Foreign Policy features an article, Lost in Cyberspace, commenting on the silly, stupid, restrictive, likely even unconstitutional new rules under review at the State Department to regulate the social media and online activities of its own employees. The majority of these changes are sort of my fault, given my year-long run of writing, blogging and Tweeting about the lump of coal that our State Department has become. One part of the new rules has even been christened informally as the “Van Buren clause.”
Nick Kristoff of the New York Times joined the battle, stating on Twitter that “@NickKristof If the State Dept is really thinking about two-day vetting of tweets, that’s the dumbest idea ever.”
That prompted State Department social media “guru” Alec Ross to respond “@AlecJRoss My team involved in drafting/approving. Not even close to what has been blogged.”
Ross further stated “Updating our social-media guidelines will help make the State Dept MORE open and social media-centric, not less open. It will also make us faster.”
Is Alec Ross’ claim is true or false? I have seen a draft copy of the new rules for diplomats’ social media regulation. Here’s a diagram from that draft. Please take a look and decide for yourself whether State’s new rules will make the organization more open, faster and social media-centric:
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Of the many, many ironies of the past year, my role as an author and blogger has enabled me to speak with a very large number of young people either thinking about a Foreign Service career or, having recently joined State as Entry Level Officers (ELOs, formerly Junior Officer, JOs). When I worked at State no one seemed particularly interested in my advice, but now some ask. Go figure.
So, in the interest of public service (formerly “giving back”), based on recent news pieces, here are some points for you young’uns to raise with your State Department mentors:
– Clinton’s personal spokesperson, Philippe Reines, called a major media reporter an “unmitigated asshole” and told him to “fuck off” in writing. Given the varied needs of diplomacy, under what specific circumstances are State Department personnel allowed to use such terms without punishment? For example, I was charged by State with “unprofessional conduct” for far less offensive speech on this blog. Bonus: Is there such a thing as a “mitigated asshole”? Discuss.
– It was less than a year ago that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was videotaped gleefully laughing at the brutal death of then-Libyan leader Qaddafi. “We came, we saw, he died!” giggled the Secretary of State. Under what specific circumstances are officers allowed to act gleeful in the face of the death of world leaders? Putin? Assad? Ahmadinejad? The Gangnam-Style guy?
–When the Secretary talks about them killing us it is “terrorism.” When we kill them it is legitimate self-defense. At what point in a State Department career do these things actually start to make sense? Bonus: Is there something in the water at State Department HQ? Should I be drinking more of it or less of it?
– Alec Ross, State Department social media guru, called Hillary Clinton the “most innovative Secretary of State since Ben Franklin.” Should you Tweet that your own boss is the most innovative boss since Benjamin Franklin as part of your mandatory self-promotional “managing up” strategy? If so, should you use an official State Department social media account to do so as Ross did, or a personal account? What is your play if you only have access to a MySpace account due to local conditions overseas?
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Taxpayers, a robust group huzzah please! The US Embassy in Baghdad has taken a bold, innovative step towards resolving all problems in Iraq, large and small: The Embassy is now paying someone with your tax dollars to Tweet!
Sorry neigh sayers, it is true. We all know that social media is the key to public diplomacy at the State Department and now the machine is alive in Iraq.
Because of the obvious crazy high start up costs and the complexity of using Twitter, the one mission that just couldn’t seem to get Tweeting was the World’s Largest Embassy (c), Baghdad, still without a first Tweet until just August 27. They have been prioritized for a robust MySpace and used up all the electrons in Iraq there, though Baghdad does have a nice Facebook page for study in the US (a lot of Iraqis would like to get on that train; almost all of the postings are asking for visas, scholarships or for someone to answer their emailed requests for visas and scholarships) and a YouTube channel. This blog even did its patriotic duty by suggesting some Tweets for the diplowarriors to begin with, but never mind, here is the real thing:
Of the 3,000 some employees the State Department has in Iraq, one (maybe more; no one at State can write anything without two other people to supervise and clear it) is now staffing the Tweets. And look at the things you’ll see there:
First Tweet (8/27): Generic repeat of State worldwide Tweet on absentee voting
8/29 Generic repeats of State worldwide Tweets on para-Olympics (NOTE: Relevant, given how many people lost limbs in the US invasion! FTW)
9/5 (Took a few days off) First Tweet in Arabic, which many speak in Iraq, and it is… it is… a link to a CNN article about Facebook.
