Red lenses on a rainbow of revolutions

Given continued strikes in Iran and the freeing of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, neither the Burmese nor Iranian struggle for democracy is a story that should be characterized as an example of a failed movement and successful repression. But it is up to us - the global audience - to understand our responsibility in this dynamic.
Cynthia Boaz
17 November 2010

Saffron Revolution


In the fall of 2007, by the first week of October, as Burmese students, monks and citizens still hoping for an end to decades of austerity and repression continued to take to the streets in what is now known as the ‘Saffron Revolution,’ even in the face of violence threatened by the regime, much of the international media had nevertheless appraised the uprising as a failure. News stories began referencing the junta’s claim to be ‘restoring order’ and its promise that life in Burma would soon be ‘returned to normalcy.’ Life for the Burmese people has not, for many decades, been normal or orderly, but this reality did not seem to faze reporters, most of whom were forced to rely on the regime for information on events transpiring on the streets of Rangoon and elsewhere. Inside the country, activists had a very different story to tell. From their vantage point, it was actually they who were attempting to bring - for the first time in many decades - normalcy and order to Burmese society.

The frames on the story that emerged in international media, even before public resistance was finally quashed, reinforced several common and hardened beliefs about power, violence and the relationship between the two. These frames, which then led to misconceptions about the struggle, may have unintentionally served the interests of the oppressors.

As media audiences and observers relying on others’ accounts of civil resistance, we face a number of challenges in obtaining a nuanced understanding of the dynamics underlying mass nonviolent action. Typically, media coverage of a struggle at the stage where mass resistance is met with brute force reinforces the conventional wisdom by reporting on the use of violence as an effort by the repressive force to ‘establish normalcy’ or ‘generate stability’, as opposed to widening the lens and acknowledging both the underlying reasons for resistance and that resistance often persists despite violence. This kind of narrative has the potential to undermine the morale of members of a movement and diminish the enthusiasm behind shows of solidarity. In other words, misconceptions about the effectiveness of violence can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy in the context of a struggle.

Does this explain the Burmese movement’s inability to bring about a victory in 2007? Probably not. However, no struggle succeeds without winning the sympathy if not active support of a majority. And while the international audience cannot win the Burmese people’s struggle for them, it is difficult to imagine a scenario where the Burmese people can win without the active interest and support of the global audience, which can be influential in limiting the support of other external actors (in this case, the Chinese and Indian governments, which prop up the Burmese regime) - something that is unlikely to be attainable without an accurate and comprehensive portrayal of the struggle by journalists and reporters.

Let’s return to October 2007. Imagine you are shown a photo of a dozen or so Burmese monks squatting together on the street, facing half a dozen members of the Burmese army, who are holding riot gear and weapons. What assumptions do you make about who is confronting whom?  Do you see organized or spontaneous actions by people? Do you see victims or empowered action-takers? Do you see chaos or strategy? Do you see hope or demoralization? Do you see violence or nonviolence? Do you see success or failure?

Most of us decide in the blink of an eye what to conclude, regardless of the reality behind the images. This is because we have been subjected to a saturation of subconscious messages (‘frames’) about how to understand a phenomenon like nonviolent civil resistance. And these frames have helped to reinforce or harden our beliefs in such a way that it is actually easier to force reality to conform to our assumptions and pre-determined conclusions than to shift those perspectives. This explains why, for example, commonly held beliefs cannot make sense of the ongoing resistance in Iran (which, according to mainstream media was successfully quashed) other than to assign credit to external forces (such as the United States) or to explain it away as meaningless. As such, hardened beliefs about phenomena such as power and violence are undoubtedly the genesis of more than a few conspiracy theories.

Media frames as metaphors in Burma and Iran

The gap between the mainstream media's frames on the stories that emerged from Burma in 2007 and Iran in 2009, and the news that was communicated from the scenes in bits and pieces, was surreal. At their worst, irresponsible or unsophisticated media frames reinforce key distortions in conventional wisdom about nonviolent struggles and can even unconsciously default to the perspective of the oppressor, thereby undermining the movement or campaign and (unwittingly) enabling the brutality to continue.

This happens because a media frame helps form the cognitive structure of our perceptions of reality, and so it can determine what parts of a news story we find most significant. It helps us draw subconscious conclusions about the meaning behind the events in a story. Frames can be thought of as metaphors that serve to structure our experience and understanding of the complex world around us. For example, when Iranian pro-democracy activists saw a CNN headline announcing ‘Ahmadinejad Victorious in Iranian Elections’ or referring to Mousavi as ‘the defeated challenger’, they may have concluded that the regime's attempt at (what is widely regarded as) an election theft had succeeded. This may in turn have undermined both enthusiasm and morale, and that could have caused some to give up their resistance, or in the worst-case scenario, even turn to violence to fight back. 

