Monday, January 31, 2011

More on Egypt (Part III)

Those of you regularly stopping by Global Chaos know that I've been watching the developments in Egypt closely. With a "march of millions" planned for Tuesday and Mubarak seemingly making "in-advance concessions" (promising that the army will not shoot at the protesters and trying to start talks with the opposition), it seems like the momentum is not dying down. Yet, it is important to note that Mubarak is obviously not planning on leaving, while the people are determined to go beyond just a simple government "reshuffle".

Tahrir Square, January 31. Courtesy of Foreign Policy Magazine.

With such a crisis on hand and all the mounting international pressure, one would think that the Egyptian authorities would put some serious effort into trying to manage the story and the perceptions abroad. Needless to say, they are failing miserably.

Firstly, of course, there's the domestic side of the info management. Having shut down essentially all communication networks - including the Internet and mobile services - the government also closed down the Al Jazeera bureau in Cairo, revoked all AJ reporters' licenses, and even briefly detained six of their journalists on Sunday. (Kudos to State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley who devoted 140 characters earlier today to condemn this move by the Egyptian authorities, on Twitter.) They had blocked Al Jazeera's broadcasts in the country earlier (as had, reportedly, several other countries in the region), by which they had hoped to break the enthusiasm of the protesters. Obviously, they were wrong, and if anything, this move only shows the significance of Al Jazeera's reporting.

Instead, the Egyptian State TV offered various "alternative" news, such as the swearing in of the new government, captured here by CBS.

Yet, perhaps the most prominent ridiculousness by the Egyptian State TV happened back on Friday, at the height of the initial protests. While Al Jazeera was broadcasting live pictures of tens (hundreds?) of thousands gathered downtown Cairo, the State TV was showing a laser show at Cairo Tower. (If I were to tweet this, it would certainly deserve the "#epicfail" hashtag...!)

Image from YFrog via @OctaviaNasr.

Furthermore, today morning Al Jazeera mentioned in their live coverage that the State TV also broadcast some pictures of the mass demonstrations, while claiming that they are pro-Mubarak. Do they really think their own people are that stupid? It also seems like he has bought into all the media-and-tweet hype regarding the situation, ignoring the spontaneous nature of the uprising. Yes, without all these communications and information it might be difficult to coordinate and organize better, but the fact that mass demonstrations are planned for tomorrow (Tuesday) too, shows that people will get to the streets anyway.

But that aside, let's look at Mubarak's current "public diplomacy" disaster. Shutting down Al Jazeera's Cairo bureau on Sunday was essentially meant to prevent the network from broadcasting abroad. After all, it has become the source to turn to "on all things Egypt" these days (especially its English-language programming), revealing all that is going on in Egypt for real and framing headlines and perceptions all over the world. Not only doesn't Egypt have an international English-language broadcaster of its own (to at least try and put its own version of the story out there), but it cannot even start hoping that it could ever manage to beat the reach and the credibility enjoyed by Al Jazeera.

Image courtesy of Foreign Policy Magazine.

Nonetheless, there are exceptions to Mubarak's impotence. For example, he can always rely on Fox News or Netanyahu to sell his own side of the story to the American public...

More importantly, there are several major lobbying and PR companies, that had been long employed by the Egyptian government, to do the "DC-job" on its behalf. Of course, here we are not really talking about public diplomacy per se, and yet, influencing congressional decision-makers themselves constitutes an essential part of the country's image-management efforts. Salon's "War Room" featured an article several days ago detailing some of these long-standing agreements, which were later laid out - in graphics - by Muckety.

It's noteworthy that there have been cases, in the past, where lobbyists have dropped their clients over major political crises. Would all these companies do the same now, though? Would they truly stand up for the protection of all the values and principles America has been so enthusiastically promoting all these years?

The Mubarak regime might have deep ties with the American government, no matter who heads the administration; and yet, at the moment, it seems like the Egyptian people's public diplomacy - whether within the "New Public Diplomacy" concept, or just that promoted by Al Jazeera (still reporting, even if "illegally") - is working better than the government's one in terms of winning public support internationally.

And just to leave you with a laugh that went viral (rather, resurfaced) earlier today:

Note the location of "Egypt". From a Fox News cast two years ago. (Why am I not surprised?!) Read more on Huffington Post.

UPDATE [2/1/2011; 8:00AM]: Some of the latest images and updates from Al Jazeera. Seems like even the telephone services are down now, and yet the flow on people in Cairo has not stopped.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Egypt on Al Jazeera: Part II

There have been many developments in the situation in Egypt since my last post, but I don't think that there is anything essentially new to add to those previous observations. I'll just share several interesting videos/programs from Al Jazeera, and a couple of noteworthy discussions.

The latter, first.

- I was watching the news on Germany's international broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, and their "Middle East Analyst" in the studio (German, though I didn't get the name. Sorry.) made the following remark (paraphrased):
"This is the moment in the Arab world. The Americans should seize the moment and really support the uprising of the people in the region. They should realize that this is the way to democratize the region, and not by the 'Iraq method'."

He also said he expects Yemen and, probably, Jordan to follow suit. If unrest continues, he said we should be watching Algeria and Saudi Arabia, too (agree with most, though the last one sounds like a stretch. But then, who knows?).

Image from CTV News.

- On the subject of that U.S.-made tear gas... There have been many more reports and images of those coming out. These canisters have not only wounded (and in some cases killed) protesters, but have, obviously, done irreparable damage to the U.S. image in the Arab world. (Not that it's news. But being all over TV and given the circumstances, it makes matters for American public diplomacy much, much worse.)

Here is what Blake Hounshell of the Foreign Policy Magazine shared on Twitter:
"As far as everyone tells me the USG provides zero aid to the interior ministry; it's all big hardware for the military: tanks, planes, etc."

Followed by:
"The key question about the tear gas is the export license; unfortunately the State Dept. office that handles that is closed until Monday."

Good point. Although I'm in no position to say whether any of the foreign aid money provided to Egypt goes directly (or indirectly) to buying this American-made tear gas, it is beyond doubt that these canisters represent the U.S. support for Mubarak's oppression of his own people.

Regarding Hounshel's second point: yes, the money used to buy the Mubarak-regime-protection gear (for the Interior Ministry) might not be coming from the U.S. itself. Neither should they be "sold" (literally) by the U.S. Government. Yet, the images and reports of American-made tear gas, produced by a "tactical weapons company", Combined Systems, based in Pennsylvania, are certainly speaking much louder to the Arab people than any statement Obama or Clinton will make.

