public diplomacy

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Hidden Successes In Public Diplomacy

There is an increasing recognition among public diplomacy (PD) experts that we need to pay more attention to the audience.  In fact, the word audience itself is losing credence as it implies one-directional communication.  Instead, we are urged to engage with our ‘partners’ in an on-going dialogue.  In PD headquarters around the world, there is also a trend to make PD activities more accountable and to build monitoring and evaluation into the design of programs, largely based on the impact the program had on our partners.


Examples of Meaningful Impact

The most successful programs are those in which our partners take ownership of United States Government initiatives, resulting in long term institution-wide changes which benefit both sides.

These gauges of successful public diplomacy programs rest on two assumptions.  First, there is the assumption that one has a partner willing to engage and work with us to enact programs.  The second assumption is that the most important successes can and should be measured.  But all PD professionals have had the experience of being directed by headquarters to deliver the unpopular message, knowing it may not necessarily be received well and may even be met by stiff opposition on the part of our interlocutors.  Our success as PD professionals is to deliver this message in as clear and culturally appropriate a way as possible, knowing full well that our interlocutors will disagree at the minimum.  Few of us are adequately trained for this kind of task and usually learn from our own experience.  More importantly these kind of necessary and challenging activities largely go unrecognized and certainly unmeasured as gauges of success.

I was once directed to inform the government in the country I was assigned to that the Department was going to curtail a very popular cultural exchange program.  I practiced my delivery in the local language and marshalled my arguments why this was the best solution for all concerned.  I then made the best case I could at a parliamentary session devoted to this issue.  The response to my arguments was so heated that the chairman informed the other parliamentarians not to kill the messenger.  Had I delivered the message in a different manner, would it have been received more favorably?  One can never know because one can never compare the results of something that happened to something that didn’t.  But I still believe that making the appearance before parliament and taking the heat mitigated the damage in a small way but I could never prove it.


Sometimes we cannot anticipate how our messages will be received (Credit Emerson SPJ)

While we always must defend our own government’s policies, maintaining long-term relations requires giving our contacts a fair hearing, even when we disagree. Allowing contacts to vent may indeed be an effective long term strategy and certainly provides a wealth of information which may inform future successful programming.  On her first trip abroad as Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Karen Hughes went on a listening tour of Muslim majority countries  and was met by professional women very unhappy with U.S. policy at the time.  The tour was widely panned in the media as the events did not unfold as anticipated.  Yet many women I met in Turkey, even those who had not attended the programs, were impressed that such a high level official had come to listen and had truly seemed to hear what the audience was saying.  By any surface measurement of press coverage, the trip was seen as a failure but in terms of deep, long term impact it may have been an important success.

Our greatest successes often go unreported, or to state it in another manner, success is sometimes measured in the absence of reporting.  All PD professionals who have worked with the media have had the experience of either correcting the reporting about U.S. officials who were misquoted or ensuring that misstatements by officials do not get covered, because they were just that – mistakes.  This is possible only because the PD office in question has a long term relationship with the media outlet, ensuring continuing cooperation.

There are also occasions when the best strategy may be not to engage.  In one country I worked in, we decided not to engage with the most important and effective anti-globalization NGO.  As a hard opponent with a firmly held ideological view whose very existence depending on opposition to the globalization agenda, they could not be convinced or persuaded in any event.  In addition this group had already twisted the words and not given a fair hearing when the EU had tried to interact with this group.  By any network analysis, our decision not to engage would be viewed as a failure, showing the Embassy as barely connected to the most important player in this subject. But we had made a strategic decision whose effectiveness can never be measured.

In short, as the saying goes not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.  In an admirable effort to make our efforts more accountable, measurable goals are included in Integrated Country Strategy documents which lay out and justify our efforts for the coming years.  We can make inroads and experience the greatest successes in areas of overlap, where we have parallel agendas with local partners.  But there are many cases, especially in hostile environments, where our most important efforts cannot and should not be measured or even publicized. Just being present and listening may be our most important contribution, which lays the foundation for future measurable successes.

Caveat: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State.

Securing the Future With More U.S.-Taiwan Exchange Programs


(Source: Flickr/Photo Phiend – American and Taiwanese flags at the Chinatown gate in Washington, DC)

Since the severing of official diplomatic ties between the United States and the Republic of China (Taiwan) in 1979, U.S. policy towards Taiwan has stayed relatively consistent throughout the past six administrations by adhering to the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) and President Reagan’s “Six Assurances.”  Although the TRA continues commercial, cultural, and public exchanges under a de facto relationship, significant gaps remain. Much more can be done to strengthen the partnership between the U.S. and Taiwan.

The world has increasingly become more interconnected. However, Taiwan continues to be pushed out of the international community. Recently, Taiwan was excluded from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), and a U.N.-affiliated meeting in New York on rare diseases. The United States should consider deepening its exchanges with Taiwan. Public diplomacy efforts are inextricably linked with American national security. As such, the U.S. should place greater emphasis on its people-to-people exchanges with Taiwan.

At a time when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) exhibits increasingly assertive behavior in the South China Sea and East China Sea, the U.S. and its Asia-Pacific allies should highlight the positive role Taiwan plays in the regional architecture. U.S. strategy toward the region has taken a multifaceted approach that seeks to strengthen cooperation with like-minded nations to address shared challenges. In addition to commercial engagement, expanding people-to-people ties are essential for fostering goodwill and unity with our partners and allies.

In the absence of diplomatic relations, Taiwan has received diminished time and attention in Washington. Over the past ten years, the White House has not viewed it as a priority to support Taiwan and advance the unofficial bilateral relationship. This has affected the way everyday Americans and Taiwanese have come to view each other. According to survey results reported by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2014, only 28 percent of Americans would support sending U.S. troops to Taiwan in the event that the PRC invaded the island.[1] In sharp contrast, a 2016 poll in Taiwan indicated that over 70 percent of Taiwanese people believe that America would come to Taiwan’s rescue in the event of a Chinese invasion. It can be interpreted that—in addition to having a case of ‘war fatigue’ from 13 years of on-going conflict in the Middle East—this perception gap may be the natural result of many Americans having limited understanding of the TRA and the political complexity of cross-Strait relations.

Following the recent Trump-Tsai phone call, the misinformed American media further demonstrated a lack of concern and understanding regarding the nuances surrounding U.S.-Taiwan and U.S.-China relations. More exchanges, not only on the governmental level but also on the educational level, will allow for more Americans to understand Taiwan and its people better. Currently, the United States is struggling to establish a proactive international education policy and failing to meet its goal of 1 million Americans studying abroad by 2017. New and creative exchanges with Taiwan will boost U.S. foreign policy and security goals, and ultimately garner more public support on both sides of the relationship for stronger U.S.-Taiwan cooperation.

Current Public Exchange Programs

Despite the fact that the U.S. and Taiwan both have visa waiver programs that contribute to tourism on both sides—which may see a record high of over 1 million visitors this year—these types of exchanges are mainly short and business-driven. Long-term exchanges that seek to deepen people-to-people relations must be pursued as well. On the U.S. side, government-sponsored public exchange initiatives that have a Taiwan component include a variety of programs funded by the U.S. Department of State (International Visitor Leadership Program, Fulbright, Critical Language Scholarship, National Security Language Initiative for Youth, Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, etc.) and Boren awards for international study. The U.S. Department of Education also has 118 universities that offer the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships (FLAS) to study abroad. Language exchange programs funded by nongovernmental organizations include the Blakemore and Freeman Foundations.

