by Kate Shriver
First, there was Gangam Style, the epic YouTube video by South Korean pop sensation Psy that swept the world in 2012 and currently has over one billion views, making it the most viewed YouTube video of all time. Anyone who was anyone made a spinoff or parody of their own.
Now, there is the Harlem Shake. Here’s the premise: in an approximately 30 second long video a single person dances for roughly 10-20 seconds on their own (usually in a mask or helmet of some sort) while everyone else around them carries on with their own business, essentially ignoring the lone dancer. When the music “drops,” the video cuts to everyone in the room dancing basically just any way they want, though it typically involves a lot of gyrating, hip thrusting and a variety of masks, costumes and other props. The accompanying music is by US artist Baauer—and depending on whom you ask—the initial video was posted in early February by a group of young men in Australia, or it was posted by these guys somewhere else.
In reality, the Harlem Shake in its first form was a dance that characterized the New York neighborhood of the same name in the 1980s. This information aside, the modern day Harlem Shake has taken off at lightning speed with hundreds of new versions posted to YouTube every day. The craze is starting to wind down in the US and the West, though the fad has not come without a few brushes with the authorities: in the US, the FAA is investigating an incident which involves posted Harlem Shake video that appeared to show the crazy dancing taking place on a plane that was in flight. There have been reports of students being suspended for filming their own versions in school. In Australia, a group of miners were fired and reportedly banned from all mine sites after authorities discovered their Harlem Shake video, which they apparently shot while on their work site—in a mine! One of the most popular versions, with over 50 million YouTube views, was created by members of the Norwegian Army who are featured dancing around in the snow after breaking formation.
While the meme may be wearing out its popularity in the West, it is just beginning to get going in the Middle East: Cecily Hilleary of Middle East Voices (A VOA powered initiative) has compiled a list of Middle Eastern countries where the dance craze has gone viral, from Algeria to Yemen. But it is in Tunisia and Egypt—the hotbeds of the Arab Spring—where the Harlem Shake meme is taking on new meaning. The dance seems to have morphed into a form of social protest against the respective governments who have, in response, cracked down hard on some of those who created the videos.
In Tunisia, where there has been a split between secularists and ultra conservative Salafis since the fall of the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali over 2 years ago, a group of students at a high school in Tunis filmed a version of the Harlem Shake in which some students danced in their underwear, dressed up as Salafis with fake beards, or as Gulf emirs (among other costumes). The provocative nature of the dancing caught the attention of the Salafis, who decried the video as indecent. Minister of Education Abdellatid Abid, angrily denounced the video as indecent also, and ordered an investigation of the school’s principal. Skirmishes have erupted elsewhere in Tunisia as conservative Muslims attempt to stop youth from partaking in other Harlem Shake videos—with one student in coastal Mahdia purportedly receiving 12 stitches on his head after being beaten in one such clash.
A video linked to the original Tunis high school Harlem Shake video is titled “The Harlem Shake: Attacked by Salafis Edition” which appears to show a schoolyard where students are about to do the dance, and are then attacked by Salafis. In some of the skirmishes the Salafists have reportedly shouted at the students “Our brothers in Palestine are being killed by Israelis, and you are dancing.”
Only a few days ago a mass protest/Harlem Shake dance was planned in Tunis in front of the Ministry of Education. Thousands said they would participate, but the rainy weather appeared to have dampened the turnout, with only a few dozen students taking part in the protest with shouts of “freedom, freedom.” In a Washington Post report, students stated their own reasons for participating in the dance: one said the dance represented a way to vent and take a break from the stresses of the past year, and another reported that he wanted to take advantage of the newfound freedoms thanks to the revolution after years of harassment and repression. In additional reporting on the mass protest, a student said he was there to make the minister of education understand that he cannot stop the dancing – “This policy of suppressing rebellious spirit is no longer acceptable.” The initial video and the backlash have only served to produce even more Harlem Shake videos, and the meme and its meaning continue to flourish in Tunisia.
In Egypt, where there are strict public indecency laws, four pharmaceutical students were arrested after posting a video of themselves doing the dance semi-naked in a middle-class Cairo neighborhood. Students in Egypt have also posted videos of the Harlem Shake being done in front of the Pyramids (it is unclear whether the Pyramid video is the same one that resulted in the arrests).
Following the arrests of the four students, somewhere between 70 and 400 protesters showed up outside
the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo to stage a Harlem Shake dance/protest. The dance was organized to be a peaceful protest of the ruling party and President Mohammed Morsi, and a lighthearted moment in an Egypt that is still reeling from its transformation. A unique twist in the Egypt story: a member of the Muslim Brotherhood created his own Harlem Shake video in response to the protest, in which he and other people wear masks featuring the faces of opposition party members. The video has apparently since been taken down.
What is particularly interesting about the way the Harlem Shake is being used in Egypt, is that the protest outside the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters was organized by a newly formed group called “The Satiric Revolutionary Struggle” which has
its own Facebook page with over 1,000 likes. The Verge reports that the group was started by 17 year old Mahmoud Tabei and three of his friends so that they could work on making political statements through humorous demonstrations. Tabei said that he had seven friends who died in the Arab Spring violence in Egypt and that another of the aims of the newly formed group is to raise morale and “refresh minds.” The next event the group is working on is a marathon that will start at the headquarters of the National Democratic Party (the party of deposed autocrat Hosni Mubarak), and end at the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters. The Verge writes that “it’s a path meant to symbolize Egypt’s political trajectory from Mubarak to Morsi. Its message, according to Tabei, should be clear: ‘They are the same. Nothing has changed.’”
So what does all of this mean for cultural public diplomacy? It appears that the Harlem Shake meme was an inadvertent export of Western culture (particularly U.S. culture) that hit the Middle East and transformed from something that was initially fun and lighthearted, into something more meaningful and useful to politically active youth, especially in Egypt and Tunisia.
