Trump has done more than become the most prolific social media communicator in political history. He has discovered the Holy Grail of presidential-media relations: the ability to ignore the whole damn Fourth Estate. This is a new paradigm for political power, one that at a minimum pushes the media another circulation drop closer to irrelevancy. Oh well, they’ll always have the weather and sports to report. Craigslist already took the classifieds away.
The latest online thrust by Trump has been a series of tweets directed personally against a reporter who said the president-elect claimed without evidence his popular vote total suffered because of extensive voter fraud. Jeff Zeleny, CNN’s chief Washington correspondent, said Trump was a “sore winner,” adding the president-elect had “zero evidence” to back his claim he won the popular vote. Commentators agreed with Zeleny, saying Trump’s ego couldn’t accept the insult of losing the popular vote.
Trump responded with a series of tweets and retweets condemning Zeleny. All of the tweets saw “likes” in the tens of thousands, and endless websites excerpted and embedded them out to an even larger audience. Just another episode in the Trump reality show, right?
As the media missed the overall populist appeal of Trump right up until election night, so are they missing the populist power he is wielding and likely will continue wield via social media for the next four years.
While Obama claimed the title of first “Internet president” by virtue of his online fundraising, brilliant datamining, and seeding of the 24-hour news cycle, the bulk of his efforts were essentially repurposing technology to do the traditional things politicians have always done, albeit faster and better. Evolution, not revolution.
Trump has discovered something much, much bigger: he does not need to depend on the media to communicate to the electorate. As the once-upstarts such as HuffPo, Buzzfeed, and the Daily Beast pushed the TV networks into the background, so now is social media Trump-style stepping forward.
Sure, OK, the Internet is a powerful tool for global communication, social media blah blah blah, Kanye something something Instagram, this stuff’s taught now in Communications 101: The Modern Age at community college.
But social media for Trump is not simply a display board to pin policy statements to as Obama has used it. Social media is a tool that first allows Trump to bypass everything and speak to individual citizens/voters, and then force the traditional media to amplify what he says as part of its own thirst for “content.” There really isn’t any news anymore when Trump has it on Twitter as his own scoop. Ignore the tweets so as to starve the beast? The worry is more that the audience will ignore you because they can read the tweets themselves.
Every president who’s left a record has expressed some level of disdain for the media of his day, and a desire to circumvent it. But no president could afford to ignore them, or to truly anger them. Influence them, of course: presidents would leak juicy stuff to one reporter, cut off another, but at the end of the day media and the president needed each other to do their respective jobs. A president would once upon a time have had to be careful chiding a columnist for the New York Times to her face for fear of being slaughtered on the editorial page. President Lyndon Johnson, after hearing CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite had spoken out against the War in Vietnam, famously said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country.”
Access now only has to be courted one way. Trump can afford to insult reporters because he no longer has any real need for them, except perhaps as foils for his anti-establishment rhetoric. He treats them with contempt because in his mind, all they really do is retweet him. Who cares what CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, thinks of you? How many followers on Twitter does he have anyway? Zeleny = 135k. Trump = 16.3 million.
Trump has also mastered, via social media, the art of Internet logic. His tweets often read like the “Comments” section on some political blog. Make a bold statement unsupported by facts. When challenged, demand the challenger provide proof you’re wrong (often meaning to prove the negative) and then mock them if they don’t respond. Dispute sources, not facts — X can’t be true because it was reported by a media outlet that favored Clinton. Attack ad hominem, and goad others into doing the same. The enemy isn’t just CNN, it is Jeff Zeleny himself. Then stand back and disavow what happens, up to and including death threats. And, for the triple score, issue an appeal for calm with a conspiratorial wink.
Social media Trump-style also offers the unprecedented ability to control the agenda. Should a troublesome story appear, a handful of bombastic tweets changes the conversation. If no one seems to be listening after some rude remarks about the musical Hamilton run their course, just yell louder — flag burners should lose their citizenship! All in real, real time; Trump is no stranger to sending out 140 characters of white noise at 3 am.
With its reliance on “friends” and “followers,” social media also creates a personal bond between Trump and individual Americans not really experienced since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Depression-era fireside chats. As those radio broadcasts brought Roosevelt into the living room, Trump’s tweets put his policies, opinions and rants into the same feeds as Aunt Sally talking about Christmas plans. It creates intimacy, and by association (who doesn’t like Aunt Sally), may increase trust.
And make no mistake about it; unlike most politicians’ social media, which sounds like robotic ad-speak, Trump’s tweets come from Trump. It’s him talking to you. Look at many of the responses to Trump on social media; people are writing back to him in the first person, using the informal language of the web. This is a personal connection. He is part of your world and part of your day. And unlike TV, you can speak back to him, and maybe get an answer of sorts; Trump has been known to retweet messages from his followers.
While many will advise him to tone it down, or perhaps switch his Twitter to a more “presidential model,” it seems unlikely Trump would set the whole thing aside when the clock strikes midnight on inauguration day. These are very powerful tools. They played a significant role in electing Trump. They will allow him for four years to pick and choose how and when, or if, he wants to engage with the traditional media. With that on one side of the scale, and with Trump being both the president, and, well, being Trump, who is going to make the argument that pulling back is in Trump’s interest?
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Or have they?
Twitter claims it does not want intelligence agencies using a Tweet-mining service for surveillance purposes. The company recently restated its “longstanding” policy of preventing a company called Dataminr from selling information to intelligence agencies that want to monitor Tweets.
“Dataminr uses public Tweets to sell breaking news alerts to media organizations, corporations and government agencies,” a spokesman for Twitter said in a statement. “We have never authorized Dataminr or any third party to sell data to a government or intelligence agency for surveillance purposes. This is a longstanding policy, not a new development.”
There are multiple issues worth unpacking here.
— The reality-to-b*llshit level on this is very high. Twitter sounds nicely righteous, but the whole affair is one FBI front company signing up with Dataminr away from being meaningless.
— In fact, Dataminr retains its contract with the Department of Homeland Security, which it classifies as something other than an intel agency.
— Can Twitter actually stop Dataminr from gathering information about Tweets? Not really, as Dataminr uses public Tweets to do its work. It seems Twitter just asked Dataminr nicely to stop. And how many other companies out there are doing the same thing?
