Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Russia's "Web of Justice"

This post originally appeared on RuNet Echo, Global Voices Online. 

Last week, Russia's foreign broadcaster - Russia Today TV (RT) - ran a report about Russian bloggers and how they, heroically, expose crimes and corruption in the system.

Here are some excerpts from the related article posted online:
Desktops, laptops, phones and PDAs…. Internet in Russia is rapidly becoming much more available, and much more than just entertainment. For many, it has turned into a virtual speaker's corner, where their voice will not only be heard, but is guaranteed to echo across the country within hours.
There are vocal examples of how Internet users can help solve complicated problems. In one instance, a video of a man posted online led to his dismissal. The man, who was the head of the local government, was bullying children at school but remained unpunished until the video went viral.
Analysis followed:
This doesn't mean that journalists are bad, and bloggers are better,” stressed Sergey Dorenko, editor in chief of Russian News Service. “Or that the only notion of free speech exists online. It's simply a matter of choice. We no longer want to watch someone else's rundown, we want to – and can – make our own. The Internet allows us to choose what we want to know about, at a speed print or TV media simply cannot compete with.

But then, there was this:
In another instance, one blogger managed to reach Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in order to help an orphan, Pasha Berezin. A master chess player, a math genius and guaranteed state benefits, Pasha is missing the start of the academic year due to the demands of a construction company that helps fund the school. “I want to be an IT specialist,” the boy told RT. “But the school said that if I want to study here and live in the residence halls, I have to study to be a builder.” Pasha's case was taken on by a charity organization, Murzik.
Its founder, German Pyatov, says what made a difference to his case was a message he posted online to the president. “After I posted my letter, someone from the president's office called and asked for details about this case,” Pyatov said. “I know they got in touch with Pasha's college, because almost immediately afterward, the college called and told Pasha to withdraw his application and basically get the hell out. They were scared that the authorities got involved. Then the media picked up the story, and the college was forced to stop its unlawful actions. They now allow Pasha to attend lectures, but still refuse to give him a room.”

This story was broadcast on September 20. The following day, another report about the great potential of the Russian blogosphere appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines (online and print, in cooperation with several prominent foreign newspapers):
Opposition politics in Russia have become less about political figures or parties, and more about grassroots issues: Witness the car protests or the grassroots campaign against police corruption. The trickle-up effect (from blogosphere to mainstream media) is especially significant, as it shows how bloggers move further away from being the preserve of an urban, well-connected elite.

Seeing such reports, one cannot help but consider the source: both of these outlets are state-owned and are produced, primarily, in English, with the objective of "helping foreigners better understand Russia." With this in mind, it seems such stories would serve Russia's public diplomacy well, especially given President Medvedev's attempts to demonstrate to the world that Russia can be en par with the West in terms of technological progress, as well as the social and economic transformations that accompany it.

Yet, Russian Internet freedom also seems to be a paradox that has caught the attention of many, lately. Earlier this month, Tangled Web tried addressing Russia's "virtual democracy", referring to a recent report by the U.S. Institute of Peace - Blogs and Bullets - on the power of the new media:
From the outset, the report makes the point that the impact of new media on democracy is still unclear, as much of the evidence is still fragmentary and anecdotal. But one sentence, in the section on how new media can affect individuals, stuck with me: “new media could make citizens more passive, by leading them to confuse online rhetoric with substantial political action, diverting their attention away from productive activities.”
Cyberspace is remarkably free in Russia, especially compared with state-dominated broadcast and print media. And there is a lot of good grass-roots activism on the web in Russia. But rather than the Internet being democracy’s enabler, it could also be one of its biggest loopholes, allowing a parallel discourse and parallel process, one that’s lively and diverse, but ultimately a sham.

Here, one cannot but mention the 2010 report by OpenNet Initiative, whose Country Profile on Russia reads:
The absence of overt state-mandated Internet filtering in Russia has led some observers to conclude that the Russian Internet represents an open and uncontested space. In fact, the opposite is true. The Russian government actively competes in Russian cyberspace employing second- and third-generation strategies as a means to shape the national information space and promote pro-government political messages and strategies. This approach is consistent with the government’s strategic view of cyberspace that is articulated in strategies such as the doctrine of information security.

You can read more about these "alternative approaches" to Internet "management" in a separate chapter of the report, dedicated to the Russian cyberspace. In essence, however, they represent inconspicuous and, perhaps even, covert measures, that do not necessarily limit broader freedoms - to give a general sense of calm (i.e. there are no "firewalls" or certain website bans) - while taking over in instances where allowing too much freedom can have serious repercussions.

There were several other "news" pieces dealing with the issue, which are worth noting:

- The Guardian had an optimistic article about "Russia's blogging revolution," while pointing out examples of how it can, as well, be exploited by those in power for their own interests.

