The 4th Quadrant of Public Diplomacy

February 9, 2013 § 2 Comments

Nation states are facing a second wake-up call in public diplomacy. The first wake up call, prompted by the 9/11 attacks, was the realization that perceptions of foreign publics have domestic consequences. The second wake up call, which rang out first for China during the 2008 Olympics, and then for other countries with Wikileaks, the Arab Spring, and the Occupy Movement, is that adversarial publics are able to challenge states in the quest for global public support. How states can effectively respond to this second wake-up call is a pressing area of public diplomacy research.

States appear to be viewing public diplomacy through a geopolitical lens and are focusing on other states as their primary competitors. However, viewed through a strategic communication lens, the greatest PD competition and threat to states are not other states, but rather initiatives by adversarial publics. Aside from challenging individual states, the diversity of political perspectives and cultural identities of these publics raise questions about whose ‘norms’ and ‘rules’ should govern how issues are addressed in the global public arena. This has implications for all states.

To begin to address this challenge, public diplomacy needs a more nuanced understanding of publics beyond non-state actors. The international relations (IR) literature tend to use the terms “state-based” and “state-centric” interchangeably to distinguish domains of state actors from non-state actors. In communication, the term “audience-centric” is used specifically to distinguish between communication messages and approaches designed around the audience’s needs, interests and goals and those of the sponsor. Whereas much of PD has highlighted (soft) power, messages, or images, the PD Quadrants below highlight the importance of the relational dimension between states and publics in considering strategic PD options.

State-based Public Diplomacy

PD Quadrant I reflects the traditional view of public diplomacy as a state-based, state-centric activity. It is state-based in that the initiative is designed, implemented and controlled by the state. It is state-centric in that PD initiatives are designed to meet the interests, needs and goals of the state. Relations with publics are often obscured by the focus on getting the message out and promoting the state’s interests. Because the public is viewed as passive, the relational dimension is often unexplored. However, if relations are positive, the message and image of the state tends to be favorably received. If relations are negative, the state’s communication efforts tend to encounter unexpected resistance. International broadcast and nation branding campaigns reflect the state-based, state-centric public diplomacy of PD Quadrant I.

PD Quadrant II represents a shift from state-centric to public-centric initiatives. Initiatives are still state-based in the sense that it is the state that initiates, sponsors the initiative. However, despite state control over the initiative, public participation and building positive relations is viewed as pivotal feature for PD initiatives in PD Quadrant II. To secure public participation and build relations, rather than being primarily focused on the state-centric needs or goals, the PD initiative’s message, approach and selection of media platforms are designed to resonate positively with the public. The rise of the “new public diplomacy” over the past decade that advocate a more “relational” approach and the view of public diplomacy as “engagement” exemplify the state-based, public-centric initiatives in PD Quadrant II.

Reversing the Role of the Public

PD Quadrant III represents a shift from state-based to public-based initiative. Digital media have effectively enable publics to reverse communication roles with the state. Rather than being a consumer of state-generated information, publics are able to generate communication for state attention and consumption. Whereas the state-based, public-centric initiatives in PD Quadrant II seek to co-opt the public, the public-based, state-centric projects in PD Quadrant III seek to co-opt and involve the state. Many of the global, complex issues such as global warming, health, and education originally launched by public such as the Campaign to Ban Landmines, are illustrative of PD Quadrant III.

What both PD Quadrant II and III have in common is a neutral to positive relations between state and publics. Publics are often called “stakeholders,” and assume organized public representatives such as civil societies or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). There is also an implicit assumption that the state and the public share similar goals and perspectives. The positive relations and shared perspectives lie behind the willingness to adapt messages and approaches, build relations or networks, seek commonality, mutual engagement, dialogue, and potential collaboration.

Adversarial Public Stakeholders

PD Quadrant IV is distinguished from other quadrants by the public’s capacity to produce PD content neutral to negative relations with the state. PD initiatives are public-based in the sense that the public retains primary if not exclusive control over the initiative. The initiatives are public-centered in that they are designed to meet the needs, interest and goals of the public, which may be framed as neutral or counter to those of the state. Rather than assuming positive relations with publics, states may be faced with adversarial public stakeholders. While often overlooked, these public stakeholders may be even more strategic stakeholders in public diplomacy initiatives.

