back to the Iron Age was uncovered outside of London last month, and though archaeologists aren't certain what the cause of death was, clues point to a murder most foul.
A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.
The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin.
"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," said archaeologist Rachel Wood, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."
Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died.
"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to Live Science. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm
The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where a tunnel is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins.
The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway Icknield Way that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds.
Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.
Ceremonial burial site
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2
While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.
The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered.
Sacred timber circle
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2
One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.
This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice.
Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near Stonehenge that is considered to date back to around the same time.
While we can see many solar storms coming, some are "stealthy." A new study shows how to detect them.
- "Stealth" solar storms are difficult to detect before they are near Earth.
- The use of various imaging techniques from multiple angles allowed researchers to detect these stealth storms earlier than ever.
- Not seeing one coming could have disastrous effects on our electronic infrastructure.
Solar storms are a collection of disturbances on the sun that influence space weather. They include things like solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs), a large release of plasma in the solar wind. They can affect Earth in a number of ways, such as by increasing the number of particles that hit the Earth's magnetic field causing an aurora or — in severe cases — by disrupting technology and radio transmissions.
Most of the time, scientists can see storms as they occur on the sun. Information about the impact on Earth can be gathered a few days before it is likely to reach us. However, in as many as 20 percent of CMEs, there is little to no noticeable activity on the sun to give us an early warning. These "stealth" CMEs can have a huge impact on space weather but have proven difficult to spot until they have nearly arrived.
Luckily, a new study published in Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Sciences reports on new ways to detect so-called stealth solar storms long before they hit Earth.
The benefits of looking at the Sun
Unlike regular CMEs, stealth CMEs do not tend to give typical warning signs like clear dimming or brightening of the surface of the sun. Instead, they seem to form in a higher region of the sun's atmosphere called the corona than is typical. Unfortunately, watching for changes in the corona does not always give scientists the information they need to predict where a mass of plasma is moving.
In this study, the researchers took advantage of knowing the approximate origins of four stealth CMEs that were determined by data collected from Earth and the STEREO satellite, which was at a different angle with respect to the sun. The four CMEs differed in angle and intensity and occurred at different points in the solar cycle.
By using different imaging processes, subtle shifts in the upper corona were identified in each of the four cases examined. Most of the events also originated near areas with particularly strong magnetic fields.
The authors suggest that the small brightening and dimming effects they observed could be used to detect these CMEs in the future using similar methods. While they admit that the study does not provide a way to detect these CMEs before they form, they conclude that "identifying the source region of a stealth CME represents a first step toward providing more reliable predictions."
A bad day for Earth
Solar storms are not merely of academic interest. Large storms have occurred before, and the damage they can cause is potentially devastating. A strong solar storm in 1989 caused blackouts in Quebec and disrupted broadcasts of Radio Free Europe. That storm has nothing on the "Carrington Event" of 1859, however.
That solar storm was incredibly powerful, producing auroras visible in places like Queensland, Australia and the Caribbean. The auroras over New England were so bright that the residents could read newspapers by their light. Telegraph systems fried as a result of the huge amount of electromagnetic energy added to the Earth's magnetosphere, occasionally starting fires as they spontaneously sparked. Some telegraph operators reported being able to operate their machines without connecting them to wires.
A storm estimated to be just as powerful as the Carrington Event occurred in 2012, but the plasma it ejected narrowly missed Earth. According to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, the total cost of such an event to the United States today could be more than two trillion dollars. It would also cause damage that could take years to fully repair. It goes without saying that having large portions of our electric systems and technology fried with little time to prepare might also make things unpleasant for a lot of people.
Smaller storms hit Earth once every three years, often causing damage to systems that use electricity. Larger events are rarer, but not as rare as we would hope. A study from a few years ago calculated that the odds of a Carrington level event occurring is 12 percent per decade.
May the odds be in our favor
With odds and consequences like that, the ability to see a "stealth" solar storm coming might prove to be one of the most important tools humanity ever discovered.
Given enough warning, precautions can be taken to help minimize the damage to electronics from a large solar storm. For example, satellites can be moved out of harm's way, power grids can be primed to avoid being overloaded, and transformers can be taken offline to keep them from being destroyed.
If we fail to see the next Carrington Event coming, it might be a while before you can read the article we'll write about it.