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Journalism professor analyzes role of political cartoons, social media during Syrian crisis

Fri, 04/04/2014

LAWRENCE — Political cartoons aren’t just for newspapers any more. A University of Kansas professor and her students analyzed how political cartoons were presented on Facebook during the Syrian uprising, the themes they explored, reactions to them and what they can tell us about social media use in Syria.

When Syrians rose up against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011, the government began a severe crackdown against its people. Hyunjin Seo, assistant professor of journalism, and doctoral students Goran S. Ghafour and Ren-Whei Han archived and analyzed 164 political cartoons from the Comic4Syria Facebook page, a site devoted to posting cartoons from professional and amateur illustrators about the conflict and the suffering of the Syrian people. The researchers examined cartoons from July 24, 2012, when the page opened, until Nov. 23, 2013.

Seo and her co-authors analyzed the images to understand more about the topics of the cartoons, the frames they used, characters depicted in them, how they depicted men, women and children and which types of images drew the most reaction from viewers. Examining political cartoons from Syria in a digital age served several purposes, as social media has allowed more people to share political opinions freely. The medium is also undergoing transition from being the domain of newspapers, especially in countries such as Syria with significant media censorship.

“As the platform has become more democratic, I think there are a lot more studies that can be done about the role of political cartoons,” Seo said. “Their use in Syria was very interesting as the landscape of Syrian opposition is very complicated.”

The researchers analyzed the structure of the cartoons to determine common features. Of the 164 images studied, 81 percent featured Arabic only, while 11 percent featured English only and about 8 percent featured both Arabic and English. Nearly half, 47 percent, of the cartoons featured both male and female characters, 39 percent featured only male characters, and only 1.8 percent featured only female characters. The rest featured characters whose gender was unclear or did not feature human characters at all.

Of the cartoons featuring human characters, 60 percent featured only adults, while 28 percent featured adults and children, while 3.7 featured only children, and the remainder were characters whose age group was unclear.

Syrian cartoons averaged more than 243 “likes,” with the highest number of likes reaching 1,531. Comments made on the images averaged 11.77, ranging from zero to 110. The images were also shared frequently, including one that was shared 3,237 times.

The researchers examined frames used in the cartoons and identified six: freedom, oppression, international influence, hypocrisy, media influence and sectarianism. Oppression was by far the most common frame, at 52 percent, while freedom and international influence followed at 14 and 12 percent, respectively.

The president's regime was by far the most common topic, featured in 89 percent of analyzed comics. Mental torture and physical torture were also common, featured in more than 50 percent of the cartoons as well.

The most common topics and frames did not necessarily draw the most viewer reaction.

“There were cartoons examining media effects and how they were distorting facts and supporting al-Assad’s propaganda,” Seo said. “Those were the cartoons that received the most likes.”

Cartoons with a hypocrisy or oppression frame followed media influence in most likes generated. Freedom and sectarianism received the fewest. Media-influence cartoons were also the most shared, followed by international influence and hypocrisy. Those patterns held true for cartoons that generated the most comments as well. Media influence was once again at the top.

In terms of cartoon topics, martyrdom was the most effective, generating more likes and comments than others such as mental torture, al-Assad’s regime and others. However, in terms of which topics were more likely to be shared, mental torture rated the highest, followed by martyrdom, international influence and the Syrian regime.

When examined by types of characters featured, those with political leaders of other countries received the most likes, comments and shares.

Seo and her co-authors will present their research in May at the International Communication Association Conference in Seattle. The research is part of an ongoing line of work in which Seo has analyzed the role social media can play in social change. She has studied social media use during the Arab Spring, Twitter images used in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Internet connectivity in the Middle East. She is beginning a new grant-funded study in which she’ll analyze the Facebook use of al-Assad and opposition forces during the ongoing uprising and civil war. She was also selected as an emerging scholar by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication in recognition of her work.

The analysis of Comic4Syria images not only adds to visual communication studies, it helps provide a deeper look at how Syrians viewed the uprising, especially important in a region of the world in which media censorship is common practice and crackdowns were common against both Syrian and foreign journalists.

