Ben O'Loughlin

Can Kofi Annan Build Democratic Time?

Patient voters in Zimbabwe, from The Guardian 2008.

Democracy sits in time. It is a looping circuit of accountability between leaders and led. Voters authorise leaders to act on certain problems. Through everyday experience and media reports those voters can track if the leaders are doing what they said they’d do. Another election comes around and voters can stick or twist, authorising another set of actions. The loop of democracy creates expectations about what everyone should be doing and when. Everyone knowing and following this temporality is a necessary condition for democracy to work. Given that all but 11 countries have held elections since 2000, we live in a world of democratic loops.

At the publication of a new report on strengthening democracies today, Kofi Annan was challenged to think about how democracy can be strengthened at different times. The report, Deepening Democracy: A Strategy for Improving the Integrity of Elections Worldwide, was conducted by the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy & Security and published by the Kofi Annan Foundation. While there is unlikely to be any global consensus of what integrity, transparency or democracy mean, the Commission hopes that its recommendations can be taken up in different countries in the coming years, and that it might inform whatever programme emerges in 2015 to succeed the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. The group Annan leads make explicit connections between democracy and development. In the report they write, ‘elections with integrity matter for empowering women, fighting corruption, delivering services to the poor, improving governance, and ending civil wars’. Consequently, the actions this group recommend on ‘deepening democracy’ may have knock on effects on much broader issues of welfare and sustainability. This makes their attempts to shape the temporality of democracy important for the temporality of those broader issues.

Democracy can move too quickly, for some. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Egypt rushed to hold elections when their institutions and social norms were not ready, were immature, were weak, leading to unpleasant outcomes that impugn democracy’s name. While it is understandable people may wish to mark a new beginning in their societies, should they not have waited until their democratic governance was ready? To these charges, Mr. Annan’s group said that all the international community can do is be positive and supportive. It should not immediately condemn a society, nor judge it by the standards of established democracies. There is a need for patience, to be there for the long haul; imagine if the international community had given up on Burma?

Democracy can move too slowly, for others. Isn’t the significance of elections diminishing in a world where social media campaigns allow citizens to hold elected officials accountable on a continual basis? Let’s face it: elections are an industry. They give politicians a chance to control their relationship to citizens. They give political scientists easy case studies on which to build careers. Long ago, the loop of accountability got lost along the way. And perhaps, when an election is years away but officials are performing badly, it is sometimes necessary to short-circuit the loop! Here Mr. Annan agreed to some extent. There need to be ways to hold leaders to account between elections, and this is where civil society is vital. By sustaining pressure between elections, it is possible for citizens, journalists and activists to signal to leaders that they can expect the same pressure after the next election, he said. Social media enables more rapid, flexible campaigns. Corrupt officials can be thrown out at any time.

What emerged from the discussion was a commitment to the integrity of elections over the integrity of democracy more generally. It is perhaps more straightforward for an international body of experts such as Mr. Annan’s Global Commission to focus on elections than on the slow between-times. Mr. Annan recognised these between-times matter, but only committed to encourage civil society to exert pressure on leaders and to recognise the potential of social media campaigns. Elections offer the more tangible prospect of rules, institutions and practices that can be easily identified and improved. If the Global Commission can shore up the integrity of these moments, then the loops in-between may be more secure. If, at election time, the influence of money and clientilist relations can be replaced by rule of the law and genuine inter-party competition, this may cultivate the continual political culture of democracy the group advocate.

Even if that is the case, does the group’s focus on democratic process obscure the importance of the content of democratic politics? Democracy for what, time for what? Elections matter because their inter-connected character allows parties to be held to account for the substantive gains of wealth, security, quality of life, or whatever else they have promised. But surely democracy requires plural political parties to make different promises. It is no place for the Global Commission to begin prescribing substantive policy goals to any country’s parties. However, we began with the proposition that the looping time of accountability is a necessary condition for democracy to work. If the content of party programmes does not deliver then is democratic time sufficient?

Cross posted from Global Policy: http://www.globalpolicyjournal.com

Gender, Violence and Digital Emergence

One of the most unsettling findings of our media and radicalisation research was the way in which the suffering of certain individual women is turned into a cause by radical Islamic groups that leads to violence by men in those women’s names. The availability of digital media, combined with a certain doctrinal entrepreneurialism by those using religion to justify political violence, has resulted in the widespread dissemination of amateur video clips depicting a specific woman’s plight and calling for reprisals. If you want to understand the link between online propaganda and offline action, it appears that representations of women’s bodies and their “honour” are often central. My project colleagues and I document two such cases in a research article published this week.

Dua Khalil Aswad, an Iraqi teenage girl of the Yazidi faith, was stoned to death on 7 April 2007 by a Yazidi mob consisting of tens of men, mostly her relatives, for eloping and spending the night with a Muslim man. Her death was recorded on a mobile cameraphone by a bystander and circulated on the internet. It was eventually picked up by NGOs and international media, where the killing was framed in terms of human rights abuses. However, the clip was also identified by so-called ‘mujahideen’ in Iraq, namely Al-Qaeda in Iraq and affiliated groups. They claimed Dua was killed because she converted to Islam. They argued her killing demonstrated how non-Islamic faiths violate human rights (they know how to call upon human rights discourse too), and that this warranted the mujahideen bringing their own kind of justice to Dua’s killers. Between April and September 2007 a series of high-profile retaliatory attacks saw the individual and collective killing of hundreds of Yazidis and the wounding and displacement of more. One of the jihadist groups involved in these attacks, Ansar Al-Sunna, posted a video justifying their violence. Dua’s death was woven into a longer strategic narrative perpetuated by jihadists concerning a war between Islam and other faiths.

Three years later, in 2010, we found considerable religious tension in Egypt and the Arab world stemming from several cases of young female Coptic Christians in Egypt who had allegedly converted to Islam and were forced by the Coptic Church, with the aid of the former Mubarak security forces, to return to Christianity. The alleged plight of these women became the subject of media debates, street demonstrations and protests by Muslims and counter-efforts by Copts in Egypt, inflammatory editorials, online speculation, and finally, violence against innocent people. One of the most prominent episodes occurred in July 2010. Camilia Shehata, a female Copt Christian in Egypt, disappeared, and allegedly converted to Islam. She then returned under the shelter of the Coptic Church and released various videos to explain her case. Her story was amplified by Christian and Muslim groups alike, but subsequent attacks in her name occurred in Iraq rather than Egypt. Al-Qaeda in Iraq took hostages in a Baghdad church in October 2010 and announced on YouTube:

Through the directions of the Ministry of War of the Islamic State of Iraq, and in defence of our weak and oppressed, imprisoned Muslim sisters in the Muslim land of Egypt, and after detailed choices and planning, a small group of jealous Mujahideen, beloved servants of Allah, launched an offensive against a filthy center of Shirk [the Church] which Christians in Iraq have for so long taken as a place from which to wage their war and plot against Islam. By Allah’s Grace, we were able to capture those who had gathered there and take control over all entrances.

The Mujahideen of the Islamic State of Iraq give the Christian Church of Egypt 48 hours to clarify the condition of our Muslim sisters imprisoned in the churches of Egypt, and to free them all without exception, and that they announce this through the media which must reach the Mujahideen within the given time period.

The Iraqi government chose to attack the hostage-takers rather than negotiate. The hostage-takers detonated their suicide bombs in the church and 53 people died.

These events confirm one thing we know: terrorist groups can derive asymmetrical benefit from digital media, since content from individual lives and incidents can be rapidly reframed to bolster longstanding narratives such as the notion of a clash between Islam and other religions. But what struck us as particularly significant was the degree of contingency involved. The line from the initial acts to the eventual victims and the way in which events are incorporated into others’ narratives seems chaotic, escaping the control of the initial actors. The economy of exchange through media is irregular: digital footage may emerge today, in a year or never, and it may emerge anywhere to anyone. The concept of agency becomes complicated. The span of things done ‘by’ Al-Qaeda is beyond its control. Is distributed agency something new, only made possible by digital connectivity, or have social and religious movements always depended upon – and hoped for – a degree of contingent taking-up of their cause?

