Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Syria: The Conversation That's Largely Missing

The events in Syria have been in the top headlines, on and off, for more that a year now. There is an angle to the story, however, that seems to be largely ignored, whether in the news or in the day-to-day discussions that I hear or participate in: the rhetoric of it all.

In the "West", the dominant narrative goes like something along these lines: "The blood-thirsty dictator is holding on to power, against the wishes of his own people, who have rebelled against him inspired by the wave of 'democracy and freedom' that has swept the region. Supported by his direct and indirect supporters - Russia, China, Iran and Hizballah - the regime is obviously prepared to take all necessary action, whether military or not, to crush this popular uprising and ensure its own survival." The leaders in the West have made it crystal clear that they want Assad out, and although nobody seems to have a clue as to what would come in its stead, they do want regime change. There are also certain interested parties within the U.S. that are, apparently, pushing for even stronger action.

In the "East" (and by this, I'm referring largely to the Syrian, Russian, Iranian and other sympathetic perspectives), the painted picture is the exact opposite: "Extremist forces (and the term 'terrorist' is often used quite liberally), supported and funded by fundamentalist Saudis, expansionist Turks, and increasingly arrogant Qataris, are on a quest to overthrow the government, and all stability with it. If the Sunnis take over the country, chaos and ethnic cleansing will ensue, and will surely spread across the region. Meanwhile, the West - namely America - sees this as an opportunity to stretch its muscle and get involved in yet another country in the region. All the 'unverified' video clips on YouTube and undercover journalist reports are - if not outright fabricated - then grossly exaggerated and biased. Russia and China will stand against any such 'breach of international law' and will not allow any other Western nation and/or coalition to meddle in the internal matters of a recognized state."

These perspectives are, of course, oversimplified. However, at their core, the dominant narratives hardly go further than that. Needless to say, there are people and analysts on both sides that see slightly more than the mere black or white, but their views don't seem to permeate into the greater public discourse as much.

So, what's wrong with this picture?

The issue is that - just as on numerous occasions in the past - the reporting about, coverage of and general discourse surrounding the events are seen either as "the truth", "plain propaganda" or "deliberate-&-therefore-justified counter-propaganda". There is a fascinating information war going on now, among the various parties involved. Yet, even the supposedly sophisticated media and information consumers quite often - and very easily - fall into the very same trap: that of oversimplification and of the quest to find "the right truth".

I have no intention of trying to explicate what's going on in Syria, who is right, or who is who. I don't think anyone can truly claim to have any real or complete answers to any of these or related questions. What baffles me most, though, is the attitudes and perspectives of supposedly "neutral" observers in supposedly "unrelated" (at least, not directly related) countries, who might often spend hours (and thousands of dollars and megabytes) arguing over "the truth".

This is a full-scale conflict, very complex, very polarized, and very violent. Each and every observer is going to interpret what they see based on their worldview and preexisting beliefs: i.e, this a perfect example of selective processing (a concept that I love, but one that does tend to be easily forgotten).

In communication and media studies it can also be framed within the "hostile media phenomenon". In their groundbreaking work on the subject, Vallone, Ross and Lepper focused on a tragic example that is not too far from the Syrian one, whether geographically or in terms of its horror:

In 1982, a tragic series of events in the troubled Middle East, culminating in the massacre of civilians in the refugee camps at Sabra and Chatilla, Lebanon, gave us a chance to explore biased perceptions of media bias with stimulus materials and partisan groups well suited to our research objectives. Our goal was to study the responses of pro-Arab and pro-Israeli observers to a specific, fairly extensive, and highly engrossing sample of media coverage: to determine exactly how their perceptions and evaluations of these media presentations differed, and how such differences related to perceptions of media bias. In addition, we sought to examine two related but rather different mechanisms that might underlie partisans’ contradictory complaints of media bias.
The first mechanism is straightforward and, in a sense, a direct derivation from the biased assimilation mechanisms discussed earlier by Lord et al. (1979). Partisans who have consistently processed facts and arguments in light of their preconceptions and prejudices (accepting information at face value, or subjecting it to harsh scrutiny, as a function of its congruence with these preconceptions and prejudices) are bound to believe that the preponderance of reliable, pertinent evidence favors their viewpoint. Accordingly, to the extent that the small sample of evidence and argument featured in a media presentation seems unrepresentative of this larger "population" of information, perceivers will charge bias in the presentation and will be likely to infer hostility and bias on the part of those responsible for it. Thus the partisan groups could essentially agree about the nature of the stimulus (i.e., its content and valence) but disagree about the appropriateness of the content and valence in light of their differing views about the larger truth that the stimulus was designed to portray. In cases in which both groups believe that actual program content favored neither side, for example, both groups are apt to protest such "unwarranted" objectivity.
Our results provide a compelling demonstration of the tendency for partisans to view media coverage of controversial events as unfairly biased and hostile to the position they advocate. Our results also highlight two mechanisms – one apparently evaluative or cognitive, the other apparently more perceptual in character – that combine to produce the partisans' conviction that they have been treated unfairly. According to the first mechanism, in which opposing partisans believe, respectively, that the truth is largely "black" or largely "white," each complain about the fairness and objectivity of mediated accounts that suggest that the truth might be at some particular hue of gray. According to the second mechanism, opposing partisans further disagree about the color of the account itself: One side reports it to be largely white (instead of the blackish hue that the other side thinks it should be), the other side reports it to be largely black (instead of the whitish hue that the first side thinks it should be), and both sides believe the discrepancy between the mediated account and the unmediated truth to be the intended result of hostile bias on the part of those responsible.

