In May 2021, clashes in Palestine took their habitual toll of innocent human lives. After a “ceasefire” agreement was reached with both sides unsurprisingly claiming victory, some establishments responded with smears, character assassination, and legal attacks on human rights campaigns. For wary observers, this amounted to a “same [expletive] different day” situation, except that what most of them failed to predict this time, and still struggle to comprehend, are the new “nuances” in public debates. The repeated use of terms like #apartheid, #settler-colonialism, and #ethniccleansing prompted many to ask “Has Israel’s ‘narrative control’ collapsed?”
While the usual suspect lineup of commentators and self-anointed experts continue their debate ad nauseam about right or wrong narratives, the real issue should highlight the momentous change in the way people are consuming information and questioning narratives. This discussion goes beyond conversations about the mainstream press’s hard editorial lines and catering to special interest groups versus idealized citizen or activist journalism, sometimes referred to as the fifth estate. It forces a reevaluation of the core role and responsibility of media institutions, outlining a true evolution.
Fakes and Breaks
Notwithstanding the tragic loss of lives, the issue extends beyond geographical borders to the way and the reason why information is relayed and consumed. As far back as we know, the purpose of information, from reindeer bone carvings to the first newspaper in the 17th century down to its online descendants, is to document events. It follows that the holder of the pen, so to speak, controls the narrative; a reindeer’s equivalent of a podcast would tell a totally different story about a very one-sided and bloody speciesist conflict. Social media platforms are only the latest iteration of such vehicles of information, distinguished from their peers only in that more people than ever can adopt these tools and use them to articulate and disseminate information.
Thanks to this new tool, narratives previously kept in check have gained prominence, but the resulting information overload has polarized media institutions and tainted the alternative space as a bog of biased and misinformed micro-discourses, leading to distrust of the media in general. En vogue discussions involve an arena where the “mainstream media” and the so-called fifth estate vie for relevance and survival by earning income, likes, and followers to establish themselves as opinion makers, shapers or influencers – just as Roman gladiators hoped for the “thumbs up,” a symbol of approval we still use in modern emoticons. One could endlessly rhetoricate about ethics in the many declinations of journalism as independent, investigative, analytical, citizen, activist, social, solutions-based, etc., with no clear outcome other than its self-promotion. A simple look at the institutionalized media outlets in Lebanon, and the mushrooming “independent” platforms, shows how these have become slaves to their labels and made themselves easy targets for condemnation and commendation, interchangeably. Nor is the unfortunate term “fake news,” vulgarized by populist politicians, limited to one era or form of dissemination. “Disinformation,” more accurately, has existed since the cognitive revolution was responsible for making us human by essentially giving us the ability to “tell the thing that isn’t there,” bluntly: the ability to lie.
No more tall tales
The idea of any type of narrative is losing its viability, a demise harried by the tableau of a battle between “fake” and “real” news, good and evil, promoted by many institutions, including the media themselves. But this reductionism does not hold up against thousands of voices and nuances. One can conjure up an image of humanoid figures in an M. C. Escher landscape, each upholding their own narrow perspective. The one entity with some advantage here is the implied external viewer who can at least see the whole picture. Like these figures, media institutions and consumers are often unable to shift perspectives. Their own limitations of identity and purpose restrict even their format; they may borrow each other’s tools and channels, but only in form, not delivery. This poses hurdles in the proper flow of information and negates any narrative.
One exit strategy from this rigged playing field is for media institutions to graduate from players into coaches. Amid the current Babel-like conversation, absolute objectivity and a dominant narrative remain more than ever elusive ideals. But educating people about how to navigate these subjects is within reach. The media have a golden opportunity to reposition themselves as educators about ethical and responsible use and consumption of information. Internationally, AFP’s Fact Check platform stands out as one example. In Lebanon, organizations like SMEX and SKEYES are also experimenting with this but unfortunately lack the wider reach of media outlets because they position themselves as activists. On the other hand, media institutions like An Nahar and even the National News Agency operate fact-checking services, yet these are widely perceived as polarized and lack credibility. What is needed is a strategic plan to develop a truly comprehensive approach combining competencies from each of academia, civil society, mass media, and social media to deep-dive into the proper usage of media channels while also appealing to the lambda social media users and content creators. Such a dream team can actively contribute to building a more constructive public discourse and eventually engage policymakers in higher stakes: upholding and improving existing media freedoms and ethics we risk losing otherwise.