A propaganda war that can be lost in translation

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In an earlier age, the conflict in Lebanon would have been fought differently, not only on the battlefield but also in the public mind. War used to be a remote affair and government propagandists enjoyed a virtual monopoly over what the public knew of their enemies. Precious few academics had expertise in remote regions of the world and their sympathies lay far more with their governments than with the people those governments fought.

In this changing world, however, the elites who once enjoyed a virtual monopoly over useful knowledge about other societies are swiftly losing ground. Outside the government offices and faculty clubs they have long called home, a universe of bloggers, bootleg translators and self-appointed experts are ascendant. Not only is the internet a treasure trove of news, data and analysis, but it contains shocking images that it would have been unimaginable to see a decade ago. The internet also hosts a wide array of informal communities – on news sites, in chat rooms and on blogs – that makes even those with little background or sense of context feel well armed with expertise.

The key change has been the sudden ubiquity of translation. Only a decade ago, translation was a centralised affair and few people outside governments and academia ever did it. Wide-scale translation was too expensive and had too small an audience to generate much broad interest. The rapid spread of education in the Arab world, combined with unprecedented means for distributing translated information to whomever is interested, means that the demand side of this equation has overtaken the supply side.

Only a decade or so ago, an out­rageous quotation in an obscure newspaper would lie dormant and unread. Now, it can circulate on the internet and within hours emerge in countless wire stories, ripped out of context but cited as an example of “typical” speech. Columnists and television talk-show guests in the Arab world and the west cite quotations from translated books and articles to prove their point – and their point is often the venality of their foes. These quotations are often used to paint a stark image of the challenges their societies face and dramatic steps that must be taken now.

Hizbollah has used such selective translation to its advantage, as have its opponents outside Lebanon. Politicians, pundits and journalists speak and write for effect in their own societies, but their greatest effect may be ­thousands of miles away. Every utterance, however intemperate or ill considered, can be mined, translated and exploited.

There is something positive about the democratisation of this discourse. There was always a bit of dishonesty in the way that western Orientalists and their Middle Eastern counterparts papered over problems in the relationship and the way in which they often embraced a sort of benign authoritarianism in the Middle East that was rarely benign to the objects of its oppression. Testing the premises of these relationships is healthy.

The democratisation of discourse that has followed, however, gives rise to a whole different beast and its impact is likely to be enormous. The first thing to note is how many people who are doing the translating now have agendas. They do not seek to discover the truth so much as they hope to confirm what they believe, incite, grab attention and discredit their ­enemies. Freelance translators often play into a lust for sensationalism that creates its own market for further translations.

Second, it is remarkable just how much authority accrues to those who use the translated information, making even the casual observer into an ­educated insider. This creates a further demand for translated information that conforms to a certain line of argument. The third element to note is just how decentralised this process is, relying on loosely co-ordinated networks of like-minded individuals rather than the large translation organisations of old. There is no client any more, except for the cause the translator seeks to serve.

In all this lies the peril that the newly distributed information will incite far more than it will inform. Internet search engines exacerbate this problem further, since they are so good at taking things out of context and justifying pre-existing views.

A great battle is under way to determine who will win and who will lose from the conflict in Lebanon and information, propaganda and “spin” are weapons in this phase of the war. ­Hizbollah and its allies are among the most experienced practitioners of this kind of warfare and will fight ­ruthlessly.

The west’s experts on the Middle East have not been rendered irrelevant by this changing environment; on the contrary, they are even more relevant and even more necessary. Still, there is no going back to the entitlements they enjoyed in an earlier age. Democracy, after all, is not about entitlements, but about competition and those who do not compete, lose.

The writer directs the Middle East programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington

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