Nov 30, 2009

Subaltern Education Entertainment

One of our readings for this week was Mohan Jyoti Dutta’s “Theoretical Approaches to Entertainment Education Campaigns: a Subaltern Critique.” The reading used a subaltern studies perspective to analyze entertainment education campaigns, particularly in the realm of health care. Dutta begins by stating that E-E campaigns are the most used health care communication campaigns aimed at the Third World, and that E-E is a currently a hot topic in international communication scholarship, but lack a critical and interrogative approach.

Dutta argues that E-E campaigns are implemented under the guise of altruism, but really are created with the core countries’ values and ideologies in mind. Dutta extensively uses USAID as an example, citing the national security mission statement in several of USAID’s documents. I can see how this example supports Dutta’s claim that most E-E campaigns are implemented with the core countries’ best interests in mind. The USAID example surprised me since I guess I just always assumed that USAID was trying to do some good in other parts of the world. Then again, it’s not like the USAID documents that Dutta cited were hidden. USAID doesn’t seem like it is attempting to cover up any of its motives.

Dutta extensively discussed population control as a major area of a core country’s way of “fixing” a problem in a periphery area. While the examples Dutta discussed were, of course, extreme (like forcing black schoolgirls in South Africa to receive a contraceptive injection or performing a sterilization without the woman’s consent), I think Dutta made population control out to be more evil than I think it actually is. I think that everyone, whether in a core or periphery area, should have the right to use contraceptives and the availability of family planning education, as long as they give their consent.

When I first started reading about E-E campaigns, the idea made me a little nervous. Since the message (or “education”) is embedded with the entertainment, consumers are not really aware that they are consuming a strategic message complete with the ideologies and values of the sender’s culture. But then again, every message is like that. And while I completely agree that E-E campaigns should be looked at more critically, I also feel that we should not stop promoting health care education in periphery areas; we should find ways to do it more responsibly.

Nov 27, 2009

An Open-Source Approach to Afghanistan

In "Music for the Jilted Generation: Open-Source Public Diplomacy," Ali Fisher speaks a great deal about new approaches to public diplomacy which are more inclusive of a collective group and take into account how much each culture can learn from one another.

As Fisher points out, the critics of the traditional idea of public diplomacy as a "cathedral" run by a very insular, hierarchical group of elites who formulate their own ideas of success, speak a great deal about interaction openness among different cultures. The critics of the Cathedral emphasize the importance of cultures listening to one another, what can be learned as a result of said listening, and the value of interaction with other groups in general.

To Fisher, public diplomacy goes far beyond the traditional notions of warfare and hearts and minds. In fact, Fisher's most important statement outright refutes all of those traditional notions. "Public diplomacy is not necessarily merely about persuading people to adopt your goals. It is about achieving your goals through helping others achieve theirs," says Fisher.

This statement reminded me a lot of what many, many Afghans have been saying about the U.S. Mission in Afghanistan. Whereas Secretary of State Clinton recently said that the United States' sole goal in Afghanistan is to disband and disempower Al Qaeda in the nation, former Afghan Presidential candidate, Dr. Ashraf Ghani went on CNN to state outright that, that goal cannot be achieved without creating a safe, stable Afghanistan.

“In the process that threat cannot be eliminated unless Afghanistan is made stable. And it cannot be made stable unless a process of state-building is made in earnest“

To Dr. Ghani, current Afghan Ambassador Jawad, and many others, the United States cannot reach its goal in Afghanistan without first giving the Afghans the safety, security, stability, jobs, education, and basic infrastructure they have been waiting 30 years for.

In fact, when I appeared on the AU Observer web show a couple of weeks ago, the other panelist (a PHD student in International Relations at AU) agreed with me that the primary goal of the Americans should be to ensure the Afghans a functioning nation that meets their basic needs:

If the United States were to act properly in Afghanistan in giving the Afghans the basic things they want, it would prove Fisher's statement that "it is action that has an impact on the international environment" true.

Fisher also talks about the importance of information in open-source diplomacy, " it is important to consider information alongside other pillars of power, but also to consider a shift in the development of public diplomacy initiatives," says Fisher of open-source diplomacy. Fisher later compares this idea to Linux challenging Microsoft and the Wikipedia challenging traditional encyclopedias like the Britannica.

Of course, this idea notion of an inclusive and collective public diplomacy only works where access to information is readily available. Though even the United States' foreign policy can be seen as a giant cathedral, the people of the United States (for the most part) enjoy great access to unlimited streams of information. But what of the people in Iran, China, and North Korea where there is both censorship and government spying of information flows? What of Afghanistan where there is true pluralism in terms of media (over a dozen public and private owned TV stations, hundreds of radio stations, and dozens of newspapers operating fairly autonomously with little government interference). but the literacy rate is only 28%?

Also, as many people have noted, including Senator John Kerry, the United States has not done an adequate job in communicating its mission to the both Afghans and Americans - despite the various media outlets in both nations.

Nov 17, 2009

Chuck Hagel on U.S. Foreign Policy

When I worked at the Center for American Progress I used to do even highlight reels, and Senator Hagel's statements were the best I heard:

Creating Credibility

"Plenty of information leads to scarcity of attention... Editors and cue-givers become more in demand, and this is a source of power for those who can tell us where to focus our attention." - Glassman

This is the paradoxical nature of personalizing news flow. People search on the Internet, flip through a plethora of TV channels, self-selecting where, when and how they receive news. Yet exactly because there are so many sources, there is an even greater need for trusted mediators to make sense of the chaos. (Which raises the interesting question of whether the journalism profession will change to fill this void as news and information becomes ever more easy to obtain.)

But how do people know what to trust? The wars of perception are based on opposing forces of credibility - if no one trusts a dissenting voice, it has little power. Therefore media politics, the idea of selling character rather than substance (or the fact these two are inextricably linked), creating and destroying credibility, becomes a key part of general political behavior.

