9/11 @ 20: Narrative Legacies and Digital Frontiers in the Global War on Terror
Session II-14, 2022 Annual Meeting
On Thursday, December 1 at 5:30 pm
Two decades on from 9/11 historians face still fundamental questions surrounding the war on terror, not the least of which being the representation of the conflict and the nature of the media through which it flowed. Scholars and the public remain in the dark about the remarkable work of filmmakers, marketing representatives, social media influencers, and digital technology companies in fashioning an eclectic, if largely unregulated stream of strategic communications in the war on terror. Questions remain concerning the use of Arab Middle Eastern listening posts and broadcast hubs as well the robust counter-communications strategy that emerged from state-backed media organs, both within the region and beyond. In examining core debates surrounding US and Arab communications strategy in the first two decades following 9/11, this panel seeks to reexamine broader questions around the design, distribution, and afterlife of soft power strategy in the war on terror.
Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior (CIB), as defined by Facebook, has become a visible tool of active measures and political posturing in the new Middle East and North Africa. But while a number of the most high-profile campaigns have been attributed to actors in the Gulf, Egypt, Russia, and Turkey, the template for such action is more readily traced to the War on Terror and to the concerted effort of US public diplomacy experts, intelligence officials, and Gulf-Arab allies in challenging the perceived rise of Islamic extremism in cyberspace. Tens of millions of dollars would flow through official and extra-official campaigns to generate a robust and highly coordinated digital frontier in the War on Terror. Several post-Arab Spring iterations became repurposed for the work of combating Russian disinformation. However, despite the level of funding and the transnational scope of these operations, little has been said about the technological innovations they marshaled, the aesthetic or rhetorical designs they employed, or the ideological prerogatives they conveyed. In this paper, I examine each of these issues as found within the archives of the largest such initiative, the U.A.E. based and US-backed Sawab Center. In conversation with some of the Sawab Center's founding creators as well as recent studies concerning the greater digital pivot within public diplomacy, the goal of this paper is to delineate the history of this major influence hub while parsing its ideological applications, its aesthetic aspirations, and its subsequent afterlife as a vehicle for US and U.A.E. influence strategy writ large.
For a brief period following the Arab Spring, many hoped that one of the world’s most repressive regions was advancing toward greater democracy and human rights. Young activists were able to inform and mobilize millions of their peers. However, an authoritarian counter revolution appears to have turned much of the Middle East into an even more repressive region. Through several case studies, my paper examines the evolution of digital activism in the Arab world and details the tragic journey of young social media influencers on issues of democratic reform from stunning success to silence, imprisonment, and even torture. My presentation focuses on audiovisual content and presents inspiring examples that went viral only for that success to motivate authoritarian repression.
The war on terror has coincided with a global digital communication revolution: the diffusion of the Internet, the proliferation of smart phones, and the rise of social media. Over the past twenty years, these technologies have revolutionised the ways we communicate, consume news and witness war and conflict, which is what I focus on in this paper. Digital technologies allowed global audiences to witness conflict from the points of view of ordinary witnesses and this has had profound impact on the relation between media and publics.
Rather than focusing on the technology, in this paper, I shift attention to thinking about the war on terror as the backdrop to the political ramifications of communication technological changes. I argue that the adverse political effects often blamed on digital media cannot be understood without considering the political backdrop of the war on terror.
I first focus on the notion of post-truth. Media scholars have discussed the phenomenon in relation to the rise of algorithmic echo chambers that lead to the circulation of conspiracy theories, erode trust in truth, and fuel populism. Going beyond viewing post-truth as simply a by-product of the technology, I trace it back to the media spectacle in the build-up to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, which brought forth long-lasting mistrust in mainstream media and western political communication.
Secondly, I focus on what I call post-morality in media. I argue that the idea of an inherent western moral political disposition when witnessing atrocity has also been disrupted by the war on terror. Many argue that western failures to act when witnessing distant suffering is due to new technologies of mediation, be it the view of social media as carriers of fake news or as responsible for the fragmentation of the public sphere. In my formulation, I bring back the discussion to the war on terror by highlighting how it exposed the limits of moral claims to justify intervention in other countries. This has been spectacularly demonstrated in what was widely viewed as the US abandonment of Afghanistan after decades of justifying occupation through moral claims of saving the Afghan people from the Taliban.
I conclude by reflecting on the entanglements between geopolitics and technology and how the political implications of the latter cannot be understood without the former.
Since the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, scholars and journalists have used the term militainment to account for US-based militarized entertainment. Roger Stahl, author of Militainment, Inc.: War, Media, and Popular Culture (2010), defines militainment as commodifying US state violence into pleasurable consumption. US militainment advanced in Hollywood at the backdrop of the US-led global war on terror in such Hollywood films as Black Hawk Down (2001), Green Zone (2010), American Sniper (2014), and The Yellow Birds (2017). This paper moves away from this US-centric understanding of militainment to examine how the term applies to the contemporary scene in Egypt. The primary source of analysis is the Egyptian TV series Al-Ikhtiyar 1 (The Choice 1, 2020), a popular drama that endorses the state’s version of Egyptian military operations in North Sinai. My analysis demonstrates how Al-Ikhtiyar 1 represents a growing mode of entertainment production that sanitizes portrayals of Egyptian military violence and reproduces binaries of good and evil that further legitimize authoritarian control at the cost of demonizing Islamists as enemies of the state. Egyptian militainment, I argue, represents an evolved and localized form of media production with rhetoric and imagery that draws from the US Global War on terror legacy. The significance of this paper lies in its engagement with the Egyptian context while simultaneously connecting it to and disconnecting it from US militainment.