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The best global affairs longreads of 2017

Spend the holidays
with these 10 compelling feature pieces covering everything from the rise of
weaponized data to an emotional reunion across the Mexico-US border.   

By: /
21 December, 2017
John Woodside
By: John Woodside

Freelance journalist

The media had its work cut out for it this year. From the unravelling of American diplomacy to the strengthening of independence movements, 2017 bore witness to dramatic events and extraordinary moments. Around the world compelling stories and crucial issues were told and uncovered by fantastic journalists, making it tough to narrow down our top 10 picks. If you missed these the first time around, now’s your chance to catch up.

The rise of the weaponized AI propaganda machine

For Scout, Berit Anderson and Brett Horvath expertly dissect Cambridge Analytica, the shadowy data firm involved in the pro-Brexit and Donald Trump campaigns. Cambridge Analytica, they write, “has activated an invisible machine that preys on the personalities of individual voters to create large shifts in public opinion.” By using large swaths of data, the firm goes beyond simply micro-targeting users on platforms like Facebook with catered posts. It can successfully build emotional profiles of individuals based on the data collected, which is then used to influence people’s behaviour. Understanding this highly sophisticated weaponization of data with regard to elections is essential to understanding modern political power. 

Bound. Tortured. Killed.

In this powerful interactive feature, Iraqi photo-journalist Ali Arkady describes the grotesque detainee abuse he witnessed while embedded with Iraqi soldiers fighting ISIS. In Fallujah, he thought the soldiers were heroes, bravely fighting to regain their country, but by the time they reached Mosul, the atrocities committed by “the good guys” were evident. Arkady’s photos and video, along with great reporting from The Toronto Star’s Mitch Potter, Michelle Shephard and Bruce Campion-Smith, reveal the gruesome torture of detainees held by Iraqi soldiers, reminiscent of the infamous detainee abuse documented at Abu Ghraib.

This is what a 21st-century police state really looks like

For Buzzfeed, Megha Rajagopalan looks at the draconian surveillance being used by China against the Uyghur minority — a Muslim ethnic group in the country’s far west. She details how police actively monitor phone calls and internet traffic to heavy-handedly repress the Uyghur population. Rajagopalan’s piece is a frightening look inside an unfolding dystopian reality that’s being called “a frontline laboratory for surveillance.” For those interested in Chinese surveillance, read more from the BBC on the growth of China’s CCTV network and from the Wall Street Journal on surveillance in the autonomous region of Xinjiang.

Rex Tillerson at the breaking point

The Trump doctrine on foreign policy remains more or less as predicted: disastrous. And while much has been made recently of the collapse of American leadership in the world, it’s Rex Tillerson’s gutting of the state department that is leaving irreparable damage. Key posts remain unfilled, seasoned diplomats are fleeing the department in droves, and under Tillerson’s leadership the department recently began offering buyouts to reduce the staff even further. This feature on Tillerson by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker is a great primer on the former Exxon CEO turned diplomat, and offers excellent insight into the inner-workings of American diplomacy. 

My family’s slave

Journalist Alex Tizon passed away in March, and his last story is one of the most powerful to have come out in the past year. The piece, in The Atlantic, is about Lola, who was only 18 when Tizon’s grandfather “gifted” her to his mother. She was the family’s slave in the Philippines for years before they moved to the United States in 1964 and brought her with them. In this painful story, the reader is haunted by Tizon’s family’s cruel treatment of Lola, but through honestly revealing his family’s dark secret, Tizon uncovers how Lola’s life shaped his, and helps shed light on an issue that’s far too often believed to be a relic of a distant past.

A shock to the system: how Corbyn changed the rules of British politics

In one of the biggest political upsets of the year, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party shook British politics to its core. Theresa May’s Conservatives called an early election aiming to gain a clear majority with a mandate to carry out Brexit negotiations. Despite a predicted landslide victory, she lost seats to the ascending Labour Party, and left British politics in a state of shock. For The Guardian, Gary Younge unpacks what happened, and finds a population that wants inequalities meaningfully addressed and yearns for a new kind of bottom-up politics.

The war you’ve never heard of

Over the past 10 years American special operations forces have dramatically expanded their presence in Africa. From just one percent of commandos based in Africa in 2006 to nearly 20 percent in 2016, the shadow war taking place on the continent reflects the ever growing so-called war on terror. The US army general who runs SOCAFRICA insists the United States isn’t at war in Africa, and that American troops are there playing support roles — but the documents obtained by VICE’s Nick Turse suggest otherwise. As America’s military expands its mission in 20 countries, the role between support and active war is increasingly blurred, and begs the question: what should America’s role on the continent be?


“May there never be a wall between these two great nations, only friendship,” said former US first lady Pat Nixon at the inauguration of Friendship Park, a plaza on the border of Mexico and the United States. In the decades since, the United States has increasingly militarized this border, dividing hundreds of thousands of families that once travelled effortlessly between the two sides. For HuffPost’s Highline, this feature by Laura Gabbert and Daniel Hernandez weaves together documentary video and compelling text to document the reunion of the Ascencio family. The family members travelled to Friendship Park, some coming from Mexico City, others from California’s Central Valley, all to see each other face to face for the first time in 20 years — but only through a barrier, in a perverse reunion that sharply pulls into focus the suffering borders can impose.

Is Canada to blame for human rights abuses in Guatemala?

In 2007, a group of armed men arrived in a village in Guatemala, burning the homes of the locals down and evicting at least five Indigenous communities, allegedly on behalf of the Guatemala Nickel Company, a subsidiary of the Canadian mining company Skye Resources (which later merged with Hudbay Minerals). In recent years, Canadian mining companies have been intimately involved in a wide range of controversies, including “environmental damage, slavery, child labour, mass sexual assault, and murder,” and as journalist Annie Hylton describes in The Walrus, this all stems from the Canadian government’s failure to regulate mining companies abroad. A group of women violently evicted 10 years ago are suing in Canadian courts — their last chance for justice hinging on whether Canada will force its extractive industries to adhere to human rights.

The uninhabitable earth

“It is, I promise, worse than you think,” begins David Wallace-Wells in this terrifying account of how climate change will affect the planet within this century. Climate change is often reduced to a conversation about rising sea levels, polluted air, droughts, or some other byproduct of global warming, in an effort to underscore why we must keep global warming beneath a certain threshold. The reality, of course, is that all of these things will be happening at the same time, and will continuously get worse until we’ve radically changed how billions of people organize themselves across this planet. From entire regions becoming uninhabitable, displacing billions, to complete economic collapse, to zombie diseases, the picture looks utterly bleak. This piece serves as an important reminder for why this is the most urgent issue facing the world. 

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