Ben O'Loughlin will take part in a series of talks this week about strategic narratives at the International Studies Association (ISA) Annual Convention in New Orleans. At ISA there will be over 5,000 delegates including a vibrant Communications research section. Ben will take part on a roundtable on 'rapid-response public diplomacy', chair a panel of emerging research on strategic narratives, and present two co-authored papers exploring political leaders' narratives of conflict and how audiences interpret them. Details are below. We hope to see some of you in New Orleans!
- Chair: Ben O'Loughlin (Royal Holloway, University of London)
- Discussant: Laura Roselle (Elon University)
- Author: R. S. Zaharna (American University)
- Author: Valentina Bartolucci (University of Pisa)
- Author: Steven Corman (Arizona State University)
- Author: Mark J. Rolfe (University of New South Wales)
- Author: Amelia H. Arsenault (Georgia State University)
- Chair: Fabrizio Coticchia (Sant'Anna School of Advanced Studies - Pisa (Italy))
- Discussant: Amy Skonieczny (San Francisco State University)
Public Narratives about Syria: A Q-Sort Analysis of UK and US Students - Laura Roselle, Alister Miskimmon and Ben O'Loughlin
Scholars of international communication recognize that narratives are important to the construction of policy agendas and implementation. This paper addresses the broader communication context for understanding foreign policy in the United Kingdom and the United States in regard to Syria. This study first analyzes and categorizes UK Parliamentary statements and US Congressional statements on Syria found in the UK Hansard Parliamentary record and the U.S. Congressional Record, and then applies a Q-sort methodology to assess how individuals construct their own narratives about foreign policy towards Syria. It shows that individual citizens’ perspectives are far more nuanced than dominant elite narratives suggest, underlining the need for further research in to how audiences receive and interpret political communication. This study demonstrates how individuals select policy narratives on Syria emerging from debates in the United Kingdom and the United States. The paper highlights 6 British and 4 American narratives which respondents generate from their engagement with policy debates in 2013-14 on whether to militarily intervene in Syria. This demonstrates how strategic narratives of policy makers are reconfigured by individuals in how they understand the Syrian crisis.
Red Lines: Syria, Metaphor and Narrative - Federica Ferrari and Ben O'Loughlin
Did Obama’s ‘red lines’ metaphor nearly trigger a military intervention in Syria in the summer of 2013? What work does that metaphor do in shaping understandings and conduct in international affairs? The term is used by political leaders to express likely behavioural consequences to international rivals and allies and to domestic publics. What difference in diplomatic practice does it make to speak of a line, and a red one? How do such metaphors trigger or sustain narratives, and how do narratives interact with metaphors? In the context of conflict in Syria we examine the trajectory and remediation of the red lines metaphor, taking as an empirical nexus a series of officials’ speeches in September 2013 by Kerry, Power, Lavrov, Moon and others. We find that the red line initially trapped Obama, leading to rhetorical shifts before a trajectory shift from the red line to the path forward in mid-September as the US and Russia reach a deal to eliminate the Assad regime’s chemical weapons. The paper opens up theoretical reflection on the function of metaphor and narrative in steering sense-making in diplomatic practice. The political significance is to question what alternative metaphors Obama could have used in the first place.
- Chair: Philip Seib (University of Southern California)
- Participant: Katherine A. Brown (U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy)
- Participant: R. S. Zaharna (American University)
- Participant: Sean Aday (George Washington University)
- Participant: Kathy R. Fitzpatrick (Florida International University)
- Participant: Ben O'Loughlin (Royal Holloway, University of London)
Public diplomacy is best implemented as part of a long-term commitment to soft power. But when crises arise such as that in Ukraine in 2014, policymakers must respond promptly. Competing narratives and innovative outreach methods must be employed as part of a real-time strategy. This panel, which includes scholars and one of the top U.S. public diplomacy officials, will explore the study and practice of public diplomacy as a rapid-response foreign policy tool.
The 1st Winter School on Elections and Voting Behaviour, a joint endeavour between KU Leuven and the Université de Montréal, took place in Leuven, Belgium between 15th and 22nd January 2015. The school was organised by Ruth Dassonneville from KU Leuven, and brought together PhD students from universities across Europe and North America. The Winter School focused on specific sub-topics within the field of elections research, including: economic voting; strategic voting; psychological behaviour; issue voting; participation; and – pertinently for me – media effects. It aimed to give attendees an overview of methods and studies currently used to analyse the behaviour of voters during elections, as well the opportunity to present a paper and gain valuable feedback on our ideas, approaches, and research designs.
