The U.S., via the State Department, is spending considerable effort and money producing anti-ISIS videos and other media (actual example, left), the goal of which is to convince American and other would-be jihadis not to join ISIS. The efforts won’t work, almost can’t work. They fail to understand the way ISIS recruits and as such, can’t counter it.
The starting point is oddly Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). AA does not recruit per se; instead, they rely on attraction, not promotion. The difference is subtle but crucial. Long experience suggests people lured in any spur-of-the-moment, impulse decisions that actually require long-term commitment will almost certainly fail. AA won’t create a commitment, but rather relies on you to make a commitment. Ads for the organization never try to seduce or seek out members. Instead, the focus is on what AA is, and what it does for you if you participate. If you want what we have, sobriety, they say, then join us. Otherwise, thanks for listening.
And so ISIS. ISIS propaganda (and FYI, this is not an endorsement of anything ISIS does, just an explanation) pulls no punches. Beheading videos (NSFW), boasts about enslaving women, promises of extremely austere Sharia-led lives, there it is. You want what we have? Come along, because ISIS knows they want people with commitment, people who make a positive choice to join, not a negative one to stay away. The presentation is professional and serious, particularly in its Al Hayat Media Center (there is an unaffiliated Egyptian TV channel with a similar name), aimed specifically at non-Arabic speakers via videos and a weekly magazine.
The strategy seems to be working; recruitment from both inside and outside of the Arab world is strong. Some even claim that ISIS has been so successful they are drawing away foreign recruits from the Taliban. And in the duality of everything the American government says about terrorism, between 12 (we’ve got this, you’re safe) and 300 (panic! run now!) Americans have also left Walmartland for ISIS.
The State Department
And so the U.S. State Department. State Department propaganda (and FYI, this is not an endorsement of anything State does, just an explanation) is designed to counter the attraction of ISIS media with the promotion of a negative message. The theme of State’s efforts is “Think Again, Turn Away” and features anti-ISIS accounts on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and even on the sides of buses in New York. The YouTube products are graphic and sarcastic; one includes subtitles such as “learn useful skills, such as blowing up mosques” and “crucifying Muslims.” One also features an odd shot of oil being poured on the ground framed as “squandering public resources.”
The quality of much of the interaction is poor, seemingly written more to appeal to Washington bosses than would-be jihadis. Have a look at one example. A lot mocks potential recruits, claiming for example that they read “Islam for Dummies” before heading to Syria.
The anti-ISIS messaging campaign is keeping disaffected youth from joining the extremist group, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel told CNN. “We have evidence that there are young people who are not joining because we have somehow interceded. They’re reading the messages, they’re hearing the messages, not just from us but from the hundreds of Islamic clerics who have said that this is a perversion of Islam.” State’s description of its work is that they are “contesting the space,” fighting back on social media against the ISIS message. State’s coordinator for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, which runs the program, has called it “participating in the marketplace of ideas.”
Richard Stengel and the State Department have not provided any evidence or metrics that they have in fact dissuaded anyone from joining ISIS, nor will they discuss the budget for their work. A request to State for comment has gone unanswered.
We’re Not All That Different, You and I(SIS)
The odd thing is that State’s messaging and ISIS’ messaging are not all that different in content, per se. Both stress that recruits are unlikely to survive. State paints that as a terrible choice, while ISIS categorizes it as martyrdom, a chance to help save Islam and achieve Paradise.
Both show photos of Christian churches ISIS destroyed, with obviously different views of the act. Both talk about Western life, State showing its good side, ISIS claiming it is empty and vapid; one ISIS piece features a recruit saying “We don’t need any democracy, we don’t need any communism or anything like that, all we need is Sharia.”
Both sides agree that Muslims are killing Muslims; State takes the one-size-fits-all approach, with one Muslim being the same as any other. ISIS says some (i.e., Shias and other pretenders to the faith that abandoned Sharia) are not sincere and pious and it is not a violation of the Koranic imperative against internecine violence to kill them (one report says 92 percent of Saudi Sunnis see the ISIS activities as religiously legal.) “It’s a message frequently posted by ISIS on social media: “You have to join. It’s your religious duty,” said one terrorism analyst.
Who is Winning?
To be fair, State’s messaging is hard to quantify, requiring one to prove a negative. On the other hand, while ISIS seems to be chock-a-block with foreign recruits, one can never tell how many were driven to jihad by ISIS propaganda, or how many shyed away.
But looking at the U.S.’ messaging, one is reminded of the anti-drug “Just Say No” campaign, which quickly morphed into fodder for comedians. As with AA, offering people already committed a positive message– you can have what we have– seems to work. To a disgruntled young person already looking askance at a western society he perceives as hollow, what ISIS offers seems more attractive in many ways than the crude, negative message of the State Department. It appears that many ISIS recruits wan to give their lives for jihad.
At the end of the day, State says you’re going to hell, ISIS says you’re headed to heaven. Which strategy seems to offer more?
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
I suppose I have to get this over with. Sigh. Hillary’s book, Hard Choices, is out this week. As I write it is ranked Number 5 on Amazon.
The main theme of the book echoes the current media meme around Hillary: that her successes and accomplishments as Secretary of State make it almost mandatory that she be elected president in 2016.
For that to snuggle even close to truth, there must be successes and accomplishments that rose to the level of being the president. These must be real and tangible, not inflated intern stuff gussied up to look like “work experience.” The successes and accomplishments should not be readily debatable, hard-to-put-your-finger on kind of things. Last time around we bet big on just the two words hope and change, so this round we probably should do a little more due-diligence. And we need to be able to do that. It will not be a good thing heading into an election cycle unable to talk about Hillary except in ALL CAPS BENGHAZI RETHUGS!!! or ELECT HER ‘CAUSE SHE’S A DEM AND A WOMAN!
So, Can We Talk?
Let’s start with Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times. Nick pulls no punches in a column headlined “Madam Secretary Made a Difference.” He frames his argument:
Clinton achieved a great deal and left a hefty legacy — just not the traditional kind. She didn’t craft a coalition of allies, like James Baker, one of the most admired secretaries of state. She didn’t seal a landmark peace agreement, nor is there a recognizable “Hillary Clinton doctrine.” No, her legacy is different.
The Clinton Legacy Difference
Specifically, Nick offers the following examples (all quotes from his article):
— For starters, Clinton recognized that our future will be more about Asia than Europe, and she pushed hard to rebalance our relations. She didn’t fully deliver on this “pivot” — generally she was more successful at shaping agendas than delivering on them.
— Clinton vastly expanded the diplomatic agenda. Diplomats historically focused on “hard” issues, like trade or blowing up stuff, and so it may seem weird and “soft” to fret about women’s rights or economic development. Yet Clinton understood that impact and leverage in 21st-century diplomacy often come by addressing poverty, the environment, education and family planning.
— Clinton was relentless about using the spotlight that accompanied her to highlight those who needed it more… On trips, she found time to visit shelters for victims of human trafficking or aid groups doing groundbreaking work.
— Clinton greatly escalated public diplomacy with a rush into social media.
— So, sure, critics are right that Hillary Rodham Clinton never achieved the kind of landmark peace agreement that would make the first sentence of her obituary. But give her credit: She expanded the diplomatic agenda and adopted new tools to promote it — a truly important legacy.
First up, Nick used the word “agenda” three times. Not sure what that means really. Also, I am not sure when and where diplomats historically focused on “blowing up stuff.” I also think issues such as “poverty, the environment, education and family planning” were in State’s portfolion pre-Hillary. But matter, we move on.
A read of Kristof’s article (which mirrors Clinton’s own self-written list) begs the question: What really did Clinton accomplish as Secretary of State? Even her supporters’ lists make it seem like her four years as Secretary and nearly endless world travel were little more than a stage to create video footage for use in the 2016 campaign.
Here’s Clinton talking about a pivot to Asia (that never happened); Here’s Clinton talking about all sorts of soft power issues (that little was accomplished on; readers who disagree please send in specifics, with numbers and cites and do not try and get away with the cop-out of “raising awareness,” that’s what Bono does); Here’s Clinton visiting shelters and all sorts of victims (whose plight seemed to drop off the radar after the brief photo-op; hey, how’s Haiti doing these days?); Here’s Clinton making her whole Department do social media (without any measures or metrics accompanying the push to see if it helps in any way other than generating hashtag mini-memes and please, let’s not go on about how Twitter changed the world ) and so forth. Clinton’s State Department did spend $630,000 of taxpayer money to buy “likes” on Facebook, so I guess that is one metric.
The many lists of Clinton’s accomplishments that trailed her departure from State are not very different; here are some examples.
Missing are things that in the past have stood out as legacies for others, history book stuff like the Marshall Plan, or ending a war we didn’t start in the first place, or saving something or advancing peace even a little in the Middle East or opening relations with China to forever change the balance of power in the Cold War. And for the purposes of this discussion we will not get into Clinton’s mistakes and no-shows on important foreign policy issues.