While we cannot know why the Yazidi man with a digital camera recorded the stoning of Dua (or why he recorded others recording it with their cameras), the increasing recording of everyday life certainly produces more material for political and religious exploitation. As we have seen, this allowed Al-Qaeda to instantly reframe a woman’s life as a “sister’s” life to shame men into action. If the killing of Neda Soltan during the Iranian election protests in 2009 represented one face of today’s mix of gender, violence and digital emergence, the cases of Dua and Camilla show another.

Cross-posted from the journal Global Policy

How the US is Slowly Cultivating the Conditions for a Renewed International Order

Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter’s talk in Parliament in London this week offered useful insights into how the Obama administration and foreign policy analysts around it are thinking about shaping international order. As Director of Policy Planning in that administration from 2009-11 she spoke from experience about the mechanisms being used to implement international change. While she touched on Syria, drone strikes and other newsworthy issues, her wide-ranging discussion was more important for the glimpses it gave of the theoretical assumptions underlying how US policymakers understand change. There is a tremendously ambitious agenda at work. We must scrutinise the theory driving that agenda if we’re to understand US foreign policy.

Slaughter began by saying that structures are being put in place whose effects won’t be visible for some years. The structures the US is building are informed by the assumption that the biggest development in international relations is not the rise of the BRICs but the rise of society – “the people” – both within individual countries and across countries. The US must build structures that harness societies as agents in the international system. Slaughter returned to Putnam’s (1988) two-level game, the proposition that it is in the interaction of international and domestic politics that governments can play constituencies off against one another to find solutions to diplomatic and policy dilemmas. Slaughter took up this framework: the US administration must see a country as comprised of both its government and its society, work with both, and enable US society to engage other countries’ governments and societies. The latter involves the US acting not as “do-er” but as “convenor”, using social media and organising face-to-face platforms for citizens, civil society groups and companies to form intra- and international networks.

Critically, these two levels are flat. This took me by surprise. At the society level, citizens, civil society groups and companies are connected horizontally. No particular group or individual is afforded a priori centrality. Why is this a surprise? Public diplomacy experts have spent the last few years trying to target ‘influencers’ in societies. Influencers are political, religious or cultural figures who are listened to by others. This idea is informed by network analysis, marketing, and the idea that State Department messages are more credible in different parts of the world when mediated and delivered by a local influential figure than by Hillary Clinton on TV. Slaughter was not convinced by reliance on influencers, empirically or normatively. She argued that all the millions marketers have spent still hasn’t generated any clear knowledge about how influencers can be identified and utilised. Not only that, but it is surely preferable to try to engage whole societies and treat all individuals equally. That would flourish a greater democratic ethos than appealing to amenable clerics, companies, journalists and intellectuals in the hope they might spread the word downwards.

The long term goal of this foreign policy agenda is to create overseas publics who are receptive to the US in a low-level way, such that in a decade or two when the US might need to rely on these publics, it will at least be listened to. Slaughter quoted former Secretary of State George P. Shultz (1997). He suggested diplomacy is like gardening: “You get the weeds out when they are small. You also build confidence and understanding. Then, when a crisis arises, you have a solid base from which to work”. Slaughter praised the US Ambassador to New Zealand, David Huebner, who spends 20 percent of his working week on Twitter and his blog. Huebner writes about rugby and other issues of local interest rather than about US foreign policy. As a result, Slaughter said, he has a higher readership than New Zealand’s largest newspaper. The significance of this isn’t so much in quantitative metrics such as reach, but that he has built an audience by constructing a different quality of engagement. He is forming Schultz’s solid base.

An incremental, everyday-focused approach to engaging foreign publics might not strike up much publicity, but some US policy practitioners have been trying it for a few years now. In War and Media (Hoskins and O’Loughlin, 2010) we discussed how since 2005 Capt. Frank Pascual and Capt. Eric Clark of the Media Engagement Team of CENTCOM, Dubai (the US Central Command base for the Middle East) had tried to engage Arabic-speaking audiences by becoming a regular presence on TV in the region, ’24 hours a day’:

Pascal: … We’ve had people come out from the Pentagon and look at this and say ‘wow’, really that’s been the word used because they realise how far forward we’re leading. There are times when, we basically have toothpaste and a toothbrush and not a lot more because things happen so quickly … I can’t allow Al-Jazeera or any other of the news media to get the high ground if we can seize it. Even if all I have is a piece of the information, or even if I don’t have anything to be able to say: ‘we’re investigating’, ‘we’re looking into that’ and at least give them something to go with, you know […] we will hold our people accountable for it and you can rely on that […] the American comedian Woody Allen said: ‘80 percent of life is showing up’, and that really is the word presence for us: being out there.

Unlike the ‘monks’ in their embassies, Pascal and Clark felt they were beginning to generate trust, initially with journalists but eventually with audiences. They acknowledged this was a slow process. Their temporal horizons for success appeared long term:

Pascal: There are a lot of people in our own government both on the military side and on the diplomatic side who would tell you: ‘what are you guys doing, you’re wasting your time with them’. It’s not wasted, the fact of the matter is that at least we got to say something on the air, live, and in fairness to them again it was not just 30 seconds, it was about five minutes of conversation, so it’s a real engagement, the ball gets moved very slowly sometimes and sometimes agonisingly slowly and I would argue that that’s the case here, but it’s moving.

This statecraft-as-gardening approach faces problems, Slaughter acknowledged. First, convening platforms for societies to communicate to each other and to foreign governments depends on a liberal faith that if you give people opportunities they will do more good than harm, and a quasi-Habermasian public sphere where everyone can and should have equal say. Slaughter conceded that the very technologies that allow publics to come together are the same technologies that allow states (and some non-state actors with particularistic agendas) to monitor and manipulate public debate, censor, and arrest dissenters. This was part of a “back and forth” struggle, Slaughter said, between people challenging their government using communications technologies that government can also use to restrict freedom – a struggle that long predates the Internet. So, there will be risks with this technology-led strategy and the open, free “townhall” model won’t emerge overnight.

Indeed, this approach assumes information is neutral and communication is a fundamental right. It is an approach that can easily slip into presenting a particular vision as natural and apolitical. Slaughter’s is a world where information should flow freely; it only gets political when people restrict it. If the US embassy in China tweets alternative air quality information to the Chinese government’s (LeVrine, 2010), “we were just tweeting information”, Slaughter said. No: information is being used to challenge Chinese state authority and make its expertise seem provisional and weak.

The second problem is that other major powers are trying to shape the international system at the same time. They may not share Slaughter’s theoretical premise that the fundamental relationships in international politics now involve the mutual interpenetration of numerous governments and societies. The EU and the BRICs have alternative ways of looking at the world, different levels of analysis, and their understandings of the individual, society and state can diverge fundamentally. It will take a lot of patience between foreign policymakers among these powers to identify conceptual and practical overlaps if the US approach is to be finessed with others.

Rival powers might also ask whether Slaughter’s approach is simply a new form of instrumentalism. Creating platforms for citizens and civil society groups to work together may seem attractive, but this is a means to the ends of US security. As Schultz said, the aim is to have a solid base of support overseas when crisis hits. And given that global pandemics, food and water shortages, terrorism and other security challenges depend on the responses of societies, “empowering” societies to address these issues may be a route to preventing crises and securing stability in the first place. Consequently, the classic tension in US foreign policy between pragmatism and idealism, documented again in Global Policy this week (Lilli, 2012), remains there to see.

It was generous of Slaughter to articulate so many of the assumptions and concepts underpinning US foreign policy and to provide detail on how those are being translated into policies and structures. US policymakers are aware of the problems identified here and it will be a long, patient process on their part to ensure those problems do not fatally undermine US efforts to empower citizens and cultivate support for the US around the world. Students of international affairs can expect to watch this renewed two-level game play out well beyond the current administration.

