How do we make sense of sensationalism like the “MUSLIM RAGE” headline on this week’s Newsweek cover? Here’s one idea:
An availability cascade is a self-sustaining chain of events, which may start from media reports of a relatively minor event and lead up to public panic and large-scale government action. On some occasions, a media story about a risk catches the attention of a segment of the public, which becomes aroused and worried. This emotional reaction becomes a story in itself, prompting additional coverage in the media, which in turn produces greater concern and involvement. The cycle is sometimes sped along deliberately by ‘availability entrepreneurs,’ individuals or organizations who work to ensure a continuous flow of worrying news. The danger is increasingly exaggerated as the media compete for attention-grabbing headlines. Scientists and others who try to dampen the increasing fear and revulsion attract little attention, most of it hostile; anyone who claims that the danger is overstated is suspected of association with a ‘heinous cover-up.’ The issue becomes politically important because it is on everyone’s mind, and the response of the political system is guided by the intensity of public sentiment. The availability cascade has now reset priorities. Other risks, and other ways that resources could be applied for the public good, all have faded into the background.
That’s Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow (p. 142), and I think this vignette nicely describes the frenzied American reaction to the wave of violent attacks on U.S. diplomatic outposts that began a few days ago. The term “availability cascade” was coined in a 1999 paper by Timur Kuran and Cass Sunstein, and it’s rooted in a cognitive bias psychologists call the availability heuristic: a human tendency to judge the risk of an event by the ease with which vivid examples spring to mind. Recent and dramatic events are easier to recall, and wall-to-wall multimedia coverage keeps those events fresh in our minds. The resulting cascade is a form of herd behavior, the complex process that also contributes to things like bubbles and crashes in the stock market—and, arguably, the anti-American riots that have the U.S. in a tizzy right now.
By describing our response as an availability cascade, I don’t mean to imply that these events are unimportant. Attacks on diplomatic posts are a big deal in international politics, and numerous people have died in the ensuing violence, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya. As such, these events will and should have real consequences, hopefully to include fresh thinking about how to conduct diplomacy in environments with weak or fragmented security services and powerful anti-American groups.
Rather, my point is that these events probably aren’t the political earthquake we’re making them out to be, and our herd-like response may lead us further astray. For starters, most of the recent protests haven’t been that large. In a very helpful blog post, political scientist Megan Rief compares the size of the protests in the past week to the size of the early gatherings in the s0-called Arab Spring and shows that the recent events have generally been much smaller. She also spotlights a specific choice being made by media outlets—the chief “availability entrepreneurs” in this cascade—that is shaping our impressions of the threat these events pose:
It is interesting to observe how media images of the crowds at Tahrir square in early 2011 were presented in wide-angle format, while the current spate of protest images are closely cropped around smaller, violent groups of people, giving the impression that the crowds are large and menacing.
I think it’s also useful to keep in mind that we’ve seen similar waves of unrest a couple of times in the past several years, and each time, things have returned more or less to normal within a couple of weeks. The first wave occurred in 2006 over the publication of “blasphemous” cartoon, and another struck in 2010 over American “pastor” Terry Jones’ call to mark the anniversary of 9/11 by burning the Koran. The short life span of those previous waves doesn’t guarantee that the current one won’t drag on or even escalate further, but it suggests that escalation is unlikely.
Meanwhile, the frenzied reaction is having real-world consequences. On his blog a couple of days ago, longtime Middle East observer Juan Cole lists the “top ten likely consequences of Muslim anti-U.S. embassy riots,” including further declines in tourism to Egypt and Tunisia, countries whose already-struggling economies depend heavily on those foreign visitors, and deeper U.S. entanglement in the domestic politics of Yemen. At Foreign Policy, Josh Keating discusses the effects of terrorism on the design of America’s overseas outposts and asks if the U.S. can keep its diplomats safe without walling them off from the societies they’re supposed to be engaging.
More broadly, this cascade is threatening to reconfigure American public opinion, and through it American foreign policy, in ways that we might later regret. In the online magazine Jadaliyya, Bassam Haddad appropriately bemoans the spate of stories questioning support for recent changes in the politics of the Middle East and North Africa under “casually barbaric” headlines like, “Was the Arab Spring really worth it?” If anything, the U.S. government is traditionally guilty of overreach in these parts of the world: deeply enmeshing itself in the domestic politics of many Arab countries, striking at targets imperfectly identified in secret, and even trying desperately to “reshape the narrative” in societies where anti-Americanism runs deep and wide. Still, I think we also risk under-reaching if we let the opportunistic behavior of a few “availability entrepreneurs” in predominantly Muslim countries and in our own media reconfigure our government’s approach to whole swathes of the world at the very moment those societies are struggling to the institutionalize the political values we so loudly claim to espouse.
Here’s hoping that cooler heads prevail.