COLUMN

Everybody Loves Bashar

Everybody Loves Bashar

On June 4, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad won reelection again, bagging 88.7 percent of the vote, in a war-torn country he seemed on the verge of losing shortly ago. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin is busy grinning for the cameras in France, while Russian irregular forces continue to destabilize Ukraine with impunity. But are these leaders really as secure as they appear? Can big data shed light on how Assad regained momentum in Syria or whether Putin’s grip on Crimea might be slipping? In particular, can we use the "tone" of the world’s news media coverage of the two leaders as a sort of popularity index that might give us insights into their respective futures, much as it offers insights into the stability of nations?

Computerized "tone mining" essentially assigns a score to each English word based on the emotional response it is most likely to generate; for example, recording that the word "delightful" traditionally has a positive connotation, while "horrific" usually connotes something bad, and saves this into a large dictionary. Tone-mining software then assigns an emotional score from positive to negative to a passage of text by looking up each word in the dictionary and computing the average score of all its words. While highly simplistic, this yields an approximation of the overall tone of a document.

And when you feed in enough documents, patterns start to emerge. The Global Database of Events, Language and Tone (GDELT Project) computes the average tone of the millions of news articles it monitors on a daily basis, allowing tone mining to be performed over the world’s English-language news each day. In addition, the tone system used by GDELT is designed to consider language regarding military superiority and invulnerability as having a positive connotation towards a leader or nation.

Let’s start by looking at the tonal news coverage of Syria’s dictator. Now, remember: this doesn’t track whether the world thinks he’s a nice guy, or loves puppies, or is doing good things for his people; rather, it’s closer to an assessment of his strength as a leader. The timeline below plots the average "tone" by day of worldwide news coverage of Bashar al-Assad from April 1, 2013, to roughly the present (higher numbers indicate more positive tone, while negative numbers indicate more negative tone). 

Immediately visible is the sharp negative trajectory of global media tone towards Assad in the lead-up to the August 21, 2013, Ghouta chemical weapons attack, as Assad was rapidly losing global credibility.  In the days immediately following, as the world’s headlines were captivated both by the attack itself and the continued clashes over the following days, tone towards Assad continues to become sharply more negative. However, something extraordinary begins to happen on August 28 – the tone of news coverage across the world about Assad begins to turn sharply positive, containing a high density of language regarding invulnerability. 

A review of news coverage from this time period reveals a world anticipating U.S. military action in the first few days after Ghouta, with substantial reference to President Barack Obama’s "red line" policy towards chemical weapons. But as the Obama administration wavered, and it became increasingly clear that not even a symbolic missile strike would occur, the discourse around Assad began to change dramatically — from a vanquished has-been in his last days, to a resurrected and invulnerable leader. Throughout the world, the news media reasoned that if the deaths of hundreds of civilians did not provoke a military reaction, Assad would expand the use of chemical weapons to simply gas the rebels into submission. And Israel wondered aloud whether Iran would interpret the inaction as a dismissal of the red line that had been made against its development of nuclear weapons.

Of course, the world’s media wasn’t applauding Assad for gassing children to death, but it’s clear that, as a group, it contextualized the lack of response to those horrific actions as an indicator of new-found impunity. By November 2013, media tone towards Assad’s grip over Syria reflected a general belief that he would not be leaving anytime soon. Not surprisingly, the United Nations around this time issued a gag order on its news agency to halt all negative coverage of the regime, acquiescing to the inevitability of his continued rule. Tone peaked at its most "positive" towards Assad during the week of December 9, 2013, as the Syrian military recaptured the strategic town of Nabak and appeared poised to rapidly crush the remaining rebel-held territories. 

Yet, the Syrian military’s swift and brutally violent pacification campaign through the rest of December, including an aerial siege of Aleppo featuring "barrel bombs," once again turned the media’s coverage against Assad — perhaps under the assumption that the massive onslaught would finally bring an international response. But just as the atrocities began to dominate the headlines, by early January 2014 they were displaced by the growing internal war between the various opposition factions, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Over the remainder of 2014, Assad’s stature in the global news media has steadily strengthened as rebel infighting and steady military victories appear to all but guarantee his continued near-term leadership. 

Now let’s turn to the past seven months of media coverage of Vladimir Putin. In October-November 2013, as Putin effectively prevented President Viktor Yanukovych from signing a trade deal with Europe, media tone grew positive — a sign of his growing power over Europe. But the unraveling of Ukraine beginning in late November has cut his media popularity by half and tone continues on a nearly 45 degree downward trajectory towards negativity. Putin enjoyed a short-lived burst in popularity as Crimea was effectively annexed into Russia in late February and he appeared to be victorious over the West, but as eastern Ukraine has since increasingly unraveled in a steady march towards civil war, Putin’s image in the world’s press has taken a beating. But by early May, as the West realized that Crimea was lost and that destabilizing events in Ukraine continued — with little action beyond symbolic sanctions and verbal rhetoric taken by the West, Putin’s media popularity has begun to steadily increase once again.

(Using the new GDELT Analysis Service  it is possible to repeat the timelines above for any world leader of interest, while the G
DELT World Leaders Index
summarizes changing media tone towards every head of state in a daily report, making it possible to integrate this analysis into routine policymaking.)

Can Putin stay ascendant? Will Assad remain strong? More importantly, perhaps, how’s Obama’s public image faring? In the case of Syria, American inaction over the Ghouta chemical weapons attack appears to have been the pivotal turning point that restored Assad to power, while in Ukraine, the growing civil war in Putin’s newly-annexed Crimea is causing his Iron Man of Russia image to rust.

Perception is an imperfect science, but big data offers a new kind of telescope for peering into the emotional undercurrent of the world’s collective media, transforming emotion into enlightenment and offering a whole new way of measuring the impact of American foreign policy as it happens.