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Ukraine and Gaza: Media Populism and Bias on Global Conflict Narratives

The rise of media populism has been the centre of attention of many media and journalism experts in recent years. The pursuit of profit in media production has limited the resources available for dependable fact-checking and high-quality investigative reporting. Advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), particularly in automated content creation and machine learning, have streamlined the distribution of online posts, including deep fakes, laden with unverified claims and images. This facilitates their potential reach to vast audiences and their circulation through mainstream media channels. Studies indicate that these elements empower both international and local entities to sway public opinion through the widespread dissemination of disinformation, utilising bots and sensationalist clickbait. Furthermore, the emergence of electronic committees, which often operate under the guise of moderating online discourse, has sometimes contributed to the proliferation of biased narratives or the suppression of dissenting voices, complicating efforts to maintain informational integrity. Media professionals have investigated the role of these practices in expanding the influence of nationalist movements spearheaded by right-wing populists, affecting regions across Europe and the United States as well as nations such as Russia, India, Brazil, and the Philippines.

Still, the debate on the perils of disinformation tends to ignore the power that right-wing conservatives derive from the media's depiction of conflicts. Studies in political communication have shown that the way media reports on international disputes has a profound impact on shaping public opinion, aligning with the strategic narratives of global powers as part of their soft-power approach. The agenda-setting theory further explains this phenomenon, suggesting that media doesn't tell us what to think, but what to think about, by selecting certain topics over others for coverage[1]. Meanwhile, selective reporting highlights the bias in presenting specific aspects of a story while omitting others, influencing public discourse. Media theories such as the 'CNN effect' [2] demonstrate how the portrayal of humanitarian crises can significantly shape both foreign and domestic audiences' perceptions of their governments' political alliances and foreign policies[3]. These dynamics of media influence become especially pertinent in the context of comparing international media coverage between Gaza and Ukraine, illustrating the complex interplay of agenda-setting and selective reporting in shaping public understanding and attitudes towards international conflicts.

Arguably, owing to their geopolitical significance, these two conflicts have been historically weaponised by competing political forces. While the invasion of Ukraine remains a primary concern for NATO country members, Palestinian resistance is frequently invoked by Iran-backed regimes or militias seeking to establish legitimacy in the Middle East. In countries where governments have maintained friendly relations with Israel, it's often claimed that supporting Palestine is equivalent to supporting Islamist opposition groups. Communication theories pertaining to the mediatisation of conflict suggest that the history of these political narratives influences the framing of these ward by international media.

However, in recent months, the severity of military violence inflicted upon Gaza has demanded to be addressed beyond the scope of traditional fragmented media narratives. Documented evidence of humanitarian crimes has triggered a noticeable shift in public sentiment, prompting the international community to challenge the typical weaponization of these conflicts in media and political discourse.

In November 2023, Palestinian Ambassador to the UN Ibrahim Khraishi brought both Russia and Israel into the same context, arguing that both of them committed similar breaches of international law, and that the international community showed solidarity with Ukraine but not with Gaza[4]

. These criticisms were clearly echoed by pro-Palestinian social media activists. A group of 25 Arab performers created an operetta titled "Rajieen" (We Will Be Back), which quickly went viral, gained over 5.5 million views within its first month. One of the most significant parts of its moving lyrics was: "I’m sorry I’m not from Ukraine, I’m sorry that my skin is not white.” [5]

At the same this sense of marginalisation exist amon pro-Palestinian advocates, several reports have highlighted significant concerns among Ukrainians that global attention and solidarity have been diverted away from the war against Russia due to the focus on Palestine.[6]

Ukrainian President Zelensky commented on the Israeli military campaign, stating, ‘Of course, Russia is very happy with this war,’ suggesting that Russia would capitalise on anti-Western and pro-Palestinian sentiment to gain popularity.[7]

Such political statements reveal that double standards in the media framing of Gaza versus Ukraine convey the idea of an ideological conflict between East and West, a notion that certainly benefits Russia and its allies by portraying them as the de facto adversaries of Western neoliberal democracies. Yet, as much as these double standards pave the way for the success of pro-Russian rhetoric, they proliferate in Western media narratives sympathizing with the Ukrainian perspective.

In late February 2022, NBC correspondent Kelly Cobiella commented on the influx of Ukrainian refugees, stating: “Just to put it bluntly, these are not refugees from Syria; these are refugees from neighboring Ukraine... They are Christian, white, and very similar to us.” [8]

That same month, CBS correspondent Charlie D’Agata prompted a backlash from online audiences by suggesting that ‘civilized Ukraine’ did not compare to other cases of conflict zones like Afghanistan: “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iran or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. You know, this is a relatively civilized, relatively European [country].”[9]

Similar allusions were made by Philippe Corbé, the news anchor of the French BFM TV Channel: “We are not talking here about Syrians fleeing the bombing of the Syrian regime backed by Putin. We’re talking about Europeans leaving in cars, which look like ours to save their lives.” [10]

In the UK, the Telegraph published an article by Daniel Hannan, a former member of the European Parliament and advisor to The Board of Trade. In the article, Hannan wrote: "They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone." This phrasing was later relayed on X by the Telegraph’s official account. [11]