In short, American foreign policy and its private sector are working against it public diplomacy. Not news. Just really dangerous.

And on to the second section.

This week's Listening Post was of course devoted to the the events in Tunisia and its ripple effects all across the region. The program came out on Wednesday, 2 days before Friday, the major day of protests. Yet, the analysis and the predictions seem to be pretty accurate, touching upon social media and the importance of Arab satellite TV.

Al Jazeera also reposted a documentary made back in 2008. Provides useful background on and a very interesting insight into the current political situation. Certainly recommend watching:

Lastly, an interesting discussion with the representatives of the young "political activist" generation in the country. Explains a lot about how people feel and what they are hoping for:

And to end on a lighter note, several tweets from the mock "Hosni Mobarak" (the father) and "Gamal Mobarak" (the son):

- @HosniMobarak: "For sale: One government. Never used, but probably doesn't work. "

-  @GMubarak: "Looking for a new pad. Anyone know of a cheap place with Internet access and a view of Big Ben? "

- @HosniMobarak: "@ Why with a view of Big Ben? I'll buy the Big Ben for you."

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted...

..."it will be televised" - to quote my dear friend. And it will be televised on Al Jazeera, of course.

Just like many people around the world (here I'm taking a very Western-centric view of "the world"), I've been glued to the live broadcast by Al Jazeera English - online - ever since I woke up this morning. Then I also got on Twitter... and never left. The events in Egypt are unfolding by the minute - it seems - and so it is very difficult to make sense of them all, or especially, to provide any serious analysis or evaluation of any sorts.

Nonetheless, there are several things to be observed.

The Role of Social Media.

Wow. Here's a note from an Egyptian blogger, sent out on Global Voices yesterday, as the country was bracing for the Friday events:
"I just wanted to note that tomorrow is a big day in Cairo, and the government is already getting ready..
Twitter, Facebook, and SMSing services .. already all blocked..
There is strong rumors that tomorrow the Internet and Blackberry services will be down..
Also by kidnapping journalists, and media people, I believe they are most probably planning to isolate the country from the world..
Currently, I am trying to check updates through proxies, but internet is TERRIBLY slow!"

Surely, not only did the government block all social networking sites (rather - attempt to block them), but it actually brought down the Internet in the country. Many called it "unprecedented in the history of the Internet", yet here is a report referring to similar examples by Nepal and Burma when they were experiencing similar events in the recent past. Nevertheless, these are all "extreme examples", and obviously, not very successful, at least in achieving their objective of total information blackout and complete isolation from the outside world.

That is far from being the case, especially in Egypt (God bless Al Jazeera?!).

Graph showing the Internet use in Egypt. From the Huffington Post (you can see more discussion and background there, too.)

Facebook, YouTube, and especially Twitter have been invaluable resources of information, despite the fact that the actual protesters from Egypt could not make it there. The word about protests in front of the White House and the Egyptian Embassy in DC (today, 1/28 and tomorrow, 1/29), for example, went out through Facebook, while information sharing and commentary on Twitter was simply amazing. #Egypt, #jan25 (referring to the first day of the massive protests in Egypt), #Mubarak and #Cairo (among many other related ones) have become trending topics on the social networking site, while 140-character-tweets are sent, retweeted, discussed, and... archived by the Library of Congress. (Side note: obviously, there is a ton of research to do for future historians..!)

What is more, the events are (or at least, were) unfolding so fast, that hardly any traditional media would be able to keep up with it all, unless they provided continuous live coverage (which some did). Even the information on Twitter could have been regarded as "outdated", as pointed out by the Managing Editor of the Foreign Policy Magazine:

"Beware of old retweets. The situation is changing rapidly and what's true an hour ago probably isn't true now. "

So, why is such media important when the people themselves are not the ones actually tweeting? Well, unlike the case of Iran's "Green Revolution", Western governments - particularly the U.S. - have been close allies and strong supporters of the regime that these protests are trying to bring down (and rightly so, some would argue). Although the U.S. administration is still ambivalent about its stance on the matter, it still has to be responsive to its public opinion, and hence, it would have to take some action to address these "trending" issues in its pubic sphere.

Perhaps one of the most telling images of the day. The protesters praying on the October 6th Bridge, while the police fire water cannon on them. From TwitPic via @OllyWainwright.

Thus, although the Egyptians themselves did not live-tweet throughout the "heat" of the events, they made good use of all the various social media to get inspired (thanks to the events in Tunisia last week), organize in advance (or rather, spread the word about the planned protests within the country), and get the word out there, to the rest of the world, so as to be heard by those who can matter - even if indirectly. In short, social networking helped to gain global attention and mobilize an army of supporters - internationally - who have advanced the cause of the Egyptian people. Whether it all will have an actual impact, however, is still a matter of question.

Other noteworthy points:

- Twitter, although somewhat shaky at certain points throughout the day, somehow managed not to crash despite all the traffic. There was also a statement on Twitter's official blog, "Tweets Must Flow", by the co-founder Biz Sone. There he states:

"Our goal is to instantly connect people everywhere to what is most meaningful to them. For this to happen, freedom of expression is essential. Some Tweets may facilitate positive change in a repressed country, some make us laugh, some make us think, some downright anger a vast majority of users. […]

Discussion on topics from geopolitical events to wardrobe malfunctions make Twitter both important and fun. Providing the tools that foster these discussions and following the policies that keep them alive is meaningful work for us."
I'm sure the fact that this statement appeared today, is not just a matter of pure coincidence.

- Funnily enough (and yet, not surprisingly?!), the mock profiles by @HosniMobarak and @MuammarLGaddafi quickly gained prominence among the tweet-o-discussions. The mock Mubarak, for example, used this "modern" and "democratic" space to make very important annoucenements, which included the need to replace "the current people of #Egypt", the creation of new jobs by building "the Great Pyramid of Mobarak", and the return of the Internet, albeit "read-only".

- Social media were important in the U.S. administration's response, too. From President Obama's Q&A on YouTube, to the Tweet-o-diplomacy by State Department's "social media guru" Alec Ross and Spokesman P.J. Crowley, it seems the U.S. administration made every effort to put its message out there, in an attempt to reach the... world (essentially, since the audience was truly global).