But questions about the actual impact of Twitter’s statements aside, the worst thing about all this is that Americans are now fully dependent on corporate good deeds for the protection of their privacy. Yes, yes, we all “choose” to use social media, as we choose to use smartphones and have bank accounts and fly to Chicago. But c’mon, absent moving off the grid next to the Unabomber’s old cabin, how realistic is it for surveillance zealots to keep hiding behind the choice argument?
And for those familiar with the actual definition of fascism, collusion between the state and corporate interests, welcome to your latest piece of evidence. We have only has much privacy as Twitter and the government agree we may have.
Sample Dataminr screen:
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Hey everyone, Happy bin Laden Day! It was five years ago May 2 that “we” got bin Laden. How did you celebrate?
For the CIA, marking the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden was as simple as fake live tweeting the raid by SEAL Team Six on the Al-Qaeda founder’s compound in Pakistan. Using the hashtag #UBLRaid, the CIA blasted out updates of the May 2011 strike as if it was unfolding in real time, all so we could savor the sweet, sweet taste of revenge which brought back to life everyone killed on 9/11.
Tweets included the now famous picture of President Barack Obama and other high-ranking U.S. officials watching matters unfold from the White House’s Situation Room.
1:51 pm EDT – Helicopters depart from Afghanistan for compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, read one tweet.
3:30 pm EDT – 2 helicopters descend on compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. 1 crashes, but assault continues without delay or injury, read another.
That was followed just minutes later by: 3:39 pm EDT – Usama Bin Ladin found on third floor and killed.
Think about how much has changed since that momentous day. In 2011 the U.S. was at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, facing the threat of a vicious global terror organization that had already killed Americans. Oh, wait, that looks just like 2016, only now we are also at war in Syria, too, still at war in Afghanistan (16 years in!) and back at war in Iraq. And al Qaeda is known as ISIS, and the Homeland remains a jittery mess on the verge of electing either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, both of whom have enthusiastically endorsed lots more war in the Middle East.
It’s as if Nothing. Has. Changed.
Anyway, the CIA’s anniversary tweets open up the idea of live tweeting other American victories. How about a minute-by-minute live tweet of a waterboarding session? Or maybe, for a really special date, a live tweet on August 6 of the Hiroshima bombing?
BONUS: Proving we have learned absolutely nothing, amid the bin Laden tweetstorm, CIA chief John Brennan said Sunday that taking out the head of Islamic State would have a “great impact.”
“If we got Baghdadi, I think it would have a great impact on the organization. And it will be felt by them,” he said.
So, at the cost of who-knows-how-many of your tax dollars, the State Department, in between deep-sixing Hillary’s old emails, has been fighting ISIS, with The Twitter thingie.
See, someone determined that if ISIS could use social media to radicalize young people, with a powerful and persuasive message, well, the old, sad white people at the State Department could convince them that ISIS was bad. Plus, it’s social media, which is some sort of newfangled thing all the kids like! After no doubt many late nights, State came up with the clever name of “Think Again, Turn Away,” for its anti-ISIS social media campaign.
The slogan itself sounds far too much like the 1980s’ hilariously failed anti-drug campaign, “Just Say No.” But this is even funnier.
See, the social media war for hearts and minds over at State just took another body blow by promoting an anti-Islam advocate as a “human rights hero.” In fact, in honor of #HumanRightsDay, “Think Again Turn Away” Twittered and Facebooked out the message of Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali (pictured) speaks loudly, publicly and often about her belief that Islam is an inherently violent “cult of death.” She supports the proposed ban of face veils in France, and of mosques’ minarets in Switzerland. In 2007, she called for the west to destroy Islam using military force.
This is kinda the wrong signal to send to young people already tuned in to ISIS’ message that the west is indeed at war with Islam itself, and seeks to kill Muslims and occupy their lands. Ali’s message, and the State Department’s endorsement and amplification of it, does little more than confirm many young Muslims’ fears. It does not support the better narrative that the problem is not Islam, and that it is OK to be a Muslim, as long as you are a nice Muslim to the rest of us.
It is, in social media terms, a massive “boner” of a gaffe.
How Could They Have Known?
Now, how could the State Department have known about Ali’s views? All those Muslim names sound alike, right?
Maybe by checking Wikipedia, which says:
Ayaan has been a vocal critic of Islam. In 2004, she collaborated on a short movie with Theo van Gogh, entitled Submission, the English rendering of the word “Islam”, a film about the oppression of women under Islam. The documentary sparked controversy, which resulted in death threats against the two and the eventual assassination of Van Gogh later that year by a Dutch Muslim. In a 2007 interview, she described Islam as an “enemy” that needs to be defeated before peace can be achieved.
Or maybe State could have “Googled” Ali, where they would have found articles with headlines like “Ayaan Hirsi Ali is dangerous: Why we must reject her hateful worldview.”
Or maybe by watching Fox; Ali is a darling of the right wing haters.
It’s Not About Her
Look, I know Ali has a tragic life story, and that she was tortured by radical Islamists. The people State’s anti-ISIS messages are aimed at are already predisposed to accepting radical Islam’s violence. Many seek it out, and to them it forms a part of ISIS’ appeal.
In the end of the day, this is not about Ali, it is about the pointlessness of the State Department social media campaign. A known Islamophobe won’t convince angry Muslims of anything.
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?
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.
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:
This has to be a sign of the Apocalypse or something worse. Iranian-backed American puppet democratic leader Iraqi strongman Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki now has a Twitter account you can follow at @IDawaParty.
The US Embassy in Baghdad, following the Secretary of State’s clarion call into social media, has set up a Twitter account but so far nothing more than the usual happy talk generic Tweets. Probably still waiting for clearance on the first one from Washington. They “follow” the State Department Twitter account, though.
Maliki’s Dawa party also has a wacky website, including a feature where you can email the PM. I already emailed him to see if he wants a free copy of We Meant Well, but so far no reply. The web page also includes a not-yet-functional link that would allow you to donate to the Dawa party charity, which would probably violate some sort of law. Follow the link above and send Maliki an email greeting!