Hillary’s tenure as Secretary of State does not show she is a leader. She showed no substance. She focused on imagery. She remained silent on many issues of import (the aftermath in Libya and Iraq stand out.) Her time at State was more of a reality show many Americans seemed to enjoy, projecting their own ideas about women’s empowerment and modern social media onto her willing shell. We deserve all that we get– and are going to get– enroute to 2016.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Let’s enjoy a quick look at what the U.S. Embassy in Kabul is Tweeting. This is called “social media diplomacy” and is designed to “reach out” to “local” people in the host country and make them love America more. State is kinda shy about saying it, but given the world-wide nature of these things, there is also a sweet little domestic propaganda side to it all. And get this– you pay for all this with your Bitcoins! Have a read:
To begin, like the U.S. Embassy said, Happy Easter to those who celebrate it. Thing is, Afghanistan is remarkably not Christian, and the purpose of social diplomacy is to “reach out,” so opening with the Christian thing might be… awkward? Many Muslims in the target area already characterize the U.S. as a Crusader at war with Islam, so there, there’s that going for us.
Next up the Embassy reTweeted something in Spanish about the U.S. Ambassador visiting one of the Crusader bases in Herat. Apparently the base contains some Spanish troopers, so that’s the linguistic connection sure, but like Christians, there are relatively few Spanish speakers among the local Afghan population.
And on to the domestic side of today’s social diplomacy Tweets, two cheery notes.
The first heralds Afghan efforts to build an new “Silk Road.” The many Afghans still fighting for, with or against the Taliban and/or the U.S., never mind those whose relatives have been blown up by car bombs or drones, may not fully share the vision of progress, but one guesses the whole Silk Road thing is meant more for gullible Americans than gullible Afghans.
The second Tweet doubles down on the good news, this time sharing the breaking story that “U.S. Foreign Policy in South Asia [is] A Vision for Prosperity and Security.” So that’s sorted. The only skeptics on that front might include the relatively few Americans who read the news, and pretty much everyone in Afghanistan.
BONUS: Wait a tick– if the purpose of social media diplomacy is to engage with the local people, why are the Tweets all in English (and Spanish?) Maybe it is like a language tutorial, some kind of “linguistic diplomacy.” There’s also the “issue” that Internet use in Afghanistan varies from 12 percent in Kabul itself, to zero percent lots of other places. The average is about two-three percent. Subtract out of those already low percentages those who do not read English (or Spanish) and those who do not use Twitter and you’ve got a pretty small pool of targets. Anyway, those happy few Afghan web browsers are no doubt the most important people in the country and all that. Besides, you know, social media, Cuban Twitter, youth demographic, whatever.
We are a sad and lonely people, aren’t we?
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
You’ll be forgiven if you did not know that your Department of State in Pakistan hosted Social Media Summit 2014. A bunch of bloggers gathered under the wings of the U.S. embassy to discuss “Social Media for Social Change.” Panel sessions focused on perennial, go-to U.S. feel good topics such as youth activism, peace promotion, women’s empowerment, and entrepreneurship. Fun fact: those same topics form the “broad themes” of U.S. reconstruction efforts now in Afghanistan, and were our major goals in Iraq.
You could have followed this dynamic event on Twitter via #SMS14. There you can see a sub-theme of the event, awkward selfies by white people, which count as diplomacy nowadays. That’s your American ambassador pictured there, “getting down” with “hip” youngsters prior to their initiation ceremony as Taliban recruits.
The Summit’s Twitter output also includes the Tweet above, sent by the U.S. embassy in Kabul. If anyone can explain in the comments section exactly what the hell that Tweet means, I’ll feel much better about this whole thing.
There is, clearly to at least two or three people in Washington, no greater threat to American safety and security than Cuba. America has had a Cold War hard-on over Cuba for decades, and so spending millions of taxpayer dollars on it, even if it means a lot of that money actually and knowingly gets paid to the Cuban government itself, is OK. Freedom isn’t free.
One of the most recent such events was a failed U.S. government attempt to create a Cuba-only Twitter-like text system, and then to use subscribers’ mobile phones to seed anti-Castro propaganda. The bizarre thinking underlying all this was that such social media would foment “flash mobs” in Cuba that would somehow lead to a people power revolution to overthrow the Cuban government.
Cuba Libre, Cuba Tweet
In 2010, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), best known for overseeing billions of dollars in reconstruction money in the successful campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, decided to create a bare-bones “Cuban Twitter,” using cellphone text messaging to evade Cuba’s Internet restrictions. It was called ZunZuneo, apparently slang for a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet. Like Twitter, get it?
To hide the U.S. government’s involvement in all this, fake companies were established in the Cayman Islands, while DNS spoofing and other naughty tricks were employed to disguise the origin of messages, all with the goal of making sure neither the Cuban government nor the Cuban people knew this was a U.S. propaganda ploy. The plan was, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press, for the U.S. to build a subscriber base through “non-controversial content” such as soccer scores and hurricane updates. When the network reached a critical mass of subscribers, perhaps hundreds of thousands, the U.S. would introduce political content aimed at inspiring Cubans to organize “smart mobs” that would assemble at a moment’s notice a Cuban Spring. One USAID document said the formal goal was to “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.” This was all at a time when the U.S. fantasized that the Arab Spring would yield the same outbreak of democracy that the Ukrainian Orange Revolution is now famous for.
Hilarious aside: USAID in its internal project documents called hard-core Castro supporters “Talibanes.”
No Hay Problemas
To begin, the propaganda network coincidentally activated shortly after Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor who was sent to Cuba to surreptiously help “provide citizens access to the Internet,” was arrested. No one claims there is any connection.
As the Cuban government became aware of the program, its users (who had no idea they were unwitting stooges in a USG black op) came under intense suspicion. This may cause Cubans to be wary of participating in future U.S. programs, and/or to be very suspicious of any legitimate third-party programs for fear of ending up in jail.
Because sending the texts needed to participate in the program was quite expensive in Cuba, and because the U.S. sent out thousands of messages itself, significant amounts of U.S. money were paid directly to the Cuban government-owned telephone company. The good news for taxpayers was that the Spain-based front company for this mess negotiated with the Cuban government for a bulk-rate for the texts. Can I get a Viva! from the crowd?
When the service started to become popular and exceed the technical capabilities of what the U.S. set up, the U.S. limited Cubans to only one text a day per person, unlikely to be conducive to creating flash mobs and revolution.
Various problems capped Cuban participation in the program to only about one percent of the total population. At one point USAID claimed this was good, and kept the project “under the radar.”
By mid-2012 Cuban users began to complain that the service worked only sporadically. Then not at all, and ZunZuneo simply vanished. The old web domain is now up for sale by a URL broker. Surprisingly, no takers to date. The ZunZuneo Facebook page is still online, last updated in May 2012. Be sure to hop online and “Like” them.
To hide the program from Congressional scrutiny, the money spent on Cuba was taken out of funds publicly earmarked for Pakistan.
As part of all the texting, a contractor for the project built a vast database about the Cuban subscribers, including gender, age, “receptiveness” and “political tendencies.” This will never be leaked, hacked, stolen or ever come into the hands of the Cuban government so that they can stomp out any legitimate dissent.
A lawyer specializing in European data protection law, told the Associated Press it appeared that the U.S. program violated Spanish privacy laws because the ZunZuneo team illegally gathered personal data and sent unsolicited emails using a Spanish front company. Especially in the wake of the revelations of NSA spying throughout Europe, this is unlikely to have affect on broader relations.
Since USAID, ostensibly a humanitarian aid organization, apparently created several international clandestine front companies, spoofed Cuban telcom networks and funneled money through Cayman Island banks, there is no chance that the CIA had anything to do with any of this.
USAID at one point turned to Jack Dorsey, a co-founder of Twitter, to seek funding for the project. Documents show Dorsey met with Suzanne Hall, a State Department officer who worked on “new media projects.” Ms. Hall, who appears to be about 26, is captured on video here, explaining how cool social media thingies are. Please note the statue of Hillary Clinton on the bookshelf on the right side of the screen.
Nothing in the documents available lists exactly how much this all cost American taxpayers.
Note: As we go to press, the Cuban government is still in power and doing just fine, thank you. Please note that U.S. government efforts to promote freedom in Cuba in no way conflict with U.S. government plans to maintain its off-shore penal colony at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, indefinitely.
Continuing what has become a U.S. State Department tradition of making horrid, childish videos with taxpayer money (“social media”), here’s one of the worst best from the U.S. Embassy in Uganda. In only 60 seconds, the Santa crew manages to slaughter multiple local languages (check the guy at around 18 seconds in) and, at the end, make merry of the fact that U.S. diplomats abroad cannot speak their host country’s tongue.
It’s a Christmas miracle!
Along with the odd threat or hate mail (a few people hilariously misunderstand the book’s title We Meant Well as being serious and chastise me for supporting the Iraq War), some interesting things pop up. Here’s one, a report from the front lines of freedom in Iraq:
I work in Iraq and I’ve seen first hand the waste and abuse you chronicled so well during the “reconstruction”. I think you once called the US Mission in Iraq a ‘self-licking ice cream cone’ — a self-contained, self-aggrandizing system of little actual use to Iraqis. An apt analogy.
Here’s something you’d appreciate:
A couple of days ago, just minutes after a briefing on the latest death toll from sectarian violence (50 killings in one night;
520 close to 1000 total this month) in Iraq, I attended a meeting with people who were enthusiastically discussing the massive uptick in “likes” on our mission’s Facebook page.
