In the 1990s, a term emerged for the role that vivid coverage of humanitarian crises by 24-hour news networks played in the U.S. government’s decisions to use military force. In that era, America intervened in conflicts it might have otherwise ignored, from Iraq and Somalia to Bosnia and Kosovo. Academic research has never proven a clear “CNN effect”—certainly nothing as straightforward as the public successfully pressuring policymakers to save lives because of television reports—but its premise remains alluring: that mass media need only convey how terribly others are suffering for people and their governments to do something about it.
In recent days, the Syrian government’s relentless bombardment of the besieged rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta has demonstrated just how muted the CNN effect is in Syria. We read that hundreds of people have perished in what the UN secretary-general describes as “hell on earth.” We see images of bloodied children, covered in rubble or shrouds, pop up in our Twitter feeds. We watch a doctor fall to the floor in tears because she knows she can’t save the life of a boy whisked to her overwhelmed hospital. “I was just making bread for him when the roof fell in,” the boy’s mother wails. “At least in heaven there’s food.”
And yet there has been little public outcry in the United States over the military offensive and only belated and half-hearted efforts by world powers to stop it. News of the slaughter in Ghouta seems to be all around us, even as news of serious efforts to end it is nowhere to be found.
The United Nations expert Richard Gowan recently suggested one cause of death for the CNN effect in Syria. Today—with the effect of unverified social-media posts and slick state propaganda on a civil war wrapped in a proxy war inside a great-power war—“we have a fragmented media landscape: different images, different narratives, no facts beyond doubt,” he wrote on Twitter. He pointed to how the UN envoy from Russia, which is allied with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, had opposed a recent ceasefire proposal in the Security Council. The Russian diplomat had argued that press accounts of mass murder in Ghouta amounted to “mass psychosis” that overlooked an “inconvenient truth:” Extremist militants were attacking Damascus from bases inside hospitals and schools. “When there is no common agreement on what is true, you can’t speak truth to power,” Gowan noted.
“What we’ve been seeing over Ghouta is something that we’ve seen increasingly frequently in UN debates over Syria, which is [U.S. ambassador to the United Nations] Nikki Haley, the Brits, the French coming to the [UN Security] Council trying to shame the Russians, using the fact that we have so much horrific evidence of what’s going on on the ground … and the Russians not merely ignoring that but effectively questioning whether [it’s] fake news—implying that everything is propaganda being produced by the rebels,” Gowan told me.
Gowan recalled how NGOs and Hollywood activists had marshaled evidence of genocide in the Sudanese region of Darfur to pressure China into supporting a UN peacekeeping force in Sudan in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “That sort of extended media-driven shaming process would just fall apart in the current environment,” he said. “Now it would be so easy for trolls and spoilers to undercut that campaign.”
Visuals of human misery in Syria have occasionally cut through the noise. In 2015, several countries staked out more welcoming positions on Syrian refugees partially in response to a viral photo of a dead Syrian boy washed up on a beach. Two years later, U.S. President Donald Trump cited pictures of stricken children as one of the reasons he decided to strike the Syrian military for using chemical weapons against civilians. Trump’s reaction was “a reminder of how the CNN effect was meant to work,” which was fitting for “a cable-news junkie,” Gowan said. But these humanitarian interventions have been ephemeral (sympathy for refugees quickly faded, Trump’s strikes were a one-off) and arbitrary (many hundreds of boys and girls have died since the boy on the beach, the Trump administration has held its fire as Assad has unleashed barrel bombs and chlorine gas on his people).
“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.
Yet the “moral tragedy”—not just in Syria but elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa—“is not our failure to act; it’s our failure to understand the actions which have been carried out and the consequences of those actions,” Robinson said. “These are not conflicts we’ve been bystanders to. These are conflicts we’ve been very much instrumental in.” And in Syria, the course of military intervention that America has chosen has never had protecting civilians—or shortening the war—as its primary goal.
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