At seven different locations, and within a twenty minute window, 128 people died in Paris on the night of Friday November 13th, 2015. As the chaos erupted in the French capital, so did social media. Live news updates, videos and testimonials rapidly filled streams, threads and rss feeds. Thirteen hours later, at 10:38am, Facebook launched a watermark tool to overlay the French flag over your profile image. This article focuses on this component and the implications that social media plays in risk perception and the dialogue on terrorism and foreign military initiatives.
FEAR AND RISK
“On a Sunday evening, 30 October 1938, a play broadcast on CBS Radio caused over a million Americans to flee their homes in fright, believing that the vanguard of an invading army from outer space had landed in the farmlands of New Jersey” (Bourke, 2005: 178). It was the frightening radio adaptation by Howard Koch of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds:
“It began with [Orson] Welles’s voice, notifying listeners that, in the early years of the twentieth century, Americans knew that ‘this world was being watched closely by intelligence greater than man’s and yet as moral as his own’. This alien intelligence was ‘cool and unsympathetic, regarding this earth with envious eyes’ and was ‘slowly and surely’ plotting against humanity.” (Bourke, 2005: 178)
It is indeed true that means of communication and our interaction with mediatized information has vastly changed since the age of radio, but we should take care not to underestimate the role of emotions within the 21st century social media environment. A study on Twitter trends and emotions by Stieglitz and Dang-Xuan (2013) revealed several findings, including the observation that “(…) the affective dimensions (positive or negative sentiment) of political Twitter messages are indeed significantly associated with retweet behaviour in terms of retweet quantity, in the way that emotionally charged tweets are more likely to be disseminated compared to neutral ones” (Stieglitz and Dang-Xuan, 2013: 240-241), and that “(…) sentiment is positively related to not only retweet quantity but also retweet speed” (Stieglitz and Dang-Xuan, 2013: 241). This may explain why emotionally-charge subjects tend to become widespread trends across seamlessly interconnected social media platforms. As the discourse on terrorism is undeniably one of fear and anger, the contagion of these emotions on social media platforms is hardly a debatable observation. Although we may assume that the Internet is a vast and endless space, as trending dialogues occupy space on social media platforms, a funnelling and centralisation of discussion takes place where alternate narratives and news events take a backseat. On the same day as the Paris attacks, 26 people were killed and dozens wounded in Baghdad (Al Jazeera, 2015). One day prior, two suicide bombers left 43 dead and 239 wounded in Beirut (The Guardian, 2015). Yet, as Facebook’s ‘Pray for Paris’ watermark gained substantial fervor, Baghdad and Beirut became subtext events even though all three events had a common antagonist.
This has large implications in the way citizens of the Western world perceive terrorism, as discourse on its impact is too often confined to the geographic limits of Europe and the U.S. As Slovic and Petters (2006) characterize affect as “(…) the specific quality of ‘goodness’ and ‘badness’ (a) experienced as a feeling state (with or without consciousness) and (b) demarcating a positive or negative quality of a stimulus” (Slovic and Petters, 2006: 322) and affect heuristic as a “(…) reliance on such feelings (….) to guide judgments and decision making”, an important point must be made in regards to how social media guides these cognitive processes. Middle-Eastern communities face the plights of terrorism similar to those faced by the West, and a mediatized exclusion of these communities risks leading us to an affect and its heuristic based on polarization and dichotomy. As the cognitive process of cognitive-dissonance avoidance teaches us that “(…) it’s not comforting to entertain beliefs about what’s harmless and what’s harmful that force us to renounce commitments and affiliations essential to one’s identity” (Kahan and Braman, 2006: 155), it is imperative that identities of all who face terror be reconciled. If not, how can we expect sustainable solutions that harmonize our commonality of fear?
