Jad Melki: Developing an Arab Digital and Media Literacy

This is a liveblog of the talk “Developing an Organic Arab Digital and Media Literacy, Pedagogy, and Theory” by Jad Melki on March 23, 2015 at Emerson College, sponsored by the Engagement Lab.

Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change faculty member Jad Melki speaks at the inaugural MDLAB in Lebanon (source)

Emerson professor Paul Mihailidis introduces Jad Melki as director of the media studies program at American University of Beirut and founder of the Media and Digital Literacy Academy of Beirut (MDLAB).

This talk serves two purposes according to Jad: an overview of how digital media is being used in the Arab region and the work that MDLAB is doing in response to that. He highlights one prominent example of the need for media literacy being ISIS’s successful online media campaigns, recruiting supporters from around the world by selling a particular vision.

MDLAB was founded in 2006/2007 following the war between Israel and Lebanon. There were some interesting uses of media that coincided with this conflict, but little media literacy among the residents of the region. Media education programs were not teaching critical thinking skills or developing relevant digital media skills—no one was being prepared to be an activist or a professional. 

From Western Media Literacy to Arabic Media Literacy
MDLAB wanted to produce their own organically Arab curriculum dealing with local issues and culture. For instance, media and racism is a topic often taught in Western media literacy courses, but in the Arab region this specifically falls along ethnic and sectarian lines and needs a different angle and approach.

When they launched the program they were bringing Western media literacy scholars or Arab scholars educated in Western universities. Breaking out beyond the Western source of this knowledge and tailoring it to the local universities was a struggle. And it follows a model found in Arabic region journalism trainings that have been sponsored by Western institutions which never get appropriated because the lessons feel disconnected and patronizing.

Alternatively, MDLAB started with a hands-on approach to training Arab students. They relied on Western scholars to teach the first academies but used local examples to translate that knowledge into local contexts. Each year they fill the faculty ranks with a greater percentage of local scholars.

Jad says he’s seen two dominant paradigms of media literacy:

  • Radical media literacy, which has historically been a response to a capitalist system of media production (of course, in a different part of the world)
  • Liberal media literacy, exemplified by Renee Hobbs and Henry Jenkins, who emphasize direct participation in media as a path toward literacy

Neither of these models work perfectly locally. Lebanon and other Arab states are postcolonial societies with their own versions of media problems. This is why he is developing an organic Arab media literacy theory. Jad says he is struggling to come up with the right term; he suggests “insurgent” media literacy theory might capture the response to what they are facing in the Arab world.

Media literacy is not just about producing critical, informed citizens, it’s about creating empowered citizens who feel the urge and have the right tools and skills to change society, hopefully for the long term. Jad credits Paul Mihailidis’s approach in Media Literacy and the Emerging Citizen as exemplifying this perspective of responding to society with material of your own. As such, MDLAB tends to lean toward digital and media literacy that helps them to produce content.

Mashup Videos and Cultural Critiques
Jad shows a video created by his students that responds to the ISIS videos and how they are portrayed on mainstream and social media.

Another student video featured Lebanon’s love of basketball, arguing that the media surrounding it actually divides the country along Christian / Muslim divisions from where the teams hail. Chants promote political leaders explicitly and uniforms display religious iconography.

Jad says the students receive minimal training to create their videos: downloading videos from YouTube, creating their text and narratives, then editing it together in Adobe Premiere and uploading it in a short turnaround.

A third student video featured how influential American music has been in changing the tastes of Lebanese. Even local artists often sing in English rather than Arabic, and their music videos imitate Beyonce and Lady Gaga’s style pushing this cultural import further.

A fourth video created by a Syrian male students looked at media’s portrayal of violence against women. It featured a number of Arabic male pop stars singing about their romantic overtures in terms of killing anyone who tries to approach his girl and affirming his possession of her. The message was violence on behalf of women is the same as violence against women.

Jad says that this particular video was a good indicator to him that they were doing something right with their media literacy training.

He shows a final video that offers 5 types of women depicted in Arab popular media. Most women are submissive and characterized as inferior and irrational to men. The one recent change is the “Abadayeh”—the strong, successful woman. The video argues Arabic media has a long way to go in its portrayal of women on screen.

Looking to the future, Jad is investigating data science / data literacy to push the media literacy project further. He also finds his work more and more connected to health sciences literacy. He wonders how they take advantage of data for their work as well as connect it to these issues of health and wellness for greater impact.

Question and Answer
What are the demographics of the program?

