Friday, February 25, 2011

Just a little... Chaos!

I just realized that despite the name of the blog itself, I've never had a post that carried the "Chaos" title. I guess now is the perfect time...

Firstly - apologies for my silence over the past days. Besides all the craziness that somehow decided to take over my life this particular week, I also got the great news I had been impatiently waiting for... three months, now. I'll be proudly joining the 2011 incoming doctoral class at the School of International Service, American University this fall, and continue my work in the area of the chaotic nexus of international relations and (strategic) communication! Public Diplomacy will certainly stay on top of the agenda, and this blog will - hopefully - not disappear after May (expected graduation). Received many congrats, but also expressions of sympathy... Oh well, I guess I had sold my soul to the devil of "The Academe" a while back, so right now I can confidently say that I'm super-excited and am, indeed, looking forward to continuing my work with all the great people at AU and in DC I have come to know and admire since getting here.

Inspiring...? From PhD Comics.

Some other highlights: as all those who follow the Public Diplomacy Press and Blog Review already know, Chris Dufour (a.k.a. Du4) was at our Public Diplomacy class today, for an AWESOME discussion on public diplomacy, strategic communication, and strategic coordination, or rather, lack thereof. After all the recent arguments and discussions on the subject of "social media revolutions", the absence of such, and the implications for U.S. foreign policy and public diplomacy, it was refreshing to hear Du4's perspective. I guess I would categorize him as a "cyber realist", who did spell it out in one sentence: "There is no such thing as a 'Twitter Revolution'; there is a revolution that uses Twitter as a tool."

Thank you. Gladwell and Shirky can calm down, now.

Courtesy of Denver Post.

He also talked about the lack of interagency coordination and the absence of a coherent strategy in the U.S. public diplomacy. Certainly, not a new concern; however, ever more urgent, as the State Department (though, not only) seems to be rapidly enhancing its "new media" fetish. After all, in the current context not only does the "right hand" of the public diplomacy "structure" have to know what the "left hand" is doing (which, apparently, happens rarely), but it might also have to keep track of all that is blogged, tweeted, Facebooked, YouTube-d, flicker-ed, etc...

Impossible? Perhaps. Well, then, can the "open source" approach to public diplomacy be a viable alternative? Not so, Du4 says, unless there is a "grand strategy" behind it all. Somewhat reflects Zaharna's argument, with which I tend to agree. Yes, social networking is a good tool for enhancing people-to-people communication (P2P - the term seems so old now!), encouraging conversations, and promoting what Shirky called the "environmental"  approach to social media.

"Twitterhea", from HubSpot Blog.

Yet, it cannot and should not be the only "approach" to the U.S. public diplomacy, no matter how "cheap" or "easily available". All that is good, particularly in terms of communicating the value of "plurality" that America seems to have patented (many different voices, multiple messages...); but it's only good insofar as it complements a well-coordinated, multi-dimensional and multi-faceted strategy, with a time frame that ranges from "immediate" (remember the "now media"?) to the "very-long-term" (and here, I mean decades). Some of it can be outsourced, of course, whether to "professionals" or the public itself; but with many in the world now getting the "public diplomacy" (traditional style) fever, completely discarding the notion of a coherent public diplomacy strategy (please note, I am not referring to the tools, here), might prove disastrous for U.S. interests, especially in the mid-to-long-run.

And to highlight what Du4 himself referred to: in the end of the day, credibility is what matters, especially for a government. And certainly, the number of tweeters or tweets, or the YouTube video uploads will not automatically bring that about, as long as the source itself is seen as lacking credibility or trustworthiness.  

Today, I also came across this new, very weird Russia Today TV promo. Thought I should share here, too.

I don't know what RT is trying to convey through this "ad", but seems to be attempting to respond to criticism of it essentially being Moscow's propaganda tool and incorporate some key public diplomacy "concepts" such as "truth" or "listening".

Hmm... Don't know about you, but to me this just looks ridiculous (yes, yet again!). The tone, the people featured, the approach... And most of all, the prominence of the word "propaganda", which, in English, has strong negative connotations and does not bring about any "truth"- or "listening"-related associations to mind.

And to leave you with, perhaps, the most memorable quote from Du4, tonight:
"Find the passion groups in what you're passionate about, and engage with them."

Well, that's inspiring!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Berlusconi - Follow-up

As a follow-up to a recent post, I wanted to share this cartoon here.

Cartoon by Zahoor. Courtesy of ExpressTribune of Pakistan. Through Faiz Jan.

Also, in light of all the recent horrid events in Libya, it was funny and perhaps a little too ironic that Berlusconi resisted making any definitive comments at first. But, fortunately for him, he has got a decent public affairs staff who later sent out a written statement condemning the violence.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Empire: Social Networks Revolution?

The talk about new media/social networking revolutions has been going on for years now, even before Facebook "opened up" or Twitter itself actually came about. Up until the end of 2010 the "skeptics" seemed to be the ones on the winning side of the argument; yet, the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt, many argue, finally proved them wrong. But did they?

Here's another episode of Empire, where on February 11 - the day Mubarak stepped down - prominent names from the media world, gathered at Columbia University to discuss the potential and the actual impact of the new/social media on politics and international affairs. The program features Carl Bernstein, Clay Shirky, Amy Goodman, Evgeny Morozov and Emily Bell, and although short, provides for some good discussion.

I think there are many good points made by all the participants in the program. However, I do tend to favor the argument that the current events in North Africa and the Middle East cannot be really called "Social Media Revolutions" (whether they can, at all, be called "successful revolutions" is a matter of contention, itself...). Yes, they were somehow coordinated through and inspired by the network-based structure of the new media; however, just as Morozov points out, many other factors obviously played a much more important role in bringing about the sheer "people power momentum" and actual change.

Certainly, we cannot disregard the invaluable reporting done by some Egyptians on the events on the ground, providing the outside world with moving images, "quotable" tweets, and shocking footage. However, the role of Facebook and Twitter is overrated, and cannot account - for instance - all the other failed "revolutions" that never happened no matter how much the aspiring revolutionaries blogged, tweeted, of facebooked. 

