As part of a series of interviews with LSE Faculty on themes related to the LSE Truth, Trust and Technology Commission (T3) being run by the Media Policy Project, Dr Shani Orgad, Associate Professor in the LSE Department of Media and Communications, talks to LSE MSc student Aigerim Toleukhanova about the role misinformation plays in the portrayal of women and distant suffering.
AT: In your book “Media Representation and Global Imagination” you explore how images and stories shape the perception of the world we live in. To what extent do you think disinformation in the digital age can affect this process?
SO: My book rests on the concept of imagination as the capacity to form ideas and mental concepts of what is absent, of what is not there. Imagination is the capacity to see and picture and relate to the ideas that are absent; through symbols, through images and narratives, to conceptualize ideas that we don’t necessarily have first-hand experience of. If misinformation comes into this process, imagination can become highly distorted. In my book I don’t use the concept of information because I am trying to highlight the affective, the emotional dimension of images and narratives, which as we know play a huge role and can go hand in hand with misinforming. So, when images and narratives tell a story which is a story that is based on untrue facts, they can shape imaginations, affects, feelings, thoughts and actions in detrimental ways.
AT: Can you give me some examples of how it disrupts the process of imagination?
SO: Alongside my book which focuses on the analysis of representations of them, I have been involved in a large-scale research project with my colleague from Birkbeck, Bruna Seu, which is called Caring in Crisis?. It was based on focus groups with the members of the UK public looking at the ways in which they relate to distant others, and the role that the images and narratives to which UK audiences are exposed play in nourishing their imagination about distant suffering. One of the consistent things we have found is how cumulatively, stories are partly misinforming or disinforming. This is not done in a necessarily deliberate way; I am not talking about a deliberate manipulation of facts, but rather how images and narratives and tropes which over the years have depicted certain places and certain people in stereotypical ways, in ways that reduce these people or places to a set of very particular characteristics, shape and distort perceptions. This depiction is fundamentally detrimental in nourishing the imagination of audiences and their capacity to imagine far-away sufferers as something other than criminals, other than undesirables. So when you ask somebody to donate money or to help and care for a child or a victim, that has been consistently depicted as the Other, with a big O; that is, as a threat, as dirty, as criminal – the imaginative leap is blocked. This is a tangible example of how – I would not necessarily call it misinformation – at least not as a deliberate attempt to misinform, but how information that is partial, that is skewed, that is feeding a very narrow understanding, can block the capacity to care and to be hospitable – not because of some defect in our compassion, but because we’ve been fed and nourished consistently with information and with images and narratives that have told us a very particular story about how to relate to these people.
Another example that comes to mind: a few years ago when there was a huge humanitarian disaster following floods in Pakistan, NGOs released a public appeal asking people to donate in the US, in the UK, to help the victims of the flood. They found that in the US in particular donations were very low. How come people are suddenly not generous; what happened, what’s wrong with people? One explanation that was given is that if for years Pakistan has been predominantly framed as a safe haven for terrorists, suddenly flipping this framing and asking people to relate to those “terrorists” as victims is problematic. In other words, there is a block, and this block is fundamentally predicated on consistent misinformation which has been delivered and helped create a very very narrow, partial and biased depiction of a whole place, a whole country and a whole people as one thing, as a “haven for terrorists”.
AT: One of your primary areas of research is about women, feminism, gender and media. How can the spread of online disinformation affect women in particular?
SO: Well, we have already seen a lot of evidence of how it’s affected women and you might suggest that the history of representing women in the media has been one of big disinformation! At least insofar as women have been systematically depicted in very particular roles and in very particular positions that are overwhelmingly subordinate, weaker, and inferior to those of men’s. It is not that misinformation or media representations in themselves have caused it; it’s not as simple as that. It is a symbiotic relationship between the symbolic and institutional and structural conditions of inequalities. However, the ways in which these consistently misinform us about what femininity is, what women are and what they are and should be, have normalized views and realities. And normalization is a very important aspect to think about here – how misinformation normalizes certain ideas and certain beliefs about what women are and should be, and what they are capable of being and what their “proper place” is. So, years and years and years of representations that have belittled women, sexualized them, objectified them, have shown them in very particular, often domestic roles, have contributed a great deal to normalizing and legitimizing and naturalizing very deep gender inequality in society. Some of what we are witnessing now, with “#MeToo” and other movements, perhaps is a moment of reckoning, although somewhat surprisingly, a lot of the discussion is focused on sexual harassment in the workplace, gender pay gap etc., but there doesn’t seem to be a correlated outcry about the ways in which women are depicted. There’s been so much talk about sexual harassment and sexism in Hollywood, but this is also the industry that is being the propeller of a lot of the patterns of objectifying women, sexualizing them, casting women in particular roles… this has, it seems to me, contributed to a big disinformation and to a very, very fake picture that naturalizes and legitimizes this reality and helps it endure. Perhaps my take on misinformation is slightly different from what you are talking about, but we need to think about it as a continuum as in relation to what is now seen as misinformation. It is not an entirely new phenomenon – of course some technologies are being manipulated now to deliberately misinform – but it seems to me that a lot of the “more innocent” media representations had their share in misinforming us specifically about gender and about women.