Because adversarial stakeholders continue to retain a strong vested interest in a contested public issue, they cannot be dropped from the PD equation even if they disagree with the state. Nor can they be dismissed as “irrational.” These adversarial stakeholders may command more perceived credibility and legitimacy by the public than the state. Attempts to openly challenge these stakeholders can further serve to alienate the state. The state may struggle for relevancy. Most importantly, these stakeholders are proving adept at using digital tools and network communication strategies to generate a soft power differential capable of challenging states. They can command state attention.

For states, PD Quadrant IV represents the challenge of “crisis public diplomacy.” Unlike the relatively stable communication with benign publics, crisis public diplomacy entails communicating simultaneously with multiple publics – not just foreign or domestic, but favorable and adversarial publics – in a highly visible, rapidly evolving, contested public arena.

Whither Public Diplomacy?

In theory, if not entirely yet in practice, states have gotten the first wake up call. The need to shift from state-centric to more participatory and relational public-centric approaches is evident in the accelerated use of social media in public diplomacy.

States may be less appreciative of the full implications of the second wake-up call, or shift from state-based to public-based initiatives. Recent PD reports reflect the trend of discussing public diplomacy in terms of (soft power) competition from other countries. However, the majority of the threats raised in the reports are not from other countries, but from adversarial public stakeholders in PD Quadrant IV.

In looking ahead to the future of public diplomacy, states need to move quickly beyond whether and how to use the social media for public-centric initiatives. As mentioned in the soft power differential, the greatest potential threat that states face is being blind-sided by a highly-network non-state actor. Already this has happened for several states. Understanding the dynamics and developing strategies for adversarial public-based PD Quadrant IV is one of the most urgent and pressing area of public diplomacy scholarship.

FROM Culture Posts series:

Zaharna, R. S. (November 6, 2012). “The 4th Quadrant of Public Diplomacy,”  in USC Center on Public Diplomacy, Blog Series

Public Diplomacy Full Circle: From Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park

November 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

Powerful words today in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post:

This is the bottom line . . . you cannot attack your young and get away with it.” The authors lauded the Arab Spring, but they were not from Syria or Egypt. They are Americans, warning of a coming American Spring.

My thoughts immediately wondered back to U.S. public diplomacy 2.0 and the 2008 “Howcast” event. Then, like now, is anyone beside the youth connecting the dots?

My first reaction when I saw the U.S. State Department promotion of the youthmovements.howcast in December 2008 was amazement at the naivety of global interconnectivity. “Wow, this is a how-to-guide for destabilizing or even overthrowing a government. I wonder how long before it comes full circle back to the U.S.”

This is public diplomacy full circle.

The online Howcast was part of an offline summit of the Alliance of Youth Movements held at Columbia University on December 3-5, 2008. Alliance of Youth Movements (now movements.org) is an interesting online search, especially given the Google and U.S. State Department connection.

Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs James K. Glassman and Jared Cohen from the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff announced the summit as “a really exciting and innovative program” during a November 24, 2008 briefing. Cohen has since gone on to head Google Ideas.

Glassman was one of the opening speakers of the summit. Glassman focused on the U.S. main concern, terrorism. The thinking was that terrorism was linked to non-democratic authoritarian regimes.  If the youth could be empowered to overthrown their undemocratic regimes, then they could play a role in combating terrorism.

The Summit’s agenda, in hindsight, seems like a play book for the Egyptian revolution.  The first main speaker was Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, who talked about Facebook as a tool for social and political change. Later in that morning, there was a discussion on Egypt’s pro-democracy youth movements and the importance of moving the youth movement to “the online space in Egypt.” Egyptian activists were in attendance. The next day’s sessions included:

  • How to Begin: Taking It to the Streets
  • Break-out Sessions: Building New Movements Online
  • How to Get Media Attention: Engaging and Inspiring the Media
  • Utilizing Digital Media for Social Change

There were also screenings of Howcast videos on “How to be an effective dissident,” “How to circumvent an Internet proxy,” and “How to smart mob.”

 

But social media, like other communication tools, are just that – tools. Similarly, networks in public diplomacy cuts both ways. As Manual Castells remarked, “Networks can kiss or kill. Nothing personal.” U.S. public diplomacy seemed to be focused on the positive side of empowering youth to go against regimes of other countries.

