If you Can’t Beat ’em

Revati Prasad is one of the ten 2015 Milton Wolf Emerging Scholar Fellows, an accomplished group of doctoral and advanced MA candidates selected to attend the 2015 Milton Wolf Seminar on Media and Diplomacy, an annual event co-organized by the Center for Global Communication Studies, the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, and the American Austrian Foundation. Their posts highlight the critical themes and on-going debates raised during the 2015 Seminar discussions.

The 2015 Milton Wolf Seminar on Media and Diplomacy began with a few questions posed to all participants: Is there a distinction any longer between news and PR? What are the new narratives for legitimacy and most importantly, how do different institutions adjust to these new information imperatives? In response, one participant offered the parable of Kodak vs. Fuji to exemplify how institutions unable to adapt to new technology fall by the wayside (Kodak failed to capitalize on digital technology despite being an early pioneer).

The two days of discussion centered on how different actors are adapting to this new information environment, one ever more crowded by different voices and narratives. States, terrorist entities, citizens, corporations, and multilateral bodies are all active participants creating, disseminating, and responding to information. Both new actors and old actors using new tactics are vying for legitimacy and attempting to craft and control foreign policy narratives with varying degrees of success.

The internet, and more recently social media, has brought new and different types of actors into the fray and altered the framework under which old actors engage in international communications, effectively creating a sea change in the form and flow of information. 2015 Milton Wolf participants were particularly interested in discussing whether and how content has changed. While social media was initially heralded as a pivotal force for democratizing the exchange of information and wresting control away from institutions to individuals, time has illustrated that social media cannot be generalized as inherently anything, except perhaps cacophonous.


Social But Not Equitable Media

Social media is not upending existing structures and hierarchies. If anything, social media platforms lack a diversity of voices, privilege the Western world, and are a space in which elites continue to retain the most power and visibility. One participant brought up the vastly different social media responses to the simultaneous Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria and the Charlie Hebdo massacre in France. While the hashtag #Jesuischarlie went global, the majority of social media users ignored the Boko Haram attacks, a trend that was subsequently mirrored in traditional media. This discrepancy may be a reflection of the social media user base, which doesn’t accurately reflect global society in its characteristics, geography, or demographics.

Social media architecture is also ideal for garnering a lot of attention quickly, but it has a limited ability to sustain dialogue. Launched in April 2014 in response to the abduction of more than 200 Nigerian girls by Boko Haram, the #Bringbackourgirls campaign was initially wildly popular; however, divorced from concerted action, it soon fizzled. Milton Wolf participants pointed out, perhaps most crucially, that people expressing themselves online are doing so through an intermediary. Their communication is filtered through corporate-controlled platforms and influenced by algorithms. This technology is scripted.

Over the course of two days, seminar conversations explored a number of new players, new mechanisms, and new strategies for achieving legitimacy online. For state actors, realizing that the online space isn’t going anywhere has lead to a range of new strategies to control, or at the very least influence, the conversation. Public diplomacy is relocating in part to the online space. State actors increasingly are cutting out the middleman, traditionally journalists, and delivering messages directly to their target audience. The Israeli Defense Forces spokesperson in Arabic, for example, has 130K Twitter followers. When the nuclear talks concluded in an agreement, the story broke because Iranian diplomats themselves took to Twitter, a medium blocked in Iran, to announce that a deal had been reached. We must remember that while this new face of public diplomacy capitalizes on the signifiers of transparency, it remains entrenched in the overall strategic communication goals of the state. It is also cannily aware of its audience, which is frequently foreign rather than domestic. The Foreign Minister of Iran, Javad Zarif’s Twitter account is in English and not available to Iranians. In fact, Twitter has refused to verify his account out of protest against the fact that the platform remains banned in Iran.



Public Diplomacy is only one means of state outreach to foreign publics. Propaganda, defined by one Milton Wolf participant as “suppression, diversion, fabrication, and misinformation,” is a long established tradition in international relations, practiced by states across the political spectrum. States are expanding their repertoire of propaganda techniques in response to changes in communication technologies. Suppression can be about blocking the internet in general or access to specific sites. Russia is employing greater coercion to curtail Western information flows. There are new laws on storing user data within Russia and providing authorities with access to that data. The Russian government has also made various attempts at undermining citizen journalism. In spring 2014, it introduced a law stating that if a user has 3000 followers on social media, they are considered a journalist and are therefore subject to Russian media laws and restrictions. Using the Associated Press as an example in the US, one participant pointed out that state surveillance has had chilling effects on journalism in developed democracies as well.

These overt forms of state coercion are accompanied by misinformation campaigns aimed at undermining trust. In the case of Russia, one participant referred to the phenomenon as “propaganda wars and war propaganda.” Here the battle between narratives is happening both on- and offline. Offline, Russian TV is viewed by 97% of the population and is full of stories of young boys being crucified. There is also active disinformation from state-owned media, including Russia Today. Online, the Russian hacker army has continued to muddy the water with false reports. The sheer volume of new and old media noise makes discerning truth from fiction too great a challenge for most citizens.

Repressive governments are using a toolkit of control mechanisms that runs the gamut from Orwell to Huxley. The diffusion of innovation is such that while at one point a state might have tried to shut down a conversation, today the response is rather to attempt to water it down. Turkey is currently employing the rhetoric of control when it comes to online expression. According to one Milton Wolf panelist, approximately 60% of YouTube and Twitter removal requests in 2014 originated in Turkey. The Turkish government consistently portrays social media as a menace, as responsible for increasing the threat of terrorism, as propagating false rumors about public figures (insulting public figures is illegal in Turkey), as harming family values, and as a tool used by foreign powers interested in destabilizing Turkey. As a result, citizens of Turkey are divided and polarized and exhibit strong support for legal controls on expression online.

