MEDIA: WEAPON OF WAR
In the last few days since the less than steller, low-budget video “Innocence of Muslims” was posted on YouTube many blog posts have been written to explain the way media was used to create the precipitating conflicts and outbreaks of violence against Western Embassies around the world. Since others have written about this specific event and the role social media has played – I won’t rehash the details however some of the most insightful and thorough posts I have found are:
1. The Protests Sweeping the Middle East and the Cultural Divide in Film Production Laws from the “Rule of Law” blog by Shabnam Mojtahedi about the difference in media laws in the US as opposed to the Middle East. It explains why most people on the ground in MENA can safely assume that the US gov. not only condoned the video “Innocence of Muslims” but most likely assisted in its production based on practices there.
2. Castrating Hate-Fueled Leaderless Web 2.0 Swarms? Monica of Cyberland writes a great condensed retelling of events and also adds good analysis on the role of social media in augmenting a low-budget and seemingly insignificant video on the worlds stage and the consequences it brings.
3. Some Reflections About Civil Society 2.0 and Why I’m Not On A Plane To Tunisia Right Now : Beth Kanter shares good insights on the role of civil society in such a crisis and how non-violent protests can be linked in.
There are more, and I may add to the list as they come – please also feel free to add in the comment section.
In my work and research I have found that media and now social media/communications are used both as channels and methods of social change. Both positive and negative social change. Media and communications have been vital tools to mobilize people towards peace, but it is also a double-edged sword, often used to escalate violent conflict. According to Allen and Stremlau in their writing “Media Policy, Peace and Reconstruction “The capability of the media to inflame hatreds and promote violence has been relatively well documented from early studies such as the role of radio in Nazi propaganda campaigns to the more recent examples of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia” where media has been a tool used to promote propaganda, voice hate-speech and incite violence.
Further, experts of media in conflict like Vlado Bratic a communications professor at Hollins University and peace-media scholar has written, “Just like pro-war propaganda did not single-handedly cause the war, peace-oriented media cannot single-handedly end a conflict. Even a very successful media project may not be able to prevent violence if the formation of violence is caused by a combination of multiple factors and conditions out of the media’s control.” A conflict or act of violence such as those that took place in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, where Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed, or the precipitating violence at various Western Embassies around MENA was not simply caused by the posting of “The Innocence of Muslims” trailer on YouTUBE. Many of those protesting have admitted to not seeing the video. The truth is that the factors and reasons why such a film served as a flashpoint which sparked bouts of violence in an era of conflict between the West and vast populations in the Middle East is more complex and nuanced than simply cause and effect.
The website “PeaceBuilding Initiative” is an excellent source for research in media and conflict. It says that the media can be a “transformational tool, encouraging violence; that is, in its capacity to encourage populations (masses) to follow and act in a violent movement.” In addition there are many negative uses of media and communications, from Milosevic’s call against Bosnian Muslims to Hitler’s propaganda against Jews. The Iraq and Afghan war brought attention to journalist’s bias in support of US policy while reporting and embedding with soldiers. And more recently in 2011, the Arab Uprisings often featured Arab leaders, blocking social media platforms or using state media to distort facts on the ground.
Tacit or passive measures by governments or NGOs have also been detrimental. Whether due to the lack of media infrastructure, lack of government support for independent media, lack of donor funding, or lack of good media conflict intervention design and evaluation methodology, each has the capacity to bring about unintended consequences and increase violent conflict.
In the list below, I will provide examples in how media and communications have negatively influenced and impacted the behaviors of individuals and masses during conflicts.
1. HATE MEDIA
The radio station Mille Collines in Rwanda is often cited for its use of hate media and inciting Hutu’s to kill Tutsi’s and moderate Hutus’ during the 1994 genocide. Stories have been told of perpetrators holding a machete in one hand and a radio in the other. It is no doubt that the messages of cultural violence delivered through mass media affect behavior. According to Hieber “Content analysis has revealed that the radio station’s approach was particularly subtle. It was only when the genocide actually erupted that openly racist comments such as “stamp out the cockroaches” were aired. Although direct cause and effect has never been proven, Radio Mille Collines has played a crucial role in alerting the international community to the dangers of hate-media.”