Today’s piece by Kalle Lasn and Micah White, editor in chief and senior editor, respectively, of Adbusters.org does connect the dots – clearly and directly – from Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park. Many link the Occupy Wall Street movement to Adbusters. Adbusters however, links it back to the Arab Spring.

“The [Occupy] movement’s true origins, however, go back to the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. That was when the world witnessed how intransigent regimes can be toppled by leaderless democratic crowds, brought together by social media, that stand firm and courageously refuse to go home until their demands for change are met. Our shared epiphany was that America, too, needs its Tahrir Square moment and its own kind of regime change.Perhaps not the hard regime change of Tunisia and Egypt, but certainly a soft one.”

In an interconnected world it pays to connect the dots.  One of the promised tactics of the coming American Spring are smart mobs. For the uninitiated, it maybe good to take another look at the how to smart mob …

Resources:

Kalle Lasn and Micah White, “Why Occupy Wall Street Will Keep Up the Fight,” Washington Post, November 20, 2011.http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-occupy-wall-street-will-keep-up-the-fight/2011/11/17/gIQAn5RJZN_story.html?hpid=z4

Briefing, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs James K. Glassman and Jared Cohen from the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff, Washington, D.C. , November 24, 2008. Archive: http://www.america.gov/st/texttrans-english/2008/November/20081124173327eaifas0.8017237.html#ixzz1eHGLtijF

photo of Egyptian and American protesters from Adbuster gallery http://twitter.com/#!/search/%23OWS/slideshow/photos?url=https%3A%2F%2Fp.twimg.com%2FAetWI7cCAAAt4bU.jpg

CPD CULTURE POSTS: Exploring the Cultural Underbelly of Public Diplomacy

November 20, 2011 § 2 Comments

Welcome to the opening entry of Culture Posts, an interactive blog for exploring the cultural underbelly of public diplomacy. Over the next two years, I hope that you will join me, collecting and discussing your insights on the hidden, and often times not so hidden, aspects of culture in public diplomacy.

The Multiples faces of Culture
Culture, as an underlying force that shapes global public diplomacy, remains curiously unexplored. Most focus on the positive, visible side of culture. As a soft power resource, culture is often viewed as a product for export that can help improve a country’s image. In cultural diplomacy, culture is a vehicle for bringing people together. Culture helps build mutual understanding.

Yet, culture is like the well-known optical illusion that can appear to be a single vase or two, depending on one’s perspective. The image and the vase (The Queen’s Speech) reflect culture’s multiple meanings and hidden symbolism – there are 4 faces, including the profiles of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip.

The implicit, unspoken side of cultural assumptions and expectations tend to generate mutual misunderstanding. These hidden aspects are the ones most likely to contribute to costly, ineffective public diplomacy initiatives that can do more harm than good.

Multiple Perspectives of Public Diplomacy

In public diplomacy, discussions of culture can be controversial, and spark debates between universalism and cultural variation. Controversy provides even more reason to explore culture.

Culture touches nearly every aspect of public diplomacy – from the ideas that actors select and try to communicate, to how that communication is perceived by global publics.

Originally, scholars of diplomacy maintained that principles of negotiations were “universal.” Raymond Cohen’s (U.S. Institute of Peace, 1991) landmark study demonstrated what seasoned diplomats instinctively knew, namely that Arab, Japanese and U.S. diplomats do not “negotiate” the same way or necessarily from the same premise. Cohen traced the distinctive styles and underlying philosophies to the differing cultural heritages.

The predominance of U.S. scholarship as a cultural force in public diplomacy cannot be underestimated. The screenshot of Wikipedia about U.S. dominance in public diplomacy was taken just this week.

While the U.S. may be a leader in the field, the U.S. perspective represents a mono-cultural perspective in what is undeniably a multicultural world. The dominance of the U.S. model may overshadow the rich contributions of other intellectual heritages to the vision of public diplomacy. In a world of global communication, what insights could be gained if we could view public diplomacy from multiple perspectives?

Future Trends: Culture’s Blessing or Curse

The need for cultural knowledge for public diplomats is likely to grow more urgent given the strengthening of two trends.

The first trend is the growing salience of cultural identity by publics. Public diplomacy inherently includes messages about how a party sees itself (identity) and the other (image). Albeit a two-sided equation, public diplomacy focuses primarily on how a nation or sponsor can protect or promote its own image.

