William Lafi Youmans

Assistant Professor, School of Media and Public Affairs, George Washington University. Research interests include global news and communication, media law, development and Middle Eastern politics and society. http://www.williamlafiyoumans.com/
William Lafi Youmans has written 8 posts for Take Five

War Fatigue vs. the President’s Syria Strike

All alone on Syria?

When President Barack Obama delivered his September 10, 2013 speech on Syria, his policy aim was articulated clearly:

after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.

This speech had a more immediate target however: the American public’s reluctance to support a limited and narrow strike on Syria.  Polls showed substantial public opposition despite the horrific images of chemical weapon attack victims in Ghouta just weeks before.  Support for a Syria attack was lower than it was with previous, similarly “limited” actions in Grenada (1983), Kosovo (1999), Haiti (1994) and Libya (2011).

Facing the apparent unpopularity of the proposed military action, the President decided to seek Congressional authorization rather than taking unilateral moves against Syrian military capacity.

His speech was meant to turn the tide in support of Congress’s approval.  While there is survey evidence that the speech persuaded some of those who watched it, it still only led to an aggregate split in public opinion.  Striking Syria simply did not resonate with a majority of Americans even though an estimated 32 million viewers tuned in and many more read and heard his arguments.

We know that the President’s power to persuade the public on foreign affairs is strongest when there is an elite consensus back his policies.  While there were voices of dissent in the House, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ultimately endorsed what the President sought: a resolution authorizing military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.  This signified a growing elite consensus.

TV news media were largely supportive of the President. As Robert Entman has proposed in the “cascading activation” model, lower-tier elites, and news media, echo the policy frames of the upper echelons in the executive branch.  After Obama first proposed a strike was necessary in late August, cable news channels were far more likely to feature pro-intervention messages than views opposed, according to a content analysis conducted by Pew Research. This is evidence of news media echoing officialdom.

Yet, House opposition to the President’s proposed course of action was considerable.  Factions in both parties, both liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans, voiced objections to the attack. It was not certain that the resolution would have passed through the House. At the time of the speech, CNN estimated 179 “no” votes to 25 “yes” votes. 223 were yet undecided.  This can’t be chalked up to deeper partisan polarization.  Members of Congress reported hearing universal opposition from their constituents. The public’s complaints overwhelmed the President’s position and undermined the dominant theme of news media coverage.

A Russia-proposed chemical weapons deal ultimately postponed consideration of a Congressional resolution, thereby preventing a test of whether the President was going to win on this.  Still, we witnessed a unique case of public opinion opposition to, and mobilization against, a President’s proposed foreign military action.

Perhaps it can be attributed to something deeper in American political culture. As Charles M. Blow suggested in The New York Times, “America may have lost its stomach for military intervention.”  After war of more than a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans may just be tired of getting into new skirmishes that could easily lead to deeper commitments.  Just five years into the Iraq war, US news media were barely covering it and Americans tired of hearing about it.  There is scant mention and public discussion of the war in Afghanistan today.

The idea of “war fatigue” is not a novel one.  It was widely believed that after the Vietnam War a syndrome set in: Americans were thought to be more likely to oppose to new wars out of a risk aversion resulting from the costly, bloody and protracted conflict in Vietnam.  Marvin Kalb argued the current form of this syndrome was apparent just from President Obama’s nominations of John Kerry and Chuck Hagel as secretaries of state and defense, respectively.

Curious about whether American views on the previous wars impacted their positions on the proposed Syria strike, I ran a study to measure what impacted American opinion. I tried to figure out how important various factors were: demographics, support for the president, prior positions on the Iraq war and how attentive they were to the President’s September 10th speech — to see how the President’s persuasive powers stacked up against war fatigue.

I asked 265 respondents on two separate days, September 9 and September 13, 2013, whether or not they support a US military intervention in Syria.  I asked different samples, one before the speech and one a few days after.  I found the following (shown in an OLS regression model).


Standardized Coefficients























GENDER (Female)








Sharing President Barack Obama’s views in general




Became more or less supportive of the US IRAQ war?




Watched or saw reports of President Obama’s speech on Syria?




(Adjusted R2 = .213)

Of traditional demographics, age and gender were significant predictors.  Older individuals and males were more likely to back a strike.  It is worth noting that party identification was not an important factor — when controlling for these other factors — despite being a usual factor in evaluating presidential policy proposals.  While it could be due to the break down in partisan lines on this issue, at least until the Russia deal, it’s likely not a factor because the most powerful variable — generally agreement with Obama on other issues — captures partisan differences. [Without partisan ID, the findings and model fit don’t change much].