Such biased media rhetoric was echoed by a BBC interview with David Sakvarelidze, Ukraine’s former deputy general prosecutor: “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blonde hair and blue eyes being killed every day with Putin’s missiles and his helicopters and his rockets.” [12]

Beyond the issue of disinformation, the salience of prejudicial language towards other ethnicities of refugees has normalized hate speech in Western mainstream media outlets covering the invasion of Ukraine. Yet, such media bias ironically lays the grounds for anti-Western nationalist rhetoric in countries where the political status quo is not clearly aligned with Ukraine. These discriminatory double standards, in other words, create favorable grounds for the Kremlin to thrive by promoting its narrative of self-proclaimed resistance. The mediatization of Ukraine and its side effects arguably become all the more perceptible in light of the atrocities committed by the IDF forces against Palestinian civilians. The international media discourse related to Gaza has indeed highlighted discrepancies of treatment between the two cases of humanitarian crimes, allowing Russia to position itself as a friend of Palestine.

This suggests that Russia’s communication strategy does not only rely on disinformation and ‘fake news’. Insofar as it pertains to the mediatization of conflict, the strength of its soft power lies in its ability to bend the truth and capitalize on the inconsistencies of Western neoliberal politics.

In shelters, families face displacement and fear, while soldiers receive briefings among the cries of children and sights of casualties. Officials speak of victory and future plans, glossing over the war's devastating effects: trauma, death, orphans, and disabilities. The media, meant to truthfully report on war, has been compromised, losing integrity as it gets drawn into conflict narratives, endangering journalists and stifling citizen journalism. This hinders not only information flow but also critical aid efforts.

The notion of "victory" in war calls for scrutiny. It raises questions about a world divided by privilege and neglect, challenging the usual narratives of post-war recovery. This demands a reconsideration of war's true costs and the complexities of healing and reconciliation. Moving forward in a world where everyone feels marginalized and inadequately represented adds another layer of difficulty, underscoring the need for a more inclusive approach to understanding and addressing the aftermath of conflict.

[1] ‘Agenda Setting Theory | Mass Communication Theory’.

[2] Robinson, Piers. “The CNN Effect: Can the News Media Drive Foreign Policy?” Review of International Studies 25, no. 2 (1999): 301–9.

[3] Gilboa, ‘The CNN Effect’.

[4] ‘Palestinian Envoy Criticises West for Gaza Stance, Calls for More Support | Reuters’.

[5] ‘(141) Rajieen | راجعين (OFFICIAL ENGLISH LYRIC VIDEO) - YouTube’.

[6] ‘The World’s Attention Is on Gaza, and Ukrainians Worry War Fatigue Will Hurt Their Cause’.

[7] ‘Zelensky Claims Russia “is Very Happy with This War” between Israel and Hamas - Washington Examiner’.

[8] “Christians” and “White.” That Is How NBCnews Reporter Compared the Difference between Refugees.

[9] ‘Anger as CBS Reporter Charlie D’Agata Suggests “civilised” Ukraine Isn’t like Afghanistan | The

[10] Bayoumi, ‘They Are “Civilised” and “Look like Us”’.

[11] ‘The Telegraph on X: “ ‘They Seem so like Us. That Is What Makes It so Shocking. War Is No Longer Something Visited upon Impoverished and Remote Populations. It Can Happen to Anyone’ | Writes Daniel Hannan Https://T.Co/FwHREn1xzR” / X’.

[12] 'European People with Blue Eyes and Blonde Hair Being Killed" What a BBC Interviewee Commented.


‘ Rajieen. "(141) Rajieen | راجعين (OFFICIAL ENGLISH LYRIC VIDEO)." YouTube. Accessed February 8, 2024.

"Agenda Setting Theory." Mass Communication Theory. Accessed February 8, 2024.

‘Anger as CBS Reporter Charlie D’Agata Suggests “civilised” Ukraine Isn’t like Afghanistan | The National’. Accessed 8 February 2024.

Bayoumi, Moustafa. "They Are 'Civilised' and 'Look Like Us': The Racist Coverage of Ukraine." The Guardian, March 2, 2022.

"Christians and White." YouTube. 2022.

"European People with Blue Eyes and Blonde Hair Being Killed." YouTube. 2022.

Gilboa, Eytan. "The CNN Effect: The Search for a Communication Theory of International Relations." Political Communication 22, no. 1 (2005): 27-44.

"Palestinian Envoy Criticises West for Gaza Stance, Calls for More Support." Reuters, November 10, 2023.

"The World’s Attention Is on Gaza, and Ukrainians Worry War Fatigue Will Hurt Their Cause." The Independent, November 18, 2023.

The Telegraph. "🗣️ 'They Seem so like Us. That Is What Makes It so Shocking. War Is No Longer Something Visited upon Impoverished and Remote Populations. It Can Happen to Anyone' | Writes Daniel Hannan." X (formerly Twitter), date of post.

"Zelensky Claims Russia 'is Very Happy with This War' between Israel and Hamas." Washington Examiner. Accessed February 8, 2024.

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