Wars of Misinformation

The presidents of Turkey and America are using the oldest trick in the book to offset their personal insecurity. And it is probably working.

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“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.” Sun Tzu

We all recall the infamous Irqai information minister Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who blatantly and hilariously continued to deny that Saddam Hussein’s regime was coming to an end.

“There are no American infidels in Baghdad. Never!” he said. And on another occasion: “The American press is all about lies! All they tell is lies, lies and more lies!”

Fake news

Something you would expect from an enemy – but what about the sitting president in a democratic country?

Donald Trump’s attacks on the press are more than just shouting. They are a very effective example of deflating your opponents’ arguments. Fake news is a real problem, and the phenomenon might have been a contributing factor to his election. But by labelling real news as fake news, the incentive to attack fake news is diminished, because he is muddling the picture.

Who’s the terrorist now?

In Turkey, President Erdogan has just won a huge victory in securing power to himself, and limiting democratic restraints. But this has only increased his tendency to rebuke any criticism. His Nazi comparisons and name-callings have not ended. Rather he stooped as low as branding Nikolaj Villumsen, a Danish MP monitoring the election, a ‘terrorist’.

Danish PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen was quick to call out the accusation, adding to the international pressure rightfully placed on Turkey these days.

This is not child’s play

Name-calling your enemies is a classic strategy, and something informed and well-educated citizens ought to see through. Heck, it even features in children’s literature. I’ll give you two examples:

In C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, the final instalment in the Chronicles of Narnia, a monkey conspires to present a fake Aslan (the creator-Deity lion) who issues orders that destroy the nation. Our heroes discover that the fake Aslan is in fact a donkey in disguise, but before they have the chance to call the bluff, the monkey himself announces that an impostor has been found, and the real Aslan will show himself no more. Thus they have nothing to gain by showing the impostor. “She understood the devilish cunning of the enemies’ plan. By mixing a little truth with it they had made their lie far stronger.”

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge is faced with the news that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has returned. In denial and/or out of fear, however, he instead launches a smear campaign against the sources, Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore, branding them as nutters and liars.

We should not fall for this. More importantly, leaders in free societies should not stoop to this level. It is a sign of weakness and fear not worthy of a leaders.

One might add: “If you want to know what a terrorist looks like, Mr. Erdogan, you should look in a mirror.”

How to build a global network of sources for internal communication

The story of how a voluntary ‘Write Club’ improved news coverage in Maersk Line.

In the beginning of 2013, I took over the role of internal news editor in Maersk Line, a global company of some 20,000 people. A very fun and interesting job which I held for three years, finding many good stories and meeting  a lot of talented people.

With the job I also inherited certain challenges: readers had told us that content was too HQ-heavy; not surprising, since less than 10% of the workforce were based in Copenhagen with me.

Of course there were some who preferred the ‘corporate’ voice with only official, sanctioned content. I, however, sided with the majority who enjoyed a more ‘grass-roots’ feel, while of course staying true to corporate strategy and values. It was my job to balance the two.

What I needed was people from around the world who wanted to write, and preferably had some potential in the area. I had some connections, but not enough, and not always the right people. Furthermore, I had no formal mandate, so participation would have to be voluntary, which in itself can be a challenge in KPI-driven culture.

Do not talk about Write Club

The idea came from my predecessor, as did the name. Not everyone got the pun, but that’s ok.

We launched Write Club by advertising to an existing communication network and by word of mouth. Per design it was not clear exactly how it would evolve, since I wanted to gauge the mood and interests of the people who joined.

The general idea was this: bring people together who want to improve their writing skills, give them special attention and coaching, and hopefully they will deliver content along the way. I had typically between 10 and 20 people on the roster, with varying commitment  and skill levels.

What did we do?

A few main features kept the network alive. Roughly once a month, I hosted a webinar with an agenda typically like this:

  1. Editorial update from HQ: What’s going on in terms of strategy, what types of stories am I specifically looking for.
  2. Assignments: Especially in the beginning I would give the members short assignments, both for me to gauge their skill levels, and for them to improve. In the next call, we would then review their homework and have a general discussion.
  3. Theme of the day: Presented either by myself or a guest speaker, this would take them through topics such as interview technique, building a storyline, or where to look for stories. Always encouraging participation and discussion.