- The New York Times had a special video segment on the potential of Internet activism, and some of its possible consequences in Russia.

- The very same Russia Today TV ran a story about a failed attempt by a court in Far Eastern city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur to block YouTube. That follows the much-discussed "new experiment" by the Kremlin: opening up the newly proposed Police reform bill for public review, online.


These, perhaps, do demonstrate signs of progress, which, most certainly, cannot be expected to arrive overnight. Nevertheless, they might as well be examples of what the Tangled Web referred to as "an old strand of thought in Russia, where the tsar was fundamentally decent and it was the corrupt mid-level officials who were to blame for everything."

It should be mentioned, however, that democracy - real or virtual - proves itself, time and again, as being very relative. When even some of the more prominent Western democracies have major issues with Internet access and surveillance, perhaps Russia should not be judged as strictly?

But then, why not, if the country has set that objective for itself?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Obama, Ahmadinejad, and... RT!

I had a very lengthy post a couple of days ago about Ahmadinejad's UNGA speech this week. Quite obviously, his comments raised quite a storm in the international media (and American/Western, especially), prompting a response from Barack Obama. In an extensive interview with BBC Persian, he condemned the Iranian President and went a long way to reach out to the people of Iran and Afghanistan. (Well done, on public diplomacy! But there's the ever-present need to remember that people there will judge things based on what they see done, on the ground.)

Here's a small excerpt from that interview:

Interestingly, however, Ahmadinejad made sure to defend his comments (perhaps, a preemptive move of some sorts?) at a press conference. Here's how Iran's PressTV covered it:

Of course, it is funny to see the spin he has tried giving to the whole issue:
"I believe this is assistance to [Americans]. I've tried to open the way for them, so they leave Afghanistan and Iraq respectably. Is this bad? This is very good assistance. It's certainly humanitarian. It's assistance to the people of Afghanistan and Iraq, and it's also assistance to the soldiers of America and NATO, who are getting killed; and also to the people in the West, who are paying the taxes while their soldiers are getting killed. This is assistance."

I wonder if he really, genuinely thinks this is working...

Of special note, however, is a statement he made "by the way": something American public diplomacy practitioners and thinkers have been emphasizing over and over again:
"[Americans] are accustomed to talking all the time. They're not accustomed to listening."

Wow. Now, it is even coming from the Iranian President himself...!? Perhaps it's high time to give it a serious thought?

And of course, I can't leave this post without the spice. Although, on multiple occasions before, I had promised to stop complaining about Russia Today TV (RT) - their content, framing, approach - the temptation to go back is just too strong. So, I just decided not to resist - at all - especially given the whole new propaganda era that Russia's international broadcaster seems to have got into recently: RT America. (There will be much more on this over the coming weeks...)

Here's a piece they had last evening. I'm sure you will find it at least as amusing as it was for me...

Friday, September 24, 2010

Ahmadinejad, 9/11, and "Distrust of Others"

As world leaders gather in New York these days, they all get a chance (some get more than just one) to charm, impress, and make their cause in front of the international public.

Ahmadinejad certainly made the headlines yesterday, stealing the limelight away from many other "notable" speakers on the first day of the UN General Assembly. His 9/11 conspiracy comments - which, supposedly, prompted that major walkout everyone keeps talking about - should not have come as a surprise, though. Just as the spokesman for the U.S. mission to the UN put it: Ahmadinejad's statement was full of "vile conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic slurs," just as it was predictable.

As a part of my undergrad thesis a couple of years ago, I had analyzed all of Ahmadinejad's UNGA statements and other international appearances, as well as a substantial number of interviews he had held with Western media. Looking at his yesterday's speech, it is obvious that there hasn't been much of a change: his word choice, framing and tone, as well as the major subjects he focused on, all fall into the usual pattern of his presidential rhetoric style. 

Using the Leaders' Personality Trait Analysis framework, I had found that "distrust of others" is a very salient personality trait for Ahmadinejad, strongly affecting his worldview and approach to policy-making and, as such, being reflected in his public statements. I guess I could expand that argument today, to bring in the element of public diplomacy, too, especially considering the forum: UNGA.

Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera.

"Distrust of others" usually suggests a high level of doubt, suspicion, and uneasiness about the environment and the other actors in it. It is usually well demonstrated through a frequent use of words and statements that refer to injustice, conspiracy, malevolence and misuse of power by others, high perception of threat, as well as "war"-related language: attack, invasion, occupation, weapons, etc.

On the side, I had also looked at his most frequent references to other states/international actors: his "salient others" in the international sphere. Quite predictably, the U.S./"The West", Israel/Zionist Regime, Palestine, and Iraq had topped the list (April 2009).

