Category Archives: Media and politics

The Media’s Distorted Relationship with Israel

Media Bias and IsraelMatti Friedman writing in The Atlantic wrote a trenchant article about what the media gets wrong with Israel. Friedman makes the point that the press is failing the public when it comes to its duty to inform and provide a platform for issues and debate. In a number of publications Friedman has pointed out stories that are purely ideological, an overemphasis on stories with a certain perspective, and a disproportionate amount of media attention on the conflict without being particularly informative. You can read The Atlantic article here.

His analysis is important because it recognizes the banality of news gathering (the pressure of deadlines, journalist fatigue, financial constraints, distractions) and how it influences news gathering and results in mistakes and minor distortions. But Friedman claims that the true explanation lies elsewhere and that the flow of information is intentionally manipulated. Here’s his explanation.

First, international journalists in Israel live in the same social context and have a certain uniformity of attitude and behavior. The people in these groups know one another and that’s why four or five stories written by different people sound alike. There is a uniformity to the stories because this group of people share information and talk on a regular basis. Journalists also tend to be liberal and that’s one reason that the Israeli story, according to Matti Friedman, is less known and understood then the Palestinian story.

The same is true for NGOs and humanitarian organizations. Journalists view them through a positive humanitarian filter and consequently write about them in the language of public relations puff pieces. The truth is that these NGOs and humanitarian organizations have political agendas, plenty of funding from international sources, and are happy to buy drinks in the American Colony Courtyard.

A disdain for Israel is almost a prerequisite for admission to this journalist social club. The conscientious new reporter arriving in Israel will spend time educating himself or herself about the conflict including its history, religion, and cultural implications. But many new journalist arrivals to Israel cling to their colleagues who already have a framework and a “story” about who’s a good guy who’s a bad guy. Many of the standard criticisms have already been described and producing a story is little more than coordinating and repackaging stories that have already been written. The Middle East is full of failed governments that are authoritarian and corrupt, but there is more likely to be a story critical of Israel than anyone else.

Friedman bluntly indicts the Associated Press for having moved from a journalistic tradition of careful description to one of advocacy. Moreover, there has developed a narrative, or a story with standard plot lines and characteristics, that is increasingly consistent and coherent for both Palestinians and Israelis. But the Israeli narrative is fueled more by ideology than facts. The standard script for Israel has more bad guys (settlers, far right politicians, IDF, Netanyahu), but the only Palestinian “bad guys” are abstract groups (e.g. Jihadists).

There has always been a gap between what journalists write and what is actually going on, but in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict the gap is too large and the distortions too intentional. The Israeli narrative, in addition to its long list of bad guys, portrays the Palestinians as weak and innocent victims and the Israelis as oppressors. Groups like Hamas choose journalists to talk to carefully and use them to magnify messages.

There is a cynical attitude about truth in the modern world which denies its existence and claims that any agreed-upon truths are social constructions anyway. Such an argument might be defensible on the basis of philosophical discourse but less so on the basis of political discourse. Much of what is written about Israel fits that narrative constructed by others and is either completely untrue or “untrue enough.” Ferreting out and reviewing as much truth as possible is a continuing journalist challenge.

Covering Israel: Western Democratic Traditions and Moral Failings

Times Opinion pageThe Israeli-Palestinian conflict is always here. It continues year after year as populations everywhere grow weary. The other issue that is always with us is the charge of biased news coverage. Large numbers of people will charge, for example, the New York Times with blatant bias and their fury seems to jump from the page. The next day another group will accuse the Times of being the mouthpiece for Israel. You can’t win and you don’t know who to believe. Margaret Sullivan of the New York Times recently expressed similar frustrations in an article called “The Conflict and the Coverage.”

Frustrating and futile as it seems to be, newspapers of quality such as the New York Times must continue to grapple with how they can do better. And they must continue to search for standards that ensure balance, context, and accuracy. Even though we have a tradition of aspiring to objective journalism the public remains ignorant about how journalists actually work, not to mention the difference between “bias” and “perspective.” Moreover it is impossible to write a story from a perspective that matches everyone. But let me suggest to you three good reads on the matter of covering Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The first one we mentioned above is Margaret Sullivan who is the public editor for the New York Times. Sullivan concludes that The Times does everything in its power to be fair and does have a basic worldview that Israel has a right to exist. This assumption puts them at odds with radical critics of Israel such that nothing The Times does will be satisfactory. She makes four suggestions: (1) provide more historical and geopolitical context, (2) improve the engagement between the newspaper and the public so that the public can ask questions and learn more about journalists, (3) improve the coverage of Palestinians, and (4) stop straining for equivalencies. In other words, take a stand when defensible and necessary.

