New Media and ‘the War of Ideas’ – On looking in your own backyard

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.

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Wikileaks and 21st Century Statecraft

Have 250,000 leaks sunk the State Department’s ‘Internet Freedom’ policy?

by Roy Revie

As the fallout of Cablegate continues to consume column inches, gigabytes, and cabinet meetings across the world, the realisation that this is about more than one man, one organization, and one massive leak seems to be slowly sinking in. While some argue that stories and comment focusing on the process of the leak and the fallout for the organisation only distract from the stories contained within the cables themselves, it is clear that this element is as vital (in the short term at least) as the contents of the cables.  We find ourselves in the middle of an unprecedented public debate on Internet freedom and the role of the state online.  In this debate much has been written about the motives and background of Wikileaks (some bad, some excellent) while other parties involved have avoided the same scrutiny.  Of particular interest in the current discussion is the role of the State Department which under Hillary Clinton’s leadership has played an important and contradictory role in the debate on Internet freedom.

Back in more innocent times, in January of this year, Hillary Clinton gave a speech at the Newseum (a 250,000-square foot monument to media complacency) in which she introduced the concept of “21st Century Statecraft” – a term referring to the recent State Department push for the use of social and new media for diplomatic and geopolitical ends.  In this speech she affirmed the US’s commitment to the “principles of internet freedom”, a new Human Right for the 21st Century.  Clinton waxed lyrical about the ethical, financial, political and practical reasons why freedom of access and use of the internet should be considered an absolute right – noting that America “stand[s] for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas”.  The State Department, it seemed, was committed to a comprehensive and open approach to online freedom and engagement, a new stance for a government which had hitherto tended towards a more iterative approach to interaction with the modern world.

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