And so on. See for yourself.
May Allah please help these people. They are pathetic. No doubt some State Department person will be promoted for resuscitating the Twitter account, written up as “Robustly enhancing the social media outreach of Embassy Baghdad, dramatically increasing interactive outflow metrics with the Iraqi people. And world peace.”
But really, this is just sad. With State Department Director of PT Barnum Affairs Alec Ross popping up worldwide to announce how innovative the State Department is, you’d think the world’s largest embassy staff could come up with something, anything better than generic propaganda Tweets and links to CNN articles. Maybe something unique to Iraq? Of interest to Iraqis?
Your tax dollars at work Americans!
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Alec Ross will introduce himself to you as an “innovator.” A close confidant of Hillary Clinton and a veteran of the 2008 Hope and Change Obama charade, instead of finding a job he got himself appointed as the State Department’s “guru” (their word, not mine) of social media. Alec just loves social media; he so “gets it” so darn much that he can’t stop himself from advising the State Department about having more social media. It is what he does.
For today’s lesson in public diplomacy at the State Department, we feature one of Alec’s own Tweets, crafted by the hand of the master himself:
If Alec would ever answer my emails, Tweets or Facebook messages (I guess he is just so busy, right?), here’s what I’d like to ask:
What is the freaking point of this Tweet? Are you working on the Ben Franklin campaign now?
Where can I get a “Fact o’ the Day” desk calendar like you have so I can make Tweets like this?
Why did thirty people “retweet” this, sending a pointless message to others. Are they all on your staff? Why do you have such a big staff?
Or do you have 30 dummy accounts you control?
When Time Magazine named @AlecRoss one of the best Twitter feeds of 2012, did they have their head up their ass or is there some other Alec Ross Twitter feed they looked at? Does it cost a lot of money to buy your way on to those kind of lists and can you use Paypal?
Would it be possible to convince you to say stand on the roof in a thunder storm this weekend with wet feet and try and repeat Franklin’s historic experiment? You know, for science and all.
On almost the exact one year anniversary of Obama personally bringing bin Laden to justice by gunning him down unarmed in his pajamas, State Department innovator/gadfly Alec Ross has resolved the other remaining issues in the Middle East, with his mighty Twitter.
Now one could speculate that Alec’s and Bibi’s intellectual appreciation for Atheian Democracy probably revolves around the image of 300 oily Spartans standing bravely against the bastard Iranians. After all, if 300 guys in codpieces could do it, why couldn’t an Israeli air strike be just as tidy a solution? Of course, the Spartans were actually defeated and killed, but we don’t need to overdo the analogy; we’ve only got 140 characters.
However, since we are talking Athenian Democracy, I’d suggest Alec free up a hand from social media self-stimulation and re-read his Thucydides on the plane ride home, particularly the Melian dialogue from the Greek’s History of the Peloponnesian War. That portion outlines the Greeks’ abandonment of morality (torture, secret prisons, pointless invasions, loss of rights, Guantanamo, the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must) in search of what they thought was an expeditious action in support of their war. It didn’t work out for the Greeks and as long as Alec is dialoging with Bibi on ancient history, it is not going to work out for the US and Israel either. Abandoning morality for expediency always fails in the long run.
Alec, and Obama, might also remember Pericles’ saying “Far from exercising a jealous surveillance over each other, we do not feel called upon to be angry with our neighbor for doing what he likes” as a basic tenet of democracy, equal justice and the right to pursuit of individual happiness. “Equal justice under law” is carved on the Supreme Court building in Washington, though largely now regarded as a kind of hipster humor.