In these terms, the content of this year's statement was similar (if not mostly identical) to the ones the President of the Islamic Republic had given before. It seems, though, he and his aides spent many hours trying to come up with something original for the 65th UNGA Session - something that would have "an effect"; something that would grab headlines; something along the lines of questioning the Holocaust or the legal and moral grounds for establishing the state of Israel (by the way: since we are looking at statements and wording here, there is a need to point out that he never actually said the Holocaust did NOT happen - he said there's need for more research; the same is true of the "Israel-and-map" comment, which is gravely distorted up to this day...).

Cartoon from Capitalism Magazine.

The 9/11 epiphany was not a bad choice, in that sense. Not only did he manage to insult the U.S., "reveal the hypocrisy of 'The West'", which functions solely to protect the interests of the "Zionist Regime"... but he also expressed his solidarity - indirectly - with all Muslims who have suffered in the course of the "War On Terror" that followed the attacks.

Conspiracy? - Check
Misuse of power? - Check
Need for justice? - Check
Attack? - Check
Occupation? - Check
... ... ...
Need for defense? - Check

Implications? A very aggressive, outspoken, and security-obsessed president. He can, and will take tough decisions if need be (and if circumstances let him), in case he feels Iran is seriously threatened. His tone and approach to foreign policy? Confrontational (not that this is news...).

And yesterday... perhaps he was just trying to make a point? Perhaps something along the lines of what the Emir of Qatar was talking about..?
"We believe that even as the phenomenon of terrorism exists, it should not be treated by waging wars. This treatment has not achieved security, peace or prosperity."

But again, Ahmadinejad and the team got the framing wrong, losing not just credibility, but also serious audience. Thus, after the half-hour-long harangue, he was calling - yet again - for a substantial UN reform, inviting the international public to a conference on terrorism he plans to host next year, and proposing to proclaim 2011 a year of disarmament: "Nuclear Energy for All, Nuclear Weapons for None." 

Iran's foreign policy priorities and insecurity lie at the heart of this all. Of course. But it was also, clearly, an attempt of public diplomacy, targeting primarily those very few (in the half-empty Assembly hall?!) who could, potentially, sympathize with and support Iran's stance. Even if not in public. The issue is, however, that when it comes to public diplomacy, Ahmadinejad forgets that he is not Khatami, and every time he speaks, he manages (successfully!) to kill whatever little credibility he has, especially in front of the increasingly "hostile" Western public...


- Iranian-Americans seem to be making good friends with the Neo-Cons. The question is - what happens after Iran gets bombed?

- Saakashvili descended into his own, usual diatribe... 48 minutes!! (see video here). And he hasn't been wasting his time - he also paid a visit and bonded with FoxNews. "Feels like home."!?!?

- Azerbaijan's Heydar Aliyev used his time wisely, going - at length - into the Nagorno Karabkh issue. It's clear where his priorities lie. Well done on PD!

- Abdullah Gul of Turkey was very upset with Israel, again. He welcomed the recent UN HRC Report stating that Israel's attack on the Gaza flotilla in May was illegal, and called for a formal apology. He also bashed Israel's nukes.

- And Obama, who tried to set a more positive tone, reiterated that the "door remains open to diplomacy should Iran choose to walk through it." He also appealed for more support and determination for the latest round of the Middle East Peace Talks... and emphasized America's "achievements" in "international peace and security" so far.

- While the Israeli delegation was absent. All day.

P.S. - Almost forgot! A slice of RT propaganda, for dessert:


UPDATE [10:05 am, 09/24/10]: A priceless piece from Iranian PressTV, "analyzing President's suggestion to set up a fact-finding mission by the UN, to investigate [9/11]." Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What's PD to do with Selective Perception

Interest in communication strategies has driven me to the School of Communication this semester, again, for a class on Communication Theory (very useful stuff, by the way!). Although every single reading or discussion we have had so far can - in one way or another - be directly related to public diplomacy, this week's focus on selectivity and biased information processing was of special relevance, given my previous interest in cultural hegemony and spheres of cognitive influence.

Most of the literature, of course, comes from academic articles and books, but this piece in The Boston Globe covers most of the major points fairly well. A quick intro to the major concepts:

- Selective Exposure suggests that people's beliefs (as well as values, pre-conceived notions, worldview, etc..) guide their media selection.

- Selective Perception suggests that even if people are exposed to certain messages (voluntarily or not, doesn't matter), they filter out the information according to pre-existing beliefs, biases, etc.

- Elaboration (within the Elaboration Likelihood Model - ELM - of communication) happens when messages prompt cognitive responses from recipients, who carefully scrutinize the information, and decide whether it deserves merit based on their prior knowledge and/or experience.

