AJCS Media Editor lectures at Qatar University: “The Spiral of the Informational Siege, Fake News, and the Construction of the Public Opinion"

27 March 2018

Qatar University hosted a one-day conference on the fake news manufacturing process and potential tools of restoring the truth March 26. The panelists included Dr. Jamel Zran, professor of media and communication at Qatar University; Dr. Mohamed Erraji, researcher and Media Studies editor at Aljazeera Center for Studies (AJCS); Dr. Hussein Ghlum, and Dr. Leon Barkho.

Dr. Erraji highlighted how the new digital shift, in conjunction with the horizontal communication model, has shifted into an open space for the participation of individuals, institutions, and even countries in the production of content and news industry. While marginalizing the gatekeepers of truth and objectivity, this new environment has provided a safe haven and turned into a hub for fake news manufacturers, with noticeable dissemination across social media, as shown recently by the story of Cambridge Analytica, and earlier with hacking of Qatar News Agency in 2017.

He explained how this shift seems now more complex in the digital context, where several factors overlap and a wide network of promotors of fake news seek innovative approaches (public relations firms, political consulting offices, think tanks, polling centers, social networks, security institutions, intelligence agencies, and others.) This highlights an opposite trend to the classical propaganda model, which was associated with traditional media and vertical communication model. It was easy to identify the agent(s) of propaganda and to monitor the propaganda discourse.

To help understand the variables and dynamics of this phenomenon, Dr. Erraji proposed a new model "Spiral of the Informational Blockage", which builds on Elizabeth Noelle-Nuemann’s concept of “Spiral of Silence”, John Mearsheimer’s book “WhyLeaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics?”, and Media Frameworks theory. While disseminating fake news among the public, the agent or network of agents seek to impose a blockade on existing discourses and prevailing narratives, as well as the activity of individuals or institutions and even countries, through various means and strategies. As Dr. Erraji points out, this process starts with publishing fake news and manipulating information and data towards the objectives of the fake news promotors. It also aims at hacking certain sites and platforms, attacking and demonizing rival entities, with deliberate construction of a particular myth for self-flagellation and sanctification. There is an image dichotomy between the ‘purity’ and ‘glorification’ of the Self versus the ‘demonization’ and ‘condemnation’ of the Other.

At this point, the objective is to besiege the tools of the rival narratives deemed to be ‘threatening’. The fake news network intensifies its activity in order to besiege the public opinion and guide it along its political and economic agenda. Thus, the informational blockade spiral expands toward stifling the flow of competing discourse or dominant narrative. It gradually influences the targeted segments of the public by publishing alternative narratives that contribute to the siege of their awareness and worldview.

According to Dr. Erraji, the proposed model derives from the hypothesis that most individuals, who fear the risks that may threaten their lives or the existing economic and political model, are more likely to interact with the emerging narratives presented by the fake news paradigm with the hope of stimulating new togetherness. This fear makes them vulnerable and attracts them into the besieged audiences circle. This shift increases in correlation with the intensification of fake news circulation in the public sphere. Such a hypothesis benefits from two factors:

1) Individuals respond to fear and react to warnings from external threats, or even local threats, and swiftly embrace alternative narratives.

2) Alternative narratives disseminate and reinforce their arguments among the public opinion.

Since a large number of individuals believe that alternative narratives reflect the reality of the threats that challenge society, Dr. Erraji argues that the prevailing discourse tends to wane and becomes hostage of the emerging informational blockade. ‘Alternative facts’ narratives become energized and increasingly pressure the public who remain alarmed, a condition that facilitates the siege of the whole group cognitive functions. These dynamics help thicken the informational blockade spiral that tends to tilt more toward the circulating alternative narratives regardless of the real independent worldview of the public.

Dr. Erraji’s proposed model includes several frameworks, which can help deconstruct and digest the fake news trend either through classical media or new media through various tools and platforms:

1) Strategic Fabrication Framework: If physical blockade is meant to destroy the self of any entity, or at least to weaken or exercising control over them, and achieving the intended objectives without the use of harsh power, symbolic siege aims at weakening, if not destroying, the individual, the institution, or the state as well. The latter entities stand as contenders to the fake-news agents; they seek to strike a strategic victory by defeating the fake-news candidates at the polls, pushing for the closure of a particular media outlet, or causing the collapse of the economic performance of a particular state. The regime change discourse could be an ultimate strategic goal of the fake-news promotors.

2) Demonization and Myth-Making Framework: fake-news promotors seek to besiege their opponents, through a deliberate demonization process, with the purpose of delegitimizing their historical, legal and moral status, and disrupting their international relations. Meanwhile, the fake-news agent, or candidate, intends to construct a self-made myth of sanctification and purification of errors (self-purity) as a moral platform to launch attacks on the Other. This framework operates through the ‘we/they’ dichotomy with uneven claimed ‘self-virtues’ and ‘other-vices’.

3) The Silhouette of Terror Framework:  This outline aims at triggering fear of non-existent threats vis-à-vis the candidates who are targeted by fake-news campaigns and the dissemination of exaggerated fear. One good example is the fear construct of portraying Hillary Clinton, former candidate in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Another case is the manufacturing of Aljazeera fear, by the fake-news community, with the hope of neutralizing Aljazeera’s impact on the Arab public awareness.

4) Dominance Framework: It disseminates lies about rival individuals, institutions, or states, with the purpose of promoting the interests of the fake-news community. This tendency toward dominance, which can political (e.g., the pursuit of control over Qatar national decision-making process while hacking Qatar News Agency), economic (e.g., either aiming at controlling the country’s resources or undermining its economic potential), cultural, or media-oriented as well.  

The proposed model can claim significance by addressing a fundamental issue, which has impacted our realities and interrelated complex issues that threaten political and societal security in the Arab region and beyond. Dr. Erraji intends to complete the remaining components of his new paradigm and publish an upcoming paper “The Informational Blockade Spiral” on Aljazeera Centre for Studies site very soon.