Symbolism over Facts, Quick Branding and the Dumbing Down of Politics

  • September 29, 2022

Distortion  of facts happens daily, and there is a crying need to be ever vigilant, so that we do not fall for lies and misrepresentations, writes Shyamoli Jana.


At the time of writing this article, the internet is abuzz with photos and videos of protests in Iran over its hijab mandate. One image appeared ubiquitous – that of a bunch of hair stuck to a pole flying in the air. Numerous posts on Facebook included that photo as one from Iran. However, one post on Facebook which received scant attention – two ‘likes’ the last time I checked – stated that the image of the ‘hair flag’ is actually from an art installation by Edith Dekyndt from at least as early as 2016. You can find the installation video here and see for yourself.


Not only in Facebook posts, this photo even appeared in news articles by mainstream news outlets, for instance, here. The source of the image, as given by Firstpost, is an unverified Twitter handle. One has to pause and ask at this point, since when has it become a practice in the media to pass off unverified images from arbitrary sources unquestioningly? Have the people in the media forgotten to do even the most basic checks?


Although, if you have been paying attention to the media, or to public discourse on politics as they appear on social media, this should not come as a surprise. Empty sloganeering has taken the place which ideally should have belonged to investigation and analysis. Facebook posts with the hollowest of political takes are ‘liked’ and shared widely, whereas analytical or informative takes where there are efforts to substantiate positions are 1) hard to find and 2) unappreciated even when they exist. On top of that, there is a tendency of quick branding that permeates the political sphere, where any analysis that questions typical representations of certain ‘touchy’ topics is seen as an affront and is rarely ever taken on its merits.


For instance, there is a good chance that you have read the first two paragraphs of this article and are thinking that I probably lean towards the view that the protests in Iran are staged by imperial powers outside Iran, or that I do not support the right of women to unveil themselves. I have not said one word on either of the two subjects, but since I questioned the origin of a widely shared image that is claimed to have come from the protests, this is an assumption that many would have and they would continue to assume so unless I provide a declaration, and even that might not suffice. And the list of topics where such a declaration would be expected is long, which produces a culture where empty sloganeering is the only accepted form of political expression, because it is hard to produce declarations for the huge number of unwarranted assumptions that are made, and oftentimes even declarations would not stop these people from such quick and often false branding. This is a usual tactic of people on the Right with their frequent witch-hunts, but the ‘Left’ is guilty of it too. I’ll focus the rest of this piece on the ‘Left’, because that is my intended audience for this piece.


Take, for instance, the anti-NRC protests at Park Circus, Kolkata, which is touted as a “women-led” protest. Yet, anybody who went there with their eyes open would see that it was anything but that. Having women sit within an enclosed area and shout slogans does not make a protest “women-led”. Most of the women sitting in that enclosure did not participate in any decisions regarding how the movement would progress. Most of the decisions were taken by a handful of people which included more men than women who would convene away from the crowd and reach a decision there, and then communicate it to the mass that were gathered there. I witnessed this process firsthand. There was no deliberation amongst the crowd, neither was there any effort to encourage that. The crowd was there to shout slogans and make posters at times, but not to discuss and decide on strategies. Yet, it is difficult to state this in public without being branded as someone who is pro-NRC or an Islamophobe, even if you find the whole idea of an NRC evil and find the current political climate unfairly hostile towards Muslims. An honest, public analysis of the protests at Park Circus is hard to find in the Left circles. In fact, in most protests, only a handful dictate how the protest will progress, and the majority of the protesters are not involved. There are exceptions where representatives of the movements are held accountable and protesters proactively seek part in the decision-making process, but that does not happen often.


There are many examples like the above, if you have been involved in politics, you are sure to have come across a few yourself. This dumbing down of politics where the role of participants is reduced to parroting handed-down slogans and resisting factual analysis has detrimental effects. If we look at other places, we would see how horrifying some of the consequences are.


