Back in 2011, I wrote an article called ‘Social Media, Surveillance and Social Control in the Bahrain Uprising’ for Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture. It was finally published last month. Naturally it is a bit dated, and although my research interests have shifted somewhat to studying more general processes of controlling dissent, I still maintain an interest in social media.
A question that has always preoccupied me is this: what is the impact of videos of violence, and in particular videos of state violence, on the longevity of conflict. How do these videos effect the dynamics of the conflict? It occurred to me that these depictions of violence serve a useful social control function. As I wrote in a blog post for Bahrain Watch a few months ago;
… it is interesting to consider what effects the existence of such videos have, especially when the perpetrators are not being held accountable? Do they simply serve to increase public anger towards the police and the government, or do they have the effect of generating fear of authority – or both? Either way, the social control function is useful. If they generate fear of authority, the benefits to the regime are self explanatory. If they further public anger, and potentially increase radicalization leading to further violence, then the opposition movement will remain fragmented – making it easier for the regime to operate a divide and rule policy.
The depiction of state violence in videos or images circulated on social media serve a similar function to legal corporal punishment that existed before its abolishment. In Bahrain, this took the form of lashes in the market place. The location was as important as the punishment itself, and market places were chosen in order to maximise the number of people witnessing the event. The only difference now is that physical location need not constrain the number of those who witness state violence. Videos of violence transcend temporal and spatial boundaries, serving as a permanent reminder of state brutality.
While videos of state violence on social media may also provoke anger, they still serve to remind people of the costs of engaging in protest or dissent. Indeed, in times of political upheaval, authorities benefit from reminding the public of their vulnerability by showing what happens to those who break the rules. As Turk (1982) states, ‘ a scarcely less barbarous tactic is the public display of mutilated bodies, or of persons maimed by their ordeals in the hands of police’. By hiding such abuses, the regime are less able to use violence to deter potential troublemakers from engaging in such acts. A truly totalitarian regime like that of Pol Pot, would simply eliminate every possible rival, yet authoritarian regimes, less extreme on the scale of tyranny, will target opponents more specifically, and utilise these cases in order to deter and terrorize the rest of the population.
Although the authorities will attempt to limit or prevent people from circulating images or videos of police brutality or state violence, periodic reminders of the brutal consequences of engaging in dissent are useful. After all, if people did not believe that the costs of engaging in dissent could result in torture or death, they would be more emboldened in challenging the state.
Some of my previous research on Bahrain, which analysed YouTube comments on videos of political violence, is also relevant. Videos of such violence generally provoked polarized responses in which many articulated their political and religious position. Indeed, such videos of political violence could arguably contribute to increased polarisation of fragmentation between Sunni and Shia, or those who ‘support’ and ‘oppose’ the current government. This sowing of divisions, though bad for society, assists the regime in their policy of divide and rule. In the recent uprising, supporters of the government use videos of protesters throwing Molotovs to defend the actions of the state, wile those who want reform use videos of police brutality to draw attention to their cause. In this sense, it is often people’s political position that determines how they interpret or select these videos. In both cases, consumption appears to be a form of validation rather than a challenge to one’s own belief system.
Having said all this, videos of state violence are damaging in the sense that they are a PR disaster. Continued used of coercive methods may be useful in the short run, yet coercion ‘maximizes alienation’, and makes it more difficult for any regime to achieve any legitimacy (Dallin and Breslauer, 1970, 3) This inherent paradox can partially be resolved by distancing the action of state agents from elites who benefit from such violence. I.e. State violence depicted on social media can be said by the government to be the action of a few bad apples, a few policeman whom the regime did not have control over. Consequently, there will be some show trials where few policeman will be convicted, or in the case of Bahrain, convicted but probably let off after a laborious process of repeated trials and appeals. As Turk (1982) states, Court and administrative decisions exonerating legal control agents are to be expected in any polity.’
Of course, the more videos that emerge of state violence and police brutality, the more difficult it is for authorities to convince people that such acts are the work of a few bad apples. Therfore regulating the amount of images or videos of police brutality is perhaps more about controlling the flow of information, and determining when people should be reminded of the state’s brutality, rather than any real objection to people witnessing those deeds.
Despite the utility of reminding people of the violent consequences of engaging in dissent, the reliance on short term methods of coercive force at the expense of political processes that appease the population can be explained by the fact that such processes would require more wealth and power sharing . As Turk (1982) again states,
Alternatives to intimidation may simply be unacceptable because they are perceived to involve intolerable changes in the allocation of resources among competing groups, even to the point of dismantling the existing strutures of power and status.
So just as violence is seen as a necessary political risk, one that weighs up the benefits of continued protection of resources with those of sharing those resources, the impact of mediated violence poses another conundrum. Do the benefits of intimidating the population through depictions of state violence outweigh the negatives? After all, how do you pacify a population without doing the following a) sacrificing significant power and wealth b) terrorizing them and c) convincing them (brainwashing) that the current social order is infallible and true.