A number of high profile researchers were invited to deliver a class on each sub-topic and to act as discussants during the presentation of student papers. Key speakers were André Blais, Michael S. Lewis-Beck, Patrick Fournier, Claes de Vreese, Romain Lachat, and Marc Hooghe. For ‘media effects’, I was fortunate to listen to a lecture and receive feedback from Claes de Vreese, editor of Political Communication and Professor and Chair of Political Communication at The Amsterdam School of Communication Research, University of Amsterdam.
The paper I presented at the school described the methodological approach I take in my research on this year’s UK general election. Specifically, it highlighted the problems facing internet researchers in our attempts to collect valid and reliable data sets, suggestions for how we might overcome these, and an overview of how I intend to apply this within my own research. The feedback received from both de Vreese and my fellow PhD students was constructive and helpful. The Winter School fostered a sense of community amongst the students, as illustrated by the many who offered to put me in touch with, or send me the work of, scholars conducting research in my field. For those students in the early stages, or perhaps even their first few months, of research, feedback was extremely forthcoming from fellow students – perhaps because of our innate desires to project our own methodological preferences and conceptual predispositions on the research design presented. Nevertheless, personal preferences notwithstanding, the constructive suggestions and criticisms offered to all presenters was one of the most worthwhile features of the Winter School.
As one of the few researchers in attendance using predominantly qualitative methods, I found the Winter School to be particularly illuminating in terms of my understanding of the benefits of quantitative research, both to assess voting behaviour and the use of methods to establish relationships between different variables. Of particular interest to me were the papers presented relating to media effects which utilised quantitative or experimental designs. Jӧrg Hebenstreit, from Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena, presented a paper on the influence of money on the outcome of US elections; a topical area of study which has obvious ramifications for the ways in which advertising is used by parties, candidates and super PACS. Marijn Nagtzaam, from Leiden University, presented his initial research design on ‘second-order’ electoral personalization, proposing an exploration of the impact of preference voting for candidates based on a prior choice of party. Choosing a favourite paper from the day, though, leads me to Rim Sabrina Sassi’s submission, from Université Laval, on microtargeting in electoral campaigns. Microtargeting is a fascinating subject, not least because of its meteoric rise as an asset for campaign teams, but also because of its ethical and societal implications – there are many angles from which this subject could be approached. Sassi’s suggestion exploration through experiments using Facebook provoked much discussion and it is clear that this research design provides the basis for an interesting and highly original thesis.
Whilst the Winter School provided an important overview of research into elections and voting behaviour, the real benefit of the week spent in Leuven was the ability to connect with like-minded researchers and share knowledge and insights from an international perspective. The time I spent at the school gave me space to think about my own research and assess where it fits with studies being conducted by the next generation of elections scholars. Crucially, the Winter School introduced me to some fascinating new approaches and paths which I can investigate for application to my own research. Due to its success, the 2nd Winter School on Elections and Voting Behaviour looks set to be held in Montréal in 2016. Attendance is highly recommend for those political communication and elections scholars who would like to better understand how we fit into the research landscape, network with colleagues working internationally, and acquire lessons that can be applied to your own thesis.
After being launched in 2008, the journal Media, War & Conflict has reached the top quartile of journals in Political Science and International Relations. This is based on its SJR impact factor from Scopus, based on articles' citations over three years from publication date. The journal is ranked 86th of 380 journals. It is also 68/235 among Communication journals. Submissions to the journal more than doubled in 2014. Thank you to all those who carry out reviews or submit your research to the journal. The upward curve is steep and we look forward to publishing more excellent research through 2015 and beyond.
In the journal Global Policy Ben O’Loughlin and Andrew Hoskins introduce the concept of ‘Arrested War’ to describe how mainstream media is re-appropriating the images and stories that describe contemporary conflicts. Comments on this article are very welcome, to Ben.OLoughlin@rhul.ac.uk
In the past two decades we have passed through three phases of media ecology, and each has shaped a different way media have entered into the operations and understandings of war and conflict. The 1990s saw the final stage of broadcast era war. National and satellite television and the press had a lock on what mass audiences witnessed, and governments could exercise relative control of journalists’ access and reporting. By the turn of the millennium, mass internet penetration and the post-9/11 war on terror signaled a second phase, that we called the emergence of Diffused War. Here, the embedding of digital enabled more of war and its consequences to be recorded, archived, searched and shared – war’s mediatization. An unprecedented sense of chaos and flux beset both those conducting war and mainstream media organisations used to having a monopoly on its reporting. Content seemed to emerge from nowhere, effects had no causes, and uncertainty reigned. This was a wild west moment in which much of the media ecology felt ‘out there’, beyond; the centre could not hold.