And then, let's not forget the American/W. Europe slant in this angle: provides for a good story, with the "relatable" point of reference for most of the public. Also, just as Goodman pointed out (and I had mentioned a couple of days ago), it seems that the stock values of these "new/social media" companies are the ones gaining from all this hype - the "next big thing"... 

It is important to keep in mind that these new technologies - although quite impressive - cannot provide the panacea for all social ills and foreign policy headaches. And in terms of public diplomacy itself, although such tools can provide an additional and very important component to complement the overall efforts, they cannot - on their own - replace genuine face-to-face efforts to converse, cooperate, and trust...

Yes, these seem to be cheaper, and at a time of "draconian budget cuts" (to quote P.J. Crowley) such measures can seemingly provide impressive alternatives to genuine engagement. However, without an actual change in the circumstances on the ground, political change - especially if it is to be in line with U.S. foreign policy objectives - can in no way be guaranteed, no matter the wishful thinking on this side of the Atlantic.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

RT on Vodka and Bear Stereotypes

Russia is still the grey, cold place with that ominous smell of vodka in the minds of many in the West. These images and perceptions not only come as "inherent" in the cultures of Western Europe and the U.S. (I will not go into the very obvious historical and cultural reasons for that), but they are also constantly reproduced, recycled, and reinstated in the media and the popular culture. And then, even if such projections and representations are not overtly stereotypical, the already prevalent "predispositions" make way for selective perception, which usually perpetuates the existing stereotypes. This, of course, is a major issue for Russia's public diplomacy.

I have talked a lot about this issue on this blog in the past... and coming across this segment from RT today, I simply couldn't not share it with you, too.

Not the best report, but does at least try to address the problem. What they could have done better is - for example - choose a better and more representative set of examples to illustrate the case, have more impressive shots/footage, have a greater number of people as interviewees, make sure they are more authoritative, and perhaps site some figures/surveys (on how Russia is perceived in the "West")...

In any case, it's a good reminder, and hopefully, a good start of an initiative that won't just stop here. After all, RT's primary job is to deal with this problem...

"Internet Freedom" (or, the "Military-Twitter Complex")

The U.S. should declare February 15 as its official "Internet Freedom Day": meetings, statements, reports... All in one day and all saying basically the same thing: "Open Internet is good" and "The U.S. should/will do more to promote 'Internet Freedom' technologies as a core part of its 21st Century Foreign Policy." Dealing with these  very same subjects in my classes and watching the events in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere unfold live on the Internet, makes me all the more ambivalent about these issues.

[Please note: no indication, whatsoever, where these statistics came from. More importantly, the video seems to be focusing primarily on the U.S., and therefore, the suggested "impact" is quite questionable at an international level.]

But before I go any further, I think a disclaimer is in order. Two, actually:

1 - I had started gathering a list of articles/videos from prominent news media organizations about the "New/Social Media and/or Twitter Revolution" that has "spread like wildfire all across the Middle East." My initial intent was to suggest several counter-arguments on this blog. But as the events developed rapidly (and still are), I simply couldn't keep up with the pace and the sheer volume of information and discussions. Add to that, all that came out over the past two days... In short, there will, probably, be too many chaotic thoughts in this post, helping the blog live up to its name.

2 - As I said, I am ambivalent on the subjects involved. All I intend to do is look at some alternative views, raise some questions, hopefully start a discussion, and most importantly - help myself find some answers.

Here is the bouquet of yesterday's events:

- Followed by a global "Interactive Web Chat" with Alec Ross (DoS Senior Adviser for Innovation) and Dan Baer (Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor).

- A panel on the U.S. Global Engagement in the New Media Era, organized by the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

- Senate Foreign Relations Committee's report on Public Diplomacy: "Another U.S. Deficit - China and America - Public Diplomacy in the Age of the Internet."

- President Obama's Press Conference (included a conversation on Egypt)

Internet Freedom, or rather, "21st Century Statecraft" seems to have been one of the core issues (if not the core issue) of the U.S. foreign policy promoted Secretary Clinton over the past several years. Being such a broad "concept", it seems to encompass issues ranging from free-market promotion and intellectual-rights' protection, to Twitter and the "free marketplace of ideas". All with the noble cause of spreading liberty, freedom of information, expression, and most importantly, democracy.

Image courtesy of DipNote.

First, there is China. No, rather, first: there is the "China Scare". With mentions in almost every major international affairs-related statement or report, especially when it comes to the Internet, the U.S. has made it clear that China is its primary "concern" in the world. With that in mind, how can one read the persistent U.S. attempts to pressure China to "open its markets" and to open itself up to further information penetration? After all, the U.S. primary concern here - quite naturally - is its interest, while from China's perspective, such a move would mean a threat to its own national interests. Oh, and loss of profit. 

To quote Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin, commenting on the Senate report:
"Not only is Beijing using its tight control over the Internet to shield the population from news and information related to government behavior, it is now exporting its censorship technologies to other repressive countries, including Iran, Cuba, and Belarus, Lugar's report stated."

Clinton, too, dedicated quite some time to China, as well as Iran, in her speech yesterday. But in addition to the usual list of "issues", this time she also talked about Wikileaks. Although the Secretary tried making some arguments to support the U.S. Government's position, the fact that she immediately turned to discussing freedom and transparency, did significant damage to the credibility of these arguments. Especially so yesterday, after Washington ordered Twitter to disclose the details of private accounts of several individuals involved in the case.

Then there is the whole "New Media Revolution" angle... Although I do acknowledge the role that technology played - initially - in helping some of the protesters organize and mobilize support, it was largely a non-factor in the actual course of the events. If anything, the social media has  helped some of the people on the ground to get the story out to the world. But so did Al Jazeera.

To quote Phil Seib:
"First, let’s be clear that this was the Egyptian Revolution, not the “Facebook Revolution” or the “Twitter Revolution.” Events of the past few weeks belong wholly to spirit of the Egyptian people, not technology. And although it was built on democratic aspirations, this was not a revolution that drew any inspiration from the United States."

