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.
I’ve been skeptical about emerging democracies in the Middle East in general but Egypt in particular. There have been a few positive signs here and there and that is encouraging. Last week’s post was devoted to REAL democracies and, if I do say so myself, was a pretty convincing comparison of what even rudimentary democracies should look like and how places like Egypt do not measure up.
But I thought Walter Russell Mead’s article in the Wall Street Journal on the failure of our grand plans in the Middle East was particularly insightful. You can find the article here. In fact, I thought his main point about what actually happened with the takedown of Mubarak was so convincing that my dose of depression about Egypt’s supposed emerging democracy is on the increase. And although I’m not convinced of each point made by Mead, his analysis of the relationship between the military and the government is spot on. The military is a privileged organization in Egyptian society. The military leadership is an elitist segment of the society that garners significant benefits and perks, which they are not about to give up easily. Some of the strongest and most accomplished leaders in Egypt are military, and they move easily between the military and the civilian government. The military is highly integrated into Egyptian politics and considers itself the dominant and most important state institution.
It turns out, according to Mead, that Mubarak was trying to arrange for his son to be his successor and avoid altogether the military’s role in choosing a future leader. This would have turned Egypt into a family dynasty rather than a military republic. The military leadership was having none of this and was involved in fighting back partially by creating unrest. The military touted their democratic credentials by standing back and letting protest movements challenge Mubarak until he fell. They then stepped in and restored peace and quite skillfully played the father-protector role. Even though the military is more powerful than the Muslim Brotherhood, they accepted the appointment of Morsi initially believing they could manage him. When Morsi turned out to be less than competent and failed to understand his role the military removed him. Again, Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood credentials worked to his disadvantage since both the military and the general population is suspicious of the Brotherhood.
So, what do we have now! We have the Egypt in the 1950s. Egypt is a military republic that has come full circle and made no progress toward democracy. Mead continues to explain that the population assumes that only the military can protect them from the Islamists and hence maintain a sympathetic attitude toward the military. The other two forces in society – liberals and the Muslim Brotherhood – are fluttering in the background incapable of doing much.
Both Mubarak and the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood are on trial which I presume will justify military political goals. Mubarak, who is from the military, was sentenced to life imprisonment but a retrial was ordered. This will allow the military to remove Mubarak but pay their debts to one of their own. The military has skillfully deposed Mubarak and appeased the population who would have revolted had they watched him walk away free, but the military will ensure that Mubarak’s final days are quiet and in the background.
Egypt is an important culture and strategic ally of the United States. A couple of years ago there was great hope and optimism for enlightened progress in Egypt. But such hope and optimism are waning. We have to sit back for a while and let Egypt stabilize before altering our foreign-policy stance. But we can’t sit back for too long because issues related to Iran, the peace treaty with Israel, Islamism, terrorism, and various strategic interests await us.
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 multisensory impact that is not present during routine politics.
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.
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 still raging in Egypt and other countries, no advocate for new media would want to take credit for the current political realities.
Claims that new media such as Facebook, Twitter, and the Internet have significant impacts on political activity and protest continue to swirl around in the academic world in particular. It takes little more than a local citizen to be interviewed and report his use of Facebook for the world believe that these fancy new media are responsible for protest and the outbreak of Jeffersonian democracy. Consequently, there is contentious debate about the role of social media in crystallizing events in certain countries. The long-term research on these matters is sparse but we can introduce a scholarly perspective and at least “sum up” our current state of knowledge. There is a review article pertaining to the Internet and politics here. Below I will intertwine some commentary with a statement of the general direction of this research.
It is true that social media play a role in political protest and organization. But it is important not to overstate the role. The riots and eventual overthrow of Mubarak were influenced by social media but not caused by them. This is especially true as a protest spreads because it becomes more difficult to contain information. If the social upheaval gains traction, if it refuses to fade away and the size of the crowds swell, then many participants will begin documenting and sharing images. This becomes a self reinforcing cycle as it becomes apparent that more people are participating and thus encouraging others to participate.
