School of Media and Communication

Phil Taylor's papers


Propaganda and Public Diplomacy in the Information Age by J Metzl, Steve Livingstone et al

Winning Hearts and Minds: Propaganda and Public Diplomacy in the Information Age

Tuesday, November 27, 2001

Jamie Metzl, Steven Livingston, Barry Fulton and Jon Alterman discuss public diplomacy in the aftermath of September 11.

About the speakers: Jamie F. Metzl recently completed a term as a Visiting Scholar in the Project on the Information Revolution and World Politics at the Carnegie Endowment. Previously he served as Director for Multilateral and Humanitarian Affairs at the National Security Council and as Senior Coordinator for International Public Information at the Department of State. While in the NSC, he was the primary author of Presidential Decision Directive 68 on International Public Information, and led international information campaigns for the Kosovo and Iraq crises, among others. Among his publications are "Can Public Diplomacy Rise from the Ashes?" and "Information Intervention." Steven Livingston is Associate Professor of Media and Public Affairs and International Affairs and Director of the Political Communication Program at George Washington University. Previously he was a Senior Research Fellow at the Social Science Research Council and a Research Fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics, and Public Diplomacy at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Among his publications are, The Terrorism Spectacle: The Politics of Terrorism. He is currently completing a book with Jarol Manheim entitled POLITECHNIQUE: How Technologies are Changing Politics. The LSU Press will publish it in 2002. Barry Fulton is a Research Professor and Director of the Public Diplomacy Institute at George Washington University and an instructor in Public Diplomacy at the Foreign Service Institute. Previously he was Associate Director of the U.S. Information Agency from 1994 to 1997, at the conclusion of a 30-year career in the Foreign Service. He directed the 1998 CSIS study, Reinventing Diplomacy in the Information Age, and in July 2001 was the guest editor of the on-line journal iMP, which focused on diplomacy in the year 2015 ( Jon Alterman is Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. Previously he was a Program Officer at the U.S. Institute for Peace, where he wrote and spoke widely on Middle Eastern conflicts, new media, and public diplomacy. Among his publications is, New Media, New Politics: From Satellite Television to the Internet in the Arab World.

Rapporteur's Report

On November 27, 2001, the Project on the Information Revolution and World Politics, convened a panel discussion called "Winning Hearts and Minds: Propaganda and Public Diplomacy in the Information Age." The panel moderator, project director William Drake, introduced the topic by noting an apparent paradox.

Over the past decade, many in the foreign policy community have come to believe that America's global preeminence rests not only on "hard" or materially-based power, but also on "soft" or persuasive power. In this view, the United States is able to lead the world because other countries are attracted to its values, ideas, and popular culture and therefore accept its core objectives as their own. Further, some analysts argue that the explosive growth of new information channels and the empowerment of actors with opposing points of view will make America's ability to project soft power and "tell its story" even more important in the years ahead.

Nevertheless, at the same that the attractiveness of American ideals has been celebrated within the beltway, a different picture has come into view elsewhere. Anti-American sentiment appears to be on the rise around the world. Drake noted that a wide range of reasons have been cited for this state of affairs, such as the United States' overwhelming power, its penchant for unilateral action, its mismanagement of some local presences abroad, and so on. He speculated that the information revolution also might be contributing to the backlash, insofar as America's domestic socio-cultural problems are constantly on display via global media. But regardless of the causes, clearly it is possible to drink Coke and listen to Michael Jackson's music while resenting or even hating the United States and its actions. Drake suggested that this is a real concern because while we need friends and international cooperation to tackle many of today's challenges, foreign governments may be inhibited by unsupportive domestic public opinion.

The crisis begun on September 11 has driven these concerns up the foreign policy agenda. While the "Arab street" has not risen up to fight alongside the Al-Queda, hostility to the United States is widespread in the Islamic world. Accordingly, whether and how the United States can "win hearts and minds" in the Middle East and beyond is a growing concern. The Bush administration has belatedly taken up the challenge, among other things by installing as Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Charlotte Beers, who was previously an advertising executive and managed a campaign for Uncle Ben's Rice. Drake suggested that selling Uncle Sam's policies may prove to be more difficult. The administration has taken steps to utilize the Internet and other media, dropped leaflets in Afghanistan, and increased its representation on the Al-Jazeera television network, but clearly there is much more to be done. Hence, Drake asked the panelists to address the problems facing U.S. public diplomacy today and to outline measures that would enhance its effectiveness.

