Monthly Archives: November 2011

What’s There New in the News?

In their article “Al-Jazeera English and Global Networks,” Shawn Powers and Mohammed el-Nawawy talk about media system dependency theory and how there is a relationship between people’s reliance on news from a particular news source (like BBC World, CNNI, or AJE) and their political opinions and attitudes. One of their findings was that people tend to turn to particular broadcasters to affirm their existing opinions rather than to change them, thus reinforcing existing cultural clichés about cultural ‘others.’ This is quite a disappointing conclusion given all the hopes for the global media to promote a more cosmopolitan and tolerant outlook. Interestingly enough, their second finding was that those people who watched Al-Jazeera English tended to be less dogmatic in their thinking.

Another recent piece of research has revealed that of all news channels, Fox News viewers are the least informed. In the study, respondents were asked questions about the recent events of the Arab Spring, widely covered in the US by almost all news broadcasters. The results of the research showed that Fox News viewers were 18 points less likely to know that Egyptians overthrew their government than those respondents who were not TV viewers. Fox News viewers even scored lower than those respondents who claimed not to watch news at all!

What is more interesting, however, is that the same researchers found that 11% of MSNBC viewers believed that Occupy Wall Street protesters were Republicans, while only 3% of Fox viewers believed so. As Dan Cassino, a professor of political science, noted, “People who tune into ideological media are motivated to hear their side of the debate and so you can have someone who watches MSNBC be so used to hearing about protests coming from the right that they automatically believe that Occupy is mostly a Republican protest.”

These findings demonstrate the ambiguity of the role global media play in the promotion of cultural awareness and tolerance. It is especially important to remember the nichefication of media outlets and the emergence of highly ideological media, which tends to attract those viewers who hold extreme political views and are not looking to reconsider them. “News” presented by these media is often just a euphemism for propaganda.


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Hybridize That

The project called “Citizen Poet” was conceived of in Moscow by a poet, an actor, and a producer slightly over a year ago. The idea looked brilliant to me: the form is a theatre, the tool is Russian classic poetry, the content is acerbic political satire of the Russian “duet” (Putin-Medvedev), and—attention—the medium is the Internet. The actor reads poems that rhyme like widely recognizable and beloved pieces of Russian poetry, but the meaning is aimed at criticizing and ridiculing Russian political leadership; the performances are videotaped and uploaded on the Internet.

At first the authors thought that these videos would be seen only by a few thousand intellectuals, but the viewership of their first clip was 250,000, with 14 million clicks now, a year later. It is important to mention that the Russian government, to put it mildly, does not welcome the opposition (just like almost any government). Most of the intellectuals are either apathetic about the current political situation, or have been co-opted by the government through membership in the official party, United Russia, or by being repeatedly invited for tea and “cordial” conversation with Prime Minister Putin.

The success of this project is obvious—it was noticed immediately and the poet (who actually happens to be my favorite journalist, Dmitriy Bykov) was invited to the “tea party” with the Prime Minister. Bykov declined on the premise that he was busy. The real motivation, as he admitted in an interview, was that he does not want to lose credibility with his audience as an independent opinion maker.

What is interesting, I think, is the form the creators of the project have selected. Both of them, the poet and the actor, belong to a generation which prefers traditional artistic media to Internet-specific ones. However, by uploading their theatrical recitations on the Internet, they have increased the project’s outreach and popularity, and created, from my point of view, a truly powerful satirical weapon and a truly hybrid product, which could only be possible with new technology.

As a native speaker, I can attest that the whole thing is VERY stinging.

Here is the NYT article about the project:

Cross-Cultural Understanding Through the News

Powers and el-Nawawy write in “Al Jazeera English and Global News Networks: Clash of Civilizations or Cross-Cultural Dialogue” that global news networks have two effects. 1) they can reaffirm the us versus them mentality because people seek out programs that already display their views and 2) long-term viewership of channels such as AJE help lessen the clash of civilizations phenomenon. This means that the bias AJE has because of the culture it derives from ultimately affects viewers even if they are not of that same culture.

