Life from inside the storytelling machine: an author offers caveats on influence tools

By Dr. Amy Zalman

The inside cover promise to "unveil the workings of a ‘storytelling machine’ more effective and insidious as a means of oppression than anything dreamed up by Orwell," was incentive enough for me to pick up and start reading the recent English translation of French writer Christian Salmon’s Storytelling: Bewitching the Modern Mind.  Even more compelling for this reader: the ‘storytelling machine’ in question is one that I have been working in for the last  five years, as a proponent of the use of narrative as a tool of influence in U.S. strategic communication. 

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Reminder: Broadcasting Board of Governors meeting live webcast

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) will meet on Friday, September 17, 2010, from 10:00 a.m. to noon Eastern Time. The BBG will be considering BBG Governance Committee recommendations, the BBG’s research program and other business. The meeting is open – via webcast – to the public.

The public may observe the open meeting via live and on demand streaming at www.bbg.gov.

To watch live, click here during the meeting time. To watch after the event, click here.

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Thinking about Think Tanks

The Brookings Institute’s P.W. Singer published an interesting read on the “idea factories” of DC.

Factories to Call Our Own: How to understand Washington’s ideas industry

…“At its best, a think tank contributes to a better world,” says Richard Danzig, a former Secretary of the Navy who has served on the boards of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, the Rand Corporation, and Public Agenda and is now chairman of the Center for a New American Security. “It does this by sponsoring thought, research, and dialogue. Optimally, it provides support, time, and space to the privileged few who populate it so that they think more deeply, more broadly, and more soundly than the prevailing wisdom.”

Think tanks can approach a tough policy problem without the time pressures government officials face. As Shawn Brimley, a Pentagon strategist who works in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, says, think tanks “help the government overcome the tyranny of the in box by providing good analysis on long-term strategic problems.” …

The broader globalization question for think tanks here may be simpler—and more worrisome. Washington may have been the origin and center of think tanks for the last century, but no industry stays the same forever. Indeed, the 2009 Global Think-Tank Summit wasn’t held inside the Beltway—it was in Beijing. Could what happened to America’s manufacturing industry also one day befall Washington’s ideas industry?

Read Peter’s whole article at the Washingtonian or at Brookings.

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Recalling History: Advisory Commission tells Congress to Expand VOA

On March 30, 1949, in its first semi-annual report by the US Advisory Commission on Information, the predecessor to today’s Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, recommended an “immediate and broad expansion of the world-wide information program being conducted by the State Department, including the activities of the Voice of America.”

A realistic approach requires that we provide a budget better balanced between the three-pronged program of military, economic and information policy. A budget which contemplates $15,000,000,000 for military, $5,000,000,000 for economic and only $36,000,000 for information and educational services, does not provide an effective tool for cleaning out the Augean Stables of international confusion and misunderstanding. …

It is in the information field that we meet the rival forces head on. The Soviet Union places by all odds its heaviest reliance on ‘propaganda’ spending enormous sums, and using its best and most imaginative brains. Other governments are acutely conscious of the importance of information programs and are spending more in proportion to their capacities than is the United States in telling its story abroad. …

There is a great need for additional regional offices and branch libraries to be established outside the capital cities. The dissemination of American private media abroad is primarily and essentially an informational activity and the responsibility and funds for this activity should be placed with the Department of State, and the activities should not be limited to the countries receiving aid under the European Recovery Act.

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Reforming Smith-Mundt: Making American Public Diplomacy Safe for Americans

VOA_stamp_1967My latest op-ed on the conceptually and practically out-of-date "firewall" of the Smith-Mundt Act is up at World Politics Review: Reforming Smith-Mundt: Making American Public Diplomacy Safe for Americans. The complete article is available without a subscription.

