By Caroline Tynan
Media and nationalism
The Gutenberg printing press is known for its integral role in challenging the religious and political authority of the Catholic Church that culminated in the Protestant Reformation. But before setting off religious and political revolutions that would fundamentally shape political systems in the West, the printing press was initially seen by the Church establishment as a way to bolster its powers. This makes sense given the one-way nature of print media: produced by a few, for the many to consume. The result was a breakdown of old forms of authority and the emergence of new sources of political identity. Is it fair to say social media has had comparable effects on political communities in the 21st century?
Digital media and nationalism: not a cause, but an amplifier
Recalling how print media helped give rise to nation-states as the predominant form of political communities starting in the 17th century, one might consider the potential for the formation of new ones as a function of social media today. But such thinking potentially overlooks the role of human agency. Whereas print media allowed for the spread of ideas from the few to the many, Internet media connects at once the many to the many. Like print media, it acts as a tool of emotionally-driven connectivity through which political communities–nations, regions, sects, tribes– are (re)imagined. Yet, its two-way nature makes for a more dialectical process between producers and consumers of media. This sounds promising for enhancing a public sphere of debate that is conducive to democracy. The Internet and in particular social media, however, lack the regulatory nature of an edited newspaper. It is this very element of social media that makes possible two contradictory forces: 1. greater impetus for individuals to express opinions and foster discussion 2. the (re)solidifying of communities based on narrow, exclusivist conceptions of identity. But this second element is not some inevitability of humanity’s divisive nature. It is instead a product of those in power using it as a tool of division. Unlike with print media, however, the tool is no longer simply the media itself. In the digital age, people are simultaneously consumers and products of social media. As a result, the dialectical process works both ways in terms of media empowering the masses with new ideas, or dividing them through misleading information.
Re-empowering the powerful
The question is how to deal with the enormous volume of information and individuals’ ability to interact directly with one another with unprecedented speed that in ways that lead us to broader connections, rather than mistrust. The mistrust seems to come in two major forms: 1. that based on xenophobia and increased animosity towards those deemed foreign or outside one’s community 2. towards remaining sources of fact-checked and institutionalized media. The result is an unprecedented set of tools through which leaders can divide and control populations through sowing confusion by (mis)information overload, a strategy known during Soviet times as kompromat. This becomes all the more complex given the role average individuals can unwittingly play in fomenting hateful setntiment against other groups.
Recently, Facebook has been implicated in this for its proliferation of articles from Russian sources discrediting candidates and spreading rhetoric that foments hatred towards certain groups, from which none other than President Trump has benefited during and since the 2016 election. In the case of the US, we have a resurgent white nationalism that has been given an unprecedented official voice in the post-Jim Crow era. Contributing in part to this is a post-factual world in which beneficiaries of the status quo have new potential to construct false narratives of victim-blaming, and newfound sense of solidarity found in online communities. At the same time, ‘liberal’ institutions–anything from government bureaucracies to respected newspapers– are blamed for divisiveness, and the idea of retreating within to smaller and more exclusionary communities becomes more attractive. This is where Russian foreign interests coincide with the darkest elements of status quo White nationalisms in the US and other Western democracies. Scapegoating of a foreign or non-white ‘Other’ was key to both the 2016 Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump, both of which were on the whole actually against the economic interests of the white working and middle classes. Adding to confusion and uncertainty over the degree of society’s agency in such vitriolic politics is the use of automated accounts–bots–for all different kinds of agendas. The result can be a self-fulfilling prophecy of societies assumed to be divided by religion or ethnicity.
New nationalism across regions
In the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings, anxious dictators have constructed opposition movements as foreign threats in ethnic and religious terms, while xenophobic calls to nationalism justify increased repression and state violence. Meanwhile, the Western press buys into a discourse on ancient hatreds and religious sectarian clashes long deemed innate to the Arab world, without realizing 1. the role of powerful states like Saudi Arabia in strategically inciting this rhetoric and 2. the ways in which religious and ethnic tensions flare during times of authoritarian governments’ anxieties over revolution, and 3. the ways in which online media is used as a tool to spread misinformation in the form of sectarian rhetoric. There stands no better example of this than in the tiny country of Bahrain, which in 2011 witnessed the largest proportional display of people power against a government that the modern world has ever seen, with roughly one out of every five Bahrainis taking to the streets to protest the ruling al-Khalifa monarchy. Yet, with the assistance of bots spreading sectarian propaganda, the regime promoted an egregiously false narrative that pro-democracy protesters were foreign agents working for Iran. The effect: peaceful protestors are deemed ‘national security’ threats. Meanwhile, conflict between Sunnis and Shi’a in the Gulf since 2011 has spiraled like never before.
The very tools that journalists, pundits and academics alike have touted as facilitators of direct democracy, simultaneously have undermined democracy while failing to give credit where it is due. This goes for both the people risking their lives to challenge repressive regimes, a phenomenon as old in the Arab world as it is anywhere else–as well as giving due credit to those who use social media to the opposite ends: to sow divisions and enhance the apparatuses of state repression. But it is difficult to disentangle nationalism from [social] media, something that Benedict Anderson would doubtlessly have some thoughts on were he writing his pioneering work on nationalism in the setting of the 21st century.
Suggested further reading:
Zeynep Tufekci. Twitter and Teargas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. Yale University Press (2017)
Emit Snake-Beings, 2013. “From Ideology to Algorithm: the Opaque Politics of the Internet” Transformations: Journal of Media and Culture 23. http://www.academia.edu/4345263/From_Ideology_to_Algorithm._Published_in_Transformations_23_2013
and the classics…
on nationalism + print media:
Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities (1983)
…on the ‘public sphere’:
Habermas, Jürgen. The Theory of Communicative Action (1984)