The US Embassy in Baghdad’s web site has a neat section on “hot topics,” which implies some sort of current events theme. When you click through to the hot topics for Iraq, however, the most recent posting is dated June 2011. One groovy “hot topic” quotes Secretary Clinton from 2010 congratulating Iraq, saying “Iraq’s political leaders have worked together to agree on an inclusive government that represents the will of the Iraqi people.” Oops.
The really interesting thing is that all the web sites, Dawa included, are in English (the “Hot Topics” on the US site are also available in Arabic, but just as out of date). Kinda makes you wonder who the intended audience is.
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!
Woooo, too much at once, like eating ice cream too fast and getting that brain freeze. So, no time to rest, here are the Tweets, now let’s break them down:
To begin: HUZZAH! Thanks to the tireless efforts of America’s diplomats, St. Lucia has become the 100th state to endorse the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). PSI participants interdict illicit transfers of weapons of mass destruction and missile-related items, and strengthen legal authorities to conduct interdictions. Now the fact that St. Lucia is a tiny island country in the Caribbean of only 238 square miles with a population of 174,000 is irrelevant. They will not be acquiring WMDs, and thus it will be unnecessary to invade them. Scratch one off the “To Do” list. And you all thought those Caribbean embassies didn’t do any work. Shame.
Slipped in between self-love Tweets by State is a note that the US has no freaking clue whatsoever about what is going on in Iraq. Though the State Department Twitterers failed to touch on the subject, the linked article notes “Despite the massive US Embassy in Baghdad, US government personnel have minimal freedom of movement due to security concerns and skyrocketing Iraqi government suspicion of any foreign information-gathering activities… US intelligence agencies in Iraq have also found themselves unable to maintain relations with the prickly and increasingly powerful civilian intelligence agencies in the country.” Oops, sorry ’bout them nine years of war and occupation Iraqis, but Happy July 4th!
But the best is always last, another round of Hillary Clinton declaring Internet freedom for everyone. Clinton must have an alarm set on her smartphone to issue such a declaration every two weeks. Even as the US summons the Hawk Men to find and render Julian Assange, Hillary can’t stop her own self-loving, claiming “The free flow of news and information is under threat in countries around the world.”
Wait, that is actually true. OK, here’s the ironical bit: “The United States was proud to work with the main sponsor, Sweden… to stand with our partners to address challenges to online freedom, and to ensure that human rights are protected in the public square of the 21st century.” Hah hah uninformed people, it’s funny because Sweden is trying to snare Assange for the US.
Meanwhile, Hillary’s running dog Alex “The Innovator” Ross is burping out positive vibe Tweets with the hash tag #netfreedom in support. We’ll add a few choice comments to the feed with that same hashtag to keep things in balance later this morning.
Whew, there you have it, one blast of Tweets to ruin your whole day. Anything new on Tom and Katie’s divorce by the way?
The Department of State, which apparently does not care whether anyone actually believes what they say, said this:
At the Human Rights Council (HRC), the United States has consistently placed special emphasis on the protection and promotion of the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association, because we understand that these fundamental freedoms are essential to facilitating the exercise of other universal rights.
As activity in the economic, social, and the political realms gravitates from the offline world to the online world, we have an additional responsibility to ensure that human rights and fundamental freedoms are not eroded simply because they are being exercised in the digital realm. The United States is committed to the principle that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected in the online world.
Now, Welcome to My World
Imagine a world where your emails, web browsing, Facebook and Twitter are monitored, where you are threatened with prosecution at work, where government agents dig through your credit report and ask your neighbors and officemates for “dirt” (some, scared, try to supply it), and where sudden “compelled” interrogations shatter your life. Imagine being jerked out of your job of 24 years and placed on a Secret Service Watch List for publicly criticizing a government official, and then allowed back to work only in a capacity designed to humiliate you, and send a message to others to remain silent.
Welcome to my world.
Since writing a book and beginning this blog, all of the things listed above have happened to me, here, in the United States, and all done by my employer, the Department of State. The same organization that speaks out for the rights of bloggers in Syria, offers sanctuary to dissidents in China and promotes web freedom in Iran, has used all of the security tools at its disposal to silence a minor critic within its own ranks.
Mine is a simpler version of the current Administration’s war on whistleblowers. It illustrates the way that the government uses the tools of security to silence dissent and punish whistleblowers. As those tools continue to increase in power, and as the definition of troublemaker continues to expand, it is safe to say you might be next.
For me, it began simply enough, with my book We Meant Well that chronicled my experiences leading two State Department Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq, supposedly helping to reconstruct that country after years of war, hearts and minds stuff. Instead, I found a vast sinkhole in the desert, filling with American money while my bosses sought propaganda pictures and feel-good stories to bump up their own chances of promotion.
What is revealing about my case is not so much that the government has renewed zero tolerance for dissent (the Obama Administration has begun prosecutions under the 1917 Espionage Act against twice as many whistleblowers as all previous administrations combined), but that the tools used to silence that dissent are all security-related. Slightly more benign in practice (for now), in theory this is little different than the Soviets executing dissidents as spies after show trials or the Chinese using their courts to legally confine thinkers they disapprove of in mental institutions. Turn the volume up and you’ve jumped from vengeance to totalitarianism. It appears that America’s goal is to become East Germany.
On Becoming East Germany
It has become common wisdom within the Department of State that when senior officials want to deep six an employee for no officially allowable reason (i.e., writing a book and blogging in my case), they turn the case over to their internal police, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS). Originally created to protect diplomats overseas, DS has emerged in recent years more as a new world Stasi, with greater and greater emphasis on its internal security function over its traditional, more benevolent, role.
In my case, DS was supposedly summoned first because of an accusation (made by the Human Resources office) that a link on my blog to another web site displaying Wikileaks documents constituted a breach of security. As absurd as the accusation was (if linking was the standard of guilt the whole Internet stands accused), it was good enough internally to invoke DS doing a deep dive into my life in search of “evidence” to terminate me. Once that door was opened, DS commenced forensic analysis of my computers, the aforementioned monitoring and three separate interrogations, a total of six hours in a windowless room with a good cop and a bad cop crudely hammering away. The tools of security are many: DS claimed my interrogations were “compelled” as a condition of employment and thus took place without the Fifth Amendment protection against self incrimination. When I refused to answer their questions about charities I donate to, medicines I take or my finances, they charged me with impeding an investigation and “lack of candor.” In a perfect Catch-22, one can either incriminate oneself, or be punished for not incriminating oneself.
