From Prisoner to Pioneer: The Story of the Architect Who Is Reviving the Old Town of Nablus

“You cannot succeed by yourself – if it’s only by yourself, it’s not a success.”

After spending five years in an Israeli jail as a political prisoner, Abed was a changed man. Despite being subjected to terrible conditions, during this experience he grew as a person and learnt numerous lessons that would have a significant impact on his life after being released.

Figure 1: Abdel-Rahman Kittaneh spent five years in an Israeli prison.
The Yalla Project

Abdel-Rahman Kittaneh, nicknamed Abed, is an assistant professor in architecture at Birzeit University, originally from Nablus. Upon his release from prison, he finished his bachelor’s degree, went to England for graduate studies and completed his PhD in architecture at KU Leuven in Belgium. Around the same time he returned to Palestine from Belgium, his brother Bassel was released from prison after having served 15 years behind bars. 

In 2019, the two brothers and Abed’s wife Alessandra initiated a communal project aiming to revive the old town of Nablus. 

The Yalla Project (TYP) is an initiative that combines profound academic research on socio-spatial issues with social enterprises and community action. It originated from Alessandra and Abed’s academic and professional background. Abed wrote his doctoral thesis about the resilience capacity of people living in the old town of Nablus during direct urban combats while Alessandra is currently finishing her PhD and has experience working for the Palestinian Ministry of Planning.

The old city of Nablus has suffered greatly from Israeli invasions in the past decades. Home to old buildings and relics from the Shechem, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, Crusader and Ottoman eras, the city’s cultural heritage has been severely damaged and partly destroyed by the Israeli military. The destruction reached a high point during the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, when the city was sieged by the Israelis. Today, Nablus is still a stronghold of Palestinian resistance and the Israeli military continues to destructively invade the city on a daily basis, particularly the old town. According to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the event of Armed Conflict, to which Israel is bound by international humanitarian law, the deliberate destruction of sites of historical or cultural importance accounts to a war crime. 

From his research, Abed understood that there are general patterns of resilience that people in the old town of Nablus develop to make a living – despite the continuous waves of violence. By living in a unique urban and social tissue, the people of Nablus have managed to create a distinctive resilience capacity that differs from other cities in the world – even within Palestine. Alessandra and Abed realized that Palestinian urban planning is generic and unlocalized, which can be attributed to a gap in the system: “There is no relationship between academia and practice, and we wanted to initiate [TYP] to fill this gap,” Abed explains. 

To bridge this gap, Alessandra, Abed and Bassel created two social enterprises in the old town of Nablus: a café (Antique) and a hostel (Turquoise). Besides offering food, drinks, and accommodation to their guests, the two enterprises can also be booked by organizations to conduct workshops, seminars, or training sessions. All of their work is based on cooperation with other businesses in the old town. For example, if they are hosting a group of tourists in Turquoise, all the products they use for their guests are purchased from the neighborhood. If the guests want sweets, they buy them from the local sweet shops or bakeries. If the guests crave a traditional Palestinian meal like maqluba, they engage and appropriately compensate local housewives. The required vegetables for these meals are purchased from different local supermarkets. Lastly, if the guests ask for breakfast, they are encouraged to visit the neighbors’ breakfast place. Thus, if there is a group of tourists coming to their hostel, the whole neighborhood benefits. “Last weekend we had 30 yoga ladies staying at our hostel, but having breakfast, lunch and dinner, so the whole neighborhood worked.” This is why it’s called a social enterprise.

Figure 2: Young people working in the Antique Café, one of the two social enterprises Abed and his team created.
Inspiring the Revival of the Old Town

Even if Abed and Bassel are not originally from the neighborhood, the local people “want to protect our business because it’s now part of their business”. In fact, as their social enterprises grew a new interest was sparked in the neighborhood. A “new flow of people” started to arrive, leading many to start their own business in the old town and ask the brothers for recommendations on how to connect them with the local market. This is where the academic aspect of TYP comes into play. Through practical projects on the ground, Alessandra and the brothers have access to key insights about the dynamics of urban development in the old town. What makes the city live and develop? How can people efficiently renovate their buildings and reclaim their heritage, and what motivates them to do so? If Abed, Bassel and Alessandra can prove that it is profitable to renovate buildings in the old town, local entrepreneurs will be encouraged to play their part in regenerating the old town of Nablus – once a vivid merchant city. 

Through TYP, Alessandra and the brothers have gained vital theoretical and methodological knowledge about urban regeneration in the old town of Nablus. Furthermore, they have encouraged people, many of whom had escaped Nablus during the Israeli military invasions of the Second Intifada, to rebuild their damaged cultural heritage and (re)open their businesses in the old town. Until now, at least nine businesses have opened since the initiation of TYP, all of which were inspired or supported by Abed’s project. 

Prison Time as a Vital Turning Point 

Abed’s father owns a two-store building on the main street of Nablus. Instead of opening a café and hostel in the old town, Abed could have turned this building into a fantastic and highly profitable restaurant, given its ideal location. He could have avoided all the struggles he would face with TYP. However, he decided not to. “I wanted to do something that is socially impactful.” He already had his full-time job at university, but he was looking to establish something that benefits others. 

His social and community-oriented values originated from his time in prison. When asked about his experience in jail, Abed gathers his thoughts, initially struggling to find the right words. “My perspective about life has completely changed.”

Imprisoned while still in university for being part of the Palestinian resistance movement, Abed was a young, self-oriented man. Despite terrible conditions, for him, it was a positive and decisive turning point that would change the course of his life. This is the reason he doesn’t mind being asked about his time in prison and speaks openly about it. 

Compared to some of his co-prisoners that did not have a date of release, Abed knew that eventually he would be freed. He had time to read, write, exchange with other inmates, reflect and think about his future as a free man. He started to realize that in life, there is no individual success. “You cannot succeed by yourself – if it’s only by yourself, it’s not a success,” because it does not benefit others. Abed decided to become more giving than taking in order to be influential in his environment and be part of positive social change. And that’s precisely what he did. Together with his brother and Alessandra, who shared his beliefs, he initiated and sustained TYP from his own pocket, benefitting those around him by reviving the old city of Nablus. For him, this was the way to happiness and fulfillment. 

Abed’s time in prison also helped him become much more open-minded than he used to be. “I have friends from all sorts of backgrounds, orientations.” Furthermore, upon his release, Abed began to introduce himself as a universal citizen. He doesn’t see himself as an individual, as only a Palestinian, Arab or Muslim, but as a human being who is part of a bigger community. “I totally believe that I belong to the whole universe, and this is what motivates me to work.”

Figure 3: After being imprisoned for five years, Abed was a changed man.
Lack of Support and Bureaucratic Obstacles Overcome by Palestinian Perseverance

A distinctive feature of TYP is that it is completely self-sufficient. It does not depend on funding from municipalities or international aid. Instead, the project was started with $6,000 that Bassel received from the Palestinian Authority as an allowance for his time spent in prison. The payment is meant to help Palestinians reinitiate their lives upon release from jail. This money was invested into renovation of an old warehouse which is now the Antique Café. A generous contractor then agreed to renovate a second building on the other side of the street into the first guesthouse of Turquoise. The renovation of the guesthouse was paid with the revenue of the café. 

“That’s why we have [the slogan] your coffee makes a difference.”

Now, they are renovating a third building right next to Turquoise, which will be the second guesthouse of the hostel. This is of course financed by the money generated by the Antique Café and the first Turquoise guesthouse. Abed estimates the total cost of renovation for his buildings at around $150,000. To minimize expenses, they have done a lot of the work themselves. Even Alessandra does it. “You know, in the old town it’s not [common] to see a housewife doing some do-it-yourself-work (…), but she’s doing it in front of them, and they get inspired,” Abed says laughingly. He then refers to their neighbor, a 65-year-old woman who was inspired by Alessandra and built her own café, even building some of the furniture herself. 

When TYP started, Abed was profoundly engaged in the groundwork. Living in Nablus at the time, he would commute to Birzeit back and forth every day – a one-hour drive each way -, collect rubble and carry the blocks in the evening after teaching at university during the day. “It was very tough,” Abed says exhaustingly. Nowadays, living closer to the university, he does not go back to Nablus on a daily basis. Bassel is highly active on the ground, while Abed is more responsible for managing, delegating, and communicating. Nonetheless, he is still involved in many aspects of TYP’s work, including writing proposals or improving the website, which he built himself. “In our town it’s not easy. (…) We work a lot to be successful actually, we really invest a lot of time and effort.”  Since returning from prison, Abed has only taken three or four days of vacation.

It does not help that there is a lack of support from the government for social entrepreneurs like Abed. During the Covid-19 pandemic, they had to shut down the café for around six months and the hostel for ten, but employees did not receive compensation from the government. “I was paying for them from my salary at university because they need[ed] the money much more than me,” Abed says. His actions speak for his strong belief in TYP, his generosity and his conviction of helping people in need. To reopen, they then had to pay a total amount of around $500 in taxes, electricity bills and rubbish collection fees. At the time of the lockdowns, they had only been working for around six months, so they hadn’t started to make a profit yet. 

Another issue Abed faced was the licensing of his social enterprises. Most guesthouses and cafés in the old town are not licensed so as to avoid taxes. Abed, however, wanted to fulfill all legal requirements to license his enterprises. It was an extremely complicated, frustrating, and expensive process. “There is no roadmap,” he remembers. “There is no system to develop the businesses here.” Dozens of random office visits and insufficient communication forced Abed to take leave from work to speed up the process. In the end, it took him three years until his hostel was finally licensed.

Abed would have wished for more encouragement and support, especially because his project aims to renovate the old town and revive the tourism industry, from which the government could also make profits. He believes that municipalities should even subsidize projects like his instead of “chasing after me for [every] penny.” This way, successful businesses will grow, and taxes will increase as well. Abed is convinced that if he did not have his salary from university, he would have shut down his businesses, as the profits were not enough to make a living.

Despite these financial and legal issues, Abed and his team have shown impressive patience and perseverance, which has allowed them to build two self-sufficient and now successful businesses. In addition to paying for rent and the renovation of the buildings, some of the profit generated from their enterprises is invested in their research, which aims to further improve the Yalla Project.

Figure 4: The Turquoise Bio Farm, a rooftop farm that fosters bio farming in a collective approach, constitutes another project launched by The Yalla Project.
The Issue of Conditional Funding

Instead of encouraging local projects, the Palestinian Authority continues to rely on international funding. Abed believes that some funding is indeed necessary, since Palestinians are still living under occupation and the economy is widely controlled by Israel. However, he stresses the importance of political support and criticizes the funding conditions that are imposed on Palestinians by the international donors. In May 2022, the humanitarian organization Norwegian Refugee Council reported that the EU, the PA’s largest donor, had been delaying a large share of funding committed to Palestine, valued at over €200 million, since 2021. The main reason was that the EU had placed a condition on the release of the money: specific changes to Palestinian school textbooks due to apparent incitement against Israel and anti-Semitic content, despite being in line with UNESCO standards. 