Nye builds on this by pointing out that the forms of public diplomacy cannot produce soft power if the message behind it is not appealing. He also adds the fact cultural attractiveness must be matched by admirable, proveable political values as well as legitimate foreign policies.

But this really hints at a deeper issue. One of the objectives of public diplomacy is to convince others that all of our interests coincide. Or: "This soft power —getting others to want the outcomes that you want— co-opts people rather than coerces them."

The real problem is that these outcomes are varied and sometime can contradict. For instance, Al Jazeera promoted internal critical review of Middle Eastern regimes and cultural practices, a laudable Western value, but in turning this view on the West, it became a threat to the U.S.'s (in particular) foreign policy objectives. We want to encourage our values abroad, but we want to own the enaction of them.

Glassman acknowledges that governments are rigid in this way, but simply states that it is impossible to do so in today's day and age. To maintain such rigidity, runs the risk of being ignored and losing credibility as a relevant voice.

He instead envisages an engagement of foreign publics that would operate by conversation versus dictation, supporting consideration of our values and culture while facilitating interaction.

But then what about Al Jazeera? It has taken certain cultural values or forms from us and used them to their own ends. How engaged should/can we get involved with them without compromising our foreign policy objectives? Will we go as far as to allow foreign publics to shape our foreign policy?

Nye writes that the impact of soft power lies in co-opting people. But that is still a framework of using people, drawing them into your understanding. Glassman's pointing to a negotiated framework - where people are not so much co-opted as cooperating in construction of understanding.

But does this change the foundation of soft power?

Identity crisis and the shortcomings of “Ice Age” Diplomacy

No, I’m not referring to global climate change here. I’m talking about the cartoon, Ice Age 3, which, according to Amb. Glassman who spoke at SIS on Nov. 5, can do a far better job in getting the foreigners to like America than many other traditional PD techniques (the cartoon is said to have got into the top five record-breakers in terms of worldwide market revenues). I cannot really see how Sid or Scrat are promoting the American image and values abroad… especially to the more conservative of the audiences. And still, it’s better than Britney Spears. That’s for sure.

Image courtesy of All Movie Photo.
In a recent article, R. Reilly, former director of VOA, says the shortcomings of the American PD can primarily be attributed to “lack of clarity about what the West stands for” and the over-reliance on advertising . The first major issue Reilly identifies is the loss of American credibility due to its embrace of pop culture and promotion of “tolerance based upon moral relativism.” He also takes an issue with the fact that the current main objective of the US – the promotion of democracy – requires “the primacy of reason over passion,” while advertising, which is extensively employed to achieve that end, does not appeal to reason or rational calculation, but rather to desire and “emotional impulse.” The result? Lack of clarity and inevitable confusion.
This all in light of the new media environment, the rise of non-state actors, and the boom (at least in the developed world) of the so-called iDiplomacy. Last year, Glassman talked of Public Diplomacy 2.0, network building, and its potential for engaging foreign publics in a conversation: an innovative and effective way of conducting PD and achieving national security interests. But that’s according to the Ambassador. Not only do I agree with Hayden on that it is questionable whether an “open source PD” can ultimately translate into improved public opinion abroad, but I also think that it can further undermine the American message
Both, Nye and Hanson point out that the lack of attention and of credibility are major issues currently impairing the American PD effort. By flooding the foreign publics with PD 2.0 attempts and iDiplomats, the US runs the risk of not only losing the attention of its target audience, but also making further damage to its cause through the haphazard “free market” noise that will only undercut the message AND its credibility. Nye cautions against leaving the PD endeavor completely to the free market, stating that is can project an image of the US that is “too facile.” I could only add that coupled with “open source PD” it might completely confuse the foreign audiences about what the US really stands for and what are its true objectives.
But well, the US itself is unsure as to what its message is. There are national security interests, and there is certainly a need to persuade foreign publics. But when there is no proper argumentation and overt “relativism,” the US is seen as attempting to make others “believe without knowledge” – essentially the definition of “moralist” propaganda (see J. Brown’s discussion on the subject); and well, when recognized as such, propaganda undermines credibility by default.
Reilly says that in order for PD to function, “there must be a recovery of purpose and this purpose must be related to justice.” I think the message would also benefit from abandoning relativism and what can be seen as “double standards.” Certainly, all these cannot be incorporated into the purpose without a proper understanding of the audience and their view of matters. While when it comes to defining a purpose, there should be a core power that can clearly formulate the message and deliver it through multiple channels.  PD 2.0 and iDiplomacy MIGHT be able to do a good job in delivering the message and providing feedback about its perception. However, to have an effect the process should be well organized, otherwise the result is havoc.  To quote Reilly again, “in order to fight a war of ideas, one has to have an idea.”
American PD seems to have entangled itself in the ambiguity and the unmanageable plurality that it, itself, has created. There has to be the realization that no matter the channels and the ways of projection, the American image is still largely perceived by many (particularly in the Middle East, where there are many counter-messages that DO work) as fuzzy and devoid of real substance, at best, while immoral and nihilistic, at worst. This is especially so when there is a multitude of contradictory sources conveying multiple vague underlying promises of freedom, peace, and gradual prosperity that, for some reason, keep failing to materialize.

Image courtesy of Rising Powers.
Whose responsibility it is, then, if not the government’s (that is, just by the way, entrusted with leading the nation and promoting its interests) to make sure that the process of message formulation and delivery is properly administered? Certainly, there has to be input from all the levels of the society, especially from those who manage to think outside the box; however, at the end of the day, the government is still the one that has to deliver on the promises and live up to the cultivated expectations. For all these reasons, without an effective government oversight, there is the risk of further ambiguity and loss of American credibility.
I couldn’t agree more with Nye on that “developing a long-term relationship is not always profitable in the short term.” Leaving PD entirely to the “market” – be it the private sector or the self-branded citizen diplomats – will not only “lead to underinvestment” in what is currently considered a primary concern for American national security, but can also hamper all future attempts to regain what was lost.

