Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Patricia Kushlis on State's IIP: A Bureau Playing with Fire - Or Maybe Not...

Patricia Kushlis over at WhirledView has a new post on the State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) - IIP: A Bureau Playing with Fire – Or Maybe Not.

On February 11, USA Today reported that the State Department had just launched a controversial new approach to connect directly with opposition movements in Iran and the Arab World via Facebook and Twitter.  The same thrust is found in Marshall Kirkpatrick's post with the titilating title "Will Twitter Become the New "Voice of America" Propaganda Arm?"

The goal of this initiative? To become “part of the conversation” –“to reach out to people where they spend their time online to listen, to present US views and values, and to engage as we work to advance a better and more prosperous future” – in Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy Judith McHale’s words.

Coincidentally, McHale’s announcement came just before violent clashes broke out in Tehran a day after the Department began its first Tweet in Farsi and as anti-government copy-cat rebellions spread like wildfire from Tunis and Cairo across the Arab world

[D]oes the Obama administration really want to be blamed for inciting even one revolution that failed as happened with our radio broadcasts to Hungary in 1956?  Not all the protests that now sweep the Middle East will have happy endings – at least from a democratic perspective.

Besides, who’s to say that barging into someone else’s social media conversations is the most effective way to reach the next generation, er, the twentysomethings who founded Egypt’s April 6, Youth for El Baradei, or Muslim Brotherhood’s Youth for instance?  If that is the Department’s the goal.

These groups seem to have done quite well on their own - with some direction and training from the Serbs who got rid of Milosevic. This according to Tina Rosenberg in an FP article. They also had access to the ideas of an unlikely American 83 year old thinker-strategist writing on non-violent revolutions named Gene Sharp as profiled in a New York Times article by Sheryl Gail Stolberg.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has made support for Internet freedom a major foreign policy goal.  It is, after all, perhaps the most vital information tool of all. It just seems to me , however, that the Department should play by the same rules.

Sure, increase topically based IIP Twitter feeds with the one caveat:  Be careful what you Tweet and remember Twitter is not a conversation: it’s a one way headline series.

Increase the number of high quality Facebook pages too. IIP seems to be doing them very well. Maybe cut back on some of the less popular or influential others managed elsewhere. But understand, both Twitter and Facebook are restricted networks that operate within larger networked universes.

How effective the new directions will be, what they will entail and what the potential repercussions will be are question marks.  Yet, IIP’s predecessors were information innovators that didn’t shy from trying out the new. This latest bureau realignment, then, should be seen and entered into from that same perspective.  Not everything will work – but meanwhile, just don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. 

Read the whole thing here.

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