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Social Science Data on Public Reactions to Drone Strikes and Civilian Casualties

One of the hats I wear is that of a social scientist. I don’t often write at Just Security in that capacity, but recent empirical research — on public attitudes toward armed drones — can add a different and important perspective to legal and policy discussions on these issues. The data are especially significant because they challenge the conventional wisdom about drones. One part of the conventional wisdom is that the American public strongly supports drones. Another is that the use of drones will incur greater public support than other means of warfare.

In his major speech on May 23, 2013 at the National Defense University, President Obama repeated the conventional wisdom and showed how its acceptance can influence the administration’s decision-making. He said:

“The very precision of drone strikes and the necessary secrecy often involved in such actions can end up shielding our government from the public scrutiny that a troop deployment invites.  It can also lead a President and his team to view drone strikes as a cure-all for terrorism.”

It is easy to understand why one would be led to believe that drones are highly popular and that their precision reduces public scrutiny. Those conclusions are consistent with mainstream public opinion polls, and the media generally reports the poll results without deeply questioning them.

Policymakers, however, would be well advised to learn about the social science research that digs deeper than those poll results. New statistical studies suggest that public support is not as strong or durable as mainstream opinion polls indicate. And the research also suggests that drones may heighten public opposition compared to manned operations.

Consider some key findings:

1. Finding: Domestic US public support for lethal drone operations is high, but that support declines greatly when individuals are informed of civilian casualties.

Source: Sarah Kreps, Research and Politics 2014

Further explanation: Mainstream public opinion polls often ask simply whether respondents support the use of drones to kill terrorists in foreign countries. A recent study, however, involves experiments which show that if such a question includes an additional statement that drone strikes may result in civilian casualties, support plummets. In one group, the survey question added a statement that the US government’s definition of “terrorists” may be excessively broad such that there may be “more civilian deaths than are actually reported.” In another group, the survey question added a statement that drone strikes “often caused a number of civilian casualties” and that “this collateral damage may mean there are more civilian deaths than are actually reported.”

[Note for law of war readers: the former question was meant to track violations of the principle of distinction, and the latter violations of the principle of proportionality].

Here are 3 key results from the study:

Control group: 52% approval
Treatment group 1 (principle of distinction/civilians wrongfully targeted): 29% approval
Treatment group 2 (principle of proportionality/civilian collateral damage): 27% approval

In other words, support plummeted by 23-25% — and well below the median of 50% — when civilian casualties were included.

2. Finding: Individuals’ support for lethal drone operations is affected by the prospect of mission failure, American military casualties, and foreign civilian casualties—but (surprisingly) foreign civilian casualties may lead to the largest drop in support. That’s right: foreign civilian casualties may have an even greater negative effect on public attitudes than American military casualties.

Source: James Igoe Walsh, forthcoming in Political Psychology 2014
See also: Pew Research Center 2013 (showing high sensitivity to civilian casualties in drone operations)

Further explanation: Prior studies suggested that both American military casualties and foreign civilian casualties negatively affect public support for the use of force in general. The more recent empirical finding of a much greater effect from foreign civilian casualties compared to American military casualties is peculiar to the use of unmanned drone aircraft.

3. Finding: Drones raise individuals’ expectations of precision-based targeting, and thus may produce substantially greater opposition when drone strikes result in civilian casualties.

Source: James Igoe Walsh forthcoming in Political Psychology 2014

Further explanation: This research tested the theory that “precision weaponry makes individuals more sensitive to civilian harm.” Respondents were told of a planned US military strike on a militant group in Pakistan and that civilian casualties might result from the US strike. Different groups of respondents were told the US attacks would be carried out by either high precision drone aircraft, high precision manned aircraft, moderate precision bombing, or low precision bombing. The study found: “Respondents primed to expect fewer civilian casualties [due to precision weaponry] expressed more regret, more sympathy with victims’ families, and less satisfaction than did those primed with a higher risk of civilian deaths, despite the fact that the actual outcomes across treatments were identical.” And these emotional responses “weaken[] when precision strikes are carried out by manned platforms.”

4. Consider two additional findings: First, Americans are generally far more supportive of lethal drone operations than the public in other countries (e.g., Pew Research Center 2013). Second, US media coverage emphasizes civilian casualties from drone strikes far less than foreign news media (Jones, Sheets & Rowling). Now, let’s put those two together: American attitudes may be due in part to differences in exposure to media coverage of civilian casualties. That is not a terribly counterintuitive or radical insight. But it’s important to note that this evidence is consistent with findings 1-3 above. That is, the level of domestic support and opposition to drone strikes may, in significant part, boil down to information and perceptions of civilian casualties.

[Note: As suggested by the Kreps study (no. 1 above), civilian casualties may result from overbroad definitions of lawful targets (violations of the principle of distinction) or incidental loss of civilian life (violations of proportionality/collateral damage).]

Of course these are only a small number of studies, and they have their deficiencies. Some are based on preliminary research. And individuals may respond differently to a hypothetical question in a survey than to the actual experience of learning about real military operations. Nevertheless, the important point is that there are now good reasons to question the conventional wisdom on public support for armed drones.

One might draw different implications from these studies—some favoring drone use, some not. If the empirical findings are accurate, it would mean the administration could not, for example, count on durable public support for lethal drone operations in Iraq—despite the fact that public opinion polls suggest a majority (56%) support drone strikes against ISIS. On the other hand, the data might also present a reason to strike sooner than later—before the insurgents embed themselves more deeply in populated areas where civilian casualties will be high (before ISIS reaches Baghdad). The data could also mean that drones do not necessarily make warfare more likely or lead so easily to slippery slopes—if, in fact, policymakers cannot count on strong public support, and drones heighten public concerns about civilian casualties.

The data also suggest an advantage to (actual and perceived) compliance with rules protecting civilians in warfare. Failure to do so can undermine public support especially in the case of drone operations. And that raises a final point about transparency. Contrary to President Obama’s suggestion, government secrecy often leads not to less public scrutiny, but instead to the public fearing the worst (see David Cole’s post on this general point). In sum, the opposite of what the President suggested may be true. The “precision of drone strikes” and the “secrecy often involved in such actions” can end up increasing public scrutiny and the political difficulties of waging war against America’s enemies.

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About the Author

is co-editor-in-chief of Just Security. Ryan is the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law. Follow him on Twitter (@rgoodlaw).