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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News or Propaganda?

If the Government has a duty to get its viewpoint before the world, is it enough merely to send abroad the texts of state papers, speeches by and against the Administration? Particularly in the world’s twilight areas…, where private news agencies would lose money operating–should the State Department send full news broadcasts of its own? …

Last week the A.P. shut off the State Department’s principal free supply of news. U.P. announced that it would follow suit. …

Said the A.P.’s board: “. . . Government cannot engage in newscasting without creating the fear of propaganda, which necessarily would reflect upon the objectivity of the news services. . . .” …

Shrewdly, Benton reminded A.P. that Britain, Russia and other nations get and pass on U.S. news from the A.P.’s report. If the use of A.P. news by BBC and Tass does not hurt the A.P. reputation for objectivity, how could U.S. broadcasts reflect on A.P.? …

Ralph McGill of the Atlanta Constitution: “The attitude of the A.P. might make a silent giant of this country when every other giant and pigmy in the world is broadcasting its own interpretation of American news events and policies.” …

From “The Press: News or Propaganda?” published in Time, January 28, 1946.

More on my Foreign Policy article about Smith-Mundt: Censoring the VOA

My article at Foreign Policy, Censoring the Voice of America (with additional information here), on the dated restrictions in the Smith-Mundt Act that prevents access to America’s international broadcasting elicited two reactions at ForeignPolicy.com. Both of the comments were expected and both are dated and ill-informed. Shawn Powers added his voice in a must-read comment at FP:

… Mr. CKWEBBIT, the idea that the status quo protects Americans from government propaganda is an utter joke. The war in Iraq is a terrific example of how, if the government wants, it can spin the US media any which way it likes. Let us, for once and for all, move past the idea that Americans (or anyone) need protection from particular media (be it Americans being protected from VOA or Arabs from Al Jazeera) and begin a conversation about the importance of integrating media literacy into the curriculum at a young age. … propaganda is already all over our satellite systems, from China’s CCTV to Russia’s Russia Today (RT). Press TV, Iran’s English language broadcaster is even available throughout the US via Livestation. If you want to argue for protection against propaganda, I suggest you refocus your criticism.

Mr. RLHOTCHKISS: … there are many ways to know when any news media is being deceitful — you compare it to other, credible sources. As an important example, the VOA corrected the mainstream media last month regarding a poll in Honduras after the coup. Let me restate: the CSM, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Reuters got it wrong and VOA got it right. You also state: "If you want to provide objective news in different languages do like the BBC and pay for it." We DO PAY FOR IT. With taxes. $700 million a year. But you can’t read/view it due to the Smith Mundt Act, so who knows if your taxes are being spent well.

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Recommendations from the first semi-annual report of the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy

Sixty years ago, the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy was actually called the Advisory Commission on Information. A year after it was officially established by the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, and not too longer after its first members were confirmed, the Commission issued its first semi-annual (as in twice a year compared to today’s annual) reports. Below is an excerpt from The New York Times reporting on that first report. Note the membership of the Commission and the mention of private media.

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. was urged today by the United States Advisory Commission on Information in its first semi-annual report to Congress.

The group, which was created by Congress, is headed by Mark Ethridge, publisher of The Louisville Courier-journal. It includes Erwin D. Canham, editor of The Christian Science Monitor; Philip D. Reed, chairman of the General Electric Company; Mark A. May, director of the Institute of Human Relations at Yale, and Justin Miller, president of the National Association of Broadcasters.

“A realistic approach,” the commission said, “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.” …

The commission presented the following conclusions: … “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.”

This was published March 31, 1949.

Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy is at Odds with Social Media, and What to Do about It: an interview with Matt Armstrong

Over a week ago I discussed public diplomacy with Eric Schwartzman for his OnTheRecordOnline program. The 30 minute interview is now online here.

Public affairs and public diplomacy blogger Matt Armstrong of Armstrong Strategic Insights Group, LLC discusses U.S. Public Diplomacy, repairing America’s image abroad and whether or not the U.S. Department of State will ever be adequately resourced to lead the nation’s global engagement efforts through social media.

Mountain Runner is a blog on the practice and structure of public diplomacy, public affairs and public relations. It is read by senior government officials, practitioners, trainers, academics, and analysts from the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Department of Defense, the United States Congress, related institutions, think tanks, and government agencies around the globe.

Eric has a good index with time codes for the topics covered at the interview website.

One note: at the beginning of the interview, I said “culture” wasn’t a part of “security” in a way that could be construed to mean cultural diplomacy etc is not important to public diplomacy and national security. That is not what I meant and I should have worded my response better in the interview. Cultural diplomacy is certainly very important.

In America? Smith-Mundt means no SMS updates on the President’s Ghana speech for you!

imageTo let the American public get updates to the President’s speech via SMS is dangerous and, presumably, equivalent to Al Qaeda and Taleban propaganda. No wait, those messages come through just fine so it must be worse than that and even Iranian, Russian, and Chinese Government propaganda. If you’re an American, you cannot sign up for SMS updates to what surely will be an excellent speech by the President – nor could you sign up for the previous much anticipated and lauded speeches – because the Smith-Mundt Act prevents American public diplomacy activities from reaching sensitive and impressionable American eyes and ears. If you’re in the 50 United States ("US minor outlying islands" don’t count) then you’ll have to hope the State Department’s Public Affairs

does something, but, call me a pessimist, I wouldn’t hold your breath.

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Obsolete arguments to keep an obsolete law

By all means, let’s keep a law designed for another era on the books because, well, it’s there. That’s the argument many have offered in defense of the restrictive provisions added to the Smith-Mundt Act in 1972 and 1985. My friend Kim Andrew Elliot makes this argument while reviewing the Defense Department paper on strategic communication I posted this week.

"Understand the difference between public diplomacy and strategic communication. For the former, the audience is outside the geographic territory of the United States. For the latter, the audience is global. Science and Technology solutions do not generally discriminate based on geographic location, nor should they. The domains of strategic communication can not be limited to those with public affairs authority – everyone should be viewed as a strategic communicator."
Brilliant. This report has found a way to work around the Smith-Mundt clause prohibiting the domestic dissemination of public diplomacy. Just call it "strategic communication."

Kim’s statement is based on the belief that American public diplomacy is unfit for American audiences because it is a) deceitful, b) illegal influence, or c) damaging to the domestic news market. None of these are valid reasons today. 

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