Politics, Social Media and Bridging Partisan Divides

CCPA student Shayan Gaziana discusses the value of strategic communication

Shayan Gaziani is many things. He is an SMU Pre-Law Scholar. He is conversant in tech, having learned since childhood about software and technology from his father, owner of tech company Proleaf Corporation. He held several internships during his time at SMU, first writing blogs for the SMU Office of Information Technology, then as senior communications consultant for mustangconsulting, the SMU Meadows student-run communication strategy organization. He is active in his mosque, helping with community outreach and social media. He was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa honor society earlier this year, which selects its inductees for “demonstrated intellectual integrity, tolerance for other views, and a broad range of academic interests.”

Shayan Gaziani
Gaziani, left, with classmates in "Public Opinion and the Press" course with Dr. Stephanie Martin.

Below, Gaziani shares some insights on connecting with people, the role of social media, and thought-provoking experiences he had during a recent “Hilltop on the Hill” trip, an annual optional course for CCPA and Journalism students in which they travel to Washington, D.C. to meet Meadows alumni working in D.C., talk with lawyers, politicians, ambassadors and communication strategists and, in election years, participate in both the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Gaziani went on the Hilltop on the Hill trip in January 2017, when Donald Trump was sworn in as president of the United States.

Tell us about your experience at Hilltop on the Hill.

It was extraordinary but difficult at times. When I first applied to the program in the fall, it was when all the polls were saying Hillary Clinton would be the first woman president. And I thought, great, I’ll be able to go to a historic event, the inauguration of the first woman president. That didn’t happen. That caused a lot of mixed feelings, predominantly because I am Muslim, my parents are first-generation American, and I was going to an inauguration of someone who championed divisive rhetoric. It was . . . not terrifying, but it made me feel unnerved. It was uncanny, to say the least.

But I still went on the trip, because part of what keeps our nation together is this peaceful transition of power, right? And the fact that President Trump did win is evidence that democracy is still working. Votes were counted, unlike in other nations where elections can be pre-determined. That spoke to our democracy.

Washington itself, though, was fun; we met many different SMU alumni, many of whom are now working for corporations that lobby Congress. We met with Congressman Pete Sessions. It was a great experience overall, getting to see D.C. and touring with people who are experts on D.C., such as Dr. Rita Kirk and Dr. Chris Salinas.

What was the inauguration like?

The inauguration itself was . . . I’ll call it bewildering. It was not at all what I expected. You could just feel the division and, at times, hatred in the air, and it was sad. When Secretary Clinton appeared there were kids and adults in the crowd chanting, “Lock her up!” “Traitor!” and even “Kill her!” They booed Chuck Schumer. When Trump spoke, every time he mentioned “radical Islamic terrorism,” there were cheers from the crowd.

It was just a very weird position for me to be in. My friend and I were stoked about the D.C. trip the entire time but were caught off guard at the inauguration, where the atmosphere ended up being tense. Borderline macabre, at least for us. My friend had an “I’m with Hillary” sticker on his jacket and he actually took it off. It sounds irrational, but the environment was truly very tense. Moreso, it was to main a low profile, as much as possible. It was weird. It was really weird.

There is much that has happened since the 2017 inauguration. The landscape continues to shift, pushed along by the explosion in social media. You’ve done work in social media, in mainstream media relations and you know a lot about politics. How do they play into the sense of division in our country?

I’ll preface by saying that I’ve learned that sometimes people like to simply label others as racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, so on and so forth. But in the work I’ve done in the religious and nonprofit sectors, I’ve learned that ignorance plays a big role in lack of understanding or just not knowing someone.

I know that, for some people at SMU, I am the only Muslim they know. That in itself carries a lot of weight, but it’s also an honor, by being able to represent who I am and what I am without any sort of external influences. By external influences, I mean external sources of information that do not honestly represent my religion for what it is. And, I do include the media in this, as it can at times present information in certain frameworks that inevitably misinforms or scares the public.

I do appreciate the fact that I can share my values and beliefs with friends firsthand. Just the other day, my friend (same one as the inauguration) and I had a conversation on religion at Digg’s Taco Shop. He enlightened me about Christian teachings and doctrine while I shared the same for Islam and how, at times, the two even overlapped.

I feel as if many Americans are in that same boat, right? There are pockets of America where many would say they had never met a Muslim before; some communities are insulated. And because of that lack of knowledge of who these other people are, they are getting information from sources that may not be so authentic, whether that would be the mainstream media or social media. I think that media and social media are a contributing factor.

What is your take on partisanship in America?

There is partisanship in our nation, there is a sense of division, but I don’t think it’s going to last forever.

Am I being a bit nostalgic, a bit optimistic? Sure. But then again, if we aren’t optimistic and hopeful, what do we have left?

It’s like what Clinton said in her concession speech, we have to continue and power forward. That despite losses, we should not despair. I tied this into the disillusionment that many individuals, especially minorities, face pertaining to our country's current political climate. It may be a trite message, but it is one that is important and needs to be emphasized.This division exists, it always will exist, but it’s our duty to try and overcome that or work toward dismantling that. That’s what I think.

With so many now communicating via their electronic devices instead of face-to-face, how can people give trust an opportunity to build?

The whole purpose of strategic communication is to create shared meaning, to create an understanding of one another. And when we fail to communicate we fail to understand each other.

I think it’s important for all of us that we actually make an attempt to go out, to engage in dialogue and not sit on our phones all day and try to learn from there.

Here’s the thing: Social media is still new in terms of technology; its use has dramatically increased during the past ten years, over which time it has gained momentum. As for using it to understand people, I wouldn’t be an advocate per se, because I think conversations should be dynamic and not static. What I mean is, social media ought to serve as something complementary to dialogue, not as the exclusive source. Social media can be used in both positive and negative manners. Especially with topics concerning identitygetting to really know someone–I argue that the physical trumps the virtual. There is something to be said about real-world experiences.

One thing that my mosque does, for example, is we hold open houses every Sunday. However, we always get the most visitors after a major news story concerning Islam – usually when it involved something bad. I shadow these tours sometimes and I am amazed at how many times I have heard, “Really? That's not what I saw online/on TV.” With the open house, there is the aspect of physical conversation, transcending possible online impediments/distractions. If they were just seeing something on the news, they couldn’t have someone who has lived that experience discuss it with them. I think face-to-face, honest conversation is the best way to do things.

One more thought. The word “tolerance.” I don’t like that word. It means, “I don’t like you, I’m just going to have to tolerate you.” It has a negative connotation to it. We should get to the point where we’re saying, “You know what, I know who you are as a person and I can appreciate that.” On top of the labels you may already have – for me it’s a Muslim, a Pakistani, a son, a CCPA/Political major – on top of all that, it’s “I’m an American.” We share that. And “American”— that is what I think should be the predominant label.

After graduation in May 2018 with Bachelor of Arts degrees in corporate communication and public affairs (political track) and in world languages and literature (Arabic and Spanish), Gaziani intends to attend law school. His overall goal is to blend all areas of his expertise – law, communication, technology, and public relations – into a career in politics.

Read more about the Division of Corporate Communication and Public Affairs, Hilltop-on-the-Hill and Shayan Gaziani.