In late 2010, a series of uprisings in what is considered the Arab or Muslim world, set the framework and built inspiration for the Occupy Wall Street movement in America, and similar protests worldwide. At this historical moment, media (including but not limited to print, television, and especially social) played a large role in the success or failure of these movements. As news of these “successful” Arab uprisings spread to America, Occupy began its journey to promote the same kind of resistance; however, the role of meager media coverage in the United States lead to the stagnant place Occupy is in right now. The coverage that was released in news media was mixed: large corporate broadcasters provided less coverage of the Occupy movement than independent media sources, and the titles of headlines, lengths of articles, and words used all played an important role in how effective the movement was in getting the average American to show support. The role of titles and slogans such as “Arab Spring” and “We are the 99%” also speak volumes semantically, and it is possible to gauge the success of these uprisings through media by looking at how these titles and slogans were received by the general population.
The catalyst for the “Arab Spring” is regarded as the self-immolation of a Tunisian street merchant by the name of Mohamed Bouazizi. Immediately following his death, which was widely portrayed as a result of a disrespectful, immoral, and corrupt government, a wave of protests and copy-cat self-immolations followed. David P. Phillips, a sociologist at the University of California San Diego states, “One thing is strongly suggested by the academic studies: People are more likely to copy suicides if they see that they have results, or get wide attention,” (Worth) this relates directly to the role of media. Following Bouazizi’s suicide he was regarded as a martyr and somewhat of a hero for his sacrifice against tyrannical government, his story was constantly repeated and retold on social media sites such as “Twitter” and “Facebook”. Although Bouazizi’s statement was not verbal, it was possibly even more effective than speech because of the context with which these populations viewed his death. Bouazizi’s challenge of social cohesion and control resulted in death, even though he repeatedly tried to engage his local government in discussion and appeal-here a lack of communication resulted in conflict with his government, but a strong cohesion and cooperation between people of his own country and several others over the following years.
Following Bouazizi’s death and the incredible spike in internet usage (especially Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube) the government of Tunisia cracked down and tried to restrain access to social media sites but organizations like Anonymous stepped in and assisted the people (Opening Closed Regimes). In the realm of Twitter, the hash tag “#sidibouzid” (which relates to Bouazizi) was spread by thousands of people, often accompanied by trigger words tracked by scholarly groups and the government such as: Ben Ali (referring to the ruler of Tunisia), Bouazizi, Economie, Islam, Revolution, and Liberty (Opening Closed Regimes). These words hold a lot of weight in the territory of semantics. Although these discussions lead to the resignation of Tunisia’s ruler, Hayakawa’s remarks about the map not being the territory remain relevant. When an entire population of disgruntled civilians enters into a dialogue about a “new country”, or a “new way of life” they are entering into an agreement amongst themselves about their individual roles in the creation of the new “territory”. Hayakawa states, “…the individual who utters the ‘map’ of the not-yet-existent ‘territory’-shall never forget to try and bring that ‘territory’ into existence” (Hayakawa 70). We can see that this pact and promise amongst the dissenters did bring a new “territory” into existence, but what remains to be answered is: was this new “territory” reflective of the “map” they had discussed prior?
The effectiveness of revolution or any change that involves thousands of people must incorporate the idea of a “semantic environment”. Although every single person’s context is different, a semantic environment is somewhat possible to share. If thousands of people decide that they all live in an oppressive, hypocritical environment that controls their communication and livelihoods it is possible to say that in a sense they all share a negative semantic environment. The discussion of a new or better semantic environment brings to mind the assumptions that these people have about the words they’re using. Democracy, freedom, freedom of speech, self-reliance, free-markets, and independence: all of these words are strictly a map in the general territory of an individual’s semantic environment. The importance of social media in these instances is invaluable as Guy Black states, “…these platforms for the first time allowed protestors to plan, organize and execute their protests, to create and sustain a feeling of unity that was vital in maintaining them, and in essence provided a ‘virtual space’ for what was unlawful assembly to the authorities (The Arab Spring and the Impact of Social Media). By creating an “environment” in which planning and discussion could arise without the fear or paranoia of arrest or assault by authorities, this semantic environment of social media and the internet supported and sustained the ongoing revolutions, thus helping to “create” the new semantic environment.
After the “fever” of occupation, protest, and political dissent crossed the continents and arrived in America, the Occupy Wall Street movement occurred; it was spurred, supported and advertised by AdBusters magazine out of Canada. Although the advertisement reached thousands, and thousands did respond by occupying Wall Street, initial mainstream news coverage of the event was basically non-existent. On Keith Olbermann’s talk show, he demanded to know why five full days into the protests that the mass media was completely ignoring the occupation. For example on Fox News’ website when searching for “Occupy Wall Street” the majority of the stories revolved around negative aspects of the occupation, off the wall stories of individual protesters, and also a few articles discussed crime, murder, and one even suggested that the “Red Army” was behind the movement. Although there are several articles, the articles are in my opinion shallow, and the conclusion of the articles resorts to fear tactics and unrelated issues. The particular headline of “Red Army Behind Occupy Wall Street?” is an excellent example of what Hayakawa calls inference. What this title infers is a dual value orientation which calls upon Fox’s viewers (who are older, primarily Republican, and on the wealthy side) to remember the Cold War, the threat of global Communism, and a distaste for the movement in general (Thee-Brenan). Through this inference, Fox News has taken a position and put that position into the general mindset of their viewers and readers.