As journalism, I checked Facebook to find that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has some 137,000 “likes.” Their banner graphic celebrates breaking 100,000. As a comparison, retired porn star Jenna Jameson’s Facebook page as 566,703 likes. Maybe the Embassy needs to show more skin?
So, as the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad remains the world’s largest and most expensive diplomatic mission, we salute the brave boys and girls out there who are still more focused on their Facebook likes than Rome burning down around them. To Victory!
So it was recently new year in Thailand, Songkran, celebrated by throwing water, face painting and dancing, all for the good. The Thais know how to throw a party.
In the middle of all this, the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok spends sequester-free dollars to make this video,
featuring starring idolizing the U.S. Ambassador to Thailand, Kristie Kenney.
I’ve looked all over, and cannot find any other country’s ambassador to Thailand dancing and grinning like she is on the third day of a serious meth bender, on video (the other ambassadors may take meth and dance, but they have the class to not do it on camera). The Thai comments on YouTube are all nice, but then again the Thais are a wonderfully polite people.
I have also looked everywhere for video of the Thai Ambassador to the United States doing something “American” on video for Fourth of July, or any other American holiday, maybe smoking meth at a NASCAR tailgate.
We are then left with the question of whether the American Embassy alone understands the power and value of social media, producing these videos and catapulting public opinion of the U.S.A to crazy heights while other nations just stand aside gaping at our brilliance. Or are we just a bunch of idiots?
Note: All joking aside, it looks like the Ambassador performed the whole video backwards, which is pretty freaking cool. It also accounts for the spaced out looks on everyone’s faces, so maybe it wasn’t the meth. I could criticize her for what must have been a forever process of rehearsal when she should have been reading Wikileaks or something, but in the end fair points for that.
The sequester and overall budget mess in Washington is expected to impact all Americans. Money will get tighter, and government services will slow or stop– we’ve been told to expect longer lines at airport security, fewer park rangers, less money for schools and more.
But wait… There’s more!
Luckily, your State Department does not seem to be affected. Here are a few ways that your tax money is still being spent as Rome burns:
UPDATE: Passport Day in the USA 2013: Due to the budget sequestration, Department of State Passport Agencies will not be participating and will be CLOSED. But…
Secretary of State John Kerry announced the U.S. will provide $250 million in assistance to Egypt after Egypt’s president promised to move ahead with negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over economic reforms. Whew, close call on that one but no matter what happens here in Der Homeland, for only a $250 million bribe Egypt will “move ahead” on negotiation. And American struggling small business owners, $60 million of the cash to Egypt is for the creation of a fund to support small businesses– over there.
Movie buffs all know that the “Afghan” film Buzkashi Boys almost won an Oscar this year, losing in the Short Film (Live Action) category to Curfew. But did you know that it was your State Department that funded the film, some $220,000? That small amount, was “funded almost entirely out of a $150 million State Department campaign to combat extremism, support Afghan media and burnish the U.S. image in Afghanistan.”
It may be that fund that your State Department will draw from to support the “Afghanistan Is Getting Better, Website and Story Corps” grant of $250,000 of sequester-proof tax dollars to someone who can “create and design a stand-alone website or dedicated channel on YouTube.com that allows individuals from within Afghanistan and across the globe to upload short personally recorded videos describing why and how the individual is contributing to the betterment of Afghanistan and/or the ways in which the Afghanistan of today has provided opportunities that didn’t exist before, and offering messages of hope for the country’s future.”
Though the sequester will impact American education funding, it will not stop our important educational relationships with Pakistan. We reported earlier on a $1 million of tax money State Department grant to any four-year college or university in the U. S. willing to establish a cooperative agreement with the University of Karachi in Public Policy and Public Administration. Good news! In addition to that grant, State is also offering another $1 million bucks to anyone interested in setting up a cooperative agreement to establish a University Partnership with Karachi’s Kinnaird College for Women in English Literature.
Keep in mind that the items above are just a sample, drawn from a few random trolls around the web. Sleep tight, America, knowing that more of your money is being spent while you are napping.
BONUS: Play a fun drinking game; re-order the list above by either “importance to America” or “biggest waste of money.” Then, drink.
Woooooooooooooo! It’s soon Spring Break ya’all, so get ready to party. And what better way to get it on than to travel overseas on a university exchange program. Need ‘da dinero for party essentials? How about one million sequester-free free dollars courtesy of your Department of State?
While you might have to leave the bikini at home in exchange for a head scarf, your Department of State is celebrating the upcoming Federal government sequester-driven furloughs by offering one million dollars of American tax money to any four-year college or university in the U. S. willing to establish a cooperative agreement with the University of Karachi in Public Policy and Public Administration.
All you need do is setup some “collaborative research, curriculum development, and faculty and student exchanges. Faculty exchange programs of one semester and graduate student exchange programs of one month are preferred by the University of Karachi.”
The tender does not say, but it is likely that collaborative research on nuclear topics is discouraged. It is good to know that the University of Karachi does already have some academic affiliations, including with the Pakistani Army School of Ordinance, Malir Cantt., Karachi in the subject area of “Explosive Chemistry.” (page 4, item 7). One wonders if the State Department read any of the fine print on the University’s own web site?
Now the State Department does not feel the need to lay out in detail exactly why a million dollars of your tax money should be spent setting up a collaborative arrangement between some U.S. school and a Pakistani school, but we can assume the goals are vague and unfocused, you know, blah blah brotherhood of man and world peace.
But before you regurgitate breakfast over the one million bucks above, take a look at another tender from your State Department. This one is titled “Afghanistan Is Getting Better, Website and Story Corps” and offers $250,000 of sequester-proof tax dollars to someone who can “create and design a stand-alone website or dedicated channel on YouTube.com that allows individuals from within Afghanistan and across the globe to upload short personally recorded videos describing why and how the individual is contributing to the betterment of Afghanistan and/or the ways in which the Afghanistan of today has provided opportunities that didn’t exist before, and offering messages of hope for the country’s future.”
Now in some forms of reality that might be called simple propaganda; however, in the new world of your State Department, it is known as “social media” and “public diplomacy.” Orwell would be proud.
As many know, this blog is produced by illegal sweat shop laborers, many from China imported just for this purpose. Only given food in relation to their improving English, many of the workers have made important contributions to our national conversation, leaving me free to pursue both my new book project as well as fulfill my life long dream of interning with the Blue Man Group.
So, it is only right to celebrate Chinese New Year here by contrasting two social media videos, one made by the American Consulate in Hong Kong and the other by the British Consulate in Hong Kong.
Here’s the American version. Note the pleasant infantilization of the local staff, and of course the omnipresent security emblems both drolly mocked and celebrated. Chinese workers featured by title include chauffeurs, kitchen help and of course “residence staff,” all of which you the taxpayer pay for of course. If you can’t stomach the whole thing, please do jump to about 2:56 to listen to the head of the mission, the Consul General, painfully edge his way through a simple New year’s Greeting. And don’t miss the viewer comments, where ben14896 writes “At least it is not tedious.”
Now, let’s have a look at the British New Year’s video:
Oh snap! There’s the British Consul General rapping out an entire video in fluent Cantonese. It remains wholly unclear to me why the U.S. continues to waste tax payer’s money on these sad little social media videos. It is clearer, however, which mission presents itself as a serious player in Hong Kong, reaching local people in their own language to create a positive impression.
The Brits also have an English version on YouTube. See more of the U.S. State Department’s whacky social media video here,or this dreck. Why do these folks feel such a need to imitate the thousands of videos by high school kids and bored soldiers lip-syncing “Call Me Maybe?”
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:
Diplopundit has a copy of the (leaked) revised rules for the use of social media by State Department employees. The rules have not been formalized, so let’s hope some smidgen of change is still possible, but my own sources confirm that what you can read about here are authentic. These rules are horrible and childish, a pathetic over-reactive lashing-out over how poorly State handled the media swirl around my book We Meant Well.
For example, there are some wonderful catch-all “standards” that would not pass legal review at a junior high student council but which will control America’s diplomats. Here’s one:
Employees at all levels are expected to exhibit at all times the highest standards of character, integrity, and conduct, and to maintain a high level of efficiency and productivity.
Leaving aside the yucks so obvious even I won’t crack jokes about them concerning efficiency and productivity, what definitions and details will define and explain what the hell the “highest standards” of character, integrity, and conduct are? For example, is lying about what happened in Benghazi a highest standard? What about making a sex tape on the roof of the Baghdad embassy? Shooting an unarmed man in a McDonald’s? Wasting billions on faux reconstruction projects in Iraq, Haiti and Afghanistan? I guess all that is OK just as long as you don’t Tweet about it.
