New symposium on Strategic Narratives published

Strategic narratives are an ever-more visible phenomenon in international affairs. NATO has a strategic narrative to overcome Russia. President Obama had a narrative about US interests and attention pivoting to Asia but has recently taken steps to 'reassure' Europe that it still cares about it and is part of its story. What difference do these narratives make, and how can we explain how they work?

A new symposium has been published in Critical Studies of Security in which scholars of varying perspectives and approaches present short essays that engage with the book Strategic Narratives published by Miskimmon, O'Loughlin and Roselle. The symposium concludes with a response from the three authors. The symposium shows how narratives are a feature of political life from the grand strategy of great powers down to local politics where people try to make a difference by getting others to see problems in a new way. The debate also makes clear how difficult it is to establish the intention of actors who communicate narratives and the effect of narratives. Persuasion is not easy and power through communication is a murky process.

We hope you enjoy reading it. Thanks go to Laura Shepherd at the University of New South Wales for organising the symposium.

New article on think tanks and influence by Anna Longhini

Chatham House in London was one of the think tanks in Anna's study.

Chatham House in London was one of the think tanks in Anna's study.

Do think tanks influence government? In a new article (read for free here), Anna Longhini presents research suggesting that we should turn that question around. Comparing the role of foreign policy think tanks in the UK and Italy, Anna finds that the think tanks orient their activities to make the best of the opportunities for influence they face. In the UK, government is relatively open to think tank ideas, holding various open and closed-door briefings to elicit their suggestions. In Italy government is less willing to listen, so think tanks try instead to influence journalists, academics and companies. 

Anna was a visiting researcher at the New Political Communication Unit in 2014. She recently completed her PhD at Scuola Normale Superiore (Firenzi).

Awan speaks in Melbourne and Beijing on Youth Radicalism, Social Media, and Political Disillusionment.

Akil Awan spoke this week at the ‘Democracy in Transition’ conference organised by the University of Melbourne’s School of Government on Understanding Youth Democratic ‘Disconnect’: From Apathy to Political Radicalism and Extremism. His paper focused on explaining that whilst youth political engagement was an integral and essential part of a healthy functioning society, which was not only vital to political socialization and participation, but also crucial to engendering young people’s understanding of their own roles as democratic citizens, it was nevertheless under serious threat. The alternative - the democratic disconnect - could simply result in political apathy and disengagement, which remained a significant problem worldwide, evident from chronically low voter turnouts amongst youth demographics. However, equally problematically, he argued youth can also choose to engage in political radicalism or extremism, ranging from simply espousing extreme views; to actively joining radical groups; and finally to engaging in illegitimate political activity, such as violent protest and even terrorism. His paper sought to address how might we account for this increasingly problematic democratic disconnect amongst young people?

Taking both historical and contemporary case studies, he sought to show how increasing political disenfranchisement and disillusionment with traditional political processes, institutions and structures, was central to understanding young people’s alienation from conventional politics. Perceptions that the issues which concerned them were not being addressed, often resulted in a recourse to protest and demonstrations. Where ‘legitimate’ forms of protest proved unsuccessful, individuals might begin to countenance illegitimate and violent forms of protest, including rioting, public disorder, sabotage, and even terrorism. Consequently, a gravitation towards radicalism could be understood as one of the ways in which young people might seek to air their frustrations and grievances, as well reclaiming political agency.

Awan will also address a related topic in Beijing on Monday 14th December at the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Renmin. His talk entitled ‘From Television in the Vietnam War to Islamic State’s Social Media: Exploring the Relationship between Media Technologies & Youth Radicalism’ will address the historical correlation between the rise of certain media technologies and the emergence of youth protest and political radicalism. He will compare the emergence of television during the Vietnam war and the attendant rise of countercultural and protest movements on the radical left, with the use of web 2.0 technologies by political radicals today. The paper will also seek to explain why social media and web 2.0 platforms have emerged as the principle arena for youth political and social engagement over the last decade. Whilst the democratic and egalitarian nature of these platforms means they are largely positive additions, conducive to the ‘levelling’ of hierarchies of knowledge and power, they have inevitably also contributed significantly to the rise and visibility of youth radicalism and extremism. His paper offers suggestions on how governments might deal with these issues.