I was closely following the discussion on Twitter throughout some of the days of the "standoff", and it did, indeed, seem like the conversation was going on largely among people outside of the country. There was perhaps a couple of dozen of key tweeters - especially those tweeting in English - who would "say" something or post a link, which would then be carried on to the "Western" tweet-o-sphere, where it would be retweeted, recycled, re-edited, reposted... The perfect information cascade. 

To demonstrate it better, here's a "tweet-o-graph" by Kovas Boguta, showing the "most influential" tweeters on "#Egypt", as the events unfolded:

If interested, you can actually access the super-high resolution format of this image here.

The description of it reads:
"[The network map] is based on the Twitter activity [of the pro-democracy movement], capturing the freedom of expression and association that is possible in that medium, and which is representative of a new collective consciousness taking form. [...] The map is arranged to place individuals near the individuals they influence, and factions near the factions they influence. The color is based on the language they tweet in -- a choice that itself can be meaningful, and clearly separates different strata of society."

Although great, this work has major shortcomings, mostly because of the lack of clarity of Boguta's methodology. And yet, even if we take it at face value, this image shows the much larger blue (i.e. English language) tail, which suggests that the majority of the conversation happened either outside of the country, or was tweeted from inside but with the foreign public in mind. This is also a great visualization of the cascading effect.

But as it has been emphasized many times before, information cascades not only help spread information, but they also promote the spread of unverified and often untrue information (see this Foreign Policy post, for instance), and are associated with unquestioned mass (or "herd") behavior. In a sense that's what happened with the "Social Media in Egypt" story, too.

Not only was it a common result of such tweet-o-mania or the need of the mainstream/traditional media to make the story relevant to the American public, but it also fit - perfectly - into the current dominant foreign policy framework promoted by Clinton. This, in turn, helps to further perpetuate such faith in "Twitter" and "Facebook" - and here, I use "faith" in its literal sense.

In case you missed the news, social media companies are attracting billions of dollars in investments, so much so that there is now talk of a possible "Social Media Bubble", similar to the "dot-com bubble" of the early 2000s. Add to that all the money from the State Department for the development of various software, tools, and platforms. But beyond that, it is also important to point out all the support these companies and corporations have been getting from the U.S. Government at an inter-state level, as well as the inevitably obvious interconnections ("interlocking directorates" of some sort... or, to put in somewhat other terms, the "revolving door") between various individuals involved in the story, in one way or another.

Image courtesy of Zero Anthropology.

For example: the by-now-renowned Wael Ghonim, who credited Facebook for ousting Mubarak, is himself a Google Inc. employee, and managed to make good use of the circumstances and attention, to direct even more hype toward the "social media revolution" story. Another example: Jared Cohen, a former DoS Policy Planning staff official and DoS' "Social  Media guru", has moved to Google's mysterious "Google Ideas" think-tank since September 2010. As much as I tried finding an official website for it, or any official information, the most substantial description was this excerpt from Cohen's "farewell" letter posted on Politico:
"Google Ideas will combine the models of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, a think tank, and a private sector company, with resources to implement. In this sense, Google Ideas will be a think/do tank that strives to bring together diverse perspectives from multiple industries to generate new ideas, approaches and solutions to security, social, economic and political challenges in the world."

I am not implying a conspiracy. Rather, I am suggesting a scenario where these "social media gurus" are making use of the situation to add hype and substance to the story, and thus increase the overall value of their collective "new media" market. In short: cash in.

And lastly, there is the issue of the American "soft"/"smart" power. Joe Nye was quick to respond to the Egyptian events. His conclusion:
"Revolutions are not new, nor are transnational contagion or non-state actors who play a key role in world affairs.
What is new -- and what we saw manifested in Egypt -- is the speed of communication and the technological empowerment of a wider range of actors. An information world will require new policies that combine hard and soft power resources into smart power strategies. That is the larger lesson of the revolution in Egypt."

Funnily enough, just a couple of weeks ago we read the piece, “From hegemony to soft power: Implications of a conceptual change” by Geraldo Zahran and Leonardo Ramos (from Soft Power and US Foreign Policy : Theoretical, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives), where they made a very strong case in critiquing Nye's approach as mostly "an apology" or a justification for U.S. global hegemony. With the above discussion in mind, I cannot help but point out the apparent hegemonic streak in this hype about the "New Media" and "Open Internet".

Image courtesy of Aaron Riddle.

Firstly, the administration has chosen not to criticize its allies in the region (Bahrain or Yemen, for example), while making sure to emphasize their "concern" about the clampdown by the Iranian authorities. Then, there is the increasingly apparent equation of "Internet Freedom" (which the U.S. claims is a fundamental right, en par with other universal human rights) with U.S. interests, which not only hinders the acceptance of the issue by the governments in question, but also runs the risk of actually discrediting this supposedly "sacrosanct" foundation of the "21st Century Public Diplomacy".

To quote James Harkin:
"For big American internet companies like Google and Twitter, the danger is that their interests come to be too closely defined with those of the American government: that they’re seen to be smuggling in statecraft under the guise of delivering technology. In the conspiracy mills of the Middle East, campaigns for internet freedom are denounced as cover for America’s broader agenda, the stalking horse for a shady new military-Twitter complex."

I will leave you with a tweet from what seems to be a mock tweeter on behalf of @Henry Kissinger [Courtesy of Dr. John Brown]:

"Diplomacy has changed so much. Today our diplomats tweet their messages to the public. In my day, we dropped them from 10,000 feet."

P.S. - Just saw this new post by Katie Dowd on DipNote: "Opinion Space 3.0 Launches on State.Gov." Will try to "try out" this "universe of viewpoints and ideas" and share impressions, some time.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Italy's Berlusconi Pain

The Italian women (also men, but mostly women), took over their country's public diplomacy over the weekend. They marched in their hundreds of thousands across Italy (but also across Europe, and even in Japan!), in support of women's rights and demanded that Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi steps down after numerous sex scandals. These demonstrations were sparked off by the latest scandal that involved the Moroccan "Ruby" and Berlusconi's continuous denial of related allegations.