Your, er, my choice.
Handling personnel problems using security tools has other advantages for the government. The official Report of Investigation in my case contains significant redactions, as if parts of my own life cannot be revealed to me. Facts can be hidden from Freedom of Information Act requests and even court-ordered discovery in the name of “security,” and thus manipulated to document pre-determined outcomes. What is called an investigation morphs into an indictment, where the goal is to keep fishing until something, anything, comes up. Actions by Diplomatic Security at the State Department occur without any independent review, and are largely not appealable to the Courts. Diplomatic Security, unlike its counterparts at the Department of Defense and other agencies, even refuses to use the “substantial evidence standard” mandated by the Administrative Procedures Act.
As another commenter put it, “That freedom from oversight (the quo) is the plausible deniability factor that allows the State Department to use every dirty trick imaginable to terminate anyone, deserved or not (the quid). Diplomatic Security leadership gets the kind of absolute power that the corrupt enjoy absolutely, in exchange for using that power, when desired, to eliminate the problem employee of the day.”
Gay Bashing as Precedent
The use of security as the bully boy at the State Department is not new. Sad precedent shows that security investigations were used regularly up until about 1992 at State to out gay and lesbian employees. It began with a McCarthy-era campaign known as the “Lavender Scare” in which more than 1000 State Department employees suspected of being gay or lesbian lost their jobs even as the US also pressured United Nations and NATO allies into joining the campaign. The thought in those days was that hidden sexuality made one vulnerable to blackmail, while of course being openly gay made one unsuitable for employment, another Catch-22. Hundreds of men and women lived false lives in fear, sometimes labeling partners as domestic servants to hide relationships from Diplomatic Security. A well-known very senior official traveled with her partner on the manifest as a “valet” to keep the fiction alive. Whispered accusations of homosexuality to DS ruined many careers.
The seminal example of use of security at State to destroy bothersome employees comes from the 1950’s, again during the dark McCarthy years. John Paton Davies, in a new autobiography called China Hand, tells of his own termination from the State Department. Davies was one of a generation of brilliant scholars and diplomats known collectively as the “China Hands” during WWII. He predicted that Mao would win the Chinese Civil War and advocated better relations with Communist China to counter Soviet influence. Davies, of course, was prescient in his advice, though being right did not save him. Instead, for his views counter to popular policy that saw all Communist countries as a caliphate, Davies faced nine Diplomatic Security investigations between 1948 and 1954, all of which failed to produce any evidence of wrongdoing. Nevertheless, in 1954, under political pressure from Senator Joe McCarthy, the gutless Secretary of State John Foster Dulles asked Davies to resign. Davies refused, and Dulles terminated him, claiming he had “demonstrated a lack of judgment, discretion and reliability,” charges that curiously echo the ones against me for poor judgment, lack of candor and mishandling classified material I never once handled.
In the topsy-turvy world that now is our new reality, the Obama administration charged former CIA officer John Kiriakou under the Espionage Act after he blew the whistle on the waterboarding of al-Qaeda suspects and refused to participate in torture. His sociopathic CIA counterpart, Jose Rodriguez, meanwhile, is proudly promoting a new book in which he brags about torturing the same people and gloats over destroying the video evidence of his actions. The Espionage Act itself favored by the Obama people harkens back to dark times in American history, having been used against the government’s political opponents. Targets included labor leaders and radicals like Eugene V. Debs, Bill Haywood, Philip Randolph, Victor Berger, John Reed, Max Eastman, and Emma Goldman. Debs, a union leader and socialist candidate for the presidency, was, in fact, sentenced to ten years in jail for a speech attacking the Espionage Act itself.
The First Amendment
To understand what this all means, it is important to take a step back. Here’s the First Amendment, in full:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Those beautiful words are the sparse poetry of the American democratic experiment. The Founders purposely wrote the First Amendment to read broadly, and not like a snippet of tax code, in order to emphasize that it should encompass everything from shouted religious rantings to eloquent political criticism. The Founders would retch to see what has become of the spirit of the Enlightment that drove them, simply because America got frightened after 9/11. Our nation was founded by bigger men, to be stronger than to casually throw away hard-won rights.
The effect of all these security-as-bully-boy-personnel-tactics is to chill free speech within government. Government is different than private business. If you don’t like McDonald’s because of its policies, go to Burger King, or eat at home. You don’t get the choice in governments, and so the critical need for employees to be able to speak informs the Republic. We are the only ones who can tell you what is happening inside your government. It really is that important.
James Madison understood these dangers, and warned “The means of defense against foreign danger historically have become the instruments of tyranny at home.” As the tools of security increase in quality and quantity, and the courts continue to pay false deference to anything tagged as “security related,” the line between actions directed against enemies abroad and perceived enemies at home continues to blur. Many of the illegal things Richard Nixon did to the famous Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg are now both legal under the Patriot Act and far easier to accomplish with new technologies. There is no need, for instance, to break into anyone’s psychiatrist’s office looking for dirt, as happened to Ellsberg, when the National Security Agency can penetrate your doctor’s electronic records as easily as you can read this page. The use of those security tools expands, from true enemies of the state to bothersome employees of State.
Yes, welcome to my world indeed. Criticize any government you like, as long as it isn’t the one at home.
Alec Ross will introduce himself to you as an “innovator.” A close confidant of Hillary Clinton and a veteran of the 2008 Hope and Change Obama charade, instead of finding a job he got himself appointed as the State Department’s “guru” (their word, not mine) of social media. Alec just loves social media; he so “gets it” so darn much that he can’t stop himself from advising the State Department about having more social media. It is what he does.
For today’s lesson in public diplomacy at the State Department, we feature one of Alec’s own Tweets, crafted by the hand of the master himself:
If Alec would ever answer my emails, Tweets or Facebook messages (I guess he is just so busy, right?), here’s what I’d like to ask:
What is the freaking point of this Tweet? Are you working on the Ben Franklin campaign now?
