by Roy Revie
Don’t worry, this isn’t another article about “Social Media and the Arab Spring”. Not that it’s unimportant, but it strikes me that those involved in the revolutions are better placed to examine these questions. In any case, I’m sure the booming industry in Arab Spring conferences, books, and special journal issues will sufficiently suck out any revolutionary joy and furnish us with reports on the minutiae of what they think is important. I’ll leave them to it. Besides, the revolutionary potential of communication technologies which can sometimes allow you to talk to each other and broadcast information that would otherwise be repressed seems kind of self evident. While Western leaders implore foreign autocrats (with a vigour which varies proportionally to some ‘tipping point’ calculus of self-interest) to ‘tear down this firewall!’, and op-ed after op-ed is written about the impact of technology on autocracies I want to reverse the lens: how is social media changing the way liberal Western governments operate? What are the implications of the American embrace of ‘internet freedom’ for US Government foreign policy and military practice?
The key focus of US government communication efforts is influence on publics, both foreign and domestic, as a means to winning legitimacy. This element of state activity is seen as all the more important in the post-9/11 ‘battle of ideas’ in which Robert Gates has said success “will be less a matter of imposing one’s will and more a function of shaping behaviour – of friends, adversaries, and most importantly, the people in between”. Militarily, contemporary conflict has seen, one theorist suggests, a “shift in the classical centres of gravity away from the will of governments and armies to the perceptions of populations”. In these circumstances, it is not difficult to see why the rise of Web 2.0 has forced widespread and serious consideration of communication policy. As Ali Fisher has written, “the internet provides a unique environment for the ideological clashes that have occurred” since 9/11, as new communication platforms produce a situation where “the hegemonic group is unable to use the organs of the State for coercion”. A cursory look at the most memorable events of the Iraq war support this: while early on the system of ‘embedding’ journalists seemed a massive PR coup for the Coalition, providing a largely compliant media with heart-of-the-action footage, what history will remember will be the unofficial ‘emergent’ images from Abu Ghraib, Fallujah, and Saddam Hussein’s execution chamber. Influence and communication has had to be re-thought.
The communication apparatus of the US state (call it whatever you want: propaganda, public diplomacy, PR, etc.) is tremendously powerful and has, over the years, perfected a gentle (and not so gentle) influence over public debate – illustrated, for example, by the subtle censorship of the embed system – so attempts to carry this influence onto new media platforms are a natural progrssion. Engagement with social media by the US government and military takes many forms. At the State Department, as well as the obligatory tweeting diplomats and foreign language social media, we find “internet freedom” policies driving the nurturing of relationships with foreign civil society groups through endeavours like movements.org, the funding of anti-censorship tools, and the organisation of various ‘Tech Camps’. While at the Pentagon we find a diffuse array of new ideas and practices, from the conceptualisation of social media as a COIN-esque tool for ‘living amongst the people’, to the use of new ICTs to entice foreign publics through ‘friendly conquest’ (the soft power ‘pull’ of Web 2.0, which Iran has been ridiculed for recognising). While the impact of new approaches remains to be seen, proposals such as ‘cyber herding’ militants into compromised chatrooms, or infiltrating Second Life with Arab-looking avatars, suggest no stone is being left unturned. All the evidence suggests a widespread realisation that new media engagement will be crucial in the ‘war of ideas’, and a modification of policy and strategy is necessary to achieve success.
In terms of the integrity of communication on social media; the proliferation of users and data leads to suspicion of the potential clandestine involvement of state actors (we need only to look at the accusations of state-backing made in comment threads on contentious issues), yet effective manipulation at this level has proven to be incredibly difficult. The scrutiny which an actor comes under is generally proportional to their fame and influence (as the “Gay Girl in Damascus” and Johan Hari found) or the contentiousness of the issue with which they engage (like Omer Gershon, the “anti-gay flotilla” fraudster, or HBGary who messed with WikiLeaks supporters and, fatally, Anonymous) – making successful, high profile, fraudulent interventions in such debates is proving t be very difficult. Now, if it turns out that @acarvin is on the payroll of the Syrians or that @blakehounshell (to name drop some of the cosmopolitan twitter elite) is a Mossad agent then there will be egg on my face; but until then I think the threat of successful manipulation of online debate is mitigated by a combination of crowd-sourced witch hunts, Twitter-Turing tests, lulz-seekers, and tech savvy political scientists like those at the Truthy project.
Clumsy attempts at manipulation are also unlikely to be made as they put at risk one of the most important elements of national power in the networked age – legitimacy (or, as Anne Marie Slaughter describes it, ‘credible influence’). The legitimacy of a government is key to it’s effective functioning in the global political arena, without it the task of forming coalitions, international agreements, and influencing various publics, is made very difficult. So, I think it is the broader engagements online, the large scale public diplomacy campaigns like “civil society 2.0”, and broader strategic communication efforts which are more likely to have in impact in the long run, and are thus more compelling. Yet there is a contraction ahead in the embrace of ‘net freedom’ and openness and the quest for legitimacy, a contradiction which will remain as long as communication policy and actual policy do not cohere.
