Monthly Archives: September 2014
In their USIP report on “New Media and Contentious Politics” Aday and associates identified five levels of analysis in which new media and political conflict intersect. The five levels are pretty straightforward but useful. Still, I find two things most interesting about the evolution of new media: they are the fact that new media is not so “new” anymore, and secondly that new media relies on old media more than we thought. There is an interdependence and dependency on the two media (new and old) that organizes itself according to bridging structures. Quickly, the five levels are individual such that individual attitudes and behaviors are changed. The society is a second-level evidenced by things like polarization, protests, and participatory events. Collective action is a third level of analysis which points to the ability to organize and catalyze political activity. Regimes are also affected by new media because information and stories, accurate or not, can circulate in the society and stimulate regimes to respond impressively. And new media brings international attention which was especially potent during the Arab uprisings.
Again, Aday and colleagues in another Blogs and Bullets report explained in more detail the functioning of new media during contentious politics. When the audience is local new media such as Facebook serve mostly an information function. And of course it is increasingly important for mobilizing protests and organizing the community. But when the audience is more global new media plays a megaphone role in that it attracts international attention to local issues.
It remains interesting that new media are not so central to the news process as some people were beginning to think because it turns out that their relationship with traditional media is more complementary. Sometimes traditional media cannot cover a story because they are restrained or simply organizationally unable to manage coverage. Consequently, new media which are smaller and more mobile can cover a story and then make it available to traditional media and their often superior resources. And if new media and traditional media are both available then they make up a more complex media ecosystem that enriches the information value available.
The location of click data, reported in the Blogs and Bullets report, indicates that the majority of them came from outside the country thus reinforcing the notion of new media as an international megaphone. But the international community has a short attention span and they turn away from the story rather quickly. The Blogs and Bullets report suggests that counter to the popular conclusions about the local organizational role of new media (Facebook, Twitter, various webpages), they actually had more effect outside the region and internationally. Moreover the report underscores the fact that disentangling traditional media effects from new media effects is difficult if not impossible. The two media systems if you will have mutually influential effects on one another and are not quite so distinct as some believe.
Generalities about “new media” or “social media” have to give way to more precise questions and relationships. Thus, Facebook seemed to have some definite effects in Egypt but it did not another places. Why would that be? What are the lines that connect new media with traditional media? In other words, how do they work together to create an effect and can we parse out these effects?
The term “new media” continues to be a convenient shorthand and is communicative to the extent that it refers consistently to network-based asymmetrical forms of communication made possible by digital technology. But more work needs to be done on just how preferences and concepts are formed and spread, and which medium (new or old) is responsible for which affect.
The media in general, and new media in particular, are increasingly effective tools used by extremist in Syria or ISIS. Even their extraordinary brutality is no match for the skill in which they are using new media to attract new recruits, send propaganda messages, scare the enemy, and promote their goals of a single Muslim state. ISIS is now one of the more sophisticated users of technology and they are intent on strutting their stuff to show the world what they can do. You can read more by Gabriel Wiemann on new technology and terrorism here and here.
First, ISIS begins with a historical frame or a brand if you will that marks them as epochal and steeped in the language of historic Islam and religious triumphalism. This brand frame is consistent and deftly designed for particular audiences. Hence, they refer to the current organization of states in the Arab world as “colonial” or “Crusader” partitions. They use video messages to challenge the arrangement of states and call for a single Muslim nation under the protective covering umbrella of Islam. Like all ethnopolitical groups, they claim to have been oppressed, mistreated, and brutalized such that they are justified in righting an ancient wrong. They frame messages designed for young recruits on the basis of ancient injustices and deep threats to their primordial claims of truth and geography. These messages must be working well enough because recruitment is up along with supplies and weapons.
You have to give ISIS their due with respect to rhetorical sensitivity and their ability to adapt to technology and message strategy. With just about the same skill as any Hollywood producer, ISIS creates a sense of importance, urgency, and participation in something greater than yourself. Messages are crafted differently for Westerners then Arabs (the Westerners get a softer less violent sell). Long boring speeches by Osama bin Laden on video sent to Al Jazeera were replaced by jihadists who were familiar with colloquial English and could speak to American youth about liking their next-door neighbor because you borrow their lawnmower, but how that neighbor was really an enemy of Islam. Now ISIS has mastered twitter, Facebook, and has many messages translated into various languages. They send images through Instagram and travel with a camera person who takes video of battles and dramatic moments to be used later in the other images.
The website ask.fm (you need to logon and get an account) has a section where you can ask questions about how to travel to a particular location and join ISIS including suggestions on what to bring. There are instant messaging programs designed for communication that can be kept secret and are not made public.
Terrorist and extremist groups have been using social media for some time now but the effectiveness of these media will only grow. These new communication technologies are cheap, accessible, and highly interactive. They promote more individualized contact as well as coherent yet dispersed communities. Combating these new forms of connectivity is increasingly more interesting and challenging than understanding how ISIS are other groups use them.
