Counter-Propaganda: Do I Detect a Propaganda Panic™?

December 16, 2014

Before thinking about the counter-propaganda question specifically I’ve been struck by the volume of recent writing on the threat posed by Russian and ISIS propaganda. Having spent much time with the history of the informational instrument recently I’m feeling qualified to detect signs of a full on propaganda panic™

Before thinking about the counter-propaganda question specifically I’ve been struck by the volume of recent writing on the threat posed by Russian and Isis propaganda. Having spent much time with the history of the informational instrument recently I’m feeling qualified to detect signs of a full on propaganda panic™. This is not to say that there aren’t things to be concerned about but it also seems to be me that the current excitement is a bit overblown which in turn suggests some observations about how we think about these things.

The propaganda panic can be seen as a variation on the good old media moral panic

The classic propaganda panic starts with an event that comes as a surprise to a group of political leaders (and to the journalists that commentate on them). Such an unexpected event needs an explanation and ‘propaganda’ provides an answer.   The attraction of ‘propaganda’ is that it appears to stand somewhere outside the normal responsibilities of politics or diplomacy and helps to insulate those in charge from an accusation that they weren’t paying attention or that their policies have failed. The explanation can then be offered that it is the inadequacy of our propaganda/public diplomacy/ information efforts. The additional twist is that the people who have been responsible for the ‘inadequate’ response have been saying all along that their work is totally underfunded and so instead of coming out swinging at their critics gratefully pocket the increased appropriations.

This isn’t entirely cynical on the part of the people involved because underpinning the attribution of effect to ‘propaganda’ is the classic misperception of seeing an opponent as more capable, unified and coherent than they actually are, and to see oneself as more benign that you actually appear to other actors (eg Jervis 1976, part III).  Hence once a group of leaders have undergone a surprise and started to pay attention to a situation they attribute the negative aspects of the situation to the carefully laid plans of the opponent that are generating opposition.

In the contemporary case I would add a tendency of the current security community to abstract threats from their specific situations. I’ve been struck by the number of blog posts about how one the ISIS/Putin situations marks the rise of a new unconventional-hybrid-asymmetric-Mad Max – conflict threat or something like that. Essentially this is converting a situation or a pair of situations with quite specific characteristics into a category. Rather than looking for responses that are tailored to these situations and question becomes how to come up with the optimum weapons and organizations to defeat the category of threat.

The crux of responding effectively is to put the problems back in their real political, historical and media context. The problem with the propaganda panic is that encourages thinking in terms of myths.

Next up I’ll take up some of the specific challenges of counter propaganda in the digital space.

Jervis R (1976) Perception and Misperception in International Politics. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.


Counter-Propaganda in the Digital Age: Introduction

December 8, 2014

There’s something wonderfully retro about talking about counter-propaganda but with the appearance of ISIS and the Ukrainian Crisis it seems like proclamations that Russia or ISIS are winning the propaganda /information /ideas war are and that something needs to be done are all over the place. Counter-terrorism messaging needs to be handed to be taken from the State Department and given to the CIA or we need to bring back the Information Research Department.

I’ve been meaning to write about these issues for some time but there are so many interesting aspects to this I always get stuck. So by way of clearing some mental space over the next few days I’m going to address three questions.

  1. How seriously should we take the Russian and ISIS information offensives?
  2. What can we learn from old skool counter-propaganda in the light of a changed media and political environment?
  3. To what extent does digital actually offer a ‘self-correcting market place of ideas’ and to what extent do we need states and international organizations to take address counter-propaganda challenges.

I’m going to argue that our tendency to see these threats in terms of a seamless information space tends to exaggerate the threat of ‘foreign’ information activities but at the same time to overstate the possibilities of our own.


New Paper on Link Between Language Teaching and Foreign Investment.

November 26, 2014

One of the issues that French embassies are supposed to keep on top of is the status of French in the local education system. Of course French opens the way to the French education system but there’s also the saying that if you speak French you buy French.

Given this belief there’s an interesting paper forthcoming in International Studies Quarterly that probes the link between language and Foreign Direct Investment. Previous research has found a relationship between official languages and investment but the new paper by Kim et al looks at data on which languages are actually taught in schools and finds a robust relationship between language teaching and inward investment.   That is if you want to attract investment make sure that your country teaches the language of the country that you want to attract investment from. They recognize that English is a special case but what’s especially striking is the consequences of starting to teach Chinese. A country gets that gets a Confucius Institute can expect a 900% rise in Chinese investment five years later.