Where can I get a “Fact o’ the Day” desk calendar like you have so I can make Tweets like this?
Why did thirty people “retweet” this, sending a pointless message to others. Are they all on your staff? Why do you have such a big staff?
Or do you have 30 dummy accounts you control?
When Time Magazine named @AlecRoss one of the best Twitter feeds of 2012, did they have their head up their ass or is there some other Alec Ross Twitter feed they looked at? Does it cost a lot of money to buy your way on to those kind of lists and can you use Paypal?
Would it be possible to convince you to say stand on the roof in a thunder storm this weekend with wet feet and try and repeat Franklin’s historic experiment? You know, for science and all.
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:
(This interview with John Brown originally appeared on the Huffington Post, April 24, 2012)
What is Pubic Diplomacy?
Public Diplomacy (PD) is a hard term to define. Some say it’s just a euphemism for propaganda. The Department of State’s definition is “engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences.” For some traditionally minded diplomats and commentators, the term “public diplomacy” is an oxymoron (true diplomacy, they argue, is practiced behind closed doors, not in public). How would you define PD?
Any communications strategy, from advertising to propaganda to social media to whatever you want to call it, plays second to reality — actions really do speak louder than words. So as long as deaths in wedding parties from misplaced drone attacks, atrocities by soldiers and videos of Abu Ghraib exist, you are not going to fool anyone regardless of how many tweets you send out. In an age of increasingly prevalent media, the usual bullshit of the Secretary standing up in Geneva proclaiming support for human rights while people in their own countries see the U.S. overtly supporting nasty autocrats will dominate mind space. Here’s a graphic (not my work) that illustrates the point.
Look at the outcome of the Haditha massacre in Iraq: 24 unarmed Iraqis were slaughtered by an out-of-control group of Marines in 2005, and now, seven years later, the case is finally concluded and no one is going to jail. You can Tweet and Facebook until the end of time, but that story will resonate for even longer within the Arab world.
The Haditha outcome also illustrates the point of relevancy. While most FSOs and almost all of the American public are probably ignorant about what happened in Haditha, the incident is well known among politically minded Iraqis. On the day when everyone there was talking about the guiltless conclusion, U.S. Embassy Baghdad PD was bleating happily about jazz and some art exhibit. The appearance — to Iraqis — was one of trying to change the topic, change the channel, to distract from the real issue of the day.
So whatever PD is, it can only be less effective than what the U.S. is actually doing.
Pigs with Lipstick
Edward R. Murrow, the famed newsman and Director of the United States Information Agency during the Kennedy administration, is often quoted as saying that public diplomacy, as regards the formulation of policy, should be seriously taken into consideration at the take-off, not at the crash landing. More bluntly, you can’t put lipstick on a pig. What is your view on the relationship between public diplomacy and policy?
See above. Pigs look ugly with lipstick.
Is Pubic Diplomacy “Useless”?
As you know, the above-mentioned United States Information Agency (1953-1999), which handled public diplomacy during the Cold War, was consolidated into the State Department a few years after the collapse of Russian communism, thereby reflecting a historical pattern of the USG abolishing its “propaganda” (anti-propaganda?) agencies (e.g., the Committee on Public Information [1917-1919], the Office of War Information [1942-1945]) when a global conflict is over. Nostalgic USIA veterans tend to regret the dissolution of “their” independent agency, a relatively small organization (by Washington standards) giving its overseas officers considerable flexibility to act, on behalf of U.S. national interests, as they saw fit according general policy guidelines and local conditions (as an ex-USIA senior official told me over lunch not long ago, “we got away with murder”). Not amused by such declarations of independence (often unspoken), strait-laced State Department employees referred to USIA as “Useless,” a play of words on USIA’s overseas designation, USIS (United States Information Service). What’s your take on PD now being, bureaucratically, a State function? Does it make PD more manageable and streamlined?
You can see the themes of relevancy and credibility running through this interview.
State Department output, what we say out loud, is characterized by caution above all else, a weird play on the Hippocratic Oath. But the “safest” things to say (we urge all sides to reconsider, Mistakes were made) have little value outside Foggy Bottom. A bit of vitality is needed, and PD lacks that now. In what foreign country do people routinely turn to a PD news source? Anything that flows into the State Department gets filtered out into the equivalent of “male pale and Yale,” usually three days after the story has moved off the front pages. Safe, for sure, but also irrelevant. Often, irrelevant by choice if not by policy.
For example, to enflame my ulcer, I just flipped over to Twitter. Several Embassies are tweeting “Happy Earth Day” in unison, obviously a central command meme of the day from Washington. So what? Nothing wrong with Earth Day, but so what? Is the U.S. not still the world’s predominant carbon fuels burner? What is the specific goal of sending Happy Earth Day tweets out in English to whomever?
Alec Ross, State’s alleged social media king, tweets today, “97 years ago today, modern chemical weapons 1st used in war. German troops released chlorine gas on the front lines at Ypres, killing 5,000,” with no link or explanation. I am not even sure what the point of that is, never mind how it might play into any of the national goals of the U.S.. Alec tweets out these odd “fun facts” regularly, to what point I do not know.
The lack of content, of vitality, also means that State only practices half of the social media equation. I see little evidence of interactivity, though people do try and break through the screen and ask visa questions, usually very specific to a person/case type questions because they cannot get them answered from inundated Consular sections. Posts crow over how many people watched or viewed something, but very rarely entertain true interactivity. I am sure they are afraid of it, afraid of saying anything that hasn’t been cleared by several layers above them. That may be great for career security (the goal) but it does little to really put social media to use. Just the opposite, really.
The invasion and occupation of Iraq is considered by many a public-diplomacy disaster. Your own book on your one-year Foreign-Service experience (2009-2010) in that country has, as part of its title, “How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” For those who have not had the opportunity to read your admirable volume, where/how did U.S. PD go so wrong in Iraq? Is it possible to say that America did, on occasion, do certain things right in its attempts to remake (in its own image) the cradle of civilization?
