Strategic Narratives and the Public

Extra credit Question:  Are “strategic narratives” something everyday publics can control or shape? Do publics, in a sense, “matter” more to the idea that strategic narratives get international actors to change their behavior or “see the world” differently? Why? 

After I wrote my blog last week, I came across a post from Vox about  the “Not in my name” campaign that challenged my thinking about what I wrote last week. It made me want to clarify some things with regard to strategic narratives and I’m glad this gives me the opportunity to do just that.

I had written that the message needs to come from other Muslims or else it won’t be credible. I had written this thinking that other faiths would be considered “infidels” and not versed in scripture and thus not credible.

I still think this is true. However, upon reading a few other articles and reading this proposed blog post question, I think this is a topic worthy of clarification.

Some have said that Muslims should ALL be speaking out because they as a whole could help the strategic narrative and as this question poses “get international actors to change their behavior or see the world differently.” However, is expecting someone to denounce something because of their faith inherently bigoted? I think it is if we are talking about blanket expectations based on religion or ethnicity.

In an article, Vox news highlighted a conversation between Chuck Todd and the author of the book “Who Speaks for Islam,” Dalia Mogahed, about the issue of anti-Islamic sentiment in the U.S as well as the expectation that Muslim leaders speak out after terrorist events.

Her interview is worth watching because she has some interesting points about how anti-Islamic sentiment aligns with the presidential elections and lead-up to the Iraq war. But she also, rightfully so, says that no one would expect any other ethnicity to denounce something that is inherently abhorrent to human beings. It would just be understood that it is horrendous to all people.

Still, I do think credible voices can have a positive influence when their voices are amplified.

Dovetailing on that logic, British teen Kash Ali saw his tweet go viral when he wrote:

“I don’t understand why non muslims think we British Muslims can stop isis. Mate I can’t even get a text back from a girl I like and you expect me to stop a terrorist organization. Ffs.”

His tweet was retweeted by members of parliament, J.K. Rowling and Stephen King.

It’s a hilarious tweet. However, I also think it demonstrates both sides of the coin. On one hand, I do think it helped shed light on the subtle bigotry of expecting Muslims to fight the ideology of what most reasonable people would call a cult. On the flip side, his tweet also shows how social media in the hands of the public can work to reverse a flawed strategic narrative. So in conclusion, I think both are possibilities. Again, I think a lot depends on the receptiveness of the receiving parties.



Is there a way to use a “strategic narrative” to combat violent extremism? If so, how do you think this might work in practice?

After the Paris attacks on Friday, a friend of mine who is Muslim posted a picture with this quote from the Quran: “Whoever kills an innocent person it is as if he has killed all of humanity.”

She posted it along with a message of peace and a plea not to judge all Muslims by the extremists in Daesh.

I thought of this as I heard Farah Pandith speak on Face the Nation Sunday morning. Pandith was the first ever special representative to Muslim communities with the U.S. State Department. She now is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.  She had some very smart takes on the challenge facing the West with Daesh’s recruitment of soldiers.

For one, she says, we had to accept Daesh has a strategic narrative:

“By demonstrating military power (taking over territories) and psychological power (stoking fear and recruiting youth) they have developed a narrative of success. This narrative is critical to them. They can’t win over new recruits if they are perceived as weak. Thus, their momentum must be broken in both the military and ideological war.”

Pandith also makes a very good point that the best way to counter violent extremism is by amplifying the credible voices that counter it. She points out it is possible to create a new narrative, however, she suggests we need to treat the response in the same scale that we would consider a military response.

“Since the September 11 attacks, the military response to terrorist organizations has been vital, as well as the ability to shut down their financing. But, we cannot win the war against extremists without a “soft power” strategy. Their armies can’t be built without recruits,” Pandith said.

Pandith suggests that governments don’t have credibility in this arena. She suggests governments should give support to organizations who have a credible voice but don’t have the avenues to amplify that voice.

For instance, last year, a small group of Muslims living in London made a powerful anti-Daesh video. Using the hashtag #notinmyname, they started a campaign to counter the messages from Islamic extremists on social media.

There is an opportunity for a credible strategic narrative of peace, but that message has to come from other Muslims or else the narrative and the message will not be received.

In addition, there also needs to be a strategic narrative countering the narrative of fear and power promoted by the heinous acts committed by Daesh. That can be done by, as one opinion column in the Boston Globe suggests, using the term Daesh instead of ISIS since ISIS suggests that Daesh is a legitimate nation-state. In a small way, the pictures of buildings lit with the French flag are countering that narrative. However, there could be a more organized “anti-fear” narrative. I’m just not exactly sure what that would look like without looking militaristic. Perhaps others have better ideas?


Is an Internet Civics Class a Good Idea?

2) A thought-provoking (and related question): Should there be some form of internet technology and governance literacy? Given how central the internet is as a platform for politics, cultural, and social life – does the Internet require a different kind of citizenship responsibility? 

