Genocide and the spread of biased information

Posted: November 6, 2011 in Analysis
Tags: , , ,

Biased information spreads like a virus, it’s toxic, mutates, infects and is potentially life threatening!  It is implicated in some of the worst atrocities in human history from the Holocaust to the Rwandan Genocide. Each of these government-orchestrated killings was based on biased information – information that dehumanised the other. The perpetrators weren’t just ‘evil killers’ – ordinary people were persuaded to do evil acts because of “empathy erosion” (Baron-Cohen, 2011). Ordinary Germans lost empathy with ordinary Jews, just like ordinary Hutus in Rwanda lost empathy with ordinary Tutsis, many of whom were their friends and neighbours.

Is it fair to lay the blame for such atrocities at the door of the media? Well, partly:  the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda thought so, and prosecuted those in charge of Radio Milles Collines and the newspaper Kangura for their parts in inciting and even coordinating the genocide.

But surely journalistic objectivity will inoculate me against such toxic, biased information, I hear you cry? Well sadly not! I agree with the Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells that “the fundamental battle being fought in society is the battle over the minds of the people”(Castells, 2007), and with the advent of the blogsophere, Twitter and Facebook – we’re all at it, this is the ‘age of mass self-communication’. The media, in all its forms, is the social space where power is decided and sometimes that is the power of people – as in the case of the Arab Spring.

But when it came to Libya, there was the old Government and military power, Britain, France and the USA capitalizing on the ‘people’s movement’, using biased information to legitimize their so-called ‘humanitarian intervention’. We were told of rapes, atrocities and massacres but human rights organizations like Amnesty International refuted these claims (Cockburn, 2011). What I’m talking about here of course is good old-fashioned propaganda – about biased information being used to manipulate us for effect.

This time it wasn’t groups of people being demonized, it was individuals, often just one man. Remember Slobodan Milosevic? Well he was no saint but many journalists got so drawn into the myth that ‘it was all Milosevic’s fault’ they misreported some pretty huge issues like the Rambouillet agreement saying the Serbian President had refused to sign a peace deal for Kosovo before Nato’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 when in fact the small print revealed he was being asked to sign a mandate for occupation (Lynch and McGoldrick, 2005: 101).

Then there was the famous – or infamous – toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Firdaus Square, in Baghdad. All through the years of UN sanctions, Iraq was reported as if there was only one person living there – wicked old Saddam himself, the bad man of Baghdad. No wonder then, that Iraqis thronged to pull down the hated symbol of his rule. Or did they? That moment – captured by TV cameras and played and replayed to millions around the world – turned out to be a stunt organized by a PR firm. There were no Iraqi throngs – ordinary citizens of Baghdad were being kept out of the square by US military vehicles posted at the head of all the access roads, in case they said or did something to interfere with the message (Rampton and Stauber, 2003).

What this image did and propaganda does so well, is plant an image in our heads that tells a story – a narrative – like advertising they create “contagious flows of information” or memes (Canning and Reinsborough, 2009). This is where that very battle for power is fought, in that small space between our ears. The man credited with inventing modern advertising and public relations was Edward Bernays, nephew to Sigmund Freud who unleashed on the world, the power of the ‘unconscious’. Bernays with the help of his uncle realized that people do not change their minds because they receive some new information, new facts, which advertising had previously offered. Instead Bernays worked through the unconscious desires and with emotions. In an early classic victory Bernays persuaded women to smoke by having suffragettes light so called “torches of freedom” so connecting cigarettes with challenging male power (Curtis, 2005).

This is why my own research is trying to get beneath the conscious mind to explore not only what people think but how they feel when they are watching TV news. What I am finding is that empathy is a key indicator of reactions to news about conflict. In the study I produced the same news about the same stories but put together in subtly different ways. One news bulletin was framed (Entman, 1993) as “war journalism” (Galtung, 1998). This generated more anger and disgust which encourages violence; whereas those framed as peace journalism (Lynch and McGoldrick, 2005) generate more empathy and ideas for solutions, thus de-escalating violence. So watch out when information being offered tries to persuade you to withdraw empathy! News is targeted for this because it presents itself not as a set of claims but a factual basis on which rival claims can be judged. What happens is, claims are disguised as facts, and that’s where we have problems.