The opportunity for what is termed “user generated content” is a special feature of new media. This means that information and stories about political activity are removed from the sole hands of the official journalist community. Bloggers and users of Facebook and Twitter begin to produce content, write stories, and take pictures and essentially become citizen journalists. A so-called “citizen journalist” will have a different perspective than the professional journalist. He or she will have a more subjective and “on the ground” view with a more hard hitting human impact. That is one reason why social media are better at coordinating leaderless challenges to authority than they are at organizing democratic processes. Dramatic photographs that come to characterize a political movement (burning flags, violent police or security people, dead innocents) are increasingly likely to be taken by citizens with new media capabilities. The amount and quality of user generated content is also dependent on the richness of the media system of the country. Egypt, for example, had greater use of Twitter with more tweets from organizations and activists then did Tunisia. It is not surprising that Egypt and Tunisia, which have more new media users than any country in the region, experienced greater social upheaval and pressure toward change. An interesting future research question will be to explain why some countries have experienced unsuccessful protests (Algeria, Bahrain) or no protest at all (Saudi Arabia) even though these are cultures with access to new media.
New media lowers the cost of collective action. It makes organization cheaper and available to more people. A key challenge in all social organization is to take networks of people with weak ties and coordinate and motivate them. The quick, inexpensive, and pervasive contacts available through Twitter or Facebook make this easier. But the downside is that the ease of contact and organization made possible by new media makes it more difficult to build permanent and durable social structures. This is related to the term “slacktavist” or the tendency for new media to be an easy way to contribute, a way that does not require much effort, but make people feel like they are doing more than they actually are.
This tendency to make dramatic claims for the effects of new media continues: Jay Carney, a spokesman for the White House, claimed that the video offensive to Islam caused the riots in Libya. We know now of course that the video had no such potency. Still, because the Internet is not confined by physical boundaries it provides political actors with a number of opportunities. It becomes easier to destabilize social systems from afar. There are now electronic diasporas that enable ethnic or religious communities to stay in touch with their home countries and maintain identities rather than assimilate into a host country. Muslim communities that ring the city of Paris are one example. Lack of cohesion, difficulty with language and employment, and regular cultural tensions are consequences of failing to assimilate and maintaining an identity within ethnic homeland. It is also important not to forget that the Internet is more vulnerable to censorship than you might think. There is an association between Internet use and democratic processes in a country, but this is probably more likely the result of democracies allowing widespread Internet use.
In the future it will be impossible to study social protest or conflicts without including the Internet and the tools that it makes available. New technologies are increasingly integrated into our political consciousness and more than anything else are influencing the information process. In other words, it will affect what news becomes available to different cultures, how fast it reaches various subgroups, and as exemplified by Wikileaks it will make new information available. In the end, social movements are increasingly dependent on new media but it remains the case that such movements have ethnopolitical explanations and that politics and history come first.
It is sensible to ask what recent events generally termed the “Arab Spring” mean. That is, even if we identify winners and losers and good things and bad things is it more than a parlor game. One wit took umbrage at the term “Arab Spring” because everybody knows that there are only two seasons in the Arab world neither one of which is Spring. It’s always an easy and correct copout to say it’s too early to know, and indeed there are numerous strategic and political implications yet to be realized. But it remains true that leaders have been driven from four Arab countries – Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia – and there is nothing insignificant about this. Syria is teetering on the brink while others – Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon – have been influenced by the uprisings. As easy as it is to make a case in either direction I believe there are four trends, some of them positive but not all, to the events of the past year.
1. The people have spoken and are energized. It was common knowledge that most political action in Arab regimes was among the elites. That it was the elites who determined the future and set the agenda. The influence of popular will was considered minimal and easy to ignore. With strong military influences and authoritarian traditions the voices from the streets were easy to hold down. Tahrir square showed that this was no longer the case. Clearly a rational deliberative democracy is not going to break out in Egypt anytime soon, but there has been a power shift toward popular voices.
2. Popular will and democratic voices have unleashed support for the Muslim Brotherhood. The future will see the emergence of an Iranian presence and a developing role for political Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed in Egypt and held at bay for decades – now they hold electoral power. It’s possible that the Muslim Brotherhood could be considered an antidote to Al Qaeda, a softening of the Al Qaeda message because the Brotherhood must deal with the practical political issues of the population. But it is also the case that the Muslim Brotherhood will produce increasing anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric, not to mention a stubborn and difficult relationship with Israel. The last thing Egypt needs is a war with Israel and troubles along the border with the Gaza Strip. But it’s difficult to imagine the parliamentary power of the Muslim Brotherhood making life easier for Israel.
