The Visual Du Jour – Stealth Conflicts

Stealth conflict is, of course, a concept borrowed from Virgil Hawkins, denoting conflicts that are by and large ignored by Western media for a variety of reasons (as opposed to chosen conflicts). As a result, a stealth conflict, when it is not completely ignored, is often treated as impossible to explain, based on ancestral tribal rivalries that are so atavistic as impossible to stop (the underlying colonial racist logic is only thinly veiled here). The most egregious example of stealt conflict is, of course, the conflict in the DRC but Somalia does not rank far behind. So, it is nice to see at least an attempt at explaining the sequence of events that led to a country without government and torn by conflicting parties:

It is a nice attempt but it is very light on content and quite simplified, which is a common problem when one designs infographics: striking the right balance between overloading the visual with information v. oversimplifying. But it is more attention than this conflict has received. Actually, most of the attention paid to Somalia has been on pirates because they kidnapped Westerners or threatened Western interests.

If It’s Not Trending on Twitter, It Does Not Exist

A while back, I reviewed Virgil Hawkins’s Stealth Conflict. In the book, Hawkins argues that the structure and organization of the media (among with other factors) lead to ignoring certain conflicts (stealth conflicts) while prioritizing coverage of others (chosen conflicts). The bottom line is that what makes a conflict chosen is not how serious it is, or how long it has been going on or even the numbers of death. Our media pay attention to conflicts that can fit in nicely packaged narratives that are familiar to Western audiences, where there is a clear moral tale to be told and where there is something in it for us (in addition to structural factors).

In this more recent post, Hawkins turns his attention to the “new media”, using the coverage of the current protest movements across the Middle East (chosen conflicts) as opposed to the virtual silence on Ivory Coast. Bottom line: not much difference:

“For audiences in the English-speaking West, one important ingredient necessary for media attention that was missing from the Cote d’Ivoire story was familiarity. This is not simply a matter of racial, linguistic or socioeconomic affinity – although this is certainly a major part of it. Cote d’Ivoire has rarely been covered in the past, so the public lacks the background knowledge and context to make sense of events there. Had exactly the same events happened in Zimbabwe, the reaction would have undoubtedly been very different. For more than ten years, Zimbabwe has been heavily covered (and Robert Mugabe thoroughly demonized) by the Western media.

Also, importantly, Cote d’Ivoire doesn’t quite fit into the ‘big frame’ of the times – the tool that helps us all put a particular news story into its appropriate ‘box’ and quickly make sense of it – like ‘communism’, ‘terrorism’, and now, ‘revolution in the Middle East’. Cote d’Ivoire could certainly be framed as a story of people rising up against an illegitimate government and fighting for democracy – it’s just that it is not happening in the Middle East (it in fact predated the initial Tunisian uprising). And if levels of media coverage to date serve as any indication, events in the Middle East are far more ‘important’ than those in sub-Saharan Africa.

Advances in technology have revolutionized our access to information about the world. If we actively search online, we can very quickly find out what is going on almost anywhere in the world. But for the vast majority of us who continue to rely on the news media (on or offline) to help us make decisions about what information about the world is important; it appears that very little has changed.”

This seems to validate the cyber-cranks like me (as opposed to the cyber-utopians) who thing that social media technologies are great and all, but they do not change regimes or political power dynamics. The processes through which conflicts end up stealth or chosen seem the same for “old” and “new” media. This is not surprising as these media do not exist in separate spheres but have high levels of interaction and overlap. And while African conflicts may pop up every once in a while on Twitter, these do not trend as much as the current Middle Eastern protests.

Stealth Disasters / Chosen Disasters

I have blogged pretty regularly about Virgil Hawkins’s work on stealth conflicts and chosen conflicts: the idea that certain conflicts get disproportionate attention (in the media and politically). For instance, the Israel / Palestine conflict gets enormous attention whereas the atrocities going on in the DRC consistently remain under the radar.

I would argue that the same distinction applies to disasters: certain disasters are more equal than others when it comes to media attention and the corresponding level of aid that can be expected. Roger Yates makes that point in the Guardian. And, as always, Africa gets the short end of the stick:

“The reasons why certain disasters get more media attention than others are a great source of conversation and debate within our sector – what makes a disaster newsworthy? Why do some catastrophes grab media attention while others are left behind?

Sheer death toll is an obvious benchmark for the amount of attention a disaster receives. Without high death tolls there is less media attention, meaning an emergency can reach an extreme stage before it hits the news. The current floods in Pakistan are an argument against this idea, but due to the extraordinary scale of the floods as well as the fact that Pakistan is a significant country in any news agenda, the floods are getting good coverage and, therefore, more donations. Regional relations, common language and colonial ties also help to determine what scale of press attention disasters receive. But somehow, some emergencies still fall into the “hidden crisis” category.

