In the early 21st Century, a new type of global geopolitical conflict has emerged. Whereas the defining ‘old wars’ of the 20th Century were often fought between two clearly distinct sides, with states as the main protagonists (such as WWI, WWII and the Cold War); conflict since the turn of the millennium has seemed far more complex. These ‘new wars’, have blurred the boundaries between civil and inter-state conflict, involving many disparate actors with diverse and competing aims. The number of fighting units has increased dramatically: for example in the current conflict in Syria, there are estimated to be over 80 separate rebel groups, fighting the Assad regime, ISIS, and each other. To add to the already confusing picture, many external states have become involved in the conflict: the US-led coalition conducting air strikes, along with the further involvement of Turkey, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
These contemporary conflicts are driven by the conditions of globalization; enabled through new technologies of communication and aided by cross-border flows of weapons, people, information and ideas. The boundaries between war and organized crime have also become blurred: whereas previous wars were funded primarily by the nation-state, today’s conflicts are funded through private donors, resource exploitation and the smuggling of people and weapons. This new type of conflict is characterized by increasingly extreme levels of violence towards civilians, with groups aiming to spread fear and terror in order to achieve their political and ideological aims. In the Syrian civil war, as well as in many recent conflicts throughout the Middle East and Africa, this has been materialized through tactics including torture, beheadings, executions, destruction of heritage sites and the use of mass rape as a psychological weapon of war.
Across the same time period, media coverage of conflict has undergone dramatic and extraordinary changes. Whilst traditional ‘Old Media’ was based on a few-to-many model, with TV bulletins and newspapers being the primary modes of consumption; ‘New Media’ technologies have facilitated a de-centralized media environment based on the internet and multi-platform reporting. As a result of these changes, coverage of conflict has become almost immediate. Coverage is now exhaustive and event-driven, typified by the emergence of 24-hour news channels such as CNN, Fox, Sky News and Al Jazeera, along with the rapid growth and popularity of online news websites. This shift has been pushed even further in recent years, with the increased popularity of blogging and the emergence of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.
Another important trend has been the rapid expansion of ‘Citizen Journalism’. Civilians in the world’s conflict zones are now able to capture events first-hand on devices such as smartphones, and upload their content to social media. This allows the dissemination of witness accounts to a mass audience, in almost real time – further increasing the diversity of material available, and helping to ‘fill in the gaps’ in areas which are difficult for journalists to access. Such citizen-produced content has increasingly been used by mainstream news organizations in their reports, with news bulletins on Syria now being typified by shaky, grainy images and first-hand accounts from within the conflict zone.
The rapid changes which have taken place in the media over the last few decades have resulted in coverage of conflict becoming more immediate, in an event-driven media environment based around ‘breaking news’ and the use of dramatic, compelling footage. Images have become an increasingly important medium through which audiences visualise and understand contemporary conflict: increasing the reality of the situation and enabling viewers to gain a clearer picture of events on the ground. ‘Iconic images’ now play an increasingly important role in perceptions of conflict, as they act as a visual marker in the viewer’s mind: for example, the image of Saddam Hussein’s statue being toppled in Baghdad, George Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ speech, and the Abu Ghraib torture photographs have become symbolic of the Iraq war. In the current context, camera-phone images of Colonel Gaddafi’s body being dragged through the streets of Libya in 2011, and horrific images of ISIS beheading western hostages have become gruesome icons of the current upheaval in the Middle East. In this sense, images in the media have become a powerful weapon in shaping public perceptions of conflict.
So what is the result of this new age of conflict, combined with the corresponding explosion in media coverage? Firstly, the power of the media is obvious: it is the primary medium through which audiences make sense of the increasingly complex conflicts of the 21st Century. The media has significant power to highlight the devastating nature of conflict, influence mainstream public opinion, provoke emotive responses, and pressure governments in to taking action. However, dangers emerge as a result of the almost incomprehensible level of coverage: already-complex conflicts can seem even more confusing to viewers, and the real stories of conflict can be left untold. Coverage may be saturated; yet debate is often limited. Conflict is simplified and the dominant perspectives are left unquestioned, resulting in misunderstandings and misperceptions.
There is a desperate need for coverage to do more than just report on daily events as they happen. Media coverage must strive to ask the more difficult questions, acknowledge the complexities of conflict and explore the contradictions which underpin the dominant narratives. For example, the current war in Syria must be located within its historical, socio-economic and geopolitical context, with more critical and controversial questions being asked of actors on all sides of the argument (for example: ‘what has been the role of the Western arms industry in fuelling conflict in the Middle East?’, or ‘Is it morally defensible for western governments to trade with extremist regimes, at same time as being publicly committed to fighting extremism?’). Only once questions such as these enter the mainstream debate, will governments more-fully be held to account, and more in-depth understandings of modern-day geopolitical conflict become possible.