Media Literacy in the Middle East: Give Peace a Chance

"To hell with facts! We need stories!" Ken Kesey

For many years, I was a story analyst, which is to say that I was part of a low paying cadre of Hollywood "readers" whose job it is to read a large number of stories very quickly, looking, as it were, for the needle in the haystack - the story that is well wrought, has universal, "four quadrant" appeal" (which is to say, every demographic shall be pleased), is a great "star vehicle" for the latest, hottest star, is "the same but different" (as compared to both prior and upcoming films) and will, by dint of all these things combined, if cast and packaged well, with a generous helping of magic and moonshine, possibly, make a lot of money. Or not.

Most script readers are movie buffs and book worms and so we contain prodigious amounts of story, character, symbols, references and thematic indexes in our heads. If there is a narrative - in any context or medium - we are familiar with the bones of it.

Whether a narrative is a manuscript, film script news item, business pitch or memoir, story is story and it contains the same, archetypal elements that combine to create the powerful, persuasive and entertaining means to affect the way we see ourselves, the world and the events in it.

The good news is that the ways we can tell stories today are almost limitless. In the 21st century, stories crossed into every medium and have become super charged with a kind of short hand, as GIFs, Vines and Tweets. Our attention spans have become shorter but our imaginations no less rich and our appetite for story has only intensified. Thank god for the binge watching Netflix so wisely made possible.

The bad news is that amidst the richness of narrative technology available today both to produce and to consume media, we now find ourselves in the midst of a very large landscape in which the lines between entertainment, information and advertising are veritably indistinguishable and this leads to some important ethical questions such as - shouldn't all this media come with a user guide? Who will teach the youth born into this media stuffed age how to think about what they consume? Where are the student driver teachers on the information highway?

Every two days now we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003. Eric Schmidt, Techcrunch

So much media. So little media literacy.

The need for media literacy is not a new idea and is widely acknowledged as an educational priority in developed countries. But not where I live.

I live in the Middle East, or as you might more accurately call it, a tinderbox.

According to one of the most popular Palestinian news sites on Facebook, I and some friends stormed Al Aqsa a few months ago. I distinctly remember being quite surprised at this news, as I would imagine "storming" to be physically taxing and likely something I would remember. The people pictured look to be applying sunscreen, for the most part. We were on a historical tour of the site with Israeli and Palestinian participants. This report was shared 1.7K times though the report had no corroboration or sources listed. I would have found this amusing were it not for the "lone wolf" intifada we have been experiencing in this region for several months now, with evidence of media incitement mounting steadily. (For a depressing tour of Palestinian media, visit PalWatch.)

But it's not just Palestinian media that worries me. In the Middle East, media scrutiny of various conflicts is intense and local journalism is, most times, dubious. Add to this mix an empathy fatigued world starring unfettered bias and introducing red hot political correctness and pair that with sporadic, convulsive violence and a generation of youth largely made silent by poverty, despair, exhaustion, despotic leaders and - well - kaboom.

Imagine living out personal and collective trauma under the suffocating dome of the most media scrutinised, polarising conflict in the world. Imagine having your story - or that of your enemy - told and retold in the media in ways that are so baldly bombastic as to make "persuasive" blush in shame. Imagine how incredibly vulnerable this makes you to extremism and radicalism. Many of us have seen the stomach churning recruitment videos produced by ISIS.

This region is a tangled hydra of narratives choking each other to death. We have lost the plot. While we cannot unilaterally decide what media is created, shared and consumed, we can proffer youth in this region the tools they need to think critically about the storyline and pen new narratives that lead to a better place. We have to give them that chance.

So this veteran story analyst and writer, highly concerned with the direction this script and its unending sequels have taken, decided, perhaps inadvisedly, to do something about it by simply asking the simple, two word question that all writers know and know well. "What if?"

What if there were an initiative available that taught young people living in this region the basics of media literacy, emotional intelligence and reasonable debate? What if, without any finger pointing or particular focus, they learned the power and impact media has on everything from gender to identity to nationalism, buying habits and ideals of beauty? What if you could explain some of the basic ideas behind the psychology of persuasion in advertising, of images and symbols? What if youth with very legitimate pain, anger and injustice were less easily manipulated by media images and could express themselves more rationally and clearly? Wouldn't we have to take them more seriously? Isn't that a better story?

In partnership with IPCRI (the Israeli Palestinian Creative Regional Initiative), and University of Chicago Center for Middle Eastern Studies, MEMLI (the Middle East Media Literacy Initiative) will be launching a pilot program in the West Bank/Palestine in coming months. Other countries in the region have expressed interest in this initiative, which gives me great hope but we have some distance to go between now and then as we develop the curriculum and materials.

Today's vulnerable, media illiterate, hopeless teenager is tomorrow's terrorist. Or tomorrow's entrepreneur, innovator or leader. I don't know if media literacy is THE answer - surely there are many needs and many solutions. There is an impressive array of peace building and conflict management programs in this part of the world. But nobody has yet implemented media literacy in the Middle East. I think it's about time.

Oh - one more "what if" question. What if you could help?