Cross-posted from the LSE journal Global Policy: http://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/

References:

Hoskins, A. and O’Loughlin, B. (2010) War and Media: The Emergence of Diffused War, Cambridge: Polity.

LeVrine, S. (2011) ‘China’s microblog furor over bad air days’, Foreign Policy, 10 November. Available at: http://oilandglory.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/11/10/chinas_microblog_furor_over_bad_air_days

Lilli, E. (2012) ‘Review: Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy by Martin S. Indyk et al’, Global Policy, 30 May. Available at: http://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/blog/30/05/2012/review-bending-history-barack-obama%E2%80%99s-foreign-policy-martin-s-indyk-et-al

Putnam, R.D. (1988) ‘Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games’, International Organization, 42 (3), 427-460.

Schultz, G.P. (1997) ‘Diplomacy in the Information Age’. Paper presented at the Conference on Virtual Diplomacy, U.S. Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C., April 1.

Has US political communication risen from the dead?

The 2012 International Studies Association (ISA) Annual Convention in San Diego this week was a good opportunity to test the state of US political communication. Studies of political communication in previous ISAs have been marked by an obsession with analyzing media content then extrapolating about how politics or IR works. The latest content analysis of the New York Times and Washington Post is presented as if this is a bellweather for public discourse. Comparing US elite press to the Guardian or even Le Monde is seen as a radical step, allowing for claims about “international” public discourse. Heavily conditioned by the quants-orientation of US political science, the focus is on mastering datasets. This will get you into the house journal. Students are encouraged to avoid looking at the effects of political communication – what difference did that elegant sample of New York Times editorials actually make to anything? – because it is “too complex” or involves talking to psychologists or sociologists. Just study texts – don’t talk to producers or consumers of political communication. Aim low, do normal science. Questions of power recede, as does the relevance and vitality of the whole enterprise.

This is a caricature, to an extent. Research in the US on information infrastructure, governance and political economy is lively and gets to the heart of explaining both how communication operates and the structures that condition it. At ISA this year it was encouraging to see the strides being made here. Amelia Arsenault explained how US firms and diplomats have locked-in South Africa’s media-political power relations by supplying both the regulatory model and technology, and created a productive contrast with J.P.Singh’s theorization of power diffusion. Craig Hayden’s work on digital diplomacy is reaching towards an explanation both ecological and historical that gets at motives, institutional pressures, contingency and everything else lying beyond texts.
Nevertheless, the normal science was still there. As one colleague said, now you don’t have to sample the New York Times to be a grown up political scientist; you sample twitter instead. Single-medium studies remain. There was a lot of counting. Nobody dared ask the So What? question. But more importantly, political communication cannot be a normal science today because all of its concepts have been exploded by the transformed media ecology. As my colleague Andrew Hoskins repeated so often at ISA he’s stopped coming, we do not live in the 1970s when there was a discrete set of news outlets and a public consuming them in predictable patterns. That era let us measure ‘exposure’ to media and allowed for simple models of ‘frames’ moving from politician through media to publics and up again. But how can you discern exposure to something environmental? How can you analyse the frames in all the thousands of media sources you consume everyday, how those frames interact, and the compound effect on political understandings? It is a dead end.
Michael X. Delli Carpini, Dean of the Anneberg School Pennsylvania, acknowledged this in 2009. He said, ‘we cannot gauge the positive or negative consequences of the new information environment on citizens’ attitudes and actions without first being able to accurately gauge what information (in the broadest sense of the word) people encounter’. And we can’t, even with Big Data tools, because some of this information is offline. Todd Gitlin wrote in 2003, ‘In some ways the very ubiquity of the mass media removes media as a whole system from the scope of positivist social analysis; for how may we “measure” the “impact” of a social force [i.e. mass media] which is omnipresent within social life and which has a great deal to do with constituting it?’
This is why European political communication turned to studies of mediatization and mediality in the 2000s. Mediatization asks how the logics of each medium (re its visuality, temporality, interactivity, controllability) penetrate political institutions and decision-making – indeed it comes from US theories of media logics in the 1970s that were pushed aside. The Scandinavians are good at this. Mediality is the equivalent of IR’s recent practice turn: can we discern the effects of everyday media exchanges and practices – how we use media rather than what is said? The Germans are good at this. And some US political communications experts are revisiting classic theories to see how they operate today: Lance Bennett’s work on the Logic of Connective Action springs to mind. These are more promising avenues since they let us re-conceptualise how media, power and politics work at a time of flux.  
These are broad strokes. Unimaginative content analysis is done in Europe and fascinating work on mediatization and mediality is being done by some US scholars. ISA this year seems to reflect a slight shift to the latter. Hopefully Arsenault, Hayden and Bennett’s work will gain traction and US political communication will rediscover its scope and ambition. 

Strategic narratives: An uncertain science

Timing is everything; I’m not sure its good to be publishing a paper about strategic narratives just as the US cuts its Advisory Commission on Public Dipomacy, although RAND have begun exploring this field. National-level policymakers still try to tell stories about where their state and the international system are heading and should head. To the extent these narratives create expectations, shore up identities, create buy-in from partners, or have other discernible effects, we can say strategic narratives matter. The investment states have made in their international communications infrastructures in the past decade indicates the hope that aspiring or existing Great Powers can get their story out to overseas publics and elites. At the same time, sometimes just having an ambassador who carries his own bag can create a good impression. The ‘science’ of strategic narratives remains uncertain.

Hence, colleagues and I are trialing a working paper ‘Forging the World: Strategic Narratives and International Relations’, available to download here. It is authored by Alister Miskimmon (Royal Holloway), myself and Laura Roselle (Elon/Duke), and is based on the keynote Miskimmon and I delivered to International Studies Association (ISA) South at Elon University in October 2011. It comes from our long disatisfaction with how IR scholars treat media, communications and questions of influence, and how media and communications neglect many of the power dynamics of IR. It also comes from our experience working with foreign policymakers as they try to show measurable ‘impact’ of the narratives, and their attempts to harness new digital methods to monitor overseas public opinion. We plan to publish a book developing these ideas late in 2012, and we have panels on the subject at ISA San Diego in April and BISA/ISA Edinburgh in June with some great scholars (Neta Crawford, Karin Fierke, Antje Weiner, Robin Brown, Monroe Price, Amelia Arsenault), so if you’re interested in please come along or look for the papers. For now, we’d really appreciate it if the Duck commentariat have comments on the paper.

Be Concerned but not Informed: Radical Islamic Terrorism and Mainstream Media since 9/11

The website e-IR asked me to review how mainstream media have represented radical Islamist media in the past decade, and what this means for the spread of radical discourses more broadly. Here is my reply, and you can read the original at e-IR here.

Mainstream media’s presentation of radical Islamic terrorism since 11 September 2001 is simply a continuation of how mainstream media have represented political violence for many decades. Moral panics about enemies within, journalists following agendas set by ministers, scandalised yet sensationalist coverage of violence, victims and perpetrators – all familiar from the post-9/11 period, but also thoroughly documented in the classic studies of media and violence in the 1970s and 80s. The focus on Islam has been hugely damaging for many people across a number of countries, but what is at stake is more fundamental. Modern societies have not found a way to manage the boundaries between their mainstreams and margins. In 20 years’ time, other groups will be demonised, journalists will continue to fail to explain why violence occurs, and many people trying to go about their daily lives will find themselves anxious, suspicious, and ill-informed.

Each society imagines its mainstream differently. Media are the condition for imagined communities, as Benedict Anderson put it, but also imagined enemies. Russia, Israel, France, Thailand – in any country we find journalists, artists, and political leaders routinely making representations of their own values and of groups that might threaten those values. The ‘war on terror’ label enabled a diverse range of states, each with their particular social antagonisms and historical enmities, to represent their struggles as part of an overarching conflict between themselves and radical Islam. They imagined their own community, and an international community, at war. Although some journalists challenged this, journalism as a general institution was a delivery mechanism for the very idea of a war on terror and for all its local manifestations. Reporters on newspapers, 24 rolling news and even ‘highbrow’ news analysis shows accepted the framing assumptions given by military and political leaders, and repeatedly and unthinkingly stitched together disparate attacks into one global narrative.

