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How Bias Media Reflects Our Own Biases

Updated: Jul 6, 2021

Jessica L. and Mariam H

The expulsion of Palestinian residents from their homes in East Jerusalem to create more space for Israeli settlers on May 2, 2021 created widespread civil demonstrations in protest of our Governments silence. Palestinian homes destroyed, families torn apart and lives unalterably changed. It was a continuation of almost a century of violent dispossession, colonial conquest and discrimination.

Social media was spilling over with images and videos on the ground documenting the situation as it unfolded. They showed civilians brutalised by armed IDF soldiers, Palestinian children chased and terrorised and homes destroyed. Yet, the Australian news media when they finally did begin reporting produced long-winded and convoluted think pieces breaking down the conflict between Israel and Hamas. An Australian news media broadcast showed images of missiles hitting buildings, and called it the “ongoing arm wrestle of the middle east”. More and more titles springing up that seem to suggest that there is a “conflict” in the name of objective journalism.

The divide between what the public was being told by authorised sources of information and what was being shared across our screens from on the ground sources was jarring. We were seeing live footage of destruction perpetrated and still we were being told that the situation was too nuanced to grasp without a masters in geopolitics and international relations. This clear disparity highlighted that the public was being told one specific overarching narrative.

Subtle Propaganda

Propaganda is easy to identify when it's retrospectively spotting a 20th century socialist dictator using vintage photoshop to insert himself into a photo with a revolutionary leader. For many of us we consider propaganda to be presented with the jarring shades of red or the smiling faces of soldiers saturated with nationalistic fervour. Maybe even some catchy slogans posted all over the place in a san serif font a lá 1984’s the Party. But propaganda no longer looks like this, mainly because that would be worth as much as putting up a neon sign above with an arrow that says “propaganda do not trust”. No, to retain its usefulness as means of spreading and promoting a very particular narrative suited to discrediting an institution, cause or persons, propaganda today has adapted to fit contemporary cultural and social tastes.

In this age of overabundant information propaganda is able to spread comfortably across platforms without the ominous 1984-esque presence, instead becoming shareable content for everyone to access in the form of memes or twitter posts. We can find it on our social media pages as much as news sites, the information that constructs a certain desired narrative of reality. In the present moment Israel’s occupation is being defended by young teens on social media, influencers, celebrities , PragerU “educational” videos and more. Presenting a story that spotlights terrorism and anti-semitism as being the primary cause behind everything rather than the ethnic cleansing of an indigenous people. To the audience seeing all of this it gives an opportunity to separate themselves from the messiness of these issues, fearing the possibility of being called an anti-semite or a terrorist sympathiser because “you did not know enough about this issue”. This kind of propaganda works to stop people from engaging with the voices of Palestinian activists and journalists by subconsciously suggesting that this “conflict” is on the basis of factors that are beyond the audience’s understanding and that Palestinian voices are the defaulted “bad guy”.

Platforms are also a means to further propaganda in the form of subtle censorship of certain content creators. During the surge of Palestinian voices being shared across multiple social media platforms there was a sudden disappearance of content relating to Al Aqsa mosque and anything involving Palestine. Videos, photos, hashtags and live-streams were all blocked from view. According to Marwa Fatafta of the human-rights advocacy group Access Now, censorship of activist voices on social media has been happening for a long time with many activists and journalists actively calling out platforms for suppressing information. The absence of information from Palestinian activists, educators and journalists allows Israel’s political agendas to influence the dominant narrative, giving very little room to find any information that would contradict or reject the Israeli Occupation. Eerily echoing Bourdieu’s ideas, that censorship is most effective when it is purposefully eluding the voices of vulnerable groups from spaces or platforms of authority.

Language as a weapon

The way we talk about conflict, wars, violence and other atrocities uses language that attempts to be objective. Creating a story that incorporates elements from one side into another as though within the middle ground of both experiences there is a universal truth. Yet this is not entirely possible when reporting about violence, for such acts require a clear perpetrator and a victim to be identified. Annabelle Lukin, Associate Professor of Linguistics, argues that objective reporting of violence in the media allows the act to be perceived under a detached and dehumanised light. It allows such violence to be treated as an object that “just happens” on its own detached from the orders of political figures and fails to acknowledge the victims’ trauma and grief as a consequence of such violence. The fear that without objective journalism, there would be no rational truth does not adequately justify the pragmatic use of objective language. Relying heavily on such language can be a form of violence within itself, because it misrepresents the reality of the victims caught in the violence, it downplays the brutality of the perpetrators and it convinces the audiences to be the complicit overseer of tragedies rather than become active responders to injustices.