However, publics tend to have similar identity needs. Violations of a public’s cultural identity can elicit strong reactions. The 2005 Danish ‘cartoon’ incident is a powerful example. The strategies that public diplomats use to navigate the dynamics of cultural identities and media representations rest on cultural awareness and knowledge.

A second trend is the move toward collaborative public diplomacy to tackle complex “wicked” problems. The recent mantra of relationship-building, networking, partnerships, and engagement are part of the vocabulary of collaboration. Collaboration in public diplomacy may well become the strategic equivalent of negotiation in traditional diplomacy.

At the heart of collaborative public diplomacy is the ability to get people of diverse backgrounds to work productively together. Researchers are finding that cultural diversity is the greatest source of friction – and synergy – in collaboration. A public diplomat’s cultural awareness and knowledge will determine whether she is able to invoke culture’s curse or blessing.

Cultural similarities, differences, paradoxes … your ideas for a Culture Post?

In the months ahead, I hope that you will join me on a journey to explore the cultural underbelly of public diplomacy in Culture Posts. Each month Culture Posts will highlight themes that range from listening to multicultural perspective-taking, to power and proverbs, to cognitive styles and website design.

With the addition of your insights and perspectives to Culture Posts, we can help create a forum for collecting, sharing and discussing the many cultural similarities, differences, and even cultural paradoxes found in global public diplomacy. In fact, we are looking for an image to represent “Culture Posts” or “the cultural underbelly of public diplomacy,” please share your idea!

 

** This post wast originally published on November 14, as part of the USC Center for Public Diplomacy research fellowship project on the Cultural Underbelly of Public Diplomacy.

 

Arab League, Keeping up with Online Public Diplomacy

November 12, 2011 § 1 Comment

Today the Arab League made news. After its meeting on what to do about the ongoing bloodshed in Syria, the League’s members voted to . . .

If you wanted to get the news in English, you would have to go to news media sources rather than the source itself. The Arab League may have missed the public diplomacy boat by not having an official English language version of its actions on its website.

The Arab League’s action regarding Syria had been widely anticipated by the Western media.  In fact, the League’s meeting today was the lead editorial in the Washington Post.

The Arabic language page of the Arab League site did post the news in Arabic. So there was someone home.

Being prepared or cognizant that the media and other parties may turn to one’s website during a news event is part of the public diplomacy digital strategy. Whenever there is a major story to tell, the organization should be there to tell its story.  In diplomacy,  subtle differences matter.  Translations can be tricky.  Public diplomacy usually involves politics. And politics, by nature, are contentious.  If there is going to be different versions of a story, better to have one’s version up prominently. Or, at least as an option.

The Arab League did hold a press conference immediately after the meeting of its members and announced decisions against Syria. The press conference was covered live by Arabic stations and by Al-Jazeera English. After the initial announcement was made, Al-Jazeera English broke away into c commentary by a reporter.

Today, updating ones websites should matter as much as holding a press conferences to announce the news.  Online audiences matter. Now that I think about it, for those who may have missed all the action that went on today, having a video of that press conference on the site might not be a bad idea either.

Conspicuous by Their Absence

September 25, 2011 § Leave a comment

As I mentioned earlier, there was a lot of PDing at the United Nations this week, especially on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. However, despite all the action I was surprised by a couple of rather glaring absences in all the activities. Three glaring oversights stood out.

Diplomatically, despite the historic nature of the Palestinian bid, there were no surprises. The Palestinians sought to return the “Question of Palestine” to its original roots in the United Nations and tap into its broad support in the international community. Israelis sought to distance the conflict from the international forum and stressed direct negations where it holds the upper hand in an asymmetrical power dynamic. Both parties quite naturally want to play to their strength in the diplomatic maneuvering.

In terms of public diplomacy, in such a high visibility, adversarial context, assertive public diplomacy that focuses on strong, direct, and clear messaging strategies would be the approach of choice.

Both parties took advantage at their turn at the podium to present their position, the best of assertive public diplomacy. However, both parties did not transfer that offline momentum to an online forum. In fact one of the parties seemed to be missing a digital strategy.

Here is the captured screen shot of the Palestine Observer Mission to the United Nations after the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas delivered his speech.

 

 No mention of the events of that day or visuals. No interactive elements to keep or engage visitors engaged. If one clicks on the link, the main focus of the page, the link takes the visitor to a document written “September 2011.”