Despite being an “anti-war” candidate when he was first elected, Obama enjoys the unwavering backing of loyal supporters.  Being inclined to generally agree with him on issues was an expected, powerful predictor of being with him on Syria.  It was the strongest factor in the model.

As for non-Obamaniac tendencies, war weariness seems to matter. Becoming less supportive of the war on Iraq over time (my gauge of war fatigue) correlates with being less likely to back the strike.  The result is the same, though a bit weaker, if I replace Iraq with Afghanistan, also.  Rather than seeing Syria as a new and distinct issue, this finding suggests people interpret it within the context of prolonged and increasingly unpopular military commitments in the region.

Prior views on Iraq also matter more than does partisanship.  I ran the model with partisan ID, but dropped the tendency to agree with Obama. Declining support for the Iraq war over time was twice as powerful a predictor than was partisanship.

Back to the model above, we can see that changing support for or against the war on Iraq over time was a more powerful predictor than being attentive to the President’s speech.  His ability to persuade the public through strategic political communication was a less potent a force than the unpopularity of the wars of the past decade.  Even if the proposed strike was being sold as limited and narrow, it did little to relieve the public’s fear of deja vu.


Misreporting the Turkish Protests

Turkish Demonstrators during the Gezi Park occupation

Turkish demonstrators during the Gezi Park occupation. Credit: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty via TheGuardian.com

In late May, protestors descended on Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park.  At first, there was a small sit-in over re-development plans that would have it, one of the few parks in European Istanbul.  After months of unsuccessful petitioning to save the park, activists took to camping out there to prevent the demolition.  Police removed them by force, setting their encampment on fire in the process.

The state’s aggressive response was met with outrage as images of the police action spread.  This brought far more protestors to the park. They expressed a general dissatisfaction with the government’s increasingly restrictive policies and actions.  Some were displeased with new limitations on alcohol sales during certain hours, increasing censorship and bans on public displays of affection. The government deployed punitive measures against dissidents and those insulting religion.

Turkey’s contemporary politics is defined by a delicate, but tilting balance between the religiously-inclined socio-politics of the dominant AK party and the deep strain of Kemalist secularism. The latter is reflected constitutionally, going back to the founder of modern, post-Ottoman Turkey.  It’s a set of nationalist values entrenched institutionally in the military, which plays a vital role in shaping Turkey’s polity, as well as among a good portion of the Turkish population.  The AK party, however, was re-elected several times by a majority of the country, and therefore enjoys something of a popular mandate to legislate socially conservative policies.  The modernist, westernizing vision of Turkey is at odds with the outcomes of democratic process.

This turn in political culture matches Turkey’s pivot in foreign affairs, from its abandoned westward aims of joining the European Union to playing a more active role in Middle Eastern international relations.

Protests that began over a very specific qualm — the razing of the park — quickly grew to larger movements of general dissent in others parts of the country. Labor strikes, mass protests and organized action by professionals and academics confronted the government. Riot police frequently used force and instruments such as tear gas, clubs and other weapons to disperse crowds.

Turkish President Abdullah Gül recently praised the original sit-in for the values it espoused, though he differentiated them from the later agitators who he saw as perpetrating violence. In response to the accusation that the state’s response was overwrought, he said its tactics were quite consistent with the types of response in other countries.  Rather than seeing these as amounting to a crisis of legitimacy, he sought to normalize the protest and the state’s response: “These kinds of problems are mainly democratic and developed countries’ problems. Turkey’s problems have come to a point resembling these.” In other words, these are #firstworldproblems.

President Gül’s claims are hard to square with the extent of violence that ensued. Freelance journalist Ahmet Sik said: “I have worked in war zones but Taksim was terrible. The security forces were hunting people down. Media personnel are targeted twice over. By demonstrators who think they are siding with the government and not covering events properly. And by the security forces, who deliberately fire at us.”

I am sure reasonable people can disagree to whether this is hyperbole or not, but one less ambitious question could be: How capable was foreign and Turkish media in reporting the story?

At a recent one-day symposium at Dublin City University, Esra Doğramaci spoke on this exact topic. She highlighted numerous, systematic errors in traditional news coverage, and showed how social media helped correct misreporting.

Her most stinging critique was that foreign media reported these protests within an “Arab spring” frame.  This suggests a revolutionary purpose aimed at regime change, rather than towards specific policy reforms.  Referencing the protests as “Turkish Tahrir” was emblematic of “sensationalism and misinformation.”  The numbers, the eventual unanimity, and the scale of government repression did not match, making the Arab spring frame fall flat. As one analyst suggested the underlying issue is identity, and that Kemalism was a “spent force” while long-suppressed religious politics are emergent.

