Digital Media and Exchanges

This week in my media theory class, we looked at theoretical approaches to “new media” (now that it’s not so “new,” many references use the term “digital media”), so I’ve been thinking about how it all applies to exchange diplomacy.

My students this year are so young that they don’t really remember a world without the internet, which blows my mind and instantly makes me feel about 20 years older. There seems to be a real gap in our understanding of the impact of digital technology that spans across the generations–older people don’t fully understand it and younger people take it for granted, so ultimately, nobody’s really giving it due attention!

How has the advent of social media changed the exchange experience? There are so many affordances of social media that can contribute to the exchange experience–the reduction of time/space barriers to communication, ways in which it might help people manage culture shock symptoms, the idea of durable networked connections as a multiplier effect, etc. These all need to be explored, theorised, conceptualised, measured. Digital diplomacy research tends to focus on the ways in which governments/agencies use digital media tools, ignoring the impacts of digital media on cultural and educational exchanges.

In the early days of my PhD research, I considered looking at the exchange participant blogosphere, thinking it would provide some interesting insights into the exchange experience. After looking at a few blogs, I quickly let that idea go–most were neglected and short-lived, with enthusiastic “on arrival” and “settling in” posts followed by silence. Few were sustained, and even fewer included post-sojourn reflections on the experience.  Exchange participants aren’t blogging–they’re too busy actually participating in the exchange to reflect on it like that. This impression seems to be backed up by the literature–a 2016 study by Tonkin and du Coudray found that the culture learning aims of exchange programme administrators weren’t met by asking students to blog their experiences, but were attained more naturally in social situations, like drinking with friends.

So if they’re not blogging, how else are they using these digital tools? How do Chinese students use social networking sites that they encounter when they study abroad, beyond the confines of the Great Firewall? Do exchange participants develop lasting networks of global contacts, and how do they use them? Do they actually prolong the culture mediation aspect of the exchange experience? I have a feeling that they could, but social media is such an individualised thing, it would be difficult to actually measure that! Something for a project proposal some day…

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11 November 1940

“11 November 1940–in front of the Tomb of the Unknown soldier, the students of France demonstrated en masse, the first to resist the occupier.”

On my last trip to Paris, I noticed this plaque near the Charles De Gaulle Etoile metro entrance on the Champs Elysees. It commemorates the first demonstration against Nazi occupation, a small student protest held on Armistice Day at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe. The Chemins de Memoire website has a very good official account of the event, as well as this photo:

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“Demonstration of 11 November 1940. Students from the Institut agronomique prepare to march long the Champs Élysées to lay flowers on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Source: Museum of National Resistance – Champigny-sur-Marne”

When I saw it, I loved the fact that students were the first to speak out against the occupation, the first to organise and demonstrate. It’s always been students–in Berkeley, in Prague, in Tiananmen Square–and now it’s students in Washington, D.C. at the March For Our Lives.

Last week I presented my research on post-Parkland gun debate rhetoric at the Political Studies Association’s Media and Politics Group annual conference, and another mass shooting happened. My slides, which I’d recently updated to include the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting, were now already out of date.

You can’t keep up with the mass shootings in America. When I first considered doing research on the gun debate, it was after Las Vegas. That was only a year ago, and there have been so many mass shootings since.

But–and this is where my French resistance example comes in–I do have some hope after reading about the Parkland survivors, their #NeverAgain campaign and the March For Our Lives. They haven’t stopped speaking out. They’ve sustained an active social media presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, with 300k-400k followers on each platform. They campaigned for gun control candidates (i.e. recipients of F grades from the NRA) during the midterm election.

Students were the first to stand up to the Nazis on this day in 1940, and they’re standing up to the NRA today. Stand with them on the right side of history.

Depressing (but necessary) research

After I did my Master’s dissertation on the London 7/7 bombings, I thought I’d pursue a more cheerful subject with exchange diplomacy. Doing content analysis of the press coverage of the bombings was very depressing–I spent the summer coding 826 articles about the attack, and although I found the literature on the media and terrorism fascinating, it’s not very fun.

So I spent the next few years looking at exchanges and reading uplifting anecdotes about scholars who had a brilliant time overseas on their Fulbright grants. I interviewed enthusiastic participants and program administrators who praised it to the hilt and were happy to talk about it to anybody who would listen. I looked through archive boxes full of thank you letters to Senator Fulbright and read about the range of transformational and positive experiences they’d had. Even the most cynical and critical scholar would be persuaded that there must be something to exchange diplomacy after all of that.

