Blogs, media and the cartoon war

MEDIA | Are blogs bringing people closer together or bring us closer to to conflict. Ahmad Humeid investigates.

To what extent was last century’s mass media responsible for wars, mass murder and mass subjugating ideologies? Louis Rossetto, the man who in the early 90s founded and published the digital zeitgeist magazine Wired, certainly thinks that the media of the 20th century; radio, TV and press, were at least co-responsible for the history of atrocities that the 20th century left us.

In a recent interview with the German design magazine PAGE, Rosetto said that “the history of the 20th century is the failure of ideas that were forced on huge populations, that ended up causing mass slaughter, quite literally, whether you’re talking about fascism, Nazism or communism. All of those were ideas that were propagated by mass media.. by a small cadre of people who used media was to imprint those ideas on populations.”

Maybe we do not have to look back more than a decade ago, to the genocide in Rawanda. Radio stations were used by the politicians of one ethnic group to convince their followers to go out and kill their neighbours from the other ethnic group (described by the broadcasts as ‘cockroaches’). Recent confessions by some of the killers in Rawanda have revealed how, in the frenzy of a civil war, partially induced by the media, ordinary men and women were turned into monsters.

The antidote to mass media according to Rossetto is the blogging revolution.

Rossetto’s enthusiasm for blogs can be seen as a U-turn from his views in 1994, when, in a well-documented discussion with pioneer blogger Dave Winer , he ridiculed the notion of ‘personal home pages’. Today he’s come around to a view that contrasts the failure of mass media to the promise of blogs, which lays in the difference between applying a single mind or a limited number of minds to ‘reality’ in the case of mass media, versus the networked, interactive, many-minds examination of reality in the so-called blogosphere, where every citizen can be a journalist, an editor or an analyst. In this analysis, blogs and citizen journalism are forces for good as they allow the “rubbing of thousands of minds” against each other to enable a genuine grassroots democratic discussion of the world. He considers the blogging revolution as more significant than the introduction of television and proclaimed that blogs will eventually overturn the established order!

So is the blogosphere really force for good?

Today, we are living another global crisis that was caused by the media: the ‘cartoon’ war that erupted over the 12 caricatures of Prophet Mohammad that were published by a Danish newspaper. Numerous people have lost their lives in demonstrations. Embassies and flags were torched and the crises still rages on.

Arguments about the cultural background and freedom of speech aside, the cartoons were initially propagated into reality by the newspaper in an act that can be argued as being ‘Islamo-phobic’. Then, when, months later, the issue had morphed (for various reasons) into a diplomatic crisis, the Arab and Muslim reaction was escalated by mass media, especially some Islamic satellite channels whom I’ve seen dedicate lengthy broadcast times to discuss the issue and mobilize people into boycotting Danish products.

But this time it was not only the mass media that was talking about this. This is the first global crisis of large proportions where the nascent Arab blogosphere was part of the dynamic. It was also a chance to see how the Arab blogosphere interacted with the western and global blogospheres. So, in the context of this crisis, it must be asked: were blogs a force for pushing people towards or away from conflict?

The short answer is: both!

Watching both Arab mainstream media and the blogs during the eruption of the crises, one could note very distinct differences. Mainstream media was monotonic, adopting the position of condemning the cartoons, supporting the boycott and in some cases asking for the reaction to be ‘moderate’ and ‘civilized’.

While this position was also prevalent in the Arab blogosphere, the difference was that spectrum of opinions on blogs was much, much wider. On one side, and in a matter of 48 hours blogs started displaying banners asking for boycotting Denmark. In some cases, such banners were very hateful and even racist. On one blog I read a comment by a reader who was ‘awaiting a signal from Muslim clerics’ to go and ‘kill those responsible for the cartoons’.

And while an overwhelming majority of bloggers sided with a ‘civilized boycott’ a minority of Arab bloggers went into a completely different direction, expressing disapproval or even disgust with the Muslim reaction and putting up ‘Buy Danish’ banners on their sites. And while some bloggers were angry over the Syrian apology to Denmark over the burning of the embassy, a number of Palestinians put up a site that said ‘we are sorry’ to the people of Denmark. Some bloggers were focusing on what they considered Muslim hyporicy in standing up against the Danish cartoons but sitting silent in the face of events in Palestine and Iraq. One blogger was wondering if we as Arabs want to ‘export our intolerance to Europe’.

Another aspect of the blogsphere’s reaction to the crises was evident on what can be termed Arab bridge blogs: English language blogs written by Arabs that act as a bridges for global audiences into the Arab blogosphere and culture. Those blogs experienced a surge of user traffic coming from Denmark, Norway and the rest of western Europe and the US. The dozens of comments that were left on some bridge blogs by Arabs, Muslims and Europeans stand witness to a process of conflict, but also dialogue that would be utterly impossible on the pages of a newspaper or a TV channel.

So maybe Rossetto is right. Maybe person-to-person media is more democratic and humane than the one-to-many model of old media. Yet we’ve also seen how blogs, both in the Muslim world, but certainly also in the western world, can propagate hateful and extremist ideas. One thing is sure: the human race has only barely started to understand what the implications of our networked world and networked media are. After the net, media will never be the same.

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One Response to “Blogs, media and the cartoon war”

  1. bakka Says:

    I agree, I think we cannot possibly afford to be wasting our time, resources, and energy by dwelling upon the inequities of the Media and its ways, instead we should be looking for looking for alternatives that provide the complete truth, uncensored and unbiased and stop relying on the cycle of media feed that gets pumped in out brains day after day, we should do something and blogging could be the answer, after all, public opinion is a reliable indicator of what’s true and what isn’t, and in this technology dependant world bloggers are the public, media takes people for granted becuase it can and we let it take complete control over us and i think this should and could change.

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