“Social media has emerged as an important channel through which Syrian civilians document the Syrian revolution and people around the world get a glimpse of what was happening in Syria,” the authors wrote. “By analyzing political cartoons posted to the Comic4Syria Facebook page, this research helps provide a more nuanced understanding of digital media-facilitated communication practices in Syria.”



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Wanna Skype? Chancellor gets creative to surprise Truman winner From KU News Service: http://bit.ly/1awodaa Ashlie Koehn, a University of Kansas junior from Burns studying in Kyrgyzstan, interrupted helping her host family prepare dinner to make a Skype call on Monday evening. To her surprise, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was on the other end of the call letting Koehn know she had been named a 2015 Harry S. Truman Scholar. Koehn is the 18th KU student to be named a Truman Scholar and the only 2015 recipient from the state of Kansas. Earlier this month, she was also named a 2015 Udall Scholar. And in spite of a distance of more than 10,800 kilometers and 11 time zones, Koehn’s thrill from hearing the news from the chancellor came through loud and clear. “Ashlie’s experience at KU epitomizes a quality undergraduate experience. She challenged herself in her coursework, exposed herself to different research opportunities, studied abroad in Germany, Switzerland and Kyrgyzstan, and participated in both student government and community service projects,” Gray-Little said. “This is quite a year for Ashlie. Her hard work is a wonderful reflection on her and also a great reflection on the university, and we all congratulate her.” Each new Truman Scholar receives up to $30,000 for graduate study. Scholars also receive priority admission and supplemental financial aid at some premier graduate institutions, leadership training, career and graduate school counseling, and special internship opportunities within the federal government. Koehn, a member of KU’s nationally recognized University Honors Program, is majoring in environmental studies, economics and international studies. Her goal after earning her KU degree is to pursue a master’s degree in economics at either the London School of Economics or the University of Reading, with a focus on the economics of climate change. In 2014, she received KU’s Newman Civic Engagement Award for her work establishing the Coalition against Slavery and Trafficking. Her involvement with the issue was sparked by Hannah Britton, associate professor of political science and women, gender, and sexuality studies, who hosted national conference on contemporary slavery at KU three years ago. “Ashlie and I met several times to think about what KU students could contribute to the issue of slavery and human trafficking, and the result was her founding of KU CAST,” Britton said. “After a year as president, Ashlie successfully handed the organization over to the next student leader. She demonstrated her strong leadership qualities by setting a unique goal and then pursuing it with her sense of passion, engagement and dedication. No matter the country or context, her leadership strength is evident in her coursework, her public service and her work experiences.” The University Honors Program works with a campus committee to select KU’s nominees for the Truman Scholarship and supports them during the application process. Anne Wallen, assistant director of national fellowships and scholarships, noted it was an amazing ruse to pull off the surprise. Originally, the call was set up to be between Wallen and Koehn. “I was totally not prepared to be greeted by Chancellor Gray-Little, but it was an amazing surprise for sure,” Koehn said. “As a first-generation student, it took time to learn the collegiate system, but my parents taught me to be resourceful and independent from a young age and KU and the Kansas Air National Guard have provided me with the opportunities to drive me into the future, both at graduate school and in my career. I plan to use the Truman Scholarship to pursue a career as an environmental economist helping to shape future trade agreements and leverage action on important international environmental issues, particularly concerning climate change.” Koehn also had a surprise of her own for the chancellor — the meal she was helping to prepare was not exactly typical Kansas dinner fare. On the menu with her host family in Kyrgyzstan on Monday was a traditional Kyrgyz meal called Beshbarmak, or “five fingers,” because you eat it with your hands. The dish is made of horse and sheep and was being prepared as a birthday celebration for Koehn’s host mom. Chancellor Gray-Little, as she signed off from Skype, made sure to encourage Koehn to enjoy her Beshbarmak. Koehn is the daughter of Rodney and Carolyn Koehn of Burns. She graduated from Fredric Remington High School in Moundridge. She is an active member of the Kansas Air National Guard and currently on leave while studying abroad in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. She is a member of the KU Global Scholars Program and a past member of the Student Senate. In addition to being named a 2015 Truman and Udall scholar, she was named a 2014 Boren Scholar and Gilman Scholar and in 2013 was named the Kansas Air National Guard Airman of the Year.


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