This week saw the US Council of Foreign Relations host a prestigious dinner in Atlanta to discuss findings from the New Political Communication’s project on media, religion and conflict, funded by the British Council and partnered with Georgia State University and the Carter Center. The discussion led by Prof Ben O’Loughlin, Dr Akil Awan, Dr Abbas Barzegar, Dr Shawn Powers focused on the ongoing conflict in Syria.
The rise of ISIS this summer has made more tragic the failure to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict in the past three years. It has also sharpened attention on the role of media in conflict. ISIS, opposition groups and the Assad regime try to mobilize support through social media. Westerners see the conflict on TV or the internet and travel to Syria to fight. At the same time, divisions between Sunni, Shia and other ethno-religious groups, magnified by backers from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and other regional powers, point to the importance of religion in the conflict. More precisely, it points to the strategic uses and representations of religion to mobilize actors to perpetuate the violence. Participants in the debate wanted to know, could religion and its mediation be used in the services of peace instead?
The team were keen to unpack the role of religion and its presumed role and its role in conflict resolution. They argued that religious leaders must be religious to be peacebuilders but it is their civic and social capacities that guarantee their effectiveness in peacebuilding. Religiosity is a necessary condition; it provides credibility in societies where religion is the norm or individuals manage their lives through faith. A leader’s civic and social capacities are a sufficient condition. Without those, faith and moral guidance will have no effect on the political and social processes driving violence. These conclusions are only possible by understanding religion as practice, community and institutions as well as discourse or doctrine. The project team also argued that, since peacebuilding is a communicative phenomenon, attention to the role of media in these processes is essential. Policymakers often seek to insert a peacebuilding narrative into a social space from the outside, often with negative unintended consequences. The project -- and a consensus within communication studies -- indicates peacebuilding must work with the grain of existing, trusted media habits and rituals. In short, religious leadership can contribute to peacebuilding not by ‘communicating the right message’ to protagonists but by using positions of credibility to work with and on social and civic relations
However, the team also argued that media, particularly in the social media age, could be highly problematic too, acting as a hindrance to reconciliation and the mitigation of conflict. They employed the case of ISIS in Syria and Iraq today to illustrate the potential social media holds in amplifying or at least overstating the importance of conflict, pointing to a at least three examples of this phenomenon in action:
1) ISIS have proven themselves to be highly proficient in their social media strategies, employing large scale usage of Twitter and other social media platforms to amplify their threat and their potential. Resembling the beating of war drums of marching armies of the past, ISIS advances into Iraq have been presaged by volleys of tweets designed to overwhelm the unfortunate inhabitants caught up in their warpath. Indeed, in the day prior to the fall of Mosul, ISIS using sophisticated social media management tools, tweeted 40,000 times in a single day, as part of their concerted and incredibly media-savvy campaign. We might think of this campaign as part of a very shrewd psychological warfare strategy, not dissimilar to the Mongols who, when besieging cities, would often have their fighters build multiple campfires, so that when the besieged inhabitants looked out upon the plain of campfires, they would overestimate the numbers of warriors camped there.
2) Beheading videos: The recent beheadings of 4 Western journalists was clearly part of a very savvy media strategy; propaganda expertly choreographed to engender fear and outrage in a Western audience. However, perhaps even more shocking than the brutal savagery on display, was the symbiotic relationship with terrorist propaganda exhibited by virtually all media outlets, who in an astounding display of servile compliance, displayed these images prominently in newspaper headlines or breaking news segments. The message imparted to audiences was clear; there was nothing more newsworthy, more deserving of audiences’ attention and moral outrage, happening anywhere else in the world than these particular beheadings. The importance ascribed to these events distorts their actual importance in the overall scale of events in conflict zones, granting them a significance that belies their actual importance, relative to other events taking place.
3) Finally, thanks to social media and ready access to media platforms, the Syria conflict is the most documented conflict in history, with at least one minute of video footage recorded for every minute of the conflict; a staggering proposition by any measure. This glut of information means that every violent act, every grotesque violation of human rights, is now freely available in the public domain, accessible to anyone who wishes to search for it, and for anyone who wishes to use it as motivation for reciprocal retributive violence. This focus on the violence potentially also impinges on the potential for conflict resolution, and reconciliation between communities, once the conflict is eventually over. Whilst truth is a fundamental pre-requisite of post-conflict truth and reconciliation, in a strange way, too much ‘truth’ or at least an inordinate and inescapable focus on the clearly documented violence, thanks to social media, may make reconciliation between estranged communities that much more difficult.