Can the US government or an NGO or another some other PD actor harness the power and popularity of the meme in any way? Perhaps a rapid response digital media team at the State Department could message words of support for the dancers citing freedom of expression? It certainly doesn’t look good for the either the Tunisian government or the Egyptian government to crack down violently on the dancers, so that is something that the State department could monitor and then respond to if necessary.
It could also be true that this type of super fast social media movement is impossible to control or use in any way for cultural diplomacy. It seems that in the ever important short/mid/long term goals of public diplomacy, and particularly cultural diplomacy, that this sort of meme presents an “instant” goal of some sort—something that can be recognized and addressed.
Where a real opportunity lies is with the newly formed Satiric Revolutionary Struggle group founded by an Egyptian teenager and his friends. This is a group with robust backing on Facebook, and something that could be assisted with support from the USG directly, perhaps through a program that brings comedy troupes or political satirists from the US to Cairo to teach the group some of the “tricks of the trade.” Or an NGO or other organization could reach out to the group and show them similar skills they could use, as well as other popular media they could use in order to satirize the government. It is obviously still quite risky to criticize the government in Egypt, so the newly formed group should also receive training on how to avoid conflict, etc.
Perhaps the most important point to consider in this case is the US and its foreign policy remain largely unpopular in much of the Middle East—so any overt help given by the USG could be outright rejected, or worse: it could be seen as foreign meddling likely to result in a total shut down of whatever initiative it was trying to assist with in the first place. Thus the name of the game is “indirectness” – assistance in the form of things the group may actually want or need (e.g. a good piece of technological equipment to assist with video production or editing).
Sure, the Harlem Shake is probably not a highlight of US culture that the government would choose to export: it is not a gem like jazz or classical dance or paintings. But it is something that has a wide appeal to a huge youth population in the still evolving Middle East, and it is something the USG could potentially use to provide “helping” public diplomacy.
Kate Shriver is a graduate student in the International Affairs program at the George Washington University with a focus on the Middle East.
The above post is from Take Five’s new Student Perspective series. Graduate students studying Cultural Diplomacy as Communication at the George Washington University are encouraged to think about themes such as youth, gender, health, climate, free press, and democracy, and write on how these themes relate to cultural diplomacy and to communication. The posts involve thoughtful commentary on the writer’s chosen theme, linking to class readings and discussions.
Last week IPDGC and the U.S. Institute of Peace co-hosted a great conference, “Groundtruth: New Media, Technology, and the Syria Crisis,” that focused on the use of online videos by activists, new and traditional media, and policymakers. The event was the latest in the “Blogs and Bullets” series of research papers and conferences that have produced two major reports, and kicked off a new research project conducted by my GW colleague Marc Lynch, American University’s Deen Freelon, and myself.
There was much to chew on in the comments and observations of the various panelists, but I want to flag a few interesting nuggets concerning the role of social media in Syria – which Marc referred to as perhaps “the most social mediated protest in history” – and the complex intersection between new and old media.
First, a recurring theme from both activists and journalists involved the evolution of both social media and the public sphere in Syria as the regime’s hegemony wanes in the face of an ongoing civil war. NPR’s Deb Amos, who has been reporting on the Middle East for decades and the current Syrian crisis since it’s beginning, talked about how she has seen social media develop rapidly over the last year from something a few activists used to meet and share information, to something that is a more sophisticated tool for organizing, waging an information war with the regime, fundraising, and engaging with regional and world media.
Sometimes the online discussions via Facebook or YouTube comment threads and the like can turn viciously sectarian. After all, the pubic sphere, especially online, is not always known for its decorum. But even this can be seen as part of the maturation process as Syria moves from dictatorship to, perhaps, a more open society. For example, Rafif Jouejati of the Free Syria Foundation, pointed out that her organization has decided against censoring sectarian comments in favor of responding to them and thus creating a dialogue “so we educate against hate speech.”
Social media may be creating or strengthening the public sphere on multiple levels: within Syria and across the region. ABC’s Lara Setrakian called the “Arab digital vanguard” the “connective tissue throughout Arab Society.”
“Pan Arabism died a long time ago,” she said, “but it’s been resurrected online.”
There is, of course, a vast literature on the representative public sphere across several scholarly domains, highlighted by the work of Jurgen Habermas. Many have pointed out the complex role media play in fostering a functional and empowering socio-political conversation among the various layers in a society. On the one hand, media can create information baselines and be a conduit between elected officials and the public, among other functions. On the other, they can also misinform and misrepresent, be it because of their own latent biases (structural and ideological) and/or manipulation from sources, especially elites.
New media present these same challenges, as well as others. Fadl al Tarzi, from the Dubai News Group, whose organization has been monitoring social media across the Arab world, pointed out something that others have found in studying new media and politics in the U.S. and elsewhere: social media, more than traditional media, tends to include like-minded users. This is not often conducive to the (somewhat mythical) Enlightenment notion of an 18th Century Café/Salon style public sphere where ideas are contested on an equal plane with the best rising to prominence.
In Syria, one of the more interesting ways that new media are playing a role in shaping the information environment is in their use by traditional media, both within the region and across the globe. Several of the panelists, from activists to journalists, talked about how this has created an incentive for activists to create more credible media, rather than overt propaganda.
Rami Nakhla, of The Day After Project, discussed the way his organization has had to learn to adopt traditional Western news norms like balance to be taken seriously by mainstream media outlets interested in using their videos of regime violence, protests, etc.
The relationship between activists and traditional media can be a tricky one, though. The fact remains that it is still difficult to assess the credibility of many videos, many of which are of sketchy provenance and may not be depicting what they claim. Marc Lynch talked about the importance of being skeptical when a video claims thousands were at a protest, when in fact the tight focus of the camera may be obscuring that in fact only dozens were there. This is a phenomenon familiar to those who recall the exaggerated claims of thousands filling Baghdad’s Firdos Square when the Saddam statue fell on April 9, 2003, when in fact a couple of hundred were there.