This can be said of the food crisis in Niger and subsequent floods. The food crisis has been going on since at least May but it was not until the media was actively lobbied by NGOs that they took notice. The type of disaster it is bears heavily on how it is perceived – slow-evolving disasters like flooding and food crises are not as “shocking” as other emergencies. Niger does not have a full-blown famine, and the death toll is low, but a combination of seasonal, political, and cultural factors mean that this is a problem that the country will take a long time to recover from. There is no singular reason for this crisis, making it difficult for the media to report on and therefore difficult for the public to know what is going on and engage with it.”

This is exactly what Hawkins discussed: the objective measurements of the disaster do not explain the amount of attention a disaster will receive. Here, as in the case of stealth conflicts, simple explanatory frameworks are key. If a disaster can be summarized as uni-causal, and the victims can be portrayed in an easy-to-understand “innocent victims struck by disaster”, then more media attention will follow. The media, especially cable news, does not deal well with complexity and multi-causality.

Also, does the disaster produce some stunning, catastrophic visuals? If yes, more media attention will follow. That is something  that have been nicknamed “disaster porn”, the relishing of disaster imagery and human misery. So, protracted famine does not generate such images.

Also, simplicity of explanation, as in the case of Haiti, conveniently allows the avoidance of painful discussions as to the role of Western countries in the permanent state of economic collapse and political instability that has marked Haiti long before the earthquake that devastated it. All that we needed to see were the dramatic images of a destroyed Port-au-Prince.

So, when Yates concludes with this:

“I hope that journalists and indeed the people who read their work consider the complexities behind the headlines, and ask about the things that didn’t happen. Why did the Niger food crisis not become a full-blown famine? Can other nations with food security problems learn from this? Why was Haiti so unprepared for the earthquake – what strategies are being used to make the country safer as they rebuild?”

I think he is naive. To explore the Niger food crisis (or the current food riots in Mozambique for that matter) would mean exploring the current food production system, with all its inequities and the very unfair rules promoted by global institutions such as the World Trade Organization, as well as the current land grab going on in Africa as the more recent form of neocolonialism. None of this is very simplistic and it is not entertaining. Actually, it would contain some disturbing truths about corporate food empires.

Compare and Contrast – Chosen versus Stealth Conflicts

I wish Virgil Hawkins would post more often because he always has some great visuals to share on conflict coverage. Take this, for instance:

If you’re not too detail-oriented, it looks like each of these conflicts is receiving the same amount of media attention in Australia. But if you do pay attention to details, then, a very different picture emerges:

The Israeli Palestinian conflict is a perfect example of a chosen conflict whereas the DRC is still relegated to the status of stealth conflict.

Non-Human Victims of Human Conflicts

I have blogged about this before: we know that armed conflicts wreak havoc on the environment and wildlife. However, which wildlife we choose to pay attention to (in a fashion similar to that through which we select chosen conflicts and ignore stealth conflicts) depends on whether we can anthropomorphize them or how “cute” we have defined them to be. Cases in point:

Gorillas, which have been humanized through movies and documentaries:

The whole article is worth reading as it weaves together the multiple layers of this armed conflict and the industries that fuel it along with the issue of governance in a failed state where corruption rules, along with the regional connections that go back to the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

And then, there are the cute ones being slaughtered by groups taking advantage of the power vacuum following a coup in Madagascar:

I guess “gentle”, “delightful” and “unique” is what it takes for slaughter to be noticed. Too bad for the species that don’t fit that bill.

The Twitter Revolution… Only for Chosen Conflicts

While the Iranian movement is saving Twitter (rather than the other wat around as I have heard somewhere… can’t remember it now), one should not forget that Iran has always been part of the conflicts that Western media and polity choose to pay attention to, at least ever since the Islamic Revolution and the hostage crisis.  In this sense, the Iranian election was going to be under close scrutiny, fraud or no fraud.

So, the current Western enthusiasm for the Mousavi movement did not emerge spontaneously or out of universal support for any pro-democracy movement. The pre-conditions were already set to make the Iranian situation a chosen conflict.

In contrast, some conflicts, more deadly and more disastrous from a humanitarian standpoint, are not so heavily twittered. Some conflicts remain in a stealth state:

And the situation is dire indeed:

Southern Sudan

Stealth Conflicts and The Legacies of Colonialism – Sri Lanka

The Grumpy Sociologist has a great post that explains the legacy of colonialism in the current conflict in Sri Lanka between the Tamil Tigers and the government. As with many new wars, this one is also devastating on the civilian population. And as with many stealth conflicts, it is poorly reported in the media (actually, I have only seen it reported on a regular basis by the British press, and to a lesser degree by the French press):

The Tamil Tigers (LTTE) are actually known for their quasi-scientific approach to recruiting child-soldiers. But what is especially interesting and well-developed in TGS’s post is the legacy of colonialism in ethnic divisions (something not unlike the Rwandan case… and we all know how that ended).