RESPONDING TO FEAR: MANUFACTURING CONSENT AND DOXA
In 1988, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman published Manufacturing Consent, a ground-breaking analysis of how the media acts as a vehicle for strong ideological propaganda. The general thesis of this literary work is that by intricate means and uses of media, the powerful elite can achieve public validation and consent for the various undertakings they pursue. The authors explain that as the media has the “(…) function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society” (Herman and Chomsky, 1988: 1), a systematic and calculated use of propaganda has been applied to maintain equilibrium and status quo within “(…) a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interest (…)” (Herman and Chomsky, 1988:1). Within the preface, Chomsky and Herman make reference to Walter Lippmann’s concept of manufacturing consent, claiming that although the sole aim and vision of media is not to produce public consent on systematic symbols, structures, policies and undertakings, evidence suggests “the propaganda function to be a very important aspect of their overall service” (Herman and Chomsky, 1988: Iix). This may take place with what Cottle (2006) refers to as mediatized rituals, which “(…) are more productively conceptualized as an identifiable and variegated class of performative media enactments in which solidarities are summoned and moral ideas of the ‘social good’ are unleashed and exert agency in the public life of societies” (Cottle, 2006: 411). He explains that the “(…) media periodically intervene in the life of contemporary societies, their contending identities and contests of interest, and (…) can contribute to the formation of plural solidarities or ‘publics’” (Cottle, 2006: 411). It is argued here that Facebook’s ‘Pray for Paris’ watermark tool (willingly or not) acted as a mediatized ritual, of which rallied individuals into a ‘public’ operating under a unifying symbol.
The risk at hand is the creeping on of doxa, a concept developed by Bourdieu in his attempt to understand the acceptance of neoliberalism as the most advanced and ideal global economic system. He explains that neoliberalism has seen so much success and public consent because it “(…) has been steadily prepared over decades in France and the UK by partisan groups of academics, mediapersons, businessmen, and others” and that “ordinary citizens and the media ‘passively’ contribute to the entrenchment of neoliberalism as doxa, by accepting and repeating the claims of neoliberalism” (Chopra, 2003: 424). Arguably, a similar process has silently crowded the mediascape, where expressions such as ‘boots on the ground’, ‘war on terror’ and ‘threat to national security’, and symbols such as the Twin Towers, ‘Je Suis Charlie’ and Facebook’s ‘Pray for Paris’ feature have undoubtedly dominated the Western discourse on terrorism. Perhaps these lead to the production of manufactured consent for predominantly military endeavors in the Middle East, and perhaps not. Yet, as sociologist Ulrich Beck claims that “(…) risk is a way of controlling or, one could say, colonizing the future” (Beck, 1998: 11) and that “the greater the threat (or to be more precise, the social construction of the threat), the greater the obligation and power to change current events” (Beck, 1998: 11), it is imperative to address to question of terrorism with rationality, compassion for middle-eastern communities and without unreasonable paranoia, and not to give unnecessary carte-blanche purchase to military responses that have proven ineffective in stabilizing the region.
Al Jazeera (2015) ‘Dozens dead as ISIL claims attacks against Iraqi Shias’, Al Jazeera (online), November 13; available online at: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/11/dozens-dead-isil-claims-attacks-iraqi-shias-151113165046854.html.
Beck, U. (1998) ‘Politics of risk society’, in J. Franklin, (ed.) The Politics of Risk Society, Cambridge: Polity Press: 9-22.
Bourke, J. (2005) Fear: A Cultural History, London: Virago Press.
Chopra, R. (2003) ‘Neoliberalism as doxa: Bourdieu’s theory of the state and the contemporary Indian discourse on globalization and liberalization’, Cultural Studies, 14 (3/4): 419-444.
Cottle, S. (2006) ‘Mediatized rituals: Beyond manufacturing consent’, Media, Culture & Society, 28 (3): 411-432.
Herman, E. S. and Chomsky, N. (1988) Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, New York: Pantheon Books.
Kahan, D. M. and Braman, D. (2006) ‘Cultural cognition and public policy’, Yale Law & Policy Review, 24 (1): 149-172.
Slovic, P. and Petters, E. (2006) ‘Risk perception and affect’, Current directions in psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society, 15 (6): 322-325.
Stieglitz, S. and Dang-Xuan, L. (2013) ‘Emotions and information diffusion in social media – Sentiment of microblogs and sharing behaviour’, Journal of management information systems, 29 (4): 217-248.
The Guardian (2015) ‘Isis claims responsibility as suicide bombers kill dozens in Beirut’, The Guardian (online), November 12; available online at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/12/beirut-bombings-kill-at-least-20-lebanon.