Deb Amos raised another interesting challenge with traditional media coverage as the civil war continues and various rebel factions gain control of a growing segment of the country. In the early days of the conflict, outside media didn’t have much if any access to the fighting on the ground, making them more dependent on videos and other third-party sources of information. This is obviously not optimal for reporting and verification.
Now, however, as reporters are able to access places like Aleppo, a new challenge has emerged: Journalists may be over-reporting what they can see with their own eyes at the expense of important developments in less accessible parts of the country. “We have the same level of violence in Homs, but no coverage anymore because now journalists are able to get into Aleppo for a day” before going back across the border to safety.
This is a story familiar to any media scholar. Contrary to the claims of most prominent press critics (especially in U.S. politics), most press biases are not partisan but structural, the result of the routines of reporting and patterned and often latent norms that lead to certain stories, sources, and even places being covered at the exclusion of others.
What we’re seeing in Syria, according to Amos and others, is perhaps more credible, in the sense that it’s verifiable by journalist eye-witness accounts, yet at the same time less comprehensive, because it’s increasingly governed by a myopia of access. Journalists always have to contend with these problems, and Syria is no exception. This makes it increasingly important for audiences to critically assess a variety of news and information sources.
Finally, there is another type of structural bias we might be seeing in Syria coverage due to the prevalence of online videos in the news. Many panelists echoed the observations of others over the months in pointing out that the videos we see from Syria (and, before that, from other hot spots during the Arab Spring) often substitute for other types of reporting as stories within themselves. Schadi Semnani, of the Syria Conflict Monitor, for instance, commented that “lots of mainstream media use videos as their primary source rather than interviews with people behind them.”
There are many challenges associated with this, some of which I’ve discussed already. But another is this: videos tell one type of narrative, one that is highly episodic and typically vivid, rather than thematic or complex. They aren’t necessarily less informative, but they contain a different type of information, and therefore might be expected to influence audiences differently than, say, print reporting (online or off).
Research shows, for instance, that episodic narratives can have the effect of leading audiences to assume problems are caused by individuals rather than to look for more societal or structural causes, and, similarly, to look for solutions that are more punitive and focus on individuals. Put another way, an implication of this research is that episodic stories discourage support for diplomacy in favor of more bellicose responses.
There is also the question of what we learn from the videos and whether that helps us better understand the crisis they are depicting. Journalism’s principal job is, after all, to inform us in a way that helps us comprehend the world around us so that we can make sound judgments and assess our leaders’ policies. Videos tell us one kind of story. How journalists contextualize those videos will be a key variable in how people understand it.
If journalists rely overly on the videos to tell the story, one implication is that people might be more likely to simply understand the Syrian crisis through the prism of their own biases and predispositions. Research consistently shows that this is how most people process news they don’t know much about, and foreign affairs certainly fits that description for the vast majority of audiences around the world. But it also means that, within the region, sectarian predispositions might be a greater influence than the events and messages implicit and explicit in the videos and other social media coming out of Syria. This leads back to Fadl’s point about a collection of like-minded communities in the virtual public sphere self-selecting the media, and the messages, with which they already agree.
But it also places a greater value on traditional journalism, and the role of intrepid journalists to sift through an even greater array of information in making sense of complex crises like the one currently so tragically dividing Syria.
A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.
~ Mark Twain (attributed)
Like many others, I’ve spent the last couple of weeks absorbed by Middle East events and wrestling with the many complex and difficult questions raised by journalists, analysts, and scholars: How much of the tragic violence in Benghazi and elsewhere was a genuine reaction to that now-notorious anti-Muslim video, and how much is being promoted by specific actors for their own political aims? Were Embassy walls breached in Cairo, Tunisia and elsewhere because the protests were uniquely powerful and emotional, or because some host-country governments, newly brought to power by the Arab Spring, hadn’t yet fully assumed the responsibility of protecting them?
As a public diplomacy practitioner, I’ve also been thinking about the people in the Muslim world who are most genuinely and deeply disturbed by the perceived insult — and am wondering, yet again, how best we can try to bridge the apparently yawning gap between their perceptions and those of Americans, for whom the positive value of free speech self-evidently outweighs the risks from insult.
It was through this lens that I took another look at “You Talkin’ To Me?,” Ralph Begleiter’s still-invigorating 2006 article about international perception. Begleiter describes a video dialogue between Lebanese and American university students in which a “common base of popular culture…did not mask notable differences in the way students at both ends of the videoconference saw charged political issues [such as] the publication of political cartoons lampooning the Muslim prophet Muhammad, including significant gaps in understanding of how the news media in each region relate to governments. In fact, understanding that media-government relationship proved to be a pervasive theme reflecting differences between the U.S. and Middle Eastern cultures [emphasis added].”
What does this tell us (beyond the fact that some things have definitely not changed since Begleiter first penned these words)?
For one thing, it is a reminder that dense thickets of factual misinformation currently impede mutual understanding on this issue of media-government relationships, and it suggests that more work on clearing away such thickets is needed before debates about principles can take place in a productively open field.
What do I mean by this? What is an example?
Again and again in commentary from the Arab world about the current anti-Muslim controversy, including in comments posted by young people on U.S. Embassy Facebook pages, the point is made that America is being hypocritical because “the West” prohibits Holocaust denial and similar speech related to protection of certain religious groups.
For example, a recent New York Times article quoted a “spiritual leader of Egypt’s mainstream Islamist group, the Muslim Brotherhood, [declaring] that ‘the West’ had imposed laws against ‘those who deny or express dissident views on the Holocaust or question the number of Jews killed by Hitler, a topic which is purely historical, not [even] a sacred doctrine.’”
American readers may impatiently skip over such comments, thinking “that’s not true, our laws protect speech even as condemnable as denying the Holocaust!” We might also fail to see any legitimacy in the error, because many of us are unfamiliar with the fact that in Europe there are indeed laws prohibiting Holocaust denial.
