Issue 84 / November - December 2011
Beware the Messenger! Misinformation in the Age of Globalization
Chowdury Osman, a taxi driver in New York City, made himself a hero in February 2007 when he returned a black bag carrying 31 diamond rings to a passenger who left it in Mr. Osman's taxi's trunk. He was all over the news across the United States. Mr. Osman was a Muslim immigrant from Bangladesh. Interestingly, over twenty national and local newspapers that I reviewed that day referred him as a Bangladeshi, and not as a Muslim. It then occurred to me - what if this man instead stole his customer's diamond rings and this became news, too? Would the media refer him as just a Bangladeshi or also a Muslim as they did when a Moroccan-Dutch killed Dutch filmmaker Vincent van Gogh or a Pakistani-American killed a Jewish woman and wounded many at the Seattle Jewish Federation? Why do some of the Western media highlight the religion of a Muslim when he/she commits an evil act but ignore it when he/she commits a noble one?
Almost every society eventually creates an "other"that serves as such for certain political, economic, or social purposes. And in most cases, the identification of this "other" rests on a simplistic "us versus them" dichotomy: we are "good" people, and they are "bad" people. Because this simple dichotomy is more mythical than real, the maintenance of this myth requires a continuous pumping of misinformation into the public realm. Misinformation is not necessarily incorrect information; it is also purposeful manipulation of reality. Each society foregrounds the good acts of its own people and backgrounds their bad acts while foregrounding the bad acts of "others" and backgrounding their good acts. Thus, we all accomplish giving our own communities a delusional sense of moral and cultural superiority over others, which eventually turns the material conflicts between us and others into moral conflicts between good and evil.
The common "good Westerners-bad Muslims" dichotomy results in manipulation of the information provided to the people in the West about both Muslims and Westerners themselves. This is why in some of the Western media, evil acts of Muslim people are almost always associated with Islam while noble acts of Muslim people such as Mr. Osman are either ignored or associated with their nationality rather than their religion. In the same vein, evil acts of Western people such as those who gassed the nursery of a Muslim mosque in Ohio while about 300 people were praying inside in September 2008 are largely ignored by some of the mainstream Western media, for it goes against the "good Westerners" image.
A striking example that is used as evidence to the evilness of Muslims is the degree of support for terrorism among Muslims. Authors from Sam Harris to Robert Spencer have sought refuge in Muslim support for terrorism when they wanted to denounce Islam. Some surveys reveal that there are some Muslims who justify killing innocent people in certain circumstances. According to the respectable PEW institution's surveys, 10 to 50 percent of people in different Muslim societies (with an average of 20-25%) often times or sometimes justify suicide bombing of civilian targets to defend Islam. Such findings are construed as evidence to both the belligerent nature of the religion of Islam and the evilness of the Muslim mind. Yet another truth that goes uncovered in some of the Western media is the fact that there is comparable support for terrorism among Western people as well. According to a 2007 survey by World Public Opinion, for example, 24% of Americans find "bombing and other types of attacks intentionally aimed at civilians" often times or sometimes justified. But such surveys never find a place in the some of the mainstream American media because they go against the common "good American-bad Muslim" dichotomy.
The problem of misinformation is not unique to the West. It is equally problematic in Muslim societies. Most Muslims have known the United States and Americans through the lenses of Vietnam, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the like. But few of them are aware of such programs like Peace Corps or Volunteers for Prosperity because such good American acts go against the mythical "bad Americans-good Muslims" dichotomy in the Muslim world. Similarly, most Muslims have memorized many non-Muslim names for their brutal acts against Muslims, but very few Muslims are familiar with Muslim names who are held responsible for the crimes against humanity. Whereas the former figures confirm the mythical "good Muslims-bad non-Muslims" image, the latter contradicts it. Therefore, the former examples have been highlighted in the Muslim media and the latter has been ignored.
On the forefront of this universal misinformation campaign are two institutions: the media and governments. The media loves sensational, flashy news because such news pumps up their ratings. Consequently, the media capitalize on overstated evilness of some other people and the existential threat they pose to "our" society. In the same vein, our governments love the existence of "external threats to our national security," mythical or real, because it allows them to divert public attention from failed domestic policies to international politics and also to implement certain political and military agenda that they could not have carried out without a foreign threat. John Mueller, a professor of political science from Ohio State University, estimated that "the lifetime chance of an American being killed by international terrorism is about one in 80,000-about the same chance of being killed by a comet or a meteor." Yet whereas no sane American is obsessed with the adversity of a meteor falling on his/her head, many have been made to obsessively think, fear, and guard themselves against a terrorist attack by some evil others.
Most of us have been misinformed about other societies to some extent. We are all, therefore, in need of a therapy of knowledge refinement. But how do we do that? Personally, I think there are two effective ways/channels of refining our knowledge and acquiring authentic information about other societies. First, we need to diversify our sources of information by reading multiple and multi-national news papers or portals. Second, we need to diversify our pool of friends and include in it as many people from "other" societies as possible. Nothing is more powerful than a concrete counter-example when it comes to destroying a myth. As we diversify our sources of information and befriend people from other societies, we will realize that "we" are not as "good" as we are told we are, and "they" are not as "bad" as we are told they are, which will hopefully help us re-appreciate the essential commonality between all of us: humanity. Hopefully, we will then also realize that the major struggle is not between "good" us versus "bad" them but rather between the good people and the bad ones among us all. We need to find ways of testing or confirming knowledge we get from the media and not forget that the media is owned and operated by people, who, like us, have many presumptions, biases, priorities, or simply misconceptions, that can spill over when they are "reporting."
aan Kerem has a PhD in political science. He is a freelance writer on philosophy and scientific thought.