If you want a perspective from a blogger strongly supportive of Israel who corrects biases and misunderstandings then go to “How Not to Report on Israel (and How It Can Be Done Correctly”). You will not find detailed data and argument on the site but you will find the perspective of a cultural native who is tapped into the consciousness of Israel. This is a useful perspective because many journalists covering the Middle East have a modest at best working knowledge of history, culture, language. This may not be true of journalists such as Thomas Friedman but he is an exception as well as an editorial writer which allows him to stay above the fray; that is, he is rarely if ever on the ground reporting facts.

A final reading is from Tablet magazine entitled “An Insider’s Guide to the Most Important Story on Earth.” In this essay a former AP correspondent explains how so much of the reporting fails to understand Israel. Yet the international media is consistent in its reporting and suggests a narrative or an understanding of Israel that is largely misdirected. First, so many media assumes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is more important than others where more people die and the politics are more contentious. This “magnification” process often associated with the media is truly operational here. The conflict also garners attention because it takes place in the center of the three Abraham religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – and this infuses it with significance. Secondly, it is simply policy to favor stories that are about violence more than peace and reconciliation. When a political party is elected to government and it seeks a moderate path and contact with the Palestinians the story goes untold. This is true, according to Matti Friedman the author of the Tablet story, because of the pressure to maintain the consistent narrative that has the Palestinians as the underdog seeking a home and historical justice, but Israel as difficult and unmoving as it drifts rightward.

The coverage of Israel has moved from fair and supportive to unfair and critical. And no fair treatment of Israel can ignore either its strong Western democratic traditions or its moral failings. But it is also true that Israel is not a symbol for everything right or wrong, good or evil, solvable and not. The coverage of Israel requires some critical empathy on the part of all sides.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Social Media Does Damage to the Israeli-Palestinian Debate

I always tell students or groups that I am speaking to not to fall into the trap of communication ideology. By ideology I mean slavish adherence to a set of beliefs about how communication works. One piece of communication ideology is that the more opportunity for communication the better; that is, all opportunities and technological availabilities devoted to the increase in communicative contact are by definition “good.” For example, some of the most current and interesting research procedures have graphically displayed how contact in the world of social media has detracted from Israel-Palestine debate. An article at Vox.com on how social media makes the debate worse explains how polarization is on the increase and there is even less contact between the opposing sides. The article makes the argument that social media makes things worse between Israel and Palestine. How can that be?

The graph in this link displays clusters of contact and those locations in the graph where there are large gaps between clusters are indicators of lack of contact. In those places where contacts cluster each point in the cluster has lots of neighbors; that is, there are groups of connections that increase the likelihood of additional connections. This creates clusters and indicators and there is strong and regular reciprocal contact between members of that cluster neighborhood. In effect, it is an empirical indicator of the confirmation hypothesis or the fact that people turn to those like them for evidence to confirm their beliefs and ignore others with opposing views.

The data displays in the two links are a visualization of the results of analysis of the interactions between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups. As the graph depicts, each camp talks mostly to those in their preferred camp. This difficult and violent conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians has entrenched each side in its own discourse such that they spend most of their time reinforcing each other. It is also a rather dramatic display of the lack of cooperation between the two sides. The flow of information between these two politicized camps is stunted. This results in members of each camp living within a bounded community of language and ideas related to the conflict and, most importantly, never getting beyond the limits of their own thinking and information. The matrix of ideas and attitudes they live in may be defensible, but if they don’t see the language and matrix of ideas from the other side than they do not have a full picture of the conflict. To put it simply, cooperation and engaged problem-solving will not result when the two sides share such little common information.

One response to this problem is to improve the media environment such that each has more access to the same media. Middle ground media typically fail to gain the energy and intensity of partisan media but they are more effective as bridging structures: in other words, bridging structures or bridging discourse connects groups and exposes them to opposing viewpoints. As of now, social media is failing miserably because it is simply one more mechanism of providing exposure and reinforcement to those who already agree with you. It is, in Dryzek’s words, bringing forth more “bonding” discourse which unites people of similar dispositions but divides them from others. Bridging discourse is harder work because it must understand the other group and build a bridge – a discursive bridge – between the two divided groups. The simplistic theory of social media, that it would facilitate an open flow of contact, gives way to a more realistic theory that demonstrates how people affirm what they already believe.