Yet, @EvgenyMorozov, in his ever-cynical tone, remarked:
"The Internet-savvy Obama administration is prepared to use all social media outlets available to stay silent on Egypt."

Not that they were silent. The problem is: the message was not what the people really wanted to hear. (But more on this later.)

The Role of Al Jazeera

In a sense, today might have been the day for Al Jazeera, which not only demonstrated that all the talk about the "death of journalism" is untrue, but also proved resilient to the multiple attempts by authorities - Egyptian, as well as by other states in the region - to disrupt their broadcasts. They kept changing their channel frequencies (can't explain the details. sorry!) and somehow managed to keep reporting live from the very heat of the events.

More importantly, they provided (and still do) live coverage, online, all through the day, for free, in English, which, unlike that by Al Arabiya or BBC Arabic, reached a much wider audience around the world. (Kudos, by the way, for pulling it off without having the website down.) Excellent reporting, great commentary, various perspectives, and certainly, invaluable footage.

Image courtesy of Al Jazeera English.

Here, I cannot but think of Gilboa's "Nonstate Transnational Model" for public diplomacy and his "Telediplomacy" paradigm: after all, Al Jazeera, a non-state actor, has taken up a cause that the U.S. itself had been so avidly promoting (i.e. human rights and Internet freedom), to advocate on behalf of the Egyptian people through real time news coverage. And it certainly did reach the global public.

Although no one denies the sources of Al Jazeera's funding, the channel clearly represents the voice of the Arab people, closely following all the minute developments in the region ever since the first outbreaks of protests in Tunisia and Algeria in December. Not only has it ensured a thorough coverage of all various aspects involved in all the related stories, but it has also provided a channel for expression for all those repressed voices (be it due to blocked social media platforms, restricted Internet, or outright media censorship).

For more examples from "social media" see Al Jazeera's special page on Egyptian Protests.

That Al Jazeera has its own, separate, non-state agenda is only reinforced by the release of the "Palestine Papers", which, although a different subject, still demonstrates the network's defiance of all Arab leaders. (with the one exception that needs mentioning - Qatar. Yet, its keeps emphasizing its independence.) And not only Arab. Al Jazeera challenged - outright - the message put out by the U.S. government (I think, rightly so), indirectly calling for it to live up to its own standards and keep to its promises.

Implications for U.S. Public Diplomacy

As a tweet from @MatthewStoller read:
"If there's one lesson we can take from Egypt, it's that the story is all about us."

Seem like it's very much so. After all, the promotion of democracy, human rights, as well as Internet freedom have been at the forefront of the Obama administration's foreign policy agenda. But when it comes to countries like Egypt (or Tunisia, for that matter), the U.S. simply cannot afford applying the same standards. I mean, not just "in talk", but in deed. After all, Egypt is of huge geopolitical interest (if only illustrated by the amount of American foreign aid it gets every year). Yet, as it is now evident, the U.S. has become entangled in its own strategy.

The reaction from the administration was slow and insufficient, especially at first. In a sense, it was even more disastrous when Joe Biden announced that he did not consider Mubarak a "dictator". Although everything else he said was very much in line with the message the administration stuck to all along, that one statement and the seemingly proud claim that he knows the Egypt's President well, certainly undercut America's public diplomacy effort on the issue.

Over time, it seemed like they managed to figure out a somewhat coherent response, with various statements and announcements by Secretary of State Clinton, WH Press Secretary Gibbs, and President Obama himself (although he waited for Mobarak to appear on TV, first). Yet, under the circumstances and given the context, it seems like there has been permanent damage done to U.S. public diplomacy, especially in the Middle East.

There have been several good pieces, throughout the day, on this subject, and I think it's worthwhile highlighting some excerpts.

Andrew Albertson wrote in Huffington Post:

"In addition to expressing support for universal principles and refusing to offer unquestioned support for scrambling authoritarians, the Obama administration has done three more things right.

First, it hasn't leaped to take credit for democratic uprisings, in the way that characterized the high times of the Bush administration freedom agenda, preferring instead to stay out of the spotlight in Tunisia's inspiring national drama. As Tunisians work to build a new, more democratic national narrative, they are rightly proud to note that they did it on their own.

Second, the administration seems to be smartly concentrating on regime violence. If there's anything the U.S. is well-placed to do, it may be preventing a violent reprisal of the Tiananmen disaster by an allied government like Egypt - particularly with weapons financed by US aid money. […]

Finally, it appears ready and willing to translate the present instability into increased pressure for reforms.

[…] During this unstable period, these five elements have had a positive impact: consistent support for universal principles, refusal to take sides, reticence to take the spotlight, focus on regime violence, and a readiness to respond to crisis with calls for reform. One can only hope the administration has the fortitude and farsightedness to stick with this strategy as protests build."

Image courtesy of Al Jazeera English.

Then, of course, there was Marc Lynch in Foreign Policy:
"Mubarak's regime has been wounded at its core, and even if he survives in the short run the regime will have to make major internal changes to regain any semblance of normality. An Egyptian regime which spends the next years in a state of military lockdown will hardly be a useful ally. It's not like there's an active peace process to compromise. The Islamist scarecrow shouldn't work, given the Muslim Brotherhood's limited role in events (despite the efforts of the Egyptian regime to claim otherwise).

[…] More broadly the costs to the Obama administration with Arab public opinion of being on the wrong side of this issue will be enormous. This isn't about the "magical democracy words" of the past few years -- it's about a moment of flux when real change is possible, whether or not the United States wants it.
Accepting Mubarak's fierce gambit now would put an end to any claim the United States has of promoting democracy and reform for a generation, and alienating the rising youth generation on which the administration has placed so much emphasis. It would also make Cairo the graveyard of Obama's Cairo speech and efforts to rebuild relations with the Muslims of the world.
The United States will be better positioned to push such changes in the right direction if it maintains a strong and principled position today -- regardless of whether Mubarak or someone else ends up in control. The cautious strategy right now is the same as the principled one, whether Mubarak falls or if he survives."

Yet, there doesn't seem to be a good suggestion for the Obama administration in terms of how to respond to this crisis and still come out clean in terms of perceptions by the Arab public (but also, by the entire world!). Yes, everyone points out the need for Egypt to make rapid and substantial internal changes, and yet, I'm still to see someone call for the U.S. to change its foreign policy or, at the very least, it's overall message. After all, in this information age (which America so enthusiastically promotes), there can be no separation of audiences (be it domestic, or foreign), and with trending stories spreading like wildfire through social networking sites, the current public diplomacy will not only fail to achieve its objective, but it might just as well backfire.

