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.
Peer-to-Peer: Challenging Extremism (P2P) is an innovative program that removes a hierarchical government approach to digital youth outreach. It does so by providing the resources for university students to creatively implement localized solutions that reach the target demographic: their own age group using their own preferred online platforms. On the International Day of Peace, September 21, regional winners from the U.S., Finland, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Netherlands, presented their creative digital outreach campaigns in New York City to encourage moderation and integration in communities plagued by online extremism, prejudice, and hate.
Keynote speakers from co-hosts Facebook, U.S. Department of State, and EdVenture Partners highlighted the rapid growth of the international P2P competition and ingenuity of the students. The program’s 250 universities across 60 countries have students work with $400 in Facebook Ad Credits and $2,000 budget for academic credit to research a target audience and then create a digital media initiative, tool, or product to counter online extremism. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Richard Stengel, described the program as the “model for public-private partnerships at State. We love this program because we get out of the way.” Head of Product Policy at Facebook, Monika Bickert, said the local and global campaigns are so inspiring because the students are responding to their environment, and they can thus develop effective solutions. Under Secretary Stengel reinforced this critical need to act upon understanding by elaborating on his media experience, “as a journalist, when I asked the wrong question, I got the wrong answer.” The following are brief summaries of how each winning team answered the “right” answer with their innovative solutions, with further details on their campaign sites.
All teams presented their strategic off and online, peer-driven campaigns that detailed design, implementation, and results. New York University’s conflict studies Masters students focused on diversity and integration processes based on teammates’ experiences feeling vulnerable as outsiders. They described how their campaigns evolved from the #7TrainStop on immigrants in Queens, into the Voices of New York Resolve on countering hate in Brooklyn, which will now focus on radicalization in Bronx prisons. The team has collaborated with local and international organizations to mutually support countering extremism goals, such as garnering 43, 831 Facebook views and 384,340 Youtube views on BuzzFeed-released, “When Hate Speech Comes to Campus.” [#7TrainStop]
The Turku School of Economics [Finland] and Utrecht University [Netherlands] concentrated on refugee integration. The Finnish team created a mobile application that addressed the ~1,000% increase in asylum-seekers entering Finland from 2014 to 2015. They identified four major problems refugees face: Lack of information on the city and country; Lack of contact with locals; Lack of activities in the reception center; and negative attitudes among the local population. Interestingly, these challenges are similar to those new students may encounter when moving to Turku. The team designed multimedia events to increase locals’ awareness, interest, and opinion of newcomers. “United by Food” was a day-long pop-up for refugees to sell food from their home country. “About Turku” made city information accessible by transforming pre-existing records into a free mobile download in Arabic and English. The Dutch team tackled the heated European political climate in “#DareToBeGrey: An Alternative to the Black & White Fallacy.” They created a humorous online series to raise awareness that it is possible to have a moderate stance on refugee intake. The online efforts combined with their recent five-city Dutch tour have reached over eight million people. Both campaigns give agency to Europeans and refugees through multimedia. [Choose Your Future] [#DareToBeGrey]
The Pakistani and Afghan teams focused on dispelling misuses of politicized Islam. The Afghan team from Laal-u-Anar Foundation identified TV and Facebook as the most wide-reaching outlets to defend their religion in #IslamSaysNoToExtremism while sharing Quranic verses that reinforced peacemaking messages. The Lahore University of Management Sciences project, “Fate: From Apathy to Empathy,” highlighted comprehensive programs to re-incentivize Pakistanis who felt they were “just a number” in the destruction and deaths from violent extremism. They countered the apathy by organizing concerts, tours, video games, activism workshops, and education programs to empower and humanize citizens. Both teams cite youth activation through media campaigns to promote moderate Islam to various demographics, as well as calling attention to a narrowing window of opportunity for effective counter-extremism. [International Strategic Studies] [Fate]
Event host, Dean Obeidallah, concluded by reinforcing the magnitude of violent extremism in Asia, explaining that “over 90% of victims of ISIL and al-Qaeda are Muslims, but the U.S. media doesn’t cover it so Americans don’t know.” Mr. Obeidallah paraphrased Robert F. Kennedy to encourage youth to recognize their potential and collaborate because “few of us alone can change and bend history, but together, collectively, we can write a narrative of our generation.” Indeed, a compelling, accessible narrative needs to be solidified to effectively counter various forms of extremism around the world, and the P2P program is leading the way.
On April 12, 2013, the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv hosted a day-long conference for Ukrainian women entrepreneurs focusing on business owners of small and medium enterprises. The goal of the event was to promote the importance of Ukrainian women in fostering economic growth, build the confidence of women entrepreneurs to take on leading roles in business and society, provide practical tools for further empowerment, and serve as a platform for networking.
It was less than one year ago when I visited Kyiv as Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Today, seeing the unrest, I am reminded of the importance of US-Ukrainian cultural ties. While in Kyiv, I helped launch the construction of the new American Center to build ties between our two nations. Former US Ambassador John Teft and I knocked down a wall as contractors worked to create a convening place to keep Ukrainians and Americans connecting with one another. I also met with bloggers and media, and was the keynote speaker at the Women’s Forum.
I visited school no. 168 in Kyiv where they are providing mainstream education to students with cognitive and physical disabilities. I met with children learning English through a State Department funded program. I was moved to tears at Babyn Yar, the site of a series of massacres carried out by the Nazis during their campaign against the Soviet Union.
As events unfold, let’s focus on the people as well as the politics. There are beautiful cultural sites throughout the country that must be preserved. Artists, journalists, young people, the LGBT community, and women must have their rights and freedoms.
Congratulations to Richard Stengel, the new Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. All of us – especially those of us who have done the job – wish you well. We know how vital the work of PD is at this time in our nation’s history.
The Under Secretary’s introductory message to the public diplomacy community is a welcome sign of outreach and engagement. It lays out some clear foreign policy objectives and goals including the need to forge new and deeper connections with young leaders. It is especially gratifying to see that the youth focus will “put special attention on girls and under-served youth.”
The other priorities mentioned in the note include focus on entrepreneurism, educational diplomacy, environmental diplomacy, countering violent extremism, and the need for enhanced public diplomacy training and resources.
The network of public diplomacy practitioners will be ready to assist.