Barry Fulton, the panel's first speaker, made the argument that the United States must devote more people, resources and time to developing a long term information strategy. Fulton argued that this strategy should rely on interpersonal communication rather than slogans to foster genuine understanding between American people and those in the Islamic world. He argued for both reactive public diplomacy, driven by events, and proactive public diplomacy, driven by values and executed largely through exchanges.

Fulton began by noting how public diplomacy campaigns accompany every American war, from those of Benjamin Franklin in the Revolutionary War and Abraham Lincoln in the Civil War to those of leaders in World War II and in the Cold War. In 1953, President Eisenhower created the United States Information Agency (USIA) by consolidating information programs at the State Department into an independent agency that President Clinton reintegrated with the State Department in 1999. In the last 40 years, Fulton explained, the United States has doubled the number of countries in which it has public diplomacy operations in its embassies while halving the number of people performing these roles.

Fulton then evaluated public diplomacy in the aftermath of September 11. The American government has acknowledged the inadequacy of its own public diplomacy campaign as compared to its military one, leading commentators and critics to conclude that the United States is losing the propaganda war. Fulton encouraged the nation to focus on an information strategy that embraces proactive as well as reactive public diplomacy and to cease "scorekeeping on propaganda."

Fulton likened the approach of printing more leaflets and adding more hours to our international broadcast schedule to a hypothetical information campaign waged by the Taliban to persuade American women to wear burkas. These ineffectual short-term efforts do not address the deeper challenge of engaging in productive dialogue with real people.

Fulton believes that the information revolution has not changed the underlying conditions for the world's disenfranchised; instead it has amplified their discontent. From Franz Fanon's Wretched of the Earth (1961), Fulton quoted, "The colonized man finds his freedom in and through violence. At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction. It makes him fearless and restores his self respect." Fulton argued that the information revolution, rather than extending benefits, has enabled people "to express their despair through faxes, e-mails, videos, and, of course, the technology of the industrial world which has been turned against it."

Fulton concluded his remarks by presenting his conception of a wise information strategy as one that, resulting from a national debate within the United States, complements long term economic and national security policies, devotes more resources to information sharing relative to information gathering, and creates a sense of community between the Western and Islamic world.

The second speaker, Jamie Metzl, encouraged the audience to take lessons from previous international conflicts to develop a concrete information strategy. Using the examples of the Balkans, Rwanda, and the Gulf War, Metzl highlighted the United States' uneven international information record. He concluded his remarks with general lessons for United States government information engagement in the current crisis and beyond.

In the past decades, several international conflicts have involved incendiary propaganda. In the Balkans, Milosevic seized Bosnia's transmitters in 1992 as he escalated his aggressive Serb nationalism. In 1997, the North Atlantic Council authorized NATO peacekeepers to take all actions necessary to "suspend or curtail programming that is hostile to the spirit of the Dayton accords." Later that year, NATO troops went so far as to take over Serb radio and television transmitters that continued to broadcast inciting messages. In 1998, peacekeepers established an independent media commission (IMC) to regulate the media environment. Following suit in Kosovo, the international community established a regulatory commission to limit hate speech and support the growth of wide-ranging independent media. In 1999, the United States built a "ring around Serbia" of radio transmission towers that broadcast Serbian language international news programming into Serbia when Milosevic made such broadcasting illegal there.

However, in other conflicts, the United States and the international community have not taken positive steps to manage the information space. In Rwanda in 1994, Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines was used to incite and organize genocide by providing detailed instructions to militias. In 1993, a United Nations report identified radio as a fomenter of ethnic division; yet, the international community had taken few concrete actions to prevent the imminent genocide.

Similarly, after winning the Gulf War, the United States and its allies "disastrously lost the propaganda war in the Middle East," as Saddam Hussein effectively convinced Arab populations that American sanctions were responsible for their suffering. Metzl argued that when the terrorism crisis broke out this past September, "for 10 years, we hadn't even been playing in the game," despite having answers to allegations made against the United States. After a decade of overlooking the information revolution in the Islamic world, now the United States recognizes the need to address the populations on the Arab street and in effect, win hearts and minds. "A lot of attitudes and opinions have already formed," Metzl said.