Image courtesy of Al Jazeera English.

Here is a great point by Spencer Ackerman from his piece in the Wired magazine (the entire article is great, but I'll just quote the most relevant excerpt):
"Promoting Internet freedom doesn’t answer that question. Al-Jazeera today quoted an analyst who noted that the Egyptian protesters have “moved from Facebook to… people-book.” Social media, in other words, isn’t enough to topple a government, but it is enough to weaken one. On the flip side, promoting social media while also supporting repressive governments empowers dissidents without giving them any reason to sympathize with U.S. interests. Who are you going to call when you need to launch a drone strike?

So far, the U.S. is trying to have it both ways. Obama’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said Friday that Internet communication is in the “fundamental basket” of freedoms the U.S. supports. Yet after days of silence, Mubarak finally issued a statement on the protests — and indicated he has no intention of stepping down.

It’s recalibration time for the Obama administration. Its posture so far isn’t earning it much goodwill from the people who might take the place of the region’s dictators, no matter how much the U.S. stands up for their right to tweet."

Touché. Credibility and love need to be earned. At an age of Internet, and especially, of Wikileaks, it is obvious that foreign policy - and all its related aspects - is, by default, conducted in public. Therefore, as much as it might be difficult to do (and as much as I hate to admit that there is no easy answer), words have to match the deeds for the U.S. foreign policy to succeed. Success is even more important, because the alternative to it is not just "lack of progress", but further failure (it will result in disillusionment, further distrust, and thus, in many more security risks for the U.S.).

Obama tried to sound unequivocal in his statement, especially when it came to emphasizing that U.S. may reconsider its foreign aid to the country. However, just as Al Jazeera's Ayman Mohyeldin noted in his commentary, the Egyptian people have become immune to the American rhetoric, since despite continuous statements of similar nature, they have seen very little change on the ground. The root causes of "animosity among the people" lies not in what they hear, but what they see in America's support of the Mubarak regime.

"Egyptian student shows Al Arabiya tear gas canister that says 'Made in USA'. 'How can we allow this in Egypt?'" via @SultanAlQassemi. (See CNN, for more)

Whether today's events will be a "revolution" per se, is still a matter of question, especially after Mubarak's defiant speech (OK, he said he will have a new government, but will stay in power himself. So not much of a change). Yet, as has been repeated multiple times throughout the day, "Egypt will never be the same again" after these events. Perhaps, the U.S. foreign policy should follow suit?


P.S. - I do strongly recommend following the coverage of events in blogs on the special section on Global Voices Online. Great insight!

"NATO Salad", S. Caucasus style

In our Public Diplomacy class today, we discussed at length the significance of "Collaboration" for effective public diplomacy through sustainable relationship-building. As defined by Cowan and Arsenault,  "Collaboration" primarily refers to "initiatives that feature cross-national participation in a joint venture or project with a clearly defined goal." According to them, collaboration can take a wide range of forms, including but not limited to "solving shared problems or conflicts," "advancing shared visions," or "the completion of a physical project,"

As outlined in this Euronews segment, NATO's Science for Peace and Security Program does just that in the Southern Caucasus:

Those involved are only several individuals (at the moment), but it is at the level of individuals that such constructive collaboration and understanding take root. These relationships are the ones to later provide the foundation for a "constructive" communication between the wider societies. Not only do these people get to invest in a "shared-interest" goal, but they also have to spend time together. Working on common problems (and looking for solutions, together) gradually helps to build trust and establish relationships, breaking stereotypes and creating the "third space" not just for communication, but also for interaction (which will bring about long-term "commitment", to use RS Zaharna's words).

Such an initiative by NATO, then, helps to bring more advanced agricultural techniques to the region (and thus, develop it) and new approaches to conflict resolution, as well as facilitates the creation of an environment conducive to public diplomacy. And here, I am referring to the public diplomacy of not just the actual countries involved, but also that of NATO itself. After all, having a stable and conflict-free region is in everyone's interest, and it's great to see that the long-term efforts that focus on relationship-building are still very much under way.

Although tonight's post was supposed to be on a completely different subject, it is currently too late and I am too tired to be able to formulate my thoughts in any coherent shape or form (mostly due to snow-related transportation problems: really dislike winter!). So, I'll leave at that, promising a more substantial/analytical post for tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Question More?

"Money can't buy you love." That's how the following segment on Russia Today TV starts (it's from several days ago). So, what's the reporter referring to? American public diplomacy in Afghanistan. A pretty interesting report - not that it's not true. What really bugs me, though, is the approach.

As on multiple occasions before, I'll just take a little time to highlight yet another example of RT's fiercely hostile and strongly anti-American tone. It seems like it wants to do its job of promoting Russia's public diplomacy "at the expense" of America's reputation. When will they finally get to realize that credibility, and especially public diplomacy, is not a zero-sum game? And is this how the producers intend to "reach the American public"?!

Here, I'll refer to the reflections of a former Soviet official who worked in the U.S. (sorry, "deep throat"; paraphrased), regarding what he called "influence operations" carried out within the country throughout the Cold War. According to him, the Soviet Union:

- supported various anarchist/pacifist/socialist/"anyone-who-opposes-government" groups, providing them not only financial resources, but also organizational and operational support;

- used America's domestic media outlets - newspapers, magazines, radio, TV... - to "plant" advertisements (often covertly or through third parties, but not necessarily) and promote certain conspiracy stories;

- knew some "operations" needed time to take root and spread, but were willing to wait, occasionally "feeding" the process to ensure it moves in the right direction

In essence, the major objective was to sow doubt and, as he put it, "raise questions" that over time (which they were willing to take) would bring about more fundamental repercussions from within the society itself.

This, then, really helps to put RT's programming into perspective: seems like despite the change in the century (and the millennium!) and all the technological progress, tactics and the general approach haven't changed much. At least in terms of international programming...

Undermining America's image, both, internationally and especially within the U.S. itself, will not automatically result in spontaneous love for Russia. It's high time Moscow realizes that money, especially that poured into RT, will not buy them love. After all, when it comes to love, actions speak louder than words.