The delay eventually came to an end in June 2022, when the EU announced that it would renew its support for the Palestinians with a €224.8 million assistance package, following a vote on the unconditional release of aid to Palestine. Nonetheless, the delay in aid unnecessarily put hundreds of Palestinian lives at risk. Critical assistance for vulnerable Palestinians and support for basic services such as food security or health were severely impacted. The Lutheran World Federation, which owns and operates in occupied East Jerusalem’s Augusta Victoria Hospital as a specialized cancer care center reported about the dire consequences of the funding halt for its patients. According to the institution, at least 500 cancer patients, diagnosed between September 2021 and May 2022, were unable to access life-saving care and treatments, resulting in avoidable deaths. 

As international aid conditional on Palestinians changing their education curriculum with Palestinians literally dying due to the funding halt, Abed is curious: “Who questions the curriculum [of] the Israeli education system?” “Nobody questions it at all,” he responds to his own question. Abed says that the Israeli curriculum is outdated, biased and “humiliating for all human race”. According to the Palestine-Israel-Journal, the Israeli educational system is used as a tool to brainwash and distort history to eliminate the national identity of Palestinians living inside Israel, which make up around 20% of the total population. 

Working Towards a Free Palestine

In terms of the Palestinian relationship with Israelis, Abed recognizes that it is poor. “We are enemies, but enemies are not enemies forever. Enemies are enemies because of a reason.” This reason is the expulsion, the military occupation and human rights oppression of the Palestinian people. He firmly emphasizes that the Palestinian’s resentment of Israelis has nothing to do with their religion. “In Palestine, we have always been different ethnic groups and religions, and [the Palestinians] are used to this.” The main problem is the human rights situation of the Palestinians. If Palestinians were to live as free human beings and have their basic rights, which includes the right of forcibly displaced Palestinians to return to their homes, “then we can forget about being enemies in the past.” Abed’s hope is to see all of historic Palestine free, as a result of a peaceful transition, and whoever wants to live in a free Palestine, regardless of his or her religion, “ahlan wa sahlan” – you are welcome!

Asked about his realistic view regarding Palestinian liberation, a significant improvement of Palestinian human rights and the return of refugees, Abed enthusiastically answers: “Yeah, I’m very optimistic {…} this will happen in my life, I think”He doesn’t believe that the Zionist State of Israel will be destroyed in a large-scale war. He is convinced it is destined to dissolve by itself due to its inhumane and corrupted structure. Once it dissolves and Palestine is free, some of the present-day Israelis may stay and become part of the Palestinian society, and some will go back to their homelands. He compares this to the Western Crusaders, many of whom decided to stay in Palestine after their defeat in the late 13th century, despite decades of mistreatment of the local population. Their descendants are still living here, today. 

To underline his argument, he uses the Ottoman Empire as comparison. The Ottoman Empire, one of the mightiest and longest-lasting dynasties in world history, eventually dissolved. Although this followed its defeat in World War I, the main causes of its decline were mostly internal divisions and the rise of nationalist movements. Similarly, in Israel, the failure of compiling a functioning government and the use of an apartheid-like system that suppresses Palestinians who demand independence and are increasingly gaining international support, could eventually lead to the dissolution of this malfunctioning state of Israel, according to Abed. The recent protests, where hundreds of thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets over the planned judicial overhaul, further indicate the increasing internal division within Israeli society.

An Inspirational Transition

Abed has played a vital role in reviving the neglected and damaged old town of Nablus and helping others reclaim their cultural heritage. Despite all kinds of challenges, he and his team remained resilient, set up the self-sufficient TYP from their own pockets and ensured its success through constant hard work and the innovative use of praxis-oriented academic research. TYP has created jobs for young people and strengthened the local population’s bond with the old town. By involving, benefitting and inspiring various local actors, TYP has also managed to counter internal fragmentation and antagonism, which constitutes a serious problem in Palestinian society. Alessandra, Bassel and Abed have nourished a real community and created a social environment that is quite unique.

Abed wisely used the time he spent in prison. He developed from a rather selfish and individualistic prisoner to a community-oriented, social, and open-minded hard-worker, which led him to fight for positive social change and become one of Nablus’ pioneers in the tourism industry. His transition embodies one of the many Palestinian success stories, which has also been documented in an article by The Guardian. By choosing a peaceful approach to resist the occupation – reviving and preserving Palestinian cultural heritage – Abed’s transitional story can be an inspiration to many Palestinians to keep faith and fight for the liberation of Palestine and the basic human rights of the Palestinian people. 

*This interview was conducted in May 2022.

Repairing the Narrative of Palestine

“The best way for me to help raise awareness about the Palestinian cause and about what happens in Palestine is through one-on-one conversations with my friends.”

Across the table sits a young, self-confident, joyful woman. Tara Shtayyeh, 23 years old, comes from the small Palestinian village of Tell, near Nablus, but was born and raised in the city of Ramallah. 

Background and Studies in the US

To complete her Bachelor’s degree, Tara moved to North Carolina, where she majored in psychology and minored in dance at High Point University. As she – like most Palestinians – feels deeply connected to her homeland, the decision to study abroad, far away from her family and friends, was a big one. However, for her it was the right choice, given the fact that universities in the US and in Europe, where she also applied, were more suitable for her choice of studies. Tara felt the urge to broaden her cultural horizon and connect with people from other parts of the world. In the end, what pushed her to study at High Point was the full scholarship she was offered there. 

“I feel like one of my main values is that education is a right and you shouldn’t pay for it. It just deepens the gap between classes and makes […] certain specific people more advantaged than other, mainly because they can afford it.”

Her accurate perception of equality and the urge to raise awareness about the Palestinian cause seem to have been inherited by her family – in particular her parents. While in high school, her mother was imprisoned for raising the Palestinian flag in the village of Qalqilya, showing that not much has changed regarding Israel’s violent attempts to suppress the Palestinian identity. Her father was also arrested several times when he was a young activist. “Yeah, I get that from him”, Tara points out smilingly. Additionally, her grandfather on her mother’s side was highly active in resisting the occupation, but his activist approach was more economic: he worked tirelessly on his business to make a profit in order to help the poor people around him. 

After graduating from High Point, Tara stayed in North Carolina for an extra year working at the university, but the closeness to her family and friends, and a longing for the land she grew up in made her decide to move back to Palestine. She felt disconnected from her people, as she noticed especially in May 2021 during the events that happened at Sheikh Jarrah, where hundreds of Palestinians were forcibly displaced from their homes in East Jerusalem, and the bloody war on Gaza, where Israel killed up to 192 Palestinian civilians, including more than 60 children. Tara makes it clear that her future lies in Palestine in order to do as much as possible to help her society. However, that does not mean that she will not spend time abroad ever again. In fact, her approach to support is as follows: go abroad, obtain different skills and knowledge, come back and help the community. 

Tara Shtayyeh posing for a picture during her graduation ceremony at High Point University in North Carolina.
Life in Occupied Palestine

Back in Palestine, Tara is currently working as a project coordinator for a local NGO that focuses on the development of young people into engaged, employable, and active citizens, acting as a role model and sharing her experience with Palestinian youth. However, behind her mask of spreading positive vibes lies a Palestinian face that is affected by the consequences of occupation. Because she lives in a city “controlled” by the Palestinian Authority (Israel maintains full military control over all areas of the West Bank, including Ramallah), Tara does not perceive the direct impact of occupation as Palestinians living in refugee camps or villages that are constantly being invaded by the Israeli Occupation Forces, such as Jenin in July 2022. However, she still believes that all these events affect her subconscious. This is exacerbated by the quick spread of news through social media. Living in the occupied territories, Israel’s aggressions and stories of Palestinian victims dominate the newsfeed on social media.

One of the numerous things that Palestinians living under occupation lack is a freedom of movement and speech. “I still feel, just like any other Palestinian, not having the chance, or just the option to move, drive around, write whatever I want on Facebook, go to the beach if I’m bored that weekend. We need a lot of permits just to sneeze.” In fact, as a Palestinian living in the West Bank, Tara is prohibited from visiting cities in historical Palestine such as Jerusalem, Jaffa or Haifa. Moreover, she is constantly exposed to Israeli checkpoints when travelling within the West Bank from one city to another.

Although Tara humbly attempts to put the damages imposed by Israelis into comparison by claiming other Palestinians are worse off than her, it does not change the fact that she suffers from the occupation as well and is indeed directly influenced by it. She has friends and family who have experienced prison or are currently imprisoned, often without actual charges. In addition, one specific incident that occurred a couple of years ago can never be removed from her memory. In 2014, one of her close friends, Nadim Nuwara, was intentionally and unlawfully shot dead by an Israeli sniper. The murder was caught on camera, and the video clearly shows that Nuwara was just crossing the street, unarmed, with no intention of any violent action. Due to international pressure, the murderer, Israeli soldier Ben Dery, was later convicted, but released after serving less than one year in prison. Tragically, incidents like this have become normality. As Tara chucklingly says, this is an example of what “your average Palestinian experiences.”

Biased Western Media Coverage and Western Misperceptions

As a Palestinian, having lived in the United States for five years, Tara is well suited to analyze the American media coverage of Israel and Palestine in comparison to what is actually happening on the ground. “It [the Western media coverage] does not reflect reality, it’s not accurate at all.” First and foremost, the language and terminology used to describe events is often misleading. The term “Israel-Palestinian conflict” implies that there is some sort of power balance or equal footing, which is certainly not true in this case. Israel has one of the most powerful militaries in the world, while Palestinians do not even have a land army, nor an air force or navy. More accurate descriptions of the situation for the Palestinians are “military occupation” or “apartheid system”. Another example that Tara mentions were the headlines used by many Western media to cover the Israeli military’s killing of the renowned Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in May. American outlets like the New York Times or the Associated Press among others were quick to deflect responsibility of the killing away from the Israeli military by claiming in their headlines that Shireen “was killed (…) during clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinian gunmen” and “was killed by gunfire” respectively. In another article, the New York Times initially wrote “Shireen Abu Akleh, Trailblazing Palestinian Journalist, Dies at 51”, implying that her death was a result of natural causes. These news outlets later changed their formulation, but only after investigations of several sources, such as the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem or the open-source portal Bellingcat concluded that an Israeli soldier fired the deadly shot, likely with intent. Nonetheless, it demonstrates the immediate adaption of the Israeli narrative that these American media outlets take on after an incident like this occurs. Furthermore, most readers will not dig into the story two weeks later, but form their opinion based on the first impression. The ignorance of many biased writers can also be spotted when they falsely treat the terms “Palestinian”, “Muslim”, and “Arab” as synonymous. There are Palestinian Christians and even a small minority of Samaritan Jews. Moreover, not all Muslims are inevitably Arabs. In contrary, in countries such as Pakistan or Bangladesh, to name only two of many examples, the Muslim population makes up the majority of the total population, and they are not categorized as Arabs. The conflation of these basic ethno-religious identifiers is testament to the orientalist ignorance of many Western journalists reporting on Palestine. Dissemination of inaccurate information of the apartheid in the media only serves to damage the Palestinian cause. 