AUB and the MDLAB attract participants from all over the Arab world.

What happens in the MDLAB academy?

Every summer they bring in faculty and graduate students, teaching them media literacy concepts and encouraging them to create curricula to take home to their own universities.

What has been the local response to these videos?

There are two types of responses from Arab audiences: 1) Do you really have to show us these images of scantily clad women; that shows us in such a bad light? 2) Wow. I didn’t know that was going on. The male pop stars in particular were illuminating to many as to how violent and sexist the lyrics are. Jad doesn’t want to exaggerate MDLAB’s impact. Some small groups are starting to react to these issues. He hopes that in the next 5–10 years the students that are being reached by the media literacy education initiatives will start making the region’s media with this in mind.

However, one former student is now a producer for the ministry of tourism and updated Lebanon’s promotional video to feature much more the rich and diverse culture of the country as opposed to an earlier video that featured party scene of scantily clad women, drinking, and gambling that likely appealed to rich Gulf travelers. Also, a group of Lebanese feminists, some of whom participated in the workshop have since developed a weekly blog looking at depiction of women in the local media.

Has this been brought into schools yet?

They have not succeeded in bringing any of the curricula into high schools. Lebanese schools have a very rigid curriculum and come up with excuses when free teacher training is provided. There is some traditional information literacy, like how how to use libraries, but they haven’t succeeded in breaking into that curriculum either.

One exception was Qatar which had a major grant to introduce media literacy into schools. We invited them to MDLAB but have not heard back in the past year. Civil Society and NGOs though have been involved with us and accept many of our students for partnerships.

In one of Paul Mihailidis’s earlier classes in the day, he says they talked about ISIS and their media savvy. Is there any danger for your students, and are you focusing on how to combat the high production quality of ISIS?

There is always a risk there. Jad was on the television and asked about the doctoring of an execution video, and he said there was a 50/50 chance it was Photoshopped. This got picked up by other Arab media as “Dr. Jad Melki says 50% of this video is doctored.” al-Nusra (the Al Qaeda affiliate) responded online and said Dr. Jad Melki doesn’t know what he is talking about: here is how we made this video… “Great, now I’m on the list of al-Nusra.”

Jad walks us through ISIS’s video about the Jordanian pilot they captured and killed: showcasing their high production skills and careful rhetoric. ISIS begins the video with the Jordanian King calling for Jordanian pilots to bomb ISIS fighters. ISIS calls the Arab leaders traitors and shows them meeting with President Obama. And then they segue to their “solution” to this problem for true believers. The Jordanian pilot is pressed into describing the air strikes himself and calling for the Arab countries to attack Alawites or Jews instead of ISIS, otherwise Arab sons will meet the same fate as “me.” It culminates with his dramatic execution. Jad says the video is meant to terrify ISIS enemies and encourages recruits. They list out all the names and photos of Jordanian pilots and offer $100,000 to capture or kill them. Jad notes how the short film uses parallel editing to tell a powerful story for recruitment.

How is media literacy a response to this high quality of production from ISIS; are you provided skills to allow Arabs to see through videos like this?

Jad thinks it goes beyond critical and individual skills here. It’s about news literacy too. When he was on Al Jazeera, he argued that ISIS is trying to occupy media space and by giving them a platform to show their video in full, then you are supporting their work. Al Jazeera was not happy about that. That’s on the news level, on the media literacy level, Jad ays we need so many people to respond. We need a lot of Arab citizens actively to counter ISIS’s recruitment via media. Unfortunately, most Arab residents simply use these media channels for entertainment.

Are their spaces in Arab media that are critical, beyond the mainstream gatekeepers of Al Jazeera or other ideological major media producers?

There are plenty of spaces, and lots of small scattered groups. Jad completed a study a few years ago on activist media and found there were numerous barriers to their success. There is a lot of infighting in the community, fighting over issues and fighting. We don’t see anything like the unifying presence of a group like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt that stepped in with institutional capacity after the Arab Spring. It will happen much more slowly in Lebanon.

Most groups are much smaller and under-funded. Left-leaning and critical sources like Al Akhbar newspaper are great efforts but they are very small and domestic and fixated on certain issues that alienate larger audiences. The true problem though is that there are few people that are really active. There is a myth after the Arab Spring that Arabic youth are all taking action via social media but they found in a survey that only 4% of youth are using social media for activist purposes, which is common across the globe.

Jad ends with a call to action: We will need to get many more youth active in order to solve the problems in our region.