• Flux Magazine

"Framing Civil Resistance" by Dr. Cynthia Boaz

One of my areas of expertise in political science is civil resistance and nonviolent strategy. I do teach a course dedicated specifically to the subject, but I also integrate the phenomenon into a number of my other courses. Several weeks ago, when I was leading a discussion section of the Holocaust and Genocide Lecture Series, I told the students the incredible story of the Danish people who resisted the Nazis while their country was occupied and managed to save 6700 of Denmark’s 7000 Jews. In a class of 33, only one student had heard the story before that day. The following week, I covered the story of the White Rose—a resistance group in Munich, Germany in 1942 made up of college students and one professor who showed unimaginable courage in an underground fight against one of history’s most violent regimes. The question came up several times during discussion: why did we know so little about these stories? Why do we learn about the violence and repression, but rarely the resistance to it? They are questions worth pondering, especially since there are dozens of similar movements fighting for rights, freedom, and democracy all around the world as I type.

As we know from theories of agenda-setting, media exert an enormous amount of influence over not just how stories are told, but whether they are told at all. Agenda-setting tells audiences what is important to know and by default, what is not. The key to understanding the significance of agenda setting is to recognize that news stories do not necessarily reflect reality, but instead shape it. The process of how this is done is called “framing.” It helps to think of the concept of framing in a literal sense, as the physical borders around a photograph. Anything that falls outside of the frame is irrelevant, insignificant, even nonexistent. This is how frames work with news stories as well, except that instead of playing with light and color, news stories play with language and placement. This can show up in the headline or in the text of the story itself, but often both. The use of metaphor is also important to framing. In a groundbreaking work in cognitive linguistics, Lakoff and Johnson argued that conceptual metaphors are essential to the human ability to make sense of reality. We often rely on one cognitive metaphor to facilitate our understanding of another concept, such as the notion that argument is war (e.g. “She won that argument” or “He attacked my position.”) Of course, perceiving argument as war affects how we engage in the process of debate, as presumably it becomes more high-stakes and even zero-sum. A 2011 study by Thibodeau and Boroditsky found that the power of metaphor was twice as

strong as party identification in predicting people’s reactions to things like crime and conflict

(specifically they found that a test group was much more draconian about punishment when the same crime was described as a “beast” versus when it was described as a “virus.”) They also found that people were neither conscious of the metaphors to which they were reacting, nor of the effects they had on their perceptions. If this is the case, why shouldn’t it be that using a term like “extremists” rather than “activists”, or “crowd” rather than “movement” to describe resistance on the ground in a place like Egypt or Iran or Hong Kong (places about which Western audiences tend to already hold negative stereotypes) would fundamentally affect how an audience makes sense of a struggle?

As George Lakoff has argued, open disagreement with a claim is not enough to diminish the

effects of a powerful frame, because the disagreement often takes place within the context of the frame itself, which actually reinforces its conceptual power. So for example, if a right-wing

reporter makes the assertion that “All Iranians all extremists” (invoking a frame of violence), it

may not be enough for another commentator to argue using empirical evidence that all Iranians are not, in fact, extremists, and that most are fighting for democracy and freedom through strictly nonviolent means. There is disturbing evidence that if the conceptual frame has been hardened, reality may have no effect on how an audience perceives meaning.

It can also be instructive to consider some specific media techniques that help reporters and

editors frame their stories in ways that reinforce their own biases. These techniques include what W. Lance Bennett calls fragmentation; the method of covering the story in isolated, seemingly unrelated parts. At its worst, a story is completely removed of its larger historical or political context. The stories focus on the “trees” rather than the forest, and as a result, key information is missed. As reported by most conventional media, stories about resistance from places like Iran and Hong Kong are highly fragmented. They suggested pandemonium, frequent episodes of extremist political violence and regimes struggling to "normalize" the situation.

