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Africa, Conflicts, Human Rights, News Media, U.S. Foreign Policy

Propaganda, media effects and conflict: Evidence from the Rwandan genocide

Rwandan genocide, Murambi (Wikimedia)Rwandan genocide, Murambi (Wikimedia)Rwandan genocide, Murambi (Wikimedia)
Rwandan genocide, Murambi (Wikimedia)

The 1994 Rwandan genocide represents one of the most tragic episodes of political violence in recent history. Estimates suggest that in just 100 days, conflict between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority resulted in the killing of between 500,000 and 1 million citizens. In response to the genocide, the United Nations created a criminal tribunal for Rwanda, and 77,000 people have been prosecuted for being members or accomplices of armed militias that carried out attacks and 433,000 for engaging in localized violence.

The role of the media during the genocide received considerable attention from scholars and human-rights activists: Some Rwandan media organizations urged individuals to take part in the killings and increased levels of violence, while international media organizations often gave scant coverage of the events. Addressing the Symposium on the Media and the Rwanda Genocide in 2004, former Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan said: “Western news media for the most part turned away, then muddled the story when they did pay attention. And hate media organs in Rwanda — through their journalists, broadcasters and media executives — played an instrumental role in laying the groundwork for genocide, then actively participated in the extermination campaign.”

A 2014 paper published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, “Propaganda and Conflict: Evidence from the Rwandan Genocide,” looks at the impact of Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), a key media outlet for the Hutu-led government, on violence and killings of the Tutsi minority. The study, by David Yanagizawa-Drott from the Harvard Kennedy School, analyzes how exposure to propaganda and inflammatory messages calling for the extermination of the Tutsis fueled violence by the Hutu population.

Using a village-level dataset, the author tests two hypotheses: The first examines the direct effect of exposure to RTLM broadcasts on violence levels in those villages, mainly through persuasion. The second analyzes the social interactions and spillover effects from RTLM listeners to non-listeners in nearby villages, through social interactions. Both militia-led violence and localized, individual violence were analyzed.

The paper represents a departure from previous qualitative studies, as it uses geographical tools (ArcGIS) to establish the difference in the levels of violence between a group of individuals that was within the reach of RTLM broadcasts and a control group that, because of the geographical features of Rwanda, was outside the station’s transmission area.

The study’s main findings are:

  • Approximately 51,000 perpetrators (10% of overall participation in the Rwandan genocide) can be attributed to the station’s broadcasts, and almost one-third of the violence by militias and other armed groups.

Mass media and genocide in Rwanda (HKS)

  • Full exposure to RTLM broadcasts increased the number of persons prosecuted for any type of violence (militia violence or individual violence) up to 69%. On average, a one standard deviation increase in radio coverage increased total violence participation as much as 13%. The estimated effects of RTLM reception were statistically significant at the 5% level.
  • For low-level increases in radio coverage, there seems to have been no rise in the population’s participation in violence. However, when a critical threshold of coverage is reached, there is a significant rise in violence.
  • Education levels and the relative proportions of the majority and minority populations played significant roles in the impact of RTLM broadcasts: “Propaganda encouraging violence against an ethnic minority appears to be more capable of inducing participation when the minority is relatively small and defenseless, and when the targeted audience lacks basic education.”
  • Broadcasts effectively mixed exhortations to violence, threats and promises; and because they were endorsed by the government and armed forces, they had the weight of signaling official policy: “Taken together, these factors make it abundantly clear that Hutus listening to RTLM broadcasts had good reason to fundamentally revise their beliefs about the cost-benefit tradeoff of participation and non-participation.”
  • For militia violence, spillover effects within 10 kilometers are statistically significant and substantially important: “A one standard deviation increase in the share of the population in nearby villages with radio reception increases participation in militia violence by 47.6%.”
  • Direct effects and spillover effects may interact: “RTLM persuaded some militia members who listened to the radio to join the genocide [direct effect], and a consequence this led to higher mobilization among militia members in neighboring villages via peer influences [spillover effect].”

In conclusion, the author writes: “Allowing the station to broadcast had substantial human costs, with consequences detrimental for the targeted population. In addition, the violence may have had long-term impact on human capital formation, social capital, and political stability.”

Further readings: See more comments from Yanagizawa-Drott on his study and its implications for how we think about media and political violence:

A list of transcripts from all broadcasts by RTLM between July 1993 and July 1994 are available on the Rwanda File website. A 2013 paper published in the Annual Review of Law and Social Science, “The Justice Cascade: The Origins and Effectiveness of Prosecutions of Human Rights Violations,” present a cross-national view of trends in human rights prosecutions. The authors trace the origins of individual criminal accountability, the process by which this new norm has spread globally, and its impact on repression levels in those countries and regions where prosecutions have taken place.

Keywords: conflict, genocide, mass media, social interactions, propaganda, violence


    Writer: | December 3, 2014

    Citation: Yanagizawa-Drott, David. “Propaganda and Conflict: Evidence From the Rwandan Genocide,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, August 2014. doi: 10.1093/qje/qju020.

    Analysis assignments

    Read the issue-related New York Times article titled "France Convicts Rwandan Ex-Officer of Genocide."

    1. What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?

    Read the full study titled “Propaganda and Conflict: Evidence from the Rwandan Genocide.”

    1. What are the study's key technical terms? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?

    2 comments

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    Bill Orme Dec 9, 2014 15:47

    It’s unfortunate that a costly academic-journal paywall effectively denies broad public access to what would appear to be an important, rigorous, data-driven study of Radio Mille Collines and the Rwandan genocide. This deeply tragic and disturbing chapter of African mass-media history has been insufficently studied, with its lessons often misunderstood and misinterpreted to justify the censorship or even closure of independent broadcast news services in conflict areas across the continent. Mille Collines was in no way a real news organization -it was the wholly and directly controlled official propaganda organ of a genocidal police state. Its directors had more in common with Goebbels than with the many African journalists who continue to strive to report the news freely and accurately.

    John Wihbey Dec 10, 2014 10:18

    Bill – Thanks for the note. There is actually an open access version, and we just changed the links in the post accordingly. For your convenience, it is also here: http://www.hks.harvard.edu/fs/dyanagi/Research/RwandaDYD.pdf Regards, John (editor)

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