The new standards also seek to codify that what can’t be disclosed is “protected information.” In addition to the legally-based actual USG-wide standard classifications of Top Secret, Secret and Confidential, the State Department created its own unique category called Sensitive But Unclassified (SBU). State then declared that everything it does on its Unclassified network is actually SBU, meaning under the new rules “disclosing” an email from Diplomat A to Diplomat B asking when lunch is will be a violation. FYI, State is also seeking desperately to invoke the SBU rule against Bradley Manning to make his alleged Wikileaks leaks seem more horrible. State also cited my own release of SBU information (in my case, a Diplomatic Security memo written to me about me) as justification for suspending my security clearance. Of course such nonsense makes no sense in that outside of the State Department possession of such documents is not a crime, and of course as unclassified documents they should be all available under the Freedom of Information Act.
The State Department will have the most restrictive social media rules of any Federal agency under these new standards, proposing, among other amazing things, that all Department employee Facebook posts and Tweets of “matters of official concern” (whatever your boss chooses to define that as) undergo a two-day review process. Such rules will either require hundreds of full-time reviewers, or, most likely, be ignored in most instances and hauled out selectively when needed to punish an individual. Such selective application begs for a lawsuit.
These changes show clearly that the State Department fears what its own employees will say about it, what truths they will reveal. Like the corrupt Communist bureaucracies of the old Eastern Europe, more and more resources will be devoted to monitoring one’s own workers, with snitches no doubt favored and promoted for “outing” social media deviants. Perhaps next Foreign Service children, no doubt more computer-savvy than their diplo-parents, will be schooled in spying on what Mommy and Daddy do online. One can only see this as positive, the bureaucracy at State consuming itself, with no one in the organization willing to trust anyone else. Whatever shreds of free speech credibility abroad are left will clearly dissipate. One can hear laughter in Beijing. 21st Century Diplomacy indeed.
Really, these people are pathetic. Very sad, very paranoid, for a once-distinguished organization that purports speak for free speech around the globe. We’ll keep all this at hand for 2016 as a further example of how Hillary Clinton really rolls. And when are we going to stop saying “1984-like” and start saying “State Department-like”?
The Washington Post is also covering this story. It quotes State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner as saying with a straight face the changes are merely updates “to recognize the dynamic and decentralized nature of the 21st century information environment.”
So there you were this morning, wondering what the State Department was doing with your tax money. They were making a “Gangnam Style” parody video!
Have a look at this clip from a continuing series of “social media” produced by the American Embassy in Seoul:
Now, in the words of Psy, let’s “break it down”:
– State’s weird attempt at humanizing America abroad comes off instead as a lame attempt at creating a cult of personality around its ambassador. Truly, do Korean people care about his clothing (as featured in the video, hung in a messy closet)? Was the last “question” praising the embassy’s wonderful social media really a question that needed featuring here? And honestly, did US government employees on US government time really need to be forced to dance Gangnam style while the ambassador stood by watching like some playground pedophile?
— What is the point? I get “social media” as a concept but I am unsure what the national policy goal here is, and there damn well better be one since taxpayer money is paying for this garbage. Are Koreans supposed to see the cartoon caricature of the Ambassador and “like” America? Are they supposed to see the Gangnam dancers and feel America is “with it”? Are we “groovy” yet?
— Is this simply a silly shot at linking Psy’s 15 minutes of fame to the U.S.’ hope for another 15 minutes of fame?
— Is the U.S. the only hip and cool country representing in South Korea? Because I checked the web sites of countries like the UK, Japan and China for Korea, and none of them feature silly poo stuff like this. I also checked the South Korean government’s web site in the U.S., and there are no YouTube videos of the South Korean ambassador lip syncing to Beyonce. Is America just that far ahead of the public diplomacy curve?
— Why is State trapped in this loop of idolatry? The ambassador is the lead guy in these videos because he is the ambassador, and thus his entire staff is devoted to sucking up to him. If real communication was the goal, perhaps they could have found almost anyone else in the embassy with a teeny dollop more of charisma? Maybe someone who didn’t look deeply embarrassed alternating with deeply bored throughout the entire project?
Anyway, hopefully State will show videos like this to Congress at the next budget hearings to help justify their requests for more money. I am sure Congress will be impressed.
One assumes that the purpose of US State Department social media is to win friends and influence enemies, build support for America, something like that.
So WTF is this all about? The photo below was part of the US Embassy in Baghdad’s Twitter feed, and shows some unnamed white guy standing next to who? Is she famous, maybe Iraq’s version of the Gangnam guy? I don’t know much about the Middle East and all, but is it impressive to show a woman all made-up? Who are these people? And who on earth was so thrilled about this photo that he “favorited” it? It’s Instagram paid for with taxes. Oh, I feel old and out of touch.
(Note: Almost all embassies and consulates host taxpayer-paid election night parties, around the world. Sometimes local businesses are strong-armed into “donating” food and drink. State loves these events as a chance to get all high and mighty about the wonders of democracy, even, without irony, in the many places around the world where we actively oppose local democratic movements as inconvenient to our geopolitical goals.
Also, in the UK, the US Embassy in London hired an Elvis imitator for some reason.
It is a tough job being a diplomat, but luckily there is alcohol.)
Next up on the US Embassy Twitter feed parade o’ photos is this one, subtitled in English “How would you feel if your wife’s salary was higher than yours?” I am truly at a loss about what the purpose of this one is. Is it supposed to make men feel better about women working? Support bird rights in the new Iraq? Arabic speakers, is there a secret meaning hidden in the text? The woman looks a little like the Lois character from Family Guy, so maybe it is what the young people call “meta.” A commenter named “WRC” wrote “very impressive photo” underneath, but drilling down it turns out he is the CEO of a firm doing contract work for the U.S. embassy in Iraq. That may be the intended target audience of the embassy’s social media, so it would be cool then.
Too soon? No?
OK then, it looks like our current climate change policy (ignore it and maybe it’ll go away) is not working. The backup plan, find some way to attack it with drones, has not proven robust. Blaming it on “terrorists” has also achieved limited success. It looks like periodic massive disasters are just going to be a “thing” now until the complete destruction of civilization, so we better get some rules into place.
To assist, here is the playbook:
– Giant freakish things will just happen. Stop referring to them now as “storm of a lifetime” or a “once a century” event. Stop saying stupid stuff like “no one could have anticipated _____.” Anticipate it. No biblical references. No one may hereto try to graft “apocalypse” or “armageddon” onto any climate terms, such as “snow-mageddon.”
— Just freaking buy on a regular basis milk, water, batteries, candles and bread. You look stupid rushing into the convenience store in your pajamas panic buying everytime it rains.
— Nature is still working the evolution-thing even if you chose not to “believe” it. If you live in a flood zone and refuse to buy insurance, or if you’re told to evacuate and “choose” not to do so until the water is up to your lips, well, that’s nature’s way of trimming back the gene pool. Accept your role in the miracle of life.
— Make up your mind ahead of time about “big government” so you don’t sound stupid in a disaster. If you think government is the problem, and that people should be self-sufficient and not accept handouts and all that, tie a ribbon to your front door so that the first responders can skip your house.
— For the media, let’s save some time. Start the drive to complete panic a good 48 hours out, being sure to intersperse actual important information with complete nonsense crazy talk. Make sure, no matter what the actual disaster is, that all of your reporters are standing in the rain when reporting, preferably in some sort of media-logo emblazoned coordinated gear. The reporters should insert themselves into the most stupid and dangerous places possible. Do at least one quirky story a day, such as someone who figured out a way to use Twitter to stay warm. Go to a “neighborhood” and run a feature about the bodega/bar/family restaurant “giving back” to the community; make it as “ethnic” as possible if east coast disaster, as uneducated-country-philosopher if midwest. Have a person of one race say it is “not about race anymore, today we are all _______ ” as appropriate (Black in urban barber shop, White in redneck tavern).
— Victims, when interviewed, please stick to the script: you lost a lot, not sure how you’ll rebuild, but somehow you will. Cry but in a spunky way. Be ready with a pet rescue story; don’t make the reporters have to ask twice please, they’ll be busy. Try and retrieve a burned/soggy sentimental item from your rubble ahead of time to show the camera crew (if you are unable to find anything, most crews do carry a supply of generic baby dolls and black and white photos for this purpose.)
— Telethons, concerts, fund raisers are another inevitable part of all this. Bruce Springsteen has set up a special email account simply for such bookings– be sure to specify if you are seeking the mournful Bruce (Atlantic City, My City of Ruins) or the we’re gonna get through this together Bruce (The Rising, Wrecking Ball). Bruce has graciously offered to forward your emails to Willie Nelson for disasters west of the Mississippi, and to Bon Jovi for those east of the Mississippi. John Mellencamp needs the money and would also appreciate a call if that’s cool.
— Politicians, get out there early to have your photo taken hugging a victim. Try for someone of a race or socioeconomic level you do not normally hug. Get some professional assistance choosing the right level of casual clothing; don’t overdress but don’t look too sloppy. First Ladies, head for the soup kitchens and go easy on the makeup and jewelry. Remember to wash your hands and use Purell outside of camera range. Accuse your rival/arch enemy/nemesis of politicizing the tragedy during your photo-op. Thank profusely the first responders pulled away from actually responding to provide security for your visit. Before climbing back into your helicopter or limo, remind everyone we’re all in this together. Try and avoid the question of why old bags filled with sand are our only technological defense against this kind of stuff.