Nov 16, 2009

Public Diplomacy 3.0?

Overall, I really enjoyed the Glassman speech. It was incredibly refreshing to have someone from government actually say, "Wait a sec... maybe we as government should take a step back. Maybe we should actually trust the people to do this public diplomacy stuff, and not just force it down their throats." (A tactic which, as Joseph Nye notes, often backfires).

It's interesting to see web 2.0 being touted as the future of public diplomacy, and the philosophy upon which America should build its public diplomacy efforts. Glassman makes a strong and cogent argument that the interactive nature of a public diplomacy 2.0 approach will ultimately edge out the top-down, rigidly controlled, hierarchical communications systems of Al Qaeda. He argues that by having the government work more as a facilitator for public diplomacy interactions, rather than setting its own agenda, people will respond more favorably because they themselves will be in the driver's seat. One can see at work the application of a communications philosophy largely mobilized by the private sector (while it's ostensibly the "users" who drive these web activities, it's the private interests, or start-ups hoping to eventually cash in on their ideas, that are putting it in action), onto government policy -- perhaps not the worst thing in the world.

That said, in the internet world, 2.0 is already passe. Even as Twitter and Facebook, the epitomic models of web 2.0, still struggle to find a reliable revenue model, internet movers and shakers are already at work on web 3.0, or the "semantic web". This internet model is about intelligent searching, personalization, how the vastness of the world wide web matters to you as a unique individual, rather than as one of the masses. For the government to be putting their eggs in the Public Diplomacy 2.0 basket would be to invest in something that will likely feel dated and irrelevant by the time it comes to full fruition.

This is not to say that Public Diplomacy 2.0, simply as drawing a link to a particular philosophy of the internet evolution, is not a worthy model. To say that government policy should simply mimic internet evolution would make the government just another enterprise trying to ride the coattails of innovative success. However, we should remember that the revolutionaries of closed societies rarely follow institutionalized patterns. That is, it is often on the fringes of the mainstream, in those places where people have no alternative but to think outside the box, that we find an opening cleft, a crack to exploit. Thus, if the government wants to stay in tune with these people, those that have the open mindedness to think beyond their own closed society and constructed images, they should probably focus on the cutting edge, rather than trying to play catch up to private industry.

Soft Power and the American Image

One of this weeks readings was “Public Diplomacy and Soft Power” by Joseph S. Nye, Jr. from the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Nye begins the reading by defining soft power as being attractive rather than coercive or bribing to influence others into getting your way. The article described the negative aspects of America’s cultural image as coming from unpopular war efforts and popular culture. Nye extensively used Hollywood films as examples, describing how Hollywood worked closely with the Office of War Information to produce and distribute films that were patriotic and presented America in a positive light.

I think that America’s negative image not only has to do with our government and our foreign policy (although when I went to Europe a few years ago, people kept asking me whether I voted for Bush, even though I was, at the time, way too young to vote), but also our more everyday “cultural” image. It’s hard to say whether or not there is such a definitive thing as American culture, but one of the stereotypes is the overweight gun-toting white guy you might see on

I did a google image search of “American stereotype” and most of what came up on the first page was guns, fat people, food, and bikinis. I think a lot of this has to do with international corporations like McDonalds and Walmart. A few years ago, I went with my parents on a trip across the United States. The tour was hosted by an international travel company, so there were a lot of visitors from abroad on the tour. One of the big “sites” we visited in addition to places like the Grand Canyon, the St. Louis Arch, and the Hollywood sign was a Walmart. The tour guide actually gave us free time inside the Walmart, and many of the tourists from abroad went crazy buying things and taking pictures. It’s really scary to think that Walmart is considering one of America’s important sites.

'Obama should speak to Al Jazeera'

On the very same matter that made up the core of our readings this week. Very fresh: published today...

Richard Grenell, director of communications and public diplomacy for the US permanent representative to the UN in the Bush administration, in an AJE interview.

"Like it or not, the most popular network in the Arab World is Al Jazeera and we have a golden opportunity to speak directly to 200 million Arab households through Al Jazeera.

I don't think that this conversation should be just one interview by the Obama administration or by President Obama; I think it needs to be the beginning of a constant flow of information both ways so that the 200 million Arab households who watch Al Jazeera on a regular basis can hear a variety of US policy goals."

Read the interview HERE.

The Listening Post (AJE) on the media situation in Eastern Europe

Yes, the Berlin Wall fell. Some of the countries that used to be on the other side are EU members now. And yet, freedom, and especially media freedom, is something much more difficult to achieve: certainly requires more time and CONSTANT re-invigoration (just as the cases of Italy and France show).
Another great piece from The Listening Post, and yet, far from being comprehensive...

Just last week two bloggers were given 2.5-year prison terms in Azerbaijan for criticizing the government. Read more on the case from Reporters Sans Frontières here.

Nov 15, 2009

Burn Down Their TVs, Turn Their TVs on to Teach 'em and Move!

"Our audience actually expects us t o show them blood, because they realize that war kills .. .If we were not to show it, we would be accused by our viewers . . .of perhaps hiding the truth or trying to sanitize the war."

These words of an Al Jazeera spokesman describes the real difference between Al Jazeera and the Western media. The audiences of Al Jazeera (and to an extent Al Jazeera English), have actually seen war, violent political battles, and terrorism first hand. Though, like Americans, the Arab audience can tune out by watching Star Academy, they also must live under regimes that inhibit democracy and free speech - hence all of these nations cutting off ties with the Qatari government. Watching coverage of a war is very different when your own nation or a neighboring nation are involved and for this reason, media sanitation is ineffective and disingenuous. The spokesman is correct to state that to his audience, trying to hide the realities of war would be tantamount to lying. In reality, all Al Jazeera is doing is serving its audience. As the article stated, Al Jazeera's offices in Kabul was what set the network apart from all other international stations in the outset of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan (its not an invasion and its not an occupation). It was also Al Jazeera's offices in Gaza that set the network apart during the Israeli airstrikes of the Gaza strip earlier this year.