During her time in the US, Tara also realized that whenever there is some kind of mainstream media attention towards Palestine, the images used usually have a negative connotation. Diving into her background in psychology, she claims that as we live in a world where information is spread quickly, “sometimes it gets overwhelming, so we use mental shortcuts, meaning that we use stereotypes”. Therefore, as the mainstream media continues to use these negative images to prime the readers’ consciousness, they begin to develop negative stereotypes, and when hearing the term “Palestinians”, they automatically associate it with people hiding their faces, throwing rocks or terrorists bombarding Israelis with rockets. 

Tara recognized that there are tremendous misperceptions people from the West have about Palestinians. In some cases, “you have to explain to them that, no, you’re not from Pakistan, you’re from Palestine – I understand that it’s phonetically similar, but some people are just plain ignorant”. Also, people were surprised that she was not wearing hijab. Another misperception, in Tara’s eyes quite an offensive one, was that many Americans were surprised that she spoke English so well. Such a statement implies the false perception that Palestinians are uncivilized, unsophisticated and uneducated, and it demonstrates the feeling of superiority that many people from the West still have, looking down on people from this part of the world. Tara challenges this false superiority and adds: “I guarantee you; you will see a Palestinian success story in every corner around this planet.”

Tara Shtayyeh wearing a thobe, a traditional Palestinian dress.
Censoring Palestinian Content on Social Media

On social media, the compelling influence of the pro-Israeli narrative is also evident, too, as censorship of Palestine-supportive content is a rising issue. In 2016, then Israeli Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked claimed that Facebook and YouTube had been complying with up to 95% of Israel’s request to take down content that the government views as inciting Palestinian violence. In 2021, during the events of Sheikh Jarrah, Instagram’s CEO, Adam Mosseri, who holds dual American-Israeli citizenship, admitted that Palestinian content was taken down during the events, but blamed a “technical issue”. Israeli authorities are currently preparing to institutionalize these censorships by introducing the controversial “Facebook Bill”. This bill would formally allow the Israeli government to remove posts across social media platforms, including posts from news outlets. 

Besides “shadow-banning” – limiting the reach of certain online posts – according to Tara other forms of censorship she experienced in the US were not being able to view her friend’s Instagram stories related to Palestine because they are pushed all the way back in her feed or because there is an “internet error” in loading the story. “We have 5G now in the United States, but we still have internet problems, funny”, she utters sarcasticallyTara compares the fight for the Palestinian cause and other human rights movements on social media with the “crazy gun-loving white supremacists” that are given the freedom to spread their campaigns “to buy more guns or kill more Black people”, strongly scrutinizing the individuals in charge of these platforms and the legitimacy of their guidelines. 

Another issue related to social media is that Israeli authorities use surveillance to intimidate activists wanting to visit Palestine. In many instances, when entering or leaving Israel, the border authorities have checked people’s phones for Palestine-related content, especially on their social media accounts. Tara has many friends in the US, but also other parts of the world including Europe, who are afraid of posting Palestine-related content on their social media out of fear of being denied entry into or even banned from Israel and Palestine. This fear is legitimate, as it is within Israeli policy to deport activists who demonstrate solidarity with the Palestinians and advocate to end the Israeli occupation. In 2014, to name one of many examples, British activist Gary Speeding was detained at Ben-Gurion Airport upon his arrival. He was then deported and banned from entering Israel for ten years, after the Israeli forces collected messages and contacts from his phone and accused him of possibly “causing tumult” if he were to be allowed inside the country again, due to his activity on social media. 

Social media, though, is also instrumental to the Palestinian cause because it erases borders and reaches people all around the world within seconds. For Palestinians, “it’s the fact that there is a chance for you to go viral, to have as many people exposed to (…) the message that you’re trying to convey, the narrative, the Palestinian story”. This is even more relevant because mainstream media outlets have failed to give Palestinians the opportunity to share their narrative. Social media gives Palestinians the power to control their own narrative and disseminate it effectively, opening up a dialogue about the Palestinian cause worldwide. It is important to encourage interaction because by listening to people who are asking questions, Palestinians can understand their reality and thinking processes, and therefore realize how to effectively convey their message. 

Changing Misperceptions

Tara acknowledges that often times people – even journalists – are not willing to read or listen and learn new things. Using mental shortcuts instead of attempting to process information and rely on different sources is easier and it does not drain a lot of energy. In Palestine, there is a saying – the rough translation is: “You can take a horse to the river, but you can’t force it to drink water.” This implies that providing people with details and evidence of your perspective is feasible, but if these people are not interested in hearing arguments that contradict their viewpoint, you cannot force them to listen. Consequently, misperceptions will persist. 

People in the West are biased regarding the Palestinian cause because of the one-sided mainstream media coverage, the social media censorship and an unwillingness or laziness to explore. This did not prevent Tara from trying to change people’s misperceptions when she was living in the US, even if she could reach only a small minority. “The best way for me to help raise awareness about the Palestinian cause and about what happens in Palestine is through one-on-one conversations with my friends.“Still, she found other ways to reach a broader audience, for example by donating books by Palestinian writers to the university library. Furthermore, since her return to Palestine, Tara has been very active on social media, helping to disseminate the Palestinian narrative and the human rights violations committed by the Israeli occupation on a daily basis. 

Tara Shtayyeh posing in a coffeeshop in Ramallah.
Palestinian Optimism

Asked about her future hopes regarding the people of Palestine and their situation, Tara’s answer is plain and honest: “I hope that Palestine will be free, and we would actually have decent and fundamental human rights like any other person on this planet.” Once again, Tara demonstrates her selflessness and awareness of equality by putting Palestine’s liberation into a broader context, claiming that “our liberation as humans should come all together”. She compares the case of Palestine with ending the oppression of African Americans in the US or the Muslim Uyghurs in China. Tara also hopes for Palestine to have an improved health and economic sector, where Palestinians have the opportunity to fulfill their potential, which is not possible under the current occupation.

Lastly, she wishes for more internal social cohesion in the context of a seemingly divided society. When asked about her realistic assessment of achieving an end to the occupation, Tara first pauses, but then confidently answers that she is always optimistic. “I am optimistic because if you’re not, then what are you fighting for?” Even though internally things might not be flawless, she sees hope in the rise of international solidarity, exemplified by the rising Palestine-supportive representation in the US Congress and the increasing amount and extent of international protests in solidarity of the Palestinian cause. She is confident about the future of Palestine because, as representation and support increases, the topic is being put on the table more frequently than ever, and governments around the world are being pressured to make decisions in the interest of the Palestinian people. And even internally, she believes that the social divisions can be overcome, as “the long-term vision for every Palestinian is clear, which is a free democratic Palestine (…), regardless of [the] political party”. The collective reaction after Shireen Abu Akleh’s murder certainly demonstrated that Palestinians can be unified indeed. 

If Palestinians like Tara continue to spread their narrative, using social media and other innovative tools, they will be heard by people around the world. In particular, the US population must be reached, and their misperceptions changed. They have the power to elect their representatives, who must hold the US government accountable for the major role it plays in sustaining the Israeli occupation and the daily violations of Palestinian human rights. 

*This interview was conducted in June 2022. 

Theatre: A Cultural Instrument to Resist the Occupation

“I chose the art to survive, I chose the clarinet. For me, I chose it because it’s like my weapon.” 

Safar Café is bubbling with life. People, mostly young women and men, are chatting with each other, enjoying a drink, some of them smoking argilehi, accompanied by the slow beat of music in the background. The owner of the café, Fadi Alghoul, takes a seat and instantly starts sharing his story. 

Fadi Alghoul during one of his theatre performances.
The Travelling Palestinian Theatre Group

As a son of Palestinian refugees, Fadi was born in Lebanon in the early 1970s and grew up in a refugee camp. He would later study music and start working in a theatre in Jordan. At the age of 20, Fadi decided to move to Palestine to pursue a career as an artist – and that is precisely what he did. At the time of his arrival, the theatre and arts industry in Palestine was not highly developed. Yet, despite obstacles imposed by the occupation, Fadi created the Safar Theatre Group in 2000, which remains in existence to this day. The group started off producing many cultural activities for children, such as festivals, summer camps or musical shows, with the aim of entertaining and educating. “We use the theatre, the arts, to teach our children, our people through this way.” Later, the group would extend its target audience to teenagers and adults. 

Safar was by no means the first theatre group in Palestine, but it had a distinctive feature, which can be interpreted from its name. Translated into English, Safar means Traveling. As there was no proper theatre in Palestine and a lack of cultural infrastructure for performances, Fadi needed an alternative method to reach his audience. And so, he decided to deliver his theatre pieces to the audience, making them accessible to children who would otherwise never have been able to see Safar’s performances and participate in its cultural activities. Safar started going to villages, schools, refugee camps, and many more places all over Palestine, mostly by car. Up to now, the theatre group makes all the necessary preparations by itself. It takes care of advertising and media requests, carries the required equipment, sets up the sound system, prepares the outfits, does the makeup for the actors. And finally, Safar performs. 

“We are like soldiers. Anyone who works in a theatre in Palestine is a soldier. I have problems with my back. We have problems, all of us. […] We do everything. Anyone who works at the theatre in Palestine should do everything because we don’t have a government who takes care of us. Our government is very weak. They don’t have the money and they don’t care about us.” 

His frustration with the system and the obstacles that the occupation poses did not impinge on his perseverance to create his own Palestinian theatre. It is impressive what he has managed to build and achieve without any external support. As a result of this hard work, Fadi has carried out roughly one thousand performances, across the West Bank, including one in Gaza. For him, theatre is a tool to resist the occupation. 

Fadi made a name for himself as his group became increasingly famous. From 2009 onwards, Safar started to gain international attention. The group began traveling to other countries, especially in Europe and the Arab world, invited to share their work at festivals and theatres. Furthermore, Safar cooperated with foreign theatre groups such as Obgang2 Turnéteater from Aarhus, Denmark, performing together and implementing workshops in Europe as well as in Palestine. In some cases, their travels were funded by bigger foundations, other times they had to cover the costs themselves, obliging them to organize fundraising activities. 

Fadi Alghoul in front of the Obgang2 Turnéteater in Denmark, one of the numerous foreign theatre groups Safar cooperated with.
Safar Culture Café

In 2019, Fadi opened the Safar Culture Café, where he is sitting now, talking about his achievements and hardships. It is located near Ramallah Ta7ta, the downtown of Palestine’s administrative and political center. The building was previously used by the Safar Theatre Group as a place where members would come together to read, write, audition, and rehearse their plays. The main idea behind the café was to earn some money. This money is primarily used for Fadi’s family and to make ends meet amid a difficult economic situation, rooted in the ongoing occupation and exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis. “Our problems with Israel – there is no stability here. That’s why I started thinking how I can do something different that gives me some money to feel good, to have a good life, a normal life.” Fortunately, he has also been able to put some earnings aside to invest in his Safar projects.

The concept of the café, however, is quite unique. Not only is it a place for young people to meet, but it is an open space for them to exchange and implement all sorts of cultural ideas. This has resulted in many different activities, such as stand-up comedies, live music, meetings with artists, book openings or exhibitions, to name a few. It must be mentioned that all of the events are offered to the public for free. The only profit they make is by selling drinks and snacks. “That’s why all the [young] people like this place. They feel comfortable here, they feel at home. […] Everything is simple here, and original.”