— Celebrities, follow the hints for politicians, above. Have your personal assistant purchase some “real people clothing” for you, they’ll know what to get (Gaga excepted). Be sure to say “I’m just here to do whatever I can to help” to call attention to your celebrity-ness while downplaying it, a kind of zen thing. Don’t get caught by questioners who ask if you’ll donate any of your zillions of dollars as part of doing whatever you can. Many common people expect you to know how to serve food or ladle out soup when doing whatever you can at a shelter, so study up on how those things are done. Easy for you Method actors but pop stars take note. Do not be caught on camera asking for sushi or saying things like “Do people really eat this stuff?” Also, note that most day spas will be closed in the aftermath of a disaster, so plan on exiting the area quickly once the media moves on.
— Everyone: stress your personal connection to the suffering, however slight. If you grew up in a wealthy New Jersey suburb, you’re “from the Shore.” If you have ever changed planes in O’Hara, you’re a Midwesterner at heart. If you can imagine a great- great- relative who had a garden, you’re really just a farm boy made good. Find someone, such as a former roommate’s neighbor, actually affected by the disaster to refer to so you can act all self-righteous when people try to make jokes about what has happened.
— Victims, following 24-48 hours of intense attention to your plight, please shut up. Don’t expect any real, long-term assistance. Do not expect any significant changes to your rusty infrastructure. Grab what you can in those first couple of days because that is pretty much what you’re going to get. If you’re lucky enough to score a celebrity visit to your shelter, demand cash or good drugs up front or, if it is Angelina Jolie, take one of her kids hostage for the money.
— Columnists, bloggers, pundits, you might as well predraft your pieces. Have one of each ready please: end of the world I-told-you-so, the disaster is an excuse for the military to take over, it is crazy that crazy people blame the disaster on Obama/the gays/the Chinese/Koch brothers/Shrek, government is good/bad, this is proof of climate change/proof that climate change is fake.
That should get things organized for now. We’ll update the new rules as the situation develops.
The latest self-congratulatory social media pablum from the State Department (in the guise of a “new” Brookings Institute report whose data has been peddled before) offers one non-insight, and one quite revealing.
The non-insight is over the course of forty dense pages of praise (“At the vanguard of this adaptation is the U.S. State Department,” Hillary Clinton is referred to as “the Godmother of 21st Century Statecraft”) is that despite over 150 people employed at State in 25 separate ediplomacy nodes covering eight different work areas, and at U.S. missions abroad another 900 staff use ediplomacy tools to some extent, there’s not a word said about effectiveness, value, return on investment, whatever you might wish to call actually assessing the point of spending time and money on something.
What is revealing are the numbers. The report gushes over the numbers of people who friend, follow and like the State Department’s social media outlets. The clear implication is that a tool that reaches this many people can’t but help be effective at, well, something.
Fair enough, but the problem is that a hugely significant number of the people the State Department is talking to are in the United States, a clear miss for what is supposed to be America’s foreign affairs organ.
For Facebook, out of some 12 million fans, almost 8 million are in the U.S., about two thirds of them.
For Twitter, out of 1.7 million followers, 867,000 are in the U.S., about half of them.
For YouTube, out of 26,700 subscribers, over 15,000 are in the U.S., well more than half.
We’ll skip the tired old discussion about the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, whcih, among other things, was supposed to prevent the U.S. from disseminating propaganda inside the U.S.; propaganda was for foreigners. Whatever you think of that, technology, primarily the web, has of course made boundaries disappear and anything from a major news event to those goddamn cute cat videos is available on the global smorgasbord.
We’ll also skip the paranoid rant about how the State Department is trying to influence Americans as a tool of the White House or the gay movement or the Trilateral Commission or Spongebob. The content of the State Department social media is so lame and substance free that its only possible influence is as a sleep aid.
What we’ll conclude instead is that social media as practiced by the State Department is fairly pointless. With its Hillary’s eDiplomacy wonks and their primary role in conducting America’s foreign affairs (Bill handles the domestic affairs, couldn’t stop myself, sorry, and you were thinking it too), you’d think whatever the point of all the social media, it would have more to do with talking to foreigners than talking to Americans.
Since no one at State is willing to assess social media in any way except by numbers, perhaps they need to take a closer look at their headcounts and decide if all the time, money and effort is worth it, given that more than half just dribbles back onto us here at home.
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!
Jess Radack wrote this, with some added info in italics by me for ya':
The Washington Post has an article on how Daniel Carter Jr. was fired for “liking” a page on Facebook. This was not a pornographic, racist, or other prohibited website – it was a Facebook page for a candidate who was challenging his boss.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of workplace free speech rights. I represent a client, State Department whsitleblower Peter Van Buren, who was not only prohibited from using any social media – on his own time, on his personal computer – but the State was actively monitoring anything he did: blog, Tweet, update his status of Facebook, etc. (here’s the letter the State Department compelled me to sign acknowledging they would be violating my First Amendment rights)
Both Carter and Van Buren’s behavior is protected free speech (the ACLU aggressively defended my First Amendment rights in front of the State Department).
Carter filed a lawsuit claiming that his First Amendment rights had been violated, which is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. Both Mr. Carter and Mr. Van Buren’s “speech” raise substantial constitutional questions and create the appearance of impermissible retaliation for their criticism – Carter’s so tacit that you can’t even call it “criticism,” and Van Buren’s more open – of the head of the sheriff’s department and the State Department, respectively.
The Supreme Court has made clear (Pickering v. Bd. or Educ., 1960 and its progeny) that public employees are protected by the First Amendment when they engage in speech about matters of public concern. These rights can be overcome only if the employee’s interest in the speech is outweighed by the government’s interest in the orderly operation of the public workplace and the efficient delivery of public services by public employees.
The Supreme Court has also held that public employees retain their First Amendment rights when speaking about issues directly related to their employment, as long as they are speaking as private citizens (Garcetti v. Ceballos, 2006). It is clear in both these cases that both Mr. Carter and Mr. Van Buren were “speaking” in their own voice and not on behalf of the local Police Department or the federal State Department.
If the lower court’s ruling that “liking” a page does not warrant protection because it does not involve “actual statements” is upheld, a plethora of Web-based actions – from clicking ‘like” on Facebook to re-tweeting something – won’t be protected as free speech.
The Hampton, Virginia sheriff’s actions and the State Department’s actions are unconstitutional. Carter and Van Buren used various computer technologies to communicate matters of public concern – in Carter’s case, who is to be elected Sheriff, and in Van Buren’s case, the reconstruction effort in Iraq.
As new technologies emerge daily, the law struggles to keep apace, but the First Amendment must be interpreted to protect these new modalities of communicating. As the ACLU points out:
Pressing a ‘like’ button is analogous to other forms of speech, such as putting a button on your shirt with a candidate’s name on it.
Jesselyn Radack is National Security & Human Rights Director for the Government Accountability Project, the nation’s leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.
Since we US taxpayers more than likely paid for the Afghan Olympic team, we might as well cheer for them. And, oh yes, “like” the Facebook page so as to inspire Afghan girls who no doubt are viewing Facebook in between drone strikes on their non-existent computers in their without-Internet homes without electricity.
Since we do have computers and Internet and electricity for now, Americans, let’s see some of those Facebook comments that are meant to encourage the Afghan girls:
Qais Esmaty starts us off by saying “Good luck Afghan loin, Good luck Afghan Girl.”
Bahman Behroz says “No result will have this chicken.”
Najia Shehidi responds with “Iranian Dog Bahman Behroz you better stop barking bloody jowish, you must know by now that Afghans are unbeatable.”
Mansoor Zazai misses his chance for some American reconstruction money with “No need for afghani girl to compete they should stay in their culture limit.”
Sawelai Batoor kinda sees through the crude US propaganda by asking “Btw which sport is she participating in and what time will it start?” as if any of that matters to the US tools.
Ghulam Abbas echoes “Which time tomorrow, she is going to be on the screen of TV?”
Bahman Behroz, a second time, with “No result will have this chicken.”
Everybody else just says good luck, which is nice.
Important Note: These important Facebook diplomatic interactions are what your State Department is actually doing. This is someone’s job. Someone is being paid with your tax dollars to do this in some frakish, twisted belief that it must be somehow helping the United States. Now, who again was saying the State Department is slouching into irrelevancy?
The US can’t contain its glee over the ongoing chaos and destruction in Syria. A massive bombing that killed senior officials, an act that would have instantly been labeled terrorism anywhere else, was delightfully lightly commented on by the White House. Atrocities are occurring on all sides (it is too complex to simply refer to the ongoing free-for-all as “both” sides, as if this was a sporting match) but the US seems to single out nasty things done by the government while downplaying those by the other side(s), including a growing who’s who of Middle East terror groups.
While more-or-less openly supporting chaos, the US still feels the need on a random summer Friday to play at the same tired rhetoric of “democracy and freedom” (“daf”) that it trots out now and then. Today’s trotter is US ambassador to Syria in exile Robert Ford. Ford is an old State Department hand, with plenty of mileage in the Iraq fiasco to his credit, and rumored in fact to be the next ambassador nominee to Iraq.
Ford’s address “to the Syrian people” takes place in English and on Facebook for some reason. He is not Lincoln or Pericles. While it is barely worth the effort itself of the mouse click, the comments below it, many purportedly from Syrians, are worth your time.