Below is a captured screen shot of the Israeli Mission to the United Nations. The picture of Benjamin Netanyahu rotates with other visuals acts to simulate movement and action and keeps the visitor engaged with the site.

 

Politico had reported earlier in the week about the various steps Israel was taking to construct a digital strategy and mobilize the necessary resources to realize that strategy.  As an indication of the strength of the digital effort, I ventured over the Twitter sphere.

As an indication of how strong and vigorously that digital strategy was implemented, below is a screen shot just Twitter searches I was conducting during Abbas’ speech. Although I used various search terms, including #Abbas

 

   and #Palestine, and listings methods, the Israeli PM tweet invariably came up on top.

 

 The first conspicuous absence: a Palestinian digital strategy.

Another missing component from the Palestinian strategic diplomatic picture that was conspicuously absent was Gaza. Gaza is complex in terms of the political dynamics all around, but it will need to be incorporated for the Palestinian public diplomacy strategy to be comprehensive.

Despite these two missing pieces, the historical nature of the event still captured headlines of major papers around the world, The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Le Monde.

The third conspicuous absence was reflect in the actions of an important third party.  Since the Palestinians first announced their intention to take their bid for statehood at the U.N., the United States has been vocal in stating the importance it attaches to the conflict. It has been vigorously pushing for direct talks between the two parties. And, it has sought to position itself as the mediator. While the Palestinian application for statehood capture headlines by major newspapers in the United States and around the world, including the New York Times, Le Monde, and the Guardian, the front page of the Washington Post on Saturday was quite remarkable.

Given the rhetoric in Washington, the amount of front page coverage speaks volumes.

Historical Influences on US Public Diplomacy

September 21, 2011 § 2 Comments

There is a lot of PDing going on at the United Nations this week. (Yes, I just made Public Diplomacy a verb. Apologies.)

However, I promised to myself to return to an earlier question: If relations have always been important in diplomacy, why do they appear overlooked? Why the urgent call for “more relations?”

I also promised myself to respond to my PD colleague Robin Brown over at PD, Networks and Influence about “historical forms” of public diplomacy.

Perhaps I can hit three birds with one stone by looking at the US historical influences that help shape a US model of public diplomacy whose elements are evident in the public diplomacy at the UN this week.

First to Robin Brown. Brown speaks about “historical forms” of public diplomacy and suggests two historical genealogies of public diplomacy. One genealogy, which he links primarily to the U.S. and U.K.,  is a “story of the evolution of propaganda and psychological warfare that spans from the World Wars to the War on Terror.” A second genealogy,from “the last two centuries,” he expands to the field of diplomacy more generally and other countries that may not share the Anglo-American historical experience.

I think Brown hits the nail on the head with historical origins of a particular U.S. model of public diplomacy. Public diplomacy in the 20th century U.S. historical context is a product of the U.S. wartime experience. Whereas the flurry of diplomacy is often seen to forestall or mitigate hostilities, in the U.S. historical experience the flurry of public diplomacy has  been most active during times of war.

The wartime origins and other developments in the United States during the 20th century may have helped shape a vision of public diplomacy that runs counter to relationship building strategies or which are overshadowed by a focus on messaging strategies. I see prominent four attributes associated with this U.S. historical period.

1.      Adversarial – tool of wartime

As John Brown and others have noted, US public diplomacy has followed a rather predictable pattern. Since the time of the American revolution, US public diplomacy becomes active (or re-activated) with the start of war, and intensifies during hostilities, only to abruptly halt activities at the close of war. As a product of U.S. wartime experience, public diplomacy assumed an adversarial orientation rather than relational orientation. The primary motivation for communication was to defeat the enemy. Strategies focused on isolating the enemy and controlling the communication terrain, while tactics included deliberate deception and distortion of information as well as public emotion.

2.      Information – focus on the message

U.S. public diplomacy also early on appeared to emphasize information, rather than relations, as a core focus.  The names of various agencies charged with public diplomacy reflect the information orientation. During World War I President Wilson created the Committee on Public Information. Shortly before World War II, President Roosevelt established the Office of Coordinator of Information, followed by the US Foreign Information Service. During the Cold War, there was the US Information Service, whose name was later changed to the US Information Agency (USIA). Up until recently, US government reports, congressional testimony, and other documents on public diplomacy activities were referred to as “overseas information programs.”

