The Other Real World Reality TV may be popular around the world, but it's also roundly mocked as formulaic and contrived. So, can that kind of fragile fantasy world meaningfully influence reality? We look at the goals and impact of a UN-backed reality show called "Inspire Somalia," that attempted to model democracy and freedom in a country racked by decades of clan warfare and oppression by extremist groups like al-Shabab.
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The Other Real World

HANNA ROSIN, HOST:

Hey, everyone. It's Hanna. Before we start the show, we have something to tell you. We are going to be live for the first time on April 19 at Lincoln Theatre in Washington, D.C. We'll be on stage with our friends at Story District for a night of storytelling and fun. Tickets are on sale now at nprpresents.org. That's April 19 in Washington, D.C. See you there.

ALIX SPIEGEL, HOST:

Once upon a time, there was music on the radio, but then the music started fading out. First one radio station, then another, then another - until there was almost no music to hear, and people started Macgyvering (ph) workarounds. One of the people who came up with a workaround was Xawa Abdi Hassan, a young woman who lived in a village outside Mogadishu, Somalia.

XAWA ABDI HASSAN: (Through interpreter) We used to use a memory card - filled the memory card with music and listened to it from our phones.

SPIEGEL: In her home as she cooked and cleaned, Xawa would listen to the great Somali singers. Songs that entered through the ears but then did strange things to the body - made your heart contract at certain moments but at others, made your step lighter, made you feel like your worries could in fact be overcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

KHADRA DAAHIR: (Singing in foreign language).

HASSAN: (Through interpreter) My favorite song is one of the songs sang by Khadra Daahir.

SPIEGEL: Can she sing a teeny bit of it?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Foreign language spoken).

HASSAN: (Singing in foreign language).

SPIEGEL: And truly - in Somalia during the 2000s - there were many things to worry about. Even the act of listening to music off a memory card was something to worry about, which is why Xawa was careful.

HASSAN: (Through interpreter) Yes, I used to listen, but I used to turn the volume low so nobody hears it.

SPIEGEL: Quietly?

HASSAN: (Through interpreter) Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: The problem was al-Shabab, the Islamic extremist group that dominated large parts of the country. They didn't like music. In 2009, they banned music at weddings, banished musical ringtones and started punishing people who listened to music on their mobile phones by making them swallow their memory cards. Then at some point, I guess, they figured, best to go straight to the source. So extremists started targeting the musicians themselves. The famous soloist Aden Hasan Salad was shot and killed in a teashop. Others were murdered in the street, attacked in their homes. But through all of that, Xawa kept listening and practicing, singing softly with her memory card, going over and over the songs until her voice, she thought, sounded just like Khadra Daahir - because Xawa had a dream.

HASSAN: (Through interpreter) I just wanted to sing and become an entertainer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: For most of her life, though - because of al-Shabab - that was a pretty far-fetched dream. But then in 2013, this unexpected - an interesting opportunity emerged. Apparently, there was going to be a new reality television show - an American-style reality television show that would feature singing and all kinds of singers competing.

HASSAN: (Through interpreter) I was informed about the show from some friends of mine in the village. And as soon as I heard about it, I really wanted to be part of it and join.

SPIEGEL: Knew she wanted to try out even though, on another level, she had to admit that the idea of appearing on TV where anyone could see her singing really worried her.

Can she explain? What was she worried and afraid of?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Foreign language spoken).

HASSAN: (Through interpreter) Death.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: This is INVISIBILIA. I'm Alix Spiegel.

ROSIN: And I'm Hanna Rosin. INVISIBILIA is a show about all the invisible forces that shape human behavior - our thoughts, our beliefs, our expectations. And today, we're telling the story of a life-and-death reality show in Somalia but not just any old life-and-death reality show. This was a carefully-planned, international operation designed to influence the politics of Somalia. Part of something we're seeing more and more of in the world today - foreign powers using popular media to influence the emotional climate and therefore the politics of another country. Today we document an effort like this in Somalia. And we ask the question, can a reality show and telling a certain kind of story call a different kind of reality into being? Stick around.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: So Alix did the reporting on this next piece. She talked to all kinds of people who participated in the Somali reality show. Xawa was one of those people, and we will get back to her. But Alix starts with an American who was there for much of the story and helped us report it - Roopa Gogineni.

