The Greek Philosopher Aristoteles taught – as one once learned in philosphy lessons – that amazement is the beginning of the love of wisdom (philo-sophia) which has kept this Greek name in many languages of the world right into our days. A pale reflection of this amazement can be seen in an editor’s habit not of astonishment – as the routine of having to perceive and assess hundreds, if not thousands, of bits of information every day has taught him no longer to be amazed – but at least of asking himself: “So, what is new about this?”
If I remember rightly, it thus long become a routine part of the annual peace meetings of the Community of Sant’Egidio to reflect about the role of the media in the emergence, unfolding and – hopefully also – the resolution of conflicts. So that’s nothing new.
What is different, however, is the occasions of this reflection, an this in itself justifies a new reflection. This year, we are commemorating the outbreak of the First World War in this historical place, in Belgium, whose neutrality was intentionally ignored by the German Empire and which, with the subsequent destruction of the Leuven university library, became the theatre of the first of many war atrocities. It would therefore be highly appropriate to think about the role of the media in these fatal weeks before and after the 1st of August 1914. But I feel this is hardly the place for historical considerations.
In fact, there is a second occasion that seems more urgent to me, namely way the dynamics of a conflict itself change through the use of so-called new media, first of all the new social media. If jihadists in Northern Iraq barbarically execute a journalist prisoner, film this act, make it available over the internet and millions of people all over the world are made into voluntary or involuntary spectators, then a new quality in the relationship between conflicts and media has certainly been reached.
Sure, executions have often in history been public acts sometimes even public amusements for the common people, suffice it to think of the autodafés. Yet in those times, people may have believed that a higher justice was active in such an event, and the event was hoped to have a cathartic effect. But the executioner himself, the man whose hands brought about death, was considered dishonourable, his profession was stigmatized.
It is also certain that there have always been reports about barbaric acts and that when they were spread, this never happened without political calculations. Think only of the 16th century and the „Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies“ by Dominican Friar Bartolomé de las Casas, a polemic which, as we know today, gravely distorted the first Spanish colonization efforts in the Caribbean. Still, the “Brevísima Relacion” for centuries fuelled the “leyenda negra” about the cynical Spanish colonialism. For centuries, this “leyenda” served the rebellious Dutch, just like the maritime rivals of Spain, the English and the French as a justification to morally discredit the Habsburg Empire and the successive rulers of Spain – while distracting from their own barbaric acts.
Third, it is also sure that pictures and reports from conflict zones, more than any other news, have always been subject to control, censorship and, moreover, manipulation. The adage “Truth is the first casualty of war” has existed since times immemorial. To come back to the First World War, this war was the first one where pictures were used as weapons of propaganda and where it became clear that since the birth of mass media, nothing has been more useful for one’s own “side” than pictures, as their power of suggestion is much stronger than that of words.
So then, what is new about the new use of social media, as I have claimed?
First, the use of the new electronic media by all conflict parties does not only multiply the quantity of information from and about the war situation, but also gives the news a new quality, as the opponent’s “propaganda” is fought in real time with means of propaganda.
Not only classical media such as magazines and daily newspapers but also the online portals that are greedy for up-to-the minute topicality, the so-called “live tickers” – are completely overwhelmed by this development. In this way, the risk of being fooled by the propaganda of the one or the other side becomes harder and harder to control. Moreover, the classical media can no longer use their accustomed “filter” or “gatekeeper” function. It used to be said that information was a matter of confidence. But where should this confidence come from if it is not even the media themselves that can have any trust?
There is something else that I feel we have to assess as new about the use of social media. So-called quality media, printed and electronic ones alike – have so far made it a rule for themselves not to publish certain pictures out of reverence, especially pictures of dead bodies and dead body parts. Whatever may have been the reasons for this rule - and some of them are still valid – the internet does not know about this filter. Quite to the contrary, it has turned out to be a catalyser that gives all kinds of human perversion at least limited publicity – think only of the worldwide spread of child pornographic pictures.
But what effect is the worldwide presentation of the barbaric execution of an innocent hostage supposed to have? If I am not mistaken, the function of the video, which keeps being deleted and re-uploaded on YouTube, is precisely not to discredit the opponent or to break esthetical taboos. From a political point of view, killing Mr. Foley might even turn out to be counter-productive, according to a Western logic, because in the medium term it might swing the opinions of Western democracies, which are all war-weary at present, towards favouring a military response.
To me, it seems the message is another one. People who partly grew up in Western societies take pride, in the name of their religion, in radically breaking with an idea of the dignity of the human person and the value of life that was informed by Christianity.
This message is not only a statement the executioners make about themselves. Its addressees – apart from Western societies – are very concrete people, namely young men, who, in the name of a radical interpretation of Islam are to act like the murderers. This aim of mobilisation is not new either. What is new is the method, and probably also the effect, as the number of Muslims and Islamic converts, who are making their way from Europe to Jihad is constantly growing.
What does this mean, and for whom? Let me give three succinct thoughts as conclusion.
The propaganda use of social media in real time makes it increasingly difficult to draw a realistic, or only approximately realistic, picture of the development of a conflict. This is true both for Irak and Ukrain. At the same time, many classical media, primarily quality newspapers and independent broadcasters, are in an existential crisis. Correspondents’ offices are being closed, editors are being fired, newspapers are getting thinner. This is not meant to say that media should give up on themselves, nor am I terrified by the perspective that, maybe ten or twenty years from now, printed newspapers may no longer exist. In fact, a newspaper that is published electronically or a quality online portal also needs competent and independent editor. But it is these editors that I am worried about.
In fact, democratic societies need to be aware that the existence of a pluralistic variety of independent media is in greatest danger. But these media are crucial for a society to make up its opinion and for a political will to be formed. It can’t be clearly seen where this road will take us. For the newspaper that I represent, I can guarantee to you that we are not going to abandon this field without a fight, as the ones to profit from it would only be those who would love to evade the control of independent media. This, however, would increase the potential for conflict not only within societies. Politics, driven only by opinions and moods, would hardly be able to make unpopular commitments, for instance to take the “responsibility to protect”. For example, what has been the echo to Andrea Riccardi’s appeal to save the city of Aleppo and the people living in it by an international mission? Or what has been the echo to Pope Francis’s astonishing request to the community of states to fight the advance of ISIL in Northern Iraq by military means?
Perhaps there is an opportunity in the coincidence of digitalization and the crisis of classical media: The more intensely social media are used in real time in conflicts, the greater the need for professional observers who analyze the events and process them into media reports where the basic features and the dynamics of the conflict can be clearly seen, and thereby remain visible. The new social media do not render classical media superfluous; quite to the contrary, they make them more necessary than ever before.
Thirdly and finally: It is an incomparable barbarity that videos such as that of the killing of photographer James Foley should be circulating the net. Merely watching a man speaking his last words in mortal fear, leave along being butchered like an animal is a crime against humanity. I would wish for the civilized world to do its utmost so that the internet not become a place of inhuman pictures. This – of course – does not remove the causes of the conflict – which is not least an inner-islamic one – of which James Foley is but one of many victims. Of course, the reason why the indignation about his killing is so great is that he was an American. Who gets upset about the thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of victims of the conflict in Syria and elsewhere who do not have faces? It will forever remain the task of media in conflicts perhaps not to give all of them a face, often not even a name, but at least not to look away from them.