Just this week, one of the “trending” things on Facebook was that the “Seven Sister’s Gift Exchange” is a pyramid scheme.

There’s an entire website, Snopes, built around dispelling internet rumors and urban legends.

Yet people keep falling for and spreading false information.

Every few months, there’s a new story about what information an app collects on you, and for a moment there is outrage.

A week later, everyone reloads the app onto their phone and nothing changes.

If what we’re proposing here is a sort of “internet civics” class, I think that is a wise thing for schools to consider. Educating citizens about how companies use their information, how to process and trust information, as well as the consequences of spreading false information all could make the conversation in the public sphere more civil and informed.

Would it work? I’m not as confident in that answer.

Even Jimmy Kimmel made a joke of how easily people believe what they see online with the “twerking woman catches on fire” video.

Most people access the internet in their own homes where they feel comfortable and safe. They access information from friends who recommend content and sites to visit. In addition, people see the front end of the design that gives them information and happiness. They don’t think about the other side because they don’t want to think about the back end of a website. They also don’t want to think about the idea that friends might give them false information.

So as much as we’d like to think that lifting the curtain to reveal the wizard would help improve the public sphere, I think frankly, average citizens don’t care and I doubt they would even if they were educated about it.

If a message is disseminated and no one hears it, did it happen?

3) How might a focus on audience over messaging change the nature of how nation-states engage in mediated public diplomacy? (e.g – the anti-ISIS/ISIL campaign)

Just this week, the Department of Defense gave a briefing to a House panel about the challenges of “countering adversarial propaganda.”

Some of the challenges that Michael Lumpkin, Assistant Defense Secretary for Special Operations and Low-intensity Conflict, described to the panel weren’t that different than any company trying to manage its social media presence. Those include its immediacy, low-cost entry, its limitless reach and its ability to unite and empower diaspora.

However I’ve noticed, whether referring to fighting the Islamic State or trying to counter the messaging of Russian troll armies, the United States uses one common word in many of its press releases and briefings. That common word is “dissemination.”

The word implies a very one-sided and dated communications strategy. This may have been appropriate language in the radio age, but in the social media age, there is an expectation you understand your audience and seek to interact with them.

An audience focused messaging system would use the word “engagement.” The question suggests by considering audience, you abandon messaging. That’s not the case. Rather, you tailor your message to for your audience by considering their motivations, concerns and receptiveness to the message.

I think this changes public diplomacy in two ways. First, instead of just projecting a message and expecting it is heard, the nation-state has to think of ways to create a message that engages diaspora to feel ownership of that message. Second, I think the nation-state has to then empower the diaspora to share and spread that message as well as give the diaspora information to counter adversarial messages with their own unique, authentic messages.

This change isn’t unique to diplomacy. It’s also a challenge journalists face as well. However, I find it impossible to think that a communications strategy would ever be effective if you aren’t considering the audience you are trying to reach and how that audience would best receive said message. As the old adage goes, “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears it, did it happen?” In the same spirit I pose this question: If a message is “disseminated” and no one hears/engages with it, did it happen?

The Pyongyang Perspective

2) Do international news broadcasters contribute to a more enlightened global public sphere, or, do they reinforce local perspectives?

Certainly, international broadcasters are responsible to their viewers. The news they cover as well as the questions they ask often are the ones their audience demands. Sometimes this does make me worry that important stories are overlooked simply because an American audience does not care about the topic or it is not a popular subject.

However, overall, broadcasters do provide new information and perspective to the people in their home country. From the BBC to Vice, there are a lot of options for viewers to gain knowledge about the world. However, it is ultimately up to the viewer to consume that news product instead of the Real Housewives of where ever.

I’d point to Seth Doane with CBS news, based in Beijing, as a great example of a broadcaster providing information to make the global sphere more educated. In my opinion, he does a superb job answering the questions his American audience would want answered while also balancing the demands of the Chinese government and enlightening American viewers about the Chinese perspective.

He was one of the journalists in Tianjin who showed his confrontation with police while trying to gain access to the explosion site.

Today, Doane was in North Korea and filed several reports which I think are particularly good. Before he began his liveshot this morning, he disclosed Western journalists were invited by the DPRK and journalists were only seeing and interviewing people arranged by minders. However, he said they agreed to these terms because the news organization felt any access is newsworthy in itself.

Doane is clearly surrounded by minders (you can see it in the video) and he delivers the message of the DPRK. However, I believe his tone and disclosures provide for a very enlightening report allowing viewers to make their own conclusions about what they are seeing.

To me, it also seems clear that Pyongyang also believes that international broadcasters are shaping global discussion or why else would Kim Jong Un invite a plane full of Western journalists to North Korea for the 70th anniversary military parade. Some American experts have suggested North Korea has plans to do weapons testing at this event. If that is the case, North Korea is clearly betting on Western media to provide a counter flow of information to the rest of the world. The bigger question: How will the rest of the world perceive whatever message is delivered?


