The “Boko Haram” story is the latest example of the media madness that is permeating mass media, on and off the Internet. The “saturation” coverage of the search for 280 missing Nigerian girls is eerily similar to the Internet driven, sensationalized reporting about the fruitless search for the long missing Malaysian Air jumbo jet. “Media madness” is a term that has been coined recently to describe the supersaturation of mass media with excessive coverage of a news event that rehashes previously reported information in the absence of anything new to report. The “net” result is a global obsession with events beyond the information consumer’s control that have no direct impact on the consumer’s life while obscuring the coverage of more local events that do have an impact on the consumer’s life and are within the consumer’s locus of control.
Disturbing similarities in the media coverage of these two very different tragedies reveals the extent to which the news media panders to the more ghoulish instincts of the “Information Generation.” Even the most cursory analysis of the progressively more strident tone of the coverage suggests the degree to which a media obsessed culture has embraced the notion that information is equivalent to action.
The rest of the news media are constantly playing catch-up with social media, which has been keeping the pot boiling under these stories around the clock, to the extent that major news organizations now monitor social media as a means of identifying breaking stories. Such stories are now said to be “trending” because popularity is referred to as a trend in social media. The news media now uses the degree to which news stories are trending on social media as the rationale for their coverage of the stories. This creates a phenomenon in which the coverage of the coverage generates more coverage of the coverage. This is akin to something psychologists call a feedback loop, which is an essential part of the learning process, but something that can also cause psychotic breakdowns when there is too much cognitive dissonance resulting from negative information that is being fed into the system.
Both of these ongoing news stories have now reached the point at which the negative information that is being reinforced through the feedback loop is starting to adversely affect the players in each scenario. So far, there have been more than 103 million posts on the internet about Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which went missing on March 8, 2014 and remains missing after the most exhaustive air and sea search in recorded history. Google News reports that it has indexed 46,000 news stories on the Internet. The Boko Haram story has now eclipsed the MH370 story, with 312 million mentions related to the kidnappings now available online. Round the clock coverage by the Cable News Network drew scorn from other members of the news media when it descended to the level of suggesting that MH370 was the victim of an alien abduction.
Other news outlets and television comedians have had a field day with that aspect of the story, but their bemused condescension is colored by the fact they are themselves perpetuating the ongoing media circus about these tragedies…and benefiting from the increased Internet traffic triggered by their own coverage of other news organizations’ coverage. The ongoing coverage of the anguish of the mostly Malaysian and Chinese families whose loved ones were on the missing plane further exacerbated the situation. In tragic situations likes these, the unrelenting presence of television cameras and scoop-seeking reporters has a tendency to further excite emotions already rubbed raw by insensitive and inept industry and government officials.
When members of the affected families see members of other affected families acting out for the news cameras, they begin to emulate the same behavior because they have seen how that behavior generates the same attention for other families that they want for themselves and their families. Their antics contribute more video clips for the global news feed, which encourages more families in similar situations to act out in similar fashions, in an unconscious replication of adolescent schoolyard behavior often summarized with the phrase, “Monkey see, monkey do.”
Underlying the public discussion and mutual recriminations among the parties involved, there is a false but fundamental belief that there is always an answer to every question, despite the fact that the answers are often, frustratingly, either insufficient or non-existent. This can also be traced back to the media’s insistent and misleading assertion that “the truth is out there.” Sometimes, it is not out there at all. Other times, the answer is not the answer the seeker wanted.
Recent speculations that the search for MH370 may have focused on the wrong part of the ocean, if not the wrong ocean entirely, have further exacerbated emotions among the family members. The attention, and the tension generated by the attention, have forced Malaysian Air and Malaysian government officials to dig in their heels against suggestions about moving the search to a different venue. So far, authorities have estimated that more than $50 million have been spent on the search, and experts in the field estimate that another $50 million may be spent before the search finally winds down. A Boeing 777 costs around $320 million, but no one expects to find an intact aircraft at the end of this search.
Now, finally, MH370 has been pushed off the lead story pinnacle by another lead story. In Nigeria, today, another tragedy is unfolding in which the news media is playing an exacerbating role as reporters from around the world descend upon the troubled Nigerian government demanding answers and actions from the politically bankrupt administration of Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan. Worldwide condemnation has spread from a mega-viral Twitter campaign with celebrity endorsements from Michelle Obama and scores of other “prominent” people with extensive Twitter and Facebook followings, many of whom may be surprised their media-amplified outrage has accomplished absolutely nothing.