Fadi Alghoul standing in front of his Safar Café.
A Man of Many Talents

Besides his theatrical and acting abilities – Fadi is also a professional Palestinian actor – Fadi has yet another talent: puppeteering. He started working as a professional puppeteer 25 years ago, with Shara’a Simsin as one of his first gigs and later Hikayat Simsi. These are two international co-productions with the Children’s Television Workshop in New York City, which is responsible for the production of the popular children’s television show Sesame Street. In both co-productions, Fadi portrays Haneen, a lively five-year old female monster who is learning how to count, read and write. In contrast to the stereotypes of passive Arab females, Haneen believes that she can do anything, her motto being “I can, I can!”. “And then”, he explains, “I became a famous puppeteer outside Palestine, they call me all the time to go to Qatar” where he does different characters for Jeem TV – Aljazeera’s children television channel. Ironically, at this exact moment his phone starts ringing. “I have to answer”. Fortunately, it is not another work call. Fadi has settled down in Ramallah, but he still travels a lot for work, making it difficult at times to be united with his family and four children. 

Fadi Alghoul and some of his co-performers acting in a theatre piece. 
Childhood in Sabra and Shatila

Fadi’s passion for acting and theatre has its origins in a difficult childhood. It was one traumatic experience in particular that continues to psychologically haunt him today. Fadi grew up in West Beirut, Lebanon – in the Shatila refugee camp. Following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, on September 16th, 17th and 18th, 1982, as he precisely recalls, right-wing Christian Phalange militia stormed the camp and the adjacent neighborhood Sabra, and massacred the Palestinians living there. The exact numbers are vague, but according to the Arafat Museum in Ramallah, over 800 people were slaughtered, most of them civilians, including women and children. Other sources estimate the number of people killed to be in the thousands. It is vital to understand that Sabra and Shatila was surrounded by Israeli troops, who had previously invaded and occupied West Beirut, allowing the Lebanese militia to enter and preventing the Palestinian refugees from leaving. Responsible for the killing of hundreds, possibly thousands of civilians, the international community has thus far failed to hold Israel accountable for yet another violation of international law. 

“Would you like to share a little bit about your childhood in Lebanon and what happened?” “Yeah”, Fadi answers instinctively, but then struggles to find the right words, and pauses. Once again, he is reliving unforgettable memories, the dreadful images swirling in front of his eyes, rendering him speechless. He was just nine years old, when he witnessed the massacre of his brother among many others, and asserts that he himself should have been dead. He remembers all the details – the emotions of sadness, fear and uncertainty; the smell of death; the sounds of bombing, shooting, screaming; and, sometimes, unusual and horrible silence.

“I talk about it all in my play”, in his “master scene”, as he calls it. 

Clarinet: A Weapon of Hope

The piece of art he is referring to is named Clarinet. In the play, directed by Akram Al Malki, and written and performed by Fadi himself, he takes over a variety of roles, acting as his former self, his father, his grandmother, and many more. He adapts his voice and movement to the different characters he embodies, and plays various instruments, including the clarinet. The play covers his childhood and his experiences during the massacre, reliving many sensitive memories, such as constantly moving, hiding in his grandmother’s house, running from the attacks, or suffering from food and water shortage. “Sometimes, we drank sea water, I still feel the salt on my tongue”, he says in the play. But it also includes joyful stories, for example listening to Nora’s beautiful singing, who made him love music, discovering and learning how to play the clarinet, or playing with clay. Fadi’s mother, who died during the war before the massacre, used to shout at him when he would return home covered in mud. At the end of the play, when it is “lighting all Shatila’s entrances” and Fadi miraculously manages to escape, he flees to the cemetery where his mother is buried, talks to her and gives her a truly heart-breaking message. “Miss you mom. Why did you leave me alone? They want to kill us. They follow us from place to place. They want to get rid of us. (…) Mom, I stopped playing with mud as I promised you. Remember when you used to punish me when I did. I am not mad. Come back and punish me. Just come back.”

The main message of the play is to show the world what Palestinians lived through, but also to demonstrate that they are still hopeful and from where they get this hope. 

“I chose the art to survive, I chose the clarinet. For me, I chose it because it’s like my weapon.” 

The clarinet symbolizes hope, and it can also be seen as a symbol for resistance against the daily hardships Palestinians suffer from the Israeli occupation.

Clarinet is an emotional theatre piece that was well received by audiences. Translated into five languages, Fadi performed it more than two hundred times, repeatedly reliving the horrific memories with every performance. But Fadi has demonstrated incredible strength and resilience. His brilliance is reflected in his ability to turn a haunting experience into an inspiring career. Clarinet is a sad, yet optimistic play, sending a strong message of hope. “I always believe in arts, in culture to change many things.” Furthermore, the play was, unquestionably, a way for Fadi to process his difficult childhood. 

Flyer of the theatre piece “Clarinet”.
An Inspirational Use of Arts to Resist the Occupation

Fadi started acting in theatre when he was 13 years old, just four years after the Sabra and Shatila massacre. Today, he is an experienced Palestinian artist, famous inside and outside Palestine for his work as an actor and puppeteer, but also for his impact on Palestinian theatre. “My name became famous because of the theatres, because I believe in my job, I believe in my work, I work hard with my heart.” However, he doesn’t view himself as just an artist. “I’m like a fighter, I’m a soldier.” He is convinced that in Palestine, creative individuals can achieve something big and trigger change. Undoubtedly, his inspirational use of theatre will remain a source of hope to future generations and encourage them to choose arts and theatre as a peaceful way to resist the occupation. 

*This interview was conducted in May 2022. 

Israeli airstrikes on Palestinian civilians – The Dehumanising coverage by the Swiss media

Alaa Qadoum (5), Mohammed Hassouna (14), Ahmad Al-Nairab (11), Momen Al-Nairab (5), Hazem Salem (9), Ahmed Al-Farram (16), Jamil Al-Deen Naijm (4), Nazmy Karsh (16), Hamed Najim (16), Mohammed Naijm (17), Jamil Ihab Najim (13), Muhammad Al-Nabahin (13), Ahmed Al-Nabahin (9), Dalia Al-Nabahin (13), Haneen Abu Qaida (10)

These are the names of the Palestinian children killed by the Israeli military in the recent airstrikes in Gaza. They are just a few of the many innocent civilians who have lost their lives in the past few days as a result of Israel’s brutal and inhumane attacks.

When covering wars and occupations, human rights violations and war crimes, especially the cold-blooded murder of civilians, must be at the centre. And yet the double standards of Western mass media could not be greater. As soon as attention turns to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Israeli war crimes against Palestinian civilians fade into the background. Moreover, the media often adopts a biased stance that welcomes the Israeli view.

Using the examples of the online media, and, this article will show how Swiss mass media have failed miserably to present the Israeli attacks on the Palestinian civilian population in a factual manner over the past few days. The three news portals mentioned were chosen for analysis because, according to the Yearbook Quality of the Media 21, they have the largest reach among online media in Switzerland. The analysis integrates articles published or updated from the beginning of the Israeli attacks on 5 August 2022 until the ceasefire on 7 August at 22:00. 

Irrelevant headlines

Headlines from, and are meant to give Swiss readers a picture of the situation on the ground. Watson and 20minuten write the same thing in terms of content: “After killing of jihad chief: Several rockets fired at Israel” (; “After killing of jihad chief: Israel reports rocket fire from Gaza Strip” ( Both headlines reveal a biased stance of the media portals, which clearly side with Israel by using this wording. They imply, namely, that the Israelis carried out a lawful act (execution of the jihadi leader) and that the Palestinians reacted to it with an unlawful act (firing rockets at Israel). They also display Israelis as the victims and Palestinians as the perpetrators. However, the two headlines ignore that there was more than a precise military operation behind the killing of the jihadi chief. It involved several Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, which at the time of publication of the articles included the bombing of a residential building, the killing of ten Palestinians, including a five-year-old (Alaa Qadoum) and 23-year-old girl (Duniana Adnan Al-Amour), and the injury of 55 civilians. 

SRF described the Israeli airstrikes on Palestinian civilians the next day as follows: “Violence in Gaza continues for second day”. This is outrageous on two counts. First, the headline’s use of the term “violence” trivialises the brutal and bloody conditions in Gaza. This is evident from pictures and videos of bleeding and lifeless children and adults, which circulated on social media. Secondly, the headline avoids holding Israel responsible for this atrocity. In another headline, SRF wrote “Islamist chief killed: Israel attacks more Gaza targets”. This wording gives the reader the impression that the “further targets” refer to terrorists and that the attacks are therefore legitimate. In reality, numerous homes were bombed and completely destroyed. Watson mentioned in the headline of 07.08.2022 the “hail of rockets on Israel” – which incidentally did not result in any serious casualties on the Israeli side – but excluded the Israeli hail of rockets on Palestine, which by that time had already resulted in 31 deaths, including six children, four women, and 265 wounded. 

Glancing over Table 1, one immediately notices that none of the headlines mention the killing or wounding of Palestinian civilians. This is worrying and confirms that Palestinian civilian casualties are not a priority in the reporting of the Swiss online media.
Nach Tötung von Dschihad-Chef: Mehrere Raketen auf Israel abgefeuert (published on 05.08.2022, 22:14, updated at 23:04)Nach Tötung von Jihad-Chef: Israel meldet Raketenbeschuss aus dem Gazastreifen (published on 06.08.2022, 02:52)Nach Tötung von Dschihad-Chef: Gewalt im Gazastreifen hält zweiten Tag an (updated on 06.08.2022, 10:29am)
«Katastrophale Situation» in Gaza – einziges Kraftwerk vorübergehend abgeschaltet(published on 06.08.2022, 14:44, updated at 17:05)Naher Osten: Israelischer Luftangriff tötet Dschihad-Kommandeur Chaled Mansour(updated on 07.08.2022, 11:44am)Islamisten-Chef getötet: Israel greift weitere Ziele im Gazastreifen an (published on 06.08.2022, 16:23, updated at 21:24)
Tötung von Dschihad-Militärchefs und Raketenhagel auf Israel – das Wichtigste in 8 Punkten (published on 07.08.2022, 04:47am, updated at 17:05) Gazastreifen: Wieso eskaliert die Gewalt ausgerechnet jetzt?(published on 06.08.2022, 20:35)
  Gewalt im Nahostkonflikt: Gaza: Ab heute Abend soll offenbar ein Waffenstillstand gelten (published on 07.08.2022, 10:29, updated at 17:26)
Table 1: Headlines of the three online media outlets concerning the situation on the ground

Biased reactions of the Swiss media

Not only the headlines, but the articles themselves put the Israeli attack on the Palestinian civilian population in the background, despite the fact that such actions violate the principles of international humanitarian law. Moreover, the articles are filled with biased and out-of-context formulations. This is illustrated by the three original reactions from, and 


In the first article published by Watson, the opening paragraphs are devoted to the situation in Israeli cities (based on Israeli media reports), the threats of the “Palestinian organisation Islamic Jihad” (PIJ) and the Israeli assassination of its leader in a “military operation in the Gaza Strip” in response to “planned attacks on [Israeli] civilians”. As a crowning conclusion – before the Palestinian civilian victims are even mentioned – it is emphasised once again that Islamic Jihad is “classified as a terrorist organisation by the EU and the USA”. At this point, the average reader is already influenced and has formed an opinion: The Israeli attack on Gaza is legitimate because they are taking out terrorists in Gaza as a preventive measure against attacks on their own civilian population. Israelis are the good guys, Palestinians the bad guys.