On the Taiwan side, the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) provide generous scholarship opportunities for foreign nationals seeking language learning, degree programs, or research (Huayu Enrichment Scholarship, Taiwan Scholarship, and Taiwan Fellowship, respectively.) The Taiwan government also sponsors the Ambassador Summer Scholarship Program for the Taiwan-U.S. Alliance, known as TUSA, which is a non-profit organization that focuses on building international friendships on the student-to-student level. In 2014, MOFA launched an international youth leadership program called Mosaic Taiwan, which is committed to better informing future American leaders through a three-week program filled with workshops and seminars in Taiwan. Finally, a unique initiative is the Taiwan Tech Trek program, which recruits young people of Taiwanese ancestry for an eight-week summer internship or research program, allowing Taiwanese-Americans to learn about Taiwan and its well-known tech industries. These programs ultimately seek to promote and improve U.S.-Taiwan relations and counter China efforts to stop Taiwan from participating in the community of nations.

Challenges With Current Programs 

The U.S.-Taiwan pursuit to seek partnerships through educational and cultural exchange programs is laudable. There are, however, significant challenges with U.S. programs, particularly with the International Leadership Visitor Program (IVLP), that inhibit more meaningful exchange. IVLP is a three-week tailored individual or group program sponsored by the State Department that brings mid-career professionals and emerging foreign leaders to the United States. Former presidents Ma Ying-jeou and Chen Shui-bian are both alumni of this program. These leaders are nominated by U.S. embassies overseas, and in this case the de facto embassy known as the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), for meetings and opportunities to engage with Americans on global thematic issues. It is through collaboration with National Programming Agencies (NPA) that these projects are implemented. Due to fact that visits by Taiwanese officials in the U.S. are seen as highly political by Beijing (former President Lee Teng-hui’s visit to Cornell in 1995 sparkedthe Third Taiwan Strait Missile Crisis), it is protocol that Taiwan government representatives are barred from entering the Harry S. Truman Building of State Department, the White House, and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Another caveat with the IVLP is the small amount of funding available for Taiwan, in comparison to China. According to State Department statistics, the FY2016 budget only allowed for 16 visitors from Taiwan, while China had 112. The small amount of attention given to Taiwan negatively impacts U.S.-Taiwan relations. More can be done to support exchanges on the government and professional levels.

In the educational realm, there are many U.S. exchange initiatives in place that give exposure to Taiwan. However, the amount of students that go to Taiwan pale in comparison to the number of those who go to the PRC. From statistics provided for the 2013-14 year, the Institute for International Education (which is an NPA) reported that 13,763 American students studied in the PRC, while only a diminutive 801 went to Taiwan. Many American students are naturally drawn to China’s rich cultural heritage, strategic importance, and economic power (something which relates to future career prospects). However, U.S. policies and officially-expressed attitudes toward Taiwan and the PRC influence the choices made by young Americans as well. Many do not see value in learning traditional Chinese characters and view Taiwan as only a subsidiary to the PRC.

China Factor

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has worked hard to win the hearts and minds of the American people through its vigorous overseas propaganda efforts. Its Confucius Institutes are but one example. Confucius Institutes, which are operated under the PRC Ministry of Education, are an extension of the CCP. They have nearly 100 partnerships in the United States, with the stated goal of promoting Chinese language and culture. These institutes provide attractive financial packages to universities seeking Chinese language learning resources.[2] However, their programs engage in censorship and only allow for Party-approved rhetoric and policies to be heard. In 2014, the University of Chicago ended its partnership with the Confucius Institute due to concerns regarding censorship and limitations to academic freedom.

All American students deserve the right to freely discuss issues like the Tiananmen Square Massacre, U.S.-PRC relations, and the futures of Hong Kong, Tibet, and Taiwan. Yet, a Government Accountability Organization (GAO) report found that 12 overseas American universities in the PRC have challenges operating in a restrictive environment. Internet censorship and self-censorship are listed as two main problems. While Confucius Institutes offer generous funding to American educational institutions, the continuation of these engagements perpetuate the CCP’s authoritarian interests and leads to further marginalization of Taiwan’s influence in the world. While education initiatives between the U.S. and the PRC are important to the bilateral relationship, they tend to impact and diminish opportunities for greater American understanding of Taiwan. U.S. relations between the PRC and Taiwan should not be viewed in zero-sum terms, but the reality is that they are.

Recommendations: Innovative Exchanges To Strengthen U.S.-Taiwan People-to-People Relations

More innovative solutions are needed to re-emphasize the importance of people-to-people exchanges with Taiwan. The Taiwan Travel Act, proposed by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), calls for more exchange between Taiwanese and American leaders at all levels. This could alleviate the protocol challenges for Taiwanese visitors. Additionally, some bottom-up approaches are needed to tackle the challenge of current institutional practices in place that continue to discourage American students from pursuing Taiwan exchanges, including the student-run Taiwan-America Student Conference (TASC). The program, currently making plans for its fourth annual conference, was founded on the premise that American students need to think critically about the strategic and cultural value of Taiwan, and Taiwanese students need to think globally and address where they fit within the international community. Every year, students come together at TASC for dialogue and discussions on ways to confront global issues facing their respective societies. These include issues such as environmental sustainability and modern issues in education, among others. This is an excellent model for more future citizen diplomacy exchanges, given the aforementioned constraints.

(Source: Taiwan-America Student Conference – Taiwanese and American students building mutual trust and understanding through an exchange program)

(Source: Taiwan-America Student Conference – Taiwanese and American students building mutual trust and understanding through an exchange program)

Another recommendation is the establishment of a foundation that seeks to strengthen U.S.-Taiwan educational and cultural exchanges, much like the U.S.-China Strong Foundation. The U.S.-China Strong Foundation is a nonprofit organization that seeks to strengthen U.S.-China relations by investing in the next generation of leaders. Its principal goals are to increase the number of American students in the PRC and to strengthen Chinese language learning opportunities in the United States. A U.S.-Taiwan Strong Foundation would be at the center of bilateral educational exchanges. It could house programs modeled off of TASC, establishing chapters in universities and high schools, and striving to increase the number of American students in Taiwan and vice versa.

Beijing’s influence operations continue to drown out Taiwan’s voice in the United States. Taiwan’s democratic society is full of Chinese culture and increasingly diverse. The island nation is a paradigm of pro-American progressive values. When it comes to learning Mandarin, the PRC is far from the only option.  Defense Secretary Ashton Carter stated that a more inclusive security architecture is needed. Emphasizing Taiwan’s role in Asia is smart policy. Advancing exchanges with Taiwan requires a willingness to employ all the available tools, especially the establishment of a new foundation dedicated to this mission. Doing so will add tremendous value to U.S. foreign policy and national security outcomes in the years ahead.

This article was first published through the Asia Eye, the official blog of the Project 2049 Institute, a Washington-based think tank focused on security issues and public policy in Asia.

[1] Americans Affirm Ties to Allies in Asia. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Pg. 2. October, 2014. <;

[2] Soft Power in a Hard Place: China, Taiwan, Cross-Strait Relations and U.S. Policy. Pg. 510. Fall, 2010. 

