On 12th December 2011 in Brussels, International Alert hosted the conference “Myths, Manipulation & Media: the Case of the South Caucasian Conflicts”. The event brought together political analysts, sociologists, journalists, bloggers and civil society activists from the Caucasus and Russia, as part of a region-wide research project examining the ways in which myths and dominant narratives about the conflicts are constructed and transmitted in the region, and how they interact with conflict dynamics. In line with the research project, the conference emphasised the urgent need to develop capacities for critical thinking to equip people with tools and help them resist the manipulation of public opinion through invented stereotypes.
The project began in December 2010, after a kick-off meeting organised by International Alert. Four cross-regional, multi-disciplinary teams of researchers and practitioners began work on four different media seen as current vectors of myths and stereotypes in the region: political discourses, the burgeoning blogosphere, journalistic ethics and history textbooks.
After the one-year collaborative study, the researchers gathered this week in Brussels to present their key findings to each other, as well as to institutions and civil society representatives from Europe and the South Caucasus. The findings revealed both differences and commonalities across the region.
The study of political discourses highlighted different utilisations of the “enemy image” in each region, depending on political culture, the size of society and the proximity between people and their mythologised “enemy”. Researchers were equally critical of pro-governmental and oppositional political discourses which both utilise enemy images to advance their political agendas, frequently inventing new “internal enemies” when external threats no longer serve their purpose. This in turn reduces the space for rational debate and acts as a brake on development.
The study into journalistic ethics highlighted how the line between objectivity and patriotism is often hard to draw in times of conflicts. Joined by Mary Dejevsky from The Independent newspaper (UK), the panel offered a comparative view of the different expectations that Western and Caucasian public have of their own journalists. The importance of developing a “home-grown” code of ethics was highlighted, in order to enable journalists to navigate their ethical dilemmas and avoid being manipulated by politically manufactured dis-information.
The study of the blogosphere, which is mainly dominated by the younger generation, revealed the worrying extent to which the narratives and negative stereotypes propagated through mainstream politics and the media are absorbed and further disseminated by the younger generation. It was felt that while the previous generations had the “experience of the other” before the conflicts of the early 90s, this generation did not. The study revealed a “mirror-effect” between each region’s bloggers, who trade insults and accuse each other back and forth of similar faults. A detailed dissection of the blogosphere discourse also revealed some contradictions inherent within the narratives, possibly providing an opportunity to challenge those narratives by revealing their irrationalities.
Finally, the “success” and resilience of myths and their dissemination through these different media was better explained by a close study of the region’s history textbooks. The research showed how both content and teaching methods contribute to propagating negative images: how the Soviet-invented narrative of “Friendship of the Peoples” has given way to revised national histories hostile to the “other” which are offered as “truths” to be memorised by children, embedding the enemy images deep into the psyche of the nation.
The research process and dialogue on the research findings in itself represents one small step towards fostering critical thinking on the conflicts, as several of the researchers shared how the study had had a very personal and profound impact on their own perceptions, and they found similar feedback from other researchers most encouraging.
Enriched by new ideas and questions, the group will finalise their joint study in the next few months in order to make their results available to a larger audience. International Alert will then continue the work with the researchers, using the findings to build tools for fostering dialogue and critical thinking and reducing both needs and spaces for negative myths and stereotypes in the region.
This research project is part of the “South Caucasus Mediation & Dialogue Initiative” funded by the European Union.