Then finally, after nine pro-Israeli phrased sentences, a misleading headline and a photo showing Palestinian rockets “heading towards Israel”, Palestinian civilian casualties are mentioned for the first time: “According to Palestinian sources, at least ten people were killed in the Israeli airstrikes, including a five-year-old child and other PIJ members, in addition to al-Jabari [jihadi leader].” This sentence is abysmal for several reasons. First, the “five-year-old child” has a name: Alaa Qadoum, a young girl still in kindergarten and ripped from life in the worst possible way. Secondly, Alaa is only mentioned in a subordinate sentence. The article consists of 32 sentences in total, and yet Watson does not dedicate a single sentence to her. Finally, Alaa is placed between “al-Jabari” and “other PIJ members”. By placing Alaa between two descriptions of “terrorists”, Watson is deliberately trying to trivialise her death and legitimise the Israeli attack. This once again highlights the neglect in reporting of Palestinian “collateral damage”, as the Israeli military often legitimises attacks on innocent civilians. 


The 20minuten article on the Israeli air strike in Gaza is basically identical to the Watson article. It is slightly shorter and some sentences have been changed, but the biased wording and the neglect of the Palestinian civilian population remain. Under the title, the news portal added a photo of an explosion in the Gaza Strip and commented as follows: “Fire and smoke in Gaza: Israel reports targeted killing of Palestinian militant leader.” This description overlooks the devastating impact of Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians. Below the photo, 20minuten also included an information box to inform readers about the main  events. Again, the attack on Palestinian civilians was not reported. Even more unsettling: the Israeli airstrikes were not even mentioned, but only that the Israeli military “killed the military chief of the militant Palestinian organisation Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in the Gaza Strip (…)”. 


SRF’s original reaction – here we have an updated version of the article on 06.08.2022 at 10:29 – to the events on the ground is equally worrying. As in the case of 20minuten, many distorted and biased formulations are repeated in line with the Watson article. Moreover, once again the summary of key events at the beginning of the article does not even mention Palestinian civilian casualties. When this issue is finally mentioned, the figures are again played down: “Among the dead are at least four members of Islamic Jihad and one child. Rephrased, this means: Among the dead are up to five civilians, including one child. SRF could have opted for the latter formulation, but instead decided to place the killing of the child in the context of killed PIJ members. 

Regarding the beginning of the article, two formulations are misleading. “Targets in Gaza” implies a feigned legitimacy, since the airstrikes had already hit several residential buildings at the time this article was published. There is no trace of this in the SRF article.Additionally, the sentence “the Palestinians continue to fire rockets into Israeli territory” is a misplaced generalisation, implying that Palestinians in general, and not PIJ, are responsible for the rockets fired. This once again illustrates how the Swiss online media fail to differentiate between civilians and PIJ members. 

SRF’s reporting also lacks context, as do the other two articles. It writes “Israelis and Palestinians in fear – Many Israelis in the south of the country spent the night in shelters. In the Gaza Strip, on the other hand, people fear the Israeli air strikes that began Friday afternoon and continued.” To the reader, it appears that both civilian populations were equally affected by the events. Omitted is the fact that Palestinians in Gaza have been living in an “open-air” prison for 15 years due to the Israeli land, sea and air blockade. There are no shelters in the Gaza Strip, and no Iron Dome to intercept Israeli rockets. The approximately two million inhabitants, trapped in one of the most densely populated regions in the world, are defenceless against Israeli airstrikes. SRF briefly addresses this at the end of the article, but only selectively. “In the Gaza Strip, some two million inhabitants live in very poor conditions.” Instead of addressing how the Israeli blockade massively restricts access to electricity, clean drinking water and life-saving medical treatment, any responsibility is shifted away from Israel. The blame is placed on the Palestinians by emphasising that Hamas is a terrorist organisation and implying that the ongoing Israeli blockade was a legitimate response: “Hamas, classified by the EU as a terrorist organisation, had violently seized power in 2007. Israel then tightened a blockade of the area, (…)” Watson uses the same reasoning, while 20minuten completely ignores the context of the blockade. 

Finally, it should be pointed out that a 37-second video entitled “Many dead and injured in Gaza” appears at the top of the SRF article. The clips are apparently intended to give readers an understanding of the situation in Gaza. One can see a group of Palestinians filming rubble with their mobile phones; smoke coming out of a building; and a close-up of three apartment blocks that appear to still be standing. The choice is surprising, considering the videos that have been circulating on social media. Why weren’t Swiss readers shown one of the many videos available of Israeli rockets hitting Gaza? Or the video in which a group of Palestinian children with bloodied faces fearfully stare into the void? Or the video in which a distraught young man carries the lifeless body of Alaa in his arms?


The examples of these three media portals highlight several problematic issues in the coverage of the Israeli occupation of Palestine in general and the recent Israeli attacks on Gaza specifically:

  • The coverage downplays the drastic situation in Gaza. The attacks on the Palestinian civilian population are for the most part blanked out or pushed to the background. In the few cases where they are mentioned, their killing is legitimised as collateral damage, thus degrading and erasing their existence. 
  • The coverage implies a biased attitude on the part of the media portals, which clearly side with Israel through their writing and wording. The actions of the Israelis are erroneously presented as lawful and legitimate, those of the opposing side as unlawful and illegitimate. Readers are given the impression of who are the “good guys” (Israelis) and who are the “bad guys” (Palestinians). Accordingly, the victim/perpetrator role is also clearly assigned. In some cases, Palestinians are generalised as terrorists by the online media. 
  • The coverage refuses to hold Israel responsible for their human rights violations and war crimes. Instead, readers are given the impression that Palestinians themselves are the ones to blame for their plight. 
  • The coverage fails to present the events within an adequate context – the inhumane, illegal and ongoing Israeli blockade of Gaza. 

The online media portals, and reach a wide readership. Swiss readers form their opinions on certain topics based on their headlines and formulations. Therefore, balanced and contextual reporting that focuses on the suffering of civilians, defines war crimes as such and holds its perpetrators accountable is all the more important. In this respect, the three media portals analysed failed miserably. 

Reporting that does not lead with the attack on the Palestinian civilian population and the serious extent of war crimes on the part of the Israelis is irresponsible and dehumanising. Moreover, it contributes to the legitimisation of the illegal Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

The cube of truth

by Christian Ewert & Deborah Kalte

Hidden Politics

On a busy street during an ordinary day with people walking by, black-dressed activists in Guy Fawkes masks get in position. They claim a part of the public space by standing in a cube formation, some of them hold laptops and tablets that display disturbing and evocative footage of animal farms, others carry signs that bear the word “Truth” in English or other languages. Yet some other activists stand beside this cube and reach out to passersby to discuss animal welfare and veganism. Together, these activists perform, as they call it, a Cube of Truth.

Jeangagnon, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Cube of Truth is a complex performance of the animal rights organization Anonymous for the Voiceless. What started in 2016 as a local event of Australian activists has soon become a worldwide movement which has, as of today, performed more than 10’000 Cubes of Truth. It is thus a rather new, yet very successful form of communicating and informing the greater public of the “hidden politics behind common consumer goods” as scientists Micheletti and Stolle have called it. Or as the organizers state on their website, “people can learn there is no humane way to exploit, enslave or murder an animal.”

Indeed, the almost militaristic and anonymized cube depicts “the truth” about animal suffering in writing and on explicit and very graphical footage, while the outreach team (in civilian clothes) hands out information, asks questions, and engages in deliberation. With their impressive performance, the activists have, in their own words, “successfully convinced hundreds of thousands of people” so far.

Modern Consumption

The Cube of Truth is one of the many examples of innovative strategies that citizens have developed to engage politically and express their concerns with current consumption practices. Possibly the most familiar political consumer activities are the boycotts of certain products or companies. Other strategies include the conscious choice of products such as organic or Fairtrade, the decision to adapt one’s lifestyle along certain guidelines, for instance by living vegan, or discursive actions such as campaigns that target fast food chains by anti-branding them (for example “Murder King”), culture jamming (such as the famous Nike Email Exchange), or public protests.

Conscious or political consumerism, as it is often called, has been on the rise for at least 30 years or so. It can be seen as a response to the increasing power of multi-national corporations, and the (perceived) inability of states and international organizations to hold these corporations accountable for their (mis)conduct. And indeed, companies such as Nike, the global diamond trader De Beers, or Shell have felt the consumers’ “wrath” in the past and have consequently changed their practices to some degree. Today, many companies have developed some form of corporate social responsibility scheme to communicate the ethics of their behavior.

Vegan Community

As a performance related to political consumerism, the Cube of Truth is unique in two ways. For one, the activists do not address big corporations but instead, target ordinary people. While the first-generation political consumerism aimed at influencing the behavior of multinationals such as Nike, De Beers, or Shell, this second generation is trying to convince consumers to adopt a more conscious and animal-friendly lifestyle.

More importantly, however, the Cube of Truth is unique because of its performers: the vegan community.

In Western countries, only 0.5–3% of the population identifies as vegan, making vegans a tiny minority that is culturally dominated by the mainstream omnivore society. Think about how major supermarkets always sell some form of meat, eggs, or dairy, and how common leather clothing is. Think about how difficult it is to find vegan-friendly menus in some (often less urban) restaurants. And think about the mockery and ridicule that vegans experience, even with family and friends.

It is then perhaps not surprising that vegans create their own communities that stand in stark contrast to omnivores. Using a term coined by the linguist Michael Halliday, vegans form their own “anti-society.”

An anti-society is a small minority which is embedded in a (much) larger and dominating host society (the mainstream). The anti-society has its own values and norms, cultural practices, and even patterns of communication that are distinct from the host society.

And given its dominated status, many anti-society practices and patterns of communication center around the question of identity: Who are we, compared to them? What is important to us, and not to them? What do we do differently, compared to them? Maintaining its distinctiveness is necessary for an anti-society’s survival.

Vegan Identity

Understanding the vegan community as an anti-society sheds a new light on the Cube of Truth. Yes, vegans perform the Cube of Truth to convince non-vegans into adopting a more animal-friendly lifestyle.

But vegans also perform the Cube of Truth for themselves. Together, they plan and prepare each performance. Together, they wear the same clothes and masks and stand in strong formation for their cause, firmly representing their values. And together, they not only have access to “the truth” (about animal products and welfare), but also show it to the world.

As a highly ritualized performance, the Cube of Truth impresses passersby. Simultaneously, it impresses its performers as well, because it connects each individual performer to the larger, global community. A community that shares similar values, norms, practices, and communicative patterns.