Event Recap: Challenges in the New Public Diplomacy Environment


In honor of the Centennial of Walter Roberts’ birth, the Institute for Public Affairs and Global Communication and the Walter Roberts Endowment organized a panel on Challenges in the New Public Diplomacy Environment.


Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs Frank Sesno reflecting on Walter Roberts’ career

Honoring Walter Roberts and Navigating the New Media Landscape: Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, Frank Sesno, introduced the program by recounting the contributions Walter Roberts has made to public diplomacy in general and George Washington University in particular. Mr. Sesno described how the new media age has transformed our lives, changed the way we obtain and share information, how we organize, mobilize and win. Each person now sustains a unique news feed and serves as his or her own executive producer, which upends old assumptions. The notion of objective journalism, of gate keepers, and even the notion of fact itself is being challenged as never before. Changes in public diplomacy reflect these changes in the real world, which the four panelists addressed.


Professor Robert Entman discussing updates to his political communication cascade model

U.S. Media Diplomacy and Foreign Opinion:   Emphasizing that there is nothing more practical than a good theory, George Washington University Professor Robert Entman presented an updated model showing how information cascades from elite government circles through the media to the public and back again in feedback loops complicated by the growing power of social media. It is difficult enough to explain when and why Americans support U.S. policy as leaders try to spread their interpretations or frames through a hierarchy of networks, complicated by the ability of leaders to now bypass gatekeepers such as the media by addressing the public directly through social media. Persuading foreign publics to adopt pro-American frames becomes even more complicated as more communication paths form. Foreign leaders and the elites need to be motivated and have the power to spread pro-American frames to their public and gatekeepers. The public needs to be receptive to these frames as well for public opinion to be moved. The challenge is particularly acute in countries and publics hostile to the U.S. but even in close allies the multiple paths and networks for information to flow complicate the mediated public diplomacy efforts of the modern diplomat.


Macon Phillips outlining the three key challenges facing Public Diplomacy at the Department of State

Connecting People to Policy – Leveraging Digital Tools/Social Media to Advance U.S. Foreign Policy: Macon Phillips, Coordinator of the United States Department of State Bureau of International Information Programs described three challenges facing public diplomacy at the Department of State: 1. thinking of policy in terms of objectives. Setting well defined, achievable objectives allows one to have an effective strategy and to measure success. This involves moving from telling people what they need to know to what they need to do. 2. Identifying priority audiences to achieve these objectives, which will affect even something as minor as putting together the traditional guest list. 3. Maintaining relations. One must maintain relationships and develop trust. The thousands of alumni of our international visitor and educational exchange programs should be viewed as allies and not just alumni. Nurturing and maintaining relationships will inoculate contacts, making them more resistant to disinformation. This will allow the USG to be less reactive and more proactive – a much better strategy.


André Mendes discussing how the BBG has progressed despite facing public diplomacy challenges

Reaching global audiences – A changing saga of platforms, paradigms, censorship and ever narrower echo chambers: André Mendes, Chief Information Officer and Chief Technology Officer of the Broadcasting Board of Governors André Mendes outlined three challenges.  The first is budgetary, reaching out to the world while following Congressional and other mandates requiring continued investment in certain areas and technologies.  The second is overcoming censorship with some of the most sophisticated censorship in the area of online software.  BBG has the world’s largest anti-censorship operation with one trillion hits while continuing to overcome short wave and satellite censorship from countries such as Ethiopia and censorship of all kinds from countries ranging from Mali to Russia.  The third challenge is the echo chamber effect, the fact that people naturally gravitate towards information they already believe in.  The problem though is that every search we perform creates a micro environment as ads, articles, and preferences are directed to what we already like.  The objective of online platforms is to make money by gathering clicks rather than to inform.  Individuals from all corners of the world know that they can make money by generating clicks on our preferred platforms by writing articles that will outrage us even if not true.  We are all willing accomplices by participating.  Finally, Mr. Mendes described the progress the BBG had made in the last seven years, from 165 million monthly followers, mostly in radio to 270 million today, half TV and half radio and digital platforms.  Given that this expansion has occurred under budget cuts of 150 million in an environment in which media in general is shrinking this is one of the world’s great success stories.


Andrea De Arment giving insights on how digital diplomacy can and must be transformed

 Public Diplomacy in a “Post-Truth” World: Andrea De Arment, incoming Information Officer and Spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu Andrea De Arment emphasized that diplomats need to make the tough transition from a reliance on facts and figures to the realization that most people paying more attention to what people care about: feelings, personal beliefs, culture and religion.  To be truly effective, PD professionals need to be at the table when policy is being made to make the decision makers aware how a given policy will be perceived in various regions of the world.  One cannot be served a plate made in the policy making sausage factory with the mandate to make people think it is delicious.  Successful public diplomacy must engage so that diplomats don’t just push out information but listen to what is coming back.  Digital diplomacy also needs to entertain in a strategic manner.  Soft diplomacy grows audiences but one needs to go where the audience is to engage.  This requires leaving the safety of the walled compound to engage with the public to close the last three feet to use E Murrow’s phrase.


Discussion Session: The discussion session revolved around issues of building trust both within institutions and with the public at large.  Our partners can carry our message sometimes even more effectively than we can, which is particularly important when working with hostile publics.  Diplomats need to use social media not only to transmit messages but to listen and to engage in the necessary give and take which builds relationships.  The best way to inoculate oneself from Fake News is build relationships of trust and to be credible sources.  To keep up with rapid developments, the State Department needs to move from a default clear to a default open culture, which will improve efficiency and motivate employees.  To be effective, one must have well defined goals of what success looks like, which also allows one to identify failure more easily.  One needs to change in order to survive but innovations should not be made for innovation sake but to more effectively support U.S. policy goals.

More than Just Good Deeds: The Importance of Visuals in International Development

Organizations in the international development sector are increasingly focused on external communications efforts in addition to the activities that support their mission. These organizations, whether government related or not, work to remedy conditions they find problematic, which are usually complex, transnational issues, such as poverty, inequality, or HIV. It as become increasingly important for these organizations to frame information in a way as to create a sense of necessity and urgency in order to convey their messaging and gain support for projects and initiatives.

Framing involves highlighting certain aspects of a story in order to promote a particular view. The four steps to framing, as outlined by political communications scholar Robert Entman, are:

  1. Defining effects or conditions as problematic
  2. Identifying causes
  3. Conveying moral judgment of those in the framed matter
  4. Endorsing remedies or improvements to the problematic situation.

Research shows that visual elements, such as photos and videos, are better at communicating messaging and evoking emotional responses in audiences than text alone. Not only do visuals help to tell a story, but they also help to frame messaging. The most successful international development organizations rely heavily on the use of compelling visuals to at every step of Entman’s steps to framing. Visuals help to underscore an organization’s messaging on the conditions it deems problematic, the causes of those conditions, the organizational moral judgment of those involved and how the organization intends to improve, or is already improving upon the situation. Visuals help to emphasize the values of the organization and outcomes of their work. In an environment saturated with overlapping agendas and oftentimes indistinguishable projects, development organizations use photos, videos, and visual frames to not only tell their unique story to stakeholders and to the general public, but to also set themselves apart from other organizations in the field.