The reading gives a litany of examples of Arab leaders' anger towards Al Jazeera, but again, in regimes like Mubarak's that inhibit democracy (as Obama said, elections alone do not a democracy make) that is to be expected. In fact, the West should be happy that a network is willing to challenge the official government statements by such corrupt regimes. As for the references to Al Jazeera's airings of past interviews with Bin Laden after 9/11 and reading of statements by Al Qaeda on the air the question is not why would they, but, as a news station, why wouldn't they? Al Jazeera is a media outlet and Al Qaeda is an international organization that was at the epicenter of the news cycle at the time. Why not give their statements air time? If nothing else, to try and get a sense of how an organization like that thinks and operates? Also, the 'specter' of Al Qaeda is a very real thing in the Arab world - so why wouldn't they show these things on the air?

If anything, that is a shortcoming of the Western media - its need to de-sensitize and unwillingness to give real air time to unfavorable and threatening figures. They can give air time to the ridiculous vitriol of birthers, tea partiers, Lou Dobbs, and Glenn Beck but never to those that actually prove a serious threat or are guilty of truly heinous and criminal activities. If 60 Minutes were to do an interview with members of Al Qaeda there would be an uproar among American audiences about a 'liberal bias' or 'un-American' activity by CBS. In reality, however, simply not addressing the statements of bad people does not make them go away. It is more challenging to de-mystify them and to hear their twisted logic, not to justify them, but to try and understand (not sympathize) what leads people to such actions.

It seems as if in discourse about the International media there is the BBC, CNN, VOA and then there's Al Jazeera. It is never truly mentioned in the same breath of those other media outlets, it is always seen as the other, or somehow more of some kind of special force than those other media outlets. With that sort of diction, Al Jazeera automatically becomes the other, the different, mysterious figure, creating pre-conceived notions for people who have never actually seen the network.

For the rest of the world, where war, poverty, famine, terrorism, and corruption are an everyday part of life simply not showing something does not make it disappear nor does it make it any easier. In fact, it is nothing more than disingenuous.

Nov 10, 2009

Spinning a National World

Siochru & Girard focus on how media is the cusp between industry and culture; Waisbord looks at how media normalizes nationalistic feelings, providing shared concepts and history uncompared to other forms of communal identity; Dewey points to a ritual perspective of media, which serves to renew nationalism continually.

Hafez furthers Siochru & Girard's examination at how 'internationalism' has not filtered down to content level. Instead regionalism abounds, with inordinate emphasis on a negative, violent world with spotlighted politics and elites. The most damaging part of this is the process of decontextualization: "there is communication about, but not with, the countries involved... They cement the interpretative sovereignty of the particular national media system. In the 'global' world, the cross-border flow of information, does indeed increase - but the mechanisms of local cognitive appropriation and domestication remain...The ethnocentric apparatus informing most people's conception of the world has survived even in the age of globalization."

This is outright dangerous - the whole point of news is essentially to inform. But now the task is to make the mass information intelligable. However, if media doesn't serve as a place for more open interpretation, cultural conflict will be merely reinforced and the link of public diplomacy, as Brown argues, is thwarted. Mutual understanding goes nowhere. Especially as Hafez goes on to pinpoint a failure to present structural problems in international relations. Overarching problems that involve media itself or require a more in-depth understanding of superstructures are not well represented or seemingly understood by specifically American media.

Brown, delves deeper into content, to give the precise phrasing by President Bush, pressed for comments right on 9/11, led to an entire discourse and framing of 'war' instead of 'crime.' The media scrambled and "it is not so much that governments actively influence the people. Rather, through their belligerent behaviour, they set the scene for the triggering of defensive instincts among members of the public, who come to see themselves as a defensive community. The informational raw material of the news may come from outside, it may contain correct (and incorrect) facts and reports from countries such as Iraq, but the 'story' of the war is a domestic production." The media stoked the flames of war instead of acting a mediating force between different understanding, due to the fact media is still a national enterprise and cultural maintenance mechanism.

As Brown wrote, "the way in which the mass media represent the conflict is part of the conflict." As long as the media is predominated by national interests, more broad interpretations will continue to be stifled.

And the rest of the world will continue to be spun by each nation's media.

The failure of the “diplomatic” argument

“And I call upon the Iraqi people to reject violence, band together to insist that the country move toward a peaceful tomorrow. Iraq is changing for the better. I mean, look at the soccer team.”

– G. W. Bush, Interview with Al Zaman, May 20, 2004

Ethos. Pathos. Logos: the three Aristotelian pillars of successful argument still very much relevant today, but, for some reason, also very much neglected by several major states in their international affairs.

Modern-day conduct of foreign affairs heavily depends on communication, especially when it comes to public diplomacy and non-traditional warfare. After all, it’s about perception management and “manufacturing consent,” be it domestic, or within a foreign public: control over info. That’s the key.

A government cannot purge all unfavorable discourse from the public, excommunicate all “unorthodox” thinkers, or, for that matter, hunt down and burn all their writings: fortunately we have been out of the Middle Ages for a while, now. Yet, governments still get entangled in their attempts to literally control information, spin it to work in their interest, or improve their “international ranking” in terms of appeal. This is especially true when the government is also desperately trying to win a war of ideas, which essentially constitutes multiple communication battles.

To continue with the over-abused example of the American “War on Terror”… It indeed has a major ideological component. Yet, again, the US ended up in a situation where it had to learn the hard way. You cannot bomb ideas. You have to bend them, or you might even have to disprove them altogether. To do that, you need persuasion. Persuasion requires argument; cohesive argument. The US has been trying to persuade the Middle Eastern public for most of the last decade, and yet, its persuasion tactics have been far from even resembling a true Aristotelian argument (rather, they involved military invasions, consequent humanitarian crises, attempts to clamp down on the local media, and disaster cases such as the corruption in the “Oil for food” program or the Abu Ghraib controversy). So what is wrong, exactly?