SPIEGEL: When she was a sophomore at UPenn, Roopa fell in love with a world that had ceased to exist - fell immediately in hard in her late-morning history class. Her professor had dimmed the lights so he could show a photo essay he'd done in the late '70s. There on the screen was image after image of what looked, at least to Roopa, like paradise.

ROOPA GOGINENI: This beach-side city - all of the homes are made of white coral. And there's flowers everywhere - bougainvillea pouring over walls. And it's breathtaking.

SPIEGEL: But it wasn't just the physical beauty of the place. The city looked like a hotbed of cosmopolitan culture and fun. There were glamorous women smiling in colorful clothes, elegant men laughing and smoking. Which was so strange to Roopa because she'd actually seen a whole movie about this exact same city.

GOGINENI: "Black Hawk Down."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK HAWK DOWN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I need extra security on these Humvees.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I'll go. I'll take them out and make sure they get back OK.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Do it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Move out. Go, go.

SPIEGEL: Chaos, random death, horror - that was the Mogadishu Roopa knew about. She was amazed that a culture could change so completely. You'd never guess in a million years that it had once been totally different. Could that happen anywhere? And can a culture change back? Like, was there a city underneath the city of chaos and terror that was filled with people who would smile and laugh like the people on the screen?

GOGINENI: And at that point, I was sort of - I knew that's where I wanted to go.

SPIEGEL: So Roopa graduates, moves to East Africa to become a photo and video journalist and starts researching Somalia stories. And she finds plenty. There are all kinds of people like the ones in the photos doing interesting non-terror-related activities. But editors weren't buying. They only wanted pirates, terrorism and warlords.

GOGINENI: And I felt pretty frustrated. So when I got the call, it was a pretty alluring prospect.

SPIEGEL: The call was from a friend of a friend who was involved in this very unusual communications company, one of the companies Roopa privately thought of as communications mercenaries because they were hired to tip the balance in conflict situations and war. The company was doing a project which, at least on its face, sounded to Roopa slightly preposterous.

GOGINENI: He was like, we're making a TV series in Somalia ala "American Idol." Are you interested?

SPIEGEL: But this wasn't just any "American Idol"-style reality show the meme was working on. It was an "American Idol"-style reality show whose explicit purpose was to fight Islamic terrorism.

GOGINENI: So this is the document that I was sent a few days after - communications goals.

SPIEGEL: Several days after the call, Roopa got this memo from the company contracted to make the show. It was a series of neat bullet points explicitly stating the purpose of the program.

GOGINENI: Undercut messaging and brand appeal of armed extremist groups. Present resurgent culture due to increasing political stability.

SPIEGEL: See, by this time - 2013 - al-Shabab had been mostly pushed out of the capital, Mogadishu. And there was a small flicker of hope in the air. There had even been an election, though not a fully democratic one. But the situation was far from stable.

GOGINENI: The government, at that point, didn't have a huge amount of legitimacy.

SPIEGEL: The new government that had been elected had U.N. backing. But if it was going to survive, it needed to prove itself to the people - show them that al-Shabab no longer had power so they were no longer living in a world where they could be brutally murdered for singing a song. But also that there was a new and beautiful path forward. A modern well-functioning society was finally within reach.

BEN PARKER: Hearts and minds of the 21st century does involve TV, radio, Snapchat. It also involves, you know, what's - what we call today fake news. The toolkit is phenomenally more interesting.

SPIEGEL: This is Ben Parker, who was director of communications for the U.N. in Mogadishu at the time. It was the U.N. that was behind the reality television show. They provided the money and support to the company that had reached out to Roopa. They'd been tasked, as Ben told me, with supporting the Somali government. And a reality show seemed just the ticket.

PARKER: The beauty of the reality show is that the form itself achieves some of your goals.

SPIEGEL: See, a reality show has many important elements that quietly but surely communicate to the audience important Western values. There's voting. There's individual expression. So even in its form, it communicates a very different way of being.

PARKER: Remind people who had every reason to despair that you could be creative and fair and also a judging panel that was able to be frank and not biased involving men and women. And, you know, there was - so many ingredients go into this because people - it was also an extremely corrupt country. Anyway, we thought a show involving singing would make people happy and proud and would defend them psychologically from al-Shabab.

SPIEGEL: This kind of indirect political messaging, Ben told me, is increasingly popular.

