Finally, finally, finally. I brought my notepad home with all the juicy info from an event I went to a couple of weeks ago: “Media as a Global Diplomat II: New Findings on the Science of Media and Conflict”. It was organized by the US Institute of Peace, and boy, was it a blockbuster event! Great and inspiring people like Al-Jazeerah’s Riz Khan (formerly of the BBC) and Jordan’s Queen Noor were present, as were a whole bunch of amazing individuals. I really enjoyed the event cos I’m all about policy and media, and at one point in my life I figured I’d be a psychologist (until I had to take psych 100 at 8am and chickened out.)

So anyways. Details. Essentially, some researchers from MIT (Rebecca Saxe, a neuroscientist), Harvard (Dean Jay Winsten) as well as media personnel like Riz Khan (Al-Jazeerah) and Michael Medavoy (a Hollywood film maker) spoke about how media influences global diplomacy and conflict.

The researchers presented their findings on the issue. Some of them were:

>The most powerful persuasion messages are messages about what other people around you think and believe. [If African countries are continuously portrayed as being poor, starving, and dirty, in due time, most people will think that’s all Africa is (which in my humble opinion, is where we’re currently at)]

>People pick up on information that is fed to them. Images of violence against a group you identify with will increase your allegiance to that group. [I found this particularly interesting. Apparently, it also informs our decisions about what to watch. So scientifically-speaking, people who watch Fox News most likely don’t agree with Obama in the first place, and so they gravitate towards that kind of media. As another example, a young black woman might choose to watch BET over…I dunno…. the history channel? I don’t intend to sound stereotypical, but that’s what the research findings suggest.]

>Altruistic punishment – the desire to retaliate in order to regain self-esteem occurs when people feel a strong identity to a particular group. [I guess the Gates incident could be considered as one? Many black people here in the U.S. cried out against the treatment of the Harvard professor and there were allusions to racial influences as well.]

>Tower of social norms. It’s more powerful to make people believe that society’s attitude to something is changing. [This was my favorite. Essentially, we’re all teenagers. Yep, even our grandparents, mothers, fathers, all of us :). I have a similar theory, so I was quite (pleasantly) surprised when the experts confirmed this. It all comes down to the issue of peer pressure. People will most likely change their attitude to something if they get the impression that it’s the norm or the ‘cool’ thing to do.]

>We learn by observing the behavior of others and do so by media. [Who told you you wanted that haircut? Are you sure you’re not skinny? And how certain are you that Obama is President and it’s a great milestone in human history? Hold on a sec, is that even your real name? (just kidding lol). But yeah, hope you get the drift. We’re all part of the matrix people!]

>People act in accordance with the negative stereotypes that they are associated with. [ Say what? Come again? Yea, that’s the reaction I had. But apparently, it’s true. As an example, the researchers talked about having a group of students write their gender/race on a math test. Once gender is written on a math test for instance, women would do worse than if they didn’t have to write their gender. Why? Because there’s the negative stereotype that women are less capable at math than their male counterparts. Your system actually sends signals to your brain cells to reinforce those stereotypes?! Crazy, init?]

>Sending information in a propagandistic manner fuels resistance. [ I guess this one’s pretty to the point. If people feel like they’re being threatened, they will retaliate. Taking it back to how things were dealt with in the stone age I guess.]

The researchers suggested that societies promote sharing and engaging with one another, in addition to listening in order to promote mutual respect. 

The second part of the event was really interesting! Some of the things that came out from that:

> Use the internet not only as an informative tool, but also as a story-telling tool. Enabling people to tell their stories about their identities and then having constructive dialogue is powerful. [I couldn’t agree more. That’s what Circumspect and the millions of other blogs and social media tools are about. It’s about putting your story out there; it’s your mouthpiece to the entire world!]

A TED video on Chimamanda Ngozi (Author of Half of a Yellow Sun & Purple Hibiscus), has been doing its rounds on facebook recently, and Ms. Ngozi talks about the danger of a single story. I think she’s exactly on point about the issues. Here’s the video for those who haven’t watched it. It really ties into a lot of the research findings listed above. 

One of the panelists presented an amazing project he’s running to try to help resolve the Gaza Conflict.  It’s called Gaza Sderot  -“Life in spite of everything” and basically what they do is put 2 new videos on the website everyday, showing life in Israel’s city Gaza and Palestine’s Sderot. The point of it all, to show that the people aren’t as different as they’ve been led to believe. Another great aspect of it is that its translated in many different languages including Hebrew and Arabic so the inhabitants of these two cities and countries can understand it. Check out the Gaza Sderot Project!

Some other things that were highlighted:

>The fact that even though the new social media is phenomenal, innovative and life-changing, many of the communities in the developing world – that really need these tools- don’t have access to them. [That’s definitely true, and I think its for this reason that the cell phone revolution is regarded as extremely amazing in many circles. I got the chance to speak to an Iraqi social innovator at a George Mason event and what he did was set up a text-message recruiting system whereby people (especially women who had to stay at home) who were job-searching could text in to the company and provide their details. The company would then look into their database of prospective employers and match them up. Helped save money (travelling to cities in search of jobs), time and energy. Talk about innovation!)

> The quality of journalism today and publishing heresay rather than fact. [Apparently there’s less and less education and training for journalists, and this affects the quality of reporting and management in the broadcasting sector. Riz Khan stressed how important being a journalist is since your words can actually determine history. He gave the example of a journalist writing “eject” instead of “elect” during an important election in a volatile region. By using eject, the title of the article gave the impression that there was a coup…you can imagine the mayhem!]

I find it quite interesting that the world is going back to the ancient tradition of storytelling, albeit in a more technologically advanced manner.At the end of the day, everyone has a story to tell.  So go ahead a tell yours. Whether its through music, poetry, articles, comments on blogs, whatever. Nobody’s gonna secure your place in this world unless you do it for yourself and the timing has never been better! To listen to the entire USIP event, go here. Happy storytelling people, and leme know what you think about the research findings!

Photo 1 Source, Photo 2 Source


  1. I always enjoy reading your thoughts. Thanks for this they are so true. You know I don't like shaving my hair and people keep worrying me asking me to do so. I always ask them 'who says shaving the hair is hip?' That's what they have been made to believe hence they consider me to be a deviant. This relates to the society-matrix thing you talked about. I love this very much.

  2. Great post, Jemila. Your writing made it seem as if I was at the event myself. The media really has a stronger influence on society than we can actually imagine. This is even more obvious in the advent of the social media, where individuals have been empowered to air their views and tell their stories on an unprecedented scale. The onus therefore lies on journalists, writers and bloggers, like us, to be responsible in everything we do.

  3. Thank you so much, Jemila! I really enjoyed reading this. I had already heard about some of the studies, so it was interesting to see it through a media perspective.

    I am especially intrigued by this one: "People pick up on information that is fed to them." I am curious to see how we will figure this out in the context of new media technologies.

  4. The use of media in social interaction and structure has been widely studied but I loev your tots on this. The event must have been a brainstorming one, I usually love such. Nice blog…

  5. Glad you all found the blog useful!! I thought it was pretty interesting stuff, so of course I had to share :)

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