By Michael G. Elasmar, Ph.D.
March 19, 2022
The first part of this essay will provide a background about the World Tensions Project from which stemmed many studies that shed light about the factors contributing to the formation of pictures about countries in our minds, and how these intangibles images can potentially result in military conflicts. The second part of this essay will apply what we learned from the studies that emerged around the time of the World Tensions Project to the likely reactions of Americans, over time, to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The World Tensions Project – a short history
Shortly after the end of World War II, the United States, under the auspices of UNESCO, launched a major research initiative for determining the conditions that affect international understanding, intergroup perceptions, and support for military conflict among nations. It was called the World Tensions Project (https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000179399). The overarching goal was to determine what can be done to preempt a repetition of the devastation witnessed during World War II. This effort brought together sociologists, psychologists, political scientists, and educators from a variety of countries. It is worth noting here that, at that time, the field of communication science did not yet exist and the study of media impact was scattered across sociology, psychology, education, and other classical disciplines. The initial World Tensions Project resulted in numerous studies that examined the role that communication and media play in fostering and hindering understanding among people living in different countries and contributing to how other countries and people living in those countries exist in our minds. It is unfortunate to note that the World Tensions Project lasted for only a few decades. Interest in conducting this type of research waned and mostly disappeared after the 1960s when there was a growing belief that another world war was no longer a probable event.
What did we learn from the World Tensions Project?
We learned that information imbedded in news and entertainment media plays an important role in creating, reinforcing, and/or modifying the images of countries that exist in our heads and that these images can influence attitudes toward other countries and toward people living in other countries and affect support for military actions against them. But the media are certainly not the only factor that determines how the image of a country comes to be formed in our minds. Pre-existing information about a country acquired incidentally through learning about the country in school, hearing about a country through oral history from family or community members or religious leaders, personal interactions with people from that country, having traveled to that country as part of an educational exchange or for tourism, all act as filters for new information acquired about this specific country. By acting as filters, they determine what portions of new information about this specific country the human brain will focus on and retain in its memory. Most often, the human brain will engage in selective attention and retention of information consistent with knowledge about a specific country that already exists in the brain.
This means that, if the pre-existing information about a specific country is negative, when exposed to new information about this country, the brain will process the negative aspects of this new information to reinforce knowledge which already exists. The opposite is also true; if the pre-existing information about a specific country is positive, then the brain will process the positive aspects of any new information about this country to reinforce knowledge which already exists.
Implication about the importance of keeping track of country images
One direct implication of the knowledge that stems from the original World Tensions Project is that it is critical to keep track of country images held by the world’s population as these can help predict how specific populations will react to unexpected international armed conflicts. Since an international armed conflict is likely not in any country’s interest, this knowledge would serve as an early warning for pre-emptive approaches in mitigating war. In the spirit of doing so, one of my own research agendas over the past 30 years has been focused on conceptualizing the
components at the heart of country images, quantitatively measuring these components and statistically modeling the interrelationships among these components and between country images and international attitudes. As part of this effort, I authored chapters and edited a book about the impact of international television in 2002, quantified the relationships among components at the heart of country images in a book that I authored in 2007, and launched the World Tensions Project 2.0 in 2014. With the latter endeavor, my goal was to find ways to harness the immense amount of information available on social media for the purpose of detecting changes in country images. The idea was to create a 24-hour measurement system that continuously monitors social media chatter about countries and updates in real-time country images as conveyed through social media interactions. Given its complexity, this type of project cannot be done by one or a few researchers from a single discipline but, as the original World Tensions Project did, demands collaboration among disciplines. In the case of World Tensions Project 2.0, at least 5 areas of academic research specialty need to come together in order for it to happen: communication science, computer science, quantitative linguistics, psychometrics, and statistical modeling.
It has been a challenge to get researchers from the disciplines noted above to get excited about this project and collaborate to make the project’s vision come true. And the main reason this has been such a challenge is that the notion of understanding country images to pre-empt international armed conflicts has not been seen as a priority in a post-cold war world. Typically, a specific area of research is valued if funding sources decide to prioritize it. The unfortunate truth is that research about country images has not been a priority since the 1950s. Perhaps the current war in Ukraine will prompt funding sources and researchers alike to realize that continuously monitoring how the images of countries exist in our heads is critical for predicting and pre-empting the support for international armed conflicts and preventing the escalation of such conflicts if they unexpectedly erupt.