In addition to the webinars, I would do my best to hand-hold the members and give special attention to their assignments and eventually their story projects. I would encourage everyone to look for stories, and actively follow up on their commitments. No raised fingers, however, since this was all voluntary, so it was up to the members to decide if they wanted to write ten stories per year, or just two.

On a few occasions my travels made it possible to meet one or more Write Clubbers in person, but for the most part our interaction was purely digital.

We did get to know each other quite well, however, and an extra benefit was when two or more members would collaborate on a story. It typically started when I heard their pitches, and if two stories were similar, I would encourage them to join forces. So instead of publishing one story about sales training in Korea and one about the same Poland, we would have a wider feature story about sales training with sources from Korea, Poland, and perhaps a third country.

Whenever a story from a Write Clubber was published, we would put a discreet Write Club logo in the corner of the story, which eventually led to people asking about the club and how to join.

What were the results?

I don’t have access to the data any longer, but we did put out a lot of stories from corners of the world which had not previously been covered. Most of these stories performed above average in terms of readership and interaction. And when we surveyed the readers a year later, many people commented that they appreciated the increased variety in voices and geography.

For the people who joined, it is my opinion that they improved their skills, some of them considerably, and I believe they were grateful to be part of the project.

Eventually, Write Club outlived itself. Organisational changes meant that I would increasingly rely on dedicated communication professionals in global regions as sources and writers. But building on the success of Write Club, I made sure to schedule regular calls with these people to ask them what was going on in their region, discuss potential stories, and continue the dedicated coaching on writing.

What did I learn?

People are happy to join. My biggest worry at first was whether anybody would actually take the time to participate, and if my coaching was enough to make their efforts worthwhile. This worry was quickly put to rest, however. Since the Write Clubbers had joined out of interest, they were quite keen on the project, and the opportunity to improve their skills, and see their work and their location featured in global news, was enough for most.

You only get what you put into it. I was kept busy by many other tasks, and Write Club was not always my first priority. So while the members were engaged, the network needed my constant initiative and nurturing to thrive.

What might seem like extra work pays off in the end. Dealing with volunteers requires extra attention and patience. Some writers were nearly prolific, but others needed a lot of work in terms of editing. For these individual stories, it might have been faster to write them myself. But I wanted the variety in voices, and I wanted people to learn. Fortunately they did improve, and when Write Club was at its best, it was delivering quality content which I could definitely not have done all by myself.

Want to know more?

Feel free to drop me an email.

How Swede it is…

In a little while, I will compare the King of Sweden to Donald Trump. And not in a flattering way.

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Hang on, wasn’t there a line in a song about him?

She had a dream about the King of Sweden // He gave her things that she was needin’

Who would have thought that Cab Calloway was being prophetic when he wrote Minnie the Moocher back in 1931?

Scandinavian socialism

Scandinavia has attracted the attention of left-leaning politicians in the U.S. for a while. The ‘social democratic’ generous welfare states inspired both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton and some of their supporters.

While the attention is flattering, it is also not entirely true. In the book Debunking Utopia, Nima Sanandaji – who migrated from Iran to Sweden as a child – argues successfully that the success of Scandinavia is due more to culture and homogeneity than to generous welfare; in fact, the success of these countries was in place before the mushrooming of welfare, and was severely hampered when public spending was at its highest, in the 70s and 80s.

The threat of immigration

Furthermore, he argues that the welfare system, especially in Sweden, is under threat by heavy immigration. It is no wonder that large swaths of refugees (like Minnie the Moocher) would flock to the place where the King gives you the things you need. But immigrants actually fare and integrate better in America, where the incentive to work is higher.