The calculus of governments who want to shut down online conversations as opposed to control or influence them has evolved as conservative powers have become more web savvy and sophisticated. Russia, Iran, and China, for example, pay people to infiltrate online conversations. In China, as some participants noted, social media was at one point an open, unfettered space in contrast to the tightly-controlled formal media sector; and citizen journalism was seen as more credible than mainstream media. Today, social media is a more contested space; and state agencies closely surveil and regularly infiltrate social media spaces like Weibo and Weichat.


Muddying the Waters

Panelist Amelia Arsenault focused on rise of “information warriors.” These are businesses for hire by political operatives who traffic in manufacturing an online “groundswell” or creating the appearance of political outcry/engagement/dissent etc. This includes buying fake Twitter followers or using “astro-turfing” (which is the myth of grassroots activism) to alter political narratives. There are companies such as reputation.com that offer services to individuals and lesser-known organizations. They are information guns for hire, often used by formal political groups or interest groups, particularly in the defense and military sector.

This new information environment, where everyone is online and jostling for space, is particularly conducive to the creation and dissemination of spectacle, which has opened up new modes of conflict between actors of asymmetric power. Asymmetry came up during the Milton Wolf discussions a number of times, particularly in relationship to ISIS, which has been capitalizing on that dynamic, using violence as the medium and the message. The rise of social media has created a dynamic in which smaller non-state actors like ISIS can  better challenge established state actors. It’s easy to revert to the imagery of David and Goliath; but in the online space, it is less clear which is which.

ISIS has been skilled at setting the terms of the discussion through its proactive use of social media. Any engagement by state actors with ISIS now takes place on ISIS’s rhetorical terrain. Are they Islamic? Are they a state? As discussed at Milton Wolf Panel, “The Force that Calls Itself the Islamic State:  Managing Representations on the World Stage,” ISIS is recruiting members by engaging in long online conversations, shooting videos using seven cameras and sophisticated editing techniques, and using 70,000 Twitter accounts to push out its messages. It also has an English-language magazine for recruiting non-Arabic speakers. In all its messaging, ISIS hijacks symbols—the orange jumpsuits, the image of a man holding a sword, the self-immolation that launched the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia—to render them more horrific, more spectacularly violent. One panelist noted that ISIS isn’t simply communicating via social media, but rather forming itself through social media. The presentation of violent spectacles online is helping to crystallize ISIS as an entity.

True virality is rare. This important point made at the Seminar in relation to ISIS also has much broader value. What we experience as ISIS videos “going viral” isn’t about the videos being passed from person to person, but rather is in large part due to established media linking to, or covering, the online spectacle. The symbiotic relationship between traditional and social media combines to magnify the voice of ISIS and its impact.


Protecting Online Space

Notions of individuals online who are empowered to connect, mobilize, and organize can seem quaint when compared to a more realistic and complicated picture of the contested digital sphere. The internet space, once imagined as inherently open, is closing rapidly. In some contexts, the commercial sector can intermittently use its influence to push back on repressive laws or bad practices, but this generally happens when these laws undermine the commercial viability of the platform. Twitter may police fake Twitter accounts because users are its currency with advertisers; but when states ban a platform from a country because of posted content, most platform owners will comply with national laws and regulations.

Non-state actors may work to protect freedom of the press and of expression. Multilateral organizations commonly advocate for legal and physical protections when countries such as Hungary pass repressive laws or when journalists are killed in places like Ukraine. However, these activities operate under outmoded notions. They are conducted in order to “protect the rights of the media.” The rights of the media to do what?  These activities seek to preserve the integrity of the media as a sphere while remaining “content neutral.” This understanding of media, however, privileges certain institutions and is incongruous with the contemporary digital realm.

NGOs defending free speech are interested in shifting the discussion from media freedom to freedom of expression. They are redefining journalism and journalists by the work they do, not by a certification or an affiliation. The goal is to protect people’s rights as enshrined in Article 19 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights—to receive or impart information. One participant suggested international engagement to support liberal voices within repressive countries as a partial solution. These attempts can be productive but also fraught, as demonstrated by Zunzeo in Cuba, a failed USAID project that covertly supported the launch of a social media platform called in an attempt to organize and mobilize liberal voices.

The free flow of information is critical to the infrastructure of democracy, which one seminar participant defined as, “not an exercise in mechanics like voting, but about values of diversity, tolerance, and compromise.” In liberal democracies, this space used to be the purview of news media, but in the digital space, the multitude of actors busily vying for influence and producing a glut of content can still make for a paucity of information. What is needed now, as the Milton Wolf seminar participants acknowledged, is the wider promotion of new media literacy; more attempts at helping audiences understand the dynamics of media and information environments.


About the Author

revatiRevati Prasad is an incoming doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication. Her work is focused on the role of media institutions and those that support them in the political development of new democracies. She comes to the program after several years working for Internews, an international NGO that supports the development of local media. At Internews she focused on research and evaluation into numerous initiatives globally, most significantly in Afghanistan, Kenya, and South Sudan. Her work has ranged from designing a study measuring the graphical literacy of data journalism consumers in Kenya, to studying the use of new media to promote interreligious understanding in Malaysia, to designing a mobile survey to assess the information needs of refugees in camps in Dadaab, Kenya. Ms. Prasad has an MPA in Development Management from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and a B.S. in Broadcast Journalism and a BA in Political Science from Ohio University.


Featured Photo Credit: Attribution Some rights reserved by Matt Davis


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