One of the major issues the protesters' were speaking out against is the surprising gender gap in Italy, which, despite being a long-time EU member, occupies the 74th place among 134 countries surveyed by the World Economic Forum. In short, Italy has not yet reached the "European 21st century", and the women are out there demanding more respect and social mobility for themselves. Berlusconi himself was targeted because many blame him and his media empire (he is said to have almost total control over the Italy's commercial media and advertising) for creating a "culture and images" of women that perpetuate sexist attitudes and gender inequality.

In many ways, these protests were also about Italy's international image, which the protester's claimed is continuously tarnished by the Prime Minister. One of the major slogans of the day was "Italy is not a brothel": directed at officials at home, as well as the international public. Indeed, Berlusconi's "libertine" behavior often makes international headlines, inevitably affecting the foreign perceptions of the country itself (especially when it comes to the discussion and the suggested "explanations" for his retention of power for so long, despite all the crises)...

More interesting, however, is the fact that hundreds of thousands got out to the streets in various cities in Italy, as well as across Europe, demonstrating perhaps - yet again - the power of social media. Therefore, to me this seemed as yet another example of "New" Public Diplomacy, where people attempted to send a message to the international community, circumventing their government and official positions.

Two side notes:

- I found it very, very funny that the Guardian compared Italy's standing with that of Kazakhstan in its article. The subhead read:
"Thousands join marches for respect and values in country with gender gap worse than Kazakhstan's."

Later in the article, you could find the following passage:
"According to the World Economic Forum's latest global gender gap report, Italy ranked 74th out of 134 countries surveyed — 33 places below Kazakhstan."

I can't help but ask the question, why Kazakhstan?! Why not any of the other 33 countries in between? Is it just that Borat still rules in the Guardian reporter's mind?

- Berlusconi's most recent "Ruby"-related scandal happened just a month ago, whereby he is said to have abused his power to release the Moroccan from police detention (over theft allegations). The media reported that he told the police that "Ruby" was a relative of Egypt's Mubarak. Can you imagine the insult (to an Arab leader)?!

Funnily enough, I had come across rumors that Berlusconi's statement in support of Mubarak at the height of the Egyptian protests, on Feb 4, 2011, saying that he is "the wisest of men" (while most other world leaders were calling for "more democracy"), were made precisely in an attempt to "make up" with Egypt's former President. (It's ironic that he now finds himself in the exact same situation as Mubarak...) Meanwhile, "Ruby" seems to have acquired a celebrity career of her own...

Aren't you just tempted to say, "this would only happen in Italy"?! :-)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

On Russian "Kultura", Ballet, PD, & Stereotypes

If you haven't heard yet, Russia's renowned Mariinsky Ballet was in town this week, performing Adolphe Adam's "Giselle". Certainly, an occasion not to be missed! We braved the cold and the somehow prohibitively expensive ticket prices to enjoy two hours of "high culture" on Tuesday night... which, I should say, I am very happy about!

Image courtesy of New York Times.

Of course, given my (perhaps biased) unparalleled admiration for Khatchaturian when it comes to ballet, I should not be trying to share "comparative" impressions of "Giselle", especially since the period and the genre are completely different. So I will express my great appreciation of Mariinsky performers' technique and exuberance (oh, and the costumes! beautiful!), and my sincere hope that I will get to see another performance by them some time soon.

This week I also had the great opportunity of hearing PD blogger-extraordinaire and former FSO Dr. John Brown talk about his work as a Cultural Attaché in Eastern Europe and later Russia (he was among the distinguished guests at our PD class this week!). In his talk, he put a special emphasis on the striking differences he saw in the importance of high culture in the region, and the contrasting disregard for it by Americans. If interested, you can watch (and read) his thoughts on the subject from a little more than a year ago: a similar presentation, which he gave at AU's First Cultural Diplomacy Conference (November 2009). Very insightful, and oh so true!

(Before I go any further, I wanted to share the following compilation of Tchaikovsky's greatest works, by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra)

Louis Clark - Hooked on Tchaikovsky

To sum up some of Dr. Brown's key points:

- "Seeking the meaning of Russia outside of culture is pointless." Culture lies at the core of "Russianness."

- While, as a contrast, Americans define themselves essentially in terms of ideas: democracy, dignity, liberty, etc.

- This also impacts the way these nations see their contribution "to the civilization of mankind": Russia in terms of its high culture, while America in terms of ideals like democracy and free-market economy.

- Certainly, has major repercussions for the way they conceptualize public and, especially, cultural diplomacy. Can sometimes go disastrously wrong.

I will take the liberty to take this "train of thought" a step further and suggest that perhaps the "exclusiveness" of high culture is not perceived as "democratic" enough by Americans, which also helps explain the underlying general disapproval and dislike of initiatives that involve "high culture" in one way or another. Yet, as R.S. Zaharna says, public and cultural diplomacy need an "in-awareness" approach, if they are to have an impact - i.e. they have to resonate with the other culture, appealing to its ideals, values and interests.

According to Dr. Brown, American public diplomacy has largely failed to do that, especially when it comes to cultures such as the Russian or the Chinese, for whom their own "high culture" and great heritage are of paramount significance. Yet, I should say that the Russians (although the Chinese, too) have not learned that very same lesson themselves, in the sense of finding the right "values" to appeal to through their own public diplomacy. And here I will go back to ballet, which I can confidently say, is perhaps one of the few exceptions to this rule.

The tickets to "Giselle" sold out within days almost a month in advance (especially the more affordable ones), the hall was packed, and although I heard much more Russian and Chinese than I normally would on the streets of Washington, I also saw many Americans, quite a few of them with their children! Obviously, the Russian ballet has not lost its charm. However, it is still very limited in its reach, and as much as I dislike saying it, Russia needs to invest in (the production and export of) appealing pop culture, too.