Lotan’s research in the first link above offers up strong evidence that partisans from the two sides rarely talk to one another. Moreover, the more you are committed and ego involved in a political issue the more likely you are to ignore evidence to the contrary and resist making the other side look good. Some of these cluster networks maintain a cycle of self-reinforcement that keeps each side trapped in his or her discourse. We could say that a tribal mentality continues.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seeing Media Bias Everywhere Is Bad for Democracy – and Peace

Media hear and see no evelThere is a well-known study conducted in 1985 that ran a perfectly simple clean little experiment. One group favorable toward Israel and another group supportive of the Arabs were exposed to identical news stories about the violence in Lebanon in 1982. Even though both groups saw the same story, and all conditions of the experiment were the same, each believed the coverage was distorted and biased with respect to their own side; that is, they thought the media was hostile to their side. This is termed “the hostile media effect” and it very simply refers to the tendency to prefer your own group (either pro-Israel or pro-Arab) and distort perceptions of an “out” group and thus believe that the media are hostile to your side but lenient and supportive of the other side.

Given the orgy of news coverage surrounding the war in Gaza, and the inevitable outcry about media bias, I thought I would clarify some distinctions and explain the social scientific foundation of media bias. More journalists and reporters work more diligently to present a balanced view of the conflict then the public gives them credit for. But the same journalists will tell you that their good efforts to be balanced are for naught and they are flooded with mail claiming bias regardless of what they do. This tells you that the bias probably comes from the consumer of the message rather than the producer.

The general tendency to see bias is common enough. One of the most well-established relationships is between message distortion and group identity. If you sort people into two groups (e.g. Israelis-Palestinians) this immediately sets into motion a series of processes that influence how messages are interpreted. And, these interpretations always favor one group or another including interpreting messages as biased against their own side. The results of the 1985 study referred to earlier have been replicated with numerous topics and events. We prefer to think of ourselves as treating people equally or respecting diversity of all sorts but the truth is we strongly identify with groups and define ourselves according to group membership.

From a rather straightforward evolutionary perspective, any exposure of your ingroup to negative information is perceived as a potential threat. This stimulates our sense of self protection, which takes precedence over other cognitive processes, and causes us to question the nature and quality of the information. Claiming that the media are biased against us or the information is substandard allows group members to minimize the inconsistency between their group favorability and information inconsistent with maintaining their ingroup status.

Moreover, the more one intensely identifies with their group – such as a religious group or ethnic identity – the more individuals feel potential threat and the more intense is the relationship between group identity and sensitivity to information threats. These relationships are further intensified when group members consider their group to be particularly threatened or vulnerable. If you ask a strong supporter of Israel or a Palestinian whether or not they feel their group is vulnerable, or threatened, or disrespected they will certainly answer in the affirmative and consequently are more responsive than most to information threats.

There are of course numerous consequences to the distortion of perceptions and information resulting from group identity – sometimes deadly consequences – but the threat to democracy is a problem that receives less attention than psychological ones. There are three of them: one, the quality of information failure. Information is discounted or judged negatively sometimes when it should not be. It becomes difficult to find common information acceptable to both sides which is necessary for conflict resolution. Secondly, group identity distortions result in political polarization. The two sides of an issue see themselves as more extreme than they might actually be and retreat to more extreme positions which makes it even more difficult to manage problems. And third, the sense of being threatened or the recipient of hostile media attention creates conditions that justify more extreme or even violent behavior. The group considers its existence to be in jeopardy and this justifies more extreme behavior in the interest of “protecting themselves.” It is analogous to increasing constraints on civil rights in the face of terrorist activity.

How do we moderate group identity affects? We will pay some attention to that issue next week.

 

 

 

5 Dumb Moments on The Israel-Palestine Conflict

5 dumb moments when it comes to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. At the number 5 spot is Joan Rivers. She claims to know what is going on between Israel and the Palestinians because “she has been there.” I suppose if you can afford to fly to Israel then you will become knowledgeable. All of the nuances of the conflict become clear to you as you relax by the pool at the King David. Of course your credentials are never more evident than when you claim somebody else is not bright enough to understand the issues.

Howard Stern, coming in at number 4, uses the same approach to the discussion which is to claim everyone around him is stupid and doesn’t have the right to speak, attacks easy targets such as Rihanna, and spouts mostly macho stereotypes about Israel or the Palestinians.

