No Applause for State’s Digital Outreach

imageThe article in Saturday’s New York Times on State’s Digital Outreach Team by Neil MacFarquahar paints an overly positive picture of State’s engagement with foreign grassroots media. MountainRunner buddy Kret at Soft Power Beacon reads the NYT article with a certain amount of optimism, preferring to see a glass that’s half full, and Roger Alford at Opinio Juris is downright enthusiastic about Hughes’ so-called "bloggers". Call me a pessimist, but I don’t see a glass even being there as the methods of the Digital Outreach Team don’t even hold water.

Besides the fact that Karen Hughes’ "four or five" bloggers (and here) has apparently been winnowed down (there are other explanations), the program is more accurately titled than Neil, Krek, or Roger want to believe. Apparently imagining their audience is disaffected Republicans in New Hamsphire, this outreach team can do little more than that. Not surprising, they have received some sarcastic responses, including "an Arab in Germany" commenting they were trying to "put lipstick on a pig." I think the Arab in Germany had it more right than he realized.

Brent E. Blaschke, the project director, said the idea was to reach “swing voters,” whom he described as the silent majority of Muslims who might sympathize with Al Qaeda yet be open to information about United States government policy and American values.

The countering misinformation policy of State is not only dominated by a faulty and over-expansive adoption of Smith-Mundt, it is guided by a misunderstanding of the audience, their issues, and an fundamental understanding of discourse on the web (and elsewhere). Self-censoring out of fear of offending either the immediate audience or the US public (if so, stop mirroring the enemy), they offer sterile official government statements. In an audience driven or motivated or informed by religion (pick your point on the slider), it’s implausible they can imagine they ignore the wholesale American adoption of the enemy’s grammar, such as jihadi.

Mr. Jawad and Mr. Sufi say that in their roughly two dozen weekly postings they avoid all religious discussions, like whether jihad that kills civilians is legitimate. They even steer clear of arguments, instead posting straightforward snapshots of United States policy.

Targeting the wrong people, the outreach team goes to posts comments instead of feeding information. By virtual definition, they are attempting to be post hoc change agents. Better would be the Defense Department Blogger’s Roundtable that targets influential nodes to inform, and thus influence, the creation and original interpretation of news and commentary. Restricting their contributions to comments on discussion boards and the comments sections of blogs ignores the leaders who likely don’t have a lot of time to read the comments (Tom Barnett, for example, made it a point to tell his readership that he doesn’t read past the first three — MountainRunner doesn’t doesn’t suffer his burden…), let alone the tendency to tune-out and mock commentary from left field.

One thing I don’t get in the NYT article is this:

Some analysts question whether the blog team will survive beyond the tenure of Karen P. Hughes, the confidante of President Bush who runs public diplomacy. 

Why might it not survive? Will the next CIO be even more limited in his/her view of public diplomacy and restrict themselves to being a news service to insert official government statements into the blogosphere?

On the plus side, at least the staffing will increase:

The department expects to add seven more team members within the next month — four more in Arabic, two in Farsi and one in Urdu, the official language of Pakistan.

Overall, what American public diplomacy needs is not outreach but engagement with thought leaders. The outreach team isn’t doing that. Nice try though.