Take the case of the bombing of Yugoslavia by NATO forces in 1999. The media in the West claimed that the Serbs were ethnically cleansing the Muslims in the region, and NATO acted to prevent that. Any claims to the contrary were attacked as Islamophobic and support for ‘Nazi-like’ activities. Newspapers reported that Serbs were running ‘death camps’, frequently based on little evidence. Diana Johnstone detailed several instances of shoddy journalism in her book Fool’s Crusade claiming that the number of Muslim civilians killed by Serbs that is touted in the mainstream media came from the then Bosnian Information Minister who cannot be considered an impartial source on the matter. She provided a much-needed description of different political actors in Yugoslavia and stated that the coverage of the conflict has been one-sided, for which she was vilified as a supporter of ethnic cleansing of Muslims. Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy and others were branded ‘genocide deniers’ for supporting Johnstone against a Swedish publication that decided to withdraw her book based on spurious charges. We now see similar tactics employed against people on the Left who speak out against the Ukraine-Russian war, but also hold the United States and NATO as culpable, and are demonised as whitewashers of Putin’s crimes. See, for instance, this open letter addressed to Chomsky and also his refutation of the points raised in the letter. If you go to the Wikipedia page on Diana Johnstone, you’d find this part: 


In April 2012, she wrote for CounterPunch and elsewhere about the first round of the French presidential elections a few days earlier and identified Front National leader Marine Le Pen as “basically on the left”.


However, if you go to the article referred to in the above paragraph, you’d find that the quote was taken from this sentence: 


If “the right” is defined first of all by subservience to finance capital, then aside from Sarkozy, Bayrou and perhaps Joly, all the other candidates were basically on the left.  And all of them except Sarkozy would be considered far to the left of any leading politician in the United States. 


The excerpt on the Wikipedia page was stripped out of crucial context. I would recommend that one reads the article in order to understand why Johnstone made the statement she did.


The Yugoslavia case also provides a very good example of what symbolisms in political reporting over critical investigation can lead to. For instance, in 1992, an image of a thin Bosnian Muslim behind a barbed wire in a Serb-run camp became symbolic of the conflict in Bosnia and solidified the perception of Serbs acting like Nazis towards the Muslims of Bosnia, who were likened to the Jews of Nazi Germany. Five years later, an article appeared in the journal Living Marxism, in which journalist Thomas Deichmann claimed that he had visited the camp and found that the barbed wire was not around the inmates, but around an area with a barn from which the video was taken. Further, the camp was not a prison, but a refugee camp. ITN, the network on which the photo appeared, sued Living Marxism for defamation in a British Court. Living Marxism, a tiny journal, stood by their story and lost the lawsuit under Britain’s awful defamation laws on the ground that it could not prove intent to misrepresent facts by ITN. Ed Vulliamy, a journalist for the Guardian and also part of the team consisting of those ITN journalists who did the report on Bosnian conflict, wrote, praising the judgement, that Living Marxism failed to provide any witnesses from Bosnia for the journal, conveniently omitting the fact that it was a small journal and as per the claims of its editors, could not afford to bring a witness from Bosnia for themselves. Living Marxism shut down after the lawsuit.


It is interesting that the close-up of one man became symbolic of the conflict in Bosnia. Such an image, by itself, says very little. One thin man is not proof of mass starvation. That there is barbed wire between the photographer and the person being photographed does not also  prove that the person is within the enclosure. The person in the photograph, Fikret Ali, was shirtless and holding the shirt in his hand in a zoomed-out version of the picture, where others alongside him could be seen who were not thin. Why did he and the few standing close to him not have their shirts on, even though others did in the zoomed-out picture? Was it to give the impression that people were stripped in the camp?


But perhaps a more important question is, why did that photo, which provides scant information on the conflict, become so ubiquitous? Also, why is that ‘hair flag’, which too, by itself, provides scant information, becoming the symbol of the protests in Iran? These are far from the only two examples. We see this over and over, in movement after movement, in event after event. Why are symbols more appealing than the facts of the events they allude to, and what does it say about the political culture that we have around us? And why aren’t more of us noticing the dangers of such a trend, where a mob frenzy can be drummed up with appropriate symbols and propaganda in a culture which cares little about investigation and factual analysis, and this frenzy can be used to build fervent support for outrageous things, such as invasions, murders, imprisonments, policies that are against public interest?


We should be worried, very worried. Because if this culture of quick branding and lack of an investigative spirit continues, if we refuse to look critically into media reports, claims from authority figures, statements from political actors, ‘evidence’ that is provided to us from various sources, and admit to ourselves our own ignorance, we are hopelessly doomed. Distortion  of facts happens daily, and there is a crying need to be ever vigilant, so that we do not fall for lies and misrepresentations. If we don’t, we will attack rights instead of wrongs, friends instead of foes, and kill the development of public intellect. And we have already gone quite far on that road.


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    By: Om Prakash Pareek on September 30, 2022

    An excellent article analysing the the misleading trend of quick branding, often based on symbols rather than investigation or enquiry to decide about the truth of a story in the media

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