Boko Haram vs. Charlie Hebdo – media representation in the EU, in Africa and worldwide

In my work I will describe the media representation of the Charlie Hebdo attack and that of the Baga massacre.

The two atrocities have happened more or less at the same time. On 7 January 2015, two Al-Qaeda members shot 11 people working for the magazine Charlie Hebdo and a policeman in Paris, at the magazine’s head office, as they believed that the magazine had humiliated the Muslim religion with its caricatures. Meanwhile, in Northern Nigeria, in the city of Baga, between 3 and 7 January, the radical militant Islamist group Boko Haram (that has since openly declared its alliance with IS – Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) murdered approximately 2000 people, mostly women and children, as they believed the city’s occupants to be more loyal to the Nigerian government than to them.

After the Paris massacre, Europe as a whole was shocked, outraged, and a global #JesuisCharlie campaign was launched, in which social media users could express their sympathy for the murdered journalists. On the social media site Twitter, more than 5 million „JesuisCharlie” tweets were posted in 3 days, making it one of the most used political hashtags of all time. The campaign did not stop in cyberspace: sympathy marches were held across Europe, and the world’s leading politicians themselves marched in Paris, hand in hand.

In comparison, the Baga massacre barely got in the news, no marches of tens of thousands, or even millions of people were organized. As journalist Charlotte Alter put it:

„Nobody wore #IamBaga buttons at the Golden Globes.”

I do not wish to state that the two events could be completely comparable, as they have occurred in different circumstances, different conditions, different places, but the drastically different media representation favoring Charlie Hebdo is, in any case, remarkable.

Method

To compare the complete media covering of the events, I have used the Media Cloud tools developed and operated by Harvard and MIT, with which search terms can be compared, and media representations in various countries can be mapped.

This site mainly provides insight into official media sites. From the user’s point of view, I have compared the occurrence of the various search terms using Google Trends. First, I have analyzed data from the first week after the attack in Paris, and then I checked if the ratio of the articles on the two topics or the frequencies of the search terms have changed until 3/30/2015, the time of writing this article.

According to the Media Cloud database, between 7 and 15 January 809,893 articles were written regarding the Charlie Hebdo shooting worldwide, whereas only 13,655 were written regarding the Baga massacre. As the diagram below clearly shows, the Boko Haram case disappears between the Charlie Hebdo news. Between 7 January and 30 March, the ratio is almost the same.

Figure 1 – Media Cloud. News worldwide

Figure 1 – Media Cloud. News worldwide

Based on figure 2, between 7 and 10 January the media covering of the Hebdo assassination was greater even in Nigeria itself than that of the Baga mass murders. Later, the frequency of the two news has become more similar. Nigerian Prime Minister Goodluck Jonathan has not even mentioned the Baga massacre publicly, while having condemned the attack in France.

The situation in Nigeria is especially complicated, as the country is currently divided. Northern Nigeria is presently controlled by the radical Islamist group Boko Haram, while in the South, the „Westernized“ government has more influence.

According to Muhammed Kabir Isa, Boko Haram’s support among Northern Nigerian population can be explained in a number of ways. On the one hand, Islamist organizations have a history reaching back to the time of colonization in the region, since there were Islam organizations fighting against European colonists. They were considered freedom fighters rather than terrorists. On the other hand, the state of Nigeria has failed time and time again to solve certain problems of the country. The Northern regions are in a social and financial crisis. According to the UN, Nigeria ranks among the most unequal states in the world. These inequalities benefit the Southern regions and the Christian elite, and are therefore even less popular in the Northern Muslim population, who call the Southerners the „White washed“ elite that serve Western, neo-colonial interests rather than those of their own country. Exploiting this situation, Boko Haram is controlling more and more land since 2009. As of the writing of this article, they control Northern Nigeria, and their further goal is to overthrow the current elite and the creation of an Islamic state.

Figure 2 – Media Cloud.  News in Nigeria

Figure 2 – Media Cloud.
News in Nigeria

Figure 3 depicts Google Trends statistics. With the Trends analysis, my goal was to see whether users’ tendencies were the same as the media’s.

Blue represents Boko Haram Baga searches here as well, while red shows the Charlie Hebdo shooting. As red, surprisingly, tended to 0, I changed the search to a complex one: Paris Charlie Hebdo. This is represented in yellow.

From the users’ point of view, it seems that Boko Haram received greater attention than Charlie Hebdo. Geographically the Boko Haram searches are the highest in two of Nigeria’s neighbors, Niger and Cameroon. The most people searching for the Charlie Hebdo shooting were in France and Belgium.

Figure 3 – Google Trends blue: Boko Haram Baga red: Charlie Hebdo Shooting yellow: Paris, Charlie Hebdo

Figure 3 – Google Trends
blue: Boko Haram Baga
red: Charlie Hebdo Shooting
yellow: Paris, Charlie Hebdo

Self-reflection of the media and possible explanations

Thus it seems that the readers’ interest was markedly different from the media representation’s proportions. One thing this had led to was that social media users have begun to create content about the Baga massacre. On the other hand, the media outlets that had earlier concentrated on the Charlie Hebdo shooting and had all ignored the events in Baga reflected on this phenomenon. Multiple articles and analyses have been published trying to explore the reasons behind the differences in media representation.

Ethan Zuckerman, Director of the Center of Civic Media at MIT and Joseph Kahn, International Editor of New York Times name the possible reasons from a journalistic point of view. First, Paris is a European capital integrated into the global network, with many news agencies, media outlets, and people with smartphones and internet connections. In contrast, Baga is separated, hard to reach physically, and much less connected culturally. The number of victims in the Baga massacre wasn’t certain for days, while there were amateur videos online in which one could literally see the Charlie Hebdo attack taking place.

On the other hand, usually only extraordinary events get on the news. In Nigeria, as Boko Haram is growing ever more radical since 2009, shootings and explosions have become commonplace, parts of everyday life (however, the murder of 2000 people was still an extraordinary event). In Paris, the attack created a shock: a small number of specific civilians being targeted in this manner were previously unknown in mainland Europe.

According to the psychologist Paul Slovic, there also is a large cultural distance between a small African city and Europe / the USA while “we” – European and US-American journalists and social media users – feel Paris to be much closer, regardless of the actual physical distance. This psychological approach may explain why the Western media preferred to write about the Hebdo case.

In conclusion, I believe that the comparison of the media reporting on these two events is a good illustration of how the flow of information is changing in the era of social media and social networks. The traditional media outlets are losing their agenda-setting role to user-created content, and social media users and bloggers can make their voices heard loud enough to get the traditional media outlets to change their agendas and to analyze and critique their own work. Even though I don’t like the idea of „Ipod liberalism”, which means that social media can actually generate revolutions or broad social changes, I find it remarkable that social media can at least generate changes in the media itself, empowering the previously passive readers and listeners.

Fruzsina Márta Tóth
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