School of Media and Communication

Phil Taylor's papers


PD & IT: America's semi-secret weapons by Alan Kotok

In the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 events, it has become clear that many parts of the Islamic world misunderstand American policies and actions, and that misinformation about the United States can spread like wildfire, through information technologies (IT), such as the Web and e-mail.

The United States once had a professional public affairs agency to explain American policies and ideas to overseas audiences and report back on worldwide attitudes to the foreign affairs community. But since 1999, the U.S. Information Agency or USIA as it was known, has been sliced, diced, and scattered around the State Department, with its resources eviscerated and authority diminished.

IT: a double-edged sword

The democratization of technology, as Thomas Friedman calls it in his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, has opened up vast markets overseas for American technology. But at the same time, the technology of Internet protocols (e.g. TCP/IP), World Wide Web, electronic mail, inexpensive desktop and laptop computers, and streaming and compression technologies that enable audio and video images to travel over ordinary communications lines have fundamentally changed the way individuals worldwide interact with each other.

In many respects, these new forms of communications increase interpersonal collaboration, particularly in the business and academic communities. But as we have seen since 11 September (and those who cared to look before then), these technologies can foster a subterranean network of hate and violence, not only of Islamic extremists, but of neo-fascist hate groups in the West. Attempts to police the content will most certainly fail and run into legitimate free-speech concerns. Our best hope of countering the rising flow of mis- and disinformation is through effective public affairs programs, using the skills of professionals in worldwide languages, cultures, the media, and education.

Once there was a U.S. Information Agency

USIA once had a collection of these professionals, but due to short-sighted economics, Congress abolished USIA as an independent agency in 1998, and distributed its functions around the main bureaus in the State Department. USIA coordinated all overseas embassy information and cultural programs, including well-known activities such as Fulbright scholarships. It also included the Voice of America and WorldNet television network. After 1998, Voice of American and WorldNet became part of the Bureau for International Broadcasting, that includes other government overseas broadcasting operations.

Ironically, Congress chose to abolish USIA just as the new information technologies began to take hold overseas. Soon after 11 September, for example, vicious rumors began to spread around the Internet about that tragic day, including rumors about American Jews in the World Trade Center that were given advance warning of the attacks. The inability to counter these and similar rumors have made it increasingly difficult to get America's policy message across to important audiences overseas that need to hear it.

Also, the United States needs to take proactive measures to build long-term understanding for American society, culture, and ideas. For many years, official exchange programs that bring foreign leaders to the United States and send American opinion leaders overseas, helped build a more sophisticated knowledge base about this country and its people.

IT can provide effective tools for public diplomacy

Fortunately, in the right hands, new information technologies can provide our public affairs professionals with effective new tools to tell America's story. Our public affairs officers overseas and in the U.S. need to use these tools at least as well as our adversaries. With advanced knowledge management technologies, such as XML, our overseas embassies can find specific information needed, assemble it into messages, and provide media worldwide with these messages much faster and in more tailored form than before. As public affairs professionals can tell you, speed, accuracy, and completeness are vital in making your case.

Also, the collaborative development tools used routinely in the technology industry, such as e-mail discussion lists, message boards, and online conferencing, can support the work of traditional visitor exchanges. Teams consisting of people working remotely have developed software standards and applications, often without personally meeting each other. These collaboration tools, again in the right hands, can extend the visitor experiences and develop long-term relationships among professional colleagues.

About 20 years ago, a group of ex-USIA officers formed the USIA Alumni Association, but recently the organization took on the task of making policy makers more aware of public diplomacy's promise and to encourage more focus and better use of resources in our current efforts. Public diplomacy helped win the Cold War, and it can help overcome the philosophy of hate being spread overseas today.

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