However, in recognising the amplification effect of social media, they also argued that it is important not to throw the baby out with the bath water, and recognise the utility that analysis of social media and big data in particular may hold. The recent Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa, for example, was identified by big data analysis tools that used algorithms to scour tens of thousands of social media sites and social networks, a full 9 days prior to the outbreak’s recognition by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Following a similar logic, it may be possible to predict where outbreaks of violence are likely to occur through the mapping of Pre-Conflict using big data analyses. It may be possible to offer early interventions at these critical violent flashpoints to resolve or mitigate conflict.
The project is ongoing and the team will be publishing a range of outputs over the next few months, including policy briefing papers in addition to academic articles.
Ben O'Loughlin is speaking at a Democracy Forum seminar in Parliament on the topic ‘The impact of social media on democracy’ today, Thursday 16 October 2014, at 2-5pm. Details below, including how to attend.
Sir Peter Luff, MP and Chairman of The Democracy Forum
Carl Miller, DEMOS
Dr Veronica Barassi, Centre for the Study of Global Media and Democracy
(CSGMD), Goldsmiths College
Dr Nick Anstead, Dept of Media & Communications, London School of Economics
Professor Ben O’Loughlin, New Political Communication Unit,
Royal Holloway, University of London
Committee Room 16, Committee Corridor
House of Commons
London SW1A 0AA
(Nearest tube station: Westminster)
DIGITAL MEDIA, POWER, AND DEMOCRACY IN ELECTION CAMPAIGNS: A WORKSHOP
Convenors: Andrew Chadwick and Jennifer Stromer-Galley
Over recent years, the uprisings in Eastern Europe and the Middle East have focused attention on the question of digital media and political power. This has resulted in a wave of research on the relationships between technological change, mobilization, and revolutionary activism in authoritarian and semi-democratic political contexts.
While this research has generated important insights, we suggest that it should now be joined by fresh analysis of the role of digital media in election campaigns. We call for papers that are international or comparative in orientation, that present new evidence, and that connect the study of digital media explicitly with questions concerning power and democracy. We invite authors to examine established democracies both in and beyond the United States and Europe, and in emerging and what comparative regime theorists have termed “difficult democracies” across the world.
Our aim is to bring together scholars for a two-day workshop at Greenberg House, Syracuse University’s base in Washington, D.C., on June 25 and 26, 2015. Papers will be considered for peer review and potential inclusion in a special issue of the International Journal of Press/Politics (IJPP) to be published in 2016.
Central to the political life of all types of democracies are the organizations, practices, and media technologies of election campaigns, yet we know surprisingly little about the changes that have occurred in this field over recent years. We invite papers that explore what we see as the increasingly contested issue of the balance of power between political elites, digital media actors, and citizens in election campaigning. Our aim is to orient this project around two classical and fruitfully contested concepts: power and democracy.
We are keen to attract papers that explore continuity and change in the power relations that shape campaigns. We conceive of these power relations in three principal ways.
First, we see a need to focus on the internal communication structures of party and campaign organizations. How and to what extent have digital media changed the organizational characteristics of parties and campaigns? Are internal hierarchies becoming flatter? Are newer forms of communicative expertise shifting the balance of power between candidates, elite campaign professionals, and rank and file activists? What roles are emerging for the growing practices of data analytics, dataveillance, and voter activation?
Second, scholars may focus on power relations in the communication flows between party and campaign organizations and the wider constellation of organizations and quasi-organizations within which citizen participation now occurs. To what extent are the boundaries between parties and campaigns and looser citizen activist networks and advocacy groups being blurred by the use of digital media? What is the role of specialist digital consultants? To what extent have the mid-2000s predictions about the loosening of communicative and organizational discipline in parties and campaigns proved correct? Are citizens’ and activists’ uses of digital media playing a role in hastening the decline or even the “death” of political parties, as has been widely discussed, for example, in the United Kingdom over recent years?
Third, papers may examine the interactions between ordinary citizens and party and campaign organizations. As campaigns and parties spread their messaging and involvement efforts to social media, the affordances of those media open up possibilities for increased interaction and communication between ordinary citizens and the official campaign apparatus. But the presence of affordances does not guarantee their use. In what ways are citizens involving themselves in the workings of campaigns? In what ways or to what extent are parties and campaigns actually opening up their organizations, messaging, and planning to ordinary citizens? Are such actions carefully structured by campaigns or are they genuinely open to the ideas and strategies of citizens?
