Sunday, September 12, 2010

How the Koran Burning Story Became As Big As It Did

How can the story of one unknown preacher in Florida, with a congregation of around fifty, get world wide news coverage about what was supposed to be a gimmick to attract more congregants?

In the age of the twenty four hour news cycle and the insatiable appetite for more and more opinion dominated coverage masked as fact, stories with significant political symbols can go viral.

A symbol is something used by human beings to index meanings that are not inherent, nor discernable from, the object itself. It can be defined as a thing the value or meaning of which is in no instance derived from or determined by properties intrinsic in its physical form. John Locke termed it as having “their signification,” from “the arbitrary imposition of men.”

In this case, the Koran is the political symbol for different individuals’ meaning to the same object. And because socially significant symbols arise and are sustained through a system of social interaction, they become regarded as elements of a culture.

When this happens, within the current media environment, individuals ignore personally irrelevant messages and pay attention to the kinds of things they need and agree with. The reasons may be behavioral, emotional, or intellectual. They tend to use the media to gain a sense of security and social adequacy. They feel gratification when the media reinforce what they believe they already know. When people only focus on what is personally useful and gratifying to them, they will then naturally ignore other pieces of information, regardless of its political and social significance (especially if the information disturbs their peace of mind, and conflicts with their political and social tastes, feelings and attitudes).

The next factor that comes into play is that the media as gatekeepers to information, tell people in fairly uniform fashion which individual issues and activities are most significant and deserved to ranked high on everybody’s agenda. Most of us easily accept and adopt the media’s agenda of importance. When the media make events seem important, politicians quickly run to the nearest camera to comment about them and to take action.

When these symbols become political, they quickly become characterized by a variety of myths, assumptions, and prescriptions regarding nature, man, and society. However, symbols should stand apart from the meanings they index at the cultural level, just as they should at the individual level. When the media gets involved, along with the subsequent politicizing, the cultural meaning of these symbols comes from the interpretations popularly accorded it. In our case, the Koran, becomes divorced from the cultural meaning with which it was once associated. It now has taken on a life of its own.

Television and the internet have created a new, impressionable public, who are highly susceptible to these symbolic cues. Today the sheer volume of new information has created a more involved public. The symbols that come into the twenty four hour news cycle serve to distinguish groups as well as unify them. It is therefore easy to see how they can also play a role in the dynamics of creating social conflict.

And this is why they are potent and this is why they can go viral.

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