• Flim Flam at the State Department

    February 17, 2012

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Embassy/State

    One of my favorite episodes of the The Simpsons involves a take off of The Music Man, where a slick comes to town and convinces everyone that what they need more than anything is a monorail. Just like in the famous musical, where a brass band stood in for the monorail, all problems would be solved, bald men would grow hair, weak men would grow strong and average children would soon excel. All the good people of Springfield/River City/Foggy Bottom need do is hand over their money and believe in the dream (Trivia: The monorail episode was written by a young Conan).

    Home Pages, Like It’s 1999
    The State Department is not that different, especially with technology. Way back in the 1990’s, the flim flam of the day was “eDiplomacy,” web pages and chat rooms that would replace traditional work, give State a seat at the grown up table of foreign policy and all that other good stuff. Originally there was indeed a spark of innovation, as embassies abroad competed to use the technology and find ways to communicate. A lot of money was then wasted on consultants and studies and while the rest of the world recognized the web as an important tool, State devolved into cookie-cutter, nearly static bland “home pages” that made it feel safe. Go to “News and Events” for the Embassy in Damascus and it is all a rehash of what was said in Washington at the noon press briefing. Same thing for Baghdad, Bangkok and everywhere else. State gathered control of all of the Embassy pages and made them nearly identical, very pale. Yawn.

    Social Media, It’s Outta Sight
    But now there is “social media,” and if you did not know it (and how could you not?), January was groovy “21st Century Statecraft” month at the State Department! There were cookies and punch. It was the future ya’ all.

    Social media is… the rage… now at Foggy Bottom and will cure all ills, allow bald men to grow hair, weak men to grow strong and average children to soon excel. We know this because the Secretary of State hired Alec Ross from the Obama campaign to be her most Senior Advisor for Innovation. Go look at his Wikipedia bio– it freaking says “Alec Ross (innovator)” as the title. That makes it true.

    Alec now personally trains every US Ambassador in social media (imagine your parents: yes, yes, the email machine, that’s what I’m talking about, yes, you can see photos too, no, stop that, that’s Solitaire, not social media, dammit). Best of all Alec “gets” social media is different. He says things like this, as if Marshall McLuhan Malcolm Gladwell had taken meth and installed himself in your ear:

    What I tell our ambassadors is remember you only have one mouth, but two ears. So even if you aren’t using these tools to communicate out to people, at a bare minimum, you need to use them to listen to people, because this is how people are talking to you in the 21st century.

    Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and as our information networks become more universal and more powerful, there’s more of this sunlight to bring to light what’s happening all around the world.

    The difference in the United States versus other places is that we do this without sacrificing universal rights. So people have freedom of expression. They have the ability to exercise peaceful, political dissent. They have the ability to communicate however they see fit.

    [W]hat social media tends to do, is it redistributes power. It redistributes power from hierarchies to citizens, from large institutions and the nation-state to individuals and networks of individuals.

    The 21st century is a lousy time to be a control freak.

    We can try to control the space, but I’m very skeptical about the degree to which we can or should control the internet. I think that it’s a losing proposition. The far better thing to do is to understand that everybody’s going to have a voice, that good points of view and bad points of view are going to be conveyed there, and what we need to do is be aggressive in getting out there and pushing out the truth.


    Alec also “gets” that “young people” are “hip” already to social media. He even said so: “I’ve yet to meet a 22 year old, at least in the United States, who doesn’t understand social media.” Righty-right me gobsmacker Alec old bull, just because someone has had a Facebook page to update the ‘ole in and out relationship status does not make them a social media expert– US and China IN A RELATIONSHIP, IT’S COMPLICATED. Base familiarity with technology is good, but does not make everyone born after 1990 an expert.

    What is true is that those young people are digital natives, having never lived in a world without the web, the good web with YouTube videos of cats, not the dial-up web our Ambassadors are still struggling with (someone still has all those active AOL accounts). Young people and even some older ones live on social media, and send out gazillions of Tweets, updates and blog posts. They did it before starting work at State and they do it after they join State. Freedom of Speech, that kind of thing.