(This interview with John Brown originally appeared on the Huffington Post, April 24, 2012)
What is Pubic Diplomacy?
Public Diplomacy (PD) is a hard term to define. Some say it’s just a euphemism for propaganda. The Department of State’s definition is “engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences.” For some traditionally minded diplomats and commentators, the term “public diplomacy” is an oxymoron (true diplomacy, they argue, is practiced behind closed doors, not in public). How would you define PD?
Any communications strategy, from advertising to propaganda to social media to whatever you want to call it, plays second to reality — actions really do speak louder than words. So as long as deaths in wedding parties from misplaced drone attacks, atrocities by soldiers and videos of Abu Ghraib exist, you are not going to fool anyone regardless of how many tweets you send out. In an age of increasingly prevalent media, the usual bullshit of the Secretary standing up in Geneva proclaiming support for human rights while people in their own countries see the U.S. overtly supporting nasty autocrats will dominate mind space. Here’s a graphic (not my work) that illustrates the point.
Look at the outcome of the Haditha massacre in Iraq: 24 unarmed Iraqis were slaughtered by an out-of-control group of Marines in 2005, and now, seven years later, the case is finally concluded and no one is going to jail. You can Tweet and Facebook until the end of time, but that story will resonate for even longer within the Arab world.
The Haditha outcome also illustrates the point of relevancy. While most FSOs and almost all of the American public are probably ignorant about what happened in Haditha, the incident is well known among politically minded Iraqis. On the day when everyone there was talking about the guiltless conclusion, U.S. Embassy Baghdad PD was bleating happily about jazz and some art exhibit. The appearance — to Iraqis — was one of trying to change the topic, change the channel, to distract from the real issue of the day.
So whatever PD is, it can only be less effective than what the U.S. is actually doing.
Pigs with Lipstick
Edward R. Murrow, the famed newsman and Director of the United States Information Agency during the Kennedy administration, is often quoted as saying that public diplomacy, as regards the formulation of policy, should be seriously taken into consideration at the take-off, not at the crash landing. More bluntly, you can’t put lipstick on a pig. What is your view on the relationship between public diplomacy and policy?
See above. Pigs look ugly with lipstick.
Is Pubic Diplomacy “Useless”?
As you know, the above-mentioned United States Information Agency (1953-1999), which handled public diplomacy during the Cold War, was consolidated into the State Department a few years after the collapse of Russian communism, thereby reflecting a historical pattern of the USG abolishing its “propaganda” (anti-propaganda?) agencies (e.g., the Committee on Public Information [1917-1919], the Office of War Information [1942-1945]) when a global conflict is over. Nostalgic USIA veterans tend to regret the dissolution of “their” independent agency, a relatively small organization (by Washington standards) giving its overseas officers considerable flexibility to act, on behalf of U.S. national interests, as they saw fit according general policy guidelines and local conditions (as an ex-USIA senior official told me over lunch not long ago, “we got away with murder”). Not amused by such declarations of independence (often unspoken), strait-laced State Department employees referred to USIA as “Useless,” a play of words on USIA’s overseas designation, USIS (United States Information Service). What’s your take on PD now being, bureaucratically, a State function? Does it make PD more manageable and streamlined?
You can see the themes of relevancy and credibility running through this interview.
State Department output, what we say out loud, is characterized by caution above all else, a weird play on the Hippocratic Oath. But the “safest” things to say (we urge all sides to reconsider, Mistakes were made) have little value outside Foggy Bottom. A bit of vitality is needed, and PD lacks that now. In what foreign country do people routinely turn to a PD news source? Anything that flows into the State Department gets filtered out into the equivalent of “male pale and Yale,” usually three days after the story has moved off the front pages. Safe, for sure, but also irrelevant. Often, irrelevant by choice if not by policy.
For example, to enflame my ulcer, I just flipped over to Twitter. Several Embassies are tweeting “Happy Earth Day” in unison, obviously a central command meme of the day from Washington. So what? Nothing wrong with Earth Day, but so what? Is the U.S. not still the world’s predominant carbon fuels burner? What is the specific goal of sending Happy Earth Day tweets out in English to whomever?