The emergence and proliferation of media outlets (countless, by now), as well as the multitude of ways to personalize content, certainly increase the "risk" of selective exposure, limiting the range of information only to that which reinforces and reconfirms the pre-existing beliefs of the individual. An even more worrisome aspect, however, concerns selective perception: even if one consciously (or forcibly) chooses to expose themselves to a diversity of views/messages, their mind, sub-consciously, filters out the "undesired" information, mostly because of the need to avoid some sort of cognitive dissonance.

This has major implications for communication strategies, especially those based on the hope that "elaboration" will change people's attitudes and/or behavior. As pointed out by Keohane, researchers have found that "Facts were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger." Negative elaboration.

Thus, the strategy of merely feeding facts to strongly partisan audiences can backfire, bringing about the "I know I'm right" syndrome:
If we believe something about the world, we are more likely to passively accept as truth any information that confirms our beliefs, and actively dismiss information that doesn’t. [...] Whether or not the consistent information is accurate, we might accept it as fact, as confirmation of our beliefs. This makes us more confident in said beliefs, and even less likely to entertain facts that contradict them.

The issue becomes even more complex at the international level: even if public diplomacy strategists overcome the issue of exposure (think access: digital divides, language barriers, authoritarian governments, etc, etc...), they are mostly dealing with cultures and worldviews (pre-existing beliefs, knowledge, experience) that are truly different and are, very often, unclear to the communicators themselves.

Image from PRRN Blog.

Many of the cultural "idiosyncrasies" and attitudes are self-driven through the normal processes of socialization and education: they do affect foreign publics' perceptions and interpretations of a state's actions (including its public diplomacy). And yet, in many cases there is also the issue of governments having major "cognitive influence" over their own, or foreign, publics: hegemony.

For example, a recent poll conducted by the Russian Foundation for Public Opinion found that television channels are the most trusted source of news for 71% of the respondents, the vast majority of who pointed out their preference for the state-owned, national channels 1TV, Rossiya 1, and Rossiya 2 (see the report here - in Russian). [Although the numbers would be fairly different across the post-Soviet space, the Russian government inevitably has significant influence over the "minds" of the public in the CIS, even if one disregards the popularity of the Russian media in the region and considers only the historical or cultural-proximity factors.]

That is why, American policy-makers and analysts who are concerned about Russian "anti-Americanism", should also consider the possibility of traditional public diplomacy approaches - "telling America's story to the world" - not only failing, but also backfiring. Given the selectivity discussion above, this can be an even bigger issue in the case of more authoritarian and hostile countries such as Iran or China. (Yes, there are dissenting voices internally, but the discussion here is more concerned with the actual mass publics.) Thus, it might not matter - really - how many hours al-Hurra broadcasts or how many "media freedom" speeches Secretary Clinton gives, when they are perceived and interpreted through lens that are "distorted" by cultural and historical factors.

The theory is not very helpful in suggesting viable solutions to this problem: it calls for a need for further research, etc, etc...; yet, there are aspects of it that can be useful if implemented properly. The ELM suggests that people's motivation and perceived ability to act can bring about a change in the their attitude and/or behavior. In a sense, it is what Keohane refers to when talking about "self-esteem". 
People who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new information than people who had not. In other words, if you feel good about yourself, you’ll listen — and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won’t.

Putting it in public diplomacy terms, it is very important to engage foreign publics in more relational communication - i.e. be much more culturally aware and intelligent (although, I'm using this term here with reservation), and allow for more two-way, reciprocal exchanges. This implies getting rid of the "communicator --> recipient" model and, as discussed on many occasions before, adopting a more horizontal and network-based approach, where all sides are equally empowered and engaged, actively participating in the communication process. (Image from Amazon.)

Not only will this help to inform the American people, and more importantly- public diplomats, about the potential limitations of their communication (as they learn through the exchange process), but it can also give them access to those "pre-conceived notions and beliefs" held by foreigners, who will feel much less "insecure or threatened" (in Keohane's words) thanks to the trust and mutuality that form the foundation of such a relationship. And even if this mode of communication does not change their behavior or attitude, it will make them listen and elaborate, instead of filtering everything out.

All that, provided that policies follow the promises. At the end of the day, actions speak louder than words.


More thoughts on media diversity and consumption from last year:

- The recurrence of the "gramophone mind"
- Hope for a better-informed global media consumer

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Turkey: Cultural Diplomacy or Propaganda?

As promised earlier this March by the Turkish authorities, the Armenian Patriarchate of Turkey held a one-time service in Surb Khatch (Holy Cross) church of the Akhtamar Monastery, on the island in Lake Van (in South-Eastern Turkey). Certainly, the intention of the government was to demonstrate its good-will not only towards its own ethnic Armenian minority, but also towards the Armenian state and the Armenian Diaspora worldwide.... and, just perhaps, showcase the event in front of the international community.

Photo courtesy of RFE/RL.