In short, what you see and how you see it, depends on where you sit. Oh, and there is no point in trying to seek out "the truth", because there is no "truth". Big news, right? (For further reading, I would suggest Manjoo's "True Enough".)

Back to Syria: for one, the use of the word "terrorist" should ring a bell. That, in itself, indicates a certain perspective, a certain view, and of course, certain interests. Unfortunately, this conflict has now grown not only to become a full-scale civil war, but has also fallen prey to various geopolitical and strategic considerations of the "big" and ("aspiring big") players on the global arena, which means that these selective interpretations and demands are going to be advanced vigorously, depending on the interests involved.

Meanwhile, the Syrian people are dying in their thousands. Tens of thousands. That estimate doesn't include all those injured, as well as the number of refugees or those whose property has been destroyed or damaged. Indeed, the so-called "international community" - whether we talk about "the West", "the East", or all those that fall in between - cannot solve what seems to be an internal conflict in Syria. At the very least, however, they should not be adding oil to the fire and should, in all ways possible, put an end to the humanitarian crisis. Does it really matter what you call those who blow up this or that building? Would it justify their action, had you called them something different? Why should innocent people caught in crossfire pay for this or that aspiration of this or that militia group, dictator, or superpower (oh yes, seems like we're back to that game, again).

And no, I'm not talking just about the political leadership or the diplomats on the ground. This refers to each and every single member of the broader public, as it is they (including myself) who are being manipulated and driven to sympathize with this or that point in the public discourse. We should be able to step out of this cycle and look at it from an entirely different perspective, altogether.

It is about supply and demand, after all. Cut the demand. Or rather, transform it. The supply will most probably follow. You just have to be persistent.

As a side note, here is an interesting interview from last week. This seems to be a good occasion to share it here. Although just a satire show, I think it is pretty telling: The Daily Show: Extended Interviews - Fareed Zakaria.

UPDATE: A good piece by Reuters, posted by a friend on Facebook. Sheds more light. A little more complexity. "Analysis: No happy outcome in Syria as conflict turns into proxy war."


  1. As usual, an interesting and thought-provoking piece... It's a great idea to try and step out of a cycle of manipulation, etc. However, in the end, we draw conclusions based on information, knowledge, experience, etc. Not surprisingly, we modify or even change our views, i.e. we do not necessarily fall victims to selective perception, etc. In any case, I think we have the right to hold and express our views, even when we are not on the ground. (Even if we were on the ground, we would not necessarily get the whole picture… Why do many nations have a phrase “to lie like an eyewitness”? And we see a lot of disinformation and misinformation by media both in this conflict and in other conflicts as well. Even Al Jazeera has its “party line”, which is most unfortunate…) My point is that I cannot agree with the idea that there is no truth or even may not be truth or just one truth… I think there is truth… There are hard facts… However, media and politicians do not present them adequately; besides, there is always an “added-value” of their interpretations, comments, etc.
    Initially I sympathized with protesters, as I think that by shooting at peaceful, unarmed people you cross the line… However, gradually a different picture emerged… While I would not use the word “terrorist” to describe all opposition fighters, quite a few of them are. They also use a tactic of a guerilla war, bringing it into big cities, which is, to put it mildly, morally wrong, because in that case, inter alia, you use civilians as human shields and hostages (you did not ask them whether you are welcome there and whether they agree with your “cause” and agree to pay the price of hardships and of becoming a “collateral damage”), you terrorize people and you make them pay for your actions. For me, this is a morally untenable position, even when you fight a foreign occupation and there in Syria it is presumably an internal conflict. It is an open secret that Al Qaeda operatives, jihadists, foreign mercenaries, etc. are playing a major role there. Labels like “selective perception” (which presumably does not let me see things as they are but forces me to see them as I would like them to be) still leave the following “simple” question open: How can what is happening in Syria be called a popular uprising, if people are fleeing the conflict in hundreds of thousands, while various groups of foreign-governments-backed armed militants are battling the government forces with the only goal of bringing down the regime and installing another one (which may prove even a worse one since the process is neither democratic nor constitutional)?