Not only did news media fail to explore this more relevant historic context, but they offered reductionist and ahistorical parallels instead.  She points out The Economist cover that superimposed Prime Minister Erdogan’s face on an Ottoman Sultan’s body.

The June 8th - 14th, 2013 cover.

The June 8th – 14th, 2013 cover.

Doğramaci pointed to blatant acts of misreporting, from identifying a mass audience for the Prime Minister as an anti-government protest, to outdated photos of an injured child, to articles gauging national opinion based on interviews with ten Turks. One rumor that the government shuttered cell phone service was reported, but shown by a social media user to be false. She attributed these, in part, to the problem of producing “news requiring least effort.” Social media users, could correct the record and push journalism to be better.

There are, however, other systematic issues.  The Turkish spring frame, could reflect a lack of familiarity with the idiosyncrasies of Turkey, such as the deeper tension in its changing political culture.  Editors or journalists may just collapse it in with the set of Arab countries that saw uprisings starting in late 2010 — Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. Or, it could be a frame intended to grab more page views: a “hook.” That certainly seems to be the purpose of magazine covers, after all.

Covering it poorly is probably better than not covering it all.  CNN Turk, Doğramaci mentioned, famously ignored the story all together, showing a documentary about penguins instead of the first protests. CNN International was more on the ball, refusing to get scooped.  The CNN Turk documentary led to a fun protest meme. The penguin became the protestors’ new logo for neglectful media non-coverage.

One wonders, however, whether we can just fully blame faulty media coverage.  The Turkish government’s high rate of convicting and imprisoning journalists won it the nickname “world’s largest prison for journalists.”  When Reporters With Borders deems a country that, one wonders how state policy and pressures interfere with journalists’ access and ability to report competently on important stories, such as these protests. Documented reports of intimidation and censorship of journalists suggest government policy can also create reporting skews.  One impact is it discourages reporters from covering it. This could be the reason CNN Turk was slow to the subject.

Turkish repression of media is so extensive that it immediately calls into question President Gül’s assessment of the protests and the state response.

Despite the potential for social media users to circumvent traditional state instruments, such as its criminal law, the thick censorial regime would be very likely to impact how key moments in Turkey’s struggle for a new direction are presented, making the veracity of information more difficult to decipher.  Far from excusing sloppy journalism, unimaginative metaphors and skin-deep analysis in news media, pointing to the lack of press freedom in Turkey is an essential first step towards helping outsiders better understand what is happening within.

Mapping the Syrian Regime’s Network of Support

A screenshot from Al Jazeera English’s “Interactive: Tracking Syria’s defections”

Al Jazeera English has produced a remarkable interactive network map that identifies much of the Syrian regime and its network of supporters — from senior military officials (generals and colonels) and members of parliament to diplomatic officials and ruling family members. It tracks those who defect or die, marked by various node colors, but also keeps a running tally in chart form below this tool.

Clicking on the individual nodes, which can be zoomed to, provides information about the person it signifies. The profiles of the defectors and the recently departed include details and sometimes embedded news clips about their highlighted fate.

Unlike a network analysis map, however, the relations between the individuals themselves are not depicted and distance within the clusters are not informative. Rather they are clustered into identifiable groups, such as Cabinet, Parliament, Security and Senior Military, Diplomats and Family, with Bashar al-Assad at the center.

Not all key pillars of the regime are accounted for in this tool.  Bassam Haddad has also pointed to a co-opted business elite that bolsters the regime. Their defections, sometimes as entire families or splintered ones, can prove just as damaging as those within the internal clusters choose exit over complicity.  Perhaps the business elite overlap with Parliament, anyways.

I have to say that despite this regime’s excessive cruelty,  watching the color coding of deaths makes it feel like a spectator sport.  And if this was used as some sort of tool for the planning of attacks, it would raise journalistic ethical questions.   In the midst of an internal bloody war, though, I count on the rebels having their own network maps with more precision and actionable details.  And I am sure plenty of the interested and meddling foreign powers are providing much more intelligence than we see on this page.

Nevertheless, this is a useful tool for Syria observers as a graphic representation of a corrupt and decrepit political infrastructure struggling to live to see another oppressive day.  As the webpage cautions users, verifying defections and even deaths can prove difficult.  The regime boots out critical journalists and keeps a tight lid on information contrary to its interests.  This service gives us non-partisans a barometer of a conflict that has already gone on for too long and with too much human cost.  The regime’s stubborn insistence to go on with business as usual has been a decision made with the willingness to sacrifice their country.

The information in the map may not change things on the ground much, but any application that sheds more light on what’s happening there is welcome.