AT: How do you think hate speech online affects women?
SO: This is not something I’ve researched personally – so I am relying on research of other academics like Sarah Banet-Weiser whose forthcoming book is about what she calls popular feminism, but also popular misogyny. Jessalynn Keller, Kaitlynn Mendes and Jessica Ringrose have done a big project on rape culture and about how this phenomenon that you are describing particularly on social media is shaping women’s experience and are contributing to the consolidation of “rape culture” where rape is not something that is outrageous and where rape is something that is disturbingly normalized. So Banet-Weiser shows that in relation to adverts; the hate speech that is taking place online which is spreading in a viral way, has to be understood in relation to other hate and misogynist messages that circulate in popular culture.
While there is a very big difference between certain forms of sexual harassment and rape, I think that in order to acknowledge the scale and urgency of tackling hate speech, we do need to look at the whole spectrum, from the very extreme reports on hate speech that are then investigated by the police, to the “banal” ways in which hate speech is taking place on a lot of platforms with comments like “feminazi” that have become disturbingly commonplace. More and more research shows how prevalent and how ubiquitous hate speech is, and recognizes that it is often coupled with chauvinism and with misogyny. It is not addressed exclusively at women – we know that it is being articulated in many other contexts – but it has a very particular gendered misogynist and chauvinistic take.
AT: How do you think we can best explore the impact on people of the spread or flow of disinformation on the internet?
SO: So, just as a context, I started working on online forums and online people’s participation in online forums in late 90s – early 2000s, so these were very early days, and during these days one of the famous cartoon was from 1993 the New Yorker which showed a person going online and on the other side of the screen a dog, and it said: “On the Internet nobody knows you are a dog.” So, back then the concern was primarily with the separation between our online-selves and our offline-selves. My research at that time was arguing and demonstrating both substantially and methodologically that we cannot think of the two realms separately and that we should aim at thinking about online and offline identities and the relationship between them. In order to do so, we need to methodologically study the relation between them. I am trained as a sociologist and ethnographer, so it is necessary to study the ways in which misinformation affects (or doesn’t affect) people by actually studying, attending to their experience and sense-making both online and offline. If I were studying this I would look at what’s happening online but never without actually trying to have a sense of these users and these people’s experiences offline, through more “traditional” methods such as interviews, focus groups or other methods that allow access to understanding how people can make sense of their experience and the way it affects them.
When we talk about effect – a lot of it is indirect, is not tangible, and people are complex human beings, so I am an avid believer in “voice” methods, methods that require the researcher to attend and listen to what people are saying and how they give accounts of their lives. It is through these methods I believe that we can have a better sense of how things that are happening, content that they consume online affects their lives. Bear in mind that misinformation can equally come from “offline sources” and not just online ones. An interesting and important question to look at is how the two work together, is the type of misinformation we are encountering offline – for instance, through personal talk, related to misinformation that is mediated, for instance, through news that we consume either online or via other outlets. To what extent does that misinformation correspond and interact with the type of misinformation that is spreading virally online and how does this affect one’s understanding? Can the first-hand type of information challenge misinformation that we get online because they are, for instance, communicated by and from authoritative sources or sources that we rely on and believe? We consume a lot of information daily through our being in this world not just on the screen, and I think the relationship between the type of information and misinformation that we receive in various domains of our everyday lives and online should be held together and should be studied in relation to each other, rather than completely separately.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Media Policy Project nor of the London School of Economics.