PARKER: Those working in conflict - modern conflict now are less and less convinced of the value of weapons and more and more convinced that other approaches can deliver the dividends.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: As a journalist, Roopa had always been very wary of the strategic communications community or stratcoms as it's called by people like Ben. But the upsides in this case did seem to outweigh the downsides. Roopa had a chance to make a difference, return Mogadishu to its former glory.

GOGINENI: I mean, it sounded really exciting.

SPIEGEL: So Roopa signed up.

How familiar were you with reality shows when you said yes?

GOGINENI: Not at all. I don't think I'd ever seen "American Idol."

SPIEGEL: And So Roopa did what many anti-extremist crusaders have doubtless done before her, though probably for slightly different reasons - she binge watched "American Idol."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN IDOL")

RYAN SEACREST: The pressure to shine. Each and every week is relentless. What have you decided? This is "American Idol."

SPIEGEL: Were you just like, oh, yeah, this is so going to fight Islamic extremism in Somalia?

GOGINENI: I think my first thought was, holy [expletive], how are we going to get a studio to look like that?

SPIEGEL: But even though the idea of producing a Simon Cowell-worthy set was daunting, Roopa's binge watching did yield a useful insight. What this was all about, she decided, was emotion.

GOGINENI: People like reality television, whether it's a show like "American Idol" or "The Real World" because you see people being vulnerable.

SPIEGEL: What she needed, Roopa decided, was a mean judge. A mean judge would produce fear, which would produce struggle and eventually joy. With those emotions, Roopa figured, she would own the audience. Which, of course, is what Roopa needed to do to get Somalia to a better place.

So essentially like the kind of Russian nesting dolls that you're building are you need to provoke real emotion in the context of a fake reality show so that you can change reality in the real world.

GOGINENI: Right. It's a lot of dolls inside other dolls.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: INVISIBILIA will be back in a minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: Hey, everybody. Just wanted to let you know that Hanna and I will be on another fabulous NPR podcast on March 16 - It's Been A Minute With Sam Sanders.

ROSIN: I'm mostly just excited to have Aunt Betty say our names.

SPIEGEL: Find It's Been A Minute on the NPR One app or wherever you get your podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: Welcome back. This is INVISIBILIA. I'm Hanna Rosin. We're telling the story of a reality TV show that was created to fight Islamic extremism. The show called "Inspire Somalia" was funded by the U.N., and it included not just a singing competition but a poetry competition - because poetry is incredibly popular in Somalia - and a "Shark Tank"-ish business pitch element. Alix continues the story with Mohamed Yahye, or Mo, a Somali-born man who was hired to do the logistics.

SPIEGEL: The first thing you need for a reality show is contestants, people who sing and perform and pitch business ideas in a way that makes the audience fall in love. The job of finding those people fell to Mo Yahye, and he was ready to do it. There was just one problem he felt with this entire project.

MOHAMED YAHYE: This is probably going to get somebody killed. I think that was one of the first things that came into my mind.

SPIEGEL: Like most Somalis, Mo knew people who had died in the civil war. So he had a deep appreciation of exactly how devastating the wrath of al-Shabab could be. And while the Americans shooting the show could be protected, surrounded by armed men from the moment they set foot in the country until the second that they left, it was the people who couldn't load themselves onto a plane after the show wrapped that really concerned Mo. He was worried about the contestants.

YAHYE: I was constantly worried about, after they leave and after the program is done, what is going to be the outcome for these people? Or are they going to be identified at their house while there are - they are back to their lives and doing whatever they do, called and threatened? And certain actions might be taken upon them because of what we have presented. That was one of the main things that more or less kept me up at night.

SPIEGEL: But still, Mo had sympathy for the project. He wanted his country to get to a better place, so he tried as best he could to make it work. One of the first tasks, obviously, was to hold open auditions. But in Somalia, advertising an open audition for a reality show was kind of like giving the suicide bomber the actual street address of the party you're throwing.

YAHYE: Because if you do advertise it on the radio, then you're putting yourself on target. So we had to think in a creative way to actually - to minimize the risk that would normally come with that.

SPIEGEL: His workaround was to get the word out but to create logistics that kept the actual audition site secret.

YAHYE: Go to that particular location, and there's going to be a bus waiting there. And take that bus. That bus is going to bring you where you need to go present yourself.

SPIEGEL: Mo thought that the strangeness of the directions in the ad would dissuade people. But on the day of the audition, when he went to the location, turned out that people were not at all dissuaded.

YAHYE: The queue was really, really scary. There were certain times that we thought or I thought to myself, I think we bit more than we can chew right now. So we need to put a stop to this.

