International Information Bullet or Boomerang ?

Editor’s Note. In 1977 the UNESCO- sponsored McBride Commission, named after its chairman Sean McBride, and investigated ways to create a New World Information Order to protect third world mass communication systems form domination by major Western powers. Third World nations had complained that Western news agencies, with the blessing of their governments, use their virtual monopoly on news dissemination to vilify the third world, ignoring positive developments. Western news people were accused of swamping the third world with information supporting Western imperialism and raising false expectation and dangerous demands among the peoples of the less developed world. Accordingly, the McBride Commission recommended curbs on the uncontrolled flow of information from the West to the third world and greater government control over the activities of the press.

The passage of time has done little to abate the controversy. Most Western observers refute the charges and denounce the proposed remedies as muzzles on a free press, observes in the third world by the socialist critics else where, hold to the contrary asserting that liberty without restraint amounts to licence, damaging the third world.

Rene Jean Ravault approaches the controversy from an empirical basis. He argues that current research indicate that news does not have the hypodermic effects claimed but the proponents of the New World Information Order Audiences transform the meaning of the news to suit their own purposes. Ravault also contends that Western news benefits the third world. Conceding a point to third world critics, he urges Western media to focus more on economic and political development issues.

Trained in sociology at the Sorbonne (Paris) and in mass communication at the University of Iowa, Ravault at the time of writing was a professor in Communication Department at the University of Quebec (Montreal). The selection is from “International Information: Bullet or Boomerang?” in Political Communication Research: Approaches, Studies, Assessments, ed David L.Paletz (Norwood,N.J:Ablex,1987), 246-265.

During the last 10 years, international communication has more and more captivated the attention of a growing number of social scientists throughout the world. This increased interest in the subject seems to parallel the appearance, growth, and expansion of the demand from Third World countries, especially the non-aligned nations, for a New Information Order. This demand has been progressively shaped and articulated at UNESCO meetings dealing with either transactional cultural problems or international information issues including, more recently, the implementation of new transborder telecommunication technologies (Hamelink, 1983, pp 56-57).

While this demand for a New World Information Order has been the source of tumultuous debates both within UNESCO and in the industrialised Western World, especially by the commercial media which firmly oppose it, most scholars and researchers seem to support it, document it, reinforce it, and do their best to publicize it to large educated audience.

Critics seem to agree on the necessity of denounce and debunk the reigning international information structure. To them, this structure is grossly imbalanced and benefits only the multinational corporations and transactional banks of the Western World, instead of contributing to the socio-economic and cultural development of the Third World countries.

Their analysis, paralleling, inspiring, and reflecting the analyses made by the spokesperson of the non-aligned countries, suggests that there is a strong relationship between the economic domination of the North over the South and the cultural domination of the First World over the Third World. According to them, as well as many spokespersons of the developing countries, the implementation of the New World Information Order should go along with the implementation of the New World Economic Order. Often getting the radical then most Third World spokespersons, these researchers proposing the New World Information Order in which economic and cultural dissociation of the developing countries from the West seems to be the ultimate solution or panacea.

Taking issue against this extremely radical solution this paper contends that the cultural dissociation proposals is based upon a victimizing view of the communication process in which the receiver is considered to be passive  and totally receptive to the “messages” broadcast or diffused by powerful producers or senders.

This victimising view of the communication process has been notoriously referred to by Wilbur Schramm as the “Bullet Theory”.

During the last 30 years, the “Bullet Theory” has progressively been considered as ill-founded and abandoned by the communication researchers, as Schramm (1971.pp.6-11; emphasis added) puts it.

Communication was seen as magic bullet that transferred ideas or feelings or motivations almost automatically from an audience was considered relatively passive and defenceless and communication could shoot something into them… But scholars began very soon to modify the Bullet Theory. It did not square with the facts. The audience, when it was hit by the Bullet, refused to fall over. Sometimes, the Bullet has an effect that was completely unintended…..

Contrary to the obsolete “Bullet Theory” the “Boomerang Theory”, the receivers even deprived of diffusion means, cam use information provided by the “cultural dominators” to their advantage. They can even use this information in order to make decisions and elaborate military, diplomatic, political, and economic strategies totally unintended by the sender and sometimes quite detrimental to the “dominating sender”.

Dissociating Third World countries from the transactional communication networks would put them in the situation of their “dominators” who, while talking instead of listening, have not been able to foresee and react properly to decolonization, the up rise of national and ethnic minorities all over the world, the growing economic competition of newly industrialised countries, almost all of the geopolitical and economic changes which have been taking place lately…..

Amazingly enough, excellent illustration of the “Boomerang Theory” are provided by the several of the experts and critical researchers whose postures were questioned in the preceding part of this article.

Eudes’ argumentation in the last two chapters of his book [The Conquest of Minds] concluded in a way which strongly contradicts the general impression of effectiveness of the U.S. cultural expert machinery.

