Soft power, confirmation bias and illusions of grandeur

The term soft power is common in international relations but hardly familiar in suburbia, where it is easily confused with washing powder. Like one’s washing, soft power can fade. While the term has appeared in an enormous number of journal articles, book chapters and op-eds over the past three decades, mostly celebrating and comparing nations, it remains an inherently fuzzy concept. Although it had its origins in political science, the term has been co-opted by East Asian media scholars.

Those who use the currency of soft power in both domains pay dues to Joseph Nye Jnr, a political scientist. Soft power was popularized in Nye’s 1990 book about the “changing nature of American power” (Nye 1990). Within a decade, his work led to a league table model of normative attributes, akin to a national beauty contest, if you want to be cynical. But beauty never lasts. Things have become ugly for superpowers. The US has descended several rungs in the league tables since Trump went feral. And China has seen a backlash due to its Wolf Warrior diplomacy and disputed origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The most cited global soft power ranking is Soft Power 30, a joint initiative between Portland, a strategic communications consultancy based in the US, and the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy. The Soft Power 30 evaluation currently covers 60 countries although the polling data is drawn from only 25 countries.

The Soft Power 30 is skewed towards public diplomacy and perceptions of nations and its metrics have a bias towards western democracies. Similarly, research institutes like the Pew Center poll public opinion on various issues, such as trust and favourable views, which have fluctuated wildly. As I will explain below, such vox pop polls can be flawed due to confirmation bias. An extended discussion of this argument can be found in my recent co-authored book China’s Digital Presence in the Asia-Pacific, available Open Access (see chapter 5)

Cultural soft power: waves and flows

Cultural soft power is another variant. Adding the extra adjective “cultural” makes the meaning more specific and reflects shared national pride in both tradition and creativity. It is primarily about resources, including national cultural heritage and talent. Film stars can add lustre to a nation’s profile on the world stage. With Oscars and Nobel Prizes you call yourself a creative nation. Blockbusters too help spread the word.

Even before soft power there was “cool”; some may recall the swinging sixties and the buzz around British pop culture, which Tony Blair tried to recreate in the 1990s with the creative industries. Before the sixties life in Britain was somewhat dull. Rock and roll music, blended with American blues, Buddy Holly and Elvis transformed the image of Britain, radiating from London outwards. Today, the equivalent city of buzz seems to be Seoul.

Probably because soft power feels a bit unconvincing, other metaphors have been added to the mix: for instance, charm offensives and waves. Then there are flows, a term mostly associated with globalisation, evoking big picture luminaries like Immanuel Wallerstein, David Harvey and Francis Fukuyama.

Flows are popular in describing media consumption; it began with the one-way flow of information from “north to south” in the 1970s (associated with cultural imperialism) to the multi-directional empowering flows from the margins to the centre (associated with diversity). Flows imply a lack of state intervention, a consumer-led model of natural forces in which users and markets adjudicate value.

The wave metaphor on the other hand gestures toward a peak; a wave may gain in momentum with the help of government; for instance, the Korean Wave, which has become a focus of South Korean national identity and has launched hundreds of PhDs.

These days it’s easier to develop metrics about competitiveness, or coolness for that matter. Thanks to the ease of accumulating data, there are indices for social progress, innovation, happiness, food security, standards of living, press freedoms and Internet connection speeds.  Counting tangibles such as the number of people in employment or the number of patents registered, however, is easier than designing methods to measure the value of cultural products and services, which is often intangible and always subjective.

Social media

What people think and what they say about cultural products has an extended social life because of social media. This applies to opinions about one’s own culture or a foreign movie. People tweet, share and comment, usually in their home language. And this social media commentary mostly reaches people with similar world views, for instance, those in one’s social media groups.

The “net effect”, real or imagined, is therefore something we need to take seriously, including its illusions; for instance, confirmation bias. The internet is designed with confirmation bias as a key part of its algorithmic logic. People bookmark, save, select, review, and share what they like or agree to. And people filter out what they don’t like. Algorithms recognize such likes and feed us more of the same, reinforcing our perceptions. As a result, we may suffer from the information overload disease, “hardening of the categories.”

Most people, for instance, harbour favourable views of their own culture and will therefore be drawn to opinion and commentary that reinforces their beliefs (or biases), while ignoring critical views which may be perfectly logical. It is therefore important to be aware of bias in reviews, especially when they are posted on online platforms!