Former colonial powers do not like to be reminded of the way they used divide-and-conquer tactics to control their colonies by pitting ethnic groups against each, usually by promoting one above the other, thereby fostering long-lasting resentment. The effects of these policies still pervade many of the current conflicts on the Global South.

Read the whole thing.

Economic Recession and Political (In)Stability

Financial help now or spending peacekeepers later… that is the alternative put on the table by Liberia President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as the effects of the economic downturn are deeply felt in Africa, with dramatic reductions in investments, trade and tourism. Countries that, not too long ago were embroiled in civil wars might find themselves again in conflict. However, President Johnson-Sirleaf assumes that rich countries would actually care about yet another African conflict, which, is recent history is any indication, is doubtful.

Nevertheless, African countries are pushing their case for increased access to aid:

It is interesting to see the African leaders making the case for a stimulus of the world economy through aid to Africa as more productive than national programs.

However, for one thing, Western countries are also facing their political battles related to economic conditions and stimulus-related class conflicts. And for another, if these countries are going to pay attention to conflicts, Iraq and Afghanistan and potential conflicts in Pakistan will be the chosen ones (to use Virgil Hawkes’s concepts) whereas African conflicts are more likely to remain stealth.

Not unrelatedly, Muhammad Yunus made the case for reforming the economic system to make it work for the poor.

Moreover, Yunus also argued that the financial crisis is not the only crisis around but because it affects mostly the richest countries, more attention is paid to it. After all, the financial meltdown was preceded by a major food crisis and we still have not adequately dealt with the coming energy and climate crises. Ultimately, for Yunus, all these crises are the product of structural faults in the global economic system that is exclusively geared towards the maximization of profits.

At the same time, this crisis is an opportunity to radically change this failing system, after all, according to none other than Martin Wolf:

So, for Yunus, time to design a system that works for the people and not just the Transnational Capitalist Class and the Transnational Corporations. Indeed, it is this small number of people that have created such a disastrous situation. The real victims, for Yunus, are those who are losing their jobs and incomes and there is no bailout in place for them. [Heck, even Maddoff’s victims will get tax privileges while people will have to absorb their losses on their pension plans and 401ks.] I am guessing (since the article does not mention it) that he is referring to his social business model.

And since this crisis is global, then so should be the reforms of the financial system, and maybe, just maybe, the reforms should start at the bottom:

But that is, again, bypassing the structural issues that Yunus mentioned and that Joseph Stiglitz also brings up:

Color me unconvinced. As much as I find Joseph Stiglitz one of the most persuasive economists, and with all due respect, we already have global economic institutions and they were not able to prevent this disaster and are not able to provide solutions or reforms. And the proposed world economic council would be useless if it is made up of the same kinds of people who already shaped the global institutional structure of the world economy.

And besides, designing a reformed global economic system would require some calm reflection and analysis and that is just not going to happen as long as global financial institutions keep shocking the system to extract more money from the US Treasury with some high class form of blackmail.

Simplifying Conflicts – Animals in Wars

One of the things that Virgil Hawkins emphasized in his book, Stealth Conflicts, is the idea that a conflict is more likely to be ignored if it seems "complicated" or "chaotic" to Western eyes. On the other hand, a conflict is more likely to be chosen if it can be simplified as a morality play between innocent victims and evildoers that can be clearly identified.

In a recent post on his blog, Hawkins adds another element to this idea: if innocent human victims cannot be found, non-human ones will do. Case in point, the plight of the gorillas in the African Great Lakes region, whose population has been affected years ago by the Rwandan genocide and currently by the conflict in the DRC (the most deadly and ignored conflict). Massacres of humans are likely to be ignored, but not murders of gorillas or other apes.

First, the chimps in the Ivory Coast:

Note the civil war mentioned in passing without any further explanation.

Even when the news is good, it deserves more mention than the conflict itself:

For the record, the conflict in the DRC has killed over 6 million people… 10 gorillas in 2007.

As Hawkins states, the interest in animals has a lot to do with the usual Western coverage of African conflicts:

At the same time that Western audiences are made to feel bad about gorillas though, complete indifference is the general attitude to things like these, which we’d rather not see:

In other words, when it comes to these issues, Western media, activists and policymakers all establish hierarchies as to which humans deserve sympathy (not Africans) but also towards which animals we should feel compassion (gorillas, yes, cows, not so much).

How we decide which humans and animals we will care about and help, and which we will ignore involves a variety of factors. In the case of animals, it has to do with cultural meanings of different species, what "use" we have for some of them: the more we use them for instrumental purposes, like food, the less we care whereas gorillas are perceived as free and innocent victims of inhuman treatment… there is some degree of arbitrariness here.

Bush meat is abhorrent but burgers are not. Being a casualty of war is horrible, but slaughtered in a factory farm is ok.