Finally, it should be noted that AJE has the assistance of an organization Movements.org founded by Jared Cohen, the former State Department official and Director of Google Ideas, Jason Liebman, CEO and co-founder of Howcast, and Roman Tsunder, co-founder of Access 360 Media.  It’s About webpage describes itself as “a non-profit organization dedicated to identifying, connecting, and supporting grassroots digital activists from around the world.”

A New Take on International Broadcasting

This post was co-authored with Shawn Powers

International broadcasting, as state media aimed at foreign publics, plays an important role in public diplomacy efforts.  Our latest paper examines the challenges before IB entities in a new media environment.  It proposes a framework for analyzing IB systematically, and predicting its success.

Generally, state-sponsored international broadcasting bodies operate with the aim of changing public opinion elsewhere, whether to spread goodwill, better views of the sponsor country, spread dissent against other governments or open up audiences to new ideas and policy proposals.

Governments spend billions on IB without central strategy or a conception of what IB should be today.  Academics and practitioners alike have failed to agree on models or theories that explain the success and failure of international broadcasting at different times.  Equally debated is what it should be. Propaganda? Or dialogue? Should it be a more networked form of diplomacy?

Part of the problem is that the media environment in general is in a high state of flux, and state broadcasters are struggling to keep up, adjust and move past previous missions while facing budget challenges and internal political crises.

To further thinking of audience engagement in new media environments, scholars have been proposing “dialogue,” “networked” and “relational” approaches.  While these conceptions are useful for moving IB in new directions, these are too often limited given the real political constraints on IB outlets. They neglect the complicated multi-stakeholder politics of communication between governments and other publics.

We take on the ambitious goal of developing an approach and analogy for IB that captures these challenges and the often contentious politics of state broadcasting.  Published in the International Journal of Communication, our paper “Remote Negotiations: International Broadcasting as Bargaining in the Information Age” adapts the two-level game metaphor of international bargaining developed by Robert Putnam (1988) to analyze state informational activities in the current media age.

Broadcasting these days, we argue, is better analogized as complicated multi-level bargaining between the IB entities and key stakeholders, including: domestic policy makers, mobilized issue publics, foreign governments, and target opinion leaders and groups in receiving states.

By bargaining, we do not refer to the deliberative, incremental process of negotiating a political treaty, but a looser, more rapid, exchange in which nearly instantaneous audience and governmental feedback can be taken into consideration in reporting and programming. What is being bargained over is that ever-scarce resource, audience attention.

The approach generates several propositions. For example, “the more sponsoring governments control broadcasters, the more vulnerable they are to domestic political exigencies and the less responsive they are to the preferences of the receiving publics.” Heavy-handed government control hurts a broadcaster’s likelihood of success.

Central Chinese Television (CCTV) headquarters in Beijing.

IB must be iterative — as bargaining is — and take into account audience preferences, while serving the advancing government’s interests.  Simply pandering to foreign audiences, eager to criticize their government, is unlikely to be effective promotion of the government. Neither is simply toeing the government line.   Bargaining is apt because it denotes adjustability, as well as state sponsor flexibility.

As normatively appealing as “dialogue” is for a framework for IB and public diplomacy, it is dangerously over promising. States do not set foreign policy according to the public opinion of other countries – outside of a few exceptions (such as much stronger allies or patron-states).  Real dialogue is unlikely.

The paper articulates the emerging structural dynamics of international broadcasting. Our hope is to move discussion of IB past the propaganda-dialogue dichotomy while accounting for real politics and the pragmatic imperatives of complex mediaspheres we see globally.  Our approach explains why IB is more difficult than ever to pull off successfully, offers insights into improving IB and can be deployed and tested by other researchers in case studies as a useful analytical framework.  We hope it benefits both policymakers and scholars alike.

Satire as Good Publicity: How the Daily Show’s Ridicule Helps Al Jazeera English

In a 2006 Daily Show feature, Samantha Bee visited the Al Jazeera English broadcasting center in Washington, DC, poking fun at the staff and the station’s efforts to reach Americans. Here she gives presenters Ghida Fakhry and Dave Marash “tips” on how to appeal to American audiences.

International broadcasters should worry about how they are covered by the domestic media of countries in which they are trying to build audiences.  How they are reported and commented on can impact the public’s receptivity.

This matters more for controversial broadcasters operating in politically sensitive times.  One example I studied closely is the case of Al Jazeera English (AJE) in the United States.  By covering underrepresented areas in the world, AJE holds out the promise of facilitating intercultural understanding and knowledge of international affairs among Americans.  Research by Shawn Powers and Mohammed El-Nawawy (pdf) looked at how the political views of individuals viewing AJE moderated over time, leading them to term it a “conciliatory” medium.