Alec Ross, State’s alleged social media king, tweets today, “97 years ago today, modern chemical weapons 1st used in war. German troops released chlorine gas on the front lines at Ypres, killing 5,000,” with no link or explanation. I am not even sure what the point of that is, never mind how it might play into any of the national goals of the U.S.. Alec tweets out these odd “fun facts” regularly, to what point I do not know.
The lack of content, of vitality, also means that State only practices half of the social media equation. I see little evidence of interactivity, though people do try and break through the screen and ask visa questions, usually very specific to a person/case type questions because they cannot get them answered from inundated Consular sections. Posts crow over how many people watched or viewed something, but very rarely entertain true interactivity. I am sure they are afraid of it, afraid of saying anything that hasn’t been cleared by several layers above them. That may be great for career security (the goal) but it does little to really put social media to use. Just the opposite, really.
The invasion and occupation of Iraq is considered by many a public-diplomacy disaster. Your own book on your one-year Foreign-Service experience (2009-2010) in that country has, as part of its title, “How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” For those who have not had the opportunity to read your admirable volume, where/how did U.S. PD go so wrong in Iraq? Is it possible to say that America did, on occasion, do certain things right in its attempts to remake (in its own image) the cradle of civilization?
My experience with PD in Iraq was all propaganda all the time. PD’s conception of PRT work was simply to over promote any small thing we did that wasn’t a complete failure. If we dug a well, not necessarily a bad thing, the headline was “Bringing Water to Mesopotamia.” Every PRT project had to include an interview with some Hollywood backlot Iraqi praising the United States, because as we know only White People can help the Brown Skinned of the world. PD didn’t even try to balance or nuance a story; they wrote entirely for themselves and their bosses and Washington. People in Iraq certainly knew the truth, living it 24/7 in a world without water, electricity or sewers or schools, so who was PD trying to fool if not themselves? I wrote about this in more detail here and included a PD video piece so your readers can see for themselves what their tax dollars paid for.
The new social media, some argue, are redefining public diplomacy, with the buzzword “public diplomacy 2.0,” coined during the Bush administration, still quite à la mode inside the beltway. Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Alec Ross, according to a twitterer attending his recent talk at American University, stated that “I don’t think of myself as a public diplomacy official. I think … public diplomacy is more old-school American propaganda.” In your view, how important/effective are the social media as a tool for the State Department to engage (a favorite word of the current administration) “key international audiences”?
To begin, you must have a goal — sell soap, get people to switch from Coke to Pepsi, turn out to vote, stop joining al Qaeda, something you can use to know if you have succeeded and completed what you started out to do. Social media as practiced by the Department is amateur hour. A bunch of people led by the State Department’s oldest living teenager Alec Ross think they understand media because they are banging away and getting weirdly excited by numbers. Success seems to be measured in how many followers an Ambassador has. Yet no one is interested in looking into the substance of social media. When I comment on interactive Embassy web pages or State Twitter accounts on my own blog at wemeantwell.com, what I see are desperate people trying to get a Visa question answered. They have no outlet to ask such questions because Consular sections are under siege, so they bombard social media. When I do see some questioners try and aim for more substantive topics, the replies from State are canned official language, statements that are “clearable” only because they are content-free or simply ape the party line.
So what is social media as practiced by State able to accomplish? You’d think given its emphasis and the money spent that someone would be interested in a Return on Investment study, a way to map out what was accomplished. But State does not work that way — it is all about the “doing” and not about the “getting done.” Social media as practiced is just another flim-flam, foisted on State this round by another short-timer political appointee whose connections to the Secretary mean he can do no wrong. Or, perhaps more honestly, no one has the guts to question his pronouncements. Anyone who has been at work in Foggy Bottom for more than a few years can recall similar flim-flams when faxes and email were going to reduce the need for overseas personnel (we can do it all from Washington!), or web home pages or video conferencing. All can be useful tools, but you have got to have a goal and you have got to measure your way toward that goal. Otherwise it is just flavor of the month stuff. Didn’t we have virtual embassies for awhile in some 3-D online world game thing?