Ethos: the ethical appeal, i.e. credibility. - The Western arrogance towards the region, and the invasion already established a “bad name” back in 2001. The outburst against Al Jazeera  (and other “uncensored” media, which freely covered the TRUE nature of the war) and the support of corrupt local regimes provided further proof that the US was unable to practice what it preached. Not to mention the constant negative framing of the Muslims and their culture by Western media – at least as perceived by the Muslims themselves. There goes credibility, down the drain. 

Pathos: the emotional appeal, i.e. sympathy and compassion. - I don’t think it is fair to expect many people in the Islamic world to feel enough compassion towards any of the coalition forces in light of the Afghanistan or Iraq invasions, and the events that followed. The local media – successfully providing counter-frames that worked – undermined all American effort to make a “sweeping victory” over the hearts and minds of the population. 

Logos: the reasoning of the argument, including cohesiveness and supporting evidence. - In this case, the initial rhetoric was that of hostility, and although it changed later on, it was far from being cohesive. As in the case of ethos, the US and its coalition partners showed, time and again, that they were unable (or were simply unprepared) to follow the very principles they were supposedly promoting, giving rise to many alternative explanations, that (at least seemingly) made more sense, especially to the local public.

This all in light of an incompetent speaker as president and a new media environment, where there is an abundance of alternative sources of information, as well as multiple channels of access to it. The US had apparently forgotten to take good note of that, and assumed that just like in the good-ol’ Cold War times the people would unquestioningly internalize whatever they were told, as long as it was coming from America. The flowers and cheers for the “liberators” were not there for the American troops. Did the US fall victim to its own rhetoric and information campaign?

Whatever the root causes and the real reasons behind the “War on Terror,” it is certainly not perceived as a war of “liberation” by the ordinary Iraqis or Afghans, or by most of the people in the region. The US attempts to promote the “democratization” rhetoric have fallen short of actual evidence to support it, while political and economic dealings get increasingly more dirty in both, Iraq and Afghanistan (and the US is conspicuously involved in most of these cases). And certainly, the most prominent example of the US not keeping to its own values is its very attempt to overtly control the flow of information: bashing of “unorthodox” (in American view) media, embedding reporters in the military (thus successfully hampering their chances of some true reporting), and sometimes even preventing journalists from reporting altogether (references can be found in all of this week's readings).

Basically, the Americans have failed to deliver; and even where they have, the means to these achievements were largely disastrous. Given the situation as well as the context, the US might not have many options left. The most promising one, however, remains true understanding of and sensitivity to the local cultures (and figuring out what is that they really value at the time, unlike "soccer," for example), as well as a better demonstration of the true American values through more effective communication and palpable evidence. Yes, openness and true freedom of choice for the people of the region might mean that in the short run the “coalition” might not see friendly governments there (but that’s just the way a true democracy works, right?). And yet, the picture might be different in the longer run, if these governments are engaged and better integrated in an international cooperation system. In the end of the day, despite the importance of communication, it’s not only about words, but deeds as well.

Nov 9, 2009

How much spin can one take?

The Hanson chapter and its discussion about the various US public diplomacy efforts got me thinking: how much "spin" can you actually put into convincing a person (or persons) to accept something they just don't agree with? I mean, at some point, regardless of how many ways you try to frame the war on terror or American ideology, however many different media outlets and formats you use, if someone is just fundamentally opposed to the core beliefs or ideology that drive these efforts, they're just not going to accept it, right? And what then?

I suppose the real targets of public diplomacy are not the extremists in the same way that political candidates aren't so much campaigning for their core party voters as the moderates and swing votes. But given what seemed to be some pretty extensive efforts on the US government's part to "get in front of the story" and frame the war on terror and its actions in a pro-American light, the failure of these public diplomacy efforts seems to be indicative of something deeper than simply not having reached out in the right way, or to the right people, or with the right message.

This is not to say that I think the US government has done all it can in the realm of public diplomacy. Indeed, Hanson's chapter suggests that a return to Cold War-era focused public diplomacy, both in terms of range of efforts as well as government spending on such programs, might be more effective. Thursday's conference on cultural diplomacy also highlighted weaknesses and shortcomings in our current public diplomacy strategies that could be improved upon (though it did appear that most participants were former USIA staffers and/or Cold War diplomats who might be nostalgic for the olden days...).

But maybe what we really need is a more structural approach to winning over hearts and minds. Perhaps we should be targeting our public diplomacy efforts less on getting people to like or love America, and more on getting them to tap into the ideas and beliefs already present in their culture that underscore social and institutional structures that are in line with American ideologies. For instance, more conservative cultures often criticize American media as being too violent, too racy, too commercialized. But what really drives these representations is our belief in freedom of expression. Thus a new conception of public diplomacy efforts would focus on mobilizing people's valorisation of personal and cultural expression. Our government already incorporates "democracy building" into our foreign policy, with the belief that democratic countries will by nature be sympathetic to American interests. Maybe it's time for us to expand those efforts into the realm of soft power and latent rather than salient influences. America as an icon comes with so much baggage as it is, we should focus on the promotion of values that support American interests, but detach them from the messy behemoth of America itself. Hanson notes that media framing needs to find culturally resonant messages in order to be effective. What better way to resonate with a culture than to draw from that culture itself?

At the heart of this is the (potentially Pollyana) belief that we are not so different in the end. While our cultures express our ideals in different ways, we're essentially all working towards the same goals, aren't we? Peace, love, and happiness? Sovereignty, a meaningful voice, independence? The basic resources for survival? Understanding the specific cultural context that frames these universal values might be the difficult part, but the rewards would be more lasting than just getting a "most popular" vote in the yearbook of nation-states.