However, AJE is not widely available on television in the United States — an inherent limit on this potential. Public opposition to AJE, beyond the conventional wisdom of the cable industry that Americans are uninterested in international news, is one reason.  Aversion to AJE is rooted in the perception of Al Jazeera as an enemy of the United States.  The Bush administration frequently lambasted the channel, associating it with Al Qaeda in public statements.

Many Americans hold pre-formed suspicions of the channel. In a previous study (pdf),  Katie Brown and myself found that pre-reception audience bias against AJE exists in the United States.  Americans were more likely to rate as credible and less biased a news report when it displayed a CNN logo, compared to when it bore AJE’s.  That is not to say all of our participants opposed AJE.  Mistrust of AJE correlated most highly with both conservative political ideology and prejudice against Arab Americans, limiting its conciliatory potential.

In a follow-up study published in the Journal of Intercultural Communication Research, we asked whether Americans change their views toward AJE depending on how it is covered by other media, or what we call “intermedia framing.”  It is based in our contention that in media-rich societies, public perceptions of newer or foreign media outlets can be influenced by how they are depicted by other media programs.

This is a potential media effect — we argue — even in an era of increased audience selective exposure, which many communication scholars argue limits how media influence people’s beliefs. In other words, while media pluralism has made it easier for audiences to select media to meet their preferences and needs, they may still incidentally learn about other media.  It follows from Matthew Baum’s work on the advantages of soft news for informing the public on issues, even if inadvertent and under the pretense of entertainment.

We gauged how Americans evaluated AJE after viewing packages about AJE trying to enter the US market. One was a Daily News bit featuring Samantha Bee (see video) and typified satiric soft news, using layered humor to tease AJE and mock American news-viewing habits.

The other package typified hard news; it was an NBC News report (no public link available).  It covered some of the same themes, referencing the administration’s critiques and the airing of the bin Laden videos (only shown but not commented upon in the Daily Show segment).

Our participants who watched the Daily Show’s bit demonstrated more openness to AJE, but also less prejudice against Arab-Americans.  Humorous inter-media framing facilitated receptivity to the channel probably by disarming apprehensions.  The hard news piece likely stoked fears related to the “war on terror.” We did not test for the specific emotional or cognitive effects that brought about perceptional changes, unfortunately.

Other researchers have shown in interest in inter-media framing and Al Jazeera English, though using different terminology, theory and methods.  In a recent paper in Journalism, Kimberly Meltzer looked at how American journalists, as an interpretive community, represented AJE as it launched in the Washington, DC market.  News coverage of AJE was largely positive, suggesting they generally did not share the antipathy expressed by members of the public who mobilized to oppose AJE’s carriage in other communities.  She related this to AJE’s marketing and outreach efforts, which she usefully reviewed.

Whether positive inter-media actually leads to more demand to have AJE placed on American cable and satellite services is another question.  Our study showed it can in an experimental setting.  Meltzer observed changes in actual inter-media framing.  More research on actual public reactions to AJE is needed to round this out.

There is a larger lesson for state media outlets.  With the fast growth in the number of outlets, it is natural that a competitive field increases references between media.  As international broadcasters face increasingly complex media milieus, there is a greater need to appeal to domestic news channels since they can influence public receptivity.  That can be difficult given the natural competition for eyeballs and likely differences in ideology or interests.  However, broadcasters may want further invest in media relations work to expand their PR and marketing efforts.  The concept of inter-media framing

Tourism and Public Diplomacy

Who more powerfully shapes foreign public opinion of a country: a public diplomacy staff member in government or a tourist from that country?

It’s probably impossible to say, but a case can be made for the latter if one thinks of the massive difference in scale between tourism and public diplomacy.  International tourism is a trillion dollar industry.  In 2011,  there were an estimated 982 million international tourist arrivals. Public diplomacy activities can only pale in comparison.

There may also be a qualitative difference in terms of influencing views.  After all, the government and its representatives are inherently assumed to be strategic communicators, trying to show the country’s best face. Doesn’t that diminish the power of the message — or make interactions seem instrumental and contrived?  Tourists, on the other hand, are non-strategic, at least to the extent of acting in the nation’s interests, and would seem — in terms of perceptions — to offer the more authentic representation of the country and its people.

If a country’s tourists are engaged in bad behavior frequently — for example, tourism for the purpose of criminal behavior or even widely disdained, yet legal activities, e.g. the sex industry — it could easily result in a widespread belief that the country itself, and its people, are generally immoral or dangerous.  I cannot imagine a country’s public diplomacy efforts surmounting that sort of common sentiment easily — even if its foreign policy is received positively.