Image courtesy of Russian Washington-Baltimore.

But before I get into more detail on that, I wanted to point out that Russia Today TV had - smartly - been featuring Mariisnky on their website for days, now. They also proudly hosted the following piece, revealing the theater's plans "to seduce the Americans" while on this tour. Fair enough. I think those who had the opportunity to see it, were indeed seduced. But what about the vast majority who didn't? And/or never will? A prominent popular culture is indispensable in this sense, especially when operating in a multi-media environment where attention spans are extremely short, while innovation and progress seem to be valued much more than age and recognition.

Very select few are generally familiar with the Russian "pop culture" scene outside of Russia itself (and, certainly, the former Soviet/Socialist space), unless of course an artist or a movie make it to international contests, such as the case with t.A.T.u. or the "Night Watch". And although the Russian so-called "estrada", as well as its movies, TV shows, radio programs, etc. have come a long way over the years in terms of "pop quality", they cannot even begin to rival American or European ones, especially internationally.

Funnily enough, Russia Today TV does not provide any programming of this kind at all. The only thing I have come across so far is this "Moscow Out" episode from last April. I thought I'd share it with you here:

Oh well... (Can we go back to the ballet, now, please?!)

This said, I will end by returning to Dr. Brown's reflections. As he described (quite rightly, I believe), throughout the Cold War, the American pop culture was like a "forbidden fruit" for the Russian people (and especially, for the intelligentsia). However, during the 90's, "[...] as the Russians started consuming more and more of this forbidden fruit, they got indigestion." He said he had never seen so many bad American movies in his life, as in the 90's in Russia: they flooded the Russian (and post-Soviet) "cultural space", inevitably creating a negative and fairly misplaced image of America. Meanwhile, the American government was oblivious to this problem. (Great point!)

However, what struck me most was the following question from the audience (and here I'm paraphrasing):
"Would you say that the Russian government played an important role here, deliberately importing these bad movies to tarnish the image of America among its public?"


...Well, what can I say? Although the former USSR is notorious for its tendency to embrace conspiracy theories, it seems that when it comes to Russia, any conspiracy can sound credible to the American mind.

Way to go on public diplomacy, Russia. Way to go...

Friday, February 11, 2011

Riz Khan: T. Ramadan & S. Žižek on Egypt

"Now that the dictator is successfully deposed, and "what comes next in Egypt" is on everyone's mind, I think this discussion with Tariq Ramadan and Slavoj Žižek (a week old) on the Riz Khan Show is all the more interesting.


Also, if interested, here are two recent articles by Žižek in the Guardian. Although I don't fully agree with him all the time, I do think he makes pretty good points and arguments. Worth taking a look, at least.

"Why fear the Arab revolutionary spirit?" Guardian, Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011

"For Egypt, this is the miracle of Tahrir Square" Guardian, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

#Jan25 Rap: The Inspiration Spreads

..."I heard them say 'the revolution won't be televised'. Al Jazeera proved them wrong. Twitter has them paralyzed..."

Awesomeness, inspired by the events in Egypt.

And an interview with Al Jazeera:

Well... Inspiring, indeed.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Empire: Pax Americana

Marwan Bishara is obviously on a roll. Another "Empire" episode, featuring professor Rashid Khalidi (Columbia University), Seymour Hersh, and Tom Pickering (please note: all Americans). Great, provocative discussion and certainly, raises good and the right questions, covering the "touchy" issues of double-standards, "democracy" rhetoric, American discourse on the Middle East (political, as well as in the media), and the big elephant in the room: Israel.

Concluding "quotes of note":

"I hope that just as the people in the Arab world are breaking the chains of fear and are willing to confront oppressive police states, so people in this country [the U.S.] start thinking about some of the formulas that have been fed to us, and will start to think openly and intelligently about what's really going on in the Arab world."

"The work of a diplomat is to take challenges and make them into opportunities. We have a lot of fertile field to work in, and now let us hope that it moves."

"This is a huge opportunity [for resolving the Arab-Israeli crisis, among other other things]."

In short: yet another must see. (Just don't forget the grain of salt, please.)

Aired on Monday, Feb 7, 2011.

Empire: Democracy in the Arab World?

With the turmoil spreading across the Arab world, Marwan Bishara obviously decided to seize the moment and make another "Empire" episode this month. Aired yesterday.

I think it represents all the various aspects of Al Jazeera's "identity", mission, and coverage, that I just discussed in my previous post.

Some great insights, as always. Enjoy.

CORRECTION [2/8/2011, 10:30 AM]: Just found out that this program first aired on Sunday, Feb 6.

Egypt: The Al Jazeera Factor

Al Jazeera's coverage has been critical in bringing about the popular uprisings across the Arab world, with unparalleled focus on Egypt. That is true of both, it's "domestic" (i.e. Arabic) broadcasting, as well as its English-language coverage. And that is a fact.

I know you have probably read and heard many discussions on the implications that Al Jazeera's programming has had (and still has) for the events unfolding in the region... But since I had been gathering materials about it for several days now, I thought I'd just put it all together in one post. What makes the issue particularly interesting for me, is not just the network's ability to effectively mobilize such a wave of action, but also represent the voices of the Arab people to perceptive Western audiences, for a change.

Image courtesy of Foreign Policy Magazine.

Although funded by Qatar's Emir and having been accused of promoting certain Qatari foreign policy interests, Al Jazeera has established itself as perhaps the most credible and reliable news source not just in the Arab world, but - in some cases - also beyond. The most peculiar thing about it is that it still comes from an Arab source, and yet provides a seemingly objective and thorough coverage (that said, I am making a big exception here: the Qatari government).

Al Jazeera, therefore, has created a true Arab public sphere - a forum for discussion and deliberation, debates, and expressions of frustration - at the same time fostering, what seems to be a sense of true Arab identity. And at the core of this identity is the Palestinian issue, of course.

Cartoon from New America Media.

