Understanding terrorism better through technology?

As I wrote in a recent article:

“The central disconnect between conflict resolution theorists and the essential nature of terrorism lies here – we do not really know the logic that drives terrorism, a logic so alien to us that we cannot even imagine it. It is a logic that driven by a rationale and psychological imperatives that may make little sense to us…”

Juxtapose this with an article featured on the New York Times recently:

“When an Iraqi insurgent group releases a new videotape or claims responsibility for an attack, Western reporters in Baghdad rarely hear about it firsthand. Nor do they usually get the news from their in-house Iraqi translators.

Instead, a reporter often receives an e-mailed alert from a highly caffeinated terrorism monitor sitting at a computer screen somewhere on the East Coast. Within hours, a constellation of other Middle East analysts has sent out interpretations — some of them conflicting — and a wealth of contextual material.”

Reading the article further, it is evident that we are on the cusp of a revolution in journalism – where bloggers and websites shape to a great extent the analyses that frame a story or issue. This brings to sharp relief several questions:

Information is not knowledge
Journalists “embedded” in places like Iraq and Afghanistran aren’t necessarily good journalists. Pegged to the military and unable to travel outside of designated safe-zones, their viewpoints are circumscribed by the radius of a turret or the range of a sniper. Unable to analyse the context, caught up as they are in the rigours of vicarious daily combat, these new journalists rely, as teh NYT article points out, on a slew of websites that seek to disseminate information of various known terrorist groups who post messages and other on the web.

Information however, is not knowledge. Given the subjective interpretation of all content, it is small wonder that a statement from a single source may be interpreted in many ways by which ever person or organisation that chooses to flag its significance. Journalists on the ground are thus faced with a range analyses from which they have to choose from – a choice oftentimes made under the pressure of instant TV journalism and by definition, ill-informed.

Given that some journalists in regions of conflict don’t speak the local languages, interpreting what’s online to help contextualise events on the ground becomes an exercise of blind trust in the subjective opinion and language abilities of those who can and do post their interpretations of terrorist material online.

There is no real measure of the truth of a single interpretation until it is juxtaposed against several others, a task that very few in the field have the time to do on sustainable basis.

The end result is that the opinions of a few key influential organisations and individuals are given primacy over others who may have equally valid interpretations.

“On this front, Memri, the largest translation service, may have drawn the most criticism. It was founded in 1998 by Col. Yigal Carmon, who had spent more than 20 years in Israeli military intelligence and later advised two Israeli prime ministers. Its 60 staff members scan Arab and Muslim media and send translations by e-mail to 100,000 subscribers, including journalists and officials. Critics have long said it focuses on translating the most dangerous-sounding material.

“They say they highlight liberal voices along with the dangerous radicals, which is fine,” said Marc Lynch, a scholar of Arab politics at Williams College who has criticized Memri on his own blog, Abu Aardvark. “But what that conceals is the entire middle ground, where most of the political debate goes on in the Arab world.”

Implications for the framing of conflict
If we are to assume that journalism coming out from conflict zones is inextricably entwined with the opinions of those who interpret material deeply relevant to the socio-political dynamics of the region from afar and through content on the web, we must be mindful that what we may read, see and listen as investigative reporting may be, at worst, nothing more than real-life footage given to embellish the opinion of a partisan think-tank or biased individual somewhere else in the world.

There is no real solution to this dilemma. One way forward may be for the global news agencies and also for journalists in general to begin to list out their sources for background research, giving the reader and audience clarity on the construction of perspectives and the framing of the issues.

The other is also basic journalism – to not trust any one source and to fight the herd mentality of embedded journalism to ascertain perspectives of peace and conflict from communities living with and affected by conflict. Furthermore, radical terrorism on the web may be itself several shades more virulent than that which is practised on the ground by the same organisation (the web allows for thought and action not always possible on the ground). This must be kept in mind when weaving in the analyses and interpretations of material on the web to explain what’s occuring on the ground.

Let’s also not forget the importance of learning the language of conflict to inform the grammar of journalism. The language of conflict covers the vernacular of those embroiled in the conflict (to understand their hopes and aspiration, there one must speak their language) to the language, as it were, of the complex interplay of social, economic, political, religious, caste and other identity markers that fuel conflict and also hold in them the keys to conflict transformation.

In sum, maybe the web gives more access to analyses and information. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that journalism is better for it.

Also see my earlier posts on web translation and peacebuilding:
I don’t speak Tamil – Skype to the rescue?
هل تتكلم العربيه؟

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