Below is a video featuring conservative talk show host Dennis Prager (number 3) and he commits the sin of simple simplicity. Prager stares into the screen with an unemotional tone about how this problem is not so difficult, it all boils down to the fact that “they hate us.” Prager cites the line often attributed to Netanyahu that if the Arabs lay down their arms and announced peace there would be no more war, but if the Jews lay down their arms and announced peace, there would be no more Jews.

This is the “they hate us” theory. It is an emotional shorthand that distills every political disagreement and the entire history of the conflict including the clear political issues into a single emotional outburst. The “they hate us” theory trivializes politics, turns issues that truly demand attention into unsolvable simplicities, and promotes a defeatist sense that nothing will change.

I could not resist an example from Hamas which is just about laughable because it will say anything it needs to at any time regardless of the lie. Of course the segment is not “funny” but it is absurd which makes it funny. This fellow from Hamas actually invoked the blood libel’s from the primitive past. He did it in Arabic probably as a result of speaking different ways to different audiences. Still, to make reference to such silliness is so intellectually embarrassing that I just had to include it.

This Is Senator Gohmert from Texas and he fits the entire stereotype. This is the number 1 funniest and dumbest statement on the Israel Palestine conflict. The poor fellow has his politics, history, and religion confused and it is wrapped around his delightful Texas idiomatic speech.

 

Is This Editorial Cartoon Funny?

Scale Cartoon for Israeli TeenagersPeople enjoy political cartoons. They make for fast iconic processing and cut to the quick of a point. This cartoon by Steve Bell is clearly cynical and anti-Israel. Its essential point is clear enough – that Israel values its own lives greater than that of the Palestinians. An even deeper and more cynical and insensitive interpretation would be that “only” three lives are considered more significant than all of the Palestinians.

But the cartoon does represent the mindset that characterizes the perception of Israel. On the one hand, any culture disproportionally prefers its own people and interpretations of its culture that are favorable. Why wouldn’t an Israeli, or an American, or member of any other culture be at least just a little biased towards its own people and political conditions? But this cartoon doesn’t state an obvious political reality; it’s not a simple statement of support and preference for one’s own that anyone can understand. No, it’s an indictment. It is a charge that Israel considers itself to be superior, that the lives of three teenagers (three coffins draped in an Israeli flag) are considered more important than all the Palestinian suffering.

Political cartoons that are rich in interpretive possibilities lend themselves to multiple issues and implications. This one not only accuses Israel of unfair and biased attitudes about human life but also speaks to the issues of moral superiority and moral equivalence. It accuses Israel of considering themselves to be morally superior, which is why the death of the three teens outweighs the Palestinian experience or the other side of the scale. And even though, as referred to above, this is common enough and true of any political culture in the hands of a cynical cartoonist it becomes an accusation. Moreover, as part of this bias towards one’s own group, there is the matter of moral equivalence or the belief that your own group is equally as justified as any other group. If the killing of the three teenagers was the act of a crazed individual (such as in the case of Baruch Goldstein) then that is different than it being a political act. But if Hamas for example consciously planned to kidnap and kill three Israeli kids coming home from school as part of a political statement, then an aggressive response is justified.

One of the most pernicious aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the sense of moral equivalence on both sides. The Palestinians believe they are morally superior because more of them have died, and the Israelis believe they are morally superior because of their developed political culture as well as the conviction that they are a legitimately established state that is surrounded by enemies and simply defending themselves.

Research on political cartoons reports that cartoonists want to expose the system and encourage resistance. They clearly have an agenda, which is fine because that’s their job. But a persistent bias toward one issue is no different than any journalist engaging in conscious and systematic bias with respect to an issue. An editorial cartoonist is particularly adept at exposing hypocrisy and absurdity and these cartoon moments are powerful when there is a consensus recognizing hypocrisy and absurdity. But a cartoonist who simply hammers away portraying his or her own biased political perspective is little more than a journalist hack.

Political cartoons are naturally critical and typically have a sharp cutting-edge humor and insight to them. And this is why we enjoy them. If they subvert those in power and draw attention to the corruption of deep or sacred principles than editorial cartoons are powerful communication forces. A cartoon may not prompt revolution in the streets but it can be and should be oppositional in the most honorable sense. If we laugh or see ourselves in bitter recognition then the cartoon is successful. But propagating an indefensible cultural stereotype aimed at one culture and interpreting that culture through a single lens (the accusation of Israeli moral superiority in this case) moves beyond insightful cartoons into the realm of rank bias.