We primarily seek papers that advance empirical knowledge. Undergirding our interest in these themes, however, is intense normative curiosity about the potential democratizing effects of digital media, not only in relatively “settled” liberal-democratic contexts but also in the globally important difficult-democratic cases that increasingly inform thinking about real-world democracy, such as, for example, Brazil, India, Russia, Mexico, Singapore, Egypt, Turkey, Tunisia, the Balkan states, and parts of central and eastern Europe. Our concern with the difficult democracies emerges because it could be the case that in these political systems important power shifts are more likely.
We would like authors to directly address the question of whether the adoption of digital media is increasing citizens’ influence over the hierarchical organizational structures that have typically dominated parties and election campaigns since the rise of the mass broadcast era. We also want authors to think about conditionality: the balance of forces and causes that shape whether changes in mediated campaigning are democratizing or not democratizing in their effects.
We have no orthodoxy regarding data and methods. We foresee a range of approaches: single country and comparative studies; papers adopting methods of big data analysis; those adopting quantitative approaches; and those situated within qualitative and ethnographic traditions.
PROCEDURE AND SCHEDULE
*November 14, 2014: 500-word paper proposals due. Please email your proposals to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com
*November 28, 2014: Requests for full papers to authors and invitations to the workshop at Greenberg House, Syracuse University’s dedicated base in Washington D.C., to be held June 25–26, 2015.
*June 1, 2015: Full workshop papers to Andrew and Jennifer.
*June 25–26, 2015: Workshop.
Note: The conference conveners are working to find sponsorships to help defray the costs of attending the workshop.
*June 30, 2015: Call for papers for the special issue of the IJPP.
*July 31, 2015: Full papers submitted to IJPP for anonymous peer review.
*Peer review process completed by January 2016.
*Publication of special issue in mid to late 2016.
ABOUT THE CONVENORS
Andrew Chadwick is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he founded the New Political Communication Unit in 2007. Since the late 1990s he has authored numerous publications about digital media and political communication. His books include: The Hybrid Media System: Politics and Power (Oxford University Press, 2013), which won the Best Book Award of the American Political Science Association’s Section on Information Technology and Politics; The Handbook of Internet Politics, co-edited with Philip N. Howard (Routledge 2009); and Internet Politics: States, Citizens, and New Communication Technologies (Oxford University Press, 2006), which won the American Sociological Association Outstanding Book Award (Communication and Information Technologies Section) and is among the most widely-cited books in its field. Andrew is the founding Editor of the Oxford University Press book series Oxford Studies in Digital Politics, which currently features 13 books, a founding Associate Editor (2006-09) and Senior Editorial Board member (ongoing) of the Journal of Information Technology and Politics, and an editorial board member of the new Sage journal, Social Media and Society. In 2009 he guest-edited a special issue of the Journal of Information Technology and Politics on the theme of politics and web 2.0. Andrew’s website is at http://www.andrewchadwick.com and he tweets as @andrew_chadwick
Jennifer Stromer-Galley is Associate Professor in the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University, and Vice President of the Association of Internet Researchers. She has been studying “social media” since before it was called social media. She is an expert on human interaction through digital media, and has written extensively about political institutions’ uses of the internet for governance and for campaigning. She recently published Presidential Campaigning in the Internet Age (Oxford University Press, 2014), which details the ways presidential campaigns have adapted to and adopted digital media in the United States across five election cycles. She has also developed measures of influence, leadership, and discussion quality through social media. Jenny has published over 40 journal articles, proceedings, and book chapters, and has been co-Principal Investigator of projects that have received over $12 million in support from the National Science Foundation, IARPA, and the Air Force Research Lab. She is currently Associate Editor for the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication and on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Communication. Her website is www.stromer-galley.com, and she tweets as @profjsg.
ABOUT THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PRESS/POLITICS
The International Journal of Press/Politics (IJPP), published quarterly, is an interdisciplinary journal for the analysis and discussion of the role of media and politics in a globalized world. The Journal publishes theoretical and empirical research which analyzes the linkages between the news media and political processes and actors.
Akil Awan recently attended the Baku IV International Humanitarian Forum in Azerbaijan, as part of the delegation from the UK. The forum, now in its 4th year, was initiated in 2010 as an alternative to the Davos Economic Forum, but whose focus was primarily on holding dialogues, discussions and exchanges of views on a wide range of global issues in the furtherance of a new humanitarian agenda.
The forum opened with addresses from various current and former world leaders including, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev, and former Prime Minister of New Zealand, Helen Clark on behalf of the United Nations Development Programme.