Robin Brown wrote a short blog post saying:

we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of tourism within the public diplomacy field.

He argued it matters for three reasons. The first is essentially the point above, that tourism shapes perceptions of “others.”  Second, states’ perception management activities are often aimed at boosting tourism. And the tourism industry of each state tries to impact public diplomacy and nation branding efforts to attract foreign visitors.

It seems that tourism, though richly studied as a sub-field on its own (see academic journals), presents a challenge for public diplomacy scholarship. Thinking of PD in institutional terms, centering on the coordinated activities of governments and officials addressing foreign publics, has its advantages.  It gives the primary actors a mailing address — a “who” — and presumes some level of control over messaging and actions.  This means we can speak of “programs” such as “exchanges,” and other formalized activities intended to convey ideas, further relations, change perceptions and so on.  This focus constitutes, and therefore constrains, much of the research.

There are methodological challenges, as well. Tourism, in terms of interpersonal communication, is at the ethnographic level, making it much more difficult to research.  Its messiness calls on deeper research to really understand.  Interviews with officials in countries capitals simply won’t provide the insight needed.  For PD scholars, it is tempting to toss tourism into the category of “noise” that makes delivering the signal of government communications so difficult.

A case could be made that tourism is the real public diplomacy and government programs are marginal.

Given that international tourism is growing, especially with emerging powers, e.g. the BRICs, and also in places not known as tourist attractions, it makes sense to heed Brown’s call.

I wonder to what extent states’ foreign ministries might start to consider tourists as ambassadors, and whether programs educating or even training them might be carried out — whether in the form of leaflets for departing citizens, airport signage, domestic media campaigns or through embassies.  Should governments spread the notion of tourists as bearing an obligation to represent positively their country overseas?

The Transitive Problem

DISCLAIMER: Many of my writings on Take Five will propose concepts that seek to describe state communication activities.  Concepts are critical for building theory, my overriding interest.  I want make sure my concepts and theory resonate with students, more experienced academics and practitioners, a marker of validity.  I am using this blog for testing my ideas and welcome your feedback, whether constructive or dismissive.

The Transitive Property Reviewed

The transitive property in formal logic is essentially:

If a = b and b = c, then a = c.

This is useful shorthand for one problem facing public diplomacy practitioners and states’ strategic communicators.  How does one better a country’s image when it is vulnerable to “guilt by association” when that country’s friends are seen as bad actors?   Alliances between countries are something like equations, at least in terms of public perception, even if those alliances are complex and nuanced, combining elements of cooperation and competition.  Alliances require defending or at least very lightly criticizing allies while keeping relations normal, which is easily interpreted as complicity.

Rooted in Cognitive Processing or How People Perceive Political Problems

While this seems a perfect mathematical formula, perceptions of countries to do not transfer so easily, of course.   The emphasis is then on the basic dynamic, drawing on a notion of how people process politics cognitively, or associational thinking.  Psychologist Drew Westen and pollster Celinda Lake write about “what psychologists and neuroscientists call networks of associations,” or:

interconnected sets of thoughts, feelings, images, metaphors, and emotions that are unconsciously active in people’s minds and brains at any given moment.

People think through links, through series of relations in which one analytic or sensory unit calls up another.  Perceptions are shaped by what associations a certain subject produces.  International alliances are both actual associations but also useful mental associations in how people cognitively process the complexity of foreign affairs.

For communicators and public diplomacy specialists, perception is their central currency and it matters more than actual policy even as the two are often, though not always, related.  Thus, even if the guilt in question is not fairly ascribed, it must be addressed.  Their challenge is to create new associations.  The transitive dilemma suggests that old associations can be affirmed, or new ones established, due to the actions of allies. This poses an agency problem, that is, they are ultimately responsible for more than just their own government’s activities.

Applied to US-Bahrain Relations

Let’s take a recent example P.J. Crowley covered on this blog.  When Bahrain commits excessive violence against protesters, the government’s image is rightfully tarnished (Bahrain = Bad).  The American alliance with Bahrain (America = Bahrain), however, means that the United States cannot take a strong, critical public stance because of its well-known alliances in the region, and thus looks bad by association (America = Bad).

When it comes to how people view American policy in the Middle East, Bahrain’s state violence and repression prime among many observers and attentive regional publics American foreign policy inconsistencies.  P.J. Crowley called the United States an “interested spectator with Bahrain.” Its relative silence, he wrote, stood in contrast to its “loud” push for reform in neighboring countries.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Marc Lynch similarly observed that the “Obama administration’s grudging acquiescence to the Saudi-driven fait accompli [supporting the Bahrain regime] opened a gaping wound in American credibility.”