Interesting to note: the release of the "Palestine Papers" - 1,600 leaked secret documents relating to the Peace Process that were supposed to be ground-shattering - seemed to had been envisioned as a watershed for the network and its influence, as well. Not only did they start a "special coverage" theme on these documents, with a series of daily "releases", they also made sure to provide enough air time and discussion space for numerous panels that featured various scholars, journalists, and policymakers who had been involved in the documents' analysis (since, apparently, summer 2010, when Al Jazeera is said to have obtained these documents).

The timing was unfortunate, however. The releases were scheduled for January 23-26, right when things started boiling over into Egypt. I presume the following post by Marc Lynch, from January 25, is pretty telling in that regard - "Watching Egypt (but not on Al Jazeera)":

"One key factor was missing, though, at least early on. Al Jazeera has played a vital, instrumental role in framing this popular narrative by its intense, innovative coverage of Tunisia and its explicit broadening of that experience to the region. Its coverage today has been frankly baffling, though. During the key period when the protests were picking up steam, Al Jazeera aired a documentary cultural program on a very nice seeming Egyptian novelist and musical groups, and then to sports. Now (10:30am EST) it is finally covering the protests in depth, but its early lack of coverage may hurt its credibility. I can't remember another case of Al Jazeera simply punting on a major story in a political space which it has owned."

Later, in an update he added:
"Al-Jazeera's lack of coverage of the protests has become a major story.   It doesn't seem to have gotten any better since this morning --- since getting back on line I've seen an episode of a talk show, more Palestine Papers, and only short snippets of breaking news on Egypt.  Al-Arabiya apparently hasn't done any better."

Nevertheless, soon after, the network caught up with the rapidly unfolding situation, not only improving its focus on the Egypt coverage, but essentially becoming one of the major sources, if not the major source of more or less credible information on the situation there. Al Jazeera kept fueling the enthusiasm and aspirations of the people in Egypt and all across the region - effectively itself becoming an actor in the events and the process - and seemed to have been playing an important role in mobilizing and maintaining foreign interest and support (which, undeniably, plays a critical role in this case).

Good they realized soon enough that this is the the story from the Middle East (and perhaps, around the world) right now. (Funny: there was very little talk of the Palestine Papers since they fully focused on Egypt, and even the "special coverage stripe" shows up only on the very bottom of its home page! Wonder why...?) Besides 24/7 almost non-stop coverage of the events, with exclusive footage, on-the-ground reports, extensive backgrounders, and up-to-the-minute reporting, Al Jazeera also set up a whole multimedia enterprise, facilitating a social networking info platform, as well as featuring podcasts and live blog updates.

Here you can watch Al Jazeera's Washington, D.C. Bureau Chief talk about the network's experience with the Egypt story:

Major emphasis is on the spike in American viewership. And rightly so. After all, it has been dubbed as "The Al Jazeera Revolution", in the Western audiences' minds, at least. Although Al Jazeera is currently not carried by most of the cable providers in the U.S. due to past "grievances" and hostility between the American government and the television network, they still streamed all their coverage - in English - live, online, for free, thus experiencing an almost 2,500% increase in online traffic, 60% of which was said to have come from the U.S. alone.

Being the expert on the issue, representing a wide spectrum of views, perspectives and angles, and in essence very Western reporting values, Al Jazeera proved itself a credible and legitimate information source. What is more, the availability of such depth of coverage in English was certainly instrumental in attracting more audiences than its potential competitors (BBC Arabic and Al Arabiya. Although the latter does provide some English-language content online, it cannot even begin trying to match Al Jazeera's reach; while BBC itself - i.e. the non-Arabic service - could not, probably, afford giving non-stop 24/7 attention to Egypt, only).

This, of course, came as a stark contrast to the shortage, or the complete lack of proper reporting from more "traditional" American media outlets. Dare I say: even when they did try getting "exclusives", this is what they came up with (more resembling a Hollywood action movie, than a serious report, in my humble opinion):

That aside, the network apparently gained so much momentum, that even the White House had reportedly tuned to Al Jazeera for information. Noteworthy, given all the history and the bad blood. But then, it was a different administration...

Having built up this momentum among the American public, Al Jazeera is now trying to capitalize on it. Firstly, there was the whole Twitter "promotion" story. (Great call, I should say, since most of those obsessively following the news were doing so through Twitter, too.) Then, there is this new campaign to encourage Americans to "Demand Al Jazeera" - apparently a revitalized push to make the cable providers carry AJE, too. (Whether it will work or not, only time will show, especially as the things in the Middle East calm down a bit.)

Also, I started noticing ads, and many more non-Qatar commercials, which are, obviously well placed, but certainly not in the true "Al Jazeera spirit". I wouldn't like to see AJE going down that path, as I am afraid that certain interests (beyond those of its hosts and current benefactors) will come to influence its actual reporting, very much like the case in Western countries, thus stifling its voice and hindering it from providing its main function - resistance to the oppressive regimes in the region. But I think Western, and especially American, audiences will look at this phenomenon as normal, and perhaps even appreciate this effort much more than the funding coming from the Emir himself.

Image courtesy of Business Insider.

What is especially noteworthy, however, is the role of Al Jazeera in (I guess) its true public diplomacy work on behalf of the Egyptian people. Itself a transnational, and supposedly independent actor, Al Jazeera broadcast, live, the plight of the Egyptian (and before that, the Tunisian) people as they were trying to exercise their democratic right to freedom. There was no Egyptian government censorship (as much as they tried), and the usual Western-centric "interpretive lens" were missing, too.

Thus, it managed to appeal to the values and beliefs of the Western audiences, sending a direct message that resonated with the public (and more importantly, the domestic media) to the extent of becoming a force pressing their respective governments to react to the situation. (I just suggest you Google "Egypt" news, and take a look at the number of relevant articles that come up in English...)

Seems like they've got most of the major ingredients for effective "new" public diplomacy right :

- Coverage (has been extensive, thorough, and very professional, risking the lives of its reporters)

- Appeal ("democracy"! certainly...)