Visuals add depth and context to an NGO’s messaging and are instrumental for an organization’s ability to resonate with audiences, gain support for their cause, and prove the value of their work. Not only do visuals reinforce textual messaging, but visuals also help to convey meaning that words cannot, by tapping into the emotions of the audience. The better an organization is at convincing people on an emotional level, the more support they receive from states and citizens to conduct their activities. A development organization must be able to tug on heartstrings and express the gravity of the issues they prioritize. This is central to their success. Adding visual elements makes messaging less abstract and makes information more relatable, even to audiences that might not be aware of the subject matter.

Narratives and Visual Frames in International Development


Siah Tamba, Ebola survivor and Ebola hero: Siah Tamba is an Ebola survivor who now works at the Ebola Treatment Unit in Sinje, Grande Cape Mount, Liberia after losing her mother, sister, and daughter” Photo credit: UNMEER

During the recent Ebola crisis, affected countries in West Africa were painted as hopeless and destitute, with stories of death and devastation being broadcast across the globe. In an effort to convey the success of their efforts, the UN Mission for Emergency Ebola Response highlighted stories of people that had been affected by their work. In the example above, the visual adds impact to the written text. Alone, the text is somber, and makes the reader imagine a despondent Siah. With the photo, the “Ebola survivor and hero” is personified. The audience develops more of a connection with her story, because they are able to see the person being referred to and they are able to connect the efforts of the organization to a story of success. The story is not only much less abstract and more relatable, but it is also visualized and therefore more profound. The woman is smiling, underscoring the sense of hope, despite her challenges. Using the photo along with the text reinforces the messaging that the organization’s efforts are effective.


“A comparative shot – before with kerosene, after with Azuri PayGo Solar” Photo Credit: USAID

When he launched the Power Africa program in 2013, President Obama said, “Access to electricity is fundamental to opportunity in this age. It‘s the light that children study by; the energy that allows an idea to be transformed into a real business. It’s the lifeline for families to meet their most basic needs.”[i] The USAID Power Africa program aims to address the problem of lack of electricity across Africa. Many of the images used by this program, including the one above, show the difficulties of living life in the dark or by kerosene lamps or candlelight. Photos like this comparative shot convey the necessity of the program, and show the impact of their efforts, further reinforcing the narrative that access to electricity enables communities to succeed.


Photo credit: USAID

The US Agency for International Development, like many other international development organizations uses visuals to frame their messaging and highlight the impact of their work. The website leads to dozens of visual stories that use a combination of photos and videos to highlight the impact that USAID has had in many


Photo Credit: USAID

parts of the world across their focus areas. These visual stories have taken the place of traditional, text heavy success stories and underscore the narrative that the agency is having an impact on lives around the world. The visual stories give a more engaging overview, making the people involved more relatable and their problems and successes more imaginable. Visuals humanize the story, making it easier to influence audiences with the messaging.

International development organizations must rely more on visuals in order to communicate the need for their interventions and to prove the success of their work. By using visuals to convey messaging, these organizations are better able to win support for their causes. Visuals aid in the framing of messages, which allows them to more easily influence audiences and win support for their efforts.

[i] Barack Obama, qtd on USAID Power Africa homepage,


Irresponsibility to Protect: US and Russia Debate the Future of R2P

“It’s not a question of what will happen if we don’t do it; it’s a certainty. Are you going to be comfortable if Assad, as a result of the United States not doing anything, then gasses his people yet again, and the world says, “Why didn’t the United States act?” History is full of opportunity, of moments where someone didn’t stand up and act when it made a difference,” Secretary of State John Kerry famously argued at a 2013 hearing on the conflict in Syria. Secretary Kerry was and remains hardly the only elite to subtly connect the ongoing Syrian Civil War and the US’ history of inaction; Anne-Marie Slaughter penned an op-ed in the Washington Post urging President Obama to remember Rwanda, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times wrote that, “Anne Frank today is a Syrian Girl.” In fact, over the five years of the Syrian Civil War, there is no shortage of Holocaust or genocide allusions.

Unfortunately comparing our inaction in Syria to inaction in similar tragedies means little; the only thing more predictable than the promise of never again is that the world refuses to intervene. That is not to say there is not precedent for states to act. In 1948, the United Nations ratified the Genocide Convention, mandating that all participating nations intervene to use military force to stop genocide as soon as they were aware of its occurrence. In 2005, following the failure of the Genocide Convention to compel states to intervene in Rwanda, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan codified Responsibility to Protect (R2P). R2P is quite simple: states have a responsibility to protect their citizens from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing and, when they fail to do so, it is the responsibility of other states to protect those foreign citizens. In President Bush’s 2003 remarks on the America’s invasion of Iraq, President Bush hinted at R2P by citing Saddam’s “final atrocity against his people” and justifying the invasion as a means to “restore control of that country to its own people.” In 2011, France’s Foreign Minister addressed the United Nations Security Council regarding Libya, arguing that Colonel Al-Qadhafi was engaged in widespread and systemic attacks on his own people and that the UNSC had the responsibility to protect Libyan civilians. Whereas the Genocide Convention was rarely invoked, R2P has been used by countries to justify their actions to foreign and domestic audiences.

But President Obama has steadfastly refused to invoke R2P in Syria. The deaths of over 422,000, the internal displacement of 7,000,000, or the 4,00,000 refugees who have fled the country and destabilized Europe should be enough indication that Syrian President Assad has failed in his responsibility to his own citizens. Yet the closest President Obama ever came to implying that Assad had failed as a sovereign and that the world had a responsibility to the Syrian people was his statement in 2012 that the use of chemical weapons by Assad would “change my equation.” Even at his sternest, President Obama’s statement was less of a compelling argument justifying intervention and more a direct statement of displeasure directly to Assad. Assad could continue to murder his citizens, but needed to not use chemical weapons to do so. In 2013, President Obama would directly address the American public on Assad’s use of chemical weapons, stating “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.  The purpose of this strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime’s ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use.” The message was clear: President Obama did not feel it was America’s responsibility to protect Syrian citizens by removing Assad from power, but to intervene only to stop Assad from using chemical weapons a year after evidence of the attacks first surfaced. Systemic murder of citizens was fine as long as it was done without gas.

In a much more egregious manner, Russia, a member of the UN Security Council, has also rejected R2P in Syria. Perhaps sensing the US hesitancy on the issue and using the opportunity to delegitimize the idea of the United States as a unilateral power, Russia has backed President Assad’s regime in Syria in direct opposition of the US’ tepid support of the Syrian rebels. Russia has flagrantly characterized the United States’ involvement as “attempts to pursue geopolitical objectives and violations of the sovereignty of states,” sewn doubt about the legitimacy of crimes against humanity, and stated that the US was backing terrorists over legitimate government. Through its consistent and brazen confrontations with the west on Syria, Russia has successfully changed the dialogue from a question of humanitarian intervention to that of American arrogance.

Syria will be the ultimate decider of the future of the R2P narrative. Unless the United States makes a strong case for R2P to domestic and global audiences, Russia’s vehement support of state sovereignty will normalize Assad’s and other dictatorial leaders’ behaviors. Perhaps Syria is not another Holocaust, Rwanda, Darfur, or Srebrenica, but undoubtedly looking back, we will wonder why we were not persuaded to do more.