3. The American foreign-policy position will have to do business with the Muslim Brotherhood and religious oriented political parties. The United States will simply have to reconcile itself to Islamist dominated parties in Arab countries. The US still makes the mistake of believing that elections are the most important facet of democracy. We still have not internalized that when you are “in for a dime you are in for a dollar.” In other words, if we support open and free elections then you must be able to live with the results. Ideally, democracy building starts with institutions and habits of the mind before elections. But on the other hand political Islam is in its infancy stages and will, I believe, be one of the most interesting political theory developments in the future. If Western countries can play a role in this development, then so much the better for the future of international relations.
4. Finally, I have been surprised by the behavior of the Saudi’s. For most of their history they have been a rich and politically lazy society that did little more than produce oil and religion topped off with a dollop of authoritarianism. Moreover, the basis of much of their foreign-policy has been simply to buy off enemies and do what is ever necessary for their own self-preservation. They seem to be continuing down this path and have little regard for the promotion of any sorts of freedom or rights for their own people. Their assignment of military forces to Bahrain was designed to squash any hint of liberal democracy and to make a statement that they were not could allow such dalliances in their neighborhood.
There remains plenty of political and social forces that will shape the post-Mubarak Egypt as well as other “Arab Spring” countries. Hopefully, the spirit of Tahrir square, with its sense of social solidarity, will continue.
There are important differences between Syria and other Arab Spring countries but they all share one thing in common – failing repressive governments. This is particularly true of Syria and I believe we are seeing the beginning of the end. It probably will not come any time too soon but before long the Syrian state will either fail or radically revise itself, and I doubt the latter. The Syrian regime is telling itself and the world a story: it’s a story of foreign backed troublemakers causing problems for the Syrian government and stirring up revolt. The Syrians claim to be opening up more liberal possibilities similar to Jordan and promising reforms. Moreover, they claim that outsiders are trying to destroy the country and that the strength and power of the protest movement is exaggerated by a hostile press. It is true that Syria has initiated some limited reforms, but it is all far too little and transparent.
The story will just not hold. The regime has slowly been coming apart and its political structures seem to be weakening. Other Arab nations have lost confidence in Syria and have little influence with the executive leadership of the country. One reporter claimed that the military was weakening and losing its will to fight the protest movement. There are more reports of Syrian soldiers deserting the army. Syria could certainly produce enough troops to put down resistance but to what end?
One thing that allows Syria to hold on is the support of various elite groups. These groups depend on and have been rewarded by the leadership of the country. Benefits and privileges flow to these groups and they will continue to defend their interests. There also seems to be evidence that the Baathist party is weakening and if this continues then the jobs they provide will disappear and thus further debilitate the regime. There is considerable economic pressure on Syria and it appears as if it will continue. Like most authoritarian regimes Syrian leadership has awarded sweet contracts to individuals for public utilities such as telephones and the operations of power and electricity. This way elites are rewarded and maintain their allegiance to the authoritarian leadership. But social unrest has interfered with trade and market exchanges with other countries such as Turkey. Increasing economic pressures could lead to more rapid decline in Syria.
Assad, like many of his counterparts, has accommodated religious groups because he fears religious extremists. He even claims that the dissidents are motivated by extremism and religion. But most analyses of Islam in Syria explain that the Muslim Brotherhood is not very powerful and certainly not as organized as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Apparently religious extremists are hard to find and the average person is far more oppressed by the Syrian regime than any religious group. Peter Harling of Foreign Affairs has argued that resistance is broad based and cohesive and increasingly sophisticated. He believes that the resistance has been contained so far by violence and thuggish behavior but that will not last long.
The international community seems confused and even though the Arab League began acting decisively they have not been doing so recently. There does seem to be a consensus supporting regime change but no one knows how to go about it. The US does not want to intervene directly and is even hesitant to lead from behind. There is also the problem of those groups and states that support the Syrian regime such as Hezbollah and Russia. Russia fears the rise of religious extremists and is supportive of forceful military action against protesters, and they also fear democracy advocacy by the United States. Syria has not suffered or been isolated as severely as it could have been because of its close associations with Russia and China both of which have protected Syria from more severe circumstances.
