Riding a personal rail-car to your island home via the Lorenbahn

Off the northwest coast of Germany, in the Wadden Sea, there are 10 unusual tiny islands called “halligs,” which make up the German portion of the North Frisian Islands. They are so low-lying that they are continually flooding, and some have disappeared completely beneath the waves. One of the islands, known as Nordstrandischmoor, is home to only about 20 people. Until 1934, residents were almost completely cut off from the rest of the world, but then a long, stone dam was built up between the island and the mainland — complete with one of the strangest railways in Germany.

What the locals call the “Lorenbahn” is a private, narrow-gauge railway that extends about two miles out into the sea, connecting the island to mainland Germany. Many households have their own private wagon (known as a “lore”) that they use to transport themselves and all sorts of wares to and fro, provided they are over 15 years old and have a moped license. The railcars are diesel-fueled now, but they used to have sails and rely solely on wind power. /via

Britain to give regulator power over social media

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

Convincing digital platforms like Facebook and YouTube to remove offensive content is a tricky business in the US, thanks to laws like Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and the First Amendment. In Britain, however, there are a lot fewer restrictions on what the government can and can’t do when it comes to regulating the behavior of the digital giants. On Wednesday, the government said it plans to put forward legislation that would give Ofcom, the broadcast regulator, control over social-media platforms. The proposed law comes in response to a federal inquiry that produced last year’s Online Harms white paper, and it would allow Ofcom to fine—and even in some cases imprison—any executives that refuse to remove illegal content in a timely manner, or even content that isn’t actually illegal but could be seen as “damaging to children or other vulnerable users,” as the Online Harms white paper described it.

A lot of lobbying still has to take place before the proposed legislation becomes law, but conceptually at least, it is similar to Germany’s so-called NetzDG law, which came into effect in 2018 (the law’s formal name is the Gesetz zur Verbesserung der Rechtsdurchsetzung in sozialen Netzwerken). That law gives German authorities the ability to levy fines of up to $60 million per infraction against digital networks—or in fact any online service with more than 2 million users—if they fail to remove illegal or offensive content within 24 hours of being notified about it (Facebook, which has been fined, has complained that the law “lacks clarity”). So far, the British authorities haven’t said anything about implementing specific fines or time periods in relation to removing content, but they have said in extreme cases they may block access to a digital service entirely.

Requiring the removal of illegal content is one thing, but where some critics say the British law could run into trouble is with the definition of content that isn’t actually illegal but could be seen as “damaging to children and other vulnerable users.” That could tip the law towards outright state censorship, some argue. Since Britain doesn’t have anything like the First Amendment, it’s easier for the government to impose restrictions on free speech and freedom of the press—such as the “super injunctions” that can block news outlets from mentioning not just specific details about a court case, but even the fact that a court case exists at all. But some believe that forcing digital networks to block certain kinds of content even when that content doesn’t actually break the law is going a step too far.

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The little-known Astor Place Opera Riot of 1849

Whenever I’m walking through a city like New York, or any city or town in Europe, I’m always on the lookout for a metal plaque on the wall commemorating something, and this is a great example of why. I haven’t seen it personally, but according to this Outline piece, there is one near Astor Place in Manhattan, and what it commemorates is a riot I had never heard of until now — the great Astor Place Opera Riot of 1849, in which a mob of thousands attempted to storm a theater over a performance of Macbeth, the National Guard had to be called up, 31 people were killed and more than 100 wounded, “all because of the personal jealousies of two vain and insecure actors,” an Englishman with aristocratic airs named William Macready, and an American, Ned Forrest.

According to the Outline piece, Forrest “had previously hissed at a performance of Macready’s in Edinburgh, which he later proudly admitted in a letter to a newspaper. Forrest believed that, in revenge, Macready had deliberately set the English press against him and damaged his career there. In any case, neither of them comes off well in the incessant letters lambasting each other that were published in the newspapers in both countries. By the time he arrived in America for his performance of Macbeth, a considerable section of the public had turned against Macready, especially those in the working class, who despised anything fancy and British.” There was also resentment of Astor Place, which required people to be clean-shaven and wear white gloves.

The Astor Place riot combined two of 19th-century America’s favorite pastimes: going to the theater and rioting. This was especially true in the period after the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828, who was swept into office on a wave of raucous populism and expanded suffrage to all white men. Jackson’s inauguration was very nearly a riot itself: a horde of drunken men packed the White House, destroyed furniture and overturned the food laid out. The crowd could only be lured onto the lawn with the promise that more whiskey-spiked punch would be served outside. The violence peaked in 1835, when the country saw some 147 riots, according to David Grimsted’s American Mobbing: 1828-1861: Toward Civil War.


Note: I found this Outline piece via Ann Friedman’s excellent newsletter, which I highly recommend subscribing to.

Fighting words: Journalism is under attack in Europe

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

The United States is far from the only country where journalists work in a toxic political environment, one in which the leader of the nation routinely attacks and demonizes the media. A recently published report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University in the UK describes how similar patterns can be seen in a number of other countries in central and eastern Europe, including Hungary — where leader Viktor Orban has centralized control of the press — and Turkey, where president Recep Erdogan has done more or less the same thing. The report, entitled “Fighting Words: Journalism Under Assault in Central and Eastern Europe,” surveyed working journalists in 16 countries about the working conditions and attacks they face. And this week on CJR’s Galley discussion platform, we hosted a series of interviews based around the publication of the report, including a discussion with Meera Selva, the director of Reuters Institute’s fellowship program (and a veteran journalist with experience in Singapore, London, and Nairobi), as well as a number of discussions with fellows about their perceptions on the topic of journalism under attack.

Selva noted in her interview that there has been a notable decline in press freedom in many countries in the region, including Poland and Hungary, where populist parties came to power and exerted partisan control over the media. There are similar problems in countries like Bulgaria and Serbia, Selva said, where journalists have become targets for threats and violence. In Slovakia, an investigative journalist named Ján Kuciak was murdered, along with his fiancee, Martina Kušnírová, while working on a story about government corruption. His death sparked protests across the country and eventually brought down the government. In other countries, however, attacks continue, a process that Selva says has two prongs: “One part involves verbally criticizing journalists, and the other part involves weakening the legal, economic and structural frameworks that support independent journalism. This can involve changing laws on media ownership so that only government-friendly investors can buy media outlets.”

One aspect of this toxic environment that she found really striking, Selva says, was how many journalists talked about attacks that came not from the government but from other journalists. In many of the countries the media have split on pro-government and anti-government lines and journalists from one side have no solidarity with those from the other, she says, and so “the idea of a journalist as an impartial, independent observer is being undermined.” In some countries there has been support for the press, such as in Slovakia after Kuciak was murdered, but “in other countries, protests have been a general howl of anger against the establishment, and the media is seen as part of that establishment,” says Selva. Reuters fellow Nana Ama Agyemang Asante, who is from Ghana, said that she has noticed a similar trend in her country as well. “There has been a shift in the relationship between journalists and the Ghanaian public,” she says. “They are no longer trusted and in some cases are seen as part of the problem, as part of the corrupt class and now face constant attacks online and offline.”

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