Maybe some of you saw the article from the Wall Street Journal on August 30, 2014. It graphically depicted (see the accompanying screenshot) all the various relationships among political actors in the Middle East and how they changed from enemies to friends or discovered common interests. So, historically Iran and the United States have been at loggerheads but Iran is a Shiite country and ISIS is a Sunni movement therefore Iran and the United States are in league with one another against the common Sunni enemy. Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia have been fierce competitors but both parties now have the same enemy in the radical Islamic movement. It’s the old story that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” You can read more about it at the link above.
The various combinatorial factors of allegiance can be actually quite humorous if we carry out this “enemy of my enemy is my friend” shibboleth far enough. ISIS is a threat to Al Qaeda therefore Al Qaeda and the United States can form common cause. Syria has no love loss for ISIS so we can coordinate with them. Even Israel, who almost nobody chooses as a dance partner, shares interests with Egypt in opposing Hamas.
While these political associations have some element of truth to them, they are highly temporary, ad hoc, and abstract. They might cooperate for a couple of minutes behind the scenes but don’t count on the development of quality new relationships. There are too many problems and inconsistencies to forge much of a relationship. Moreover, if the United States does cooperate with one group they antagonize another. Can you imagine the US actually getting closer to Iran and the implications of that for our relationship with Israel and Saudi Arabia? That would be a complex dance indeed. Actually, the potential alliances are quite confusing and our judgments about the various alliances are probably distorted by media images and their general lack of information about ISIS.
Still, they do represent examples of commonalities that we are always calling for. We are surrounded by media messages pertaining to violence when it comes to news and information about ISIS. The availability heuristic would predict that we use and overemphasize information that is easily available to us. Since we can imagine images of violence easier than ones of peace and reconciliation, simply because these images are more available, we tend to think that such images and relationships are more characteristic of the conflict. And certainly the same is true of the negativity bias, which holds that negative information is more easily attended to and brought to mind than positive information. So when we think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict we think of negative things such as violence, religious differences, and a whole host of tragedies that cause us to remember those more than anything else. These heuristics of negativity and availability can fundamentally define an intergroup conflict and contribute significantly to its intractability.
There is no escaping the requirement that any genuine and diligent effort to resolve Islam-West differences must confront extremism and violence. The first step, and this will be difficult for many, is to view extremism as a genuine relational term that is a reaction to economic and cultural issues. Hence, the issue is a problem that requires efforts from both sides. Defining a problem relationally implies a similarity dialectic; it forces the two parties to interpret differences as similarities or at least the recognition of mutuality of the problem. These common enemy situations can play a part. If there is going to be a compatibility perspective rather than a rivalry perspective, which is an initial crucial step toward ameliorating conflicts, then extremism must be confronted. These temporary relationships are opportunities for contact and defining problems more relationally. They at least provide entrées into the issues.
The current conflict represents simplistic belief systems that reduce the other side to essentialist practices and end up rendering everyone uninformed. For Muslims the fundamentalism gravitates toward puritanical religious ideology that defines offenses and outsiders. For Westerners fundamentalism equates liberal democracies with the natural flow of history and market economies as beyond criticism.
Real security is not a private good but one that is achieved by developing consensus, and cooperation, and interdependence – all relational terms. Justice cannot be imposed by one side but must be a concept that binds the two sides into a just relationship. They need a bigger story, another narrative that continues to develop the narrative of complementarity and compatibility. These temporary interdependencies formed against common enemies allow at least a toe if not a foot in the door.
There is a tendency, even for those who know better, to think of language as a simple carrier of meaning. That is, language is the mechanism that packages up meaning and does the work of transferring it from one person to another. So we refer to the “war” in the Middle East and this term “war” carries the vast and complex array of images and meanings that attend to the concept of war. But language is a symbol system that connects a sound or visual image with meaning and this connection is tenuous and changeable. It is not stable and simple. Language not only reflects cultural differences and nuances of meaning but also” constitutes” and creates meanings. Calling the Israel Palestine conflict a “war” implies images of purposeful behavior on the part of both parties to engage in violence, identify territory that one side is defending, and images of clashes between the two sides. But this does not describe the Israel Palestine conflict very accurately.
There are two qualities of language that are pertinent here: the first is this constitutive quality of language where if I refer to something in a particular way I can influence your perception of it and “constitute” a version of reality. This is a relatively simple notion. If I use a racial or ethnic epithet to describe someone or their group I am creating an image of them. I can manipulate the importance of an issue by changing the way I refer to it. During the Vietnam War there used to be “search and destroy missions” but this made the image of the American soldier to aggressive and violent so the term was changed to “reconnaissance in force.” Labeling the unintended killing of innocents as “collateral damage” is a well-known example of constituting desired meaning. These sorts of things are not simple verbal trickery but attempts to alter how you understand an action. A recent article in the Forward noted how the situation in Gaza changed Hebrew and the Hebrew adapted to the conflict. In the beginning the Israelis referred to the fighting in Gaza as mivtza or an “operation” and not as milhama which is the everyday term for “war” in Hebrew.
