How can international organizations shape public opinion? analysis of a pair of survey-based experiments


How, and under what conditions, can International Organizations (IOs) shape public opinion? The impact of IOs on public support for war has been studied closely by international relations scholars, yet their effects on environmental or human rights issues has not. This is surprising given the extent to which the success of these initiatives will depend upon cooperation through international institutions. This article examines how IOs can influence popular support for two policies aimed at solving global collective action problems: (1) the REDD+ deforestation initiative; and (2) efforts to resettle Syrian refugees. The results presented here use a pair of survey-based experiments to test whether public support for these policies can be affected by the recommendations made by various organizations and their member states. Somewhat surprisingly, the results suggest that endorsements by the United Nations have a greater effect on the US public than do endorsements by organizations known for their technical expertise, or by prominent international NGOs. These findings call into question some of the assumptions we commonly make about the perceived legitimacy of international organizations.

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  1. 1.

    In this paper I shall use the term international organization (IO) as an umbrella term to refer to both intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs).

  2. 2.

    See for example, or (last accessed August 14, 2018).

  3. 3.

    See (last accessed August 14, 2018).

  4. 4.

    See (last accessed August 14, 2018).

  5. 5.

    See (last accessed August 14, 2018).

  6. 6.

    See (last accessed August 14, 2018).

  7. 7.

    The survey designs for the two experiments were pre-registered at the archive (IDs: 20170302AA and 20170609AC) shortly before data collection began. In combining the results of these two experiments for the purpose of writing this paper, I framed the theoretical section of the paper in a way that focuses more on the question of the legitimacy of international organizations. For a discussion of how the hypotheses presented in this article differ from the pre-registered hypotheses, please see Section 9 of the Supplementary Appendix.

  8. 8.

    See, for example, the debate about the extent to which the European Court of Justice can be thought to act in ways that are independent of the interests of its member states (Burley and Mattli 1993; Garrett 1995; Cichowski 2004).

  9. 9.

    Correspondence with the OCED Newsroom, October 12, 2017.

  10. 10.

    See (last accessed August 14, 2018).

  11. 11.

    For a discussion of how the hypotheses developed here differ from the hypotheses recorded when each of these experiments was pre-registered, please see Section 9 of the Supplementary Information.

  12. 12.

    The text used in these newspaper articles consisted of a mixture of language copied from actual news reports or IO publications and language made up by the author. Where necessary, the debriefing message at the end of the survey addressed the specific ways in which the material in the article was not factually accurate. For examples of the debriefing messages, please see Section 10 of the Supplementary Appendix.

  13. 13.

    The respondents were given a debriefing message after taking the survey which explained that the amount of $2 billion was made up for the purposes of this research. Please see Section 10 of the Supplementary Appendix for examples of the debriefing messages used in this study.

  14. 14.

    This part of the experiment was conducted on June 9, 2017. At that point in time the Trump administration’s second attempt to suspend the refugee resettlement program had been put on hold by the US Court of Appeals and was awaiting consideration by the US Supreme Court. As a result, Syrian refugees were continuing to be resettled in the United States but the future of the program remained in doubt.

  15. 15.

    In the refugees experiment, but not the deforestation experiment, I included an additional treatment where I stated that the CEOs of major US corporations had endorsed the proposal. Please see Section 4 of the Supplementary Appendix for more details.

  16. 16.

    For a discussion of the relationship between the length of each article and the average level of support for the policy, please see Section 5 of the Supplementary Appendix.

  17. 17.

    I explained in the debriefing message that this quotation was made up for the purpose of this research.

  18. 18.

    I explained in a debriefing message at the end of the survey that the amounts committed to REDD+ projects were made up for the purpose of this study. I then provided the respondents with links to sources of information about other countries’ actual levels of commitment to REDD+ financing. For examples of the debriefing messages, please see Section 10 of the Supplementary Appendix.

  19. 19.