Another common technique is dramatization, which occurs when the news is sensationalized in order to provoke an emotional response on the part of the audience. There is little to no discussion of deeper policy issues, institutional interplay, or the larger social setting. Dramatization thrives on confusion and skepticism and tends to produce cynical conclusions. In most examples of resistance, the drama of the conflict, with an emphasis on the regime’s readiness to begin repressing, drives the narrative. These are the stories that talk about the regime’s crackdown and murder of activists as the zenith of the conflict. A more accurate frame on a story about resistance in Iran would remind us that shows of force against nonviolent activists take place only when a regime feels threatened and when it perceives itself in a position of relative weakness.

A third common framing tactic is the use of euphemism, in which selection of language produces a distortion in meaning. Occasionally, meaning is actually turned upside down. Euphemism plays an especially problematic role in the way civil resistance is covered when it takes place in a non-Western country for reasons mentioned above. The terminology used to describe the images of thousands of people on the streets often wrongly connotes improvised and anarchic action, when in fact, most of the movement itself may be strategic, organized and disciplined. For example, a common caption for photos from the massive demonstrations in Tehran might say simply "Huge mobs in Iran," a statement that, while technically correct, is incomplete. A "mob” connotes a large group of people engaging in chaotic action.

And finally, the authority bias emerges where information comes with a sense of urgency. In

these cases, media tend to default to the perspective of the official authorities, regardless of how non-credible. The use of the authority bias often lends legitimacy to the oppressors’ narrative. This is especially true when the story is encapsulated by a government official’s quote. If there is a people’s uprising against the Iranian regime, but the regime gets to shape the public narrative about what is happening inside the country, how can audiences expect to get an accurate understanding of what they are seeing?

When it comes to a study of media effects, we don’t yet have a thorough understanding of why framing works, but many believe the answer may be found in cognitive science. A group of neurobiologists at the University of Southern California are conducting a research project called the “Neurobiology of Narrative Framing,” in which they seek to examine, by looking at the physical functioning of the human brain, how “sacred values” both filter perception and make meaning. They hypothesize that there are core personal, nationalistic, or religious values that influence how issues are perceived, and that when an issue becomes wrapped up in an individual’s sacred value, they will have an increased aversion to conventional reasoning.

For these and many other reasons, media narratives on civil resistance tend to favor the regimes’ perspectives over the peoples’, and to reinforce conventional wisdom that nonviolent struggles amount to little more than accidents of history at best, or pure mythology at worst. Some of the most common frames that have emerged across stories of nonviolent resistance from Egypt to East Timor, from Serbia to South Africa, and from Poland to the Philippines include the ideas that:

-Repression is more interesting than resistance

-Violence and force are the most powerful means of waging a conflict

-Power is top-down, rather than bottom up

-Power is monolithic rather than pluralistic

-All conflict (not just violent) is undesirable

Collectively, these frames work together to suggest to the media audience that success is not

determined by what activists do, but by what oppressors do. They also suggest a view of power that is hierarchical, monolithic, and top-down. And lastly, they treat violence and power as reinforcing, if not interchangeable, phenomena. Under those conditions, why would media

audiences be interested in, or even imagine that what they are seeing is a bottom-up display of nonviolent people power?

If it were actually the case that power was only top-down and that violence was always more

powerful than nonviolent action, it would be impossible for any civil resistance movement to

successfully challenge a regime opponent (who always holds the monopoly of force). But the

most important lesson that can be gleaned from the cases of civil resistance movements currently ongoing in places like Hong Kong, Venezuela, Iran, Honduras, Kenya and many other places, is that the power of mobilized populations to challenge the legitimacy of oppressive rule and disrupt the operations of an unjust system is almost entirely in the hands of the people. Media has an obligation to cover those stories that way, and the rest of us have a right to learn about them.

*Parts of this commentary were borrowed from a previously-published article by the author

called “Red Lenses on a Rainbow of Revolutions”, on OpenDemocracy.com, November 17,


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