My experience with PD in Iraq was all propaganda all the time. PD’s conception of PRT work was simply to over promote any small thing we did that wasn’t a complete failure. If we dug a well, not necessarily a bad thing, the headline was “Bringing Water to Mesopotamia.” Every PRT project had to include an interview with some Hollywood backlot Iraqi praising the United States, because as we know only White People can help the Brown Skinned of the world. PD didn’t even try to balance or nuance a story; they wrote entirely for themselves and their bosses and Washington. People in Iraq certainly knew the truth, living it 24/7 in a world without water, electricity or sewers or schools, so who was PD trying to fool if not themselves? I wrote about this in more detail here and included a PD video piece so your readers can see for themselves what their tax dollars paid for.
The new social media, some argue, are redefining public diplomacy, with the buzzword “public diplomacy 2.0,” coined during the Bush administration, still quite à la mode inside the beltway. Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Alec Ross, according to a twitterer attending his recent talk at American University, stated that “I don’t think of myself as a public diplomacy official. I think … public diplomacy is more old-school American propaganda.” In your view, how important/effective are the social media as a tool for the State Department to engage (a favorite word of the current administration) “key international audiences”?
To begin, you must have a goal — sell soap, get people to switch from Coke to Pepsi, turn out to vote, stop joining al Qaeda, something you can use to know if you have succeeded and completed what you started out to do. Social media as practiced by the Department is amateur hour. A bunch of people led by the State Department’s oldest living teenager Alec Ross think they understand media because they are banging away and getting weirdly excited by numbers. Success seems to be measured in how many followers an Ambassador has. Yet no one is interested in looking into the substance of social media. When I comment on interactive Embassy web pages or State Twitter accounts on my own blog at wemeantwell.com, what I see are desperate people trying to get a Visa question answered. They have no outlet to ask such questions because Consular sections are under siege, so they bombard social media. When I do see some questioners try and aim for more substantive topics, the replies from State are canned official language, statements that are “clearable” only because they are content-free or simply ape the party line.
So what is social media as practiced by State able to accomplish? You’d think given its emphasis and the money spent that someone would be interested in a Return on Investment study, a way to map out what was accomplished. But State does not work that way — it is all about the “doing” and not about the “getting done.” Social media as practiced is just another flim-flam, foisted on State this round by another short-timer political appointee whose connections to the Secretary mean he can do no wrong. Or, perhaps more honestly, no one has the guts to question his pronouncements. Anyone who has been at work in Foggy Bottom for more than a few years can recall similar flim-flams when faxes and email were going to reduce the need for overseas personnel (we can do it all from Washington!), or web home pages or video conferencing. All can be useful tools, but you have got to have a goal and you have got to measure your way toward that goal. Otherwise it is just flavor of the month stuff. Didn’t we have virtual embassies for awhile in some 3-D online world game thing?
The USG-supported Broadcasting Board of Governors, which (according to its homepage) became “the independent entity responsible for all U.S. Government and government-sponsored, non-military, international broadcasting on October 1, 1999” (e.g., Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Sawa) and whose mission is “to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy,” is under considerable criticism these days for management failures and for intending to cut back on staff and programs. Based on your foreign-service experience of over two decades, what do you think is the reaction of overseas audiences to USG -supported broadcasting such as Voice of America? Are such broadcasts still necessary for U.S. national interests in an age when information is becoming more and more readily available? In a broader sense, can a journalist, in your view, be a true, objective master of her trade (and can her reports be trusted as reliable) if her paycheck comes from Uncle Sam (to cite Kim Andrew Elliott, a fast-media guru, “Journalism and public diplomacy are very different, indeed adversarial, endeavors”).
Credibility is the key. If you look at the very successful penetrations of American society by foreign “public affairs,” you see sources of news and entertainment that are clearly allied with a foreign entity (China Xinhua News, RT.com, al Jazeera, the BBC) and do not try to hide that fact. Yet, at the same time, they are aggressive in presenting a side of news that is missing in America’s mainstream media, often pointing out the “other side” to a story or not shying away from reporting U.S. Government mistakes and misjudgments. Their credibility comes not from being pro-Russia, but from tapping into a need in the U.S. for alternative news sources.
People are too sophisticated now, even in the developing world, to be reached via crude propaganda — America=Good, al Qaeda=Bad. That costs those sources their credibility and thus their audiences. Who cares what U.S. broadcasting into the Arab world has to say, or crap like Radio Marti? Most of the time it is just self-referential: Obama made a speech and PD says “Here’s Obama’s Speech” in case you missed it elsewhere or really want to plod through 1500 words on Earth Day. No one independently quotes their opinions, no one considers them vital or important the way al Jazeera became simply by filling a real gap in what people wanted to hear.
If the U.S. would try and learn a bit more about what people want, they might find a more ready audience. Instead, our “public diplomacy” programming seems designed more to please our bosses in Washington than to really reach people abroad.
Try it now — go here and imagine yourself a young, politically charged Iraqi. What is on that page that demands your attention? The Cold War ended years ago and we are still talking about jazz.
The Smith-Mundt Act (1948), the legislation that provides the statutory basis for U.S. public diplomacy, prohibits the State Department from disseminating domestically USG information intended for overseas audiences. Do you think this firewall, in the Internet age, is anachronistic? Or is there something to be said about prohibiting the U.S. government from “propagandizing” the American people? Would you abolish/amend the Smith-Mundt Act (or, since so few Americans know anything about it, simply let it live on, untouched, in its obscurity, letting sleeping dogs lie)?
I think Smith-Mundt died on the vine already, whether it exists as a law still or not. Given both the ubiquity of the web and the fact that almost all of the U.S. public diplomacy spew is in English, I think we already know who the target audience is. For example, all the phony grief that gets expressed every time a new round of terrible atrocity photos emerge from Afghanistan certainly is not fooling the mothers of the dead Afghans; it is designed to make us feel better here at home. The Afghans know exactly what is happening in their homes and villages, even if the U.S. government can get away with calling each atrocity just another act of some bad apples. By the way, how many bad apples does it take before you have a whole pie full of them?