One of the most striking aspects of this decade was that the enemy became a visual presence as never before. ‘Radical Islam’ could be seen. Indeed, Islam itself became a spectacle for all around the world to gaze upon and think about, the historian Faisal Devji argues. Al-Qaeda took advantage of real-time 24 hour media to project violent events onto all our screens in sporadic but spectacular ways. At the same time, religious views returned to everyday political debate as religious leaders and communities used the internet and TV to promote and discuss their dialogues, concerns and beliefs. This increased visibility created difficulties for many ordinary Muslims, who on the one hand wanted to argue that Islam is one religion and Muslims a united body of people, but on the other complained when the resulting single image grouped together Al-Qaeda’s terrorist iconography with everyday multiculturalism in the West, the rich diversity of Muslim-majority countries, and the terrible suffering of Palestinians. The struggle for the image of Islam took place in large part through mainstream media; if a Muslim person appears in Western news, statistically there is a higher chance it is in a story about terrorism and criminality than if it was an individual of another ethnicity. Lone figures – the angry bearded man and the veiled woman – are the stereotypes media reporting has bequeathed us from the 2000s. While many herald the emergence of social media and the shift from mass communication to what Manuel Castells calls ‘mass self-communication’, it is likely that mainstream media will continue to be a chief venue for the struggle for Islam’s image in the next decade.

Ironically, despite the routine presence of Al-Qaeda in mainstream news, journalists have not always been willing or able to explain what or who Al-Qaeda is, or how it functions. Equally, the term ‘radicalisation’ only became a public term in the 2000s, but journalists have used the term as if its meaning is obvious without actually explained how radicalisation works. Admittedly, these two confusions both stem from the fact that security policymakers lack reliable knowledge about Al-Qaeda and radicalisation themselves, or at least won’t release full information to journalists. Meanwhile a ‘radicalisation industry’ of so-called experts has emerged, willing to speculate on air about radical Islamic terrorism (witness the first 24 hours after Anders Breivik’s killings in Norway this year).These people are rarely challenged by journalists.

As a consequence of these media failings, audiences are routinely presented with the image of an angry bearded man, possibly a clip from a video linked to Al-Qaeda, and then an unspecific warning of an imminent threat. Audiences are asked to be concerned, but not allowed to be informed.

What does this mean for the spread of radical and radicalising groups in the future? Three interlocking, structural tendencies must be considered. First, the state will continue to assimilate all non-state violence as a single threat to international order and the domestic social mainstream. “Violence must not be allowed to succeed”, remarked a British official in the 1970s. It is a simple, unchanging principle. In April 2011 in London, Patrick Mercer OBE, Conservative MP for Newark and member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Transatlantic and International Security, warned that the three security threats facing Britain are Al-Qaeda inspired terrorism, violence ‘attached’ to student protests, and ‘Irish terrorists’ attacking the royal wedding. Drawing a parallel between students and those engaged in terrorism suggests a failure to appreciate that vibrant democracy requires space for dissent and disagreement. From the point of view of the state, however, it is all actual or potential non-state violence. Meanwhile, the latest version of Prevent, the UK government’s counter-terrorism strategy, has switched attention from addressing violent extremism to simply ‘extremism’. Extremism is understood as divergence from ‘mainstream British values’, defined as ‘democracy, rule of law, equality of opportunity, freedom of speech and the rights of all men and women to live free from persecution of any kind’. Society is asked to imagine itself as a community bounded by shared values, but this necessarily puts some people on or outside that boundary. Even if they are not violent, they might one day consider violence, and violence must not be allowed to succeed.

Second, it is a challenge for journalists to observe how political leaders are re-drawing and redefining these boundaries, since they – as responsible, professional insiders – will be asked to categorise and condemn those deemed on the radical outside. News values endure. The drama, simplicity and immediacy of acts of political violence will keep terrorism and violent protest on the news agenda while allowing a new cast of radicals to come to the fore.

Finally, radical Islamic terrorists or any radical group will play cat-and-mouse with security agencies as they try to use digital media to mobilize potential recruits and supporters. This game will be largely invisible to ordinary people. Nevertheless, we will be asked to endorse cybersecurity policies and work within modified internet infrastructures without being given any systematic data on connections between radicalism, radicalisation and cybersecurity. Journalists will be no better informed, but will be obliged to report as if there are connections.

These intersecting pathologies might leave the reader pessimistic. Opportunities for change seem minimal. On an immediate level, it is a question of changing behaviours. Can security journalists bring a more informed manner of reporting to mainstream audiences? Will the state decide it has a stake in a more informed citizenry? Will citizens themselves bypass mainstream media to find alternative ways to be informed? On a more profound level, it is a question of finding new ways to conceive and manage the relationship between social mainstreams and margins. The implicit equivalence of margin with radical and radical with violence makes for perpetual insecurity. Finding a more mature approach, however, opens up fundamental questions about the state, society and individual which few have begun to ask. This is where the challenge lies.

Conflict prevention and early warnings: closing the gap through communications?

The catastrophes of Rwanda and Bosnia led to a debate in the 1990s about the warning-response gap. Conflict prevention and early warning systems did not seem up to scratch. Third parties intervened too late, if at all. Spending was skewed towards mitigating the effects of conflicts, not on stopping them happen in the first place. The spread of satellite television brought conflicts into more immediate public vision. It was feared this created a CNN effect whereby policymakers were forced into military intervention for humanitarian causes to satisfy a more globally-aware public opinion. But this meant only those conflicts caught on camera would be responded to. The overall picture was a mess, it was argued. International relations lacked an effective system of warning-response.

A new study has cast doubt on these assumptions. This opens a space for a more analytical approach to how media, NGOs and intelligence agencies provide warnings and how states and international organisations can decide to respond. The Foresight project has spent three years analysing under what circumstances warnings are noticed, prioritised, and acted upon.  The team, led by Christoph Meyer, has looked at a series of case studies offering various degrees of warning and response, including Estonia, Rwanda, Kosovo, Macedonia, Darfur, and Georgia. They have interviewed responders from the UK, US, Germany, the UN, EU and OSCE and analysed media and NGO reporting around these conflicts. In short, they’ve done a lot of the empirical work that was missing from the 1990s debate. What have they found?

First, Rwanda could not have been prevented. Valid warnings only emerged when conflict was escalating, not pre-escalation. Those who suggest a lack of political will or ignorance on the part of decision-makers have misinterpreted the warning data available at the time. Second, those providing warnings anticipate what responders want to hear, and provide them with that. Decision-makers hate surprising warnings which don’t fit their mental models of how the world works. They are overloaded with situations they’re already dealing with and favour responding to emerging conflicts that look like ones they’ve dealt with before. Third, decision-makers are as likely to respond to warnings from preferred journalists or NGOs rather than intelligence from their own state agencies. They trust lone, grizzled hacks or aid agencies they might be funding. Fourth and finally, for all the usual factors of resource-availability, credibility of warning sources and so on, military and aid responses are often a matter of context and chance, neither of which social scientists handle particularly well. 
At a discussion of the findings yesterday, Piers Robinson, author of The CNN Effect, made the point that journalists cannot be relied on to provide early warnings in the future. The study indicates it is too dangerous, insurance is too expensive, and they are driven by news cycles in which what is happening trumps what might happen. Robinson also suggested that the Foresight project misses the systematic relation media and NGOs have to political power. Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan all point to the fact that journalists only question a war when leading politicians have already expressed dissent. Journalists don’t lead, they follow. While the former BBC journalist Martin Bell might argue for a ‘journalism of attachment’ that ‘cares as well as knows’, mainstream media organisations do not employ journalists to undertake moral crusades to warn states that if they don’t act in Rwanda, Georgia or wherever, there’ll be trouble.
Will citizen journalism and data mining of social media conversations around the world lead to improved warnings? This is the question decision-makers have been asking recently.  They want to know how to integrate warning data from journalists, social media, NGOs and intelligence channels. In theory, the warning-response gap should shrink to zero.  The time between an event and the state knowing about it promises to disappear with the right technology and tools to mine Big Data. But decision-makers are often of an age or disposition not even to understand Facebook and Twitter: there is a generational anxiety they are missing out on something and the kids have all the answers, and a cultural faith that free information will lead to the best outcomes. No discussion can develop until someone has mentioned ‘Arab Spring’ and ‘if only we had known’. But anyone who has done social media monitoring knows it requires a lot of qualitative know-how and interpretive work to get any sensible findings.

