A Failed Media Revolution


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Introduction

The Arab Spring’s winds of change reached Syria in March of 2011, bringing with them a strong will for freedom. For decades, Syrians have been deprived of their freedoms and basic human rights, including freedom of expression. The people have revolted to demand those rights back, and to end an era of dictatorship, oppression, and injustice.

The Syrian uprising – like the previous Arab uprisings – has been largely fueled, influenced, and driven forward by the force of the Internet and social media. The Syrian case in particular has seen a significant revolution in the use and utilization of such communication technologies. This was motivated by the strong will Syrians felt to speak out the realities of what was going on and debunk the lies and manipulations of state-owned television. As philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky states, mass media is a tool of propaganda in the hands of governments who “manufacture consent” through media, filter out whatever opposes their views, and frame issues according to their benefit. This has been the case in Syria for decades, where the government heavily regulated all media sources and denied people from rights to freedom of press and freedom of speech. To make matters worse, when the revolution was sparked, the regime prevented all foreign media from entering the country, and limited coverage to its official state-owned media.

Nevertheless, the presence of new media technologies in today’s world, and namely social media, has given today’s Syrians a golden opportunity and boundless power to show the world the truth and express their uncensored views, opinions. Over the span of two years, Syrians, who were for decades afraid to speak out in the simplest of forms, have created a very rich online media presence. A large volume of material that includes photographs, graphics, videos, music, e-magazines, animations, comics, and other forms, has filled Syrian cyber space.

Some History

In February of 1982, Hafez Al-Assad, who was president at the time, ordered troops to besiege the city of Hama and commit wide massacres in order to quell an uprising started by the Muslim Brotherhood, a political party that opposed Assad’s Baathist government. As a result of this crackdown, and according to Amnesty International, 10,000 – 25,000 people were killed, the vast majority civilians. The Syrian Human Rights Committee claims the number to have possibly reached 40,000 people. At the time, there was no Internet, no mobile phones, and very minimum media capabilities. Those events passed by and were forgotten by the world. They hardly have any documentation or records available.

Slidehow of images from the 1982 Hama Massacre

Bashar Al-Assad’s crackdown against the revolution today is very similar to what his father Hafez has done in the 80s. A major difference is, that in 1982, a single opposing political party in a single city carried out the uprising. The current revolution, however, is an uprising of the people across the entire country.

At the early stages of the current revolution, elders and people who witnessed what happened in 1982 were very critical, and did not believe a revolution would succeed in overthrowing the government. Many even opposed it, in fear of repetition of the dreadful, bloody outcome in 1982. However, this was not the case for younger generations. Many of them, when warned and reminded about what happened in Hama, would respond saying something along the lines of “we didn’t have good media then! This time, we have the Internet and we are showing the world what is happening in real time. People will be able to see us the truth and will support us.”

Unfortunately, this has not been the case. The rich, large volume, and high-quality content Syrians created to communicate their revolution’s events and aspirations seems to have failed in influencing global audiences, and has not been much of game changer when it comes to gaining global opinion and support. Many people in the West still do not know what is going on, some haven’t even heard of Syria altogether. The Washington Post very recently published an article titled “Half of Americans can’t identify Syria on a map”, after over two years of ongoing revolt and conflict in Syria. Interestingly, the article compares this with finding with another statistic: 80 percent of Americans correctly identified the Twitter logo. This proves that most Americans are acquainted with and are using social media, and yet many of them are not well informed on Syria. So why does this divide exist? And why hasn’t Syria gone viral beyond Syrians or Arabs despite the huge volume of news and information constantly being fed to the social media websites by Syrian activists?

This essay will explore different examples of some outstanding media content and campaigns created by Syrians, and will de-black box and analyze them based on communications theories, such as Latour and Callon’s Actor Network Theory and Danesi’s semiotics theory to understand why they have not been effective in making an influence on a global scale. It will also look and compare those examples with an example of a hugely successful promotional campaign “Kony 2012”, which promoted a very similar cause to the Syrian one, and which has become the most viral video in social media history.. Conclusions will be drawn from this comparison to understand why this particular campaign has succeeded and what it can teach Syrian activists so they can improve their social media outreach and let the voice of their cause reach global audiences.