There are a few common techniques used to frame stories such as the ones mentioned above. The fragmentation bias involves covering the story in isolated, unrelated pieces. The stories focus on the ‘trees’ rather than the forest, and as a result, key information is missed. As reported by most mainstream media, stories from Burma and Iran were highly fragmented. They suggested pandemonium, isolated acts of extremist political violence and regimes struggling to ‘normalize’ the situation. For example, a BBC headline from June 14, 2009 announced, “Crowds join Ahmadinejad’s victory rally.” Another from CNN on June 21, 2009 tells us that, “Chaos prevails as protestors, police clash in Iranian capital” and on June 13, ABC proclaimed that “Election battles turn into street fights in Iran.” Consider the terminology: ‘crowds’, ‘chaos’, ‘street fights’. When taken together, these smaller stories paint pictures of a country in chaos, and awash in repression. But of course the reality is much richer and even potentially encouraging. In any case, it may not be the repression and violence that is most interesting about the news coming from Iran or Burma, it may be that in both settings, people have continued to resist despite severe risk.

Stories that emerged from Burma and Iran were also characterized by something called the dramatization bias. Dramatization of a story occurs when the news is encapsulated in sensationalistic bits intended to provoke an emotional response on the part of the news consumer. This often happens in the absence of serious analysis of the policy issues, institutional interplay or larger social setting. There also tends to be an unconscious focus on the visual elements and theatrical aspects of the story. Dramatization is supported by emphasizing confusion, by an attitude of professional skepticism, and by an automatic respect for the effects of violence, and therefore tends to produce cynical conclusions about whatever runs counter to these expectations.

A couple of specific examples of dramatization include a BBC story from September 24, 2007 which proclaimed the “Burmese military threatens monks,” and from London’s Telegraph on September 27, in which we learned that “Burma troops issue ‘extreme action’ ultimatum.” While these headlines don’t directly misreport reality, they emphasize only one part - or side - of it. What they do not say is that nonviolent protests continued despite these threats (and the eventual use) of extreme violence.

The euphemism bias in media is driven by journalists hedging their bets about what is going on.  Language is selected specifically to shift emphasis, blur meaning or downplay significance of some legitimate elements of the story. Occasionally, meaning is turned upside down, for example when a regime’s use of violence is referred to as an attempt at ‘restoring normalcy’.  The use of euphemism can play an important role in the way civil resistance is covered, especially when the resistance happens in a non-Western country. The terminology used to describe the images of thousands of people on the streets often wrongly connotes improvised and anarchic action.

For example, a common caption for photos from the massive demonstrations in Tehran in the summer of 2009 would often say simply "Huge crowds in Iran," a statement that, while technically correct, was incomplete. A "crowd" connotes a large group of people congregated together for no specified reason. Another example comes from Burma in mid-October 2007, when The Guardian announced that “One month on, Burmese regime stages show of strength.” The text that followed the headline went on to describe how the regime, fearing a resurgence of pro-democracy protests, rolled tanks into the streets as a pre-emptive measure. A more comprehensive and accurate frame on that story would have reminded us that such shows of force are used only when a regime feels threatened, that is, when it perceives itself in a position of potential weakness if opposition is permitted to gain any foothold. Yet the headline - and frame - managed, through euphemism, to turn this revelation of weakness into a “show of strength,” ultimately defaulting to the language (and propaganda) of the regime.

Finally, when information is in short supply and time is of the essence, media tend to fall back on the perspective of state officials, regardless of other key variables, such as the regime’s credibility. With this authority-disorder bias, the official authority - no matter how tyrannical - is expected to provide a solution to the visual crisis, even if their abuses have triggered the crisis in the first place.  An example from Iran is when the BBC said on June 15, 2009 that “Iran’s supreme leader orders investigations into claims of vote fraud.” Or from Reuters on September 25, 2007, which reported about Burma that, “Myanmar junta sets curfew.” In both cases, there is a subtle but undeniable default to the governmental authority as being responsible for addressing the crisis at hand.  Even in the rare circumstance when the phrasing is more cautious, such as “Iranian regime claims to be restoring normalcy,” there is still an inherent default to accept the veracity of the claim. This is especially true when the story ends with a government quote or by otherwise paraphrasing the version of the oppressor. One is reminded of the worst sort of “city hall journalism” in American cities, when lazy reporters would rewrite press releases in the comfort of their offices instead of going out and talking to sources.

While a lack of assiduous on-the-ground reporting seems to be the most fundamental challenge to contextualized reporting on civil resistance, there are several other flaws that also lead to a less sophisticated understanding of these events. These include a simple lack of understanding or knowledge amongst mainstream media institutions of the subject at hand. There may be no more than perhaps a dozen international correspondents in the world who have reported diligently on a number of major resistance movements, even as far better informed citizen journalists produce accounts which are ignored by major media.  Similarly, there seems to be a lack of expertise about the larger social and political contexts in which these struggles take place. Few media agencies bother to employ regional specialists anymore, because they can get the most bang-for-their-buck from generalists. But while these individuals might be able to offer a breadth of commentary, it often comes at the expense of background and depth.