UPDATE [1/26/2011; 9:45AM]: I forgot to refer to the following "CrossTalk" episode and a report that clearly fall under the same "influence operations" category.

What bothers me most, however, is how it gets built upon tragic events such as the Domodedovo bombing. Can such strategy and tone really promote (or at least, clarify) your image? I doubt it...


Moscow. Again...

Firstly: condolences, to the families and friends of all those 35 dead and at least 97 injured (as of this writing).

As the news of the Moscow airport bombing started coming in today morning, I was glued to... Twitter again, following the latest developments, feeling useless, and well, having a déjà-vu - quite literally - going back to the metro bombings last year. Given all that I observed, I was going to write a blog post, but as I went back to re-read my reaction to the March 2010 events, I feel like most of it would be a repetition: the way Russia Today TV (RT) presented the story, RT's footage (but not the "framing") that was picked up by almost all major foreign media, the whole "terrorist" vs. "insurgent/rebel" debate, some frustrating incompetence by and rhetoric from both, some of the American media as well as RT itself, conspiracy theories, implications for Russia-US relations, and the significance of social media...

Instead of rewriting it all, I'll focus on just some of the major differences that I, personally, observed. 

Firstly, social media. Twitter, in particular - with the hashtag #domodedovo - exploded with second-to-second updates, discussions, theories, suggestions, panic, skepticism, criticism, and... general horror. As the news trickled in and panic swelled, there was general frustration with the mainstream TV channels (still Russia's most popular news source), which failed to provide coverage. Tweets along the lines of "today is the day when TV officially died in Russia," were common.

It was through Twitter that the news of the outrageous taxi fare hikes spread (some cab drivers were said to be charging as much as $500 per ride!), mobilizing volunteers with cars to go pick up the already-traumatized people from the Domodedovo Airport (those who needed rides were encouraged to post requests using #dmdhelp and #helpcar hashtags; many tweets also featured actual phone numbers). In a situation where the cellphone service literally died, Twitter seemed to provide a great communication channel...

The very first footage after the blast, as well as some photos, "went viral" thanks to Twitter, too. (Interesting: many of the very first photos - pretty horrid - seem to have been taken off "Twitpic". Wonder, why exactly...?!) The following video was posted on YouTube about two hours after the blast itself, and was picked up - first by Russia Today TV and then everyone else - within minutes. By the time of this writing, it has been viewed about 1,681,000 times. (Discretion advised: pretty gruesome content...)

In terms of Twitter, I would only add that the greatest RuNet tweeter - @MedvedevRussia - remained mostly silent throughout the day, just "re-tweeting" several notes from @KremlinRussia where his staff quoted him expressing his condolences, making reassurances to take tough measures, and announcing the delay of his trip to Davos. Also, interestingly enough, NATO's Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen tweeted about his "deeply disturbed" state:

"Deeply disturbed about the terror attack in Moscow and I strongly condemn it. NATO and Russia stand together in the fight against terrorism."

At the same time, I think it's worthwhile to point out the Facebook activity of the American Embassy in Moscow. Not only did the Embassy's page highlight the statements of support from Obama and Clinton as they were made, but it also provided several links to major news updates and, most importantly, contact and inquiry information (with various links and numbers for emergency and other help lines). Way to go on public diplomacy!

Meanwhile, there is absolutely NO information about the attacks on the website of the Russian Embassy in the U.S. (neither has there been anything special on DC's Russian Cultural Center's page - except for embedded updates' feed from RIA Novosti). Obviously, they decided RT and all other news agencies would do the job. Don't know, though, what they were thinking about all those in the U.S. who needed information (Russians, but also others).

But well, perhaps that's also partially why RT's coverage proved valuable to the foreign media, yet again.

The interesting change this year, however, is the lack of hesitance to "embrace" the word "terrorist" when talking about the potential perpetrators. Of course, CBS News is still to learn the difference between North and South Caucasus (OK, I do have the right to be demanding here), and yet, some of the coverage was pretty in-depth and multi-dimensional (and here, please note CNN's concern with oil prices...). It is also interesting to see the prevailing focus on the impact of this attack on Russia's image abroad, especially with regard to security while hosting the Winter Olympics and the World Cup... Sad, and needs no further comment.

One last thought I'll add to this haphazard piece: my outrage about some of RT's own rhetoric and demonstrated "insecurity complex" in terms of the West. Not only did the loquacious Peter Lavelle keep aggressively demonizing "the West", and their misunderstanding of Russia and her need for security (he was in the Moscow studio, providing non-stop commentary - live - as the news was coming in all through the evening, Moscow time), but RT also hosted Webster Tarpley, providing more than 10 minutes of airtime for his conspiracy tales.

I know there are people out there who would argue that there might be a degree of truth to whatever they are suggesting; and yet, under the circumstances, I do find all this talk inappropriate. I also I think it was a pretty big mistake for RT to so bluntly demonize what is essentially its primary "target audience". Given the limited information (in general) and the non-stop coverage provided by RT throughout the day, I am sure there were many more people watching their programming tonight. And instead of providing more information about the actual events, the aftermath, or even the Caucasus region/history itself, RT chose to go with conspiracies. I am ready to bet that not only did they lose their audience's attention - so valuable these days! - but they also shattered whatever credibility they had earned throughout the day.

Bad public diplomacy, RT. Bad...


UPDATE [Tue, 1/25/2011; 11:30AM]:

- The number of killed has, fortunately, remained unchanged. ITAR-TASS reports that at least 110 were injured, with "40 in very serious condition, 49 in serious condition, and 14 in satisfactory condition". Voice of Russia reports that among the foreigners killed there were 2 UK nationals, 1 German, 1 Bulgarian, 1 Kyrgyz, 1 Tajik, 1 Uzbek and 1 Ukrainian.

- John Beyrle, the American Ambassador to Russia who blogs in Russian, expressed his condolences to the friends and family of those killed and injured, and reiterated Obama's message of solidarity with the Russian people. (GOOD!)

- All silent on the Russian MFA's digital front. Even the official website of the Foreign Ministry itself doesn't carry any information about the event. (BAD!)

- Meanwhile, the blame-game has already started in Moscow.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

VOA's "Parazit": The Debate

I'm very glad to see several great comments to my previous post on the "Parazit" show on VOA Persian. Seems like it did do its job of starting a debate, and I'm very grateful to those who shared their thoughts, since I'm really trying to figure it out for myself. As I started writing my own "response" comment, I realized it's too long, so just decided to have it as a separate post. Would be great to get more insights/ideas!