What can the knowledge gained from the original World Tensions Project tell us about the likely over time changes in the reaction of Americans to the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
As was noted earlier, the original World Tensions Project taught us that news and entertainment media play an important role in creating, reinforcing, and/or modifying the images of countries in our heads and these images can influence attitudes toward other countries and support for military action. And that pre-existing information about a country will determine which portions of the new information about this specific country the human brain will focus on and retain in its memory. And that, most often, the human brain will engage in selective attention and retention of information consistent with knowledge which already exists in the brain about a specific country. Surveys of Americans conducted in 2020 by the Pew Center for the People and the Press (PCPP) and by Gallup in early February of 2022 have consistently found a very unfavorable opinion of Russia among a vast majority (70% and 85% respectively) of survey respondents. Between 2007 and 2020, PCPP found that favorable opinion of Russia among Americans had fallen by 25% (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/12/16/views-of-russia-and-putin-remain-negative-across-14-nations/). Gallup found that favorable opinion of Russia dropped from 51% in early February of 2012 to 15% in early February of 2022 (https://news.gallup.com/poll/1642/russia.aspx). These patterns show that the preexisting information about Russia’s government was already overwhelmingly negative prior to its invasion of Ukraine. Applying what we learned from the World Tensions Project, we can predict that the images of atrocities and destruction stemming from the Ukraine invasion will strongly reinforce the pre-existing negative information about the Russian government held by Americans. One direct implication of this effect is that the tourism industry in Russia and producers of Russian-made goods and services might be impacted as American consumers might shy away from traveling for leisure to Russia and/or consuming Russian-made goods and services for a long period after the Ukraine war no longer dominates international news.
While having Americans in the future fly to Russia for tourism and/or consume Russian-made goods and services might not be a priority for the Russian government, the reinforcement of negative feelings toward Russia’s government by the images of destruction and atrocities emerging out of Ukraine might interact with other negative factors prevailing in the minds of Americans in ways that no one could have predicted just a few weeks ago.
There are 9 factors which might interact with the negative information about Russia and can be divided into 3 types: Climate before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, reactions to Russian government threats directed at the West and America, and direct effects of the invasion of Ukraine on the daily lives of Americans.
Climate before the Russian invasion of Ukraine:
- The American population has been exhausted and angry from a two-year pandemic that was exacerbated by divisive disinformation, internal political strife, lack of trust in government, lack of trust in science, and a general feeling of dread.
- The American population has been looking forward to the end of the pandemic when they can be free from confinement, vaccines, mask mandates and catch up on a lost two-year period of their lives, travel again, and return to a state of normalcy.
- With the end of the pandemic in sight, Americans started to feel optimistic about the future.
Reactions to Russian government threat directed at the West and America:
- The unexpected war in Ukraine erupts and abruptly halts the emerging feelings of optimism: talks of nuclear weapons being prepared by the Russian armed forces for potential launch against the West and America, images of destruction of a modern European country, and images of atrocities committed against civilians by the Russian military.
- Americans seem to be taking the threats of a nuclear attack by Russia seriously. In the same rush seen for medicines and equipment perceived to help them fight the invisible Covid threat, now Americans are buying Potassium Iodide, a chemical touted as a first aid necessity for mitigating cancer of the thyroid stemming from exposure to nuclear radiation. The sales of Potassium Iodide have sky-rocketed to the point that manufacturers report being out of stock. Unlike the Covid threat, however, this time, the threat to Americans is now visible: it’s the Russian government.
Direct effects of the invasion of Ukraine on the daily lives of Americans:
- Gas prices have gone up steadily since the Russian invasion of Ukraine and new record prices have been reached in many states.
- Food prices have gone up steadily, and while they had been going up before the invasion, they have gone up further since the invasion and news pundits predict this pattern will continue into the foreseeable future.
- The cost of natural gas has gone up substantially after the invasion began and the cost of heating American homes with natural gas is predicted to rise significantly.
- Economists now predict the real possibility of an American recession directly attributed to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A two-year pandemic didn’t result in a recession but a Russian invasion is predicted to lead to one.
The factors listed above might combine with the negative images that already exist about the Russian government in the minds of Americans, resulting in a re-direction of the anger experienced by Americans during the two-year pandemic toward a new and visible enemy: the Russian government and its military. The outcome of this process is something no one could have imagined just a few weeks ago, and one that the Russian government certainly did not take into account when it decided to invade Ukraine.
The longer the war in Ukraine goes on, and the more its effects are felt in their daily lives, the more likely will Americans demand for and support a direct military intervention to end what they perceive as a Russian threat to their safety and the safety of their families. Americans will want to hold the Russian government accountable for destroying a modern European country and committing atrocities against civilians, and to punish the Russian government for a war that is causing an impending economic recession and stifling American optimism about the end of the pandemic.
It is unfathomable to think about it, but the possibility is real that significant popular support for a military intervention to stop the threats posed by the Russian government might be in our future. And if, as noted by US president Biden, an American military intervention means the start of a world war, then it is very possible that our generation could actually witness the onset and aftermath of World War III.