Reflecting on The Paris Attacks: Lessons on counter-terrorism and anti-immigrant rhetoric from the age of the 19th C Anarchists

Akil Awan writes for The National Interest on the Paris terrorist attacks, comparing them to the Anarchist wave of terrorism that plagued Europe and the US, over 120 years ago. He uncovers the uncanny parallels between the two, reflecting on the increasingly polarised political discourse in both eras that resulted in knee-jerk, draconian security and state responses, as well as rampant anti-immigrant rhetoric and legislation. He encourages policymakers to reflect on history and warns against repeating the mistakes made in delaing with the anarchist scourge.

The National Interest, November 21, 2015
Akil N Awan

The bearded young terrorist furtively slipped amongst the oblivious theatergoers. Glancing around to ensure he had not aroused suspicion, he looked out over the crowded throngs in the theater. Blissfully unaware of the carnage that awaited them, they laughed and reveled in their petty entertainments, he mused, while his own people suffered and died. They would all pay, he consoled himself, as he hurled the bombs into their midst. The unspeakable horror that ensued, of shattered lives and limbs, was quickly emblazoned on the front page of French newspapers. Elsewhere, a second terrorist walked into a small trendy café in Paris. Scanning the oblivious faces—ordinary French men and women—as they sat drinking and listening to music, he placed his bomb under a table. As he slipped away, he heard the bomb explode, followed by a deafening silence, only to be punctuated by the terrible wails and screams of the survivors. There are no innocents, and they all deserve to die, he rehearsed in his mind, drowning out the cries of the victims behind him.

These events did not occur in Paris last week. Eerily, they took place over 120 years ago in European capitals as the scourge of anarchist terrorism was sweeping the continent. Santiago Salvador had attacked the Liceu Opera House in Barcelona in 1893, during a packed performance of the operaWilliam Tell, killing twenty-two people and injuring thirty-five. A few months later, Emile Henry had set off a bomb in the Café Terminus in Paris, killing one and wounding twenty, but had hoped for a far higher death toll. Images capturing the shocking events made the covers of the world’s largest daily newspapers of the time, Le Petit Journal and Le Petit Parisien. Both had a combined daily circulation of around seven million copies, depressingly illustrating how terrorism has long wielded the power to transform local tragedies to European catastrophes. In their subsequent trials, the anarchist terrorists showed no remorse for their terrible crimes, refusing to accept that ordinary bourgeois theatergoers or coffee drinkers could be considered innocent. Instead, they went to the guillotine, defiantly reeling off a litany of the crimes committed by the state and wider society.

These angry young radicals used bombs and guns to terrorize their own societies in furtherance of a foreign creed, in much the same way that jihadists recently did in Paris. The similarities are truly uncanny. If there is one salient difference, it is that the anarchists were actually far more successful in their campaign than the jihadists today. In a short period of time, they managed to assassinate an impressive list of world leaders, including two U.S. presidents, the Russian tsar, the German Kaiser, the French and Italian presidents, the Italian king, the Austria-Hungarian empress and two prime ministers of Spain, as well as a whole host of the European ruling classes. They also targeted the bourgeois masses indiscriminately, increasingly failing to distinguish between the state and wider society, attacking targets as disparate as the Paris Stock Exchange, religious processions in Barcelona, the London Underground and the Greenwich Observatory. The London Times newspaper wrote at the time of an “anarchist epidemic.”

The response to anarchist terror was unnervingly similar to our own experience too. The state clamped down in typically repressive fashion, instituting a range of iniquitous laws and meting out extrajudicial, and often collective, punishment to large swathes of society. The assassination of U.S. President William McKinley in 1901, for example, by an anarchist who also happened to be a second-generation Polish immigrant, led to the expedited introduction of anti-immigration legislation which required the exclusion and deportation of anyone suspected of anarchist sympathies. Anti-anarchist propaganda images from the period are disquietingly reminiscent of the increasingly hardened attitudes we are already witnessing towards Syrian refugees. One typical U.S. political cartoon shows a swarthy, bearded, foreign anarchist, armed with a knife and bomb, creeping up behind the statue of Liberty, who holds her beacon aloft and calls out naively, “come unto me, ye opprest!”

In the European mainland, wide-scale surveillance of meetings and publications was followed by arrests and torture, and used to draw forced confessions. Indeed, various Western governments used the ominous threat of anarchist terror to then subdue any form of dissent against the state.