Actor-Network Theory

Although social media is a very modern communication medium, it is nothing but a reconfiguration of older and previous forms of communication rather than being “new” or replacing preexisting systems. Thus, it follows the same communication theories of all forms of media. Understanding this is crucial in order to be able to fully utilize its potential and build powerful messages to be carried through it.

By looking at Bruno Latour and Michel Callon’s Actor-Network Theory, it is recognized that there is much more to the success of any media than just the quality of its content. Some material may appear to be very powerful in terms of production quality, but when used or applied does not show results as it is expected. This is because media is not a neutral force, and it cannot be viewed a single entity – but is rather a dynamic processes and a complex network of players, or nodes – social, economic, technological, and ideological, and others. Consequently, the significance and power of media does not only lie within the content itself, but rather the connections and networks between all those nodes and their positions within the network. The more well arranged and strong such connections are, the more powerful media is. It can be observed that Syrians have focused much more on the quality of the content itself, and have – to a large extent – neglected the significance of the relationships and networks that allow such content to exist in the first place. Factors like language, culture, social norms, and so on have not been well considered in most productions made by Syrians. This has resulted in keeping Syrian media networks to connect with Syrians only, isolating them from external, global networks and thus the rest of the global population. Agency in those productions is limited to be to and from Syrians, distributed only among Syrians, and thus failing to influence anyone outside this network.

This video is a compilation of the works of Wissam Al Jazairy, a Syrian graphics designer and digital painter who gained fame during the revolution through work he shares through his Facebook page. He is probably the best known revolution graphics designer. His work is compelling and beautiful, and captures highlight moments and events of the revolution, turning them into visual masterpieces. However, the reach of his work has been largely limited to a Syrian-only audience. This is mainly because of his  heavy dependance on messages and visualizations derived from Syrian cultural to create his work. Also, his influence is detailed, current events that only Syrians tend to follow, and thus only they can understand the coded messages in those paintings.

Semiotic Theory & Language & Culture Barriers

Marcel Danesi has put forward a theory that states that any form of media content consists of codes that carry the information meant to be transmitted, and such codes are defined by three that features that are necessary to make the media powerful in working and delivering those codes. Those features are representationality, interpretability, and contextualization. For media content to reach global audiences, it should represent something that is appreciated and understandable by global audiences. A common feature seen in the content created by Syrians is their assumption that everyone is familiar with Syrian history, politics, and the country’s situation, when in fact, global audiences and audiences who take freedom and human rights fore granted (Western audiences in particular) do not know such knowledge nor do they understand it, and at most times they cannot envision what concepts like dictatorships, crackdowns, or a government killing its own people are, without them being explained to them clearly beforehand. Additionally, heavy dependence on Syrian culture in creating those codes creates is a barrier that limits understanding. Therefore, the codes in Syrian’s messages represent ideas that are not easily understandable by global audiences.

Secondly, and this is the most obvious factor concerned with interpretability – the lack of a common language between sender and receiver automatically cancels the interpretability component, since non-Arabs cannot understand Arabic, the language used in creating most of this media content. Finally, in regards to contextualization, and vey much like the issue with the representationality component, messages coded in the media content cannot be understood by global audiences without having proper context, or being given background information on the issues being addressed. Many messages appear to be lacking context to people who are unfamiliar with the culture or historical backgrounds Syria. 

This is an episode from the YouTube animation series “People’s Palace” produced by the YouTube channel “Wikisham” which ridicules regime officials in a satirical way. Even though English captions are provided, the story of the series builds upon the assumption that that the viewer is familiar with who the characters are and the nature of events in Syria.  Since this is not the case except for Syrian audiences, it is hard to see such a series go viral globally.