But terrorism still exists. Violence is still a pressing issue, and I’m still drawn to researching things that matter to me–right now, it’s gun violence in America.

A few months ago, I started a new project to look at (what I assumed would be) the shifting rhetoric around guns in America in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting. I’m presenting my work-in-progress at a conference on Thursday, and I have to admit that it’s way more depressing than my master’s research was. This morning I was reading up on Sandy Hook for some background and context, and reading the accounts of 6-year old survivors is absolutely heartbreaking. I sat in my office and cried while reading–this is just beyond imagination. And America/Congress/NRA/politicians, etc. are letting it happen over and over, without changing a damn thing.

In the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, I thought something had changed. The March For Our Lives movement, led by Marjory Stoneman Douglas students who survived the shooting, looked like something new, something we hadn’t seen before–a real stand against gun violence, with media coverage and support from (some) public officials.

But has anything changed? I decided to look at legislators’ Twitter feeds over the month following the shooting–all US Senators and Representatives’ verified accounts from 14 February to 15 March, the day after the national school walkout. I’m still coding tweets, but so far, I’m seeing:

  • Cliche “thoughts and prayers” from Congress members of both parties
  • Republicans saying we should heighten school security, arm the teachers and address mental health
  • Democrats criticising Congressional inaction (despite the fact they’re also members of Congress), arguing against arming teachers, and praising student activists
  • Most of the tweets (from both parties) are NOT about guns at all. They’re about tax reform, immigration, Billy Graham’s death and Dodd-Frank banking regulations.

This project is also why I’m particularly interested in the election today. It’s the big test–will voters re-elect politicians who said nothing, who did nothing in the aftermath of the shooting? Will they punish them by voting for change? I’m curious to see what’s going to happen, and I’m very happy for the Parkland survivors who are now 18 and able to vote for the first time.

Election Day

Overlapping deadlines and teaching have kept me away from the blog recently, but I couldn’t let today go by without writing about the election.

It’s always a strange experience to watch the election from overseas–I’ve been here for 3 Presidential elections and today makes my third midterm. Despite having been through so many elections over here, it’s still surprising how much news coverage is devoted to US politics in the UK. It’s on the BBC every day. The BBC Facebook page cover photo features Emma Gonzalez, Gloria Allred at a #MeToo demonstration, and Trump.

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In 2010 I got a taste of comparative grassroots politics first-hand–I interned and canvassed for my local MP in Leeds during the UK general election, then canvassed in the summer for my senator and representative in Washington state ahead of the US midterm. People typically don’t care as much about midterms as they do for Presidential elections–turnout is always much lower, and it was particularly skewed towards older, conservative voters in 2010. Samantha Bee did a fantastic piece on it during the primaries in 2016:

This piece highlights the problem of voter apathy–the feeling disconnected and unengaged, of thinking that voting doesn’t matter, that it doesn’t make a difference.

It’s also well established that certain demographics are far less likely to vote than others, and they track closely with class status. Jonathan Nagler, the director of New York University’s Politics Data Center, told the New York Times last month that more than 80 percent of college-educated Americans turn out to vote, compared with about 40 percent of Americans who do not hold high school degrees.

“There is a class skew that is fundamental and very worrying,” Alexander Keyssar, a Harvard historian and social policy expert, said in the same article. “Parts of society remain tuned out and don’t feel like active citizens. There is this sense of disengagement and powerlessness.”

It’s something my students discussed last week in a seminar on the public sphere. Nancy Fraser‘s critique of Habermas pointed out that some voices don’t get included–when the public sphere is dominated by college-educated, middle class, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied, male, WASP voices, it’s to the exclusion of other voices–the working class, LGBTQ+, women, people of colour, disabled, immigrant, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, atheist, etc.

Obviously I have certain causes and candidates that I want to win tonight, but my biggest hope, as with every election, is that people VOTE. I don’t want to see a repeat of this map, created by Philip Kearney. Just look at Arizona and West Virginia…Shocking. And the US goes around the world preaching about democracy…

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It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens tonight!