In Denmark, immigration and integration of foreigners has been on the political agenda for decades. But in neighboring Sweden, the discussion was ignored, explains Sanandaji: “Being against open borders became synonymous with being a racist. […] favoring open borders was the only legitimate political view in the country.”

The only political party who attempted to raise the issue, was ignored by the political elite. As were the issues, such as crime and financial strains. Gang violence and shootouts have been significantly higher in Swedish cities than in Denmark and Norway, for instance. And more and more people have become wary of the situation.

Of course there is a case to be made for the humanitarian cause of helping people in need. But ignoring the costs – monetary, and societal – in the name of political correctness is ridiculous.

Trump and the King

So when Donald Trump mentioned problems in Sweden last week, some were quick to dismiss him as making up things again. It also didn’t help that Fox News featured as expert a ‘Swedish defence and national security advisor’ that nobody in Sweden had heard of.

But Trump-bashing aside, international media did start looking into Sweden and found that their rosy image did not hold true any longer.

And that’s when King Carl XVI Gustaf entered the debate. “Without media that works seriously and carries out good criticism of its sources, that doesn’t work,” he said. Fair enough.

But he went further than that: “It is important to present the good examples. There are so many positive developments.”

With all due respect, Your Highness, that is not within your mandate. Dictating what the media should and should not report on is exactly what Trump has been doing the last month. And while his attacks are more brash, the danger is the same. People in power should never interfere with the press, no matter their agenda.

William McRaven, a retired Navy SEAL, recently called out Trump’s attacks on the press, calling them “the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime”.

I agree. More than ever before we need a free press, with investigative reporting that highlights real issues and challenges prevailing sentiments and political correctness. In Sweden, as well as in America.

Flying to Chicago

Tomorrow night I will celebrate a silver anniversary: crossing the Atlantic Ocean for the 25th time. And no route has more significance than Chicago-Copenhagen (ORD-CPH), a journey that has impacted my life. This is a story with several chapters.

1986 (CPH-AMS-ORD-SBN)
I am six years old and have never before set foot in an airplane. The world as I know it is changing: we are moving to America. I will have to learn a new language and am somewhat worried of the great unknown, but flying is certainly an experience.

We are in KLM business class, sitting on the upper deck of a 747. My brother and I each have a window seat, and are treated to a visit to the cockpit. Security worries were fewer back then.

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Our final destination is not Chicago, but Berrien Springs, Michigan, which will be our home for four years. We are there temporarily, living in a basement apartment for much of the time, but as a child temporary means less. This is our home, and this is in no small measure where I grew up. The city of Chicago is huge, with as many people as our home country, but several hours away – the place we go for school field trips, occasional Christmas shopping, and most importantly the airport, our connection with the old world.

1990 (ORD-AMS-FBU)
I am ten years old. No business class this time, and the flight itself is less memorable. But after four years in Michigan we have been looking forward to returning to our native Denmark, bringing back a larger world-view and amazing memories. My connection to America remains, but the memories begin to fade as I grow older.

1997 (BLL-FRA-ORD)
I am sixteen years and in high school. My parents have gone back to Michigan for a nine-month period, while I remain in Denmark in boarding school.
This trip brings up many feelings, missing my parents an important one of them. Once again there is a fear of the unknown, since I have not travelled alone before. “Landing card – what is that?”

But more than anything else this is a trip of nostalgia. As a teenager, seven years seems a lifetime, and coming back to America also means coming back to a lost childhood. Seeing the Chicago skyline from the airplane (“skyscrapers!”) is something I will never forget. (For some reason, I listened to Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto for the first time during that flight and will forever link this heart-breaking music to that memory.)

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This trip and a consecutive one a few months later rekindle my connection with America, make me feel somehow different from my Danish peers, and also teaches me the pain of distance. A few years later, my parents will move to Australia, settling the fact that long-distance is here to stay.

2010 (CPH-ORD)
Many years have passed, and the third chapter of this story has my parents once again living in Berrien Springs, Michigan. But this time with more permanence, here to work, not study, and with a house of their own. Not very far from where we lived in the 80’s, and with a basement which resembles the apartment which was our home.