3.      Instrument – goal oriented

As Robin Brown pointed out, US Public diplomacy emerged and developed at a time when persuasion, specifically propaganda, was the dominant focus of U.S. communication practice and research. During world war I, America and U.S.-allied troops witnessed the power of “propaganda” to influence troop morale. As a relatively unknown phenomenon, propaganda became the focus of study. Following World War II and the encounter with Nazi propaganda, U.S. research on persuasion, attitude change and public opinion intensified. As Chris Simpson detailed, the U.S. government sponsored research laid the foundation for communication scholarship. Propaganda, as a form of persuasive communication, is strongly instrumental and goal oriented. Information may be deliberately withheld or manipulated to achieve the persuasive goal. Elements such as trust, credibility, mutuality – what would be considered cornerstones for developing relations – were similarly manipulated to serve the goals of the communicator.  While public diplomacy has tried to shed the label of manipulation, it has retained its influence, goal-orientation.

4.     Impersonal – arm’s length, mediated communication

The growth of public diplomacy also coincided with the emergence of the mass media, first radio in the 1920s, followed by the television in the 1930s and 1940s.  In many ways, impersonal aspects of mass communication were antithetical to the personal touches of interpersonal communication that facilitate relationship building. Whereas interpersonal or face-to-face communication allowed for individually tailored messages for the listener, mass media messages often catered to the lowest common denominator to reach a mass audience. Whereas interpersonal communication assumed an active, immediately engaged audience, mass communication operated on a passive audience. Whereas interpersonal communication enjoys the immediacy of emotional and sensory engagement, mass communication limited to visual and auditory cues to stimulate engagement.

The adversarial, information, instrumental and impersonal orientation within which public diplomacy developed may have been further institutionalized by U.S. public diplomacy during the Cold War. The name of the agency charged with public diplomacy (U.S. Information Agency) as well as the agency’s motto (“Telling our Story”) underscores the informational orientation.  The adversarial orientation against the Soviet Union cast public diplomacy as a tool. The strategic objective is as Nicholas Cull observed was to attain information dominance. While relational initiatives such as the jazz and other cultural events were spotlighted as particularly effective  during the Cold War, their effectiveness is presented primarily in the adversarial context of defeating communism and winning the Cold War.

Given the historical origins of public diplomacy, it is perhaps not surprising that when public diplomacy re-emerged again in the U.S. context after the attacks of September 11, 2001, these features were also present beginning with the “us versus them” orientation and “battle for hearts and minds.”

As Robin Brown points out, other countries that don’t share the US history may have alternate associations for public diplomacy. In a paper at the International Studies Association, Brown noted that France has a more relational approach with its focus on cultural diplomacy that dates back to the 19th century.  Professor Yiwei Wang also described Chinese public diplomacy as more relational oriented due to Confucian influences.

… Which brings me back to all the PDing at the United Nations this week and hitting those three birds with one stone. If this was the historical roots that shaped US public diplomacy, what can be learned about the historical roots of other countries and how have those roots shaped alternative views of public diplomacy? And, is it a matter of messaging strategies versus relational strategies, or is it a perhaps diagonal thinking across strategies?

John Brown, Historical Patterns of US Government Overseas Propaganda, 1917-2007.

Robin Brown, Public Diplomacy and Social Networks, International Studies Association, Montreal, March 2011.

Christopher Simpson, Science of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare, 1945-1960, 1st ed. (Oxford University Press, USA, 1996).

Nicholas J. Cull, The Cold War and the United States Information Agency: American Propaganda and Public Diplomacy, 1945-1989 (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

Yiwei Wang, Public Diplomacy and the Rise of Chinese Soft Power, The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 2008, 616, 257-273.

Visual Propaganda?

July 21, 2011 § 1 Comment

Whenever I open al-Jazeera Arabic news portal I am never quite sure I’ll be ready for the photos.

Yesterday, the opening photo was of a Somali mother with her emaciated child. The other day, a close up of a corpse of a protestor. Today, however, really caught me off guard, or rather, got my guard up about the vulnerability of public sentiments in the battle for hearts and minds.

The action shot had blurred images around the edges but the center zoomed in on a youth in his underwear (briefs, not boxers).This was the visual accompanying the lead story on the portal this morning EST.