 Another example:

 

 

 

 

 Sequential art and comics from the Facebook page “Comic4Syria” uses English to tell stories of the revolution and the regime crackdown. However, even though the language barrier is gone, people who do not have background information on Syria and the are not familiar with the main story, history, culture, and nature of events do not fully understand the message or significance of the story.

A Comparison to Kony2012

Kony2012 is a short film that was released on March 5th 2012. It was produced by the NGO Invisible Children, and aimed at creating awareness and action among the general global public to support the fighting and capturing of International Criminal Court fugitive, Joseph Kony, the rebel group LRA leader, who kidnapped and recruited children as soldiers into his rebel army, used girls as sex slaves, and killed innocent people in Uganda. He is responsible for killing 100,000, abducting 70,000, and forcing more than two million people out of their homes to seek refuge in four neighboring countries. This cause is very similar to the Syrian cause in many ways. It is a cause for human rights and the combat of oppression and injustices inflicted by a dictator, and it is a cause that is related to a remote area of the world nobody knows much about and which has a culture very different from American or popular culture.

The video and its campaign were a huge success. It was ranked by TIME as the most viral video of all time. It got over 100 million views, 3.5 million support pledges, and leaded to getting the US senate and House of Representatives to both sign resolutions to continue US involvement in the efforts to capture Joseph Kony.

So how did this film manage to capture so much global attention and support? There are a number of reasons that are can be concluded when de-black boxing the film content and drawing an analysis based on Latour/Callon and Danesi’s theories. The Actor-Network theory is utilized in that the film has an abundance of nodes strongly connecting different aspects together – cultural, political, psychological, technological, economic, and social. This allowed the film to create a strong connection with both American audiences and global audiences as well. There is a strong presence and utilization of American culture, which has been made into an influential global culture thanks to globalization, which is in turn facilitated by American cultural products such as Hollywood movies, television shows, pop music, and others. The film begins with cuts of scenes from popular viral videos, and is narrated by an American speaker, who is the filmmaker and one of the main characters of the film. He introduces his family – a standard American family who viewers can easily relate with. The filmmaker introduces his baby son who acts as a signifier and a symbol of hope and continuation of life. We see this child as he grows up and lives the story throughout the movie to strengthen this signified notion of hope all along the film.

The film also utilizes celebrity endorsement, and shows that global celebrities, such as Oprah, George Clooney, and several others have backed up the campaign and promoted it. Those figures are regarded as very influential and trusted sources in society, and their endorsements can be thought of as one of the most powerful components in the campaign.

The story slowly shifts from being the story of a typical, happy American family, into the story of their friend, a Ugandan boy that has suffered so much misery, pain, and loss due to Kony’s crimes. The notion of “friendship” here acts as a connecter, and creates a powerful relationship that empowers the message and connects the “nodes” of American culture and Ugandan politics together. If Jacob was just a random person in Uganda, with no clear connection to the American family characters the film starts with, this strong connection would have been lost and the film’s message would have been greatly weakened. Additionally, having the focus on Jacob, a single person’s story, rather than talking in general about the situation in Uganda, creates an even stronger connection between the viewer and the message. He is a person, just like us, with hopes, fears, dreams and emotions. It is easier for audiences to relate and be touched by a personal story rather than a general one. Jacob is shown in several moving shots, creating an emotional connection and a strong sense of apathy within the viewer. It is interesting to note that, some graphic and gruesome images are used, but only shown for a split second – long enough to shock the viewer and grab their attention without repelling them and making them lose will to continue the film.

Also, the use of distinct characters who tell the story and express support, including the expert – the main prosecutor of Kony’s case – and the filmmaker’s child, Gavin, allows for further connections to be built to accommodate a wider range of audiences. People who are intellectual, educated, and professional would be drawn in by the information portrayed by the prosecutor, while the child is effective in impacting everyone else, including young children and the uneducated. Those two characters can also be seen to communicate to audiences at two levels, the intellectual level as seen with the expert, and the emotional level as seen with the child.