One writes “Our memory is LONG LONG LONG Mr. Ford, who the hell do you think you are messing with?” while another is more to the point in saying “piss off Ford.”
Read the whole thing yourself now on freaking Facebook and of course feel free to comment yourself.
Bonus: It appears that most Americans are ignoring this “address” by Ford, confusing “Syria” with Siri the Apple robot voice or Suri, Tom Cruise’s child.
Full Disclosure: Yeah, OK, I commented appropriately on Facebook. Also, Ford was Deputy Chief of Mission in Baghdad while I served in Iraq, and almost fired me over the idiotically wasteful “Sheep for Widows” project I opposed, as outlined in my book.
(This article was originally published on the Huffington Post, June 1, 2012)
As other parts of the Federal government begin to examine their own practices toward social media and publication review, the State Department stands alone in clinging to a 19th century model emphasizing lack of transparency and message control. That State seeks this modus in a largely unclassified world and while other agencies move toward change makes even more ripe State’s policies for a judicial challenge.
Introspection at the CIA
The CIA, for example, has begun a voluntary internal investigation into whether a process designed to screen books by former employees for classified information is wrongly and unconstitutionally being used to censor agency critics. The investigation is aimed at determining whether some redactions have been politically motivated. The target of the probe is the agency’s Publications Review Board, which is supposed to focus on whether publication of material would threaten national security interests. CIA critics said the disparities in the review process are particularly apparent in books that deal with controversial subjects, including waterboarding and other forms of “authorized” torture. (The Washington Post story on the CIA’s internal reform was of course not included in the State Department’s own internal press summary of the same day’s “Federal News.”)
Embracing Social Media in the Army
The State Department’s regulations also trail behind other government agencies, particularly the military. Military regulations concerning blogging and social media are not onerous and do not involve pre-clearance requirements. The Army encourages blogging in both official and private capacities, and has published glossy brochure-ware highlighting best practices for each. Though the Army heavily regulated military blogging briefly in 2008, it quickly reversed course. Military Law statutes, regulations, and cases available do not contain any references to pre-clearance requirements.
In fact, the Army social media guidelines are all online, in a colorful, user-friendly slideshow. They begin with the stated premise that “It is important to be as transparent as possible. As communicators, we need to be the first with the truth, whether it’s good or bad.” The emphasis in the Army guidelines is on good judgement– don’t post things online that could endanger soldiers’ lives– with not a word mentioned about the need to pre-clear (indeed, the Army emphasizes the value of social media is in its immediacy) or the requirement to say only “nice things.” Indeed, the introduction to the social media guidelines emphasizes displaying the good with the bad, with “truth” as the goal. The Army guidelines provide lots of examples and include easy-to-understand (“soldier-proof”) checklists of Do’s and Don’t’s.
State Stands Alone
And then, standing alone, is the State Department.
State has its own regulations (not “guidelines”) on social media. No slick slide shows at State. The social media regs start with 15 pages of text, and begin by citing 27 Executive Orders, OMB decisions and Federal laws the user is responsible for following, including 18 U.S.C. 713 and 1017, Use of Department and Government Seals (rather than prohibiting the use of Seals and logos, as State does, the Army includes links to web-ready artwork so social media users get the images right) and whatever the Anti-Lobbying Act of 1913, is.
The secret sauce hidden in State’s hefty social media regulations is 3 FAM 4170, Official Clearance of Speaking, Writing, and Teaching. That reg is State’s requirement that all social media, even when posted as a private citizen, be pre-cleared, and that the State Department is allowed up to 30 working days to act.
That means the State Department demands of all of its thousands of employees that they seek pre-clearance for every blog post, update and Tweet, every day, 24/7. An exaggeration on my part? Sorry, no– have a look at the compliance letter I was forced to sign as a condition of employment, which specifically mentions these things even when done by an employee in his or her private capacity.
Obviously State cannot pre-clear what must add up to millions of social media utterances each week, and so it does not. In many instances when I have sought pre-clearance for a blog post on some timely matter, State simply sat on a response until, weeks later, the blog post was so irrelevant that it was not usable anymore. The law anticipated this type of government-foot-dragging-as-shadow-censorship, and in a seminal case on the free speech rights of Federal workers, stated:
But even then insistence on advance approval would raise a further question, as before-the-fact condemnation of speech raises special concerns such as undue delay-the review itself plus time needed for a speaker to secure judicial relief-and stifling of expression that in hindsight would have been viewed as harmless or not worth the enforcement effort.
Droppin’ Some Law On ‘Ya
It was actions such as this that lead the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to assert that the State Department violated my First Amendment free speech rights and acted unconstitutionally. My attempts to clear items for publication were met with lengthy delays and periods of no contact. It was indeed such actions by the Department that often lead me to publish without preclearance so that the material was relevant to breaking news.
Want some law? Specifically on the issue of foot dragging on pre-clearance as a clever technique to kill a story, in Weaver the Court noted “if the prior review were extensive, of course, it might delay constitutionally protected speech to a time when its only relevance was to historians.” In Crue v. Aiken, the 7th Circuit found a pre-clearance directive without a schedule for the review of proposed communications problematic because nothing prevented the reviewing official from delaying approval of communications until they were no longer relevant. (Crue v. Aiken, 370 F.3d 668, 679 (7th Cir. 2004)).
In Davis v. New Jersey Dept. of Law & Pub. Safety, the NJ Superior Court recognized that “before-the-fact review and approval requirements restrict employee speech—and raise special concerns such as undue delay and stifling of expression that in hindsight may be viewed as harmless or not worth the enforcement effort.” (Davis v. New Jersey Dept. of Law & Pub. Safety, Div. of State Police, 742 A.2d 619, 628-29 (Ch. Div. 1999)). Davis citing the Supreme Court in Freedman v. State of Maryland, notes that the danger present when a regulation “is made unduly onerous, by reason of delay or otherwise, to seek judicial review, the censor’s determination may in practice be final.” (Freedman v. State of Md., 380 U.S. 51, 58, 85 S. Ct. 734, 738, 13 L. Ed. 2d 649 (1965)).
I know, I know, too heavy Doc. It took the ACLU five dense pages to spell out in legal detail all the ways the State Department social media regulations were unconstitutional and violated my First Amendment free speech rights.
So it is not as simple as some claim, broadly announcing that Federal employees give up their First Amendment rights, or that social media and the responsibilities of a classified job are incompatible. Federal employees do not give up their First Amendment rights, and there is plenty of law to substantiate that.
The bottom line is this: If the hyper-classified CIA recognizes the need for an internal review of its pre-clearance process, why doesn’t the State Department? If the military, with its obvious day-to-day operational need for secrecy and its immediate impact on soldiers’ lives, can co-exist without pre-clearance restraints on blogs, why can’t State?
Given the chance to make sane, voluntary changes to an obviously out-dated social media policy that stands outside the boundaries of other Federal agencies with a whole lot more secrets to protect, State appears ready to instead insist on having those changes dictated to it by a court. That is an expensive, and in this case, unnecessary way to change out-dated regulations.
No one can say that the State Department isn’t making the most of Twitter in its pubic diplomacy efforts. Actually, no one can say it, because they’ll get fired if they do.
Let’s look at some of today’s State Department Twitter while it is still running down the inside of America’s thigh:
Oooooh, Biden on Iraq. A lot going on there, renewal of Sunni bombing of Shia pilgrims, bloodiest day of 2012 so far, whither the Malaki power struggle, what’s going on with McGurk’s nomination, etc.
So I hit the jump on State’s Tweet to soak it all in and here’s the “read out” in full:
The Vice President today hosted a periodic Cabinet-level meeting on Iraq. Participants discussed the current political situation in Iraq and recent progress toward implementing the U.S.-Iraq Strategic Framework Agreement in two areas that are central to our partnership: security cooperation and energy cooperation. The Vice President, and all participants, also condemned the violence that occurred in Iraq today and offered their condolences to the Iraqi people.
Um, guys? Credibility is key to succeeding in social media. You want someone other than your boss to read what you write, ‘kay? Please try again.
So here’s another State Department Tweet:
Alright! The good old State Department is out there helping Americans find jobs, a bully idea in an election year. They say they are producing “real results for the America people” so let’s hit the jump and see what those real results are…
(sound of tumbleweed rolling across screen)
After the jump, you end up on a State page glorifying the Dear Leader (Hillary this time) and including one of her speeches where she claims “Our diplomatic efforts are producing real returns for the American people and building a more prosperous future for our economic partners.”
There is… not… one… example. None.
Instead, we learn that the State Department is going to spend a bunch of tax money to hold “Global Economic Statecraft Day” parties at all its embassies. This is a made-up special day, kind of like National Eat More Citrus Day. What’ll happen as a result of all these lovely parties? Hillary lists the robust plans: “public dialogue, a partnership announcement, or a meeting to discuss export opportunities.”
I don’t have a crazy man’s dictionary at hand, but my definition of producing real results seems different than having dialogues, making announcements or holding a meeting.” I’d like a job please, ma’am, instead.
No wonder I can’t seem to succeed at State. I just don’t get social media.