They certainly managed to make it to major Western news media organizations: BBC, The Guardian, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, RFE/RL, Al Jazeera English, to name but a few...

But, as captured by some of this coverage, there has been a major controversy involved regarding the official "status" of the Church: the authorities have designated the monastery as a "museum", and would not allow a cross on the cupola. The official explanation provided, however, were: "certain technical issues." (Nevertheless, the Governor of the Van Region reportedly said that the cross will be placed within 1.5 months. Not sure if this will materialize...)

All this in light of the Turkish refusal to recognize the Armenian Genocide. Thus, there were no official representatives from the Armenian Government or the Armenian Church, while those Diasporans who ventured out there have been shunned and criticized by their communities back home.

What is interesting, however, is the way the National Turkish Television Channel covered the event in its respective English and Armenian-language sections (yes, they do have content in Armenian). The English-language article, for example, conveniently left out any mention of the cross-related controversy, and highlighted the presence of more than 3,000 tourists and visitors who came to attend the event. There was also no mention of the fact that only 50 high-ranking officials and representatives, and some media, were allowed in the church, while the rest of the audience had to watch the service on giant screens outside.

The Armenian section, however, could not ignore these concerns, so it resorted to citing the official explanation. It even featured an excerpt from an interview with a visiting Armenian journalist - Meline Mouradian - who expressed her excitement about the event, and said she hopes that "all issues will be resolved before similar occasions in the future."

In the meantime, there was a rally organized by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Tashnagtsutyun) in Yerevan, where the supporters of the party, together with representatives from the Church, walked to Tsitsernakaberd (the Genocide Memorial) as a sign of protest against Turkey, the Turkish denial, and against, what they consider to be, the desecration of the Surb Khatch Church.

Great public diplomacy? Or propaganda? Certainly, it's a great overture by Turkish authorities, however, they should know better, and realize that by no means can this be enough to "satisfy" the moderate majority of Armenians around the world (I don't think the government should concern itself with the more radical nationalists - not just yet, at least). The problem with the cross and the fact that most of the visitors were not allowed to attend the ceremony (or even to get into the church, later), only added fuel to the ever-present Genocide issue.

Next time, perhaps...?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Happy Birthday @KremlinRussia! ;)

This post originally appeared on RuNet Echo, Global Voices Online. 

On September 14 the Russian President celebrated his 45th birthday. It was his third birthday as President, and he, most certainly, had received dozens of phone calls from high-level officials and foreign counterparts over the past years. In 2010, however, wishes and congrats poured in from all over the world, in their hundreds, from... Twitter!

Medvedev started his Twitter account last June, while visiting Silicon Valley. He has two officially verified personal accounts: @KremlinRussia (Tweets in Russian) and @KremlinRussia_E (Tweets in English). There is also the @blog_medvedev account, which simply relays the President's blog post updates. As September 14 progressed, the "word" of Medvedev's birthday got viral, prompting many to express their wishes and words of advice.

Here are some noteworthy highlights mentioning the Russian account (and this is just a sample):

- @tpoligaeva:
"Thanks to Twitter, I know that our President, @KremlinRussia has a birthday today! And who said this is a useless website?"

- @_kiradee:
"I'm still on time to congratulate your 45th Birthday, Dmitry Anatolievich @KremlinRussia! I wish you one second term as President. Good luck!"

There were several high-ranking Russian officials congratulating on Twitter too:

- Vladimir @Zhirinovskiy:
"Happy Birthday, Dmitry Anatolievich. New approaches to work, that you are successfully implementing, are vitally important for Russia!"

- Dmitry @Rogozin:
"The Russian Brussels congratulates President D. A. Medvedev's Birthday! We are waiting for your visit!"

And certainly, Nikita Belykh (@NikitaBelyh), the Governor of Kirov Region, who made the news two weeks ago with his Tweet-o-enthusiasm:
"@KremlinRussia when I was 25, I thought 35 will be the end of life. Now, when I'm 35, I realize that 45 is the time for grand achievements ;) Happy Birthday! Sincerely!"

@KremlinRussia kindly acknowledged and thanked his followers for all the wishes:

[Eng: Thank you all for the congratulations. It's very nice. Honesssly!]

The last part was, most probably, misspelled on purpose, and received special attention from Tweeters:

- @Act1on:
"'Honestly' is written with a 't' RT @KremlinRussia Thank you all for the congratulations. It's very nice. Honesssly!"

- @Artem-Radkevich:
"President's press office: closer to the peoppple RT @KremlinRussia Thank you all for the congratulations. It's very nice. Honesssly!"

- @Voffka74:
"@KremlinRussia, can't make it without mistakes? Or is it supposed to be cool?"

- @Dunya89 was more curious about the after-party:
"On the post-celebration morning must certainly ask @KremlinRussia for anti-hangover tips!"