American public diplomacy has been the subject of many reports and much discussion over the past few years. But one rarely examined element is the true impact of the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which for all practical purposes labels U.S. public diplomacy and government broadcasting as propaganda. The law imposes a geographic segregation of audiences between those inside the U.S. and those outside it, based on the fear that content aimed at audiences abroad might "spill over" into the U.S. This not only shows a lack of confidence and understanding of U.S. public diplomacy and international broadcasting, it also ignores the ways in which information and people now move across porous, often non-existent borders with incredible speed and ease, to both create and empower dynamic diasporas.

The impact of the "firewall" created by Smith-Mundt between domestic and foreign audiences is profound and often ignored. Ask a citizen of any other democracy what they think about this firewall and you’re likely to get a blank, confused stare: Why — and how — would such a thing exist? No other country, except perhaps North Korea and China, prevents its own people from knowing what is said and done in their name. …

The rest at World Politics Review and comment there or here.

It is time this wall, one of the last two remaining walls of the Cold War, the other being the Korean DMZ, came down. If we insist on keeping this wall, a completely un-American and naive approach to global affairs, should Wikileaks be enlisted to let people within the US borders know what its government is doing with its money and in its name?

See also:

  • Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2010 (Updated) on the Thornberry-Smith legislation now pending in Congress
  • Recalling the 2009 Smith-Mundt Symposium on the January 2009 event on US public diplomacy
  • …and the only-somewhat tongue in cheek remark by PJ Crowley, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, at the daily briefing of 27 July 2010. While announcing the new Coordinator of IIP in his opening remarks, Matt Lee from the AP (also only somewhat tongue-in-check) asks whether PJ can talk about this "under the provisions of Smith-Mundt?" PJ’s response: "Yes. I, as the head of Public Affairs, can communicate both domestically and internationally. IIP, on the other hand, can only communicate outside the borders of the United States."

Does New Media Really Matter when Arabs Tweet?

The actions of the Wikileaks organization will spark a much needed discussion on the roles of so-called “old” media and “new” media in to the modern environment. Just days before the public disclosure of classified material by the website Wikileaks and three major newspaper hand-picked by Wikileaks, Professor Dennis Murphy asked “Does new media really matter?” The cause of the question is itself interesting:an op-ed by Rhami Khouri titled “When Arabs Tweet” in the most classic “old media” outlets there is, The New York Times. The Times is also one of the three papers chosen by Wikileaks to disseminate initial commentary and analysis on the “Afghan War Diary“, as Wikileaks called the over 91,000 documents

Khouri argued that new media has little to no impact as it has “not triggered a single significant or lasting change in Arab or Iranian political culture. Not a single one. Zero.” Dennis responds with the big picture view:

Really? Let’s see…if you have a dialog about matters of political, national and international import is that just entertainment? Perhaps Khouri is looking for instant gratification (isn’t that ironic) through political upheaval. But perceptions change gradually over time. Perhaps this new media thing is opening up cognitive doors to an entire generation of Arab youth. And perhaps the cognitive dissonance will someday reach a point where the passivity will emerge into activism. Or, perhaps the dialog will, at a minimum, provide the variety of ideas that may spill over to the future when it is their turn to lead.

Khouri’s mistake, as my colleague Dennis points out, is the focus on immediate payback. True the “passive” online media means support can be expressed by means other than physical exposure, which Khouri describes as “passive”. While “new media” is characterized by the speed and persistency of potentially very visceral information, it is still simply a dynamic collection of information mediums in the struggle for minds and wills, and thus is just another element, as Dennis points out, in a broad environment. Flooding the zone with tweets will not itself cause action.

Flooding the zone from multiple sources of varying trustworthiness as well as providing, or merely suggesting, valid opportunities of actions, and you have something else. Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking platforms do not cause rebellion, but they can (and do) empower it by building the necessary confidence, trust, and support across groups of individuals that may otherwise not have known so many shared their convictions. This can lead to action in the real world. But the boiling point for action will vary as will the resulting backlash.