Throughout the writing about communication in the DoD and State Department there is a massive blind spot when it comes to the impact of US action. Thus, Abu Ghraib is repeatedly described as a PR problem; Indonesians’ legitimate fear that the US might threaten their sovereignty is “straight from the doctrine that is at the foundation of Al Qaeda ideology”; and the solution to ‘misperceptions’ that US troops commit atrocities is equip each soldier with a helmet cam in order to show ‘the true story’. This inability to see the real-world concerns behind ‘communication problems’, aside from being absurd, makes genuine dialogue impossible. This problem has been recognised by Admiral Mike “give-it-to-me-straight” Mullen, who slapped down a generation of communication professionals in saying that “most strategic communication problems are not communication problems at all. They are policy and execution problems. Each time we fail to live up to our values or don’t follow up on a promise, we look more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are”, that the US “needs to worry a lot less about how to communicate our actions and much more about what our actions communicate”. The perception problem, as almost everyone who doesn’t work for the US Government (and some who do) will tell you, is one of policy.
Yet policy and communication are increasingly linked, Mullen reveals that “videos and images plastered on the Web – or even the idea of their being so posted – can and often do drive national security decision making”. So, we see the problem of emergent media having an impact at a level where congressional approval, and indeed the opinion of the American population, are often seen as mere distractions. If the goal is legitimacy, Mullen’s requirement for an increased correlation between words and deeds suggests two options. The first option is a communication strategy which produces enough influence on the media to mask the deed-words gap, such a strategy would be incredibly complex in the contemporary communication environment, and I have already outlined some of the difficulties; though the deep implications of the second path suggests this option will not fail for lack of trying.
The second path – of a shift in US foreign and military activity to match the rhetoric of the ‘war of ideas’ – would represent a revolutionary change in policy. It would entail, for example, and end to violations of international law and human rights norms in Guantanamo, accountability for drone strikes and JSOC’s activities, and a change in the treatment of Bradley Manning (it reads, in short, like a Guardian reader’s Christmas list). US strategic communication rhetoric talks about showing the ‘true face’ of America, but it means no such thing, and the sanitized image of America is increasingly untenable in the age of emergent media, user generated content, and socially curated news. The realisation of the importance of reality and rhetoric cohering – and the difficulty of effective information control – may mean, ironically, that the relationship between conflict and its representation comes full circle. We would go from the Baudrillardian concept of war experienced as pure representation (in the West at least), to a situation where the fidelity of events on the ground to this representation becomes the crux of national legitimacy. From the postmodern impotence of the 90s, via the irrepressible nature of images like those of Abu Ghraib, to a return of the signified, to a place where what actually happens drives public understanding of events, and the political reaction.
Of course, such a change in the American political system is highly unlikely, and attempts to go down the first route of a sophisticated new media strategy are ongoing. Underlying attempts to refine such a strategy is the belief, the hope, that like the newspapers and TV stations of old, new media “can also be enlisted to serve specific masters, though perhaps with greater difficulty”. Yet the challenges to this enlistment are great; the recent dump of the entire set of unreadcted cables held by WikiLeaks shows that even Julian Assange, the internet supervillain extraordinaire cannot control data. The cables themselves were, infamously, leaked due to policies which stemmed from a recognition of the imperative of large organisations to make their data widely accessible to be effective, a public sector version of what Clinton has called the Dictators Dilemma – where authoritarian states are forced to adopt liberal internet policies to adapt to the needs of commerce and development. The situation I present is a corollary to this, a Democrats Dilemma, where the embrace, and ideological enforcement, of openness and connectivity, allows enhanced scrutiny of the State’s own behaviour, and thus the necessity for words and deeds to cohere – where the maintenance of liberal democratic legitimacy demands behaviour which corresponds with the rhetoric.
Alas, this isn’t a utopian prediction of a bright future. For what its worth I think we’ll see an increasingly sophisticated mix of censorship; underhand state intervention in online debate; and, a boom in official ‘user generated content’ flooding new media – while we surprise ourselves with just how much hypocrisy we can stomach. Rather, I want to stress – and draw attention to – the potentially revolutionary impact of new technologies on ‘our’ own side, in the countries to which those emerging from the Arab Spring are supposed to aspire.
Roy Revie is a PhD researcher at the University of Strathclyde examining the implications of Web 2.0 to communication in conflict and foreign policy. This article is based an an academic paper which looks in depth at US State and Pentagon approaches to Web 2.0 challenges, if you are interested in the full paper get in touch at roy (dot) revie @gmail.com