Interview with Curtis Brown
Cléa Thouin: I am Cléa Thouin, Assistant Editor for the Journal of Palestine Studies. Here with me today to talk about their article is Curtis Brown, a doctoral student at Harvard University. Curtis, welcome to Palestine Studies TV.
Curtis Brown: Thank you, I am happy to be here.
CT: On the 31st of May, Israel intercepted the six-ship flotilla attempting to break the siege of Gaza, killing nine people aboard the Mavi Marmara. Six months after the incident, which side has imposed its version of events and, more generally, who is winning the information war on Israel-Palestine?
CB: Well, I think you have to really sharply distinguish between an American and Israeli audience on the one hand and a world audience on the other.
I think that the world’s understanding is that the IDF attacked a civilian aid ship in international waters, attacked from a helicopter from above before repelling down onto the upper deck where they met an ad hoc spirited resistance and, in the ensuing melee, shot and killed some nine activists in circumstances that, in many cases, did not suggest self-defense. The autopsy suggested point blank shootings and so on. And then, at that point, confiscated the footage and photographs of the activists and journalists on board. I think that is the general understanding within the world media.
I think, for American and Israeli audiences the understanding is that there was a perhaps botched, maybe poorly planned interception of the ship full of extremist and pro-Hamas activists. That they found themselves violently ambushed, and then in the ensuing struggle this led, regrettably, to civilian casualties but the subsequently released videos suggested that these happened in self-defense. I think these are the two narratives.
As to the larger question to which side is generally winning the information war, that is a very tough question. I think it is incontestable that the Palestinian narrative has gained ground in mainstream American media over the long haul, in the last ten years and in the last twenty years.
I think that what my co-author Diana Allen and I were critiquing in the article and arguing against is that contrary to some euphoric accounts, there has been no major sea change as a result of the advent of social media. That is, I think, the argument that we make.
CT: And what role does that social media play in the information war, and what role can it play in changing the mainstream narrative?
CB: I think that the role of social media, the role that progressive media activists are going to play is the same role that progressive commentary, independent journalists, critical scholars have always played. Which is to produce dogged, patient, rigorous, but frequently marginalized form of discourse that has affects on mainstream understanding of the conflict, but they are slow accreted affects. They take place over time. I think the idea that there is a sudden shift and that it is being triggered by a media moment, that is the thing that does not bear scrutiny.
CT: And why then does Israel find it necessary to use social media to legitimize its actions like it did with the Marvi Marmara, for example?
CB: Well, first of all, I think that any powerful state PR machine is going to deploy its resources into any media that it can. But, more to the point, we are not in this paper pooh-poohing the importance of social media or its place in the media landscape. Not per say. It may be becoming even more central with time.
What we are contesting is the idea that it is a field leveling game changer. That it represents a domain where pluck is all, where material resources are transcended and obviated. I think that is the idea that we are examining here.
There was one pro-Israel commentator writing in Wired magazine, I think we quoted him in the article, who said that the flotilla aftermath proved that, in the Israel-Palestine information war, the hash tag has replaced the dollar sign. He does not need to worry about that, I think that is nonsense. The background and machinery of propaganda is still there and the world of social media exists but within the larger ecosystem of the traditional media, and is subject to some of the same forces.
CT: Could you talk a little bit about the differences between the Israeli use of social media and the pro-Palestinian activism use of social media, and how those differences impact their effectiveness?
CB: Well, one of the ideas that my co-author and I were critiquing, or examining with a certain amount of skepticism, is the idea that social media is intrinsically leveling. To take one particularly salient example for the present case is the idea that because video is cheap to produce and free to distribute via You Tube that, therefore, grassroots use of video clips by media activists can compete on a level playing field against a state owned PR apparatus with a well oiled machine and influential lobby.
The videos of the Mavi Marmara attack, edited by the IDF, were promoted by Israeli spokespeople and commentators. They enjoyed almost, kind of, incessant reruns on American news and cable stations. They existed against a background machinery of promotion. The footage of activists and independent journalists and so on, you could say then, was promoted by progressive independent media, by Democracy Now and so on.
So, in other words, traditional preexisting networks of influence and material resources determine to a great extent the reach and impact of social media. And when large vested interests are involved, viral phenomenon can rock the boat but they are not going to capsize it.