This theory is especially interesting now, because more people outside of the MENA region became aware of AJE this year and now watch it or check the website for news about the Arab Spring. (I am making an assumption here, as I have nothing but what I’ve noticed to back up this claim.) In any case, this possible increase in Western viewership of AJE could have an effect of how accepting U.S. citizens are of Arab culture. It could help dissolve some of the issues with the “clash of civilizations” between the Middle East and the U.S.

AJE has this effect over time because it is successful in depicting universal themes, which all people identify with, specifically now with stories of the uprisings. One case of this that I think does well to show the effects is the AJE documentary about the protest movement in Bahrain, called “Shouting in the Dark.”  It takes an in depth look at the movement and clashes between protestors and government. It shows gruesome scenes of the violence protestors experienced in February and has interviews with lots of different people. Basically, viewers cannot help but empathize with the people of Bahrain, which lends to Powers and el-Nawawy’s theory.

Check out the documentary here.

Schizoid World

When I was in yoga yesterday my teacher, to paraphrase, told us to let go of whatever we are , mothers, fathers, accountants, sons, sisters, lawyers, students, yogis, foodies…the list went on. The point was to be in the moment and in your yoga practice; however, it got me thinking about the imagined communities presentation in class. I started to think, what commonalities form imagined communities.

People in class giggled when she said foodies, or yogis. Why was this? To be a father, a son, a sister etc… there is little need for a community. Every man is a son, and every woman is a daughter. I guess what I’m trying to say here is that in order for an imagined community to exist, there must be a need. Perhaps even a sense of minority. People giggled when they heard foody because they thought, “wow, I thought I was the only one.” People maintained a straight face when they heard son, because, well their neighbor, and neighbor’s neighbor was also a son. And again they giggled when she said yogi, because, me personally I wonder if people at work see me walk out with my yoga mat and automatically put me into this group too?

I’m taking a roundabout way here to explain my thoughts; however, what I’m getting at is that an imagined community comes around when there is a need for it. The question is: when does this need become so great that a community arises? When do you need to join the “yogi” community – and trust me, this is a community. Or the “foody” community? Is it when normal people just don’t understand?

It seems to me like if you need a community you can find it. Perhaps that idea of the melting pot isn’t so accurate. Nobody really needs to melt into a certain community; they can just moderately adjust, but go home at night to their own community that keeps them comfortable.

It’s a schizoid world out there. You can be a part of so many different communities that it’s hard to just choose three, like we were asked to do in class yesterday. Me, I’m a fundraiser, a yoga practicer and a woman. But let me tell you, I can’t tell you the number of times I accidently try to go to work in my yoga pants!

The Story of One Encounter

In the summer of 2010 Muscovites and people in several regions around Moscow were literally suffocating with the heavy acid smoke coming from the forest. The temperature that summer was abnormally high for this latitude—up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit—and forests rich with peat were burning like a stack of dry hay. There was a general resentment about the efficiency of the local and country authorities who were dealing with this natural disaster. At times, there was a feeling that they were not dealing with it at all, letting the unlucky ones whose houses were in the danger zone deal with the raging natural disaster.

The Internet that summer was full of indignant blogs, as well as calls for volunteers for the fire fighting teams organized by local residents in different villages.  The editor of one of the major radio stations in Moscow was looking for information about the fires and the fire-fighting situation in different regions.  Because this radio station didn’t have correspondents in all these regions, the editor was reading what people from those regions were writing in blogs. He found a good one: a blogger who named himself top_lap wrote that he had a vacation house in the region that was beset with fire and he was blaming local authorities for the inefficient management in his situation. The blog was loaded with curse words directed at the authorities, but in general it was well written and juicy. The blogger’s irritation with the local bureaucracy quite naturally evolved into a frustrated monologue about the state of things in general:

“Where is our [tax] money being spent?” he exclaimed

“Why with every passing year are we hurtling towards a primitive social order?”

“Let us live the way want, and we want to live well and happily. We do not rely on you because we understand your life principle: everybody around owes you something, but you are wrong about that: it is you who owe us, and you owe us a lot, believe me.”

In the end, the blogger demanded the return of the alarm bell that had always operated in his village in Soviet times, and disappeared in the mess of the transition. He said he didn’t need the phone, which was not even working, but instead wanted local authorities to dig out special fire ponds, which would make water available in case of a fire, so that local people could prevent its spread quickly and efficiently.