I’m less convinced by some of the discussion of the causal mechanisms behind the quantitative relationship but here’s some evidence that diplomats can use to persuade host governments that language teaching has some benefit.

Kim, Moonhawk, Amy H. Liu, Kim-Lee Tuxhorn, David S. Brown, and David Leblang. ‘Lingua Mercatoria: Language and Foreign Direct Investment’. International Studies Quarterly, 1 October 2014, n/a – n/a. doi:10.1111/isqu.12158.

Soft Power, Attractiveness and Influence

November 25, 2014

“The concept of soft power is soft in conceptualization and weak in empirics. What is the leap of logic that leads from attraction to American culture or its products to support for American foreign policy?”

Reich, Simon, and Richard Ned Lebow. Good-Bye Hegemony!: Power and Influence in the Global System. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2014, p. 34

That’s a good question but it doesn’t just apply to soft power it also applies to classical French or German theories of foreign cultural policy. Historically there’s always been blurring between a politics of national attractiveness and a policy of diplomatic influence. In France it’s possible to see some tension under the pressure of a tougher global environment: in going through a lot of French parliamentary reports from the last decade it’s interesting to voices arguing not just for a very focused diplomatie d’influence, but also for handing over the whole activity of rayonnement to the culture ministry at the expense of the Quai d’Orsay. Having said this the majority position seems to be for the traditional compromise.

Given that I normally talk about public diplomacies in the plural this isn’t really surprising but it does raise both analytical and policy questions.

In analytical terms what is the connection (if any) between a politics of attractiveness and diplomatic influence?*

In policy terms how do you devise and fund a policy of attractiveness and a policy of influence? The irony is that it’s probably advantageous for everyone involved to keep things fuzzy – MFAs can keep claiming their budgets contribute to national economic success while cultural operators can point to the vague foreign policy benefits of funding foreign activities. The very ambiguity in soft power that frustrates Reich and Lebow is something that makes it attractive in the policy world.

*Actually there’s quite a lot but I’ll come back to that later.


The Turkish Diaspora in Germany and Turkish Public Diplomacy

November 17, 2014

Narendra Modi has been using his travels to mobilize support among the Indian disapora in the US and in Australia but he’s not the only national leader to do this Recep Tayip Erdogan has been doing the same with the Turkish diaspora. With this in mind the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik have a newish working paper by Yaşar Aydin on developments in Turkish Diaspora policy and its implications for Germany.

The paper traces the evolution of Turkish policy towards its diaspora from support for guest workers who were abroad on a temporary basis, through consular support for people of Turkish descent to the current situation which, for the first time sees the diaspora as potential public diplomacy/soft power tool. The changing perspective on the diaspora is linked to broader shifts in Turkey and in Turkish foreign policy towards a neo-Ottoman perspective. Aydin interviews Turkish organizations in Germany and finds that most of them are (at best) pretty lukewarm about the new initiatives, not least because some of the ‘Turkish’ organization are actually Kurdish. As a result Aydin argues that German political leaders can afford to be relatively relaxed about the new policy.

The paper supports three broader observations that I would make on public diplomacies.  Firstly, the nature of a country’s PD is tied to its self conception and the paper does a nice job making this connection.  Secondly, the implied divergence between what the government wants to do and what people on the ground think about their policy is pretty standard.  Thirdly, diaspora policies are useful tools but can become liabilities if the countries involved become involved in diplomatic disagreement, countries like India, China, Russia and Turkey that regard themselves as rising diplomatic powers could usefully pay attention to the way in which pre 1945 German attempts to instrumentalize their diaspora consistently undermined their diplomatic relations with other countries.


New Report on UK National Security Council

November 7, 2014

For connoisseurs of government organization the Institute for Government (IOG) have just put out a report on the functioning of the British National Security Council and National Security Advisor system since it was created in 2010.  In general the IOG advocate a stronger centre to the UK governmental system and this is the lens that they look at the NSC through.  They see that the role of the NSC/NSA has been coordination and implementation because that is what the ministers involved have wanted.  As a result there has been no sign of the NSC doing anything to fill the ‘who does British strategy’ gap.

