In 2014, with mass abductions in West Africa, ISIS attacks in the Middle East, and Russian militants crossing into Ukraine, it’s hard to believe that just twenty-five years ago many prominent academics were forecasting an unprecedented era of international peace following the end of the Cold War. We now know better. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, we have transitioned from one major global rivalry to the resurgence of many ethnic and tribal disputes, ranging from Kurdish independence movements to increased regionalism and racial division among the American states. Twenty-five years after the Cold War, however, if a person wants to see what reinforces tribalism, they need not look to a history book but to the smart phone in their pocket.
A platform for provocation
Political scientist Samuel P. Huntington’s famous argument that the post-Cold War era has spawned a new period of inter-civilizational conflict is arguably as much a result of a global media as it is of the great Soviet collapse. Cheap cell phones, laptops and broadband access can connect developed and developing countries in new and unexpected ways. People in the poorest corners of the world can now see endless images of the affluent West and compare them to the state of their own countries. This sparks a range of behaviors, including militarism at home, or even mass migration on levels previously unimagined. The catastrophic number of deaths in the Mediterranean in recent years – not from fighting, but from overflowing illegal passenger boats – is a testament to this.
Content such as controversial YouTube videos and Danish political cartoons can now be seen globally and spark riots, death threats and acts of violence from populations of differing cultural values from around the world. The outrage is then also filmed and sparks counter-outrage. It is worth considering, for example, that media-circulated images of violent demonstrations against Danish cartoons in 2005 were more detrimental to Islam’s world image than the original drawings that sparked the controversy. Conversely, ISIS beheadings and their perceived ability to pull the United States back into Iraq could do more to make the United States appear weak than if the U.S. had not reacted to the beheadings. Then again, online media has also become the new stage for the martyr, and arguably encourages violent responses through violent provocation.
The power of media to show the whole world acts of violence by disturbed or enraged people not only gives them a newfound influence, but also can incentivize them to carry out such acts knowing that the world will be watching. We as a society must accept that mass media in its current form gives a new voice not only to politicians, scientists, artists, celebrities, and ordinary citizens, but also to the twisted minds of people like James Holmes, Osama bin Laden, and countless others who would like to see their violence find an audience.
Your opinion has never mattered more
Cause for optimism persists, however, in that if humanity’s darker side can be thoroughly exposed by this new age of global information sharing, so too can images of peace, order, and resilience. Every corner of the Internet and global news is not in chaos, and there are many individuals and institutions making important contributions. Much is already being done to mitigate the negative side of mass media while enhancing its positives. Poor wording by many heads of state does not drown out entirely the words of leaders who make important statements about the need to resist panic and calls to violence in times of uncertainty. One such example is this section of Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s speech, promoting a calm and non-reactionary response to the shooting of 77 people in his home country:
bq. Good preparedness creates security.
Police in the streets create security.
Controls. Exercises. Equipment.
But we need something even more important.
We must do all of this.
We need you.
No matter where you live.
No matter what god you worship.
Each and every one of us can take responsibility.
Each and every one of us can guard our freedom.
Together we make an unbreakable chain of solidarity, democracy, safety and security.
That is our protection against violence.
It’s going to take many more years before most of us truly appreciate the power that the ideas reflected in our tweets, texts, and chosen news outlets really have on the direction of global civilization, but they truly do. For the first time in world history, what you read, what your opinions are, and even what happens to you on a given day can be made available to everyone whether you’re in Portugal, Poland, or Pakistan. Your opinion, informed or uninformed, has never mattered more. In such a time, people are eventually going to end up deciding whether they want to define themselves as part of new international communities or along old tribal lines. The results are likely to vary.