The English-language account received some special attention, too:

- @octokiss:
"Also, it's Medvedev's birthday today! go wish him a happy birthday at @kremlinrussia_E he's adorable, it's worth it"

- @flowersandfun sent a special Tweet-card from the UK:
"Happy Birthday, @KremlinRussia_E. Here's a birthday card we made just for you!"

And a memorable Tweet from a special fan:

- @hobophobicx:

[For those unfamiliar with the Internet slang, I suggest you look here.] 

Certainly, a great illustration of the increasingly horizontal flows of communication, both within Russia as well as internationally. A more or less direct interaction with thousands of individuals is gradually becoming the norm and, as shown, seems to be working fairly well. It was particularly interesting to observe the public diplomacy element of it, since the news spread in the Tweet-o-sphere and reached many around the world.

After all, successful communication strategies that use social media are striving to achieve just that.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Cultural Diplomacy: SURVEY!

Since I'm involved in the organization/coordination part of the project, I thought I would do my part and post this notice on my personal blog as well. Dear reader, please feel free to forward the link to individuals and/or organizations you find appropriate.

Cultural Diplomacy survey

We would like to invite you to participate in a brief survey on cultural diplomacy. Found here, the survey is open-ended and should not take more than a few minutes to complete.

This is an exploratory survey, with the purpose of inviting past, present, and future professionals in the field of cultural diplomacy, both active and retired, to briefly reflect on some key dimensions of diplomatic practice, as they understand it, with particular concern for the role of "culture" in this work.

The survey is a follow-up to the rich discussion of a conference held in Washington, D.C. last November, called “Culture’s Purpose and the Work of Cultural Diplomacy.” Organized for the International Communication Program of American University's School of International Service by professor Robert Albro and colleagues Craig Hayden and Ambassador Anthony Quainton, and with the support of the Public Diplomacy Council and the MountainRunner Institute, this conference examined the role of the culture concept in the work of cultural diplomacy.

Further details, as well as a complete conference podcast and full texts of presentations, are available for download here.

The survey is also part of our preparations for a second conference, on cultural diplomacy as a listening project, to be held at American University, November 8, 2010.

Your answers to this brief survey will be integral to planning for this year’s event, and will help to inform the broader discussion we seek to maintain with respect to this important form of engagement. We hope you might take a few moments to add your wisdom and insights to this critical conversation. If you have any questions about the survey, please do not hesitate to contact professor Albro at:

Monday, September 13, 2010

Islamophobia. Ultimate anti-PD, indeed.

The issue of American Islamophobia has been back in the headlines over the past several weeks, and this past weekend saw its "culmination" (the Arizona anti-immigration law story sort of died out, so here comes the new "hit" about the other). The extent of damage this has done to the U.S. image abroad, especially in the Muslim world, is unquantifiable, but its consequences will, most certainly, be felt over the time to come.

There has been a lot of discussion on the matter in terms of undermining U.S. public diplomacy, and even in terms of being a genuine threat to Americans abroad. There has also been a significant outcry from Muslims around the world - ranging from those in the U.S. to Afghanistan and Indonesia - perhaps, as an early warning sign of what might come in case the issue is not addressed adequately, on time. Especially if it keeps being exploited by the more extremist Islamists for their own ends.

What is most alarming - however - is the transnational nature that current Islamophobia seems to be taking. The presence and the "Keynote Speech" of the Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders in Manhattan on September 11 was a major step in that direction. Top U.S. officials can criticize the burning of the Quran, or show support for religious freedom in NYC... but unless the people themselves truly embrace what the core U.S. values supposedly stand for, America and especially its image abroad will, most probably, be under threat again.

And no, the attempted whitewash by VOA cannot even get close to truly addressing this problem of attitudes and perceptions.


I would also, very much recommend watching the latest episode of Al Jazeera's "Empire" (particularly the second half), exploring the issue and its implications in a greater detail.

Should be truly worrisome. I hope there are people listening.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Social Networking and Conflict Resolution?

I’m sure the fact that Azeris, Turks, and Armenians keep hacking each other’s (usually official) websites is not news to most of my readers (in principle, at least). What was news to me, however, was the idea of hacking an individual’s social networking and email accounts.

Last weekend, as I opened my Facebook homepage, here’s what I saw (click on the images to enlarge):

Nareg is a “global Armenian” in the true sense of the word: patriotic but also skeptical, very open minded, and certainly not of the chauvinist type. I should say, I particularly enjoy following his “links” feed on Facebook, as he usually shares insightful articles, raises interesting questions and, often, facilitates engaging “comment discussions.” In short, such an unexpected diatribe of abuse obviously raised a red flag.

What is more, his profile had been completely redone, and here is what his "Info" page looked like:

Very sad.

