The internet and “public opinion” in China

No time to comment, but Jim Fallows posted a worthwhile (and timely) post on the internet and public opinion in China.

Outsiders who follow Chinese events have known for years about Roland Soong’s EastSouthWestNorth site*, which draws from Chinese-language and English-language sources for reports and analysis.

I’ve just seen this post, from a few days ago, which strikes me as something that people who don’t normally follow Chinese events should know about. It’s the text of a speech Soong prepared for last weekend’s annual Chinese Bloggers conference (but did not deliver, for family-emergency reasons). In it, he discusses the differences the Internet has, and has not, made in the Chinese government’s ability to control information and maintain power within China.

This is a subject easily misunderstood in the United States, where people tend to assume either that the cleansing power of the Internet will ultimately make government efforts at info-control pointless, or, on the contrary, that the bottling-up effectiveness of the Great Firewall will protect the government from the power of an informed citizenry.  (My own Atlantic article on the subject here.)
Soong elegantly illustrates why such categorical assumptions miss the complexity of what’s going on. The whole speech is worth reading . . .

Read the rest of Jim’s post here.

Today’s Recommended Reading on Public Diplomacy

Several recommendations for you on the subject of public diplomacy.

Check out and subscribe to Craig Hayden and Shawn Powers’

The Intermap website and blog presents news, opinions, and research on issues related to communication-centric foreign policy, public diplomacy, global media and news flows. More broadly, this site aims to investigate the intersections between communication, media studies and international relations scholarship that deal directly with how global controversies and politics are carried and sustained through media. We call this media argument: where media outlets, technologies, and tactics represent the symbolic and visual space for the contest of ideas between nations, citizens, non-state actors.

Recent posts:

Read David Steven’s June post The new public diplomacy and Afghanistan at the Global Dashboard.

… I believe there are three key interlocking problems:

  • A lack of understanding. …
  • A lack of interoperability. …
  • A lack of understanding and interoperability translates into persistent strategic and tactical failings. …

The starting point for change is to:

  • Accept that influence is now core currency for all arms of international relations – foreign policy, development assistance, and military operations.
  • Build a common language and joint concepts across these disciplines – not just at a national level, but internationally, in order to allow the effective operation of multinational, multi-sectoral coalitions and networks.

However, the barriers to change are sizeable, while the knowledge to surmount them is fragmented across sectors and disciplines. The first battle for ‘hearts and minds’ therefore needs to be won in our own organisations – within governments, between governments, and between governments and a range of non-governmental organisations.

See Marc Tyrrell’s 3-part series a lengthy and very scholarly discussion on asymmetric conflict as a struggle for minds and wills

It is important to remember that the goal of warfare for many of the current groups is control over the interpretive framework of a population, not actual, physical control over the geographic area, that will flow inevitably from control over the framework and massive military costs. For many of these groups, kinetic operations, “violence”, is merely a means to an end that is shaped not by the logic of violence but, rather, by the logic of communications; a lesson learned from Vietnam where the insurgents lost almost all of the battles, but won the war.


Also, check out the latest addition to the blogosphere, Chasing the Flame. This is Samantha Powers’ project to “tell the story of the peace-maker Sergio Vieira de Mello and introduce audiences to the kind of conviction and insight that inspires movements.” That movement is to build a “movement for a smart U.S. foreign policy.” 

Rethinking Smith-Mundt: responding to Sharon Weinberger

I appreciate Sharon Weinberger’s thoughtful three-part response at Wired’s Danger Room (Part I, Part II, Part III) to my interim paper “Rethinking Smith-Mundt” over at Small Wars Journal. Several points in her impassioned response deserve attention. However, to begin, it is important to understand that researching and writing “Rethinking Smith-Mundt” was more than an “esoteric” pursuit. Derisively labeling our adversaries exploitation of information as “asymmetric conflict” as if it was something unfair, we clung to our guns as it were as we continued to imagine a bureaucratically controlled global environment (more on asymmetry here). However, even as the Russians roll into Ossetia and Sarkozy recreates the part of Chamberlain, the Russians have not neglected the power of information to affect foreign public opinion. They have used cyber-warfare to block access to Georgian information while actively propagating Russian messages and images.

The fact of the matter is we have just begun to realize that the comfortable world we, as Americans, grew accustomed to since the late-1960’s and early 1970’s, is gone. The global information environment, with its satellite communications, 24/7 news, text messaging, and immediate access to video and images has substantially reduced the autonomy of leaders provided by the raw, supreme power of militaries provided over the last four decades. With few exceptions, war is no longer war among leaders but among the people and between the people. Small groups now have an amplified voice and strategic reach to run the show. Increased communications skills of our adversaries better leverage the digital age, as well as the analog age’s culturally attuned rumors, has changed the objective of war. Whether restricting access to information through cyber-warfare, inserting distortions into the information ecosystem with distortions, the purpose of conflict has become not to destroy the enemy while preserving oneself, but a contest “in spirit, will, and intelligence on a silent battlefield.” Conflict through bullets or economies is transformed as “attitude warfare” or “perception warfare.” It is now organized processes of persuasion.

The U.S. Government, consultancies, and the presidential candidates are all finally realizing the tremendous value of information and the informational effects of policy and actions. While bureaucratic inertia has prevented systemic changes for years, this may be changing. There are several major reports, and a couple of pieces of draft bills, that look to revamp America’s architecture of engagement (think variations on USIA 2.0). Virtually any discussion on restructuring America’s informational engagement with the world includes at least one (almost always) erroneous statement on Smith-Mundt. “Rethinking Smith-Mundt” was written with this in mind.