The USG-supported Broadcasting Board of Governors, which (according to its homepage) became “the independent entity responsible for all U.S. Government and government-sponsored, non-military, international broadcasting on October 1, 1999″ (e.g., Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Sawa) and whose mission is “to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy,” is under considerable criticism these days for management failures and for intending to cut back on staff and programs. Based on your foreign-service experience of over two decades, what do you think is the reaction of overseas audiences to USG -supported broadcasting such as Voice of America? Are such broadcasts still necessary for U.S. national interests in an age when information is becoming more and more readily available? In a broader sense, can a journalist, in your view, be a true, objective master of her trade (and can her reports be trusted as reliable) if her paycheck comes from Uncle Sam (to cite Kim Andrew Elliott, a fast-media guru, “Journalism and public diplomacy are very different, indeed adversarial, endeavors”).
Credibility is the key. If you look at the very successful penetrations of American society by foreign “public affairs,” you see sources of news and entertainment that are clearly allied with a foreign entity (China Xinhua News, RT.com, al Jazeera, the BBC) and do not try to hide that fact. Yet, at the same time, they are aggressive in presenting a side of news that is missing in America’s mainstream media, often pointing out the “other side” to a story or not shying away from reporting U.S. Government mistakes and misjudgments. Their credibility comes not from being pro-Russia, but from tapping into a need in the U.S. for alternative news sources.
People are too sophisticated now, even in the developing world, to be reached via crude propaganda — America=Good, al Qaeda=Bad. That costs those sources their credibility and thus their audiences. Who cares what U.S. broadcasting into the Arab world has to say, or crap like Radio Marti? Most of the time it is just self-referential: Obama made a speech and PD says “Here’s Obama’s Speech” in case you missed it elsewhere or really want to plod through 1500 words on Earth Day. No one independently quotes their opinions, no one considers them vital or important the way al Jazeera became simply by filling a real gap in what people wanted to hear.
If the U.S. would try and learn a bit more about what people want, they might find a more ready audience. Instead, our “public diplomacy” programming seems designed more to please our bosses in Washington than to really reach people abroad.
Try it now — go here and imagine yourself a young, politically charged Iraqi. What is on that page that demands your attention? The Cold War ended years ago and we are still talking about jazz.
The Smith-Mundt Act (1948), the legislation that provides the statutory basis for U.S. public diplomacy, prohibits the State Department from disseminating domestically USG information intended for overseas audiences. Do you think this firewall, in the Internet age, is anachronistic? Or is there something to be said about prohibiting the U.S. government from “propagandizing” the American people? Would you abolish/amend the Smith-Mundt Act (or, since so few Americans know anything about it, simply let it live on, untouched, in its obscurity, letting sleeping dogs lie)?
I think Smith-Mundt died on the vine already, whether it exists as a law still or not. Given both the ubiquity of the web and the fact that almost all of the U.S. public diplomacy spew is in English, I think we already know who the target audience is. For example, all the phony grief that gets expressed every time a new round of terrible atrocity photos emerge from Afghanistan certainly is not fooling the mothers of the dead Afghans; it is designed to make us feel better here at home. The Afghans know exactly what is happening in their homes and villages, even if the U.S. government can get away with calling each atrocity just another act of some bad apples. By the way, how many bad apples does it take before you have a whole pie full of them?
Not Measuring = Not Knowing
In the how-many-angels-can-dance-on-a-pin tradition, there is quite a lot of talk, among the PD community both outside and inside of academe, about how to measure the results of public diplomacy. Do you think that there is a scientific way to gauge the impact of PD, both short-term and long-term? Or is the practice of public diplomacy, in the words of scholar Frank Ninkovich, essentially “an act of faith” that, in its often-flawed attempts to make our small planet a better world through greater international understanding, cannot be reduced, in well-intentioned efforts to evaluate it, to statistics on a chart or an executive summary on yet another think-tank report?