Even during the Arab Spring or Uprising media was used by the government and other civil society religious leaders to incite violence. For example, on October 9, 2011, the day of the Maspero Massacre, thugs and government forces killed 27 Copt marchers in supposed retaliation for Copt attack of the Army. Social media sites were abuzz as accusations of incitement of violence by Egyptisn media were leveraged. The online newspaper Ahram Online (2011) reported that “During the night, TV anchors urged viewers to go defend the Egyptian army from Coptic “attacks,” leading to attacks on Christians throughout the night.”
The recent trailer mentioned above “The Innocence of Muslims” can also fall into this category as it seemingly was created to criticize Islam. My personal experience living and working in Southern California on media and communications for non-profits, including some that serve the Arab communities. This has brought me uncomfortably close to many of the groups that produced and condoned the video. The fact that there is an audience for such hate-media against another religious group in the USA is disturbing, however the fact that many of those causing the most harm are scrupulously entangled with more main stream populations is something we should think about.
I know of pastors from Southern California Mega-Evangelical Churches that have worked with the same “Media for Christ” that produced the video (now thankfully have taken the site offline – so no link) and support their “ministry” with finances and appearances on TV shows. I count as friends many Arab background civil society leaders here in Southern California that have over the years taken major steps to distance themselves from this sort of inflammatory media. Some have also spoken to me personally saying that this sort of content had been going on for several years and that when they they asked “Media For Christ” to stop producing its hateful content which could very well provoke blood shed, they were simply ignored.
2. SYSTEMATIC REPRESSIVE MEDIA CENSORSHIP AND REGULATIONS
Often where there is greater media openness there is also space for political dissent, advocacy and promotion of peaceful pro-social behaviors. In contrast the Reporters Without Borders 2012 Freedom of the Press map below shows that where there is repressive media censorship and regulations such as Iran, Burma, or Somalia then human rights atrocities are common as governments or rebel forces can function with nearly full impunity. Hieber and Botes note that in these environments it is difficult and almost impossible to conduct peace-oriented programming on an official media level.
In post-conflict countries such as Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina there has been hot debate on whether media censorship is necessary to curb renewed ethnic tensions and hate-media. Price states that because the conflicts were initially fueled by the media’s actions, then under this guise the government of Rwanda feels obliged to repress the development of free media. According to a BBC 2011 news article, in Rwanda, “Editor Agnes Nkusi was sentenced to 17 years, while reporter Saidath Mukakibibi was imprisoned for seven.” Further it states that “President Paul Kagame “has recently been accused of intolerance and harassing anyone who criticizes him. His government defends its tough media laws, pointing to the role of ‘hate media’ ahead of the 1994 genocide.”
3. TEMPORARY AND INTENTIONAL INTERNET BLACKOUTS
Free and open media activist Jillian York writes, that while the Egyptian Revolution began online through Facebook and Twitter, it soon was hampered by government Internet blackouts. She says “Egyptians were resourceful in defying the blackout. They took advantage of Small Message Service (SMS or texting) functions on sporadically available mobile telephone networks, and reverted to dial-up Internet connections on unaffected landlines. Their tweets were picked up by international media organizations such as the New York Times, Christian Science Monitor, the Guardian, CNN, and Al Jazeera, and thereby helped ensure that the voice of Egyptians would not be silenced.”
In the same article, Egyptian activist Hossam El-Hamalawy is quoted for blogging about an important observation he made in 2008. “The Internet is only a medium and a tool by which we can support our ‘off-line’ activities,” he said. “Our strength will always stem from the fact that we’ll have one foot in the cyberspace, and, more importantly, the other foot will be on the ground”
As media is increasingly become a multi-way experience and a mirror of face-to-face interactions, the internet is a key factor in allowing civic voice to participate in the political process, whether it be for protest or mobilization. Eric Shonfeld notes how during the Arab Spring it was ubiquitous in the way which the governments of Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Egypt, Syria and Yemen began one by one to shut down social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter as they were being used for activism and mobilization for protests. Without a channel of communication for citizens to report abuses many people feared the worst. In the same article mentioned above Jillian York states that “When the Egyptian government shut down the Internet on January 27, some feared a bloodbath. Without the Internet, without the ability to keep the world’s witnesses informed, they surmised, atrocities would go unrecorded, unseen until too late.” Interestingly, in contrast the trailer for “The Innocence of Muslims” was blocked from YouTube in Egypt, Libya and other MENA countries so as to stop the violence that it incited.
