Although the US government has been using remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), more commonly referred to as drones, to conduct military strikes against terrorists and insurgents since at least 2001, only around 2011 did media outlets and polling organizations began assessing the attitudes of Americans towards the use of drones as a weapon of war. Initially, public support for drone strikes was robust with nearly 70 percent of Americans expressing approval. As the discussion of drone strikes intensified however, public support declined over 10 percentage points.
Only a handful of studies have examined public opinion and drone strikes, and all have focused exclusively on explaining support. This study seeks to fill this gap in the literature and explain opposition to drone strikes. The primary argument put forth in this dissertation is that people’s beliefs determine their opinions, and their morality determines their beliefs. Although independent opinion formation is often considered a cognitive process, I argue that, at least in the case of drone strikes, the opinion formation process is largely an affective one.
By examining media coverage and elite discourse surrounding drone strikes, I isolate three narratives which I believe communicate certain messages to the public regarding drone strikes. I argue that the messages produced by elite discourse and disseminated by the media to the public are only influential on opinion formation once they have been converted to beliefs. I further argue that conversion of message to belief is largely dependent on individual moral attitudes.
To test my arguments, I conduct a survey-experiment using subjects recruited from Arizona State University’s School of Politics and Global Studies student subject pool. My research findings lead to two key conclusions. First, opposition to drone strikes is largely the product of the belief(s) that drone strikes are not necessary for protecting the United States from terrorist attack, and that drone strikes kill more civilians than do strikes from conventional aircraft. Second, whether an individual expresses support or opposition to drone strikes, moral attitudes are a relatively good predictor of both beliefs and disposition.