The editor copied the blog and pasted it in a special box named “write to the Prime Minister” on the government’s site, not even hoping to get a response. He felt like, as a member of the media, he at least fulfilled his duty in letting the government hear the “voice” of at least one angry citizen.

Surprisingly, the next day Prime Minister Putin himself wrote a response in a soothing and slightly ironic manner, praising the author of the blog for his literary style. He promised that the local authorities would deliver the anonymous blogger the alarm bell he so passionately demanded.

This story of Putin’s response to some anonymous blogger made it to all the major news channels and was covered in the foreign media. To this day this, exchange of messages is considered to be the first (and probably the last) of Putin’s direct dialog with “the members of civil society,” who openly express their dissatisfaction with authorities, even if with obscene vocabulary.   Here is the BBC’s article:

The blogger was even invited to the talk show on the radio station, which made him famous.  In the interview he announced that he would keep posting and that he is glad his writing produced such a powerful effect.

This story looks like a good example of how regular citizens using telecommunications are empowered now and are able to put additional pressure on authorities and hold them accountable for their actions. But there was more to this story.

On December 25, 2010 it was announced in the news that police searched the blogger’s house and confiscated  his flash drives and a hard drive. Later he wrote in his blog: “It looks like they are really going after me…” Then he wrote that there was some inspection at his mother’s workplace. His last post was, “Busted.” The journal was soon deleted.

So who is willing to be the next brave “concerned” citizen?

Keep Your Enemies Closer

It’s a cliché, yes, but it has validity. I thought about this when discussing internet usage in restrictive countries in class. We discussed Bingchun Meng’s piece “From Steamed Bun to Grass Mud Horse: E Gao as alternative political discourse on the Chinese Internet.” This “hidden transcript”, as professor Hayden described it, is an art form for humor, sarcasm and critical, yet teasing, analysis.

 E Gao is perhaps not as hidden as I first thought. It is a wide spread art form known by many, and I would have to assume is noticed by the government. I found this article from 2007 expressing concern in E Gao. If E Gao has been creating worries since at least 2007, why is it still allowed. China has no problem clamping down on public forums. Monitoring and refusal of freedom of speech is not uncommon in China. So if the government does know about this, why hasn’t E Gao been shut down?

 Professor Hayden discussed in class how a lot of things can be said in China, but as soon as they are expressed in a way to promote organization, China will begin censoring. So, assuming that this is the case, there are two reasons I can think of on why E Gao still creeps through the cracks. One, it’s not organized and causes no threat. Or, two, it’s in the best interest of a country to keep its enemies closer, and what better way than by allowing some unwanted activity.

 I found that Ian Shapiro confirms this theory in his Washington Post article “U.S. funding tech firms that help Mideast dissidents evade government censors.” As the title suggests, the U.S. is helping fund what many believe was at the heart of the Arab Spring, access to internet and in turn human rights. A non-profit organization, The Tor Project, discussed in Shapiro’s article, helps journalists, law enforcement, intelligence agencies and even U.S. and European governments with Tor for intelligence gathering, but they will not honor requests from Middle East governments that want to conduct  surveillance on their citizens.

 Perhaps this is why some Middle East governments are losing their power. If you offer no freedom you must seek it out somewhere else, and that somewhere else may be more powerful. China may be keeping its society from having the need to reach out, but still keeping a close surveillance, just as each of our accounts may be closely watched by government branches in the U.S. But do we feel the need to seek other forms of accessibility? Too many restrictions and you are failing to keep your enemies closer.

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Whose side are you on?

The Washington Post article by Ian Shapira was particularly interesting this week, but I think that there is more to this issue of U.S. administrations’ role in preventing or supporting authoritarian regimes monitor and censor citizens. The Shapira article, U.S. funding tech firms that help Mideast dissidents evade government censors,” discusses the positive side of the U.S. role. It says that, “Federal agencies — such as the State Department, the Defense Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors — have been funding a handful of technology firms that allow people to get online without being tracked or to visit news or social media sites that governments have blocked. Many of these little-known organizations — such as the Tor Project and UltraReach— are unabashedly supportive of the activists in the Middle East.”

