Culture Posts: Giving Voice to Publics

February 9, 2013 § 16 Comments

Last week, before the world caught on fire over a film clip, I wrote about the paradox of value promotion in public diplomacy. No matter how appealing promoting one’s values may be, trying to do so in a global arena is fraught with difficulty. Yet, because values are integral to a nation’s communication, public diplomacy will inevitably reflect those values. What’s happening between the U.S. and publics in the Islamic world reflects the immediate consequence of the paradox of value promotion – both sides are trying to communicate what they value, but rather than being understood – they are less so.

The more they persist in their efforts, the more likely the cycle may escalate. In the long term, a battle over value promotion is a no-win scenario in today’s global communication arena. To be savvy, public diplomacy strategists need to find ways to give voice and bring the public into the public diplomacy equation.

Value Contests

Let me speak first to the immediate term, then the long term, of trying to play out value contests.

In the short term, value promotion can cause more misunderstanding rather than less. Greater misunderstanding often leads to greater frustration. Unresolved frustration often leads to anger. That’s the chain.

There is also the communication chain. When people become frustrated that their verbal efforts to communicate aren’t working, they often resort to more disparate physical means.

The chains explain how anger develops, but they do not justify violence – physical, verbal, or visual. It is important to recognize that verbal and visual violence can be as damaging to human spirit as physical violence is to the life and limb. Verbal assaults that strike the soul can take longer to heal than physical ones. Images seared in the mind are difficult to erase, if ever.

While anger may be the emotion, violence does not have to be the inevitable or the only avenue of expression.

Digital Protest Venues

An immediate short term step that an entity can do in a crisis situation is to try to create public communication channels for publics to express strong emotion – confusion, discontent, anger. This strategy of capturing and trying to diffuse hostile public sentiment was done in several domestic U.S. crises by using the social media. One technique was setting up a ‘gripe’ Facebook page. A similar strategy was used in Singapore: the very same social media tools that had been used to spark the public outrage were used to capture and contain that outrage.

Here is where U.S. public diplomacy must be creative and innovative in adapting its expertise in social media. Rather than using the tools to get the U.S. message out, the tools are creatively used to give others a voice.

Philip Seib, in a personal email, put a nice label on this strategy: it is “providing electronic protest venues.”

Naturally, there will be those whose interests are in promoting violence, not quelling it. However, physical forms of communication are costly. Most people seeking communication want to be heard and understood. By creating a credible a space or forum for verbal expression, the need or justification for physical expression becomes less pressing and others are less able to exploit public sentiment.

The need to give voice is not just an immediate short term strategy. Creating channels for publics to communicate — or speak to power – is especially important for a superpower.

A Second Wakeup Call

Since 9/11, much of public diplomacy has focused on how nations can get their messages out–how to strengthen their voices. Engagement and networks are more efficient strategies for communicating to or with publics.

If 9/11 was a wakeup call for state-centric public diplomacy; the events by publics over the past couple of years should be a second wakeup call to explore the public role in public diplomacy. Publics are participatory. They are networked. They are increasingly communication savvy.

Strategic public diplomacy is no longer communicating to or even with publics. It is integrating communication from publics.

For the U.S., as a superpower, it is not about “being heard,” but about giving voice to those who feel they are not. The U.S. may lament that it is not understood and feel compelled to work harder and shout louder.

But much of humanity across the globe shares that frustration of not being understood and wants to shout louder. Yet, unlike the U.S. government, they do not have the means or resources. That imbalance of communication power further fuels frustration.


Building bridges in an interconnected world represents a mindshift in thinking from “mutual interests” to “mutuality” as the basis of global communication. The tendency is to look for mutual interests and benefits – finding what two parties have in common. If there is nothing in common, the one without power loses. “Mutuality,” as outlined in a British Council report, is unconditional recognition of the needs of the other. Kathy Fitzpatrick also wrote about “mutuality” in her CPD fellowship.

To be effective in a connected network world, the U.S. as a superpower needs to shift its perspective from thinking of “mutual interests and benefits” with equally powerful players to “mutuality” and adjusting its power with less powerful players. We live in an interconnected world. The publics around the world have seized on the reality. Adopting the mindset of mutuality will help ease the communication tensions and create communication bridges instead of battles.

FROM Culture Post series:

Zaharna, R. S. (September 18, 2012). “Culture Posts: Giving Voice to Publics,” in USC Center on Public Diplomacy, Blog Series




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.



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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