Newest order from the top for Embassy Employees: seat belts, you will be reminded, are mandatory.Stay safe out there. — U.S. Embassy Kabul (@USEmbassyKabul) May 9, 2012
Newest order from the top for Embassy Employees: seat belts, you will be reminded, are mandatory.Stay safe out there.
— U.S. Embassy Kabul (@USEmbassyKabul) May 9, 2012
Robust is the Word
But wait, there’s more. You’ll recall that thanks to a whistleblower at the US Embassy in Kabul, we learned that the State Department wasted $80 million on a new Consulate building in Afghanistan that will never open. After initially stating they would not comment on leaked documents, the Embassy press office in Kabul manned up to release this statement:
The United States is committed to a long-term diplomatic presence in Mazar-e-Sharif. There is already a robust U.S. diplomatic presence in the City and we are evaluating our options as to how and when a permanent U.S. diplomatic presence will be established.
Now how helpful is that? Anyone, anyone… Bueller? Not a word on the wasted $80 million, not a word on the fact that we the taxpayers only know about the wasted $80 million because of a leak and not a single piece of actual meat, but they did slip in the word “robust.” Tip for aspiring diplomats: anytime someone at the State Department uses the word “robust,” grab your wallet and run away.
Afghanistan’s Next Generation of Law Professors Find Success at Home and Abroad
Ok, Ok, maybe some good news from the Embassy. In another social media coup, the State Department announces that “Afghanistan’s Next Generation of Law Professors Find Success at Home and Abroad.” This little speck of taxpayer-paid fluff is all about the success of a scholarship program, written by the same person who is responsible for running the program. Objectivity builds credibility in social media ya’all! LOL!
Unfortunately, even a puff piece like this reveals more than it should. Just by reading the propaganda, you find that the program has been running since 2004 and in eight years, all of 229 people have participated, just 28 a year from a country of over 34 million. Worse yet, of those 229 only 18 have actually graduated from the full program. As a topper, some of the law grads major in sharia law under our sponsorship. Nobody is saying how much all this cost us so far, but the best news (!) is that the entire program is going to be refunded for another five years. The measure of success, the metric used to determine whatever amount of money being spent is paying off for the US? The author and program manager herself sez “I know that these law professors and the students they teach back home will continue to reform Afghanistan’s justice system from within.” Done.
But wait (shout State’s public diplomacists) helping lawyers in Afghanistan is not a bad thing! And even if the numbers helped are not as robust as we’d like, isn’t it better to do something instead of nothing? Doesn’t every little bit help?
Yes, yes, the same tired rhetorical questions State trots out to justify its wandering-in-the-dark programs. The same tired response is that the US is supposedly engaged in a worldwide struggle and State is supposed to support the greater geopolitical goals of the nation. After eight years if the best you can do is say, well, it doesn’t seem harmful and maybe a few people benefited, that is a pretty piss poor justification for a program that costs millions of taxpayer dollars.
Measuring ROL Success
Absent self-serving resume fodder (above), the only possible attempt at assessing these so-called “Rule of Law” (ROL) efforts in Afghanistan I could locate was a 2008 Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report. That report concluded, inter alia:
– The many U.S. efforts to support ROL in Afghanistan are laudable for their professionalism and tenacity, but it is often not clear how, or even if, ROL efforts are being measured for success, and when the intense international attention wanes, whether these projects can be sustained.
— The U.S. government, through several agencies, is funding many programs related to ROL. This inspection team found no indication that the funds are being used improperly. However, no one source seems to have a clear picture of the scope of U.S. expenditure in this ﬁeld.
I tried very hard to find out what the lawyer exchange program mentioned above cost, but failed. I did learn from the OIG report that from FY 2002 through FY 2007, the civilian side of the USG spent a whopping $110.4 million on such Rule of Law programs. It appears no one knows how much the military spent alongside the civilians on Rule of Law; the OIG report unhelpfully states
There was no way to determine what the many different elements of DOD (some under direct DOD command, some under NATO), were spending speciﬁcally on ROL, but the current military leadership in Afghanistan briefed the team that implementing ROL programs was important to them.
The OIG report, speaking of the civilian-military interface, not surprisingly reports that coordination is not as robust as it could be, and makes this staggering recommendation for success:
Embassy Kabul should demonstrate its commitment to the role of the rule-of-law coordinator, through a means such as having the deputy chief of mission attend at least one meeting of the Special Committee on Rule of Law each month.
Whooooa! No way, attend one whole meeting a month? Feeling better now?
It’s All About Relationships
And finally, just to clarify things, here is the actual wire diagram showing the relationships among the players in Rule of Law issues at the US Embassy in Kabul.
It becomes clearer each day why the State Department is sinking deeper into irrelevancy. Keep at ‘em boys and you’ll soon become the Vanilla Ice of foreign affairs!
In my interview with John Brown about Public Diplomacy and social media at the State Department, reprinted here by the American Security Project and also on HuffPo and this blog, we talked about the need to measure in some way the impact of public diplomacy efforts.
On metrics, Van Buren argues that they are needed to help determine is a goal is being achieved. Furthermore, he perceives that the State Department has been using volume, not results, as a primary metric for success. Creating volumes of messages and projects is an ineffective metric, and new methods for actually measuring the achievement of goals must be developed to ensure effectiveness.
The old saying, any road will get you there if you don’t know where you’re going, applies here. If I was 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. 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.
Several Public Diplomacists at State wrote in, claiming that they were “sure they were effective” but said that there was no way for them to measure their effectiveness, apparently apart from some gut instinct they acquired in training.
Yeah, right. Go tell that to the Marines.
The Marines Man Up
The Marine Corps decided their own public diplomacy strategy in Afghanistan (though they call it psyops, and other refer to it as propaganda) needed to be evaluated by a third party. They hired the Rand Corporation to review their programs, and then freaking published the results, good and bad, for the world to see. Some takeaways:
– An assessment of the effectiveness of various themes in prior U.S. military psychological operations revealed that certain messages were never effective, and other messages were effective for only a limited amount of time.
— Likewise, the methods used to disseminate these messages, as well as an understanding of the diversity and culture of target audiences, played a significant role in the reach and outcome of messaging campaigns.
There Have Been Both Notable Successes and Notable Weaknesses in the U.S. Military’s Messaging Campaigns in Afghanistan
— The most-notable shortcoming has been in countering the Taliban’s propaganda campaign against U.S. and coalition activity, which has focused on civilian casualties and has found a broad national and international audience.
— While the success of Taliban propaganda efforts has not translated into widespread support for the movement, it may have weakened support for the U.S. and coalition presence and activities in the region.
The biggest successes have been in the area of face-to-face communication and meetings with key communicators, such as local councils of elders, local leaders, and members of the Afghan media.
Warts and All
Now of course someone can bark that a third party consultant isn’t a proper metric, or that the report was biased or should have been written in Klingon, but the point here is that unlike the State Department, which conspicuously left even John Brown’s interview about metrics out of its daily media summary, the Marines were willing to seek an assessment, and then published that assessment, warts and all, on the internet. Sure, this is not perfect. But the assessment does include recommendations, and so now anyone concerned, including the entire Corps, is aware of the good and bad, and knows the way forward. One team, one voice kind of thing.
It is of course more likely that I will awake tomorrow with a third nipple than that the State Department would seek such an assessment of its efforts in Afghanistan and then go on to announce the results publicly.
In fact, with a great sigh of relief from the State Department, the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy was shut down in December 2011, closing off even that modest portal of review.
Want $10 Million Dollars?
Meanwhile, the American Embassy in Kabul is moving ahead, offering grants of up to $10 million a project for things as vague and broad as “Strengthen people-to-people ties to deepen the partnership between communities within Afghanistan and between Afghanistan and the United States.” You can also get multi-million dollar grants to teach English to Afghans, a worthy goal considering the Government Accountability Office cited lack of language skills as one of the problems dogging State’s efforts in Afghanistan.
Assessment? How about this self-assessment from a Public Diplomacy practioner in Afghanistan, headlined “NATO can win the war in Afghanistan with Pubic Diplomacy” (her typo in the headline, not mine, check the link yourself):
This is a Facebook post from a young Afghan who just graduated from Kabul University. “Today was a beautiful day. Dancing, happiness, laughter and exchanging jokes, recording sweet memories, forgetting worries, and celebrating graduation from college… Life could some times be so beautiful and wonderful. What a feeling!!!!
You will NEVER see such sentiments about Afghans in any of the major news networks or read it in the international papers. You will only read or watch the road side bombing and how everything is falling into pieces in Afghanistan. But in reality there is progress in Afghanistan and young Afghans are the future of their country.
The Twitter Tells All
And finally, no discussion of Public Diplomacy at State is complete with a word on social media, the newest flavor of Kool Aid at Foggy Bottom. Winning hearts and minds? Maybe not. Here’s some messages from today’s American Embassy Kabul Twitter feed, following Obama’s victory lap into Kabul announcing a new dawn or whatever:
My recent discussion with John Brown about Pubic Diplomacy at the Department of State on HuffPo is, I hope, interesting reading. Like any such discussion, the point is to raise issues, take positions, generate thought on the readers’ part, that sort of thinking stuff. John Brown is one of three courageous Foreign Service Officers who resigned rather than support the Iraq War. He has over 20 years in the Foreign Service. I am whatever it is I am now, but also have over 20 years experience. Both of us are in a position to have opinions about public diplomacy. All of this should be sort of obvious, and it was to most readers.
