It seems that more often than not, groups, religions and ideologies become represented by the most extreme members amongst them. While these extremist members often bask in the limelight of publicity, the moderate majority enjoys much less exposure to the general public. The consequence? False representation, in which all members of the group end up paying the price for the extremists’ views or actions. For the victimized majority, good public relations may be able to help.
No doubt, the phenomenon I’m conceptualizing is enormously complex and deep-rooted, spanning countless library shelves and academic fields — and I’m approaching it within the length of a single article. Yet the question I’m trying to answer remains simple: How can groups’ moderate majorities use PR tactics to override the few extremists that end up representing them?
Following the tragic attacks on Norway, some devout Christians found themselves stuck under the limelight of the lone perpetrator’s terrorist attack. In the past, the extremists at the Westboro Baptist Church, the infamous Florida Qur’an burners, and the religious right’s most extreme members have brought on similar consequences for the moderate majority of American Christians (for the sake of simplicity, I use the word “extremism” to mean “fundamentalism” and “radicalism” as well).
I believe it’s a safe assumption that most Christians would be quick to disown the ideas and actions of these extreme groups (I base this on personal experience; if you know of survey data that addresses this assumption, please link to it in the comments below). The same phenomenon can be seen daily in political ideologies (left and right, top and bottom), other religions (and absences of religion), race, ethnicity and any other grouping that exists in society.
For this article, however, I’d like to lay focus on one of the more prominent examples in recent years: Islam. After September 11, one of the world’s largest religions became represented by a couple of tiny, unrepresentative groups of extremist terrorists. Seemingly overnight, the Muslim brand became inextricably–and falsely–defined by Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
The following chart brings into perspective to actual size of Islam’s Al Qaeda and Christianity’s Qur’an burners:
I believe it demonstrates quite clearly that no rational justification exists for letting such an unrepresentative few represent the entire moderate majority. Yet that’s exactly what has happened.
The Muslim brand has dealt with some deep tribulations for its association with a few terrorist extremists, and the struggle to overcome this holds some great lessons for all social groups. However, before we can seek solutions to this problem, we must understand its roots.
What Explains This Phenomenon?
Professor Andrew Weaver of Indiana University has studied media psychology and the way that race and ethnicity is represented in the media. He believes that there are two factors that create this problem.
“First,” said Weaver, “extremism is newsworthy, while moderation is not. The happy Muslim family living in a house in suburban Jakarta going about their daily lives isn’t going to be covered in the news media, while a suicide bombing will.
“Second, there are some outgroups (religious, racial, or otherwise) which the majority of Americans will encounter far more in the media than anywhere else. Put those together (along with the fact that something like religion is going to be a highly salient characteristic in a story about, say, religious extremism) and it’s easy to see why extremists can easily come to represent an entire group in the minds of viewers.”
Indeed, the ingroup/outgroup phenomenon that Weaver refers to has been shown to be intensified in times of war and conflict, such as the current wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Yemen — all of which take place in countries with high Muslim populations.
While demographic data on American-Muslims is hard to come by, I believe it’s safe to assume that Muslims communities are far more concentrated in urban areas than rural ones (I base this on personal observations). If this is the case, then we can conclude that rural citizens are more reliant upon the news media for exposure to Muslims. And if these exposures only consist of newsworthy extremism, then it would be difficult for those rural non-Muslims to have any accurate conception of what the Muslim majority actually believes.
In a survey carried out by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), American respondents said that one of the ways their attitudes towards Muslims would improve was if they could see Muslims condemning terrorism more strongly.
However, the international Muslim community has already carried out a number of efforts and campaigns to do exactly that, and CAIR itself has been a stalwart leader in doing so. Their 2004 “Not In The Name of Islam” petition, the “Explore the Life of Muhammed” educational campaign, the “Explore the Quran” campaign, and the 2002 “Explore Islamic Civilization and Culture” campaign are among those efforts. CAIR has also led the way in placing ads in popular publications that outwardly condemn the terrorist attacks.
Additionally, following the attacks of September 11, international Muslim leaders convened in a conference to collectively condemn the attacks and form a plan of action for protecting Muslims from discrimination.
Despite the intensity and scale of these efforts, the false representation of the majority has seemed to persist. What solutions are left, then?
The Best Solutions
Some have proposed that the existing messages simply need to be publicized better. The website Egyptian Gumbo has provided some great solutions for going about doing this, from a crisis management perspective:
- Provide sufficient information on websites that declare the stances of leaders and organizations on various controversies.
- Get people to write letters to the editor, press releases and opinion pieces that publicize the stances of leaders and organizations.
- Have a calm and collected spokesperson.
- Proactively prepare for crisis situations and media blitzes.
- Build good relations with reporters.
In a previous article, I referred to the power of outside endorsement in correcting a bad reputation (known roughly as The Boomerang Effect). For Islam, one of the most effective examples I’ve seen of this was on a 20/20 special called Islam: Questions and Answers (watch it online). The special provided a glimpse into the lives of ordinary American-Muslim families, and brought attention to the disparities that exist between extremist media portrayals and reality.
