Tuesday

The politics of perception in Charlie Hebdo

As world media discusses and debates the impact of Charlie Hebdo massacre on freedom of expression, Noam Chomsky, offers, as always, a point of view that is unique. 

Chomky brings to our attention a serious concern with regards to the dominant media narrative on the Charlie Hebdo incident. Speaking on the commentary that followed, Chomsky writes,
“The crimes also elicited a flood of commentary, inquiring into the roots of these shocking assaults in Islamic culture and exploring ways to counter the murderous wave of Islamic terrorism without sacrificing our values. The New York Times described the assault as a "clash of civilizations," 
Chomsky juxtaposes this against media commentary that followed recent act of violence across the world such as:

All the above incidents were marked by violence against civilians, public institutions, journalists but never quite qualified to feature in narratives of attacks against freedom of expression, freedom itself, or even narratives of outrage and concern on a scale similar to reactions received by the Charlie Hebdo incident. 

It's only sensible to wonder why.

In the politics of narrative and perception, Chomsky’s position is significant. The “media power structure” of our world is no different and is the same as the political power structure in international politics. We don’t often realize this, but as stories compete, some voices tend to get lost or are never expressed.

Chomsky states,
“These few examples illustrate a very general principle that is observed with impressive dedication and consistency: The more we can blame some crimes on enemies, the greater the outrage; the greater our responsibility for crimes -- and hence the more we can do to end them -- the less the concern, tending to oblivion or even denial.
This awareness surprisingly resulted in some Middle Eastern states like Qatar to take the initiative and establish their own international media outlets (Eg. Al Jazeera). 

However Middle East’s media landscape, as I experienced in the last couple of years, is completely dominated by experienced professionals from the West or from Asia, who come with great knowledge, but not necessarily always with a “contextual perspective” that is required to tell a story of the “other”. 

Coupled with controls over free media in the entire region, difficult questions remain unasked; indigenous experiences remain hidden and the introspection that is required to understand “why is it happening to us” never happens. 

Instead, people are told what is wrong with them, often by groups who have no context. The tradition of the story is alien.

As Chomsky states,
Contrary to the eloquent pronouncements, it is not the case that "Terrorism is terrorism. There's no two ways about it." There definitely are two ways about it: theirs versus ours. And not just terrorism. 

Sunday

Public Diplomacy 2.0: Social Media's Spiral of Silence

A major insight into human behavior from pre-internet era studies of communication is the tendency of people not to speak up about policy issues in public—or among their family, friends, and work colleagues—when they believe their own point of view is not widely shared. This tendency is called the “spiral of silence.”
                The above was quoted in a report published in August, 2014, by the Pew Research Center and Rutgers University. The report was a the result of a survey of conducted by these institutions that "sought people’s opinions about the Snowden leaks, their willingness to talk about the revelations in various in-person and online settings, and their perceptions of the views of those around them in a variety of online and off-line contexts." (as quoted in the report).

            According to the authors of the report, the key takeaway from the survey, and as cited by the New York Times later, was the finding that social media seems to have "diminished rather than enhanced political participation." Social media seems to be silencing debates by encouraging a "group think mentality" where people restrain from expressing opinions within their social networks, for fear of social exclusion, if they perceive that their network may not share their opinion. As per the theory of "Spiral of Silence" it reflects a dominance of the majority point of view over a minority's.

(Source: communicationtheory.org)
               This survey can potentially burst the social media bubble among Public Diplomacy fraternity. For PD practitioners who are in countries or focusing on countries with restrictions on media, the dominant view of looking at social media as the alternate platform for a more broad based engagement the finding hopefully would encourage a "re look" into their strategy.

              I look at this as primarily an opportunity to introspect and assess the real impact of social media in the process of political mobilization and dissent.

  1. Is there self censorship and group think in social media debates?
  2. Will a minority group be vocal against a majority group on social media platforms?
                The second question is more interesting I guess, as internet is known for it's unshackling tendency and its ability to disrupt. When we apply it in the context of the Arab Spring, as most experts rush to establish the correlation, what we may be overlooking is the fact that the Arab Spring was the rage of a powerless majority against a an elite minority that controlled all power. Maybe that's the reason why the spiral of silence did not occur in Egypt and social media was highly effective in mobilizing dissent.

         A different point of view, as seen in the Columbia Journalism Review, stated that,

"A hesitancy to share online could actually be a valuable restraint for someone who would otherwise have shot an unthinking opinion into the digital ether, safe in the knowledge their network of followers would agree with their views."

"... When the web is saturated with opinions on the news, restraint and thoughtfulness—regardless of whether followers agree or not—matter too."

Gaza: This is not the story of Hamas. This is not the story of Israel.

So much has been written about Gaza. So much about the Israel-Palestine conflict. We grew up watching it on TV, reading it in news magazines and it doesn't catch our attention anymore - nothing has changed.

Its tiring to keep yourself updated about the conflict like its tiring to keep yourself updated about Kashmir. From books, news stories, academic papers, discussion groups, information flow is relentless and overwhelming - but nothing has changed.

We are reading about it again. Any news report I pick up on  Gaza crisis today might read the same as it read in 2008-09. We continue to read the same stories.

A very engaging post by Dr Rhonda Zaharan in the CPD Blog - 'Gaza in the First Person'  - looks into this problem of narrative very well. The whole context of the conflict, its perception and communication by parties involved - Hamas & the Israeli state - and the framing of it by international media.

Dr Zaharna states,
"Israel now vows to stop the rockets “once and for all.” I shudder at the political and moral implications of what this means, even if it were militarily possible to silence 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza. For me, this is about more than whose story wins."
She calls Gaza "a piece of of the world densely populated with human misery" and talks about how the siege of Gaza has become a prison for the 1.8 million people of Gaza. The "one-point-eight" whose stories we never hear. What is it like to dream, hope and imagine under a lifelong siege?

Gaza crisis is always framed in the context of Hamas, Israel and legacy of colonialism - while the world has changed tremendously.
Pic from: Roomee Times

There's a ban on storytelling about Gaza with numerous media restrictions, the latest being a ban by Israel on radio adverts listing names of children killed in Gaza. No wonder the stories are always the same.

One wonders how is it possible in a modern society to accept such regulations, how does an ally of the "greatest democracy on earth" deny freedom of expression to some. Especially when the Israeli state itself doesn't deny itself the right to an international public relations campaign to shape public opinion in its favor.

This isn't about the story of Hamas. This isn't about the story of Israel. 

This is about the story of one-point-eight, the conflict is about their future, their destinies. This is also about the the story of the people of Israel -"what do they want". I wonder if we hear their stories at all, if we ever will. I doubt if institutional media will ever be able to tell these stories given the context in which they operate.

I hope communication scholars like Dr Zaharna find ways of empowering the people of Gaza and also (why not?) the people of Israel to communicate their stories.

I am sure the world will listen as the narrative takes a new turn.



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