Public Diplomacy Social Media Techniques and Audience Targeting

U.S. public diplomacy campaigns can be even further enriched by integrating advertising audience targeting and engagement tactics into the existing diplomatic digital and social media strategy and execution. Tapping into these tactics will build on the strong foundation that is already set in the social media landscape by the U.S. Department of State in their current digital diplomacy strategy.

Certain online audience targeting tactics come to mind when reviewing current Embassy social media content. Digital diplomacy messages shared by the numerous U.S. Embassy accounts can be boosted with compelling visuals. Several posts contain visuals automatically selected by the Facebook algorithm from the website the U.S. Embassy is sharing in the post. These click through links all direct the audience to a Department of State website, and thus the visuals belong to the Department as well. The U.S. Embassy should consider uploading the visuals as part of the post directly, as the Facebook algorithm frequently does not select the best visual from the click through link for the purpose of the post. Selecting the visual and uploading it directly will give the U.S. Embassy the greatest amount of control with respect to what information the team is emphasizing to the audience. Posts with such visuals, whether photos, infographics or graphs, are proven to perform at higher engagement rates, no matter the industry, and the Embassies should share content with such compelling visuals in order to work on securing higher levels of engagement.

Next, a call to action (i.e. Learn More, Discover the United States, See Additional Photos, etc.) will naturally entice the audience to click through to the links provided and engage further with the content from the U.S. Government. The links should direct the audiences to more detailed information of the official position on the topics at hand. This is an opportunity to expand upon the content shared in a limited 140-character tweet or short Facebook post, and every effort must be made to motivate the audience to click on the link to continue the engagement past the initial post.

Finally, using varied language, or copy, with wording closely aligned to the Embassy’s goals and target audiences will speak volumes. While I am not in a position to know the exact target audiences of the Embassies, I take issue with the catchall approach the social content currently seems to employ. A foreign population is a challenging audience, and it would serve my presumed goal for the Embassy of increased engagement with social media content to segment and more specifically target the desired audiences. Several desired audiences that the Embassies might want to target in their communications include the educators, students, law makers/politicians, elites or societal influencers, and the general population of the country where the Embassy is hosted. Engagement happens when a member of the target audience is inspired by the message to respond. Doors open when strategies and tactics are used to speak directly to that target audience as opposed to an entire population.

Our U.S. Embassies around the world shared relevant and detailed information leading up to the historic U.S. Election in 2016 across their social media channels. Take the U.S. Embassy in South Africa as an example – several Facebook posts were publicly shared to explain more about the Electoral College, election vernacular, and voter fraud potential. These topics are all of interest to South Africans, particularly with the recent South African Municipal Election still fresh in their minds. Yet, this outsider believes the messages could be even further refined and targeted to different but equally important audiences for the U.S. Embassy, such as the lawmakers or the educators in country. Reworking the content in these posts is a relatively straightforward process, and one that can be easily incorporated into the ever-expanding analytics and graphics group at the Department of State.

The Embassy’s post about the Electoral College aims to share important information about the essential process by which the U.S. President is chosen. Unfortunately, the Facebook post has little energy and direction for the audience to grasp, particularly with the use of quote marks, which invite speculation into the interpretation of the statement.


Figure 1: Screenshot of U.S. Embassy South Africa Facebook post on November 8, 2016, captured on November 22, 2016 3:45PM ET

The leading question used in this post can be built upon by using more specific and varied language to align the post with the intention of reaching a certain target audience. Audiences need to be spoken to directly with appropriate vernacular and thought-provoking issues to entice engagement and understanding. The Embassy could rework the post to say, “Why does California have more Electoral College votes than Alaska? The Electoral College is at the heart of our democratic voting process, yet most Americans still need a refresher on the puts and takes of the system. Take a look at this post to gain deeper insight into the inner workings of American voting this election season: [link]” in order to accommodate this recommendation when looking to engage with a general population of local South Africans.

Secondly, this post’s image was selected by the Facebook algorithm from the link shared. It is a superb photo to use in the post – the iconic New York Rockefeller Center ice skating rink with the red Republican and blue Democrat map of the United States is a captivating visual for those interesting in learning more about the United States. However, this photo can be further emphasized by use of the direct image upload feature on Facebook to show the full visual and share an intentional emphasis of the photo.

A second post by the U.S. Embassy in South Africa focused on the use of election vernacular and how foreign audiences should interpret the meanings of those terms within the context of the U.S. General Election.

Figure 2: Screenshot of U.S. Embassy South Africa Facebook post on November 7, 2016, captured on November 22, 2016 3:45PM ET

Again, the “coattails” visual contained in this post is dynamic and illustrative of the topic at hand, but the viewer is unable to enjoy the full effect as only two-thirds of the image is shown. By uploading the image directly into the post, the audience sees the entire image, including the full politicians with the election confetti and balloons, and knows that the visual directly corresponds to the post content.

Additionally, the topic of United States election vernacular could be an enjoyable educational experience, particularly for the audience of South African government workers and educators alike, yet the copy used in the second part of the post is devoid of excitement. The language is stiff in the opening sentence “You’ll hear American commentators use some strange words to talk about the ins and outs of the U.S. election,” as if it is being held back behind a wall that only cautious, appropriate copy is allowed to pass through. Injecting additional punctuation, adjectives and calls to action will jazz up the language and entice more readers to stop and read the post, and then perhaps even engage with the post to learn more. Careful selection of this language is of course required, but even a simple “Take a glance at this quick guide to the three most common phrases used by Americans around Election Day: [link]” would help to encourage additional engagement with the Embassy post, particularly with an elite or political audience short on time and needing a quick update on the latest U.S. Election slang.

Finally, the third post I’ve selected from the U.S. Embassy in South Africa’s Facebook page centered on the potential for voter fraud.

Figure 3: Screenshot of U.S. Embassy South Africa Facebook post on October 24, 2016, captured on November 22, 2016 3:45PM ET

This post is perhaps the most in line with the recommendations I suggest for further enhancing the effectiveness of the posts. The language is more intriguing to the South African audience, given the direct connection to the current discussion revolving around fraud in South African government, and includes a direct call to action to read the article by clicking on the link to learn more.

All of these U.S. Embassy South Africa posts use click-throughs to the, a website populated with State Department content which is “the U.S. Department of State’s platform for sharing compelling stories and images that spark discussion and debate on important topics like democracy, freedom of expression, innovation, entrepreneurship, education, and the role of civil society.”[1] This platform is an excellent representation of a dynamic, mobile-optimized website where the audience can expand their knowledge about official policy positions and current actions taken by the U.S. Government on the topics of the posts.

These three tactical approaches to refining social media content directly correlate to the strategy of furthering engagement with local populations and improving retention of U.S. policy positions. Each tactic can be further supplemented with the use of paid promoted posts in the social media platforms. A relatively small amount of dollars can go a long way to specify the audiences targeted by each message execution (certainly when compared to the cost of an exchange program or speaking tour, for example). The greatest measurements that would clearly portray an improvement in Embassy posts are engagement rates, impression numbers, click through measurements and the like, all of which are only available to the individual account managers and not this outsider. I urge the Department of State to consider these ideas in order to implement upgrades that further enhance audience targeting, segmentation, and resulting engagement throughout their online diplomatic strategy, including both paid and non-paid options.

The views expressed within are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of George Washington University.


The Okinawa Base Debate: A Microcosm of Contesting Narratives


A crowd gathers to protest the Okinawa base relocation.