Now, more specifically to your question about aesthetic use by Israel of social media versus by grass roots, pro-Palestinian activists, I think that there is no question that Israel’s use of social media, sometimes called Web 2.0, is stodgy and still didactic. The Mavi Marmara video released by the IDF have these very obtrusive captions telling you what you are supposed to be seeing. When humor is used, as in the “We Con the World” video, its old fashioned. The references are very dated and you could say it is kind of embarrassing.
In any case, it is out of key with the kind of rapid-fire snark and pop cultural referentiality that we tend to associate with contemporary media vernacular, a kind of authentic online culture. It is out of key with that. What is not fully appreciated is that this is largely, and ultimately, an aesthetic question. And one of the things we argue in this paper is the awkwardness of Israel’s use of social media.
The apparent absurdity, for example, of the New York embassy holding a press conference via twitter, or having an internet warfare team commissioned by the Israeli government to pose as commentators on threads, and so on. This has produced overconfidence among pro-Palestinian activists. It has fostered the feeling that because they are more in touch with a certain aesthetic zeitgeist of the social media moment, that this translates into a political edge.
And so you have this meme – it’s a playful meme we do not mean to take it too seriously – but this meme that the internet has killed Israeli PR, this riff on “Video Killed the Radio Star”. It has not. There is still this formidable machinery behind these things.
CT: Israel’s use of new media has had some unintended consequences. Pro-Palestinian activists, for example, have been able to use the evidence that Israel presented to force the idea to retract certain versions of events but, as you said, this has not really been recognized in the mainstream media. Is that then really only a question of network?
CB: I do not know. We could take, for example, Max Blumenthal. He is an excellent independent journalist who works in the blogosphere and on twitter. He did force a few Israeli retractions with regards to the flotilla attack. These then were reported by Robert Mackey’s blog in the New York Times and this, Blumenthal claimed and other commentators claimed, was a major breakthrough for pro-Palestinian, grassroots media activism.
But what gets lost there is that Mackey’s blog is almost entirely devoted to meta commentary about what goes on in the new media. It’s viral videos, mashups, internet memes. So that an important story about the official Israeli narrative being contradicted or undermined, or even disproved in some cases, that sits side by side with the story about the “Bed Intruder Rant” being turned into a music video through Auto-Tune and then it becomes a viral on You Tube.
Neither of these stories, then, migrate to the news pages or the print edition of the New York Times. In other words, you could say that what goes on in social media has become a circumscribed arena within the mainstream press. It is something that is reported on for an enthusiastic sub audience that is interested in this, the way that sports, technology news, and pop news are reported. It has become an arena in itself.
One of the things that we say in this paper, one of the ideas that we suggest, is that if the Mohammed al-Dura video were coming out now in this media climate, rather than a decade ago, that it might rip through the blogosphere and onto Robert Mackey’s desk and not get noticed by the news pages.
Now, you could argue back and say, “what about the Twitter revolution in Iran” because that became a major front-page story, that Twitter enabled this kind of activism. But, that is an example of a particular story that the angle is one that dove tails nicely with the official American foreign policy narrative.
In other words, we come back to the question of whether the new media really exists within the ecosystem of the old media. The mechanics of marginalization make change and develop or metamorphose, but they are still there.
CT: So what do you think it would take for pro-Palestinian social activism to break out of that sphere and have a larger impact?
CB: I do not think either Diana, my co-writer, or myself would presume to tell people like Ali Abunimah, Philip Weiss, Max Blumenthal, or Adam Horowitz what they should be doing. They are doing extraordinary work and, in some cases, they are brilliant writers.
I think Philip Weiss is a brilliant writer, I think he understands his medium better than we do. And I certainly would not be suggesting to these people that they ought to, for example, imitate the more kind of mainstream path approach, the top down approach, to grass roots media that you get with the Israeli PR machine.
I do not think that is the answer.
One could make that argument, but that argument would depend on the very idea that we are critiquing in this paper, that you have a level playing field and that one is producing a more popular kind of product. I do not think that is the case at all.
The reason that this slightly ham-fisted use of social media, right now, by Israel is getting a large audience is because it is enjoying a promotional apparatus that grassroots media cannot rival. I think that they should go on doing the same sort of work they have been doing.
CT: Curtis Brown, thank you very much for talking to Palestine Studies TV.
CB: Thank you for having me on this show, I enjoyed it.