And we may also fail to realize that such seemingly minor, in-the-weeds misunderstandings can have a big impact, for as Begleiter also notes, “‘double standards’ is one of the biggest reasons foreigners give for resenting the United States.”
Of course it’s not true that the U.S. free speech laws are applied selectively to different religions, but if people in the Muslim world widely believe that to be true, based on actual knowledge of certain European laws misapplied to the U.S. context, then our power to persuade people of the legitimacy of our free-speech position will be dramatically weakened.
Here is another example: public commentary on the current crisis reveals a mutual misunderstanding about numbers of people involved: earnest young peace-makers in the Arab world explain on Facebook that “only” 10% of Americans even saw the film in question, while bridge-building Americans comment online to the effect that “only” 10% of Muslims are violent extremists. If both sides knew the figures were perhaps closer to .0000001% in both cases, how much of the super-structure of blame, fear, and anger might dissipate?
So, returning to the public diplomacy challenge, what can we do?
First of all, we should accept that there will be no overnight transformations. The work of countless experts in communications tells us it is difficult to change peoples’ minds about what they think they know. Innovative thinkers from Walter Lippman onwards have shown how human beings are programmed to filter out information that doesn’t fit with our preconceptions, and furthermore that the source of new information is a powerful factor in whether or not we listen and accept it.
Therefore, secondly, we need to remind ourselves of what public diplomacy practitioners and scholars have long emphasized, which is that how we present information, and how we establish ourselves as trusted voices, is enormously important. Facts and statements by themselves, no matter how often repeated or at what level, won’t make nearly as much difference if we have not built two-way relationships through which to share them, and if we haven’t built credibility over time through our consistency in conveying – and accepting — reliable information.
Edward R. Murrow knew this when he famously said, “It has always seemed to me the real art in this business is not so much moving information or guidance or policy five or 10,000 miles. That is an electronic problem. The real art is to move it the last three feet in face to face conversation.”
It is in this last three feet that a big portion of the public diplomacy toolkit is usefully and productively employed. For example, convincing influential local journalists (or religious leaders, or influential think-tankers) is easier if we take time to develop a track record of providing useful information targeted to their particular interests and cultural outlook. If we have also invited the journalist (or religious leader or think-tanker) to the U.S. on a study tour, she or he may have a clearer understanding of what our policy statements mean in context, and also some genuine appreciation for the travel opportunity.
The fact that most such discussions now take place online does not change the equation, with an important caveat: If the interlocutors know each other, then email, Facebook and now Twitter communications certainly qualify as contemporary “face to face conversation.”
And thirdly, creativity in opening minds to new ideas is essential. Ambassador Cynthia Schneider makes great points about promoting cultural understanding via the “Oh I Didn’t Know That” Factor – where presenting something eye-catchingly different from what the viewer expected opens the door to a reconsideration of many cross-cultural assumptions.
Finally, a very thoughtful perspective from Cristina Archetti (a U.K. scholar and former visiting lecturer at GWU’s School of Media and Public Affairs) in her 2010 piece, “Was Murrow Right About the Last Three Feet?” Archetti asks,
“Given that interpersonal communication is normally regarded as far more persuasive than other modes of communication, is this really the hard part? I’d be tempted to argue that the hard part is actually closing the distance to the last three feet, figuring out who you should be talking to, finding them and getting them into the same room. Alternatively it could be that finding the money to hire the people to do the talking is really the hard part [or, your blogger would add, finding the money to create sufficient exchanges and other collaborative opportunities for you to find the right people and ensure that they are in the room and are open to listening]. Or it could be trying to ensure that you are not forced to defend the indefensible.”
All excellent points.
Al Jazeera English has produced a remarkable interactive network map that identifies much of the Syrian regime and its network of supporters — from senior military officials (generals and colonels) and members of parliament to diplomatic officials and ruling family members. It tracks those who defect or die, marked by various node colors, but also keeps a running tally in chart form below this tool.
Clicking on the individual nodes, which can be zoomed to, provides information about the person it signifies. The profiles of the defectors and the recently departed include details and sometimes embedded news clips about their highlighted fate.
Unlike a network analysis map, however, the relations between the individuals themselves are not depicted and distance within the clusters are not informative. Rather they are clustered into identifiable groups, such as Cabinet, Parliament, Security and Senior Military, Diplomats and Family, with Bashar al-Assad at the center.
Not all key pillars of the regime are accounted for in this tool. Bassam Haddad has also pointed to a co-opted business elite that bolsters the regime. Their defections, sometimes as entire families or splintered ones, can prove just as damaging as those within the internal clusters choose exit over complicity. Perhaps the business elite overlap with Parliament, anyways.
I have to say that despite this regime’s excessive cruelty, watching the color coding of deaths makes it feel like a spectator sport. And if this was used as some sort of tool for the planning of attacks, it would raise journalistic ethical questions. In the midst of an internal bloody war, though, I count on the rebels having their own network maps with more precision and actionable details. And I am sure plenty of the interested and meddling foreign powers are providing much more intelligence than we see on this page.
Nevertheless, this is a useful tool for Syria observers as a graphic representation of a corrupt and decrepit political infrastructure struggling to live to see another oppressive day. As the webpage cautions users, verifying defections and even deaths can prove difficult. The regime boots out critical journalists and keeps a tight lid on information contrary to its interests. This service gives us non-partisans a barometer of a conflict that has already gone on for too long and with too much human cost. The regime’s stubborn insistence to go on with business as usual has been a decision made with the willingness to sacrifice their country.
The information in the map may not change things on the ground much, but any application that sheds more light on what’s happening there is welcome.
Finally, it should be noted that AJE has the assistance of an organization Movements.org founded by Jared Cohen, the former State Department official and Director of Google Ideas, Jason Liebman, CEO and co-founder of Howcast, and Roman Tsunder, co-founder of Access 360 Media. It’s About webpage describes itself as “a non-profit organization dedicated to identifying, connecting, and supporting grassroots digital activists from around the world.”