In most situations poverty and oppression, tend to generate a systematic rejection of the ruling elites who then are considered as denationalized” through their consumption of foreign cultural products. In such situations the practice of the American culture is mainly perceived as a sign of treason. Conversely, the national culture becomes a strategic agent in the resistance to the implantation of “interdependence”

 (Eudes, 1982, p.252)

The contribution of the media and advertising to this “Boomerang” process is further emphasized by Hamelink who suggested that: “As a result of this bombardment by advertising, the elite sectors, with higher incomes, tend to be integrated increasingly into the international economy, while the poor, spending scarce resources on unneeded things, lag farther behind in essentials such as health and education. This creates a widening gap between the rich and poor and contributes to an explosive social disintegration.”

(Hamelink, 1983. p.16)

In such situation one could wonder what happens to the cultural “integration,” “homogenization, and “synchronization” that the present international; information structure is supposed to generate? In fact, instances of this kind of situation can be found in many places during this century of decolonization and national as we; as ethnic revival. The most striking and recent case is certainly Iran. “There, and indigenous information system, Shilite Islam discovered itself intact at the end of a decade or more of vigorous importation of Western culture and in the crest of a wave of oil prosperity. The whole quest for modernization was rejected along with the Shah and the electronic culture, technically advanced though it was, was suddenly seen to have been an excrescence, an imposition, a conflict-bearing overseas culture which appealed to particular Western-leaning elite but which had not been and could not penetrate the entire culture.” (Smith. 1980. P.59)

Similar back lash or “Boomerang” situations seem to be present in many countries of Latin America and more especially, Central America. While Cuba and Nicaragua have expelled their Americanized or “Cringonized” urban elites and middle classes, conflicts between these classes seem to range in other countries where American culture is omnipresent within the local media……

In many instances, mass media have provided colonized audiences with clear understanding of their dominator’s views of the world. This knowledge of their enemy’s expectations and values helped them to elaborate shrewd strategies of resistance which successfully led them to independence.

…….Devices introduced by the French, such as the radio were adapted as a means of internal communication in the movement of independence from France. A similar phenomenon occurred [in Chile] during the rule of Allende. In the working class district of Santigo, North America television series were views with the close attention; the symbols, however, were interpreted in accord with the prevalent resistance to North American influence. (Hamelink. 1983. P.31)

This awareness of the possibility for exported cultural products to generate a backlash against the exporting country rather than supporting it is not so new.

In the early days of Hollywood exporting there was some anxiety in Washington as to its possible unfortunate consequences for the American reputation abroad. From time to time such anxieties have again surfaced; some surveys have shown that familiarity with Hollywood products does not necessarily induce love of the United States. Occasionally foreign regimes – including those of Hitler and Stalin- have used careful selection of especially unsavoury Hollywood films deliberately to reflect discredit on the USA.

(TUNSTALL, 1977, pp. 271-272)

Many other examples could be mentioned to point out that; indeed, the “Bullet Theory” is “full of holes”. In many instances, the receiver using his or her own culture and experimental background can to a large extent control the meaning that a foreign message has for him or her Through the “Boomerang Theory” the function of communication can no longer be limited to the function intended by the producer or sender, it can have an adverse or perverse effect. As in the case of Iran, foreign cultural imports can contribute to the revival of a cultural and ethnocentric background, according to which, eventually, international communications are interpreted and evaluated…

What, then, seems to be most needed for all countries involved in a world in which “escaping interdependence” seems to be a genuine utopia is not a return to pre-World War II economic and cultural dissociation of  the have not countries, which may very well lead us back precisely to what the United Nations Organization and UNESCO have been established to stand against; but rather a genuine opening of Western countries that, so far, have been legally and , worse, psycho sociologically closed to most foreign (and more especially Third World) culture and communication products.

Indeed, because of the fact, briefly noted by Hamelink (1983.p.81) that “the Federal Communications Commission in the United States has placed severe restriction on the entry of foreign broadcasting into its territory,” as well as the self censoring behaviour pf American audiences who seem to believe that America is the “top Banana’ country in the industrialized and technologied world and consequently believe that they do not have any thing to learn from foreign cultures….

America is suffering from “linguistic and cultural myopia,” which “is losing” her “friends, business and respect in the world”. (Fulbright, 1979. p. 15)

The core countries of capitalism are seriously disadvantaged by their inability to comprehend adequately, not only what is going on in the world, but, most important, how foreign decision-makers perceive and make sense out of what is going in the world and, consequently, will act or react to it. Then, being almost always “taken surprise,” the core countries of capitalism seem to demonstrate an increasingly dangerous tendency to overreact in a rather brutal fashion. These reactions having often the form of direct or disguised military interventions, they, sometimes. Manifest themselves through unilaterally decided financial reforms or monetary measures which may very well end up jeopardizing the whole, so painfully elaborated, internationally monetary order, as we are witnessing nowadays.

If the New World Information Order is based upon a balanced communication traffic (instead of cultural dissociation), as originally proposed and supported by a good number of Third World countries, were implemented, it would be able to make the core countries of the industrialized and technologized world better informed about how different social and ethnic strata of different nations in the world to perceive and make sense out of what is going on. Then, tremendous progress in the wisdom and welfare of all the people involved in this new and balanced communication process could be accomplished….

(Media Power in Politics)

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