Most importantly, however, was the fact that the documentary consisted primarily of non-Muslim experts and reporters. To a non-Muslim audience, the use of ingroup spokespeople seemed to boost the impact and credibility of the information. In other words, endorsement from non-Muslims can provide much more impact than endorsements by Muslims themselves.
Addressing the issue of newsworthiness, Weaver proposes the following solution: leveraging the value of newsworthiness to the media.
“It seems that one solution would be to make moderates newsworthy,” he said. “Create events that thrust the moderate majority into the spotlight.”
While noting that his solution wasn’t immediately grounded in research, he cited the NAACP’s Million Man March as an example. In preparation for this event,
…event organizers asked black male attendees to make a public display of their commitment to responsible and constructive behavior that would give the mass media positive imagery to broadcast. (via)
Specific ways to go about doing this aren’t within the scope of this article, but the general solution has the potential to be a strong one. I’ve been seeing more and more advertisements for newsworthy events from moderate Muslim communities, such as volunteer and charity events, especially around the Ramadan season. These types of events are vital, and should be leveraged to attain adequate media coverage.
It seems wise for any group, religion or ideology to be prepared to be defined by the most extreme members amongst them. Well-executed public relations may offer the key to circumventing any distortion and unjust representation. After all, when a few members of a group advocate or engage in extremism, the group’s moderate majority often pays the price.
In sum, the trials of Muslim representation provides great advice on how to approach this problem. From their efforts, we can conclude the following:
- Moderates must establish a distance between themselves and extremists. Make that this information is prevalent, open, and easily accessible. Disseminate it privately as well as through the media.
- Have a moderate and likeable leader/spokesperson. This was a solution proposed by Egyptian Gumbo. Part of the reason extremist groups are so newsworthy is that they have a “lightning rod” (a term Julian Assange coined for himself) to act as a focal point for media coverage — the majorities would be wise to have the same.
- Seek endorsement by an ingroup. Use The Boomerang Effect — ingroup endorsement (20/20 non-Muslims) can persuade their fellow ingroup much more than someone from an outgroup (Muslims) can.
- Engage in events that are newsworthy. The media is only going to cover things that it deems “newsworthy.” Organize events like this, and above all, make sure that they’re adequately publicized.
The examples I’ve provided of Islam (and briefly Christianity, with a hint of politics) only cover the topic of religion, but as I always say, these principles are applicable towards almost anything. From the frail portrayals of elderly people to the binge drinking portrayals of college youth, the majority will always be misrepresented by a much smaller collection of extremists, unless they combat it through public relations.
And no one said it was easy. After all, bad news travels much faster than good news does, and it’s entirely possible that this phenomenon is impossible to overcome completely. But in a world in which the majority of people are engaged in social media, carrying out these goals is more feasible than ever before. The verdict here is a strong, yet simple one: It’s the responsibility of a group’s moderate majorities to ensure that their views aren’t eclipsed by the extreme few within them.
I’ve touched on some rather complex and touchy subjects, so I’d love to hear anything you guys have to say. Please debate, supplement and respond to this article by commenting below.
Links in this Article
- The Atlantic Has This Terrorist All Figured Out – GetReligion.org
- Westboro Baptist Church – Wikipedia
- We Didn’t Start The Fire: You aren’t responsible for Quran burners. Don’t hold Muslims responsible for 9/11. – Slate.com – By William Saletan
- Tea Party Attack Muslim Families Attending a Charity Dinner for Homeless in America – YouTube
- The British Media and Muslim Representation: The Ideology of Demonisation – By Ameli et al. (PDF)
- Who really wears a burka? – Andrew Brown’s Blog at The Guardian
- Andrew Weaver – Indiana University Faculty
- In-group–out-group bias – Wikipedia
- The Psychology of Prejudice:
Ingroup Love or Outgroup Hate? – By Marilynn Brewer (Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 55, No. 3, 1999, pp. 429–444) (PDF)
- Muslims in America – A Statistical Portrait – America.gov
- CAIR – Anti Terrorism
- Not In The Name of Islam – About.com
- Explore the Life of Muhammed
- Explore the Quran
- Explore Islamic Civilization and Culture
- 25 Facts About CAIR
- How to correct Islam’s bad image in West – Christian Science Monitor – By Sarah Gauch
- Why Islam? WHY!!!– PR Tips for Crisis Communication - Egyptian Gumbo
- Action Alert #554: Thank Fox for ‘Simpsons’ Episode Challenging Islamophobia – Council on American-Islamic Relations
- Rebecca Black & The Power Of Endorsement – Flames On Fifth Avenue – By Eric Wittke
- ABC’s 20/20 – Islam: Questions and Answers – Watch Online
- What The Martial Arts Teach Us About Communication – Flames On Fifth Avenue – By Eric Wittke
- Million Man March – Wikipedia
- Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream – Pew Research Center Publications