  2. Quod erat demonstrandum:
    "Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, the two Gulf-based channels that dominate the Arabic news business, have moved to counter Syrian regime propaganda, but have ended up distorting the news almost as badly as their opponents. In their bid to support the Syrian rebels' cause, these media giants have lowered their journalistic standards, abandoned rudimentary fact-checks, and relied on anonymous callers and unverified videos in place of solid reporting.Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya were founded by members of the Qatari and Saudi royal families, respectively, and their coverage of Syria faithfully reflects the political positions of their backers."
    Sultan Al Qassemi "Breaking the Arab News" - Foreign Policy, August 2.

  3. Yes, saw the article. Retweeted it myself, yesterday. But, Al Qassemi is not just limiting his critique to Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. If you read it till the end, you've probably seen the following paragraphs, too:

    'Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya are not unique in compromising their journalistic standards in Syria. Western media organizations such as the Guardian were fooled by an author claiming to be a gay girl in Damascus -- and who turned out to be an American man living in Scotland. The BBC World News editor also criticized the sensationalism of initial reports of a massacre in the town of Houla, writing, "it's more important than ever that we report what we don't know, not merely what we do."

    Of course, the other side has been just as bad. Iranian propaganda outlets recently stepped up their defense of Iran's Baathist ally, publishing a series of articles that accuse Qatar of financing terrorism and colluding with Israel. Such Iranian media attacks had commonly targeted the Saudi government but are a new phenomenon with regard to Qatar, with which it shares the world's largest gas field. Russia Today, in both Arabic and English, has mirrored Iranian state media outlets in it coverage, referring to any anti-regime protesters as terrorists or militants, while turning a blind eye to the regime atrocities. Like Iran, Russia Today has also targeted Qatar, accusing it of "playing in tune with Washington's policies in the region."'

    And, if you had actually looked at all the links that I provided in the initial post above, you would have seen that I did talk about Al Jazeera's "narrative".

    Again, I am not saying that one side is right and/or justified, while the other is not. The WHOLE POINT of the piece was to try and explain that BOTH sides are waging a full-scale info war. How you perceive it (and who you end up trusting more) depends on where you sit.

    And by the way, your comments here demonstrate *just* that.

  4. Thank you for your response. I did not speak about other non-Western outlets because we know their position and their readiness to engage in propaganda. So, it did not make much sense to belabor the obvious. As regards Western media, it does not (already!) come as a surprise that they are (at least at times) biased and engage in a propaganda war. It is, however, most unfortunate and does not bode well for the future of democracy. Not that they did not do that in the past. Simply , at that time they did it in a more nuanced way. Besides, now there are the internet and a lot of other alternative sources of information. So, their (what shall I call them?) "faux pas" become known to the public more often and oftentimes displayed even in a graphic fashion. I grew up believing (silly me!) that BBC is a paragon of truth or at least of objective reporting. I guess nowadays no one is so naive as to believe that ANY media (State- or privately-owned or public) does or even can provide objective reporting... It is sad, though...
    I am not going to dispute your statement that my comments support your claim that how I perceive info (war) depends on where I sit. Simply I want to say that I try to keep my eyes and ears open and to draw my own conclusions...rather than take for granted the propaganda that is aggressively served to me by all parties under the guise of "information"...

  5. Hey Yelena,
    Good article with lots of food for thought about the complicated situation in Syria as well as the wider regional influences.

    In particular, Qatar is an interesting case. I believe one of Qatar's main goals is to garner widespread international popularity and fame. For this purpose, it makes strategic use of its two greatest assets: big wealth and big friends.

    The US is Qatar's biggest friend, Washington has had army bases here for years. So it's natural that Qatar will be 'playing in tune with Washington's policies in the region'.

    At the end of the day, Qatar is a tiny country with no defence capability of its own. It relies heavily on big friends for protection, and has to keep them on its side.

    Looking forward to reading more of your blog! I'd be interested to read your thoughts on the current Gaza/Israel situation.

    - sam