SPIEGEL: But there was no putting a stop to it.

YAHYE: The bus kept on going back and forth, kept on going back and forth.

SPIEGEL: Mo remembers making his way back to the gated compound where the buses dropped contestants and seeing people everywhere sitting on the grass lined down hallways. And he says he was just suddenly overcome with what this reality show represented.

YAHYE: I actually see them practicing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YAHYE: Like, they're warming up their vocal chords and working on their business ideas, or how do I present this? That sense of fairness, that sense of it's his idea against my idea. And let these people choose it and putting themselves out there. That - seeing that was also really, really something else.

SPIEGEL: You mean it was really moving to you?

YAHYE: Yeah, yeah. It actually gave me a sense of hope that the country is not and the people are not as damaged as people put it out or how the media normally covers it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: Maybe Mo thought this reality show could help change things - maybe. In the meantime, though, there was the problem of the current reality, which is why - though he couldn't disclose that the show was funded by the U.N. because if U.N. ties leaked out, they'd all instantly become targets - Mo and Roopa did make sure contestants were told just how public this reality show they wanted to join would be.

YAHYE: We identified it crystal clear that it was going to be on TV, radios and all the broadcasting channels as we had at that time.

SPIEGEL: Mo knew that every Somali would understand, from this simple description, exactly how dangerous it was for them to participate. And, in fact, more than one dropped out on the spot, but not everybody. For example, the young woman from a small village outside Mogadishu, Xawa Abdi Hassan, the one who, during her day job at the market, dreamed of becoming a singer like Khadra Daahir. And so when she got home - would sing as she did her chores, softly practicing as she listened to music off a memory card.

HASSAN: (Singing in foreign language).

SPIEGEL: It hadn't been easy for Xawa to convince her family that showing up for the audition was a good idea. They feared that being associated with the show would put her life at risk.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HASSAN: (Through interpreter) Yes, my mom tried to stop me, told me you can get killed for this. But I told her it's OK. Don't stop me. You know, what's meant for me will happen.

SPIEGEL: Did you get permission?

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Foreign language spoken).

HASSAN: (Through interpreter) Yes, she gave me the permission.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: And so the morning of the audition, Xawa put on the fanciest dress she had and carefully did her makeup. Obviously, she was nervous. Who wouldn't be on the day of a big audition? But there was an additional layer with Xawa.

Had she ever sung in public before "Inspire Somalia?"

HASSAN: (Through interpreter) Yeah, that was my first time. Before that, I did not sing in public places.

SPIEGEL: Xawa had never sung in public for people other than her immediate family and a very small group of friends. In fact, like many other people her age, Xawa had never even seen a public performance of song. It was too dangerous for the people singing, for the audience. And so as she went on, her hands were cold and shaking.

HASSAN: (Singing in foreign language).

SPIEGEL: But in her heart, she says, she still felt happy.

HASSAN: (Through interpreter) I was so grateful that, you know, I was even there to sing - to show that I can sing.

SPIEGEL: Roopa remembers watching Xawa on the day of the audition and being struck instantly with her charisma.

GOGINENI: She sort of had the whole package. I mean, she looked so put together. And I could see that she was sort of a natural performer.

SPIEGEL: There were a handful of other contestants who also stood out. And Roopa says she was pleased about how it was going, though there had been one event that deeply unsettled her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GOGINENI: (Sighing).

SPIEGEL: This is tape Roopa recorded from one day when they were holding auditions for the "Shark Tank" portion of the show. And in the late afternoon, this guy showed up. He was really keen to audition. But after Mo and Roopa explained that the show would be televised, he completely freaked out. He was shaking and crying, telling them he needed the prize money but was too afraid to audition because he'd already had a run-in with Shabab. In fact, Shabab was all over him. So he couldn't risk it. It was crazy intense. And so after he left, Roopa and Mo try to hash out what to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GOGINENI: Now we've told him about the project. He knows everything, basically. And Shabab is contacting him. I'm not saying that he's going to, like, run and tell them. But there's just so many - this isn't a very secretive...

YAHYE: Or he's actually one of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: Maybe, Mo said, the man was actually an al-Shabab plant there to suss out the scene, so they could plan a better attack. It seemed very possible to him. And actually, after the incident, the security people Mo had hired followed the man home and identified him, then told Mo that the man was a Shabab member but was trying to find a way out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YAHYE: That's the reason why I'm taking all these precautions. I'm constantly outside, speaking to the security. I don't know about you, but I am definitely shaken. I'm shaken.