Unleashing the Blogs of War

blog image

The blogging community is growing, stretching its muscles and increasing its influence. Blogs are, according to a number of studies, providing more insight and more thoughtful analysis than traditional media. Clearly, there are amateurish and ineffectual blogs that contaminate the blogo sphere but these will always be with us as long as communication environments are unrestrained.

In a study by Johnson and Kaye (Media, War & Conflict, Vol 3, 2010) they discovered that the Iraqi war was a significant event with respect to blogs when people began to see them as more thoughtful and often more accurate than traditional media. Until then, blogs were mostly annoying sideshows dismissed by quality journalism as something not to be taken seriously. But soldiers in Iraq who began to write war blogs and report on what they were seeing, including a natural view of the military and the culture of military life, began to acquire support. These military blogs were popular and attracted the attention of traditionally trained journalists as well as the public.

But a strong majority of Americans who supported the war up until the toppling of Saddam Hussein began to fade away as the war effort shifted to state building in Iraq. Attention to blogs began to wane and it appeared that military blogs were consistently the most popular and blogs lost some of their appeal as things moved to routine politics. Still, the public recognizes that government sources control wartime news and these sources of course have their limitations and biases. The beginning of the Iraqi war and the hunt for Saddam Hussein produced more cheerleaders than journalists.

In time of war blogs written by soldiers are particularly popular for some rather straightforward reasons. They offer up more detail, insight, and perspective as well as assumed to be more authentic. Moreover blogs by soldiers, or more detached participants, can write in a subjective and breezy style that does not adhere to normal journalistic standards. And although this can have disadvantages it makes for more enjoyable reading. The interactive features of blogs are also very popular where readers can respond and initiate extended discussions.

Johnson and Kaye found that blogs were influential in establishing perceptions and had the power to influence opinions. Readers of blogs in their study reported increased influence and attributions of credibility about the blog as time went on. There are of course a number of political and foreign-policy explanations for this including the influence of changing popularity from traditional media.

Also of interest is the predominance of Republican and conservative ideology among blog readers and users. We would expect military blogs to be largely conservative but overall blog attention increases among Republicans and conservatives. In the same way that conservative radio and television is more popular or “works better” than liberal programming, conservative ideologies seem to seek out alternative media probably because of their general belief in liberal media bias.

Some years ago it seemed quite unlikely that citizens would drift away from CNN and traditional news and start partaking regularly of blogs for war news, a time when blogs were considered more hardscrabble upstarts then respected and reliable. But the blogosphere is growing and shaping itself into something significant as well as genuinely challenging traditional news. The blogs of war were unleashed during the Iraqi war just at the moment where technology and politics intersected.

Ethnopolitical Capitalism and Access to Communication Technology

Most and Lease Expensive Cities

The table above represents the most and least expensive countries in the world. I’m not so concerned in this posting with a discussion of cost of living but with the relationship between how expensive it is to live somewhere and access to media, computers in particular. There is a correlation, a strong correlation, between developing countries and what has been termed the “digital divide.” This lack of access to information and information technology is not a simple unfortunate byproduct of other things, but a crucial issue with respect to economic and social development. Media access will provide the crucial information and knowledge that make developing countries more productive.

The full implication of the consequences of the digital divide are still being untangled, but there is no doubt that the cheapest places to live are usually developing countries and they lag significantly behind industrialized countries when it comes to technology and the Internet. Even more interesting and perhaps detrimental to developing cultures is the fact that these developing countries focus on infrastructure rather than how the technologies are to be used. Of course, infrastructure is important and necessary but issues in information strategies, diffusion of information, and political possibilities are perhaps more important. Communication technology lowers barriers to the development of democracy, helping disadvantaged communities, and facing social problems. There have always been the “haves” and “have-nots” but now there is the “information rich” and “information poor.”

Muslims and the Digital Divide

Catherine O’Donnell in an article on Political Parties and the Digital Divide explains that Muslims are increasingly wired and have made progress in the last years. In particular political parties are online accompanied by growth in blogs, listserv’s, and chat groups. Interestingly, politics in Muslim countries is increasingly online but the divide between rich and poor countries is greater than ever. Developed countries have more high-speed broadband and sophisticated infrastructure. Again, the price of living in developed and undeveloped countries is predictive. The cost of an hour of Internet in a cyber café located in one of the developed countries in the chart above has dropped significantly. But this is not true for less-developed countries.

