A few months ago, I stormed Al Aqsa. Yes. Me. I had absolutely no idea, either, though you’d think I would remember such a thing. More on that later. Let’s do some dot-connecting.
It was during the summer war between Hamas and Israel, in 2014, that I was struck by the flurry of social media posts on my Facebook feed about the conflict. People that I knew to be otherwise smart, articulate people posted, shared and liked everything from faked photos to jarring cartoons to vitriolic half-truths and editorials about what was going on.
It was as there were two wars, one IRL and the other online. Tensions soared and fires were fueled as decidedly uncivil discourse and bad information was shared and liked across Facebook, prompting my friend Eitan to pen the now infamous Shalom, Motherf****r.
In an effort to create a space for more nuanced and civil dialogue and sharing about unfolding events, and, in all honesty to help myself cope, I created a Facebook page. I curated journalism and commentary from the left, right and centre, regardless of my own opinions and encouraged page members to engage in reasonable discourse. The page was relatively successful but it did nothing to diminish the pitched debates going on online.
I have worked as a story analyst and editor for my entire adult life and I know which narratives get people in a lather. Us versus Them is currently in vogue – as it ever was – but on a whole new level. I was taken aback by the seeming inability or unwillingness of social media users to think through whether sharing and therefore endorsing a piece of media was the responsible and reasonable thing to do, especially given the already volatile and frightening situation. This is not helping!, I wanted to scream.
A few months later, I was in Beit Jala, taking part in a two day initiative designed to create dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis. The event, sponsored by the Center for Emerging Futures, was a fruitful one but one moment stands out for me. A young Palestinian man and I chatted about my earlier career as a story analyst and he had many questions about just how movies get made. The conversation shifted to media in general and being that I had also done some work with a journalist, fact checking and vetting sources, I asked the young man where he got his news about the conflict. He named a couple of Palestinian news outlets of (very) dubious quality and I realised that he had no idea how to ascertain whether reports were true, half-true, editorial or actual reportage. He also had not considered bias in media or media ownership and agendas. He did not know, for example, just who owns and operates Al Jazeera. When I told him it is Qatar, he said walla? Yes. Walla.
The moment of realisation for the young man was a big one. The penny dropped. Media is constructed. Media is biased. Without knowing how to find out whether a news report is accurate or even true, he just assumed it was always either completely or somewhat correct.
Fast forward again the autumn of 2015, when a wave of violence spread across Israel, with car rammings, stabbings and shootings. Over and over I read that “incitement” was to blame. I studied examples of Palestinian and other media sources. I studied the Facebook feeds of young Israelis and young Palestinians. I saw so much reckless anger and misinformation. My mind was boggled.
How can this be happening? How can so much disinformation, incitement and at times even radical recruitment be going on, unabated, and by all appearances, very successfully, getting people minimally more misinformed and angry and at worst – actually committing acts of violence?!
It is a oft bandied about fact that more information is put on the internet every two days than humankind created since the dawn of time. The impact of this massive amount of information, which contains everything from videos of kitties to recruitment videos by ISIS, is inestimable. What is information without evaluation? Who made this video? Why? What does it mean? These are questions that many youth do not know to ask.
All over the world, there are media creation programs encouraging young people to express and create using media. But there are no media literacy programs about interpreting and evaluating media here in the Middle East. How can this be? Media and information literacy programs abound in North America. Just not here. Which is exactly where youth are being told they should go stab an Israeli.
Ongoing incitement, shoddy media and agendas disguised as reportage have this region in a crisis situation, with young Palestinians in essence committing suicide while being someone else’s foot soldier in the murder of an innocent Israeli.
Young people all over the world need to understand the complex messages embedded in all media – of narratives, identity, gender and politics. They need to appreciate the manifold gifts of self expression that media can provide but also the mechanisms of authorship, intent and agenda. This is a generation of young people unlike any other who have ever existed, with more information than has ever been available. We can’t lock the doors of who says what on the internet – nor should we – but we can give young people the tools to be more discerning consumers of it.
What if, I thought, instead of howling to the moon that bad journalism exists, and that incitement is happening and that young people are being in my view, used as foot soldiers by anonymous decision makers elsewhere – how about if someone tries to do something about it?
If Mohammed will not go to the mountain, the mountain must come to Mohammed.
Which when I realised that person might as well be me. So I put together an idea and called it MEMLI – the Middle East Media Literacy Initiative. I wrote a proposal, created a website and emailed everyone that I thought might take an interest, most notably several universities. Almost immediately,I heard back from the University of Chicago Center for Middle Eastern Studies. They loved the proposal. They had seen nothing like it before in this region. We talked about the specific needs and situations all over the Middle East, in which media plays a role. We talked about the failed Arab Spring. Then we came back, full circle to the immediate situation in Israel. Which is when they said they’d back my proposal with all of their academic might.
First, I came up with a curriculum overview, with the core concepts of media literacy, civil discourse and methods of reasoning and logic. Then I included the tenets of good digital citizenship and another block about the Human Economy and online skills for the 21st century.
Then came the curriculum itself, an accordion-like set of lesson plans which can be adjusted for different age groups, situations and lengths of time. I became absolutely engrossed and lived like a hermit. Weeks and weeks and months of research and writing and corresponding with experts. It is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life.
Ironically, a few weeks ago, I was shown a picture of “Jewish settlers storming Al Aqsa.” I was in the picture. Putting on sunscreen. It was a historical tour of the plaza. No corroboration, no sources, nothing but a wild accusation and a picture of some tourists. This article was shared and liked over 6,000 times on Facebook. And it’s just not true.
MEMLI is in its very early stages but is very close to being totally ready for implementation. I am raising funds for a social media campaign to raise awareness of MEMLI and the issue of media literacy worldwide, and to call attention to the issue of media and incitement in the Middle East. I would like to find a tech partner to help create an app to go with the program, so outcomes can be tracked while participants have fun being empowered evaluators of media. To learn more about MEMLI and see how you can help, visit our website.
Media literacy is not a panacea, it won’t stop incitement in its tracks, and it certainly won’t affect media makers – at first. But what if, over time, media literacy starts to make young people ask questions about the media they are confronted with on a daily basis? What if they gain insights into the way media can both inform, persuade and manipulate? What then?