Why might empathy be important? Well there’s a whole explosion of science about the kinder side of human nature, that we are “soft-wired for empathy”, according to social commentator Jeremy Rifkin (Rifkin, 2009). Now I could get sidetracked in a whole argument here about post-enlightenment thinking promoting rational thought over subjugated feelings, but the point is that  ”empathy is the most valuable resource in the world,” according to British psychiatrist Simon Baron-Cohen: his argument like many others says there is an automatic empathy circuit in the brain and because of these wonderful things called “[m]irror neurons”, which “allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling not by thinking” (Rifkin, 2009: 83). And if you have a mental illness like an anti-social or borderline personality disorder you have zero degrees of empathy. “Given this assertion, it is puzzling that in school or parenting curricula empathy figures hardly at all, and in politics, business, the courts, or policing it is rarely, if ever, on the agenda”.

The only institution he missed here is the media and journalism, hence my interest in whether media can make empathy more possible. This is where we need an update of the enlightenment concept of objectivity for journalism, it means restraining our own biases (McGoldrick, 2006) but it leaves out big chunks of the story and our response to it. Partly because journalists don’t know their own biases and because it calls for emotional detachment, a detachment from the impact the story is having on people in the conflict and its share of responsibility for that impact.

This doesn’t mean journalism giving up its mandate to report the facts. In some important cases we should be more confident of truth-telling in journalism, not less. A classic example is the reporting of Israel and the Palestinians. Reporters in one national Australian broadcaster were cautioned by their Head of News not to refer to “Palestinian land” because this indicates a “lack of impartiality”. But Jake Lynch, director of Sydney University’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, said the ruling showed “a lamentable ignorance of the facts and … should be rescinded forthwith”.

“No reputable expert in international law, international relations or my own field of peace and conflict studies would dispute that the land in question is Palestinian,” he said.

“One of the main points of this story is that the occupied territories of East Jerusalem and the West Bank are Palestinian, and SBS journalists must be allowed to explain that, or viewers and listeners risk being misled and confused” (Jackson, 2009).  Without that explanation, we have no opportunity to empathise with the day-to-day reality for Palestinians living in and with the conflict, this is why it seemed crucial to include a story about ‘peace talks’ between Israel and the Palestinians as part of my audience testing research.

The war version of the story has the familiar line-up of speakers – leaders on both sides, the Americans, an Israeli ‘expert’. And it concentrates on the so-called ‘settlement freeze’ issue without spelling out that these are illegal colonies built by Israel in defiance of international law. The other does explain that, and it shows a map of the ‘amazing shrinking Palestine’, letting viewers see for themselves how Israeli encroachment has squeezed and divided Palestinian territory over the years. The new speaker is a Palestinian refugee, living in Sydney, who invites people to imagine setting out to go “from Marrickville to Glebe” – two well-known Sydney suburbs next to each other – only to meet “14 military checkpoints” along the way. Viewers have seized on that with a sense of relief and gratitude – finally a way to get a handle on some real meaning in this story, which has been reported the same way for so long.

To take another current example, human-induced global warming is a fact, or as near as it’s possible to get – the subject of almost universal scientific consensus. But Murdoch’s Australian newspaper is just one that’s been accused of presenting it as just one of two equally valid competing theories. Political and business power brokers tell us anthropogenic climate change is ‘disputed’ because that suits their purposes: to carry on polluting and making profits in the short term, which is what global markets are all about. So as well as the claims disguised as facts, there are also cases where facts are disguised as claims, and that causes problems too.

Then there are times when facts are created in order to be reported. The US employs 1200 people in psychological operations – basically how to win hearts and minds in that most biased piece of information this century, the so-called ‘war on terrorism’.

