Many have attributed anti-American sentiment within Arab countries to a highly negative information environment propagated by transnational Arab satellite TV news channels such as Al-Jazeera. However, theoretical models and empirical evidence evaluating the linkages between media exposure and opinion about the United States remains scant. Drawing on theories of media effects, identity, and public opinion, this article develops a theoretical framework explicating how the influence of transnational Arab TV on opinion formation is contingent on competing political identities within the region. Employing 5 years of survey data collected across six Arab countries, we empirically test several propositions about the relationship between Arab TV exposure and public opinion about the United States generated by our theoretical framework. Our results demonstrate significant associations between transnational Arab TV exposure and anti-American sentiment, but also show these associations vary substantially by channel and political identification. The theoretical and policy implications of the study are discussed.

From a new article by Erik Nisbet and Teresa Myers. A press release is here. Via email, Erik writes:

This study in combination with our previous study published in November in the journal Political Communication [JMS: see here] highlight how the structural changes to the information environment in the Middle East over the last decade have significant consequences for Arab public opinion and U.S. public diplomacy. Our study published in November detailed how the growth of Arab transnational media has increased the salience of Muslim nationalist, and to a lesser extent Arab nationalist, political identity at the expense of state-centric national identities, among Arab audiences.

Our most recent study outlines the possible consequences of this identity shift, in conjunction with Arab media use, for anti-American sentiment in the region. For example, our study suggests there is a sizable percentage of the Arab public in the Middle East who are persuadable and open to some informational effects on their opinions about the United States – those who primarily identify as Arab nationalists or with their state (i.e. Egyptian, Saudi Arabian, etc). They are more likely to have opinions about the United States that vary depending on the valence of the information available to them.

However, our Political Communication study suggests the information environment in the Middle East most favors an emerging Islamic political identity. In contrast to Arab and state-centric nationalists, Islamic nationalists are the least likely to persuaded by any American public diplomacy efforts. They have highly unfavorable attitudes toward the United States that are rather resistant to any informational effects or persuasion attempts. Our study suggests that no matter what the United States does in the short-term, at least in terms of policy or outreach, their opinion of the United States is unlikely to change significantly.

What channel Arab audiences rely on for news also matters when considering Arab public opinion about the United States. For example, reliance on al-Jazeera tends to amplify anti-American sentiment among Arab nationalists, while reliance on al-Arabiya tends to dampen anti-American sentiment among Arab nationalists. These differing patterns are consistent with the institutional and ideological orientations of these two popular channels– as well as the United States own mediated public diplomacy efforts specifically targeting information outlets like al-Arabiya.

In this context, the recent survey findings by the Pew Global Attitudes project that anti-American sentiment has not appreciably diminished among Arab publics since the onset of the Arab Spring, despite U.S. support for Arab pro-democracy movements, is not surprising – especially as al Jazeera continues to be by far the most popular TV news source in the Middle East.

In terms of crafting both policy and communication that address anti-American sentiment and improve America’s image among Arab audiences, the Obama administration should focus on communication and policy efforts that specifically resonate with concerns and interests of Arab audiences who are most likely to identify as Arab nationalists or with their state (i.e. Egyptian, Jordanian, etc.). In addition, putting resources toward strengthening mediated public diplomacy efforts through channels like al-Arabiya, as well as al-Jazeera, is more likely to have a greater return on investment than direct public diplomacy like the U.S. funded al-Hurra news channel.

[Cross-posted at the Monkey Cage]

John Sides

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.