The youth is hunched over, blindfolded and being held by two individuals who appear to be in military uniform — one green, the other camouflage. The photo is cropped so that you cannot see the individual faces of those holding the youth or get sense of the background. The visual powerfully draws the viewer into the picture and focused on the man’s underwear and — sense of humiliation and loss of dignity.  [I am not putting the full picture here for that reason.]

To me, the picture resonated with those from abu Ghraib prisonscandal in Iraq with the US  military.  Those photos which violated all cultural norms of modesty in the Arab society inflamed emotions.

I immediately turned to the comments to see readers’ reactions to the visuals.  There was a comparatively large number of postings, already up to 90 by 10am EST, then 119 11:30. What was interesting and appeared new in the comments were the sectarian references to Alawite and Sunni — and then the pleas “we are all Syrian.” There have been increasing concerns about the source of sectarian division.

The more I studied the picture, the article (which conformed to hard news ethics) and the readers’ comments, the more suspicious the combination appeared.  The readers appeared to be emotionally responding the picture and were fueled by deliberately provocative comments.

Then I noticed the picture credit — the “Ugarit News” — posted in the upper right. Never heard of “Ugarit News.”   I googled Ugarit News.

No dedicated, established  website that most established “news” sources have. Instead, which was not a good start, I found Ugarit’s home on “NewsCred” — a site where you can “create your own newspaper in 60 seconds.” And, it seems that Ugarit News may have done just that  in May 2011.   The site oddly only had a few random cultural news items about Syria.

More prominent was Ugarit News’ YouTube channel — created on April 2, 2011. An English channel was created last month to reach “the international media and non-Arabic speakers.” Noteworthy also, was the emphasis on credibility: “We choose our news sources carefully to maintain credibility and show the real picture of the event.”

Ugarit’s videos again echo of anonymity and are void of a sense of context. One might expect anonymity in uprising, but there have been several recent “hoaxes” that border on propaganda.

One of the defining aspects of propaganda is that some aspect of the communication experience is hidden. This could be the source, intent to persuade, etc.  Another aspect, which I think I overlooked in the earlier posts on hoaxes as propaganda, is the emotionally charged nature of the communication experience.  Propaganda not only emotionally engages but can emotionally charge viewers with fear, hate, and anger.

An example of anonymity and absence of context, is Ugarit’s video of two masked men smashing picture of the Syrian president. The men’s faces are covered, of course, but there is an absence of recognizable context. There is also something contrived or staged about the video; it focuses viewer’s attention entirely on the action.  Almost professionally so.

There is also another extremely graphic video of men removing dead and wounded civilians from a road. The emotional tone of the video is reflected in the men’s voices. The men are calling out names of the victims, which humanizes the victims for the viewer and draws the viewer in emotionally. Again the video is void of contextual visual cues of where the road is, how the individuals were shot, who shot them to visually verify the story.

Ugarit News also has an active Twitter feed with several posts per hour as well as Facebook page. The “About us” section says that Ugarit News gives breaking news and photos. Seems that the Twitter account was also created in April — all part of what is beginning to add up to a coordinated strategic digital strategy.

There also seems something professionally persuasive about about the logo.  A member of “Digital Spy” posted on May 11 that Ugarit’s logo  bears a striking resemblance to the color and design of the well established Sky News in the U.K.

By visually imitating Sky News, Ugarit News is trying gain instant credibility and confuse the viewer. Given the speed with which images are shown on media, viewers could easily mistake Ugarit News with Sky News — and make the picture instantly credible.  Such confusion tactics are another propaganda technique.

I have written before about the question of online ethics in public diplomacy, such as digital propaganda and pseudo sites. This is not the first time that credible and prominent news organizations have gotten caught up in the “battle for hearts and minds” during the Arab awakening.  The Washington Post, New York Times, and Guardian all fell victim to #Amina, the GayGirlinDamascus who turned out to be a married American male living in Scotland.

Nor is this the first time that al-Jazeera’s credibility may have been compromised.  There is  clearly an information battle raging not only in Syria.  Ugarit News may be yet another example of where open, credible “public diplomacy”  by a political entity has taken advantage of the chaos of conflict and crossed the line over into propaganda.

====

UPDATE

The Al-Jazeera story continues to generate comments, well over 150 by this afternoon. However, the image has been replaced. [I have cropped the image for ethical reasons.]

The link and the story headline are the same: قصف مدفعي بحمص وتهديد دبلوماسي

Here is the new screen shot of story with new photo.

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