Zero Dark Thirty: The Middle East Perspective

Arab social media users pan Zero Dark Thirty

Arab social media users have been generally uninterested and unmoved by the controversial American film Zero Dark Thirty, a film that portrays the US’ use of torture in the prosecution of the war on terror.ZDT Picture

Zero Dark Thirty, about the manhunt of al-Qaeda’s Osama Bin Laden, caused an uproar in the US as it was released in cinemas throughout the country December and January. The work was much discussed on American social media platforms, which we monitored from

December 19, 2012-January 19, 2013. During that period, we captured 370,000 user comments (from English-speaking, US-based users) on the film, mainly grappling with the portrayal of torture as an apparently effective technique in the global campaign against terrorism. (See our January 22 Buzz Report.) Since then, Zero Dark Thirty was nominated for several Academy Awards and has been released in theaters throughout the Arab region – a region that has largely been on the receiving end of American policy in the war on terror since 2001. But Arab social media user interest in the film – which we monitored from December 19, 2012 to February 26, 2013, has been extremely modest by comparison, attracting only 2000 user comments.

Our analysis of user sentiment found that Arab and American social media users criticized and praised the film in almost similar proportions: in our monitoring of Arab social media user sentiment, almost 49% viewed the film negatively, while 41% praised it greatly; The remaining 10% were posts and retweets on news of the film – box office performance, award nominations, and Arabic translations of English reviews on the film by prominent US critics. Among American social media users, more than 50% were critical of the film, less than 40% praised it and roughly 10% of users analyzed reported news of the film – such as news of Oscar nominations and articles and/or reviews of the film, without expressing a personal opinion.

US-Arab user sentiment towards ZDTThe content of user discussions, however, was strikingly different. Among Arab users, the main discussions focused on what users regarded as US administration/CIA propaganda and the defemation of Arab/Muslim countries (58%). Users also discussed technical aspects of the film, such as whether the film’s craft was worthy of the international buzz it has received (23%). Finally, users dished on the film’s several Oscar nominations (winning only Best Achievement in Sound Editing) (17%). The propagandistic aspect of the film was much less of a concern among American users (constituting only 3% of discussions). American users tended to be predominantly focused on the film’s depictions of torture and its utility as an information-gathering tactic (65% of total volume). Arab users did discuss the portrayal of torture, but gave more importance to discussing the status of Bin Laden, debating whether he should be described as a hero or a terrorist. US users never questioned if Bin Laden was a terrorist. No positive sentiment towards him was recorded from US user comments. American users also focused on what they believed were historical inaccuracies in the film, and conversations eventually turned to other aspects of the war on terror, such as the use of drone strikes. Content in the film that was experienced by Arab users as defamation of Arabs/Muslims was perceived by American as Islamaphopia, but discussions of this constituted a much smaller portion (1%) of all discussions among American users.

The chart below depicts the difference between the US and Arab user discussion trends. Note that US users discussed the Golden Globe awards and the Oscar nominations, but didn’t focus much on them, since the monitoring of US users ended on January 19, more than a month ahead of the Oscars.

US-Arab user trend analysisIn addition to the discussions monitored, we further captured approximately 240 posts on forums with links to download the film with Arabic subtitles.

ZDT trend analysis

Zero Dark Thirty – US propaganda (39%)

Although a majority of users denounced the film (53%) as a “lie” aimed at “polishing US policies and military”, a relatively large proportion (46%) praised the film as critical and “exposing” of the American CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” policies in the war on terror.

US propagandaZero Dark Thirty – Film Quality (23%)

Forum users (like and bloggers delivered their own critiques on the film. Almost 47% of them praised its quality and craftsmanship without regard to any political statements being made by the film. Some 53% criticized the film as “boring”, unintentionally “funny” and “too long”.

film quality

Zero Dark Thirty – Depiction of Muslims (19%)

Users particularly attacked the film for its depiction of Muslims, noting that scenes depicting terrorists were accompanied by the sound of the adhan (the Muslim call for prayer). Users also noticed that the film refers to mosques as the hub of terrorists’ plotting and scheming and frequently referred to the film as “racist”. Many of them share Pakistani users’ observation that the film portrayed Pakistani characters speaking Arabic, when in fact Pakistanis speak Urdu. Saudi users specifically took umbrage at the film’s reference to them as terrorists, while Kuwaiti users were infuriated by the depiction of nighclubs in the emirate (which users assert do not exist). The latter group referred to a scene in which a CIA agent bribes a Kuwaiti national (and frequent nightclub patron) for information with a Lamborghini.

racist film

Zero Dark Thirty – Awards Season (16%)

Zero Dark Thirty was nominated for four Golden Globe Awards for Best Motion Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Actress, which Jessica Chastain won on Jan 13, 2013. The film was also nominated for five Academy Awards (the Oscars) for Best Picture, Best Leading Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound Editing. Zero Dark Thirty won in the latter category, tying with the 2012 James Bond Movie Skyfall. The film continued to be nominated for more 120 awards, and has so far won 60.

Ahead of the Oscars on February 24, 2013, users discussed whether the film would win the Best Film category, especially after the the Academy snubbed director Kathryb Bigelow in its nominations for Best Director. A small portion (10%) hoped the film and its actress would win the award, while others (65%) expected it to win on political grounds as a film that had positively portrayed American policy. The remaining comments listed winners and nominees and discussed other films nominated for the 2013 Oscars.

2013 ZDT Negative sentiment2013 Oscars Positive SentimentZero Dark Thirty – Bin Laden: Hero or terrorist? (2%)

Arab users also debated whether Osama bin Laden should be acknowledged as a hero who fought American occupation, and thus died a martyr, or as a terrorist responsible for indiscriminate killing rather than for fighting real battles or attempting to liberate Palestine from Israeli occupation. Some in the former group described Bin Laden as “Sheikh al-Mujahedeen”(the Lead of the Fighters), while others cursed him, calling him a “terrorist” and an “American weapon” in Afghanistan.

Bin Laden Terrorist

Bin Laden fighter

In our monitoring of Arab social media user reactions to Zero Dark Thirty, Twitter attracted the largest share of volume of user comments, accounting for 36% of the total. Forums and reader comments on news websites closely followed. Please note that the total volume of user comments (600) includes comments by non-Arab readers on English-speaking Arab websites such as Al Jazeera. The chart below shows the share of voice on SM platforms on Zero Dark Thirty.

Share of SM platforms

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