The U.S. crafted the existing international system after World War II. This system carries on today through existing norms, treaties, and international bodies. In the unique case of Japan, U.S. influence lives on in its very Constitution. It is no coincidence, then, that with such a high level of influence, U.S.-Japan relations remain strong. However, multiple outside influences threaten the U.S.- led world order and challenge U.S.-Japan relations. Examples include the rise of regional powers and a multi-polar system, security threats in the Asia Pacific, and political shifts in the U.S. that normalize isolationist rhetoric and downplay nuclear proliferation. In the transition to the new world order Japan is redefining its identity and national narrative to cope with these changes, rather than recycling the post-War narrative crafted for and at the hands of the U.S. Maintaining one of our strongest alliances relies more than ever on the idea of the alliance itself. How will the U.S. craft its narrative in the face of a shifting international system? The Okinawa base relocation debate is a microcosm of this narrative contest.

Nowhere is Japan’s struggle to come to terms with the post-War world order more pronounced than in Okinawa. The debate over U.S. plans to relocate U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma has lasted over 20 years. U.S. and Japanese governments have been lobbying for the base’s move to Henoko, a more remote part of the island than the central hub of Futenma. However, the larger question is not whether locals support the base move, but whether they support U.S. military presence on the island at all. Okinawa already houses the majority of the American military presence in Japan, which residents feel is an unfair resource burden. Narratives ranging from environmental activism to pacifism have emerged in criticism of U.S. base relocation.

Now, as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emphasizes normalization and revisions to Article 9 of the Constitution, protests have reached a clarion call. Abe is continuing his campaign to realign Japan with the ever-shifting construct of “the West,” while many in the Japanese general public and the majority of the public in Okinawa prescribe to a divergent vision. Okinawa can be viewed as a microcosm of the narrative contest between traditionally defined notions of the “West” and rising counter-narratives about the West itself, as well as its importance in the multipolar order. Below, we map both pro- and anti-base narratives to depict counter-points and potential areas of collaboration. The outcome of this narrative contestation provides a window into future trends in U.S. – Japan relations.

This post uses the phrases “Base Relocation within Japan” and “Base Removal from Japan” as labels to analyze the broader contesting narratives. However, note that these are simplifications of local narratives with complexities beyond the scope of this post. Sourcing for narrative examples without links can be found in the footnotes.

“Base Relocation within Japan” narratives:

  • Emphasize the existing tacit understanding of the locals for the need to move the base
  • Focus on rising regional security threats and the need for continued deterrent capability of U.S. military
  • Place blame on previous Japanese government for introducing the idea to move the base elsewhere or outside the country all together. Highlight that the base relocation actually has a high level of city government support
  • Reassure the Japanese public that moving the base to a new location but still in Japan will improve safety, as it will not neighbor a large city
  • Promote the dichotomous narrative: either move U.S. Marine Corps Air Station to Henoko District, an assumed prerequisite for the continued shift of U.S. military forces to Guam; OR leave the base in Futenma in the midst of a large city and scrap the shift to Guam

In contrast, “Base Removal from Japan” narratives:

  • Raise concerns about the general safety of the locals surrounding military bases
  • Stress the impact on the environment
  • Highlight threat to Japanese history and culture
  • Generate fears of U.S. spying on Japanese private citizens
  • Argue for continued U.S. military presence, just not in their own prefecture (the “not in my backyard” argument)
  • Don’t dispute, but bury regional security issues, including rise in China’s defense spending and increasing aggression in the East China Sea, at the bottom of articles or include caveats
  • Emphasize the Japanese national government’s distance from and misunderstanding of locals, thereby disputing their legitimacy in implementing local policy
  • Catalogue the Okinawans’ “battle scars” from repeated instances of violence and war, including experiences with rape and robbery by U.S. soldiers, and U.S. use of Okinawa during the Vietnam War

Find examples of “base removal” narratives: here, here, here, here, here, and here.

If Japan’s national government is to achieve public support for the base relocation issue, the U.S. needs to rebrand its military as a force for peace in the region and win the narrative contest. There are some overlapping points between the two narrative camps, notably the consensus on rising regional security threats. However, for those in the “anti- base relocation” camp, the negative portrayal of U.S. soldiers and the linkage of the modern-day U.S. military with collective memory of violence on Okinawa trumps abstract regional threats. In short, the “anti-base relocation” camp does a better job making concerns relevant to Okinawans’ everyday lives. The U.S. needs to do the same, while addressing local needs and concerns.

This can be accomplished through:

  • More people-to-people interactions: i.e. engineers on base make visits to local schools to conduct classes and workshops
  • A demonstration of understanding of Okinawans’ experiences during the Vietnam War through events honoring Japanese casualties and memorial sites
  • Military cooperation with local government on humanitarian aid and disaster response
  • U.S. military’s direct response to local concerns through town-hall type events with extensive Japanese press coverage

The failure to address the Okinawa base relocation issue leaves space for competing narratives to gain traction. The above actions will contribute to an overall battle to “win the narrative”, not just in Okinawa, but within the U.S. – Japan security relationship as a whole.

The views presented in this post are the author’s own.

“Base relocation within Japan” Additional Narrative Examples:
(March 24, 2013 Sunday ). EDITORIAL; Govt must make utmost effort to realize Futenma relocation. The Daily Yomiuri(Tokyo), Retrieved from
(December 15, 2011 Thursday ). EDITORIAL; Govt must advance Futenma issue to lessen Okinawa’s base burdens. The Daily Yomiuri(Tokyo), Retrieved from
(November 7, 2011 Monday). Leave Futenma base as is? Not an option. The Nikkei Weekly (Japan), Retrieved from


Photo attribution:Protesters raising fists: By Nathan Keirn from Kadena-Cho, Japan (NAK_2421.jpg; to the Commons uploaded by odder) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Crowd gathering: By Nathan Keirn from Kadena-Cho, Japan (Masses.jpg; to the Commons uploaded by odder) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

8 Reasons to why Russian disinformation is successful in Germany

America and the rest of the world are still struggling to understand what led to the outcome of the U.S. presidential election of 2016. It is almost dangerous, at least surprising, that the influence of Russian cyberattacks and disinformation are not a major subject within current discussions. In terms of the U.S. election, Trump was certainly the pro-Kremlin candidate. At least the short-term reason for the Russian efforts can be explained through the possible advantages a president Trump means for Russian strategies.

After all, the email hack of the Democratic National Convention, the cyberattacks on Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and reports of hacks at The New York Times and other media organizations, should be enough of evidence for a sophisticated Russian strategy to interfere with the U.S. election – successfully.

This development was reason enough for the German chancellor Angela Merkel to announce concern and worries. Germany is already being the target of Russian hacker attacks and disinformation.

With a view to the upcoming elections in September 2017, Merkel warned of a possible increase of Russian interference, especially during the election campaigns.


Russian strategist and president Vladimir Putin Icon made by Business Dubai from

Russian Propaganda is more and more focused on Germany and German society. Its main goal: triggering and establishing a feeling of insecurity within the German population and weakening Germany’s position on Russia.

The reason for the recent interest in Germany is most likely linked to the politics of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Following the annexation of Crimea by Russia, Merkel successfully pushed through sanctions against Russia by mutual European agreement.