And as the Foresight study shows, decision-makers will still pick up the New York Times or turn on the BBC and trust their favourite reporter, even though those reporters might no longer be able to go to the countries they’re reporting on. Hence, for all the promise of communication technology, foreign policy is still about the human factor and cognitive biases.  Understanding the warning-response gap in the next decade will involve some careful unpicking of the interplay over time of stressed, confused people in media, humanitarian and government agencies.


[Cross-posted from http://newpolcom.rhul.ac.uk/npcu-blog/

Semantic polling: the next foreign policy tool

George Gallup –
what have you started?

The traditional methods for a state to know what overseas publics are thinking are changing. Instead of relying on your embassy staff’s alertness, your spies’ intelligence and the word of dissidents, we’re reaching the point where foreign policymakers can constantly monitor public opinion in countries in real-time. The digitization of social life around the world  – uneven yes, but spreading – leaves ever-more traces of communications to be mined, analysed and acted upon.  In a paper that Nick Anstead and I presented in Iceland this week, we called this ‘semantic polling’, and we considered the ethical, political and practical questions it raises.

Semantic polling refers to the use of algorithms and natural language processing to “read” vast datasets of public commentary harvested from the Internet, which can be disaggregated, analysed in close-to-real-time, and which can then inform policy. It can give a general representation of public opinion, or very granular representations of the opinion and behaviour of specific groups and networks. Multi-lingual processing across different media platforms is now possible.  Companies already provide this service to pollsters and parties in domestic campaigns, and NGOs make use of it for disaster response monitoring. Given how public diplomacy has adopted many techniques of the permanent campaign, it will be no surprise to see semantic polling become part of the foreign policy toolkit.


The semantic web is the standardization of protocols so that everything on the web becomes machine-readable. This means semantic polling is about more than reading social media data. In principle, our shopping, driving, social media, geolocation and other data are all searchable and analyzable. It is only a matter of computing power and integration of data streams for this method to profile to the individual behavioural level. This also enables predictive engagement: if Amazon thinks it knows what you want, then a state, with access to more data streams, might be use semantic polling and think it knows who will support an uprising and who will not.
Ethically, do people around the world know their tweets, public facebook data and comments on news blogs are being used to build a picture of their opinion? How should journalists report on this when it happens? Politically, how will states and NGOs use semantic polling before, during and after crises and interventions? Is it predictive, valid and reliable? Will semantic polling’s real-time nature further intensify the pressures on policymakers, since the performance, credibility and legitimacy of their policies can be visualized as they are enacted? Will publics resist and find ways to circumvent it? And given that it is barely regulated at the domestic level, how could or should it be policed in international affairs?
When we thought of this paper it seemed a little bit like an exercise in science fiction, but interviews with the companies, pollsters and social scientists driving this has convinced us this is developing quickly. Our political science audience in Iceland seemed positive about this – semantic polling offers relatively cheap, unobstrusive and ‘natural’ data that might provide insights into human behaviour existing methods cannot give. Perhaps a good first step would be for people around the world to understand how semantic polling works, so they can decide what they think about it, since it is their lives that are being monitored. 

Narrative Horror and the Downfall of Leaders #1: Rupert Murdoch

You have devoted your life to creating a great empire, one that stretches around the world and wields influence over politics and culture in a number of countries. Decades of criticism and conspiracy about the pernicious effects of your empire only testify to your importance. You have groomed your successors and shaped the climate they will work within. Biographers will not be able to knock the magnitude of your achievements. Your story is written. You are legendary, a mythical figure in your lifetime, hated, loved, known. So imagine the agony of losing this reputation in a single act and finding that all you built can be swept swiftly away. Instead of being remembered as a great empire builder you’ll be remembered for a single, tawdry episode. The horror!

International relations is full of leaders and legends who achieved much but will be remembered for a totally different and humiliating reason. The Spanish novelist Javier Marias calls this narrative horror:

Its what we call “vergüenza torera”, literally, “a bullfighter’s sense of shame” … Because bullfighters, of course, have loads of witnesses, a whole arena full, plus sometimes a TV audience of millions, so it’s perfectly understandable that they should think: “I’d rather leave here with a ruptured femoral artery or dead than be thought a coward in the presence of all these people who will go on to talk about it endlessly and for ever.” Bullfighters fear narrative horror like the plague, that final defining wrong move, they really care about how their lives end.

And ‘it’s the same with … almost any other public figure’ – the retired pop star whose paedophilia is suddenly and definitively public, the movie star whose career is eclipsed by a racist outburst or car chase, the president whose eight years in office will be remembered for a misplaced cigar, the international office holder for whom a graphic accusation of rape is never exorcised from the public mind.

It is these single tawdry episodes that Marias writes of, but I wonder if narrative horror is looming for Rupert Murdoch. There are many hoping that we are at the beginning of a chain reaction episode that will bring the downfall of his News International business and potentially his wider News Corps empire in the US, Australia and Asia. It seems the editors and journalists of his UK newspapers operated an institutionalized practice of bribing police and hacking into the voicemails of anyone newsworthy, including murdered schoolchildren and dead soldiers, not to say the sitting Prime Minister’s bank account and the medical records of his ill children. The ingenious practices that have made his UK newspapers so successful became – inside a week – the disgusting practices that force him to start shutting those newspapers down. His bid to take over the pay-TV operator BSkyB is now opposed by all parties. Such a twist in the larger tale of his empire-building can only be a blow to Murdoch’s pride.

If this has happened in other countries, a new mythology will quickly form, especially as these practices have long been suspected. The troubling links in the UK between News International and the current Prime Minister’s choice of press officers raises questions about a new iron triangle of press, police and political leaders that exerts control of public information that could be replicated anywhere institutional arrangements allow. Murdoch failed to contain the crisis in the UK, now he must fear contagion. The sense of narrative horror must be setting in.

Under this pressure, will Murdoch say or do something that will obliterate his life story so far? We might think this unlikely – he’s too smooth an operator, too experienced, and his reporters know where everyone’s bodies are buried. But Marias’ point is that you cannot know your own face tomorrow – what you are capable of, and how you will look to others. We have a parallel, private or theoretical self who could break through any moment and ruin all our hard work and public reputation. How far will this go and how will he react? Parliament has called for him to give evidence next week. It is a chance for the final defining wrong move.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of International Relations is that the decisions leaders make aren’t fully explained by their rational reading of structural forces or immediate conditions. Life intervenes: character and psychology, personal glory and horror, boldness and panic. So I’ll call this Narrative Horror #1 and invite contributions about other leaders who lost it all – or who found a way out.

Stereotypes and suspicion: Nicer words won’t change anything

A new report was released yesterday, ‘Suspect Communities’, comparing how UK media and government have framed Irish and Muslim communities since the 1970s. The authors find that the ideas underpinning counter-terrorism measures and the way politicians, policymakers and the media discuss who might be responsible for bombings have not changed over four decades. The key finding is that ambiguity surrounding who is an ‘extremist’ or a ‘terrorist’ has led to hostile responses in everyday life – at work, in shops, on the street  – from members of the public who think they are under threat from Irish-sounding or Muslim-looking people whom they associate with that threat. Hence, the report implies that government and media language is impacting on the everyday lives of communities judged suspect and everyone else who must live with them. In a debate in Parliament yesterday, the solution put forward by many was greater sensitivity of language by elites and more dialogue between the stigmatized, the elites, and the majority society.