GOGINENI: Yeah, same.

SPIEGEL: That night, Roopa and Mo talked about calling the whole show off. But they worried they'd just be replaced with people who knew less about the situation and how to keep everybody safe. So they decided to stick it out. Turned out, though, they weren't the only people with second thoughts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GOGINENI: How many people have dropped out of the show?

TREVOR SNAPP: Dozens.

SPIEGEL: Four days before the shoot, Roopa and her director Trevor Snapp recorded this conversation. By that point, it was clear that though many Somalis would audition for a reality show, very few would actually put their lives on the line. People were dropping left and right. It was frustrating to Roopa, but she totally understood why they were ghosting and felt terrible about pushing Mo to pressure them.

GOGINENI: I don't know. I just hate being, like - Mo, convince this guy to get on the show whatever the cost. I mean, if I wasn't in charge of making the show, I'd be like [explicative] that show (laughter). That's totally irresponsible and exploitative.

SPIEGEL: But Roopa and Mo pushed through - scraping together a cast, replacing everybody who'd dropped out. Until finally, the day arrived.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Rolling audio.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Rolling video.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Rolling video. (Unintelligible).

SPIEGEL: Mo says the morning of the filming, he woke up buzzing with anxiety.

YAHYE: I couldn't even put two thoughts together. My main focus was just come out of this day as - minimum damage as possible.

SPIEGEL: Roopa, on the other side of town, was worried, too.

GOGINENI: The day of the competition, I woke up and just wanted everybody to be there (laughter).

SPIEGEL: Just like on "American Idol," there was a panel of famous musician judges, but the number of contestants for the music part of the competition was much smaller. There were only three. The space where the competition was held also could not have been more different from "American Idol." It was a dark, narrow conference room with low ceilings and more than a dozen armed men standing outside the door. Really, if you think about it for a minute, the whole thing is kind of ironic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: In most American reality shows, producers work endlessly to manufacture a sense of drama. Somalia, though, was the opposite. Literally, the life of every person in that room was on the line. The trick was to disguise that fact so this whole crazy thing might work. And it did seem like it just might work when finally the female host they'd found, Zainab Abdi - this glowing young woman with blinding white teeth - took to the stage to welcome the audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZAINAB ABDI: (Foreign language spoken).

(APPLAUSE)

GOGINENI: The first person who comes up is Xawa. And I remember, at first, her music wasn't really turning on. And so that was - we had a, like - we had a lot of issues with sound. Anyway, so then eventually, the music started.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SPIEGEL: And the audience begins to clap along. Then Xawa began to sing. And finally, this voice that had been kept behind thick walls - restricted to the kitchen, bedrooms, bathrooms of her childhood home - finally, that voice found its way to the light.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HASSAN: (Singing in foreign language).

SPIEGEL: True, there were a dozen men with guns standing just outside the door. But still, Roopa says once Xawa started to sing, the world began to tilt.

GOGINENI: I think it was easy to forget in that room that this was a dangerous thing to do. We were sort of surrounded by young, laughing Somali students. And yeah. And we were having a singing competition. And you sort of forgot about the sort of bigger context and why this was so brave. You know, it didn't feel like some artificial creation or some element of a strategic communication plan. It felt real. It felt like this transcendent space.

(APPLAUSE)

SPIEGEL: Of course, it was an artificial creation - a carefully designed and orchestrated operation funded by the U.N. That was what this was - a strategic plan. So could it work? Can a reality show change reality? Can you call a different world into being by telling the right story? It turns out this question has been systematically studied.

BETSY LEVY PALUCK: I'm very interested in how we make the normal.

SPIEGEL: How do we make the normal? How do people come to see the world around them as an unremarkable fact - the way things are and should be? Betsy Levy Paluck, a psychologist at Princeton University, has tried to answer this question by studying the media. And the study of media influence actually stretches all the way back to the Second World War. But for most of that time, Betsy says, psychology's focus was extremely narrow.

PALUCK: It was all rhetoric and no poetic.

SPIEGEL: The way to change someone's behavior, psychologists assumed, was to change their ideas. And you did that through argument or rhetoric. But starting in the '90s, Betsy says, poetics started gaining ground because psychologists realized that people consumed stories in this qualitatively different way.