The transitive problem is exacerbated when an allies’ malfeasance reveals double standards, holes or hypocrisy in one’s own policy – suggesting an inconsistent adherence to state principles.

This puts public diplomacy and communication workers in an awkward position.  While the state may be invested in projecting an image, for example, supporting human rights or democratization, an ally’s antics can directly undermine this.  Practitioners’ hands are further tied in responding. They cannot threaten the health of the alliance without mandate from their government’s policymakers.

The sponsoring government’s alliance thus also prevents corrective action that addresses directly and credibly the substance of the guilt by association perception caused by the alliance.  Public diplomacy workers are then expected to work on positive relations or find new ways to outreach to publics without taking on this one elephant in the room, even though it’s a substantial, contrary point to the message they are supposed to deliver.

Another Example: Hamas and Syria 

This dilemma is a universal problem not just afflicting democracies or even states necessarily.  While some actors may not care about transitive problems, others will abandon allies, even sponsors if the pressure due to unsavory alliances grows strong enough.  Hamas, for example, seemingly turned against Syria by withdrawing its officials after a year of sticking with the Bashar al-Assad regime by default.   It was in the uncomfortable position of claiming to support liberation and an Islamist politics, while allying with a secular regime that suppressed Islamist politics – a position it could not hold up against domestic and regional public criticism as well as Arab state pressure.

Hamas Leader Ismail Haniya with Bashar Al Assad

A month after the move, a Hamas official was left in the precarious rhetorical dilemma between trying to maintain a damaged alliance and avoiding a treasonous brand of guilt by association.  He aimed for both loyalty and distance:

we have never attacked the Syrian regime or its president, so we are loyal to those who have stood by us when the whole world abandoned us, and we have said that we support the demands of the Syrian people and nobody can be against the people.

Seeking to escape the second equation, that between allies, of the transitive property, he urged that, “Hamas cannot be an exact copy of its allies.” That daylight is rooted in Hamas’s awkwardly-put position that:

there are some legitimate demands acknowledged by the regime that must be addressed and we must give priority to stopping the bloodshed on both sides in Syria.

Hamas is trying to both patch things up with a burnt ally and remain a credible critic, and the result is a familiar sort of confused, hackneyed official-speak.  Showing this concept through an example with Hamas is important for making the case this is a general problem for diverse actors, and thus also of greater theoretical value.


The utility of this transitive problem concept, as elementary as it may be, is that it gets at the challenges of multiplicity in international relations and how it troubles work in state communications.  The term is a neutral short-hand for the “guilt by association” problem that policymakers and communication specialists know all too well when their country is seen as liable for the acts of allies.  The basic dilemma: how to communicate persuasively values and ideals when a close friend is violating them?   Having a name for this problem, and understanding the cognitive roots described above, may give some conceptual tangibility and a greater analytic handle on the basic problem.

I am sure state communicators and diplomats have varied strategies from suspending activities and waiting out the storm, re-framing the government’s position, stressing other elements of its policy, back-channel communications to mitigate fallout and so on.  The constraint of alliance and the policy need to maintain it – even in the face of reputational costs – makes for a particularly challenging communicative context.

Feedback is welcome below in the comments! Find me on Twitter: @wyoumans.

A Proposal for Revitalizing International Broadcasting in the Information Age

Co-author: Shawn Powers, Georgia State University

State-funded broadcasters face more competition for publics’ attention.  With the wide proliferation of information sources globally, audiences have the option of accessing a multitude of news outlets while increasing their own engagement through two-way communications technologies.  The growth of other international broadcasters, or state news media aimed at foreign audiences, as well as private news media, is part of increasingly complex informational environments.

For state broadcasters constrained by host governments’ strategic interests and/or lethargic bureaucracy, adapting to the information age is especially challenging.  They are bound by old missions, institutional pressure, declining budgets, and domestic politics, not to mention the presumption of propaganda by many receiving publics.  However, the source of their new challenges—the growth of information and communication technologies—also offers a possible way forward.

These factors along with financial crises and the demise of clear, global geopolitical polarity, has engendered identity crises among many state-run broadcasters already facing the ever-difficult dilemma between being news with instrumental purposes – the pursuit of the host country’s national interests – while not being dismissed as propaganda.

State broadcasters can re-define themselves by focusing on specific information poor and weakly governed societies, often termed failed or non-transitioning states – of which there are still dozens according to Foreign Policy’s Failed State index.

In a newly published paper in a special symposium in the Journal of Public Deliberation, we propose international broadcasters find renewal by fostering deliberative technologies in such societies.  By sponsoring mediated forums for average Somalis, Afghans, Haitians and so on to discuss public matters, international broadcasters can aid development through hosting safe communicative spaces for articulating public concerns, reaching shared expectations of governance, and, advancing norms of citizen participation in public affairs.