To outsiders (i.e., non-vegans), the Cube of Truth holds meaning because of the graphic footage of animal suffering, the helpful discussions with the outreach team, or the black clothes and masks. To insiders (i.e., the performers), it holds meaning because it is a joint undertaking that welcomes contributions, and thus creates a strong sense of shared identity and belonging.

With tens of thousands of performances, the Cube of Truth is a highly successful manifestation of political consumerism. Maybe it so successful because it speaks to non-vegans and vegans alike.

The Qatar disaster: What hideous actions a country is willing to undertake for profit

Qatar, a tiny country located at the northeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, is hosting the 2022 World Cup. The gas- and oil-rich emirate is around one third the size of Switzerland and has more or less the same population as the city of Manchester. How is it possible that a small-scale country was awarded the responsibility of hosting the biggest sporting event in the world? What are the dark sides of a World Cup in Qatar and what has been done to shed light on this darkness?  

How to get away with vote buying

In 2010 the Executive Committee of the governing global football federation FIFA, today known as the FIFA Council, elected Qatar to host the World Cup in 2022. The votes were cast in secret; thus, it is not officially disclosed who voted for whom. Following the vote, the Sunday Times launched a thorough investigation inspecting allegations of vote buying in the 2022 as well as in the 2018 World Cup bidding process. The investigation was based on intelligence that had been confidentially gathered from seven people involved in the England 2018 bid. Additionally, over a span of four years the Sunday Times investigated and later published information and millions of documents gathered from a whistle-blower inside FIFA, known as the FIFA files. The investigations found evidence that Qatari officials, in particular then FIFA vice president Mohamed Bin Hamman, had bribed FIFA Council members in return for their votes for the 2022 Qatar bid. According to the Sunday Times, Issa Hayatou and Jacques Anouma for example, two former African FIFA Council members, were paid $1.5 million by the Qatar 2022 bid in exchange for their vote. Also, the information gathered by the Sunday Times included different vote trading deals between bidding countries, among them a deal between Qatar 2022 and Spain-Portugal 2018. This was only possible due to FIFA’s decision to conduct the vote for the 2018 and the 2022 World Cup host simultaneously, for whatever reason. Even though the practice of vote trading was strictly banned according to FIFA regulations, it was practically an invitation for FIFA Council members to exchange their votes. 

One day after the first Sunday Times publication in June 2014, US attorney Michael Garcia, who was appointed by FIFA to investigate earlier allegations concerning vote buying, announced that the evidence-gathering phase of his inspection would shortly come to an end. A couple of weeks later, Garcia submitted his final report, without having investigated the evidence by the Sunday Times. FIFA then published a summary (!) of Garcia’s results, which exonerated the Qatar 2022 (and also the Russia 2018) bid of all wrongdoing. Case closed. Interestingly, in response to the Sunday Times reports the organizing committee claimed that Bin Hammam had not been involved in the Qatar 2022 bid team. FIFA, who had already banned the Qatari for another corruption scandal, supported the claim. That is how to get away with vote buying. 

Human rights only secondary

After the successful World Cup bid, Qatar began with its megaproject, which included among other things the construction of seven new stadiums, a new airport, a new public transport system and a new city, where the World Cup final is set to take place. In the past few years, Qatar’s excessive construction has been under intense scrutiny. Several reports have claimed that the construction workers – mostly migrant workers from South Asian countries such as Nepal or Bangladesh – have been exposed to dreadful labor conditions. In February 2021, The Guardian revealed that more than 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since the emirate won the hosting rights for the World Cup in 2010, the number likely to being an underestimate. 

An earlier report from the Guardian in 2019 addressed the causes of migrant workers’ deaths. According to the official Qatari death toll, most migrant workers had died because of “natural deaths” such as heart or respiratory failure. The investigations, however, show that many of the deceased were in their twenties and thirties, and had arrived in Qatar in good and healthy shape. This leads to the suspicion that their deaths may not have been as “natural” as stated by the Qataris. For its research, the Guardian collaborated with an experienced clinical cardiologist. He found that hundreds of young men, who rarely suffer heart attacks, died in Qatar due to heart strokes, which in turn were caused by the immense heat stress that they were exposed to. This is not surprising, given the fact that these migrants were forced to work in temperatures as high as 45 degrees for up to ten hours a day. 

The deaths of these migrant workers caused by the exposure to such heat is certainly tragic. However, these are not the only human rights violations that the organizers of the 2022 World Cup are responsible for. In 2016, Amnesty International published a report based on interviews with over 200 migrant workers. Some of them worked on a stadium construction site, others as landscapers for a sports complex, where teams such as Paris Saint-Germain have carried out training camps regularly. The findings were shocking. Many migrant workers claimed to not have been paid for months. Besides not being able to pay for basic needs such as food, this impeded them from paying recruitment-related debts or sending money back home to their families, the latter initially being the reason for the migrants leaving home. Another example was the confiscation of migrant workers’ passports by their employers that prohibited the workers from leaving the country. Some of the interviewed Nepali workers claimed that they were not allowed to visit their families in 2015 after a disastrous earthquake struck the country, killing almost 10,000 people. These are only some of the examples of human rights abuses migrant workers had to go through. Dirty and cramped accommodations, lies about the salary and threats for complaining about the terrible conditions are some of the others. Clearly, the organizers of Qatar 2022 do not view the adherence to human rights as a top priority.

Lucrative football industry

Of course, hosting the 2022 World Cup – the biggest sporting event in the world – will greatly benefit Qatar in economic terms. Foreign investments will significantly increase, since such huge events are very lucrative for foreign businesses. Also, the tourism industry is likely to gain a notable economic boost. In particular, the luxury packages offered by MATCH Hospitality AG – FIFA’s official hospitality programme for the Qatar World Cup – will bring in an incredible amount of money. To illustrate, a private lounge ticket for the semi-final match in the newly built Lusail stadium can be purchased for a bargain of $1,760,800. Just to be clear: This doesn’t include neither travelling nor accommodation costs, it is just the price tag for watching one single game of football from a VIP lounge. Fortunately, caviar and a glass of champagne are likely to be included. 

However, it is not only the World Cup that will be beneficious to Qatar economically. In fact, the emirate’s World Cup bid should be seen as part of a broader strategy to maintain Qatar’s wealth once it runs out of its oil and gas reserves. Football has in this regard been viewed by powerful Qataris as a lucrative investment opportunity. Besides the bid, Qatar has tried to invest in the football industry for example by sponsoring Bayern Munich through the state-owned airline Qatar Airways or, more importantly, by taking over the French side Paris St. Germain (PSG) in 2011. Qatar Sports Investment, a subsidiary of the Qatar Investment Authority, which is one of the largest sovereign wealth funds, has pumped hundreds of millions into the club, transforming it from a struggling side to one of the best football teams in the world instantly. In 2017, for example, PSG (de facto the state Qatar) shocked the world when they paid the €222 million release clause to bring in star-player Neymar from FC Barcelona – the highest amount ever paid for a football transfer. As leaked documents from whistleblower Rui Pinto demonstrate, PSG have repeatedly violated Financial Fairplay regulations, but the Qatari bosses have managed to arrange settlement agreements and get away with ridiculous fines. 

As described, in a long-term attempt to make money, Qatar is investing in the profitable football industry with all necessary measures. Moral convictions such as a fair election or human rights do not seem to be of interest. 

Tick tock

On November 21st, 2021 the final countdown started: 365 days until the opening ceremony of the World Cup in Qatar. While FIFA president Gianni Infantino travelled to Qatar to celebrate the beginning of the one-year countdown by unveiling the fancy Hublot countdown clock, Amnesty International published “Reality Check 2021: A year to the 2022 World Cup”. The report describes how Qatar had made an agreement with the International Labour Organization (ILO) back in 2017 in an effort to ”end labour abuse and exploitation of its more than two million migrant workers” by introducing several potentially effective legal reforms. More importantly, however, the report demonstrates how the Qatari government has failed to actually implement these reforms that are supposed to tackle abusive practices such as wage theft or unsafe working conditions. Also, the kafala system, which binds migrant workers to their employers, often preventing them from changing jobs or leaving the country, is still intact. Amnesty International highlights that employers who are abusing their migrant employees are not effectively sanctioned by the government, and are therefore still incentivized to violate human rights. Based on its investigation, the NGO concludes that – in practice – concerning human rights not much has changed since the reforms. 

In its report, Amnesty International do not call for a boycott. Instead, in a highly optimistic statement they urge Qatar, FIFA and corporate actors involved in the 2022 World Cup to immediately take further actions. In addition, they encourage football associations to “actively and publicly take action to ensure that the rights of migrant workers are respected in the run up and during the 2022 World Cup”. However, for that it is too late. Too many workers and their families have suffered. Too many workers have died, no, killed! And realistically, what will some pre-match jerseys with the inscriptions “HUMAN RIGHTS” or “FOOTBALL SUPPORTS CHANGE” worn by national teams – such as Norway, Germany and the Netherlands during the 2022 World Cup qualifiers – achieve? It is more likely that such actions will benefit these associations from a PR perspective – regardless of whether intended or not – than actually lead to change. 

Change is certainly needed, and football must support it. But as for right now, it does not. If football really does want to support change, as the Netherlands jerseys claimed, then particularly associations and players need to show courage and take real actions. The most effective way to bring about change would be to boycott the World Cup. Imagine the uproar it would cause if a leading football nation such as France or England, or a player like Lionel Messi – the idol of so many people around the world – would refuse to travel to Qatar. Football fans would stand up in support, other players and associations would follow, causing an unstoppable domino effect. In the end, it would be clear to everyone that it is unacceptable for bidding countries to buy votes and to violate human rights in an effort to exploit the lucrative football industry. Only a boycott will guarantee that the Qatar disaster would never be allowed to be repeated. 

So far, none of the 211 FIFA member associations and no prominent football player has spoken out in favor of a boycott. One brave player, or one brave nation – that is all that is required to bring about significant change. And no, it is not “10 years too late” for a boycott, as German international Joshua Kimmich stated in an interview. There still is time, but the clock is ticking. 

Vladimir Putin and his methods – how Russia’s president deals with opposition

By Ivanna Biryukova

Russia, January 23rd, 2021. The streets of 198 cities were filled with slowly moving masses. A sea of down jackets, scarfs and hats. A sea of old and young. A sea of hope, rage, unfulfillment and disappointment. It was a cold, slippery day, a day when people would soon be met with overwhelming police presence. Thousands of them would end up detained and beaten up by law enforcement officers.  It was two days after the infamous video “A Palace for Putin: The Story of the Biggest Bribe” was released.  It was also one week before Alexey Navalny would officially become a political prisoner. 

Vladimir Putin’s difficult relationship with opposition 

Russia’s president of 18 years Vladimir Putin is not the biggest supporter of the opposition in his country. A man who granted himself the opportunity to stay in office until the year 2036, he has a long-winded history in suppressing his critics. Today, almost every single independent news outlet and non-profit organization is either closed or falls under the “foreign agent” law. This law is used to punish disloyal media outlets that have little to do with foreign governments – it is simply another tactic of disempowerment and pressure. In contrast, even though 1990s Russia was a lawless and unsafe place to live in, freedom of speech thrived during that time allowing many of the most notorious anti-Putin journalists and politicians to rise to to fame after the Soviet Union fell apart. 