    The State Department is even this week– to coincide with Social Media Week– launching a super program to increase the number of friends/fans/followers for the social media of twenty embassies by 100 percent. Despite this being just what kids in junior high do, compete for numbers without caring who they are friended by, State is going to provide “targeted, relevant and engaging content” and offer “promotion and advertising gurus” to help out (they really do talk like that at State, I’m not making this up).

    Downton Abbey
    The dial-up State Department does not “get” social media. It is afraid of letting its people talk openly. It embarrasses faster than those crusty olds on Downton Abbey at dinner when someone drops a fork. The uber-State Department blog of record, Diplopundit, catalogs blogs that have been made to go away by the State Department.

    So Alec made this promise in answer to the question posed on Diplopundit “How can State take a leadership role on Internet freedom while we continue to harass and discourage bloggers within our own ranks?”

    If I’m given specific names of people doing the “discouraging” then I will take it up with those individuals (or their bosses or their boss’ boss) directly.



    So Let’s Throw Down
    The problem is that that is not true. It is all flim flam. I know, because I asked Alec to see if he could help me with my troubles with the State Department and this blog.

    I asked Alec on his Facebook page. No response, friend request not accepted.

    I asked Alec at a party to help. He awkwardly excused himself to chat with Amy Chua and never came back.

    I asked Alec on this blog. No response.

    And via his Twitter. #No_rspnse.

    A week ago I wrote Alec an email to his State Department account asking for some assistance. No response.


    Yeah, I Thought So
    Social media, like all other forms of communication, is a valuable tool. But it is not just about numbers, amassing fake friends and dummy followers. If you have a message people want to hear, they will find their way to you, talk back to you, ask you to follow up on your promises. But if your only message is more flim flam, then you’re just another in a long line of fakes saying one thing and doing another while little of substance changes around you, albeit in a new medium. State does not understand that it is not about the numbers, or the slick tools they use, but about outcomes and results. Like the transition from kindergarten to college, results matter now, not just effort. Tweet up the Arab Spring until your thumbs bleed, but continued US support for the autocratic Egyptian military speaks louder than any 140 characters.

    BTW, who else cracks down on bloggers in addition to the State Department?

    I’m not the only one who sees this. Whether in social media, French, Wild Goose Chinese or written on a piece of cardboard, real talks, bullsh*t walks.

    Agree? Disagree? Are you a guru? Have a video of your cat? I’m on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, email info(at)wemeantwell.com, comments section below and often hang out at local bars dancing for nickles, so socially interact with me. Please please please, I’m trying to grow my circles’ 100 percent so bald men will grow hair, weak men grow strong and average children soon excel.



    Related Articles:




    Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

    Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedin
  • Recent Comments

    • MattieB said...

      1

      Since you asked.

      Diplomats have to be circumspect to be effective. True then, true now, equally true tomorrow.

      Ideally they achieve progress by quietly working face to face behind the scenes, not by yapping on the twitters or “the ambassador’s blog.”

      They’re not street kids battling the police in Homs or Cairo, using twitter or other social media to plan action or protect themselves. The State social media flimflam is empty and specious, as you point out. Tone deaf, too, as we’ve seen from some of the clueless Embassy tweets and Facebook posts.

      Your situation is different, imo, in that the book and blog are acts of conscience. In these cases, and there have been quite a few, State or whatever federal agency is being criticized just wants the dissenter to resign “honorably,” as that will silence them most effectively.

      Staying on and blogging, however normal the latter is for any author these days, has to drive them nuts, since “please just be quiet and go away” isn’t working.

      In sum, social media are so modern and cool, but obviously everyone must remain on message at all times, or suffer the consequences. Very, very Orwellian.

      02/18/12 12:28 AM | Comment Link

    Leave A Comment

    Mail (will not be published) (required)

IP Blocking Protection is enabled by IP Address Blocker from LionScripts.com.