In a short campaign article headlined “When is targeted surveillance wrong?” Amnesty International (AI) proposed its latest expose on the ubiquity of state surveillance. Readers are (correctly) warned against the rampant, poisonous triumph of the Big Brother state.
“Your phone rings. Within seconds, it’s infected with secret spyware that’s tracking everything you do. This isn’t a conspiracy theory or a twist in a Netflix thriller. It’s happening right now to people like you – and you have the power to stop it,” says the text.
Its point is to galvanize and shock. Outrage, as is well documented, is a potent instrument to stir action in support of a cause. But there was a problem with AI’s text: Its unconscionable looseness on specifics and proof.
But AI seemed to have a preemptive answer to this particular criticism. To make up for its unconvincing details, the “campaign” text pointed to the inherent danger of mass surveillance in our hyper-industrialized world. “For many of us, that unsettling feeling of being watched is all too real. After all, we live in a world of mass surveillance, from facial recognition to online tracking…”
AI was only getting started, however.
Now turning to the core of the campaign, the text adds, “Targeted surveillance is slightly different. It’s the use of technology to spy on specific people. You may think this is fine, because aren’t people only targeted when they’ve done something wrong? Think again.”
This is Argumentation by Pathos 101: Sidelining proof and verifiable data to focus instead on appealing to emotions and feelings.
The aim is not exactly to convince or persuade; it is to win sympathy, or to weaponize empathy. You feel moved to support or abhor because, you are told, you could be one of the people whose agony is being described.
Things only get more interesting, and slightly bumpier, when AI offers its shortlist of the people being “targeted” and the countries doing the targeting.
Naturally, AI cites Morocco among the eight countries it says indiscriminately use spyware to attack, smear, silence, and sometimes humiliate dissident journalists and human rights activists.
At this point, a reader with relatively firm knowledge of world affairs may ask why countries like China, the US, and other developed nations with more sinister records of subtle mass surveillance and private advanced data-mining did not make AI’s short list. But remember: This is an Orwellian world, some countries being more equal than others.
Now that the guilty countries are known — or identified — who are their primary targets? AI offers three names, including one Moroccan, Maati Monjib. Monjib, a controversial historian and a political activist, is currently facing money laundering charges.
But that is beside the point. Because anyone who has followed the ongoing Amnesty International vs Morocco saga would have, and for good reason, expected AI’s Moroccan candidate to be Omar Radi.
If anything, the well-publicized case of the 34-year-old journalist has become the cause celebre of self-appointed custodians of “progressive” and “liberal” values hellbent on awakening Morocco from its authoritarian and backward conservative slumber.
In their ideological fixation on supposedly making Morocco more democratic and more tolerant of dissent and criticism, they jumped on the Radi case to call out the country’s “politicized trials” and its “weaponization of sex.”
Morocco has strongly denied the allegations, putting the onus on AI to either produce proof or issue a public apology. AI has done neither, despite its manifest inability to come up with anything tangible that could unquestioningly indict Morocco.
But AI’s “campaign” text may have somehow, if unwittingly, changed the Overton window.
Why did the article not name the Radi case as the most edifying example of Morocco’s supposed mass surveillance of dissidents? Was the omission an acknowledgment that there is indeed evidence for some of the accusations facing Radi, including the sexual misconduct case?
Or, more simply, was AI’s self-damaging omission of the Radi case an act of unspoken contrition? Is AI silently conceding defeat on one of its cause celebres in order to move on, just like that, to something else?
These are some of the questions that a coalition of political parties from the whole gamut of the Moroccan political spectrum has asked of the international advocacy group.
AI is unlikely to respond. Nor is it hard to divine what its answer could have been. As usual, it would have probably gone back to its jaundiced view of Morocco by pointing to any criticisms or counter-arguments as government “dirty tricks” or propaganda.
Deviating from its long-standing gospel, its “new Morocco narrative” would cast serious doubts on its motives and conclusions. Remember: The goal is not to immediately prove or disprove anything; it is to claim the moral high ground.
But an organization of AI’s outreach and resources (and perhaps even reputation) should have known better: Absolutist pronouncements supported by rickety allegations are no effective tools to make a compelling case. These only work on people who already believe in a cause, and preaching to the choir is not exactly what AI needs at this point.
As such, there is a far deeper question at stake here. Whether or not the not-so-innocent omission of the Radi case in AI’s latest diatribe constitutes a reluctant, unarticulated mea culpa, can AI simply sweep its once most important cause under the rug and hope to be taken seriously in other, later cases?
The generous answer is that, as some causes expire and new ones emerge in the post-pandemic commotion, AI can hope to turn its attention to new battles and fresh causes while maintaining the bulk of its authoritative posture.
The more reasonable, realistic answer, however, is this: AI’s inability to produce hard evidence to back up one of its most publicized causes in recent months has put it in a very delicate position. Either it continues its fight by actively searching for more tangible elements to indict Moroccan authorities, or it can simply concede that it has no proof to back up its allegations.
At any rate, the future does not bode well for AI’s credibility, especially with more governments — and a growing number of independent observers — now denouncing AI as a policy and ideological mouthpiece for its financiers.