The second day convened a small number of roundtables, focussed on particular areas of concern. Akil was invited to address the roundtable convened on: 'Challenges of Globalization: Between Tradition and Transformation’, in which he tackled the topic of 'Globalization, New Media and Cultural Identity: Between Hegemony and Pastiche', focusing on the contentious issue of globalization’s capacity to change cultural identity, and the role new media can play in these transitions.
NPCU PhD candidate Billur Aslan is to present her latest research at the Sites of Protest conference at Canterbury Christ Church University on 29 October 2014. Her presentation will draw on her interviews with activists in Syria about the use of ICT in different stages of protest. The abstract of her presentation is below.
The Challenge to Spark Collective Action via ICTs during the Syrian Uprising
ICTs have brought the most dramatic change in protest organisation during the last few decades, replacing the role of the social movement organisations. This has resulted in the emergence of a new style of protest termed “crowd-enabled movements” by Bennett. Crowd-enabled movements are formed by fine-grained networks of individuals in which digital media platforms are the most visible and integrative organizational mechanisms. The Syrian uprising could be classified as a crowd-enabled movement since it was formed by individual activities of the public that activated its own social networks in the absence of social movement organisations. However, in contrast to other crowd-enabled movements, ICTs were not the main organisational hub of Syrian protesters. This research analyses the ignition and mobilisation phases of the Syrian uprising from March 2011 to July 2011, exploring why ICTs could not acquire and develop significant roles in these phases. The analysis draws upon a selection of original interviews with Syrian activists alongside mainstream and social media content analysis. The data collected will reveal that variations in political culture may affect the way in which dissidents utilise the technology. Under the surveillance of an oppressive state culture and an obvious lack of past protest experiences, Syrians first used ICTs within a limited capacity. They formed their uprising with different other offline methods in new sites of protests, in this case the mosques. So far, a substantial number of scholars who have examined the role of the ICTs in the protests share the idea that it is people’s usage of technology - not the technology itself - that can change social processes. This research takes this argument one step further and claim that people’s usage of technology is also a dependent variable that is linked to the political culture in the country.
To contact Billur about her research, email: Billur.Aslan.firstname.lastname@example.org
Sites of Protest is the third event organised by the MeCCSA Social Movements Network since its foundation in 2013. This conference is organised in conjunction with the Canterbury Media Discourse Group at Canterbury Christ Church University. Thanks to Dr Ruth Sanz Sabido for organising it.
The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication have published a study by Nick Anstead and Ben O'Loughlin on semantic polling, the use of social media analysis to understand how public opinion forms and shifts. Their article, 'Social Media Analysis and Public Opinion: The 2010 UK General Election', uses interviews with journalists, traditional pollsters and the new breed of semantic polling companies to explain how semantic polling is done, how it is reported by journalists, and the role it played in 2010. The main argument of that this more granular, close to real-time analysis offers an alternative to the post-1936 Gallupian polling model that only aims to understand which party will win elections. Semantic polling allows us to understand the social dynamics of public opinion. In concluding, the authors take steps towards a new theory of public opinion.
The authors very much welcome feedback and comments.
Obama's UN Resolution on Foreign Fighters may stem the flow of recruits to ISIS, but what to do about those already fighting amongst them?
Akil Awan writes for The National Interest on how we might deal with foreign fighters, returning home after fighting in Syria and Iraq with outfits like ISIS:
What Happens When ISIS Comes Home?
This week, President Barack Obama chaired a special meeting of the UN Security Council in which member states passed a resolution establishing an international legal framework to help prevent the recruitment and transport of would-be foreign fighters from joining terrorist groups. As expected, United Nations Security Council Resolution 2148 on Foreign Terrorist Fighters passed unanimously.
Hardly surprising, considering the alacrity and sheer audacity with which ISIS continues to expand in Syria and Iraq, drawing foreigners from every corner of the globe, willing to fight and die for its nascent Caliphate. Indeed, some estimates place the number of foreign fighters within ISIS at around 12,000 individuals, originating from no less than eighty-one different countries; a truly globalized mobilization on an epic scale.
As realization gradually dawns upon the international community of the grave consequences for both state and society, should citizens decide to take up arms with brutal and extreme outfits like ISIS, many countries have scrambled to instate strategies for dealing with not just the recruitment of fighters, but also the inevitable influx of returnees once the conflict is over.
Fighters returning from the front lines, brutalized by the ravages of war and potentially suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, may prove incapable of easily slipping back into their respective host societies. More ominously, some will also have engaged in horrific sectarian violence or egregious human-rights violations that have become hallmarks of the conflict.