Whether you love it or hate it, the news shapes the way we see and interpret the world. The news itself is not without the biases and presumptions of the people and organisations that produce it. This inherent bias and in-built subjectivity itself is not the problem, it is the posturing of news media as the "truth" and "the objective" where the harm really begins. French and literature professor, Dr Alain Lescart identified that “language reflects the way people think,” but it is more than a reflection, language shapes the way people perceive and think. Language is a mechanism of power, it creates, perpetuates and asserts realities. Understanding this we can see how language can and routinely is weaponised by a dominating power to bring into existence justifications and rationalisation for actions and policies. In his famous quote, revolutionary leader Malcom X puts it best “If you're not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”

Contextualising this within the current situation in Palestine, the power of words and language is undeniable. Traditional reporting demands “objectivity” but as already identified that is thinly disguised myth, in choosing to report as “impartial” and “neutral” a side has already been chosen. Take even the labelling of the situation as the Israel-Palestine or the Israeli-Arab conflict, it positions two equal forces, two equal participants, but even a cursory understanding of the situation makes it clear this is not the case. Israel has the second largest and most robust military, it is allies with the world's largest military power and it has a nuclear arsenal at its disposal. Palestine does not have any of these. In using a neutral tone a clear choice is made and it unequivocally favours one side.

Beyond posturing of objectivity we have the contrast between the active and passive voice, and the way this creates humanised victims and collateral casualties. Think of the way Israelis are “murdered”and Palestinians "died”, one has a perpetrator and is caused while the other just happened. This reporting only acknowledges the pain and humanity of one side. Going further, the scale of destruction itself is unmatched in a way that makes the use of this language a blatant assertion of whose lives are valued.

It does not stop there, in news segments you would be pressed to hear the word Palestine used to refer to the land on which the violence was occurring. Palestine was referred to as the “occupied territories”, Gaza or Israel indicating blatant attempts at erasure by omission. The Palestinians would be referred to as Arabs, while the Israelis remained Israelis, and yes technically this is not an incorrect labelling as Palestinians are Arabs but the devil is in the details and this identification subtly undermines Palestinian nationhood and citizenship by not even recognising it. The manipulation of language as a means of power and the creation of one dominating narrative are not limited to the few examples provided here.

Language has been the primary weapon on the battlefield of public opinion for decades now, to find out more refer to the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, on the ground activists and journalists like Mohammed El Kurd, and community activists like Assala Sayara and Sara Saleh. Language matters because it has the power to shift the existing paradigms and mobilise collective action. Public opinion matters. It has the power to force the hand of governments and to push action by creating a situation that makes continuing their existing actions unpalatable. We know this because history has already proven it to be the case.

A toolbox

We can see the insidious way language can be used to propagandise and promote specific narratives by even the most trustworthy and seemingly balanced of sources. I mean we expect Murdoch media to lie to us but when it is the bourgeois supposedly liberal New York Times it stings just that little extra. So here is our definitely not foolproof non-exhaustive list of identifying subtle propaganda:

  1. Who are the authors? What is their background? (e.g. life experience, occupation, gender, religion and political affiliation)

  2. How is the media outlet you are reading from funded? What is the vested interest of the funders?

  3. Who benefits from this piece you are writing? Is it the author or the organisation?

  4. Analyse the language used; Why was that phrasing used? Remember that most articles go through several rounds of editing so every word is purposeful.

  5. Is the article/piece/media trying to convince you of something? If so, does it benefit anyone?

  6. This one is obvious and the most important, cross reference. Always refer to more than one source, try and have those sources be different from each other.

  7. Consistently challenge your own thoughts, and be open to being wrong.

Fisher, A. 2020, Manufacturing Dissent: The Subtle Ways International Propaganda Shapes Our Politics, The George Washington University.

Bourdieu, P., 1991, Language and symbolic power, Harvard University Press p.g. 138.


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