Watching American diplomats embrace new media for the purposes of public diplomacy has been a very awkward experience (not as painful as watching my 82-year-old grandpa learn how to use Skype, but at times it has come pretty close). By shifting their outreach campaigns to Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, the government may be trying to do the impossible, i.e. to plant carefully worded and controlled messages on platforms that sprang up precisely to avoid the kind of influence that the State Department seeks to exert via them.
The government's grand strategic objective—at least as outlined by Judith McHale, the newly appointed Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in her confirmation hearings last month– is to “create an institutional framework that can take full advantage of new media, with an understanding that these tools must be carefully tailored to particular circumstances and always used in the service of a larger strategy” - is vague enough to allow some maneuvers. However, overall, I have my doubts that the American bureaucracy with its infinite levels of communication and gatekeeping would be able to come up with “an institutional framework” for the anti-institutional platforms they seek to embrace.
In the last few weeks, debates over the future direction of these new Internet-based initiatives have intensified, with several new reports and articles on the future of “public diplomacy 2.0” (also known as “e-diplomacy”, “Facebook diplomacy” and several other terms). Two key pieces of recent writing are especially worth looking at: one is a Politico op-ed by Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasej on the rise of the e-diplomacy (itself, a reiteration of Sifry's earlier post on Personal Democracy Forum) and another one is a report called “U.S. Public Diplomacy: Key Features for the Congressional Oversight” from the US Government Accountability Office published in late May, which featured a short section on “public diplomacy 2.0” [link in PDF]
While the Politico op-ed paints quite a rosy picture of the various “public diplomacy 2.0” initiatives that are already underway and extols the enthusiasm of Alec Ross (Clinton's senior innovation advisor), the GAO report is notable for its more critical attitude and a sense of urgency that I think is missing from the Politico piece. In particular, it notes that “current information suggests a failure to adapt in this dynamic communications environment could significantly raise the risk that U.S. public diplomacy efforts could become increasingly irrelevant, particularly among younger audiences that represent a key focus of U.S. strategic communication efforts”. Essentially, I think that both of them overemphasize the use of new media for growing the supply side without giving almost any consideration to its possible impact on the demand site, where, I think, the real focus should be.
Is “Public Diplomacy 2.0” a new form of spam?
In my opinion, relying on Facebook and Twitter could be effective only if public diplomacy is seen as some kind of a brand war. James Glassman, McHale's predecessor at the State Department who is responsible for articulating the very concept of Public Diplomacy 2.0, seems to have a very strong view on the matter: he thinks it might be easier to destroy an enemy's brand– e.g. Al Qaeda's – than to create a successful American brand. This is an intriguing take on public diplomacy – note how closely it resembles the adage of “you don't have to be faster than the bear, you just have to be faster than the other guy”. Yet there are good reasons to be worried about the viability of this approach in the long run: while we may be busy trying to run ahead of Al Qaeda's brand, someone else's brand might pop up in the top charts of the global ideas.
However, I believe that whether one uploads press-releases from the State Department to one or twenty social networks is hardly going to have any influence on the situation. You don't win a war of ideas by growing the number of new media staff who sit by their computers and, much like robots, respond to every online thread that mentions US foreign policy with an official position of the State Department, which is, in fact, what the State Department's Digital Outreach Team has been doing (and the number of languages they do it in is growing). The reality is that the governments in Russia and China, to name only a few , have outreach teams of their own, and are pouring money into their own online image-shaping campaigns, both globally and locally, in order to sustain the dedicated teams of online commentators who help shape the public perception of their policies. Now, this is not a battle of ideas; this is a battle of PR agencies, where Americans also have a “decency handicap”: members of the Digital Outreach Team are required to state who they work for while most of the Chinese and Russian comments are unsigned and, thus, probably a tad more believable.
Glassman et all appear not to grasp the fact that it's not the greater appeal of the Al-Qaeda brand but rather a very poor appeal of America's own brand that leaves many undecided moderates few alternatives but to hate America. From this perspective, crushing the enemy's brand would hardly be helpful, for the number of enemies – who are increasingly very nimble, decentralized, and as loud, if not louder, than the US government – is almost infinite. Thus, we cannot expect to outdo them based on the number of messages we post to various social networks; at some point in time, those messages would be written off as a new form of geopolitical spam. If the “public diplomacy 2.0” approach only presents us with options whether to hire 5 or 10 staffers to tweet about Hillary Clinton's travel plans (do you know any undecided Iranians or Chinese who would be swayed by this knowledge?), I think the world could survive the information vacuum even if they do not hire any.
So far, new media has been deployed to help create supply of American ideas on the Internet, on the assumption that improving global access to unfiltered and carefully crafted American positions would help dispel some of the myths about the country and its policies (i.e. the real assumption is: if only they had the means to learn more about us, they would be on our side). However, I think this approach is wrong-headed simply because it obfuscates the real problem, which is the lack of demand for these ideas in the first place, especially after the Iraq debacle. One of the goals of Public Diplomacy 2.0 should then be to create and then augment this demand rather than to infinitely grow the supply side of the equation. This over-reliance on the supply side is what has often plagued Washington's thinking about democracy promotion: let's just keep talking about democracy – throwing in elections here and there – and people will eventually want it. Well, the point is, if you really want democracy to succeed, you have to make people want it first.