(Indeed, the "Jon Stewart Effect" seems to have kicked in, increasing attention and awareness: the story has gone viral, now. Smart move, VOA!)


Thanks so much – to all of you – for the insights! It’s truly great to get not only the professional perspective on this, but also the Iranian-American and (I presume) an actual Iranian one. Indeed, long live social media! :-)

Now, regarding the questions you brought up. I do agree that VOA has become largely boring and obsolete lately. However, I would also argue that it’s just the perspective of the people in the U.S. (of whatever descent). Although I’m ambivalent about it’s effectiveness, I would still emphasize that on many occasions VOA (as well as BBC Farsi) are among the only alternative sources of mass info in Iran, except for that provided by the state, right? (And here I’m talking about the majority who does not have access to high-speed Internet.)

Of course, I’m not familiar with the VOA Persian content; and yet, I know their Russian and Armenian pretty well (and of course, there’s always the main English-language one), and obviously – on most occasions – they’re very careful to be as “objective” as possible (as neutral as the term “objective” can ever get, that is). I presume it's safe to assume that it is true for the Persian service, too, then.

Courtesy of IventorSpot.

What concerns me in this case, however (and this also addresses Laura’s point), is that “Parazit” – despite being very engaging, and very legitimate from the American perspective – is, in many ways, also a deliberate attempt to either change or reinforce certain opinions among a foreign audience from, what is now, an American source. (And yes, I do accept the point re: that they went to VOA for certain reasons. Yet, they have become a part of the VOA and are, thus, a statement from the American government/people.)

Again, I do not mean to say that I don’t like the idea, and I’m certainly NOT arguing that the VOA should stop it. That’s not the point. (Actually, I rather like this guerilla attempt to raise more awareness about VOA among the American public!) What I’m trying to figure out (for myself, first and foremost), and to bring up for discussion, however, is whether it would correspond to the definition of propaganda more than to the definition of public diplomacy (and no, I’m not asking anyone to admit that to me, officially or publicly. Let’s just say, it's “pure academic curiosity”!).

To quote something I read for class earlier this week:

T. Qualter (1962): “[Propaganda is] the deliberate attempt […] to form, control, or alter the attitudes of other groups by the use of the instruments of communication, with the intention that […] the reaction […] will be that desired by the propagandist.”
J.C. Merrill and R. Lowenstein (1971): Propaganda involves “manipulation,” “purposeful management,” “preconceived plan,” “creation of desires,” “reinforcement of biases,” “arousal of preexisting attitudes,” “irrational appeal,” “specific objective,” “arousal to action,” “predetermined end,” “suggestion,” and “creation of dispositions."

This is also what I was referring to, when I mentioned “emotional appeal.” I don’t mean to say that the majority of the Iranian population is misinformed, has no idea what’s going on, or is not aware of their “surroundings”. However, one cannot deny the fact that the necessary “tipping point” was not there in 2009…

Such programming can, indeed, help bring that about. Yet, something also tells me that “Parazit” might be more popular (especially in terms of overall percentages) among the Iranian-American population, than with the Iranians themselves. And the comment from Hasan is just one example to illustrate that. After all, don’t forget the pervasiveness of selective perception!

Which also brings me to another point Laura brought up: yes, this show can help cast the information in new light. Yet, because of all the censorship, the lack of reliable info in the country, as well as political disillusionment, there’s also the risk that many inside Iran might actually come to “over-rely” on Western sources for their information – i.e. take it at face value and go with it, as some sort of a protest against their own regime. Political satire – being the “subconscious influencer” that it is – becomes even more dangerous in this sense, especially given the historical and political context (that is, if we all agree that purposeful perception management and mind control are dangerous). So again, I would love to hear what you think about it!

I also very much like the point Hasan brought up. Indeed, in “official” lingo, especially recently, public diplomacy is all about “understanding” and "two-way cultural communication". Yet, there’s always – inevitably – much more to that, and in my opinion, "Parazit" is a great illustration of that.

"Democratization" in Russia?

Actually, there's said to be a better name for it: "Deputinization", and that term is said to have been coined by (hold applause)... U.S. officials!

Well, that's according to Komsomolskaya Pravda, as regurgitated by Russia Today TV. In a nutshell: some of the Wikileak-ed cables indicate that the "bad" members of the Russian civil society and political opposition went to the "moderately bad" Americans to ask for support (and money) in bringing down the current government. The "moderately bad" Americans, who see the bigger picture and realize the substantive weakness of the current opposition, refused, and yet tried to placate their frustration by addressing some of their less harmful demands. Here's the whole story, if you're interested:

That was followed by an column by Gleb Pavlovsky published on the RT website, and by a profound discussion with Webster Tarpley on this very interesting subject of potential conspiracy:

Certainly, depending on your perspective, you can view the story in several different ways. Yet, there is no denying that "democracy promotion" is something the U.S. actively supports all around the world (perhaps to its own detriment). Officially, that is. These leaks - yet again - do not reveal anything really new, but only "prove" Kremlin's previous statements that the political opposition, as well as various domestic and international NGOs, are simply "puppets" in the hands of their Western patrons. (In fact, only last week RT featured a series of reports on the same subject.)

RT, certainly, wouldn't miss this wonderful opportunity of highlighting the story, despite the fact that it received virtually no other coverage, especially in the non-Russian media (even a Russian-language search returned very few results, all referring back to Komsomolskaya Pravda's article). RT, therefore, shows up with any English-language search.

Well done? After all, as Russia's international broadcaster, RT represents the Russian perspective in the international media space, frames the stories in favorable light, argues Russia's case, and thus, supposedly, implements a substantial part of its public diplomacy. Yet, the fact that the story was not picked up by any foreign media (while the number of the actual RT viewers is very questionable) also raises questions about the effectiveness of this strategy, and its potential for success...