Nov 8, 2009

Inter(national) Reporting

In the article, “International Reporting-‘No Further than Columbus,’” author Kai Hefez defines international reporting as the journalistic coverage of realities outside the home state. Hefez makes the point very early on in the article that international reporting tends to reflect the interests and cultural values of the country doing the reporting instead of the country being reported on. International reporting also tends to “Otherize” the area and people being reported on.

The article takes its title from Meg Greenfield’s comment in the Washington Post about the American media’s lack of understanding of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in the late 1970’s. She wrote that American media are ‘no further than Columbus’ who presumed early Native Americans were Indians, in breaking through cultural stereotypes and assumptions.

I feel that Hefez’s example of the Olympics really illustrated how world event coverage really becomes a nationalized event. It is especially obvious with the Olympics, because it is a competition between nations. In terms of television broadcast news, I think a lot of it has to do with the limited amount of prime time in which to air the coverage. It is impossible to give every nation equal time on every single event. Most Americans are rooting for the United States to win, the US games are aired during the times most Americans watch television. At the same time, I think a lot about culture could be learned by watching Swedish curling and Syrian handball (as boring as they may be).

I’m going a little off topic here, but I think that a nation’s popular sports say a lot about the culture. For example, American football, a comparatively violent sport, is huge in the US because we like to watch violence and spectacle. Football is rather expensive- the padding and equipment cost money. Professional football players in the NFL make huge amounts of money. We give full scholarships for students to play football and other sports. On the other hand, football (soccer) is the most widely played and watched popular sport in Central and South America. Soccer requires only a ball and two goals. Poorer nations gravitate towards soccer because it costs less and it is less involved with money.

Nov 5, 2009

International Media and the Framing of Tehran and Kabul

Robin Brown begins the 'Spinning the War' piece with a quote from Karl Von Clausewitz that perfectly embodies both the Brown and Hafez pieces on global media "War is nothing more than the continuation of politics".

As both readings prove, much of the way the people of the world see the 'War on Terror' is based on the media. According to Robin Brown, "as Politics and society change so does the nature of war," thus, since we live in a multimedia world with a 24 hour news cycle the portrayals and framing of the 'enemies' and 'enemy nations' have a lot to do with how the 'War on Terror' and issues framed around it are perceived.

For instance, in class I made the statement that though Twitter played a huge role in Iran's Green Revolution, to present it as a revolution made possible by American companies (let's not leave out the roles that Facebook, Youtube, Google Maps, and Flickr all played as well) makes it more of a novelty, a one time phenomenon. In reality though, the power of the Green Revolution was that it gathered together masses of people in Iran. This was an important development as many critics have cited Iranian apathy with Ahmadinejad's original rise to power. Iranians of all ages, sexes, and classes were marching in the streets. Whether it was mullahs marching in the streets, Ayatollahs dissing Ahmadinejad, declaring fatwas or calling the election illegitimate, the Green Revolution brought people from all spectrums of Iranian society to the streets both in favor of and against the government. It was more than the Event-Centered definition of news that Hafez points to.

There was little talk of the significance of a movement in Iran that engages all people, not just students (as in 1999) and that harkens back to the original revolution of '79 (calls of Allah hu Akbar). It also went against the traditional geographic tropes that the media uses to break down the world. As Hafez says, spatial representations like the 'The West' and 'The Islamic World' rarely define the central themes of very real places. Mousavi was not calling for the overthrow of Iran's theocracy, in fact, it must be asked if many people in the West truly knew Mousavi and his possible Administration would have stood for. The Green Revolution was not the traditional idea of conflict represented in the international media - Democracy vs. Islam. These people felt robbed of their vote for a man who by all Western standards was probably not too dissimilar to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in many ways, but more important the candidates, the people of Iran demanded that their voices be heard. This was not Al Gore vs. George Bush in Tehran, this was a vocal outcry for their votes. For the Iranians to prove that they do have a voice.

To further complicate these spatial definitions, when Ahmadinejad and Khameini both reverted to the red herrings of Zionism, Israel, and Imperialism, the people of took to the streets shouting “No to Gaza, No to Lebanon, I‘m giving my life to Iran.“

Brown goes on to talk about how the media shapes perceptions of supporters, neutral groups, and opponents influences whether someone will become involved in a war and how they will participate. This notion of shaping a conflict plays very well into the U.S. representation of Afghanistan. Much has been said about Afghanistan being a land of cultural turmoil, constant war, and oppression but very little is ever said about the time between the 60s and early 80s that many people refer to as Afghanistan's 'golden age.' The Western media only presents the post-Taliban Afghanistan of death and destruction but rarely reference the period in which there was development, stability, Afghan professionals, education, safety, and professional educated women. Yes, this may have only existed in the larger cities and the nation still faced many problems, but it is important for the people of the United States in particular to know that we are more than just bombs and burqas and yet that is never presented in the mainstream Western media. Why?

Does it make it easier for the U.S. to fight the war and imply that they must bring advancement, development, education, and success to Afghanistan? If anything, the United States is doing themselves a disservice because now many anti-war activists are using a 'cultural difference' as reasons why the United States should pull out of Afghanistan. In reality though, these things existed in Afghanistan before the U.S. and before the Soviets - a fact that both Afghans in Afghanistan and the American people must be reminded of.