    I asked all respondents two simple multiple-choice questions to test their comprehension of the article. The first asked the respondent to identify the problem discussed in the article, while the second asked what type of policy proposal had been discussed as a potential solution. In addition, for the respondents who were assigned to the IGOs condition, I asked whether the OECD and World Bank either supported, opposed, or had not taken any position on the issue of deforestation/refugees. In the versions of article that mentioned other countries’ policies, I also asked the respondents to identify the relevant countries from a list of four choices. Responses that included one or more incorrect answers to these questions accounted for 8% and 6% of the responses in the deforestation and refugees experiments, respectively, and were removed from the sample. The rates at which the respondents passed these tests, and the effects of re-running the analysis in the presence of the complete set of responses, are shown in Sections 6 and 7, respectively, of the Supplementary Appendix.

  20. 20.

    For a detailed discussion of the external validity of MTurk samples in political science research, see Berinsky et al. (2012) and Huff and Tingley (2015).

  21. 21.

    For the deforestation scenario, 4% of respondents indicated that they were totally opposed to the $2bn contribution to REDD+ schemes, while 23% indicated that they were fully (100%) supportive of the $2bn contribution. For the refugee resettlement scenario, the corresponding proportions are 16% and 10%, respectively.

  22. 22.

    In the refugees experiment—but not in the deforestation experiment—I included an additional treatment group that mentioned the fact that the leaders of certain multinational corporations (e.g., Microsoft, Starbucks, and Nike) had spoken out in favor of resettling refugees. Although this resulted in an increase in the mean level of support for the policy, the difference was not statistically significant relative to the control group (p = 0.28). However, analyzing the results by party identification suggested an effect that was somewhat more notable among the Democratic respondents (p = 0.08). For more details, please see Section 4 of the Supplementary Appendix.

  23. 23.

    Re-estimating the effects using all respondents—i.e., not just those who passed the attention and manipulation checks—produces a similar pattern of results, but the p-values increase to 0.11 and 0.38 for the refugees and deforestation experiments, respectively. For more details, please refer to Section 7 of the Supplementary Appendix.

  24. 24.

    Recent surveys on the US public’s attitudes towards the UN have produced mixed findings. The latest (2011) wave of the World Values Survey found that only 36% of US respondents reported some degree of confidence in the UN, whereas a 2016 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 64% of US respondents reported a favorable view of the UN (see; last accessed August 16, 2018).

  25. 25.

    Re-estimating the effects using all respondents—i.e., not just those who passed the attention and manipulation checks—produces a similar pattern of results, but the p-value increases from 0.10 to 0.11. Please see Section 7 of the Supplementary Appendix.

  26. 26.

    When re-estimated using the full set of observations (not just those who passed the attention and manipulation checks), the corresponding p-values are 0.05 and 0.03, respectively. For full details please see Section 7 of the Supplementary Appendix.

  27. 27.

    See, for example, the speech that Ambassador Torsella gave to the Council of Foreign Relations in January 2012 (; last accessed August 14, 2018).

  28. 28.

    See Section 2 of the Supplementary Appendix.

  29. 29.

    I thank one of the anonymous reviewers for pointing this out.

  30. 30.

    While other studies have examined the impact of different framing effects employed by NGOs (see, for example, McEntire et al. (2015)’s study of human rights NGOs), as far as I am aware no-one has considered the impacts on public opinion of IGOs and INGOs in a comparative context.


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I would like to thank Chris Clary, Jeremy Horowitz, Dan Reiter, Niloufer Siddiqui, Alexander Thompson, Ben Valentino, and Jana von Stein for their comments and suggestions on this project. I am especially grateful to Matthew Kirk for his research assistance, and to the editors and anonymous reviewers at the Review of International Organization for their very thoughtful comments and suggestions..

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Correspondence to Brian Greenhill.

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This article includes a Supplementary Appendix that is available for download from the Review of International Organizations’ website.

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Greenhill, B. How can international organizations shape public opinion? analysis of a pair of survey-based experiments. Rev Int Organ 15, 165–188 (2020).

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  • Human rights
  • Environment
  • Deforestation
  • Refugees
  • UN
  • OECD

JEL Classification

  • F53
  • L31
  • Q54