Research

Book Project:

Seeing is Disbelieving: The Depths and Limits of Lies and Misinformation in War

Abstract: From Syria to Ukraine, misinformation, lies, and “fake news” are an endemic part of modern war. But when are they actually believed by the populations who live in conflict zones, and when are they not? This question is critical, as the spread of misinformation can initiate, exacerbate, and extend violent conflict. In this book, I build a new and surprising argument about false beliefs in war: that they depend on people’s exposure and proximity to the relevant events. While war is full of lies, those close enough to the “action” have the means and the motives to see through them. In short, when it comes to wartime misinformation, seeing is disbelieving. Focusing on recent conflicts in Pakistan and Iraq as well as historical evidence from WWII, I support this argument with surveys and experiments, a range of violent event data, and the pairing of the two in new and powerful ways. Ultimately, the results enhances our understanding of misinformation and propaganda in war, the psychology and behavior of civilian populations, the quality and accuracy of information emanating from warzones, and the role of facts and lies in contemporary world politics.

Published Work:

What Shapes Civilian Beliefs about Violent Events? Experimental Evidence from Pakistan. Journal of Conflict Resolution 63(6): 1460-1487. Link. Online Appendix. Replication Materials.

Abstract: Why do civilians in warzones often hold widely divergent beliefs about what is happening in the fighting? While there is a burgeoning literature on the micro-dynamics of armed conflict, variation in civilians’ factual beliefs has received scant attention. Yet such beliefs are critical, as they form the basis for wartime opinion and action. I argue that – particularly for civilians outside the direct “line of fire” – this variation comes not chiefly from an event’s empirical nature, but from civilians’ prior political orientations in the dispute. In order to investigate these dynamics, I fielded a survey experiment in Pakistan in which I manipulated the features of a reported counterinsurgent air strike and then measured civilians’ ensuing beliefs about it. The results show that these beliefs are most driven by the perpetrator’s identity and civilians’ own preexisting attachments. While actual casualty levels matter too, these findings suggest that civilians’ beliefs about conflict events are often deeply biased in nature.

Too Late to Apologize? Collateral Damage, Post-Harm Compensation, and Insurgent Violence in Iraq. Forthcoming, International Organization. Manuscript. Appendix.

Abstract: A key piece of conventional wisdom among scholars of modern armed conflict is that collateral damage is often strategically quite costly in war. Yet most combatants already know this and take actions after mistakes – most prominently, the distribution of “condolence payments” to civilian victims – in order to mitigate these costs. Do these payments work? This question is important not only for policymakers but also for deeper theoretical debates about how civilians respond to combatant signals in war. In order to examine these issues, I use micro-level conflict event data on 4,046 condolence payments made by Coalition forces to civilian victims during the Iraq War from 2004 to 2008, matching it with corresponding data on collateral damage and insurgent violence. The results of this analysis reveal that post-harm compensation does significantly diminish local rates of insurgent violence, and that this is true across different types of payments (cash handouts or in-kind assistance). Ultimately, these patterns can be best explained by a rationalist mechanism in which civilians update their beliefs about violent events based on new information about combatants’ wartime intentions. The results thus provide a compelling strategic rationale for combatants to compensate their victims in war, and suggest that civilians are not blinded to new information about conflict dynamics by their preexisting biases.

Nationalism, Threat, and Support for External Intervention: Evidence from Iraq (with Munqith Dagher and Karl Kaltenthaler). First View, Security Studies. Link. Online Appendix.

Abstract: What drives citizens’ attitudes toward external military intervention in a society experiencing an armed conflict? From colonial Algeria to contemporary Afghanistan, conventional wisdom holds that nationalism is a critical source of opposition and resistance to such intervention. In contrast, we argue that the impact of nationalism on views of external intervention hinges on the strategic context facing the target nation. When the country’s principal threat is from the intervener itself, nationalism will indeed reduce support for outside intervention. But when the threat comes from elsewhere, nationalism will actually boost support for external intervention in order to defeat it. In order to investigate these dynamics, we use public opinion data from a unique survey fielded across Iraq in 2016 that includes questions about the military interventions against ISIL by both the U.S.-led Coalition and Iran, as well as a potential military intervention by Russia. The results are broadly consistent with our argument, showing that unlike other factors such as sectarianism, nationalism pushes Iraqis to seek foreign military help from any quarter when it is deemed necessary for national survival.

Foreign Policy Attitudes towards Islamic Actors: An Experimental Approach (with Mujtaba Isani). Political Research Quarterly 69(3): 571-582. Link. Online Appendix. Replication Materials.