 

What I’m Reading

born a crime

I recently finished reading Trevor Noah’s memoir, and it is crazy. He was interviewed about it on Oprah’s Supersoul podcast, so I knew a bit about his story–starting with the meaning behind the title. He was a mixed race baby in apartheid South Africa, which criminalised interracial relationships, so he was “evidence” of his parents’ crime. It feels very outdated, reading about these anti-miscegenation laws today, but it wasn’t that long ago–he was born in 1984! I knew he was young, but I didn’t realize he was quite that young–and I think I also didn’t realize how recent (and crazy) apartheid was. Watching Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, it all felt very long ago–but he only died in 2013.

Trevor Noah’s voice comes through clearly–he’s brilliant, insightful, funny, down-to-earth, and just comes across on the page like he does on The Daily Show. This clip captures a lot of the flavor of the book:

It’s full of stories from his childhood and what they meant in terms of shaping his life and worldview. His mother comes across as the heroine of the story–you find yourself rooting for her, laughing at her sense of humor, feeling amazed at her determination and drive. She’s an amazing woman.

The book’s also made me want to learn more about South Africa. I have a book on the South African Fulbright program, Outsmarting Apartheid, on my shelf that I haven’t gotten around to finishing, but it’s a particularly interesting case study. When the US government was distancing itself from apartheid-era South Africa in other ways (i.e. imposing sanctions), they still maintained educational and cultural exchanges. It’s a great example of exchange diplomacy being used to work around the official government channels and reach the people directly.

In my research on Fulbright women, I came across the story of Amy Biehl, a law scholar and activist who worked with the African National Congress during the transition to democracy. She was tragically killed in political violence, and now having read Trevor Noah’s description of the townships, I can better understand what happened and why. It doesn’t make it any less painful or tragic, but it’s important to recognise that this kind of violence wasn’t exclusive to Amy. She wasn’t necessarily targeted for being white or American or an ‘outsider’, as I’d assumed. Noah describes widespread violence in the townships, with fighting taking place amongst different groups of locals, too. In-fighting was one of the ways the architects of apartheid controlled the majority population. If you fight amongst each other, you won’t fight those who are keeping you down–a good lesson with continued relevance for class warfare, activist movements, etc.

 

The symbolic power of the Nobel Peace Prize

Last Friday,  Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad were announced as this year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipients.

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Before the announcement, there had been speculation that Trump and/or Kim Jong Un and/or Moon Jae-In could win it for their efforts to end the decades-long conflict on the Korean Peninsula. Republican lawmakers wrote to the Nobel committee to nominate Trump, and Moon Jae-In suggested Trump should win it last April. I’m so relieved they didn’t go there. There are so many reasons why Trump shouldn’t be a Nobel laureate–and many of them are highlighted in the laureates who were chosen.

The Nobel committee chose to honor people who campaign against sexual violence, specifically the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war. Mukwege is a doctor who helps victims, and Murad is a survivor who has spoken out for other victims. Their stories are inspiring and heartbreaking, and they absolutely deserve to be better known–their causes deserve this kind of recognition and publicity.

Looking over a list a previous Nobel Peace Prize laureates, you can see the symbolic power of the prize–how it designates what issues matter, which voices ought to be heard and better known, who we should be paying attention to.

Sometimes it’s very specific, focusing on one country at one specific point in time, such as the 2015 award to the National Dialogue Quartet “for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.” Sometimes it coincides with an anniversary, like the 2012 award to the European Union on its 60th anniversary.

Sometimes, it’s a thinly veiled political statement. We saw that in 2009, when it was awarded to Barack Obama “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”. At the time, he hadn’t done anything yet–he was a lawyer and community organizer, a law professor, a State Senator and a junior U.S. Senator, and had only been President for 8 months when he was awarded the Nobel Prize. He wrote a couple of brilliant bestselling books, made some fantastic speeches, but in terms of actually taking action beyond words, the award was really premature. The main justification seemed to be that he was an inspiring figure who promoted peace and international cooperation. As much as I loved him, I’ll admit that Obama wasn’t an obvious choice. It was clearly political.

In the same way, the decision to highlight campaigners who fight sexual violence is the Nobel Committee’s way of saying #BelieveWomen. It’s a decision not to celebrate a work-in-progress peace agreement between North and South Korea, but rather to honor the achievements of a doctor who’s devoted his career to helping victims of sexual violence, and to honor a woman who has overcome human trafficking and sexual violence, not just surviving it but speaking out for others affected by it. Instead of honoring a politician who’s been accused of sexual violence (and who’s actually bragged about it in a recording we all heard before the 2016 election), the Nobel Committee chose to honor the victims and those who help them.