On CNN’s website the search results consisted of surveys (that mainly showed a lack of public support for the movement), Tea Party comparison, stories revolving around FBI probes of the movement, the “fizzling” of the movement, arrests, and political speech disruption by protestors. Again, although initially CNN was not hugely involved in covering the occupation, after crimes and arrests started, so did their attention to the cause. According to Cablevision Advertising Sale’s viewer demographic information, CNN viewers are younger, white-collar workers whose median income is somewhere around $80,000 (Cablevision). The content of the articles is again inferring to their viewers that the movement is not important, or possibly even hurtful to their livlihoods as suggested by the demographics. Just as with Fox, some of the titles of the articles on CNN such as “Why Occupy May Day Fizzled”, uses words that hold connotations of failure.
In independent media, such as Democracy Now, the articles’ titles were longer, more detailed, and less sensational. The coverage of the Occupy movement started almost simultanously to the actual occupation and has been consistantly maintained and reported on over the past two years. The articles delve not only into the facts surrounding the movement, but also side stories about what projects protesters have started to assist more of the “99%”. The slant of the articles, however, leans towards a more liberal audience, and an audience that would be more likely to show support to the movement. Another independent news media source NPR (National Public Radio) showed the same kind of results for the search. These articles were less numerous but the slant remained the same and judging by the titles and contents of the articles the viewers/listeners of both of these news providers would be less wealthy but more educated people-just the group that would be affected by the protests and occupation. Overall, the lack of initial coverage by mainstream media probably hurt the movement, however, the extensive and thorough coverage by independent media groups helped propel the movement “underground”.
The slogans and titles of both the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, have played a large role in the success of these movements. The term Arab Spring refers to the revolutions of 1848 and the Prague Spring of 1968. The particular term of “Arab Spring” however, was “accidently” coined by Marc Lynch in a 2011 article. When we break down the words though, we see that it is truly a powerful term, through the context of dictatorships in Arab/Islamic nations, one could assume a kind of “winter”, or “frozeness” exists. Only through protests, rallies, and the process of revolution did the “Arab” people enter a spring, a change, and a new promise of growth. A slogan used duraing the Arab Spring was, “Ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam” which translates to “the people want to bring down the regime.” This straight-forward, yet powerful slogan propelled the Arab Spring and basically sparked the uprisings in Syria. I find the wording strange however, because unlike a demand or a map of future territories, it seems to sound unsure of itself. “Wanting” to bring down a regime, is different than saying the people “will” bring down the regime, which Hayakawa states is affective language.
Occupy Wall Street’s slogan of “We are the 99%” has a mainly economical context which refers to anyone that makes less than $343,927.00 (Luhby, Tami). The phrasing has changed but has also been used historically in both philosophy and literature. The wording of the phrase suggests inclusion into a group and a mentality of “us against them”, “rich against poor”, “hard-working and unfairly rewarded”-all of these suggest a dual-value orientation. This dual valued orientation can almost always result in conflict rather than cooperation. Because one side is good, the other is automatically bad and vise-versa. Without a multi-valued orientation the process by which Occupy wanted to “claim what is theirs”, and “avenge the poor”, suggests that only conflict can arise. It is also to be noted that since our political system in this country is based on a two-party system, supporters or opposers of the movement will ultimately have to bring party politics into whether or not they are involved and to what degree. Hayakawa states, “Action resulting from two-valued orientations notoriously fails to achieve its objectives (124), which may suggest why the Occupy movement has plateaued. By taking a multi-valued orientation and not pitting 99% of people against the other 1% the outcome of this movement may have been more successful. If you take the mindset that you are indeed part of the 99%, you exclude discussion, reasoning, or understanding with the other 1% you exclude from your context. This orientation and slogan also suggests the contexts of each group are not able to be intertwined or related in any way.
The uprisings in the Arab world which overthrew several dictatorships, created a more “democratic environment” in some countries, and promoted unity and clarity contributed greatly to the Occupy movement in the United States and in countries around the world. By looking at the process by which social media played a role in promoting and prompting revolution we can then see the relation in our own country and it’s movements. Overall, many would agree that the Arab Spring changed things for the better, although in some cases such as Syria, the bloodshed, violence, and terror produced by the uprisings may not have been worth it. In America we see a group of people determined to stand up for economic equality and accountability to those in power, however, with a mainstream media that did not support the movement and an underground media that did, it was essentially doomed from the start. Dealing with the concepts of dual-valued orientation and multi-valued orientation we can also see that without cooperation on all levels, especially communication, the breakdown of movements and the failure of insight is inescapable.
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