Nov 3, 2009

The International Justice Mission

We're part of this. Our class level, education, technology, even interest level - as signified by our participation in the International Communication program at American University in Washington, D.C. almost in essense garuantees that we are part of this interest group.
So what does that mean? How does this impact the future?
Castells etc., Bennett and Juris all examine the underlying framework of 'global justice movements', with some looking more particularly at actually how these movements have impacted society. They discuss the mobilization of various diverse groups into a 'hydra' model of global movements.
However, I suppose my question is, is how does this relate to McChensey's pessimistic view of the global media encouraging political apathy? Is this transformative mobile, online political networking a reaction to the saturation of commercial media with under or overpoliticized content (which leds to a sense of detachment) or is it simply the outgrowth of politically driven youth and interests mobilizing new technologies more aptly than said other media?
On one hand, this is a moot point, but on the other, it speaks to the goals of citizen education and whether media itself needs to be transformed (absorb these differences as part of a realization on alternative consumerism - that people do want more diverse news) or this form should supplant current forms.
Getting back to my main question, Juris is very optomistic about these networks being the 'labortories' for a new form of democracy. But Castells etc. make a very valid point about the limited reach of these networks, particularly in speaking about the impact of mobile phones. There are a diversity of goals, missions and populations, but they tend to share a similiar socio-economic status, with the values that tend to inform that class. Even experts are starting to make the observation that socio-economic status is more fractitous than racial differences. (This is of course influenced by cultural context to a lesser or greater degree.)
Castells et co. illustrates this divide in the divergence between the PP II and the Poor People movement - the corruption charges by the PPII are disputed by the Poor Peoples as patronage. (There's a very similar situation going on in Thailand - the urban areas are claiming the rural aren't educated enough to make correct political decisions, even though the rural are the majority.)
Are we sure enough that we are looking out for their best interests? How do we deal with this lack of representation, especially when 'they' have different even contrary concerns? How do we prioritize our own goals even as we are 'liberated' from ideological conformism? Is this another form of the 'white man's burden' - the educated liberal person's burden?
Is our 'international justice mission' righteous enough to deal with this pressure?

EMPIRE - The Long War: The US and Al Qaeda (Al Jazeera)

Noömanagement Crisis, continued...

Marwin Bishara and notable "panelists" discuss the problem on Al Jazeera English.

The second part of the program touches upon "glocalization" of Al Qaeda's ideology, and the implications of this for the general "War on Terror."

Highly recommended...

Dictator’s Dilemma and the power of The Cell Phone

The statement that “new ICTs empower the individual and non-state actors at the expense of the state (of course)” seems to have become quite a cliché by now. Yet, although not arguing against it, this week’s readings provided an alternative understanding of the situation as well: one where the state not only retains its power, but can also use the ICTs to enhance it.
Hanson summarizes the usual argument that the modern ICTs, especially the Internet, facilitate communication, information exchange, and coordination of activities, thus providing “the physical means of building coalitions across great distances, connecting local groups with international allies and enabling them to frame their claims in global terms.” This, of course, undermines the state and particularly its role as a core international actor. A counter-argument claims that despite being a powerful globalizing force, technology can “amplify political and/or social fragmentation by enabling more and more identities and interests […] to coalesce and thrive.”  But then, this is not news.
What I found more interesting was the “Dictator’s Dilemma”: the desire to have the benefits of the Internet without the threat of political instability. How can a government give its people access to all the new technologies and information for purposes of health care, education, and commerce (for example) while blocking political information? This inevitably reminded me of Gorbachev’s “dilemma,” and his very honest attempts of reforming the USSR from within, essentially through glasnost and perestroika. The system was under extreme pressure: externally (the Reagan administration made sure of that), economically (it was turning into a starved state), militarily (Afghanistan has always been a big headache and a major waste of resources for any invader), and domestically (all of the above started making it increasingly unpopular among its own people, finally). It just needed another decisive factor to face its end. Apparently openness and (relative) freedom of information played this role, even if initially intended to serve the opposite purpose (at least, supposedly).
Again, how does one benefit from the advances of technology (Internet and other new ICTs) if the system is BASED on oppression, absence of freedom, and no real tolerance of reform? Hanson says that although the Internet generates political change (be it in the long or short-run; directly or indirectly), it does not necessarily result in democratic institutions. The people, as well as non/sub-state actors can have the illusion they have more freedom, and the expression of unorthodox ideas that are considered to be harmless can be tolerated for a while; however, states, particularly some states, learn very well how to “channel” this flow and thus ATTEMPT, at least, to manage the situation without obvious oppression (China’s flooding of the Internet with its own info in addition to the attempts of overt control, or Russia’s “Spinternet,” are good examples here). Very much like the "mainstream" media management attempts in the good old days…
Well, perhaps the cell phone, with its mobility, person-to-person platform, and real multi-modality can truly overcome all attempted limitation or “management” by the government? Castells sees its strength in being a tool that enables a personal network (i.e. trusted and having no room for potentially hostile external members), which can easily move one into action for change. Coupled with the fact that cell phone use is spreading with inconceivable speed around the world, it can indeed stand the chance of being the ultimate “empowering” tool in the coming decades (we already saw how such networks work in Iran, Moldova, Belarus… even Ukraine and Armenia, to an extent).
But such an argument ignores factors such as the need for state “permission,” if a provider is to operate in a country, cell phone viability (can the local population afford buying the phone and, later, paying for the services?), as well as its cultural applicability as a primary tool of politically unorthodox communication. In any case, it is still very much a developing issue, deserving close attention as it unfolds.

Nov 2, 2009

Culture Matters!

Whenever people herald mobile technology and texting as the social revolution tool of the future, I feel like a grandma. Despite having had my own cell phone for several years, and even recently adding a texting plan to it, I've yet to become fully comfortable with texting as a meaningful medium of discourse. While my best friend regularly maxes out her texting inbox with everything from serious conversations with her boyfriend (10-20 texts back and forth) to quick, casual observations (1-2 texts), I'm still struggling to figure out when and how I'm supposed to respond to the most insignificant of messages. If a friend texts, "Such a gorgeous day today!", is it for me or for her? As in, is she messaging me to let me know that it's a beautiful day, or does she want me to participate in the experience with some kind of text back, perhaps a "Yes!" or ":)"? Whereas others seem to send and respond to texts without so much as batting an eyelid, I'm sitting there staring at my phone, typing a response, only to delete it and start over again three or four times, or maybe re-reading the message a few times to figure out just what the best, concise, yet not overly trivial response might be.