While useful, the debate needs to go further. The crux with such reports is their method. This research team first analysed thousands of media texts and government documents, and found these to consistently frame these communities as suspect (and as communities, not individuals). They then did focus groups with members of those suspect communities to hear about living under suspicion. What the team did not do is try to explain why journalists or policymakers would consistently produce stigmatizing material. The consistency of the stigmatization suggests its nothing to do with any individuals, but a function of the institutional practices and professional imperatives of the fields of journalism and security policy. Most journalists don’t want to be racist. They think that by allowing a ‘moderate’ and ‘militant’ Muslim to debate they are providing balance – journalists don’t usually understand that they are reducing threatening and non-threatening minorities to equivalents in the eye of the non-Muslim audience. And policymakers know full well that homogenizing a community to tell it to ‘stop harbouring terrorists’ is not going to please everyone, but they really don’t want another bomb going off and will try any means to stop it. These are the pressures they face, and criticizing their language choices isn’t going to remove those pressures. So, if we are to move towards societies in which entire groups are not routinely lumped together as dangerous and disloyal, we need to begin to unravel these institutional and professional logics. A truly critical project would address these power relations and daily trade-offs instead of simply decrying the consequences.


This is an important topic. The Suspect Communities report supports a longstanding research finding (UK hereUS here) that those who feel stigmatized tend either to retreat from public spaces (‘keep your head down’, ‘keep your mouth shut’) or become angry and try to resist slurs by turning them on their heads (reclaiming ‘queer’ in the 1970s, jihadi chic in the 2000s). Either way, the result is fear and alienation, which reduces trust on all ‘sides’ and makes reconciling interests and grievances through democratic institutions much more difficult.

New Deal for BBC World Service Weakens Britain’s Soft Power?

Una Marson, George Orwell, T.S. Eliot and others at the World Service during WW2
The reputation of the BBC World Service around the world reflects that of Britain generally. It’s an institution tied to colonial history. It aspires to global reach. Through its journalism it tries to uphold values of impartiality and objectivity, and therein lies the attractive, soft power dimension. As an institution, however, it cannot escape appearing partial – it is funded by the British state, and that state wouldn’t continue to fund it unless it was serving Britain’s interests. Therein lies the appearance of hypocrisy that taints Britain’s soft power. But this week the British government announced a new funding mechanism, and yesterday Peter Horrocks, Director of BBC World Service, spoke about the changes to an audience in London.

The BBC World Service is currently funded by a direct grant from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Britain’s State Department. While a Royal Charter prevents the FCO interfering in the editorial content of World Service programming, the FCO can decide which foreign language services are strengthened or cut. In the last decade, Arabic and other strategically important language services have tended to do quite well, others less so.  Last year the government announced the World Service would be funded through the annual licence fee people in Britain must pay in order to receive BBC content legally. The World Service will be just another part of the BBC per se, its tie to the FCO less obvious. This week the World Service was granted extra funding not least because of its performance through the Arab Spring and supportive comments from Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader.
The problem for the World Service now is that it is just another BBC service, funded by taxpayers. In the current economic malaise, taxpayers might feel extra hospitals are more important than Hindi radio. Horrocks suggested that the World Service is highly regarded by British citizens. But historically, the value of World Service programming is to those in conflict zones and diasporic publics who consumed its cultural output. People in Britain gets a more parochial, national BBC news and are probably unaware of the range and impact of World Service programming.
As the World Service becomes increasingly integrated into the general BBC – sharing technology, content, staff, and buildings – and as it has to justify itself to a home audience, so its distinctiveness would seem under threat. Horrocks seemed optimistic. For example, the fragmentation of media across devices, formats and languages and creation of innumerable niche micro-audiences is not a problem because the World Service has the tools and expertise to repackage the same news for all possible outlets.  While China, Russia and others may be investing huge resources on rival global broadcasting organisations, the World Service retains the credibility borne of its professional, impartial journalistic ethos (note that Al-Jazeera has been criticised for treating different Arab Spring uprisings in very different ways, prompting aprickly reaction). 
Horrocks finally turned to the question of soft power. He argued that the World Service does not aim to project soft power, but that paradoxically it does create soft power for Britain because the objectivity of World Service journalism becomes associated with Britain. A moment later, however, he said the World Service aims to project and change people’s perspectives, to “impart impartiality”. Imparting sounds very much like changing minds. Changing minds is an instrumental goal for the FCO, who want the world to “do business with Britain”. Does this make the World Service an unwitting instrument of the FCO? This ambivalence is exactly why the World Service is open to charges of hypocrisy.

Horrocks must be thanked for speaking openly and taking questions, and it is important that the World Service continues to engage in critical discussion about its role and purpose. I would be interested to know whether the chiefs of CCTV or Russia Today hold free flowing public debates.

A Good Storyline Won’t Win a War – Did the Taliban out-communicate our Generals?

(Written with Alister Miskimmon) Following the death of Osama bin Laden, political pressure is mounting for an early scaling down of British military troops presence in Afghanistan ahead of David Cameron’s deadline of 2014 for the end of Britain’s combat mission. With this in mind the British defence establishment is trying to understand their role in Afghanistan since 2001. Much of this soul-searching has focused on trying to explain why British forces have not been able to pacify sections of the Afghan population. Their explanation is that they have not been able to project the right storyline to Afghanis. They feel that they are being out-communicated by the Taliban, losing out to a more effective strategic narrative. This is presented as one reason Britain and NATO have failed to win hearts and minds. 

An example of such thinking was witnessed in Westminster this week in a session of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee.  General Sir Nicholas Houghton, Vice Chief of the Defence Staff, identified a critical moment as Britain’s efforts at “poppy eradication at the time of the deployment”. “In the minds of some local Helmandis, and within the narrative of the Taliban,” he said, this created the “idea that these [British] forces are coming here to eradicate your poppy and take your living away.” Ultimately, “that worked against us in terms of strategic narrative.” The incredulity of our most senior military officers that they could not convince Afghanis in Helmand of their good intentions suggests that they think of communication as an easy solution; as if finding the right strategic narrative would solve their operational problems.


Such a stance exposes the lack of clear goals in the first place. Failure to convince Afghanis stems more from a lack of clear British strategy than the ability of Taliban forces to present a more convincing counter narrative.


In our fast moving media ecology, projecting a coherent message is a challenge. However, there are some instances when governments are able to deliver a clear narrative. For example, the killing of Osama bin Laden was so clear it did not need to be explained – least of all to the United States’ citizens seen celebrating on the streets of American cities after the President announced the mission. President Obama did not even engage in the ensuing debate about the legal status of such an action. He let his actions speak for themselves.


Once war has begun, strategic narratives are about keeping domestic audiences on side, not about convincing those who you are invading. When hostilities begin it is too late to convince them. Trying to tell a reassuring or uplifting story to Afghanis that is contradicted by what they see and hear on the ground only opens up space for Britain to be accused of hypocrisy – a narrative with a long precedent in Central Asia and the Middle East.