Abstract: This article examines how Western foreign policy opinion reacts to the perceived Islamic character of foreign actors. Studies show that the target actor’s dominant religion is a key ingredient in foreign policy opinion: Western audiences react more hostilely to “Muslim” than “Christian” targets. Yet actors differ not only in which world religion they belong to, but also how that religion is politicized both by themselves and by others. We argue that Islam can be politicized in three major ways – via Islamic rhetoric, policies, and labels – that shape foreign policy attitudes. To examine our claims, we field a survey experiment in which we attach common Islamic rhetoric (“Allahu Akbar”), policies (“Shari’a law”), and/or labels (“Islamist”) to a foreign actor in the context of the Syrian civil conflict. We find that these cues strongly harm attitudes towards the actor, and the results vary widely by type. Indeed, the Shari’a policy cue does the most damage to attitudes, emotions, and preferences towards the actor. Moreover, the Islamic cues reinforce each other in fueling these fearful reactions, and are particularly potent on conservative citizens. These results paint a richer picture of how outgroup religious cues influence foreign policy attitudes.

Ideas, Interests, and Information: The Sources of Iraqi Support for ISIS (with Munqith Dagher and Karl Kaltenthaler). Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 41(10): 801-824. Link.

Abstract: This article explores the amount and sources of support for the Islamic State among Iraqis. We argue that, in addition to shared identity and ideology, a neglected factor in debates about support for Islamist militancy is the messaging and information that individuals receive about a given group. We test these arguments using regression analysis on public opinion data collected in Iraq in April 2015. The analyses largely support our contentions, showing that exposure to news coverage of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant substantially reduces support for the group, even among alienated Sunnis or ideological Islamists.

Working Papers:

Seeing is Disbelieving: The Depths and Limits of Factual Misinformation in War (with Munqith Dagher and Karl Kaltenthaler). Under Review. Manuscript. Appendix.

Abstract: Misinformation, lies, and fake news are pervasive in war. But when are they actually believed by the people who live in warzones, and when are they not? This question is key, as their spread can spark greater violence and spoil efforts to make peace. In this study, we advance a new argument about lies in war. In contrast to intuitive ideas of people thinking whatever they want about the fighting, we argue that the accuracy of people’s wartime beliefs depends on their exposure and their proximity to the relevant events. While war is rife with lies, those close to the action have the means and motives to see through them. We test this argument with a unique combination of survey and event data in Iraq, finding support for our theory. Ultimately, these results help enhance our understanding of the dynamics of modern armed conflict and the reach of misinformation in contemporary world politics.

Putting Terror in its Place: An Experiment on Mitigating Fears of Terrorism Among the American Public (with Christopher Gelpi and Daniel Kent). Under Review. Link to PAP. Manuscript. Appendix.

Abstract: An American’s yearly chance of being killed by a terrorist attack sits at roughly 1 in 3.5 million. Yet, over 40% of the American public consistently believes that they or their family members are likely to be the victim of a terror attack. Can these inflated estimates of the risks of terrorism be brought closer to reality? With trillions of dollars spent on the “War on Terror,” this question is not just theoretically but practically important. In order to investigate, we use an experimental approach assessing whether people update their core beliefs about the terror threat when given factual information about the risks it actually presents. We find that American public fear of terrorism as well as demand for countering it can be sharply reduced with better information, dropping essentially to pre-9/11 levels after receiving the treatments and staying that way two weeks later. These results show that the American public’s exaggerated fear of terrorism – which has facilitated many of the country’s costly foreign policy decisions since 9/11 – is far more malleable and correctible than previously thought. In this sense, countering terrorism may largely require providing more context and perspective.

Friends in the Profession: Rebel Leaders, International Social Networks, and External Support for Rebellion (with Benjamin Acosta and Reyko Huang). Under Review. Manuscript. Appendix.

What drives foreign state support for rebel organizations? While scholars have explored the geopolitical and organizational factors that foster external support for rebellion, there has been little attention to the role of rebel leaders in securing it. In this paper, we argue that rebel leaders’ personal backgrounds affect their ability to obtain foreign support during armed conflict. In particular, we contend that rebel leaders with international experiences – including study abroad, work abroad, military training abroad, and exile – are better able to secure foreign support for their organizations. These experiences provide opportunities for would-be rebel leaders to interact with a multitude of foreign individuals who may later enter politics or otherwise achieve prominence in their respective societies, allowing them to build interpersonal social networks across borders. Such international networks provide key points of contact when rebel leaders later seek foreign backing. We test this theory using data from the new Resistance Organization Leaders (ROLE) database, and find robust support for our argument as well as the broader role of leader attributes in explaining state support of rebellion. We also illustrate our theory’s causal process with a case study of the Nepalese Civil War. Overall, our results underscore the value of incorporating individual rebel leaders and their social networks more squarely into the study of armed conflict.