That said, I'm not entirely anti-texting. I, too, can see the utility of texts as a convenient and efficient way to convey simple, direct information. "Meet me at 6 pm." "I'm waiting outside." "Want to see a movie?" It's especially effective for someone like me who doesn't always have the energy to sustain the social niceties of an actual phone call. I've also found that it's good for proposing plans with less of the awkwardness associated with rejection. No need to assume a cheery bravado despite the fact that no one wants to go to dinner with you. No need to intone a feigned disappointment in shucks, just not being able to make the monster truck derby this Saturday.

Personal use (or non-use) of texting aside, what especially struck me about both the Castells and Bennett readings were their balanced tones. Both acknowledge that mobile and new media technologies have facilitated grassroots communication and extended democratic political participation in the form of protests and demonstrations to levels previously unseen. Yet rather than proclaim the death of significant personal relationships and traditional methods of communication, they note that these new technologies must still navigate the social structures and cultural contexts that have always defined personal communications and political participation. Use of these new technologies alone is not enough to guarantee success; rather, as with any other technology, the benefits of the technology must match up with the goals of the message in order to translate into an effective campaign.

The failures of mobile technology to captivate a population explored by Castells provides a nice counter to our previous reading, "Convergence Culture in the Creative Industries," wherein Deuze's admiration for viral marketing campaigns seemed a little too optimistic for my taste. Castells's anti-technological determinism stance is a welcome rational voice amidst the flurry of centralized interests (usually corporate companies) trying to jump on the "viral" bandwagon. Every large company (and increasingly government agencies) is creating a Facebook page, setting up a Twitter feed, enticing you to sign up for their text alerts, download their iPhone app, etc. Yet half the time, when you actually look at the service they are trying to provide, it's just the same information in different packaging. They are not actually harnessing the unique characteristics of these technologies so much as trying to recapture the "viral-ness" that they observe in other campaigns. Obviously to some extent these efforts are simply the new business standards for "keeping up with the times". But as mobile and new media technologies continue to transform our every day lives, it's improtant to remember that social structure and culture still matter.

Texting and Social Movements

The Manuel Castells reading, “the Mobile Civil Society: Social Movements, Political Power, and Communications Networks” discusses how mobile communications can be used to facilitate social movements and political change. Castells cites several examples mobile communications used for social and political change around the world, including how the People Power II protest in the Philippines used texting and mobile communications to help over throw the corrupt Erap Estrada. While texting played huge part in organizing and mobilizing the protest, Castells makes it very clear that there were other forces at work including the Catholic Church and several anti-Estrada blogs.

I really enjoyed reading this article. I think that texting is often over-looked by academia and older generations as an obsessive fad for teenagers and 20somethings. My parents (who have probably sent a combined total of maybe ten text messages in their entire lives) always ask me and my younger nephew and neice why we don’t just call each other instead of meticulously typing in text message. We keep trying to tell them how ideal texting is for brief messages when you don’t want to be overheard. Of course, we utilize these qualities for talking to our friends during work or class, but texting is a really great way to quickly communicate a short message to a large group of people.

Some parents may not get it, but the media definitely have picked up on it. Texting is made out to be a secretive way to get information. I’ve also noticed that texting and mobile communications are used a lot in action movies for characters to quietly convey clues, tips, and messages to each other, though usually this functions more as a product placement than as a crucial plot point.

Texting has also been added to MTV’s Room Raiders 2.0, the “high-tech” improvement of the original Room Raiders where a young single goes through the rooms of three potential dates without actually seeing them. A texting phone and a lap top were added to the Room Raiders’ “spy kit.”
I’ve also seen commercials on TV for the newest version of the board game Clue: Secrets and Spies where players can get additional clues delivered via text message to their phone.

Image from and

Nov 1, 2009

Estrada, Karzai, Ahmadinejad and the Mobile Phone

In his piece about the new 'mobile public sphere,' Castellls uses Filipino President, Joseph Estrada, and the People Power II mobile protests as a case study for the phenomenon mobile technology aided political movements. In fact, Castells points to it as the first time a sitting President was ousted by a movement largely organized around mobile technology.

Castells also points to weak state, with highly corruptable governments as nations where mobile technology really takes hold among the population looking to find a communication method that is somehow removed from the government and their corruption. The Philippines under Estrada serves as one example, as does Iran during the Green Revolution, Afghanistan - where nearly 25% of the population is mobile enabled.

In all three nations, mobile technology was used to varying degrees in major political events.

In the case of the the Philippines, the 'People Power II' movement was successful because as Castells points out, Estrada was a movie star who felt sure of his star status and had no real political experience on a national level. In Iran however, since the time of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, the nation was run under the grasp of a single leader with a very defined character as the leader of the nation. Though, since the Revolution of '79 there have been semblances of 'democracy' in Iran - a Parliament, a judiciary, elections, etc. the great majority of the power is still in the hands of the Supreme Leader. Unlike in Estrada's case, even if the President of Iran is not seen as particularly effective given their platform (Khatami), the people still know that there is a Supreme Leader with the characteristics usually associated with a national leader (regardless of popularity). In spite of this, government media blackouts, and government mobile spying technology, the Green Revolution was effective in that it was able to give the people of the world a glimpse into what was happening on the ground in Iran even as the government was cracking down and expelling foreign media outlets.

During the August 20th elections in Afghanistan, however, there was a much smaller mobile movement. Even though the Afghan election was just as contested (if not more) than the Iranian election of two months prior, unlike the Filipinos and Iranians, the people of Afghanistan today are largely illiterate and impoverished. The people of Afghanistan may have considered Karzai to be ineffective, illegitimate, and corrupt, but the Taliban threats coupled with lack of education kept the people from engaging in the election and its aftermath the way their Iranian brothers did. What little mobile reporting did come from the Afghan election either came from foreign media outlets and NGOs in Afghanistan or Afghan media moguls like Saad Mohseni.

Therefore, though all three nations were in the midst of unpopular regimes, the purported public opinions of the rulers, literacy, and security all worked to complicate the notion of the 'mobile public sphere' and its power.