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GAO and US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy discuss evaluation tools

The subject of public diplomacy evaluation tools and methodologies has been front and center this week. Debating the difference between “measures of effectiveness” (or MOE), “measures of performance” (or MOP), and throwing spaghetti at a wall can seem like arcane stuff, understanding the value of engagement, and the ability to communicate that value, is extremely important. Measures are fundamental to discussions on what to do and why.
Of course in order to measure, one must not only know the audience (primary, secondary, tertiary as they must be categorized… or do they?), where they are (as they are less likely to be within neat geographic coordinates), and how they communicate, but also the effect, intentional and unintentional, of the activities of allies, adversaries, and neutrals on the audience. The world cannot be put into a laboratory.

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Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2010 (Updated)

On July 13, US Congressmen Mac Thornberry (TX-13) and Adam Smith (D-WA), both members of the House Intelligence and Armed Services Committees, introduced “The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2010” (H.R. 5729), a bipartisan bill to revise an outdated restriction that interferes with the United States’ diplomatic and military efforts. The Smith-Mundt Act, formally known as the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948, was intended to improve and institutionalize information and exchange activities to counter Communist activities around the world that America’s ambassador to Russia described in 1946 as a “war of ideology… a war unto death.” Today, however, the Smith-Mundt Act is invoked not to enable engagement but to limit it.
The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2010 by Reps. Thornberry and Smith seeks to update the so-called “firewall” of the Act to bring it up to date with the modern environment where people, ideas, and information move through porous or non-existent borders with increasing ease.

The impact of the current “firewall” is decreased accountability of what is said and done in the name of the taxpayer and with taxpayer’s money, reduced transparency and scrutiny in the conduct, purpose, and effectiveness of foreign policy, reduced awareness of global affairs, limited understanding of the State Department in general inhibiting the development of constituency.

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A (Digital) Revolution in Latin America

By James Davis

If Barack Obama’s campaign introduced American voters to the raw power of the web to win elections, the come-from-behind victory of Juan Manuel Santos as President of Colombia showed that e-democracy works even in places where democracy itself is fragile.

Santos, a conservative-leaning Defense Minister under popular incumbent President Àlvaro Uribe, ultimately won election on June 20 in a 2-to-1 blowout, racking up 69 percent of the vote. But on the day 38 -ear-old Ravi Singh from Washington-based Electionmall.com arrived in Colombia, Santos’ campaign was clearly in trouble, with polls showing Bogotá mayor Antanas Mockus’ reformist Green Party within striking distance of victory in the first round of voting on May 30.

"We were being crushed by the ‘Green Wave,’" explains Luis German Lopez, who was Singh’s liaison with local campaign operatives.

Mockus had captured the imaginations of an increasingly tech-savvy Colombian population utilizing innovative social media techniques: by the time Singh and his team came on board, the Greens had accumulated nearly 700,000 Facebook friends and a big Twitter following. Santos, the establishment candidate, had virtually no online presence at all.

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USAID gets a policy shop

USAID: From The American PeopleAccording to Mike Allen at Politico:

A top official e-mails: “Stan McChrystal’s exit from Afghanistan not only affects military personnel, but is an opportunity for the civilian side of the equation — which has not gotten nearly the credit it deserves for its many successes on the ground, despite of the shenanigans at the top of the Kabul food chain — to shift around some. USAID Administrator Raj Shah is ramping up his in-house expertise on Afghanistan and Pakistan with the additions of Alex Thier, Kay McGowan and Craig Mullaney. Thier, who is widely recognized as a leading thinker on Afghanistan policy, comes from [the United States Institute of Peace] to head up a new policy shop at AID. McGowan is being seconded from State and was a key player on Zal Khalilzad’s team in Kabul. Mullaney, a former Army Ranger and Rhodes scholar, joins Shah’s team from the Office of the Secretary of Defense.”

This good news will resurrect the USAID policy shop that was abolished / replace when State stood up the Director of Foreign Assistance.