Newsweek’s #muslimrage: giant mistake or publicity genius?

Popular US news magazine Newsweek received an online lambasting on Monday when tweeters took to the social network to poke fun at its hashtag #muslimrage.

Newsweek featured a front cover photograph of the recent Middle Eastern unrest regarding an online video casting Islam in a negative light. The accompanying article was written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali who herself was involved with previous anti-American and pro-Islamic marches but who seems to have had a change of heart after the terrorist attacks in 2001.

Newsweek encouraged its followers and readers to discuss the article with the accompanying hashtag #muslimrage, which is when the wheels came off.

People on Twitter first reacted to the article with scepticism, criticising the writer and the content before the hashtag turned into a bit of a comic-stream with people commenting on inane subjects such as Nutella being haraam (unsuitable for Muslim consumption) or sweets containing gelatine.

Blake Hounshell, managing editor of the Washington based Foreign Policy Magazine, encouraged people to drop the hashtag as it was exactly the sort of reaction that the editors at Newsweek wanted — free marketing for their website. His mojo wasn’t strong enough. As the US awakened to tweets about #muslimrage, the comedy continued with people posting pictures of Muslim families having picnics as an example of rage, etc.

People were indignant at the portrayal of modern Muslim families as being war-mongering and murderous, choosing to focus on the fringe and painting all Muslims with the same brush. It smacked of shoddy journalism that was meant to feed into the national psyche after the death of the US ambassador in Benghazi last week and looked to be taking cheap shots at the current US Administration’s inability to control the Middle East and ‘Westernize’ their democracies.

So from an initial point of view it seems that Newsweek got it all wrong. But did it?

No editor in the world, let alone of a publication as large as Newsweek, would lead an edition with such a contentious and divisive story without a very good reason. The debacle on Monday certainly placed Newsweek in the spotlight. It may even garner a mass following and subscriptions from paranoid Americans who are regularly reminded by their media of the tragedy of September 11 and the dependence on oil and the volatile situation in the Middle East.

One may be prone to think that the American people aren’t that gullible and that they’ll see straight through the ploy — of course we do need to remember that about half of them still tune into Fox News every night for their daily dose of Americanism and Anti-Everything-Else.

The truth of the matter is that there are more than 300-million Americans, of which a large chunk are very pro-US and do consider the rest of the world a threat to their Western way of life. Some even consider the Anti-American rhetoric an attack on their first amendment rights (the right to free speech).

The article, and the furore around the hashtag, has placed Newsweek on centre-stage with the potential of finding hundreds of thousands of supporters of their point of view, which in turn will increase readers and subscribers, which will ultimately result in more advertising revenue for a publication in an industry heavily suffering the effects of digital media and a lingering recession.

Media houses are quick to point out that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”. So was the article a major mistake on the part of the editor? Or a brilliant stroke of genius?



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