Moreover, powerful visualizations that illustrate statistics of the campaign are very effective in a sense that they turn abstract concepts, or numbers, into concrete, real life meanings. An example of this is the shot where Jacob, the main Ugandan character of the film, is shown, and the shot is then pulled out to show him situated among a huge mass of people who are just like him, victims of Kony atrocities. If the film just simply mentioned that there have been 100,000 victims, and stated it as a plain number, it would have passed by without sticking into viewers’ minds as effectively as having it visualized.

The film communicates solutions as clear actions normal people and youth are doing to defeat Kony. Upon seeing those actions being done in such a simple manner and by people just like them, viewers are highly likely to take action, and they have. The film highly stresses on the concept of unity, and pushes forward the message of all humanity being a single body that suffers and prospers together. It opens the eyes of the viewer to the powers of communications tools that people have at their disposal in today’s world, and which has allowed power standards to be shifted from central governments to the people. It talks about people being able to “see” each other and thus care and protect each other.

A Syrian Attempt to Replicate Kony2012

Syrian activists have produced a video titled “Assad2012” in an attempt to draw global attention and support towards the Syrian cause the way Kony2012 has drawn attention to the Invisible Children cause. Unfortunately, the result was not as desired and the film did not go viral as the producers had wished.

Firstly, this film lacks the professionalism, originality, and high production quality that was seen in Kony2012. It is merely a mash-up of already existing productions, news reports, and YouTube videos, put together to tell the story of the Arab Spring and the Syrian uprising in particular. The main weakness in this film is in that it appears to be more like a passive documentary talking about history, rather than an active piece of moving, shocking stories and information that motivates the viewer to act in response as the case was in Kony2012. It does not clearly suggest action like Kony2012. More importantly, it has not utilized any network forces and lacks social or cultural relationships that would attract global audiences.

The Bright Side – A Notable Success Example

The small town of Kafranbel in Northern Syria has gained stardom during the revolution for its outstanding banners and political cartoons used in protest. Its has perhaps been the source of the Syrian revolution’s most successful and powerful media.  In particular, one recent banner, has gained huge popularity that surpassed expectations. It has over 17,000 shares from its original source

 This banner is powerful in that it brings together two contrasting cultures, those of the US and Syria. It uses proper English wording that would be appreciated by the American viewer, and removes the barriers made by differences in place, culture, social class, and language by creating a strong relationship and connection using the notion of shared suffering . This relationship is what gives it its power.

This banner was the topic of a few online articles in the US: 

 Foreign Policy

USA Today

Aljazeera 

It has even generated a response back, all the way from Boston.

 

Conclusion & Recommendations

Drawing from those examples, and If Syrians wish to influence global public opinion on their cause, they need to keep in mind the cultural divide between their country and the rest of the world, and the lack of basic knowledge on the country and region in general. Such a a divide needs to be addressed in order to give media a strong outreach.

  • Use of more English: English media content on social media websites is very limited, and as a result limits the reach of the Syrian story to English speaking and global audiences.
  • The focus on use of relationships more so than content- and the creation of cultural and historic elements that show  other similar events famous in human history, such as the French Revolution, the Holocaust, etc. 
  • Messages need to be made simpler and more basic, and should not assume that everyone who will understand it the way a Syrian would. When creating media, activists should assume that the audience does not know anything about Syria. There should be more emphasis on the history and geography of the country in order to familiarize it with the audience.
  • Creation of creative and simplified web resources, such as a news networks in English that report top daily news from Syria. One form could be the creation of a visual timeline that highlights game-changing events in Syria. Once a project like this is established and reached to public, it could help create initial awareness necessary for viewers to understand other materials, and could be used as a reference. The image on the top-right uses English and successfully utilizes cultural/religious icons leading to strong relationships between elements, yet a viewer who is not informed with the background story about the use of chemical weapons in Syria would not be able to understand it fully or appreciate its message. This is a very important step, especially in light of the large lack of awareness on Syria altogether.

References