Smith-Mundt

Inconvenient ignorance: America’s curious concern over influence in foreign affairs

Organizing for America - Domestic Propaganda?
Organizing for America – Domestic Propaganda?

For Americans, “influence” or “persuasion” in the context of foreign affairs is unseemly and even distasteful. While it is the responsibility – the requirement even – of a democratic leader to marshal and manage public opinion behind an issue or a platform, we have an uneasy relationship with this concept in the area of foreign affairs. 

Using carefully selected words for carefully selected audiences, leveraging social media, traditional media, and personal engagement to build support for an issue are the hallmarks of political campaigns. Whether running for office or pushing legislation, politicians and their advisors explore the psychology of constituents to push emotional buttons to influence and mobilize audiences.

The propagation of accidental misinformation or intentional disinformation is a healthy business in America, as is the business of uncovering the same. It is legal to “swift boat” in the US is legal, the President can solicit my support through electronic media (see image above, ostensibly from a private entity) and through weekly radio addresses, I can watch government influence operations (from the Administration and Congress alike) on Sunday Talk Shows, and the President’s own press secretary can master the art of obfuscation (must more prominent in the previous Administration).

But change the target audience to be outside the US and all of a sudden the color of the discourse changes and we assume what our own government says and does in our name is “dirty” and unfit to be viewed by Americans, even through the filter of our own media.

Why is this? Craig Hayden says it is because we harbor “the phantom fears of the propaganda state”. But, as he points out,

…we already live in a propaganda state, where mainstream media reporting caters to narrow-cast markets with news and opinions framed to be marketable. So the dangers that Smith-Mundt supposedly protects U.S. citizens from is non-unique. At the same time, the U.S. clings to a phantom hope that its journalistic institutions adhere to a kind of impartial “objectivity” to serve the interests of public debate. Objectivity has been watered down to artificially bisect all issues as politically debatable, with few evaluative standards other than those posed by stakeholders with conveniently contrasting views on the “news.” Put simply – current U.S. media institutions produce propaganda – for better or worse.

The “inconvenient ignorance” of the “propaganda state” limits our ways, means, and purposes of engaging global audiences. We imply certain discourse is unsavory for Americans and label it “propaganda” or “psychological operations” simply because the conversation is with non-US audiences. The result is that we censor our Government, and only our Government, in the area of foreign affairs and yet domestically, we have a vibrant industry targeting individuals in far less savory ways (seriously, “death panels”?).

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