Propaganda is an important weapon of war. Usually used by a government to defend their actions and positions. Journalist Andrew Marshall writes that during the 2008 Cyclone Nargis the Burmese state-run media portrayed a “well-oiled state relief campaign: soldiers unloading relief supplies from helicopters, generals inspecting neat rows of refugee tents.” In response to the offer of foreign assistance (after throwing out every foreign aid worker) the state-run newspaper, “The New Light of Myanmar” widely considered a mouthpiece of the ruling junta said ‘However, they will not rely too much on international assistance and will reconstruct the nation on self-reliance.”
Controversially, propaganda has also been implemented in social media platforms. Recently, pro-Palestinian blogs “Electronic Intifada”and “Hasbara Buster” have used social media platforms such as twitter and blogs to “out” secretly paid Hasbara agents on Twitter, posing as “regular people.” According to the Guardian Newspaper “Hasbara” is a term used by the Israeli government and its supporters to describe efforts to explain government policies and promote Israel in the face of what they consider negative press about Israel around the world. However, The Guardian reports that it is also widely considered “information, spin, and propaganda.” The newspaper quotes Avital Leibovich, Israeli Military Spokesman stating:
The Hasbara directive also liaises over core messages with bodies such as friendship leagues, Jewish communities, bloggers and backers using online networks. Last week the directorate started a YouTube channel showing Israeli bombings in the Gaza strip. “New media is a new war zone within the media – we are planning to be relevant there,” said Leibovich.
Al-Queda has long used social media such as Youtube and websites to promote its ideology and spread its anti-western propaganda around the world. Ironically, with the release of the trailer “Innocence of Muslims” it became evident that like Al Queda, other small groups with strong ideologies can use social media and other media resources to find a huge audience for their propaganda. This sort of propaganda often incites violence either by followers or dissenters.
As mentioned before, rarely is the actual media content the root cause of a conflict, rather it serves to incite or confirm ideologies. This is especially true in the case of media which promotes and perpetuates cultural violence. Cultural violence is a form of violence that is used to justify and sustain direct and structural violence Cultural violence occurs within the symbolic sphere such as the use of religious symbols, flags, speeches, and hymns. I would add that the simple act of showing Mohammads face, as the “Innocence of Muslim” does, can be a form of cultural violence especially when it is directly against Islamic custom or law. In turn the burning the American flag in retaliation is also cultural violence.
John Galtung underscores the power of cultural violence as it “makes direct and structural violence look or feel ‘right,’ or at least not wrong.” Cultural violence includes hate speech, religious justification for war, the use of myths and legends about war heroes, etc. Hate speech is particularly divisive as it is usually the method in which cultural violence is communicated. When one group speaks of another group as unequal and unworthy of respect, or blames it for current problems and suggests violence to eliminate that group, that is hate-media.
What will counter such abuses of media and communications? Some strategies are to use equal (or more) amounts of good or true news to counter false propaganda or hate-media and therefore balance out the media environment. Training in media literacy and more education can also help those vulnerable to media manipulation as they learn how to detect it. Other strategies have been to increase regulation and ban the use of certain words or phrases in the media. All of these may have a place and a time, however I believe that the method which not only addresses the media but also the root causes of the violence will always be people-to-people peacebuilding. It is where groups across conflict lines begin to learn and work together for a better future. There have been many people-to-people interventions in the field of Peacebuilding, some have even used the media (traditional and new) to do this.
Watch for my next blog which will categorize and highlight how MEDIA is used as a TOOL FOR PEACE. It will also include various kinds of strategies, genres, NGO Planned intended outcome programming, and functions.