The above quote from Plato has never rung more true. At a time when perception is stronger than reality, the people who can tell the stories and influence public opinion are now as powerful as the strongest armies in the world. Heads of media conglomerates are feared and even revered by most heads of state and politicians, who are fully aware that they can ‘make or break’ them.
The power of the media today is such that it can even make or break the image of a whole country. With the proliferation of 24-hour news, satellite TV, social media and the Internet, influencing people’s perceptions of a country has never been easier. Inhabitants of the “global village” are continuously subjected to a stream of movie and TV productions that also contribute to forming numerous stereotypes and images, which they end up perceiving as reality.
This is not to say that motion pictures and television are the only, or the most influential media channels, but they are often the channels most able to transcend linguistic, ethnic, social, and cultural barriers. Whether you are watching a Charlie Chaplin or a Steven Spielberg movie in English, Spanish, or Chinese, chances are, you are going to understand the messages behind it and sub-consciously pick up and form what you believe are your own ideas and perceptions.
How a country is perceived by investors and visitors can make the difference between economic prosperity and stagnation – especially for a state such as Lebanon, which is eager to attract investment and rebuild its tourism industry as an economic backbone.
A nationwide thinking process around this issue is all the more relevant today, as Lebanon is at the threshold of an extremely promising touristic season, confirming the country’s potential as a destination of choice for tourists of all nationalities. Its image should thus be optimized to take full advantage of this potential.
Sadly, the media – especially Hollywood – continues to portray Lebanon as a land of war and violence, perpetuating an image of the country as being unsafe, dominated by extremists, or a haven for terrorists. There are many examples of Hollywood movies such as Syriana, Spy Game, Naked Gun and, more recently, From Paris with Love, in which silver screen stars use Beirut as a metaphor to express a state of mayhem and anarchy. While we might think that this is only done in the context of a movie, and will not have any lasting effect, emphasizing again and again that same message will ultimately affect global opinions of Lebanon, especially in the many without first-hand knowledge.
Shorthand for destruction
The same applies for other media outlets such as TV and newspapers, where Beirut has been constantly used as shorthand for destruction and anarchy. Whether there is intentional malice behind it or not, this further confirms the fact that Beirut remains a byword for chaos. This originated with the stream of horrific images that came out of Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. Among the first conflicts in the era of 24-hour news and live broadcasting, and also involving foreign deaths and hostages, the 15-year conflict seems to have burned an indelible mark on the city’s reputation.
The fact that Beirut was a sophisticated westernized city in the eyes of the international community made its rapid descent into mayhem all the more striking, rendering it a sensationalist example of a ‘good thing gone bad.’
The interest that the international media had in Lebanon during the war years was such that the terminology “Lebanonization” or “Libanization” even became part of the media and political analysts’ lexicon. Such terms even made it into dictionaries as synonyms for the breakdown of a country into various religious communities.
Believing the hype
But the media can not only break a country’s image; it can also help build it to the extent where the line between fiction and reality often becomes a blur.
Take the case of the United States: While Hollywood and the US media in general have often portrayed Lebanese and Arabs as violent, backward, and blood-thirsty terrorists, they were able to create an image of the regular American as the quintessential hero in the waiting, always willing to sacrifice himself to save the world. Movies like Armageddon and Independence Day are only a couple of the scores of films that have helped build the image of America, among its citizens at least, as “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Westerns also succeeded in the acrobatic task of portraying the settlers of the new world as the “good guys” while their Indian victims were confirmed as all-time villains, and series like “Sex and the City” have established the image of New York as glamorous and romantic, downplaying its darker side.
What the media has effectively done is to entrench the feeling among Americans that they have a responsibility to lead the world, that they are the guardians of humanity. In that sense a cliché becomes a stereotype, and a stereotype becomes a reality for many.
One thing we can learn from Hollywood is that the only way for us to amend Lebanon’s image is by using the same medium that got us here in the first place: the power and reach of the mass media.
So far, there have been a number of sporadic and ad-hoc efforts, some spearheaded by the government and the Ministry of Tourism, and others that came spontaneously or as a result of a particular media’s interest in Lebanon, such as the New York Times article that ranked Lebanon as the number one destination to visit in 2009, the article in Paris Match focusing on Lebanon’s joie de vivre, or the report on CNN highlighting the fact that Beirut has become a “top city to party in.”
That said, a concerted national effort to develop a clear and holistic communication strategy to rebuild Lebanon’s image is still lacking.
We have to decide how we want Lebanon to be perceived and which key attributes we want communicate. Do we want Lebanon to be seen as a place for those looking to party all night long and enjoy the naughtier side of the country? Do we want Lebanon to be seen as a perfect getaway for family relaxation and for those looking to enjoy its mountains and beaches? Do we want Lebanon to be positioned as a place filled with history, focusing on our archeological heritage, or do we want to position Lebanon as a hub for business and investments instead?
Media campaigns should focus on communicating Lebanon’s positioning and edge, as should politicians and civil servants abroad in all their meetings and conferences.
Seeing how the movies can help build a country’s image, the government must support the local film industry; several home-grown offerings have already started shifting the public perception of Lebanon away from that of a bombed-out haven for terror and fundamentalism.
But more importantly, we as Lebanese citizens should take advantage of the current emergence of new media channels and the drastic decrease in production costs that have come about thanks to the omnipresence of digital technologies.
The global media and communication scene has reached a new stage where anyone can make themselves heard across the globe, and where creating and disseminating impactful content has become accessible to each one of us.
As such, changing existing perceptions or creating new ones becomes only a matter of creativity, a creativity that each Lebanese citizen can exercise in order for us to help successfully build the image that truly reflects the history, values and uniqueness of our country.