The social media accounts of some Western Jihadists, tweeting images of grisly executions and “selfies” with severed heads, or the prominence of individuals like Jihadi John, the Briton who was shown brutally beheading American and British hostages, is testament to the barbarity many fighters have not just been immersed within, but have positively relished. Naturally, these revelations will prove all the more troubling, should these men choose to return home. Indeed, a small minority may have already brought violence back with them, as the recent example of Mehdi Nemmouche clearly shows; Nemmouche spent more than a year fighting in Syria and is now the prime suspect in an anti-Semitic attack on a Jewish museum in Belgium that left four people dead in May.
How then, should states deal with their errant sons, who choose to return home once the conflict has lost its glamour and appeal?
Read on here
Akil Awan has a new piece at The Conversation on the recent unfettered media coverage of Isalmic State beheadings, and how this is linked to a deeply problematic symbiotic relationship between media, terrorism, and state abuse of power:
"The well-known US security expert, Brian Jenkins, famously declared in 1974, that “terrorism is theatre”. And over the last few weeks, the brutal videotaped beheadings of British and American hostages by Islamic State militants have proved the prescience of his statement with horrifying clarity.
We are now accustomed to images in our papers and on our screens of IS murders but we should consider the role we play when we look at the pictures or watch the videos. Every time we engage with the spectacle, we are contributing to the problem.
Scholars have long recognised that terrorism is actually better understood if it is viewed – at least in the first instance – as communication rather than violence.
In essence, the relative success or failure of a terrorist act cannot be measured by the number of casualties inflicted or the level of financial damage incurred, but can really only be gauged by how much attention it gets. The act needs to secure front-page headlines, airtime and iconic images. Ultimately, it needs to engender fear or curiosity in an audience. By these measures, the abhorrent executions of James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and David Haine were spectacular propaganda successes for IS.
The videos are meticulously staged. The sinister, balaclava wearing, archetypal villain, “Jihadi John”, insouciantly wields a hunting knife beside a helpless hostage wearing an orange Guantanamo-style jumpsuit. All the while, he provides lucid and articulate explanations for this horrendous act in a characteristic London accent. The whole scene will no doubt be indelibly seared onto the mind of anyone who watches it.
And why wouldn’t it be? Most major news outlets have, in an astounding display of servile compliance, featured these images prominently, be it on the front page or in prime-time breaking news. Each has further reinforced the notion that these events were the most important, most newsworthy, most worthy of our attention and moral outrage, happening anywhere in the world.
And of course, that is the very purpose for the existence of this sort of act in the first place. Videos like these are produced to present harrowing, shocking, egregious violence that is then starkly juxtaposed against a cogent, coherent justification. We are so shocked and angered by what we see that we sit up and pay attention to the content of the message.
So if this is so patently clear to many of us, why do the media continue to display this predictable Pavlovian response to terrorism?"
Read on here
Ben O'Loughlin has a new column in the Global Policy journal exploring the function of Russia's international broadcaster RT, previously Russia Today:
Incredulity doesn’t kill curiosity; it encourages it. Though distrustful of logical chains of ideas, I loved the polyphony of ideas. As long as you don’t believe in them, the collision of two ideas – both false – can create a pleasing interval, a kind of diabolus in musica. I had no respect for some ideas people were willing to stake their lives on, but two or three ideas that I did not respect might still make a nice melody.
Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Pendulum, Vintage: London, p. 95.
Modern politics has always entailed a degree of credulity on the part of policymakers and citizens. We cannot directly experience most political events. We rely on journalism to tell us what is happening, while recognizing those representations are necessarily imperfect. We hope that all journalists try their best, otherwise we cannot be informed and think, vote and act responsibly. In journalists we put our trust and faith. When journalists mislead, intentionally or through error, outrage follows. They have broken the pact. But what happens when a global news organisation promotes incredulity towards journalism and world events? Will audiences succumb to an entirely playful attitude to the truth and see the political ideas and events for beauty they create together rather than their correspondence to reality, akin to the playfulness Italian novelist Umberto Eco suggests? Will Russia’s international broadcaster RT – previously Russia Today – succeed in undercutting the evidentiary basis of political discussion and reduce world affairs to nice melodies that do not take us to events on the ground but that we find curious nevertheless? Or, instead, could RT be dragged into a more mainstream, less radical form of news? Could RT be just another normal media outlet?
Read on here.
Routledge in New York have released the paperback version of Strategic Narratives: Communication Power and the New World Order by Alister Miskimmon, Ben O'Loughlin and Laura Roselle. You can order a copy here.