This is a crucial step in supporting the citizens of countries in the Middle East, as opposed to supporting the regimes. This funding is great because it sets a tone for U.S. companies that produce this software. However, there is still an obvious disconnect between U.S. support for citizens and any opposition to oppressive regimes. Openly supporting citizens over regimes causes problems for U.S. diplomacy with economic partner countries such as Saudi Arabia and China, ” which are known to block Web sites they deem dangerous,” according to the article.

Additionally, it may not matter what the government funds if other U.S. companies are selling spyware software to authoritarian regimes. It’s true that the government is between a rock and a hard place with balancing economic and strategic diplomatic relations with doing the right thing by supporting dissidents of authoritarian regimes. But this 2009 article from The Guardian offers somewhat of a solution to the problem. It would force regimes to go else where for spyware, and be another small step in supporting citizens.

Ĉu vi parolas Esperanton?

The idea of linguistic exclusion discussed in the chapter by Paul Adams made me think of Esperanto, the most successful attempt thus far to create an artificial language purely for international communicative purposes. The story of Esperanto’s creation is remarkable in itself. Esperanto was literally invented by Leyzer Zamenhof, a Jewish man, who was born in the territory of the Russian Empire in 1859. His small town of Białystok (in present-day Poland) was populated by people from four different ethnic groups: Jews, Poles, Belarusians, and Germans. Each community spoke its own language and stuck to its own customs. The level of misunderstanding and mistrust was so high that Zamenhof, a medical doctor by profession, dedicated most of his time to the invention of a new language for intercultural communication, which, he hoped, would facilitate a more peaceful coexistence for people in multicultural communities.

Esperanto’s grammar and vocabulary were borrowed from multiple Indo-European languages and were constructed in such a manner as to facilitate easy recognition by speakers of different languages, as well as quick learning. Since its creation in the late 19th century, Esperanto gained a good deal of popularity in Europe, China, Japan, and the Americas. The world congress of Esperanto speakers has been held annually since 1905. Apart from its enthusiasts all over the world, Esperanto has gained the support and recognition of international organizations such as UNESCO.

Despite its seeming usefulness, Esperanto failed to develop into a real international tool of communication. Instead, English became the de-facto lingua franca—mainly for economic reasons and sort of by default. Esperanto enthusiasts all over the world, however, are vocal about actually replacing English as a language of international communication with Esperanto. What is interesting is that their main argument is along the same lines as the integral role of communication in global governance, which we have discussed in class: namely, that everybody has a right to participate in the political process, and language disparity hinders this participation. Enthusiasts, like Robert Phillipson from the University of Amsterdam, promote Esperanto as an auxiliary language which should become mandatory in the globalized world. Importantly, Esperanto is promoted as a second language, an auxiliary to the native one, thus it is not aimed at substituting native languages.

The advantages of Esperanto are obvious: it is nobody’s native language and does not carry any cultural connotations apart from the idealistic attempt to facilitate understanding. Thus communication in Esperanto is a more egalitarian process than in English. Also, as research of Esperanto speakers (Esperantists) shows, they tend to see themselves as a “voluntary, nonethnic, non-territorial speech community” (Li, p. 36). This seems to correspond with the processes of transnational network formation, which take place in a network society. Besides, learning an international language would require patience and attention to what someone is actually saying, and in the modern conception of democracy, this by itself is a significant act. So, according to Esperanto scholars, a neutral tool of communication like Esperanto is necessary for global governance to be truly democratic.

I feel that this debate about the international language of communication, as idealistic as it may seem, is timely, especially in light of the fact that there is so much frustration and resentment toward West-led globalization. I want to believe that the world is what we make of it, and if the present world order, with all its advanced technology, needs new tools of communication, sooner or later they will be introduced.  And maybe in 100 years our descendents will speak a second, international, language, one that won’t be a result of economic hegemony, but rather of voluntary agreement.


Here is a very interesting video about Esperanto:



Materials used:

Daniele Archibugi, “The Language of Democracy: Vernacular or Esperanto? A Comparison between the Multiculturalist and Cosmopolitan Perspectives,” in Political Studies, vol, 53, 2005, 537-555.

David C. S. Li, “Between English and Esperanto: what does it take to be a world language?” in International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 164, 2003, 33-63.