The radical Islamic Boko Haram faction has been carrying on their terrorist campaign in the northeast region of Nigeria since 2009 for the express purpose of carving out an Islamic state from that part of Africa’s most prosperous nation. For most of that time, no one outside of Africa paid much attention to the terrorist organization’s depredations. Within the continent, the Boko Haram uprising has gone virtually unnoticed by countries that have problems of their own with domestic unrest. Their terror campaign, however, is merely a continuation of a decades long pattern of corruption and rebellion that has characterized the history of the central African nation.
From the beginning of its independence from Great Britain in 1960, Nigeria has been plagued by a series coups, rule by military juntas, a succession of petty dictatorships, rigged elections and corrupt administrations that have left the country with what some political analysts have called “a culture of corruption.” Equally divided between Christianity and Islam, with the remaining 10% of the population adhering to their ancestral religions, the country remains a collection of special interests looking for a common interest to bind them together, and Boko Haram, which is widely hated across religious lines, may be just what the country needs to redefine itself.
To the West, what is going on in Nigeria seems inexplicable….but it becomes much less inexplicable when viewed within a decades-long animosity between the Muslim north and the Christian south. In 2002, a fundamentalist Islamist Imam, Muhammad Yusuf, founded an organization called Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad.) An offshoot of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood movement, the goal of the organization, now better known as Boko Haram, its Hausa dialect nickname, was to establish a “pure Islamic state” under Sharia law in northeastern Nigeria, and parts of Cameroon and Niger. In 2009, Nigerian police arrested Yusuf, 39, for anti-government activities. After escaping from custody, Yusuf was re-captured and summarily executed by Nigerian security forces, unleashing the organization’s terror campaign, which is estimated to have taken more than 10,000 lives since 2002.
What is interesting about their terror campaign is that so little was known about them in the West until they took 280 girls hostage, which has drawn worldwide attention to the terror cult’s campaign to establish a fundamentalist Muslim state where none has ever existed. That is, however, exactly why Boko Haram took the girls – to generate publicity for the organization. To Western eyes, this looks insane, but that is exactly what attracts extremists to a cause, a reputation for violence against infidels. To the terrorists, the girls are only important to the extent that others place a value on them, and their importance is that it establishes them as a “credible” terrorist organization beyond the borders of the nations where they have been an active force.
Right now, the same process that took place during the coverage of the Malaysian Airlines tragedy is promoting Boko Haram to potential contributors around the world, and potential recruits. What horrifies the rest of the world – the abduction and abuse of young girls – quite literally fascinates them. The hash tag campaign #bringbackourgirls is, however, syntactically incorrect. If the hash tag were an appeal to the terrorists, the correct syntax would have been #givebackourgirls because that places the onus on Boko Haram to do something. #bringbackourgirls is actually a covert demand that the United States do something to bring back the missing children.
Why the United States? Simply put, the United States is the only nation with the technical skills and equipment to track down and eradicate Boko Haram that is also vulnerable to this type of appeal. Such appeals would fall on deaf ears in Russia, China, Japan, Great Britain, Israel, the Organization of African States, NATO, the European Community, or any other inter-state organization, all of whom already have their own fish to fry.
Finally, why are these particular children any more important than the estimated 2,191 other children who are abducted on any given day? Since the 280 Nigerian children were abducted on April 14th, approximately 59,178 more children have been abducted, without any public outcry and these figures only encompass data on abductions in first world countries, because abductions elsewhere often go unreported or simply unrecorded. The actual number of first world abductions may be only 20 percent of that 2,191, but the global estimate could be four times larger. No one really knows what the exact number is, but one thing is certain: one is too many for the families of the missing.
Boko Haram’s abductions are heinous acts that deserve nothing less than the imposition of the death penalty, but the United States should not be pressed into duty as judge, jury and prosecutor in yet another extra-legal, unsanctioned police action in a part of the world where U.S. has no specific strategic interest at stake. That is, however, what is happening, and that is the specific, purposeful intent of the hash tag campaign, to keep public attention on this atrocity and force the American government into taking action in another part of the world where it has no business sticking its nose in….or its neck out.
The hash tag campaigns around the Malaysian aircraft story and the Boko Haram story have had a similar purpose of forcing the relevant authorities to continue their searches long after all hope for finding either the missing aircraft, or the missing children, has faded away. Both campaigns, however, also serve the cynical interests of a news media desperate for scoops, and willing to manufacture them from whole cloth when the raw materials are available and nothing more substantial is available to make hay from. Boko Haram is just the latest of many more to come.
Commentary by Alan M. Milner
Look for me on Twitter:@alanmilner