YouTube and Politics – Part 3

This is the third in a series written by D. J. Mitchell and Susan Cain.

Susan has over 100 Muslim and Arab friends on Facebook, from whom she is learning about their religion, their culture, and what it is like to be an average citizen in the countries in which they live.

One evening on Facebook, Susan saw the above video posted by Kareem Wagdi, one of her newer Arab friends. The video shows quotations, followed by photos of the Hollywood stars to whom the quotes are attributed. Although the text was written in Arabic, Susan could tell by Kareem’s comments in English that he was quite disgusted with its message. She told Kareem that although she was sure there were negative feelings in Hollywood, that there were others who had no ill feelings about Arabs and Muslims, and that many stars supported Arab causes. She also told him that (as is true with most Americans) she could not understand the Arabic that was written in this video.

Kareem responded that, according to the Arabic captions, some of the celebrities in the video made positive comments about Arabs, including Mel Gibson, Anthony Hopkins, George Clooney, Angelina Jolie, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Ralph Fiennes, and Sandra Bullock. But there were some very negative comments from others. We have located translations of the negative comments the video attributes to the following people:

Tom Cruise: “The Arabs are the source of terrorism because they haven’t left anyone that they haven’t attacked and I hope that Israel annihilates Hizballah.”

A representative of Mr. Cruise confirms that he never said that, and added, “Thanks for coming to us – what I just found on line is ridiculous.”

Richard Gere: “The Arabs are a parasite on the world and it’s necessary to exterminate them all.”

Gere is the founder of the humanitiarian Gere Foundation. In 2005, after several trips to Palestine in support of peace, Gere did a television spot on behalf of a Jewish peace group, encouraging Palestinians to vote.

Harrison Ford: “The Arabs are grotesque creatures and are less than animals and we the Jews are the natives of this world, so there’s no comparison.”

Here is what Ford has actually said, which was also carried on the English-language website Islam Online:

“I’m very disturbed about the direction American foreign policy is going. I think something needs to be done to help alleviate the conditions which have created a disenfranchised and angry faction in the Middle East. I don’t think military intervention is the correct solution. I regret what we as a country have done so far.”

It’s clear that the video seriously misrepresents the views of these Hollywood celebrities, presumably for the purpose of showing how bigoted and racist we Americans are. And it would be easy to dismiss such ridiculous propaganda– but we can’t afford to. The YouTube video above has been viewed almost 400,000 times in two years. That’s over 500 views per day, every day, on this one video.

The website from which we obtained translations indicates that this propaganda has been circulating in email format since at least 2006. And a search of, for example, “Harrison Ford Arab quotes” will turn up plenty of discussion in English about the fictional quotes.

In a post-modern world of electronic communication, how is it possible that such untruthful propaganda would be believed by Arabs throughout the world? And how are we so unaware of it? First, all of us want to believe that what we hear and see through the independent sources on the internet is true. We want to trust it as a reliable non-commercial source of information. It isn’t. There are many good sources of information, and also many sources that are not reliable. Only through experience do we begin to learn the difference.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, is the language barrier. Arabic is the common language of the Islamic world, yet few Americans speak it. College enrollment in the study of Arabic language was only 1.5% of all college language study in 2006, up from just 0.7% in 2002. With no common language, we have no means to fact check what is being said on either side.

Taking advantage of these limitations, extremists use YouTube and other electronic media to spread the seeds of hate every day. Susan’s friend Kareem had no reason not to believe them. And until Kareem and Susan met on FaceBook, we didn’t know this was happening.

The internet in general, and YouTube in particular, is like an untended garden: truth can be found alongside misinformation. We must take care to nurture truth, to question our sources, or the weeds that sprout from the seeds of hatred will overpower it.

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