I remember that during a discussion on the potential of the new media in bringing about conflict resolution, a school-mate from Abkhazia shared the story of his Facebook page becoming the venue for hate speech and a war of insults among representatives of various "parties" in conflict. Obviously, there are many other ways of abusing the virtual "socializing space", especially for those who are new media-savvy. It is just sad to see people going through all that trouble for such senseless "projects".

More importantly, it is sad to see that while some enthusiastic peace-makers are working so hard to bring the conflicting sides together online, others are abusing the very same platforms (and the Internet, in general) for no meaningful purpose, at all.

I'm still cautiously (and should I say, skeptically) hopeful, though.

Nareg kindly agreed to share some details of his "encounter" with Global Chaos:

GC - Besides your Facebook profile, you also had some other online accounts hacked...

N- I had the same password for everything. I imagine the hacker infiltrated the Facebook profile first, then worked on to Yahoo, and LinkedIn, and Gmail.

GC - How did you find out about the hack, and when?

N - Friends, friends and more friends. [...] I was in the library, chatting with someone, when a fellow student came up to me and said that I should look into my Facebook, as it was probably hacked. [...] A lot of friends who saw me on campus informed me of it, and I meanwhile got phone messages, voice mail as well as SMS - my brother all the way from Armenia, friends and family from LA to DC. [...]

GC - How long did the "incident" last?

N - I think the whole episode lasted from about 9 a.m. to about 1 p.m., US Mountain Time, on Saturday, September 4. It took some time to re-re-acquire Facebook and Yahoo. Gmail took a few days, actually. And my LinkedIn page is still out of reach for me, but that says more about LinkedIn's lackluster security settings.

GC - Why do you think you  were targeted, specifically?

N - This is a mystery to me. On the one hand, I feel very flattered. After all, some Azerbaijani person took all this trouble to create problems for me. In truth, there was minimal damage done. I restored the Yahoo account with some loss of e-mails, it is true, but probably nothing important. And I don't know what will happen with LinkedIn, but I was not much of a user there anyway. So, I do feel personally a little bit victimized on the one hand, but more flattered on the other.
But the hacker was probably not doing this as a compliment to me. So why indeed? I guess it could be lumped up under the general rubric of regional antagonism. After all, Armenians, Turks and Azerbaijanis hack one-another's websites all the time. As I type, for example, the Armenian Church's Eastern Diocese's website is hacked.
But why me? I could pretend to be someone important. But I'm not. I have a fair few Facebook friends, and I often share news articles, whether Armenian-related or not, but why such a thing would motivate an Azerbaijani hacker specifically against me, I cannot say. I imagine they or he or she found an Armenian, broke the password, and went to work.

GC - What do you think is the purpose behind such "hacking" incidents?

N - I am actually very curious indeed about the psychology behind all this. I guess I never thought about it much before, because I never had to face it personally. And it isn't surprising, really, to find the general regional antagonism spread to cyberspace.
But now I would like to put myself in this Azerbaijani's shoes. I imagine and understand the hatred, but so much that it inspires one to go through all this trouble to deface an Armenian's Facebook page and try to mess up his e-mail accounts? I am not sure what motivates it, exactly, and, what is more, what it accomplishes.
Let me make a confession. I wrote to him/her. I wrote, using an anonymous e-mail address, to, requesting a reply to another anonymous e-mail address. I don't think the hacker knows English very well (except for a certain four-letter word), but I wrote anyway, and would really love a response. We can have our differences, our political tensions and all that sort of thing, but do we really need to hack each other's websites? And personal Facebook pages?
I also wrote to the Azerbaijani Facebook friends I have. Five of them, smart young people. I asked them what they made of all this, and am yet awaiting a response.

Read my recent post on a short video by the Eurasia Foundation, exploring the stereotypes between Armenians and Azeris in Yerevan and Baku.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Baku-Yerevan Cab Music Experiment

This short movie was made by young Armenian and Azeri journalists, as a part of a project by the Eurasia Partnership Foundation supported by the British Embassies in Baku and Yerevan. Unfortunately, it's in the original languages - Armenian and Azeri - with Russian subtitles, so I'll try to summarize it briefly.

Пассажир from eurasiaam on Vimeo.

Essentially it represents the same stereotypes held by each side about "the other" - the cab drivers in respective cities play the other's music and try to start a conversation with those inside, while secretly recording their reactions. This is brilliant: a great illustration of the fact that attitudes and thoughts are very similar, if not the same, on both sides. Yes, I would agree with Mika that perhaps there were more opinions recorded from the Armenian side than from the Azeri one; and yet, it was very interesting to observe them both.