Presumably Russia wants to weaken Merkel’s standing, thereby Germany’s role in the European Union, i.e., hoping the European front for sanctions will crumble and back down. In times of domestic political challenges in Germany and a fundamental crisis of the EU, Russia aims at using this momentum to successfully implement its disinformation.           


Why is Russian disinformation frequently successful in targeting Germany?

Influencing the German public opinion, Russia has strategically chosen to exert its influence by addressing German vulnerabilities. That is to say Russia has studied the German society, its sentiments and fragmentations as well as the fears and worries concerning (parts of) the society.

The following are eight reasons Germany is particularly susceptible to Russian disinformation.

  1. Addressing and triggering already existing anti-Western resentments

Russian disinformation tries to promote anti-capitalism, nationalism and anti-Western resentments. Experts conclude Putin’s worldview of the Decadent West is broadly shared within parts of the German society. Russian propaganda concentrates on the right and left margins of society, knowing the breeding ground for their messages is especially promising.


Like Matryoshka dolls: One need’s to examine Russian disinformation to the very core to identify motifs and intentions


  1. The Russian-German population

There are several million Russian-Germans within Germany. A proportion of them has been partly socialized in the former Soviet Union, making them more vulnerable and open to Russian propaganda. The results of a survey one were particularly striking: 19 percent indicated they trust German media, whereas 30 percent trust the Russian media. Conditions like these invite to particularly tailor information for these groups. The right-wing populist party AfD used flyers in Russian during their campaign, targeting those minorities successfully.

  1. Historical connections and War History

One historical connection is the historical sense of guilt following the criminally aggressive war against the Soviet Union. Another is gratitude for German reunification as a gift from the former Soviet President Michail Gorbatschow and the narrative of politics towards the East since the seventies, stating one has to keep the dialogue and the door open. This pattern has anchored itself in many peoples’ mind, establishing some kind of moral obligation to ensure peaceful relations with the Russian neighbor. It might be one reason why elderly statesman, like Gerhard Schröder, are so-called Putin-sympathisers.

  1. Germany is wavering between West and East

Germany’s geological position puts it in a vulnerable situation of interdependence

Germany is in the crucial and important role of being a communicator between the East and West. 

As powerful this role is, it can put the country in the horns of a dilemma, making it vulnerable for external forces trying to influence the fragmented public opinion.






  1. The momentum of the refugee crisis

Germany has taken in most of refugees in Europe. The welcome-culture at the beginning of the crisis has faded slowly away, followed by a change in public opinion. The terror attacks in Europe, including those in Germany, made extreme parties and organizations stronger. Russia not only supports these groups financially, but its media (Sputnik and RT are both active in Germany) produce  stories putting refugees in a bad light, triggering further rejection of them and thereby in the end a rejection of Merkel and her politics.

  1. Mistrust in public institutions and elites

As many other democracies, Germany is struggling with a part of its society feeling lost and disconnected. Some Germans are tired of traditional politics based on compromise; the politicians and the media are not trustworthy anymore – a perception that is enormously used by the Russians. Their disinformation strategy does not only provide wrong or misleading information, but in the end aims at causing a general mistrust in media.

  1. Russian networks of influence

Russia has succeeded in recruiting German politicians for important economic projects, like the Nord Stream pipeline.  Former chancellor Gerhard Schröder is probably the best known example, being the board chairman of the Russian-German pipeline. He might be the most prominent case, but by far not the only one. Next to these individual cases, Russia has built up a broad influential network through civil society connections, including experts, journalists and lobby institutions.

  1. Germany is struggling with its own new narrative

Germany is still in the process of changing its narrative concerning foreign policy and defense leadership. Not only needs the narrative to transform into real policies, but also it needs to gain sufficient public support. In this contested period of change, Germany is especially vulnerable to foreign interference and disinformation campaigns.

Russia will play a prominent role in the campaign for the upcoming federal elections in Germany. This should be a chance, or even an obligation, to address the issues lined out in this post.


When Public Diplomacy Is a Bad Joke: The importance of in-groups and out-groups to the successful use of humor by diplomats


Secretary of State John Kerry jokes with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta | State House, Nairobi | August 22, 2016 | Photo credit: U.S. Department of State


Derision is a complicated thing. At its most sophomoric, derision is little more than blowing raspberries on the playground – good for a laugh at someone’s expense but without much of a point. When given proper thought and execution, though, derision can deliver persuasive satire or charming self-deprecation, both of which bond audience and humorist closer together.

While diplomats use humor regularly to engage foreign audiences, often with successful results, there is little study of its use as a public diplomacy tool. Unfortunately, there is no formal understanding of the strategic use of humor when engaging foreign audiences. As a result, we see some nightmares when humor is poorly applied. When a diplomat’s joke bombs, the risk of real bombs is greater than when a new stand-up chokes at Comedy Works. It’s like Bono pleading with the UN to send a CVE-comedy task-force to Syria – we seem to know that there’s something there, but we just can’t quite grasp how to harness it.

Let’s talk about the failures of derision in public diplomacy. The most glaring example is “Think Again, Turn Away,” a counter-terrorism effort so poorly conceived that even our own comedians mocked it. In 2013, the Global Engagement Center from the U.S. Department of State launched the video “Think Again, Turn Away” on YouTube, intending to reach the same young audience that ISIS targeted online for recruitment. It wasn’t long before people realized that the snark-filled, sardonic PSA was utterly tone-deaf.



The team that produced “Think Again, Turn Away” undoubtedly understands the situation in ISIS-occupied territories better than most. They just don’t know comedy.

For every joke, there is an in-group and an out-group. These groups may be defined as those who get the joke and those who don’t, or along the classic laughing with/laughing at split. Derision especially lends itself to this split, more so than other comedic styles. Creating distinct in-groups and out-groups can reinforce or undermine existing narratives, depending on how those groups are framed.

Think of it this way: Everyone has a story in their head that tells them who they are. That’s our identity narrative. We have stories about our place in that world. We call those system narratives. In every narrative, there is a protagonist (the in-group) and an antagonist (the out-group). Generally, people like to be the protagonists of their own stories. We make this happen by aligning our identity narratives and system narratives in such a way that we belong to the in-group throughout. So, if we hear a different narrative, perhaps in the form of a joke, that recasts us as members of the out-group, we will reject that narrative. Not only that, we’ll likely cast whoever shared that narrative as a member of the out-group in our own narratives.


Here is a narrative map for a typical ISIS recruit, based on research on ISIS target messaging:

  Identity Narrative System Narrative
ISIS Recruit Young, over-educated & underemployed, an outsider (perceived or actual) of mainstream society, destined to and/or worthy of greatness Living in a society that is hostile towards identity, unjust, limited opportunities to advance; the West is keeping true believers down, only the caliphate is righteous

“Think Again, Turn Away” tries to undermine the “righteous caliphate” narrative by using sarcasm to cast ISIS in the out-group. However, the video fails to draw the potential recruits into its in-group. Therefore, it’s mockery only reinforces the theme of separation between recruits and the West present in both narrative levels.


So, if we hear a different narrative, perhaps in the form of a joke, that recasts us as members of the out-group, we will reject that narrative. Not only that, we’ll likely cast whoever shared that narrative as a member of the out-group in our own narratives.