So is Israel engaged in an “operation” or a “war?” The implications for word choice are clear enough. War implies a greater commitment of effort and resources along with potential existential threats and of course the legal right to benefits for soldiers of various types. This is all less true of a simple “operation.” A culture, especially the military dimension of the culture, tends to build a linguistic structure and vocabulary around its own narrative and political interests. This is fine and understandable but remains an obstacle to peace and changing the language into a structure of peace and conflict management that is necessary for resolution.
The second maddening quality of language is the obverse of its power to parse reality and define it. It is the fact that language is never sufficiently precise to describe the reality you desire; it never quite captures or always falls a little short of just what you want to express. For example, we have the words “tall” and “short.” We use these words easily and regularly and describe people who are tall” or “short.” We are comfortable with these two terms and they easily describe the realities of “tall” and “short.” But what about all those places between “tall” and “short?” What about all those portions of reality that don’t fit into “tall” or “short?” We are stuck with clumsy modifiers such as “sort of tall,” or “a little bit short.” Is the conflict in Gaza an “operation” or “a war?” And if it is something in between or “sort of” both then what language do we use to describe it? It is an asymmetrical conflict but what all is exactly included in that semantic category?
Language is powerful enough and has the ability to either stimulate or constrain conversations. Perhaps one day the structure of language around the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians will include some of the following: “dialogue” (the search for mutuality), “pluralism” (a recognition and respect for differences), “kiyum mishutaf” (a true shared in common experience), “Sulha” (Arab conflict resolution).
The noted political theorists Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow have recognized how culture laden language is. They have demonstrated how examining changes in language help understand long-term changes in behavior. In particular these two theorists have studied the language of contention and demonstrated how it can be creative and facilitative of a transformation from one state of contention to something else – namely, something less contentious.
I’ve got an idea that is not really so bold as much as it is ignored. My idea responds to what I consider to be a weakness in the political considerations that characterize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And that weakness is the failure of sufficient input from the general populace. I mean meaningful input taken seriously. Polls in both Israel and Palestine indicate that upwards of 60% of the population wants peace and find the two state solution to be sensible. It is true, according to a new poll of Palestinians, that the two state solution is falling away in popularity. But it can be reinvigorated and it does represent something the Palestinians support. A few people (e.g. Hamas, settlers, elites) cause a lot of problems and their messages are sometimes confused with consensus. Moreover, political elites cannot always be trusted and are subject to their own strategic manipulations. We’ve seen nothing but failure in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even though it has been characterized by diplomatic influences.
In spite of all the political contact between the two sides the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is mired in complexity partially because the approach to peace building is not sufficiently multifaceted or inclusive of popular consciousness. Any sort of “people-to-people communication” can improve grassroots contact between the two sides, build coalitions, and engage ordinary citizens. But these forms of contact must also bubble up to influence political leaders.
I’m calling for groups of Palestinians and Israeli Jews to organize themselves into participatory groups characterized by democratic mechanisms that parallel the spread of recent nondemocratic dynamics. There are five other qualities that should be descriptive of these groups: first, these groups should be deeply integrated into the various communities; participants should be representative of the population, not elites. Two, these groups must be interdependent such that what happens in one group influences another group. Borders, population characteristics, and security matters are examples. Three, these groups have to be repeated often enough to discover consistent patterns that represent defensible conclusions. Four, they must be governed by principles of deliberation – some of which are discussed below – and democratic and public sphere criteria are expected. Finally, these groups must produce some sort of product and make it available to the public, which should be following the discussions anyway.
I do not intend for these groups to be revolutionary. They are grassroots movements designed to achieve a sustained message that typifies as much as possible population sentiments. The gap between public opinion and the perspective of the elected elites should be closed or constrained. The goal is to drive a reform agenda that improves the relationship between the populace and the government. These discussions should be as open and public as possible with the media performing their best function as a megaphone that reaches broad populations. The meetings should perform a legitimizing function and help find a path leading to some productive solutions.
There are more models and procedures for citizen participation then we can respond to here (click here for a description six models of citizen participation), but a standard model of participatory democracy is best. This is a general term that refers to democratic procedures and representative decision-making. That is, nonelected citizens have decision-making power and the communication within these groups empowers individuals and promotes their cooperation. Participatory democracy is a model for social justice and the relationship between civil society and the macro political system.
It is true that participatory democratic discussions are historically idealistic and can be abstract but there are a number of success stories and advantages under certain circumstances. Organizing such groups is not easy and requires political will but it remains a relatively unexplored avenue. Finding a pathway to peace is a social construction that must include public debate and discussion. If these proposed participatory groups can establish themselves and maintain consistency they will be less vulnerable to the destructive influences of extremists on both sides. And managing these extremists – these few people who cause a lot of trouble – is particularly important in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because these extremists will do anything to prevent productive solutions. Deep and widespread citizen engagement is probably necessary to build a foundation for a new political order that will be necessary if this conflict is going to be at least managed if not resolved.
There will be more on how to develop, organize, and structure these proposed public discussion in future posts.