The old saying, any road will get you there if you don’t know where you’re going, applies here. If I was allowed back into the building and to ask a question of someone important in Public Affairs, I’d ask this: why isn’t your whole “PD” strategy built around sending out messages in bottles dropped into the ocean? Now of course the analogy only goes so far, but just as the message in the bottle strategy can be dismissed with a quick thought experiment (who knows who reads what, and what they do after the read it), can anyone really make a different claim for the State Department’s current efforts?
Metrics start with a clear goal, an end state to use the military term, and work backwards from there. One of the core problems with the State Department, and the one that most significantly contributes to the Department’s increasing irrelevance in foreign policy, is that State seems just content to “be,” to create conditions of its own continued existence. So, if social media is a new cool thing, and Congress will pay for it, then social media it is. What if instead the organization had more concrete goals? Then we could measure back from them. I’ll not trouble readers with my own list of foreign policy goals, but if the best you can come up with is something so broad as “engage the public” then you are pretty close to having no real goal at all. Best to throw notes into the ocean and hope for the best.
Bonus: One cheap and easy way for a non-thinker to dismiss these points is to say “Well, sure, it is easy to ask the questions, but where are Van Buren’s answers? If he wants metrics, what does he propose?”
Of course that is a silly line of reasoning. Change begins with the questions, the point of asking is to stimulate the search for answers and solutions. It would be easier if all the solutions to all of the PD problems could be laid out in a short interview, but life ain’t that way cowboys. Don’t dismiss important questions for lack of easy answers. Instead, realize there are higher goals than obedience and career climbing and at least allow room for the Questions and admit the need to look for Answers.
As a starting point, perhaps consider this: When you get a machine that is so immense and so bureaucratic and so career promotion oriented, the mission will be lost and truth and honesty are mere bystanders eventually wrecking any positive mission. The whole concept of institutions and how they are managed and sized needs to be examined big time. The solution, if there is any, is breaking it down into small autonomous offices or missions or programs that link together but are managed separately eliminating an immense hierarchy.
The news is less positive for bloggers inside the State Department. Jesslyn Radack of the Government Accountability Project wrote on Salon:
(The State Department’s) actions are a transparent attempt to retaliate against Mr. Van Buren for his book—by trying to impose bureaucratic and constitutionally-questionable prior restraints on his blogs, evidenced by the facts that 1) Mr. Van Buren is being subject to disparate treatment (hundreds of State Department blogs flow out onto the Internet uncleared); 2) the State Department links to uncleared blogs it likes; 3) none of Mr. Van Buren’s writing or speaking has contained classified orpersonally identifiable information; 4) all his written works (including his book) contain the State Department disclaimer that they do not represent the views of the government; and 5) he has never misrepresented himself as an official spokesman for the State Department (instead, he speaks in the first person and uses bland designators such as “Author”).
Tại sao là Alec Ross một kẻ ngốc như vậy?
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).
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?
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.
Crowing about how State is now the cool kids to eat lunch with, spokescoolperson Victoria Nuland held the first Twitter briefing of 2012 as part of “January is 21st Century Statecraft Month” (February will be “IBM Selectric Month.”) Ms. Nuland noted that “more than 100 of our embassies have Facebook or Twitter accounts, or sometimes both,” meaning there are still more accounts in my daughter’s high school lunch room than at State worldwide. Since the tech has been around for a century, maybe the rest of the posts can sign up soon– it’s free to join LOL LMAO!
One mission that just can’t seem to get Tweeting is the World’s Largest Embassy (c), Baghdad, still without a first Tweet. Or maybe that’s a fake account, like all those “Ashton Kutcher” Twitter feeds that just want to sell you Uggs or something, or maybe they have prioritized for a robust MySpace. The Embassy has a nice Facebook page for study in the US (a lot of Iraqis would like to get on that train; almost all of the postings are asking for visas, scholarships or for someone to answer their emailed requests for visas and scholarships) and a YouTube channel, though the latter may run afoul of State’s own master of social media Alec Ross, who said recently “I just don’t think propaganda works on social media, at all.” lulz #SMH
Anyway, I think we can help the World’s Largest Embassy (c) get started on Twitter. Here are a few Tweets they could send out to the Iraqis to get things going:
Anyone out there can help us w/ the Twitter? Ours stops after 140 characte
@IraqiPeeps Pls stop killing each other. #OurInvestment
@IraqiPeeps Really, stop it.