The 2003 Iraq War will not be forgotten

The killing of Osama bin Laden allows political leaders to further disentangle Iraq, Afghanistan and the whole war on terror concept; to wind down some operations and refocus others; to bring some stories to light and push others aside, to be forgotten. But how do those who served in these wars feel about this? In today’s New York Times Captain Shannon P. Meehan, a US veteran of the 2003 Iraq War, published a powerful statement of alienation on this matter. Meehan felt no closure on hearing of bin Laden’s death. It only brought a sense of distance and disconnection. It reminded him he had been part of the bad war, the war whose meaning is already settled in what he calls the ‘shifting public memory of war’. And he must live with the severe injuries he suffered regardless. He writes: 


So, as much as I want to feel a part of this moment, to feel some sense that I contributed to it, I do not. As a veteran of the Iraq war, I do not feel entitled to any sort of meaningful connection to this achievement. Years of political and public criticism of the Iraq war has pushed me to believe that I did not fight terror, but rather a phantom.
With all the physical, mental and emotional pains I still have, I feel like a dying man who fought in a dying war, and that my body braces and hearing aids serve as a reminder that my greatest “achievement” in life will be remembered as a mistake.
This same week the last British male veteran of WW1 died. Claude Choules, who went on to spend most of his life in Australia, also seemed to remember his war with critical distance. In its public notice of Choules’ death, the UK Ministry of Defence noted, ‘Despite his impressive military career, Mr Choules became a pacifist. He was known to have disagreed with the celebration of Australia’s most important war memorial holiday, Anzac Day, and refused to march in the annual commemoration parades.’ Although WW1 is settled in public memory as the ‘Great War’, Choules resisted this interpretation. What is interesting, today, is that Meehan is publicly reflecting on such a settled narrative. His challenging article is in mainstream media and being spread through social media. Choules had no such opportunity in his day. The new media ecology seems to accelerate both the creation and the contestation of war memory.
But memory is not just about media. Meehan draws attention to his physical pain, to injuries that remind him daily of the Iraq War. In Diffused War Andrew Hoskins and I explored Jay Winter’s concept of ‘embodied memory’ as something that is shared by the body of the sufferer and the gaze of the onlooker. If we have an obligation to remember, we must also look at veterans’ bodies and not just war films, news photos and milblogs. War memory is inscribed on bodies, and there are a lot of bodies from Iraq.
The killing of bin Laden and drawing back from Iraq won’t make the Iraq War disappear. The US and its allies will have to decide how they want to remember it, what memorials will be built, and how to deal with the ambiguities and divisions within the shifting public memory of the war.

Will the IRA blow up Will and Kate?

Unidentified ‘British security officials’ are telling journalists there is a possibility that sections of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) could attack next Friday’s royal wedding in London. At an event I attended this week, Patrick Mercer OBE, Conservative MP for Newark and member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Transatlantic and International Security, warned that the three security threats facing Britain are Al-Qaeda inspired terrorism, violence ‘attached’ to student protests, and ‘Irish terrorists’ attacking the royal wedding. Mercer questioned the wisdom of holding a royal wedding so close to Easter, a time with historic significance for Irish republicans. The Easter Rising insurrection against British rule in Ireland began on 24 April 1916. The wedding date is also close to the 30th anniversary of the death of republican prisoner Bobby Sands, who died on hunger strike on 5 May 1981. Don’t we understand ‘how Irish terrorists think’, asked Mercer. Yet, talking informally to journalists in London, I discovered many didn’t want to raise the matter because it might appear to strike a negative note and alienate readers at a time many view as one of national celebration.
If there is a threat of violent attacks on the wedding – and it is unlikely security services would make details public even if there were evidence that there was a threat – what would be an effective way to communicate it? Where does the balance lie between informing and scaremongering? Government and journalists will face the same dilemma at the Olympics in a year’s time so it will be interesting to follow how it plays out in the next week. 

Does the Arab Spring show how strategic narratives work?

Nobody has come close to explaining how strategic narratives work in international relations, despite the term being banded about. Monroe Price wrote a great article in the Huffington Post yesterday that moves the debate forward. As I have already writtenstrategic narratives are state-led projections of a sequence of events and identities, a tool through which political leaders try to give meaning to past, present and future in a way that justifies what they want to do. Getting others at home or abroad to accept or align with your narrative is a way to influence their behaviour. But like soft power, we have not yet demonstrated how strategic narratives work. We are documenting how great powers project narratives about the direction of the international system and their identities within that. We see the investments in public diplomacy and norm-promotion. We have not yet demonstrated that these projections have altered the behaviour of other states or publics. Does the Arab Spring show these narratives at work?

Many leaders in the West and protestors taking part in the Arab Spring promoted a narrative about the spread of freedom, often conflating this with the hope and vigour of youth and emancipatory potential of social media. Of course this narrative may be bogus, as Jean-Marie Guéhenno argues in yesterday’s New York Times. However, the key point Price makes is that narratives set expectations, regardless of their veracity. Narratives defined what NOME leaders were expected to do: step aside! We can see the power of narratives by seeing what happens to those who defy them. Mubarak and Saif Gaddafi both gave speeches where they were expected to align with the narrative. The narrative set the context and expectation for how they should behave. But they did the opposite of what was expected. Price writes:

From a perspective of “strategic narratives,” Mubarak and young Gaddafi were speaking as players in an episode, set by key actors, international and domestic, who had the expectation that their wishes as to the playing out of the drama would be fulfilled. Their speeches did not match the sufficiently accepted script, in the case of Mubarak, or the incomplete outlines of one, as in the case of young Gaddafi.
Who has successfully promoted an overarching narrative? Obama, Cameron, Sarkozy? Where did the ‘Arab Spring’ narrative come from? How does an overarching narrative play out in each country? What room does it leave for individual governments and public to create their own destinies? In the next year, building up to a debate at the International Studies Association (ISA) convention in San Diego in April, we will be exploring this. 
Cross posted from: http://newpolcom.rhul.ac.uk/npcu-blog/ 

Libya and ‘the shadow of Iraq’

At the beginning of every war, journalists must quickly find a frame that makes the new violence intelligible to their audiences. It is often convenient to compare new events to old events, to see what looks similar and what looks different (journalists routinely follow the principle of comparison earlier articulated by Sesame Street). In 2006, during the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq War, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman employed the Vietnam template in an op-ed: ‘in time we’ll come to see the events unfolding — or rather, unraveling — in Iraq today as the real October surprise, because what we’re seeing there seems like the jihadist equivalent of the Tet offensive’ (here, subscription required). The White House rarely responds to op-ed columns. Perhaps alarmed by possible parallels – afraid of the “quagmire” analogy – it responded directly to Friedman’s claim (here).

Yesterday the BBC’s Andrew North wrote:

There was something familiar in the night-time television images of broken concrete and twisted metal from Col Muammar Gaddafi’s Tripoli compound – the shadow of Iraq.
The largest military intervention in the Middle East since the Iraq war is now well under way, and to many the goal looks the same – regime change.
North suggests two things can be seen, the television images and ‘the goals’. There is an implied relationship between how things look and the motives behind the actions that lead to the images. The television images look like television images we saw in Iraq, so what might be happening might be what happened in Iraq, for the reasons that motivated those intervening in Iraq. What happened in Iraq could be a convenient ‘template’ for future events, and North is trying to fit Libya into that template. North adds weight to his argument by claiming that the goals look the same ‘to many’. ‘Many’ is a nebulous collective, but the many are watching these images and perhaps the many are thinking what North is thinking. He tries to alert readers to ways in which history is repeating itself:
Twelve years of no-fly zones and sanctions could not dislodge Saddam Hussein – and in the meantime it was the Iraqi people who bore the cost.
The choice of templates is political, not just a matter of convenience. North is using the 2003 Iraq War template to make a point. He could have used other templates to make other points. The comparison may be valid, and such speculation may serve to provoke readers into more serious thought about what is happening in Libya. But clearly, at this moment, there is space for journalists to offer a range of frames and North has chosen to frame Libya as falling under ‘the shadow of Iraq’, a metaphor for the cost that fell on Iraqi people. North has used a journalistic technique to warn political leaders against a course of action. Let’s see whether this template gains traction, as Thomas Friedman’s did in 2006.

India’s soft power is unclear

India has soft power to the extent that its values, its way of managing its affairs and its vision for the international system are so attractive to other nations that the latter start doing what India wants without India having to use the sticks and carrots of traditional international relations. By achieving relatively stable democracy in such a geographically large and religiously diverse polity, for instance, India may inspire others to emulate its institutions. Nevertheless, to understand Indian soft power, we must first ask how others see India. Indian soft power is a function of others’ perceptions of India. Hence it was a surprise that a conference held in London this week, India as a Soft Power, concentrated almost exclusively on India itself.