- Legitimacy/Credibility (which, despite being scarce before, surprisingly sky-rocketed over the past two weeks)

- Infotainment / "Coolness" aspect (some of the programming has been dazzling, increasingly resembling the entertainment "hype" in the American style, inevitably grabbing attention and interest from the public)

 Social Media (reporters live-tweet and live-blog; the engagement/interactive aspect is incredibly addictive and provides a personal touch, which only adds to the perceived credibility; also, all the various social media networks have provided a great way to "impart" news as the information cascaded through their various layers and dimensions, across time, borders and languages).

Whether they will get to sustain this "momentum," however, can be debatable. Especially with competing coverage from certain "reliable" domestic alternatives, as highlighted in this CNN report:

(I won't comment on Fox News, or even the CNN tone here. Just wanted to highlight - in case you missed it - that when talking about "objective and reliable reporting in the Middle East", the reporter did not even mention Al Hurra, referring to Al Jazeera as the only source of such news in the region. Ironic?)

To conclude: it seems that we are, indeed, witnessing the perfect example of an "Al Jazeera Effect", where not only regional, but potentially global politics are essentially influenced (if not shaped) by the television network. After all, especially in their English-language coverage, they are not only focusing on the Arab world, but are providing thorough reporting on all of the "Global South" (while most of the Western domestic media are painfully lacking any coverage of those issues).

I'll leave you with an excerpt from the great study by Mohammed el-Nawawy and Shawn Powers on Al Jazeera English from a few years ago:

"With its avowed promise of giving a “voice to the voiceless,” AJE could represent a new style of news media that challenges existing research regarding transnational media organizations and media and conflict scholarship more broadly.

"[…] In terms of news media today, AJE is an anomaly when it comes to its role, mission and identity. It stands out from its competitors in that it presents a challenge to the existing paradigms guiding international news broadcasters. It is neither dominated by geopolitical nor commercial interests, and is the first of its kind to have the resources, mission and journalistic capacity to reach out to ideologically and politically similar audiences throughout the world.
"[...] The findings confirm that people are drawn to news media that help them connect with others who share similar stories, a process that provides them with a sense of social stability. […] Our finding that AJE was seen as a conciliatory media, and that the longer a viewer watched, the less dogmatic they were in their thinking, provides hope in a world in desperate need of much cross-cultural reconciliation."

Watch Al Jazeera! :-)

Monday, February 7, 2011

"Obama 2.0": Two Years On...

January ended a week ago: another month over, which also means another Empire episode on Al Jazeera English (yes, I'm a devout follower as you probably noticed by now). This latest episode was shot in Washington, DC, as a panel discussion at GW University - featuring noteworthy speakers: Ralph Nader, Roger Hodge, Stefan Halper, and As'ad Abu Khalil (the "Angry Arab") - and focusing on the evaluation of President Obama's foreign policy performance two years after taking office.

In "Obama 2.0", the discussion focuses on American "soft power" (or rather, the lack thereof) around the world, its sources, weaknesses, and the reasons for its failure. Here is the discussion in full:

(Please note that the program was shot some time mid-January, and was aired on January 24 for the first time - much earlier than Egypt erupted. That is why the references to North African "revolutions" come only in terms of Tunisia. Nonetheless, the conversation does touch upon the volatility of the region and all the hypocrisy perceived by the local Arab publics.)

Yet again, if you don't have the time (for whatever reason) to sit through the entire piece, I would suggest you look through the following segments that were - sort of - the starting points for the discussion. The first one focuses on "The Imperial Presidency":

Interesting, and very relevant to the discussions we have been having in the public diplomacy class this week. The program makes the point that Obama was indeed a great speaker - especially compared to his predecessor - and when it came to rallying the international public, he was certainly much more successful in getting the message across and inspiring hope beyond the American borders.

Yet, two years on, very few of his foreign policy promises actually materialized, resulting not just in the same old disillusionment, but perhaps even in net loss in terms of improving perceptions abroad ( --> the greater the expectations, the greater the perceived dissatisfaction, and thus, much greater disappointment). After all, he can make very eloquent and charismatic speeches, but what people really want to see are actions, and these don't seem to be coming about. Not yet, at least.

Can't help but refer back to my favorite concept that serves (in my opinion) as one of the core foundations of public diplomacy: diplomacy of deed. Instead, this discussion points to "the gap between words and deeds", and how, over time, the U.S. is losing its so-called "soft power". Oh, and certainly: they could not pass on the hypocrisy of selective democracy promotion/enforcement, which has been demonstrating itself only too well over the past several weeks.

Watching this program now could not have been more timely: after a week of reading on soft power, hegemony, and the predominance of American values and structures around the world, such formulations and framing by Al Jazeera seem to make quite a lot of sense. (But hey, let's not forget their own perspective, and their own, so-called agenda. That granted, both, the channel itself, and Marwan Bishara especially, need special recognition for raising these questions in the first place, and more importantly, for making it in a pretty legitimate and "backed-up" way.)

The second segment deals with "Obama's Wars" - the peculiar similarities and differences between Afghanistan and Iraq, American tactics, the losses in terms of "hearts and minds", and the implications for the future of U.S. foreign policy (featuring Jeremy Scahill and Matt Hoh).

Certainly, there is a lot of emphasis on the military spending, as well as the "Counterinsurgency" program, which some on the panel contend, is not just not working, but is fueling further disillusionment and extremism among the locals. Here, it would be appropriate to go back to a term I really like - cultural intelligence, or "CultInt". This term truly captures the conceptual incoherence of the effort, I think: garnering support from the local population by combining "culture" (broadly defined) with "intelligence" (no, it's not referring to competence, but rather, information gathering). In short, studying the "target public" from within so as to be able to use various elements of its culture against itself. And it is also here that one can observe the very thin line where "soft power" easily transforms into "hegemony", if not outright "coercion". (Remember "Avatar", the movie?)

