Public Opinion, the Media and the Arab Spring: Has Decades of Media Research Been in Vain?

By S.A.B. (17.04.2011)
The recent events across the Middle East and That media might play a significant role in North Africa has led to a resurgence of the belief moulding public opinion is an idea that has been that true „bottom-up‟ revolutionary change is around since the very inception of the traditional possible even in nations governed by the most news formats. For example, it was taken for iron-fisted and despotic rulers. A wave of protests granted that someone exposed to a propaganda that emanated from Tunisia starting late last year message would experience precisely the message has led to the toppling of Mubarak in Egypt, a civil intended by its creator. Also known as transmission war Libya and large scale uprisings and belt theory, this line of thought was eventually subsequent violent military crackdowns in modified to accommodate the insight that there Bahrain, Syria and Yemen. A great deal of may be certain variables which might alter the attention has also been paid to the so-called „tools intended meaning of the message compared to the of the revolution‟, namely the social media meaning perceived by the individual. To a large websites that have allowed extent these early ideas about protesters to organize and the effects of mass media and In other words, while media might have propaganda were actually coalesce their movements into vehicles of meaningful transmogrified versions of the power to define the periphery of change. The actual influence theories found in instinctual public opinion, the centre remains the of these „new media‟ tools is psychology. They postulated domain of the recipient. still a matter of some that human beings all had a dispute. Malcolm Gladwell relatively uniform set of ignited a controversy when he published a piece in driving mechanisms which, if actuated, would result the New Yorker (October 4th, 2010) arguing against in relatively similar behaviour. This so-called the suggested role of the media as fundamental stimulus-response model of mass media effect enablers of social change. The impact of traditional remained the reigning paradigm in journalism and media has also drawn its share of attention, media research for many years. A paradigm shift particularly from the rulers of countries where occurred with a seemingly simple reversal of the protests are still on-going. Perhaps most affected question that media researchers had originally in this regard is the broadcast news network Al been pursuing. The decisive question was not Jazeera, which has suffered numerous „How do the media influence people?‟ but rather, interruptions to service in countries were it was „How do people use the media?‟. This theoretical providing coverage of the protests, including about-face was spurred in part by the findings of Egypt and Libya. In Egypt, the authorities forced Herbert Blumler and George Herbert Mead and a Al Jazeera‟s local news bureau to close down by particular strain of sociological thought known as revoking its broadcast license and the press symbolic interactionism. The central tenet of this accreditation of all journalists. In early January, the theory as stipulated by Blumler, was that people New York Times published an article about Al “act toward things on the basis of the meaning Jazeera‟s role in the Arab unrest which quoted they ascribe to those things”. No longer could Marc Lynch, a professor of Middle East Studies as researchers consider recipients to simply be saying that the “notion that there is a common impassive subjects with unguarded and entirely struggle across the Arab world is something that malleable opinions and attitudes. Instead, research Al Jazeera helped create” and while they may not now had to focus on precisely how media were have “caused these events … it‟s almost being used, by whom and for what purpose – an impossible to imagine all this happening without altogether more complex endeavour. Al Jazeera.”