While many of the uprisings of the Arab Spring appear to be have transitioned from bloodshed in the streets to struggles within a political structure, the conflict in Syria endures. Neither President Bashar al Assad or the opposition appear to have charted a clear path to victory, and with the death toll climbing (according to activists) to more than 20,000, no clear path to the end is in sight. What a transition it has been from the early days of the uprising, when Syrian protestors gathered in largely peaceful protests in Damascus. Syria has seen a lot since those days – a violent crackdown, a gathering rebellion, a failed UN Peacekeeping mission, and multiple attempts from the outside world to intervene and stop the bloodshed.
But the fighting in Syria is not simply on the battlefield and in the streets: an equally important struggle is being waged in the realm of public perception.
Back in June of 2012, NPR’s On The Media interviewed the BBC’s Paul Danahar on the evolving propaganda war within Syria. In the early days of the conflict, the regime was loath to allow reporters to catalogue the brutal crackdown that was taking place. Al Assad claimed that the opposition to his country was a mixture of Al Qaeda elements and foreign powers, and that his regime was all that stood between Syria and an extremist Islamist state. Few people took these claims seriously at the time, but over time, says Danahar, that narrative has become somewhat true.
”I think it’s become a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy. He talked about there being Al Qaeda elements in Syria last year, and I think now there are Al Qaeda elements. So they’ve managed to worm their way into the structure of society because the society has become completely chaotic. His claim that the other governments are fiddling around in his back yard, they’re also true. He’s created the environment for the kinds of things he warned about happening to actually happen.”
It is correct that Al Qaeda and foreign fighters are taking part in the fighting. In many ways, Syria has now spiraled into the protracted civil war that everyone feared it would be. The rebellion – a fractured, disorganized collective of armed groups – has yet to provide the same sort of unified opposition that their counterparts achieved in Libya, and as a result, the deeds of individual factions are able to shift the narrative of the whole opposition. Images and videos of alleged mass executions of regime soldiers by the FSA have prompted a warning from the U.N. that the rebels are not immune from prosecution for atrocities.
President Al Assad’s goal in light of this is two-fold: to project his regime to both internal and external audiences as the inevitable, stable ruler of Syria, and to cast the opposition as a radical, unacceptable alternative. In some ways this objective is a continuation of the regime’s PR campaign before the uprising, in which Asma Al Assad, the president’s wife, received a glowing spread in Vogue magazine (recently dropped from the publication’s website).
Hassan Hassan of Foreign Policy documents his recent more recent PR offensive to carry the narrative – embedding journalists with Syrian forces fighting in Aleppo, highlighting captured foreign fighters and jihadists, and arranging television interviews to project confidence about the outcome of the conflict. The regime has met and given “positive commitments” to the Red Cross officials’ requests to address the humanitarian crisis, even as Syrian forces continue to shell civilian populations in Damascus and Aleppo.
By contrast, the opposition has failed to mount a similar imaging campaign, or anything close to it. Infighting and a lack of leadership in the Syrian National Council has made it very challenging for the organization direct the rebellion, much less combat the regime’s narrative with an effective counter campaign. As a result, says Michael Hughes of the Examiner, “the SNC’s poor media strategy and inconsistent messaging have allowed the Assad regime to frame the narrative.” Bassad Haddad laments the dysfunction of the opposition on display for all to see:
“We are no longer witnessing a clear-cut event where an independent pro-democracy movement is facing a dictatorship. Though the latter part holds, the former does not. The dependence, weakness, fragmentation, and divisiveness of the especially external opposition and its internal correlates are now evident to all.”
Skill with public relations doesn’t shift facts on the ground. No number of television interviews can banish the reality for Syrians of shelling and summary executions. But framing can shape the behavior of actors going forward. Perceptions of the regime’s inevitability and the opposition’s unacceptability may shift the behavior of ordinary Syrians as the battle for the country continues to play out. The belief by foreigners that the opposition is made up of radicals like Al Qaeda could stay the hand of powers with the ability to truly shift the winds in the opposition’s favor. Ultimately, If the opposition is to defeat the regime, they will need to do more than simply coordinate within the organization; they must also convince outsiders of their legitimacy and their ability to responsibly piece the country together.
That is the title of the latest IPDGC-USIP report in the “Blogs and Bullets” series, written by myself and my GW colleagues Henry Farrell, Marc Lynch, and John Sides, as well as American University’s Deen Freelon. Since 2009, we have been looking at the role of new media in political protest, activism, and movements for peace around the world. Although this has been an important topic for a while, it gained particular salience in 2011 when mass protests exploded throughout the Middle East, toppling two governments and pushing several others toward the brink.
Our first report, “Blogs and Bullets: New Media and Contentious Politics,” co-authored with Morningside Analytics’ John Kelly and Ethan Zuckerman from the Berkman Institute, we took a critical look at the state of research at that time in this area and called for a more complex, empirically-grounded approach. We proposed five “lenses” through which scholars and others could examine these internet-fueled movements: individual transformation, intergroup relations, collective action, regime policies, and external attention.
In this latest report, we go a step further by zeroing in on the role of new and especially social media in the Arab Spring protests that began in late 2010 and led to the toppling of some despotic regimes — but, importantly, not all — in 2011. We did this by utilizing a unique dataset from bit.ly, the URL shortener commonly associated with Twitter but used in several platforms, including Facebook. With these data, we were able to get a sense of how important a role these media played in what some hailed at the time as “Facebook Revolutions.”
Our findings suggest a more nuanced role for new media, or at least, for the new media we were able to analyze. First, it’s important to understand what we were able to do with our data. In a nutshell, we were able to see how different links spread throughout a country, throughout the region, and throughout the world, and when they did so. Put simply, we were able to look at spikes in linking (mostly via Twitter), which coincided with major events and their corresponding hashtags (e.g., #jan25 for Egypt), and see if most of that traffic was within the given country, within the broader MENA (Middle East North Africa) region, or external to the region.