What the State Department and a host of other government agencies involved in public various diplomacy 2.0 initiatives have not mastered yet is using new media to create demand for American ideas and brands. If you look at the phrasing of the new GOA report, it's all about taking advantage of “dynamic shifts in how target audiences obtain and use information”. Well, this is certainly true: there are many more channels in which to reach the global audience, but this doesn't really matter until the US has something substantial to say. Isn't there more to Public Diplomacy 2.0 initiatives than merely following the latest new media fad and adding yet another platform to the communications matrix? What we need to understand is that many foreigners refuse to buy brand Americanna not because they don't know about it but because they think it's empty. Under this scenario, as any seasoned marketer would tell you, it doesn't really matter how intensively you bombard these people with “pointless little messages”; you have to start putting in some real work or your spamming campaigns are only going to annoy everyone who sees them.
From student exchanges to file exchanges
What could some of this real work involve? I think that most policy-makers agree that there is no better cultural export product in America than education. The most radicalized Islamists may hate the lifestyle that comes with attending American colleges, but few of them would challenge that Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or Princeton are still one of the best universities in the world. As far as I am concerned, education (and innovation that comes with it) should be at the forefront of any American cultural export strategy.
In a perfect world, we would be able to transport the entire population of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to New England, have them spend four years reading Thoreau, and then go back and mediate on the nature of civil disobedience. I am sorry to break the news, but this is not going to happen for logistical reasons. Exchanges could be useful but they can hardly be scaled to a level where we would expose the majority of a country's population to America. Another strategic disadvantage is that, in many cases, it's the offspring of the already rich and pro-Western families who get to participate in them (especially since the knowledge of English is often a prerequisite).
However, people who sign up for Al Qaeda and then blow themselves up do not usually come from such privileged backgrounds; most of them are not targeted by the current cultural and educational programs of the US government. We need to figure out how to make the exchange system work for them too. But this could be done via what I call a “file exchange” program that could complement the more traditional student exchange programs. Thanks to the Internet, the growing bandwidth capacity, and the ubiquity of mobile devices, exchanges may soon lose their dominant status to more decentralized ways of learning while still doing it “the American way”. Some of these new learning opportunities are already available on the Internet, in the form of full video and audio sessions of numerous undergraduate and graduate courses held at the top American universities. A list compiled by OpenCulture, an excellent blog tracking the recent additions to the vast body of free educational and cultural resources on the Web, lists at least 200 of them.
Personally, I'm a big fan of the Open Yale Courses; currently, its web-site has full videos of a few dozen courses, ranging from political theory to astronomy to American history, available for anyone to download and watch in the comfort of their home. I've looked at what it has cost Yale to produce these courses; their original grant application to the Hewlett Foundation [PDF]-which provided the seed money for the project – puts the total at $750,000 for 7 courses. This makes it about $100+k per course.
Is it expensive? I'd say no, given how much money is being spent on other new media initiatives with much less obvious payoffs. Look at X-Life, a new cellphone game which is supposed to educate anyone playing it about American life and learning (here's a snippet from its plot: you are playing Salah Molaveni, a Middle Easterner on an international exchange program in America, who needs to “maneuver around the University, learning about the local culture, in order to take on trivia challenges, complete quests, and modify a project car to road-race against a bullying school tyrant called The Zephyr”). Well, why create this surreal virtual experience if we can easily let foreigners peep into the actual American study halls?
The State Department has invested more than $400,000 in the company that produces the X-Life game. While the jury is still out on whether the game would be a success, personally, I'd rather see four more Yale courses produced with this money. And one more useful stat: the annual budget of the Broadcasting Board of Governors – the heir to the US Information Agency – is $682 million. If at least one percent of this budget were to spent on initiatives like Yale's, we could now be enjoying around 70 (and probably many more thanks to the economies of scale) new courses, which, unlike much of the TV and radio reports, could be used anywhere, anytime and have an infinite shelf life.
It's easy to be skeptical about the appeal or the popularity of these courses. But look at the vast piracy markets out there; check out any BitTorrent site for the kinds of lectures that are being swapped around (check Demonoid, for example). You'll be surprised: video courses produced by American universities and available online FOR FREE are being exchanged via BitTorrent and other legal and not-so-legal file-sharing sites. If people are ready to pirate content that is already widely available at no cost, this is a sure sign that the demand is quite strong.
So why not simply spend all this money putting more of such courses and putting them online? Cover as many disciplines as possible – do not just go for the low-hanging political fruit like the History of the Cold War or the US Foreign Policy in the Middle East; if you really want people to be thankful and treat you seriously, produce courses on topics as far removed from the US foreign policy as possible. The more practical knowledge you could cram into them, the better; look at the success of Stanford's course on developing applications for the iPhone – with more than one million downloads, it's one of the most popular online courses in history. Teach people how to make a living, and their loyalty is practically guaranteed.
