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Can Social Media Help Contain Ebola?

Patrick Sawyer, Nigeria's first Ebola patient, collapsed at the international airport in Lagos on July 20. This Wednesday, more than six weeks later, the World Health Organization (WHO) said that it was monitoring at least 200 Nigerians for infection related to Sawyer's case. Sawyer, a Liberian-American who had traveled from Monrovia, had carried the often-fatal disease to Africa's most populous country, hundreds of miles from its origin. It was as if he had slipped through a crowd.

Fortunately for the people of Nigeria, crowds leave traces, even when the individuals within them disappear. As Ebola spreads, some epidemiologists are beginning to analyze those traces to guess where outbreaks might occur. They're not only gathering data from diseased neighborhoods and hospitals. They're also using sources like flight data, Twitter mentions, and cellphone location services to track the disease from afar. Researchers, in short, are sifting through the detritus of mobile lives to map the spread of an unprecedented outbreak.

Some of the results have been surprising in their accuracy. Northeastern University's Alessandro Vespignani used flight records and population data to produce models predicting that Ebola might spread to Senegal; that was confirmed by Senegalese authorities on August 29. HealthMap, a web project that aggregates and analyzes information from news sites, social media, and other resources, noticed the outbreak over a week before the WHO's public announcement. Flowminder, a Stockholm-based nonprofit, turned anonymized cellphone location data into a map of West African transportation trends. The group plans eventually to chart "the most connected communities in different countries, given different scenarios of Ebola appearance," Caroline Buckee, a Harvard epidemiologist who sits on Flowminder's board, told Foreign Policy.

These projects are cutting-edge, but they're far from the fringe. Independent network scientists often send their findings to the WHO, which uses it, along with locally collected data, to support national health ministries. "We are part of a group of systems," John Brownstein, HealthMap's co-founder, told Foreign Policy, "that provide intelligence-gathering to the WHO so they can do their work."

HealthMap's Ebola map, Sept. 4. 

Models such as those created by Flowminder provide one way to predict how the disease might spread, but they come with a crucial catch: Many of the patterns uncovered in mobility data are historical, not real-time. And it's not clear how those patterns might change in response to crisis. Previous tendencies in regional travel, after all, don't say much about how people modify their behavior during an epidemic. Commuters to Monrovia might cancel trips as the disease spreads. "That is the classic paradox of any model that has a social component," said Vespignani. New conditions generate new behavior. And though Buckee says that real-time analysis is "theoretically possible," there's no evidence that any such analyses are currently in place. And who's to say that people with cellphones are the same people who are carrying the disease?

More importantly, remotely collected data can't stand on its own. The accuracy of any large-scale forecast depends on granular detail -- the kind that's usually collected through the dangerous, demanding work of sending health workers through individual hospitals and neighborhoods, where they could themselves be infected with the disease. To accurately know how quickly a virus will spread, for example, you need to know its transmission rate. "Modeling layers are coupled," Northeastern's Vespignani said. "Having poor data in one layer affects the other layers."

It's partly for this reason that the WHO remains focused on "maintaining the flow of information on real cases" instead of on remotely collected data, Christopher Dye, a director of strategy at the WHO, told Foreign Policy. "The central task for us," Dye said, "is to keep track of the number of cases and to make sure there isn't underreporting." That means information-gathering on the ground.

But full reporting is a long way off. In Monrovia, a city of about 1 million, hospitals are overflowing, quarantined residents are slipping back into the general population, and nurses have gone on strike because they lack protective equipment. More than half of all cases in urban areas might be unreported. Models have outrun the information they need. Uncertainty fills the gap.

DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images

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India's Fake 'Love Jihad'

With Narendra Modi ensconced in the prime minister's office, India's newly empowered Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party faces the formidable task of reaching out to the country's 177 million Muslims. In Uttar Pradesh -- the site of deadly religious riots last September -- they're off to an inauspicious start, reviving a widely denounced source of right-wing Hindu nationalist paranoia: "love jihad."

The so-called love jihad "phenomenon" sees young Muslim men seducing and eloping with young Hindu women and then converting them to Islam. It has launched websites such as LoveJihadInfo.com, a one-stop source for all things sexually sinister and Muslim that features articles such as "Mangalore: Love Jihad an indirect war on Hindu civilization." The site also claims that global love jihad is run by international terrorist organizations and blames the "fake secularism" of India's mainstream media for encouraging it.

On Thursday, a court in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, gave the state government and its election authorities 10 days to respond to a public-interest lawsuit seeking to curb references to "love jihad" and take action against BJP Minister of Parliament Yogi Adityanath, a frequent invoker of the term. Adityanath, whose inflammatory opinions on minorities have raised hackles, considers love jihad an "international conspiracy" against India, the Economic Times reported.  

