As part of a series of interviews with LSE Faculty on themes related to the Truth, Trust and Technology Commission (T3), Dr Omar Al-Ghazzi talks to LSE MSc student Ariel Riera on ‘echo chambers’ in the context of North Africa and the Middle East.
AR: The spread of misinformation through social media is a main focus of the Commission. Are there similar processes in the Middle East and in the North Africa region?
OA: Questions about trust, divisions within society, and authoritarian use of information or what could be called propaganda are very prevalent in the Middle East and North Africa. So in a way a lot of the issues at hand are not really new if we think about communication processes globally. Much of the attention that misinformation has been getting is in relation to Trump and Brexit. But Syria, for instance, is actually a very productive context to think through these questions, because with the uprising and the war, there was basically an information blackout where no independent journalist could go into the country. This created an environment where witnesses and citizen journalists and activists fill that gap. So it is now a cliché to say that the war in Syria is actually the most documented war. But all that information has not led to a narrative that people understand in relation to what’s happening. And that has to do with trust in digital media and the kind of narratives that the government disseminates. The echo chamber effect in the way people access information from online sources they agree with is also as prevalent in the Middle East as it is globally.
AR: And in these countries, who are the perpetrators of fake news and misinformation and what are the channels?
OA: It is a complicated question because if we talk about the war in Syria, the communication environment is much more complex than the binary division between fake and real. For instance, I am interested in the reporting on the ground in areas that are seeing or witnessing war and conflict. I will give you an example. Now in the suburbs of Damascus, where there is a battle between rebels and the government, there are several cases of children and teenagers doing the reporting. So how should this be picked up by news organisations, and what are the consequences? CNN recently called one of the teenagers based in Eastern Ghouta, Muhammed Najem, a ‘combat reporter’. What are the ethical considerations of that? Does that encourage that teenager to take for instance more risks to get to that footage? How is what he produces objective if first he has obviously no journalism training as a very young person and second he is in a very violent context where his obvious interest lies in his own survival and in getting attention about his and his community’s suffering. He has a voice that he wants to be heard and which should be heard. But why is the expectation, if he is dubbed a ‘combat report’, that what he produces should be objective news reporting?
Beyond this example of the complex picture in war reporting, I think the Middle East region also teaches us that when there is a lack of trust in institutions of any country in the world, when there is division in society about a national sense of belonging, about what it means to be a patriot or a traitor, that would produce mistrust in the media. Basically, a fractured political environment engenders lack of trust in media, and engenders that debate around fake or real. So there is a layer beyond the fakeness and realness that’s really about social cohesion and political identity.
AR: Nationalist politicians all over the world have found in social media a way to bypass mainstream media and appeal directly to voters. What techniques do they use to do this?
OA: Perhaps in the Middle East you don’t find an example of a stream of consciousness relayed live on Twitter like the case is with President Trump, but, like elsewhere in the world, politicians are on Twitter and even foreign policy is often communicated there. Also, a lot of narratives that feed into conflicts, like the Arab-Israeli conflict, take shape on social media. So without looking at social media you certainly don’t get the full picture even of the geopolitics in the region. Without social media, one would not grasp how government positions get internalised by people and how people contribute- whether by feeding into government policies, or maybe resisting them as well.
AR: Based on your observations in North Africa and the Middle East, can mistrust or even distrust of mainstream media outlets be a healthy instinct? For example, if mainstream media is a place where only one voice is heard.
OA: Even though a lot of the media are politicised in the Arab world because they are government owned, people have access to media other than their own governments because of a common regional cultural affiliation, a shared language and the nature of the regional media environment. So actually people in the Arab world are sophisticated media users because they have access to a wide array of media outlets. Of course, there are outlets that are controlled by governments wherever one may be situated and things vary between different countries, but audiences can access pan-Arab news media such as Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and Al Mayadeen. They have access to a wide array of online news platforms as well as broadcast news. So you really have a lot of choices. If you are a very informed audience member you would watch one news outlet to know, let’s say, what the Iranian position on a certain event is, and then you watch a Saudi funded channel to see the Saudi. But of course, most people don’t do that because you know they just access the media that offers the perspective they already agree with.
We have to remember that in the context of the Middle East there is a lot of different conflicts, there is war, which obviously heightens the emotions of people and their allegiances and whatever their worldview is. So we are also talking about the context that, because of what is happening on the ground, people feel strongly about their political positioning which feeds into the echo chamber effect.
AR: You wrote that, at least linked to the Arab Spring, there was a ‘diversity of acts referred to as citizen journalism’. What differentiates these practices from the journalism within established media?
OA: Basically, in relation to the 2011 Arab uprisings, there were a lot of academic and journalistic approaches that talked about how these uprisings were Facebook or Twitter revolutions, or only theorising digital media practices through the lens of citizen journalism. But I argued that we cannot privilege one lens to look at what digital media does on the political level because a lot of people use digital media, from terrorist organisations to activists on the ground to government agents. So one cannot privilege a particular use of digital media and focus on that and make claims about digital media generally, when actually the picture is much more complicated and needs to be sorted out more.
Of course the proliferation of smartphones and social media offered ordinary people the opportunity to have their own output, to produce witness videos or write opinions. It is a very different media ecology because of that. However, we cannot take for granted how social media is used by different actors. In social science we have to think about issues of class, literacy, the urban rural divide, the political system, the media system. And, within that complexity, locate particular practices of social media rather than make blanket statements about social media doing something to politics generally and universally.
Dr Omar Al-Ghazzi is Assistant Professor in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE. He completed his PhD at the Annenberg School for Communication, the University of Pennsylvania, and holds MAs in Communication from the University of Pennsylvania and American University and a BA in Communication Arts from the Lebanese American University.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Media Policy Project nor of the London School of Economics.