Teargas and Selfie Cams: Foreign Protests and Media in the Digital Age

Naima Green-Riley, Dominka Kruszewska-Eduardo, and Ze Fu

More and more in the current age, protesters in cities around the world are making international headlines.  For international relations scholars, this raises an interesting question: how do foreign audiences react to footage of protests overseas? Do certain types of videos garner greater support for foreign policy actions related to the protests? After all, it would appear that many foreign activists use social media with the aim of affecting public opinion in other countries. 

Take the Venezuelan case as an example:

In February 2014, protesters began to flood the streets of Venezuela’s capital city of Caracas. The demands of the protesters were myriad – and as time went on, they multiplied – spanning from concerns about widespread crime to the abrogation of democratic rights and civil liberties under the Maduro regime to economic inflation and shortages of basic grocery items in local stores. As protests intensified, the Venezuelan government turned its focus toward controlling the narrative surrounding these events. Government censors cracked down on local media outlets – especially those run by independent or opposition forces.

Protesters, in turn, relied increasingly on social media to share news about the demonstrations. In a self-produced video posted on YouTube, opposition leader Leopoldo López encouraged ordinary citizens to “become your own media outlet.” Social media served a practical purpose for protest organizers. Many Venezuelans relied on social media to find out details about what was happening around the country or to learn of upcoming protest events. However, activists also had in mind a global audience for their social media content. One journalist explained her use of Twitter, saying, “We use it mostly so that the international community can notice what’s happening and help us spread the word in every corner.” Tweets and blogs penned by Venezuelan citizen activists urged local readers to share their posts with the wider world.

To stoke international outrage at the situation in Venezuela, activists posted videos and photos of the protests on social media. These posts often depicted images of repression, showing protesters being violently treated by local police. In publicizing their protests via social media, the protesters in Venezuela followed in the footsteps of activists in countries around the world, using social media to increase global awareness of their struggle.

But what happened at the “other end” of the screen? In other words, how did the global audience receiving these images and videos react? Through this article, we set out to understand how onlookers sitting at home, thousands of miles away, respond to footage of foreign protests. In the article, we use two survey experiments featuring video treatments to explore whether repression of pro-democracy protesters abroad by authorities increases American public support for U.S. intervention on their behalf. Furthermore, we investigate whether the source of the information about repression influences the levels of support.

Our article uses an innovative research design that replaces written vignettes with footage cut from real-life videos, which are edited to vary based on the experimental conditions specified. In our experiments, we use videos from Egypt during the Arab Spring, Hong Kong during the Umbrella Movement, Ukraine during the Maidan protests, and Venezuela during the anti-government protests referenced above.  We manipulate the sequence of events in the videos and we use specialized editing to make the videos appear as though they come from different media sources for survey takers in different treatment conditions. We do this to increase the ecological validity of the research.

We find that perceiving foreign protests as violently repressed increases American support for targeted sanctions against the hostile regime by about 7 percentage points. However, our experimental manipulations showing violent repression do not affect survey takers’ levels of  interest in learning more about the situation nor do they change the survey takers’ willingness to engage in political action on behalf of the protesters. Furthermore, we find no difference in reactions to the clips when presented as mobile phone footage as compared to when the same footage is presented in a TV news format.

Our article makes clear that how stories about foreign protests are told changes the impact that these news stories will have upon foreign policy preferences within the U.S. public.

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