Dimming the lights on globalization

Do you think the globalization of communication flows has, perhaps counter-intuitively, prompted the *increased* relevance of the nation-state as international actor? Or, do you think that efforts to control or defend information sovereignty are ultimately doomed to fail?

My short answer: Yes and no.

I do think globalization has made people more aware of the differences between nations and, in a world that seems to big, made people feel more allegiance to their smaller nation-state. That identity or patriotism, I think, helps people have a sense of identity and makes people feel like they have a place in the world.

The vast amount of information traded globally has also scared some governments into trying to control flow of information. I think the dizzying array of information available online, both true and untrue, worries governments who are concerned about their internal stability. I think that’s why along with seeing firewalls in places like Russia and China, you are also seeing transitional governments like during the Arab Spring and currently in Thailand (where the military junta has recently proposed reducing the number of internet access points in and out of Thailand from nine to one).

But I don’t think it is sustainable. I definitely ascribe to the “Cute Cat Theory” as to why. I also think that one of the themes of history is that people will rise up to a government which is oppressive. Whether it is through VPNs or another technological method, people will find ways around restrictions. Already in Thailand, people are signing a petition opposing the military’s proposed action.

North Korea also provides a good example.

North Korea has the strictest internet information policy in the world, yet as PBS’ Frontline exposed, people are still smuggling movies in and out of the country.

I read many articles suggesting that North Korea’s attack on Sony Pictures wasn’t as much about being “insulted” but rather about keeping North Korea’s propaganda machine going. There are some theorists who also believe that Kim Jung Un was concerned the movie will be smuggled into the country and inspire North Koreans to take up arms against an oppressive government.

That’s a pretty logical argument. There are defectors from North Korea who used balloons to send copies of western movies as well as pamphlets into the DPRK.

Admittedly, none of that propaganda has resulted in any substantial change in the North Korean people to date. History will have to be the judge of these theories. However, it just doesn’t seem practical in a world that is so interconnected to shut down access to part of the globe. It seems like dimming the lights on information would only leave the country’s own people in the dark.


Lost in Translation: The Effects of Nationalism on Foreign Policy

While media may shape the idea of a nation, in a capitalist democracy the ideals of the people of that nation also shape the media.

News organizations make money by gaining an audience and, therefore, spend LOTS of money researching what people want to see on TV. Unfortunately, the problem is different parts of media target a specific demographic. In local news, that demographic is typically women 25-54 because they make the purchasing decisions in a household.

When you watch television, a lot of what you see will target this demographic. Obviously, different channels and organizations will have different demographics. ESPN reaches a different demographic than MTV. In a broader sense, the music and film industry is also targeting demographics and are trying to “sell” their product. Knowing this makes it unlikely, in my opinion, that the media is entirely responsible for driving the concept of a “nation” –at least in a democracy.

I do, however, think it creates a mutual relationship where although the media is projecting ideals and values at an audience, an audience is also holding the media accountable to the community’s expectations of the “nation’s” values. In democracy, media is a two-way street.

That is important for foreign policy and national security because this is the image our media captures is what is projected to the rest of the world. In addition, in countries where the media is controlled by the government and may be used to project the idea of “nation,” leaders may think what they see in democratic media is reflective of that government.

I have a couple examples here. First, after 9/11 there was a lot of controversy over Toby Keith’s song “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (the Angry American)”

The lyrics, while pretty funny and patriotic to some parts of America, can come across as imperialistic and militaristic. Keith received much criticism about the song from both the Dixie Chicks and ABC Anchor Peter Jennings who feared the song may reflect poorly on America abroad.

I remember seeing Toby Keith in concert at the Arkansas-Oklahoma fair and before he sang this song he told the audience, “I know this song has upset some people. But it’s just a song.”

Everyone cheered.

However, what Mr. Keith didn’t understand is that “song” projects an image of America. I had a friend in international relations say the same thing about Jersey Shore and the Real Housewives. We understand that these are small parts of America, but those overseas might think “this IS America.”

Another example might be seen in the interview between 60 Minutes’ reporter Steve Kroft and Iran President Hassan Rouhani. Kroft asked Rouhani about the chants Americans see from Iranian media of “Death to America.” Rouhani said they were not chanting about death to the average American but to the policies of the U.S. Government.

We could have a lengthy debate about whether President Rouhani is being honest and this is just something “lost in translation.” I’ve certainly read reports and heard from people who have visited Iran that say the Iranian people are very welcoming and often say they love Americans. However, this is certainly the image that causes concern among many Republicans who believe those images reflect the people and the government of Iran. Those lawmakers are now vocalizing these concerns when examining whether a deal with Iran is in the best interest of the United States’ national security.

Both instances show these media messages, whether in pop-culture or news reports, can certainly impact foreign policy and could have an impact on national security if governments act on misinterpreted messages.


Answering question #2