Tag Archives: diplomacy

Echoes in the Public Sphere

The new ‘social’ communication of facebook, twitter and SMS social networks have been heralded as the new dawn of a global public, a market square of ideas in which all could participate. To listen to some, it seems to promise all the failed efforts of the 70’s to bring about ‘New World Information and Communication Order’ in which the voices of the unheard could speak with the many. But is this really true?

When Marshall McLuhan coined the term the ‘global village’ he imagine a world where everyone communicated, with everyone. Clay Shirky’s book ‘Here Comes Everyone‘ updates that vision for the modern internet age, painting a picture of global collaboration, protest (eg against the Catholic Church) and coordination. Indeed, in his second book Cognitive Surplus he suggests that the global attention of the always connected could yield a trillion hours of productive engagement.

But recent trends suggest that while increasing numbers may be connecting, this isnt quite the great global conversation we might imagined, nor is it leading to the revolution we might have imagined. Indeed, many of the examples of new media ‘revolutions’ are not all that they seem:

  • From Foreign Policy Magazine: But it is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right. Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran. As Mehdi Yahyanejad, the manager of “Balatarin,” one of the Internet’s most popular Farsi-language websites, told theWashington Post last June, Twitter’s impact inside Iran is nil. “Here [in the United States], there is lots of buzz,” he said. “But once you look, you see most of it are Americans tweeting among themselves.”
  • From International Herald Tribune: My impression is that these new media today play a role identical to that played by Al Jazeera satellite television when it first appeared in the mid-1990s — they provide important new means by which ordinary citizens can both receive information and express their views, regardless of government controls on both, but in terms of their impact they seem more like a stress reliever than a mechanism for political change. We must face the fact that all the new media and hundreds of thousands of young bloggers from Morocco to Iran have not triggered a single significant or lasting change in Arab or Iranian political culture. Not a single one. Zero.

Clearly, there are many examples – from the Phillipines, Kenya, and of course Barack Obama’s election – where cellphones have been used to unite people with similar views in ways previously unimaginable. But thats the point. These are people who already care about corruption. In fact, though everybody may be connecting, we’re actually having the same conversation, only magnified. Our views arent being challenged and perspectives only reinforced. Ethan Zuckerman’s excellent TED talk demonstrates how narrow our world view is, pointing to arresting graphics of global TV content – and how its dominated by coverage of the US, a little of the UK and the broader ‘Western world’. Other continents are mere mentions, usually only when wars are fought. And the voices of the unheard are heard by only a very very few. Its worth watching in full:

This means that our world view, and perspectives on our global village, remain limited. Cass Sunstein, co-author of Nudge and Obama’s internet czar, writes in his book On Rumours how the dominance on the internet of social networking and blogging creates what he terms ‘ an echo chamber’ of ideas, where prejudices are exacerbated, to the extent, he argues in the Telegraph, that ‘if you want to be an extremist, hang out with people you already agree with’.

The point is that for most, the new media isnt bringing about a more vibrant public sphere. A healthy public sphere, as outlined by German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, is a free market place of ideas to be freely debated by people prepared to change their point of view. In this public sphere extreme perspectives would be perceived for what they are – extreme and certainly not the norm.

Instead our ‘imagined community‘ shaped by television, the internet and SMS serves up what we choose, and in the main we tend to choose information that confirms what we already thought, and reinforces our prejudices through connecting us to people who share the same prejudices. The new public sphere seems increasinly not a market place of ideas but a series of ghetto’s in which reveberating opinions are reinforced, driving out the possibility of change.

Our task must be, as Zuckerman outlines in his talk and the Global Voices initiative, to bring the voices of the unheard into ghetto’s and help the echoes reverberate in new spheres.

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America wrangles over propaganda control

The US Strategic Command (appropriately, STRATCOM) is wrangling with the Central Intelligence Agency and other parts of the military over contro of the ”strategic communication’ space. They are, according to Marc Ambinder over at The Atlantic, using their role in Information Operations take a larger part of the communications pie.

Ambinder puts the tension well:

The CIA doesn’t think STRATCOM should play in this lane. But neither does Robert Gates, the Defense Secretary, or the State Department, or the National Security Staff. Information Operations involves five fields: deception, psychological operations, computer network operations, electronic warfare and operations security. When you hear these terms, you think military, war, penetration of secret bunkers and the like. The State Department and the others want to make sure that Information Operations don’t conflict with what they call Strategic Communications — getting the message out that the US isn’t fighting against Islam, that the Afghan military is a credible institution. State sees IO from the perspective of an ad agency: what does the customer need? STRATCOM sees IO from the perspective of a military targeter: what’s the target, and how to we use all resources to manipulate it.

Which is interesting because its fairly well acknowledged that the military doesnt do so well at at the communications necessary to help build hearts and minds. I presented at a seminar at the United States Institute of Peace in February where there was broad acknowledgement that the psy-ops, strategic communications and ‘hearts and minds’ communications of the American military – with vastly larger budgets than Department of State, or the Agency for International Development, wasnt really working. Instead the participants agreed that ‘extremist propaganda cannot be effectively dealt with through counter-propaganda. Instead, the provision of a robust and credible media environment that encourages an exchange of ideas around needs and solutions is vital in mitigating extremist messages‘ (you can read the account of the seminar here).

But will the Defense Department win?

Opinion Space – first step towards global dialogue

In March the US State Department launched Opinion Space a fascinating new web based tool to, in their own words, ‘foster online open dialogue’. Below is AYM2011 from Afghanistan’s comment:


It allows you to position yourself through a series of questions on a social graph and compare yourself to others. The questions are faily basic, but broad:

Its great that you can see others comments, and rate them in terms of how much you agree with them. But Id like to see:

  • comments by geography. It would be interesting to be able to engage with peoples perspectives from specific countries.
  • responses to questions put to SoS Clinton. It doesnt feel very interactive at present.
  • ability to comment directly in response to other comments.
  • facility to propose new questions
  • a broader set of activities around the whole initiative. TV programmes, blogs, etc.

How could this be used beyond its webplatform, and to open it up to broader participation? Well, Id like to see this being reflected in a TV programme, broadcast simultaneously on US and a foreign TV channel – eg Pakistan. Questions could be asked , responses sent by text message, and the answers graphed on the webplatform and broadcast on television. The responses could be debated by a studio panel, commentators or even government representatives.

How else can data representation like this be used to promote peace and diplomacy? How can the data be used in interactive ways?