But today, the centre has adapted and come back stronger than ever before. The mainstream is the media ecology. User-generated content and its chaotic dynamics ‘out there’ have been absorbed and appropriated. In the 2000s Al-Qaeda established a jihadist media culture outside the mainstream, only dipping into mass television and internet spaces to deposit a video or spectacular act of violence. Today, to the extent they can stay one step ahead of the CIA and moderators, IS rely on Twitter, a mainstream US platform whose affordances IS are happy to work within. The mainstream has enveloped the extreme. It has regained its powers of gatekeeping, of verification, of defining agendas. Any content that is acclaimed as alternative, oppositional or outside, only acquires significant value when acknowledged and remediated by the mainstream. Virality and spreadability, key concepts of phase two of the ‘new media ecology’, are not part of a sustainable, user-generated phenomenon, but are ultimately arrested by the mainstream.
What we are describing is the realignment of our media ecology [...] Continued reading here.
The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication has just published a study, authored by Cristian Vaccari (with Augusto Valeriani from the University of Bologna and Pablo Barberá, Rich Bonneau, John T. Jost, Jonathan Nagler, and Joshua A. Tucker from the Social Media and Political Participation lab at New York University) that discusses the relationship between political information and expression on social media and other forms of online political participation. The study, titled "Political Expression and Action on Social Media: Exploring the Relationship Between Lower- and Higher-Threshold Political Activities Among Twitter Users in Italy" finds that there is a strong positive correlation between less demanding activities (often dismissed as "slacktivism") such as getting informed about politics and informally expressing one's political viewpoints on social media and more demanding ones, such as campaigning for a party or candidate on social media and attending an offline political event after receiving an online invitation to it. The research employs a novel method to survey Twitter users who talk about politics, which Vaccari has developed as the Principal Investigator of a comparative project on social media and political engagement funded by the Italian Ministry of Education, and is based on online interviews with a sample of 1,493 Twitter users who discussed the Italian 2013 election campaign on this platform. Here is the abstract:
Scholars and commentators have debated whether lower-threshold forms of political engagement on social media should be treated as being conducive to higher-threshold modes of political participation or a diversion from them. Drawing on an original survey of a representative sample of Italians who discussed the 2013 election on Twitter, we demonstrate that the more respondents acquire political information via social media and express themselves politically on these platforms, the more they are likely to contact politicians via e-mail, campaign for parties and candidates using social media, and attend offline events to which they were invited online. These results suggest that lower-threshold forms of political engagement on social media do not distract from higher-threshold activities, but are strongly associated with them.
The authors welcome feedback and comments. Supplementary materials can be found on the project's website.
Akil Awan writes for The National Interest on the Charlie Hebdo attacks, radical religion, and the failed promise of the French Republic's national narrative:
The masked gunmen who assaulted the Charlie Hebdo offices in a hail of automatic gunfire, leaving twelve people dead in their wake, were heard proclaiming, "we have avenged the Prophet Muhammad." Amateur footage also revealed the killers invoking God with the Arabic phrase, “Allahu Akbar”—an otherwise-innocuous, everyday religious utterance, but one that is frequently usurped as the jihadists’ battle cry, in pointed attempts to consecrate their brutal violence.
What should we make of the killers’ sanctimonious declarations that they were in fact acting in defense of their holy figure—a reference to the magazine’s irreverent and controversial depictions of the Muslim prophet?
How might we reconcile their claim that they were exacting vengeance on behalf of all Muslims for these apparent affronts, when at least two of their victims were also Muslims?
Both Ahmed Merabet, the police officer callously executed at point-blank range on the pavement outside the offices, and Mustapha Ourrad, Charlie Hebdo’s copy editor, shared the faith of their killers.
Perhaps most importantly, how should we react to their self-righteous assertions to be the supreme moral arbiters of Muslim religious sensitivities and sanctities?
A good start would be to treat their self-aggrandizing claims with the ridicule that they deserve.
One inescapable and glaring incongruity with the claims of these “religious avengers” is just how religiously illiterate the vast majority of these individuals actually are. This is particularly true of Western Muslims, who have been lured to fight for ISIS, or who have carried out attacks at home. Most are not particularly religious prior to their involvement with violence, being raised in largely secular households, with only a rudimentary grasp of their parental faith.
Nevertheless, one of the stubborn enduring myths surrounding jihadist terrorism has been the preeminence of religion over other motivations, and it is easy to understand why this might be the case. Many of these individuals themselves employ starkly religious language, and invoke religious texts that promise “other-worldly” rewards as compensation for “this-worldly” sacrifice, including the guarantee of eternal Paradise, and most famously, the lascivious offering of seventy-two heavenly virgins.
