Gross Misinformation: we have no idea what we’re doing or what we did

International Information Administration logo

In the saga of institutional misinformation, we have a new entry. The following article is set up as satire in the spirit of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” which is fine, but the author’s invocation of history, specifically organizational history combined with implied current organizational portfolios is horribly wrong. The failure to understand our history is irrelevant to the article “Let’s Tweet, Grandma – Weaponizing the Social to Create Information Security” but it is relevant as yet another sad revelation of how poorly we understand our organizations, past and present. That the author of this piece is a Navy Commander, a graduate of the Naval War College, and presently at TRADOC reveals an unfortunate reality about what our institutions “know” about the past and present. (Incidentally, I am a casual collector of books by “Dean Swift,” my oldest is only from 1911 though. There was an older edition I had my eye on in an antique bookstore in London, but I never pulled the trigger.)

With apologies to the well-intentioned author of Let’s Tweet, Grandma – Weaponizing the Social to Create Information Security, this is a great example of the lack of knowledge of what we are doing, the responsibilities of our organizations, and our organizational history. What the author produced is really an indictment of the information ecosystem they spent years learning and operating in. The author seemingly fished around for some info, lacked the knowledge to vet what was found, and placed the ill-considered, factually wrong, and woefully incomplete information as a centerpiece of their argument. Moreover, the misinformation was completely unnecessary and the organizational references could have been completely excised without barely any edits to erase any trace of the references. In short, the misinformation was unnecessary for the author’s intended satire.

Here’s the key problem paragraph:

The primary U.S. organization tasked with spreading American messages was the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), established in 1953. USIA’s mandate was to inform and influence foreign audiences by operating the Voice of America (VOA) radio stations, disseminating movies and books, and coordinating world speaker tours. USIA then became the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which operated under the original principles of the Voice of America until 2018. The BBG operated until the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) was created in 2018, “to help constituents better understand the work that the Agency and its networks do.” USAGM continued to adhere to the VOA principles and disseminate messages through VOA, and the Radio Free Broadcasting Networks. However, a pure governmental organization approach is not enough. How is that failing? The favorable view of individual Americans is in decline. This is presumably based on information and stories online showing that favorable views are down to 50% from over 60% a few years ago. These views plummeted even more during the Trump administration — especially due to views on how the U.S. handled the COVID-19 pandemic. The reality is that the U.S. is losing.

Let’s start with the word “tasked” in the first sentence. This implies USIA was the first agency assigned the mission of “spreading American messages,” a phrase that is problematic by its implications, but we can leave that aside without concern. No, the first post-war agency tasked with this mission was the State Department, which gained this responsibility as the government’s lead agency in this field on August 31, 1945. USIA was created after a last-ditch effort to isolate the mission within the State Department – the International Information Administration – was rejected after a few years of the State Department trying to eject the mission. The result was USIA. Honestly, however, this is a minor point and I can forgive not knowing the pre-USIA history. I’ve been in meetings with senior public diplomacy academics, including USIA alumni, who can’t fathom, let alone be aware, that any agency held the USIA portfolio before USIA. This is despite the reality that both IIA (1952-1953) and State’s Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (1945-1952) enjoyed more expansive authorities over a wider range of programs, greater control over relevant budgets, greater access to foreign policy-making, and more direct access to foreign policy execution on the ground abroad than did USIA. The mythology around USIA is really strong, and though I’m glad the author linked to a seven-year-old article I wrote on the myths around USIA, they should have linked to my latest on the topic that came out a week before the author’s article was published.

International information administration overview

The bigger point of failure is USIA did not become the Broadcasting Board of Governors. The author’s statement here is really some bad misinformation. The BBG was established in 1994 under USIA. Five years later, when USIA was abolished the BBG became an independent agency. However, the crux of the point here is the bulk of USIA went to the State Department. I am amazed and frustrated that I have to keep reminding people of this basic fact. I suspect it’s because the State Department failed to embrace the job and usually obscured its legacy, capabilities, and potential to directly engage, inform, and influence foreign audiences. See my recent post It is time to do away with the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy for some of this story.

While BBG was a big piece of USIA when measured in sheer dollars, because of the large capital expenses of worldwide broadcasting, it was the elements that went to the State Department that really mattered. The public affairs sections at the department’s posts abroad had reported to USIA (after 1999, they reported to the Chief of Mission with dotted lines to the regional bureaus and disappearing ink lines to the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs that was visible under certain angles and if Mercury was in the right place). More important was the new Bureau of International Information Programs which came out of the remains of USIA and had a far larger footprint and greater points of contact and flexibility than the BBG and was integrated into the State Department. This fact is and has been generally ignored – or not understood – by analysts and academics lamenting the demise of USIA and post-1999 organizations, which is reflected in this piece. That these matter to the author’s (satirical) argument is actually neither here nor there as the author did not need to reference the US Agency for Global Media, as the BBG was renamed a few years ago. That the author did in the context of Pew and other surveys highlight the gross misunderstanding of the gap between USAGM’s target audience and the focus of the author’s satire.

The author’s discussion is not limited to nations under censorship or lacking a free press, which is where BBG targets. The author’s “online American information militia” and a “whole of nation” approach has hardly any overlap with USAGM or has much relevance to USAGM’s use of news to inform its audiences. Does the author intend the “online American information militia” is going to engage in Russia with people in Moscow or Novosibirsk? Or Chinese in Beijing or Shanghai or Shaoxing? North Koreans? Iranians? Doubtful as the author refers to grandma and David Hasselhoff, who, perhaps I should remind the reader, was and is weirdly popular in Germany. Satire aside, USAGM had no place in this discussion and the author’s point would not have suffered had they left USIA and BBG/USAGM out. In hindsight, I do wonder if some reviewer suggested to the author they add something about USIA and BBG/USAGM, which would fit with my experience in my more than a dozen years on this topic.

The author – and/or whoever reviewed the article before posting it – seems to be unaware that the BBG/USAGM references should be replaced with the State Department’s Bureau of Global Public Affairs, formerly the Bureau of Public Affairs that was recently renamed as it picked select bits of IIP to expand PA’s portfolio. Some folks, like me, joke GPA really stands for Greater Public Affairs. Both GPA and the nominal superior yet absent Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs are properly placed and empowered to help “grandma tweet.” Better yet, before writing their satire, the author should consider resurrecting the idea of the Freedom Academy. Be sure to read that article at War on the Rocks and get to the part where Sen. Fulbright killed the hugely popular Freedom Academy bill because “must learn to overcome our emotional prejudices against Russia” and stop antagonizing Russia. As he said, “I refuse to admit that the Communist dogma per se is a threat to the United States.” This is the same Fulbright, of course, who erased the Mundt name from exchanges and tried to shutter USIA. In 1972, he said that Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and Radio Liberty “should take their rightful place in the graveyard of Cold War relics.” To wit, a Brit testifying in a Senate hearing shortly after Fulbright uttered those words, remarked, “In Looking at the voting record of the junior Senator from Arkansas on the Negro rights, I wonder why nobody refers to him as a ‘relic of the Second Zulu War.’” But I digress.

Fulbright as a relic of the second Zulu war

The irony of the misinformation here is astounding and not confined to this paper. Unfortunately, this paper feels representative of the quality of debate around our failures to be present in the so-called “information warfare” (or public diplomacy or political warfare or simply truth-telling considering the fair focus of this article) that is once again (and not uniquely a modern construct) relevant to foreign policy. This quote from 1963 seems (again) appropriate to close with: “Someday this nation will recognize that global non-military conflict must be pursued with the same intensity and preparation as global military conflicts.

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