It is difficult not to go into the ethical implications of this effort. But even if that is ignored "for the sake of national security", the issue still begs the question: what is national security? I thought the fact that most of the insecurity comes from negative perceptions of the U.S. among certain parts of the international public was recognized ten years ago. But then it seems to take a little longer for policymakers to fully comprehend that perceptions are also directly related to actions ("public diplomacy of deed", remember?).

Visualization of President Obama's Cairo Speech on June 4, 2009 (in Wordle).

Seeing all this obsession with rhetoric and words in the U.S. media (but also the society as a whole), I can't help but ask whether this obsession also projects itself into the foreign policy domain. If so, it is unfortunate, because two more years from now the Arab (and Muslim) public will not be going to re-read and re-analyze every single phrase in every speech Obama made and what it represents about his intent (unless, of course, they use it to evaluate his actions). Rather, they will be counting their number of dead, as well as the millions (and in some cases, billions) of military aid the U.S. gives to their authoritarian and corrupt leaders.

(Yes, some may ask why Obama's personal effort is so decisive. But then, being the democratically-elected President and the Commander-in-Chief of the military, he is also the "Persuader-In-Chief", speaking on behalf of all of America.)

With this in mind, it seems like Egypt does indeed present the major public diplomacy challenge for Obama (if not the biggest foreign policy problem). There has been a lot of attention as to what the White House (or anyone else from the administration) will or will not say. And yet, what will matter in the end is what his administration actually does, whether overtly or not (apologies to all the speech writers!).

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Al Thawra (The Revolution)

This video was shared with me, and I thought I'd post it here, too.

Interesting lyrics, which, I believe, don't need any further commentary.

Protests in support of the Egyptian people in Washington, D.C.

Well, these protests had been going on all across the U.S. for at least a week now. I finally managed to attend one in Washington, DC on Friday, February 4. Here are some highlights:

The protesters gathered in front of the White House at first. The remarkable thing about the crowd was that it wasn't just Egyptian-Americans there. Many other representatives of various Arab communities were there, too, as well as non-Arabs: friends, sympathizers, and just Americans who care.

At this point, one of the main organizers got on the phone with a protester, who was said to be in Tahrir Square in Cairo. He addressed the crowd here via a speaker. Perfect example of people-to-people, direct communication:

Some interesting signs and banners. Pretty telling and certainly, making good points:

Addressing one of the major "concerns"?

The great reminder. While Obama spoke INside the WH, with his Canadian counterpart, calling for "more".


The Prayer. In front of the White House. Significant.

And very moving.

Then the protesters marched towards the Congress: the group seemed to grow larger as it moved through downtown Washington.

Some shots. No comment...

Pretty much captures the irony of the whole situation. Especially when speaking of public diplomacy...

The protesters stopped in front of the Supreme Court...

... and ended the "Day of Departure" with two minutes of silence for all those who died in the protests in Egypt over the past week.

You can see more photos here. I also have several videos available here, although, due to my small camera and dying batteries, the quality is far from being great...

Thursday, February 3, 2011

RT on US International Broadcasting

With the semester in full swing and with the non-stop Egypt mania, I was about to miss this report from Russia Today TV (from Feb 1) focusing on America's "international" broadcasting (yeah, sorry, haven't been watching it much lately). Although these segments - titled "US Funded Media Fail" - do point out some of the issues related to US-funded foreign channels, I find it more than ironic that RT is the one talking about the failures of broadcast (or how Entman would call it, "mediated") public diplomacy.

Here's the actual report, featuring Philip Seib, Director of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy:

To reiterate: the segment brings up some great points. However, let me emphasize a quote from Dr. Seib, highlighted in the actual report:

"The problem that Alhurra has faced is that, as opposed to the old Cold War model when American and Western broadcasts such as this were very much welcomed, the competition is such now within the Arab world, dominated by Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, there really isn't much of an audience outside of Iraq. […] It's credibility, and the Arab audience for the most part wants to hear about themselves from other Arabs."

I mean, what else can one say to Russia Today itself? The Cold War propaganda model or, as Thomas Goodnight put it, the "Controversy Model" is supposedly long obsolete. Yes. What is RT doing in its own broadcasts, then? By this very same report...?

Just days ago I had a prequel to this post, it seems. But then, there's no going wrong with RT, is there? Just when I think there's no way for things to get worse, they somehow manage to prove me wrong. Every time. (Though, I should admit that their "public diplomacy ~ blurry/line ~ propaganda" efforts are getting somewhat more "sophisticated": they cut down on some of the R-Rated content...!!)

The case is similar here, too. The RT producers need to be reminded that the key word in Dr. Seib's quote is "credibility", without which no public diplomacy effort - broadcast or not - can hope to achieve success. (The unfortunate part is that even when RT somehow manages to capitalize on sad events and gain credibility and acknowledgment - as in the case of last week's Moscow bombing - it always manages to undercut all that effort with conspiracy stories, which simply further underscore the perception of RT as a propaganda channel. R.I.P., hopes for credibility in "Western minds"...)

Also noteworthy, of course, is the separate interview they had with Nancy Snow:

Here, focusing on the cost and the "lack of accountability and transparency", I'm afraid RT is raising more questions about itself than about the media story it is supposedly reporting on. I have not yet come across a budget for RT, but it being a "function" of Kremlin's attempted charm blitz, one can safely assume that the numbers are far from being humble.

What is more, with its new broadcasting center in Washington, DC (opened late 2009) and broadcasts in Arabic and Spanish, RT's costs are certainly moving in one direction: up. I'm afraid that is not at all the case with its credibility or popularity, especially among its key audiences: the "Western" public. After all, simply rebranding old models and introducing a greater variety of languages and "beaming" channels will not automatically improve the effectiveness of public diplomacy. In this age, it requires a true cognitive shift.

In short, as problematic as US international broadcasting may be, RT is not lagging much further behind (to say the least). That is why, seeing this story reported by RT - out of the blue - makes it all the more senseless and lame.

Oh well, good luck.

As for Egypt: I'm getting back to what has become "mainstream" coverage - Al Jazeera. But more on this later.