Going back to democracy...: Here, it would also be appropriate to point out a recent poll by the Levada opinion research center, which indicated that 56% of Russians would be willing to give up some "democracy" for the sake of "stability" in the country. In contrast, only 23% think that the achievement of democracy is paramount at any cost (this is a major increase from April 2000, however, when only 9% of the population said they believed so). The following segment provides a better discussion of these results:

Well, then, perhaps the American officials' assessments of the Russians' "readiness" for democracy have been correct (surprisingly!)? "Deputinization" should come from within. And although there is a clear improvement in terms of the public's aspiration for democracy, it has, obviously, not reached the tipping point, yet. Having another failed color revolution, especially in a country like Russia, would serve no one's interests (on the contrary - it would increase global insecurity).

Fundamental and sustainable changes take time. If nothing else, these Wikileak-ed cables show that the Americans do understand that.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

DC hosts China's Hu

Since it's the big news in town these days, I thought I'd share this photo - taken over this past weekend - as downtown DC was getting ready to host the leader of the "World's Second".

Cannot but point out my friend's observation: "Two American flags for one Chinese." Later added: "[But] of course, the Chinese one is in the middle..."

Yet, the receptions (already past, and the ones that are still to come) seem to be pretty lavish. Not bad, Mr. Obama!

UPDATE (1/20/2011; 1:30AM): Just in case you didn't get to see what was going on at the While House today, here's some "raw" footage. Enjoy.

Courtesy of The While House.

And certainly, The State Dinner:

Courtesy of The Washington Post.

Jackie Chan was apparently the grand host ("cultural relevance" point - check!). And of course, it is very "important" for the media (and the audience) to pay special attention to Michelle Obama's dress (pretty good one, by the way)!

Courtesy of The While House.

Curious to see how this new "special" relationship develops in the near future...

UPDATE #2 (1/20/2011; 8:30AM): You can see the menu and the schedule of the state dinner in the official booklet. And here's the list of all guests. (Courtesy: Mike Allen, Politico)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Obama fails to deliver. Enter: Medvedev?

It's been about two years since Mr. Obama took office, and again it's that time of the year when analysts and critics look back to assess what the President has achieved so far. And since he's the President of the United States of America, this assessment is not limited to his achievements at home, as virtually every other nation has a good reason to provide an opinion on the very same question, from its own perspective.

Foreigners' opinions matter. For one, they predict - to some extent - the general level of success the U.S. can hope to achieve when engaging in this or that international issue (that is, when foreign public opinion is actually considered). Yet, more importantly, foreign public opinion can actually enhance American foreign policy toward that country/issue, if that public's attitudes are in line with American interests (which also implies that the public - or their representatives - will act accordingly). Voilà: public diplomacy.

Of course, here it is also important to mention that as America's charismatic leader, Obama is (was?!) also America'a greatest public diplomat. He did a good job (past tense).

Since Middle East (still) seems to be one of the most problematic regions for American foreign policy, and especially for its public diplomacy, engaging the local people is one of the core components of U.S. policy there. And there is no denying - the Arab-Israeli conflict lies at the root of the problem (in public diplomacy terms, at least). In his speeches in Istanbul and Cairo (both, just months after he took office in 2009), Obama raised high hopes and did actually help to improve the perception of the U.S. among the Arab people (as well as Muslims, in general).

Yet, two years on, there is obviously little progress - if any - on the issue, as the actors that matter don't even want to start talking to each other. So, given this context, what do the people in the region think about Obama and American foreign policy? Best place to find out: the market. That's what Al Jazeera did, in the divided city of Jerusalem:

Pretty telling, eh? I particularly like the quote from the West Jerusalem shop owner:
"[Obama] doesn't know anything about the Middle East. He thinks with his smiles and his charisma he can make anything, and it's not like that. Here it's the real world, it's not Hollywood."

Wow. Did the U.S. public diplomacy get so entangled in "entertainment/pop-culture promotion" and "talk-and- more-talk", that the policy itself has become just that? Most probably, not. But that's how people seem to be interpreting it.

<br>        Official welcome ceremony.
Courtesy of

And who do they turn to, instead? Russia, of course. The Palestinians, at least. As the Israeli Foreign Ministry - under the pretext of a "strike" - refused to host the President, Medvedev paid a very symbolic visit to the West Bank and made reassuring statements, taking his turn to raise Palestinians' hopes. The chances of him being able to achieve any significant results are thin - at best - and yet, it seems like in January 2011 President Medvedev, and not Obama, was the one to score the public diplomacy points with Palestinians.

One thing both sides need to realize and recognize, however, is that empty promises - be it of engagement, support, or resolution - will not only not help in advancing their respective public diplomacy interests in the short run, but will also increase the chance of undermining those further in the medium/long run, as the mismatch between expectations and materialized promises grows larger.

In short, it's high time everyone involved starts thinking of public diplomacy of deed.

Monday, January 17, 2011

RT: Another Gulag Story

It's funny that after my previous post, critical of Russia Today TV, I am now writing this one. But I think I would not be honest, if I said I didn't like this short documentary they aired a couple of days ago for the first time. Certainly recommend taking a look.

"Gone to Gulag: Diary of a Soviet Schoolgirl" is a revealing story - even if condensed and perhaps oversimplified - of a 17-year-old, sentenced to five years of hard labor in Kalyma, in the far north-east of Russia. The film also attempts to provide some context and draw parallels to similar stories of other individuals, combining it all with intermittent segments of archival footage. Interesting and looks (at least) genuine.

This is another case of Russian public diplomacy through history "education". To the Western audience, it might look like another episode from the Doctor Zhivago and Ivan Denisovich series... and perhaps, rightly so. After all, this will help foreigners understand Russia and her people better (reminder: everything is relative!).

One thing that really stood out to me, however, was the "passing" mention of a passage from Nina Lugovskaya's (I'm sure of no relation to Andrey Lugovoy, the ex-KGB bodyguard wanted in the UK for Litvinenko's poisoning) diary, regarding Stalin and his identity:

"I spent several days in bed, painting a picture in my mind's eye of how I'd kill him, that dictator, villain, and swine. That foul Georgian who's crippled Russia. But how do I do it? I want to kill him at the earliest opportunity. I will take revenge for myself and my father."

How convenient! Just another reminder for the Western audiences that Joseph Vissarinovich Djugashvili, a.k.a. Comrade Stalin, was not even Russian and had "hijacked the country against its will". Indeed, just a passing remark; and yet, it is such inconspicuous references and associations that stick in people's minds over time: a drop in the ocean of the persisting propaganda war.

I just don't see how RT would explain - after such attempted breaks by Russia from its dark past - what seems to be a revival of the "Stalin pride" in the country over the recent years...