Prejudice and the Digital Divide

One more insidious relationship is between race and technological availability and use. Technological power is deepening the levels of discrimination suffered by those who live in undeveloped countries and are especially a member of a minority or disadvantaged group. Technological power advantages those already in power and reproduces the class system that makes it so difficult for less powerful groups to prosper. The study “Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide” documents the relationship between the use of new digital technology and disadvantaged groups. Below are some conclusions from the study, which was completed in 1999 so the actual data has changed, but the general thrust of the conclusions still hold.

“Those with higher education have more access to information technology.”

“High income families are more likely than low income families to have Internet access.”

“Political disadvantages are correlated with communication technology disadvantages.”

There is not only a racial divide but an ethnopolitical one. Group contact, including dialogue and deliberation, predominantly rely on access to new technology. And this is increasingly true because new technology provides the means and opportunity for communicative exchange at a far greater level then could ever be achieved by organizing face-to-face contact.

Computer skill and access to the technology and training necessary to maximize their use is a form of new power. If these new technologies are not made available to disadvantaged groups then power gaps will grow even greater and the differences between groups that typically lead to tension and communicative distortions will be exaggerated. Equally as important is the content that travels on communication technology. Dialogue between contentious groups such as Islam and the West must find the public sphere. This is most likely to be in cyberspace.

No Advocate for New Media Would Want to Take Credit for Egypt or Ukraine

Facebook must be truly a magical medium. It cannot only reconnect you with your old high school friends but whip up a democratic revolution in its spare time. It received so much initial credit for the Arab Spring that political activists in places like Egypt began to question whether or not they were sufficiently committed or worked hard enough. Well, that was all an exaggeration but it is the case that Facebook had at least “something” to do with influencing the uprisings.

I enjoy my twitter (that’s me @dellis2) and Facebook accounts and they represent truly important advances in technology and the puffed up power of information networks. But as of now their media created images remain more potent than the reality; the impact of online activists is exaggerated although not unimportant. Marc Lynch, writing in Foreign Policy (Twitter Devolutions), argues that the power of social media must be tempered, that activists and academics sang the praises of these new media too loudly and they are subject to more criticism than has been levied. Moreover, the gritty politics that follow these uprisings is more important for shaping political life, yet if you judge by news coverage new media seem to have little to do with this. Facebook and twitter only seem to rear their heads during times of revolution. Off-line politics is turbulent but remains more central to the struggle for transition from authoritarian systems to more democratic ones. Below are some questions and issues that must be addressed with respect to new media because on the one hand new media get too much press, but on the other they are truly impactful. This means our understanding must be more nuanced.

1. Why do social media seem to get more attention or have more impact during revolutions or times of upheaval? During quiet times Facebook seems to offer little more than a pleasant pastime or benign exchange of information. There is still a tinge of awe surrounding new technology that lends technologically laden significance to a story that it carries. The story is not trivial because it is circulating on new media; on the contrary, it is important. When there is a crisis or political instability Facebook and Twitter seem to structure stories quickly as “good vs. evil” or “right vs. wrong.” I would guess, and I have yet to see data on such an effect, that any flurry of new media activity has a polarizing effect that results in binary oppositions such as “right vs. wrong.”

In the article cited above, Lynch observed that during the most active times in Cairo the Muslim Brotherhood and the non-Islamist online community structured their Twitter and Facebook exchanges exactly as described. Every time a story was critical of the Muslim Brotherhood it was quickly shared and reinforced by additional stories critical of the Brotherhood. And the same was true of the other side, every story critical of non-Islamist political activists was redistributed and shared by the Muslim Brotherhood thus perpetuating spirals of polarization. Habermas’s glorious inclusive and democratically aesthetic public sphere was nowhere to be found.

2. Why is it that social media are better at organizing and stimulating upheaval then routine politics? The new media seem to love energy and issue-driven controversies rather than the slow work of building political organizations. Again, Lynch points out that Twitter and Facebook were more successful at merging once disparate coalitions than mobilizing masses of voters. Perhaps Facebook is simply easier and faster and works best when a political situation is amenable to faster organization. Moreover new media can quickly employ the power of visual and auditory messages that increase their impact. Violence or a grisly death can be captured immediately on a cell phone and uploaded within minutes. This captures the attention of activist groups and encourages involvement. There is a “thrill” to new media because of its speed and multi-sensory impact that is not present during routine politics. we have not heard much from Ukraine but pay attention as things heat up.