The court ruling comes just days after a cadre of influential elders in Agra -- also in Uttar Pradesh -- banned girls from using cellphones, according to the Times of India. Cellphones and the Internet "lead young minds to fall in the 'love jihad' trap," one elder reportedly said. "We will convince them politely, with love. There will be no pressure or force. Karate training will be given to girls so they can protect themselves from anti-social elements and love jihadis," he added.

But force is being applied, cellphone or no. Earlier this week, Hindu political groups attacked a pair of police stations, fueled by allegations that a "love jihadi" was on the loose and getting "VIP treatment" by authorities. 

On Monday, Uma Bharti, water resources minister and a prominent BJP member, said that love jihad should be debated. "I am neither for it nor against it. Elders of the two communities must sit together and find a solution to the issue," Bharti reportedly said. "There is a need to ensure that the future of boys and girls of either community is not jeopardized in any way." Shahid Siddiqui, a Muslim and former MP of Uttar Pradesh, says Bharti is "trying to put fuel on the fire."

That "fire" has its origin in the 1947 partition, which created modern India and most of today's Pakistan. Britain's decision to grant the subcontinent independence by dividing it into Hindu- and Muslim-majority countries sparked one of the largest mass migrations in modern history. Over several months, some 12 million people moved between India and newly created Pakistan's east and west halves. Ten million crossed just the western border to and from Punjab state.   

During that brief and dark period, incidents and reports of sexual predation and forced conversions by Hindu men of Muslim women and vice versa ran rampant. An estimated 75,000 women were raped and abducted -- and sometimes by men of their own faith, Urvashi Butalia writes in The Other Side of Silence. While working on a documentary about the partition, Butalia collected horrific stories from survivors, including accounts of women leaping into wells to drown themselves to avoid rape and conversion.

Those ghosts haunt India, Butalia argues, in the form of attacks against Sikhs in Delhi in 1984, the deaths of hundreds of Muslims in the Bihar riots of 1989, and the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya by Hindu fundamentalists in 1992. The politicization of sexual violence persists:

In each of these instances, Partition stories and memories were used selectively by the aggressors: militant Hindus were mobilized using the one-sided argument that Muslims had killed Hindus at Partition, they had raped Hindu women, and so they must in turn be killed, and their women subjected to rape. And the patterns were there in individual life too: a Muslim and a Hindu in independent India could not easily choose to marry each other without worrying about whether one or the other of them would survive the wrath of their families or communities; if such a marriage broke up, or for some reason ended up in court, you could be sure that it would be accompanied by public announcements, for example on the part of the judiciary, about those who had accepted the two-nation theory and those who had not.

"The fear by Hindus of Muslim men abducting their daughters certainly goes back into the national movement," said Gail Minault, a partition expert and professor who recently retired from the University of Texas at Austin. Though there is an ample, charged polemic around the issue, much of the abduction of and violence against women happen within religions rather than between them, Minault explained.

That hasn't stopped the BJP and its Hindu nationalist adherents from exploiting and politicizing these fears. Among its allies are the paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and the 50-year-old Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), a group that seeks to be "the indomitable force of the Hindu society for the protection of its core values, beliefs, and sacred traditions" -- a philosophy known as Hindutva. Hindutva involves converting people to Hinduism and, apparently, running a love jihad help hotline that the VHP claims received 1,500 calls over a three-month stretch earlier this year. The arch right-wingers of the Shri Ram Sena also got into the fun, launching a national anti-love jihad campaign in 2009 called "Save our daughters, save India." Hindus and Christians even coalesce over their fear of Muslim sexual aggression.

The current war on love jihad also started in 2009, when Karnataka state officials demanded an investigation into claims that young Muslim men associated with the Muslim Islamic Popular Front of India and the Campus Front were seducing Hindu and Christian girls solely to convert them. But in November of that year, Karnataka police found there was no such plot.

State officials affirmed that a few months later. "The police had investigated the case and come to the conclusion that [she] had married a Muslim youth of her own free will and that there was no force used to convert" her, the national newspaper the Hindu reported about a specific alleged incident.

Things only escalated from there. In July of 2010, Kerala's then-chief minister V.S. Achuthanandan speculated that Muslim groups such as the Popular Front of India were using "money and marriages to make Kerala a Muslim majority state," a claim denounced by the religiously unaligned Congress Party.

In January 2012, Kerala police closed the book on love jihad, calling it a "campaign with no substance," and pursued legal action against the website hindujagruti.org for "spreading religious hatred and false propaganda."

The BJP and Hindutva's exploitation of this fear for political gain, especially amid a rape crisis in India, is particularly troubling. Sexual violence is a horrible part of the modern subcontinent's origin myth that the BJP has a responsibility to, if not acknowledge, at least not exploit. For now, the brewing hysteria appears confined to Uttar Pradesh, offering party elders a wide-open opportunity to denounce it.

Kevin Frayer