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By the Numbers

Apr 4, 2013
by Tom Iacuzio, '06

Flagler’s Will Miller part of study looking into Islamist violence in Pakistan

Will Miller is a numbers guy. Throughout his career, the assistant professor of public administration at Flagler College has conducted political polling for nonprofit agencies, governmental bodies, communities, sitting politicians and candidates for political office. He’s published four books, numerous journal articles on public opinion and recently gave an election night keynote speech at the New York City Public Library.

But his latest study finds him venturing into new territory: Pakistan.

Miller, along with University of Akron professor Karl Kaltenthaler and Georgetown University professor Christine Fair, are conducting a study funded by the U.S. Department of State to better understand the relationship between media consumption in Pakistan and beliefs about the legitimacy of Islamist violence. 

The study has two components: providing an in-depth study of Pakistani consumer media usage, and attempting to identify individual beliefs about the legitimacy of violent extremism.

Miller says that this study, funded by a $276,000 State Department grant, is unlike anything else he’s ever worked on.

“This one, being with the State Department, is a bit different as it won’t be publicized in a commercial way,” he said. “It will go into academic research, but whenever the embassy is willing to fund a study like this, it’s usually because it fits some strategic want or desire. It’s pretty clear on this one that they want to figure out what they can do to infiltrate mass media and start putting anti-extremist messages out there. They want to know what people are watching, who they’re trusting, what media types they pay attention to.”

While he was excited to begin work on the 18-month study, he did have one major caveat: he wanted to do his part from the states.

“I don’t want to go anywhere that the U.S. government is willing to pay for me to fly first class to go to,” joked Miller. “If they’re willing to pay that kind of money, then they are clearly trying to make me feel good before I get there.”

Miller didn’t have anything to worry about. Fair, a fluent speaker of the language with many contacts in Pakistan, is their woman on the ground since she has spent plenty of time in the country.

But the majority of the footwork will be done by Pakistani interviewers hired to conduct the survey with a target number of 6,000 responses.

Miller said that’s not as dangerous as it sounds.

“A lot of people hear this and think, ‘Oh so you got a grant to send innocent Pakistanis who are desperate for money to their death. What a great use of federal funds,’ ” he said. “While there is always some safety risk, the locations scouted are being well-researched. We won’t be sending anyone knocking on a door and interrupting a meeting of the Taliban.”

Miller says the bigger concern will be getting interview subjects to answer honestly.

“If someone is anti-American, oftentimes they are going to just come out and say, ‘Oh yeah, I want to blow up America,’” said Miller. “But on the flip side of that, they also are sometimes hesitant to come out and say they love America for fear of that getting out to anti-American neighbors.”

The survey will pose a series of questions to the respondent about the kinds of media they use to obtain news about local, national, regional and international events. It will then get into deeper questions about how they feel about certain national issues regarding America and America’s role in their country and surrounding areas.

“It’s going to be tough,” Miller admits. “The regions where you’re actually going to find really strong anti-American voices are regions where it’s typically tough to find interviewers who are willing to knock on doors asking questions like, ‘How do you feel about suicide bombing?’ ”

Miller says the study will have other obstacles, as well, from the fact that many regions in Pakistan have shoddy electricity and little to no cell service to scheduling interviews around the weather and religious holidays. Of course, there is also the fact that fighting can break out in any region at any moment, such as it did in Libya back in September 2012.

“After the Libyan embassy was attacked, we were really concerned that our study would be shut down,” Miller said. “Luckily we were allowed to continue. This is a big responsibility to undertake and a lot of good data can come from it.”

Miller says the group can’t be sure what their findings will be when the study is completed, but their expectations are pretty clear.

“Individuals are self-selecting media much like they do here,” he said, explaining that you indulge in the media that express your own leanings. “I think also that the anti-American groups will be focused on media messages that are going both ways so they can learn what the other side is saying.”

Miller says his hope is that they can argue that the issues in Pakistan are policy and not religion.

“That’s a fairly happier message for the United States,” he said. “If this is a religious thing, we can’t really do anything about it. If it’s a policy thing, we can potentially make advances in that. So we’re hopeful that that will be what we find.”

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