The Arab Spring Revisited: How Media Framing is Going Global

There is unrest in the Middle East—again. The region has experienced extended periods of political turmoil over the last century. War and terrorism have come to define the region in media. Images of destruction have come become synonymous with the Middle East’s violent transition from colonial ownership and dictatorship to more recent democratic uprisings. How the American mass media have framed this region in decades past and more recently may indicate the increasingly global nature of media agenda setting and framing.

This more recent installment of political turmoil in the region, the Arab Spring, has birthed a modern wave of democratic governance, and the mass and social media gave us the first-ever real-time coverage of a revolution. These same media networks are now giving us a real-time look at anti-American protests in these new democratic nations, seemingly sparked by an anti-Muslim movie that went viral. These events have transformed storylines about democracy and hope into a narrative of hate, destruction and death. The Arab and American press agree that this inflammatory movie is partly responsible for recent turmoil, but they have different perspectives on how large of a role this movie is actually playing.

Recent headlines in the American press read, “Movie causes protests in the Middle East”or “Embassy attacks linked to hateful movie.” According to the American press’ timeline so far, the movie,Innocence of Muslims, said to be directed by an American man known as Sam Bacille, is an inflammatory movie about the Prophet Mohammed, Islam and Muslims. The production team uploaded this movie to YouTube, and it went viral. Radical Islamic factions reacted with violent protests against the United States, attacking its embassies and consulates. These events also sparked a somewhat coordinated rocket attack that killed U.S. diplomats in Libya and an out-of-control riot that severely damaged a U.S. compound in Egypt.

The Washington Post released its own timeline that outlines these events:

A simple Google News search for “middle east protests” or “Innocence of Muslims” filtered on the date Monday, Sept. 10,, 2012, reveals no mentions in the media of uprisings or protests in the Middle East or the movie itself. The first stories of these events broke on Tuesday, Sept. 11th, 2012, but did not take a considerable share of the headlines until Wednesday, Sept. 12. The trailer for Innocence of Muslims was originally uploaded to YouTube in early July, according to NPR, but no word on the issue came until Sept. 11, as evidenced by Google. The U.S. government released its first statement on this controversial movie on that Tuesday evening. Moreover, the protests have been named “Anti-American” and “Anti-Islam hate film” in the news media, and the two concepts are seemingly synonymous.

The political implications may be great, but these events may also reveal new insights about how mass media agenda setting could potentially affect global politics. The storyline that American mass media created has not carried over into the Arab press. In fact, many Arab news outlets are either reporting on the condemnation of the anti-Islam film and subsequent anti-American protests, the pre-existing tensions in the region or not reporting on the matter at all. The point stands that their linkage between the film and the protests may exist because of the American mass media’s original framing of these events. In the sequence of news outlets reporting the protests, the New York Times is the first media outlet on record, according to Google News, in the middle of the day on September 11th. From there, CBS News, the Times of Israel and various U.S. newspaper websites began reporting on the events as protests in reaction to the film Innocence of Muslims. The Arab press did not begin reporting on the protests until later on in the day, after it first broke in the American press. Once their reporting began, the coverage followed the storyline developed by American press that these protests were, in fact, a reaction to the film. This may highlight a media effect worth exploring, where one region or culture’s framing of a media spectacle directly or indirectly influences the mass media of another region’s framing of the same events.

The uprisings in the Middle East have become a global media spectacle, directly involving the U.S. and the many Arab nations where protests have sprouted since the first few in Libya and Egypt. Using critical theory to examine the effects of media spectacle in a piece featured in There is a Gunmen on Campus: Tragedy and Terror at Virginia Tech, Douglas Kellner (2008) views it as “contested terrain in which different forces use the spectacle to push their interests.”  He says that various interest groups with a stake in the media spectacle can use the narrative to benefit their own agenda, making the media spectacle a “contested terrain” of sorts where different interpretations place their own values on various details of the original narrative.

In globalized contexts, which include a U.S. presidential election, the recent Arab spring, internal divide in these new Arab democracies and a fractured global economy, it is easy to see how so many different narratives can arise from the same set of events. American media can focus on the campaign and foreign policy. Arab media can focus on the unrest, the film and regional political stability. There is a story for just about every audience fragment with an interest, but global media spectacles like this one tend to have a natural effect on diplomacy and international relations. This is what we truly need to explore. What will be the lasting effects of the American media simplifying these events into a reaction to one movie versus a culmination of a wide array of events? Only time will tell what may come of this and how the stories being told today will affect the way we discuss them tomorrow and understand our increasingly connected world.

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Deron Hogans is a graduate student in the Communication, Culture and Technology program at Georgetown University, studying the relationship between media and politics. He is also a strategic communications professional with interests in culture and brand management. Connect with him via Twitter, @DeronHogansJr.