In sum, we found that in nearly all cases we examined, the vast majority of link traffic was external to the MENA region and the country in question. So, for example, many of the links being virtually passed around about the Tarhir Square protests in Egypt were amongst people in places like Europe and North America, rather than from Egyptian to Egyptian, or even from Cairo to Manama.
There are many reasons not to be surprised by these findings. For one, most of the affected countries have very low internet penetration. For another, phrases such as “Twitter Revolution” or “Facebook Revolution” conjure up the kind of very powerful media effect not seen in most of the academic literature across a variety of contexts. It’s not that media can’t be powerful, but rather that their power is generally limited to very specific instances and dependent on many factors. (And that’s assuming we can agree on what “powerful” means.)
Yet precisely because of the occasionally breathless commentary about the alleged power of new media to bring down governments, these findings are important. For one thing, by showing that at least some social media (e.g., Twitter) didn’t appear to have a mobilizing effect internally, it helps refocus our attention on what variables do explain social movement organization and effectiveness.
Similarly, I would argue these findings are important for the way in which they tell us something about what social media did do during these protests. In a sense, what we found is a “megaphone” role for social media, whereby the rest of the world was able to learn about and have conversations about these protests and the violent crackdowns that they inspired. This could have important ramifications if, as some hope, this kind of external attention can generate international pressure on regimes to avoid or suspend violent reactions to protest, much less reform or resign. This is particularly important in an era where some governments, including the Obama administration, attempt to embrace a foreign policy based on the principle of a “responsibility to protect” (R2P) citizens threatened by extreme regime violence.
With Lynch and Freelon, our next wave of USIP-funded Blogs and Bullets research will explore how activists in the Syrian uprising are using new media — especially videos on sites like YouTube — to mobilize and inform others around the world about their fight with the Syrian government. Ultimately we will also be looking at how these social media campaigns might, or might not, influence the international community’s response. We will be discussing the Arab Spring report, and the Syrian uprising, at a conference on October 2 at USIP. Watch the IPDGC website for details.
International broadcasters should worry about how they are covered by the domestic media of countries in which they are trying to build audiences. How they are reported and commented on can impact the public’s receptivity.
This matters more for controversial broadcasters operating in politically sensitive times. One example I studied closely is the case of Al Jazeera English (AJE) in the United States. By covering underrepresented areas in the world, AJE holds out the promise of facilitating intercultural understanding and knowledge of international affairs among Americans. Research by Shawn Powers and Mohammed El-Nawawy (pdf) looked at how the political views of individuals viewing AJE moderated over time, leading them to term it a “conciliatory” medium.
However, AJE is not widely available on television in the United States — an inherent limit on this potential. Public opposition to AJE, beyond the conventional wisdom of the cable industry that Americans are uninterested in international news, is one reason. Aversion to AJE is rooted in the perception of Al Jazeera as an enemy of the United States. The Bush administration frequently lambasted the channel, associating it with Al Qaeda in public statements.
Many Americans hold pre-formed suspicions of the channel. In a previous study (pdf), Katie Brown and myself found that pre-reception audience bias against AJE exists in the United States. Americans were more likely to rate as credible and less biased a news report when it displayed a CNN logo, compared to when it bore AJE’s. That is not to say all of our participants opposed AJE. Mistrust of AJE correlated most highly with both conservative political ideology and prejudice against Arab Americans, limiting its conciliatory potential.
In a follow-up study published in the Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, we asked whether Americans change their views toward AJE depending on how it is covered by other media, or what we call “intermedia framing.” It is based in our contention that in media-rich societies, public perceptions of newer or foreign media outlets can be influenced by how they are depicted by other media programs.
This is a potential media effect — we argue — even in an era of increased audience selective exposure, which many communication scholars argue limits how media influence people’s beliefs. In other words, while media pluralism has made it easier for audiences to select media to meet their preferences and needs, they may still incidentally learn about other media. It follows from Matthew Baum’s work on the advantages of soft news for informing the public on issues, even if inadvertent and under the pretense of entertainment.
We gauged how Americans evaluated AJE after viewing packages about AJE trying to enter the US market. One was a Daily News bit featuring Samantha Bee (see video) and typified satiric soft news, using layered humor to tease AJE and mock American news-viewing habits.
The other package typified hard news; it was an NBC News report (no public link available). It covered some of the same themes, referencing the administration’s critiques and the airing of the bin Laden videos (only shown but not commented upon in the Daily Show segment).
Our participants who watched the Daily Show’s bit demonstrated more openness to AJE, but also less prejudice against Arab-Americans. Humorous inter-media framing facilitated receptivity to the channel probably by disarming apprehensions. The hard news piece likely stoked fears related to the “war on terror.” We did not test for the specific emotional or cognitive effects that brought about perceptional changes, unfortunately.
Other researchers have shown in interest in inter-media framing and Al Jazeera English, though using different terminology, theory and methods. In a recent paper in Journalism, Kimberly Meltzer looked at how American journalists, as an interpretive community, represented AJE as it launched in the Washington, DC market. News coverage of AJE was largely positive, suggesting they generally did not share the antipathy expressed by members of the public who mobilized to oppose AJE’s carriage in other communities. She related this to AJE’s marketing and outreach efforts, which she usefully reviewed.
Whether positive inter-media actually leads to more demand to have AJE placed on American cable and satellite services is another question. Our study showed it can in an experimental setting. Meltzer observed changes in actual inter-media framing. More research on actual public reactions to AJE is needed to round this out.
