The media wars in the Arab world that erupted before and after the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings are well-known to ordinary people who switch between Arab and international news channels in order to familiarize themselves with the different points of view or angles of coverage. Viewers have become experts on how this or that TV channel addresses each issue or how they frame questions in a bid to elicit specific responses that comply with their editorial line. When things are getting out of control, TV presenters use ready expressions, such as “we’re running out of time,” in order to deal with the situation.
As for the print media, it is not so easy to switch between different publications and people often choose specific newspapers and magazines that satisfy their whims or whose editorial line they feel comfortable with. Given the long history of print media, some people show a somewhat tribal loyalty to certain publications and thus become life-long readers.
Late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat believed in the important role that the media played in politics to the extent that he would commonly refer to print media as the Fourth Estate. This is a well-known metaphor that demonstrates the power of the media—placing it just after the executive, legislative and judicial branches of power in terms of importance. The late Egyptian leader himself worked in journalism for some time during his political life and both fought battles and made friendships with writers and journalists.
In reality, media is not a power, nor does it have the tools of power. But it is a medium that highly influences and directs public opinion and as a consequence the executive powers. During times of tension, the media’s importance increases in the battle for people’s hearts and minds. This was particularly evident following the 9/11 attacks, especially in terms of addressing the Arab and Islamic world. The media also became one of the tools in the conflicts that erupted in the aftermath of the changes that took place in some Arab republics in what some call the Arab Spring and others the Arab Autumn due to the bloody civil wars that ensued.
This situation is not limited to the Arab world. In an interesting article published by Britain’s Guardian newspaper on Sunday, former director of the BBC World Service Peter Horrocks warned that Russian and Chinese spending on English-language media will allow them to beat the US and UK in the information war. Horrocks demanded more government funding for the BBC World Service which today receives funding of 245 million British Pounds. The article also refers to the astronomical salaries Russia Today, a state-owned Russian English-speaking TV channel, pays to its staff in a bid to provoke the BBC and its financiers.
Information warfare has become a key part of twenty-first century conflicts, whether domestic or international. Run from behind screens, these battles could cause damage as deadly as those inflicted by weapons of mass destruction. This was clearly seen in the Ukrainian crisis, as well as the 2011 uprisings that erupted across the Arab world—social media and new media formed a key tool. Another recent example can be seen in the hacking of Sony Pictures and the exposure of its emails and films. The White House has responded by threatening to take measures against North Korea which is suspected of being behind the attack.
Some say we are entering uncharted waters but it has been established that information warfare has always been part of human warfare and conflicts. Only the tools have differed, evolving in terms of sophistication and speed thanks to modern technology.
The true solution to the flow of false information lies in countering and confronting the methods for spreading rumors and confusion by raising social awareness. At the end of the day, people can evaluate what they are exposed to through the media—this is demonstrated by the general state of unease over the sensationalist practices of some TV satellite channels which aim solely to attract viewers.