@Basra Can we haz the oil now pls? #OurInvestment
@Blackwater Can you return Amb limo? Also last time trunk had empty beer bottles, so pls clean, thx.
How many Iraqis to screw in lightbulb? Zero. No power. #PRT #Reconstruction
@TheRealSeanPenn Rethought it, maybe you can help. #Reconstruction
@Hashemi Sorry, apts here all full, try Erbil #Sunni #Kurd #Shia
@USEmbassyBaghdad RT Send lawyers, guns and money #Hashemi
All yer bases belong to us. Oh, wait, not any more. #SOFA
@JulianAssange Can’t find Amb memo re: Mosul dated 04/01/2010 anywhere– do u have a copy? #Wikileaks
@Sadr Bday party at Baghdaddy’s Fri, no rockets after 9pm pls, ‘k? #Democracy
Travel Warning: Instant cappuccino maker at Sully still broken. #15% #25% #35%
@Qods It’s not terrorism when we do it, only when you do it #Carbombsunderscientists
@Malaki Really really apologize for last night. Meant Iran, not Iraq. #Toomuchtodrink #Girlfriendz
Q: Five-day forecast for Baghdad? A: Two days. #Sunni
Sorry to all for trouble, Emb cafeteria menu site now no longer auto-redirects to wemeantwell.com
I saw on your DipNote blog post that you wrote:
As information networks become more ubiquitous and powerful, new movements and power structures are forming, others are being disrupted, and the speed of communications is making all of this take place at a blistering fast pace. Connection technologies are changing the ecology of politics and government.
In a speech last February, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to Internet Freedom, the necessary backbone for people to be able to exercise their universal rights in an increasingly networked world. In her speech to a global audience, Secretary Clinton said:
“I urge countries everywhere instead to join us in the bet we have made, a bet that an open internet will lead to stronger, more prosperous countries. At its core, it’s an extension of the bet that the United States has been making for more than 200 years, that open societies give rise to the most lasting progress, that the rule of law is the firmest foundation for justice and peace, and that innovation thrives where ideas of all kinds are aired and explored. This is not a bet on computers or mobile phones. It’s a bet on people.”
See, I am under written order to preclear my every article, blog post, Facebook update, and Tweet with State. Your Public Affairs Bureau regularly monitors me online and sends daily written reports to my “telework” boss declaring another blog post has slipped through (they aren’t always very good at it and often miss stuff, but I’ll never tell).
Our Department’s “preclearance” requirements are totally out of date. Originally designed for a 19th-century publishing model, its leisurely 30-day examination period is incompatible with the requirements of online work, blogs, Facebook, and Tweets. But the Department has refused to update its rules for the 21st century, preferring instead to use the 30 days to kill anything of a timely nature. What blog post is of value a month after it is written, never mind a Tweet? Worse yet, the rules are used selectively against blogs that offend, and allowed to silently pass on blogs that do not (list here on your own site).
In fact, I have been told (off the record, of course) by four Department officials that the “last straw” was a late October blog post that spoke offensively about Secretary Clinton. I guess one is not allowed to say things about the Dear Leader, even though in America free speech covers stuff as offensive as crude criticism of our public figures.
It is almost as if State is using the tools of its bureaucracy to silence voices it does not like. Sure, no one has pepper sprayed me, but c’mon, isn’t destroying someone’s otherwise pretty standard career after 23 years in retaliation just a leftward spot on the same continuum as those countries who also seek to silence those they find disagreeable? Start the reforms at home, because even if State wants to pretend none of this exists, people are watching.
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