But not to a State Department Foreign Service Officer who’ll we’ll call “Dan” (which is his name), who wrote to John Brown:
I’m personally saddened and disappointed by this. Van Buren can say what he wants, but what makes him qualified for a single-source extensive presentation on public diplomacy? I know you are an expert historian, and would have expected better from you. Speak only as a private individual, but thought you would want honesty. Sincerely, Dan
Ah, yes, the old attack ad hominen, one the limpest forms of argument: attack the person and ignore the things the person said. I wrote back to “Dan” telling him this, and offering him space on this blog for a factual rebuttal. Dan said:
If John Brown or anyone else wishes to interview you and put out that interview, that is up to you, him, and whoever else you might wish/need to deal with. If John wanted to present an interview with you as a discussion of diplomacy, or diplomacy’s use of social media, then fine. But for him to prominently present this interview in a way that suggests it is a description of American Public Diplomacy — as practiced in the past or as it is being practiced today – is, in my mind, a disservice to former and current Public Diplomacy officers. John has both the extensive knowledge and connections to ask the same questions of a variety of individuals with experience at different periods and in different parts of the world, which could have resulted in a very interesting discussion of those topics — he chose a very different, and less fruitful, approach by simply publishing the interview with you. I regret this decision, and the opportunity that was lost by it. Sincerely, Dan
Now we are into primo State Department Public Diplomacy strategy: waive the flag. Still without saying a word about my arguments and points, Dan has now declared that the whole thing is a disservice to the thousands of Pubic Diplomacists beavering away in obscurity at State. If you think you’ve seen this kind of thing before, you have. It’s called the Otter Defense:
So I tried again, writing to Dan:
Still haven’t heard a word about what I said. This has been my unfortunate experience with State in recent months, all attacks ad hominen and not a peep about what I have to say. It is a cheap way to argue, and all too typical of State’s failing to connect with the world. Such inward viral reactions are what my interview focused on, so thanks for helping demonstrate my point. State’s social media thrives in a controlled environment; I bite back.
If you can construct an argument, I’d be happy to put it on my blog as well. Unlike State, I thrive on the give and take and do not fear others’ well-argued ideas. John has the courage to present varied points of view, and the interview clearly was labeled as mine. If you prove me wrong, I learn something. Put up or shut up. If you can get something cleared, of course.
And finally, because I got bored, I let Dan wrap up the intellectual discourse he started on behalf of his colleagues in Public Diplomacy:
I can only be bemused (and amused) by your histrionics. Your individual opinions concerning the Department of State, foreign policy, or social media are of little interest to me. But social media do not equal public diplomacy, and John’s decision to present his interview with you as a serious discussion of public diplomacy results in a distortion of what American public diplomacy really is, and thus is a slap in the face to past and present practitioners of public diplomacy.
So, for those wondering why the US is losing the propaganda war in Afghanistan to a bunch of hillbillies in turbans, or why Congress wants to cut the State Department budget by $5 billion, well, it’s all about the quality of the people, no doubt, in Secretary Clinton’s own words, “our greatest asset.”
We are all aware of the power of social media– to bend autocratic governments to the will of the people, to inform, to entertain, to allow the Department of State to speak directly to individuals instead of governments. Powerful, 21st century stuff. Indeed, social media is so important to the Department of State that over 150 people work on just that, Tweeting and Facebooking 24/7 like high school freshman on their third Red Bull. The State Department even has a full-time person with the humble title “Innovator,” Alec Ross, to embiggen this amazing set of tools which Hillary Clinton has dubbed “Smart Power” and “eDiplomacy.”
The Australian government actually sent someone all the way over here to study the Department of State’s social media. That guy wrote “US policymakers have put great stock in the transformative power of Internet freedom. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, these tools will be used “to advance democracy and human rights, to fight climate change and epidemics, to build global support for President Obama’s goal of a world without nuclear weapons, [and] to encourage sustainable economic development that lifts the people at the bottom up.”
So with that all in mind, let’s have a peek at what the Department of State felt compelled to pass into the Twitter stream on April 10:
Wow. I wept. That is innovative, 21st century stuff, all on the tax payers dime. Jeez, at least when you “friend” Pepto Bismal on Facebook you get a coupon or something.
How many of those 150 people working on social media at the State Department do you think it takes to crank out a couple of Tweets like that?
(Of course not everyone has drunk the Kool Aid. Philip Seib, Huffington Post: “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acknowledged the existence of an ongoing ‘information war’ that the United States is losing… Clinton’s remarks were particularly welcome as a note of realism from a State Department that often is primarily interested in self-congratulation.”
Oops. No wonder Hillary looks so tired in that picture.
There has been some web chatter about public diplomacy in general, and social media in the particular. Of course, since it involves technology invented since the wireless, the State Department has to call it something slick, so eDiplomacy.
The idea is actually not eNew. Throughout the Cold War the US used the social media of the day, eRadio, TV and musical tours to spread a message into the exSoviet Bloc. Not sure what the effect there was (though lots of older Russians do like jazz) but the ideas presented as revolutionary are not so new. And neither is the debate over their effectiveness.
As propaganda. Really bad propaganda.
Really, do we think that spending American tax dollars on creating YouTube videos that supposedly show American Citizen Anwar al-Awlaki (assasinated by drone along with his 16 year old son) solicited prostitutes are going to win any war?
But with all the distractions lately about my own struggles getting fired from State, it is useful to return to what the hub-bub is all about: the waste and mismanagement by the State Department in the reconstruction of Iraq. It was that failure which indeed lost the war. Not that you’d know by watching some of the State Department’s own public diplomacy drech about the “success” of their efforts:
(If the video fails to load, you can see it here)
Though no one actually takes credit for that pile, the people in the video are mostly Embassy folk. The ones without the neat button downs are contractors, their love of the program no doubt inspired by the $250,000 a year State paid them. The others are real-live State Department types: Interestingly, Aaron Snipes appears in the video and, coincidentally, Snipes also is one of the most prominent names in the State Department investigative report on this blog, helping defend the mistakes in Iraq even to the point of smearing a colleague with whispered emails to Diplomatic Security years later back in Washington. Anyone who thinks this is about anything but defending bureaucratic failures is a big believer in coincidences.
There are many highlights in the video, but one to point out is the meme with “Little Yasser,” the orphan boy whose school was rebuilt towards the end of the program. The PRTs were working on Little Yasser three years ago, when I was there. Real good news was hard to find, so when it happened we tended to overdo it. Even worse was when we manufactured the illusion of good news and beat the hell out of that. Look at the story of Operation Little Yasser. A sister PRT singled out an orphan and built a whole phony project around him, something about bringing a green house to an orphanage so the kids could heal by growing squash. The kid, Yasser, was just a prop for the media to write stories about, describing him as a “sweet, fragile child, whose soulful eyes reveal some of the heartbreak he’s endured.” That line was written in a project grant in 2009, and they repeated it verbatim in the video. The kid did not get anything out of his exploitation, kids rarely do, but the Embassy sure got some major “social media” miles. We were like the pedophiles of PRT work.
One feature of these propaganda videos is their crudeness, primarily in their shameless lack of objectivity and balance. It is not unexpected that the Embassy would want to put a positive spin on things, but to present the PRT program as a singular savior of Iraq seems a bit much.
The world needed this piece of self-congratulatory crap like I need a third nipple. Who outside of the State Department is the intended audience? The video is obviously too one-sided for even the fanboys, and an Iraqi audience would pee themselves laughing. Then it dawned on me: the video’s audience was State. They made this video for themselves.
Real development work is slow, hard and often unphotogenic. The Iraqis got some charity, handouts really, but mostly ended up as background actors for our fantasy that we were liberators not occupiers. Watch in the video as the stalwart PRT members hand out pencils to schoolkids. The flak-jacketed American has the kids take one pencil from his box of many, making each kid look him in the eye as the price of accepting the handout. The visual is clear: we have a lot, you have nothing, this process is to make me feel good at the expense of your self pride. The process– armed soldiers and disingenuous officials coming into a school and co-opting the kids while the cameras rolled– must have reminded the Iraqis of Saddam’s own clumsy attempts at buying love. Would Americans feel pride seeing Chinese troops handing out school supplies in some Detroit shithole neighborhood?
Resorting to gifts to seem popular was quick and easy but, like most quick solutions, really didn’t help. Once you started down the path of easy answers, your methods tended to sabotage later efforts to try the harder way. In a counterinsurgency campaign, there were several ways to make friends, most of them slow and difficult, like building relationships within the local community over time based on trust earned and respect freely given. Each iteration of handouts caused you to lose respect from a proud group of people forced into an uneven relationship, no matter how many self-congratulatory Tweets you sent out.
It does, however, seem quaint (as well as exposing the utter shallowness of this swipe at public diplomacy) to hear Americans talking about rebuilding Iraq. I’ll go report about that on Facebook now…
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.