There is a larger lesson for state media outlets. With the fast growth in the number of outlets, it is natural that a competitive field increases references between media. As international broadcasters face increasingly complex media milieus, there is a greater need to appeal to domestic news channels since they can influence public receptivity. That can be difficult given the natural competition for eyeballs and likely differences in ideology or interests. However, broadcasters may want further invest in media relations work to expand their PR and marketing efforts. The concept of inter-media framing
World Press Freedom Day – celebrated today, May 3, with the centerpiece UNESCO event held in Carthage, Tunisia – is one of those global phenomena, like soccer, that seizes Americans only peripherally. Yes, the main event last year was held in New York, and yes, U.S. organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists release key reports on the occasion, but by and large the day comes and goes here in the U.S. without much fanfare. Through the wisdom of our founding fathers and much vigilance and hard work by journalists, editors, and publishers since that time, U.S. press freedom is secure. But this is by no means the case everywhere, and therefore World Press Freedom Day becomes an important opportunity – and sometimes an all-too-necessary excuse – for renewed discussion of media freedom issues in countries around the world. The U.S. government, through its Embassies overseas, is an active participant in these discussions.
President Barack Obama’s statement on World Press Freedom Day 2012 makes U.S. principles and commitment clear, as does the video statement of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But U.S. Embassies overseas also actively seize the opportunity of World Press Freedom Day to reinforce American support for the principle and practice of media freedom. Many Embassies develop and promote creative opportunities for local journalists and editors to speak out. More on that below.
When the UN General Assembly proclaimed World Press Freedom Day in 1993, it outlined the following goals:
- to encourage and develop initiatives in favor of press freedom
- to assess the state of press freedom worldwide
- to remind governments of the need to respect their commitment to press freedom
- to encourage reflection among media professionals about press freedom and professional ethics
- to mobilize support for media that are targets for the restraint, or abolition, of press freedom
- to remember journalists who lost their lives in the exercise of their profession
UNESCO’s selection of Tunisia as the site of this year’s World Press Freedom Day ceremony reinforces its key theme for 2012: Media Freedom Helping to Transform Societies, summarized here: “the recent uprisings in some Arab states have highlighted the power of media and the human quest for media freedom, as well as underlining the fact that social inequalities will indefinitely search for equilibrium, in order to address those inequalities. Could the Arab Spring have taken place without the proliferation of social media or satellite TV? [Text messaging] and social media have enabled the diffusion of vital information to reach the widest number of people in a very short span of time. Social media have enabled protesters to self-organize, and have engaged the global youth in the fight to be able to freely express themselves and the aspirations of their wider communities.”
U.S. Embassies are making the most of this opportunity to reinforce American principles and policies in support of press freedom. Here is just a small sampling — from Angola to Surinam (both this and this), to Pakistan (via YouTube and Facebook); from the Philippines (through a new partnership with the Philippine Press Institute), to an op-ed by a State Department official that was shared via this all-Africa digital media outlet, picked up in Namibia, and tweeted by All-Africa news website Co-founder and Chairman Amadou Mahtar Ba; from an upcoming Twitter Q&A in Rwanda, to a seminar in Luxembourg, and this U.S. Ambassadorial initiative reported in Kyrgyzstan.
World Press Freedom Day is also an important occasion for the UN, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, and other global organizations to recognize journalists who are “targets for the restraint, or abolition, of press freedom” — in other words, journalists who have been intimidated, persecuted, jailed, or even killed because pf their work.
The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, through its website HumanRights.gov, also highlights compelling and emblematic cases of journalists who are imprisoned or living under threats, among them Reyot Alemu (left) of Ethiopia, who was sentenced to 14 years in prison in June 2011.
As the UN General Assembly of 1993 intended, May 3 has become an occasion in most countries for journalists and editors to sit down, sometimes with government officials, to discuss and debate press freedom issues of local concern. Not infrequently, governments use the occasion to reinforce their own perspectives on the need for restraints and limits on press freedom – or (per our recent blog post Fear and Loathing in Development Journalism) to define journalists’ role in the country’s development. This debate around media responsibilities vs. media freedom is discussed explicitly or implicitly in many local news stories on World Press Freedom Day, including in this revealing sample of pieces from Uganda, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, India, Guyana. and Ghana.
Press freedom is an issue for every day, not just for May 3. But World Press Freedom Day is a vitally important opportunity to get people talking about what is happening in their countries and what needs to change. And public diplomacy to promote press freedom is one of the most important kinds of public diplomacy there is.
DISCLAIMER: Many of my writings on Take Five will propose concepts that seek to describe state communication activities. Concepts are critical for building theory, my overriding interest. I want make sure my concepts and theory resonate with students, more experienced academics and practitioners, a marker of validity. I am using this blog for testing my ideas and welcome your feedback, whether constructive or dismissive.
The Transitive Property Reviewed
The transitive property in formal logic is essentially:
If a = b and b = c, then a = c.
This is useful shorthand for one problem facing public diplomacy practitioners and states’ strategic communicators. How does one better a country’s image when it is vulnerable to “guilt by association” when that country’s friends are seen as bad actors? Alliances between countries are something like equations, at least in terms of public perception, even if those alliances are complex and nuanced, combining elements of cooperation and competition. Alliances require defending or at least very lightly criticizing allies while keeping relations normal, which is easily interpreted as complicity.
Rooted in Cognitive Processing or How People Perceive Political Problems
While this seems a perfect mathematical formula, perceptions of countries to do not transfer so easily, of course. The emphasis is then on the basic dynamic, drawing on a notion of how people process politics cognitively, or associational thinking. Psychologist Drew Westen and pollster Celinda Lake write about “what psychologists and neuroscientists call networks of associations,” or:
interconnected sets of thoughts, feelings, images, metaphors, and emotions that are unconsciously active in people’s minds and brains at any given moment.
People think through links, through series of relations in which one analytic or sensory unit calls up another. Perceptions are shaped by what associations a certain subject produces. International alliances are both actual associations but also useful mental associations in how people cognitively process the complexity of foreign affairs.
For communicators and public diplomacy specialists, perception is their central currency and it matters more than actual policy even as the two are often, though not always, related. Thus, even if the guilt in question is not fairly ascribed, it must be addressed. Their challenge is to create new associations. The transitive dilemma suggests that old associations can be affirmed, or new ones established, due to the actions of allies. This poses an agency problem, that is, they are ultimately responsible for more than just their own government’s activities.