Tip of the Spear: Introducing the Rebel Organization Leaders (ROLE) Database (with Benjamin Acosta and Reyko Huang)

Abstract: Existing literature on civil wars relies primarily on factors at the organization, state, and system level to explain war dynamics and outcomes. In contrast, we propose in this paper that individual rebel leaders’ personal attributes help explain the behavior of the organizations they lead. Just as IR scholarship has long highlighted the importance of state leaders’ biographical attributes in explaining interstate war and diplomacy, so too do we build on existing research in political science and psychology to suggest that the characteristics of rebel leaders affect their groups’ decisions and actions in civil wars. In order to do so, we introduce original data from the Rebel Organization Leaders (ROLE) Database, which contains a wide range of biographical information on roughly 500 rebel, insurgent, and terrorist leaders active since 1980. We first outline the construction and contents of the database, and then use it to present a number of descriptive statistics on rebel leaders and to replicate and extend a recent study of women’s combat participation by Wood and Thomas (2017). Ultimately, our paper encourages a new research agenda that goes beyond rebel organizations or campaigns as units of analysis and incorporates the people who organize and lead them into conflict studies.

Drone Strikes and “Hearts and Minds”: A Quasi-Experimental Analysis in Pakistan.

Abstract: How does counterinsurgent violence influence the “hearts and minds” of civilian populations? Despite extensive theoretical debate, we have little systematic evidence on this matter. I add to this literature by analyzing how one increasingly important form of violence in modern asymmetric conflict – targeted killing across state borders – influences “hearts and minds” in the target society. In particular, I exploit a natural experiment in the timing of U.S. drone strikes and public opinion surveys in Pakistan that allows me to estimate the effects of these operations on national Pakistani opinion. The results of this analysis show that the strikes do have substantial anti-American, anti-incumbent, and pro-militant effects on the Pakistani population. Yet closer analysis also reveals important nuances in these responses, with some target groups (e.g., the Taliban) but not others (e.g., Al Qaeda) gaining legitimacy and increased support for U.S. policy change rather than simply disengagement. Ultimately, the results show that cross-border targeted killing does alienate and radicalize “hearts and minds” in the target society, while also highlighting the limitations and potential opportunities for mitigation of these effects as well.

Personal Control, Political Control, and Belief in Conspiracy Theories: Evidence from the Islamic World (with Lars Berger).

Abstract: In recent years, there has been a surge of scholarly interest in public belief in conspiracy theories. In addition to motivated bias against the perpetrator, one of the key explanations for their broad appeal is perceived powerlessness and personal lack of control. In this article, we argue that the perception that an individual lacks personal control is different from, and less relevant than, the perception that a potential conspirator has power and control. In many Middle Eastern countries, for example, the notion that the U.S. has vast control over world events is widespread, helping to fuel the appeal of anti-American conspiracy theories. We test our argument using existing public opinion data about several American-centric conspiracy theories in four major Islamic countries – Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan, and Indonesia. The results confirm that perceptions of U.S. control have a significant impact independent of views of the U.S. or perceived personal lack of control. These results show that conspiracy theories thrive when perceived motives and perceived means align, and hint at the costs of actors overinflating their strength in world politics.

The Only Legitimate Game in Town? Attitudes towards Democracy and the Caliphate in the Islamic World (with Mujtaba Ali Isani).

Abstract: In recent years, essentialist claims about the incompatibility of democracy and Islam have been largely swept away by a wealth of public opinion research showing that democracy garners vast support in the Islamic world. However, while this literature has effectively demonstrated the popularity of democracy over authoritarianism, we contend that it misses an essential piece of the puzzle by not examining Muslim support for an alternative model of government: the Caliphate system. After surveying some of the most influential elite visions of the Caliphate throughout Islamic history, we analyze its appeal and meaning today with existing and original surveys across four major Muslim countries (Egypt, Pakistan, Morocco, and Indonesia). Our results show that, like democracy, the Caliphate is viewed and valued in largely instrumental terms, as a vehicle for broad social welfare and justice rather than a specific institutional configuration.