PALUCK: Their defensiveness is disabled. Their counter arguing is at rest.

SPIEGEL: See, when you're listening to a story - like, for example, the one you are listening to right this minute - there are so many things that you have to do to keep up.

PALUCK: We're trying to do a lot of things. We're trying to picture what's going on, anticipate what will happen next. It really engages us to listen to a story whereas - we're engaged in different ways when we listen to an argument. We assess whether we believe each assertion, and we measure up what we're hearing with what we think.

SPIEGEL: What Betsy wanted to understand was whether this difference in how we consumed stories translated into any changes in what we thought and how we behaved. And so she decided to do an experiment.

PALUCK: The study that I ran was one of the first studies to treat a radio program, a media intervention - kind of like a medical trial.

SPIEGEL: The study took place from 2004 to 2005 in Rwanda, a country still reeling from brutal genocide. Researchers had theorized that part of what had created the genocide was, in fact, the media, specifically a hate radio station called RTLM that encouraged violence in this very particular way.

PALUCK: It set the tone. It communicated to people that this is something that the entire country is involved with right now and that you would actually be on the outs if you were not participating in violence and looting. So it seems as though people could behave in violent ways not because there is animus and hatred in their hearts but because they feel as though that's what is expected.

SPIEGEL: Betsy wanted to see if you could move behavior towards greater tolerance if you had those messages embedded in a similar way in a different popular radio program. So she hooked up with this organization that was in the process of creating a new radio soap opera, a "Romeo And Juliet"-style romance between a boy and a girl from warring ethnicities. And what Betsy found after a year of studying communities randomly assigned to listen to the soap opera...

PALUCK: What it boiled down to was that despite the fact that people loved this program, it did not change how they personally felt about violence and reconciliation. But they did state that the program changed the way they thought about Rwandan society and about what Rwandans in general should do now. So it didn't change their beliefs, but it did change their perceptions of norms. And at the same time, it changed their behavior, which is why I thought that this was something significant.

SPIEGEL: Let me repeat that. It didn't change their beliefs. It changed their behaviors by changing what they considered to be the social norm - what they thought their neighbors believed and did. That is a sobering idea.

PALUCK: Yeah. This is a very uncomfortable thought. We like to think that all of our behaviors flow from our convictions, and what we do is a reflection of who we are and what we think. But we're constantly tuning ourselves to fit in with the social world around us, oftentimes in ways that we can't even identify. We're just trying to not stand out.

SPIEGEL: So what this work suggests is that if you change someone's perception of what constitutes the social norm - like, you convince people that the world is safe enough to sing in public, even though in reality, there are a dozen armed men standing just outside the door - then you might just change what they actually do in their day-to-day lives. They might, after seeing such a show, themselves decide to attend a concert because, clearly, it's safe enough. Or maybe they decide that they, too, will start a business. And in that way, you move the needle. Now, Betsy hasn't specifically looked at reality television, but she says reality shows and radio soap operas are similar.

PALUCK: It's all storytelling. You know, it's people's stories. It's their lives. It's narrative.

SPIEGEL: Do you think that governments should be doing these kinds of interventions?

PALUCK: I think that they should. It depends on what kind of government. But governments that are accountable could be very good agents to initiate programming like this.

SPIEGEL: Do you think that foreign governments should be doing these kinds of interventions?

PALUCK: I think that becomes really tricky.

SPIEGEL: But foreign governments are doing these kinds of programs. The U.N. is doing these kinds of programs, the U.S. And, of course, last year there was the small matter of the Russians and the U.S. election. There's been a lot of debate about how much Russian tinkering actually affected things. But to Betsy, it's not at all hard to guess what they were going for.

PALUCK: I think in some ways, they really purposefully engineered new perceptions of how common interracial strife was or how pervasive hatred for Hillary Clinton was. That is norms engineering. That right there, you know, comes straight out of the dictator's playbook.

SPIEGEL: Straight out of the dictators playbook and into American life - an emotional terrorist attack concocted in Russia. Of course, when you turn the situation around and think about the U.N.'s attempts at norms engineering in Somalia, it feels really different. So is norms engineering right? Or is norms engineering wrong?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: INVISIBILIA will be back in a minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSIN: This is INVISIBILIA. I'm Hanna Rosin. Today, we're looking at the relationship between the stories we tell and reality by telling the story of a reality TV show. "Inspire Somalia" was funded by the U.N. Its literal goal - change reality for Somali citizens by undermining Islamic extremism.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INSPIRE SOMALIA")

HASSAN: (Singing in foreign language).