All of this had little tangible effect on the anarchists themselves. In fact, the anarchists executed by the state were often transformed into martyrs. The apathetic masses, who up until this point had remained largely indifferent to the anarchists’ propaganda, were increasingly polarized by the state’s draconian response. Indeed, the harder the state clamped down, the more powerful the movement became. The fear and insecurity engendered within this environment also granted tremendous powers to the state, which it could then use and abuse, to the detriment of society at large.

Why should this concern us? Most people have probably never heard of the anarchist reign of terror at all. However, that in itself is an important observation to make. Despite the spectacular violent successes of anarchist terrorism at the time—far more so than those of the jihadists today—anarchism achieved very little in the sociopolitical sphere in the long run. Within four decades, the violent ideology had consumed itself and in the process alienated any potential support base, quickly being replaced by more popular movements. The anarchists were soon forgotten and ultimately consigned to the wastebin of history. However, the anarchists do offer us two crucial lessons for dealing with the jihadist threat today.

Continue reading here

October 30: Amy P. Smith to present her research on ITV's election 2015 coverage at Reuters Institute Conference on Negotiating Culture

On October 30, Newpolcom doctoral researcher Amy P. Smith will present material from her ongoing research on political communication during the 2015 UK general election to Oxford's Reuters Institute's conference on Negotiating Culture: Integrating Legacy and Digital Cultures in News Media.

Amy's paper is titled 'Campaign culture 2015: embracing intermediality to “tell the story” in ITV news’ election 2015.'

The full lineup is over at conference organizer Rasmus Kleis Nielsen's blog.

Joanna Szostek: New Marie-Sklodowksa Curie Global Fellow @NewPolCom

Dr Joanna Szostek has joined the New Political Communication Unit Royal Holloway as a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow. She received her DPhil in Politics from the University of Oxford in 2013. She was previously based at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, where she completed a two-year postdoctoral fellowship funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Her most recent research explores the association between habits of news consumption and geopolitical imaginations among university students in Moscow. Her doctoral research identified factors which shape reporting of Russia in Ukraine and Belarus. Findings have so far been published in Communist and Post-Communist Studies and East European Politics & Societies. At Royal Holloway she is working on a new project, Stratnarra, which aims to explain the reception of strategic geopolitical narratives in Ukraine. Joanna will collect data on media use and perceptions of the West among different groups of Ukrainians in order to shed light on how rival governments manage (or fail) to exert influence via mass communication in contemporary international relations. The project is overseen by Professor Ben O’Loughlin and is funded by a three-year Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship from the European Commission. Joanna has spent around six years living in Moscow and has travelled widely across Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus. Amongst other things, she has worked for the BBC as a senior monitoring journalist and interned at the European Commission's Delegation to Russia.

Click here for more information about Joanna Szostek.

New Doctoral School to be launched by NPCU PhDs this week with: Insurgent Politics!

The inaugural public event of Royal Holloway's new cross-faculty Doctoral School will be held on Wednesday 22nd October. The event, Insurgent Politics, will see provocative talks from PhD students at the New Political Communication Unit in the Department of Politics and International Relations. All three PhDs came through our masters programme and show the vitality of our postgraduate research. This is the first in a series of PhD Conversation events that roll out in the coming year. 

Where? International Building room 007

When? 1pm-2pm, 22nd October

Ours is a time of widespread and sustained challenge to the rules of “politics-as-usual”. In Western Europe and North America, recent months have seen political insurgencies of widely varying styles and ideological hues confronting and in some cases overturning conventional wisdom about how democratic political movements work; challenging received assumptions of the purpose and style of political discourse; and asking fundamental questions of prevailing political orthodoxies and the boundaries they set to public debates, above all on economic austerity. The popular responses they have provoked, especially though by no means exclusively amongst the supposedly apolitical younger generations in the advanced democracies, have confounded reduced expectations about the possibilities of populist political mobilisation in an age of widespread disaffection with political establishments and elites. Syriza in Greece; Podemos in Spain; the SNP tsunami in Scotland; UK Uncut, the E15 and other housing protests, and Russell Brand; “Corbynmania”; Bernie Sanders’ unexpectedly strong challenge for the Democratic primary nomination; on the political right, even Donald Trump (and before him the Tea Party), are all manifestations.