3. The political strengths of Twitter and Facebook can be easily challenged by any regime willing to be as repressive as it needs to be. Places like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, not to mention Iran and Syria, are finding new ways to interfere with online activism including shutting them down when necessary. After enough pressure, and it does not take much, citizens and active account users will simply stop participating in online activity in order to avoid persecution and even violence. The possibility of harassment and arrest make it quite easy to withdraw from the online community. But it does pose the conservative dilemma which is that shutting down new media causes an uproar and does as much damage as good in the eyes of the dictator.

The various social media did not create revolutions in Egypt or the Arab spring, but they did play a role. They have undermined traditional models of information and helped elites and activists empower themselves in order to facilitate change. But if we hail the opportunities for elites and activists to encourage democratic changes, we have to also recognize the problems and limitations of these new forms of communication. At the moment, given the instabilities  in Egypt and other countries, no advocate for new media would want to take credit for the current political realities.

Edited From Feb 2013

Movie Stars, War Criminals, and Criticism of Israel

Once again we are confronted with monstrous contradictions, ideological ignorance as well as inconsistency, and an oppressive and unfair singling out of one group (Israel) that certainly smells of anti-Semitism if nothing else. It’s another one of those moments when the world seems less than sane. Israel a vibrant democratic market economy surrounded by less developed political cultures is targeted by a fringe anti-Israel movement called BDS or boycott, divestment, and sanction.

Daniel Schwammenthal wrote in The Wall Street Journal Europe about how the BDS crowd  might as well label Scarlett Johansson a war criminal of all things because she works for and supports SodaStream a highly successful sophisticated soft drink company. SodaStream is a model of coexistence, sustainability, peace, and corporate responsibility. They make a tasty fizzy drink and the company is operated by the Israelis and Palestinians together including Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Druze. The company is known for its environmental sensitivity and complete equality between Israelis and Israeli Arabs. There are no discrepancies in compensation and the Arab employees average more income than other Israeli Arabs. Again, the factory is an example of cooperation and what future relations could look like between Israeli Arabs and Israelis.

SodaStream has numerous factories but one of them is in the West Bank. That was all it would take for BDS to get fired up and target Scarlett Johansson and Sodastream as war criminals and violators of human rights. Never mind that if Israel is going to create factories and jobs that include Israeli Arabs than the West Bank is probably going to be implicated. I’m sure BDS’s slick public relations arm was drooling at the opportunity to use Ms. Johansson’s celebrity to magnify their own media presence.

Never mind again that this is pseudo-activism designed to keep pressure on Israel along with a constant flow of criticism without paying any attention whatsoever to issues and analysis. The location of the factory would probably end up in that portion of what is now the West Bank that will be the new state of Palestine – someday one hopes. Additionally, the economic infusion and stimulation provided by SodaStream is not insignificant and makes for considerable economic benefits to the local community. It seems as though BDS is more interested in boycotting the factory and subjecting it to inflamed media criticism than it is the well-being of the 500 Palestinians and their families that work in the factory.

But BDS must be taken seriously because they have convinced more than a few governments and organizations to withdraw investments from Israel. The EU is on the verge of preventing funding that benefits anything related to the West Bank. The pressures on Israeli banks that have relationships with settlements is preventing EU investment money from helping various communities. Once again sanity seems to elude these people and their organizations. It will not be long until Iran is one screw turn away from a nuclear weapon but the sanctions imposed on them don’t seem to be very bothersome. Democratic freedoms of all sorts including gay rights struggle amidst Israel’s neighbors but the EU turns a blind eye. Mahmoud Abbas continues to pay salaries and ignore terrorism.

And all this time the EU continues to support Palestinian communities even though their record of development is poor. They support the Palestinian right to ignore serious peace treaty attempts and encourage them in numerous unproductive ways. Everyone knows, for example, that some sort of compromise is going to have to take place in which Israel keeps selected settlements in exchange for giving up others. Moreover, there will have to be adjustments and compromises on all sorts of issues pertaining to refugees, borders, and the definition of each state. And, yes, Israel too must make some changes, but the EU does not work with Palestinians in a pragmatic manner designed to move them toward solutions. The EU does not communicate or use its position as an honest broker to properly direct Palestinian attention.

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