Winter 10-68

Since then flying has become mainstream and cheaper, and with a direct Copenhagen flight visiting for just a week at a time makes sense. I have also married, and my wife joins me on her first trip to America, enjoying the sights and attractions of rural Michigan in winter (you don’t need more than a week for that).

2014 (CPH-ORD)
Several trips later, this one is different yet again. My first-born daughter is with us on this her first flight, for an extended Christmas vacation. Flying long-haul with a baby is indeed possible, and we manage fairly well, but it’s not quite as relaxing as going by yourself.

Christmas 14-05

The trip once again brings back memories, and singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in my childhood church my daughter on my arm is probably for me the most sentimental one.

2017 (CPH-ORD)
We have come full circle. Now I have two daughters. Flying to Chicago in February means not a lot of other passengers, so the trip itself is easy.

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But this trip is also the definitive end of a chapter. My parents will finally move back to Denmark later this year, which means that I will have no reason to visit Michigan again in the foreseeable future. This prospect by far outweighs any sentiment I may have had to this place. And with the current political climate in the U.S., it is with some relief that I sever the connection for the time being. America has shaped me, and will continue to be a part of my story, but closing the door as others open up is not a bad thing.

The Internet has not made us more democratic

Social media made Obama president, but also Trump. So much for digital revolution.

Everyone likes to think they are unique. That their struggles and ideas are somehow different from everyone else’s. And every generation likes to imagine that they are not just incrementally different from their parents, but the first in a new era of enlightenment.

Most of them, however, are not. The Age of Aquarius was a fad. The collapse of the Soviet Union did not give us lasting world peace. Postmodernism is an interesting label, but no more than a label (in the words of Bruno Latour, “we have never been modern”). Millenials, post-millenials, digital natives, what have you.

The internet promised to change things radically. In some ways, of course, it has. We do things differently than before, with instant access, self-service, and always-on connectivity. But the inner fabric of what makes us human, alas, has not really changed. And the results fall short of the naïve dreams of 15-20 years ago.

Social media doesn’t make people better

Everyone his own editor, was the promise. Blogging was the tool that gave common people a voice (I was one of them). Finally, the though monopoly of established media was challenged. And for oppressed people, here was the way out; the means to breaking the power of their authorities.

There were many flaws in this dream. First of all, there is a reason that so few people were previously represented in the media: The rest were simply not worth listening to. As it turns out, bigots and complainers are still bigots and complainers, and now they are annoying more than just their families and friends.

Secondly, not all people have good intentions. Instead of spurring utopia, the ‘digital revolution’ has brought out both good and bad in people. Just like every technological development before it. Protesters in the Arab Spring used social media. So does Al Qaeda and ISIS. New ways of congregating also means new ways of monitoring. The Great Firewall of China has been quite successful in making sure the rise of digital media did not jeopardize the power of the ruling elite.

As any early joiner of Facebook will remember, what used to be a place to meet your friends has now become a giant marketplace where more or less dubious brands compete for your attention. Savvy (young) users flee to the refuge of alternatives such as Snapchat, but it is only a matter of time before companies will all come there as well, repeating the process.

Finally, anywhere people gather, so will would-be criminals. The greater the potential, the more hackers, spammers, phishers, fake news publishers, and worse. Raise security, and their means will grow more sophisticated to match the challenge. Just like superheroes spawn super-villains (illustrated perfectly by Batman).

Have you thanked your editor today?

What the world needs now, more than ever before, is good editors. There are ideas which are not worth promoting, and individuals whose rants should not so easily be given an audience.

Social media have ‘democratized’ mainly in the sense that we can avoid views we disagree with, encouraged by algorithms that favor more of the same. Fake news have exploited this trend. And by playing to the lowest denominator of clicks and likes means that the media have outplayed their role of challenging people in power and become just as partisan as the politicians themselves.

