“We have a level of real-time information about conflict that would have been unimaginable two decades ago, but it’s actually coinciding with a decline in our ability to respond,” Gowan observed. “The sheer amount of information we get, coupled with the fact that we often don’t know if it’s real, contributes to a sense of hopelessness. … Because no one is ever quite certain whether that picture of a dead kid is real or whether it’s going to be revealed to be a photo from two years ago that’s been recycled, it creates cynicism.”
Piers Robinson, a scholar of the CNN effect at the University of Sheffield, agreed that the splintering of mass media and speed of the modern news cycle make it challenging to bring sustained attention to humanitarian crises. It’s difficult, for example, to imagine a report on an atrocity in Syria inspiring the kind of activism that a single BBC broadcast on famine in Ethiopia did in 1984, when Bob Geldof launched his Live Aid benefit concerts.
Robinson cautioned, however, that it’s simplistic to state that the CNN effect isn’t apparent in the Syrian conflict because the “information environment is more confused now.” In the 1990s, when the notion of a CNN effect first surfaced, American officials were debating what the military activities of the world’s sole superpower should look like in the post-Cold War period. That created space for new concepts such as armed interventions to protect human rights or stop atrocities, and for new forms of mass media to influence that debate. The September 11 attacks changed all that, shifting military priorities to counterterrorism. U.S. leaders have at times still described their post-9/11 interventions in humanitarian terms—speaking of their efforts to bring freedom and democracy to Afghanistan and Iraq, and to shield civilians from a dictator’s wrath in Libya. But the ways those interventions morphed into hugely destructive campaigns of regime change and counterinsurgency bred profound skepticism about America’s capacity to provide humanitarian relief through military force.
“The CNN effect has been eclipsed, as if it was ever as big a factor as it was claimed to be back in the 1990s,” Robinson told me. “It’s not irrelevant,” but “it’s not important in the sense of driving responses. It’s important in the sense of justifying interventions” that are not mainly motivated by humanitarian concerns.
The significance of the CNN effect was its potential to spur governments to choose intervention over inaction. But what makes the Syria case particularly complex is that foreign countries have already been intervening in Syria for years. The United States, for example, supported rebel groups and more recently has focused on battling ISIS—in one sense performing a humanitarian service in challenging the murderous Assad regime and uprooting the world’s foremost terrorist organization.