Posts Tagged ‘Semiotics’

We are surrounded by news 24 hours a day and it is impossible to pay attention to all of it. Most of us skim through the highlights and are informed of what goes on in the world, but seldom do we pay enough attention to each story to discover what happens to it in the media. I have, for the last three months, paid very much attention to the KONY2012 issue and how it has been presented in the media. Not only did I follow the issue but I reflected upon concepts related to the media; like manipulation, the public sphere and semiotics. This post is about what I discovered in relation to that.

The media is important to us, it is our public sphere, and it is where we share, receive and discuss information about the world and what concerns us. Unfortunately the media fails in many ways as a public sphere as information gets distorted in a swirl of bias, lies, facts and opinions. There are so many news broadcasters in the world today and they all filter the news to suit a specific audience. By tailoring the news according to their local audiences’ interests, many different views of one case are told to different people.

In the KONY2012 debate this was very clear. The western audiences have a certain interest in economy and power and so the western media reported on money, facts and the intentions of The Invisible Children. On the other hand, media broadcasters with a different target market, like Al Jazeera who wants to be “a voice of the voiceless”, talked about the Ugandan people, justice, empathy and real experiences. It took over a week before these important views were presented to us. My blogpost “Filtered News” goes more in depth on this.

Of course, social media is now also a big part of our public sphere, and here we have an opportunity for a more democratic sphere, but we also face the problem of a greater digital divide.

In addition to this, manipulation is a keyword within mainstream media. The Invisible Children, either if you think it was exploitive or genius, knew who they were targeting and that is why their video was so successful. Given that they planned to release the video online they knew their biggest audience would be teenagers, and this is why they made a video and not a streamed lecture. Other noticeable tactics were the simplifying of a complex issue, starring of young people and children as key-figures. Playing on emotions and empathy was a clear strategy of The Invisible Children.

While I am on the topic of manipulation I want to bring up George Gerbner and his cultivation theory. He argued that the media, in the long-term, lead people to believe the social reality portrayed by the media, also called “the mean world syndrome”. When Jason Russell had his public breakdown, mainstream media decorated their headlines with words like “public masturbation”, “running naked in streets” and “car wrecking” leading everyone to adopt this point of view, hashtages like #BONY2012 was all over Twitter short after. It goes to show how much influence the media can have on us.

Probably the most interesting part of the KONY issue for me was the relevance it had to semiotics. This is a complex concept, but basically it is about the reading of images and how we interpret them differently due to ideologies and experiences of the world. In KONY2012 there was an American organization which told the story of a long and complex issue in Africa to the whole world by the use of videos, pictures and text. Depending on where in the world we are from, we carry different histories and different experiences and therefore we view the world in different ways, our understanding of one story will be very diverse from others. While I saw The Invisible Children as a caring and thoughtful group who wanted to help, the Ugandan people reacted with disgust and felt the Americans were victimizing their race.

When we are dealing with global issues we should take notice of where other people come from and their history to gain a better understanding of their opinions. I think we often take for granted that everyone else should “see what we see”, we very often miss to see the reasons for other peoples actions because of this attitude.

Also other topics like moral panic and causes and effects are helpful when analysing new headlines. Our public sphere has become a complex space of ideas and information, and we must become active listeners to get the information right. News-reading changes with these concepts in mind, and can help us think before we act.

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It is funny with photos how they can forge so many different emotions in people. Sometimes I look back at my photos from earlier vacations, and those pictures can take me straight back to that place. That one picture can make me remember smells, sounds, feelings and bring back memories. But the strange thing is, that if I show the same photo to someone else that was there, the photo can make them think of totally different things! They remember music, people and conversations; they have different memories than I do.

Semiotics are the science of signs and the study of meaning. It might sound dull, but when you start looking into semiotics it is surprising what you might find out. I have been following the KONY 2012 issue these months, and semiotics is actually quite relevant in that matter.

Things that convey meaning, like a word, a picture or a symbol, is really just a sign.  By calling them signs, I mean that these things signify something to us. It is a signifier or a denotation. When I hear a word, a concept forms, or an image or an understanding takes form in my head. This is the signified or the connotation. What makes it interesting thought is that sometimes different people need different signs to achieve the same understanding. For example, look at this sign: “Appelsin”. For a Norwegian this sign conveys a meaning, but and English speaking person need the sign: “orange” to convey the same meaning and a Spanish speaking person would look for the “naranja” sign to picture it.

Words as signs are one thing, languages can complicate things, but at least we understand why. When an image is a sign, it can be harder to understand that it is interpreted differently by different persons. An image is a representation. The emotions/feelings/interpretations the image represents are based on individual judgement or preference. It all relies on “myths” and ideologies.

In the KONY2012 campaign we were introduces to images like these:

When I look at these photos I see a young black child with a weapon. White men with weapons with black soldiers in the background and I see several children in the background of one man.

Based on my knowledge of the situation in Africa, the connotations that I got were that they needed help, and that the Invisible Children wanted to help them. Citizens in Uganda interpreted it differently when they saw the KONY2012 video. They saw the same signs that I saw, but it meant different things to them. As I saw a caring group of people with the intentions to help in a terrible situation, they saw Americans victimizing their race. Other people saw egoism, that the Invisible Children played on emotions to commercialize themselves, and there were several more connotations to find.

I wrote earlier that connotations depend on “myths” and ideologies. The Oxford dictionary defines ideology as “the set of beliefs characteristic of a social group or individual”. We interpret images depending on our norms and experiences of the world. A message can be read in three different ways:

  • The dominant reading. This is the reaction preferred by the media, what they try to achieve. The first reaction that many people had to KONY2012 was this one, and it was what The Invisible Children were aiming for.
  • Negotiated reading. This is when people are not sure, they are sceptical. Persons who doubted the intentions of The Invisible Children belonged to this group.
  • Oppositional reading. They disagree with what is said. This was the reaction of many of the Ugandan citizens.

Mainstream media know this, and so did The Invisible Children. They knew that our understanding of what they produced “depended on shared knowledge, shared myths and shared ideologies” (Turnbull 2012), so they tried to tailor the message to satisfy our ideologies.

Reference:

Turnbull, S 2012, BCM110 “Media Mythbusting: ‘The Image Cannot Lie”, lecture notes, accessed 4/5/2012, eLearning@UOW.