As described in “Rethinking Smith-Mundt,” the Act was written and debated during a time when “hot war” was unlikely between the major powers, a time before “Us” and “Them” were firmly established. But this was not the Cold War so many invoke today (it was not 1968) with massive military power at the ready and missiles aimed at the other’s capitals. Economies were not substantially linked and the key threat was not invasion but subversion. As our Ambassador to Russia said in 1946, the most important “fact in the field of foreign policy today…is the fact the Russians have declared psychological war on the United States, all over the world.” It was, he continued, “a war of ideology and a fight unto the death.” The struggle for authority and relevance had shifted from the arena of power to the arena of ideas and international persuasion.

However, Sharon’s impassioned critiques of my recommendations are based not on the lessons learned from the past, of a holistic approach to informational activities based on truth. Her comments are based on a selective, band-aid approach to the modern beauty contest known as public diplomacy today. I know we both agree that what is called “public diplomacy” today is broken. Many believe the term itself has become so burdened to be nearly as radioactive as “propaganda.” Even the United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy rebuked the State Department for not tasking its public diplomacy officers with “public diplomacy.” Sharon experienced this and the failure of the bureaucracy to even comprehend “public diplomacy” during her brief stint as a Foreign Service Officer.

For a high-level thematic response to Sharon’s posts, see Steve Corman’s Real vs. False Distinctions in Rethinking Smith-Mundt. As Steve notes, Sharon is concerned about an “anything goes atmosphere.” I share this concern, which is why I want oversight and transparency, two elements previously central to the Act (related: 1948 Brookings report). TO be honest, “Rethinking Smith-Mundt” was less about modern recommendations than about dispelling myths about the Act. It was more about finding (surprising) common ground with history for today’s policy makers and report writers. The similarities between past and present were implicit as I didn’t want to bang the reader on the head in an already long and dense read. With that, below I go into more detail to respond to two of Sharon’s more significant of assertions.

Continue reading “Rethinking Smith-Mundt: responding to Sharon Weinberger

Unasked in NYT’s “photography as a weapon”: does the media have an obligation to check its facts?

Relying on the mainstream media to debunk foreign propaganda is increasingly difficult. Errol Morris, writing on the New York Times opinion blog, discusses the Photoshopped Iranian missile launch. This case, like an increasing number, was caught by “New Media” effectively acting as an “Old Media” watchdog. While many papers issued retractions after the catch, the impression was set. The clarifications that rarely, if ever, received the same front-page treatment as the error they were correcting may not have been noticed.

Twenty years ago, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman noted that changes in the media were changing the information landscape in the United States. The increased concentration of media ownership changed the motive from a duty to inform the public to one of profit and an increased dependency on outside sources from the government, corporations, or “elite” experts for analysis. The recent Pew Research report shows that twenty years later the trend is worse as media has further retreated from the realm foreign affairs.

The result is easy manipulation of domestic by foreign and domestic communicators. The photography as a weapon discussion is aspect of this. Another is the Pentagon Pundits (aka “Hidden Hand”) scandal where substantial blame properly rests on the media as forewarned by Chomsky, although they have deflected much of what they’re due. (On this subject, see also this post.)

Outside the scope of this post is how do you reconcile the trashing of transparency and truth by Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Victoria Clarke who both orchestrated the leveraging the military analysts and “outed” the Office of Strategic Influence to protect her turf. Her skill at manipulation and disinformation in exposing an office that was essentially a public diplomacy office within the Pentagon (no, the place it should be, but it was 2001 and State is just now stepping up in 2008, so cut some slack) had no place in strategic communication, public diplomacy, or public affairs. Clarke manipulation highlights the failure of the media to investigate and understand the news it covers.

Read the discussion at the New York Times.

Also, for the truly interested, I suggest Robert Entman’s Projections of Power: Framing News, Public Opinion, and U.S. Foreign Policy.

Domestic influence op

The Navy discusses it plan at USC Galrahn at Information Dissemination discusses a Navy domestic “influence operation.”  I’ve referred to this outreach before, noting the Hodes Amendment would prevent such activities.  Galrahn suggests preventing this might be a good thing, at least in the absence of a strategic purpose. 

The “Conversations with the Country” became random seminars in various cities for the purpose of involving the American people in the discussion of the Navy and maritime strategy. It was never intended to influence the development of the strategy, we learned that here and here (PDF) which exposed the process for what it was: a think tank process that ultimately avoided as many strategic issues as it embraced. The "Conversations with the Country" were essentially intended to be a marketing strategy to connect with the American people with the intent of teaching the Navy’s role towards the national interest, and expanding an understanding of why the Navy is important to the nation. This outreach marketing attempt to engage the population can only be described as a total failure.

Interesting: Modeling Crowd Behavior

 Briefly, Arizona State University’s School of Geographical Sciences has an interesting tool to model crowd behavior.  This has interesting use in other areas

There are two adaptations to this that I’d find most cool.  Change the information input (car bomb / explosion causing the stampede) to be more subtle and over time (i.e. information and misinformation campaigns).  Track physical and ideological movement.  I know of some work in this space already, but this could build upon them. 

Second, use these environments to test human interfaces with unmanned systems, both autonomous the teleoperated (remote controlled).  That, to my knowledge, has not been done.  I talked to some folks about doing this last year….