“Muslim Rage!” as an Availability Cascade

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.

Forget the Coup in Mali for a Moment–Why Wasn’t There a Revolution?

At the Monkey Cage, Stanford Ph.D. student Jessica Gottleib posted yesterday on why “we” (by which I think she means Americans) should care about the recent coup in Mali. Most of the analysis of Mali I’ve read since March has focused on explaining the coup itself, which was widely (though not universally) considered a surprise. The country had chosen its national government through competitive, multiparty elections since 1992, and during that time, it saw a peaceful transfer of power between rival parties. Those patterns had convinced many observers that democracy in Mali was more or less permanent, and by that reckoning, the March 2012 coup shouldn’t have happened.

Surprises are crucial opportunities for theory-building, because they tell us that something in our prior models or measures was wrong. I think there’s another aspect of the situation in Mali that’s equally relevant for theories of democratic consolidation, though, and that’s the apparent popularity of the coup after its occurrence. Support for the coup certainly isn’t universal, but it’s higher than we might expect in a country where democratic norms and values were supposed to have taken root. As Gottleib writes,

A budding Malian opinion pollster finds that 64% of his countrymen are satisfied with the coup and 51% blame the current crisis on the deposed regime…Clearly, the majority of Malians were not as satisfied with democracy as the international community once believed.

This support is manifest in street politics. Not long after the coup, a plane carrying a delegation of West African leaders to negotiate with the new junta turned back before it reached Bamako because pro-junta demonstrators were staging a sit-in on the airport tarmac. In May, when those leaders reached a deal with coup leader Capt. Sanogo to keep interim president Dioncounda Traoré in office for a year, thousands of Malians turned out in Bamako to protest the foreign pressure on Sanogo, shouting “Down with Ecowas!” and “Down with Dioncounda!” and eventually attacking Traoré in his office.

Bridges from Bamako blogger Bruce Whitehouse sees the popularity of the coup as “an extreme version of the anti-incumbent fever that periodically sweeps the United States.”

Recently I interviewed a Bamako talk show host who frequently debates politics with listeners phoning in to his program. His callers tend to define politicians as people in power who pursue personal ambitions. “They phone in all the time saying ‘Those people think only of themselves and their interests,’” he told me, “and that’s why some even say ‘We don’t want politicians anymore.’” This sentiment explains strong local support for the junta and its bid to exclude politicians en masse from Mali’s transitional government.

If so many Malians were so fed up with their ruling elites, why wasn’t there a revolution long before the March 2012 coup? I’d be very interested to hear what Malians and area experts have to say about this, but in the meantime, I think social-science theory suggests some promising leads.

One possible answer is what economist Timur Kuran calls “preference falsification.” Writing about the surprising revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989, Kuran observes that

People who come to dislike their government are apt to hide their desire for change as long as the opposition seems weak. Because of this preference falsification, a government that appears unshakable might see its support crumble following a slight surge in the opposition’s apparent size, caused by events insignificant in and of themselves. Unlikely though the revolution may have appeared in foresight, it will in hindsight appear inevitable because its occurrence exposes a panoply of previously hidden conflicts.

In the case of Mali, it was the coup itself that seems to have uncovered a stronger desire for change than many outside observers had seen. A coup is hardly an “insignificant event,” but the basic mechanism is the same.

Kuran’s theory emphasizes the role of uncertainty in the production of a revolution, or the lack thereof. Uncertainty induces caution, but that caution may evaporate when some event signals that it’s finally safe for citizens to reveal their true preferences. I’m sure that’s relevant, but I wonder if more conventional collective-action problems aren’t at least as influential. One of the things I’ve learned from my work on democratic breakdowns and mass mobilization is it’s very hard to organize a popular uprising, even in cases where popular frustration is clear. Where Kuran sees incomplete information as the driving force, I’m more inclined to see a couple of more conventional hurdles to collective action.

The first of these hurdles is the well-known free-rider problem. When the benefits of some course of action will be widely shared, it’s hard to convince people to contribute to its production, because unless lots of people pitch in, each person’s narrow slice of those benefits will often be smaller than the expected costs of producing them. I might rather live in a democracy than this dictatorship, but why should I risk my life and career so a bunch of people who can’t be bothered to do the same can enjoy the fruits of my labor? This problem plagues attempts to organize for all kinds of objectives, from collective bargaining with employers to pot-luck dinners, and organizing for national policy change surely lies near the harder end of this spectrum.

The second hurdle I have in mind has to do with expected gains. When popular uprisings do happen in democracies, they rarely succeed, in part because political outsiders lack the means to directly effect major change without breaking the system–and they usually can’t do that, either. If would-be participants are aware that the odds are against them, then it’s going to be even harder to convince them to rebel, because the expected payoff from their actions is going to be much smaller.

We can see this problem clearly in Ecuador in 1997, when a deepening economic crisis helped to drive millions of Ecuadorians to participate in a general strike aimed at forcing President Abdalá Bucaram to resign. The National Assembly responded to this massive show of force by voting to remove the already-controversial Bucaram on grounds of “mental incapacity”–and then installed Assembly leader Fabián Alarcón as his replacement. The end result of this tsunami of popular action was a change in the face of power with no attendant change in the system.

A similar dynamic occurred early this year in the Maldives. After ordering the arrest of the country’s criminal court chief justice, democratically elected President Mohamed Nasheed survived several weeks of street protests, only to “resign” when police and military officials allegedly showed up in his office and gave him an ultimatum. According to a Reuters investigation, the immediate beneficiaries of this “coup of opportunity” were not the protesters but the police and soldiers who were allegedly paid off by associates of the ancien regime and the self-same businessmen whose graft cases were thrown out by the criminal court after Nasheed’s departure. Here, protesters played an instrumental role in the termination of democracy, but they seem to have gained little for their efforts.

Citizens were more successful in Bolivia in 2003, when farmers, students, and indigenous groups responded to an unpopular plan to export more natural gas with a wave of strikes, demonstrations, and roadblocks. That uprising drove President Sánchez de Lozada to suspend his plan and then resign, but that resignation had much less impact on national policy than the election several years later of Evo Morales. In other words, it wasn’t until an opposition took power by more conventional channels that it succeeded in changing the system, and even that change has been less radical than many of its agents would like.

The combination of free-rider problems and the inherent difficulties of effecting political change from the outside help to explain why we so rarely see popular uprisings against nominally democratic regimes, even when many citizens are openly dissatisfied or disgusted with the status quo. This pattern matters for theory-building because it suggests that popular attitudes about democracy are less influential than we often presume. Even in democracies, the struggle for national power is primarily an elite affair contested by a small number of fairly insular organizations. Democracies are distinguished by the presence of rules and practices that allow citizens to determine (nominally, at least) the outcome of those contests, to join those organizations, and sometimes even to form new ones, but those rules and practices don’t negate the basic tendency toward oligarchy in all political systems. That’s ironic and sad, but we get better theories when we acknowledge instead of ignoring it.

  • Author

  • Follow me on Twitter

  • Follow Dart-Throwing Chimp on WordPress.com
  • Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 13,612 other followers

  • Archives

%d bloggers like this: