Think anticipating the stock market is tough? A researcher at Southern Methodist University in Dallas says you've at least as good a chance of predicting when a war is about to break out-perhaps better. W. Ben Hunt, associate professor of political science at SMU and author of Getting to War (University of Michigan Press), says all you have to do is pay attention to the mass media. Close attention.
"All governments, whether they are communist or democratically elected, make a real effort in the mass media to try to build public opinion, not only immediately after they start a fight, but also before they start one," Hunt says. By closely analyzing those domestic media efforts, Hunt says, "you can pick up signals that a government is thinking of starting a fight." Hunt is developing an early-warning network that he says will be capable of anticipating conflict between nations.
Hunt points to the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal in the six months leading up to the Gulf War in 1991, when the "level of complaining about Iraq...was greater than it had been about any country since World War II." That's hardly an accident, Hunt says. The Bush administration had embarked on an intense media campaign to build support for the use of force after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and the Journal's editorial page, a consistent indicator of Republican administration policy, Hunt says, dutifully beat the drums: Between August 1990 and January 16, 1991, all but one of 22 editorials on Iraq were harshly critical of Saddam Hussein, and advocated aggressive action. New York Times op-eds also indicated that a conflict was imminent.
That's the sort of blip on Hunt's historical baseline of data that should be paid attention to, he says.
Not surprisingly, predicting war isn't the only thing Hunt's media analysis may be good for. "Before a government takes a risky action , they want public support, whether it's for a war or a big shift in economic policy. And they want to prepare public opinion and use the media to accomplish that."
Hunt is working on an application that looks at market behavior, "especially emerging markets-tracking the relationship between market performance and government policies, as revealed by these indicators. If a government is going to raise taxes say, this will have an impact on their stock market. So a close reading of these opinion-leading pieces in the media is something that a market analyst would want to take into account "
Hunt, who recently received SMU's first Colin Powell Global Order and Foreign Policy Fellowship, plans to travel to China this summer to study the Chinese media.