Echoing the previous speaker, Metzl called for a "broad based information engagement" strategy, emphasizing the importance of outward orientation. First, the United States must form alliances with non-governmental organizations all over the world to monitor the media environment effectively. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) should promote indigenous media development, recognizing that people trust their local media more than they do international media. The government, as a whole, should support indigenous media even when they criticize the United States, engaging with these organizations and civil society groups.

Second, U.S. information agencies must focus on international broadcasting, assessing our strengths and weaknesses and coordinating among bureaucratic branches within the government to ensure our credibility. We should develop a clear agenda for organizations like Voice of America to serve either as independent news providers or as aggressive radio advocates like Radio Free Europe or Radio Free Afghanistan. A clear objective would prevent complicated situations such as the one that arose in late September when U.S. government officials in the National Security Council objected to a Voice of America broadcast of an interview with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Finally, as part of its overall strategy, the United States must develop creative responses to counter and suppress the most incendiary hate propaganda. Metzl touted the importance of engaging in dialogue with foreign populations while maintaining credibility and faith in American convictions. "As I see it, we must do a much better job along a spectrum of activities and in pulling together all of the various governmental and non-governmental actors who can help us in our information engagement," Metzl said.

Steven Livingston, the next speaker, focused his remarks on the impact of technological innovation on the media environment. Livingston concluded that today's media organizations, capable of airing live communication with pictures from anywhere in the world using small, lightweight and highly mobile equipment, have revolutionized broadcasting since 1999. The proliferation of camcorders, remote sensing technology, and satellite and cell phones has made the information space "uncontrollable" and "global."

Livingston asked the audience to remember on September 11 the number of times they saw the footage of planes flying into the towers of the World Trade Center and the towers themselves collapsing. He pointed out that many of these images came from camcorders of private citizens. Due to the proliferation of camcorder and related technology, "if [an event] happens, it's likely to be captured and make its way into the media environment," Livingston said. The challenge for information producers and consumers lies in gaining adequate information to present and interpret events.

Remote sensing satellite technology, sophisticated enough to provide images of half-meter resolution and becoming increasingly prevalent throughout the world, enables direct observation of land surface. On November 26, an NBC news account offered a satellite image of a suspected terrorist training facility south of Baghdad. This type of footage compels the world community to acknowledge and act upon information "hitherto unavailable to news organizations, private and voluntary organizations, NGOs and advocacy groups around the world." Further, audiences privy to this type of coverage are no longer regional, but rather, global. Livingston pointed out that the accounts of events in Afghanistan appearing in the New York Times or on CNN come from a compilation of a number of regional news organizations operating together.

The innovation in media technology, particularly the communication capability that satellite and cell phones afford, has driven news reporting out of institutions and into the field. Livingston reminded the audience of the incident in April, 2001 in which CNN used a videophone to transmit live images of the U.S. crew of a Navy spy plane in Hainan, China. In years past, this type of live broadcast would have required an enormous satellite uplink unit, weighing tons and costing tens of thousands of dollars to transport; today, this laptop-sized technology is used extensively in reporting from Afghanistan. Journalists, no longer tethered to unwieldy technology, can "ride circuit" to depict distant, remote, violent, dramatic events that previously would have been described only by spokespersons and institutions.

Livingston encouraged the United States to adopt a "coherent information response policy" rather than succumb to the impulse, as Colin Powell did with Al-Jazeera, to squelch this powerful technology without adequately considering our first amendment traditions.

The fourth and final speaker, Jon Alterman, approached the information space from the point of view of consumers, making recommendations for competing effectively in the marketplace of ideas. All over the world, including the Arab world, consumers play a more critical role in determining what they see, learn and hear than in years past. Traditional government censorship is crumbling as a result of pervasive technology that enables people to receive information from a cassette tape, fax or an international broadcaster via radio or satellite television. In several countries in the Middle East, with a satellite dish, a café can broadcast television that hundreds of people can watch at a very minimal cost. The breakdown of censorship-the information tool of many Arab governments-has serious implications for American foreign policy.