Not Measuring = Not Knowing
In the how-many-angels-can-dance-on-a-pin tradition, there is quite a lot of talk, among the PD community both outside and inside of academe, about how to measure the results of public diplomacy. Do you think that there is a scientific way to gauge the impact of PD, both short-term and long-term? Or is the practice of public diplomacy, in the words of scholar Frank Ninkovich, essentially “an act of faith” that, in its often-flawed attempts to make our small planet a better world through greater international understanding, cannot be reduced, in well-intentioned efforts to evaluate it, to statistics on a chart or an executive summary on yet another think-tank report?
The old saying, any road will get you there if you don’t know where you’re going, applies here. If I was allowed back into the building and to ask a question of someone important in Public Affairs, I’d ask this: why isn’t your whole “PD” strategy built around sending out messages in bottles dropped into the ocean? Now of course the analogy only goes so far, but just as the message in the bottle strategy can be dismissed with a quick thought experiment (who knows who reads what, and what they do after the read it), can anyone really make a different claim for the State Department’s current efforts?
Metrics start with a clear goal, an end state to use the military term, and work backwards from there. One of the core problems with the State Department, and the one that most significantly contributes to the Department’s increasing irrelevance in foreign policy, is that State seems just content to “be,” to create conditions of its own continued existence. So, if social media is a new cool thing, and Congress will pay for it, then social media it is. What if instead the organization had more concrete goals? Then we could measure back from them. I’ll not trouble readers with my own list of foreign policy goals, but if the best you can come up with is something so broad as “engage the public” then you are pretty close to having no real goal at all. Best to throw notes into the ocean and hope for the best.
Bonus: One cheap and easy way for a non-thinker to dismiss these points is to say “Well, sure, it is easy to ask the questions, but where are Van Buren’s answers? If he wants metrics, what does he propose?”
Of course that is a silly line of reasoning. Change begins with the questions, the point of asking is to stimulate the search for answers and solutions. It would be easier if all the solutions to all of the PD problems could be laid out in a short interview, but life ain’t that way cowboys. Don’t dismiss important questions for lack of easy answers. Instead, realize there are higher goals than obedience and career climbing and at least allow room for the Questions and admit the need to look for Answers.
As a starting point, perhaps consider this: When you get a machine that is so immense and so bureaucratic and so career promotion oriented, the mission will be lost and truth and honesty are mere bystanders eventually wrecking any positive mission. The whole concept of institutions and how they are managed and sized needs to be examined big time. The solution, if there is any, is breaking it down into small autonomous offices or missions or programs that link together but are managed separately eliminating an immense hierarchy.
Ah, the power of social media. My thanks to Michael Moore, who Tweeted the article from Salon describing my First Amendment fight against the State Department to his over 1,000,000 followers, and reposted it on his Facebook page.
A very large number of those people then went on to read the full story of the denial of my First Amendment rights by the Department, and jumped over to this blog to read about my latest ham-fisted interrogation by the goons at Diplomatic Security.
You know Alec Ross, there just might something to this social media thing you always talk about.
#SmartPower uber alles!
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…
From the US perspective, a soldier in uniform, representing the United States to the people he encounters in Afghanistan, murders sixteen people including nine children and it is called an unfortunate, isolated incident. When the US accidentally blows up sixteen Afghan civilians with a 500 pound bomb, to the US it is just another day at the office, “collateral damage.”
Meanwhile, only 36 hours after the murder of those Afghan children, the US Embassy in Kabul sends out this chirpy Tweet:
It is obvious that inside the Embassy, as witnessed by their most public of faces, that the incident is already old news.
Speaking to her collected Ambassadors, SecState Hillary Clinton said the same day without irony “Only America has the reach, resources & relationships to anchor a more peaceful and prosperous world.”
Each time one of these horrors occurs in Afghanistan, the US response is that it is an isolated incident. How many isolated incidents must accrue before we acknowledge we have a collective problem?
It is obvious to everyone in Afghanistan that the US really could care less about burning Korans, pissing on Afghan dead or even the murder of children, except perhaps as a PR issue to be managed.
That is why we lost in Afghanistan. Time, now, after twelve years of war, to call it quits.
@LubnaNaji from Twitter sends us all Valentine’s wishes from Iraq. Bonus: See if you can spot the $63 billion spent on reconstruction there in the photo!
Also on Valentine’s Day in Iraq, gunmen assassinated an Iraqi army general in one of several incidents that left at least four people dead and 28 wounded.
Six people were injured in an explosion in al-Mashtal. Two suffered injuries in the al-Bayaa bombing
In addition, gunmen fired on a Health Ministry official in the al-Dora district of southern Baghdad.
In Mosul, about 220 miles north of Baghdad, a car bomb exploded outside a popular restaurant in the eastern part of the city, killing three people and wounding 19.
Standing before a sun-splashed Cinderella’s castle, President Barack Obama recently called for America to become the world’s top travel destination. “America is open for business,” Obama announced at Walt Disney World near Orlando. “We want to welcome you.” Obama previously signed a long-pushed bill to establish a national tourism promotion agency that would market the United States to visitors from abroad.
Of course, funding for a $200 million campaign slated for launch later this year comes from a $14 per person fee charged to visitors from visa-waiver countries, so the foreigns are paying for us to advertise to them, but hey, they’re on vacation, am I right?
Anyway, this act by Homeland Security out in LA should really help:
Two British tourists were barred from entering America after joking on Twitter that they were going to “destroy America” and “dig up Marilyn Monroe.” Leigh Van Bryan, 26, was handcuffed and kept under armed guard in a cell with Mexican drug dealers for 12 hours after landing in Los Angeles with pal Emily Bunting. The Department of Homeland Security flagged him as a potential threat when he posted an excited tweet to his pals about his forthcoming trip to Hollywood which read: “Free this week, for quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America?”
So, to recap:
–Homeland Security has nothing better to do than read British tourists’ Tweets.
–Homeland Security is unaware of sarcasm, the possibility that by Tweeting “destroy America” the British guy was unlikely to do much more than drink too much crappy beer, of course spending mucho Amero$ along the way.
–Adding $14 to the cost of a US vacation so the US can promote tourism seems– somehow– counterproductive.
–Our country is now run by complete idiots.
–Some kind of Mickey Mouse joke I can’t come up with just now, ’cause see Obama was at Disney World when he made the speech.
Thanks, and we’ll return you now to your regular blog programming as a Homeland Security Predator drone swoops into my backyard. Viva!