Eventually, major pieces of empirical research understanding of the media‟s role in these events. began to demonstrate that the effects of mass The reasons behind the uprisings existed in these media were nowhere near as linear and countries long before they started receiving media mechanistic as formerly suggested by the attention. At most, coverage of the events could be stimulus-response model. A study entitled „The said to have contributed the „last drop in the People‟s Choice‟ conducted by Paul Lazarsfeld on barrel‟ which then subsequently spilled over into how voters make up their opinion in presidential political protests. To borrow a notion from radical campaigns put forth several conclusions that constructivist thinking, we know that it is initially seemed to be somewhat counter-factual, impossible to meaningfully separate between the particularly at the time when subject and the „real world‟. the study was conducted It follows that personal That the coverage of the Arab uprisings (during the late 1940‟s). realities, and therefore also goes beyond purely relative value to the the realities constructed by Lazarsfeld suggested that viewer is in fact a rather bold those individuals exposed journalists are not assumption with numerous empirically representations of reality but most to the mass media were actually the least likely to rather interpretations of it. sustained counterclaims. change their political And not only is journalism opinions. The reasoning itself an interpretative behind this finding was simple. It was argued that endeavour, but so too is its perception by the those most likely to consume mass media content audience. The images of the unrest appearing on related to the elections were also most likely to television and computer screens throughout the already have a firm and established opinion about Arab World are valuable to those who see them the issues at hand. The study further asserted that precisely because they are already involved. That changes in political opinion were most likely the coverage of the Arab uprisings goes beyond precipitated by contacts between people rather purely relative value to the viewer is in fact a than by the consumption of mass media messages. rather bold assumption with numerous Another important piece of media research was empirically sustained counterclaims. Of course published by McCombs and Shaw in what is this is by no means intended to suggest that known as the Chapel Hill Study. Their findings empirical findings are infallible, and even less so indicated that media were not particularly that only the empirically verifiable may be the sole successful at telling people what to think about criterion of truth. Instead, the aforementioned certain issues, but they were surprisingly effective studies should be considered the necessary context at dictating which issues people think about. In other for understanding the effects of mass media on words, while media might have the power to public opinion, particularly when one wishes to define the periphery of public opinion, the centre ascribe to the media any kind of constitutive role still remains the domain of the recipient. in social happenings. However, reports about government reprisals and backlashes against media outlets in Middle East and North Africa almost make it seem as if the belief in the media‟s omnipotence has never been questioned. Even the Western media‟s appraisal of the situation, as evidenced by the article in the New York Times, seems to be sufficiently wide of the mark as to warrant criticism. Publishing a quote suggesting that the unrest in the Arab World would be less intense or less widespread were it not for the efforts of single broadcast news network contributes to an exaggerated Yet the tendency to view the media as an omnipotent entity is in fact very widespread. At a recent hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke about which she described as an “information war” and how it was changing people‟s minds and attitudes.
“[There are] a set of global networks – that Al Jazeera has been the leader in [!] – that are literally changing people‟s minds and attitudes, and like it or hate it, it is really effective. In fact, viewership in Al Jazeera is

That media might be able to define the narrative is an idea also present in the aforementioned New York Times article about Al Jazeera. This characterization of media involvement is far more befitting to the role the media most likely play in U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton social unrest and is also largely consistent with This quote is significant for a variety of reasons, previous empirical findings. By circumscribing the not all of which can be touched upon in this media‟s involvement in social happenings with the article. While Secretary Clinton did not specify term „narrative‟, the linear and mechanistic precisely what she means with the term understanding of media influence is lifted and a “effective”, her statement places very strong sense of variability is imparted on the reader. In emphasis on the media‟s role in influencing public this case, a narrative can be understood as a opinion. She then goes on to cite the growing framework designed to determine only the most number of government sponsored television news protuberant facets of a story. The detail work, as channels around the world well as the assignment of that might constitute the meaning is left to the By circumscribing the media’s belligerents in this proposed recipient. In some ways, this involvement in social happenings with information war. Indeed conclusion may seem to be a the term ‘narrative’, the linear and China (CNTV) and Russia (RT return to what McCombs Television) do both have and Shaw refer to as the mechanistic understanding of media English language television „agenda setting function‟ of influence is lifted and a sense of news programs that are the mass media. It must variability is imparted on the reader. available worldwide and again be mentioned that the which are slowly gaining point of this article is not to prominence. If anything, it seems that belief in the grant empirical findings supremacy or to profess media‟s influence on public sentiment has gained their superiority. Rather, it is to point out that rather than diminished since the early days of granting the media omnipotence does not fit public opinion research. From this it is possible to within the current communications research surmise what the Secretary might have meant with paradigm, which first and foremost stresses the her statement pertaining to the „effectiveness‟ of essentiality of the recipient. Further, it must also these foreign news media. Effectiveness, it can be be made clear that it is not this author‟s intent to argued, might be understood as the degree to stifle science – paradigm shifts, which represent which media can influence policies and decision scientific progress can only occur through the making. Global public opinion is generally discovery of anomalies. However, the notion of recognized also as being important domestically, omnipotent media represents the return to a and has received increased attention of late from paradigm that has long since been overhauled, government offices dedicated to shaping the and therefore must be kept in check. global perception of U.S. foreign policy. What Cited Articles Secretary Clinton is suggesting is that the media, I. Seizing a Moment, Al Jazeera Galvanizes Arab Frustration through its power to mould the narrative, exerts [http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/28/world/middleeast/2 8jazeera.html] (15.04.2011) an influence considerable enough to be felt within even the highest decision making circles. The media war then, from which the U.S. is currently absent, is a battle concerned primarily with the ability to define and delimit. The media has the power to define the important issues and delimit policy maker‟s freedom of movement within these issues. In short, the media is capable of determining decision viability.

going up in the United States because it is „real news‟. You may not agree with it, but you feel like you are getting real news around the clock instead of a million commercials.”

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