ROSIN: Alix picks up the story in the middle of the singing competition.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INSPIRE SOMALIA")

HASSAN: (Singing in foreign language).

SPIEGEL: "Don't I cry for my heart and get goosebumps all over?" Those are the words Xawa sang as she stood on the small stage at the front of the conference room. In the video of her performance, you see she slightly sways as she sings. She looks the way she felt - like someone who has finally been able to do the thing she's always dreamed of doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INSPIRE SOMALIA")

HASSAN: (Singing in foreign language).

(APPLAUSE)

SPIEGEL: After Xawa, the two other contestants had their turn, both men. One had a father who was a famous musician. And the second, Mustafa, was a well-trained musician who'd actually composed his own song.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INSPIRE SOMALIA")

MUSTAFA HAJI ISMAIL: (Singing in foreign language).

GOGINENI: And the judges and the audience - they were going crazy - very into Mustafa.

SPIEGEL: After they finished came the part of the show that was supposed to serve as the democracy demonstration - the voting. Ballots were distributed to the audience and judges. And for a minute, the room was quiet.

In this small conference room in the middle of Mogadishu, people bent over their ballots and considered the options before them - the son of the famous musician, the market girl who practiced at home with the volume turned low, the boy who wrote his own song. In that room, they consulted their hearts, weighed strengths and weaknesses, and then marked the paper in their laps.

GOGINENI: And Mustafa ended up winning the audience votes and the judges' votes. And Mustafa was the best.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "INSPIRE SOMALIA")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Mustafa.

(APPLAUSE)

SPIEGEL: Xawa says she was honestly not upset about not winning the prize. For her, just the act of singing in front of a large audience for the first time was enough.

HASSAN: (Through interpreter) I was very happy. I was happy as - like I was born that day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: In the end, "Inspire Somalia" aired on many different Somali television and radio stations. And the response, according to Mo, was powerful. As soon as the show finished airing, he says he got a call from one of the managers at the main television station.

YAHYE: He said that people kept on calling them and saying that, when is the next one going to come? Can we have more? The audience are asking me - they want to see more of these people present. Can we get more of it?

SPIEGEL: It was nice to hear. But for Mo, the moment the success of the show really hit home was when he went to the airport to fly to Nairobi and realized, after he took a seat at the gate, that the men sitting next to him were in a heated argument about who should've won the poetry part of "Inspire Somalia."

YAHYE: And he was literally - he was really, really shouting to his friends and saying that he should've won.

SPIEGEL: (Laughter).

YAHYE: There's no way. You don't know anything. You don't know nothing about poetry.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: You know you've been successful when you hear people smack talking their friends about poetry.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: In fact, Xawa is now a bit famous. She told me people occasionally recognize her on the street. But more importantly, she's been able to become an actual singer. She has a job singing with a professional choir. Because Shabab is still a force in Somalia, this means she's still at risk. She says she tries not to worry too much but is often spooked when she sees a car slow down when she's walking.

HASSAN: (Through interpreter) Yes, it happens a lot. My heart, like, starts pumping. My heart starts beating fast.

SPIEGEL: She says she hears the same from other contestants who participated in "Inspire Somalia."

HASSAN: (Through interpreter) Most of the time, they watch behind their backs.

SPIEGEL: But though there have been serious threats, as far as we know, no one's been hurt. And for her part, Xawa seems unwilling to retreat from the line of fire. You get the sense that she will take her singing career as far as she can. It's like the experience of being able to express herself in public has changed her. And now, no matter the cost, she's ready to sing.

HASSAN: (Through interpreter) Yes, it is dangerous. But if the young person doesn't stand up for his country and do what's right, how is he helping his country?

SPIEGEL: Even Mo, the man who originally thought this whole thing was just a very efficient way to get a bunch of innocent people killed, said the experience made him hopeful.