We all know that social media is the key to victory in Afghanistan as it was in Iraq, at least according to the State Department, but a recent Tweet from the US Embassy in Kabul (slogan: “One day We’ll Be as Big as Baghdad”) has left me in a gobsmacked state:
Correct me if I am wrong, but does it not seem that Embassy Kabul is gloating over the deaths of some of the “bad guys”? The US side repeated/reTweeted a message from the ISAF US-funded propaganda team to two pro-Taliban Tweeters appearing to gloat over the deaths of some Taliban.
Bad enough as it is, gloating over death (though SecState Clinton also did so with Qaddafi’s death) but doing it a day after at least ten NATO soldiers were killed in two separate incidents in Afghanistan, when a transport helicopter carrying six US Marines crashed in Helmand province, and an Afghan army soldier killed four French soldiers at the Gwam training base in Kapisa province. Fifteen French soldiers were wounded in the attack, eight seriously? The French are considering withdrawal from the Afghan playground due to their deaths.
C’mon US Embassy Kabul, this is just sad.
Social media is all the rage now at the State Department (for some old timers, this is all hilariously reminiscent of the late 1990’s when State suddenly discovered that the internet existed and set out to conquer what was then called e-Diplomacy by created some new-fangled “home pages”).
But Geocities this ain’t Tweeps. Here, as an example of how “with it” the social media boffins at the American Embassy in Kabul are, is one of today’s Tweets:
So that’s it– we just needed to clarify that for the Taliban, with the RT from the American Embassy Finland because, well, nothing says bureaucratic safety like following someone else, courageously.
What do you think? Maybe needs more animated gifs? 🙂
Crowing about how State is now the cool kids to eat lunch with, spokescoolperson Victoria Nuland held the first Twitter briefing of 2012 as part of “January is 21st Century Statecraft Month” (February will be “IBM Selectric Month.”) Ms. Nuland noted that “more than 100 of our embassies have Facebook or Twitter accounts, or sometimes both,” meaning there are still more accounts in my daughter’s high school lunch room than at State worldwide. Since the tech has been around for a century, maybe the rest of the posts can sign up soon– it’s free to join LOL 🙂 LMAO!
One mission that just can’t seem to get Tweeting is the World’s Largest Embassy (c), Baghdad, still without a first Tweet. Or maybe that’s a fake account, like all those “Ashton Kutcher” Twitter feeds that just want to sell you Uggs or something, or maybe they have prioritized for a robust MySpace. The Embassy has a nice Facebook page for study in the US (a lot of Iraqis would like to get on that train; almost all of the postings are asking for visas, scholarships or for someone to answer their emailed requests for visas and scholarships) and a YouTube channel, though the latter may run afoul of State’s own master of social media Alec Ross, who said recently “I just don’t think propaganda works on social media, at all.” lulz 😉 #SMH
Anyway, I think we can help the World’s Largest Embassy (c) get started on Twitter. Here are a few Tweets they could send out to the Iraqis to get things going:
Anyone out there can help us w/ the Twitter? Ours stops after 140 characte
@IraqiPeeps Pls stop killing each other. #OurInvestment
@IraqiPeeps Really, stop it.
@Basra Can we haz the oil now pls? #OurInvestment
@Blackwater Can you return Amb limo? Also last time trunk had empty beer bottles, so pls clean, thx.
How many Iraqis to screw in lightbulb? Zero. No power. #PRT #Reconstruction
@TheRealSeanPenn Rethought it, maybe you can help. #Reconstruction
@Hashemi Sorry, apts here all full, try Erbil #Sunni #Kurd #Shia
@USEmbassyBaghdad RT Send lawyers, guns and money #Hashemi
All yer bases belong to us. Oh, wait, not any more. #SOFA
@JulianAssange Can’t find Amb memo re: Mosul dated 04/01/2010 anywhere– do u have a copy? #Wikileaks
@Sadr Bday party at Baghdaddy’s Fri, no rockets after 9pm pls, ‘k? #Democracy
Travel Warning: Instant cappuccino maker at Sully still broken. #15% #25% #35%
@Qods It’s not terrorism when we do it, only when you do it #Carbombsunderscientists
@Malaki Really really apologize for last night. Meant Iran, not Iraq. #Toomuchtodrink #Girlfriendz
Q: Five-day forecast for Baghdad? A: Two days. #Sunni
Sorry to all for trouble, Emb cafeteria menu site now no longer auto-redirects to wemeantwell.com
In the caption the American soldiers are saying “We left them in peace and harmony…”
Cartoon courtesy of @Kassakhoon, from Twitter. Follow him on Twitter for always interesting news and comment from Baghdad, especially now that the Western media is walking away from Iraq.
From my Twitter feed. Even the media can’t decide what will happen to Iraq in the near future. My head hurts.
On its own lame ass “blog“, the State Department believes it is working hard to build networks and communicate with people around the world. Knowing the power of social media because she is a cool dude down with young people, SecState Hillary Rodham Clinton bleated out talking points that said:
“I want to say a few words, but more than 140 characters, about the importance of social media tools, like Twitter, which are a critical part of what I at the State Department call 21st century statecraft. Thanks to these connection technologies, people can exchange ideas and information instantaneously, anywhere on the planet — from a laptop in London to a cell phone in Cairo.”
It works in London and Cairo, but not in Baghdad. If you visit the Twitter site of the World’s Largest Embassy (c), you find, sadly, the message “@USEmbBaghdad hasn’t tweeted yet.”
Still, they have 111 followers of nothing (a zen thing), which is more than I have on my Twitter, so I should not be rude. Many of the followers of zen are journalists, no doubt hoping for the beast to stir, as well as those trolling for jobs and visas. One follower claims to be a Pakistani web designer, so there may be hope for the site yet. A few heroic FSOs, no doubt seeing another opportunity to suck up, are listed as well.
Maybe the World’s Largest Embassy (c) needs one more person on staff, a teenager who can do the Twitter.
Tweet on, for freedom!
For those who prefer their blog fodder in smaller bytes, I am now on Twitter. Follow me as WeMeantWell.
Next step: I will call each of you individually every morning and tell you stuff.