Beyond the story-specific frames, we can observe a number of deeper ‘meta-frames’ that emerge from the patterns in media coverage of stories about nonviolent struggle. These meta-frames can be thought of as larger assumptions about concepts like power, conflict and violence and that shape the lenses through which we draw conclusions and find meaning and significance. When considering the topic of civil resistance, the most relevant meta-frames are:

  1. Repression is more interesting/important than resistance
  2. Power is top-down
  3. Power is monolithic
  4. Conflict is undesirable
  5. Violent means are more effective than nonviolent means

Collectively, these meta-frames work together to suggest to the media audience that stronger leverage in nonviolent struggles is not in the hands of movement, but with the oppressors. The meta-frames suggest a view of natural power that is hierarchical, monolithic, top-down and something that is exerted ‘over’ the individual. They also suggest that violence and power are reinforcing (if not interchangeable) phenomena. Meta-frames are significant for two reasons: on one hand, they inhibit media and audiences from expecting nonviolent success (or to make sense of it when it occurs), and on the other, they may affect participants in a movement. The case of the US Civil Rights Movement is illustrative here. While many members of that movement rejected these meta-frames on violence and power (and ultimately achieved victory), even more than 40 years after the movement's success, the decisive impact of persistent civil resistance is still not fully appreciated.

For instance, the roles of strategy and discipline by members of that movement tend to be regarded as less relevant than the contributions of key US opinion leaders and institutions that helped usher in political change. Most American history books emphasize Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) and the Civil Rights Acts as the key turning points in the struggle, rather than focusing on the indefatigable work of skilled, disciplined students and activists from Nashville to Montgomery to Selma. In another example, the role of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who ordered federal officials to protect the Freedom Riders, has been given relatively more prominence than the work of many of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s key lieutenants, such as the Rev. James Lawson, who originally trained a number of the Freedom Riders, and who was billed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as “the mind of the movement.”

Probably the biggest danger of this conventional wisdom is that it presupposes that power (and therefore change) comes from the top down. But perhaps the most obvious lesson that can be gleaned from the cases of successful nonviolent movments in India, Poland, South Africa, Serbia, the Philippines and dozens of other nations is that the power of mobilized populations to challenge the legitimacy of oppressive rule and disrupt its operations is a bottom-up phenomenon.

To counter erroneous framing, conscious media citizens can take on the responsibility for ‘being’ the media. Citizen journalism has replaced professional journalism in many parts of the world as the go-to genre for the most sophisticated and insightful analysis. As a contributor to the media universe, it is essential that the citizen journalist use accurate language consistently. For example, instead of talking about the Burmese or Iranian governments as ‘restoring order’, an authentic journalist is more likely to talk about those governments as suppressing discontent.

There is also a role for new media: video journalism, blogs, Facebook (and other social media) and Twitter are all venues where political grievances can be aired and action can be enjoined. One of the advantages of these new, alternative media is that information communication goes two ways. The media audience participates in the discussion - a phenomenon that encourages empowerment and civic engagement, both of which (in addition to being democratic virtues) undermine the salience of the meta-frames discussed above.

Twitter is particularly interesting, especially with respect to the Iranian case. During June and July of 2009, when the streets of Iran were full of election protesters, Twitter became a key source of information on the resistance and subsequent crackdown. The regime banned all non-governmental media activity, making it very difficult for information to get out of the country. But clever Iranian activists adopted Twitter as their primary mode of communication with the outside world. As the regime told one story on its state-owned media channels (and to the world via government spokespeople), the people of Iran told a completely different one. As Iranian state news was claiming that only a handful of people showed up at a well-publicized Tehran protest, for example, thousands of independent ‘tweeters’ were all saying otherwise.

The Green Revolution has been dubbed ‘The Twitter Revolution’ for the degree to which even legitimate, mainstream international media (such as CNN and BBC) came to rely on tweets as their primary, up-to-date sources of information for what was happening inside the country. This is remarkable because not only was the movement able to undermine the official version of the news (which made the regime look ridiculous), it was also able to play a key role in telling its own story. While journalists still struggled to interpret meaning from the content in the “tweets,” the news - the data - was clear-cut.  It is difficult to question the veracity of 10,000 individual citizens who are reporting events in the same way (and all differently from the regime.)

Neither the Burmese nor the Iranian struggle is (as of yet) a news story that can be characterized simply as an example of a failed movement and successful repression. The history of nonviolent struggle shows that movements which were counted out when major repression first hit – such as Solidarity in Poland in 1981 and nonviolent South African anti-apartheid strikers and boycotters in the mid-1980’s – were, a few years later, on the winning side. Ideally, the common misconceptions about nonviolent action will fade as knowledge about the phenomenon expands. But it is up to us - the global audience - to understand our responsibility in this dynamic. Ultimately our unwillingness to be complicit in sustaining hardened perceptions about civil resistance and nonviolent struggles will be critical to the evolution of responsible media coverage of this new, historic force in world events.


W. Lance Bennett, News: The Politics of Illusion

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By

Cognitive Policy Works





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