• Flim Flam at the State Department

    February 17, 2012 // 1 Comment »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    I asked Alec on this blog. No response.

    And via his Twitter. #No_rspnse.

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

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

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

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

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

    Related Articles:

    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Democracy, Embassy/State

    Vigilance Where You Really Care: Blogs v. Contracts

    August 5, 2011 // 12 Comments »

    When it comes to protecting the rights of bloggers in places like Syria and China, the State Department has no end of energy. Democracy, State says, demands an open and free exchange of ideas, even when they are critical of the government. Rock the power! in those dirty places abroad.

    However, when it comes to stifling free speech among its own employees, the State Department seems also to have no end of energy. The Department asserts:

    Publicly available Internet communications on matters of official concern, including blog postings, must be reviewed by the employee’s agency. 3 FAM 4172.1-3(A)1. See also 5 FAM 792.2b and 5 FAM 792.3d. Thus, there can be no question that employees must submit blog postings for review if they address matters of official concern.

    This of course is a pretty big job, reviewing the blog postings, Tweets, Facebook updates, MySpace posts, IMs, texts, chat room lines, bulletin board contributions and listservs of thousands of employees worldwide, 24/7.

    Just as an example, one of the Department’s own websites links directly to dozens of private blogs (but not this one!) by Foreign Service Officers and others. These sites contain pages of postings, which apparently the State Department is committed to monitoring. While there are quite a variety of opinions expressed, they are no doubt all approved as required. An even longer list is online, suggesting daily blog posts in the thousands need to be vetted.

    Anything less than 100 percent vigilance would be a) selective enforcement (i.e., prejudicial enforcement aimed only at free speech the Department disagrees with and seeks to punish or restrain) and b) risk allowing some snippet of unfettered speech to slip through that could destroy the foreign policy space-time continuum as we know it. In its own words, the purpose of State Department review of all of these blog posts is to screen out statements which “could cause serious damage to US foreign policy, and in particular US diplomatic efforts and military activities.” Heavy Doc, heavy.

    One blog about the Foreign Service, Diplopundit, tracks other Statey blogs that have been forced to stop publishing by the Department. State unleashes senior Deputy Assistant Secretaries to quietly threaten the careers of bad bloggers and, if that does not work, invokes its internal discipline system as if the blogs contained the nuclear launch codes, passwords to the Wikileak servers and Hillary’s Victoria Secret orders all in one.

    Who knows how many thousands of people must work in Foggy Bottom’s Ministry of Truth just to keep up with the flood of blog postings needing to be reviewed. It is even more amazing that somehow the hundreds of blogs keep publishing articles every day, despite the mandatory review process which can take up to 30 days (State claims “30 days” means thirty business days, so it is really close to six weeks of human time.)

    A weaker mind might assume that State does indeed selectively enforce its rules, whacking hard blogs that speak out, while avoiding applying pressure to nice blogs that tow the party line. Why, one could even think that discipline was selectively used to make an example out of FSOs who say things that while true, leave senior officials more than upset.

    If only State could spare a couple of drones from the censorship department to help out over in contracting oversight, things might be better off.

    It seems that the State Department has only now gotten around to noticing an analyst who may have helped award millions in contracts to a company run by her husband and daughter. The analyst helped her husband’s company win 43 taxpayer-funded contracts in recent years, while she and her husband kept their relationship secret from the State Department.

    You are, as an organization, the product of what you do, what you choose to do with your resources. In tough, tough budget times, State chooses to aggressively and selectively police its bloggers, while casually allowing spectacular contracting fraud to pass unnoticed.

    Hopefully as Congress sits down to make its budget cuts, they will take this into consideration.

    Related Articles:

    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Democracy, Embassy/State

    Hypocrisy at State: Freedom’s for the Other Guy

    June 17, 2011 // 7 Comments »

    Diplopundit has written a sad, excellent piece about the State Department’s hypocritical stance on online freedom of speech, how the Department spends millions abroad to ensure the rights of Mideast bloggers to criticize their governments, while spending tax dollars at home silencing its own employees who choose to blog objectively about State.

    There are three kinds of State Department blogs (a whole list is here). The most benign are the so-called travelogue types, where families chronicle their adventures abroad. These blogs do sometimes run afoul of Mother State when they create anything less than a fully happy family picture of a particular country but usually putter along with their small familiar audiences.

    The second category are the echo chambers, blogs written by State officials that simply reiterate the party line. They could be taken right from the day’s official talking points, and often are. State seems to leave these alone, allowing even one of its spokespeople in Iraq to have one.

    Finally, there are those who write objectively about State, pointing out that some things are alright, some just OK and some in need of change. In contrast to the military, which has always encouraged soldiers to speak their minds and allowed/tolerated soldier blogs (some excellent writing about Iraq came out of this genre), State can act more like the Mafia than a freedom advocate, demanding that “nobody talks about the family outside the family.”

    Diplopundit talks about this, and has served as a repository of State blogs that have gone dark under pressure. He refers to the people at Foggy Bottom whose apparent job it is to enforce the family rules as “tigers,” and notes that they try very hard to scare people into compliance because today, in a Wikileaked world, anything written down seems to splatter across the web. State has little interest in providing written blog fodder for those who might “talk about the family outside the family.”

    Diplopundit writes:

    The State Department has been known to muzzle its Foreign Service (FS) bloggers in various different ways. It had already driven an FS blogger to “sail into the sunset” (shaky current assignment, no forward assignment, etc, etc.). These FS bloggers write on their own free time, not on taxpayers’ dime. It has caused the shutdown of several blogs and continues to threaten its diplomats and their spouses who blog or tweet about stuff outside the chalked lines with all sorts of punishments. Always behind closed doors, of course, and in almost non-existent paper trail.

    If you hear very little about this, it’s because the shutdown also comes with a non-disclosure agreement; if the blogger squeaks, they can send you to a mission in the Arctic region, or they send the employee, then the offending spouse blogger dines with guilt every single day afterwards.

    Some will say that the “privilege” of speaking ends when you take a job at Foggy Bottom. Not true. The State Department has an official policy on its employees writing personal things and participating in social media. You can read it here and here.

    There is actually nothing in there that prohibits employees from writing and speaking per se. There is a pre-clearance process, which on paper at least focuses mainly on three things: that the writing contain nothing classified, that the writing not contain anything protected by the Privacy Act and that the writer not misrepresent his/her personal views as State Department policy. There are some other common-sense restrictions on talking about contracts and procurement deals, and giving away details on policy arguments.

    Nothing written down however that says “don’t write anything we won’t like or you’ll get whacked.”

    One of the unexpected things about operating a blog like this is the emails we receive. Some of course are selling Viagra and manly growth pills, some (mostly written ALL IN CAPS!1!) are threats and many are thoughtful responses from Foreign Service people. These people, like the critical bloggers, are not out on a witch hunt despite sometimes being the targets of witch hunts themselves. They bought into the idea learned somewhere along the way that open discussion is good, that airing problems can help solve problems, that responsible criticism can make an organization’s other statements more credible, that free speech is not an abstract, or a tool swung just against foreign regimes that we oppose, but in fact an obligation.

    Related Articles:

    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Democracy, Embassy/State


    April 15, 2011 // Comments Off on Diplopundit

    A nice take on this blog and my book today on Diplopundit. The site is one of the best Foreign Service niche blogs, and often has news about our work first.

    Related Articles:

    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Democracy, Embassy/State