Understanding the dynamics of in-groups and out-groups isn’t just good comedy – it’s good communication. Philip Seib says that successful communication is always audience based and ties into the narratives of that audience’s socio-political context. Obviously, “Think Again, Turn Away” is not audience based. Rather than embrace its target audience, clearly marking themselves as being “on the same team,” or both part of the in-group, the narrator mocks the ideological society that said audience expressed interest in joining. That is why the video targets its specified audience, after all. By mocking the group with which the audience has already identified, even superficially, it casts both in the out-group, cementing the audience’s allegiance to the butt of the joke.

One might have done less damage trying to sincerely persuade potential recruits to join ISIS. John Oliver points out that the State Department is “banking a lot on any potential militants understanding that [“Think Again, Turn Away”] is sarcasm,” the implication being that the intended audience won’t get the joke. Alternatively, the audience might understand the joke, but doesn’t find it the least bit funny. Either way, the video reinforces extremist messaging by squarely casting the audience in the out-group.

Whether or not potential recruits have the capacity or inclination to “appreciate” the video’s try at sarcasm, humans respond to humor cognitively and emotionally.  No one likes being mocked; it makes us feel bad. You learned this blowing raspberries on the playground. When the audience you are trying to reach is also the butt of your joke, you have missed the point.


The views expressed here are the author’s only and do no necessarily represent those of George Washington University.

People of the Book: What Explains the Rise of Extremism in The Muslim World?


master narratives of islamic extremism ISIS ISIL

Islamic master narratives are blamed for the rise of terrorism at home and abroad. However, these assertions do not explain the seeming explosion of extremism. (Koran Image: CC BY 2.0 | Flickr: Crystalina, Video Still: Islamic State Video)

Perhaps one of the defining characteristics of religion is that it provides a structure for adherents to process the world around them. For the world’s Muslims, who have been rocked by isolated waves of violent extremism in recent decades, their religion provides a rich cultural history that is interwoven with grand narratives of holy wars, martyrs, and heroes. Scholars and public diplomacy officials are quick to point to these more violent narratives as the root cause of Islamic extremism—but these assertions do not explain why Islam, of all the world’s religions, has been most affected. These explanations, whether intentionally or not, ignore or minimize the effects of eroding political and religious control centers and rising global secularism that have acutely affected Muslim population centers.

The Rationale for Muslim Extremism

It is hard to fault scholars for trying to simplify the origins of this outbreak to a narrative susceptibility of the Muslim faith. In public diplomacy, where words are actions, exploring the cultural schema of a foreign community is an important exercise that can ensure that no communication further emboldens the very extremists that a communicator is trying to undermine. Of course, religions of all types include stories of war, conflict, and worldly struggles that have cosmic ramifications. And the overwhelming majority of religious scholars acknowledge that some of these cultural master narratives – especially the Abrahamic faiths of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism – provide a framework for individuals to process events that can run counter to western secular values. One needs only to look to the overt religious themes of Islamic State beheading videos or the hate mongering screed that fills Aryan Nations message boards to see what a religious narrative used to mobilize extremism looks like.

aryan nations members salute flag

Three Aryan Nations members salute with a banner that incorporates religious and patriotic symbols in this undated photograph from a website purporting to represent the group. (Image: Susan Hillman |

However, the Muslim world has been suffering from the acute effects of power vacuums of religion and state that have left room for extremist groups to grow accompanied by a rising global secularism that has increasingly alienated devout Muslims. In the midst of this societal turmoil, isolated pockets of fundamentalist believers and psychologically disturbed malcontents are prone to radicalization and acts of violence.

Power Vacuums of Religion and State

While Western governments are not entirely immune to the effects of eroding public trust, Islamic nations — particularly those states where groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda have staked out a presence — have been racked by wars, coups and general unrest that involve complex structural problems in governance, demographics, and economics. Against this general backdrop of instability is an increasingly violent schism between various sects of Islam (namely fundamentalist Sunni and Shia groups) that can now reach a global audience with their specific brands of Islam.

At one time, the splintering effects of sectarianism were mitigated by the Muslim caliphs. As secular and spiritual leaders, they defined the faith for their followers and fulfilled a spiritual need for an Allah-sanctioned ruler on earth who could separate “right” interpretations from apostasy. Nominally secular governments took the caliphs place in the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, some even providing religious leadership in the form of state sanctioned imams who work closely with political leaders to align state policy with the Koran. Even today, the close relationship  between government and religion is supported by a plurality among Muslims in these nations who want to see religious leaders take on more political control.


Image: Pew Research Center

However, when these secular governments fail to keep the peace in the Middle East, the power vacuums are often filled with religious extremists– especially in nations where government’s implicit support for harsh treatment of religious minorities, “heretics” and “apostates” is present.  Weak or oppressive governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan and in Syria and Iraq have been blamed for the rise of Al Qaeda and ISIL.

Rising Secularism and Group Identification Pressures

At the same time, devout Muslims are facing a world that is increasingly ignorant of and outright hostile towards religion. Western nations with high percentages of Christian residents like the U.S., U.K., and Germany embrace religious freedom and tolerate religious practice. There are correspondingly low rates of radicalization in these countries. However, nations like France, which enshrines secularism and the exclusion of ecclesiastical control and influence in its constitution, are moving towards a new paradigm where liberalism and secularization means rejection of the “close-mindedness” and “backwards” thinking that accompanies religious practice. Muslims, who are cast as demeaning women and are a rapidly growing demographic in Europe, have been a visible target of reforms that ban full body Islamic religious dress like the niqab or the “burkini.” Other Abrahamic religions have largely discarded these practices, or their religious dress has been normalized over centuries of exposure. These same conservative Muslims are being asked to condemn fundamentalist extremists’ faith and “moderate” their behavior. This in-group, out-group mentality, and the disdain for religious peoples that accompanies it, alienate Muslims who themselves are fundamentalists, but have come to different conclusions about what their faith requires. Charismatic extremist groups like ISIL use this forced black/white, secular/religious paradigm to recruit fundamentalists and other disaffected Westerners who are drawn to the meaning and sense of purpose that a religious group can offer in an increasingly relativistic world.

muslim woman niqab france 2010

A Muslim woman wears a niqab in France in this 2010 photo. Image: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 | Flickr User anw-fr

 A Rational Conclusion to Fundamentalist Oppression

After making the leap to extremism, fundamentalist adherents can easily rationalize acts of war and terrorism to further their geo-political goals as God’s will for their movement. For the Islamic State, this means conquering territory and drawing the west into a war that their members believe will trigger the apocalypse. For Al-Qaeda before them, it meant using terrorism to draw concessions from Western military forces abroad. Misguided attempts by the west to fight this extremism have only further inflamed tensions that excite members to join and fight.

Western nations must be vigilant in their efforts to minimize further impact of these global trends that have bolstered the rise of Islamic extremism and must be wary of ignoring these problems at home. Banning religious dress, forcing secularism, and otherwise alienating religious groups will only lead to more extremism, as France has seen after multiple local ordinances banning conservative Muslim dress became international news.

The rise of Islamic extremism is a lesson for the world’s leaders: Wherever people feel oppressed, ignored, and alienated in their own country; or where government leaves a vacuum of power, control, or support; there is ample opportunity for charismatic groups to provide the solution.

The views expressed in this blog are the author’s only and do not necessarily reflect those of George Washington University.

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