British academic Jeremy Keenan has found compelling evidence that “the US Administration of President George W. Bush used the pretext of its global war on terror to justify the launch of a new African, Saharan–Sahelian front in the global war on terror”. They infiltrated the so-called Al Qaida of the Maghreb, working through Algerian Intelligence, to provoke ‘terrorist’ incidents and supply justification for the US to become more involved. Not only has this been expanded under Barack Obama’s presidency, but Keenan concludes “that as long as US policy towards Africa remains fundamentally imperialist and conducted through AFRICOM, it is unlikely to deliver peace, security or development” (Keenan, 2010).

You see if we empathically connect with the ‘other’ then the answer cannot be to simply kill him or her: there must surely be better ways to achieve peace, security or development. After all where has the war on terror got the USA, other than a three trillion dollar bill that’s triggered the debt crisis, the collapse of its empire, hundreds of thousands perhaps millions of deaths and the unleashing of fundamentalist Islam!

I believe that one of the greatest biases facing mainstream journalism today is the total lack of images of solutions, lasting creative and non-violent solutions that bring about peace with justice. That’s no easy task but there are endless examples out of there of people already achieving amazing things at the grass roots. I share the view of one of the world’s leading conflict resolvers, Jean Paul Lederach: “I have not experienced any situation of conflict, no matter how protracted or severe, from Central America to the Philippines to the Horn of Africa, where there have not been people who had a vision for peace, emerging often from their own experience of pain. Far too often, however, these same people are overlooked and disempowered either because they do not represent “official” power, whether on the side of government or the various militias, or because they are written off as biased and too personally affected by the conflict”(Lederach, 1997).

Speaking on Ted Talks recently Brazilian filmmaker Julia Bacha described her documentary about non-violent action by Palestinians, as rewarding good behaviour rather than bad. She said that violence and non-violence are both forms of theatre so by paying attention to events in Budrus provoked a whole series of copy-cat non-violent actions by Palestinians and solidarity support from Israelis. Not only had these West Bank villagers succeeded in moving Israel’s illegal separation wall out of their village they’d also pushed it back to the 1967 Green Line, victory indeed (Bacha, 2011). And just one small example of the kinds of stories that trigger empathy and perhaps an antidote to the spread of toxic biased information.

So – my message to journalists, stick to reporting facts, but with more plurality of sources, more transparency about assumptions and honesty about what we don’t know. Don’t give up on things we do know – the West Bank is Palestinian land; human activity is contributing to global warming. And keep those critical faculties ready to switch on, especially when a person or group of people are being put beyond empathy, in any representations by powerful interests. Ask yourself – how did these facts come to meet me? How did I come to meet them? What is being missed out, or distracted-from, in the process?

Check list:

  1. Ask ‘who wants me to know this and why’? Inspect the bias and the possible agenda behind it.
  2. Ask: who is holding the power here? Is this a hegemonic idea? Is this propaganda? Is this an elite (government, military, business) perspective? So seek out a non-elite perspective, a view of ordinary people as well.
  3. Ask: what is absent? When watching, reading or listening ask what information (ideas, concepts etc) is present and what is absent. Bias can be most obvious by considering what it is NOT telling you. This is critical thinking.
  4. Ask: what pair of glasses am I viewing the world through, what are my own bias lens, perceptions and ways of seeing? Could I interpret this information a different way?
  5. Ask: where is my empathy? If the information about the ‘other’ is telling you how ‘bad’ or ‘evil’ someone or some group is, like the rioters in Britain, asylum seekers coming to Australia, or the Taliban in Afghanistan, put yourself in their shoes, understand what is behind their behaviour. Remember such ‘othering’ was the start of the Holocaust and Rwandan genocide.
  6. Ask: is this information mobilizing/supporting violence? Who would gain and who would lose from that violence? What are the alternatives? What other creative non-violent solutions could there be? Explore these perspectives.
  7. Ask: about justice & human rights? If someone talks about peace but there’s an absence of justice be suspicious.

Comments are closed.