What struck me most was the painfully obvious awareness on both sides that the attitudes and stereotypes are primarily due to socialization, official government propaganda (yes, I won't shy away from using that term here), and the effects of the media. Of course, very few would acknowledge these effects on themselves, and yet, obviously, they do recognize their significance, in principle. Most of the younger "participants" pointed out that they have never interacted with representatives from the other side...

And that's the core of the problem - the lack of knowledge of and about "the other". Crossing the physical and official state boundaries might be impossible for most people at the moment; and yet, modern information and communication technology can help create the virtual space where stereotypes and prejudices can be overcome, and where dialogue might - just might - be possible. (Read my post from July - "Thoughts on the 'Other'".)

I should also commend the British Foreign Office and specifically the Eurasia Foundation for supporting this initiative. This is, indeed, a great way of enhancing their public diplomacy in the region, even if indirectly.

Read more on overcoming stereotypes and conflict resolution in the region on The Caucasian Knot.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Russian officials embrace Twitter. By mistake.

Russia's August 31 State Council Session (devoted mostly to Education-related issues) saw some of its more prominent attendees Tweeting away: in public. The story of Nikita Belykh, the Governor of Kirov, and his Twitter feed seems to have been one of the highlights of the day, and quite obviously became a much discussed topic in the Russian media (as well as the blogosphere). The most prominent mention, perhaps, came from the state-owned 1TV Channel (at the end of the segment, below).

The more interesting part, however, is that Russia Today TV made sure to run the story, and that it actually trickled into some of the Western media as well: The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, and the Passport Blog (Foreign Policy Magazine) picked it up (I'm sure there should be many more - these are just some of the more prominent ones).

For the readers who don't know Russian, here's a short summary of the "incident" from The Wall Street Journal (click to enlarge):

And yes, Medvedev did, indeed, interrupt his speech to make a special mention of Belykh's Tweet, who "apparently had nothing better to do [during the session]." Everyone involved might have taken it as a joke, for now, but Belykh - a former opposition leader - will certainly have to know better next time.

President Medvedev has been a vocal advocate for the adoption and use of new technologies in Russia for quite some time now. He has several blogs (there's one in English, too, just if you're wondering), and opened a personal Twitter account during his June visit to the Silicone Valley. After all, having a technology-savvy President only befits the image of the "New Russia", the promotion of which has become a major foreign policy task for the country.

Tweet-o-mania seems to be getting a little out of hand with other officials, however. Apparently, social media has become fairly popular with many politicians, governors, and presidents of some of the Republics. As RIA Novosti points out, the subjects they touch upon in their Tweets and blogs range from personal vacation impressions, birthday congratulations, and Twitter-chat sessions with their constituents (quite prolific, by the way), to notes about troubles encountered on the way to their "dachas".

Here are some highlights worthy of special mention:

- [Presidential advisor Dvorkovich] @advorkovich: "Will be giving a presentation for some foreigners, tomorrow. The eternal question [is]: should I tell them about how bad things are (something they like hearing), or [rather] what we are doing about it (which they don't believe)?"

- Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya used his blog to announce the change in his formal title: he doesn't go by 'President' anymore. The Chechen Parliament apparently passed a bill, according to which he will be the 'Head of the Republic'. He made sure to emphasize that "all members voted 'for' [the bill]." 

- [And of course - the ever-present] Vladimir @Zhirinovskiy: "Will give the ostrich to better care, [perhaps] to one of the Russian zoos, let people see this wonderful bird! Communication with animals is beneficial for people." [It's still a mystery to me as to what he was referring to, on the day of the State Council Session! There are no other mentions or references to ostriches anywhere else on his Twitter feed.]

And of course, I also need to mention Russia's Ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin,  and his "bombastic" Tweet-o-activity (@Rogozin), who have been in the news for many months now. [He is very funny to follow, by the way!]

In short, as many other countries and institutions have realized, there can be many different uses for social media (public diplomacy among those). However, when they are used by official representatives themselves, the latter should not forget that social media are primarily social and, therefore, can easily lead to (political) perdition.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Oh, these MidEast Talks...

I accidentally came across these cartoons and thought them noteworthy and very relevant... especially given the so-called "new start" of the Middle East Peace Talks hosted by Pres. Obama (which, by the way, already seem to be bound to fail, despite all the lofty talk at the White House, tonight.)

The cartoons are from, and I certainly recommend checking out the website. They've got many other great ones!

(See original here.)

What is even sadder, is that these are, obviously, at least five years old [since they still feature Sharon.]

(See original here.)

Same old issues. Same old approach. History just keeps repeating itself, especially in the Middle East...

To quote Daniel Levy:
Much of the pessimism surrounding this week's peace summitry derives from the rather stunning lack of originality in the approach being pursued by President Obama and his team. As currently structured, this peace process really does resemble the movie that we've seen before -- the one with the unhappy ending.

Good luck, Mr. Obama.