It was certainly interesting to hear what Shashi Tharoor and other leading Indian political and cultural figures think about what story India should tell the world. As a nuclear power with tricky relations to regional neighbours like China and Pakistan, how India balances its use of military and economic resources against the softer methods of diplomacy or intangible cultural “influence” is important, both for local problems (Burma, Afghanistan) and the broader transition this century to a multipolar or non-polar order. How the Indian story is told through global media around breaking events and crises may also contain lessons for other states about controlling or letting go of “the message”. All governments try to manage opinion; can India avoid the sin of being seen to do so? 
But the success of India’s story depends on others. Indian soft power becomes significant if it has effects on the behaviour of other states or on public opinion towards India outside its borders. Have there been any effects or signs of effects? How would those in the Indian government be able to tell? First, we need to examine the foreign policy decisions of those India is trying to affect. Is there any evidence that China, the EU or the US have modified their actions because they have bought into an Indian narrative? Second, we need to see whether India’s story is indeed viewed positively. State departments in the US, UK and Canada have tools to measure the impact of their public diplomacy initiatives using a variety of digital, survey and face-to-face methods. While embryonic, these tools allow governments to track public responses around the world to its statements at summits, treaty negotiations and so on. This makes it possible to begin to evaluate not just whether “other people like us” but also why. If India is spending money on projecting its soft power, we might expect the Indian government to have a way to find out whether its efforts are having any impact. 
The popularity outside India of Bollywood movies, Tata cars or Indian IT services does not mean India’s rivals will alter their foreign policies to align more closely with Indian strategic interests. The export of Coca-Cola and HBO box sets has not created US allies or persuaded non-US publics of the virtues of US foreign policy. To realise its interests, India will have to upset others at some point, and it will have to use at least the threat of hard power. And if India is to become a leading power, it will face the same dilemmas others face. Should it use soft power to put an attractive face on the use of hard power? Can its actions match its positive narrative or, as with every other leading power, will India eventually be accused of hypocrisy? Either way, India will need to find a way to understand how it is perceived. Until then, little certain will be known about Indian soft power. 

Cross posted from http://newpolcom.rhul.ac.uk/npcu-blog/

Obama and Egypt: The Power of Inception?

On 4 June 2009 US President Obama went to Cairo to make a speech to the Muslim world, where, among other things, he addressed the question of political reform and democracy in the Middle East. In February 2011 one Al-Jazeera columnist has associated the tumultuous changes in Egypt and Tunisia to the persuasive technique Inception, the film in which Leonardo DiCaprio tries to plant ideas in individuals’ minds by infiltrating their dreams. Larbi Sadiki writes, ‘A precedent has been set in Tunisia, and Egypt is on the move. Whilst the challenges are awesome, the seeds for planting democratic dreams have begun by the display of people’s power in Tunisia.’

For political communication analysts eager to evaluate the impact of Obama-type speeches, public diplomacy campaigns, American movies and TV as cultural exports, or other methods through which ideas may be planted in the minds of foreign publics, can we isolate the impact of those efforts when so many other factors come into play? 

Did Obama successfully use the power of inception, or would the last few weeks’ changes have happened anyway? This raises the larger problem of explaining outcomes whose causes may be extremely long term and difficult to identify – political scientists still struggle to explain revolutions. Certainly, in the coming weeks, months and years it will be interesting to see whether US public diplomacy teams claim any credit for incepting change.

New book – Radicalisation and Media – out now

Routledge has published Radicalisation and Media: Connectivity and Terrorism in the New Media Ecology, co-authored by Akil Awan, Andrew Hoskins and Ben O’Loughlin. The book presents results from our two-year ESRC-funded project on Radicalisation & Violence, which was awarded the maximum ‘Outstanding’ grade by the Economic and Social Research Council in 2010.
Our chief finding, in a nutshell, is that despite the potential connectivity between radicalising networks like Al-Qaeda and ‘vulnerable’ youth and ‘terrorised’ publics, there is in fact a profound and structural disconnection. Security policymakers, journalists and audiences have little agreed understanding of what ‘radicalisation’ might mean, but a residual sense of anxiety that there is something threatening out there, possibly close to home. That diffuse threat is often spoken about as radicalisation through the internet, over the web, which could happen anywhere, to anyone, “at the click of a button”. Such statements do not aid public understanding of how individual opinions are shaped by on- and offline experiences, nor offer any evidence base of how and why individuals have turned to violence. Caught in the middle of this confusion are mainstream Security Journalists who deliver to audiences spasmodic episodes of bombings, arrests and warnings, the occasional, subtitled glimpse of an angry jihadist, but little insight or explanation of how political and religious violence is generated or prevented. Such news contributes to assumptions about an enduring social mainstream and radical margin; this may indeed feed back into potential disaffection by those identified as potentially radical. In short, we suggest that discourse about radicalisation may be as significant for Western societies as discourses of radicalisation, i.e. actual jihadist propaganda.
The study offers a cross-section of global (un)connectivities across a series of critical security events since 2006 by integrating three strands of data: audience research from the UK, France, Denmark and Australia, an ethnography of jihadist culture, and analysis of English and Arabic-language news.
Please contact Ben.OLoughlin@rhul.ac.uk if you require further information or wish to receive a review copy from Routledge.

How Political Negotiations can be Un-Mediated but Mediatized

When delicate political negotiations are needed, perhaps journalists need to get out of the way. Gadi Wolfsfeld’s studies of peace processes have shown how journalistic discretion in Northern Ireland created space for political leaders to make individual compromises. Such compromises would probably each have been unacceptable to their constituencies if lit up by a media spotlight, but only became public once the full package of a peace treaty was reached (Bono had to wait). Past negotiations between Israeli leaders with their Jordanian or Palestinian counterparts have been less successful in part because journalists in the region have tended more towards the sensationalist and the partisan.

At the LSE tonight, Nick Anstead presented an analysis of media coverage of the 2010 UK General Elections, particularly the period between 7 May and 12 May when the three major parties were involved in behind-the-scenes negotiations to form a government, following inconclusive results. This was another instance in which journalists were denied access. Nevertheless, this occurred in a mediatized political environment, i.e. one in which media logics determine how processes work more than political logics. Following a political logic – principally, how the UK constitutional system works – if no party failed to produce a governing majority, then no party ‘won’, and a range of outcomes became possible. However, the prevailing media logic in the UK media ecology was that any election needs a winner. Further, in an ecology in which politics has been presidentialised, the winner has to be an individual: in this case David Cameron must be Prime Minister. That the office holder, Gordon Brown, was constitutionally entitled to remain in office until a governing coalition could be formed escaped many journalists. That the Labour Party could possibly be part of a new coalition government was almost as tricky to grasp, for hadn’t Labour’s man lost? Anstead illustrated these media meltdowns with some amusingly flustered questions from reporters of various TV channels.
Conceptually, this process was un-mediated but very mediatized. It was un-mediated because media could not provide a channel between the negotiations and the public, since reporters were barred from the political negotiations. But the event as a whole was mediatized, Anstead argues, because the range of potential outcomes was constrained by what the media system could find intelligible. As discussant, I was granted the chance to add a further point: it was surprising that UK political reporters were caught off guard to such an extent, given the close nature of the polls. Surely they should have provided a guide to how the constitution works and mapped the various permutations of possible coalition governments? Central to a mediatized system is premediation, the logic of mapping all likely scenarios for audiences before events happen, even if they never happen (Richard Grusin’s idea). Journalists form cultures marked by fallible expectations: in 2001 no US journalists saw another attack on the WTC coming, and in 2010 UK journalists had reached a consensus that Cameron would win outright. In each case, reporters were at a loss. The broader point is that the coalition negotiations were not as mediatized as they could have been: public responses to the various possible coalitions could have been solicited and the confusion minimised.

But what Anstead’s paper seems to suggest is this: Even if journalists are excluded from an event, the media ecology inhabited by political leaders, reporters and publics will shape what is thought possible, intelligible and legitimate, whether in domestic or international politics – an indirect but inescapable effect. Political processes can be un-mediated yet mediatized. He will present a more developed draft of his paper at the PSA Annual Convention in London in April, but if you are interested in receiving a copy please email N.M.Anstead@lse.ac.uk 


Crossposted from http://newpolcom.rhul.ac.uk/npcu-blog/ 

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