But, crucially, in many of these instances, we have to be aware of the post-hoc attribution of religious meaning and validation to their acts. To put it differently, religion does not provide the initial motive, but it does provide the motif or stamp of approval. Take the example of a young man who wants to go to Syria to fight for any reason that is not explicitly religious. It is not enough to just fight and even die like a jihadi, but to be accepted by that community (and indeed not to end up beheaded as a member of a rival group), you need to walk, talk and behave like one of them, too. The highly stylized “martyrdom testaments” suicide bombers record prior to their deaths are a very good example of this sort of conformity—it is no accident they all look and sound pretty much the same.
One recent telling example of this sort of religiosity tacked on at the end is the case of Mohammed Ahmed and Yusuf Sarwar, two young British men from Birmingham who were jailed for travelling to Syria to join and fight alongside a jihadist group in 2013, in response to what they saw as their religious duty. But it was the reading material they purchased to accompany them on their trip, the books, Islam for Dummies and The Koran for Dummies, which are most revealing about their lack of religious literacy and motivation.
And this characterization appears to hold equally true for the violent men who attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices. The Kouachi brothers, as orphaned children of Algerian immigrants, were raised in foster care, and certainly not as pious Muslims. Rather, as the French newspaper Libération reported back in 2005, Cherif led a decidedly nondevout and hedonistic lifestyle—smoking marijuana, drinking alcohol, listening to gangster rap and having numerous girlfriends. Indeed, during his trial in 2008 for helping to transport jihadist fighters from France to Iraq, Cherif’s lawyer described his client as an “occasional Muslim.”
Now, this is not to exonerate religion in any sense. Religion has historically been responsible for a great deal of violence, and religious texts and doctrines often appear to condone death and destruction. However, unlike believers, academics tend to understand religion as a product of social, economic, political and other factors that offer solutions to something.
So what does religion offer a solution to, in the case of Europe’s jihadists?
The journal Media, War & Conflict has published a special issue marking the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. The articles explore the role of media in the war's memorialisation. The issue was guest edited by Sarah Maltby, convenor of the War and Media Network and a new editor on the MWC staff. Read Sarah's brief introduction to the special issue here.
The special issue contains the journal's first video abstract. This is for 'The last post: British press representations of veterans of the Great War' by Nick Webber and Paul Long from the University of Birmingham. Alongside the typical 200 word abstract, the authors have uploaded a video talking us through the ideas behind the article. These video abstracts are likely to become more common, and we would be grateful for any feedback to S.Maltby@sussex.ac.uk. Thanks to Nick and Paul for being willing to put themselves up first.
Akil Awan to speak at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office on Jihadist Narratives in a Turbulent Middle East and North Africa
Akil Awan will be speaking next week, 12 December 2014 at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Royal United Services Institute one day conference on Jihadist Narratives in a Turbulent MENA Region at Whitehall. Organised by the FCO's National Security Research Group and Middle East and North Africa Research Group, the conference will look at how jihadist narratives have evolved in recent years in response to events in the MENA region, with leading experts in the field discussing recent trends before suggesting implications for policymakers.
To attend, please RSVP to Simon.Staffell@fco.gov.uk & Marie.Haynesperks@fco.gov.uk
Welcome address: Simon Gass, Director General Political, FCO 9:00
SESSION ONE: Start, 9:15; End 10:45
Chair and discussant: Laurie Bristow, Director National Security, FCO
1. Simon Staffell: Overview: Jihadist Narratives in a Turbulent Middle East
2. Donald Holbrook: AQ Senior Leaders
Iraq, Syria and Jordan
3. Nelly Lahoud: ISIL
4. Joas Wagemakers: Jordanian Narratives
SESSION TWO: North Africa Start, 11:15; End 12:30
Chair and discussant: Cornelia Sorabji, Head of Research Analysts, FCO
5. Omar Ashour: Libya and Egypt
6. Valentina Bartolucci: Maghreb
7. Jonathan Githens-Mazer: Tunisia
SESSION THREE: Other Regions and Responses Start, 13:30; End 15:00
Chair and discussant: Raffaello Pantucci, Director International Security Studies, RUSI
8. Elisabeth Kendall: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
9. Christopher Anzalone: Shia responses to Jihadist narratives in a turbulent MENA
10. Martha Turnball: Responses from jihadists outside MENA
SESSION FOUR: Implications for Policy and at Home Start, 15:00; End: 16:30
Chair and discussant: Raffaello Pantucci, Director International Security Studies, RUSI
11. Akil Awan: Impact on radicalisation
12. Rachel Briggs: Policy implications