Harling is also pessimistic about any opposition in exile. Such groups often play an instrumental role in positive regime change. They often lead the way forward and act as a liaison between their oppressed kinsman and the modern world. Moreover, they can also play an important role in the reconciliation process when the time comes. But the Syrian diaspora seems to be squabbling over minor issues and competing for recognition.
The Syrian leadership still seems to be operating under the assumption that the troubles will all go away, or that it will endure for a while and then slowly disappear. This could be true but it seems unlikely. A military defeat does not seem likely and neither does international intervention. The outcome is, I believe, in the hands of the protesters.
Change is coming to the Middle East in the form of the “Arab Spring.” At least that is what we keep hearing about. An immolation in Tunisia, a corrupt leader in Egypt, and an oppressive Syrian state are all crumbling under the weight of non-viable political systems. Successful democracies are a pipedream in many countries but the creaking in clanking of structural change continues. One country seems to be immune from these changes and has found a package of promises that continues to satisfy citizens.
Saudi Arabia, as a protection against social upheaval, has handed out billions of dollars in economic aid in order to head off discontent. It remains the case that many Saudi citizens are frustrated about unemployment, housing, and health services but the economic handouts have softened the blow. But there is nothing so strong, nothing that cements a society more than religious coherence and the successful spreading of obligation. The Saudi leaders, their voices ringing out from the minarets and mosques, regularly remind their people of their godly duties, which include allegiance to the house of Saud. The message is clear: the present Saudi leaders have returned civil obedience and purity to the land by reminding the people of their obligation to God. They warn the country against chaos and glorify themselves as the voice of Islam. The rhetorical strategy is very effective. Any call for demonstrations or suggestion of civil disobedience is characterized as a conspiracy and as a violation against Islam.
The Saudis also use the Sunni-Shia divide as a weapon in their cold war against Iran. They are convinced that Iran wants to increase its penetration into other societies and see the Arab spring as an opportunity for Iranian influence. The Iranians on the other hand have tried to use pro-democracy movements to advance their own position, even though their intentions may be less than honorable. Saudi anti-Shiite religious traditions are an effective policy against Iran and other threatening countries.
When the bonds of religious commitment loosen and citizens begin to ask questions and engage in debate and challenge conventional wisdom, the Saudis deploy their third foreign-policy strategy which is to tighten security. If God and oil are not enough, then security must be.
A group of activists called for a “digital day of rage” in Saudi Arabia and the goal was to gather momentum for democratic processes in the underground digital world. But above ground, in the real world, Saudi security forces were repelling the few demonstrators that showed up for the day of rage. A few petitions were passed around but to no avail and the Saudi government responded by invoking criminalization of any criticism of the King.
These three strategies of God, oil, and security are working fairly well for the Saudi’s at the moment. So far anyway, they have held off the weather by pushing back the Arab spring. To the credit of protesters looking for more individual freedom they have maintained their digital activism. The underground web networks are serving an important function to a population denied most basic freedoms. The Saudi leadership will have none of it. They continue to use oil money and religious doctrine to prevent protest. Democracy advocates have a difficult path ahead of them. They must face a wealthy government that tailors economic payoffs that would make Tony Soprano blush with envy. Tight security and an aggressive police force certainly cause citizens to think twice about real protest.
The prospect for revolt in Saudi Arabia is slim. The structural conditions do not exist to stimulate real mobilization and real protest. It is not a society that has developed trade unions, activist student populations, or other protest movements that can possibly play a role in leading revolt. Moreover, because of oil money most Saudi citizens do not suffer economic deprivation. So the cycle continues – security protects the oil money which is anointed by God.
If there were a moment in time when I was going to pay particular attention to what’s going on in Egypt, and trying to predict how its future will develop, it would be now. It’s a Monster’s Ball and the only couple dancing is the military and the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). I and others have been warning about the coming Islamic tide and what happens in the next few weeks could be the deciding factor. The elections are today. The public and the protesters in Tahrir square seem to have strong democratic impulses coursing through their veins. They are calling for the military to leave power, civilian control of the military, and limitations on the MB. At the moment, the military seems to be the biggest problem. They have tried to assign themselves special powers and protections under a Constitution including refusing civilian control of the military. How far beyond high school civics does one need to go before they understand the importance of civilian control of the military? Violence against protesters must cease, and security must come under clear civilian rule.