Vive la resistance!

 

What the Kavanaugh hearings look like from afar

I’ve been following the confirmation hearings closely this week. As I follow a lot of American journalists & politicians on social media, it’s not surprising that the hearings are the top story everyone seems to be talking about.

What is surprising is the fact that it’s also been a huge news story here. The TV in the foyer of my department always shows BBC News, and I keep seeing live coverage of the hearings when I go to and from my office. Last night I was at an event with a mixed international group of friends (Brazil, Bulgaria, UK, Netherlands, Italy, Chile, etc.) and I spoke with some of the other women about the hearings, and about sexual harassment & sexual assault more generally. Everybody’s watching, and I don’t think Americans are really aware of that.

This morning I saw an article in The New York Times with that very title–a quotation from a reader in Belgium, “I don’t think people in the US know how closely we’re watching this”. My favorite comment came from a New Zealander:

“I have visited America more times than I can count and always loved the country, and most of the people I met were friendly, welcoming and open. I watch in despair as America slides back into the Dark Ages and loses its reputation on the international stage. It is really very sad seeing America implode.”

It feels like the stakes are very high now, in the age of Trump and #metoo. During the 2016 campaign, Trump faced many accusations of sexual assault (there’s even a Wikipedia entry to keep track of them all), and even a recording of him boasting about sexual assault released before the election–and still, 62 million people voted for him.

The #metoo movement has shifted the way (most) media talk about sexual assault, and it’s shaping the way a lot of people think about their own experiences, and those of people they know and love, friends and family members–because when half of the people on your social media feed are sharing #metoo stories, you realize how common sexual harassment and sexual assault really are.

We recently watched Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma again, for the first time in many years. As a child, I loved it–my favorite character was Ado Annie and I used to sing “I’m just a girl who can’t say no” without really understanding what the lyrics meant. I just thought they were funny, because my family always laughed when I sang it!

Watching it now, in the context of #metoo, I found it much scarier and more disturbing than I ever did as a child. When Laurey is sitting in that wagon with Jud Fry, you can feel how nervous she is. The tension is palpable. She’s thinking, “what have I gotten myself into?” and blaming herself because she told Jud she would go to the party with him (before she caught him peeping into her bedroom–another horrible scene). If anything happens (and it did, of course), she only has herself to blame because she put herself in the situation. That’s the story that victims tell themselves, and that’s why victims don’t tell anybody about their assault, for months, years or even for the rest of their lives.

Christine Blasey Ford didn’t tell anybody because she was afraid of getting in trouble for being at that party, where no parents were around, for having a beer at age 15, for putting herself in that situation.

When she realized Trump expected her to have sex with him, Stormy Daniels reportedly thought she deserved it for putting herself in that situation:

“I was like, ‘Ugh, here we go.’ And I just felt like maybe… I had it coming for making a bad decision for going to someone’s room alone and I just heard the voice in my head, ‘well, you put yourself in a bad situation and bad things happen, so you deserve this.’”

 

In Oklahoma, Laurey escapes from Jud and finds help at the party–her aunt desperately tries to keep the bidding going when Jud stubbornly outbids everyone else for Laurey’s picnic basket, and Curly, the man she actually loves, sacrifices everything he owns to be the highest bidder. When a grateful Laurey tells Curly about Jud’s attack, he believes her.

He doesn’t say, “Well, you did choose to ride alone with him in his wagon,” or ask “What were you wearing? You were dressed up for a party–don’t you think that you were asking for it?”

Instead, Curly asks Laurey to marry him. He wants to protect her from Jud and prevent anything like that ever happening again (male guardianship is thus presented as the only way to prevent sexual harassment and assault, but putting the patriarchy aside…it’s a nice moment).

The #metoo movement is about honoring survivors’ stories. The new hashtag going around, #BelieveWomen, captures this idea perfectly. Rather than doubting and questioning their accounts, or accusing them of complicity (by wardrobe or drinking or “putting themselves in a bad situation”), it asks us to trust that they are fully capable of accurately interpreting events. They know what happened, and if it’s explained away as “horseplay”, “banter”, “Boys will be boys”, then the terrible acts committed against them are just being reinforced over and over again. The perpetrators are being protected and honored every time we choose not to believe victims’ stories–and there’s no greater honor than a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the most powerful nation on earth.