Alterman explained that while these changes present more outlets for the American message they starkly expose a Darwinian competition among ideas in the Arab world. He believes that we must compete actively in this arena in the short and long term. He then listed several initiatives taken by the U.S. government including the establishment of coalition information centers to coordinate messages from Islamabad to London to Washington around the clock. Officials like Chris Ross, Arabic-speaker and former U.S. Ambassador to Syria and Algeria, have made frequent appearances on the Arab satellite network. Alterman called for more native speakers to compete with the negative messages directed against the United States on these stations. In addition, the government holds daily a high-level strategy phone call among media, the Pentagon, the White House, the State Department and others to address the ever-changing media space.

In Alterman's estimation, the United States has made an effective case that "it's not just us beating up a bunch of poor Afghans." For the past two months, the complexity of the situation in Afghanistan has come through on Al-Jazeera, NBC, LBC, Orbit, all the different Arab satellite stations, in addition to CNN and other U.S. stations. While the public celebrations in the Middle East in the days just following September 11 no longer pose a major problem, Alterman believes that the U.S. must address deeply ingrained anti-imperialist sentiments directed towards the nation.

William Drake began the question and answer period by inviting the panel to speak more directly to the effectiveness of the Bush administration's current campaign. Metzl responded by emphasizing that until recently, the United States had not been competing at all in information issues. Metzl advised the U.S. to develop and put forward an affirmative vision of the allied campaign against terrorism and develop systematic strategies to open the Islamic media space. "The lessons of Bosnia and Kosovo have demonstrated that we need to be involved right away because nature abhors a vacuum," Metzl said, arguing for the establishment of indigenous media outlets in the Middle East that involve international organizations and ample journalistic training.

One audience member asked about the role of private American media, such as CNN, in the public diplomacy effort. Metzl believes that the government should not place limits on media organizations, arguing that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's effort to discourage networks from airing bin Laden's messages did not serve U.S. purposes. Fulton added that the government should not interfere with private sector operations, but strongly encourage news media "to cover this world fully."

Another participant asked how the United States could maintain the support of our present coalition partners, the Europeans and Russians? Alterman urged the United States to think of information programs "as a two way street," agreeing with Metzl that the government must gauge how accurately the feedback we receive in the open media environment reflects the position of people in other countries and address their concerns. On a different note, a third audience member asked about how the United States should address allies such as Egypt whose governments tightly control media that demonize America. Metzl ventured to argue that on a bilateral level the United States could urge allies to open up their media in exchange for certain kinds of assistance including helping nations establish legal safeguards and training journalists for responsible media organization. In response, a participant recalled the panelists' previous criticism of Secretary Powell's move to place pressure on Al-Jazeera. Metzl countered the point with the distinction that in the context of the administration's action towards Al-Jazeera, there was no effort to support the growth of local media.

A participant expressed concerns about possible contradictions in previous U.S. information campaigns. For example, he argued that while the media demonized Serbia and portrayed the Muslims as heroes worthy of U.S. support, the State Department indicted the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) as a terror organization. In response, Livingston disagreed that the media presented a unified view of the KLA throughout 1999, urging people to appreciate the complexities of media and the porous nature of the media environment. Alterman agreed with Livingston that as long as alternative media exists in some states in a region with significant media control, viewers have the possibility for independent news. Metzl explained the situation by acknowledging a tendency on the part of the media "to root for the underdog" or to discard "the more cynical interpretation when politically expedient." However, he added that in the open political environment, the KLA came under attack because its values failed to compete well with other values.

Finally, a participant offered a skeptical syllogism about the discussion: "the number of media sources is increasing exponentially; the United States benefits from the healthy exchange of information; therefore, the United States has nothing to worry about." In response, Alterman argued that the United States could compete well in the information space if our message resonates with the global audience and addresses their concerns. "More bad or dull information is not going to have any impact whatsoever," he said. Fulton claimed that the logic of the panelists remarks endures when applied to those populations with adequate access to our values and views, admitting that John Ashcroft translated into Arabic on Al-Jazeera cannot compete with vicious anti-American propaganda that children receive for eight hours per day during school.

Livingston approached the statements by arguing that until recently, the government has not kept pace with the new capabilities of the information environment due to a lack of leadership in the immediate aftermath of September 11. "This is a new information environment," he said, optimistically. William Drake added that one problem with the syllogism is the prospect of increasing "disinformation" campaigns by U.S. opponents, who can use the new technology to both manipulate and disseminate words and images.

Report prepared by Pavani Reddy

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