Governments taking control of the media used to be a big cause of worry, but the dilemma may have become a moot point. If Donald Trump preaches to the choir on Twitter and discredits any critical questions from mainstream media, he circumvents the dilemma. He doesn’t need to shut down the independent media, like Putin and Erdogan have done. He can bypass them altogether and undermine their role and trust without any formal actions against them.

The only way to stop this destruction would be to close down Twitter entirely. Which is probably not going to happen. One thing that history has taught us is that we cannot turn back time.

What hath 2016 wrought?

Lily Edith Christmas 2016
Dear Edith,

Everyone is saying 2016 was a terrible year. Yet years from now, your mother and I will look back at 2016 as one of a single significance: the year you were born.

Yes, right now we remember 2016 for the conflict in Syria, Donald Trump’s election, and the death of celebrities such as Prince, Muhammad Ali, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, and others. But when you are old enough to understand, I hope that these events will no longer give any cause for worry.

For your father, it has been a turbulent year. I began by saying goodbye to my employer of nearly five years, with a promising new start. That new start brought, for one thing, a shorter commute which gave me more time with your sister and mother, and eventually with you. It also brought me the stress of adapting into a new environment. And ultimately, although through no fault of my own, it led to termination, which is why I have been there to play with you every day the past eight weeks. While this has been good family time, I enter 2017 with the burden of finding somewhere else to employ my skills. As the sole provider, you really need a job.

As for your arrival, it has been a joy to see you grow into the smiling and cackling 6-month-old you have become, and witness the mutual love between you and your sister. I do also remember how the first two months were especially tough on me, as I adapted to our new situation and came to know you as a person. You will not and should not understand this until one day you become a parent yourself, at which time I will probably be too old to remember myself.

On a lighter note, we planted the berry bushes and fruit trees which I hope you are enjoying. Before you were born, your sister and parents made a short break in Bologna, Italy, our first proper holiday in several years. And we enjoyed a visit from your paternal grandparents, with the prospect of them moving back to Denmark very soon. We have missed them, and are happy to know that they will be larger part of your life as you grow up.

You celebrated your first Christmas gracefully among family at home, and tonight you will (we hope) sleep through your first New Year’s Eve.

Edith, you have blessed our family beyond measure. It is my prayer that you will be a highlight not only of 2016, but of our entire lives to come. Happy New Year!

Love, Dad

How do you explain hygge?

Hygge is everywhere these days. The English-speaking world has embraced this Danish/Scandinavian concept with a fervour. So when a friend of mine, who writes for an Australian magazine, told me she was doing a piece on hygge, I was not entirely surprised. She wanted input from a real Danish person, and I was only happy to oblige.

These are her questions, and my answers:

Is hygge a real thing in Denmark, or is it just something made up by marketers who tell us it’s from Denmark?

Hygge is definitely real. The trouble with defining it is that for us Danes it’s ubiquitous. Just as fish cannot see water, we don’t really ponder the meaning of hygge until we have to explain it to a foreigner.

If it’s a real thing, what is your opinion of it?

Although difficult to define, it is something that sets us apart. Not that other people don’t know how to have a good time, but they probably do so less vigorously. A common joke is that Danes wouldn’t be any good in war; we would stop to sit down and eat way too often.

Do you “practise” it? And if yes, how and why? If no, why not?

Paradoxically for the marketers, real hygge is not about buying stuff. The marketing version is, at best, 50% true. It’s more about being in the moment. You set the scene for that moment with anything you like. Any combination of mood lighting, background music, entertainment, some form of comfort food (or drink), and good company. Indoors or outdoors. We tend to stay inside a lot because of the climate, but in my opinion a traditional Aussie barbecue would in fact qualify.

Finally, how do you pronounce the word?

The difficult part as a native English speaker is the first vowel, which doesn’t exist in English. If you know other languages, however, you’ll find it’s the same sound as in German süss, French tu, or Mandarin yuan. The double g is hard, as in goat, and the final e is an unstressed vowel, like the second syllable in Brisbane. Now you try.

I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but I hope my contribution will help the readers understand some of the ups and downs. Danish readers may find more thoughts (in Danish) in this post from 2011.