“A reformer who never backed down”

One of these people was Boris Nemtsov (1959 – 2015), whose political career started off  under Yeltsin’s presidency. Nemtsov stood loyally behind Yeltsin during a coup attempt in August 1991, and the latter rewarded him with the job of presidential representative in his native region of Nizhny Novgorod. After that, he secured the position as the governor of the same region. 

The early years of Nemtsov’s political career were filled with change and progressive thinking: the West saw the future of Russia’s liberal and open politics in him. More so, Yeltsin introduced him to Bill Clinton as his “successor”. However, when Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned in 1999, Vladimir Putin took over as president. The reasons for this are still unclear, but the fact remains that Putin, a former director of the Russian Federation’s Federal Security Service (F.S.B.), the same security service that poisoned Alexey Navalny last year, has been in power ever since.  

As years passed, Nemtsov became more outspoken about his disapproval of Putin’s governance. He organized rallies and marches, was detained several times, and spoke out against the annexation of Crimea and the situation in Chechnya. In February of 2015, Nemtsov expressed fears that he might be killed. On February 27th, his body was found on a bridge near the Kremlin – he was shot from behind and died at the scene. 

All eyes turned to the Kremlin. One of Putin’s most vehement opponents assassinated in front of the presidential office? 

According to some journalists close to Nemtsov, he was working on a report that would have proven the presence of Russian military forces in eastern Ukraine, despite Russia’s denials. Others spoke of Ramzan Kadyrov’s (the Head of the Chechen Republic) involvement in the murder. After all, many critics of Chechnya’s leader face a similar fate. Kadyrov has obtained a license to kill, and many fear that he plays the role of executioner for another higher-ranking figure who sponsors him and covers up his crimes. Even if Putin was not on board with Nemtsov’s killing, he covered it up, which makes him an accomplice. 

Ramzan Kadyrov and a woman’s attempts to unveil the truth 

Why is Kadyrov’s possible connection so important? Because Anna Politkovskaya, a brilliant, fierce, and honest journalist, that described Kadyrov as the “Chechen Stalin of our days”, was murdered in the elevator of her apartment building in 2006. Politkovskaya reported from Chechnya – she was the person who showed the Russian public what was really going on behind the high peaks of Caucasian mountains. The Second Chechen War (1999-2009, a conflict between Russian Federation and Chechen separatists) was one of the most traumatic events modern Russia has gone through – and Anna Politkovskaya (along with many other journalists) put pen to paper. 

She survived a poisoning attempt on a flight (a well-known tactic at this point), was a victim of a mock execution, received death threats from an OMON (Special Purpose Mobile Unit) officer and from Kadyrov himself. Politkovskaya managed to get Kadyrov to convey his feelings toward Putin in a 2004 interview during which he referred to Putin as “one of their own” and called for him to be the lifelong president of Russia. 

Anna Politkovskaya was one of Russia’s most genuine journalists, and her honesty was not appreciated in governmental structures. On October 7th, 2006, she was shot 4 times. In 2014, four Chechen men were convicted of her murder – according to court materials, none of them had personal motives to assassinate Politkovskaya. October 7th, 2021, marked 15 years since her death – the person who hired the killers is still free.

The last hope of Russian opposition 

On a domestic flight from Tomsk to Moscow, Alexey Navalny, a 45-years-old politician, and anti-corruption activist, fell ill. After an emergency landing in Omsk, he was brought to a hospital, where the authorities wouldn’t let his wife Yulia and his team see him. Yulia demanded them to release her husband to transport him to a better medical institution in Germany. It took 2 days, but on August 22nd Navalny was put in an induced coma and evacuated to the Charité hospital in Berlin. A month later, the politician was discharged, and Novichok agent (a chemical weapon) was pronounced to have been found in his blood work. 

Alexey Navalny stayed in Germany until January 17th and while he was there, he and his organization FBK (known as “Anti-Corruption Foundation”) released investigative videos about his poisoning. They could prove that FSB was behind the murder attempt. The incompetence of the team that was ordered to poison Navalny was the only thing that saved him putting concrete evidence of their contribution into his hands. One of the films features a phone call with one of the poisoners, in which he essentially explains the poisoning process step by step. The Russian government denies any involvement to this day. 

As soon as the plane that carried Navalny and his wife landed in Moscow, the politician was taken into custody – Navalny violated the terms of his probation by not contacting his parole officer while he was in a coma.  

After Navalny was detained, FBK published an investigative documentary on their Youtube channel: “A Palace for Putin: The Story of the Biggest Bribe”. The film calls for people to come out and protest for Navalny’s release and exposes Vladimir Putin’s 1.35-billion-dollar palace on the Black Sea. All hell broke loose – tens of thousands of people took it to the streets after seeing their opposition leader detained and their president in possession of a literal royal palace with 700€ gold pipe-cleaners, while millions of Russians live below the poverty line. 

On February 2nd, 2021, Alexey Navalny was sentenced to 2.5 years in a penal colony. The protests went on, but so did the beatings and the detentions, and so FBK have called off the marches until further notice. 

When addressing the court, Navalny said: “Murder is the only way he [Vladimir Putin] knows how to fight. He’ll go down in history as nothing but a poisoner. […] I hope very much that people won’t look at this trial as a signal that they should be more afraid. This isn’t a demonstration of strength – it’s a show of weakness. You can’t lock up millions and hundreds of thousands of people. I hope very much that people will realize this. And they will. Because you can’t lock up the whole country.”

One of the characteristics of Russian mentality is to endure something for as long as humanly possible. So that slippery 23rd of January was not only a way to show disagreement with the government, but an important sign of unionization and mobilization of a normally passive nation. The Russian opposition finally managed to show Putin that they have had enough, they are here, and despite countless threats, they aren’t going anywhere. 

Digital Love: Why digitalization and dating don’t go together

by Danai Rossalidis

Tinder, Bumble, Grindr, Lovoo or Badoo have long since become part of our everyday vocabulary. Finding love, romance, sex, adventure or any kind of togetherness online is no longer anything new. Dating in the digital sphere has become part of our normality. In times of digitalization and technologization, it seems easier than ever to find the “perfect match”. But why then is the majority of the young population still single? And why do we find online dating more difficult and frustrating than ever?

The age of Tinder and co.: where everything seems possible yet nothing is real

Be it the age of digitalization, global networks and pandemics, frustration with being alone or simply boredom with everyday life: many of us find ourselves facing the seemingly inevitable entry into the vast world of online dating. If online dating used to be laughed at, “swiping” for love has now become almost cult. What makes Tinder & co. so popular? Why do we keep catching ourselves pressing the red flame button in the silent hope for another “perfect match”, while the other 20/30 matches fizzle out in incoherent gibberish or vanish into thin air like ghosts?

The normal process of online dating is as follows: you match, text for a few hours or days and then meet for a coffee or drink. After that, there are two scenarios: in the first one, you have been fooled by the photos or the physical appearance of the person and now find yourself in front of someone with whom it just does not “vibe” at all. Then the date is brought to an end as quickly as possible in order to (hopefully) never meet the person again. In the second scenario, a certain “connection” is noticeable and a sympathy for the counterpart is present. Unfortunately, this is often hindered by the spasmodic pressure that it must be a date. If you are lucky this can be overcome and the date may end with a smile, a goodbye wave, even a kiss or a night together. What comes next is unfortunately not so pleasant. In that moment one of the other 20/30 matches has decided to respond and we are back to scenario one: someone “ghosts” the other and as fast as the flame ignited it is extinguished.

These apps promises an unlimited selection of possible partners and the possibility to find either your great love or the next adventure, on the go and at any time with just one swipe. The speed is fast, the selection large, and the responsibility small. So, it seems to be a perfect fit for the needs of our generation. But with the many possibilities these apps open for us, they also confront us with new, unfamiliar challenges. With a few exceptions where Cupid’s arrow actually hits, many are often left frustrated by rejection, disappointment and unmet expectations. What also negatively affects our dating experience is the insidious behaviour that online dating evokes in us. We are under constant pressure to keep someone’s attention due to the selection and pace, or we get bored quickly and don’t give anyone enough time. We want to give someone attention and win them over, but at the same time not seem “needy” in fear of not being cool enough. And we only let ourselves get involved with a person as far as we don’t run the risk of getting hurt. Furthermore, we never invest 100 per cent on a single person, always having at least one more up our sleeve in case it doesn’t work out with the first one.

At the same time, it’s very limited to really get to know or even like someone based on five to six photos and a few text messages. Online dating is still a bubble of impersonality, where we can be who they want, wear a mask and not really have to face anyone. Hiding behind the screen means never having to take responsibility for your actions.

Between a swipe, a match and a text, honesty, openness and real feelings are left on the sidelines.

Big Data meets Love: how do we fall in love in the future?

We are already in a time where our social behaviour lags behind technological advances. Cultural changes are slow and gradual. New dating apps, however, are popping up rapidly and in huge numbers. We find ourselves caught between new technologies and outdated norms. In an environment of unlimited possibilities and no guidebook, we often lose ourselves. Despite being acutely overwhelmed by digitalization and its consequences, we will have to deal for better or worse with further digital advances in the future. Some futuristic science fiction films and series such as “The One” show us what this could look like in terms of our dating behaviour.

In the series “The One”, through a genetic test people have the opportunity to find their “perfect match”, the one great love with whom they would like to spend the rest of their lives. What may sound completely suspicious and futuristic at first is not so far from our reality. A study by the zukunftsInstitut shows that in the future we will be able to get more and more suitable partner suggestions based on Big Data. This works based on more data collected about our usage behaviour not only online, but also in the physical world. This is then compared and matched with other users. These matching mechanisms based on our individual activities online and offline are called “behavioural matching”. At the same time, the amount of data is increasing enormously due to increasing networking, which leads to an improvement of matching algorithms and should lead us even closer to “the one”.

The film “Her”, on the other side, gives us another view of our possible dating behaviour in the future. In the film, the main character Theodore falls in love with “Samantha,” an operating system that has been adapted to him. He communicates with Samantha and experiences how quickly she learns about him and his social interactions. From then on, she becomes more and more human to him. Based on intense communication between the two, an intimate relationship between human and operating system develops. The film shows the direction in which technology and love can develop. It points out how an extreme technologization of our private lives and especially of our emotional world can lead to a distancing from reality.

How does one love today?

You can rant and rave about Tinder and co, but at the end of the day, we are all social beings who long for affection, tenderness, and human contact – and we do it via online dating. We cannot escape technological developments. Therefore, we need to change them according to our preferences and needs. Our dating behaviour should not be the bad product of their emergence. Much more, our personal behaviour needs to change. This does not have to mean deleting all apps in order to get to know someone in “real life” like “in the good old days”, even though that is of course also great. No, it means a more conscious approach to dating apps. This means being respectful, tolerant and open towards the other person. And most importantly being truthful to yourself and others about what you expect from dating. There is no golden rule on how to behave exactly. Dating expectations are individual and different for each person. Therefore, you should give every new acquaintance the chance to express themselves and respond to them honestly.