The report does a good job of putting the NSC in the context of previous coordinating mechanisms for ‘overseas and defence’ in the UK.  The authors argue that the impact of the new system has been greatest in areas that didn’t have much coordination before but less in areas where there was more coordination – such as Afghanistan.  The way the NSC has functioned though is a product of the commitment of the current prime minister to attend meetings and this may change if a new PM finds the system less useful.

One importance observation is the size of the NSC secretariat, it’s less than 200 organized into five directorates: Civil Contingencies, Foreign Affairs, Security and Intelligence, the Office for Cyber Security and Information Assurance and the UK Computer Emergence Response Team.  Foreign Affairs has around 25 people hence the capacity to make policy is quite limited.


Regulating Foreign Public Diplomacy

November 4, 2014

Russian external communications have been in the news for obvious reasons. The announcement that RT are launching a special UK service has attracted comment particularly in light of the outstanding complaints against the channel over coverage of events in Ukraine. Given the previous decision of the UK TV regulator OFCOM to withdraw the license of the Iranian PD channel Press TV it wouldn’t be surprising if there’s going to be a space on the Freeview box before too long; already some people are shouting censorship.

This raises a broader issue. What is legitimate public diplomacy and what rights do states have to regulate it? Given the criticism of for instance Egypt, Russia or Hungary over restrictions on NGO funding what is a rational position on this that does not turn on whether we approve of a country or not?   It seems to me that there are two main ways that we can approach the question first, at an interstate level and then secondly, through a liberal perspective but then there a variety of state practices that would imply modifications to the liberal theory.

The interstate position would start from the assumption that states have the right to control what happens within their territory subject to international legal norms. Can we find a general right to conduct public diplomacy? Probably not although treaties with human rights components (eg Helsinki Final Act) by granting right to information are sometimes used. My reading of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations suggests a fairly narrow definition of diplomatic activity.   Cultural agreements between states can be used as a legal basis. Any agreement between states starts from an assumption of reciprocity and this provides quite a powerful lever. During the Cold War states on both sides would use formal cultural agreements to achieve their objectives. On the Communist side (and at points in the West) they could be used to limit ideological contamination. Also the West used reciprocity in exchanges to avoid a situation where they were shut out of Soviet labs while having to host floods of scientists from the East. During the 1950s the UK tried to avoid such agreements because they would create limits on the scope of interaction (Caute 2005, Richmond 2003) .

Post Cold War the application of reciprocity atrophied – but did not disappear – as FM rebroadcasting of the BBC became more common some countries demanded access to UK airwaves in return. More generally Western countries have accepted situations where their access to publics in authoritarian states is restricted but they do not impose reciprocal constraints – this would be true in relation to China, Russia and Middle Eastern states such as Saudi Arabia.

This is where the liberal argument comes in to play. Restrictions on the activities of foreign states can be seen as restrictions on freedom of speech. In the marketplace of ideas error will be corrected. During the Cold War the strength of Western societies was such that they did not jam Communist radio stations. From this perspective the application of reciprocity ie ‘we will let country x broadcast on our terrestrial TV system if the BBC can operate on the same basis’ is seen more as a threat to censor country X than as a way to expand access. Obviously non-liberal states do not buy this

However its worth noting though that many Western states do not operate unlimited free speech policies in at least two realms. Firstly, the regulatory regime for broadcasting and similar services often imposes restrictions on foreign ownership as well as standards such as impartiality. Secondly, they have regulations regarding foreign funding of political parties and to make lobbying more transparent. The point about both of these sets of restrictions is they start with an assumption that the democracy is about a particular demos and there are differential rights and responsibilities between the members and non-members.

This is more an attempt to set out the parameters of an issue than reach a solution – I’m not sure what my position is.   I think that the starting point is to make the connection between the international perspective on the issue and the liberal and democratic arguments which tend to look at it through a domestic lens.   A more consistent position would avoid the kind of ad hoc reaction to events abroad or relying on the communications regulator to apply rules developed for commercial channels to foreign international broadcasters.

Caute D (2005) The dancer defects : the struggle for cultural supremacy during the Cold War. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Richmond Y (2003) Cultural exchange & the Cold War : raising the iron curtain. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

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