What do these trends mean? What do these diverse movements have in common? How have these insurgencies come about and how do they work? What is their relationship to conventional electoral politics? Will they fade as quickly as they arose? Can new social media sustain and built long-term popular political movements or are they vulnerable to the whims of an amnesiac digital culture? Will political establishments be able to rebuff the challenge of the outsiders, or even to absorb their energies into mainstream politics? What does political leadership look like in this new era?

To address these and other topics we have assembled a panel of current PGR students in the Department of Politics and International Relations:

Ibrahim Halawi is a second year PhD candidate supervised by Sandra Halperin and Akil Awan. His research focuses on the relationship between revolution and counter-revolution with particular interest in the case of the Arab Spring.

Declan McDowell-Naylor is a second year PhD student supervised by Andy Chadwick and Ben O'Loughlin. His research focuses on the development and relationship of ethics, technology and politics.

Ellen Watts is a second year PhD candidate in the New Political Communication Unit, supervised by Andy Chadwick and Ben O'Loughlin. Her research focuses on the interventions of celebrities in British politics.

The panel discussion will be moderated by Professor Barry Langford, Associate Dean, Royal Holloway Doctoral School. All are very welcome.  

October 20: Talk by Vaccari, Chadwick and O'Loughlin: Dual Screening the Political: Media Events, Social Media, and Political Engagement

On October 20, Newpolcom researchers Cristian Vaccari, Andrew Chadwick, and Ben O'Loughlin are presenting new work from their ongoing project on dual screening and political engagement.

Dual Screening the Political: Media Events, Social Media, and Political Engagement

Dual screening—the complex bundle of practices that involve integrating, and switching across and between, live broadcast media and social media—is now routine for many citizens during important political media events. But do these practices shape political engagement, and if so, why? We devised a unique research design combining a large-scale Twitter dataset and a custom-built panel survey focusing on the broadcast party leaders’ debates held during the 2014 European Parliament elections in the United Kingdom. We find that relatively active, “lean-forward” practices, such as commenting live on social media as the debate unfolded, and engaging with conversations via Twitter hashtags, have the strongest and most consistent positive associations with political engagement.

Founders MAIN LECTURE THEATRE at 5.15. All welcome.

The article on which this talk is based will be out in the Journal of Communication soon.


Awan to speak at Council of Europe in Strasbourg on Freedom of Expression, Terrorism & Democracy

Next week Akil Awan will be addressing the Council of Europe's conference on Freedom of Expression: still a precondition for democracy? 

The high profile event will bring together top judges, government officials, activists and academics - some 300 participants in total - to address current challenges to freedom of expression, and will be held in the Palais de l'Europe, Strasbourg, on 13-14 October.

The event is open to the media and will assess serious ramifications to free expression from such recent events as the brutal assault against Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris in January. The conference will assess the extent to which Europe may be sliding towards criminalising free expression, when dealing with hate speech, and will consider how to fight terrorism whilst respecting free expression online – and what implications mass surveillance has for free expression.

During the Conference, three key topics will be discussed:

  • Freedom of expression as a fundamental value of democracy
  • Challenges to freedom of expression posed by the Internet
  • The role of the European Convention on Human Rights

Akil will be speaking on the following topics in Session 3 - The fight against terrorism: are we all potential suspects?

  • How can the fight against terrorism be maintained having due regard to freedom of expression?
  • Foreseeability of laws relating to condoning terrorism, incitement to violence and radicalisation via the Internet: what is the situation in Europe?
  • Legitimacy of measures: what democratic monitoring arrangements?
  • What role should the European Court of Human Rights play in the European legal area?

Moderator: Ms Elfa Ýr Gylfadóttir, Director of the Media Commission, Iceland

Dr Akil Awan, Associate Professor/Senior Lecturer in Modern History, Political Violence & Terrorism, Royal Holloway, University of London
Mr Nicolas Hervieu, Lawyer in Public Law at Paris-Ouest and Pantheon-Assas Universities
Mr David Banisar, Senior Legal Counsel, Article 19
Mr Stéphane Duguin, Head of the European Internet Referral Unit (EU IRU), Europol
Rapporteur: Mr Darian Pavli, Adviser, Special Parliamentary Committee on Justice Reform, Parliament of Albania

The full programme is available here