Saturday, January 15, 2011

RT Ridiculousness... Again.

Russia Today TV seems to have an insatiable appetite for  more than just ridiculous "stories". Sometimes I truly wonder if they ever consider their main target audience. I really hope that this (whatever it is.. I'm afraid I can't even find proper words to describe it) is not really the "active and effective public diplomacy" envisioned by Kremlin.

...and this:

If it were a tweet, this post would have a special hashtag: #epicfail.


Friday, January 14, 2011

Tunisia: yet another "Twitter Revolution"? Hold your horses...

Well, I'm sure by now you've heard that there is another popular "Tweet-o-uprising" in a distant and fairly obscure part of the world. The social unrest in Tunisia - which started weeks ago, and was largely ignored in the Western media until very recently (for a long list of obvious reasons) - culminated in what has been labeled as "unprecedented": an Arab authoritarian leader being ousted through popular uprising. How did they manage it? Through online social networking, some claim.

Photo courtesy of Gulf News.

Oh, not again...!

Obviously, I'm far from being anything close to an "expert" on Tunisian affairs. Yet, throughout the day, it's been interesting to watch the reaction - especially within the U.S. - as the news spread that President Ben Ali had stepped down. One of the major highlights of the story was the media and social networking angle of it... At least they found something for the audience to relate to, right? More importantly, provides for some interesting headlines.

Certainly, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube provided a great outlet for the people to express themselves, connect, communicate, and perhaps even coordinate. Yet, one should not over-hype their role. And here, I don't even need to go into reciting Gladwell's argument regarding the "weak social ties" all over again. Rather, I'll just point out that this is not even a "revolution", per se. Not yet, at least.

Photo courtesy of Gulf News.

According to Merriam Webster, "revolution" means: 
a fundamental change in political organization; especially: the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another by the governed. 

I don't think anyone can claim - yet - that there has been a "fundamental" change in the political organization, while the old ruler was certainly not substituted by another "by the governed." In fact, not only have there been reports of manipulation of the constitution by the Prime Minister, violence and clashes are still reportedly going on, despite the curfew, as the protesters - seeing him as a member of the same clan - demand that he, too, steps down. In short: it's still too early to say if it's a "revolution" at all, or, especially, to start talking about the "successful" role of social media in it.

What's even more important: social media was not the first thing that brought people out to the streets. Poverty, unemployment, stagnation, lack of freedoms and human rights abuses definitely played a much bigger role in the events than Facebook updates and the such. Let's not repeat the Iran story all over again, please.

On a related note: In the midst of this all, Evgeny Morozov - who's out promoting his newly published book on "Net Delusion" - surely couldn't ask for a better occasion to bring the issue back into limelight.

[Here is a discussion of the book at the New America Foundation. Interesting to watch.]

I just started reading the book (rather, I started a couple of days ago...), but from what I see so far the overall argument is fairly predictable for anyone familiar with Morozov's overall stance regarding the uses and abuses of the Internet. When promoting a "Net Freedom" agenda as a major component of its public diplomacy, the West, and particularly the United States, should not fall into "cyber-utopianism". Rather, there needs to be a "realist" recognition that the very same tools can be used by authoritarian governments against the "cyber-activists": whether to identify, locate or silence them.

In this sense, I agree with him. After all, Secretary Clinton has made Internet freedom one of the core issues of American diplomacy - especially public diplomacy - conspicuously promoting it as a tool that would, magically, strengthen human rights and bring freedom to the oppressed people. What about government crackdowns, however? Washington might find it easy to send condemning statements across the Atlantic or the Pacific, post factum. Yet, when matters of essence are at stake, cooperation with these very governments becomes an issue of "national interest". And this is where the American "public diplomacy of deed" suffers.

Photo courtesy of Gulf News.

As had been reported by Al Jazeera more than a week ago, the Tunisian government has been involved in a major cyberwar with both, local activists and international "hacktivists". Obviously, it is not an impossible task for oppressive regimes (after all, no elaborate processes of misinformation or attempted delusion were involved in this outright crackdown). The same is true of all the neighboring states, who are watching with increasing alarm as the events in Tunisia unfold. Wouldn't they take even more aggressive precautionary actions against their own "trouble makers"?

Almost two weeks ago, Jillian York lamented the American administration's silence over these events. Today, after Ben Ali fled the country, President Obama issued a somewhat vague and obviously cautious statement. I am glad to see that there are no obvious references to "Internet" freedoms coming from the administration. Not yet, at least. That would only give way for further paranoia and panic among local and regional leaders, and subsequently, oppression.

Photo courtesy of Gulf News.

I'm not saying that the State Department, or the U.S. Government for that matter, should give up the agenda of promoting democracy or Internet freedom, as a part of it. It is extremely important, however, to consider the local circumstances and focus on long-term, sustainable, and true changes. To quote from Clay Shirky's most recent article:

Despite this basic truth -- that communicative freedom is good for political freedom -- the instrumental mode of Internet statecraft is still problematic. It is difficult for outsiders to understand the local conditions of dissent. External support runs the risk of tainting even peaceful opposition as being directed by foreign elements. Dissidents can be exposed by the unintended effects of novel tools. A government s demands for Internet freedom abroad can vary from country to country, depending on the importance of the relationship, leading to cynicism about its motives.

The more promising way to think about social media is as long-term tools that can strengthen civil society and the public sphere. In contrast to the instrumental view of Internet freedom, this can be called the "environmental" view. According to this conception, positive changes in the life of a country, including pro-democratic regime change, follow, rather than precede, the development of a strong public sphere. This is not to say that popular movements will not successfully use these tools to discipline or even oust their governments, but rather that U.S. attempts to direct such uses are likely to do more harm than good. Considered in this light, Internet freedom is a long game, to be conceived of and supported not as a separate agenda but merely as an important input to the more fundamental political freedoms.

Now that Tunisia is on the front pages of mainstream media around the world and foreign reporters rush to get to the country, the "Tweet-o-Revolution" aspect of the story might become less relevant. Yet, it would be interesting to watch what happens, since the political outcome here will, in many ways, determine the nature of online activism and governments' responses to it (at least in the region) for the years to come.

UPDATE [1/15/2011; 2:30pm]: I just saw Ethan Zuckerman's piece on the very same subject in Foreign Policy. I do think it's noteworthy.