Applied to US-Bahrain Relations
Let’s take a recent example P.J. Crowley covered on this blog. When Bahrain commits excessive violence against protesters, the government’s image is rightfully tarnished (Bahrain = Bad). The American alliance with Bahrain (America = Bahrain), however, means that the United States cannot take a strong, critical public stance because of its well-known alliances in the region, and thus looks bad by association (America = Bad).
When it comes to how people view American policy in the Middle East, Bahrain’s state violence and repression prime among many observers and attentive regional publics American foreign policy inconsistencies. P.J. Crowley called the United States an “interested spectator with Bahrain.” Its relative silence, he wrote, stood in contrast to its “loud” push for reform in neighboring countries.
Writing in Foreign Policy, Marc Lynch similarly observed that the “Obama administration’s grudging acquiescence to the Saudi-driven fait accompli [supporting the Bahrain regime] opened a gaping wound in American credibility.”
The transitive problem is exacerbated when an allies’ malfeasance reveals double standards, holes or hypocrisy in one’s own policy – suggesting an inconsistent adherence to state principles.
This puts public diplomacy and communication workers in an awkward position. While the state may be invested in projecting an image, for example, supporting human rights or democratization, an ally’s antics can directly undermine this. Practitioners’ hands are further tied in responding. They cannot threaten the health of the alliance without mandate from their government’s policymakers.
The sponsoring government’s alliance thus also prevents corrective action that addresses directly and credibly the substance of the guilt by association perception caused by the alliance. Public diplomacy workers are then expected to work on positive relations or find new ways to outreach to publics without taking on this one elephant in the room, even though it’s a substantial, contrary point to the message they are supposed to deliver.
Another Example: Hamas and Syria
This dilemma is a universal problem not just afflicting democracies or even states necessarily. While some actors may not care about transitive problems, others will abandon allies, even sponsors if the pressure due to unsavory alliances grows strong enough. Hamas, for example, seemingly turned against Syria by withdrawing its officials after a year of sticking with the Bashar al-Assad regime by default. It was in the uncomfortable position of claiming to support liberation and an Islamist politics, while allying with a secular regime that suppressed Islamist politics – a position it could not hold up against domestic and regional public criticism as well as Arab state pressure.
A month after the move, a Hamas official was left in the precarious rhetorical dilemma between trying to maintain a damaged alliance and avoiding a treasonous brand of guilt by association. He aimed for both loyalty and distance:
we have never attacked the Syrian regime or its president, so we are loyal to those who have stood by us when the whole world abandoned us, and we have said that we support the demands of the Syrian people and nobody can be against the people.
Seeking to escape the second equation, that between allies, of the transitive property, he urged that, “Hamas cannot be an exact copy of its allies.” That daylight is rooted in Hamas’s awkwardly-put position that:
there are some legitimate demands acknowledged by the regime that must be addressed and we must give priority to stopping the bloodshed on both sides in Syria.
Hamas is trying to both patch things up with a burnt ally and remain a credible critic, and the result is a familiar sort of confused, hackneyed official-speak. Showing this concept through an example with Hamas is important for making the case this is a general problem for diverse actors, and thus also of greater theoretical value.
The utility of this transitive problem concept, as elementary as it may be, is that it gets at the challenges of multiplicity in international relations and how it troubles work in state communications. The term is a neutral short-hand for the “guilt by association” problem that policymakers and communication specialists know all too well when their country is seen as liable for the acts of allies. The basic dilemma: how to communicate persuasively values and ideals when a close friend is violating them? Having a name for this problem, and understanding the cognitive roots described above, may give some conceptual tangibility and a greater analytic handle on the basic problem.
I am sure state communicators and diplomats have varied strategies from suspending activities and waiting out the storm, re-framing the government’s position, stressing other elements of its policy, back-channel communications to mitigate fallout and so on. The constraint of alliance and the policy need to maintain it – even in the face of reputational costs – makes for a particularly challenging communicative context.
Feedback is welcome below in the comments! Find me on Twitter: @wyoumans.
Bahrain’s monarchy was determined, having cancelled last year’s Formula One Grand Prix due to violent unrest that necessitated an armed intervention by neighboring Saudi Arabia, that this year would be different. The race would go on! And so it did, with Sebastian Vettel the winner. The early race reporting highlighted that it was “incident-free.” Hardly.
The grand prix was overshadowed by clashes between protesters and security forces in the days leading up to race day. Protesters demanded political reforms that Bahrain’s ruling family have promised, but so far not delivered. They hoped to create enough mayhem to force the government to cancel the race. The opposition was not successful, but they probably got more attention with the race being held than they would have otherwise.
A year ago, in the wake of dramatic change in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrain was the start of the counter-revolution. The government literally blew up Pearl Square to avoid the fate of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, overwhelmed by the commanding photo of Tahrir Square he could not make disappear. Bahrain gradually receded from the headlines, supplanted by the NATO intervention in LIbya and more recently the tragic stalemate in Syria.
The protests put Bahrain back in the headlines. and not in the way the monarchy had in mind. The government promoted the Grand Prix as “UniF1ed – One Nation in Celebration.” The Al Khalifa family, Sunni rulers over a Shia majority kingdom in the shadow of more powerful and feuding neighbors Iran and Saudi Arabia, hoped the race would reverse its public diplomacy fortunes and once again depict the Kingdom as a progressive (in relative terms of course) financial, cultural and sports center. It tried to put to replace the images of political repression from a year ago. Instead, it only updated them.
And, in terms of U.S. public diplomacy, the Obama administration’s muted comments about respecting human rights and encouraging the Bahrain government to do more to implement the recommendations of an independent commission report issued late last year stand in stark contrast to its loud and repeated calls for political and social reform in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Given the crisis in Syria and complex dance with Iran over its nuclear program, the United States has been largely an interested spectator with Bahrain over the past year, watching from the grandstand as the government and protesters go round and round the track. Unfortunately, like the Grand Prix, a year later, they remain pretty much where they started.