YAHYE: There is another alternative that is on the table. It doesn't have to be as business as usual. Things can change, but it just requires a bit of courage, as well as a lot of creativity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SPIEGEL: Which brings us to the final and maybe most important question. Did this reality show - all the risk and trouble - actually change reality? It would be impossible to make the case that Somalia is a completely different country now. It isn't. But there have been some real changes. I heard a wide range of opinions about how to characterize things, which means, of course, that I have a wide range of options in terms of how to tell the end of this story to you. I could choose as most western media does to focus on the negative, like how several months ago al-Shabab staged a massive attack in downtown Mogadishu that killed more than 500 people and created a scene of terrible devastation. Choosing to tell that story would reinforce to you that problems are intractable, that things don't change very much, and when they do it's not because of a reality television show. And that's true. Or anyway, it's as true as any story is true. It's partially true. But that's not how I'm going to end this. I prefer a different partially true story, one I heard from Mo, which is that though progress in Somalia is slow, it's real.

YAHYE: There is a sense of life. There is a sense of busyness or integration that is taking place. And all this is just on the sheer will of the people. They're desperate to actually move things forward and get into a better position for the country.

SPIEGEL: Roopa seems to agree, though she doesn't think "Inspire Somalia" can be seen as the cause. She would never claim that kind of credit for it. She did have this to say about the place she first fell in love with as a sophomore in college.

GOGINENI: It feels like the city has been reborn.

SPIEGEL: One small piece of evidence of that change has to do with music, as Mo told me.

Today, is it possible to hear singing in public?

YAHYE: Yes. It is one of the things that I can actually say that has - substantially has a huge change into the ground. These days, every cafeteria has radio playing. Music's playing. Yes.

SPIEGEL: And what does it mean to you personally to hear music in the streets?

YAHYE: Progress.

SPIEGEL: In fact, we wanted to share with you a small bit of that progress in musical form, so a few weeks ago we asked a producer in Mogadishu to go out and find us music to record. That's what we offer you now, a song recently performed at a hotel cafe in the Lido Beach area. It's such a small thing, a song. But listening to it, I can't help think how many people were required to make it happen. The singer of course, and also the cafe, but there were likely other people behind the song as well, forces large and small, seeking through the song to tell a new story. I imagine that new story spinning out of the singer's mouth, floating through the air, bending all the norms around it, shaping them subtly with the curve of a musical phrase.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

ROSIN: That's Alix Spiegel. Stay tuned for a sneak preview of next week's episode. Here is Somali musician Aar Maanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIDDO & DHAQAN")

AAR MAANTA: (Singing in foreign language).

ROSIN: INVISIBILIA is hosted by me, Hanna Rosin.

SPIEGEL: And me, Alix Spiegel.

ROSIN: Our show is edited by Anne Gudenkauf. Cara Tallo is the executive producer. INVISIBILIA is produced by Meghan Keane, Yowei Shaw and Abby Wendle. Our project manager is Liana Simstrom. Lulu Miller is a contributing editor.

SPIEGEL: We had help from Alex Cheng, Rebecca Ramirez, Mark Memmott, Micah Ratner, Brin Winterbottom, Hillary McClellen, Nancy Shute, Meredith Rizzo, Marc Silver and Will Dobson. Our technical director is Andy Huether and our vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann.

ROSIN: Special thanks to Abdirizak Dhore, Trevor Snapp, Deca Salhan, Mohamed Aabukar, Hassan Abukar, Fadumo Ibrahim, Louis Brooke for his helpful insights and Roopa Gogineni for gathering tape and sharing her recordings.

SPIEGEL: Also thanks to Vik Sohonie from Ostinato Records for letting us use songs from Sweet As Broken Dates and Aar Maanta for his beautiful music. Additional music for this episode from Blue Dot sessions. To learn more about this music and see original artwork from Sara Wong for this episode, visit www.npr.org/invisibilia.

Next time on INVISIBILIA, when Cici Wong first met the man who was renting a room in his mom's house, he thought it was nice for her to have some company. But then Cici started to notice some weird things.

CICI WONG: All the things that we talked about in the letters or the telephone calls, he knew everything about us.

SPIEGEL: But he didn't say anything to his mother even after he got a strange phone call.

WONG: I said, there was something really funny. Somebody called, asked if this is station 57. And then Mrs. Chu (ph) said, no, it's not funny. This is station 57.

SPIEGEL: What is not said in our relationships and the misunderstandings and mysteries that can follow. That's next time on INVISIBILIA.

ROSIN: And now in honor of this musical episode a musical moment of non-Zen.

SPIEGEL: I feel really compelled to sing for you now, but maybe I won't.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Please.

SPIEGEL: OK. (Singing) I have a little auto. It's cute is it can be. And when I drive around in it, I'm very, very happy. I have a little auto...

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Join us next week for more INVISIBILIA.

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