I'd go even one step further: why not pour money into creating an international community of people around this academic content and then involve them into producing subtitles for the courses, thus making them available even to those who do not speak English? I've visited enough poor countries that know that there will be plenty of intellectually curious youngsters who could only dream of watching lectures by faculty from Harvard or Yale in their own languages. The success of the TED Conference's translation project – with roughly 1,000 translators signing up to translate their vast repository of talks in a very short period of time – is yet another proof that this could be done.
From content production to content aggregation
There are also excellent resources tracking this wealth of online educational content. The OpenCulture blog mentioned above is probably one of the best resources at the moment, but there is enough space for a dozen other niche players. Why not invest more money in building such aggregators? Aggregating content – as opposed to producing it – is much less political and, thus, much easier to sell to those who need to keep track of what's happening. Let's face it: even the most radicalized America-hating Islamists use Google, because Google provides a useful and apolitical service. At the same time, I doubt that they are big fans of Alhurra: while Alhurra's service may also be useful (that's a big “may be” given the latest reports in ProPublica), for most Middle Easterners - moderates included - it's way too political to be taken seriously.
What's the lesson for the State Department here? Quite simple: if they want to curry favor with the extremists, the undecided moderates and everyone else on the Internet, they should simply fund more useful AND apolitical services and be modest in their rampant publicity campaigns to extol these investments. From this perspective, the utterly apolitical creature that today's Internet is probably makes for the only DoD invention that is widely used by America's enemies despite its rather dubious (read: DoD) origins.
Broadly speaking, this means that the future of Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and other US-funded media ventures lies in providing services like content aggregation. In the long term, their only shot at staying relevant is to figure out how to be the Google News of their region, helping to discover new and original content without producing any expensive content of their own. Their content, whether they like it or not, would always be perceived as American propaganda and thus rarely taken seriously. I suspect that everyone in the State Department knows that this is a legacy of the past: it may have been a fine option during the Cold War, where the US either produced content that was perceived as propaganda or it left the citizens of the USSR and the satellites to consume the content that was “made in Kremlin”. This world no longer exists: there is more content and opinion out there that anyone has time to consume.
Our extremely saturated new media environment makes the US-funded media sources look even less appealing, especially if compared to hundreds of other (much less expensive) sources. Aggregation (and, possibly, even curation) is the only activity where these media could add value; they should get out of other business lines as fast as we can. The huge savings that would occur from this transfiguration–Voice of America alone has a budget of roughly $188 million – could be put to good use by subsidizing the production of high-quality original reporting in the local languages by independent newspapers, magazines, and TV stations; many key players in this field have been cultivated by players like USAID and Internews and are well-known to the State Department. While many viewers and listeners have concerns about the objectivity of Alhurra or even RFE/RL, considerably fewer of them have reservations about the objectivity of some Russian, Egyptian, or Kyrgyz radio or TV station simply because some of its promising young journalists got to spend 9 months as fellows at American college (even if their entire fellowships were paid by the US government).
Embracing the Google Diplomacy
I think that most technology-driven public diplomacy initiatives have so far suffered from the lack of imagination about the role that technology could actually play in the process. So far, technology has been mostly used as a tool, but it could also be used – and, perhaps, in much more powerful ways, as a set of ideas about America. Arguably, the greatest gift that America has bestowed to this world in the last decade has been Google, a powerful search-engine that is as useful in Brazil as it is in Armenia. It's easy to hate American companies like Coca Cola, often associated with the endless expansion of American businesses and the overall Americanization of the world. In contrast, it's much harder to hate companies like Google, which do not claim to make our lives better, they simply do it very quietly, but we all take notice. Even despite several rows over free speech, Google still maintains a much more coherent position on the issue than most of the previous US administrations, who have often closed their eyes to media intimidation in friendly regimes like Egypt or Azerbaijan. Even corporate social responsibility efforts like Google.org – even in their present scaled-down version—look much more genuine and sincere than Coca Cola's.
In the past, part of the US public diplomacy effort was to mitigate the public damage created by the activities of Coca-Cola or Exxon Mobile or MacDonald's; today, the situation is much different – there are many opportunities to be ripped from the global presence (and usefulness) of tech companies like Google or Yahoo. Doesn't the incredible success of Google say something about the American dream – as foreigners could envision it – that two graduate students at one of the finest American research institutions could change the world by working out of a basement on their graduate thesis?
We hardly recognize this but Google has already done more to make America popular in the world than the State Department ever could accomplish on Twitter. Whatever framework the State Department adopts to executive their new public diplomacy initiatives, it has to make space for completely unexplored diplomatic treasures like Google. As things stand now, the US governments, unfortunately, seems to have neither the tools nor the ambitions to figure out how to capitalize on these less conventional assets...
Photo by Micky/Flickr