To support this policy prescription, we offer two case studies.  The first is Voice of America’s Middle East Voices (MEV) online portal, launched in November 2011.  Its goals are explicitly deliberative.  According to managing director Davin Hutchins, “We wanted to find a place where people could start conversations about the news. There are plenty of sites and organizations that cover the Middle East. What we wanted was a site that enhanced the level of dialogue.”

VOA’s use of deliberation technologies in non-transitioning and authoritarian states facilitated informed dialogue on divisive issues, much of which is based on user-generated content and collaborative journalism.  While MEV has not reached nor involved large audiences, it offers a new model for international broadcasters to encourage the flow of information and political expression where domestic media are under assault.   Such deliberative infrastructure for national and transnational dialogue is valuable as an avenue for circumventing state censors and informational controls.

The second is “Somalia Speaks,” a collaborative project spearheaded by Al Jazeera English that combines several communication technologies to solicit short message service (SMS) texts about Somalia and shares them on its website.  Soud Hyder, an AJE staff member, said the project’s aim is to circulate “the perspective of normal Somali citizens” and let them “tell us how the crisis has affected them.”  It tapped into the growth of mobile phones in Somalia.

Respondents expressed how the famine and decades of conflict impacted them.  For example, one SMS posted on January 1, 2012 read:

“I lost both my parents and the elder brother in the bloodshed that has been going for the last 20 years. In addition, my students and their children all perished in this conflict and there is a lot which I can’t count all here.”

The graphic to the right is from the project’s webpage and it outlines the process.  AJE partnered with Souktel, a cell phone service provider with a development ethos, to provide the local response number to receive the SMS texts and the subscriber lists.  A crowd-sourcing platform, Crowdflower, let 80 volunteers translate 1,000 messages into English.  Using Ushahidi’s mapping application, AJE’s website displayed the messages in both map and catalog formats.  This exemplified the possibilities that arise from an international broadcaster working collaboratively with other technology platforms and organizations.

With adjustments, both the MEV and “Somalia Speaks,” could be used to better facilitate domestic information flows.  For example, AJE could have done more to re-circulate the texts through Somali media. This would be easier, of course, if Al Jazeera goes forward with its planned East Africa news channel.  Similarly, VOA could find ways to expand circulation of user-generated content beyond the Internet, perhaps through its broadcasting functions.  These projects do show how international broadcasters can engage in particular media poor environments to benefit local publics.

Some may argue that deliberation, or institutionalized public exchange, is impossible in authoritarian and failed or failing states.  Lisa Wedeen’s excellent ethnographic study of public engagement in Yemen, Peripheral Visions: Publics, Power, and Performance in Yemen (2008), shows how overly formalistic definitions of deliberation do not capture the vibrancy of public sphere practices in informal, everyday life settings. She examined Qat chews, in which circles of men share the mildly narcotic leaves while discussing public issues and exchanging information.  This is a form of Yemeni citizenship in action even in lieu of a fully functioning state or formal civil society.  Our proposal would mean more mass mediated channels for the spreading of such deliberation among wider audiences.

Broadcasters may protest that this puts their primary audiences in a handful of countries. This proposal complements rather than supplants current broadcasting.  Also, as the case studies show, such projects can generate valuable content for reporting.  For example, AJE reported on a market fire in a region in Somalia where there are no journalists after receiving text messages.  This alone can give state-sponsored news organs something novel to contribute.  Such reporting adds to, rather than replicates or spins, the dominant news stream, and is more interesting than the typical fare showing the host country in a good light.

We recognize that development problems cannot be resolved by talk and the exchange of ideas alone.  Rather than a panacea, this is about a pragmatic use of state resources to benefit foreign publics with the understanding that this is not done selflessly.  There must be mutual benefit.

Building on notions of deliberative development, we argue that international broadcasters can offer positive, incremental improvement of the internal flow of information and expectations, which can fuel growth in civil society and improve informal or quasi-governance structures – potential precursors to more responsive institutions.  By serving as proxies in places with weak media, broadcasters get a new purpose, a developmental one, and this is a step forward for both.

Of course, since they are intervening in foreign information spaces, broadcasting agencies must approach carefully, self-reflexively and in partnership with groups and audience members in receiving countries.

If this proposal interests you, read our full paper, “A New Purpose for International Broadcasting: Subsidizing Deliberative Technologies in Non-transitioning States.”   Feedback is welcome either below in the comments or email us directly at smp [at] gsu [dot] edu. Or find us on Twitter: @shawnpowers and @wyoumans.

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