We have to be aware that behind every profile there is a person who has not yet given up hope of finding love. And what could be more beautiful than a person who believes in love? That’s why we need more honesty, mindfulness, the courage to express our feelings, and more “real life” in the digital sphere!

The radicalization of politics

By Christian Ewert and Raphael Capaul

On that fateful Tuesday, November 8, 2016, the United States elected Donald Trump as their President. Four years later, there is no doubt that he was one of the most radical and aggressive incumbents the USA have ever seen. Standing out not only for his inclination for authoritarian rule—as demonstrated by the 2019 Ukraine affair and his involvement in the recent breach of the Capitol—but also for his degrading rhetoric toward women, minorities, and political opponents.

Donald Trump was not reelected in the 2020 presidential election. But of course, there are still other countries run by rather radical actors. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro is in power and has to face re-election in 2022. In the same year, elections are also due in Hungary, where the Fidesz party headed by Victor Orban governs. And the Law and Justice Party (PiS) leads the governing coalition in Poland, at least until the next regular renewal of the Sejm, the lower house of the parliament, in 2023.

However, it is important to acknowledge the unique circumstances in which the next elections will take place: A global pandemic threatens health, the markets, and social cohesion. Climate change endangers the survival and prosperity of all people. The EU and the UK have yet to cope with and fully process Brexit. Mediatization, privatization, globalization, and conflicts between more traditional and more progressive values and lifestyles are creating new political arenas, new winners and losers. Geopolitical conflicts between the USA and China will determine international politics for the foreseeable future. And demographic changes continue to deplete social security and pension schemes. Each one of these political, economic, and cultural crises is difficult enough to handle. If they occur together, they reinforce and amplify each other.

Crisis favours radicalization

A situation of crisis favours the radicalization of politics. To be precise, radical actors are always present in democratic societies, but they profit more than moderate actors from unresolved challenges and insecurities. This can be explained by, on the one hand, the growing disappointment and disenchantment of citizens with moderate or “mainstream” politics. For instance, virtually all governments of Western democracies have made painful political decisions in recent years. These include most notably the strict austerity measures implemented in connection with the last economic crisis, but also the restrictions on personal freedoms enacted in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. All of these measures have created strong resentments and criticism. Moreover, and despite these measures, many political problems appear to remain unsolved. Deforestation continues at an alarming rate, fossil fuels are still being burnt which contributes to global warming and climate change, and pension schemes have to rely on fewer and fewer contributors to support more and more retired persons; these are just some of the persisting policy problems of course. Finally, many people fear or are directly affected by a declining socioeconomic status.

Out of this disappointment and fear, voters are increasingly turning to and into radical actors.

On the other hand, radical actors know how to profit from crises. They try to convey or intensify the “mood” of crisis through a rhetoric of emotionalization, simplification, and negativity. And indeed, the voter turnout shows that Bolsonaro, Fidesz, and PiS know how to play their cards. Trump, for instance, received more votes than any other sitting President before him in spite of his failures to control the pandemic.

Is the radicalization of politics inevitable?

Considering the many crises we face and the implications they have on voters and politics, is the radicalization of politics inevitable?

The answer is no. For one, the USA have shown on November 3, 2020, that radical actors can still be “kicked out” of office. And in addition to this, history has shown that radical actors can de-radicalize themselves, and become more moderate.

The Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) exemplifies such de-radicalization. The party was a junior member of a coalition government from 2000 to 2005. During this period, FPÖ came closer to the policy positions of the leading centre-right coalition party, the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). FPÖ’s convergence was indeed so substantial that its moderate wing, consisting of ministers and members of parliament, seceded and founded the new Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ). Another example following a similar trajectory is the Norwegian Progressive Party (FrP). It was represented in government along with established “mainstream” parties from 2013 to 2020, and also departed from its radical positions. Massive internal tensions and debates among the more moderate and radical members were the result.

It seems like a paradox: Radicalism in times of crises leads to electoral successes, and yet at least some radical actors de-radicalize and become more moderate. How come?

Many factors shape a political actor’s development. It certainly makes a difference whether this actor is in opposition or part of the government. In opposition, it is possible to agitate and criticize the government and the “corrupt elites.” In government, there might be no time for this because it is more urgent to actually “fill potholes” and “fix sewage systems,” as political scientists Tjitske Akkerman and Matthijs Rooduijn have put it. Apart from that, in many democratic systems, it is necessary to form governing coalitions and engage in compromises with other powerful political actors. If the incentives of joining a governing coalition are compelling, radical actors might be tempted to leave their radical positions.

The outlook is thus ambivalent. Given the current political challenges and crises, it would come as no surprise if Bolsonaro, Fidesz, PiS, and others would continue their winning streaks at the urns. Nevertheless, the election of Joe Biden and the de-radicalization of both FPÖ and FrP have shown that political radicalization is not a one-way street.

  • Christian Ewert, PhD, is a lecturer in political science at the University of Zurich (
  • Raphael Capaul, MA UZH, is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Legislative Studies, University of Zurich (

Why people believe in conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories have been around for as long as we can remember. From the “Flat-Earth-Society”, denial of the moon landing, crop circles to climate change denial. We are all searching for answers to events that shape our society. Especially for the ones which are not sufficiently explained yet. Since the outbreak of Covid-19, not only has there been a particular increase in conspiracy theories, but also an increased belief in them. They have quietly found their place in our everyday lives, creeping into our private conversations, conquering the front pages of print media, and littering the Internet and social media. But what are conspiracy theories? Where do they come from and why do we believe in them?

It is probably most helpful to begin with a definition of this looming phenomenon. Researchers K. M. Douglas, R. M. Sutton, and A. Cichocka of the School of Psychology at the University of Kent provide the following definition:

Conspiracy theories are: «explanations for important events that involve secret plots by powerful and malevolent groups”.

They illustrate, for example, the condemnation and distrust of an individual or group towards the activity of the government. History shows that predominantly in times of crisis and periods of uncertainty, people adopt a more critical stance and desperately seek answers. Thus, it is not surprising that no-vax theories and COVID-19 denial are gaining increasing support. But what makes people believe in such seemingly absurd theories? We want to get to the bottom of this.

So, why do we believe in conspiracy theories?

To reveal the reason behind the phenomenon and break down its complexity, it must be analyzed from a psychological perspective. We are attracted to conspiracy theories because they satisfy deep psychological needs. Based on these needs, three dominant motives can be identified that provide an explanation for the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories.

  • The epistemic motive addresses the human desire for knowledge and certainty. During major events that shake our society, people look for the why behind them. It is a natural pursuit to find a truth and a sense of security. Times of great change and uncertainty particularly evoke this need in many people.
  • The existential motive is the answer to a need for power and control. People do not like to feel powerless. In times of crisis, conspiracy theories provide the missing information here and give back a sense of control and autonomy in order to feel powerful and secure.
  • The social motive illustrates the classic psychological need to feel good about oneself. On an individual level, this means feeling confident through access to information that others do not necessarily have. When people believe they know the truth, they feel superior and unique. This is exactly what increases their self-esteem and makes them feel good about themselves. Such a dynamic can be observed not only in individuals but also in groups.

To illustrate these motives, let’s take the example of a very dominant conspiracy-theory group: QAnon, also known as “Q”.


QAnon is a U.S-based group that has been spreading conspiracy theories since 2017, often with a far-right political undertone, and that has grown in popularity in recent months. The group’s central claim is that a Satanic elite of pedophiles is kidnapping children, murdering them, and creating a rejuvenation drug on their extracted blood. Their goal is to fight this global elite, which they call “The Deep State” or “The Cabal.” They support a Republican political leadership under Donald J. Trump and believe in the notion that Democratic politicians like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are plotting a coup to turn the U.S. into a dictatorship, thereby threatening U.S. representative democracy. The information this group believes in supposedly comes from “Q”, a mysterious figure who posts cryptic clues online. QAnon is partly responsible for the conspiracy theory on “Pizzagate”.[3]

In order to better understand this grouping and its background, its intentions can also be examined in terms of the three motives mentioned above.

First, its members exhibit an epistemic motive in that they appear to provide protection from this global elite and state that they are fighting them to prevent the demise of U.S. democracy.

Although the identity of Q is unknown, QAnon supporters are convinced that Q is an individual or individuals who have access to highly sensitive data that reveals the truth. Q’s audience is encouraged to piece together and interpret important information from the few encrypted messages that are published, which have numerous gaps. This creates the dangerous illusion that Q is providing valuable information when in fact very little is being revealed. This the conspiracy’s existential motive: give its followers the feeling of being superior and of having more information and thus more security and control.

Additionally, there is a social motive within the group dynamic. QAnon uses the acronym WWG1WGA, which stands for “Where We Go One, We Go All”, as well as the proclamation “We save the children”. With these wordings, they are stating a humanitarian cause and seeking support. Their signature phrase “Trust the Plan” also speaks to the deep psychological need to believe in something given and to feel safe. This gives Q extreme power and entices many people to join the grouping. It is therefore important to recognize the group’s motives and intentions in order to better assess its intentions and information.

Who believes in conspiracy theories?

We are currently living in an age of information overload. One can find a supposed explanation everywhere and for every topic. However, assessing this information correctly and differentiating between reliable and deceptive sources is not always easy. Education helps us to better assess such sources. In fact, less-educated people who have a lower tendency to think analytically are more susceptible to conspiracy theories. People who feel powerless and are disillusioned also have a higher tendency to believe in them and age equally has an influence here. And younger people show a higher risk of being exposed to misinformation and incorporating it into their belief system. Additionally, character traits such as narcissism can exacerbate this. The correlation between narcissism and belief in conspiracy theories lies in the need to feel superior and unique. Evidence has shown that a certain type of personality is more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, however, we are all potential targets for misinformation.

Misinformation as the fundamental problem

One explanation for the increasing support and number of conspiracy theories may be related to the increasing use of social media. Through the Internet, it is easier than ever to get information. It has fundamentally changed the way we communicate and access information. Unfortunately, it has also increased the spread of misinformation. Nowadays, you can meet like-minded people and find support much faster via the Internet. This can polarize attitudes towards conspiracy theories and reinforce opinions that often have no factual basis. 

Addressing this problem is a major challenge. Given the fact that one can’t stop this information overload, what we have to change is the way we deal with it. Once a conspiracy theory is spread and we have formed an opinion, it is almost impossible to break it. The problem of misinformation must be addressed in advance. Research has shown that a pre-warning for misinformation can prevent people from believing in conspiracy theories. This means that confronting people with factual information before they are exposed to a conspiracy theory makes them more resistant to falsehood. We should therefore be aware of the dangers of misinformation and be conscious of how we should handle information and its sources in our fast-paced environment. Investing in early education could be a good approach to this problem, so that no conspiracy theory may fool us anymore.  

Find out more about the danger of false information and its threat to liberal democracy in our previous article: False information: a dangerous threat to liberal democracy.