Both the MB and the military are naturally conservative and hierarchical. If Egypt is not careful they will end up with some version of Saudi Arabia – religious conservatism and authoritarian politics. The Central Security Forces have overreacted when trying to clear some protesters and incurred the wrath of many. The protesters have reason to be fearful. The military has been particularly recalcitrant and difficult mostly because they believe they have the support of the Egyptian people, but that support is waning. The military’s attempt to grab sweeping powers and maintain independence above the law is inconsistent with the Arab Spring. Still, the Egyptian “silent majority” may make it possible for the military to prevail. The protesters may have the strongest democratic impulses but their numbers are exaggerated by media coverage.
The MB clearly holds the upper hand and is easily the most influential political party. Their new Freedom and Justice party is well organized and financed and ready to reap gains stimulated by the brotherhood’s outreach and efficient organization. The MB can certainly be hierarchical and conservative but Islam is woven into the fabric of Egyptian society and no future state can ignore it. The brotherhood wants quick elections so that they can consolidate their strengths and begin to work on the nature and structure of the new constitution.
But the future of Egypt will not be represented by the military or the Central Security Forces and certainly not by a dominant controlling Muslim party. If the birth pangs of a new Egypt in Tahrir square are going to bring forth anything viable, than the protesters and the liberal political parties must have sufficient influence when writing a new constitution. The liberal parties want the military to delegate decision-making and to establish a temporary civilian government whose job it will be to put itself out of business; that is, the temporary civilian government will be charged with maintaining order and beginning the process of transitioning to the permanent government.
The structure of today’s elections is one problem. Many liberal voices will be drowned out by the rules of the elections. Groups representing women and minority rights have been pushed to the background and election officials in Egypt have denied the United Nations and other groups access to the election that could help guarantee fairness. The party list technique will mean that smaller groups such as Coptic Christians and liberals will be overwhelmed by larger groups such as the MB. Even smaller Islamic parties, which are often more liberal, will be silenced. Moreover the election reserves a certain number of seats for “workers and farmers” which means that even if smaller more liberal groups managed to win elections they could be sidelined because their seats are guaranteed to other constituencies. This is an election manipulation that has been used in the past to manipulate results.
American historians often point out that the period after the American Revolution is most important because that is when the infrastructure and foundation of America was established. Revolutions are quick, violent, and ideologically eruptive but the legislative processes that follow determine the true nature of the political culture. The same will be true in Egypt. Keep your eye on what is happening now.
Click here on the word Photographers and watch the video (wait a moment for it to begin). You can see how photographers can become part of the story and help construct images. The media manipulation is part of ethnopolitical conflicts and the extent to which they are intensified by improper coverage of the story. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is intense and complex and deserving of proper treatment.
I’ve seen this myself in Israel on more than one occasion where photographer’s, reporters, and medical personnel show up before the protesters to get “ready” for the event. What gets reported in the news or on television, if it makes it that far, is more dramatic than what actually occurred.
Manipulated photographs gain their credibility by being attached to real photographs or real events. Adages about how a picture is worth 1000 words or how photographs never lie resonate with the public’s belief that pictures are real and tell the truth. The pressure for the public to believe the photograph is powerful so people view images and work hard to find them truthful.
It’s also the case that manipulated photographs make for a gray area of reality. The photograph is of course “of” something and this contributes increasingly to the sense of reality a photograph carries with it. Technology and computerized images are now so sophisticated that the fake picture can be better than a real one. It is so easy to simply “improve” the photograph by sharpening the colors, increasing the contrast, or cropping without encountering any moral questions about the new reality the photographer is creating.
Compare it to writing. If you observe an event or listen to an interaction and then go write a story using those instances, it is not much different than what a photographer does when he or she approaches a subject and constructs a photographic image. Maybe we should begin to think about photography as fictional and begin the process of teaching people to treat it as a story or narrative that has been constructed. Writers exceed the boundaries of truth and are called creative and interesting, why not the same for news photographs. The photographs from the news perspective are supposed to be reporting some semblance of the truth. If the photograph is manipulated or staged in any way it violates the truth to some degree.
I think the manipulation in this video is some of the worst kind because the photographers are going out of their way to replicate a dramatic and violent reality in order to increase the sense of excitement around the photograph. No one is benefiting from this.